Review 1878: Edinburgh

Fee is a 12-year-old mixed race boy (Korean-American) who feels out of place in his home in small-town Maine. Not only does he not look like his peers, but he likes boys. He is deeply in love with Peter, his best friend.

When Fee joins an elite boys’ choir, he thinks he recognizes in the choir director, Big Eric, a person like himself. But he soon realizes that Big Eric is a predator, who systematically abuses the soloists and keeps them from telling by threatening to cut them from the choir.

Fee conflates his homosexuality with Big Eric’s abuse and is so ashamed that he tells no one even when Peter is given a solo part. Eventually, Big Eric approaches the wrong boy, and the truth comes out. But this also has disastrous consequences for his victims, two of whom commit suicide.

Moving forward in life, Fee continues to be haunted by these events during his teen years and early adulthood. He is finally managing a happier adulthood as a swimming teacher in his home town with a loving partner when he meets a young student who reminds him of Peter and is involved in the early events in a way neither of them understand.

I had mixed feelings about this novel, which I won from Adam of Roof Beam Reader. It is beautifully written and incorporates lore from the Korean side of his character’s background. But it also feels removed from its characters, which is probably necessary as it feels at least somewhat autobiographical. There are some times when the lyrical language doesn’t seem to mean anything and is written more for its sound and images. But mostly, I am disappointed in the ending of the book.

Read no further if you want to avoid spoilers. I don’t usually include them, but I felt I had to in order to express my opinion of the book. It seemed to me that his succumbing to the boy, even though it was mutual and the boy was much older than he had been, is still a predatory act because of the teacher-student relationship. Also, I could not believe that he could teach a student without knowing his last name. There are rosters, reports to be filled out. That was just unbelievable.

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Review 1863: Not the End of the World

I was fairly sure I had read everything by Kate Atkinson, but I couldn’t remember Not the End of the World. So, I decided to revisit it.

This collection of stories is a relatively early book. Some of the stories are apocalyptic or macabre, some have an element of magical realism, some are whimsical, some capture a moment in ordinary life. Although the stories stand alone, some of them are linked by recurring characters or by more subtle means. I suspect, if you were very attentive, you could find many links. For example, in the first story, “Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping,” the two have a conversation about wedding favors that is repeated in “Wedding Favors” between two different characters. And is the accident driven past by a character in one story the one that kills another character in another story?

Atkinson’s prose is, as always, witty and vivid. I found a few of the characters, like the battling teenage siblings in “Dissonance,” irritating but realistic. On the other hand, a boy who looks like a fish turns out to be the son of Triton. A bold girl removes a cloak from an old lady and the old lady disintegrates. A dead woman tries to get back her life. An adopted alley cat grows bigger and bigger and bigger.

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Review 1845: The Nickel Boys

The Prologue of The Nickel Boys is chilling in and of itself. The novel is based on investigations into the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, which turned up evidence of mistreatment, torture, and even murder of young boys.

Set mostly in the early 60s, the novel follows Elwood Curtis, a black boy who has been taught to do what is right and who has been inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. His attitude seems to be working. He is doing well in high school, he has a job with a good boss, and his presence at some demonstrations for equality has earned him an invitation to take college courses.

He is on his way to college for the first night of classes when he accepts a ride from a stranger. Next thing he knows, the car has been pulled over as stolen and he’s been sentenced to the Nickel Academy for Boys.

On his second day, still trying to make sense of things, Elwood steps in to stop some bullying and ends up being beaten senseless by the Director. He spends some time in the infirmary, where the doctor only prescribes aspirin no matter what the problem is.

When he gets out, Elwood is befriended by Turner, who tries to show him how to get by. Turner gets him on Community Service detail, where Elwood observes all the food for the school being sold to restaurants, boys being sent to homes of the board members to do yard work and painting, and other signs of graft and corruption. Elwood writes them all down.

This novel is a searing record of the recent racial history of our country as well as being a story of friendship. It’s a powerful book. It makes me wonder why I haven’t read any Whitehead before.

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Review 1833: Unsettled Ground

Twins Jeannie and Julius Seeder live precarious but contented lives with their mother Dot in the cottage where they were born. At 51, neither has much education. Jeannie was kept out of school so frequently with rheumatic fever that she never learned to properly read and write. Julius only attended school until 15. Jeannie and her mother keep a market garden while Julius earns what he can through various odd jobs. Their mother has taught them to be independent and not borrow money.

When Dot dies unexpectedly, however, the twins are thrown by one thing after another. They had always understood that their cottage was theirs for life, rent-free, because their landlord, Mr. Rawlings, was partially at fault for their father’s horrendous death. However, almost immediately after Dot’s death, Mrs. Rawlings arrives to tell them they owe £2000 for back rent. The man they sell vegetables to informs Jeannie that Dot owed him money, and the husband of her mother’s best friend says she owed him £800. But they can find no money in the house. Then, right before the wake, a thuggish young man tells them they are being evicted in a week. They have no money for a funeral.

Although Jeannie finds a job doing a woman’s garden, she is paid by check and has no idea how to cash it. The electricity has been disconnected. But Jeannie and Julius are too proud to ask for help or let anyone know what’s going on.

This story about people living on the margins of society had me utterly rapt. I could not do anything but wonder how it would all end. Fuller has done it again with another powerful, absorbing novel.

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Review 1822: Shuggie Bain

Shuggie Bain lives the first five or six years of his life in his grandparents’ flat in Glasgow with parents and older sister Catherine and brother Leek. The family is poor but respectable. His father Shug is a taxi driver, and his mother and grandmother keep a neat house. Shuggie’s mother Agnes is beautiful and always immaculately made up.

Shug is a horrible womanizer, though, and from jealousy Agnes hounds him by making calls to his dispatcher. Then Shug decides they should move to get a fresh start. What he describes as an outdoor paradise turns out to be a tiny shack next to a mine in a neighborhood built for miners’ families. But the mine is all but closed. It isn’t until the family unloads their possessions that they realize Shug’s aren’t among them. He has taken Agnes and her children out into the country to dump them.

Agnes descends into alcoholism, and as his older siblings grow old enough to leave, Shuggie is left trying to hide money for food, trying to keep Agnes’s drinking buddies out of the house, trying to get her to eat. All the while, he has a growing realization that he’s not like other boys. He likes pretty things and colors and is attracted to boys.

This novel is a moving and empathetic portrait of working-class Glasgow in the 1980’s, when there is not much hope for many people. It’s also a convincing depiction of the effects of alcoholism. It is absolutely gripping and heartbreaking. It was the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, and it deserves it.

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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.

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Review 1791: The Lighthouse

Hapless Futh is recently separated from his wife and is taking a vacation that he is ill prepared for—a walking trip in Germany when he hasn’t been hiking in decades. This holiday, like many things in his life, he has chosen because it reminds him of one of the few happy times with his father. Personally, he seldom picks up on nuances and misses many things.

After a series of odd encounters on the North Sea ferry and in the Netherlands, Futh arrives at the starting point of his walking tour—Hellhaus. There, a misunderstanding at his hotel results in his being ejected before breakfast. He has arranged his tour in a circle with his luggage being transported day by day to the next hotel, so he must return to Hellhaus.

As he proceeds on his tour, contemplating his mother, who left him and his father when Futh was a young boy, and the history of his marriage, we check in periodically with Ester, the landlady of the hotel in Hellhaus. Even though her husband is jealous, she occasionally sleeps with the guests. Years ago, she left her fiancé for his brother Bernard, but now she feels unappreciated.

These are sad, gray lives. Even so, this novel is oddly compelling, and my feeling of dread built with every step back toward Hellhaus. It is also elegantly spare in style.

I read this novel for my Booker project.

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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 1759: White Tears

You may think you know what’s going on in White Tears, but you don’t. Kunzru provides a few clues to that effect, but it’s easy to glide right over them.

Seth is a nerdy outcast in college when he meets Carter Wallace, a good-looking, popular rich kid. The two bond over sound and music. Seth has been immersing himself in techno when Carter introduces him to the gritty sounds of old-time Black country soul on vinyl and even older 45s.

After college, the two form a recording company, with Carter as the face and Seth doing the creative work and sound engineering. They are beginning to become famous for an old-fashioned sound, produced entirely by analog instruments. But Seth notices Carter losing focus and becoming more engaged with collecting.

One day, Seth is indulging his hobby of walking around New York recording noises when he catches someone singing part of a blues song, “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” He plays it for Carter, who becomes obsessed with it. Carter uses the fragments from Seth’s recording to make what sounds like an old-time record, complete with cracking noises. Then he mocks up a picture of a 45, invents a singer, Charlie Shaw, and advertises the fake record on a collectors’ website.

What starts out as a seemingly harmless prank has serious consequences. Soon, apparently meeting a collector who wants to buy the fake record, Carter is severely beaten and left in a coma. Seth finds out his company and their apartment are both owned by the family corporation, and he is immediately dispossessed, the family claiming he is just a hanger-on. But Seth and Carter’s sister Leonie want to know what happened to Carter.

This novel is dark and unexpected. At first, I wasn’t so interested in the story about Carter and his fanboy Seth, neither of whom are that likable, but eventually I got sucked in. Again, it’s a novel I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, but I read it for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1754: Narcopolis

The narrator of Narcopolis arrives in Bombay in the 1970’s or early 80’s after he’s been thrown out of the United States. He finds Rashid’s opium den, where he meets such characters as Dimple, a hijra, or transsexual woman, who prepares the opium and works in a nearby brothel; Rashid, who has the best opium in Bombay; and Rumi, a low-level criminal. The novel is made up of linked short stories that follow the various characters until returning to the narrator many years later.

Pimps, pushers, and junkies are not my favorite subject matter, and I would not normally choose this book to read, but it is part of my Booker prize project. By around page 50, when the narrator attends a ridiculous lecture by a poet/artist named Xavier, I realized I had no idea what was going on and almost quit reading. However, soon I was taken up by the much more interesting stories of Dimple and Mr. Lee.

I was jarred to find one Goodreads reviewer referring to this gritty book as nostalgia, considering it mostly deals with drug addiction and sexual exploitation. Still, by the end of the novel, which takes place closer to the present, things are so much worse that I got his point.

I felt that the characters’ speech, when philosophical, sounds like it comes out of a textbook, and in other moods is unrealistic in other ways. I also thought that there was no reason to subject readers to such things as Xavier’s speech, the entire plot of the book written by Mr. Lee’s father, most of the characters’ dreams (I hate reading about dreams in fiction), the long description of a new form of poetry, and so on.

Did I like this novel? Not very much.

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