‘Lost for Words’ by Edward St. Aubyn – Trying Real Hard to be Funny

‘Lost for Words’ by Edward St. Aubyn (2012) – 261 pages

Up until recently, I believed that Edward St. Aubyn could do no wrong as a writer, but that was before I read ‘Lost for Words’. This is his novel satirizing the process for selecting the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Due to his acclaimed 5-novel Patrick Melrose series of which I have read only one novel, Edward St. Aubyn became famous as a humorous literary stylist on the order of Evelyn Waugh and as a brutally funny satirist of the British upper class. Until now, I had only read one other of St. Aubyn’s novels, ‘Dunbar’, which is a pastiche of ‘King Lear’, and the writer turns that bitter family tragedy into a sharp-tongued comedy.

I was expecting great things from ‘Lost for Words’. However…

So what were my problems with ‘Lost for Words’? Nearly everything. The humor is just too broad, too obvious, too over-the-top. The reader is constantly being bombarded with one scene after the next, each more outrageous than the previous and with little connection to reality. The characters are not real characters but stock caricatures of characters.

One of the writers competing for the prize is an Indian Rajah. I don’t believe I’ve encountered an Indian Rajah in a novel since Rudyard Kipling. Do Rajahs still even exist? This is likely an unfair Indian stereotype. The Indian Rajah’s mother has created a cookbook she is trying to publish, and it accidentally gets entered for Booker consideration, and one of the judges champions it as a “ludic, postmodern, multi-media masterpiece.” The book not only makes the longlist but also the shortlist.

One of the novels entered for the Booker is a gritty realistic novel along the lines of Irvine Welsh with the title “wot u starin at”. That is kind of funny. St. Aubyn does include excerpts from these Booker novels which sometimes hit the mark as parody and sometimes do not.

Most of the Booker judges in ‘Lost for Words’ practice literary politics at its smallest and meanest level except for the Oxford academic Vanessa Shaw.

He could hear Vanessa’s exasperation as she gradually realized that the majority of her so-called ‘literary’ novels were not going to make it on to the Short List. She kept trying to argue that the other novels lacked the qualities that characterized a work of literature: ‘depth, beauty, structural integrity, and an ability to revive our tired imaginations with the precision of its language.’

Of course, Vanessa Shaw does not prevail.

I expect the Booker Prize select process is ripe for satirizing, but ‘Lost for Words’ misses its target by being so far out of date and ridiculous.

I do intend to read more of the Patrick Melrose series in the near future as that is St. Aubyn’s still most acclaimed work. I would say read Edward St. Aubyn but avoid ‘Lost for Words’.

 

Grade :   C

 

‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns – Middle Sister and The Troubles

 

‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns    (2018) –  360 pages

 

‘Milkman’ takes place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the late 1970s during the time known as The Troubles – a city divided like no other.

Telling the story is an 18 year old young woman known only as Middle Sister. She has first sister, second sister, third sister, and three wee sisters as well as a few brothers. She also has a maybe-boyfriend. The country over the water governs uneasily. Some of the residents are defenders of this government while others are renouncers. They all live in tight neighborhood enclaves where all are either defenders or renouncers. The renouncers want to be governed by the adjacent country across the border and have formed paramilitary groups to keep the defenders out of their neighborhoods. Here the outsiders’ government is not to be trusted.

The only time you’d call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them, and naturally they would know this and so wouldn’t come.”

A mysterious 41 year old married man – Milkman – starts pursuing our young woman. He is not really a milkman; he is one of the paramilitary leaders of the renouncers. He stalks our young woman. He shows up unexpectedly with his entourage and threatens her maybe-boyfriend among other things. Middle Sister’s family and her neighbors all see her with Milkman and wrongly assume she is having an affair with him. Our Middle Sister tries to avoid Milkman by jogging with third brother-in-law, but still Milkman persists.

We get a strong sense of the all-encompassing paranoia that has gripped the neighborhood when maybe-boyfriend who is a mechanic gets in trouble with the renouncers for having some parts of a Blower Bentley, a car made by the country across the water, in his house.

Our young woman reads only eighteenth or nineteenth century literature.

I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century.”

Her neighbors consider her beyond-the-pale for her reading-while-walking.

‘Milkman’ is a highly original novel that successfully captures the human derangements that must have prevailed in Belfast during The Troubles. It is not an easy read due to its long sentences and long paragraphs, but I would call the novel “wordy” rather than “deep”. The style of not using proper names for characters necessarily leads to long sentences as in her “almost one year so far maybe-boyfriend”. Our young woman narrator is certainly articulate but to capture exactly what she wants to describe sometimes requires a lot of words. Don’t read ‘Milkman’ if you are looking for laconic short sentences. For the most part I had no difficulty following her long trains of thought and even felt enriched by them, but a few times she lost me during a long, long sentence. There were also times where I would stop reading in the middle of a paragraph, something I normally don’t do, but when the paragraph is more than two pages long…

However Middle Sister gives us a convincing depiction of what life must have been like in Belfast during the time of The Troubles.  As far as capturing the paranoid neighborhood spirit of that terrible time in Belfast, The Troubles, ‘Milkman’ is a winner.

 

Grade : A-

 

What I Didn’t Like About the Movie ‘The Favourite’

 

The movie, ‘The Favourite’, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, has gotten near universal praise and is definitely up for Oscar consideration. Perhaps what has gotten the most praise for the movie is that it provided three actresses, Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz and Emily Stone, with substantial roles which is something rarely seen in movies.

However it seems to me that there is a big downside to this movie that has not been confronted yet. From an historical perspective the movie is not only false, but it is dishonest to women.

First lets deal with the real Queen Anne. She was born in 1665 to the man who would later become King James II of the Stuart line who reigned from 1685 until he was deposed in 1688. Anne would later become Queen in 1702 and would reign until 1714. Her husband Prince George of Denmark lived only to 1708. ‘The Favourite’ does not mention him at all so presumably the movie takes place after he died.

Queen Anne’s main adviser during her reign is Sarah Churchill. Churchill was a Tory and favored mostly moderate policies. However later in 1710 Queen Anne and Sarah had a falling out precipitated by Queen Anne’s friendship with her servant Abigail Masham. At that point, Abigail became the main adviser. In political outlook, Abigail was a Whig. After Queen Anne’s death, Sarah Churchill wrote an article disparaging the Queen, and that may have been used as the basis for ‘The Favourite’.

So what did ‘The Favourite’ get wrong? The movie takes this rare time in history when three women were making the ruling decisions for Great Britain, and turns it into a lesbian sex farce. Queen Anne was pregnant 17 times, so converting her into a lesbian must have been difficult. There is no historical record or even gossip that Queen Anne was a lesbian. But that isn’t the main fact the movie deliberately gets wrong. One of the major plot lines of the movie is that Abigail severely poisons Sarah in order to take over as Queen Anne’s advisor and lover. This poisoning is totally made up, and turns the whole reign of Queen Anne into a bad joke. So instead of these two royal advisors to the Queen representing two reasonable points of view, Whig and Tory, it all becomes a case of lesbian jealousy. This is not a case of inaccuracy; this is a deliberate lie.

To me this would be similar to making a movie about George Washington in which he is banging both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Then in a fit of gay jealousy, Jefferson severely poisons Adams.

The men in ‘The Favourite’ are represented as frivolous fools with their exceedingly long-haired wigs, but that doesn’t excuse the movie from its dishonest portrayal of Queen Anne and her advisors.

‘Home After Dark’ by David Small – A Ring of Feral Cruel Teen Boys

 

‘Home After Dark’, a graphic novel by David Small (2018) – 396 pages

´Home After Dark´ is a profoundly sad dramatic graphic novel about family breakdown and adolescent brutality.

I look back on my own childhood with pleasant nostalgia but then realize that I am overlooking the situations when some of the boys were needlessly cruel to others around them including myself. Worse, I forget my own cruelties. There is something about those early teen years that makes some boys especially cruel to those around them. These boys must feel tremendously insecure, and they take out their insecurities on those around them whom they see as being in a worse position than themselves.

‘Home After Dark’ takes place in the middle 1950s starting out in Youngstown, Ohio. Thirteen year-old Russell Pruitt’s mother has run off with her husband’s best friend. Russell’s father Mike decides to relocate to California taking Russell with him. First they head to Los Angeles, but there are no jobs available for Mike there so they head up to northern California to a small town called Marshfield where Mike gets a job teaching English to the inmates in San Quentin prison.

After that, we mainly see the father Mike laying on the couch with a bottle of hard liquor laying on the floor next to him. Thirteen year-old Russell must fend for himself.

Russell first befriends an outsider in his class named Warren. Later Warren offers Russell two dollars if they take their clothes off and hug each other. Russell goes through with it, but from then on avoids Warren.

Russell then takes up with a more wild couple of boys, Kurt and Willie, who spend most of the summer in a tree house and an abandoned arroyo.

Of all the characters in ‘Home After Dark’, only the Chinese couple Wen and Jian who run a restaurant are at all redemptive. They are the only ones who express any concern for Russell’s well-being.

There are very few words in ‘Home After Dark’, only the bare minimum of words to advance the story. What there is in this graphic novel is thousands of pictures. It must have been an incredible amount of work drawing all of these pictures. But I must say that this graphic novel did work for me in the sense that the grim atmosphere and drama were depicted successfully. However I kept wondering if the story could just as well have been conveyed more efficiently with just some well-chosen words in a short story.

 

Grade:    B+

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin – Young Lovers Who Are Kept Apart

 

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin (1974) – 197 pages

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” – James Baldwin

In ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ has created a precarious love story and family drama that has now been made into a movie by Barry Jenkins (he of Oscar Best Picture winner ‘Moonlight’) which will very soon be coming out in theaters. I have not seen the movie and will discuss only the novel by James Baldwin instead.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is the story of a young couple, Fonny aged 22 and Tish aged 19, living in Harlem in New York City in the 1970’s. It is told from the point of view of Tish. She visits Fonny in jail, framed for a rape he did not commit. Later we learn that Fonny was set up by a white racist policeman. Tish goes to the jail and visits him there every day.

“I was sitting on a bench in front of a board, and he was sitting on a bench in front of a board and we were facing each other through a wall of glass between us…I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

On one of her jail visits, Tish tells Fonny that she is pregnant.

I guess it can’t be too often that two people can laugh and make love, too, make love because they are laughing, laugh because they’re making love. The love and the laughter come from the same place: but not many people go there.” 

Their two families meet and discuss what to do about this predicament. Despite differences between the two families, they agree that they must get Fonny out of jail. Tish’s mother goes to Puerto Rico in an effort to locate the woman who accused Fonny of rape and talk her into dropping the charges.

Tish has the bright optimism of youth but must deal with a dire situation made more dire by prevailing casual white racist attitudes.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is a realistic intense black American love story and family drama of people trying to survive in an inherently unfair world. Baldwin captures the poignancy of both of these two young people and their families as they are caught in this unjust situation. As in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the world, in this case the white world, is conspiring to keep this loving young couple apart. As Stacia L Brown wrote in Gawker, Beale Street  “belongs to a collection of literature that seeks to humanize black men, through their relationships with parents, lovers, siblings, and children. It swan-dives from optimism to bleakness and rises from the ash of dashed hopes.”

Why Baldwin titled the book ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ remains a mystery, as there are no references to Beale Street in the novel.

Besides being a novelist, poet, essay writer, and civil rights activist, James Baldwin also came up with some great quotes. I will leave you with one more.

Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.” – James Baldwin

 

Grade:    A

My Top Ten Fiction Reads of 2018

I really have no strategy for making these top fiction lists beyond that I enjoyed each of these works of fiction immensely. However the lists are far from just pure entertainment lists as two of the qualities in writers I enjoy most are their insights into human nature and their subtle intelligence.

You can see my original reviews for each of these books by clicking either on the picture or the bold-faced title and author.

So here are my this year’s selections, starting with my favorite fiction of the year and proceeding in order from there.

 

‘The House of Broken Angels’ by Luis Alberto Urrea – This novel gets family life right in a humorous yet loving way. Old man Big Angel will have one last big Mexican-American birthday party before he dies with the whole extended family there.

 

‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ by A. J. Pearce – Here is a lively moving novel of the terrible Blitz in London in 1940. With all the death and destruction around them, living well is even more precious for young Emmy and her friend Bunty.

 

‘West’ by Carys DaviesPennsylvania settler and farmer John Cyrus Bellman heads out west in the United States in 1815 in search of giant dinosaurs which he figures must still be roaming around out there. Along the way he picks up an Indian scout named Looks Like A Woman From Afar. This is an entertaining story.

 

‘Modern Gods’ by Nick Laird – ‘Modern Gods’ is a rich Northern Ireland family story that tackles the thorny issue of religion both in their hometown of Ballyglass in Ulster and in the far reaches of New Guinea. Laird, a poet, really gets inside the heads of his characters to convey precisely what they are thinking and feeling.

 

‘Those Who Knew’ by Idra Novey´Those Who Knew’ is a modern political drama about the never-ending liberal struggle against homegrown fascism, racism, and oppression. Novey uses diverse means to convey her story.

 

‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor – Thirteen year old Rebecca Shaw disappears from a small northern English village. Jon McGregor views the people of this rural village with the same calm steady keenly observant attitude with which he observes the trees, the birds, the fish, and the other animals. His view appears to be that we humans are as much a part of nature as everything else.  After you read ‘Reservoir 13’ , you might also want to read the related work ‘The Reservoir Tapes’.  

 

‘Warlight’ by Michael OndaatjeOndaatje’s main achievement in ‘Warlight’ is capturing the ambiance and atmosphere of bombed-out England after the war and the mystery and excitement and color of these people waking up and resuming their peacetime lives.

 

‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer – Here is a gay guy novel even a non-gay guy can appreciate. That is because it is one of the most humorous novels I have read, and Greer’s type of humor is universal, a guy laughing at himself and those around him as they sometimes make utter fools of themselves with their outrageous behavior.

 

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata – This is a well-done enjoyable novella about someone who doesn’t usually get the credit she deserves, an upbeat efficient convenience store woman.

 

‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna – Now that England has banned fox hunting, there are many urban foxes in London where our main character has come to study them. The foxes are frequently found prowling the garbage for food. By capturing more than just what is happening on the surface, Aminatta Forna achieves a depth that is missing from many novels.

 

 

Happy Reading!

 

 

´Those Who Knew’ by Idra Novey – The Never-Ending Battle Between the Left and the Right

 

´Those Who Knew’ by Idra Novey    (2018) – 248 pages

 

´Those Who Knew’ is a modern political drama about the never-ending liberal struggle against homegrown fascism, racism, and oppression.  It takes place on an unnamed island in the South which had been ruled by a ruthless dictator named Cato who had been propped up by a powerful northern country (US?).  A progressive movement, in part led by radical college students, had been successful in ousting Cato several years ago. One of the college student leaders, Victor, is now a Senator and may soon run for President.   

Lena is one of Victor´s ex-girlfriends.  She hears that Victor´s current girlfriend Maria P. has been killed after being run over by a bus.  Lena recalls a time when Victor almost choked her to death in his uncontrolled anger, and now she suspects that Victor perpetrated the death of Maria P.

´Those Who Knew’ is a politically intense and realistic story.  One of its many pleasures is its cast of offbeat characters. There is the elderly radical Olga who is Lena´s best friend and who runs a used bookstore as well as a marijuana business on the side.  There is also Victor´s brother Freddy who is a gay playwright. Lena´s current boyfriend Oscar is from the North and likes to cook meals and desserts for his friends.

The author Idra Novey relies on diverse means of telling her story, and these changes in approach and tone kept this reader enthused.   The chapters are usually very short, and the story is told from the points of view of various characters. Also the narration takes several forms including entries from Olga´s makeshift log and short scenes from Freddy´s plays.  The variety of narrators and narrative forms keeps one interested in the proceedings.  

The progressives here are fighting against the slick well-organized corruption and oppression of the rich and powerful.  The progressives are a motley unruly crew of offbeat individuals, but isn’t that usually the case? Those who believe in personal freedom usually practice personal freedom in their own lives, while the fascists who wish to limit the lives of others usually live limited oppressive lives themselves.

One of the continuing problems for the Left is that some of their own trusted leaders can turn ruthless and authoritarian as they become enamored of their own power. 

The battle between liberalism versus fascism has become more intense as fascism has spread again over large parts of the world.   After World War II, most of the world realized that the next war could destroy life on Earth, so they took moderate steps to prevent that from happening.  However today world leaders seem to have forgotten the 60 million people who were killed in World War II, and now all Hell is breaking loose again.

´Those Who Knew’ takes place on an unnamed island, ¨this fascist-hearted country of ours¨, but this island represents our entire world.

 

Grade:   A+

 

 

%d bloggers like this: