I’ve been greatly anticipating what might be longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize – Anna and I had such fun speculating in our annual video. It’s great to see a diverse and varied group of novels listed! Not only are there some great books I was hoping to see such as “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker, “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, “Circe” by Madeline Miller, “Ghost Wall” by Sarah Moss and “Normal People” by Sally Rooney – but there are also some novels I’ve been wanting to read and others I know nothing about. So the list is the perfect balance of books I’m thrilled to see celebrated and others I’m now eager to explore.

More than anything I feel like many of the novels on this list will generate such interesting discussions. Although both “Ghost Wall” and “Normal People” have been so popular they have their critics as well. I feel like “The Pisces” and “Freshwater” will receive really mixed responses as well. I myself had a mixed reaction to “Milkman” as I’m one of its readers that found it a difficult book – not in being able to understand it, but it sometimes felt like a slog to read despite there being some stunningly insightful passages. After it won the Booker Prize it felt like some readers who loved it were annoyed by it being labelled as a “difficult” or “challenging” novel as if readers who felt this way were being lazy or failed to comprehend the narrative. I don’t think these descriptive terms are equivalent. There are many novels like those written by Marlon James I’d describe as “difficult” and “challenging” as well but I also think they’re brilliant. I simply felt that, while “Milkman” honestly has so many strengths and has powerful things to say, it wasn’t as enjoyable a reading experience for me. Nevertheless, I’d highly recommend everyone read “Milkman” and I’ll be eager to discuss it with you once you do. While I’m sure many people will have divergent opinions on the books longlisted I hope we can maintain a civilized discussion and respect other readers’ personal reactions to what they read even if we disagree.

Of the sixteen books listed, I’ve read seven and a half (I’m currently reading Luiselli’s novel.) After finishing this I’ll probably start by reading “An American Marriage” or “Ordinary People”. Which are you most intrigued to read first? Here’s the list with links to my reviews of the ones I’ve read so far:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Milkman by Anna Burns

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

Circe by Madeline Miller

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Normal People by Sally Rooney

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The shortlist will be announced on April 29th and the winner on June 5th. What do you think of the list? Will you try to read them all or are there select ones you want to focus on?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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There are some books which sit on your shelves for ages and you know you'll love them, but don't get around to reading them for some reason. “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong is one of these. First published in 2016, it feels like one of those break-out books of poetry that's been universally lauded. His poems have that arresting quality as they clearly come from the heart and contain an urgent desire to communicate. The book is comprised of three sections: the first mostly deals with family heritage/the Vietnam War; the second mostly concerns childhood/family life and the third explores adulthood and looking to the future. Together they form a portrait of a distinct personality and the creation of an independent voice while meditating on themes including the body, violence, sex and nationality. He draws upon references from Greek mythology and American iconography taking them into an entirely new context. It's a thrilling new perspective charged with so much energy and passion. 

Vuong has such an interesting way of discussing our bodies. Several poems give jolting new views on how we inhabit our skin and exist in relation to each other. In the poem 'Immigrant Haibun' he muses that “Maybe the body is the only question an answer can't extinguish.” And in the poem 'Headfirst' he considers how “the body is a blade that sharpens by cutting”. Still later, in the achingly self-reflective poem 'Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong' he states “The most beautiful part of your body is wherever your mother's shadow falls.” Together his poems form a creative new view in how to feel ourselves as a physical presence and conscious being – even when those around us don't acknowledge our perspective or value our bodies. The striking seven page poem ‘Ode to Masturbation’ is actually a heartfelt take on how we relate to our own sense of being: “a hand to this blood-warm body like a word being nailed to its meaning & lives”

Some poems are tinged with a sharply political edge. 'Aubade with Burning City' considers the human impact and violence of America's abrupt withdrawal from Saigon by pairing the sense of local panic/death with lyrics from Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas'. Others have a much more personal feel considering how non-white Americans are asked about their origins: “When they ask you where you're from, tell them your name was fleshed from the toothless mouth of a war-woman.” These poems highlight how America is not a harmonious melting pot and can't progress as a society without acknowledging and addressing the past.

One poem surprisingly inhabits the perspective of Jacqueline Kennedy. This is a decidedly queer point of view and other poems directly address violence against queer bodies such as 'Seventh Circle of Earth' which memorialises a gay couple burned in their own home where their voices only exist as a sequence of footnotes. Still another poem looks at gay on gay violence considering the case of Jeffrey Dahmer and obsessive/possessive love: “I want to leave no one behind. To keep & be kept. The way a field turns its secrets into peonies. The way light keeps its shadow by swallowing it.” Also, 'Trojan' looks at the battle gear of ancient warriors meditating on the expression of brute strength as a form of pageant beauty. It often feels like Vuong himself is like the piano player in his poem 'Queen Under The Hill' in which it's stated “I sit turning bones into sonatas.”

At times it can feel like the author is speaking in a voice so direct it's almost painful. This can be the case even when he's writing in the second person as in 'Because It's Summer' where he writes “a swarm of want you wear like a bridal veil but you don't deserve it: the boy & his loneliness the boy who finds you beautiful only because you're not a mirror because you don't have enough faces to abandon you've come this far to be no one”. Later on the poem ‘Notebook Fragments’ takes a very different style from the others recording observations like loose diary entries reflecting the author's changing state of mind. An earlier poem expresses a desire to lose oneself “You can get lost in every book but you'll never forget yourself the way god forgets his hands” but then the poem 'Thanksgiving 2006' feels like a declaration of independence “I am ready to be every animal you leave behind.”

Vuong's poems combine to form a view that's at once movingly personal and energized with a message that needs to be heard.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOcean Vuong
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It’s become something of an annual tradition that my boyfriend and I read to each other David Sedaris’ ‘Santaland Diaries’ around Christmas time. So when we got his new book “Calypso” I gradually read him the entire collection over a period of several weeks. Sedaris’ hilariously black humour is perfect for being shared publicly and read aloud – which is why Sedaris has become so successful touring and reading aloud from the memoirist essays in his bestselling books. This, in turn, has fuelled new stories in some of his most recent essays included in this book which recount how he frequently travels to entertain audiences. This can result in funny and bizarre encounters with the public. One audience member even took him back to her house where she cut out a benign tumour from David’s body. He didn’t want this procedure to take place in a hospital because the law required they dispose of the tumour and David had an unfathomable compulsion to save his tumour to feed to a disfigured wild turtle. Such freakish desires and occurrences are commonplace in Sedaris’ writing. His unique point of view and sense of humour are so bombastic while being oddly relatable to make his essays relentlessly entertaining.

However, many of these most recent essays are also tinged with a sense of grief and a growing awareness of his own mortality. Many centre around family get-togethers Sedaris orchestrates after purchasing a vacation beach house on Emerald Isle, off the coast of North Carolina – a place he hilariously names The Sea Section. The family used to regularly take trips to a rented property in this area when David was growing up. Now he’s reinstated this tradition with the added bonus that, because he owns the property, he gets to set the rules and assign who takes each bedroom. But absent from these new family trips are his mother who died a number of years ago and sister Tiffany who committed suicide after a prolonged struggle with mental problems and substance abuse. David was estranged from her for a number of years after a sad final parting so David’s sense of grief is also mixed with feelings of guilt and frustration. It’s interesting how there’s been a shift in these essays which have become more reflective and sombre while still retaining his trademark sense of humour and appreciation for the absurd.

There’s also a political slant to some of the essays which reflect the widening gulf of conservative and liberal opinion where David’s elderly father frequently spouts Trump-inspired rhetoric. He’s an individual oddly similar to the reactionary grandfather in Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel “Unsheltered” and I wonder if this is because they represent an older contingent of US citizen particularly prone to the paranoid indignation of conservative chat shows. Anyway, adding to the dark sense of absence left by some family members in Sedaris’ essays is an awareness of how little time he has left with his father and how difficult it is for them to speak to each other. Nevertheless, encounters with his father are frequently very funny and the weird blend of personalities which include his stalwart partner Hugh and wacky sister Amy make for some absolutely hilarious scenes. It’s always a gas following David’s antics and his family experiences - all captured with his mordantly humorous slant on life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Sedaris
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The premise of Virve Sammalkorpi “Children of the Cave” is tantalizingly dark: in 1819 Iax Agolasky, a young assistant to a notable French explorer, travels on an archaeological expedition to rural Russia where they discover a cave inhabited by children with animal traits. The story plays out partly as a thriller and partly as a psychological study about what makes us human. It's presented as a series of journal fragments by Iax which chart developments in their discoveries and recount dramatic events in the camp. This frames the story like an artefact and there’s something pleasingly old fashioned about this style of narrative. Like in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” we’re at a remove from the central character himself so it leaves the reader wondering what’s real and what’s a figment of Iax’s troubled mind. Iax finds himself torn between commitment to their scientific study and his desire to connect with and protect the children while also ruminating about his own upbringing in Russia. Like many expeditions into the wild, the results reveal more about the explorers than they do about the subjects they go to study.

It’s interesting how the story is set in a time which predates Darwin’s revolutionary publications. The character of the French explorer Professor Jean Moltique sketches out ideas that these children with animal traits might be the result of some form of metamorphosis. But they also might suggest a sudden reversal of evolution. I’ve read some other novels like Louise Erdrich’s “Future Home of the Living God” which play with ideas like this as a way of suggesting that our civilization might be regressing rather than developing over time. Iax’s observations about the nature and practices of their crew of explorers shows them to be in many ways more bestial than the strange animal-like beings in the cave. As such, he finds himself in a crisis about where he truly belongs and longing for a universal truth to live by: “I dream not so much of solving the mystery of life as of the immortality of ideas.”

The novel slides into the hallucinatory as Iax’s journals become less documentary and more about his strained situation. The fragmentary nature of this narrative means it becomes confusing at times to understand what’s happening in this expedition which lasts around four years. It makes it creepy and suspenseful in parts, but sometimes this just felt frustrating. But overall I enjoyed the way this story teases with a lot of questions about the true nature of the children and what happens to them. It’s also poignant how the story looks at what it means to be an outsider and questions why society frequently ostracises those who are different.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Édouard Louis’ voice is so passionate and urgent in how he writes about class and sexuality in relation to his personal experiences. It’s no wonder he’s gained a global audience since the English publication of his debut novel “The End of Eddy” in 2017. Now, at the age of 26, he’s published his third book and I wonder if his productivity is outpacing the power of his ideas. “Who Killed My Father” is categorized as a ‘memoir/essay’ and his inspiration for writing it is based on recent visits to his father who is only in his 50s but severely physically debilitated. He queries throughout the book what brought his father to this point, but begins with the premise that his father is condemned to “the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death.” Through emotionally-charged reflections in three parts which criss-cross over time Louis considers the many culprits that he deems responsible. While I agree with many of his ideas and felt moved by the sections of his life that are portrayed, I feel his arguments lack some nuance and are fuelled more by anger than complex reasoning.

Part of the difficulty with feeling fully engaged by the essayistic sections of this book is that Louis keeps falling back on generalities like “male privilege”, “ruling class” and “politics” as pernicious agents. But continuously making accusations against these amorphous concepts begins to feel like throwing stones into the dark. Louis shows how they have a personal effect in multiple ways. The author, his family and the people in his village are perniciously effected by ideas of masculinity. He names politicians in the third section and how their callous policies dismiss the struggles of the working class. His polemic is a valuable reminder to see connections in how society operates and that we shouldn’t be complacent. Yet I hope for more subtlety and proactive ideas if he’s going to make a broad pronouncement like “what we need is a revolution.”  

The author’s reminiscences are really powerful in how he considers the unseen forces at work behind his family’s actions. But an odd feature of this very short book is that references are made to scenes from “The End of Eddy”. So, even though it’s such a brief book, it can feel repetitive if you are familiar with his first novel. I felt the most striking section was the second part where Louis holds himself to account for instigating a violent fight between his big brother and father to get revenge on his mother. It’s to his credit that the author is equally ardent in excoriating his own participation in the violent relationships he quite rightly identifies in society. Louis’ guilt is palpable and probably many of us are guilty of intentionally trying to emotionally or physically hurt our parents at some point in our immature years – especially if a parent maligns us.

When I heard the author presenting his first novel I remember him remarking how the question of whether or not he loves his parents isn’t important to him. But in this new book he expresses his love for his father by seeking justice for his father’s premature flailing heath and by explicating stating his feelings. This shows a really touching emotional maturity since his first book. There’s no doubt that his voice is important - I just wish this book had more of an impact and didn’t read like just a sketch of a number of ideas. He’s such an intelligent and thoughtful writer that I hope his rigorous analytical abilities continue to progress in his future books.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdouard Louis
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The title of Michael Fuller’s memoir “Kill the Black One First” is a startling statement - as it’s meant to be. This was something which was shouted by the public while he was the sole black police officer in a group of white officers trying to keep the peace during the Brixton riots in 1981 (an infamous confrontation amidst racial tension between police and protesters in South London that led to many injuries and widespread destruction.) The phrase epitomises the dire dilemma Fuller found himself in for much of his life working for the Metropolitan Police where he was often subjected to racism from within the predominantly white police force on one side and suspicious anger from sections of the black community who labelled him “coconut” on the other. Fuller recounts his life from his beginning growing up in a care home in the 1960s to eventually being appointed the first black chief constable in the UK in 2004. This is the story of a diligent, bright and sensitive individual who cares passionately about justice. Being a good conscientious police officer was his primary motivation in life. But, because of the colour of his skin, he faced innumerable obstacles which would have deterred many from pursuing this profession or abandoning it (Fuller highlights how few black police officers made a career at the Met due to feeling so isolated.) His journey is utterly inspiring and it powerfully illuminates the dynamics of racial conflict in England over the past fifty years from someone who was in a very unique position.

At the heart of Fuller’s journey is a quest to belong. Margaret, the young woman who ran the care home he was raised in for much of his childhood provided him with crucial guidance which gave him a strong moral core and taught him to “recognise that something’s offensive without being hurt by it. Stop. Think. Decide how you want to react.” This is a somewhat more constructive variation from what RuPaul’s mother famously advised him as a child: “People have been talking since the beginning of time. Unless they’re paying your bills pay them bitches no mind.” Anyway, Margaret’s advice proved invaluable throughout Fuller’s life as he encountered assumptions, prejudice and hatred from many people who seemed to believe that racism was an unchangeable part of English society. Fuller learned not to lash out when confronted with these dogmatic beliefs as it wouldn’t be productive and distance him from his fellow officers: “It made me wonder if I should speak up more often when, for example, my colleagues used racist language. But that could only create divisions, and I had spent the year trying to fit in with my shift, laughing and joking with them and not calling them to account.” However, this also created a tremendous mental burden and feelings of intense loneliness as he was often maligned by both the predominantly white police force and the black community. It sometimes lead him to feel he didn’t belong anywhere and he’s made painfully aware that “I’d been isolated by my colour all my life.”

Anyone who has encountered prejudice or injustice knows how one of the most debilitating consequences of it is how alone it makes you feel. Fuller observes how “Racism is a painful, humiliating thing to experience but the key to that pain is isolation. When others protest, offer support, turn that isolation back on the racists, the pain is greatly eased. Feeling alone with the hurt is far, far worse.” There are several instances where people realised that Fuller was experiencing racial abuse, but failed to speak up and defend him. It takes a lot of conviction to stand up to a bully when you’re not directly involved in the conflict. Probably all of us have experienced prejudice in some form and no one witnessing it intervened. We’ve also most certainly witnessed someone being victimised and not come to their defence. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of being a participant in society. But thankfully Fuller found some allies along his journey who were prepared to stand up to racism alongside him.

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When he was just beginning his career Fuller’s father and friends mocked his desire to become a policeman: “You’re joining the police because you hate injustice! The police ARE injustice!” It’s heart breaking reading about the derision he faced when walking on the beat: “young, black males remained by far the most aggressive demographic towards me.” He faced a long challenging journey to help restore the public’s faith in the police force and institute changes within the police so that officers didn’t practice racial profiling or discrimination. He was instrumentally involved in landmark changes such as installing CCTV cameras in investigation rooms, using computers to look for crime patterns, instituting changes to prosecute hate crimes and helping the community and police to work together through an innovative initiative called Operation Trident. This involved a great deal of creative thinking and personal sacrifice as he frequently put himself at personal risk. It was also an unanticipated extension of his duty and drive as a policeman which was to catch criminals. It shows how police work is a much more complicated and nuanced job than that.

Fuller recounts many dramatic scenes and emotional encounters when reflecting on his long and distinguished career. It was shocking to learn how apathetically some policemen reacted to crime when they knew there was little chance of resolution or conviction – especially with instances of domestic violence or gang-on-gang warfare. An inconceivable amount of resolve was required to stay dedicated to his profession and maintain an active role in helping every victim of a crime. It’s also sobering to realise how the police force and country might not have benefited from his skills in bettering our communities if he’d found venture capitalists willing to take a punt on a very savvy business plan he formulated at one point to open a chain of coffee shops in London (before this became a booming business in the city.) Thankfully he remained with the Met and rose in the ranks to a point where he could implement changes that have utterly transformed police-community relations. He also serves as an invaluable figure of inspiration and hope. The full circle journey Fuller takes us on throughout this memoir is executed with considerable skill, but more than anything I feel in awe of this good man and loyal police officer.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMichael Fuller
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It’s difficult to describe the experience of reading Max Porter’s new novel “Lanny”, but it feels somewhere between “Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor and an Ali Smith novel. In some ways it’s a simple story of family life in a small English village where a child goes missing. But it’s also about ancient elemental forces which periodically cause widespread chaos and test all the moral fibres which we believe hold our society together. Parents Robert and Jolie want their young son Lanny to develop his inherent artistic sensibility so bring him under the friendly tutelage of an aging famous local artist named Pete. The two develop a touching creative bond. But Lanny harbours many eccentricities and beliefs which centre around a figure of local legend named Dead Papa Toothwort. It’s a mystery whether this character from village lore actually exists in the story or is a figment of the eccentric boy’s imagination, but his presence is felt throughout the book as Toothwort takes in the sounds and voices of the village which physically twist throughout the pages of this novel. It’s a rapturous journey which slides from the emotional details of ordinary life to the deliciously surreal. 

That any new book by Porter is unclassifiable comes as no surprise given the highly innovative form of his debut “Grief is the Thing with Feathers”. Both his novels show the way guilt and inner pain distort reality and this is reflected in the way sentences and paragraphs are structured on the page. So reading Porter's books feels more like an experience as if staring at a sculpture where the form conveys as much meaning as the content. He has a talent for illuminating the inner workings and relationships of a family – especially the repercussions when there is an unexpected tragedy. But “Lanny” captures more the feeling of a whole community and how such an event can trigger the release of fear and prejudice to turn a village against itself. While it brings some people together, it also causes others to question who belongs: “Authenticity competitions, striving to be the one that most belongs here, guarding their own special spot in the picture. All this has shown what a bunch of wankers most people are.” In this way, this new novel engages more with the political mood of the country which has been especially preoccupied with questions about who is “authentically” English. At the same time it is a playful, funny and wickedly irreverent story making it such a joy to read. And, at its heart, there is a hopeful portrait of a sensitive boy who has the capacity to reshape the future.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMax Porter
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When we enter the woods we can't help imbuing the natural world with so many of our own emotions. The beauty of trees, flowers and wildlife transform into metaphors for what we're feeling. In Seán Hewitt's pamphlet of poetry “Lantern” he explores the experience of entering nature, observing it and finding our selves there. We might enter it seeking solace or to hide or engage in an illicit encounter or as a respite from the business of civilization. It's where our language has no meaning: “the places where words extinguish themselves and leave all the things that cannot be fixed or forgotten.” In this way, he delicately illuminates the sense of being we get from entering a place where we cast our emotions out in an act of transformation, but find that we are the ones who are transformed. 

There is a constancy to nature and a sense that it's timeless or, at least, that the woods experience time very differently from us. In one poem the narrator recounts planting trees as a school child and comparing his growth over the years to that of the woods which have grown more slowly. If we ever return to a tree we planted in childhood or a sapling we observed as a child we experience a moment of reflection and how we've changed in so many unexpected ways since the innocence of our youth. By comparison, the tree's growth seems incremental but no less monumental. In the poem 'Clock' it's observed “though I love you I know there is no such thing as held time, this tree seems suddenly like a stillness, a circle of quiet air, a place to stand now that I have had to leave” There is a reassurance to a tree's steady progress over the years and a solemn acceptance that we ourselves will experience radical transformations unlike this simple growth. 

I enjoyed how many of these poems give a sense of dramatic emotional events having occurred without disclosing the details of them. Instead they focus on this interchange between the narrator and the way nature has changed under his gaze. It can seem like a holy experience yet it is irreligious like a silver birch “for he does not observe liturgical time”. The poems also convey a sense of guilt from casting our experiences and emotions onto nature as if we've spoiled its purity: “I wonder if I have ruined these places for myself, if I have brought each secret to them and weighed the trees with things I can no longer bear.” Because entering the natural world is a form of reckoning where we hope to be altered, brought back to ourselves or made anew like in a poem where it's wondered “Are we all just wanting to see ourselves changed, made unearthly?” 

Many of these poems simply have a quiet beauty to them and I admire the way they contain so much feeling, but let it simmer beneath the surface. They make striking reflections on how we situate ourselves in relation to nature and how entering it allows us to return to our lives having cast ourselves into it as in the final haunting lines of the collection “I turn home, and all across the floor the spiked white flowers light the way. The world is dark but the wood is full of stars.”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSeán Hewitt
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Intense curiosity has surrounded Australian author Gerald Murnane since a prominent New York Times Article from 2018 asked in its title ‘Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?’ The literary community adores having a genius spring from obscurity – especially one who has been working diligently and quietly producing books for years. The trouble is that not much of his writing has been available outside of Australia, but this year the wonderful publisher And Other Stories are bringing out a couple of his books.

So I picked up “Border Districts” to see why Teju Cole states that “Murnane, a genius, is a worthy heir to Beckett.” It turns out to be an apt characterization of this author because this novel is dominated by the voice of an old man living on the edge of civilization sifting through resonant images from his past and highlighting more of what he’s forgotten than what he remembers. Rather than plot we’re offered a way of seeing through the kaleidoscope of the narrator’s consciousness the ideas and sensations which persist in his mind - though their origin has frequently been lost.

Sometimes I ask myself what’s the good of reading as much as I do. Is it about the pleasure of the experience, my edification or connecting with high culture? Of course, it can be about all three. And, although I have the urge to read as much as I can, it creates a ridiculous anxiety that the more I read the more I’m apt to forget (hence one mission of this blog is to help aid my recall.) The narrator of this novel focuses frequently on the experience of reading and surmises that “whatever I had forgotten from my experiences as a reader of books had not deserved to be remembered.” This seems to discount one of the great joys of reading which is rereading where you can often discover things you missed the first time around or interpret what you’ve read very differently because you’ve aged and have more experience.

What’s really interesting about the narrator’s assertion is about the impressions which works of fiction leave rather than the exact arrangement of their words. “I have not yet forgotten the period in my life when I read book after book of fiction in the belief that I would learn thereby matters of much importance not to be learned from any other kind of book… I can recall many images that occurred to me and many moods that overcame me, but the words and sentences that were in front of my eyes when the images occurred or the moods arose – of those countless items I recall hardly any.” I like how this expresses the way we’re left with an overall feeling from a novel because, in a sense, we’ve lived through it. And, though the exact details or quotes they contain might be lost, our bodies and minds can recall the sensations of that experience.

Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane

Much of the story is preoccupied with the narrator trying to recover something he wrote down amidst all his accumulated possessions or trying to understand why certain memories dominate his thoughts. We get impressions of his early life being taught in a religious school and the outline of his family life, but the drama of the story resides solely in the narrator’s striving to connect his present sense of being with his past. There’s a tragicomedy to this endeavour which is very Beckett-like especially when he fruitlessly tries to write to a woman he heard on a radio broadcast. But the true beauty of his tale is how recurring imagery such as the experience of looking through stained glass or a coloured swirl within a marble takes on a profusion of meaning amidst his ruminations.

There’s something curiously refreshing about the staunchly technophobic perspective of the narrator and his endeavour to grasp the meaning of his past. Given how the internet provides us with quick access to so much information and prompts us to relentlessly document the minutiae of our daily experience, the narrator’s strategy for sitting at a remove from his familiar home and the people closest to him represents a valuable counter way of being. It shows how letting go can be more important than the act of memorializing because it sharpens the focus on who you really are. It also beautifully highlights how our lives may be nothing more than a muddle, but that doesn’t mean our experience isn’t meaningful.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGerald Murnane
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One of last year’s biggest literary breakouts was Leila Slimani’s Prix Goncourt winning novel “Lullaby” (known in the US as “The Perfect Nanny”). Her novel “Adele” was published in France before “Lullaby”, but it’s only now been translated and published in English. The heroine of this novel’s title is a journalist and mother with a steady husband. She appears normal and content, but running parallel to this stable life she has a secret existence filled with unruly passion and illicit affairs. She lazily does her job and barely musters the energy to get to the office every day. She resents her child and is turned off by her husband. All her passion is poured into furtive moments where men unleash their desire upon her because “Her only ambition is to be wanted.” This seemingly chaotic double life is untenable and there must be a breaking point.

Even though Adele’s case is extreme, her story is extremely relatable for the way we all harbour secret passions that we keep carefully concealed from those closest to us. She frequently resolves to turn her life around and devote more time to her husband and son, but finds herself drawn back into seedy behaviour because “Her obsessions devour her. She is helpless to stop them.” I admire how the psychological motivations for her behaviour are never neatly explained and there’s no clear-cut course of action or treatment to “solve” her habits. Instead, the novel shifts at one point to include the husband’s perspective more and shows how he has psychological hang ups as well which are preventing full intimacy and disclosure between them.

While it may not have the depth and poeticism of a novel like Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs to You” which similarly explores the dynamics of someone driven by desire, I appreciated Slimani’s frankness in showing how eroticism can come to rule someone’s life. Adele isn’t driven by pleasure so much as a confrontation with mortality and a submission to the mechanisms of the body. This novel is a vivid study of how sometimes the relationships which are meant to support us are the ones which can lead to the annihilation of our innermost selves.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLeila Slimani
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I was lucky enough to see an early screening of Barry Jenkins' film 'Moonlight' at the London Film Festival back in 2016. It was one of my favourite films of that year and I was thrilled that it won the Oscar for Best Picture a few months later – after Warren Beatty finally opened the right envelope! Jenkins new film is an adaptation of James Baldwin's “If Beale Street Could Talk” and I'm really looking forward to seeing it. But I always try to read a book before seeing the film version and I've been meaning to read more of Baldwin's writing for a long time. In college I read “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Giovanni's Room” and “Another Country” but I've not read anything since then. Somehow I forgot how forthright and emotional Baldwin's fiction is because I think this novel is absolutely extraordinary. 

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is narrated by nineteen year old Tish who has become pregnant by her fiancé Fonny who she's been close to most of her life. They've found their own place to live in Harlem and received a blessing from Tish's father to marry, but their plans collapse when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. Both their families try to pull together to get Fonny out of this dire situation, but they encounter many obstacles due to economic disadvantages and institutionalised racism. It's a heart-wrenching tale, but powerfully describes the bonds of family and romantic love in the most exquisitely beautiful way. 

Baldwin has a way of articulating in clear-sighted lucid prose his intense frustrations on a number of subjects. There are frequent cutting asides like this which slaps down the inflated egotism of a nation's spirit: “I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody - if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered.” Another line feels so contemporary it's like Baldwin was critiquing the self righteous indignation of people on social media: “these days, of course, everybody knows everything, that’s why so many people, especially most white people, are so lost.” Passages like this burn with the intensity of sparks. Baldwin was a great essay writer and speech maker and maybe this comes through too strongly in a narrative meant to be narrated by a nineteen year old. Equally some later sections stray so far into other characters' points of view I wonder why he kept the entire novel in Tish's first person voice. Nevertheless, the dialogue and relationships between the characters in this novel felt entirely true. 

There's also a startling edginess to Baldwin's writing in how he portrays sexuality and frank heated exchanges. An early sex scene between a husband and his zealously religious wife is shown with surprising violence and expresses the unvoiced conflicts in their relationship. This contrasts so sharply with the mountainous passion expressed when Tish and Fonny make love. I was riveted by the arguments between the families which built to such a riotous show down it could have been a confrontation portrayed in a daytime talk show. It's also somewhat bracing to read how some racist and homophobic language is used by the characters. This makes total sense because it's of the era but you know that phrases such as “eyes like a Chinaman” and “the way his behind stuck out, his mother might have been a gorilla” wouldn't fly in a novel written today. 

Scenes of furious confrontation are balanced with touching moments of forgiveness and some scenes subvert your expectations such as when disenfranchised members of a community come together when Tish gets groped at a grocers. But alongside the high drama there are also many quiet moments of reflection that reveal the depths of great psychological complexity. For instance when considering her appearance Tish observes “People make you pay for the way you look, which is also the way you think you look, and what time writes in a human face is the record of that collision.” This is such a disarming way of considering how our image of ourselves and judgements by others about our appearance can mingle. 

What comes across most of all is how many of the issues Baldwin was writing about almost fifty years ago (this novel was first published in 1974) still feel relevant today. Perhaps that's why Barry Jenkins is bringing this story to the big screen now. I'm looking forward to watching it as well as Jenkins' next project which is turning Colson Whitehead's “The Underground Railroad” into a mini series. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJames Baldwin
4 CommentsPost a comment
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I often feel hesitant to read stories about writers writing because it can feel like the biggest cliché for a novel to be about the act of writing a novel. Of course, as someone who mostly lives through fiction I will gladly overlook what might be an eyerolling self-referential act for the pleasure of being in close company of another book nerd. And this novel goes in depth discussing the creative endeavour, our relationship to reading and dozens of fascinating quotes and references to writers such as Nabokov, Svetlana Alexievich, J.M. Coetzee and the now more obscure J.R. Ackerley. It’s also a commentary on our society’s evolving relationship to literature and the challenges of teaching creative writing in the era of political correctness. But I was caught off guard by how emotionally moved I was by “The Friend” by the time I came to the end of it.

The plot revolves around an unnamed female writer whose lifelong friend and mentor (who was also a writer and creative writing teacher) commits suicide. He leaves her his dog, an enormous Great Dane named Apollo. It’s a challenge for her to keep the pet because she lives in a tiny rent-controlled NYC apartment which doesn’t allow dogs. But she refuses to part with Apollo because he serves as both a connection to her lost friend and a source of emotional support that she increasingly hurries home to spend time with. Although you only get fragmentary glimpses of the narrator’s life and experiences her story builds to form a picture of an isolated individual struggling with issues surrounding mortality, loneliness and self-expression. But she also makes many wry and humorous observations about human nature and social behaviour. All this cumulative detail builds to form an understanding of her state of being while making poignant reflections on the human condition.

Her position in relation to her friend who committed suicide is also unique. He was married three times. Although the narrator is not one of his widows they shared an uncommonly close relationship and his actual widows treat her with a mixture of friendship, contempt and rivalry. This is shown humorously but I like how it also highlights that there are many relationships in our lives which don’t fall into neat categories of either family or romantic partnership. Yet, when it comes to something as significant as death, our relationship to that person can be devalued because there wasn’t a social label to certify its significance.

There’s also a fascinating chapter which is like a creative writing exercise she might assign to her students. In it she imagines an encounter between a woman and man who aren’t dissimilar to herself and her friend. Their discussion strays into a description of a novel the woman is writing about her fictional account of the man committing suicide. It’s a clever way of juggling with what’s true and what’s fiction. This emphasizes her point: “It is curious how the act of writing leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.” But it’s no less meaningful when the narrator finally succeeds in keeping the dog and develops an abiding connection with him. What’s undeniably true is the feeling of intimacy that the narrator craves to cling to even after losing her closest friend.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSigrid Nunez
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“Where Reasons End” is an imagined conversation between a mother and her 16 year old son after his suicide. The aching feelings of grief at the centre of this novel are made all the more intense knowing that the author herself lost a child to suicide. Yet their dialogue isn’t necessarily about why he ended his life and it’s not even about directly memorializing his life; it’s more an exchange about the nature of being and the way language gives structure to relationships. This tone isn’t surprising given Yiyun Li’s recent memoir “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life” where the author discusses her own depression and suicide attempts. Like in her autobiographical writing, Li doesn’t cut to the heart of emotion but shades in its edges so you feel the bleeding heart of the matter more profoundly. The more their conversation persists the flimsier language feels: “None of the words, I thought, would release me from the void left by him.” As sobering and serious as all this seems, this mother and son make a perfect balance. When the mother’s musing becomes too lofty the son quickly and humorously brings her back to reality. In this way Li captures a beautiful dynamic which persists even after the son’s death.

Something which has always puzzled me is why teenagers typically express feelings of hatred for their parents. Even if it’s only fleeting and there’s an undeniably loving bond there, a parent is likely to hear from their child at some point “I hate you.” But midway through this novel the son (referred to as Nikolai even though that’s not his real name) describes his insurmountable feelings of inner conflict: “I’ve found a perfect enemy in myself.” Realizing how her son ultimately defeated himself, the mother dearly wishes he’d directed that hatred at her instead. It made me realize what a sadly necessary act of rebellion it is for teenagers to turn upon the parents who’ve nurtured them. Usually it’s not until a child’s teenage years that they become fully cognizant that they aren’t the centre of the world and life is full of insurmountable conflicts. How can an individual not feel angry realizing this? And how poisonous it is if the accompanying sense of defeat is directed only inward. Li captures this struggle so poignantly it reduced me to tears.

Many books have been written about grief and it’s often commented how an inner dialogue persists for the survivors. Li doesn’t try to explain the magical thinking that allows this conversation to continue, but simply presents it. The significance comes not from the fact of it but the circular logic which means it will always continue: “I’m muddleheaded, I thought, because I could go on thinking but would not reach any clarity: Which between hope and fear, had made life unliveable for him?” There’s a belief in the power of language which transcends the tragedy of the mother’s circumstance and though it may feel ultimately futile she continues to connect with him through this dialogue. Yiyun Li’s writing achieves a rare kind of honesty I’ve felt in few other writers except maybe Ali Smith and Max Porter. It’s the sort which is best read in private early in the morning when you have no distractions and are ready to have a frank conversation with yourself.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYiyun Li
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Some books leave me with little to say except I loved the experience of reading them. Maybe I should leave it at that in regards to this particular novel. But it's funny because Anne Griffin's debut novel “When All is Said” is a story that's so dominated by story itself it doesn't invite the reader to do anything but listen in rapt delight. It's told from the perspective of 84 year-old Irish farmer and businessman Maurice who sits in a bar having several drinks to honour people who've had a significant impact upon his life. And the experience of reading this book is like that feeling of listening to an old man brimming with tales to tell: some wickedly funny, some heart-wrenchingly sad and some that come with twists so disarming they left me stunned. So by the end of the book I was left feeling like this man's life had washed over me. I was moved by all his disappointments, passions and sorrows. There's also a blissful sense of release because Maurice is someone who always had difficulty expressing his feelings throughout his life and found it challenging to communicate as he suffered from a learning disability. Like the inverse of a series of reminiscences at a funeral, his narrative at this very late stage in his life is the most beautiful tribute to the people who made him who he is and a profound kind of letting go. 

Naturally, because Maurice has lived so long, he has observed many physical and social changes to his country. Like in John Boyne's “The Heart's Invisible Furies”, part of what's so mesmerising about this man's story is to realize how much things can change in the course of a lifetime. It's shocking now to read how several decades ago a very young man like Maurice who comes from a desperately poor family could go to work on an estate and receive such horrific verbal and physical abuse from the lords of the manor. And this shows so poignantly how feelings of hurt and a desire for revenge can come to dominate a man's life. Maurice also describes why he's had such trouble emotionally opening up and being forthright about what he wants in life: “People didn’t really do that back then, encourage and support. You were threatened into being who you were supposed to be.” For a new generation that's raised with gentle words of encouragement and a sense that you should become the person you're supposed to be, it's quite sobering to realise how difficult it'd be to grow up under such strict tutelage.

Part of the immense pleasure I found in this novel is in it's all-encompassing Irish-ness. And no man is more Irish than Maurice: a straight talking self-made man of the Earth, loyal to his wife, likes a good drink and tells a spellbinding tale. His sensibility mixes humour with sorrow, humility with the grandiloquent and irony with the utmost sincerity. These dualities make his tales so bewitching and pleasurable to read. Perhaps he sums up his own feelings for the people closest to him best when describing the relationship that existed between his wife and her mother: “There was a love but of the Irish kind, reserved and embarrassed by its own humanity.” But here in this novel he finally divulges his experiences and unvoiced feelings to commemorate all the details of his fascinating life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnne Griffin
4 CommentsPost a comment
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Like many people, I was fascinated by the surreal atmosphere and ambiguous meaning of Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin's novel “Fever Dream” when it first appeared in English a couple of years ago. Now a collection of her short fiction has just been published and it's of a similar sinister vibe with odd twists of logic that often veer into near nightmares. Here are stories of children that transform into butterflies, businessmen who are turned into farm hands, a dissatisfied wife who meets an amorous merman and a daughter whose new diet consists solely of consuming living birds. This subject matter could easily feel whimsical if it were written by another author, but Schweblin maintains elements of psychological truth so this fiction continues to feel real even if it's filled with the fantastical. Her stories often feel like puzzles where the meaning is tantalizingly close and I could solve it if I could just work out the intricately constructed design she's skilfully created. But, of course, these stories offer no definitive answers – just glimpses of the inexpressible fears, desires and carnage which simmer just under the surface of our everyday reality.

The way Schweblin approaches common themes from an unlikely angle brings out a new kind of emotional honesty. So subjects such as infidelity, miscarriages, eating disorders, spousal abuse, body image and depression are explored in these stories but in a way which defamiliarises the way we commonly think about them. Although the stories are fantasies they deal with serious issues. For instance, in the story 'Preserves' a woman whose unborn child dies in uterus goes through the process of pregnancy with the support of her family even though they know the child will be stillborn. It shows how the idea of a new child forms so fully in the minds of the family its due to be born into and becomes part of their lives even before its arrival. So the story considers how to deal with feelings of mourning which can arise in this tragic situation common to many families. It's a different kind of magical thinking from what Kit De Waal describes in her novel “The Trick to Time”.

Another story which had a strong resonance for me was the titular tale 'Mouthful of Birds' which describes the perspective of a father whose daughter begins only consuming living birds and refuses to engage in discussions. He's separated from his wife and when the daughter is left in his care he witnesses her deteriorating health because he doesn't want to support her barbaric new diet. In one of the few instances when the daughter speaks she asks if her father loves her and in this moment there is so much unexpressed longing and sorrow as she desperately tries to find a way to control her crumbling family and situation.

The way Schweblin approaches her subject matter feels most poignant when it’s teased out in her longer stories. I felt some of the less successful and least impactful tales were also some of the shorter pieces such as ‘Butterflies’ and 'Rage of Pestilence'. In these it seemed like a central concept was compressed too explicitly into surreal imagery. Some stories also stretch too far into the oblique and become twisted up in a convoluted structure such as 'Olingiris'. Schweblin’s ideas come more alive when they are situated in longer stories such as ‘Headlights’ where brides left on the roadside congregate into a vengeful swarm or 'Heads Against Concrete' where a narrator’s violent impulses, emotional disconnection and racial prejudice are translated into “high” art. Better yet, some of the most eerie tales are where the central object of the story remains entirely unseen and unnamed such as a couple’s desperate attempts to “capture” a child in 'On the Steppe' or a village of vanished children in 'Underground'.

Samanta Schweblin & writer Valeria Luiselli in conversation

Not all the stories in this book are so outrageously bizarre. Some such as 'Santa Claus Sleeps at our House' and 'The Test' are so deeply ensconced in the narrator’s perspective that reality seems to be shifting around them due to innocence or guilt. Still others movingly capture people’s concealed emotions such as 'The Size of Things' where a rich, successful man steadily regresses while inhabiting a toy shop. Other stories grope at understanding the unknowable emotional condition of others such as a man that suffers from depression in 'My Brother Walter' or the story ‘Irman’ where the death of a man’s wife swiftly leaves him perilously helpless.

Overall I loved getting lost in these tales with their refreshing flavour for the absurd. They brim with a vibrant creativity and I admire the way they offer a warped counter reality to life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson