Memoir: Ghost in the Bone by Penny Bunton – A remarkable tour de force

Ghost in the Bone - Penny Bunton

Confession, reflection, defence, distortion and misdirection, catharsis from pain, reliving joy, a chance for cold revenge on one’s enemies, rediscovering ourselves through our past,  or simply to set the story straight from yours, truly: These and many more are reasons to write a memoir.

Besides, we’re an insatiably curious and reflective species: Basho, the 17th-Century Haiku poet and traveller, wrote:

It is deep autumn

My neighbour

How does he live, I wonder.

I admit freely that I wonder, too. And more: I wonder, of others, what that argument was about, and what made the person behave like that, and who did what to make the child such a monstrous adult.

Hell, if I could only – and invisibly – peer over my garden fence into the neighbours’ backyard during summer time while they all chinwag, or magically appear at their childhood home or even those of perfect strangers (besides those whom are famous), and take notes unhindered of family gatherings and private thoughts and conversations.

But since I’m not the sort to shamelessly – what a shame, what a loss! – to listen in, nor – god forbid – to jam my ear lustily onto a down-turned glass – itself jammed up against the wall dividing my neighbour from my curious self – instead, I’m sure I must – at least in part – be overly compensating by reading and joyfully amassing oodles of published memoirs, journals and diaries, personal correspondence and biographies.

Not only, of course, has the memoir long been published – how could I not reference Augustine’s astonishing Confessions, of the 4th-century AD – it has also long been read. In fact, they sell in their millions: we buy them by the juggernaut-load – and, throughout the 1990s to date, they have remained one of the biggest selling categories of book, with publishers and us readers never seeming to get enough of them. Remember the appetite for Angela’s Ashes; A Child Called “It”; Night; Dreams of My Father; Thinking in Pictures; Me Talk Pretty One Day; Eat, Pray, Love; Prozac Nation; Girl, Interrupted; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Lucky; Chronicles: Volume One? No doubt each of you recall many others, including those of your personal favourites.

Besides the endless avalanche of memoir published by celebrities, actors, designers, artists, politicians and leaders past and present, fashionistas, scientists, has-beens and wanna-bees – most of the aforementioned, sadly, written by ghost writers – there are also those written by unknowns or relative unknowns: that is, often until they publish their story and we few or many are given the opportunity to delve into their past with them, simply by opening the covers of a book.

And now we have Ghost in the Bone, by Penny Bunton (UK paperback and Kindle edition here, and the US Kindle only edition here). It’s the memoir of an “unknown” – though in fact you may well have seen the author any number of times on screen or in a TV drama and simply not known her, as she’s been an actress in supporting roles for decades, including RED 2 (2013), The Murder of Princess Diana (2007) and the long-running British TV serial hit, Medics (1990).

While I must have read hundreds of memoirs over the years, some famous and some less well-known, Ghost has already become one of my favourites and, having read it twice, I know without hesitation I’ll be reading it again. Why? Because this book is a tour de force. Not only is this the author’s first ever published book, but also in one swoop she has mastered the art of the memoir, which is such a difficult and challenging form of writing.

After all, if you were to write one, just consider the overwhelming choices you’d have to make: which memories do you include and which should you leave out? Should your story be episodic, thematic, or only chronological? What of those many moments of guilt, of embarrassment, of intimacy, anger or failure? How much do you reveal about your relationships with lovers, friends, family, professional colleagues, your own thoughts and feelings about them, and what of the anxiety about how they’ll react on reading it?

I imagine all these and more as obstacles and the struggle with myself to attempt to account for them, but soon give up even in my imagination, because I feel friends, family and my past breathing down my neck, peering over my shoulder as I struggle with the conflict between telling my version of the truth and being reasonable to the outside world, yet wanting to spill my guts and blood and tears over all my pages, come what may. Yet my significant others look over my shoulder still and at what I’m typing on my screen. I hear them tutting, muttering, twittering, derisively sniffing and roaring with laughter – all in the wrong places, mind. And didn’t I just hear eyeballs rolling in the back of their heads, too? So for these reasons and more (a lack of courage, a lack of perspective), I don’t think I’ll ever write my memoir.

My hats off, then, and most of my head in joyful obeisance to those who not only have written their memoirs, but who have also, like Penny, been gifted enough as writers to produce something remarkable, too.

It’s the story of a little girl told at the awfully tender age of two by her Dickensian character of a mother – of whom, more in a mo – that, before she was born, she “grew in another lady’s tummy. When you came out, you were kept in a special home with lots of other babies […] It doesn’t mean we love you any the less; we love you just the same. Because we chose you.”

As an adult looking back at this scene, she writes:

In that instant, my heart became a piece of jigsaw, with a hole in one side and a rounded bud looking for another hole on the other. In the space of those few minutes, the state of anomalousness in which I lived had been revealed to me, and I embraced my status as though granted the key to grace. The knowledge was an escape, an exculpation, a release. I had been as it were given back to myself – and to my mother. My blood mother.

This is the story not only of the impact of the life of one individual who has been adopted, but also the psychological duress she endures growing up in an emotionally sterile house through which “there ran beneath the surface activity a current of unspoken thought, of covert observation and singular psychic combat.”

We learn of the emotional abuse inflicted on her by Helen, her adoptive mother, whose almost unceasing mood swings, occasional histrionics, calculating looks and sociopathic indifference to Penny, besides her cruel remarks and actions, make everybody tip toe around her in nervous fear. Here’s Helen for you, then:

My mother took to being an invalid. On the excuse of […] a history of weakness in her chest (one always knew where she was in the house by the boom of her catarrhal cough), my mother retired to the sofa and to her bed, and ruled the house from a horizontal position. Every exertion required a corresponding amount of ‘rest’: after cooking, marking exams or homework [she’s a teacher of physics at a training college], after going for a walk, carrying a vase from one room to another or brushing the dog my mother would feel the need to ‘put her feet up’, and off she would limp to an appropriate horizontal surface. We were required to creep about and keep quiet while her eyes were closed.

And, when her adoptive parents permanently separate, her father John soon living with another woman and in the proceeds of a divorce, mother remains hungry to devour news of her ex, sinking her teeth into Penny’s neck for the nourishment:

Back in the chilly Cambridge house, greedy for pictures of the alternate ménage from which to torment herself, my mother picked at my experience of my father’s life much as a child will a scab on its knee. Often a sore was exposed, and she would lick at the blood. What did we eat for dinner? How often did we have steak, would I say?: three times a week? More?

(Note: steak to Helen was an outrageous extravagance she could never tolerate, being so tight-fisted and miserly – she keeps unwanted gifts over the years in a “Present Drawer”, parcelling them up anew for everybody else, including many joyless ones for her own children up to, and including, their adult years.)

Her adoptive mother’s miserliness is also only the surface residue of a deeper, almost savage cruelty that lurks below and appears with such insouciance. Explaining the reason for the ungraciously tiny amount of money Helen is to leave Penny in her will, Helen has this to say:

‘Because you haven’t been a very good daughter. I think that’s fair enough, don’t you?’

A fretsaw wheels in the corner of my eye. I feel dizzy.

‘I don’t know, Mummy,’ I say. ‘Do you really want me to answer that?’

‘Yes,’ she says, with decision. ‘Why not?’

Yet Penny manages to give a marvellous, brightly defiant response that must have been so hard to say with a beating heart and ears still ringing from being battered by words of such coldblooded indifference:

‘Well, if you’re asking me whether or not I think it’s fair that you do what you wish with your own money, then the answer to that is yes. If you’re asking me whether or not I think it fair that you are leaving me a smaller portion because you think I haven’t been a very good daughter, then the answer is no. I don’t, for instance, think that you’ve been a very good parent.’

‘Is that so?’ she says, surprised; and then, as though she found this of academic interest: ‘When do you mean? Now? Or then?’

‘Well – both,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ she says. She might have been told that no post had come today. [My italics.]

But this is not a relentless “misery” memoir of those childhood years, despite the fact her “mother’s unhappiness was a net that she threw over everyone […]”.

In fact, there is more pensive reflection and sadness and rarely a note of anger, nor an ounce of revenge, even though you feel Penny would have been more than justified in expressing rage and moving across the page of her memoir-writing with a daggerly pen. Instead, and throughout the memoir, it is clear how much she loves all of her adoptive family – and this, despite their many wrongs against her. Rather, she is one to pull no punches on her own account, despite you feeling she deserves to be so much kinder to herself, she doesn’t hesitate to be unswervingly self-critical:

Facing my mother is ordeal enough, without facing my brother, too. I will lose my breath, I will drown in my guilt and my shoulders will snap like twigs. I know that were we to meet, my brother and I, he would look down pleasantly on my face, would surprise me with his mildness of manner […] so what am I frightened of? The inarticulate weight of our history, the dark lane between us in which our parents war and walk; my own frailties and failures, my stupidities and fecklessness – my brother is a mirror of all these things. I have bewildered him with my difference, and he has taken it in as betrayal.

Now I do feel the need to hasten and reassure you it is far from all doom, gloom and shocks in the tradition of Mommie Dearest. When you turn the pages you find there are many moments in this memoir that express genuine happiness in her young life and, among those she loved were her father, John, who in turn loved her so as a child:

[…]When my father came home, the air moved. He opened the front door on a Friday night and my heart along with it, bringing with him life from Outside, a small breeze that blew all weekend-long, and which was shut off as he pulled the door to on his way out on a Sunday evening. After that, until the following Friday, the au pair and I were sealed in with my mother.

And, whenever there are good times to be experienced among her growing pains, the author relishes them, never hesitating to be appreciative of them and to portray lovingly those whom are good, kind or just plain delightful to remember.

Take two of her childhood friends, Mary:

Mary kept hamsters – a source of great envy […]. In fact, the appearance of either of the younger brothers would prompt her immediately to say, in her quick, energetic way, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here; and out she would flounce, leaving me to follow on like an apprentice geisha. Mary was a sly, practical child, her thoughts always a hundred moves ahead of my own, which churned slowly like cake dough in a mixer.

…and Kirsten:

The other spectacular thing I would discover about Kirsten [her Canadian cousin] was her temper. It was no mean thing. When seized with a fit, her voice would warble up to soprano heights, her nose would go red, and complaint was often accompanied by the stamping of a foot – even both feet. These tempests were aw-inspiring. Shocking, thrilling. I admired them tremendously. I admired her tremendously: at six years old, she struck me as a person fully formed: commanding, imperious, funny, dear. She was by quite some margin the most interesting person I had ever met. And her voice (due to a host of household allergies […]) had a hoarseness to it that distinguished her. If a lamb could talk, it would sound as Kirsten did at six years old.

She’s no less marvellous, too, at capturing adults:

Her nose was prominent, her skin sallow, and she possessed a particular voice, thin, slightly broken, like a tricking tap. Her natural expression was that of a person whose thoughts are sad and far away. Mrs Anderson was a beautiful woman.

On Brenda, her elderly stepmother (the second wife of Penny’s adoptive father):

Bathed in the orange light of the close-curtained room she lay in the vast white bed, a tiny frail immobile creature, the suggestion, only, of a body beneath the thin cotton sheet […] The once strong mane of hair was thin and puffy now, the blonde reduced to smoke. A pinprick of red, showed at her temple, and above the knobbly protuberances of her cheekbones her small eyes shone black with her anger. She was very, very angry.

And she’s just as good at quiet, sweet-and-sour comedy drawn from her observations of those around her: Of being in Palm Springs, she writes of a fleeting moment that most memoirists would most likely have overlooked, but thankfully Penny is a true writer, so doesn’t:

At breakfast, from the cool interior of the brasserie we have chosen, I gaze through the window at the palm trees plugged into the sidewalk at intervals of about ten feet. These have great hives of old leafage around their trunks: apparently all sorts of things make their homes inside – even rats. Not that I’ve seen anything either entering or exiting – not even a bird. Hopeful of seeing a rat, I have been looking carefully.

I become aware of a man and woman at the table next to ours. Sotto voce I say to Andrew:

‘I wonder if they live here, or whether they’re on holiday.’

The woman is English, but dressed in sporty American style: white trousers, crisp white shirt, wedge trainers, the uppers made of some sort of quilted material. An expensive pair of sunglasses sits on her cleavage, attached to a gold chain.

‘You never support me,’ she is saying to the man. ‘I sit there, saying what you ought to be saying, while you say nothing.’ Her energy is enthralling: it is concentrated, utter, directed. It is only seven o’clock in the morning.

The man is looking out of the sheet glass window, probably waiting for a rat to pop its head out of the palm tree. […]

                ‘Are you listening to me? Why don’t you respond when I’m speaking to you?’

The man does not take his eyes from the palm tree. Maybe he’s seen the rat and I’ve missed it.

Dear reader, I confess I laughed my tits off at that passage, and re-read it immediately and several times with much joy, in awe of the sheer control, and the delicate observation of what was obviously a tense, difficult moment between a couple in public, while admiring the brilliant seam of humour that cheekily shines through it and makes of the piece something both sad and joyfully funny at the same time.

I’m sorry-not-sorry for quoting so much from her memoir, but I do so in large part because I wish to convey to you the sheer excellence and vividness of her writing, of how wondrous she is at capturing people as well as the turbulence and see-saw of her significant experiences, from her first boyfriend to the loss of her adoptive father, adoptive mother, and the journey you take with her from her childhood of the 1960s (she was born in 1961), in middle-class but stultifying Cambridge, to the 70s, of two glorious holidays in Vancouver with her adoptive father’s brother and his own family, with a fast-forward-and-back to an astonishing account of her attempts in the millennium years to connect with her birth mother, much of which is nerve-wracking yet utterly gripping to read.

Allow me to quote one last time for you and to remark on it further. This, on Brenda, again:

[She] died three years after my father, in December 2009, a cramped wizened bird of a being, thin-skinned, twig-fingered, possessed of an enormous appetite for scones, which I fed to her in tiny bite-size pieces, laden with jam and cream. She ate with astonishing zeal, chewing with her mouth open. This was not, as might be imagined, a function of advanced decrepitude, but a life-long habit. Surprising in one for whom extreme femininity had been a calling card.

Isn’t that simply astonishingly good writing? It would be perfectly at home in the fiction of Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Anne Porter, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, and echoes the steely intelligence and driest of wit of the brilliant but neglected Ivy Compton-Burnett.

It’s probably obvious to you by now that I found no imperfections in the writing. But while this is not a criticism, in terms of story I do admit to wanting to know all about a vast swathe of her life that Penny doesn’t touch on at all: of her studies and time at Oxford University (her adoptive parents seemed to believe not a jot in her intelligence or talent; and neither, sadly, did she when growing up), and, too, her no-doubt many adventures as an actress in her adult years (albeit we do have a fleeting glimpse in her late teens of a friendship with Colin Firth during a brief spell at the National Youth Theatre).

On every page, you’ll find time and again there’s always something to bookmark, underline or note in your journal, and to share with your bookloving friends. It is a memoir of writing so touching, moving and funny, so gentle and loving and thoughtful, it is literature of the first rank. It deserves to win prestigious nonfiction awards and those for first-time published authors. It deserves them all, and then some.

If you are a true booklover, you know well the excitement felt when you’ve read something wonderful and excitedly wish to press a copy on every friend you know who also loves literature. And, if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you may access it for free straightaway – lucky dog, you! The physical copy is a lovely edition, with a beautiful cover, and the price to purchase a copy is generously low. I would love to know if you read it, and your thoughts. Do drop me a quick comment, below, or at the least, anyway, do please promise yourself that you’ll look out for a copy and add it to your list of books to read next…

A final thought: one of the telling signatures of a great book is that, as a reader, you want more and don’t wish it to end, anticipating the sadness and disappointment of reaching the final page; the rush to the first page, again, to re-read it straightaway. So, I do hope the author will return at some point with another memoir, to reflect on those other times, too. I’ve no doubt, based on this book, how captivating it would be. But then, whatever she may write, the same confidence in it would be justified, because Penny Bunton is the real deal: a gifted, funny, sad, moving, thoughtful writer.

Curiouser and Curiouser: My Favorite Alices – Post by Christina Henry, bestselling novelist

Blogging/editorial note from bobbygw: In celebration of the UK publication of Alice by bestselling novelist Christina Henry  (also author of the highly successful Black Wings trilogy, comprising Black Spring, Black Heart, Black City), this post is by her as part of her blog tour series to promote this great novel. There’s more info about her entertaining tour at the end of this post, so you can read all her posts in the series at your leisure. Note: Titan Books publish Red Queen, the sequel to Alice, on July 12 2016 in paperback and ebook editions.

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One of the most influential fantasy stories of all time is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’ve written before that Alice and her story have become embedded in our cultural memory in such a way that even people who’ve never read the original story feel as though they must have.

Alice’s story is so iconic and has such a fairy-tale-like, almost mythical quality that many filmmakers and authors (including myself) have dipped into that sandbox to create our own Wonderlands (or in my case, more of a Nightmareland) and shape our own versions of Alice.

There have been lots of direct interpretations of the story, and I love many of them, but I’m especially interested in the stories that have Alice’s DNA without being specifically Alice stories. After all, any story that has a hole for the hero/heroine to fall through or a magical door to another world owes a debt to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Here are my four favorite Alices (and almost Alices):

4) Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland film – This is the first version of the story that I remember seeing, and it remains one of the most enduring for me.  The Cheshire Cat, in particular, becomes much more whimsical and charming in this version. In the book I always felt he just enjoyed thwarting Alice, but his mischievous expressions in the film mitigate that to some degree.

3) C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Supernatural passageway to another world? Check. Young heroine who discovers a magical world and creatures and accepts them in a matter-of-fact way? Check. Much is made of both the Christian allegory and epic fantasy elements of this story, but at its heart this book is Lucy’s Adventures in Narnia.

2) Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – Here Alice is called Coraline, and the passage she goes through brings her to a place that seems wonderful at first but quickly turns dark and frightening. There’s even a black cat whose helpful unhelpfulness rivals the Cheshire’s.

1) Angela Carter’s “Wolf-Alice” from The Bloody Chamber and Other StoriesThis story has a loose tie to Through the Looking Glass and also to a version of Little Red Riding Hood. I adore Angela Carter and the way she interpreted the darkness in well-known fairy tales. In this story Alice becomes a self-aware adult, which is a theme that runs underneath the Carroll stories – all along Alice is becoming less childlike, more grownup.

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More about Christina Henry’s wonderful blog tour:

 

Alice Blog Tour Banner#2
Welcome to Nightmareland: A blog tour with Christina Henry, author of Alice and Red Queen

 

 

Trump Chicken: A Grotesque Tale

 

Trump Chicken - A Grotesque Tale by bobbygw - book cover
A grotesque – or monstrous? – 99 cents or equivalent from Amazon

Dear Reader

When Donald Trump flounced onto the American political stage, with his usual gaseous blatherings and foul mouth, I wondered to myself whether we had entered the beginning of the end of times.

Let’s hope not. After all, we have enough problems to deal with, thanks to life’s bountiful and glorious pageant.

In the meantime if, like me, you have experienced one or more emotions of shock, depression, dumbfoundment, apoplexy and hysterial laughter about the ascendancy of The Donald and his shenanigans―then I think my new tall tale may be the restorative respite you have been searching for.

If you relish satire and a dash of gonzo storytelling, then I hope you’ll find this story is just your cup of tea―as we (sadly) don’t often say nowadays in merry ol England (which never existed, worst luck).

Feeling adventurous? Oh, go on, my lovely! Here’s a free taster of Trump Chicken: A Grotesque Tale.

As always, please know that I’d be deliriously happy and foaming at the apertures―euwh, I know―to send you a free Kindle edition or PDF of the complete story for you to read, if you wouldn’t mind possibly, ever-so-slightly-considering writing a review of it.

But fair warning, good folk: those with delicate stomachs, nervous dispositions, a tendency to the right wing of society, the rich―well, this monstrous imagining ain’t for you, and I apologise for any offence I may have caused by my presumptuous outrageousness in criticising The Man with that Hair.

Cheers and thank you for reading. Holler me with comments or feedback. I’ll always respond.

Muchos muchos

bobbygw

Divine Waters: Role Models by John Waters

I’m soon going to be reviewing marvelous Mr Waters’ latest book so, in his honour, here’s my appreciation of his last essay collection.

bobbygw

Click image to buy the paperback with free delivery worldwide

John Waters is arguably America’s most wonderful, funny, quirky and clever cult film director — after all, who can forget, once seen, the marvels of‘the movie Pink Flamingosand Female Trouble and the amazing Divine!? — and, for those who aren’t already fans of his journalism as well, John Waters is a gifted writer with a grace and tone as smooth as silk: this is demonstrated abundantly in Role Models, his latest collection of journalism/essays. You can hear his voice as he reflects, shares, meditates and wryly comments on a lot of topics, from modern artists to neglected novelists, fashion designers to murderers, singers to fantasy, collecting and much more. He’s widely read and, inevitably I think, his own cultural interests are equally wide-ranging; unsurprisingly, too, the essays are all reflective of his quirky, distinctive — and, I…

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For all aspiring writers out there

Peanuts cartoon - writing expectationsand, in the immortal words of Jason Nesmith of Galaxy Quest:

tim allen as jason nesmith in galaxy quest never give up never surrender.png

(OO-er bonus: If you click on the image, it’ll take you to a YouTube clip of the very quote.)

 

 

Be Gentle, Dear Reader: My First Public Short Story – Darker, Still

Darker, Still - cover Darker, Still is my first short story to go public. I’m hoping that, if you read it, you’ll be gentle in your criticism, dear reader (I know, I know: now, I’m asking for it – ahem). It’s a horror tale, with a dash of something else. Below is a blurb about it, followed by a brief excerpt for smacking your taste buds on.

If your madly generous heart and mind take an interest to read the entire story, I’ll happily send you a complimentary pdf copy for review. (You can read it for free on Kindle, but only if you have an Amazon Prime account.) Just leave a message in the Comments below, or zap me an email: bobby @ bobbygw .com and put the name of the story in the subject space, and I’ll get it right to you.

Heck, let’s go one step further (oh, yeh). If you possibly end up enjoying it enough to write a few words, or even a couple of sentences about it, on Amazon or Goodreads, then that’ll make me an eternally grateful happy bunny, and you an absolute bloody marvellous star. And if you read it and it’s not for you and your taste buds have gone to Accident & Emergency because they’ve experienced blunt-force trauma as a result, then know that you will be placed first in the queue to kick my bad-writing ass. But of course what really matters is your honest review.

How about this as a real thank you? In exchange for reading and reviewing it, I’ll even send you an original, handdrawn cartoon by yours truly. It is bound to be utterly juvenile and possibly Gonzo, and will be limited to the first 20 reviewers (yeh, right, you’re saying, as if I’m going to get that many), whether you like the story or not, godammit. (Of course, I’ll need your address, but I guarantee you 100% that it will never be used for any other communication from me or anyone else I know or don’t know, ever again, unless you masochistically insist.)

In the meantime, my apologies in advance if even the very idea of reading my story makes your eyes bleed and turns your lovely hairdo into a Donald Trump. On with the show.

Blurb

Darker, Still is the first horror story published by bobbygw. A tale of the unexpected, it plays with the ideas of the macabre. It speaks to our fear of darkness and the blackness of night, because when we are alone, in the dark, we all know it is then that things manifest from the void. If you find you’re too busy to find time to read a full-length horror story, but want to feel the fear in the time it takes to relax over a long, big cup of coffee, Darker, Still is just for you. Come on in, take the load off your feet and experience the darkness.

Excerpt: Opening lines

It is dark, but there is something darker in the room; darker, still, than the darkness which surrounds me in the night. It is here with me. It is waiting. I look across to it, but only and ever fleetingly. I am too afraid to look directly, to confront my fear with a gaze. I am too scared to stare. I am too fearful to look away for long.

My vision darts, flits through a line of sight, an arc that always, inevitably, comes to draw across the mass that is there. It is in one corner, a vague shape. It appears to be hulking over, hunched. Sometimes I think I see it move. Always, I think, it sits, crouches, it rests, knowingly. It is here for me or, rather, against. Sometimes, I hear what sounds like a rumbling; something deep-throated and rough. It is brief, as if an instant passing of a heavy-load truck, some distance away. But I feel the weight of it, still. Sometimes, it sounds like heavy air, pushing hard and thick through a tangle of wood and bush.

The sound of something low and limbed, pushing forward.

Agota Kristof’s Trilogy of Novels: Remarkable fiction on loss, identity and the traumatic impact of war

Agota Kristof - book cover for her trilogy of novelsWritten by an unreliable narrator, the first part of this trilogy, The Notebook, won two prestigious European literary awards and was Hungarian writer Agota Kristof’s debut novel, published when the author was 51. It is, along with The Proof and The Third Lie, astonishing and brilliantly written in the tone of a moral fable. All the novels use beautifully simple, even clinical, language, from a first person viewpoint. What’s remarkable about them is the pure clarity of voice and language and – most importantly – morals without sentimentality, and the rejection of conventional, socially conformist behaviour.

With the onslaught of WW2, in an unnamed Hungary, identical twin brothers C(K)laus and Lucas record an ‘objective’ narrative of each day or days of significance that each agrees must be dependent solely on fact. This means that the brothers destroy any daily account that reflects judgement, whether implied or explicit, whether emotional, moral or even tonal in the words they use.

Only once they approve the best version of the day’s events, do they commit one as the permanent record of that day, to be written up in the Notebook.

Their purity of purpose and determination to lead lives grounded in their own way, extends to them deciding to strip themselves of emotion as they learn to disregard and be invulnerable to the devastating consequences of war. They also choose to act on occasion in ways that threaten and harm those who harm others, and always based upon their own distinctive, yet always logical, moral code. As a metaphor for the impact of war on children it’s a powerful and compelling one.

The more you read, the more troubling the stories of each novel, yet the more enriched and nuanced the overall story becomes.

The novels don’t shy away from the impact of war, psychological, social or physical. Limbs and people destroyed, antisemitism wreaked, loved ones blown apart. Life goes on, but always the factual narrative strips life of value and meaning as the war dehumanises and devastates. While the brother(s) survive(s), it’s clear not in any meaningful way living. There’s no joy felt or shared, no relief described, no coming to terms. The tone becomes ever more despairing and melancholic, as WW2 transitions into what is clearly meant to be Russia’s occupation of the country.

To describe the plots would be to undermine the intensity of loss, sadness, disorientation and trauma of war inflicted upon the narrator(s). What matters most is the extraordinary perspective of the brothers/unreliable narrator. It’s a troubling, powerful, moving story, driven by conflict, often disturbed and disorientating. It never resolves, which, given the subject of war and loss, is surely a morally honest conclusion and one free from false sentiment. Utterly compelling (especially The Notebook), the trilogy is highly recommended for lovers of great, modernist literature.

Biography: Simone de Beauvoir by Ursula Tidd

book cover for Ursula Tidd's study of de BeauvoirI absolutely loved this study of one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant and famous women writers and activists. It is the single most trenchant and insightful of the intellectual biographical studies of de Beauvoir.

Nothing of value in de Beauvoir’s life is overlooked. Context and circumstances are fully considered and the widest range of resources and key relationships are thought through: the influence of her parents, sister, lovers, friends and, of course, Sartre. Besides which you’re made aware of her serious reading of intellectual writers and philosophers such as Levis-Strauss, Hegel, Heidegger, Aquinas, Marx, Husserl, Leibniz, Kant, and the existential phenomenologists. A lengthier work would of course have had the space to consider the reading she did for The Second Sex alone, that included hundreds of historians, anthropologists, biologists and sociologists, but this is meant to be a brief study and its success as such is not diminished by this.

Tidd also sheds light on some of the influences on her growing sense of intersectional feminism and the lesser known yet critical influences for her magnum opus on women, The Second Sex, by reference, for example, to her strong interest in Gunnar Myrdal’s classic 1944 study American Dilemma, on race in America.

She doesn’t shy away from the complex and often troubling relationship Beauvoir had with Sartre: namely the ways in which it was supportive of each other, while often exploiting the affection of other lovers and writing about them and betraying their lovers’ confidences to each other.

Importantly, she quotes well from all Beauvoir’s work, so you get to appreciate her strengths as a memoirist, diarist, philosopher, essayist and polemicist, novelist, travel and letter writer, feminist and political activist.

I’ve read the full-length biographies by Deirdre Blair and Toril Moi, and this short study says everything of value while missing nothing of significance.

The highest praise I can think of for a biography of a writer is to say that it excites and compels you to want to go and read or reread the writer’s work. This brilliant study merits that accolade.

Audrey Niffenegger, H.G. Wells’ Giant Brain and Speculative Fiction

NPG x16751; Herbert George Wells by BassanoNiffenegger - photo 2Audrey Niffenegger was among the many great women authors and artists attending this year’s Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. On 15 August 2014, the author, teacher, visual and graphic novelist and artist gave the inaugural speech for the annual English PEN/H.G. Wells Lecture.

She first spoke of Wells’ anticipation of the world of the future, including the ‘Giant Brain,’ as he prophesied it, and that all of us now recognise as the World Wide Web. She wondered if Wells would be disappointed in its proliferation and amassing not only of knowledge, but also of its relentless porn, spam and – with her characteristic and engaging humour – its “videos of cats and goats, and goats and cats.” No surprise she thought Wells’ epitaph could be “I told you so, you damn fools!”

Continuing the theme of speculation, Niffenegger focused on a story of his that impressed her, The Door in the Wall, which she first discovered in Black Water, an anthology of fantastic/speculative fiction, edited by Alberto Manguel, the prolific Argentinian writer.

The Door tells the tale of Lionel Wallace, who throughout numerous times in his life encounters the recurring presence of a green door in a long white wall, which is a portal to a garden and place “full of the quality and promise of heart’s desire,” and that acts as an escape from our “our world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit.”

And yet, apart from one time in his childhood and perhaps once late in his life – you will have to read the story to decide for yourself – when barely five-years-old, he resists going through it again because of the relentless call upon his time of the inconsequential busy-ness of his life and the pursuit of his career.

Niffenegger gracefully spoke of how the story captures for us all the mystery and importance of the imagination and of how speculative fiction is most “valuable when it tells the truth.”

The story and her speech also consider the dangers of our resisting the call to pursue – at least potentially – a better and truer, more beautiful world for ourselves. She questioned, as with the story, the pursuit too often of mundane, inconsequential successes in one’s life that, just as with the character of Mr Wallace, accumulate only as a body of regrets for actions not taken, because they do not speak to our “heart’s desire.”

Despite the fact “the world may still be messed up,” Niffenegger movingly concluded her lecture with a call to us that echoed both the story and its meaning, to “make art, make a garden, let them [the desires of your heart] in.”

Q&A
Following her speech, there was time for questions from the audience. She said she was writing two novels – including one no doubt especially anticipated by her many fans – a sequel to The Time Traveller’s Wife, her 2004 novel that launched her to literary stardom. The other, already titled, Chinchilla Girl in Exile, is about a “nine-year-old girl with hypertrichosis.”

Asked about her writing process, she said she was “completely chaotic and silly and bad.” Yet when she spoke of her teaching – on top of everything else, she’s also taught for 28 years – for a creative writing workshop at a community arts centre in Lake Michigan, it was abundantly clear in that pursuit she is as wonderfully caring, rigorous and thoroughly dedicated as in her own creative work.

She ensures that her 10-12 students get to experience a working relationship with them as authors and she as their editor, which is “intensive, attentive and focused.” This approach, she informs us, is precisely the relationship she has valued and benefited from as a result of the editors in her own life and that inspired her to become a teacher in the first place. (Two of her former workshop students are already publishing fiction.)

Anticipating the Future: “What’s the biggest threat to the arts?”
This was the last question she answered. Fittingly, because it concluded her thoughtful lecture in honour of PEN and Wells, their shared history of campaigning for human rights, the importance of the freedom to write and publish, and on science fiction and imagining future possibilities.

Appropriate, too, because in her speech she called upon the audience to resist the decline of democracy and values by, among other things, voting in elections and speaking up for those of us who “don’t follow the well-worn path.”

Her answer?

“Oh, there are so many … But I would say the biggest is Amazon.”

Let’s hope her speculation remains a fiction, rather than a prediction of the shape of things to come.

Let’s Celebrate! The Magic Wagon – A Classic Joe R. Lansdale Tale is Available Once Again

The Magic Wagon by Joe R. Lansdale - Kindle edition cover
Click on the book cover to buy this Kindle edition for $2.99

This new edition is a cause for celebration. First published in 1986 when Joe R. Lansdale was little known, and re-issued in 2001 by Subterranean Press, the wonderful US indie publisher, The Magic Wagon has sadly been unavailable since then.  Well, not only is it now easily available because it’s a Kindle edition, the price is a mere $2.99. It’d be worth it at triple the price.  And, even better, this early Lansdale fiction remains one of his very best.  In fact, it’s worthy of the title classic: a funny, quirky and utterly charming literary fiction, brilliantly told.

Set in Texas at the turn of the 20th century, The Magic Wagon is the tale of Buster Fogg’s life as well as other eccentric characters that he encounters. By the time he’s 17, his life has been pock-marked by tragedy, yet Buster tells you about each sad event in such a way as to make them Candide-like – tragic-comic, even farcical.

It reads like a combination of an S. E. Hinton novel (Rumblefish, The Outsiders), in its convincing account of a boy’s youth and, throughout, a feeling that if Jorge Luis Borges had ever written a literary, magical Western, I think he’d have been proud to have the result that is The Magic Wagon.

Ignorance is bliss – Mayer, Sandberg & the attack on feminism

So the gist of this article in Slate is that white privileged, successful middle class women don’t like the word ‘feminism’, and they’re successful and those not informed or educated about the history of feminism think it’s unnecessary or negative and man-hating.

And if successful women like Mayer at Yahoo dislikes feminism and being called a feminist, and Sandberg thinks mentoring younger women is “therapy” and excludes, ignores and rejects the value of feminism because of these flimsy excuses, should we accept it just because they’re female CEOs? (What’s the difference between an ignorant/sexist statement coming from a woman instead of a guy? Answer: no difference at all.) To accept their arguably anti-feminist and frankly sexist and stereotypical characterisation of feminism and feminists would not only be blindly ignorant but self-loathing of women as a whole class of people.

It is precisely only thanks to the countless women over hundreds of years who have fought for women’s rights that Sandberg and Mayer are able to be in the privileged, elite position they are at now. Without feminism they wouldn’t have had access to education (and their white, privileged, middle class backgrounds must surely have enabled an easier route to elite education) and no path to such power as they have now.

The other irritating thing about the article is that its author as well as Mayer and Sandberg seem to think equality of the sexes is a given. There’s also no mention of impact of those in poverty, on impact of the double bind of racism coupled with gender, of challenges to access quality education, of violence against women everywhere (irrespective of class, sexuality, race or views; and of all types: physical and sexual and racist assault, psychological, and killing), of the everyday sexism women and girls face everywhere: home, at work, school, travelling, on public transport. There’s no reflection in the article or by Mayer or Sandberg of women having to deal with and fight against the pressures of right wing, conservative sexist politics that deny all women full health care choices and the many challenges that involves and – well, the list goes on.

Ignorance is bliss, clearly, for those too privileged to care about the majority of women not having equality compared to men with regard to freedom of choice, politics, class, gender, race, sexuality, environment, geography or economic circumstances — or a conflation of these dynamics.

A List of Top 100 Novels: stats and trivia

Always fun to see a top # list of authors and check who you’ve read and who you may have missed it like to add. Some fascinating stats here, too.

News from the San Diego Becks

Before I put up the full Top 100 list (and do the post for #1), I am tossing up this bit of various trivia and statistics about the novels on my Top 100 list and on the 101-200 list.

Please note that none of the lists involving 101-200 have numbers attached because I didn’t rank them.

  • Longest Top 100 Novel:  In Search of Lost Time  (4651 pages)
  • Shortest Top 100 Novel:  Heart of Darkness  (96 pages)
  • Earliest Top 100 Novel:  Gulliver’s Travels  (1726)
  • Latest Top 100 Novel:  Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel  (2004)
  • Latest Top 200 Novel:  The Night Circus / The Tiger’s Wife  (2011)

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The battle of the sexes in fiction – Lawrence Naumoff’s Taller Women

Click on the image to buy this book for a penny, excluding postage & packing.

Occasionally a novel comes along that swallows you whole, making you sigh with pleasure, think deep thoughts, and blink with a delighted astonishment. Taller Women is just such a novel. Following hot on the heels of Naumoff’s previous novel, Rootie Kazootie (Harvest Book), it continues the theme of wise women, filled with hope and sadness, and near-silent men afraid of the truth in their hearts and the questions from their lovers.

In manic Lydia and whimsical Monroe, Naumoff portrays a tangled relationship that steers off the road into emotional territory for which neither has prepared. Like the shifting plates beneath the earth’s surface, they bump and grind, facing mutual confusion and a hope for something better around the corner. With off-beat humour and genuine insight, Naumoff recognises the sad, funny, scary and absurd battles that occur between the sexes.  He is a wonderful novelist and, absurdly, not well-known or appreciated enough.  Try him, he’s marvellous and I don’t believe you will be disappointed if you like the view above.

 

Tony Rudt: A brilliant mind in a great collection of essays

Absolutely terrific. This collection of amazing political essays will provoke, stimulate and engage you, whether or not you agree with the insights that unfold herein.  These are insightful critical appreciations of keynote thinkers in the 20th century, including brilliant essays on Hannah Arendt, Leszek Kolowkowski [that incorporates a deliciously scathing attack on the historian Eric Hobsbawm‘s blind allegiance to communist regimes and communist thinking] and Primo Levi. Also compelling critiques relating to Israel, Tony Blair and others. Wonderful writing, provocative and well worth the read. Highly recommended. Obviously (if it is not clear already!), you will hate this collection of essays if you are at all: right-wing, homophobic, evangelistic (politically), ignorant, hateful, hate minorities, hate full stop, hate everything, etc. But, if you are open-minded, passionate about everyone having the right to decency, to the ideas and principles of care, reciprocity, universal education, social justice… Well, you will – like meLOVE this wonderful collection of essays from one of the most wonderful, passionate, caring, decent, clever minds of the 20th-21st century. You decide.

The most visually stunning horror/thriller of all time?

Click on the image to buy a Region 2 (European or multi-region only) DVD

Out of all the horror/thriller movies I’ve ever seen, Tarsem Singh‘s The Cell (2000) remains for me the most truly stunning in terms of spectacle for both costume and set design; both are the most beautiful and disturbing designs and creations I have ever seen. Costumes (Eiko Ishoka) and set design (Tom Foden) are themselves worthy of Oscars (though in 2001, it was sadly only nominated for Best Makeup).  (By the way, if you want to buy this movie in the DVD Region 1/US version, click here.)

Besides that it is incredible visually, the film also has one of Jennifer Lopez‘s stronger performances, and deals with an endlessly fascinating subject: the serial killer/psychopath. In this film, however, you experience the reality of one psycho’s world, fully realised. It makes Hieronymus Bosch‘s paintings of the 15th century seem like gentle fairy-tale pictures in comparison.

Unfortunately, while the early part of the following clip — in fact the official Trailer — here does not do the movie full justice in terms of its visuals, it does give you a vivid sense of the growing tension and creepiness that is to be enjoyed. However, from the 1:13 mark (1 minute 13 seconds into the clip), you are then given some real treats as to what’s in store for you.

Not only is it Jennifer Lopez’s best film (likewise, Vince Vaughan‘s; the last time on film he looked sexy!), but also I think it is genuinely unique in terms of the quality and depth of how it presents the inner world of a particular serial killer psychopath. While the film firmly places itself within the serial killer genre – the quality of the imaginative visuals makes it stand out across all the genres of horror, drama, thriller — and the surreal.

As the cliché, goes: Hand on heart…It is an amazing, brilliant film, and greatest tour de force hats-off to Tarsem Singh, the director, and the original script writer, Mark Protosevich.  As for Tom Foden and Eiko Ishoka — you are frickin fabby fabpants fabulous and anyone who says otherwise is a frickin kumquat!