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Lit Titbits (1)

I read so many lovely pieces on the Internet, all related to literature, and thought that I would start grouping them together into a little series which I am calling ‘Lit Titbits’.  Each will be made up of five or six different links, and will, I hope, be the perfect things for you to read over a well-deserved tea break, or when you have a few minutes to relax during your day.  They make perfect, brief stops from thesis research too (trust me, I speak from experience).  Without further ado, I hope you enjoy this new series.

  1. ‘Ali Smith: How I Write’ in The Daily Beast is a wonderfully insightful interview about the woman behind some of my favourite books.  Read it here.
  2. The Guardian posted this fascinating study, based on stats from http://www.audiobooks.com, of when exactly we give up on audiobooks here.
  3. The Bookseller talks of how the world, and our reading, has changed upon the tenth anniversary of the Kindle.  Read it here.
  4. Back in November 2017, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock wrote this absolutely wonderful review of Emile Zola’s The Fortunes of the Rougons, which has made me want to get to the rest of the series as soon as I possibly can.
  5. ‘The Persephone Post’, by one of my favourite publishers, is updated regularly, and is wonderful for a browse.  Find it here.
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‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien ***

The Little Red Chairs marked my first foray into Edna O’Brien’s work of over twenty novels.  She is an author whom I have heard a lot of wonderful things about over the last few years, but reception for this, her newest novel for ten years, has appeared rather mixed.  Regardless, there are some wonderfully positive reviews splashed across the cover; The New Yorker deems it ‘Astonishing… A remarkable novel…  A vital and engrossing experience’, Claire Messud calls it ‘At once arduous and beautiful’, and Philip Roth thinks it ‘a masterpiece’.  The Little Red Chairs was also shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2016, and was a book of the year for the Sunday Times, the Observer, and the Sunday Express.

9780571316281The Little Red Chairs is set in a village on the west-coast of Ireland.  A faith healer, who calls himself Dr Vladimir Dragan, or ‘Vuk’ for short, arrives from the Balkans, mystifying residents and putting the community ‘under [his] spell’.  He attempts to ‘set himself up’ in the village as an ‘alternative healer and sex therapist’, which is a shock to the shrouded and traditional Catholicism of the place. One villager in particular, Fidelma McBride, ‘becomes enthralled in a fatal attraction that leads to unimaginable consequences.’

The opening description of the novel, in which O’Brien masterfully captures a wild river, and its effects upon the faith healer, is sweeping, and really sets the tone for the first half of the novel: ‘He stays by the water’s edge, apparently mesmerised by it.  Bearded and in a long dark coat and white gloves, he stands on the narrow bridge, looks down at the roaring current, then looks around, seemingly a little lost, his presence the single curiosity in the monotony of a winter evening in a freezing backwater that passes for a town and is named Cloonoila.’

The Little Red Chairs is at first largely quiet, involved almost entirely with people and their interactions, as well as their reception of the faith healer.  One gets a feel for the villagers immediately, along with their differences and similarities.  The way in which O’Brien tends to reveal characters at random, with Fidelma and Vuk as her main focus, is effective in this respect.  The plot seems a little sparse to sustain itself over the entire novel, but the twist which comes changes the tone entirely, and adds something rather sinister to the whole.  One can tell throughout that O’Brien is an accomplished author.

O’Brien’s novel rather chillingly begins with the following memorial: ‘On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street.  One empty chair for each Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege.  Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.’  The reasons for this become more and more clear as the novel goes on, and details of the faith healer’s past emerge.  I was a little surprised by some of the outcomes of the novel, but feel as though O’Brien handled the content with both sensibility and sensitivity.

Whilst rather disturbing in places, and surprisingly so, all of the story’s threads were well pulled together.  Unfortunately, there were a couple of instances in which it felt as though the plot had been rushed, or something had not quite come to a natural conclusion.  I very much enjoyed O’Brien’s prose, but the dialogue felt awkward at times.  Conversations were jarring and rather unlikely, often veering towards the pretentious.  I would definitely like to try O’Brien’s other work in future, and believe I may plump for some short stories next, to see how they compare.

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‘The Standing Chandelier: A Novella’ by Lionel Shriver ****

‘From the award-winning novelist and short story writer, Lionel Shriver, comes a literary gem, a story about love and the power of a gift. When Weston Babansky receives an extravagant engagement present from his best friend (and old flame) Jillian Frisk, he doesn’t quite know what to make of it – or how to get it past his fiancee. Especially as it’s a massive, handmade, intensely personal sculpture that they’d have to live with forever. As the argument rages about whether Jillian’s gift was an act of pure platonic generosity or something more insidious, battle lines are drawn… Can men and women ever be friends? Just friends? Described by the Sunday Times as ‘a brilliant writer’ with ‘a strong, clear and strangely seductive voice’, Lionel Shriver has written a glittering examination of friendship, ownership and the conditions of love.’

36454237I really enjoy Shriver’s writing, and whilst I’ve not even got through more than one of her novels to date, I wanted to see how she would craft a shorter work stylistically. The main nub of The Standing Chandelier – can a man and woman be ‘just friends’? – sounded rather twee and overdone, and is something I would ordinarily avoid. I was more than intrigued by the way in which Shriver might handle it, however, and was pleasantly impressed. She manages to avoid an awful lot of cliched tropes, and creates an exploration which is more unusual than usual.

The prose throughout the novella is intelligent and taut, as I was expecting, and I was pulled in straight away. Shriver still involves a lot of depth when crafting her characters, and both Weston and Jillian come across as fully-formed and believable individuals. Darkly funny at times, the story carries one through from beginning to end at a perfectly adjusted pace. Rather than lose herself in the constrained form, or having to drop more interesting elements of storyline in order to obey the conventions of the novella, The Standing Chandelier is rather perfect in terms of its size. Yes, it can be read in a couple of hours, but it still feels rich, and has a lot of emotional depth to it.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Year of the Runaways’ and ‘The Paper Menagerie’

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota **** 9781447241652
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is an urgent, momentous novel about the experience of three young men who immigrate from India to the United Kingdom in hope of finding work. From the very beginning, Sahota’s study of his characters is incredibly detailed. I loved the inclusion of so much cultural minutiae, and found that the use of words in different Indian dialects without their translations being given adds yet another layer to the whole. The story is incredibly evocative of place and space, and every single strand of story has been well pulled together. The way in which the different characters’ stories intertwined was clever.

The Year of the Runaways is a relatively slow novel, in the very best way. The backstories of each of Sahota’s characters are eminently believable, as are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The novel is so immersive that it becomes difficult to put down. The Year of the Runaways is an eye-opening book, and I felt so empathetic toward all of the protagonists, as well as their wider families. I read this important book with rapt attention, and cannot recommend it enough.

 

24885533The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu ***
So many reviewers have loved The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and as I am always keen to discover new short story authors, I borrowed a copy from my local library. I am neither a fan of science fiction nor of fantasy, and so wasn’t sure if I would enjoy these tales as much as a lot of my friends have. I found some of the inclusions to be quirky and inventive, and preferred Liu’s writing when the magical realism was present, and no robots, etc., were. Some of the tales here engaged me far more than others, although I half expected as much when reading the blurb before I began.

The Paper Menagerie is varied in terms of its content, but I found it rather a mixed bag. I adored the rather beautiful title story, but a lot of the others fell short in comparison. However, his voice has a wonderful consistency to it regardless of the perspective used, and each tale is nicely told. Liu clearly has an expansive imagination, and comes up with some fascinating ideas, but a lot of them were too firmly rooted in science fiction for my personal taste. The Asian culture which is dispersed throughout was fascinating, however, and was one of the real strengths of the book for me.

 

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‘Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories’ by Celia Fremlin *****

Having read two of Celia Fremlin’s books now, The Hours Before Dawn, and this rather wonderful and chilling short story collection, I feel that I can say with some compunction that she is an undeservedly neglected writer.  I have plans to read all of her books – and she was rather prolific, it must be said – over the next couple of years on the strength of just these two tomes, as what I have seen within both has impressed me no end.

Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories, which has recently been reissued, along with the rest of Fremlin’s work, by Faber Finds, includes a fascinating and insightful introduction by Chris Simmons, which tells of the author’s life and inspiration: ‘Here was a middle-class woman who seemed to delight in re-inventing herself; and while all writers draw upon their own experiences to some existent, “reinvention” is the key to any artist’s longevity.’  He goes on to praise her writing, saying that Fremlin ‘succeeded in chilling and thrilling her readers without spilling so much as a drop of blood.’ 9780571312719

Simmons also states that Fremlin’s work in its entirety offers ‘authentic snapshots of how people lived at the time of her writing: how they interacted, what values they held…  Every interaction between her characters has a core of truth and should strike a resonant note.’  Indeed, that is very much the case with this collection of short fiction.  The tales here are variously described as ‘eclectic, delectable, perfectly formed nibbles’.

The overarching feeling one gets from Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is an unsettling one, with something sinister waiting just around the corner.  The first piece in the collection, ‘The Quiet Game’, for instance, has a second paragraph which begins thus: ‘But madness has a rhythm of its own up there so near to the clouds; a rhythm that at first you would not recognize, so near is it, in the beginning, to the rhythms of ordinary, cheerful life…’.

Fremlin’s writing throughout is strong.  In ‘The New House’, for example, she writes: ‘The hatred seemed to thicken round her – I could feel giant waves of it converging on her, mounting silently, silkily, till they hung poised above her head in ghostly, silent strength.’  The stories here come from a more mature point in Fremlin’s life, written as they were whilst the author was in her fifties.  There is, perhaps unsurprisingly with that in mind, an emphasis upon ageing, and the stories which deal with senility are the most chilling of all.

Each of the stories within Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is vivid and perfectly paced.  Some of them have otherworldly and fantastical elements to them, but the way in which they and their characters have been built and presented smacks of realism, which serves to make the whole even more unsettling.  Each story is filled to the brim with tension, suspense and intrigue, but at no point is anything overdone.  Rather, Fremlin’s writing is incredibly controlled, and every single one of her characters is startlingly realistic.  The tales veer off in unexpected directions, making Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark both surprising and compelling.  Fremlin demonstrates on every page that she truly is a marvellous writer, one which deserves to be read far more widely.

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