A Heron Blurbs – 18 February 2024

With the publication of Wrong Norma by Anne Carson, I’ve been thinking a lot about book blurbs. Not keen on such things, Carson has supplied the following quotation for the cover: “Wrong Norma is a collection of writings about different things, like Joseph Conrad, Guantánamo, Flaubert… The pieces are not linked. That’s why I’ve called them wrong.” I hear a rather sardonic tone as Carson replies to her publisher’s request that she permit them to write the copy. A collection of writings about different things… No fooling.

Blurbs are sometimes generic and tell one little more than to expect a coming-of-age story or a gory police procedural for example. Sometimes they forego detail and offer only adjectives indicating that other writers thought the book heart-stirring/heart-warming/heart-wrenching/heart-breaking/heart-stopping. I once read a blurb which referred to a plot point that did not materialise until three quarters of the way through the book, rendering me unable to focus as I waited for cover and content to match up.

This is not to say that one doesn’t need some indication of what a book is about. It’s probably important that the cover of How I Won a Novel Prize, which I wrote about last week, makes it clear that this is a witty novel and not a rather smug memoir. But getting it right is a serious skill. Especially in the case of my favourite type of fiction: the kind where nothing happens. Here publishers tend to fall back on writing enjoyable lists. Hence Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett is described as “an absorbing chronicle of the pitfalls and pleasures of a solitudinous life… Broken bowls, belligerent cows, swanky aubergines, trembling moonrises and horrifying sunsets…”

Bukowski’s Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until The Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit is printed with a blank back cover. Perhaps the lengthy title said enough. But online the description reads, Bukowski “leads a life full of gambling and booze but also finds love. These poems are full of lechery and romance as he struggles to mature.” Superb. (Sublurb? Sorry.)

I offer my recommendations this morning, with no pretence of matching Carson or Bukowski’s skill.

Non-fiction
Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hidden Histories by Amitav Ghosh: a travelogue, memoir and history of the opium trade and its impact across the globe. (Also worth listening to Ghosh speak about this on Start the Week.)
The Return of the Grey Partridge: Restoring Nature on the South Downs by Roger Morgan-Grenville and Edward Norfolk: an illuminating account of renaturing a farm devastated by modern farming methods, bringing many and glorious forms of life back to the estate.  
Bardskull by Martin Shaw: memoir or mythology retelling or possibly auto-fiction; Martin Shaw wanders into a Dartmoor forest and waits for inspiration…

Fiction
Red Side Story by Jasper Fforde: set in a strict hierarchy in which your position is defined by which limited part of the colour spectrum you can see, those out in Red Sector West urgently need to uncover what threatens them despite the details being invisible…
What Will Survive of Us by Howard Jacobson: two people begin an affair in their 40s, leave their respective partners and both confront and celebrate the question of how to keep their intense passion alive as their bodies change with age.
Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi: attending a hen party in Prague, a woman goes to a second-hand bookshop and picks up Paradoxical Undressing (book shopping is the only sort of hen party activity I could be persuaded to attend) but finds that the story changes each time she begins reading it.

Children’s
Wolves in Helicopters by Sarah Tagholm and Paddy Donnelly: a baby rabbit has bad dreams about wolves that cannot be outpaced because, well, they have helicopters. But then: bunnies on hoverboards.
Beastlands: Race to Frostfall Mountain by Jess French: when Kayla’s companion, a winged pangron, is stolen she must do all she can to bring him back to safety, even if that means travelling to the Beastlands
The Boy Lost in the Maze by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Kate Milner: while Theseus risks the twisting turns of the labyrinth and meets the Minotaur, in the modern day Theo finds himself on a maze-like quest too. Myth will meet reality in this verse novel.

I’ll close with the blurb of a Wendy Cope collection since it describes what one might hope for in all writing. If I Don’t Know “extends her concern with the comedy of the examined life and imagines those adjustments to the ordinary which would fulfil our futures, or allow us to realize the golden age of five minutes ago, or weigh the ‘out there’ of the present moment, where what is in sight is also out of reach.” 

May your Sunday be full of tiny golden ages,
Lizzie