Book Review: “Dirt Road” by James Kelman

Dirt RoadDirt Road by James Kelman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Purely by accident, this is the second book I’ve read recently which delves into the mind of a musician. The first, Anna Goldsworthy’s “Piano Lessons” is biographical, set in the suburbs of Adelaide. “Dirt Road”, by James Kelman, is a novel, set initially in the Scottish Isles, and then moving to the deep south of the U.S.A. “Piano Lessons” took us into the long, arduous process of a young girl learning about her instrument and about music through long, long hours of practice, under an inspirational mentor. “Dirt Road” is a snapshot of a few weeks in the life of a teenage prodigy, Murdo, who is able to channel music from within, apparently without effort.

“Dirt Road” is also about the relationship between a father and son, shortly after they’ve been afflicted with family tragedy. They travel together to relatives in a small Alabama town. Both are damaged in their own way, both are dysfunctional and their relationship is strained.

Kelman provides great insight into the mind of a damaged teenager, who is struggling with all of the awkwardness and self-doubt which afflicts most boys in their teens, but in Murdo’s case is magnified by his own and his father’s grief. Fortunately for Murdo, he has his musical gifts to rescue him. The way that Kelman takes us into Murdo’s head, and is able to take us into the musical world that Murdo inhabits, is the strongest part of this book for me.

The interaction between father and son, the misunderstandings, the almost deliberate miscommunications, the unwillingness to share their emotions are all well told. So too are the episodes describing the hardness of life in small town, evangelical Alabama.

Much of the book is written as Murdo’s stream of consciousness. There is a generous sprinkling of Scots dialect, but I sense that this has been pared back so as not to exclude an international audience. I did become a little tired of Murdo’s constant exclamation: “Jeesoh”.

This is an engaging book. There are a number of key plot turns and coincidences which I did not find completely convincing. The apparent ability of Murdo to prodigiously play styles of music with which he was completely unfamiliar, at the drop of a hat almost, did not convince me either.

However, apart from these reservations, James Kelman is an author I shall follow.

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Footnote. “Dirt Road” is being made into a feature film called “Dirt Road to LaFayette“:

Book Review: “The North Water” by Ian McGuire

The North WaterThe North Water by Ian McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A gripping read. The incredible story (maybe at times too incredible) of an ex-army surgeon with a chequered career, who signs onto a whaling ship headed to the frozen north. It is a page-turner but also incorporates significant historical detail of the period and the professions of the characters.
Some characters are drawn in more detail, which is probably inevitable with a large cast, but I found myself not fully understanding the motivations of some of them.

McGuire has created one of the nastiest pieces of work ever to besmirch a novel, one Henry Drax. Drax is not a man you would ever want to encounter in real life. In this novel, however, he provides a compelling villain.

Almost as horrifying for me, as a vegetarian, are the attitudes to nature exhibited by the characters. Nature is to be plundered and ravaged, and not much more value is placed on human life.

I found McGuire’s prose overly ornate at times. He could be accused, I think, of trying to impress with his vocabulary. For instance:

“The moon is gibbous, the arcing sky garrulous with stars. The two dead bodies lie just as they were, exposed and recumbent, like the eerie gisants of a long forgotten dynasty”.

WTF? Still, don’t let this put you off if you’re looking for a gripping tale of murder and mayhem. Not for the faint-hearted or squeamish.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.

(You probably knew this already, but in case not, a gisant is “A tomb effigy, usually a recumbent effigy or in French gisant (French, “recumbent”) is a sculpted figure on a tomb monument depicting in effigy the deceased.”)

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Book Review: “Piano Lessons” by Anna Goldsworthy

Piano Lessons: A MemoirPiano Lessons: A Memoir by Anna Goldsworthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is as much about an inspirational teacher as it is about a precociously talented young student who reaches the top-level of her artistic profession. Goldsworthy takes us on the path from an Adelaide childhood through to an adulthood dominated by her obsession with the piano. Her whole life is changed by the piano teacher discovered by her grandfather. The teacher is a Russian exile, living in Adelaide. The teacher has amusingly fractured English, and unique insights into the difference between someone who plays the piano with technical proficiency, and someone who is a true artist.

It reminds me in some ways of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, in that it describes in great detail a subject which few of us know intimately, and manages to do this in a gripping way. There are of course also shades of “Dead Poets Society” in the inspirational figure of the teacher.

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Book Review: “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me a while to finish this book, and at times it was hard going. Without having read the background to it, I’m assuming it is a non-fiction, autobiographical work. It’s really about grief and obsession. It follows the author’s battle to overcome the death of her father, who was an inspirational figure to her.

She channels this grief into falconry, specifically into the training of a goshawk with the unlikely name of “Mabel”. Her father was obsessive about aircraft, spending long days, as a boy, aircraft spotting, noting down aircraft numbers and types in multiple notebooks. The author’s gaze is similarly drawn skywards, but to birds, especially raptors. She comes across a 1950s book by T.H. White, “The Goshawk”, which chronicles that author’s struggle to train a goshawk. White too was suffering psychologically, battling his homosexual urges. Macdonald’s travails are paralleled throughout the book to the struggles of White.

In many ways it is a fascinating story, though not gripping enough to make it, for me, hard to put down. There is a lot of detail about goshawks, their dietary requirements, their plumage, their weight, which the average reader might not find fascinating.

As a vegetarian, I also had qualms about her use of the goshawk to kill rabbits, pheasants and doves, and was less than persuaded by her glowing account of how Canada is so much more advanced because hunting is ingrained in Canadian life. Of course, Goshawks kill in their natural state, but to me, the confining of a wild animal for much of its life in a suburban home, feeding it on assorted frozen meats, and taking it out to hunt on the city outskirts is of questionable morality. Keen falconers and non-vegetarians of course are likely to disagree.

Macdonald’s writing style is top class. It is a story worth telling and she tells it well.

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Erin Thornback Reviews “Selfish Bastards”

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To be precise, Cordite Poetry Review’s Erin Thornback reviews “Selfish Bastards and Other Poems” by Mike Hopkins and “Jardin du Luxembourg and Other Poems” by Steve Brock (both Garron Publishing, 2016).

The full review is here.

It can be intimidating to have your work reviewed, especially by someone  you’ve never met who writes for a prestigious publication like Cordite. It’s interesting that people often pick out lines that you regarded as ordinary, and (presumably) regard as ordinary, lines that you felt a bit smug about. That happens at readings too – the biggest reaction can sometimes be to lines that you underestimated, and, by turns, lines that you thought were belters produce little reaction. As they say, once you put a poem out there, it’s out of your control.

Here are a few snippets from Erin’s review from 13th December 2016 :

“Displaying an impulse that is communitarian and geographic by turns, Mike Hopkins’s Selfish Bastards and Other Poems, and Steve Brock’s Jardin du Luxembourg and Other Poems address the quotidian of the present under the notion that place-based does not necessarily mean place-bound. ….. Hopkins’ collection … unfolds in a specific place, articulating a contemporary critique of the Australian present. The poems are inflected with the volatility of political lyricism in ‘Selfish Bastards’ and ‘Anzacery’, and Hopkins’ ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’ terrifically probes and parodies popular culture.

… Mike Hopkins’s Selfish Bastards places his truth within the perception of Australia’s political stage. This truth can compete in the public arena with the ‘truth’ that is portrayed by politicians, such as:

Politicians who tell us we need to tighten our belt, and then
use a helicopter to go to a cocktail party — Selfish Bastards

…. Being free from the same existential competition that obligates politicians to indulge their constituent public, Hopkin’s doesn’t flatter and indulge his audience in the eponymous slam poem:

People in the audience who don’t shout out “SELFISH 
BASTARDS” when politely asked to do so — Selfish Bastards! 

Rather, the poem performs in front of the reader’s eyes, the musicality of the concluding refrains unpacking the realities of our monotone and formulaic reality:

People who like their own posts on Facebook — Selfish Bastards!

Indeed, Selfish Bastards signals a condemnation of contemporary society. Reinforced in ‘The Template’ and ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’, we are confronted with thick hectic prose, sentence fragments and the hackneyed that has taken ‘the world by storm, though it was a small world, when all is said and done’. These clichés humorously gain momentum in ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’, as the people ‘did not stay glued / to the one true cliché’ but ‘ took to false clichés like ducks to water’. In ‘The Template’ Hopkins satirises the public treatment of our magazine society and paper-politicians:

Another soldier dead. Pull
out the template and we’ll 
knock off the news story in 
a flash. First the headline: 
“Digger” and “fallen” are
mandatory words. “Brave”
and salute are excellent 
accompaniments.

Structured like a traditional newspaper spread in two columns side by side, such portrayals are confrontational to the say the least, but there is also a sense of warning that is conspicuous here. Hopkins, in similar tonality to Brock’s ‘Hollywood Hotel’, takes an itinerary of the cookie-cutter Australian media and divisive political scene:

Get a shot or two of 
the politicians in the pews, 
and the comforting the next 
of kin outside the church. 
After all they’ve sacrificed 
their precious time to
attend the service, and 
they like to see that we’ve 
stuck to the template.

The words ‘cliché’ and ‘template’ are key here. The tired terminology is fixed in repetition, an endless ventriloquy hovering over texts, criticising and energising in turn. The geographic impulses that these texts address is one of renewal, the language resonating with a precise duplicity that recognises regardless of the place, we encounter distance, we are always a tourist on the outskirts of a template, political, humorous or based in the explorative:

This rule is our rule: 
THIS DAY IS NOT FOR YOU

(‘Anzacery’, by Hopkins).

---------------

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017 except content from Cordite Poetry Review 2016

 

Book Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

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“A Girl is a Half-formed Thing” by Eimear McBride

I could give this book a one star or a five star rating, so I’ve compromised and given it three stars, and alternative reviews.

One star review:
What an infuriating, depressing story, told in an almost unreadable, fake Joycean voice. It contains no names (except perhaps the name of a doctor?), no commas, no dates and no place names. The reader can work around these things, and, with a great deal of persistence, follow the fairly straightforward plot line. It tells mainly of the dynamics within a family in small-town Ireland, principally the relationship between the girl, her brother who is treated for a brain tumour at birth and grows up with learning difficulties, and their religion obsessed mother. The father disappears from the scene early on. From this depressing, claustrophobic start, things just get worse. The girl is raped (or is she?) by her uncle in her early teens, but then becomes obsessed with him. The brother is bullied at school and later develops another brain tumour. The mother falls victim to reborn Christians. The claustrophobic atmosphere of Ireland becomes even more cloying. The girl goes off to the big city and engages in more sex than you would think could be fit into a normal life. For a girl who has so much unprotected sex, it is astounding that there is no mention of pregnancy or STDs. Maybe the author thought that would be just too depressing, given the total misery of the rest of the book. The last book I read that made me want to have a long, hot shower afterwards was “Praise” by Andrew McGahern. This book made me feel like I needed a week of long, hot showers.

Five star review:
Original, gripping, earthy and with an astonishingly original use of language, this book is ground-breaking. Eimear McBride said that reading Ulysses changed her life, and it clearly set her off on a totally new direction in novel writing. Without using names, locations, commas or dates, she still manages to take us right inside the claustrophobic life of small-town Ireland. It is a shocking tale of how a girl goes completely off the rails. Her father is absent, her mother is church-obsessed, her brother is brain-damaged, her uncle abuses her. Her way out is through sex and alcohol. She is set on a path of self-destruction and achieves it. This is not a light read, nor an enjoyable one, but it is a book that will stay with you long after you have put it down.

Review on Goodreads

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

*Spoiler alert* – describes elements of the plot of the novel.

Despite the title, this is a novel, not a cookbook, and it is not so much about a vegetarian as about a woman with severe anorexia and mental illness. The book won the Man Booker International prize 2016. The author, Han Kang is from Gwangju, South Korea. The translation from Korean is by Deborah Smith.

To me, the book is somewhat cold and dispassionate. I never really felt involved with any of the characters. The story is told in three parts. The first part tells of Yeong-hye’s loveless marriage to an autocratic, chauvinist husband, Mr. Cheong, and her decision to become vegetarian. The decision sets off a series of destructive events involving her husband, her parents, her sister and her brother-in-law. It would seem that vegetarianism has a long way to go towards being accepted in Korea. The second part takes us into the sister’s marriage, and the brother in law’s artistic obsession. This section climaxes in the full breakdown of relationships. The third section looks at Yeong-hye’s mental illness and descent into physical and mental breakdown.

Some of the coldness of the book may come from it being translated from Korean. I’m not doubting the translator’s skill, but it may be that there are more subtleties and more colour in the original. Or maybe not. The book describes a still highly paternalistic society. Yeong-hye’s anorexia is clearly a reaction to her upbringing, her oppressive marriage and the rigidity of Korean society.

This is not an enjoyable book and I am not sure I would have picked it as a major prize winner. The writing is, to me, a bit heavy-handed, and the plot, at times, stretches credulity. It does however provide interesting insights into a paternalistic society and the mind of an anorexic.

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Book Review: (Sometimes you just want an easy read) “A Clubbable Woman” by Reginald Hill

clubbable

Sometimes you just want some pulp fiction, a “whodunnit”, an easy to read detective novel. That’s my excuse for spending time reading this book. I’ve given it 2 stars, but it could easily be one star. Really it’s rubbish, but I have to admit I kept reading it to see “whodunnit?”.

I’ve only occasionally caught bits of TV episodes of “Dalziel and Pascoe”, who are the detectives in this novel. I’ve heard positive reviews of it, and of the books. This book was the first in the D&P series.

It was written in 1970, and shows its age. The attitudes of the males seem almost prehistoric, though this might be exaggerated by the rugby club environment around which much of the action centres. The women are not much better, mostly being sex obsessed housewives who go to the rugby club to flirt with men.

What astounded me most was the incredibly clumsy manipulations of plot and character in order to achieve a solution to the crime. Stray characters and events are introduced at seemingly random points in order to enable an event to occur, or a piece of information to surface, or an item to be found. It really did remind me of the Cluedo game: Colonel Mustard in the library with the lead pipe. The eventual explanation of the murder was so ridiculous as to be laughable.

The book served its purpose in keeping me occupied for a few evenings, but doesn’t make me want to read any more by the author. Perhaps the sort of thing to read during a long airport stopover.

Book Review: “Beatlebone” by Kevin Barry

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I heard about “Beatlebone” on a RTE (Radio Telefis Eireann) radio review of the best Irish books of 2015. It was rated in the top 10 of the year. The story sounded intriguing: a fictional recreation of John Lennon’s visit to my father’s home county of Mayo, in the west of Ireland. Lennon actually did buy a tiny island, Dorinish, off the coast of Mayo in 1967 for less than 1700 pounds. He only visited it once, but encouraged the “King of the Hippies”, Sid Rawle to establish a commune there in 1970.

In “Beatlebone”, Lennon is desperate to get to Dorinish for three days of solitude, to try to regain his sanity. In the process, he is driven around by a darkly weird Irish driver, Cornelius, who seems intent on delaying more than assisting Lennon. There are interludes in strange country pubs, in Cornelius’s house, at an Achill island hotel, the Amethyst, which is inhabited by three even weirder inhabitants and in a London recording studio, where Lennon is trying to record a new, experimental album.

During the journey, Lennon delves into his childhood, the loss of his parents, his time in an orphanage and his teenage sexual encounters. We learn about ‘scream therapy’ and ‘ranting’. Perhaps the most amusing interlude is his ‘ranting’ session with the inhabitants of the abandoned Amethyst Hotel.

Barry seems to have been influenced by my favourite Irish comic author, Flann O’Brien (I once lived in the basement of the house in Blackrock where Flann had lived), in particular by the brilliant “The Third Policeman” – the driver, Cornelius would fit well alongside the third policeman himself. But for me, Barry does not achieve the construction of a dark, bizarrely humorous world as convincingly as Flann did. The idioms used, both Liverpudlian and Irish don’t always ring true. The characters are not as well drawn. The story is not as funny. Clearly Barry is also channelling James Joyce with lengthy ‘stream of consciousness’ passages.

In the very middle of the book, Barry inserts a chapter of commentary about his own trip to Mayo, which gave him the idea for the book. On coming to this chapter, I thought I’d reached the end of the book, and that this was an author’s endnote. Why he chose to put it in the middle of the book I have no idea. Didn’t work for me.

‘Beatlebone’ held my attention until about halfway through and then I became impatient. Perhaps the mid-book author’s note was disruptive, or perhaps it’s just not that really interesting or well told a story.

beatlebone

Beatlebone

Book Review: “TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann

TransAtlanticTransAtlantic by Colum McCann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Colum McCann’s “Transatlantic” uses characters who travel between America and Ireland during major historical events: the first flight by Alcock and Brown from Newfoundland to Galway in 1919; the public speaking tour of Ireland by ex-slave Frederick Douglass in 1845; U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s brokering of the Good Friday agreement of 1998. The novel loops back and forward in time and between continents, tracking descendants of the main characters and showing how their predecessors’ actions affect their lives.

Clearly McCann has done significant research into these events. By looking at them from ‘inside the heads’ of the characters, McCann does not try to fool us into a belief in complete historical accuracy – rather he is imagining a possible perspective on the inner lives of these major figures. I found the depiction of Belfast towards the end of ‘the Troubles’, particularly convincing, maybe because I’ve spent time in Northern Ireland. He never names George Mitchell, but the portrait is a highly empathetic one.

In the acknowledgements, at the end of the book, McCann thanks George and Heather Mitchell and Tony Blair amongst others, for their help in writing the book. For a novelist to gain direct access to such major figures is remarkable.

McCann writes beautifully. Each period is conjured up convincingly: a lengthy and horrific description of Douglass’s trip across Ireland during the Famine; Alcock and Brown’s flight and eventual landing on the west coast of Ireland; Mitchell’s negotiations in Stormont – these are passages which have great authenticity.

A book well worth reading, which encourages you to dig deeper into the events on which it is based.

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