Review 1824: The Big Music

This high-concept novel is admittedly a bit demanding to read. Although it is the story of difficult family relationships, a distinguished heritage, a dying man, it is written to convey a sense of the piobaireachd, the classical form of bagpipe music, a type of music dependent upon repetition and embellishment.

John Callum Sutherland, an old man nearing his death, is trying to complete a piobaireachd called “Lament for Himself.” Because of his fears of his father, a famous piper, John Callum as a young man left behind his long, distinguished family history and vowed never to return. Only once he returned after his father’s death and met Margaret MacKay, the housekeeper, did he realize what he missed by leaving, the music and the great love.

Now, dying and off his meds, John Callum needs a new note for his piobaireachd. He decides he can find it by taking Katherine Anna, Margaret’s infant granddaughter as well as his own, to his small hidden hut where he works on his music. As he goes, he imagines the melodies made by Helen, Margaret’s daughter, when she finds her baby is missing.

Margaret has summoned Callum Innes, John Callum’s son, from the south because she knows John Callum doesn’t have long to live. Callum has never lived in the remote family home in Sutherland. He has only spent his boyhood summers there and has never felt part of it. He too fears his father.

This novel is about a family home, a family legacy, music, and the relationships between fathers and sons. It is at times touching, but it appeals more to the cerebral than to the emotional. Not only is the novel written in the form of the piobaireachd and attempts to convey the music, but it is heavily annotated and makes the novel itself, and the writing of it, the center of the story in the postmodern fashion. Finally, it provides nearly 100 pages of appendixes for those interested in the history of the family, the piobaireachd form, the geography of the area, and many other topics.

I found this novel, which I read for my James Tait Black project, more intellectually interesting than involving. I have to admit to tiring of some of its repetitions, most often of the footnotes in continually referring readers to the appendixes.

Every Note Played

Fair Helen

Dirty Birds

Review 1816: Sight

Hmmm. I find it hard to evaluate Sight because even though it explores very personal thoughts and feelings, it appealed mostly to my intellectual side not my emotion. And I have the greatest response to the latter. Some readers on Goodreads compared Greengrass to Rachel Cusk, and I can understand the comparison.

Sight is concerned with seeing below the surface, both in the obsessions of the main character and in the stories she tells about Roentgen, Freud, and John Hunter, an early anatomist. The unnamed character is at first painfully and neurotically conflicted about having a child, feeling the desire for the child while at the same time fearing the responsibilities of parenthood, but even more so fearing that she will not connect with her child. All the while, she lets us know that in another time she has already had this child and is expecting another one.

We learn that the narrator’s mother, the daughter of a psychiatrist who is an unrelenting self-analyst, had her dreams interrogated so thoroughly as a child that she stopped having them. Thus, her mother attempts to live only on the surface. Greengrass explores how we can know another person, or even ourselves, through the focus of motherhood, daughterhood, and through ruminations about scientific discoveries.

She writes in a lovely, meticulous prose, although she often prefers long, complicated sentences. Like her microscopic observations, though, her style seems distanced from the reader. I read this novel for my James Tait Black prize project.

Outline

4321

Umbrella

Review 1795: American War

In 2074, Sarat Chestnut is only six when her father is killed by a terrorist bomb while trying to get a permit for his family to move into the north and safety. The Chestnuts live in a United States divided by civil war with its coastlines eroded far back from global warming. As residents of Louisiana, they reside in a purple state, a state that while it belongs to the North (blue states) has many Southern sympathizers (reds).

After Benjamin Chestnut’s death, Martina, Sarat’s mother, is told that the fighting in East Texas is coming nearer and she should retreat to the refugee camp at Camp Patience in Mississippi. As a resident of Camp Patience, Sarat grows up witnessing terrible events and is slowly groomed by Mr. Gaines to be a terrorist.

In between the chapters about Sarat, El Akkad includes documents about the war leading readers to realize that even more horrific events are ahead and, to me at least, telegraphing Sarat’s fate.

Like most good dystopian novels, this one puts our world troubles into perspective and holds a warning for us. Although dystopia is not really my genre, I found this novel riveting. I read it for my James Tait Black project.

The Parable of the Sower

The Year of the Flood

The Testaments

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.

The Wolf Border

Slipping

Nocturnes

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.

Sweetland

The New Sweet Style

Outline

Review 1714: Girl

Best of Ten!

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.

Little Bee

An Orchestra of Minorities

And the Mountains Echoed

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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