Our bodies our punching bags: Roxane Gay’s ‘Hunger’

“We don’t necessarily know how to hear stories about any kind of violence, because it is hard to accept that violence is as simple as it is complicated, that you can love someone who hurts you, that you can stay with someone who hurts you, that you can be hurt by someone who loves you, that you can be hurt by a complete stranger, that you can be hurt in so many terrible, intimate ways.”

– Roxane Gay, Hunger

 

Funny thing, protection mechanisms. Suicidal ideation is the most extreme, and believe it or not this deeply embedded impulse toward self-destruction has only good intentions. It seeks to heal the hurt in the most absolute way, its only concern saving the sufferer from pain that feels unendurable. It’s the most insidious, and most short-sighted, of survival mechanisms – which sounds ironic considering it’s actively trying to kill you. But then, what’s rational for the unconscious psyche is seldom logical.

Roxane Gay’s coping mechanism was, and is, overeating. Gang raped at age 12, the trauma lead her brain to form a groove channelling her focus toward gaining weight. Irrationally, her subconscious told her if she lost her sex appeal the danger would go away, that she’d be safe from predation. Now aware of the reason she turns to food, the addiction has taken such firm root the task of changing feels nearly impossible.

She has tried to break the cycle, dieting and losing weight only to regain as much and more. Coming from a naturally slender family compounds her sense of failure. That they’re able to eat healthily, to remain fit, makes her feel all the worse. Society, with its stress on perfection and beauty, leads to vicious backlash and prejudice from those who blame her size on laziness and greed.

 

Hunger is raw and naked, honest and unrelenting. Roxane Gay neither denies responsibility nor attempts to disguise her behavior.  She relates brutal stories of indignities she’s suffered as she admits to her own self-destructive behavior.

This is not a happy ending tale. Gay continues to spar with her demons; she has not found a solution. But through her writing she has found an outlet for her pain, at the same time validating the similar struggles of others.

One of the saddest stories is her bout with bulimia. Overjoyed she’d found a way to eat all she wanted without gaining weight, she taught herself to purge huge quantities of food. If you aren’t aware, habitual bulimia leads to chronic heartburn, sometimes permanent burn scars on the fingers from regular contact with corrosive stomach acid. The experience long past, she continues to bear physical souvenirs.

Roxane Gay’s book begs the question if her unrelenting battles will ever find resolution.  And yes it’s very saddening, but never self-pitying. Childhood rape left her mentally scarred, but she doesn’t pretend not to know the solution lies within.

“I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. She is still small and scared and ashamed, and perhaps I am writing my way back to her, trying to tell her everything she needs to hear.”

This isn’t an easy book to read. It hits a lot of sore places, especially for women who’ve suffered sexual abuse. It’s not only a memoir of her sadly not uncommon life experiences, but also an indictment against the ugliness of prejudice – in this case, against the obese. It reveals ugly truths about humanity.

I’m thankful she shared part of her journey. She is a brave woman with an uncommon ability to express herself. What she has to say is important. I hope it’s brought her a measure of peace.

 

 

The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin (re-issue)

Faber & Faber
July 2017

 

A young mother feels her sanity slipping from sheer exhaustion. Her baby isn’t sleeping and her husband’s frustration nearly pushes her over the edge. To make ends meet, they take in a lodger. But when strange things begin happening, Louise and her husband both get the feeling they’ve seen this woman before. But where?

 

If you have children, you’ve experienced the sleepless nights and complete physical and mental exhaustion of keeping 24-hour vigils. You find yourself forgetting things, falling asleep standing up, unable to concentrate… It’s a special form of torture, parenting a newborn.

There’s also the strain it puts on a marriage, adding a spouse or partner who’s as or nearly as exhausted. In theory, a partner should half the load. Spoiler: it doesn’t. Rare is the couple that splits duty 50/50.

Like Louise Henderson from The Hours Before Dawn, I was left largely to shift for myself, my husband irritated postpartum depression left me unable to keep up with the house like he felt I should. I understand her plight all too well. On top of Mark Henderson’s impatience, he questions how they could even afford their third child, baby Michael, suggesting they take in a boarder to lighten the financial load.

When strait-laced schoolteacher Miss Brandon shows up in response to their ad, Louise immediately apologizes the room isn’t ready; there were odds and ends still scattered around she’d meant to tidy but hadn’t. A very self-assured Miss Brandon doesn’t bat an eye. Impatiently, she inquires when she could move in. Intimidated, Louise agrees the next day would be fine.

That same evening, Mark Henderson confronts Louise, asking if she’d let Miss Brandon know they had a screaming infant in the house. Begrudgingly, he accepts her response that yes, Miss Brandon was aware. Unappeased, he wonders how on earth anyone else could stand the noise.

His reaction concerns Louise:

Louise was conscious of an aching, helpless weariness; and as she glanced at her husband’s face, the tired lines more deeply drawn in the lamplight, she felt a tiny stab of fear. For the first time, she wondered: Does it sometimes happen like this? Do men sometimes stand up in the divorce court, tired and bewildered, and say simply “Yes, I still love my wife; yes, I still love my children; no, there isn’t another woman; it’s just that I can’t go on any longer without any sleep.

As time passes, both Mark and Louise have a strange feeling they recognize their lodger from somewhere else. But where? Inviting Mark up to her room, Miss Brandon cooks for him on her one-ring stove, while down below Louise hears their conversation and laughter. While not an attractive woman, Miss Brandon is well dressed and intellectual, certainly to give him her attention. She and Mark share intellectual interests he couldn’t talk about with his wife. She was jovial company; Louise was anything but.

Her suspicions mounting, the exhausted Louise lets her mind run to all sorts of scenarios. Was Miss Brandon after her husband? Who was she, really? Miss Brandon’s behavior becomes more and more odd. Telling Louise she was leaving for the day and wouldn’t be back until late, Louise walks into the room to find Miss Brandon sitting on her bed, staring vacantly.

What, exactly, was going on?

Louise descends into deeper exhaustion. Michael wakes her every night at the same time; she could set a clock by him. She begins to hallucinate from lack of sleep, then, to consider taking the baby out in the middle of the night for walks to calm him.

One night she finds herself lost, wandering the neighborhood:

… for the first time, she realised that she did not know where she was, nor in which direction lay her home. And she was tired; so tired that she no longer had any fear of the darkened street; so tired that for a moment she thought of sitting down, here on the pavement, with her back against the railings, and falling asleep.

As time wears on, Louise becomes more and more certain things aren’t right. Investigating, she finds confirmation of her fears among Miss Brandon’s things. Nothing was explicit, nothing spelled out, but the clues are ominous. She’s convinced Miss Brandon means them no good.

Continuing to follow the trail, Louise worries no one will take her seriously. She is, after all, exhausted, with a reputation for scattered behavior. Having embarrassed herself with the police once, would they believe her story? Realizing she’s racing against the clock, she knows she’s on the trail of something sinister.

Celia Fremlin sets up a terrifying scenario, a premise that’s frightening because it is believable. It stretches credulity a bit, but not so much it isn’t possible. And the reader can relate to Louise, understanding lack of sleep is playing with her mind, but there’s something very wrong going on in her house.

Though the novel isn’t as taut a thriller as a few published over the past couple of years, Fremlin does a fine job building suspense, seamlessly weaving in the subtlest humor with a delicate touch. She’s being championed and rightly so, brought back from obscurity.

An author who won the Edgar Award in the 1960s, her work stands up well in the 21st century. It’s obvious she’s not a contemporary writer; nevertheless, this novel is very much worth the read. Fans of early-mid century of suspense, especially, should enjoy the book. It kept me turning the pages, wondering what would become of Louise, if she’d figure out Miss Brandon’s secret before something awful happened. In a novel of suspense, this is exactly what’s expected.

The Hours Before Dawn is a well-written, entertaining and light read. Recommended.

 

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

IT book of the Summer: 2017

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

HarperCollins
18 May 2017
400 pp.

 

I’m not normally one to read the IT books of the summer. When a book garners too much attention, I get suspicious. When I get suspicious, I reach for something else.

The quality of popular books is too unreliable, too apt to be swayed by the mass market. And when I read a book’s so popular it’s being fought over by multiple Very Big Publishers, growling and snapping, clawing and spitting, it can only mean one thing: there is Very Big Money to be made.

Author Gail Honeyman

It’s so obvious I shouldn’t have to repeat it, but literary fiction does not earn a writer Very Big Money. It’s a niche market, not material you’re likely to find in airport bookshops, nor in checkout lines. There’s a lot of money to be had selling retail in big box stores, a distinct correlation between mass market appeal and impulse buying in the checkout line. While picking up snacks, drinks and sunscreen for the beach, which novel is the average person more likely to pick up: the latest Dan Brown or something by Salman Rushdie?

So what made me pick up Gail Honeyman’s novel? What hooked me was the dust jacket blurb, the description on the flap. I can still be swayed by blurbs. Getting burned six or seven times out of ten should have taught me not to touch that stove, but every now and then I think maybe the result will be different (SEE: insanity, definition of).

 

She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

 

It’s so understated, not what you’ll find on the flaps of most IT books. If the verbiage had been over-the-top nonsense, I wouldn’t have bothered. If the greater percentage of the blurb is slobbery praise, and not enticements taken from the actual plot and/or characterization, BEWARE.

What’s grabby about Eleanor Oliphant is its characterization of a socially awkward, obsessive-compulsive character who acts too old, cranky and set in her ways for her age. The way she speaks is overly formal, the way she acts judgemental and, at times, shockingly inappropriate.

Flawed characters are most interesting of all.

Her background is as dark as it gets. Growing up in the foster care system due to her mother having committed a horrific crime that’s made it impossible for her to care for her daughter, she’s had to grow up alone and quickly. In contact with her mother by phone once a week for fifteen minutes at a time, she endures alternating cloying, false concern and verbal abuse.

Eleanor Oliphant has never known authentic love. As an adult, her first major romantic relationship was with a man who physically and emotionally abused her. And now, as we meet her, she’s fallen into an infatuation with a singer she’s never met, based solely on seeing him perform. Fate, she believes, will bring them together in a way she can’t anticipate.

As the plot deepens, we come to understand Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine. She maintains the appearance of calm and order, performs her job expertly and never takes a sick day, but Eleanor Oliphant does not have the first clue how to interact in the world.

It’s unsurprising she doesn’t. Her childhood was brutal, her young adult life no better. She’s been beaten and scarred, literally and figuratively. Terrified of fire, it’s not until much later in the book the reader finds out why. By that point, Eleanor is a woman on the brink, stretched so tightly it’s inevitable she’ll either break or be forced to turn her life around.

Up to the three-quarters point I was gripped. I love characters in turmoil, and tensely thrumming plots. It’s the tension that keeps the reader turning pages. Eleanor’s implosion had been crafted perfectly. We find out she’s been a completely unreliable narrator as her life falls around her, learn her secrets, and expect disaster. It should have been a disaster, or at the least a stumbling path to recovery.

Instead, Honeyman takes an improbable turn, an abrupt about-face ringing so false it nearly spoiled the entire book. I’ll stop short of saying it ruined the story, but it’s as if she wrote two different books, then smashed them together – the second markedly inferior to the first. It’s jarringly incongruous.

I’m disappointed, yet the craft and skill of most of the book warrant a recommendation – with reservations.

I’ll be curious to see how the projected film adaptation works out. Or to hear about it; I can’t guarantee I’ll want to spend the money. The book had a pat Hollywood ending. I’m not a fan of pat Hollywood endings. Yeah, maybe I’ll take a pass.

Walter Scott Prize shortlist: Hannah Kent’s ‘The Good People’

 

So much for leaving Hannah Kent’s book for last, as I’d planned. Picking it up for a short peruse, I found it such an easy read I finished in a couple protracted reading sessions.

The Good People is set in County Kerry, Ireland in 1825. Beginning with the sudden, unexpected death of Martin Leahy from a heart attack suffered at a crossroad, his wife Nóra is left to mourn deeply the man she’d loved so dearly.

Shortlist read # 4: Hannah Kent’s ‘The Good People’

Tragically, the Leahy’s daughter had also died not many months prior, her husband soon after dumping at their doorstep his mysteriously crippled and seemingly mentally damaged son, Micheál. Born healthy with full use of his legs, developing normal the first two years of his life, Micheál is, by age four, unable to walk, talk, or otherwise communicate. He is incontinent, requiring constant attention. A maid, 14-year old Mary, is put into service to help ease Nóra’s plight.

Village speculation soon turns to superstition as friends and neighbors suspect the child is a changeling, either cursed by the fairies or taken away and replaced by this young boy who cannot do a thing for himself. A source of shame to his grandmother, Nóra keeps him hidden away. Only his grandfather, Martin, had had loving patience for the child. Now that he’s gone, Nóra loses all empathy, her focus on finding an explanation and possible cure.

The bulk of the novel consists of Nóra, village healer Nance and Nóra’s maid Mary working in concert, trying desperately to heal the boy. While the strong theme of legends and superstitions are at first compelling, the plot of the novel begins wearing thin once it becomes obvious the story has been completely taken over by a single-minded determination to reverse the suspected curse on poor Micheál. Though uncomplex enough to read quickly, I admit I did some skimming from halfway forward. The one-dimensional storyline could not support the entire novel.

As with all the shortlisted books save Mothering Sunday, The Good People‘s setting in 19th century Ireland is crucial to its plot and characterization. It would not have been effective otherwise. Had I not known the book was written by an Australian author, I’d never have been able to tell from its seamlessness and perfect voice that it had been created by a non-Irish writer. Full marks given to Hannah Kent for imitating so flawlessly the Irish voice.

 

‘Micheál,’ Nóra repeated. The boy’s arms were stiff and turned inwards, like the broken wings of a bird pitched from the nest. She called his name for the third time and he finally fixed her with an unblinking stare. His lip curled and she could see the glisten of his teeth. For a moment he seemed to bare them all.

Micheál had begun to scare her. Everything he did – his quick, unpredictable movements, his calls and shrieks at things she could not see – reminded her of Mary’s words.

He is a changeling. And everyone knows but you.

  • The Good People

 

The looming negative is the book is overly long, stretching out the story so far it becomes tedious. A second strong storyline would have gone far in creating the complexity necessary to maintain interest, as would greater attention to back story. It was too simple. I’m surprised it made the shortlist cut.

I cannot imagine this as the prize-winning title. Compared with Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, similar in its straight narrative execution, it comes up short. Tremain’s characters evolved, and the story progressed, in a manner much more compelling. Kent’s style, on the other hand, is very one note. Even taking into account the high quality of the prose, I was underwhelmed.

Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End continues to tower above the rest, Swift’s Mothering Sunday close on its heels – despite, again, it’s questionable qualification as a historical novel. It will come down to a matter of taste, either awarding the prize to a longer, more sprawling and complex novel or one that’s minimalist and equally well-written. I imagine the judges are weighing just that in the final stretch.

This leaves Jo Baker’s and Francis Spufford’s novels on my Walter Scott shortlist reading plate. I don’t expect any movement in my opinion.

One week from today we’ll find out if I’m right.

Walter Scott Prize Shortlist: Rose Tremain’s ‘The Gustav Sonata’

 

I’ve been trotting around Scotland over the past few days, traveling to the Isle of Arran and riding through the western coast of the mainland. Though I took along a book, I didn’t have much time for reading.

There’s just been too much to see, like this:

Waterfall, the Trossachs near Loch Lomond

 

And this:

 

Isle of Arran from the ferry

 

Also, lots and lots of this, because it’s my thing:

 

St Bride’s cemetery, Isle of Arran

 

I managed to finish another Walter Scott Prize shortlisted title before I left – a quick and easy read after the complexity of Days Without End. I just didn’t have time to write about it until now. Back from our journey and marooned inside due to torrential rain, laundry and blogging are once again front and center.

So, here I am.

 

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain – Walter Scott Shortlist read #3

 

Novels with children as main characters often use the conceit of parental absence, authors either making them orphans or creating neglectful, abusive or distracted guardians. This allows characters to take charge of their fates, becoming fully realized without the necessity of running everything through an adult filter.

Tremain gives her main character, Gustav Perle, the ghost of a mother. Numbed by a past dominated by death and betrayal, she cares for her son offhandedly. At best, you could call her aloof. Tremain gives Gustav maturity and a strong sense of himself, using the mother’s back story to flesh out the plot. Gustav is affected, not stunted, by the full weight of his mother’s baggage.

 

He fell over frequently, but he never cried, though the ice was hard, the hardest surface his bones had ever met. He taught himself to laugh instead. Laughing was a bit like crying. It was a strange convulsion; it just came from a different bit of your mind. The trick was to move the crying out of that bit and let the laughter in. And so he’d pick himself up and carry on, laughing.

  • The Gustav Sonata

 

Set in Switzerland roughly a generation past WW II, Gustav’s mother paints a picture of a father who died a hero protecting the Jews – a partial truth. When Gustav develops a close friendship with a Jewish boy, resentment and bitterness cause his mother anguish. She cannot forgive the Jews for the peripheral part they played in her husband’s spiral into ruin, if not his literal death. Gustav’s friendship lasts a lifetime; his mother’s misery dogs her to her grave.

The Gustav Sonata, like Barry’s Days Without End, depends heavily on the period of its setting. It’s a smooth, swiftly moving novel, elevated by complexity and lyricism. A book that grabs quickly and flows swiftly, it’s a curl up in a comfy chair and read novel.

Pouring rain in Scotland – perfect for reading.

 

If Tremain’s book hadn’t been pitted against Barry’s, I’d put it in the potential prize-winner pool. Next to Barry, pretty much every other writer pales. Despite my puzzlement as to Graham Swift’s nomination for his Mothering Sunday, why it’s considered a historical novel at all, for sheer skill Tremain cannot touch him. She writes compelling prose, but this book isn’t quite there.

My money’s still on Sebastian Barry for the win, especially after reading bits and pieces of Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. I’m skipping Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist because it has no appeal for me, leaving just Hannah Kent as the unknown quantity.

Jo Baker’s book is similar in feel to Tremain’s: a linear story with empathetic characters, set roughly in the same time period. To my mind, these two cancel each other out.

Spufford’s novel, written in a modernized 18th-century style, may be a rival for Barry as far as complexity. Early impressions are it replaces Barry’s lyricism with a tongue-in-cheek, subtle humor, a second great hook deserving of critical attention. And, another book heavily dependent on its historical setting.

I’m not worried about finishing the rest of the books before the awards ceremony on June 17. Torrential rain is in the forecast for much of the next five or so days, so more travel won’t be in the cards. Plenty of time to get caught up, finish the books, and get ready to attend the event. In addition to receiving the award, the authors will participate in a panel discussion on historical fiction. Definitely looking forward to that.

Expect me back within the next few days to give thoughts on Spufford and Baker. Hannah Kent I’ll save for last.

Still raining. Back to the books.

 

Walter Scott Prize 2017 Shortlist: Graham Swift’s ‘Mothering Sunday’

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017 Shortlist

 

This year’s Shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize consists of seven novels: four by female authors, and three by men. There’s Sebastian Barry, who’s Irish, Hannah Kent from Australia, and the rest are English. Interesting no Scots made the Shortlist – not that there must be.

I am, as I said earlier, hoping to speed through the seven longlisted novels before attending the awards ceremony on the 17th of June. So far, I’ve read the shortest, Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and am in the midst of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End.

And I’d better speed it up a little if I’m planning to fit in all seven, now, hadn’t I.

Mothering Sunday was a read I almost aborted. I’m surprised I didn’t engage with it the first time, but distractions happen. I don’t even want to think about all the books I may have loved if I’d started them over. We’ll skip that.

Graham Swift’s book pinpoints some of the key themes I love in novels. First, its main character is a woman who begins the story on the outskirts of society, as a maid working for a wealthy English family. Second, it’s a tale of doomed love that’s sweetly poignant, with a dark twist; third, a meditation on grief; and fourth, a book whose main character is not just a voracious reader granted use of her employer’s huge – and unread – library, but later becomes a successfully published novelist, pulling herself up the ladder from servant to celebrity.

 

“So what was it then exactly, this truth-telling? … It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive. It was about finding a language. And it was about being true to the fact, the one thing only followed from the other, that many things in life —of so many more than we think—can never be explained at all.”

  • Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

 

I’ve read other Graham Swift books and loved them. He’s first tier, just brilliant. The only thing against the book is precious little hinges on the time period of its setting. Is it beautifully written? Of course! It’s Graham Swift! But historical in any representative sense? Not really. It could be lifted and plopped back down in any historical period with no appreciable changes necessary. It doesn’t belong on this Shortlist. Something like the Bookers, yes. But not the Walter Scott.

In contrast, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End is set in the US of the 1850s. Yes, the US, a huge departure for the iconic Irish novelist. I’m roughly halfway, hoping to finish in the next day or two. As a huge fan of Barry’s, my early impression is the lack of soaring lyrical prose is a bitter blow. But I’ll reserve that for later.

After Barry, it’s Rose Tremain. I’ve dipped into the first couple of chapters and, I’ll tell you now, it’s promising. Definitely the first true contender I’ve encountered so far, and no surprise if you know the writer.

Now, back to the books.

Review: The Red House by Mark Haddon

 

RedhouseThe Red House by Mark Haddon

Doubleday (June 12, 2012)

Hardcover: 272 pages

$ 25.95  retail

Source:    Free Review Copy

 

 

Blurb:

The set-up of Mark Haddon's brilliant new novel is simple: Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his estranged sister Angela and her family to join his for a week at a vacation home in the English countryside. Richard has just re-married and inherited a willful stepdaughter in the process; Angela has a feckless husband and three children who sometimes seem alien to her. The stage is set for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.

But because of Haddon's extraordinary narrative technique, the stories of these eight people are anything but simple. Told through the alternating viewpoints of each character, The Red House becomes a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires, all adding up to a portrait of contemporary family life that is bittersweet, comic, and deeply felt. As we come to know each character they become profoundly real to us. We understand them, even as we come to realize they will never fully understand each other, which is the tragicomedy of every family.

The Red House is a literary tour-de-force that illuminates the puzzle of family in a profoundly empathetic manner — a novel sure to entrance the millions of readers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

 

My take:

Two siblings and their families, totally dissimilar in financial situation and personality, holding pent-up frustration/irritation with each other to begin with…

Hey, isn't that called life?

How many families don't have some sort of feud ongoing, grievances, chips on shoulders. So they don't speak, or do so rarely, until a big life event – usually a funeral but it could be a wedding or birth as well – forces them together. We expect they'll realize they have missed each other, that they'll re-discover their deep, shared bond. And maybe they will, if both aren't too blind to see it.

Or, then again, maybe not. Maybe they'll remember why they put up the walls in the first place and be relieved, once the vacation is over, they'll not have to see each other again for a very long time.

Haddon's story isn't anything original. Its framework is made up of the problems families have getting along with each other, trying to make the best of things with the people they're blood-related to, even if the road is rocky and full of holes. Because families should get along, in an ideal world. It can't always be – in extreme cases – but between Angela and Richard there is no unforgiveable event, just a series of built up small ones, keeping them apart. Of course Angela's upset her brother was always the clear favorite: the successful, wealthy doctor married to the much-younger trophy wife. Here she's been, tending to her dying mother's everyday needs while her brother's hundreds of miles away, his only contribution a weekly phone call. And who does her mother want by her side? Why, Richard, of course. The prodigal son.

Nothing new at all, as far as plot or character, but there's certainly no harm in that when the writing's as smooth and accomplished as Haddon's, the characters distinct in their sufferings and joys. It's not plot-centric; the story revolves around the people. It's a character study, and by the end there's distinct growth and movement, just as there should be. Spending time together puts both families through the mill and when they pop out the other side their true characters emerge. I can't say all the outcomes are happy but these are the small moments of real life: the joys, the sorrows, the regrets, betrayals and loves.

I wouldn't hesitate recommending this book as a work of general literary fiction: rewarding, smart summer reading that won't rot your brain. A worthwhile read.

******

Mark_haddon

I've read all Mark Haddon's books for adults since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and have quite a soft spot for his novels. A Spot of Bother, his novel sandwiched between Curious Incident and Red House, was definitely the weakest but despite that I enjoyed it quite a lot – more than most critics, at least. Still, Curious Incident is, I believe his best, followed by Red House, leaving poor A Spot of Bother lagging behind.

Here's my review of A Spot of Bother from way back in 2006.

 

Blog reviews:

Sarah Reads Too Much

"My first experience with Mark Haddon was with his well-known novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.  I instantly loved that book and its main character, and expected the same here.  That didn’t quite happen.  It took me much longer to get into this one, and now that I’m finished – I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it."

Literary Exploration

"The Red House was actually a nice easy read and I was surprised how fast I got through this book; this could have been all the blank pages throughout the book. While I never really connected with this book the writing styles used throughout this book were interesting and almost experimental at times. Some of it worked and some of didn’t, I think Mark Haddon was overly confident when he wrote this book and it seemed to come through in the novel. I’m sure many people will love and enjoy this book and don’t let my opinion stop you from reading it. For me I struggled making that connection and I tried and tried to enjoy this book but it just didn’t quite get there."

3/5 stars

Of Life and Reading

"The Red House by Mark Haddon is a rollercoaster of emotions and all it works surprisingly well and all adds up at the end of the book. I would definitely and most certainly recommend this read for the long summer weekend that comes up."

Other reviews:

Independent.co.uk

"Haddon writes superb books for children, teenagers and grown-ups, and gets every voice in this one dead right. He is also a master craftsman, so this complicated narrative moves with the speed and certainty of released, unhappy holidaymakers hitting the homeward road. So shove this in your holidaying bag. You may have made a mistake with the booking, but you won't with the book."

The Scotsman

"For a week, they are all compressed in the countryside and Haddon does an alarmingly good job at showing just how isolated each is, full of secrets, gripped by the past and shaped by their childhoods."

In Which I Chat About Current Reading

 

 

Let's start with the book I finished just yesterday evening, Amanda Coe's What They Do in the Dark. Briefly, it's set in England, the two main characters young school girls from different social classes.

CoedointhedarkPauline is dirty and unkempt (one reviewer calls her "semi-feral"), living in a crowded, filthy flat in a bad part of town. Her mother pops in and out as it suits her and Pauline alternately adores and fears her, depending on her mother's mood. Her father is not in the picture.

There is no water in their bathroom, so Pauline smells badly, her hygiene non-existent. Understandably, her social skills are off-kilter. She has a tough, occasionally violent exterior covering a soft inner core – the part that longs for the love of a mother, for a safe life with stability. Despite it all, Pauline's a good student. Surprisingly, she attends school more often than not and it's obvious that, in a different setting, she would be a totally different child.

The other girl, Gemma, is Pauline's only friend, and an inconstant one at that. Sometimes out of fear of Pauline's occasional outbursts, other times from the inconstancy of young girls' friendships, Gemma alternately avoids and pals around with her. Pauline is, simply, desperate for anyone to like her and admires and adores Gemma, an unremarkable girl just popular enough to be a desirable friend.

Gemma herself is obsessed by a child actor named Lallie, whom she romanticizes as young girls are wont to do. When it's announced Lallie will be coming to the school to film – and scout for talented girls  – Gemma is over the moon. Pauline could hardly care less but horns her way in, during one of her down periods with Gemma.

Alongside this, another classmate – a young black girl named Cynthia – likewise yearns for the constancy of a friendship with Gemma, the only girl willing to sit alongside her at lunch. Occasionally the two play  games during recess periods, infuriating Pauline. Gemma takes pity on the girl, giving her some of the food off her tray. This enrages Pauline, drawing out her open hostility. She kicks Cynthia under the table, calling her horrible names. Cynthia, who seems to either have a mental disability or is so nervous and insecure she will not stand up for herself, is far too passive to complain. All she does is grin, making her seem slow-witted and an easy target.

How these plotlines come together is somewhat complicated to explain and the beef I have with the book. The Gemma/Pauline/Cynthia situation is on the one hand, the Lallie the young star on the other – Gemma the focus of both. Mixed in are characters whose presence seems unnecessary, as they don't contribute to the storyline in any real way. They're half-developed, yet take up too much space. There are also bits of scenes involving Lallie's acting, tossed in as an attempt to foreshadow events not even all that large a part of the plot.

Violence against the weak and vulnerable – and the advantage often taken of children – comprises the main theme, along with the Lord of the Flies inevitability of relationships between young girls on the cusp of adolescence. And, while the writing itself is lovely, far above the average, the plot just doesn't quite get there. There's too much padding, too many side plots that go nowhere, frustrating the reader.

The end, horrific in its violence, springs up rather suddenly, not blending in well. It makes sense things culminate as they do but the whole outline of the book is skewed, characters who should remain in the background come too far forward.The main focus is fuzzy.

As such, I can't recommend the book. Coe should keep writing. I sincerely hope she does but her plot framework needs to tighten up, leading to a more cohesive story. I suspect her editor was so charmed with her skillful prose s/he didn't require quite enough revision. And what a difference that could have made! It's agonizing. There's just so much potential here and it's not quite realized. And it's just so, so close.

Just for a lark, I want to include a particularly hilarious review of the book I found on Amazon. God willing I don't get sued:

 

" … The setting is in Britain or somewhere which means it is also using that language. I didn't understand any of their sayings so I am sure I missed keys things in the book. I love to read and can devour books in 1 day but I really had a hard time getting through this one. I found the book very boring and only stuck with it because 1) I paid for it and 2) I was hoping it would get better somehow. I am sure Amanda Coe is a very competent writer and I would be willing to look at other things she wrote, however this is not one of them. Unless you really understand British terminology, I would not recommend this book at all."

 

 [I read a library copy of this book.]Dropdeadhealthy

 

Apart from Coe's novel, I've been working my way through A.J. Jacobs' Drop Dead Healthy. A writer of "experiential nonfiction," A.J. has previously written about other things self-improvement related. He's working on interview questions I sent him last week and once I've finished the book I'll write all that up to either peddle on the streets or publish here. Or both, copyright willing.

DDH is about his attempt to become more healthy himself, as well as to investigate various advice handed out by "those who know," advice often conflicting from one expert to another. He's so damn funny, his book a light but informative read. It's a nice break from reading about English schoolgirls beating on each other. It will also leave you feeling more than a little sorry for his long-suffering wife. Like me, you may wish she'd write her own book one day, about her life with A.J. I sorely hope she will.

[A review copy, provided by A.J.'s publicist.]

 

Unholynight

Somewhat surprising to me, I've also started reading a book by an author I have despised on general principle, based on the revulsion I feel about his genre: taking the texts of classics and adding vampires, zombies and such to them, tampering with the sacred, as far as this English major is concerned. Pastiche, they call it but I won't tell you the word I use to describe this vile trend. Hint: it's not one I'd use in polite society.

The whole concept of this new form of writing is so repulsive to me I can't even tell you. It's lowdown, cheap and dirty, and I don't care who read it and thought it was entertaining. Let's take a work of art and add supernatural blather to it! Anyone could do that. I could do that. The difference is, I never would. People who think Weird Al Yankovic funny may find his books thigh-slappers. They make me feel nauseous.

But then came Unholy Night, written by the same author. It takes the story of the three wise men and turns it on its ear. I'm an unapologetically practicing Heathen, it's true. What appealed most to me was the great potential for humor, using a story we pretty much all know and adding his own twisted style. And he doesn't exactly take the Bible as his primary work. He doesn't go that far. Rather, he expands on a more twisted idea of who these "kings" may have been. I haven't read much of it at all but so far it's better than I'd imagined it would be.

Funny, I take much more offense at his daring to reduce Abraham Lincoln but don't bat an eye when he turns his attention to something biblical.

Did I mention I'm a Heathen?

[Reading a library copy of this book.]

 

A quick peek at a few other books I'm in various stages of reading:

Journey Into the Past by Stefan Zweig (My own copy of this NYRB edition, though they've sent me a few others as I told them I'd like to make reviewing these editions a regular addition to my blog.)

The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home by Howard Frank Mosher (A library copy so overdue I must surrender it soon and check out later…)

The Story of English in 100  Words by David Crystal (Another library copy, ditto with the one above!)

Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall (To be reviewed in Library Journal.)

Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women by Barbara Sicherman (Kindle book and it's WONDERFUL!)

 

Coming Soon:

My interview with A.J. Jacobs

Thoughts on The Chicago Tribune's new "Printers Row" insert

 Reviews and Various Opinions

 

 

 

 

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler (A Nice Person)

Beginnersgoodbye

 

Knopf, 2012, Fiction, 208 pp., Library Copy.

 

My relationship with Anne Tyler has, as I said in my previous post, been a bit rocky. She's singular in the whole book universe for my feeling of disappointment that I can't enjoy her. She's sweet, looks utterly kind and she's so well-beloved in the U.S. But I just cannot, for the life of me, bring myself to like her writing.

Why the angst? That's the question. I dislike loads of writers; you wouldn't have time to read the full list. And I have nothing against her personally – who could? Look at that face! It screams I AM A NICE PERSON!!


AnnetylerAnne Tyler! Nice Person!

So… why does this bother me so very much? Perhaps it's because she's one of those homey, American front porch swing writers who write books I'm supposed to fully identify with, because I'm an American with a front porch. Guess it just doesn't work that way.

I did like was the concept of her previous The Ladder of Years – the one about the middle-aged hausfrau who picks up and leaves her life and family because she feels she's taken for granted. Then, when the police arrive and ask for a description, her husband can't recall the color of her eyes.

OOF. Punch to the gut.

When the character's on her own I like her. She gets her own apartment, a cheap hovel that's all she can afford on her minimum wage salary. She's come down far in the world from where she was when her husband supported her but she's a fully realized person for the first time in her life.

Then Tyler ended it in a way that enraged me. I think that was my breaking point; with that went my last chance to connect with her writing.

And her earlier stuff, including Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant? Same thing. I finish her books thinking, what was the point of this, again? Where's the meaning? Accidental Tourist? You got it. Ditto.

That brings me to 'The Beginner's Goodbye.' I loved the cover, with "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize" splashed under those lovely tea cups. Oh, heck, thinks I. I'll give her a whirl again. It's been a while.

The premise is great. I like widows and widowers as main characters. Spinsters and whatever you call terminally single men, as well. They intrigue me, like nuns, monks, children in Victorian and a lot of YA writing and all other sorts of solitary people. Plus, theres the bit about his wife's ghost just showing up one day, walking beside him without any forewarning. I think it would have been great if I'd have just stopped there, knowing the plotline, without actually reading the book. Not really a great sign when the cover blurb's better than the book.

Oh, internets! It was funny but really light. Helium balloon light, when it could have gone somewhere real. Main character Aaron is interesting in the description. He's the editor of a small, family-run press. Until he meets Dorothy, in his thirties, he hasn't really had experience with women. That's partially because he's handicapped and feels self-conscious making friends and getting to know people. But Dorothy's a doctor. When he meets her she outright asks him what happened. She's no nonsense, honest and forthright. She couldn't care less about his flaws.

One thing Tyler captures well is Aaron's giddy feeling of love for Dorothy:

"I moved toward her as cautiously as if she were some skittish woodland animal. My feet made no sound at all. And when I reached her, I didn't speak. I turned toward the beets myself and selected a bunch of my own. We were standing side by side, so close that even a breath caused our sleeves to whisper together. I could feel the warmth that her skin gave off through the cotton. It warmed my very soul; I can't describe the comfort I felt. I wanted to stand there forever. There was nothing more I could have asked for."

She should have left out that last sentence but otherwise it's a sweetly-written passage. It flirts with schmaltzy, what with whispering sleeves and all, but I can overlook that. The tiny bit of me that allows romance to be touching felt a little stir, before the realist me squashed it with its baseball shoes.

The crux of the book is the marital relationship, what Aaron believes it is and what it really is. Dorothy dies before the two can get into it and let Dorothy air her grievances. The trouble is, that's not very well developed. It's skimmed over lightly. If there was foreshadowing Dorothy was unhappy it slipped past me. As far as I knew he really, truly loved his wife and, in her way, she loved him. Life just plodded along, dull and uneventful. Then she died and Aaron was supposed to have had an epiphany. Could have fooled me.

What sealed it all was the last bit, the final paragraph and, especially, the flaccid last sentence. It was weak before but that last bit shattered it all to pieces. I wish it weren't so, but my dear internets, it is.

Oh, Anne Tyler. I'm so, so sorry. We just weren't meant to be.

 

Other Reviews:

The New York Times agrees with me.

Though the LA Times apparently doesn't.

And, of course, my favorite Ron Charles does!

Kirkus, likewise, is on my side.