Friday, 31 July 2015

Books Read in July

The Girl in the Red Coat, by Kate Hamer

The Girl in the Red Coat begins with the narrator, a mother, describing her missing child. Though all children are special to their own parents, it's quickly evident that there is something universally loved about Carmel, an 'Old Soul', as her dad describes her. To her teachers it comes across as odd. She zones out and retreats into her own mind, losing minutes at a time in a daze. Sensitive but carefree, her mother describes her frizzy dandelion of hair, she's a natural, rural sort of child, artfully dishevelled and incurably inquisitive. We understand from page one that she is missing, as the narrator describes the torture of loss, the recurring dreams and the agony of not knowing.

The narrative jumps then to Carmel, several months earlier as she and her mum, Beth, go to visit a maze for Carmel's 8th birthday. A dreamy, rural princess kind of a girl, Carmel falls asleep amongst the roots of a tree in the Maze's interior, causing her mother agonising pain and terror. It foreshadows the next event- we know Carmel has previous for wandering off. Does that make her badly behaved or just curious and independent?

A few months later the pair visit a Storytelling festival in Lincolnshire- a nice day out that Beth has resolved to treat themselves to following the stress and tension of her divorce. Here the fairytale imagery that runs throughout the novel really emerges; fairies and dragons from the storybook pages mingle with the locked towers and golden keys that Beth wishes she had used to protect Carmel from her snatcher. At this festival, she becomes separated from her mother in the bookshop tent following an argument. Carmel is incredibly sensitive to moods and emotions, and it upsets her that her and her mother can't simply enjoy a day out without fighting and grumpiness. An elderly, friendly looking man finds Carmel in the fog and leads her away, telling her that her mother has had a terrible accident and that she is to come and be looked after by him, her Grandfather. Trusting him immediately, Carmel goes with him, wondering what it was that caused her mother and her Grandfather to fall out all those years ago.

The rest of the novel follows the lives of Carmel and Beth, as each of them adjusts to their new lives. Though a crime has been committed, it isn't really a crime novel. There is a police investigation, but that goes on unseen. The police officers make the briefest of appearances. Beth is frantic to begin with, spending all day every day out searching. She begins to rebuild her life; fist shopping trip, first time out alone, first time past Carmel's school. New friends, new career. She never gives up on her daughter, and her life becomes an exercise in distraction and focus, daring herself to get through another day. Carmel, meanwhile is traversing the length and breadth of the USA with her Pastor Grandfather, his wife Dorothy and their twin girls. Living out of the back of a camper van, Carmel struggles with her new identity and the loss of her mother, the rejection by her father.

I think the novel's greatest achievement is the way the characters develop dramatically over the period of Carmel's disappearance. Carmel's narrative voice changes ever so gradually, but looking back on earlier chapters the reader sees how she has matured. Initially a chattering, trustworthy and sweet girl, awestruck by nature and coincidences and funny words, to a moderately surly and put upon teenager, dragged from place to place and going through the motions. Her wonder is gone, but there's a spark of troublesome defiance that is quite brilliant. Her lack of confidence stops her from voicing her doubts or opinions, as does a lack of practice, but she remains as much of Carmel as she can manage in her head and in her heart despite all attempts to change her. Despite the grief and the agony of her loss, Beth too undergoes a maturity process. She forms meaningful and lasting friendships with unlikely people in her life, she changes her career, rids her life of its clutter and toxins. She matures and learns to accept the things that she can't change, lets go of what holds her back.

I thought the author explored themes of identity really well, as well as the ever present grief and loss. Carmel is given a new identity, one that she discovers might not be as made up as it seems. She hangs on to the parts of her that she knows belong to her; the name, the red coat. She recites mantras to herself so as not to forget. Beth has no idea who to be when she loses her daughter. After all, what is a mother with no children? What does she become? Her battle against despair to forge her own identity is fascinating to read and really well crafted. Her ex husband, Paul also emerges as a more three dimensional character in the post-Carmel period with the reader undertaking a full reassessment of him that's quite extraordinary. It's odd how losing their daughter makes their relationship so much stronger and less toxic than it had been before.

It's a really tense and gripping novel that looks at religious fanaticism and the idea of faith, about the people that we choose to be or are shaped into and about the unimaginable agony of losing a family member. Not to death, but just to the uncertainty of not knowing. We are, as a society, quick to give up hope when people disappear, assuming that if a person ever does turn up, it's likely that they will have been killed by their abductors. This story presents a new side to missing persons, one that while it is not without its sinister tones, is certainly not murderous in its motives.

Broadway Book Club discussion of We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

There was a variety of reactions to Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves. Some people liked it, some mostly liked it but acknowledged its flaws, and we had two cases of intense dislike (though to be honest, both disliking members found parts that intrigued them or at least looked promising). We definitely had a lot to discuss!

One member said that even though she didn't like the book, she kept reading because she wanted Eileen, the main character to become a better person. Most people felt a mixture of sympathy, anger and confusion at Eileen, a character that seemed incapable of showing any emotion. We could understand her desire for social elevation, considering that she is a second generation immigrant and would have had notions of “bettering herself” raised into her from an early age. She craved bigger, more impressive houses, nicer cars, better furniture and more expensive clothes. We wondered Is this how people cope with isolation in the modern world? With unhappiness? Do we buy things to fill the gaps in our lives? We could see that even before her husband's illness, Eileen struggled to make connections to people and was quite lonely, despite spending hours on the phone talking to girlfriends that featured very little in person. None of us could understand though how, having felt so detached from her cold and unaffectionate mother, she could
end up with a similarly cold and affectionless relationship with her own son. Eileen’s stoicism and focus was admired, and the methodical way she went about making preparations for Ed’s future- putting financial plans into action and organising ahead. We could see that despite her coldness, she was devoted to her husband, the one person that she had connected with properly.

One member said that she liked the beginning and the end, but there was 500 pages in the middle that she just wasn't feeling. “Liking the bread but not the filling” as another member phrased it, which is a delicious way of looking at it. She also commented that when the narrative begins jumping from Eileen to Connell towards the end, this becomes jarring and doesn't work particularly well, which there was agreement on. After all, the whole book had been told in the third person from Eileen’s perspective, and then to suddenly have to cope with Eileen becoming “Connell’s mother” in the narrative, rather than her own character was quite alienating.

We thought that there some very emotional episodes in the book, particularly during the later stages of Ed’s illness, before he goes into the care home. We all agreed that the dementia was sensitively portrayed and obviously very well researched, and that rather than being the main element of the plot, it was the catalyst for it, which is in contrast to many other books with characters suffering from such debilitating illnesses. We agreed too that it was incredibly sad that everything Eileen had ever worked and saved for, the life and possessions that she had craved for so long was all for nothing and that with hindsight, she would have done everything differently. To write off a whole life like that is sobering.

We discussed the book’s attitudes to race quite extensively and talked at length about the pretty clumsy racial stereotyping that made some readers quite uncomfortable- the “Hispanic” youths that Eileen encounters in the street, the 'moment of redemption' Indian meal that she shares with her old house’s new owners, Angelo’s family upstairs and Bethany the cult member, who we keep being reminded over and over again is a black woman, complete with bangles and braids. One member commented that she could see that Eileen had some issues with racism despite being an émigré herself, but much of the problematic descriptions came from the third person narrator, and that’s when it becomes difficult to work out if these prejudices belong to the character (which is work-around-able) or whether they belong to the book. Which is a bit more problematic.

The book's notes say that it took the author around 10 years to complete the book and we felt that that showed in the patchy quality of the narrative and the ways that the narrative styles change. Then there was all the baseball stats that nobody could make any sense of. Overall, we thought the book was *okay*, that it portrayed Altimeter's sensitively and accurately and caused emotional reactions from the reader.  However there were parts that were very shaky, both structurally, character wise and in terms of the narrator/character point of view. It was commented that "I'm glad I read it, but I don't think I'd recommend it" which a lot of members agreed with. We all said it hadn't occupied our thoughts much since putting the book down.

And the books upcoming in the next few months...

We have chosen the next three books that we'll be reading. Seeing as the Man Booker longlist 2015 came out yesterday, we thought that for August, we'd read last year's winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. According to wikipedia is the story of an Australian doctor (now considered a war hero in contrast to his own feeling of guilt) who is haunted by a wartime love affair with his uncle's wife. Post war,

To honour Margaret Atwood's visit to Nottingham on September 26th, we've gone for one of her novels for that month's book, which is Cat's Eye, a booker nominee in 1989. This also breaks up two war October's pick is Half Blood Blues, which was incidentally on the Booker 2011 shortlist. It wasn't meant to be this booker-y, but that's the way it's gone!

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

Spanning the economical, political and social turmoil of the entire 20th century, The Blind Assassin is a sprawling epic about the life and times of Mrs Richard Griffiths, formerly Iris Chase. Wife of a rising politician and admired philanthropist, daughter of a well respected businessman, granddaughter of a pioneering entrepreneur, mother of a wreck and sister of a tragic cult novelist, Iris is constantly defined throughout her own story by her relationship to others. It's not that she lacks the intelligence or the judgement to be her own person, it's just that she doesn't know who she is supposed to be. Living through a time of great social change, Iris comes across as lost and abandoned and drifts through her childhood, adolescence and adult life avoiding making decisions or raising her voice, presenting a persona of simple acquiescence and all but sleepwalking through her life.

Born into money but neglected by her eventually alcoholic single-parent father, Iris and her younger sister Laura have the run of their impressive house- checked periodically by household battleaxe Reenie the housekeeper come cook. Iris is one of the few people to fully understand her younger sister- her frank way of speaking, her literal interpretation of language and events, her oddness.  A bit of a metaphysical evangelist, Laura's trusting nature and warped logic cause her many problems throughout the course of her life and certainly play a part in her tragic death.

The novel starts with Laura's death, then expands into the past and the present. Narrated by 80-odd year old Iris some 50 years after Laura's accident/suicide, the plot jumps backwards and forwards through time. Iris slowly reveals more about her childhood, her loveless but financially strategic marriage, her complicated relationship with Laura and her own weakening grasp of life. Much harder and more stubborn in her old age, Iris is almost unrecognisable from the conflicted and mixed up young woman she one was. It seems that it's just her memories that attest to her real identity, and obviously her secrets.

Within the novel are assorted newspaper clippings and reports, and chapters lifted from The Blind Assassin, the only novel by Laura Chase. A scandalous volume on its posthumous publication, the novel sees a socially elevated Woman character engaging in clandestine meetings with a politically charged Man and conducting a passionate, secret and altogether confusing affair. The Woman is assumed by all to represent Laura Chase, and the Man Alex Thomas, a communist fugitive and supposed Bolshevik that the sisters sheltered in the loft after the war and before he disappeared to Spain to join the uprising. Within this (fictional) novel, the Man is also composing an episodic narrative of his own, also entitled The Blind Assassin; a pulpy science fiction affair, featuring the titular blind assassin, sacrificial mute slave girls, ray-gun toting lizard men and besieged Eastern empires. The Woman waits eagerly for each meeting in order to hear more of the story, composed just for her by her borderline abusive fugitive. It sounds crazy and unmanageable, to have three stories going on at once, all with the same name, but it works (how could it not work with Margaret Atwood at the helm?) and more details are revealed about the lives of the Chase sisters through the fictional novel. It has since been recategorised as an unduly forgotten classic, much to elderly Iris' annoyance.

As Iris reflects back on the course of her life, she gradually infuses her memories with truths she knows now that she was unaware of at the time. Her whole history is shredded by hindsight and missed opportunities, which makes her an incredibly powerful and tragic narrator. A pioneer of her generation, Iris struggled to find her way on an unmarked trail. The bitter and shambolic old lady in her tumbledown house is left as the sole survivor of a legacy of shame and secrets, lies and perversions. She's not above hiding a few secrets of her own too, though, the discovery of which throws the whole novel on its head.

I absolutely loved this book. I loved how complex its structure was and how rich the world of the narrative was. The shabby doughnut shop, the knock off holiday decorations from Myra's tat emporium. I loved the details that made present day Iris so real. The way the three Blind Assassins built upon each other's stories and filled in literal and metaphorical blanks was amazing. Iris is such an insanely complicated character- strong in her own way (you would need to be, just to survive a marriage like that) but also guilty of a lot of oversights. I'm not convinced that she always thought she was doing the right thing, even if she learned to convince herself that that was the case. But the reader can't help but sympathise with Iris for all that she lost and all that she's had to live with. There is not one scene in the whole entire book where actual, physical, real life Iris is happy.


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

My List of Betterment

Having almost finished (and enjoying, might I add) A Year of Reading Dangerously, by Andy Miller, I have competed the somewhat inevitable task of composing my own list of books that I feel I should have read, and have always intended to read, but have as of yet not got around to. As a list fan, and indeed fan of books, this is something of an enjoyable cherry picking exercise (the cherries being items on many existing lists of things to read of which I have waaay too many)...and also a semi-formal solidifying of many vague thoughts and intentions.

Hopefully I can cross a couple off this year. It's all about prioritisation *deep breaths*.

I've limited my list items to "cannon" established classics and modern-ish classics, just because newer titles haven't been out long enough for me to feel bad about being a book lover that hasn't read titles (including YA and other delightful offerings) I'm working my way through in a kind of  haphazard frenzy as and when they come out (and for a few years after). There's loads of new books that I want to read but there seems more time for that...I find I'm reading more new releases than ever. Which is a total 'about face' from this time 10 years ago when I only read Victorian stuff. Funny how that happens. Also it's my list, so y'know. I get to set the criteria ;)

I just want to make a disclosure at this point too; I've never, ever pretended to have read these at all. I don't do that and the people that do do that baffle me to the point of hilarity. If someone mentions a book that sounds impressive or interesting it goes on my mental to read list, I don't pretend that I've read it, even if I've had a copy sat on a shelf for 8 years. But it goes on the 'One Day' list.

So in no order other than the order in which I thought of them, here are the books I feel sorry for my eyes and brain for never having read.

The Blind Assassin- Margaret Atwood
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter- Carson McCullers
The Border Trilogy- Cormac McCarthy
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings- Maya Angelou
The Winter of Our Discontent- John Steinbeck
The Stand- Stephen King
The Sound and the Fury- William Faulkner
Invisible Man- Ralph Ellison
Oscar and Lucinda- Peter Carey
The 39 Steps- John Buchan
Something by Dorothy Parker
The Cloud Atlas- David Mitchell
1Q84- Haruki Murakami
The Sea, the Sea- Iris Murdoch
White Teeth- Zadie Smith
Catch 22- Joseph Hellier
The Colour of Magic- Terry Pratchett
Gormenghast- Mervyn Peake
The Magus- John Fowles
Middlesex- Jeffrey Euginides
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy- John la Carre
V For Vendetta- Alan Moore
The Weaker Vessel- Antonia Fraser
Hard Times- Charles Dickens
The Double- Jose Saramago
Batman: Arkham Asylum- Grant Morrison
Vilette- Charlotte Bronte
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy- Lawrence Sterne
The New York Trilogy- Paul Aster
Tripping the Velvet- Sarah Waters
American Gods- Neil Gaiman
Maus- Art Speigelman
Possession- AS Byatt
Moby Dick- Herman Melville
Cloud Atlas- David Mitchell
Sandman vol 1- Neil Gaiman

I'm in two minds about Middlemarch, Will it kill me? Is it as baffling as the first 3 pages of Daniel Deronda that I read in Uni, suffered a virtual head explosion and then switched modules?

I'll probably add stuff to the list as I think about them...and hopefully cross a couple off!

Does anybody have any titles in particular that they can't believe they've never read? Or things they've always meant to read but haven't yet?

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Forever, by Judy Blume

Until yesterday I had never read a Judy Blume book. There. I said it. As a functioning human female, hella big reader and School Librarian this might appear as a bit of an oversight. Judy Blume is a living legend, and I've kind of picked up why, via osmosis but have never read anything myself.

As a child of the late 80s I was too not-yet-alive to be around for their contemporary publication and therefore controversy...what controversy remained in the 90s  I was mostly unaware of...but this got swept aside in favour of new moral panics polluting the childhood mind, like Hitman on the PS2, chatroom crazies and Mad Cow Disease. In short, they kind of passed me by.

So, in honour of Judy's appearance at YALC this weekend, I decided to give two of her more famous offerings a go.

Are You There God? It's Me Margaret.
Margaret Simon has just moved from New York to New Jersey with her Christian mother and Jewish father. Raised without religion (or left to choose her own later in life) Margaret fixates on this gap in her life and seems to attribute her general confusion on her lack of religious identity. When in fact it's quite normal to not really know who you are or what you feel about things when you are almost 12. Obviously Margaret, like us all, doesn't realise that at the time.

I can imagine why Blume is so popular- the reader really gets to examine Margaret's thoughts, fears and feelings and they will reflect the same thoughts, fears and feelings of a reader Margaret's age. Falling in with a group of girls, Margaret obsesses over the idea that she doesn't look, act or feel as grown up as the rest of them. It's a race to be the first to wear a bra, the first to have a period or kiss a boy. They write their extensive crushes in Boy Books, and the lists are always identical. She suppresses her opinions when they differ from the others'. Anxiety-producing stuff. She doesn't realise that everybody around her worries about the same things.

I really liked the inclusion of Laura Danker, a girl in Margaret's class whose much taller and more developed than her classmates. Margaret's friend Nancy makes up rumours about her (that everybody naturally assumes to be true) and the girls envy her adult appearance. Envy that comes out as meanness and spite. Realising her fear of difference and odd-one-out ness isn't a unique fear, Margaret learns through Laura that being the puberty trailblazer isn't actually as appealing as she's imagined, and that you shouldn't believe everything you hear. Important life lessons.

All in all, a really accessible and I can imagine anxiety relieving read about adolescent milestones, about starting to find out what sort of a person you are, and learning where you fit into the World. If it came out now, it would fit nicely in the Middle Grade Arena. It's very true to life and doesn't make its protagonist out to be some kind of hero or role model- she's normal in every way.  Though it is obviously of its time, it doesn't feel too dated. As it's pre-Internet and pre-mobile phones, their absolute absence feels less noticeable than old tech. It's weird- but having like a flip phone and MSN screen name seems to date narratives more than if tech is absent completely.

Where Are You There God? Deals with first bras and first periods, Forever deals with first love and first sexual experiences. One of the most challenged books of the last 50 years, many really don't appear to see the value of a frank and honest narrative of teen romance.

Katherine is on her final year of High School. At a NYE party she meets Michael- after a tentative first date, they start 'going together'. I had to smirk at the quaint antiquity of this- and how Katherine eye-rolls at her parents' use of 'going steady'. Bless. Anyway, they begin an intense relationship- intense in only the way that teen love can be. They talk on the phone every day, they pine for each other during the week and bathe in blissful togetherness at the weekends.

It's not a particularly turbulent or concerning relationship- it appears to be based on a mutual respect, trust and desire to please. They try to be honest with each other, and Katherine certainly knows her own mind and is no fool. When Michael makes it clear he wants their relationship to become physical, Katherine thinks thoroughly about what this means for her, whether or not she is mentally ready for such a step, and the relationship between love, sex, fun and responsibility. She's sensible. She establishes boundaries, considers things carefully and takes control of her own relationship. Katherine makes quite a good prototype really. The book's tone is such that it subtly applauds her mature decision making process, rather than the conclusion she reaches. Yes there are descriptions of the first time she has sex with Michael, but it's no more graphic than a textbook and probably more informative. Bodily fluids and biological reactions seem only to be offensive when in the context of fiction. That's a weird one.

Though some of its contraceptive advice might be best consigned to the 1970s, the attitudes are helpful and honest. If it was written now, I'd like to think it would talk more openly about consent, but as it stands there's no actual bones to pick with the portrayal of Michael and Katherine's first sexual experiences with each other. PSHE in the 21st century still has a long way to go, but I imagine that in the 70s this book provided more sex education than an entire year's worth of sponsored videos.

I liked that the book too sees a whole relationship through, from meeting, to 'going together', to intense 'love' first sexual experiences, to peetering out and moving on. It acknowledges the intense fervour of  teen relationships in a way which understands how important and all consuming they can be. But also points out that this is often short lived in a way which is not dismissive. Despite Katherine's earnest insistence that her and Michael are forever, she seems to accept with maturity and grace that her parents were right after all, that forever at 18 is kind of daft.

So in summary, I completely understand why Judy Blume is the Queen Regent of Teen. She completely paved the way for teen fiction's determination to deal with real life, relatable issues, to tackle subjects that impact and shape adolescent lives. These books aren't prescriptive, they don't pretend to be manuals for life but it makes readers realise, at the height of the teenage Armageddon of hormones and frenemies and depression and relationships that it's not completely uncharted terrain. Others have been there first and can help you through. Through the characters every reader gets to have an older sister or a cool aunt from whom can get the answers to their embarrassing questions. It's impossible to imagine what Young Adult fiction might look like today if books like these hadn't come first.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves is a family epic that spans three generations of Irish Immigrants living in Brooklyn in the post war years. As a child, Eileen was mystified by her charismatic Irish father and cold, unaffectionate mother. Each turning to alcohol at some point to endure their lives, school-aged Eileen takes management of the household; cooking, cleaning, bundling her inebriated parents into their separate bedrooms. Her Catholic upbringing and turbulent family train her from an early age for the vocation that she will grow up to fit into- nursing.

The bulk of the narrative follows Eileen’s adulthood with her husband, brilliant neuroscientist and thoroughly respected community college teacher Ed Leary. Introduced as blind dates at a New Year's Eve party, their attraction is instant and mutual and it's not long before they're married. As a new graduate he seems luminous, filled with light and life and brilliance, and they seem happy. Properly, Hollywood film happy. They have a son- a hard won son in a family troubled by miscarriages and Ed adores him, though Eileen feels strangely excluded- removed from the bond her son and his father share. Eventually Eileen becomes frustrated by her husband’s lack of ambition- he seems to have no aspiration to rise through the ranks at work, to move to a more prestigious role at fancier NYU or to re-locate from their increasingly multicultural neighbourhood. Always with her sights set on the next life goal, Eileen sees the plush furniture and sleek furs of some of her friends and former acquaintances and longs for an equally impressive standard of living.

Towards middle age, at the peak of his modest-by-choice career, Ed starts to change. Slowly, at first. He’s cruel sometimes, obsessive. His periods of frantic, desperate work are followed by long periods of sullenness or violent outbursts. He yells at Connell, his son, he starts listening to opera around the clock. It gradually dawns on the reader at the same pace that it occurs to Eileen that her husband’s increasingly erratic and uncharacteristic behaviour might be down to something more than over work or a mid-life crisis. We find out early in the narrative that it’s early onset Alzheimer’s, its voracious progress through Ed’s body and brain is ruthless, but never insensitive in its telling. Ed’s character is revealed all the more clearly through his gallant battle with the disease- we understand him more as his understanding slips away.

It’s a devastating but beautiful book that really brings home the commitment and sacrifice it takes to persevere with a marriage knowing that it will just get worse and worse, that the person you married is gone forever. The worst parts are the occasional, more lucid days of Ed’s illness, where Eileen glimpses shadows of the husband she remembers in the ruined body that he’s become. Widowhood has a name, divorcée has a name. There’s no name for what Eileen becomes.

The book really makes the reader think about the fragile delicacy of the human brain and the fine thread that anchors our memories and personalities to us. It’s a complex and emotional book about grief and sacrifice, shouldering or shirking responsibilities, the need to keep buying grander houses and newer cars, earning bigger wages and gathering more respect, rather than being happy with what we have. I really liked Eileen as a character, and I understood her need to better herself, to reward herself for her hard work and to luxuriate in the things that she’d earned. I suppose it’s inbuilt into first and second generation immigrants, the need to improve, to climb and to prove you belong. But it’s clear that she’d do it all again differently in hindsight, and it’s the hindsight that’s so heartbreaking.

Eileen is a brilliant creation- she begins as a bright, attractive and strong willed nurse that’s ardently ambitious, strong willed as single minded. It feels an act though- she suppresses so much of her own emotions, coming across sometimes as cold and unfeeling. Her true test comes later in the book, and the reader forgives all. It’s devastating to watch her struggle with her husband’s illness, desperately holding off the moment when she must relinquish control. It’s hard to watch the subconscious guilt and shame that she’s carried around for years catch up to her later, when she becomes buried under worry, rattling around in a too-big house with a son on the other side of the country. As a character, Connell is possibly less realised than either of his parents, but he his perhaps characterised by this lack of character, at least in a moral fibre and personality sort of way. He struggles to find his identity and it’s only really in maturity that he learns to face who he is. I’d like to know more about Connell- the son that was so close to his father, so understood by him that eventually became so horrified at the thought of what his father became.

It’s strange that in a novel so full of degeneration, desperation and sadness, that it’s not an especially downbeat book. It’s even guiltily and unexpectedly funny in places. It’s about the unnavigable, unknowable, suck-it-and-see quality of life that everyone experiences. There’s no guidebook or game plan, and degenerative diseases aside, there’s no telling the direction a life can take. Sometimes two lives lived together can diverge along different routes. It’s uplifting in a way, because the take home message is about living for today and enjoying the small things, about savouring love and life and not taking things for granted. It's about learning not to listen to regrets, because it's impossible to take back what was done at the time- especially if decisions were made for the right reasons and in good faith.

Simply an incredible debut- a sensitive and emotionally involving study of a small, ordinary family as they try to keep their heads above the water. There is some truly beautiful writing in this novel, many lines that stand out in their punishing clarity, even from prose of such quality. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski

Perhaps the most famous of Bukowski's novels and often considered the most autobiographical, Ham on Rye tells the story of Henry Chinaski, a thinly veiled alter-ego of the author and his adolescent years growing up in depression era Los Angeles.

The narrative starts with anti-hero Henry's early years, seemingly endless driving around in his father's car for short visits with relatives that his father seems to have nothing but sneering contempt for. The reader learns early on that Henry Chinaski Snr is abusive and mildly unhinged, beating his son and his wife for sometimes no reason at all. I know it shouldn't be, but the scene where he manically demands Wembly-arena-quality grass mowing skills from his son is quite comical in its absurdity.We follow Henry Jnr's progression through his school life, where, attracted by the socially acceptable violence he tries to get into sports, then girls and then into hardcore alcoholism and regular everyday violence during his unremarkable adulthood.

Henry never fits in amongst his peers, partly due to his sarcastic and morose attitude, his unusually large build and lack of emotion, and eventually because of his horrific acne. In reality his alienation is due to the fact that Henry is odd, in a myriad of subtle ways that nobody can really identify successfully. He never played with the neighbourhood kids, he doesn't react when he's targeted for beatings, he's never bothered by his creepy loner status and is perturbed when other weird kids latch onto him for short periods. There's an increasingly bizarre collection of oddballs that come his way, then disappear as suddenly. He builds, eventually, a reputation for himself as a tough guy, immune to affection and kindness, feared by all. His alienation is only intensified when his status obsessed father makes him go to a private high school full of rich kids is flashy sportscars, convinced that if he gives the appearance of wealth, people will consider him rich and successful. High school finds Henry back at the bottom of the pile, anonymous and stripped of his tough guy reputation.

In many ways it's a classic coming of age novel- adolescence is seen as ridiculous and adulthood pure insanity. Henry's father fakes a job for years and his mother barely breathes for fear of upsetting her husband. Adulthood looks intensely unappealing to Henry. There's plenty of truly cringeworthy episodes where, as you're reading, you hope that it isn't one of the autobiographical incidents...then the next one is that bit worse, then the next properly alarming, so you can deduce that at least one of them surely must have happened...and then that goes some way to understanding Bukowski as a person. There are events too where we come closer to understanding Henry as a character- we learn that despite his love of (and talent) for violence, he abhors cruelty to animals. Perhaps his one redeeming quality in a narrative where he comes across as somebody one would make effort to avoid.

Though he's a character the reader feels gradually diminishing sympathy for, he is definitely an authentic misanthrope. Less posturing than Holden Cauldfield, as phoney as the world he despises, less philosophical (and less obviously disturbed) than Meursault, less active than Johnny Strabler...he's invisible and utterly devoid of impact and it's thoroughly through choice. I suppose he's characterised mostly by lack- a lack of ambition, which infuriates his father, a lack of faith in himself or his country, a lack of application in anything that comes across his path. Though Henry is far from a likeable character, you have to admire his consistency and his truthfulness, and you can't deny he's compelling.

It's not exactly an enjoyable read, but the narrative style is absolutely gripping and the grim, relentless drudge of a life of isolation and despondency is gritty and dynamic, the prose fierce. It's such a compelling book with a memorable and intense anti-hero that trumps them all when it comes to authenticity. It's hard to tell if he's unhappy or not- it's hard to believe that he feels anything. Henry doesn't merely demand the reader's attention, he consumes it.