Men writing about love

/Cover of The Course of LoveFirst some facts:

  • There is only one male Mills and Boon writer – and he writes under his wife’s name
  • and four grudgingly recognised female writers of Westerns (and they are accused of bending that particular genre in more ways than one).

In-between these gender outliers, it’s a bit of a free for all. Nevertheless, despite the fact that all men will have loved, far fewer men write romantic fiction, or books about love.

And I’m not including here books where there’s a sprinkling of lurve on top of a mountain of general bad behaviour and savagery. I’m talking about contemporary authors who truly attempt to reveal what they understand about love. Authors who lay themselves bare, who wrestle with love, whose hearts have (in all probability) been broken. Those men.

Cover of BullfightingAnd they do exist, but let’s just get the following man writers out of the way: Tony Parsons (with books like Man and Boy), David Nicholls (One Day and Us) and Nicholas Sparks (anything romantic that has recently been filmed, like Message in a Bottle). They are all popular, they all write well, but they feel to me like observers, one step distant from real involvement. They tell stories about men and women in love, but they don’t dig that deep.

My “Men who write about love” do it in a way that is very revealing to women, in books that will make you look differently at male bravado, and with characters who are almost certainly based on their own experiences. Authors like this:

This is a terribly Non-PC blog, I know. After all, why even bother distinguishing the gender of writers? Why not include gay writers and those who are transgender? But it gets worse, because  what I think I am really trying to say here is that men write better books about love than women do.

Prove me wrong.

Crooked Heart, Lissa Evans

Cover of Crooked HeartI’ve read World War II evacuee stories before. The fear of the unknown, sullen confusion, awful foster homes, inevitable loss. Children labelled like lunches, dragged from door to door in search of a temporary home. I can’t think of many novels with positive evacuee experiences.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans doesn’t sound like a positive evacuee story, but it is. It begins with Noel, age 10, realising his godmother, Mattie, is succumbing to dementia. A tragedy for anyone to have to deal with, but especially for a boy on his own.

She was losing words. At first it was quite funny. ‘The box of things,’ Mattie would say, waving her mauve-veined hands vaguely around the kitchen. ‘The box of things for making flames. It’s a song, Noel!

The box of things for making flames
I can’t recall their bloody names.’

After a while, it stopped being funny. Some words would resurface after a few days; others would sink for ever. Noel started writing labels: ‘SHAWL’, ‘WIRELESS’, ‘GAS MASK’, ‘CUTLERY DRAWER’.

There are two unusual and meaningful relationships in this book: between Noel and his suffragette godmother Mattie, who is so erudite and funny I could quote pretty much anything—

‘Hobbies are for people who don’t read books,’ said Noel; it was one of Mattie’s sayings.

—and, later, between Noel and his foster mother Vee, whose early descriptions make me think of a hen — head constantly turning, looking for something better.

At first Vee sees Noel as an opportunity, a crippled evacuee who might get her some more money (which she is severely lacking). In a way she was right: Noel quickly catches on to her scams, and becomes the level-headed organiser of their illegal outings. It sounds awful, but I ended up rooting for the pair of them, even while they’re going around pretending to be collecting for the war fund. Despite their seeming differences — Vee is “common” and middle-aged, Noel is educated and a child — they’re both lonely and neglected by their surviving relatives. Their growing affection for each other and funny/heart-breaking mishaps already guarantee Crooked Heart a place on my Best Of 2015 list.

Some more books of love and friendship set before, during or after the World Wars:

Cover of The Paying Guests Cover of Consequences Cover of From a Distance

What are your favourite sad but funny books?

Looking for love – must enjoy reading (It’s not easy finding the perfect relationship).

Cover of Millions of women are waiting to meet youIt is hard to find the perfect man or woman.  If you love to read, to live with someone who never picked up a book (or a kobo or Kindle) could be a make or break it situation!

Literary review website Omnivore has come to the rescue with a dating service that seeks to match couples by their book tastes.

Perhaps Richard is just your type?

Poet, educator, inspiration, sex god, Richard, 30 from London, tells us how he’s preparing for his solo tour to Canada and why he’d like a woman like Angela Carter but usually ends up with the Sylvia Plaths.

Then there is Natasha….

Kelly Brook lookalike, Natasha, is a (nearly) 25 year-old librarian from Whitechapel with a penchant for older Hungarian men.

Or. how about Digby?

A 24-year-old writer from unfashionable West London who enjoys walking, tinned food and pseudo-intellectual pop music.

Admittedly it’s a bit tricky to meet up with either Richard, Digby or Natasha being stuck away down here in the Antipodes, so the relationship section of the Library may well have to suffice for ideas and tips about how to find “the one”.

Age Is No Barrier


This has been an eventful day – up the SkyTower (my chosen venue to prepare for the William Dalrymple interview), a walk to Lionel  Shriver’s hotel so that I know where to go tomorrow and 45 minutes with  David Levithan reading from two of his books:  Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. What strikes me after just three Festival events is how multi-talented writers are. Not only is Levithan a writer of renown, but he is also a lively speaker and a kind man who responded to the questions from the young audience with sensitivity.

Truth to tell, it was hard to ignore the audience attending this event as the group immediately in front of us was made up of thirteen beautifully kitted out young students who arrived late, fussed terribly about who they were going to sit next to, took giggling to a whole new level – to the point where their teacher who had given up glaring at them actually (and I never thought I would see this) threw a book at them – well a notepad, but still.
They were responsive to the point of irritation yet it was clear to me that were loving every minute of Levithan’s racy dialogue and sexuality. When he read from Will Grayson, Will Grayson, they mimed the tender scene with the shoulder massage. They knew the book alright.

And here’s the thing, although Levithan’s books are classified as Young Adult he freely admits that he does not write with that specific age group in mind and instead sees age as a continuum. This made me feel much better about the fact that I am now determined to read some of his works – and we all know how old I am.

A strange thing is happening to me at the festival – doors that had remained resolutely closed, like children’s and young adult fiction are swinging wide open and refreshing blasts of newness are blowing my mind. The next bastion to fall will be Zombie books but I’m still holding firm on that. I’ll leave it there as Bronwyn will be giving you more detailed coverage of this event and the interview that she is having with Levithan even as I tap away at the keyboard in my room.

You Live, You Die … So Much For That

CoverIf someone said to you “here’s a book about dying of cancer, genetic disorders, the American Health System and some crumbling relationships” you might just say “thanks, but no thanks”. But if they added that the book  So Much For That was written by Lionel Shriver (whom it just so happens you have to interview), everything would change.

Shriver writes sentences that come at you like a train aiming at a standing car on a level crossing. There is no escape. Not one for feng shui sparseness, this is dense writing where Shriver plucks at will from her enormous vocabulary to render characters so annoyingly human your palms tingle to slap them.

Female readers will probably develop a crush on Shep (I know I did), male readers will never want to see the words “penis” and “enlargement” in the same sentence ever again and Glynis – the feisty, unreasonable Glynis (to borrow one of Polchatnik’s annoying tautologies)- just is who she is.

It is a measure of Shriver’s talent that you learn a whole lot about stuff you never wanted to know in the first place and yet you do not even once think of skipping a paragraph. There are wonderful insights throughout the book, one of my favourites is : “concept is incidental, execution is all”, which drove me to stop fantasising about where to put the spring bulbs and instead get up and actually plant them. Not only that, for the first time ever I read the little tag that tells you how deep in the ground they should go.

Be warned, this is not a book for the squeamish. Unlike other books on tending to dying friends or family,  for example  Elizabeth Berg’s  Never Change, Shriver does not spare us even the most private indignities of it all. I wonder how this compares with other books on the topic of death and illness, I hope there are some readers out there who can share their expertise. In the case of So Much For That, there’s no refined turning of the gaze from what is ugly, painful, profoundly sad and very, very costly. The book’s  title lays bare  the financial implications and the hopelessness of it all in what must be the best title choice I have seen in a long long time, all thanks to Shriver’s husband Jeff.

Essentially this is a novel about love and sacrifice and after the freefall of this anxious read, Shriver finally relents and shoves a mattress under us. It’s not quite in the “make mine  extra fluffy” league, but I was oh so grateful for it.

Anti-Valentines – Top 20 songs for the dumped

Glass heartValentine’s Day.  Unless you’re in the “honeymoon phase” of a relationship it can be a fairly rough trot.  Are you fed up with the chocolates and roses crowd and their sickening kissy-faces?  Why wouldn’t you be?

It’s especially hard if you’ve just had your heart drop-kicked for goal by a callous cad or stroppy siren.  There are books that can help you through the rough times and I’ve mentioned those in Valentines posts past but when it comes to heartbreak nothing is more succinct, more visceral, more pointedly true than the lyrics of popular songs.

Yes, you’ll find it hard to listen to the lovey-lovey stuff and don’t even go near “your song” for at least a year but songs are great for a bit of wallowing or even better a bit of “you suck and I don’t even care that you’re going out with my best friend now” catharsis.  The following list has been cribbed from “On & off songs for the dumped” from The Advertiser but I’ve padded it with a few suggestions of my own to make it a nice round twenty.

  1. End of the road – Boyz II Men
  2. Ain’t no sunshine – Bill Withers
  3. Just don’t know what to do with myself – Dusty Springfield/The White Stripes
  4. Tainted love – Soft Cell
  5. Good riddance (Time of your life) – Green Day
  6. I will survive – Gloria Gaynor
  7. Everything about you – Ugly Kid Joe
  8. Hit the road Jack – Ray Charles
  9. Song for the dumped – Ben Folds Five
  10. You oughta know – Alanis Morissette
  11. You keep me hangin’ on – Diana Ross & the Supremes/Kim Wilde
  12. Irreplaceable – Beyoncé
  13. Crazy – Patsy Cline
  14. I hope I never – Split Enz
  15. Please don’t leave me – Pink
  16. Gives you hell – All American Rejects
  17. Since u been gone – Kelly Clarkson
  18. Crying – Roy Orbison
  19. Love is a battlefield – Pat Benatar
  20. Since I don’t have you – Skyliners/Guns n Roses

So what do you think of this list?  Anyone got suggestions of their own for a lovelorn playlist for one?

Love still sucks

Join together, single folk of the world and harden your resolve for the worst day of the year approaches…St. Valentine’s day. Yet again television and radio ads are explaining to us all the causal relationship between love and expensive jewellery (the implication seems to be that if you have one that you simply must have the other) and florists are looking decidedly enthusiastic.

As I mentioned last year here and here, I find the whole thing more than a little depressing and I see no reason why the un-coupled amongst us shouldn’t be catered for at this difficult time. So fear not, for I have come to the rescue with the following library treats to help the microwave-meal-for-one crowd cope –

Bad relationships make the best comedy

What rhymes with bastard?
What rhymes with bastard?

I’m not a self help book reader, and scoff at “The rules”, “He’s just not that into you” and whatever relationship guide is being touted on Doctor Phil or Oprah. A bit too much regurgitation for my liking. But a well written relationship memoir  – that’s another story. They can be the most intoxicating intimate, amusing and revealing books of all.  And of course, the most interesting ones detail relationships that are bad. Really bad.

I’ve just finished a corker called What rhymes with bastard by Linda Robertson. Check out this excerpt from the Times online to get a bit of its flavour. It is funny, but like Ricky Gervais’s comedy, tinged with a lot of pain.

Linda’s story begins in London, and then she and her boyfriend then husband Jack move to San Francisco. It’s not unfair to call him a bit of a freak, socially inept, drunk and occasionally drug-addled, prone to quoting Nietszche and stealing roommates cheese from the fridge. Most worryingly, he puts down his wife and is utterly lacking in any sensitivity. When he decides their relationship should be open, it’s excruciating how he documents his encounters to her. He really is an enthralling git.

Continue reading

Love sucks (for guys too)

Millions of women are waiting to meet you - a story of life, love and internet dating In an earlier post I pointed out that St Valentines day isn’t quite so much fun for singletons but it seems that I was remiss.  It’s not just lovelorn ladies that get twitchy around the 14th of February.  Lonely lads suffer too.

So here’s a hitlist of what the library has for bummed out bachelors – Continue reading

Love sucks

It's called a breakup because it's brokenNoticed an increase in advertising for the following lately; chocolates, jewellery, flowers, lingerie?  If you do indeed live in a box, you might not have realised that St Valentine’s day is almost upon us.  It’s all very nice if you’re one half of a happy couple (or even a couple that can make a convincing approximation) but being a “Singleton” on Romance’s day of days can leave a little to be desired. 

Rather than basking in other peoples’ radiant, romancey, glow (eerrrgh) why not grab these goodies from the library and hunker down in solitude? Continue reading