I do not feel like I went a bit over-the-top with this review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland in the Observer. Although when I met her to interview her for Notting Hill book shop Lutyens and Rubinstein, she said the review had been so positive it had made her cry. (She does not normally read her reviews, but her dad has a Google alert on her name and he sent her this one because he thought she would like it.)
There’s no way you could give Sisterland a bad review, though: it’s a brilliant, bold, laugh-out-loud, warm, daring novel about the fallout in one woman’s life when her twin sister predicts an earthquake. I went even further over-the-top at the interview (which was expanded from the book shop to the church opposite because of Sittenfeld’s clamouring fans) and said it would win next year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize. Drink had not been taken (at that point) and I’m not taking it back.
Great to see AM Homes rewarded with this week’s Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize and soon to be the Bailey’s Women’s Prize). I really recommend this Jeanette Winterson interview with her about her life and work. (Note Winterson calls her “AM” rather than “Amy”. I am intrigued to know if everyone calls her this.)
I have been a massive fan of AM Homes ever since I reviewed This Book Will Save Your Life in 2006. As soon as I read it, I went back and read the back catalogue: The End of Alice (a dark, Lolita-style story that goes to the heart of AM Homes’ very black sense of humour — don’t read it if you’re easily offended); Music for Torching (a riotous, irreverent story about dysfunctional couple Paul and Elaine which foreshadows a lot of the themes in May We Be Forgiven); and In a Country of Mothers (a novel about the relationship between a therapist and her patient, this turned out, I found out much later, to be a sort of fictional re-imagining of AM Homes’ own adoption story). There are also two great story collections, The Safety of Objects and Things You Should Know, both full of brilliantly sick Americana including a seductive Barbie doll and a man who urinates into his boss’s pot plant every day. (I’ve just written a thing about funny short stories for the people at the Bath Short Story Award and I am so annoyed that I did not put those in. Sorry.)
I’ve reviewed the memoir The Mistress’s Daughter, which is shocking, addictive and beautiful. She did not know this growing up but AM Homes’ biological father ran a department store: she was the daughter of one of his employees. AM Homes soon discovers she has four half-siblings, one of them born within a month of her. So these were the circumstances for the adoption: a man’s wife and mistress were pregnant at the same time. No wonder he had to choose.
And I’m very pleased to have given May We Be Forgiven a glowing review a full eight months (YES, I AM CLAIRVOYANT) before it won the Women’s Prize: “AM Homes can’t really be compared to any other writer; no one else is quite as dark and funny and elegant all at the same time. May We Be Forgiven has the narrative intensity of Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections and the emotional punch of Siri Hustvedt‘s What I Loved, all told through the eyes of Larry David. It’s the best thing I’ve read this year.*” If that isn’t a psychic prediction, I don’t know what is.
* NB: This could be seen as very faint praise if you only read one or two books a year. But I do have to read more than this. So I mean it as the highest and most genuine compliment. Plus I had read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette and Anne Enright’s Forgotten Waltz in the same year so it’s not like there wasn’t much competition for the title.
So the new Bridget Jones novel, Mad About the Boy, is coming out in October. But have we had enough of her? In this Observer profile I argue (not exactly originally, but, hopefully, definitively) that Bridget defined an era. I tried not to go too far into speculating what the new book will be like because only a three-line extract has been released. But I’m worried that with its focus on social media, it’s going to risk being out-of-date before it even comes out. Plus, Helen Fielding doesn’t actually use Twitter or, I’m guessing, Facebook. Unless you’re obsessed with using social media and really understand people who use them and how they’re used, it’s very hard to parody them in an engaging and believable way. We shall see…
Meanwhile, I did love the Fielding quote I found that described her take on Bridget: she’s the original screwball heroine. (Or, rather, unoriginal. But who cares about that.) Bridget Jones is “the girl who’s the embodiment of the banana skin joke. Optimistic – with grand aspirations: ‘I’m not going to sleep with him.’ Cut to her in bed with him.”
Gatsby fever comes to Red July issue as Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby is named Book of the Month. Fantastic companion to the book and a re-reading (or in my case, um, a reading) of the novel. Come and hear Sarah talk more about the story behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s finest creation at Faber for Mumsnet Academy on Sat 29 June. I had better hurry up and finish the book. (Love the film. But I have a lot of questions for the academics who will be present.)
Also in July books: A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell, one of the few thriller writers I really enjoy. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, a soaring, lyrical, historical novel reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Plus two fantastic American non-fiction reads: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, an agony aunt collection which I can’t recommend highly enough. And the brilliant If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother by Saturday Night Live’s Julia Sweeney
It’s hard to resist a book which exhorts you to Be Awesome – and Hadley Freeman’s call to arms is indeed irresistible. I guess this book would not exist without Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman having set a precedent for the funny, feminist diatribe. But Hadley Freeman takes the genre in a sparky American-English direction, reminiscent of the style of Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing.
I didn’t have space in this Observer review to go into an analysis of the audience for these “how to survive your gender” books. Obviously they’re aimed at any woman (although men would enjoy them just as much, if they’re a fan of the writer). But there’s also a sense of them being aimed at very young women (teenagers) with low self-esteem and scant knowledge of basic feminism. That’s great — Be Awesome will be useful as well as enjoyable. But it’s also worrying: are there really loads of young women out there who have to be told that it’s OK to grow your armpit hair and not have a boob job? Either way: fun, funny, fabulous. And awesome, of course.
Reviewed in today’s Times, this is a great literary blockbuster all about the Borgia family (about whom I freely admit I knew pretty much nothing). They’re not a very nice family! But this makes them great to read about. There’s a Wolf Hall feel (lots of interior monologues, lots of psycho-analysing the characters) but Dunant doesn’t bash you over the head with her research, she just lets her imagination run riot. Hugely enjoyable — but trails off slightly at the end in readiness for the sequel which is coming up soon. A great read for fans of historical fiction who, without being able to quite articulate why, were not crazy about Wolf Hall. I consider myself in this esteemed group.
Sophie Hannah’s The Orphan Choir was not an obvious Book of the Month: I hate anything spooky and this is a terrifying supernatural story. But it really is good if you like that sort of thing. This is part of a new series of novels by established, much-loved writers, trying out a new style for Hammer, the publishing arm of the film company. (Warning: very scary.) Also featured this month: Appetite by Philip Kazan, a foodie version of Perfume; Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux, a tale about identity and forgery; and The Movement of the Stars by Amy Brill, a novel based on the life of America’s first female astronomer. My not-so-secret favourite? I’ve already gone on about it enough: Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, her tour-de-force novel about a sister forced to choose between her marriage and her overweight brother.
Oh wow, I love Tiny Beautiful Things. Review in today’s Observer. Brilliant advice from someone who has been there, done it, worn the T-shirt, burnt the T-shirt and tried to snort the ashes of the T-shirt up her nose. Love Cheryl Strayed. The therapy feel of things will be too much for some people. But if you’re a bit of an old hippy and/or you have a big heart, you’ll love this book.
I am mad about Lionel Shriver’s new novel Big Brother, out May 9. I’ve given it a very short review (because that’s all there was space for) in June issue of Red (coming soon) but was actually relieved not to review it at length elsewhere as there is a massive “spoiler” situation. It’s the sort of plot twist it would be very hard to review without mentioning. But it’s also something that if you mention it… you’ve totally ruined the reading experience for anyone else. Instead I have written this profile for The Observer which is all about the phenomenon of “Lionel Shriver”. I do think Shriver is judged in a certain way simply because she is a woman. Although people did love to tease Martin Amis about his teeth. So it’s hard to say. Either way, she’s a great honorary British eccentric and a truly great writer.