Monthly Archives: September 2013

May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes

One sentence plot

Previously conventional Nixon scholar Harold Silver has a brief affair with his brother’s wife that ends with her being murdered, his brother (the murderer) in a psychiatric hospital, and Harold divorced, unemployed, and making a life looking after his brother’s house, children, and assorted waifs and strays, set in a slightly psychedelic 21st century zeitgeist.

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The review

I had no preconceptions when I picked up this book, which had been recommended to me. I hadn’t seen all the reviews deeming the story not believable, the characters unlikeable, the subplots excessive, the theme bleak… I’m not even sure I read the blurb carefully. And, not poisoned by anticipation, I found myself tumbling into what I found to be a really compelling, enjoyable, and ultimately uplifting read. Which I seem to find quite difficult to describe in review.

In one sense, this is a conventional tale of a man who is personally and professionally lost. Going through trauma, he finds out what’s important, learns to let go, learns to live, and finds himself in the process. But May We Be Forgiven is about more than that. It is a magnified, distorted version of that story, with quirky, unlikely-sounding events and decisions and reactions. And I loved these unlikely-sounding elements. Suspending belief wasn’t an issue. I never sat thinking ‘clearly he can’t adopt these pensioners!’ or ‘the son really ‘owns’ a village in Africa named after him?’ or ‘the government probably wouldn’t address terrorism quite like that’. I just went with it, and I was rewarded by a story that intrigued, compelled, cavorted, entertained, and wrung out quite a bit of sympathy from me for these bizarre characters and their quirky subplots and unusual experiences.

I don’t subscribe to the characters being unlikable, as other reviewers have said. Our protagonist is a dry, ‘normal’ sort of man with a brother who is successful, rich… and nonspecifically unpleasant. Both wives are fairly colorless. In fact, as I write that, I realize it feels like most of the characters in this book start out fairly colorless. They are then colored by their experiences in the book until they are bright and messy and interesting and almost attractive, in their own way.

Without the need for explicit descriptions of the growing attraction, it was entirely believable to me that Harold is tempted into an affair with his brother’s put-upon wife, and how this unleashed a series of disastrous events for Harold et al. With the brother in various quirky mental institutions, Harold essentially abandons his old life and acquires a family who are random and dysfunctional… and yet start to function. Similarly his sexual encounters are random and dysfunctional… but somehow start to function too. And an obsolete job which is random and dysfunctional… and yet – you get the picture.

To me, this book is about outgrowing the 20th century: conventionality is so last century; ordinariness is overrated. Here in the 21st century, the book seems to posit, anything goes, anything can happen, and just going with it without the filter of what is expected of people and situations doesn’t have to end badly. At the end of the day, it seems to boil down to the impact and importance of making connections with people, even if they’re not the people convention deems you ‘ought’ to have these connections with. I thought the book was funny and sad and optimistic. I really enjoyed reading it. And I’m still thinking about it.

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

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A few additions to my TBR pile

In the throes of a finished-a-compelling-book hangover (May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes – review coming soon), today I embarked on what was bizarrely my first trip to Books for America – a great second hand bookshop a mere 15 minute stroll from my front door. It felt like being back in the charity shops of the Glasgow of my early twenties where I would stroll around piling book after book onto the counter – and then stagger home, laden with random selections and bookish anticipation. I was restrained today due to two men talking loudly and incessantly at the fiction section distracting me from my hunt, but I still managed this pleasing, rather coming-of-age-themed haul. Which should I read first?

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I’m feeling intimidated by my TBR pile right now… In addition to my usual pile of recommendations and random things that tempt me, not to mention these new additions, my trip to the National Book Festival last weekend made me feel I’d better read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (the author was cheery and nice and several people announced it’s the best book they’ve ever read), so it is gazing expectantly at me right now…

And then there is the Atwood conundrum. I adore many of Margaret Atwood’s books (particularly A Handmaid’s Tale), but what to do about MaddAddam, the latest in her trilogy? I eagerly picked up Oryx and Crake as soon as it was published and promptly committed the social faux pas of hating it. Despite it having all the features of a book I’d like! By the time Year of the Flood appeared, I’d forgotten the details of the Oryx and Crake world, and, well, hated the sequel too. Just a bit. I was going to avoid MaddAddam altogether but Margaret Atwood spoke about it so temptingly and wittily at the festival (and others write such rave reviews about it) that I can’t resist. To give it a fighting chance, I think I’d better read the whole trilogy. Brace yourselves, dear readers: will I be captivated second time around and smile patronizingly upon my younger self who foolishly failed to appreciate it? Or will I shout ‘ha!’, and feel justified in my initial judgment? We shall see… But first, Hattie.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

One sentence plot

Ursula is born on 11th February 1910 in the English countryside and is vulnerable to the many hazards of life – but every time something kills her (from flu to murder), as it does at various ages, she is inexplicably reborn in the same place and time, with the residue of her previous experiences shaping the pattern of her subsequent, possibly infinite lives.

life after life

The review

I was almost intimidated to read this book, having been assailed from all angles with rave reviews and promises of how much I would love it. And I suppose I sort of did, even though its concept mystified me.

Ursula is born, and immediately dies. Then she is reborn and lives for a bit longer before something else kills her. Then she is reborn and lives yet longer before, again, something kills her. And so on and so on. She has no memory of this happening, but a residue of memory is carried over into each life, so that, for instance, she finds herself inexplicably taking various measures to save someone’s life without knowing that was what she was doing. There is always a fascination to a ‘what if’ type of narrative, imagining parallel universes where our different decisions play out. What if Ursula had turned the corner instead of walking straight? What if she prevented the servant from going to London? What if she stood in one particular spot on one particular day… or moved a few metres? We find that things are sometimes transformed by her small decisions, but more often than not, different choices and different lives bring death in the same circumstances. Although sometimes not.

Ursula is a charming protagonist, sweet and clever and quirky, and I would probably have enjoyed reading any version of her life, had the narrative arc been more conventional. Although despite these laudable traits, I wonder about the depth of her personality as depicted in the pages of this otherwise beautifully written book. Her mother is fascinating and multidimensional and intriguing. I also rather like the glamorous rebel aunt Izzie. And I enjoyed how her siblings were drawn. But who is Ursula? For someone who died about twenty times during the book, I felt surprisingly little empathy for her, whereas I wiped a tear from my eye when I found some of the minor characters had perished.  I’m afraid I found poor Ursula emotionally unengaging. I did care about her various fates though – I was horrified when she ended up miserably married. I was fascinated to read about her work and life during the blitz. I was nonplussed about her life in Germany. But I never felt like I really knew her. Maybe because her personality was partly in flux. This might be intentional and reflected in the repeated  discussion of her brothers: “Maurice is Maurice”, “Jimmy is Jimmy”. However, Ursula is perhaps not quite Ursula, because different experiences shape her every time, rather than settling into a specific and certain personality as those not reliving their lives demonstrate.

I didn’t really get bored with all her rebirthing – in fact the book remains compelling, even though I didn’t really approve of such a vigorous device pinning down the narrative. It ends in what felt to me like a cursory place – Ursula could have been reborn infinitely. There wasn’t an obvious conclusion. There was no attempt to explain the numerous rebirths. I’m not sure whether the emphasis on her lack of children meant something. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what this book was trying to say. Maybe that you can never make the decisions that lead to you having a perfect life. There are different versions of a valuable life. Sometimes you impact the world, sometimes you don’t. And even if your life isn’t particularly impactful, it all ends the same way. Uplifting or depressing? I’m not sure. But it was clever and interesting and charmingly written and I enjoyed reading it.

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann by Eve Harris

One sentence plot

A young man and woman wend their way to the altar Orthodox Jewish-style, while their parents and friends navigate their own history and romantic dilemmas in a modern-day London of religious and cultural traditions and taboos.

Chani Kaufman

The review

Oh it is such a treat when a book has so many delightful qualities: beautifully written, excellent characters, interesting and evocative (and even educational) setting, and compelling, charming, page-turning plot. Bravo, Eve Harris. The only problem is I suspect that since it’s such an enjoyable read, it’s being passed over for the big prizes this year. It made it to the Booker longlist but then it was chopped in favour of some less readable tomes. But I’d hate to think those working their way through the shortlist might miss this lovely piece of writing.

I am always a sucker for a setting that is so integral to the plot that it feels a bit like a character. This book’s setting in Orthodox Jewish London paints a picture of a world far from my own experience (and yet just a few miles from where I lived in London). And most importantly, it paints a picture of what it’s like to live there, maintaining old traditions in today’s London. I got a glimpse of this interesting world through the lovely Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (recommended!), but Alderman’s Orthodox Jewish setting of restrictive rules and cultural taboos feels like just an introduction compared to this one. This complicated, claustrophobic world and those who are part of it is depicted in glorious, fascinating, detail.

And yet, it doesn’t take long before we realize that following the Orthodox Jewish traditions is, like any other, a culture that is simultaneously revered and resented, with all the emotions in between. The delight of Harris’s characters is that their approach to life feels real. Okay, there may be an occasional caricature here and there. But her technique of jumping from Chani’s voice as she braces herself to become a modern but traditional Orthodox Jewish wife to others who are struggling with the expectations and evolution of their own lives is insightful and intriguing and highlights different aspects of life in this setting.

Chani is a charming main character with the right amount of wit and spirit, ambition and obedience that made me love her. And her fiancé is a sweetheart who makes me smile. But they were born and bred in this world of matchmakers and shaven headed women. Their job is to make it work for them in modern day London. Almost more interesting to me is the rabbi’s wife, a woman who started off as a very secular Jew, became seduced by a boy in Israel, and by Israel itself, and slowly tumbles into a world where cultural expectations and restrictions and traditions creep in until they run almost impossibly high. As I read, I could almost imagine it happening to me. When she sneaks out to watch television in a café as her husband has recently declared it insufficiently Orthodox, I could feel her trepidation and delight like it was my own – and when it goes wrong, as it inevitably would, I felt as crushed as she did. Another great character is the university student grappling with the conflicting cultural expectations of Orthodox Jewry and the undergraduate lifestyle.

I love hearing about people who live in cultures that feel foreign to my own – but it feels like an extra treat to read about how they ended up there, and how they reconcile it with the world around them. And Harris does this sympathetically, delicately, and in a way that feels very true.

This book has its flaws, in the form of an occasional cliché, but for those who enjoy character-driven narrative, I think it is a triumph. I was quite horrified when I realized it had ended. I desperately looked for the next chapter, but at the same time, I had to grudgingly concede it ended in the right place.

The verdict: 5/5 shoes

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

One sentence plot
As the space age begins, the top fighter jet pilots across the US struggle over whether and how to evolve into astronauts.

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The Review
Yesterday my wife and I cycled 9 miles in the scorching heat to the lovely Silver Spring AFI cinema to see The Right Stuff. I was intrigued to see how this multi-Oscar-winning film had dealt with the book on which it was based.

The Right Stuff is the third of Tom Wolfe’s books and I still don’t know what to make of him. If Bonfire of the Vanities was perhaps the portrait of a city in time, and I am Charlotte Simmonds the portrait of a woman in place, The Right Stuff is the portrait of a genre of person in history.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read an ostensibly fiction book that is about a genre of person rather than about individuals. The book follows what I’m led to believe is a reasonbly accurate account of the US side of the space race, and that story in itself is fascinating.

The star of the story is the genre of men who go by the monicker of ‘fighter jock’ – the creme de la creme of military pilots, and by definition the posessors that elusive, indefinable quality, the ‘right stuff’. It’s that ‘right stuff’ that propels them to achieve feats of superhuman courage and skill in the air, and to be impossibly cool about it. And Wolfe, who clearly thinks these guys are amazing, writes brilliantly about how they are created and how they operate.

I also enjoyed the secondary star of the book – the genre of wives of the men who posess the ‘right stuff’ and who spend their lives living on miserable military bases, hoping their husbands won’t die (a reasonable preoccupation – he often will, it seems), and that they will one day reap the rewards of their stressful lives.

I loved the idea of evolution of the astronaut as the glitzy celebrity pilot (despite the lack of real need of any more skill than a chimp) while behind the scenes, rocket jet pilots with the ‘right stuff’ are doing things that are harder, cooler, and yet unrecognized by Life Magazine – and slowly going from the coolest guys in town to so last season as NASA catches the collective imagination. I liked the juxtaposition of the pilots trying to be cool, to embody the ‘right stuff’ while at the same time being told they are superfluous and being goaded into celebrity soundbites. With the triumph of glitz over grit, is the ‘right stuff’ extinct, or has it just evolved, I wonder.

It’s not the typical sort of book I would enjoy. But the whole thing is interesting and exciting and wry and entertaining, and educational, and very human. And I hope that it is indeed historically accurate as the drama and detail of those early space flights are now etched in my memory, thanks to Wolfe.

And did the film do the book justice? I think that given the challenges of a book driven not by individual characters but by a philosophy and a historical context, it did an excellent, compelling job. But somehow, it missed that quality of the genre of character – it didn’t depict the very nuances of the “right stuff” that the book made me appreciate so brilliantly. The film was great on its own merit, but for me, it’s the unusual, quirky book that makes me care most.

I cycled home from the cinema, zooming down Beech Drive like a fighter jock trying to break the sound barrier. But I probably hit 10mph and braked responsibly at the junction. I certainly do not have the ‘right stuff’ – but I really enjoyed the insight into the lives of people who do. I wonder which Wolfe book to try next?

The Verdict: 4/5 shoes

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

One sentence plot

Surprisingly cheery and uplifting coming of age memoir of a Scottish boy’s poverty, bullying, alcoholic parent figures, growing up gay, and Margaret Thatcher.

Maggie-and-Me

The review

Not til I turned the final page in this book with a smile of satisfaction did my wife remind me that we’ve actually met this author in real life: Damian Barr runs the impossibly hip Shoreditch Literary Salon we have attended in London. I’d just spent days loving cheery little “Gaymian” in the book, and willing him to escape the poverty, bullying, alcoholism, violence, unreliable parenting, and general misery of being a gay boy growing up in a poor part of Scotland. And here was real life proof that his fortunes had turned out quite differently than they started. When I realized that the very cool and cheery Damian Barr was the little boy from Maggie and Me, I got a sentimental and embarrassing tear in my eye. Because this is a memoir about surviving a grim childhood. That this book exists is of course some testament that he did, but the vision of him compering at that cool Literary Salon confirms it.

But against all expectations, this book is not actually grim. Maggie and Me has every element that could make it ripe for a harrowing misery memoir. And yet it is almost the opposite. Damian’s experiences skip from the sad to the joyful, the funny, the silly, the universality of being a kid. He addresses his many childhood challenges in a sensitive, generous way, affording sympathy and understanding to the many people who let him down. And throughout, his character is believable, sweet, funny, stoic, and hopeful.

The book has a fantastic sense of time and place, and the sort of Scotland you don’t often read about (a particular treat for me as I grew up there at the same time as him). This is all drawn together through the almost personal relationship the British public, and Damian in particular, experienced with controversial Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the eponymous “Maggie” of the book. The struggles of the adults in the book to succeed against the often harsh influences of a woman who is supposed to be working to help them reflects Damian’s struggles with his own parent figures, and conversely with insufficient parental authority in his life, he actually flourishes by embracing the authority this hated figure represents, and turning it into inspiration for how to succeed – and succeed he does.

His voice is likable, charming and funny. His stories are tragic and hilarious and ordinary and relatable. And I challenge anyone not to root for his success.

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

One sentence plot

Canadian writer finds an angsty, smart Japanese teenage girl’s diary washed up on a beach and through reading it learns about her life, Kamikaze pilots, and a smattering of magic realism.

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The review

In some ways it’s hard to review A Tale for the Time Being – I found myself in almost equal parts fascinated and compelled bu the Japanese parts of the story… And bored and irritated by the fairly pointless (to me) Canadian parts of the story. The author’s Sophie’s World-esque efforts to teach you something through a children’s story, and her Haruki Murakami wannabe efforts to wrap it all up with a bow of magic realism unconvincingly explained by quantum physics feels self-conscious and contrived. It irritated me so much that it had me throwing the book down to rant about it, and almost tipped me towards hating the book.
And yet, the teenager Nao has a compelling voice. Her happy all-American childhood in Silicone Valley  is replaced when her father loses his job by a Japanese adolescence of hopeless parents, harsh school bullying, and misery. Light comes in the form of her ancient great grandmother, a nun and fascinating, mysterious and jolly character who helps save Nao.
But is she saved or not? We find out through our Canadian reader, a woman I find both tedious and pointless. I like the idea of her reading the diary which Nao dubs an ‘anti-blog’, rebelling against the current online culture of posting one’s thoughts to the world by writing a diary intended to be found and read by one and only one reader. But is there a link between their two lives across time and space? I feel there must be, but I just don’t see it. I almost flicked through the Canadian pages, were it not for the added details about Nao that the tedious Canadian woman was uncovering. I cared a lot about Nao’s character and story. It was sad and beautiful and had an interesting voice. I wanted to know what happened. I loved reading parts of it. I just didn’t get why the Canadian characters were there at all. They added little but a tedious, pretentious and frankly annoying plot device that made me wonder if I was just too stupid to get it.
I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book that are both positive and vague… they give me the hunch that reviewers feel they ought to appreciate it, but secretly, don’t. The book has a vibe of  worthiness. I’m not keeping the secret: I found this book to be lovely in parts… but that is overridden for me by its pretention. Either it thinks it is cleverer than it is – or else it is far too clever for me. Who knows. But I hate that it’s on the Booker Longlist when the poor Last Runaway isn’t!
Verdict: 3 out of 5 shoes