Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #38: Why I Write & Books vs. Cigarettes by George Orwell/Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy read at an event I went to recently, and maybe it was the gin in my system, the London night air, or her Marianne Faithful-esque sultry voice, but I fell head over heels for her. I’ve got a copy of Black Vodka, her short stories, but I’ve only dipped in to them for short sybaritic bursts. When I saw that Notting Hill‘s posho essay series had released her response to Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’, called ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know’, I figured I’d rip through the Orwell before getting stuck into Levy’s (handsomely presented in a royal blue mini-hardback).

But the thing about George Orwell is, you can’t just read a single essay. It’s like a bag of chips; who can stop at the first one? I couldn’t get a paperback of Shooting the Elephant so I rampaged, pachyderm-like, through these two samplers from Penguin’s (somewhat cringe-worthy) ‘Great Ideas’ series. All of Orwell’s essays are available online, not that I ever have to fill up a tiresome work hour. No siree bob.

Thing is, if you’re going to listen to someone’s views on Orwell, it’s just as easy to read him directly – he comes from that part of history just slipping from living memory, and has left such a huge legacy. It’s all too revealing to discuss him and really just reveal your own shortcomings and predjudices. His great mission, to make political argument that was both objectively truthful and beautiful, is still a much-needed and worthy one, and his gift of showing that politics and philosophy and literature are for (and should be for) everyone, and not just the domain of a privileged few, is really displayed in these short works. There’s a quote in the Wikipedia entry for him by historian John Rodden: “John Podhoretz did claim that if Orwell were alive today, he’d be standing with the neo-conservatives and against the Left. And the question arises, to what extent can you even begin to predict the political positions of somebody who’s been dead three decades and more by that time?”

It’s clear from reading these essays that Orwell would think it batty to judge a writer outside of his own social context, and also clear that he wouldn’t think much of the Tory buffoons currently dismantling the NHS – nor the pitiful Labour party opposing them. Instead, he’d criticize both sides, well aware that the problems were far more systematic than a simple right/left split.

Another eyebrow raiser from Rodden (via Wiki):

Rodden goes on to explain how, during the McCarthy era, the introduction to the Signet edition of Animal Farm, which sold more than 20 million copies, makes use of “the politics of ellipsis”:

If the book itself, Animal Farm, had left any doubt of the matter, Orwell dispelled it in his essay Why I Write: ‘Every line of serious work that I’ve written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism … dot, dot, dot, dot.’ “For Democratic Socialism” is vaporised, just like Winston Smith did it at the Ministry of Truth, and that’s very much what happened at the beginning of the McCarthy era and just continued, Orwell being selectively quoted.

Why I Write does outline his commitment to Democratic Socialism. The longer work, The Lion and the Unicorn, written during bomb raids in London, outlines the need for a social revolt against capitalism as the only way for England to win WWII. If bombs were falling on my head, I wouldn’t be able to write-think-anything coherently, let alone produce a reasonable call for massive social upheaval, and it brought home to me the sheer extremes of the pressure of the time.

Deborah Levy’s essay – about 100 pages long – opens up with her crying on elevators. While Orwell uses his own history in ‘Why I Write’, his chronology is more straight-forward. Levy goes back and forth in her personal experience, using illuminating quotes from female writers like Duras, Sand, and Woolf, to bring out the story of her own voice.

I read it breathlessly. The prose is so beautiful, the way she tilts mundane issues (the motherhood/identity/domesticity grind, the labour of writing, the tedium of the suburbs, the confines of politics on children, and the stickiness of nationality) detonated in my little brain. I haven’t got it to hand – it was a borrowed copy! – and I’m feeling too dunderheaded to condense her brilliance with my thick fingered typing. But I think Orwell would approve of her response, which is the best compliment I can think of.

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Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #37: The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

I picked up this courtroom drama after my German BFF read it. She had been intrigued after the storming reviews of von Schirach’s two novellas (published in England together as Crime & Guilt), and knowing a bit about the author’s reputation as one of Germany’s leading criminal lawyers. Drawing on his own expertise, the author creates stories around darker quirks in contemporary law and ethical puzzles. He has also directly confronted his own family past – his grandfather was the head of the Hitler Youth. From an essay he wrote about Baldur von Schirach: “Indeed, it might just be that the only advantage of having a name like mine was that nothing could remain hidden.”

A tightly-wound thriller, it’s language is clear and concise, and the characters are well-drawn in a few strokes. Opening with the brutal killing of elderly industrialist Hans Meyer, the novel then introduces a young and ambitious defense lawyer who accepts the defense case of Herr Collini, the killer. Caspar, the lawyer, doesn’t realise at first who the victim was – Meyer was a close family friend of his, and Meyer’s granddaughter Johanna the first love of his life. Worse still, the case is close to impossible for him to defend. Collini admits he killed Meyer, but refuses to say why. Nothing in his history suggests that this previously law-abiding sixty-something Italian immigrant had any connection or motive to commit cold-blooded murder.

A genuinely tense read, the denouement falls like a hammer blow. In the end, it’s finished almost too soon, but there’s a sense that this is a realistic touch – real life does relentlessly carry on, even when individual lives are altered forever.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #36: Dorothy Parker in Her Own Words by Barry Day

I found out about Dorothy Parker in one of those bog-standard Famous Quotes books, or a trivia guide, or the Book of Lists (I loved that kind of proto-Buzzfeed information-entertainment stuff as a kid). Knowing diddly about the Jazz Age or American Literature outside of the Baby-Sitters Club books, I pieced together an idea of what she was, one that cleaved with the still potent myth of Parker: she was a New York writer who enjoyed men and drink, and became famous because of her razor-sharp wit.

That was enough: instant life role model. Just the idea that a woman could rival Wilde with smart one-liners and become rich and famous for it was mindhole blowing. I knew about the many female roles I wouldn’t be very suited to, but this alternative was tantalising. At nine I told my teacher that when I grew up I wanted to be ‘a writer living in New York’. And as I got a little older, the idea of taking a string of lovers and being able to drink anyone under the table seemed like a preferable option than anything promised by Disney Princesses.

Once I told my mum that Parker was my idol, and she groaned: “But she was such a miserable woman!” I outlined the advantages – booze, beaus, infamy – to her, but by then I knew more about Parker’s life and work, and that she was almost as legendary for her misery as her rapier wit.

In a way, the legend of Dorothy Parker is like that of Wilde – I think it’s most attractive when you’re young, and the difference between history and myth, the gray areas of biography, mean less than the romance and tragedy (and the sizzling burns delivered upon one’s enemies). Growing up, comparatively witless, I’m at least able to appreciate her more as a real person, one who struggled with her fame instead of trying to capitalise on it.

This book should’ve been a great idyll, a mixture of the myth and the reality. There’s plenty of odd twists and turns to her life – the 15 (!) years spent in Hollywood, the political rallying, her trip to the Spanish Civil War, her bequest to Martin Luther King, Jnr. The legendary years of the Round Table and her frenemies there are also rich. The structure is simple enough – Day’s framed a short biography around her own quotes, excerpts from her work and interviews. But I found it frustrating to read, and put it aside for a week. The problem isn’t the bitterness of her personality or her awful life choices, but Barry Day’s insistence on trying to be witty in the text, as well as some dodgy flaws in the telling.

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Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #35: The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

I very rarely re-read books, but when Hesperus Press re-issued L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle I could barely stop myself. At first I just picked at it, looking for tidbits to amuse myself, but before long I had to curl up and lose myself all over again. This is a pure comfort read for me, a soppy tale based around the most hackneyed cliche of a woman only finding life when she encounters death. It’s full of sass and vigour and beautiful nature writing, and one of literature’s great spinsters, Valancy Stirling.

Like moi, Valancy is an unmarried woman of a certain age, but unlike moi she doesn’t enjoy the spinster comforts of gin-drinking, debauched company, and Magic Mike .gifs. She’s not even allowed to read novels, by the command of her overpowering and constantly disappointed mother Mrs. Frederick. One thing my re-visit to this book picked up on much more was that, for unmarried women in an earlier age – the book is set in the early 20s, in smalltown Canada – the economic ties that bound them to their family did bind them so much to acceptable behaviour.

Without even fiction as a solace, Valancy turns to her rich inner life in a fantasy Blue Castle. But even that can’t help her on the morning of her 29th birthday, when she’s faced with a long loveless future in the ghastly household she endures with Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles, and a social life composed of her stuffy, judgmental, hectoring relatives. She also has these chest pains which are getting worse and worse, but does she have the gumption to go to a doctor behind her mother’s back? One rainy morning, she does – and like romantic comedy heroines through the years, she finds out she has a fatal heart condition, and will be dead in a year.

The news understandably upsets her, but instead of informing her miserable clan, she embarks on a surprising quest to make her last year count for something. Will there be lessons learnt, will her bullying relatives get shown up, is there a chance for love for Valancy, after all? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work it out, but Valancy’s magical year is enchanting to read about.

As well as the wish-fulfillment and the soppiness, I felt a lot of common ground with Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl, a realist take on the Cinderella myth. Both the heroines are spinsters marooned in life by social mores and family situations, who hitch their stars to unlikely wagons.

Unlike Zweig, Montgomery doesn’t go in for blistering social realism. But if you want to press a book to your chest and heave a great sigh of joy when that long-awaited first kiss happens, then she can deftly construct the enchantment needed. Sometimes realism can go hang. The ending is utterly satisfying, and I’m sure I’ll return to it again and again.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #34: The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson

I’m pretty sure I saw this recommended here on Cannonball Read, so thank you to whoever mentioned it. It’s a nifty mix of history, sociology, and science, with a smattering of that super-fashionable sort of Big Idea Meta Thinking Furturism stuff that TED talks are based on. The latter turns me off – there’s a neatness to that kind of thinking that I find a little hinky – but the book is such an enjoyable read, and Johnson for the most part maintains a lightness of touch with his ‘theory of urban networks’ thesis.

Next time you enjoy a glass of tap water, or have a shower, or flush a toilet, give up thanks to Dr. John Snow* and also the Rev. Henry Whitehead, for their work in proving that cholera is a waterborne disease. Snow’s (literally) groundbreaking work came about with a devastating cholera epidemic hit Golden Square in Soho in 1854. Johnson creates a vivid sense of what central London was like in Victorian times, drawing heavily on Dicken’s angry depictions of children in poverty, making the point that London then was the beginning of the modern city as we know it – but also a completely different, alien world.

Reading this armed me with lots of fascinating facts about poo, which is always dandy for a certain kind of after dinner crowd. And having just seen a performance piece based on Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, made me that much more in awe of my adopted home. No matter what Boris Johnson does to London, it’s seen worse plagues than him, and survived. Two days ago I walked through Soho in the sun, looking at the spot where the Broad St. water pump used to stand, and got shivers.

The last chapter does take off from the facts about Snow’s discovery in to a wider view of the oncoming future, what with megacities, super viruses, germ terrorism, and global warming to contend with. I’m enough of a wuss that I skimmed it. But the story of how the waterborne idea was proved, and the consequences of that work, was gripping.

*Not that one. He knew something.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #33: The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

proxyPart of Hammer Horror’s new book series, where they get well-known novelists to write them horror novellas (though most seem to push the definition of novella, size-wise), this is a bone-rattling hair-curling good read from poet/crime novelist Hannah. It starts off with a total first world problem – the thoroughly upper-middle-class Louise has her bedtime disturbed by a noisy neighbour. Louise lives in Cambridge, in a million-pound Victorian  terrace house. Her slightly wet husband is planning home renovation – classic displacement act, apparently – while she is quietly bereft of her son, seven years old and at boarding school. The boarding school is part of the gilded trap she lives in. Everyone thinks it’s a wonderful opportunity for her son, Joseph, a talented singer now part of an elite choir, and he’s happy there. But Louise can’t stand not having him at home, and her frayed nerves are torn to shreds by the 80s soft rock anthems her neighbour inflicts on her during his weekend parties.

As someone who once came home from surgery, lay down on her bed, and was instantly woken by a builder playing bloody Coldplay metres from her head, my sympathies were with Louise. Her neighbour is a classic boor, a selfish stoner who mocks her when she asks him to turn it down, and during those scenes I was white knuckled with rage, not fear. Hannah is brilliant at this – winding you up with primal fears hidden in domestic settings. Her wry sense of humour shines through, especially in Louise’s assessment of her fellow choir parents and the patronising choirmaster. The drip, drip of micro-aggressions, lack of understanding from her duffer of a husband, and sleep deprivation drive her to desperation.

The second half of the story is where the spookiness ramps up. In the book’s afterword, the author says she set out to write a proper ghost story, and not leave the reader with an ambiguous ‘was it real or was it in her head?’ Turn of the Screw-style ending. I think she’s effective at that, though personally I think I enjoyed the first half’s depiction of suburban contentment falling to pieces more than the eerie second section. This probably says a lot about me. But it was a satisfying read, and carried off the first person narrator very well.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #32: growgirl by Heather Donohue

You’re either in or out when it comes to a memoir of self-development from a former Hollywood actress-turned-pot grower which comes wrapped up with a big heaping of spiritual reckoning. Heather “The Girl from Blair Witch” Donohue left L.A. after burning all her shit and inviting the Universe to bring it on.

You’re either in or out.

If you’re in, and I most certainly was, then this is a gift of a read. It was my reward after having being forced to stop reading for pleasure due to study commitments and I was itching by the end of it. I hadn’t done an exam in ten years, and after cramming facts into my little brain for a couple of weeks I was an anxious mess. The exam finally over (I passed!) and growgirl was nudged back in to my attention. I’d first heard about it through this great interview over at The Awl, and then she got retweeted into my timeline. It was around the same time I encountered a wonderful autobiographical cartoon by Corinne Mucha about grappling with the role of “Spinster“: ‘When we can’t complete the equations that society says leads to happiness… We complete our own equations of worthlessness.’

From that interview:  “When we get too sure of what women “are,” feminism ends up failing….I think adaptability is very different from toughness.”

These two things really rung in my head. I was definitely up for a bit of growgirl, even if I’m about as spiritual as a biscuit, in part because I believe that we need to have more and more diversity in stories about women’s lives and choices; because I think a big part of the Eat, Pray, Love backlash had to do with the tendency to demand one way for women to be, and to not allow for fucking things up. But also, if it’s well written, a memoir is a balm for me when I’m in a certain mood.

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