Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango (2014, translated by Imogen Taylor)

The Truth and other Lies opens in cracking fashion. Henry Hayden is sitting in a car, on a cliff. His mistress, Betty, has just handed him an ultrasound picture of their baby. He knows the baby is his and he must go home and tell his wife, Martha, that he is leaving her for a life of domesticity he does not want. He is trapped. The situation is even more complicated because Henry is a bestselling award-winning author of international fame and reknown. It was Betty from Moreany Publishing who discovered him when, on a day that she was fed up with her normal boring job, she decided to attack the slush pile and read and loved his first novel, Frank Ellis. Frank Ellis was a huge success and saved Moreany Publishing from folding. But, Henry has not written a single word of any of his successful books. Every word of every novel was written by Martha, whose heart he is about to break.

I know that seems like a lot of information and a bit spoiler-y, but all of that is told to us in the first seven pages. It is one of the best opening chapters I have ever read and it hooked me instantly. I was intending on reading just a little bit while eating my lunch but instead spent an hour zooming through the first 100 pages. After that, it slows down a little bit (which is good or I wouldn't have been able to stop!) but it remains engaging right up until the very end,

The Truth and other Lies reminds me a lot of Herman Koch's The Dinner, where the goalposts are constantly being shifted in directions you don't expect and (truthfully) kind of hope they don't go. The characters are unpleasant and act in ways that you don't understand but, like a car crash (of which there are several in this book) it's just impossible to look away. Like many others, I did find the end of the book a little bit unsatisfactory. That said, at just over 200 pages long, it is a good fast-moving read. 3.5 stars.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (2015)

In my other non-blogging life, I am an editor. I recently upgraded all of my hardware and, when surveying my desk, realised my reference library was a bit bare. So, with the blessings of my accountant, I went a little bit grammar-book wild. Let's just say ... I bought a lot of books! The first of these to arrive (along with a very useful Text Classic tote bag) is Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris.

Mary Norris is a copy editor at The New Yorker. As an Australian, The New Yorker has not really been on my radar. I knew F Scott Fitzgerald (my literary boyfriend) published short stories in it and that it was well known enough to be riffed on in an episode of Seinfeld, but other than that, it was just another literary mag to me. Well, I now know that it is not just another literary mag but an esteemed American cultural institution, known in part for its excellent editorial quality, of which copy editors are a vital part. Between You & Me is a collection of essays about Norris' time at The New Yorker, moving between moments in her personal history, events at the magazine and reflections on grammar. In some places, this is done very well. For example, in "The Problem of Heesh", Norris reflects on the lack of a generally accepted gender-neutral pronoun. Of the option suggested by EB White, "heesh," she writes: "Heesh has the lovely property of looking as if it had been formed when "she" backed into "he" and spun around." I agree! (But I am also a proponent of using "their" as a third person pronoun, so not in agreement with Norris there). The abstract discussion of gender and pronoun becomes personal when Norris' brother reveals he is trangender and it is the changing of pronouns that trips Norris up the most. It's an excellent chapter.

I learned a lot in this book. For example, in the study and teaching of language, orescriptives are those who tell you what to do, and descriptives are those who describe what people say without judging it (I think I sit somewhere in the middle of those two - I understand that language is a dynamic ever-changing tool of communication but I also think it's very important that the distinction between less and fewer is maintained). I also found out that "emend" means to correct errors in something written. It was Noah Webster, of Webster's Dictionary fame, who is responsible for the differences between American and English spellings. He hated unnecessary letters (as Norris says, wanted to make the othography match the pronunciation) so took out the "u", switched the "re" with 'er" and tried to drop the "e" at the end of words like "axe" and"medicine" (thank God that didn't catch on!). As someone who works with clients from around the world, I now know who to blame for all of the unnecessary hassle I go through figuring out where an item will be published hence which style to use. Noah Webster was instantly moved to my No.1 most hated list, and for that alone it was worth reading this book.

Between You & Me is charming. It contains actual interesting discussions of grammar, which is a remarkable feat of its own. There is a chapter on pencils which is #onlyforthefans but, as a knitting enthusiast, I love hearing about other people's particular fascinations. Be warned, though, like the institution in which Mary is based, this book is very pleased with itself. There's a bit of humblebragging (like the time Mary picked up an error in a Philip Roth book and he wrote a note to her saying "Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?" (FN1)) and name-dropping, but then since if I knew and had worked with famous people I would be dropping it in conversation all the time, so that is forgivable. Mary pokes gentle fun at the stuffy ways of the magazine while at the same time being very convinced of the rightness of the way they do things there. This is completely understandable but at the same time somewhat amusing to read. It is a small flaw, though, and easily forgiven.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I learned many things while reading it and finished it with a smile on my face. 4.5 stars.

(I probably shouldn't say this but if you are interested in this book, I point you to Alice Mattison's excellent review at the LA Review of Books)

FN1: Based on Mary's compliments of Noth's prose, I borrowed I Married a Communist, after having previously tried but failed to finish Portnoy's Complaint. Again, I got 20 pages in and gave up. I don't understand the appeal of his books! But at least I tried).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (2008)

My name is Belinda, and I am an addict. Fortunately for me, my addiction is somewhat benign: I cannot stop reading memoirs about drinking. On this site alone I have reviewed High Sobriety and Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. I also recently read by did not review Drinking: A Love Story (I rated it 3.5 stars). I don't know why this type of story appeals to me more than any other type of memoir but it does! So when I read a review of Last Drink to LA on Desperate Reader, I knew it was time to scratch that itch again. Last Drink to LA wasn't available at any of my libraries but the Carrie Fisher's excellently titled Wishful Drinking was. I have read and very much enjoyed her novels in the past, so I was more than happy to pick this as my substitute.

For those who do not know, Carrie Fisher is the daughter of the divine Debbie Reynolds of Singing in the Rain fame and the not-so-divine Eddie Fisher of the leaving-his-wife-and-family-for-Elizabeth-Taylor fame. In addition to her own unusual Hollywood upbringing, Carrie Fisher became famous in her own right, firstly as an actor and now as a performer and writer. Wishful Drinking is a short book based on a one-woman show she did of the same name. Because of this, the tone is quite casual and chatty - she is addressing you, the reader, directly. It feels like a really personal narrative; like Fisher is telling us a story. And, with the life she has lived, her stories are really something.

Take, for example, the story about how her father and Elizabeth Taylor first hooked up after her husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash:

"Well, naturally, my father flew to Elizabeth's side, gradually making his way slowly to her front. He first dried her eyes with his handkerchief, then he consoled her with flowers, and ultimately consoled her with his penis. Now this made marriage to my mother awkward, so he was gone within the week."

Fisher doesn't hold back - she's honest about her struggles with drugs, marrying a gay man and being bipolar - but she also is able to make what must have been some really tough times engaging and heart-warming. Plus she has had some amazing stuff happen to her - like when Cary Grant rang her up twice to encourage her to stop taking drugs. TWICE! Be still, my heart! (and she smoked pot with Harrison Ford on the set of Star Wars. I knew he was a stoner).

This is quite a slight volume so don't take it on a long-haul flight but if you like Hollywood gossip, definitely take it. Four stars.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Michael Pearson's Tradition Knitting by Michael Pearson (2014)

Michael Pearson's Traditional Knitting is an new and expanded edition of a book that was first released in 1984. In this book, Michael Pearson travels through the knitting communities of the British Isles, investigating the knitting traditions of each community. Here is a map of the places he travelled.

Pearson recounts how his method for finding out about the local knitting tradition changed in the researching for this book. Originally, he would arrive at the local tavern, order a pint and then strike up a conversation with a man who was wearing a handknit jumper. He says:

"On spotting a likely candidate, past experience even in those early days had taught me not to blast my way in, tap my chosen target on the shoulder and, by way of introducing myself, explain that I found the pattern on his gansey most intriguing. I also learned never to interrupt that most serious of games—dominoes. Apart from causing the poor fellow to splutter his pint over those dominoes, looking desperately for a way out, this approach somehow reduced the possibility of meeting the knitter, who, of course, was usually his wife. By then, having politely answered my questions (we were, after all, talking about a subject of common interest) it was usually too much for him to continue."

Seriously, what an adorable story! After a few towns, he started phoning ahead to introduce himself to the pub owner, who alerted the gansey-wearing men to Pearson's arrival and created a much more information-sharing friendly environment. And he certainly got a lot of information! Now I know that an entire cottage knitting industry existed, where women and children pumped out incredible amounts of handknitting for sale, and that this knitting industry largely collapsed when knitting machines were invented. I also now know that ganseys were invented because the gansey patterns, which combine knit and purl stitches, used extra wool, hence captured more warmth, which was vitally important for me who were out on a fishing boat all day. These patterns or combinations of stitches were usually family or village specific. Ganseys were knitted in the round on six or eight very long DPNs (which, incidentally, I tried after reading about in this book. I could not do it! I kept stabbing myself with all and could not get into a knitting rhythm.) Sizes were described in terms of how many repeats it would take to go around the torso - so a man might be a "sixteener" or "eighteener" (sixteen or eighteen repeats respectively).

Where possible, Pearson spoke to the knitter or knitter's descendants directly. However, even in the 1980s when this research was conducted, social and cultural changes in these towns meant that the rich local cultures that had previously existed were slowly disintegrating. Houses were being bought by weekenders, who only lived in the towns on the weekends, reducing the vitality of the towns. Additionally, fishing practices had changed, and the hard fishing lifestyle lived by the men and women in these town was often no longer viable. Where there were no knitters remaining, Pearson used archival resources such as local museums and photographs. The photographs of knitters and knitting throughout the book are really fascinating (although only the section on fair isle is in colour).

I like to knit and I like to read but I rarely read books about knitting other than pattern books. Although this book does contain some gansey and fair isle patterns, it is primarily a history rather than a pattern book. Traditional Knitting a fascinating insight into knitting and its history. It was not what I thought it would be when I picked up but I am so pleased to have read it. I know I said I would never knit another jumper but, after finishing this book, I kind of want to knit a gansey... (on a circular needle. I am not completely crazy!)