I decided to take a little blogging break after Reading Ireland Month, but that break seems to have stretched to three weeks, which is the longest I have gone without blogging in the last 9 months!
A lot of the reason for this is that my work has been extremely busy as I was producing an event to mark what would have been Seamus Heaney’s 80th birthday. Last Saturday night we hosted readings by the amazing Bríd Brennan, Glenn Patterson and Adrian Dunbar and the UK premiere of a choral piece – Anything Can Happen – written by Seamus Heaney and New York composer Mohammed Fairouz, who came over for the performance.
It was a truly wonderful (if stressful) evening and although it was great to see it realized, I am also glad it’s over as it had taken over my every waking minute!
I have still been reading, but just not finding the time or the mental space to review, so I am going to do a round up of some of the books I have knocked off the 746 TBR in the last while that I haven’t managed to give a full review.
No 534: Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
Desperate Characters was first published in 1970 but fell out of print, before being reissued in 1999 with a new introduction by Jonathan Franzen, who calls it ‘Inarguably great. Desperate Characters soars above every other work of American realist fiction since the Second World War.’ This novel is inarguably great, in my opinion, a taut, tight simmering novel that shines with sharp prose.
Sophie and Otto Bentwood live in a Brooklyn brownstone, with an enviable middle-class life. Otto is a lawyer, Sophie a translator (although she does not work much) and they have a beautiful home, cultured friends and a house in the country. Despite two miscarriages, they have no children and seem not to pine for the loss. One evening, Sophie is bitten on the hand whilst feeding a stray cat and this small, random happening is the catalyst for larger cracks to appear, both in their marriage and in their wider lives. Fox has a great ear for dialogue and an eye for the facades that we build up in our daily lives. The tension builds throughout the novel, through a well-paced evasion of fact.
Sophie does not want to go to the hospital, in case she has rabies, despite knowing that it would be the sensible thing to do. Her husband Otto is splitting from his partner in his law firm, despite knowing that they would be better off staying together. Sophie and Otto help a strange man who comes to their door, but may, or may not have been conned, while the respite they normally find at their holiday home is shattered by mindless vandalism.
Here is life in a microcosm – small, ominous things build until their relationship is at breaking point. Desperate Characters is a stylish read – although some aspects of the book have aged badly (an undercurrent of racism persists) – Fox deserves to be read as widely as her male counterparts from the time, such as Updike and Roth.
Read On: iPad
Number Read: 213
Number Remaining: 533
No 533: My Life as A Fake by Peter Carey
You never really know what you are going to get with a Peter Carey novel, other than to be sure that it will probably be good and My Life as a Fake is no exception. It is based on the true story a great literary hoax– the Malley Hoax. In 1944, editor Max Harris published the poems of Ern Malley, a lonely car mechanic who wrote modernist poetry and had died a few years before. Sent the poems by Ern’s sister, Harris heralded a great new Australian talent. The problem was that Ern Malley didn’t exist, but was made up two conscript poets, Corporal Harold Stewart and Lieutenant James McAuley, to pass the time in their Melbourne military barracks and puncture a hole in the pomposity of the Australian modernist literary scene. The story got even stranger, when the poems were deemed to contain sexual innuendo and Max Harris was charged with publishing obscenity.
It is an intriguing story and one that Carey not only retells, but also takes to another level. What if Malley wasn’t a hoax at all, as Harris went on partly believing? Alternatively, what if some delusional writer convinced himself that he had written the fake poems and continued to write genuine work in the same literary voice?
Containing Carey’s hallmark themes of artistic authenticity, belief and legend, My Life As a Fake widens out the Malley story to span continents and years. Here, the two soldiers become Christopher Chubb, an ex-poet living in Kuala Lumpur, Frankenstein to his own creation Bob McCorkle, a fiction he created who appears to have come to life in order to take his revenge against his creator. Chubb is aided by Sarah Wode-Douglass, a British publisher who believes that McCorkle is real and that his poems of great literary merit. She teams up with Chubb in the hope that she can secure some of the McCorkle poems and save her failing publishing career.
My Life as A Fake starts off convoluted and becomes only more labyrinthine as Chubb chases McCorkle across the world, followed closely by Sarah. The book is never dull, but credulity is strained to breaking point, both by the plot and the confusing structure, which features several narrators with differing agendas. Despite its flaws, My Life as a Fake is an entertaining jaunt, exposing the hypocrisy of the publishing world and the difficulty in unearthing a truly authentic voice.
Read On: iPad
Number Read: 214
Number Remaining: 532
No 532: A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy
A Goat’s Song is a hangover from Reading Ireland Month and I am sorry that I did not get the opportunity to give is a full review as it is a truly stunning novel.
Set at the height of the Troubles, the novel explores the life of Jonathan Adams, a retired RUC man from Northern Ireland now lives on the Mullet peninsula in the South. The father of two actors, Sara and Catherine, he is haunted by one misjudged moment in his career when he was caught on camera attacking civil rights marchers in Derry. He has exiled himself, surrendering to the shame he feels.
Jack Ferris is exiled in a different way, never able to settle due to his restless personality and trouble with alcohol. He is drawn to the Adams’ and particularly to Jonathan’s two daughters, seeing something stable yet unattainable in their Protestant mindset. Jack is a playwright, and his passionate and ruthless relationship with Catherine becomes the pulsing heart of the book as they move across Ireland, from Mullet to Belfast and on to Dublin, searching for somewhere constant, somewhere to call home despite neither being able to settle.
This is a novel about identity and place, both national and personal, and how we, as a society strive to find stability through both. It raises big questions about where and with whom we belong. The writing is robust, romantic and visceral; moving from the story of Jack and Catherine, back into the life of Jonathan, without missing a beat. Jonathan is a wonderful creation, and could have deserved a novel of his own, but it is testament to Healy’s writing that such a wonderful character is a minor player in a wider, more dramatic narrative. The evocation of landscape and place is stunning and the belief in the redemptive power of love and the tragedy of its loss is unforgettable.
‘Tragedies, Tragos – goat, Oide – song. From the Greek. Every time you weep in the theatre you’re listening to a goat singing’.
Read on: Book
Number Read: 215
Number Remaining: 531
So, that’s a bit of a catch-up on my recent reading, I’m currently in the middle of Stoner for the 1965 Club, which I just know if going to break my heart and I am plotting, planning and making lists for 20 Books of Summer, which I will announce next month.
How has your reading been going this month?
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!