Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ by Tim Winton – A Missed Opportunity

 

‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ by Tim Winton ( 2018) – 267 pages

‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ starts out strong with a fascinating offbeat family. Fifteen year-old Jaxie Clackton has an all-consuming hatred for his abusive drunken father whom Jaxie calls Captain Wankbag. His father bashes Jaxie regularly, but even worse the father had beat up Jaxie’s beloved mother who has recently died of cancer. Meanwhile Jaxie consoles himself thinking about his distant girlfriend, his first cousin Lee, who is six months younger than Jaxie. Her mother Auntie Marg vehemently disapproves of their relationship as does the rest of Jaxie’s family.

Then old Captain Wankbag dies in a nasty car jacking accident, and Jaxie sets off across Western Australia to join up with his girlfriend Lee. Here is Jaxie driving out of town:

But bugger me, here I am hitting a hundred already and still not even in top gear. On squishy upholstery, with one of them piney tree things jiggling off the mirror. I’m flying. And just sitting on my arse to do it. Off the ground. Out of the dirt. And I’m no kind of beast anymore.”

I was settling in for a delicious family drama or melodrama on the order of Tim Winton’s wonderful probably classic ‘Cloudstreet’. Winton is a master of the Australian argot, and his mastery is on full display here. Jaxie narrates ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ and his voice is raw, energetic, working class, down-to-earth, and colorful.

However…

However Winton throws this brilliant setup away and forsakes this vivid family story to give us entirely something else, and that is where I think Winton loses his way. Jaxie gets stuck in the harsh desert wilds of Western Australia and meets up with a disgraced old Irish priest named Fintan MacGillis. I expect this priest is supposed to be some enigmatic figure, but he seemed pretty stock to me. The momentum of this novel was lost for me when Jaxie’s family story was totally dropped and instead we’re out in the wilderness with this priest. It probably would have helped if Winton had presented this priest as some sort of father figure for Jaxie replacing old Captain Wankbag, but this is never even considered.

Later Jaxie and Fintan MacGillis must face villains who are nearly nameless and thus of little interest to this reader. So Winton traded an intense family drama for a routine generic adventure story in the Western Australian wilderness with a boring priest as a sidekick.

 

Grade : B

 

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‘The Pisces’ by Melissa Broder – The Modern Woman’s Lover

 

‘The Pisces’ by Melissa Broder (2018) – 270 pages

Here is a comic coarse take on modern love. Our heroine Lucy is 38 and has just broken up with her long-time boyfriend. She is staying in her sister’s beach house on Venice Beach dog sitting and supposedly working on her dissertation on Sappho. In her spare time Lucy attends a love addiction therapy group for women who are all boy-crazy like junior high school girls.

‘The Pisces’ is all about Lucy the narrator’s voice of which some will find refreshingly honest and candid while others will find it self-centered and anxiety ridden. Although the novel makes it clear that Lucy is 38 years old, just by her interests and attitudes expressed, I would have guessed her age at about 16.

On the beach she meets Theo the swimmer and she is immediately attracted to him. He seems different, cooler than the other guys she meets. I won’t give away a major plot point of the story, but let’s just say there is something fishy about Theo.

‘The Pisces’ is a hot and steamy romance story told from the woman’s point of view with lascivious, explicit, and nasty sex scenes.

There are many New Age references in ‘The Pisces’ regarding such items as horoscopes, rose quartz crystals, and magic candles. There is talk of Internet memes and texting, and everyone is relentlessly up to date. There is also talk of getting nails and toenails done in a salon. Since my interest in New Age stuff and getting my toenails done is about zero, this probably was not the right novel for me. So perhaps you readers should take my following criticisms of ‘The Pisces’ with a grain of salt.

The other characters, the women in Lucy’s support group and her previous lovers before she meets Theo, are interchangeable ciphers. That these characters are not developed even to the point where we can tell them apart is one of the major problems with this novel. It is not really worth the effort to keep track of the little backstory these peripheral characters have.

As for Theo, he is a guy who is just too good to be true like the hero of an old TV Western or a police drama. This cardboard wonderfulness of Theo subtracted from my interest in him. But perhaps that is the point, that Theo is an unrealistic love interest.

‘The Pisces’ was the wrong novel for me.

 

Grade :    C

 

Is it Time for Another Rosamond Lehmann Revival?

 

‘The Gipsy’s Baby’ by Rosamond Lehmann (1946) – 192 pages

When Virago republished all of her novels in 1982, there was a major Rosamond Lehmann revival. Is it time for another revival?

Rosamond Lehmann is sometimes considered a women’s romance novelist. Yes, her novels usually dealt with the close relationships of her characters. However she captured the emotional life of her women and men with such intensity and vivacity that guys would do well to read her too just as some real men read and enjoy Jane Austen. Lehmann used her own happy and unhappy romances and marriages to give her stories and novels more depth and feeling and humor than most writers achieve.

Rosamond was born in 1901 and brought up in well-to-do circumstances. Her first novel ‘Dusty Answer’ was published in 1927 and was a best selling scandalous success. Alfred Noyes lauded it as “quite the most striking first novel of this generation”. ‘Dusty Answer’ was an intense unhappy love story told with sparkle and verve, the type of story Rosamond Lehmann specialized in perhaps based on incidents from her own life.

There is a steady enduring quality to all of Lehmann’s early work. She followed ‘Dusty Answer’ with ‘A Note in Music’ and then she wrote the two novels ‘Invitation to the Waltz’ and ‘The Weather in the Streets’ which center on one heroine Olivia Curtis. If I were starting over to discover Rosamond Lehmann, I probably would begin with ‘Invitation to the Waltz’ which was called “a perfect novel” by her biographer Selina Hastings.

Mel u, editor of The Reading Life wrote the following of ‘Invitation to the Waltz’ and Rosamond Lehmann: “Her narrative methods are a mixture of devices, many of the sentences, even in the lesser novels, are pure gems.  The middle chapter of ‘Invitation to the Waltz’ is just hilarious, a perfect presentation  of the persons at a country dance.  The depiction of the pretentious young poet down from Oxford made me laugh out loud as I marveled at what a wonderful scene I was witnessing.“

And here is a quote taken directly from ‘Invitation to the Waltz’:

Advice to Young Journal Keepers: Be lenient with yourself. Conceal your worst faults, leave out your most shameful thoughts, actions, and temptations. Give yourself all the good and interesting qualities you want and haven’t got. If you should die young, what comfort would it be to your relatives to read the truth and have to say: It is not a pearl we have lost, but a swine?” – Rosamond Lehmann, ‘Invitation to the Waltz’.

Her strong literary career continued with two excellent fine novels in the ’40’s and early ’50’s, ‘The Ballad and the Source’ and ‘The Echoing Grove’. Like Graham Greene, Rosamond Lehmann not only had a strong literary reputation, but also her novels were best sellers. Her novels are straight-forward, accessible, and easy to enjoy.

Around the time of her daughter Sally’s death at 24 in 1957, Rosamond’s profound grief led her to take up psychic spiritualism, and both of her only two later works, the autobiography ‘The Swan in the Evening’ and ‘A Sea-Grape Tree’, were written under this psychic influence. If a reader wants to fully appreciate the fiction of Rosamond Lehmann, he or she should probably avoid these two late works.

I recently read all the stories in ‘The Gipsy’s Baby’. This collection was first published in 1946 and these stories are prime Rosamond Lehmann, but I would still start with the early novels which are quite short anyhow.

Let the second Rosamond Lehmann Revival begin.

 

Grade:   A

 

‘Border Districts` by Gerald Murnane – Fiction???

 

‘Border Districts` by Gerald Murnane (2017) – 132 pages

I believe I gave ‘Border Districts’ a fair chance, but it didn’t work for me.

Usually I can read and appreciate most of the lauded fiction writers. I did not care much for Dario Fo who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, but giving the prize to him was probably a mistake anyway. Otherwise my major stumbling block has been Samuel Beckett. I’ve read both some of his plays and a few of his novels, but none of his work has reached me in any meaningful way. Not even ‘Waiting for Godot’ affected me that much.

One of the reviews of ‘Border Districts’ by Gerald Murnane that I read mentioned Samuel Beckett.

First of all ‘Border Districts’ reads more like a memoir rather than a fiction. There is even a line in the novel stating that “I am not writing a work of fiction but a report of seemingly fictional matters”. There is no plot. There are no characters. It is mainly the narrator’s memories of what he has read or seen. The language has the verisimilitude of non-fiction. At times ‘Border Districts’ reads like a not very interesting essay on the author’s marble collection among other things.

Despite my lack of appreciation for this book, I did catch its theme. It is about the images which most affect us and which we retain as part of our visual image memory throughout our lives. Hence his fascination with his translucent marble collection. Perhaps some pictures may have helped?

Another image memory the narrator has is of the refracted light through the stained glass church windows of his Catholic youth. He recalls from his reading how during the Reformation, Protestant congregations took over some of the old Catholic churches in Europe, and the first thing the Protestants would do is knock out and break the beautiful stained glass of the Catholic churches they took over. The Protestants got the bare plain un-decorated churches they deserved. This was an image that I could relate to because I can still recall the beautiful stained glass windows of the church of my youth. Ours was a German Lutheran church, but they had the good sense to value and use beautiful stained glass.

I appreciate the stained glass but the images of his marbles and the horse racing colors not so much.

Another positive in ‘Border Districts’ for me was that this attention to one’s visual image memory spurred my own memories. I remembered when after college I got my first white collar job and was bored stiff, so I signed up for an extension Art History course of two semesters which covered art from the Dark Ages until today in two semesters. The guy who taught the course was kind of a shady dark mysterious figure but he made those paintings come alive for me, especially the Renaissance paintings. He became kind of a role model for me. During the Impressionist era, he introduced us to the idea of “the merely pleasant”. Maybe we undervalue “the merely pleasant”. During that time I put up pictures in my room of “La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat and “Two Sisters” by Pierre-August Renoir because these represented the merely pleasant for me. I became a crusader for the merely pleasant. As part of the class we went to the Chicago Art Institute, and we actually saw the originals of those two paintings.

The Merely Pleasant?

So ‘Border Districts’ did spur these memories in me, so perhaps I am undervaluing the book also.

However I found the writing in ‘Border Districts’ to be relentlessly flat and the subject matter usually determinedly pedestrian. I considered the sentences rather clumsy and found myself frequently bored by mid-sentence.

In a review in the Washington Post, Jamie Fisher said of ‘Border Districts that “the result is tedious – but fascinating”. For me the bottom line was very tedious and only somewhat fascinating.

 

 

Grade : C

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‘Love’ by Hanne Ørstavik – A Cold Winter Night in a Northern Norwegian Town

 

‘Love’ by Hanne Ørstavik (1997) – 125 pages               Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

This is a story about a single night in the lives of single mother Vibeke and her eight year-old son Jon. They have recently moved to this small remote town in the north of Norway. Jon wants to give his mother plenty of space so she can get ready for his birthday tomorrow with a cake and everything, so he goes out of the house without telling her to sell raffle tickets for his sports club

Meanwhile Vibeke is wound up in her own longings and dreams and has totally forgotten about Jon’s birthday, but instead decides to go to the library so she can get more of the romance novels she devours. Even for this short trip, she wants to look nice because, who knows, she might meet someone. She finds out that the library closed early this night, so she decides to stop and visit a carnival which is in town for the weekend. There she meets a young man, Tom, who is a carnival worker, and the two of them hit it off and wind up going to a bar together, and she stays out to bar closing.

Meanwhile Jon is having his own adventures with the strangers he meets selling tickets. The story goes back and forth between Jon and Vibeke usually switching from one to the other without any warning. Several times I thought we were still reading about Jon but the story had moved on to Vibeke or visa versa. There is a sense of eerie foreboding for both Jon and Vibeke as they interact with these strangers and get in and out of strangers’ cars on this cold winter night. One feels that both Jon and Vibeke are too trusting souls among all these strangers, and what is this eight year-old boy doing alone outside late at night?

‘Love’ as a literary novel is Norwegian minimalist realism with a vengeance. The sentences are short with little variety beyond subject, verb, object. The sentences for the mother Vibeke are nearly as simple as those for the boy Jon. Whereas the boy comes across as appropriately child-like, Vibeke comes across as almost childish with her romantic concerns and her almost totally forgetting about Jon. When she meets Tom she works hard to start a romance between them. The short staccato sentences add to the ominous mood.

Its creepy vibe makes this novella an intense read.

 

Grade :    B

 

‘Florida’ by Lauren Groff – If It’s not the Alligators and Snakes, It’s the Suffocating Heat

 

‘Florida’ by Lauren Groff    (2018) – 275 pages

The Florida of this new collection of stories by Lauren Groff is not a very likable place. Groff’s Florida is not the beachfront coastal Florida but the swampy central deep-country Florida of alligators, snakes, and lots of insects. The setting is typical of Gainesville, Florida where Groff currently lives. This is the Florida of makeshift boats in stagnant ponds and “frenzied flora and fauna”. And then there is the oppressive sweltering heat and the quite frequent hurricanes. Even an occasional panther and a lot of bad smells. And the people are nearly as bad as the climate.

Even when the main character somehow escapes Florida to Brazil in ‘Salvador’ and France in ‘Yport’, things don’t get any better in these stories.

In some of the stories the main characters go unnamed. In the story ‘Above and Below’, the main character is referred to always as either ‘she’ or ‘the girl’. In the Guy de Maupassant story ‘Yport’ the main characters are only ever called ‘the mother’ or ‘the older boy’ or ‘the little boy’. This lack of names distanced me from the stories. One of the many problems for me with this collection is its lack of immediacy or charm.

‘Above and Below’ is about a young woman who voluntarily gave up the academic life and descended into the life of the homeless. However it seemed more like she passively sleepwalked into the life of a homeless poor person and it was not a spirited descent. I wearied of this story.

I suspect that Lauren Groff is a writer more suited for the novel rather than the short story. Her stories here are too cluttered and vague for this short form, and we readers lose interest.

In too many of the stories the main character, usually a woman, seems world weary. She is stuck entertaining the kids while any man is off somewhere else. In ‘Yport’ our nameless heroine is in France with her two nameless kids to further study the famous French writer Guy de Maupassant for a potential book about him. She has already discovered that Guy de Maupassant was a total creep, and most of his literary work besides the famous stories is not very good. This could potentially have been a fascinating story about how our literary heroes can turn out to be lousy human beings. Instead the story is mostly about the morose mother listlessly entertaining her children in various French places. Reading about someone who is so dispirited and tired eventually becomes tiresome itself.

I searched the stories in ‘Florida’ in vain for even one spark of the vivacity of Lauren Groff’s ‘Fate and Furies’ which made that novel such a delight. (‘Fates and Furies’ was my favorite fiction read of 2015.)

 

 

Grade : C

‘Blue Self-Portrait’ by Noémi Lefebvre – Inspired Chatter

 

‘Blue Self-Portrait’ by Noémi Lefebvre (2009) – 139 pages Translated from the French by Sophie Lewis

Even though ‘Blue Self-Portrait’ is a relatively short novel, with its exceedingly long sentences and its unbelievably long paragraphs it is probably the most challenging book I have read this year. However at the same time, with its depth and its charm ‘Blue Self-Portrait’ is also one of the most rewarding novels I’ve read this year.

‘Blue Self-Portrait’ is a painting by the music composer Arnold Schoenberg which he did in his spare time.

Two sisters in their late twenties or early thirties are returning by airplane to Paris after a short vacation in Berlin. The one sister, our narrator, looks back on their time in Berlin and especially her romantic interlude with a German pianist composer. Meanwhile she is reading the correspondence between Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann. This is a stream-of-consciousness novel like no other.

The sisters together on this trip sort of bring things down to earth. Otherwise this novel might have gotten too philosophical and abstract and dry. Here I will quote one of the shorter sentences just to give you the lively flavor of the writing.

I excuse my sister everything and myself nothing, not only do I excuse without calculation but I appreciate more than anything in my sister that which I loathe more than anything in myself, I consider magnificent in my sister whatever horrifies me in myself, am unconditional with my sister and always disappointed in myself.”

The pianist she met criticized our narrator for talking too much. She herself knows she talked too much, “sure that I’d put him off seeing me ever again, even by accident, instilled a lifelong revulsion in him for the kind of girl I am, the kind who talk too much and whose flaws we know well, who go on exasperating those around them down the generations, who ruin the lives of their husbands, children, and lovers, never content with that understanding silence required for happiness”.

But her endless chitting and chatting are some of the most profound and acute yet still charming conversations I have encountered.

Blue Self-Portrait

This is a deep work, yet the two sisters bring it down to Earth. As their plane flies over Wannsee Lake our narrator’s thoughts turn to the terrible Wannsee Conference at which the German Nazi officials planned the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, the systematic murder of millions of men, women, and children. The father of Reinhard Heydrich who was the director of the Wannsee Conference was also a composer of German music. January 20, 1942 which is the date of the conference is perhaps the most significant date for whole humanity. January 20 is also her sister’s birthday. This work has the courage to confront pure evil.

I doubt I will read another novel this year as intelligent and filled with ideas as this one. With her incredibly long sentences, Lefebvre manages to be deep yet charming at the same time. If you are up for a challenge, I recommend this one.

 

 

Grade :   A

 

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