White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Singing the blues…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Seth and Carter meet at college, they discover a shared appreciation for music – not as musicians, but as listeners and producers. Seth has the technical skills and Carter’s family is rich, so they’re able to set up their own studio. Loving the distinctive sound of vinyl, Carter eventually works his way back in time till he has become a knowledgeable collector of old 78s, especially blues. Seth too had gone on a musical trip back in time, during a period in his teens after his mother died, when he isolated himself from the world in his room and escaped into the world of early records. But Seth had reached a point where he believed he could hear ghosts behind the music…

This is another of these books that is quite hard to review because it only slowly reveals where it’s heading, and the journey is probably better the less you know going in. It’s also very distinctly a book of two halves, and other reviews I’ve read suggest that people who love the first half are disappointed with the second, and vice versa. I’m lucky in that I vastly preferred the second half, so that my final opinion of the book was much higher than it had been at the halfway point. I’ll try to give you an idea of it without spoilers, so forgive me if this review is rather vague.

.Every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration. I once heard a field recording of a woman singing, sitting on a porch. You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets. I felt I was slipping, that if I wasn’t careful I’d lose my grip on the present and find myself back there, seventy or eighty years in the past. The rough board floor, the overhang of the roof, her voice travelling through the moist heavy air to the diaphragm of the microphone, its sound converted into electrical energy, frozen, then the whole process reversed, electricity moving a speaker cone, sound spilling into my ears and connecting me to that long-ago time and place. I could feel it flow, that voice, inhabiting the cavities of my body, displacing the present like water filling a cistern.

The first half is taken up with the boys, later young men, meeting and becoming friends and then business partners. Seth is the narrator and he tells about how he records street sounds while he’s wandering about, often finding when he listens back to them that he can hear things he wasn’t aware of at the time. At first, this is normal stuff – the kind of sounds we all tune out as we pass through noisy places. But one day he discovers that he has recorded a man singing an old blues song – he remembers the man singing a line or two but not the whole song. This is the beginning of a train of ever stranger things that happen until eventually the narrative becomes fractured and disjointed, as the book moves further from reality into a kind of weird, hallucinatory stage in the second half.

The first half contains a lot of music jargon, production techniques, comparisons of analogue and digital, and so on; and I frankly found it dragged. But once it began talking about early blues musicians, I found my interest reviving a little, especially since it sent me off to youtube to listen to many of the recordings Kunzru mentions. Even so, for too long I found I didn’t really have a feel for where the book was heading.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because the second half not only gives the book its ultimate meaning, but as Seth’s life, or perhaps mind, or perhaps both, spiral out of control, I loved what Kunzru does with the writing. It becomes almost like reading a vivid dream – short sentences giving us a glimpse of a thing or snatching at a sound, then moving wildly away to the next thing. Often just a few words create a picture in the mind. It becomes disorientating and strangely disturbing after a bit, and I found it totally compelling. The narrative shifts around in space and time, in reality and illusion (delusion?), and the story gradually gets darker and more violent. It’s only towards the end that the destination becomes clear, and only then that I was able to truly appreciate how each stage, each strand, had added to the depth beneath the surface words – not unlike listening to the analogue rather than the digital.

.Day after day. Always on the move. My boot heels quite worn away. Wolfmouth only left me alone when I came home at night. Even then he followed me through the hallways, tap dancing up the stairs. He followed me, he follows me. Step scuff smack step, step scuff smack step. Echoing in the stairwell at the end of another long day.
….– The kooks, there are more of them all the time.
….– That’s right, Mrs. Waxman.
….Carrying my groceries past her door. The stink of her cats.
….I hole up, lock the door, fix the chain. Step scuff smack step, shuffling in the hallway. Then, at last, silence. I am not sure if he goes away.

Hari Kunzru

And, in the end, it’s about race, and cultural appropriation, and race guilt. About how music, specifically recordings, can let us visit the past. How acquisition can become more important than art – ownership and control above appreciation. There are references to blackface and minstrelsy, and white tourism of black history. The last chapter becomes a little polemical for my taste, but until that point I felt the messages were handled with both surface subtlety and underlying power, and a great deal of originality. And it has stayed in my mind in the couple of weeks since I finished it, growing in stature the more it settles, so that, despite the fact that it took me a while to get into it, I now feel that the long first half was necessary to create the foundation for the weirdly wonderful second half. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK.

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GAN Quest: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The workings of the human heart…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

gileadWhen John Ames learns he doesn’t have much longer to live, he takes up his pen to write to his young son, to tell him some of the things he would have liked to tell him in person as he grew up. Ames is old, in his 70s, and his son is the product of a late second marriage, an unexpected second blooming of love for a man who had spent most of his life alone following the death in childbirth of his first wife and their daughter. As Ames writes, it is 1956, so his personal recollections take him back to the end of the previous century, but his knowledge of his family history allows him to go back a few decades further, to the Civil War and the struggle for the abolition of slavery.

The small town of Gilead in Iowa was founded by abolitionists, its main reason for existence in those early days to help the cause, and to assist in providing safe passage for escaped slaves heading towards the free states. Ames is the third generation of pastors in his family. His grandfather was a passionate abolitionist, willing to fight the fight with guns as much as with prayer, who ‘preached his people into war’. Ames’ father, on the other hand, was a Christian pacifist, horrified in his own time at the celebration of war during WW1, at the kind of patriotic fervour that drove the young men to go off to kill or die. As Ames gradually reveals the history of these two men, it is clear that he has been influenced by both; that their divisions perhaps have led him to be more introspective and questioning of his beliefs.

I am also inclined to overuse the word ‘old’, which actually has less to do with age, as it seems to me, than it does with familiarity. It sets a thing apart as something regarded with a modest, habitual affection. Sometimes it suggests haplessness or vulnerability. I say ‘old Boughton’, I say ‘this shabby old town’, and I mean that they are very near my heart.

And it’s Ames’ beliefs that are at the heart of the book. This is a man whose faith is thoughtful and profound, based on his lifelong study of the scriptures. He’s a bit touchy when people assume he became a pastor simply because his father and grandfather were – he’s keen to point out that his vocation is personal, founded on his relationship with God and nothing else. But he has made an effort to understand what brings people to atheism, too, partly because his brother gave up his religion as a young man, and partly because Ames sees the rise of atheism in the society around him. Much of his letter to his son is an explanation of his own faith, and an encouragement to him not to be swayed by the doubts and disbelief of others.

I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light – pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap. So familiar.

I must say I was rather put off reading this book by some reviews and comments from a few people who suggested that it’s full of Biblical references and theology that would make it hard to understand for someone without a solid grounding in the Bible. As a lifelong atheist, brought up that way, there can be few people out there with less knowledge of the Bible or of the intricacies of the beliefs of all the different Christian churches than I, so for the benefit of others I’d like to say that’s total nonsense. At every step of the way, Robinson makes crystal clear the basis of whatever aspect of faith she is discussing. The possible exception is the idea of whether predestination exists, though even there, it’s quite straightforward to understand Ames’ position on the subject – which is primarily that he doesn’t know the answer, and gets fed up with atheists using the question as some kind of weapon. Perhaps there are nuances that I missed that would be picked up by people better versed in the Bible, but certainly I had no feeling of ‘missing’ anything. It seemed to me that Ames’ unshakeable faith is based as much on his love of the world and of humanity, as on obscure theological points.

I might seem to be comparing something great and holy with a minor and ordinary thing, that is, love of God with mortal love. But I just don’t see them as separate things at all. If we can be divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love. I devoutly believe this to be true. I remember in those days loving God for the existence of love and being grateful to God for the existence of gratitude, right down in the depths of my misery.

In the second half of the book, a young man returns to the town, the son of Ames’ oldest friend, the Presbyterian minister Boughton. This young man is called John Ames Boughton, a well-intentioned gesture from the elder Boughton which Ames has always rather resented. In fact, he resents everything to do with this young man, who has proved to be a disappointment throughout his life. Ames’ feelings about him are mixed with his sorrow for his lost daughter and for his brother’s atheism, and Ames himself is rather confused about why he feels so antagonistic towards the younger man. Now Ames is dying, and young Boughton seems to be forming a bond with his much younger wife, Lila, and his son. The latter part of the book is a very moving account of Ames wrestling with his own feelings and trying to come to a better understanding of the young man.

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson

There is very little plot in this book, which is normally a real no-no for me. But somehow I found Ames’ story totally absorbing and full of emotional truth – a quiet account of an ordinary man who loves his family, striving to be good in his heart, struggling to see God’s will, accepting the mystery at the heart of faith. It reminded me of the way Colm Tóibín writes – rather plain and understated, but full of beauty and empathy for human frailties. But for all the emotionalism, there’s humour in there, too – wonderfully crafted set-pieces that in their own way shed more light on all the idiosyncrasies of human nature. Yes, it’s about faith, and about racial inequality to some degree, but fundamentally it’s about humanity and the search for a redemption that can come only through a deeper understanding of the workings of the human heart. A lovely book.

Well, I can imagine him beyond the world, looking back at me with an amazement of realisation – “This is why we have lived this life!” There are a thousand, thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

* * * * * * *

great-american-novel-quest-2

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 flagYes, it shows the importance of the Protestant faith in the history and making of the US, and casts a gentle light on the on-going racial divides at the time in which it’s set.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagI’m not sure about this one – certainly the race theme has been addressed frequently. But the dealing with it through an examination of faith, and the style of telling it in the form of a long letter to the future felt innovative to me, so I’m saying – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes, and I hope the quotes I have chosen give an idea of the soft beauty of the writing.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagThere’s a big part of me that would like to say yes to this, because it seems to this outsider that faith and race are the two defining aspects of what makes the US what it is. But the small town setting narrows the focus a little too much, so reluctantly I have to say – not achieved. I’m open to persuasion though…

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

* * * * * * *

 

GAN Quest: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Polemics too thinly disguised as fiction…

😦

americanahAfter living for some years as an immigrant in America, Ifemelu has decided to return to her native Nigeria. As she sits in the hairdressers having her hair braided, she reminisces over her adolescence in Nigeria and her life as a student then an adult in America. Her experiences have led her to start a blog discussing the reality of life as a non-American black person in the US, and her blog posts are sprinkled throughout the book. She makes the point that, until she became an immigrant, she had never considered herself as black, and she draws clear distinctions between those in the black community who have grown up as Americans and those who are foreign to the culture, making the further point that in terms of social strata the two groups are treated differently by the white elite.

In fact, she makes a lot of points. And many of them are interesting and insightful, if repetitive and hardly original. There is a tendency, which seems to be happening more and more, for literary authors to use the novel form to make polemical statements. Some do it well, so that the book can be read on two levels – enjoyment of the story and appreciation of the message. Others forget to put in the story. Many of these books are highly successful and well regarded, as this one is, so I’m perfectly willing to accept that my objection to being preached at is subjective, due partly, I suspect, to the fact that I read a lot of factual political books and so am looking for something rather different when I come to fiction.

I think back over the literary books I consider great and find that most of them were making political points or observing their societies with a revealing and critical eye. But they also tell a story, have great characterisation, fabulous prose and some kind of tension that keeps me turning the pages. Will Becky Sharp beat or be beaten by the society at which she is thumbing her pert nose? Why is Beloved haunting her mother? Will Miss Flite ever be able to set her birds free?

Here’s the story of Americanah. Back when she was a teenager, Ifemelu fell in love with a boy. They separated when she went to America. He is now married and has a child. Ifemelu intends to contact him when she gets back to Nigeria to try to revive the old embers. Do you care if she succeeds? I don’t. In fact, I’d be rather disappointed if she does. It’s a plot that wouldn’t even hold together a quick YA romance, much less a 400-page novel with literary pretensions. Therefore I abandoned it a third of the way through.

All the rest (of the part that I read) is observation mixed with chip-on-the-shoulder polemics. Part of my problem with this book, and with so many others about the ‘immigrant experience’, is that I don’t think Ifemelu’s life is actually bad enough to justify her eternal whining. She is one of the privileged in this world of ours – not poor in Nigeria, given a scholarship to study in America, welcomed in by that country, educated, professionally employed, well-fed, still at liberty to return to her own country any time she wishes. The ‘racism’ that she meets with seems mainly to take the form of her feeling pressured to have her hair straightened in order to get work. I sympathise, but it’s hardly slavery, and frankly when she finally lets her hair revert to its natural state, no-one sacks her or pokes fun at her or calls her names. Please don’t think that I’m for one moment minimising the impact of racism or even cultural pressure, but most of Ifemelu’s experiences could so easily have been seen as a cause for celebration rather than resentment. Sometimes discrimination is in the eye of the beholder, and Adichie’s eye seems determined to find a racial nuance in every aspect of her character’s interactions with the world.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The prose is fine, occasionally beautiful, but mainly workmanlike (no doubt she would complain about the sexism inherent in that word). Not exceptional enough to carry me through, though. I realise I’m swimming against the tide on this one – in fact on this whole trend of thinly disguised polemics. I abandoned Annie Proulx’s Barkskins for almost exactly similar reasons. But reviews are personal things, and personally I am bored by these books, so can’t recommend them. My 1-star rating reflects the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to read several hundred more pages of the same and it always seems to me ridiculous to give a book a higher rating if it couldn’t entice me to finish it. But it would probably have earned 3 or even 4 stars in reality, had I struggled through to the end.

(I read this as part of the Great American Novel Quest, but it will be obvious that it doesn’t rate as great for me.)

Amazon UK Link
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Book 3
Book 3

Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman

Duty, Honor, Country…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

douglas macarthurIn his preface, Herman discusses previous biographies of General Douglas MacArthur, some sycophantic in their admiration, others dismissing him as everything from vain to incompetent. His hope is that by the end of the book the reader will be able to decide which description is the true one. Herman has ranged widely in his search for accurate source material, including China, Japan and Russia; and has also had access to newly opened archives within the US.

I start by saying that, prior to reading this book, I knew absolutely nothing about Douglas MacArthur and very little about the events in which he was involved. I am, therefore, in no position to judge the accuracy of either the history or the portrait Herman paints of this clearly divisive American hero. I decided to read it because I have greatly enjoyed several other of Herman’s books, finding him a great storyteller who brings history vividly to life. And from the prologue of this one, where he gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

douglas macarthur pipe

In his conclusion, Herman suggests there are three main aspects that are crucial to understanding Douglas MacArthur – the degree to which he was influenced by his father’s life; the relationships with the various women in his life, his mother and his second wife Jean in particular; and his “brilliance as a grand strategist – perhaps the most incisive the American military has ever produced.” This serves as a fair summary of how Herman approaches his subject throughout the book.

To explain how influential Arthur MacArthur was on his son’s life, Herman gives the reader a mini-biography of the elder man – his early career as a Unionist hero of the Civil War, and his later fascination with the East, becoming convinced that the Pacific rim would be of more importance to the future America than its old attachments to Europe. So interesting does Herman make this story that I was left hoping that perhaps his next task will be to do a full biography of Arthur, a man whose life sounds as eventful and interesting as his son’s.

Arthur MacArthur - commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father's achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.
Arthur MacArthur – commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father’s achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.

Herman goes into Douglas MacArthur’s relationship with his mother in some depth, suggesting that she was something of a driving force behind her son’s career not just in his youth but right through till his late thirties and forties. A late bloomer in the romance stakes, MacArthur’s first marriage failed quite quickly. His second marriage to Jean, however, brought him the kind of support his mother had provided and Herman shows how important this domestic stability was to MacArthur when dealing with the various military crises of his life.

Douglas and Jean MacArthur
Douglas and Jean MacArthur

While talking about MacArthur’s career between the two world wars, Herman praises MacArthur’s achievements both as head of the US Olympic committee and for forcing the Army to face up to the need to modernise the training of its young officers while he was in charge of West Point. He also discusses in depth the apparently infamous breaking up of the Bonus Army camps, when MacArthur used troops to drive out army veterans who were protesting over the government’s refusal to bring forward payment of their promised bonuses. Since this was an episode I had never heard of, I was totally reliant on Herman’s version. It seemed to me that he very much took MacArthur’s side, perhaps too much so, almost absolving him of all responsibility for the matter.

Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.
Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.

However, he also put the opposite case clearly enough for me to consider the question of bias at all, and that’s one of the main reasons I like Herman. In the past, I have always found him to be sympathetic to his subjects, and so he is in this one. But although he can come across as biased in his conclusions, it seems to me he always presents the other side of the argument, leaving the reader to follow his bias or argue against it. Since it is a rare author indeed who can write without bias, my preference is for open bias of the Herman kind, rather than the kind where only one story is told with no indication that there may be another version.

MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines - a picture his detractors claim he staged.
MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines – a picture his detractors claim he staged.

But the real meat of the book is, as it should be, MacArthur’s military career. So involved was MacArthur in most of the important events of the time, so well told are the various episodes, so clearly does Herman lay out the background and consequences of each, that the book is as much history as biography. From MacArthur’s leadership of the Rainbow Division in WW1, through the often horrific story of the Philippines, Japan and the Pacific arena in WW2, and on to MacArthur’s successes and failures in Korea, Herman thoroughly explains the politics, domestic and foreign, that impacted on each campaign, and provides clear and often very moving stories of the military battles, showing how narrow is the dividing line between heroic success and tragic failure. Herman also delves into the period after WW2 when MacArthur spent some years as the ‘American Shogun’ ruling almost monarchically over a defeated Japan, and paints him as someone who chose not to exact revenge, but rather to try to change the culture and structure of the society to prevent future wars. Herman in fact gives MacArthur credit for sowing the seeds of the Japanese economic miracle of the latter part of the century.

General MacArthur, in behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945
General MacArthur, on behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945

Throughout all this, Herman doesn’t shy away from criticising MacArthur’s decisions on occasion, but always puts his mistakes into context. The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable. I shall leave it to the MacArthur buffs on both sides to argue over its bias or otherwise.

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

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The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Champagne and chameleons…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the other typistIt’s Prohibition Era in America and the police in Brooklyn have been tasked with closing down the speakeasies that have sprung up around the district. To help with the extra workload a new typist is hired, the charming and beautiful Odalie. At first, Rose, the narrator, is a little jealous of the attention Odalie receives from all quarters, but when Odalie decides to befriend her, Rose quickly falls under her spell. Even as she realises that Odalie might have some dark secrets, Rose can’t resist the new and exciting lifestyle to which Odalie has introduced her.

The movie rights to this début novel have apparently been grabbed by Keira Knightley in conjunction with Fox Searchlight, and I can see why. Knightley would make an excellent Odalie – all Twenties It Girl on the outside, but underneath, chameleon-like, ambiguous, secretive and perhaps wicked. Or perhaps all these attributes are merely inventions of the obsessed Rose, a narrator who is profoundly unreliable. She lets slip quite quickly that she’s telling us her story from an institution, where she has ended up as a result of the events she is about to narrate, and it’s fairly clear that the doctor whose care she is under is of the psychiatric rather than the medical kind.

The book is not unflawed. In common with so much current crime writing, it is grossly overlong for its content, with huge stretches where nothing happens to move the plot forward at all. After a good start, I really struggled to maintain my interest level through the seemingly endless middle – it could easily have lost 100-150 pages and been a better book as a result. There are frequent digressions and little bits of side stories that never go anywhere, and far too much foreshadowing of the “but that would come later” variety in a not very successful attempt to hold the reader’s attention. I suspect the author’s intention was to give a fullness and depth to her carefully recreated world of speakeasies and bootleggers, but I felt she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler.

I'm assuming Keira Knightley will be playing Odalie, but of course she may choose to play Rose. Which would be...intriguing...
I’m assuming Keira Knightley will be playing Odalie, but of course she may choose to play Rose. Which would be…intriguing…

However, this is one where the positives very definitely outweigh the negatives. Rose is an excellent creation. She tells her tale in a rather stilted language, rather like the voice of someone pretending to be a social class higher than she is, or pretending to a level of education she doesn’t properly have. It’s sustained beautifully throughout the novel, giving her a very definite personality – one that shouldn’t be likeable but somehow manages to get the reader onside anyway. I think it was a risky and brave decision to use such a distinctive and stylised voice in a début, since I certainly spent the first few chapters wondering if it was the author’s own voice that felt stilted, but once I’d become confident that the voice was Rose’s, I greatly admired the skill with which it had been done. (Of course, if her next novel turns out to be in the same voice, I shall delete this… 😉 )

Because we only see through Rose’s eyes, the other characters are somewhat nebulous, changing depending on Rose’s opinion of them at any given point. Rose tells us she was brought up by nuns in an orphanage, so starts with a strict moral code and a prudish, judgemental attitude about the behaviour of all around her. Under Odalie’s influence, not to mention the champagne cocktails, her morals might slip a little but her feelings of moral superiority never do. In some ways she’s clear-sighted about her own weaknesses, but she’s a mistress of the art of self-justification. She’s jealous of Odalie in both senses – jealous of her easy charm and sophistication, and also jealous of her showing favour to anyone else. Rose assures us so often that her feelings towards Odalie are not “unnatural” that it seems as if perhaps they must be…

Suzanne Rindell
Suzanne Rindell

From about the halfway point, it becomes fairly clear where the book is heading, but this isn’t a weakness. The fun from there on is that the reader knows something Rose doesn’t know and, again, I feel the way Rindell handles this is extremely skilful. There’s enough humour in the book to keep it entertaining (except through that middle portion), but the plot at the heart of it has both darkness and depth. Rindell says in her afterword that she had deliberately nodded to Gatsby in places as a kind of homage to her favourite book. Yes, she has, in terms of the parties and lifestyle, but she has wisely made no attempt to cover the same subject matter nor pretend that her book comes from the same mould. This is historical crime, well written, cleverly plotted and with great, original characterisation, and I very much look forward to seeing how Rindell develops in future books. I hope that film gets made…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

PS Last night I was European. Today I’m British. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I’m going to bed now and I may be some time. If they announce another referendum, don’t wake me… 😉

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

the power of the dogNot for the faint-hearted…

Brothers Phil and George Burbank are an odd couple but have always lived quite happily together, running the ranch they’ve taken over from their parents. Phil is the smart one, who could have been anything he chose, while George is quieter and not as bright as his brother. They rub along together well, though, each with their own tasks, and George’s stolid character gives him a level of immunity to Phil’s sarcasm and cruel comments. But when out of the blue George falls in love and marries, Phil’s sadism comes to the fore as he sets out to destroy George’s new wife, using her son as his weapon.

There is much to like and admire about this book but I’m going to start by mentioning something I wish I had known before choosing to read it – namely, that there are repeated episodes of animal cruelty throughout, that escalate towards the end of the book to a level where I had to skip a chunk of it completely. I’m not talking about the normal cruelty that happens as part of ranching – the castration scenes, for example. These I could accept as part of the story. But the detailed descriptions of animals being deliberately tortured for fun were too much for me, regardless of relevance.

However, for the right reader, this is a fascinating and powerful study of a sadistic personality, looking below the surface cruelty to find the causes. Phil’s parents always thought there was something not right about him, but seem more concerned with reassuring each other that his problems are not their fault than trying to deal with them. By the time the book starts, they have taken the easy option and gone to live in Utah, leaving their sons to run the ranch in their stead.

George doesn’t make any effort to prevent Phil’s cruelty, but his natural kindness leads him to try to put things right for the people Phil hurts. And it’s this that draws him to Rose in the first instance, after Phil had publicly ridiculed her son Peter for being a ‘sissy’. Like Phil’s parents, Rose has also always known her son is not like other boys but, unlike them, if anything that increases her love for him, and her fear of how he will cope with life. But as Phil’s constant sneering and contempt wear Rose down, the roles reverse and she finds herself relying more and more on her son’s seeming strength.

Thomas Savage
Thomas Savage

Written in 1967 but set further back in the 1920s, the book is really an examination of society’s attitudes towards homosexuality and ‘manliness’ at that time, particularly in the very male world of the cowboy. There’s a bit of stereotyping in the way Peter’s ‘sissy’-ness is portrayed, but this is offset by the otherwise excellent characterisation throughout. Phil is monstrous, but believably so, while the different weaknesses of Rose and George are convincing. The more peripheral parts of the book were, for me, some of the most interesting – the story of Peter’s father, failing as a doctor in this small place, and gradually diminishing; the episode of the “Indians” travelling back to visit the land of their fathers and becoming unwitting pawns in the power struggle on the ranch; and the lives of this traditional ranching community as the era of the cowboy was drawing towards an end.

So, if it weren’t for the animal cruelty, I’d be recommending this quite highly – probably 4 stars. As it is, 2½ – and you have been warned…

🙂 🙂 😐 (but probably more for the right reader)

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Moments…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

let the great world spinOne August morning in 1974, a man was spotted standing on top of one of the newly-built Twin Towers. A crowd quickly gathered, wondering if he was going to jump. Some prayed for his safety and begged him to come down, others egged him on to jump, in that ugly way crowds have. But in a moment of unforgettable magic, Philippe Petit stepped out onto an inch-thick wire, 1350 feet above the ground, and walked between the towers. For 45 minutes he held the city enthralled as he walked back and forth, sitting, even lying on the wire.

When something as momentous as 9/11 happens, how do you deal with it in fiction? To tell the story of the events themselves can feel maudlin, voyeuristic – a kind of cashing-in on tragedy. Colum McCann’s book only obliquely refers to that day, but the iconic status of the Twin Towers, their presence in the book, means it’s never far from the reader’s mind. And it’s no coincidence that the one picture McCann has chosen to illustrate the book, with the benefit of hindsight becomes terrifyingly prescient.

philippe petit plane

Instead, McCann chooses a different unique moment in the history of the Twin Towers, using it as a starting point to tell the stories of some of the people whose lives intersected while Petit walked. It’s not a celebration of New York, exactly – it’s too clear-sighted about the many problems that existed at a point when the city was drowning in drugs and crime, and the country was reeling from Vietnam. But it is a deeply affectionate picture, a warts and all portrait of its people struggling to achieve that point of balance, to make their own walk, to recognise the occasional moment of magic in their own lives.

One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

In the end I loved the book, but it took a while for me to get there. Rather appropriately, it was almost exactly at the mid-point that I suddenly became invested in the lives McCann describes. I suspect this is one of those books that will actually work better on a re-read, because knowing how the stories play out will add the emotional content to the early chapters which I felt was a little lacking on a first read.

philippe petit sitting

Although I grew to love it, I can’t in truth say the book is unflawed. Let me get my usual foul language rant out of the way first. Some of the chapters are little more than long streams of foul-mouthed, unimaginative swearing, either in dialogue or when he’s writing some characters’ narratives in first person. An author should do more than pick up speech traits – mimicry is not art. Being brutal about it, one can train a parrot to repeat speech. But in fiction, an author should be able to achieve a sense of authenticity without simply parroting the poor language skills of the people on whom he’s basing his characters.

It’s a pity because, when he ceases the mimicry and writes in his own creative voice, he writes quite beautifully. The sections where he describes Petit’s preparation and walk create such brilliant atmosphere that I felt all the terror and exhilaration as if I were there on top of the Tower with him. His characterisation is superb – these people gradually became real to me so that I cared what happened to them. And he avoids any emotional trickery or contrived coincidence, so that their stories feel as real as their personalities.

Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn’t even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

philippe-petit-1974

The other major flaw is that some of the sections don’t add anything and, in fact, serve only to break the flow and interrupt the development of an emotional bond between reader and characters. Some of the threads carry through the book, recurring and twining around each other, like an intricate dance. But a few of them are entirely separate – for example, the section about the boy who photographs graffiti on the underground, or the hackers who – well, I can’t really tell you what the hackers do, because it was so full of unnecessary techie jargon that almost the only words I understood were the incessant swear words, and I tired of them so thoroughly I skipped the bulk of that chapter in the end. I guess McCann was trying to cover everything he could think of that was relevant to New York or the time, but I felt the book would have been tighter and more effective if it had stayed more focused.

begorrathon 2016

Despite all this, the major stories have a depth and fundamental truth to them that in the end lifts the book to within touching distance of greatness. Corr, the religious brother working amongst New York’s prostitutes and drug dealers, is caught between his vow of celibacy and his love for a woman. Tillie tells her own story of her life as a prostitute and her shame as she sees her beloved daughter Jazzlyn follow her onto the streets. Claire is mourning the son she lost in Vietnam and trying to find a kind of solace in the company of other bereaved mothers. Gloria, whose life would have broken many women, finding a way to survive by holding out a generous hand to those around her. Solomon, the judge who spends his days brokering deals and plea bargains, suddenly tasked to find an appropriate punishment for this man who has committed trespass to walk between the Towers, and in doing so has caused a whole city to raise its eyes. As they cross each other’s paths, McCann shows how single moments can change entire lives, and ripple out to touch the lives of others.

He has shaved. I want to tell him off for using my razor. His skin looks shiny and raw.

A week later – after the accident – I will come home and tap out his hairs at the side of my sink, arrange them in patterns, obsessively, over and over. I will count them out to reconstitute them. I will gather them against the side of the sink and try to create his portrait there.

McCann paints New York as a city that lived for the moment, instantly forgetting its own history – a place without the memorials and statues that fill other great capitals of the world. And he leaves the reader to realise how that all changed when the Twin Towers fell – their absence a memorial that will exist as long as anyone remembers seeing them soar above the city skyline, and will have a half-life in photos, newsreels, art and literature for long after that. But as his characters walk their own wires and the great world spins, ultimately he reminds us that some moments bring magic and wonder rather than tragedy, and hope exists even at the darkest times.

The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.

Colum McCann
Colum McCann

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

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 flagColum McCann is Irish by birth and nationality (so this review is also part of Reading Ireland Month) but has lived in the US for thirty years. I reckon he’s assimilated pretty well so… achieved.

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

us flagYes, it’s a great picture of New York in the ’70s, when the city was at its peak of crime and social decay, and also references the changes brought by 9/11 to the city’s psyche. Achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, using Petit’s walk and the ’70s to obliquely discuss 9/11 is an innovative and successful approach. So – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagDespite his too frequent lapses into speech mimicry and foul language, and his occasional lack of focus, the majority of the book is indeed superbly written. So in the spirit of generosity inherent in the book, I’m going to say… achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagSadly, while the book undoubtedly captures parts of the New York experience brilliantly, I don’t feel it is wide enough in scope to meet this criterion. So… not achieved.

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 4½ stars and 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare this…

A Great American Novel.

.

* * * * * * *

 

Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay

broken promiseEnd of Part One…

😐 😐

When David Harwood visits his cousin Marla, he’s astonished to discover her nursing a baby that she claims is her own, because Marla’s baby died at birth, ten months ago, leaving her emotionally fragile and mentally unstable. She tells him a wild tale of how an angel brought the baby and asked her to take care of it. David’s worried enough by this story, but when he spots blood on the doorframe, he’s even more concerned. And when the mother of the baby is found, knifed to death, things look bleak indeed for Marla. So David, an unemployed journalist, agrees to see if he can find out the truth…

The book reminded me of losing at a game of snakes and ladders. It starts off very well – both writing and story flow along easily, David is a likeable character and at this early stage the plot seems intriguing. But then another plot is introduced, and another, and another… and suddenly I felt as if I was sliding down that pesky snake hoping for someone to throw the dice and get me back on the ladder. Sadly that didn’t happen. By a quarter of the way in at the most, the solution to the main plot is blindingly obvious – not just the who, but also the why and the how. So obvious I felt it must be a clever double-bluff, but it isn’t.

In the meantime, sub-plots keep developing exponentially. Barclay sets them up, always very interestingly – I have no quarrel at all with the quality of either his writing or characterisation, both of which are excellent throughout (though I could have lived without the tediously unimaginative and constant swearing). But then he forgets about them for ages, before suddenly bringing them back into the narrative, long after I’d either forgotten or lost interest in them, merely serving to slow down and break the flow of the main plot. At first, I thought they might all come together in some incredibly complex solution and looked forward to seeing how he’d achieve that. But it gradually becomes clear that, while there are some tenuous links between them, mostly they are completely separate strands. I still hoped they would be resolved or at least explained though – I don’t feel that’s too much to ask. It’s not as if the cover says “Part 1”…

Linwood Barclay
Linwood Barclay

…and yet, that’s precisely what this is. While the main plot is resolved (exactly as had been obvious for almost the entirety of the book), the other ones are left hanging, like the old Saturday Matinee cliffhangers… To Be Continued! But unlike them, we’d have to wait considerably longer than a week to find out what happened. If we care, that is. Personally I don’t. I don’t mind reading a trilogy, or even a Harry Potter-esque 7 book series, if someone tells me in advance that that’s what I’m about to read. But if they sell a book as a complete novel, then that’s what it should be. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory here, but I’m not talking about the kind of continuing background story arc that happens in many series – these are actual unresolved plots, murders left unexplained, investigations left halfway through, etc.

I’m sorely tempted to give this 1 star but, despite my real annoyance at being left hanging, I enjoyed the writing style enough to consider reading one of his other novels some time. But I’ll check the reviews first to see if it has an ending. And less swearing.

And, in the meantime, I’ll only recommend this if you don’t mind knowing early on how the main plot will work out, and never finding out how the sub plots do.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

GAN Quest: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A tide in the affairs of women…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

their eyes were watching godWhen Janie walks back into town eighteen months after leaving with a man 12 years her junior, her former friends and neighbours gossip and snigger, assuming he has spent all her money and then left her for a younger woman. But Janie’s story is more complicated, a tragedy but also an awakening, her journey one of self-discovery.

I’ll start by saying that I think this is an excellent novel, fully earning its place as a contender for the title of Great American Novel. It has been analysed to death by people far more qualified than I over the years: adversely, on the whole, at the time of its original publication in 1937, and then positively, when it was resurrected in the ’70s by academics with an interest in female and black voices in American literature. I had never heard of the book until it was mentioned by several people when I asked for recommendations for GANs, and I assiduously avoided reading anything about it in advance so that I could enjoy the rare luxury of reading it without preconceptions.

Janie is 16 when we first meet her in the care of her grandmother, a slave who became pregnant to her owner just before abolition. Janie’s own birth was as a result of the rape of her mother by a teacher. The date isn’t given, but a quick calculation suggests that the bulk of the book takes place in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. This matters, because one of my major criticisms of the book is that it seems to be set quite apart from historical context. There is no mention of WW1, no suggestion that any of the men fought or, indeed, had an opinion on the rights or wrongs of fighting for the USA. My (shallow) understanding is that this was a time of great change for African Americans, when they began to demand that a country that expected them to fight and die for it should also give them rights as equal citizens, develop a true democracy that embraced all people equally. But Janie’s world indicates none of this, and I found myself therefore not being able to entirely accept it as a realistic picture of the time.

Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie - which even from the stills looks dreadful.
Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie – which even from the stills looks dreadful.

Instead, Janie’s contemporaries are shown as lazy, passive and unambitious on the whole, their aspirations beaten out of them by a world still run by and for the white elite. That I could accept more, though it seems in conflict with the idea of the development of the all-black town of Eatonville in which much of the story is placed. And Eatonville itself doesn’t ring wholly true – when Janie and her new husband arrive there, it is no more than a plot of land with a few shacks, but within a few years it seems to be a thriving success story, without any indication of where that success comes from. And again, there is no discussion of politics or the wider world – Eatonville seems to exist in happy isolation, and the people Janie meets there and on her travels live carefree lives, based around drinking, gambling and sex – a happy-go-lucky existence, with no thought for the future. The position of women is one of almost total subservience to their men – a style of life where sexism and domestic violence is accepted by all. I was surprised at how negative a picture a black author was creating of the black community at a time when the political struggle for equality was building to a crescendo.

Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behaviour justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

The reason I bring up these criticisms first is that, after I finished the book, I read the forewords and afterword in my copy, written by Edwidge Danticat, Mary Helen Washington and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and was rather stunned to discover that my criticisms echoed those of the male black writing community of the time, whose dismissal of the book was based pretty much on it not conforming to the political agenda of the black movement. The subsequent feminist critiques of the ’70s and later, it seems to me, dismiss these criticisms too easily, perhaps because they think that to accept them would weaken their own argument that the book is a seminal text in the finding of the black female voice in literature. I beg to disagree – with both parties: the lack of a political context is a weakness but not one that prevents the book from making an important contribution; and the fact that it gives women in black culture a voice does not negate the fact that it would have been a greater book had it addressed, or at least acknowledged, the contemporary political situation.

Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day's bean-pickin'...
Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day’s bean-pickin’…

Where the book excels is in its portrayal of Janie’s character – her finding of her own way despite the male dominance of the society she lives in. As a person of mixed racial ancestry, Janie’s light skin tone and unusual hair are used to great effect to show how indoctrinated the black psyche had become to accept the desirability of ‘white’ physical traits; showing within their community the same kind of prejudices heaped on them from outside it. Having been married off young to a much older man, Janie rebels and runs off with the good-looking and ambitious Joe to Eatonville, only to discover that Joe too believes that a woman is at her best in the kitchen and bedroom. We know from the beginning of the book that there is a third man in Janie’s story – the younger Tea Cake, for whom she has left her comfortable home in Eatonville and gone off to work the fields in the Florida Everglades. It is in the few months that she spends with Tea Cake that Janie finally discovers what it is to love and be loved equally.

Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward till he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.

Although the structure of the book is that Janie is telling her story in retrospect to her friend Pheoby, this is a third person narrative for the most part, slipping into first occasionally as we are made directly privy to Janie’s thoughts. All of the speech is in dialect, which Hurston handles brilliantly, and although the non-dialogue parts are in a more standard form of English, she maintains speech patterns, tone and vocabulary throughout. The dialect is not so broad that it makes the book hard to read – it’s sustained so beautifully that it almost recedes into the background after the reader gets tuned into it. While I have criticised the portrayal of the society as negative, it’s also done with great skill, making it completely believable within the internal context of the book. The writing is lyrical at times, especially the section in the Florida Everglades where the land and weather come to play a huge part in the story. The book has its share of tragedy and horror, but Hurston offers compassion to her characters at all times, and she draws them subtly, so that there are few of them who can’t earn our empathy.

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston

I am aware that this review has taken on gargantuan proportions, but that’s a sign of the effect the book and the debate surrounding it had on me. I could write at length about my disappointment that fundamentally Janie’s search for herself seems too much to be a search for a man who will love her right. I could mention my anger at the way Hurston seems tacitly to endorse wife-beating so long as it’s done with love(!). I could wonder about the lack, not just of children, but of any mention of them. But instead, I’ll say that, despite my quite severe criticisms of it, I loved the book for the language and the compelling story-telling, and for making me think, and it’s one that I’m sure would deliver even more on a re-read.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

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 flagYes, despite its lack of political context, it gives an excellent portrayal of this part of black culture.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, the examination of the place of women within this culture was clearly innovative for its time.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – the dialect and lyricism of the writing are undoubtedly excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 4½ stars and 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare this…

A Great American Novel.

.

* * * * * * *

 

GAN Quest: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Walking the high wire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the house of mirth 2Beautiful Lily Bart, trained from birth to take her place in the highest echelons of New York society of the late 19th century, lacks the money to maintain her position in this elite and snobbish group, so must marry well. At the age of twenty-nine her options are beginning to narrow, so she must do it soon before her beauty begins to fade. But Lily has a problem – she is unable to bring herself to marry purely for money and has met only one man who inspires passion – a man who doesn’t possess either the wealth or the desire to live the kind of life Lily must have. This is the story of Lily’s gradual descent through the social classes as a series of bad decisions causes her to lose the one thing more important to this shallow society than beauty – her reputation. Along the way, she will gain some self-knowledge and learn to value her self-respect more than her status. Well, almost…

Original illustrations by AB Wenzell
Original illustrations by AB Wenzell

If only I could have loved Lily! If I could at any point have felt that she were worthy of a week of my life, or a moment of Selden’s (an adulterer, so not a particularly high standard to reach)! It is undoubtedly true that books affect us differently depending on when we read them, and I suspect that had I read this when I was eighteen, it would have delighted me nearly as much as Ms Austen’s books did at that age and, like them, would probably then have remained a favourite. In fact, for a large part of the beginning, I found myself comparing Lily to Austen’s equally unlikeable heroine, Emma. But even in Emma, Austen tempers her view of a society that restricts women to the unpleasantnesses of the marriage mart by having a little humour and some fundamentally decent characters. In The House of Mirth, Wharton invites us to sneer at the characters rather than laugh with or even at them, and the most decent man is an adulterer who then snubs Lily for doing considerably less than he did. Accurate, of course, as a representation of the inequality of women, but hardly likely to make the reader warm towards him. Not this reader, at any rate.

the house of mirth original illustration 3

The book gives a cuttingly brilliant portrayal of this society and of the basic amorality at the heart of it. Money clears the path to good reputation – one can be forgiven anything if one is rich enough. But commit the crime of poverty and one is left balancing precariously on a high wire, without a safety net. And Lily doesn’t have the self-control to stop herself from swaying with each wind that blows. Her fall is described with what feels like great authenticity. She doesn’t plummet to her doom – rather she lands high up on a hill and then slips gradually down. This lets Wharton show the various strata of society, from the established and well-born, through the nouveau riche, to the rich but not quite respectable, and finally to the dinginess of genteel poverty that Lily has been brought up most to fear. Lily has opportunities to break her fall but each time, as she reaches the crunch, her pride won’t let her make the sacrifice that would be necessary.

Gillian Anderson and Etic Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?
Gillian Anderson and Eric Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?

The writing is, of course, excellent, as is Wharton’s insight into the workings of this society and the characters who inhabit it. But I found it a cold novel, without the contrasts that might have lent it some much needed warmth. I liked no-one, and actually I suspect that was Wharton’s intention. Being shallow, however, I need someone to care about to make a novel really work for me – and I couldn’t care about Lily, however hard I tried. Oh yes, by the end I felt sorry for her but, truthfully, not terribly. Her ambitions are so petty, her hardships so cushioned, her decisions so egotistical. She represents everything that is worst about a society where worth is measured by wealth, and just as I wouldn’t regret the passing of that kind of society, I couldn’t get worked up about this one unimportant little hanger-on. Get a job, was my constant cry! But no, Lily couldn’t even manage that. Become a companion to a rich old lady, then, I shrieked at her! No, no, she replied, I must attend parties and look more beautiful than everyone else or my life is not worth living. I felt forced to agree with the latter part of that sentence. And thus, when we wound slowly, slowly, slowly to the inevitable end, I regret to say I… giggled. I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to, honestly! I really hoped I’d sob!

the house of mirth original illustration 2

I don’t at all think my reaction means that the book fails, however. Apart from a rather sickly sweet finale (hence the giggling), I suspect my reaction was very much what Wharton intended to inspire. Certainly she wasn’t holding these people up for admiration and, as a social critique, I feel the book works wonderfully well. (I felt at points, though, that Wharton was far from immune from the attitudes and snobberies she was criticising – her depiction of the Jewish Rosedale, for example, and her stereotyping of the ‘poor’.) In the end, the lack of any characters that I could fully sympathise with (poor Gerty, too pathetically good to be true, I fear), meant that, like Emma, my admiration for the book never quite grew into love.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

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 flagWithout doubt, it gives a brilliant depiction of the various levels of rich society of the time and of the hypocrisy at the heart of it.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I’d say the perspective of a woman falling through the various levels is an innovative way to examine the workings of this society.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – I found the writing curiously cold, but nonetheless penetrating and excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, and with only four stars and four GAN flags, not even A Great American Novel, I fear. But it’s still a good and important novel that I’m glad to have read. The only thing holding it back from being a great novel for me is that I couldn’t learn to love Lily…

* * * * * * *

 

Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas

being nixon“Rock ’em, sock ’em”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Evan Thomas tells us in his introduction that he is not attempting to “weigh the success and failure of Nixon as a policy maker” or to solve the “many mysteries” of Watergate. Instead, his aim is to understand Nixon as a person or, as he puts it, “to understand what it was like to actually be Nixon”. The book is very well written in a style that makes it accessible to the general reader. It’s a linear biography that follows its subject from birth to death, and is well balanced in that the bulk of it concentrates on Nixon’s political career, with just enough of the before and after to shed light on Nixon’s character.

Thomas shows the child Nixon as a high achiever at school, despite being naturally shy. His background was one of hardship, though not poverty, which prevented him from attending one of the Ivy League colleges. This meant that after graduation he wasn’t able to get into the top law firms, and Thomas suggests that this left him with a lifelong chip on his shoulder, always declaring he wouldn’t have Ivy League graduates working for him, though in fact he put many of them into top jobs. This small example in itself shows a trait that is repeated again and again throughout his life – a disconnect between what he said and how he acted. Even at this young age, Nixon is shown as pompous and humourless, and something of a loner. Despite his Quaker background, when America entered WW2 he joined the Army, though he was never directly involved in the fighting.

19500122_Nixon_With_Hiss_Newspaper

His introduction to political campaigning came after the war when he was invited to stand for Congress in California. Dirty tricks were rife and accepted as pretty much the norm by all sides. Again this is something Thomas emphasises all the way through, that dirty campaigns were not unusual and that each side expected the other side to be as devious as they were.

In recounting Nixon’s pre-Presidential political career, Thomas highlights most those features that he feels shed some light on Nixon’s personality, character and political beliefs. Politically, even at this early stage Nixon’s interests lay more in foreign than domestic affairs. He made his name by going after Alger Hiss on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee, refusing to give up until he achieved success. Thomas suggests this experience was important in forming Nixon’s approach to politics in general – at times when he faced difficulties he often referred back to the Hiss affair as a way of insisting that his tactics were the way to get results. He also served on the committee that pushed through the Marshall Plan and was genuinely fearful of the communist threat to a destroyed and poverty-ridden Europe. Later, when serving as Vice-President, Eisenhower would use him as a kind of travelling diplomat, in which role he had some significant successes. At home, he was used as Ike’s attack dog against his political opponents. Reviled by the Press and despised by the social and political elite because, Thomas suggests, of his comparatively humble background and lack of social savoir-faire, Nixon nonetheless had the common touch, and when Ike considered dropping him as running mate in ’56, it was popular pressure that kept him on the ticket.

NIXONcampaigns

In the ’60 election, Thomas suggests that the Kennedy camp ran a huge dirty tricks campaign, pretty much buying JFK’s way in to the Presidency with blatant bribes and backhanders. I have no way of knowing how accurate that is, but given that underhand and devious methods seem to have been the norm on both sides, it doesn’t sound unbelievable. However at this point for the first time Thomas gave me the impression that he was being too soft on Nixon, building excuses for his later behaviour. He suggests Nixon vowed after this never to be beaten in the matter of dirty tricks again.

Once the book reaches the stage of Nixon’s Presidency, Thomas provides a believable picture of a rather isolated President, not personally close even to the people who worked most directly with him. The concentration on Nixon’s personality leaves the book a little light on actual policy matters, I felt, assuming a familiarity with events that some non-American readers and even perhaps younger US readers might not have. But I thought Thomas gave a really good picture of the social unrest of the late ’60s and of how Nixon reacted to the ongoing questions of race, social liberalisation and, of course, Vietnam.

1974_Nixon_quits.pdf-1024

Thomas delves into the background and events of Watergate in some detail, and I was left with the impression that it was a combination of paranoia and the belief that as President he was untouchable that led Nixon to become so heavily implicated. He also is shown to have had a kind of mistaken loyalty, or perhaps it was just weakness, that prevented him from getting rid of people as they fell under suspicion. Though he was clearly responsible for setting the tone that led to the prevalence of dirty tricks within his office, he probably wasn’t aware of the actual Watergate affair in advance, so could probably have escaped the worst of the scandal had he been more decisive and brutal about sacking people at an earlier stage.

Thomas finishes with a look at Nixon’s life after the Presidency, when he gradually became a kind of elder statesman, giving advice to a succession of Presidents.

If Thomas’ portrayal is accurate, then it all seems like a rather sad waste of a man who clearly had great talent and intellect, but whose personality weaknesses took him along a path that led to his own downfall. If there was really as much corruption in politics as Thomas suggests, then one can’t help feeling that Nixon was merely the one who got caught. Though it seemed that just occasionally Thomas went a little easy on him, I felt overall that this was a fairly balanced account and certainly provided a credible portrait of Nixon’s complex character. An interesting biography.

The apology…

 

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

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Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford

fortune's foolPlaying the villain…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

As a Brit, the total extent of my knowledge of the Lincoln assassination was that some guy called John Wilkes Booth shot him in a theatre. This biography sets out to examine the whole life of Booth with a view to seeing what brought him to that point.

Booth was one of a family of ten, son of the famous actor Junius Booth, and destined for the stage from an early age. His father was a drunk who had spells of drink-related violence. Often away from home because of his career, much of the children’s upbringing fell to their mother, who seems to have been a loving but rather ineffectual soul. When John was thirteen, it came to light that his parents’ marriage was bigamous, his father having been married before to a wife still living. The book tells us about young John’s education and early attempt at running the family farm after his father’s death, before finally accepting that he couldn’t make a financial go of it and going into the family tradition of acting. While it’s interesting to speculate how much these early experiences may have affected John, speculation it must remain. The accounts of his character at this time, and later, come mainly from people speaking or writing after Lincoln’s assassination, so it’s hard to know how much their views are coloured by hindsight. While some people seem to have seen him as a nice, polite young boy and a good friend, there are conflicting stories of him being a bully and torturing cats. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.
Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.

The section on his early acting career is better documented as far as the facts go – where he performed, what roles he played, etc – but the confusion surrounding his character remains. Being handsome and athletic, he became a heartthrob, with legions of admiring female fans, but he clearly felt overshadowed by his father’s reputation, and perhaps his elder brothers’, choosing at first to drop Booth from his name and to be billed as John Wilkes. Alford looks at contemporaneous reviews and later reports to try to determine how good he was as an actor, concluding that though he showed a great deal of promise, his career wasn’t long enough for this to fully develop. At this young age, his general fitness enabled him to be a very physical performer, specialising in realistic swordfights, in which he sometimes took it so far that he injured his opponents. His signature role was Shakespeare’s Richard III, and his opponents in the fight scene would sometimes have to remind him to ‘die’ before he wore them down completely.

John with his actin brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar
John with his acting brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar

The real interest, of course, is in trying to get at the roots of why Booth developed such a hatred of Lincoln. Although not really a Southerner, Booth came to love the South, especially Virginia, and was violently anti-abolitionist. He was present at the execution of John Brown, having begged to be allowed to join the Virginia militia who were sent to Charlestown to ensure peace during Brown’s incarceration. But when war broke out, his mother made him promise not to join the Confederate army, and Alford suggests that this may have been part of the reason for his later actions – guilt at having played no active part in the fighting. His family lived in the North, and his brother Edwin was pro-Union and a Lincoln supporter. At first, John also was pro-Union, but held Lincoln and the abolitionists guilty for causing the secession of the Southern states. As the war dragged on, reports suggest that Booth became more extreme in the expression of his views, putting himself at risk of unpopularity, if not worse, in the Northern states where during this period he was spending most of his time. At this stage, some people were beginning to describe him as ‘crazy’ (though again, how much of that is hindsight isn’t totally clear).

lincoln-assassinated-newspaper

Alford goes into great detail over the plot, which was originally to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for the freedom of Confederate soldiers held prisoner in the North. Delay after delay, however, meant that the war ended before the plan was carried out. While it’s clear from the plotting that Booth wasn’t quite the ‘lone gunman’ I’d wrongly supposed, he certainly seems to have been the main mover and in the end it appears he alone decided to change the plan to assassination. The description of the assassination and Booth’s flight and eventual capture is detailed and well-told and, whatever people felt about his actions, it appears that in the end Booth died bravely, winning the admiration, sometimes grudging, of those who witnessed his death. Alford interestingly looks at the heroic roles Booth had been steeped in from an early age and speculates on the influence they had on Booth’s actions – in particular the role of Brutus and his assassination of Julius Caesar. It seems clear that Booth expected to be the darling of the South for his actions, and he died disappointed that the general feeling in the South was that he had made the post-war situation even tougher for them.

lincoln memorial

Alford concludes by debunking some of the mythology that grew up of Booth having escaped and made a new life for himself elsewhere. He follows the body, so to speak, from the barn to its final resting place, showing how Booth’s corpse was identified by family members and people who knew him well.

Terry Alford
Terry Alford

There are two fundamental things that are required to make a great biography – a well-researched, well-written narrative and an interesting subject. This one certainly meets the first criterion; Alford has researched his subject thoroughly and has a flowing, accessible writing style. Unfortunately though, apart from shooting Lincoln, Booth’s story is only moderately interesting and, despite Alford’s best endeavours, many things about his character and actions remain clouded, relying on hindsight rather than contemporaneous reports. For what it’s worth (not much), my own conclusion is that Booth was an attention-seeking nutcase, determined to go down in history at whatever cost to himself or those around him. And since we’re still interested in him 150 years on, perhaps he achieved part of his aim – though in the end playing the villain rather than the hero.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

the maltese falconLights, camera, action…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When luscious Miss Wonderly hires the detective firm of Spade and Archer to find her sister, who has run off with a man named Floyd Thursby, Sam Spade might not believe her story but he’s happy to accept the $200 dollars she pays them upfront. So is Miles Archer, though his interest is more in the lady’s lovely legs. The job turns out to be more than either partner bargains for though, when both Miles and then Floyd are shot dead. With Miss Wonderly begging for his help to protect her and find the Maltese Falcon of the title, Miles’ wife hoping his death means she and Sam can finally be together, and the police accusing him of murdering Floyd in revenge for Miles’ death, Spade is in trouble up to his neck. But nothing he can’t handle…

the maltese falcon 1

Did Dashiell Hammett invent noir? I don’t know, but Sam Spade is the earliest iconic noir detective, and the one that has spawned a zillion clones down the years. The book reads like a film, making it understandable why the film of the book works so well. Heavy on dialogue, the camera stays focused on Sam Spade at all times and yet we are never allowed inside his head. As he twists and lies and manoeuvres his way through the plot, the reader has no more idea than anyone else what his true intentions might be. Has he fallen for Miss Wonderly, aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy, or is he using her? Will he double-cross her and take the money offered by the mismatched baddies Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo? Or will he trick them all, and take the fabled golden bird for himself? It’s only as the end plays out that we discover whether Spade does have some kind of moral code hidden beneath his smooth chain-smoking exterior.

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

It’s a while since I watched the film, but it seems to me that the script stuck very closely to the book, and the casting was pretty much perfect. As a result, I could see the movie characters in my head while reading. It’s not just the dialogue that makes the book feel so filmic. Hammett describes every movement that Spade makes in minute detail, from the fight scenes to the rolling of his endless cigarettes, and it gave me the impression of an obsessive director’s notes on how he wanted his actors to play each scene. It also feels like a studio film – there’s very little description of the world outside and the San Francisco setting could really have been any city in America. It’s rare to have quite so little sense of place in a novel, and yet it works. Like a classy film-star, Spade is so compelling that the reader doesn’t need to have the background filled out, and the great supporting cast of eccentric characters provides all the necessary contrast to highlight Spade’s starring role.

Bogart_Mary_Astor_The_Maltese_Falcon_1941

I’ve seen lots of reviews comparing this book adversely to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. My preference is for this one. I found The Big Sleep messy plotwise, and the atmospheric writing didn’t fully compensate for that. The plot of this one is tight and controlled, with each twist revealed at the perfect moment, and while the language may not be poetic, it sets a distinctive tone. The device of keeping the reader outside the thoughts of the characters works very effectively – ultimately the real mystery is nothing to do with the falcon, or even who killed Miles. It’s about what will Spade do – who is he? He’s neither likeable nor particularly admirable, but the enigma that surrounds his moral code makes him intriguing and fascinating. The book is, of course, horribly misogynistic and homophobic, but it was written nearly a century ago (1929) so I graciously forgive it, especially since Hammett manages to tell his gritty, twisted, violent tale without the need for any offensive language.

Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: “Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but – well, by Gad! – if you lose a son it’s possible to get another – and there’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Orion have reissued this as part of a series they call ‘Read a Great Movie’ and I have to say that this, for me, was a perfect example of doing just that. I’ll be checking to see what else is in the series…

poster-maltese-falcon-the-1941_02

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

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What I Found Out About Her: Stories of Dreaming Americans by Peter LaSalle

what i found out about herStyle over substance…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The first and title story in this collection of eleven is a first-person account of a man remembering a night he spent with a young woman while on a visit to New York. In numbered paragraphs, he lists the things she told him about herself – her job, her family, her previous boyfriends – and he felt he had begun to get to know her. But he hints throughout about a future event that turned everything he thought he’d learned about her on its head, leaving him wondering how much we ever really know about anyone. It’s beautifully written in a kind of conversational style, with some really excellent descriptive writing that brought the hot New York night to life, and it conveys a feeling of the transience of life. It’s a story of the possibility of love, a love that in this case never blossomed when she didn’t answer or return his calls. But it’s also a story of loss – a feeling that is harder for him to get over, because he feels that somewhere amongst what he found about her he should have found out that she would do what she did – an event that is only hinted at but which becomes clear to the reader nevertheless. An impressive story, well told, despite the rather pointless gimmick of the numbered paragraphs.

There was that aroma of the city, a little bit asphalt and a little bit exhaust and a little bit just the strong, flat metallic something that is New York, what speaks the whole hugeness of it, the whole importance of it, the whole uncontrollable rush of it, like nowhere else in the country, definitely, possibly like no place else in the world.

Unfortunately, as the collection unfolds, it becomes clear that the majority of the stories repeat a similar theme – the main character, sometimes first person, sometimes third, remembers someone s/he once knew who is now dead and wonders if s/he ever really knew them at all. Frequently the ending is foreshadowed but not spelled out, which works quite well in individual stories, but becomes annoying when it happens again and again.

To change things up a bit, LaSalle uses a variety of stylistic techniques, which I mostly felt added nothing and sometimes actually irritated me intensely. For example, one story has the paragraphs preceded by hashtags – if there was a deep symbolism to that, I fear it passed me by. Another is told in the form of one long sentence. Now, when Michael Chabon gave us an 11-page sentence in the middle of Telegraph Avenue, I described it as a virtuoso performance from a master wordsmith. But Chabon’s sentence actually is a sentence – beautifully constructed and perfectly grammatical. LaSalle on the other hand frequently resorts to merely replacing full stops with commas. The effect is not the same.

The language is, on the whole, much more successful than the structure – there’s a jazzy, improv feel to much of it which often ties in well with the settings. Sometimes it becomes almost stream of consciousness, which works better in some stories than others. He uses slightly odd sentence constructions at times, I’m sure deliberately, but again mostly I couldn’t see that it did anything other than break the natural flow of the words.

…and I can admit that before going I pictured just about every cliché of our living in Paris, sometimes I saw myself riding a wobbly black-fendered bicycle down a Paris side street, the cobbles lumpily purple, with a freshly aromatic baguette balanced across the tastefully weathered wicker basket in front, sometimes I saw myself actually sitting with a book and looking suitably and even existentially bored at one of those little round tables with a faux-marble top and a frilly cast-iron stem in the clutter of a café terrasse

Peter LaSalle
Peter LaSalle

This is a collection where I felt the stories actually suffered from being together. Many of them would have stood out as strong entries in an anthology of different authors, but reading them all together made the similarities in style and substance too noticeable. When I reached the eighth story, I made a pact with myself that, if it involved a reminiscence about someone the narrator once knew who was now dead, written with some stylistic quirk, I would abandon the rest of the collection. It did, and I did. In fairness, I may go back to the remaining stories at some point, but to read them separately and far apart, rather than one after the other, and I’m sure they’ll work much better that way.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, University of Notre Dame Press.

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The New World by Andrew Motion

the new worldConflicted…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

At the end of Silver: Return to Treasure Island, Jim and Natty had been shipwrecked on the coast of Texas in the year 1803. We rejoin them at the start of this one as they are trying to recover the bodies of their companions, when suddenly they are discovered by a scavenging party of Indians from a local tribe. Taken prisoner, they are held captive and know that they are doomed to die. Granted an opportunity to escape, they take it – and also take something that doesn’t belong to them; something so important that the leader of the tribe, Black Cloud, and his evil henchman will hunt them down to recover it…

Although this is a continuation of a continuation of Treasure Island, in fact, it has nothing to do with Robert Louis Stevenson’s original except for Jim and Natty being the children of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver respectively. Motion makes this fairly clear himself by metaphorically getting rid of Stevenson in the first chapter, along with the all-important silver from the original and the first follow-up. In one sense, this works, since I felt the tone of Silver was so far from the tone of Treasure Island anyway that it didn’t truly feel like a continuation, so better to draw a clear divide than to invite comparison. In another sense, it doesn’t quite work so well, because we are left with the same two rather unsatisfactory lead characters.

Apache Encampment in the Texas Hill Country by George Nelson
Apache Encampment in the Texas Hill Country by George Nelson

I’m completely conflicted about this book. Motion writes beautifully, as one would expect from a former Poet Laureate. When he’s talking about nature in particular – the wide open landscape, the animals, the birds – his prose is wonderful. And even when he’s writing action scenes, his technical skill shines through – his sudden changes of tense and shifts in style are incredibly effective at creating tension or drama. As Jim and Natty journey across the country, the various people they meet are very well drawn, many of them in a slightly caricatured way that reminded me a little of the secondary characters in a Dickens novel. His descriptions of the tragedy of the Native Americans following the arrival of the Europeans are moving without being overstated, as he shows the slow attrition of the tribes as they were driven from their lands and denied their traditional ways of life.

I woke in the air – swept up by the angels of heaven all beating their wings together and singing. Then not singing but whispering. Whistling. Cooing. Gurgling. Crooning. Because they were not angels any more, they were pigeons, the same as last night, and now leaving with their mess drizzling beneath them in a continual white rain, first with laborious flusterings and squabblings, then twisting and looping and swaying and swerving until they had formed a gigantic letter S which held its shape . . . and held its shape . . . before it slackened and became a smoke-cloud blowing towards the horizon.

Andrew Motion
Andrew Motion

On the other hand, the plot moves so slowly and I’m afraid I find both Jim and Natty deeply annoying. At risk of being drummed out of the feminist sisterhood here, this is primarily because Jim is the world’s foremost leading wimp and Natty has to perform the functions of the hero. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the woman to be a simpering miss, but then I don’t want the man to be a simpering miss either. And Jim is. He’s tortured by everything that happens to him and is completely passive throughout. He does nothing when it looks as if Natty might be going off with another man, and it never occurs to him to face up to Black Cloud rather than running and hiding. He leaves it to Natty to make all the big decisions, but then whinges when she does. And she – mean, moody, selfish, silent, but (of course) beautiful Natty – treats him appallingly at all times. Why does he love her? Why does she love him? Two books now, and I still don’t know…

The thing is though, that despite everything that annoys me about these, I know I’ll be just as keen to read the next one – and the ending makes it fairly clear that there is a next one in the pipeline. Personally, I feel Motion’s writing style would be much better suited to a different kind of story – something much more traditionally ‘literary’. He gets too moralistic and introspective about the rights and wrongs of the adventure aspects of the story – the tone just isn’t quite suited to the material. But still, I love the way he uses language, and his secondary characters, and his descriptions of nature…and so I’ll continue to put up with Jim and Natty if I must. See what I mean? Conflicted…

NB This book was provided for review by Random House Vintage.

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A Separate Peace by John Knowles

a separate peaceHeart of darkness…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The book begins with an adult Gene returning to visit the school that he attended as a teenager during the middle years of the Second World War. We very quickly learn that some major event occurred during his time at school and that, in some way, this visit is intended to help him face up to his memories of that time.

In Gene’s memory, Finny is a kind of golden boy, an exceptional athlete and a natural leader who recognises no rules but his own. Gene loves and admires him and is proud to be counted as his closest friend. But in his heart he is also jealous that Finny is always the leader and Gene is merely one of his followers. Finny is the superior athlete and the more imaginative of the two; and the only way Gene can see to outdo him is in the academic side of things. But he knows for certain that Finny will be untouched even if Gene excels in his studies – partly because Finny doesn’t much care about classwork but, more importantly, because he is a truer, more honest friend than Gene, and will be pleased, rather than jealous, about his friend’s success. And feeling this – that Finny is untouchably superior and the better person – leaves Gene struggling to reconcile his love for Finny with the jealousy and irritation that this intense adolescent friendship brings him. And, more than that, he resents, but is unable to resist, being forced to follow Finny into dangerous activities – effortless to the athletic Finny but terrifying to Gene. And, one day, all of these feelings boil over for just one second – a second that will change both boys for ever…

In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left. Now here it was after all, preserved by some considerate hand with varnish and wax. Preserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn’t even known it was there.

The boys’ knowledge that they will be enlisted into the Army as soon as their schooling finishes is at the heart of the story. The parallels between Gene’s moment of madness and the bigger madness of the war are obvious, but handled with a subtlety that prevents the reader from feeling lectured to. These privileged boys don’t question that they will go off to fight – their families and school have made sure they understand it is their duty. Knowles shows very well how the need to hide any weakness from their peers means that the boys whip up a kind of self-induced enthusiasm for the war and all things martial, leading in turn to the ascendency of the athletic over the academic. And the microcosm of this enclosed little society mirrors the wider world, goading itself on to ever greater sacrifices in the name of war.

No locker room could have more pungent air than Devon’s; sweat predominated, but it was richly mingled with smells of paraffin and singed rubber, of soaked wool and liniment, and for those who could interpret it, of exhaustion, lost hope and triumph and bodies battling against each other. I thought it anything but a bad smell. It was pre-eminently the smell of the human body after it had been used to the limit, such a smell as has meaning and poignance for any athlete, just as it has for any lover.

This shortish novel is beautifully written. The New England landscape is vividly described, often in war-like metaphors, as we see it change through the seasons from the hot summer days to the deep frozen snows of winter. The life of the school is sketched with the lightest of touches and yet it becomes a place we feel we know and understand – a place in a kind of limbo, suspending its traditional role as educator and feeling rather uneasy in its temporary purpose of training and indoctrinating these young men to play their part in the war. And though the book rarely takes us beyond the school boundaries, we see how the boys are being affected by the news from outside, of battles and glorious victories and horrors in places they can’t even point to on a map.

Winter’s occupation seems to have conquered, overrun and destroyed everything, so that now there is no longer any resistance movement left in nature; all the juices are dead, every sprig of vitality snapped, and now winter itself, an old, corrupt, tired conqueror, loosens its grip on the desolation, recedes a little, grows careless in its watch; sick of victory and enfeebled by the absence of challenge, it begins to withdraw from the ruined countryside.

John Knowles
John Knowles

But the most special thing about the book is the truth of the characterisations. Gene’s first-person narrative is achingly honest in its portrayal of his emotions. Told as a memory from a distance, Knowles manages the difficult task of keeping the adolescent Gene’s emotions feeling fresh and immediate, while colouring the whole book with a kind of nostalgic regret. Finny is seen at a remove – adult Gene recounting his memories of younger Gene’s feelings about him – and has an almost mythic quality, as if surrounded by a golden aura. It’s a beautiful evocation of how nostalgia and grief tend to lead to an idealisation of a person once loved. A lovely book, intensely emotional and with a true heart.

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

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The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne

The Counter-Revolution of 1776History or polemic?

😀 😀 😀 😐

In a simplified nutshell, Gerald Horne’s argument in this book is that the Revolution was in large measure a response to the colonists’ fear of London’s drive towards abolition of slavery.

Horne argues that slavery underpinned every aspect of the pre-1776 economy and as such was seen as crucial by the colonists, even while slave resistance was growing and slave revolts were becoming more common. The Royal African Company’s loss of monopoly over the slave trade in the late 17th century meant that free-traders had entered the slave markets, and the consequent uncontrolled rise in slave numbers led to fears that the slave owners did not have the capacity to stifle such resistance. While London was showing signs of beginning to think that the solution might lie in abolition, (with the added benefit that Africans could then be armed to assist in the ongoing turf wars with Spain and France on the American continent), the colonists feared a situation where Africans could be given some kind of equality or even superiority within the armed forces or, still worse, in civilian life. So, Horne argues, the Revolution was as much about maintaining the institution of the enslavement of Africans as achieving ‘liberty’ for ‘white’ colonists.

Horne makes two further assertions, both leading from this central argument. Firstly, he shows that Africans largely sided with Britain or one of the other European powers in the Revolution and prior to that had often looked to both Spain and France as possible liberators. From this, Horne argues that some Africans saw the war as not just a possible route to freedom but hoped that a victory could lead to some kind of league between themselves, the indigenous people of America and one of the European powers to form a government in place of the white colonists. Secondly, and leading on from that, much of the subsequent ill-treatment of Africans, as slaves or free citizens, can be attributed to them having picked the wrong side…

‘…the ongoing persecution of descendants of mainland enslaved Africans is – in part – a continuing expression of what tends to befall those who are defeated in bloody warfare: often they are subjected to a heinous collective punishment.’

Horne concludes therefore that the general view of the creation of the republic as a great leap forward for humanity is erroneous – an example of history being written by the winners, in this case the white colonists and their descendants.

self-evident truths

On the whole, I found Horne’s arguments partially but not wholly convincing. The book is a strange mix of history and polemic, written by someone who frequently lets his anger show through in the language he chooses to use – ‘…profit-hungry settlers were willing to sell the rope that might be used to encircle their pasty necks’, ‘the supposed trailblazing republic and its allegedly wondrous constitution’ etc; while his desire to avoid the use of the words ‘slaves’ and ‘black’ leads him at points into rather fanciful terminology, my favourites being ‘men of ebony’ and ‘the melanin rich’.

When reading a history of a period of which one has very little existing knowledge, written by a historian unknown to one, the challenge is to decide how much confidence to have in the author’s interpretation of the facts. Really the only way I can ever think to do this is to see what the author says about a subject I do know a little about. Very early on in the book, Horne talks about the influx of Scots to the colonies, and his description of the causes and effects of the Jacobite rebellions was so over-simplified and frankly misleading that it left me gasping and gaping. I was left feeling, therefore, that I would have to take many of Horne’s interpretations with a large dose of scepticism. I also felt strongly that, while obviously Horne was speaking specifically about the impact of slavery, he failed to give enough emphasis to the other causes that combined to bring about the Revolution; and I felt this tunnel-vision approach weakened his argument rather than strengthening it.

The style of writing is somewhat clumsy at times and Horne repeats the same information again and again throughout. He constantly jumps backwards and forwards in time rather than taking a linear approach. And he often refers to places or incidents without clarifying them, which can be problematic for a reader without an existing familiarity with the period and locations. All of these factors combined to make this a book that I somewhat struggled through rather than enjoyed.

Gerald Horne
Gerald Horne

However, despite all of these problems, I still felt that there was a basic validity in much of what Horne was saying, in particular with regards to his main argument. Certainly worth reading to understand why he has extrapolated the conclusions that he has from that, but should perhaps be treated with the extra caution that applies to polemic rather than history.

Gerald Horne is the Moores Professor of History & African American Studies at the University of Houston, and has published over thirty books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYU Press.

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Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

telegraph avenue“…he called what he played ‘Brokeland Creole’.”
.
😀 😀 😀 😀 😐

There are so many reasons for me to dislike this book. It’s relentlessly stuffed with references to American pop culture of the seventies – jazz, soul, funk – kung fu movies – blaxploitation – most of which were lost on me. (Though I got the Star Trek references!) It’s full of tricksy writing techniques and stunts, such as the cameo appearance of a pre-presidential Barack Obama. And it’s jam-packed with language that would make a docker blush.

But…but…it’s brilliantly written. Set in Oakland, California, I couldn’t decide whether Chabon is describing this piece of America as it really is or creating it anew, but either way he does it with such vividness and exuberance that it becomes a completely realised world with a past, present and uncertain future. There are issues of race, sexuality and gender here, all handled with a deft touch and a pleasing sense of optimism. One of Chabon’s most effective tricks is not to tell the reader straight out in the early part of the book which characters are black or white, but to leave us to gradually work it out from indirect references: a device that allows him to show the sameness of people rather than the differences and forces the reader to get to know them without letting preconceptions creep in.

“My God,” he said. “Please tell me you aren’t listening to ‘Kansas.’”

There was a small prog bin at Brokeland, but it spurned the pinnacles and palisades in favor of the dense British thickets, swarms of German umlauts. Wander into Brokeland hoping to sell a copy of ‘Point of No Return’ or, say, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (Manticore, 1973), they would need a Shop-Vac to hose up your ashes.

There is a huge cast of characters but we are mainly concerned with Archy and Nat, co-owners of Brokeland, a shop specialising in vinyl records, its existence threatened by the proposed building of a new megastore; their partners, Gwen and Aviva, who work together as midwives carrying out home-births – Gwen herself being massively pregnant too; and their teenage sons, Julie and Titus, on the cusp of childhood and adulthood and enthusiastically exploring their new-found sexuality. And then there’s Luther, Archy’s father, ex-star of ‘70s kung fu movies, ex-drug addict, down and almost out, but still dreaming of the comeback.

Michael Chabon (www.theguardian.com)
Michael Chabon
(www.theguardian.com)

The plot is slight, based around Luther’s past, the survival of the shop and the problems of the midwifery practice. Instead, the book is strongly character-driven. There are no heroes and very few total villains here – mainly just flawed people trying on the whole to do their best, if only they could work out what that was. The relationships are the important thing: fathers and sons, marriages and lovers, friendships and shared histories that bind the community into one diverse, often divided, but ultimately cohesive whole. And Chabon’s characterisation is warm and affectionate, sometimes moving, often funny.

“I don’t drink…” Archy said, and stopped. He hated how this sounded whenever he found himself obliged to say it. Lord knew he would not relish the prospective company of some mope-ass m*********** who flew that grim motto from his flagpole. “…alcohol,” he added. Only making it worse, the stickler for detail, ready to come out with a complete list of beverages he was willing to consume. Next came the weak effort to redeem himself by offering a suggestion of past indulgence: “Anymore.” Finally, the slide into unwanted medical disclosure: “Bad belly.”

But above all it’s the language and the writing that create the magic here – Chabon gives a virtuoso performance and the tricks are performed brilliantly, (including the unbelievably soaring sentence that lasts for 11 pages, with every word precisely placed, flying over the whole community and dropping in and out of every character’s life). There is an incredible wordiness about the book, one word never used when fifty could do, but the words take on a rhythm and life of their own and become almost mesmeric after a while. I found I was often pausing to appreciate and applaud the sheer skill of the performance. And, for most of the time, I could silence the small voice inside my head that was telling me that, underneath the dazzle and razzmatazz, nothing much was happening and nothing profound was being said…

Wonderfully written and flamboyantly entertaining, the sheer joy of watching a master wordsmith ply his trade almost outweighs the underlying lack of substance, but ultimately this novel just misses being truly great – though it’s so impressively done it takes a while to notice that. And although the destination may be a bit disappointing, the journey is breathtaking.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Calico Joe by John Grisham

‘Baseball is a game of failure…’

😐 😐 ❓

calico joeIn a departure from his usual legal thrillers, Grisham here gives us a book about the world of baseball. The first person narrator is Paul Tracey, whose father, Warren, was a pitcher for the Mets in 1973 in the same season as Joe Castle, the Calico Joe of the title, was breaking all records as a rookie player with the Cubs. Warren is now dying and as Paul travels to see him, he tells us about his childhood, his hero-worship for Joe and why his relationship with Warren reached breaking point.

Normally I am a big fan of Grisham but really, there are limits. Firstly it is very short and yet the plot, such as it is, is so slight as to barely maintain interest to the end. Instead the book is filled with extremely detailed descriptions of imaginary baseball games, so detailed that Grisham felt it necessary to give what he calls a summary of the basics of the game. This ‘summary’ runs to 13% of the entire Kindle book and was so dull that I gave up halfway through, deciding to trust that the book would make sense even if I didn’t know what a drag bunt or a pick-off might be. By about the fourth chapter, I was so bored that I was speed-reading through the innings by innings match descriptions that fill easily half the book dropping back in whenever it looked like the plot might move along a little. However, the plot was so uninteresting and clichéd and the characterisation so superficial that it did not make up for all the rest.

Hmm...
Hmm…

I would have given this book 2 stars but I recognise some people will be more interested in baseball and perhaps in interminable scoring statistics, even imaginary ones, than I and so have upped it to an extremely generous 3. Grisham says in his introduction ‘Baseball is a game of failures’. Unfortunately I feel this self-indulgent book is an example of that. Here’s hoping Grisham returns to form (and the legal world) in his next novel.

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

mark twain delphiA glittering hero…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Set in Missouri sometime around the 1830s, Twain gives us a joyous romp through the lives of some of the boys, and even a couple of the pesky girls, growing up in the small town of St Petersburg. This is a world long, long before health and safety and overprotective parents where, when they’re not being forced to attend school or Sunday School, the boys can let both their bodies and their imaginations run wild –and oh, how they do! Tom is a natural leader – the one with the imagination and, I suspect, a liking for sensationalist pulp fiction. So when the boys aren’t being pirates, that’s only because they’re planning on how to become robbers or deciding who should be Robin Hood and who the Sheriff of Nottingham.

“…Tom said “Where this arrow falls, there bury poor Robin Hood under the greenwood tree.” Then he shot the arrow and fell back and would have died, but he lit on a nettle and sprang up too gaily for a corpse.”

It’s during a midnight trip to the graveyard (to throw a dead cat after the devils, obviously) that Tom and the little vagabond Huck Finn witness the horrific crime that provides the running storyline and the darker edge to the book. Scared that they’ll be killed if they tell what they saw, the boys can’t avoid feeling guilty when the wrong man is arrested and about to be hanged. But fortunately there’s always romance to take Tom’s mind off things…

“Say, Becky, was you ever engaged?”
“What’s that?”
“Why, engaged to be married.”
“No.”
“Would you like to?”
“I reckon so. I don’t know. What is it like?”
“Like? Why it ain’t like anything. You only just tell a boy you won’t ever have anybody but him, ever ever ever, and then you kiss and that’s all. Anybody can do it.”
“Kiss? What do you kiss for?”
“Why, that, you know, is to – well, they always do that.”

TomSawyer-006A wonderfully warm-hearted book, Twain’s gently humorous and affectionate portrayal of the children is stopped from descending into sentimentality by his sly ridicule of the customs and manners of society, as seen through the microcosm of this small town. No-one is safe from his gaze, however respectable a position they may hold – not the poor minister as the boredom of his sermon is brightened for the boys by the advent of an unruly poodle, not the unfortunate teacher who must pay handsomely with the loss of his dignity for the crime of making the boys study. The boys’ belief in all kinds of old wives’ tales provides plenty of fun while allowing Twain to indulge in some gentle mockery of superstition. And Huck’s views on attempts to turn him into a respectable child give Twain the opportunity to poke fun at the restrictions polite society forces on itself…

“Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort – I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out awhile, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she wouldn’t let me gape, nor stretch, not scratch, before folks -” (Then with a spasm of special irritation and injury) – “And dad fetch it, she prayed all the time!”

I found myself smiling throughout, frequently laughing aloud and occasionally gasping as Twain would suddenly throw Tom and his friends into danger and fear. I read this book when I was a young teenager and remembered enjoying it for the adventures, but as an adult I got much more out of Twain’s sneaky sideways swipes at society in general. The writing is wonderful – almost goes without saying – and greatly enhanced by the masterly use of dialect and idiom. Funny, insightful and hugely entertaining – a true classic.

“The minister gave out the hymn, and read it through with a relish, in a peculiar style that was much admired in that part of the country. His voice began on a medium key and climbed steadily up till it reached a certain point, where it bore with strong emphasis upon the topmost word and then plunged down as if from a spring-board:

Shall I be car-ri-ed toe the skies, on flow’ry BEDS of ease,
Whilst others fight to win the prize, and sail thro’ BLOOD-y seas?”

PS – As a little aside, I couldn’t help making comparisons to my own childhood favourite Anne of Green Gables. The lack of parents, the imaginative child always falling accidentally into trouble, the school romance… Of course, Anne and her friends were just pesky girls, so behaved much, much better than these awful boys (and were much cleaner, generally speaking) but I did wonder if LM Montgomery had been influenced by this earlier book. And sometimes Twain’s observational drollery, like the quote above about the minister, reminded me strongly of Dickens in humorous vein…

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