“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman (2007)

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“‘Later!’ The word, the voice, the attitude.”

I’ve been away at a wedding this weekend, and a trip away always requires at least two books to be packed. As it was (and as I think I expected) I had hardly any time to read, so most of this was completed once I was back. It felt right to take a romance with me to a wedding, and this one ties into the fact it’s Pride Month, too. Where better to spend a few days at this time of year than the Italian Riviera. Come with me, let’s go.

It’s the late eighties, and seventeen-year-old Elio has just met the man who’ll be staying with his family for the summer. His parents take in a lodger every summer, someone who is working on a book and needs time and space to write. This year, it’s Oliver. He’s twenty-four, intelligent, effortlessly cool, and utterly beautiful. Elio is smitten from almost the moment Oliver gets out of his taxi and becomes conflicted about whether he should make his feelings known. Oliver is at times friendly and perhaps encouraging, but at others distant and determinedly ignores Elio, who begins to wonder if he should start a relationship with the local girl Marzia instead.

As the weeks progress, the two young men grow closer and become more entangled in one another’s lives and emotions. The six weeks of the summer may not mark a particularly long time on the calendar, but they will forever change Elio and Oliver as they seek out true intimacy for the first time, and maybe the last.

At its heart, the book is simply about the difference between sex and intimacy and how they can easily be confused. Pure intimacy is perhaps the rarest relationship one can have with another human, and while at times you could argue that Elio tries to force it here, there’s no denying that they do have something pretty special, if at times somewhat bizarre. Although the sex scenes with them together are kept discreet and half-hidden, there are still enough scenes of Elio pleasuring himself – often in fetishistic and unusual ways – to counterbalance.

Anyone of any sexual stripe will be familiar with this sense of lust; a longing for someone that you can’t be sure returns the feeling. This being literary fiction, however, the characters are not necessarily people we know, even if their emotions are. Elio is precocious at seventeen, transcribing music and blending artists together for his own compositions. Oliver teaches at Colombia and spends most of his time in Italy working hard on his new book. The characters around them all have an other-worldly sheen, too, as if the Riviera polishes everyone to a high gleam and makes even their faults look more acceptable.

As for the prose itself, like much literary fiction, the book is awfully fond of itself and its use of extensive paragraphs that detail very little action at all. Elio spends much of his time fretting and while he’s not unpleasant as a person, some may find him beginning to grate after a while. Fortunately, the book’s wise words and descriptions of life are rather good. It’s also notable that despite being a book about two gay lovers, I don’t think the words “gay” or “love” make a single appearance. The book is open and aware of bisexuality, which is a novelty, and does its very best to avoid labels. Love is love, after all.

A warming and thoughtful novel, which can make even the hardest heart believe in the worth and power of intimacy.

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“Mendelssohn Is On The Roof” by Jiří Weil (1960)

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“Antonin Becvar and Josef Stankovsky were on the roof, walking around the statues.”

As a general rule, I try and avoid books that heavily feature the Holocaust and the dark days of the Second World War, but there are exceptions, of course. It’s a part of our history that I simply cannot fathom and I find the whole area so depressing to think about that I decided a while ago to not read fiction about it. Of course it’s an important historical event and I’m not suggesting otherwise, but with so much awful stuff going on in the world, it’s not unreasonable I feel to want to read things that are a bit more upbeat. I was duped, however, when I saw this book on a friend’s shelf and, intrigued by the title and blurb, bought myself a copy.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof takes place in Nazi-occupied Prague during in 1942. The city has been ravaged, with Jews kicked out and either sent to ghettos or killed. An official concert is due to be performed soon, but the Nazis have discovered that one of the statues on the concert hall is of Felix Mendelssohn, a Jewish composer. The order is given to have the statue removed, but none of the Nazis know which one he is. They decide to go for the one with the biggest nose – unfortunately, that’s Wagner…

While the Nazis try to find a scholarly Jew left in the city, elsewhere other events have begun to unfold. A man has an incurable disease that is slowly tuning him to stone. Two children are hidden away behind a wardrobe so they can’t sent off. An architect is commissioned to design a set of gallows for an upcoming execution. The Gestapo continue to torment and torture anyone they see fit, never having to take responsibility for their actions. As the world descends into chaos, there seems little hope left for anyone.

What makes the book all the more haunting, of course, is that Weil was there. Born in 1900, he was assigned to work at the Jewish Museum in Prague, and when he was summoned to go and live in the ghetto, he instead staged his death and spent the rest of the war hiding in apartments and, in one case, a hospital. This is almost certainly what makes the book’s horror so visceral. Although billed as a “darkly comic” novel, the emphasis is most certainly on the first of those words. While the set up and first few chapters are quite humorous as we see the Germans struggle to comply with their orders, it quickly descends from farce to tragedy, and by the end there is nothing but doom, gloom and the horrific events of one of the darkest moments in our history.

Perhaps overwhelmed by the awful events that befall the characters, I admit that I got a bit lost throughout it and was never quite able to keep everyone’s names straight, meaning it would often be a couple of paragraphs before I realised which character we’d gone back to. The story lines weave together at random, with occasional overlap. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding many of them, and there’s not really a happy ending for anyone here. The true abhorrence of the Nazi party’s “final solution” and way of dealing with the “Jewish problem” are writ large and it makes for very difficult reading.

Of course it’s an important book, and it’s artfully done, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s enjoyable. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to read these accounts from someone who was actually there. A few of them remain, but it won’t be long before this chapter of humanity is consigned entirely to the history books. We cannot let its important diminish.

“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach (1979)

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“It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea.”

Many books like to show us the world from the point of view of an animal. Obviously there’s Animal Farm, or The Animals of Farthing Wood, The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa that gives a lizard-eye view of the world, or The Last Family in England from Matt Haig which shows us life through the eyes of a pet dog. In this instance, the book appears to have more in common with the likes of Br’er Rabbit in that it’s a fable intent on teaching us something about ourselves through the actions of a seagull.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull isn’t like the other gulls in the Flock. While they’re focused on finding food and surviving, Jonathan is far more interested in the act of flying, spending all his time studying the art and learning how to become the best flyer he can. His actions upset the Elders, however, and he becomes an Outcast for going against the societal conventions and so leaves to better practice his skills.

While away, however, he finds that perhaps he isn’t so alone as he thought. There are others he can learn from, other gulls who have been cast out of their flocks for their love of flying. Jonathan can now be free, and help the next generation of outcasts perfect their abilities. This edition of the book also comes with the rediscovered “Part Four”, which sees Jonathan’s legacy live on as time passes and he becomes something of a mythological figure to the gulls, rather than something more tangible.

It’s a short read, but beautiful in its brevity. The main takeaway is about self-perfection, and how we don’t have to follow the crowd. Those that go their own way and do things differently often achieve greatness unimagined by the others. There is much to learn here about individuality, creativity and passion. The fourth part, which was only published for the first time in 2013, has distinct parallels to organised religion and questions its nature. Bach was inspired to finish it after surviving a car crash and seeing in it truths he’d written years before without knowing they would become relevant.

I didn’t really know what I was expecting from this book, but I got more from it than I could ever have imagined. It’s the kind of book that’s so full of gorgeous lines that I could paper my bedroom in them. I’ll limit myself to just one, here:

“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly.”

“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier (2009)

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“Lightning struck me all my life.”

History, as we all know, has given women a rough ride of it. One could read through numerous history books and believe that, aside from the occasional queen or witch, women hadn’t appeared until the 1920s. This inequality is the reason that Watson and Crick are considered the discoverers of DNA leaving out Rosalind Franklin who did most of the preliminary research, or why Charles Babbage is hailed as the first computer scientist, leaving Ada Lovelace often ignored. Fortunately, we are now righting these wrongs, and one of the women who, after her death, achieved great notoriety is the fossil hunter Mary Anning, whose discoveries shook the scientific community to its core. Tracy Chevalier explores her life in this novel.

Anning shares the duty of narration with Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter who specialises in fossil fish (and was also a real person, but whose story has been eclipsed by that of Anning). When Elizabeth’s brother marries, she and her sisters Louise and Margaret are sent to live in Lyme Regis, a quiet coastal town, because that’s what happened in the early 1800s. There, Elizabeth discovers she has a love for finding fossils on the beach, but her skills are nothing compared to that of young Mary Anning who, despite the age gap of twenty years, she strikes up a curious friendship with.

As the two women grow, they make more discoveries and when Mary’s brother encounters a fossil of a creature unlike anything anyone has ever seen, it becomes the talk of the world and centuries of religious doctrine begin to look a little shaky. Is it possible that animals can go extinct? Did God make some creatures only to kill them off? Is it possible that God made a mistake? The ideas are sacrilege to many, but Elizabeth and Mary are determined that the world should see their fossils and hear the theories. Unfortunately, they’re women, but their passion and loyalty to the fossils ensure that the truth will out.

As they grow, they find much more than just fossils, learning about their places in the world, the meaning of heartbreak and how friendships can be as brittle as any of their findings.

I knew a little of Mary Anning before beginning the book – her face and her fossils are all over the Natural History Museum – but Elizabeth Philpot unfortunately was new to me, although no less interesting. Neither she or Mary ever married, and instead dedicated their lives to their fossil hunting even though, because of their sex, they would never be welcomed into the Royal Society or be allowed to write scientific papers. Philpot, in fact, discovered fossilised ink sacs inside belemnite fossils and even worked out how to revive the ink for use. Anning had the harder life, arguably, being from a very poor background and losing her father at a young age. She however became the first person to find skeletons of both ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton in Britain. Her legacy is one that should be heralded for what it did to science and the advancement of knowledge.

The story itself adds much colour to both ladies, as well as the scientific men around them, and Chevalier freely admits that she has embellished much of what happened in their private lives, but that’s not a fault, as it just gives the women more depth. Parts of the story do drag a little, I can’t deny that, but in general it’s an interesting read featuring two remarkable women. Chevalier has a good eye for metaphor and the two narrators are wonderfully distinct in their styles.

A fascinating and thoughtful look at some figures many may not have heard of, but should have.

“The Queen And I” by Sue Townsend (1992)

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“The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris.”

It’s no good pretending otherwise. Despite my left-leaning political views and modern ways of thinking, I can’t help but retain a lot of admiration for the Queen. Her family, sure, but there’s something about her. What she’s really like as a person, we’re unlikely to know, but the snatches we see suggest an intelligent woman with a good sense of humour, a love of her family, and a firm understanding of her responsibilities. She was taught that above all, the crown comes first, and I find it impossible not to admire her as she has carried on her duties without public complaint for over sixty years. She never expected to become monarch, especially not at such a young age. Despite me having no real issues with her lot carrying on, one does sometimes wonder, what would this country be like if it became a republican nation? In 1992, Sue Townsend, more famous for creating Adrian Mole, gave us a suggestion.

Following on from the 1992 election, a republication party led by Jack Barker gets into power with plans to give everyone in Britain a fair and equal existence, and the first step of that is simple – remove the Royal Family. Given just a few days to clear their belongings out of their palaces, and with the Crown Jewels sold off to the Japanese, the Queen and her family find themselves suddenly living on a rough council estate in the Midlands. Their new home – dubbed by the neighbours as Hell Close – is far from the luxury they are used to and they now find themselves with the most deprived of society, with no money and no servants.

The Queen gets to know her neighbours who are instantly interested in the posh new residents – although new laws forbid them from treating the former royals as better than them – and enters into a world of difficulty. She’s never even had to put her own bra on, or open a door. Suddenly, she’s lost and alone, as Prince Philip refuses to leave his bed and the Queen Mother begins to lose her marbles in her bungalow. Some of the others, however, take to it slightly better. Prince Charles feels freed of his responsibilities to focus on his garden, William and Harry soon join the local children in terrorising the estate, and Princess Anne is so captivated by her new world that within minutes she’s unloaded the van and is plumbing in her own washing machine.

But the country, it seems, is having difficulty adjusting, and Prime Minister Barker’s plans require emptying the vaults of the Bank of England to make them a reality. With Philip becoming weaker and weaker, and Charles facing jail for attacking a policeman, the Queen struggles to retain the composure and dignity that she has been trained from birth to possess.

Sue Townsend, who died four years ago this week, was and remains one of the greatest comic writers the world, and Britain especially, has ever seen. Like Victoria Wood, she was naturally funny but her work contained so much pathos that everything seemed bittersweet. You feel for her characters and their struggle, and this has never been truer than here. The Royals, the Queen particularly, are portrayed with affection and even the jokes at their expense are still tinged with reality and you don’t feel any of it is acerbic. It’s just gently comical. Jibes are made about the fact that the Queen Mother has never had to open her own curtains, they have to have antique furniture destroyed to fit it into their new houses, and the Queen and Philip are horrified at having to share a bed. They are shown to be real humans and despite their sheltered upbringings, have retained compassion, some degree of understanding, and a sense of duty. In turn, the poor and downtrodden residents of Hell Close are shown to be loving and community-driven, even if their ways of expressing these ideals are not what many would expect.

Because the book is twenty-six years old, the Queen and her family are much younger than we know them now. There are also a few characters present who have long since disappeared – namely the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and, of course, Princess Diana. Later that year in real world history, Charles and Diana would of course separate, but here they remain married, although it’s clear their marriage is on the rocks. A number of other characters are absent. Prince Andrew is mentioned in one throwaway line, and Prince Edward is hardly present either, currently working for a theatre in New Zealand. It’s also unclear what happens to the other minor royals and all other members of the aristocracy, as Barker’s vision for Britain is one of total equality.

Whatever you think of the Royal Family, this book is surely worth a read. Townsend portrays both ends of the social spectrum of Britain with charm, warmth and realism. Whether one day the British public will tire of being led by characters who seem to belong in a fairy tale remains to be seen, but personally I can’t see it ever happening.

“If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio (2017)

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“I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul.

I can’t claim by any stretch of the imagination to be a Shakespeare scholar. Oh, I enjoy some of his plays and I find him a very fascinating historical figure, but despite my background being in storytelling, many of the nuances of his plays are unfortunately lost to me. I think it’s the language. For some people, however, Shakespeare can become an obsession and a way of life. This is all well and good, but his plays house some of the most intense emotions in the entirety of the English canon, and when those heightened feelings begin to run off the stage and into the real world, who knows what may happen…

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him in prison, Detective Colborne, is there to meet him, and brings with him news. Colborne is retiring and asks Oliver, as a favour, to clear up a few things once and for all; the first of which being, what really happened that night ten years ago, and is Oliver actually as guilty as the world believes?

Through five acts, we flash back to Oliver and his friends in their fourth year at Dellecher, a prestigious and exclusive university in Illinois. There are seven of them in the group: Richard (bombastic and bullying), Wren (quiet and frail), Meredith (seductive and sexy), James (artistic and proud), Alexander (fun and flippant), Filippa (mysterious yet understanding) and Oliver himself, the eternal sidekick. The friends are often cast in the same sorts of roles over and over in their performances and it’s becoming difficult to tell where their characters end and where their true selves begin. After a particularly raucous party after a somewhat disastrous performance of Julius Caesar, one of their number is dead. Was it an accident, or is one of the remaining six a killer? As Oliver recounts his memories to Colborne, secrets are revealed, truths are uncovered and mysteries are unravelled.

I’m not the first to point it out, but there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that this book has an awful lot in common with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both are filled with wealthy students in an eminent school, and one of them is killed. However, in Tartt’s novel, we know from the off that it’ll be Bunny. Here, we are almost two hundred pages in before we find out who the victim is. Here they’re theatre students, and Tartt writes about Greek students, but at the end of the day it all feels like it falls under the same umbrella of pretentiousness.

The characters are not particularly unlikable – most of them, anyway – but they would be insufferable to know personally. They are so wrapped up in their love of Shakespeare that they can (and do) quote whole scenes and passages conversationally, even when supposedly paralytic with drink. Their relationships with one another are beautifully intertwined and more complicated than they first appear, but the pairing I find most engaging is Oliver and James. Both ostensibly straight, they do seem to have some kind of feeling for one another. Oliver describes is as transcending gender, but Rio remains ambiguous towards the true nature of their relationship. Ambiguity laces a lot of the text, which feels apt. Shakespeare can be interpreted in any number of ways, and here again, the reader is invited to let their own ideas take hold.

As with The Secret History reading like a Greek tragedy, this one certainly plays out like something Shakespeare would have written, with themes of friendship, power, revenge, lust, grief, heartbreak and anger all bubbling through. Excusing the long conversations told through the Bard’s own words, it’s not that difficult a read and there’s certainly something that grips you. At first it’s because you want to know which character it is that’s going to die, and then once that’s done, you wonder whether Oliver did it and was rightly in prison, or if there’s something else going on.

As I said above, Shakespearean emotions run high and at the extremes. Here again, everyone feels intensely and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single reader who wouldn’t be captivated by the story, their own emotions running very high. A very sharp novel, and one of those few examples that prove some literary fiction still has a place in the world.

“The True Deceiver” by Tove Jansson (1982)

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“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling.”

With the weather finally beginning to show signs that it’s remembered what spring should look like, I inexplicably took it upon myself to dive into a book full of snowscapes. As a kid, I loved snow, but as I got older it just became more of an inconvenience. I remain somewhat enchanted by it however – especially if I have nowhere I need to be – and am always fascinated by how quiet it seems. Rain and wind both come with noise, and even a sunny day will ensure some noise as people cut lawns and have barbecues, but snow is entirely silent. It blankets the world in sheer nothingness and hides a multitude of sins, and when it thaws, who knows what may be revealed…

Katri Kling is an unusual young woman in many ways. She has no time for the niceties most people engage in, is short and sharp and seems only to have meaningful relationships with her brother Mats and her nameless dog. Anna Aemelin, an elderly book illustrator, however is respected around the Finnish village the two call home, even if no one much sees her. Katri has decided that she and her brother should live in Anna’s house, known around the village as the Rabbit House, and sets about putting her plan in motion to convince Anna she’s not safe alone.

Once in, the two women begin a strange and somewhat aggressive relationship. Neither completely comfortable in the others company and having very different views on the world means that soon it’s not quite clear who’s telling the truth. As the Finnish winter begins to move into spring, they realise that their lives have changed, but whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.

The novel is written by Tove Jansson who is more famous for creating The Moomins, but there is little here to compare the two works save for perhaps a fondness for nature and open spaces. There are no earth-shattering events taking place in this novel, merely two women with very different aims and a small flurry of nosy villagers who all have their own opinions on what’s going on and aren’t afraid to share them. The snowscape setting is somewhat unnerving and there is a sort of eerie chill to a world like this. I find snow gives a sense of mystery and almost menace to a plot, and the book is chilling in more ways than one, despite the lack of extreme drama. As we all know, nothing is scarier than something. And there isn’t anything scary here – not that Jansson is writing anything that’s meant to be a horror story. In many ways it’s quite a sweet tale of loneliness and expectation. It is, however, about so much more. It’s about where we belong and more importantly it’s about truth, lies and how flexible the line is between the two.

An interesting novel – the sort that will suddenly come back to mind inexplicably on a quiet, snowy morning several years from now.

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