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!).
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.
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.
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.
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?”
Warning: I’m going over my 10 sentence limit with this one!
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.
In the forward of this new edition, David Peace describes how, shortly after submitting his latest crime noir manuscript in 1977, Manchette realised that his editors didn’t like it very much. In anger at their reaction, he requested it be published outside the legendary “Serie Noir” and wrote “This negative response clearly shows what I should never forget: I alone understand what I do.” Manchette’s confidence in Fatale is not without foundation. I haven’t read any other “Serie Noir” or Manchette books, but this one hits hard in its 112 pages. In fact it feels like a 12 round bout stuffed into 3 rounds, climaxing with a KO; it’s a mini dynamo.
Provincial politics can be corrupt and nepotistic and if you are an outsider it is difficult to gain access and favour, but Aimee Joubert (a woman with dodgy motives) capitalises on the inevitable secrets in Bléville’s society and outwits the sweaty bourgeois fat-cats by extorting huge amounts of cash in a spectacular double bluff which involves her offering her services as an assassin. She appears from nowhere, is disciplined in her research and training, infiltrates the community with her charm and good looks, then smacks the crooked officials between the eyes during a dizzyingly violent final scene. I rooted for her from the first page when she confronts a woodland hunter in a spectacular and astonishing fashion. This is more than just a cruel melodrama though, there is a political commentary undercurrent surging through this perfectly formed piece of crime fiction. I love it when a book surprises me like this and it only took a couple of hours to read.
Serpent’s Tail have just released this edition along with several other world literature titles, all with similarly retro pulp jacket artwork and I found it at my wonderful local library.
For German Lit Month 2012 I read Ferdinand von Schirach’s collection of crime short stories Crime & Guiltlargely based on his experiences as one of Germany’s most prominent defence lawyers. The Collini Case is Schirach’s first attempt at slightly longer fiction (although it is still short at only 182 pages) and as with the stories in Crime & Guilt Schirach manages to portray the perpetrator of a vicious crime in a humane light by explaining his back story. The investigation into a seemingly motiveless attack on an elderly industrialist goes nowhere. This, plus his client’s unwillingness to talk, explain himself or defend his position, causes up-and-coming defence lawyer, Casper Leinen some sleepless nights. Casper’s personal connection to the victim provides the emotional conflict and personal angle to this story.
Schirach cleverly reveals the moving yet horrifying back story of both killer and victim with such dignity that I could not help but feel some sympathy for the defendant and his decision to commit such a brutal act (in fact my face streamed with tears reading parts of this book as my train chugged through the Belgian countryside towards Bruges last week). This is a tense and gripping yet precise courtroom drama with a bittersweet ending. And despite its brevity it packed a punch in Germany; the shame associated with the very specific piece of German law featured and highlighted in this novella led to a review of the marks left on the Ministry of Justice by its past connections to the Nazi party. Worth reading for that alone.
John Braine was an Angry Young Man. One of a group of primarily working class writers emerging in the 1950s and using their art to voice disillusionment with the post-war class constraints of British society. His début Room at the Top is a passionate story of a man seeking his destiny whilstcovering themes this group of writers was exploring at the time; oddly it doesn’t feel out of place today as some of the issues are not dissimilar to inequalities still present in our society now.
Joe Lampton yearns for a better life away from the industrial town of his birth. With new accountancy qualifications under his belt he finds the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side; life decisions are difficult and heartbreaking wherever you live and whichever class you belong to, but the cars are nicer and parties more exclusive if you have money. Room at the Top asks questions about class and what it means to fit in, which sacrifices need to be made to gain acceptance and whether ultimately those sacrifices are worth it if they make you miserable. Joe gives up a passionate life with the married older woman he adores to marry up and gain the status he craves. It doesn’t end well. Joe is not a character you can warm to because he has a selfish and manipulative nature, neither of which Braine glamourises or makes apology for. Like Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room this book offers a fascinating insight into that difficult post war period, where almost everyone questioned the status quo and wanted more for themselves…cracking stuff.
There’s a great black and white adaptation of Room at the Topavailable to watch on YouTube, or look out for the more recent BBC adaptation with the wonderful Maxine Peake
Bukowski was a pretty prolific writer. Not in the way that someone grim like Dick Francis is prolific, churning out the dirge, more in the variety of work he produced; poetry, short stories, non-fiction, TV & film screenplays and novels. Post Office being the first of his attempts at the latter form. He was 49 years old and had accepted an offer by publisher John Martin of Black Sparrow Press to write full-time , having recently quit his job at the US Postal Service to do so.
This visceral, semi-autobiographical account of his time with the USPS follows anti-hero Henry Chianski as he drinks, gambles, misogonises (sorry, I know this is not a verb really, but describes it quite well!) and fucks his way firstly around his given route as a mail carrier and latterly as a chair-bound sorter, taking his life by the scruff of its neck and introducing us to grubby glimpses of his existence. Structured as a series of vignettes and mini everyday-life occurences, we soon learn of the ridiculous ways the USPS controls its employees. Chianski often finds himself at the rough and sharp end of some “Soup” (supervisor) or other’s wroth. He never gives a stuff, metaphorically giving them all the bird any chance he gets by carrying out his own private rebellions. Yet his staying power to endure this arcane form of employment torture is impressive. Despite his grossness, lack of respect for himself and often others, there is something admirable and fascinating about his entire disregard and lack of love for himself.
Bukowski shows us human failings in a rich and honest manner with speech that spatters the page and genius character descriptions – you cannot help but respect and marvel at the work; it’s funny too in places and packs a punch despite its slim 160 pages. Total legend.
(12 sentences – bugger! I’m totally not managing to stick to this 10 sentences rule…postcript below also, which is sort of cheating!)
The story goes that Bukowski was heavily influenced by John Fante; there are certainly similarities between Wait until Spring, Bandiniand Post Office. If one legend spawned another then that influence must have been great indeed. Certainly Bukowski was responsible for persuading Black Sparrow Press to reissue Fante’s work in the late 1970s when it had been long out of print. Clearly they owe each other some sort of debt or does this count as literary karma?
If you want to read some other more excellent reviews than mine of Post Office check:
Unfortunately I don’t have the time to write my thoughts on the four brilliant Kate Atkinson books featuring her private investigator, Jackson Brodie, so I thought I’d write about him instead trying to keep to my “10 sentences or less” rule! His back story and antics are the central feature of all four books, so at the end of this rambling brain dump you should have a better idea of how his character complements the plot of each volume and helps bring the stories off the page.
Jackson Brodie; former soldier and police officer, private investigator of marital and other every day misdemeanors is an enigma to himself and this is what makes him so attractive to a reader like me. He is a character full of contradictions. He is tender, yet grumpy; he has a keen sense of social justice, yet makes some dubious decisions; he is able to sniff out the bad eggs, yet often doesn’t see personal trouble coming. He can be irritatingly dim in that respect. Jackson goes about his investigation of the sometimes gruesome, sometimes odd crimes with an unwilling intensity that only someone brilliant at what they do can. For all these contradictions and especially the mastery with which he begrudgingly plies his trade, he is utterly adorable. I want to mother him and sleep with him at the same time – an odd situation mirroring the paradox of the character.
Although I am writing this primarily about Atkinson’s main character, I wouldn’t want you to think these are books without substance, self-indulgently developing Brodie into the swoontastic anti-hero he is, because that couldn’t be further from the truth. The world Jackson inhabits is real and vivid on the page, the cases intricately developed and, unlike other crime fiction, the stories are often wrapped up through chance connection or coincidence – sound cliché? It isn’t. So my advice is, go seek out these books as an alternative to run-of-the-mill crime fiction and I dare you not to fall in love with Jackson Brodie.
I’m writing this ahead of attending the Cheltenham Literature Festival where I will be seeing Kate Atkinson talk about her newest book A God in Ruins.
p.s. I broke the 10 sentence rule with this one – but only just!