Book Review: Three Things About Elsie

Three Things About Elsie, by Joanna Cannon, is:

  • a tale of a friendship;
  • a murder mystery;
  • a sympathetic study of ageing.

Its protagonist is Florence, an octogenarian living in Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. When the story opens she is lying on the floor of her sheltered accommodation having suffered a fall. As she waits to be found she considers events from the previous month during which a figure from her past returned, triggering memories that she struggled to make sense of.

Memories are a problem for Florence but she receives help from her best friend, Elsie. Florence and Elsie met on a bus when they were children. Later they worked in the same factory and would go dancing together on a Saturday night. This is where they were, sixty years ago, the night Ronnie Butler drowned. Now Ronnie has reappeared, he is Cherry Tree Home’s newest resident. He is introduced by staff as Gabriel Price.

Florence is on probation at the home. Her muddled recollections, shouting and frequent agitation have led the manager, Miss Ambrose, to suggest she may be better off at Greenbank. Florence knows all about Greenbank, that it is a place old people go to fade into themselves and then die. She wants to stay where she is but Miss Ambrose tells her she has lost the ability to judge what is for the best. Florence is frustrated as she struggles to find the right words when she needs them. Her jagged attempts to voice her concerns are routinely dismissed.

Elsie listens to Florence. She helps her friend to sort through her memories when they become jumbled. They tell their friend Jack all about Ronnie and try to piece together how he can possibly be at Cherry Tree when he was buried all those years ago.

Florence has noticed that items in her flat are being moved but the uniformed staff tasked with taking care of residents are familiar with her habit of misplacing things. She becomes scared that Ronnie has gained access to her private rooms and, after all this time, wishes her harm. He knows that she knows what he did to Elsie’s sister before he drowned.

With Elsie’s help Florence gradually retrieves the jigsaw pieces of her past and puts them together. Jack suggests they talk to others who knew Ronnie back in the day. These elderly mystery solvers go in search of triggers that will unlock the final answers still somewhere inside Florence’s head.

A holiday in Whitby, a walk along the beach and a missing person all come together as Florence gradually remembers. Yet even when the picture is finally clear in her mind she must somehow find words to explain, words that Miss Ambrose will hear.

The writing is rich in imagery with the reader experiencing the difficulties of being taken seriously when senescence affects daily behaviour. The point of view switches between Florence and various staff members enabling the reasons residents are treated as they are to be understood.

There are poignant snapshots throughout the tale such as a skip filled with the contents of a vacated room at Cherry Tree, valued photographs and mementoes now carelessly cast away. Florence reflects on her life and wonders if she did anything at all that made a difference or will be remembered. Her predicament is heart-rending but the depiction of senility along with its moments of lucidity are tenderly conveyed, as is Florence’s care of and need for Elsie.

I found the sadness and frustrations vexing to read in places, the richness of certain expressions capturing the essence at times Battenberg sweet. What comes across clearly is the speed at which life passes, and the many facets of even an ordinary life lived.

Florence lying on the floor of her room is confident she will be found and treated with kindness, a kindness she has shown to others throughout her long life. Those who read this book will likely come away more willing to grant even the difficult Florence’s of this world such simple respect. For that, and the slice of a life captured between the pages, this is a story worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Borough Press.

Advertisements

Book Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism

My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix, is an all American story of teenage angst with a somewhat opaque plot. It charts the friendship of Abby and Gretchen, from Abby’s disastrous tenth birthday party which Gretchen just about saves, through their years together at high school and, briefly, beyond. Much of the action takes place when the girls are sixteen.

Abby’s parents struggle financially. With the help of a scholarship she attends a fee paying school where she befriends the children of the area’s wealthy patrons. She blames her parents for the life they lead.

Gretchen enjoys material privilege but must submit to her controlling parents’ staunch Republican beliefs. They welcome Abby into their home where she feels happier than with her own parents. As teenagers, both girls regard adults with disdain.

On a night out at a mutual friend’s rambling riverside home the group experiment with drugs. Gretchen wanders into woodland naked and is not found until the following day. She does not, perhaps cannot, explain what happened during her missing hours but the experience changes her. The reader is left to decide if this is the effect of the drug, anger at her friends for not looking after her better, or demonic possession.

Gretchen falls apart but, as far as Abby is concerned, her parents are more concerned with how their daughter’s behaviour makes them look than with her well-being. When Abby tries to seek help she is faced with friends who are angry and hurt by Gretchen’s change in behaviour, or adults who blame Abby for the experience that triggered Gretchen’s distress.

Determined not to give up on her friend, Abby continues to seek her company in an attempt to recover what she considers to be the real Gretchen. Meanwhile, Gretchen sets out to bring down the three girls who peer pressured her into taking the drugs. Minor punishment is not enough, she seeks their complete annihilation.

Intense friendships and alienation from adults seem to be a staple of American high school dramas. Into this mix is thrown the possibility of some darker force, fuelled by the local horror stories the young people delight in sharing. Gretchen’s actions are undoubtedly evil. The root cause and Abby’s dogged determination to help her erstwhile friend add a degree of distinction.

Chapters are headed by lyrics from eighties music, the time period during which the action is set. The book is bound to resemble a high school yearbook, not something I am familiar with. The protagonists are the clever and cool kids of the class; there is little mention of those who do not fit in.

I had expected to enjoy this story more than I did. In making the trigger to events drugs and the most likeable adults poor it felt moralistic. The casual cruelties and jealousies of the young people along with misunderstandings between generations were well enough presented. Overall though it felt extreme with too much left unexplained. I struggled to engage.

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

Book Review: Randall

randall--paperback

Randall, by Jonathan Gibbs, imagines a world where Damian Hirst dies before he becomes Britain’s most eminent artist provocoteur. That throne is captured by Randall, a conceptual artist whose controversial work causes outrage amongst his closest friends as well as the art establishment and public.

The book is largely written from the point of view of Vincent, a city trader who meets Randall at the opening of his degree show at Goldsmiths in 1989 and ends up joining his circle of closest friends. From the beginning of the tale, set in 2014, we know that Randall is now dead. His widow, Justine, has contacted Vincent and asked him to fly to New York as she has something to show him. This turns out to be a series of recently discovered artworks that have the potential to turn their world upside down.

Vincent has been writing a book about Randall’s life which is presented between the present day chapters. Thus the reader learns of Randall’s rise through the national and then international artworld, and of his views on what is regarded as art. It is challenging, enlightening, amusing and somewhat poignant. Randall took his work seriously whilst mocking those who admired what he produced. He shocked for effect yet whatever he created was considered brilliant. He demanded that his admirers consider what their behaviour towards him illustrated about themselves.

The monetary value of a work of art isn’t based on the initial purchase cost but on its resale value. Art collectors are investors, traders. A piece becomes a part of their collection, its initial raison d’être serving only as an advertisement. Randall made things that looked like art and collectors snapped them up. Does what is considered art even exist or is it what fits with the accepted aesthetics of the time? Art connoisseurs can be somewhat smug, particularly when confronted with those they consider lacking in art appreciation. Randall recognised this and did what he could to rattle the gilded cages of their world.

“When it’s is the studio, it’s still part of the artist. When it’s in the gallery, it’s a commodity”

Vincent’s memoir offers insight into the art world and a somewhat possessive view of a friend. In the background are other artists from Randall’s circle who have different yet also close relationships with the man. Such is the nature of friendship but in presenting it in this way the reader is challenged to consider how well anyone can know another however close they may be, or wish to to be.

Vincent suggests that Randall despised those he relied upon for his fame and fortune, and that he often treated his friends little better. As the reader learns of the artist’s relationship with his wife and son this picture is revealed as somewhat skewed. Perhaps, as with art, each person sees only their own interpretation, coloured by what they are educated to expect.

The writing is deft and provides a fascinating, original and highly readable story. Then there is the ending. This left me wondering if the author had played me as his protagonist was wont to do. Either it is clever and I am not, or this questionning is the point. However I choose to interpret, I am frustrated that I could not complete the circle. Despite my lack, this is a recommended read.

Book Review: A Little Life

a-little-life-978144729481801

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is huge in size and scope yet it contains no waste, no filler. It is an emotionally intelligent exploration of love and friendship which challenges the reader to consider difficult subjects such as childhood abuse, self harm, and the inability to escape memory. Despite this darkness it is also a beautifully written and compelling story.

The book opens in contemporary New York where four classmates from a small Massachusetts college have recently moved to start their careers. Willem is an aspiring actor, JB an undiscovered artist, Malcolm a trainee architect and Jude a lawyer. Each are introduced to the reader through narration of their shared experiences told from the perspectives of the protagonists and those they are close to. The cast is large and effortlessly diverse, their lives both ordinary and extraordinary.

The relationships between these four friends ebbs and flows. Backgrounds and influences are revealed, new friendships forged; partners come and go, priorities change. The bonds between each of the men is stretched to its limit at times as they deal with the altering attention each offers to the others. The writing is raw and powerful, an emotional roller coaster that somehow remains balanced by the quality of the prose.

There is much in the story that is uplifting but it has a dark heart. The impact of Jude’s memories effects each of the men. The intensity of certain sections relating to Jude’s childhood and his subsequent need to self-harm is challenging to read, but these grim and explicit passages are necessary for understanding. They are detailed but not sensationalist. The personal reflections allow the reader to better empathise even when action or inaction generates despair.

As the plot progresses so too does the depth of the storytelling. The writing is sparse in places, lyrical in others, but always impressive. The friends age and the layers of their lives are peeled back revealing a tenderness to counter the horror; a love story in the purest sense.

This is a remarkable literary achievement which left me feeling emotionally stunned but exceptionally satisfied. A Little Life is, quite possibly, the best book I have ever read.

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

Friendship in a virtual world

social-media-students

I have a presence on a large number of social media sites. My use of them depends largely on who I know on each one, my interactions and relationships with followers. The majority of my socialising happens on line and I employ few filters. Where others fear for their privacy I see little of interest in my life to hide. I feel no need to present the world with anything other than what I am.

As a teenager I was an avid letter writer, and when electronic communication became possible I embraced it. From packaged messages sent across linked mainframes, through to email and instant text messaging, I welcomed the opportunity to contact distant friends without having to pick up a phone. I have always felt more comfortable with written rather than spoken words.

I joined Friends Reunited and then Facebook. I reconnected with friends I had not been in regular touch with for over twenty years, able once again to keep up with the aspects of their everyday lives that they were willing to share. More local friends were putting details of their social lives on line and I felt better acquainted with them than I had previously managed through our occasional, passing conversations. I could only see what they chose to post, but such filters exist in any social space.

I use Pinterest as a type of openly available filing cabinet for my thoughts on books and films; Goodreads allows me to connect with other readers and share detailed book reviews and recommendations; Tumblr I browse more than I post, using it for entertainment rather than for any personal connection; Google+ I am still getting to grips with. I use each of these sites irregularly, for specific purposes that I have tailored to suit me.

More recently I have started to use Twitter a great deal, linking up with other writers around the world as well as following those who can keep me abreast of news that is not widely reported in the mainstream media. Twitter has a fast moving news feed that is not always reliable, but is currently one of my favourite sites as it allows comment that has not been filtered as ‘suitable’ for general consumption. In many ways I feel it gives me a window on the world, with the caveat that I can only see it through the eyes of those I choose to connect with.

Facebook is now falling out of favour. I get that it needs to make money to survive, but the personal touch is being drowned out by commercial interests. Whereas I am comfortable sharing, many of my family and friends distrust the way it uses our personal data. If less is shared the site’s purpose and attraction are diminished. As Facebook is my means of linking with people I know personally, those I may still connect with in the outernet, I will not be leaving it any time soon. The pleasure gained from it’s earlier incarnations though has been tarnished.

I do wonder about what I share on the various sites. I put up links to news articles that interest me with no idea if they will be of interest to anyone else. I amuse myself with occasional Buzzfeed type quizzes and share results, aware that some will see this as irritating clutter on their newsfeeds. I promote my writing to an audience that may have no interest whatsoever in the stories that I create.

My on line space is my own and I will use it in a way that suits me. Followers can always unfollow, friends can unfriend or choose to hide what I post. There is though the fear of causing offence by rejection. I feel hugged when I see my stats rise, question the worth of my posts when the numbers fall. Particularly with my writing, the links that I regularly tweet, I worry that my self promotion irritates.

My on line life is time consuming but is now my main link to the world outside my home. Alongside the life I have led and the books that I read, it provides inspiration for my stories. The writers I connect with encourage me to continue, read what I write, and help me gauge what has worked and what has not. I value the feedback I receive from all quarters.

I am not always so good at responses. Particularly on my blogs I am delighted when readers take the time to comment, yet I struggle to talk back to these generous souls. It would seem that conversations on line come no more naturally to me than face to face. I feel awkward and tongue tied, worried that what I write will not be read in the way that I mean.

When I hear social media derided I feel saddened as it has enriched my life despite it’s challenges and limitations. I understand that, particularly amongst young people who may be judged in the future for information they post now, prudence may be wise. For me though it offers a chance to connect on my terms. I can pick up a computer at a time that suits me, set it down if my attention is required elsewhere. Unlike a phone call demanding immediate attention with it’s shrill ringtone, my on line life need not intrude.

Join me then readers, reach out and connect. Within the confines of my sheltered, virtual world, I would very much like to be your friend.

 

 

Waiting out a mind disturbance

I have been thinking about friendship, about the ebb and flow of friends. I do not consider myself to be a particularly good friend. I do not invest enough of my time in maintaining the bond that close friendships require.

Relationships are rarely evenly balanced. There may be give and take on both sides but these do not always match expectations. Resentments can grow when effort appears to go unappreciated, or when demands are perceived to be too great. I have walked away from people in the past because time and again they asked for more than I felt comfortable giving. I find it easier to give than to take, but can only offer so much for so long.

I do not blame the people that I have walked away from but rather my own requirements from the relationship. I suspect that I am not an easy person to befriend with my regular need for solitude and my social awkwardness. What I am capable of giving may well not be what the recipient requires.

Over the past few days it has felt as though the internet has not been my friend. My main source of information and communication has not been providing me with the satisfaction that I have come to expect. I suspect that I am asking too much. Walking away is a possibility, taking a break from going on line. This is not a solution though if the problem lies closer to home.

I have a favourite t-shirt which has this image on it.

A84kLAzCEAAov07

I try to live my life like that, enjoying the journey rather than focusing too much on an end point, a result. In so many areas throughout life we are encouraged to strive for something rather than taking time to notice the good things to be enjoyed along the way.

Last month I decided to sign up for the 100 Happy Days challenge (detailed here http://100happydays.com/ ). I am struggling to continue with this, to pick out a different aspect of each day to focus on. I am undecided if the challenge is proving to be counter productive given that my inability to post each day is making me feel that I am failing.

It is not that I am feeling particularly negative, rather I am suffering a disturbance of my inner peace or balance. Non specifics are bothering me and my usual sources of calm are not helping.

I can walk away from others, from the internet, but I cannot walk away from myself. Zen Dog’s little boat has reached choppy waters.

I must find ways to hold on whilst minimising the damage. I know that this too shall pass.

birdrain

Hanging out on line

I have had a Facebook account for several years. Without it I would know a lot less about the lives of many friends I rarely see. Of course I am aware that I am only being offered the briefest of edited snapshots of their lives, but still. Still it is more than I would otherwise be offered; I am grateful for the little that I am given, for the link into a chink of their lives.

I was encouraged to join Facebook by a friend with whom I used to exchange regular emails. Since he and I have been on this supposedly social site we have not been as intimate. Can a largely electronic, text based relationship be described as intimate? I think that it can. I regret our loss of intimacy as I value the friendship and felt that I was giving something back. Inverted selfishness; I valued being able to give, as much because of the benefits to me as for the hoped for value to him.

On Facebook I keep most of my settings private. I try to take care over what I post, particularly photographs. I try to take care over who I will accept as a friend. I realise though that much of this is an illusion. The real reason why my friendship list is so small is because there are few people who seek me out. I have never in my life been one of the popular people.

This year my use of the internet has changed. I started to blog and put out links to my writing on various sites in order to encourage readers to pay me some attention. Having spent years carefully watching and listening, I started to put a chunk of myself online, accessible to all. I started to say what I thought and, more especially, how I felt. I started to befriend the internet in a way that I had never managed with the face to face people I knew.

As well as setting up this WordPress site I made use of Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and Google+. It took me some time to get into the rhythm of Twitter but, at times, this is my favourite medium for news and expression. It offers soundbite communication and easy sharing of other’s musings in a quickly digestible, largely disposable format. When we attend large gatherings of friends and acquaintances isn’t most conversation like that?

I set up my Google+ quite some time ago but have only just started to use it in the past few weeks. I am not yet comfortable with the settings which seem tricky to manage compared to Facebook. Last week I commented on a Youtube video that amused me, and was quite shocked to see a link appear on my Google+ feed, shared with my circles, many of whom I know only from the blogosphere. I need to learn how to share more carefully on this medium. I need to decide how I wish to use it.

In general though, my active pursuit of an on line profile has made me less concerned about personal privacy. I question whether I have much to hide. I started to write under the moniker zeudytigre and that has largely stuck, but my Twitter account uses my given name and I now link it to this blog.

I also use my given name on Pinterest where I record my book and film reviews. I am not into cutesy craft, fashion or home improvements. I have managed to make this site work for me, the way I want it to. I may still add a board to link to this blog though; I want people to read me. I feel a sense of embarrassment admitting that.

Of all the sites to which I ascribe, my Tumblr is probably the maverick. I have yet to find a use for it beyond a means to take the pulse of a world of young people who know how to think for themselves. It gives me hope for the future. Whether or not I can harness it for myself remains to be seen; perhaps that will be my next project.

In November I took part in NaNoWriMo, an experience that gave me more confidence as a writer. I decided that I would like to pursue my fictional writing so set up a second WordPress blog as a home for some my short stories (Dreams and Demons). I also joined the writer’s community at Tipsy Lit (link via my sidebar button). I am gaining a lot of pleasure from this new direction and have had some positive feedback from other writers, which is always very satisfying. I still feel somewhat reluctant to describe myself as a writer.

With all of this activity to manage it now feels as though the internet is my hangout. I certainly feel more comfortable here than I ever did at physical gatherings of people. The one thing that I do need to watch is that I do not stop reading the books that do so much to feed my mind, essential if I wish to improve my writing. I can spend far too long on line.

As well as my writer’s pseudonym I continue to use my original avatar rather than a personal photograph on many of the on line sites that I frequent. As a back garden hen keeper, the picture of a mother hen with her three eggs seemed to suit me (I have three children). I feel more comfortable being known by that picture than by my face. Perhaps, in time, I will gain enough confidence to allow my true self to be seen more often.

As my children have grown away from me to pursue their own lives I have felt a need to fill the void that they left. My writing has offered me this possibility. Those who mistrust the internet and wonder at my willingness to open up to on line strangers may well be those who can easily socialise off line. As I am not comfortable in such an environment this space has allowed me to interact with like minded people who I would struggle to meet otherwise. My hope for the coming year is that I may expand my community of acquaintances and continue to find help and inspiration, as well as readers, amongst those I meet.

Finding the readers is a tricky balancing act. I wish to promote what I write but do not wish it to be the only aspect of my conversation. I do not wish to use my social networks purely for self advertising as that alone is bound to put people off linking to me. I am not yet confident that what I write is worth other’s time, that it is good enough to warrant their attention.

If this is where I go to party then I desire conversation more than mass attention. I wish to discuss, dissect and muse over the significant and the inane. I am interested in books, films, current affairs and politics; I am not interested in celebrities, cooking or fashion. I seek out the blogs and the sites managed by those who offer me insight and feedback.

Am I still only using my ‘friends’ for my own means? Perhaps that is all that any of us ever do. Perhaps the best that we can hope for is that we may also give enough back to make the interaction worthwhile for all concerned.

ChickenCartoon