Freedom comes in Time

April 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Freedom, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | Leave a comment
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Jonathan Franzen ‘Freedom’ Macmillan, August 2010

The American middle class has been deconstructed and it is fantastic. Believe what you hear about this book Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ is a truly great state-of-the-nation, deconstruction of our times,  polemic epic of a novel.

The story explores the public and private life of a middle class american family ‘the Berglunds’ and is electrified with Franzen’s own interest in socio cultural issues such as the post 9/11 economy, nature conservation and overpopulation. This gives the novel it’s serious literary value and the reason why I believe it is becoming so acclaimed.

When the novel opens the parents in this family saga aren’t doing well. She is drinking, he is working for a corrupt coal company and they have greatly drifted apart.  Each family member has ideas of reality, entitlement, love, morality and general life expectations that mostly are disappointed. A lot of novels look at these ideas too but Franzen couples them with global issues, hot american topics and ethical conflicts (at one stage father and son, Frank and Joey, become embroiled with a Haliburten like company in a very ill-advised financial pursuit) and these coupled ideas are the tools Franzen uses to dig at and explore middle america with. The socio-cultural aspects of this novel work to create a swinging pendulum of doom that moves in time with the family’s own demise gaining weight with every swing it is a fantastic literary technique reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’.

This family are written in 3D every dimension of them is soaked in detail and their humanity lend’s the story its page turning compulsion. Between them they are vain, self-pitying, passive aggressive, disloyal, unfaithful, uncommunicative, hungry for love, sexually promiscuous, mercenary, angry and vulnerable.  Franzen is a natural writer in showing how they are all these things only in their struggle to find meaning in a cheapened world and the reason that readers like them so much is because they are struggling. They know something is very wrong the world which they don’t accept and all of them are on the quest for transcendence in their own individual ways.

With this novel Franzen is the first author to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King did ten years ago. This is one of the most hyped novels in a long time. It is a fantastically well crafted story but so is Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ and so is Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’. It is unfortunate that this novel has become a little overshadowed by the hype and a precocious side to the success of this novel is now showing with the New York Times describing Franzen’s own comparisons of ‘Freedom’ to ‘War and Peace’ as ‘laughably conceited’.

An unbelievably well executed novel in good company with Ian McEwan, Don Delillo, Damon Galgut and Curtis Sittenfeld but I haven’t been carried away with the hype to value it as anything more than this.

Haiku; Will ‘Freedom’ now be the new book club selection for Oprah Winfrey?

Mr Chartwell is dark and deep….

January 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment
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Rebecca Hunt ‘Mr Chartwell’ Penguin Fig Tree, Oct 2010

‘…Churchill wasn’t alone in his bedroom; something else in the dark, a mute bulk in the corner, a massive thing, was watching him with tortured concentration….”you’ve been waiting for me,” said the heartless voice “I could hear you waiting”‘.

Debutant author Rebecca Hunt has imagined a novel as novels should be imagined on a huge emotional scale and conceived by an idea that truly inspired her.

It is a fictional account of Winston Churchill in 1964 who is on the cusp of retiring from his long political career as a Statesman and having lead Britain through the Second World War as Prime Minister. Churchill suffered all his life with depression which he famously referred to as his ‘black dog’.

In this novel Churchill’s depression becomes an anthropomorphic animal. Rebecca Hunt conceives of this black dog as a living breathing revolting creature who walks on its hind legs and talks with seductive passive aggressive cruelty humanized by the name Mr Chartwell. Mr Chartwell takes up residence with the novels other principal character Esther Hammerhans, a quiet Library Clerk whose life becomes intertwined with Churchill’s on the arrival of her new lodger.

This novel is utterly original and tenderly written. Never has such bleak subject matter been elevated to these tactile and poignant heights through writing style in my opinion. I have struggled to find another literary example where an author has conceptualized such a metaphorical state as well as Rebecca Hunt.

Interestingly Winston Churchill remains the only British Prime Minister who has received the Nobel Prize in Literature. For someone who took refuge in the arts from his depression I’m sure Winston Churchill would have approved of this work of fiction.

Haiku; A dark ugly thing, is often mezmerizing, let the black dog in.

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* Mr Chartwell was the longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2010



One story too many narrators

December 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | Leave a comment

Rose Tremain ‘Trespass’ Chatto & Windus, August 2010

Rose Tremain’s literature is a beacon of great writing and she herself is an ambassador of the literary world. A teacher of creative english who graduated from the Sorbonne she counts among her influences Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Golding and is enamoured with the modern magic realism style of writing. She has judged the Booker twice and was an Orange Prize winner for fiction in 2008.

She is predominantly an historical fiction writer and it is to her credit that all of her works are completely different in style, tone and mood. Her 2003 novel ‘The Colour’ which tells the story of two young newlyweds emigrating to New Zealand and getting swept up in the gold rush of the 1860’s, is one of the most moving and well executed novels I have ever read.

In ‘Trespass’ Tremain’s latest offering we encounter Aramon, a brute of a man and a rapidly descending alcoholic who lives among the hills of Cevennes in southern France, in the time of his life when he is desperate to sell his majestic but dilapidated home to a foreigner to use as a second home. His sister Audrun lives beside him in a small modern bungalow. In a neighbouring area two women live together, Kitty a watercolourist and Veronica a successful garden designer to whom Veronica’s brother Anthony Verey comes to visit from London. Anthony is a celebrated and rich Antiques dealer who decides to spend his retirement in the south of France to be near his sister, and begins a search for his perfect home with life-altering consequences.

Tremain explores the idea of trespass on many levels in this novel. The trespassing of the English tourist into the gentile way of life in southern France through the polemic rants of the local mayor, the intrusion of Anthony on his sisters way of life, the intrusion of Audrun’s little bungalow on Aramon’s life and the trespass that occurs when social boundaries are broken. These dichotomy’s in this book don’t work. Why? Although Tremain’s writing is compelling the sense of the story is lost as there are too many narrators and too many large ideas introduced throughout the novel that require more space to be developed. This disparity of many individual stories causes a lack of overall connection between the cast of characters and after the halfway mark the book’s chemistry fizzles out and it degenerates into a who-dunnit game.

The character of Kitty is the most intriguing and real of all the characters portrayed however she is a minor player in this story who becomes relegated with time and disinterest from many parties. Tremain attempts to say something original with this work but I feel it should have been either scaled back into a novella or scaled up into a roaring epic of a novel where the characters come to know themselves much better and have a more natural atonement by the novels end.

‘Trespass’ was longlisted for this years Booker Prize. It is a good read, it has villans and innocents and Tremain’s writing as always is evocative and laced with sensitivity for her characters and settings. The characters own human failings cleverly bring about their own personal demise but the story is too heavily plotted and full for the characters to survive it. They become victims of their  battered around by the plot and fail to interweave in meaningful ways.

Tremain beautifully depicts the Mistral that blows and carries a cathartic fire through the Cevannes at a point in the novel unfortunately it seems to have taken the heart of the book with it too.

Haiku; In France’s valleys, families wage quiet war, Rose Tremain observes.

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‘….lyrical beauty and ethical depth….’

November 2, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Middle Weight Fiction | Leave a comment

In 1995 Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”. I suddenly remembered this when thinking of ways of describing Anne Tyler’s fiction. Anne’s fiction similarly addresses everyday issues and occurences in the course of her characters lives. Far from being mundane her work addresses the mystic nature of these occurences and the complex and rich emotional situations that compliment them.

Anne is as unassuming as her prose which many reviews of her lately are claiming is responsible for her being lesser known than her contemporaries like John Updike. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer prize twice and has won it once in 1989 for her novel ‘Breathing Lessons’ but the media shy American author from Baltimore hasn’t done a book tour nor given a face to face interview since 1977.

Anne Tyler eighteenth novel ‘Noah’s Compass’ is receiving rave reviews. It is not fair of me to ask what is ‘Noah’s Compass’ about it is much more purposeful to ask what does it address. Other authors write books about the same things as Anne but Anne’s skills as an author explore these ideas in an ethical and deep way using minimal but deftly executed prose. The cover of this book I feel is inappropriate as it suggest a pretty light yarn which is not what she delivers.

‘Noah’s Compass’  addresses the problem of memory loss in older age through the story of Liam Pennywell a sixty year old man who has just lost his teaching post and through an unfortunate incident faces down the onset of memory loss. His life is an ordered and minimalist one. Widowed once and divorced once Liam lives a sparse and often detached life at stages. The distress of his sudden memory loss colours his relations with his family and his outlook on life. He is a man with very little to lose and very little he is able to achieve. Anne’s writing skills explore this intimately and you learn how appropriate the title of the book becomes when you encounter it’s use in the story.

A very fine piece of writing in a very fine body of work from an unsung hero of fiction.

Haiku; A light lit cover, in stark contrast with deftly, executed prose

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The prose road is the road less travelled

October 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Posted in Award winners, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | Leave a comment

Howard Jacobson ‘The Finkler Question’ Bloomsbury August 2010

Howard Jacobson’s ‘The Finkler Question’ has won this year’s Man Booker Prize.  However reading it didn’t change my decision to have firmly backed Damon Galgut’s ‘In a Strange Room’ for the prize although the two books are very different types of novels. What is likeable about ‘The Finkler Question’ is that it is a very dark comedy, something which is so rare in fiction and it is also a remarkable piece of prose writing whose plot allows Jacobson to explore many interesting ideas.

The book hinges itself on the dynamics of Sam Finkler’s friendships with two other men, Julian Tresolve a former BBC worker whose life and career appear to have suffered from his disgruntled world views and values and his inability to commit to people and long term projects and also with Libor Secivk an elderly Jewish widower. Finkler himself is a philosopher and television producer and philosophical musings are resonant in Jacobson’s writing style.

One evening Tresolve is attacked and his pride and values are disturbed when he realises 1. his attacker is a woman and 2. when he believes she slurred the words ‘you Jew’ when robbing him of his valuables. The novel then begins to meditate on ideas of anti Semitism and the Israeli – Palestine conflict with his friend Libor taking over the narrative for a large part of the book musing what it has been like for him to be Jewish in the21st Century.

I must be honest and say I found this book to be quite difficult. The prose road in fiction for me is definitely the one less travelled in my reading. The novel’s concepts are very interesting but heavily ideological, Jacobson’s writing voice is strong but heavily philosophical and these elements compounded together to make the novel more challenging than enjoyable.

Haiuk; Ideology, heavy literary prose, study the story.

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A wonderful thinly veiled disguise…….

September 23, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Middle Weight Fiction | Leave a comment
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Curtis Sittenfeld, ‘An American Wife’ Random House, August 2009.

This is the best page turner I have read in a very long time. At a whopping 558 pages  Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel ‘American Wife’ is a monster of a story but one that is so enthralling it will have you turning the page every few minutes.  ‘American Wife’ is the fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush and it seems to be a thinly veiled disguise at that. How this novel made it out of the legal deparment of Random House I have no idea…..

The narrative is carried along by some very important life markers in the leading lady’s youth which I will not spoil by revealing. They are used to perfection in the narrative dynamic as the book progresses over it’s almost 600 pages. A technique some modern literary authors could take note of. ..

‘Alice Blackwell’, the novels leading lady, grows up in a middle class family who are highly moral, well educated, family orientated and good people who are somewhat conservative in their take on life. Alice is the most likeable character full of grace and dignity in her conduct. She trains as a librarian, as we know Laua Bush did, and is liberal and open minded so much so she was a democrat somthinga lot of us did not know.

How does she come to marry her husband the most nortorious Republican of all time? Well this is a romantic love story above all and one that also respects the institution of marriage as something that requires commitment and work. An examination of a private and public life lived simultaneously ‘American Wife’ is a fantastic epic yarn.

Haiku; Behind Presidents, often stand quiet women, step foreward Laura Bush.

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The Good Author

September 1, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

Damon Galgut ‘In A Strange Room’ Atlantic Books April 2010

‘In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.’ The title of this novel and quotation are Damon Gal guts nod to William Faulkner. This is a greatly admirable story for its literary skill and for the story’s ability to drive your thoughts while you read it.

Its’ literary skills alone address the ideas of memory, fiction, travel and self identity. The novel is broken down into three parts called The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian which interestingly have been published as separate stories already in the Paris Review. The lead character is a young man travelling who experiences many profound encounters with fellow travellers on the road affecting him until he returns home a changed man. In The Follower he meets Reiner with whom he travels and hikes across Greece. In The Lover a relationship flourishes in Africa but is neither physically nor emotionally consummated and in The Guardian Damon travels through India with a mentally ill friend under very difficult circumstances.

This novel is brimming with intensity, ideas of home and travel and one man’s relationship with his own peace of mind and at times the consequences of reaching the limits of this peace. I can liken it to a very interesting person articulately expressing the effects other people are having on them, the constraints of lust and love in their life along with their values of home and travelling. It uses the first person slipping into the third person narrative naturally which separates this from a memoir into a work of fiction, exemplifying the idea that memory is no more than fiction.

I think Damon Galgut is a very interesting author, I think he expresses human encounters very acutely and I think he is distinguished because of his command of literary skill.  This is a compelling read and has earned a well deserved place on the short list for the Booker Prize. This novel can’t be put into a box but I would exalt it for Galgut’s writing style. It is an intense read that says so much so simply and it has inspired me to re-read Galgut’s earlier novel ‘The Good Doctor’ (Atlantic books June 2004) I highly recommend it.

Haiku; Memoir or fiction, how to tell the difference? through writing technique.

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Where isolation is beautiful and death delivers transparency…..

August 3, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

‘Chef’, Jaspreet Singh, Bloomsbury March 2010

The finest fiction takes base human conditions and emotions, chips and sculpts away to reveal what is fine in them. What does this mean? The finest authors, I believe, take the most common emotions known to us all such as guilt, love, hate, boredom, patience and commitment and elevate them by using a story to reveal how uncommon these experiences actually are to us and in the case of this novel how desolation can be movingly beautiful. Jaspreet Singh is a very special author who makes these common human emotions, we all experience in one form or another, into a shared experience through this story that is sharp like a razor.

Chef’ is a novel full of grace and powerful storytelling. A novel where isolation becomes beautiful in its description and in its place in the story both emotionally and geographically. A novel in which death delivers transparency on a life chastened by guilt and moulded by circumstances. How does Jaspreet Singh make this happen? Through sublime storytelling. This is the memory of a life that reveals itself to be a requiem for India and Pakistan.

Kirpal Singh is dying on a train. He is making his way back to a military camp in Kashmir where fourteen years previously he worked as a chef for the General there to cook a final wedding feast for the Generals daughter. He worked in an isolated part of Kashmir flanked by glaciers which are both violently beautiful and physically cruel and become a testament to Kirpal’s own life. He is making sense of his life as he travels on the slow train. He joined the Indian army out of an allegiance to his father who died in the line of duty. During his career Kirpal bears witness to sectarian hatred his life’s story in its own way painting the personalized history of Pakistan and India. He experiences love, learns the art of food and women and experiences relationships that occur outside normal social rhythms.

Duties as a military man are not always easy for Kirpal, carrying out orders he can’t agree with and working with people he doesn’t always understand culminates in Kirpal having to leave Kashmir in a shroud of mystery. Kirpal is a soldier but not of the army he a soldier in his own life.  Jasprett Singh’s writing has earned him several awards and nominations, notably ‘Chef’ was long listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2010. Singh has a PHD in chemical engineering and is a former research scientist living in the Canadian Rockies. With this novel Singh has announced himself as a major literary player. This is extraordinary writing.

Haiku; The border between, India and Pakistan, crossed with princely skill.

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Another string to the wonderful bow of Ian McEwan

May 29, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

Ian McEwan ‘Solar’ Jonathan Cape, May 2010

A Nobel Prize winning physicist is living on the legacy of his achievements long after they have been achieved. McEwan’s disagreeable protagonist of his latest novel ‘Solar’, Michael Beard, is a celebrated genius of his time. In his youth he invented the Beard-Einstein conflation delving deeper into the world of experimental physics than any scientist before him. He lives happily off the royalties of this work lending his name to institutions and commanding outrageous fees for speaking at conferences. The problem for Beard is that he is getting older, fatter, more disagreeable & philandering and is also finding it difficult not to drink daily. His fifth beautiful wife is about to leave him and for once she is the one having the affair not him. ‘Solar’ could be a typical well written literary novel that meets the high standards we have come to expect from Ian McEwan, but it’s greatest strength is the craft of its storytelling which is a thing of almost perfection.

Beards character is laid out in quite slow detail in the beginning of the story along with the ins and outs of his life. These details of his character are used after the halfway mark in the novel to build the subconscious rhythm and pace of the plot, which is, just as McEwan describes Michael Beards work in the field of physics, genius. For all his achievements Beard in not a moral man and his self centeredness come to be his downfall and the reader has been well informed of all his immoralities from the start.

McEwan elevates Beard at the start of the novel for his intelligence and for maybe being the type of philandering man that is secretly admired by other men. But the higher McEwan puts his leading character is the measure of how far his is going to fall. Beard becomes involved with a young scientist who passionately convinces him to use his body of work to help address the problem of climate change. The science of climate change I must admit also McEwan has also been researched immaculately.

How does the rhythm of the plot make this novel stand out from so many others?  It uses fraying friendships, geography and physical conditions to excel the inevitability of Beards downfall. Beard heads to New Mexico to deliver the most important speech of his career to convince high powered conglomerates to invest in solar energy. For all his awareness Beard unrealistically does not see that this is the penultimate moment in his life when all opposing forces in his personal and professional life collide horribly. Throughout his life Beard due to his hectic schedule has had little time for trusted partners, friends, loyal solicitors and women, to use the American expression, he has never been fully in the room with them. Phone calls go unanswered, emails unreturned, meetings cut short, commitments never made.

As the plot spreads out these trusted partners become, through their efforts to get in touch with Beard about important matters, like hunters of Beard. Chasing him over the phone across the Atlantic, sending emails and warnings. It is so clever towards the end of the novel how this climax of disaster is delivered. Trusted allies along with enemies get on trains, buses and planes and work the plot into a boiling pot of revelations. You feel the inevitability of Beards situation without Beard feeling it himself. Time and pressure are built up by characters travelling distances, phone calls increasing and threats and promises looming. Towards the end of the novel Beard has arrived in New Mexico to deliver the most important speech of his career. The physical temperature has greatly increased in the New Mexico sun, Beards health that has been deteriorating  and which he has been ignoring is burgeoning into frightening territory with wheezing, coughing, blueish marks appearing on his hands and profuse sweating become like many of the other aspects of his life a thing he can no longer ignore.

We have met scientists in Ian McEwan’s stories before, neurosurgery in  ‘Saturday’ and molecular biology in ‘Enduring Love’. We have also met typical alpha male and sexually driven characters in McEwen’s stories. This story bears those hallmarks. Beard’s personal life will stress you out but look at the craftwork of an experienced storyteller with empathetic insights into human failings. Enjoy the compact insight into solar energy and the problems of climate change and maybe agree with me that it is another string to the wonderful bow of Mr Ian McEwan.

Haiku; Will there ever be, a female protagonist, in McEwans books?

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We are duplicitous beings capable of magnificant levels of self delusion

May 7, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Short Stories | 1 Comment
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Maile Meloy ‘Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It’ Canongate, April 2010

We are duplicitous beings capable of magnificent levels of self delusion. Whoever thought this could be an affirming idea in fiction? Maile Meloy did…………………..

In Maile Meloy’s collection of short stories ‘Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It’ there is solid and deep storytelling. Many of the books reviewed on this site have that so how can this book be different? Because boy, is this a clever book. Its title ‘Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It’ is the common thread that underscores each story making the most different of characters have a universe in common.

No matter how morally out of control a situation, or event, in Maile’s stories gets, the basic premise they all share is that although the two ways a character wants a situation to go are  impossible, they all share the same strong desire to have it both ways.

An unfaithful husband on the inevitable cusp of being caught red-handed still convinces himself he can get away with his duplicity if he just behaves obsessively like normal. Two warring brothers forced on a family holiday by their wives ends invariably in disaster but with each of the brothers wishing to repeat the holiday again the next year in the deluded belief it will be different!

Delusion, duplicity and grandiose self deception confirm happily in these stories that we are human and it is ok to want the irrational…especially as the rational side of ourselves knows it is never going to happen! It is fascinating reading! The stories are full of such normal people, people out of work, people on holidays, children, hitchhikers, teenagers and pets. The normality makes the characters and their desires very easily conceivable.

It is the human truth and desire that Maile carves out that is so clever and frightening. No matter how unreasonable your expectations or deluded beliefs, it is explainable by the condition we all suffer of being human. The collection is well balanced, with poignant, tender and melancholy stories and some very funny ones too. In the stories power changes hands like a game of tennis and you also won’t judge any of the characters for their very poor decisions because if you do you will be judging yourself.

For a few days after finishing the book I was left with the image from one story of a child who wanted a puppy so badly, but was allergic to dogs. She brought one home covering her face and throat with a bandana and with socks on her hands to prevent a violent allergic reaction happily thinking she could live the rest of her life like this! Maile’s affirmation that we are capable of capable of the most grandiose of self delusion is one of the strongest affirmations of what it is to be human and feel alive…….want the irrational….believe with all your might it can happen….while all the time knowing it never will!

Haiku; Short stories distill, the absurdity of life, novels dance around.

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