Tag Archives: The Blazing World

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…

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.