Review: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

 

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 It had to happen eventually. Though I was determined to read it slowly, once I hit the last quarter there was no putting it down.

A Long Long Way is slowly paced. Not as in oh my God when will this thing get going, as I found opined on another blog written by a reader struck, initially, by an unfortunate episode of dubious taste.

Think of lying back in a boat, reaching over the side trailing a finger in the water, wearing Edwardian dress and holding a parasol to protect  milky white skin. Of course, if you're male you may wish to make substitutions. You'll be rowing the boat so the lady may laze, reposing comfortably upon cushions downy soft. Because a lady neither breaks a sweat nor exerts. She is better suited to daydreaming, occasionally sighing gently.

Now that we have that settled.

I've mentioned already how easy it is to sympathize with Willie Dunne, the sweet young man sent off to fight in the fields of Belgium while his heart is back in Ireland with his love, Gretta of the green eyes. It's wrenching witnessing horrors through Willie's eyes and difficult knowing such a large part of his motivation for serving is the need to impress his father, because his son is not manly enough for his taste. Doesn't make one feel inclined to sympathize much with the man, even after his speech about having been a loyal policeman putting his life on the line as Ireland's beginning to split apart at the seams. But dear God things shift so cruelly by the end.

Though the plot is certainly attractive and keeps a due amount of tension it was for me far more about absorbing the language. I swear, this man's tax returns must be more romantic and poetic than the average love letter. Each time I open the book I tell myself I'm going to figure out the formula for how he does this but each time I'm so pulled in by his magic I forget I'd even had an agenda.

I know he does it by use of long, lulling sentences and keeping that slow pace mentioned above. But there is action and that's when any idea of analysis slips away. It's a time of war. Men are alternately being blown to bits and desperately seeking solace, living for weeks in filthy, sometimes flooded trenches with no food or water for days. And through it all Sebastian Barry manages that incredible flowing prose I'd know anywhere. I believe I may admire him for it, too.

I don't believe I need tell you the plot because really it's all here. Willie Dunne does his duty with a mixture of bravery and raw fear. There are friendships and losses, misery followed by brief furloughs. Back home are his sisters, his policeman father and his love, Gretta. And he misses them terribly when allowed the luxury of thinking beyond basic survival. Ireland is on the brink of civil war before WW I interrupts but the rifts have started and there is violence in the streets, part of which Willie's father finds himself in the midst of, his life and those of his comrades on the line. All the time Willie is away he awaits word from Gretta, and yes I assumed she must be a horrible person when the letters are from his sisters, instead. There's nothing more I can say, really, without giving away too much.

For this book Sebastian Barry was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. You may recall how I felt when his On Canaan's Side didn't make it to the Shortlist in 2011 and I would rather not go into my feelings on the Booker in general, thanks very much, though many congratulations to Julian Barnes. However, the stars did align for The Secret Scripture (the first of his books I read), winning him both the Costa and James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which are proof some judges on this earth know their business quite well. And did I mention A Long Long Way was chosen for Dublin's One Book One City read in 2007? Because it was.

Overall I guess what I'd like to say I've already said. I love many styles of writing from the florid prose of Dickens to the stripped down minimalism of much contemporary fiction but Sebastian Barry is on an entirely different plane. And you may not agree, that's fine. Though I'd rather not speak to you if that's the case.

Next, I'm not sure if I'm supposed to go backward to Annie Dunne or re-read The Secret Scripture and then Annie. But I'll figure that out. I found an affordable copy of his first novel, Macker's Garden, which I believe has no relation to these about the Dunnes but I won't read that 'til I've read through to On Canaan's Side again. However, neither love nor a reasonable amount of money will get me a copy of The Engine of Owl-Light, as of the last time I nosed around. This was his second novel and I've had no luck at all adding it to my collection. If I have to I'll fork over more money than I was comfortable with before but I'll deal with that when it's time. Mayhaps  a miracle will happen in the interim and I'll luck upon it in a used bookshop.

Speaking of time, his novels take quite a bit of that and being a playwright as well there's his tendency to write those when I'd rather he worked on a novel. Far be it from me to dictate to a genius but, well…

Let's face it. I'm going to be forced to start on the plays,  now, won't I. I may have a wait between novels and I'm not sure I can sway or hurry him with stories of my tears falling upon the keyboard, my wails splitting the ears of my family as I wallow in abject misery. Being a gentleman he'd pat me gently on the head and express his regret, which would not be a bad happening, mind, but in the meantime it's read and re-read and hope.

Sigh.

 

 

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Bleak House, Various and sundry.

My hands were itching to talk books with you all week but my wishes were thwarted due to a Typepad glitch. Seems the goodly blogging platform had quite a taste for all things Bluestalking. Not only would it not let me save new posts, it ate the last two I wrote as well and of course I hadn't backed them up because nothing like this has happened in forever. And I hope it had galloping indigestion to match my level of irritation.

Appealing to them via Twitter did me no good, a tactic that's served me well in the resolution of other consumer complaints, most recently in the replacement of a brand new sofa with a mangled underside. If there's one thing you never want it's a mangled underside and I was certainly having no part of that, especially when it's literally just been brought through the door. The store refused to replace it, offering instead to "fix" it. Unacceptable. Telling over a thousand followers of my woes got immediate attention. The store tweeted me within minutes and I had a phone call to schedule a re-delivery/switch the next business day. Now that is customer service, even if I had to lean on them to get it. Let them push me around? I think not.

That explains, in more detail than you needed, my relative internet silence over the past few days. But today I'm having another go, cautiously optimistic my computer won't blow up or my underside become mangled. If it does, I'm relying on all of you to Tweet it to the world.

 

In Progress:

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Yes, yes I was supposed to have finished it for last Wednesday's book discussion but that didn't happen. It was nearly impossible reading Dickens at the galumphing pace required, but luck was with me and no one else save our brave facilitator had finished, either. In fact, I'd gotten the furthest of us all, save the one person who finished but was unable to attend. Victory! Well, of sorts.

Consensus was the book was very, very long. A wise conclusion considering how much paper is between the covers. As to the story itself, opinion was a bit more mixed. Keeping all gazillion characters and plotlines straight proved a difficulty not worth the effort for some, roughly half I would say. One gentleman, after reading only the first few pages, saw fit to pick up the Cliff Notes instead, eschewing the original for the shortcut. What's discouraging is he seemed to have as good a grip on things as I did, having finished roughly 85%. Then again, he wasn't obliged to read the vast quantity of words with which I grappled. So there.

 

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We spent an awful lot of time asking each other, "What was the name of the _____ family's friend's servant?" and trying to untangle everyone with a similar name to another character. Partly because of this, if you haven't read Bleak House (or have but still aren't sure exactly what was happening) it's almost impossible spoiling the plot for you. The question would be, which plot are you even talking about, since there are so many. Of course they all funnel into the main plot regarding Esther Summerson (and cousins Richard and Ada), Lady Dedlock and the ongoing court case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in one way or other. It's always baffling how Dickens will manage to bring it all together by the end, yet always he does, minus a few characters who wander off but in some ways that's for the best, for the sanity of the reader.

 

So, what does BH say about Dickens and the Victorians? Jarndyce v. Jarndyce illustrates opinion about lawyers and court cases hasn't changed at all since the Victorians. Lawyers are generally nasty, self-serving creatures and court cases convoluted and dull. Shock horror!

As for the innocents, they so often suffer, sometimes losing their lives in unjust and unnecessary circumstances. Innocents include those with mental disabilities, children and those from the lower social order in general. BH is particularly sharp in the anger it directs at do-gooders, Mrs. Jellyby being a prime example, the woman so concerned with a village in Africa she doesn't notice anything happening in her own home. And I do mean anything. And Mr. Jellyby! If there's a better example of deep clinical depression in all of Victorian fiction I haven't read it.

Poor Mr. Jellyby, forever sitting with his head against a wall.

So, what of charity, to Dickens? Certainly not much of merit, extending past temporarily alleviating the suffering of those at hand. But even in that case, using Jo and his illness as an example, charity can backfire, leaving the best-intentioned permanently blemished. Going out of your way to help take care of your fellow wo/man doesn't fare well at all in BH.

Dickens has been called out before re: his depiction of women as either saints or whores. BH is filled with examples of saints – the "angels" in the house – with only one true "whore" in Lady Dedlock. She pays the price of her transgressions, in cruel ways. To be fair, so does the man who was the other half of that relationship, but he's largely shrouded in mystery. We know how he dies – destitute and alone – and there's a suggestion it was intentional, but Dickens shows us every bit of Lady Dedlock's agony.

 

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The saint above all saints in BH is Esther Summerson, a character who may – I'm warning you – drive you barking mad by mid-book. She's exaggeratedly kind (and I really don't think it's intented ironically). Her interaction with Ada made me feel vaguely nauseous. There's friendship, then there's over the top and saccharine. But even the saints don't escape some very steep trials.

 

 

Did Dickens hate women? Oh, I don't know. There's lots written about it. I can tell you he treated his wife with callous indifference and almost surely had an affair with a beautiful actress. He also had a sort of crush on his dead sister-in-law, practically throwing himself in her grave when she died. Not sure what all that proves, if anything.

Ask me more later in the year. I'll know better by then.

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, BBC – 2005

 

Dickens at 200

Serendipitous Bleak House was the January read in our classics book group, considering the Inimitable's 200th birthday is coming up February 7th.

Martin Chuzzlewit is next up for me, in my personal celebration of all things Dickens. MC and the recent Claire Tomalin bio. This will be my first foray into MC and I know nothing about it – one reason I'm looking forward to the experience.

After MC I honestly can't say I'll have the luxury to fit in another Dickens novel in 2012, since I am attacking Ulysses starting Bloomsday this year (June 6). I'm allowing the rest of the year to read that one properly, relying heavily on true Irishman Frank Delaney and his podcasts on Ulysses to minimize my inevitable confusion.

To celebrate properly I'd need to take a trip to Dublin. I'm cheating myself by not doing so and I think I'll put that on my official Bucket List. There's a pub out there, somewhere, that has a stool with my name on it, and a few barrels of Guinness to get together a good drinking game to go along with a public reading of the book. One swallow for every swear should have me under the table in less than two hours. Change that to every sentence longer than a page and I'll be out in half that time. Of course it's likely I'd wake up with a shamrock – or worse – drawn on my forehead and my hair matted in who knows what.

Yes, onto the Bucket List it goes.

 

 

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From an article in The Guardian

 

 

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Heartrendingly gorgeous and I'm in no hurry to finish, as Sebastian Barry hasn't written all that many novels. I do so love his writing and this in no way involves a massive crush of an adolescent nature, mixed with a great appreciation of his lyricism and unfailingly gorgeous writing.

I'm further along but reluctantly so. It's difficult reading about the horrors of war and I've grown so fond of Willie Dunne it's hard seeing inhumane events through his eyes. Right now I'm just past the point at which he realizes his last letter offended his father, though he's not positive why. And as for the lovely Gretta… I just don't trust that one. Great looking or not, I have a feeling Willie could have chosen better than herself with the green eyes.

 

 

Samsavage

Author Sam Savage

 

Glass by Sam Savage – Currently reading for review.

I have loved Sam Savage's writing since his first novel, Firmin:

"Savage's sentimental debut concerns the coming-of-age of a well-read rat in 1960s Boston. In the basement of Pembroke Books, a bookstore on Scollay Square, Firmin is the runt of the litter born to Mama Flo, who makes confetti of Moby-Dick and Don Quixote for her offspring's cradle."

Publishers Weekly

I interviewed him following the publication of that novel, now that I think of it. Such a dear man.

Glass is about a widow asked to write a new introduction for the re-issue of her late husband's book but actually more about her life, memories and adjustment to being alone. What's sweetly poignant is there's a rat in this novel, as well, though the standard mammal who isn't able to read and express himself in words. Loads more than this is poignant but it was the rat that really got to me.

Between Firmin and Glass there was The Cry of the  Sloth:

"Living on a diet of fried Spam, vodka, sardines, cupcakes, and Southern Comfort, Andrew Whittaker is slowly being sucked into the morass of middle age. A negligent landlord, small-time literary journal editor, and aspiring novelist, he is—quite literally— authoring his own downfall. From his letters, diary entries, and fragments of fiction, to grocery lists and posted signs, this novel is a collection of everything Whittaker commits to paper over the course of four critical months."

– from Amazon.com

I love books that rip out my heart, dice it to bits and toss it onto a plate. Even better are those with a wicked dark sense of humor involving books, readers and/or writers. Sam Savage manages to hit my soft spots in every, single book he writes. He's not nearly as well known as he should be.

Read him. Do.

 

Restoring Grace by Katie Fforde – Reading for librarian group.

Nope, I'm not one for conventional romance and my last reading round up covered the reasons I chose this when forced to read outside my genre comfort zone: British, ancient home and single women living together, making a go of it sans men. Oh, and the Irishman, coming to woo the owner of the ancient home…

 Shush.

 

Losing It: In Which An Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain by William Ian Miller

From the good people at Yale U.P. and it's basically about what it says. It makes a good NF read to pick up while the rest of the family's watching t.v.  I can read NF with noise going on around me but not fiction. Not without a rise in blood pressure that's not worth it, I should say.

 

Coming Soon:

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – next read for classics group.

Love this book, can't wait to re-read, so you know it must be a heart-ripper. Also planning to squeeze in McCullers's unfinished autobiography, an Amazon purchase I allowed myself last week, though my fondness for the Amazon Daily Deal eBook has me well on my way toward addiction. Funny how I managed to side-step making an actual resolution about book buying this year. Or, not so much funny as frightening.

 

Reviews:

In between reads for BookBrowse, LibraryJournal and Booklist. Then there are the various and sundry review books, otherwise known as The Great Horde, including Barry Unsworth's latest The Quality of Mercy.

Also checked out from the library: How it All Began by Penelope Lively and Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare. Re: the latter, right now I can't recall what it's about or why I ordered it. Must have had some good reason. Funny, the ILL books that wind up on my desk are usually of this ilk. I either can't remember requesting them or why.

 

As usual, I'm obviously bereft of great reading material. All my time is wasted on breathing, eating and sleeping until such time as I can find my way back to reading. They say Americans are reading less and less every year, though whether that includes Tweets and McDonald's game pieces I don't know.

I smell another government study that needs funding! Perhaps I'll drop past Twitter and mention it.

 

 

Twitterbird

 

 

 

To make a long story even longer…

Such a long time since I've had the luxury to sit down and just chat. I miss that. So much going on here I barely know what day it is. And I'm exhausted. I'm not sure if it's age, unaccustomed activity or what but I feel like I was hit by a truck after all the activity this week. Don't get me wrong, it was all fun stuff. At least there's that.

One bad thing about resurfacing is finding autumn's passing quickly and I've hardly had time to appreciate it very much. It isn't spectacular around here, though. Not sure why. We don't seem to have enough of the brilliantly-colored trees for that WOW factor. Some spots are nice. Driving from here to Dundee – the locals will know – is always pretty impressive. There's one area, where town turns into farmland, where the trees arch over the road, making a glowing, golden tunnel. It's pure magic. I haven't been that way lately to know if that's already done. Maybe I'll check that out this weekend but I'm afraid I won't like the answer.

Within the family circle, the biggest thing going is my daughter is applying to, and hearing back from, colleges. She's gotten a couple acceptances but so far not from her top choice schools. There's not really been enough turnaround time yet, though. I'm shocked any of them have had the chance to already say yes. But it's a good sign none have declined. Kid's brainy, though, on both left and right sides. She lucked out, getting her dad's math abilities and her mum's literature genes. I think she'll do okay.

Do you want to hear a quick run-down of the past couple weeks in literary events?

 

Zoneone

First, my review of Colson Whitehead's Zone One is up at BookBrowse.com. This was a real out of my comfort zone (no pun intended) novel. Post-Apocalyptic zombie fiction isn't something I'd normally go for but I snapped this one up with Whitehead's name attached. I hadn't read any of his novels. I needed to remedy that and now that I have read his stuff I only want to read more. I picked up his Sag Harbor. And I'll read that when…?

Hold onto that idea. It'll resurface here before too much time has passed.

I believe I mentioned seeing/talking briefly with Sebastian Barry, when he was in the Chicago area for his On Canaan's Side book tour. He was so, so kind, so patient with this insane avid fan. For each I wrote a different inscription request on a Post It note. He didn't humor all my requests, but was gentleman enough to scribble out a couple custom inscriptions.

On Canaan's Side

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Translation from the original Sanskrit:

To my muse, my inspiration.

With profound affection,

Sebastian Barry

2011

 

A Long, Long Way

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Translation:

There are not words enough to express

my gratitude.

Yours, gratefully,

Sebastian Barry

 

The Secret Scripture

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Translation:

Now you're starting to creep me out.

Please leave before I call security.

Love, until the sun ceases to shine,

Sebastian Barry

Then there was Chris Bohjalian. From his signing I learned, among other things, when one is told to "brace for impact" in a plane crash it's necessary to keep both feet on the floor, lest you break both your legs from the force of hitting the ground, slightly inhibiting your chances of getting out alive. He didn't learn this from real life experience, thank goodness. It was from research for his current book The Night Strangers.


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And, Midwives

 

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Tuesday of this week found me at the Illinois Library Association Conference 2011 Author Dinner. Seems like forever ago I booked Goldie Goldbloom and Elizabeth Berg on behalf of our library. And they were stellar choices, if I do say so myself.

And I do.

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ILA set up author tables for each library's author attendees. A local indie bookseller sold copies of the books. Signees then had to roam for signatures.

Pretty swag event, no? A real class act. The Intercontinental O'Hare was magnificent. Just magnificent. The art alone was impressive. Here's my personal favorite piece, an artist's rendition of the interconnectedness of all points on earth:

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Pretty cool, no?

And speaking of pretty cool:

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Authors Elizabeth Berg and Goldie Goldbloom, plus our library Director and incoming ILA President Lynn Elam.

But that's not all:

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Who might that man be, gazing over his glasses?

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Honey, he not only might be, he is Michael Cunningham.

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And he's a wonderful, down to earth, kind man. Pulitzer Prize? What Pulitzer Prize!

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He's just a really nice guy. Who happens to have a brilliant mind.

Okay. He's not just anything but incredible.

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Thank you to:

Lynn Elam and the Algonquin Area Public Library District for making me a part of ILA 2011

Goldie Goldbloom and Elizabeth Berg for honoring us with their attendance

after-words Indie bookshop for providing all the books

And Michael Cunningham, for being Michael Cunningham

 

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What a couple of weeks.