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.


Small but perfectly formed…

Just what was needed for Christmas  – a giant book (can you say, or in fact, hold up in bed,  816 pages?) of short stories. I know, your excitement is bubbling over. So it should.

Reading That Glimpse of Truth: The 100 Finest Short Stories Ever Written edited by David Miller is a bit like Russian Roulette but, you know, without the gun, bullet or possible deadness. But it is very exciting – I kept opening it at random and reading whatever story appeared; some were great, others were a bit ‘meh’, a couple were horrifying and shocking (yes, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, I am looking at you) and a few were very funny. I was pleased to re-read one of ‘our’ Katherine’s (Mansfield) which I had actually not read for 25 years – she is so good, I do wonder what she’d have done if she’d lived longer.

There is a great mix of authors,  from all over the world, handily translated into English, basically covering the last two and bit centuries. Miller, in his intro, straight away tackles the questions about whose best short stories these are and lays out his unapologetic criteria for deciding these are his. He has made some unexpected, profound, moving, lyrical and clever choices and set the scene for some very enjoyable wrangling about who else should have been included and who should have been left out.

It is a great way to sample an amazing range of authors – a bit like a giant box of assorted chocolates. Yes, lets go with that enticing image rather than Russian Roulette…

Bestest of the Best.

Marcus, our book buyer here at UBS Otago has just got in a variety of The Best American….2014 anthologies of stories and articles. These are consistently good,  year on year, you can read each one’s offerings all at once, and from beginning to end or languidly pick and choose, like selecting your favourites from a tasty box of chocolates. I have just read The Best American Mystery Stories – they were so good, each was amusing and clever and several were startling, subverting the idea of what we think of when usually discussing mysteries.

9780544309906I like this series because you never know what you’ll get and if you read them cover-to-cover, you often end up surprised and joyful to have discovered a new writer or usefully having paid attention to something that usually you’d have skipped because you thought you weren’t interested in the subject. I like the cover-to-cover campaign through the pages as you don’t get the chance to pre-judge or self-censor, although I don’t neccesarily read the whole thing in one go, just make sure I read them all.
On the horizon for this weekend is The Best American Essays 2014 and The Best American Short Stories, with maybe The Best American Travel Writing 2014  and The Best American Infrographics 2014 for dipping in and out of next weekend. Nature & Science Writing and the Non-Required Reading might wait for Christmas lolling around.

The only thing that would make them better would be gorgeous covers – they are a bit staid, dour even, and give no hint of the treasure within.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

The new collection of short stories from double Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel is clever, sharp and very memorable. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher sweeps you from the hemmed-in, smothering and slightly dangerous confines of a Saudi apartment for British ex-pats to the short story of the title. Oddly, I found the story far less about Margaret Thatcher than I expected. A politician who liked to burnish her own myth of superhuman qualities with tales of hardly needing any sleep, her seemingly iron control of her emotions during tumultuous times and what appeared to be her staggering lack of empathy, Thatcher may well have wept or been uncertain but it is slightly hard to believe now that she wasn’t a perfect automaton. The assassin’s reasons for his actions are as rehearsed and familiar to us as the Thatcher construct, and so you sort of don’t care that she might be assassinated because she is just an image (like a target, made for shooting at) not a real person, which kind of makes the whole idea of assassinating her pointless.
I liked Mantel’s various sulky, slightly damaged, cruel and troubled young women and girls – life is quite a grind, there is little joy or contentedness. There is a frightening twist in ‘Winter Break’, where, at the end, unpleasantness that has been building ever since a British couple got into their taxi for the long drive into the Greek mountains finally breaks – it is a relief and a horror.
Mantel observes a certain sort of person so well, you don’t really want to meet any of them, and, heaven forfend, that you yourself are like any of them, but they are interesting to read about, stewing in their own slightly bitter juices. Which is perhaps the point, Mantel keeps you reading by the cleverness of her craft, and wondering just what she is thinking about us behind her smiling authorial face – no wonder she can deal with the byzantine intrigues of the Tudor court.

An eclectic selection…

I have been reading a real mix of things over the last few days, like I have been selecting at whim from one of those sampler boxes of chocolates.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan is a very funny comedy of manners set amongst the stupendously rich (and crazy) descendants of the 17th and 18th century Chinese diaspora. Based mainly In Singapore, this satire reads like a cross between Dynasty, Pride & Prejudice and one of those sex-and-shopping blockbusters from the 70s and 80s. It is kind of fabulous, a quick read, really entertaining and very interesting about the nuanced hierachies, apart from money, which motivate and power this unusual world.
Also, in a bookseller-humour move, one of my colleagues displayed it next to Mohsin Hamid’s excellent novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Nice.

In contrast, New Zealand writer Breton Dukes’ new collection Empty Bones and Other Stories is drastically different, as far from glitz and sparkle as you can imagine. The stories explore little slices of New Zealand life, many of them with an unsettling edge and various unlikeable characters. I loves his evocation of the warm, mangrove-edged far-North, and his descriptions of Dunedin and its scarfie (student) lives, precariously balanced on alcohol, friendship and youthful brio. The stories are raw, and funny and intense all at once, and I have found myself thinking about them a lot since I read it.

Then I had to read the new thriller from Icelandic sensation Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, who when she isn’t writing excellent crime, is a civil engineer. Her work is atmospheric, often informed by the unusual and particular history and culture of Iceland, sigurand she doesn’t indulge in bloodbaths to ramp up tension. Silence of the Sea is as good as her previous novels, with an interesting structure: a luxury yacht, being brought to Iceland from Portugal, crashes into the dock – the crew have disappeared as have the family that was on board – the man who works for the committee repossessing the vessel, his wife and two of their young children, twin girls. We get to follow the investigation into what has happened from Reykjavík, and the distressed families and friends left behind, and every other chapter tells the story of what is happening on board – there are incidents, people and thoughts that the reader is privy to, that half the characters in the book will never know about. Chills up the spine time.