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The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
by Richard Yates
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Collected Stories, 22 May 2009
I'm now in the wistful position of only having one more Richard Yates book to read (Young Hearts Crying). Each of his novels has been utterly compelling, the sad, lost characters totally convincing in their existential angst and inability to cope with the world.
His short stories are equally powerful. The two collections - Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love - rate as among the best short stories I've ever read.
Collected Stories is made up of stories from the two collections named above as well as two stories previously published in 1974 and 1976 in the journal Ploughshares and other previously unpublished stories. This is a fabulous selection. The stories which haven't appeared in the previous two collections are every bit as bittersweet as the others. Yates manages to climb right into the psyche of every disaffected person he conjures up, whether it's an awkward, secretive and friendless child (A Private Possession) or an affable but insecure middle-aged man whose wife has left him (The Comptroller and the Wild Wind).
As with his novels, Yates's short stories are rich with detail taken from his own life. His parents' divorce, his drunken failed sculptor mother, his time in the US Army, his months in a TB ward after contracting tuberculosis, and his own failed marriages have coloured his work indelibly. Yet his stories, though bleak, are never depressing. There is always empathy or at least sympathy as the reader shudders at the floundering souls and their inflated ideas of themselves or their thwarted attempts at success, and there is black humour when they swagger in ludicrous ways, pretending to be people they aren't.
I was left, as ever with Yates, wishing I could flit back in time, buy him a pint and reassure him of his incredible talent.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 8, 2014 6:45 PM BST


It's Beginning to Hurt: Stories
It's Beginning to Hurt: Stories
by James Lasdun
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's Beginning to Hurt., 16 May 2009
Good short stories are a joy to be savoured. They're a difficult form of fiction to get right - many writers leave you disengaged with the characters and events, so that you don't much care when the story ends - but when they work, they're pithy little dramas that leave you either sated or else hungrily wondering what happened next.

My favourite short story writers write mini gems that draw me in fully, involve me in the participants' lives, make me empathise with or shrink from the characters involved - indifference is the only reaction that signifies failure - and spin the whole into a tiny bundle of prose that transports me into another world for the duration of the piece. Chekhov is a classical master of the form, but my favourite contemporary short story writers include Michel Faber, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, and James Lasdun.

James Lasdun has found success in many forms of writing. Born in London, he has published two previous books of short stories before this one, two novels - The Horned Man (which I raved about in a thread on novels on psychiatric illness in this blog) and Seven Lies, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize a few years ago, and three collections of poetry. One of his previous short stories, The Siege, was used by Bernando Bertolucci as the basis of his film Besieged, and another acted as the scaffolding for a screenplay Lasdun co-wrote for the film Sunday, whichwon two prizes at the Sundance festival in 1997 - Best Screenplay and Best Feature. Not bad for a writer who's barely begun to go grey.

Lasdun's latest collection of stories, It's Beginning to Hurt, was published by Jonathan Cape this year. As expected, they're delicious mini courses in Lasdun's taster menu of talent. Lasdun specialises in capturing, with unnnerving insight, the split seconds in which moods and emotions turn on triggers so fine and subtle that they're barely perceptible. He nails these moments perfectly, spiking the core of the microgram of fly in the ointment and thus catching the infinitessemal moment with starling perception.

In An Anxious Man, a man mired in petty worries frets about a windfall that should have been a bonus. Larger shadows loom, and he garbles deals with the powers above to let things be alright, promising to transform his life. In The Natural Order, a happily married man travels with a cocky young Adonis and the latter's behaviour gradually permeates his own mind, causing internal chaos. He meets a rare soulmate and spurns her out of duty, then compensates injudiciously. The Incalculable Life Gesture hinges on the bad news that dramatically refocuses life's priorities, spawning altruism and benevolence. The Half Sister is a masterful and funny tableau pitching money against ethics. In The Old Man, a wealthy man's perceptions of his fiancee shift on the basis of a few words. A Bourgeois Story pits a sucessful lawyer against a friend from his past, a Marxist idealist who refused to sell out. Totty is wonderfully vengeful, reducing a character to the base behaviour she's accused of. Cranley Meadows is achingly sad. Lime Pickle contrasts the sweet memory of first love with the indifference and even mild repulsion that can take its place. Caterpillars wonderfully depicts the sort of angry eco-warrior whose respect for nature preclude humans.

Annals of the Honorary Secretary is the only story that pushed credulity, dealing as it does with the supernatural, but even this was so well written as to be able to cause a flinch of discomfort and a slight chill in the air.

A couple of the stories left me wanting to know more. In Cleanness, the protagonist's deeply buried sorrow begins to lift, making me curious as to what happened next. In The Woman in the Window, the exploration of the motives behind the woman's actions are only nebulously explored, so that questions remain as to motivation and psychological wounds.

One of the joys of Lasdun's work is his sumptuous prose. Here he is on insomnia:

`He had barely slept since his visit to Dr Taubman. Some over-the-counter pills had given him a few hours of light oblivion each night, after which the feeling of dread they had held in precarious abeyance spilled back, filling his mind with a cold, pulsating wakefulness for the rest of the night.'

And here he is on receiving a noxious injection:

`The woman plunged a needle into his arm. A tingling, pressurised heat surged into him. Not painful exactly, but shocking. The word `insult', in its medical sense, came to him as the substance raced through his veins. Something in him seemed to flinch in corresponding outrage or mortification. Was he going to throw up? Were his bowels going to betray him?'

Here on a young manual labourer with responsibilities:

`..yet every day was a struggle. If it wasn't money, it was offences to his pride which was strung tight, like every other part of him.'

And here on a sneering womaniser:

`.. this particular man belonged to a type for whom she did have a certain weakness: confident, well-made, and with an interest in women that consisted, in her experience, of a generalised contempt in which a kind of aggrieved, violent desire was concealed like a stiletto.'

And here are the thoughts of the snotty eco-warrior Craig's long-suffering girlfriend :

`There were no pylons or cellphone towers to upset Craig, and for this Caitlin was grateful. Not that she liked these things any more than he did,but his diatribes had an unsettling effect on her. Since being with Craig she had found that it was necessary to guard, rather carefully, what remained of her affection for her own species.'

And

`She didn't even like him, she sometimes thought, observing his cold manner with people he disapproved of, which was most of the human race.'

There are also strong visual images evoked:

`A truck, turning, belched soot across a pool of white tulips.'

In his style, Lasdun is crisp and methodical. In Annals of the Honorary Secretary, he plunges in with a first person narrator who, like Ishiguro's characters, wipes small arcs of clarity in a foggy windscreen which eventually coalesce to gradually reveal the bizarre whole in logical, connecting steps. This style of getting in at the deep end - not starting with a traditional explanation of background and so on but diving headlong into a murky pool with an anecdote, involves the reader as Ishiguro did in Never Let Me Go: curiosity is slaked, and the reader slowly finds out about the strange circumstances.

Yet Lasdun's prose is never dry or humourless. He drops droll phrases in a matter-of-fact way. A wealthy woman is described like so:

`Like many very rich people, she worked hard at making one feel like an old and particularly dear friend from whom only the most extraordinary circumstances had kept her away in the interval that had passed.'

A righteous, religious and morally affronted cleaner's outrage is depicted thus:

`The woman's round, haggard face seemed to dilate in the grey air as though swelling on her own obscurely affronted rectitude.'

Here is a middle-aged would-be professional singer:

`Her voice wasn't bad - husky and surprisingly low - but to our fastidious, intolerant ears, the songs themselves (Broadway ballads mostly, as far as I can remember) were unbearable. While she sang them, which she did in an American accent, she went through a routine of stiff, exaggerated expressions. She batted her eyelids, tossed her head, puckered her mouth to look `wry', doggedly illustrating whatever the lyrics suggested, as if she had a foreign or perhaps deaf audience in mind.'

And here on a rich man's supercilious wife:

` `Oh?' Mrs Knowles adjusted her posture warily on the sofa. Her lips bunched together, little dimples of polite anticipatory amusement forming on either side of them.'

All in all, It's Beginning to Hurt is a delicious concoction of human foibles, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, vivid little packets of others' lives, related with vim and wit.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 15, 2014 5:14 PM BST


Legend of a Suicide (Awp Award Series in Short Fiction) (Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction)
Legend of a Suicide (Awp Award Series in Short Fiction) (Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction)
by David Vann
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Legend of a Suicide, 15 May 2009
Alaskan-born David Vann's first book, A Mile Down, served as a tribute to his father. Vann's father had killed himself when Vann junior was a child, and Vann decided to fulfil one of his father's dreams by building his own sailing boat - a trimaran - and attempting to sail around the world. The rocky voyage was not the calm,satisfying adventure that Vann senior would have welcomed.
Vann's second book, Legend of a Suicide, published by Viking Penguin later this year (around Oct 2009) comes garlanded with praise from Ross (God's Own Country) Raisin and adorned with critics' recommendations; it was the New York Times's Notable Book of 2008, the same paper's Editor's Choice 2008, the winner of the Grace Paley Prize, and Story Prize's Notable Book of 2008. If Vann's first book was wish fulfillment of his late father's ambition, Legend of a Suicide is a form of catharsis, washing out his father's demons by exploring them in a fictitious setting based closely on real life. Or, in Vann's own words in the acknowledgments, `fictional, but based on a lot that's true'. The four linked short stories and one novella in this collection are inspired by a host of memories of life with - and without - his flawed father, amalgamated into a loose whole which may either - with the exception of the novella, which is inconsistent with the other stories - be read as a novel/memoir or as separate tales. The novella cannot be woven into the whole for reasons which will become apparent on reading it.
The tales all feature the same family modeled on Vann's own. Roy is a boy born in Alaska who lives for most of the time with his divorced mother and younger sister. He tells us early on in the first story that his father, Jim, a frustrated, compulsively unfaithful, twice-divorced ex-dentist who hankered after a life of self subsistence, committed violent suicide on the stern of his beloved fishing boat. The stories are mostly memoirs of Roy's, narrated by him in the first person. The exception is the novella, Sukkwan Island, which unfolds in the third person, the first part described from Roy's point of view, the second from his hapless father's.
The stories are shockingly raw and powerful in their evocation of a troubled childhood. Both the subject matter and the locations are often desolate and bleak, particularly in Sukkwan Island, which tells of a time when Roy is enticed by his father to go and live with him on a remote uninhabited Alaskan island . Vann's depiction of the cold, rugged wilderness bathed by glittering, icy and potentially treacherous seas is stunning. Unlike the short stories, there is no glimpse of Vann's wry humour in this devastating tale. Roy's father is hopelessly unprepared for life in this environment, lacking the equipment to create a food store safe from marauding bears or an adequately capacious place to keep wood for the stove dry from the frequent howling rainstorms and blizzards. But this is not the only problem. It quickly transpires that Jim is desperately depressed and, moreover, is selfish and self-absorbed in his misery; he shows no compunction in dumping the load of his worries on his son. These anxieties are not merely those concerning the day-to-day existence in this isolated spot, but also those relating to his past actions and circumstances. Because Jim has brought about his own misfortune through his own selfish acts, this reader felt limited pity for his existentialist angst, particularly when he is so astonishingly selfish as to burden it all on his thirteen year-old son. He moans endlessly about missing his wives, yet he brought about his divorces due to his own serial infidelity; he reminisces self pityingly on the time he gave his wife a sexually transmitted disease, yet shows no ability to empathise with what his wife must have felt. In fact, when relating this incident, Jim says, almost in an uncomprehending stupor, `That time she got unbelievably angry. She never would give me any room to explain. It was like I was just some kind of monster. Like I'd shafted her.' Well, I suppose catching pubic crabs off your husband could be said to comprise `being shafted.' Vann allows the reader to gasp at Jim's insensitivity and selfishness without slathering it on or making Jim a parody. His characters are utterly believable.
So, as well as buckling under heavy physical toil and monotonously grinding routines most days, chopping trees and lugging wood, fishing, and constructing basic amenities, Roy is laden with Jim's woes. Jim prevents Roy from sleeping most nights because he sobs openly and seeks advice from his son; he makes fevered , distressed radio calls to his second ex-wife from the radio, forcing Roy to go out in the bracing cold. I felt like seizing Jim by his ragged, filthy collars and matted, unkempt hair and shaking him. Clinical depression is an illness, but heaping the weight of it on a child is a choice.
It is apparent that Roy is torn in his feelings for his father. He feels love and pity but also rage. The misery of this harsh existence is exacerbated by missing his mother, sister, friends and school. He has been ripped apart from them because of a feeling of responsibility towards his father. And when Roy plucks up the courage to ask if he can leave and return home, as his father has promised Roy and Roy's mother he can do at the first sign of discontentment, Jim emotionally blackmails him into staying on.
Vann's portrayal of an ineffectual, self-centred adult and the emotional damage he wreaks on those around him as seen by a loving but conflicted son is masterly. Here is Vann on Roy's contradictory feelings:
`(Jim) seemed as solid then as a figure carved from stone, and all his thoughts as immutable, and Roy could not reconcile this father with the other, the one who wept and despaired and had nothing about him that could last. Though Roy had memory, it seemed nonetheless that whatever father he was with at the time was the only father that could be, as if each in its time could burn away the others completely.'
Yet Jim is never intentionally evil, so is not a figure that can be despised - the reader really feels Roy's entrapment by guilt and misplaced responsibility. In Jim, Vann has painted a chilling picture of how much pain a lost individual can cause others. It is a seething, potentially incendiary environment, and the reader knuckle-bitingly awaits the flames.

The other stories are marginally less harrowing, and often leavened by Vann's whimsical humour. Here he is on Roy's halibut fishing as a child:
`Between us, a kind of understanding developed: if they didn't flop, I didn't smash their heads with the hammer. But sometimes, when the ride was exceptionally wild and we were all thrown again and again into the air and their blood and slime were all over me, I gave out a few extra whacks, an inclination of which I am ashamed. And the other halibut, with their round brown eyes and long judicious mouths, did see.'
And this section describes a stranger's family as perceived from photographs of them by Jim when he has broken into their house:
`This family was not good-looking. They had a parrot-faced daughter and a son with big ears and eyes too close together and a mouth that twisted up oddly. The parents were no lookers either, the man stocky and a nerd and his wife trying to look surprised for the camera... Jim disliked them and felt fine about eating their food. **** you, he said to the pictures as he slurped up their ravioli.'
More dry sardonic wit when Jim stays in a hotel:
`When Jim had lived here in Ketchikan eight years before, he had befriended the owner of this hotel, who at that time had been only a young guy, fresh off the ferry. The man had been moving here, and though he was a Mormon and Jim was not, Jim had taken him fishing and let him stay at the house and helped him to find work. The man's name was Kirk and he didn't have time for Jim now, but he did let Jim buy a room for twice what it was worth.'
Vann's wry eye for the quirky also manifests in his deftness at using words in sharply striking ways. A pause is `long and ugly'. When a tree is chopped, Vann mentions 'other trunks quivering under the shock'. A man walking into a malodorous room notices `when he stepped inside, the stench was a thing with weight and heft.'
The lighter mood also occurs when Vann conjures up a charming scene of childhood. In Ichthyology, Vann describes Roy aged five slipping out of the house in the aftermath of one of his parents' arguments. Pyjama clad, he wanders into an unknown neighbour's house, finding the key under the doormat, and there he discovers an aquarium. Thinking that the fish might be hungry, he investigates the fridge and ends up watching sweet pickle slices bubble as he drops them in.
Ichthyology bears an entirely coincidental resemblance to one of Wells Tower's short stories in his just published collection in the devastation wrought by a hostile sea creature on the other fish in an aquarium. The two American writers share a grim sense of capturing the black in life, and they also both write potently on men's despair, although they differ in that Vann's men are emotive and talk about their despair whereas Tower's are macho males suffering in silence.
Vann's style has idiosyncrasies. Sometimes he missed out the primary verb in a sentence, which gives a strong sense of the impressions the character is gaining:
`In the morning, a dusting of snow on the trees, which the drizzle melted away by noon.'
`Fishing bells, fog bells, seagulls, and the hiss of tyres on asphalt.'
`Beyond them, abandoned land and waters among the land, the boundary between them dark and changing.'
`The surface still opaque, gray-white, a solid membrane.'
`A warm, strong breeze carrying all but the water, no ripple but its hold strong on everything else, making distance impossible.'
`Small sucking noises from the boats in their slips as I returned, trapped water beneath tri-hulls and the rub of bumpers against wood.'
`In pairs and threes or singly, tiny slivers of light.'
This is a strange, haunting book, mesmerising in its ability to envelope the reader into the world of a confused, angry boy. The violence that Roy is capable of, seen in countless acts of pointless vandalism and wanton destructiveness both as a child and, more disturbingly as an adult, left me concerned for the mind of this small scared child and wondering whether, if this reflected Vann himself, he has found peace in adulthood. I hope so. Roy muses in the last story that `everything my father had left me vanished.' If this is indicative of the thoughts of the artist and not simply those of the character, I can assure him this isn't so. Vann is left with the turbulent memories which have come together to form this book. `Memories are infinitely richer than their origins', Roy concludes. Indeed, and not many are spun into so elegiac and poignant a testimony.
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Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 1, 2010 2:43 PM GMT


The Boy with the Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton
The Boy with the Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton
by Sathnam Sanghera
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If You Don't Know Me By Now, 24 April 2009
Previously published as If You Don't Know Me By Now, this is a reissue of Sathnam Sanghera's moving and droll autobiography. In its previous guise, Sathnam Sanghera's autobiography If You Don't Know Me By Now was shortlisted for the Costa 2008 Biography/Autobiography award. Here it makes an appearance under a different title.

The book is a warm, affectionate and hilarious account of Sanghera's search in his late twenties and thirties for the history of his family. It was only at this late stage of his life that he found out that both his father and his oldest sister both suffer from schizophrenia, and he only came to this knowledge because of his growing discomfort with the double life he was having to lead, working as a trendy journalist in London, where he dated white women but pretending to his Punjabi parents in Wolverhampton that he was a good Sikh boy willing to contemplate an arranged marriage when the time was right.

Sanghera's account manages to be both tender and loving and also dryly witty. He is self deprecating about himself to a degree that means every page has its laugh-out loud moments. Here's an example:

`At school, the swottiness I'd long displayed also intensified...my relentless sucking up meant that over four years, I was made milk monitor, litter monitor, stock room monitor - a prized job for it meant being let off hymn practice - and tuck shop monitor.'

He is also obviously hugely fond of his family in a way that makes even the harrowing parts of the novel a joy to read. His lightness of touch means that none of the book ever feels mundane, even when dealing with family events that would otherwise mean little to other people. And his journey from being a layman who knew nothing about schizophrenia to coming to terms with its meaning, symptoms, treatment ,prognosis and implications, is refreshingly honest. He owns up to being ignorant about mental illness before his research and is even honest about the feeling of shock he initially felt when waiting in a psychiatric outpatient waiting room, when the patients around him seemed alien and weird rather than fellow humans with histories and personalities. This book is a must not only for anyone who wants to know more about this devastating illness, but for anyone who enjoys humorous, well written memoirs. *****


Charlotte Gray
Charlotte Gray
by Sebastian Faulks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.79

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful and Riveting, 16 April 2009
This review is from: Charlotte Gray (Paperback)
Charlotte Gray, first published in 1998, is a riveting novel set at the time of the Second World War which was subsequently made into a movie starring Cate Blanchett. Once again, Sebastian Faulks shows his ability to combine meticulous research into a bygone era with a compelling story told with clear, precise prose and a sensitivity to the psychological as well as physical effects of trauma.

The story is based around a young Scottish woman, the eponymous Charlotte Gray, who, in early 1942, moves from Edinburgh to London in order to be useful in some way in the war effort. Chance encounters lead to both a romance with a troubled young RAF pilot and an ostensibly small job as a courier for the Secret Services, who ask her to carry out a small task in the Free Zone of France. However, the disappearance of her lover while on a mission in France leads to Charlotte prolonging her time there and becoming actively involved in the Resistance movement.

Faulks writes with the formal style he employs for his historical novels, but. although intense and literary, his language never seems overblown or weighed down by the archaic heaviness some writers use to simulate the past. The characterization is strong, although the degree to which all of the Resistance fighters were willing to sacrifice their own (or in one case, a parent's) lives in order to save others is perhaps slightly idealized. But then, perhaps it isn't - who knows what strength people are capable of in times of stress.

Faulks's research has obviously been extensive, and he vividly brings to life wartime existence, both in London and in France. The plot is powered by a tension that keeps the reader transfixed. The collusion of some of the French with the Nazis in Vichy France and the fierce anger of the Resistance are captured brilliantly, and historical events are relayed in a manner that never feels strained but which is as informative as any history book and many times more accessible.

The result is a stunning novel that conjures up a plethora of different moods and emotions - the excitement of intrigue and secret missions, the yearning of a young woman's first experience of love and loss, and, most devastatingly, the harrowing, horrific reality of the rounding up of Jews and their transportation to holding camps and then on to extermination. Throughout, Faulks manages to convey the motivation of the different characters, so that the reader sees the bigoted hatred that drives the Nazis, the warped logic of the French Nazi sympathizers, the defiant idealism of the Resistance fighters, and the bewilderment and revulsion of the rest of the population, stranded in various states of appalled paralysis, denial, or tentative support for the Allies, Gaulists or Communists.

Perhaps Faulks takes on too much by adding an unresolved trauma for Charlotte which relates to her childhood. There are suggestions that this was a deep, dark violation, and the resolution of this incident from Charlotte's past detracted from my admiration for her character: her willingness to besmirch her father and the subsequent realization of what happened suggest Charlotte is not perhaps as compassionate and selfless as she is portrayed. Still, people are complex and full of contradictions, and an element of self indulgent petulance in Charlotte - acting as if her childhood was unhappy when the 'crime' against her was not intentional - doesn't detract from her plausibility.

This is an immensely powerful and evocative book. For anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a mesmerizing wartime drama, this novel is on par with William Boyd's Restless.

*****


The Rain Before it Falls
The Rain Before it Falls
by Jonathan Coe
Edition: Paperback

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Rain Before it Falls, 10 April 2009
Jonathan Coe is a writer I only discovered a few years ago when I happened upon The Closed Circle, his 2004 sequel to his previous novel, the televised The Rotters' Club. The Rotters' Club had followed the lives of a group of young schoolfriends editing a magazine; The Closed Circle looked at what had become of them in terms of work, political aspirations, relationships and families.

The Rain Before it Falls is a complete departure for Coe in many ways. Firstly, the narrator throughout most of the novel is a woman - and Coe inhabits her credibly, with sensitivity and feeling. The story centres around an old lady, Rosamond, who is nearing death and decides to explain, by way of recording her thoughts on cassette tapes, to a distant relative ( her cousin's granddaughter Imogen) how and why Imogen's life turned out as it did.

Since the tapes can only be heard after Rosamond's death, a device is needed by which the reader can find out what happens after the tapes have been played, what becomes of Imogen, and so on. To this end, Coe uses a secondary character, Gill, Rosamond's niece, who Rosamond asks before her death to be her executrix. Gill and her two daughters Catharine and Elizabeth therefore play peripheral parts in the story.

The unfurling of the novel through Rosamond's taped testimony is not dissimilar to the way Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture unfolds by way of the written diaries of an old lady in a psychiatric hospital and her psychiatrist. Here there is noone interpreting Rosamond's behaviour and reactions to events in her life, so we rely on her. As many narrators can be, she is at times slightly unreliable and at others, doesn't behave the way the reader would necessarily want her to. But for the most part, she is a sensitive and kind character with whom the reader empathises.

Running through the strands of story relating to Rosamond's cousin Beatrix, Beatrix's daughter Thea, and Thea's daughter Imogen, are beautiful sections of description of the English countryside, which is depicted in verdant, lush glory. Coe infuses atmosphere into his prose, so that imposing buildings become looming, sinister places when unpleasant events have occurred there. Trees rise 'black and brittle against a grey sky, like charred bones'.

The story follows Rosamond through her life starting with her childhood during WW2, when she spent some time staying with her aunt, uncle and cousins in the countryside, and following her through adulthood where her life and her cousin Beatrix's intertwine. The characterization is strong although the way one character turns from an emotionless abuser to a caring parent towards the end is perhaps not totally feasible . Rosamond has a soft spot - one could say obsession - for her cousin Beatrix, which stops her from speaking out as forcefully as one would expect when Beatrix behaves badly - which she does, often. But Coe conveys this bias of Rosamond's powerfully when he describes Rosamond's aghast shock at finding out that Beatrix doesn't talk about her to her daughter.

The only other quibble I had was with the attempt to suggest that Gill had some sort of supernatural abilities. Although Coe does conclude the story with Gill eschewing her belief in these powers, the attempt to suggest a blackbird smacks dead into Gill's windscreen at the exact time that a significant character dies, and that Gill sees this as a portent of doom, is tawdrily sensationalist.

The story is ultimately achingly sad and haunting, demonstrating as it does the potential for poor parenting to beget more poor parents, the psychologically abused turning abusers themselves. But despite the melancholy mood, it is a beautifully evocative book that effortlessly transports the reader to the lives of the characters.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 22, 2011 8:50 AM GMT


Everything Ravaged Everything Burned
Everything Ravaged Everything Burned
by Wells Tower
Edition: Paperback

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bleak but striking., 7 April 2009
Wells Tower - Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Wells Tower, born in 1973, is a young American with a strong voice. His debut, a collection of short stories published by Granta this month, is full of vivid images and hard, punchy writing.

Wells' world is one of crushing disappointment and thwarted desire borne, for the most part, by lonely, silent men who are few of word but deep of feeling.

In The Brown Coast, a young man whose life has gone wrong on several fronts takes up an offer from his uncle to do up his uncle's coastal cottage. He finds comfort in collecting sea creatures in an old aquarium. Tower's prose manages to be masculine and gruff yet also hauntingly descriptive:

`The wood paneling in the living room had shrugged up over many moist summers, and now the walls looked like a relief map of unfriendly, mountainous land.'

Towers has a gift for using words in unconventional ways which seem instantly apt: `a stand of pine trees, limbless and spectral', `a jazz of oaths', `a confetti of moths ` around a light bulb.

In Retreat, the mercurial relationship between a pair of brothers explodes and then ebbs into uneasy truces. Their mutual envy and competitiveness threaten to destroy their chances of finding peace and happiness. Tower's language lurks and paints a desolate landscape, adding to the atmosphere:

`...the sunset smoldering behind the molars of the Appalachian range',

` pink insulation lay like an autopsy patient beneath the cloudy plastic sheeting.'

`... would suck the innocence and joy from his child as greedily as a desert wanderer savaging a found orange.'

`I wanted to get back to spinning the blanket of mindless incident stretched ever thinner across the pit of regrets I found myself peering into most sleepless nights.'

In Executors of Important Energies, a man's father is gripped by a form of dementia. `His store of memories just sprang a rapidly widening leak.'

`Down Through the Valley' is a tale of a journey from hell which a man has to take with his child and his ex-wife's smug new boyfriend. Lured by the prospect of buying a place in his ex wife's good books by doing her a favour, the man is sucked into a series of unfortunate events.

Tower is surprisingly astute when it comes to inhabiting a child narrator. In Leopard, a young boy skives off school, but has to contend with his hostile stepfather. Many unanswered questions are raised including one about the perpetrator of a horrific child murder nearby, but Tower leaves the reader wanting to know more.

In Wild America, a teenager is visited by her cousin who has grown to be a willowy beauty. Her rage and jealousy is powerfully conveyed:

`Jacey could feel the anger coming off her like heat lines on a road.'

And, after Jacey delivers a stinging put-down:

`A collapsed, stunned look came over Maya, as though a piece of crucial rigging had been snipped behind her face.'

Jacey inhabits a world between childhood and adulthood, and the potentially threatening undercurrents of what she's playing with are potently evoked.

On The Show is another chillingly atmospheric story set in the false neon bonhomie of a fairground where an appalling crime is committed. The reader knows that the criminal will never be caught. The claustrophobia of the dingy place and the lives of the various people who have ended up there are illuminated in Tower's grim flashlight.

The last story, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, is a tale of Vikings and vengeance narrated by one of the more gentle of the fighters. Towers transposes modern language to this historical set, and this anachronism adds to the jarring, disturbing feel.

Tower is a distinctive voice and his hard-edged, brusque but evocative fiction will undoubtedly win fans.
__________________


If You Don't Know Me by Now: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton
If You Don't Know Me by Now: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton
by Sathnam Sanghera
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If You Don't Know Me By Now, 30 Mar. 2009
Sathnam Sanghera's autobiography If You Don't Know Me By Now was shortlisted for the Costa 2008 Biography/Autobiography award. It is a warm, affectionate and hilarious account of his search in his late twenties and thirties for the history of his family. It was only at this late stage of his life that he found out that both his father and his oldest sister both suffer from schizophrenia, and he only came to this knowledge because of his growing discomfort with the double life he was having to lead, working as a trendy journalist in London, where he dated white women but pretending to his Punjabi parents in Wolverhampton that he was a good Sikh boy willing to contemplate an arranged marriage when the time was right.

Sanghera's account manages to be both tender and loving and also dryly witty. He is self deprecating about himself to a degree that means every page has its laugh-out loud moments. Here's an example:

`At school, the swottiness I'd long displayed also intensified...my relentless sucking up meant that over four years, I was made milk monitor, litter monitor, stock room monitor - a prized job for it meant being let off hymn practice - and tuck shop monitor.'

He is also obviously hugely fond of his family in a way that makes even the harrowing parts of the novel a joy to read. His lightness of touch means that none of the book ever feels mundane, even when dealing with family events that would otherwise mean little to other people. And his journey from being a layman who knew nothing about schizophrenia to coming to terms with its meaning, symptoms, treatment ,prognosis and implications, is refreshingly honest. He owns up to being ignorant about mental illness before his research and is even honest about the feeling of shock he initially felt when waiting in a psychiatric outpatient waiting room, when the patients around him seemed alien and weird rather than fellow humans with histories and personalities. This book is a must not only for anyone who wants to know more about this devastating illness, but for anyone who enjoys humorous, well written memoirs. *****


The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore
The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore
by Lorrie Moore
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Collected Stories, 21 Mar. 2009
Published in 2008, this collection extends to more than 650 pages, incorporating as it does the stories from three previous books of short stories - Self Help (1985), Like Life (1990), and Birds of America (1998), as well as several tales from the novel Anagrams (1986) and some more recent short stories from The New Yorker. Moore is well known in the US - as well as her stories appearing regularly in The New Yorker, she teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and she has won a clutch of awards including the O.Henry Award and, from nearer our shores, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. The back of the collection is strewn with accolades from writers as diverse as Roddy Doyle and Hilary Mantel.
Her stories explore life in all its manifestations - love, hate, illness, divorce, post divorce dating, relationships with children and parents, and so on. There is a thick stream of wry humour running through all the stories, so that even those laden with pathos contain wisecracking characters refusing to give in to self pity.
Moore states in her introduction that the earlier stories - contained towards the end of the collection - seem distant from her now, her newer work being more 'true' to her. But there are gems to be found among both the old and the new.
The most powerful story for me was the harrowing People Like That Are The Only People Here. Any parent, aunt or uncle will shudder as they read this story of a couple who find a blood clot in their baby's nappy and find themselves sucked through the world of paediatric oncology. Yet even when dealing with as emotive and disturbing a subject as a baby with cancer, Moore manages to be grimly, blackly entertaining as well as utterly convincing. The radiologist who 'smiles a broad, ominous smile' and lets slip a hideously insensitive medical term: 'You don't know exactly what it is until it's in the bucket'. The weeping father imploring the mother to take notes so she can write about the experience to earn money for any further medical treatment the baby should require. The guilt the mother feels at having occasionally used babysitters. The baby attempting to play with four-year-old fellow oncology patient Ned's 'little deflated rubber ball', only to be scolded by Ned's mother: as the baby cries, the mother intervenes, only to find out Ned's 'little deflated rubber ball' is actually a bag collecting fluid from Ned's liver.
In the less knuckle-biting stories, there are remarkably insightful flashes as regards less traumatic life events: what it feels like to be a mistress of a married man, the more in-love individual of a couple, the less in-love, what it's like dating in middle age, binds to parents, growing out of love, dealing with death... Most of the stories gripped me completely. The only one that didn't was an attempt at a post-apocalyptic world in Like Life, and even there, the parts of the story dealing with the relationship as opposed to the Orwellian world were still convincing.
Moore's writing is not faultless. Sometimes her style can seem overwrought, too complicated and verbose. I listed many strained similes: 'The door... shut behind them like a fact', 'dusk was settling over the highway like a mood', 'alarm buzzed through her mildly, like a tea', 'A smile... nestled in his mouth like an egg', 'preoccupied and absent as a landlord'.
Despite these occasional signs of trying too hard, there is much to admire here. Moore's grasp of emotions and relationships as well as her quirky humour make her stories a joy to read.
****0


Revolutionary Road
Revolutionary Road
by Richard Yates
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.79

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revolutionary Road, 5 Mar. 2009
This review is from: Revolutionary Road (Paperback)
Set in 1955 in Western Connecticut, Yates's much acclaimed first novel follows the fate of April and Frank Wheeler, a good looking couple in their late twenties living in ostensibly idyllic suburbia. They have two children, a boy and a girl, friends with whom they meet up for drinks regularly, and have recently joined an amateur dramatic society where April, who attended drama school in New York, is the shining light. Frank works in an office where he can get away without toiling too hard. Life is easy.
Everything is rosy. Life is good. Or so it seems on the surface. However, deep down, fissures are forming in their perfect life. April is a vulnerable, damaged person whose childhood was spent with relatives, always hoping to see more of her glamorous and elusive parents. She manages to put on a facade of contentment which she almost believes herself, but actually finds life suffocating. When she decides her and Frank should take the family to live in Paris, it seems as if life, joy and spontaneity will flood into their lives at last.

What follows is an incisive observation of middle class suburban life in the 1950s. Yates's characterisation is spot-on, as always. His characters are complex, flawed, unpredictable. Frank is selfish and has a sense of entitlement. He can justify all his actions to himself without ever truly putting himself into other people's shoes. April is like a hot-house flower, wilting in the cool, stifling, emotionless atmosphere of her life. Their friends Millie and Shep Campbell are also interesting. Millie is a helpful friend with an unpleasantly salacious interest in local scandal. Shep is confused, tormented by unrequited love, but ultimately lacks the courage to leave his dreary life.

Yates's cynicism about the institution of marriage and conventional life in America is apparent on every page, but the novel, though bleak, is not tedious. There are awkward scenes of social get-togethers in the vein of Abigail's Party, bright superficialities straining to dispel unease. There are harrowing rows and attempted reconciliations. There are oddball peripheral characters. Ironically, the only person who voices the truth about the Wheelers's situation is John Givings, sporadically out on day release from the local mental asylum.

This is a devastatingly powerful novel; bleak, like most of Yates's oeuvre, but fascinating throughout.
*****
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