Review 1779: Sudden Traveler

I enjoyed Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, so I was looking forward to reading her Sudden Traveler for my James Tait Black project. I sometimes have an uneasy relationship with short stories, though.

This thin book is a collection of seven stories. Some of them are slices of life, but others are more fantastic.

In “M,” a woman who was raped as a child transforms into a powerful creature that disposes of men who prey on the helpless.

In “The Woman the Book Read,” a man spots a woman he knew as a little girl on the beach in Turkey. He remembers how much he cared for her when he was engaged to her mother.

In “The Grotesques,” Dilly witnesses the humiliation of a local drunk.

“Who Pays” is quite mystical. Set in the Middle East, it is about village women who figure out a way to circumvent another war.

In “Orton,” a woman decides to disable her pacemaker in the town of her childhood.

“Sudden Traveler” is about a young mother burying her own mother.

I found some of the stories perplexing and “Live That You May Live” is one of them. It’s about a mother telling a terrifying story to her little girl.

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Review 1776: Strangers

Anita Brookner is a writer I’ve sometimes considered reading but never have until now. I read Strangers for my James Tait Black project.

Paul Sturgis is a 72-year-old bachelor who leads a routine life. He has always wanted a family, but after his last girlfriend, Sarah, left him, he resigned himself to bachelorhood. Since his retirement, he has felt lonely and purposeless. He routinely visits an elderly cousin, but he always feels that he bores her. She asks him no questions and constantly talks about her social engagements.

He takes a trip to Venice and meets Vicky Gardner, a woman some years younger than he. In London they meet again and develop a sort of acquaintance that is characterized again by her talking about herself and asking favors but not asking about him. She is a free spirit of no fixed abode who asks him to take charge of some luggage.

He also meets his old girlfriend Sarah again. She is now a widow, and although she is 10 years younger than he, she has changed from an active, decisive woman to an old lady who is always thinking of her health. She also never asks him any questions.

Most of this novel is concerned with Paul’s ruminations about his situation and the past and his yearning for real company and a different kind of life. Although it is well written, it seemed slow moving and repetitive. The cover reviews refer to its wry humor, but I guess I missed it, because it just seems sad. Paul is eventually galvanized into action, but it takes a long time, and I’m not convinced that the new life he chooses will be much different from the old one.

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Review 1714: Girl

Maryam is a young girl attending a girl’s school in Nigeria when Boko Haram attacks the school and drags off the girls. At the Jihadist camp, the girls are gang-raped and otherwise brutalized while they are forced to work as slaves. Eventually, Maryam is forcibly married to a young jihadist.

But that’s only the beginning of this deeply involving novel, for after a harrowing escape and a restoration to her family, Maryam finds herself treated almost as badly at home.

This novel is a break away from O’Brien’s usual Irish novels although not from her fluid prose. It is short—I read it in a few hours—and riveting. I read it for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1708: Leaving the Atocha Station

Adam Gordon is an American pursuing a project in Madrid in 2004. He only hints at the project’s purpose, but he spends most of his time taking drugs, visiting museums, and doing what he calls “translating,” in which he takes lines from other people’s works, substitutes words, and moves things around. He is supposed to be a poet on a grant to write a long poem about how the Spanish Civil War has affected poetry, but he is not doing any research and knows very little about Spanish poetry.

In fact, Adam lies almost all the time. He doesn’t consider himself a poet but a fraud. He is self-loathing and is constantly manipulating his face or thinking up things to say to seem deep. He talks about not feeling anything or experiencing the experience of the event rather than the event itself.

This novel, which seems more like a disguised memoir, is funny at times. It asks a lot of its audience intellectually, and at times I got lost in its logical circumlocutions. The narrator is not very likable, but he grows on you, and he undergoes a sudden transformation at the end.

Would I recommend this book? Only to certain people. I would like to say, though, that its cover design, which starts with snippets from The Garden of Earthly Delights on the right and then smears the colors of each snippet into a shape of a train, is fabulous.

This is a book I read for my James Tait Black Prize project.

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If I Gave the Award

Having just posted my review of the last book on the shortlist for the 2016 James Tait Black fiction prize, I am now posting my feature wherein I examine whether I think the judges got it right. In this case, of the four nominees, I liked two and disliked two.

I’ll start with the winner of that year’s prize, You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits. I felt that it handled its themes of racism and gentrification poorly and employed constructs of magazine writing that don’t really work in fiction. It also seemed bogged down by lots of ineffective and inconclusive conversations between characters and by an ineffectual main character.

The other book I didn’t really enjoy that much was Beatlebone by Kevin Barry, a fantasy about John Lennon visiting Western Ireland. Not much happens in this book, and what does happen, I didn’t find interesting. Although the novel is very well written, I thought it seemed like fanboy fiction.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July tickled my funny bone, with its plethora of eccentric characters. I found this novel bizarre but touching.

I would have given the prize to The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. It’s about the isolation of an emotionally detached woman and events that allow her to open the door to the people in her life. I found it thoughtful and vital.

Review 1654: The Panopticon

Best of Ten!
Anais Hendricks, 15, arrives at the Panopticon, an old prison designed so that someone can see the inmates at all times, which is now being used as a home for juveniles. The police believe she beat an officer and put her in a coma, but she was so high that she can’t remember what she was doing.

Anais has been in the system since birth, and the system has failed her on every front. Although at first she seems to be hard and criminal, she is a feisty girl, and most of her offenses have been a defense of someone else or an act of protest against an injustice. Her trouble with the law began when Theresa, her adoptive mother, was murdered. Anais now believes she is part of an experiment that wants her to fail.

At the Panopticon, Anais makes some friends and gets a better social worker in Angus, but she still ends up in trouble. Soon, the police tell her that one more offense will result in her being transferred to detention.

In Anais, Fagan has created an unforgettable character. The novel is full of bad language, but it is fluent and lively, and makes a riveting story. I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1624: The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man reminds me of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine except on steroids, because while Eleanor is one eccentric character, all of the characters in The First Bad Man are eccentric. I read this novel for my James Tait Black project.

Cheryl Glickman is a bit out of touch with normal human behavior. She is a manager at Open Palm, a martial arts/exercise company, but she has been directed to work from home and is only allowed to come to work one day a week. She has long been in love with Phillip Bettelheim, a much older man who is on the company’s board, and she consults a chromotherapist to treat her Globus hystericus simply because Phillip recommended him and so she can report back to him about it.

When she gets up enough nerve to show some interest in him (she tells him “When in doubt, give a shout”), he responds by asking her whether she thinks it is okay for an older man to be interested in a much younger woman. Of course, Cheryl takes this question as an interest in herself, when he is really in love with a 16-year-old schoolgirl. He continues to update her on the progress of the relationship, using explicit language.

As if this weren’t enough, the owners of the business, who routinely help themselves to supplies and the employees’ food when they come in, force her to let their daughter Clee stay with her until she gets a job. Clee is surly and unresponsive and then physically abusive when Cheryl tries to set her eccentric limits.

Cheryl herself is positive and upbeat most of the time, although she has arranged her house so that it doesn’t get dirty during occasional depressions simply by having almost no possessions. But Cheryl finds a way to respond to Clee that is unusual but ends up lightening the atmosphere.

Cheryl has some surprises for herself in this bizarre but touching novel. I liked it very much.

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Review 1620: Beatlebone

Judging by the description, Beatlebone is a novel I never would have picked up if not for my James Tait Black project. Often, these projects I’m pursuing have led me to discover wonderful books that I never would have thought to read, but this is not always the case.

Further, I think that reviewers sometimes get jaded, which causes them to give a book rave reviews just because it is different. Certainly, the newspaper and magazine reviewers raved about this one.

The premise is that John Lennon, in 1978, decides, in an attempt to renew himself, to visit an island he bought off the west coast of Ireland. He doesn’t want to be followed by the paparazzi, however, and he can’t remember exactly where his island is. He ends up being taken around by a man named Cornelius O’Grady, who hides him at his farm, takes him to pubs, and so on. During this time, Lennon has what are described on the jacket as surreal experiences.

The novel was lauded for its writing, and the writing is good, but it is full of Joycean monologues that sometimes go on for pages. One Goodreads reviewer mentioned that a novel needs more than good writing, and I’m with him there. I’m not one to say about a novel that nothing much happens in it if something else keeps my attention, but nothing much happens here, and what does happen, I didn’t have much interest in.

Several newspaper reviews mention Barry’s daring act of inserting himself into the novel. This act consists of inserting about 20 pages into the back end of the novel that would normally go in an Afterword. I found this section simply interrupted what little forward movement there was, as did a five-page rant at the end. The whole thing struck me as well-written fanboy fantasy.

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Review 1577: There but for the

I have enjoyed most of what I have read by Ali Smith, but at first the premise of There but for the seemed a little too absurdist for me. The novel is really four separate stories that are related to the event in the first story and share characters.

In “There,” Anna is summoned by Gen Lee to Gen’s house, because Gen found Anna’s contact information in Miles’s jacket pocket. At a dinner party at Gen’s, Miles, whom Gen does not know, locked himself in a guest room and refuses to come out. At first, Anna barely remembers Miles from a trip to Europe when she was 18, 30 years before, but then she remembers his act of kindness.

In “But,” Mark Palmer, who took Miles to the Lee’s dinner party, recounts his initial meeting with Miles, notable for Miles’s kindness, and invites him to Lee’s party. Some of the conversation of the party is marked by astounding stupidity, rudeness, and bigotry by some of the guests, so much so that I found it hard to believe, especially as a mixed-race child was there.

In “For,” a dying old lady is determined not to be sent to a depressing nursing home she visited long ago. After the death of her youngest daughter, she has been visited every year by one of her daughter’s friends, even though she doesn’t like him. This year he doesn’t come, because he is Miles, locked up in the Lee’s spare room, outside of which has formed a circus-like gathering of observers. But Miles has sent a substitute.

In “The,” Brooke, a precocious nine-year-old who also attended the party, recounts her ideas and memories, particularly a meeting with Miles.

Almost despite myself, I got caught up in this novel even when impeded by its verbal gymnastics, which were sometimes amusing but often annoying. I had a great deal of trouble, though, with the semi-stream-of-consciousness approach to the last section. At first, it was fun, but eventually I got tired of it and felt it could use some editing.

I read this book for my James Tait Black project and found it inventive but a bit overwhelming. Too many ideas are thrown out to us, in the end.

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Review 1511: Nocturnes

Nocturnes is a collection of five loosely linked short stories all on the themes of music and night. A few of them are linked a little more closely by repeating characters. All but one feature struggling musicians.

In “Crooner,” the unnamed narrator is an Eastern European guitarist eking out a living in Venice when he meets Tony Gardner, a once-famous singer his mother listened to. When Tony invites him to help serenade his wife, Lindy, he learns that Tony is so eager to make a comeback that he is willing to give up something he loves.

In “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Ray, a middle-aged English language instructor, is invited to stay with his old school friends, Charlie and Emily. Once there, though, he finds he’s been invited to be a negative contrast to Charlie, showing how much more successful Charlie is. He finds common ground with Emily only in their shared taste in music.

In “Malvern Hills,” a would-be singer-songwriter is staying with his sister and helping out at her cafĂ© when he meets two professional musicians, Tibs and Sonja, on holiday. He unwittingly gets involved in the breakup of their marriage.

The narrator of “Nocturne” is a gifted saxophone player whose ex-wife and manager convince him that he would be successful if he wasn’t so ugly. Reluctantly, he agrees to have plastic surgery. In a hotel recovering from his procedure, he meets Lindy Gardner, also recovering from plastic surgery.

In “Cellists,” it is perhaps the same narrator from the first story who tells the tale of Tibor, a gifted young cellist he and his friends met seven years earlier. Tibor’s personality changes once he is taken under the wing of Eloise McCormack, who claims to be a virtuoso cellist.

This is a book that explores the place of music in each character’s life, and in some cases, the character’s commitments to music or to fame. Although there is a lot going on in these ultimately sad tales, they felt unsatisfying to me in some way. I felt that some of the situations were ridiculously unlikely, as well. This is a book I read for my James Tait Black project.

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