For some reason (possibly because I’m very lucky or because I have the habit of ignoring the world around me), I get surprised when men say sexist stuff to me about my work. I was in a Moscow bar recently on a dark and stormy night, and a typical twatty overpaid British expat man of the sort that should be displayed at the zoo with a plaque reading Typical Twatty Overpaid British Expat Man told me it must be “quite nice” to have “such a fashionable hobby” as writing plays – with zero irony, of course, because I must be a bored rich girl (ahahahaha) who must go through a phase of thinking she’s the next Beckett before moving on to pottery or adult coloring books or whatever it is that bored rich girls do. Oh, and he “used to have a girlfriend who wrote plays” but “she’s in marketing now.” I do hope that “in marketing now” is a euphemism for “slept with his best friend.”
Anyway, although sexism with regard to women writers surprises me every time, and although I rarely pay attention to whether or not the author I’m reading is a woman, it must be said that not everyone thinks like me. So here’s a list of some of my favorite female writers, and their books and plays, because it’s IWD, and because whatever. They are great not because they are written by women. They are great because they are great. Continue reading “International Women’s Day and some women writers I admire”→
When I was fourteen, I bought a copy of “Human Croquet” after reading about it in a magazine for girls (unexpected choice by the editor, I’ve come to realize). I had the original receipt for a while and jotted down the exact time, down to the minute, and place where the book was purchased.
I came back to that inscription in my senior year at Duke, when I was writing my (let’s face it, terrible) honors thesis on “Human Croquet.”
“Acquired at 7:33 p.m., May 17, 1998, Barnes & Noble, Arboretum, Charlotte, NC.”
There wasn’t much I understood at twenty, but I did understand why I wrote down the contents of the receipt. I was recording a life-changing moment. I met Michael Cunningham once when he came to give a talk at Duke, and he jovially discussed having his life upended by Virginia Woolf, and I was grateful for that, because it meant I wasn’t weird. Kate Atkinson just happened to split my particular atom.
Her work has changed over the years, gone both wide and deep, but some familiar themes have circled back this year: the handsome RAF pilot, the complete disaster of men and women, the cruel and lovely ambivalence of nature, the question of death and stepping sideways out of time, the tedium of children and how there’s nothing more important, Englishness (and how observing it changes it), the strange way men separate passion and love (like unspooling threads), the importance of getting on with it even when you’d rather lie down and melt back into the landscape again, lying down and melting into the landscape at a later date (though perhaps having helped someone in a way, so as to not have your existence be entirely without point), the fact that we are all so fragile as to almost be fiction. Continue reading “On the work of Kate Atkinson”→
Life After Life: I’m a Kate Atkinson groupie and I love her recent spate of crime novels, but was so glad when she came back to playing with time and family and gnarled old fate in “Life After Life.” Maybe it’s the groupie in me talking, but I feel that Atkinson so rarely gets the kind of ecstatic praise she truly deserves. I think people don’t quite allow themselves to understand how truly brilliant, how landscape-altering her writing is, because it’s commercially successful and hits all of the right notes and has a robust plot. Atkinson walks along the raggedy edge and dips her toes into the sublime. “Life After Life” is a novel of starts and stops on the surface – but the closer you look at it, the more you see that this is the kind of book that takes the idea that the universe is “elegant” and applies it to the novel and wins.
The Passage and The Twelve: Thanks to an agent friend in NY, I fell in love with Justin Cronin this year. His apocalyptic vampire trilogy is fantastic so far, and I can’t wait for the final book. Cronin doesn’t just get horror – he gets people. He gets what it means to bring a child into a terrible, terrible world. I’m a parent – and Cronin hits me where it hurts. He reminds me of the idea that the apocalypse is not some single event fixed in time – rather, its a narrative told and re-told every time an innocent is killed. There is nothing escapist about his writing – the “escapist” label is actually one I truly despise, particularly when it gets slapped onto genuine works of art that grapple with the issues we face every day by utilizing an imaginative set of devices. There is a brilliant paradox at the heart of “The Passage” and “The Twelve,” the idea that a single life is nothing – and everything.
Children of Dust: The dude who blogs under the name Ali Eteraz is someone I consider an online friend – though while I’ve always been a fan of his wonderful writing, there was that performative aspect to it that made me feel resigned to the fact that I’m never going to see him fully. Forget about Russia being a mystery wrapped in an enigma – Eteraz totally has that notion beat. Well, his memoir “Children of Dust,” which came out a few years ago, doesn’t make me feel any closer to “the real Ali Eteraz” – and that doesn’t matter, because I discovered Amir in its pages (Ali Eteraz is a pseudonym, in case you are wondering). I still don’t think the memoir genre exists so that we can cozy up to the author – but damn, I felt close to Amir. And I loved “Children of Dust” for its cleverness, it’s humor, the longing contained within its pages, the philosophical debate the memoir has with itself. There are brilliant snapshots of Pakistan, the States, the Arabian desert. There is much sadness and joy and masks getting ripped off and new masks showing through – and the kind of artistic daring that people in the West rarely associate with Islam (which is a huge oversight, incidentally).
The Silent Land: Although this book also has the kind of robust plot structure I am a fan of, what it reveals in the end isn’t nearly as important as the way in which it portrays marriage and the transience of physical existence. This is the kind of writing that I would compare to a symphony that features this second track, this gentle murmur about death and dying and atoms coming apart and love being the only thing there is.
Anyone who knows me knows that I live and breathe Kate Atkinson.
I wrote my (rather rambling) honours thesis on her work, mostly on my favourite piece of modern literature – her second book, Human Croquet. I have kept up religiously with her forays into stunningly crafted crime fiction, and exchanged a few e-mails with her back when I was doing my thesis – an experience that had me blubbering with happiness (not in, like, a weird way, just in an “Oh my God, I am speaking to my hero” type way).
When Will There Be Good News? is the third book to feature grim Northerner, sometime private-eye, hapless lover, and, in my humble opinion, sexy, sexy mofo by the name of Jackson Brodie. “A good man is hard to find,” – Atkinson said of Brodie in an old interview, and it’s no wonder that one of the chapters of the new book is titled exactly like that – a throwback to Flannery O’Connor and to the general frustration with human relationships that this book embodies.
Like all of Atkinson’s work, When Will There Be Good News? is littered with sly allusions, nudges, wink-winks, and deeper riffs on literary culture as it has been shaped by the centuries and as it exists today. Atkinson’s wry humour is once again undercut by what she has once described as a “tremendous heart of darkness” (she was speaking of Human Croquet when she said this, but I think one can apply it to her work as a whole) – her greatest achievement isn’t so much that she keeps the two halves in perfect balance, but that she unravels and unwraps our present and future and presents it as a cut diamond with multiple brilliant facets, each stunning, warm, or pretty freaking scary.