My Ántonia by Willa Cather

A nation of immigrants…

😀 😀 😀 😀

One day in the late 19th century, two children arrive separately in Nebraska on the same train. Jim Burden is a ten-year-old boy, recently orphaned and coming to the prairie land to live with his grandparents. Ántonia Shimerda is a couple of years older, immigrating to America from Bohemia with her family. Although from different backgrounds and traditions, the children become friends, learning about the land and wildlife of their new home together as they explore it with some of the other children in the farming neighbourhood. Over the years their friendship will gradually fade as Jim goes off to university and later to live in New York, but he always remembers Ántonia, and now in middle-age has set out to write down his memories of her.

When reviewing a much-studied classic it’s next to impossible to find anything new to say, so this is simply a summary of the things that most stood out to me while reading rather than an attempt at a full analysis. To start, I’ll explain why for me it only rates as four stars – simply put, it has no plot, which regular readers of my reviews will know is one of the things most likely to make me grumpy about a book. Instead it is a description of the short-lived era of pioneering, a wonderful depiction of the land and people’s relationship with it before it was fully tamed, a foundational story of the creation of America or perhaps of the myth of America, and a coming-of-age tale of Jim, primarily, but also of Ántonia and of the frontier itself.

I felt it was an odd and intriguing choice for Cather to tell Ántonia’s story at a remove through the eyes of a male narrator, especially since I found Jim’s voice almost inexorably feminine, particularly when he reaches the age of developing sexual interest in girls. I was interested to read in the introduction by Janet Sharistanian in my Oxford World’s Classics edition that Cather’s deepest relationships throughout her life were with women, although Sharistanian is careful to clarify that there is no evidence as to whether those relationships were sexual. However, she quotes another academic critic whose views rather neatly summed up my own feeling about Jim as narrator and Cather as author: “Judith Fetterley posits that ‘Though nominally male, Jim behaves in ways that mark him as female’; that his ‘sexual self-presentation’ as well as his actions reveal his ‘gender ambiguity’; and that ‘My Ántonia is the work of a lesbian writer, who could not ‘tell her own story in her own voice’”. Sharistanian doesn’t agree with this wholeheartedly, but I do. I also felt it perhaps explains another aspect I found mysterious – that we are first introduced to Jim in an introduction written by another person, using ‘I’ and presumably Cather herself, who apparently shares these childhood recollections of Ántonia and yet never appears in Jim’s narrative. I felt that Cather had handed over not just some of the autobiographical facts of her own story to ‘Jim’ but also her internal feelings, and that he really has to be considered her alter-ego.

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The other aspect I found most interesting was that this is the earliest example I’ve read of what is now a standard part of American literature, and increasingly the literature of other Western nations – the ‘immigrant experience’ novel. This, however, is written not by the immigrant herself, but from the perspective of an established ‘American’ – that is, a person of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant stock (although the Burdens are certainly not WASPs). Ántonia is from Eastern Europe, Catholic and, like most waves of immigrants to the US (and elsewhere), looked down on and treated as lesser by those already established until they in turn become accepted and absorbed into the story of the nation. I wondered if Cather chose to tell the story from Jim’s point of view purely because that was her own perspective on Ántonia, or if again she felt that America was not ready to hear from the voices of recent immigrants. In our time, it would be rather frowned upon to tell the story of an immigrant in this way – we are much more into ‘own voices’ and reluctant to imagine ourselves into the lives and minds of ‘others’. I thought Cather did it excellently, never once demeaning nor falsely romanticising Ántonia or the other immigrant girls we meet, and showing them as having become both physically and metaphorically the mothers of the young nation.

She also has a wonderful sense of balance in the way she shows the immigrant girls as living in a male-dominated society but refusing the role of victim or underdog, instead exercising a lot of autonomy in the way their lives unfold. The overall impression I came away with is that she believed that waves of immigration, especially the women, strengthened the American bloodstock (to put it rather crudely).

Willa Cather

The writing is excellent, especially in the descriptions of the various settings. The vastness of the landscape, the strength and courage of the pioneers, the rapid development of towns and social order are all portrayed brilliantly, leaving a lasting impression on the reader’s mind – for this reader, more lasting than the lives of our major protagonists, I must admit, who largely felt as if they existed to tie together a rather disparate set of episodes illustrating facets of the frontier life. Ántonia herself disappears completely for large parts of the book and her story is often told at a distance, by some third party telling Jim the latest gossip about her. Again, Sharistanian suggests a long-running debate between people who think the book is fundamentally Ántonia’s story, or Jim’s. I fall into the latter category – for me, this is very definitely Jim’s story, and therefore largely Cather’s own. But mostly it feels like a part of America’s story, or of its myth-making of itself as a ‘nation of immigrants’ – that is not to denigrate the myth or to suggest it is untrue, simply to say that all nations form myths from their own history which reflect and influence how they feel about themselves and how they act as a society. And I feel this foundational myth-creation aspect may be why the book has earned its place in the hearts of so many Americans, and as a well-deserved American classic.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Worthy, but soapy and strangely unmoving…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When inter-ethnic warfare in Nigeria leads to the Igbo breaking away to form their own short-lived nation of Biafra, the five main characters in the book find themselves caught up in the slaughter and mass starvation that results. Olanna and Kainene are twins, the privileged daughters of a wealthy businessman, who have both returned to Nigeria after being educated in English universities. Olanna is in love with Odenigbo, an academic with strong nationalist and revolutionary leanings. Kainene falls for Richard, a white man who is failing to write the book he came to Nigeria to research, and whose main purpose is to personify white guilt. Then there’s Ugwu, servant to Odenigbo and Olanna – his purpose appears to be to show how devoted the servant class is to the privileged who sit around pontificating while their servants do all the work of cooking, cleaning and bringing up their children for them, while having to beg for an occasional day off to visit their families.

This one took me nearly two months to read, largely because I found it almost completely flat in tone despite the human tragedy it describes. I learned a good deal about the background to the Biafran War, which happened when I was far too young to understand it but still registered with me and all my generation because of the horrific pictures of starving children that were shown on the news night after night for many months. I also learned a lot about the life of the privileged class in Nigeria – those with a conflicted relationship with their colonial past, adopting British education, the English language and the Christian religion while despising the colonisers who brought these things to their country. Adichie manages to be relatively even-handed – whenever she has one of her characters blame the British for all their woes, she tends to have another at least hint at the point that not all the atrocities Africans carry out against each other can be blamed on colonisation, since inter-ethnic hatreds and massacres long predated colonisation.

Biafran Flag

In this case it is the Igbo who are presented as the persecuted – the same ethnic group as Chinua Achebe writes about in Things Fall Apart, a book which I feel has clearly influenced Achebe’s style. The attempt at a degree of even-handedness struck me in both, as did the method of telling the political story through the personal lives of a small group of characters. In both, that style left me rather disappointed since I am always more interested in the larger political picture than in the domestic arena, but that’s simply a subjective preference. I felt I learned far more about how the Biafrans lived – the food they ate, the way they cooked, the superstitions of the uneducated “bush people”, the marriage customs, etc. – than I did about why there was such historical animosity between the northern Nigerians and the Igbo, which personally would have interested me more. On an intellectual level, however, I feel it’s admirable that Adichie chose not to devote her book to filling in the ignorance of Westerners, but instead assumed her readership would have enough background knowledge – like Achebe’s, this is a tale told by an African primarily for Africans, and as such I preferred it hugely to Americanah, which I felt was another in the long string of books written by African and Asian ex-pats mainly to pander to the white-guilt virtue-signalling of the Western English-speaking world.

Although I found all of the descriptions of life before and during the war interesting, the main problem of the book for me was that I didn’t care much about any of the characters. Just as I find annoying British books that concentrate on the woes of the privileged class, and especially on the hardships of writers, so I found it here too. Adichie is clearly writing about the class she inhabits – academics, politically-minded, wealthy enough to have servants – and I found her largely uncritical of her own class, and rather unintentionally demeaning towards the less privileged – the servants and the people without access to a British University education, many without even the right to basic schooling.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is far more interested in romantic relationships than I am, and the bed-hopping of her main characters occasionally gave me the feeling I had drifted into an episode of Dallas or Dynasty by mistake. I was also a little taken aback, given Adichie’s reputation as a feminist icon, that it appeared that the men’s infidelities seemed to be more easily forgiven than the women’s, even by the women. (I don’t think she’s wrong in this – it just surprised me that she somehow didn’t seem to highlight it as an issue.) But what surprised me even more, and left a distinctly unpleasant taste, was when she appeared to be trying to excuse and forgive a character who participated in a gang-rape of a young girl during the war. I think she was perhaps suggesting that war coarsens us all and makes us behave out of character, and I’m sure that’s true. But it doesn’t make it forgivable, and this feminist says that women have to stop helping men to justify or excuse rape in war. There is no justification, and I was sorry that that particular character was clearly supposed to have at least as much of my sympathy as the girl he raped.

So overall, a mixed reaction from me. I’m glad to have read it, I feel I learned a considerable amount about the culture of the privileged class of the Igbo and the short-lived Biafran nation, but I can’t in truth say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it.

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(Sorry for disappearing. I had a little health issue – nothing serious, but it left me kinda wabbit*. I hope to be back in action properly soonish.

*Wabbit: Scottish word meaning listless, lethargic, tired, and overcome with a desire to lie in bed eating chocolate. Though that last part may be just me.)

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Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

The ghosts of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Last Days in Cleaver SquareFrancis McNulty is an old man now, in 1975, but his younger self was one of the many men who had gone to aid the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in his case as a medic. Now he is frail, although he hates the word, and showing signs of mental decline, perhaps even the beginnings of dementia. So when he starts seeing visions of General Franco at first in his garden and then later inside his house, his daughter puts it down to his mental state. Francis is convinced though that Franco, currently on his deathbed in Spain, is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind.

Told as Francis’ journal in a somewhat disjointed and rambling fashion as befits an elderly, possibly confused man, this is a wonderful picture of someone haunted by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. As part of my Spanish Civil War challenge I had just finished a biography of Franco (review to come), the last chapter of which detailed his long-drawn out and rather horrific final days as his body crumbled and haemorrhaged and his doctors refused to allow him to die. It is during those days that Francis, in his home in England, gradually reveals his experiences and finally the incident that has left him with a feeling of guilt all the years since. His hatred of Franco is visceral, his view entirely polarised by the atrocities he witnessed, although there are occasional hints that he is aware that there were atrocities on the Republican side too. We learn of Doc Roscoe, the doctor he worked alongside patching up the wounded under atrocious conditions. We hear the story of Dolores Lopez, now Francis’ middle-aged housekeeper, but back then a child caught up in the siege of Madrid. And we come to understand the haunting, literal and metaphorical, of Francis by his old nemesis, Franco.

Madrid, I murmured, the slurry way the madrileňos said it, the lispy first d and the fiercely clipped second one. I had once heard a flamenco guitar being so sweetly, so movingly played in Madrid, as bombs fell in the distant suburbs, then when the planes got closer the music abruptly ceased, and instead there was shouting. I saw a middle-aged man fall in the Gran Via and his wife sank to her knees beside him, weeping. He’d been shot dead. To see Madrid again before I died, this seemed suddenly of vital importance to me and I became elated and impatient and I didn’t properly understand why.

But this is not purely or even mostly a political novel. The story Francis reveals is a human one, of unexpected love and loyalty, of betrayal and the search for redemption and forgiveness. Did it make me cry? You betcha! But it also made me laugh, frequently, as Francis gives his often acerbic view of those around him, including his daughter and sister, both of whom he loves dearly but not uncritically. It’s also a wonderful depiction of ageing, with all the pathos of declining physical and mental faculties. There are many parallels between Franco and Francis, not least their names, of course, but their habit in their final days of finding themselves in tears. They each have only one daughter, caring for them at the end of their lives simply as fathers regardless of their past or politics. Francis’ daughter is as well portrayed as Francis himself, as she tries to deal with this difficult, contrary, opinionated man who refuses to accept his increasing limitations. She ranges through patience, worry, irritation, bossiness, and all the other emotions anyone who has cared for an elderly relative will recognise, but there is never any doubt in either the reader’s or Francis’ mind that her overriding emotion towards her father is love.

SCW LogoBook 6

It’s a short novel, but has so much in it – truly a case where every word counts. Francis, writing privately in his journal, reveals more to the reader than he ever has to those closest to him, especially of his feelings for Doc Roscoe and for other men he has known over the years. Again a beautiful depiction of closeted homosexuality – Francis has chosen the easier path at that period of outwardly leading a heterosexual life. Yet one feels his relationship with his daughter is a major compensation for his lifetime of self-denial. And he is self-aware enough to gently mock himself so that one feels his life has not been a wasteland, although it is only now, as he faces his last days and recognises that his eternal enemy Franco is facing his, that he can finally try to come to terms with his past.

Patrick McGrath
Patrick McGrath

Why have I never come across Patrick McGrath before? A serious omission which I will have to promptly put right. It’s certainly not necessary to know much about the Spanish Civil War or Franco’s dictatorship to appreciate this one, but recognising the accuracy of the depiction of Franco’s final days gave it an extra depth for me. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth – this gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

Casting their nets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Silver DarlingsWhen the landlords throw the tenants off their crofts to make way for sheep, the crofters of the north-east of Scotland turn to the sea to make their living in the new industry of herring fishing that is springing up, aided to some degree by those same landlords (guilt money) and by government subsidies. This book tells the story of Catrine, a young wife whose husband has been taken by the press gangs, and her son Finn as he grows from childhood into manhood, and becomes a fisherman in his turn. And through them, it shows the way of life of these people, as they slowly become masters of their new trade, learning through hard experience and sometimes tragedy.

It’s very well written and along the way Gunn gives enough information so that readers with no familiarity with the story of the Highland Clearances will pick up enough to be able to understand the huge upheaval it meant for the crofters, economically and socially. Gunn shows it as not all bad (which is quite rare in Scotland, where bitterness over the Clearances tends to make us portray everything that came out of them as disastrous). He shows that the fishermen found that they could earn far more from fishing than they ever had from crofting, and many of the men took to a more adventurous life with enthusiasm. However, he also shows how it impacted their way of life as people became more village-based and old traditions, like oral storytelling, had to be nurtured in order to survive. Women had to come to terms with their husbands and sons being away at sea for lengthy periods, leaving them to maintain any land and smallholdings they had managed to hold on to. And ever present is the fear of death from sudden storms or accidents or, as Catrine experienced, the loss of menfolk who were “pressed” into serving in the Navy.

Personally I’m a plot-driven person, and that’s the one thing the book really lacks. It’s a slow look at society through Finn’s life in it, as boy and then man, and if there’s an overarching story at all, it is simply the one of who Finn will eventually marry. This lack of a driving storyline made it a slow read for me – I found it interesting in the way non-fiction is, rather than compelling as a suspenseful novel would normally be. There were several parts that I felt dragged, but there are also several parts where it picks up pace and emotion and becomes quite thrilling, such as the first time the men take their boat round the notorious Cape Wrath and finally make it to Stornoway, such a hard journey at that time that Stornoway feels like a foreign country. Or when the cholera epidemic hits the village, again shown very realistically with older, weaker people succumbing while the younger, stronger ones tended to survive. Gunn shows the primitive, almost non-existent healthcare in these poorer, remote communities, and how the people still relied on superstition and traditional remedies to get them through.

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Gunn largely leaves out the politics of the Clearances – his mission is to show the birth of the herring industry rather than the end of crofting. He does this very well, and I felt I learned a lot about how the industry grew up from a small start, with a few wealthier men setting up as exporters and building trade routes to Europe, and gradually directing the fishermen almost like employees or contractors. We see the first signs of what has subsequently become a major on-going issue – the overfishing of certain areas and types of fish, and we see the men gradually spread out into new, more dangerous seas and begin to fish for other types of fish than herring, the silver darlings of the title. It all feels remarkably relevant now that fishing, like crofting before it, has become a declining industry, hanging on grimly in the face of all the economic and political odds that are stacked against it. We think now of the Scottish fishing industry as one of our national traditions under threat, just as the crofters were once driven from their land. This was an excellent reminder that in fact fishing has only been a major industry in Scotland for a relatively short time, historically speaking, and also a reminder that all industries pass in time, to be replaced by newer and, if we’re lucky, perhaps even better ones.

….This was the way in which he had seen Roddie, once when he was at the tiller, upright as if carven, during the storm in the Western Ocean, and again in the moment of the cliff-head, when eternity had put its circle about them, and he had known the ultimate companionship of men, had seen the gentleness, profounder than any crying of the heart, at the core of male strength.
….Finn experienced this far more surely than could ever be thought out or expressed in words. Perhaps here was the education that came from no schooling, came from the old stories by men like Hector and Black John and Finn-son-of-Angus, none of whom could either read or write. And the girl, not teaching, but singing the experience of the race of women in tradition’s own voice.

Neil M Gunn
Neil M Gunn

Although the characters would have been Gaelic or Scots speakers, Gunn has happily chosen to write in standard English throughout, making it easily accessible to non-Scots and non-Gaelic speakers. His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book. But equally he is great at showing the wild highland landscape, and the remoteness of the villages even from each other.

Overall, then, for the most part I found the book slow-going and longed for a plot to carry me forward. However, I found the look at this way of life interesting, interspersed with occasional dramatic episodes that for brief periods brought it thrillingly to life.

I read this as part of a Review-Along with blog buddies, Christine, Alyson, Rose and Sandra. I’ll add a link to Rose’s review when it appears (see below), and Sandra’s, if she decides to review it (also now below), and please check in the comments below to see what the others though of it. I’m hoping they all enjoyed it as much or even more than I did!

Rose’s review

Sandra’s review

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A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

War and peace, and cattle…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A Town Like AliceWhen solicitor Noel Strachan makes a will for an elderly client, it seems straightforward – the client’s nephew will inherit all his money. But the war intervenes and, like so many young men, the nephew dies. So when the client also dies a couple of years after the war, the money goes to his niece, Jean Paget, but with a clause that makes Strachan her trustee until she is thirty-five. This brings the two together, and elderly Strachan develops a sentimental attachment to young Jean. Over the next few years, they write long letters to each other, and it’s from these that Strachan is now telling us Jean’s story.

When the war broke out, Jean was working as a typist in colonial Malaya and, along with a group of other English people, was taken prisoner by the Japanese. The men were promptly sent to a prisoner of war camp. The women and children were not so lucky. Marched for hundreds of miles around Malaya while the Japanese tried to find somewhere to leave them, illness and exhaustion was too much for some of them. The hardier ones eventually found themselves a kind of refuge in a small village where they waited out the war. Now that Jean has come into some money, she wants to pay the villagers back for their kindness, and so starts her new journey, first to Malaya and then all the way to Willstown, an old mining town in the outback of Australia, where she finds a new challenge on which to turn her resourceful nature.

What a great storyteller Shute is! His style is oddly plain – no great poetic flourishes or literary tricks. But he brings a whole range of characters to life: the rather lonely widower Strachan, the women and their captors in Malaya, the people in the Australian outback and, of course, Jean herself. He doesn’t fill the pages with descriptions of their emotional inner life – he simply tells the often horrific story of the women’s march and leaves the reader to do the work with her own imagination. It’s far more effective than if every emotional twinge was handed to the reader on a plate. It leaves space for each reader to imagine how she would have coped – would she have survived?

Nevil Shute

For me, the Malayan section is quite a bit stronger than the Australian section, because of the sense of danger and uncertainty and the picture of the cruelty so many prisoners suffered at the hands of the Japanese. The Australian section has a more domestic feel – not a bad thing, simply less to my taste. However, we are given a great depiction of the primitive style of life in these isolated towns at that time, cut off from their neighbours by the huge distances of Australia, so unfamiliar to those of us on this crowded little island of Great Britain. Jean finds that girls don’t stay in Willstown – there’s no work for them and no form of entertainment. They’re not even allowed to go into the one bar in town – strictly men only. So they leave for the cities as soon as they’re old enough, and that makes it hard to keep single men on the cattle ranches too. Jean decides that somehow she must make Willstown into a town like Alice Springs, with enough opportunities for work and fun to keep young people around.

I’ll be honest – at this stage I began to find Jean intensely irritating. She seems to be the only one in town who ever has an idea, or is capable of making a plan. Everyone else, men and women alike, mostly stand around either doubting her or gasping in amazement at her ingenuity. But fortunately there had been enough before that stage to prevent this section from dragging the book too far down, and I liked the other characters, especially Strachan. Don’t get me wrong – I liked Jean too, I just wanted to roll my eyes at her every now and again when she came up with a new cunning plan. But I loved learning all about the cattle ranching, and the way the isolated homesteads kept in touch by radio, and the sense of community that exists even across the huge distances between the ranches, with neighbours pitching in to help out in a crisis.

I was considerably less tickled by the constant racism that infests the book, both in Malaya and Australia, and the fact that Shute clearly held these attitudes himself. But it was standard for the time, so I was able to overlook it for the most part. I could imagine it might be harder to overlook if you were an Australian Aboriginal person being forced to read this in school, though – I wondered if it’s on the curriculum. I also wondered if Australians were OK with the idea that a young woman from England needed to solve all the problems they were clearly incapable of solving for themselves. But then I told myself to shut up and stop over-analysing, and just enjoy the story, which I did!

Robin Bailey
Robin Bailey

Robin Bailey’s narration is great. He has the perfect accent for Strachan – that very proper English post-war voice that we’re all so used to from films of the era. But he also does what sounds to me like a very good Australian accent, and he reads the book as if he’s totally involved in Jean’s story himself, just like Strachan is.

Rose recommended this one to me after I’d enjoyed On the Beach, and I’m very glad she did. An excellent read or listen, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of Shute’s work – I think I can now count myself as a fan!

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Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Existential crisis…

🙂 🙂 😐

Red PillOur unnamed narrator, a writer of academic literary criticism, is going through a mid-life crisis. He is seemingly happily married and with a little child, but he’s finding it hard to write. So when he is offered a residency at the Deuter Institute in Berlin, he jumps at the chance to spend a few months working in luxurious surroundings, even though his wife is not thrilled at him leaving her to cope alone. But when he gets to the Institute, he discovers that they have odd and strict rules on how their visitors should work and associate, and he finds himself even less able to write than before. And so begins his existential crisis, tied in with the work he is, or isn’t, doing on the ‘lyric I’ as exemplified in the work of Heinrich von Kleist, a poet of the German Romantic school…

My reviews are entirely subjective and are rarely meant to be a quality judgement. The quality of this book may be wonderful if you happen to know anything, and care, about the philosophies underpinning German Romanticism. I don’t, and I don’t. As a result, I found some of this incomprehensible, and most of it tedious.

hari kunzru
Hari Kunzru

Kunzru uses his narrator’s philosophical musings and descent into madness to consider the current rise of the alt-right and to make comparisons to the totalitarian regimes of both left and right in the mid-twentieth century. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this would have been more interesting if the book had come out in the pre-Trump era, as a warning – not unlike Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land, which met with harrumphs of disbelief from some quarters on its publication in 2013, particularly from Americans who then believed their democracy and fundamental freedoms were so strong they could not be overturned. The timing of this one, as the Trump era ends, or at least pauses, felt to me as if it had rather missed the bus. Most of us have been angsting for years over the question of whether America would pull back from the brink of fascism before it was too late, and so the questions raised in the book felt somewhat stale, as if looking ahead to a future that is already receding into the past (hopefully).

So, unfortunately, the combination of lots of self-indulgent lit-crit which didn’t interest me, combined with political questions which I feel have been done and done again in recent years, meant that I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as I have enjoyed Kunzru’s previous books. I hesitate to use the word pretentious, because perhaps it only feels pretentious to me because it’s so heavily immersed in a subject about which I am profoundly (and yet happily) ignorant. I’m sure people who are interested in German Romantic poetry and philosophy will have a different reaction. My opinion is, therefore, even more subjective than usual – the book didn’t work for me, but may work for you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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People’s Choice: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

On a mission…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The preacher father, Nathan, is enthusiastic and sure of his ability to bring the villagers to his rather wrathful version of God. The mother, Orleanna, and their four daughters are less keen, but being female their opinions don’t count, so at first they’re willing to try to make the best of it. It’s only for a year, after all. But when the Congo declares independence from Belgium and the mission tells Nathan to return to America, he refuses – he is determined to finish his work whatever the cost to his own family. Left without even the meagre wage the mission had provided or the support of other missionaries to fall back on in emergencies, life, already hard, becomes almost unbearably tough for Orleanna and the girls. And then tragedy strikes…

We are told from the beginning that Orleanna has left one of her precious children buried in the African soil, but we don’t find out which one till long into the book, nor how she dies. The first half of the book tells of the day-to-day life of the family as they begin to learn about the ways of the people they have come to live among. Gradually the older girls realise, each in her own way, that the Congolese are not in some kind of spiritual darkness – they have their own culture, beliefs and traditions, as meaningful to them as baptism and the Commandments are to Nathan. The poverty in their life is not of the spirit but of the body, scraping out a mean existence from land the forest is always seeking to reclaim, at the mercy of the rain – too little equals famine, too much, mudslides and destruction. Meanwhile, the white colonialists in the cities live in luxury gained through the exploitation of the Congo’s rich natural resources and its people.

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

Yes, it is a preaching, message-driven book with much to say about racism, the evils of modern colonialism, the greed of American capitalism, and the perversion of religion into a tool of subjugation and control. But it’s done extremely well and is beautifully written, and (perhaps because I agreed with most of what she was saying) I found I wasn’t irritated by the drip-drip of worthiness running through it. It’s also somewhat plotless – I’d describe it as a family saga except that somehow that always sounds like a rather disparaging term. It follows the girls from childhood into their middle age, so that we see not just what happened to them in the mission but how that period impacted the rest of their lives.

The story is told in the voices of the mother and daughters. Orleanna only appears briefly at the beginning of each section of the book and she is looking back from the perspective of her old age. The girls, however, are telling us the story in real time throughout, in rotating chapters, and Kingsolver does a remarkable job of juggling four distinct voices and personalities, while gradually ageing them through childhood into young adulthood and finally to the more reflective maturity of mid-life. By the end of the book, they are of the age their parents were at the beginning, and so can perhaps understand and forgive more readily than their younger selves could.

Rachel is the eldest, fifteen when the book begins, a typical teenager, more interested in clothes and boys than religion and missions, and is frankly appalled at being dragged to a place where there are no cinemas or dances, no potential boyfriends (since to Rachel black boys certainly don’t count), and no electricity. It’s 1959, so no cell phones or internet – the girls are completely cut off from their former lives. Rachel is not what you’d call studious and she uses words wrongly all the time, which gives a humorous edge to her chapters. But she’s a survivor, protected by the shell of narcissism her prettiness has allowed her to develop.

….Slowly Father raised one arm above his head like one of those gods they had in Roman times, fixing to send down the thunderbolts and the lightning. Everyone looked up at him, smiling, clapping, waving their arms over their heads, bare bosoms and all. Then he began to speak. It was not so much a speech as a rising storm.
….“The Lord rideth,” he said, low and threatening, “upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt.”
….Hurray! they all cheered, but I felt a knot in my stomach. He was getting that look he gets, oh boy, like Here comes Moses tramping down off of Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life.

Ruth May is the youngest, just five when we first meet her, and to me her voice was the least true – she uses a vocabulary and thought processes well beyond her years, I felt. But she’s still fun, and unlike her sisters she’s young enough to adapt quickly to life in the village, befriending the African children and picking up their language easily.

Adah and Leah are twins, aged about fourteen at the start. Adah was brain-damaged at birth, and although highly intelligent she rarely speaks. She thinks oddly too, loving to find palindromes wherever she can and having a particular enjoyment in reading and writing backwards. I found this extremely tedious and was glad that she gradually grew out of it before I reached breaking point – reading backwards, I’ve realised, is not something I enjoy! Leah soon begins to show through as the main voice. Also intelligent, she is observant and interested in the world around her, though she’s still young enough at the beginning to not always understand what she sees.

Later in the book, we see how life plays out for the three surviving daughters. I need to be vague here so as not to give spoilers, but two of the girls make very different lives for themselves in Africa, while the third returns to America, though still carrying her African experiences in her heart. These three lives combined give Kingsolver an opportunity to show the broad history of this part of Africa and its troubled relationship with America over the next three decades or so, and she does it very skilfully so that it remains a personal story rather than sinking into polemics. She has an agenda and she gets it across, but it’s the girls, now women, who think the thoughts and live the lives that show the reader the contrasts, the politics, the aftermath of colonialism – no lectures from the author required.

There is not justice in this world. Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything. What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout their sphere of influence. That’s pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There’s the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace.

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This was a People’s Choice Poll winner so thank you, People – you picked an excellent one! I thought this was a wonderful book, well deserving all the praise and plaudits it has received. It made me laugh and cry and care and think – isn’t that what all good fiction should do?

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The one with Little Nell…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Nell Trent, a child of thirteen, lives with her doting grandfather in his shop where he ekes out an existence selling old and unusual items. Grandfather (he is never named) has lost both his beloved wife and their daughter, Nell’s mother, and Nell has become a substitute to him for their loss, though he also loves her for her own sake. He is worried about what might happen to her when he dies, so is determined to make lots of money so he can provide for her. But the method he chooses – gambling – soon becomes an addiction, and he gradually loses all his savings and ends up in debt to the evil dwarf, Daniel Quilp. Quilp turns Nell and her grandfather out of their home, and they must leave London and learn to make their way in a life of poverty. Grandfather is old and becoming senile, so young Nell must take on any jobs she can find, and beg for them both when work isn’t available. But Quilp isn’t finished with them yet…

This is the only one of Dickens’ novels that I hadn’t read before, so it was a real pleasure to get to know the cast of characters and follow Nell on her journeys. Unfortunately what happens to Little Nell is so well known (in case you don’t know, I won’t say) and a book I read a few years ago had also told me what happens to Quilp, so I didn’t get the joy of suspense over the main plotline. But, as usual with Dickens, there are so many sub-plots and digressions, the characters are so beautifully quirky, the settings are described so wonderfully and the language is a delight, so I didn’t feel I missed out on much.

(Nell dreaming angelic dreams amidst the shop’s curiosities…)

Nell starts out rather better than a lot of Dickens’ drooping heroines. She’s a girl of spirit who loves to laugh, and who affectionately teases her only friend, young Kit, her grandfather’s assistant. She does eventually turn into the usual saccharin perfect saint, though, losing much of her initial appeal as she does. But all the worry of looking after her grandfather and herself falls on her, and Dickens allows her to have enough strength and ingenuity to carry them both through some dangerous and heart-breaking moments. She’s not quite as strong as Kickass Kate Nickleby, but she’s certainly no Drippy Dora Copperfield either! I could fully understand why people got so caught up in her story when the book was originally published in serial form although, sadly, apparently the story about people storming the docks in New York when the ship carrying the last instalment arrived is apocryphal. Grandfather is a surprisingly unattractive character who really doesn’t deserve Nell’s devotion, but in him Dickens gives a great portrayal of how addiction can destroy a man’s character and life.

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The bulk of the story, however, is really about Kit, Quilp and the characters around them in London. Quilp is a sadist who delights in bullying his wife and anyone else who comes in his way. For no particular reason – Quilp doesn’t need reasons – he has taken against Kit and sets out to destroy him. But Kit is an honest, upright young boy who has the knack of winning friends who will stand by him when he needs them. When Nell leaves London with her grandfather, Kit hopes to find her one day, so he can make sure she is alright. Quilp also wants to find Nell, but for very different reasons – mostly just to be mean to her and to a young man called Dick Swiveller, who has been persuaded by Nell’s brother (oh, I forgot to mention – Nell has a ne’er-do-well brother, Fred) that he, Dick, should marry Nell, for complicated reasons. Gosh, summarising Dickens’ plots is exceptionally hard! Trust me, it all makes sense in the book! Dick is a lot of fun, constantly quoting from romantic songs of the day, and having a heart of gold under his drunken wastrel exterior.

Quilp is a great villain, without a single redeeming feature. Because he’s described as an ugly, misshapen dwarf when we first meet him, I tried to have some sympathy – to consider whether his treatment as a child may have warped his character – but honestly, he’s so vile that after a bit I couldn’t feel anything for him other than hatred and a desire to see him get his comeuppance! Sally Brass is another wonderful character. Sister to Sampson Brass, Quilp’s lawyer, she works alongside her brother and is the real force in the business. She’s mannish in her mannerisms, obnoxious, a tyrant to her little servant, and joins happily in all Quilp’s evil schemes. Sampson also goes along with Quilp, but he’s weaker than Sally and acts mostly out of fear of Quilp’s wrath.

(Quilp interrupts the ladies taking tea…)

Now, the ladies being together under these circumstances, it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannise over the weaker sex, and the duty that devolved upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity. It was natural for four reasons; firstly because Mrs Quilp being a young woman and notoriously under the dominion of her husband ought to be excited to rebel, secondly because Mrs Quilp’s parent was known to be laudably shrewish in her disposition and inclined to resist male authority, thirdly because each visitor wished to show for herself how superior she was in this respect to the generality of her sex, and fourthly because the company being accustomed to scandalise each other in pairs were deprived of their usual subject of conversation now that they were all assembled in close friendship, and had consequently no better employment than to attack the common enemy.

I felt there were more signs of this one’s origins as a serial than in most of his novels. It starts off with a first-person narrator, but this is dropped after a few chapters and from there on it becomes a third-person narrative. Kit starts out as a kind of simpleton comedy character, but then turns into a fine upstanding young man with plenty of intelligence as the story develops, and Dick has a similar change of character, though less marked. And there are, unusually for Dickens, one or two loose ends, particularly one around the birth of the one of the characters. There’s a great introduction by Elizabeth M. Brennan in my Oxford World’s Classics edition, which explains how these discrepancies arose from the rushed method of writing for weekly publication and the fact that Dickens hadn’t planned out the whole story when he began to write it. Brennan also tells us that Dickens cut some passages before the serialisation was published in novel form, including the birth mystery to which I referred. It doesn’t, however, explain why Dickens chose to cut that particular scene, leaving the reader to guess from a couple of hints along the way. The cut sections are given in the appendices.

(Grandfather gambling away Nell’s little hoard of money…)

However, none of these minor flaws are enough of a problem to take away from the sheer enjoyability of watching Dickens masterfully juggle humour and pathos, horror and joy, with all of his usual skill. And, oh dear, as always there’s so much I haven’t even touched on – the travelling entertainers Nell meets with on her journey, the waxworks, the Punch and Judy men, the hellish scenes of industrialised towns, Quilp’s poor mother-in-law, Kit’s family, the delightfully obstinate pony Whisker, the prison scenes, and so much more!

I’ll have to let it settle and perhaps read it at least once more to decide where it will finally sit in my league table of Dickens’ novels. Currently, it’s in the middle – not quite up there with Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and so on, but not down at the bottom with poor Oliver Twist either. However, a middle-rank Dickens is still vastly better than most other books written by people unfortunate enough to not be Dickens, so that means it’s great – highly recommended!

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Amazon US Link

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Truth v emotional truth…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a short collection of six stories, some of them autobiographical, others fictional. A couple of them are set at Christmas, while Thanksgiving and birthdays make appearances in others. For me, the collection was divided strictly down the middle. The three autobiographical ones were overly sentimental, veering perilously close to mawkishness, and full of preachy moral lessons the young Capote learned from his wise but childlike elderly cousin. The three fictional ones, however, were excellent – emotional, certainly, but with an underlying feeling of truthfulness that I found sadly lacking in the autobiographical ones. Since it’s a short collection, here’s a brief idea of each story:

A Christmas Memory – here we meet young Buddy, as the child Capote was known, as he and his cousin prepare for Christmas. There is much baking of cakes and collecting of boughs to decorate the house, and so on. The impression is of a rather lonely child, living with elderly relatives because of some family problem. The elderly cousin, here unnamed, is dismissed by her siblings as somewhat simple, but to Buddy she has retained her childlike innocence and sense of joy in life. It’s beautifully written, but too sentimentalised to ring wholly true.

A Thanksgiving Visitor – now we learn that the elderly cousin is called Miss Sook, and that the family problem is the separation and divorce of young Buddy’s parents, each of whom has gone off to live his or her own life leaving Buddy in the care of relatives. In this one, Buddy is being bullied by a boy at school, and Miss Sook sets out to deal with the issue by inviting the boy to Thanksgiving dinner, much to Buddy’s horror. Buddy behaves badly, and is taught a moral lesson that will stand him in good stead for life. My contemporaneous note about this one contained the words “self-pitying” and “trite”.

One Christmas – in this last of the autobiographical stories, Buddy’s father decides the boy should spend Christmas with him in New Orleans. Buddy barely knows his father, and has to travel hundreds of miles all alone to stay with this stranger. We learn more about his parents in this one, and if true (and I have no reason to doubt it) they were a pretty appalling pair. Buddy behaves rather badly, and when he gets home Miss Sook teaches him a moral lesson, blah, blah, blah. This one tipped right over into mawkishness, leaving me feeling as if I’d seriously over-indulged in Christmas cake. I was glad to move on to the fictional stories!

Master Misery – this is a strange, sad and rather haunting story of a young woman who leaves her small town to come to New York, full of dreams of how wonderful life will be there. But of course it isn’t, and she finds herself in a dreary job with no spare money for fun. So when she hears of a man who will pay to have other people’s dreams related to him, she goes to see him. There’s a mystical edge to this, although it never quite tips over into the supernatural. It’s a kind of allegory on the difficulty of keeping dreams alive when faced with the harshness of reality. Beautifully written, emotional in a good way, and thought-provoking.

Children on Their Birthdays – the story of Miss Bobbit, a little girl who comes to stay in town. She dresses oddly and behaves like an imperious grown-up lady, and two of the boys in the neighbourhood are so smitten with her that their lifelong friendship is broken by their mutual jealousy. That’s where the story starts, not where it ends. The ending, in fact, is told to us at the beginning – Miss Bobbit dies, run over by a bus. However, the real emotion of the story is in the boys’ friendship rather than their feelings for the girl. It’s a wonderful depiction of the hormonal angst of teenage boys discovering girls for the first time.

Jug of Silver – this is probably the least overtly emotional story in the collection and a rather more cheerful one to end on. As a publicity stunt, the owner of the local drug store fills a jug with coins and promises to give it on Christmas Eve to the customer who guesses nearest to the total in the jug. A poor little boy called Appleseed is determined to win, but first he has to find the money to buy something in the store to qualify for a guess. He comes every day to stare at the jug, and says he’s counting the coins. The story itself is enjoyable, but the real interest is in the depiction of small town life, with some lovely descriptions of the preparations for Christmas.

Truman Capote

The whole thing reminded me rather of the Avonlea-based short stories of LM Montgomery: warm, full of moral lessons and with a love of small town life, and walking that dangerous tightrope between emotionalism and mawkishness. For me, Montgomery manages the balance better, and her insertion of humour lifts the overall tone. There’s not a lot of humour in this collection and a good deal too much self-pity. I feel harsh saying that, because if “Buddy’s” depiction of his parents is authentic, then he had some reason to feel sorry for his younger self, though it would seem he lived a pretty pampered life in material terms in comparison to the poverty of many of those around him. But he milks it too much for my taste, I fear. Overall, I gave each of the three fictional stories five stars, but the autobiographical ones only managed to scrape a generous three apiece.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can’t find this edition on Amazon US

GAN Quest: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

The paradox of democracy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Jack Burden, our narrator, tells the story of Willie Stark, an ambitious, high-flying politician in the Depression-era South. Along the way we learn about Jack’s life too, and how he came to be Stark’s most loyal lieutenant. And we see played out in detail the corruption at the heart of politics – how a man who starts out full of good intention and moral purpose cuts a little corner here, exerts a little pressure there, sucks up to the rich, all initially to achieve his pet projects for the benefit of his constituents; until suddenly he finds he has become the kind of crooked, manipulative, self-justifying politician he once despised and intended to destroy. It’s a marvellously American story, especially when read at a time when all the worst of American politics is out there unashamedly displaying its stinking underbelly of moral corruption to the world. But of course the themes resonate for those of us who live in other democracies, since all share the same fundamental weakness – that those who stand for office are as fallible and flawed as everyone else.

Jack starts his story by taking us back in time to three years’ earlier, in 1936, to a day when Willie and his entourage visit his father in the house where Willie grew up. The main purpose of the visit is a photo op, to show how Willie is still rooted in the community from which he sprang years before. It’s a wonderful portrait of political hypocrisy. Stark is a hard man, but a politician to his toes, able to turn on his man of the people act at will. The old house, fully modernised on the inside, has been left carefully untouched on the outside so folks wouldn’t think Willie was putting on airs. We begin to see Jack as a thinking man, philosophical, cynical and rather defeated – why has he ended up as Stark’s minion? It is on this trip that Willie tells Jack to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, a man who stands between Stark and his desire to become Senator for the state. Judge Irwin is inflexibly moral, crossing the line towards moral righteousness. But in this noir view of American politics, if you dig hard enough into anyone’s past, there’s almost certain to be something to find…

Then I was traveling through New Mexico, which is a land of total and magnificent emptiness with a little white filling station flung down on the sand like a sun-bleached cow skull by the trail, with far to the north a valiant remnant of the heroes of the Battle of Montmartre in a last bivouac wearing huaraches and hammered silver and trying to strike up conversations with Hopis on street corners. Then Arizona, which is grandeur and the slow incredulous stare of sheep, until you hit the Mojave. You cross the Mojave at night and even at night your breath rasps your gullet as though you were a sword swallower who had got hold of a hack-saw blade by mistake, and in the darkness the hunched rock and towering cactus loom at you with the shapes of a visceral, Freudian nightmare.

Then California.

The writing is excellent, stylised, intensely American, almost stream of consciousness at some points, and full of long, unique descriptions and metaphors. The chapters are long, almost novella-length, and to a degree contain separate stories within the main story. So, for example, we will go back in time to learn about how Jack and Willie met, when Jack was a young journalist covering Willie’s first failed run for Governor. We’ll see how the already cynical Jack found himself fascinated by the naive idealism of Willie, and that allows us to understand how, through all the years and despite all the corruption, Jack still sees Willie as a man who genuinely wants to improve the lives of his people. Or we’ll learn about Jack’s relationship with his four-times-married mother, still beautiful and rich, and Jack’s love for her, mingled with his resentment at all she stands for. Or we’ll go back to the time when Jack was in love with Anne Stanton, and learn how that has affected him throughout his life.

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in the 1949 movie

There are really no weak points to the book as far as I’m concerned, but the chapter that tells the story of Jack’s great-uncle Cass Mastern stands out as a particularly brilliant piece of writing, worthy on its own of the Pulitzer the novel won. Cass and his brother were on the side of the Confederacy in the civil war, but where Gilbert, the elder brother, is a conscienceless slave-owner, driven by his desire for wealth and power, Cass is a man who may be flawed in more ways than one, but has a strong moral compass. Jack researched their stories for his college dissertation and it was as he came to understand them that he began to wonder who he himself is, and the fear that he is more like Gilbert than Cass haunts him. In a way, the chapter is a diversion from the main story, but in another way, it’s the heart of the book, allowing us to understand Jack’s introspectiveness and self-doubt, and why he finds Willie, a man of supreme self-belief, strangely appealing.

After a great blow, or crisis, after the first shock and then after the nerves have stopped screaming and twitching, you settle down to the new condition of things and feel that all possibility of change has been used up. You adjust yourself and are sure that the new equilibrium is for eternity . . . But if anything is certain it is that no story is ever over, for the story which we think is over is only a chapter in a story which will not be over, and it isn’t the game that is over, it is just an inning, and that game has a lot more than nine innings. When the game stops it will be called on account of darkness. But it is a long day.

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And Willie is an oddly sympathetic character to the reader too, despite his brutality, his womanising, his corruption. Like Jack, we see a man who might line his own pockets, who might give and take bribes, who might blackmail and threaten opponents, but we also see that he genuinely wants to improve life for those at the bottom – give them the hospital and schools they deserve. Perhaps he’s motivated by the narcissistic desire to be the great working-class hero, adored and revered, but at least he started out meaning to do good. But somewhere along the way he forgot the need to cajole and explain and persuade, as his growing power enabled him to achieve his ends quicker through bullying and force. And once you’ve used and abused everyone, including your family, who is there left that you can trust?

Robert Penn Warren

Truly a brilliant book which, although it has a lot to say about the political system, isn’t fundamentally about politics. It’s about how we are made and re-made throughout our lives, changed by our own choices and by the events that happen around us. Jack’s view of life is dark, almost nihilistic, in that ultimately all effort is meaningless – men may have free will, but their choices will always lead them into a downward spiral towards defeat. As a reader, a step removed from Jack’s involvement, it is yet another reminder of the truth that power corrupts, and that those who seek to rule us are usually the least fit to do so because of the very hubris that makes them want to. The paradox of democracy. This one gets my highest recommendation.

* * * * * * *

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flag

Yes, the corruption which has always mired American democracy is brilliantly dissected, and the theme is as relevant today as it was at the time of writing. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flag

Hmm, the question of power corrupting is age-old, but the noir approach to the story, with no heroes to put in opposition to Stark’s growing villainy, makes it feel fresh and original. Plus, I really want it to win, so…achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flag

Superb to the point where at some points it left me breathless, full of power and imagery, and deep insight into the motivations and humanity of the minor as well as the major characters. Achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

us flag

Geographically and in terms of the subject matter the answer might seem to be no, but the theme of corruption has always run deep through the American political system and forms a fundamental part of what makes America uniquely American – a society which values democracy and yet is utterly tribal in its loyalties even when its leaders flaunt their flaws in its face; a society whose American Dream too often veers towards nightmare. So I’m going to say yes, achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So, for achieving 5 stars and 5 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book not just to be a great novel and A Great American Novel, but to be my third…

* * * * * * * * *

NB The previous winners were American Pastoral and Beloved.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

PS Apologies for disappearing so abruptly – my reading and writing slump have now reached epic proportions so I suspect I’ll be an irregular blogger for the foreseeable future. Hope you’re all staying well!

The American by Henry James

Culture clash…

😀 😀 😀 😀

American nouveau riche businessman Christopher Newman has come to Europe in search of culture. Not that he’s really sure what it is, nor does he make much attempt to learn – rather he wants to acquire it, with money. It’s the American Way, and Newman’s way tells him that to buy a copy is as good as owning the original. So he finds himself in the Louvre, offering excessive sums of money to a mediocre young female artist to copy some of the great paintings there to adorn his walls. But Newman has also decided it’s time to acquire a wife, and here he wants a true original – a pearl, a work of art. A friend suggests the young widow, Madame de Cintré, daughter of generations of French and English aristocracy. Her first marriage had been arranged by her family, to a man many years older than her with whom she shared no affection, but who was suitable due to his impeccable bloodlines. But now her own family is in a state of financial decay, like so much of the old aristocracy, and may be tempted to sell her this time round for American money. And so Newman sets out to woo her, incidentally introducing her brother Valentin to the young artist.

This was more enjoyable than I expected a James novel to be, concentrating on the contrast between the brash money-driven society of the New World and the snobbish exclusivity of the Old, with neither showing in a particularly good light. Newman himself is a moral man by his own lights, but it seemed to me this was as much because he lacked passion as because he exercised any kind of control. His growing love for Madame de Cintré – she never really became Claire to me – comes over more in the way someone would admire a vase or a painting than a person. But then, she also has about as much passion in her as a vase, so they seem well matched.

The secondary characters – Noémie the artist and her father, Valentin, and Mme de Cintré’s horrible old hag of a mother – are much more fun. Noémie is setting out on a career of her own, a traditional one if not quite a respectable, to work herself up through society by becoming mistress to men of as high rank as her beauty can attract. Valentin is fascinated by her, but has been around society long enough to know better than to fall for her snares. The old Marquise de Bellegarde – the mother – and her equally horrid son, the current Marquis, are snobs of the first water, always on guard to ensure that nothing besmirches their ancient family name. Forced marriages and mistresses are fine, but heaven forbid that they should allow the family to be tainted by the stench of “business” – one has to maintain one’s standards, after all.

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The first half is slow but quite amusing, as James reveals the characters and the society in which they operate. But suddenly it turns, unconvincingly, into a rather lifeless Gothic melodrama when the Bellegardes decide out of the blue that, after encouraging him for months, they really can’t face allowing someone with his background to marry into their family. Will Newman find a way to overcome their snobbery, or to take his revenge against them? It takes an awful long time to find out, and I found that I didn’t much care. Noémie and Valentin pretty much disappear in different way in the later stages of the book, and I felt their loss. Unlike the Bellegardes, I didn’t object to Newman’s lack of culture and blue blood, but I fear I found him a bit of a bore, and Madame de Cintré proved what I had feared all along – that she lacked any kind of independent spirit.

Henry James

I’ve only read a few of James’ ghost stories before, and objected to his convoluted style and ultra-ambiguity. His style in this is much more straightforward, making it more enjoyable to read. His observations of French society are fun, but not particularly in-depth or profound – they very much feel like what they in fact are: the first relatively superficial impressions of a youthful outsider of a culture very different from his own. I felt it required a lot of suspension of disbelief. How, for example, did Newman manage to become a reasonably sophisticated man given what we are told of his background? Why did the family countenance the match in the first place? Why did Madame de Cintré, no longer a young girl at the mercy of her family, not make decisions for herself? I felt James glossed over these questions, where just a little more work would have filled in the holes.

As always, the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition helped to set the book in context and the notes were helpful in explaining unfamiliar references. There is also a glossary of all the French phrases sprinkled throughout the text – very helpful for monoglots like me!

Overall, then, quite enjoyable, but flawed. However, it has left me more willing to tackle some of his later work to see if they avoid the weaknesses of this one, so I guess that means it was quite a successful read in the end.

Amazon UK Link
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Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

If this is the lost generation, don’t send a search party…

🤬

A teenager develops a crush on a married man, and he simply can’t help himself, darlings – what’s a devilishly handsome, utterly charming, autobiographical alter-ego of a narcissistic author to do? Especially since women exist only for their men – to deny Rosemary her opportunity to slavishly adore him would surely be cruel? And so long as the wife, Nicole, never finds out that her husband and her young friend are up to hanky-panky, she won’t be hurt by it, right? So Dick reasons, anyway. (Yes, he is called Dick… a moment of subconscious insight on Fitzgerald’s part, perhaps?).

Gosh, I hated this. So much so that I abandoned it at 32%, thus happily missing out on the promised descent of Dick into alcoholic self-indulgence and Nicole into madness over his unfaithfulness (I assume). The odd thing is that I read this when I was around twenty, just after loving The Great Gatsby, and while I didn’t think it was anywhere near as good, I don’t remember having the kind of visceral antipathy to it that I experienced this time around. Admittedly that would have been sometime in the ‘70s, so my extreme youth coupled by the fact that back then women were still routinely treated as pathetic little accessories to strong, purposeful men might have made it seem almost quite romantic. But surely even young FF couldn’t have overlooked the fact that it’s immensely, seriously dull? Pointless people leading pointless lives pointlessly. Maybe I envied them their wealth and glamour? I hope not!

Book 70 of 90

Let me give you a few quotes to try to show why I hated it so much – bear in mind that Dick Diver is largely Fitzgerald himself, and Nicole is his wife, Zelda:

… the two Divers began suddenly to warm and glow and expand, as if to make up to their guests, already so subtly assured of their importance, so flattered with politeness, for anything they might still miss from that country well left behind. Just for a moment they seemed to speak to every one at the table, singly and together, assuring them of their friendliness, their affection. And for a moment the faces turned up toward them were like the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree.

Uh-huh! OK, but that’s probably a one-off example of how wonderful Dick – I mean, Fitzgerald – thinks he is, eh?

But Dick Diver—he was all complete there. Silently she admired him. His complexion was reddish and weather-burned, so was his short hair—a light growth of it rolled down his arms and hands. His eyes were of a bright, hard blue. His nose was somewhat pointed and there was never any doubt at whom he was looking or talking—and this is a flattering attention, for who looks at us?—glances fall upon us, curious or disinterested, nothing more. His voice, with some faint Irish melody running through it, wooed the world, yet she felt the layer of hardness in him, of self-control and of self-discipline, her own virtues.

Yes, well, OK, maybe this is just teenager Rosemary’s idea of him, and not Fitzgerald’s own. Let’s see what the third-person narrator thinks…

But to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognising the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world.

Maybe he’s being ironic? Please tell me he’s being ironic…

But Fitzgerald’s self-obsessed narcissism is only part of the problem. The other part is his opinion of women…

Their point of resemblance to each other and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world – they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man or not finding him.

Not misogynistic enough, you say? Well, how about…

Like most women she liked to be told how she should feel.

Funnily enough, I’d really like to be able to tell Dick – I mean, Fitzgerald – exactly how I feel right at this moment…

Dick Diver came and brought with him a fine glowing surface on which the three women sprang like monkeys with cries of relief, perching on his shoulders, on the beautiful crown of his hat or the gold head of his cane. Now, for a moment, they could disregard the spectacle of Abe’s gigantic obscenity. Dick saw the situation quickly and grasped it quietly.

While the vision of Dick quietly grasping Abe’s gigantic obscenity set me howling with welcome laughter, I fear the narcissism, misogyny and accidental (I assume) massive double entendre in this final quote was the end for me. If I allow myself to grow to hate Fitzgerald – I mean, Dick – any more, I shall never be able to read Gatsby again – it’s already looking shaky – and that would be a pity since up till now I’ve always declared it one of my most treasured novels.

Note to authors: if you must include yourself in your novel, probably best not to praise yourself too highly.

A few of us were reading this simultaneously with a view to doing a review-a-long today, so I’ll add a link to Eva’s review if she posts it later, and check out the comments section below for Alyson’s and Christine’s opinions. I sincerely hope they all enjoyed this considerably more than I did!

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A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason

A triumph of homage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A collection of short stories linked by subject matter and style rather than through the characters, this is a wonderful homage to the science fiction of the late 19th/early 20th century. There are nine stories in all, and I gave six of them five stars, two got four, and only the last story in the book, which I freely admit I didn’t understand, let it down a little for me at the end. But not enough to spoil my overall enjoyment – some of these stories are brilliant and the quality of the writing is superb.

As regulars will know, I love early science fiction, books from the colonial era, and stories set in fog-bound, sooty old London, and Mason manages to tick all those boxes in this slim collection, so I think it’s fair to say I was destined to love it. It could all have gone horribly wrong though if he’d got the style wrong or dragged in accidental anachronisms. Fortunately, he does an amazing job at catching just the right tone, and I could imagine HG Wells and the lads nodding enthusiastically over his shoulder while he was writing. That’s not to say the stories feel old-fashioned or dated, though. Mason looks at the subjects he chooses with a modern eye, but includes those observations so subtly it becomes part of the style. So the anachronisms that are there are quite intentional and disguised so beautifully that they’re barely noticeable, except in the way that they make the subject matter resonate with a modern reader. In short, what I’m attempting – badly – to say is that there’s no need to have read any early science fiction to enjoy the stories – they work twice, as a homage as I’ve said, but as a fully relevant modern collection too.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the stories I loved most:

The Ecstasy of Alfred Russell Wallace – Wallace is a collector of bugs and birds and animals, which he sends home for the many scientists studying such things. During a fever, he has an epiphany and realises that living things evolve to survive. He writes to a scientist he knows vaguely – Charles Darwin – and waits for a reply. And waits. And waits. And gradually he begins to doubt himself, and to doubt the scientific community, fearing they will take his idea for their own since he isn’t one of them and doesn’t deserve recognition. This reads so much like a true story I looked it up, and Wallace did indeed exist, although his real story seems to be rather different than the story Mason gives us. It’s truly excellent, full of insight into how the scientific world worked in that era.

On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases in the Midst of the Smoke of London (Phew! He likes his long titles!) – This is the story of an asthmatic child and his anxious mother, and the lengths to which she will go to save his life. Mason gives a superb depiction of nineteenth century sooty London, industrialized and choking. Also of medicine, at a time when the treatment was often worse than the disease. It has a wonderful science fiction element to it which I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but it’s a fabulous story that brought the tears to my eyes at the end.

The Line Agent Pascal – a story set in colonial Brazil. Pascal is one of the agents who live along the communications line that crosses the country, each many, many miles from the next along. Every morning, a signal is sent from head office and each agent confirms in turn that the line is working. But one day, one of the agents doesn’t respond. This is a great character study of Pascal, a man who struggles to fit in with other people, so his solitary posting suits him perfectly despite the dangers lurking in the forest around his station. But he has grown to think of the other men along the line as some kind of friends despite never having met them. The colonial setting is great, with the feeling of loneliness and constant danger from nature or the displaced indigenous people. Worthy of Conrad, and in fact reminded me not a little of the setting in his story, An Outpost of Progress, though the story (and the continent!) is entirely different.

On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c. – The story of a female aéronaute – a balloonist – whose exploits have made her famous. But when one day she sees an odd rift in the sky she discovers that her gender and class mean that the scientific community not only don’t take her seriously but actually ridicule and humiliate her. So she sets out to prove her story true, taking along a witness. Another science fiction one, but with a delightful quirk that takes it into the realms of metafiction. (I swore I’d never use any word beginning with meta- on the blog, but I really can’t think of another way to describe it. 😉)

So plenty of variety linked, as I said at the beginning, by style, subject matter and wonderful writing. A great collection – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle at Pan Macmillan.

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The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver

“Okay, boomer…”

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Serenata has always been a fitness freak, no day complete without its allocated hours of exercises and running. So much so that, now she has reached sixty, her knees have given up the unequal struggle and forced her to learn to take things easy. Still trying to come to terms with this, she finds it rather cruel and insensitive when her husband Remington decides that, after a lifetime of sedentary laziness, he will run a marathon. Besides, she hates the new culture of fitness sweeping the country – when she started her punishing regime all those years ago, she was unusual, and that was a large part of the charm. Now when she’s out cycling it seems half the world is there alongside her, and for her running was always something you did on your own to get fit, not in crowds for pleasure. Plus, is there just a little jealousy in there? Serenata has never run a marathon… not that she wanted to, of course, but still. She is honest enough to admit to herself that she thoroughly resents Remington’s new-found enthusiasm…

This is my first Shriver so I don’t know how it compares to her other books. This one is written with a great deal of humour from the perspective of a grumpy older woman struggling to take modern attitudes seriously and derisive of the hubristic belief of the young that they have somehow invented anti-racism and feminism and know all the answers. Anyone who reads my tweets or reviews may not be too surprised to learn that this resonated strongly with me! Shriver mercilessly mocks the worst of political correctness and the ridiculous extremes of identity politics which have made us wary even of referring to ourselves as men or women for fear that that will offend someone somewhere somehow, or of inadvertently using a term that was considered not just acceptable but progressive five years ago but is now apparently an indication of some hideously unforgivable Neanderthal attitude. Poor Serenata gets very tired of people assuming that because she’s white, middle-class, middle-aged and straight, that that automatically must mean she’s racist, homophobic and downright stupid. Oh, Serenata, I feel your pain!

Remington, meantime, is going through a mid-life crisis, complete with an infatuation with another woman, his fitness coach. Serenata realises that her open mockery of his marathon ambition is driving a wedge into their long and happy marriage, so tries her best to show him support. Shriver is very funny about the whole fitness industry, where one marathon is no longer enough – people have to run at least four, consecutively, in a desert, if they want respect these days. To her horror, Remington is not satisfied by his marathon. Instead he now decides he wants to do the Mettleman Triathlon – a gruelling all-day race involving cycling, swimming and running. Serenata feels this may literally kill him, but her earlier ridicule means Remington puts her warnings down to mere petulance. Will he survive? Even if he does, will their marriage survive? Does Serenata even want it to?

Lionel Shriver

I don’t know how young people will react to this – it may be making too much fun of subjects they erroneously think they own. But as someone roughly the same age as Serenata, I found it sharp and perceptive, and hilarious. I’m sure when I was young I was just as convinced my elders were all idiots, but now that I’m old I can see that the young have their fair share of idiocy too, and I look forward gleefully to the day when the youth of today are old (as they will be, sooner than they think) and are being told by their grandchildren’s generation that they failed in everything and know nothing about anything. Serenata is an unlikely heroine, but I’m sure she speaks for many of us who have spent a lifetime fighting all the ’isms only to find ourselves derided, dismissed, patronised or ignored by those who benefit every day from our achievements – even for many who would never admit it for fear of not seeming groovy/cool/woke/insert-latest-self-congratulatory-buzzword-here.

So, highly recommended for grumpy older women everywhere, and please feel free to call me Serenata from now on… *smiles sweetly*

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins, via NetGalley.

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Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Wealth of nations…

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In the harbour town of Sulaco, on the coast of the South American country of Costaguana, the silver mine of San Tomé is a source of great wealth to its English owner, Charles Gould, as well as to the local economy and the Costaguanan government. When yet another political upheaval threatens to bring down the dictatorship of President Ribiera, Gould’s first inclination is to provide support to shore up Ribiera’s tottering regime. But other voices in the multinational community of Sulaca have another suggestion – to break up the nation and set up an independent state with the mine at its heart. As reports arrive that the forces of the leader of the latest revolution are about to arrive in the town, Gould orders Nostromo, the incorruptible, indispensable “Capataz de Cargadores” (Overseer of the Dockers) to take the latest batch of silver offshore in a lighter ship so the revolutionaries can’t get their hands on it. But an accident occurs which leads Nostromo to hide the silver on an island in the bay, while he returns to the town only to be given another dangerous mission… to journey over the mountains to summon aid for the beleaguered town.

Set around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, this isn’t about the impact of political colonialism as in Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. Rather it’s a look at the even more destructive and insidious economic colonisation by capitalist countries of those nations whose resources they exploit while taking no responsibility for the adverse impacts of their actions. The major capital investment in the mine comes from America, giving us an early warning of the way the wealthy and powerful US would abuse their neighbours and distort their political development for their own greedy purpose – a situation that continues to the present day, giving the book an unsettling relevance. However, it’s not the Americans alone whom Conrad shows as exploiters – Britain, through the Englishman Gould, and Spain, through the old aristocracy of the town, are both shown as earlier waves in the continuous rape of the southern continent. All the major characters in the book, and in Sulaca, are foreigners either by birth or heritage, while the indigenous Costaguanans are relegated, quite intentionally, to being nothing but helpless pawns and onlookers, dirt poor amidst the fabulous wealth being extracted from beneath their land.

Men ploughed with wooden ploughs and yoked oxen, small on a boundless expanse, as if attacking immensity itself. The mounted figures of vaqueros galloped in the distance, and the great herds fed with all their horned heads one way, in one single wavering line as far as eye could reach across the broad potreros. A spreading cotton-wool tree shaded a thatched ranch by the road; the trudging files of burdened Indians taking off their hats, would lift sad, mute eyes to the cavalcade raising the dust of the crumbling camino real made by the hands of their enslaved forefathers. And Mrs. Gould, with each day’s journey, seemed to come nearer to the soul of the land in the tremendous disclosure of this interior unaffected by the slight European veneer of the coast towns, a great land of plain and mountain and people, suffering and mute, waiting for the future in a pathetic immobility of patience.

Costaguana is apparently geographically based on Colombia, but in terms of its political identity, it could be any one of a number of South or Central American states, or African, or indeed anywhere else that the West has exploited in its rapacious history. I found it completely believable, both physically and culturally, and gradually described with such detailed clarity it’s hard to believe that Sulaca isn’t real.

Nostromo is an intriguing character, although I found he was a little too caricatured to ring wholly true. Italian, he too is an incomer, but for him wealth is not the major motivation. He wants to be respected, for his character, integrity and courage, and to a large degree he is. The leaders of Sulacan society turn to him whenever they have a problem, and trust him absolutely. But they never treat him as one of themselves – his nickname, Nostromo, could be taken to mean “shipmate”, but it also could be a contraction of “nostro uomo”, meaning “our man”, and this is how the upper-classes treat him, as a faithful servant to be used as required. Eventually this treatment will have its effect on Nostromo, threatening that very integrity for which he is valued.

With Gould, Conrad shows how this class of economic colonialists see themselves as always separate from and above the countries in which they choose to make their fortune. Gould is third generation Costaguanan in terms of where his family has physically resided, but sent home to England to be educated, utterly English in his national allegiance, and of course, when it’s time to marry, selecting an English bride. None of this makes him feel he doesn’t have the right to use his economic power to influence the politics of this country to which he has no real loyalty, and he uses that power solely for the benefit of himself and the foreign elite who run the town, with no concern whatsoever for what might benefit or harm the indigenous Costaguanans.

Conrad’s portrayals of Gould and particularly of his wife, Emilia, are more nuanced, I feel, than that of Nostromo, and several of the secondary characters are very well drawn too: the Frenchman Degoud, who drifts into involvement in politics rather unintentionally because of his developing passion for the daughter of one of the leaders of this society; that leader himself, Don José Avallanos, descended from the old Spanish conquistadors and now part of the decaying aristocracy of Costaguana; Giorgio Viola, the old Italian innkeeper who once fought alongside Garibaldi; the various Generals on all sides of the conflict, all only too recognisable to the modern reader as representative of the type who would as easily start a coup as defend against it, for their own political and personal gain.

Joseph Conrad

In terms of the writing style, this seemed to me more straightforward than the other few Conrads I’ve read. It does jump about in time and requires constant concentration and occasional back-tracking, but for once it isn’t told as a narrated story within a story, so thankfully none of those nested quotation marks that turn some of his other books into brain-frazzling puzzles to follow. There are lots of Spanish words sprinkled throughout the text, so the included glossary in my Oxford World’s Classics edition was very welcome – indeed, essential. But his prose is so wonderful and he is so insightful about humanity in its individual and social state that I forgive him totally for being hard to read. This is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve ever read, and gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A pastoral…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Tom Birkin is still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock as a result of his experiences at Passchendaele. His personal life also in disarray, he gladly accepts a commission that will take him out of London for the summer, to the village of Oxgodsby in Yorkshire, where a recently deceased parishioner has left a bequest to the local church, contingent on the uncovering of a wall painting she believed was concealed beneath centuries of whitewashing. The same parishioner has also requested that a search be made for the burial site of a long dead ancestor, excommunicated and therefore denied burial in the churchyard. Archaeologist Charles Moon, another survivor of the war, will become Birkin’s first friend as they both immerse themselves in the past and present of the village.

A pastoral, this is a beautifully written novella full of descriptions of the countryside at the last point of the horse age, before farming became an industry like any other. Birkin is badly damaged by his wartime experiences, not physically, but mentally, and he will find a kind of healing as the long summer passes and he reconnects with the long-distant past as he slowly reveals the work of the artist who, in medieval times, painted the Last Judgement on the wall of the church.

As he works, he also comes to know some of the villagers. The Ellerbecks take him under their wing, with Mrs Ellerbeck making sure he is well fed and the young daughter of the family, Kathy, keeping him organised and ordering him around, showing herself already a mini version of the backbone of community life she will undoubtedly grow up to be. Mr Ellerbeck preaches at the Wesleyan chapel, and out of a sense of gratitude for their hospitality, Birkin becomes involved in the chapel community although he is a non-believer, perhaps because of the scenes of horror he witnessed in the war.

JL Carr

Rev. J.G. Keach, the minister of the church in which Birkin is working, feels the uncovering of the wall painting is a nuisance – a waste of time and money, tolerated solely to satisfy the requirements of his late parishioner’s will. His wife is young and beautiful, and Birkin gradually comes to fall in love with her, but in a romantic rather than a passionate sense, almost as an obligatory part of a summer idyll.

I enjoyed this, especially the writing and the slow uncovering of the wall painting, and all the seemingly knowledgeable information Carr provides about medieval church art. However, I found it rather slight overall, like a pretty piece of pastoral music, pleasant but not soul-stirring. It is written from Birkin’s perspective, looking back as an old man to a golden summer of his youth, an interlude between the horrors of war and the resumption of his real life; a brief period of suspended time given to him to heal his mind and perhaps his soul. And for the reader, it also provides a pleasurable escape for an hour or two, to a simpler time when the sun always shone and people were intrinsically good. Did that time ever exist? Perhaps it only seems that way when enough years have passed for harsh reality to have been hidden beneath several layers of whitewash.

Book 20 of 20

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Sula by Toni Morrison

Who needs enemies?

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Well, I might as well be up front – if this book has a point, it sailed straight over my head. Two girls grow up, lots of people kill other people and themselves, everyone has sex all the time with anyone who happens to be passing. And in the rare moment when they stop to catch their breath, they think about sex.

I’ll leave it to Morrison scholars to analyse it. I loved Beloved and A Mercy, because I felt I understood what she was trying to say. Song of Solomon and this defeat me. She portrays black life as animalistic, where people eat and rut and rut and eat; and resent, neglect and beat their children; and betray and kill each other for little or no reason. She writes about black culture in a way that, if it were written by a white author, would be rightly trashed as the peak of racism. I’ve tried both times to assume she’s saying that white oppression has made black Americans behave this way, but I’m not convinced – neither that I’m right about her intention nor that it’s a realistic portrayal of black American culture. I hope it isn’t, anyway.

Morrison does make a couple of points about the subjugation of black people, legally free in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when the book is mainly set, but still excluded from all the benefits of freedom, including well-paid jobs and the possibility of a career, leading to a kind of crisis of masculinity in the men. She also makes reference to the black men whom white America called upon to fight their wars for them, and then abandoned on their return to deal with the after-effects without help (though I expect that was true of a lot of white men too, especially after WW1. It certainly was in the UK). These were the strongest parts of the book for me, but they were merely side issues.

Toni Morrison

The writing is as wonderful as her writing always is, and I certainly enjoyed reading it. The characters are entirely vile, especially Sula, who starts out bad and gets progressively worse as she ages. Her friend Nel is more ambiguous but, while I started out quite liking her, it wore off, and I felt they were a pretty good match for each other – a real illustration of the old phrase, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Many things are left unexplained, but it’s entertaining and at points even amusing, with a couple of well-done shock moments. But I felt nothing for any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as real people.

Entertaining, then, and maybe you’ll do better at finding a meaning in it than I did. Or maybe there isn’t one, and the entertainment is the point. In which case, job well done!

Book 19 of 20

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The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

Life in the Lane…

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Little Janie McVean has grown up on Lady’s Lane, a place ruled over by the women for most of the time, till the men come home from work and make it theirs for a while. No man comes home to Janie’s house though – or perhaps too many. For although Janie is too young to understand, the reader soon discerns that her mother, Liza, is a prostitute, along with some of the other women who live in the Lane. Janie doesn’t care – to her this is the only possible life, and though she has only one dress and often goes hungry and dirty and has nits in her hair, she’s happy. She has friends who are just like her and an interest in people of all sorts, and she loves to watch and listen to the women of the Lane. So when the Cruelty Man comes calling, to Janie the real cruelty is the threat of being taken away from the mother she adores, however bad a parent she may be.

Largely autobiographical, the book is set in the town of Elgin in the north of Scotland in the 1920s. Because it’s so well known to be based on Kesson’s own early life, there’s a feeling of reassurance for the reader – however painful it is to watch the neglect of this child, we know she survives and pulls herself out of the poverty of her beginnings. This makes it an easier, less tense read than it might otherwise have been, allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.

Book 66 of 90

“About that doll you’re to get, I’ve got an idea it might be lying under some bits of things that’s come from America. Some bits belonging to my cousin’s bairn; just your size she is. And my word there’s some bonnie bits that will fit you. There’s a blue velvet frock for one thing. And a ribbon to go with it. I’m having a sort out just now. And when I’ve sorted out, you’re the queanie that’s going to get the fine surprise, or my name’s not Annie Frigg!”

Janie emerged as always, empty handed but full-visioned after an encounter with Annie, and with but one small doubt, how to share the delight of this new promise with Gertie, who could never see that something to look forward to, and something to dream about, were such glad things, even when you knew within yourself that they might never come true.

The writing is wonderful, managing to give a real flavour of the local speech without ever becoming hard for standard English speakers to understand. It’s told in the third person, in the language of adults, but the perspective comes almost entirely through the lens of eight-year-old Janie’s observant but sometimes uncomprehending eyes. So it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and sometimes it’s in these spaces that the true pathos of Janie’s life is shown – a pathos Janie doesn’t feel at this young age. Her mother comes from a respectable and rather well-off family, and sometimes they visit Janie’s grandmother – another warm and loving, if occasional, presence in Janie’s life. But her grandfather’s reaction to Liza and Janie lets the reader know how badly the family feels Liza has disgraced them, and gives us pointers as to how she fell from here all the way down to the Lane. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson.

Jessie Kesson

As well as her clear-sighted but sympathetic portrayal of the Lane and its inhabitants, Kesson also has an excellent eye for the landscape and nature of the area, and the ability to weave her fine descriptive prose seamlessly so that it becomes part of the story. Their mutual love of the countryside is part of the bond between mother and daughter.

The wind had begun to threaten the air. Passionately she had longed for the wind to come. To blow herself and the landscape sky high into movement and coherence again. Almost she had been aware of the wind’s near fierceness. Ready to plunge the furious hillside burns down into the Cladda river. To hurl the straws all over the dykes. To toss the chaff into the eyes of the protesting people, bending before it, flapping in their clothes like scarecrows. To sting the trees in Carron wood into hissing rebellion. To give the land some loud, loud cry, other than that of pain.

When the Cruelty Man takes Janie off to the orphanage, the story suddenly contracts, with years covered in just a few pages. This feels a bit disconcerting, but actually I think it probably works better than it would have if Kesson had devoted more time to that section. One gathers that her time there was neither wonderful nor terrible – she was just stuck in a kind of limbo until her life could resume. The real story is of the Lane, and of the love between child and mother that transcends the things that society determines to be good parenting. The ending is bittersweet – the tragedies of Janie’s young life tempered always by the knowledge that she will survive and rise. A beautiful book that challenges the reader to be slow to judge – to accept that love and even joyousness can sometimes be found in the darkest circumstances. Highly recommended.

Book 16 of 20

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The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A tale well told…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The old fisherman Santiago’s luck has run out. For eighty-four straight days he hasn’t caught a fish, and is surviving only with the help of the young boy, Manolin, who once fished with him but whose parents have now insisted he go out with another luckier boat instead. Manolin feels an intense loyalty to old Santiago, and helps him each day with his gear, catching bait, and even buying him food when Santiago’s funds run out.

On this day it will be different. A fish takes Santiago’s bait – a huge marlin, so big that Santiago can’t pull him in. As the marlin sets out to sea, dragging Santiago’s little skiff behind him, Santiago must decide whether to cut the line or run with the fish. And so it becomes a matter of will, as Santiago battles with nature, with his own failing strength, with growing exhaustion and with his pride as a fisherman.

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

This is a beautifully written and absorbing short tale – mesmerising, almost, as hour after hour passes and still the fish won’t tire. Although written in the third person, once Santiago is alone on the sea with his fish, the reader is taken directly into his thoughts. He is a simple man, and his mind dwells on great successes and failures of his past, a lifetime’s experience all guiding his actions in this moment. He knows he is at the limit of his physical endurance as the line cuts his calloused hands each time the fish changes pace. He recognises that the pride of youth has given way to the humility of age, and wonders when that happened. But he still has enough pride to want to kill this fish, although he loves it for its strength and will and beauty.

The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.

I suspect people may have read all sorts of symbolism into this over the years and maybe there is lots and I just missed it. But for me, this is simply a tale well-told, by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. As usual with Hemingway, there’s a degree of pondering on the meaning of masculinity, though less overtly than in the couple of longer novels of his I’ve read. It’s an old theme, man against nature, and Hemingway brings nothing new to it except his wonderful prose. And that alone makes this well worth reading.

Book 13 of 20

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Thirst by Ken Kalfus

The first collection…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Ken Kalfus has become one of my favourite authors in recent years, and I’m gradually working my way through his earlier works. This collection of short stories was his first publication, so I was prepared for it to perhaps be less polished than his more recent stuff. And, indeed, I found it very variable, with only around half of the stories rating as good or excellent, and some of the rest being really rather poor. It reads to me as if he was maybe still searching for a style, trying things out, some of which worked better than others. His trademark humour, insight and precise prose are already there, but many of the stories are too insubstantial to be satisfying.

I’ve read both of his later collections, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies and Coup de Foudre, both of which I loved, and I think the major difference is that the stories in them tend to have a more political edge or be more clearly about that nebulous thing we call the “human condition”, even when he’s being whimsical. So, on the one hand, I found this collection a little disappointing but, on the other hand, it was interesting to see this early stage in his development towards becoming a master of the short story form, as he undoubtedly now is.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed:

Suit – a teenage boy and his father are in a men’s outfitters looking for a suit for the boy. It’s for a particular occasion, although we don’t know what. We only know the father is not pleased about it. They are joined by a third man, and together the three reject every suit the poor assistant shows them – too smart, too casual, too old, too preppy, etc. It is only when the harassed assistant asks what the occasion is that we finally have confirmed what we have gradually come to suspect… This is whimsical and humorous but it’s very well done, and gives a light-hearted commentary on a specific aspect of privilege, about which I can’t be clearer without spoiling the story.

Night and Day You Are the One – a rather strange story about a man who is living two lives, inadvertently shifting between them each time he falls asleep. In each life he has a different home and a relationship with a different woman. Neither of these women knows about his other life, and indeed, it’s not clear if the two lives are real or if the man is suffering from some kind of delusion. In essence, it’s a love story, but done with a lot of originality and with a nicely satisfying ending.

Among the Bulgarians – this was my favourite story. A teenage boy has spent the summer in Bulgaria with his parents. Now he’s home, and in the narcissistic way of teenagers, he assumes the world will have stood still in his absence, his friends waiting impatiently to hear all about his adventures. But he’ll learn that they have had their adventures too – normal teenage ones, dating, and learning to drive and so on – and to them his Bulgarian experiences are only of mild interest. It’s a coming-of-age tale, beautifully done, and with the suggestion that the boy may have been inspired over the course of this summer to take a first small step towards becoming a writer. I wondered, as I often do with Kalfus, if it had an autobiographical element.

So enough in there to make the collection worth reading, but it wouldn’t be where I would suggest any newcomer to Kalfus should begin. I’m glad I’d read his later stuff first, since I may not have been tempted to investigate further if this had been my introduction to his work. But I recommend it for existing fans, since it’s always interesting to see how a favourite author started out.

Book 11 of 20

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