Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Top Five Novels of 2011

The books I love most are the ones I press on others, saying, ‘You must read this. Absolutely, you must. Ignore the wet patches where I read it in the bath, the tear stains where I wept, the coffee blotches where I spluttered with laughter, the lint from my handbag when I carried it around with me, the small drops of blood where this book dived into my veins and took up residence there with its beautiful sentences and refused to come out. Ignore all these, and read this book because you will be better for it.’

This year, I’ve had the privilege of reading five books that I want to press on people, bloodstains and all:

Ali Smith There But for The

This is the book that got away, the one that should have topped the Booker and Orange Prize lists and didn’t. Smith is the queen of sentences, of the poetry of words, of rhythm and of little short sharp electric shocks that bite you at the full stop. I’m not a re-reader but this is a book I will return to.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I’m only on page 326 and still have another 250 pages to go, but this book is also making me jealous on sentence level. For example, ‘He spoke German nicely, keeping an amused pedantic eye on the slowly approaching end of his sentences’  is exactly what speaking German feels like. Hollinghurst’s descriptions of English social situations are masterly – the double of layer of what is happening and being said and the undercurrents of what is being felt and thought. I’ve never seen another writer do it as well. He also writes beautifully about desire. It’s taking me forever to read, mostly because I am savouring every mouthful.

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle

I rampaged through this in a day. It’s hilarious and wistful, and the protagonist Cassandra is superbly charismatic. One of those books you dive into and when you look up again, you can’t quite believe that the world is the same because you are changed on the inside. Glorious.

Jennifer Egan A Message from the Goon Squad

Sadly, since I read this as an ebook, I can’t foist a blood-stained copy on anyone, but I can urge you, urgently, to read it. It has a similarity to There But for The, in that it covers a cast of characters vaguely related to each other without much in the way of what creative writing teachers would call a plot arc. Not to say it’s plotless, not at all, but the value is in the way she draws her characters (sharp lines, funny, often hard). Egan also shocks and surprises on sentence level and, as it turns out, that is a quality that  makes me love a book.

Which leads me to – ta dah! – The Charlotte’s Web Book of the Year:

David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

I cried when I read it, cried when I described it to my book club and I get a lump in my throat when I think about it now. This novel is a punch in the solar plexus, a long slow gentle punch that you only wake up to about 400 pages in. It rivals one of my other favourite novels, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, for its depiction of grief and it throws the messy, neurotic, fearful underbelly of parenting into the light. Read it if you dare! I recommend tissues for the tears and something stauncher for the blood, for it will haunt you.

What were your top reads in 2011?


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Siri Hustvedt in Heidelberg

Charlotte Otter in Paris*

Last night I had the honour of hearing Siri Hustvedt read from and talk about the ideas that informed her new novel The Summer Without Men. Heidelberg doesn’t get many visits from major literary celebrities and Hustvedt is up there in my top five favourite authors, so despite having a husband out of town, babysitters canceling at the seventeenth hour, a parking snarfu in the city centre, I made it, clutching my little blue ticket like Charlie gaining admittance to the chocolate factory.

It was worth it. Siri is razor-sharp, witty and incisive. She read sections from the book in English, which a local actress then read in German.

The Summer Without Men – which I haven’t finished yet, but am savouring like a delicious treat – is the story of Mia, a poet whose scientist husband Boris decides he needs a pause after thirty years of marriage.

“The Pause was French with limp but shiny brown hair. She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses, and an excellent mind. She was young, of course, twenty years younger than I was, and my suspicion is that Boris had lusted after his colleague for some time before he lunged at her significant regions.”

Mia goes mad for a short time, a Brief Psychotic Disorder her doctors call it, and then retreats home to her mother in Minnesota, where she spends a summer in the republic of women, a summer without men.

Vital to the novel is the word “pause”. Boris does not request a stop because he wants to “keep the narrative open, in case he changed his mind.” Hustvedt said last night that the novel itself is a pause in the life of the character, the place between Crazy Winter and Sane Fall.

She also said that this was her first attempt at comedy. Comedy is subversive and she was trying to subvert and resist the idea that “the imagination and intellect of women is inferior to the imagination and intellect of men”. Men and women walk around with this unconscious prejudice and she was attempting to unpick it.

Her main tool in doing so was irony. “The tone is the thing. This is a banal situation. But Anna Karenina is banal. So is Madame Bovary. Just because it is a banal story, told with irony, doesn’t mean it is without feeling.” Later, when the moderator suggested that irony emancipates, she agreed, “Totally!” And later, “Where would we be without it?”

I haven’t reached this part yet, but during her summer, Mia takes herself on an intellectual journey through literature, science and philosophy, trying to find a “territory of ammunition” where she can understand what has happened to her. Hustvedt described this as a dance, one in which she herself is also engaged. She talked in detail about how the science of the gendered brain is being undermined, saying that the brain is plastic and changes according to experience. “The idea that women think differently is untenable.” She was not dismissing neurobiology, only saying that it was full of unconscious perceptions about women and much of of these prejudices go unacknowledged.

Her conclusion was that there is a small biological difference between the sexes and not much more. Both Hustvedt and her narrator come to realise that what is important is only “how much difference that difference makes and how we choose to frame it.”

It was all  highly interesting, especially as Hustvedt operates in a literary milieu that damns women’s writing as domestic, while men’s writing is of course about the human condition. If the floor had been opened to questions, this was what I was planning to ask her, but I feel that she answered me anyway: to reverse the stereotypes and prejudices about women, gender and difference we must talk, subvert, mock, play and use irony. We shouldn’t be frighten to question received ideas in literature, science and philosophy and re-present them for our own use. There are many examples of this in The Summer Without Men, but the best is that of a certain Renaldus Columbus, who in 1559 – to the stupefecation of many women – was credited with discovering the clitoris.

To this, Mia pens a limerick:

“When Columbus spied the Mount of bliss,

He stopped and asked himself, “What is this?”

A button, a pea?

An anomaly?

No, silly man, it’s a clitoris!”

It was a fabulous and dazzling evening, only slightly spoilt by the moderator, who had clearly decided not to plan any questions in advance and think on his feet. As a result, he came across as woolly, pompous and arrogant. Which in the light of what Hustvedt is saying about gendered perceptions of intelligence is rather ironic.

*On her tour of Europe, Siri Hustvedt did a reading at Shakespeare and Company in Paris


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May Madness

May is turning out to be quite the month chez moi, which means my presence here at Charlotte’s Web will continue to be vague, scattered and somewhat erratic. Here, in order of importance, are three of the many things happening to me:

1. Complete novel revisions. It turns out that my main revisions are plot-related and plotting is my weakness, which is something I’m going to have to address if I plan to be a professional crime writer. That aside, I’m done with cogitating and have committed to completing and handing them in by the end of the month. I’ve said it! Feel free to stop me in the street and question me in depth about my progress, even if I look evasive and try to distract you with cheesecake.

2. Give creative writing workshop. At the end of the month, I’m giving a weekend workshop to undergrads at Heidelberg University. I’m looking forward to it very much. I visited them last week and asked what they want from their workshop and now have a clear idea how to structure it.

3. Run marathon. For an ex-asthmatic and renowned non-sportler this is the most intimidating, though I am slightly exaggerating the extent of the run. It’s a team event and four of us run a marathon as a relay. My leg is just over eight kilometres: short for some, very long and daunting for me.

I’m also attending to an admin list as long as my arm, one that includes passport refreshing for certain members of my family and other unspeakable horrors. If I’m ever rich/successful/clever enough to have an admin assistant, it is this kind of thing I will gladly hand over. Ticking boxes and filling out forms is not my forte. Give me character motivations and new plot strands any day.

However, I’m finding comfort in reading and have read some excellent books, which I will detail in another post. Right now, Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men is glowing all buttercup-yellow and tempting next to my bed.

And in other news, today is the last day for voting for Expatica Germany’s best blog 2010/2011, so if you feel moved to support me, here’s the link.