Book Review: “Milkman” by Anna Burns

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Milkman” was a Christmas present from my sister, who lives in Northern Ireland. It’s a perhaps contentious winner of the 2018 Booker Prize. It’s drawn a mixed critical reception and at least one friend has told me it’s “terrible”. Well, in one sense it is “terrible” in that it ingeniously gets inside the head of a young woman living through terrible times: The Troubles. I think I’m right in saying that no place names, and only one character name (Peggy) are used in the whole the book. We never learn the name of the main character. She is referred to as “third sister”. Other family members are Ma, Da, Wee Sisters, Eldest sister, third brother-in-law, Somebody McSomebody, maybe-boyfriend etc. Her persecutor, “Milkman” is not a real milkman, but there is another character called “real milkman”, also referred to under other names such as “the man who didn’t love anybody”. Belfast is not mentioned, but I’m assuming the action takes place in that city, where Anna Burns’ grew up. Places are referred to obtusely: top-end reservoir, the ten-minute area, most-popular-drinking club, the hutment.

What Burns does brilliantly is to capture the insularity, the suspicion, the distrust, the incestuousness of that city at that time. She shows how people shut down, conform, deny and are prepared to believe the worst of other people. In particular she shows how a woman can be intimidated by a stalker with little effort by the stalker himself. The menacing figure of the Milkman appears only a handful of times in the book, and yet looms over her as an ever-present threat, reinforced by the gossip and mean-spiritedness of the community. A woman who reads a book in public, a man who is interested in cooking, another man who collects pieces of British cars are all regarded with suspicion, as “beyond the pale”. Intimidation by armed men, whether Army or paramilitaries also pervades the community. Violent deaths and suicides are everyday events. Men believe they can bully women into submission. Women are drawn to violent men.

This is not necessarily an easy read, although there is a great deal of humour throughout. Perhaps it requires some knowledge of The Troubles to appreciate the achievement of portraying those times. But I think she has done it brilliantly.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019




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Book Review: “The Rules of Backyard Cricket” by Jock Serong

The Rules of Backyard CricketThe Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a terrific read, gripping from start to finish. It describes the rise and fall of brothers who become two of the leading Australian cricketers. Serong says that the characters are not based on real cricketers, but he writes with an insider’s authority. The events are almost completely believable apart from some unlikely twists that stretch credulity.

The main characters, Darren and Walley Keefe, could almost parallel the Waugh twins – one dour and professional, the other a maverick. Serong extends the differences in personalities for the Keefe brothers, one becoming more of a Shane Warne character and the other a seemingly dour Bradman.

The book takes us inside the cosseted world of the elite sportsmen – the hangers-on, the corruption, the drugs, the media circus, the betting – as well as the excitement of the brothers progress from child prodigies to national figures.

The writing is of a high standard. Each chapter commences with a short update of Darren’s current predicament and then goes chronologically through the series of events which led the brothers to their current impasse. There are well delineated supporting characters, which add colour and credibility to the story.

Recommended, especially if you are or were into cricket and like a rollicking thriller.

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Book Review: “Meet My Mother” by Louise Nicholas

Meet My MotherMeet My Mother by Louise Nicholas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Louise Nicholas is a much-loved and admired Adelaide based poet. This book, about her mother Dorothy, builds on the writing of her mother, and supplements it with Louise’s recollections of her relationship with her mother. There are poems by Louise about her mother, poetic letters which her mother wrote to her in Louise’s adult travelling years, and sections of prose providing a timeline through her mother’s life.

Louise describes her mother’s life, in a non-pejorative way, as ‘a little life’. Most of us indeed lead little lives, without achieving or experiencing anything world shattering, getting through life as best we can. This book shows that a little life can still be an incredibly rich life, where the day-to-day challenges of childhood, family and ageing are wrestled with. It is written with the gentle humour and accessibility which characterises Louise’s poetry. And in Dorothy’s poetic letters to Louise, one can detect the seeds of Louise’s poetic style – just one of the many gifts that her mother left her.

A lovely book.

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Book Review: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tim O’Brien was conscripted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam. This book is a series of vignettes, not claiming to be fact, which detail the life, the events, the state of mind of a soldier and his colleagues before, during and after the Vietnam war. It is completely engrossing, partly because it is incredibly well-written and partly because it gives such insight into the minds of the men he describes. The events cover the full gamut of what we now know happens in war – the brutality, the incredible endurance, the tenderness, the cruelty, the dehumanisation. Some of the most touching stories take place in the U.S.A. when the main character is only a child and falls in love, and later when he is grappling with the possibility of escaping to Canada and dodging the draft.

The stories stand alone, but together form a rich picture of one man’s incredible experiences, his fight with his conscience and his battle to retain his sanity. This is not a standard war memoir; this is a complex insight into the effect of war on ordinary men.

Highly, highly recommended.

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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:
https://youtu.be/TMvOwEBEfkI

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