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‘The PowerBook’ by Jeanette Winterson *****

‘The PowerBook is twenty-first century fiction that uses past, present and future as shifting dimensions of a multiple reality. The story is simple. An e-writer called Ali or Alix will write to order anything you like, provided that you are prepared to enter the story as yourself and take the risk of leaving it as someone else. You can be the hero of your own life. You can have freedom just for one night. But there is a price to pay.’

9780099598299My last outstanding Winterson, The PowerBook was as superbly written as I have come to expect.  Winterson says some absolutely wonderful things about the craft of writing throughout, and weaves together so many narrative strands to give the novel an almost bottomless depth.  Her prose is exquisite: ‘I was the place where you anchored.  I was the deep water where you could be weightless.  I was the surface where you saw your own reflection.  You scooped me up in your hands.’

As with several of Winterson’s other works of fiction, we do not always know a great deal about our narrator, or even who is speaking in parts.  This makes the whole even more captivating, however; the details which are not concretely defined become even more beguiling than they perhaps would be otherwise.  Here, there is mystery, myth, fairytale, and realism.  The PowerBook is rather an intense read, which has been masterfully structured.  It is wild, vivid, and enchanting, and I shall be recommending it to everyone.

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First Novels

I often find that when reading through the oeuvres of my favourite contemporary writers, I often do not begin with their first books.  Whilst I do not make this choice intentionally, I find it fascinating to read later efforts, and then go back to the beginning to see how a particular author’s style has changed over time.  With that said, I thought I would showcase five first novels by some of my favourite contemporary authors, all of which (aside from the McGregor) I read when already familiar with a lot of their other work.

  1. Like by Ali Smith (1997) 9781860493171
    ‘There’s Amy and there’s Ash. There’s ice and there’s fire. There’s England and there’s Scotland. Ali Smith evokes the twin spirits of time and place in an extraordinarily powerful first novel, which teases out the connections between people, the attractions, the ghostly repercussions. By turns funny, haunting and disconcertingly moving, Like soars across hidden borders between cultures, countries, families, friends and lovers. Subtle and complex, it confounds expectations about fiction and truths.’
  2. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2004)
    The Namesake is the story of a boy brought up Indian in America. ‘When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…’ For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply ‘BABY BOY GANGULI’. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss… Spanning three decades and crossing continents, Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-anticipated first novel is a triumph of humane story-telling. Elegant, subtle and moving.’
  3. 9780747561576If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (2002)
    ‘On a street in a town in the North of England, ordinary people are going through the motions of their everyday existence – street cricket, barbecues, painting windows… A young man is in love with a neighbour who does not even know his name. An old couple make their way up to the nearby bus stop. But then a terrible event shatters the quiet of the early summer evening. That this remarkable and horrific event is only poignant to those who saw it, not even meriting a mention on the local news, means that those who witness it will be altered for ever. Jon McGregor’s first novel brilliantly evokes the histories and lives of the people in the street to build up an unforgettable human panorama. Breathtakingly original, humane and moving, the novel is an astonishing debut.’
  4. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)
    ‘This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts. At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves. Innovative, punchy and tender, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession.’
  5. Everything You Know by Zoe Heller (1999) 9780141039992
    ‘The women in Willy Muller’s life are trouble. His mother insists he eat tofu. His dopey girlfriend, Penny, wants him to overcome his personal space issues – while Karen, his other, even dopier, girlfriend, just wants more sex. Meanwhile, his oldest daughter, Sophie, wants him to finance her husband’s drug habit. But it’s his youngest daughter, Sadie, who’s giving him the biggest headache. Just before committing suicide three months ago, she sent Willy her diaries. Poring over the record of her empty life, he feels pangs of something unexpected …remorse. But isn’t it a bit late for such sentimental guff? Set in London, Hollywood and Mexico, Everything You Know is a supremely witty take on love, death and the age-old battle of the sexes.’

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Illness Narratives: Getting Started

Whilst I did not enjoy my Illness Narratives as Life Writing class anywhere near as much as I thought I would, I still read some incredibly good memoirs in preparation for it.  There are a few here which I read prior to the course too.  The following books have all been selected to feature on the blog today because I feel that they are all important; they are poignant, tender, thought-provoking and, above all, life-affirming.  For each, I have copied the official blurb, as the majority of them describe the conditions written about in a far more comprehensive way than I could without doing some research.

  1. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen 9781860497926
    ‘In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor and Ray Charles. A clear-sighted, unflinching work that provokes questions about our definitions of sane and insane, Kaysen’s extraordinary memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers.’
  2. On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
    ‘The essay seeks to establish illness as a serious subject of literature along the lines of love, jealousy and battle. Woolf writes, “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”‘
  3. Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
    ‘From the double Man Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Wolf Hall’, a wry, shocking and beautiful memoir of childhood, ghosts, hauntings, illness and family. ‘Giving up the Ghost’ is award-winning novelist Hilary Mantel’s uniquely unusual five-part autobiography. Opening in 1995 with ‘A Second Home’, Mantel describes the death of her stepfather which leaves her deeply troubled by the unresolved events of her childhood. In ‘Now Geoffrey Don’t Torment Her’ Mantel takes the reader into the muffled consciousness of her early childhood, culminating in the birth of a younger brother and the strange candlelight ceremony of her mother’s ‘churching’. In ‘Smile’, an account of teenage perplexity, Mantel describes a household where the keeping of secrets has become a way of life. Finally, at the memoir’s conclusion, Mantel explains how through a series of medical misunderstandings and neglect she came to be childless and how the ghosts of the unborn like chances missed or pages unturned, have come to haunt her life as a writer.’
  4. 9781783781461Until Further Notice, I Am Alive by Tom Lubbock
    ‘In 2008, Tom Lubbock was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and told he had only one or two years to live. In this remarkable record of those years, lived out in three-month intervals between scans, he examines the question of how to live with death in sight. As the tumour progressed, Tom engaged intensely and imaginatively with work, art, friends, and his wife and their young son, while trying to remain focused on the fact of his impending death. His tumour was located in the area of the brain associated with language, and he describes losing control over the spoken and written word and the resources he drew on to keep communicating; a struggle which brought him ever closer to the mysteries of the origin of speech. As the Independent’s chief art critic, he was renowned for the clarity and unconventionality of his writing, and the same fierce intelligence permeates this extraordinary memoir. This is a book written by a man wholly engaged with life even as it ends.’
  5. The Iceberg by Marion Coutts
    ‘Winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, and finalist for every major nonfiction award in the UK, including the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Award, The Iceberg is artist and writer Marion Coutts’ astonishing memoir; an adventure of being and dying and a compelling, poetic meditation on family, love, and language. In 2008, Tom Lubbach, the chief art critic for The Independent was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The Iceberg is his wife, Marion Coutts, fierce, exquisite account of the two years leading up to his death. In spare, breathtaking prose, Coutts conveys the intolerable and, alongside their two year old son Ev, whose language is developing as Tom’s is disappearing/  Marion and Tom lovingly weather the storm together. In short bursts of exquisitely textured prose, The Iceberg becomes a singular work of art and an uplifting and universal story of endurance in the face of loss.’
  6. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy 9780060569662
    ‘”I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I’ve spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison.”At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of classmates. In this strikingly candid memoir, Grealy tells her story of great suffering and remarkable strength without sentimentality and with considerable wit. Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captures with unique insight what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two warring impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect.’
  7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
    ‘The diary of Jean-Dominique Bauby who, with his left eyelid (the only surviving muscle after a massive stroke) dictated a remarkable book about his experiences locked inside his body. A masterpiece and a bestseller in France, it is now a major motion picture directed by Julian Schnabel. On 8 December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma. When he regained consciousness three weeks later, the only muscle left functioning was in his left eyelid although his mind remained as active and alert as it had ever been. He spent most of 1996 writing this book, letter by letter, blinking as an alphabet was repeatedly read out to him.’
  8. 9780099556091Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
    ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It’s also a book about other people’s literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft that supports us when we are sinking.’
  9. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
    ‘This is the true story of a boy who wanted to grow up with the Brady Bunch, but ended up living with the Addams Family. Augusten Burroughs’s mother gave him away to be raised by her psychiatrist, a dead ringer for Santa Claus and a certifiable lunatic into the bargain. The doctor’s bizarre family, a few patients and a sinister man living in the garden shed completed the tableau. The perfect squalor of their dilapidated Victorian house, there were no rules and there was no school. The Christmas tree stayed up until summer and Valium was chomped down like sweets. And when things got a bit slow, there was always the ancient electroshock therapy machine under the stairs.’
  10. Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie 9780805066128
    ‘By turns humorous and heart-rending, an unforgettable account of a young woman’s spiritual triumphs over breast cancer in the last year of her life Ruth Picardie was only thirty-three when she died, a month after her twins’ second birthday and just under a year after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. For Ruth, a journalist, it seemed natural to write about her illness. She published only five columns for Observer Life magazine before she became too sick to continue, but her moving, funny, and very human account drew a huge response from readers all over England. Before I Say Goodbye juxtaposes these columns with correspondence from readers, e-mails to her friends, letters to her children, and reflections by her husband and her sister. The result is a courageous and moving book, entirely devoid of self-pity, that celebrates the triumph of a brave and wonderful woman’s spirit. An international bestseller in England, Picardie’s sobering yet ultimately life-affirming book is destined to become a classic.’

 

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One From the Archive: ‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson *****

Jeanette Winterson’s novels never fail to astound me.  Whilst I have most of her oeuvre yet to read, I have very much enjoyed every book of hers which I have read to date, from the heartbreakingly sad Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and the quirky The Passion, to her distinct, unique and imaginative retelling of the story of Atlas and Heracles, Weight.  I wanted, therefore, to read The Daylight Gate ever since I first learnt of its publication, and was thrilled when I received a beautiful copy from my parents for Christmas.

I find the Lancashire Witch Trials absolutely fascinating (that kind of horrid which both repulses and interests me – much like the many books about the Holocaust which I tend to read), and I am so pleased that Winterson decided to turn her talented hands to writing a novel about them.

‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson

Her newest offering is so atmospheric.  Winterson unfailing writes so well, and is a master at creating chills using just a simple sentence.  This was present from the outset in The Daylight Gate, and the consequent tension was marvellously built.  The undercurrents which are present in every work of her fiction are so well done here particularly, and she suggests and hints at many elements throughout without explicitly stating facts.  I love the way in which the reader is subsequently able to come up with their own interpretation at times in The Daylight Gate, almost putting their own stamp upon the novel.

The true history of the Trials is set out throughout the volume, and this gives the entirety a real sense of place and time.  Winterson is able to switch seamlessly from one narrative perspective to another, and shifts the focus between her characters accordingly.

The way in which Winterson uses the full names of her characters for the majority of the book works very well.  As each person whom she touches upon is a distinctive being in history, this technique reminds the reader continually that they were real, and it also serves to detach us emotionally from some of the crueller beings who were involved in the Trials.  Only in the more tender, emotional or pivotal situations throughout does Winterson revert to using only the given names of her protagonists.  The psychology of each and every being we meet has been well considered.

The Daylight Gate is a dark novel, far darker than I expected it to be.  The entirety is beautifully written, the prose sparse when it needs to be, and decorated with lovely descriptions.  The novel made me feel a little uneasy at times, but some of the more gruesome instances throughout built up the book’s power to wonderful heights, making it both powerful and vivid.  I admire Winterson greatly for writing about such an important historical event and bringing it back into the contemporary consciousness in such a stunning way.

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‘The Gap of Time’ by Jeanette Winterson ***

In justifying her choice to retell The Winter’s Tale as part of her contribution to the new Hogarth Shakespeare imprint, Jeanette Winterson writes, ‘All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around.  I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years’.  Rather than refer to her newest offering as a retelling, she prefers to call it a ‘cover version’.  Hers is the text which launches the new series, which will feature contributions from several of the world’s most prominent and important contemporary authors, including Margaret Atwood, who takes on The Tempest, and Anne Tyler, who has chosen The Taming of the Shrew.  The series aims to ‘introduce’ Shakespeare’s plays to ‘a new generation of fans’.  Hogarth Shakespeare itself is a member of Shakespeare400, which has been coordinated by King’s College London, to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.

The blurb of The Gap of Time states that it ‘vibrates with echoes of the original play but tells a contemporary story of betrayal, paranoia, redemption and hope…  It shows us that however far we have been separated, whatever is lost shall be found’.  Here, Winterson tells the tale of Perdita, ‘the abandoned child’, whose story has a lot in common with her own.  It is worth mentioning that this is not the first time that Winterson has turned her hand to creating a retelling of sorts; Weight, about the myth of Atlas and Heracles, was part of the Canongate Myths series, and is well worth seeking out.

The Gap of Time consists of two plots, which intertwine at pivotal points.  The first of these is set in an area of the United States called ‘New Bohemia’, and deals with a black man named Shep, who finds a white baby during a storm.  The second – which is nowhere near as compelling, and flounders in places – takes place in London, just after the 2008 financial crash.  Here, Leo Kaiser is ‘struggling to manage the jealousy he feels towards his best friend and his wife’.  These plotlines merge seventeen years later in New Bohemia, when ‘a boy and a girl are falling in love but there’s a lot they don’t know about who they are and where they come from’.  Winterson tells ‘a contemporary story where Time itself is a player in a game of high stakes that will either end in tragedy or forgiveness’.

A nice touch is that the book opens with Shakespeare’s original plot; this leads nicely into Winterson’s own handling of the material.  She keeps each of the main elements of the original play, but invents more modern-sounding concepts and constructs to really put her own spin on things; for example, the BabyHatch which is installed outside the hospital which Shep walks past, and which allows parents to neglect their babies in rather a humane fashion.  She is masterful at immediately setting the scene: ‘I saw the strangest sight tonight.  I was on my way home, the night hot and heavy, the way it gets here at this time of year so that your skin is shiny and your shirt is never dry.  I’d been playing piano in the bar I play in, and nobody wanted to leave, so I was later than I like to be’.  Her descriptions, whilst not threaded throughout the entire text, are often quite sensuous in a simple manner: ‘The street had all the heat of the day, of the week, of the month, of the season’.

With the construction of several of her characters, there seems to be an overriding honesty.  Winterson has used both the first and third person perspectives to break up the separate stories here, and the former – particularly when it also uses a sort of stream-of-consciousness technique – makes it feel very personal: ‘I sat in the car like this after my wife died.  Staring out of the windscreen seeing nothing.  The whole day passed and then it was night and nothing had changed because everything had changed’.  The third person perspective does distance the reader from Leo’s story, however.  The present tense has been well cultivated, and gives a sense of modernity to the whole; it pulls it firmly into the twenty-first century.  Poignant phrases and ideas have been made use of too: ‘What is memory anyway but a painful dispute with the past?’, and ‘I discover that grief means living with someone who is not there’.

In The Gap of Time – and, indeed, with respect to the Hogarth Shakespeare series in its entirety – it is demonstrated that Shakespeare’s themes are still universal in the modern world.  His stories are just as relevant today as they were when he was writing, and the relationships built between characters are just as perceptive.  In The Gap of Time, darkness creeps in where one least expects it, whether you are familiar with the original or not, and Shakespeare’s story has definitely been well transplanted into the modern age.

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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘The World and Other Places’ by Jeanette Winterson **

As I was already a fan of Jeanette Winterson’s novels, I decided to try something a little different of hers for our challenge: a volume of short stories.  The World and Other Places is Winterson’s first collection, and I was incredibly interested to see how the genre suited her writing style.

There are a lot of different styles at play here; we have fairytale-esque shorts, those told from the perspective of men, stories set within imagined vistas, and real world slices of life to name but a few.  That said, the tales within The World and Other Places are a little too varied; there is no sense of cohesion between them, and reading them feels like rather a jarring process in consequence.

Winterson is both an intelligent and perceptive author, but despite this, I was not entirely enamoured with the collection.  There was no particular story which really stood out for me, or which I enjoyed, even.  Nothing felt quite as strong as I had supposed it would; the characters are flat, and the backdrops are shadowy and not quite realistic.  The World and Other Places is neither as interesting nor as engaging as I find her longer fiction.  I love the way in which Winterson writes, but I cannot help but think that she is far better suited to longer literary forms in which she is able to fully exercise her prowess.  Whilst I still really want to read the rest of her novels, I  shall happily hang fire on any other short story collections which she has published to date.

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Flash Review: ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ by Jeanette Winterson ****

‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage)

I have wanted to read this ever since it was published, particularly as I so enjoy Winterson’s fiction.  Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, a question which Winterson’s mother asked her when she was told of her lesbianism, is a memoir of her life, some of the details of which have been previously broadcast or written about, and other details which are new.  Throughout, Winterson writes so creatively, and is honest to the point of admirability about her past.  I found it particularly fascinating to see how much of her own life her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit reflected.  ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ is such a vivid memoir, which manages to be both frank and poetic.

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