On Being Uncomfortable: Good Night, Beautiful Women

I try not to stop reading a book because it makes me uncomfortable. There are exceptions. I had to set aside Sophie’s Choice for all the reasons…granted, I was reading it while I was pregnant with my daughter, so the timing probably could’ve been better. Still, for the most part, if a book makes me uncomfortable, I try to slow down and stick with it.

That approach got me through some tough reads – A Little Life, Homegoing and An Untamed State kicked me in the face with the tragedy of living but, for the most part I got through them, (admittedly, with occasional skimming). This does not make me a reading-bad ass. I read to escape more often than not. It’s just that, some stories strike me as being important on a human level, and I want to try to witness and understand other people’s experiences as much as the constraints of my life and circumstances allow. That’s why it surprised me when I had to set aside Anna Noyes’s debut collection, Goodnight, Beautiful Women

Books like A Little Life and An Untamed State, which are generally considered to be  triggering or, at the very least, emotionally challenging, come at an issue of global concern from a very specific, personal point of view – kidnapping, rape and economic disparity; child prostitution, trauma and abuse…. These issues are so present in our culture that they demand social awareness and discourse. They are issues that are, unfortunately, still relevant and resonant on a wide scale in the world we all live in. You could argue that the reasons novels like The Color Purple and Sophie’s Choice can be so upsetting is that they are deeply personal novels that deal, unflinchingly, with universal tragedies.

This is not the purview of Goodnight, Beautiful Women. Noyes’s collection of loosely linked short stories is quiet and deeply personal. Rather than the effects of cultural appropriation or sexual violence, Noyes drills into the uncertain tides of personal experience, like the reverberations of memory, or the deeply personal affect of a lie on the liar. Her stories reflect on the incidental choices that redirect a life; on a mother’s absence, and daughter’s subtle decline; on an injured woman’s quiet fall from grace.

The emotional tides these stories create ebb and flow, like water through a fen – quiet and almost disturbingly subtle. That’s why I found myself getting uncomfortable in ways that I didn’t expect as I read them. This wasn’t the distress at human tragedy. This was the discomfort of seeing myself reflected in the movement of those tides.

The effect is literally too subtle for me to qualify in any kind of accurate way, but it left me feeling both attracted and repulsed. While I was reading them, I couldn’t put these stories down…but I also didn’t want to pick them up again once the bookmark was in. So, that’s how it went – stopping and starting over more than a month. At one point, I even put it back on the shelf, but found myself hunting it down two weeks later, weirdly compelled to finish it.

When I first finished the collection, I gave it a lukewarm review on Litsy. Even as I did, I knew I was doing it partially out of spite…

“It’s beautiful…beautiful writing…beautiful prose…remarkable…but I’m not clear on Noyes’s point.”

In hindsight, that was bullshit. Noyes’s point is perfectly clear – the narrative arc of a life, unlike that of a story, isn’t clean or planned. It’s random, happens in shards and hinges on understandings you can’t accurately have at the time.

I edited my review to reflect this conclusion after sitting with the stories for awhile, because that’s the effect the book has had. As uncomfortable as it made me, I find myself turning these stories over in my mind, like polished stones. There is something alchemical with Anna Noyes’s prose – she unfurled my defenses and showed me to myself. It’s a shockingly intimate and deeply uncomfortable reading experience for reasons that I still can’t properly express.

Far from he lukewarm review I initially gave it, I can now honestly say that, while I have read collections that overwhelmed me with their rawness, their greatness, or their sheer inventiveness, this is the only one that has ever held a mirror right up to my face. That’s a rare thing, and the discomfort it gave me is a strange and unsettling gift. I’ll definitely be looking forward to more from Anna Noyes.

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A Ramble on Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson

img_3978It’s the first day of winter! Hooray! I love winter. I LOVE winter in all of it’s quiet, cold, freezing, icy, white, profound, dark, cozy, blinding glory. Last year, I wrote this post on my other site about why winter is the most comforting, productive time of year for me, so I won’t rehash that. Instead, I’m going to have myself a ramble on the kind of books I love to read around Christmastime, which can pretty much be summed up by Jeanette Winterson’s new collection.

Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days is the book equivalent of a dark, frosty-windowed night, and the cosy home that protects you from the cold. I do a lot of re-reading this time of year- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sherlock Holmes, The Dark is Rising, fairy tales, Dracula and The Lord of the Rings (especially Return of the King) tend to get a lot of action this time of year. They aren’t particularly wintery books, but they all acknowledge an overarching darkness and the triumph of light (or logic, or goodness) over it.

That kind of story arc especially appeals to me at this time of year, when I’m reading under a blanket in my battered leather chair. While the stories in Christmas Days cover a lot of ground subject-wise, at the heart of them all is a shadowy snatch of darkness (whether from violence, grief, or loneliness) and an effort to transcend it.

Winterson is especially good at ghost stories, and there are some amazing ghost stories in this collection. There are isolated houses, unsolved murders, hotels with questionable histories and avenging brides. I got so caught up that I got that shifty, creepy feeling in my spine, which was fun because I almost never get that feeling from a book.

Some of the stories that made my heart ache too, like “The Snowmama” about a lonely little girl, or “Glow-Heart” about a man grieving his lover, and even “The Silver Frog” a super satisfying fairy tale about a horrible woman who runs a horrible orphanage and her horribly satisfying end. Interleaved between these stories were 12 recipes that doubled as essays on everything from estrangement and grief, to being married to a Jew at Christmas.

Jeanette Winterson gets winter. She’s written articles and essays about why the quiet, dark time is important, and I agree with her on every point. Winter is a time of contemplation, for slowing down, for taking stock. It’s a time to get re-centered with yourself. Where am I in my own landscape, and where I want to go in the coming year?

The essays and stories in this collection honor that impulse. They are a cosy nest of a reading experience and they set the perfect tone for that kind of quiet, ritualistic contemplation. They’re also just a pleasure to read for their own sake, which is probably why they worked for me on that deeper level. Plus, Winterson is funny and wry and wise and totally irreverent, even while she’s being very reverent. Plus, the biryani recipe is killer. And the mulled wine…god, that mulled wine was good. So, yes. Clearly, I’ve got another book to reread next year.

Comfort Reads

Black and white photograph of a kitten covered by pie dough in a pie. For Comfort Reads by Malin James

Kitty Pie by John McEnery

A comfort read is a book, author, story or snippet that, you guessed it, you find comforting. By “comforting” I don’t mean that it necessarily makes you happy. It also doesn’t have to be inspirational or uplifting. A comfort read can be dark, superficial or random. You can read it in its entirety or take a quick dip into a specific chunk.

Comfort reads are the literary equivalent of a teddy bear and, like a teddy bear, they give you that cozy, quilted, everything-is-going-to-be-okay feeling. I have a friend who used to read H.P. Lovecraft when she felt blue or depressed. She said that the wrongness made her feel better, if only for a little while. She was a tough, pragmatic, practical woman. Lovecraft was her teddy bear, and Lovecraft never failed her.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about comfort reads and how valuable they are. Personally, 2016 has been rough. Unfortunately, a lot of other people seem to have had an equally hard time of it. Whether from job loss, divorce, death, trauma or very bad luck, I’m far from the only person who took some knocks this year. Add that to the social and political climate we find ourselves in and crawling into a book for a break sounds pretty damn good.

Of course, the thing I have to keep telling myself is that there’s a difference between a break and becoming a hermit (though my, how tempting it is…). My friend was right when she said that Lovecraft’s wrongness made things better, but that’s temporary magic. Reality will always be there, waiting for you to address it. That’s why dipping into a book that’s comforting and familiar is a great way to split the difference between taking a mental beating and completely checking out.

Comfort reads aren’t necessarily favorite books or authors (though they can be). They’re individual, self-selected bits of time out of time. They may be as long as a whole book or as short as a page, but the main thing is that they are both finite and personally comforting. They give you time and space to recharge before jumping back into reality, and that can make a huge difference when you desperately need an emotional break while handling Important Things That Must Be Done Soon.

I know it sounds obvious, but comfort reads serve an important function. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on my other blog that touched on the fact that there’s only so much stress the brain can absorb before it numbs to the stressor. Eventually, your mind gets tired of resisting so you either disengage or get swamped by whatever’s going on. It’s right about when I hit that overwhelmed place that I reach for a comfort read.

I’m an ex-bookseller and a former librarian, so my impulse is always (seriously, always) to make book recommendations, but I’m not going to do that here. You can’t really predict or recommend comfort reads. While my friend’s go-to in tough times was H.P. Lovecraft, other people probably wouldn’t get the same gentle fuzzies from Elder Gods and ichor. Conversely, no other writer of eldritch wrongness ever worked for her (sorry Clive Barker). Just like you can’t predict which blanket your kid is going to love to literal pieces, no one can predict your lexicographic woobie. You kind of just end up with it.

Personally, I have three comfort reads. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, a handful of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Mina’s chapters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While these books are some of my favorites, that’s not what makes them my comfort reads. I love The English Patient, but it’s not a comfort read – not for me, at least. Same with Neil Gaiman, Dorothy Parker, cheap romances and The Thin Man. I love those books so very much, but they aren’t the literary equivalent of a duvet and hot chocolate on a rainy night. Everyone’s comfort space is different, which is why people find theirs when they need it. Need is the driver, and it doesn’t always lead you where you think it will.

While it’s incredibly important not to check out of your life til the clouds part, it’s also important to allow yourself a little mental slack if you’re running off the rails. There are, quite legitimatley, times when you just can’t absorb anymore. That’s when sinking into something comforting and familiar can make the difference between staying engaged and becoming a permanent hermit. It’s the break you allow yourself so you can come back out and tackle the Elder Gods of life.

The Joy of Catharsis

Black and white photograph of a woman in a white dress lying on train tracks, for The Joy of Catharsis by Malin James

Photograph by Marco Sanges (2011)

I’m a feelings junkie. This isn’t always a healthy thing, but it is the way I’m wired and I’ve learned to work with it. I tend to feel emotion (both mine and other people’s) really intensely and, every now and then, I like putting myself in the position of feeling to nearly painful degrees.

If a book breaks my heart, or makes me snort on the train, or scares me so badly that I’m afraid of my own bed, I will love that book, and the person who wrote it, hard. Any author who can effect my cortisol levels is an author I respect. It’s all about catharsis, and the relief that comes with it.

Living life as a functioning adult requires that I maintain an even emotional keel. This is a very good thing, but it can also be a challenge, especially when you’re a highly-feely-feeler person. My big feely-feelers tend to make a mess out of things if I don’t maintain an objective perspective, so a great deal of my energy goes into being mindful of where I am in a situation and how I feel about it.

Over the years, I’ve found ways of maintaining my emotional equilibrium that let me feel my feely-feelers without A. making a huge mess of things or B. suppressing them. But this generally means that I experience emotions that don’t get verbally expressed as intensely as I feel them. Enter catharsis – the process of releasing (and thereby getting relief from) strong emotions.

My inner sadist would love for my heart to get broken so I could do something grand and tragic like throw myself at a train like Anna Karenina. While I would never actually do that (because I really want to live), I still crave the emotional catharsis that comes from those heightened emotions. So, rather than becoming one with the A-train, I read Anna Karenina and boom. I’m sobbing in bed as beautiful Anna does what my logical, even-keeled self would never do. And goddamn if it doesn’t feel good.

The truth is that I don’t care how “good” a book is so long as it makes me feel genuine emotion. Even if it doesn’t reach Russian novel levels of catharsis, I like feeling and that only happens when an author gets under my skin by over-riding my brain. I can enjoy a book without this happening, just like I can enjoy sex that doesn’t turn my world technicolor. But every now and then, I stumble over a book that digs right in and hurts. And I love it. So, if I want this, why don’t I go straight for books like The Road – books that I know will hurt to read?

Let me compare it to dating. It’s going on OkC vs. randomly meeting someone and hitting it off. There’s nothing wrong with OkC but, for me, the sparks really fly when chemistry smacks you right out of the blue. So, bringing it back to books, I know that reading Sophie’s Choice will mess me up. I know exactly how and why. Reading it would be pointless self-torture, and that’s not what catharsis is. It’s the release of emotions you have inside you, not poking a stick at things that already hurts.

This makes catharsis a really personal, hard-to-predict thing. It has as much to do with what I’m bringing to the table as it does with the book. In other words, it’s all about my context and how the book plays with it. I can pick up a book like The Natural Order of Things, (which I will eventually read along with A Little Life. Sophie’s Choice not so much), expecting a catharsis that doesn’t come, just like you can go on OkC, find a 99% match and find, as soon as you meet them, that the spark isn’t there. Alternatively, I could be reading an airport thriller and get punched in the face with it. You can’t make catharsis happen any more than you can force sexual chemistry. It either happens or it doesn’t. You’re just along for the ride.

So, cathartic books that I never saw coming….

Affinity by Sarah Waters. Holy god, I felt physically sick. It was glorious. Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons was the same thing. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, The Rogue Pirate’s Bride (don’t ask), “The Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker…they all came out swinging from left field. Each one of them wrecked me and, after the big ol’ feelers passed, I was left with a level of emotional clarity I hadn’t had before.

Ultimately, that’s what I’m after. I want my foundations rocked – it’s a way of living vicariously through words. It’s why I write character driven stories. Catharsis is an earthquake that causes a shift and I want to feel (and be responsible for) that movement. I want the pain and intensity of it, along with the happiness and joy.

Catharsis in books give me a place to put all of my emotions that have nowhere healthy to go. It gives me perspective on experiences I’ve had and a window into worlds that I will never see, and those are beautiful things. I want to be affected. I want to feel. I want to live more life than I have to live. The joy of literary catharsis is that it allows me to experience emotional intensity (and feel a sliver of its aftermath) without taking the destruction on as my own.

On Reading Sex

Sepia toned photograph of a nude woman wearing a feathered head dress. For On Reading Sex by Malin James

Photograph by Marc Lagrange. (On a side note, I love this image. It reminds me of The Story of O.)

When I was in my teens, I literally learned about sex by gobbling massive, towering stacks of Harlequin Historicals, the more bodice-rippy the better. In my twenties, I went through a period where i read everything from Henry Miller (filthy sonofabitch) and Anne Rice (kinky, pretty things) to Literotica and CleanSheets.com.

Somewhere between reading erotica and writing it, something changed for me though. I started reading erotica more critically in my twenties because I was getting a Master’s Degree and I was reading everything more critically. I’m kind of a recreational thinker so that’s not the worst thing, except that the habit of reading critically cut the connection between erotica and my sex drive.

Almost as if to compensate, books that were not written as erotica were turning me on in super hot, unexpected ways. Angela Carter, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Andahazi’s The Merciful Women, The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson…I’d be reading along and suddenly get slammed with a crazy, elemental need to get off. It wasn’t that the sex was better written, it was just contextually more specific.

Stick with me – I’m going somewhere with this and it has to do with that contextual specificity.

As I got older and more experienced, I understood my sexuality more. By then, I’d had all kinds of sex in all kinds of contexts and, as a result, what turned me on was changing. In other words, what grabbed my brainstem at 15 was doing it at 25. My buttons had gotten way more specific in those intervening 10 years, and that affected the way I read sex.

The point is that everyone’s sexuality is different, so everyone reads sex differently depending on what kind of experiences or curiosities you’re bringing to the table. That’s why there is no one “right” way to write sex, and no “right” way to read it. Sure, there’s bad sex writing, but there also bad sex in real life. That’s just part of the deal, whether you’re reading it or doing it.

The other issue is one of place in life. It’s why the sex you had in your boyfriend’s dorm was the hottest thing possible at 18, but why it might not get you off at 38. We read sex differently at different points in our lives because we experience sex differently at different points in our lives, and our needs and tastes tend to reflect that. The same principle goes for audio and visual porn. It even applies to the movies you are hot, (even if they’re awful…hi, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I heart you).

It’s worth remembering all of this when you judge the value of a genre, (and genre, really). Whether or not you think they have literary value, erotica and romance serve a sexual and emotional purpose that exists beyond the standards of the Man Booker prize. It’s not an issue of the genre’s value, it’s one of the value it has to individual readers at any given time, and that value matters as much as literary merit. For some readers, it matters more.

Gateway Books

Woman waiting for metro behind a wrought iron gate for Gateway Books by Malin James

Over the Passay Station by Yanidel Street Photography

My daughter was home sick the other day, so I didn’t get much work done. Fevers require snuggling in this house and snuggling isn’t compatible with documents and laptops. Not that I minded – while she snoozed like a sleepy kitten (very well snuggled), I spent most of the day reading, something I love to do but rarely get to indulge in for long stretches.

I pulled Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories off the shelf at random, mostly because I had to get the girl settled so I didn’t have time to mess around choosing. I had tried Life After Life around Christmas because everyone told me I’d love it but, for some reason, I just couldn’t get into it, so I put it down after 100 pages. This is after trying Behind the Scenes at the Museum a few years before with similar results. After two failed Atkinson attempts, I’d pretty much decided that she and I were not meant to be, but I tend to give authors a three book shot. If, after trying three different books, I still don’t want to read them, I figure it’s a miss, no matter how much I should love them. Case Histories was my third and final shot at Kate Atkinson and I’m so glad I didn’t stop after the first two.

Case Histories is a (freaking gorgeous) literary detective novel. I’m still basking in the geeky afterglow so I can’t critically parse out how I feel yet, but suffice it to say that I loved this book. It impressed the hell out of me in pretty much every writerly way. Plus, Atkinson’s use of point of view and voice are amazing. Plus, it made me laugh and almost made me cry (that’s a big deal – I cry all the time at movies, but I’m tougher with books…though The Time Traveler’s Wife made me sob like a baby).

In other words, Case Histories was my gateway into Atkinson – the book that made me click with the author so that I suddenly want to devour everything she’s written, including the books I’d rejected earlier. This sort of thing has happened a lot for me over the years. I couldn’t stand Margaret Atwood until I read The Blind Assassin (oh, my god, so good). Now, she’s one of my favorites. Same thing with Sarah Waters. I tried to read Tipping the Velvet three times before I gave up. Then I read Affinity and couldn’t put it down, so I tried Tipping the Velvet again and binged it in two days.

The gateway thing doesn’t just work with authors either. I’ve had it happen with genre too. Sometimes, the revelatory book is an exception, like my love of Iain Banks’s Use of Weapons defying my general apathy towards science fiction. But in other cases, a gateway book cracks open a whole new world of experiences. I still remember reading a short story by Remittance Girl in my twenties. I’d never liked erotica but I read this by chance, and suddenly got the genre. That story is why I started writing it.

I’m not sure that I have any conclusions to make, outside of the fact that I think gateway reading experiences are kind of fabulous. I’m a really active reader – when a book or an author engages me, they engage me hard. It doesn’t happen all the time, so when it does, when I book opens me up to an author’s back catalog or a whole new genre, it’s exciting. I like being introduced to new things. I like having new obsessions and things to honestly gush about. Adding Kate Atkinson to my list of gushable things was a lovely surprise, and I don’t ever want to be the kind of person to turn lovely surprises down.

The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

GalenPikeCoverOn Stories that Undermine Assumptions

Carys Davies’s second collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, is one of those books that I raced through in one go, and then went back and read more slowly over the course of the week. Granted, this book is short (131 pages) so my all-in-one-go read isn’t that impressive. That said, the fact that it hooked me that hard is.

This collection gave me that weird, awesome, anxious feeling that you sometimes get when there are too many choices on a menu. It’s exciting, and the thing that makes it exciting is really cool and kind of rare – every single story in The Redemption of Galen Pike sets up an expectation and then thoroughly subverts it.

This is a tricky one to keep spoiler-free, so I’m going to focus on just one of the stories and hopefully not spoil too much. “Wicked Fairy” is one of the quieter stories in the collection. While they all defy expectation differently, “The Wicked Fairy” does it with a sort of ironic silliness that carries you through, even though you know how it’s going to end.

We open with the narrator, a guy named Lenny, noticing a girl at a wedding. She’s dark and thin and she’s carrying a pie. Over the course of the next two pages, Davies creates a sort of Atwoodian (I’m totally making that a word) dystopia, wherein this girl with the pie is a silent, unnoticed threat. Except that Lenny notices. He notices but doesn’t say anything, not even when the voice in his head screams “LOOK OUT DON!!! THERE’S A GIRL HERE WITH A PIE!!!!”

When she finally throws the pie, its impact on Don’s face reads like a gunshot, and you’re left with the image of social horror – a horrified crowd and a pie-covered groom and a dazed, empty-handed girl, standing there as if she’s shot him.

I love what Davies does with this. In films, this kind of scene usually unfolds in slow motion and ends in an assassination. So what’s Davies doing when she assigns all of those JFK cues to a jilted girl with a pie? She’s playing two things off each other.

The first is the seriousness of the jilted girl’s feelings. She wants to hurt Don and she’s going to do it…with a lovingly described cream pie. And that pie is the opposite of serious.

In playing those two things off each other, Davies sets up a situational dissonance ie: the is really serious!…but it’s a pie.  The pie itself is the subversion of an expectation – one that involves real violence and tragedy. And yet, the pie is never treated as anything but a very real threat. So, in the world of the story, she might as well have pulled a knife.

So, what’s the point? Here’s how I read it. In subverting the seriosity of a familiar situation, Davies is implying that pie or no pie, the girl’s hurt is a powerful force. The fact that she doesn’t actually hurt him is beside the point. Within the context of the narrative, the social damage she’s caused is equally violent, which makes it a great commentary on the importance people place on big, elaborate weddings, rigid social structures and the power of public humiliation. All that from subverting one assumption – oh, no! She has a gun! with a different, equally threatening (in the story’s context) reality – oh no! She has a pie!

I’ll be honest, I laughed both times I read “The Wicked Fairy” because, for all that geeky analysis, it really is funny. As one of the lightest pieces in the collection, it did a great job of quietly satirizing all sorts of things while giving the reader a bit of a break. Some of the other stories are beautiful, powerful heartbreakers, all of which are so worth reading. In fact, however, you end up reading it, this collection is very much worth reading.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

On Narrative Flow

For my first official post on Reading Like a Writer, I want to talk about Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk.

I almost called this post “In Praise of Narrative Flow” because that’s what initially pulled me into H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald’s crazy-natural use of narrative flow.

But before I get into that, I should say up front that I kind of loved everything about this book. In a very personal way, it was exactly the right read at exactly the right time, so I can honestly say without any reservation that it’ll probably be one of my favorite books of 2016.

Now, to get back to narrative flow. What I mean by narrative flow is how the writer’s use of pacing, rhythm and execution, and how they interact with the reader. Here’s an example from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”:

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

Side Note: If you haven’t read Hemingway, goddamn, check out his short stories. I’m not a huge fan of his novels, but his short stories are a-maze-ing. He really was a master of the form.

So, narrative flow. This quote captures the tone of the story – staccato, disjointed and ambiguous. Things are said in this story through what is not said – the way the woman looks at the girl, the way the girl is looking off, the way the hills seem separate from the land. The flow is a little choppy, a little disorienting and that’s perfect because it mirrors the heat of the day and the girl’s state of mind. In this case, the narrative flow feeds into the story’s overall tone. It’s brilliant.

Helen Macdonald does something equally brilliant in H is for Hawk. Narrative flow is important regardless of what kind of narrative it is – fiction or nonfiction, short or long. Whereas Hemingway used flow to give his short story a visceral impact, Macdonald uses it to a different effect – she weaves a tapestry with it so the reader becomes wrapped in her grieving state of mind. And yet, the hawk remains firm and clear in the middle of her grief. The hawk is always the focal point.

The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.

Macdonald’s imagery is threaded through her prose. It’s sensory and very specific. It also accurately reflects how thoroughly the hawk will come to define her life for a time. There are a million gorgeous quotes I could pull from this book, but they all have this quality – the prose is packed with more than words. Expand that out to the entire book and you get narrative flow.

There are two main threads in H is for Hawk and I’ll admit that, at first, I didn’t quite buy into one of them. In addition to her own autobiography of grief, Macdonald weaves in a mini-biography of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, as well as, (more importantly for this book), The Goshawk, an account of his failed attempt to train a hawk. In the beginning, the White chapters felt a bit strange and intrusive. But slowly, they began to make sense. Slowly, they begin to reflect Macdonald’s fears and isolation as she trains her own goshawk, Mabel. The White chapters become critical to understanding the depth of Macdonald’s grief and how falconry becomes a metaphor for the process of healing.

They also act as a counterpoint to her relationship to her own hawk. White botched his hawk’s training horribly. Macdonald, by comparison, is hyper-aware of the bird, to the point that she begins to over-identify. As she does, the flow becomes leaner, tighter, and narrower, almost reflecting the pinpointed focus of the bird she’s training. Then, as the training progresses and she processes her grief, the focus slowly expands. The flow loosens. Macdonald’s narrative develops a rhythm that underscores her emotional experience. That alone helped me, as the reader, to connect to the book on a basic, instinctive level – it bypassed my brain and hit my emotions, which for me is where it counts.

And that’s the power of narrative flow – it’s a way to by-pass the reader’s logic and burrow under their skin. I’m sure there are other names for it, but that’s essentially how I think of the structural rhythm of a book. Some writers engineer it ahead of time, but that almost never works for me. When I write, the flow kind of just happens in the first draft. Then I hone it through revision and edits. Macdonald’s narrative rhythm feels so natural, so deeply tied to the text, that I wonder how much of it was engineered and how much of it just happened. If I’m ever lucky enough to talk to her someday, I would love to ask.

Reading Like a Writer

Black and white photograph of a woman looking out from a clock tower for Reading Like a Writer post by Malin JamesI’ve been thinking about how I want to approach writing about books. I used to write fairly standard reviews and that was fine but, honestly, there are so many good review blogs at this point that adding my opinion doesn’t feel particularly necessary. I can talk about what I liked or didn’t like about a book, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. And who knows, maybe there is nothing new to bring, but I want to try.

The fact of the matter is that my opinions aren’t unique – they’re personal and informed by my experiences – but so are everyone else’s. Generally speaking, my opinion doesn’t carry much weight for a person who isn’t me. That’s why I’m going to avoid the temptation of giving a general opinion and focus on something specific instead, something informed by the way I read.

The way I read has changed a great deal over the years. I used to read purely for entertainment. Then catharsis. Then curiosity. Then entertainment again. At this point, I read all across the board for a lot of reasons and, while I’m attracted to a different kind of book than I used to be (more on that in a post of its own) the fact is that I read widely from all sorts of genres and styles for all kinds of reasons. The only through-line in my reading is that I have an agenda. In addition to reading because I love to read, I read to become a better writer.

Even when a story has completely gobbled me up, part of my brain is whirring away, deconstructing and noticing and trying to figure things out. I love the craft of writing. I love technical elegance and subtle, inventive structures. I love the little mechanisms that make, or fail to make, a piece work. Sort of like a person who disassembles clocks, I love to dissect stories to see how they tick.

I’ve always done this to some degree, but the habit got formalized in college and grad school when I started applying theory to what I read. Later, when I started teaching myself how to write fiction, I applied the same principle. I found writing books that emphasized reading for different aspects of craft, from characterization and structure to pacing and voice. Slowly, I habituated myself to noticing these thing regardless of what I’m reading. That was more than twelve years ago, and that anatomical approach is just how I read now.

That’s why I talked about the structure Sarah Waters used in Night Watch and noticed the different way Muriel Spark manipulates the reader in The Driver’s Seat. It’s why I love Helen Macdonald’s use of a loose narrative style in H is for Hawk (there’s a post coming up on that). It’s not about me being all Miss Fancy Pants – it’s just the way I enjoy books.

So, rather than blog my general opinion, as scintillating as it may be, I’m going to write about the book from a writer’s perspective, hopefully in a way that isn’t totally boring for non-writers too. If nothing else, it’ll give me a chance to talk about two of the things I love most – stories and how they’re made.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Cover image of The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark for Mean Fiction by Malin James

On Mean Fiction

It took me all of an hour to read Muriel Spark’s novella, The Driver’s Seat. It’s lean and  incredibly mean in the way children can be. There’s something viciously natural in the way adolescent social politics play out, with mutable hierarchies determining social life and death.

That same, subtle viciousness underlies The Driver’s Seat, not in any textually obvious way, but in how it engages the reader’s sympathies, as well as that adolescent sense of assumption and judgment. I’ll be honest – it’s not a comfortable read, but it’s also why I loved the book. That subtle, dark, destabilizing meanness is what makes the story so very wrong, and so very good.

I don’t like doing plot summaries, but in this case, I think a brief one is important. The Driver’s Seat is about a woman named Lise who goes on holiday, ostensibly looking for her “boyfriend”. Lise’s goal for the trip deceptively simple and she executes everything with mad sort of meticulousness. It isn’t until towards the end that the reader fully grasps what her goal actually is.

What makes this book brilliant, is that the entire book hinges not so much on what happens, but on why and how it happens. In fact, Spark reveals Lise’s fate within the first few pages, but it doesn’t actually matter. The narrator drip feeds the reader a string of seemingly random oddities in Lise’s behavior, and she does it so effectively that you almost feel safe in what you’ve been told is going to happen. In fact, there were times when it felt like the narrator wants the reader to pass notes behind Lise’s back. After all, it’s obvious that Lise is unhinged but…not in the way Spark wants you to expect.

So, how does Spark play with the reader? She does it through Lise and how we’re meant to engage her. Lise’s oddness compounds itself in unsettling and somewhat ridiculous ways, from her hysteria at being told that a dress is stain resistant, to her single-minded search for her “boyfriend”. Spark plays on the reader’s empathy (or lack of empathy) in a very personal way, tapping into those early adolescent social experiences and memories – the ones that might prompt the reader to either feel sorry for Lise or laugh at her (or possibly both).

Everything in the way Lise interacts with people is not quite right. She’s a very deliberate portrait of what happens when a normal woman becomes unhinged, and the reader becomes complicit in that portrait. Our reactions to her are, in many ways, the reactions Lise has most likely experienced for a great deal of her life. We become part of the world she navigates, if only for the sliver of her life that we witness.

As a character, Lise feels dangerous and unpredictable, but only because she subverts our expectations of what a lonely spinster should be. Spark gives her a dismissable, almost laughable veneer and then slices it away to reveal an almost terrifying degree of personal agency in Lise. It’s that determined, single-minded agency that is, in fact, the novel’s central threat.

That trick of drawing the reader in and then destroying their expectations it what gives The Driver’s Seat it’s deep, satirical bite. It’s also what makes it such a marmite book – people either love it for its meanness, or they hate it. Becuase it isn’t a comfortable read – I knew that going into it (thanks to this awesome discussion) but I was still shocked at thoroughly I was manipulated, even as I admired Spark’s subtlety in pulling it off.

The triumph of all of the darkness and bite is that the reader becomes complicit in Lise’s fate, and her fate is not nearly as simple or straightforward as Spark implies at the start. It’s what makes this novel an experience as much as it is a story. In the end, it’s a tremendous portrait of a woman’s desperate, single-minded pursuit of autonomy, but whether or not she’s successful is left unclear. I may need to read it again to sort that out.

51FB7KX99ML._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_Side Note: 4/12/16

I just finished Aiding & Abetting, also by Spark, and it’s another example of author manipulation and reader complicity, though in a totally different (completely hilarious) way. Ultimately, in both novels, as different as they are, it’s Spark’s brutal lack of sentimentality that makes the dark, serrated edges work. She has razors in her fingers and I love it.

She once wrote that she “aims to startle as well as please” and, for my money, so manages both like a boss.