Book Review : Some Luck by Jane Smiley

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Some Luck is Pulitzer Prize winning Jane Smiley’s latest novel. It is the first part in a trilogy following the Langdon/Vogel family for a century beginning in 1921 with parts 2 and 3 to be published in the UK in May and October 2015 respectively.

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy via Pan Macmillan and Netgalley and also to attend the ‘ Meet The Author’ event at the London Review Bookshop on 4th November.

As Some Luck opens we meet Walter Langdon and his young wife Rosanna. Walter has not long since returned from Europe and WW1 and has bought his farm with the help of a large bank loan.Rosanna is a local girl but of German Catholic stock and their first child Frank is just a few months old.

The book spans the years 1921-1953 with each year being given an individual chapter. During this time we get to know not just Walter and Rosanna but their 6 children born at various points and the wider family, in particular Rosanna’s younger inter Eloise.

We learn a lot about farming. The novel takes us through the dust bowl years during which time Frank sees his harvests dwindle and his loan looms large.

But it was no secret to Walter as he drove the tractor from one end of the twenty-acre cornfield to the other that a tractor was a pact with the devil. How could it be that when they woke up one morning they found dust caked on the west side of the house, and the air so thick you had to wear a wet bandana outside, keep all the windows shut, and wipe the inside sills ant yaw? Iowa prided itself on no being Oklahoma, but how much of a sign did they need?

Towards the end of the book new methods are being introduced into farming with chemical fertilisers and pesticides which perhaps foreshadow the events to come in the next volume.

World events impact as well, most notably WW2. Frank enlists and becomes a sniper. At the end of Some Luck McCarthyism is beginning to cast a shadow perhaps with consequences for Eloise, who has married a left-wing English Jew.

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On 4th November Jane Smiley was skilfully interviewed by journalist Alex Clark who opened the evening by announcing that Some Luck was being hailed at the new ‘Great American Novel’. Smiley rather wryly remarked that this was not the case back home. America was reserving its judgement at this point.

After giving a short reading, Smiley was asked about the structure of this novel. She would categorise it as mainly history and gossip.The novel is centred in Iowa but the family necessarily spread out from there. They engage with historical events . Frank in particular wants to escape and he is always looking for ways to get out. He finds a way to get to High School and to College, before enlisting.

As a novelist though, she was surely in control of her characters and must have planned in which events they would engage and how these would impact on their lives? Smiley laughed. Any novelist who thinks they are in control of their characters has a dead novel.She finds that characters seize and shift a novel by their own energy. She frequently sets to to do one thing then the characters take it their own way. For example in this book it was clear that Frank would go to WW2 but the character took that in his own direction. She didn’t go back and fix stuff later.

Smiley has always been interested in he social and political possibilities of the novel. She grew up reading Dickens, The Scarlet Letter and Giants of The Earth. She is fascinated by the idea of art as a revealer or even as an agent for change. In a novel we share the experiences so we can better understand them.

A novel doesn’t have to be overtly political, this can be done in other ways. The example she would give is Nancy Mitford whose work she greatly admires. She is of the view that Mitford’s work has stood the test of time better than many of her peers as her beliefs are expressed through her characters who voice hilariously funny opinions.

The novel is inherently political because  the relationship between the protaganist and his world must be developed or the reader will abandon it. Her view is that the novel as a form  is born not with Don Quixote but with Madame de La Fayatte’s Princess of Cleves. The princess has an inner life which we share. By the time we get to Pamela, even the servant girl has an inner life.

She was asked about her research for this trilogy and the conclusions she had reached about the state of society by the end of it. She had read the New York Times archive fairly extensively. The conclusion she had reached was that we were in deep shit. She had a pretty good idea of when the shit  had hit the fan………but we would have to read the books and draw our own conclusions.

She was asked about her views on publishing today. Earlier in the evening, Smiley had explained that she regarded her first 2 or 3 books as practice novels, but that they had appeared in the 1980s when that had been possible. She thinks that publishing is in a state of flux. There are perhaps more ways to get your work out there, and she gave the example of self-publishing, but not necessarily more ways up. Publishing has always been idiosyncratic in her view.

Her daily writing routine is one of interruptions and chaos. She has 4 horses and 3 dogs.Her day begins with reading the paper, eating granola and looking at the internet.She will then go to her barn and ride. She enjoys eating and cooking so starts looking forward to dinner at an early stage in the day.

She always commits to a certain number of words per day. She finds getting out with the horses prevents her from getting stuck. Her study has 2 doors and a telephone and the dogs are constantly in and out. She is not a writer who needs solitude.

She was asked by a member of the audience for her views on the ‘great’ American authors like Roth, Mailer and Bellow.Apart from Updike , she has not read much of their work and is not a huge fan of what she would call the WW2 generation. She tells her students that in fact your best readers and critics are your peers and not the generation that preceded you. She certainly found this to be the case herself.

I then asked which books she felt had influenced her the most. She thinks that the books you read as a teenager have the greatest impact and so would say David Copperfield and The Giants Of The Earth. Later, when she was researching  13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel ( her readers’ and writers’ handbook) she came to admire Zola and Trollope.

The most important thing to remember when writing is that no novel is perfect. Even The Good Soldier is not perfect as the protagonist does not even sound American! She always has in her mind a sign a friend keeps above her desk ” No-one asked you to write this novel’

Novels are inherently imperfect but each novelist thinks they can do better.

Some Luck was published by Mantle on 6th November.

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A Spooky Story : The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James

FullSizeRender-3I first read this short story over thirty years ago whilst I was a student and it scared the living daylights out of me! Since then I have seen a couple of screen adaptations and fallen out of love with Henry James’ wordy style of writing. I wanted to do a Halloween related post so a reread of The Turn of The Screw seemed appropriate.

IMG_2202This has the classic Victorian ghost story set up. A group of people are sat round a fire telling ghost stories on a winter’s evening. One has just concluded their story, which we never hear, but which concerned a ghostly appearance to a child. Another listener, Douglas, then pipes up that he can provide the ultimate scare, the turn of the screw, a ghostly appearance not to one child but two.

Then begins a rather laboured build up with much foreshadowing of what awaits and several red herrings.

Douglas wants to tell the story from the self penned words of one of the players in it , a woman who recounted the story to him during the course of an unhappy love affair.

Douglas is adamant that the tale must be heard in the words of his lady friend but the had written account she sent him is at his address in London. It must be sent for and he can give no further clues. All the prospective listeners agree that this will be the most dreadful tale.

The notebook arrives and so we hear over the course of the next few nights the weird and terrible tale of a young governess sent to be in charge of an orphaned brother and sister, Miles and Flora. Her employer, the uncle, wants no contact with the chidden and the young governess has only the old housekeeper , Mrs Grose, for help.

The plot is cleverly narrated first by the all-seeing author, then by Douglas and finally we hear the words of the confused and unnamed governess. Gradually we begin to discover what happened to the children before her arrival whilst under the care of the evil Peter Quint and Miss Jessell. Many questions remain however. Why was Miles expelled from school? Why is Mrs Grose so reticent about speaking of the past?

This is not a conventional ghost story at all. It was some very modern themes. Above all, it is about perceptions. Who is seeing what? Who is abusing who?

James employs all his skills as a dramatist and there are some genuinely heart-stopping moments. I nearly screamed out loud at one point, even though I had read the story before. Of course his writing style can be a little laborious but the short story format has meant that his verbosity is kept under check.

If you are looking for something spooky to read this All Hallows evening, I can thoroughly recommend The Turn Of The Screw.

If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel

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I have found this book quite difficult to review as my opinion of it kept changing as I read.

Chicurel’s debut novel is set in the summer of 1972 in Elephant Beach , a seaside resort in the USA which has seen better days. It is narrated by Katie , a disaffected teenager on the verge of adulthood . I was expecting a classic ‘coming of age’ tale ….but if you like your novels to be strong on plot you may feel a little disappointed.

Chicurel is excellent at creating a sense of place. This fictionalised Long Island setting is crumbling around its residents. The location permeates the whole book and also serves as a symbol of the decay and breakdown of US society at the time.

Nobody promenaded by the boardwalk anymore because you could trip on a rotting board and break your leg during an after dinner stroll. The wonderful old hotels were crumbling castles, left to dust after the stars and bootleggers discovered air travel. Elephant Beach might have been only fifty-two minutes from the city by car or rail, but if you could fly to Santa Barabara or Cuba or The French Riviera, why would you spend our summers here? The hotels and the great mansions by the bay went on the market at severely reduced prices , but the taxes were monstrous and nobody could afford the upkeep of so many rooms. Their glorious floor-to-ceiling windows were broken and boarded up, taken over by squatters or converted into housing for welfare recipients.

 

In the background lurks the Vietnam War and many of the young men returning are now damaged and broken.

Katie’s voice is sparky and sassy . She conveys the excitement and power of a teenager teetering on the brink of womanhood as well as the pains and uncertainties.

On those summer nights, after I finished my shift at the A&P and showered, I would look in the bathroom mirror and it seemed to me that my eyes had never been brighter, my hair never shinier, my tan never more even. My peasant shirts hung perfectly off my shoulders and my jeans settled on my hips as though they lived there. Even my teeth seemed straighter. I looked exactly as I had always wanted to look, and sometimes I’d close my eyes and feel so good about it I knew I could never tell anyone because they’d think I was to crazy to live.

This strength of the book  is also, ironically, its weakness .At times I felt the narrative lacked context which could have tied the plot lines together. Of course Katie can’t provide this , she is a teenager in turns superficial and self obsessed and her voice is completely authentic in this regard.

It would be wrong to give the impression that This Beautiful has no story however. The characters are strongly drawn and I really did care what was going to happen to them. I began the novel feeling a little lukewarm but ended by being haunted by Katie and her friends.

If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go is published by Tinderpress on 30th October and my thanks to Georgina Moore for the review copy.

Man Booker Prize 2014 : The Shortlist

The closing event of the London Literary Festival at the Royal Festival Hall was also the final reading event before the announcement of the Man Booker Prize 2014 on 14th October.

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All six shortlisters attended to read from their novel and the evening was compered by Kirsty Wark who will also be interviewing the eventual winner on Newsnight on Wednesday evening.

First up was Joshua Ferris reading from To Rise Again At A Decent Hour.I have also heard hi reading from this at The Hay Festival. He has a beautiful reading voice and had chosen a very witty piece in which his protagonist ruminates on the sort of passengers he sees on public transport intently reading from heavily highlighted copies of the Bible.

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Ferris explained that he feel a sense of community is very important. What his character lacks is the ability to commune with people and the novel describes his attempts to build himself a community. Ferris had felt a great sense of community with all the shortlisted authors and for him the time spent with them will be more important than who actually wins the prize.

Kirsty then asked him whether his book was a warning about the dangers of online life. Ferris feels a deep ambivalence towards the internet. It can certainly give us a lot of information but can it provide real knowledge and wisdom? He thinks that iPads and iPhones etc are in direct competition with books.

Next came Richard Flanagan who introduced his novel The Narrow Road To The Deep North as a story about the human spirit and the nature of love.He feels that writing is a journey into humility. There is a very good argument for any of the six books to win.He just wanted to say that when he loses he will feel much happiness in drinking deeply and well with the winner.

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Richard Flanagan

He then read a very emotional and moving extract describing an ex-serviceman’s struggle with what we now know to be PTSD. Written in the 3rd Person it captured his inability to express his love for his children although he could feel love. He was also tormented by the guilt of the survivor.

After the reading Flanagan explained that his father was a survivor of the death railway in Burma. In many ways he feels he grew up a child of the death railway as those who come back from such experiences continue to suffer from the wounds they bring home.

He realised that he needed to write the story when he happened to be walking across Sydney Harbour bridge in 2001. He was suddenly reminded of a story his parents had told him about a Latvian survivor of the camps in World War 2. After the war he had returned to his village to find it raised to the ground and no trace of his wife and childen. Eventually he emigrated to Australia and settled there. One day in 1957 he was crossing Sydney bridge when coming towards him he recognised he wife holding 2 chidden by the hand. Flanagan immediately felt inspired, rushed into a bar and wrote a chapter on the back of beer mats.

Karen Joy Fowler then read to us from her audacious novel We Are All Completey Beside Ourselves.

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler

She wanted to say that she actually feels very competitive, she is quite sure that she likes everyone more than anyone else in the group.

She then read an extract fro her novel that is narrated in the acerbic voice of the younger daughter of a family.Now an adult ,she is reflecting on a traumatic event that occurred in the family unleashing a chain of events.

Fowler had wanted to explore a family where things had gone horribly wrong but not for the lack of love. In her novel the whole family has to bear the consequences of one decision.

Wark asked her if she shared the animal rights sympathies of her characters Rosemary and Lowell. She confirmed she did. Her father had worked as a psychologist experimenting on animals and the memory of the part of the lab she was not allowed to enter had haunted her.

Howard Jacobson was next with a reading from J , a love story where a ‘quiet catastrophe’ has already happened.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

Before beginning to read he just wanted to say, ironically, that he loves all these guys and he is quite sure that he loves Karen more than she loves him.

Wark asked him if he was describing something he felt could happen. This is not a prophetic book but you would have to be a fool, in his view, to believe such things don’t occur. We appear to live in the midst of catastrophe all the time.

Does he believe that people are relatively quiescent in these catastrophes ? This is the conclusion that one has to draw when one reads about these terrible occurrences. J is not a retelling of the Holocaust in Germany. He is more interested in what we are left with when these things have happened – the survivors and those who let it occur.

Neel Mukherjee then read from his book The Lives Of Others . This is a family saga spanning several generations of the Ghosh family in Bengal.

Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee

Wark asked him whether the sort of family he describes in the book is now lost to Indian culture. He explained that the extended family is still very much the main model for the family in India. In some of the more urban areas perhaps it has been eroded but India as a country is so vast that the very numbers of people work against new ideas taking root.

Wark observed that he wrote about the Ghosh family with such affection, she wondered whether he misses living in an extended family. He replied vehemently that he did not…..for reasons which are apparent if you read the novel!

Finally came Ali Smith to read to us from How To Be Both. Her novel exists in 2 versions and so which story you get first depends entirely on which copy of the book you pick up.

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Ali Smith

Smith read an extract from each of the two possible openings of the novel.Both extracts were written in an energetic, stream of consciousness style.

Wark wanted to know what had captured Smith’s imagination and inspired het to write this story. She had wanted to write a book that does the same thing as a fresco. As a restorer works on a fresco and starts to remove the upper layer, they find another painting underneath. The basis of every narrative is an understory. In great books, the story is the thing you realise after you have read it.

The other strand in the book captures the feisty relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter. Smith explained that she has great hopes for the 15 year olds of today. They are able to multi task admirably…looking at two screens, whilst texting and reading a book! Such versatility will surely lead to great things.

The evening then ended with a few questions from the audience.Smith was asked about the duality and multiple versions of things in her novel. Were they in fact many drafts of an idea?

In fact, she replied, the novel had been edited very tightly. She had had to take a lot out. She had to split up lines to make a visual spiral in one part. An opening to a book is very important and causes great stress, she wanted to ask her fellow panellists about that.

Ferris remarked that the opening of his book had been buried half way through. He hadn’t realised that was the opening until someone else had pointed that out so had been spared the angst!

Flanagan’s rule is that one should rip out the first three pages of what you have written, in his experience the story generally starts there. Jacobson and Mukherjee both agreed that openings are best found when you have come to the end of writing a novel. Fowler said that she always dislikes her first draft. She tends to rewrite, then rewrite and then discover that what she has written does not belong in that novel at all.

Jacobson was asked whether characters can act as role models for life. Books certainly shape us. He has said before that no-one has ever been mugged by someone carrying a copy of Middlemarch. In literature we are taken outside ourselves and that can only be good for us.

Finally, Flanagan was asked what had happened to the Latvian man he had talked about. Did he go up to his wife or just keep on walking? He replied, mysteriously, that we would have to read the book to find out.

This was a wonderful evening. I had been feeling much less enthusiastic about the Booker than in previous years but hearing the authors read from and talk about their novels has sparked my interest anew. I can’t wait for the result and to read all the shortlisted novels.

I guess a prediction is now expected from me. I have only read Karen Joy Fowlers book from the shortlist. I really enjoyed We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves but on the basis of what I heard last night ,I would say that Ali Smith must be the winner, although Richard Flanagan must be running a close second. No doubt the judges will have a completely different idea!

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

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We Are Not Ourselves is Matthew Thomas’ debut novel. Although not yet published, it has already won him a nomination for The Guardian First Novel Award as well as, reputedly, a million dollar book deal.

The title comes from King Lear :

We are not ourselves

When nature, being oppressed, commands the Mind

To suffer with the body

This is a very difficult book to review without giving spoilers.

It tells the story of Eileen Leary née Tumulty. Born in 1941, Eileen is the daughter of Irish immigrants who lone to escape her dull background and becoming part of the American Dream.

One New Year’s Eve she meets Ed Leary whose quiet scholarship and gentle manner seem to offer her all she has dreamed of. Years later Eileen thinks back to their first meeting :

‘She thought of the night they’d met, the way he’d leaned in to kiss her when the hour struck. She’d been waiting for him to do it all night. They’d been on the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by hundreds of couples. When he kissed her, she experienced a sensation she’d heard described a thousand times but always dismissed as malarkey: that everyone around had disappeared, and it was just the two of them. And now it really was the two of them, and everyone had more or less disappeared.’

The book follows the course of their marriage and so ,through Eileen’s eyes, the history of middle class America in the latter part of the 20th Century.

Marriage doesn’t bring Eileen all she had hoped for. Ed is not ambitious enough for her and has no aspiration to move away from their working class  neighbourhood even as the area changes around them. Throughout their lives together, Eileen is forced to work long hours to keep the family afloat.

This is a grand , sweeping American classic which has brought the inevitable comparisons with Jonathan Franzen. It is not, however, an ‘issues’ book despite what you may read in other reviews or press releases. Thomas certainly takes a cold, hard look at the American healthcare system as ill health descends on the family :

‘ And if she got sick without benefits, she’d be looking at losing everything. She’d worked her whole life and diligently socked away, from the age of fifteen on, 10 percent of every pay check she’d ever gotten, and still her family’s fortunes could be ruined overnight because the American healthcare system – which she’d devoted her entire professional career to navigating humanely on behalf of patients in her care, and which was organised in such a way as to put maximum pressure on people who had the least energy to handle anything difficult- had rolled its stubborn boulder into her path.’

The novel is more a ‘snapshot’ of ordinary family life and the everyday heroics of individuals in the face of life’s challenges.Although as the book runs to to 640pp perhaps snapshots a misleading description. The writing is sensitive and Thomas convincingly inhabits Eileen’s mind. At the end of her marriage Eileen reflects :

‘She’d never remarry : This was life: you went down with the ship. Who was to say that wasn’t a love story?”

The final section of the book shifts the point of view to Connell, the couple’s only son. He has struggled to live up to the expectations of his mother and his father as well as to meet the particular challenges the family’s circumstances have presented. His father’s tribute to him in the final passages of the book is a heartbreaking and powerful piece of writing that had me sobbing aloud.

We Are Not Ourselves is published on 28th August. Thank you to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for the review copy.

Book Review: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

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There are not many books that make me cry. I am not talking about a stray tear trickling down my cheek at a heartwarming finish……….this book made me sob uncontrollably at the end of it .

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell tells the stories of two Afghan women: Shekiba, who lives at the start of the twentieth century ,and Rahima ,living in Afghanistan now, post invasion and post rebuilding attempts by the West.

Rahima is born into a family already scarred by the country’s recent history. Her father, known as Padar-jan, fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets . He returns home after the Soviet departure no longer a fresh faced teenager but a battle weary 24 year old. His parents hurriedly arrange a marriage for him :

‘At twenty-four years old , he was long overdue and they thought a wife and children would bring him back to normal, but Padar-jan, just like the rest of the country, had forgotten what normal was’

Rahima is one of five sisters in a culture in which only men are valued. We follow her through her girlhood…..she at least is able to gain some education, unlike her sisters. Her father’s ever increasing absences from home with the local warlord mean her mother is unable to get shopping and provisions for the home as only men can leave the house unaccompanied . Rahima is allowed to dress and be treated as a boy ,an old custom known as bacha posh, to help the household run more smoothly.

Shekiba is Rahima’s great-great grandmother. She is born into a more loving family but  her face is badly scarred as a young child rendering her unable to marry in the eyes of the community. Unfortunately Shekiba’s happy early childhood is brought to an abrupt end by the death of her siblings and then parents. Greedy relatives cheat her of her inheritance and she is cast into the world to make her own way.

Through the parallel stories of Rahima and her great-great grandmother we experience the dreadful injustices suffered by women in Afghanistan then and now. Women are sold into marriage, become the property of their husbands ,are routinely subject to violence and have no access to the outside world. Even a visit to a sister living nearby is only possible in the unlikely event of the husband’s agreement. Women are deemed ready for marriage at the age of about thirteen and often find themselves becoming the third or fourth wife of a much older man.

Rahima’s life also shows us the corruption present today in Afghanistan’s political and commercial life, both are effectively controlled by warlords who bend and twist any controls imposed  to suit their own ends.

A powerful warlord is appalled to find that the rules of the new constitution insist on a certain quota of women representatives in the parliament. His aide and advisor explains to him :

‘I understand that sahib, truly. And believe me I don’t like it any more than you do, but these are the rules. I’m simply suggesting we find a way to work around the system so that we don’t lose all control over this area. The elections are coming up soon. We must plan for this’

The solution found is to put the eldest wife up for election. Unable to read or write and in fear of violence at the hands of her husband, she is a mere stooge and is told how she must vote during each session. Dreadful punishment is meted out to any female representatives who show independence or try to speak out.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is not a polemic however. It is a beautifully written and imaginative novel. The characters are realistically drawn and the setting is vividly brought to life.

At times alternating the stories was a little frustrating however there is a point to placing these two lives together. Shekiba and Rahima are not just blood relatives, they both live during times of great change in Afghanistan. Shekiba’s life serves to remind us that in the not so distant past, full independence was possible for the women of Afghanistan. We can only hope that the same can be achieved for Rahima.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell will be published in the UK on 6th May 2014. Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Book Review : A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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Regular readers of this blog will know that to mark the centenary of the start of WW1 I decided to do some ‘themed’ reading.

I have already blogged the memoirs of Robert Graves here and also reviewed two recent novels that deal with the war, Wake and The Lie, here. A Farewell To Arms, which I first read aged about 15 ,was definitely on my list.

This is a fictionalised account of Hemingway’s own First World War experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. It is also a love story ,again based on Hemingway’s experiences when there. The bones of the love story had stayed in my memory , not least because of the wonderful film starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, but what hadn’t struck me as a 15 year old reader was the sheer beauty of Hemingway’s prose.

‘ At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.’

Just like Graves, Hemingway is sickened by the senselessness of the mass slaughter caused by the war and the jingoism of its leaders :

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.’

Frederick Henry is an American who has joined the ambulance service as a driver, just like Hemingway himself. The book opens in Udine , northern Italy, where Frederick is posted and where he meets Catherine Barclay a young English, or rather Scottish, voluntary nurse sent to the hospital there.

Frederick initially goes to meet Catherine together with his friend Rinaldi, an Italian army surgeon, who has heard about the arrival of the new nurses and is determined to court them.Catherine and Frederick immediately fall in love and Chapter 4 in which they first meet must truly be some of the most beautiful prose ever written  in the English language. It isn’t really possibly to quote an extract from it, you really do have to read the whole thing.

This is not a long book , only 293 pp in the edition I read, and divided into five short parts. Part 1 gives us Frederick and Catherine’s meeting and Frederick, just like Hemingway himself, is then badly injured whist on duty on the frontline ; in Part 2 he is evacuated and hospitalised in Milan, where Catherine has also been posted. During his time as a patient and after during his convalescence ,their relationship grows ; Part 3 sees Frederick back at the front and subsequently  caught up in a shambolic retreat with the Italian army which leads to a trumped up charge of deserting his post ; Parts 4 and 5 deal with Frederick’s transformation into a fugitive and the resolution of his relationship with Catherine.

This is not , however, romantic fiction. The searing realism of Hemingway’s writing truly captures the pointless horrors of war. Frederick meets a British major in the officers’ club in Milan :

‘He said the offensive in Flanders was going to the bad. If they killed men as they did this fall  the Allies would be cooked in another year. He said we were all cooked but we were all right as long as we did not know it. We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognise it . The last country to realise they were cooked would win the war. We had another drink.’

During the chaos of the Italian retreat many officers become separated from their men. When stopped this leads to a charge of desertion and summary execution. Hemingway describes the process :

‘Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabiniere on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots. They were questioning some one else. This officer too was separated from his troops. He was not allowed to make an explanation. He cried when they read the sentence from the pad of paper, and they were questioning another man when they shot him.’

There is a poetic quality to the writing too. Throughout ,the rain appears as a harbinger of tragedy…..as can be seen in the first extract I quoted,which appears at the very beginning of the book, and again in the shooting of the officers. Catherine explains it to Frederick like this :

All right. I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it.’

‘No.’

‘And sometimes I see you dead in it.’

‘That’s more likely’

‘ No, it’s not, darling. Because I can keep you safe. I know I can. But nobody can help themselves.’

Later in the book, Frederick’s friend and colleague, Aymo, is killed by what we would now call ‘ friendly-fire’ :

‘ Aymo lay in the mud with the angle of the embankment. He was quite small and his arms were by his side, his puttee-wrapped legs and muddy boots together, his cap over his face. He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew. I had his papers in my pocket and would write to his family.’

At one point the ‘rain’ is transformed to blood, as the wounded Frederick is transported on a stretcher in an ambulance with a man haemorrhaging above him :

‘The drops fell very slowly, as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone.It was cold in the car in the night as the road climbed. At the post on the top they took the stretcher out and put another in and we went on.’

This is book is truly a masterpiece. Heartbreaking in it’s realism ,it is indeed a testament to lost youth and gives a lie to Michael Gove’s claims that ‘leftie’ comedy writers at the BBC have distorted the history of the first world war.

My next WW1 read will be The Wars by Tim Findlay ,recommended by a reader of this blog and which tells the story of Canadian volunteers . Before August I also hope to write about a book I first encountered in our local public library when I was aged about 14 or 15. This tells the story of a woman’s lost love and struggle to come to terms with her life after WW1. Long out of print, I happily managed to find a second hand copy last year.

Before then, I have some very exciting new releases that have been sent to me to introduce here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

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Mrs Hemingway tells the story of Ernest through the eyes of his 4 wives : Hadley (Hash); Pauline (Fife); Martha and lastly Mary.

The action spans from 1925 to 1961 and the aftermath of Ernest’s suicide. We visit pre and post war Paris, Key West ,Cuba and Ketchum, Idaho.The book is split into 4 parts each telling the story through the eyes of the particular wife at the time.

This may sound a little disjointed but each section dovetails neatly into the next due to Naomi Wood’s flowing style of writing and, to an extent, Hemingway himself.Ernest didn’t discard a wife until he had another one lined up…….Pauline was Hadley’s best friend in those early Paris years, Martha stayed with Pauline and Hemingway in Key West,Pauline came to live with Mary and Hemingway for a while …. and so the stories each overlap as the old wife has to give way to the new. Pauline reflects at the end of her marriage:

What a pull he has ! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars.Women turn their eyes  from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.

Wood also uses the clever device of  character Harry Cuzzemano , a second -hand book dealer and muck raker, who weaves in and out of each section binding them together. He first surfaces to Hadley on the search for a missing suitcase containing Hemingway’s lost first novel. This references a real episode in Hemingway’s life when Hadley, on her way to Switzerland to meet her then unknown and struggling writer husband, left a suitcase containing the only draft of his first novel on the platform of the Gare de Lyon.

As Hemingway’s fame and reputation grow, the sleazy Cuzzemano seeks first the whereabouts of the suitcase, then any evidence of infidelity with Martha Gelhorn from Pauline, a lost poem from Martha and ending ostensibly seeking return of his own blackmailing letters from Mary ,whilst making off with any scraps of memorabilia he can find.

Of course the story of the break up of Hadley and Ernest has been well documented . Hemingway himself wrote about it in The Sun Also Rises and then, years later and with the benefit of hindsight ,in A Moveable Feast published posthumously. More recently, Pauline McLain imagined the breakdown of the marriage in The Paris Wife.

I thought the most interesting wife in  the story was Pauline.We see her first as the predatory ‘best friend ‘ with designs on the husband. By 1938 in Florida, she is the soon to be discarded wife, still desperately in love with her husband but unable to do anything to divert him from the spell cast by the young and beautiful aspiring journalist Martha Gelhorn. Pauline was the mother of his two younger sons and remained a presence in his life right to the end. She died in 1951 of a hear attack shortly after a bitter telephone argument with Ernest over their troubled son, Gregory.

Through the eyes of Martha and then Mary we see Hemingway’s descent into alcoholism and depression.

Hemingway’s passionate affair with Martha led to a brief marriage. She was the only one of his wives to leave him ….and never speak to him again.Her admiration for Hemingway soon turned to contempt. Searching for him in war-torn  Paris (to tell him she wants a divorce) she is told that her husband has  liberated The Ritz with a troop of soldiers :

Martha hates the way he throws himself around a city with all the swagger of a warlord.She hates, too, that other people can’t see past his phony heroism. So he has liberated The Ritz! Of course he would.

The Pig knew it was the one place that wouldn’t have run dry.

It was with Mary that Hemingway had his longest and most stable marriage. Despite the many happy years in Cuba  spent on the deck of his boat Pilar  and the award of the Nobel Prize in 1954, Mary is powerless to prevent the creep of alcoholism and his illness. He feels his powers as a writer are waning not helped by his bouts of heavy drinking and periods of hospitalisation for electric shock treatment. As Hemingway had written many years before to F Scott Fitzgerald :

That terrible mood of depression of whether it is any good or not is what is known as The Artist’s Curse.

This a wonderfully evocative novel.Wood clearly has a love of the subject matter and has researched it meticulously. She doesn’t allow the research however to get in the way of her vivid imagination.The story and its unhappy ending are well known but Naomi Wood’s prose gave it a freshness that kept me gripped all the way through.

Book Review : Little Failure by Gary Sheyngart

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Life is constantly changing for Gary. Born a Soviet citizen, he becomes a citizen of the USA. Named Igor by his parents, he changes to Gary in his adopted homeland, for reasons which are obvious to any native English speaker. Even his city of birth keeps changing its name….from  the original St Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad….and finally back to St Petersburg again. No wonder he is confused!

Little Failure is the autobiography of US and jewish author Gary Shteyngart. The title comes from his parents’ nickname for him as a child . A constant source of disappointment to them, his nickname eventually becomes Failurchka ,coined by his mother in a melding of Russian and English.

Nothing he does seems right. On a parents evening a teacher gushes to Gary’s father :

‘Gary is very smart. We hear he reads Dostoevsky in the original.’

‘Phh,’ Papa said ‘Only Chekhov’

Born in 1972 ,Gary and his parents emigrate to the USA in 1979 under Jimmy Carter’s exchange programme….the Soviet Union is given grain , after another crop failure, in exchange for exit visas for Soviet jews. They arrive at JFK via East Berlin and a stay in Italy :

Coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.

Much of the humour and indeed pathos of the book comes from Gary and his family’s attempts to understand and adapt to American culture. Gary undergoes a circumcision,with a hole cut into the front of his underpants by his mother to prevent post-operative chafing. The family receive a letter telling them that they have won $10,000,000 …their dreams have come true! They dream of what they can now afford to buy, and to send back to the beleaguered family still left behind in the USSR. Gary’s parents then find out the brutal truth…it’s a scam :

In Russia the government was constantly telling us lies – wheat harvest is up, Uzbek baby goats give milk at an all-time high, Soviet crickets learn to sing The Internationale in honour of Brezhnev visit to local hay field – but we cannot imagine they would lie to our faces like that here in America, the Land of This and the Home of That.

Igor had been too sickly to go to school in Leningrad but Gary is soon enrolled in the Solomon Schlechter School of Queens where his lack of English and lack of understanding of American culture make it hard for him to integrate. He reflects on SSSQ, as it is known,after watching the ABC post-apocalyptic TV film The Day After  :

My research indicated that two of the Soviet missiles would target JFK and La Guardia airports in Queens. SSSQ is geographically equidistant from the two airports, and the school’s glass-heavy modernist structure would probably buckle and split into shards  from the initial blasts, burning up the siddur prayer books like so many blue pancakes, and certainly the subsequent radiation would kill everyone with the exception of the rotund, self -insulated Rabbi Sofer.

So far so good.

It is at SSSQ that a sympathetic teacher first discovers Gary’s talent for story-telling and at the end of each lesson he is asked to read from his Asimov-inspired space story The Chalenge [sic] which at last brings him some acceptance amongst his peers.

Gary’s childhood is over-shadowed too by his parents’ bitter arguments often over the relatives, some in the US ,some left in the USSR, and their dramatic threats of divorce. After making it into high achieving Stuyvesant , his parents have hopes of an Ivy League college and law school. He drifts however and we follow his journey through academic underachievement into  a minor liberal arts college via a dabbling with alcohol and drugs and some unsuccessful love affairs

Each chapter of the book charts a different phase in the author’s development and is prefaced with a photograph of him at that time. It is an entertaining look at growing up through the eyes of a classic outsider…..however there is a serious side to all this. A near breakdown propels Gary , at the insistence of a friend, into therapy. He is finally able to make a reacquaintance with the land of his birth and eventually to persuade his parents to come with him on a trip to St Petersburg. There they are each able to confront some of their demons. As Gary’s mum says:

I only really beat you up once……and I was so sad afterward. I guess that from the start I was an American mama.

This is a wonderful book full of humour , humanity and compassion.I haven’t read any of Shteyngarts’s novels but will definitely do so now.

Little Failure is a must read……

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

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In the summer of 1974 Julie Jacobson’s life changes forever. In attempt to escape her dreary home life in New Jersey, she wins a drama scholarship to Spirit-inThe-Woods summer camp for gifted children.

There she is chosen to become one of The Interestings, a group of six friends and will be known as Jules for the rest of her life.Meg Wotzer follows the lives of all six from 1974 through adolescent traumas to college and on into adulthood, marriage and then middle age.

Wolitzer shows us that life’s journey is unexpected.  Both success and love are hard to predict . Women struggle to find their identities particularly in the world of work  What does a woman have to do to be seen as a serious person? wonders one of the female characters trying to break into theatre production.

Jules never loses the sense of not quite belonging she felt from the moment she was asked to join The Interestings. Even in her adult life she finds contentment and fulfilment difficult to obtain.She envies the sense of entitlement that others in the group seem to have and carry with them on into adulthood.

The book has some very witty observations of middle class life and recreates perfectly that far away time before the internet when even to use the phone at home could be a struggle against parental edict. A funny wry and often moving look at what it means to be alive.