Category Archives: USA

3 thought-provoking novels not just for kids

cross-over readingOne of the biggest trends in publishing in recent years has been the emergence of ‘cross-over fiction” – novels written for teen readers which can also be enjoyed by adults. J.K Rowling set the trend with her Harry Potter series and it’s continued with the Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series, Hunger Games, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The Book Thief etc etc  Here are three ‘cross-over” novels I’ve read in the last year which all can be enjoyed  by young readers but which contain plenty of material to get adults thinking…

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

First of all a confession. I hated this book the first time I read it. If it hadn’t been required reading for my children’s literature course I would never have even considered reading this. It’s in the fantasy genre which is never my cup of tea. We not only get  anthropomorphic animals – in the shape of armoured bears with human-level intelligence – but Pullman introduces some weird fictional beings called “dæmons” that are the companions of humans and accompany them everywhere. Both these elements were guaranteed to get me squirming with discomfort.  I struggled through the book and was relieved to get to the end.

But such is the nature of reading for academic purposes that reading a set text once is not enough. So I gritted my teeth and entered once more the parallel universe in which Northern Lights is set. And you know what; after a while I actually began to appreciate that what Pullman has created a book that can be enjoyed in two vastly different ways.

One one level this is a pure adventure story of good versus evil. Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl, sets off on a quest in search of her friend Roger who’s gone missing. There are plenty of narrow escapes and thrilling moments to keep younger readers entertained – this is a world that crawls with danger in the form of gobblers who snatch children and academics who use poison.  Lyra makes her way through this world with the aid of a golden compass which acts like a lie detector and one of those armoured polar bears.

For readers who want more thought-provoking content, Pullman introduces a mysterious celestial phenomena called ‘Dust.”  This, Lyra discovers, has spawned parallel universes,  is connected to death and misery, and is believed to be the physical basis of  original sin. Dust accumulates only around adults, not around children who are more ‘innocent’ and unconscious beings.  Her adopted uncle Lord Asriel believes ‘Dust” is a force for evil and wants Lyra’s help to destroy it.  This is a novel that explores big themes: the conflict between the powers of science and religion; innocence versus knowledge; the soul versus the human body. Apparently Pullman’s intention was for  Northern Lights to be  “A rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost,” for young adults, hence the ideas of Dust and daemons are meant to be read allegorically. I have a feeling this is a book that could easily be re-read several times for that reason. I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

This is another powerful novel which asks big questions, this time about racism and poverty. It’s set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression and  has a wonderful narrator in the form of nine-year-old Cassie Logan. She’s  a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper, whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. It’s through her that we experience attitudes towards the black population of the state and see the catastrophic effects when some local people take the law into their own hands.  For young readers the content around school and friendship would likely be of interest but for older readers there is a lot of darker material with lynch mobs and arson.  I thought the first few chapters were bogged down by too much exposition and the narrative voice didn’t always feel like that of a young girl. But the remainder of the novel was a compelling story about dignity in the face of injustice.

Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve

I had no idea when I started reading this book that it fell into the category of ‘steampunk’. Frankly I had no idea what that term even meant. Good old Wikipedia came to my rescue by explaining that steampunk is a  “subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. ”  Glad we got that cleared up. It does describe Mortal Engines pretty well since this is an alternative history kind of novel which imagines a post-apocalyptic world of Traction Cities –  giant mobile machines that roam a land torn apart by earthquakes and volcanoes. London, the primary traction city, has to hunt down and dismantle other cities and towns to ‘feed’ itself. This is a fast-paced action novel with two teenagers as the heroes who uncover a sinister plot by the city’s Lord Mayor and get into plenty of scrapes and near misses as they try to block his plans.  My problem with science fiction/fantasy novels is usually that the imaginary world doesn’t feel realistic enough or that the narrative is stuffed full of technical info that I don’t find interesting let alone understandable. But Reeve’s imaginary world is so superbly conceived I had a whale of a time reading this book. Like Northern Lights, it can be read as an adventure story but it also has some powerful ideas about nuclear warfare, the value of learning from history.  In our current volatile world, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage these traction cities like countries always on the prowl for other nations to swallow.

 

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

goodearth-collageMy path to The Good Earth by the Nobel prize winner Pearl S Buck was one I almost did not take. I had asked two colleagues in Korea to suggest local authors. Their first choice sounded appealing –  it was a best seller called Please Look After Mom (click on the title to see my review).  I was less enthused by their second recommendation – The Good Earth – because it was set in China not Korea and was written by an American author.  My preference is to read native authors wherever possible but I was heartened subsequently to learn that Pearl S Buck was in fact very familiar with China’s rural life and traditions having spent much of her early life there as the daughter of missionaries.

My reservations about The Good Earth didn’t last for long. Right from chapter one I was hooked by this novel about the rising/falling fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress.

The book opens on Wang Lung’s wedding day and then charts their progress through successive years during which time their family grows, they enjoy plentiful harvests and manage to become landowners only to see it all disappear -and then astonishingly they get it back many times over.  Meanwhile the rich Hwangs, for whom O-lan once worked as a house servant, go through a reverse experience because of the Old Lord’s penchant for multiple concubines and his wife’s addiction to opium. Their fortunes dwindle to the point they can no longer remain in their large house with its lavish furnishings. Wang Lung seizes the opportunity to make his mark on local society and becomes the new owner.
It’s a story that has so many twists and turns it feels like a soap opera at times. What sustained my interest was Pearl Buck’s portrait of Wang Lung and his deeply rooted believe in the beneficial power of the earth.

He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver.

He enjoys the wealth his toil brings not simply because it brings peace of mind because he can now feed and sustain his family but as time goes on it brings him a new status in his community. “… everyone knew now that Wang Lung owned this land and in his village there was talk of making him the head.”

china-peasantBut of course such pride makes his fall even more acutely felt. When the harvests fail, when every grain of rice and wheat has been eaten and the ox killed for food and when he has used every coin he possesses, there is no other path open than to go south. Either he has to see his family die or he has to give up the land and find work and food in a more wealthy province.  to the city to try and find a new life.  There they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut while Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw, earning barely enough to buy rice for the next day. He gets a break and obtains enough money to take his family back to their native land where he begins to rebuild his life, so successfully he becomes one of the wealthiest men in the locality.

At times Wang Lung seems to feel the earth has mystical powers – early on in his married life in fact he erects two crude figures on his plot of land to which he regularly pays homage. Throughout the novel, the land is the “good earth”; providing Wang Lung, with physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment. He is at his happiest when he works in the fields, knowing he is following in the footsteps of many generations of his family. Whenever he is troubled, physical labor on the land restores him. Whenever he is away from it, he feels out of his element. Even when he is wealthy old man who is too weak to get behind the plough, the pull of the earth sustains him:

… of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except of the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.

I’m glad I laid my initial reservations about this book to one side because The Good Earth proved a fascinating insight into the culture of China in the years spanning the end of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War 1.

Footnotes

The Book: The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck was published in 1931. Its commercial and critical success was considered an influential factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy.

The Author:  Pearl S Buck was taken to China when she was five months old and lived there for much of her life as the daughter and then the wife of a missionary. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. After returning to the United States in 1935, she continued to write and became a prominent advocate of the rights of women and minority groups, and wrote widely on Asian cultures,

My edition: e-book

Why I read this: As part of my project to read more books by authors outside of the traditional western canon.

 

Review backlog – part 2

Continuing the idea from a recent post, here are some short reviews of novels I read a few years ago but failed to finish the reviews. Luckily I had started them and had kept a few notes to help but don’t expect any deep insight on each of these…..

mycousinrachelMy Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier: I had high expectations for this one having seen multiple reviews about how good it was. I picked it up as a companion to a long international flight, thinking it would distract me but I found it decidedly dull. It’s set largely at a large estate in Cornwall owned and run by Ambrose Ashley together with his young cousin Philip . All goes swimmingly until Ambrose’s health deteriorates and he has to leave England for warmer climates, choosing to sojourn instead in Italy. There he meets cousin Rachel, marries her and sends letters back home about how happy he is. Gradually the tone changes and he begins complaining of repeated headaches. A few weeks later Rachel, now a widow, turns up at the estate. Philip is attracted to her despite his doubts that she might have had a hand in Ambrose’s death. The rest of the novel is an unraveling of the mystery about Rachel and Ambrose’s demise and whether Philip wakes up to the reality of the situation in time to avoid a personal catastrophy. I thought the mystery ponderous and the writing lacking in energy. Just about managed to finish it.

sarahs-keySarah’s Key by Isabelle de Rothsay

This was recommended to me by a colleague in North America who is even more of an avid reader than I am. We discovered this connection via a team building exercise where you have to come up with three things that you think no-one else knows about you, then the other people have to guess who that fact relates to. It was a good recommendation for a book I doubt I would have picked up otherwise.

It has a dual time frame.In one we meet ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski, a Jewish girl born in Paris, who is arrested with her parents during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Before they go, she locks her four-year-old brother in a cupboard, thinking the family should be back in a few hours. The second plot follows Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, who is asked to write an article in honour of the 60th anniversary of the roundup. Gradually the two stories coalesce.

This is a narrative that is full of emotional appeal, particularly those set in France. The scenes that take place in the  Vélodrome d’Hiver, where more than 7,000 Jews were enclosed without water or food for days before being moved to concentration camps, were deeply moving, the kind of episode which it is hard to read without feeling bitter and tearful. The modern day story of Julia and her cheating husband had less impact and the ending was far too neatly wrapped up in a big chocolate box bow to work for me. But on the whole I’m glad I read it – the film version wasn’t bad either.

resistanceResistance by Owen Sheers

Owen’s debut novel, Resistance is set in 1944 and imagines what would have happened if the Normandy landings had failed and German troops manage to arrive on British soil. Within a month half of the country is occupied.

In an isolated farm in the Welsh borders Sarah Lewis, finds her farmer husband Tom as disappeared. All the other husbands in the valley have similarly gone. The women are left alone to cope as best they can with the crops and livestock. Later in the novel it transpires they have all become members of the secret British resistance. In the meantime a German patrol arrives on a mystery mission, forming a fragile support for the women when a severe winter hits the valley. Sarah begins a taut relationship with the patrol’s commanding officer. But this puts further pressure on the fragile harmony of the valley and reveals deep undercurrents of feeling.

On the plus side I enjoyed reading about an area of my birth country with which I am familiar but seeing it through fresh eyes. It’s one that is not stack exactly but spare and often overlooked in favour of more lush scenery nearby. Sheers writes in a lyrical mode that really brings alive the landscape and the battle that endures to make a living from this land. Ultimately though this proved nothing more than just an ok novel though – neither good nor bad but not one that would make me recommend it. I think I struggled to engage with the characters and feel them ‘real’. My mum on the other hand loved it and so did her book club so maybe I am in a minority. Its now been turned into a film for which Owen Sheers was the co-screenwriter.

Sheers lives in Wales so I’m keen to support him and will likely read his most recent novel  I Saw A Man  which is set in  London and New York and though also about relationships, has the pace of a thriller.

Snapshot July 2016

Wales-football-FansI was far too excited by the phenomenal success of the Welsh national football team to post my July snapshot on the first of the month. Against all the odds they soundly beat off the favourites Belgium last night (ranked number two in the world) to get through to the Euro 2016 semi finals, the first time we’ve qualified for a major tournament since 1958.

We’re a nation whose passion is normally devoted to a different shaped ball but last night everyone seemed to be glued to the tv screens. Even me whose knowledge of the finer rules of soccer can be written on the back of a beer mat.

Don’t worry I am not about to abandon Booker Talk’s normal fare of literary postings in favour of sports topics but I hope you’ll allow me a little indulgence on this historic occasion.

So what else was I doing on the first of this month??

Just Finished

After months in which my world literature reading project seemed to have stalled, I added one more country to the list – Belgium.  That makes 31 countries completed from a goal of 50 by January 2018. Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb was a delight and thanks to sylvie heroux I have recommendations for three more books by her: The Character of Rain, 
Tokyo Fiancee and  The Stranger Next Door. My review is posted here.

Reading Currently 

I have two books on the go at the moment. Having made good progress so far with the 20booksofsummer challenge run by Cathy at 746 books, I’ve taken a pause to dip into my TBR.

Bel CantoBel Canto by Ann Patchett is a novel I first heard of in 2013 when I was trying to think of books which had a musical theme (other titles are in this post). It got added to my TBR later that year when I found a bargain copy in a library sale.  It’s set in a South American country which is desperate to attract international investment. The president hits on the idea of inviting the head of a powerful electronics  corporation in Japan celebrate his birthday in the country with a lavish party at which a world-renowned soprano will perform.  The President decides at the last minute he has far more important things to do (namely to watch the latest episode of his favourite tv soap opera). Which proves a problem for the insurgents who surround the birthday venue planning to take the president hostage. There follows a stand off between the terrorists and their hostages.  This isn’t an action novel however, but one that looks at the way people react to danger and entrapment and how leaders become impotent while ordinary individuals find new sources of strength. So far it’s wonderful to read.

Five_Days_at_MemorialMy other book is also a story of courage in the face of adversity but this is a true story. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused devastation in New Orleans. The Memorial Medical Center – the city’s premier hospital – endured five days trapped by floodwater.  Its back-up generators failed, leaving it without lights, air conditioning, sewer systems and essential medical equipment.  Medical staff had to prioritise which patients should be evacuated, and – controversially – which patients to euthanise because their conditions were so poor.

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink originated as an article which appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2009 and went on to win  a Pulitzer Prize. Fink details the events of those five days and the investigation that followed into the actions of a few members of the medical team. She then goes on to examine the legal and political consequences of the decision to euthanize patients and the ethical issues surrounding euthanasia and health care in disaster scenarios. I’m only a little way into the book but it’s riveting. There is a chilling prologue which sets the scene. In a reception area, patients lie awaiting rescue amid the miasma of the receding floodwaters. Rescue has started but it is painfully slow. A few members of the medical staff begin to prepare a lethal concoction of drugs for the most critically ill. This is not a book you can read quickly but more one that needs to be read in small chunks to allow for reflection on the key issues.

New acquisitions

I had a little indulgence while on my trip to the USA earlier this year and ended up with more new books than I could fit into the suitcase so had to ship some of them home. The US mailing system screwed up somewhere along the line so it took far longer than expected. By the time they arrived late last week I’d forgotten what I’d bought….

First of all three books I bought in a discounted store.

family albumI’ve read only Penelope Lively to date – her Booker winning novel Moon Tiger. It was a stunner so I’ve been on the look out for a few more titles from her. Family Album is her 16th book. As you’d guess from the title, Family Album concerns a family. In this case Alison and Charles who have established a seemingly perfect life in a restored Edwardian mansion. But when their six adult children return to the family home, their visit triggers a set of revelations and the unravelling of long-held secrets.

my revolutions

This was a completely speculative buy since I have never read anything by Kunzru. I bought it on the strength of the synopsis. The central character is Mike Frame who appears to be the kind of dad that doesn’t stick out from the crowds.  But Frame is really Chris Carver, a former member of an underground far left group that, in the 1970s, advocated violent action against the state and protested against the Vietnam War by setting bombs around London. Now a mysterious figure from those days has reappeared and wants to dig up Chris’ past.

a-dry-white-season

Last year saw me dip my toe in the waters of South African writing. Those novels proved to be some of the highlights of the year. Andre Brink is one author I’ve been aware of for some time but never got to read so when I saw this buried in a corner of the bookstore at the ridiculously low price of $1 I jumped at it. A Dry White Season  is set in Johannesburg during the time of apartheid. It features Ben du Toit, a white schoolteacher who believes in the essential fairness of the South African government until the sudden arrest and subsequent ‘suicide’ of a black janitor from his school. His quest for the truth draws him into a world of lies and corruption which then engulf his own family. Sounds terrific doesn’t it? The New York Times certainly thought so, making it a notable book of the year when it was published in 1979.

breakfast at tiffanysAnd finally, a book that I know only as a film and wouldn’t have thought about reading except for a discussion on the The Readers podcast which gave me the clue that the text of Breakfast at Tiffany’s could be far superior to the film. It’s only now looking at the book after a gap of more than 2 months that I realise this is really more of a short story at 87 pages long.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

lucy bartonWhen a blogger I respect says a book is “perfect” my antennae begin to twitch. When I then see similar positive reviews by a string of other bloggers, it goes into overdrive. Elizabeth Strout is an author I’ve ignored until now somehow having got it into my head that her work wasn’t ‘deep’ enough for my taste. But Alex at Thinking in Fragments doesn’t do ‘light’ so when she said Strout’s newest novel My Name is Lucy Barton was the best book she’d read all year, it was clear the time had come to cast away my misconceptions.

Appropriately I started reading this exploration of a mother/daughter relationship on the day when the UK celebrates motherhood in the form of  Mothering Sunday. Motherhood is a subject that can so easily descend into predictability or saccharin laden prose.  Strout avoids these pitfalls to give us a thoughtful  and moving examination of a relationship in which the two parties love each other deeply yet cannot bring themselves to say so.

It’s a story told by Lucy Barton as a recollection of the time when she was in hospital for complications after her appendectomy. Separated from her husband and two young daughters she misses them desperately. Unexpectedly, her mother, whom she has not seen for years, turns up at her bedside and hardly leaves it for five days. In between Lucy’s bouts of feverish sleep and regular stream of visits from medical practioners, the two women talk. Mostly they gossip about friends and relatives from her childhood in a rural town in Illinois; a litany of stories about  failed marriages and emotional breakdowns.

Her mother’s presence re-ignites painful memories of the desperate poverty of Lucy’s childhood; living with her parents, sister and brother in an unheated garage down a long direct track with nothing in sight except for cornfields. “We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town …” explains Lucy, going on matter-of- factly to relate how other children shunned her and her siblings because they were dirty and smelly.  That sense of loneliness has remained with her throughout her life.

“Loneliness was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” It is this loneliness, and lack of love and affection from her parents, that prompted her to become a writer: “Books made me feel less alone… I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!”  Despite all this, the adult Lucy doesn’t exhibit any signs of bitterness. Instead, in her mother’s presence at her bedside and the way her mother calls her by her old pet name she finds consolation: “It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted; what she said didn’t matter.”

It’s what these two women don’t say that shows us the emotional truth of their relationship.  They skirt carefully around episodes when her father became very anxious and ‘not in control of himself”; or the times when Lucy was locked in her father’s truck (once terrified to find she was sharing the space with a snake). There’s no discussion about her brother who has remained living with his parents, reading children’s books and sleeping next to pigs in the barn. More significantly over the course of all those hours together, her mother never once asks her about her life now in New York, her children and husband or her success as an author.

There are many moments in this novel where Lucy’s attempts to make peace with  her mother’s lack of interest mask the reality of the ache she feels deep down. At one point , Lucy explains: “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.”  And yet she tries to get her mother to utter those very words, turning it into a game that it’s clear they have played many times before:

I sat up and, like a child, clapped my hands. ‘Mom! Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?’

‘Lucy, you stop it now.” I heard the mirth in her voice.

‘Come on, Mom. My eyes are closed.’

‘When your eyes are closed,’ she said.

‘You love me when my eyes are closed?’

‘When your eyes are closed,’ she said. And we stopped the game, but I was so happy..

It’s a small scene but one of many where in just a few words Strout shows how complicated and complex the relationship can be between a mother and her offspring. Light? It’s anything but. Worth reading? Unequivocally so.  An award winner? Highly likely if the judges have any sense.

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan: Review

Lookat MeJennifer Egan’s debut novel Look at Me is a sprawling, disturbing tale that looks at the issue of image and identity through a collection of diverse characters whose lives somehow converge.

We get an Islamic terrorist who uses a variety of disguises to infiltrate the country he has grown to detest and an erratic history professor obsessed with the degradation of his home town – once a beacon of the industrial age it’s now full of little more than ubiquitous shopping malls and car parking lots.  Then there’s the alcoholic detective in rehab, a reporter who isn’t what she seems to be and a teenage boy so determined to have a normal life despite his leukaemia that he joins a gang of drug-taking undesirables.

You’d think that would be enough of a cast for one book. But no, we haven’t got to the character whose narrative dominates the first half of the book.

This is Charlotte Swenson, a former model whose life at the top was already going south when she was horrifically injured in a car crash. Her new face is held together with 80 titanium screws, changing her appearance so drastically that few people, even former lovers, recognise her. She returns to her apartment in Manhattan but when it becomes the fashion houses no longer want her she descends into despair and some serious drinking.

As Charlotte tours the studios desperately seeking work, Egan provides glimpses of the darker side of the ephemeral world of modelling. In one scene she’s on a photo shoot, transformed with layers of make up and hair spray and feeling the buzz of her old life return. Until an assistant approaches with razor blade and latex gloves. It’s not the clothes he plans to cut but Charlotte’s face. “I’m trying to get at some kind of truth here, in this phone, sick, ludicrous world. something pure,” the photographer pleads. “Releasing blood is a sacrifice. It’s the most real thing there is… I want to cut through to what’s real and fundamental.” It proves the breaking point for Charlotte but not for a younger girl waiting in the wings to take her place. The world it seems has moved on; the glossy groomed look exemplified by models like Charlotte, is no longer in vogue; now the world yearns for ‘refugee chic’ and girls rescued from the debris of disasters.

This could easily have become a novel of cliches about the sordid world of the image machine but Egan proves remarkably prescient in her treatment of perception and the creation of ‘personalities’. Look At Me was written in the late 1990s, before the time when much of the western world fell under the spell of reality tv programs and instant ‘fame’. Yet Charlotte finds a new life as one of the first people featured in a  dotcom startup endeavour.  “Ordinary People™”, signs up people willing to give  24-hour access to their lives and a sexed up testimony of their past. Through a webcam which records every detail of her life, subscribers will get access to the authenticity they lack in their own lives, explains the CEO of Ordinary Lives.

”   …  books, movies – they try, but they’re all so lame – so mediated! They’re just not real enough.”

In the future he predicts people won’t have to go to all the bother of experiencing the world for themselves. One click of the switch and they can call up a Kenyan warrior. Another click takes them to a homeless man. Travel overseas? Why go through all that cost and inconvenience of travelling to Egypt to see the Temple of Luxor when it can come to you direct in your living room?

It might have seemed a far fetched idea when Egan wrote Look At Me – who on earth would want to spend their free time in front of the tv watching other people lounging in their houses watching tv. Or just sitting around talking?? Clearly the viewing statistics for the early series of Big Brother showed Egan was ahead of the curve here.

It’s an ambitious novel, probably overly so for at times it feels like its labouring under the weight of the message Egan is trying to convey. But then there are scenes where she pulls off something remarkable.  It’s not her best novel – that accolade is reserved for A Visit from the Goon Squad with which she won the Pulitzer – but it’s a more than worthy debut.

Reviews In Short

With just a few weeks left of the year the only way I’m going to catch up on the backlog of reviews is to batch a few of them in one post.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

This was an interesting take on a moral dilemma. It poses the question of how far parents will go to protect their children, even when they have committed a despicable act. Two brothers – one a political leader tipped for the top, the other a teacher with a bit of a past – and their wives meet for dinner in an upmarket restaurant in Amsterdam. We discover that this encounter is organised not as a social occasion but to discuss what stance to take about a crime committed by 15 year old sons. The nature of that crime, and the resentment the teacher feels towards his more successful brother, is revealed slowly as dinner progresses. The dinner itself is wonderfully funny if you enjoy laughing at the pretentiousness found in the kind of restaurant favoured by foodies. The provenance of every item on the plate is described in minute detail by a oleaginous  maître d’ determined to get through his script though all the guests want to do is get stuck in. The humour nicely counters the darker elements of the narrative.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Apparently this 2015 best seller was labelled as “the next Gone Girl“. There is some similarity. Both titles featured the word “girl” (clever me for spotting that…); both had page-turning plots with more twists and turns than you’d encounter driving along the Big Sur and both stories were relayed by a narrator whose reliability came in at around level 2 on the credibility scale. There I think the similarity ends. The Girl on the Train had a murder plot that turned on the ingenious device of memory loss by a narrator drinking excessively to deal with a broken marriage.  Without giving any of the plot away all I can say is that this was a highly entertaining read.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Doerr won the National Book Award with this novel set in France and Germany before and during the German occupation of France. It’s told through the eyes of two children; one is a blind girl living in Paris with her beloved Papa, a locksmith and creator of intricate puzzles; the other is an orphan with a remarkable gift for radio technology and transmitters.  He can fix anything. On opposite sides of the war, their stories gradually come together as war rages over St Malo. I couldn’t warm to this book despite some clearly well researched details. The narrative seemed overly drawn out and the first 100 pages were very dull in fact. It wasn’t so bad that I felt I wanted to give up but it was really only the last quarter that was particularly interesting.

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

This was chosen by my Book Club much to my dismay. I hadn’t long finished reading the excellent Elisabeth is Missing by Emma Healey and the thought of another novel on the topic of mental illness wasn’t  appealing. But I’m so glad I didn’t skip Filer’s debut novel. He created a completely engaging narrator in the form of Matt Homes, a 19-year-old schizophrenic who was sectioned because he couldn’t cope in the community. With the aid of an old typewriter he tries to convey feelings of guilt about something that happened to his brother (the nature of which we don’t discover until close to the end of the novel). Letters, doodles and sketches are mingled within his text. Matt knows however that there are limits to his memory and his ability to be honest about painful moments in his life. Filer brilliantly invests Matt with a caustic sense of humour which he deploys towards the condescension and jargon he experiences in psychiatric treatment. Quite simply this was such a superb novel I read it in one day.

 

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

slaughterhouse 5You’ll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner declared The New York Times in its review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I did neither. I certainly didn’t love it but neither did I relegate it to the science fiction corner (I don’t happen to have one since this is one of my least favourite genres). I did however push it to the back of the bookshelf while I tried to wrap my head around what I’d just read. I dug it out again earlier this year when it was chosen by one of the members of my book club.

The central event in the novel is the firebombing of Dresden by the Allies in 1945. It was one of the  most controversial actions of the war because of the huge loss of life in a city which had little strategic importance.  Vonnegut, who’d been captured by the German army the previous year, survived the attack by sheltering in a meat locker beneath a slaughterhouse in the city. He emerged to find a scene of unimaginable destruction. More than 130,000 civilians were dead or injured and most of the magnificent baroque and rococo buildings were in ruins. Prisoners of war like Vonnegut joined the survivors to search for anyone who had escaped the cataclysm, digging graves for those who did not.

This attack is a central event in the life of Vonnegut’s protagonist in Slaughterhouse Five. Billy Pilgrim is drafted into military service and then captured at the Battle of the Bulge. Honourably discharged at the end of the war he returns to his native New York state to resume his career as an optomotrist. But his life is far from quiet in the succeeding years. He suffers post traumatic stress disorder as a result of his ordeal in the war, becoming “unstuck in time” so that he has “no control over where he is going next.” Then in 1968 he is the sole survivor of a plane crash on top of a mountain in Vermont.  While he is recovering his wife is killed in a carbon monoxide accident. Eight years later Billy is assassinated by a crazed man wielding a high powered laser gun.

All of this sounds a rather extraordinary series of mishaps for one man. But there are two more, even more extraordinary aspects to Billy’s life.

Firstly Billy believes that on the night of his daughter’s wedding he was kidnapped by a flying saucer from the planet Tralfamadore, flown there through a time warp, and exhibited in a zoo with a movie star named Montana Wildhack.  The Tralfamadorians are two feet high with little green hands and eyes on their palm.  Because they are they teach Billy Pilgrim many things, including the fact that death is just an unpleasant moment.

The second extraordinary feature is that Billy can time travel.  He is “unstuck in time” and can move both forwards and backwards through his lifetime. Because he “never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” the cycle of events depicted in his narrative is arbitrary. This shifting of time and non-linear sequence of events is Vonnegut’s answer to the problem he encountered when writing Slaughterhouse Five: how do you relate an unrelatable story. The deliberate dislocating of time and jumbling of events in the narrative is his response to the jumbled, unfathomable nature of war.

As clever as this technique is and I can appreciate what Vonnegut set out to achieve, I still couldn’t get over the absurdity of the concept of Tralfamadore and little green men. Every time we got to one of those scenes, my interest waned and I longed to get back to the ‘real’ events. Having read it twice, I’m now certain that this is not one for me.

 

The Unsolved Mystery of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw

turn of the screwI’ve struggled to fully appreciate Henry James in the past but some recent discussions about the merits of his work prompted me to give him another go.  I chose The Turn of the Screw simply because I’ve been long intrigued why a work of less than 100 pages has provoked so much debate and argument over the years.

The story originated apparently from a half-remembered anecdote told to Henry James by the Archbishop of Canterbury. James wrote it while staying at a rambling mansion in Sussex where he was liking his wounds following the poor reception to his play Guy Domville. It wasn’t his first – nor would it be his last – ghost story. He was attracted to the ghost story genre though he didn’t care for the stereotypical approach, preferring instead to create figures that were eerie but could still be associated with reality.

For the first few decades after its publication in 1898 there wasn’t any real debate about the nature of this work. Readers viewed A Turn of the Screw purely as a spooky story about the experience of a young governess and Miles and Flora, children in her care who are tormented by two ghosts at an isolated country manor house.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that critics began to question this traditional view of the story and in particular the reliability of the figure of the governess.  Edmund Wilson was one of the first major proponents of the idea that the ghosts existed entirely in her imagination being the products of a delusional mind. Since then debate has continued between those who see the ghosts as supernatural figures and those who view them as hallucinations.

A Ghostly Tale?

To read Turn of the Screw this way requires us to view the governess as a narrator upon whose account we can rely. If we start from that premise,  we believe that the two human figures she sees at Bly manor are the ghosts of two former (now dead) servants, the valet Peter Quint and governess Miss Jessel. When she sees them she sees them in a tower of the house or peering in through windows they have the solid appearance of humans. It is only later she learns they died some years previously. The governess is clear in her mind that they are evil: “a horror.” and “fiends” intent on possessing the souls of the two children. She doesn’t seem afraid the ghosts will physically harm or kill the children, more that they will corrupt them in some way. In this interpretation what we’ve faced with is a battle between good and evil with the governess fighting single-handedly and courageously to save Miles and Fora.

Can we believe her? 

James cleverly creates uncertainty about this interpretation however because the story is not told directly by the governess but by an anonymous male guest at a house party. The guest doesn’t have any first hand experience of this story but instead reads from a manuscript supposedly written by the governess. She interprets the children’s story rather than letting them speak for themselves. This  “nested structure,” denies us direct access to some of the key participants and sets up the possibility of misinterpretation and ambiguity.

A psychological tale of delusion and insanity?

There are a few issues with the ‘ghost story’ interpretation. The biggest alarm bell for me was that the ‘ghosts’ are visible only to the governess. We have multiple sightings of these ghosts in various locations at the lake, in the garden and at the window but at no time when she reports these sightings to the housekeeper Mrs Grose does the housekeeper confirm her own suspicions. Instead we see the older woman’s scepticism. The one time the governess thinks she will be vindicated, when the ghost of Miss Jessel appears before her and Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper does not acknowledge anything untoward, merely responding: “What a dreadful turn, to be sure, Miss! Where on earth do you see anything?”

Another aspect of uncertainty is the governess’ attitude towards Miles. When she first meets the boy, she’s struck by his “fragrance of purity” and his beauty. She changes her mind when she begins to have her supernatural encounters, coming to believe the boy is plotting evil deeds with Quint. Mrs Grose does confirm that Quint was a bad influence on the boy in the past but doesn’t provide any details of the nature of this influence or how it manifested itself. Miles does get up to a bit of mischief (stealing a letter the governess writes to his uncle, her employer) but its hard to see this as ‘evil’ so again we have only the governess’ word for his nature. This is a person who has a talent for fitting events to suit her hypothesis. Once she conceives the idea the apparitions are evil she decides the children are in cohorts with them and using a facade of innocence and beauty as a mask.

James compounds the mystery by giving hints that the governess’ mental state may not be totally stable. It’s clear from the beginning that s has a vivid imagination, proclaiming herself to be inclined to  “write scenarios” and “paint pictures.” On her first tour of Bly house she imagines it as “a castle of romance” and plots a “charming story” of meeting the master as she wanders the grounds. On her arrival at the house she imagines a role for herself as the captain guiding a ship to safety:

..it was a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half replaced and half utilized, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm!

And then later changes roles to become guardian and protector of the the children:

It was an immense help to me — I confess I rather applaud myself as I look back! — that I saw my service so strongly and so simply. I was there to protect and defend the little creatures.

As a sceptic of all things supernatural I’m more inclined to accept an interpretation of this story as one of psychological complexity, of a figure suffering from delusion bordering on insanity. And I began to wonder whether its not Quint and Jessel who are the disruptive influences in the house – is it really the governess who haunts Bly and the children?

I’m still wrestling with this question. But by reading this I’ve come to appreciate far more how James focused on perception and consciousness in his writing. I might even come to like him.

 

 

 

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