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‘The Travelers’ by Regina Porter ****

Regina Porter’s sweeping debut novel, The Travelers, was recommended to me by the wonderful Storygraph website. For those readers who have yet to check it out, I would highly recommend it. You can important existing reading lists, and the recommendations are tailored specifically to you; basically, it weeds out a lot of the generic fiction which Goodreads seems to proffer, and allows you to come across titles which you perhaps wouldn’t otherwise. The Travelers was such a title for me.

Porter has blended together a history of the United States, which ranges from the middle of the twentieth century, to President Obama’s first year in office. It illuminates more than six decades of tumult and change on a grand scale, moving from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, to the Vietnam War and beyond. Porter incorporates several US states – New York, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Tennessee – as well as the likes of France and Germany. Her focus is two families, who seem rather different on the face of it, and who come together in ‘unexpected, intimate and profoundly human ways’.

The first character we meet is Jimmy Vincent; Porter moves rather hurriedly through the momentous occasions in his life. As the novel progresses, we meet one character after another in this way, and learn more about them when their paths cross. The links between them come to light slowly at times, and quickly at others; some are self-explanatory, and others are rather surprising. The connections forged are many, and clever.

Each of the characters, perhaps unsurprisingly given the novel’s title, undergoes travel in some way; sometimes across continents, and at others just to a house in the same town they grew up in, or from one relationship to another. They move towards, and away from things. Porter effortlessly captures how each individual, as well as the places which they inhabit, change over time, and understands so well how different neighbourhoods and communities can so easily become gentrified.

Much is revealed about each of the protagonists; for instance, in 1966, we meet nineteen-year-old Agnes Miller. Porter writes: ‘Agnes’s legs were so long they could skip across the Nile. Her hemline was modest. She worked part-time in the college library. Whenever anyone asked Agnes what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would tell him or her automatically that she wanted to be a teacher. It did not matter if Agnes liked the profession. The answer was suitable and pleasing.’ The first tense moment in the novel – and there are many which follow it – occurs when Agnes and her fiancé, Claude, are stopped by police whilst driving.

Porter’s prose is rather more matter-of-fact than I was expecting, but her style works wonderfully given the scope of the novel. She has managed to fit in an astonishing amount in just over 300 pages. Two elements of her writing which I very much enjoyed are the use of vignettes, and the differing perspectives which she creates. Whilst we hear from a few characters in the first person, an omniscient narrative has been chosen for others. This helps to break up the writing, and stops any of the characters from feeling too similar, as can so often happen in books featuring multiple perspectives. The structure is not a linear one either, and moves back and forth in time, which allows Porter to build up the more mysterious elements of the stories with a great deal of tension and wonder.

That The Travelers is infused with melancholy seems obvious, given that Porter covers a lot of difficult and grave topics here – the aftermath of war, grieving, racial issues, and the breakdown of relationships, for instance – but there are also some amusing and lighthearted moments to be found. There is also a great deal of emotion within the pages of The Travelers, and some passages which will stay with me for a long time yet: ‘Nevertheless, Eloise would remember these rare evenings from hr childhood when she sat at the kitchen table on a broken stool between her mother and father and the three of them peered down together at the newspaper clipping and she did not have to vie for their attention with beer, bourbon, scotch, or gin.’

First published in 2019, The Travelers is a remarkable debut. The different threads of story, set in different locations and time periods, which run through the whole, have been wonderfully wrapped up at the end, without rushing, or making unrealistic claims. There is such variety here, and so much for the reader to enjoy. The characters are distinctive, and everything within the novel has been executed admirably. Each time period is well anchored, with a lot of specific social and societal detail. I found The Travelers to be wonderfully absorbing, and transporting.

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Two Collections: ‘Heads of the Colored People’ and ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?’

My local library is a wonderful place to browse, and on one trip there earlier this year, I came across two short story collections which I had heard a lot of.  Both Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People and Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? explore black segregation, identity, and experience in the United States.

36562557._sy475_Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires ****

Published in 2018, Heads of the Colored People is Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection.  Reviews on the colourful hardback edition which I read call it, variously, ‘fresh-laundry-clean’, ‘superbly witty’, ‘wholly original’, and ‘one of the best short story debuts I’ve read in my whole life.’  I was therefore, understandably, looking forward to discovering Thompson-Spires’ work for myself.

In Heads of the Colored People, the author ‘interrogates our supposedly post-racial era.  To wicked and devastating effect she exposes the violence, both external and self-inflicted, that threatens black Americans, no matter their apparent success.’  Her collection of twelve stories, which comes in at just under 200 pages, ‘shows characters in crisis, both petty and catastrophic’, and ‘marks the arrival of a remarkable writer and an essential and urgent new voice.’

A lot of the stories within Thompson-Spires’ collection are immersed in popular culture, much of which, I must admit, went straight over my head.  She takes different approaches throughout the stories.  The title story, for instance, is made up of different interlinking character portraits.  Another, ‘Belles Lettres’, is told entirely using correspondence between two warring mothers, and is laugh-aloud funny.  There is a consistency to Heads of the Colored People, but the use of different formats and perspectives which Thompson-Spires has employed makes it more interesting.  There are recurring characters who appear throughout the collection, something which I personally enjoy.

Thompson-Spires’ writing is sharp and memorable.  Her characters are clear, and all have a depth to them.  She focuses upon all sorts of topics and issues: the obsession with social media, ‘fitting in’, trolling, bullying, race, police violence, rivalry, alternative lifestyles…  In ‘The Subject of Consumption’, for example, protagonist Lisbeth has become a ‘fruitarian’ after having tried a variety of different diets.  She makes her husband and daughter join her: ‘The groceries became more expensive and the lifestyle more time-consuming the closer they tried to get to earth, to original man, to whatever…’.  She also practices what she calls ‘detachment parenting’, largely leaving her young daughter to get on with it alone.

I felt absorbed by every single story in Heads of the Colored People, and appreciated the numerous flaws which each character had been given.  Thompson-Spires is incredibly perceptive, and each of her stories packs a punch.  Some build to a crescendo; others open in arresting ways.  ‘Suicide Watch’, as an example, has this as its opening sentence: ‘Jilly took her head out of the oven mainly because it was hot and the gas did not work independently of the pilot light.’

Ultimately, in Heads of the Colored People, Thompson-Spires examines what it means to be, for want of a better word, different.  I appreciated the dark humour which she uses, and the unexpected twists which come.  There is certainly a freshness to her writing, and whilst not a favourite collection of mine, I can imagine that I will return to it in future.  Heads of the Colored People has a lot to say, and Thompson-Spires does this well.  Her authorial voice is commanding and authoritative, particularly considering that this collection is a debut.  I very much look forward to reading whatever she publishes next.

 

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins ***

Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is set in New York during the 51rythrc7gl._sx334_bo1204203200_summer of 1963, a city ‘full of lovers and dreamers’.  This was a tumultuous time in the history of the United States.  Collins’ stories take place ‘on university campuses and in run-down Manhattan apartments’, where ‘young women grow out their hair and discover the taste of new freedoms, praying for a world where love is colour-free.’

The edition which I read included a foreword by Elizabeth Alexander, who writes of the years which it took to track down Collins’ film, ‘Losing Ground’, and the great effect which it had upon her.  When Alexander found that Collins had also written short stories, and was able to ‘encounter with a start her singular, sophisticated black and white bohemians talking their way through complicated lives – is akin to discovering a treasure trove.’

Collins never saw her work published; it wasn’t until almost three decades after her death that her stories were collected together by her daughter in this collection.  They were all originally written during the 1960s.  A lot of the issues which she deals with are as important today as they were then; perhaps, most pivotally, depression, poverty, and issues of race which still sadly prevail in modern society.

The first story, ‘Interiors’, is a duologue; we first hear from a husband, and then a wife. This is an incredibly insightful work, where both characters address one another, and, in the process, lay themselves bare.  The husband comments: ‘I’m moody, damn it, and restless… and life has so many tuneless days…  I can’t apologize for loving you so little.’  In this manner, Collins’ writing is striking, and revealing.  ‘How Does One Say’ begins: ‘When she left home for the summer her hair was so short her father wouldn’t say good-bye.  He couldn’t bear to look at her.  She had it cut so short there wasn’t any use straightening it, so it frizzed tight around her head and made her look, in her father’s words, “just like any other colored girl”.’

Each of the stories in this collection is beautifully considered, and Collins’ characters are deftly introduced, with all of their feelings, their foibles, their flaws.  We do not often learn their names, but they feel wholly realistic.  I found Collins’ prose evocative, and quite sensual in places.  ‘Treatment for a Story’, for example, opens as follows: ‘A ground-floor room in the back, cluttered with trunks, boxes, books, magazines, newspapers, notebooks, and paintings, and smelling of Gauloises, burnt coffee, dirty sheets, couscous and peppers, and a mélange of female scents.’  Other stories contain descriptive writing in this vein, which wonderfully sets the scene.

Oddly, then, the sixteen short stories were not quite as memorable as I had hoped.  There were a few stories which did not capture my attention at all.  From the outset, I imagined that Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? would be a four-star read for me, but from around the halfway point, this had changed to more like a three.  The collection was not quite consistent enough for my taste, although I can see why people love Collins’ prose, and admire her stories.

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‘Improvement’ by Joan Silber ****

Joan Silber’s ninth novel, Improvement, was the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2018.  The wonderful contemporary novelist Sarah Moss comments: ‘I admire Joan Silber’s ability to braid the narratives of objects and people lost and found into a shapely story.’  Lauren Groff, another of my favourite authors, praises: ‘I love all of Joan Silber’s work for her mastery of character, her ferocious and searching compassion, and her elegant lines that make the mind hum for hours’.  The Washington Post refers to Silber as ‘our country’s own Alice Munro’, a high accolade indeed, and one which I was keen to explore.

9781911630067In Improvement, Silber focuses upon Reyna, a young mother who can see the faults in her relationship with African-American Boyd.  Nonetheless, ‘as she visits him throughout his three-month stint in prison, their bond grows tighter.’  He starts to pull Reyna into ‘a scheme which violates his probation’, and which she soon realises is a grave mistake.  She decides to withdraw herself from both the situation and her relationship with Boyd.  Silber then explores how Reyna’s refusal to be involved in the scheme affects so many people, and how ‘her small act of resistance sets into motion a tapestry of events’.  This is a relatively simple idea, but Silber uses the multicausal plotline to great effect.  Along the way, she examines convictions, crimes, family, and the connections which we forge with others.

I found the opening of Improvement thoughtful.  Silber writes: ‘Everyone knows this can happen.  People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there.  They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand.  They take up with beautiful locals, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes.  But maybe not forever.’  We are then introduced to Reyna’s aunt, Kiki, who lived for some time with a carpet seller in Turkey, before moving back to the United States.  Each section follows a different character, all of whose stories are related to the one which comes before.

When we first meet Reyna, she is in New York, which Hurricane Sandy has just hit.  She is concerned for her aunt’s safety, living alone as she does, and takes her four-year-old son, Oliver, along to check on her.  Despite her worry, Reyna is not always appreciative of her aunt, and the unfailing help which she gives.  She says: ‘Why would I take advice from a woman who slept every night alone in her bed, cuddling up with some copy of Aristotle?  What could she possibly tell me that I could use?  And she was getting older by the minute, with her squinty eyes and her short hair stuck too close to her head.’

Kiki is quite a fascinating character, and certainly the one which I wanted to know most about in the novel.  She prides herself on her independence, and spends much of her spare time reading and re-reading, and then extolling the virtues of literature to all who will listen.  Of her aunt, whom she is very close to, Reyna reflects: ‘Only my aunt would think someone like me could just dip into twelfth-century philosophy if I felt like it.  She saw no reason why not.’

Reyna is the only character who has been given her own voice.  For the others, Silber has chosen to use omniscient narration, which allows her to really focus on the connections between the stories, and the knock-on effects which a single decision can have.  Improvement is an entirely human novel, which is most interested in relationships and the associations which we can have with those whom we have only met fleetingly.  Silver writes about the interesting, unusual, and far-reaching consequences of Reyna’s choice, and I found the way in which she went about this created a highly immersive novel.

Silver’s prose style is rather matter-of-fact at times, but it is filled with much which makes the reader think.  Her writing is easy to read, and her characters largely realistic.  The different directions which the novel takes have been so well thought out, and I found them largely unexpected.  I did not expect the snaking character trail which Silber creates, and now want to explore the rest of her oeuvre to see how her books compare.

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‘Everyman’ by Philip Roth ****

Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth seems to be a little hit and miss for many readers; I have heard comments which call his work pretentious, and others which state that his characters are unrealistic.  I had read a couple of his other books before picking up a copy of his novella, Everyman, from the library, and very much enjoy his prose style, hence my reasoning for writing a full review.  First published in 2006, Everyman won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

9780099501466The novella is described as ‘a candidly intimate yet universal story of loss, regret, and stoicism.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that it ‘shimmers with the mysteries and regrets of a whole life…  poignant, droll and eloquent.’  The Observer grandly declares that it is ‘capable of altering the way you see the world.’

Roth’s Everyman is never named.  We follow his life backwards from his funeral, at the outset of the story, and meander through various childhood memories, his marriages, and his troubled relationships with his children.  The novella aims to explore ‘the common experience that terrifies us all.’

I find it such an interesting plot device when an author chooses to begin a work at the end of the central character’s life, and in this case, it really captured my attention.  The opening, in which various people who had connections to Everyman have gathered, is striking.  Roth writes: ‘Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.’  Everyman is then eulogised both by Nancy, and his brother, Howie, who says: ‘We can say of him what has doubtless been said by their loved ones about nearly everyone who is buried here: he should have lived longer.  He should have indeed.’  After the funeral, Roth comments: ‘That was the end.  No special point had been made.  Did they all say what they had to say?  No, they didn’t, and of course they did.  Up and down the state that day, there’d been five hundred funerals like his, routine, ordinary…  [and] no more or less interesting than any of the others.’

Roth, in a series of loosely connected episodes in the life of Everyman, builds a full portrait of his protagonist.  He considers how this particular individual deals with tragedy, and how he discovers his own mortality.  We learn about his interactions with those around him, his three marriages, and the professional relationships which he formed during his career.  Roth also places attention upon the medical issues which Everyman had, writing: ‘… he was still only in his sixties when his health began giving way and his body seems threatened all the time.  He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.’

A.S. Byatt calls Everyman ‘a story for our times’, and in a way, it is.  There are very particular scenes in here, which of course not a great deal of readers will be able to entirely relate to, but I felt that Roth’s presentation of his central character was fully thought out, and his actions of interest.  I found the novella really easy to get into, and enjoyed Roth’s prose and turns of phrase.  His writing is intelligent, and whilst one does need to concentrate on his style at first, it is well worth the effort.  Roth’s approach is introspective, and he explores, with a lot of depth, his Everyman, in this satisfying story.

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‘The Stranger in the Woods’ by Michael Finkel ****

I was so intrigued by Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods, which tells the ‘extraordinary story of the last true hermit’.  This non-fiction book has been praised highly.  Sebastian Junger calls it ‘breathtaking’, and The Wall Street Journal nicely sums the book up, saying that it is a ‘meditation on solitude, wildness and survival’.  Published in 2017, The Stranger in the Woods is Finkel’s second book.

9781471152115The book focuses upon Christopher Knight, who, in 1986, and at the age of twenty, decided to leave his home in Maine.  He drove into the woods, and then disappeared.  Consequently, ‘he would not speak to another living soul for three decades.  Until, that is, he became hunted.’  Knight stayed in a single camp in the woods, not far from his home, surviving ‘by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to scavenge food and survive the harshest of winters.  In the process, he unsettled a community – myths abounded among the locals eager to find this legendary hermit.’

The Stranger in the Woods opens with Finkel setting the scene.  He writes: ‘The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives, but they’re tangled over giant boulders with deadfall everywhere like pick-up sticks.  There are no trails.  Navigation, for nearly everyone, is a thrashing, branch-snapping ordeal, and at dark the place seems impenetrable.’  For Knight, however, who only leaves his camp at midnight, his home is easy to get around: ‘He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken.  On the ground there are still mounds of snow, sun-cupped and dirty, and slicks of mud – springtime, central Maine – but he avoids all of it.  He bounds from rock to root to rock without a footprint left behind.’  Knight is, from the first, fearful of being discovered by those who live in the nearby town, and likes to leave not a trace of himself behind.

Following Knight’s disappearance, he becomes aware of only what is important to his new existence.  ‘He is,’ writes Finkel, ‘unaware of the year, even the decade, and does not know the proper names of places.  He’s stripped the world to his essentials, and proper names are not essential.  He knows the season, intimately, its every gradation…  He knows the moon, a sliver less than half tonight, waning.  Typically, he’d await the new moon – darker is better – but his hunger had become critical.’  Knight becomes as self-reliant as he can, and as his situation necessitates, but he can get the things he needs only by stealing them from local residents.  However, his string of thefts come with a set of moral values: ‘… if it looks valuable, the hermit will not steal it.’

Knight, who soon becomes both fascinating to, and feared by, the people targeted by his thefts, is not what anyone expected him to be.  When he is caught in the act of stealing food from a local summer camp, in April 2013, Finkel describes the way in which: ‘There’s no dirt on him anywhere, and little more than a shading of stubble on his chin.  He has no noticeable body odor.  His thinning hair, mostly covered by his wool cap, is neatly cropped.  His skin is strangely pale, with several scabs on his wrists.  He’s a little over six feet tall and broad-shouldered, maybe one hundred and eighty pounds.’  When asked about his life by local police, Knight responded that he spent the entire winter in a nylon tent, ‘and did not once in all those winters light a fire.  Smoke might give his campsite away.  Each autumn, he says, he stockpiled food at his camp, then didn’t leave for five or six months, until the snow had melted enough for him to walk through the forest without leaving prints.’  He also says that he spent no money whatsoever during his time in the woods.

During his time as a hermit, Knight became sensationalised, almost a mythical creature, and any mention of him used to terrify local children.  Finkel notes that ‘Because of the types of articles that were stolen, one family called him the Mountain Man, but that frightened their children, so they changed it to the Hungry Man.  Most people, including the police, began referring to the intruder simply as the hermit, or the North Pond hermit, or, more formally, the hermit of North Pond.  Some police reports mentioned “the legend of the hermit,” and on others, where a suspect’s full name was requested, he was recorded as Hermit Hermit.’  The local community, almost from the first, became wary and fearful: ‘He seemed to haunt the forest.  Families returned from a quiet trip into town wondering if they were going to encounter a burglar.  They feared he was waiting in the woods, watching…  Every walk to the woodpile provoked a goose-bumpy feeling that someone was lurking behind a tree.  All the normal night sounds became the noise of an intruder.’

Interestingly, Knight was never reported as a missing person, and had no contact with his family from the point of his disappearance.  Upon his discovery, he was completely unaware of what he looked like, had learnt to shave without using a mirror, and had only spoken one word – ‘Hi’ – in twenty-seven years, when he met a hiker in the woods.  He had no physical contact with anyone during his period in hiding.  Following his arrest, Knight became known all over the world, and many were fascinated by his story.  Five different songs were written about him, a local deli created a sandwich known as “the Hermit”, someone offered him land to live on rent-free, and a woman even proposed marriage.  The fact that he refused to speak about himself, or his time in the woods, in public, only intensified the longing of others to know about him.

The Stranger in the Woods is well paced, and is made up of a series of short chapters.  Finkel’s narrative style is easy to read; he has a quite informative and almost poetic prose style, which still manages to be chatty and informal.  He writes throughout of his experience in first writing to, and then meeting, Knight in prison, and detailing his story down.  He comes across as a sympathetic biographer, someone who largely leaves judgement out of his account.  The Stranger in the Woods is a fascinating book, which has made me consider further loneliness and isolation, and how impossible it must be to live alone in such a way as Knight did without disturbing the peace.

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‘West’ by Carys Davies ****

Carys Davies’ West is a novella which I heard a lot of buzz about last year, and was eager to try out myself.  The author has previously won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and West is her first longer length work.  Colm Toibin writes that it has ‘all the stark power and immediacy of a folk tale or a legend’, and goes on to call Davies ‘a writer of immense talent’.  In her review, Tea Obreht calls Davies ‘a deft, audacious visionary.  In West, she breaks open our fascination with fated journeys and the irrepressible draw of the unknown, imbuing the American landscape with her own rare magic.’  Claire Messud’s praise for the novella was the biggest draw for me personally, as she is an author whom I have come to highly admire over the last year.  She says: ‘To read West is to encounter a myth, or a potent dream – a narrative at once new and timeless.  Exquisite, continent, utterly vivid, it will live on in your imagination long after you read the last page.’

9781925603538West tells the story of Cy Bellman, an American settler, widower, and the father of a ten-year-old girl named Bess.  He sets off from his home in semi-rural Pennsylvania for Kentucky, after hearing that ‘huge ancient bones have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp… [and] is filled with a sense of burning purpose’.  He wishes to find out if the ‘rumours are true: that the giant monsters are still alive, and roam the uncharted territory beyond the Mississippi River.’  West goes on to write of the effect which these beasts have upon Bellman: ‘There were no words for the prickling feeling he had that the giant animals were important somehow, only the tingling that was almost like nausea and the knowledge that it was impossible for him, now, to stay where he was.’

In West, Davies charts Bellman’s journey westward into the wilderness, whilst concurrently telling the reader about young Bess, ‘unprotected and approaching womanhood, waiting at home for her father to return.’  At the outset of the novella, when Bess learns about her father’s journey, Davies writes: ‘She was quiet a moment, and there was a serious, effortful look about her, as if she was trying to imagine a journey of such magnitude.’  Indeed, in the days of Bellman’s travels, and setting out with a horse as his sole method of transportation, the journey would take at least a year, possibly two.  Fascinated as he is by exploration, he fully expects that he will be travelling for much longer than another man might; he will be ‘diverging’ from his 2,000 mile route across country, so that he can ‘have a look in some of the big empty areas the two captains didn’t get to.’

On the morning on which Bellman leaves, his sister, Julie, who is tasked with taking care of Bess, tells her niece: ‘Regard him… this person, this fool, my brother John Cyrus Bellman, for you will not clap eyes upon a greater one.  From today I am numbering him among the lost and the mad.  Do not expect that you will see him again, and do not wave, it will only encourage him and make him think he deserves your good wishes.  Come inside now, child, close the door, and forget him.’  Despite her aunt’s insistence, Bess is steadfastly loyal, and does not allow herself to doubt her father: ‘In her opinion he looked grand and purposeful and brave.  In her opinion he looked intelligent and romantic and adventurous.’

I found the narrative, which uses the third person perspective throughout, to be immersive.  The structure, which comprises very short sections, is effective, and allows attention to be paid to both Bellman and Bess.  The novella, however, is weighted in Bellman’s favour, and considers his journey and experiences far more than it does Bess’; in many ways, she feels like a character who has unfortunately not been fully explored.

One of Davies’ strengths is the way in which she captures the motion and movement of her characters.  Whilst I felt that West ends in rather an odd manner, the story has been well plotted.  Davies includes descriptions only sparsely in her narrative, but what she writes is evocative: ‘He marvelled at the beauty of his surroundings: the pale gray ribbon of the river; the dark trees; in the distance the bright spread cloth of the prairie, undulating and soft; the bruised blue silk of the sky.’  I enjoyed the prose throughout West; it is sometimes quite understated, but lovely elements are sometimes woven in: ‘There were times, out here in the west,  when he lay down at night and, wrapped in his coat, he’d look up at the bright, broken face of the moon and wondered what might be up there too – what he’d find if he could just devise a way of getting there to have a look.’

When Bellman procures a Native guide, West introduces elements of the mixing of cultures.  Whilst this is interesting on a lot of levels it is, like Bess’ character, something which does not feel fully explored due to the brevity of the story.  There is certainly depth and power  to be found here, but I cannot help but think West would have been more successful had it spanned the length of a novel, rather than that of a novella.  Bellman’s story really could have soared had it had chance to spool out within a longer book.

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2018 Travel: Books Set in America

My second stop on my 2018 travel list is America; I travelled to the Niagara Falls State Park in New York State whilst on holiday in Canada.  Here are seven of my favourite books set in various states around the US.

26571. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.  Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have-nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.  A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
3. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2001) 37435
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina–a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
63365615. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1945)
Abandoned by her husband, Amanda Wingfield comforts herself with recollections of her earlier, life in Blue Mountain when she was pursued by ‘gentleman callers’. Her son Tom, a poet with a job in a warehouse, longs for adventure and escape from his mother’s suffocating embrace, while Laura, her daughter, has her glass menagerie and her memories.
6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.   Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
7. One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (2013; review here) 17612752
Britain’s favourite writer of narrative non-fiction Bill Bryson travels back in time to a forgotten summer when America came of age, took centre stage, and, in five eventful months, changed the world for ever.  In the summer of 1927, America had a booming stock market, a president who worked just four hours a day (and slept much of the rest of the time), a semi-crazed sculptor with a mad plan to carve four giant heads into an inaccessible mountain called Rushmore, a devastating flood of the Mississippi, a sensational murder trial, and a youthful aviator named Charles Lindbergh who started the summer wholly unknown and finished it as the most famous man on earth. (So famous that Minnesota considered renaming itself after him.)  It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan by a madman, the ill-conceived decision that led to the Great Depression, the thrillingly improbable return to greatness of a wheezing, over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth, and an almost impossible amount more.  In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a story of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy, with a cast of unforgettable and eccentric characters, with trademark brio, wit and authority.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, take your fancy?

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‘Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions’ by Valeria Luiselli ****

The concept of Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions intrigued me.  Luiselli, herself a Mexican living in New York, has aimed to look at immigration into the United States, and its effects on the many children who undergo a gruelling, and often unsuccessful, trafficking process each year.  Tell Me How It Ends was originally written in English as a shorter essay, and lengthened when Luiselli decided to translate it into Spanish.

The book’s blurb states: ‘In this urgent, haunting, exquisitely written book, the questions 9780008271923asked by Valeria Luiselli are her own, her children’s, and those she finds drawn up on the questionnaire drawn up by immigration attorneys for the tens of thousands of Central American children who arrive in the United States each year after being smuggled across Mexico to the US border.’  Luiselli herself worked as a voluntary interpreter in a New York immigration court, and thus has first hand experience of learning what the children whom she speaks to have already been through in their short lives.  Her task is a relatively simple one; she follows what is written on the questionnaire, and translates the children’s stories from Spanish to English, to later present to the court dealing with individual immigration cases.  She writes: ‘The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order.  The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.’  In her introductory chapter, Luiselli informs us that ‘there are no answers, only more questions’ with an exploration of this kind.

Interspersed with the stories of those whom she meets, Luiselli tells of her own experiences, as she and her family are deemed ‘non-residential aliens’ in the United States.  They decide to apply for green cards, which, if granted, will make them US citizens.  She discusses the process, which sounds draining by any form-filling standards, and its immediate aftermath: ‘When we finally sent out our applications… we started feeling strange, somewhat out of place, a little circumspect – as if throwing that envelope in the blue mailbox on our street corner had changed something in us.’  They decide to set off on a roadtrip soon afterwards, and their journey soon converges with the refugee crisis reaching its peak: ‘We start hunting down any available information about the undocumented children and the situation at the border, we collect local newspapers, which pile on the floor of our car, in front of my copilot seat.  We do constant, quick online searches and tune in to the radio every time we can catch a signal.’

The structure within Tell Me How It Ends is fitting.  Luiselli has approached her central question – what will happen to immigrant children when they reach the United States? – by focusing on forty separate, but interrelated questions or points.  Each of these questions forms the immigration questionnaire.

Luiselli’s account and exploration is a measured one.  Throughout, she talks of opinions expressed by different groups inside America, some of whom deem the refugee crisis ‘a biblical plague’, going on to mock how ridiculous their view of innocent children as a widespread threat to their way of life is: ‘Beware the locusts!  They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen – those menacing, coffee-coloured boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes.  They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays’.  She balances this with those who welcome the children with open arms, going out of their way to help their plight.

Some of the facts which Luiselli presents are shocking; for instance, ‘eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way’, and that during six months of 2010, there were more than 11,000 abductions during the journey.  Between April 2014 and August 2015, she tells us, ‘more than 102,000 unaccompanied children had been detained at the border’, which demonstrates starkly how widespread this problem is.  Throughout, Luiselli recognises the individuality of each child, and each case: ‘Each child comes from a different place, a separate life, a distinct set of experiences, but their stories usually follow the same predictable, fucked-up plot.’

Tell Me How It Ends is topical and important; a really moving and meaningful piece of reportage.  It demonstrates just how widespread the plight of many Central Americans is, and how they are willing to risk almost everything to find what they perceive will be a better life in the United States.  Luiselli’s account is poignant and searching, and as lucid as it is contemplative.  Her position as interpreter gives her voice authority, as does the way in which she approaches the issue of immigration.  She is highly, wholly empathetic to every child whom she meets, and everything which she presents is sensitively wrought.  There is an awful lot of depth within Tell Me How It Ends, and it is both a thought-provoking and unsettling read.

I shall end this review with rather a fitting quote from Luiselli, after many of the cases which she writes about have been explored: ‘In the meantime, while the story continues, the only thing to do is tell it over and over again as it develops, bifurcates, knots around itself.  And it must be told, because before anything can be understood, it has to be narrated many times, in many different words and from many different angles, by many different minds.’

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‘So Much for That’ by Lionel Shriver ****

“Shep Knacker has long saved for “the Afterlife,” an idyllic retreat in the Third World where his nest egg can last forever. Exasperated that his wife, Glynis, has concocted endless excuses why it’s never the right time to go, Shep finally announces he’s leaving for a Tanzanian island, with or without her. Yet Glynis has some news of her own: she’s deathly ill. Shep numbly puts his dream aside, while his nest egg is steadily devastated by staggering bills that their health insurance only partially covers. Astonishingly, illness not only strains their marriage but saves it.  From acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Lionel Shriver comes a searing, ruthlessly honest novel. Brimming with unexpected tenderness and dry humor, it presses the question: How much is one life worth?”

9780061458590There is much divided opinion about Shriver’s So Much for That.  As in her most well-known book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, the book’s prose is highly stylised, and one can spot her distinctive writing from the outset.  Within So Much for That, Shriver demonstrates just how versatile she is as an author; this effort is markedly different to the aforementioned, but it is just as compelling throughout.

Many issues of importance are tackled here, but the one which rises above everything else is the healthcare system in the United States.  It gives a fascinating insight into insurance policies and how much things actually cost, which I in the United Kingdom have been sheltered from with our fantastic NHS.

Intelligently written and realistically characterised, So Much for That is sharp, exquisite, and mindblowingly good.  It held my interest throughout, until I reached the last dozen or so pages.  They served to ruin the whole for me somewhat; I did not feel as though the epilogue which Shriver presents is necessary.  In fact, it was reminiscent of that awful ‘grown-up’ scene at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which still infuriates me.  Ugh.  I have consequently come away from the whole feeling a touch disappointed, but know that I will definitely have to read all of Shriver’s other books in future; she has such a talent, and I am determined to give one of her books a five-star rating.

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‘The Interestings’ by Meg Wolitzer **

‘The Interestings’ by Meg Wolitzer

American author Meg Wolitzer already has rather a few titles to her name, but it is 2013’s The Interestings which has brought her the most acclaim – in the United Kingdom, at least.  Her newest novel has been highly praised by many critics – the New York Times Book Review calls it ‘remarkable’, author Jeffrey Eugenides compares it to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and the San Francisco Chronicle writes that it is ‘engrossing’.

The premise of the novel is thus: on a summer night in 1974, whilst at a summer camp called ‘Spirit-in-the-Woods’, six teenagers ‘play at being cool’, and end up naming themselves ‘The Interestings’ with ‘tentative irony’.  We meet all of these six at the point at which they are spending their first evening together, and are then reacquainted with them decades afterwards.

The characters, whilst alike in some ways – this likeness mostly manifests itself within their speech patterns, causing them to blend a little at times – do have differences which set them apart from one another.  Julie Jacobsen, the newcomer to the camp, has experienced recent grief, with her father passing away from pancreatic cancer.  Ethan Figman is an animator, ‘filling the pages of the little spiral notebooks that always bulged from his back pocket’.  Jonah Bay is the son of a folk-singer, and ‘for a long time, his famous mother would be Jonah’s primary identifying characteristic’.  Cathy Kiplinger is ‘big and blond and far more womanly than most girls could be comfortable with at age fifteen…  She was the kind of girl who boys never left alone’.  The two Wolf siblings complete the group – Goodman: ‘If this group had a leader, he was it’, and his rather nondescript sister, Ash.

The teenagers, as one might expect, are quite often crude, but they are also occasionally oddly profound.  Some of the characters, as one often finds in highly-peopled novels such as this, are more interesting than others.  As a group, however, they do work well together.  On the whole, their strengths and weaknesses are different, and they mould themselves into the characters whom their friends expect them to be.  Wolitzer is perceptive of her protagonists, and The Interestings seems to work best as a character study in consequence.

The historical details which Wolitzer has woven into The Interestings – the use of cassette players, for example – does ground the first part of the novel in time, almost to the point of making it a little predictable.  The storyline is not as strong as it could have been, and a lot of it seems to rely upon the conversation between characters, and the ways in which they come to know, and form relationships, with one another.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout does work well, but it hinders somewhat too, distancing the reader from Wolitzer’s characters.  Her writing is rather deft at times, but it does occasionally tend to feel a little repetitive.  Sadly, The Interestings is not the most compelling of novels; in fact, it is almost a little disappointing, particularly as it has received so much hype of late.

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