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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Something that didn’t seem to exist when I did GCSE and A-level English Lit, is the “compare and contrast” question.  This currently seems to form a staple of my children’s essay writing experience, ie taking two authors/books with a tenuous link and sitting there stumped for hours working out how to segue them into one seamless commentary.

I thought about this over the last two weeks, when I found myself reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and then A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Both were very long books (not unusual in publishing these days), and both had scenes in that I found too horrific to read to the end (quite unusual for me).

I can see why A Little Life divided critics.  It’s the story of 4 friends, from college age to middle age, focusing on one character in particular, Jude St Francis.

The opening is a bit slow; the four friends start out rather devoid of individual characteristics, and it is only slowly that we learn that Willem has a brother who died in childhood, and that something awful has happened to Jude in the past, from his physical and mental scars.

Once it gets going, the tension as Jude’s story is skilfully handled.  The slow revelations of his back story are almost unbearable.  Also, the story moves to focus on Jude’s struggle to live a normal life, and the extent to which his refusal to completely do so affect those who love him.

When I was fourteen, I read Deborah Moggach’s Porky, about a girl who is sexually abused by her father, and the terrible consequences it has on her ability to form intimate relationships as an adult.  I remember thinking, “Why is she behaving like that?  Why can’t she just do X?  Everything would be OK if she did that.”

I imagine that says something about one’s perception of how easy it is to change when one is young.  Would it have been easier for me to change myself at that age, or did I just think it would be, because I hadn’t experienced the difficulty of trying to break habits?

So I would disagree with what The New Statesman had to say about A Little Life, which was:

“Although it is not the job of fiction to educate, it is odd to foreground such extreme subject matter without wanting to say something new about it. And it is odd to read such an in-depth treatment of it and come away thinking: well, yeah, obviously.”


There was amazing tension in the question of whether those who loved Jude would ultimately be able to accept him, and as well as being more moved by the depiction of Jude’s abuse than almost any other book I have read, I was also moved by the struggles of those around Jude when they realised that they could not heal him as they thought he deserved to be healed.  I would say that this, in an age where every television programme is either written or edited to portray a positive “journey” counts as “something new,” or at least as a timely reminder.

I did, however, find two things about A Little Life very frustrating.  Firstly, it was unnecessarily long, with people meandering around doing utterly banal everyday things.  There was also too much repetitive and interminable piledriving home about what various people were thinking and feeling.

Also, after the big reveal about the culmination of Jude’s backstory, which ironically I couldn’t read, I rather lost interest in the book.   There was a noticeable lack of the character development you would expect to occur naturalistically over thirty odd years of the characters’ lives.  More fundamentally, I do like a traditional end to a story ie for all the decisions a character has made over their destiny to lead to a revelation, which is not the same as a solution or a healing, about themselves.  There was no revelation, and the events seemed to peter out into a series of happenings, leaking direction and purpose as they went.

Thank you to all of you who recommended Murakami books for me :-)

Following my underwhelmed reading of Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of the World, I found The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle much more satisfying because of the stronger “real” strand that ran alongside the surreal/fantasy strand.  Again, this was a book that was too long, although its problem was that it took a while to get going rather than going on too long.  It’s the story of Toru Okada, whose wife disappears, and his quest to get her back, which involves him meeting an oddball cast of characters along the way, and his encounters with various dangers and downright unpleasantness.

The straightforward narrative, which strangely had a similar theme to A Little Life, was essentially very simple, but made more mysterious and lyrical by the surreal quest.  I found that this made it a bit of an inside-out story, which, for those of you who know what happens in it, is not an idle comparison.


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Review: House of Cards

Not the American version, since I don’t have a spare 30+ hours on my hands, but the original BBC series that was first made when I was slightly too young to appreciate it.

House of Cards is set in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1990.  It’s about the deceitful ambition of Chief Whip Francis Urquhart in the subsequent battle for power, and the attempts of young journalist Mattie Storin to find the real story behind the power struggle

I’ve always meant to watch it, knowing it was an iconic piece of television for Urquhart’s calculating evilness, his bold straight-to-camera addresses and for coining the phrase,”You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment,” which Urqhart uses to plant rumours without leaving a trace of himself behind them.

It was as elegantly done as you would expect.  I was surprised by how totally unredeemedly nasty Urquhart was, I think that is quite unusual, even in a villain. I was also sceptical about how easy it was for Urquhart to fool so many people without being discovered, but then, some of the politicians were of the nice-but-dim variety, which was probably fairly true to life in some cases.

I was much more surprised by the sexual relationship that developed between Storin and Urquhart, and its nature.  There was a point where she said, “I want to call you Daddy!” and I went “Urggggh!!!” out loud, and then started laughing.   Although this was after two nights without much sleep, by which time I was laughing at pretty much any stupid thing.  I can never sleep the night before I go back to work, and since I went back Monday and the teachers and pupils came back Tuesday, my brain interpreted both as going back to work dates.

Isabel didn’t go back to school until today, so she spent Tuesday doing her art homework, which was to take photos in the style of Martin Parr, who takes satirical photos eg of food next to photos of food.  Since she actually bothers with things like lighting and decent background, her photos are much better than mine.

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(She also had to make the garishly coloured cake.)

Talking about photos of photos, and photos “in the style of”, did anyone see the news story about Richard Prince, the photographer who’s being sued for “re-photographing” other people’s Instagrams?  And being paid $100,000 for his “works” too?




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Review: Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

Following her birthday present of, Love, Nina, Nina Stibbe’s warm and hilarious memoir about being a live-in nanny for LRB Editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, my sister gave me Stibbe’s comic novel, Man at the Helm for Christmas.

Love, Nina was superb, tart, observant comedy genius, so Man at the Helm had a lot to live up to and on paper, I wasn’t sure it was going to work.  It’s the story of two sisters and a brother, whose parents get divorced in the early seventies, and their subsequent move to a rural village, where single parenthood is still viewed as a curious thing.  The goal of the children is immediately to find another man for their mother to hook up with, and also to integrate themselves into village life.  The tone of the nine year old girl narrator is darkly knowing, and the first few chapters veer through a set of experiences which might have others in therapy for a good chunk of the rest of their lives.

The children are towers of strength and sense for the useless adults around them and go around trying to organise life the best they can, in the manner of I Capture the Castle.  It’s verging on unbelievable to think that a nine and ten year old could do the things that they do, but the events and tone are so funny that I skated over this aspect of the book.

Later on in the book, as the mother’s situation unravels further, the book does become a bit darker, and the emotional implications on the children are explored further, and I was reminded of a line from a Muriel Spark book where the narrator describes her treatment of a situation as being “with a light and heartless hand, as is my way when I have to give a perfectly serious account of things.”  The novel skilfully captured the financial pressures, the social isolation and the loneliness of single parenthood just as well as any “serious” novel I have read on the subject (which is not that many – it’s not a very glamorous subject to write about.)  There were some passages that made me cry, remembering some of the low points of what it was like for our family in a similar situation.  I don’t like thinking about those times much, I was just so badly equipped for dealing with life, never mind life alone with two small kids.

Talking of families, my kids (now bigger) let me take a photo of us all together for the first time in years and years:


My daughter had to point out that I was holding the camera too close the first time round:





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Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

I’ve got one day of holiday left before I go back to work and I’m feeling sad that I’m not going to have as much time to read as I have over the last two weeks.

My reading really slowed down during November and December, partly due to life getting very busy, but also partly due to me struggling to read the Jamaican gangster/politics novel A Brief History of Seven Killings over a whole month.

Despite having totally clogged up my reading schedule and feeling like the longest book I’ve ever read, I do think it’s a worthy Man Booker winner, as it transports you to a different world, and it’s such an amazingly complex construction of so many lives.  I was very glad to come across this timely article from the LRB which explains how the fictional political shenanigans map onto real life, and pretty much provides a far better ad more comprehensive critical run down than I ever could.   I haven’t been so much in need of a “York Notes” style crib sheet since reading To the Lighthouse for A-level.  (Although the York Notes for TTL were rubbish – I still didn’t understand it afterwards.)

I think it’s no coincidence that Brief History and To the Lighthouse are both written using the stream of consciousness technique.  I’d read about people having trouble getting through Brief History because of the style, so went into the first chapter having decided to try to “immerse” myself in the feel of the words rather than worry about what every single thing meant.  I think I came out of the experience not too badly, and actually quite exhilarated by the high adrenaline opening action.  It was just a bit much to realise that, after all that effort and self-congratulation, I was only about 2% through the book.  Since about 95% of published books follow a rough format regarding plot and character developments, I can quite often read books very quickly by working out what each of the sections maps to.  It just wasn’t possible with this book, part of the Marlon James had in writing it was how unconventional the plot and character developments became.  In the end he said that he just had to go with the way the book was going.

Reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride a few days ago reminded me of how well I thought the voices in Brief History were done.  There was a sliding scale through the characters from standard English, through standard English with a lot of Jamaican slang, to really very difficult to understand patois.  The voices seemed very authentic and therefore to have a point, whereas I am still not sure what the unusual voice in Half-Formed was supposed to signify.

Brief History was also refreshingly funny.  A lot of the humour centred around the incompetence of some of the gangsters, but there was also humour in the attitudes of the different classes of characters towards each other.

I’m glad I read this, but I’m also hoping not to come across any similarly tough reading experiences in the near future.

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Jane Eyre: National Theatre

Happy New Year!

Isabel had friends round for New Year last night and when I came down for breakfast this morning, the Christmas Tree was on the kitchen floor like this:


It turns out they’d knocked it over while they were arranging the front room into a sleepover shape.  There is some sort of teenage girl logic (they like things to be organised) to putting it all neatly back together on the floor, when actually, heaps would have been just as easy to get back into the box.

It’s been a few weeks since I took Rhiannon to see the National Theatre broadcast of Jane Eyre, which she is going to study for A-level.  There is going to be an encore broadcast at a few venues around the country, so I thought it might be worth posting about how good it was.

I hadn’t thought too much beforehand about what the production would be like, but as the actors stepped out onto a bare IKEA-esque double level stage, it suddenly occurred to me that these 7 adults were going to try to recreate the wilderness of the windswept North, beginning with a long childhood sequence, and that seemed an intriguingly long way from where we were at.

The actors did an amazing job of using their voices and bodies to do this.  Both of us thoroughly enjoyed the production – more so than the Streetcar broadcast we went to see last year.  Although similar in length, this seemed to go by more quickly, and I enjoyed wondering “I want to see how they are going to do that bit,” as the scenes rolled by.

I was 11 the first time I tackled Jane Eyre and there was an unfortunate consequence to reading it at such a young age (this is very embarrassing.) I was so into the characters that I thought that it would be a good idea to start behaving like an unholy amalgam of Jane Eyre and Helen Burns, and this was very annoying and made me unpopular with my peers.

The good thing about watching this play was that the adult interactions now made sense to me.  As a child, I couldn’t understand why Jane didn’t tell Mr Rochester to get lost.  I still have no patience with the idea of the troubled, brooding type, but now I could clearly see the idea of connection, and of the specialness of needing the person you feel connected with.

Also,  I’d always assumed that I never did finish the book, because I couldn’t remember what happened at the end.   I must have blanked out the scenes where Jane ran away and went to live with the missionaries, because I realised that the scenes were familiar ones as I watched.  Again, I think I blanked them out because they made so little sense to me.  They still trouble me on one level – Jane has been so determined to be self-reliant throughout, would she really head off into the countryside with no plan as to what she would do, to the extent that she nearly dies?  On a psychological level, it does make some sort of sense, maybe signifying how low she feels etc, and it’s also a way of Jane experiencing a contrasting life and realising how important all the things she really needs are.  I just find it unsatisfactory that she becomes more passive towards the end of the book.

If Jane Eyre is on near you, it’s well worth a watch.  The interval backstage piece is also very informative.




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Review: A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing is a short experimental first novel by Irish writer Eimear McBride.  It tells the story from before birth to young adulthood of a nameless girl and her brother, who was operated on as a young boy for a brain tumour, as a result of which he is left with learning difficulties.

The writing style is stream of consciousness, following the tradition I suppose of James Joyce, and notoriously difficult to read.

I was surprisingly disappointed with this novel.  The early childhood parts were interestingly done, as the confusing narrative style fitted quite well with the confusing experience of childhood.  But it was much harder to reconcile the primitive babble of words with that of an adolescent girl, and I had a growing suspicion that if the story were to be rewritten in plain English, there would be very little to it; it would be revealed to be slight and to say little other than child abuse is very unpleasant.

Also, some of the sentences, such as “Wrong you do not understand” unintentionally come out a bit Yoda. :-/

Would be interesting to know if I have missed something.

I really must get round to reading Ulysses.

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Review: Star Wars!

One of the things that I find difficult about being around my sister is the proximity of the evangelical church to conversation. She has a tendency to dump some member of the extended evangelical community on top of any situation we might be discussing and start asserting conclusions from this. It drives me insane because I don’t know these people, and whatever is relevant to them in their situation is pretty unlikely to be relevant to the one we are discussing.

My mum is not so bad, limiting her church conversations to slightly dull ramblings about the political goings on in hers.  But the other day, when she was telling us about a recent sermon in which the pastor was trying to argue that Star Wars was based on the Christian story, Isabel shook her head and said, solemnly tongue in cheek, “No, Jesus wasn’t in Star Wars.”

On Christmas Eve there were three families in the cinema to watch The Good Dinosaur (quite a weird film, also no good jokes) but it was packed yesterday for Star Wars.

It was perfectly done fan fiction, bringing together all the best known themes, scenes and jokes from the original three films. (I don’t count the most recent three.)  I wouldn’t say better than, rather, the most perfect conclusion to.  It was also the perfect length – I couldn’t believe that it came in the same as the traditional Star Wars two hours because so much happened in the narrative. I think it was because the fight and chase scenes were cut short well before reaching the point of tedium.

Without spoilering, I would say that the one improvement they could have made was a better premise for Luke Skywalker’s disappearance than that he’d gone off in a huff to live on Craggy Island. It was a pretty lame reason for all the death and destruction of planets that ensued as everyone tried to find him. But then, Luke Skywalker was always the lamest of the Star Wars characters, so maybe it was just another joke?