There’s a special pleasure for a reader who falls in love with characters from a novel and a decade later unexpectedly meets some of those characters again in a new book. It’s like knowing someone for a brief intense period of time and then running into them in the supermarket one day or receiving a surprise friend request from them on Facebook. Oh hello! It’s you. Authors such as Marilynne Robinson, Rachel Joyce and Kate Atkinson have carried characters throughout different novels showing them from other perspectives or periods in their lives. But they are part of distinct series designed and marketed as such. It’s different when you’re reading a new book and suddenly realize why these characters feel familiar.

Ten years ago I read Patrick Ryan’s extraordinary debut novel “Send Me” which focuses on different members of the Kerrigan family and their individual stories over a number of years. It builds a rounded understanding of how families divide, re-bond, change and grow over time. In his new book of short stories “The Dream Life of Astronauts” two stories include Frankie, a vibrantly original personality and one of the sons from the Kerrigan family. Other members of the family appear as well, but in more periphery roles. The title story shows Frankie in his teenage years when he becomes fixated on a former astronaut (who never actually made it into space) named Clark. A crucial misunderstanding occurs when Frankie is drawn into Clark’s life in a way which is both comical and moving.

What’s so compelling about Frankie is that he has a tremendous amount of conviction about who he is and what he wants despite being an oddball. He doesn’t allow himself to be swayed or feel judged by society’s rules because his eyes are focused on the stars. This becomes even more apparent when he appears in the story ‘Earth, Mostly’ at a later point in his life when he’s living back at home with his mother. We see him from the perspective of a feisty young girl who appreciates his radical other-worldly outlook. Because I was already familiar with Frankie, it was fascinating and exciting to get these different slants on his life. However, already knowing Frankie and his mother Mrs Kerrigan is simply an added bonus. It’s certainly not essential to have read Ryan’s first novel to get a lot out of this richly rewarding and highly enjoyable book of short stories.

Ryan has a perceptive way of writing about the nuances of sexuality and sexual impulses which can often lead to confusion as much as revelation. In these two stories and many of the others we follow the characters in their ill-advised flirtations, motel rendezvous, infidelities and the painful aftermath of breakups. These often misguided adventures are riveting to read about as well providing a sympathetic look at how romance is just as confusing for a pregnant teenager who dreams of becoming model/pageant girl as it is for a cuckolded husband or a frisky grandmother. They also show how sexual adventures can be a way of testing the boundaries of identity, but as one character states: “The problem with becoming someone else is that you’re still stuck with you.” Oftentimes the stories defy the reader’s expectations where a rascal turns out to be a surprising gentleman, a vulnerable teenager proves how he’s fully confident about his homosexuality or a depressed mother becomes a strong source of support. It’s particularly impactful how Ryan portrays the painful influence jealousy between spouses and acrimonious divorces can have on children over time.

The Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.

The Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.

These stories are set in Florida and often have links to Cape Canaveral/the Kennedy Space Center. These connections can be loose as in the story ‘Summer of ‘69’ set on an orange grove/farm where a tough, diligent girl finds a hardened sense of independence while a rocket is launched into space in the background. Whereas ‘Go Fever’ portrays characters directly involved in working on launching the Space Shuttle Challenger before its explosion in 1986 but focuses on a man’s conviction that his wife is trying to poison him. The concept in the title of this story works as a powerful metaphor for how even if we’re not prepared for certain things in life we often optimistically go forward with them despite the strong possibility of failure. The atmosphere of these settings give a sense that while our civilization has grand aspirations for progress, ordinary people are still working out the complexities of amicably getting along together. Like many people of my generation, the Challenger explosion is a particularly poignant moment in the history of the US. The perspectives these stories give on the alternate successes and failures of the space program build to make a larger statement about our transforming American ideals.

It’s wonderful to discover in Patrick Ryan’s latest book that he still has a keen sense for the oftentimes absurd/comic situations people stumble into in life while earnestly pursuing their goals. The writing is laden with powerful detail such as when a girl enters a sleazy agent’s home and notices “The shag carpet is the color of avocado meat.” This makes a strong visual image in the reader's mind as well as painting a fittingly sinister atmosphere. His characters are imbued with a wonderful sense of humanity while also being fantastically entertaining to read about. They are the type who will still linger somewhere in the back of your imagination long after reading about them. Clearly they still occupy this writer’s mind as he continues to compellingly expand and fill out the fictional worlds they inhabit.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPatrick Ryan

One of the things I love about the anthology “The Long Gaze Back” (which I read at the end of last year) is how it has tipped me off to so many great writers! I first read Lisa McInerney’s writing here before she won the Baileys Prize this year and I also read Lucy Caldwell’s short story ‘Multitudes’ in this anthology. I was immediately struck by the intense energy and emotion of this tale about the perilous days immediately following a birth when a newborn’s life is in danger because of an unexpected illness. This story has an amazing way of viewing this difficult time period in a broader context through titled segments while also conveying the heartrending fear the new parents felt moment by moment. It suggests the thin, perilous lines between one kind of fate and another in life. ‘Multitudes’ has now become the title story in Lucy Caldwell’s most recent book of short stories. I was delighted to find that the author’s other new fiction in this book expresses an equally exciting rigour and creativity.

Many of these stories focus on periods of adolescence or teenage years in their characters’ lives. These are periods of extreme physical, sexual and emotional change. Everything can feel full of possibility or like it is all coming to an end. As the narrator of the story ‘Poison’ states “there's a certain intensity that only a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old girl can possess.” Here a woman recalls her time in school when she became infatuated with a teacher who had married a former pupil after she graduated. The narrator worms her way into his life with disastrous consequences. What this tense story expresses so acutely is the new kind of power teenagers are imbued with in their final years before fully entering adulthood.

This power is something that can be used against other people or against themselves as in the story 'Killing Time'. Here the thirteen year old narrator spontaneously decides to try killing herself, but only takes a minor dosage of paracetamol. However, in her naivety she believes she’s truly in mortal danger. This sparks a fear in her for her life and is a process by which she tests her own limitations. She only learns the true finality of death when the family loses their beloved pet.

Loss on a greater scale is explored powerfully in other stories such as 'Inextinguishable' where a mother recalls a classical song her daughter urged her to listen to shortly before the girl’s unexpected death. It’s about the way grief sinks in and remains a part of us as well as the regret over missed opportunities for moments of connections with someone who is now lost forever. The spectre of a dead daughter also hangs over the story 'Cyprus Avenue' where a man flies from his new home in England back to Belfast to make the routine Christmas visit. During the journey he encounters an old neighbour named Nirupam which gives him a new awareness for the racial bigotry this man experienced as a boy. Nirupam also rekindles a sense for the life of the narrator’s deceased sister who Nirupam knew as a child and his memories restore a comfort to this family still silently and secretly grieving.

The tension between remaining and leaving Northern Ireland is played out in other stories as well. In 'Chasing' a young woman returns to Belfast after going to art school in London and feels caught between two states of mind. She questions the limits of what she wants. Another story 'Escape Routes' explores leaving in a broader way where a child discovers that there are different options in life outside the norm from a babysitter. The child is coached by this older boy in how to find secret routes in a video game. This symbolically shows that there are codes and signs we’re periodically given in life and that these are “the secret messages that people are trying to tell you, that are there to be read, if only you know how.” Where some people are intent on smothering your sense of self so that you feel like you can’t be anything other than who, what and where you’re born into, other generous people we meet can suggest ways in which you can be yourself more freely elsewhere.

"The Belle dress is a bright shimmery yellow and in the soft light it looks like gold... It would be impossible to be sad in that dress."

"The Belle dress is a bright shimmery yellow and in the soft light it looks like gold... It would be impossible to be sad in that dress."

This is a message which is expressed emphatically in the story 'Through the Wardrobe'. This story is narrated in the second person where "you" is a boy who once wanted so badly to wear a Disney Princess Belle dress as a six year old. It’s the point where he detected a difference inside himself and found “it's not outside you're scared of. It's something inside, and you can't explain it, but you know, just know, that in the dress you'd be safe from it.” This story urges the boy and all of us to hold onto our inner conviction. It shows that presenting ourselves as truly and authentically as possible is what’s right – even if our families, friends and communities tell us it’s wrong. It’s the knowledge that we are being true to ourselves which will see us through any adversity or attempts by others to diminish who we are.

Testing the fluidity of gender identity and sexuality is explored in other stories as well. In 'Here We Are’ a woman recalls her teenage passion for another girl named Angela in her school. Their romantic relationship builds to a point that feels exactly right for their development, but is abruptly cut off because of the small-minded religiousness of Angela’s father and the girl’s inability to turn her back upon him. It doesn’t alter the narrator’s conviction of what she wants as what was true in the moment of their togetherness won’t ever change. Another perspective is shown in the story 'Thirteen' where the narrator is trapped feeling she doesn’t know what she wants when her closest friend unexpectedly moves away. She falters through a number of drunken and misguided possibilities which only teach her to distance herself from her feelings in order to dampen their intensity.

The stories in this collection are beautifully framed by the first story 'The Ally Ally O' in which the eldest daughter of a family and her siblings are being driven around by their mother in a game called “Getting Lost.” This story expresses the fragility of life because calamitous changes can happen at any moment, yet there is also a strong sense of hope and opportunity to be found no matter what way you turn. These stories have a unique power to draw you into their reality and make you feel a part of it. “Multitudes” is a moving and sophisticated collection of stories that sing with deeper meaning.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLucy Caldwell

It’s easy to be drawn into the lives of the characters in Carys Bray’s novel “The Museum of You”. Twelve-year-old Clover is filled with joy as it’s the beginning of the summer holidays so she has time to work in an allotment garden. She lives in North West England with her single father Darren who is a bus driver and next door to Mrs Mackerel, a comical older woman who is a bit deaf: “She has two settings: loud, for normal words, and extra loud, for the words she wants to be certain have been heard.” They have endearing routines where time in front of the television watching a baking show or a movie (rather than isolating them as individuals) creates opportunities when these characters can connect in genuine and realistic ways. Clover herself has a unique perspective of the world as well as a nerdish interest in museums. But there is a striking absence in Clover’s house where her mother Becky’s former room is filled with objects from her life which are understood to be off limits. This is a woman Clover has never known so in secret she goes about collecting and curating an exhibit about her mother’s life as a form of dedication and an act of discovery to understand what happened to her. It’s difficult to find a strategy to write about absence and grief in a way which isn’t maudlin. Yet Bray has created a story which fills your imagination with simple objects that become laden with an enormous amount of emotional meaning. It leads the reader on a path of discovery as Darren must confront painful memories and adjust how he relates to his growing daughter.

It’s quite original to read a story whose story revolves so strongly around a father and daughter. Their relationship is really sensitively drawn. It is obviously very loving, but there are certain kinds of silence which have grown around the missing mother and it is understood between them that it’s a subject not to be broached: “When you grow up in the saddest chapter of someone else’s story, you’re forever skating on the thin ice of their memories.” This is a beautiful way of describing how children are affected by painful emotional issues in their parents’ lives. Because Clover is developing into a woman Becky’s absence is felt all the more crucially as Darren fumbles around trying to buy books about womanhood to fill the educational gap a mother could provide.

Clover and Darren particularly like watching The Great British Bakeoff: "This week, it's a 3D biscuit scene. He is gobsmacked by their creations: a train, a sea monster, even a bloody carousel!"

Clover and Darren particularly like watching The Great British Bakeoff: "This week, it's a 3D biscuit scene. He is gobsmacked by their creations: a train, a sea monster, even a bloody carousel!"

There are also a group of other fascinating peripheral characters – some of whom played a part in the absent mother’s life and deal with their own forms of trauma. Becky’s brother Jim suffers from mental health problems and when he’s having a bad episode the characters tactfully say that he is “not himself.” Darren’s father is also dealing with the loss of his wife, but he has different strategies for coping with her absence. A Czech immigrant girl Dagmar who goes to Clover’s school is bullied because of her foreignness and she forms a bond with Clover partially as a way of escaping an abusive household. Darren’s closest friend Colin has been separated from his partner Mark because he works abroad making Colin fill his time working hard as a highly skilled self employed handyman. The story delicately weaves together different ways that these diverse individuals deal with feelings surrounding beloved people who have been lost through circumstances beyond their control.

By the end of this novel I felt really emotionally involved with the characters and strongly compelled to understand what happened to Becky. For this reason, this novel reminded me of James Hannah’s “The A to Z of You and Me” in the way it slowly builds a picture of tragic events that led to a central character’s absence. I was also reminded of Stella Duffy’s novel “The Room of Lost Things” for the way in which the novel fills your imagination with lists of objects which carry crucial personal significance to their former owners, but might be seen as worthless to others. “The Museum of You” makes you re-evaluate the sentimental value of the things which fill your home and contemplate how our relationships with others can only really grow and thrive when there is emotional honesty. This is a tenderly written novel filled with lots of comic and meaningful moments.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCarys Bray

On the 27th of July the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize will be announced! It’s been an exciting year for the prize so far with their new Man Booker International Prize being awarded to the fantastic novel "The Vegetarian" by the South Korean writer Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith. It’s so wonderful the prize has given this platform for exciting translated fiction! Also, with last year’s choice of the brilliant sprawling epic “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James, I’m really curious to know who might win the prize this year.

For the main prize it’s an extremely difficult guessing game predicting the longlist as the prize is open to any novel originally written in English and published in the UK between 1st October 2015 and 30th September 2016. Not only does that mean there are an enormous amount of American authors eligible, but also there are many novels still to be published which most people won’t have seen yet. However, as I like speculating and part of the pleasure of prizes is debating what books should be listed, I’m throwing out my guesses for which 12 or 13 books will appear on the longlist next month.

Here are my choices. Click on the titles to see my full thoughts about those I have read. I’ve not yet read the novels by Barker, Haslett, Proulx or Ryan – however, I hear great things about them! Now that McInerney’s novel has won the Baileys Prize and is shortlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize, I wonder if she’ll have continued success with the Booker. I really hope the others I’ve read will be recognized – especially authors like Paraic O’Donnell, Chinelo Okparanta and Garth Greenwell as their novels really deserve more attention. And, of course, I’m always rooting for Joyce Carol Oates!

LaRose by Louise Erdrich
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

What do you think? What novels would you like to see on the longlist?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I was surprised and intrigued to see that the feminist and humanitarian Natasha Walter who previously only wrote nonfiction has published her first novel. The blurb for “A Quiet Life” explains how it's about a female spy during WWII and I wasn’t sure how a thrilling plot like this would work alongside the author’s compelling ideas about feminism. As it turns out, the main character Laura is not a feminist or especially an intellectual. She doesn’t become a political subversive and spy delivering crucial government secrets to an underground communist network for the Soviet Union because she has particularly high ideals. Rather, she takes on this highly dangerous and controversial work because she’s influenced by a passionate female friend and a man she falls in love with. However, the way in which Walter captures the subtlety of Laura’s psychology, the prevailing ideologies/social attitudes of the era and the crisis of an individual’s political consciousness during times of international conflict is absolutely compelling. It makes Laura a more dynamic subject and her story more engagingly complex than if Walter had chosen to write a whole novel about Florence, Laura’s ardent communist friend. Reading “A Quiet Life” felt to me like reading a novel by Doris Lessing for the way it wholly commits to faithfully representing Laura’s experience in times of political turbulence.

Laura moves to England at the start of 1939 to visit relatives, but really she is trying to escape the confines of her suffocating and damaging family life in the States. On the boat across the Atlantic she meets two people who will affect the rest of her life in crucial ways. She finds it challenging to learn how to live amongst the privilege, manners and social preoccupations of her affluent English relatives. But this well ordered world is in the midst of being thrown into chaos as time progresses and German bombs fall over London. Despite the danger, Laura refuses to return to America and embarks on a course of love and political intrigue which radically destabilizes her future. There are certainly gripping moments as questions arise about who Laura can really trust and if her surreptitious activities will be caught out, but this is more a novel about the tension between her complicity with the social/political structures around her and her rebellion against them.

There is a clear awareness of the limitations imposed upon women in this time period. Laura is highly conscious of how she presents herself physically and acts socially as she “had been brought up into the certain knowledge that a woman’s body and voice were always potential sources of shame, that only by intense scrutiny and control could one become acceptable.” There is an attention to detail for how Laura uses her sexuality to both meld into her social milieu and manipulate people when needed. At other times there is a frustration for how little women are allowed to participate in social engagements and are seen as only decorative: “The women provided the colour between the black and white of the men’s tuxedos, but that was all they seemed to be there for; these flashes – green, scarlet, blush and blue – between the black coats.” Laura lived through a difficult abusive childhood and is aware of how little she is intellectually valued amongst men. These conflicts play into the complex reasons why she engages in acts of espionage.

Melinda Maclean who acted as a spy for the Soviet Union as did her husband Donald Maclean, a British diplomat. 

Melinda Maclean who acted as a spy for the Soviet Union as did her husband Donald Maclean, a British diplomat. 

It really surprised me how much I personally connected with Laura. She feels distanced from her American upbringing, but she's never able to fully integrate into exclusive social groups in England. Having moved from America to the UK many years ago I found this to be very relatable and wholly believable. There are subtleties in our national differences which can only be felt from prolonged exposure to both cultures and Walter captures these very well. There are also striking moments where Laura overhears what people say about her which collapse the English social niceties and reveal how people really feel about her.

The dilemma for Laura between living a comfortable (quiet) life and making a real difference is palpable throughout. Just what a quiet life means is shown in its full complexity over the course of the novel. There is a life of privilege sheltered from the protests and struggles of people outside that circumscribed world, there is the potential quiet life a couple can find after years of difficult work, alcoholism and conflicts in the relationship have worn them down and there is a quiet life which is disengaged from the politics of the time – a life of simply getting by. Walter creatively and engagingly explores these dilemmas within the story giving a heartfelt account of Laura's struggle to determine what sort of life she really wants. There are also hints of a wholly other life Laura could have had where she might have developed and expressed herself artistically if only she'd come of age in a quiet peaceful time outside of war.

This is an utterly fascinating novel which gives an entirely new perspective of the WWII time period. It's a wholly immersive and wonderful read about a compelling character inspired by the real life of a woman named Melinda Maclean who was suspected (but never proven) to be a Soviet spy. 

Here's a brief interview with Natasha Walter about her inspiration for writing the novel: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/12/natasha-walter-a-quiet-life-cambridge-spies-fiction

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNatasha Walter
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It’s Joyce Carol Oates’ birthday today! If you read my blog or watch my booktube channel regularly you’ll know what a fan I am of Oates’ writing. Something I get frequently asked by people who haven’t read her before is where to start. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with choice as she’s currently published sixty six novels and novellas as well as thirty nine books of short stories. To fully answer this question, I’ve made a video with some information about Oates’ writing and life as well as suggestions for which of her books would make good starting points.

If you want short answers here are my suggestions. A great novel to start with is “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” as it really encapsulates some of her most persistent themes and it is written in a form of psychological realism which is her most frequent narrative form. If you want to begin with some short stories I’d suggest reading the 2006 anthology “High Lonesome: New & Selected Stories” which contains wonderful selections of her writing from across her entire career including her famous short story ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ For a good genre novel try reading the majestic family saga “Bellefleur” which is the first in her series of five post modern novels which employ certain writing styles to give a unique perspective on American life.

If you are a writer or interested in writing yourself her book of essays “The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art” is an extremely useful guide. Later this year, she’s due to publish another book about writing called “Soul at the White Heat.” For more information about Oates herself read her biography “Invisible Writer” by Greg Johnson which is carefully researched, comprehensive and absolutely compelling. Also “The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982” is a fascinating insight into Oates’ daily life, her thoughts on writing, encounters with other famous authors and contains meditative thoughts about the meaning of life – this is absolutely one of my favourite and most treasured books!

Painting by Renee Heinecke

Painting by Renee Heinecke

I didn’t mention them in my video, but for a period Oates really embraced writing young adult novels. She’s frequently interested in writing about adolescence so this really melds well with this format and gave her a chance to explore certain social issues in a compelling way. For instance, her novel “Sexy” gives interesting insights into the psychology of a teenage boy disconcerted by his developing body and the growing sexual interest directed at him. She writes a gripping tale about his moral dilemmas. Oates is also a great lover of cats and has given tribute to some cats she’s owned by writing children’s books about them one of which is “Come Meet Muffin!” – a beautifully illustrated and gentle story.

I hope this gives a good answer for people wondering where to start with reading Joyce Carol Oates. If you want more detailed information the website Celestial Timepiece is an incredibly comprehensive site dedicated to Oates’ life and writing. But feel free to contact me or respond with any questions as I’m always happy to talk about Oates’ work. If you have read her books which is your favourite? Are there any other books by her you’re interested in reading?

After reading Jeanette Winterson’s novel “The Gap of Time”, I was thrilled to see that the Hogarth Shakespeare series also includes a new novel from Anne Tyler - one of my favourite authors. Winterson brilliantly combined her writing style and individual sensibility to open a dialogue with Shakespeare’s ideas/themes from The Winter’s Tale. I was a big advocate and fan of Tyler’s previous novel “A Spool of Blue Thread” last year which divided a lot of people, but I found it to be an inventive and meaningful story about generations of family life. Now Anne Tyler has given her “spin” on The Taming of the Shrew with this new novel “Vinegar Girl”. Firstly, I must admit that Shrew is the play by Shakespeare that I like the least. I find its ambiguous take on gender politics grating and more than anything I find the story to be rather dull. I even dislike Cole Porter’s musical ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ despite being a big fan of Porter’s music otherwise. So it’s an interesting experiment to pair Tyler with this problematic work by the Bard.

Tyler transposes the story of The Taming of the Shrew to the modern day and her familiar territory of Baltimore. Kate Battista is a young teacher’s assistant who is “big boned and gawky.” She takes care of both her father Louis, a distracted scientist working relentlessly on researching an autoimmune disease, and her popular teenage sister Bunny (Bernice) who outshines her with golden girls and a newfound interest in animal rights’ activism. Meanwhile, Kate makes horrifying sounding dinners with a dish she calls “meat mash” and comes perilously close to losing her job from expressing her opinions too bluntly to her young pupils and their parents. Louis’ lab assistant Pyotr lives in America on a work visa which will soon expire. To continue his important research Louis plots to marry Kate off to him to keep him in the country. Both Pyotr and Kate have somewhat abrasive personalities and awkward social skills. A comic story ensues.

The most successful parts of this novel were Kate’s interactions at the “Little People’s School” between the children and teachers. She generally doesn’t like most of the children and often treats them with a level of contempt where it’s remarked “It wasn’t true that she hated children. At least, a few she liked okay. It was just that she didn’t like all children, as if they were uniform members of some microphylum or something.” It is quite funny how straightforward she is with these children who are only four years old and how her manner totally goes against current prevailing attitudes of coddling young people to ensure each feels special. There are a number of enjoyably tense scenes with the principal Mrs Darling where you can feel her polite sunny veneer flaking away and her frustration over Kate’s unapologetic blunt manner growing.

Elizabeth Taylor as Katharina in Zeffirelli's 'Taming of the Shrew'

Elizabeth Taylor as Katharina in Zeffirelli's 'Taming of the Shrew'

Tyler is also excellent at portraying minute actions in the way family members react to and relate to one another to show imbalances. Kate has been pushed into a mothering role since the family lost their mother which is something she readily accepted at first but now she finds herself turned into an unpleasant person. Louis increasingly takes her for granted requiring her to bring him his lunch and do his taxes. Bunny’s transformation into a hungry-for-romance teen means that Kate feels her sister has “changed into this whole other person, this social person, I don’t know; this social, outgoing person. And somehow she turned me into this viperish, disapproving old maid when I’m barely twenty-nine. I don’t know how that happened!” It’s moving the way that Tyler shows how people morph into certain roles within family life which they feel helpless to extract themselves from. Rather than taking an independent stand, Kate takes the rather non-feminist decision of using marriage as a way of getting out of her constrictive family circumstances.

This is where the novel somewhat troubles me. Both Louis and Pyotr treat Kate abysmally at some points and act in a horrendously selfish manner. Rather than expressing her intolerance for this behaviour or leaving them, Kate expresses an understanding for their foibles because that’s the way men are and she softens her acid tone. She delivers a speech at the end stating this in a way which is carefully modified from Katherine’s famous open-to-interpretation monologue at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t find the development of the difficult relationship between Kate and Pyotr convincing. Rather than elucidate the building relationship of these problematic characters, Tyler gets bogged down in tedious details like methods of loading the dishwasher or the laborious process of cooking an egg. It felt overall like Tyler got too bogged down with trying to rejuvenate the mechanics of the Bard’s story rather than making the tale wholly her own as Winterson ingeniously did. Although “Vinegar Girl” is an enjoyable read I don’t think it’s Tyler’s best.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnne Tyler
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When contemplating our ancestral and national history we naturally look for people we can personally connect to. It can be difficult to divine the inner lives and feelings of people from a hundred years ago before social media, blogs and selfies made all that was personal very public. Of course, there are other kinds of records in the forms of letters, news articles, a scattering of photos, early films and artwork. However, it’s more likely that century old documents only offer a glimpse into the complex personalities of people from long ago or that certain outsiders left no record at all. Some special entry point of feeling is needed to connect to history so that you may fully understand and inhabit it. You want a body that you could have been born into. In fiction you can either assume the personality of a historical figure by clinging onto a glimmer of their state of mind or wholly create someone you could imagine being.

Author Sjón has found an extraordinarily creative way of entering into a crucial period of Iceland’s history in his novel “Moonstone” by inventing a boy. The majority of the novel takes place in the later part of 1918. At this time the country gained its independence as a sovereign state while also experiencing devastating losses in its population because of the spread of the Spanish flu. The boy Máni Steinn sells his body to older men and lives with an old lady. He goes to the cinema as much as possible. Here he becomes entranced by a French silent serial film Les Vampires. An outsider's perspective and the surreal crimes of this thriller combine in the boy’s imagination. A woman he idolizes merges with the French actress Musidora. The fluttering of a red scarf mirrors the image of the volcano Katla’s eruption. Through this point of view we feel a fresh version of the country’s transformation. We see it through queer eyes. Within the historic changes of a nation are inserted the creative possibilities of lives and ideas which surviving documents haven’t recorded.

Part 2 of Louis Feuillade's 10-part crime serial involving a secret underground gang known as The Vampires, of which one member is Irma Vep, portrayed by Musidora.

There are haunting scenes where Máni walks through Reykjavik while the influenza is spreading sickness and panic. He remarks how this has caused personal stories of tragedy to turn inward and become hidden: “these days the real stories are being acted out behind closed doors.” This is in sharp contrast to the very public celebrations and ceremonies of Iceland gaining independence from Denmark. Amidst the pomp of a nation being born a welcome level of perversity is introduced where Máni makes eyes with a sexy Danish soldier and the pair slip away to a secluded spot to get off with each other. When they are discovered it’s a scandal the nation wants to suppress. This isn’t the image they want to have. It’s not the history they want to record. Máni finds that he can only continue to grow and develop elsewhere, but a crucial energy and flutter of his heart is left behind.

“Moonstone” is wholly inventive, wildly beautiful and infectiously invigorating. The novel I can most closely compare it to would be Neil Bartlett's "The Disappearance Boy" in how the story radically re-views a nation's historical moments through a queer boy's perspective. It’s filled with startling imagery and fascinating ideas. This is a short, impactful novel like a dream you have around sunrise. It’s a tightly compressed tale whose meaning extends out far beyond its few pages.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSjon
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