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Sunday, January 31, 2010

2. Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon

What rock was I napping under when this came out last September? A new book by Fay Weldon is an event to me – reading Down Among The Women when I was 13 (shortly after The Female Eunuch…) made me a feminist - but this one totally passed me by.

Possibly because I find the book pages of newspapers are mainly given over to studious biographies of Napoleon’s second general, so I hardly look at them…

When I did finally stumble upon it last week, the title sprang out rather than the author, because Chalcot Crescent is a street in Primrose Hill right around the corner from Chalcot Road, where I used to live.

And, adding to my interest, the book I have just finished is set entirely in Primrose Hill and one of the main characters live in Chalcot Crescent…

Anyway - the book. Bloody brilliant. It’s set three years hence in a dystopian future created by what might have happened if governments around the world hadn’t propped up the banking system when it was on the verge of collapse in 2008. (She must have turned this book around at warp speed.)

On top of this sparkling conceit Weldon applies another intriguing notion – what if we all suddenly lost interest in the consumerist way of life that actually entirely underpins capitalism?

In her parallel universe people have suddenly and collectively realised that constantly acquiring more ‘stuff’ is not the route to happiness. No shopping means no ‘growth’ means no economy…

As a result, houses are worthless, credit doesn’t exist, the EU falls to bits, it’s every country for themselves, food is the most valuable commodity and after a couple of hung parliaments an unelected government takes control.

What’s so gripping, is that for a moment back there something like this really could have happened. It still could.

That’s just a few of many brilliant possibilities the book explores, but what makes it more than a smart contemporary update on Brave New World and 1984, is that running alongside the big picture ideas, is the more personal – and fundamentally female - story of the narrator, Frances.

She’s a brilliant idea in herself – the person who might have existed if Fay Weldon’s real mother hadn’t had a miscarriage, when Fay was a child. A what if? sibling. Weldon then tantalises the reader with through-the-looking-glass parallels between Frances’ life and her own, as already laid bare in her autobiography, Auto da Fay.

Through 80 year-old Frances, Weldon retreads the issues of sexual freedom, financial semi-equality and legal triumphs, which have so occupied women over the last eight decades - while teasingly re-visiting controversial revisions of her own, from the post-feminist era.

And all of it done with the wit and verve you expect from this master stylist. ‘Banksters’ is just one term I delighted over.

There were sections when I slightly lost interest – hence relatively low un-put-downable-ness score - feeling that the ideas were taking over from pushing on the story, but then something bright and sparkling would hook me in again.

There is a also lot of repetition in the book which made me wonder at first if Ms Weldon didn’t have an editor strong enough to stand up to her, until I realised she was using it deliberately, more vividly to paint her octogenarian anti-heroine.

At nearly 80 herself, this book shows Fay Weldon still has more ideas crackling in her brain than she knows what to do with. I bow at her feet.

And now I’m going to read what the brainy broadsheet reviewers had to say about it on publication.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 6
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to spouse: 5 (he might read this because of socio-political content)
Recommend to mother: 8
Recommend to niece: 8
Recommend to man pal: 6
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Happy to read on public transport: 9

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Here I go with my first post in my List of Books I’ve Read This Year. But just one thing to make clear before I start – these are not reviews. I don’t review novels.

Just one time I reviewed a novel for a newspaper and my verdict wasn’t entirely positive. When I came to write my own first one, not long after, and discovered exactly how much work is involved, I was consumed with regret and swore I would never write another review of a work of fiction by a living author.

There is a reason there are those who do and those who criticise…

So these are my very personal reactions to the books I’ve read this year. I’m doing it for fun, but also to make my reading more ‘active’, which I think can help improve your own writing.

I will also do my best not to give the stories away.

1. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

What a stellar start to my first catalogued reading year. This is a fascinating book on several different levels, written in a very quiet and measured voice, which is surprisingly compelling.

It’s the first person story of an American First Lady, based - in the author’s own statement - on a very particular recent presidency the reader will immediately recognise. Apart from that, she says, the characters and what happens to them are fictional. So that’s a pretty interesting set up to begin with: real, but not real.

One of the major themes, it seemed to me, was an exploration of the American class system, which seems to be a personal obsession of Sittenfeld’s.

Her first novel, Prep, which I also loved, was about a regular teenage girl who wins a scholarship to an elite private boarding school and her introduction to – and subsequent disillusionment with - the very particular behaviour, values and mores of America’s privileged class.

The family the narrator of this books marries into come from exactly this milieu, while she is the daughter of simple white-collar down home folk, whose good looks propel her upwards.

I’m fascinated by the nuances of class and the peculiar behaviour of the very rich myself, so find all that gripping.

Then there was the imaginative leap of seeing inside the bedroom of the White House, which I thought she pulled off brilliantly. How it feels to sit in your body as a simple human being, but know your husband can fundamentally affect the lives of millions of other people with any decision he makes.

There are actually some pretty massive flaws in this book – I won’t spoil it, by dissecting them – but that actually made me like it more. It gave me something to chew over, as I read, just as a beautiful face is made more compelling by a scar.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 6
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why Don’t I Update My Blog More Often? Well, I’m Going To.

The function of this blog up until now has been as a news platform, to promote upcoming publications, book tours etc and I will still use it for that, but I've now decided to start using it also as a very personal reading diary.

This was inspired by a fascinating book I read last year by Stephen King, called On Writing, which is about – funnily enough – the process of writing.

Although I've enjoyed all the films I’ve seen of his books (I think 'The Shining' is the best horror film ever made), his novels are not in a genre that interests me, but after a fellow novelist told me about this one, I thought it would be interesting to see how one of the biggest-selling authors of all time approaches his craft. Might pick up some tips...

The book changed my life. Seriously.

I had been getting quite low sitting on my own in a room from 9 to 5, five days a week, which was how I was writing my books. I felt guilty if I didn’t give it all my possible working time. Then I felt guilty for not enjoying what I do, when I know I’m so very lucky to make a living as a writer. Ooh, lots of lovely guilt – great for the creative process. Not.

But then I read about Stephen King’s rationale: his writing day is finished as soon as he has chalked up 2,000 words. Revelation! Sometimes he’s done by 11am, other days he’s at his desk until tea time, but once he hits the magic number he’s free.

He then went on to relate how other writers approached it. Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope – who had a full-time job running the Royal Mail, but also managed to pop out an astonishing 47 novels – wrote for a precise amount of time each morning. If he finished a novel with five minutes left to go, he would start another one. If he was three sentences from the end of one, it had to wait until the next day.

Another thing that fascinated me in King’s book was a list of all the books he had read in the previous year. It was a very long list, because that’s what he does when he’s finished his daily word count. He reads.

My reading has come down to a few minutes each evening before I drop asleep, so it takes me ages these days to read an average-sized book, and I was doing it passively, not fully engaged.

I used to rip through several novels in a week, reading while I was wide awake with synapses in full snap and Stephen King made me realise that to continue developing as a writer, I need to get back to being an active reader.

Add to that a growing awareness of the ever diminishing finite number of books left that I will be able to read in my lifetime, and I knew I had to take affirmative action

So my plan for this year, is to stop work when I’ve written 2,500 words, to read more, and to keep a list of what I read. And that list will be in the form of posts on here.