Posts Tagged ‘Helen Gordon’

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.

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The Reading-Gassing Challenge

November 21, 2011

I spent rather an uncharacteristic weekend up in Scotland, shooting.

Well, admittedly, I didn’t actually do any actual shooting. That was left to the men, while we women either hovered nearby, covering our ears and watching them miss the startled pheasants, or did things like cook and sit around chatting. My friend and I were set our own little challenge of being sent home to fetch thermoses of sausages and Bullshot for elevenses. We managed to fail abysmally and abandoned the hire care in a field, only to be laughed at for being too London to understand how to open a gate and then discovering that we’d manage to cause a traffic jam for a rather unimpressed shepherd.

The other main challenge of the weekend was achieving the perfect reading-gassing balance. One of my favourite things about weekends away in lovely houses with drawing rooms and fireplaces is the inevitably large proportion of time spent semi-supine on a sofa, drinking tea or booze and gassing away. It is such fun. I can’t think of a better way of getting to know people, or a better way of whiling away an afternoon.

Yet, in such circumstances, I often get a little nagging pulse in my head telling me that I should be doing something useful. Sometimes this can be mollified by making another pot of tea, or fetching a packet of biscuits. But sometimes I feel a bit like time is slipping through my fingers and I should be spending it writing, or, failing that, at least reading something.

So, for me, the only thing better than sitting around and gassing, is sitting around and gassing while reading. This, as you might imagine, can pose various problems. Some books are too engrossing, so it really is impossible to read them, whilst even occasionally engaging in conversation. It’s just too rude to sit there in the midst of a lively conversation with ears closed off, thoroughly ensconced in one’s own private book world. Besides, it makes one feel as though one’s missing out. There’s nothing worse than being startled out of a paragraph by hearing gales of laughter and not being able to discover what’s so funny.

Conversely, if a book doesn’t hold one’s attention quite firmly enough, then it’s hard to read any of it while conversation is going on, as one’s mind is too liable to graft onto the latter. Rereading a book can be a good option. Or else, a book with short chapters or several section breaks, so that you can slip back into the conversation every page or two.

I had a brief flick though Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling, which in many ways would have been the ideal thing to read. All about shooting in Scotland, I could move between the book and the conversation almost seamlessly. I more than empathised with the bit when the girl gets told off for wearing black. ‘Whoever heard of black on a hill?’ she’s asked, more or less. Well certainly one isn’t supposed to wear yellow on a hill. For the first time ever, I was rather ashamed of my bright yellow wellies, which I rather feebly tried to pass off as camouflaging with a patch of gorse. (Luckily everyone was too polite to be all that mean about them.)

Yet I wasn’t really in the mood for Nancy Mitford. Perhaps I’d had old-school overload with the blissful Mariana – see my last post, here. In any case, I ended up reading a very new book, made up of conversation-dipping-friendly short sections, by a bright young thing of today.

Landfall by Helen Gordon follows Alice, a thirty-four-year-old art critic, who abandons her painfully trendy life in Shoreditch and moves back to her childhood home in the suburbs. It’s a very good book, but I have to say, the opening section in painfully trendy Shoreditch was nothing much other than quite painful. There were a lot of clichéd lines about silly haircuts and living in cold warehouse units and ending up accidentally in bed with artistic wastrels after drinking too much. Nothing new there. I’d rather watch an episode of the – genius – Nathan Barley.

But once Alice gets back to the suburbs, the book becomes quite brilliant. And luckily I’d already got through the Shoreditch bit on the way up to Scotland, so by the time I undertook the reading-gassing challenge, my attention was sufficiently grasped.

At the heart of the novel is a feeling of entropy. Here is a successful young woman, with opportunities offered to her on a plate, who chooses to walk away from everything. She feels like she has nothing left to say, ‘as if her imagination had emptied itself out’. Alice lets her life unravel. She withdraws, cuts her ties, watches herself become increasingly introverted, a recluse. She abandons her friends, her career, her appearance, and watches everything spiral undone.

It’s not long before the trauma at the heart of Alice’s desire to withdraw becomes clear. Seventeen years ago, her sister Janey disappeared. Disappearance is central to the book. As Janey’s haunting voice in Alice’s head says, ‘Everyone has a right to be lost.’ Janey’s disappearance is refracted in other examples scattered throughout the book. Danny, the strange boy next door, nearly drowned as a child. He has no friends, no school, and no job, drifting around silently, almost invisible, almost disappeared from society. A Scandinavian artist, who Alice eventually agrees to write a book about, has become a ‘seaside recluse’, having stopped making art and disappearing from the art world’s consciousness so successfully that Alice’s friend thinks she is dead.

Key to all this disappearance is the idea of the edge. Alice retreats from the false edginess of Shoreditch to the real, geographical edge of the suburbs – ‘the edges of the A–Z’. I expect you’ve noticed the edge on the cover image above. Alice is told, when she leans over the parapet of a multi-storey carpark:

‘You’re making me nervous … Come back from the edge now.’

What happens over the edge? Can someone really step off the edge and disappear? How can someone disappear in today’s densely-populated England of CCTV and mobile phones? This is a book about vertigo. About peering over the edge, feeling dizzy, and letting go.

I suppose there shouldn’t really have been any similarity between this cool young novel about moving from Shoreditch to the suburbs and a rather old-fashioned weekend of shooting in Scotland. But in some ways going up to Scotland, to a remote place with no internet or mobile network was a way of disappearing. Certainly, climbing up big hills, looking down on vast beautiful glens and seeing nothing but reddy-brown space stretching for miles, felt like being on the very edge of the world. So the two ended up striking rather an eerie chime. Landfall is a great book, thoughtfully written and thought-provoking. Best of all, it let me complete the reading-gassing challenge with great success.