Sunday, 1 March 2015

Leaving Before The Rains Come

I don’t often get to listen to Radio 4's Book of the Week because of work but I took leave a couple of weeks ago which happily coincided with some bright sunshine and the serialisation of Alexandra Fuller’s new memoir Leaving Before The Rains Come. You may remember the first memoir of her African childhood Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and the second volume Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness in which Fuller is unsentimental about coming of age in a family of white settlers in war-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in the seventies.  This book examines what happens after she met Charlie, an American running a safari company in Zambia.

Leaving Before the Rains Come is like catching up with old friends - Bobo (Alexandra) her sister Van (face-of-the-eighties), their mother (Nicola Fuller of Central Africa), stoical father Tim and mildly stoned cook, Adamson, are all here.  Fuller is brilliant at conveying the beauty and stupefying heat of the landscape.  Living with Charlie and their first baby, Sarah, in a cottage on the banks of the Zambezi river she has to purchase a 'wearable mosquito net cloud' and nurse the baby under it because of an outbreak of yellow fever.  When the heat becomes unbearable in February she moves the bed out onto the veranda:
And, lying under the mosquito net with my child and my husband next to me, listening to the shouting hippos, the pulsing night insects, the shrieking bush babies, I fell deeply back in love with the land of my childhood.
 It is when they decide to move to Wyoming, that illness, debt, pressures of work and an accident take their toll on the marriage and Fuller struggles to reconcile her hardy South African self with risk-averse American middle-class life.  However, the memoir really gets into its stride during her Wyoming years and Charlie's family are charming with an intriguing history. 

In an interview Louise Erdrich once said ‘To be mixed blood is a great gift for a writer. I have one foot on tribal lands and one foot in middle-class life.'  Fuller's conflict has made for a poignant and highly-readable memoir.

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Road to Middlemarch

I've read two charming biblio-memoirs this year.  The first was Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year and I've just finished Rebecca Mead's The Road to Middlemarch.  Mead is a New York based journalist who has read and re-read George Eliot's Middlemarch and found it resonates at different times in her life. She writes of her English childhood by the seaside, her academic years at Oxford , marriage and motherhood with Middlemarch providing a reliable source of sustenance through life's successes and failures. 

Mead is a perceptive literary critic and there is some delicious detail about the life of George Eliot in this memoir.  I didn't know that Eliot re-read all of Jane Austen's novels before embarking on Middlemarch which may account for the comic skewed dialogue between Dorothea and her sister Celia, particularly Celia's horror that her earnest and beautiful sister is going to marry the 'dried up husk' of an academic Casaubon who has reached the advanced age of fifty.  (Eliot was 52 when she wrote Middlemarch!) Best of all this book will make you want to re-discover George Eliot.

I'll wish you all a happy New Year and leave you with a lovely snowy quote from The Mill on the Floss:
Snow lay on the croft and river-bank in undulations softer than the limbs of infancy; it lay with the neatliest finished border on every sloping roof, making the dark-red gables stand out with a new depth of colour;  it weighed heavily on the laurels and fir-trees till it fell from them with a shuddering sound ...  The Mill on the Floss, 1860, George Eliot

Friday, 28 November 2014


Have you caught Ferrante fever yet? No, me neither. Until last week that is when I was wandering around Waterstones on my everlasting search for well-written contemporary fiction with my birthday book tokens burning a hole in my pocket. I picked up Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend initially attracted by the cover and one of the ladies working in the store highly recommended it and told me a little about #ferrantefever. Elena Ferrante’s three novels, known as the Neapolitan trilogy are becoming something of a literary sensation, partly because they are so readable and partly because the identity of the author is a mystery. I started reading My Brilliant Friend last Friday night and then couldn’t put it down all week.
It’s a coming of age story about the friendship between Lila and Elena which begins when they are eight or nine growing up in a small village in Naples during the 1950's. Their friendship is intense and competitive and life among the poor working classes in their village is pretty brutal. There is a lovely account of the day they decide to skip school and leave their village for the first time to walk to the Napoli coast near Vesuvius. They confidently set out with no concept of time or distance and soon are hungry, tired and wary of a violet light in the sky indicating an impending thunderstorm. When they turn back Elena’s mother has gone to the school to meet her holding an umbrella to shelter her from the rain. When she discovers Elena has lied her mother whacks her with the umbrella while Lila’s parents don’t even notice she has gone! Some readers have found the harsh realism in this novel a little excessive but I prefer to read about life as it is rather than ‘cosy' fiction.
My Brilliant Friend reminded me a little of Lorrie Moore’s Who will Run the Frog Hospital? a highly readable novel which leaves you wondering how much is fiction and how much is memoir.  I’ve already started the second volume The Story of a New Name and I'm going to save the third volume Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay for my Christmas read.  There is more about Elena Ferrante here and here, but I warn you #ferrantefever is infectious!

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Return to Gilead

Prairie had come into the fields and the orchards again and there were sunflowers growing in the road between the ruts. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Look forward to hearing Marilynne Robinson talk about her new novel Lila at the Sheldonian in Oxford next month. If any book bloggers are going do let me know and maybe we can meet for a coffee - or something stronger! Lila is the third of three novels set in Gilead a fictional small town in Iowa. Each novel beautifully evokes the light, the trees, the flat landscape and the flora 'bee balm and coneflower and bachelor’s button and sweet pea.’

In Gilead the first novel the narrative is relayed in the form of a letter from minister, John Ames, to his young son to be read after his death. He writes of his cantankerous grandfather, also a minister who was active in the Civil War, his life with his wife, young son and family cat, Soapy, and his fears that he will soon die and leave them. He also writes of his struggle as a Christian to contain his dislike for the troubled son of his friend who resurfaces after twenty years and causes ripples of unease.
A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time can destroy more than you would imagine. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
There is a gentle homespun humour in Gilead. When John Ames’ mother consults a home health care manual advising people not to read when their feet are cold his grandfather replies that if you couldn’t read with cold feet their wouldn’t be a literate soul in the state of Maine!
Lila the new novel is dedicated to Iowa and gives us the story of Lila’s life. From Gilead we know that she is the second wife of minister John Ames and mother to his young son. We know that John Ames fell in love with her after she wandered into his church from the rain. We also know that she is much younger than her husband and deeply self-conscious about her lack of education.
As a child just before Great Depression she is unwanted and abused. Flea-ridden and filthy she is taken from her home by a drifter called Doll who nurses her back to health and names her Lila. The two of them join a band of migrant workers moving through towns and villages, finding work where they can and sleeping under the stars with the Dust Bowl storms making it hard to survive. We know little about Doll other than that she has a scarred face, a knife for protection and she adores Lila. When Doll finally needs to use the knife she has to disappear and Lila is forced to join a brothel. Unable to stand working there she hitches a ride to Gilead.
It’s a beautiful novel. I’m hoping there may be more novels from Gilead, particularly the back story of Glory, daughter of John Ames’ friend Boughton and one of my favourite characters in the trilogy.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Greek slant

I loved The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s novel about a group of classics students who take their lessons in antiquity a little too far. I read an interview with Tartt where she recommended Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles so I’ve been sitting in the garden in the last of the summer sunshine completely absorbed in this novel.

It’s the story of the love affair between Achilles and Patroclus, boyhood friends who train under the centaur Chiron and then fight in the Trojan wars. Achilles is the son of the sea goddess Thetis who is a terrifying character with an extreme aversion to Patroclus:

'She was taller than I was, taller than any woman I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as it if drank light from the moon. She was so close I could smell her, sea water laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe.. I did not dare.'

The novel is narrated by Patroclus in simple language but it’s a thrilling page-turner so descriptive you can almost see the blue Aegean sea. My knowledge of Greek mythology is patchy to say the least so the sacrifice of the young bride Iphigenia came as a shock and the great river god Scamander rising from Troy’s creamy gold river covered in weeds with water pouring off his back to block Achilles from crossing was brilliantly written.
I also very much enjoyed The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes. It’s the story of Alex, a young woman who has lost her finance in tragic circumstances which gradually emerge as the novel progresses. To ease her grief her kindly former lecturer offers her a job teaching drama therapy to a small group of troubled teenagers who have been excluded from mainstream school because of their behaviour.
Alex is fond of Greek tragedy and introduces the students to the plays Oedipus, Alcestis and the Oresteia. Unfortunately, one the students develops an obsession with Alex and starts to enact a revenge tragedy of her own. To mirror this theme the novel is told in five acts. It’s beautifully written, dark and thrilling and you can’t help smiling at the repartee of the students who may have challenging behaviour but they are as sharp as tacks.
Some new literary fiction to look forward to this month - Outline by Rachel Cusk and Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Let’s hope the September sunshine continues a little longer for us all!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

My Salinger Year

This charming memoir begins with scenes of literary young women, dressed in a style ‘redolant of Sylvia Plath at Smith’ catching the morning train from Brooklyn, Queens, to their jobs in agencies or publishing houses. Most are secretaries or assistants, keen to work in close proximity to writers and editors and many are secretly writing novels or poetry of their own.

The agency which employs Joanna Rakoff has the elusive J D Salinger as its most famous client and she is under strict instructions that on the rare occasions he may call she must never engage in conversation with him, tell him how much she admires his work or - worst of all - share her own writing ambitions with him.  

The memoir is brilliant on the rhythms and routines of work. The agency still uses typewriters and all the letters are painstakingly transcribed from ancient tape recorders and typed on thick creamy paper with sheets of carbon beneath. The boss lives on her fading reputation and refuses to drag the agency into the 21st century, thus constantly losing clients. Although the novel is set in 1997 the long-serving staff evoke a glamorous era of Dorothy Parker quips, martini-soaked lunches and little black shift dresses. Only the long-suffering James tries to modernise the agency and has the temerity to introduce a computer into the office.
There are lots of fascinating little details about J D Salinger. For example, he banned the use of images on his book covers, stipulating just text so that readers would come to the work free of pre-conceptions. He also refused to receive or read his fan mail so Rakoff is supposed to read all of his letters and send a standard response, but she finds it impossible not to try to introduce some empathy and warmth into the responses.
It's also a memoir about a young woman making her way in New York.  Rakoff’s low pay and impoverished state means she has to consider carefully whether she can afford to grab lunch or coffee at the Polish bakery or the Greek deli or just go without.  She lives with her difficult boyfriend in a flat which can only be heated by putting on the oven and leaving the door open.
I would highly recommend this memoir, it’s warm and gossipy and literary but never unkind. Best of all, it has made me re-read Salinger. I loved The Catcher in the Rye when I was seventeen and I was worried that a story of teenage alienation wouldn't mean the same so many years later.  I picked up a copy at the weekend (interesting that Waterstones have suddenly re-stocked it) and haven't been able to put it down.  Franny and Zooey next, anyone read it?

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Lorrie Moore in London

She knew there were only small joys in life - the big ones were too complicated to be joys when you got all through. Lorrie Moore, Like Life
I went to London with my daughter Kate last month to see Lorrie Moore at the South Bank Centre. Although the weather was not warm there was a summery magic to the evening.  I was impressed with Blackfriars station and its view of the London skyline.  The Thames was gloriously grey and rolling and I finally managed to locate the South Bank's open air book market. 

Lorrie Moore read from Bark her new collection of short stories.  Her deadpan delivery of her story Thank You For Having Me which begins with musings on the death of Michael Jackson and moves on to a wedding where the bridesmaid dresses are described as 'one the light peach of baby aspirin, one the sea-foam green of low-dose clonazepam, the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam ' had the whole audience laughing.  The humour is black but also somehow liberating.

When asked for advice by aspiring writers in the audience she recommended to be in it for the long haul, to read and write what you love and to have separate work to make money so that you can be kind to your writing.  She also spoke about a story she'd written called You're Ugly, Too which attracted a lot of attention and has been much anthologised from her Like Life collection

You're Ugly, Too is indeed a remarkable story but I would highly recommend Joy from the same collection.   It's a story about a woman called Jane who loves to sing and works on a cheese counter in the local mall spreading the crackers with samples for customers to taste.  She takes her cat Fluffers to the vet and meets some tiny children with their cat Gooby.  It's funny and sweet and sad.

I don't think I'm going to get a break from work until at least September so I'm having a little summer staycation in the garden with some Lorrie Moore short story collections - Birds of America, Like Life, Bark and a re-read of Self-Help.  I've also just read her wonderful coming of age novella Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?

Have you read Lorrie Moore?