Book Review: Autumn, by Ali Smith

Available in bookshops nationwide.Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_autumnWhile this novel was promoted as the “first post-Brexit novel” it is far more than a story about opinions and divisions. Rather, it reads like poetry and narrative twisting together. The chapters are interspersed with reflections, lists, words, musings which create an impression rather than telling a straight line story.

But there is a story line, or rather two. Elisabeth (the spelling matters) is an art history lecturer struggling with the down-sizing and marginalising of her subject. The second story is about a 101-year-old Daniel Gluck who was her neighbour and babysitter in her childhood. He is now in a care home and she acknowledges the part he played in introducing her to, “arty art,” in which she majored at university. Even the subject of her dissertation, Pauline Boty, is based on a real person and the real events surrounding her life and works. It is this movement between worlds which are real and imagined that gives the book such beauty.

Autumn is the first of a quartet based on the seasons. Ali Smith has already established herself as an inventive writer and the way she plays with words, thoughts, time and events is innovative and exciting. This is not a straight-line story. The plot moves forward but slips sideways to fill in the spaces at the edges. Amid such innovation she uses an ageless framing device for the overall story. At the beginning the young Elisabeth is asked for a” Portrait in Words of my next door neighbour”. Towards the end of the story we are given the completed exercise. It is written in the unpunctuated language of a young girl, but the portrait includes much of what has been uncovered in the story.

I enjoyed Autumn more as a drifting, reflective read than a gripping tale. It reminded me that language can be so much more than words on a page. Language can paint, can emote, can create.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Autumn
by Ali Smith
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd
ISBN 9780241207017

Book Review: The News: A User’s Manual, by Alain de Botton

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_news_a_users_manual

I loved this book so much that when I left the review copy on a plane, I scoured the bookshops of Palo Alto to buy another.

In part, that was because the gentle wit of the philosopher Alain de Botton made what threatened to be an irritating panegyric so enjoyable to a purveyor of the dark craft of journalism, such as myself.

And in part, it was because de Botton slyly manages both to critique the shallow, manipulative ways of the news agenda while also suggesting that much of its appeal lies in its ability to give shape and meaning to our own, far more ordinary lives than those described in the pages of most news publications.

He also manages, for 255 pages, to come up with an endless supply of entertaining examples of the sorts of news he’s talking about.

For example, he identifies in his preface several classics of the genre: man falls asleep on a motorway overpass and crashes onto a caravan below, killing a family of five; a murder in which the victim is “found in pieces in the truck of a minicab”; a story that “rehearses the particulars of an affair between a tennis coach and her 13 year-old pupil.”

“These occurrences, so obviously angry_mandemented, invite us to feel sane and blessed by comparison,” writes de Botton. “We can turn away from them and experience a new sense of relief at our predictable routines, at how tightly bound we have kept our more unusual desires, and at our restraint in never yet having poisoned a colleague or entombed a relation under the patio.”

Beautifully put.

He skewers the reader too, cheerfully admitting tedium at a story on council housing rent reform as an example of “headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged.”

“Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organisations of modern democracies.”

In the same edition, he notes there’s a “story about an incestuous cannibal in Australia that requires no effort whatsoever. Perhaps one is, at heart, a truly shallow and irresponsible citizen.”

Gotcha, indeed!newspaper pile

Part of the problem is that there is no shortage of newsworthy facts.

“The issue is not that we need more of them, but that we don’t know what to do with the ones we have.”

And while Hegel may have argued that the news has replaced religion in modern society, religion repeats just a few messages to drum into us certain behaviours. The news, by comparison, bombards us with so much useless knowledge that it often provokes inertia – or rage.

“In hock to the excitements and commercial advantages of rage, the news cruelly ignores the project of consolation,” writes de Botton, who touchingly suggests that the news should adopt such a constructive agenda as part of its reason for being if it’s not just to be a blight on our tempers.

However, the news is unsympathetic to the truth that “it would be impossible for anyone– not just this fool or that group of cretins – to change matters at a pace that would flatter the expectations of the news cycle.”

He picks apart the journalistic conceit that he calls “gaffe journalism”, where a momentary lapse into stupidity by a normally sensible public figure becomes the news, simply because it’s so easy to do.

De Botton is particularly and enjoyably brutal in revealing to a new generation of readers that hating the media is a hardy perennial pursuit.

gustave_flaubertGustave Flaubert, the 19th century author of Madame Bovary, hated the news so much that he came to believe the only people capable of having ideas of their own were the illiterate, since the news was producing a new kind of idiocy actually created by the distribution of pre-digested knowledge.

“Flaubert hated newspapers because of his conviction that they slyly encouraged readers to hand over to others a task that no honest person should ever consent to offload onto someone else: thinking.”

That struck a chord. I’ve often suspected I became a journalist because I didn’t believe what I read in the paper. The News, A User’s Guide, has helped confirm that prejudice while putting a smile on face at every page.

by Pattrick Smellie, BusinessDesk

Pattrick Smellie is a journalist, so he presumably knows what he’s on about.

The News: A User’s Manual
by Alain de Botton
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd
ISBN 9780241146477

Book review: NW by Zadie Smith

This book is in bookstores now. It was also the Listener Book Club book for September.

NW starts out like an Ian McEwan novel – something like Saturday. We’re in the city – the kind that doesn’t so much bustle with vim and vigour but the one where there are just so many, many people living side by side, where strangers occasionally bump up against each other disturbing the trajectory.

Leah Hanwell is interrupted by a knock at her door; an interruption by a stranger where a small incident takes place, which later (once she’s reported it to friends and family) continues to build in her own consciousness to overtake everything she does – her actions, thoughts and life.

Just as we’re hooked into ‘visitation’ (pages 1-84) it’s over and we’re off elsewhere. But with the perfect set-up for a book filled with neurosis and social angst where people with issues like drug addiction and homelessness live alongside those whose biggest issue is they’re bored with their perfect life.

Like many books I read, I started NW on the train home from work. The problem with this approach is that the other commuters often won’t shut the hell up about their moulting dogs and cats whiskers and horse jumps long enough to properly get into a new novel. I felt distracted, pulled from the narrative into my own thoughts, the conversations of others; led down paths of thought into nowhere lands. But that’s the point.

NW is often built mainly in fragments. It’s the story of the lives of Leah Hanwell and Keisha (later renamed Natalie) Blake, which at times reads like an every story of people my age. Sure, I didn’t grow up in a rough area of a big city and I’ve never listed myself as available for threesomes on Craig’s List but I have strived to achieve something in life, do the right thing, get on a good path, been bored, wondered what it’s all about… doesn’t everyone? Or everyone my age with first world problems.

I have the good fortune to be about the same age as Zadie Smith so at times I’d come across sentences, paragraphs, descriptions that were like secret codes of familiarity for my own life. I don’t think you’ll miss anything by being older or younger, there’s just a certain pleasure in recognising the long-forgotten but familiar actions and occurrences of your past.

“Nathan Bogle: the very definition of desire for girls who had previously only felt that way about certain fragrant erasers.” (Page 40)

36. Nirvana
“Leah would surely be in her room, clutching his picture, weeping.” (Page 168)

“That night they went to the Swiss Cottage Odeon to see a film about a man dressed as a woman so that he could keep an eye on his children for reasons Keisha found herself too distracted to even begin to comprehend.” (Page 171)

Zadie Smith’s characters’ never-ending search for happiness and contentment coupled with their ongoing neurosis mirrors what I read in my friend’s Facebook feeds, Twitter ponderings and blogs.

Essentially, we’re all just living and trying to get along but it’s just never enough is it? It’s:

  • I’m an over achiever but I’m bored
  • I feel overwhelmed today but yet feel that I haven’t achieved as much as someone whose blog I read this morning
  • I posted something online but nobody’s looking at me/it
  • I feel guilty because I enjoyed myself
  • That person’s blog makes their life look perfect and easy – why isn’t mine like that?

And this is what I like. I really enjoy stream of consciousness writing and descriptive text. I love stories that focus on the minutia of character’s lives without clearly having an overarching plot – or be obviously heading to a satisfying crescendo.

I like that NW is about the everyday; the things that happen while you’re busy making other plans (it’s a bit of a theme for me this year).

This wasn’t a book that I read at a clipping pace. It’s a novel I entirely forgot to think about when I wasn’t reading it but it was always easy to dip back in and out of and overall was a piece of writing that was adept and that provoked thought and consideration.

It’s also that rare thing for me – a book that I’d consider reading again just so I could fit more pieces of the puzzle together.

Reviewed by Emma McCleary, web editor at Booksellers NZ

NW
by Zadie Smith
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd
ISBN 9780241145555