What I was not carrying in my bookbag this month: David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Tiger Claw and the third volume in G.R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series.
These hefty volumes stayied at home, but these slimmer books were travelling this month. And there was more to-ing and fro-ing this month than usual: nice to have good company.
First, David Hull’s novella, The Man Who Remembered the Moon. (It is published by Dumagrad Books: check out those rounded corners, perfect for readers and characters who must take care around sharp objects.)
Because it is such a short work, this story manages to straddle the line between two contrasting moods – playful and serious – and allows the reader to choose their preferred slant. (There is also a dash of romance in my interpretation of it.)
Were it longer, it might become something like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which has whimsical touches but might intimidate readers with weighty volumes of multiple realities, dabbling in belief and scholarship and in quantum conundrums and conspiracies.
(It also brings to mind stories by Julio Cortazár, Italo Calvino, and David Mitchell. The shorter story included in this volume, “The One about the Ballard Fanatic” suggests that the author truly is enamoured with fiction which rewards passionate readers, and certainly passionate readers often become good writers.)
Nonetheless, one can explore big ideas without talking cats and little people. In fact, some readers might prefer the philosophical debates play out in a more familiar scene: patient and doctor in dialogue, set upon unravelling a mystery about life and the universe and everything. (Do you know where your towel is? Could you describe what a ‘towel’ is, if nobody else believed that a ‘towel’ existed, now or ever?)
One man can no longer see the moon in the sky and is engaged in conversation with another man who either cannot see the moon, or does not wish to admit he can see it.
Although this appears to be the only marker of the narrator’s lunacy, he cannot explain the absence (whether real or fabricated) to himself or to anyone else (both listeners are equally important and respond with a different set of questions).
It might be a story about poetry or psychiatry. Perhaps it’s about the loss of a celestial body or something indefinable. Maybe it’s about an object, else an idea.
“Several times a week one doctor or another hove towards my table and paused to regard me with a generally somewhat nauseous look, before asking for the book they needed. I understood their discomfort; it’s disquieting to observe someone you consider mad reading your books and scribbling feverish notes. Am I like that you wonder.”
Students and thinkers, dreamers and poets, lovers and losers: look down – at this book in your lap. Before you look up once more.
Somehow I missed Mariko Tamaki’s Emiko Superstar (illustrated by Steve Rolston), even though I have enjoyed many of her other stories, including Skim, (You) Set Me On Fire, and This One Summer. Nonetheless, it’s the perfect accompaniment for reading-on-the-go because it’s broken up into acts and scenes, so that you can read just a few pages at a time.
Emiko is like some of Mariko Tamaki’s other heroines, in that she is in-between, whether caught between conflicting aspects of her own identity or between differing sets of expectations or, more pragmatically, between life stages.
She is truly on the margins in some cases, particularly when she discovers the Factory, a hangout for artsy kids, complete with funky beer and scheduled performances in what is billed as the “Freak Show”. Unsure of the ‘rules’ in a place which exists to flout rules, she feels discombobulated but also inspired by this atmosphere.
One of her inspirations is a young woman who has a regular spot on the stage; this intense connection, which contains echoes of the relationship in (You) Set Me on Fire, encourages her to look for material to create a performance of her own. Her inexperience leads her to make choices which she later regrets, but unexpected possibilities also emerge along the way.
So her position on the margins actually encourages her to explore aspects of her own self, in a way which she wouldn’t have done if she had simply stayed on the couch that summer.
As in This One Summer, the adult characters in Emiko Superstar obviously have their own struggles, playing out off-stage (for the most part). So even though this is a coming-of-age story, and one which young readers would also appreciate (particularly Emiko’s character), the attention to detail in the story allows for the theme of shifting identities to layer.
Just because someone is old enough to hire a babysitter for their kid doesn’t mean that they don’t have some growing-up to do themselves. And it’s not as though the job of getting to know oneself is ever really done with.
Simon Fay’s Bulk is also about identity, but focussed on slightly older characters. The core of the novel is Barbara, a professional body-builder, who is considering some major changes in her life and, simultaneously, is unsettled by the changes that her husband is making in his own life.
Her husband, Stu, is substantially overweight, but is suddenly monitoring his portion size and talking about dieting; perhaps intuitively, Barbara understands that his enthusiasm for a new set of priorities is fuelled by a force which threatens their marital stability.
“He put as much work into my body as I did. Bodybuilding info wasn’t easy to come by back then. He’d have his trucker mates bringing back muscle magazines from Europe. Every now and again he’d surprise me by dragging a pile out from under his bed. We’d go through them like people go through interior decorating magazines. Oh wouldn’t it be nice to have shoulders like those, and, Oh I don’t like the shape of those biceps though. We made me together. Took a lot of patience and trust. Trust, that’s the main factor.”
Consider Barbara’s desire to have a baby (adding to the weight of her responsibilities) combined with Stu’s intention to shed pounds (lightening his burden and his dependence upon the generous serving sizes which Barbara prepares and procures for him): Bulk is rooted in conflict.
Nonetheless, it is not a weighty story stylistically. Simon Fay is concerned with making the pace of the narrative flow steadily and it is often humourous, although darkly funny. (I love the name of the pub: “The Cat Dragged Inn”.)
Barbara’s tone is self-deprecating and she is sharply observant and intelligent. The scenes she inhabits are filled with a surprising (to me, anyway) number of ‘arses’ (there’s a Euro for Barbara’s swear-jar from me), but the clear affection between her and Stu works to soften some of the rough edges (plot-wise, personality-wise). “Only with Stu am I the little spoon. I smile with the weight of his arm keeping me tight against him, his steady breath in my ear like a loving heartbeat.”
Bulk is not overly polished; the sentence structure can be rambunctious and in some ways, this may be a reflection of Barbara’s down-to-basics nature but there are a few grammatical errors which occasionally distract from the author’s talent for inhabiting a distinct and curious character. Nonetheless, if the ‘arses’ offend, the offense shan’t last long, for Simon Fay’s Bulk is under 150 pages long: the ultimate irony is that Barbara’s story isn’t bulky after all.
Even though Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle is also a slim volume, I wasn’t a very patient girl-reader, so if I had encountered it then, I would have been frustrated with the number of words in it. (However, were it a typical illustrated children’s book, there wouldn’t be enough of a story to take travelling with you as an adult in a bookbag.)
And even an impatient, young reader would have been begging for the next page with another illustration by Chris Riddell. (And I probably would have tried to colour them too, because they look like those fantastically detailed doodle kits that I used to love!)
For an adult reader, however, The Sleeper and the Spindle is an incredibly satisfying tale. There are many familiar tropes and if you were expected a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, you will not be disappointed.
But you might find the odd dwarf where you are not expecting to find one. And there is a most flagrant departure from the traditional, in the storyteller’s decision to have the woman counting the days to her marriage (unhappily: she does not care for being married) and determining to have a final adventure before hand (happily: she loves adventures).
There is a definite building in tension as the pages turn (less than 70, in total), and although the characterization is broad (there are no names, for instance, and that point is made directly), there are aspects to the development included here which are overlooked in the conventional tales.
“The old woman had not climbed the tallest tower in a dozen years. It was a laborious climb, and each step took its toll on her knees and on her hips. She walked up the curving stone stairwell; each small, shuffling step she took in agony. There were no railings there, nothing to make the steep steps easier. She leaned on her stick, sometimes, and then she kept climbing.”
The pacing is deliberate, and the prose style strives to feel both familiar and fresh (and succeeds overall). But much of the pleasure of the volume derives from the presention, in particular the semi-transparent cover overlay with the gold overtones (which continue throughout the story proper, both in illustrations and in the occasional few lines of text which accompany some drawings).
There is one aspect to the retelling which might strike some readers as particularly daring (given the Disney version which many of us know well), and in some ways it does seem striking indeed but, in another way, it is as though this is how the tale might just as well have been told (but there was some other version before hand). It manages to slant towards classical romance so that some particular elements of the story (e.g. courage, good will) shine brilliantly.
What have you been reading, while travelling or otherwise, in December?