“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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“The House Of Sleep” by Jonathan Coe (1997)

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house-sleep“It was their final quarrel, that much was clear.”

When I was in sixth form I studied Psychology, and one of the most interesting aspects of the course was the module on sleep. It turns out that no one really knows why we sleep, what purpose it serves, what dreams are, why they happen, or what benefit sleep has. For something so ubiquitous in our lives, it seems insane to think that we have never worked out what it’s for. In this novel, we explore some of the more unusual aspects of what is already a very unusual scenario.

Ashdown is a house for students. They come and go, but the bonds they form are deep and long-lasting. In one room is the narcoleptic Sarah, who has such vivid dreams that she is convinced that they happened for real, getting her into trouble with others, not least housemate Robert, who loves Sarah deeply and will apparently stop at nothing to win her love. Elsewhere in the house is Terry requires fourteen hours of sleep a night, and there’s also Gregory, a psychology student who aspires to greatness.

Twelve years later, Ashdown is now a sleep clinic, where Dr Gregory Dudden now studies and treats people who are struggling with narcolepsy, insomnia, sleeptalking, sleepwalking and a whole host of other conditions. But he’s not the only one that has returned, and soon it seems that these four are destined to be reunited at the house where they grew up, only to find that things are not quite as they were. Chapters alternate between their student days, and a time over a decade later where they’ve all grown up and, for a time, lost contact with one another. But secrets have lain dormant for years, and soon their lives are interconnected once more, whether they want them to be or not.

I feared when the novel began that it was going to be another one of those novels where an author attempts to show off his intelligence through the well-read, political, culturally-aware student characters. You know the sort. While there is a little of this from one character in particular (two if you count a character who has an encyclopedic knowledge of film), I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t going to just be world-weary students sitting round like they’d got everything figured out. Like all good books, it treads that fine like of being very funny, as well as breaking your heart a tiny bit too, all while making you want to turn the page and devour the next chapter.

Gregory Dudden is entirely unsympathetic, a scientist with a one-track-mind and an obsession that has got out of hand and led him down a very dark path indeed. Apparently disrespected by fellow students and then later by his staff, he seems to care little about what people actually think of him and so hasn’t realised what an insufferable, unpleasant, smug creep he is. Despite dating Sarah presumably because he was attracted to her, it later transpires he mostly bothers with her so he can study her condition, as well as indulge in a sexual game that only he enjoys that involves pressing down on her eyelids. This act scars her for life and has a strong impact on her future relationships and psychology.

The other characters are more pleasant, although all flawed in their own ways. Terry has gone from being someone who needs a lot of sleep to an insomniac, and like Gregory, has an obsession that has consumed much of his life, although he at least seems to be handling it slightly better. Sarah is perhaps the least flawed character, but even she seems able to act in spite and not really think through what she’s doing. Robert is kind, but needy and can’t accept that Sarah won’t ever love him. Her relationship with him at university has a huge impact on his future and his life is changed forever by her vivid dreams.

The novel does seem to rely rather heavily on coincidence, and a small cast of characters keep overlapping one another and finding themselves magnetically drawn to others who have links to their pasts and yet, somehow, it works. It makes sense. Besides, I can’t complain about that. My own novel relies extensively on coincidence for the later plot to work. So despite this minor niggle, I really enjoyed the story. The characters feel well-rounded and when it ended I found myself wishing that there was more. The ending is somehow bittersweet, and you can’t claim happy endings for everyone, but there’s definitely a sense of hope there.

A dream, rather than a nightmare.

“The Swimming-Pool Library” by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

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swimming-pool“I came home on the last train.”

I’ve never really understood what is meant by “literary fiction”. That is, I understand what books generally get classed as such, but I’ve never understood why. It feels snobbish, and implies a seriousness about the works that renders “genre fiction” – all the really good sci-fi, fantasy and crime – somehow beneath these “proper books”. I only mention this, because Alan Hollinghurst is one of those writers who is apparently writing literary fiction, and yet still seems accessible and good fun. I read The Line of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d pick him up again, and the fact that this title contains two of the places I most like to spend time, it felt like I was on to a winner.

Will Beckwith is young, gay, jobless and horny. Living off the vast wealth of his family and not bothering to make himself into a useful member of society, he spends every day swimming at the Corinthian Club and sleeping with the men and boys that he finds there. One day while potentially soliciting in some public toilets, he saves the life of an elderly peer who collapses. When he finds the man, Lord Nantwich, at his swimming club, he finds himself befriending the old man. But there is more to this than mere friendship, and Nantwich has a job in mind for young Will.

Nantwich wants someone to write his biography before he dies, and so hands off all his old diaries and notes to Will to read through and see if he’s up for the task. In between bedding his latest beau, the muscular and shy Phil, Will reads the old man’s diaries and finds himself coming up against some harsh truths about his privileged lifestyle.

Plotwise, the book is pretty slow going and things that seem to be leading somewhere have a habit of tailing off, which I suppose is much like life – you never get all the answers out here, but in books you tend to expect them. I liked the characters a lot from the off though. Will is attractive, slightly arrogant and apparently unable to learn from past lessons, but also human enough to be tolerable as a narrator, even if you wouldn’t want to spend too much time in his company. Because the story is seen through his eyes, many of the older gay men are painted with unfair descriptions and almost all come across as lecherous, past their prime and desperate. Will’s best friend James remains my favourite character, a rather sweet doctor who is insecure and seems to put up with a lot from Will, often getting little in return.

The book is deeply sexual in nature, dealing not just with changing (or rather, unchanging) attitudes to homosexuality, but also describing the acts that Will and his many partners perform during the course of the book. Sometimes these are brushed over, but other times they are very explicit. Oddly, and something I shamefully only seemed to realise towards the end of the book, there are no women in this book. I think you once get a phone conversation with Will’s sister, but otherwise I don’t recall there being a single female character. This seems to emphasise the fact that Will has eyes only for other men, and seems to live in a particular bubble, where everyone is gay and there’s no wider world to be seen. Will’s narrow way of looking around him almost proves to be ruinous – he is a man who sees only what he wants to see.

I found it an interesting read, with several parallels to My Policeman which I read last year, and it’s always shocking to be reminded of how society acted towards gay men only a few short decades ago. While occasionally a bit dry, Hollinghurst does have a wonderful turn of phrase. Two come to mind. In one, Will observes a street of people all doing such “nameable activities”, suggesting that they look like a picture designed to teach foreigners the basics of the English language. In another, after Will has been in a fight, the loss of one of his front teeth is said to make him look like a “defaced advertisement”. I’ll take many pages of dry discussion on old authors and changing room showers for lines like that.

“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde (2001)

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eyre“My father had a face that could stop a clock.”

There is another 1985. In this one, literature and art are revered in the way that sport and religion are in our world. Criminals have turned their attentions to literary forgeries and art theft. Here, Richard III is performed with audience participation, Baconists go door-to-door insisting that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays, and the truly dedicated have all changed their names to that of their favourite poet.

But because this is Jasper Fforde, there’s far more going on than just that. This is a world where time travel exists, vampires and werewolves stalk the streets, home-cloning kits have ensured that everyone has a pet dodo, the Crimean War is still raging, and a corporation called Goliath has a finger in every pie. Even then, I’m still simplifying. I’ve had to jump right in though because this world has been built so wonderfully from the bottom up, that I really have to try and stress what magic is going on in here.

Our heroine is Thursday Next, a literary detective (or LiteraTec) who has just been temporarily promoted. From her lowly position in SpecOps 27, she has been called upon to assist SO5, a department so shady that no one’s quite sure what they do. But this time they’re after Acheron Hades, one of the most evil men in the world; a man who does evil acts just for the sheer joy of doing them. He has no motive, he just wants the world to suffer. As a former student of his, Thursday is able to identify him, as everyone else is having trouble on that front. While Hades appears human, he has a number of particular powers, such as the ability to convince people he’s not there, to hear his name whispered from a thousand yards away, and to be undamaged by bullets.

Thursday’s uncle, the genius but forgetful scientist Mycroft Next, has just invented another wonderful device, the Prose Portal. It allows people to travel in and out of fiction and explore their favourite tales first hand. But such a device, in the wrong hands, would prove very dangerous indeed, and with both Goliath and Acheron Hades after it, Mycroft is in serious danger. When Hades traps Mycroft’s wife Polly inside a Wordsworth poem, he then sets about killing a minor character from Martin Chuzzlewit, demanding a ransom before he does any more damage. After all, Chuzzlewit is one thing – people will get over a missing lodger. But Hades has set his sights on bigger targets, and when he kidnaps Jane Eyre from her own novel, only Thursday is brave enough to step inside the novel and put right what went wrong…

This was the first Fforde book I read, and indeed the first one published, and it won me over immediately. I don’t actually know how or why it took me so long to get round to him. The idea of being able to leap in and out of fiction is heaven to me, and it gets explored in far more depth in the upcoming installments. It’s hilarious, smart, original and everything that a good book should be. If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m about to start off on some wild fanboying.

eyre 2Thursday Next is one of my favourite protagonists ever. Thirty-six years old, she seems different to so many heroes who have gone before her. She’s remarkably ordinary, a former soldier who suffered great loss in the Crimean War ten years before and is still struggling to get over it. Her biggest regret is losing her ex-lover, Landen Parke-Laine, and when he makes a reappearance in her life, she wants to set things right. Although some people probably complain that giving such an “action woman” a love story seems like it’s pigeon-holing women and saying they all want the same thing, I disagree. I’m against tacked-on love stories, but here it seems fitting. Besides, this isn’t Thursday risking it all for a man she’s just met – she and Landen have history. It never claims that this is what all women want, just what Thursday needs to be happy.

The extended cast are all wonderful. Acheron Hades is a great villain, although not my favourite in the Thursday Next series – she’s yet to come – and Thursday’s family are hilarious, not least the absent-minded Mycroft, and her time-travelling father, who has been scrubbed from history by his former colleagues after he went rougue in the Chronoguard (the department that cleans up messes in time) but still pops in to see his daughter from time to time. The other members of the SO departments including Spike Stoker, Bowden Cable, Braxon Hicks and Victor Analogy are also all superb, if only for their wonderful names – Fforde likes a name that serves as a pun. We also get to meet the cast of Jane Eyre, who are all too aware that they’re in a story. While Fforde resists giving Jane herself too many lines (he apparently didn’t want to mess too much with her out of respect), we do get to know Rochester very well.

It’s probably the fourth time I’ve read this book now – Rowling is probably the only author I’ve re-read more than Fforde – and every time I find something new in it; a joke I’ve missed, or some foreshadowing I ignored. Despite Jane Eyre being a key plot point in the book, this is the first time I’ve read The Eyre Affair after reading the original text, and while I loved it more than enough before, it makes it even better afterwards, to see Thursday skulking around the novel. Besides, at one point Thursday does explain the plot for Bowden Cable, so even those who haven’t read it can follow along. It’s such a clever concept, and Fforde does it with such skill that it’s a wonder this book isn’t better known. In some ways, I wish everyone knew about it, but in others, I like having a smaller, select group who seem to worship it.

The book has many lessons in it about the importance of literature, and love, but above all it’s consistently creative and plays with your expectations. Fforde has performed a miracle here, and throws so much into it that you race through wondering how all the plot threads will join up, if even at all. By the end, though, you can’t help be satisfied. Plus, it’s the only book I’ve ever read that successfully manages a car chase – they’re much easier in films.

It’s a must read for any lovers of literature at all, but in particular those with a love of the Brontës. After all, as Thursday herself says, “Governments and fashions come and go, but Jane Eyre is for all time.”

“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King (1982)

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Get a move on!

Get a move on!

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I’ve only read Stephen King once before and I rather enjoyed it. His huge tome Under The Dome has been sat on my shelf for years, but I’ve yet to work up the courage or upper body strength to read it. Instead, I thought I’d turn to his supposed magnum opus, the Dark Tower series, picking up the first installment, The Gunslinger, that had just been updated with new text and information to make it work better with the later books in the series. Not really knowing what to expect, I took the plunge.

In this novel – actually five shorter stories taped together – we meet Roland, the gunslinger, who is travelling across a vast, seemingly endless, featureless desert. With only a worn out mule and his guns for company, the gunslinger is on the trail of the man in black, although why we are not immediately told.

The gunslinger meets a few people in the desert, living nomadic lives, and tells stories of how he got to be where he is. He talks of the last town he left, Tull, where he killed every person in the town after they went mad and believed him to be a demon. He then meets Jake, a small boy who is all alone, and the gunslinger takes him along on his journey, although his motives may not be as kind as they first seem. Time passes strangely in the desert and while they’ve no idea how long they’ve been travelling for, the gap between the gunslinger and the man in black grows ever smaller, and it starts to look like maybe he even wants to be caught…

Frankly, I didn’t get it. I’m not saying I didn’t like it, but I didn’t get it. Long-winded to a fault, with characters that never particularly shone for me, I found the book uninteresting and somewhat dull. For a book that is meant to be the best thing one has written, it’s a disappointment. Perhaps part of that is because I expected it to be scary – that’s what Stephen King is meant to be about, after all, but aside from it being a little creepy in places, it really doesn’t frighten. I also never understood particularly where or when it’s meant to be set. Jake seems to remember modern day New York, but the gunslinger has very little concept of machines. There’s a suggestion that it’s all taking place thousands of years after our time, or perhaps in an alternate timeline. They know the song “Hey Jude”, and there’s a scene that proves it’s Earth that we’re residing on, but it all seems disjointed. I’m sure that’s how it’s meant to be, but I was too busy trying to get all that straight in my head to focus on the plot some of the time.

The man in black, when we finally meet him, is something of a let down. Supposedly the embodiment of evil, I wasn’t too fussed by him, although perhaps that’s just because by the end I was simply reading it to finish it. The gunslinger in turn is somewhat distant and none too exciting as a main character. He has a single-minded determination and while he’s shown to be able to show emotions, it feels a little forced and heavy-handed in its demonstration.

I think all in all my feeling is one of frustration. I had built it up in my head and King failed to deliver. I should really have known that I wasn’t going to be fully into this. After all, this is his attempt at doing what Tolkien did by building a huge, sprawling epic with its own history and culture, and I could never get into The Lord of the Rings either. I’m not saying King is a bad writer – the man is a huge success and I’ve liked other things he’s done – but this time I really have to just hold my hands up and say that I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

The gunslinger may one day reach the Dark Tower, but I doubt I will be alongside him when he does.

“Love, Nina” by Nina Stibbe (2013)

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love nina“Being a nanny is great.”

Autobiography is a risk. A celebrity can write their life story and be pretty sure that it’ll sell and people will be interested. A non-famous person, though, will never get the step up that fame provides, at least when the book is first published. It’s not to say that the non-celebrity will have a life less interesting than the celebrity, the opposite is absolutely possible and perhaps in some ways more likely, as while I like celebrity biogs, eventually they start to merge into one, sometimes becoming merely lists of plays, films or name drops.

So I started reading Love, Nina because it was the story of an unknown, a woman who had published the letters written to her sister (Vic) during the time she was nannying in London in the 1980s. It was a notable choice because she worked for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her sons Sam and Will Frears (now an actor and director, respectively). I’d love to give more of a summary of the plot, but that’s about it. Nina writes letters, we get a glimpse into 80s literary London (which should be far more interesting than she makes it) and she worries if she doesn’t get Thomas Hardy.

The front and back covers, as well as the first three pages of the book are printed with reviews containing no less than twenty-six uses of the word “funny”, “hilarious” or similar. Given that most of these are attributed to newspapers, they’re clearly not all from friends trying to big her up, but it does make me wonder if they’d been given the wrong manuscript to read. Oh sure, the observations of the children, Sam and Will, are occasionally quite amusing, but none of this is laugh out loud stuff. Stibbe has all the concerns of typical twenty-somethings of the decade, but is somewhat oblivious to the wider world.

This is most obvious when you come to learn that Alan Bennett (the Alan Bennett) is a frequent guest at the house and joins them for dinner most nights. His voice utterly fails to come through, mind, and Stibbe seems completely unimpressed by his existence. She is also nonplussed by the fact that Michael Frayn and Jonathan Miller also live in their street, meaning that the book is literary London through the eyes of someone who doesn’t understand the significance of what she’s seeing.

It’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on as well, given that very rarely are any dates given. The odd letter here and there has a year on it, sometimes a month, but Stibbe herself admits that some of them may well be out of order, and it’s disconcerting to realise that you’ve suddenly skipped six months ahead. What happened in that time? The letters are one-sided (we never see Vic’s response), so we have to interpret cryptic replies to unseen questions ourselves and are left wondering what’s going on. Because of the style, too, there is no real beginning or end. We don’t find out how Stibbe came to be working there, and the letters stop just as abruptly as they start. If you’re looking for something with a plot, don’t bother looking here. I get that real life pretty much doesn’t have a plot, but it feels like something should’ve been constructed.

All in all, for the comments of the kids (both of whom seem far older than the ages given to them), it might be worth taking a look at, but it doesn’t deserve double-digit declarations of hilarity. This is the book they’re talking about when they tell you not to judge them by their covers.

“The Mezzanine” by Nicholson Baker (1988)

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mezzanine“At almost one o’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned toward the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top.”

Given the size of the topic I covered last (that is, the International Space Station), and the post before that being about one of the biggest and bestselling books of all time, I figured it was time to get smaller. How about an office in America? Yeah, that’s pretty small. How about the lobby of that office? Fine, but can we go smaller? How about that lobby during one man’s lunchbreak? OK, but any smaller? How about the twenty second escalator ride a man takes during a lunchbreak in his office lobby?

Perfect.

I admire when an author takes a challenge and runs with it, but this is perhaps one of the ultimate examples of that. It’s not really a story, but a stream of conciousness piece where we follow Howie, a tiny cog in a stonking great machine, as he embarks on his journey up an escalator to his office on the mezzanine at the end of his lunchbreak. Baker allows Howie’s mind to drift and we experience all his thoughts. We all have tiny little thoughts every minute of the day, but this is what would happen if they were all allowed to continue to their logical conclusion.

So in this very short time frame Howie considers why shoelaces break at different times, why people don’t get milk delievered anymore, why straws float in fizzy drinks, why sweeping is good therapy, and how he realised he should be brushing his tongue as well as his teeth, all with the addition of long, tangential footnotes that take you on recesses of his mind that are deeper still.

Howie is almost child-like in his delight of simple things like escalators and the click of a ballpoint pen, but he seems to hold private aspirations to be a great thinker, admiring the people who have invented all the everyday little things that make up our world. He wonders why staplers are always about ten years behind other technological advances, how Kiwi make any money from shoe polish, and whether tunes whistled in bathrooms are passed on from one visitor to another or appear independently.

Given its length (135 pages), there isn’t much else to say about it. It feels like it should be a short read, but it took a fair bit of concentrating simply because Howie jumps back and forth between his thoughts that nestle between one another like Russian dolls, and the footnotes complicate matters further, sometimes taking up two or three pages, meaning you find yourself flicking back and forth through the book to find where this new idea came from. It’s not a complaint, mind, it’s actually a hugely intelligent construct with insane levels of detail. Baker allows Howie several pages to each issue as he ponders on the rise of hot-air dryers in public toilets and how he manages to hold all his belongings in one hand to keep his other one free.

Despite the surprising density, it’s a fun read and very entertaining, causing a few outbursts of unrestrained laughter. Anyone who likes to let their thoughts wander will like this book, as this is that feeling of not knowing how you reached a certain point in your mind turned up to eleven.

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