Archive for July, 2009

Not Untrue & Not Unkind, by Ed O’Loughlin

July 31, 2009

o'loughlinI approached this book with some degree of personal interest. In my former working life, one of my tasks was to supervise what was then Canada’s most extensive news agency which had a number of foreign bureaus, including Africa. I have had some experience with African correspondents and the challenges that they faced — O’Loughlin’s book, according to the previews, was “a gripping story of friendship, rivalry and guilt among a group of journalists and photographers covering Africa’s wars.” That seemed to offer promise.

In the spirit of blogging transperancy and intellectual honesty, I finished reading this book about four weeks ago — I found it so bad then, that I decided not to review it. Now that this debut novel has made the Booker longlist, I am reversing that decision, but my opinion has not changed. Obviously, others have a different view. So my negative opinion now seems worthy of being expressed — besides, if I am going to review all 13 longlisted books there must be a couple that I don’t like.

The narrator of Not Untrue & Not Unkind is Owen Simmons. We meet him as he begins his work as foreign editor of a Dublin newspaper, inheriting the post from an apparent suicide who has left behind a blood-spattered file folder — it contains pictures and clippings that remind Owen of his own experiences as a roving correspondent in Africa during the 1990s. It was a troubling time in that continent, with the genocide in Rwanda, assorted outbreaks in Nigeria and disruptions in the Congo. Even without my personal interest in those events, that offers material for an interesting work.

O’Loughlin’s opening paragraph does suggest an additional, important story line, the frustration of the war correspondent now chained to a desk:

Ten years ago I became a hero, and when I came home my old paper took me on again. They thought I’d be an ornament. Ten years now working four shifts a week, six hours a shift and six weeks off each year. If you can call that working. At any rate, I get paid.

There is promise in both that premise and that start: A correspondent who covered some of the most disastrous events of the time, called home to Ireland to edit copy and achingly remembering what had been. I know enough from real life to know that that is not an unheard of phenomenon.

Alas, the rest of the book is a disaster.

There is a cadre of journalists who wander the world and drop in on catastrophes — a mix of freelancers (usually the first to get there), who then get overtaken by the fully-employed, foreign-based reporters, who in their turn get replaced by the even-more-out-of-touch foreign experts from head office. The stories they write don’t change but as the correspondents change the stories move from page 24 to page 3 or 4 to Page One. All of these journalists face challenges (and obviously the first, lowest-paid know more about the situation on the ground than the latest, most-highly-paid arrivals) but whatever those challenges might be the story on the ground is quite a bit more important than the story of those who are trying to tell it.

The problem with O’Loughlin’s book is that it focuses on a handful of reporters who wander around covering African disasters and their problems. But if there is a final message to the reader in this book, it is that the story is quite a bit more important than the people who are telling it. Unfortunately, the book is about the storytellers, not the story.

The narrative moves from country to country, crisis to crisis, city to city. Transitions tend to occur like this:

We were both broke, as usual, but Beatrice had a plan., There was a conference starting in Durban in a couple of days — sustainable development, something like that — and she was sure that her French paper would want her to go. French editors love covering conferences and big set-piece stories, where facts don’t screw up your themes. If her company would pay the bill, for the trip we could both go to Durban and stay in the Edward, overlooking the sea.

Offsetting these travel arrangements, sitting around in bars (Graham Greene is an obvious reference, but a facile one) and shifting love affairs are the inevitable conflicts with the authorities (there are always at least two sets in every conflict, by definition) and equally inevitable incidents of pointless and inhumane violence, since these are war zones after all. O’Loughlin has a curious way of treating these like a version of weather reports — none of them involve characters, just events that effect the war correspondents.

I could accept the idea of putting the Africa story in the background, if any of the journalist characters in the foreground were interesting, but they are not (Evelyn Waugh did just that in Scoop, a vastly superior novel about this same set of circumstances). They move from crisis to crisis, satellite phones on hand; compete for stories; form and break small alliances; have and end romances; hate head office. Because the author needs to move them from crisis to crisis, the narrative features a lot of violence and grotesquely-damaged, dead bodies — since his story is about the people who are observing the carnage rather than what the journalists are observing, that bigger picture of the carnage always makes his narrative seem to be a caricature. And, since he never gets the opportunity to really fill out those characters, a not very good caricature.

I read this book to the end, but only because of my personal background — the deeper into the book that I got the more frustrated and annoyed I became at how shallow the portrayal, not just of the African story but of the journalists, was.

The Booker jury obviously found something in this book that totally passed me by. If you can explain what it is, please don’t hesitate to correct me in a comment. For me, Not Untrue & Not Unkind was a profoundly disappointing book.


The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson

July 29, 2009

double hookOne of the more interesting by-products (and there were quite a few) of reading Patrick Lane's Red Dog, Red Dog was the frequent reminder that it had been a long time since I had last read The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson. Set in British Columbia’s Cariboo country in the same near-desert as Lane’s Okanagan Valley, Watson’s tightly-written novel is one of the foundation works of Western Canadian litererature. In the Canadian literary tradition, she extends the work of Frederick Phillip Grove and Sinclair Ross; in the North American tradition, she invites comparison with Sherwood Anderson, William Maxwell and Wallace Stegner; in the current age, her influence can be seen in authors ranging from Carol Shields to Margaret Atwood to Alice Munro.

All of this from a very slim catalogue of work. In addition to The Double Hook (1959), Watson’s published works include only Four Stories (1979), Five Stories (1984) and Deep Hollow Creek, written in the 1930s but not published until 1992.

Watson taught nine grades in a one-room school in Dog Creek, British Columbia from 1934 to 1936, so this book not only involves the physical desert of interior British Columbia, it is influenced by the economic desert of the Great Depression. Equally interesting in a historical context, however, was that Watson admitted she was inspired to write the book one day in the hopeful post-war 1940s when she came upon the Anglican Church of the Redeemer at Avenue Road and Bloor Street in Toronto. For visitors to this blog who do not know Toronto, that intersection was then and remains to this day arguably the most “urban” intersection in all of Canada. I think that bit of historical information on what (or where) inspired Sheila Watson is important — one of the traits that The Double Hook shares with Red Dog, Red Dog is the presence of an optimism that challenges the overall bleakness of both books.

One final bit of background and I will finally get to the book. Watson had finished The Double Hook in 1953 but couldn’t find a publisher in either Canada or the United Kingdom (a reminder that even that recently Canada’s publishing industry was so small that novelists often had to look to the Mother Country to get published). As F.T. Flahiff notes in his essay in the New Canadian Library edition which I read the English complained “of too many characters and too much motion and dust”; the Canadians “of the absence of ‘a shattering inner force’ or ‘any profound message’.”

Too many characters? In only 125 pages, Watson tells the story of 12 characters and one spirit (the Coyote, the guiding spirit of the Shuswap Indians, “an incarnation of the paradoxes that she had already found in the landscape”). Each of these characters carries an equal weight in the book and all are developed, an amazing achievement for what in most descriptions would be called a novella. In an essay published later in her life, Watson described this extensive group as “figures in a ground, from which they could not be separated” — as good a definition of ensemble casting as I have ever seen. The epigraph to The Double Hook (which is actually a quote from late in the book) supplies the rest of the rationale for the novel:

He doesn’t know you can’t catch glory on a hook and hold on to it. That when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too. That if you hook twice the glory you hook twice the fear.

The 12 characters of the book live side-by-side along a creek and all of the action takes place over a few days in mid-summer. There isn’t room to show how Watson develops them all, but I do want to illustrate a few. Here is William, the area postman:

William would try to explain, but he couldn’t. He only felt, but he always felt he knew. He could give half a dozen reasons for anything. When a woman on his route flagged him down with a coat and asked him to bring back a spool of thread from the town below, he’d explain that thread has a hundred uses. When it comes down to it, he’d say, there’s no telling what thread is for. I knew a woman once, he’d say, who used it to sew up her man after he was throwed on a barbed-wire fence.

Or Watson’s description of James and Greta, the adult children of “the old lady” who looms over the book as a human counterpoint to Coyote:

This is the way they’d lived. Suspended in silence. When they spoke they spoke of hammers and buckles, of water for washing, of ringbone and distemper.

The whole world’s got distemper, he wanted to shout. You and me and the old lady. The ground’s rotten with it.

They’d lived waiting. Waiting to come together at the same lake as dogs creep out of the night to the same fire. Moving their lips when they moved them at all as hunters talk smelling the deer. Edged close wiping plates and forks while the old lady sat in her corner. Moved their lips saying: She’ll live forever. And when they’d raised their eyes their mother was watching as a deer watches.

If you get the impression that Watson has no tolerance for a sentence longer than 15 words, you are correct. Depending on which tradition of literary description you hold to, this 50-year-old book is a prime example of modernist/post-modernist writing. Watson described the attitude that she brought to the book: “It had to be about what I would call something else.”

The Double Hook is not without plot. In fact there are two plot streams that Watson uses to hold the book together — since she is ambiguous in developing both, I will go no further than that here. Her characters may be “figures in a ground”, but they do relate to each other and that does create complications. Like Sherwood Anderson's characters in Winesburg, Ohio, Watson’s people are “grotesques” : “It was the truths that made the people grotesque” was Anderson’s explanation. The truths also make them very real.

I can hear a chorus of perceptive voices (this blog has only perceptive visitors) asking: “When is KFC going to explain the parrot on the cover? There doesn’t seem to be a parrot in this book.” Okay. James has gone to town (I can’t say why) and enters the beer parlor:

When they opened the door into the beer parlor Paddy (the bartender) was leaning across the bar talking to Shepherd and Bascomb. His parrot sat hunched on his shoulder.

It was the parrot who noticed James and Traff first. It raised a foot.

Drinks all round, it said, falling from Paddy’s shoulder to the counter and sidling along.

Paddy looked up.

James Potter, he said. What’s brought you to town?

The parrot swung itself below the inside edge of the counter and came up with a tin mug in one claw.

Drinks on you, it said.

Did I mention that Sheila Watson has a sense of humor? I can’t help but believe that back in the 1930s in the Cariboo country there was a parrot just like this — nobody could make it up.

I will close by returning to a comparison with Red Dog, Red Dog. If you have read that book, you can see some of the similarities; not just the locale, but the “grotesqueness” of the characters and the carefully constructed contrast between bleakness and optimism. Every bit as important as the similarities, however, are the differences. While Lane explores the ancestry of the Stark brothers to explain their circumstances, Watson deliberately and consciously avoids telling the reader anything about the background ancestry of all but one of her characters (and even with that one it is included only to explain why she is a widow). One of the beauties of reading both books (and I can say with some confidence if like one, you will like both) is to appreciate how those different approaches work.

The Double Hook is a truly amazing book — I can think of no more concisely-written, yet thoughtfully complex book in my reading history. I owe Patrick Lane thanks for sending me back to it and I cannot recommend it too enthusiastically.

2009 Man Booker Prize

July 28, 2009

bookerThe longlist for the 2009 Man Booker Prize is out — it is listed on the sidebar (with links to books that I have already reviewed) and you can go to the Man Booker site for more details. Open to all authors with Commonwealth citizenship, I have always found it to be one of the more important literary prize competitions.

I hope to be able to review all of the longlist contenders before the shortlist is announced (the Coetzee and Trevor may be a challenge as neither has been released, but we shall see). I’ve read five of the 13 so far — three have already been reviewed, two more were so disappointing that I did not review them at the time but my grumpy reviews will be up in a week or so (forewarned is forearmed).

All thoughts on all contenders — or those overlooked — are welcome. And of course by all means leave your own predictions; that’s part of the fun of literary prize competitions.

The Good Mayor, by Andrew Nicoll

July 26, 2009

nicoll Good Tibo Krovic has been mayor of the town of Dot (an imaginery community on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Ampersand) for 20 years:

Tibo Krovic enjoyed being mayor. He liked it when the young people came to him to be married. He liked visiting the schools of Dot and asking the children to help design the civic Christmas cards. He liked the people. He liked to sort out their little problems and their silly disputes. He enjoyed greeting distinguished visitors to the town.

With that introduction of the central character of The Good Mayor, author Andrew Nicoll serves notice that this novel won’t be an exploration of world-shaking problems. He is also quick to acquaint readers with the book’s narrator, St Walpurnia, the wart-covered, bearded, patron saint of Dot, who in her turn introduces us to the book’s second major character (and Tibo’s biggest conundrum), his secretary:

Agathe Stopak was everything that St Walpurnia was not. Yes, she was blessed with long, dark, lustrous hair — but not on her chin. And her skin! White, shining, creamy, utterly wartless. Mrs Stopak, although she showed me the dutiful devotion proper for any woman of Dot, was not one to take that sort of thing to extremes…

All winter long, Mrs. Stopak came to work in galoshes and, seated at her desk, she slipped them off and took from her bag a pair of high-heeled, peep-toe sandals. Inside his office, poor, good, love-struck Mayor Krovic would listen for the clump of her galoshes when Mrs Stopak came in to work and rush to fling himself on the carpet, squinting through the crack beneath the door for a glimpse of her plump little toes as they wormed into her shoes.

All of this takes place “in the year Blank, when A-K was the governor of the province R”. And there is a ferry between Dot and neighboring Dash — and the town has a rivalry with nearby Umlaut. If you are wondering about Kafkaesque influences, abandon the thought. While a willingness to accept and go along with the absurd is vital to reading this book, those references are closer to annoying cuteness than to Kafka intrigue. Having said that, Nicoll does not push it. The Good Mayor is above all else a story of how Tibo and Agathe create and prolong unrequited love.

All Agathe wants is to be wanted. She remembers when her paperhanger husband did that, but that time has long passed. Now he mainly works, eats, drinks and passes out — for him, she is mainly the person in the other half of the bed. Despite her desire, she is unaware that the answer to her “want” is in the office next door.

Nicoll takes a fair while before he allows the two to start approaching each other and, in that period, does play some nice games with what politics and administration in a small town are like — the novel is not without its humor. But it only really starts moving when one day Agathe’s lunch box falls into the fountain and Tibo, obsessively watching from his office window, rushes down to take her to lunch.

Daily lunches together become the centre of both their existences, but there is no “couple” in that process :

Life was lunches after that. They spent their mornings looking forward to lunchtime and, all afternoon, they laughed about what they had laughed about at the table. They went for lunch and laughed and talked about everything. They talked about books and Tibo was an expert on books. He had read everything and he shared what he knew with her. They talked about food and Agathe was an expert on food. Whatever they ate at The Golden Angel, she could make better at home. Soon she was filling her blue enamel lunch box with good things for Tibo to heat up in his own kitchen. No more herring and potatoes for him. They talked about life and sadness and loneliness and each found that the other was an expert. But each was an expert in a different field. Tibo knew the loneliness of being alone, Agathe knew the loneliness of being with another.

That paragraph pretty much sums up the story. And while it seems slim pickings, it is to the author’s credit that he explores those two versions of loneliness in an engaging way that does keep the story going — or at least it did for this reader. The Good Mayor is not so much a novel about opportunities missed as it is a book about the consequences of opportunities not taken. That is not an earth-shaking theme, but it is a worthwhile one.

Agathe’s need to do something, anything to change her status eventually provides a twist to the plot but not a resolution; rather, it builds the tension in the non-explored (let alone consummated) relationship. It does eventually get resolved.

The Good Mayor won the Scottish Best First Novel, 2008. It was recently released in North America (you can read the opening paragraphs at the publisher’s website here). Despite its considerable flaws, it was an entertaining read — more can be expected from Nicoll in the future.

The Death of the Author, by Gilbert Adair

July 22, 2009

adairGilbert Adair’s The Death of the Author has been sitting in a special corner of the bookshelf for a few months — a novella that I was almost certain I would like and one that deserved to be saved for when I hit one of those inevitable runs of not-very-satisfying books. I recently hit one of those runs, pulled Adair off the shelf and The Death of the Author did not disappoint.

The novella consists of the autobiographical/confessional thoughts of Leopold Sfax, French-born and raised, now an Ivy League English professor who acquired a certain amount of fame with a work on Yeats (Either/Either) which he later expanded into a more popular book, The Vicious Spiral, in which he articulated The Theory, his version of post-modernism. The latter is also a work in self-delusion, but almost all readers missed that aspect. The first work attracted academic disciples who supported its premise with an energy verging on fanaticism:

It was, you will recall, the very heyday of the death of the Author and the correlative rise of the Reader as the text’s interpreter, its sole and lonely arbiter. These ideas had come to us from Paris, as so many had before, and they had until then been merely spooned out, in a wary and parsimonious trickle, to the academic community of my adopted homeland. So that the central premise of my book — to wit Who cares what Yeats meant? His poems mean — my insistence, just as my fellow critics were straining to isolate the interpretation, that literary meanings were generated not by their nominal author but from an accumulation of linguistic conventions and codes, and my categorical refusal to regard documented authorial intentions as a privileged source of information on the work under study were all still capable of roiling the placid, stagnant pools in the groves of academe.

The Theory declares that the Author has been shown as “well and truly dead” — “an absence, a void.” Adair develops this part of his take on post-modernism in a way that extends well beyond my personal knowledge (for an informed discussion here is a link to Stewart’s excellent review at booklit). I would say that despite my limited knowledge, Adair’s development of that part of his story is not hard to understand.

But there are other intriguing elements to Adair’s novella. Sfax was a young man in Paris during World War II, eager to be published, who collaborated with others supporting the German occupiers, motivated by personal desire and ego, not ideology. And now that he has acquired a level of fame decades later, something that he has feared since arriving in America seems to be coming to pass — his history will be investigated and exposed. A recent graduate, and a devotee of The Theory, proposes to write a biography of Sfax, with or without his co-operation. In its own post-modernist way, The Death of the Author is the competing version of that biography.

So, just as his Theory states that authors don’t really mean what they say they mean, Sfax begins to construct a personal history that says his real history actually wasn’t real — the ultimate test of a Theory that he doesn’t really believe in, but a lot of other people do.

Another crucial element is added to this mix, but it is a spoiler to say what it is. Suffice to say that the multi-layered story that Adair constructs is not so complex that the Reader feels lost — indeed, one of the attractions of the book is the apparently logical progression from one illogical idea or event to the next equally implausible one.

And so, whatever the Author may have meant with this book, I was fully enrolled in the spirit of the enterprise. For this Reader, The Death of the Author produced:

— an interesting argument about schools of literary criticism, much of it (but not all) developed with tongue firmly in cheek.
— some fun observations about the politics and power of high-level academic life.
— thoughtful development of what happens when artists make compromises and have to live with them for the rest of their lives.
— the tantalizing mystery that I can’t talk about.

All of this in the tightly-written 136 pages of the Melville House “The Contemporary Art of the Novella” version that I read. I only wish I had a few more books like this tucked away in the corner of the shelf.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow

July 19, 2009

bellowI think that I am going to have to erect an image of Saul Bellow as the central icon in my “personally most frustrating modern author” category. I will admit that is a somewhat off-the-wall category, but many readers would put John Updike, Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson in a somewhat similar kind of grouping, so I think I am on fair ground. Sometimes great authors truly confuse us and there needs to be a place to put them.

My reading of Bellow has been anything but disciplined and my response has also been all over the map. Some books (The Adventures of Augie March, Humbolt’s Gift), I thought were brilliant. Others (Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King) were only okay. And some fell off the map.

I have been saving Mr. Sammler’s Planet for relatively late in my Bellow reading. It won a National Book Award (his third) and, for Bellow, is relatively short. The story outline (Holocaust victim in New York, late 1960s) had lots of promise. Penguin Classics entranced me even more with a cover picture, looking down Fifth Ave. from the St. Regis — taken in 1905, while the book is set post-WWII. I should have figured that out but I didn’t. Damn you, Penguin, for a most misleading image.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet is one of the most confounding books that I have read in recent memory. It is full of potentially interesting ideas, and equally potentially interesting characters, and, for this reader, none of that potential for either ideas or characters is realized. Unlike a truly bad book, this one had me hopeful all the way to the end — and never delivered. Given the accolades it has received, I can’t help but wonder if that is my fault.

Artur Sammler is in his 70s, a Pole, a Holocaust survivor with horror stories of his own, a resident of New York for more than 20 years. He is an “uncle” to Dr. Elya Gruner, a rich doctor who moved on into business and may, or may not, have had doings with the Mafia. Elya rescued Sammler and his daughter from post-war Europe and has financed them in New York, but as this novel unfolds Elya is facing his demise. He is also father to a disturbed daughter (in psychoanlysis) and a perhaps even more disturbed son. Add in Sammler’s own daughter and his landlady (another relative) and you have a promising mix. Plus, as someone who loves “New York” books, all of this is set in the New York City of the late 1960s.

And, to be cruel about my conclusion, that is as good as the novel gets. There is no doubt that Bellow meant this book to be about the emptiness and hopelessness of the America of the time, a not unreasonable objective. As a great storyteller, he seeded his novel with interesting characters — as a polemicist, none of them ever become real. A sub-theme — about sending off people to the moon to escape the world which is in a state of total collapse and then move on elsewhere — starts to dominate the book. And for one very long section, an exchange (reminiscient of wandering debates in The Magic Mountain but with none of their insight) about that possibility takes over.

Every time that I reached the end of a chapter in Mr. Sammler’s Planet I thought “Bellow will pull this all together in the next chapter.” He never did — instead there was more stream-of-consciousness debate or pointless digressions. As a notebook that identified themes for future development, this book may well have been a valuable work — as a novel, it fails.

I have a few Bellows left to go. And sometime in the future, I may return to Mr. Sammler’s Planet in a different frame of mind. For now, I have to admit that this one passed me by. As someone who has been known to argue that Bellow is a better author than Philip Roth, I may have to lie low for a while.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

July 16, 2009

strout It is fair to say that Olive Kitteridge was a surprise winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction. With Toni Morrison (A Mercy), Marilynne Robinson (Home) and Philip Roth (Indignation) all on the list of contenders, a collection of 13 linked vignettes set in Crosby, Maine hardly seemed a likely choice.

Yet, with Olive Kitteridge Elizabeth Strout has staked her own claim to contributing to a long-valued and consistent thread in North American literature. While her stories are set in this century, the Crosby that she portrays in Olive Kitteridge is very much in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, William Maxwell’s Illinois and Alice Munro's southwestern Ontario. Each author has taken a relatively unknown and isolated part of North America and used it to explore in depth the challenges, heartbreaks and, less often, joys of the people who live there. In their own way, each of these four authors has developed and articulated a notion of community that reflects the nature of the time in which each work is set, but even more importantly examines the stress of change, whatever the era might be.

Olive is a retired schoolteacher, physically and mentally “larger” than most of the villagers around her, her impact on Crosby both part of her teacherly history and her matronly present. Her husband, Henry, was the town pharmacist — as the stories of the book unfold, he joins her in retirement, his pharmacy replaced by one of those chain drug stores that sell huge rolls of toilet paper, cat food and spatulas, instead of just dispensing drugs. As Strout reminds the reader more than once, both are “waiting for the end” in a changing world that neither really understands. Consider what has happened to the church, not so long ago the social centre of village life:

In fact, only a handful of the congregation goes to church regularly anymore. This saddens Henry, and worries him. They have been through two ministers in the last five years, neither one bringing much inspiration to the pulpit. The current fellow, a man with a beard, and who doesn’t wear a robe, Henry suspects won’t last long. He is young with a growing family, and will have to move on. What worries Henry about the paucity of the congregation is that perhaps others have felt what he increasingly tries to deny — that this weekly gathering provides no real sense of comfort. When they bow their heads or sing a hymn, there is no sense anymore — for Henry — that God’s presence is blessing them. Olive herself has become an unapologetic atheist.

Almost every one of Strout’s 13 stories has an example of how this kind of change is disrupting the once comfortable pattern of village life. One of the other things that is frequently present (and here she does line up with Maxwell, Anderson and Munro) is that strange conflict in compact communities between “not telling” (as in, don’t ask embarrassing questions) and the village “telegraph” which makes sure that everybody does know everything about everybody else. Scandals are never discussed with the principals themselves but are the warp and woof of life in conversation with everyone else.

Another strong theme in the stories is the Kitteridges’ isolation from their son, Christopher. Given his parents, it is no surprise that he grew up somewhat removed from interacting with the world (his choice of profession — podiatry — is an interesting commentary in itself) and eager to get away from his parents. They are equally eager to maintain bonds, constructing a house in the Maine tradition that is meant to ensure he never leaves. The plan is not working, as Harmon, a nosy (and therefore typical) neighbor, probes in the doughnut shop:

“Henry okay?” Harmon asked. “Christopher?”

Olive nodded, her mouth moving with the doughnut. Harmon knew — as most people in town knew — that she didn’t like her son’s new wife, but, then, Harmon didn’t think Olive would like any wife of her son. The new wife was a doctor, smart, and from some city, he didn’t remember where. Maybe she made baggies of granola, did yoga — he had no idea.

The Christopher retention project falls apart within months of his marriage when his cosmopolitan wife moves Christopher to California (Maine is fine for two weeks in the fall when there is sunshine, but dreary and dark the rest of the time, she explains). The marriage itself falls apart a few months later; despite his parents’ wishes, Christopher not only does not move back, he rarely visits.

For many years, Mrs. KFC and I were privileged to be summer guests at a very large and traditional cottage — Swallow Point — in Chester, Nova Scotia, a community not that far up the Atlantic coast from Strout’s Crosby, Maine. While we were not only “summer people” but guests of summer people, our hosts came from that part of the world so we had some exposure to the ideas and concerns of those who did reside there full time, the kind of people who are at the centre of Strout’s stories. The pace of change may come somewhat slower to communities like this than it does in metropolitan centres, but it comes every bit as resolutely nevertheless. And the author does an exceptional job of showing how trying it is to be forced to adapt to that change.

Despite these strengths, I found Olive Kitteridge had it share of disappointments. While Olive is present in every story, she is the central character in only a few — both she and Henry never get developed as fully as I would have preferred. Likewise, Strout’s observations about village life on the coast of Maine are both perceptive and worthwhile, but the structure she has chosen means they show up more like a grocery list than being knit together in a cohesive whole. Perhaps after a few weeks or months of contemplation, these themes will develop in the mind and come together — off first exposure, Olive Kitteridge is a very well-written book that falls just short of success.

Two novels set in U.S. private schools

July 12, 2009

pulitzer3All Souls, by Christine Schutt

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart

What is a 61-year-old, childless male doing reading, let only reviewing, two YA novels whose central characters are teenage girls in private schools? A good question (only mildly tinged by self-guilt), requiring explanation. So before asking for 10 minutes of your time to consider these two novels, here’s my justification:

lockhart2— The private boys school has been used as a setting for some excellent novels. Richard Yates A Good School and John Knowles A Separate Peace are two U.S. examples; I won’t even start on British ones. The target audience for these two novels (at least Lockhart’s) may be younger, but the example still holds.
All Souls was one of two runners-up in this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction (to Olive Kitteridge), a decision that was intriguing enough at the time to spark my interest. I am sure Schutt does not call it a YA novel, but it does qualify as one.
Frankie was one of 16 best novels of 2008 in the Tournament of Books, an online, NCAA-style competition (other finalists included Home, Netherland, 2666 and A Mercy — the eventual winner), so it has mixed with good company. Okay, it lost in round one to Shadow Country but even making the literary Sweet Sixteen indicates attention should be paid.
— I’m making my third attempt to read Ulysses right now (as part of dovegreyreader’s year-long, group-read project that starts July 16 — check it out here if you are interested). I’m restricting myself to a maximum of 60 pages a day and wanted some lighter reading to offset Joyce.
— An occasional venture into unfamiliar genres (I’m obviously not the target market for YA) is a good idea for all serious readers.
— I would not have wasted my time — or that of visitors here — if I didn’t think these books worthwhile.

All Souls is Schutt’s second novel; her first, Florida was a 2004 finalist for the National Book Award so she definitely has literary credentials. Set in the upscale Siddons School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it tells the story not just of the girls who attend the school but their (often divorced) parents and the people who teach them. The focus of the book is a senior, Astral Dell, who has a rare cancer — Schutt hangs her observations about the other characters and their lives on their response to Astral’s fate.

While the author carries all this off with considerable aplomb in a highly readable novel, I am left wondering what the Pulitzer jury found that I missed. The biggest problem with the book is that all of the elements in it are quite predictable — even a person as far removed from this reality as I am learned almost nothing new., as entertaining as the process was.

The students have a range of concerns which seemed to indicate to me that not much has changed in the last half-century — lack of friends, snubbing by cliques, being too smart/not smart enough, eating disorders, getting into the right college, having icky parents. Curiously, boys and sex are almost absent (there is one fumbling teacher-student lesbian scene) — drugs don’t get mentioned. Perhaps the notion that nothing has changed for young people in a couple of generations is the author’s point.

In some ways, the parent stories offer and deliver more potential. Even I am aware that being the parent of a private school student in New York City is more work for the parent than it is for the student. Alas, this thread gets under-developed as perceptive as some of Schutt’s observations are. And the teachers are also quite predictable. The idea that private school teachers have somehow fallen into that job because nothing else seemed to fit appears to be another that has not changed.

In the final analysis, All Souls was worth the reading time, but no Pulitzer contender for this reader.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, on the other hand, was an enjoyable, informing and entertaining diversion of the first order. One of the sub-themes of the book is Frankie’s discovery of P.G. Wodehouse and Lockhart has a fair claim to updating the Wodehouse private school tradition of humorously (but devastatingly) portraying the upper class adolescent idling away time to adulthood (including secret societies) where they will continue to idle away time (including secret societies) to a more damaging effect. (Note: I am indebted to Mrs. Berrett, wife of Trevor at mookseandgripes, for drawing my attention to this book — she also used it to convince him to read Wodehouse.) The result is a book that is not only fun to read, it packs its own set of insights.

Frankie is a sophomore at the very exclusive Alabaster Preparatory Academy in northern Massachusetts (think Andover and Exeter) who in the summer after her freshman year has filled out in the right places, both mentally and physically. One of the things that Lockhart does particularly well is capture the awkwardness of adolescence — parts of Frankie’s body, mind and personality are fully developed, others have a long way yet to go. One of the things Frankie acquires at the start of her sophomore year is a boy-friend who is a senior, Matthew Livingston (“supremely goofy, word-obsessed”) who happens to be a) heir to a newspaper empire and b) top dog in the school’s long-established secret society, the Loyal Order of Basset Hounds.

Frankie is a prankster and quite a bit smarter than Matthew (okay, teenage girls being smarter than teenage boys is another thing that has not changed in the last 50 years — I’d like to think we males catch up, but that can be debated in the comments to this post). Wodehouse-like, many institutional disruptions occur. While I did not meet Mrs. KFC until we were both in university, I can’t help but note that Frankie and the young Mrs. KFC had a lot in common, to the chagrin and challenge of the schools they attended. And the pranks that Lockhart details in the book are so good that there is no way that I am going to risk spoiling them. Just let me pique your interest by saying that she cites Chuck Palahnuik and Michel Foucault as sources in her acknowledgements. And she listens to The Smiths when she is in need of inspiration. These are major league pranks.

Lockhart does an excellent job of developing the internal conflicts that maturing young people face, in a way that has as much appeal to an adult as her target younger audience. She plays some wonderful intriguing riffs on the importance of “secret societies” in modern America (think George W. Bush and much of the Wall Street gang). Along the way, for those of us who like words, she develops some interesting word games. Frankie is entranced with the idea of INPs (imaginary neglected positives — “immaculate” and “maculate”) and FNPs (false neglected positives — “disgruntled” and “gruntled”). Wodehouse would have been proud of Lockhart as a student.

Neither of these books takes long to read and neither descends into annoying, uninteresting digressions. As someone who for the most part reads novels that demand quite a bit of concentration from the reader, both were not just a welcome diversion, they delivered considerable insight. I suspect that I will give Frankie a second read some time — and that’s about as strong a recommendation as I ever come up with.

Meanwhile, it is time for another 50 or 60 pages of Ulyssess. I will return to James Joyce both refreshed and eager, a tribute to both Christine Schutt and E. Lockhart. You could do a lot worse than reading these two books.

Amongst Women, by John McGahern

July 9, 2009

mcgahernIf there is a shortlist of abusive, bullying fictional fathers, Moran deserves to be on it. He has a first name in John McGahern’s Amongst Women but, since the author rarely uses it, neither will I. As for the abusive, bullying part, McGahern wastes little time, opening the novel with:

As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children and houses of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.

Moran was not always this way. As a youth, he was quite the ladies’ man and a superb dancer to boot. He led a column with some distinction during the Irish war of independence; it was only when the Republic was established that he began an inexorable retreat from the real world, eventually limiting himself to a notion of “family” where he could practise his bullying behavior on his second wife and the children borne by his first. In that opening section, the three daughters are planning a reprise of “Monaghan Day” to cheer him up — the author uses it to set the story of Moran’s final withdrawal from the non-family world.

Monaghan Day came each end-of-February after the fair in nearby Mohill. McQuaid, one of Moran’s subordinates during the war, now a successful cattle dealer, would show up for remembering, story-telling and whiskey drinking. As this later re-enactment unfolds, Moran remembers:

“For people like McQuaid and myself the war was the best part of our lives. Things were never so simple and clear again. I think we never rightly got the hang of it afterwards. It was better if it had never happened. Tired now. You were all great girls to travel such distances to see one sick old man.”

McQuaid actually did get the hang of it as we discover when McGahern flashes back to the last Monaghan Day that Moran and McQuaid shared. It will give the only clues the author will provide to what has produced this abusive creature:

His (Moran’s) fascination with McQuaid’s mastery of his own world was boyish. He had never been able to deal with the outside. All his dealings had been with himself and that larger self of family which had been thrown together by marriage or accident: he had never been able to go out from his shell of self.

While the IRA “won” the war and the Republic was established, it represents no victory to Moran. In his view, many of the men who fought got nothing — the Republic has been taken over by a version of traitors to the point that he even rejects taking up the IRA pension for which he is eligible. He goads McQuaid, his last friend, to the point where the latter concludes:

As on all the other Monaghan Days stretching far back he had come intending to stay the night. Tonight a growing irritation at Moran’s compulsion to dominate, to have everything on his own terms or not at all, had hardened into a sudden decision to overturn the years and quit the house at once. As soon as Moran saw McQuaid on his feet again he knew the evening, all the evenings, were about to be broken up and he withdrew back into himself. He would neither plead with him to stay nor help him with his leaving.

Moran’s withdrawal from the outside world is complete (and all of this takes place by page 21 of a 184-page book). He is left with clinging to the “self” of family, the only place where he can exercise his dominant, abusive behavior. Even here, there are problems — his eldest son has already fled to England and refuses contact; his youngest son is showing similar signs of rebellion as he matures. Only his second wife, Rose, and his three daughters are willing to bend to his will. The bulk of the book is the story of the hell that this creates.

Moran is capable of at least occasionally being a decent person with his three daughters, although he uses that talent almost capriciously to continue his domination. With his sons, that side of him never shows — as though it was a talent he never bothered to learn. He has a host of controlling devices (including his leading of the decades of the Rosary each evening) and he devotes his life to exploiting them.

Given my recent reading, it was hard not to compare Amongst Women to two other books: Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog. All three involve explorations of how controlling fathers use an idea of “family” to effect their children, negatively. In each case, the male offspring rebel, the females submit (in Lane’s case, the three daughters are virtually killed off by their parents before the age of six months). Robinson uses this framework to suggest the need for a discovery of soul (which I found least satisfying of the three). Lane explores whether the current generation can overcome a pattern of generations of family misery. McGahern examines the outcome when the driving force is simply selfish behavior by the father.

Despite his horrible behavior, I felt some sympathy for Moran. I had some questions about taking on this book because of the promo — “Moran is an old Republican whose life was forever transformed by his days of glory as a guerrilla leader in the War of Indepence” — and a feeling that I had read as much as I wanted to about the fallout from the Troubles. That is definitely not the case; in fact, McGahern’s 1991 novel has a very significant message for those of us who live in North America and the United Kingdom in 2009.

In all wars, some ordinary men (and now women) do extraordinary things. The problem is that when the war ends, the world demands that they be ordinary again — and they don’t know how to do that. Too often that plays out with maltreatment of those closest to them. A number of fiction works explored that phenomenon following both World Wars; some of us are old enough to have seen personal experiences from the Vietnam War. Part of what makes Amongst Women so poignant and heart-breaking is that the seeds for similar stories are being sewn in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Amongst Women is not a perfect book — why Rose ever married Moran is perhaps a question better left unasked. Whatever its weaknesses might be, however, the thoughtful reader will find it to be one that lives on in memory.

Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

July 6, 2009

mccann2 I approached Let The Great World Spin with considerable trepidation. The tragedy of 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers has led a number of very good writers (John Updike and Don Delillo come to mind) to write books that I found to be sorely wanting, to the point of being better left unpublished. There has also been what I would call a WTC “echo” phenomenon — works that feature the 1974 tightrope walk between the towers by Philippe Petit. For example, Man on Wire, a documentary based on Petit’s 2002 book, To Reach The Clouds, won this year’s Academy Award for documentary, after winning several festival prizes.

(EDIT, Oct. 14 — Let The Great World Spin was named to the National Book Awards fiction shortlist today. It is a worthy contender — and the only finalist that has been reviewed on this blog. Nov. 18 — And today it won the prize, a minor surprise. It is a good book.)

Colum McCann’s novel opens as that tightrope walk is taking place. Born in Dublin, McCann lives in New York and my fear was that yet another New York-based author felt it was necessary to use the World Trade Center image to justify his presence there. I am most happy to report that that is not the case — Let The Great World Spin is about New York, but it is an extension of the tradition of novels about that city that extends from Edith Wharton (reviewed here) through Steven Millhauser (reviewed here) to Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Just as Petit used a balancing pole while performing stunts on the wire, McCann uses that event as a pole around which he winds a number of stories that are happening on the ground in 1970s New York — and ends up producing a valuable addition to the list of fine novels that have been written about the city.

The most prominent story thread of the novel is narrated by Ciaran Corrigan, the older of two brothers born in Dublin. His younger sibling, known as simply Corrigan for most of the book, has developed a notion of God by the end of his teenage years:

What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth — the filth, the war, the poverty — was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism againt all the evidence.

“Someday the meek might actually want it,” he said.

Corrigan eventually enrols in a semi-monastic order of similar independent, undisciplined souls. He takes himself to New York, with a fifth floor apartment in a broken-down tenement block near the hooker stroll under the Major Deegan expressway. It is the stroll for the too-old, too-damaged prostitutes who once worked Park Avenue. The “small beauties” that Corrigan brings to his client population are a place to pee (and freshen make-up, but definitely no shooting up) and occasional deliveries of pastries to them on the work-site, for which he is periodically ritually beaten up by their pimps. Ciaran searches for his brother, finds him and becomes a reluctant partner in this life work.

The central character in the second most prominent narrative stream is Claire Soderberg, wife of Solomon, a State Supreme Court judge, who lives on the upper floor (she doesn’t like to call it the penthouse) of a central Park Avenue apartment. Claire’s problem, besides being guilted by the luxury of her life, is the loss of her son Joshua in Vietnam. Joshua wasn’t even in the U.S. armed forces, he was a computer geek developing a program that would produce an accurate total of the American dead for the President and cabinet when he got blown up in a Saigon cafe. Claire has found an ad in The Village Voice for a support group of mothers who have lost sons. Needless to say, the other four mothers are much poorer than Claire — since they meet at each others homes (to inspect the room of the departed child) she is anxious about displaying her affluence when it is her turn, which just happens to be on the day that Petit performs his walk.

There are other streams and McCann develops amplifications and improvisations on all of them, including worthwhile development of characters too numerous to mention. Poverty, race, war, exploitation, authority, anti-Semitism — all are in the book, but none are central. It is a survey of what this world of New York in 1974 looked and felt like, not a judgment about any of its particular flaws.

All of this is contrasted periodically with brief snippets from Petit’s preparation for his daring moment and the minutes of that act itself. (For those who were around at the time, it is hard not to contrast it with Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” — Petit seems to have outdone all of Warhol’s proteges.) The symbolism of escaping that miserable, dreary world, if only for minutes, to soar above it, literally on a tightrope, may be obvious, but McCann does not push it too far. It also creates the scenario the author needs to tie all of his various streams together as the book draws to a close — perhaps a little too tidily, but I was willing to grant him the licence. All the while, the great world spins on.

For anyone who has read Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (reviewed here) and appreciated the way that he captures the New York of the early 1950s (and he does), it is almost impossible to believe that Let The Great World Spin is set only a little over 20 years later. An incredible amount of change took place in those two decades, not just in New York — sometimes it takes good fiction to remind us just how much.

As might be guessed, I am a fan of novels about “the City” — perhaps because so many excellent writers have chosen it as a venue. I wouldn’t argue that this is the best of those novels, but, as I said at the start of this review, it is a valuable addition to the shelf.

(While Let The Great World Spin has been released in North America, it is not scheduled for UK release until Sept. 7. Assuming McCann has retained his Irish citizenship, that would make it Man Booker eligible this year. While I think it rates longlist consideration based on quality, I suspect the New York focus will keep it off the list — in some ways, it may turn out to be 2009’s version of Natherland.)

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