#indiechallenge – Clio Rising (Paula Martinac)

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The blurb

In 1983, Livvie Bliss leaves western North Carolina for New York City, armed with a degree in English and a small cushion of cash from a favorite aunt. Her goal is to launch a career in publishing, but more important, to live openly as a lesbian. A rough start makes Livvie think she should give up and head home, but then a new friend helps her land a job at a literary agency run by the formidable Bea Winston.

Bea hopes Livvie’s Southern charm and “boyish” good looks will help her bond with one of the agency’s most illustrious clients—the cranky Modernist writer Clio Hartt, a closeted octogenarian lesbian of the Paris Lost Generation who has rarely left her Greenwich Village apartment in four decades. When Livvie becomes Clio’s gofer and companion, the plan looks like it’s working: The two connect around their shared Carolina heritage, and their rapport gives Clio support and inspiration to think about publishing again.

But something isn’t quite right with Clio’s writing. And as Livvie learns more about Clio’s relationship with playwright Flora Haynes, uncomfortable parallels begin to emerge between Livvie’s own circle of friends and the drama-filled world of expatriate artists in the 1920s.

In Clio’s final days, the writer shares a secret that could upend Livvie’s life—and the literary establishment.

The author

Paula Martinac is the author of four published novels and a collection of short stories. Her debut novel Out of Time won the 1990 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. She has published three nonfiction books on lesbian and gay culture and politics as well as numerous articles, essays, and short stories. Also a playwright, her works have had productions with Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company, Manhattan Theatre Source, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, No Name Players, and others. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The publisher

Bywater Books describes itself as representing “the coming of age of lesbian fiction… committed to bringing the best of contemporary lesbian writing to a discerning readership.”

How I got this book

I won this in the Women & Words Hootenanny giveaway.

The bingo card

This might count towards: ‘A Woman’s Press’; ‘An author from another country’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘Marginalised people’; or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

A historical novel with two layers: the narrator, Livvie, goes to New York in the 1980s to find a job and the lesbian scene. The job puts her in contact with Clio Hartt, a giant of the lesbian literary coterie in 1930s Paris and author of The Dismantled, but now living alone in a Greenwich Village apartment.

The Dismantled is a classic, but Clio has published nothing since. Livvie’s job is to try to get Clio writing again, which seems to lead inevitably into digging into her past to find out why she stopped writing in the first place. I enjoyed (and occasionally cringed at) Livvie’s attempts to find out, but the big twist behind this felt a bit like a fuss about nothing to me. I couldn’t quite buy it on an emotional level.

Livvie’s relationship drama tended to come second to her investigation of Clio’s past. This worked for me, if only because I wasn’t massively invested in it, and I rather liked the low-key way in which it played out.

I enjoyed the evocation of 1980s New York, and the contrast with Livvie’s Southern background. My own preference would have been for a little more inter-war Paris, though that’s purely personal, and the structure worked well as it was.

There was some period-typical but narratively unnecessary biphobia, which made me find the character it came from rather less sympathetic than she was intended to be.

I ought to have loved this one, dealing as it does with settings that I find fascinating, but overall it fell a bit flat for me.

Engaging with the tradition

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A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend about what I was writing and what he’d been watching. I’m writing the sequel to Speak Its Name, which in its current state is mostly about vocations and relationships and what they do to each other. He’d been watching Fleabag, and thought that it had quite a lot to say to what I was doing, and had I seen it?

I said that I hardly watch any TV at all, because I lack the staying power. I can keep up with something for one or two episodes, but then life gets in the way and I get behind. (So I mostly watch Doctor Who, where you can dip in and out and it makes just as much sense as if you had managed to see last week’s episode.) So no, I hadn’t seen Fleabag.

But it’s a very good point. Whatever you’re writing about, whatever genre you’re writing in, someone will have been there first. (And if you don’t engage with that tradition, then there’s a very real danger of making yourself look like an utter plonker. See: Ian McEwan and sci-fi.)

Speak Its Name and whatever-the-sequel’s-going-to-be-called sit not quite comfortably within the Barchester genre. And that is a tradition that I’ve been engaging with ever since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation (Fit Persons To Serve In The Sacred Ministry of Thy Church: representations of Anglican clergy 1855-65) if not before (my mother, seeing me with a copy of Glittering Images shortly before my A-level exams, prudently removed it from me). Most recently, of course, there’s been Catherine Fox‘s Lindchester. Sometimes I think I’m engaged not so much in a dialogue with Lindchester as in a stand-up screaming match, while at the same time finding it intensely familiar and moving. So maybe I’ll get round to watching Fleabag, or more probably I won’t, but I think I’ve probably done enough homework there.

A Spoke in the Wheel is slightly different. Not so much in terms of genre – I suppose it’s somewhere between a romance and a social problem novel – but in terms of subject matter. I read loads of cycling books, but they were all non-fiction. Most of them were memoirs.

There isn’t really a tradition, you see. Elsewhere (and elsewhen – almost a decade ago, in fact) on the Internet, William Fotheringham has a list of the top ten cycling novels. They’re a mixed bag, and the diversity of genres represented suggests that he had to scratch around quite a lot to find any ten, let alone a top ten.

If I were feeling inspired I’d try matching the titles to the various roles within a team (sprinter, GC contender, domestique, grimpeur, rouleur, etc), but I’m feeling a bit too tired for that. And I’ve only attempted three of them in recent years. (I’m sure I must have had The Adventure of the Priory School read to me when I was a child, but it hasn’t stuck.)

  • Cat ought to be the sort of thing I’d love, but every time I’ve tried it I’ve foundered on the extended passages in italic type.
  • Three Men on the Bummel is not quite as good as Three Men in a Boat, and contains quite a lot of tedious national stereotyping.
  • The Rider was the one I saved for after I’d finished writing A Spoke In The Wheel, because when something’s been sold as ‘the best cycling novel of all time’, it’s a bit intimidating when you’re just trying to write a decent one.

And I’ve now downloaded The Wheels of Chance (thank you, Project Gutenberg).

Actually, the one cycling book I’m really glad I didn’t read before starting ASITW is Fotheringham‘s own Put Me Back On My Bike. I just don’t think I’d have had the nerve to write about fictional doping with that magnificent and uncomfortably vivid account of the tragedy of Tom Simpson always in the back of my mind.

 

* Having said that, I’ve now watched all of Good Omens, so it turns out that I’m perfectly capable of watching television when somebody else organises it and when it’s a day that I didn’t have earmarked for writing. I’m still two episodes behind on Gentleman Jack, though, and it’ll be three if I don’t get my act together this weekend.

#indiechallenge – First Time Ever (Peggy Seeger)

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The blurb

Born in New York City in 1935, Peggy Seeger enjoyed a childhood steeped in music and politics. Her father was the noted musicologist Charles Seeger; her mother, the modernist composer Ruth Crawford; and her brother Pete, the celebrated writer of protest songs.

After studying at Radcliffe College, in 1955 Peggy left to travel the world. It was in England that she met the man, some two decades older and with a wife and family, with whom she would share the next thirty-three years: the actor, playwright and songwriter Ewan MacColl. Together, Peggy and Ewan helped lay the foundations of the British folk revival, through the formative – and controversial – Critics Group and the landmark BBC Radio Ballads programmes. And as Ewan’s muse, Peggy inspired one of the twentieth century’s greatest love songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.

Peggy’s life comprises art and passion, family and separation, tragedy, celebration and the unexpected – and irresistible – force of love. It would by any standards be an extraordinary story, but what elevates her account is the beauty of the writing: it is clear-eyed and playful, luminous and melodic, fearless, funny and always truthful, from the first word to the last.

The publisher

Faber & Faber calls itself ‘one of the world’s great publishing houses’. It was founded in London 90 years ago. I’d associated it more with the highbrow end of the market and with poetry, but it also does things like the QI tie-in gift books.

How I got this book

Around my way, there’s a tradition of leaving unwanted items outside one’s front gate in case someone else likes the look of it and takes it away. I liked the look of this and took it away.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; possibly ‘Biography’, though Seeger in fact recommends someone else’s biography of her to be read alongside this to fill in the gaps; ‘A press over 20 years old’; ‘Non-fiction’, and, despite the blurb’s strenuous attempt to ignore the fact, ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

I think Peggy Seeger is great. I saw her perform at Cambridge Folk Festival a few years ago, and when I asked her to sign one of her CDs she complimented my hat. So there. Anyway, she’s a member of a great musical dynasty and she’s a great musical figure in her own right. In this book she looks back on a long life, with a complete absence of self-pity and an honesty that sometimes made me wince. There was much that resonated, including the thoughts on class, and the impulse to hope that keeps you writing in the face of looming political despair. It’s fascinating as history and as a reflection on the art of performing music and, most of all, as a portrait of the development of a person.

#indiechallenge – Smash All The Windows (Jane Davis)

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The blurb

For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.

Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.

If only it were that simple.

The author and publisher

Jane Davis is the author of eight novels; her first novel won the Daily Mail First Novel Award; her seventh was Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year 2016; and Smash All The Windows won the first ever Selfies Award.

She’s someone who takes writing and self-publishing very seriously, and it was an absolute pleasure to meet her at the London Book Fair earlier this year.

The bookshop

I bought the ebook version from the Kobo store.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘A Women’s Press’; ‘A New To You Press’; ‘An Award-Winner’, or ‘Book from a micro press’.

My thoughts

This is a really good book. It takes as its starting point an imagined crush disaster in a London tube station, and follows the families of the victims as they variously seek the facts, campaign for justice, and come to terms with their loss. Sometimes diving deep into the day of the disaster, sometimes looking several years beyond it, the interweaving strands are easy to follow, and the characters are well delineated and all very human.

There were times when I forgot that I was reading fiction, and found myself wanting to go to Wikipedia to find out more about the disaster. Jane Davis says that she thinks of fiction as ‘made-up truth’. She’s certainly achieved that here.

#indiechallenge – Independence Day & Other Stories (Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Willem Samuels)

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The blurb

In these three warm and nuanced tales, Indonesia’s supreme storyteller Pramoedya Ananta Toer gives us vivid, memorable characters caught between optimism and a darker place.

A disabled veteran of his country’s war of independence against the Dutch slowly succumbs to despair; a child bride’s lost innocence is cherished by her observant younger neighbour; and a young boy views his impending circumcision with anxiety and excitement on account of its significance – and the gifts that will accompany it.

The author

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), one of Indonesia’s most important writers, was the author of more than thirty books – all of which were banned in Indonesia at various times. A resolute political activist, he was incarcerated by the Dutch colonial authorities and again by the Sukarno and Suharto regimes.

The translator

Willem Samuels is the pen name of John H. McGlynn. He is a long-term resident of Indonesia, having lived in Jakarta almost continuously since 1976. He has translated several dozen books, subtitled scores of Indonesian feature films and produced more than thirty documentary films on Indonesian writers.

The publisher

Paper + Ink produce miniature collections of short stories, many in translation.

How I got this book

This was a freebie from the London Book Fair.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘Translated book’; or ‘Marginalised people’.

My thoughts

A little book, and quick to read – I got through the first two stories on the tube back from Kensington, which wasn’t even delayed. But it punches above its weight: all three stories are powerful and atmospheric, and they all have a sting in the tail. Hypocrisy and inequity are exposed – but that’s as far as it goes. There aren’t any easy answers here.

#indiechallenge – Go The Way Your Blood Beats (Michael Amherst)

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The blurb

Using bisexuality as a frame, Go the Way Your Blood Beats questions the division of sexuality into straight and gay, in a timely exploration of the complex histories and psychologies of human desire.

A challenge to the idea that sexuality can either ever be fully known or neatly categorised, it is a meditation on desire’s unknowability. Interwoven with anonymous addresses to past loves – the sex of whom remain obscure – the book demonstrates the universalism of human desire.

Part essay, part memoir, part love letter, Go the Way Your Blood Beats asks us to see desire and sexuality as analogous with art – a mysterious, creative force.

The author

Michael Amherst is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His work has been published internationally, including in the Guardian, New Statesman, the Spectator, The White Review and Contrappasso magazine. He is currently a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London.

The publisher

Repeater Books – I quote from its website – is dedicated to the creation of a new reality. The landscape of twenty-first-century arts and letters is faded and inert, riven by fashionable cynicism, egotistical self-reference and a nostalgia for the recent past. Repeater intends to add its voice to those movements that wish to enter history and assert control over its currents, gathering together scattered and isolated voices with those who have already called for an escape from Capitalist Realism.

It’s an imprint of Watkins Media, which was set up in the 1890s to fill the mysticism and occultism niche.

The bookshop

This is another one from the wonderful Gay’s The Word.

The bingo card

This one comes in under ‘A new to you press’, ‘A book from your TBR’, ‘Marginalised people’, ‘Book that defies genre’, ‘Non-fiction’, ‘LGBTQIA’, and very possibly ‘Favourite’.

My thoughts

At 122 pages, this is a short book, and I read it in a hurry, trying to get it in before I went away on holiday. I’m going to have to go back and reread it slowly, because there is an awful lot in there, and I think I missed quite a lot.

It’s all sorts of things: it’s a review of the scholarship around bisexuality; it’s a rant about bi erasure in popular media, and the damage caused by intrusive questioning; it’s a glimpse into someone else’s love life; it’s a reading list. (I haven’t ever read anything by James Baldwin.)

But mostly it felt like a long, rambling, night in a quietish pub, having drunk just enough not to be afraid of one’s own opinions, talking to somebody who really gets what it’s like. I was reading it on my morning commute, without so much as a cup of coffee in hand, but I felt as if I should have had a nearly-empty pint glass, and be waving my hands around, and exclaiming, ‘Yes! Exactly!‘ a lot.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: I

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Ixania, in Eric Ambler’s The Dark Frontier, possibly shouldn’t be included in this gazetteer, because the name is stated to be fictitious. (So is that of the country’s capital, Zovgorod.) This annoys me irrationally. Maybe it still begins with I.

The Dark Frontier is a good deal of fun, however, at the same time sending up and gloriously indulging itself in the tropes of the Ruritanian thriller. The mild-mannered, idealistic, scientist (a stereotype in his own right) gets a knock on the head and becomes convinced that he’s Conway Carruthers, the hero of the pulp novel he was reading before the accident. And there’s a good train journey, all the way from Paris to Bâle and then east from there:

Carruthers watched the mountains of Switzerland and Austria pass in slow review. Then for some hours, they ran across wind-driven plains. On the second night, he again saw the lights of houses gleaming up high as they climbed into the mountain country of Transylvania. They stopped at stations of which he had never heard, but there were some familiar names – Budapest, Cluj, Sinaia, Ploesti…

[they change train at Bucharest]

… The train for Zovgorod proved to be composed mainly of empty cattle trucks with two very dirty coaches and a mail van hitched to the rear. They were not due in Zovgorod until 7 A. M. the following morning and Carruthers did not look forward to the two-hundred-and-fifty-mile journey ahead…

… Leaning on the window-rail he gazed out into the gathering darkness. Far away he could see a line of hills traced delicately against the strip of cold cerulean sky left by a dying sun. The clouds still hung, black and heavy, overhead. The sound of the train seemed to echo across the plain as if in a great waiting silence. He turned his head towards the freshening breeze.

So, whatever Ixania’s really called, we can at least make a guess at where it is.

I came across Annals of the Parish, by John Galt, via the delightful Clothes in Books blog a couple of months ago. It’s presented as a memoir by the parish minister, covering the years from 1760 to 1810. Most of the action takes place in the village of Dalmailing, so I’ll have to add that on to the D blog. The nearest town, however, is Irville, which, we learn over the course of the book, has at one time or another:

  • a dancing school
  • a chaise
  • links with shipping
  • and with coal
  • New Inns, plural
  • a market
  • a grocery shop

and generally seems to be where things happen. A footnote tells us that in the real world it’s Irvine. I’m counting it.

Books mentioned in this post

The Dark Frontier, Eric Ambler

Annals of the Parish, John Galt

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