The Immortalists

It’s 1989, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York’s Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. The four Gold children, too young for what they’re about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes.

Over the years that follow, the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies the fortune-teller gave them that day. Will they accept, ignore, cheat or defy them? Golden-boy Simon escapes to San Francisco, searching for love; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician; eldest son Daniel tries to control fate as an army doctor after 9/11; and bookish Varya looks to science for the answers she craves.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists is a story about how we live, how we die, ad what we do with the time we have.

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My god. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is not a novel to be entered into lightly. I say this as someone who did – grabbing it because it was a Belletrist book club pick I couldn’t afford at the time they were reading it, without really considering what the summary actually meant. Prepare to come face to face with all your existential anxiety because this is a book about death.

But I still think that you should read it.

To be overly honest and unnecessarily grim, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, life is really defined by its finiteness. That fact, and the crippling panic that comes along with it is something that the majority of us are able to ignore most of the time, but in her clever, tragic, depressing, ironic and at times highly frustrating novel, Benjamin tackles a version of life with that deliberate ignorance removed. Bored one day during the summer, the Gold siblings make a decision that will define the rest of their lives: they find out (or think they find out) exactly when they will die, and in doing so, lose the ability to think about almost anything else.

After our introduction to the Gold family, the book is separated into five sections; the beginning, and then four periods of time, each following a Gold sibling through the final years of their lives (or are they?) as predicted by the fortune-teller. How they each respond so differently to the fortune-teller’s prophecy is a credit to Benjamin’s story telling: Simon’s panicked rush to the finish line, determined to get everything he can out of life before his time runs out; Klara’s fatalism, brought about by her undiagnosed mental health problems; Daniel’s aggressive denial; and Varya’s career, built around a desperate search for a way to extend human life – ironic, as she is the only sibling prophesied to grow old.*

*not a spoiler. You find out in the first couple pages.

There are so many interesting things in The Immortalists, but perhaps one of my favourite elements was the way in which Benjamin, no matter how tragic the family become, never once let the Golds off the hook. As they turned inward, able to experience only their own grief and suffering, Benjamin, as if from a great distance, shouts to them about the other pain that exists in the world. I’m not convinced they ever heard her, and the truth and the frustration in this felt very authentic. As Simon navigated the world as a gay man in the seventies he is unable to see – though repeatedly told – that The Castro in San Francisco, the place where he has finally found his home, excludes Robert, his black boyfriend. Klara is unable to look past her own personal tragedies to see those of her partner, Raj. Born in the slums of Bombay, his father gave everything he had to send him to the US and then died before he could follow. Though he tries to make the point to Klara, and to other members of the Gold family, they never quite grasp that there is pain in the world that is structurally built into it, and just as valid as their own.

The Immortalists is a difficult, upsetting, but ultimately beautiful read. Benjamin doesn’t shy away from her subject matter, whether it’s the reality of death and our relationship to it, or the nails-down-a-chalkboard, walking-on-egg-shells, call-screening aspects of being in a difficult family.

It will totally mess you up though, so do read something fun after. I recommend either light fantasy or a YA contemporary romance.

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I Was Born for This

For Angel, life is about one thing: The Ark – a pop-rock trio of teenage boys taking the world by storm. Being part of The Ark’s fandom has given her everything she loves – her friend Juliet, her dreams, her place in the world.

Jimmy owes everything to The Ark. He’s their frontman – and playing in a band with his mates is all he ever dreamed of doing.

But dreams don’t always turn out the way you think, and when Jimmy and Angel are unexpectedly thrust together they find out how strange and surprising facing up to reality can be.

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Because I am hopelessly out of the loop, I was perhaps the last person to find out that Alice Oseman had a new book coming out, but when the news finally reached me, I was thrilled. After avoiding her work for a long time because her age-to-success ratio made me feel like a failure (if you don’t know, the woman got a book deal when she was seventeen. SEVENTEEN. When I was seventeen I got turned down for a job at the zoo because I didn’t have any retail experience), I finally picked up Radio Silence (which she wrote at university. When I was at university I got turned down for every internship I ever applied for) and I fell in LOVE. In a similar style to my eventual acceptance of Tavi Gevinson into my life, Alice Oseman’s talent overrode my own sense of personal failure. (Also, I got a job, which I’m not going to lie, helped a great deal.)

And funnily enough, as it turns out, I think it is Oseman’s age that plays in a big part in what makes her books such a joy to read. No shade to older YA authors, but there’s really no one who can write about the experience of being a teen growing up on the internet better than…. you know, an adult woman who spent her teen years on the internet. In I Was Born For This, much like Radio Silence (and, I assume, Solitaire though I haven’t read it yet) Oseman crafts an authentic story of coming of age online, this time through the intensity, joy and misery that comes with being part of a fandom.

She writes about The Ark fandom, in which Angel, one of the two narrators of the story is heavily involved, with authenticity and compassion, easily incorporating the positive and negative sides of online infatuation. Oseman made clear that the obsession with these three boys wasn’t so much rooted in sex for Angel, but the need to escape from her day to day. Her involvement in the fandom wasn’t  a sign of having ‘no life’, but of having one that she didn’t want to deal with. Thinking about The Ark was a means of avoiding herself, something I think a lot of us bookworms can probably relate to (I certainly could – I think it’s how a lot of unhappy kids who aren’t so much into drugs or drink tend to deal with their feelings).

Oseman’s use of dual point of view, something I usually don’t like at all, worked perfectly in I Was Born for This. Chapters alternating between Angel, the fangirl and Jimmy, member of The Ark and object of Angel’s obsession came together to show two people in radically different situations dealing with the same issue: desperately avoiding confronting their problems, often in ways that meant being wilfully – and hurtfully – ignorant of the people closest to them. It’s really mature subject matter for a YA book – the consequences of avoiding problems/feelings isn’t something I really confronted until I was well into my twenties.

As in Radio Silence, I Was Born for This is a space of complete acceptance of all people – no matter race, sexual orientation or gender identity. I have slightly complicated feelings about this. On the one hand, I love it, because it’s fun to live in such a safe space for a couple hundred pages, but on the other, having a book in which one lead protagonist was a Muslim girl and the other a transgender boy that is pretty much apolitical felt, frankly… unrealistic.

That said, though there was a serious lack of politics, something that did feature was characters’ religions. Which I loved. Angel, as I mentioned, is a Muslim and Jimmy is a Christian and for both of them their religion plays an active and positive role in their lives. Religion is seen by a lot of people as a profoundly negative influence on the world*, but the truth is, though the voices of crazies are loudest, most religious people are just getting on with their lives, following their religion and trying to be the best people that they can. I Was Born for This reflected that in a way you don’t often see and it made me very happy.

I Was Born for This is a delightful read. Oseman builds characters you can’t help but root for, despite their flaws, perfectly nails the fandom experience and leaves you feeling all warm and squishy on the inside. Her writing is YA at its best.

*My feelings about religion that no one asked for: Sometimes scientists build weapons that are used to kill and maim thousands of people while others are out there finding a cure for polio. Religion, like most things, really depends on the person practising it.

Thoughts on finishing the WTF podcast book

I have always been obsessed with the notion of ‘storifying’ life. The inevitable result of a childhood spent reading and a young adulthood on Netflix, I’m drawn to a tight narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. You can imagine my delight when I hit my early twenties and discovered memoir. I collected the works of Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler and assembled them on my bookshelves like a treasure map.

Too bad my own life didn’t make any kind of narrative sense. I felt like a mixed bag of interconnected feelings and anxieties and good and bad experiences that I couldn’t assemble into any kind of cohesive structure.

Podcasts made their way into my life. I started listening to Marc Maron’s WTF – required listening for any podcast enthusiast – and the stories his guests told were illuminating and brilliant and showed lives with that thing I so desperately wanted: a narrative arc. The discovery was bittersweet. It was like whatever the thing I sort of suspected might be wrong with me was, it was compounded by all these people who had managed to make sense out of their lives in a way I wasn’t able to.

Then I graduated university, and a combination of not knowing what I wanted to do and not really wanting to try at anything – hey, at least I’m honest – led me to spend the next two years in the call centre-retail-waitressing rat race. I got bored and restless in the first year, and even more bored and even more restless in the second. And at some point, the flood gates simply opened. I reached that point of absolute boredom where I had no choice but to delve into the thoughts I usually avoided. I was suddenly reflecting on my life so far, critically studying it and making those connections between past and present that had evaded me for so long.

What I eventually came to realise in fits and starts, in epiphany-like a-ha moments and in meandering thoughts while assembling pizza boxes – yes, really – is that actually, I do have a story. I can make connections out of my life and draw lines between point A and point B.

Like most things, finding my story didn’t turn out like I thought it would. In one way it’s liberating to acknowledge the wrongs done to you in the past, and the part they might play in the challenges you experience now. It feels good to identify a source of blame. On the other hand, it’s disconcerting to realise that the past can so deeply affect your present, often in ways you haven’t even noticed. The initial liberation I had felt turned into a sense of impending doom, like I was only the sum of my worst experiences.

In dealing with this evolving identity crisis I found myself again turning to those a lot further down the path of telling their own stories than me. My answers came from the world of WTF again, though in book form, this time. In 2017 Marc Maron and Brendan McDonald released Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live By from the WTF Podcast. It’s a doorstop of a book, filled with the stories of many of Marc’s guests over the years. There is a lot to discover in Waiting for the Punch – Marc has never been afraid to go deep with people, and there has always been something about him that makes people feel like they can open up. The words that stuck out to me most though, came from RuPaul Charles. He and Marc were talking about childhood, and the narratives we learn from our parents that we carry into our adult lives, regardless of whether they are true or not. He said:

I have this scene in my head that, with my father, where actually on weekends he was supposed to come pick me up, and I would sit on that porch and he would never show up. Well, let me tell you this. That scenario in my head is a benchmark. I had inevitably looked for situations to strengthen my identity as the little boy who was left behind, because on some level, that identity is what drove my buggy.

Once I’m able to let go of that identity and say, “That’s not me, and I don’t get off on that,” then the party can begin.”

We all have a narrative, whether we have found the tools to tell it to ourselves or not. That narrative might include abandoning or it might include something else awful altogether. It’s important to know the narrative, I think. It has a purpose for a while – after all, you can’t change a story until you recognise that you’re telling one.

But there comes a point when you have to let that narrative go.

Then the party can begin.

The Secret History

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

Summary from Goodreads

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“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

The first sentence of The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s debut novel of 1992, might be superior to at least 90% of the first sentences of all of the books I’ve ever read. I mean, how can you put down a book after a first sentence like that?

You can’t.

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a Gatsby-esque, Californian 19-year-old who after a year of medical school (mistake) and basically estrangement from his (mostly indifferent) parents, travels to New England to attend Hampden College, where he plans to study English Literature. Quickly, however, he falls under the spell of a group of Classics students who study with one very particular, ever-so-exclusive professor, separate to the rest of the students at the university. He talks his way into the class, and into the lives of the rich and enigmatic group.

It turns out to be the worst decision he’s ever made.

The novel is, at its heart, a thriller, but it’s a thriller that instead of asking the usual ‘who dunnit’, instead leaves us asking – how? How does it come to be that this group of – admittedly eccentric but not overtly unusual – students murder one of their classmates?

It’s remarkable that in this 600-some page tome, Tartt manages not to let up on the sense of foreboding disaster for even a second. If the group aren’t threatened with exposure from outside sources, they are crumbling from within. It’s quite a situation when you discover that the murder you committed together really only scratches the surface of the mess.

It’s funny – there were many elements in this novel that were familiar. From the group of classmates reading way too much into their school work, to the group themselves; bookish Henry, hot but creepy twins Charles and Camilla and poor half closeted Frances, all felt somewhat archetypal. Richard, even, the working class boy who invents himself a new history to fit in with his rich friends, didn’t feel new as such. And yet, in Tartt’s hands the story felt completely unique.

The richness of her language and the perfect balance between plot and character – what I loved so much about this and The Goldfinch was the way that Tartt establishes an expansive and complicated situation and then delves deep into how her characters respond to it – create a disturbing, hedonistic, shocking and anxious world that I couldn’t help but get lost in.

There is a reason so many people recommend this one.