Outline by Rachel Cusk – Book Review

I would like to take a few minutes and talk about one of the most interesting novels I’ve come across as of yet. Through its title, Cusk makes a thesis statement – the myth of characters, she might as well say, is holding the novel back.

Faye, the novel’s main character, is strangely absent from it. Though we see events – or conversations, rather – transpire through her eyes, Faye is silent, echoing the characters she engages with but offering little of her own. Each of the ten chapters within Outline takes the form of a conversation, allowing Cusk to penetrate deep within

Faye listens to each of the men and women who speak in these chapters; she does so intently, deflecting questions about herself, choosing instead to ask questions of her own, to dig further in search of understanding of the other, through a mixture of skepticism and insight. In doing so, Faye exposes many of those she speaks as clueless, wilfully blind to their own shortcomings – a stranger she meets in the plane, for example, a Greek businessman who smugly believes he holds no fault in the falling apart of his many romantic relationships; a Greek writer Faye has met before, Angeliki, who has recently come into a great degree of fame in her home country and abroad, and in doing so has detached herself from the woman she used to be previously: ““That was another Angeliki…an Angeliki who no longer exists and has been written out of the history books. Angeliki the famous writer, the feminist of international renown, has never met you before in her life” (Chapter V); and more, and more.

“Faye herself is missing,” writes Clair Wills for the New York Review of Books. “We are being encouraged to think of the trilogy as an experiment in autobiography in which the self is missing, or is there only in outline.” It’s an interesting notion – the idea that we are “a shape, an outline, with all the detail filledin around it while the shape itself remained blank.” (Chapter X)

Wills offers another reading:

…in the ingenious parallels with the myth of Echo and Narcissus. People mirror one another, or repeat one another’s noises, like the animals that Faye sets as a topic for a creative writing assignment in Outline. “They watch us living; they prove that we are real; through them, we access the story of ourselves…the most important thing about an animal, he
said, is that it can’t speak.” The novelist Anne, who is an echo of the novelist Faye, is even described as a parrot: her voice makes “quite a distinctive squawking sound,” and she has green, unblinking eyes.

The Truth Alone by Clair Wills; you can find part of the article here. It’s behind a paywall, sorry!

The novel closes on just such an echo; Faye, correcting the Greek businessman I mentioned earlier, delivers a blow which spells out the truth of this tiny man in enormous letters in the reader’s mind.

What are we, then? Characters, outlines, echoes of that which surrounds us? Perhaps reading Outline will offer you some answer.

Me? I read Outline for my Researching Literature course over three weeks ago; I still can’t stop thinking about it. Two more books await – I’m excited to dive in and mull them over for months and years to come.

Remarkable.

Not my Father's Son by Alan Cumming – Mini Book Review

I love listening to the autobiographies of my favourite actors and comedians. Kevin Hart, John Cleese, Felicia Day, Amanda Palmer, all have put out such engrossing, fascinating reads. I couldn’t get enough of them!

When I joined Twitter I described myself as “Scottish elf trapped inside a middle aged man’s body” and I still think that’s accurate.

Despite this cheery description, Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son is a considerably heavier book than some of the abovementioned authors’ works, though if you know Alan’s work and the flamboyant personality he puts forward into the world, you won’t be surprised by the generous helping of humour which follows or precedes each of Alan’s stories about his abusive monster of a father.

The recollections of these memories are interwoven with the events of Alan’s shot for the British series Who Do You Think You Are across a few months in 2010. For those who, like me, might be unfamiliar with these BBC series, Who Do You Think You Are digs into the family history of a famous Brit and reveals herefore-unknown secrets to the guest in question. It’s a fascinating experience for the star around which the episode is centered, as their reaction at finding out old family mysteries are caught on camera. This secondary story is about Alan’s grandfather, Tommy Darling, a soldier in WW2 who died under mysterious circumstances.

Despite some mind-blowing revelations along the way, what struck home with me is that Alan manages to extract important lessons from even the most negative experiences. He doesn’t allow the past to form him into a man as weak as his father; he uses it as fuel to grow and be better. To me, that’s what this book should’ve been and I’ll happily give it my recommendation to any fan of the biography genre.

Reading Diary: Uprooted by Ectasy, Terror and Doctor Hoffman's Infernal Devices

I am drunk on words.

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I’ve read quite a lot this past week. After finishing Sanderson’s Starsight, whose review you can find here (Spoilers, I thought it was beautiful), I moved onto listening to an old favourite, one of the very first books I ever wrote a teeny, tiny review for. The book in question is Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and revisiting it was excellent fun, thanks in no small part to the narrator, Katy Sobey. I couldn’t believe how much I’d forgotten about some parts, and how my mind had played a trick on me, giving a greater role to characters whose roles really weren’t all that important. Funny how the mind will twist things up.

I moved onto The Devil’s Apprentice (review on the blog just yesterday!), since I was running out of time – my review was supposed to go up on the eighth, a mere four days away! Thankfully, The Devil’s Apprentice was a remarkably easy book to read — I read it in about two hour and a half long sittings. What did I think about that one? Just scroll below this post and you can find out. Or, if you’re prodigously lazy, click here.

Two books down by Friday (Sixth of December), two to go.

The weekend was consumed by postmodernism. Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman was a trippy, bizarre read, albeit wonderful for its strangeness and exquisite language. It’s brutal, though; deeply pornographic, chock-full of acts of pure desire. I have a big essay to write on it, and on Anna of the Five Towns and on To The Lighthouse, all about the ontology of reality through three very different literary currents.

In-between chapters of The Infernal Desire Machines, I read essays by Daniel Mendelsohn from his recently released Ecstasy and Terror. This paperback with its glazed pages is separated into three – Ancients, Moderns and Personals – nouns which encapsulate what the author’s essays are about.

Mendelsohn’s work is quite illuminating. I will take an in-depth look at it eventually, once I’ve read through all the essays and picked my favourites but regardless of whether you prefer the art of Ancient Greece as compared to that of the contemporary world, you will find plenty of note here. My personal so far is a piece called Girl, Interrupted: How Gay was Sappho? and is, of course, all about the Ancient Greek poet known for her poetry as much as for her outrageous sexuality.

My final read–listen–was Alan Cumming’s Not my Father’s Son. This one was horrifying, heartwarming and hilarious all in equal parts. Nothing like the autobiographical works of some ‘stars’, which might as well be screams for attention. I wouldn’t have picked this up as a paperback but I love Alan, I love his voice, I could listen to him for hours and when I saw the audiobook – was it at a sale? – I knew, immediately, I would enjoy every last minute of the man’s velvety voice. I’ll write more about this book later but suffice to say, this one really goes in-depth as to the fuel originally behind Alan’s creative drive. It also plays out like a proper mystery, which delights and excites both. A short review of this one, I think, should appear on the blog within a few days – if I’ve the energy to spare.

This post is somewhat chaotic, written more for myself than for anyone else – that said, I had fun recollecting some of my reading experiences.

As for this coming week? I did start listening to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – might as well continue it, aye? It’s interesting enough – Dickens takes awhile to warm up. Probably due to the fact that he got paid by the word. No rushing that one.

I also dabbled into a Horus Heresy audiodrama – Little Horus. That was fine, not quite as much as I’ve come to expect from Dan Abnett – but it was exceedingly short so I’ll hold no ill will towards him. And hey, I finally got to see what Horus’s Legion looks like after Isthvaan III and V – hooray!

I’ll have to unpack Philip K. Dick’s Ubik for my Researching Literature class, as well. Oh, and plenty more essays on postmodernism to read! And don’t even get me started on the self-published novels I’ve got to get through…

How about you? What’s your reading looking like this coming week?

Book Recommendation: So, Anyway. . .

Autobiographies haven’t always agreed with me.

Granted, I have attempted to read a very limited number of books in this particular genre, and have finished considerably less than I’ve started. So, why…So, Anyway…?

I’ll share a secret with you — I really am quite fond of John Cleese. He’s a brilliant comedian, a part of some of the funniest British comedy troupes — and Monty Python, most of all. He is terribly clever, he’s intelligent, introspective and insightful. Most of all — and that, you’ll learn, is what matters most to him — he is funny!

So, Anyway… is not the kind of autobiography the author uses as a way to inform his readers of numerous slights and affronts they’ve suffered through, nor is it an unchecked ego trip. Lucky for me, since I’m no fan of digging for old dirt.  John Cleese chooses to go at this whole autobiographical business from a much more pleasant angle, and even when he’s critical towards old acquaintances and friends, he does it with such absurdity and good humor that it’s difficult to fault.

Who is this book for?

  • If you’ve ever loved anything John Cleese has had a hand in writing, you will enjoy witnessing his growth, from a pampered little daddy’s boy with a ‘precious thumb’  to a clumsy young man, to someone who eventually grows comfortable with success. Mostly.
  • Are you interested in, or already writing comedy? You’ll find a lot to learn, parts of the book can be read, or listened to, as a master class in comedy.
  • Do you enjoy humour that doesn’t ask you to lock your intelligence away somewhere in order to get the full experience?

The audiobook version

Is voiced by John Cleese himself, and excellent. He cracks up multiple times, which is hilarious. The fact that he enjoys recalling, reliving these memories is nothing short of contagious. If you enjoy audiobooks, you simply must get it!

Quotes

Don’t take my words for any of it, read these here quotes from a couple of humorous remembrances of John’s:

“Mother told me once that some Westonians privately criticised Dad for retreating so soon. They apparently felt it would have been more dignified to have waited a week or so before running away. I think this view misses the essential point of running away, which is to do it the moment the idea has occurred to you. Only an obsessional procrastinator would cry, “Let’s run for our lives, but not till Wednesday afternoon.”

“The Germans were a people famous for their efficiency, so why would they drop perfectly good bombs on Weston-super-Mare, when there was nothing in Weston that a bomb could destroy that could possibly be as valuable as the bomb that destroyed it?
The Germans did return, however, and several times, which mystified everyone. Nevertheless I can’t help thinking that Westonians actually quite liked being bombed: it gave them a significance that was otherwise lacking from their lives. But that still leaves the question why would the Hun have bothered? Was it just Teutonic joi de vivre? Did the pilots mistake the Weston seafront for the Western Front? I have heard it quite seriously put forward by older Westonians that it was done at the behest of William Joyce, the infamous “Lord Haw-Haw”, who was hanged as a traitor in 1944 by the British for making Nazi propaganda broadcasts to Britain during the war. When I asked these amateur historians why a man of Irish descent who was born in Brooklyn would have such an animus against Weston that he would buttonhole Hitler on the matter, they fell silent. I prefer to believe that it was because of a grudge held by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering on account of an unsavoury incident on Weston pier in the 1920s, probably involving Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan.
My father’s explanation, however, makes the most sense: he said the Germans bombed Weston to show that they really do have a sense of humour.”

“British journalists tend to believe that people who become good at something do so because they seek fame and fortune. This is because these are the sole motives of people who become British journalists. But some people, operating at higher levels of mental health, pursue activities because they actually love them.”

“Yes, I know it’s easy to make fun of the organised churches, but has it occurred to anyone to wonder why it’s so easy?”

“I found Toronto an immensely likeable city, spacious and gentle and slightly dignified, but in a low-key, friendly way. The only people who didn’t seem to think much of it were its inhabitants, who could hardly wait for you to ask directions, because that gave them the perfect opportunity to apologise for it. What they were apologising for I never understood. I think they felt uninteresting, compared with America. I took the opposite view; I remember reading about the doctrine of American “Exceptionalism” and thinking that what I liked so much about Canadians was that they consider themselves unexceptional. This modest, unthreatening attitude seems to produce a nation that is stable, safe, decent and well respected. It’s just a shame that for seven months of the year it’s so cold that only Canadians would put up with it.”

“One minute, I was saying, “Hello, Mr. Bunny!” and smiling at its sweet little face and funny floppy ears. The next, the fucker savaged me.”

My apologies, I might’ve slightly overdone it with the quotes. There’s so many more I would like to share with you all, but the quotes are already quite a bit longer than my own review, and so I will resist the impulse.

Conclusion

What a wonderful autobiography. Filled with self-depreciation, a healthy dose of dislike for overt political correctness and a genuine love for comedy, ‘So, Anyway. . . ‘ is a funny, compelling look at a portion of John Cleese’s life.

If I had any complaints, they would have to do with the somewhat abrupt ending and the fact that a fairly large period between Monty Python and the reunion tour is left blank. The hope remains for a second book, then!

The Score

Five out of Five Black Stars.

Thank you for reading!