Wednesday, 28 September 2011

"An Autumn Crush," by Milly Johnson

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I received a review copy of this book courtesy of the publishers, Simon and Schuster.  This book is due for release tomorrow (Thursday 29th September 2011), so - even though girly romances are not my usual taste - I was excited to get a preview copy.  "An Autumn Crush" is Milly Johnson's sixth book, but is the first by her that I have read.

Juliet Miller is interviewing for possible flatmates with her flamboyant gay friend, Coco.  Following a series of humorous but disastrous possible flatmates (said of a plump vegan, "How can anyone get an arse that big just from eating celery?"), Juliet isn't optimistic when her final interviewee is late because she stopped to rescue a limping hedgehog.  However, she bonds with fellow divorcee Florence (Floz) over chocolate biscuits and the two become flatmates and friends.  The two are contrasting characters: Juliet is ebullient and confident, while Floz is more reserved and introverted.  The romantic intrigue is introduced with the characters of Juliet's brother, Guy, and his friend Steve, who moonlight as wrestlers.

One thing that I liked about this book is that it is as much about female (and male) friendship, as it is a romance.  Milly Johnson's creations are warm and likeable, and I enjoyed spending time with them. The Floz plot - henceforth known to me as the flot - is darker and tinged with a sadness that added an extra dimension to the book.  As my own temperament is more quiet Floz than extrovert Juliet, I found the flot very affecting and I was rooting for Floz to finally find her happy ending.  I don't want to make this sound depressing though, as Milly Johnson also has a strong vein of observational humour in her writing (I was particularly fond of the OAP wrestling audiences).

I'm not sure that I would read another book by Milly Johnson - but that is because my own personal preference is for the mysterious or creepy.  I do have to admit to a deep-seated prejudice against "chick-lit," but almost despite myself I quite enjoyed this book as a respite from my usual reading list of blood and mayhem.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

"Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing," by Tim Parks

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I decided to seek this book out after seeing an advertising poster when we went on holiday to London.  I was - and I still am - feeling stressed, tired and rather run down.  It was the same feeling that compelled me to read "A Time to Keep Silence," about the Patrick Leigh Fermor's monastic retreats.   It is probably the height of vanity to quote yourself, but I don't think that I can describe how I have been feeling any better than I did then when I wrote that I felt as if I was "losing the war of attrition with modern life."

This state of mind meant that I was attracted to a book that might show me the path to silence and stillness.  This is not that book, but it was a very interesting read.  Tim Parks is also a writer of fiction - he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997 - but this work of non-fiction is the first that I have read by him.  As the book starts, Tim Parks has been struggling for years with mounting physical pain that is becoming unbearable.  His symptoms are thought to be prostate related and an operation is suggested, although medical tests prove to be inconclusive.  However, a book that he discovers on the internet - "A Headache in the Pelvis" - sets him on a path where he finds physical respite from his symptoms through meditation.

This is not a self-help book; it is far more interesting than that.  Tim Parks comes to the realisation that his writing and his relationship with language are closely intertwined with the health problems that he has been experiencing.  The book evolves into being an insight into the mind and body of a compulsive writer and linguist; someone whose focus has been on his mental life to the extent that he has neglected his body.  Through "A Headache in the Pelvis" he comes to realise that "the strange pains that [he] had been feeling had in some way to do with all those years sitting tensely, racking [his] brains over sheets of empty paper, building up hopes, rejoicing over some small achievement, over-reacting to setbacks and disappointments."  His mental activity is accompanied by physical tension; in the same way that a light-bulb gives off heat as a by-product, his over-active brain spills out into nervous kinetic energy such as jerking his knee up and down.  His mind and body are rarely still, and he is in conflict with himself.

Parks, who values highly his acuity with language, comes to realise that what he prizes is the very thing that his sabotaging him.  In filtering all his experiences through language - already mentally writing a review of a film while watching it, trying to describe a painting - he loses a sense of pleasure or fulfillment in the present moment.  The key to this realisation is thinking of the weeks he lost in mentally rehearsing and revising his Booker acceptance speech, only to lose out to Arundhati Roy.  This insight leads him to acknowledge that "words seem to take [him] away from the present moment."  Through the relaxation techniques he learns by reading "A Headache in the Pelvis" and attending meditation retreats, he finds freedom from the compulsion to verbalise every experience and comes to inhabit his own body with equanimity.

Tim Parks lives in Italy and works as a translator, and I came to realise that there is an element of translation in this book - but translation of physical sensation, body language, into words.  The relation between body and language is explored in this book: even as Tim Parks' mind rejects and rebels against the new age flummery spouted by some of the practitioners that he sees, his body responds to their treatments and therapies.  This is a book of paradoxes that somehow unify where they should clash.  This book charts Tim Parks' progression of escaping from language into his own body - but then has to render it back into language to communicate with the reader.  This shouldn't work, and the fact that it does is testament to his powers of description and mental agility.

One element of the experience he undergoes is visual, and the book is peppered with small images of things that engrossed him at the time.  One of these is a painting by Velazquez "Waterseller of Seville."  He is fascinated by the painting, and by the stillness of the hands meeting in the exchange of the glass of water.  This painting leads to a beautiful image of the exchange between author and reader "sharing words [...] like a glass of clear water on a hot summer afternoon."  It is a curious dichotomy that a book in which words are problematic also has passages of meditations on language that are quite beautiful and it seems, as the book closes, that Tim Parks has managed to reconcile his mind and body, language and physical sensation, in order to find respite from his pains.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

"20th Century Ghosts," by Joe Hill

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I know Joe Hill as a writer of horror fiction.  One of my early reviews when I started this blog was on his novel, "Horns."  The first book of his that I read, "Heart-shaped Box," is probably still my favourite of his books.  You won't find a review of this on my blog, as I read it before I started writing here, but I do intend to re-read it and write about it at some point.  I'm not a big reader of short stories - with the exception of masters of the form such as Conan Doyle or M.R. James - so it is quite unusual for me to pick up a short story collection.  However, as I enjoyed what I had read by Joe Hill so far, I thought that I would give his collection of short stories, "20th Century Ghosts," a whirl.

Like any collection of short stories, there are some that appeal more than others.  I was a bit too squeamish for the bodily excretions of "You Will Hear the Locust Sing," which owes a debt to Kafka's "Metamorphosis."  My favourite stories in the collection were ones that I didn't find out-and-out horrific or scary - Hill's stories are often more subtle than that - but rather are unsettling in a way that is not easy to define.  One of the stories which has stuck with me most, "In the Rundown," has no supernatural element.  It is unresolved and ambiguous - although there is a strong suggestion of where it is heading, and it isn't good for the protagonist - and I found this story very unsettling.  This ominous ambiguity is a trait shared by some of the other, more supernaturally inflected, stories such as "My Father's Mask" and "Voluntary Committal."  I get deeply frustrated and annoyed with open-ended films, but, oddly, this lack of resolution and resistance of concrete explanation is one thing that I liked most about these stories.

There is an allusiveness in some of Hill's stories which appealed to the nerd in me.  Although it would not exactly be a spoiler to reveal the setting for "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead," or to mention the back story for "Abraham's Boys," as Hill himself makes these details explicit early in the story, I am refraining from doing so because I think other readers should be able to experience the moment of recognition that I felt.  Part of the pleasure of "Abraham's Boys" was the surprise of the early revelation, whereas part of the pleasure of "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" is for the cinema or horror fan to recognise the setting ahead of Joe Hill's reveal.  As another example, "Last Breath," a story that I enjoyed a lot, has a "Tales of the Unexpected" leaning - made more noticeable by a Roald Dahl name check - and, on a tangent, made me think back to a British horror film I once saw called "The Asphyx" about trying to capture the spirit of death.  I am by no means implying that Joe Hill's writing is derivative, but more that it shows his awareness of his predecessors, the traditions of horror/supernatural writing and cinema, and his willingness to play with and use this knowledge. 

The majority of these stories do have elements of horror writing and the supernatural.  However, one of the strengths of Hill's writing is that his stories are grounded in reality and the imperatives of human emotion.  The title story, as an example, is ultimately more poignant than frightening.  To draw a reference from screen horror, Hill's stories are less the blatant gore of something like "Saw," and more the atmospheric chills of Hammer, or the suggestive strangeness of "The Twilight Zone."  Hill can manage both the 100 metre brevity needed for the short story, as well as the marathon feat of stamina of a novel, and I am looking forward to his next piece of writing.