Running with Sherman by Christopher McDougall

BOOK

The ‘Sherman’ in the title of this non-fiction book is a donkey, and this book is literally one about the author running with Sherman.  Chris McDougall wrote the bestselling book, Born to Run, in which he tells of going in search of the greatest long-distance runners in the world – the elusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico – who help him overcome a foot injury he had been told would prevent him from ever running again.  I’m not a runner, but McDougall is a great storyteller.

When McDougall comes across a mistreated donkey in his neighbourhood (in Pennsylvania, near an Amish community), he decides to adopt it to nurse it back to health. On arrival, however, Sherman is worse than he realised – as well as being malnourished, depressed, stinking, and in a terrible condition, Sherman’s hooves have curled up like long nails from months of standing locked up in a soggy pen, making it virtually impossible for him to walk. Even once the extra growth has been removed with a hacksaw, Sherman remains unresponsive. The vet who cleans him up tells McDougall,

Look … He’s been abused and abandoned, and that can make any animal sick with despair. You need to give this animal a purpose. You need to find him a job.’

Hooves
Sherman having his hooves hack-sawed

And so starts the incredible tale of how McDougall starts running with Sherman, training him up for the World Championship Pack Burro Race in Colorado. Who ever thought there was even such a thing as burro racing? It dates back to 19th-century-silver-mining days in Colorado when prospectors loaded their donkey with tools and food, and headed into the mountains in search of the precious metal. There are a number of races throughout the summer series in Colorado, including the World Championship into which McDougall enters himself and Sherman.

Donkey are notoriously stubborn – Sherman is no exception – and one of the delights of this book is the descriptions of the various methods with which McDougall gets Sherman running – including the help of two high-spirited goats, the locals from the Amish running community (who run with all their black clothes on), and McDougall’s wife and friends. Among these is the son of a friend who has dropped out of college because of severe depression. He and Sherman bond particularly well and both exercise themselves out of their debilitating moods.

Sherman
Sherman and Chris McDougall

Against all odds, Sherman and McDougall run and finish the race, a feat which made me want to stand up and whoop with delight.

While the book concentrates on Sherman’s recovery from abusive treatment, it also highlights how exposure to nature and exercise can have a profound effect on mood and motivation, and the incredible nature of the human-animal relationship. Overall,  it is a delightful story – never sentimental – that made me feel happier for having read it.

 

This is Happiness by Niall Williams

This is a book of ineffable beauty; its prose so poetically written that it is like a slow chant of a tale, one of tenderness and love. It is a book I read slowly, and went back time again to reread a passage, as Williams is an artist who can create a mood, a picture, a scene, with a few beautifully coupled words.

happiness

The story is set in Faha, a small Irish parish in Kerry, in the early 1970s. Not much has changed in Faha for hundreds of years. Yet, just as Father Coffey announces that electricity is coming to the village, the almost incessant rain stops – quite unbelievably  – and Faha slowly moves into a time of change, and into a season of sunny, hot weather.

The story is told by Noel (Noe) Crawley, looking back on his life to when he was seventeen and come to live in Faha with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady. After his mother had dies, Noe had retreated to a seminary school, yet left it when he awoke one night with ‘… the fear that I might not discover what it meant to live a fully human life.’.

Life is slow and somewhat aimless for Noe in Faha until Christy, a man in his 60s, arrives as a lodger in his grandparents’ house. Christy has nominally come to the village as an ‘electric man’, yet through sharing a bedroom, going to pubs in the evening in search of an elusive musician (Noe getting drunk for the first time), riding home on bicycles in the dark, Noe discovers that Christy has come to Faha to right wrongs he has caused in the past, and to find the woman he had jilted.

Faha

Taken by the romance of this, Noe tries intervening on Christy’s behalf, a move that is unsuccessful and, when he realises that Christy is not going to confront the love of his life, Noe wants to know why. He is frustrated by the lack of urgency in Christy; Noe himself has fallen in love with the doctor’s daughter and thinks about her obsessively, unhappy until he catches even just a glimpse of her. Christy replies, ‘Noe … this, this is happiness’. Not understanding initially, Noe as the older writer, says on reflection, ‘… I came to understand him to mean that you could stop at, not all, but most of the moments in your life, stop for one heartbeat and, no matter what the state of your mind or heart, say This is happiness, because of the simple truth that you were alive to say it.’

Nothing happens fast in Faha, nor in the novel, but this works for Noe’s slow coming-of-age journey, as he progresses from naivety to a deeper understanding of life and of the nuances of love. At the odd moment, I thought Williams was going to veer into sentimentality, yet his skilfulness and experience as a story teller prevented that from happening. Of William’s talents, one lies in describing the characters of the village with humour and respect, and the simple rhythms of its life. His other greater talent is his understanding and portrayal of various forms of love – starting with that between Noe’s grandfather and grandmother:

“My grandmother … understood the tightrope balance they had sustained for nearly half a century, a topsy-turvy way of living they had made up on the model of their own parents and grandparents … What Doady knew, without saying a word, was that, within the one-foot-after-the-other confines of that tightrope, they were free.”   

Williams shows us, too, the passion of teenage love and its obsessional state, but also the intimacy of friendship, as shown by the unlikely one between Christy and Noe, and by the sadness Noe experiences when Christy leaves.

At the end of the novel, the electricity is turned on in Faha – a momentous event to which all the villagers have thronged, with holy water blessed by the Bishop being thrown at the wooden pole before the electricity is switched on. Thinking back to his younger self, standing there among the people, and and next to Doady and Ganga, Noe comments:

… At that moment I understood that this in miniature was the world, a connective of human feeling, for the most part by far pulsing with the dream of the betterment of the other, and in this was an invisible current that … was all the time being restored and switched back on and was running not because of past or future times but because, at all times since beginning and to the end, the signal was still on, still pulsing, and still trying to love.’

This is a slow, gentle book –  don’t read it if you like a fast-paced story with a tight plot; read it rather if you are looking for beauty in the written word, and love and humour embedded in its sentences.

Williams
Niall Williams

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

Reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s novels that focus on the minutae of family relationships, The Most Fun We Ever Had is a brilliant debut novel that deftly portrays the complicated, messy lives of the Sorenson family, a middle-class white family living in Chicago. At just over 500 pages, I found it a bit too weighty to read when lying on the sofa on a lazy holiday afternoon, but it was well worth sitting up for – it is all at once tender, funny, poignant and utterly relatable.

Most Fun

David and Marilyn Sorenson have four daughters, all radically different  with issues that deeply affect how they behave in the world. Wendy has recently experienced the death of her husband and an unborn child; caustic and funny, she deals with her grief by resorting to drinking and one-night stands. Violet is a litigator who now stays at home looking after her young children – she’s anxious, prim and hides a dark secret. Then there’s Liza, a professor, who lives with a man she’s not sure she loves and is uncertain of her new pregnancy. Lastly there’s Grace; the laat-lammetjie intimidated by her brilliant parents and older sisters, who lives a lie she feels she cannot reveal to her  family.

David is a doctor and Marilyn a stay-at-home mother who always acts a bit shocked that she is a parent at all: “The thing that nobody warned you about adulthood was the number of decisions you’d have to make, the number of times you’d have to depend on an unreliable gut to point you in the right direction, the number times you’d still feel like an eight-year-old, waiting for your parents to step in and save you from peril.” At some stage, just after Grace was born, she tells one of David’s colleagues that she was having the most fun she had ever had, knowing full well she was partly telling a lie.

All of the daughters’ lives are overshadowed by their parents’ relationship – an intensely passionate, deeply loving one, which they wonder if they can ever match. Wendy tells her mother : “We’re all emotionally stunted because you and Dad love each other more than you love us… It’s not necessarily a bad thing… I’d rather be fucked up because my parents are hot for each other than because they’re, like, keeping me chained to a bike rack overnight and feeding me raw oats. But you have to admit that there’s a gradient of preference.”

The event around which the book is hinged is the arrival of adolescent Jonah Bendt into their lives. He is the son given up for adoption by Violet when she was young,  a secret she has kept from all but Wendy, who now has tracked him down – I read this to be a jealous reaction to Violet’s inability to see how good her life is, rather than a compassionate act; however, relationships between siblings are complicated and I found Lombardo’s portrayal of these nuances to be particularly effective. Initially rejected by Violet, Jonah lives with Wendy and then with David and Marilyn, stylistically acting as the conduit through which the reader observes the workings of this dysfunctional family.

While relating this aspect of the story, Lombardo weaves into past, moving backwards and forwards, dipping in and out of the family members’ lives and so enabling the reader to get to know each character better. How I loved Wendy – sarcastic and funny, caring under her bristly exterior, she is someone I’d like to sit down with and have one drink too many.

Lombardo

This novel isn’t perfect (is any book?) – some might find it too long, though I was kept engrossed throughout. I found Marilyn and David’s passionate relationship slightly unbelievable, however a friend of mine has told me she felt neglected by her parents who were so in love with each other, she wondered why they ever had children. Violet irritated me and I couldn’t get a handle on her – perhaps that would also be the case if she were actually my sister – and some of the characters were not as well formed as others. You have to be prepared to get fully immersed into the tangled workings of this family’s relationships before committing to reading the book.

Jade Chang (author of The Wangs vs. The World – another great read) in her New York Times review rightly points out that the book focuses purely on the family in such a way that … “The outside world barely enters into the cosseted lives of the Sorensons. Their social lives and societal awareness are essentially nonexistent; even the characters’ jobs exist only as places where they might meet a potential marital interloper.”

Yet none of the above hindered my enjoyment of this novel portraying the messy, complicated lives of a family, with that strange mixture of love and hate, affection and irritation, sympathy and hostility with which we relate to those bound to us by blood.

(https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/25/books/review/most-fun-we-ever-had-claire-lombardo.html)

 

 

 

 

 

Two books about the environment: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I’ve read both the above books in the past two weeks and, in their own ways, they both deal with the environment, the nature of humanity, and the effects of poverty on families.

Unsheltered

Unsheltered:

Unsheltered, Kingsolver’s first novel since 2012, focuses on two families living a century apart on the same corner of two streets in Vineland, New Jersey. The present-day family finds itself inexplicably living on the edge of poverty – Willa Knox and her husband have been hard-working professionals who both lost their jobs because of economic cutbacks. They live in a dilapidated, inherited house with Willa’s obnoxious father-in-law and their free-spirited, wayward daughter. When their Ivy League-educated son is hit by a tragedy, he too comes home, unemployed, with a baby in tow.  Together they live in a house that is literally falling down around them, unable to afford the upkeep.

In the alternating story in the 1800s, Thatcher Greenwood is a teacher and scientist, frustrated by not being allowed to teach his pupils about evolution, and irritated by his shallow wife and social-climbing mother-in-law. His next-door-neighbour, Mary Treat (a real life character) is a self-taught botanist and scientist who corresponds with Darwin about her findings, and Thatcher is drawn towards her intelligence and curiousity.  His house both literally and figuratively starts to crack and strain as he further cultivates a friendship with a newspaper reporter who, too, believes in evolution.

Unsheltered is a book that focuses on the human condition, how we are time and time again faced with adversity, and how we yet again respond with resilience. Kingsolver quite obviously points out the political and environmental mess that Trump is creating, though she only refers to him as ‘The Bullhorn’, and she allows Willa’s daughter, Tig, to point out the dangers of climate change and the devastating impact humans are having on the earth.

The above points are what caused me not to be captivated by this novel. I felt that I was being lectured by Kingsolver about the environmental and economic concerns facing humanity; her tone is didactic and some of her characters one-dimensional. I finished it, but with no great satisfaction and disappointment that it did not live up to my expectations.

crawdads 1

 

Where the Crawdads Sing:

Despite not knowing what a crawdad was (a crayfish), I preferred this slightly clichéd novel, set in coastal marshlands of a quiet seaside town on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where families live hidden within the marshes, considered ‘white trash’ by others. Here Kya Clark is abandoned one by one by family members escaping an abusive, alcoholic father.  When her father also finally walks out when she is still little, she is left to live alone, fending for herself. Known as the ‘Marsh Girl’, she is mocked by the townsfolk for being ignorant and dirty – she only lasted one day at school and after that always evaded the truant officers.  When one of the town heroes is found dead in the marshes, Kya is conveniently accused of murder and detained.

Despite her reputation as the ignorant ‘Marsh Girl’, Kya is an intelligent young woman who spends her days in the marshes observing and understanding the flora and fauna of this unique environment. Her skill in this area finally lead her to being a published expert on the marshes, a fact unknown by the town residents. Kya is portrayed by Owens as a beautiful, long-legged, sexually-innocent teenager who attracts the attention of two very different young men, both of whom break her heart. Despite my irritation at these hackneyed characterisations, I still enjoyed the book as I was drawn to Owens’ detailed descriptions of the briney marsh lands, and the plants and birds within it.

All in all, I found it a more satisfying read than Unsheltered, which at one stage I considered abandoning (only my allegiance to Kingsolver kept me going), while I read Owen’s book in two days.

(As an aside and perhaps of interest to South African readers, Owens is the co-author of The Cry of the Kalahari, which depicts her and Mark Owens’ time living in the Kalahari Desert in the 1970s, a book I remember reading and enjoying.)

 

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

There is a shout on the cover of this book by Junot Diaz: “One of those books that makes you happy for literature.”  It is true: The Dog Stars made me happy that I am a reader; I felt a bit empty when it finished and I will go back to re-read one day.

Image result for the dog stars novel

This is a post-apocalyptic tale, set in an America where everyone bar a few people has died of a flu pandemic. Hig has survived, his wife is dead, and he lives in a small hangar of an abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper. He is not entirely alone, as he has a neighbour, Bangley, a tough fighting man with an arsenal of weapons; not a natural friend for Hig. However,  he and Bangley have each other’s backs and share food from the vegetable garden Hig keeps, and the deer he hunts in the forests around them.

This  book is also about flying, and the enjoyment Hig experiences when  soaring through the air over the abandoned landscape in  a small  1956 Cessna that he calls The Beast.

I am not grief sick nor stiffer in the joints nor ever lonely, nor someone who lives with the nausea of having killed and seems to be destined to kill again. I am the one who is flying over all of it looking down. Nothing can touch me.”

Hig has flying to occupy him, but he misses fly-fishing; he used to fish whenever anything went wrong in his life – “If I ever wake up crying in the middle of a dream, and I’m not saying I did, it’s because the trout are gone every one.”  However, he most of all  misses his wife, Melissa, who was pregnant when she died of the virus.

Hig is not a physical man, not a good fighter and less so a cold-blooded killer, though he has to learn to become one to survive – he and Bangley have constantly to be aware of getting ambushed by gangs of other desperate humans.

Comparisons have been made to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, yet I found this to be a more engaging and hopeful story than The Road; not as bleak, although bleak it still is. Hig is likeable; Heller shows us the depth of his character through the depiction of his physical, mental and spiritual survival. By learning of his vulnerabilities and quirks, I liked spending time with Hig. He talks to Jasper and to himself, and philosophises while remembering life before the virus.

I once had a book on stars but now I don’t. My memory serves but not stellar ha. So I made up the constellations. I made a Bear and a Goat, but maybe not where they were supposed to be … I made one for Melissa, her whole self standing there kind of smiling and tall looking down on me in the winter nights. Looking down while frost crinkles my eyelashes and feathers my beard. I made one for the little Angel. 

Image result for fly fishing

Hig remains haunted by a voice that he heard on the radio waves, seven years after the virus struck. When on a routine flight, he called a traffic tower at one of the airports (a habit he couldn’t kick despite knowing that no-one would be there to man them). This time, though, someone answered – a faint static interrupted by a voice that faded away, someone who by his words had to be a pilot or a controller.

Three years later, never having been able to forget this incident, Hig decides to go out in search of the voice, to see if there is anything more to his existence than the small isolated life he endures. He says his goodbyes to Bangley, and flies into the unknown to meet a fate that is both wonderful and awful.

The book is written in a style that reflects the kind of man Hig is – short conversational sentences, sometimes just fragments. Initially it was a bit jarring and then it became natural. Hig is a philosophical man of tenderness living in a brutal world, who survives through forms of love – memories, flying, friendships, and his relationship with a dog. Don’t be put off by its dystopian setting; The Dog Stars is a beautiful, unusual story that ends on a note of hope.

Image result for peter heller author
Peter Heller

 

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

warlight

 

His first novel in seven years, Ondaatje’s Warlight starts with the sentence: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”, and carries on to take the reader into the murky world of post-war London in which two teenagers have been abandoned by their parents.

Fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are told by their father one morning after breakfast that he and their mother will be moving to Singapore for a year, but that the children will be ‘well cared for in their absence‘. They are be looked after by the tenant who lives on the third-floor, nicknamed ‘The Moth’ by Rachel and Nathaniel for his shy, moth-like movements.

At the end of the book, twenty-eight-year old Nathaniel tells us that, ‘We order our lives with barely held stories‘ and it is he who narrates the story of his life  – the first part of the book describing the transformation of the teenagers’ lives into an unsupervised time, being cared for with benign neglect by The Moth and his friend, The Darter, the other suspected criminal. Here I was drawn in by Ondaatje’s masterful ability to create a London in which Nathaniel lives his new extraordinary life, one in which school barely features, and in which he and Rachel start having to bring themselves up.

‘The Moth is often away, but his absence, like his presence, barely mattered. My sister and I were now foraging for ourselves, becoming self-sufficient.’

‘Sometimes, under the influence of whatever he was drinking, The Moth became cheerfully incomprehensible to us, in spite of the fact that he appeared assured about what he thought he was saying’.

Nathaniel works in his holidays as a lift jockey in an upmarket hotel, washes dishes in a fast-paced restaurant, and meets people who he  would not have in his previous family life. He starts seeing a waitress, Agnes, whose brother is an estate agent and gives them keys to empty houses to which they go and have sex on grubby carpets. He and Rachel start eating most of their meals from street barrows with The Moth, who doesn’t care to cook.

People drift in and out of their house, enigmatic and often elusive, sometimes drunk or hungover, though one or two make a marked impression on Nathaniel and who appear later in the novel. Olive Lawrence, for example, an alluring ethnographer whose exotic travels Nathaniel follows later in his life; Arthur McAsh who Nathaniel suspects knows more about his mother’s war-time work than he does.

Nathaniel gradually starts working for The Darter, who, despite his mysterious nefarious activities, probably cares most for Nathaniel and Rachel out of all the adult figures. The Darter’s business involves smuggling racing greyhounds and other unknown cargo, which activity takes place on barges at night in known and unknown canals of the Thames, though tunnels, past dark power stations, to hidden locations where they meet seagoing vessels that unload the surprising cargo. Ondaatje’s descriptions of these evening excursions are magical, at once both luminous and dark, cinematic:

‘We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river, feeling we owned it, as far as the estuary. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews had been in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.’

Thams

Amongst this almost enchantment of an abandoned life, in which I began to wonder if  the siblings even remembered their parents, comes Rachel’s discovery of their mother’s trunk in the basement, the one they had seen her pack for Singapore, and questions begin to arise as to exactly where their mother is and who she is. Ondaatje gives the reader hints and snippets of information, weaving the story in much the same way that a child learns about life, so we, nor Nathaniel, never get to know the full story of his parents. When Nathaniel finally meets his mother again, it is after he and Rachel narrowly escape being kidnapped, an incident which brings Nathaniel back to his mother, but which pushes Rachel away.

By the second half of the book, it’s 1959, Nathaniel has grown up and is working for British Intelligence, reviewing wartime files. He has bought a house in Suffolk, one he knows well from the time when he lived in the area with his mother after her return from her mysterious sojourn. He spends his working time searching through files for clues as to what his mother’s occupation was and what took her away from them, reflecting on the years he lived with her after her return; the clues – like scars on her arms she kept hidden by pulling down the sleeves of her cardigan, the role of The Moth in her life, a hand-drawn map Nathaniel finds hidden in one of her books. He discovers his mother, Rose, also known as Viola, who was involved in the post-war effort in Eastern Europe, although Nathaniel is not quite sure in what way.

In this second half, Ondaatje starts pulling together all the threads of the story, minor characters become more important, and small events take on more significance. A boy once mentioned as having fallen off his mother’s roof when she was little, emerges as an important war-time figure who worked closely with Rose. We meet this character, Marsh Felon, again in an extraordinary scene where he scales up walls and climbs across the roofs of Trinity College at night while studying at Cambridge – ‘he strolled the cloister roofs, ascended rough walls.’ (Marsh was inspired by a book called The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity; an actual book available from Amazon.) He encounters other ‘nocturnals’, one of whom recruits him into the war effort, and through this group of people, re-establishes contact with Rose.

Trinity

Though I say Ondaatje pulls it altogether, he does so in subtle ways so I didn’t end the book feeling like I had read a war-time thriller about a female spy. I felt much like Nathaniel, who while working, says:

Viola, are you Viola? I used to whisper to myself, slowly discovering how my mother was on the second floor of that building I worked in.

We slowly discover who she is and, in doing so, learn the barely held stories of Nathaniel’s life. This is a book written by a master story-teller, whose prose is so elegant, beautiful and serenely written that Ondaatje-RGB is elevated from being a war-time story to a quiet masterpiece.  This one turns out to be, I believe, his best since The English Patient.

To read an interview about Ondaatje’s writing process, see:

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/michael-ondaatje-and-the-magical-art-of-the-opening-sentence-1.3520252

 

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

fires

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

gods

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.

 

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…”

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.