Book Review: Real Life

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else.”

The protagonist of Real Life, Wallace, is four years into a graduate degree in biochemistry at a university in the Midwest of America. He grew up in Alabama and had been trying for a long time to leave. He wishes to put his former self behind him – to reinvent how he is perceived. The group he connected with online before arrival at the university – as part of organised orientation – became his closest friends, although still at a remove. He describes them as attractive and, unlike him, pale skinned. Race is an ongoing issue and one he believes they cannot understand. He resents their lack of empathy and interest in this.

Set over an intense and hot weekend, the story told has the vibe of A Little Life. It opens just after Wallace discovers that the lab experiment he has been working on through the summer months has been contaminated, possibly maliciously. Reacting to this, he breaks a habit of keeping his distance, going out to socialise by a nearby lake. Here he admits to his friends that his father died some weeks ago. Although they were estranged, the undercurrent of grief Wallace must process cuts through how he behaves: “people don’t know what to do with your shit, with the reality of other people’s feelings”

There is toxicity in the various relationships described that is brutal in its honesty – biased towards negative aspects. Wallace’s observations of the crowd gathered by the lake are almost cruel – “faces tight in the sort of mean way that fit people carry”, “older people, their bodies and lives gone soft, here to recapture some bit of the past like coaxing fireflies into a jar.”

It is, however, refreshing to read of a group of American students in their twenties rather than of more typical high school or college age – an acknowledgement that learning and personal development continue. The setting is still closed and protected, something that Wallace is growing ever more aware of. In striving to be here, but then not finding the happiness and acceptance he expected, he is struggling with what may come next. He sees racism in how he is treated but cannot articulate this: “people can be unpredictable in their cruelty”

Wallace is gay and, over the course of the weekend, hooks up with one of the men from his friendship group. The sex they indulge in is vividly described – and repeatedly brutal. Despite this, Wallace ponders the possibility of a loving relationship, “an inoculation against the uncertainty of the future.”

Wallace appears incapable of giving anything of himself except as a vessel to be used and abused. He then struggles to contain the internal anger generated. The reader will come to understand this better as more of Wallace’s backstory is revealed. “Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life.”

Much of the action described involves people brushing up against each other, never really knowing the other, translating interactions vaguely. Friends who believe they are close grow irritated when behaviour is not as anticipated. Wallace’s view of friendship is grimly tainted, “a pantomime of intimacy, a cult of happiness”

Personal dramas – the issues they raise – are explored through dialogue and the dissection of responses to what is being said. There are repeated references to the senses, particularly how Wallace perceives the smell and taste of people and place. His friends accuse him of being selfish while he regards himself as always giving – behaving in a way that will make his dark skin more acceptable.

The writing style is rich and evocative but the relentless savagery in thought and behaviour remains disturbing. Settings feel claustrophobic. Characters seek personal happiness amidst thwarted expectations. Although well structured and paced, I did not find the story compelling. I learned lessons on the sociology of academia, and on the challenges faced by someone who looks obviously different to those he mixes with, but the lives of all the characters are portrayed as lonely and facing little prospect of improvement given described attitudes.

Any Cop?: I can understand why this made the Booker shortlist and would be neither surprised nor disappointed if it were to win. I would, however, think carefully before recommending such a dark depiction of life to certain readers.

London Bookshops #BookshopDay #BAMB

Today is National Bookshop Day, organised in conjunction with Books Are My Bag, a collaboration between publishers, bookshops and authors to celebrate these friendly, knowledgeable  havens and help keep them on our high streets. Bookshops are businesses – we need to use them or lose them.

Last Thursday, due to an event cancellation that came two days after I had booked my transport to London to attend, I travelled up to the capital to spend the day visiting the bookshops I am familiar with thanks to on line bookish friends – what better way to make use of a bus ticket now surplus to requirements. The sun shone as I walked a ten mile circuit enjoying the architecture and revelling in the opportunity to discover for myself why these bookshops regularly appear on my social media feeds.

Arriving in Victoria Coach Station around lunchtime I met up with my daughter and we made our way past Hyde Park and north to Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street.

   

Described as a bookshop for travellers, stock is organised by location. My daughter, a fantasy fiction fan, was unable to find an Out Of This World section but they seem to have Planet Earth well covered. The bookshop itself is gorgeous. I was pleased to discover many books from the independent publishers I read.

   

We then headed south to Piccadilly where we visited the UK’s oldest bookshop, Hatchards.

   

This is another gorgeous shop with a warren of rooms to explore over several floors. It proudly proclaims itself bookseller to the Queen. I wonder what she enjoys reading.

Just down the road from Hatchards is the huge flagship store for Waterstones.

This is Europe’s largest bookshop offering over eight miles of shelves. We could have spent a lot longer here than we had time for.

   

From Piccadilly I was left to my own devices for a few hours so headed to Charing Cross Road, a mecca for booklovers, to vist Foyles, the only bookshop visited that I had been to before.

As well as browing the shelves I enjoyed a cup of coffee in the cafe, surrounded by friends.

   

Suitably refreshed I set out on another stretch of my planned route, heading west through Bloomsbury to Persephone Books.

   

This small but perfectly presented bookshop, in a lovely location, fronts a publishing business that:

“reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. All of our 122 books are intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written and are chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial.”

The books are so aesthetically pleasing I wanted to buy a stack just to admire them on my shelves. I can feel a new collector’s seed germinating.

To finish the day I had arranged to meet back with my daughter at Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road.

This was the only part of the day that did not meet expectations. The bookshop provides signed first editions, fine quality books that will be future investments. It is not really a bookshop to browse. Having spent more time than was probably necessary ascertaining that there were no further rooms where more ordinary books were displayed I left regretting that I had not done a little more research.

With shops closing their doors for the day I met my daughter at Piccadilly, pleased that I had her company as I waited for the late bus I was booked on. Although not arriving home until the wee small hours, it was a fine way to spend a day.

 

One bookshop I did not visit was the Big Green Bookshop as I will be there next week when I travel up to the capital again for an event I hope will not be cancelled – Not The Booker Live.

 

 

 

Chatting to independent publisher, Daunt Books

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As part of my feature on the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited those publishers whose books made it through to the shortlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Karen from Daunt Books. I review their contender, Light Box by KJ Orr, here.

An introduction – who are you and what you aim to achieve?

Founded in 2010, the Daunt Books imprint is dedicated to publishing brilliant works by talented authors from around the world. Whether reissuing beautiful new editions of lost classics or publishing debut works by fresh voices, our titles are inspired by the Daunt Books shops themselves and the exciting atmosphere of discovery to be found in a good bookshop. With our roots as a travel bookshop, we aim to publish narratives with a strong sense of place.

How have things changed in publishing since you started?

When I started in publishing it was 2008 and everyone was terrified eBooks were going to destroy the publishing industry and bookshops. They’ve certainly had an effect, but it hasn’t been nearly as extreme as first thought. I also think the books being published today are more diverse than they were a decade ago. There’s still lots of room for improvement, but it’s good to see a broader range of books from authors with varied backgrounds and experiences. 

Your experience of prize listings – what are the costs and benefits, monetary or otherwise?

We don’t have a huge list to begin with and many of our titles aren’t eligible for prizes because they’re reissues, but for titles that are eligible, we submit them for all the prizes we possibly can. Our author KJ Orr won the BBC Short Story Award last year and it’s been great for her collection, Light Box. For us, the benefits certainly outweigh the costs.

The future – where would you like to see your small press going?

We’ve been steadily growing since we started in 2010, and we’ll continue to grow. We’d like to commission more translations in the future, and continue to publish both original titles and re-discovered classics.

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Click on the book cover above to check out what others are saying about Light Box. You may also wish to buy the book.

Book Review: Light Box

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Light Box, by K.J. Orr, is a collection of eleven short stories exploring the multitudinous ripples caused by people as they interact and react to life’s experiences. The writing is vivid and sharply felt. As each of the characters is affected by the actions of others and their surroundings there is a shift in perceptions, be it a realisation of regret or the understated recognition of required change.

In The Inland Sea two brothers skip school to set out on an adventure. Although no strangers to personal loss they have lived a sheltered life within a close community. Recent visitors from abroad expanded their vision and now they can envisage a wider world than they have known thus far. They do not yet comprehend the potential cost of broadening their horizons seeing only the beauty and excitement of new experience.

The Shallows and Blackout look at the impact of small decisions made by young people which have far reaching effects, not only on themselves. Although not dwelling on how they cope with any regrets there is a knowledge that life has many such ‘what if’ situations and that even inadvertent wrongs cannot be undone, becoming hard to forget.

Disappearances and The Ice Cream Song is Strange offer perspectives from those approaching the latter stages of their lives when what they have made for themselves, what seemed important, is somehow stripped back and laid bare offering a discomforting insight on what they are and what could have been.

“What do you do when you stop? When you have been up and running for such a long time, what is it you do? When you’re used to a schedule that takes care of each second of the day? When there is no goal?”

In several stories the dislocation of travel is explored, both the getting away and the return. There is the seeking out of an expected satisfaction that may prove difficult to attain. There is the repulsion felt when personal space is invaded.

By the Canal and The Island present young men acting in ways that cause their partners to view them in a new light. How they are subsequently perceived is altered; going forward requires a change of direction. Partners are chosen based on an image created by the beholder which will always be at risk unknown by the beheld.

The snapshots of each life look at what is shown to the world, what is hidden and what seeps out anyway. The stories are intricate webs of emotion as much as action. They speak of the shifting sands of each protagonist’s inner thoughts and how these are shaped by the ripples caused by those they meet.

The writing is subtle, precise and elegantly put together. Each tale offers a clarity of thought that demands careful contemplation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading each work and especially what it revealed about wider peoples. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Daunt Books.