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Book Nook - 16-10-2017

Monday, October 16, 2017
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

A Strange Friendship
“What you reading?” Daniel Gluck asks whenever he sees Elisabeth Demand in Ali Smith’s latest novel, Autumn. They have a strange friendship that easily transcends the sixty-nine year age gap between them.

This relationship, Brexit and the colourful life of British pop artist Pauline Boty form the core of this moving novel, the first of the four Ali Smith plans to write with the seasons as titles.

Autumn, shortlisted for the Man Booker Award this year, moves between 2016, when Daniel is 101, lying comatose in an elder care hospital, and different points in the past when he becomes a friend, philosopher and mentor to his young neighbor.

He unwittingly nudges Elisabeth into doing her dissertation on Boty, who fought male prejudice against female painters to do her bold and original work, but slowly fell out of favour.  When he is lying in hospital, Elisabeth visits him regularly, pretending to be his granddaughter, and reads to him.

In the world outside,  Britain has voted to leave the European Union, and the people are shocked.  The country as Daniel, Elisabeth and her somewhat batty mother Wendy know it, turns into a suspicious, hate-filled, barbed-wired place. Someone has spray-painted the words “GO HOME” on the house of a family, presumably immigrants.  Later, when passing the same house, Elisabeth sees the words “WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU” painted right below, with a tree and bright red flowers. A gracious response to boorishness.  

The writing is non-linear-- dreams, memories, impressions,  interspersed with reality.

Then there are the playful bits that portray the friendship between Daniel and Elisabeth.

 “Very pleased to meet you,” Daniel says when he meets the eight-year-old for the first the first time, “Finally.”

“How do you mean, finally?” Elisabeth asks. “We only moved here six weeks ago.”

“The lifelong friends,” Daniel says. “We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.”

The next book in the series will be Winter, and Ali Smith admirers can only wait with eager anticipation.

Autumn
By Ali Smith
Publisher: Pantheon
Pages: 272


Excerpt of Autumn
It  was the end of a winter; this one was the winter of 2002–3. Elisabeth was eighteen. It was February. She had gone down to London to march in the protest. Not In Her Name. All across the country people had done the same thing and millions more people had all across the world.

On the Monday after, she wandered through the city; strange to be walking streets where life was going on as normal, traffic and people going their usual  backwards and forwards along streets that had had no traffic, had felt like they’d belonged to the two million people from their feet on the pavement all the way up to sky because of something to do with truth, when she’d walked the exact same route only the day before yesterday.

That was the Monday she unearthed an old red hardback catalogue in an art shop on Charing Cross Road. It was cheap, £3. It was in the reduced books bin.

It was of an exhibition a few years ago. Pauline Boty, 1960s Pop Art painter.

Pauline who?

A female British Pop Art painter?

Really?

This was interesting to Elisabeth, who’d been studying art history as one of her subjects at college and had been having an argument with her tutor, who’d told her that categorically there had never been such a thing as a female British Pop artist, not one of any worth, which is why there were none recorded as more than footnotes in British Pop Art history.

 

Grafton’s Alphabet Soup
In 1982, Sue Grafton started her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet series, with A is for Alibi. She has gone through almost every alphabet in the English language, and with Y Is For Yesterday, she has written 25 bestselling novels starring the feisty private detective, with just Z Is For Zero to go.

Kinsey Millhone is one of the most popular characters in detective fiction, a single (with occasional, very brief romantic entanglements), independent, courageous, witty and totally kickass female, who through A to Y has solved crimes and fought felons up and down her stomping ground of Santa Teresa, California. She lives in a studio apartment, owned by the octogenarian Henry Pitts, who is also an expert chef, and her best buddy. His fun family of long-living Pitts is like Kinsey’s surrogate clan, and their watering hole of choice is Rosie’s bar and restaurant owned by a ferocious Hungarian woman, who often feeds them foul-sounding delicacies from her homeland, with Kinsey’s preferred drink of chilled chardonnay.

The series has remained in the 1980s, so no cell phones, computers just about making an appearance, phones are rotary, and notes typed on manual typewriters or handwritten on index cards. The most advanced gizmo of the age is the copier.  By 1989, when this one is set, VCRs have made an appearance.

Y Is For Yesterday starts with a prank that snowballs into a tragedy. A girl calls Iris steals a question paper to help her friends Troy and Poppy pass a tough test. An unsigned note to the principal gets them caught and suspended. The school bully Austin claims that their classmate Sloan snitched, and instigates a social boycott of the poor girl.

Austin is also the mastermind behind a porn tape in which his friends Fritz, Ted and Bayard sexually assault a drunk Iris. Sloan steals the tape so that she can force Austin to call off the ostracism. She ends up dead, with Fritz and Troy going to jail.  Bayard turns informer and is released, Austin vanishes without a trace.

When they are released, Fritz’s parents receive a copy of the revolting tape with a demand for money if they don’t want it to reach the police and send the boys right back in prison.  Which is when Fritz’s mother Lauren calls Kinsey to try and trace the blackmailer. They don’t intend to pay and open themselves up for more blackmail demands, but the flip side is their beloved son being arrested again if the tape reaches the police.

The novel moves between 1979, when the cheating, rape and murder occurred, and 1989, when Kinsey starts investigating.  She has problems of her own, when the psychopath Ned Lowe, who tried to kill her in the last book reappears, and starts stalking her.

Much to Kinsey’s annoyance, the genial Henry agrees to play host to a couple of homeless tramps and their dog.  There is a minor subplot involving Kinsey’s cousin Anna and her romantic shenanigans.

Kinsey is still her brave, likeable self, but the students who had caused the scandal, now grown up into not-very-nice adults, make her efforts to help them feel like a lost cause.  Since it is written in a flashback-flashforward style, in which the same incidents are seen from the points of view of the various characters, large sections of the book seem repetitious.

Still, for fans who have been with Grafton right from the start, the ending of the series would be like losing a friend.

Y Is For Yesterday
By Sue Grafton
Publisher: Marion Woods/Putnam
Pages: 483

 

Excerpt of Y Is For Yesterday
In April, Iris was dumbfounded when she received yet another summons to the vice principal’s office. What’d she do this time? She hadn’t been called out on anything and she felt put upon and unappreciated. She’d been doing her best to blend in and behave herself.

Even Mrs. Malcolm seemed surprised. “We haven’t seen you for a while. What now?”

“No clue. I’m tooling along minding my own business and I get this note that Mr. Lucas wants to see me. I don’t even know what this is about.”

“News to me as well.”

Iris took a seat on one of the wooden benches provided for the errant and unrepentant. She had her books and her binder in hand so that once she was properly dressed down, she could report to her next class, which in this case was world history. She opened her binder, pretending to check her notes. She was careful to show no interest in the secretary’s disbursement of manila envelopes, but she knew what they contained: the Benchmark California Academic Proficiency Tests.
These were administered at the beginning and ending of junior year, designed to measure each student’s mastery of math and English. Poppy had been bitching for weeks about having to perform up to grade level or suffer the indignities of remedial catch-up work.

Under certain circumstances, the test results would determine whether a junior was even allowed to advance to the senior year. Iris wondered if there was a way to get her hands on a copy. Wouldn’t that be a coup? Poppy was her best friend, a diligent student, but not all that bright. Iris could see her limitations, but overlooked her deficits in the interest of her status at Climp. Poppy’s boyfriend, Troy Rademaker, was in same boat. His grades were excellent, but he didn’t dare risk anything less than top marks. He attended Climp on a scholarship it was essential to protect. In addition, he and Austin Brown were among the nominees for the Albert Climping Memorial Award, given annually to an outstanding freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior based on academic distinction, athletic achievement, and service to the community. Austin Brown was the unofficial, but equally undisputed kingpin of the junior class, much admired and equally feared for his scathing pronouncements about his classmates.

Poppy wasn’t conventionally pretty, but she was stylish and well-liked. Schoolwork was her curse. She was one of those borderline cases where year after year, teachers had talked themselves into passing her along without requiring a command of core subjects. This had always worked to Poppy’s advantage, keeping her in lockstep with classmates she’d known since kindergarten. The problem was that grade by grade, she’d been advanced on increasingly shaky grounds, which meant the work only became harder and more opaque. Now Poppy alternated between feelings of frustration and feelings of despair. Iris’s role, as she saw it, was to take Poppy’s mind off her scholastic woes, thus the dope-smoking and junk food.

Iris couldn’t imagine what Mr. Lucas wanted with her. She’d gone for months without a detention slip and she wondered if he understood how much effort and self-discipline that took. She could use a pat on the back, positive reinforcement for what she’d achieved in the way of maturity and self-control. Acting out was easier. She relished the feeling of being unleashed, free to act on impulse, doing whatever occurred to her.

Mr. Lucas entered the office and signaled to Iris, who got up and followed him. Once he settled at his desk, he seemed perplexed. “What can I do for you?”

“I don’t know. I got a note saying you wanted to see me.”

Mr. Lucas stared at her blankly and then recovered himself. “That’s right. Sorry. This isn’t actually about you. It’s about your friend, Poppy.”

Later, Kinsey Millhone would wonder how differently events might have played out if she’d been present in the vice principal’s office that day. No one could have predicted the consequences of Iris’s impetuous actions in response to Mr. Lucas’s summons. In point of fact, Kinsey wouldn’t meet up with the principal players for another ten years and by then, the die would be cast. Odd how fate is so often embedded in the aftermath of a simple conversation.

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