Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


Holiday reading lust

I have the second sight, I do. Thursday: dropped off a box of chocolates at the public library and left with two bags of books. Friday: noticed that the weekend forecast promised an epic snowstorm.

We only got a foot of snow in the end, but that's more than enough for some proper sledding, a fair amount of shoveling, and lots of lying on the couch with books and hot cocoa. And my favourite winter breakfast: snow cream, which is like ice cream, but made with eggnog and freshly fallen snow. It's criminally delicious.

Today: a mild thaw, which means pretty icicles garlanding the eaves. Yeah, I'd rather be summering on the Cheviera, but I'll take a greeting-card-worthy White Christmas as second prize.


A hat tip to PA System commenter recordari for inspiring the title of this post, in which I haphazardly mention a random handful of the books that I loved this year, and add a few booky-links (bookmarks?) in the hope that you’ll reciprocate in kind, so we can all lie around with our noses in books no matter what the weather.

Firstly, a few links that seemed apposite in the light of recent discussions here: James Wood writing in the New Yorker on Paul Auster’s auto-plagiarism; the blog Regrettheerror on errors, and the rise of crowd-sourced fact-checking. And AL Kennedy in the Guardian, on the privilege and pleasure of rewriting.

Two pertinent quotes from that last piece:

Oh, but think, dear reader, of the dear reader. They've done you no wrong. They have, in fact, sought out your work and allowed it into their mind – deep into their warm, intimate mind, where they could be thinking exactly what they want to about all the wonders of life. Instead, they chose you.
A writer who thinks, who rewrites, isn't just bucking an ugly trend. He or she is also taking control of a power that can delight the heart, encourage, entrance. That same power can deceive, betray and murder and it is a matter of basic self-defence to keep ourselves as literate as possible, as strong as possible in our words.

Case in point: a thoroughly terrifying but typically brilliant story by Helen Simpson in the latest New Yorker, in which several thousand words paint a picture worth paying attention to. It's Copenhagen, the bedtime-story version. (And I love what she does with niggly bourgeois sexual politics in this story.)

Speaking of which, see also this tasty morsel by Hilary Mantel, which visits Cinderella twenty years down the track, to see exactly how she's getting on ever after.

And I stumbled across this sweetly voluptuous story by Imogen de la Bere, about the world of am-dram companies and their soft-boiled egos.

Let me also point you towards Sam Anderson's interesting article on the state of the naughty, sorry, noughty novel. "What kind of novel, if any," he asks, "can appeal to readers who read with 34 nested browser tabs open simultaneously on their frontal lobes?" The short answer: short ones, or long ones composed of short bits (or, I suppose, bytes). I'll have to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to be absolutely convinced.


For the rest, something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and some other bits.

Something Old The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I have the Persephone Books edition, in its creamy dove-grey cover, which I read in one sitting. First published in 1924, it’s a straightforward role-swap story. An over-achieving hausfrau (and inadvertent tyrant) finds herself with a “real” job at the local department store after her gentle, unambitious husband has an accident and is unable to go back to work. He becomes a stay-at-home-dad, while she discovers the world will pay her for her domestic genius.

The novel is both gently comic and deeply tragic, as it slowly reveals the effects of this new order on the couple and their children, and the impact of their switcharoo on the fortunes of the department store and the psychic life of the wider community. A lovely, very modern, and thought-provoking read, with some of the most incisive portraits of the child mind I’ve seen in ages.

Also in the same pile: Tell It To a Stranger, a book of exquisite wartime short stories by Elizabeth Berridge, who died last week. And a couple of Richmal “Just William” Crompton’s novels for adults, too, all jolly good stuff.

Something New David Nicholls wrote the appealing and funny Starter for Ten, a love story set against the backdrop of University Challenge. I didn’t get where I am today without falling in love against the backdrop of University Challenge, so I’m already predisposed to love his work. The hook for his latest novel, One Day, sounds almost impossibly contrived and yet is as ambiguously simple as the title: two people meet one day in 1988, on their last day of university. And then we check in with them annually thereafter -- sometimes alone, sometimes together -- every year, for twenty years, on the same date, July 15.

That's St Swithin’s Day, for the Billy Bragg fans in the room.

Emma and Dexter sort of hook up on that first night, but don’t actually get together. Not yet, anyway. There’s an agonizingly platonic relationship, several false steps, and a few belated realizations. On one level, as we follow idealistic Em and hedonistic Dex through the nineties and into the new millennium, this is a swift and funny Hornby-esque novel of manners. If you're roughly that age yourself, prepare to cringe and/or giggle in recognition at many points in the book. On another level, it's a meditation on love and life and what we want out of them. It rattles breezily along, and you gradually figure out where it’s going, by which point it’s too late not to care about the characters and where they’re headed.

I did have a debate with myself about why Dex got to be the good time bad boy and Emma had to be the one with the broomstick, but I suppose the only other choice was to make Dex all fraught and uptight and Emma the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. And some readers might not thrill to the ending; I felt it deserved one more twist -- a meta-fictional one. The novel is a light read, except for the bits when it very much isn’t. Don’t read it if you’re feeling the least bit emotional. Or perhaps don’t read it unless you want to feel emotional. Nice reviews of it here and here.

Something Borrowed No, not what you’re thinking. From the library, I mean. There are, as we have learned recently, many ways to write a historical novel. Meg Rosoff does it by quite literally saddling up and galloping off into the sunrise. Here’s how The Bride’s Farewell begins:

On the morning of August the twelfth, eighteen hundred and fifty something, on the day she was to be married, Pell Ridley crept up from her bed in the dark, kissed her sisters goodbye, fetched Jack in from the wind and rain on the heath, and told him they were leaving. Not that he was likely to offer any objections, being a horse.

There wasn’t much to take. Bread and cheese and a bottle of ale, a clean apron, a rope for Jack, and a book belonging to Mam with pictures of birds drawn in soft pencil, which no one ever looked at but her.

We’re in Tess of the Durbervilles territory – chalky Salisbury, middish 19th century, with an unlettered rural girl trying to parse the big wide world beyond the known village. Barefoot Pell, accompanied by a mute little brother who won’t take no for an answer, carefully skirts “each village dawn to dusk till the names grew strange and the people they passed started to look unfamiliar.” She wants to be free: “free and hungry, free and cold, free and wet, free and lost. Who could mourn such conditions, faced with the alternative?”

In this quick but astonishing read, freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose, and it’s a scarily romantic proposition. There’s hunger, horse-trading, children lost and found, workhouses and forges, farms and great houses, and hunger, always hunger. Paths are crossed and re-crossed, crossroads reached. A preacher with secrets. A single gypsy mother with a wagon full of childen. Kind gentlefolk who really have no idea. A mysterious hunter, nameless, whom Pell thinks of as Dogman.

The narrative flies like an arrow shot into the air, in a clean, clear arc. So what if it lands a little shy of the mark in the last few pages? It’s a long strange trip through an old world made new. There’s no need for footnotes in this book: just a tale, told well and told straight, although Rosoff supplies a list of inspirational books on her website. The author delivers historical detail subtly and gracefully, via her characters' actions and words, without editorializing or cliché. Like Thomas Hardy, whose disquisition on Tess’s favourite cows tidily reveals a world of detail about gender, power, and agriculture without hitting us over the head with a textbook about the industrialization of rural England. Old Pretty and Dumpling tell you everything you need to know. Now that’s how you do it.

I also loved Rosoff’s debut, How We Live Now, which took the girl-stays-with-cousins-in-a-big-house-and-has-fun premise, and introduced it to the End of the World as We Know It plot, resulting in a sort of I Capture the Castle on the Day of the Triffids, with a hot, sweet, cousinly love-affair to boot. It was riveting and weird and delightful. And I love that the author passes herself off as having wasted decades of her adult life in the advertising mines, and claims she is completely unable to come up with stories. Wrong on both counts, Ms Rosoff: you obviously learned how to attract attention and make every word count, and your story-telling is flawless. Write on!

I also borrowed from the library Colm Toíbin’s much-bruited Brooklyn, prompted by the Marion McLeod's promising review in the Listener: “Novels don’t come more realist, more mundane, than Brooklyn. But they don’t come more magical either.” That's a beautiful encapsulation of the novel's strange attraction: its almost stunning mundanity takes hold of you immediately, and paints a persuasive picture of how utterly opaque people are, not only to each other but to themselves.

I read it the way I read Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road -- doggedly, grimly, unable to look away from the page -- despite the odd niggling doubt: I can’t believe a female character who could mention in passing the new hairstyle and clothes that changed her life without actually describing said hairstyle and clothes. Still, the story it tells is quietly powerful, and the final paragraph comes as a brilliant, heart-breaking sideswipe, and a terribly particular answer to the universal emigrant question: how did I get here?

Something Blue Oh, I love a good weepie, and I love a good children’s picture book. Sit me down with Bob Kerr’s almost wordless masterpiece After the War and a box of tissues, and there goes my afternoon. Half a World Away (published in NZ as Amy and Louis) is the first picture book I’ve seen that directly captures my children’s diasporic experience: a close friendship experienced at a distance of, yes, half a world away. Written by an Australian, Libby Gleeson, and beautifully illustrated by New Zealander, Freya Blackwood, the book really gets it. Two wee thumbs up and a big lump in the throat.

Other children’s books enjoyed this year: Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief series, which is intelligent, exciting, and so well written as to be a joy to read aloud. We’re excited by the promised of a movie and hoping it gets things right. The trailer is promising, anyway.

Also on the 8 year old's bedside table: Calvin and Hobbes (Old and New Testaments; they have all been memorized and are quoted on a daily basis, chapter and verse, with missionary zeal). And a rotating stock of Hardy Boys adventures, all of which seem to feature deep-sea diving, a fast car, a lighthouse, a treasure left by an old pirate or ancient Pharaoh (or both), and a posse of brutal ruffians with suspiciously foreign accents -- not to mention the reliably butch Frank and Joe, and the obligatory comical over-eating scene starring that lovable third nostril, Chet.

On the one hand I strive to introduce more literary fruit and veg into his starchy white-bread book diet - tips appreciated. And on the other, I know it's never too soon to discover the carbo-comfort of genre fiction, the bread and butter of the reading life, of which there is, thankfully, a whole range to explore across a lifetime. One man's Hardy Boy is another's Holmes. Onward and upward with the literary arts!

At the younger end of the scale, we are getting some giggles out of a new series by Mo Willems. I can take or leave that wiseacre pigeon with the thing about buses, but the conversations between Elephant and Piggie are pure Bluebottle and Eccles.

We also loved Lydia Monks’ Aaaarrgghh, Spider! and Eeeek, Mouse! (not to be confused with this guy). And Tiddler, the latest fishy tale by Julia “Gruffalo” Donaldson, jingles along with meter and rhyme that would turn Kipling viridian with envy.

Books, Interrupted Oh, the shame! Over the summer, on my first week in England, I rushed to buy A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I fondled them lovingly, feasted my eyes on the exquisite book design -- and then got no further than the first chapter of either. Of course, Things Happened, and big books felt beyond me for a bit. But I will get back to them over the break.

You know I reviewed and liked Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs. Another a book I reviewed and liked, although the review never ran in the end, was The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. It's not perfect, but it is perfect for those whose guilty pleasure it is to read Harry Potter under the covers.

Quentin Coldwater (chimes with Holden Caulfield) is a high school senior, brilliant, mildly disgruntled, overly entitled. He’s going through the motions of applying to all the top universities -- oh, the drama of the gifted child! -- when without warning he is whisked sideways into a university for young wizards, cleverly hidden away in upstate New York.

The audition scene, in which Quentin discovers to his own surprise that card tricks are the least of his talents, will ring true to any smart kid who cruised through school only to discover a whole new mental gear at university. Quentin's finally among his peers, and from that point on, every little thing he does is magic. Literally.

The chapters about Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy read like Hogwarts Revisited, only with American kids and fewer teddy bears. Four years whiz past in an intoxicating blur: bright college days of eye-opening classes taught by eccentric professors, and, even more exciting, dark college nights of cramming, crushes, and cocktails.

Then the novel darkens as our hero and his motley breakfast club of magic pals graduate into the, shall we say, “real world,” where they settle into Friends-style communal living and seek fulfilling outlets for their wizardly talents, settling for the Peace Corps or management consulting. It becomes steadily clearer that Quentin is kind of a dick, which I suspect is partly Grossman’s point. Magic (or higher education) doesn’t make you more lovable, or better, or more handsome, or indeed any smarter than you were to begin with. Take that, Harry!

And then the unreal world obtrudes again: this time, in the form of a Narnia-like series of books -- obsessively loved by Quentin and his classmates -- set in an imagined land called Fillory. Which turns out not to be fictional at all. In the final third of the novel we're dragged off again across the magic chessboard into another dimension, where things get very weird and very real, very fast. One minute you're chortling at the talking bear who witters on about varieties of honey and his inferiority complex vis-a-vis grizzlies; the next minute bloody havoc breaks out all over, in a battle of good vs evil, or something like that, with a very unlikely villain.

Sure, the book is too long by a quarter and the characters often grate, but the degree of imagination Grossman has poured into this book, combined with his often prestidigitatorial prose, makes for a bewitching read.

Poem of the Year For me, anyway: John Updike’s Perfection Wasted, as read in the Papatoetoe Cemetery. Re-reading it now, I see the winking cynicism and love-me artfulness that was Updike's stock-in-trade, but reading it then, it conveyed its basic message awfully well.

Phew, So It’s Not Just Me Discovering, in the Listener’s Best Books issue, that C.K. Stead doesn’t keep a list of what he’s read, either. Do you? I feel as though I should.

Literature Enlarges the World The silver lining of my latest bumpy adventure in book reviewing was the many intriguing correspondences with many lovely people -- and the offers of editing work -- that sprang from it. Likewise, the way a discussion thread takes off around here when someone mentions something they've just read is like a hot air balloon of the heart. Dear readers, what readers you are: I salute you.

Discoveries included Bookiemonster’s blog, which I admire for its catholic tastes, endless enthusiasm and generous wit, and incredibly frequent updates.

And from the “don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” department: Simon Mayo’s books podcast from BBC5 Live, the last session of which ran this week. For the last several months it's kept me company and cheered me up as I walk the streets. It’s like the dream book group in your head: a couple of nervous but willing authors, three or four fierce but kind reviewers, and a gentle and literate host who keeps them more or less on track as they review the books of the week, beginning with the cover and working their way in. I’m not sure what will spring up to replace it, but I know I'll miss it in its original form.

Hmmm... Public Address Radio Books?

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