Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done: A Discussion

see-what-i-have-doneI was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Sarah Schmidt’s excellent See What I Have Done, a fictionalised account of the Borden murders, released in the UK in April, although readers in the US (those who don’t have a handy friend in the UK with a spare copy, anyway), will have to wait until August. My review is here, should you be interested.

Having received an extra copy in a pleasing administrative error, I sent it whizzing to Ohio, to be read by David Nilsen, my former editor at Fourth and Sycamore. We recently chatted about the book, among other subjects which include pears. It will make sense, I promise.

Katy: Firstly, the Lizzie Borden story isn’t, I think, very well-known here in the UK. I vaguely recall it being mentioned a lot in a YA book I read a long time ago, although I can’t remember what it was, which is very annoying. What was your level of familiarity with the background to the book before reading? Is it really well-known over there?

David: Yes and no. It’s a name people have an awareness of, and a story most people have heard at some point, but it’s not a part of popular mythology or anything. That’s basically where I was. I had read about it at some point, but didn’t have any clear impression of what had happened. I had heard the name, and I remembered the rhyme once I heard it. Let’s discuss the obvious Shirley Jackson parallel. The first word I wrote down, just a few pages into the novel, was “Merrikat,” and then when i read your review, I saw you noticed the same thing.

Katy: Absolutely. There are so many parallels; the sisters, the did-she-didn’t-she murders, the gothic setting and even the rhymes about the protagonists. It’s not even just We Have Always Lived in the Castle; I’ve read a lot of Jackson this year and See What I Have Done reminded me a lot of The Bird’s Nest as well, with its shifts in narrative perspective. Usually when I compare a book to something else it’s damning it with faint praise; I generally mean the book I’m discussing is a less-good version of what I’m comparing it to, but I didn’t feel that way here. I was thrilled to read a new novel in that style; it’s not like Shirley’s going to be writing any more, after all.
So you made the association too; was this a positive for you?

David: Mostly. It was very well done, and she more or less hit the same notes as Jackson did in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The only downside of it was that it was almost too close of a match. I felt like I was reading a book that actually starred Merrikat in a new setting. It’s a meticulous match, which is admirable on one hand, but I think I would have preferred an homage that allowed for some differentiation.

Katy: The general grossness of See What I Have Done made me think of Ottessa Moshfegh too; all the vomit and odours drew a direct line in my brain to that woman in Homesick for Another World who has deoderant fluff in her armpits. Did you find any of the language here off-putting? Did you think it could have gone further? I liked how visceral it was. I also like using the word visceral.

David: I saw you made that connection in your review, and while I see where it comes from, I didn’t feel quite the same way. There’s definitely some gore, and some unpleasantness, but I felt like it was significantly more stylized than Moshfegh’s writing, in which that stuff is intentionally unvarnished to make it even harder to deal with. Schmidt didn’t spare any details, but she also put a gloss over it that kept it from feeling so…icky.

Katy: I forgot I said that in my review.

David: Am I making that up?

Katy: No, I’ve just looked at my notes. I forget my own thoughts very quickly. I am basically a fish in a Pixar movie.

David: One place I did feel like the book got really uncomfortable was when we were Ben’s head. When he’s describing attacking his father’s new wife, and talking about the maid, etc.

Katy: I enjoyed 3 of the 4 voices. Not Benjamin.

David: I thought he was well handled, but uncomfortable to read. Was your lack of enjoyment on that level, or did you feel those portions were poorly written?

Katy: I just didn’t really understand why he was there. He wasn’t bringing much to the party and being in Lizzie’s head was far more fun. Although fun is perhaps not quite the right word…

David: Well, one part where his role is clear, and where I felt like the book dropped off into obvious exposition, was in the late chapter that takes place in 1905. He describes the trial and all the aftermath, and it’s just an obvious device for the author to tell us what happened. I get that there wasn’t probably another way for her to do that, but it felt inferior to the rest of the book. Lacked interiority, for one thing, but also was just a transparent exposition device.

Katy: I’ve just reread some bits of the book and Benjamin’s sections just jarred with me. I think it was because Lizzie, Emma and Bridget were all actually involved and on the inside of events, but he wasn’t, which made things seem a bit unbalanced. Uncle John could have served a similar purpose as a narrator, no? It was a while ago that I read it so perhaps I’m not remembering it correctly. I have also just skimmed through the last chapter and now I am going to think about the final sentence all night.

David: Yes and no. I think he’s there specifically to be an outsider. I think she shied away from using John because she wanted him to be somewhat opaque and creepy.
You just made me look at the book. Yes, that’s a great final line.

Katy: For me, it’s a real ‘what the fuck’ ending and I like those.

David: Totally. For me, my favorite character, and my favorite to be inside her head, was Bridget. I thought she was fantastic. She was the bridge between insider/outsider, and in some ways had the most to lose. When she talked about her family in Ireland, or when she lost her money, or had to leave without it, etc, it had real empathy. She’s the only one of these characters I think I would like to talk to over coffee or a drink. She and Emma were the only really sympathetic characters.
Lizzie was something of a brat. I guess that’s one way she was different from Merrikat. The latter was likable and sympathetic. Lizzie was a selfish pain in the ass with her sister.

Katy: I do enjoy a proper unsympathetic character though. It’s Lizzie that stood out to me from the start; her freezing reaction to her father’s death right at the beginning was brilliant. And it made the central mystery so compelling to me.

David: Oh, she’s well done, for sure. But I do want Someone I can rest with, someone I can feel like my proxy in the book who I can sympathize with. Bridget filled that role.

Katy: Probably this makes you a more well-balanced person than me. I just like psychopaths, apparently.

David: Did you not like Bridget?

Katy: I did, and Emma too. But, as with all books that flit between different narrators, I found myself yearning to get back to one of them and it was Lizzie. Maybe because hers was the first voice we hear in the book so it’s what settled me into the narrative. Settled, again, is the wrong word. She was just the most interesting to me. But I did empathise with Bridget’s predicament; as you point out, the other women are relatively insulated by wealth and status, while she’s vulnerable in lots of ways.

David: That makes sense. I think one of my hang-ups with Lizzie—and I should say that I did like her, just not as much as Bridget and Emma—is that I don’t generally like unreliable narrators, and she was the only one.

Katy: See, there’s where we differ. We English teachers LOVE unreliable narrators. They are our lifeblood. Our reason for living.

David: That’s just so you get to explain unreliable narrators to awed high schoolers though. I jest.

Katy: It is kind of true. Kids hate them though. “Miss, why can’t books just be true?” Umm, because that’s not how fiction works. My last question is about genre. I don’t read much crime fiction, if any. Do you? I am guessing the ambiguous resolution makes this less than representative of the genre, but having read this I feel like I’d be interested in more historical crime, true or otherwise.

David: I don’t read much crime fiction. What I do read is this sort of literary crime fiction. I would say they run the gamut, but often do leave some ambiguity or lack of resolution.
Did you ever read Daphne du Maurier? She was one of my first literary loves as a teenager, and fit this kind of literary thriller genre.

Katy: I love Du Maurier. She’s one of those writers all female English teachers like, in my experience, along with Atwood and Plath. Let’s discuss Du Maurier some time.

David: Let’s. Two other quick notes on the book: Emma’s lost engagement was heartbreaking. And early on, Schmidt kept doing this word repetition thing that she ended up largely abandoning later. Did you notice that?

Katy: I do not recall making this observation. Like what?

David: Just within the first few pages, she uses “ticked ticked” multiple times, and also “gallop gallop,” “tacky tacky,” “sip sip,” “turn it turn it.” There might be more. But it’s not a device that continues on for most of the novel.

Katy: Oh wait, I remember this now. I saw it as an indicator of Lizzie’s weirdly childish sensibility but then didn’t notice it disappear. Part of some kind of psychotic break in the aftermath of the murders? I love diagnosing fictional entities with terms I don’t entirely understand.

David: Yeah, that’s probably it, but it’s not like she becomes more mature or stable or rational later on, so why doesn’t it continue?

Katy: True. I do not have an answer for this.

David: I don’t accept that.

Katy: Well this is awkward.

David: We should talk briefly about pears.

Katy: I don’t like them.

David: They’re used and referenced waaaaayyy too much to not mean something.
And there’s one on the cover. I like pear sauce with a bit of ginger, served hot. But they’re not my favorite fruit, no.

Katy: Pears take a million years to be ready to eat and then 15 minutes later they’re all soggy and gross. Perhaps this is relevant?

David: Honestly, it might be. The only thing I know about pears is how long they take to grow and mature. Perhaps it’s to show this is an old family, that these problems have been going on a long time, etc?

Katy: Apparently pears are mentioned 49 times. That does seem like a lot. I like your analysis.

David: They were mentioned at points where it seemed excessive, even. Too often to just be establishing scene or setting.

Katy: Maybe Sarah Schmidt just really likes pears.

And on that moment of rare literary insight, our discussion concluded. If you’ve read the book, what did you think? And if you haven’t, do you have strong feelings about pears, axe-murderers or seemingly random repetition? Why not let me know in the comments?
Thanks very much to Georgina Moore at Tinder Press for the review copies.

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A Bookish Lament: The Pain of Waiting

I finished reading A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir the other day. It’s the sequel to An Ember in the Ashes and it’s excellent. I raced through it in two days and tormented myself into a state of such high excitement that I felt compelled to check when book 3 is coming out. And this is when my life was destroyed. Because the next book is due out in 2018.

Yes, 2018. As in 2 years from now.

Here are some things that will have happened by 2018: I will be 35; my daughter will have started actual school; we may well be living on the moon or something; I will most definitely have forgotten everything that happened in A Torch Against the Night. This is no reflection on the quality of Tahir’s writing, but, in fact, a sad indictment of my terrible memory for plot details, character names and lists of who actually survived the last book. I appreciate that it takes a long time to write a book; I respect that. But forcing me to wait so long (because, let’s be honest, ‘2018’ might mean ‘December 2018,’ which would be more than 2 years) is deeply distressing because of my comprehensive lack of patience.

Ahh, patience. I have often been told that it would be a good idea for me to acquire some of this mystical trait. When I told my dad I was applying for teacher training, his bemused response was, “but don’t you need patience and tolerance to be a teacher?” (Clearly not. I’ve been doing it 10 years, so, haha, dad.) It turns out that patience would be a far more useful skill in my reading life than in my professional one.

A Torch Against the Night isn’t even the only example of this torturously delayed gratification. I have been waiting a year for Gemina, the sequel to Illuminae, and the release date was recently put back a week so that it now comes out on the day I go on holiday and will thus be unable to read it until at least a week later. I was deeply excited to take delivery of my copy of Crooked Kingdom on the day of its release, having waited a year for it; a year in which, it turns out, I have forgotten about 75% of Six of Crows and had to secretly Google the plot to remind me who the bloody hell Kuwei is. My excuse is that I read a lot of books and, consequently, it is inhumane to expect me to actually remember anything from any of them.

Sadly, my lack of patience also means I am unable to wait until a full series is out before starting to read. I was lucky enough not to discover either The Raven Cycle or Jeff Vandermeer’s outstanding Southern Reach trilogy until they were out in full, so I could read whole series in the space of a few weeks. It would, however, be highly unrealistic to attempt this with any of the bookish franchises which are so widely discussed on Twitter, because of those annoying people who can’t help but spoil things. I hate those people.

My impatience doesn’t end with waiting for the next book in a series. The second I place an online book order, I start looking through the window for the delivery driver. This is not even an exaggeration. Even with pre-orders, which I know won’t arrive until the day of release, I check the status of my Amazon orders every day just to see if it might come early. The same applies to library reservations; I have been waiting for a copy of Hot Milk by Deborah Levy for approximately 7 thousand years and it is starting to make me lose my grip. Never mind the fact that I have a house full of books to read. I want that one.

I’ve always been like this. My mum would make me choose the books I wanted to take on family holidays weeks in advance (she’s one of those packing-3-weeks-before-departure types) and I’d spend the next fortnight sneaking the suitcase out from the cupboard to read my embargoed tomes. And let’s not even get into how often I impatiently whizz through the end of a book; not because I’m bored with it, but just because I can no longer wait to start the next one.

Do I need help? Does anyone else suffer in these terrible ways? While my chronic impatience is a source of great amusement to those around me, it is less fun when you’re actually living it. If all authors could just help me out by publishing a whole series at once, that would just be super.

A Library Is Not A Luxury: A Love Letter to the Places With All the Free Books

 

If you’re in the UK, you’re probably aware that the government is making serious cuts to library funding. In my local area, several libraries are being threatened with closure and others are facing reductions in staff, opening times and services. Along with the rest of the right-minded population, I think this is horrific, for all the obvious reasons: libraries provide opportunities to read to people who might not otherwise be able to; libraries are a hub in a community and a place for isolated people to find companionship; libraries provide a wealth of services, including access to computers and the internet, which some people would otherwise lack. And, obviously, books. Beautiful, life-changing, comforting books.

Libraries are really important to me, probably not for most of the reasons mentioned above. I’m lucky; I can afford to buy a lot of the books I want to read, and I can access the internet at home. But there’s something really special about just being in a library – something about the wealth of opportunity involved in being surrounded by so many ideas – that can’t be matched anywhere else.

I’ve been a devoted library user from a very early age. In my home town in Essex, the library used to be housed in a deconsecrated church, lending an appropriately reverential mood to my bookish browsing. This library, for some reason, had multiple copies of The Wizard of Oz, all with different covers; in my innocent youth, I checked out every one of these to see if the story was different. Newsflash: it wasn’t. It was in this library that I first began arguing with librarians about my access to the full range of books; denied an adult ticket when I had read all the books in the children’s section, I had to ask my dad to come in with me and bully the powers-that-be to give me the holy grail: an access-all-areas, no restrictions adult ticket. Perhaps the librarians were merely worried about my immortal soul. Or maybe they were just mean.

Soon after this, the library relocated to a purpose-built, shiny building over the road, and I graduated to being old enough to be left there while my mum did boring mum-stuff like going to Iceland (NB the shop, not the country). On one occasion, we had misread the closing time and I was forcibly removed from the library before my mum came back. This was a time before mobile phones; I had to stand and wait outside, like the bookish outcast that I was. Around this time, a controversy erupted: The Man was trying to force the library to open on a Sunday and the librarians were up in arms. “Sign our petition!” they cried. “Ooh, you’re going to be open on a Sunday?” I gleefully replied. It’s weird how they kicked me out into the cold, isn’t it?

Every summer, I eagerly participated in the library’s summer reading scheme. On the first day of the holidays, I’d be there brandishing my card, desperate to snap up one of the new releases; once finished, I’d return, ready to be quizzed on the story and waving the sheet the librarians would stamp to confirm that I had read the book. I think you had to read four books to complete the challenge; obviously, being the sociable child of many varied activities that I was, this took me about two days. And they accused me of cheating! It was the greatest outrage of my life. Once again, I was forced to enlist the help of a parent to fight my corner and point out that I just hadn’t spoken to anyone for the time it took me to read all the books. Sadly, the damage was done; being presented with my certificate at the first school assembly of the new term was irreparably tarnished.

In case you’re thinking I probably developed social skills when I got to uni, stop being silly; I just spent all my time in the library there too. And what a library it was. I was always pretty convinced I could have moved in there and been perfectly happy. Hungry, but happy. On more than one occasion, I was bullied into going for a beer on a Friday night, but only conceded defeat having already been to the library. True bookworms take a pile of books about Shakespeare to the pub.

These days, my library trips consist primarily of sitting on a seat that is ever-so-slightly too small for my backside, reading books about talking animals to my little girl. And it’s brilliant. At home, she’s got a bazillion toys, and Paw Patrol on the TV, and biscuits to eat; at the library, she’s 100% focused on finding stories for us to read together. I want to bottle those moments and keep them forever.

At school, I look forward every fortnight to my library duty. Partly this is because, this year, my library duty is first thing in the morning and all the sixth formers are still in bed rather than pretending to revise in the library. Even the most boring piece of marking is made brighter when you’re marking it in a library.

All this explains, hopefully, why I’m so saddened by the news that the government have decided that libraries are superfluous in this age in which we can find whatever we want online. Firstly, that isn’t even true; to suggest you can read every book in PDF form is ridiculous. Secondly, that isn’t even the point of libraries; nobody can deny the value of reading and, to suggest that this is best done sitting in front of a screen is more than reductive – it’s insulting.

I’d love to hear your library stories in the comments. I know it’s not just me whose heart does a little flutter every time I walk past a place where they let you take away books for free.

Thank You for the Music(al References in Books)

If there’s one thing that rivals my love of books, it’s my love of music. While I’ve very occasionally found myself less obsessed with reading than I am these days, music has been a constant companion; whereas rereading a much-loved book requires time and effort, listening to my favourite songs again and again requires earphones and 3 and a half minutes. Music has made me as much as literature has, and so it is one of my favourite things ever when I find characters whose music taste is a feature of their personality.

Because of this,  I have become a bit obsessed with music references in books and now get very excited when I find one. It’s a way into understanding a character: a shortcut to really getting them, perhaps before their persona is otherwise fully formed.

plate.jpg

Exhibit A: Oreo cupcake on literary side plate. No, I do not need to get out more.

It’s been at least eight minutes since I last mentioned Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (she says, while eating an Oreo cupcake from a Simon Vs plate), so let’s start there. Simon is lovable enough without his awesome taste in music, but the fact that, within  6 pages, he’s already listening to Tegan and Sara, just adds to his immense appeal. Obviously, Simon’s main musical obsession is Elliott Smith, and this is a perfect example of how a musical reference can help an author to show, not tell; as soon as Simon puts in his earbuds to listen to Smith, I know exactly what kind of person he is. Only awesome people love Elliott Smith. I love the way that Becky Albertalli uses this to develop the gorgeous relationship between Simon and Blue; with Blue using “the mighty Googler” to find out about Smith and learning more about Simon as a result – a fact that renders Simon “speechless.” And isn’t that just completely perfect? That moment when someone listens to an artist you love and understand why you love them so much?

 

Adding to my love of Simon Vs is the fact that Simon’s love of Elliott Smith means he and Mim from Mosquitoland by David Arnold could be friends, which makes me very happy indeed. I adore Mim, and, as with Simon, much of that love stems from the fact that her taste in music is exemplary and we could consequently be friends. Music is so important to Mim that her narrative even features analysis of her musical loves:

Even the music I listen to now has a certain tragic honesty to it. Bon Iver, Elliott Smith, Arcade Fire – artists whose music demands not to be liked, but to be believed.
And I do.
I believe them.

Mim spends so much of Mosquitoland isolated, alone and doubting herself, there’s a raw emotion in this statement which makes me want to cry a bit. And, while we’re talking about music taste reflecting the listener, Arnold’s phrasing could just as easily apply to Mim herself here: it is her “certain tragic honesty” which makes her such a goddamn amazing character. I love Mim. Have I mentioned that? And her mum is a Johnny Cash fan, so she’s awesome too.

While I’m match-making friendships between fictional characters – Simon and Mim, serpentmeet Lydia from Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King. She displays a level of music fascism which I completely relate to and, although she can be a little much, her impeccable taste shows me exactly who she is, citing Dolly Parton, Debbie Harry, Natasha Khan, Jenny Lewis, Patti Smith, Meg White, Florence Welch, PJ Harvey, Beyonce and Stevie Nicks as her musical influences. Just read that list again and tell me Lydia doesn’t have the most flawless taste possible. Lydia also states, in no uncertain terms, that “Love Will Tear Us Apart is my favorite song on Earth,’ and you can’t argue with that. Yes, perhaps she’s a tad precocious for an 18 year old, but, man, I wish I was that cool when I was 18. Or now.

sevenwaysSadly, Matt from Seven Ways We Lie would probably be ruthlessly bullied by my supergroup of teens with good taste, as he freely admits, “I have this thing for whiny pop-rock, lots of Nickleback and Avril and latter-day Weezer, and it’s morbidly embarrassing, but it can’t be cured, not by my mom’s classic rock or Burke’s hipster Bon Iver shit.” I mean, ouch. Although I have not yet been lucky enough to read Jesse Andrews’ new book, The Haters, I have seen that here, too, poor old Bon Iver gets a bashing, described as “way too emotionally high stakes for casual listening in the sense that it makes every single part of your life feel like the part of a TV show where you are in a hospital saying goodbye for the very last time.” Mim, sort these heathens out. Also, I REALLY want to read The Haters.

So, I feel like I’ve proved that YA authors use musical references very cleverly to show us subtle aspects of their characters. This isn’t exclusive to YA; the brick that is City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg features teens with an intense love of Patti Smith, as well as a fictional band who are clearly supposed to be the New York Dolls. Further impeccable musical touchstones. And, because the rest of the book was so terrifying, I retain a particular amount of love for Patrick Bateman’s epic rants about 80s pop in American Psycho. I love Huey Lewis and the News. I’m not even sorry.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a ridiculously long time, and consequently have developed actual theories about the topic. Primarily, I think music references only work if a) the character would genuinely listen to that artist, b) the reference is relevant, and c) if the artist mentioned will stand the test of time. Becky Albertalli can sleep soundly at night knowing that Elliott Smith will be known, if not world famous, for as long as people are listening to good music. Likewise, Lydia’s choices are safe because Dolly, Debbie and Stevie have already proved their lasting appeal, and there’s basically no chance anyone will forget them.

There are times when I don’t think music references work. For example, in Sara Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things, the main character wears a Haim t-shirt. Don’t get me wrong: I really like Haim. I question whether anyone likes Haim enough to own a Haim t-shirt, and I also wonder how relevant that choice is going to look in a couple of years’ time. Conversely, Mim wears her mum’s old Led Zeppelin t-shirt, and I’m pretty sure Led Zep aren’t going out of fashion. Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (which,  I will admit, I did not like) name-drops Skrillex and London Grammar, which are clearly relevant to the teenage characters in 2016, but surely won’t resonate a few years down the line. In my view, music references only work when they mean something to the characters, not just for the purpose of showing how cool the writer’s taste is.

So now you know the extent to which I ignore actual plot details in favour of putting post-its next to references to Arcade Fire in books, help me out. Is this something you’ve ever thought about? If you have any more music references to add to my collection, please share in the comments.

Also, this was really long. Thanks for sticking with it. You are nice. As a treat, here is a playlist.