Sunday, 2 August 2015

Explorer

'The Explorer' by James Smythe (who sounds like such a nice man from the article about book sales on his website) was not really my cup of tea. I am still trying to review everything, more to record its passing through my hands than to tell you not to bother with it ... it might be just your kind of thing after all. It is an outer space exploration story that turns into something much more weird. I thought initially it was going to be a bit like 'The Martian' but it was quite different. It hops backwards and forwards in time, telling you how he applies to go on this deep space voyage and about the build up to their departure, the other people who are going too and then the breakup of his relationship with Elena. For all their psychological evaluations they still seemed to manage to send a really messed up bunch of people into space. I think I didn't like it because the plot seemed really weak; merely "going further" than any manned exploration had gone before seemed a distinctly pointless exercise. As the blurb informs you the crew die in a series of freak events and our hero Cormac finds himself alone on a ship that fails to make the scheduled turnaround when it reaches the outer limit of the voyage. Being merely a journalist he has no skills to deal with the technicalities (unlike our Martian) and so is something of a victim of circumstances. I don't want to spoil the plot for any potential readers so I'll just say that things are not as they seem and it reminded me of the scene at the end of the film 'Interstellar' (which equally annoyed me, but for different reasons), except I saw this coming. Yet again, the lack of decent female characters annoyed me, it often seems like a lack of imagination. Having said that it was well written enough for me to persevere with it, so I won't dismiss the experience completely. There are no aliens or fancy technology but if sci-fi is your thing then you will probably enjoy.

"Usually I set up the connection but this time Guy takes charge, like photographer in the olden days, lining up the shot, standing behind the camera to make sure we all look good. 'This will be the last time they see our faces for a good long while,' he says, 'you want to make sure you look your best for it. Smile. Look happy.' We do. 'Hey, remember what's important,' he says. 'We're intrepid, right?' He says the word like it doesn't fit into his mouth, into the repertoire of his language." (p.162-3)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Who will run the frog hospital?

I read 'Self Help', stories by Lorrie Moore, last year and I added 'Who will run the frog hospital' to my 101 Books list almost entirely on the strength of the wacky title, it's irresistible. I seem to have read quite a few first person narratives recently and am beginning to find that they have specific feel, a quality that is weirdly similar from book to book. I wanted to like this book so much more than I did, and I can't figure out why, and as such have had three sentences of a review written for a fortnight with no inspiration to finish it. 
Monkey tells me I shouldn't beat myself up over it or turn it into a chore, so I won't.

"The week she was hired as Cinderella, Sils made a painting of this, what we'd done with the frogs those years before. She painted a picture in deep blues and greens. In the background, through some trees, stood two little girls dressed up as saints or nurses or boys or princesses - what were they? Cinderellas. They were whispering. And in the foreground, next to the rocks and lily pads, sat two wounded frogs, one in a splint, one with a bandage tied around its eye: they looked like frogs who'd been kissed and kissed roughly, yet stayed frogs. She framed it, hung it in her bedroom, and titled it Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" (p.18)

Monday, 13 July 2015

Fried Green Tomatoes

'Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe' is my favourite film. On that basis alone I put the book on my 101 Books list. I was on leave last week so spent the entire of Friday reading this book. I felt like it was a story that would benefit from a single sitting. I think that maybe my fondness and familiarity with the film story marred my enjoyment of the book because in the back of my mind I was taking note of the things that had been changed, and preferring the version I already knew.

Where the film is a story of female friendship, focussing quite closely on Idgie and Ruth, the book is much more about the whole community. It has a similar dual storyline, with the back story of the Whistle Stop Cafe, and then the current day relationship between Ninny, who is telling the story, and Evelyn, a middle-aged housewife who is visiting the nursing home and finds herself befriended by this vivacious elderly lady. It follows the lives of the small town of people who live alongside the railroad in rural Alabama, from the 1920s, through the depression and the Second World War and into the 50s and the demise of the town as the trains stop passing through. The Threadgoode family and their neighbours form the backbone to Whistle Stop and Dot Weems write a weekly bulletin that also punctuates the book with snippets about local goings-on. Although there is the threatening presence of the KKK, and the trial of Idgie and Big George over the death of Frank Bennett, the book does not tackle the issue of race or segregation head on and tends to gloss over the tensions that existed at that time. Ruth and Idgie are presented as good people who feed the hobos and treat black people with respect, but the entrenched injustices in their community are not really questioned. The book's aim is to tell a story I guess not to examine the politics. There's nothing very special about it, lots of he said and she said and then they did such and such.  The characters themselves are a little two dimensional and its strength lies more in the evolution and changing world of the community. I'm glad I had it on the list because it has satisfied my curiosity about the book. Here is a tiny snippet, a picture of the cafe:

"Ruth tried to fix up the place. She put a picture of a ship sailing in the moonlight, but Idgie came right along behind her and took it down and stuck up a picture she found of a bunch of dogs sitting around a card table, smoking cigars and playing polker. And she wrote underneath it, The Dill Pickle Club. That was the name of this crazy club that she and her friend Grady Kilgore had started. Other than the Christmas decorations they put up the first year that Idgie never did take down, and an old railroad calendar. That was it." (p.65)

Saturday, 11 July 2015

I Capture the Castle

I feel a bit old to be reading 'I Capture the Castle' by Dodie Smith for the first time, but I have loved it. Cassandra is just such a wonderfully naive and honest character, and the evocation of the inter-war period and their quiet rural existence is beautiful. The Mortmains live in what the wikipedia page refers to as 'genteel poverty', but it's not just that they can't pay the servants, they really are poor, and too polite to show it, and are doing it in a castle. The family, to be honest, are a little feckless and rely on the hard working Steven growing some veggies in the garden to sustain them as the stock of furniture and silverware to sell begins to run low. But they bear their privations with reasonable fortitude and you have to just smile at their determination to put a brave face on the direst of circumstances. As with all first person narratives we only get one perspective, and since this one person is a teenage girl she is quite wrapped up in her own experience of life, and sometimes quite blatantly admits to not noticing what other people are feeling.
After their landlord, up at Scoatney (the big stately home) dies, his grandson duly arrives to take on the responsibility, and after a shaky start a friendship begins to blossom between members of the two families, even their reclusive father comes out of his shell under the influence of the indomitable Mrs Cotton (though Topaz's nose is put a little out of joint by their friendship). Rose's engagement to Simon brings a measure of financial security, but things begin to get very complicated as Cassandra finds herself developing an attachment to him. 

Here at the beginning of the book we get some impression of the depths of their fall from grace:

"Goodness, Topaz is actually putting on eggs to boil! No on told me the hens had yielded to prayer. Oh, excellent hens! I was only expecting bread and margarine for tea, and I don't get as used to margarine as I could wish. I thank heaven there is no cheaper form of bread than bread." (p.16)

Her excessive use of exclamation points may break one of the cardinal rules of writing, but it makes her very real as a teenager (before they had invented the term) who would not be out of place in a much more modern novel. She has set herself to chronicling her family's life, and seems to quite deliberately position herself on the outside of things, stepping back to give Rose the centre stage. Here she is hiding in the barn when Simon and Neil make a return visit. She makes repeated use through the book of the idea of 'capturing' and it was only when I read this that I got the reference in the title. I had imagined 'capture the castle' was some kind of childhood game, but it is about her desire to write and describe their life in the castle:

"I talk too much sometimes. I must be desperately careful never to distract attention from Rose. I keep telling myself it is real, it really had happened - we know two men. And they like us - they must, or they wouldn't have come back so soon.
I don't really want to write any more, I just want to lie here and think. But there is something I want to capture. It has to do with the feeling I had when I watched the Cottons coming down the lane, the queer separate feeling. I like seeing people when they can't see me. I have often looked at our family through lighted windows and they seem quite different, a bit the way rooms seen in looking-glasses do. I can't get the feeling into words - it slipped away when I tried to capture it." (p.78)

I think the strength of the book is in the very authentic voice of Cassandra, a young woman who's concerns lurch from what they might be eating for supper to much larger existential crises. She is fiercely loyal, to the whole family, but particularly her sister Rose, who she considers delicate and unworldly and in need of protection. She has a romantic soul and longs for a fairy tale ending to the story, but as she watches the unfolding events and considers the consequences of her sister's choice she sees it is not as rosy as she imagined:

"There are hundreds of worries and even sorrows that may come along, but - I think what I really mean is that Rose won't be wanting things to happen. She will want things to stay just as they are. She will never have the fun of hoping something wonderful and exciting may be just round the corner.
I daresay I am being very silly but there it is! I DO NOT ENVY ROSE. When  I imagine changing places with her I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending - I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters ..." (p.237)

And over the page:

"Oh, how selfish I am - when Rose is so happy! Of course I wouldn't have things different; even on my own account, I am looking forward to presents - though ... I wonder if there isn't a catch to having plenty of money? Does it eventually take the pleasure out of things? WhenI think of the joy of my green linen dress after I hadn't had a new dress for ages - ! Will Rose be able to feel anything like that after a few years?" (p.238)

It is the other strength of the book that you get to watch Cassandra grow and learn; she starts as very young and naive but then is obliged to confront the realities of adult life, and begins to understand the serious nature of responsibility. There is no brick-wall ending here, important lessons about being true to yourself are writ large and I can see why, despite the love-and-marriage storyline, it is a coming-of-age story that so many recall with great fondness.

Small Ceremonies

I reviewed 'Larry's Party' by Carol Shields way back in 2009, and then 'Unless' in 2013 and 'Small Ceremonies' has been waiting patiently on the shelf for quite some time. It revolves around the Gill family. I should count up some time the number of books I have reviewed that revolve around someone in academia, it feels like it would be a long list; maybe it is just because this is a world that so many writers are familiar with.

While her stories feel quite small on one level they are also tackling themes that are quite universal; the bonds in families in particular in this one, and, my new favourite, the trials of being a middle aged woman. Judith Gill is a biographer, someone who likes to delve into the lives of others, she describes herself as 'incorrigibly curious' (isn't incorrigible such a good word). She is researching Susanna Moodie (who I came across years ago in a poetry collection by Margaret Atwood) and struggling to keep a connection with her increasingly distant and strangely secretive family:

"It is a real life, a matter of record, sewn together like a leather glove with all the years joining, no worse than some and better than many. A private life, complete, deserving decent burial, deserving the sweet black eclipse, but I am setting out to exhume her, searching, prying into the small seams, counting stitches, adding, subtracting, keeping score, invading an area of existence where I've no real rights. I ask the squares of light that fall on the oak table, doesn't this woman deserve the seal of oblivion? It is, after all, what I would want.
But I keep poking away.
No wonder Richard seals his letters with Scotch tape. No wonder Meredith locks her diary, burns her mail, carries the telephone into her room earn she talks. No wonder Martin is driven to subterfuge, not telling me that his latest paper has been turned down by the Renaissance Society. And concealing, for who knows what sinister purposes, his brilliant hanks of wool." (p.34)

She gets a bad bout of flu which confines her to bed for weeks, giving the family time to reflect on the routines that have build up around them, and giving her much too much time for musing about her life and what she might or might not be doing with it. I loved this little moment, when she is beginning to feel better, it speaks volumes about marriage:

"One morning Martin climbed back into bed with me. We scanned the newspapers together and then lay back to listen to the radio. We heard some funny tunes from the Forties, an interview with an ecologist who's passion leaked out over the airwaves, a theatre review, another interview, this one quite funny. I noticed that Matin and I, lying on our backs, laughed in exactly the same places. Almost as though we were reading cue cards. We have never done this before, never lain in bed all morning listening to the radio, laughing together. The novelty of it is striking. it comes as a surprise. And it is all the more surprising because I had thought there could be no more surprises." (p.99)

Judith has more literary aspirations, but lacking inspiration she 'borrows' the plot of an abandoned manuscript she inadvertently read, belonging to the professor who's house they had lived in on sabbatical. When she submits her story to her creative writing teacher she has a fit of conscience and begs him to destroy it. When the teacher's new novel comes out some time later she is horrified to discover he has 'stolen' her 'borrowed' plot. So it turns into this rather convoluted morality story, bringing into question the whole idea of originality. Here Judith's thinking goes round in circles, analysing the actions of a man who she was not sure she liked in the first place:

"Are there no mitigating circumstances in this theft?
Many. Obviously he was desperate. He admitted that much, letting slip the fact that the well had gone dry. He was on the skids, hadn't had a good idea for two years. Poor man, snagged in literary menopause and sticky with hot flushes. And he is nice to his mother. And patient with his students. And always touchingly, tenderly gallant with me, actually thinking of me as a fellow writer, and accepting me, great big-boned Judith Gill, as charming, a really quite attractive woman. And what else? Oh, yes. He has a passionate and pitiable desire to be loved, to be celebrated with expletives and nicknames, to be in the club. And then, an alternative compulsion to draw back, to be insular and exclusive and private. Psychologically he's a mess. I suppose he was driven to theft." (p.113)

Carol Shields has quite a distinctive style, very readable, with thoughtful and deftly drawn characters who drive the events of the book in a convincing way. Judith's slight disdain for her husband's narrow literary interests, she seems to find him rather dull, is turned on its head when his novel interpretation of Paradise Lost is an unexpected success, and it draws the story neatly to a satisfying conclusion, loose ends are neatly tied and life goes on. As I said at the beginning, it is a small story, a snapshot of a moment in this family's life, unpretentious but beautifully written as always.




Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A girl is a half-formed thing

I was intrigued by 'A girl is a half-formed thing' by Eimear McBride when it appeared on the Women's Fiction Prize shortlist last year (an award it won). I bumped it up the list when I discovered that a stage version has been produced and will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. It's not often that I say this but I have never read a book quite like this before. Experimental is a word that inevitably springs to mind, and no doubt occurs in all the reviews, none of which I had read. I read the first chapter and thought, 'What the hell!!' Having spent a lot of time around small children I could make some sense of what she was trying to get across, but was very relieved that the character became more coherent (but only slightly) as she aged. So we have this girl, and the book happens inside her head; her thoughts, her reactions, her imaginings, her memories. But they are written like thoughts, the way they flit across your mind and never form into 'proper' sentences, are often implied and unfinished. After the first chapter, and deciding I would make a stab at it after all, I stopped expecting anything. All the things you expect from a novel are absent, and yet, somehow still there. There are characters and you come to understand a little of their motivations. There are places and incidents that are described, in a kind of patchwork, that gradually comes together to make a whole. You have to read the whole book in a totally different way. Individual sentences themselves (the bits between a capital letter and a full stop) don't make sense, but once you have read a page something begins to emerge. 

So lots of quotes to come now. This first one is quite early on, so she is young, five or six I suppose, in this section you see the exuberance of childhood but she is already learning what is expected of her:

"It's a dangerous place for smacking mass. Any trying to run up and down the aisle. Get back here. Climbing through the seats ahead. Sorry. Sit down. Sucking tissues or getting under the pew. That's a good thump in the back. Stand up here and it goes right through your lungs. I like that, to make men from sucked toilet paper. I have plenty and I never clean my nose. Stop that dirty thing. You get it for GI Joe man banging on the floor. But he's jumping. Ssssh. But Mammy he's. Ssssh. Jumping off Niagara Falls. Stop. That. Now. Ow. Be quiet I said.
And when we go out all the old ones saying would you look at that, and aren't they great at their age you can get them to behave at all. At that age mine were up to all sorts. Sure they had my heart broke. She smiles says they're a handful, but you wouldn't be without them would you? No. Thanks be to God.
Do you like coming to God's house? In the car home. Careful. And for this the answer's yes. Would you not rather be watching the telly? No, Mammy I wouldn't. No." (p.19)

This second one is vivid and heartbreaking, as she watches her brother try and join in a football game and how he is tormented by the other boys:

"Think please just leave the pitch. Please just walk away. It won't be worse than standing there. But you're still trying. Fumbling red for words. He's doing you even as you speak now, to your face. My throat. Is blank. Is sewn up. You shouting what's so funny. I nearly died. I still could. It's still in me. It isn't funny and then, for pity, say why are you laughing about me? They are and laughing more. Your anger permits. Gives goals and goals. You face red thick. Bulged indignated. The bullish face fat with humiliation. Handicap. Handicap. One from the back gets the ball. Kicks and aims. It strikes your face. Bleared with mud. And knock you over. Laughter. Laughter. Never ever will it stop. Not ever. Not ever again. The bell rings and releases you from that place. I close my eyes and wish this day had never been or you or me. I walk back and will not help. Pretend I didn't even see. Did you see me? Look at them hear them talking just a bit embarrassed about it. About what they done. And I will not think of your feelings anymore. For it's a bit too much to know." (p.50)

As a teenager the girl is raped by her uncle, though the situation is ambiguous and later she has an ongoing relationship with him. This incident leads her quite directly into what is described on the cover as 'chaotic sexuality', where she uses sex almost as a means of self identity. If she is seeking some kind of approval all she is going to find within the confines of her mother's religion is disgrace.  It's not clear what she is looking for, I don't think she knows herself, but she certainly doesn't find it. She goes off to university and finds a friend who joins her in the chaos, the two of them leading a life of drink and sex. The ongoing bond with her brother is the only thing that gives her cause for concern outside of herself, and when his childhood cancer returns it is her cue to go home. This scene in the hospital shows the importance to her of their relationship: 

"When they've gone out we see sitting prop in the bed. You. With some bowl of pudding with your wobble hand eat. Drop it look up say I saved you some. I. And you are, I know, look like five again. So I hug you and say now what have you done? Gone fell over like an eejit. Cracked your head. Well done. Sorry. You laugh all the same. Well done. I am smothered. Air bit strangled by that. So how are you feeling? Ah not too bad. Not too bad a bit tired and they hurt my head. Touch somewhere a bandage and all around shaved. Ah that's nothing wait til you see what I can do for giving me a fright. You laugh. That's calm now and I can do that. So are you truce for a moment? And she says we are. We sit. By your bed. Look at you. Think. Wonder. What is going on?" (p.122)

It is almost impossible to describe this book. It is rather overwhelming because you experience directly the emotional impact of the things that happen to her. It feels like the ultimate example of a small child who's needs have not been met, who wants so much from the people around her, can't articulate that need and finds herself trapped in destructive ways of dealing with a world that makes no sense to her. Tragic and heartrending. Expect to work hard to find the moments of understanding.

Another girl

'The Girl on the Train' by Paula Hawkins was getting the kind of hype that Gone Girl got two summers ago, so I fell for it. We waited in a queue of 94 people for several months. Tish read it first, and it should have been a clue that she wasn't coming out with exclamations of how exciting it was. I haven't really read a lot of thrillers, but if you like that kind of thing then I am sure this is going to hold your attention. 

Rachel sits on the train every morning and evening, and when it pauses at some points she begins to invent a life for the couple she watches across their garden. It just so happens that they are neighbours of her ex-husband who lives with his new wife and baby in a house along the row ... one she used to share with him. Lets just say she hasn't really got over the breakup. So when the young woman she has been watching goes missing it's almost the perfect excuse to get involved. The only problem is she doesn't actually remember what happened. The most interesting thing about this story is its presentation of alcoholism. The mixture of guilt, humiliation, rationalisation, self-justification, anger and bitterness are all torturously portrayed as Rachel tries to cope with her fucked-up life, fucked-up marriage and general downward spiral into destitution. She is so desperate to make amends ... just not if it means forgoing the drink. 

The tale is told from three perspectives; Rachel to begin with, then introducing Megan, the disappeared, and later in the book Anna who is the new wife. I did not like any of them. There is rather a lot of tedious hysteria in this book, and the women are all far to victim-y for my taste. There was too much emphasis on certain characters, in a 'oooh look how suspicious this behaviour is' way, that makes you determined not to suspect them. As we raced towards the denouement I did sit up late to finish because by that time you just want to know how it pans out, but it felt rather too much like it was written with a view to the film rights. Why do writers make characters make stupid decisions in dangerous situations, it feels lazy to me. I didn't like any of the men either. She tried to make a bit of a thing about abusive relationships too but singularly failed. It felt like everyone was manipulating everyone else. Are people really like that? It's not that everybody has to be nice, it's just I don't buy these rather two dimensional nasty people. Definitely no Gone Girl.

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