Books Will See Me Through

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Me reading The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz with a small, one-week-old obstacle in the way.

Books have been my saviour since I was a shy child holed up in my bedroom reading Brian Jacques, Robin Jarvis, J K Rowling, E Nesbitt, Philip Pullman et al, and now that I’m a new mum they’re proving to be as much of a lifeline as they ever were.

So here are the books that have been a balm to my frazzled soul, from pregnancy to post-partum delirium…

The Old Friends

In the later stages of pregnancy, when I was waddling from couch to fridge and crying over butter commericals, I needed ease and familiarity, and so I reached for some old friends. The Adrian Mole diaries by Sue Townsend. Poirot murder mysteries by Agatha Christie. The Sally Lockart quartet by Philip Pullman. The Earthsea Saga by Ursula Le Guin. Jeeves and Wooster stories by P G Wodehouse. Bridget Jones’s diaries by Helen Fielding. Revisiting these perennial faves reminded me that, even though my life was about to change forever, I would always have these old pals to comfort and console me.

Practical Guidance

As hilarious as Bertie Wooster is, he’s never going to help me deal with cracked nipples, so I’ve turned to a few baby manuals for advice.

Your Baby Week by Week by Caroline Fertleman and Simone Cave takes you through the first six months of your baby’s life, and covers all the basics, from sleep patterns to how many dirty nappies you can expect to change daily. Whilst I’ve laughed heartily at some of the book’s suggestions (at three months my baby should, apparently, have been feeding only once every three hours – HAHAHAHAHA!) there’s a lot of sage advice on offer here and it’s put my mind at ease on many occasions.

You’ve Got It In You by Emma Pickett is a lovely, down-to-earth guide to breastfeeding and has helped me no end with the surprisingly tricky art of getting milk from nip to lip. Happy Mum Happy Baby by Giovanna Fletcher is a gorgeous account of the joys and mania of new motherhood and made me feel both normal and less alone in the twilight hours.

Pure Escapism

As great as these books are, sometimes, after a long day of reading nursery rhymes in increasingly daft voices, pretending to be Piglet and giving a running commentary of every banal task I do so that my baby knows I’m nearby, what I need is pure escapism. This is where fantasy books come in. The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss are two of the best books of their genre and I cannot wait for the third and final installment of The Kingkiller Chronicles. Next I’ll be re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. Hot bubble bath + cup of tea + a chapter of a nice chunky fantasy = the most relaxing half hour of my day.

Knowledge to Stop Brainrot

Finally, I think it’s a good idea for me to keep learning new things so that my brain doesn’t melt into a big pink gooey mess, so I’m currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte. Brusatte’s writing style is witty, engaging and entertaining, and the subject matter is so exciting that the book is actually giving me goosebumps.

As for the books I read with wee Mary? That’s a whole other post, and a whole other source of joy for a bookworm mum.

Poem: Open House at Shady Pines

This poem was shortlisted for the Westport Arts Festival Poetry Competition 2016.

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Open House at Shady Pines

They trudge in, trailing cheap perfume,
parading polyester slacks and cut-
price crap from T K Maxx.
Not one of them is here to buy.

Ours is an ‘open house’; a free-for-all
where folk can snuffle through our smalls
and nary a nook is out of bounds.
There isn’t a thing I can do.

We’ve over twenty floral rooms,
well-groomed grounds, a spacious
lounge – yet still it’s on the market
and so still they tramp through.

I sit here in my winged armchair
(a wedding gift from darling Bert)
as strangers coo ‘How’re you coping
without him, dear?’ and slope past

on their way to visit Walter with claw-
hands, Marsha with pishy pants, Harry
with gammy foot or Deirdre, bald as a coot
(why these codgers linger here’s beyond me).

Away, I say, Shady Pines is up for sale,
Bert put it on the market himself.
He’s always been fit as a butcher’s dog,
but this place grew too big for two.

We’ll find a buyer, shake off these chumps,
and nestle in our bungalow. We’ll gather
in its cosy hall, allow the blessed latch
to fall, and bar the door to every soul.

 

A Bookworm Mum

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A future bookworm and I.

The thing about trying to get poems published is that the sheer bloody admin involved is practically a full-time job in itself. The deadlines, the rules, the formatting, the online submissions, the stamps and self-addressed envelopes… I had to create a spreadsheet just to keep tabs on where I’d submitted what to and when, and if there’s one thing I loathe in this life it is spreadsheets.

So, with a newborn at home and a big old chunk of maternity leave ahead of me, I’ve made the liberating decision to take a year off from poetry submissions. Instead, I want to use what’s left of my free time to write about what it’s like to be a new mum, from the vomit-clogged horror of those early weeks of pregnancy to the curious joy of hearing your baby fart in her sleep.

No meticulous editing or re-drafting or trying to find the perfect words – just a frank account of what it’s like to be a bookworm mum, beginning with the books that have helped me through the wee small hours…

Poem: Sycorax

This poem first appeared in New Writing Scotland 35 (August 2017)

 

I was a minnow of a girl, tossed
by the storm. Banished from Algiers
with the skin of my belly tight
as a drum, packed with the kicks
of my Caliban, whose diabolic
father knew a trick or two.

Many moons rose. I wove an eel-
grass cradle, chased mischievous
spirits from my driftwood door.
Waves curling behind me like claws,
I screamed him out. Beneath a squid-
ink sky he hit the sand as lightning struck.

I loved my moon-calf dear, stroked
the bristles on his cheeks, caressed
his crooked spine. I held him high
to pick our olives, figs and oranges
until my salty breath ran out
and I became pure essence.

Prospero offered my boy stolen fruit
on open palms, beguiled with wily
spells. Now Caliban bears wood
like a mule, weeps over his chains
until iron turns to rust and man
turns to beast with a poet’s tongue.

Ah, his words might be as sweet
as peaches. At night, he rocks
gently, sings lullabies; but they are
few, and brief, and soiled with curses.
Oh, he could be so tall if he would
only walk with unbowed spine.

Poem: Pennyroyal

 

This poem won the Neil Gunn Writing Competition 2017.

Pennyroyal

The girl holds out her cup and sinks onto the hearthside stool, gulps again the bitter tea beneath the midwife’s gaze. Those eyes, buried in skin crinkled as raisins, will have seen a thousand like her: those who chose the wrong time to give in, or didn’t choose at all. The walls gather close as gossips, windows weeping steam, flames tonguing the grate. Then comes the quickening in her core, the poker-heat, the rush of liquid, brown and slippery as cooking-oil. A vision ensues: a shrivelled underwater foot emerging; a boiled potato torso; four tuberous limbs… The midwife shovels the mulch into the fire, hands glistening like ham, as the girl inches towards the couch, packing a wad of cloth between her thighs, inhaling the stench of burnt meat, sweltering in the fug.

Of the Devil’s Party: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

This review first appeared on The Scottish Review of Books website, 8th April 2017.

On 15 November 1959, Kansan farmer Herb Clutter’s throat was cut, his head blown open by a 12-gauge shotgun. His teenage son Kenyon’s final moments were spent bound and gagged yards from this scene, before he too was shot at point blank range. Soon after, Kenyon’s sister Nancy uttered her last words before turning to face her bedroom wall, which was seconds later sprayed with blood. Having endured the agony of listening to her family die, Herb’s wife Bonnie was shot dead as she lay in bed, her hands clasped as if in prayer.

Truman Capote has no interest in clichéd depictions of one-note monsters, so the killers of In Cold Blood – Dick Hickock and Perry Smith – are allowed to rage, laugh, despair, feast and dream; and therein lies the book’s moral dilemma. Does Capote’s overwhelming interest in his antihero Perry Smith veer into unhealthy territory, proving the author to be, as William Blake said of John Milton, ‘Of the Devil’s party without knowing it’?

In Cold Blood seeks to unpick the Clutter case from the inside out. In 1959, Capote visited Holcomb, planning to write an article for The New Yorker examining the aftershocks of these seemingly motiveless acts of barbarism. Instead, the story swelled into his seminal ‘non-fiction novel’ of 1965, in which Capote eschews journalistic tropes and utilises novelistic techniques of scene selection, layering, manufactured dialogue, dramatic tension and beautifully crafted language.

From the offset, Capote lumps victims and perpetrators together: ‘At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.’ It may, then, seem as if the Clutter deaths are no more than a handy launch-pad for Capote’s psychological study of a murderer. Take, for instance, Perry Smith’s vivid description of his recurrent surreal dreamscape, an African jungle containing a stinking tree with blue leaves and diamonds big as oranges:

‘That’s why I’m there – to pick myself a bushel of diamonds. But I know the minute I try to, the minute I reach up, a snake is gonna fall on me. A snake that guards the tree. This fat sonofabitch living in the branches… We wrestle around, but he’s a slippery sonofabitch and I can’t get a hold, he’s crushing me, you can hear my legs cracking… he starts to swallow me.’

Perry is saved, as he always is in such dreams, by a vast sunflower-yellow bird who devours the snake and gently lifts the dreamer to paradise. The dream tells you everything you need to know about this fantasist who craves the discovery of riches, feels hunted by those he imagines seek to thwart him, and who desires the miraculous assent to some non-existent promised land.

Readers gain direct access to the rat’s nest of Perry’s consciousness. We hear how alcohol honed his mother’s tongue ‘to the wickedest point’, made her swollen and promiscuous before she ‘strangled to death on her own vomit’. We hear how he and his siblings lived off ‘mush and Hershey kisses and condensed milk’ before being disbanded and forced into care. Perry was placed in a Catholic orphanage where nuns beat him with a flashlight and doused him in icy baths as punishment for bedwetting. Two of his siblings committed suicide. His thwarted father tried to kill him.

We are made privy to Perry’s rich interior life, his un-nurtured capacity to learn, his musical ability, his desire to acquire a dazzling vocabulary, his exquisite handwriting. He is ‘an incessant conceiver of voyages’, fantasizes about ‘heaping caskets of gold’ and a land where the sun shines always and ‘all you wore was grass and flowers.’ We are led to envisage his ‘changeling’s face’ flitting between ‘impish’, ‘soulful’, ‘corrupt’, ‘gypsy’, ‘gentle’, ‘romantic’ and ‘roguish’, his ‘stunted’ legs making him ‘no taller than a twelve-year-old child’.

Compare this to Capote’s strangely detached account of Herb Clutter, which makes the man seem puritan and patriarchal. Herb eats ‘Spartan breakfasts’; shuns tea, coffee, cigarettes and alcohol; does not care for card games, golf, cocktails, buffet suppers or ‘any pastime that he felt did not “accomplish something”’. His word is law. He is a pillar of his baseball-and-bible-loving, white-as-a-picket-fence community.

Wraithlike Bonnie Clutter’s personality is reduced ‘to a series of gestures blurred by the fear that she might give offence, in some way displease’. Sixteen year old Nancy seems, quite frankly, too good to be true. She cooks, sews, arranges flowers, plays instruments, tutors younger girls, gets straight As, is class president, a leader in the 4-H programme and the Young Methodist’s League, can ride a horse, and yet ‘never brags’. To a girlfriend on the phone she says: ‘I just want to be his daughter and do as he wishes.’ Fifteen year old Kenyon is not given much of a look in at all.

And yet – there are dreams nestled in these pages every bit as evocative as Perry’s malodorous tree and yellow wonder-bird. Marie, wife of Detective Alvin Dewey, dreams that an apparition of Bonnie comes before her, wringing her hands and muttering frantically: ‘To be murdered. To be murdered. No. No. There’s nothing worse. Nothing worse than that. Nothing.’ In another dream sequence, Alvin Dewey chases the ghostly forms of the two killers, riddling them with bullets as they evaporate, laughing mockingly at him. The detective is ‘filled with a despair so mournfully intense’ that he awakes.

Nor is Capote’s sympathy reserved exclusively for Perry. Sue Kidwell, Nancy’s friend, is shown overwhelmed with emotion when Nancy’s beloved horse Babe is sold for seventy-five dollars to a farmer who will doubtless put the old mare to work. As Babe is led away, Sue ‘raised her hand as if to wave goodbye, but instead clasped it over her mouth.’ Capote, master of suggestion over statement, uses Sue’s small gesture of grief, sickness and horror to disturb us far more than weeping and wailing ever could.

Nancy’s boyfriend Bobby, too, is bathed in the light of Capote’s consideration: ‘grief had drawn a circle round him he could not escape from and others could not enter’. One sentence doing the work of ten, Capote’s deft phrasing illuminates the isolating power of loss. Nancy is shown to be extraordinarily brave before her death, ‘trying hard to act casual and friendly’ even as armed intruders breach the sanctity of her childhood home. Herb’s valiant efforts to keep himself and his family calm, to cooperate in order to avoid the very worst thing happening, are also profoundly affecting. A story from Herb’s boyhood, in which he drives a horse and cart through a snowstorm to deliver Christmas presents to his family, makes him so much more likeable than the pleasure-dodging killjoy of the opening pages.

Far from painting Perry as nothing more than the victim of hideous circumstances, Capote shows the man to be, at times, wholly despicable. True, Perry is revolted by brutish Dick’s paedophilic tendencies, and prevents him from raping Nancy before her death. Guts twisting, he can barely eat while Dick blithely wolfs chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, steaks, Hershey bars and gumdrops. Perry lies ‘embraced by shame’ in his cell while Dick tells dirty jokes and makes a shiv to stick in Undersheriff Meier’s neck. Standing in the courtroom in a borrowed shirt and rolled-up jeans, Perry is a pitiable figure, looking ‘as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field.’

However, Perry is also capable of terrible racist slurs, made more despicable by the casualness with which he spouts them. He claims to have once thrown a man off a bridge for no reason. On reading a newspaper article detailing his crimes, he wonders idly how much the Clutter funeral cost. He hunts, alongside Dick, for ‘a stranger to rob, strangle, discard on the desert’, and was able to converse genially with Nancy before – apparently – putting a bullet inside her. As Perry’s sister writes, he is ‘a human being with a free will.’ Nothing can excuse his deeds, not even the childhood from hell.

There is a wealth of detail in In Cold Blood, the symbolic power of which is never overstated: the two scavenging tomcats outside the courthouse who appear like incarnations of Dick and Perry; Perry’s chrysanthemum tattoo mirroring the chrysanthemums swaying in the Clutter garden; the exotic yellow bird of Perry’s dream contrasting with the dull ‘blonde chicken’ of prosaic Dick’s; the trapped bobcat of Marie Dewey’s recollections, sparked by a photograph of Dick: ‘though she’d wanted to release it, the cat’s eyes, radiant with pain and hatred, had drained her of pity and filled her with terror.’

Capote’s use of portentous statements at the end of sections creates a creeping sense of unease. On Bonnie’s final day, for instance, Capote describes the contents of her bedroom, including a bookmark, ‘a stiff piece of watered silk upon which an admonition had been embroidered: “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.”’ His use of the present tense and the way he cuts between scenes creates a dramatic tension reminiscent of a cinematic thriller. As the killers’ car crawls towards the Clutter house, time jumps to after the murder, and the gruesome acts are – for the moment – omitted. It takes over 200 pages until we hear the murderers’ accounts of what exactly happened that night, a hugely satisfying payoff after Capote’s tantalising drip-feed of information.

But more than this, Capote is unrivalled in his ability to capture personality in dialogue, from informer Floyd Wells describing bad checks as ‘a regular washline of hot paper’, to salty-old-broad Mother Truitt relating an act ‘so low a caterpillar could pee over it’. His evocations of the Kansan landscape elevate In Cold Blood above the mere thrilling or titillating: the ‘hip-high, sheep-slaughtering snows; the slushes and the strange land fogs of spring; and summer, when even crows seek the puny shade, and the tawny infinitude of wheatstalks bristle, blaze’. Whether he is describing ‘the pumpkin-season temperature, the day’s arid glitter’ or ‘the fields, lion-coloured now, luminously golden with after-harvest stubble’, Capote’s masterful prose reaches poetic heights.

Recently, much has been made of Capote’s special treatment of those inhabitants of Holcomb he liked (handsome, tenacious Dewey appears like a matinee idol) and his dismissal of those he did not (Duane West, a key figure in the trial, is dismissed as a pudgy, prematurely-aged nobody). Capote’s flamboyance and childlike voice endeared him to some but forced more conservative denizens to recoil.

Armed with nothing more than an excellent memory, he interviewed locals without taking notes, creating composite characters and inventing scenes. Abandoned by his own parents, and, as an openly gay man, on the fringes of society himself, he clearly felt an affinity with Perry Smith, a beguiling bond that led him to narrow his focus. Does this mean the author’s ego had a warping effect on his search for the truth?

If, as Voltaire wrote, we should ‘Judge a man by his questions, not by his answers’, Capote should be judged not by his tweaks, inventions and omissions but by the questions he raises, which remain every bit as pertinent today. Is the death penalty as cold blooded as premeditated murder? What happens when the American Dream turns sour? What makes people kill? Without offering any explicit moral judgment, Capote leaves his readers to decide.

In Cold Blood is a sophisticated whydunit written with extraordinary poetic power, tense as a thriller, stylishly bleak as a film noir. Perry Smith is undoubtedly the most vivid and complex character, but was Capote truly ‘of the Devil’s party’? Quite possibly, but if he was then he most certainly knew it, and used his insight into the mind of a brutalised, broken man to leave us with a startling thought: there but for the grace of God go I?

Book Review: Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of the Family

This review first appeared in The Scotsman (Books section), April 1st 2017.

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Corrupt, carnal and compelling
Sarah Dunant’s blood-drenched tale about the Borgias is gripping, writes Jacqueline Thompson

Was there ever a more notorious family than the Borgias? Using tactics more rotten than the corpses clogging the Tiber, Rodrigo Borgia thrusts his way to supremacy, becoming Pope Alexander VI and one of the most powerful men on earth. By 1502, Alexander’s bastard son Cesare is commander of an army, his daughter Lucrezia a plumptious piece of meat on the marriage market. The trio encapsulates the ‘violent pleasures’ of the Italian Renaissance; but is there any truth to the whispers of incest, murder and madness, or have the facts been embellished as heavily as Lucrezia’s pearl and diamond-studded gowns?

This is the intriguing territory explored in Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of the Family, the sequel to 2013’s Blood and Beauty. The exploits of lusty, capricious Alexander – ‘this monster churchman ripe with corruption’ – and restless, ruthless Cesare – ‘a bastard marauding philistine’ – are vibrant and arresting, but it is Lucrezia’s story which best reveals these sensual, dangerous times.

Lucrezia may wear bedazzling dresses, but she is scrutinized by ‘spies from all over the country, their mission to note her every gesture and to price each piece of jewellery, every yard of cloth.’ She has lost the love of her life through her brother’s brutal machinations, forced to leave her son in Rome as she travels to marry a stranger. The upkeep of her lucrative appearance is ‘hard work; all the plucking, perfuming, creaming, corseting, lacing, powdering…’ Sex is perfunctory, its grotty realities apparent as she mops the ‘leftover liquid’ from her body, noting how ‘women can bruise on the inside as well as out.’

And yet, her mental strength is a source of wonder, her courtly guile likened to warcraft: ‘conquering city after city with charm rather than cannon.’ After wounding trysts with her new husband, Lucrezia is stoic: ‘there is much to celebrate.’ She fights for every ducat of her dowry, knows her worth as the vessel of male heirs, and is adamant in her desire ‘to embrace gaiety’ in the face of sickness and grief. In an era obsessed with women’s wickedness, from Eve to pox-bearing prostitutes, has history slandered Lucrezia?

Meanwhile, Pope Alexander, a rapacious ‘bear of a man’, is ‘in love with women, wealth, orange blossom and the taste of sardines’. He is arrogant, believing himself impervious to a tempest as he stalks his ship’s deck, singing. He has ordered countless assassinations, is changeable as a sprite, but he is also funny and theatrical, embracing life with every atom of his being.

As for Cesare, seen through the eyes of Machiavelli, iconic inventor of ‘Realpolitik’, he seems to care for nothing but war and sex. Cesare’s mercurial nature can spill over into galling cruelty. He is treacherous and animalistic, laughing, alongside his psychotic comrade Michelotto, as they butcher innocents. His sexual jealousy towards his sister – the source of those rumours of Borgia incest – can erupt into acts of shocking barbarism.

Dunant’s poetic style raises the novel above titillating gossip, and her striking imagery renders it as rich as a Pinturicchio fresco, whether describing frosty ground cracking ‘like small animal bones’ or eels circling a fisherman’s wrist like a ‘living bracelet of snakes’. This gripping, sumptuous book shows that, excessive and ferocious as they doubtless were, the Borgias were truly something.

In the Name of the Family
By Sarah Dunant
Virago, 464pp,
£16.99