The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011
by Lucy Sussex
The publishing industry has lately turned to the rock memoir, and struck gold. Hersh of indie band the Throwing Muses might be the best of the genre so far. It draws on a diary of her eighteenth year, in which she had to grow up hurriedly. As she herself says, ‘copying down a year isn’t a particularly creative thing to do’—one of various remarks that instantly endear. Instead, the book reads like a novel, low on plot but high on living. Hersch initially seems a very bright, boho university student, with hippie parents and a band. Then she becomes stranger. Her mature-aged friend turns out to be the former Hollywood star Betty Hutton. And a head injury means she hears music, the band’s songs. The creativity becomes manic, and she is diagnosed with mental illness. Whilst on medication, she becomes pregnant. Her drugs are contraindicated for pregnancy; and severe morning sickness means she goes cold turkey. She risks insanity, but what probably saves her is the band, gaining momentum with their first record deal. Extraordinary courage is displayed here, without any self-congratulation. Hersh kept her mind, her baby, and her musical career. A fascinating story.
Best true crime
MIDNIGHT IN PEKING
Scene of the crime: Peking, 1937. War with the Japanese looms, and China is torn between Communists and Nationalists. The foreign devils of Peking play as if nothing is changing, from the upper-class British to the impoverished white Russians. Then, near a haunted tower, a young English girl is murdered. The police investigate, a case that takes them from elite private schools to sex slums. They get nowhere, thanks to interference from above. Then Werner, the victim’s elderly father, begins his own detection. He solved the case, but the nearing war meant justice was not done. French agrees with Werner, a man whose findings embarrassed the foreign rulers of China. The result is a brilliantly evocative book, where Peking itself becomes a character. French depicts people looking backwards, yet being propelled reluctantly into a new world. Not many true crime books present a convincing solution to a case, like Stephanie Bennett’s superb The Gatton Murders. This work is in the same class.
Jill Dawson is a British writer with varying subjects but constant liveliness. Her last novel was about Rupert Brooke; but this latest effort tackles London’s gangland. Queenie Dove grows up in the East End. Her father is often away, in prison, and her young mother cannot cope. Queenie and her brother Bobby grow up quickly, with only their old Nan to help. Queenie’s narration is forthright, honest, and vigorous. She is also very smart, and even as a child can think her way out of trouble. The effect is a bit like Moll Flanders transplanted to the Kray brothers’ London. It is also an indictment of post-war Britain. A class-ridden society creates its criminal class, and should take responsibility for it. In this attitude, Dawson is cheerfully Marxist. Queenie might go from trouble to worse, but she is never a victim. The latter part of the book concerns Queenie’s intersection with history, as she provides a new light on a famous crime: the Great Train Robbery. Dawson was new to me, but this book is a revelation.
Best crime (something hotly contested)
A TRICK OF THE LIGHT
Penny’s form is the village mystery, but she does not escape reality in an adorable rural retreat. Consistently her novels address big questions. They also form a continuous narrative of time and place. In A Trick of the Light, artist Clara, at 50, becomes an unexpected success. Then her problems start, with her artist husband getting jealous. Next, a former friend and art critic crashes Clara’s celebration, and is murdered. Clara had motive and opportunity—but then so did nearly every artist at the party. The book looks at issues of creativity vs criticism that bedevil most art forms. Can the critic separate personal issues from the quality of a work, hate the artist but admire their paintings? In the centre of these difficult, arty types, is Penny’s investigator Inspector Gamache. He will find disconcerting parallels with his own vocation, the link being the matter of forgiveness. A lesser writer might falter at this point, but Penny is exceptionally sure-footed in her weaving of technique, feeling and theme. Gamache and his team are still recovering from a gun battle; and the killer has never forgotten a spiteful, soul-destroying review. An exceptional novel, regardless of genre.
Runners-up: the Icelandic posse, Arnaldur Indridason’s Outrage and Yrsa Sigursadottir’s The Day Is Dark –the latter the only novel I ever knew set in Greenland.
Best science writing
SEDUCED BY LOGIC
Émilie du Châtelet and Mary Somerville were mathematicians, working in the C18th-19th, when women’s education, let alone achievement outside the domestic sphere, was anomalous. That they achieved acclaim in a field so male-dominated makes them truly extraordinary. Both were self-taught, although Émilie had privilege as a French aristocrat. It also enabled her to become the lover of Voltaire. Both women focused on a famously difficult work, Isaac Newton’s Principia. They read, understood, and assisted in bringing Newton’s ideas to a wider audience. Science writer Arianrhod conveys the sense of excitement, of scientific discoveries reaching out into a Europe undergoing social and political change. Both women had to struggle, of which the most poignant instance was Émilie translating Principia into French while pregnant. She was 42, and had a premonition the birth would kill her. It did, but she had completed her work first. Mary Somerville would live longer, writing many books and enjoying the title of ‘Queen of Science’. She survived to see women admitted to Oxford, but not the college named after her. A fascinating read.
Books for troubled times (joint winners)
What does a children’s librarian do, when confronted with a parent’s list of verboten books: Harry Potter, Evolution and Roald Dahl. One I knew said: ‘We’ll discuss this after you’ve actually read them.” But Lucy Hull needs to keep her job, so all she can do is subversion. The child reader in question, ten-year-old Ian, is a willing accomplice; he may even be manipulating her for his own ends. Slowly Ian’s parents grow ever more atrocious—even enrolling him in evangelical anti-gay classes. When Ian decides to escape, Lucy, who has her own personal issues, drives the getaway car. What transpires is a road novel, informed by the sheer joy of reading. It takes in issues such as helicopter parenting and censorship, yet is written with a light, appealing touch. In fact it can make you laugh. At the centre of Makkai’s argument is that the developing mind needs imaginative space, which is what the great children’s classics provide. The book has some puzzling aspects: why do most of the characters assume Ian’s reading makes him necessarily gay? But that quibble apart, Makkai produces a thoroughly delightful read. For all those who believe in public libraries.
WALTZING AT THE DOOMSDAY BALL
Joe Bageant, ed. Ken Smith, Scribe
When Joe Bageant died, it was a crying shame. The veteran journalist found his subject late in life: America’s class wars. He had been born a redneck, and mined his background with great love and despair. The internet dissembled his fierce opinions, and he published two books. A socialist and atheist amongst the godfearing Right, his writing was sharp, witty, and perceptive. He never looked down on his subjects, but railed against the system that created their ‘Cultural Stupidity’. Great stuff.
SECOND SKIN: CHOOSING AND CARING FOR TEXTILES AND CLOTHING
India Flint’s life is focused on textiles. It runs in the family: her refugee grandmother left Latvia with a sewing machine, which Flint inherited. In this book, which combines stunning photographs with useful advice, Flint considers how we can best use textiles. We need clothing to survive, but modern production creates social and ecological ruin. Dyes pollute water; sweatshops destroy lives; and cloth in landfill is waste. So Flint sets out to educate the reader. We learn about provenance, dyes (black is particularly toxic), and the informed choices we can make. If we can’t make our clothes, we can mend them, and even make wearable art in the process. The skills Flint describes were known to our ancestors and we should revive them. Not many books mix practical environmentalism with art, and this one should appeal to more than the crafty and green.
MINXY VINTAGE: HOW TO CUSTOMISE AND WEAR VINTAGE CLOTHING
Right in time for Buy Nothing New October comes this book, which addresses the vexed area of women’s clothing. For many, it eats up the budget, yet is irresistible. Doust, a craft expert and experienced op-shopper, shows here how buying old can also be a means of unleashing creativity. Wearing vintage can be nostalgic, but it also teaches the modern woman about styling. More importantly, Doust shows how vintage pieces can be reinvented. As they tend to be better made than our mass-produced fashion, they will forgive a dye-bath, or alterations. Good fabric, says Doust, deserves preserving. If too small, she adds a panel, too big, cuts. Damage, in her book, is simply an excuse for imaginative embellishment. Doust covers basics, like practical repairs, but also how to avoid dry-cleaning. But where this book shines is in the practical examples, of how to make the most of garments bought for a song. Doust freely admits to not being an expert dressmaker, and does not have the patience for constructing elaborate dresses from patterns. But as her striking before and after shots show, she is a dab hand at making the dowdy utterly divine.
The literary fantastic
THE TIGER’S WIFE
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Last year one of my top novels was by an author from the former Yugoslavia: Dubravka Ugreŝić’s Tiptree-winning Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. Obreht’s debut shares the Balkan setting, and also the sense of myth merging with everyday life. The Tiger’s Wife is a seamless blend between personal and national grief, folklore and rationality. Natalia is a young doctor, moving across new borders. Her beloved grandfather has died mysteriously far from home. She seeks for the truth of what has happened, while re-examining their war-torn lives. Her grandfather told stories, in which fact and fancy mingled. Did he really give his copy of Kipling’s Jungle Book to a deathless man? Did a deaf-mute girl truly become the wife of an escaped zoo tiger? No stranger, really, than that neighbours should suddenly turn on each other in brutal ethnic violence. In the general insanity of civil war, often the illogical, but traditional, is all that people can cling to. An adept, engaging and powerful read.
Just simply delicious
MOOMINS COOKBOOK: AN INTRODUCTION TO FINNISH CUISINE
Tove Jansson and Sami Malila
Self Made Hero
Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series is a much-loved children’s classic. Only recently has her native Finland realized its merchandising potential. This attractive hardback combines Jansson’s illustrations with dishes from Finnish cuisine. Certain staples recur, like smoked fish, rhubarb and cream, for this is cold climate fare, and hearty. The book is aimed at both parents and children, with recipes ranging from the very easy, like sandwiches, to the more complicated. It begins with breakfast (mostly porridges), progressing through the garden party to the picnic. Since the only test of a cookbook is to use it, I did. The onion pie, with an interesting pastry including grated carrot, worked perfectly on the first attempt, and so did the smoked fish salad. Most importantly, they were delicious. For the nostalgic, and for those who like Scandinavian food.
In February 2009 temperatures in my home town reached 47C—a record. That same day the tinder-dry bush exploded into flame, and 200 died. Among the losses was my late parents’ bush home, lost in firestorm conditions. Adrian Hyland lived near the affected areas, and his friend was Roger Wood, a policeman at the forefront in fighting the disaster. He would gain a medal for bravery, and nearly lost his life. Hyland tells Wood’s story of that day, in a mixture of real-life action writing, fire science, and nail-biting tension. Being a crime writer, he knows all about dramatic pacing, and this book moves like wildfire.
Disclaimer: I briefly supervised Hyland’s PhD thesis of this book. But I still think it is terrific…even after he blew me off stage at a booklaunch.
Lucy Sussex was born in New Zealand in 1957. She has degrees in English and Librarianship from Monash University, and is a freelance researcher, editor and writer. She has published widely, writing anything from literary criticism to horror and detective stories. In addition she is a literary archaeologist, rediscovering and republishing the nineteenth-century Australian crime writers Mary Fortune and Ellen Davitt. Her short story, `My Lady Tongue' won a Ditmar (Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award) in 1988. In 1994 she was a judge for the international Tiptree award, which honours speculative fiction exploring notions of gender. Her first adult novel, The Scarlet Rider, is about biography, Victorian detective fiction, voodoo and a ghost. Aqueduct Press published her collection, Absolute Uncertainty, in 2006. Since then she's published two more collections, most recently Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies: The Essential Lucy Sussex, published by Ticonderoga Publications, and the delicious Thief of Lives, published by Twelfth Planets Press.