Man Booker Book Review #5: “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund

This was the fifth book in my Man Booker shortlist reading marathon and I had not finished it by the time the winner was announced last week (George Saunders won with Lincoln in the Bardo you may recall). I was almost halfway through though, and felt quite strongly that it would not be the winner. It’s a debut novel (one of three on the shortlist, among them Saunders who has mostly published short and non-fiction previously), the author being best known for her short stories. To be honest, it did not move me, even though the subject matter is challenging and parts of the book shocking, even harrowing.

A History of Wolves imgIt’s a tough one to review without giving too much away, and the comments on the jacket don’t say very much about the story either, only that it is “exquisite”, “compelling” and “forcefully moving”. The central character is Linda (also Madeline or Mattie to her parents), who is an only child living with her parents in small town Minnesota. To say they live in a rural environment is an under-statement; they live in a cabin in the woods, which they seem to have built themselves, with their dogs. It seems they were formerly part of a small commune, but the other residents have gradually moved away as the cooperative spirit broke down. Linda’s parents are rather remote and she is allowed to roam the area freely, to canoe on the lake as and when she pleases, and to walk many miles in all weathers.

The primary plot of the novel is the relationship that Linda develops with a family that moves in across the lake. Somewhat disillusioned and disappointed with her own existence, Linda befriends the young woman, Patra, and her young son, Paul, aged four, and becomes his babysitter, or his ‘governess’ as Patra decides to call her. Patra’s husband, Leo is initially not present. He is an academic, working on some significant science project and has settled his family in this rural setting to enable them to have a better quality of life. Linda becomes very close to Patra and Paul, insinuating herself ever more closely into their lives, a fact which her parents do not seem to mind.

A parallel plotline is that of Linda’s school life. Linda is the victim of low-level bullying at school; the other kids see her as different to them and tease her because they know that her parents were part of a commune. The title of the story refers to a project Linda did for a regional History Odyssey. She somewhat misinterpreted the remit of the task, and therefore had no chance of winning, but her project on the history of wolves was given a special recognition. The teacher who invited her to participate in the competition, Mr Grierson, a recent blow-in from California, is subsequently implicated in a sex scandal with one of Linda’s classmates.

The first half of the book is slow. The writing is beautiful and skilful, but I had trouble seeing where it was all going and how the very disparate plotlines would at any point intersect. About halfway through Leo returns and the pace alters somewhat. His return changes the dynamic of the Linda, Patra, Paul set-up and it becomes clear that his presence is about to impact on events. Which it does! I can say no more without giving away too much of the plot, but I will just say that he is much older than his wife and that he is a committed Christian Scientist who has converted Patra, his former student.

There were a couple of things I really liked about the book. Firstly, the sense of place, the remote atmosphere of rural Minnesota and the character of the local population, their interests and priorities, are beautifully drawn. Secondly, I think the concept is a good one; the exploration of not just Christian Science as religion, cult or social grouping, but of all forms of group identity that people create for themselves in order to feel a communal belonging, is fascinating. On the whole, however, the book did not deliver for me and the group identity theme is not as fully explored as I would have liked. Later on in the novel we meet Linda when she is an adult, living in the city and reflecting back on the events of her teenage years. The novel jumps back and forth between the present and the separate plotlines of the past and I found this rather annoying. I found the ending something of anti-climax and for me the novel did not really fulfil its potential. It felt like an early draft that needed some reorganising.

I know there are others who have raved about this book, so don’t just take my word for it, but I’m afraid it fell short of Man Booker shortlist standard for me. And against my Days Without End yardstick (possibly the best book not to be shortlisted, ever!) I’m afraid it is inferior.

If you have read this book, what did you think? Is it just me???

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Man Booker Book Review 1: “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Once again this year, I have set myself the goal of reading the Man Booker shortlist. The shortlist of six was announced on 13 September and the winner will be named on 17 October. The title and description of this book did not appeal immediately and it would probably not have been the book I started with, but the others took a few days to arrive and this was the one that was available in the library, so by default it became my starting point.

Lincoln in the Bardo
I’m sorry, I just don’t get it!

George Saunders is a well-established American writer, winner of the Folio Prize in 2014 (for Tenth of December, a collection of short stories) and on the back of my copy of this book are some impressive quotes from literary heavyweights: “A writer of arresting brilliance and originality” Tobias Wolff, “A morally passionate, serious writer…He will be read long after these times have passed.” Zadie Smith. High praise indeed. But this book? I just don’t get it.

The premise of the book is the untimely death of Willie Lincoln, eleven year old son of US President Abraham Lincoln in February 1862, whilst the American Civil War is raging. The Bardo is, according to Tibetan tradition, a kind of interim state that the dead enter prior to their admission to the final place where they will spend the afterlife. The Bardo, as imagined in this book, is a riotous place where the spirits, from different ages and social strata, mingle and squabble. Specifically, here, they argue over Willie’s soul and are fascinated by the vigil that Abraham Lincoln undertakes beside his son’s coffin. The cemetery (or perhaps more accurately the Bardo) is populated by a cast of characters who could easily have stepped out of a Victorian travelling circus; a mixture of grotesques and rogues, troubled souls and tragic misfits. Some are more fully realised than others; Hans Vollman. Roger Bevins iii and the Reverend Everly Thomas are our primary narrators, whose background stories are revealed in some detail, but many others make only brief appearances and are more like caricatures.

The structure of the book is very unusual, like nothing I’ve ever read before. There is no coherent narrative, as such, the story is told from the multiple perspectives. These not only include the restless spirits, but for the events that precede Willie’s death, or outside the cemetery, they are told in short paragraphs by third party observers, reporters and historians. What was most interesting to me, was how different some of these accounts were, despite the writers all seeming to have been present at the event described.

This book has left me feeling like I’m missing something. I know that it has been highly praised, but I’m afraid I just am not seeing anything particularly innovative here. To me it’s all just a muddle, with no story, where nothing really happens. There is one central theme, which seems to be that the dead do not rest easily until the living let them go, allow them to realise their ‘deadness’, but I’m not sure that single point is worthy of a whole book. And I didn’t really find the cast of spirits very entertaining or enlightening. I’ve read many books which have challenged form, which have taken some re-reading to fully appreciate. But for me, this book offers nothing that I want to delve back into. If it wins the ManBooker, I may need to go back to Literature School!

I dislike being critical. Did you find something of value in this book? What is it I’m missing?!

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“Everything Everything” by Nicola Yoon

Everything Everything, first published in 2015 to great acclaim, was reissued in 2017, after the novel was made into a film, and my edition shows a still from the movie with our two main protagonists, Maddy and Olly, gorgeously pictured on the front cover. It’s a YA novel which I selected for my May reading challenge, having bought it for my teenage daughter a few weeks ago (she hasn’t read it yet!), and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, especially when, leafing through, the chapters looked a bit short and I saw that there were several pages with line-drawn illustrations of, for example, diary entries, notes from an exercise book, emails, set out as if they were on a screen, text conversations, etc. Hmm, I thought, all designed to sustain the digital native’s interest! Well, as is so often the case when I stray off my well-beaten literary track, I was truly humbled.

2017-06-21 11.08.32The novel opens with our central character Maddy’s eighteenth birthday. She celebrates this with her mother and her nurse, Carla; Maddy suffers from severe allergies and lives an isolated existence in her hermetically sealed home, which she has not left for many years, so these two women provide the only relationships she really has. Maddy is home schooled, receiving almost all her tuition over Skype from various tutors. Occasionally, they are allowed to tutor her in person, but only after they spend a period of time in a decontamination unit in the house, to ensure Maddy does not come into contact with any pathogens or foreign particles which might harm her. Maddy’s father and older brother were killed in an accident when Maddy was a baby and she and her mother are therefore incredibly close.

Maddy is a voracious reader and in the absence of a lived experience of the world she has framed all her perception of life outside the bubble of her home, and her tiny circle of human contact, from the books she has read. Whilst she is initially reasonably content with her life, accepting its limitations and appreciating the love of her mother and Carla, her love of books is an early hint of her desire to embrace the world. Early on, we learn that she has taught herself not to want things she cannot have:

“Wanting just leads to more wanting. There’s no end to desire.”

But then she meets Olly, when he moves into the house next door with his parents and sister, and everything (everything) changes:

“Maddy knows that this pale half-life is not really living.”

Olly has his own troubles: his father is a violent alcoholic who terrorises the rest of the family. Olly and Maddy begin to communicate by text and email, and it is clear that not only are they deeply attracted but that each fulfils an unmet need in the other. A cascade of events follows which will expose the inexorable pull of the world to the young and vulnerable Maddy, and the pointlessness of an anxious parent’s attempts to protect her child from all risk.

It is a coming-of-age novel, in that we see a young woman separating from her mother, but it is also a great novel for a parent coming to terms with the coming of age of their kids! To that extent, it is an instructive read for parties on both sides of the debate: the older generation can see how important it is for our youngsters to live, love and to learn for themselves, but the young can also see the parent’s perspective, Maddy’s mother’s fear of losing something (everything) so precious to her when she has already experienced so much loss in her life (her husband and son).

It’s a cracking story, with some clever plotting, and great themes which are beautifully handled for a younger readership. It’s well-written and well-crafted and the line drawings do add to the experience! There’s a little bit of sex, but it’s very subtly and sensitively done. Recommended for parents and teenagers alike.

If you have read this book or watched the movie, would you recommend it for teenagers? Could boys and girls alike enjoy it?

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Book review: “Days Without End” by Sebastian Barry

I listened to this on Audiobook, which was narrated by the wonderful Aidan Kelly. It’s a brilliant book, with the most sublime use of language, my appreciation of which was enhanced by Kelly’s fabulous reading. I had the same experience with Holding by Graham Norton, but sadly not with The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, which I’m listening to at the moment, where I’m finding the narration rather irritating. Aidan Kelly’s reading brings such an authenticity to the listening experience that I actually believed I was listening to Thomas McNulty.

Days Without End img

The book is set in America in the 1850s, where our very young narrator and central character, Thomas McNulty, finds himself after fleeing devastating famine in Sligo, Ireland, and searching for a new life, any life, in the New World. He signs up as a mercenary soldier for the Government infantry in the civil war against the Confederate south. There he meets ‘handsome John Cole’, an American, with whom he develops an intimate relationship. When their time in the infantry ends the two make a living for a while as entertainers where Thomas masquerades as a woman. He finds he is comfortable playing this role with John Cole as his beau, and in the periods when the two live a settled life together, it becomes his costume of choice, as well as providing a convenient disguise in times of trouble.

The accounts of war and violence are graphic and horrific and no detail is spared, which I found difficult to listen to at times, although also strangely compelling. Thomas and John rejoin the army further on in the novel and are involved in head to head battles with native American Indians. These accounts were even more harrowing as the contrast between the two sides is exposed so starkly, the soldiers having far superior firepower. In one of these encounters, Thomas and John rescue a young girl, Winona, whom they practically adopt as their own daughter and determine to look after.

Some of the scenes in the book are brutal and hard to read (or in my case listen to). The injustice of the men’s situation, the terrible conditions in which they have to live, the way that soldiers are treated as cannon fodder and afforded very little respect by their military masters is shocking. They are forced to live a most brutal existence and for many of the men the experience is completely dehumanising. The extreme violence they both administer and experience is like nothing that most of us will ever have come across and the novel is very powerful as a result. And yet, there is also tremendous tenderness: the relationship between Thomas and John Cole is beautifully drawn, though we never hear John’s voice first hand, and never gratuitous, never titillating. Even Thomas’s cross-dressing is handled with a beautiful innocence. The love that is shared between the two young men and Winona is also very powerful; that they are capable of such care of another human being is all the more moving when you consider the extremes of violence, deprivation and injustice in which they have existed.

There is a tale here, though mostly the novel is about a time and place in history and what that was like for the people immersed in it. It is a tale not just of survival but about how people who have nothing, have love and find a way, ultimately, to live peacefully.

This is one of a series of novels about various members of the McNulty family. I haven’t read the others, but I will certainly do so after reading Days Without End. The novel won the Costa Book Award in 2016 and has been widely acclaimed.

I recommend it highly and can particularly recommend the audiobook. That said, the language of the book is so beautiful that I would also love now to go back and read it, to see those words dance on the page.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Who knew about ‘The Secret Life of Bees’?

2017-03-08 12.29.54

When I put it out on social media a couple of weeks ago that I was about to start reading this book, I had a number of comments back from people telling me how much they had enjoyed it, so I started with high expectations. I was not disappointed. I was only puzzled at how I’d missed it first time around, but then it was published in 2001, the year my first child was born, which explains a lot! I was totally absorbed by this book, as were my fellow book club members – I read it very quickly because it was so hard to put down. It is a very female book in the sense that it is full of strong women, so perfect to be reading around the time of International Women’s Day.

The central character is fourteen year-old Lily. When we first meet her she is living a lonely, loveless existence on her father’s peach farm; we learn that her mother died when she was four years old in a mysterious accident with a gun which seems to have involved Lily pulling the trigger. Lily lives with her father, whom she calls T. Ray, an indication of the distance and lack of filial affection in their relationship. It’s worse than that though; T.Ray’s treatment of his daughter is borderline abusive. He is emotionally and physically cruel, administering harsh physical treatment for what he perceives to be her misdemeanours, and exploiting her labour. Lily’s only friend is the black maid Rosaleen.

Lily longs for her dead mother and craves the affection she feels sure her mother would have given her. She spends time imagining what her mother was like and cherishes the small trinkets which serve as her only memories. One of these trinkets is a picture of a black Madonna with the words ‘Tiburon S.C.’ written on the back. It transpires that Tiburon is another town in South Carolina, some distance from Sylvan where Lily lives.

The novel is set in the Summer of 1964, when the Civil Rights Act had just been made law, giving people of colour the right to vote throughout the United States. Whilst racial equality had been affirmed in law, it was not yet fully accepted in the wider society. Rosaleen walks into town to register to vote and is involved in an incident with some local thugs. She is beaten up by these men, but finds herself arrested and put in jail. Her injuries are so severe that she is sent to hospital. For Lily this is the final straw and she sees this as an opportunity for them both to escape their repressed life. She gets Rosaleen out of the hospital from under the nose of the guard who is meant to be watching her, and the two women make their way to Tiburon by hitchhiking and walking.

Lily has no plan beyond getting to Tiburon and does not even know what she intends to do or what she expects to find when she gets there, but there is no doubt she feels drawn there and, in reality has no other option. Through a series of chance encounters, Lily and Rosaleen find themselves at ‘the pink house’, the home of the calendar sisters, August, June and May, three black women who run a cottage industry from their home, producing honey. The label on their jars has a picture of the same black Madonna that Lily has among her mother’s possessions. It turns out that the sisters also belong to a group called The Daughters of Mary, a small religious coterie which worships Mary, mother of Jesus (manifested in the black Madonna, of whom they also have a statue in their home), as the source of divine love and power.

The sisters take in Lily and Rosaleen and they spend the summer with them, working for their board and lodging. Over the weeks and months, Lily begins to uncover some truths about her mother and her own story, which are not easy for her to bear. Lily also learns what it is to be loved as her relationship with one of the sisters, August, develops, and she is accepted by the other sisters and their companions.

This is a wonderfully written book with a powerful sense of time and place. The setting, hot, sultry South Carolina is beautifully conveyed. It is not a light book; there are some dark and sinister undertones here with the racial violence, child cruelty and social injustice, but it is ultimately a hopeful and uplifting book. Through Lily, Rosaleen and the sisters, truth and goodness ultimately prevail.

I loved this and would recommend it highly. Great bedtime reading, great holiday reading, great anytime reading, this is storytelling at its best.

The Oscars – literary references

You will no doubt have picked up that it’s the Oscars this weekend; they start somewhere in the middle of the night (UK time) on Sunday 26th. I’m not a huge film buff so I’ve never stayed up for them, but I’ve become interested in recent years as an increasing number of the top movies, it seems to me, have been based on works of literature. The ones that spring to mind are Life of Pi (2013), 12 Years A Slave (2014), No Country for Old Men (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Last year was particularly rich in literary reference with The Danish Girl, Carol, The Revenant and Room all big winners based on books. (I was so struck by this that I read three of the books and posted about it not long after I started this blog. You can read my post here)

hidden-figures-imgThis year, literary references are a little thinner on the ground, but I want to tell you about a couple that have caught my eye. My children were on their half term holiday last week and I took my youngest daughter (aged 10) to see Hidden Figures. It is based on a true story, but the film was inspired by a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. You will  no doubt have seen the trailers, but, to summarise, it tells the story of three exceptionally talented mathematical minds whose contribution to the US space programme in the 1960s went largely unacknowledged…because they were African-American women working at a time when racial segregation was still in place. It is a remarkable story, very moving and very well told.

I am proud to say that my young daughter was incredulous at the level of discrimination that prevailed – why didn’t these very clever women get the credit for the work they did? Without them, John Glenn may not have made it into space, let alone come back in one piece! I’d be interested to read the book, if only because the film is at times a little sentimental (though this takes nothing away from the achievement of the central characters) and I’d like to  understand which facts have been sugar-coated for pictorial effect and which are true. And which bits they left out! I would highly recommend the film though, so take your daughters. And your sons!

lion-img

The other film I’m desperate to see this year is Lion, which has been nominated for six Oscars, and is based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley. This book is also a true story and is a personal account by the author of how he became separated from his dirt-poor family in India at the age of five. He found himself on the streets in Calcutta and then ended up in Tasmania. At the age of 30 he set out to try and find his family and the book (and the film) is the story of that journey.

 

 

 

I’m starting to build-up a long ‘to watch’ list, alongside my ‘to read’ list, but at least the ‘to watch’ list is merely a page of notes at the back of my diary and doesn’t haunt me every time I walk into a room in my house and am confronted by a very real large pile of books! (Yes, there is one in every room!) Roll on the March reading challenge, which is to tackle a book from the ‘to read’ pile.

Have you seen any films recently that you would recommend?

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What to do when a book feels like a hard slog?

Last Autumn I set myself a challenge to read the full Man Booker Shortlist 2016 (six books). I didn’t manage all of them before the winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, was announced. I planned to complete and review the final one on my list (Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien) this week, but I’m afraid I haven’t finished it; it is taking me an inordinate amount of time to get through!

swan-319379_640Now, dear reader, this blog is rather like the proverbial swan – whilst it may look smooth and effortless to you on the surface, the planning (reading, idea generation, social media, writing, etc) that goes on behind the scenes is like a military operation! Well, not exactly, but, you know, I do plan my reading, aim to bring you a book a week and try to blog twice a week. And this book has totally blown my schedule! You know what it’s like when you’ve got a busy day planned either at home or at work…and you hear the words “Mum, I’ve just been sick!” and you know your day is irretrievably banjaxed. Well, that’s how I feel.

2017-02-08-11-48-44Do Not Say We Have Nothing, broadly speaking, is about China after the revolution, what it was like living under the dictatorship of Mao Tse Tung and about the hardships endured by the population, particularly by artists and intellectuals, in an era when culture was heavily proscribed. I have had a lifelong fascination with China, have read very widely about this enormously diverse and culturally rich nation, so I should be loving it. But I’m not! And I’m barely halfway through! I took a break from it this week and read Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe (which I’ll be reviewing soon), and that book is at the very opposite end of the literary spectrum – light, fun, quick to read. Many people probably would have given up by now. After all, a book, particularly a long one, is a huge investment is it not? I rarely give up on a book – I gave up on White Teeth by Zadie Smith a few years ago after a couple of false starts, but I have always planned to go back to it. My rationale for continuing with Do Not Say We Have Nothing is as follows:

  1. I’ve already sunk several hours into it
  2. I keep thinking that it’ll get more enjoyable
  3. It seems a worthy book, so I feel I ought to finish it
  4. I set myself the challenge to complete the shortlist and I can’t let one book make me fail.

Reasons 2 and 4 are the most compelling. So, I will carry on to the bitter end and hope that a turn of the plot will make it all worthwhile. I’ll keep you posted!

Do you give up on a book if you’re not enjoying it?

If you’ve already read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you think it’ll be worth it in the end. Is it just me?