Tag Archives: Siri Hustvedt

Books to Look Out for in March 2019: Part One

Cover imageThis first March instalment has its feet firmly planted in the US beginning with a title I’m both eagerly anticipating and slightly apprehensive about. Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved is one of my favourite pieces of contemporary fiction. Her last novel, The Blazing World, was bursting with ideas and erudition. Expectations are sky high, then, for Memories of the Future which looks as if it may be a slice of metafiction as twenty-three-year-old S. H. arrives in New York eager to grasp any opportunities that come her way. Forty years later, she reads her younger self’s notebook with both amusement and anger. ‘A provocative, wildly funny, intellectually rigorous and engrossing novel, punctuated by Siri Hustvedt’s own illustrations – a tour de force by one of America’s most acclaimed and beloved writers’ according to the publishers. I do hope so.

Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans is set in a small desert town where an immigrant is killed by a speeding car. Lalami tells the stories of a disparate set of characters, all connected in some way with the Driss’ death, from his jazz composer daughter to the witness who fears deportation if he comes forward. ‘As the characters – deeply divided by race, religion and class – tell their stories in The Other Americans, Driss’s family is forced to confront its secrets, a town faces its hypocrisies and love, in all its messy and unpredictable forms, is born’ say the publishers promisingly.

I suspect Americans deemed ‘other’ make an appearance in Jonathan Carr’s debut, Build Me a City, about the founding of Chicago. Opening in 1800, the novel spans the city’s first century and encompasses a wide range of characters, all with stories to tell. ‘Chicago, its inhabitants and its history are brought to dazzling, colourful life in this epic tale that speaks of not just one city but America as a whole, and of how people come to find their place in the world’ according to the publishers which sounds pleasingly ambitious.

Which might also be said of Andrew Ridker’s The Altruists, another debut which explores the idea of America, this time through the lens of a professor in a Midwestern college who seems to have a good deal on his plate, from money problems to children who refuse to speak to him. When he invites them home for a reconciliation a whole can of worms opens up. ‘The Altruists is a darkly funny (and ultimately tender) family saga in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith. It’s a novel about money, privilege, politics, campus culture, dating, talk therapy, rural sanitation, infidelity, kink, the American beer industry, and what it means to be a ‘good person’’ say the publishers. I’ll take the Zadie Smith bits but leave the Franzen, thanks.

I’m ending as I began with a novel from a favourite author: Elizabeth McCraken’s Bowlaway. Cover imageBertha Truitt begins life in her small New England town, found unconscious in a cemetery with a bowling ball, a candlepin and fifteen pounds of gold at the beginning of the twentieth century. From this intriguing start, she goes on to scandalize the town, eventually opening a bowling alley and changing it forever. ‘Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America. Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unravelling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket.

That’s it for March’s first batch of new novels from which you may deduce that American authors are in the business of tackling big themes about the nature of their country. I wonder why. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that takes your fancy. Second instalment soon…

Books to Look Out for in December 2016

Cover imageDecember’s always a thin time of the year for new titles – publishers have long since assembled their choicest wares for the Christmas trade – but there’s usually something worth looking out for. This year three very disparate novels have snagged my attention. The first comes from an Australian publisher, Text Publishing, who seem to have an eye for a decent debut. Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour is set in Melbourne where Audrey and Kate have spent a decade as bosom buddies. When Kate leaves, Audrey is thrown off-kilter as her family threatens to fall apart. ‘Evocative and exquisitely written, Our Magic Hour is a story of love, loss and discovery. Jennifer Down’s remarkable debut novel captures that moment when being young and invincible gives way to being open and vulnerable, when one terrible act changes a life forever’ say the publishers.

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir’s The Good Lover sees a philandering man hankering after a woman he met in his youth. Karl Ástuson decides to track down Una, his first and only love, who left him with no explanation after only a few months. The prospect of happiness may be in his sights but unfortunately for Karl, a spurned ex has decided to make his exploits the focus of her new novel. Sigurðardóttir’s book is ‘an intriguing, unusual and beautiful novel about the messiness of love that will stay with the reader for a long time’ according to the publishers and it’s certainly an interesting premise.margaret-the-first

This last choice is a little outside my usual literary purview but it’s prompted by its protagonist, Margaret Cavendish, who popped up in Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, the title of which she borrowed from her subject. A 17th-century duchess, Margaret, was a thoroughly accomplished woman, the first to be invited to speak at the Royal Society and the last for two hundred years. Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First tells her story in what Jenny Offil has called ‘A strikingly smart and daringly feminist novel with modern insights into love, marriage and the siren call of ambition’. Sounds unmissable to me.

That’s it for December hardbacks. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…

Blasts from the Past: What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (2003)

Cover ImageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Anyone who’s had more than a passing conversation with me about books will know that this is one of my favourite novels. It’s sublime but despite several re-readings I’ve never written on it in any detail. I think most bloggers will understand what I mean when I say that it’s far harder to write about a book about which you are completely passionate rather than one that’s simply very good. Below is a brief synopsis but What I Loved is about very much more than those few sentences can convey. Its themes are all-encompassing: art, love, family, friendship, work – life.

The novel is written from the point of view of art historian Leo Hertzberg looking back on his long friendship with Bill Weschler whose work he first discovered in a New York gallery when Bill was a complete unknown. So impressed is Leo with Bill’s work that he tracks him down and their lives become entangled. Hustvedt’s novel is the story of their intense relationship, of the women they live with, their work and their sons both born the same year but whose lives take very different turns.

Hustvedt’s writing has an extraordinary depth. Her descriptions of Bill’s work are wonderfully vivid. She brings to it an art historian’s training coupled with superb descriptive skills. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. And if you’d like to read another besotted blogger’s views you could nip over to Biisbooks where Belinda’s been on a bit of a Hustvedt binge.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay: One big happy family

Cover imageElizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air ranks alongside Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved as one of the finest contemporary novels I’ve read. Notable for its beautiful descriptions of the natural world, Hay’s novel shows a similar perception in its portrayal of relationships as Hustvedt’s. It’s one of those novels I pressed into the hands of friends and family after I read it. Unsurprisingly, then, I was eagerly anticipating His Whole Life, which turned out to be an equally nuanced coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of the 1995 referendum on the separation of Quebec from Canada and its aftermath.

Jim is ten years old when the novel opens as he, his Canadian mother and his American father make their way from New York City to Canada where his uncle and aunt have a lakeside house. For Jim it’s an welcoming place: he’s reunited with Duke, the ancient dog he adores and escapes the opprobrium that follows him around the school playground. For Nan, his sharp-tongued mother, it’s an annual homecoming making years of living in a marriage which is all but coming apart bearable. For George, it feels like a prison, uncomfortable and unsettling. When her brother and sister-in-law are killed in a car crash nine months later, Nan decides to go back to the lake telling George that she will stay until Duke dies having one lost dog on her conscience already, and takes Jim with her. Shortly after they’ve settled in a piratical figure arrives, reminding Jim of his beloved Treasure Island. Lulu is Nan’s dearest childhood friend, unseen for years and now in the midst of the latest in a seemingly endless series of spats with her brother who runs the family farm. An idyllic summer begins for Jim in which he has the company of not one but two dogs and the devoted attention of two women who endlessly chew the fat about everything, from Lulu’s disinheritance to the question of Québécois independence. Hay’s novel follows Jim and his mother over seven difficult years as the bond between them deepens.

‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ asks ten-year-old Jim from the back seat of the family car. This is the question that will recur throughout Hay’s richly complex and intimate portrait of an extended family, each time revealing more about its characters. It’s a novel deeply conscious of the past and the far-reaching consequences of our actions, nostalgic almost elegiac in tone with the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation at its heart. Hay has a beautifully honed turn of phrase: ‘Nan has once told Jim how restful it was to be immersed in a past that was over’; Nan thinks of her young son ‘What a moody stripling he was, Christopher Robin as Job’; Lulu and her brother are ‘always fighting leftover fights’. Jim is a memorable character, too mature for his years as the children of troubled marriages so often are, used to overhearing too many adult conversations. If I have a criticism it is that the splits within the family were a little too neatly mirrored by the political divide between the two sides of the referendum question but Canadian readers may beg to differ. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing and thought-provoking novel, beautifully expressed. I have hopes that it will snag the Baileys Prize judges’ attention.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in March 2015

Dept of SpeculationSpring really does seem to have sprung in the March publishing schedules, stuffed to overflowing as they are with both hardback and paperback goodies. I’ve reviewed  all but one of the paperbacks already so I’ll start with those. Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation featured in a multitude of ‘books of the year’ lists last year although I know opinion was divided in my part of the Twitter woods. The story of a marriage told in fragment, it’s Offill’s second novel and was quite some time in coming – her first was published in 1999. It won’t suit those wanting a plot but the writing is superb.

Probably best skip on a little if it’s linear narrative you’re after – Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World is a collection of documents relating to artist Harriet Burden all collated by I. V. Hess who introduces the book. From the start Hess warns us that Harriet is a self-confessed trickster, telling us that she had shown her installations pseudonymously, hiding behind three male ‘masks’ while planning to reveal her female identity to the resolutely masculine New York art world once the exhibitions were over. Such a short summing-up hardly does the novel justice: it’s erudite, cerebral and challenging but well worth the effort.

Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone made it on to my own ‘books of the year’ list as did Cover imageseveral other novels out in paperback in March. Opening in 1914 it interweaves the stories of Qayyum Gul, who lost an eye at Ypres fighting in the British Indian Army, and Vivien Spencer who is working as an archaeologist in Peshawar. Just as she did with Burnt Shadows, Shamsie takes complex universal themes and humanises them through the lives, loves and passions of her characters.

Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back, another of my books of 2014, is very funny satire which sees Hitler waking up with a terrible headache in August 2011, more than a little bemused but soon all too plausibly back in the frame. Satire can go horribly wrong but Vermes is right on the button. Not surprisingly, it caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published, storming up the bestseller charts and staying there for seventy weeks.

Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I read in 2014. On New Year’s Eve in 1965 Eileen meets Ed Leary on a blind date and when they kiss at midnight she is sure that this quiet, thoughtful man is the one she’ll marry. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

Cover imageJust one title that I haven’t read already: Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. I wasn’t amongst the many fans of Room, cleverly executed as it was, but Frog Music has a very appealing synopsis. Based on real events it’s set in San Francisco during the 1876 smallpox epidemic and is about three former stars of the Parisian circus now holed up in China Town: Blanche who dances at the House of Mirrors, her lover Arthur and his companion Ernest. We’re promised the unravelling of secrets, murder and intrigue in a novel which is ‘elegant, erotic and witty’.

That’s it for March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a review on this blog for all but Frog Music and if you’d like to see which hardbacks caught my eye just click here.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt: An astonishing piece of work

The Blazing WorldWhere to start with Siri Hustvedt’s new novel? Perhaps with a warning that it’s not an easy read. If it’s good old linear narrative you’re after best look elsewhere. The Blazing World is made up of a collection of documents relating to Harriet Burden – interviews; written statements from her friend, her lover and her children; memoir fragments; excerpts from her journals labelled alphabetically although not chronologically; articles from art journals – all collated by I. V. Hess who introduces the book. From the start Hess warns us that Harriet is a self-confessed trickster, telling us that she had shown her installations pseudonymously, hiding behind three male ‘masks’ while planning to reveal her female identity to the resolutely masculine New York art world once the exhibitions were over. An artist whose work had received barely any recognition, Harriet was the wife of a highly respected international art dealer, quietly hosting his dinner parties while inwardly seething at male complacency and feeding her voracious appetite for knowledge. When Felix drops dead one morning, Harriet suffers a severe breakdown until one day her therapist tells her it’s time to begin a new life and she hatches a plan. However, as plans so often do, things go awry: her third mask refuses to play ball, claiming the work as entirely his own.

That’s a very short, very simple summing up of what is an intensely cerebral, complex and challenging novel. It’s likely to have you googling frantically, wrestling with Kierkegaardian philosophy and tracking down details of Margaret Cavendish – Harriet’s seventeenth century alter ego, as Hess helpfully tells us in his introduction, and the author of the original The Blazing World. Harriet’s apparently limitless knowledge proves irksome to many more ignorant denizens of the art world who smile, nod and change the subject – and at times, I must admit,  I found myself in sympathy with them. That said, this is an extraordinary piece of work, astonishing in its erudition. Hustvedt’s descriptions of Harriet’s art are as vivid as I remember from What I Loved, one of my favourite novels. The documents that make up the book are written in many disparate voices, some of which work better than others – I particularly liked Phineas Q Eldridge, the gay black performance artist who is her second male mask, and the contributions from puffed up art critic Oswald Case were very funny. There are as many themes running through the book as there are voices, from feminism to aesthetic perception, identity to sexual ambiguity. It’s bursting with ideas.

Shortly after starting The Blazing World I was reminded of Nat Tate  – William Boyd’s spoof biography of a young artist, long dead, published by David Bowie which was launched in New York back in 1998. I remembered reading what the Oswald Cases had to say about how influential Tate’s work had been before the secret was revealed to them and chortling to myself. Siri Hustvedt has taken a similar idea and worked it into an extraordinary novel – fascinating and deeply ironic. Of course, shortly after I thought of the Nat Tate shenanigans I came across it in her book. There’s very little this woman doesn’t know.