August 2019 Reading: I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking; Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You; The Monsters of Templeton; Little Fires Everywhere

I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking by Leyna Krow (2017)

Having just read Aimee Barrodale’s short story collection, I was delighted to find that the stories in this book were equally quirky and original, albeit very different in style. There are fifteen stories in Krow’s book, seven of which share the title ‘Spud & Spud II’ and are a continuation of the same tale (although each Spud story is narrated by a different character). In between the linked stories are standalone works that nevertheless share certain themes – a fascination with the natural world, and the changes it has undergone in our lifetime and, in Krow’s vision, beyond. There is a tinge of darkness, particularly in ‘Excitable Creatures,’ which has a fantastic ending, but there is also humour and warmth here, as well as great originality.

What struck me most about this beautiful collection was the sense of wonder contained within the stories, a love of the natural world even as the shadow of climate change (and in one story, the apocalypse itself) hangs over us. Much as I admired Barrodale’s stories, Krow’s work has more heart, and resonated more with me than ‘You Are Having a Good Time’. The characters show real compassion, and relate to each other in a less brittle, more forgiving way. There is a kindness and sense of connection in these weird and wonderful stories that left me with a warm glow, as well as a lot of questions about squid.

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro (1974)

My third short story collection in a row with a great big title, this is the earliest collection of Munro’s stories that I have read since I belatedly ‘discovered’ her earlier this year. Her second collection, in fact, containing thirteen stories whose main defining feature seems to be their open-endedness. I feel that these stories in particular demand rereading, so I will keep my initial comments brief.

Once again, Munro presents ordinary life in simple prose, but the perceptive nature of her observations reveals the complexity of her work. ‘How I Met My Husband’ is a kind of anti-romance, riffing off the expectations of that genre and gently subverting them. The title story is definitely one that I need to revisit – I confess I read it too quickly, and I think I missed some important details. There is limited scope here in one sense – her female narrators are all concerned with relationships, without exception, but isn’t that an almost limitless subject? Above all, I continue to be awed by the way Munro uses her clear, simple language as a conduit to her thoughts, avoiding the frills and flourishes that other writers might indulge in. This was not my favourite collection by Munro so far (it falls somewhere in the middle) but it has made me determined to embark on a future project of re-reading all of her works in order. One day!

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)

(A little side-note: this is the 50th book I have read this year, a figure so much higher than any other recent year that I might allow myself a little virtual high-five. Okay, done.)

I wanted to love this, having become a recent Groff convert; I was so excited to read her first novel, and the opening lines, in which an actual monster is discovered in the lake of the town of Templeton, promised much. However, I have to admit I came away disappointed. The main narrative concerns Willie Upton, a graduate student returning to her hometown in disgrace, and her search for the answer to a riddle posed by her mother, Vi, who informs her that her father is a man from the town that she is not prepared to name, but will give her certain clues in order to help her work it out. Hum – this was one of my problems – the central mystery is so contrived, and could be so easily solved by her mother JUST TELLING HER, that I immediately became frustrated with the whole premise. The idea of Willie digging through her family tree and unearthing secrets and voices who speak in their own right is a good one, but I was so turned off by the lack of plausibility that I read the book quite sulkily (not unlike Willie herself, who is pretty petulant for a 28-year-old).

There are glimmers of Groff’s beautiful later prose style here, but not nearly enough, and the different historical figures who surface to tell their stories didn’t have sufficiently distinct voices. It was also hard to keep Willie’s increasingly complicated family tree straight, despite the use of portraits and diagrams included in the text. It is certainly an ambitious book, and the imagination displayed is impressive, but it felt overstuffed and flawed in a way I just couldn’t overlook. On the plus side, Groff’s later novels and short stories are so masterful that I suppose I can forgive her a shaky start, and, as I plod on writing my own first novel, I can comfort myself that I, too, can only get better.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)

Set in Shaker Heights, a planned community in Ohio with privilege and order coming out of its ears, this book opens with the Richardson family’s beautiful house burning to the ground. Another promising start, and, for me, another slight disappointment as I continued to read. The novel is very well-written, and the characters are strong, particularly the contrast between Mrs Richardson and Mia Warren, her artist tenant, who moves to Shaker with her teenage daughter, Pearl, but the plotting is almost too tight, the twists and turns too contrived.

The book contains three main subplots, all focusing on babies: the Richardsons’ friends are in the process of adopting an abandoned baby when the mother makes a reappearance; Mia has a secret about Pearl’s birth that Mrs Richardson sets out to discover; Lexie, one of the Richardsons’ four teenage children, has an abortion. Thematically, this is strong, and there is some lovely writing on motherhood, including a moving section about how parents have to cope with the gradual withdrawal of physical contact from their children as they get older, which may or may not have made me slightly misty-eyed and perhaps even squeeze my too-young-to-object kids a bit tighter. However, as a whole, the book lacks urgency; it unfolds in a carefully controlled manner, ironically devoid, as Lionel Shriver points out in a review for the Guardian, of fire. I quite enjoyed reading it, but there was no aftertaste, nothing to make it linger in my thoughts after I closed the book. To quote Shriver’s review, it is well-designed, “But does it have a point?”

July 2019 Reading: Something Fierce; His Monkey Wife; The Girl on the Train; Washington Black; Solar; Sing, Unburied, Sing; You Are Having A Good Time

Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre (2012)

This book, subtitled ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter,’ is the true story of the author’s extraordinary childhood and adolescence. Aged 11, Carmen returns to South America from exile in Canada along with her revolutionary mother and her partner, as well as her younger sister. Between 1979 and 1989 the family leads a nomadic existence, living in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.

Aguirre’s voice is honest, searching and darkly funny; she is careful to tell her own story and not try to analyse the thoughts and feelings of her family members. There is also no sense of judgement on her mother and (largely absent) father for dragging her into this way of life -indeed, she later joins the Resistance in her own right – although as a reader, I felt enormous relief for her when she is finally released from duty and able to begin a ‘normal’ life, freeing her from the Terror that clutches at her even as she tries to be brave beyond her years. Carmen is a sympathetic, engaging narrator, who loves fiercely – countries, friends, family members, lovers. She is told by one superior that all experience is good experience, and she seems to live by that.

This is a moving, informative, truly remarkable book – I am not sure how it ended up on my bookshelf a few years back, but I’m very glad I finally got round to reading it.

His Monkey Wife by John Collier (1930)

I bought this strange novel years ago in Daunt Books, without knowing anything about the book or the author. I was merely intrigued by the title, and the book itself lives up to its oddness. Collier takes a ridiculous idea and runs with it to the fullest extent: a highly intelligent chimpanzee falls in love with her British owner, Mr Fatigay, and travels with him to London, keeping the full extent of her mental capabilities under wraps, where she tries to make him see that marrying his flawed fiancee is a mistake.

Emily, the ‘monkey’ in question, is finely drawn, and her heightened sensibilities are evident in every sentence. This is a parody, of course, poking fun at the idea of the ‘new woman’ among other things, but it is sensitively done, and a hell of a lot of fun to read. The sentences are wonderfully convoluted, and deserve to be puzzled out; what’s not to love about descriptions such as the following:

“As the tormented water sinks into a momentary quiescence when the cold egg is cast in, so Emily’s seething heart subsided into a hot stillness at these words, that she might better catch the answer.”

The book is chock-full of racism, sexism and colonialist attitudes, and yet if you manage to keep your politically correct hackles from rising, this is a brilliantly entertaining novel. Collier throws himself into his absurd conceit so fully, you can’t help but be swept along.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)

I don’t make a point of snootily avoiding bestselling sensations, but I do like to come to them a little later, when all the fuss has died down. I can see why Hawkins’ novel was so successful. It is gripping – I read it in less than 24 hours. The short chapters and many twists and turns kept my interest, and although I did figure out who the ‘bad guy’ was quite early on, it didn’t spoil the fun.

I thought that Rachel’s alcoholism was a rather convenient way of creating mystery in the plot, but to be fair, it was also well-depicted, and a fairly unique character trait for a female protagonist. The three first person narrators, Rachel, Megan and Anna, all had very similar voices, and I would have liked a bit more variation. I wasn’t sure I needed to hear from Anna at all, and it was slightly wearisome to follow three very flawed women who defined themselves in terms of their relationships with men. The denouement left me a bit cold – I wanted more of an ‘ooh’ reaction, where things suddenly make sense. A solid read, but it didn’t wow me.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)

The protagonist of this novel, ‘Wash’, is born a slave on a plantation called Faith in Barbados. He is (slightly ambiguously) rescued by his master’s brother, Titch, who takes him on as his assistant in scientific investigations. The story is far-ranging, as we follow Wash from Barbados to America to the Arctic, and later to Canada, England, Amsterdam and Morocco. Edugyan has created a very clever, intriguing mix of literary and adventure genres, rejecting out-and-out realism in favour of a kind of imaginative freedom for her character.

Parent/child relationships are explored in various iterations in the novel, beginning with Wash’s bond with Big Kit at the plantation. The fact that I almost wanted more of the plantation section before Wash set off on his travels created an interesting conflict/guilt in me. Wash also wrestles with guilt over his freedom, though it is not without its fears: the bounty hunter who stalks him, his abandonment by Titch and so on. The scientific elements of the book were particularly quirky and interesting, from Titch’s ‘cloud cutter’ to the Goffs’ interest in marine biology – the book is rich in more than just geographical reach. It also has a lot of humour in it, which contrasts again with the traditional ‘slave narrative’ from which Edugyan liberates her protagonist.

Solar by Ian McEwan (2010)

More humour in unexpected places – a comic McEwan novel came as something of a surprise. Following the farcical misadventures of an ageing physicist, Michael Beard, Solar sticks very closely to its protagonist’s point of view, which is, in my opinion, unfortunate, as Beard is unpleasant company: bloated, self-interested, an excessive consumer of everything from booze to food to women. With five marriages and multiple affairs behind him, I found it hard to see why he is so irresistible to seemingly intelligent women.

The novel spans nine years, and is divided into three parts, each chronicling his larger-than-life career and personal mistakes. The science is convincing, and never feels shoe-horned in – it is an extension of how Beard thinks. For me, the ending was a disappointment, but I am not sure how I could have found it otherwise – despite his many lucky escapes (including from a polar bear in the Arctic), I never found myself rooting for him, and I am not sure I cared what happened to him one way or the other.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017)

Although this tells the story of a modern black family in Mississippi, there is a timeless quality to the book; you can feel the weight of a history of struggle behind it. Jojo, the first narrator, is the most sympathetic character in the book, and his relationship with his little sister Kayla is beautifully drawn. His mother, Leonie, is also given a voice – I found her a very difficult character to process, due to her lack of maternal feeling. Neither she nor her partner Michael seem to know how to be parents, although they never fully abandon their children (who are mostly in the care of Leonie’s parents) – the couple are blinded by their love for each other, which eclipses their sense of responsibility to their children.

Jojo’s grandfather, Pop, is haunted by his time at Parchman penitentiary, where Michael is doing a stint at the story’s opening. Leonie, too, has visions of her dead brother, Given, when she is high. This echoing of the past is an important theme, and as the book progresses, the ghosts in the novel become more real, until one, Richie, appears as a character and a narrator. The past, in this book, intrudes upon the present constantly, as if the lives lived before us are overlapped onto the now. There is a dream-like quality to Ward’s writing in this lyrical and evocative novel that makes even the familiar tropes of the family road trip or the police pulling over a black driver feel fresh, new and unsettling.

You Are Having A Good Time by Aimee Barrodale (2016)

This book of ten short stories is unlike anything I’ve read – eerie and spiky, the stories tell of a deep weirdness that runs parallel to, and sometimes overspills into, our everyday lives. The first story, ‘William Wei,’ introduces Barrodale’s spare, bare prose, with short descriptive sentences giving hard, boiled-down nuggets of information. A few of the stories are interlinked: ‘Animals’ contains a screenplay that is later brought to life in ‘The Imp’, but for the most part the feeling is one of short, sharp shocks of strangeness barrelling at you as you read.

These funny (Barrodale is a former staff writer for The Onion), original, unsettling stories possess a kind of Twin Peaks oddness that gets under your skin. They are courageous and brutal – it takes a special kind of honesty and bravery to lay bare such a strange and subversive imagination, and I am full of admiration.