True Grit – Charles Portis

I recently accepted a challenge from Mr FH; he would choose a book from our overflowing shelves and I would have to read it without arguement.  The only stipulation I made was for it not to be a sport related book of which we seem to have an increasing number.  Deep down I wasn’t concerned.  He has good taste in books and we often share titles.  This is what he chose (10 sentences starts below!).

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14 year old Mattie Ross seeks a vigilante or lawman; in fact anyone loyal to her cause will do, as long as they show grit in the pursuit of her father’s killer who is rumoured to be holed up with a band of rampaging outlaws in the Indian territories of Arkansas.  Many more suitable and sensible candidates present themselves, but she chooses one-eyed, murderous drunkard marshal Rooster Cockburn for the job, insisting she accompany him on the quest.  She is fearless and uncompromising in her determination for justice and retribution, she is bright, older than her years and she often keeps the marshal in check with her bossy manner so when her vulnerability becomes obvious you love her all the more for it.

True Grit tells Mattie’s version of the chase to find her father’s killer which she narrates from her old age.  As she remembers back to the events of that winter, she does not overplay her own role, she does not honey coat or romanticise the harsh conditions during their search for the outlaws, the reader is under no illusion of the dangers she faces in the company of Cockburn and his sidekick, the Texas ranger called Laboeuf.  Portis manages to strike an ideal balance between the risks portrayed in his wilderness drama and the genuine affection Mattie feels for the rough relic of the civil war, Cockburn.  The deadpan exchanges and warmhearted chastisements between the two are touching and often amusing.

This is a mini masterpiece about friendship and loyalty forged during a few weeks of uncertainty and intense adventure.  It’s just lovely.

 

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Turning Blue – Benjamin Myers

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The first in a detective series marketed as folk crime, Turning Blue is a slight departure for Myers.  He’s never written outright crime before.  However, this is definitely not a police procedural, it is more rural crime noir with flawed but decent heroes at its heart.

Obsessive and antisocial Detective Brindle and ex-hedonist journalist Mace form an unlikely alliance to uncover why a local teenager has mysteriously disappeared.  They expose so much more than a run of the mill missing persons case.  In a work where art often imitates recent real life news stories and police investigations which have shocked the British public, Brindle and Mace wade through sleaze, establishment corruption and cover ups involving the police, close knit silent communities, a grotesque character who seems to be a mash up of Jimmy Saville, Jonathan King and Stewart Hall and a revolting, disturbing loner pig farmer whose behaviour as the story progresses goes from the bizarre and creepy to alarming and sinister.  His pathetic existence invades every page cultivating a feeling of unease from the beginning.

It’s easy to compare Ben Myers’ writing to the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Derek Raymond or James Ellroy – I’ve done it myself before.  Here’s another comparison: There’s a touch of the David Peace Red Riding about Myers’ latest offering; hard Northern men, institutional corruption, sleaze and violence in small, overlooked communities.  Such comparisons are useful to allow those who’ve never come across his books to get a flavour of what to expect, but also slightly erroneous.  Ben Myers’ writing is difficult to define or pigeon hole.  He seems unsure himself of how this new book should be described.  But does it matter?  Do I need to compare it to other work?  Do I need to identify it as writing of a particular genre?  I don’t think so.

Myers has his own style, he is an exciting writer of extraordinary  talent with an ability to weave heart-breaking tales about marginalised communities and individuals with brutal, bleak and stomach-wrenching stories into the evocative tapestry of a landscape setting.  This creates a dichotomy for the reader; admiration for the perceptive descriptions and economy of writing mixed with feelings of revulsion at the violence and horror. Myers has never been for the faint-hearted or easily offended and Turning Blue is no different to its two predecessors in that respect.  It is visceral.  Human beings can be sick, we just don’t like admitting it to ourselves and Myers continues to make no apology for holding the mirror steady so we can’t avoid the myriad of vileness and the depths some of us can stoop to.  This is what I love; honesty in fiction.  I’m pretty sure the stuff Myers writes about in Turning Blue does/has happened, no matter how uncomfortable that makes me feel.

The outdoors is the scaffolding on which Myers overlays the plots of all his recent fiction and Turning Blue continues that trend.  The countryside sometimes feels like an afterthought in some “nature” writing, but Myers has always used it to represent emotion and propel a plot onwards.  In Pig Iron the landscape provided solace and refuge (and there is a lovely nod to John John Wisdom’s green cathedral with its mention in Turning Blue), in Beastings it was a menacing means of escape, in this book, the Yorkshire countryside is brooding, an irritant obstructing the investigation.  It is harsh and bleak, wet or snowbound and difficult to navigate if you are not from the “Hamlet”.  You know the ancient sod and dirt will triumphantly remain long after these characters are dead and buried.  It is the constant.

I am continually excited and blown away by Myers’ awesome writing.  I swallowed down this book with the thirst of the seriously dehydrated.  I suggest you all get the drinks in as soon as you can because Myers is the landlord serving up intoxicating fiction.

Thanks to Ben and Moth Publishing for sending me a review copy and the lovely tin of moss, wire and plastic pig.

Other Ben Myers stuff to read on here:

Q&A with Ben Myers author of Pig Iron

Beastings by Benjamin Myers

Pig Iron – Benjamin Myers

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler trans. Charlotte Collins

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With a title like A Whole Life you’d be forgiven for expecting a much longer book.  It’s the economy of Seethaler’s prose that allows him to fit so much into so few pages (149), and what a beautifully quiet story it is.  Reminiscent in sentiment and pace of that ever popular Williams classic Stoner and comparable in content and tone to Train Dreams by Denis Johnson with a similar seam of sadness weaving through the prose, this is a restrained and unpretentious piece of fiction.

Forest and mountain man Andreas Egger’s life is the one we follow through this miniature epic.  Starting with his attempt to rescue an almost dead local goatherd, Seethaler returns to reveal the beginning and then the rest of Egger’s life with such a deftness and lightness of touch that you almost don’t realise you are reading, it feels as though the story is being orally related, like an old friend is acquainting you with the relatively uneventful tale of a mountain dwelling loner.  And here’s the thing with this book; other than a devastating avalanche and a period of internment in Russia during the war nothing much else of earth shattering consequence happens.  Yet the landscape descriptions and mountain village life portrayed in these pages draws the reader in more than many blockbusting tomes can.

There is also something slightly mystical and ethereal about parts of this book, particularly near the end, which made me think deeply about what it must be like to be old, alone and sometimes confused, how it would be very likely and understandable to start hearing and seeing ghosts from your past.

After living through Egger’s life with him, his choice of retirement abode is unsurprising if a little unorthodox, but absolutely the right place for him to spend his remaining days.  His ending befits his life, and for this I was grateful to Seethaler for not writing Egger an overly dramatic or morose demise; it is a quiet understated end just as he had lived his life.

A Whole Life is beautifully written, beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins and beautifully packaged by Picador (swoon at that cover), I absolutely loved it and I’d like to think you will too.

 

 

(I think that’s 11 sentences – need to get a grip!)

 

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

A “10 sentences or less” busting piece.

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Before I was 10 we moved to a place on the Mediterranean into a huge house that came with my Dad’s job at the time.  Until then my younger sister and I had always shared a bedroom, but this new place was large enough for us to have our own rooms at the top of the house in the attic space where there was also a bathroom, another spare bedroom and access to our 2 roof terraces.  Not long after we moved in, my sister complained of not being happy in her room.  Then she talked of waking in the night with someone holding her hand, but there was never anyone there.  This freaked us both out enough for us to move back downstairs and share a room next to our brother.  Neither of us liked going back up there after that.  I was recently reminded of this episode in my childhood when reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  A similar late night hand-holding experience affects one of the main characters when she is feeling particularly vulnerable.

Generally speaking I don’t read creepy books, I’m too easily spooked and I’ll be honest, this story made me feel uneasy at times.  The titular house is unpleasant and designed to confuse, the characters are susceptible to suggestion and disturbance of mind creating an shared experience where both character and reader live through the nightly hauntings and horrors served up by this place.  It’s this psychological element that makes the tale of Dr. Montague and his guests at Hill House, gathered there to investigate and make sense of the other-worldly goings on, all the more disturbing and chilling.  What Jackson achieves with her writing is a feeling of suspense built on the fear and unease her characters sense from the house.  Fragile Theodora seems particularly prone to these perceptions of something ghostly.  The eventual suspicion and distrust that builds between the characters adds to the tension.

This story is similar in feel and sentiment to books by Susan Hill.  Both women are masters at writing about the supernatural in an unsettling, non-violent, non-gory way, leaving the reader to wonder and marvel at how the power of suggestion can unhinge the mind to such an extent.  Reading this book has finally made me realise, the hand of my sister’s experience was probably a figment of her dreams…or was it??

 

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil – Stephen Collins

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Isolation is an odd thing; the loneliness of going unnoticed is equally as isolating as notoriety. Dave experiences both as he leads his lonely, uneventful and clean-shaven life, observing and sketching his neighbours while listening to Eternal Flame by The Bangles on constant loop.  He also knows the loneliness of being different and sticking out when inexplicably unstoppable facial hair starts growing into the evil beard of the title.

Stephen Collins has created a beautifully crafted cautionary tale rooted in the fear society constructs around difference.  Whether that’s anxiety about Dave and his freakish whiskers or the baffling dread of “There”; unvisited by and therefore unknown to residents of orderly “Here” yet identified as a place of chaos and disorder.

This delicately sketched graphic novel imparts deep messages about diversity, intolerance, partiality and suspicion of the unfamiliar.  The artwork is lovely and makes up for the emotions this sad and thought provoking read evokes.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante trans. Ann Goldstein

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The one thing you can often expect from Bildungsroman is little plot and that’s ok if the characters’ journeys are captivating enough to keep your attention from start to finish.  I’m generally a fan of this genre (although I have a secret dislike for Catcher in the Rye – there, I’ve said it!), I’m a patient enough reader not to be troubled by the lack of “action” and I’m very happy witnessing characters develop, grow and learn about themselves.  My Brilliant Friend, the first installment in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, introduces us to Elena and Lila, friends from an early age, this book charts the ebb and flow of their connection as the girls endure the hardships of post-war Italy and how the social norms in their small community shape their lives and choices – all narrated by Elena.

The thing Ferrante excels at is the detailed and spot-on depiction of the intensity of women’s relationships; mother-daughter and girlfriends.  Elena’s voice in this book, which ends when the girls are 16, was very reminiscent for me of that love/hate emotion and natural competitiveness that springs from close friendship during formative teen years; the realisation that your friend is brighter than you, more beautiful than you, expresses herself better, is more confident around boys, is all-round more popular and it pricks that oddest of mixed feelings, jealousy and admiration.  It either spurs you on to be better or leads you to detest your friend.  Elena feels all of these things towards Lila and sometimes we get a glimpse that Lila also feels jealous of Elena’s good fortune at being able to continue her education when Lila can’t.

Ferrante is not afraid of confronting ugly human behaviour and presenting it with shocking honesty.  The complacent violence towards women and girls in this book is treated with accepted normality as is Elena’s first and unsolicited sexual experience at the hands of the father of a boy in her year at school, but perhaps more shocking to readers could be how Elena feels about and reflects on this episode.

Mostly though, this book is about two girls finding their way in life, making the best choices available to them from very few options in a neighbourhood governed by hierarchy, violence and tradition.

“Was it possible that only our neighbourhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?”

 

 

 

 

Beatlebone – Kevin Barry

Warning: I’m going over my 10 sentence limit with this one!

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Kevin Barry’s fictionalised account of John Lennon’s visit to the island he owned in the Irish sea is a work of aural loveliness.  Yes, I did just say “aural” because this piece of writing is an audiological symphony of sounds – music, harmony, silence, screaming, ranting, nature’s melody and the racket in one’s head.  My sensory experience of this book has been very different to other reads. My memory of it is of noise and silence.  Near the start, the Lennon of the book is told to “listen – really listen to fuck’n everything around you”.  It feels like an instruction to the reader as well as the character.  What Lennon really wants to do is to “scream his fucking lungs out” – what I did was open my ears.

This re-imagining of John Lennon’s search for the words and melody to his next piece of work clips along at a pace due to Barry’s lilting poetic style (I either heard the words in my head in a gorgeous Irish twang or the nasally soft scouse Lennon was known for).  This retreat is also supposed to help Lennon to “at last be over himself” and for him to “be that fucking lonely I’ll want to fucking die”.  Although there is a plot, plot is not what this book is about.  It is more an exploration of a myriad emotions, not least abandonment, self loathing and doubt, but set against the bewitchingly described picturesque west of Ireland land- and seascapes Barry so mesmerisingly evokes with his well chosen and clearly much thought through words, the book becomes less of a depressing rant and more a cathartic journey.

Barry also messes with form and structure in this work; it is either set out in volumes with little punctuation or like a script with character “lines”.  Then, just when you think you know where you are, Barry inserts himself into the narrative, taking over several pages to explain his own journey of research to write this book.  It’s a brave move to slot a reportage section into fiction that is rumbling along quite nicely and has the reader in their reading stride.  Somehow it worked for me – I wasn’t put off by it at all, in fact I was struck by the similarities between Barry’s (or the unnamed writer’s) search for answers and his mental state, and the Lennon of the fiction.

I loved this book for lots of reasons, all of which I could ramble on about (music nerds will enjoy spotting Beatles lyrics slotted into the narrative), mainly though I was bowled over by the perfectly chosen turns of phrase which deftly describe a situation, a scene, a character, a sound or a view and quite honestly the hilarious chapter in the pub which turns into some Godawful trip is worth reading the book for on its own.

 

 

 

on being addicted to books

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