That time again: The Man Booker Shortlist.

Lest you forget this is, at heart, a book blog, I’d like to interrupt the lovely Scotland talk to briefly address my annual love-hate rant about the Man Bookers. The shortlist’s just come out, tripping the switch for my traditional snarky comments outlining all the reasons it’s utterly ridiculous.

I bitch and moan first, puffing up about THE PATRIARCHY, then wind up buying a few – if not all. I loathe myself, cry in the corner, read the books or don’t, then opine on them all. The winner I choose invariably doesn’t, triggering one last bout of bitching before I load all the titles onto my bookshelf and move on.

At worst, I’ve supported five also-rans, plus one who hardly needs my money, as they’ve won THE BIG ONE. All get stickers slapped on their covers, selling extra copies to those swayed by the reputation of the prize. Finally, CVs are updated with  “nominated for the Man Booker Prize for his/her 2018 novel FILL IN THE BLANK,” which, ultimately, winds up on bookshop 3 for 2 tables.

The romance is dead.

 

 

 Shortlisted Titles:

Milkman by Anna Burns (UK –  N. Ireland)

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Canada)

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (UK – England) – youngest ever nominated, age 27

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (USA)

The Overstory by Richard Powers (USA)

The Long Take by Robin Robertson (UK – Scotland)

 

Two Americans made the cut, one Canadian and three from the UK. Four of six are female. All have previously won some literary prize or other, and several have published in Very Big Literary Publications.

Richard Powers is the literary giant who could bitch-slap them all. His book is also the one predicted to win. It’s the only shortlisted title I’ve bought, though I did come damn near picking up Washington Black at Blackwell’s last week after reading the first few pages.

It’s a damn fine book.

I think Richard Powers will win. He’s writing about trees, which sounds soporific but isn’t, because they’re at the center of every set piece in the book so far (I’m not far into it) and he just writes so damn well.

The bit that bothers me is he’d be yet another American winner. There’ve been two others in the last few years. I’m not keen on American inclusion in the Man Booker. We have our own prizes – loads of them. To see Americans dominating this prize rubs me the wrong way, and I’m American.

I’m not sure I’ll have more to say about the prize this year before the winner’s announced sometime next month. That would be a first, I know. I’ll talk about Powers’ book when I’ve finished or given up.

Otherwise, that’s all she wrote. Possibly.

Daily Scotland: Settling In

 

The familiarity gained from last year’s three-month stay in Scotland’s shortened the re-acquaintance process with life here. It already feels familiar walking to the market to pick up simple things like milk and bread. There’s a small shop, a mini-mart we’d call it in the States, five minutes away. The nearest supermarket’s further than I can walk. A taxi would add a lot to the cost of buying just a few items, but there’s the British equivalent of Walmart anchoring the local mall. In that mall is, among other things, a Waterstones. I can take a taxi there when I have a longer list of needs than just vanilla and cake pans.

In preparation for making two pies with apples from the tree directly behind the house, I mistakenly bought “sponge” flour in place of self-rising, to go along with the folly of “caster” sugar in place of regular granulated, for my coffee. Thank God Chris put me in my place as far as caster sugar, since “no restaurant would ever serve caster sugar for my coffee.” As far as I can tell, caster sugar is more coarse than granulated, not so coarse as what we’d call “crystal” sugar, which is decorative. That’s used on top of baked goods to make them look more appealing and fancy, I guess you’d say.

 

We don’t have so many choices for baking ingredients in the States. There’s brown sugar, powdered sugar, granulated, and crystal sugar. As for flour, there’s self-rising, standard flour with no baking powder or baking soda (if you need to add specialized amounts), wheat flour, specialty flours made with other grains for the gluten-intolerant, but as far as I know, that’s it. For sponge cake, we’d use regular self-rising. If it needs a finer texture, we’d run it through a sifter. British bakers, you’re much more sophisticated.

Today I was looking at the flour and sugar I bought to stock the pantry, thinking as long as I had these maybe I should just bake a sponge cake. Exploring the kitchen cabinets for other critical ingredients, I found he had none. Add those to the list for a trip to the shopping mall. Heaven forfend I should have to go shopping, but what does what one must.

 

Lots of excitement two days ago, when the remnants of a hurricane barreled through southern Scotland. Growing up in the Midwest I’ve seen huge thunderstorms, but never an actual hurricane. Fascinating watching detritus hurtle past the windows, like a Scottish-set The Wizard of Oz. I half expected the Wicked Witch of the West to cycle by. I’m glad it came through so early in autumn. The leaves have only just begun changing; I’m crossing my fingers there’s no tree-baring repeat nearer peak color. I’d love to drive up into the Highlands for spectacular photos.

Colors become brilliant in Scotland later than the Midwest – between late October and early November. Colorful leaves are long gone by November in Chicago, and it’s not particularly stunning where I lived. Two charming possibilities in the Highlands are Aberfeldy and Pitlochry. I picked them out while researching hamlets with bookshops. These two fit the bill. Right next to each other in Perthshire, they’re approximately an hour and a half away. Chris mentioned Perthshire as a beauty spot. Cross fingers the weather cooperates.

 

I can’t escape without admitting the number of books I’ve bought so far – in just over two weeks. It’s not staggering – well, maybe to a non-reader – but decent. Charity shops netted me a few finds, but Amazon.co.uk has been no slouch, either. Considering a blog devoted to Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, I found several here and there. Edinburgh is his home town; no worries about finding all the volumes.

I may have picked up a sequel to Cold Comfort Farm I never realized existed, as well as the same Bloomsbury edition of The Brontës Went to Woolworths I used to own, once upon a pre-Scotland purge. Then, there’s Claire Tomalin’s autobiography, a book by an up and coming Edinburgh author named Sam McColl, Alexander McCall Smith’s first book in The Sunday Philosophy Club series, a book about bookshops, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for a book discussion group meeting in Edinburgh. And no, you may not see my Amazon shopping cart.

 

Speaking of the book group, I attended my first meeting last evening at a lovely little cafe called Nom de Plume on Broughton St. in Edinburgh. Jean Brodie provoked a brilliant discussion, and I was very interested in hearing what actual Scots thought about this iconic title written by one of their iconic writers. All sorts of fascinating points were brought up, lots of bits and pieces I’d never have picked up on my own. This is the wonder of book groups.

 

I’m looking forward to the weekend, hoping it brings travel – weather permitting. A Scottish author and friend recommended a couple of abandoned sites I’m keen to see. One’s an old manor, the other a railroad tunnel no longer in use. The manor sounds delightfully creepy, though potentially dangerous. There are beams perilously near falling, and a staircase in the same condition. She warned of drop offs, so if you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know why. It’s Chris’s chance to wander off, whistling innocently.

I’m still working out adding photos without the Windows snipping tool, and I have some lovely ones to show. If I must, I’ll post those separately. If you see photos in this post, I was successful. Yay!

If not, they’re coming. Gives you a reason to keep living.

 

Och, aye.

From January through March or April-ish, Bluestalking exploded with activity like it hadn’t for ages. Then a Big Life Decision came knocking, consuming all my attention. The issue? Should I, or should I not, return to Scotland.

The answer, after weeks of torturous back and forth: Yes.

Pulling up stakes once again, selling or storing possessions not crucial to day-to-day existence, I’m again living with Scottish friend and fellow writer/blogger Chris. I can only describe last year’s attempt to build a relationship as a complete crash and burn. Not without good times, the volatility ultimately lead to a swear-laden shouting match, ending with me stomping out, slamming the door behind me. I flew home three months early. The friendship, I thought, was smashed to bits, beyond repair.

But angry passion is still passion. A few months’ fuming outrage releasing the fury, I didn’t believe the story was over.

It’s a somewhat wonky relationship built not on romance, but a friendship evolving over five years’ worth of on-again, off-again communication about reading, writing, and the banality of life. After the demise of my marriage I approached him first about the idea of my moving to Scotland, but the timing was off. Biding my time two more years, something clicked. He asked me to come live with him. Working out the details of moving abroad was exhausting, but I managed. Living in the same house was awkward, sometimes contentious. It morphed into something explosive and unhealthy.

Yet, I knew it wasn’t the last chapter. Somewhere deep inside I knew there was something there.

Five or six months later, tentative communication started. I don’t remember who approached whom first, but I kept writing and the Scot continued replying – terse and snarling, but he answered. He hadn’t forgiven me for walking out. A month-ish later I came out with it: should we try again? It was crazy. Insane.

It was inevitable.

Last year I was relatively flush; this time around the money’s tighter. Distant travel will have to give way to local trips, of which there are still a plethora. Living a short distance outside Edinburgh, you bet your arse I’ll explore the capital city extensively. Though staying in the Lowlands, the Highlands are accessible. Scotland is a small country.

Edinburgh’s been christened The City of Literature, birthplace of writers major and minor, home to a plethora of literary festivals, bookshops and book events. There’s a literary salon I plan to join. I’m considering options for other endeavors, including blogging about Scottish literature.

At home, life so far is smooth. Can I predict the outcome this time around? Not a chance. There’s sniping, but much more sedate. Sedate is good.

I don’t know where I’m headed, professionally speaking. I need to decide soon and get on with it. Reviewing won’t stop. It’s more a matter of specializing or staying more general. My life situation would translate well to articles, not to mention the knowledge and creativity accumulated throughout my life. I have options. I need to pick one or three and get cracking.

Once I do, I’ll post. Wish me luck.

 

Yup, still breathing.

 

April brought violets.

 

Thanks to all who’ve sent notes asking if I’m still alive. Sorry I wasn’t able to reply to all, but I’m popping in to reassure you I haven’t yet left this earthly plane. For some of you, hopefully that’s what you’d hoped to hear. For the rest of you, I know lots of Scottish swear words and insulting phrases. But I’ll let you slide this time.

Time really gets away from you. This year’s halfway over already, can you believe it? I’d been blogging religiously through most of it, then life reared its head. I had things to attend to, and everything plummeted into the roiling pit of despair.

I pretty much read nothing the entire month of April. I slowly returned to reading this month, but just couldn’t summon the energy to write about it. Welcome the tail end of May, when finally I rear my curly red head.

Once I’ve gathered the few books I’ve not shared about, I’ll do my best to form sentences summarizing thoughts. Then I’ll get myself back on track, as I’d done so well the early months of 2018.

Lots of personal things going on right now, like the continuing search for a librarian position. As I’m willing to go nearly anywhere in the U.S., it’s both easier and tougher. Try hunting for a job in a country of over 300 million people occupying gawd knows how many thousands of square miles.  Narrowing it down is tough, even eliminating areas I’d never want to live. Sift the remainder, and that’s still an awful bit pile.

Uprooting again will be an undertaking, once I do find that mythical job, though not nearly as tough as last year’s wee jaunt to Scotland. I never filled up my new home, anticipating the wanderlust itch was still great with me. I’m not sure the furniture I’m left with wouldn’t be best sold off, new things bought at my destination, considering the cost of moving. But that’s jumping ahead.

Meanwhile, time to get back to life’s plans – both big and small. I aim to post about books over the coming weekend. I may not blow you away with what I’ve read, but I sure as hell will with books I’ve bought and received for review. Still buying back some I sold before I moved away last year, and, as always, adding some everyone would agree are necessary.

Until then.

 

March in Review: Much more reading, many more books. That’s more like it.

I had faith March wouldn’t let me down, unlike my crappy January and February. Lie: I had no such faith, but told myself things could hardly go further south. And there were no Olympics, no television distracting me. The TV reverted to its usual function: background noise for napping and covering the surface of my TV stand, while looking impressively large.

Size matters, friends.

Of course, March brings out my Irish. It’s also my birth month, meaning I have an excuse to binge buy books. This year, March threw in a nasty virus, gratis, getting me three days off work in which I was too sick even to read.

Still, I managed to fit in a few.

I’d hoped to take a short vacation in March. SPOILER: that didn’t happen. I was too ill, no desire to leave the warmth of my home and comfort of my sofa. It’s still cold here in Chicago. Distressingly so. On this April 1, it’s the coldest it’s been in years, hovering around freezing.

Will spring ever come. I’m beginning to wonder.

Books Read March 2018:
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (for library classics book group)

I’ve been putting off reading this one since the upset wrought by the first few minutes of the Kubrick film. Not a fan of random violence and rape, I wrote this off as not for me.

It’s about a young man literally addicted to violence, the leader of a pack which wreaks nightly havoc on an English town. The first part was difficult to read, partly for the made-up language Burgess creates (which wore on me) and constant, gratuitous violence. The second part is much more interesting, once main character Alex is finally arrested for his crimes, and re-programmed, for lack of a better term.

The best thing I can say about ACO is I finished it. Not a fan.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

The lovely Jesmyn Ward has written another moving story set in Mississippi, this one about a family ripped apart by the slow death of the matriarch from cancer. Told from shifting perspectives, including that of the ghost of a young black boy lynched decades ago, it’s a short and rich novel.

It deserves to be shortlisted.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

This one, good God. Absolute brilliance, beginning to end. It’s been a while since I’ve read a modern book I believe has the staying power to become a modern classic. Ruby is it and then some.

The story, the brilliant and sensuous language, the characterization and use of magical realism… It’s huge in scope, so difficult to summarize.

The title character is born a beautiful young girl, her life of poverty dooming her to prostitution starting from a very early age. Having escaped the South for a privileged life with a relative in New York City, upon the death of a woman she’d loved she makes the fatal mistake of returning home. Ruby loses her mind, becoming feral, as she’s again pulled back into sexual abuse and violence.

Love enters, and Ruby resists, unable to believe anyone could truly love such a damaged, broken woman.

I can’t recall the last time I finished a book and wanted to turn back around and re-read it immediately. If I weren’t engaged in other projects, I’d have done so.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

Schmidt’s book is a novelization of the story of possible murderess Lizzie Borden, she of the axe murders of her father and step-mother.  Generally, I don’t care for historical fiction, but this was an exception. What bothers me about it is the inability to know what’s true and what’s imagination. I’d far rather read non-fiction, getting to the truth of the matter.

 

The Notorious LB

 

I enjoyed Schmidt’s approach, telling the story from different perspectives. And while the case remains unsolved, she lets the reader know what she believes truly happened. It’s what I’ve always believed, as well, minus a few suspicions on the details.

Though an enjoyable read, I’d be surprised if this one makes the shortlist.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

Merchant shipman Jonah Hancock, one of his ships lost on a voyage, is handed a small, shrivelled “mermaid” as recompense. His only choice to help re-coup some of his losses is to display it as a curiosity, in PT Barnum fashion.

In the course of its travels, it lands in an upper class whorehouse, at which Mr Hancock meets the lovely courtesan and former mistress of a nobleman: Angelica Neal. Struck by her beauty, he’s lost.

Later, in order to win her love, she demands he bring her another mermaid, this one genuine. Believing it impossible, she believes she’s seen the last of him. When her fortunes change, however, Mr Hancock becomes much more desirable.

Ultimately, the creature Mr Hancock presents her with induces a terrible melancholy on everyone associated with it, begging the question what is the price to be paid when you get everything you think you want.

Not a candidate to win the Women’s Prize by any means, it’s an overly long book I nearly gave up at the 3/4 point. It meanders, interesting lesser characters never fully fleshed out. I finished it to find out what happens, and because I’d ordered it from Ireland and paid enough in shipping I didn’t want that to be for naught.

 

Books Bought March 2018:

In addition to a couple from the Books Read in March list (See What I Have Done and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock), there were these:

Happy by Nicola Barker (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (for review)

And these:

And, for my birthday:

 

Nothing new read for the Muriel Spark project, unfortunately, but I’ll resume that in April. I thought I owned a copy of The Bachelors – next up chronologically – but can’t find it anywhere. Hesitant to buy more books after my slutty indulgence this month, I may have to skip over it for the next, bite the bullet and order it, then read it out of sequence.

I hate doing that, but needs must. One last search of my library, then I’ll do what must be done.

 

Such was my March. I’m happy with what I managed to read, definitely happy with the stream of new books. April needs to be a less expensive month. I went a little crazy, and need to re-coup. Still searching for that elusive sugar daddy to support my habit. Ah, but rare as mermaids are they.

April will hopefully herald spring, lifting my mood. I’d be lying if I said the first quarter of the year hasn’t brought me down. Still too early to plant flowers in the Chicago area – we’ve had frost as distressingly late as May, in years past – a warm-up, at the least, would be more than welcome. At least the days are lengthening, so there’s that. Sorry not to be more perky. I just don’t have it in me at the moment.

Spring’s hope’s eternal.

 

St Patrick’s Day Gift: interviews with three great Irish writers

 

Irish countryside – 2014

 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, y’all! I do have a bit of genuine Irish in me, but the bulk of my heritage is English, Scottish and Dutch. What Irish I do have I magnify on March 17th, as one does.

My daughter and I toured Ireland together back in 2014. She was finishing up a semester in Swansea, Wales, so I made the sacrifice and flew into Dublin at the tail end of her time there. I ferried her over for a week or so in Ireland, then we popped back to Wales. I proceeded to take her on a trip around the perimeter, to areas in the north she hadn’t seen during her semester. After dropping her back in Swansea, I took the ferry back to Ireland, spending three more days wandering lovely Dublin.

 

Trinity College Library

 

In Ireland I bought a claddagh ring I haven’t taken off to this day. I fell in love with the country. It’s as magical as you’d think, and then some.

My appreciation for the staggering literary tradition of Ireland is boundless. I’ve read a good deal of writing by Irish authors, though not yet the great Ulysses. I’m going to give that a stab over the summer, starting in June, natch, as Bloomsday is the 16th of June. I’ve tried stabbing it a couple times before.

It’s never ended well.

But hope springs.

To celebrate St. Patrick’s day – on which I’ll be sober as a judge, thanks for asking, because old and no longer interested in alcohol – I’m posting three interviews from the Bluestalking Archives, with three huge Irish writers kind enough to indulge me:

 

An Interview with Colm Tóibín

We had no symphonies, no great paintings, but slowly writing began to matter. Paper was cheap; literacy was the only way out of poverty; London was close and London publishers were interested in stories about strange places. The traditional music survived mainly in the west, and partly because of poverty. The language – Irish – did not survive as well because parents became aware that you would need English to go to England or America, as so many did.

 

 

An Interview with Sebastian Barry

The strange thing is, my family was full of both stories and silence. Pregnant with silence.

 

 

An Interview with Frank Delaney

 

Writing drives me. Writing ignites my passion. The challenge of telling a good story clearly and, I hope, in excellent and vivacious language, across a cultural arc that is as wide as I can make it – that gets me out of bed with delight every morning of my life. Just think of it – the very notion of providing a reader with a book that they find enriching and rewarding is a privilege that I try to service every day.

 

Enjoy the interviews and the day. Have a stout for me.

sláinte mhaith

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2018: the Debut Novelists

I’m still pretty amazed finding six of the longlisted novels for the Women’s Prize for Fiction are debuts. Six of sixteen. That’s a big chunk, nearly half.

I can do math!

These women are incredible, each one. I may normally quibble and grumble about first-time novelists snagging such a prestigious longlist nomination, but after reading more about them I’m not just impressed, I hate my own guts.

What have I been doing? SPOILER: Sure as hell not translating my life and experiences into award-nominated books.

Elif Batuman (American)

The Idiot, Penguin

 

Elife Batuman, photo: The Irish Times

 

Elif Batuman has been a staff writer for The New Yorker roughly eight years. The author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, she’s won the Whiting Writer’s Award, Rona Jaffe Foundation Award and Terry Southern Prize for Humor. Earning her PhD in comparative lit from Stanford, she’s your classic underachiever.

I really want to hate her. But then, I remember I’m the one who’s opted to sit on my ass watching bad reality television instead of, I don’t know, writing?

In college I was one of two students in a Russian literature course, taught by an actual Russian. Yes, an actual Russian! I know, right? Funny thing, because of the low interest, she’d only agree to teach if I’d run her home after the evening class. The buses stopped relatively early, and she didn’t drive. Funny, at the time I didn’t think much about it, but why did she even schedule that time at all, if this was the case? Took me long enough, didn’t it.

We read and watched the film of The Overcoat and several other short stories, and explored Crime and Punishment in-depth. Hell, there were only two of us. There was no excuse not to cover everything in-depth. Those once a week trips to her house, I don’t even recall what we talked about. Books, I would presume. It’s just a weird footnote in my life.

I love Russian literature, and love that Batuman pays it homage in the titles of her books. I bought a copy, and covet her first book on the topic of one of my favorite literary nationalities.

We know it’ll be on my shelves, eventually. I mean, please.

Imogen Hermes Gowar  (British)

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, Harvill Secker

 

Imogen Hermes Gowar, photo: thetimes.co.uk

 

Now this woman, she really makes me realize how I’ve frittered my life. An archaeology, anthropology and art history scholar, her writing inspired by artefacts earned her the 2013 Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship funding an MA in Creative Writing.

Writing about artefacts, freaking genius. As a kid, one of the things I dreamed of was being an archaeologist. I was nuts about the Egyptians, the Romans, Druids…  When I had the chance to actually visit Europe, it filled my heart to bursting. I was that nerdy kid taking notes on the bus.

Picked as a ‘MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2018’ by Vogue, Sunday Times, Observer, The Times, Sunday Mirror, Daily Express, BBC Arts, Red Magazine, Stylist, The Pool, Emerald Street, Independent, The Herald, Irish Times, Irish Tatler, The Journal and Irish Independent. ‘A brilliantly plotted story of mermaids, madams and intrigue in 1780s London and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become the Essex Serpent of 2018’ – The Pool ‘Imogen Hermes Gowar is a soon-to-be literary star’ – Sunday Times THIS VOYAGE IS SPECIAL. IT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING.
  • Amazon.com

 

It never occurred to me to approach fiction from the angle of a single, historical object, and how I love that premise. I wasn’t going to buy this book. Now I don’t see how I cannot. It reminds me of the nonfiction book The Bronte Cabinet by Deborah Lutz, a book about eight objects owned by the siblings. An absolutely fascinating book, one I cannot recommend too highly.

 

Jessie Greengrass  (British)

Sight, Harvill Secker

 

Jessie Greengrass, photo: theshortstory.com

 

A student of philosophy at Cambridge and London, Jessie Greengrass’s first collection of short stories, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, won two prizes, including the Somerset Maugham. That is colossal.

Sight is narrated by a nameless young woman who, pregnant with her second child, meditates on her mother’s death and its aftermath, her relationship with her psychoanalyst grandmother, and how difficult it was to decide to have her first baby. The narrative brushes back and forth in time, bringing unexpected connections to the surface.

 

A book about familial relationships is a harder sell for me. I’m not generally a fan of this sort of novel. Might Sight be an exception? Possibly, and I certainly esteem the author’s credentials. It’s on the second string of Women’s Fiction titles I’m considering buying.

A few more reviews may sway me one way or the other.

 

Gail Honeyman  (British)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, HarperCollins

 

Gail Honeyman, photo: amazon.co.uk

 

I wasn’t able to find as much about Gail Honeyman, aside from the fact she’s a graduate of both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities. Perhaps I could dig a bit deeper, but despite her Costa win I’m a bit hesitant to spend a lot of time.

That sounds more rude than I mean it to be. A tremendously popular writer of a universally loved book, Gail Honeyman will have a legion of fans. I don’t mean to disparage, just use my time wisely.

 

“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

 

 

I disliked this book. Rather, I disliked the second half, after main character Eleanor made her about-face. I don’t like treacle-y endings. The first part  was so well-written. It had all the elements of a superbly dark story, then sold out. The first and last halves could have been from completely different books. It jarred, ending on an almost Bridget Jones note.

I half wonder if she didn’t originally write a much different book, but some misguided editor put it in her mind that it would sell better if it ended happily. She’s tremendously talented; the first half had me riveted. By the end, I was angry I’d wasted time on it.

No figs are given for popular opinion on Bluestalking. Moving on.

 

Fiona Mozley (British)

Elmet, Algonquin

 

Fiona Mozley, photo: thenational.ae

 

An employee in a bookshop, Fiona Mozley may be even more mysterious than Gail Honeyman. I found this on her website, and precious little else:

 

I grew up in York and later lived in London, Cambridge and Buenos Aires. I am now back in York, where I am writing a PhD thesis on the concept of decay in the later Middle Ages, as well as writing fiction.
I work part-time at The Little Apple Bookshop.

 

 

Little Apple Bookshop

 

An unassuming biography for a 29-year old woman who’s written a book both Booker shortlisted and on this longlist. A brilliant book, at that. I’ll let my review say the rest, but thus far it’s a favorite for the prize.

 

Sarah Schmidt (Australian)

 

 

See What I Have Done, Atlantic Monthly

 

Sarah Schmidt, photo: pinterest.co.uk

 

Sarah Schmidt is a reading and literacy librarian residing in Melbourne. She holds a B.A. in professional writing and editing, as well as an M.A. in creative writing. She’s also a history buff, judging from her dogged pursuit of all things Lizzie Borden, and resulting novel getting rave reviews.

 

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell―of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.
  • Amazon.com

 

I have this book on order, expecting its arrival within the next week or two. I ordered a used copy to save a few dollars, considering the considerable expenditure involved in buying so dratted many books at once.

I, too, find the Lizzie Borden case transfixing, and can’t imagine there was no child abuse involved. My own theory, aided by all but zero research but empathy based on my childhood experience, is she one day snapped under the strain. The rest is morbid history.

Can’t wait to get my hands on this one.

 

Will one of these first-timers beat out the rest for a Women’s Prize for Fiction win? I have to tell you, from the bit of investigation I’ve done I wouldn’t be shocked. I plan to take a closer look at the other writers; I just wanted a special post devoted to the relative newbies.

But what a crop of newbies.

 

 

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

 

Fiona Mozley’s Booker Shortlisted 2017 debut

 

“What are you, Daniel?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What are your father and sister?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, if you don’t, then how can I? But I do know they’re fanatics. When they care about something, whatever it is, they care about it to the full. They care about it as much as anyone can. They don’t pretend, like an actor would. They’re not concerned with being seen to be doing something. They just do it.”
― Fiona Mozley, Elmet

 

 

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel has been described as “rural noir,” a descriptive I can’t improve upon. Living deep in the woods, insulated from mainstream society, siblings Daniel and Cathy live with their gigantic, physically powerful father John in a home built themselves.

They’re not rabid survivalists convinced the world is inherently evil. Rather, they’ve chosen to make their lives on the outskirts, becoming self-sufficient as possible. They hunt and grow their own food, heat their home using fuel from the woodland around them, and their father sends them to a neighbor woman to teach what he cannot, substituting for school.

The children live a pagan-like existence in the woods, Cathy especially. She blossoms in the outdoors, rambling the woods. Daniel’s more content indoors. Fluid in gender, Daniel, it’s hinted, is quite possibly transgender. Fascinated with their neighbor and teacher Vivien, he’s not so much sexually interested in her – though he sees her beauty – as he is entranced by female trappings: silky clothing that feels like liquid on the skin, makeup, fragrance. Growing up isolated, he asserts the’s never given much thought to anyone’s gender, himself growing his hair long, wearing cropped t-shirts and tight jeans. No one in their home gives much care about appearance.

 

From The Guardian 9 August 2017:Elmet possesses a rich and unfussy lyricism. Simple, homely food – baked potatoes and cups of tea – are described in such a way as to provoke longing. Dialect is put on the page with a deft touch: the way in which Yorkshire speech swallows the ends of words is most apparent in negative verb contractions, so we have “doendt” for doesn’t and “wandt” for wasn’t. Otherwise, the terms are unobtrusive: we are familiar with things going “tits up” and the occasional “wrong’un”. Above all, nature – flora, fauna, muck, blood and mineral – is lovingly described and allowed its head, whichever way that head turns. Daniel, who wears his hair and nails long and his T-shirts midriff-short, is seen by Daddy as a strange kind of boy because he enjoys domestic chores. Cathy, an electric and vengeful revenant of the Brontëverse, says to her brother: “I’m angry all time, Danny. Aren’t you?”

 

Their mother is a shadowy figure who shows up intermittently in the beginning of the book. She floats in and out, coming home to sleep for days and have her clothes washed, floating back out god knows where. One day, she’s gone for good. It’s hinted she’s dead, never explicitly explained, but the children’s father and grandmother tell them she’ll never be back again.

It’s the evil landowner who proves their foil, disrupts their peace. As John and his family are squatting on the land, and don’t own it legally, the appropriately named Mr Price reaches the end of his patience. He visits one day, informing John he can no longer live as if the land is his. He must pay, though not in money. Mr Price wants John’s brawn.

 

“He will start by causing small nuisances for us. It will build and build until they become unbearable. He will make sure people in villages begin to freeze us out. They’ll stop serving us in shops and stop speaking to us. That won’t matter much. We hardly buy out and we hardly speak to anyone either. But it will be an inconvenience. That’s how it begins. Then he might send people around when we’re out … After that we would always make sure someone was here afraid to leave and so in that way he would have begun to control our movements Then he’d have dead rats thrown through our windows and dog shit left by our front door. Then they would start picking on you two when you are out alone.”

 

 

Years ago, John had been one of Mr Price’s henchmen. As a landlord, he often had to deal with non-paying renters. John, an enormous man more giant than human, was one of these. In order to stay on the land, John’s given an ultimatum: participate in a fight against a formidable foe, so Price can gain loads of money from bets, or take his children and leave.

Elmet is poetic in the truest sense. It’s wild like the Yorkshire moors, graceful and dreamy. There’s violence, but it’s done in an organic way. It’s an inevitability.

I found it compulsively readable, gobbling it in one evening, staying up ’til the wee hours finishing it. It’s been a while since a book has grabbed me like this, grasping my shoulders so tightly it all but left bruises.

And Elmet is heartbreaking. Again, it was inevitable.

Is this the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner? I’d be surprised if it wasn’t shortlisted, at the least. I’m not jumping into declaring it the winner, but it will be tough to beat its beauty and perfection.

Still, there’s a bit of wiggle room. The rest of the list is – minus Eleanor Oliphant, sorry – strong, and sounds staggeringly wonderful. I can’t discount anything right now, much as I loved Elmet.

Next up: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.

Daily: What forgiveness means

Two posts from me in one day. Ah, but they’re very different.

 

Edinburgh Castle

 

Some of you know about my Scotland 2017 story, the uber exciting chance to move there and live with a man I considered a close friend, to marry and work side by side. It didn’t come off as planned, and I’ve been thoroughly open and honest about why.

A lot of it was my own damn fault. For all sorts of reasons, I didn’t give it my all. It shocked me as much as it did a lot of people looking on, who never imagined the story wouldn’t turn out as wonderful as it sounded. Interest was drummed up, and I had a blog devoted to My Highland Fling. The support I received was phenomenal. But then, once I came back home, the bulk of that fell flat. People deserted, bored. I guess it was inevitable. I was only interesting so long as I provided a dream.

But, the thing is, I’ve abjectly apologized to Chris for my bad behavior. This is not to say I’m the sole reason the dream died, but I do bear a large burden of guilt, for which I have suffered. I wrote the Scot a very long email, distressingly long, no doubt, in which I owned up to all the flaws that proved to be stumbling blocks in our relationship. It could have turned out much differently. He said that, and he’s right. I acknowledged and let him know how absolutely devastated the whole experience left me, that I knew I’d hurt him.

 

Waking over England, descending into Heathrow.

 

To me, forgiveness comes easily. Not always, okay, but usually. When a friend’s done something dire, I may steam and fume, but ultimately I come back around to forgiveness. It’s my nature. I understand people screw up. We’re fallible by nature. And when I forgive, I throw bad feelings out the window, wiping the slate clean.

Because that’s what forgiveness is. You’re within your rights demanding an apology, even sometimes atonement, but once a person you care about has apologized with absolute honesty and sincerity, you let it go. To do otherwise makes you a small person, indeed.

I would like to remain friends with the Scot, despite bad or misguided behavior on both our parts. As the bad stuff fades, I smile remembering the good. What’s done is done, and I choose to throw out the bad and keep only what made and makes me happy about my time in the UK.

 

 

Chris said, when I was there, I was to write honestly about the relationship, that he wouldn’t be bothered by anything I shared. If such holds true now, I don’t know. I don’t think he’ll read this, that he’s as curious as I’d be if he were spilling his guts. I’m not sure if that’s a not giving a shit thing or a man thing. It’s said relationships are life for women, and part of life for men. Maybe.

The thing is, I can’t keep beating myself up about my part in the failure of our relationship. I’ve done all I can, and will not prostrate myself on the altar of guilt. The decision to forgive or not is his. I cannot control what he does.

I long for closure. In an ideal world, apologies would be accepted and the bad things dropped. You don’t keep beating someone over the head, you just don’t. That’s not how friendships work. You say you’re sorry, mean it from the heart, and that’s that.

I would give anything to have his friendship back. I’d give anything to move forward, start fresh, and see where life takes us. But I can’t do this anymore, can’t keep answering spiteful communications with good grace. Maybe some of us just can’t forgive and move on. Not everyone’s like me. It’s with a heavy heart I must admit this is true. But life is so, so short. You meet people like yourself, who share your interests and values, so infrequently. It would be beyond a shame if we could not mend fences.

 

Isle of Arran from the ferry

 

While there’s life, there’s hope. I’m done flagellating; now there’s only the wait.

I’ll keep thinking good thoughts. Meantime, I’m living my life. If Chris drifts back in, he drifts back in. If not, I’m so, so sorry and my life will be the poorer for it.

It’s all up to fate.

All good wishes sent my way are most appreciated. All positive energy, whether it proves fruitful or not. I can’t dismiss the value of positivity.

In any event, thank you for indulging me in all this. Thank you for listening.

x

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

 

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

 

 

 

What a wickedly delightful novel. Who’d have expected it from a book about the devil?

Dougal Douglas, a Scot claiming to be one of the devil’s minions, shows up one day in the village of Peckham Rye. Insinuating himself into a carefully balanced society, he quickly but stealthily begins pulling strings and wreaking havoc. Squirming his way into the dubious position of an “artsy” man in charge of conducting a sociological study of the workers of not one but two factories – neither realizing he was employed by the other, as he’d managed to work out a deal in which he worked off-site in the village – he proceeds to encourage the employees to call in on Mondays.

Ironically, his job was to figure out why absenteeism was such a big problem. Why did he do it? Because being wicked is fun.

 

Other Books Published in 1960:

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

John Barth – The Sot-Weed Factor

Roald Dahl – Kiss Kiss

John Updike – Rabbit, Run

Flannery O’Connor – The Violent Bear it Away

Scott O’Dell – The Island of the Blue Dolphins

Nancy Mitford – Don’t Tell Alfred

Ian Fleming – For Your Eyes Only

Sylvia Plath – The Colossus and Other Poems

Dr. Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham

 

He meddles his way into the lives of several residents, sewing despair. One of his bosses, Mr. Druce, is having an affair with the head of the typing pool. Already a miserable man stuck in a loveless marriage and impossible other relationship rapidly crumbling, Dougal reduces him to tears. Later Druce will do something unspeakably awful, but I won’t spoil that.

So many sinister little details about Dougal Douglas, including the stumps of horns on his head he loves pointing out to people as proof he’s some sort of evil entity. Is he, or is he not? Spark never explicitly proves either way, but you have to wonder. He also sees into people and situation, knowing things there’s no way he could or should have. He claims second sight. Of this there seems little doubt.

 

“… Do you believe in the Devil?”

“No.”

“Feel my head,”Dougal said.

“What?”

“Feel these little bumps up here.” Dougal guided Humphrey’s hand among this curls at each side. “I had it done by a plastic surgeon,” Dougal said.

“What?”

“He did an operation and took away the two horns.”

“You supposed to be the Devil, then?” Humphrey asked.

“No, on, no. I’m only supposed to be one of the wicked spirits that wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”

 

It goes on and on, the trail of broken lives and misery, until eventually he’s run out of town.

Literary Births & Deaths in 1960
Births:

Helen Fielding

Jeffrey Eugenides

Ian Rankin

Tim Winton

Neil Gaiman

Deaths:

Albert Camus

Nevil Schute

Zora Neale Hurston

Boris Pasternak

Richard Wright

Etc.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover sells 200,000 copies in one day following its publication in the U.K. since being banned in 1928.

 

It is a very funny book, in a dark way. It sounds mean-spirited, and it is, but Spark is so deft and light with her touch it’s fun reading. It’s also complex, for such a short book. I wound up reading it twice, partly because I was having attention difficulties, partly because it’s so sneaky you can’t catch everything the first time around. I’d gladly read it a third time in future.

So far, this is my favorite of Spark’s novels in this celebratory read of all her books. Jean Brodie had been my fave previously. I’ll be interested to see how it holds up this time around.

Next up, The Bachelors (also 1960).