The trouble with twins

Cover of Her Fearful SymmetryI am not a big fan of books that feature twins. Now read that sentence again carefully before you get all huffy. In fact, I love the few twins I have met; it is the use of twins as a plot device of which I am suspicious.

And what a lot of books fall back on twinniness. Have a look at this library list of 212 adult novels which feature twins. Here’s what I don’t like about twinny books:

  • I disdain books where the second twin is sprung on me near the end of the story and is the one who actually committed the murder/ theft/ betrayal – take your pick.
  • I am bored by books where the twins look exactly alike but behave completely differently, one all sweetness and light and the other a nasty piece of work.
  • I hate the deception played out in novels where the twins trick people through posing as one another.

Cover of SisterlandYet I have read some very good twin themed books:

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger involves not one but two sets of twins. Set in London opposite Highgate Cemetery, it becomes unforgettably creepy. Life After Death takes on a whole new slant in this very good read.

Sisterland is a novel by Curtis Sittenfeld. It stars two identical looking twins who aren’t at all alike. One of them has psychic powers that enable her to predict an earthquake in their hometown area. It could have been an awful book, but Sittenfeld is a very accomplished novelist – you are safe in her hands.

Christopher Bohjalian gives us The Night Strangers. It features twins, an old house, a plane crash that killed 39 people, an unhinged pilot father and a coven of strange ladies in the nearby village.

And then Cover of The Night Strangersthere is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Karen recently reviewed this excellent book – have a look at her blog post. Suffice it to say that this is one of the few books that I have read twice – in my entire life. It is that good.

If you’ve read this far hoping for help with breastfeeding your newborn twins, getting them to sleep at the same time or dilemmas around developing their little identities – there is loads of stuff for you as well. And if you are a creative mum of twins who lives in a crumbling Victorian mansion (preferably on a moor) and have named your girls Violet and Carmine – give serious consideration to writing a book. You’ve got all the right ingredients!

Does anyone out there feel the same as I do about twinny books, or am I about to be shot down by flaming double-barrelled guns?

The wheels on the bus go round and round …

Curses! Now you’ll be stuck with that  tune in your head all day, in much the same way that wheels and libraries have been on my mind of late.

It all began with my soft launch into graphic novels – The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger.  Let’s face facts, when talents were being distributed, Niffenegger had definitely elbowed her way to the front of the queue.

Endowed with a fertile imagination and already a very successful writer – think The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry – she is also the gifted illustrator of her books The Three Incestuous Sisters and more recently, The Night Bookmobile . Harking back to the Hindu notion of  Akashic records that keep a tally of all our previous incarnations, The Night Bookmobile keeps a record of all our past reads. What further talents could Niffenegger possibly unveil, other than to set the whole shebang to self-composed music and place a little disc in the back of this beautiful book?

Which leads on to my second crumbling bastion of the month – books with accompanying discs, and in a serendipitous turn of events, I finally got a long-awaited book: Shanachie Tour, A Library Road Trip Across America. I just flipped through the book but actually watched the DVD. It’s about three Dutch librarians who travel across America visiting libraries. Why didn’t we think of that first! Despite a disturbingly truncated presentation, it’s inspirational stuff for library lovers. My favourite quote from the DVD is:

The Universe is made of stories, not atoms.

I can only think of two other books that relate to this theme of wheels and traveling librarians: The Camel Bookmobile  by Masha Hamilton and one other (whose name I cannot remember) about books being transported around South America on a donkey. Whatever was its title?

Audrey Niffenegger: Originality and sneaky technology

coverBy the time I got out of the Derek Johns session the queue for Audrey Niffenegger was filling up the bookshop. Anxious people in line texted friends and waved like excited children when they showed. Lynn Freeman’s introduction laid a great foundation for the discussion ahead – Niffenegger creates “worlds as recognizable to us as our own, but which follow slightly different rules of the universe”.

My elegant colleague Robyn has covered the substantial detail of the session, so I wanted to touch on some of the other aspects that appealed.

I admire Niffenegger’s pursuit of originality and her DIY approach. Speaking of Her fearful symmetry, she said:

… Everything started to acquire opposites and pairs … [there was ] no rhyme or reason, it was a little thing that multiplied. The way you grow things creatively is ask questions; they prompt answers and you ask more questions … and seven years later you have a 463-page novel. That’s how you do it, you don’t have to take MFA course…

Sneaky technology: She cleverly observed how when new technology comes along it imitates the old technology. Book; E-book.

“They will look primitive to us soon,” she said. “I hope they are well designed, I  hope typography and page design are done well  – we had perfected them on the page …”

She was also optimistic about the possibilities technology offers writers – something I suspect publishers might prefer we didn’t think about. They can do things books can’t like enlarge type and make allowances for people who have limited hand movement. A new “killer diller” art form will eventuate. “Bolder and sexier”, we will eventually make material for it and  they will be “stupendous”. She also said she though it won’t be the end of the physical book –  the two will live in symbiosis.

Finally she also mentioned a couple of authors worth following up:

An audience with Audrey

Wellington on a good day. The sun is shining on Lauris Edmonds’ “world headquarters of the verb'” and there is not a breath of wind. The enviably in-shape Courtenay Place street person is looking great in his loincloth, well dressed middle aged people with proper haircuts are assuring each other in the Te Papa shop that “we’ve just got time to duck into Kirk’s” and Audrey Niffenegger is my first NZ Post Writers and Readers Week outing.

I can report that the stage’s greenery and flower arrangements are of Ellerslie standard, that there are more men than at Christchurch festivals, fewer than Auckland and that the crowd is generally younger than at either. But that could just be Audrey’s audience. She does have red hair but I was not able to shriek “who are you wearing” nor ask any fatuous questions about Vivienne Westwood and The Queen. This is Wellington after all.

So, all about Audrey. She collects taxidermy, skeletons and vintage clothes, she’s a cat lover, she’s a trained typographer and she used the phrase “Killer Diller” to describe something she thought would be really good. So far so fabulous.

As a child Niffenegger thought she would write and illustrate books because that’s what children think books are, and she thought The Time Traveller’s wife would be a graphic novel “for about 45 minutes”. The success of that novel allowed her to have her 14 year labour of love The Three Incestuous Sisters, previously published in editions of ten hand set and hand bound books that ended up in specialist libraries, published commercially.

Her Fearful Symmetry is Niffenegger’s latest book, exhaustively researched and set in Highgate Cemetery, where she serves as a tour guide and where she wants to be buried (this piece of information was in answer to a question from the audience, not volunteered apropos of nothing you will be relieved to hear).

Highgate is the smartest of the seven cemeteries built on what was then the outskirts of London to ease the pressure on churchyards when the groundwater began to be contaminated by the build-up of bodies. Many famous people are buried there; Karl Marx, Christina Rossetti, George Eliot and Douglas Adams among them. Being British and upright Victorians, the authorities didn’t cheat like the fiendish French who reburied celebrities in Paris’ Pere Lachaise to encourage people to be buried there.

But that’s probably enough about cemeteries. Her Fearful Symmetry is an engrossing ghost story, a creepy twins story and a love story. Now Niffenegger is working on a novel about a girl with hypertrichosis, a novel whose characters escaped from a short story.

And I’m off to Don McGlashan.