The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter (1979)

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter (1979)Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories feature jarring short stories that reimagine and repurpose fairytales, highlighting the sexism, sexuality and unspoken elements of the classic tales of our youth. I am not familiar enough with fairytales in their original forms to be able to speak of how the violence was always part of the stories, but here Carter specifically highlights the violence against women, physical and emotional and social, that underpins the original tales.

I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.

There are recurrent images at work here, visual motifs, that are haunting in their simplicity, and how neatly they fit as fairytale tropes while suggesting something else entirely: blood, snow, fur, jewellery, skin, flesh. Carter takes these images and shapeshifts them, highlighting both the sensuality and horror apparent in each. Glittering rubies suggest a cut throat, the fur of the beast is tactile and suggests the otherness of, well, the unknowable other. Masculinity is written in these stories as being almost always beastly, powered along by irrepressible urges that are heightened by the presence of the young women who arouse them. These stories are about how fairytales reflect on the position of women both in social and personal terms.

One beast and only one howls in the woods by night.
The wolf is carnivore incarnate and he’s as cunning as he is ferocious; once he’s had a taste of flesh then nothing else will do.

The longest and best story in the collection is “The Bloody Chamber”, where a poor, innocent virgin is whisked away upon marriage to her husband’s isolated castle, and she begins to uncover a past and identifying features of her new husband’s personality that strikes fear into her heart. “The Lady of the House of Love” is a melancholy take on the vampire story. “The Snow Child”, while only being two pages long, is perhaps the most striking and violent story of the lot. Carter’s writing in these stories is absolutely gorgeous, rich and visceral, often cheeky, always sensual.

If there is one, minor, issue with these stories, it is the way they are set in the collection. A retelling of the Beauty and the Beast, or Red Riding Hood, tale is followed immediately after by another, although it takes a slightly different perspective, it did feel a little repetitive when reading. Perhaps this is a comment on the nature of stories themselves. That the retelling reveals a different aspect, even if the core subject matter is similar, even if we think we have heard the story a thousand times before. The stories persist because they reveal something about ourselves, and sometimes that revelation isn’t always a happily ever after.

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The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (2009)

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (2009)I’m lucky enough to now work in a job that allows me a fair amount of quiet time to concentrate on tasks, and during these focused moments I like to put an earbud in and listen to podcasts. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been digging into the archives of Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast which provides helpful tips on understanding and becoming your happiest self. I really enjoy the easy going conversational style of the podcast which is hosted by Rubin and her sister Elizabeth Craft, and have found myself incorporating the strategies and suggestions in my daily life. So, I decided to delve into the source material, starting with Rubin’s The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.

Was I searching for spiritual growth and a life more dedicated to transcendent principles- or was my happiness project just an attempt to extend my driver, perfectionist ways to every aspect of my life?
My happiness project was both. I wanted to perfect my character, but, given my nature, that would probably involve charts, deliverables, to-do lists, new vocabulary terms, and compulsive note taking.

I feel like we’re still living in a society where people actively working toward their own happiness seems if not a little suspect, often a little naff. As a formerly cynical so-and-so, I’ve found myself almost apologising for 1) enjoying listening to helpful guides such as Happier and 2) taking the steps to make changes that will benefit me and my happiness. I don’t know why this is. Rubin covers some of this in The Happiness Project, the sense that intently examining and cultivating your own happiness is selfish and/or indulgent. I don’t believe this for a second. No one else is going to make your happiness or well being a priority, so it’s really up to the individual to work on that for themselves – and there is not a thing wrong with that.

So, while riding the bus one day, Rubin finds herself wondering if she is really, truly, happy and decides to make a project of building her happiness over the course of one year. Each month is dedicated to a particular area of her life and how she makes changes and adopts habits that will contribute to growing her happiness in each of these areas: Vitality, Marriage, Work, Parenthood, Leisure, Friendship, Money, Eternity, Books, Mindfulness and Attitude until the final month where she tries to live all of the strategies and habits she has come up with throughout the year, involving her family and friends along the way.

One thing that struck me when reading The Happiness Project was that it is definitely more of a memoir than a straightforward guide to happiness – while it provides some tips along the way, it is ultimately the story of Rubin’s happiness goals without the instructional feel of a self help book. She emphasizes that everyone’s happiness project would be different and because of this doesn’t impose strict rules for creating a happier life. But, nonetheless, in telling her story she does provide a light framework for the reader – I particularly liked her happiness commandments and her “secrets of adulthood” lists. Coming to the book after having listened to 30 or so episodes of the podcast, a lot of the anecdotes are repeated in both formats which made for a slight sense of deja vu. The criticisms about the project – is it selfish, is she privileged, etc. – are explored within the text itself, and comes down to that nagging feeling mentioned above, that concentrating on your own happiness is somehow indulgent or suspicious.

Of course, it’s cooler not to be too happy. There’s a goofiness to happiness, an innocence, a readiness to be pleased. Zest and enthusiasm take energy, humility, and engagement; taking refuge in irony, exercising destructive criticism, or assuming an air of philosophical ennui is less taxing. Also, irony and world-weariness allow people a level of detachment from their choices […]

I am still working on my own happiness, I suspect that will be an ongoing, lifelong project, but The Happiness Project provides a light, easy entry into the world of happiness research with practical tips and guidelines for creating a happier life for oneself. I do highly recommend the podcast, if only for the structure and variety of tips in an easily digestible format, that has often brought a smile or inspiring thought when working through a tough spreadsheet. But, the book and podcast together make great companion tools for building a happier life.

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A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham (1990)

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham (1990)I was recently culling my ridiculous and impossible ‘To Be Read’ list on GoodReads, removing books that I’d been vaguely interested in maybe one day reading and leaving only those that I was legitimately wanting to read. Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World was the first book on the newly revised TBR that my library had on the shelf, I remember adding it very soon after seeing and enjoying the film adaptation. A Home at the End of the World is an intimate, but heartbreaking, story of a close friendship between two young men in the 1970s and 1980s, and how they find and create belonging, love and family set through the 1970s and 1980s.

The two main characters are introduced at a young age, each living in Cleveland in the 1970s and having their idyllic childhood changed by a death in their families and shaped by the different types of grief each boy has to come to terms with in his formative years. Jonathan’s parents experience a miscarriage, altering the relationship between his parents and him, while Bobby’s adored older brother is involved in a terrible accident. The boys don’t cross paths until early adolescence, where they bond over drugs and music, and first third of the novel is highly evocative in its portrayal of childhood, adolescence and friendship. Throughout, the narrative switches between Bobby and Jonathan, and later Clare, and, somewhat unusually, Jonathan’s mother Alice. Having this parental perspective during the tumultuous and confused teenage years is an interesting addition, as we get some insight into how she is viewing, absorbing, involving herself and reacting to her son’s growing up.

Jonathan later moves to New York and continues to find and grow into himself. Bobby remains in Cleveland, living and becoming close with Jonathan’s parents. While in New York, Jonathan meets the older, somewhat damaged but still uniquely glamourous Clare and the two of them form a close friendship on the premise of having a baby together, despite Jonathan’s sexuality. When Bobby moves to the city, the three form a close knit non-traditional, but mostly happy family unit that has an element of underlying and unspoken tension. Bobby and Clare start a relationship, and eventually Clare falls pregnant with the child she always dreamed of, leaving Jonathan feeling like something of an outsider in his own ‘family.’

We’d hoped vaguely to fall in love but hadn’t worried much about it, because we’d thought we had all the time in the world. Love had seemed so final, and so dull–love was what ruined our parents. Love had delivered them to a life of mortgage payments and household repairs; to unglamorous jobs and the fluorescent aisles of a supermarket at two in the afternoon. We’d hoped for love of a different kind, love that knew and forgave our human frailty but did not miniaturize our grander ideas of ourselves. It sounds possible. If we didn’t rush or grab, if we didn’t panic, a love both challenging and nurturing might appear.

Despite the intense emotions at play here, the novel is almost unsentimental about how these characters fit in and interact with the world. The writing is spare, upfront and honest about feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, sadness and desire for more in an assured manner that never loses sight of the vulnerability of these people. Switching between the points of view of four major characters gives us a view into how confused these characters are, and how their self delusions make them human. There are many moments throughout A Home at the End of the World where the point of view narrative structure works to reveal that as close as these relationships appear to the outside world, they remain separate individuals with hidden aspects of their personalities and self that they refuse to show or share.

The novel is permeated with the intrusion of death, with the final third of the book taking place at Bobby, Clare and Jonathan’s house near Woodstock with their young daughter, where they come to care for one of Jonathan’s ex-lovers who is dying of AIDS. Where both Bobby and Jonathan had to deal with grief and death in their early childhoods, here the presence of mortality leads to self realization about themselves. Ultimately, the novel is about coming to term with one’s position in the world, forging meaning and belonging where one can, creating a family unit and finding love in a mostly indifferent world.

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The Raven King (The Raven Cycle, Book 4) by Maggie Stiefvater (2016)

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater (2016)I was skeptical when I read the first book of Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys series. A new friend, one that didn’t know my reading tastes just yet, recommended the first book and I wasn’t particularly interested (I’m not good at reading direct recommendations from people at the best of times, even if they hand the book to me.) I don’t particularly enjoy reading young adult fiction, probably because I am no longer a young adult, and I shy away from fantasy fiction. While it took me a while to get into the series as the first book, The Raven Boys, works on introducing the characters and setting up the story, the second book, The Dream Thieves, was really fantastic and I read the third book Blue Lily, Lily Blue quickly after. The fourth and final book in the series, The Raven King, wraps up the story I’d been happily entangled with so far.

“I don’t think it’s wise to pair yourself with a demon. They are inherently subtractive rather than additive. They take more than they give.”

Whenever attempting to describe the story to people who haven’t read or heard of these books, it always comes out sounding like a cacophony of vaguely related, impossible subplots – this is more my failing than the series itself, while the subplots to vary wildly, they all coalesce together in a cohesive way. To summarize: Blue Sargent has grown up in a psychic family in a town called Henrietta in Virginia. All her life, she’s been told that if she is to kiss her true love, he will die. One night, while visiting the corpse road which provides visions of who will die in the next year, she is caught off guard by the image of a young man her age. On the other side of the tracks, a group of boys are on an obsessive quest, investigating and hoping to uncover a long lost Welsh king in the hope that he will grant a wish. Blue eventually meets and joins their adventure, but the question of her true love hangs over her as she bonds and builds friendships and discovers love with the Raven Boys.

The most interesting element is the friendships and relationships within the story arc. In particular, the friendships between the four boys Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah are realistically complicated, but with an acceptance and warmth that is actually really touching and lovely – I will admit that I shed a few tears at a particular scene in the third book that demonstrated so well the strength found in friendship, even when reluctant to accept assistance. Due to their different socioeconomic backgrounds – one boy comes from extreme poverty and sees his scholarship at the exclusive Aglionby Academy as an opportunity to advance socially, one boy is a high school kid with easy access to a helicopter – there is an gentle exploration of class differences and the opportunities afforded to those from different strata of society.

On a similar note, Blue and her family built of strong, powerful female ties echoes in many ways the self-made family of the Aglionby boys. The family of psychics is somewhat chaotic and mysterious but bound tightly with love and protection, that inherent feeling of belonging that comes with being loved as part of a flawed but strong family unit. Likewise, the growing friendships between Blue and the boys, in particular with the ghostly Noah who draws his strength from Blue, and of course the romantic interest in the doomed Gansey, is a beautiful study in understanding your individual power – magical or otherwise – and how that power can be enhanced, or detracted, by those you choose to keep around you. While the situation they’re all in is magical and otherworldly, the real magic is the pleasure and joy to be had in finding your tribe.

Gansey was aware on a certain level that the description was melodramatic, heightened, illogical. But on a deeper level, it felt true, and familiar, and like it explained much of Gansey’s life. It was how he felt about Ronan and Adam and Noah and Blue. With each of them, it had felt instantly right: relieving. Finally, he’d thought, he’d found them. We instead of you and me.

Again, as the final book in a series it feels like giving too much away to mention narrative specifics of The Raven King, but there is some genuinely spooky and unsettling imagery at play here, made all the more so by the danger it places on characters you genuinely come to care. The story does a fantastic job of incorporating the narrative voice of all major characters, with all of their crises and dilemmas working toward a resolution. The series was much more moving than I anticipated, and by the end of the second book I was emotionally invested in how these characters would fare in a story with a somewhat foregone conclusion, and found it deeply entertaining

Or, How I Learned to Be Less of a Snob and Enjoy a Young Adult Fantasy series.

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The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton (1975)

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton (1975)I recently saw The Age of Innocence again at a Scorsese retrospective and was reminded of how much I love the film adaptation of the novel, and how long it has been (9 months or so) since I read any Edith Wharton. While searching the library catalogue to see what they had, I came across The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton which seemed somewhat incongruous with what I know of Wharton’s oeuvre. The potential horror of navigating delicate social worlds and their tenuous rules, sure, but ghosts?

“Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity.”

Published as a collection in 1975, the eleven stories were written over the entirety of her writing career, the earliest originally published in 1909 and the latest in 1937. The collection starts with a preface that, although I don’t particularly agree with the concept, gives some idea of the context Wharton was writing her ghost stories in – what seems to be a fear of the position of the written story in a world of emerging entertainment technologies:

“[F]or, deep within us as the ghost instinct lurks, I seem to see it being gradually atrophied by those two world-wide enemies of the imagination, the wireless and the cinema. To a generation for whom everything which used to nourish the imagination because it had to be won by an effort, and then slowly assimilated, is now served up cooked, seasoned and chopped into little bits, the creative faculty (for reading should be a creative act as well as writing) is rapidly withering, together with the power of sustained attention[…]”

The best and most successful stories are based heavily in the domestic world, and primarily revolve around women’s anxieties and fears within the home, their place in the world, and the relationships that bridge the worlds they inhabit inside and outside of the domestic sphere. For example, in “Afterward”, a woman’s ignorance of her husband’s potentially corrupt business affairs manifests in his mysterious disappearance at the hands of the man he drove to death – with the woman only realizing who the strange visitor that preempted her husband’s disappearance many weeks after the fact. Likewise, a visitor to a grand but mysterious house (another recurring theme in this collection) is watched by a pack of silent dogs in “Kerfol.” When he returns to his hosts, they tell him there are no dogs and it is a known, repeating apparition. The visitor is then shown a history of the man and his second wife who lived in the house Kerfol, his inattentiveness to his wife assuaged by her continually taking in pet dogs, all who meet terrible ends by the cruel husband. The husband’s death, of course, appears to be at the paws of a pack of ghost dogs.

Similarly, many of the stories are centered around anxieties regarding the servants or the household help and their unspoken power in the domestic sphere. “Mr Jones” sees a well off woman, Lady Jane, relocating to a decrepit and once grand house that is governed by a Mr Jones who never physically appears. In “All Souls”, a injured woman unable to move about finds herself abandoned by her servants and left to fend for herself. A former beloved maid haunts the current housemaid with her servant bell ringing through the nights in “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”. There is a strong suggestion in these stories of a, very gentle, critique around class inequality, but given the preeminent focus on female anxieties about the home, these fears manifesting themselves via the presence of the servants of the house, means that the female experience within the home persists over the wider social world implications.

The two strongest stories in the collection are about anxieties that are still relevant – emotional infidelity in “Pomegranate Seed”, possibly my favourite of the collection, and the fear of disappearing beauty and youth in “The Looking Glass.” “Pomegranate Seed” is the most atmospheric and satisfying story here, in which a second wife fears for the effect the mysterious letters her husband receives in gray envelopes on a regular basis will have on their relationship. While their life together seems idyllic and emotionally mature in the wake of her husband’s first marriage, the letters introduce suspicion, doubt and paranoia into their relationship.

“With all this stored-up happiness to sustain her, it was curious that she had lately found herself yielding to a nervous apprehension. But there the apprehension was; and on this particular afternoon–perhaps because she was more tired than usual, or because of the trouble of finding a new cook or, for some other ridiculously trivial reason, moral or physical–she found herself unable to react against the feeling. Latchkey in hand, she looked back down the silent street to the whirl and illumination of the great thoroughfare beyond, and up at the sky, already aflare with the city’s nocturnal life. “Outside there,” she thought, “skyscrapers, advertisements, telephones, wireless, airplanes, movies, motors, and all the rest of the twentieth century; and on the other side of the door something I can’t explain, can’t relate to them. Something as old as the world, as mysterious as life.”

It is difficult to describe these ghost stories using the usual words that you would with supernatural, paranormal horror – creepy, horrifying, terrifying, unsettling, disturbing – they all seem a little too strong these stories, which are of a more gentle and tame nature, yet thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining nonetheless. While my initial impression was that there was something unusual about the idea of Edith Wharton writing ghost stories, the stories in The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton maintain her themes of the subtle fear of not knowing or following the unwritten rules in tightly regulated society.

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January Holiday TBRs

It has been three and a half years since I last updated Start Narrative Here.

Three and a half years since I made half-hearted resolutions to return to book blogging after a long absence, and failed. Life, it seemed, got in the way. So much has happened in those past three and a half years that it feels daunting to try and summarize. I work full time in a role I find interesting and feels right after a few misguided years of climbing the corporate ladder for the sake of climbing. I went vegan, I lost about a third of my body weight, I started walking everywhere. I learned how to crochet, how to cross stitch, how to cook. I fell in love, hard. I find time to spend with my family and those I’ve been adopted into, and friends, new and old.

Maybe it is just part of the process of growing up, maybe it is a number of necessary lifestyle changes, but more than likely it is a combination of both.

My life has been made richer by all of these things and I am happier than I have ever been.

It just leaves me with so little reading time.

That’s not to say that I haven’t been reading. I have, just not at the pace I did when I was studying and working part time and keeping mostly to myself.

But, now that I’ve settled into a routine and am carving out dedicated time to reading I also want to continue having a space to record my thoughts and feelings on what I am reading. I’m not going in with a grand scheme or a plan, just regularly reviewing the books I’ve been spending time with. It’s highly likely that this will become a space for me to talk about my other interests, but let’s wait and see where we end up.

So, I am reviving Start Narrative Here, for real this time.

See you soon.


(Photo above is our hopeful “To Be Read” stacks from a holiday we took earlier this year to Hobart.)

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Nineteen Seventy-Seven by David Peace (2000)


Hello sweeties! This review has been sitting on my wordpress dashboard for over 18 months. I am planning on returning to the big bad world of book blogging in 2013, thought I’d get this out of the way before the new year so I can start with a clean slate. See you in the new year!


Nineteen Seventy-Seven by David Peace (2000)Nineteen Seventy-Seven, the second novel in David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, is crime fiction without good guys. Crime fiction without resolution. Crime fiction that depicts not only criminal behaviour as relentlessly bloody and horrific, but raises the question of whether there is something inherent in human nature that is similarly corrupted. Nineteen Seventy-Seven is bleak, despairing and an assault on all fronts.

I really loved the first book in the series, Nineteen Seventy-Four, and when beginning Nineteen Seventy-Seven I found the narrative voices were very similar to that of Eddie Dunford in the first book. That narrative voice – abrupt, short, stream of consciousness pace, is similar to the one used in Seventy-Four, and other than content it is near impossible to distinguish who is narrating. What was a compelling narrative voice in Nineteen Seventy-Four now seemed to be Peace’s default writing style, not as intrinsically linked to character as it originally appeared. Nonetheless, it is a suitably hypnotic and alluring style, a sort of gruesomely poetic vision of paranoia and fear. In Nineteen Seventy-Four, as a quick recap, Dunford was a man in way over his head, a somewhat clueless crime journalist investigating and becoming entangled with gruesome crimes and institutional corruption. Nineteen Seventy-Seven focuses on a different series of crimes, this time the mutilation and murder of prostitutes on the streets of Yorkshire, the work of the Yorkshire Ripper.

Yesterday’s news, tomorrow’s headline:
The Yorkshire Ripper.

The two main characters of Nineteen Seventy-Seven are two men that appeared in the first book, and at first it is difficult to reconcile how they were in Seventy-Four with how they appear here. Jack Whitehead, star crime reporter, was Dunford’s friendly rival, while Bob Fraser, an unusually helpful police officer, was one of Dunford’s key sources. Here, their roles and the sympathy afforded to them are reversed. Bob Fraser, though somewhat decent in Seventy-Four, here is complicit in his acceptance of the brutal tactics of the police force and sadly, desperately, in love with a prostitute while his wife cares for her ailing father. Jack Whitehead is no longer the star journalist puffed up on his superior attitude, but a broken man deeply traumatized by events in the years between.

The footnotes and the margins, the tangents and the detours, the dirty tabula, the broken record.
Jack Whitehead, Yorkshire, 1977.
The bodies and the corpses, the alleys and the wasteland, the dirty men, the broken women.
Jack the Ripper, Yorkshire, 1977.
The lies and the half-truths, the truths and the half-lies, the dirty hands, the broken backs.
Two Jacks, one Yorkshire, 1977.

These two key characters are involved in the official and media investigation into the spate of violent crimes frightening the city, but are also personally involved with prostitutes who they fear will be the next victim. One major qualm I have with this series so far is the lack of female characters who are not victims of violence or prostitutes. With the investigations invading their professional and personal lives, Fraser and Whitehead are unable to escape from the atmosphere of dread and of fear. It’s a mood that envelopes the entire narrative for the reader as well, claustrophobic bleakness, with no evidence of light at all. Mainly due to the similar style and a lack of momentum in the investigations, it wasn’t until the crimes began to slowly be linked to those in Nineteen Seventy-Four that I really became engaged. Engaged being much too light a word for how I feel about these books, it sinks its hooks in and refuses to let go. Especially when the slightest connections are being made, when the characters are on the brink of, yes madness, but also uncovering essential details that reveal more than they could ever possibly want to comprehend.

The ending of Nineteen Seventy-Seven is one of the most disturbing, disheartening and oppressive that I have read in a long time. There is no redemption. There is no resolution. There are no heroes. Paranoia and failure are rife, corruption nearly impossible to overcome. Powerfully grim and genuinely frightening, and not just due to the visceral descriptions of murder, but the horrors possible of human nature.

(This post was a draft that I had saved on my wordpress dashboard since August 2011 and I have since read the final two books in the series, and found them equally as stylistically gripping, inventive and unrelentingly bleak. Brilliant, harrowing stuff.)

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The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (2011)

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (2011)Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters is a gentle novel about three very different sisters returning to their childhood home to care for their ailing mother. The offspring of an eccentric Shakespeare professor father and named after characters from the Bard’s plays, each sister bears the unique burden of their Shakespearean namesake. Through the difficulties and love of their family, they find their way, and, cue heartwarming cliché, each other.

Rose has stayed in the area, a successful mathematics professor with an attentive fiancee, and resents her sisters flight from the town. Bean has returned from her high cost lifestyle in New York after being unceremoniously fired from her job and Cordelia may have found a reason to finally give up her gypsy lifestyle and settle for good. Frustratingly, each sister is determined to face their past and secrets alone, ignorant of the similarities she shares with her sisters. Readers will find a lot to love, and relate to, with the family’s bookishness – the books left open around the house, the retreat into the written word when reality seems too much.

She remembered one of her boyfriends asking, offhandedly, how many books she read in a year. “A few hundred,” she said.
“How do you have the time?” he asked, gobsmacked.
She narrowed her eyes and considered the array of potential answers in front of her. Because I don’t spend hours flipping through cable complaining there’s nothing on? Because my entire Sunday is not eaten up with pre-game, in-game and post-game talking heads? Because I do not spend every night drinking overpriced beer and engaging in dick-swinging contests with the other financirati? Because when I am waiting in line, at the gym, on the train, eating lunch, I am not complaining about the wait/staring into space/admiring myself in available reflective surfaces? I am reading.

This is not a hugely taxing novel.  Brown’s style is light and enjoyable, well-versed in the particulars of lovingly antagonistic relationships between sisters. A curious use of the collective narrative voice (“we”) is effective, only sometimes jarring, and allows for us to see how the sisters view each other as a whole. As one of three weird sisters myself, I really liked seeing how the three interacted together, with their parents and as individuals and the frustrations inherent in each of those relationships.

And though I am not usually one for sentimentality or sappy narrative arcs based on the power of forgiveness and love, Bean’s story of repentance and self-forgiveness, even when couched in the alien (to me) language of religion and religious redemption, reduced me to tears. Everything I write seems to be so damned apologetic for being affected by a story on a basic empathetic level. Eleanor Brown makes it easy to relate to these women and their stories, even when they are at their worst. Moments of predictability don’t diminish the strength of Brown’s writing and though it is quite different from what I usually enjoy, The Weird Sisters is a satisfying read.

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Dangling Man by Saul Bellow (1944)

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow (1944)Some authors strike fear into the hearts of wary readers. Faulkner. Joyce. You know the usual suspects. For me it is the White American Male literary triumvirate of the mid 20th century – Roth, Updike, Bellow – celebrated, praised, awarded and much adored, and because of this, damn intimidating. I suppose it stems from a fear of “just not getting it” and having any literary appreciation credentials stripped away and shunned from the readerly world forever. Stupid, I know. So it was with a considerable amount of trepidation that I approached Saul Bellow’s debut novel Dangling Man.

Written in a diary format, Dangling Man is the story of a moderately intelligent young man, Joseph, who has enlisted in the army but is stuck in some sort of bureaucratic purgatory while the authorities figure out what to do with him. While his colleagues go off to battle, or are stationed around the country, Joseph spends his days in a shoddy boarding house, walking around Chicago, avoiding questions about his current position, having meaningful conversations with himself, looking back over his past, and generally being a layabout little shit.

Joseph considers himself as something of an intellectual, a scholar who had previously found success in rote employment. Joseph’s self-assuredness and confrontational methods of dealing with the world and others brings Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to mind. More appropriate a comparison would be with Frank Wheeler from Revolutionary Road, who also believes that his self proclaimed intellectual ways put him above the less educated. (Although I’m thinking that, as with Caulfield, reading this book at a certain age makes one more likely to relate to Joseph’s outlook.)

As he is in most things, Joseph is conscious of a motive in his choice of clothes. It is his answer to those whose defiant principle it is to dress badly, to whom a crumpled suit is a badge of freedom. He wants to avoid the small conflicts of nonconformity so that he can give all his attention to defending his inner differences, the ones that really matter. Furthermore, he takes a sad or negative satisfaction in wearing what he calls “the uniform of the times.” In short, the less noteworthy the better, for his purposes. All the same, he manages to stand out.

For someone who declares himself intelligent beyond compare, Joseph is not only lacking an element of self-awareness that would make him more tolerable, but unforgivably misogynistic. He is unable to accept his wife Iva’s agency, constantly belittling her with his moods, unable to influence her and shape her into the well-read intellectual he wants her to be. He is given to sudden outbursts of anger and, in one scenario, a strange scene of faux-parental discipline, which are not given the same amount of consideration as the minute actions of others. His diatribes about how the world and his friends, colleagues, family are all deemed lacking and his uniqueness are tiresome and become very tedious to read. When he simply recounts his days or his past, the prose flows better, but for the most part it is difficult to empathize with Joseph and his precarious predicament. Maybe if he didn’t resort to massive generalizations about mankind (while excluding himself from those crude beasts) and unfair criticisms.

Sometimes he manages to appreciate simple serene scenes from his domestic life – such as napping with his wife after eating strawberries rolled in powdered sugar – yet, even this becomes another opportunity for a long pronouncement about … whatever, who cares by this stage. His arrogance and verbosity quickly becomes boring. And yet, though Joseph is an arrogant asshole, and irrationally horrible to those around him, it’s impossible not to feel just a small amount of sympathy with him when he gives up his dangling days and demands to be called up for duty. One is left wondering whether the discipline of army life will be beneficial to him.

So, as it turns out, my trepidations was largely unfounded. Though this is Bellow’s first novel so perhaps his later works will, whenever I get around to reading them, be somewhat more challenging. Dangling Man, while having some moments of insight, didn’t make much of an impression.

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Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley (2004)

Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley (2004) Meh.

The above would have been my review of Gwendoline Riley’s Sick Notes had I reviewed it immediately after reading. However, the more time I have to think over the book, the more unforgiving I become with the cobweb thin excuses for characters, plot, motivation. Once upon a time I probably would have loved this novel, would have become intoxicated with the rhythms of Riley’s language, with the lifestyle of drifting between bars and parks and dusty bedrooms and bars, with her heady take on the thrill and awe of intensely felt attraction.

Esther has returned home to Manchester to live with her friend, Donna. She spends her days drinking a lot and wandering the streets, writing, watching and thinking until she meets and spends a few days with an American musician, Newton. There are hints Esther left in the first place to “sort herself out” though her current behaviour dismisses any recuperation ever having taken place. Her behaviour is abrupt, her conversations stunted – though this seems to be a stylistic choice on Riley’s part, the characters communicate almost entirely in non sequiturs. Esther is prone to vicious outbursts of irrational behaviour that do not seem to be prompted psychologically or emotionally, and without any self-awareness on her part. She is infantilized in speech, thought and behaviour.

Donna has a crush on the boy at the biography desk so we have to go upstairs and walk past him a couple of times.
‘Don’t look,’ she says. ‘We’ll stand by that display table and I’ll just ache in his direction.’

As Newton begins to dissect their dalliance and talking about his other lovers, Esther switches off, unable to look at him or be present in the situation or the conversation, she is unable, or unwilling, to verbalize to him how she feels – and yet she finds herself feeling so strongly attached, even as she recognizes what he is trying to communicate. And, so, after he leaves, she mopes and yearns and drinks a lot and I think it is  supposed to come across as all being so terribly romantic and melancholic but … it’s just annoying. Are we supposed to empathize with or pity her?

Esther seems hopelessly desperate, and surrounded by friendly idiots who only encourage her unhealthy actions, rather than giving her a firm slap in the face and telling her that her one night stand was probably not the beginning of a great healing romance. Her problems are never fully realized, it is uncertain whether she has really come back from New York or is covering up something else – this is not used as a narrative technique, it’s just presented as halfway interesting background for the real story of Esther and Newton’s whirlwind romance and the disastrous aftermath.

The most painful aspect of Sick Notes is that Riley seems content to glorify Esther’s alcoholism, while never naming it as such. It is, albeit, a seedy glamour, but the high gloss of Riley’s prose lends a particular grace to Esther’s problem. Riley’s prose is synaesthetic; you can feel the cold, dreary rain and long for a cup of the ever present tea to warm your fingers, you can smell the dust and the mould of the house, the stench of gin emanating from Esther’s room. Riley’s style is, in places, undeniably lovely and is only saved from becoming irritatingly twee by a few moments of raw honesty.

Though the dialogue feels staged and unnatural, the characters annoying portraits of studied eccentricities, there are some graceful moments in Sick Notes, but as a result of Riley’s writing style rather than content. It appears that a lot of other people really enjoy it, so perhaps I am the lone voice of dissent on this one. Meh.

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