Tag Archives: Maggie Nelson

Books of 2016, So Far…

So as we have reached, well slightly gone over, the halfway point in the year, I thought I would do something I don’t think I have done before and share with you my  Books of 2016 so far. Well it made sense to me considering I had just done the below video for my YouTube channel and so I thought I would share it on here too. (I am really enjoying the booktube community but trying not to bombard you with it on here.) So if you would like to know some of my favourite books of the year so far, grab a cup of tea (as its about 20 minutes of me going on about books) and have a watch of this…

I hope you like the list, some of the books haven’t been mentioned on here before so give you an idea of what is coming over the next few weeks and months*. I would love to hear you thoughts on the books that I discuss and what you have made of them if you have read them. I would also really love to know which books have been the books of your year so far too, so do tell.

*Yes I know there have been a few video posts of late, with work being utterly bonkers in the lead up to one of our biggest festivals this weekend, video’s are so much speedier to make than a review which takes me ages, they will return though, honest – along with the usual rambling posts. I just need to play catch up with life after the musical festival has happened. It is this weekend so I am getting there. 

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

In my last review I talked about the importance of books that make you face, head on, some of the awful things that are going on in the world, the power of fiction being able to send you into the heads of those you wouldn’t choose to be for various reasons. Today I want to talk to you about the supreme power at the opposite end of the spectrum that fiction can have, the ability to take you away to another place, time and world wrapped in escapism and joy that is one of the main reasons that we read. Sarah Perry’s wonderful second novel, The Essex Serpent, is just such a book and one which (as easily one of my favourite books of the year so far) I will be urging you all to go and escape with it as soon as you can.

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Serpents Tail, 2016, hardback, fiction, 419 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Winter comes like a blow to the back of his neck: he feels it penetrate his shirt and go into his bones. The good cheer of drink is gone, and he’s comfortless there in the dark – he looks for his coat, but clouds hide the moon and he is blind. His breath is slow, the air is full of pins; the marsh at his feet all at once is wet, as if something out there has displaced the water. Nothing, it’s nothing, he thinks, patting about for his courage, but there it is again: a curious still moment as if he were looking at a photograph, followed by a frantic uneven motion that cannot merely be the tug of the moon on the tides. He thinks he sees – is certain he sees – the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone.
In the darkness he grows afraid. There is something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction.

The small close knit town of Aldwinter is in shock, as it seems that the Essex Serpent has returned after over 200 years when it last infamously terrorised the area. One of the townsmen has been found dead, with a petrified look upon his face, and soon enough fear is running rife through the area as cattle and people start to be reported as missing. This is not good news for William Ransom, the local rector, who refuses to believe (or cannot believe) that such a thing exists and refuses to name it as anything other than ‘the Trouble’, yet his congregation are afraid and starting to question his preaching further unsettling the town.

Further afield though nothing could be more exciting, or indeed more needed, for recently widowed Cora Seaborne than a possible adventure. With a fascination for fossils and palaeontology from the moment she hears of the ‘Strange News Out of Essex’ (which is also the name of the first part of the book, each part gets a wonderfully tempting title in a delicious nod to the Victorian sensation novels of the day) she sets off in search of it and any other prehistoric hints in the marshes and estuaries. This being bad news for Dr Luke Garrett, who loves Cora and her rousing spirit and believes that after her grieving there might be a chance for love. But who could second guess such a woman?

‘I daresay you have heard tell of the Essex Serpent, which once was the terror of Henham and Wormingford, and has been seen again?’ Delighted, Cora said that she had not. ‘Ah,’ said Taylor, growing mournful, ‘I wonder if I ought not trouble you, what with ladies being of a fragile disposition.’ He eyed his visitor, and evidently concluded that no woman in such a coat could be frightened by mere monsters.

Cora Seaborne is one of Sarah Perry’s many masterstrokes within The Essex Serpent. It is hard to create a women of heightened independence in the Victorian period, ironic seeing as who the period was named after, who is believable. More often than not you have to go for the cheeky buxom wench like Nancy in Oliver Twist or some monstrous matriarch. However Cora is a widow which both gives her the means to have the independence that she desires yet at what cost? For as we read on behind Cora’s seemingly excitable and joyful exterior there is a vulnerable side and a darker story hidden away. I loved this because it adds layers to her as a character and also to the plot with an additional mystery. Not many authors can pull this off.

Having scoured its river for kingfishers and its castle for ravens, Cora Seaborne walked through Colchester with Martha on her arm, holding an umbrella above them both. There’d been no kingfisher (‘On a Nile cruise, probably – Martha, shall we follow them?’), but the castle keep had been thick with grave-faced rooks stalking about in their ragged trousers. ‘Quite a good ruin,’ said Cora, ‘But I’d have liked to’ve seen a gibbet, or a miscreant with pecked-out eyes.’  

Yet a novel about an independent woman in the Victorian era would almost be too easy for our author, which is one of the things I loved about its predecessor. Perry pushes the boundaries of what we expect, she is all about the deeper layers, rather like the estuaries we visit in the story, and the cheeky winks and nods in this book. Why simply have a mysterious tale of a possible monster and the rector and female amateur scientist who try to hunt it down, with a hint of potential illicit romance and shenanigans thrown in for good measure (though that is a perfect book right there) when you can do more? Why not throw in the question of platonic love vs. sexual attraction and see what can be weaved and unravelled out of that?

Then, if you’re in the mood which Perry clearly was, why not look at other things going on in society then that are still conundrums now. Questions about feminism, class, science vs. religion? Sarah Perry hasn’t just made Cora’s love interests be a rector and a doctor for your reading pleasure, although it adds to it hugely so of course she has, there is more going on here. In doing so certain questions and dynamics make the book brim all the further. Why is it that Luke Garrett is so desperate to mend physical broken hearts after all? Why will William not be ruled by his head or his heart? These all lead off to a wonderful dark subplots that I won’t spoil but I bloody loved.

I also mentioned those lovely winks and nods didn’t I? Well these are further proof of what a superb mind can use to create such a superb book. In the 1890’s sensation novels were all the rage and Sarah Perry takes these wonderful books and pays homage to them and also plays with them. She takes many of the standard glorious Gothic tropes and waves at them joyously. Possible monsters in eerie boggy marshes (which are written so atmospherically) and bodies petrified to death take you to the world of Sherlock Holmes. The Woman in White, and indeed the Woman in Black, are winked at with a Woman in Blue – which in the authors notes are also a nod to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets which made me want to squeeze Sarah to bits with unbridled love and may get me arrested or a restraining order. Servants clearly smitten with their mistresses give a hint of Rebecca. Okay, I know that some of those are the wrong era but two are gothic and some of my favourites. Rather like her writing prose in contemporary English rather than of the period these all add to the atmosphere and yet keep it fresh and different.

She also flip reverses (if any of you now have that Blazin’ Squad hit single in your head I now love you) many of these tropes on their head. When is the rector ever a sex object or the rich widow doing anything but being a bitch or scheming to marry and kill off another husband, for example? Sarah Perry also uses some wonderful knowing hindsight between the reader and herself with them. A prime example is Cora’s son who everyone thinks is just a bit sinister and odd, who we all see as clearly being autistic and misunderstood – well I thought so. Sarah is enjoying writing this book as much as you are reading it and there is a communication going on between author and reader that is rare and wonderful when it happens. Suffice to say all these additional layers, elements and nods are what takes The Essex Serpent from being a brilliant book to being a stand out fantastic book. Goodness me I loved it. Can you tell?

I don’t normally advice that you judge a book by its cover; I will make an exception in the case of The Essex Serpent, for its insides are as wonderful as its outsides. It is a beautifully and intrinsically crafted and tempts, beguiles and hooks its readers into a vivid and ever so sensational and gothic world. I think it is a wonder. It is a ripping great yarn and also so much more. Delicious. As I said at the beginning Sarah Perry has written a novel which has been one of the highlights of my reading year and after the wonders of this and After Me Comes the Flood I simply cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Review, Sarah Perry, Serpent's Tail

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

Some books simply come into your subconscious awareness without you seemingly noticing. I had seen various tweets, articles and the like all talking about Maggie Nelson’s latest book The Argonauts but it was an article in The Pool that suddenly made me desperate to read it. I think that same article, and the background bubble and buzz around the book, also sparked the interest in quite a few people at the same time as spookily I spoke to two people on a single day who had also bought it on the same day and from the same bookshop in London, spooky.

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Melville House UK, 2016, paperback, memoir/non fiction, 192 pages, bought by myself for myself

I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.

If the description of Maggie Nelson’s autobiographical The Argonauts had simply been described as a woman’s journey falling in love and having a baby, it is unlikely that I would have read it. Do not get me wrong, I think women having babies is a real miracle (I seriously considered becoming a midwife six years ago) however there is something about the falling in love and trying to have a baby story that feels a bit done. This could not be further from the truth in the case of The Argonauts, so thank goodness the aforementioned article in The Pool said ‘her extraordinary book about queer family-making’ because this is a subject that I do not think has been written about or discussed enough, certainly not in the amazing way in which Nelson delivers (pun not intended) this book of bite sized thoughts, feelings, moments, questions and observations which form a work that will leave your head buzzing with ideas, information and avenues to question and explore. Oh yes, it is one of those kinds of books.

Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity? Or is this just another disqualification of anything tied too closely to the female animal from the privileged term (in this case, nonconformity, or radicality)? What about the fact that Harry is neither male nor female? I’m a special – a two for one, his character Valentine explains in By Hook or By Crook.

With The Argonauts Maggie Nelson shares with us her relationship with her partner Harry and her pregnancy with their son Iggy. At the time that Maggie was pregnant and going through all sorts of changes so was Harry as he was undergoing the hormones, medication and some of the surgery of his transition. They were both also transitioning in their relationship, from that instant attraction and initial lustful sex life to marriage, which neither of them ever thought they would do, and onto becoming a family, not just with their own child but with Harry’s son from a previous relationship. This time of great (in happiness, scale and scope) change brings with it all sorts of questions for Maggie but also many memories of her own childhood and her preconceived notions of what makes a marriage, a family, a spouse and a mother. It is these conversations with, and notes to, herself that make up the book; these also make for some of the most brilliant writing you will come across in quite some time.

What I think I liked the most about the book initially was Nelson’s frankness, which only gets more frank as she writes on. In fact almost nothing is off limits. This is not in some wild and wacky, also known as really annoying, memoirs that hope to tantalise and shock you with its direct look at LGBT issues, feminism, literature, death, love, lust, stalking, families, sex. This is a writer who is putting their life out there not to make yours better, though it very well might, but to get a conversation going and one that seriously needs to be had about all sorts of things that you didn’t even realise you wanted to talk about, and still might not (the fisting, ha) but most importantly some of the things that you really, really do. Like queer families and what it is really like to be a part of one as well as the transgender conversation which seems to be going on everywhere but feels a little safe and mainstream (overall, not completely) rather than frank and unflinching, which Nelson brings you unabashed whilst at the same time with heart, humanity, warmth, experience and intelligence.

What I liked most overall about the book was Nelson’s intellect. What I loved about it doubly is that she doesn’t expect you to be as intellectual as she is (thank goodness in my case) or that her thoughts are the be all and end all on the subject. Though when I say subjects there are so many subjects covered in The Argonauts it is pretty much impossible to write them all down, hence why I haven’t as I also really, really want you to go and read the bloody book, but if I can I will explain why her intellect and thoughts appealed to me so much.

Books teach us all sorts, often unwittingly, which is part and parcel of what makes them such marvellous things. With The Argonauts I felt like someone had, painlessly, taken the top of my skull off and was filling my brain with light and ideas and thoughts and conversations that my whole head started to buzz and tingle in a most pleasant way. That may sound like I had one too many lemsips when I was ill last week but it is true. As Maggie starts on the sound board of her pregnancy, Harry’s transitioning and their new family, we fly off in all directions and look at all sorts of things, with quotes from all sorts of brainiac’s who Nelson also makes so understandable. We follow all the directions her brain sparks off into. We have some incredibly heartbreaking moments like Harry’s mother’s death, all the times that they don’t get pregnant, the creepy stalker. We have all the happy ones, Iggy’s birth (told in glorious frankness), the first moments of a great love, all the hope. What we always come back to, and what everything boils down to is kindness, openness, respect and love. That is what this book really taught me.

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

I have kind of said everything and nothing about The Argonauts here. I think overall though this is a good thing because a) I can never do justice to a book like this b) I just want you all to go and read it so you too can have the experience and the ‘I just need to put down this book and have a little think’ moments and then come back and talk to me about it. Which is Nelson’s agenda here fully accomplished frankly; as this is a book that starts a conversation that we all need to be having, openly and unapologetically. So come on, go and read it then let’s talk…

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Filed under Books of 2016, Maggie Nelson, Melville House UK, Memoir, Non Fiction, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #65 – Sarah Perry

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are off to Essex to join author Sarah Perry who has just got back from her allotment especially to show us around her shelves. First let’s grab a cuppa and a custard cream and find out more about Sarah…

My first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, came out last year with Serpent’s Tail, and has just been released in paperback. My second novel, The Essex Serpent, is coming out in July 2016 (again with Serpent’s Tail, in an act of spectacular nominative determinism!).  I was once a civil servant – largely working in communications, such as writing speeches for government ministers – and then worked for the Council of the Inns of Court while I did a PhD in Creative Writing and the Gothic. I now write full-time, though not just fiction.

At the moment I’m finishing edits on The Essex Serpent. It’s about friendship, desire, sin, love, death and sea-serpents. I talk quite often about my upbringing, and am always afraid it’s going to grow tiresome, but find I’m still asked about it. I was born to a very strict religious family – often, I joke I was brought up in 1895 – and while other girls my age were surrounded by pop culture I was up to my ears in the King James Bible, classic literature, Victorian hymns and Reformation theology. The Gothic quality of my writing and my preoccupation with madness, sin and transgression is therefore not entirely surprising, I suppose.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I’m frighteningly acquisitive when it comes to books, and absolutely hopeless at getting rid of them. About three months ago I attempted a cull, and there have been two large bags of books destined for the local charity shops in the middle of my bedroom floor ever since. I seem to gather books as I walk through the week like a magnet attracting iron filings and with about that degree of discrimination. Proofs arrive in the post, I order them online on a whim, am sent them as gifts, throw them into my trolley in the supermarket, grab paperbacks in charity shops, steal – sorry: borrow! – them from friends. They all wind up in one of the many drifts and piles in the house, and I fear many are destined to remain unread for years, if at all. But I can never quite shake the feeling that the day may come when that 80s edition of The Gulag Archipelago, or that little hardback Rumer Godden novel, is going to be exactly what I need…

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Some years ago a friend of mine tried to help me order my books (by genre, and alphabetically by author). It took absolutely hours and lasted for less than a week. I can’t begin to fathom how anyone who has a large number of books maintains any sort of order without a fleet of staff. Everything is all bundled in together – I’m looking at a bookcase right now and on a single shelf I can see a biography of William Gladstone, a guide to Jungian dream-symbols, TH White’s The Once and Future King, two Ishiguro novels next to each other (miraculously!), several crime thrillers, and a Puritan book on the doctrine of repentance. If you’re wondering how I ever find anything: I often can’t, and rage about the house accusing the cat of stealing books. My husband has a better memory than me, and can often lay hands on what I need. I do try and keep to some form of TBR system, and went as far as installing two bookcases on either side of the bed, but then I get distracted by something else, and it all goes out of the window.

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The only truly organised shelves are those where I’m temporary custodian of a friend’s books: he moved abroad, and left them with me, where I’ve taken to calling them ‘The Memorial Library’. I must say I consider arranging books by colour to be the sure sign of a deranged mind (apologies to any deranged readers).

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I honestly can’t remember, and wish very much that I could! I do have lots of books from my childhood, though. I have on my desk here a very battered little Bible story book which I must have had since before school, and I’m very attached to a hardback Paddington bear collection which was a gift from one of my older sisters.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

With very, very few exceptions I really don’t have much truck with the idea of guilty pleasures when it comes to reading. Of course, even the most ardent anti-book snob must draw the line somewhere, and I would sooner go to the stake than have my shelves sullied with Fifty Shades of Grey or Ayn Rand. But I have everything out in the open – so far as the disordered tumult will allow! – and if anyone baulks at the sight of Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and Lee Child jostling cheerfully with WG Sebald, Maggie Nelson and Tennyson then I shall sit them down and have a long, gentle but firmly persuasive chat. I never read romantic fiction, but that is merely a matter of preference, in the same way that I would rather eat cauliflower than mushrooms: it’s not a value judgment. I must confess that if my parents visit I might double check that Catullus or Chuck Palahniuk aren’t knocking about where my Dad might take them off the shelves in an idle moment (there was an awkward moment last year with a Thom Gunn poem).

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Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

There are so many of these! May I have a wheelbarrow full? I have a complete Sherlock Holmes which my father gave me: it is a long out-of-print edition, and identical to his own copy, which I grew up reading, and which he is evidently not ready to part with. I have a beautiful vintage edition of Finnegans Wake which a friend gave me when I left London, and since really he deserves it far more than I do I secretly think of it as being in joint custody, like the child of an amiable divorce. When I sold my first novel a friend gave me a copy of A Literary Life by Posy Simmonds, which has got truer and more comforting as the years have passed. There are about half-a-dozen King James Bibles knocking about, most of them associated with events in life: my wedding, or a gift when I was tiny bridesmaid at my oldest sister’s wedding. Once when I had been away for a fortnight my husband met me at the airport with some marmalade sandwiches, two Calvin and Hobbes books and a copy of the Communist Party Manifesto, so I would like those. And I suppose I would like to take the first proof copy of my first novel, with all my anguished handwritten corrections.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I never really remember there being much of a division between children’s books and grown up books, and I more or less read what I wanted, when I wanted to. Which isn’t to say that I was reading terribly inappropriately (however one defines that) – there wouldn’t have been anything like that in the house, and I wouldn’t have sought it out: since there was so much to read, I was quite content. And so I remember reading Jane Eyre at eight, because it was in an illustrated hardback edition that I mistook for a children’s book, and my father gave me a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles when I was ten (greatly to my teacher’s horror). My elder sisters would occasionally conceal slightly fruity novels beneath their beds, which I unfailingly found and would read in a single sitting. The most memorable of these was probably Flowers in the Attic, which I still adore – and which is somewhere on my shelves.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

Greatly to my shame, I never borrow books (unless from friends, in which case ‘borrow’ is often pronounced ‘steal’), and only ever darken the doors of reference libraries, in order to do research. I am simply not to be trusted with library books: they’ll be lost, dropped in the bath, battered, and never returned. It’s a moral failing I’ve long given up trying to remedy.

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What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

In the last week, I’ve bought Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (her memoir Bluets had a profound effect on me last year), Miranda July’s The First Bad Man (which I cannot imagine I will enjoy, having a very low tolerance for quirky books by privileged young New Yorkers, but I though I’d try and conquer my prejudices), Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes, JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, John Wyndham’s The Trouble With Lichen, and an Anaïs Nin book I immediately lost and can’t remember. I have also been sent a debut novel by Tasha Kavanagh called Things We Have in Common, which I’m looking forward to. Sorry, that’s several books, isn’t it?

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Heaps and heaps! I am very close to mugging someone for an advance copy of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life: its August release date seems a terribly long way away, and literally everyone on Twitter has a copy except me. I also would like a facsimile edition (or a real one, if possible) of the Tyndale New Testament, because who wouldn’t? There are also a number of collected letters that I would like. For many years I had a curious ethical disinclination to read the ‘remains’ of writers: I felt that we should read only their work, not diary entries and correspondence they would never have intended for a general readership. But it turns out my principles are paper thin, and I’d particularly like the letters of Virginia Woolf, which I could cross-reference against her diaries.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I imagine their first thought would be that I am spectacularly untidy, and furthermore could do with doing some dusting. I wonder if they might then think that these are the books of several people, not only one – if they did, I’d be delighted. I honestly believe we all have a duty to read as widely and deeply as possible. The worst possible reader is the one who wishes only to affirm and bolster their existing world view, and the worst possible response to a book is this: “I just didn’t identify with any of the characters.” As to what I’d like them to think of my reading tastes: I couldn’t give a single solitary toss, I never have, and I never will.

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A huge thanks to Sarah for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, you can stalk her on Twitter here, you can also see her not once but twice at Gladfest this September, where you may just also see me! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Sarah’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Filed under Other People's Bookshelves, Sarah Perry