I can’t believe it is already the end of June and one month of 20 Books of Summer is already over! Thankfully, I am still on track, with 7 books reviewed and the reading of another 3 in progress. I won’t speak too soon, there is still time for it all to go wrong, but at least I’m off to a good start.
How is everyone else doing?
Despite concentrating on my 20 Books, I’ve still found time to read some other sneaky novels and watch a few great movies.
Seed by Joanna Walsh
Set in 1988, Seed‘s narrator is an unnamed 18-year-old girl enduring the long summer between the end of school and the start of university. Stifled by an emotionally repressed home-life she faces an almost total lack of intellectual/cultural stimulation from which to construct a satisfying identity. The spectres of Aids, CJD and nuclear war further fuel the narrator’s unease as she yearns for experiences beyond the dull life offered in the place where she lives, the outskirts of a small town in the English countryside.
Structurally, the book is written in short paragraphs or units, and each chapter contains references to the natural world. In some senses, it is a very pastoral novel and is designed so that the short sections can be read as part of a whole or as short pieces of fiction in their own right. It contains a striking ambiguity and a sense of fear, both internal and external pervades the novel. Everywhere in Seed, there is a threat of ruination, in what humans do to nature and to each other. The narrator has to repel the sexual advances of a man she babysits for; her home is burgled and she herself partakes in small-scale shoplifting. The nature writing is stunning and the depiction of teenage confusion and the yearning for identity through fashion and music is both familiar and vivid.
Seed is a recognisable narrative, featuring the familiar events of a liminal teenage summer, but it is done with such an impressive stylistic and linguistic skill, that it feels like something altogether unique. This is a striking novel, which explores the very nature of self-expression, identity and subjectivity.
Animal by Lisa Taddeo
“If someone asked me to describe myself in a single word, depraved is the one I would use.” So says Joan, the barely hinged, 30-something narrator of Animal.
As the novel opens, Joan has watched a man she was in a relationship with shoot himself in front of her. She has driven cross-country to Los Angeles, to rent a ramshackle three-storey house in a compound in Topanga Canyon. Joan is defined by a major trauma in her past, which have left her, she tells us, “depraved”, however the details of this trauma are not divulged until close to the end of the book. She has really come west to track down Alice, a woman with whom she has a mysterious connection and again, the details of why Alice is so important to her remain a mystery for most of the novel. Their meeting will trigger the final catastrophic act of Joan’s depravity and the revelation of the childhood horrors that set her on this path.
The structure of Animal is impressive and in some respects, Joan’s tale is told backwards. Taddeo uses a lot of ambiguity and foreshadowing and the whole novel does not become clear until the very end.
Animal is overall a psychologically smart tale of resilience and survival that explores the meaning of female strength in today’s society, however I did find the endless cycle of bad sex and trauma, then more bad sex and more trauma a little wearying after a while. Still, Joan is a wonderful creation and Animal has a great sense of place and atmosphere.
Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor
I’ll say upfront that Jon McGregor is one of my favourite contemporary writers. I have read and loved all his books since falling for his debut If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. At first glance, Lean Fall Stand seems like a departure for him, an action-packed adventure set in the Antarctic. The opening section reads like a film-script, as the Antarctic trip goes horribly wrong when a storm strikes in the first pages and the ensuing battle for survival is described in a propulsive, arresting style. The novel then takes a sharp turn in both tone and dynamic as it hones in on the story of Robert, a survivor of the accident who has suffered a stroke.
The rest of the novel explores Robert’s agonising journey to recover from his stroke, the toll it takes on his wife Alice and his attempts to get to grips with language again. Robert’s difficulty with language became the focus for an exploration into what happens when words and language are beyond reach, for whatever reason.
McGregor writes incredibly well about the daily slog and tedium of being a carer and coming to turns with the massive physical and mental change that a stroke brings about in a loved one. “I don’t want to be a carer,” Anna says simply. “I never even really wanted to be a wife.” Yet she has no choice and the endurance and resilience that is now required of her is a sharp juxtaposition to choices made by her husband who devoted his life to the Antarctic at the expense of his family life.
Lean Fall Stand is another subtly powerful novel from one of our best writers.
Flickering Lights is a film from 2000, directed by Anders Thomas Jenson, whose new film Riders of Justice is garnering a lot of critical buzz. Starring Mads Mikkelson, Flickering Lights is a black comedy crime caper about four small-time criminals who double cross their crime boss and go on the run with 4,000,000 Danish Kroner. When their van breaks down and they are forced to hide out in a derelict house, they get the idea to stay, renovate the house and turn it into a restaurant.
Essentially, Flickering Lights is a celebration of friendship between men. In a series of flashbacks, Jensen depicts the often awful families in which the four grew up and their gravitation toward gang life as a substitute for the love they never received as children. The cast is uniformly fantastic, the humour black and the sensibilities very non-PC, and it all makes for an irresistible film.
Nobody is a crime-caper of another sort, a film that could be pitched as John Wick meets Taken. Bob Odenkirk, of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul fame, plays Hutch Mansell, a middle-aged man whose daily life, job and marriage have all grown predictable and tired. When his house is burgled by a couple of small-time thieves, he goes on a mission to get revenge, revealing an adeptness for violence and a dark past that he has so far managed to keep from friends and family.
Nobody is relatively daft but also very entertaining with a great central performance and some fantastic set-pieces, including an ingenious fight on a bus. It’s all very predictable but the film knows exactly what it wants to do and does it very well.
Some Kind of Heaven
This wonderful documentary, a debut from Lance Oppenheim, lifts the lid on The Villages, Florida’s largest retirement community. The Villages is designed to create a problem-free world for financially comfortable over-55 residents who want to live in a gentle fantasy of perpetual fun and companionship. The town has more than 50 golf courses and offers endless leisure opportunities, from belly dancing to karate, synchronised swimming to rowing and is entirely sealed off from the rest of the world.
Oppenheim focuses on a few members of this community, Anne and Reggie, a married couple struggling with Reggie’s drug use and erratic behaviour; widowed Barbara, who wants to leave but can’t afford to move back to Boston and finally Dennis, who lives on site illegally in his campervan and is trying to pick up a rich woman to marry and support him financially in his final years.
Some Kind of Heaven is beautifully shot in the square 1.33 aspect and has an oversaturated Lynchian gloss that fits with the surreal nature of the place itself. In the wrong hands this could have degenerated into poking fun at the residents, but it is an affectionate and big-hearted exploration of how despite the best laid plans, the last years of life are filled with much of the same precariousness, discord, loneliness, and fear that dogs the rest of our lives.
Mare of Eastown
I very much enjoyed the twists and turns of Mare of Eastown, for which Kate Winslet and Jean Smart will undoubtedly win all the awards. I also enjoyed the fact that Guy Pearce popped up in the usually thankless role of love-interest, so often assigned to great female actors.
I did think the acting elevated what was, essentially a rather soapy whodunit, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.
But the one song I have had on endless repeat is this ABBA-inspired disco monster from the brilliant Pearl Charles.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!