28 July, 2015
A few weeks ago I was invited to the Penguin 2016 showcase at Waterstone’s Piccadilly. I had no idea of the line-up except that you know you’ll get to hear some very special writers. And I wasn’t wrong. As soon as I arrived, I headed to the bar to get myself a glass of wine and nibbles since it was a scorching day and picked up the order of readings to find some interesting names including Zadie Smith! I’ve never had the opportunity of seeing her read so I was really excited about this.
Each reading was about 10 minutes, just enough to whet your appetite.
The session kicked off with Alain de Botton reading from The Course of Love, the sequel to his first novel. de Botton was a brilliant speaker, engaging and warm and leaving his audience in stitches. My sister loved Essays in Love and his new novel explores what happens after you meet ‘the one’. Although optimistic, this is a critique of romantic love, and de Botton discusses how reading the wrong novels growing up often gives the wrong idea of love, that novels are pieces of moral eduction which may lead to trouble. Like many, he sees reading as a means to learn lessons in love. He touches on topics which are probably familiar to many readers; the reasons why we read and what we take from our reading and apply to our lives. Intriguing, no?
This was followed by Naomi Alderman reading a chilling excerpt from her new novel, The Power, where she wonders what would happen if all the women in the world suddenly develops the power to electrocute at will. Whenever she announces this, she notices the women in the audience get a glint in their eyes. Alderman’s novel promises to be quite gritty, exploring many relevant issues that affect women in modern life. She gave a brilliant reading and this sounded very interesting.
Zadie Smith then read an essay from her new collection, Feel Free. Titled Flaming June, she recalls how she chose her first art poster to put on her wall as a first year undergrad. Wanting to be different from her fellow students who all chose between a set number of prints to impress the opposite sex, somehow she ended up with Frederick Leighton’s Flaming June. I’m such a huge fan of Smith’s writing and it was really lovely to talk about her work with other avid fans there.
I have never read anything by Marina Lewycka but I know my father loved A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian and couldn’t stop laughing when he was reading it. Her new novel, The Lubetkin Legacy, is about a man living with his mother. When she dies, he is afraid he’ll lose her council flat and so gets another old lady to take her place and live with him. But she also has an agenda of her own. You can just imagine all the things that could go wrong.
My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal puts a spotlight on the adoption of a black boy, especially when two brothers are split apart. de Waal, incidentally, is the sister of The Hare with the Amber Eyes‘s Edmund de Waal. Crazy.
And the evening closed with Ruby Wax bringing a lot of laughs while talking about a very serious subject: how to manage and self-regulate depression. Having completed a Masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at Oxford two years ago, Wax new book Wake the F*** Up! discusses some of the issues she deals with in managing her depression.
As well as the readings, the Penguin team highlighted a number of new titles, especially The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle, about a man on his last con. This is a book full of twists and layers and the word on the street is that this is going to be BIG next year. You heard it here first! Javier Marias, one of Spain’s most celebrated authors and one I’ve had my eye on the last couple of years, also has a new novel novel out, Thus Bad Begins, about a man looking back to 1980s Madrid and his best friend with a chilling past. As well as fiction, Penguin is also publishing The Path by Michael Prett and Christine Gross-Loh on the application of Chinese philosophy to live a good and fulfilling life and Chronicles by Thomas Piketty, the best-selling and controversial economist, a relevant source in understanding how we have found ourselves in such a global financial mess.
It was a lovely event with lots of laughter. And to top if off, the canapés by Felicity Cloake were, and I don’t say this lightly, really delicious. It’s so rare to get quality, tasty canapés at events. There were aloo tiki scotch eggs, whoopie pies to die for and marshmallow and caramel crispy bites with a chilli kick. So moreish I had to go back for seconds. I’m definitely going to get her new book The A-Z of Eating: A Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks out in April next year.
And we all left with these. Can’t wait to read them. Thank you very much Penguin!
9 July, 2015
In other news, there’s been a bounty of interesting books on my bedside table including Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea, The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas, The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter, The Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare, The First Bad Man by Miranda July and The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy.
I seem to have caught a bit of Sagan fever after finishing Sagan, Paris 1954 by Anne Berest about the day Françoise Sagan’s life changed with the publication of Bonjour Tristesse. And of course, I went straight out to buy a copy of that controversial debut novel to re-read. Seems like Sagan is still a pretty controversial figure. I’ve always had a soft spot for her since I frst read Bonjour Tristesse as a teenager. What’s your stance on her?
And I am finally reading Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow after meaning to delve into his work for so many years. My mother says his writing is beautiful and I should really read it in Japanese but that’s not going to happen. So far, he’s been surprising me.
24 June, 2015
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the books I purchased from what used to be Dillons on Gower Street, now Waterstone’s, when I was an earnest student trying to broaden my knowledge of literature. As a science undergrad, I spent hours in the bookshop perusing books to read rather than face my sums. With one aborted attempt many years ago, I assumed it would be one of those novels I would get to at some point, even though so many of you have told me how much you loved it. So I was really happy when Polly decided it’ll be our next choice for our book group. It seems many of us had it tucked away on our shelves too.
At the beginning of the novel when the writers Berlioz and Bezdomny meet Woland, a suspicious individual claiming to be a magician, little do they know that this will throw Moscow into an upheaval leading up to Easter. Having been subjected to a vision of Pontius Pilate, they are naturally spooked and escape but this sets off a series of unfortunate events from Berlioz’s death to the sectioning of Bezdomny, the disappearance of his flatmate, the seizure of his prized Moscow flat and so on until everyone connected to each other has been randomly traumatised in some way. All orchestrated by Woland, who may or may not be the Devil, and his familiars, Azazel, the witch, the choirmaster and a humongous cat named Behemoth, they wreak havoc all over the city beginning with a huge magic show which throws the audience into hysteria when wads of cash appear and all the ladies are left disrobed. Bulgakov leads us on a merry chase through the absurdities of Moscow life from the privileged status of the literati to the paranoia aimed at foreigners, the shortage of good housing and food to the forbidden love that springs from unhappiness and ennui.
At the psychiatric hospital, Bezdomny meets the Master who has had his novel rejected and in his despair succumbed to madness and abandoned his lover. The Master had written about Pilate, the very same tale told by Woland, where we are again transported two thousand years back when the flawed Roman procurator of Yershalaim meets the one man who will change him but isn’t strong enough to save him.
In the second half of the book, we meet the Master’s lover Margarita, desperate to find him and wreak revenge on his critics. When Woland promises her whatever she wants, she agrees to do his bidding and becomes a witch, presiding over a spectacular ball where all the evil characters throughout history file through and are given their just desserts. But will she get what she deserves?
Reading the book, it struck me, as I am sure it did others, on the odd choice of the title. Both the Master and Margarita don’t appear in the novel until several chapters in, and even then, I’m not even sure whether they are the main protagonists, perhaps just vehicles to push through Bulgakov’s agenda. It’s a curiously difficult novel to characterise; from one angle, it is a comedy so like many Russian and European novels of the period with its nod to romanticism and artistic angst. And yet, there is always the spectre of violence which you cannot escape, Bulgakov’s present seeping into the fiction. Written between 1929 and 1940, The Master and Margarita was meant to be Bulgakov’s magnum opus even though he didn’t expect it to be published, what with his experiences with censorship and the tightening of freedom of expression which characterised Stalin’s rise to power. It’s at once a novel bridging the gap between the pre- and mid-Soviet eras, the former using only allusions to the present political state while maintaining some of the frivolity of an earlier age and the latter, the violence and paranoia revealed in full in the Master’s tale of Pontius Pilate.
The first half is much more sombre and complex than the second, possibly because it was more heavily edited. Bulgakov passed away soon after he finished his manuscript but without completing the editing. The Picador edition I read had notes and a detailed afterword which set the novel in context and gave a richer understanding of the novel. There is so much symbolism in The Master and Margarita and anyone who has read Goethe’s Faust would be in no doubt of the similarity although Bulgakov has made it his own and set it in the world he knows best. There are allusions to literary and musical figures throughout the novel and I particularly enjoyed Satan’s Grand Ball where Bulgakov introduces a slew of evil characters from history. However, what is with all the women being naked and men in tails? I just found it increasingly annoying that the female characters were either hags or witches, who are naked, naturally, although none of the men were drawn sympathetically either.
Bulgakov’s style is light and deft, his prose vibrant, colourful and visual. Woland’s visit to Moscow is just like a little break where they thoroughly enjoy themselves. And I really loved the bit at the end when Woland and his troupe return to their original forms, much more sombre and darker than what they exhibited on their holiday.
Although The Master and Margarita would benefit from a second reading once you realise the political and social implications of what Bulgakov is trying to convey, I really enjoyed reading this brilliantly bonkers novel. That satire is taken so seriously preventing publication for 26 years says much about the political regime. Even though the chapters set in Moscow may not come across as heavily Stalinesque, his reign of terror had already begun with arrests and disappearances and we see this in the increasingly crazy turn the novel takes as Bulgakov’s tale spins out of control.
Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to a reception held at the Groucho Club to celebrate Georges Simenon and his most famous creation, Inspector Maigret. Like many, I knew a lot about Maigret and watched a couple of episodes of the English TV adaptation starring Michael Gambon except that I hadn’t actually read any of his novels as I was obsessed by Agatha Christie when I was younger. But my first literary love has always been crime fiction and so in preparation, I dipped my toes into the smoky and boozy world of Maigret.
As well as learning more about Simenon and his work, I was also looking forward to meeting John Simenon who gave an insightful talk about his father and his work. What was particularly interesting, and astounding for me, was that Simenon had written almost 400 novels, often writing 5 a year. His Inspector Maigret novels were first published in 1931 with Pietr the Latvian and there are almost 75 volumes, rivaling Agatha Christie. Both John and Penguin, who are republishing all of Simenon’s novels in new translations, are hoping that people will get hooked on the novels and devour them one after the another.
Simenon always saw himself as a craftsmen rather than an artist and was fascinated by the neurological and psychological aspects of crime. He was a humanist and was considerably influenced by the Church although he was often angry with it. He worked as a traveling journalist from 1919 to 1922, a period in which he made profound discoveries about his fellow men and what it meant to be human. The following decade was a period of apprenticeship where he produced pulp fiction until 1931 when he introduced Maigret to the world. But he soon wanted to change direction, moving on from crime, and began to publish his romans durs, what he called his pure, standalone novels. Regarding his writing habits, Maigret used a typewriter at first but then moved on to write with a pen and then edit and finish the draft with a typewriter. Even with such productivity, John recalls that Simenon always considered himself a father first and writer second.
And finally, we were all really excited to hear that a new TV adaptation of Maigret featuring Rowan Atkinson is in production. I can’t quite picture him as Maigret yet, but I’m certainly looking forward to it.
It was a lovely afternoon hearing John speak and to catch up with other bloggers including Annabel (do check out her post on the event) and to meet Sarah of Crimepieces, Elizabeth of Fictionbitch and Charlie of The Worm Hole. Thank you to John and Simenon UK for the kind invitation and for Penguin who supplied lots of Maigret titles for us to take away. I’d better get cracking!
Last week I attended the Guardian Book Club where author Sophie Hannah and literary critic John Mullan discussed Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
You may not know this already but I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. I discovered her mysteries when I stumbled upon a copy of Murder on the Links hidden away on a bookshelf in my grandfather’s house in Sri Lanka one hot summer. It probably belonged to one of my aunts and uncles but I took it with me when I left. I never learnt who it belonged to but I still have my well-thumbed copy and it still remains my favourite mystery to this day.
What is it about Christie’s novels that has ensnared millions of readers? For me, it was the sheer shock of finding the murderer was not who I expected. Stunned, I can still remember wondering how she managed to fool me. And with each novel, I would make a guess and get it wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t handle the tension and would take a furtive peek at the final pages which would inevitably spoil the rest of the novel for me but I just couldn’t help myself. And so my love affair with Christie began when I was nine and I went through her entire crime oeuvre, spending hours in English bookshops in far flung Asian cities counting the titles I had and hadn’t read, waiting for the special days when I was allowed to buy a book. Admittedly I did get better at guessing the murderer as I went through her novels but it was more a gut feeling. And once I got over that, I really began to enjoy her cast of characters and unraveling her fiendish plots.
So I was excited to hear Hannah’s views on Christie. Most of you will know by now that Hannah was chosen by Christie’s estate to write the new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was published last year . I, like many, was nervous about reading it but was completely won over by her intricate plotting and handling of Poirot. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hannah is on her third re-reading of Christie’s crime novels. Impressive stuff. She has a great love for Christie and her work, although she admits she is not as knowledgeable as John Curran, Christie’s archivist and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, whom she would phone with questions when writing The Monogram Murders for which he would have instant answers.
For the Guardian Book Club, Hannah chose to discuss Death on the Nile partly because she wanted something different to the usual choice which is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, probably one of Christie’s most infamous novels, but also because it is one of the few that is successful in all mediums – book, tv and film. It is also one where you meet the characters going about their daily business before the actual murder occurs.
As much as they were bestsellers, I recall most notably in an English literature class at school that Christie’s novels were considered derivative and her characters two-dimensional, criticisms which still echo in genre fiction today. As young as I was, I did wonder why books you could race through weren’t considered serious literature however well written. It didn’t stop me reading or loving her novels, and when I re-read Elephants Can Remember a few years ago, I was surprised at how dark the plot was and how tightly written the prose. Hannah does point this out saying it’s an unfair label. She believes the characters need to appear to be two dimensional at first before the unveiling of the third dimension by the detective.
Christie’s strength lies in her interest in the psychology of crime especially how we assess others. She lets the readers mislead themselves and only at the unmasking do you realise your error in judgement. And one of the devices she uses in her novels is that a large proportion of her subjects are hiding something, all are guilty of something but perhaps not the murder. No one is perfect, everyone has a flaw. Christie is unparalleled in her understanding of character, human nature and psychology.
On accusations of stereotyping and stylised settings, Hannah does acknowledge that Christie recycles setting and plot devices but her tales are so interesting that readers don’t mind. A reader pointed out that The Murder on the Nile was somewhat similar to Endless Night and Mullan clocked on to a similar echo of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove which brought about a discussion on the limitations of plot. In some contemporary crime novels, the mystery isn’t enough to sustain the reader’s interest and so they pile on the bodies, but Christie doesn’t need to do this. However Hannah pointed out that Christie was fascinated by the possibilities of the crime novel and tried every possible permutation. She instinctively understood what every novel needed and was in total control. Christie is famous for being a meticulous planner before she put pen to paper and this can be seen in the very intricate way in which Christie manipulates her novels’ timelines. This was one aspect of the crime novel with which Hannah had difficulty and is also probably one of the reasons why she finds it so difficult to pinpoint Christie’s culprit.
For the serious mystery reader, the inability to guess the murderer is crucial. Christie overtly draws your attention to the clues, she is never sly or frugal in this, but still manages to fool you. You don’t know until the second Poirot or Miss Marple starts explaining who the murderer is. And she does this all the while increasing the tension bit by bit until you just have to know who did it.
The event ended with Hannah describing Miss Marple as a bit of a misanthrope and Poirot a romantic who liked to play cupid, often directing the attentions of a young lady away from a handsome rake to a slightly boring but more suitable man. Her favourite secondary character is Jane, Lady Edgware, in Lord Edgware Dies and one of her top ten favourite novels is After the Funeral as well as The Body in the Library which she says is flawless.
It was just a lovely evening to hear someone who loves Christie as much as I do talk about various aspects of her work and it has reawakened my urge to re-read some of Christie’s novels again as well as dip into John Curran’s books.
I hope this has whetted your appetite for Agatha Christie’s novels. If you have read them, which is your favourite mystery? And if you haven’t read any yet, which one would you like to start with?
20 May, 2015
Longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction and winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award this year, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven seems to have blown through the literary world garnering praise from readers across genres. A dystopian novel featuring a travelling band of Shakespearean actors, what is it that made so many fall in love with this novel?
Set 20 years after a flu pandemic originating in Georgia and carried via air travel from the from the Caucasus decimated almost all life, there are still pockets of areas where people have survived and are adjusting to a new world without ready energy, access to communication or any of the mod cons that bolster modern life. It’s recent enough for many to have memories of what life was life before the pandemic but increasing numbers of the survivors are forgetting or have no memories at all.
Station Eleven goes back and forth from the dystopian present to the period just before the pandemic breaks out in the States and follows a cast of characters beginning with the tough as nails actress Kirsten who remembers her last night as a child actress working with the legendary Arthur Leander before he collapsed on stage and who treasures the copy of the comic book, Station Eleven, which he gave to her shortly beforehand. Having lost her family in the aftermath, she is picked up by The Travelling Symphony a few years later and never looked back. Then there is Jeevan, a trainee paramedic who was the first to realise Arthur was dying and tried to help him, the first also to get a call from his best friend, a doctor in A&E, who told him of the people coming in sick and who warned him to get out of town. And then there is Arthur and his three wives, Miranda who dreamt of creating a comic book, superseded by Elizabeth, an actress who went to live in Israel with their son and a third he was in the middle of divorcing. And Arthur’s best friend Clark who is on a flight when the pandemic breaks and becomes stranded in an airport in the middle of nowhere. All these characters play a part in this tale, strangers to each other but connected in the most spectacular way. And then there is the mysterious Prophet who emerges many years later, going from town to town, offering salvation through submission and violence. The Travelling Symphony must avoid him to survive yet this is becoming increasingly difficult, especially since it is almost inevitable that the small number of survivors will run into each other.
I’m still in two minds about this novel. In one, I feel that perhaps the dystopian elements in the novel weren’t as cleverly rendered as in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and felt a little simplistic. And yet, the spare manner in which the different parts of Mandel’s tale coalesce produce something that is remarkable. I can’t seem to get Station Eleven out of my mind. I’m not sure whether the fact that The Travelling Symphony puts on Shakespearean plays makes it more acceptable than a genre novel or whether genre is becoming mainstream, but somehow, the Shakespearean aspect of the book seems negligable just like the fictional comic book, Station Eleven. What remains is the horror and despair that won’t subside even after twenty years. The pandemic remains alive in the characters’ minds and they are still numb, surviving on autopilot. Station Eleven ultimately is a book about community, how you cannot survive without others. That even if you do survive, you will seek out others, just to know you aren’t going mad.
One of the things I loved about the book is the community that sprung up in the airport. It happened organically, naturally, as though there was no other way except to keep going. And even though you know that you can survive and adapt pretty quickly, the idea itself that power, electricity and all mod cons can just disappear so quickly is terrifying. More than the violence people can do to each other. That if you lose those things, the world is irrevocably changed.
Station Eleven turned out to be a haunting novel, although in ways I didn’t expect. Mandel’s imagery is vivid and remains branded in my mind, especially the hulks of the ships off Singapore where Miranda is sent on a business trip just as the pandemic breaks, ships built during the financial bubble but with nowhere to go, lit up to avoid collision, huge ghostly hulks in the sea. They reminded me very much of the prison ships in Dickens’ Great Expectations, vast and lonely. It’s such images that tug you suddenly back into the story.
Mandel doesn’t directly address the dissolute nature of modern society and yet the individual stories and crises that her characters face point to a modern world collapsing in on itself, as though the pandemic was a washing away of accumulated sin. It’s certainly the outlook the Prophet took.
6 May, 2015
Our book group choice for February was one I’d heard a lot of buzz about in the year past, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I didn’t know much about the premise before I started but it’s one of those books that as soon as you start, you get that feeling, you know that it’s one that is going to stay with you. And I was right.
Everything I Never Told You is a tale of an ordinary family with just one difference; theirs is a mixed-race Chinese American family, the only one in their town. In a small college town in middle America, this one difference will simultaneously change and shape everyone and everything that happens to them. It is 1977 and 16 year old Lydia Lee has gone missing from her bed. Her parents James and Marilyn are trying to piece together the events of the days just before her disappearance, while her brother and sister, Nathan and Hannah, are not sure whether they should share the secrets so sacrosanct amongst siblings. When Lydia’s body is found in the nearby lake, their family life splinters as all they have believed in for so long is torn apart. Who was Lydia? And what happened to her?
What Ng is so adept at doing is teasing out the secrets and hidden yearnings of her characters. Like any family that looks outwardly normal, there will always be dreams that have been crushed and silenced, the reality often harsh and unforgiving. And it is no different here. James Lee is a tenured professor at a small college after his dreams of staying on at Harvard is so easily taken away from him. The son of Chinese immigrants who took jobs as a gardener and cook at a prestigious school to give their son the opportunity to secure a place to study there if he is bright enough, James only yearns for a normal American life and to fit in. And he finds this in Marilyn, who has never wanted to be pedestrian but who puts on hold her dream of becoming a doctor, to marry the man she unexpectedly falls in love with. They are so in love with each other, yearning to leave behind their unhappy childhoods that they do not see their past shaping the future of their three children, heavy with so much expectation and stifling with love. When Marilyn, unable to let go of her dream of becoming a doctor, runs away to finish her degree, this acts as a catalyst and irrevocably changes the family dynamic.
Ng’s subtle manipulation of the shifting dynamics within the Lee family is so masterfully done that it is only as you read on that it slowly dawns on you what has happened. The silent pressure on Lydia to achieve high grades in science so that she can fulfill her mother’s dream of becoming a doctor. The silent fear she has that if she doesn’t comply, her mother will leave her again. How Nath’s heart breaks a little every time his father sees a bit of himself in his son and looks disappointed. And Hannah, the youngest, always forgotten, learning not to be in the way. As the children grow and begin to chafe under the yoke of their parents expectations, their usually strong sibling ties fracture and they rebel. Nath will apply to Harvard, the only way to get his father to acknowledge his worth and as Lydia’s grades decline, she starts spending more time with Jack, their neighbour and Nath’s childhood enemy, to punish him. Each character deals with their hurt, humiliation and anger in such different ways, trying to push away and yet always returning because they are family. It is difficult to imagine the isolation and the segregation James and his children experience, the racism that is never fully overt and yet of which they are hyper-aware but Ng does this gently but with devastating effect. The disapproval of Marilyn’s mother which Marilyn so casually brushes aside but which pierces James’ heart at their wedding. The swallowed dreams, the claustrophobia of a small homogenous town, a child’s future that has been mapped out in concrete. It’s all there.
Ng manages to weave all the different strands of each character’s story, in and out from the past to the present without leaving the current nightmare of Lydia’s demise. And as each layer is peeled back, and you glimpse the anger, regret and hurt that has been experienced and suppressed, it is almost a miracle that each of them can survive the fallout of a loved one’s death.
However sad Everything I Never Told You is, Ng has created a novel of such tenderness. Her writing is gorgeous and yet spare but it reaches an emotional depth and complexity that you rarely find. It’s a beautiful book and probably one of the best I’ve read so far this year.