Tuesday 28 August 2018

Lots of books

This is cheating I know but I have gotten so far behind that today I give you a mass half-arsed review of books that I have read in the last few months but have languished on the 'To Be Reviewed' pile.

'The Making of Henry' by Howard Jacobson, was picked up in a charity shop because I enjoyed 'The Finkler Question' so much, but this one, written several years before was nothing like as good a read; too much navel-gazing and self-pity on the part of Henry and not enough of the other characters. Like Finkler it is very much just about the people and their relationships but I found Henry much less relatable or likeable, in fact it felt suspiciously self indulgent and playing to his readership profile; rather boring and shallow middle aged bloke is strangely very attractive to women, who fall over themselves to make him happy. Having said that I did enjoy the story and it had plenty of entertaining moments to make it worth the reading. This quote pretty much sums Henry up, but I am sure that many people, myself included, recognise this feeling:

"Something that had tormented Henry all his life, something he felt at school, at university, still feels today when he goes to a party, a conference, a concert, the theatre even: how well acquainted everybody but Henry is with everybody else. Leave aside coincidences of sympathy or interest, where do they actually meet, at what Henry-free time and in what Henry-free dimension do they make contact, dock, establish intimacy, and agree, without so much as mentioning Henry's name, to exclude him? Let Henry be the first person in the room, it will transpire as soon as the room fills that every single person there except Henry is on close terms with every other. does it happen when he goes to get himself a drink? Does it happen when he blinks? Or, as seems much more likely, was it all laid down long ago in anterior time? Was there another world before this one, a sort of metaphysical prep school, a preliminary universe, to which someone forgot to send Henry?" (p.67)

Tish, Monkey and I had a little spate of reading together. Both the girls use Terry Pratchett audiobooks to get themselves to sleep so they have become a firm family favourite. 'Monstrous Regiment' is the wonderful tale of a gang of trainee soldiers joining up to fight in some foreign skirmish. It gradually emerges that some of the lads are lasses, but by this time they have formed a strong bond, and using some pretty unconventional tactics they set about winning the war.

'Sourcery' has the entire Discworld disrupted by the arrival at Unseen University of Coin, the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son ... which makes him Sourcerer, and able to command magic at an existential level. But it's ok, Rincewind and the Luggage are on hand to save the day, with some assistance from Conina, daughter of the infamous Cohen the Barbarian. 

'Yesterday's Weather' by Anne Enright is the second book in the pile from a Booker Prize winner. It is a collection of short stories that I was reading back in March, so far too long ago for comment. Her writing is always lovely and understated, with perceptive observation of the human condition, what more can you ask for. This is from 'Little Sister', a young woman telling of her sister's demise: 

"We waited for ninety-one days. On Saturday that thirteenth of September there was the sound of a key in the door and a child walked in  - a sort of death-child. She was six and a half stone. Behind her was a guy carrying a suitcase. He said his name was Brian. He looked like he didn't know what to do.
We gave him a cup of tea, while Serena sat in the corner of the kitchen, glaring. As far as we could gather, she just turned up on his doorstep, and stayed. He was a nice guy. I don't know what he was doing with a girl just out of school, but then again, Serena always looked old for her age.
It is hard to remember what it was like in those days, but anorexia was just starting then, it was just getting trendy. We looked at her and thought she had cancer, we couldn't believe this was some sort of diet. Then trying to make her eat, the cooing and cajoling, the desperate silences as Serena looked at her plate and picked up one green bean. They say anorexics are bright girls who try too hard and get tipped over the brink, but Serena sauntered up to the brink. She looked over her shoulder at the rest of us, as we stood and called to her, and then she turned and jumped. It is not too much to say that she enjoyed her death. I don't think it's too much to say that." (p.162)

I bought Megan Beech's poetry collection 'When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard' purely on the basis of the title, because who doesn't want to be Mary Beard; she's up for my third life because I plan to be Victoria Coren next time around. As is often the case poets who write for performance sometimes don't translate brilliantly to book form, and while I enjoyed reading her poems I do think they would come across much better live; if she makes it to the literature festival some time that will be a date for the diary.

"When I grow up I want to be Mary Beard.
A classy, classic, classicist,
intellectually revered.
Wickedly wonderful and wise
full to brim with life,
while explaining the way in which Caligula died,
on BBC prime time." 
And life goes on, and other books arrive to fill the gaps. This new shelf-full came partly from a charity shop trawl in Brighton with Claire and partly from work a couple of months ago, when I came across two bags of books left out in the hallway of a block of flats in Withington. 

Monday 27 August 2018

The lovely cup of tea

My lovely Auntie Ann recommended 'The Keeper of Lost Things' by Ruth Hogan, and was going to send me her copy but we found a slightly damaged one on the Waterstones sale table so I bought it. As a book it is indeed very much like a lovely cup of tea, warm and satisfying. The book snob in me could witter on about clich├ęs and predictable plots and nice tidy endings, but I really enjoyed it. The Lady calls it 'exquisite', and I'm not surprised because they get not one, but two mentions. 

So Laura and Eunice, both dissatisfied with their current lives, both find jobs via The Lady, one as an elderly writer's dogsbody and the other as a publisher's assistant. Anthony, the elderly writer, lost the love of his life and also the token of her love, and as such has spent his life finding and keeping other people's lost things. Then he dies and leaves the whole kit and caboodle to Laura, on the proviso that she works to return the lost things to their owners. We follow Eunice and Laura's separate, but historically linked, existences, through the decades, with their loves and losses and friendships, until they are finally brought together by inevitable events. I nearly gave up on it on page 122 when Eunice and Bomber get a pug, since they are my most unfavourite of all the dogs, and I completely fail to understand why people find these disgustingly genetically modified animals to be cute. I also debated with Monkey the treatment of Sunshine, a young woman with Downs Syndrome who befriends Laura; while it is refreshing to see disabled characters as just a normal part of life there was a rather saccharine cutesie-ness to the way she is portrayed. I think I need a book like this every now and then, one in which everyone is caring and lovely and the sun shines and people have happy endings even when they die, and even the baddies are allowed their moment of redemption. They are undemanding but give you a pleasant feeling of completeness because all the loose ends are always tidied up. And they did drink an inordinate amount of tea.

"'I think he needs a biscuit,' said Sunshine, tenderly stroking the bundle of fur and bones that ought to have been a lurcher. He watched her with frightened eyes that mirrored the beatings he had endured. Tired of their torture, his tormentors had kicked him out to fend for himself. Freddy had found him the previous evening lying on the grass verge outside Padua. It was raining hard and he was soaking wet and too exhausted to resist when Freddy had picked him up and brought him inside. He had been clipped by a car and had a superficial wound on his rump that Laura has cleaned and dressed while Freddy had held him shaking and wrapped in a towel. He refused to eat anything but drank a little water, and Laura stayed up with him all night, sleeping fitfully in an armchair while the dog lay inches from the fire, wrapped in a  blanket and never moving. As the first wraithlike light of the winter damp seeped through the lace panels of Anthony's study, Laura stirred. Her neck was cricked and complaining after a night spent folded awkwardly into a chair. The fire was reduced to  few struggling embers but the dog hadn't moved." (p.155)

Sunday 26 August 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing

'Sing, Unburied, Sing' by Jesmyn Ward was number three of my reads from the Women's Fiction shortlist. It is a family tale of three generations, with quiet, and then not so quiet supernatural undertones. It is told in alternating chapters, in the first half, by Jojo and Leonie, son and mother, living together with Pop and Mam, who is dying quietly in the back room. But they live in very different worlds; Leonie exists in the current day, the journey to collect her partner Michael from prison and all that involves, and Jojo lives in a past that his Pop has shown him, while also trying desperately to care for his little sister Kayla. On their journey they acquire a hitchhiker in the form of Richie, a ghost from their Pop's past, who's story joins theirs in the second half. I was confused at first, but he really is a ghost and only Jojo can see him. 

I spent the entire book wanting to wrap Jojo up and take care of him. He is a young boy desperately trying to make sense of the world, but with no-one to help him, and at the same time being forced to grow up and protect his sister from the worst of Leonie's parental neglect. Where Leonie has rejected the history of their family and wants to inhabit a world of drugs, Jojo is drawn to the past that Pop has tried to share with him, all tangled up with a collection of weird superstitions. It is a strange slow unravelling of a disturbing tale from Pop's youth, becoming more of a ghost story as it evolves, with Leonie's murdered brother Given reappearing too, all of whom seem unable to find peace in death. There is such a stark contrast between the tales of violence and the tenderness with which Jojo watches over Kayla. I found myself, quite common with this style of story telling, liking some narrators more than others, and I so actively disliked Leonie because of her attitude towards her children that it coloured my view of the book. The saving grace for me was Jojo and his determination to be a good person. 

Two quotes, this one from when they arrive at the prison, it evokes the grinding, relentless poverty of the place:

"The jail is all low, concrete buildings and barbed-wire fences crisscrossing through fields. The road stretches onward, out into the distance, and for a while, the road points us toward the men housed here. There's no other sign, nothing in those fields, no cows, no pigs, no chickens. There are crops coming in, baby plants, but they looks small and stunted, as if they'll never grow. But a great flock of birds wheels through the sky, swooping and fluttering, moving graceful as a jellyfish. I watch them as Kayla mewls in my ear, as we pass another sign, old and wooden, that says Welcome to Parchman, Ms. And then: Coke is it! But by the time we get out of the car in the parking lot, the birds have turned north, fluttered over the horizon. I hear the tail end of their chatter, of all those voices calling at once, and I wish I could feel their excitement, feel the joy of the rising, the swinging into the blue, the great flight, the return home, but all I feel is a solid ball go something in my gut, heavy as the head of a hammer." (p.123)

This second is Leonie talking as she watches her children asleep, part of it is tenderness towards them, but it is pushed away by her resentment of their closeness:

"They sleep as one: Michaela wraps herself around Jojo, her head on his armpit, her arm over his chest, her leg over his stomach. Jojo pulls her in to him: his forearm curled under her head and around her neck, his other arm a bar across them both to lay flat against her back. His hand hard in protection, stiff as siding. But their faces make me feel two ways at once: their faces turn towards each other, sleep-smoothed to an infant's fatness, so soft and open that I want to leave them asleep so they can feel what they will. I think Given must have held me like that once, that once we breathed mouth to mouth and inhaled the same air. But another part of me wants to shake Jojo and Michaela awake, to lean down and yell so they startle and sit up so I don't have to see the way they turn to each other like plants following the sun across the sky. They are each other's light." (p.151)

An intense and atmospheric book that packs a lot into 24 hours or so, and leaves the reader dazed and unsteady at the end. There is no neat and tidy resolution for the ghost, nor for the people either. Yet another book that deserves a more thoughtful review but has lingered too long in the draft folder.

Friday 17 August 2018

New Boy

'New Boy' by Tracy Chevalier is the third novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read (see Hag-seed and Vinegar Girl), and one I felt confident to tackle having studied Othello for A level. It is set in an elementary school in 1970's America, where the arrival of Osei Kokote as the new boy causes a stir amongst the white children, upsetting the precarious balance of power and established relationships. It is a wonderful recreation of the story because the world of children acts as a microcosm for adult society and the compression of the story into a single day encapsulates the intensity and the transience of their emotions. Bonds between the children are formed and broken over the course of the day as Osei and Dee take an immediate liking to each other and the school bully Ian conspires to break them up. It is cleverly written, capturing the racial tension of the era and has a subtle understanding of children's concerns; it would have been easy to have portrayed them as petty jealousies and shallow emotions but Chevalier takes the reader inside the children's world and you feel the full weight of their experiences. 

"The moment the black boy walked onto the playground that morning, Ian had felt something shift. It was what an earthquake must feel like, the ground being rearranged and becoming unreliable. The students had had almost the whole year - indeed, the past seven years at elementary school - to get into their established groups, with their hierarchies of leaders and followers. It ran smoothly - until one boy arrived to destabilise everything. One massive kick of a ball, one touch of a girl's cheek, and the order had changed. He scrutinised O, now in his line, and could see the rearrangement gong on to include this new leader - the shifts as other students subtly turned towards him, as if he were a light they followed, like plants seeking the sun. As Ian watched, Casper stepped up behind O and began talking to him. He gestured over the fence, clearly discussing O's kick, and then nodded. Just like that, the black boy had gained the respect of the most popular boy in school, and was going with the most popular girl, and had laughed with Ian's girlfriend - and it wasn't even lunchtime yet." (p.79)

As with both the other two Hogarth Shakespeare this one was a satisfying retelling, a very creative resetting but one that captured perfectly the essence of the original. Recommended for Shakespeare lovers everywhere, and for those alienated by previous experience.