all good things, march ’18

What? Where did March go? All of a sudden, it’s the day after Easter and I’m winding back my watch again.

As I mentioned in my first All Good Things post, 2018 is shaping up to be A Year…and March has been no different. On one hand, I’ve settled into a new job and its rhythms – waking up with the birds, watching through the train window as hot air balloons hover over the inner north. I’m loving it. Even the commute. Even the early starts.

On the other hand, the house I’m renting is being sold in April, so I’ve had to adjust to randomly scheduled open-for-inspections, mopping floors at weird hours…and, of course, worrying about whether or not I’ll have to move. Fingers crossed whoever buys this place wants to keep me riiiight where I am. I’m not too keen on the prospect of having to pack all my books into boxes.

So anyway, March has been almost comically all over the place, which seems to be the norm for this year. Looks like I’d better get used to it…

For anyone new here, All Good Things is a monthly post where I have a bit of a chat about some of the things I’ve enjoyed during the past month. It’s a chance for me to write a little about some of the books I’ve been reading that I haven’t had time to review in full, as well as movies I’ve enjoyed, what I’m watching on the small screen, games I’ve been playing – anything goes. It’s mainly about the things I’ve loved. Good things. Hence the name.

Books

An Uncertain Grace

I’ve been meaning to read one of Krissy Kneen’s novels for the longest time – but last week, I picked up her sixth novel, An Uncertain Grace knowing next to nothing about it – and I’m wondering what’s taken me so long.

An Uncertain Grace is told in five parts, tied together by the presence of Liv, who uses technology to tell stories. In the background of each narrative, we glimpse a world turning to water as the ocean rises, claiming front lawns and apartment blocks as its own. Nearly all sea life has died out, leaving only a particularly hardy species of jellyfish. Meanwhile, on land, some things haven’t changed.

Everything is shifting, boundaries are moving, and through it all, there’s Liv, growing slowly older. An Uncertain Grace is a dark and elegiac look at a future world – it’s strange and compelling and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t look away.

The Sparsholt Affair

Strictly speaking, All Good Things is meant to be about the things I’ve really enjoyed. But while I wasn’t entirely convinced by Alan Hollinghurst’s latest, The Sparsholt Affair, there’s still something about this novel I can’t shake.

It’s a series of episodes in the lives of two men – in the first part of the novel, we meet David Sparsholt, while the remainder of the novel centres on his son, Johnny, who bears the weight of his father’s very public disgrace on his shoulders.

The novel’s first part, set in Oxford in the 1940s is simply enchanting. But it sets a tone and an atmosphere that the rest of the novel simply can’t live up to. Sure, Hollinghurst’s writing is typically elegant, but I found the novel’s second half tough going. If only the whole novel had been set in that glorious first section…

The Lucky Galah

Finally, I know it was the subject of my most recent post, but I can’t stop squawking about Tracy Sorensen’s The Lucky Galah, which I reviewed for Newtown Review of Books towards the start of the month.

The thing is, there’s so much I couldn’t find space in my review to discuss – I wanted to write a lot more about the novel’s humour in particular. Plus, there’s a certain political figure in the novel who readers might find rather familiar. Anyway – no spoilers from me. Read the book – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Other obsessions…

I always feel a little worried when one of my favourite novels is adapted for the screen. However, trepidation aside, I couldn’t resist watching the new four-part BBC adaptation of Howards End, which aired on the ABC recently.

I was pleasantly surprised. Much of the dialogue was taken directly from Forster’s novel. Margaret and Helen Schlegel’s costumes were just stunning (that red beret! The incredible coat with all the buttons! The scarves!). But more than that, this adaptation attempts to restore a little dignity to Leonard and Jacky Bast, as well as to the working classes, who are more visible in this adaptation than they are in the novel. While the novel begins with a letter, here we see the postman who delivers it.

I enjoyed the miniseries version of Howards End, but with that in mind, I have to confess, I’ve never actually seen the 1992 Merchant Ivory version. I’ll have to try and rectify this very soon.

What’s next?

Right now, I’m in the middle of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, and can’t wait to get back to it! I have The Reservoir Tapes ready to go as soon as I’ve finished.

Also, now I have a longer commute, I’m determined to try out a few literary podcasts. I’m also on the lookout for new music to enjoy, because I’m tired of listening to the same few songs

I’ll let you know what I’ve found in next month’s edition of All Good Things. More soon!

another year over, a new one just begun

War is Over was my favourite Christmas song as a child. Maybe it still is. I heard it on the radio while I was on the bus to work a few days before Christmas and I might have become a little teary.

The lyrics always confused me. Why, I remember asking my grade two teacher, did the man in the song say a new year had “just begun” when the song says that it’s Christmas?

My teacher had no answer for me. I mentally filed War is Over along with all the other vaguely ridiculous Christmas songs – like the one about “dashing through the snow” I remember singing at a sweltering end of year school assembly, the heat of the asphalt radiating through the soles of my school shoes.

I dread those “Oh, where has the year gone?” conversations that I’m often dragged into around the beginning of December. There’s something about that empty kind of chit-chat that I can’t stand. That, and it makes the feeling of time being dragged away from me worse.

But right at the heart of things, I think that’s what John Lennon was on about in those first few lines of War is Over – the way a year can seemingly whiz by in a flash, leaving you to begin again just as you were finding your way through a year that feels like it’s only “just begun”. Leaving you to ask yourself…so, what have I done?

For me, the answer is always the same: not enough. I’m hoping that at the end of 2015, I’ll have more to show for myself.

Before the New Year runs away from me, there’s some unfinished business I wanted to take care of first. In no particular order, here are five of the books I enjoyed the most in 2014.

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

The highlight of my reading year was discovering Tove Jansson.

After my beautiful grandma passed away in the final weeks of 2013 – after the funeral, after the strangest Christmas ever – I found myself in the first days of 2014 standing in front of my bookshelf, looking for solace. The calm cerulean blue spine of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book appealed to me, and I started reading.

The Summer Book is a series of scenes that take place on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland, inhabited only during the summer by one family – a grandmother and Sophia, her granddaughter. There’s also Sophia’s father, an artist, but he plays little part in the plot. In the opening moments of The Summer Book, we learn that Sophia’s mother has recently died. With the link between generations missing, Sophia and her grandmother begin to explore the island they share, as well as the gap left by Sophia’s absent mother.

On the second page, Sophia asks her grandmother:

“When are you going to die?” the child asked.

And Grandmother answered. “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”

“Why?” her grandchild asked.

She didn’t answer.

There was something about seeing that exchange, the directness of it there on the page, that knocked the air from me. I remembered asking my own grandmother the same question when I was very young.

As Sophia’s life is beginning, her grandmother’s life is coming to an end. Over the course of The Summer Book, we watch as Sophia’s grandmother becomes weak, sick, forgetful. And Sophia has no idea it’s happening, because that’s what it’s like to be young.

Beautiful and devastating, The Summer Book is a contradiction; direct and oblique at the same time. It was the first book I read this year, and remains my favourite – a life-changing experience that came along right when I needed it the most.

Also in 2014, I read Jansson’s short story collections Art in Nature, Fair Play and A Winter Book (in the winter, of course). I also read her novel, The True Deceiver and reviewed Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, a biography published last year to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Jansson’s birth. I could make up a top five for the year featuring only Jansson’s books, but I’m restricting myself to just one book per author. The Summer Book will always be special. It was the book that sparked a literary love affair.

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut

arcticsummercoverOn the subject of literary love affairs, as a devoted fan of E M Forster, when I first heard about Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer – a fictional look at Forster’s life during the writing of A Passage to India, the last of his masterpieces – I knew I had to read it.

I was always going to have strong feeling about this novel. Arctic Summer didn’t disappoint. From the very beginning, Galgut’s inelegant, introspective Morgan Forster won me over completely. Arctic Summer is an understated, quiet book that left me flailing and defeated in its wake.

Arctic Summer might not be for everyone (last year’s Man Booker judges, for instance – Galgut didn’t even make the Booker longlist) but this novel is definitely for me. You can read my review over at Newtown Review of Books if you like.

The Swimming-Pool Library – Alan Hollinghurst

Talking of the Man Booker prize, I mightn’t have read this year’s winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but at least did I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty this year which won the Booker Prize back in 2004. It seems I have ten years to catch up.

I read Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library and The Line of Beauty in quick succession early last year and utterly lost myself in Hollinghurst’s immersive prose. I enjoyed both novels, but because I have to choose just one book per author, I’m putting Hollinghurst’s debut on this list.

The deliberately archaic register of The Swimming-Pool Library immediately had me feeling as if I was reading something set in another alternative existence – which, in a way, I guess I was. Hollinghurst’s characters inhabit a risky world of double meanings, codes and glances; a world where every action speaks of a hidden desire. It’s irresistibly dark and inviting, and I was drawn under its spell.

The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

Every time one of those “best opening sentences of all time” articles makes its way around literary Twitter, I can’t stop myself from rolling my eyes. I hate the way these articles reduce books to just a few words, when a book is about so much more than that.

the-woman-upstairsThat said, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs has one of the best opening pages I’ve ever read. As far as I’m concerned, any novel that opens with the sentence “How angry am I?” and rounds off its first page with the words “FUCK YOU ALL” gets my vote.

Messud takes this initial momentum, this anger, and carries it over 301 furious pages. It’s the literary equivalent of a raised middle finger and from the very first page, I was swept up, tumbled over and over like being caught by a wave.

But as triumphantly, deliciously angry as the novel is, there’s a lingering sadness at work in The Woman Upstairs. It’s this element of frailty that binds this novel together and adds yet another dimension to this story of a vulnerable woman betrayed by art and by life.

Messud’s novel is twisted and seething and incandescently brilliant – and I couldn’t get enough of it.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Ruth, an elderly woman, wakes in the early hours of morning to the unmistakable sounds of a tiger moving about her house. The next day, the tiger has gone and Frida arrives, sent by the government to look after Ruth.

I really admire The Night Guest – possibly because this is the kind of book I’d love to have written myself. The psychological tug of war that takes place between the two women; the way we watch, helplessly as Ruth’s memory slowly begins to unravel and retreat from her; even the beach setting, the way the sand dunes begin to invade Ruth’s home – all of the elements that make up this novel come together in such a perfect way that I was left in awe.

The Night Guest is close to flawless. If you haven’t already picked it up, add it to your list.

greenclocksmaller

Anyone who knows me will know by now that I can’t possibly write a list of five books without naming a heap of honourable mentions, so here are another a few other books that I loved this year…don’t tempt me to keep going, or I’ll just list everything I read…

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

trumpetWhen the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive.

Millie’s husband, famous jazz musician, Joss Moody has died, leaving a scandal in his wake. Distraught and grieving, Millie retreats to the holiday house she and Joss shared in Scotland to hide from the paparazzi while she begins to deal with her husband’s loss. Meanwhile, the son she and her husband adopted is processing his grief in a different way.

If you don’t already know what Trumpet is about, it’s best to keep it that way. Don’t read reviews. Don’t read the blurb. Just read this book.

Trumpet is a love story like no other – though doubtless there are many more love stories like it, just waiting to be told.

Cracking the Spine

Each of the short stories in this collection from Spineless Wonders is accompanied by an essay by the author. Some authors explain the story – how it came to be, how it was written, the thought process behind it – while other authors take am entirely different approach. In Cracking the Spine, fiction and non-fiction blend with fascinating results. I’ve got a half-written review of this sitting on my computer’s desktop – I’ll get to finishing it soon.

The Neighbour – Julie Proudfoot

Will I ever forget this chilling novella? I sincerely doubt it. More on The Neighbour soon – it’s another review-in-progress.

Captives – Angela Meyer

These tiny little stories have been carefully pared down to the barest of bones, but they’re still incredibly effective. I reviewed Captives for Newtown Review of Books and I’m quietly crossing my fingers that Meyer has Captives part two in progress, because I’m eager for more.

And because I really can’t resist adding even more names to this already lengthy list, I also really enjoyed Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders (which I also reviewed) and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light.

pinkclocksmaller

I’m only one week into the New Year and already my schedule’s looking excitingly, terrifyingly crowded. I worked through Christmas and the New Year, so I’ll be taking some time off soon. I’m hoping to catch up on a few of the titles I’ve been eager to read for a long time, like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Ali Smith’s How to be Both and Lorelei Vashti’s Dress, Memory, which has been sitting patiently next to my bed for the longest time. I’d also like to read more current science fiction, so if you’ve got any recommendations, let me know.

Then, of course, I’ve got a heap of excellent books to review. There’s also the small matter of rethinking my blog’s focus and working out what I really want to do with this space in the year ahead. So, you know, no pressure at all…

Welcome to 2015. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

2014 – damon galgut ~ arctic summer

arcticsummercover

He knew it now: this would be his last novel. He had threatened it before, but this time, he thought, it was true. Beyond the imaginings in India, no feature broke the horizon. He could feel that something had been used up. If he’d stuck to what was familiar and safe, a comfortable tapestry of tea parties and English scenery, he might have kept a quiet industry going, writing numerous books of a similar nature. But the world that interested his was disappearing, or already gone, buried under motor cars and machinery and the smoke of war. Writers should see ahead, not constantly be looking behind them, and his powers couldn’t keep pace with history. There would be no more books like this one.

Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer is a tantalising thing – it’s a novel about a novel; a fictionalised look at the life of EM Forster during the years he spent writing his final book, A Passage to India. And while Galgut’s Forster in the passage above is indeed right – there’s no other book like A Passage to India – there aren’t many books around that are quite like Arctic Summer, either.

I’ve reviewed Arctic Summer for Newtown Review of Books. Click here to take a look.

(Also, if you’re interested, here’s a link to the Paris Review interview with Forster I mention in my review, in which Forster discusses his own Arctic Summer)

muddled thoughts on ‘a room with a view’

Paul de Maria, Field of Violet Flowers. Click here to visit Paul's website.
Paul de Maria, Field of Violet Flowers. Click here to visit Paul’s website.

“It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”

– E M Forster, A Room with a View

When author Annabel Smith, invited me over to her blog to write about my favourite book – or, at least, one of my favourite books – E M Forster’s A Room with a View came immediately to mind.

Click here to pop over to Annabel’s blog and have a read!

(Oh, and while you’re there, make sure you find out more about Annabel’s novelsWhisky Charlie Foxtrot and A New Map of the Universe. You should also take a look at all the other talented authors, bloggers and bookish sorts who have contributed to Annabel’s Friday Faves and read about their favourite books)

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In other news, I am finding myself falling in love with writing again. And yes, I’m currently reviewing a book published in 1960. Finally.

More words. Soon. Really.