Friday, 29 April 2016

Broadway Book Club Discussion of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

This is one of the first novels in a long time that everybody loved- though the discussion was thorough, there was not a bad word said against McCullers' classic pre-World War II, Post-Depression story of isolation and frustration in a small Southern mill town. The novel follows a small community at the tail end of the depression and their battles with poverty, isolation and oppression. We follow the experiences of five lonely individuals and see their ways of coping with their situations and their trials.

We talked initially about the characters of the novel, the four individuals that gravitate towards deaf-mute John Singer and Singer himself. We discussed how Singer is a totally blank canvas- we know nothing of his past or personality. This leaves Mick, Biff, Dr Copeland and Jake Blount an empty space to pour their thoughts into, a man devoid of history that they can assemble and create for themselves, however they want him to be. Each projects a wonderful figure onto him, designating him a listener, a friend, a wise man and confidant. Singer's silence makes them free to say and do what they want. One reader pointed out that the four characters' relationship to Singer is wholly selfish kind of love- none of them make any attempt to get to know him, to understand him at all. They just use him as a receptacle for their worries, frustration and thoughts.

14 year old Mick emerged as most people's favourite. Musical and independent, she wrestles with the neighbourhood boys and takes care of her younger siblings. We talked about Mick's coming of age, how her ending is so heartbreaking. Poverty steals Mick's dreams and ambitions, as she is required to drop out of school and work for $10 a week at Woolworths. The music she has heard in her head, her symphonies and her dreams of snowy places are gone to her as she has to accept her lot in life.

Biff, the owner of the New York Cafe is an interesting though thoroughly mysterious character. He does not know or understand himself, which leaves him unable to confide in Singer in the same way as the other three characters do. He feels nothing when his wife dies. We discussed how Biff's most memorable behaviour is noteworthy because of its traditionally gendered associations. He takes pleasure in beautiful scents and fabrics. He demonstrates a skill for interior design, aesthetics and floral arrangements, all activities with feminine connotations. He expresses a desire to be a mother (not father or parent) to Mick and Baby, which is a striking choice of words for a middle aged man with such a masculine appearance that he has to shave twice a day. We decided that his 'love' for Mick was quite maternal rather than romantic and probably his way of coping with his isolation.

Jake Blount, with his overt communist ideology is a surprising character to find in an American novel of this period. We discussed how, if the novel was set or written 10-15 years later, this would not have happened, especially considering that McCarthyism, the Rosenbergs' execution and so on would take place not much later along the USA's historical timeline. Where Mick has her "Inside Room" and her "Outside Room" which she uses to compartmentalise her life, to escape her reality, Blount has booze to provide his escape. He's a fighter, a communist, a drunk, a philosopher and a would be revolutionary- and he's nothing at the same time. A drifter.

We talked for a while about Dr Copeland and his contrast with his children. It's interesting to see a narrative that seems to be (probably one of many) genesis points of the Civil Rights movement. It's fascinating to see such a defiant character- a black man who trains as a doctor in the North and returns to the South to build a practice of patients from the black community. He speaks with a white man's dialect, much to the horror of white men. He carries himself with the dignity that he is denied, which in itself is classed as civil disobedience and lands him a night in prison. The comparatively backwards attitudes of his offspring, with their slang and their religion and badly paid servant jobs contrasts with the figure of their father and his purpose. We talked about the contrast, how much more complicated it made the Copelands and how their difference really emphasised the disparity of the issues faced by African Americans in the South of the 1930s.

We discussed the author's use of pace in the novel and how opposite it was to most writers' approaches. There is no build up to key events- they just happen with shocking speed and a realistic abruptness. Biff's wife dies within a sentence. Mick's loss of virginity, Singer's ending. Baby's shooting. All these key plot events appear without build-up, fanfare or foreshadowing- it feels so realistic and un-novel-like.

We loved how everybody who is ordinarily voiceless (African Americans, the disabled, the young, the marginalised) are all represented and given a voice in this novel. Not only given a voice, but authentic, thought provoking situations that demonstrate their social difficulties and struggles. It was mentioned that modern novels such as The Help often attract criticism for their portrayal of black characters, but McCullers presents her characters as complex and flawed, frustrated and struggling against a unique and complicated set of problems. We talked about the sheer volume of empathy in this book- it's staggering how much understanding and perspective is demonstrated by a young, white woman in 1939. Her empathy with the oppressed, her understanding of the complexity of that oppression in incredible.

We praised the book's dream-like quality, the abundance of subtext and the beautiful prose that was kind of vague but compelling. It's a timeless novel that feels unanchored in time (despite references to the Nazis and fascism) very relevant today.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

A lovely, lovely gem of a book that refuses to be closed for even a minute. It begins with an auction- a lost masterpiece of the 18th Century by French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, the guy credited with founding the Rococo movement. The glamorous, the filthy rich and the hangers on are all on the prowl determined to own a piece of history that once hung on the walls of Katherine the Great and Madame de Pompadour. Hundreds of Millions of pounds to prove to the world that you have taste and class and most importantly, deep pockets.

The narrative then backtracks to reveal how the painting came to be re-discovered after being happened upon in a grotty junkshop by Annie, an almost destitute aspiring chef. She forks out the last £70 she has to buy it as a birthday present for an unsuitable man met at a singles' art dating event. He stands her up and so her fate (and that of many others) becomes tangled with the painting.

It's such a readable book- despite its genteel façade, it's incredibly action packed. It's not long before the reader is drawn into whirlwind of authentication and research; down at the Wallace collection where she meets Jesse, a lovestruck guide and part-time painter; some long-shot detective work as Anna pores over sketches and monographs in the British Library, trying to determine if her painting is a worthless copy or something else. She totes it around London in a carrier bag, to her day job cooking steamed fish and wilted spinach for the Winkleman dynasty, a family of ruthless Art dealers with a dodgy past. In a 400 page novel we are lavishly treated to Louis XIV style banquets, musings on the nature and subjective worth of art, legacy destroying secrets, Nazi loot, royal scandals, lots of detective work, shady cloak and dagger murders and a desperate dash for evidence and acquittal. We see the coiffured, silken lives of the disgustingly rich and the Spartan lives of the modern artist. It's quite the whirlwind.

I loved the characters in this book- they were so easy to care about. The heart-broken starting-again Annie and her sumptuous banquets of art-inspired food, her alcoholic mother who shows up just in time to ruin everything, sweet, awkward Jesse who is head over heels for Annie within seconds of meeting her. And Rebecca Winkleman, the insecure ice-queen dominated by her patriarch father, schooled in Art History from nursery age, ruthless and steely who thinks nothing of sending an innocent employee to prison to keep the family reputation intact. Most notable perhaps is the voice of The Painting, the Improbability of Love itself. Sassy, sarcastic, kind of pretentious and hugely characterful, the painting gets the chance to tell its own story, of camel caravans, looting and theft and royal palaces and all the things its seen in its 300 years on walls. It knows and revels in its power to inspire love (it has quite the track record) I loved this idea- a completely new perspective of history that nobody living could ever recount.

I really liked the book's musings on the value of art, how subjective art is and the contradictions around its purpose and worth. It argues that art is an indicator of good taste; some people will buy a painting owned by a king of a queen and congratulate themselves on sharing the impeccable, refined tastes of a dead monarch. They will pay record breaking sums to be part of the club. But art has intrinsic value too; it's a window into human emotion. Recurring themes of misery, pursuit, suffering, rapture, love and lust (unrequited or mutual) have been depicted since mankind first figured out how to smear pigments on cave walls. The modern viewer, looking at any given painting hung in any gallery in the world is reminded that whatever it is they're going through, it's all been suffered before. There's also the argument that art exists to be beautiful, to inspire emotion and joy. Art exists because somebody is compelled to create it. Art exists to make money. I loved how much time and room the book laid aside to talk about the different routes and reasons that might one day see at artwork fetch a record price at auction. It shows that whatever art is to *whoever* wants to define it, it's never possible to truly explain what art is and why it matters. I like that.

I'm convinced this book has an unusually broad appeal and manages to make the unlikely jump from literary or contemporary fiction to casual readers, beach readers and romance readers alike. It's got beautiful prose, a satisfying if slightly inevitable romance plot, a devastating fa
mily secret that threatens the very foundations of the art world and a whistle stop tour of some of the lesser known masters of the 18th century art world. Personally I'd never heard of Watteau, but I found myself falling into a Wikipedia wormhole of 18th century art, seeing who painted what, who their contemporaries were, where these painting are now (hopefully a national collection) and the scandals and history of their creation.

Books like this make me wish I knew more about art, they make me wistful for travel to go and see some of these creations in the flesh (in the oil?) and it makes me really think about the legacy of the human race and our need to create. I love books about artists and the creative process. The Improbability of Love is a glorious read, an unlikely thriller (look, I'm a librarian, I find research and discovery thrilling) and a beautifully paced, intricately and artfully written novel about art, love and food. I will be recommending this an awful lot, and I genuinely fancy its chances for the Bailey's Prize.

My one singular gripe is that you would never get a librarian giving out patron data or info to anybody, no matter how eccentrically charming or ingeniously excused. Wouldn't happen.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen is a unique story about marriage, family and identity. The book opens with Veblen (named after a Norwegian economist and sociologist) accepting a bumbling proposal from the sweet-seeming Paul, who surprisingly turns out to be a neurologist. It's a story about the complexities of relationships and family and that inescapable task of having to blend the bride's family and baggage with the groom's family and baggage.

Growing up with an overbearing, Dickensian hypochondriac mother, a father in a psychiatric institution and a no-waste culture of unspecified guilt, metaphorical debt and carer responsibilities, Veblen gives the impression of an overgrown child. She's suffered her mother's whims and tempers, her perceived illnesses, her wounded pride. Veblen has never been anybody's first priority and has spent her life so far pacifying her tempestuous mother and henpecked stepfather. Her mum expects a lot from Veblen, whom she considers to be one of the only decently-raised people on the planet.

Never finishing college, a professional temp, amateur translator and secret expert on squirrels and Thorstein Veblen, namesake Veblen has never really been able to forge her own identity, so instead has complied a mixture of tics, obsessions and fascinations to form herself upon. She is coming to terms with her impending marriage and is anxiously worrying about whether her world-view is compatible with Paul's, whether their families will get along and whether or not she is lovable and she's worried that practical Doctor Paul is too dismissive of her whimsical attachments to squirrels.

The book follows Paul and Veblen in their attempts to combine their families, to find some sort of common ground on which they can agree to a wedding, and it provides a bit of back story into why the two characters are like they are- it's news to them too, as they freely admit that they don't know an awful lot about one another. My favourite bit of the whole novel was young Paul's childhood escapade with the screaming snails and the science fair, and the getting accidentally high on spiked cider and fumbling around in the woods with his middle school girlfriend. That was the only part of the book that seemed real and seemed to carve out a real time and place. The rest of the book felt like a weird fairytale, complete with overgrown cottage, the villainous witch and the furry-loving princess.There is a prominent plot thread concerning Paul's invention of some sort of cranial hole punch to perform field-based neurosurgery for the military- so Veblen's musings on the happiness-based, anti-consumerist social values of Thorsetin Veblen are contrasted against a stark background of medical ethics, corporate corruption, biotechnology and the whole messy relationship between big cooperation, the medicine industry and the military in america.

I couldn't understand what this book was trying to do. Was I supposed to laugh? Is it serious? Is it literary fiction's answer to chick lit? I'm not sure that's a thing. I didn't know if I was supposed to believe that Veblen could talk to squirrels or not, or whether believing she could commune with rodents was one of her coping mechanisms for a gently traumatic childhood. Part of me just wanted to shake her and tell her to get a grip. I don't mind a free spirited protagonist, but Veblen was vague and dreamy to the point of frustration and was steering very, very close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. She's incapable of making up her mind, alternates between trying to please everyone and being very single minded and I honestly, truly could not see how Veblen and Paul worked as a couple. I'm not saying couples need to have the same interests and world-views and politics on everything- but aside from resenting their parents for a perceived lack of attention (Paul due to a disabled older brother, Veblen due to her mother's self-obsession/hypochondria) they had literally no common ground at all. Paul wants a load of money, stuff and an impressive house as a middle finger to his hippy parents, Veblen wants a simple, happy life with minimal waste and much quirk.

I really don't know how I feel about this book. I read it speedily enough and was never reluctant to pick it up- but already I'm struggling to remember the plot or conjure any reaction at all. It seems to exist purely to define the forbidden, hated descriptors "kooky" and "quirky". Veblen, as a character, is so quirky that it's not long before she seems to be comprised entirely of odd behaviours and notions. It's original, I suppose in its style- a ponderous, descriptive prose that really takes the time to appreciate the taken for granted little things in life. I don't think it's one for the casual reader- though the themes of family and marriage might appeal, its forays into the technicalities of brain surgery, the ponderous jaunts into the life and times of sociologist Thorstein Veblen and the musings of living an ethical life in the consumerist dystopia of 21st century America might alienate slightly

It's not the sort of thing that I'd probably recommend as it's not my usual style- to be honest I'm surprised it made the shortlist when there were other such thought provoking novels to choose from.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue, by Sarah Rubin

Alice Jones, maths whiz and all-round supernerd, is on the verge of breaking up from school for the summer holidays when she is bundled into a sleek black car by two muscled gorillas. Great. She's been kidnapped by the weird kid in her class, Sammy Delgado, who's been bugging her ever since she solved a squirrel mystery for him. Ferried to Sammy's giant mansion slash science laboratory that his scientist businessman father owns, she is surprised to find her dad already there for a press conference. Alice, Sammy and assembled members of the press wait with baited breath to hear about the development of (possibly, hinted at, almost definitely) an invisibility device by the inspired minds at Delgado Industries. Instead they learn, shockingly, that the lead scientist, DrLearner, has disappeared, and can they all make their way to the exit and sorry for this shocking news- very distressed and saddened etc. etc.

The suspiciously showy Mr Delgado shows some security footage that shows Dr Learner entering his windowless office via the only door...and never leaving. Apparently vanishing into thin air, he was nowhere to be found when his assistant came to look for him the next day. A classic locked room mystery, but with the added possibility of invisibility.

Being an amateur sleuth, a (kind of) friend of the family, Alice is 'employed' to crack the case of the disappearing scientist. Cruel, ruthless Mr Delgado doesn't actually expect her to produce any results, but hiring a cute kid to stand around with a magnifying glass looking sincere is his idea of excellent publicity, especially when the kid's father is a newspaper reporter. She's determined to prove that just because she's a 12 year old girl, doesn't mean she is any less capable of solving a mystery to pro standards.

I liked the way the book manages to balance intense mystery business with family drama and coping with constant maths behaviours. Alice's twin sister, aspiring Thespian, drama queen and general diva Della is staying for the summer, Alice's dad is working all hours, eating a lot of takeout, being forgetful and laid back and generally not-quite-parenting-to-mom's-standards .Alice is learning to just cope with everyone's issues. She worries about pleasing everyone, about mediating between her parents, pacifying her feisty sister and cracking the locked-room mystery
of a lifetime, while still trying to solve the impossible Goldback Conjecture at the same time. It's at 12 ish that a kid's responsibilities start to emerge; a person is expected to suddenly make good decisions and manage their time better and knuckle down. Alice just has slightly different problems on her plate.

I really liked this and think any budding sleuth will really get into Alice's misadventures. I really liked the character of Kevin- he begins as an angel-faced anarchist, spitballing the girls in his class...but with a bit of confused perseverance and a task to do he becomes a dedicated and level headed sidekick to Alice. He provides the second opinions and the nudes back to reality when Alice gets lost in numbers. He's the cherubesque, 12 year old Dr Watson to Alice's scrape-kneed, cargo panted Sherlock.

The Impossible Clue has just the right mixture of laughs, tension and danger, dastardly deeds and red herrings and a good, classic mystery trope of the locked room. The characters are very sturdy from quite early on, and Alice is a really likeable tomboy of a 12 year old, whizzing around the neighbourhood on her bike with a messenger bag stuffed with notes and with loyal Kevin in hot pursuit. There's just the right amount of friendship, sibling issues and being a bit misunderstood. All in all it's a solid middle grade sleuth story that fans of Ruby Redfort and  Knightly & Son will enjoy. I love the current revival of smart, sparky tweens solving crimes. There are historical crime flavours of the Wells and Wong by Robin Stevens and the Sinclair's Mystery stories by Katherine Woodfine...There's the more paranormal mysteries of Lockwood & Co, the high octane legal thrillers like the Thodore Boone series. It's such a good time for Middle Grade fiction right now.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Quicksand, by Steve Toltz

Quicksand is a sort of tragically comic (or comedically tragic) saga about the sort of friendship that is for better or worse. Through a long and thorough examination of failure, the creative soul and the sheer endurance of the human spirit we  witness Aldo Benjamin and Liam Wilder as they deadpan their way through a lifelong phase of unproductive blockage, unfulfilled potential and misadventure.

The basic frame of the book is Liam, a failed novelist and accidental police officer has resolved to chronicle the life and times of his old school friend Aldo Benjamin. The first person to be tried and convicted under a new trafficking/rape law, Aldo is recently out of prison and now in a wheelchair thanks to his last suicide attempt. Aldo is the world's most persistently bad entrepreneur with a long list of Dragon's-Den reject business ventures to his name. He's a walking catalogue of bad decisions, mistakes, defaulted promises and an individual so monumentally unlucky, he diagnoses himself as immortal just to deprive himself of the option successful suicide.

Lurching from one misdemeanour to another disaster, Liam has often resolved to cut ties with Aldo, only to find himself repeatedly reunited with his friend. Using his influence as a police officer to get Aldo out of countless scrapes, Liam decides to turn the millstone around his neck into a muse- Much of the plot (or series of incidents?) is formed through Liam's attempts to novelise his friend's life. There's a fairly large section (that does go on for quite a while) where it transpires that Aldo is on trial for the murder of his lover and eventual carer, Mimi. During his immense monologue to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, he also delivers a somewhat epic poem, detailed descriptions of various ill-fated escapades and trials, and a verbal transcript of a conversation with God. Context is very important to Aldo, as he goes on to link the loss of a baby, several confusing sexual encounters, life at an artist's residence and a wrongful accusation of virginal rape into his detailed history.

The novel really highlights the absurdity of modern life though. If Aldo is something of a far-fetched character, the elements that comprise him are quite recognisable. The get-rich-quick for no effort mentality is very recognisable, as is the idea that if it wasn't for bad luck, some people would have no luck at all. There's an irony to his character and behaviour that all at once seems impossible, but absurdly like it's just bizarre enough to be true. That a person could attempt to commit suicide, survive and accidentally kill someone else in the process. An obviously invented religion. That a someone can be convicted of something that wasn't even a crime three weeks ago. The manner in which Liam drifts into his job (Police academy training for novel research left him with the qualifications to be a Police Officer and he needed the money) is also familiar, the portrayal of artists as pathologically pretentious drama queens, the self centred detachment of the two characters is interesting and at times hilarious. Society's obsession with self help books and achieving individuality by religiously following the rules.

I was reminded throughout of Martin Amis' writing style, and the charismatic oaf of a character that it's hard to tell whether admiration, pity or repulsion has the upper hand in the reader's reactions. It's a book that requires stamina from the reader, and for the most part, you just need to go with all the figurative language and the everlasting wackyness of the characters. It's not the world's most coherent or fluid novel, but it's funny, entertaining and it's certainly got its own style. Its blackly comic style and grim episodes won't be to everybody's taste, but I found it to be a surprising, engrossing novel, unusually structured, yes, and overburdened with language in places, but playful and dexterous in others- I laughed the whole way through and cringed through the rest. I'd definitely seek to read Steve Toltz's other earlier novel after reading Quicksand.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick

Four interconnected stories, centuries apart, that can be read in any order. But it's hard to break the habit of a lifetime, so I read them in order.

The first quarter features a nameless, almost language-less girl from about 40,000 years ago. The story concerns a hunt and the ritual magics that must be performed by The One Who Goes To The Cave to ensure that the hunt goes well- magics that include painting on the walls of caves- buffalo, spear-bearing hunters, uniquely marked handprints to claim your magic. Written in a beautiful, ethereal verse (because language is still rudimentary to the characters, the jagged, halting pace of verse suits well) we see the Girl miss out on her destiny but try to fulfil it anyway, in a somewhat unofficial capacity with tragic consequences. The life of an individual in 40,000 BC is short- the Girl does not fear death. What is perhaps more affecting is the death of her potential legacy. In her last moments the girl thinks up the idea of writing, but takes her invention with her to the darkness. How different could history have been if she had lived? If the written word was conceived so early in human history, where would we be now? It's questions like this, ostensibly simple but actually mind-rending questions that set Sedgwick's writing apart from his peers. He's able to pinpoint the exact moments and locations that underpin humanity, the foundations of history and just give them a little shake. The last time a book made me feel so impotent against the path of fate and time was Midwinterblood, his should-totally-have-won Shortlisted title from 2013.

The first quarter introduces us to the recurring, essential theme of the spiral. In the fronds of a fern, the coil of a snail shell. The spiral is infinite and continues its ceaseless turns- changing, closing, but never stopping. Over the next thee quarters we see the spiral occur in the 1630s when a beautiful, spiral haired woman is accused of witchcraft, in an apparently progressive 1920s Long Island asylum and eventually in the far future, in the final quarter about a man travelling through space to find the New Earth on a ship called the Song of Destiny. I loved how the new doctor's daughter discovered an account of Anna's witch trial in a book in the asylum library and I especially loved the final quarter. It reminded me partially of David Jones' brilliant film Moon and a bit of Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem,- a claustrophobic science fiction nightmare of lies, discoveries and horror that demonstrates the dangerous isolation of space and asks whether such exploration is essential or essentially pointless.

The quarters aren't long and complicated, but each one is filled with questions, realisations, unbearable tensions and sad inevitabilities. The characters are brief flashes in time, but they are solid and memorable- the lunatic patent Dexter who is terrified of the spiral, the mercenary Father Escrove who vows to purify Godless villages by scapegoating the innocent. Each story is engrossing and so ridiculously vivid, but together they make up a whole that is simply incredible- a bitesize summary of our species' need to either fear or to conquer the unknown.

So much of this book feels so primal, like the reader carries memories of the long-dead (or far away) characters in their unconscious. The cave paintings, the madness, the capacity for violence, the helplessness- it makes you realise that for all our supposed sophistication and progress there's only a couple of lucky flukes separating us from apes, or from extinction. Sedgwick is able to cast an eye over the whole of human experience, sift away most of it, and thread together the parts that seem so fundamentally essential; the need for legacy, exploration, our talent for persecution, the double edged sword of knowledge, the idea that any individual that has ever existed. The idea of the spiral being the core of the Universe is so compelling and seems so reasonable. I don't want to sound melodramatic but this book feels like an epiphany. I got chills, seeing the bigger picture emerge.

I loved it. In my humble opinion, it's an utterly flawless novel. To jump from one setting, one voice, one time to another so fluidly is impressive, to do this whilst subtly lining up the themes of all the quarters, slowly building up to almost an equinox of discovery and revelations. It defies genres, it defies conventions, it's insanely ambitious and it takes no prisoners when it comes to keeping up with what's going on. Incredible.

This is my winner. I am formally and officially nailing my colours to the mast, and those colours are Marcus Sedgwick colours. The Leonardo di Caprio of the Carnegie- this is the 6th time around on the Carnegie Shortlist, I hope 2016 is the year that it happens.