A somewhat overdue what I’ve been reading in June…
- Bark by Lorrie Moore (see review here)
- The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien**
- The Vacationers by Emma Straub
- Friendship by Emily Gould
- Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris (see review here)
- With a Zero at Its Heart by Charles Lambert*
- The Wrong Knickers by Bryony Gordon*
It’s been a rather fruitful reading month for me – I wouldn’t normally get through 7 books in a month, I normally average around 1 book a week. Perhaps it’s due to the fervour of starting this new blog (yippee!) and feeling really fired up to read and review as much as I can, perhaps it’s because June was a particularly frugal month for me (self-imposed I should add – I spent 80% of my salary in the first week, as so often is my wont) and had to spend many nights in nursing a cheap glass of wine and a book. Or perhaps it is simply because there are so many fantastic books coming out at the moment, all trying to capture that desirable and elusive ‘beach reader’ – you know the type, the person who doesn’t really read much for the rest of the year (spends three months trying to get through ‘Gone Girl,’ or worse, 6 months carting around ‘The Luminaries’ but never getting past page 112) but who saves up their reading for their annual summer holiday where they will park themselves beside a pool in Spain/Greece/Turkey and promptly devour 6 books, then spend the rest of the year telling their friends how great one or two of them were (and instagramming carefully arranged shots featuring sun lounger, cocktail, flipflops and said book). This is the reader that many publishers are trying to reach at this time of year and this is why there are some great reads with super-trendy covers popping up left, right and centre.
Unfortunately I’ve already had my beach holiday for the year waaaay back in March (Sri Lanka, if you’re curious), so all of these were read in the comfort of my bed, or on the long arduous commute to Hertfordshire. However if I was going to nominate one to win my ‘Beach Read of the Summer 2014’ it would be the fabulous THE WRONG KNICKERS by Bryony Gordon. Now I used to love reading Bryony’s Single Girl column in The Telegraph. Despite detailing her numerous Bridget-Jones’ style disasters and doomed-to-fail dates, she always came across as impossibly glamorous, sexy and carefree – someone who truly lived life in the present (or ‘grabbed life by the balls’ is perhaps more suitable?) She didn’t bore the tits off you (as many other columnists have and still do) with beauty recommendations, dieting diatribes, overly-feminist rants or ‘men are all shit’ self pitying laments, instead she just described her life as it happened, unvarnished, unpolished, realistic. I was delighted when I heard she had an autobiographical book coming out – the timing is perfect, Helen Fielding’s recent Bridget Jones comeback reminded us just how fucking great Bridget was and has left us gasping for another modern-day heroine with whom we compare ourselves and our experiences, to make us feel like we are not the only ones struggling to pay the bills/going on dates with absolute fuckwits/finding another woman’s knickers thrown at us the morning after (yes, this happened to poor Bryony). Fortunately Bryony has come along and taken the ‘Bridget’ crown and what is more, she is a real woman.
Bryony starts by explaining how she always thought that when she reached her twenties, her life would magically become more grown-up, straightforward and generally ‘sorted’. Ah, a common misconception dreamt up by many of us in those final, heady teenage days. She then describes her twenties, chapter by painful chapter, shattering her vision until it becomes nothing more than a hysterical impossibility. Brimming with ridiculous and hilarious moments which will leave you guffawing loudly on a packed train (I had to chew my own hand as the tears were rolling down my cheeks!) but also filled with tender and honest examinations of a life gone off track, this book will lead you through a whole range of emotions and will leave you rooting for Gordon and praying for her happy ending (which, dear reader, does come and it’s a pure joy – not overplayed or sentimental)
Next up was Emily Gould’s fantastic second book Friendship. It is the story of two early thirty-something women, Bev and Amy, living in New York, working in thankless jobs, dating thankless men, living in overpriced yet cramped walk-ups and struggling to partake in the city lifestyle on minimal salaries while trying to ignore the pressures of being an early-thirties woman. I heard about this book months ago and was delighted when Virago approved me for an early reading copy via NetGalley. I feel that I have been waiting for someone to write a book exactly like this, a book which reflects the realities of living as a late twenty-something/early thirties woman in a big city where job opportunities are scarce (and severely oversubscribed) where money (or lack of it) is a daily concern and where people are transient and always on the move. I adored the characters of Bev and Amy, I warmed to them instantly and loved their brutally honest and quirky friendship. The dialogue is spot-on, very sincere and believable. It’s attention to detail was impeccable, and, as a late twenties woman living in the city I can testify that it is sadly accurate – there’s a moment where Bev realises that she may not be able to pay the rent at the end of the week but chooses to treat herself to a $15 salad. There’s another where Amy tots up exactly how much debt she is in (maxed out credit cards, overdrafts etc) but realises she owns a whole cupboard of designer clothes (to which her boyfriend says ‘you never even look that good!). It’s so refreshing to read something which actually reflects life as it is being lived right now. I’ve no doubt that this will attract comparisons to the hit TV show GIRLS (as have several ‘similar’ novels recently – Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out and Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals) but I feel that this novel goes much deeper than that – the characters have so much going on under the surface,the are warm and sincere, they have real flesh and bone and I will miss them dearly. Here are some of my favourite extracts:
How could a destitute homeless person be in possession of a Comme des Garcons wallet, a pair of Worishofer sandals, a fridge with Morroccan oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes in it – all these accoutrements of bourgeois stability, but none of the actual stability itself?
Don’t you hate it when someone RSVPs no to a Facebook event on its wall with some comment about the fun thing they’re doing instead? “Wish I could make it, but I’ll be in Africa for the next six months.” Fuck those dickwads!
My biggest disappointment of the month was The Vacationers by Emma Straub. I picked this up in Blackwell’s of Oxford, drawn in by it’s supercool design-y cover and a great cover review by Maggie Shipstead (‘charming and absorbing, this is a novel that demands to be read in long, satisfying gulps’). In fact, I thought it sounded remarkably similar in premise to Shipstead’s own novel Seating Arrangements – one of my favourite books of 2013; a complicated American family grouping together – this time for a holiday in Mallorca, not a wedding – a 60 year old patriarch going through a midlife crisis which causes ripples of discontent in his marriage (like Winn Van Meter in SA, one of my favourite male protagonists of recent years). There is also a bohemian intellectual matriarch who is struggling to come to terms with her husband’s betrayal and the insecurities of middle age, an awkward teenage daughter desperate to lose her virginity and an older brother who, at nearly 30, is seeking some meaning in life and is finding his career and girlfriend distinctly lacking. Oh and a married gay couple trying to adopt a baby. One of my main issues with this novel is that there is far too much going on and none of it is developed enough. There are 5 protagonists all vying for attention yet we feel like we never really get to know, or become invested, in a single one. The writing just isn’t sophisticated enough – the characters are not fully fleshed out, plot strands are left hanging and some of the descriptions sound, for want of a better term, a bit ‘creative writing class.’ I think Straub’s efforts would have been better placed in making one character the protagonist and building the action around him/her. The ending is very unsatisfactory – everything ties up very neatly with seemingly no repurcussions or unwelcome reverberations of what happened that summer. However, before I risk this turning into a hatchet-job of the highest order, there were some good things about this book otherwise I wouldn’t have persisted with it. The momentum and pace of the writing was great and this writer’s strengths lay in the tender examining of human relationships – those between mother and child, husband and wife, husband and husband. There is definite potential here and I will certainly read anything else Emma Straub writes, perhaps I was just expecting too much from this early novel. I’d say give this one a miss and instead read the wonderful Seating Arrangements which holds all of promise of a great summer family saga and delivers on all fronts.
Now for something entirely different – I spent most of June reading Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at Its Heart in small chunks before I went to bed. If you haven’t heard about this wonderful book, it is a fictionalized memoir of Lambert’s life (although what is fiction/fact is blurred) written in 24 themed chapters (with abstract titles such as ‘Celebration OR marking Time’ ‘Sex OR honey and wood), each comprising 10 paragraphs, each paragraph consisting of roughly 120 words. It roughly tracks the development of a young boy from his childhood to old age, through various lovers, illnesses, travels, countries and cultural experiences. The writing is sublime and poetic, each paragraph can be read individually for it’s beauty alone but also manages to contain something wonderful for the reader to dwell on, a thought, an aside, a sentence to chew over, to think about long after you have closed the book. It reminds me of the famous Virginia Woolf quote:
The first duty of a lecturer is to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece forever.
Not that Lambert is a lecturer, far from it, but that nugget of pure truth? You can find one in almost every chapter of this book. This book reverberates with life in its most distilled form. I fell in love with it. My favourite sections were ‘Colour OR cradling fire’, ‘Home OR some other healing agent’ and ‘Nature OR the purposes of love’ – the imagery is heartbreakingly beautiful and tender, in fact, reading it again has made me want to go back and read the whole piece in its entirety. This is a book that will keep giving, and you will keep re-reading. The surreal and often abstract nature of the writing reminded me of Milan Kundera, particularly The Unbearable Lightness of Being. What is not being said is almost as heavy and present as what is on the page. Here are some extracts:
COLOUR no. 10
Six weeks after his mother’s death they are sitting in a friend’s car and a text arrives to say that Amy Winehouse is dead, and he is taken back five summers to a flat in Paris, on the Left Bank, where they spent a month listening to ‘Back to Black’, time and time again, and there was a florist’s below the flat that belonged to a man of Italian origin, with whom his husband-to-be made friends, and so the flat was filled with roses that had only days to live, their colours both strong and subtle, and they were placed in a copper bowl and painted, time and time again, and there was – there is – no end to their beauty.
NATURE no. 10
Does the world ache, he wonders, as these parts of it ache, with age and illness. The natural world. Lying in bed beside his mother he watches a heron settle on the uppermost branches of a nearby tree, impossibly large, blue sky behind. It is early morning and she will die within days. Look, he says, reaching across to take her hand, there’s a heron.
** My review of The Country Girls will follow in a future post – I play to review the Edna O’Brien Country Girl trilogy in due course
OTHER BOOKS mentioned in this post: