R.I.P. Reads, Part I: Magrs Buddy Read; Hynes, Johnson, Oates
This is my third year participating in R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril), now in its 15th year. I read my first novel by Paul Magrs as a buddy read with Liz of Adventures in reading, running and working from home, and coincidentally had Daisy Johnson’s creepy second novel out from the library. Rounding out this first post are a novella by James Hynes and a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, by whom I still haven’t managed to read a whole book. For my planned Part II, I’m working on historical suspense novels by Michelle Paver (a constant on my R.I.P. lists, it seems) and Laura Purcell, and trying my first Henning Mankell.
666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs (2011)
Apart from Dracula, my only previous experience of vampire novels was Deborah Harkness’s books. My first book from Paul Magrs ended up being a great choice because it’s pretty lighthearted and as much about the love of books as it is about supernatural fantasy – think of a cross between Jasper Fforde and Neil Gaiman. The title is a tongue-in-cheek nod to Helene Hanff’s memoir, 84 Charing Cross Road. Like Hanff, Aunt Liza sends letters and money to a London bookstore in exchange for books that suit her tastes. A publisher’s reader in New York City, Liza has to read new stuff for work but not-so-secretly prefers old books, especially about the paranormal – a love she shares with her gay bookseller friend, Jack.
One day the bookstore (actual address: 66b) sends a gruesome treasure, a grimoire soaked in vampire blood. In the wrong hands, it returns the vampiric spirit to life and sets off a chain reaction as each victim bites and infects others. I couldn’t help but think of the pandemic; indeed, Magrs uses the word “disease” at one point. Vampirism always has erotic overtones, though, making it seem more like an STD. As it happens, the vampires’ New York leader is Liza’s niece Shelley’s boyfriend, Daniel. Meanwhile, the star exhibit at the Museum of Outsider Art where Shelley works, a Scottish Bride effigy nicknamed Bessie, has come to life. Bessie leads Liza and Jack to London in the fight against Daniel and his kind.
Set between Halloween and Christmas, this is a pacy and quick-witted story that is easy to follow even as it gets more complicated and adds in ever more secondary characters. Hints about Liza’s past experience of the supernatural and an open ending leave room for a prequel or sequel. There were a few melodramatic moments and I wasn’t always convinced by Liza’s New Yawk accent. (I also wanted to stick up for Liza and another character about her age, Consuela – Magrs often refers to one or both as “the old woman,” when in the context they can’t be far past 60!) But these are minor niggles about a book that was so much fun to read. I’ll try something else by Magrs, probably Exchange and/or one of the Brenda and Effie series – who could resist that premise of the Bride of Frankenstein running a B&B in Whitby? (See also Liz’s review.)
Queen of the Jungle (from Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror) by James Hynes (1997)
I read the first of this volume’s three suspense novellas and will save the others for future years of R.I.P. or Novellas in November. At 95 pages, it feels like a complete, stand-alone plot with solid character development and a believable arc. Paul and Elizabeth are academics marooned at different colleges: Paul is finishing up his postdoc and teaches menial classes at an English department in Iowa, where they live; Elizabeth commutes long-distance to spend four days a week in Chicago, where she’s on track for early tenure at the university.
The couple’s cat, Charlotte, starts acting up, peeing in random places around the apartment. The animal psychic they hire says it’s because a woman keeps coming and going, disturbing the cat’s routines. Elizabeth assumes it’s her fault, feels terrible, and redoubles her efforts to get her boss to offer Paul a job on the basis of his bizarre literary/pop culture mash-up thesis chapters. But readers soon learn the real reason for the cat’s unease: Paul is carrying on an affair with Kymberly, a graduate student from the communications department. Charlotte is preternaturally determined to terrorize Kym and broadcast Paul’s secret. It’s an amusing battle of wills that comes to have greater stakes. Mentions of computer and telephone technology made this seem slightly dated, but I liked Hynes’s writing.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson (2020)
Teenagers September and July were born just 10 months apart, with July always in thrall to her older sister. September can pressure her into anything, no matter how risky or painful, in games of “September Says.” But one time things went too far. That was the day they went out to the tennis courts to confront the girls at their Oxford school who had bullied July.
For much of this short novel, Johnson keeps readers guessing about what happened that day and why the girls’ mother, Sheela, took them away to Settle House, her late husband’s family home in the North York Moors. Despite the new setting, July finds it impossible to shrug off her sister’s influence. Their psychic connection is such that she feels she’s losing her own virginity as she watches September have sex with a local boy on the beach. September’s is so much the dominant personality that July admits she feels like no more than “an appendage.”
Emotionally used and physically harmed, July starts to doubt her sanity. This was most evident for me in the scene where she goes up to a soggy-looking wall of Settle House and puts a hand through it, hearing “the rustle and gurgle of motion, the shuttering of thousands of wings.” (Presuming that’s a deliberate word choice and not a typo for shuddering.) Ants start pouring out of the wall, followed by a bird. But when she goes back to look at the wall later that day, it’s intact. I was reminded of The Haunting of Hill House, with its picture of a malevolent house preying on its inhabitants’ fears.
Sisters is a book that depends entirely on its late twist, so I shall say no more. About halfway through, I had a vague idea of what the surprise might be, but convinced myself I was wrong. “What if? … Nah, couldn’t be.” I wonder how early you’ll catch on. I adore the U.S. cover, but the UK cover contains more of a hint. I think I liked Everything Under, Johnson’s Booker-shortlisted debut novel, that little bit more, but my bottom line for that one goes for this, too: “As mesmerizing as it is unsettling.” Johnson is such a talented young author, and she also has the best author photo out there at the moment, a black-and-white image of her reflected in a train window.
“The Woman in the Window” (from Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense) by Joyce Carol Oates (2018)
Oates was inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1926 painting, Eleven A.M. (The striking cover image is from a photographic recreation by Richard Tuschman. Very faithful except for the fact that Hopper’s armchair was blue.) A secretary pushing 40 waits in the New York City morning light for her married lover to arrive. She’s tired of him using her and keeps a sharp pair of sewing shears under her seat cushion. We bounce between the two characters’ perspectives as their encounter nears. He’s tempted to strangle her. Will today be that day, or will she have the courage to plunge those shears into his neck before he gets a chance? In this room, it’s always 11 a.m. The tension is well maintained, but the punctuation kind of drove me crazy. I might try the rest of the book next year.
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson & A Visit to Sandham Memorial Chapel
“I don’t want them to look like war paintings, Elsie. I want them to look like heaven.”
When I was offered a copy of this novel to review as part of the blog tour, I was unfamiliar with the name of its subject, the artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) – until I realized that he painted the WWI-commemorative Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, which I had never visited* but knew was just 5.5 miles from our home in Berkshire.
Take another look at the title, though: two characters are given double billing, the second of whom is Elsie Munday, who in the opening chapter presents herself for an interview with Stanley and his wife, Hilda (also a painter), who promptly hire her to be their housemaid at Chapel View in 1928. This creates a setup similar to that in Girl with a Pearl Earring, with a lower-class character observing the inner workings of an artist’s household and giving plain-speaking commentary on what she sees. Upson’s close third-person narration sticks with Elsie for the whole of Part I, but in Part II the picture widens out, with the point of view rotating between Hilda, Elsie and Dorothy Hepworth, the reluctant third side in a love triangle that develops between Stanley and her partner, Patricia Preece.
Hilda and Stanley argue about everything, from childrearing to art: they even paint dueling portraits of Elsie – with Hilda’s Country Girl winning out. Elsie knows she’s lucky to have such a comfortable position with the Spencers and their daughters at Burghclere, and later at Cookham, but she’s uneasy at how Stanley turns her into a confidante in his increasingly tempestuous marriage. Hilda, frustrated at Stanley’s selfish, demanding ways, often returns to her family home in Hampstead, leaving Elsie alone with her employer. Stanley doesn’t give a fig for local opinion, but Elsie knows she has a reputation to protect – especially considering that her moments alone with Stanley aren’t entirely free of sexual tension.
I love reading about artists’ habits – how creative work actually gets done – so I particularly loved the scenes where Elsie, sent on errands, finds Stanley up a ladder in the chapel, pondering how to get a face or object just right. On more than one occasion he borrows her kitchen items, such as a sponge and cooked and uncooked rashers of bacon, so he can render them perfectly in his paintings. I also loved that this is a local interest book for me, with Newbury, where I live, mentioned four or five times in passing as the nearest big town. Part II, with its account of Stanley’s extramarital doings becoming ever more sordid, didn’t grip me as much as Part I, but I found the whole to be an elegantly written study of a very difficult man and the ties that he made and broke over the course of several decades.
For the tone as well as the subject matter, I would particularly recommend it to readers of Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and especially Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me.
Stanley and Elsie will be published by Duckworth on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review. They also sent a stylish tote bag!
Nicola Upson is best known for her seven Josephine Tey crime novels. She has also published nonfiction, including a book on the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld. This is her first stand-alone novel.
*Until now. On a gorgeous Easter Saturday that felt more like summer than spring, I had my husband drop me off on his way to a country walk so I could tour the chapel. I appreciated Spencer’s “holy box” so much more having read the novel than I ever could have otherwise – even though the paintings were nothing like I’d imagined from Upson’s descriptions.
What struck me immediately is that, for war art, the focus is so much more on domesticity. Spencer briefly served in Salonika, Macedonia (like his patrons’ brother, Harry Sandham, to whose memory the chapel is dedicated), but had initially been rejected by the army and started off as a medical orderly in an English hospital. Both Salonika and Beaufort hospital appear in the paintings, but there are no battle scenes or bloody injuries. Instead we see tableaux of cooking, doing laundry, making beds, inventorying kitbags, filling canteens, reading maps, dressing under mosquito nets and making stone mosaics. It’s as if Spencer wanted to spotlight what happens in between the fighting. These everyday activities would have typified the soldiers’ lives more than active combat, after all.
I was reminded of how Stanley explains his approach in the novel:
“There’s something heroic in the everyday, don’t you think?”
“Isn’t that what peace is sometimes? A succession of bland moments? We have to cherish them, though, otherwise what was the point of fighting for them?”
The paintings show inventive composition but are in an unusual style that sometimes verges on the grotesque. Many of the figures are lumpen and childlike, especially in Tea in the Hospital Ward, where the soldiers scoffing bread and jam look like cheeky schoolboys. There are lots of animals on display, especially horses and donkeys, but they often look enormous and not entirely realistic. The longer you look, the more details you spot, like a dog raiding a stash of Fray Bentos tins and a young man looking at his reflection in a picture frame to part his hair with a comb. These aren’t desolate, burnt-out landscapes but rich with foliage and blossom, even in Macedonia, which recalls the Holy Land and seems timeless.
The central painting behind the altar, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, imagines the dead rising out of their graves, taking up their white crosses and delivering them to Jesus, a white-clad figure in the middle distance. There’s an Italian Renaissance feeling to this one, with one face in particular looking like it could have come straight out of Giotto (an acknowledged influence on Spencer’s chapel work). It’s as busy as Bosch, but not as dark thematically or in terms of the color scheme – while some of the first paintings in the sequence, like the one of scrubbing hospital floors, recall Edward Hopper with their somber realism. We see all these soldiers intact: at their resurrection they are whole, with no horrific wounds or humiliating nudity. Like Stanley says to Elsie, it’s more heaven than war.
If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend even a quick stop at this National Trust property. I showed a few workers my advanced copy of the novel; while the reception staff were unaware of its existence, a manager I caught up with after my tour knew about it and had plans to read it soon. She also said they will stock it in the NT shop on site.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
For several years in her mid-thirties, British author Olivia Laing lived in New York City. A relationship had recently fallen through and she was subletting an apartment from a friend. Whole days went by when she hardly left the flat, whiling away her time on social media and watching music videos on YouTube. Whenever she did go out, she felt cut off because of her accent and her unfamiliarity with American vernacular; she wished she could wear a Halloween mask all the time to achieve anonymity. How ironic, she thought, that in a city of millions she could be so utterly lonely.
Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee. … [L]oneliness inhibits empathy because it induces in its wake a kind of self-protective amnesia, so that when a person is no longer lonely they struggle to remember what the condition is like.
Whereas alcoholic writers were the points of reference for her previous book, the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), here outsider artists take center stage: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and the many lost to AIDS in the 1980s to 1990s. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill at interweaving biography, art criticism and memoir when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Several of the artists shared underlying reasons for loneliness: an abusive childhood, mental illness and/or sexuality perceived as aberrant. Edward Hopper might seem the most ‘normal’ of the artists profiled, but even he was bullied when he shot up to 6 feet at age 12; his wife Jo, doing some amateur psychoanalyzing, named it the root of his notorious taciturnity. His Nighthawks, with its “noxious pallid green” shades, perfectly illustrates the inescapability of “urban alienation,” Laing writes: when she saw it in person at the Whitney, she realized the diner has no door. (It’s a shame the book couldn’t accommodate a centerfold of color plates, but each chapter opens with a black-and-white photograph of its main subject.)
Andy Warhol was born Andrej Warhola to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928. He was often tongue-tied and anxious, and used fashion and technology as ways of displacing attention. In 1968 he was shot in the torso by Valerie Solanas, the paranoid, sometimes-homeless author of SCUM Manifesto, and ever after had to wear surgical corsets. For Warhol and Wojnarowicz, art and sex were possible routes out of loneliness. As homosexuals, though, they could be restricted to sordid cruising grounds such as cinemas and piers. Like Klaus Nomi, a gay German electro-pop singer whose music Laing listened to obsessively, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to succumb, in 1983. The epidemic only increased the general stigma against gay people. Even Warhol, as a lifelong hypochondriac, was leery about contact with AIDS patients. Through protest marches and artworks, Wojnarowicz exposed the scale of the tragedy and the lack of government concern.
In some ways Henry Darger is the oddest of the outsiders Laing features. He is also the only one not based in New York: he worked as a Chicago hospital janitor for nearly six decades; it was only when he was moved into a nursing home and the landlord cleared out his room that an astonishing cache of art and writing was discovered. Darger’s oeuvre included a 15,000-page work of fiction set in “the Realms of the Unreal” and paintings that veer towards sadism and pedophilia. Laing spent a week reading his unpublished memoir. With his distinctive, not-quite-coherent style and his affection for the asylum where he lived as an orphaned child, he reminded me of Royal Robertson, the schizophrenic artist whose work inspired Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz album, and the artist character in the movie Junebug (2005).
A few of the chapters are less focused because they split the time between several subjects. I also felt that a section on Josh Harris, Internet entrepreneur and early reality show streaming pioneer, pulled the spotlight away from outsider art. Although I can see, in theory, how his work is performance art reflecting on our lack of true connection in an age of social media and voyeurism, I still found this the least relevant part.
The book is best when Laing is able to pull all her threads together: her own seclusion – flitting between housing situations, finding dates through Craigslist and feeling trapped behind her laptop screen; her subjects’ troubled isolation; and the science behind loneliness. Like Korey Floyd does in The Loneliness Cure, Laing summarizes the physical symptoms and psychological effects associated with solitude. She dips into pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s work on attachment and separation in children, and mentions Harry Harlow’s abhorrent rhesus monkey experiments in which babies were raised without physical contact.
The tone throughout is academic but not inaccessible. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as The Trip to Echo Spring, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work, fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. The first chapter and the last five paragraphs, especially, are simply excellent. Your interest may wax and wane through the rest of the book, but I expect that, like me, you’ll willingly follow Laing as a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
(See also Laing’s list of 10 Books about Loneliness, chosen for Publishers Weekly.)
With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.