I don’t know about anyone else, but September has felt like both the longest and the quickest months on record. Here are some of my cultural highlights as we move into my beloved autumn season…
There must be something in the publishing water, as this month I read three doorstopper novels from three big name authors, all with differing degrees of success.
The Unfolding by A. M. Homes
Turns out the idea of a perfect family is like the idea of the American dream—it’s all a fantasy, a story we tell ourselves so we can feel good.
I was optimistic for The Unfolding by A. M. Homes, her first novel in almost a decade. When the novel opens, it’s 4 November 2008, and Barack Hussein Obama has just been confirmed as the nation’s 44th president. Set during the liminal period between Obama’s election and inauguration, the novel follows The Big Guy, a wealthy Republican donor and his friends, who try to make sense of this election loss by hatching a plan to retake control of the country and values that they love.
At the same time, the Big Guy’s family life is falling apart, with an alcoholic wife and a family secret that has finally come to the surface. The novel goes back and forth between the public and the private, exploring ideas of history, self-awareness and privilege. AM Homes has a great ear for dialogue (you can tell she writes for television) and I enjoyed the fun she had skewering political players and wealthy donors, but I felt that the book was too long (over 500 pages) for starters and that the political strand of the narrative and the family strand of the narrative never coalesced into a satisfying whole. Despite being a relatively enjoyable read, I also felt that the novel got somewhat overtaken by real life events, leaving it feeling out of date before it had even begun.
Lessons by Ian McEwan
…our beginnings shape us and must be faced.
In my late teens and early twenties, I read everything by Ian McEwan that I could get my hands on but it is telling that I haven’t had the inclination to read anything by him since Saturday, which was published in 2005. For a writer often known for his brevity, Lessons is another novel that clocks in at over 500 pages, but what an enjoyable 500 pages it is.
Lessons follows the journey of one man – Roland Baines – through seventy years of his life, exploring how the global and the personal are intertwined and how small moments and rash decisions can come to define a life. The book centres on Roland’s formative experience of having a sexual relationship with his piano teacher when he was fourteen and she was twenty-five. This relationship has cast a long shadow over Roland’s life, and to some extent has defined it. His life has also defined by the disappearance of his first wife, who abandoned Roland and their baby to pursue a literary career. The theme of lives lived and lives not lived permeates the novel.
The novel generally proceeds in a linear fashion, from Roland’s childhood to his seventies, but moves back and forward through memory throughout. There is a backdrop of political, global and social events throughout, which both grounds and defines the narrative and events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Falklands War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Brexit are a key part of the narrative. The novel is also very autobiographical. Roland is the same age as Ian McEwan and like the author; he grows up in Libya, attends boarding school and discovers that he has a brother later in life.
Some of the political events feel forced into the narrative, but overall, this feels like a novel where McEwan is enjoying himself, taking his time and exploring themes that are key to his work – dark sexual tension, social history and gentle comedy making it feel in some ways like a culmination of all his past novels.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Anyone will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.
Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel is another long one – 560 pages this time – but in her case, she has an excuse, as Demon Copperhead is a retelling of the Charles Dicken’s classic David Copperfield, reset in the Appalachian Mountains of the early ‘90s.
Demon tells the story of his life, from birth to adulthood and his journey through losing his parents, foster care, painkiller addiction, death and redemption. The plot points follow the narrative of David Copperfield, with some changes and it is not necessary to have read David Copperfield to appreciate this novel. As with Dickens, the narrative explores social and political themes, like the opioid crisis, the difficulties of the foster care system and the demonisation of people living in poverty. The plot is packed and the characters are dense and Kingsolver has great fun renaming and reimagining Dicken’s classic characters. Uriah Heep becomes U-Haul Pyle, while Steerforth becomes Fast Forward.
However, the book is really long and after a while, I wondered what exactly Kingsolver was trying to say by retelling this story. Her work has always focused on the political and the social, but I didn’t feel like there was any depth of insight into the opioid crisis or how poor orphaned children are treated beyond the idea that both are bad. However, at its heart is the story of one boy, let down by family circumstances and the system, fighting to make something of himself, with one dream to see the ocean and Kingsolver pulls the book back in her depiction of Demon himself, who, like David Copperfield is an unforgettable character.
I am such a sucker for a horror movie and Fresh is a relatively enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable entry into the genre, elevated by the charisma of its two leads.
Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is ready to give up on the online dating scene when she happens to meet handsome, funny and intelligent stranger Steve (Sebastian Stan) at the grocery store. After a whirlwind few weeks, she agrees to go away with him for the weekend but gets more than she bargained for. What initially makes Fresh so, well, refreshing is the first half hour, which plays out like a traditional romantic comedy, buoyed along by the charisma and great chemistry of the two leads. The bravura decision to delay the title sequence also works well to unsettle the viewer before the movie shifts tone completely and enters more pulpy territory. Once we realise that Steve is not all he seems, the movie loses any subtlety it once had, but Sebastian Stan is having so much fun and Daisy Edgar-Jones is such a winningly sharp presence that Fresh just about gets away with it. As s skewering of the modern day dating game, it has bite. In more ways than one!
I’ve been meaning to watch Intouchables for ages, and turned it on thinking that it might be a nice distraction, as I’d heard it was a smash feel-good hit when it originally came out in France. Oh how I underestimated this movie.
This is the age-old story of an odd-couple friendship between Philippe (François Cluzet), a rich, handsome, cultivated quadriplegic, and his new carer, Driss (Omar Sy), an intelligent, charismatic, uneducated young working-class West African who has done time for robbery. What draws them together is Driss’s total honesty, a shared sense of humour and the fact that Driss does not patronise his boss for his disability and nor does Philippe patronise Driss because of his poverty. Although based on a true story, there is nothing fresh about the plot, but what makes this such an enjoyable film is the charisma of both leads, the joyful focus on the importance of kindness and friendship and some very accomplished set pieces.
If you are looking for something to cheer you up, Intouchables is just the ticket.
I am only five episodes into Sharon Horgan’s new show for Apple TV – Bad Sisters – but so far, it is a deliciously dark comedy centred around four sisters who plot to kill the overbearing and cruel husband of their fifth sister, who is losing herself in her abusive marriage.
Horgan is great at mixing the dark with the comic and so far, Bad Sisters is an enjoyable guessing game of whodunit. Claes Bang, so good in Dracula and The Square, is wonderfully evil as patriarch John Paul and the ever reliable Sarah Greene is having a lot of fun as one-eyed sister Bibi. The insurance storyline is not really working for me at the moment, but I’ll still watch to see who and how is responsible for John Paul’s death. Added points for the presence of Michael Smiley and that excellent title sequence…
This month, I reviewed two new albums for No More Workhorse, the 70s inspired pop delights of Spark by Whitney and a gorgeous album of contemporary classical music called Player, Piano from legendary producer Daniel Lanois. However, the album I am most looking forward to in October, is the new one from Courtney Marie Andrews, who has the voice of an angel.
Monthly Miscellany am homes bad sisters barbara kingsolver Courtney marie andrews daniel lanois fresh ian mcewan intouchable Monthly Miscellany whitney
Cathy746books View All →
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!
That’s encouraged me to pick up McEwan again, it’s been a while. Agree with you on ‘intouchables’ a feel good movie that does just that. Omar Sy is also great in ‘Lupin,’
Have seen Courtney a couple of times, most recently in the central churchl in Belfast last year. Cliched I know, but her voice and lyrics are a balm for the soul. Think she has a record store tour coming up in the Uk in October and dates to follow in March.
Thanks Adrian, I didn’t realise that Omar Sy was in Lupin, I will definitely check it out now. Courtney is playing Bangor Open House soon I think. Must see if they still have tickets.
I’ve got the Kingsolver coming to me and I’ll read it because it’s her but I’m a bit nervous as I’m not a Dickens fan! It’s useful to know you don’t need a working knowledge of DC to appreciate it!
We’ve started to watch the Bob Mortimer and thingy Whitehouse fishing programme, in the quest for gentle telly, as well as Big Zuu’s Big Eats. Always behind the times, us!
The Kingsolver is quite entertaining but I think I’m just a bit tired of books that are 500 pages plus! I love that fishing programme – so enjoyable.
Absolutely loved Intouchables which I’ve seen twice. Perfect comfort watching for our current, grim times.
Oh I adored it Susan. I thought it was going to be overly sentimental, but it was just perfect. I will watch it again for sure.
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The MacEwan novel reminds me of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – clearly autobiographical, a little indulgent, but they’re talented enough to get away with it. I really want to watch Bad Sisters, after loving Catastrophe!
Yes, I agree. it’s definitely indulgent, but he carries it off. Bad Sisters is great fun.
I haven’t read a McEwan for years. I kind of went off him after he said some dumb things about Brexit, but this one does sound good. I might wait for my local library to get it and then borrow it.
I really enjoyed it Kim and I didn’t expect to. Some of the political stuff is heavy-handed, but I could look past it.
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I’ve been thinking of reading more McEwan, but maybe another 500 pager is a bit much right now. 🙂
Definitely one that you need to make time for!
She’s very prolific, Barbara Kingsolver. It seems like two minutes since she published Unsheltered (in fact it was 2018 I checked) and here she is with another 500 page work. Will definitely add this one to the list.
It’s definitely a very long book, but then a retelling of David Copperfield was never going to be short as there is a lot of plot to get through.
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Hi Cathy – great to see what you’ve been reading! I’ve read 2 books by Ian McEwan – Saturday and Atonement and liked them very much. I tried reading Sweet Tooth but couldn’t get into it, but I would like to try another of his books. Thanks for reviewing Lessons. Happy Fall!
Thanks Barbara, I read loads of McEwan when I was younger but nothing recently, so this was a really pleasant surprise.
David Copperfield is possibly my least favourite novel ever so I steered clear of Demon Copperfield, and it sounds like Kingsolver has her preachy hat on as well. Shame about the Homes – I really liked some of her others.
‘Her preachy hat’ sums it up perfectly! There’s lots to like in the Homes, it just didn’t come together for me.
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I’m loving Bad Sisters too – Claes Bang is wonderfully awful!
Isn’t he? I loved him in Dracula, but he is just awful in this (in a good way!)
I’m exactly the same with Ian McEwan, read him loads at one point, but not for years now. Lessons does sound appealing though.
I’m so tempted by the trailers for Bad Sisters that I wondered if I could binge the whole lot in a week, which is the free trial length with Apple TV! I do have some leave from work coming up… 😉
I loved Intouchables too – such charismatic leads and such a moving story.
Bad Sisters is definitely worth a binge. It’s great fun.
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ooo ive had my eye on Bad Sisters for a while – I really loved Sharon Horgan in Aisling Bea’s show, This Way Up!
It’s great fin and Horgan is great. All the cast is to be fair.
I also used to read everything written by McEwan but Saturday marked a watershed in my love of his work. Good to know that he might have returned to his previous good form.
It’s certainly a bit baggy Karen, but I really enjoyed it.
I’ve been sitting on a copy of Demon Copperhead for a couple of weeks now – it looks like such a behemoth, I just haven’t been able to motivate myself to pick it up!
It is really long and there is a LOT of plot, but once it gets going its quite enjoyable,
Very Informative content on opioid Thank you for the article!
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