Book Review: “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A deceptively simple story of an author finding her writing identity whilst suffering a serious illness. During the illness she reconnects with her mother. The family had suffered extreme poverty and her father had been traumatised by his war experience.

The setting is America in the late 90s / early 2ooos. AIDS is taking its toll, the twin towers are about to be destroyed. Lucy Barton is in hospital for an undisclosed, serious illness. She details her relationship with her husband, flashes back to her childhood, has lengthy, entertaining reminiscences with her mother, who sits at the end of the hospital bed, refusing to ever sleep.

The episodes in writing workshops appealed to me, depicting some of the difficult characters who may be encountered at such events

Although the subject matter is intense, the short chapters and captivating writing style make this an enjoyable read. Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” was serialised for TV and, for the most part, was captivating. This book will encourage you to read more of her work if you haven’t already.

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Book Review: “We are Not Ourselves”, Matthew Thomas

We Are Not OurselvesWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very moving, well-written story, especially considering this is his first novel. It tracks the life of a girl, Eileen Tumulty, growing up in an Irish family in New York and her subsequent adult married life. It is a story about early-onset Alzheimers. It is a story about the reactions of friends and family to the devastating diagnosis, of the challenges of continuing to try to live as normal a life as possible as the disease takes hold, of the struggles of negotiating the American health system, the difficulties of juggling job and carer responsibilities, the self-centredness of youth, the challenging relationship between parents and son. All of these things are woven into the timeline of the progressing illness.

The book is long: 101 chapters, though many of them are just a few pages long. However, I found it gripping from the start. The characters are well depicted, with empathy but without making them flawless. We see Eileen’s dedication and her tendency to be spendthrift. We see her husband Ed’s intelligence as well as his obsessive personality. We see their son’s slow realisation of how much his parents have done for him, after years of being an ingrate.

It is a terrific book about a difficult subject; a subject many of us worry about whenever we forget where we put the keys or can’t recall the name of a famous actor. Well worth reading.

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Book Review : “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was part of my English school curriculum back in the 60s. I re-read it whilst working in Vietnam this year (2018), and it still felt fresh and relevant. The central theme, of a love triangle between a beautiful, young Vietnamese woman, an older English reporter and a young American, takes place in French occupied Vietnam. The Viet Minh are fighting the French in the 50s, and the Americans are standing back, subtly interfering, and deciding if and when to make their move. The love triangle can be seen as a metaphor for the ongoing war.

Greene writes beautifully. His observation of wartime Vietnam, of political intrigue and of the relationship between the three lovers, is acute. Many of those observations can still be made today, in particular the phenomenon of beautiful, young Vietnamese women with much older Western men. Why does this happen? In Greene’s view, love is an illusion, a romantic notion. Relationships are more utilitarian. Fowler, the English reporter, has no illusion that Phuong loves him, except in a simple way dependent on him providing security for her. She provides emotional and physical comfort for him. Pyle, the young American, pretends a romantic love, but his version is one of saving her from Vietnam, and taking her back to become a conventional American wife – a bit like imposing American style “democracy” on Vietnam rather than allowing the Vietnamese to make their own choice.

“The Quiet American” is still a great read. Perhaps the conclusion is a bit too “pat”, a trifle contrived. This apart, it is a classic of 20th century English fiction.

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Book Review: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Nora WebsterNora Webster by Colm Tóibín
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Colm Tóibín writes mesmerically. That is the effect he has on me anyway. His prose is so effortless that it carries me along as if I am in a trance, from the beginning to the end of his novels.

In one sense, not much happens in this story. The major event, the death of Nora Webster’s husband has already occurred when the book opens. The novel is taken up by her slow journey through grief over the next three or four years. But Tóibín’s achievement is to take us deep into the mind of the grieving Nora Webster, to show us how every minute of her day, her every reaction to the parochial world of rural Ireland, is consumed by grief. This may sound dark, but there is a lot of humour in this novel. Tóibín takes us, as he always does, into the claustrophobic, incestuous, church dominated, busy-body world of Ireland in the early 1970s.

Nora has to deal also with the grief of her children, especially her two young boys. Her two girls, who are in their teens, appear more self-sufficient and self-centred. She has to deal with the loss of her husband’s physical and emotional presence, his fathering of the children, his income and then the stream of well-meaning or just plain nosy townspeople constantly knocking on her door. At the same time, Tóibín shows us the warmth and good-heartedness of many in Nora’s community. She is forced to drop her pride and accept the help offered and slowly to assert herself and take control of her life again. She also opens up to friendship with people she had formerly resisted.

From my perspective, Tóibín appears to have brilliantly delved into the mind of a grieving widow. I would be interested to hear from women who have read this book, to see if they agree.

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Book Review: “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure IslandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was prompted to re-read this classic after hearing the poet Paul Muldoon naming it as one of the greatest books he ever read. Muldoon says: “If I could write a book like Treasure Island, I wouldn’t bother with this stuff (poetry).”

It must be over 50 years since I last read “Treasure Island”, and re-reading it was a gripping pleasure. Here are all the pirate tropes which have launched pale imitations such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Talk like a Pirate Day”. To name a few: “Agh Jim lad”, “Pieces of Eight”, “Fifteen Men on a dead man’s chest”, “Shiver me timbers”, the one legged pirate, the marooned lunatic etc.
It is still a great yarn, and an incredibly well written, colourful yarn. Here’s a sample of Stevenson’s writing skills:

“Did any of you gentleman want to have it out with ME?” roared Silver, bending far forward from his position on the keg, with his pipe still glowing in his right hand. “Put a name on what you’re at; you ain’t dumb, I reckon. Him that wants shall get it. Have I lived this many years, and a son of a rum puncheon cock his hat athwart my hawse at the latter end of it? You know the way; you’re all gentleman o’ fortune, by your account. Well, I’m ready. Take a cutlass, him that dares, and I’ll see the colour of his inside, crutch and all, before that pipe’s empty.”

Needless to say, nobody took up Long John’s challenge.

A rip-roaring read.

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Book Review: “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann

Screenshot (26 May 2017 09-40)










Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let the Great World SpinThe key to writing a great Transatlantic novel must be to be christened “Colm” or “Colum”. Colm Toibin wrote the brilliant “Brooklyn”. Colum McCann’s “TransAtlantic” brilliantly based its narrative around the Transatlantic crossing of Alcock and Brown. In “Let the Great World Spin”, the central event is the high wire walk between the twin towers by Phillipe Petit in 1974.

“Let the Great World Spin” starts in Ireland, with the childhood of the Corrigan brothers. The younger Corrigan is drawn to the streets, the disadvantaged, the beggars of Dublin. He joins some sort of religious order, and gravitates to the projects of New York, where he lives among drug dealers and prostitutes. The book tells the story of the Corrigans and in parallel, maps the lives of others who are in New York at the time of the high wire walk. 1974 was also the year Richard Nixon resigned, and this momentous political event also pervades the book.

McCann details the lives and the thoughts of the prostitutes, of the Corrigan brothers, of mothers of soldiers killed in Vietnam, of Petit himself, of the judge who presides over the case of Petit when he is brought to court, of the women involved with the Corrigans. It is a vivid picture of several walks of New York life, a enthralling insight into the lives of the people who were born there and drawn there. McCann concludes the story back in Dublin, and back in the Corrigan family home where the story opened.

The writing is clear and skilful, without being overly ornate or mannered. The storytelling is colourful and entertaining. Whilst the book is long, it moves at a satisfying pace and does not overdo the descriptive detail or inner thoughts of the characters. The central event, Petit’s dazzling walk between the twin towers, his lying down on the wire 400 metres above the New York streets, provides not just a backdrop to the story, but a metaphor for the lives led by the key characters. All of them take daily risks in their lives. All of them are trying to find some kind of joy. Some survive, some fall. Petit was privileged enough, charismatic enough to be treated favourably by the court system. The prostitutes were not so lucky. Petit was willing to gamble with his life. Perhaps the soldiers in Vietnam also gambled with theirs and were unlucky, or more likely they had little choice.

McCann says that the book is also a way of writing about 9/11, and the destruction of the Twin Towers. The issues of war, leadership, religion and race are certainly central at the time of Petit’s walk, as they were 2001 and will be for years to come.

I’ve spent most of this week in bed with a nasty cold and sinus infection. What I needed was a good book to transport me from my self-pity. This is an epic book. At 349 pages, it will transport you for an extended period. Wonderful.

Colum McCann talks about his book here:

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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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