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 : 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……

Fathers and Sons…….and Nabokov

photo (3)What makes a good father? What makes a great novel? Can we ever be free of our past? These are some of the questions posed by David Gilbert’s New York set novel &Sons.

A.N. Dyer is an elderly Salinger-esque  novelist, haunted by his coming of age novel Ampersand and it’s hero, Edgar Mead. Haunted also by his relationship with his own sons… the elder Richard and Jamie; and the much younger Andy. Haunted too by his lifelong friendship with Charlie Topping ,in part an inspiration for Ampersand,  and whose funeral starts this novel.

Charlie’s death forces Andrew to face his own mortality and he convenes a family meeting to discuss the future for Andy, still a teenager.

The story is intermittently narrated by Phillip Topping, Charlie’s eldest son, a malevolent and very unreliable narrator. Phillip has discovered a store of letters and postcards from Andrew to Charlie when they were young men…..and crucially one from Charlie to Andrew.One of these is reproduced at the start of each of the eight sections……and so the background to Ampersand is revealed.

Meanwhile the relationships between Andrew and each of his sons unfold and we look, too,at the relationship an artist has with his creation.

This all sounds very intellectual but this is a very comic book . Not laugh out loud funny maybe but some very amusing observations , particularly of the world of publishing.

One of the funniest set pieces in the novel is a launch party thrown for the first book of the latest yet-to-be-discovered literary sensation….a spoiled little rich kid with zero self-awareness. Gilbert describes the gathered publicists,agents and novelists as :

....discussing new novels or retreats or conferences, yeah, yeah, Amazon, yeah, yeah, ebooks, sigh, Franzen.

There are also sideswipes at the world of film making and acting, with Richard’s unsuccessful attempt to sell the movie rights of Ampersand.As well as a look at the strange world of on-line success stories when a rather tasteless video of Jamie’s goes viral without him realising.

Other reviews I read of &Sons talked about Gilbert’s admiration for Nabokov and drew comparisons with Pnin,  also intermittently narrated by someone with a grudge so I decided to read it as a companion piece.

Pnin tells the story of Timofey Pnin , a Russian emigre from the Revolution, who is now just about surviving as an academic in a lesser know US university. It was criticised when first published not being a novel at all but a stitching together of comic articles Nabokov had previously written for magazines like The New Yorker. It’s patchwork birth does show a little but it is , at best, a very funny early campus novel.

It has a circular structure and finishes exactly where it started.Much of the humour is derived from Pnin’s always incomplete grasp of the English language and it’s idioms. The now lost world of the Russian emigre is acutely observed. At times the writing is very moving.

A visit to a fellow emigre’s summer house and a discussion of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina provokes a ‘ madeleine moment’ for Timofey. He is transported back to the innocence and beauty of a young love affair, with the horrible knowledge that the object of his affections was killed by the Nazis at Buchenwald. A truly heart rending memory that moved me to tears.

I would describe both these novels as near misses rather than direct hits BUT both are enjoyable and , at times, thought provoking reads. I am not sure I am any closer to answering the question of the author’s relationship to his creation. Any ideas?

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.

 

 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance.

This is the book that everyone is talking about, the new Donna Tartt has been 11 years in the waiting.

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The novel follows the fortunes of Theo Decker whose childhood is shattered by the sudden death of his mother in a bomb attack during a chance visit to a museum . Theo survives the attack and just before his escape is handed a painting (The Goldfinch) by an old man also caught in the blast and dying. He also hands Theo a ring and gives him some instructions to find his antique shop in Greenwich Village. Moments before the blast, Theo has been captivated by the sight of a enigmatic red-haired girl, Pippa, with whom he becomes obsessed throughout his life.

Alone in New York, Theo first goes to live with Barbours, the family of a boy at school with whom he has a rather distant friendship, until he is tracked down by his alcoholic and feckless father and transported to a life of benign neglectfulness in Las Vegas. There he starts a life long sort-of friendship with Boris, a Polish Ukranian boy also living alone with his own father, and is introduced to a life of drugs and playing hookey.

In the beginning,Theo intends to tell the authorities he has The Goldfinch but for reasons he cannot fully understand he keeps it hidden. As time goes on it becomes harder and harder for him to think of parting with it. He can’t speak about it with anyone or even look at it.

The book has been compared to Harry Potter. This is unfair although there are indeed echoes…….is Donna Tartt a J K Rowling fan perhaps? Welty, the old man dying in the museum, has something of the Dumbledore about him. There is also a scene in which the adult Theo dreams he is looking into a mirror and sees his dead mother smiling back at him……a scene which occurs with Harry and his parents in, I think, Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire although more movingly written in the latter. The book is much more than this though.

Tartt examines how a conflation of seemingly random acts can change the course of a life forever; how hurt , when buried, takes over a person’s every act without them ever understanding why and, crucially, how to be happy we must also experience and also learn to embrace sorrow.

Theo eventually does come to see what he can learn from the eponymous goldfinch in the painting he has treasured and hidden all his young life. It has dignity and whilst trapped  by a chain around it’s foot , it faces the world with bravery and beauty.

The book is very long at 771pp and at times it can seem so. I struggled a little with Boris….surely after a childhood and education in the USA he would have learned to speak more than an annoying pidgin (American) English ….however there is no doubt that , at it’s best , this is a tour de force and Theo’s journey stays with you long after you have closed the cover.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney

Night time skyline NYC

Night time skyline NYC

Another recommendation for my recent trip to New York, BLBC is unusual in that it is entirely written in the third person. First published in 1984 ,it is set in the coke-fulled days of Reaganomics .We never discover the name of the hero,who as the book opens, is reeling from a failed marriage and trying desperately to hang on to his job working in the Orwellian sounding Department of Factual Verification for a prestigious but un-named magazine.

The front pages quotes from The Sun Also Rises : ‘How did you go bankrupt ?’ Bill asked. ‘Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually and the suddenly.’ And this indeed mirrors your journey through the city streets aided and abetted by your friend Tad Allagash.

The writing at times is highly comic and very reminiscent of Henry Miller particularly when ‘You’ are recounting your struggle to be a writer rather than a lowly fact checker : “You wanted to be Dylan Thomas without the paunch, F. Scott Fitzgerald without the crack up.” or when describing ‘Your’ relationship with Tad…….here is Tad detailing, in a note, the latest blind date he has set up : Described you as cross between young F. Scott-Heminway and the later Wittgenstein, so dress accordingly.  Yrs in Christ, Tad

The book however is more than a very atmospheric and now nostalgic romp through the 1980s with nods to the pop music of the time and the greats of modern American Literature. ‘ You’ are on a similar journey to Holden Caulfield and the final section of the book is raw with the emotion of your real loss . I sobbed as the crisis was reached and the reason for your current breakdown became clear.The book is short , only 174pp, but it packs a massive punch.

 

     

 

 

 

The Man Who Wouldn’t Sit Down by Jacob M Appel

With a trip to New York imminent, I asked for some suggestions for bIG apple themed reading from the Commuter Bookclub. This was one of the titles that came up.

Winner of the Dundee International Book Award 2012 this is the story of Arnold Brinkmann whose comfortable West Village life as a botanist and Garden Centre owner is forever changed after a trip to a Yankees baseball game.

Arnold has been prevailed upon to take his young nephew to a game.At the end of the match, Arnold refuses to stand to God Bless America routinely played since 9/11. His refusal is picked up on camera and shown on the big screen in the ground, on realising this Arnold, somewhat at a loss, sticks out his tongue.

Arnold’s actions cost him dear. The media take up the story and protesters gather outside his house. His continued refusal to apologise casts him onto the fringes of American society.

A very comic treatment of what is an extremely serious subject, this book had me laughing out loud on the train on occasion.Towards the end the storyline does become a little farcical but there are acute observations on middle class American life and the hypocrisy of tub-thumping politics. Thanks to @OuchLibrarian for the recommendation !

Daniel Schwen

Skyline of NYC from Top of The Rock