Three great holiday reads

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

burning

My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more of less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point. Not in the ‘she moved to Tucson’ sense, but in the sense that ‘we grew apart’.

The Burning Girl tells the story of two girls, Julia and Cassie, who become best friends in nursery school and  stay so until they grow apart as teenagers. Cassie starts changing in seventh grade into someone Julia barely recognises. Having always been together at their small primary school and having played after school every day, the girls then go to high school and are ‘pushed apart by bureaucracy’ – Julia is cleverer than Cassie; they no longer have classes together, and a new girl swiftly becomes Cassie’s new best friend. The novel is written from Julia’s point of view, and one of the strengths of this well-written book is the emotional sensitivity with which Messud deals with Julia’s observations of Cassie, detailing the painful teenage angst Julia experiences; that sense of still loving your friend and aching inside for being left out. They grow apart, yet Julia always defends Cassie as her behaviour becomes increasingly rebellious. When Cassie disappears, it is Julia who understands her friend so deeply that she knows where to find her. Messud’s portrayal of this intense relationship is beautifully depicted.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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Another novel about friendships, this time between two families who both live in the middle-class suburb of Shaker Heights (creepily like the Stepford Wives’ setting) in mid-west America. The Richardsons are a wealthy well-established nuclear family, while the Warrens are their poorer tenants; Mia Warren a nomadic artist and Pearl, her daughter, a teenager desperate to settle down. Ng is adept at portraying these characters; the Richardson teenagers insouciant in their wealth, who lounge about watching Jerry Springer shows, drive expensive cars and wear their clothes effortlessly. Their father is a corporate lawyer, their mother a reporter. Their youngest daughter, Izzy, is not as ‘perfect’ as her siblings, however, being a difficult, prickly individual prone to running away and causing trouble. Pearl is seduced by this family, becoming friends with the younger son, falling in love with the older one, the golden-boy; in awe of the oldest daughter;  becoming embarrassed of her poorly furnished small home and her eccentric mother. On the other hand, Izzy, is drawn to Mia’s creativity and eclectic artistic house, and her unjudgemental acceptance of Izzy. When Mrs Richardson, noting Izzy’s attraction to Mia and Pearl’s presence in the Richardson home, asks Mia to become their cleaner, the relationships start to shift. Another strand of the story arises, where both mothers take opposite stances in a controversial adoption within the Shaker community, while leads to an irretrievable shakeup. Ng portrays these fragile relationship exquisitely, particularly those of mothers and their children and the mistakes that happen, sometimes deliberately,  often almost inadvertently. The title refers to the opening scene in which the Richardson’s home is ablaze with fire,  started, according to the fire chief, by ‘little fires everywhere’; but at the same time reflects the minutiae of each relationship, in which little incidents stoke larger events with dire consequences.

Future Home of the Living Gods by Louise Erdich

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It is a pity there is such a focus on the Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the moment, as some readers might accuse Erdich of imitating it, not knowing that Atwood wrote the novel over 30 years ago. Erdich’s outstanding book deserves to stand alone with its imaginative look at a near-dystopian society, in which time appears to be moving backwards; reverse evolution as it were. The main character is a young pregnant woman of Native American origins called Cedar Hawk Songmaker; adopted by a white couple. When Cedar goes to find her Obijwe birth mother, she quite delightfully discovers her real name is in fact just Mary Potts and that her birth family is not mystical in any way. This is one of the things I like about Erdich’s novels – they always have a slight wry humour to them. Cedar seeks out her birth family to find out their medical history and any genetic makeup that might affect her baby, in this society in which animals and insects are slowly reverting to their prehistoric forms. Many human babies are being born in a more humanoid form, while fewer ‘perfect’ ones exist. As a result of this, pregnant women are being rounded up and held prisoner in ‘homes’ in which women disappear after giving birth to babies who are confiscated. Cedar narrates the novel in the form of a diary to her unborn child, thus exposing the reader to her alternating excitement and terror. Erdich has created a novel which, beneath its fantastic plot, weaves themes of diversity, acceptance, familial bonds, racism and sexism in all forms. It was a fantastic read.

 

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Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Beach

I enjoyed Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Visit from the Goon Squad – an experimental novel written from many different points of view – so was glad to see a new one written by her; this time a historical novel set in New York in the aftermath of the Great Depression and into world war two. It’s totally different, but just as well written, and well researched.

The story revolves around a working-class Irish family, the Kerrigans. Anna, the elder daughter, adores her father Eddie who works for a racketeer named Dexter Styles. We are introduced to these three characters in the opening scene, where 11-year-old Anna has accompanied her father to visit Dexter on the privacy of Manhattan Beach to discuss business. The meeting is brief, and after that Egan takes us a decade into the future and re-introduces us to Anna, who has fought against male opposition to be accepted into the Navy Divers and, because of the war, has begrudgingly been accepted.

Eddie has left, having abandoned the family years earlier, leaving no trace and no one to help Anna’s mother and her sister, severely disabled from birth. Dexter Styles runs his illicit businesses successfully, keeping the balancing act going while deferring to his powerful father-in-law. Egan keeps these three stories running concurrently, and brings Anna and Dexter together in an eerily horrific scene when Anna determines to find out what happened to her father.

Egan

The storyline is strong and the characters interesting – that is enough to make it a good book – but Egan also introduces New York almost as a fourth character; a coastal city in which Manhattan Beach features as a major setting, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Anna works as a diver, introduces the symbolic theme of the ocean, by which Anna, Eddie and Dexter are all affected. Even Anna’s sister, brought down to the beach by Anna and Dexter, becomes animated at the sight of the ocean and experiences a brief improvement in movement and speech. Egan’s descriptions of Anna’s diving work – from putting on the clumsy suit and heavy brass helmet for the first time, the blissful weightlessness underwater, the exacting work – fascinated me (in the acknowledgments, Egan thanks the United States Army Divers’ Association for allowing her to try on the 200-pound suit).

For example, when Anna tried the suit on for the first time, in front of the Naval men who did not want her to succeed:, “She tried to stand, but the breastplate and helmet and leather belt fused her to the bench. The only way to rise was to force her weight against those two spots where the collar cleaved her shoulders. Anna did this with a sensation of nails being pounded into her flesh. The pain made her eyes swim, and the weight threatened to buckled her knees, but she heaved herself upright…”

DivingSuit

I particularly liked Anna; her inner strength, how she pushed herself into a male-dominated arena and showed them she was good at diving; her vulnerability with regard to her father and her anger at his abandonment, her push-pull attraction to Dexter.  Dexter was a fantastic gangster, moving between the different parts of his life seamlessly – loving father, family man, dutiful son-in-law, business with hitmen and then bankers. Perhaps Eddie’s story dragged on a bit – I found I wasn’t that interested in his journey as the other two main character’s. Yet Manhattan Beach was an absorbing read, and one I could easily go back to again.

I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’ Farrell

 

I’ve read a few books so far this summer holiday; hopefully more to come, with three weeks left.

I am, I am, I am – 17 Brushes With Death by Maggie O’ Farrell

I am

A memoir about the author’s near-death experiences in her life, this is a fascinating book that I found almost unputdownable. Taking the title from from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am), this is not written as an autobiographical story, but portrays vignettes in O’ Farrell’s life where she has almost died, some dramatically, others less so. In relating these incidents, we get to know the author at different stages of her life from being a bullied child, a rebellious teenager, and ultimately to a parent struggling with an ill child. They reflect how she deals with the sheer vulnerability of being human, and expose the will to live that resides within her, despite all the medical adversities she faces (and there are many). Here she shows no self-pity; she is honest with the reader which invoked a sympathy within me and a profound respect for her for coping with being in the public eye so frequently.

Each chapter is titled with the body part that was affected – neck, abdomen, bloodstream, cause unknown, etc – with the corresponding year in which the incident happened.  There is an astonishing variety of incidents, ranging from an encounter with a murderer on a remote country path, a labour that was badly mismanaged and almost caused her to bleed out, and a jump off a pier as a teenager looking for an escape from a mundane life. Some of the chapters are very short, and quickly relate what could have caused her to die, whereas others are longer and far more serious, such as a childhood encephalitis that nearly killed her.

The last chapter strictly is not about her, although it affects her more deeply than the others; this time she is a mother who cannot control the situation in which her immune-compromised daughter suffers a severe allergic reaction. The chapter, and hence the book, ends with ‘She is, she is, she is‘, the syncopation of relief that her daughter survives.

O’ Farrell writes in an immediate way, spare and candid, and alters her point of view so that she sometimes writes in the first-person, present tense, whereas other chapters are written in the second-person. All of them work.

O’ Farrell was already one of my favourite authors; now much more so.

Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo

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After graduating from Harvard with an education degree, Michelle Kuo decided she wanted to make a difference in the world, … to do … straightforward, immediate work in places that needed people. As a result, she joined an organisation called Teach for America, and was sent to the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions of America, where there was a dire shortage of teachers.

Helena
The town of Helena

In this moving memoir, Kuo reflects the time she spent in a town called Helena, where she taught English to African-American teenagers, a dumping ground for the so-called bad kids. But, as Kuo puts it in the introduction of the book: Books had changed me … And I believed books could change the lives of my students. It was unashamedly romantic. I was twenty-two.

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Michelle Kuo

Her initial idealism was rudely smashed when she started teaching at the incongruously named ‘Stars’ school where the students swore at her (fuck you, Chinese bitch), got into fights, and arrived at school with bruises and welts on their bodies. Kuo was shocked by all of it, but she was more shocked by how she reacted: I yelled. I got mean, and she wondered what she was doing wrong. In a last ditch attempt to engage her students, she chose to teach them a play called A Raisin in the Sun. The reading level was not too difficult and the story centered on on a black family – and there it was, the students responded.

It was after this breakthrough that Kuo’s creative teaching skills shone through and, as a reader and sometime teacher, I found it a joy to read how the students responded to her and how they slowly opened up, writing about their dreams that extended beyond the Delta, and beyond the reputations that clung to them. She introduced the concept of free writing to them, writing that would not be graded or judged in any way, and in fact, would not have to be shown to anyone if they didn’t want. The students questioned her, disbelieving, but then:

… every student wrote. And during this strange time of silence – the heavy dark sounds of breathing, the arrhythmic scratching of the pencil, the surprising absence of talking – there was a palpable sense of desire.

One of Kuo’s students was a fifteen-year-old boy called Patrick Browning; a quiet boy who Kuo, by her second year of teaching, could see was a child who would respond to even a little adult interest: he wanted to try; he was thirsty for encouragement, yet he had failing grades. Discovering that the main reason he was sent to Stars was for failing to attend school, she went to find him at his home in the area of town called a ‘ghetto in a ghetto’. Patrick promised he would come to school more, and responded with passion to her teaching, reading more and writing voraciously and surprising even himself by winning the Most Improved Student award.

Pat
Patrick and Michelle

However, when Kuo got accepted into Harvard Law School, she left the Delta and immersed herself into university and work life. Three years later, however, she received a phone call to tell her that Patrick was in prison for having killed a man. She felt she had failed him, and a voice inside her said, If you hadn’t left, Patrick might not have ended up in prison. You owe him something, and, despite the fact she was to start a new job in three weeks time, Kuo chose to return to Helena to carry on teaching Patrick poetry, literature and history in prison.

This book isn’t a love story, nor is it a Hollywood-ised account of a teacher changing a person’s life, but it is an incredible reflection of how a person can flourish under another’s attention and how educational guidance can waken a person’s mind. The first bit of writing that Patrick gives Kuo when she meets up with him again is infantile and badly spelled: It was a shock. The writing looked crazed…I did not recognize his handwriting at all. Yet she perseveres, giving him homework and reading study to do after every visit, and loaning him books ranging from ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ to haiku poetry to ‘The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass’. She never is condescending; she challenges him; she gives him Larkin, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman and gets him to imitate poems in his own words. The beauty of some of what Patrick wrote is striking.

Towards the end of the book, Kuo writes:

He had come so far, but what struck me then and for many years afterwards was how little I had done for him. I don’t mean this in the way of false modesty. I mean that it frightens me that so little was required for him to develop intellectually – a quiet room, a pile of books, and some adult guidance. And yet these things were rarely supplied.

Her comment made me reflect how this is applicable to so many children around the world, particularly in South Africa where the education system is abysmal. There must be so many Patricks who, with regular access to books, some teachers’ attention and regular instruction, would flourish.

This review merely reflects the story of Michelle Kuo and her interactions with Patrick, but there is more depth to the memoir than this, in that Kuo writes, too, about the failure of the educational and justice systems in America, and about the legacy of slavery as well.

To end, a poem of Patrick’s, written in April 2010 while he was in prison (as of now, he is no longer in jail):

I taught myself to feel free and alive/to wake up thankful to be here/and to know everything is a blessing/from my food, my family and visits./When the old man moans in his room/and the white guys tell sad stories,/I insist I’m fine./I have  perfect health and happiness./I instantly realise the peaceful insects/flying across the room noiseless/and the bright light bulb/that shine like the sun for me every day/inside the county jail downtown/Only to a newcomer is it all startling./If you ask me I’m not here/Just in my own world.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

This book was an assault on the senses, a whirlwind tour of modern-day America, warts and all – social media, social narcissism, radical politics, political correctness, gaming addiction, friendship, loneliness, childhood grief, mother-issues, absent fathers, all thrown together in one huge debut novel. It was a roller-coaster of a read, switching rapidly between characters and time periods, at once serious and then very funny, and it is very, very worth reading.

the nix cover

Samuel Andreson-Anderson is a literature professor in his mid-30s, stressed by his life and work, obsessed with online gaming (in particular, a game called ‘World of Elfquest’) and unaware of the viral sensation of the moment: a middle-aged woman pelting a presidential-candidate politician (Governor Packer) with stones. When he receives a call from her lawyer, he finds out that the “Packer-Attacker’ is none other than his mother. The lawyer is phoning to ask Samuel to write a letter attesting to her good character – a problem for Samuel in that his mother walked out when he was 11 and he hasn’t seen her since.

Samuel had been a one-book wonder in his early 20s, had been given a handsome advance by his publishers and had never produced another word. In lieu of having to pay back the advance, Samuel suggests he write an expose on his mother instead, and this is how Samuel reunites with his mother and learns the story of her life, particularly her student protest days. In learning about her, we also learn about Samuel growing up, his friendships and first love, so well captured by Hill.

Yet … this small synopsis reveals very little about the depth and breadth of this book. A chaos of other characters exists within it, all vying for attention, some capturing it more than others. I liked Pwnage, the online gamer who games himself nearly to death, playing a plethora of different avatars in World of Elfquest; I loathed but had to laugh at Laura, Samuel’s student who was caught plagiarising a paper and mounts a defence full of buzzwords – Samuel’s accusation, for example, triggered negative feelings of stress and vulnerability in her, and she hints at sexual abuse. As is symptomatic of so many politically-correct administrations now,  Laura ends up graduating cum laude and Samuel gets fired.

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This book is a vast, Big Novel and a biting satire of life in America. Yes, it’s long and perhaps it should have been tightened up, but I enjoyed it and hope there’s more to come from Hill. Seeing that he looks young enough to be my son and, with the success of this, his first novel, I’m sure there will be.

 

 

 

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr, the author of the best-seller All The Light We Cannot See, received notification that he had won a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome when his new-born twins were only 12 hours old. Six months later, he, his wife and the twins boarded a plane in their home town, Boise, Idaho, and flew to Rome to live for a year.

book cover four seasons

This book accounts their year in Rome, divided into the four  seasons, starting with fall. With each season, Doerr details their new life, the challenges they face living in a foreign city where they can’t speak the language, his failed attempts at writing a novel, the relentless demands of being a new parent; all encapsulated by his beautiful paean to Rome.  It is a mix of travelogue, parenting guide, literary criticism, writing guide, with a dose of self-deprecating humour thrown into the mix.

The demands of parenting twins, coupled with insomnia, leaves Doerr so exhausted most of the time that writing becomes a near impossibility, and so he turns to Pliny – “How can fiction compete with this guy?” he says; and he turns his attention to the new city in which he lives. “And now there’s Rome, beginning to seep into everything, flooding my notebooks: the slumbering palaces, the hallucinatory light.” He describes the city in exquisite detail: the residents, the food, the architecture, the history, and often nature within the city; the way the light falls, the colour of the sky, the strength of wind, the rain, the snow. (And how he wishes to see snow fall through the dome of the Pantheon; something he never gets to do.)

Parthenon

He weaves such intricacy into his observations that every sentence about Rome made me feel as though I were walking through it with him – or wish that I were walking with him. He is particularly good at describing the smallest human interactions – whether it be a couple walking past him, a shop keeper, a child holding her father’s hand – and, in doing so, creates an intimate impression of this vast city.

Pope John Paul dies in that same year and Doerr gives us an an account of the millions of pilgrims who flooded the city to attend to the funeral, focusing on the individuals, rather than the pomp and ceremony of the funeral itself. “It’s as if I’ve wandered into the biggest tailgate party in history, three days too long, the enthusiasm faded to a raw-throated, glassy fatigue-some people are crying; many are asleep. Volunteers hand out liters of water. A woman cradles a full grown German Shepherd. A man snores.”

Then there are the accounts of parenting, which are so funny and touching and so full of love for his boys, Owen and Henry, who seem never to sleep. He takes us through their developmental steps: crawling, teething, walking, all against the backdrop of Rome. Wherever they take the twins, people stop to talk to them, admiring the little boys.

“Half a dozen Romans stops me: ‘They are twins?” “How many years do they have?” “where did you buy that stroller?” Half my Italian vocabulary has to do with baby gear.” 

doerr twins.jpg

Doerr recounts he and his wife having to hire a babysitter and go through the agony of leaving their babies with a stranger; his twins start teething and are monstrous; the whole family gets colds and Owen’s is so bad they have to call out a paediatrician; Doerr’s wife collapses and has to go to hospital, where they find it is nigh impossible to communicate without being able to speak Italian; he tells us their lives in small, humorous and very poignant detail.

Doerr walks through the city every day, sometimes with the twins, sometimes by himself and the whole time he observes Rome and how Romans live.

Every time I turn around here, I witness a miracle: wisteria pours up walls; slices of sky show through the high arches of a bell tower … a church floor looks as soft as flesh; the skin from a ball of mozzarella cheese tastes rich enough to change my life.”

And so after a year in Rome, it is time for him and his family to go home.

I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman. And yet I can’t stop myself: a pen, a notebook, the urge to circumscribe experience.

He has circumscribed his year in Rome wonderfully, with nearly every sentence evoking an image of the eternal city; an account that has made me wish to get back to Rome again.

Vue-of-Rome

 

 

 

Days without End by Sebastian Barry

I never thought I would like a book about army life, about brutal battles and vivid descriptions of the atrocities of war, but this book was one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Please don’t be put off by my first sentence; this book is worth reading for the quality of Barry’s writing alone, as well as the extraordinary story that he tells, that of two gay men in the US army in the 1850s and into the American Civil War.

Days without end

The book is narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irishman who fled to America aged 13 after his family had literally starved to death in Ireland. Thomas talks to us throughout this novel in the conversational tone of one without much education, but with a wisdom of having lived a hard life. He is matter-of-fact, without self-pity. He said that when he arrived in America with others on a ship, “The point is, we were nothing … We were a plague. We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Thomas left the horrors of a starving Ireland but came to the New World to encounter a harsh reality of expansionism in which indigenous people were being slaughtered.

Existing on virtually no food and living in rags, Thomas met a boy called John Cole, who was equally hungry and ragged. A friendship starts and almost right away, Thomas “felt like a human being again“. The boys searched for work and ended up in a mining town, working as dancers dressed up in women’s clothing to entertain the miners. There is nothing sexual about this; they danced for the miners:

Maybe we were like memories of elsewhere. Maybe we were the girls of their youth, the girls they had first loved. Man, we was so clean and nice, I wished I could of met myself.”

But the boys grew into men and could no longer pass for pretty dancing girls, and so at 17 joined the army, a hard life but one that gave them food, clothes and a horse each. Most of the fighting was against Native Americans (Indians), a horrific ethnic cleansing with brutal, physical battles, but Thomas plainly explains his and John’s behaviour:

“…. I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there.

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Much of the novel is about the army, the horrendous hardships the soldiers go through, not only with the fighting but also the hostile countryside and weather conditions. On reading about this life, I wondered how on earth anyone ever survived it, but Thomas and John did, and throughout the novel, the story of their love is woven, a beautifully quiet and tender love story that seems at odds with the setting.

Barry’s handling of this gay relationship is so masterfully accomplished that it moves through the story without appearing fantastical, for it is almost unreal – two men in love in an overtly masculine military context where lives don’t count for anything. I didn’t cotton on to the gay aspect of the relationship until, early on in the book, in between descriptions of the army and base camp, Barry throws in the sentence:

And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.

Barry challenges the readers with questions of identity as these men are gay, yet they remain loyal to their army compatriots. They are tender with each other, yet they kill when necessary. Barry stretches us even further when John and Thomas marry secretly and, when John leaves the army and Thomas runs away, Thomas lives for a while as Thomasina, finally dressing in women’s clothing as he had always wished to. He is feminine, yet remains masculine in his attitude to war and the army to which he has to return. And more for the reader to ingest – John adopts a Sioux girl after a raid on an Indian camp in which all the adults were slaughtered, and so the three of them live as a family for a while, happily. It all sounds strange, but Barry makes it come alive and treats the subject in a delicate and open-hearted manner.

This book was inspired in part by Barry’s son, Toby, who came out a couple of years before the book was written. In an interview with The Guardian, Barry said: From that moment on we (his son and Barry) entered into this extraordinary period where he was instructing me in the magic of gay life.” 

Barry listened and absorbed everything his son told him about gay love, cross-dressing and wove it into his novel:

“I was very impressed by the subtlety, the delicacy and the intricacy of the love between Toby and his boyfriend. People talk about tolerance, but it’s not really about tolerance. It should also be about emulation and reverence and learning from.” 

This novel can be read on many levels – a story about war, a description of life in the US army in the mid-19th century, a love story. It is a book about identity, patriotism, and friendship; fear and fervour, ugliness and strange beauty; it is bitter-sweet. It is a book written with such beautiful sentences that a dreamlike quality is evoked even in the most awful scenes; I found myself going back and re-reading battle scenes, because of the imagery that Barry uses; I found myself reading too quickly, compelled to find out what happens to Thomas and John, and I found myself almost unbearably moved by the love they had for each other.

I thought Barry’s books were good before this one, but now I believe him to be a truly great writer. I will read this book again and read it more slowly next time.

Barry

Reference:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/sebastian-barry-costa-book-award-2017-days-without-end-interview-gay-son