‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack – One Long, Fascinating Sentence

 

‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack   (2017)   – 217 pages

There are no periods, no stopping points, in ‘Solar Bones’, not even at the very end of the novel. (I looked.)   It is one long stream of conscious thoughts, and what a stream it is!  You could say that what James Joyce started, Mike McCormack has finished by writing his entire novel as one long stream of consciousness.

This one is not a gimmick; this one is for real.  The absence of a period and the presence of a conjunction propel the reader forward on to the next paragraph and the next paragraph and the next and…  Just as our minds go from one thought directly to another that may only be peripherally related to the first, so goes ‘Solar Bones’.  I generally don’t like to take my breaks from reading in the middle of a sentence on an ‘and’, but with this novel I had no choice.

Often ‘Solar Bones’ reads like poetry, poetry written by an Irish engineering supervisor which is who our narrator Marcus Conway is.

“yes you’re an engineer, math and physics and suchlike, but it was always a bit of a mystery where all your references came from, all the poetry and philosophy that overtakes you from time to time, but now I know, it was all part of the old ecclesial schooling am I right” 

Yes, a time spent in religious training as a young man has made the difference for Marcus Conway.  He combines the rigorous calculation of the engineer with the more expansive view of the world that poetry and philosophy provide.

Don’t be put off by this talk of stream of consciousness and poetry; ‘Solar Bones’ is compulsively readable.  I sailed through this novel smiling at this guy’s vivid frequently humorous portrayal of his family and of his engineering fights.  His loving concern shines through for his wife Mairead, his daughter Agnes, and his son Darragh who’s in Australia but sometimes calls home via Skype  It is all overlaid with that old Irish charm which I try hard to resist but somehow fall for anyway.  If I have any complaint at all, it is that McCormick lays that Irish schtick on a little too thickly.

‘Solar Bones’ was the 2016 winner of the Goldsmiths Prize.  It definitely fulfills the Goldsmiths slogan “Fiction at its most novel”.

 

Grade :     A+   

 

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‘Beast’ by Paul Kingsnorth – An English Man Alone

‘Beast’ by Paul Kingsnorth  (2017) – 164 pages

‘Beast’ is what I call an isolation novel.  Like Robinson Crusoe, Paul Buckmaster is a man alone. Buckmaster is a contemporary man who willingly left his village and wife and baby daughter to live by himself in a dilapidated shack out in the West Country English moors.

‘Are you looking for God or looking for your self? she said. Can you even tell the difference any more? … Six years, she said, it’s been six years, and you leave now, at the worst time there could be, and for nothing … You are a child, she said, you always have been, and now I have two children.’

Buckmaster sees his former village life as empty:

“Everywhere there were voices and I added my voice to them and we spoke out together and said nothing at all.”

“I walked the streets, I sat on the couches, I passed through the sliding doors, I talked but never listened, I sold but I never gave away.”  

He went to the wilderness seeking solace:

“I came here to measure myself against the great emptiness.”

‘Back there,’ Buckmaster says of his abandoned life, ‘I was an item, an object, a collection of gears, a library of facts compiled by others, a spark plug in a universal engine, an opinion machine, I was made of plastic and bamboo canes and black bin bags. I walked like I was human and alive but I was neither. I could know anything in an instant and I knew nothing … I need to be in the places where the light comes through, where people are thin on the ground, where the old spirits still mutter in the hedges and the stone rows.’

However by now Buckmaster has gone nearly insane after a year of solitude. ‘Perhaps I am losing my mind,’ he says: ‘I do hope so.’  On one of his long rambling walks through the woods, Buckmaster encounters a beast with penetrating yellow eyes: ‘a long low dark animal with a thin curling tail that it held above the ground as it walks’.  He has no idea what the creature is but is determined to see it again.

Although of course Kingsnorth never comes out and tells us what the Beast means, my own theory is that it represents this man’s guilt over leaving his wife and baby at a critical time.  Perhaps I’m being a little too straightforward and prosaic.

Whenever I read one of these heavy-duty isolation novels, I find myself longing for Jane Austen and her amusing congenial banter across the kitchen table.

 

Grade:   B+        

 

‘A Boy in Winter’ by Rachel Seiffert – A Brutal Nazi Atrocity in Ukraine During World War II

 

‘A Boy in Winter’ by Rachel Seiffert  (2017) – 242 pages

In Rachel Seiffert’s incisive new novel ‘A Boy in Winter’, Otto Pohl is a German engineer who considers the Nazis’ brutal war across Europe as criminal.  To avoid being complicit in the Nazis’ crimes, Pohl signs up to lead a road-building team in the Ukraine.  Originally he thinks he might be doing a positive thing, building a new road “for when the war is over, for when Hitler loses as he surely must”, but he comes to realize the evil purpose for which the Nazis will use the road.    He witnesses the Nazi SS storm through a small Ukrainian village and then round up all the town’s Jewish people herding them into an old brick factory.  Pohl then understands the truth about these SS Nazis.

“They do not think on a human scale. They do not think they deal with humans.”

At one point Pohl is given an opportunity to select workers for his team from among the imprisoned Jews.  He see only “shopkeepers and clerks, schoolteachers; respectable and indoor people in suits and spectacles”.  He sees that these people are clearly unsuited for the arduous work of roadbuilding, so he selects none of them.  Only after does he realize that he could have saved a few from a horrible death.

Later he witnesses the mass murder of hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children by the Nazis.  The estimate is that the Nazis killed close to a million Jewish people in Ukraine alone.

Rachel Seiffert has mentioned that the character of Otto Pohl is based on a real person, Willi Ahren, who hoped to avoid complicity in Nazi atrocities by transferring to the road construction corps.  Seiffert herself is the granddaughter of a Nazi doctor in the SS.  She regards her grandfather’s conduct “with a lot of sadness”.

“It’s very sobering because he’s a person to me and it’s people who do this. I can’t externalise it. I can’t say it happened over there and it was done by other people. It was very close to home. It means I’m very much aware of human capacity for that kind of cruelty. World War II is unfinished business for me.  I think it always will be.” – Rachel Seiffert

It is crucial for people to continue to confront the Nazi atrocities during World War II because otherwise the atrocities are bound to be repeated.  ‘A Boy in Winter’ would make a great movie just as Seiffert’s previous novel ‘The Dark Room’ was turned into the movie ‘Lore’.

 

Grade :   A

 

‘Imagine Wanting Only This’ by Kristen Radtke – Everything is Only Temporary

 

‘Imagine Wanting Only This’, a graphic memoir by Kristen Radtke   (2017) – 277 pages

The event that drives this graphic memoir ‘Imagine Wanting Only This’ is the early sudden death of the narrator’s beloved favorite Uncle Dan when she was a young girl. Later she discovers that she may also have the congenital heart condition that took her Uncle Dan. From then on, she is consumed with the impermanence of life and everything else and devotes much of her energy to studying it.  Not only lives are temporary but also buildings that go to ruins and even relationships which end. .  At one point Radtke writes that she’s “consumed by the question of how something that is can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.”

Radtke’s approach is somewhat scattered with her taking incidents from around the world as part of her obsession with temporariness.  One incident she dwells on is the Peshtigo Fire of 1871 in her and my home state of Wisconsin which took more than 1200 lives.  Her travels take her to an abandoned church in Gary, Indiana to a village in Iceland decimated by a volcano to a deserted military base in the Philippines.

The graphics in this book are interesting throughout.  One quality is the many varied drawings throughout this graphic memoir.  However there is such a thing as being too earnest. The subject here – impermanence – is so deep it begs for a lighter approach.  More humor and lightness in the drawings would have helped.

 I do have one quibble. When Radtke portrays a TV news program about an abandoned Detroit neighborhood, she shows a scene from Fox News.  It is difficult not to deride anything associated with this propaganda network, and that detracts from the gravity of Radtke’s theme.

I don’t believe I have read any graphic book with a theme as serious as this one unless it was Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust or ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi about the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  However both of these other authors found ways to lighten their stories.  There is nothing lightening the melancholy mood in ‘Imagine Wanting Only This’ which takes itself somewhat too seriously.

I found Radtke’s approach to her subject just too diffuse and though she attempts to reach a unifying theme she does not quite succeed.  With her scattered approach, Radtke does not achieve the depth that her big subject of impermanence warrants.

 

Grade :    B –

 

‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard MacLaverty – Drowning in a Sea of Mundanity

 

‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard MacLaverty    (2017) – 243 pages

I have read nearly all of the fiction of Bernard MacLaverty, and in each of his other novels and stories I was ultimately touched by the plights of his characters.  MacLaverty is known as a master of the quotidian and his quiet work has had a strong effect on me in the past.   However while reading his latest work, ‘Midwinter Break’, I constantly felt like I was drowning in a sea of mundanity, and I never did feel the poignancy I was supposed to feel for these characters.

In ‘Midwinter Break’, we have an old couple Gerry and Stella.  He is a retired architect, she is a housewife. He has a drinking problem; she is a devout Catholic.  Gerry is constantly sneaking drinks of Jameson behind Stella’s back. Even at this late stage after being married for several decades, Stella is still considering leaving Gerry.  She wants to join a group that is like a convent, however does not require vows of poverty or chastity.

Gerry and Stella are taking a short winter vacation in Amsterdam, and that is where most of the novel takes place.

Everything about this old couple is relentlessly ordinary.  I almost feel it is unfair to quote the dialogue here but I must to give you an idea of what you will encounter if you read this novel.

“What’s that?” said Gerry.

“Styling mousse.”

“And what’s that supposed to do?”

“It adds body to my – sadly – limp hair.”

“I wonder would it do anything for me,” Gerry said. 

“Volumising hold, as the can says.  Have you never seen me do this before?”

“Not that I remember.”

“At home I do all this in the bathroom.” 

There are pages and pages of this not exactly scintillating conversation about pigeons, flowers, coffee, etc., between Gerry and Stella.   I believe this story of Gerry and Stella would have worked much better as a short story rather than a novel.  That way MacLaverty could have given us the impression of the ordinariness of their lives without delivering us the full load.

There is one event that happened to Stella when she was pregnant many years ago that seems almost preposterous given the boredom of their current lives, but I suppose anything can happen to anyone at any time.

I must consider ‘Midwinter Break’ a disappointment, but Bernard MacLaverty is still in my pantheon of great writers due to his previous profound and moving work.

.

Grade :    C

 

‘Beautiful Animals’ by Lawrence Osborne – A Dazzling Dreadful Summer on a Greek Island

 

‘Beautiful Animals’ by Lawrence Osborne   (2017) – 287 pages

“A summer was just a summer, and its dead bodies should remain confined to it.”

Two young women, Naomi and Amy, develop a friendship over summer while their families stay on the Greek island of Hydra. The Greece debt crisis is a tragedy for the Greek people as they must now live in austere circumstances.  However there are still all of these obscenely rich families from around the world including England and the United States who stay at their villas on the Greek islands to spend their dazzling summer vacations going to stylish restaurants and tavernas and private parties and perhaps swimming in the sea at some secluded spot.

The summer intensifies for Naomi and Amy when they discover a young man, Faoud, escaped from Syria and washed up on shore in one of these secluded spots.

“To save another person: it wasn’t nothing … it was a small shift in the balance of power towards the weak.”

What could be more romantic for these two young women than saving this young good-looking Muslim guy who speaks correct English and needs their help?

“His misfortunes made him charismatic,” Naomi thinks, “and therefore arousing.”

Naomi comes up with a so-called “plan”.   However events tumble out of control as they tend to do.  Later the action switches from Greece to Italy.

In dealing with these international situations of intrigue, Lawrence Osborne comes about as close as any modern writer to Graham Greene.   Osborne’s writing doesn’t quite have the quirky charm of Graham Greene but his efficient prose does speed you along and makes for compulsive reading.  David Sexton in the Evening Standard has described Lawrence Osborne as “pitilessly good” and said that comparisons with Graham Greene “aren’t even flattering anymore”.   I would not quite go that far as I have read over a dozen Graham Greene novels and consider Greene the gold standard in international intrigue novels.  However Lawrence Osborne is among the best of the English writers today carrying on that noble travel tradition of Graham Greene.

“There is nothing more exasperating than reading in contemporary guidebooks disparagements of places that are deemed to be “seedy.” Do the writers not notice that such places are invariably crowded with people? When a neighborhood is described as “seedy” by some Lonely Planet prude, I immediately head there.” – Lawrence Osborne

 

Grade :   A-

 

‘The Burning Girl’ by Claire Messud – A Close Childhood Friendship Goes Awry

‘The Burning Girl’ by Claire Messud   (2017) – 247 pages

“Nobody particularly wants the happy ending when they care more for the story than the person.”

‘The Burning Girl’ is about two close friends in an early childhood friendship who move apart when they get to be around twelve years old.  This does happen in real life to both boys and girls.  Our early friendships are based more on proximity rather than shared interests or values.  It is not at all rare for a twelve year old to discover that they have little in common with even their best friend until then.  That does not mean that their friendship wasn’t entirely valid up until that point.

Several scenes early in the novel depict the closeness of these two young friends Julia and Cassie who live in the small town of Royston, Massachusetts. These scenes at an animal shelter, at a quarry, and at a defunct mental asylum showing the closeness of these two girls are well-done.

However in the seventh grade they start moving apart and in different circles.  Their separation is exasperated because Cassie gets a new stepfather whom she hates.

One criticism that keeps popping up in the reviews for ‘The Burning Girl’ is that the voice of the narrator is much too articulate for a twelve year old girl.  I don’t consider this criticism entirely valid, because I picture the narrator as Julia when she is fully grown up looking back on her childhood.  Thus it is not like Tom Sawyer where it is the kid telling the story.

Toward the end of the novel Messud uses the word “inchoate”.  Now “inchoate” is a word I cannot imagine any young person using.  In fact I had to look up that word myself. But with the narrator speaking as an adult I suppose the use of the word is entirely valid. Quick, give me the definition of “inchoate”.

So we have these two young girls who were the best of friends.  However when they reach adolescence, Cassie no longer wants to be friends.  Then from Julia’s perspective, we see Cassie’s family life and social life deteriorate.  We and Julia are standing on the sidelines watching Cassie’s life fall apart.  I do believe it would have been more substantial if we also saw more of Julia’s own struggles with adolescence.  As it is the story seems a little one-sided.

 

Grade :   B

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