On Reading, Writing and Living With Books: A Review

Part of Pushkin Press’ new London Library collection, On Reading, Writing and Living With Books, is a collection of short essays and letters by some of the finest writers in the canon of English-Language Literature, celebrating books and the spaces they occupy in our lives.

Pushkin Press’ London Library collection “Found on the Shelves” takes pieces from the vast treasure troves of the London Library, now celebrating its 175th anniversary, and pulls them together into short bundles of essays to give readers an interesting new insight into the generations’ worth of books it holds. For me, there seems nothing more fitting than the collection of work into new books to celebrate the majesty and wonder of a library with such a rich history, and On Reading, Writing and Living With Books takes that celebration a step further. Featuring authors such as Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Leigh Hunt and E.M. Forster, this small ninety-two page book speaks volumes about the ways in which literature and books themselves have become such celebrated objects.

My favourite essay in the collection was the poet Leigh Hunt’s 1899 essay titled My Books. In his essay he speaks of the practice of borrowing and lending books, how sharing these precious objects plays such a vital role in maintaining friendships and gauging other people’s character – something I am very interested in myself. The way you can read someone else in the pages of a book they lend you has always fascinated me and Hunt’s essay captures some of my ideas about this so carefully, yet with very little hesitation. Hunt also goes on to talk about how books make a working environment feel, for writers and for other professions, and how a love of books isn’t dependant on the volume of books you own in your own private collection:

“It is true, that it is not at all necessary to love many books, in order to love them much.”

I feel particularly strongly about this. As much as I myself own a pretty substantial number of books, though not anywhere near as many as a library, I know that my heart lies most strongly in a small handful of those books, those ones that have made me feel most deeply about their story or their characters. Stories are precious and hold the most powerful magic – the ability to make you love them no matter your age. To this day, one of my favourite books ever is one of my childhood books – Roald Dahl’s The BFG. It was given to me as a second hand copy, and is well-read and worn out, but I have always loved the story more than anything. There is nothing more precious than a story that makes you feel that strongly, no matter how old or battered or worn it is.

I could go on forever about each of the letters of essays in this book the way I have about Hunt’s essay, but I will leave you to go on and discover the secrets that On Reading, Writing and Living With Books contains. I must say, the only complaint I have about this collection of essays is the absence of George Orwell’s essays on books and writing, for which I have a special place in my heart. George Orwell’s essays on his creative life and why he chose to write and love books the way he did would have made an amazing addition to this book, however, the widespread availability of those essays may speak to why they were not chosen for this collection. Most of the essays and letters in this collection are new to me, and I appreciate the work Pushkin is doing in trying to bring lesser known essays and letters, even by famously canonical writers, to a wider audience. As any bookworm knows, there are few things better than sharing your love of books, and this book does just that.

 

On Reading, Writing and Living With Books, and other books in Pushkin Press’ London Library Collection are now available from Pushkin Press’ online shop or in all good bookstores. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its reader to buy from and support their local independent bookstores.

Thank you once again to Pushkin Press for sending me a copy of On Reading, Writing and Living With Books. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.

 

© Hayley New 2016

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Young, Lost and Female: A Review of “My Favourite Manson Girl”

There is something undeniably striking about Alison Umminger’s debut novel My Favourite Manson Girl (also published in the US under the title American Girls). Sure, the title may bring a little shock with it, being a YA novel that features the Manson girls so prominently, but the power of this novel moves well beyond its ability to grab you from the title alone.

My Favourite Manson Girl follows the story of Anna, a fifteen year old girl who runs away from her family problems at home in Atlanta in order to escape to Los Angeles, where her sister works as an actress, and where she believes she might find some answers to why she feels like she no longer has a place in her own family. Instead of landing in the LA of television dreams, Anna finds herself lugged around by her begrudging sister Delia, owing her mother and her new partner Lynette a substantial amount of cash. The deal: she can stay in LA over the summer to get some space provided she can earn back the money she took for her plane ticket. To earn back the cash, she takes a job from her sister’s strange filmmaker ex-boyfriend researching the Manson girls for his latest project, only to find some disturbingly close links between her own life and those of the Manson girls.

I’m not quite sure why there is so much stuff going around about Charles Manson lately. From television shows to movies to books, it seems that there is almost a resurgence of the fascination around the Manson “family” and their famously grisly murders. As someone who has never really known much about Charles Manson and his strange cult, it surprised me that I was so drawn to a book like My Favourite Manson Girl, and not just because of its beautiful cover. There was something very intriguing about the title, the idea that someone could have a favourite from a group of scary murderesses under the wing of a man like Manson. I suppose that the focus has always been on Manson himself, rather than the girls he seduced with his strange ideologies, the girls whose lives could have otherwise been fairly normal. There is something very strange in remembering that.

In the author’s note, Umminger says:

“The Manson girls were lost girls who made bad choices. Really bad choices…I think the reason that the Manson family continues to fascinate because – as hard as it is to imagine – the Manson girls were once “regular” girls as well.”

But My Favourite Manson Girl isn’t really a story about the Manson girls at all. It is a story about the falsehood of the New American Dream, the let downs and disappointments of a world we think we know, a story about emotional violence rather than the kind the Manson family dealt in. Anna soon learns that LA is not the starry destination she thought it would be, but instead a place that trades in lies and secrets as part of its day-to-day existence. She finds herself caught up in reality of human relationships, without the flourishes of television scriptwriters behind it. This book feels like what being a teenager feels like, without the need for a fantastical façade in front of it, a refreshing moment in YA fiction.

While reading, I did find that the first few chapters took a little while to get off the ground, but from that point forward, the novel was all-consuming, and I simply could not get enough of the story that Umminger had written. A word of warning for older readers, ultimately this book is YA, so by nature there is a romantic sub-plot, and a few moments of seemingly stereotypical teen angst, but by no means does this take-over the narrative, instead creating opportunities for these YA tropes to be thrown on their heads later in the novel. This book is more than just teen fiction, and I would recommend it to readers from about sixteen years old and up.

Umminger has accomplished something brilliantly unique here, succeeding to write what she describes in her author’s note as a novel about “what the American dream might mean to a kind of lost, basically decent, deeply cynical fifteen year old girl,” and beyond that, a brilliantly consuming story about what it feels like to be a teenager all over again. This book is fundamentally about Anna trying to find her way back to a place in her family, trying to reconnect with her sister and her strangely indecisive mother, whilst also coming to terms with what she wants from these relationships, and I am glad to see stories like this arriving on our shelves.

 

My Favourite Manson Girl is now available in all good bookstores. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its reader to buy from and support their local independent bookstores.

Thank you once again to Hachette Australia for sending me a copy of My Favourite Manson Girl. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.

 

© Hayley New 2016

Julie Koh’s “Portable Curiosities”: A Review

Julie Koh is one of Australia’s best writing talents and her newest short story collection Portable Curiosities only serves to cement her place as one of the best voices in contemporary literature.

Portable Curiosities, a collection of twelve of Koh’s infamous satirical tales, takes reality and creatively twists it into a strange dark world with brilliantly absurd humour and spot-on critiques of important social issues.

Sight, the first in the collection is perhaps the best introduction to Koh’s witty writing style, taking the magic of childhood imagination and bringing it to reality with the physical embodiment of a child’s imaginative eye, sitting in the place of a belly button on a child chastised for taking it out and trying to see the world and all its ghosts. The Fantastic Breasts similarly tugs on familiar strings, relaying the problems with casual misogyny and the objectification of women in mass market media. I can’t help but see Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow when I read this story, and all the conversations I have had with friends about the problems surrounding the way her character is presented and spoken about, and the injustice of having such strong character potential deliberately restrained despite fans crying out for the strong female superhero lead film that she deserves. But I can also see the way in which men I have known, have continued to discuss women as objects. It also contains one of my favourite lines in the collection, which made me laugh a little too hard:

“Hollywood adapts the comics into the blockbuster hits The Fantastic Breasts, 2 Breasts 2 Fantastic, The Fantastic Breasts 3: Tokyo Drift and The Fantastic Breasts: Redid, Redone & Rewound.” *

Honestly, I could continue to go on about every single one of the stories in this collection, but I will leave it to you to read and discover how incredibly creative and insightful her work is. That is the magic of Koh’s writing: you can’t help but see our social world hidden behind it, with all its terribly familiar problems out on show.

I have been a fan of Koh’s work since I read The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man (perhaps my favourite of her stories) in The Lifted Brow some time ago, so to see it in this collection felt like a familiar step into the witty satire that I admire in Koh’s work. Her ability to take the absurd and make it feel deeply familiar is a gift that, as a writer, I am incredibly jealous of. As a reader, I am incredibly glad this talent exists.

Portable Curiosities is an apt name for this collection, not just the title of one of the stories contained within, but also the best description of the stories themselves. You can carry these amazing curiosities with you and enjoy their magic and dark humour anywhere, and I encourage you to do so, if only to laugh yourself silly in public places and tell people that they should read this amazing work as well. You can nibble on a single story at a time or devour the whole collection in one sitting, letting the brilliant wit of it completely take over. This a book for anyone who is even mildly interested in short stories, satirical takes on social issues or indeed anyone with a wicked and witty sense of humour. Portable Curiosities, and indeed  all of Koh’s work, is unique and brilliant, and I seriously cannot recommend it enough.

 

Portable Curiosities is available in all good bookstores.

As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to shop at and support their local independent bookstores.

You can also follow Julie Koh on @juliekoh on Twitter.

 

*That is more times that I ever expected to use the word ‘breasts’ on this blog – maybe that was Julie Koh’s secret agenda the whole time… Well done Julie, well done.

 

© Hayley New 2016

Her Father’s Daughter – A Review

Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter strikes me as easily one of the best reads of 2016, and more than that, it is a novel that you can’t help but make all your friends read immediately after you finish it. At only 150 pages in length, it seems almost criminal that such a short novel, one that could easily be read on a day’s worth of train journeys, could hold such an incredible story about family, loss and memory.

Part of Peirene Press’ 2016 Fairytale Series, Sizun’s novella brings an interesting new approach to the feel of domestic and family spaces. Following the central character of ‘the Child’, Sizun’s novel discusses the ways in which family dynamics are challenged by war, absence, truth and the secrets that adults keep from their children, whilst also tackling one of the most interesting spaces in literature – a child’s memory.

Sizun artfully replicates the fog of childhood memory, being sure not to coat over the gaps that time has gnawed away, but rather let those blank spaces in our minds become just as important in the figuring of the narrative as the clearest of the memories available to the Child. The Child’s recollection of the smell of perfume, the feel of her Mother’s clothes and the look of her Father’s “giraffe hands” (one of my favourite descriptions in the novel), are equally weighed with the gaps in the rembrance of specific events. Entire scenes are decimated by time, by sleep, by not being able to hear her parents arguing in the next room. To borrow from the book itself, Sizun skilfully weaves “hazy images, muted sounds, indistinct words” to form perhaps the best representation of childhood memory I have read in a long time. We are placed in the exact same space as the child, only with the foresight of our own experiences. Unlike the child, we can read the parents intentions more clearly, even if the child is more perceptive of their lies that we can be as readers.

The novel also makes an interesting comparison between the German occupation of Paris and the seeming occupation of the Child’s home by her Father, a man she has never met before. Through the Child’s eyes, we are given a peculiar and yet familiar glance at family life and the relationship between parents and their children, especially the relationship between war children and their absent fathers. I have never before read anything that tackles this relationship before, and it made for an interesting and cleverly written twist on the typical post-war reunion narrative. The ways in which the Child and her Father try to establish their relationship despite nearly four years without ever knowing each other is brilliantly navigated by Sizun, who is not afraid to demonise parents and children equally, whilst also making us sympathise for both sides. And yet, you not only watch the growth and destruction of relationships in this novel, you also bear witness to the birth and growth of the Child as an independent being, as a force of nature who has an incredible power amongst the adults who believe her to be little more than a spoiled child.

I am endlessly fascinated by the work of translators, especially translators of fiction, so I have to commend the work of Adriana Hunter in translating Her Father’s Daughter from the original French. Hunter masterfully translated this novella, keeping the poetic and incredibly airy French feel about it, something that is not always possible in translation. There is still a ring of French philosophical and poetic style that brings a lot to the English language version of Sizun’s work, adding to the authentic feel of the novel which makes it so appealing.

Peirene Press does incredible work in making English translations of European novellas more widely available and I am grateful that there are people so invested in making sure that bright little gems like Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter find their way into the hands of as many readers as possible.

 

Her Father’s Daughter is available in all good bookstores, or as part of the Peirene Press Fairytale Series 2016 book subscription. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores and support independent press.

Thank you once again to Peirene Press for sending me a copy of Her Father’s Daughter. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.

 

© Hayley New 2016