Sunday, 18 December 2016

My favourite books of 2016

Good weather for reading

It seems to get harder, given the ever-increasing number of books and my ever-narrowing tastes and sensibilities, to hit a run of fantastic reading. Sometimes, a year goes by and I’ve not loved anything. In 2016, thankfully, against a background of rubbish reality, I had a run of luck with the books I read. All the ones below were books that made me feel the wow feeling, repeatedly. They made me feel strange, exhilarated, envious, inspired, and most importantly, transported.

Many I listened to as audio books (via Audible), so I’ve marked those. The great readings certainly added to the experience.

Bark, by Lorrie Moore (audio book). Part of the joy of this was listening to Lorrie Moore read her own stories, giving me the feeling of something between a private performance and a confessional. Her voice was so amusing, enveloping, hypnotic, that I had to listen to the whole collection twice. Moore’s stories are long – sometimes clocking in at over an hour of listening each – and this was the first time in years I’d read any short story over 7,000 words or so. I loved the effect; the 10k word story is almost a different form from the 3k or 4k one, looser and more generous. In Moore’s case, there is room for both cruelty and humanity, as well as much black humour (a character thinks that a spider plant looks ‘like Bob Marley on chemo’). I wanted this collection, and Moore’s laconic reading, to last forever, really. It changed the way I wrote.

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood (audio book). Another collection of long short stories, also as influential as it was pleasurable – the greatest treat being Atwood’s reading of the title story. Most of the ‘tales’, as Atwood calls them, are told from the point of view of characters in the later decades of life (reflected in the choice of superb readers), and themes of regret and loss are balanced by juicy veins of revenge (sometimes murderous). The first three stories pleasingly interlink, so we get to see three characters from each other’s well-seasoned points of view. Another affectionately revisits the cast of Atwood’s The Robber Bride. The final story, ‘Torching the Dusties’, is a chilling look into the possible near future that would work devastatingly well as a Black Mirror episode.
There are not enough short story collection available as audio books. These two are gold.

Hag Seed, by Margaret Atwood (audiobook). Well, I’d enjoyed Stone Mattress so much… This is Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, set in contemporary times, as a director ousted from his high-profile job takes on tutoring at the local prison. Another tale driven by desire for revenge, which, when the opportunity finally arises, is delivered with gleeful detail by Atwood. You don’t need an in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare’s play to enjoy all the levels on which this book works: the play within the novel, put on by the prisoners, provides you with all the plot and character analyses (albeit convict-led ones) to see what cleverness Atwood has applied. This is a rich delight, and beautifully read if you choose to listen too.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (print). Endless wow, for me personally, as this book knits together a series of independent short stories to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Bitter, angry, middle-aged Olive is sometimes protagonist, sometimes bit-part, always satisfying. I’ve heard enthusiastic readers described her as an awful person, which in some ways she is, but that is what makes her so interesting. She is not predictable, yet we get to know her, down to her faux-curses – ‘Godfrey’, she exclaims, instead of God, to please her mild-mannered husband – and the truth behind her bullishness. The short story format affords Strout a freedom with her writerly lens that a straight novel would not, and the result is wonderful, whether you read it as a writer learning technique or as a lover of funny, moving portraits of life and its small tragedies.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (print). Yes, published in 1989 and, I’d hope, part of the shared cultural consciousness by now. I list this because I have been using it to teach writers about unreliable narrators, and rereading it left me in a weeping puddle, as well as breathless with admiration. To build an emotional world so thoroughly around an infuriating, buttoned-up character who will never say what he thinks to anyone, least of all himself, is an incredible feat. To find yourself, as a reader, overwhelmed with grief just because a character gets on a bus, is the kind of miracle I constantly hope fiction will deliver to me. I never did watch Downton Abbey, but this is the ultimate under-stairs drama.

Light Box, by K J Orr (print). ‘Exemplary’ is the best word to describe K J Orr’s short stories, and they are indeed stunningly well-written and superbly structured. But all that does not capture the resonance of these pieces. They sometimes appear quiet, or gentle; and yet, like impossible bells whose peals echo louder rather than quieter over time, I find myself thinking about their characters weeks and months after reading. K J Orr deservedly won the BBC National Short Story Award this year for one of the stories in this book. There are plenty more in here that equal the winning story in terms of the ‘linger effect’, as I’m going to call it, all made possible by Orr’s intense sensitivity to both life and language. An essential for both readers and writers of the short story.

Undermajordomo Minor, by Patrick Dewitt (audiobook). Dewitt is my discovery of the year (I’m now halfway through his earlier novel, The Sisters Brothers). I was attracted to this book because I saw it described as a ‘folk tale’ – pretty unusual for a literary novel. It certainly has many folkloric trappings: a gothic castle with a mad Count reminiscent of Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Gormenghast; a pretty village maid; endlessly fighting soldiers; a fool (of sorts) making his way in the world. But, to mangle a beer slogan, it refreshes the parts other folk tales cannot reach, and this is down to Dewitt’s combination of action, affection and detail when it comes to his characters. There is endless incident, some of it so surprising that you sense it could not have been planned ahead; I laughed out loud many times; I also found myself wishing I could meet these people (not something I’ve ever felt reading a folk tale). To write movingly in a folkloric world whilst hardly pausing for breath is a feat; I’ll definitely be listening to this brilliant reading, with characters’ voices made delightfully distinct, again.

What is not yours is not yours, by Helen Oyeyemi (print). Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox attracted me with its complexity, wry humour and folk-tale edge; the same goes for this story collection, creating as it does a kind of layering, such that the tales enhance one another without directly overlapping. A hard thing to describe, and that is part of the pleasure, I think. Oyeyemi reads widely in a literary arena so different from mine – and other British fiction fans – that the invisible influences create a sense of wonder in her writing. Puppets feature here, as protagonists and props for human relationships, alongside off-kilter celebrities, magical rose gardens and fantastical machinery for plumbing the depths of the human mind. Oyeyemi’s worlds are so unlike any others I encounter in English; she has an imagination to relish.

Other books I’ve read and enjoyed this year: The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge; The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark; The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm by Jack Zipes; High Rise by J G Ballard; Heart Burn by Nora Ephron; Out of the Woods by Will Cohu.

Books already stacked in the to-read pile for 2017: All of Jenny Erpenbeck’s books; A Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham; The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks; Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo-Buchanan; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; All the Beloved Ghosts by Alison MacLeod.

Happy reading!

Friday, 29 July 2016

A book - with my name on it

A threshold moment

It’s a strange game, these days, writing fiction. There are the joys of learning your craft, improving in tiny increments over the years. Alongside that, a series of disillusions occur, like nasty little tales told by the bigger children, about what will happen to you. Each of these either sends you into retreat or makes you more determined, only grimly so.

As green writers of literary fiction, we are presented with a kind of slough of despond to traipse through. Hardly any books of the kind you are writing get published, we are told; it’s about luck more than quality; such books sell in tiny numbers and are basically subsidised by the publisher’s range of celebrity cookbooks; advances are trifling compared with genre fiction. What are these books, then? Cheap window-dressing for publishing houses raking it in on stocking-fillers, whilst pretending to be patrons of great writing?

That would, of course, be the most horribly cynical view. I admit I’ve been there, in dark moments, wishing that somehow, I’d grown up to write vampire-police-procedural-raunch-horror-teen-romances in tweet form (I’m not ruling this out). It is true that I have had to ditch the now laughable fantasy that most literary fiction writers can make their living almost entirely from their books. I’ve also absorbed the news that things are even worse for short stories; there may be the odd prize, but hardly anyone wants to publish those tricky little monsters in a book, apparently.

All this is fine with me. It would be lovely, wouldn’t it, if short stories were like diamonds not just in a metaphorical sense, but a financial one. On the other hand, if I want to plough on with writing fiction for its own sake, without worrying about the hourly rate for my toil, that’s up to me. Millions of us do it, and are rewarded in myriad ways that do not have to equate to coins.

I’ve worked quite hard at staying positive about writing. I’ve checked in with myself often, asking, are you sure? Is this still worth it, despite the latest bit of doomy news about your calling? After a while, you can let all that stuff go. Probably, you need to, in order to get any blooming writing done.

After all that, imagine my surprise when I found myself with good news to share. The second surprise was that, now it was happening, I felt shy about telling anyone, and especially my fellow writers. We’re all working so hard, chipping away at those veins in the rock; we’re all at different depths, different heights. In a way it was easier to be looking up in awe at the professionals. The expectations were lower, there were many conspiratorial winks to be shared.

But here it is: my first fiction book will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2018. The dream has come true, and I am awfully happy.

I considered writing a post describing how this came about – from my first wonky words to a real publishing deal. But there is no magic formula to be distilled from such stories. Instead, I think it is best to hope, to write, and see what happens. You never know.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Bluebeard – symbols, secrets and power in folk tales

The Forbidden City: a natural holiday destination for Bluebeard

Do you know the Bluebeard folk tale? If so, how do you know it? Are you familiar with the whole plot, or is it a collection of images that float in your memory – a castle, a blood-stained key, unusual facial hair, the dismembered bodies of women?

It’s a gruesome story, and laden with symbols ripe for borrowing. The symbols and magic of folk tales are tempting material for writers, because they do so much to us; as Sara Maitland puts it, folk tales are ‘full of the reverberations of everyone’s dreams’. But writers continuously find novel ways of using these dream-meanings, re-using our instinctive responses to tell entirely new tales.

One of my favourite examples of this is Kirsty Logan’s ‘Flinch’ (in A Portable Shelter). In this story, the protagonist has something of the selkie (or seal person) about him, but his seal ancestry becomes the tool he uses to finally connect with someone he secretly cares about. This is very far from traditional selkie stories, of seal-women trapped by men who hide their seal coats in order to keep them in human, wifely form.

But while there are dozens of wonderful and entirely new stories that use folk tale reverberations (see recommended reading below), when it comes to Bluebeard, rare is the writer who can step away from its original plot. In almost every short story I’ve found that draws on, or retells, Bluebeard, the core plot, its tensions and gender dynamics, remain intact. The core story is of a terrible man and disempowered (not to mention dismembered) woman Why is this?

In the old tale, Bluebeard’s new wife is left alone in his castle with a bunch of keys, one of which she is forbidden to use. She gives in to temptation, though, and finds in the secret room the dismembered remains of his previous three wives. The key, which she drops in the blood, will not give up its stain, so Bluebeard finds her out; the new wife is usually rescued by her brothers at the last minute, when Bluebeard is about to kill her too.

I’ve looked at many Bluebeard-inspired stories, including: Margaret Atwood’s ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ (in her collection of the same name); Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Blue-bearded Lover’ (in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me); Donald Barthelme’s ‘Bluebeard’ (in Forty Stories); Francesca Lia Block’s ‘Bones’ (in Roses and Bones); and Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (in her collection of the same name).

These stories do differ marvellously. In Atwood’s, Bluebeard is a heart surgeon in contemporary suburbia, seemingly harmless to the point of stupidity (an illusion), In Lia Block’s, the heroine is a teenage girl impressed by a rich man’s party in a house filled with modern technology. Carter’s story is familiarly gothic, but the doomed wife is rescued by her gun-toting mother. Barthelme makes Bluebeard comically desperate to provoke interest in his secret room. Oates gives her heroine the power to overcome curiosity and survive in her own way, without rescue. The endings also differ – they are happy, or ominous, downright silly (see Barthelme) or sinister. In two of them, the wife does not quite play out her terrified-victim role and has no need of rescue.

But even in these new worlds so far away from the original Bluebeard’s castle, the essential power dynamic between man and woman is in place. The Bluebeard character has power through his secret: while the wife does not know what is in the locked room, she cannot know that she is danger, or at the very least, know what she is up against. The wife does not always come under threat of murder herself, but when doesn’t, there is an equivalent threat that still involves her relinquishing power, as a human and as a woman. Whichever way you look at it, there is entrapment here, and even the retellings by feminists do not alter this.

Power through keeping a secret seems to be a theme in folk tales: selkie stories and swan maiden tales all involve men entrapping women by secreting their fur or feather coats so they cannot return to the water. This might represent a denial of the true self, or full personhood: the woman loses her power to leave or stay as she wishes. These stories look like warnings, given by women to other women and to men. Bluebeard may be worse – he is a murderer as well as a deceiver and manipulator – but the message is similar.

Couldn’t a story giving this warning, whilst also demonstrating the flipside – that refusal to entrap is also possible? Claire Dean’s story ‘Feather Girls’ does just that, and with great poignancy, as opposed to celebration of freedom. The story achieves nuance and complexity that isn’t possible in a straightforward Bluebeard or swan maiden entrapment tale. The warning remains, but we focus instead on a man who has refused to fulfil the role of trapper.

Of course, to defang Bluebeard completely, to change the power relationship, would change the story, but it is still possible to make him pathetic, absurd, a pretender who is no mortal danger to his wife. Interestingly, it is only Barthelme’s story that does this, relying on our knowledge of the original in order to entertain us with this new, silly Bluebeard. But without the original tale in our minds, this man would be simply ridiculous, and the story would not have the impact (and humour) that it does.

Barthelme also gives the wife character her own secrets – she is sanguine, taking advantage of a desperate husband. This means there is still no redemption in this version, and there isn’t meant to be. We might say that a manipulative murderer does not deserve redemption, but it is interesting that in an epoch of looking for reasons behind terrible acts, seeking out explanations of psychological damage or pathology, Bluebeard remains simply demonic in our minds. It is his character, as opposed to the objects and symbols of the story, that brings writers back to Bluebeard time and again.

Some stories that use folk tales but do not simply retell them:

Clare Dean's story ‘Feather Girls’

Lucy Wood's collection Diving Belles

Cassandra Parkin's collection New World Fairy Tales

Angela Carter's collection The Bloody Chamber – some retellings, but some new stories

Sara Maitland's nonfiction and story book Gossip from the Forest - also some retellings, some new stories

Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox