Resurrection Year by Sheridan Voysey

Resurrection YearI should start with the disclaimer that I know Sheridan Voysey a little. He goes to my church, but it’s quite a big church and I think our conversation probably has never gone further than me offering him a choice of tea or coffee. But he does sometimes speak from the front, and I once heard him speak about much of what happens in Resurrection Year (2013) and it was very moving. Soon after, I bought the book… and, eventually, I read it.

The book (a memoir of sorts) starts on Christmas Eve, 2010, in Sydney. This is from the opening pages:

“Let’s just get some takeaway,” Merryn says.

It’s dark but the rain has eased as we walk back to the car, with our packet of mince pies and some bread rolls for tomorrow’s drive. We get in, shut the doors, and Merryn bursts into tears.

“I feel so depressed,” she whimpers.

A Chinese restaurant is open. The motel has a vacant room. We dump our bags on the floor and the food on the table. Merryn collapses on the bed and my heart breaks into a thousand pieces.

I pull out my journal and write:

God, this is cruel – leaving us in the wilderness. We’ve walked round in circles for years – tired, thirsty, and confused. One minute we’ve glimpsed the Promised Land, and the next minute you’ve barred us from entering.

This section is really opening at the midpoint of the story, and it quickly goes back to 2000 to fill in the gaps. Over those ten years, Sheridan and his wife Merryn had been trying to have a child – naturally, through IVF, through adoption. After ten years, they have realised that the final door is closed, and that it almost certainly isn’t going to happen.

The first half of this excellent book takes us through those painful years – painful for the waiting and the hoping as much as the disappointment. We more or less know the outcome from the outset, but it is still a heartbreaking journey to witness, and to share. And Voysey writes it approachably, like a friend filling in a friend on the disappointments he and his wife have weathered, so it does feel like we share it.

Alongside this, of course, is the rest of life: Sheridan’s career as a radio host goes from strength to strength, while Merryn’s career is not going in the direction she wants. What she does want is the chance to work abroad, in an area of science that I couldn’t begin to understand. Their plan is to go to Switzerland – I was a step ahead, as I knew perfectly well that they ended up moving to the UK. Indeed, to Oxford. Indeed, my church – which has a little cameo. And that is exactly what they do.

The second half of the memoir looks at their ‘resurrection year’ – the healing and restoration that God could provide in this move across the world. Certainly it came with its own struggles: while Merryn thrived in her new role, Sheridan had to leave a job he loved, and found it hard to pick up his career in England. And the grief at not having a child couldn’t just go away – Voysey writes about how it affected so many parts of life, from planning for the future to being introduced to a pregnant neighbour.

Resurrection Year is not a theology book, but it is centred around God and soaked in the experience of living with Jesus. I don’t know what somebody without faith would make of it, to be honest, though I’d be intrigued to hear. Voysey never questions his faith (I think there comes a point in a Christian’s life, certainly in mine, where they have seen and heard too much to doubt God’s existence) but he and his wife do question Him about why this is happening – and ask themselves if they have made the right choices, and so on. And He answers questions and prayers in unexpected ways during this ‘Resurrection Year’. But above all this is really just a beautifully honest book about a couple’s experience, told in simple, poignant, disarmingly and almost ruthlessly honest prose.

I read the whole thing in a day or so, and I’m keen to read more by Voysey – and it also makes me wonder what other good faith-based memoirs are out there. Suggestions, please!

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah cover

It’s the spinning blurry woman again! I’m over at Vulpes Libris talking about Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I wasn’t super stoked to read, but which I actually ended up loving (spoilers!)

I usually choose to review books there that don’t necessarily feel like perfect fits for StuckinaBook – i.e. you’ll never find me reviewing a witty novel about spinsters opening a cafe over there – but this is a novel that I think everyone will value. And, let’s face it, I’m probably last to the party on this one anyway.

The Making Of by Brecht Evens

The Making OfNot to brag or anything, but I read a graphic novel. I’m pretty sure that makes me the zeitgeist, right? And it was a graphic novel in translation. I couldn’t be more at the forefront of intellectual hipster thought if I tried.

This brings the number of graphic novels I have read to two: the other one was also by Brecht Evens, and I wrote about it about three years ago. As with that one, The Making Of (2013) was a review copy from Jonathan Cape that has somehow spent years on my to-read-really-soon shelf. (This shelf, it seems, is where books go to die; the moment I designate books as must-reads, they lose some of their appeal.) Thankfully, I was lured back towards it this week, and thoroughly delighted in Evens’ work – translated by Laura Watkinson and Michele Hutchinson.

The Making Of is about Peterson, an artist who gets a grant to help out an enthusiastic but disorganised community prepare a great art project. He has to stay in the shed of someone’s mother, and quickly realises that the whole affair is well-meaning but a shambles – from friendly Kristof right down to Dennis, who seldom speaks and contentedly covers (all) surfaces in little swirls.

As in his previous book, each character is a single colour – as is their dialogue – and scenes are often made of superimposed or incomplete shapes. His palette is chiefly green, blue, red, and yellow, and he uses beautifully sort watercolours to get across an often rather poignant or sharp story. For instance, this page seems to me to portray the mingled indignity and dignity of old age far better than many lengthy descriptions:

The Making Of (2)

 

The story was pretty involving, and certainly better structured than in The Wrong Place, which I seem to remember being a little confusing, but the main reason I loved the book was undoubtedly the art. (The story itself was slightly sleazier than I’d have liked, but still very engaging.) Evens’ way with colour and shape is deeply set in naivety, but it works beautifully. Another example…

The Making Of 3

I also think Evens is probably a lot cleverer than I was equipped to realise. There was one image which caught my attention. Surely (I thought) it was similar to an image I’d seen on the front cover of a Virago reprint of Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light (for my art education is found in such places). A bit of Googling later, and I discover that the image from the Mitchison book is The Unicorn in Captivity, a medieval tapestry, and Evens’ image is undoubtedly an homage to it. Here they side by side, with Evens’ on the right:

The Making Of 4

I felt a momentary triumph at noticing this similarity, and then realised… that probably means there are dozens in there that I missed. I spotted one still life that might be a nod to Léger, but is more likely to someone else… I’d love to hear back from any art experts better at identifying these sorts of things!

The hardback itself is a thing of beauty, incidentally; a lovely shape and feel, which is a relief, as poor production would really let down Evens’ exquisite work. And I really did spend ages just poring over the pages.

When I wrote about Evens’ previous book, I think I asked for graphic novel recommendations. I have been very lax at following them up, but I would still love to hear about any beautiful graphic novels, preferably colourful and not comic strip style…? And, dear reader, do go and seek out The Making Of and The Wrong Place. They’re such delights.

Virginia Woolf’s Garden

For one of my Christmas presents, my brother made a very impressive sacrifice – by buying me a book about an author he is, ahem, not fond of. Sadly, he does not love our Virginia, but that is not a unique perspective. (More on Colin’s reading, or lack thereof, another time perhaps… if I can bring myself to admit that my twin brother hasn’t finished reading a book in over six months…) (Sorry Colin!)
Anyway, this was one of my favourite Christmas presents, and will probably appear on my end of year favourite books – mostly because of how sumptuous it was to read. And by ‘read’, I mean ‘look at photos’. 

Which isn’t to say that there is no writing – not by a long chalk. Caroline Zoob, who was tenant of Monk’s House for quite a few years and whose efforts largely helped restore the garden, writes winningly of the process and the Woolfs’ lives. But the beautiful photography by Caroline Arber was certainly my favourite thing about the book. It really is beautiful, and made me (with my complete ignorance of all things gardening) want to take up horticulture. I pretty swiftly shifted to wanting to take up visiting more gardens that other people have put effort into, but never mind.
Using Virginia and Leonard’s diaries and letters, alongside other resources, Caroline recreates what the experience of creating this garden was like for both of them, and traces its development alongside their lives – past Virginia’s death in 1941 and all the way to Leonard’s in 1969. There aren’t all that many contemporary photographs of V and L in the garden,but what resources there are have been wonderfully mined. And it becomes very clear that the garden was Leonard’s passion particularly – with his experimentation with rare bulbs, unusual arrangements, and complex garden design. Virginia’s primary delight was her writing shed, and she jokes about envying the garden for the attention it receives from Leonard.
If one knew nothing about the pair, there is enough biographical detail in Zoob’s writing to make the book completely accessible, but without overdoing it for those of us already very familiar with the Woolfs’ lives (which, after all, is probably a high percentage of those who would want to read a book called Virginia Woolf’s Garden). The area I would have loved more detail is what happened to the house after Leonard died; how it came to the National Trust, and how various residents experienced living there. There are only two or three pages which discuss Zoob’s life there – and, considering this is an almost unique perspective, I would have loved more…

When we arrived at Monk’s House we knew very little about Virginia. To begin with, I found the intensity of some of the visitors disconcerting. On a day when the house was closed, I came home to find a woman weeping at the gate, overcome by the thought that Virginia’s hand had touched that very gate as she left the house on her way to the river. I did not have the heart to tell her that Virginia had left the garden through a different gate at the top of the garden, long since disused. Instead I made soothing noises and offered to make her a cup of tea.

Perhaps Zoob modestly thought people wouldn’t be interested – but, oh, I would certainly have been!
Something I wasn’t quite so interested in was the element of garden design in the book. I certainly recognise that many people would love these sections, but it was like double Dutch to me – or, indeed, like Latin. At least they came with pretty pictures. And I was very impressed by the tapestry garden design, also (I think) by the photographer Caroline Arber, that appeared throughout – for example:

Of the making of books about Virginia Woolf there is no end – and I, for one, am delighted about it. This one has to go near the top of Woolfenilia, and I heartily recommend it as a coffee table book (if such things still exist) and as a fascinating, detailed account to read thoroughly too.

Shiny New Books: Issue 2a

Those of you who receive the Shiny New Books newsletter will know that the ‘inbetweeny’ issue is now live – that is, the update between issues, which includes anything published just after or just before Issue 2 went live that we were keen to incorporate. Go and explore!

In my case, it also involves a novel that I hadn’t heard of – Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee – that I was so intrigued by and had to read. Luckily it turned out to be very good. You can read my review of it here, and (even better) a piece that Maggie Gee wrote for us, answering my questions, here.

I’m determined to set aside some time this week to writing SIAB reviews, as the pile is looming, and there are plenty of treats to come. At least this way they will get posted after the summer lull, when blog views and comments crash down!

Hope you’re all very well, and reading lovely books. I’m currently indulging in Marilynne Robinson’s Home (finally, Susan!) in preparation for reading Lila for Shiny New Books Issue 3.

The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Eva Rice’s The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp (2013), alongside which was included a lovely note from the author herself, hoping I’d enjoy it.  Well, I did – it is everything that is splendid and lovely and jolly and fun, even while taking you on a trek through the emotions.

My full thoughts are over on Vulpes Libris today, but quickly – if you’ve ever hoped that Nancy Mitford were alive and well and writing 21st-century novels, then this is as close as you’re going to get.

Diana Athill and Susan Hill

These two books (Midsummer Night in the Workhouse and other stories by Diana Athill and Black Sheep by Susan Hill) have very little in common, other than that (a) the authors have ‘hill’ in their name, and (b) they are the final two books for my Reading Presently project and this is the last day of the year.  So I shall consider them in turn, and only if I’m very lucky will I find anything to link them…

Mum gave me Midsummer Night in the Workhouse as a cheer-up present a few months ago, and a Persephone book is (of course) always very, very welcome.  One of my very favourite reads in 2013 was Diana Athill’s memoir about being an editor, Stet (indeed, I claimed in Kim’s Book Bloggers Advent Calendar that it was my favourite, but while compiling my list I remembered another which beat it – full top ten to be unveiled in January, donchaknow) so I thought it was about time that I read some of her fiction.  Turns out there isn’t that much of it, and she speaks quite disparagingly of the whole process in Somewhere Towards The End (which I’m reading at the moment; spoiler alert, it doesn’t compare to Stet in my mind).

As my usual disclaimer, whenever I write about short stories – they’re very difficult to write about.  But they do seem the perfect medium for the expert editor, depending – as they do, more than any other fiction – upon precision and economy.  And I thought (says he, being very brief) that Athill was very good at it.  My favourite was probably ‘The Return’, about a couple of young women who are taken to an island by local ‘tour guide’ sailors – it was just so brilliantly structured, managing to be tense, witty, and wry at the same time.  But the last line of ‘Desdemona’ was exceptionally good (and you know how I like my last lines to stories…)

My only complaint with the collection is that they are a bit too samey occasionally – which might be explained by the new preface, where Athill explains that she mostly wrote from her own experience.  And her own experience seemed to be observing a fair amount of unsatisfactory marriages, and having a rather casual attitude towards marital fidelity (more on that when I get around to writing about Somewhere Towards The End.)

Her character and voice seem better established in her non-fiction, but this collection is certainly very good – and Persephone should be celebrated for collecting and publishing something which had been largely ignored in Athill’s career.  Hurrah for Persephone!

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Colin (yes, he blogs too, and apparently will be doing so more regularly in 2014) gave me Susan Hill’s latest novella, Black Sheep (which was on my Amazon wishlist) for Christmas, and I read it on Boxing Day while laid up with that cold.  I’m always so grateful that I gave Susan Hill’s writing a second go, after being underwhelmed by the children’s book I read first – and I have a special soft spot for the novellas which have been coming out over the past few years.

Those of you who follow Hill on Twitter, or remember her erstwhile blog, will know that she seems to finish a book in the time it takes most of us to boil a kettle.  Well, more power to her, say I – and I’ve been impressed by The Beacon and A Kind Man.  I hadn’t realised that I read those in 2009 and 2011 – well, time flies, and perhaps Hill does pause for breath between books.  Black Sheep is not only being marketed in a similar way, with equally lovely colours/image/format, but does – whether Hill has done this deliberately or not – belong in the same stable.  The three novellas have definite differences, and possibly started from very different inspirations, but they also share a great deal – all three concern remote, almost isolated communities, the complicated lives of simple folk, and (it must be conceded) a fair dose of misery.  Or perhaps just a dose of hardship, because the three novels all seem to come near to gratuitous misery, and then duck away.

Black Sheep takes place in a mining community in the past… I’m not sure how far in the past, or if we’re told, but definitely an era when people rarely left their village and almost no outside-communication took place.  The village (called ‘Mount of Zeal’) is divided into the pit, Lower Terrace, Middle Terrace, and Upper Terrace (known as Paradise).  We follow the fortunes of one overcrowded family home as the children grow up.  Who to marry, whether or not to get a job in the mine, how to cope with illness and grief – these are the overriding concerns of the different children and their parents – but these topics are less important than the way in which Hill writes about them, and the community they live in.

It is such a brilliant depiction of a village.  Setting the community on the side of this hill, leading from Paradise to the hell of the mine, may seem like a heavy-handed metaphor – but more significant is the claustrophobia of the village from any vantage, whether in the pit or in the fanciest inspector’s house.  We follow perhaps the most important character, the youngest boy Ted, when he emerges from the village into the sheep-filled fields above – a journey seldom made by anybody, for some reason – and there is a palpable sense of narrative and readerly relief.  Even while giving us characters we care about, Hill makes the whole atmosphere suffocating and, yes, claustrophobic.

Of these three novellas, I still think The Beacon is the best – but the setting of Black Sheep is probably the most accomplished.  It lacks quite the brilliance of structure which Hill demonstrates elsewhere, and comes nearest to a Hardyesque piling on of unlikely misery, but that can’t really dent the confident narrative achievement readers have come to expect from Hill.  As a follow-on read from Ten Days of Christmas, it was a bit of a shock – but, if you’re feeling emotionally brave, this triumvirate of novellas is definitely worth seeking out.

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And there you have it.  No noticeable link between the two – but my Reading Presently challenge is finished!  I realise it isn’t as interesting for vicarious readers as A Century of Books, because (presumably) it makes no difference to you whether a reviewed book was a gift or a purchase, but I’ve enjoyed seeing what people have recommended over the years.  At the very least, it has assuaged a fair amount of latent guilt!  I still have at least 30 books people have given me, and I’ll be prioritising a few for ACOB 2014, but I’ll also enjoy indulging my own whims to a greater extent.

Appropriately enough, five of my Top Ten Books were gifts, and five were not – considering this year I read 50 books that were gifts and just over 50 that were not (finishing, because of DPhil, headaches, and new job, rather fewer books than usual).  All will be revealed soon, as promised…

Hyperbole and a Half – Allie Brosh

I think I’ve mentioned the blog Hyperbole and a Half a few times over the years, and it is certainly very popular – it gets millions of views, even though it has slowed down a great deal over the past couple of years, as its author (Allie Brosh) has dealt with depression.  (She has written movingly and rather brilliantly about depression here.)  But generally it is an extremely light-hearted and irreverent blog, detailing Allie’s life through naive MS Paint pictures and snarky, self-deprecating humour.  I love it.

And its success means that Brosh was asked to write a book – which my brother Colin kindly gave me for my birthday.  It’s about half new content and half things which have appeared on her blog before (including my favourite, the story about trying to train her very stupid dog.)

Brosh’s drawings are deliberately made to look amateur, but I think she must actually be quite talented at drawing – it’s the sort of amateur which needs a professional.

I prefer her stories when they are stories – quite a few are more general reflections on her personality, or things of that ilk.  My favourites are those which do just narrate something which happened – getting lost in the woods as a child, wanting to go to a party despite being recovering from a general anaesthetic, moving house with two anxious dogs – because these reveal as much about her personality without losing a narrative momentum.

It’s not very similar to all the other books I review on Stuck-in-a-Book – it’s not even similar to the odd graphic novel I occasionally read – but it is very funny, occasionally incredibly insightful (when she chooses to be in that mood), and a brilliant dip-in-and-out-of book.

That Sweet City: Visions of Oxford

I have been meaning to write about That Sweet City: Visions of Oxford by John Elinger and Katherine Shock for ages – ever since I was kindly given a copy by Signal Books in May – but somehow it hasn’t happened before today, for which I can only apologise.  But it is a timeless book, so a few months here or there shouldn’t make much difference.  It’s a clever mixture of art book, guide book, poetry volume, and a celebration of Oxford.

Full disclosure time: I have known Kathy all my life, as she is my Mum’s best friend from school, and my first trips to Oxford were to the house in North Oxford where Kathy and her family have lived as long as I have known them.  Little did we think, back then, that I would eventually call Oxford home too – for nine years now – and, if I do not have Kathy’s familiarity with the city yet, I certainly share her love of it.

And, as long as I have known Kathy, I have known that she is an artist.  I remember Mum, Kathy, and their respective children (including me) sitting by a river bank and painting the view, with varying levels of success – and I’ve had the privilege of seeing examples of Kathy’s work for many years, and would recognise her work anywhere.

But it is not just partisanship which makes me say that the illustrations are the best part of this book – I’ve included a couple in the post, apologies for wonky camerawork.  I certainly don’t know how to write art criticism, but I will say that Kathy’s watercolours have a wonderful vitality – sprightliness, even – which brings stone walls alive just as much as the river.  Look at this lovely view into Worcester College (which is, in my very subjective ordering of Most Beautiful Colleges, in at no.4, after Magdalen, New, and Corpus Christi):

I want to keep using variations of the word ‘liveliness’, as that is what I think Kathy does best.  There are hundreds and thousands of pictures of Oxford out there, whether postcards or paintings or sketches or photographs, and so any artist turning once more to these much-depicted places must bring something new, and for me, Kathy does that through this liveliness.  Is it the not-quite-straight lines, or the dashes of colour which are graphic rather than precise?  I don’t know, I haven’t the expertise to judge, but I know that it works.
I attended the launch night, back in May, where poems were read brilliantly by Rohan McCullough, and learnt a bit about the process behind the book.  Apparently John Elinger’s poems were written first, and then Kathy painted scenes to go alongside them.  After some success with postcard series in this line, they decided to go a step further and put together a book, published beautifully by Signal Books – and it is, incidentally, exceptionally well produced, a really lovely object.
So, the poems.  Well, you know that I struggle with poetry, and I have to admit that it was a while before I ‘got into’ these.  Apparently the order in the book pretty much reflects the order in which they were written, which didn’t surprise me, as they definitely improve,  A great deal of the poetry is in a form which, though seeming to follow a rhyme scheme on the page, uses enjambment so much that, when read, it becomes much more like prose.  Indeed, the earliest poems in the book are more or less a paean to enjambment. (For those who took their GCSE English a long time ago, definition of enjambment here!)  Of course, it’s a perfectly valid technique, but I felt it was rather overused.  (And, on a personal note, I found the recurrent jabs at the church in Oxford a little unnecessary…)  Having said all this, when Rohan read a few of them, they came to life wonderfully – so perhaps a good orator is what is needed.
But, as I say, they improved.  This was my favourite poem in the collection – I thought it was structured rather cleverly.
I haven’t properly mentioned the clever way in which the poems and paintings are arranged yet – they follow various suggested walks around Oxford, which is where the guidebook bit comes in.  There is a map at the beginning of each section, and then seven places to stop off and see along the way – I think it would be a very fun way to take yourself around Oxford (some of the walks are pretty long, so it’s not just a case of walking down the High Street) with sites to match up to the paintings, and poems to read to oneself or aloud when one gets there.  These walks are cleverly chosen, and far more interesting than the usual tour guide traipse through the biggest colleges and (Heaven preserve us) the places where Harry Potter was filmed.
For instance, how many people see the unprepossessing exit near the railway station, and follow the beautiful canal along to this bridge?  (I took the photo a while ago… I *think* this is relatively near the railway station, apologies if not.)  It’s another of my favourite illustrations.

If you’re visiting Oxford, That Sweet City is available in a few of the bookshops – if you want to imagine you’re visiting Oxford from afar, you won’t be able to follow the walks in person (of course) but it’s the next best thing.  Indeed, what fun it would be to get to know and love these pictures – and then, when you finally come to Oxford, match them up with the real places!