Thoughts on New Books by Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Michael Hughes

I’ve recently read a couple of new books and thought I’d cover both of them in one post. Both are multilayered, covering different stories and viewpoints, and they fit together fairly well.

I’m becoming more accustomed to reading crime. I enjoy it. Why Did You Lie by Yrsa Sigurdardottir thoroughly freaked me out. She begins with the culmination of four people’s stay in a remote Icelandic lighthouse. Two of them are in the water and one of them is stabbing another with a knife. What’s happening here? The novel has two other strands: a family back from their holiday has found that the American couple they have house-swapped with have been very inconsiderate and a policewoman is trying to hold down a job within her misogynistic unit and hoping that her husband, who has attempted suicide, comes out of his coma. We are also taken back in time, to see how the people on the lighthouse ended up in their situation.

Why Did You Lie is a seriously well-crafted crime novel. Sigurdardottir knows how to create a cliffhanger and she cranks the fear right up. There were some parts that didn’t seem as well thought out, however. For instance, the policewoman seems fairly detached, at first, from her husband ‘s attempted suicide. This husband was also her best friend and we don’t find out him being in hospital straight away. But, apart from a few little complaints, this was a book I got through quickly. I’d like to read more of Sigurdardottir’s work.

A book I enjoyed less was The Countenance Divine. It’s ambitious, taking place in four different eras: in 1999 when a computer programmer tries to fix the Millennium Bug; in 1888, in Jack the Ripper London; in 1777, when William Blake has a religious experience; and in 1666, when John Milton is finishing ‘Paradise Lost’. This book should appeal to fans of Cloud Atlas but, for me, there’s something missing. It’s all very Dead White Men doing Great Things and stopping the world ending, whereas Cloud Atlas was more about how different people experience their respective environments. I found The Countenance Divine to be fairly unsubtle and I just didn’t get on with it. One thing that attracted me to the book was a quote by Toby Litt, which said the book was like ‘a brilliant cross between David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel’ and I just don’t see where, apart from writing about the seventeenth century, this Mantel comparison comes from. Maybe I was expecting too much from this book. Perhaps it will appeal to you, though!

Thank you to BookBridgr for sending me both of these titles.


Thoughts on Sara Pascoe’s Animal

I have neglected my blog in the past month. For the usual blog not-posting reasons. Life things, business, general anger and inability to read due to the shit-storm that was the EU referendum… But here we are, now. I finished Animal by Sara Pascoe in the heady days before the UK became un-united, and am just now finding myself able to think about normal things again.

So! Animal is an amazing book. My boyfriend works in a bookshop and he asked me where I’d put it – funny books, memoir, feminism? I said yes, he could put it in any of those. I have a weakness for these Smart Thinking books – I find them interesting, especially the psychological ones. In fact, I’ve been reading this sort of book far more than novels this year. But back to the book: Animal made me see the ways in which we are very much part of the animal world, no matter how much we believe ourselves distant from it. We’re constantly reacting to stimuli; there are reasons why women are made to feel so awful by advertising. We may think that we’re in love / lust because of somebody’s sense of humour or intellect (or whatever…) but, even if we don’t want children, our bodies assume that we do. We pick people based on how well we think they would raise children. We are responding to our hormones, our chemicals.

Pascoe goes into the history of dating and mating and sex and why we do all of these strange things. We are not special, hyper-evolved beings. We are animals. We have a well-developed part of our brain that is bolted on to the side (top?) of our mammal and reptile brains, so we don’t always use it. From my now seemingly nihilistic viewpoint, it explains a lot. Pascoe goes into the reasons why we, for instance, commonly mate off in pairs. We have evolved to have this tendency because human babies need a lot of care:

‘CANCEL THE ORGY! The science books say we lived in social groups but with strongly bonded pairs raising their own children.’

And then there’s the memoir aspect of the book. Pascoe goes into her own sexual history, her background which informed her future relationships and the relationship she has with her body. Pascoe discusses everything honestly; it feels painfully relatable but almost revolutionary. We often avoid talking about such things. She writes:

‘It’s scary how much of my inner monologue is consumed by debating food choices, berating myself for what I’ve recently eaten and promising I’ll do better. […] My weight has stopped me doing things, has kept me from parties and dinners and awards ceremonies because the stress of attempting to look ‘nice’ has beaten me.’

I too have not gone out because my body didn’t look “right”, and I suppose most women have. But we don’t say this. We meekly cut important food-groups from our diets and blame ourselves, punishing ourselves for our transgressions. We at least need to acknowledge this as a serious issue.

And then, because it’s written by a comedian, there were plenty of moments when I was reading Animal when I actually and genuinely laughed out loud. A book like this could be so dry: there are a lot of facts in it. But, conversely, it could have been too much of a piss-take; I’ve read a few books by comedians and, although they can be funny, the comedian sometimes wants to be funny at the cost of everything else, which can undermine what they are saying. But this was a smart compromise.

So, I don’t know where I would put Animal in a bookshop. Pascoe has invented her own scientific-humour-memoir genre and I want to read more of it.

On Beige Short Stories

This article over on the Guardian by Mark Haddon is bloody wonderful. It helped me put my finger on something that has been irking me about some short stories I’ve been reading lately. Close reading stories has been an interesting exercise for me (and I’ve written some of my thoughts here, here and here). I found that certain stories which I enjoyed first time around are flimsy and dull when I re-read them. I’ve even avoided writing about some of the stories I intended to blog about because I just couldn’t be bothered to think enough about them after I’d finished reading, well-written enough though they were.

I think that people on writing courses are taught to see short stories in a particular way. I’ve noticed that I get higher marks if I play it safe in my stories, so perhaps others have found the same thing. I think this is a shame because, in our busy-worshiping lives, we need to grab attention if we want actual readers to notice our stories. This line of Haddon’s particularly stood out to me: ‘It seems to me that if you are writing a short story and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.’ I would rather watch Netflix than read another ho-hum short story, and for a long time I thought this was a failing of mine. Perhaps I wasn’t actually cut out to be a prose writer! Over the last two years I have become rather fond of the short story form, but only when it is done well. The strongest short story collection I have read recently is Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. She isn’t trying to impress, because she’s Margaret Atwood. You get the sense in Stone Mattress that she’s just trying to amuse herself and, because of this, the stories are fun to read.

We are taught Chekhov and Carver. When we are taught that only one type of story is the sort of story we should be writing, it makes for some dull, beige stories. Particularly if the writer is just doing a bad impression of a writer they think they should emulate. Perhaps we are not even consciously taught this, perhaps this is just what people think short stories are.

I enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and am looking forward to reading Mark Haddon’s new short story collection.

‘Make It Be Spring’

‘Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.’

– ‘February’ by Margaret Atwood.

I’ve just finished Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection, Eating Fire. It’s a selection of thirty years of her poetry from 1965 – 1995. Poetry collections are not the first books I reach for. I enjoy some spoken word poetry enormously, and have read some amazing poems recently that have just been echoing around my mind. But I struggle with some written poetry. I feel like I’m learning, though. There are some amazing poems in Eating Fire and I can see myself re-reading this over and over again.

‘February’ struck a big chord with me in particular because it’s actually February now (wow, right?!) and this month is the absolute worst. It’s bleak and your body is craving spring and light and warmth (and chocolate eggs) and it’s not getting them. Though I’m not experiencing the dreaded Winter Blues as much as usual this year, I am craving spring. Loved ones are over winter, we all just want it to be over now. The signs are there: daffodils and bluebells and snowdrops are around. It’s getting lighter again in the evenings. It’s coming, but it’s coming too slowly!

‘Winter. Time to eat fat / and watch hockey / […] February, month of despair, / with a skewered heart in the centre. / I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries / with a splash of vinegar.’

The forced romanticism of Valentine’s Day can make the bleak February feel worse. Even if you do have a partner, if you don’t feel romantic on that day then you can feel like a failure. And if you’re single, it’s probably best to hibernate until the disgusting pink chocolate hearts disappear. The one upside of February, though, and a day I always enjoy more than Valentine’s, is Pancake Day. We need more Pancake Days in February.

Or, better than that, make it be spring.

I find that I can get the ideas and images of one poem in my head at a time, which is a very different experience to how I read fiction. I get astounded with poems which get stuck in my head – how has the author managed to get across these ideas in that small amount of words? And it’s often simple ideas, such as how the seasons can affect how you feel, which can most stand out to a reader.

The Loney and Modern Gothic Fiction

The Loney is an interesting book to write about (not least because spell-check keeps asking if you do, actually, mean ‘lonely’). In some ways I feel as though I have read this kind of book before, yet in some cases it is clearly taking old tropes and refreshing them in an interesting way.

The tale starts when the narrator and his mute brother, Hanny, are children of deeply religious parents, are on an Easter pilgrimage to an area around The Loney, an isolated strip of land, in the hope that Hanny will start talking again. Attention is called to the ancient feel of the place, the idea that there are parts of this desolate landscape which haven’t had human contact for hundreds of years. I liked this particularly Gothic aspect of the novel; there is a timelessness to this place, a sense of the past and the present colliding in unsettling ways.

Present-day London seems like a far more recognizable world, as opposed to the narrator’s childhood exploits around the Loney. A baby’s body has been found in the Loney and this story is all over the news. The narrator has his own life in this familiar world, where he has been receiving therapy. He sees scraps of his therapist’s handwriting during his sessions – apparently he is a ‘fantasist’. Is our narrator unreliable? This increases the sense of unease.

Something that has always stopped me from loving Gothic fiction is the lack of humour and lightness in such novels. Gothic novels are melodramatic; where there is melodrama, there can’t be much silliness to lighten the mood. The amplifying of tragedy is precisely what makes these novels so scary. It’s interesting, towards the end, when we are taken to the present day. The sense of unease has gone. Things feel lighter.

I think another thing which I have found difficult in reading Gothic fiction is the gendered roles (the hysterical or virginal girl, the big evil man). The narrator, a boy, takes on the role of Andrew’s carer, something his parents should be doing. Mummer is a fairly unsympathetic figure, while Farther (sic) seems more kind, if absent.

Religion features heavily in these books. It is sad to see what Mummer and the rest of her group of friends on the pilgrimage do to their own children, because they think that they are saving their souls. In one flashback, a boy is made to clench his fists around nettles by a priest. This is upsetting and baffling to me, but I think that the novel gave me an insight into these characters’ internal lives. They actually think that they are helping to save these children.

The Loney examines themes I tend not to read very often, in a genre I am wary of. It reads very quickly. It is a huge achievement for a debut novel, which initially was given a very small print run and then went on to win the 2015 Costa First Novel Award. It’s interesting to think about why this is. Why has a novel based on a popular 18th century genre become so popular? Dracula and other vampires became popular during the period of colonialism, representing the selfish fears of the old British Empire. I think that this novel may reflect some deeper fears about contemporary Britain.

On Beauty and Feminism

I recently finished two books about beauty and make-up – Sali Hughes’ Pretty Honest and Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint. I find these books very easy to read. I have always seen beauty and make-up as something fun, probably beginning when my grandma gave me a box of blue eyeshadow when I was eight (which I then used to emulate Victoria Beckham (!) when we put on a Spice Girls performance for our entire street, but that’s a different story. I wonder what I looked like…). I understand that many people have a problem with make-up, and I certainly do like to go bare-face because Patriarchy, but I love the glamour and fun in make-up. I go through phases with it, not being bothered sometimes and then lusting after fancy products. But then I think about capitalism and am put off again. But I like painting up my face and isn’t that what feminism should be about? – is the point of this paragraph.

So! To Pretty Honest. I love Sali Hughes’ writing for The Pool and The Guardian so was eager to read this. It’s no-nonsense advice – telling you who makes the best and worst particular products. She tells you what you really don’t need, and which products are a con, which was enlightening and is rare in beauty writing. Everybody seems so intertwined – products are highly praised and forgotten about when they have sold their quotas. Hughes really knows her stuff – which method of hair removal is most effective / painful; which brands make the best certain things. If you enjoy makeup but want to experiment or learn more, this is the book for you. Also, since following the advice in here, my skin has never looked better.

Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint was also amazing. It detailed the history of make-up, from pre-history to Hollywood to now. I found it interesting that (obvious) make-up was frowned upon when women had little to no rights. Red lipstick was worn by suffragettes in defiance of men who wanted them to look natural. I went through a vintage Hollywood-obsessive phase in my teenage years, so loved the chapters about those eras. The history of brands we know and love and popular brands that disappeared. Prior to a certain point, as well, men wore make up. People all over the world have painted their faces throughout history. It deserves to be explored.

I found it interesting that both of these books emphasise women. They are written by feminists who both love make-up, something that feminists (including me) seem to feel the need to confess. Surely, the more preferable thing is what Eldridge and Hughes are already doing – unashamedly basking in their love of make-up. Traditionally feminine things, such as make-up, are often ridiculed as being non-intellectual, as if that is important. Traditionally feminine pursuits are not bringing feminism down, internalised misogyny is. We all care about how we look to other people. Why ridicule people for it? It seems an old fashioned thing to do.

I Finished #TBR20!

I did it! I was flagging towards the end. If I were to do a challenge like this again I would choose each book as I go. In fact, that’s pretty much what I’m doing now, as I begin to read books that have piled up since January (!) when I started this challenge. I suppose that you often think that you will get around to all of the books you buy but, sometimes, you never end up feeling like it. This challenge has definitely made me think more when I buy books: am I really going to read it? Or will it just sit on a shelf for years?

I read, or skim-read and gave to Oxfam, all of those.

#17: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
This is a big book. I liked some of the ideas in here. People are always very quick to talk about how awful everything is now, without giving a lot of thought to their statements. This book aims to prove that humans have become more peaceful; but how can something like this be proved? It is a huge book but, funnily enough, I felt that it didn’t go into as much detail as I wanted it to. The premise is interesting but is it too much for one book?

#18: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore’s writing is amazing, but I didn’t enjoy this plot. In the middle of the book the tension starts to pick up and then it just stops – there are a lot of words at the end that just seem to be there to make it novel-length. I can’t wait to read some of her short stories. I love her wordplay and her darkness.

#19: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
It’s Wuthering Heights. There are wiley and windy moors. I haven’t read a Victorian novel for a long time, so this made a for a nice change of pace. However, I didn’t love it. It reminded me of Ann Radcliffe’s rather humourless Gothic stories, which I had to read at university (and which Jane Austen lampooned in Northanger Abbey).

#20: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
This novel is written in Victorian-style prose and, although I admire what Catton has done, I just wasn’t into it. It is impressive because I had just finished a Victorian novel and the writing style seemed realistic, but it wasn’t for me. Because it was the last book of the challenge I wanted to finish it, but life’s too short.

Another thing this challenge has taught me is that we can only read a finite number of books, so they might as well be books that you enjoy. I don’t see the point in trying to plough through a book that doesn’t grab you, even if it has won awards or is regarded as a classic.

Thank you Eva Stalker for inventing #TBR20. It’s been interesting!