This month’s picture is slightly different because I went home to Malawi for Christmas, so this bookshelf is the one I was rocking at the ripe old age of 13. There is not a Babbysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley book that I haven’t read.
If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened.
She saw me kissing her father.
She saw her father kissing me.
The fact that a child got mixed up in it all made us feel that it mattered, that there was no going back.
I’m not sure how I feel about Anne Enright. This is the second of her books that I’ve read (technically 1.5 as I couldn’t quite finish the first) and although this book is miles better than her Booker prize winning The Gathering and has given me a glimpse into the reason why she’s rated so highly, there is still something that’s holding me back a little.
The Forgotten Waltz is about adultery; about an affair between two married people, Gina and Sean. Set in Ireland, the entire story is told with hindsight and from Gina’s perspective, so we know from the beginning how this ends. But the story is still charged with us wanting to know how they got there, how this affair started, and how it developed.
Anne Enright writes well, there’s no doubt about that. Some of the passages in here really did take my breath away. She says things that are completely unexpected, but upon reflection, are things so true:
‘…I think how kissing is such an extravagance of nature. Like bird-song; heartfelt and lovely beyond any possible usefulness.’
How beautiful is that? Her depiction of the middle classes is also infuriatingly accurate and brought a smile to my face several times. For example, ‘The room where they slept was white…it was done in horribly similar, crucially different shades of f*cking white.’, and also ‘it was the kind of party where no one ate the chicken skin.’ I laughed at the obscurity of such a remark, but then instantly understood what she meant. These are self-consciously middle class people with middle class concerns, and in truly capturing the nuances of this world, Enright has succeeded.
Gina is very matter of fact, almost dispassionate when speaking of Sean and of the affair, an affair confined to the space of a hotel room, ‘we were only normal for the twelve foot by fourteen of a hotel room. Outside, in the open air, we would evaporate.’ She speaks as though Sean and the affair were these giant forces that were beyond her control:
But once we begun, how were we supposed to stop? This sounds like a simple question, but I still don’t know the answer to it. I mean that we had started something that could not be ended, except by happening. It could not be stopped, but only finished.
But it was hard for me to believe that someone so seemingly indifferent about something would sacrifice so much in order to attain it. She’s a walking contradiction; one minute repulsed by Sean and the next minute almost stalking him in true bunny-boiler fashion. She ultimately finds that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side: It’s pretty much the same colour, just a different type of blade. But I couldn’t reconcile this supposedly epiphanic realisation with someone as smart and cynical as Gina – surely a previously married woman would know that the romance and excitement of a new relationship soon slips into the ordinary?! All the more so if the other adulterer in question has a child. Come on. This is Adultery and Deciding to Leave Your Spouse 101.
A common thread in Enright’s work is the way in which her stories start off in a fascinating way and then they slowly begin to falter and stagnate. The momentum is not kept up, but the beauty of the actual writing (in this book anyway) keeps you going. And Gina is a very interesting narrator. You might call her unreliable, but she goes out of her way to remind you that what she’s telling you may not be what actually occurred, and that her recollections are doused in a self-interested subjectivity. And you can’t help but be grateful for the extent she goes to to prevent the oversimplification of the motivations behind this affair.
Simon Rich is one of my favourite comic writers, and this is a story about the life of a condom he wrote for The New Yorker. I defy you to read this and not laugh. He’s hilarious, I love him!
I’ve recently been overwhelmed by the number of books on my bookshelf and by how many I’m yet to read. And I started thinking, if it all came to an end and I was only allowed to take 5 books through the Gates of Heaven with me, which would I take? Tough decisions and ruthless cuts to be made.
My first two choices were a no-brainer,
1) We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
2) American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis
Both really fascinating books that I’m sure a lot of you have already read, so I’m not going to go into much detail. I’ve read both of them about two or three times already and each time I read them it’s as if it were for the first time. I think a good book is one where with each read you discover something you haven’t noticed before, and one that also doesn’t offer answers but affirms that seeking them is a necessary part of our humanity. And my opinions of both Kevin Katchadourian and Patrick Bateman, in Shriver’s and Ellis’s novels respectively, are not solid, they’re always changing and I still don’t fully understand them and their motivations; that’s why I keep reading.
The rest of my choices were a little harder to pinpoint. You kinda have to be tactful about this because your favourite books aren’t necessarily the most obvious of choices. And presumably you also wanna laugh whilst you’re in heaven (or hell, whichever direction you’re likely to be heading in, haha). So, with that in mind, my next two choices are:
3) E: A Novel – Matt Beaumont
I know E is probably a highly obscure choice, but that book is one of VERY few where I’ve found myself constantly laughing out loud or smiling to myself, even on train commutes where people just eye you awkwardly. The entire book is made up of emails between backstabbing colleagues at an advertising firm in central London. There are very few writers who can capture tone and dialogue like this. I’m not sure if the humour is explicitly British and so therefore less funny for others, but Beaumont really captures the true dynamics of an office (anywhere in the world) with ragingly funny characters (ones that we recognise from our own offices) that will remain with me for a very long time. Completely unputdownable; absolutely brilliant.
4) Magical Thinking: True Stories – Augusten Burroughs
I was very recently reminded of Augusten Burroughs when reading Jaclyn’s blog (an Augusten Burroughs super fan) and what she says about him is so true, that I realise I couldn’t go to heaven without one of his books in my bag. You read just one of Augusten’s books, and the refreshing ease with which he writes makes you instantly want to know what else he’s written. The most obvious choice would have been his memoir, Running with Scissors (because you really can’t make his childhood story up), but I think the numerous short stories in Magical Thinking would keep me company for longer, dipping in and out of the random hilariousness of his darkly amusing stories. He’s witty, sarcastic, self-centred and very honest. Can’t go wrong.
5) Which Brings Me to You – Julianna Baggott & Steve Almond
You might not have heard of this book before, but I figure heaven wouldn’t be much fun without a little bit of romance.
Jane and John (yes, really) are of the same kind: ‘I’m not sure there’s a name for us. I suspect we’re born this way: our hearts screwed in tight, already a little broken. We hate sentimentality and yet we’re deeply sentimental. Low-grade Romantics. Tough but susceptible.’
They meet at a wedding and have nameless almost-sex in the coat room. Before proceeding, they decide to exchange letters and tell each other everything about their romantic pasts. In alternating chapters, we learn of the experiences that brought them to this point and if, when they finally meet again, the unflinching truth has been too much: ‘My past is littered with regret, and I’d rather not add you to it. I’d rather not have to fit you into an overcrowded memory.’
This is one of those rare things that is romantic fiction written to a high standard (E.L. James take note). This is romance for the jaded generation, quietly witty and cynically optimistic.
I’ve tried to keep it to 5, but as this is my list I can change the rules when I like, and I’d like to add one more book as a backup. Just in case my bags get lost on the journey or something.
6) Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine
I had to read this in one of my poetry classes back in university and it’s just really stuck with me. Difficult to place this in a specific genre, but it’s written in prose, not verse, and could even be described as an essay; but let’s call it poetry for the purpose of this post.
It’s quite political in nature, has a focus on loneliness and death, and is also quite critical of American society and the idea of The Self that exists in contemporary America. It’s thoroughly engaging, beautifully written and the ideas she explores are really challenging.
Here’s an example from an extract where she’s visiting the Museum of Emotions in London, and she has to play a game, in which she is asked “Were you terribly upset and did you find yourself weeping when Princess Diana died?”:
‘I told the truth and stepped on the NO tile. I was not allowed to continue. The museum employee, who must have had a thing with shame, looked away as I stepped down. Walking out, I couldn’t help but think the question should have been, Was Princess Diana ever really alive? I mean, alive, to anyone outside of her friends and family – truly? The English were very distraught over her death. On the television they showed thousands of mourners leaving flowers in front of the palace. Weren’t they mourning the protection they felt she should have had? A protection they’ll never have? Weren’t they simply grieving the random inevitability of their own deaths?’
Like I said, it gets you thinking; really fascinating stuff.
So that’s my reading list for heaven. Something for every mood. So I wanna know, what’s your 5??
For weeks now I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly it is about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ that has caused all this fuss. I’m still at a complete and utter loss. I bought it on my kindle a few weeks ago (with every intention of returning it quickly for a refund, haha), read about 15% of it, couldn’t bear to carry on and then completely forgot to return the damned thing. So now this atrociously written nonsense still sits on my virtual shelf. Maybe I’ll continue reading it one day when True Boredom eats at my skull.
So when I stumbled across this review on Goodreads, I knew that I wasn’t alone. She is absolutely HILARIOUS! I actually burst out laughing on several occasions. I really urge you to read this, it will literally make your day. It’s the gifs (those moving image things) that really make it. Sooo funny.
And she has kindly gone on to review the other two books in the trilogy, saving us from having to read page after mind-numbing page of these poorly written books. Her review of Fifty Shades Darker is equally as funny.
But at the same time, we know that Fifty Shades isn’t meant to be literary fiction, and doesn’t try to be. So why am I so mad at its success? In my defense, is it wrong to expect a little bit of writing ability in a best-selling novelist?
I’m not a literary snob, far from, but can someone please tell me what it is about this particular book that has captured the world’s attention?? What makes this book different from any of the thousands of the Mills and Boon books published before (which, can I say, I DO read on occasion and are definitely better in quality)?
Understated, subtle, yet precise. That is how I’d describe David Szalay’s novel, Spring. This book will resonate with anyone who’s ever been uncertain about where they stand in a relationship.
‘This presumably being the fact that he was in love with her. Or thought he was. Or said he was. Or said he thought he was…’
Meet James – a many times failed entrepreneur, and meet Katherine – an interim receptionist working at a luxury hotel, recently separated from her husband. It’s 2006 and they meet at a wedding, swap numbers and start seeing each other. Straight forward enough. Except the relationship that ensues never quite makes it off the ground, yet we follow them through the painful repetitiveness of a new relationship, a repetition that many reviewers have said is captured in a beautifully mundane precision.
Szalay is very observant of the little nuances, the tiny details that make you smile because they are unique yet universal. He writes with a precision that elevates the ordinary into something more profound, whatever that ‘something’ may be. James spends most of his time wondering if things are ok with him and Katherine, ‘On that question he is insatiable’. He’s highly attuned to every one of Katherine’s slight shifts in mood and she appears to treat him with an indifference that is down-right embarrassing at times, blowing hot and cold in what I found to be a completely unattractive self-absorbed manner. Yet Szalay’s characters are not two dimensional; there are all these layers of thought and reasoning and experience that makes it difficult to judge them outright (as much as you want to, damn it!)
We spend as much time observing their dates as we do witnessing their attempts to actually try and arrange them and this is where Szalay’s gift for dialogue really comes through, because we have all had these awkward phone conversations in our time.
You can’t help but wonder what the point of the whole thing is. Why bother?
The ending is hideously ambiguous, but the novel resonates more as a result. I never fully understood whether or not they actually did love one another. My instinct would be to say of course not, but then maybe this is what love is about in a city like London. You trudge on through and grasp at little pockets of companionship that bring you out of the vapidity, the crowded solitude. I don’t know…Maybe this also touches on that feeling a lot of people have in their late twenties/early thirties where you’re a little bit jaded and happy to settle into something rather than aimlessly try and reach for that elusive something else: ‘No more magnificence. Now he just wants to be okay.’
Gosh, this is depressing. But then, this is not chick lit, it’s real. No tint of rose. And if you’re able to look beyond the cyclical nature of their relationship (James calling, Katherine not picking up) the writing is effortless.
But this book is not without its flaws. There are characters brought into the storyline for what feels like fairly weak reasons. The frequency with which these characters enter the plot is inconsistent and the subplot of betting and race horses (James’s most recent entrepreneurial endeavour) seems completely unnecessary, adding very little to the book.
If you like stories that are character rather than plot based, you’ll really enjoy this. Whereas if you like your books to have a distinct narrative arc, I probably wouldn’t bother.
If you’ve read this, what did you think of Katherine? Was I the only one who really didn’t like her? And though I liked James did anyone else hope he would eventually develop a backbone? Do you think there was any kind of genuine love in this relationship as opposed to simply wanting to feel? Or is Katherine simply just not that into James?