Patricia Highsmith investigates the religious right


Set in the early 1980s during the Reagan era when Christian Fundamentalism was on the rise, Patricia Highsmith’s People Who Knock on the Door chronicles the events which move a middle class American family out of their comfort zone into the world of uncertainty.

Highsmith, best known for her crime stories based around the character of Tom Ripley and, more recently, for her lesbian novel Carol demonstrates her superb plotting and storytelling skills in this novel. Naturally, there are crimes in the novel but not the kind of Highsmith-type crime we are used to. These are moral crimes set against the backdrop of the belief system.

The issues at the heart of this novel are the effects that any kind of religious (or, for that matter, political) fundamentalism has on family and friends and changes the attitudes and behaviour of the believer. When Richard Alderman becomes a born-again Christian he becomes enmeshed in the world of the fundamentalists with their counselling sessions, preaching, outreach groups, knocking on doors, gossip-mongering and pamphleteering.  In his zeal he cannot appreciate that his elder son, wife and mother-in-law do not share his beliefs and have a right to their own viewpoint.

He manages to convince his gullible youngest son that he has been “saved” from near-death and indoctrinates him. Highsmith shows the way in which a vulnerable teenager can easily fall prey to such a rigorous influence when there is no credible opposition. Richard uses his new-found religious faith to alienate his eldest son and to punish him for being a nice kid who is not taken in by the mavericks.

The novel covers television evangelism, prolife vs abortion debate, class, religious freedom, politics and the American obsessions with guns. All this is done is a very readable story which jogs along until the explosion towards the end.

The novel did not get particularly good reviews when it was first published despite being, in my opinion, one of her best novels. Her US editor did not recommend it to his publishers, Harper & Row so it was picked up by Penzler Books. Marilyn Stasio, in the New York Times of November 24, 1985 did not regard it as one of her better books. There are some aspects of the novel which jar, and which have been picked up by reviewers on Good Reads, namely that the young Arthur and his friends seem to drink a surprising number of adult drinks rather than beer (e.g. Old Fashioned cocktails) and hang around old people a lot (e.g. Norma).

Having read many of Highsmith’s books over thirty years, I am now persuaded to return to her as a storyteller.

I have come late to Eileen Myers


I do not remember how I came across the name Eileen Myers. I do not remember how I came across the work of Eileen Myers. What I do remember is that I came across their poetry and Twitter messages in September last year. I am surprised that I had never heard of them before after all they are the same generation of my idol, Patti Smith. They both emerged in NY around the same time. They were both photographed by Robert Maplethorpe. They were both “punk” poets.  They were, are, both political. How come I had never heard of them?

And now? And now, I am learning to read their poetry and their books. I came across Myer’s last collection “I must be living twice” in Finchley, London. It was an omen. I bought the book and flipped through it as I took the bus home. What did I like? I liked the directness. I liked the straight approach. I have no time for the romantic poets or people who weave words in such a way as a reader needs a PhD in semiology  to understand their meaning. The images of Myers on the internet show a woman who is not bound up with fashion and notions of beauty – a woman who presents themselves as they are, wrinkles and untidy hair. They dress as straightforwardly as they write.

I am currently watching the television series Transparent, in which Myles is a character and also an actor. Reading the credits reminded me of “I must be living twice” sitting on my bookshelf. I took it down. I also did an internet search for their other works. The titles, I think, are arresting: “Not Me” and “The New Fuck You.” They are challenging titles and, I am happy to say, the poems in “Not Me” are as direct and challenging as I expected.  I like “narrative poetry,” by which I mean narratives / stories  told within the confines and structure of verse. The break in the lines and the thoughts are genius.

“When I came
in I switched
on the light
to a yellow &
black striped
towel on the
floor & a big
smashed water-
melon & a
pair of
cowboy boots.”
(Not Me, page 22)

I have come late to Eileen Myers but I am glad I have come.

 

Five Minutes of Freedom


Over the past fifteen months I have been researching and writing a novel on the samizdat movement in 1970s  Czechoslovakia. The story was sparked by a poem, a partially remembered song and the life of the Russian dissident Natalya Gorbanevskaya. Every now and again I come across some new information about the era and a new website.

This weekend I have stumbled across a website devoted to documentaries. Of most immediate interest to me is the film 5 Minutes of Freedom. This is a film about the Warsaw Pact countries invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

5 Minutes of Freedom trailer

Information about the film

One of the anti-invasion protesters arrested in Moscow was Natalya Gorbanevskaya, whose book about the trials I mentioned in a previous post. She pops up in the film about those protests.

Totally unrelated, but also of interest, are two films about being outsiders in Russia. One is Leninland – the story of supporters of Lenin. A further film is Olya’s Love which is an LGBT film.

All the above films are documentaries about the experience of being different in Russia. Being a Russian in Russia is, of course, an interesting experience at all times and in all situations. Something we in the West should learn more about, perhaps….

 

Good Reads book challenge


goodreads challenge

At the start of this year I set myself a reading challenge – to read 20 books over the course of the year. I did this without any real expectations but so far I have read 9 books in print and as ebooks, which is 45% of the challenge. I am thinking that as it is only April I may have to up the challenge. 

The great thing about the books I have been reading is that I have been reading for pleasure not for insights into writing or inspiration for my own writing. 

I have acquired the books from various channels – recommendations, free books from authors I follow, hand-me-downs from friends, books found in bookshops and books donated to the free library at my local railway station.  I have read both print and electronic books, with print books being in the ascendancy. This is a change from previous years when I was glued to my Kindle. 

At the moment I am reading “The Miniaturist” (a hand-me-down) which got off to a slow start but now I am hooked. I am taking it with me to Sofia tomorrow and when I have finished it will donate it to the hotel library for someone to find. 

Already packed is “Red Square at Noon” by one of my favourite dissidents: Natalya Gorbanevskaya. I am currently writing a novel loosely based on the experiences  of Gorbanevskaya and feel ready, at this point in my writing and research, to sit down and read her account of the trials of the anti-CSSR invasion of August 1968. I have a copy of the original Penguin edition displayed below. 

I have carried this book around for nearly a year waiting for the right moment to read it. Somehow, this seems to be the moment. 

As for the reading challenge, I am looking forward to discovering new books from new authors during the remainder of the year. I wonder what will come into my hands and how they will come there. Perhaps, other people’s reading challenges will lead me in new literary directions. I have many many books yet to read on my Kindle and my bookshelf but this year there seems to be time to start tackling them as I will, one by one. 

I wonder if any of my readers and followers have any recommendations for me. …..