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review 2018-03-15 22:52
"Anything Is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout
Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this novel is how readable it is. I found myself having to ration out the book so that I wouldn't consume it in a single sitting.


Yet this isn't page-turning in the conventional sense. There's no complex and clever plot to unravel, no sense of threat or intrigue to tease yourself with page after page. There is just life as we all live it.


What makes it compelling is not that I want to know what happens next but that I want to know these people and, in the process, I want to know more about how their experiences mirror mine.


In each chapter, I get to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. It's not a first-person experience but rather a guided tour with the authorial voice capturing every emotion, memory and reaction with an empathy so deep you could drown in it.


The book opens with an eighty-three-year-old man driving into town to buy his wife a birthday present and then stopping in on a neighbour on his way home. That's it as far as action goes yet during this ride I found out about the events that shaped this man's life, about his beliefs and his hopes, about his attachment to the bright but fearful and isolated Lucy Barton who was once a student at the school he was a janitor in and who now lives in New York City and is a writer of well-known books. I came to understand his ability to "live through" disaster, his impulse to help others and the relationship he believes he has with God.


There's a whole novel, just in that one chapter. Each of the other eight chapters is like that, sweeping me along not just in someone's story but in their current experience and choices. Each chapter focuses on someone who was in the supporting cast of characters when Lucy Barton was recalling her childhood in *My Name Is Lucy Barton", In "Anything Is Possible", each of them gets to be centre-stage for a while, the prime mover in their own universe. Each universe exercises a gravitational pull on at least one of the other universes in the book.


Each of the nine chapters could be seen as the free-standing short story describing how an individual sees the world, but we're being offered more than a quilt of nine squares here. This is a novel with a consistent authorial voice, leading us through the thoughts and emotions of the characters in the story and in the process, highlighting the themes that connect them and all of us as we try to live our lives.


I see this novel as a three-dimensional piece of art that, although the eye first reads it from left to right, becomes something non-linear: a set of lens viewing a common space but from different angles and different focal lengths. From their different perspectives, the chapters describe a central space, that we all recognise and share but can rarely regard clearly because we are so tangled up in our own story. It's a place where our hope, shame, anger, love, compassion and desires meet.


That all sounds rather complicated and perhaps a little dry but the experience of reading the book is one of easy access to sometimes painfully accurate experiences that resonate as real. Each room in the house is welcoming and built on a human scale. The true nature of the architecture only dawns on you later.


This is a book that, as one of the characters says of Lucy  Barton's novel, "made her feel understood and less alone". There are big themes here but I believe the main one is that, while all our lives are unique, we do not have to be alone if we are prepared to forgive ourselves and others.


One of the themes of the book is the nature of love. One character sums it up by saying:

We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard we can. We love imperfectly, Angelina, and it’s ok.

One of my favourite characters, the youngest of the Pretty Nicely sisters, now sometimes called Fatty Patty by the children at the school she works in, understands that empathy is difficult because we are too self-absorbed to make space for it:

Everyone,she understood, was mainly and mostly interested in themselves.

She also understands that love is what breaks down the walls of our isolation and allows us to be better. She refers to it as a protective skin:

This was the skin that protected you from the world, this loving of another person you shared your life with.

The characters show us that we all love imperfectly BUT that it is still possible to choose our own path, to change the plot of our own story and to influence the stories of others.


One of the things that occupies the central space that the stories share is how our past shapes us. In the final chapter, the main character, once poor and now rich, is puzzled by the power of his past to shape his present:

"What puzzled Able about life was how much one forgot but then lived with anyway, like a phantom limb"

In these stories, shame plays a huge part in shaping people's perception of themselves and others. Shame walks hand in hand with attitudes to class. Both create ostracism, disempowerment, unkindness, and derision. They make some people less real than others. They erode self-worth and foster abuse.


Violence, whether we commit it or are on the receiving end of it, also leaves permanent scars, whether it's PTSD from acts committed during a war or being subject to violent abuse throughout childhood.


I found one of the hardest chapters to experience was the one where Lucy Barton comes home and meets with her brother and her sisters in the tiny house they all suffered through their childhood in. The present pain caused by past abuse is almost unbearable. When the talk turns to the terrible things their parents did, Lucy cries out in denial and says "It wasn't that bad", all the while knowing that it was.


This is one of a number of examples that show how hard it is for us to see clearly, to remember honestly (or at all), and to focus on the important choices in our lives.


The message I took away from the book is that living through things we don't is unavoidable. Life cannot be pain-free. We live and love imperfectly. We drag our past after us. Compassion, forgiveness and kindness are the best salves available to us.

I think this book will become a classic. I highly recommend it.


If you'd like to get an insight into what Elizabeth Strout thinks of her novel, read the interviews below.



Seattle Times article "Talking to author Elizabeth Strout about her new novel, ‘Anything Is Possible"  where Elizabeth Strout explains how she wrote the book and comments on some of the themes in it.


Interview with Penguin Books where she talks about her hope that her books will make people feel less alone.




I listened to the audiobook, which was perfectly performed by Kimberly Farr. Click on the SoundCloud link below to listen to a sample of her performance.


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/319870206" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

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review 2018-03-01 17:28
"Wylding Hall" by Elizabeth Hand
Wylding Hall - Elizabeth Hand

"Wylding Hall," tells the story of a group of folk-rock musicians who spend the summer of 1972 in a remote Manor House in the wilds of Hampshire to put their second album together. By the end of the summer, the lead singer, a beautiful but shy young man who is fascinated by the "Magik" with a K, Alistair Crowley style, has disappeared without a trace.


The story is told in a series of modern day, rockumentary style interviews with members of the band, their manager, a psychic girlfriend, a music journalist and local boy who briefly played roadie/photographer.


This format makes the story perfect for being turned into an audiobook. The version I listened to had a different narrator for each person being interviewed. Apart from an article written at the time by the journalist, there was no text beyond the statements made by the interviewees.


The book cuts from one interviewee to the next, revealing events with bit by bit. It's easy to imagine the once beautiful, now ageing musicians, seated against a dark background and speaking directly to camera.


The story has a paranormal feel to it but leaves room for other interpretations - just about. To me, it seemed slightly spooky rather than chilling.


What held my interest was how clearly the characters were defined by the way they gave their account of events. They were heavy on nostalgia, looking back on the golden summer of their youth and that gave me permission to be nostalgic too. I liked the way their accounts were inconsistent with one another, in the way in which any long-ago event that has since become legend will be. 


The chaotic, semi-childish, drug-enabled way the young people live in their isolated house, the fugue that they fall into when spending their whole time making music seemed real to me.


The introduction of the supernatural elements was subtle. Ideas were wound around the history of the house, the warnings contained in the old folk songs they studied, the strange woods surrounding a Long Barrow and the pictures in the local pub of Wren Hunting.


It was an entertaining way to spend four hours, although it seemed to me that the drug and sun-soaked summer of seventy-two was a stranger land to visit than any of the hinted-at faerie realms touching the house.


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text 2018-02-24 00:35
"Anything is Possible" Reading progress update: I've read 6%. - wonderful stuff
Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

I'm barely thirty minutes into the eight and a half hour audiobook and the standard of the writing is outstanding. Elizabeth Strout's prose is effortlessly accessible while still engaging me in the nuances of an old man's perceptions and opinions, building his worldview with such deft strokes that I can't even see how's she doing it,

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review 2018-02-18 02:37
"Dance, Gladys, Dance" by Cassie Stocks
Dance, Gladys, Dance - Cassie Stocks

I have a bad habit of critiquing books while I'm reading them. Even when I'm immersed in the story and enjoying myself, part of my attention is on how and why the book works. It gives me pleasure and mostly I can't help it.


"Dance, Glady's Dance" was an exception. It reached past my over-analytical head and connected with my emotions. It made me happy, even when it was making me sad.

I'm not entirely sure how Cassie Stocks did that but I'm very glad she did.


"Dance, Glady's, Dance", like many of the best things in life, requires you to use a little bit of imagination and to be willing to hope.


The story starts with Frieda Zweig looking, at twenty-seven, for a fresh start where she can put aside her former life as a would-be artist and live a life more ordinary. She asks herself:

"Who was I going to be? I was more inclined towards inertia than upward mobility and didn’t like most people enough to devote my life to helping others less fortunate than myself. I’d work somewhere, I thought, watch TV in the evenings, and become wholly involved in the lives of non-existent people. I’d develop my own life of quiet desperation, as Emerson’s buddy Thoreau suggested the mass of men (and, presumably, women) led."

To help with this self-imposed task, Frieda defines  "Five Steps To An Ordinary Life":

1. Get a real job.
2. Stop seeing the world as a series of potential paintings.
3. Learn how to talk about the weather.
4. Do the things that normal people do.
5. Figure out what normal people actually do.

Although the initial tone of the book is light-hearted, "Dance, Gladys, Dance", is not a comedy. Frieda uses humour to distance herself from her problems and to suppress the strong emotions that always result in her needing to paint. True, Frieda's reality is often orthogonal to the surface of life as most of us live it and she spends a good deal of her time puzzled and occasionally defeated by everyday things like shopping for clothes, but Frieda is bright and intuitive and kind and fundamentally serious in her approach to life.


Frieda's doomed attempt to embrace the ordinary leads her to renting a room in a Victorian house owned by a widower who teaches photography at a local Arts Centre. After she moves in, she meets, Gladys, the ghost of the first woman to live in the house.

In addition to a cleverly designed set of events in the present day that weave together the fates of a number of strong characters, we have chapters that tell us more about Freida's life and how she came to give up on the idea of being an artist and, bit by bit, we hear Gladys' story.


Many of the characters in the book are damaged or in pain because they lack belief in their own talent or they have given up on their belief that they can be who they want to be. The book shows women in particular as being at risk of losing themselves in this way or being denied the right to use their talent.


The message of the book seems to be: trust yourself, use your talent and take the small opportunities we all have to make the world a less awful place to live in. Delivering this message without coming across as either didactic or sentimental is what makes this book such a triumph.


stocksphoto"Dance, Gladys, Dance" was Cassie Stocks' first novel. In 2013 it won the Leacock Memorial Medal, awarded to the best book of humour written in English by a Canadian writer.


You can find an interview with Cassie Stocks on writing "Dance, Gladys, Dance" here.


You can find details of her biography here.



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text 2018-02-10 23:51
Reading progress update: I've read 14%. "The Husband Stitch" - the first story
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories - Carmen Maria Machado

I've read the first story in this collection and I can see that this is going to be a remarkable reading experience: challenging, engrossing and perhaps a little unnerving.


I can also see that I need to review it one story at a time. So here's my review of the first story (about thirty-five pages long).


The Husband Stitch

"The Husband Stitch" showed me that stories are dangerous. Its muscular form squirms in my imagination's grasp, sleek and slick but with razor-sharp edges that slice and make me gasp with surprise.


This is a story filled with other stories, stories that you will half-recognise and half be surprised by. Stories that make you ask yourself what it tells us about the world that we all know these stories? Are they lessons? Warnings? Truths? Myths? Desires? Whatever they are, they persist and they have power.


At one point the teller of the tale (who never shares her name and who says that she has been telling stories all her life, says:

"When you think about it, stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond. Each is borne from the clouds separate, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart."

Her stories are all about women and the things that happen to them, few of them good and they power her own story, which is a story and not a documentary and therefore holds meaning but does not always release it easily. 


She is a passionate woman, who chooses her boy at a party at the age of seventeen and then gives herself to him and teaches him how to use what he's been given. She becomes first a lover, then a bride ("Brides", she tells us, "never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle."), then a wife and a mother.

Years pass and the only thing she withholds from her husband is the right to touch the green ribbon that is always tied around her throat.


The ribbon is the heart of this story. You'll have to decide for yourself what it means.  I believe it represents identity. The part of her that makes her who she is. The part that she cannot be without. Yet, in this story, only women have ribbons.


If the story has a moral (as opposed to having many or even a different one depending on who reads it) then I think it is about the inevitable destruction wrought by husbands on wives. I think the "Husband Stitch" of the title is an extra stitch that husbands ask the doctor to add when sewing up an episiotomy wound, to make the vagina tighter, almost virginal. This selfish re-shaping speaks to male arrogance and a refusal to accept their wives in their true forms.


In the story, her refusal to let him touch her ribbon becomes a source of strife:

“A wife,” he says, “should have no secrets from her husband.”

“I don’t have any secrets,” I tell him.

“The ribbon.”

“The ribbon is not a secret; it’s just mine.” “

Were you born with it? Why your throat? Why is it green?”

I do not answer.

Her husband, she tells us, "...is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep dis-service to him. And yet-"


That "And yet?" is where this story and all the stories within it, take us. It is a place both mysterious and sadly familiar. It is how things are.








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