Sunday, November 22, 2015

Chrissie Gittins and Tessa Hadley

On Friday evening Chrissie Gittins launched her wonderful new collection of stories, Between Here and Knitwear (Unthank), a lovely event upstairs in the cosy central-London Rugby Tavern. I first met Chrissie when she came to read at Manchester Central Library with her then newly published first collection, Family Connections, and when my own first collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, was forthcoming from the same publisher, so of course we got chatting and have kept in touch ever since. And so of course on Friday I jumped on the train for the launch of the new book.

It's a series of linked stories that chart the life of one woman, Christine, from early childhood to middle age, and the shifts in her relationship with her parents as she grows and then as her parents become vulnerable and aged. The stories are steeped in the kind of physical detail and psychologically acute observations that will have readers exclaiming with recognition, and Chrissie has a beautifully subtle and dry wit.
I loved Mrs Marshall. We all did. We wanted to be her. We wanted to be married to her husband and donate our wedding trousseaus to the school play. We wanted a weekend cottage in Troutbeck, and to start our teaching careers in Wales.
Chrissie read beautifully, and we were all entranced. I read the book all the way back on the train, looking up only once, at Stoke-on-Trent, to see that, without my noticing, it had been snowing. It's a book you'll want to read in one sitting.

Two days earlier I was at Edge Hill University, hearing Tessa Hadley read and talk. She read an early short story and an extract from her latest novel, The Past, and talked very interestingly about the difference between novels and short stories, and the different strategies and mindsets needed for each. She didn't think there was any point in getting indignant about the way short stories don't sell, she said: the fact is that short stories are a 'strenuous' read, requiring a particular kind of focus of attention, and people prefer the immersive experience that novels can provide. Nevertheless, she said, stories are a joy to read and write, and for the writer a wonderful medium in which to hone your linguistic skills. Afterwards I reminded Tessa that we had met in Cardiff at the launch of Power, an anthology published by Honno, in which we both had stories, and she told me that that had been her very first short story - she's come a long way since!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Used to Be reviewed on Everybody's Reviewing.

A lovely review of Used to Be by Hannah Stevens on the Everybody's Reviewing blog, which opens thus:

'A collection packed with bursts of intense short stories, written in clean, sharp prose. The stories are immersive and gripping. I read this book in one sitting.'

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Goodreads giveaway books ready to go

Here are the copies of Used to Be packed up and addressed to the winners of the Goodreads giveaway. Congratulations to the 10 winners, and thanks so much for the interest of the other 1,382 people who went in for it.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Katie Lumsden talks about Used to Be (and other books)

Katie Lumsden, who reviewed Used to Be so generously on her blog, Books and Things, also has a YouTube channel in which she talks about her reading, and this month, in the video above, she talks about Used to Be - among many other books - she's a voracious reader and I love her enthusiasm for books!

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Katie Lumsden on Used to Be

A really lovely review from Katie Lumsden on her excellent blog, Just Books and Things. I'm streaming with cold and stuck at home feeling awful when I was meant to be away and meeting people and having interesting discussions as well as writing (I feel too ill to write well), but this review has cheered me up no end. I'll quote just a few of the lovely things Katie says:

These stories are journeys into the past and into possible futures and strike a superb balance between the thought-provoking and the poignant.

Baines is certainly a talented writer, and I find her narrative style fascinating and refreshing. I especially love her use of various voices and narrative perspectives. She uses the second person with a skill and effectiveness I don’t think I even realised was possible... The stories told in the second person – ‘Looking for the Castle’, ‘Clarrie and You’, ‘Possibility’ and ‘What Do You Do If’ – have a strange and beautiful sense both of universality and of uniqueness; they are about specific characters but they are also about you. You are literally pushed into the shoes of these characters. It’s different, clever and wonderfully effective

All in all, I loved this collection, and I am excited to read even more by Elizabeth Baines in the future. Her writing style is strong and refreshingly different... The collection fits together well and was a real pleasure to read.

So, warmed by that, I'll now take myself off with my box of tissues and get myself some honey and lemon...

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Used to Be reviewed on The Worm Hole

Charlie Place has written about Used to Be on her blog, The Worm Hole. I met Charlie in June when we were both invited to the Simenon event for bloggers: we happened to arrive together in the entrance of the Groucho Club, where the event was being held. I thought a bit hard before asking her if she'd be interested in looking at Used to Be: I didn't want to her to feel obliged, just because we had met. However, she was wonderfully cool and professional, and today she has put up an impartial and thoughtful piece, for which I'm very grateful. Particularly pleased that she thinks that I have a 'distinctive way of writing', and that although the book's literary it's very accessible, and especially that 'it'll blow you away when you least expect it.'

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

First Amazon review for Used to Be - five-star

I never really know how to value Amazon reviews, or whether to quote from them, because there's been so much fuss about their lack of impartiality and openness to corruption, but then it's so hard to get mainstream reviews nowadays (I can't believe that when The Birth Machine first came out it had reviews in the TLS and Literary Review, and I was actually shocked and felt hard done to because, being from a feminist press, it didn't get into the daily broadsheets). So it's hard to resist when you get a nice Amazon review, and this, the very first for Used to Be, comes from a reviewer who is clearly serious about literature and short stories in particular. Since he/she goes under the name 'Manc' it's possible that I know her or him in real life, but if so whoever it is has not revealed his or herself to me, I've no idea who he/she is, and I'm pretty chuffed to get his/her five-star review!

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Reading group: The Quiet Soldier: Phuong's Story by Creina Mansfield

Warning: plot spoil.

This was Hans's suggestion, a novel that sets out to supply the lack that some of us had felt when we read and discussed Graham Greene's The Quiet American, and more: the story of Phuong, the Vietnamese woman fought over in that earlier novel by world-weary narrator journalist Fowler and the young CIA agent Pyle, in the French-occupied Vietnam of the 50s.

This novel begins in 1967 when the Vietcong are fighting the Americans, and with the emergence of Phuong from a Vietcong tunnel, a fully trained Vietcong soldier. Within a very short time it is clear that she is a cold-blooded killer for the cause - a shockingly different figure from the meek and feminine Phuong of the Greene novel. This novel then shows in extended flashback Phuong's journey to this from a genteel background destroyed by her elder brother's espousal of the revolutionary cause and arrest, along with his friend Long and Phuong's elder sister to whom Long is betrothed, and by the famine caused by the World-War 2 machine of the ruling Japanese. Left destitute and alone, a very young Phuong sets out north with an elderly companion to Ba Ra where the three were taken, a rite of passage into toughness as they travel on foot and forage for food. Phuong is raped by an attacker and her companion murdered, and, necessarily trained to kill in self-defence, she becomes a killer herself. From this moment on she will always carry the ivory-handled knife of her attacker, with which she killed him, ready at any moment to use it, and in this novel she will be wearing it beneath her ao dai even as she lowers her eyes meekly for Fowler and Pyle. Finally meeting up with her escaped and much hardened sister and her brother-in-law, she is enlisted as a member of their cell which moves south to Saigon. Here she is commissioned as an undercover spy in the role of concubine, first to Fowler, who as a loose-tongued journalist not given to taking sides is a prime source of information, and then, when he appears on the scene, to the CIA agent Pyle in whose death she will be complicit. One of the fascinations of this for those of us who found it hard to take Greene's narrative attitude to Phuong, is the physical disgust and even hatred that Phuong feels towards both men in this novel as she submits and ministers to them.

Everyone in the group agreed with Hans that this novel was predicated on a brilliant idea. John and Mark didn't feel the book fulfilled the promise of the idea, however, as they found the prose repetitive and pedestrian, and John didn't feel that point of view was always well handled. Most others said that the story was exciting enough to make it a rattling read whatever, and Jenny said strongly that although she felt that the book read rather like an book for young adults (in terms of its prose style and tone), she had absolutely loved it, and all the time couldn't wait to find out what happened next. (She was the one person who hadn't read The Quiet American - she hadn't yet joined the group when we read it.) I said that I had gone back and read The Quiet American again first, in order to not to miss anything of the comment that this book was making on it. As a result, in spite of my historic objection to Greene's portrayal of Phuong, because of his superb prose I had come to this book imbued with Greene's portrayal, and my immediate feeling on beginning reading this book that was that this very different Phuong was simply too far-fetched. Yet as I read on and Mansfield's novel took over, I began to realise that her premise is excellent, that indeed this version of Phuong is in reality the more likely. I felt that this showed something very important about The Quiet American and about prose in general: written, as Ann said, from the colonist's point of view, The Quiet American is culturally suspect, but the brilliance of Greene's prose makes it lethally persuasive. John said however that reading The Quiet Soldier makes The Quiet American a far less good book for him, since it made him think how ridiculous it was that in The Quiet American neither Fowler nor Pyle ever suspect that Phuong could be a spy, which in reality she quite likely would be - particularly Pyle, who is an undercover agent himself.

I said that I did feel that The Quiet Soldier would have made a better if perhaps more predictable story if Phuong had actually killed Pyle (rather than simply being complicit in his murder), as so much is made of her attachment to the knife she carries (and she is at one point prepared to kill Fowler), and she has so much personally to avenge, but no one else agreed with this.

Jenny said that she would now go and read The Quiet American, and everyone commented that she would not be able to read it without the filter of this novel. I said that after finishing The Quiet Soldier I had indeed gone back to the beginning of The Quiet American, when Phuong is waiting in the shadows as Fowler comes back to his flat and when, we will soon find out, Pyle has already been killed, and it was impossible not to see her waiting there as a potential assassin.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Reading group: Christie Malry's Own Double Entry by B S Johnson

Here's the second of my belated reading group reports:

I suggested this metafictive 1973 novel by experimental writer B S Johnson, which has always been important to me (both as a reader and writer), hoping that the group would like it too but not really expecting them to, since some, Jenny especially, have expressed a dislike for experimental novels.

To relate the story - in which seventeen-year-old Christie Malry, 'a simple man', decides to get back at a callous profit-obsessed society that does him down, recording his slights and revenges through a double-entry system of debits and credits learnt at the bank where he is first employed - is to some extent beside the point, since much of the enjoyment in this novel comes from the mischievous voice of the author, directed straight at the reader and deliberately revealing the artificiality of his story and dismantling it, openly discussing and dismissing the conventional mechanics and modes of novel-writing, and finally questioning the whole enterprise of writing a novel in the first place. In a deliberate subversion of the concept of 'rounded character', Johnson sometimes puts into the mouth of the simple Christie diction that is clearly his own, so arcane and erudite that the words need to be looked up in the dictionary (and when they are, are found to be hilariously apt), and Christie's equally 'simple' mother is given a sophisticated formal speech in which, right at the start of the novel, she writes herself out of it because, basically, Johnson is illustrating, she has outlined her narrative usefulness and to resolve her role in the plot in any more conventionally 'realist' way would be dishonest and artificial.
'We fondly believe that there is going to be a reckoning ... when the light of our justification blazes forth upon the world... But we shall die untidily ... most things unresolved... Even if we understand all is chaos, the understanding itself represents a denial of chaos, and must therefore be an illusion... My welcome is outstayed'... Christie's mother died.
Johnson tells us that any attempt he makes to characterise Christie's appearance he does 'with diffidence, in the knowledge that such physical descriptions are rarely of value in a novel... What writer can compete with the reader's imagination!' and so he makes him 'average' in every physical way in order to accommodate this. However, taking us through the novelist's mental process, he goes on: 'But Christie's girlfriend! I shall enjoy describing her! Come along, what's your name, let's have your name. It'll come, like everything else. Try.'
In a further rejection of realist fiction, the story itself is deliberately over the top, increasingly and hilariously surreal as Christie avenges the smallest slights with the most elaborate and excoriating plots that culminate, finally, in mass murder.

When I came to read this novel again for the group meeting - a book that I have acknowledged as having had a profound influence, along with Grace Paley's stories, on my own more metafictive writing - I found to my surprise that I was slightly less enthusiastic than my memory of it had made me. While I recognised the first half of the novel with delight, I found that I didn't recognise the ending at all, and came to realise that I had probably never previously finished it. It's possible that it had so inspired me that I dropped it and went off to write something of my own, but I also remembered that I'd been reading it on a train journey and the journey had come to an end before I finished it, and that that journey had set in chain a series of distracting life events that would have prevented me from picking it up again. In any case, although I found the ending logical - the plot deliberately cut off and the conclusion nihilistic, the author conversing with Christie and discussing his pointlessness: ' "Christie', I warned him, 'it does not seem to me possible to take this novel much further" ', and finally, 'Xtie died' (Christie acknowledged as a mere cipher) -  I found the nihilism emotionally unsatisfying. This was perhaps because I knew now that by the time B S Johnson had written this novel he was sensing that he had written himself into a corner (his novels weren't popular, and his publisher was going cold), and that this led to his suicide very soon afterwards. For this reason, I couldn't help reading into the ending - and retrospectively by association the whole of the book - a kind of despair about the novel as a form, which was not something that as a writer I was happy to feel. Possibly also the ideas of the book were now too familiar to me for it to have the same impact the second time around.

Introducing the book at the meeting, I said this, expecting everyone to be much more down on it than I was. There was a bit of a silence that I realised was a silence of surprise, and then Jenny, of all people, said, 'I thought it was brilliant,' and there followed a chorus of agreement from everyone else present (except perhaps John who was the only other person who had read it previously, and who had had something of the same reaction as me). Ironically, the rest of the meeting consisted mainly of people praising and relishing the book with an air of defending it from me. People loved the wit, the voice of the author and his deconstructions, and found Christie's story itself hilarious, Ann and Doug thinking the latter searingly true about work within institutions and organisations, and no one could understand how a novel that was basically such fun could ever have failed to be popular. Jenny said that she was in fact surprised to find herself liking an experimental novel so much, and the group discussed why this book should have been so different. Mainly, it was decided, it was because, in spite of all the deconstructions, there are realist elements: both Christie and his girlfriend 'the Shrike' are vivid characters depicted in scenes full of relishable physical detail worthy of any realist novel, a paradox which seems to have confounded some critics, but which, after all, lock you emotionally into Christie's story  - B S Johnson's very clever sleight of hand.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here