Classics revisited…

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is a really good re-visit of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. PPWCUsually I am not keen on such re-tellings – although the odd one is unusual and original enough to work – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one that springs, like a hungry zombie as it were, PPZto one’s mind. Eligible is not so zeitgesity, pop-culture-moment-seizing but it is still fun, a bit shocking and funny, and feels fresh and clever. The plot is what you already know and love but the modern twists and interesting characters set in Cincinnati work – it’s a good read whether you know P&P, and will enjoy the parallels and echoes or will enjoy shouting about how wrong Sittenfeld has got it, or whether you’ve never read it and don’t care where the inspiration has come from…


… for something slightly more literary the new collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre’s powerful and assertive statement “Reader, I married him” is very interesting. I didn’t love every story in Reader, I Married Him edited by Tracy Chevalier but they were all Janeinteresting and well written. There are twenty-one tales, by turns romantic, funny, tragic, bold and shocking. Some of them have ago at re-telling Jane Eyre from other character’s viewpoints, others jump off the celebrated and iconic phrase without a backward glance at, or reference to,  Jane, Rochester, Bertha, the Hall or indeed the eighteenth Widecentury. Only one has a go at telling Bertha’s story, a brave thing to do when Jean Rhys’s brilliant and breathtaking Wide Sargasso Sea – perhaps the very best ever of such sequels – exists. I very much liked the stories that played with Jane a bit, exploring how annoying and goody-two-shoes she might have been, and perhaps even calculating and manipulative – these did feel a bit transgressive and exciting. And, the cover is gorgeous…




I liked Michael Cunningham’s dark and insightful explorations of traditional fairytales in Wild Swan: And Other Tales. For a start it is a beautiful object, sparingly illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, a slim hardback wrapped in a lovely rough-textured paper. These stories attempt to explain some of the motives of their well-known – yet oddly opaque – characters, and to follow their characters beyond the bounds of ‘happily ever after’.

I particularly liked Rumpelstiltskin, where we discover why the sad little man helps turn straw into gold (and what sort of psychotic king demands such tribute on pain of death, and what sort of father says his daughter can do such a thing) and demands a baby in return. Also the first story is very clever, about what happens to the brother, bewitched into a swan, whose sister only has time to make almost twelve of the nettle-shirts that will restore her swan brothers to human shape. His shirt is missing an arm and so is he – although he does have a very beautiful wing. But how do then live the rest of your life, making your family uncomfortable by reminding them of family rifts, one-armed and so very other?
Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life is quite unsettling. A colleague loved it and recommended it, and I was interested as I knew the Hughes and Plath myths and legends but only the outline that ‘everyone’ sort of knows.
As dark and fascinating in its way as Cunningham’s tales, it describes a life lived in a maelstrom of passion and death and guilt and raw talent. Not to mention fame and excoriating public opprobrium. On the one hand it feels like the old familiar story of the genius who requires the maelstrom to produce his work, regardless of who gets hurt, and who is somehow excepted from observing social rules or norms in exchange for sharing his – very great – gifts with us. On the other hand Hughes really did seem to need to live his life in the way he is famous for, and I guess it is no one’s business but the people living it with him – except some of them died. The awfulness of the suicides of Sylvia Plath, his first wife, and then his lover Assia Wevill, who also killed their 4 year old daughter Shura, seems insurmountable but I thought Bate very carefully, fairly and clearly spelt out what happened in each case.
Bate, who went from favoured biographer to persona non grata with the Hughes estate, was not allowed to quote much at all from the poems, and so the book concerns itself very much with the rest of his life, his deep love of British landscape and wildlife, his beliefs about astrology and a sort of occult spiritulism, his encouragement of children reading, writing and listening to poetry. Overarching all in the biography, much like in life, his relationships successful and unsuccessful make up so much of the story. I feel a bit odd about knowing all this intimate stuff about people far away and long dead – even if they are literary giants. Turns out, I might lean more towards those who believe that the work is the important thing – not so much the minutiae of the writer’s life, which I, a reader of biographies, wasn’t expecting.
A fascinating look at a man who said he didn’t ever want a biography but who’d been keeping journals, letters and drafts of his work with one and half eyes on posterity since he was about 16, saying one thing and meaning it, while doing another, and meaning that too – and always, there is the poetry.



What a week of odd reading. It was mostly all good but didn’t have any sense of cohesiveness to it… These are my favourites.

(I have just come back here after writing to the bottom of the post. Scratch the comment above about cohesiveness: these are all slightly chilling, despite the often wonderful writing, full of perma-frosted Siberia, goulies and ghosties, death and its totems… if this is what I liked most this last week, I can see now that I just wasn’t in the mood to be amused by Bill Brysons’s latest jovial travel-writing outing The Road to Little Dribbling)

I kicked off with Kolymsky Heights, a thriller by Lionel Davidson which was first published in 1994 and has just been re-released. The publisher’s rep raved about it, and it has some big names on the cover shouting about how it is the best thriller EVER. And it was really good, all pre-digital spycrafty and ooh! look how much the satellites over the secret Russian science station can see! Which was sort of sweet but the very cool – think a Canadian multi-lingual, hyper-educated First-nations Jack Reacher/James Bond – hero copes admirably with all the challenges thrown his way, and the romance of the journey from Japan over the top of Russia through the rapidly icing Arctic Sea to Murmansk and beyond is fascinating. Very much worth a read, refreshing and fast-paced, and I didn’t really notice the devicelessness of the exercise until afterwards, in fact I think most devices (have you noticed this, the use if the word ‘device’ is now how writers refer to one’s personal technological , um, devices, so that they don’t date the story?) would be utterly useless.

Then I read the new collection of ghost stories from Head of Zeus, Ghost: 100 Stories to Read With the Light On, selected by Louise Welsh. Its a gorgeous big hardback and stuffed full of creepy, unseelie tales from Pliny the Younger through to Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro. I have to admit I ended up skipping the ones written in any version of Scots, mostly from around the 18th century, as it was just too hard to figure out the words and get the sense of the tale, and I felt silly muttering under my breath as I tried to decipher the sounds the marks on the page made. Fun to dip in and out of, and quite a few would make for excellent reading aloud.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is utterly remarkable, and so very sad. A woman dies suddenly, one of those everyday falls where you hit your head the wrong way and life is gone. Her two young sons and her Ted Hughes-scholar husband are devastated, almost stopped themselves. Then Crow arrives, black feathers shining, beak clacking, truth-telling and keening, to wrap them in his wings and chivvy the household through the dark times ahead. You should read it, you don’t know when you may need the book’s scratchy, beautiful, squawky creature. It is just new in, a lovely small hardback, we have put it on a table next to the new Hughes biography, where the poet stares out strongly at the world.  Hughes wrote Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, first published in 1970 by Faber & Faber, a collection of poems about the character Crow, which I haven’t read but now feel I must. I cannot wait to see what Max Porter does next.


What a girl!

A Girl of the Limberlost is one of those classic books that you hear people talking about now and then, it is very well-known in the States, in New Zealand, not so much. I just read it on the recommendation of a friend – and it is just great! Remember the first time you saw Casablanca and realised that it is really good, all those people going on about it are right? Reading Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1909 novel is like that: surprising and delightful and exciting.

It is the tale of Elnora Comstock, born and raised in Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp, who is determined to go to school and continue her education. Her mother is a damaged woman, unable to extend Elnora any love or support (their relationship is an amazingly astute and well-rendered psychological study), and so Elnora sets to collecting flora and fauna specimens from the Swamp to sell to collectors and finance her education. The lyrical descriptions of this now-much reduced wild place and its creatures are by turns beautiful, sinister and otherworldly, like the many moods of the Swamp. Elnora is a fabulous character, a resourceful, independent, resilient and honest young woman. She is someone you’d like to know because she is also full of integrity, good humour and irony. Despite the fact she has no phone in her pocket – indeed, even electricity in her house – and skirts to her ankles, she sort of shines, and you cheer for her in her travails and sort of hope you’ll meet your own with as much spirit.
Not pious like Marmee’s girls in Little Women, or annoying like Pollyanna and her Glad Game, or punished for her adventuresome nature like Katy in What Katy Did and less cutely harum-scarum than Anne of Avonlea, you wish Elnora was around now, to see her take on the modern world – she’d be unstoppable now, just as in 1909.

Go on, indulge in some ancient literature and a timeless heroine…

Some of the books I have been reading…

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase is all that you want if you are in the mood for a touch of coastal British gothic à la du Maurier’s Rebecca. There are precocious, enchanting children, a perfect dead parent, a weak live parent, an unspeakable step-parent, a too attractive step-brother, terrible tragedy, true love, a big, elegantly dilapidated house and an air of mystery. And that is just the bit set in the late 1960s. More than three decades later, Lorna and Jon are on the hunt for a special place to hold their wedding. Lorna is drawn to the now even-more falling down old pile, and starts ferreting about in its secrets and gloomy hallways – which makes all the rabbits run.  I liked it, it was just what I was in the mood for: light fiction with a dark undertow, not silly or stupid, with characters that are all just a bit too intense to be real yet are nonetheless worth caring about. 

The Edible Atlas: Around the World in 39 Cuisines by Mina Holland is very interesting. Holland discusses the history and development of each cuisine’s various stand-out ingredients, techniques and flavours, and follows each chapter up with a suggested larder list and a recipe or two that encapsulate the nature of the cuisine she has just introduced you to. She includes some interesting personal anecdotes and writes amiably and  straightforwardly, demystifying with good humour and sage advice. If you are interested in cooking this is really worth a read.

Rebecca Solnit’s essays are always thought-provoking. A Field Guide to Getting Lost is an excellent selection of prose pieces on various aspects of being lost, losing and loss in its many forms. The writing is beautiful, personal with glimpses of Solnit’s life and memories, meandering backwards and forwards, as from these close and everyday reflections she illuminates certain big truths about humans and the world we have created.

…and finally, I read Liza Marklund’s new Scandi Noir crime novel, Without a Trace, featuring tabloid reporter Annika Bengtzon. You – and the police – think this is about one sort of crime, a well-worn motive, when radical politician Ingemar is found beaten almost to death, his wife missing and their children taken into care. In fact it is about another sort of crime altogether, an unexpected motive, which is a real surprise. This is very good crime writing, with tight plotting and timely political and social observations (the descriptions of working in the new 24-hour digital content news day are really interesting), it is nicely chilling and mysterious until the end.

Motherless Brooklyn

One of my colleagues said Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem was a must-read crime novel – he was so right!

A totally refreshing and absorbing take on a crowded genre, this is the tale of Lionel Essrog, recruited as a teenager, with three others, to be an enforcer for the local gangster. All orphans, residents of St Vincent’s Home for Boys, the ‘Minna Men’ are set up with a faux-detective agency/chauffeur service as a cover for their more criminal activities. When their patron, the  gangster, is murdered, the now adult Lionel finds himself trying to be a real detective, and solve the mystery of who killed Frank Minna. Lionel is hampered – and helped in unusual ways – by the fact that he has Tourette Syndrome: he has irresistable urges  to rearrange things, touch surfaces and call out strings of words, phrases that have enchanted his brain and peculiar sounds. Lethem does an amazing job of portraying not just the absurd utterances and frustrating rituals that Lionel exhibits, but exploring how the condition interrupts and effects Lionel’s very thoughts and how he navigates the often unfriendly, always puzzled world, a world dangerous enough because of his gangster-related activities.

The writing is really good, the characters realistic, you certainly come to care about Lionel and the story is shocking and urgent and original. Like Lionel, it feels like chaos barely contained.

Looking to the future……..

Feel like thinking about the future? SciFi master and (accidental) futurist William Gibson’s book of erudite, clever and charming essays is a good place to start. Distrust that Particular Flavor: Encounters with a Future that’s Already Here is a collection of a number of his non-fiction pieces, written in the past, about the future – some of which is now.
Famous for having written about the internet before there was an Internet (there was an internet in a sort of larval stage but not The Internet we know, love, hate and live in) in 1984’s Neuromancer, Gibson seems to be able to envision human/technology interaction, and to write about it, with a unique and exciting voice. He says he was not writing about the future, he was really writing about 1984, just as Orwell in 1948 was writing about 1948 in 1984. Tricksy, huh? And, as he stresses in this book of essays, he is often, spookily, accidentally right. Perhaps things work out the way they do because he has already imagined them, given people a way of relating and using technology before it happens, so that when it does happen they sort of follow a script.
Honestly, Star Trek communicators taught us how to use smartphones before such things existed or were dreamt of by most of us. When smartphones arrived, didn’t most of us think “Oh, of course, here they are! Where have they been?”, not nearly in the state of shock and marvel that we should be, because, really, they are sort of familiar. Personally, I am expecting to be beamed up any day now…
Gibson adds postscripts to the articles, reflecting on what has come to pass. I like his thinking, he worries about technology and how we are changing, and being changed by, it, and he is also excited by it, enjoying the ride. In the introduction he writes about how he gets asked to various labs and businesses to see what they are up to, and about how the people there are doing things, striving to create things, they can’t describe because they don’t actually have the language because the things – and their purpose – don’t exist yet, they are just ambiguous, misty thoughts – perhaps that is why they invite him to have a look, hoping he’ll create the narrative…

Humane, creative, thought-provoking and wryly knowing, this is a great introduction to both Gibson’s fiction and the burgeoning world of the futurists creating our brave new world…