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Mini Reviews: ‘Little Deaths’ and ‘The Memory Book’

Little Deaths by Emma Flint ***
9781509826575‘It’s the summer of 1965, and the streets of Queens, New York shimmer in a heatwave. One July morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find a bedroom window wide open and her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery. Noting Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty liquor bottles and love letters that litter her apartment, the detectives leap to convenient conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip and speculation. Sent to cover the case on his first major assignment, tabloid reporter Pete Wonicke at first can’t help but do the same. But the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and the press. Soon, Pete begins to doubt everything he thought he knew. Ruth Malone is enthralling, challenging and secretive – is she really capable of murder? Haunting, intoxicating and heart-poundingly suspenseful, Little Deaths is a gripping novel about love, morality and obsession, exploring the capacity for good and evil within us all.’

The premise of Emma Flint’s Little Deaths intrigued me.  At first, her prose, with its element of mixed chronology, felt clever, and really helped to set the scene.  After a while however, the prose began to repeat itself at points, and there was an entire middle section which I found frankly rather dull and drawn out.  The period in which it was set – the mid-1960s in New York – was not very well evoked on the whole.  The background itself faded into the background at times, and the story was not well-grounded in Flint’s chosen period.  The novel did not feel quite consistent, but as is often the case with a murder mystery or thriller, one really has to get to the end to see who the crime was committed by.  In this instance, I guessed the perpetrator incredibly early on, so the whole held no real surprises for me.  Little Deaths is a book which I feel had far more potential than was utilised.

 

The Memory Book by Lara Avery **** 9781784299248
‘Samantha McCoy has it all mapped out. First she’s going to win the national debating championship, then she’s going to move to New York and become a human rights lawyer. But when Sam discovers that a rare disease is going to take away her memory, the future she’d planned so perfectly is derailed before its started. Realising that her life won’t wait to be lived, Sam sets out on a summer of firsts. The first party. The first rebellion. The first friendship. The last love.’

I don’t tend to read YA fiction, but as I am eternally fascinated by memory, the plot of The Memory Book certainly intrigued me.  The narrator, Sammie, is intelligent, which definitely helped to keep my interest as I was reading.  Neither she, nor her condition, are predictable in the least.  Avery’s novel is well structured and effective in its use of multiple voices; it tackles some important issues, and I will be highly recommending it.

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The Gregory Peck-a-Long: ‘The Beautiful and Damned’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald **** (Classics Club #55)

Book number 55 on my Classics Club list is another by the wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned.  It slotted in with my reading plans with the lovely Belinda, and is thus part of this week’s Gregory Peck-a-long spectacular.

The heir to his grandfather’s relatively large fortune, protagonist Anthony Patch is ‘led astray from the path to gainful employment by the temptations of the 1920s Jazz Age.  His descent into dissolution and profligacy is accelerated by his marriage to the attractive but turbulent Gloria, and the couple soon discover the dangerous flip side of a life of glamour and debauchery’.  The gorgeous Alma Classics edition which I read heralds The Beautiful and Damned ‘a tragic examination of the pitfalls of greed and materialism and the transience of youth and beauty’.

The novel, Fitzgerald’s second, was published in 1922, and is split into three separate books.  It takes place in New York City, and paints rather a ‘satirical portrait of the Jazz Age’.  As with much of his fiction, The Beautiful and Damned contains parallels to the fascinating and rather heartbreaking lives of F. Scott and his wife, Zelda.  It is possible to see certain characteristics of Fitzgerald himself in his initial description of Anthony, for instance: ‘As you first see him he wonders frequently whether he is not without honour and slightly mad, a shameful and obscene thinness glistening on the surface of the world like oil on a clean pond, these occasions being varied, of course, with those in which he thinks himself rather an exceptional young man, thoroughly sophisticated, well adjusted to his environment and somewhat more significant than anyone else he knows’.

The writing is beautiful, as one might expect, and those sentences and paragraphs which focus upon the young couple are sublime.  One could easily imagine scenes such as the following featuring F. Scott and Zelda: ‘They were stars on this stage, each playing to an audience of two: the passion of their pretence created the actuality.  Here, finally, was the quintessence of self-expression – yet it was probable that for the most part their love expressed Gloria rather than Anthony.  He often felt like a scarcely tolerated guest at a party she was giving’.

The Beautiful and Damned does feel quite different to some of Fitzgerald’s later work, but it is possible – and rather enjoyable, too – to view the progression from one work to the next, and also to pinpoint those aspects of his writing which he bettered over time.  Whilst the prose itself is stylish, it does not always have the feel to it of a Fitzgerald novel, and perhaps lacks a little of the sparkle which I have come to expect from his stories.  There is something a little less tight about its feel than in his later novels, but it is certainly worth reading, and is a most enjoyable novel nonetheless.

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Classics Club #21: ‘A View from the Bridge’ by Arthur Miller ****

I received the gorgeous little Penguin edition of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge for my birthday.  Despite only having read two of his plays to date (rather predictably Death of a Salesman and The Crucible), I count Miller amongst my list of favourite playwrights.  The foreword in this volume was penned by the wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman, and an introduction written by Miller himself has also been included.  Of A View from the Bridge, Nicholas Hynter, director of the Royal National Theatre, says: ‘[it] will always stand with the masterpieces of Ibsen, Shakespeare and Sophocles’.

Written in 1955, the play, which was based upon a tale Miller was once told, tells of Italian Eddie Carbone, and is a ‘tragic masterpiece of the inexorable unravelling of a man’.  Miller speaks the way in which A View from the Bridge was ‘generally regarded as rather cold’ at first, and failed to find a large audience upon its initial Broadway run.  The version of the play which is currently in print has been revised by its author, who writes, ‘I was tired of mere sympathy in the theater.  The spectacle of still another misunderstood victim left me impatient…  I wanted to write in a way that would call up the faculties of knowing as well as feeling’.

In his foreword, Hoffman writes engagingly of Miller’s work: ‘Here we find the true compassion and catharsis that are as essential to our society as water and fire and babies and air…  Miller awakened in me the taste for all that must be – the empathy and love for the least of us, out of which bursts a gratitude for the poetry of these characters and the greatness of their creator’.

In A View from the Bridge, immigrant Eddie Carbone is living in a tattered Brooklyn tenement in a rundown neighbourhood with his wife, Beatrice, and niece, Catherine.  In and around this location is where all of the action takes place.  Eddie is a longshoreman, ‘working the docks from Brooklyn Bridge to the breakwater where the open sea begins’.  Beatrice is thrilled when her Italian cousins make it off the boat in New York; Eddie less so.  Miller has captured Beatrice’s reaction perfectly: ‘I’m – I just – I can’t believe it!  I didn’t even buy a new tablecloth; I was gonna wash the walls -‘.  A nice subplot regarding Catherine’s intention to leave school early and take up a position as a stenographer has also been inwoven.  The play opens with a long monologue spoken by Alfieri, a lawyer.  He talks directly to the audience, giving the context of the scene which he is both a part of and separate from.  Alfieri is essentially used in place of a Greek chorus; he serves much the same function.

I very much admired the way in which Miller simply yet thoroughly set his scenes; his stage directions are precise, and immediately begin to build realistic pictures in the reader’s mind.  As with Death of a Salesman, the very notion of the American Dream and its failures are brought to prominence.  Thematically, A View from the Bridge is fascinating.  The dialogue between the more minor characters does tend to be a little repetitive at times, but the entire play is so measured and precise.

Miller’s main aim in translating the original story to the stage, and the way in which he interpreted the action, were for the following purpose: ‘by knowing more than the hero, the audience would rather automatically see his [Eddie Carbone’s] life through conceptualized feelings’.  Of his revision, he rather insightfully states that ‘Eddie is still not a man to weep over; the play does not attempt to swamp our audience in tears.  But it is more possible now to relate his actions to our own and thus to understand ourselves a little better not only as isolated psychological entities, but as we connect to our fellows and our long past together’.  For all of these reasons, and arguably for many more, A View from the Bridge is an incredibly powerful play, which I would highly recommend.

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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘A Spy in the House of Love’ by Anais Nin **

During June, an accidental library haul occurred.  A Spy in the House of Love, first published in 1954, was one of the books which I could not resist taking home with me, loving Nin’s work as I do.  Sadly, upon reflection, I should have left it behind.

I chose A Spy in the House of Love for mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge, it being the only book of Nin’s upon the library shelves which I hadn’t yet read.  The novella – for the whole is comprised of under 130 pages – tells of Sabina, a woman who ‘leads a double life inspired by her relentless desire for brief encounters with near-strangers.  Fired into faithlessness by a desperate longing for sexual fulfilment, she weaves a sensual web of deceit across New York.  But when the secrecy of her affairs becomes too much to bear, Sabina makes a late night phone-call to a stranger from a bar, and begins a confession that captivates the unknown man and soon inspires him to seek her out…’.  I was rather intrigued by the premise, and have been impressed in the past by the way in which Nin handles more adult themes within her fiction.

The opening line of A Spy in the House of Love certainly sets an interesting tone for what follows: ‘The lie detector was asleep when he heard the telephone ringing’.  My favourite element of the novella, without a doubt, is the striking descriptive power which Nin wields, ranging from ‘a lax, spangled, spiralling laughter’, to her depiction of Sabina: ‘dressed in red and silver, she endured the sounds and imagery of fire engines as they tore through the streets of New York, alarming the heart with the violent gong of catastrophe’.

Sadly, I cannot say that I at all enjoyed A Spy in the House of Love.  It is the most sexually explicit of Nin’s work which I have encountered to date, and whilst I do not mind that per se, I did question the point of it here at times.  It seemed to be eroticism for eroticism’s sake (if there is such a thing!), and did not add a great deal to the story.

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American Literature Month: ‘The Group’ by Mary McCarthy **** (Classics Club #75)

When selecting my Classics Club books, I decided to try and include as many as I could from the Virago Modern Classics list which I am also working my way (albeit very slowly) through.  Mary McCarthy’s The Group ticks both boxes, and was also a great choice for American Literature Month.  Sarah Waters deems The Group ‘a brilliant novel’, and Hilary Mantel considers it ‘a masterpiece’ – high praise indeed from two of the most popular contemporary novelists Britain can boast.

The Group follows eight female graduates from Vassar College ‘as they find love and heartbreak, and choose careers and husbands against the backdrop of 1930s New York’.  Even if it had not been on the Virago list, it would still entirely appeal to me; I was absolutely fascinated by its premise when I began, and was eager to learn about McCarthy’s enduring and highly memorable cast of characters.

The novel was published in 1963.  Candace Bushnell, who has penned the informative and enthusiastic introduction, says that ‘it arrived smack in the middle of a major upheaval in American society.  John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated, the hippies were preaching free love, and the country was four years into the Vietnam War’.  She goes on to say that, ‘The Group reminds us that not much has really changed.  Sex before marriage, lousy men, career versus family – they’re all here…  Given the attention paid to relations between the sexes, it would be tempting to call The Group a forerunner of today’s chick lit.  It’s not.  Although McCarthy’s women struggle with finding “good” men, this is merely window-dressing for a larger conflict.  As Vassar graduates, the women of The Group believe they will change the world.  What they discover is that not only can they not change the world, but their survival still depends on their acceptance of being the second sex’.  Upon its publication, a swathe of women greatly identified with its contents, and it thus enjoyed a firm place upon the New York Times‘ bestseller list for two years.

With The Group, McCarthy wanted to write a ‘serious’ novel; she was a ‘feminist and highly political person’, and this certainly comes across in the cast of characters which she has created.  Bushnell states that: ‘every one of her characters is flawed.  At times they are ambitious, confused, indifferent, terrified, arrogant and catty…  McCarthy doesn’t edit her characters’ personalities to please her readers.  Nor does she stoop to “redeem” her characters; rather she lets her characters’ lives play out to logical and realistic conclusions’.

The novel begins with the marriage of Kay Leiland Strong and Harald Petersen, which occurs in June 1933.  This is a wonderfully simple yet effective background against which to introduce all of the novel’s protagonists at once.  McCarthy deftly captures the initial wedding scene: ‘Paying the driver, smoothing out their gloves, the pairs and trios of young women, Kay’s classmates, stared about them curiously, as though they were in a foreign city.  They were in the throes of discovering New York, imagine it, when some of them had actually lived here all their lives, in tiresome Georgian houses full of waste space in the Eighties or Park Avenue apartment buildings, and they delighted in such out-of-the-way corners as this, with its greenery and Quaker meeting house in red brick’.  Such interesting protagonists manifest – Mary Prothero, known as ‘Pokey’, for instance: ‘She, herself, she proclaimed, hated being fitted for dresses, hated her coming-out party, would hate her wedding, when she had it, which, as she said, was bound to happen since, thanks to Daddy’s money, she had her pick of beaux’.  Her description of Priss Hartshorn, another member of the group, struck me immediately: ‘[she was a] solemn, ashy-haired little girl who looked like a gopher and who felt it her duty to absorb every bit of word-of-mouth information that pertained to consumer problems’.

Socially, too, The Group is fascinating: ‘And elsewhere in the class, in the wider circle of Kay’s friends, they could point out girls of perfectly good background who were going into business, anthropology, medicine, not because they had to, but because they knew they had something to contribute to our emergent America’.  McCarthy demonstrates the changing face of the 1930s – contraception, for instance: ‘The lower classes, for instance, almost never transferred the burden of contraception to the woman; this was a discovery of the middle class’.  Her political and social backgrounds have been well built, and the story is both thoroughly and believably situated.

The fissures within the group creep to the surface rather early on.  McCarthy has wonderfully depicted the smoke and mirrors which exist within such a large group of friends, and this is used to full – and often sad – effect.  Different characters are followed at difficult or pivotal moments in their lives, and each chapter serves as a portrait of sorts to explore one or two of the different women in detail.  The ways in which the separate stories interlink and the characters cross paths is very clever indeed.  McCarthy is an understanding and perceptive author, who has crafted a novel with a wonderful structure and a believable and satisfying ending.  The Group is an incredibly well written and emotionally taut novel, which is easy to get into and most difficult to put down.

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‘The Promised Land’ by Erich Maria Remarque ****

Vintage Classics have published Erich Maria Remarque’s unfinished novel, The Promised Land, in its first English translation.  Remarque is best known for his stunning novel All Quiet on the Western Front, and had an interesting history himself; he was exiled from Nazi Germany and was consequently ‘deprived’ of his German citizenship, choosing to make his home in both Switzerland and the United States.

The Promised Land begins in 1942, within a detention centre on Ellis Island, New York.  The first person narrator and protagonist of the piece, Ludwig Somner, ‘finds himself adrift in this promised land, living the precarious life of a refugee amongst a community held together by an unspeakable past’.  As his story goes on, Somner begins to subscribe to the notion of the American Dream, but his memories of the darkest days of war conflict with his new life throughout.

The novel, says its blurb, presents ‘a haunting snapshot of a unique time, place and predicament… [and] is a wonderful evocation of a city, a gripping exploration of an individual haunted by the past and another powerful comment from Remarque on the devastating effects of war’.  As in All Quiet on the Western Front, scenes are vividly evoked; at the beginning of the novel, for example, Remarque writes the following: ‘The city was dangled in front of me for three weeks, but it might well have been on a different planet.  It was no more than a couple of miles away, the other side of a narrow sea channel I could almost have swum across; but it was so far out of my reach, it might have been surrounded by an armoured column of tanks.  It was defended by the strongest walls the twentieth century could devise: walls of paper, passport and visa regulations, the inhuman laws of an indifferent bureaucracy’.

The Promised Land contains a ‘Translator’s Afterword’, written by Michael Hoffman, which is a very nice touch.  Hofmann deems the novel ‘the story of a season and a city…  The book it seems Remarque originally had it in mind to write was a story of return and revenge; the testing to its destruction of its author’s “militant pacifism”‘.  He then goes on to talk about unfinished novels in the following way: ‘Can you really find it in you, dear reader, to think less of them than of their signed, sealed and delivered peers?’

The Promised Land has been both beautifully penned and thoughtfully translated.  Remarque’s use of the first person narrative perspective is strong, and one gets a feel for Somner’s position in the world, and his frustration about it, immediately.  The Promised Land is a compulsively readable, and rather marvellous historical novel.

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‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer *****

Ana and I decided on a whim to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close together.  Whilst it is a first-time read for Ana, this is the fifth time which I have picked up Foer’s 2005 novel, and I fall a little more in love with it upon each successive read.

Since first encountering the delightful Oskar and Safran Foer’s stunning way of writing, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been a firm favourite of mine.  The protagonist, Oskar Schell, is a nine-year old boy who lives in New York City with his mother.  Oskar’s father was killed during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.     The main thread of the story comes when grieving Oskar unearths a key, and believes that it holds the answer to a mystery which only he can solve.  There are, Oskar works out, 162 million locks in New York, but he has no idea as to which of these his father’s key will open.  He consequently goes on a quest of sorts through his city, piecing things together as he goes.

Picking up clues along the way, he is soon put onto the trail of someone with the surname of Black: ‘That was my great plan.  I would spend my Saturdays and Sundays finding all of the people named Black and learning what they knew about the key in the vase in Dad’s closet.  In a year and a half I would know everything.  Or at least know that I had to come up with a new plan’.

Oskar is one of the most original child characters whom I have come across in fiction, and he is a sheer joy to become acquainted with.  He is a headstrong and creative child; at the beginning of the book, for example, he talks about a host of inventions which he has thought up, clearly placing the reader inside his mind and giving an insight into his thought patterns: ‘What about a teakettle?  What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?…  What about little microphones?  What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls?’

The novel is at once beautiful, heartwarming and achingly sad.  Safran Foer has such a gorgeous and rather original way of writing; he immediately captures vivid scenes through Oskar’s eyes, and makes every single one of his characters both quirky and utterly believable.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a creative novel.  Whilst the majority of the story is told from Oskar’s perspective, there are also letters and photographs which, at first, add to the overall mystery.  The incredibly well-plotted whole has been so thoughtfully crafted and put together, and the reader is able to play the part of detective alongside our adorable, naive narrator, who becomes more worldly-wise as he follows the trail.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction around.

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