I’ve decided to start talking about books – other people’s, I mean. I figure a blog allows me to roam free, rather than stick to the review format. Here are my few entries, most recent first. If you scroll further down, you’ll find my Next Big Thing interview, about my own novel-in-progress.

JENNY DISKI – July 8, 1947- April 28, 2016

Damn. Jenny Diski is dead. I knew it was coming almost from the first moment I met her – and when I say “met” this is entirely on the page, starting with the London Review of Books, where she was introduced to me by my husband. It was not long after that, her diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, which she wrote about until she couldn’t write any more. She has a witty, angry, voice. She tries to dissect the hurts — her own and other people’s —with cool rationality, but she smoulders. No surprise there. Her life began with some serious hard knocks and the knocks continued, ending with this one, her death from cancer. There were grand doses of love and happiness, too, of course, mostly to do with her family and her work, I think. In recent months she has written about her illness and, for the first time in depth and unadorned, her complex relationship with Doris Lessing (surrogate daughter and unaffectionate parent). Readers lured by the gossip factor may have been disappointed by her even-handedness, but probably not. She probes that relationship with the kind of insight she does most things – self-mocking, clear-eyed, sharp. She is not gentle, but she’s fair.

I count her as a friend. I will miss her, not least when I visit her website, and see this:

You can contact Jenny Diski by clicking here. She will or won’t reply.

DAVID BOWIE      1947—2016

Eulogies for pop icons are suspect, tending as they do towards nostalgia for their authors’ youth. (Nostalgia itself is always suspect, of course.) I hesitated at first to eulogize David Bowie for that reason, but what the hell. He was an icon in my own youth and an idol of mine. Growing up in England in the early 1970s he was probably my first experience of the peculiar desire—heightened yet distant—that we project onto performers. I lusted after Robert Plant too, but Bowie preceded him in my imagination and stayed there long after Plant faded. I was transfixed by his appearances on Top of the Pops, where his androgyny, his high theatrical style, his gawky glamour, all seemed to indicate possibilities that weren’t available in my daily life, but just might be if I had the right clothes and weren’t so shy. I have scant nostalgia for my life at that time, save for the fact that so much of it was ahead of me, and so, at least in theory, were all those possibilities. A couple of years after I’d moved to Canada in my teens I bought obstructed view seats to see Bowie at Maple Leaf Gardens. I wasn’t much of a concert-goer—not big on crowds—and my attendance was a sign of loyalty. I barely remember the concert beyond the general excitement and my private yearning as I watched his tiny figure on the stage far below.

In spite of his glamour, Bowie had an underlying awkwardness that I could relate to as a shy prepubescent (and well beyond). Even in his most polished performances it was there, a suggestion that for all his apparent suaveness he was a little afraid. Without really understanding what it was that affected me, I was touched by that. I stopped following his career closely, and haven’t bought an album of his in decades, but whenever I did see or hear him I was struck by the fact that he didn’t seem to become a parody of himself as he aged. He retreated, reinvented himself, adopted a new persona, wore a more elegant suit. Some of that staying power, image-wise, may be that although he was sexy—a slightly chilly eroticism—he was not hypersexual as a performer in any of the ways that can come to seem ridiculous over time. He seemed to accept aging, not to hate or fear it as so many public icons do. Of course a man can get thin and grey and be read as elegant and distinguished, while a woman rarely has the same luxury, but Bowie didn’t seem to cling to youth.

Reading about him in the obituaries now as a devoted family man, seeing images of him in a grey sweater and baggy pants, a slightly frumpy grandfather exploring Venice with his family, I admire how he protected his privacy and that of the people close to him. That he remained devoted to his art is obvious — his latest recording is now understood as deathbed album. But that he didn’t need public adulation also seems obvious, something I might not have guessed when I was transfixed by  him decades ago as the beautiful sprite with cherry hair and a lightning flash searing his chalk-white face.

MARLON JAMES

I tried to write about Marlon James’s book A Brief History of Seven Killings a while back and gave up, temporarily. It is so complex and I had too much to say. This week James won the Man Booker Prize and everyone has much to say about his massive book. About the man as well. There is a beautiful profile of him in The Guardian that details his struggles as a writer and as a gay Jamaican man. I also learned that the book started as one voice throughout, a character who is relatively minor in the novel as it was eventually written. All this is of course intriguing to another writer, but to readers as well, I would imagine.

The experience of reading A Brief History of Seven Killings is difficult for me to describe. Immersive, multi-sensory, it’s a little like being inside a movie. Maybe long-form television is a better analogy; I have a feeling James has studied The Wire, which is probably the closest to date that TV has come to a novel. There are similarities in shape, structure, and perspective shift. Also the abrupt loss of central characters, after each of which the next few pages feel like a body missing its phantom limb. A Brief History of Seven Killings might be described, to paraphrase Brian Fawcett, as a book for people who find television too slow.

Set mainly in Jamaica from the 70s to the 90s, the book gets inside the minds of people I would never be able to know in real life—people who would terrify me, in fact. James doesn’t hold back. His people are often terrifying on the page, and yet so vivid, so knowable, through his words. You are right inside their heads, or right beside them, experiencing them as they get formed from brutal childhood to violent adulthood. As in The Wire, we get to know these men— gangsters—from the inside out.

The rhythms of language—mostly patois—are like a song that runs throughout the book, like the music of The Singer (an undisguised Bob Marley). I will never listen to Marley the same way again; the sweetness that is undeniably part of his music is married to rawness and anger that are all part of a historical context that is clearer and dearer to me now thanks to James’s writing.

Race and class are obviously central to the book. The machinations of external forces in Jamaica— the CIA for example —are also a critical part of the story (though these occasionally lapse into some of its very few formulaic moments). The difference between a middle class family and the gangsters is displayed so sharp blood. And yet, once Manley’s made his deal, violence seeps into everything, every class, all races.

Loosely, the novel is a fiction about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, and an incredibly complicated aftermath. In that same Guardian article James talks about why he didn’t name Marley, why he gave him the archetypal name, The Singer. Reading the book, I have a sense of a man who has come to mean so many things to other people in the story that he is not quite present as himself to any one person, whether people who’ve known him as a boy or admirers and groupies meeting him for the first time. It works brilliantly, in my opinion.

But still, the most compelling characters are other men. Papa Lo, Weeper, Josey Wales. They’re the ones who got inside my head in a way that allowed me to experience the best that fiction allows for—learning another person’s reality. Two of the weaker characters in the book, to me, are a white American journalist, Alex Pierce, and a middle class black Jamaican woman, Nina Burgess/Kim Clarke/Dorcas Palmer, although she becomes fuller as she ages. Somehow, though, I didn’t feel these two as acutely. This is small beer given how many characters rampage through the pages of this remarkable book.

Through his grim and gorgeous propulsive narrative James interweaves scenes that might loosely be described as magical realism, with ghosts and historical figures and phantasmagorical Rastafarian avengers. This is all as wild and magical as it sounds.

Add Marlon James to the list, under the heading: READ ANYTHING BY….

NELL ZINK

Shortly after the story about Rachel Dolezal broke—a story that seems to fascinate every writer I know, most particularly if that writer, like me, is a white woman—a friend told me about a new book: Mislaid, by Nell Zink. She’d heard that it featured a character not unlike Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who passes—or poses, depending on your opinion—as black. This same friend was not unsympathetic to Dolezal, and wondered about her birth family and their motivations for “outing” her. What traumas had happened to her at their hands, she wondered. Why had she taken her adopted brother with her, and so on.

I put myself on the waiting list for Zink’s two books. The list for Mislaid was hundreds of library users long. Wallcreeper I got relatively quickly. At first it irritated me and even seemed a little dull. I stopped and started a handful of times, stalled on what seemed to be an over-familiar deadpan description of anhedonic sex featuring a passive female narrator (I’m talking to you, Mary Gaitskill, Sheila Heti), but something made me feel I should persist. I started to read the annoying passage out loud to my husband, but he could tell I was trying to impose my bias, and suggested that I pick a spot at random instead. I read from somewhere else in the book and both of us were intrigued. Celine, he said. She reminds me of Celine. The sex gets better, too.

Anyway, I did finish the book, which is about a somewhat aimless woman who follows her husband to Europe and falls haphazardly from birdwatching into extra-marital sex and environmental activism—and considerably more fun than that sounds—almost against my will. I didn’t love it, but it interested me. Zink’s use of language is original, her dry narrator very funny in parts—a description of pasty Berliners wearing unsightly clothes too small for them has stayed with me —and she pushes the story along with idiosyncratic verve and surprise twists. While the tone remains a bit flat, far from being predictable, as I’d feared at first, it unwinds in an unusual fashion and even, at one or two points, moved me. OK, I thought. What’s next?

Nothing could have prepared me for Mislaid. Superficial similarity to Dolezal aside, the story is riveting. A fearless satire by a white woman that, to my mind, manages to indict racial and sexual politics in America in far more profound and entertaining ways than a flat-footed book likeThe Help. The story begins in rural Virginia in the early 60s and continues into the 80s. The protagonist, Peggy Vaillancourt, a young, white, would-be lesbian from a rigidly conservative family, marries a gay poetry professor (yes, it’s as complicated as it sounds) who is living off the anticipation of his old-money inheritance, and thus ends her formal education. Entirely dependent on her inconstant, neglectful and borderline abusive husband, she leaves that marriage when he screws a girl she fancies and threatens to have her committed after she drives his car into a pond. She escapes with their daughter Mireille, one of two children. Afraid to cross state lines,  in order to escape detection she appropriates the name and birthdate of a dead black girl for her daughter  (thus becoming black herself), and they go underground, living for some years in an abandoned shack in the woods. Mireille Fleming becomes Karen Brown, Peggy becomes Meg. Thus begins their new life, poor, black and below the official radar. Zink has serious fun with the fact that a pale blond girl can be accepted as black (physically, her mother is more believable as mixed race). I use the words serious and fun deliberately here, as Zink highlights the tortured history of busing and segregation in the education system, all of which make a light-skinned “black” girl appealing to school authorities. Karen is beaten up by white kids at school and mocked by black kids for being so pale, but she and her mother are assimilated unquestioningly in their new identity. Peggy/Meg is different from Dolezal in that her object is to hide rather than to thrive in this identity, (though perhaps Dolezal was hiding also?), and she experiences short and long-term remorse over the effect of her deception on both her children.

One of the most formidable aspects of Zink’s skill is how entirely she inhabits each character’s point of view, without any moral signposting. All of the characters are irresistible even when they’re being shitty to each other. Meg is a narcissist, her husband Lee Fleming rapaciously so (definitely gay rather than bisexual, still he’ll basically fuck anything that moves if it takes his fancy). Scenes in which Lee parses the evolution of gay culture from the 60s to the 80s are some of the funniest in the book. Their children Byrdie and Mireille/Karen are pawns who develop from blank slates into fascinating characters, one privileged, the other not, as the story evolves. Temple Moody, Karen’s closest friend and the only other black kid in her junior school, is so smart he becomes a token black scholarship student. In less skilful hands he might risk being tokenized by his author too, but Zink is much too brilliant for that and he is entirely human. Minor characters include drug-dealers (some of whom are Meg’s associates), frat-boys, borderline pedophiles, Navy Seals, abused children, all of whom at one point or another claim sympathy and amusement, all of whom defy expectations. The one character whose point of view I would have liked more of near the end is Temple’s mother Dee. It’s implied that she isn’t fooled, but I’d like to have seen more of her reactions to the denouement.

I won’t give away too much of the story—it’s too delicious for that. The ending seems a little rushed, antic, perhaps too neat, but when I reread it I found that less of an issue, and part of the fun is seeing just how Zink resolves any dangling threads. Throughout she sets up crises and cliff-hangers only to thwart our expectations. The truth is that all of the characters in this story so endeared themselves to me that I wanted happy endings for all. Zink complies, sort of, but only to a point. She’s too astute to suggest that any of life’s satisfactions come for free.

THE WOMEN

Lily King 

Salley Vickers

Edith Pearlman

For some reason at the moment, unlike David Gilmour, the only books I want to read are by women. Why? Who knows. I’ve picked up interesting looking books by Ray Robertson and Herman Koch, waited patiently for Les Particules élémentaires by Michel Houllebecq to become available at my local library (I admit, more in the spirit of obligation than enthusiasm as part of my ongoing project to restore my once comprehensive command of the French language). But there they sit, unread, on my nightstand or, in Houllebecq’s case, back he goes to the Toronto Public Library, where another reader, more eager than I, has a hold on him).

My women, at the moment have their hold on me: Salley Vickers, Lily King, Edith Pearlman. I can’t get enough of them. If their books were food I’d be lying on the couch clutching my stomach, declaring no, I’m stuffed, a moment later reaching for another taste, just a bite….oh maybe a little more…then before you know it I’ll have had another meal.

Salley Vickers, I learned about from The Guardian. I was intrigued by the description of her work as unclassifiable, and also by the fact that she used to practice as a psychoanalyst; at first I thought that her fiction was unmarked by that profession, at least in any way I might expect, but I’ve since concluded that I wasn’t paying attention. Her depictions of internal struggle and heightened emotions, depression, and transformative love must be directly connected to her training. She includes the occasional mental health professional among her characters, but her primary interest seems to be religion, or more accurately religiosity, which is unusual in contemporary fiction and interesting to me as an atheist. Her novels are set in French cathedrals and Venetian churches and an English village where God appears incognito. Angels appear too, but not the cloying kind (and there’s a touch of magic realism, but not the annoying kind). Her plots are, as asserted in The Guardian, impossible to describe, at least in a way that does them justice without giving away crucial details. She writes tellingly about love and cruelty and about the kind of hard knocks and disappointments that may engender even greater forms of love. And with all this, she’s witty. In the following order, which is not chronological, publishing-wise, I read The Cleaner of Chartres, Mr. Golightly’s Holiday, and Miss Garnet’s Angel. The titles are deceptive—they sound like period pieces, soothing PBS miniseries, emblems of Anglophile nostalgia. Not at all. In each of these books characters undergo fairly harrowing spiritual and emotional upheavals. Sex, death, violence, love, are drawn with lightness and precision.

My sister introduced me to Lily King, one of her favourite contemporary writers. I borrowed The Pleasing Hour, King’s first novel, and was amazed by the freshness of its story, which seemed at first glance to be a familiar one: a young American woman goes to Paris as an au pair in order to outrun some personal trouble at home, and is changed by her experiences there. She is underestimated by the people around her (and by herself) in much the same way you or I might underestimate such a synopsis. King’s writing is gorgeous: pellucid and yet full of surprises. After The Pleasing Hour I gobbled in quick succession and mostly on public transit The English Teacher (in spite of its inexplicable soft porn cover, which earned me more than a few sideways looks on the subway) and Father of the Rain, a harrowing portrayal of a daughter’s relationship with her father, a manipulative alcoholic whose narcissism blooms into outright abuse. Children of narcissists and alcoholics will shiver in recognition. Thinking about this book leads me on a tangent that I’d like to explore in more detail later: the number of contemporary American novels that take alcohol as their subject. Alcohol, in many books, is a character all on its own. The English Teacher’s plot and characters have their run-ins with it—the teacher of the title is a caustic, terrified woman whose drinking is self-protective; her son is one of the most interesting teenagers I’ve read in a long while. I’m waiting to read King’s most recent book, Euphoria. My financial self-restraint is being tested as I watch it inch its way up the hold list at the TPL.

And finally, Edith Pearlman. I had never come across her before I read about her online in a New Yorker essay by James Wood—I can’t remember what led me there: perhaps the Arts and Letters Digest. One of the most obvious things about her (and not much is obvious) is the breadth of her vision. Binocular Vision is the name of one book, but I’d call her a panoptical writer. She sees everything, reveals only some of what she sees. Like another writer I admire, Penelope Fitzgerald, Pearlman leaves gaps and interstices where the story vibrates and meaning waits to be discovered. Like Salley Vickers, she’s hard to classify. Some characters and locations appear in a handful of stories, which never follow the trajectory you might expect. What threatens to be tragic takes a comic or at least an anti-tragic turn. What seems predictably romantic upends itself.  Stories take place in Jerusalem, London, Godolphin Massachusetts, an unnamed Latin American country that might be Argentina, or possibly Venezuela, post-war Displaced Persons camps, twenty-first century women’s shelters, teenager’s psyches (men’s and women’s too) in all eras. One story includes a travel journalist who invents locations and details so captivating his editors publish them anyway, fabricating photos to support the text.  His readers are so loyal they’ll believe anything. Grossman is like that. Whatever she makes up is as real, or more so, than what might be there already. To say that she is pitiless would be incorrect; although many of her characters suffer—naturally, since they’re alive—she doesn’t expend pity on them. What she does bestow is a kind of bewitching, rigorous empathy. She’s like a gifted physician: her diagnostic skills are brilliant, her prescriptions what you know, already, deep down, to be necessary.

Each of these writers has her own way of making the ordinary as singular as we know it to be; to surprise us, whether through language, perspective or assumptions overturned. I read these books and want to start again, from the beginning, as a reader and as a writer myself.

MALENE ARPE – IN MEMORIAM

Every Sunday I anticipate the arrival of my Sunday Star. Specifically—from when I hear the paper hit the front steps until I have time to pore over them at the breakfast table—I anticipate reading two pages at the centre of the Entertainment section: Stargazing, by Malene Arpe. Sunday is the only day I get The Star. Those two pages are the only pages I read, religiously. When I do, it’s as if the world falls away—you know how when people look at their cellphones they may as well have been sucked into that tiny screen? Physical space and time recede and you can tell they’re not there? That’s me, with Malene Arpe’s Stargazing column.

On May 21, 2015, Malene Arpe died of a massive heart attack. Because the only day I get The Star is Sunday—her day—I didn’t know about it until then. I was, and am grief-stricken. Not the terrible heart-splitting grief her dear ones must be feeling, but real emotion all the same. Why? She had the gift that marks a true writer: the ability to make you feel you know her, and that she knows you. That she’s letting you in on a private joke. With her generous wit and crack timing she turned me into a crazed fan of the kind she impersonated so well in her column. Once, when she took a leave of absence without announcing as she usually did that she was going on holiday, I e-mailed her to make sure she was OK. And also, I’ll be honest, to check that she hadn’t been dropped from the paper (it was a time when many papers were making layoffs), because if she had, I was going to cancel my subscription.

I’ve often tried to analyse exactly what makes her Stargazing column not just funny but profound. I mean, it’s just a column about celebrity gossip, the most superficial of subjects, how can that be meaningful? And why is her voice so unique? No offence to her colleague Garnet Fraser, but the days he fills in for her—and I’m sure he’d be the first to admit this—just aren’t the same. Her voice is so distinctive.

So what is it about her? She picked her targets perfectly, skewering hubris but also having fun with the way we buy into the whole celebrity engine, how we obsess. With the same deft lightness of touch she exposed the cannibalistic cruelty of gossip magazines. If I were teaching a high school class in the use or irony or humour to critique that which the writer pretends to endorse, I could use her column. From her pretend-count of the number of times a pretend-baby has inhabited Jennifer Aniston’s womb to her announcement each year of schadenfreude at the Best And Worst Beach Bodies issue of the National Enquirer, she exposed the ugliest, most misogynistic and otherwise bigoted elements of celebrity gossip culture. While showing us the ridiculous truth of our fixation on celebrities she never condescended to her material, and she included herself as comic subject. One of her funniest tropes was to represent herself as an obsessed fan of various hunky male stars. She understood the pleasure that comes from a bit of celebrity fantasizing, and the fact that we all need to indulge in a little escapism at times, but she also knew how to show us when celebrity obsession tips over into self-defeating mania. I’ll miss her hugely. I’ll keep my subscription going, at least for now. After all, The Star had the good sense to recognize the talent of this wonderful woman and to give her free rein; it’s the least I can do.

ELENA FERRANTE

If you’re someone who follows literary news, you’ll have heard of Elena Ferrante, the Italian mystery-woman whose Neapolitan Novels have started to take the English-speaking book world by storm. Although there has been much on-line speculation about her identity (including whether she’s a man) that all seems kind of beside the point. Though just to give you my two cents there’s no question in my mind that a woman wrote these books, and in print interviews she has scoffed at any suggestion otherwise.

These are novels pulled from raw experience, from a woman’s life, and they’re fantastic. For an honest look at the complex, sometimes devastating nature of female friendship, they can’t be beat. The writing can occasionally be uneven (it goes slack in places)—though the translations, all by Ann Goldstein, are marvellous. When a translation feels singular in its language or voice I’m more than impressed. Having done a handful of translations myself (individual poems from French and Russian, mostly for other people to use as source material) I know that a translator always has to sacrifice aspects of the original in order to capture what she believes to be most truly essential. You want the world to know that this is a remarkable writer, and to give a flavour of why, but you can’t get it all. Prose is different from poetry, of course, but some of the same challenges must apply.

I’ve now read the first three books in the Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of A New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. (A fourth is due out this year. Like Ferrante’s other acolytes, I am waiting as impatiently as any Twilight fan.) After inhaling those books I sat down and read two earlier ones, Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment. The second, in which a woman unravels after being left abruptly by her husband, is a devastating breakdown fever-dream as she and her two children struggle through a sweltering summer. If you’ve just been brutally dumped, wait a while before reading it. Or plunge in, it might help.

Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment are more distilled, condensed, their strangeness more surreal than the Neapolitan Novels, which are fat, dense inquisitions into place, social history, and, foremost, the internal lives of Elena and Lila, two friends whose rivalry and love for each other define their whole lives. At the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, Lila, now in he sixties, has disappeared. The book then moves to her childhood, and the story begins.

What strikes me as most singular about the Neapolitan Novels is their depiction of female friendship, about which Ferrante tells some searing truths. Most women I know, myself included, have experienced the kind of youthful friendship with another girl that is so close the two of you are almost twinned. You mirror each other, reflect each other’s strengths and weaknesses, pit yourselves against each other as much as you are allies. Sometimes these friendships go up in flames. Other times they mature and as you broaden your perspective from self to world, the friendship expands too, allowing both of you more room for the rest of life. There’s something unhealthy but so powerful about those all-encompassing friendships of youth. They are devouring as much as loving. But they teach us about ourselves, in the mistakes we make, the meanness and pettiness we each have in us, and the capacity for self-sacrifice.

Love, rage, betrayal and loyalty, Ferrante shows it all. She also shows us a moving—and by that I mean in motion—portrait of life in Naples, beginning in the 1950s when like the rest of Italy, the rest of Europe, it’s still recovering from the war. The life she shows us is hell on women: violent, dangerous, horribly damaging. Very few of the girls in Elena’s neighbourhood will finish school—it is one of the most painful aspects of the books, not least to the narrator, that she is allowed to continue her education whereas brilliant Lila is not. Girls and women are beaten and sometimes killed by their fathers, their boyfriends and husbands. The men suffer too, everyone does from tortured ideas of masculinity and femininity, but it’s really the women Ferrante is concerned with. Lila, the feral, charismatic, wildly original child and Elena, her friend, more ordinary in some ways, a dogged rather than a brilliant intellect, but with the persistence and discipline to become a writer, though she often fears her best ideas are really Lila’s. It is her honest, self-lacerating narration that gives us the story of both girls. It’s Lila who more embodies the strangeness and surreality of Ferrante’s earlier books, and some have suggested she’s symbolic rather than real, but I don’t buy that. It would make nonsense of the story, and one thing Ferrante is not is nonsensical. If reality is strange, that’s just the way it is. Well, obviously, I could go on and on, and may do at a later date, but all I can say is… read these books! If you’re anything like me you’ll mark the days on your calendar until the fourth is due out, wherever you live.

MY LATEST LITERARY CRUSH: ROXANE GAY. I read her novel An Untamed State twice and sent her essay collection, Bad Feminist, to some of my favourite feminists. Here’s why I love her: An Untamed State is both subtle and fierce, a book concerned with violence and rape in a ravaged country that tries to get at some of the possible causes for both. Not to justify them, but to show that a society—Haiti, but just one of many—where the rich despise and fear the poor and treat them as disposable may not expect compassion from their throwaways. She shows us young men, restaveks (from rester avec) sent as children to live with strangers who work them and beat them but will at least feed them. What happens when those young men grow up? Gay shows us. I’ve never been to Haiti but through Gay’s words it comes alive as a place whose polarities are more extreme but not entirely dissimilar to Trinidad’s, a country that’s familiar to me and where my father comes from. Extremes of wealth and poverty, security guards, electronic gates, police corruption, constant vigilance. Kidnapping has been a scourge in both places, though it’s improved considerably in Trinidad over the past nine years.

Gay’s heroine, Mireille, is a fascinating woman, guarded, self-possessed, brave and honest—blindingly honest about not being able to survive her brutal experiences (she is gang-raped and tortured over 13 days) intact. Don’t expect me to transcend this, she lets us know, I’m lucky if I just get through it and can build something like a life, not the one I had before, mind you. A triumphant narrative would dishonour her experience. I once read an article comparing the different ways books are titled and marketed in the U.S. and Canada. A book called Conquering Back Pain in America was Coping With Back Pain in Canada. Mireille copes with what’s happened to her, she doesn’t conquer it, and yet, by coping, you could say she does conquer. There are so many levels of subtlety and understanding in this book, and still it hurtles along, heart-stopping—as Edwige Danticat says in her blurb, clear your schedule. You won’t be able to put it down. You may even have to read it twice.

In Bad Feminist we learn the source of some of Gay’s insights into Mireille’s suffering and recovery. Gay tells us she was gang-raped by a group of boys she considered friends when she was a young girl. It broke her, she says, and yet her writing is evidence that the woman who emerged has found ways to use what happened to her. After being broken, she put herself back together in a new way and began to talk, and write. About feminism, movies, class, racism (the four often intersect in this book). Love, sex, how to be political and politically incorrect at the same time. How to be stern and compassionate and humane. These essays are all of the above, as well as hilarious, passionate and sometimes devastating. Gay’s analysis of why she hates The Help may move you to angry tears, as the film did her. She finds the funny in outrage, and the serious in light subjects, and vice versa. Which is something else important to say about these essays: they are so much damn fun! More fun than any movie, I promise you that.

JENNY DISKI

I’ve fallen in love, only to find out that the object of my affections is dying. I’m speaking of Jenny Diski, whom I first encountered in the London Review of Books, through her brilliant, spiky diary entries. Maybe spiky is the wrong word: sharp might be better. She cultivates a steely objectivity about herself, with which to unfold the weird and traumatic circumstances of her life, then and now. A kind of anti-confessional memoirist, is how you might describe her. Her spectacularly incompetent and abusive parents were gone from her life entirely by the time she was about 18, before and after which she spent time in various mental institutions and other places, including, for a while, as a guest/lodger, in Doris Lessing’s home. Go here: to read about that.

I have recently finished Diski’s memoir, Skating to Antarctica, but she’s written many novels, essays, and other books of non-fiction, all of which I plan to work my way through. She writes about depression, say, or abandonment, with such wit and calm, you feel as if you’re sitting over tea with a friend who can be relied upon to tell you about her latest ordeal in ways that will make both of you laugh. Along with the laughter, some courage gets transferred.

I’m grieving over the news that this friend of mine who doesn’t even know we’re friends has been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. At the same time I’m grateful, in a self-interested way, that if anyone is going to write about her experience, perhaps in preparation for some future battle of my own, it’s Jenny Diski. Go here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n17/jenny-diski/a-diagnosis to read about her diagnosis. I dare you not to laugh. Jenny D is far too lucid and sensible to expect miracles, but nothing can prevent me from hoping for them on her behalf, even knowing that she’d consider such hope a cliché. As she points out, when it comes to cancer, cliches are unavoidable. So I’m greedy. I want all the words this wonderful woman can write.

MURIEL SPARK 

Canadian literary novelists are often accused (most often, it seems, by other Canadian literary novelists) of not knowing how to write humour. No writer has a particular obligation to be funny, or touching, or sad (unless that’s their intent) or to make their characters likeable (a whole other argument that I would like to return to later), but…. Muriel Spark. She’s a sorceress. If your knowledge of her is limited to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I’m jealous. You have so much ahead of you to enjoy:  Here are only three: The Girls of Slender Means, Loitering With Intent, and one that I just read thanks to Karen Connelly, A Far Cry from Kensington. How does she do it? Her books are often described as slender, but that description, like those desperate girls greasing themselves with butter to escape through the skylight, doesn’t fit. The books may be brief (Far Cry is 189 pages) but they’re dense with allusive humour, intrigue, action, weirdness, and dissections of cruelty. Ms Spark is not kind, but she’s humane. More and more, the writers I love are unsparing in the way they look at life, at other people, at themselves. Perhaps I’m trying to train myself out of sentimentality. If so, Muriel Spark is a good teacher. You never forget the people who suffer or die in her stories. Mary McGregor in …Miss Jean Brodie, Wanda, the dressmaker hounded into insanity in A Far Cry…, Joanna in The Girls of Slender Means, all of them die because of other people’s arrogance or callousness. Their deaths are ridiculous, written with lightness but not made light of. If you’re a writer you may be consumed by envy. I don’t think Ms Spark would be a good mother, a good lover, or even a good friend, but I’d stay up all night (and have done) to read her.

STEPHEN KING: ON WRITING

I have a confession. I find Stephen King too scary to read. Also, I sometimes get bored by the words themselves. But a bunch of women writers recommended his book On Writing to me and I am extremely grateful. I gobbled it up. The parts on his life have a kind of gossipy allure, but it was the way he wrote about his dedication to writing and his honest, unpretentious approach to the mechanics of it that all hooked me. It was fantastic, actually. I have a suspicion that we wouldn’t agree on many things, including the writers we admire, but it doesn’t matter. If you’re looking for a practical book that will also provide you some encouragement—I read this one when I was sorely in need of a hand on my shoulder, not to comfort me, but to give me shove, and propel me deeper into my work—this may be it for you. It was for me. Thank you, Stephen King. And thank you, Sarah Henstra and Suzanne Alyssa Andrew, for the salon where I heard about this book.

MAVIS GALLANT

One of the advantages to having an e-reader (I was a hold-out for years) is that you can carry around a stack of your favourite books to dip into whenever you feel like it. Short story collections, especially, lend themselves to intermittent reading on public transit. I’ve come late to a genuine appreciation of the short story. Early, and late, I should say. I was ruined for many short story writers by Mavis Gallant. I’ve still not found anyone to match her, though I’m sure that’s sacrilege to Chekhovians, among others. Somehow, she speaks to me. Her stories are worlds, both miniature and expansive, and as an expatriate myself I feel at home with her rootless cast of characters. She is so cool, so ruthless, so calmly honest. Not amoral, certainly, but an anti-moralist. Her Paris Stories are my favourites; I have a copy at home, and now one on my e-reader. Am I unusual in not always being entirely sure what’s happened, by the end of one of her stories? They seem to travel such a distance from their beginnings that it’s like being swept along by someone’s life. Sometimes the whole of a life, in one elegant telling. When I read “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” I thought of four-year-old Mavis being told by her mother “I’ll be back in ten minutes,” before being abandoned to boarding school. (Of course, Gallant having died not that long ago, we’ve been inundated with such personal details, but you don’t need them in order to love her work; you feel their existence, in between the words. Her life experience is embedded there, deepening her portraits of other people.) “Grippes and Poche” makes me laugh and suck in my breath, and “The Latehomecomer” is a plainsong of loneliness that I have to read twice to get every word. “Baum, Gabriel, 1935—“ simply moves me. I could go on, but soon I’d be giving a blow-by-blow of each story in the book, too much for a blog. For those of us old enough to have experienced World War II history as close and shocking, but young enough to not have lived through its actual events, the plain hard facts of postwar life, the absence of sympathy from people who want to forget the war, not relive it or hear your sob story, the inversion of ideas about who may have suffered, and how, and then the sudden reminder of exactly who did suffer, and how… it’s so layered and unprogrammatic. Again, so lifelike. So much of life, rather than like it. I find myself gasping, sometimes, when I read her stories. Or laughing, or crying, and then at a loss for words when I want to explain to someone else exactly why. How, when a story is so painful that each sentence is like being nicked with a razor, do I immediately want to read it again? One story not in The Paris Stories, but that I always group with them, is “The Four Seasons.” Since reading it years ago I’ve carried with me images of Carmela eating her first ice cream, her brother begging at the door of the house where she’s employed as a maid. Her employer’s big teeth, smiling to hide her fear at being stuck in the wrong place when war is declared. Gallant won’t tell you what to think about her characters and their stories; they won’t even do that themselves. They just sit with you, or lead you where they’re going and where they’ve been.

(Two other short story writers I want to talk about, also Canadian, also expatriates: Dawn Promislow and Ayelet Tsabari. More on both of them later.)

And by the way: Check out my book recommendations on The 49th Shelf. See if you agree!

JOSEPH ANTON by SALMAN RUSHDIE

I may have more to say about this, but here are a few thoughts:
Salman Rushdie has been reviled and ridiculed – most notably by Zoe Heller – for this chubby memoir. A friend gave it to me last Christmas and I was strangely compelled, even though parts are quite dull: the minutiae of housing arrangements, alimony payments, etc. And yet these housing arrangements are significant – necessary, after all, only because of the fatwa and the fact that, as Rushdie tells us, while the British government provided him security it didn’t find or pay for places for him to live. He had to rely on the charity of friends and use cardboard intermediaries to buy a house. He had to move any time the temporary shelter was blown.
Even the alimony, we might not know about, were it not for the fatwa – though perhaps we would. I remember the British press publishing reams about Martin Amis’s teeth – were it not for the fact that his first wife quite reasonably needed more money as the result of the constraints placed on her by the fatwa.
It’s not hard to see why women in particular have poked fun. Rushdie, who is… seems unable to control himself when it comes to exhibiting masculine pique. My favourite episode of tin ear was when Rushdie manages to sound piqued by the fact that his wife goes back and forth on what she needs from him while – wait for it – she’s in childbirth. Labour, you know. He seems offended that she can’t make up her mind.
There are other times when he is petty and self-justifying, the way we all are inside our heads, but where we try, most of us, to contain these feelings (inside our heads), if only for fear of mockery. Again, though, I was stopped by the thought that you can’t help but sound petty when you live in a prison. Your concerns, your world, your horizon, have all shrunk. And so sure, your complaints about the quality of the food or the view from your window may bring on yawns in your listeners, but they’re equally inspiring of pity.
The man really fucked up his last marriage, I’ll say that. And his pro forma expressions of guilt don’t really ring true. This is much on my mind at the moment – it’s the age, I guess. But marriages break down. People do cruel and unmentionable things to their loved ones.
What I really enjoyed was the way he talks about the process of writing. The way he describes the odd, fragmentary process of collecting ideas and notes, conversation overheard, family secrets buried and dredged up.
Ms. Heller, you have an axe to grind, I suspect. Something’s being worked off here, if only irritation, but it feels personal.

DEUX ROMANS FRANCAIS

A tale of two very different French novels – Trois femmes puissantes, by Marie Ndiaye, and HHhH, by Laurent Binet. Hardly a statistically relevant sample size, but they’ve revived my curiosity about French literary aesthetics. Both books are notable for their inventiveness, for each author’s willingness to toy with structure and form, and both have had mainstream literary success in France. Ndiaye won the Prix Goncourt in 2009, and Binet the Goncourt for Best First Novel in 2010. (The Goncourt, says Wikipedia, is for the “best and most imaginative prose work” in any given year.)

Trois femmes puissantes presents a fascinating challenge to the reader; not least because it’s almost anhedonic. More than once I wanted to stop – to pull back from a perspective so intimate it’s claustrophobic – but I had to know what happens to these people in dire emotional (and in the case of Kady Dhemba, also physical) straits. The novel is actually three sections, or novellas, connected only tenuously – a character central in one will be mentioned or glimpsed in another. Otherwise these novellas, like their characters, are virtual strangers to each other: they pass and glance off one another but never meet. The characters live almost devoid of physical or emotional pleasure, comfortless and isolated, trapped in their own cells even when not alone. The three titular strong women are Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba. Norah goes reluctantly to Senegal to visit her father, who abandoned her along with her mother and sister and now wants her help. Fanta is shown almost entirely through the eyes of her husband, Rudy, who brought her to France from Dakar with false promises of security and now totters on the verge of a catastrophic breakdown. Khady is a young widow tormented and cast out by unfeeling in-laws who see no value in her because she hasn’t produced a child. Parental neglect, broken contracts, the indifference and unkindness of human beings towards each other – all these are recurring themes, as is individual loneliness.

Ndiaye is an ironist of the Beckettian sort, a pitiless observer whose relentless vision radiates compassion. Recognized in France as a superb linguistic stylist, she writes long, complex sentences (her second novel was apparently comprised of one 96-page sentence) that contribute to the deep inner psychology she depicts so finely. When it comes to the senses, she draws most on touch and smell. There are almost no images in this book, barring a handful, spare and stark, that become motifs. These, she repeats, sometimes with surreal effect – a flowering tree, a woman’s strong, delicate foot, a malevolent bird – again and again, to emphasize her characters’ extreme states of mind. It’s definitely the internal rather than the external world that interests her most, and yet somehow I feel I know the environments her characters inhabit, as I know them, from the inside out rather than the other way around. These people are all obsessives of one kind or another, their obsessions and needs often bordering on the pathological, and Ndiaye’s style – those long sentences, the circling thoughts and repetition – deliberately emphasizes this. Physicality permeates this book, from the rhythms of her language to the visceral depictions of physical suffering, both minor and severe. She forces her readers up close to pain, with humiliating details that always signify further damage: Norah’s sudden incontinence (with its obvious but mysterious relationship to emotional trauma), Rudy’s inflamed hemorrhoids, Khady Demba’s infected wound. Kady Dhemba’s physical suffering begins rather than ends with that wound, and her emotional suffering began long before that. Her situation is the most extreme, and she’s the most abandoned of all Ndiaye’s people, which is saying a lot. Her story is heartbreaking, but one of the things I most love and admire about Ndiaye’s prose is its deceptively cool, deliberately unsentimental lucidity, which makes the emotional blows it deals all the more surprising and profound. How can a book that is, at times, excruciating to read make you want to read it again? I don’t know, but that was its effect on me.

One of the first things that struck me about HHhH is how pleasurable it is. Odd that a book whose subject is, on the surface, so serious – grim, even – should be so extremely entertaining. The book is technically a novel, but the events are real – Operation Anthropoid, the botched but eventually successful assassination by two young Czech agents, trained in Britain, of senior SS officer and primary architect of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich, in Prague. While one assailant’s gun jammed the other threw a grenade that injured Heydrich (he died eventually of septicemia) and the ensuing search for the assassins and their accomplices, who were trapped in a church and then bombarded until they were killed or shot themselves, makes up the suspenseful final pages of the book. So a novel based on real events, but as Binet is at pains to tell us – he inserts the story of his writing the book into the book itself, so that it becomes as much his story as the assassination attempt – he does not believe in inventing when it comes to history. He devotes some of his attention (quite a bit, in fact, but most of these parts were excised by his publisher) to his misgivings about Jonathan Littell’s fictional Nazi officer in The Kindly Ones. To read the excised parts, translated into English, you can visit The Millions, which obtained exclusive permission to reprint them, in English:

http://www.themillions.com/2012/04/exclusive-the-missing-pages-of-laurent-binets-hhhh.html

As you will see from these excerpts, Binet as character in his own book is charming, impassioned and narcissistic. He lays out his artistic and ethical principles plainly, and is honest about his creative insecurities. I was amused by his open admissions of anxiety and his jealous insecurity when faced with books (such as Littell’s) whose subject matter comes close to his. I’m not sure whether I agree with him on all counts about the veracity of historical fiction, but you can’t accuse him of under-thinking the subject. He’s both playful and sincere, a winning combination. So, when I finished HHhH I was surprised to realize how superficial the experience had been. I can’t quite figure out why, either. I was entertained, amused, and on occasion – though not often, and not extremely, which is another surprise, given the subject – moved. Maybe it’s something to do with his methods. If Ndiaye’s book was non-visual, Binet’s is non-physical. In spite of references to the corpses piled on top of each other at Babi Yar, or the wounds suffered by Heydrich and his assassins, I had almost no sense of the human body, or even, really, the human psyche, other than Binet’s, as being part of the book. Is that a problem? Not unless Binet intended otherwise. In the end, HHhH is primarily a critical treatise – a charming, thought-provoking treatise. What’s stayed with me are the author’s questions about writing, about the use of history in fiction, or fiction in history, more than the heroic figures who killed Heydrich – as human beings, they’re simulacra – more, even, than Heydrich himself. Impossible to tell what kind of man he was, from Binet, other than vicious, and in spite of some details about his early career disappointments, etc., it seems Binet has no real interest in character analysis. In spite of some excellent tension-building devices near the end, the book is a cerebral pleasure rather than a visceral experience, and for some reason this came as a surprise to me – it was something I didn’t figure out until the very end. I’d read it again, too, for sheer fun.

So there you have it. Two books. Quite different, quite recognizably French.

AND ONE VERY AMERICAN BOOK. FAULKNER, PART 1, TO BE CONTINUED……

Think about transformative books. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is one. I’d never read it, not until a few months ago. Each chapter, each voice, is so dense and mysterious. Once I’d finished I had to go back to the beginning and start again, slowly, just to figure out “how does he do that?” How, for example, does he reveal so subtly the secret thoughts and inner life of each member of the Bundren family, each of whom is isolated from and yet bound to the other. All of whom are hostage to the whims of its patriarch, Anse. The grim progress of Addie Bundren’s coffin with her body rotting inside it – it’s biblical in its inevitability, and yet so ordinary and plain. This is a world in which no one can afford pity, let alone empathy.

Perhaps because I lived in England until my mid-teens, there are aspects of North America – particularly the United States – that are still exotic and unutterably strange to me. I remember reading John Cheever, J.D. Salinger and Hubert Selby, and it was as if I was reading dispatches from another planet. Louisa May Alcott was an alien, more so than Charles Dickens. It may be hard to conceive now how hazy one’s impression could be, then, of America. We had no internet, three channels on the television, and the weird hodgepodge of American culture that did come our way was confusing. I read those books in a very imperfectly understood context. Faulkner took me back to that sense of astonishment, and showed me that while I’ve absorbed a lot since then of what being American might mean, it’s still a foreign world to me. More on this later, no doubt.

THE NEXT BIG THING INTERVIEW


In this 10-question interview flying from blog to blog, writers talk about the Next Big Thing they’re working on, then tag five other writers, each of whom does the same, tagging another five, and so on….. A kind of literary chain letter, only not annoying, but fascinating – I promise!

Thanks to Christine Fischer Guy, who’s tagged me, I’m talking about my novel-in-progress, Tunapuna. Here goes.

What is the working title of your book?
Tunapuna –  the name of a place in Trinidad, near Port of Spain.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
My first visit to Trinidad, after my father’s death. It was so different and yet so recognizable from things he had told me. What I found was a place of intense physical beauty and social unease. People who love the beauty and live with the unease. “Trinis are very good at pretending,” one woman told me on a recent visit. She meant as a survival mechanism in order to live with the crime and violence that are a constant threat, but it goes deeper and wider than that, I think.

I wanted to write from the perspective of a white Trinidadian born in the early 1930s and self-conscious about his family history and his own place in the world. That character has become someone other than the man I first imagined, and now I have a messy fictional world with betrayals, accidents and car crashes. The inmates have taken over the asylum. Which is fitting, since my father grew up across from St. Ann’s Asylum in Port of Spain.

What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction, I suppose, though my last novel was accused by one reviewer of having sex scenes too lurid for cable TV, so who knows? This book is actually split into three overlapping stories, (three narrators or main points of view), and at this point I have the idea they may be three short novels, rather than one long one.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d resurrect the British actor Robert Morley to play Henry, the character inspired (very loosely, I want to say) by my father. My father looked enough like Mr. Morley that he was once chased along a Tobago beach by a fan who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Much to his chagrin, I might add: Robert Morley was not known for his beauty, but, like my father, he was known to be a man of considerable charm.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A white Trinidadian abandons his birthplace but can’t escape its pull on him. Or maybe: An uneasy friendship between white and mixed-race men in 1950s Trinidad has surprising consequences. I’m never very good at synopses. I want to treat them like my purse and cram everything in, just in case.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Anne McDermid is my agent.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The draft that I discarded took three years. The one I’m working on now, which is to all intents and purposes a different book, has taken a year so far. It seems to be progressing faster than the previous one, but that feels like tempting fate. So let’s just say it’s going along.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I’ll take the wishful thinking approach to this. When I write I think primarily in terms of character – Graham Greene’s fish-out-of-water narrators, Jane Gardam’s Edward Feathers. My characters’ lives are tamer  and more attenuated than Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose family but I feel a kinship to his severely dysfunctional people and their tattered histories.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Two people, and a place. My father, who died in 2004 and my uncle, who still lives in Trinidad and whose exasperated love for his home has been eye-opening for me. And Trinidad itself, one of the most beautiful, complicated and frustrating places I’ve known.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Sex, race, violence, family intrigue, Carnival…. who could resist that combination? Seriously, a society in flux is always interesting. My three male protagonists see their country through war, independence, Black Power demonstrations, coups. As white men, their place in society changes substantially. The third story in my trio features one of the violent crimes that have become notorious in Trinidad – I don’t want to be more specific than that for fear of jinxing a work in progress.

Here’s a smidgen of Tunapuna. The aftermath of a disastrous scouting trip.  


When Marcus came back with the fishermen, boats were loaded up and the troop returned to Port of Spain. There was an inquest. No one had known that Feltes couldn’t swim. People drowned, they all knew, but not, somehow, that it could happen like that: a boy could drown from one minute to the next.  Be breathing and then not. So quickly, go from thrashing elbows to sack-like heaviness. Or that Mr. Ram himself can swim no more than a few yards and was therefore powerless to help. He will no longer be Scout Master, the boys whisper to each other. Everyone’s sorry about that. Cross speaks up for his colleague’s admirable qualities and an agreement is made that he will lead the troop with Mr. Ram’s assistance. In Henry’s dreams the drowning recurs; he sinks, and as he goes down, looks into Feltes’s open eyes, his mouth trying to speak – though this is something he did not see.

And now I’m tagging four talented writers. Visit their sites and find out about them and their work.

Dawn Promislow
Ann Shin
Shari LaPeña
Lana Pesch

Message for tagged authors:

Rules of the Next Big Thing

***Use this format for your post
***Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
***Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:
What is your working title of your book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.
Be sure to line up your five people in advance.

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