Posts Tagged ‘radio’

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

July 22, 2013

Me at Radio 2Exciting EmilyBooks news this week… I was asked on to the Radio 2 Arts Show to talk a little about bookshops, browsing and some good summer books. Should you want to share in this thrilling event, you can listen again here until Saturday (I’m about 1hr 30 min in) or  you can download it here for free for a month (when I’m about 50 mins in). (I know I look quite shiny in the photo – I’d just cycled there unusually speedily.)

The interview made me think rather a lot about the idea of a ‘good summer read’. My favourite books to read on holiday are books about going on holiday – so, for instance, Island Summers, which I suggested on the radio, and also any of: The Enchanted April, Illyrian Spring, As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning and Swimming Home.

The BBC assured me, however, that I needed to suggest a more varied selection. People didn’t want to listen to me talking about three books in which essentially the same thing happened. I could see their point, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how many wonderful reading opportunities the summer provides.

Essentially, the summer gives you more time to read. What you do with this extra time is up to you. You might want to read something long and meaty – like Wolf Hall or, as I suggested on the show, Zweig’s brilliant Beware of Pity.

It is also, I think, the perfect time to re-read – to go back to a treasured book and give some extra time to it, rather than endlessly pressing on with the new. Why do we only read books once, when there is so much to be gained from reading a book again? The book I suggested on the radio was Rebecca – one of the best books to re-read as your alliances really shift between the new Mrs De Winter and Rebecca as you grow older and less naïve!

The other thing that  has since struck me about a summer read is that it is important to feel you can indulge in reading something very easy and very enjoyable. The sort of book where you don’t luxuriate in beautiful language or struggle with intellectual arguments, but whizz through smiling and laughing and, should something interfere – such as a mealtime or a husband – then you long to get back to it as swiftly as possible.

Where'd you go BernadetteI think I’ve found the perfect new book for this: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Begun idly in a lunchbreak, when I picked it up to see what all the fuss was about, this was an inescapable pleasure to read.

Bernadette disappears two days before Christmas. This book is her teenage daughter’s piecing together what happened before her disappearance in an attempt to understand it. So we get a collage of emails, blog posts, notes, interview transcripts and a few explanatory asides. Perhaps it reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad, mixed with Bridget Jones’s Diary, mixed with a television series. (Incidentally, Maria Semple wrote for Ellen and Arrested Development.)

Bernadette is a strange and brilliant heroine. She is married to a Microsoft whizz and her daughter Bee is incredibly bright, but had a difficult start in life. We soon learn that Bernadette finds it hard to function in social situations and struggles with life in Seattle. She employs a Virtual Assistant to do everything for her – from booking restaurants to employing gardeners – and she despises the other mothers at her daughter’s school. She refers to them, rather wonderfully, as ‘gnats’:

Because they’re annoying, but not so annoying that you actually want to spend valuable energy on them.

The novel covers ground from Seattle to Antarctica, school-gate politics to architecture, Microsoft and mothering. What works so well is the way Semple tackles universal problems – incredibly annoying neighbours, husbands who work too hard, putting one’s life on hold for children – mixed with Seattle specifics. For instance, we get a wealth of funny insight into the world of Microsoft, where the employees are all itching to get a contraband iPhone.

As well as being funny and enjoyable, the book raises all sorts of interesting questions. Madness, for instance. Take the following example of Bernadette’s behaviour towards her next-door ‘gnat’:

From: Bernadette Fox

To: Manjula Kapoor

I need a sign made. 8 feet wide by 5 feet high. Here’s what I want it to read:



Galer Street Gnats

Will Be Arrested

and Hauled Off to Gnat Jail

Make the sign itself the loudest, ugliest red, and the lettering the loudest, ugliest yellow. I’d like it placed on the western edge of my property line, at the bottom of the hill, which will be accessible once we’ve abated the despised blackberries. Make sure the sign is facing toward the neighbor’s yard.

It’s pretty extreme – if very funny – behaviour and, on the face of it, seems quite mad. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that eventually, after a few episodes like this, Bernadette’s husband worries that she is mentally unwell and tries to get her institutionalised.

Unlike Bernadette’s husband, the reader grows to absolutely understand her behaviour. We have seen the run of emails and notes etc that have built up to Bernadette wanting to erect the sign. It is not just because her neighbour has insisted that she dig up all her blackberries using a specific machine at huge expense, but because her neighbour has crawled through the fence into her garden when she thought she was out, has pretended that Bernadette drove over her foot (and has billed her for it) and, moreover, along with the other ‘gnats’, has ‘done everything to provoke me into a fight over the past nine years’. Is it really so surprising that at last Bernadette has cracked?

Moreover, once we discover what’s happened to Bernadette before she moved to Seattle, it begins to make even more sense. She is a highly intelligent and talented architect, who, once her child is born, stops working altogether. It is as though all the talent and energy she used to put into creating has been warped into angry rants about her confining circumstances.

While Bernadette undoubtedly exhibits some eccentric antisocial behaviour, it seems utterly mistaken to try and institutionalise her for it. Added to which, the other characters are hardly straightforwardly normal. Take Bernadette’s husband, who insists on not wearing shoes at work, avoids conversations on the bus with noise-cancelling headphones, and travels with a ‘neti pot – the thing he uses to irrigate his nasal passages’. There is Soo-Lin, his admin, and a gnat. Her emails are full of irritating self-help acronyms, like VAV – Victims Against Victimhood, where they CRUSH any newcomers:

C: Confirm their reality

R: Reveal our own abuse

U: Unite them with VAV

S: Say sayonara to abuse

H: Have a nice life!

Everyone else seems so loopy that Bernadette’s behaviour seems relatively sane. And yet, as the plot thickens, we infer that beneath everyone else’s eccentric behaviour lie rational explanations. Everyone is mad. No one is mad. You could learn exactly this from spending a day in a bookshop.

I thought this a brilliant novel. Funny, unusual, unputdownable. It is a perfect summer read. And yes, I suppose it is about people going away on holiday, but surely, given that the holiday is to Antarctica, rather than somewhere sunny and European, that lets me off the hook.

Maria Semple

The Song of Achilles

June 26, 2012

Last week I made my radio debut, talking about literary fiction on Fiction Uncovered’s pop-up radio station in Foyles. I admit I was more than a little nervous, mostly because – as many of you readers don’t know – I have quite a silly voice. I often sound more like an excited, posh fourteen-year-old from 1950s Somerset than a cool, calm, collected, terribly literary twenty-eight-and-a-half-year-old Londoner. I also have a tendency to gabble. And my arms and eyebrows flail around expressively. All of which is completely useless for the radio.

And I was anxious as to whether I was sufficiently qualified to talk about contemporary literary fiction. How ghastly if I were to make a hideous and obvious blunder live on air! I mean, yes of course I do read some new literary fiction, but rather a lot of my reading is taken up with lost classics as well. So I decided I had better read Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, as it has just won the Orange Prize, so as not to come across as particularly idiotic with my finger miles off the pulse.

I am so pleased that I did! What a fun and brilliantly enjoyable book. Let me say straight away that it is not at all what I expected. I was bracing myself for a heavy classical thing, steeped in poetry, masses of over-my-head references, which would leave me longing for my beloved copy of Gods, Men and Monsters (see this old post) and despairing of my forgetful brain.

Well The Song of Achilles may be a classical story, but it doesn’t presume any knowledge at all. In fact, it’s pretty good at explaining, unobtrusively, little things, such as Menoitiades means Menoitius’s son, or the resonance of taking the pose of supplication before a King. I found the classical setting to be a welcome revisit to dusty corridors of my brain, nudging reminders of Odysseus and Hector, of centaurs and slaves, without needing to fret at not remembering all the details.

What I really love about The Song of Achilles is the fast-paced exciting plot. Reading it feels a bit like reading a teen novel – the Philip Pullman books, The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go ­– rather than anything slow, descriptive and ponderous. The story is essentially a coming-of-age one (yes, my favourite type of story):

Young prince Patroclus is exiled to the court of King Peleus. Peleus’s son Achilles is half-god, fleet of foot, gifted on the lyre, and impossibly handsome with his golden curls. The unlikely pair make firm friends and then become lovers, in spite of the fierce disapproval of Thetis, Achilles’s goddess mother. They have adventures together, first in the palace, then on Mount Pelion (with a centaur), then the Island of Scyros, and, last of all, Troy. It’s very gripping. What’s going to happen next, I kept asking myself, so absorbed in the pages that once I even missed my tube stop.

I’m not sure that I found the language particularly beautiful. There aren’t passages that stand out in my memory as lyrical or special, lifted above the rest of it. But the story is told so clearly, holding one’s attention so fast, surely this is a skill in itself – the effective telling of a tale without drawing undue attention to the words that tell it.

Instead of the words, particular ideas and scenes remain stuck in my head. When Achilles decides to go to Troy, the gods, displeased with this oncoming war and all the blood that will be shed, make the wind cease, thus preventing the army from setting sail for battle. It’s such a subtle, clever and effective move. It’s a perfect example of the sideways logic of the Greek myths that I loved as a child – slicing through the Gordian Knot, using thread to escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth and a mirror to fight Medusa.

The other thing that stuck with me is that the Trojan War lasted such a long time. I had forgotten the scale of it. The soldiers are there for more than nine years before Achilles fulfils his destiny. Nine whole years! That’s a third of my life so far. The war soon changes from a brief episode into a long extended way of life, complete with routines and festivals. It’s so sad to think of all these soldiers fighting for Greece, while spending such a huge part of their lives in Troy.

Odysseus expresses this right of the book:

I have a wife. I have not seen her for ten years. I do not know if she is dead, or if I will die before I can return to her… My consolation is that we will be together in the underworld. That we will meet again there, if not in this life. I would not wish to be there without her.

Ten years without seeing your wife. Ten years of living in a strange land, so far from home.

Just after I’d finished The Song of Achilles, I got an email, out of the blue, from an ex-boyfriend of a very long time ago. I’d heard that he’d become an army doctor and had been in Afghanistan for a while. He said that his father posted him out copies of the Spectator and he’d had a nice surprise when he’d read my new column in it.

It was really odd to think of him out in Afghanistan doing something so serious and reading my silly little articles about books in such an English magazine as the Spectator. And, as it was so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but think of The Song of Achilles.

Patroclus, the narrator, goes to Troy with Achilles, but he soon stops fighting and instead puts to use all the medical training he learnt while up on Mount Pelion with the centaur. The first thing he has to do is remove a splintered arrowhead from a soldier’s shoulder. Then he helps in the medical tent more and more:

Everyone eventually made their way there, if only for smashed toes, or ingrown nails. Even Automedon came, covering the bleeding remnants of a savaged boil with his hand. Men doted on their slave women and brought them to us with swollen bellies. We delivered their children in a steady, squalling stream, then fixed their hurts as they grew older.

And it was not just the common soldiery: in time, I came to know the kings as well. Nestor with his throat syrup, honeyed and warmed, that he wanted at the end of a day; Menelaus and the opiate he took for his headaches; Ajax’s acid stomach.

There’s the feeling here of this being life, normal life, like at any doctor’s surgery anywhere. But, of course, this isn’t anywhere; this is Troy. In between the boils and the ingrown toenails, there are embedded arrowheads and spear wounds. It is uncanny to think of normal life existing around the war, worming its way in between the battles.

I suppose there was something of the same feeling when I learned that my ex was reading my little column while tending to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. Magazines belong in newsagents, waiting rooms, and crowded tube carriages. They belong to normal life. It’s so strange to think of living out there, on the edges of a war, becoming normal enough to include them.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that the radio programme went very well and I don’t think I made any truly dreadful blunders. However, there was a funny moment before it even began, when they were checking the mic levels and we were each asked to say what we had for breakfast. Of course this isn’t on air, the lady said, at the moment we’re playing a recording of Colm Tóibín.

It was only at the end of the day, when the husband, who had dutifully tuned in, informed me that in the midst of Colm’s beautiful reading, a silly little voice piped up announcing, rather proudly:

I had muesli and apple juice for breakfast. And it was delicious.

My Achilles’ heel.