MonthJanuary 2011

January wrap-up

It’s the end of January, and time to look back on the first month’s blogging of 2011. This is what was on my blog:

Book of the Month

Sometimes a book takes you by surprise, and that’s what happened this month. The best book I read in January was one about which I knew nothing and read purely on impulse: Linda Grant’s novel of the baby boomers, We Had It So Good.


This month, I published full-length reviews of:

I also blogged shorter write-ups of William Coles’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Simon Lelic’s The Facility, and Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost

…and began an ongoing project to blog Volume I of The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories.


David Vann, Caribou Island (2011)

It’s always great to have a book come out of nowhere and surprise you: when I read David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide in 2009, I knew nothing about it or its author (probably wouldn’t have read it at all had I not won a copy in a competition) – and was in no way prepared for it to blow me away as it did. Of course, the flipside of this is that the same level of surprise isn’t possible when it comes to reading something else by the same author, and that will almost inevitably have an effect on how one reacts to that new work. So, when I say that Caribou Island – Vann’s latest book, and his first novel – didn’t have quite the same impact as Legend of a Suicide… well, perhaps it was never very likely to. That doesn’t, however, stop it from being a powerful piece of work in its own right.

Caribou Island is a portrait of two relationships under strain. Gary and Irene are about to move from the Alaskan mainland to Caribou Island, to fulfil Gary’s dream of building a cabin the old-fashioned way; Irene, by the way, wants nothing of this, but hasn’t had much say in the matter. Meanwhile, the couple’s daughter Rhoda is hoping to get married to her boyfriend, Jim – though Jim has rather taken a shine to Monique, a visiting friend of Rhoda’s brother. And Monique has apparently taken a shine to Jim, despite being in a relationship of her own.

Vann’s hallmarks from Legend of a Suicide are present here: a strong sense of place, coupled with a strong sense of physicality, the work it takes to live in such landscapes; and a skilful control of mood. Right there in the first paragraph is an example of how Vann can pull the reader up short, as Irene casualy tells Rhoda how, at the age of ten, she came home one day to find her mother’s hanging body – no lead-up, no drama, just matter-of-fact; it sets a tone for the novel of tragedy never being far from the surface.

The landscape of Alaska is also used to great effect in Caribou Island, as it reflects the differing concerns of the characters. For example, Gary, who was once studying for a doctorate in Scandinavian literature, seeks from Alaska a land, or a life, redolent of those earlier times he studied. In contrast, for Monique’s boyfriend Carl, Alaska is simply a place from which to escape, as it has done nothing but destroy his relationship. And when Jim goes on a helicopter tour of the area with Monique, he sees the familiar land anew, which echoes his restlessness.

The external world reflects the internal in other ways, too, the most prominent being Gary’s cabin, which he sees as being ‘the extension of a man, a form of his own mind’ – hence, it symbolises his relationship with Irene, and Gary is equally ill-equipped for both. I’m inclined to agree with William Rycroft that the symbolism is made that bit too obvious, and that having Irene think explicitly about how building the cabin could be a metaphor for her life is overdoing it; but the entire novel remains a highly elegant construction.

There are some nicely effective contrasts in Caribou Island, such as the irony of Irene’s embracing of the wilderness towards the end, just as Gary is realising some of the drawbacks of his desire for it; and the differing trajectories of Irene’s and Rhoda’s respective relationships. What also strikes me, though, is that many of the fundamental reasons for characters’ dissatisfactions remain hidden; for all that’s revealed, I think a lot is also left unsaid. The most content character in the book seems to be Rhoda’s brother Mark; he is also one of the most distant from the reader, suggesting how elusive true happiness is within the pages of Caribou Island. It’s a bleak book, yes, but also a beautiful one.

Further links
David Vann’s website
Guardian interview with Vann
Caribou Island blogged elsewhere: Just William’s Luck; Savidge Reads; Dovegreyreader; All the Books I Can Read.

A joke for Saturday

I say, I say, I say: what’s the difference between the bookish internet and the music internet? The bookish internet frowns upon negative opinions; the music internet frowns upon positive ones.

A squad of debuts: the Waterstone’s 11

This week, Jackie from Farm Lane Books has blogged about why she loves debut authors, and now her thoughts on the Waterstone’s 11. This is not a football team, but their selection of eleven debut novels, all to be published in the UK during 2011. A sample chapter of each book is on offer available at the Waterstone’s 11 website; Jackie has read all those and posted her reaction.

Well, I also like debut novels, so I thought I’d do the same as Jackie and see how our opinions compare. Many of the selected books were already on my radar, so naturally I am interested to find out what they’re like; and I’m intrigued by the ones that are completely new to me.

So, following the same order as Jackie, here we go:

David Bezmosgis, The Free World

1978: a family of Jewish refugees are travelling from Latvia to a new life in Chicago; this opening section follows them from Vienna to Rome. I liked the prose at the beginning, but found the extract as a whole difficult to grasp — partly, I think, because I’m unfamiliar with the subject matter. I gain the impression of a talented writer and a significant book; but, like Jackie, I’ll be waiting to see what others think before I decide whether to read on.

Anticipation rating: ***½

Sophie Hardach, The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages

A Kurdish refugee enters Germany, and, years later, a German registrar (now working in Paris) who once knew him questions of the legitimacy of a forthcoming wedding. I love the writing in this extract — the opening scene is especially vivid — so this novel is definitely going on my list of books to investigate.

Anticipation rating: ****

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

Mainstream-published books that could be read as speculative fiction will always pique my interest, and this near-future tale of crime bosses in an Irish city is no exception. Jackie didn’t much care for this extract; like her, I found the dialect quite heavy going, but I am intrigued and suspect I will return to the book.

Anticipation rating: ***½

Amanda Hodgkinson, 22 Britannia Road

A woman travels with her son from Poland to England, where she will be reunited after six long years with her husband, who had been serving in the Polish Corps and now has a house for the family in Ipswich — but the years apart have changed them. I’m ambivalent about this book — I think it’s well written, but at the same time, it doesn’t grab me. I’ll put it down as a ‘maybe’.

Anticipation rating: ***½

Shehan Karunatilaka, Chinaman

A dying sports journalist resolves to find a cricketer whom disappeared years ago — a cricketer he considers great, but who is otherwise largely unknown. Jackie doesn’t like cricket, and couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm for this extract. Fair enough. I don’t like cricket, either, but I thought this was great; the prose is vigorous and quirky, and I want to read more — I have a real sense that I could fall in love with this book.

Anticipation rating: *****

Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English

Narrated by a Ghanaian boy now living on a London estate, this was Jackie’s favourite extract of the eleven. Myself, I think Kelman creates the boy’s voice very well, and I can already see some interesting contrasts being established –yet I don’t have the instinctual feeling that the book is for me. I’ll be seeking out other opinions, I think.

Anticipation rating: ****

Sam Leith, The Coincidence Engine

The most clearly speculative title in the selection, with its “Directorate of the Extremely Improbable” and a hurricane that spontaneously builds an aeroplane from junk, this most certainly goes on my list. It could go either way — depending, I suspect, on how tongue-in-cheek it tries to be — but there’s enough interesting strangeness in this opening extract to make me want to find out.

Anticipation rating: ****½

Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife

In 1941, German bombers ruin a city in the Balkans, and a tiger escapes from the zoo, eventually making his way to the village where the narrator’s grandfather (then a boy) lives. For that boy, it is an occurence as wondrous as if Shere Khan himself had come to life. The synopsis of the book (which points to intriguing developments beyond the scope of this opening extract) alone would persuade me to read on; now I’ve read the sample, the prose does likewise. Put both factors together, and…

Anticipation rating: ****½

Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists

At the start of this extract, the narrator moves her ailing father to another town, to live with the father of his friend who died when the two were serving in Vietnam. I have less of a sense from reading the sample of what the novel as a whole might be like than I’ve had with any of the previous titles on the list; though I’m broadly in agreement with Jackie — the writing is nicely descriptive, but I’m not really inspired to read further.

Anticipation rating: ***

Mirza Waheed, The Collaborator

Kashmir, 1993: a teenage boy is made to collaborate with the Indian army; in the opening extract, he is sent to collect weapons and ID cards from the fallen bodies. There’s an effective contrast drawn between the boy’s valley before and after the army arrived, and the prose has considerable momentum. I don’t think it’s a book for my must-read list, but I can imagine returning to it in time.

Anticipation rating: ***½

Sarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit

It’s quite difficult to give a flavour of this extract without going into too much or too little detail; to say it focuses on a girl growing up in the 1970s is too bald a description, but so much happens and is hinted at that it’s hard to summarise. But that doesn’t matter, because the prose is brilliant. Jackie wonders if the novel will be too busy for its own good, and that’s a possibility; but I’m optimistic, and I know I’ll be reading this book on its publication.

Anticipation rating: *****


So, out of eleven books, there are four I will definitely be reading (Chinaman, When God Was a Rabbit, The Coincidence Engine, and The Tiger’s Wife); several more I may read at some point; and, though not all the extracts are to my taste (nor would I expect them to be), there’s nothing that makes me go, ‘what were they thinking?’ I think this is a list which genuinely has something for everyone. Good work.

Naomi Mitchison, ‘The Hostages’ (1930)

The tale of three children held hostage by Romans, this was my first taste of Mitchison’s work, and I’ll be reading more. The plot of this story struck me as overly thin, but I liked the flow of the prose very much; so, though this piece wasn’t really for me, I am keen to see out others by the author.

Rating: ***½

Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Vol. 3 (2010)

The Bristol Short Story Prize is awarded annually to stories of up to 3,000 words, with the twenty shortlisted pieces being published in an anthology. On the table today is the anthology resulting from last year’s Prize, and a nicely wide-ranging selection it is, too.

The three stories on the winners’ podium are printed first in the anthology, so that seems a good place to start. The story awarded first prize by the judges is the shortest of all, just a few hundred words, yet it’s plain to see why the judges thought so highly of it. ‘Mum’s the Word’ by Valerie O’Riordan is about a girl being abused by her father; its detail is so chillingly precise (‘Three times with his grunting and the calloused hand over my mouth…’) that the story has a much greater impact than its length might suggest. A worthy winner.

Ian Madden was the second-placed author, for ‘Only the Sure of Foot’, a tale of grudges and secrets on a Scottish island. Madden evokes the harshness of his setting well, and how that has shaped his characters; I particularly like the ending, which effectively uses the landscape as a metaphor for the unspoken territory between two of its characters. Third prize went to a debut story, ‘Gardening’ by Rachel Howard, in which an old woman named Elena moves into the garden of Alice, who has become too afraid to leave her home. I like the matter-of-fact tone of this piece, the way that the rather odd situation becomes something important for both women – and the story ends in just the right place.

Though I’ve described the situation in ‘Gardening’ as rather odd, there’s a whole different level of oddness in Ben Walker’s ‘Bitter Gourd Fruit’, where a man from our present day wakes to find himself a severed head (with faculties and speech intact) on board a ship, apparently some time in the past. Walker tells his story with a straight face, and the occasional nod which acknowledges the absurdity of its premise (with the protagonist’s help, the ship’s crew end up rehearsing an adaptation of Highlander). It’s a tone that works well at keeping the story sufficiently grounded, all the way to the nicely-judged ending.

Mike Bonsall’s ‘Man Friday and the Sockball Championships’ is another story that takes a fantastical situation and works by focusing on the reality of that situation rather than on explaining it. Bonsall’s protagonist is imprisoned in one of a series of cubes in a vast cavern; he doesn’t hunger, and heals completely if injured – but he can go nowhere, and doesn’t know where he is or how he got there. Bonsall explores well the emotional state of his protagonist, and the varying stages of bewilderment, claustrophobia, resignation, and trying to cope. Natasha Tripney’s story, ‘An Experiment’, likewise features a protagonist trapped by forces beyond their control, though in a very different setting. Cecily is a (presumably poor) girl who has been taken into a wealthy household to receive the kind of education (in Latin, piano, arithmetic, and so on) that would otherwise have been denied her; here, Cecily’s benefactors assess her progress. This is a tale where the connotations of the title carry considerable weight: Cecily’s humanity has been eroded, because she is viewed in the story as an experimental subject, Tripney never allows her readers to lose sight of that, and it gives the story an effective note of unease.

Several stories in the anthology carry a sting in their tail. ‘A Sense of Humour’ by Rik Gammack – about a man who had himself cloned as insurance against dying, and hatches a plan to take advantage of the situation – is essentially a shaggy-dog story, but amply serves its purpose as a light, entertaining read. ‘Born Not Made’ by Rachel Sargeant works well enough without the twist at its end, as it transplants the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri to present-day Britain with the tale of Mozza, a young trouble-maker with an uncool interest in (and talent for) music – an interesting juxtaposition of subtext and surface tale. Darci Bysouth’s ‘Marrakech’ is a very effective piece in which a mother reminisces to her daughter about the time she lived in Marrakech. The city becomes a symbol of lost dreams; the contrast between the mother and her more practical-minded is brought out well; and the final shift of perception adds yet another layer to the story.

There are also pieces that transport us very well into the distinctive minds of their protagonists. For example, in ‘Ten Plastic Roses’ by Yana Stajno, the protagonist, Melanie, obsesses over the fake flowers she has thrown out. They were the last gift given to her by her ex-husband Richard, and now that final symbol of him is gone – except that the council’s waste collectors won’t take the roses away. Stajno controls the flow of the story well: Melanie’s attitude changes unexpectedly, and there’s a hint that her history with Richard may not be all that she claims. The narrative voice of Clare Wallace’s ‘But Then Again, Maybe It Is’ is superbly realised; Wallace’s narrator – a man out looking for the girlfriend who has left him – is consciously unreliable, revising his testimony as he goes, such that there are few secure footholds in the story. And Sherri Turner’s ‘Being Mother’ is an unsettling piece whose narrator takes her children out for an old-style tea-party (insisting they wear traditional clothes); layer on layer of perception and reality is peeled back as the story goes on, to great effect.

So, that’s a tour of some of the highlights of the third Bristol Prize anthology. There is some good stuff here, and the book is well worth seeking out.

A.J. Kirby reviews the anthology for The Short Review

Books On The BBC

Today, the BBC announced a year of book-related programming, and has a rather extensive website detailing what’s going to be included. Naturally, I’m very pleased to see this, as we really don’t get enough book-related television in this country; and there are some interesting programmes lined up, from Sebastian Faulks on the characters in British fiction to a series on books as artefacts. I’m sure I will find plenty to watch.

And yet… I have a nagging sense that “Books On The BBC” may not be all that it could be. On the basis of the website, it seems to me that there could have been more diversity in terms of the presenters and books covered in the documentaries, and the works chosen for dramatic adaptation.

It also feels that too much of the discussion about new books is being tucked away on the radio, or in late-night television strands like The Review Show, which won’t give it such a high profile. I’m pleased to see there’ll be a Culture Show special on “Britain’s Best New Novelists”, but the most prominent new programme in the schedules is likely to be My Life in Books, essentially a bookish version of Desert Island Discs (hosted by Anne Robinson, who was quoted yesterday as saying that contemporary fiction was not her reading material of choice), a format which will inevitably focus on older books.

Those are my initial reservations, then, though of course I recognise that I’m talking about a season of programmes that hasn’t even begun. I do look forward to that season, and I hope it heralds a prominent place for book-related programming in this country.

Linda Grant, We Had It So Good (2011)

Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good is the first title selected for the Virago Book Club; it is fair to say that this novel would not be on my radar otherwise, but I am very glad to have read it. We Had It So Good follows three generations of the same family during the second half of the last century and the first years of the current one; the focus is particularly on the baby boomers of the family, but there are themes and patterns that run across the experiences of the different generations.

Stephen Newman is an American who comes to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship in the 1960s, but is expelled on the discovery of his drug-manufacturing activities. Not wishing to be drafted to Vietnam, the only way that Stephen can avoid having to return to the US is to marry Andrea, the English girl he met and fell in love with at Oxford. Though this is rather a marriage of convenience, it lasts; the couple move to London, at first living in an ‘urban commune,’ as their friend Ivan puts it (‘Don’t think of it as a squat,’ p. 58), but eventually making successful careers, he as a maker of science programmes for the BBC, she as a psychotherapist. They have children, Max and Marianne, whose lives come to have their own ups and downs – then Stephen finds himself in his fifties, wondering what happened to the kid he still feels he is.

Stephen is the fulcrum of Grant’s novel, though the actual structure is episodic, moving between viewpoint characters without a fixed pattern (there are a couple of confusing points where viewpoint shifts within a scene, but this is a minor issue). The effect is a series of moments building up into a whole – and, happily, We Had It So Good works well at both those levels.

Grant captures some very interesting and effective moments on the page. Sometimes, this is a result of her description; here, for example, is the young Stephen reflecting on his differing perceptions of the US and UK :

Stephen felt that he had come from a country so brand new that if you peeled off the layers of the present you would only find more present. Here, the continuous uncovering of the past, history’s insistence of not getting out of the way, was depressing. It reminded you that soon you would be bones under the ground. One day you might be a fossil unearthed and on display in the Pitt Rivers museum. (p. 13)

At other times, there are striking contrasts within scenes. One example is when Grace (one of Andrea’s and Stephen’s friends from Oxford who embraced fully their friendship group’s 1960s ideals, and has spent her life travelling abroad) visits for Christmas. Young Marianne has built up a mental image of Grace as an exotic, almost fantastical figure, with wonderful stories to tell; it’s quite a shock to her (and us) to then meet Grace and find instead a weathered woman who insults Marianne as soon as looking at her.

Shortly after this, there’s another particularly strong scene where Max performs a magic show for the assembled friends and family, and his parents’ differing reactions really illuminate their characters: he’s absorbed in trying to work out how the tricks are done, whilst she asks herself if Max’s desire to perform means she didn’t give him enough attention when he was younger. I find these and other observations of Grant’s very acute.

At the broader structural level, We had It So Good highlights the turn of the generational wheel, and how life never quite turns out the way one expects. When Stephen looks back on his life and wonders how he got from there to here, from his youthful dreams to a middle-age which is comfortable, but still middle age, we might wonder the same – though each of his and Andrea’s decisions though life make sense at the time, we have experienced them as episodes, and so have the same sense (though for a different reason) of not understanding the complete journey.

In addition to this, the tales of the younger Andrea’s and Stephen’s exploits seem unreal to their children, who can’t reconcile what they hear with the image they have of their parents. Yet the same goes for Stephen’s parents, aspects of whose earlier lives are as unreal to him; and there is a sense that Marianne and Max are living stories that will in turn seem extraordinary to their children. So it goes on. We Had It So Good is fine both as a series of snapshots, and a larger portrait of life. And, in Linda Grant, I have another author whose work I should investigate further.

Further links
Linda Grant’s website
Grant’s video introduction to the novel
Sam Jordison interviews Grant
For Books’ Sake review of We Had It So Good

Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Dragon’s Head’ (1928)

My first encounter with the tales of Lord Peter Wimsey, here investigating with his nephew why a Mr Wilberforce Pope is so interested in an old book they found in a shop. This is a jolly old Golden Age detective story that passes the time entertainingly, but I found it no more than that.

Rating: ***

Richard Hughes, ‘A Night at a Cottage’ (1926)

A three-page piece about an escaped prisoner who, on a rainy night, takes refuge in an abandoned cottage, where he meets a mysterious stranger. I don’t think this story has withstood the passing of time very well: its ideas are over-familiar now, and the telling isn’t interesting enough to compensate.

Rating: **½

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