intense sensations

HerzogHerzog by Saul Bellow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, Philip Roth introduced this to me; Saul Bellow, the God of American letters wrote it; and Martin Amis — dreamy, cultured, super-sexy-son-of-iconic-Kingsley, Martin Amis — warmly recommended it. So how could I not give it 5 stars?

Well, to be honest, it nearly drove me out of my mind.

I have probably missed the point of it. I can sense Mr. Bellow nodding his venerable head and wagging an accusatory finger.

“The mixture of self-obsession and intellectual posturing that you found so dreary was, young lady, the whole point.”

Herzog is trapped and defeated by his own intelligence just as I was nearly trapped and defeated by this florid and extremely intellectual novel.

I have heard Herzog called a daring novel of ideas. I think the really big idea here is that when your (second) wife leaves you for your best friend and you discover that your ideas stink, you start to feel very depressed. Let me tell you, that’s nothing. Herzog didn’t know how lucky he was. Amazon hadn’t even been thought of back then. In the sixties American writers like Herzog had it really good!

Oh, but don’t forget that it’s a comedy. It is, thank goodness, ironic.

Woody Allen, though, it’s not. I saw another of Woody’s films the other day and — I have to be honest, I loved it. Blue Jasmine. Wow! Woody Allen writes sensational dialogue. In Blue Jasmine, even though the story is really depressing, the artistry is uplifting.

I didn’t feel uplifted by Herzog. I just felt, well, depressed.

Yet Herzog recovers. He manages, through the persistence of his irrepressible intelligence, to reforge and revive his sense of his writerly identity.

He learns to accept himself as he is … just a human being.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it’s a really big idea. And it takes Herzog a long time and a lot of dense thinking to get there.

You might not need to go on that journey. If you already accept who you are, that’s fine. You don’t need to read this.

But if you’re a literary young lion and you want to know where you fit in … well, maybe not even then. Not anymore. This was 1964. Life and American letters have moved on.

Telex from CubaTelex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was going to start this review by saying that this novel gives the lie to anyone who says you can’t teach people to write.

Of course you can teach people to write. You can teach people to drive, which is a lot harder than writing. You can teach them to build bridges across impossible spaces, put up those massive, bristling skyscrapers in New York and Shanghai, get oil from the desert, make rockets and missiles and sell them to countries worse off than you so they can almost but not quite destroy each other. You can teach people to enslave entire populations and justify it with plausible rhetoric that makes it look like you are a philanthropist and benefactor.

So of course you can teach people to write.

It’s just sentences. One after another.

We can’t all write beautifully, I’ll admit. Even after a lot of lessons at top schools like Berkeley and Columbia, where Rachel K learned to write, it takes a lot of patience and practice to write something like this:

The rain let up, and wind was vacuuming out the last low, ragged clouds as La Maziere continued along the Malecon, looking back periodically to be sure no one was following him. The moon appeared, glowing like a quartered orange section that had been ever so lightly sucked, its flat edge thinned and translucent.

He turned and headed up La Rampa, in the direction of the Tokio. He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, her legs painted in prison chain-link, as smearable as when he’d last left his handprints on her soft and unathletic thighs, six months earlier.

The references to the rain and the moon are fairly standard. You’ll find paragraphs starting that way in every half-decent detective, romance or horror story. Rachel gives them a bit more intensity than many writers. There is some close observation there. Maybe the description of the moon is even a bit laboured.

But I admire enormously the second paragraph. I admire it and it gives me great pleasure. I can read it again and again.

She could have said something like “He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, still exactly as her remembered her from six months earlier.”

But no, instead we get a vividly visual and tactile memory of what exactly it is that La Maziere remembers, her painted-on fishnet stockings, rendered with that wonderfully evocative word “smearable”, her soft thighs, susceptible to his “handprints”. What an image!

There are many paragraphs like this in the novel, which give it a compelling forward momentum. I not only go back and saunter but I also race onward, eager for the next delicious frisson, which is at once sensual, intellectual and literary.

The narrative sections depicting La Maziere are probably my favourite ones in the novel. I love the way Rachel is so cool and wise in showing us his brutish, predatory and often childish responses to women. As a narrator, she is aloof. But the insights she gives us into the way people think are astonishingly intimate. She does this without irony, or an irony so faint and empathic that it is ambivalent if it is there at all.

La Maziere doubted going to Japan would convince him that femininity was the art of walking in stilettos, that it had much to do with poise or surfaces, makeup and neck ribbons. Whatever female essence was, he had caught it only fleetingly, a thing women reflected when they were least aware. He couldn’t name this quality but suspected it had something to do with invisibility, a remainder whose very definition was predicated on his inability to see it.

These insights lingered long in my imagination. Reading this novel was like being plunged into lots of different lives and experiencing strange situations with the freshness and immediacy of a child. It was revelatory and inspiring. It was healing. It made me happy.

I was going to start this review this way but then I read through the comments on Goodreads and I thought, “Oh no, I’m wrong! Rachel can’t write, after all. She has failed to please so many readers, many of whom struggled to finish the book.”

I learned of a new literary genre: “LOB – left on board”.

Catastrophe!

Perhaps you can’t teach writing, then. Those world-leading writing schools have failed us and failed Rachel K.

What to do? Bin my review? Re-think my literary touchstones? Doubt my judgement? Throw in the towel?

I don’t know. Writing is hard. Writing is really hard. Teaching people to write must be even harder. All right, then. It’s impossible.

Beginning with ForeverBeginning with Forever by Lan LLP
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel was like an exotic cocktail. It went down very smoothly but had quite a kick. Its very strong storyline is helped by a trio of memorable characters and their sharp exchanges. I adored Lily. She is one of three narrators and I loved the sections where she took up the story. Her way of looking at the world and the language she used really drew me into her budding romance with Carson Bradley. It was like getting a long letter from a close friend. At times she seemed like more than a friend, because she doesn’t skimp on detail. She tells you all the juiciest bits and in the choicest language, so you feel you are right there with her, savouring every moment.

Carson was one of the other narrators. He was more business-like and brusque but the change of viewpoint worked very well. Quite often he’d reveal a completely different perspective on something Lily had just described. The effect would be to make you laugh or wince.

Carson is not without his weaknesses. Perhaps the most glaring of these is his ex, Bianca. Besides being the third narrator in the novel, she is a cold-hearted villain who schemes to destroy Carson’s relationship with Lily. These schemes become darker and more deadly as the story progresses.

The multiple viewpoints are handled expertly and give the story variety and pace. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute and couldn’t wait for bedtime so I could dive between the sheets again with Carson, Lily and even the evil Bianca. (There is an intriguing under-explored storyline in Bianca’s life.)

The action, I should say, is not entirely between the sheets, but it’s a story that’s best read in bed. Some of those juicy bits are simply too good to be wasted anywhere else. If ever a book deserved to be called erotic, it’s this one. In fact it’s the most erotic book I’ve read this year.

“Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait”

So said Mavis Gallant, who is one of the world’s greatest short story writers. Or was, until she died recently at the age of 91.

I think stories can wait to be written too. They shouldn’t be forced. You don’t have to rush to read them and you don’t have to rush to write them.

Mavis herself waited many years to discover that people liked her stories. Her agent had been selling them to The New Yorker without telling her. Mavis couldn’t afford to buy the magazine but read a copy in a library one day and found one of her stories in it. Eventually The New Yorker published more than 100 of her stories, more than any other writer apart from John Updike or S.J. Perelman.

I read a very sad blog last night by a writer who was struggling to increase her output from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 to meet the demands of a ravenous publisher.

Wait! Take a step back!

Writing is not manual labour. It’s the least effective way in the world to earn money. It would be illegal if it weren’t self-inflicted.

Hanif Kureishi can vouch for that.

“It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer.”

He was talking at the Bath Literature Festival, taking time off from promoting his latest novel and from his job at Kingston University where he teaches creative writing. Well, not really taking time off. Writers never take time off. He was pretending to take time off but really he was “working in the market.” He was making headlines.

“Creative writing courses are a waste of time.”

he announced. His students, he said, were talentless.

“A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

I disagree with him. I think you can teach how to tell a story. Syd Field has been doing it successfully for years (and many books for writers have copied his ideas). But I acknowledge that Hanif has a fair point. Writers get very anxious about style.

“They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’”

Yes! Fuck the prose. That is a very profound point. Fuck the prose because what matters is the story.

I am putting these ideas out there because I want to refer to them in my next book review without cluttering it up with a lot of literary theory.

Talking of which, I want to leave you with another quote, this time from Stephen Fry’s book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled. Stephen Fry, you could say, was fucking the prose but in a different sense. He was fucking the prose and loving the poetry. But he still insisted that all his readers follow his first golden rule: Take Your Time.

“Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal cords.”

That quote was not quite the one I wanted but I love it. Oh, wait, here is what I wanted to him say:

“It can take weeks to assemble and polish a single line of poetry. Sometimes, it is true, a lightning sketch may produce a wonderful effect too, but as a general rule, poems take time. As with a good painting, they are not there to be greedily taken in at once, they are to be lived with and endlessly revisited: the eye can go back and back and back, investigating new corners, new incidents and the new shapes that seem to emerge.”

Actually he goes on and on and on about taking your time.

So, summing up. Stories can wait. It’s a nightmare making a living. Fuck the prose. Take your time.

That’s the literary theory. A book review will follow shortly.

Trials of LifeTrials of Life by Junying Kirk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I spent a good while reading this book and returned to it many times to re-read passages and think about what I’d read. It stirred up many emotions because the situations were very authentic and reminded me a lot of my own life.

Although it’s a novel and the events are fictionalised, it has the feel of a documentary. There is a fly-on-the-wall realism about it, giving us slices of the characters’ lives. As the title suggests, these lives do not run smoothly. There are upsets and problems.

Conflict is necessary in a novel. It is exciting to see characters bumping up against obstacles and each other. It shows us what they are made of. And it is exhilarating to see them winning through.

But because of the documentary style of this novel, you have a sense that not all the conflicts will end happily. In life conflicts can be messy. There often are no real solutions to a problem. People go on annoying us. Bad people persist in their bad behaviour. We get distressed and traumatised and have nervous breakdowns as a result.

In Trials of Life, the situations are all too real and I felt real anger and real frustration in response to what was happening on the page. There are scenes and characters that I recognise only too well. Scenes such as when Dick Appleton is boasting of how he gave his Chinese minders the slip in Xian.  He managed, he says, to spend the night in the sleazy part of the city where he saw teahouses packed with prostitutes. Naturally, the Chinese officials would not have wanted that.

But there is a certain way foreigners talk about the Chinese government that makes a Chinese person grind their teeth in frustration. There is a shallowness and arrogance to them in the face of which you are completely helpless. You have no choice but to let them persist in their ignorance while letting them believe that they are superior and you are the stupid one.

Chinese people are not hoodwinked by their government. We know that China is not perfect. But foreigners often believe that they know what goes on in China far better than we do because they are not ‘brainwashed’. They are experts by virtue of being outsiders.

Being reminded of this is in dialogue that is all too authentic stirred up very real emotions in me. But Dick Appleton, I should stress, is a particularly villainous character. He is not your typical foreigner. He is rotten to the core.

A large part of the book is focused on an employment tribunal and the events leading up to it. We learn in bitter detail what kind of a man Dick is and what Pearl suffers at his hands. I know how hard this must have been to go through because I faced a similar situation in my own career when I was forced to quit my job. But I have to give credit to Pearl and to the author of this book, Junying Kirk. Pearl challenges Dick. She faces her demons and Junying faced hers, I am sure, in writing this book.

It is a stirring story that must draw on very personal experiences. It is free from artifice. Sincerity is in every line. It succeeds in documenting with great accuracy the trials and also the triumphs of an academic life split across two very different continents. Anyone who reads it can’t fail to be moved. And it will, I hope, allow English-speaking readers to get a better grasp of what it means to be Chinese.

Coming Together Presents: Remittance GirlComing Together Presents: Remittance Girl by Remittance Girl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How time flies! I’ve been meaning to review this book for so long that I’ve almost forgotten what the stories are about or why I thought they were so good.

I’ve had it at least a year.

And what a year it’s been! This time last year I was looking back on my career as a writer and remarking on how little I’d written.

Well, and during the Christmas holiday last year I wrote a story called Scandal! I was very proud of it and thought it was quite deep but I’d rushed it onto the page in only three days and I thought I should let it settle a bit before publishing it. In March or April I re-read it and decided it could be quite special if I was patient enough to let it germinate for a while and come to full maturity.

And it is germinating still. But let me assure you, it’s good!

Apart from that, and a fiery little outburst some months ago, I have had another fallow year and I’ve spent more time reading than writing.

I haven’t even been reviewing what I’ve been reading. Instead — and this is the point, in case you are wondering why this review is so far all about me and not at all about Remittance Girl — I have been studying how the professionals do it. I’ve discovered that book reviews should really be all about the reviewer rather than the book, as in this adorable example from Leo … someone-or-other. It’s very clear he’s a Leo, don’t you think?

In case you are thinking … Aha! She can talk! … Let me tell you at once that I’m not a Leo. Just a little crab.

And as a little crab, I often crawl sideways along the shore, staring goggle-eyed at the overwhelming tide of creativity all around me.

Remittance Girl is perfect company for me on my travels because she is a writer’s writer. She is literate, reflective and wise. She is a discriminating reader and draws upon her reading to stay fresh, inspired and quirky.

Whether she’s erotic or not, I’m not sure. She writes about erotic experiences. She is a storyteller. And she is fascinating.

The problem with reviewing collections of short stories is that there is so much to comment on that it’s hard to keep the review fairly short and still put in lots of information about me. But, as if reading my mind, Remittance Girl has solved this problem by including a story set in Limehouse, London, which I happen to pass through every day on my way to work.

In the old days, Limehouse was London’s Chinatown, full of shady warehouses, brothels and opium dens. This provides the backdrop for a rather prickly story about a profligate young man and a seductive Chinese woman called Mai.

“Mai seemed to be very much at home. She stepped delicately to a low table supporting two bronze lions in the Chinese style and put the flame from a small oil burner to three slender sticks of what Gerald learned later to be incense. Then, when the sticks were sending up hair-like tendrils of sweet-smelling smoke, she took up a small metal rod and struck it against the body of one of the lions. It chimed sweetly.”

It’s the stuff of fantasy. And yet it is very concrete and the descriptions are precise. There are sensual moments. You can see even from this very brief excerpt that Remittance Girl knows how to appeal to your senses. But at its heart the story is deeply philosophical. It is sharp and to the point. It ought to be, for it is called ‘The Pipe of Thorns.’

You must be prepared for sexually explicit passages. But, heavens above, who isn’t these days? But here, as in so many of her stories, the truly adult theme is what Remittance Girl does with this explicitly sexual encounter. She gives it a twist so brutal that young minds would instinctively shy away and shut down.

So these are adult stories, adult in the sense that they question and challenge our preconceptions and predilections. They can be delicate and they can be brutal. But they are never gratuitous, for they show all the seriousness of a writer who takes writing very seriously indeed.

private livesThe early lives of authors have always interested me. Not just authors but artists, actors and musicians too. Trying to earn a living by artistic means can be a titanic struggle and a real test of character. We take it for granted that Shakespeare wrote, directed, performed and produced his own plays. We pay homage only to the works, forgetting the huge entrepreneurial effort he put into building his career and scaling the uppermost ranks of English society.

And what of Noel Coward? When you listen to the exuberant, hilarious dialogue in Private Lives you might think, like me, that he was born successful. How could it be otherwise when every line he writes exudes confidence and social savoir faire? Well, it’s true that at the age of 24 he caused a theatrical sensation with his play The Vortex, of which he was the star, the author, the director and the decorator. But the following year he was spat at in the street when people didn’t like Sirocco.

Such is the precariousness of success.

No-one can doubt, though, surely, the enduring appeal of Private Lives. It is not only entertaining, it is an essential resource. When infuriated by your lover, don’t stutter platitudes or seethe in awkward silence. Snap with panache. Prick him with needle-sharp sarcasm. Be sexy. Destroy him with lethal one-liners.

Private Lives picks apart the complexity of sexual relationships with rare candour and precision. It is funny because we recognise the truth of every word. It exposes with ruthless flippancy the vanities, the vulnerabilities, the secrets and the lusts of the two central characters. Packed with passion and brilliantly performed by Paul Scofield and Patricia Routledge, two of England’s most distinguished actors, this audio edition makes it possible to listen to their riveting quarrels again and again and enrich your own private life with their biting wit. Although written in the 1930s, the play is astonishingly modern. You can lift entire phrases and drop them seamlessly into your own erotic bickering. Your lover will find you at once more sexy, more sassy, more classy and more desirable.

You can find this production on AudioGo, the home of BBC audiobooks. There are different versions of the site for different countries, so make sure you are looking at the site applicable to where you live.

And if, like me, you listen on the go, you can impress your fellow passengers with frequent worldly smiles and the occasional guffaw, before going home and scintillating with your lover.

Books by Vanessa Wu

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