Full disclosure: I know Shelley personally. We have the kind of friendship that sprung from fireside chats in a writers’ retreat. Where your admiration for the person’s work, spreads to an admiration of them. I like Shelly. I love her book.
Vigilante has an amazing premise: a woman, a real woman, a mother, dresses up like a superhero and fights crime in her sleepy English town. Except this isn’t a cartoon caper of the likes of Kick Ass, this is a visceral, heartfelt act of courageousness by one woman who feels she is disappearing into the mundane mediocrity of her daily grind. Jenny Pepper is flesh and blood and very real. Not simply a midlife crisis, Jenny’s story is a battle cry against hers and the fate of many: the disappearing middle aged woman. She was once young, once lithe, once felt sexy, once full of dreams, and hopes and aspirations. Now she is invisible. Until she puts on her mask. Perversely, by covering up she becomes unavoidable – even if that means people laugh at her, or worse.
With a guttural scream Vigilante shakes what we’ve come to accept: that women reach a certain age and vanish into the background. It slashes through the sexualisation of young women. Tears at the social conditioning that tells us women are weak. Shreds the notion that only men are heroes. Fashion. Footwear. Roles. Sexuality. Society. Marketing. Motherhood. Expectations. Fear. Suppression. Sacrifice. Kick! Smack! Kerpow! Vigilante takes them all on. It shouts of the army of women that cook, feed, clean, that sacrifice their own bodies, their attractiveness, their dreams on the alter of their children. This is a story of love, and fear, and hope, and anger. The effortless fast-paced twists and turns of Jenny’s journey, ever closer to the dark corners of humanity, rip along like flayed fishnet stockings. I’m not playing dress up, I’m not playing at all: Vigilante is one of the great feminist novels of our age. It’s time to fight back. Ladies, don your masks.
Vigilante, Shelley Harris: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No: it’s a great book! 5/5
Are you fascinated by the creative process? Do you hunt out the ‘a day in a life’ features on authors, musicians and artists? I do! I do! I’ve always been enthralled by how others work. It’s part validation – Voltaire wrote in bed, I write in bed, it’s okay I write in bed! And part inspiration – perhaps somewhere in the minutiae of the daily grind of the great creatives is the key to joining their ranks? Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, by Mason Currey is a dream for those like me who are obsessed by process.
In an expansion of what started as a blog, Currey details the charming, the amusing, and the sometime terrifying schedules of a whole host of composers, writers, and artists. Take Balzac, who ate at 6pm, went to sleep till 1am, rose, worked for seven hours, took a ninety minute nap, worked again for a further six and half hours and then took a bath, went for a walk and started the whole process up again. Exhausting.
I bought this book because as well as being fascinated by other’s working routines, I was also trying to reshape mine. Wrestling with the limitations of my health due to EDS III, I find myself going against the grain and designing a new way of working. As well as providing many pleasant distractions and dinner party anecdotes, this book has aided my focus on my own routine. There is something reassuring and reinforcing about reading a couple of daily schedules before launching your own. A great present for the creatives in your life, or anyone who is interested in how creatives lived and worked.
Daily Rituals, Mason Currey: ritually enjoyable 4/5.
I love a small book. The recent popularity of doorstop tomes, which piggybacked in on the coattails of talented writers like Mantel and Catton, has seen a number of verbose and flaccid bricks lolloped onto the market, when, really, they could have benefited from a decent edit. Not so with Smith. The Embassy of Cambodia is a master class in tight, compact fiction, where far more is revealed than the 69 pages might imply.
It tells the story of Fatou, a West African migrant, who has escaped one hell, and found herself in a purgatory: caught between freedom and imprisonment. The story is set in Willesden, a part of London Smith is personally familiar with and has taken her readers too before. There is also the reoccurrence of a pompous male character, who could represent a love interest, except our heroine appears indifferent to him. And there is a familiar motif of escapism, in this case swimming. Fatou struggling up and down the pool of her employers’ fancy gym in her black underwear. Is Smith playing with us with these accustomed echoes? Is this an ironic meta element to her work? Or merely a repetition of tried and tested ideas? Whether it is any, all, or none of these it works for me. The Embassy of Cambodia is small enough to enjoy in one sitting, but big enough to stay with you long after.
Smith’s writing evokes a sensory experience that brings Fatou, and her world, to life. She gives voice to a character that is often not heard by wider society. You might have walked past Fatou on the street, or swum past her in the pool; don’t miss her story.
The Embassy of Cambodia, Zadie Smith: A perfectly formed 4/5
Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is an in-depth investigation of the relationship between writers and alcohol. Laing grew up in an alcoholic family, and laces her own unsettling memories among her exploration of six alcoholic writers, as she wends her way, literally, across their American landscape: John Cheever’s New York, Tennessee Williams’s New Orleans, Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, Raymond Carver’s Port Angeles. In an act of self-preservation she selects only male alcoholic writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Berryman are included), as female alcoholics are too close to home.
This multi-layered exploration of the horrors of alcoholism quickly disperses any notion of romance when it comes to creative genius and intoxicated exuberance. The destructive angry hurt alcohol leaves strewn across the pages had me struggling to comprehend how Laing herself was able to enjoy a drink at various points on her journey: it quite put me off my wine.
The Trip to Echo Spring (or Echo Falls as I kept awfully, ironically miscalling it) was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Biography Award. Laing’s discriminating descriptions of the American landscape are light and poetic, her prose sculpted and erudite, her research thorough and weighty. This is a beautifully written journey through land, time and the bottle. More than a mere biography – though there is plenty of meaty detail of the writer’s lives, loves and losses – it is an exploration of addiction and the darker things that drive and threaten to tear us apart. It drove me to previously undiscovered texts and to revisit old favourites, armed with new insight.
This book will satiate those who enjoy reading about their literary idols. But Laing provides more than hero worship for other readers – she delivers a text that offers a greater comprehension of human nature: what drives us, what can destroy us, and ultimately what can redeem us. Like a hangover lingers after you finish your final glass, this book will stay with you long after you’ve digested the final page.
The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, Olivia Laing: An addictive 5/5
Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians’ is a riotous romp through Singapore’s super loaded elite. An epic bitchfest of putdowns, family politics, pricey real estate, and piled-on designer labels, it’s less chick lit, and more chic lit. The action centres on “ABC” (American Born Chinese) Rachel Chu’s summer trip to Singapore, to meet the family of her boyfriend Nicholas Young. Nick just forgot to mention that his family is insanely loaded. With the empathise on insane.
Kwan uses a few clunky turns of phrase (“[F]rom the dewy just-back-from-a-morning-run-on-the-beach complexion to the obsidian-black hair that stopped just short of her collarbone”. Oh, please.), and some of the encyclopaedic lists of designer goods, family riches and family connections can be tiring. But if you fancy an insider view of Singapore’s crème de la crème class (Kwan’s own privileged background is said to have influenced the book), with a healthy sprinkling of Cantonese and Mandarin slang, a fast-paced plot, a fascinating (and often downright nasty) cast of characters, and the sort of moneyed-up escapism favoured before we all became austerity aware, then this is the book for you. Perfect holiday reading. Though be warned if you’re reading it in the cold dark UK: it will make you want to jet off to somewhere hot (private plane, darling), and stuff your face with all the incredible food that’s described in mouth-watering detail throughout the book. Mmmmm satay.
Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan: A tasty 3.5/5