Bookish and not so Bookish Thoughts!

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Bookish and Not So Bookish Thoughts post and I am obviously procrastinating in my 20 Books of Summer reviews so here are some of the bookish and not so bookish things that have been going on chez 746 Books! Bookish and Not So Bookish Thoughts is hosted by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous

I was extremely excited in work last week to meet the amazing Bernard MacLaverty! I have long been a fan of his work – particularly the beautiful Grace Notes and his wonderful short stories, and the good news is that he is the nicest, funniest man in ‘real life’! 

He read to a sold out audience of 200 from his new book Midwinter Break, signed books for almost 2 hours and was a general delight. 

I have just put the finishing touches onto my autumn programme for HomePlace and am very excited about a few authors who will be visiting. I will of course, keep you updated!

This week I treated myself to a rather lovely Out of Print tee-shirt! We Have Always Lived at the Castle is one of my favourite books and I couldn’t resist this gorgeous design. I got hit with a Customs charge I wasn’t expecting for ordering from the US, but it was still worth it!

Despite having almost half my 20 Books of Summer left to read, myself and the hubbie are relishing Season 2 of the brilliant Preacher. Based on the comic books of the same name, Preacher is irreverent, funny and sometimes scary and one of the most enjoyable shows on TV. Plus Ruth Negga has the best costumes as the sassy Tulip O’Hare.  Last month we watched The Handmaids Tale, which was fantastic but heavy-going, so Preacher is a little bit of light relief. If you haven’t seen it yet, this opening scene of Season 2 should give you an idea of what you are missing!

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I’m also on a bit of a movie binge this summer, particularly of the creepier kind. I’ve loved Get Out, Hell or High Water, Free Fire and The Invitation.

Finally I’ve noticed that I am starting a LOT of books, but not actually finishing anything! I am currently ‘reading’ 9 books. That can’t be good, can it? I have actual books, books on my ipad and books on my phone, all in different states of read-ness. And the worst thing? Most of them aren’t even from my 20 Books list!  I keep getting sent proof copies and getting excited and starting them before I’ve finished anything else!

How do you all feel about having a lot of books on the go at once? Are you a one book reader? 

So, basically this summer, when I’m not working, reading or watching movies, the only other thing I’m doing is bouncing. On the twins’ new trampoline. It’s been a big hit and if anything, is giving me a bit of a work out!

I hope you are all having a great summer!

No 583 Motel Chronicles & Hawk Moon by Sam Shepard

What is it I want to make something of? A collection of sound’

Motel Chronicles

Motel Chronicles and Hawk Moon doesn’t appear on this year’s 20 Book of Summer list, but it was on my list in 2014! I don’t feel so bad swapping one of my current list for this one as I didn’t read it then and thought I would turn to it now following the sad news of Sam Shepard’s death last week.

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I am a big fan of Sam Shepard’s work, from his plays to his movie appearances, but Motel Chronicles & Hawk Moon is a collection of his prose work for which he is not so well known. If you are new to Shepard, I wouldn’t advise this as a good place to start, but if you know his work and his exploration of the themes of family, abandonment, masculinity and temporality, then these collections might just appeal.

Motel Chronicles are billed as autobiographical snap shots of Shepard’s own life, all based in and around the transience of motel rooms. As a child, Shepard grew up on the road, moving from place to place with his parents as his father was a US soldier and later in the 1980s he drifted around the south-west creating these autobiographical vignettes.

What follows is a scrap book of very short stories, reminiscences and poems of his time as an actor, a ranch hand, a waiter and a musician, which all have a romanticised vision of the transitory nature of life on the road. Many cover themes that Shepard built on in his later plays but at heart is a belief in the magical, mystical nature of the American West.

Often the scraps of stories read like the lyrics to an early Tom Waits song, populated as they are with drunks and jukeboxes, car thieves and put upon wives. A man receives a postcard from his woman that simply says

‘Darling, I got the report back from the doctor and he said, its best I don’t see you anymore’

A woman trying to escape her abusive partner runs for the lights of a neighbouring house because ‘any light is better than the dark’ while a man emptying his bins muses on the end of the world

I’d just as soon not know if you wanna know the truth. I’d just as soon take it as it comes. Not get all het up about it. If I dissolve, I dissolve. Nothing to it. Just as soon dissolve in peace. Except they say it doesn’t happen all at once. Supposed to be slow. Tortured like. Belabored. Ghastly breathing.

Nice thoughts. I only came to empty the garbage.

There is a world weariness, a sense of life lived on the edge that permeates these glimpses into the lives of Shepard’s characters. Many are yearning for connection of any kind, like the boy who pretends to sleepwalk to get his parents attention

Humour was the farthest thing from my mind. It wasn’t to make them laugh. It was only for the thrill of having a relationship with them outside the ordinary

Some pieces are unsettling, like the story of the two nurses and a man in a tuxedo who creep around town in the dead of night leaving a white wicker chair they believe to be a symbol of death in other people’s gardens, and many of the stories centre around people being where they aren’t supposed to be and seeing things they really shouldn’t see.

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There is a strength to the obviously autobiographical pieces in the collection, including a profile of Shepard’s isolated father who lives in the desert and the longest story in the book, at 14 pages, which details the near fatal stroke and subsequent surgery of a female family member, who would seem to be Shepard’s mother. The writing is accompanied by photographs of Shepard with his father; his first wife O’Lan Jones (his ‘natural woman’) and with various friends, family members and cars. It adds to the scrap book/ notebook feel, as all the poems and prose pieces are untitled with no real through thread to connect them to each other.

The pieces feel like flash fiction, before flash fiction existed – short, sharp, ethereal scenes that work best when they tap into the themes that permeate plays like Fool for Love, Buried Child or True West.

Hawk Moon is less successful, an earlier collection, it lacks the cohesion of Motel Chronicles. It is a much darker collection of writings, a series of unpunctuated prose poems that don’t quite capture the imagination in the way that the Motel Chronicles pieces do. There is an apocalyptic feel to these pieces but they work best when they are more structured. Seven is a Number in Magic depicts a group of nurses who are mugged by a group of young boys and one of them has her ear cut off.

The next day the six nurses bring the seventh one with one ear a transistor radio to her room in the hospital where she used to work. They all make jokes about at least she knows what she’s in for.

The kid with the nurse’s ear sits on top of a roof on his haunches staring down at the ear. He drives a hole through the white lobe with a nail and threads it on a leather thong then puts it around his neck. He stands up and raises a fist to the sky. The Gods are well pleased.

Generally speaking Motel Chronicles & Hawk Moon are collections to dip in and out of, and will probably be more enjoyable if you are familiar with Shepard’s plays. The poetry is, for the most part, not very good, and the marketing that suggests that these stories were the basis for the screenplay of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, seems to be a little misplaced.

Yet, there are stories here that linger long and lay the groundwork for that mythic territory that Shepard created in his work.

 

Read on: Book

Number Read: 164

Number Remaining: 582

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The Orphans by Annemarie Neary

I reviewed Annemarie Neary’s novel Siren last year and enjoyed the clever plotting and sharp writing very much. Her new novel The Orphans lives up to that initial promise and delivers a thoughtful, subtle thriller that explores childhood trauma and how the ghosts of our past can define who we become.

The book opens in Goa in 1992, where Sophie and William are living with their two young children Jess and Sparrow (Ro for short). They are living the hippy dream, but that dream soon becomes a nightmare when the couple disappear from the beach in plain sight while their children play by the water’s edge. William’s body is discovered, but Sophie has vanished, leaving these two children orphaned in a strange country. Pursued by the tabloids and eventually taken in by friends and relatives, Jess is left as the protector of her younger brother at just the age of eight. 

What follows is both a thriller in the sense that there is a need to uncover what actually happened on the beach that day, and an exploration of what happens to children who face grief at such a young age.

 Now grown-up and living in London, Jess has overcome her childhood adversity by attempting to create the perfect life. Married with a baby daughter she is a successful lawyer, living in a beautiful house overlooking the common. There are cracks in the façade though, including issues at work, a crippling mortgage and questions over her husband’s fidelity.  

However, Jess has such a need for control and security, that she turns a blind eye to her problems and tries to convince herself and everyone around her that her life is perfect. 

Ro has taken a much different path, spending the intervening decades travelling the world searching for clues as to the whereabouts of his mother. When a passport turns up in Ireland, Ro follows the trail to his mother’s old friend Mags, who suggests that his mother is still close to Jess. This news is the spark that lights the touch paper and Ro’s ensuing actions have a devastating effect on all involved. 

Like Siren, The Orphans explores the psychological fall out of events of the past and the choices that are made in the light of what has gone before. Where Jess seeks control, Ro embraces chaos. Jess likes rules and boundaries, in her life and in her work, while Ro is always clutching for the impossible. None of these approaches is bringing either sibling happiness, and Neary deftly explores the lasting pain of childhood abandonment and how it is difficult to escape.

The book is also strong on exploding the myth of the hippy lifestyle to show the darker side of trying to live a simpler life. As Jess and Ro explore their parents’ lives, they discover not the idyll they remember, but lives marred by drugs, infidelity and uncertainty.

 As with Neary’s previous novel, The Orphans is well plotted, going back and forth from Jess to Ro’s point of view, teasing out the truth little by little and trusting the reader to fill in the blanks. A sub-plot about a harassing work colleague adds to a sense of tension and unease, but sometimes distracts from the main story. 

The ending is not as explosive or unexpected as some readers may hope for, but eventually the resolution to the crime that was committed becomes less important than the pervading sympathy for the children at the heart of that crime. In Jess and Ro, Neary has created two fascinating characters and it is to her credit that the reader’s sympathy stays with them to the unforced and affecting conclusion.  

The Orphans is a different kind of thriller, subtle and compelling with an emphasis on strong characterisation and a great sense of place. From the sunlit beaches of Goa to a dank common in London, this is an atmospheric and gripping read. 

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.

#20 Books of Summer – An Update

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It is safe to say that my 20 Books of Summer Challenge is not going to plan at all.

With just under 4 weeks to go, I have read 10, reviewed a pitiful 5 and am half way through 2 more. 20 seems very far away right now and if my summer continues the way it has been, there is no way I’ll complete the challenge.

15 still might be possible, so I’m going to focus on that. I still have plenty of time for reading, but workload, kids-load and holidays have meant that I have little time for reviewing. I could give up sleep I suppose, but that probably wouldn’t help in the long run.

Having said that, we had a wonderful week’s holiday in Donegal, in glorious sunshine – YES, sunshine in Donegal – and I managed to read four books (although not all out of my 20 books pile!). If you get a chance to read Ruth Fitzmaurice’s new memoir I Found My Tribe, DO. You won’t regret it.

Work at Seamus Heaney HomePlace continues to be all-consuming and incredibly busy, but yesterday I spent the day with the legendary Bernard MacLaverty, so I can’t really complain.

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I have, however, been very slack at keeping up with everyone else’s progress and blogs, so do let me know how you are getting on and I promise, I will try to resume normal blog upkeep very soon!

One of the positives to come out of this year’s less than successful challenge is that I read one of the most stunning books I’ve encountered in years. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is a true masterpiece and while I’m not going to review it here today, it will get its own in-depth review because I loved it so much. If I read a better book this year, I’ll be amazed.

So, here are some more mini-reviews of the books I have managed to read from my 20 Books of Summer pile:

No 586 Gig: The Life and Times of A Rock Star Fantasist by Simon Armitage

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Simon Armitage’s entertaining and eminently readable collection of essays doesn’t exactly fit with its dramatic subtitle. If you know that Simon and his friends formed a rock band again in their mid-forties and you are looking for some insight into that, you won’t find much of that here.

Not that I’m complaining. Gig is a series of reminiscences, reviews and lyrics, strung together by Armitage’s undoubted love of music. So, you get reviews of gigs he has been too and some he missed, and family stories centred on music and most entertainingly, tales of funny, strange and downright surreal poetry readings. These are interspersed with some really powerful lyrics that Armitage wrote with prison inmates while making a documentary for Channel 4.

From being asked who would win in a fight, him or Jarvis Cocker, to being approached to be the face of Tetley Tea, Armitage is never less that engaging and self-effacing which makes for some laugh out loud moments, particularly when he describes coming across a copy of one of his poetry collections in a second hand shop – inscribed ‘To Mum and Dad’ in his own handwriting. He clearly loves music, and talks Dylan, The Fall (‘if you don’t like them, you’re wrong’) and The Smiths and his respect for those who make their living making music is evident.

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His own attempts at the rock star life are covered in the final few chapters of this entertaining and amiable book, as he forms a band with his wife, Speedy Sue and friends and they write and record a few songs. But it is clear that the gigs he is most comfortable with are more the poetry variety and long may he continue to perform them.

 Read On: Book

Number read: 161

Number Remaining: 585

 

No 585 Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner

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I had such high hopes for Dead Stars, a vicious satire on Hollywood, fame and celebrity. The book features some real life characters, including Michael Douglas who is attempting to remake ‘All that Jazz’; 13 year old Telma, the world’s youngest breast cancer survivor, who has just been usurped of her title by a 6 year old; Jacqui, a photographer who rose to fame taking naked pictures of her children and is now trying to revive her career photographing by dead babies, and her son Jerzy, a paparazzi photographer who specialises in up skirt shots of young female celebrities. Dead Stars is, for the most part, wilfully offensive. Prolonged descriptions of pornography and sex abound and chapters are labelled as either ‘Explicit’ or ‘Clean’. Intriguingly, most of the best writing is in the ‘clean’ sections, but these are few and far between. Some scenes are fantastic, particularly when a failing writer gets the chance to have a meeting with David Simon, but the novel is bogged down with satire free, unpleasant characters whose spiel is often difficult to read, let alone empathise with.

It’s a shame, as there are some nice themes at play here – the need to be famous, any kind of famous, at all costs and the pain of mortality and how we face it. However, any insight is drowned out by pages and pages of unpleasant scenes, descriptions of pornography that are completely unnecessary,  and thinly drawn, caricatures of characters. One to avoid.

Read On: iBooks

Number Read: 162

Number Remaining: 584

 

No 584 The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Over Hollywood by James Mottram

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James Mottram’s well researched but somewhat dry exploration of the independent film-makers who rose to prominence in the wake of Steven Soderbergh’s incredible success with ‘sex, lies and videotape’, covers much of the same ground as Peter Biskind has done previously in his superior exploration ‘Down and Dirty Pictures’.

Taking Soderbergh as the starting and finishing point, Mottram explores the work of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne and links them thematically to the so-called ‘golden age’ of 1970s cinema when Spielberg, Altman, Scorsese and DePalma were riding high.

It’s an interesting premise, detailing how the Sundance Film Festival brought these filmmakers to the attention of the big studios who saw a financial incentive in championing them. He also explores how the filmmakers themselves played the system and tried to maintain that sense of ‘independence’ within big-budget cinema. Using Soderbergh’s career as the back-bone of the book, Mottram explores how these artists are using the Hollywood machine to create their vision of what cinema can be.

This is a comprehensive book but it has clearly dated in the intervening years since it was written and is in some ways lessened by its own constraints. By exploring only those filmmakers he considers part of the Sundance gang, other artists like the Coen Brothers or foreign directors like Alfonso Cuaron are omitted. Even English directors like Sam Mendes or Danny Boyle go unmentioned, meaning there is no wider cinematic depth to Mottram’s case. The book also focuses heavily on long, uninspiring descriptions of films, which give no real additional insight to the argument being made. Mottram is also clearly

The question also remains at the end of reading this book, did the Mavericks actually take over Hollywood, or did Hollywood use them to their advantage? Mottram himself remains undecided given Hollywood’s continuing deification of the blockbuster and the ultimate importance of the bottom line.

The Sundance Kids is an entertaining enough read for a film buff like me, but does suffer a little in comparison to Peter Biskind’s work. Still, after reading it, I have a lovely long list of movies new and old that I want to check out!

Read On: Book

Number Read: 163

Number Remaining: 583

 So there we are, 8 out of 20 books reviewed! I will be reviewing No One Belongs Here More than You by Miranda July, which I liked a lot and the wonderful Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson hopefully very soon, I will try not to leave it another month before I post again!

Please do let me know how you are all getting on and what kind of summer you are having!

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Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor

Joyride to Jupiter cover

Nuala O’Connor’s stunning new collection of short stories Joyride to Jupiter opens with the line ‘I knew something was going to go wrong as sure as I knew west was west’ and closes with the promise that ‘All will be well.’ Things do go wrong in these stories, sometimes very wrong, but O’Connor moves seamlessly from despair to hope in this witty, humorous and moving collection.

Loss permeates a lot of the stories in Joyride to Jupiter as relationships falter, adulteries happen and familial ties are tested.

In the affecting Tinnycross estranged brothers are fighting over the inheritance of their family home, while the narrator of Consolata looks back on the childhood moment when she caught her father having sex with a nun. ‘How could my Sister Consolata want to be better friends with my father than with me?’

In Futuretense a copywriter for a fragrance company reflects on the suicide of her brother as she comes up with the blurb for new scents; while Squidinky depicts a tattooist grieving for her dead partner.

Yet this is not a depressing collection by any means. What makes these stories successful is the deft blending of wit and tenderness coupled with effective and welcome moments of humour. O’Connor is also skilfully aware of the importance in the short story of allowing nothing in particular to happen; yet when dramatic moments come they feel cohesive and well-timed.

In the wonderfully named title story, a man struggles to deal with his wife’s dementia and her regression into child-like precociousness. She starts wearing tracksuits and cheap teenage make-up and becomes more and more reliant on her husband.

And then she laughed because laughter falls from her now as it never did; it falls and pools around us, the one good thing. I knelt and stepped her feet into her knickers and pulled them up. I put her arms into the sleeves of her blouse and fiddled with the tiny buttons. She was childlike in her pliancy. I kissed her forehead. ‘You’re my dolly’, I said.

Poignancy soon gives way to unease as O’Connor skilfully portrays the unreliability of our narrator and as with all these stories there is a sense for the reader that we are never quite sure where we are going to be taken.

There is a strong sense of place in these stories, from rural Ireland to Naples via Rio de Janeiro, with vivid descriptions of landscape that often catch the breath.

Tonight there is a moon-rind, a nicotined fingernail, hanging low over the lake; above it, a Swarovski sparkler of a star

Being in a place or being away from a place are often the crux of these stories, whether it be a Ukrainian chambermaid watching her child grow up via Skype or a young emigre working in Manhattan and thinking of her mother back in Galway. These characters might as well be on Jupiter for the distance they have to breach.

My face is a shadow. My Mammy’s features blur and slip out of focus. I put my hand to the glass and rub at it to try to conjure her again. And I am flattened by the truth of things; no more than the poor little maneen from Ballinasloe, I will never look into my Mammy’s eyes again.

O’Connor’s characters are often ‘flattened by the truth of things’ and a lot of the stories rest on a moment of realisation and clarity. Whether or not anything will come of these moments of revelation is often tantalisingly left up to the reader.

Narrative voices are well-captured, particularly in the hilarious Penny and Leo in Married Bliss, where Penny’s anger at her belief that Leo is cheating, online and in real life, doesn’t stop her from fantasising about a tryst with the local priest.

Ah, he’s a fine thing though. God forgive me but I’d bounce up and down on Father Hugh Boylan all night, given a chance

The seemingly ironic nature of the title of the story does not play out the way you would expect and the story turns on its head to suggest that happiness comes in many forms.

In Joyride to Jupiter, the shortest pieces are no less affecting, unsurprising given O’Connor’s experience as a flash fiction writer. In Fish a neighbouring man and woman see each other in a state of undress, ‘and none of it could be undone’ while in the affecting Girlgrief a mother deals with the death of her grown son by looking after his daughter she has never met before. The ingenious Yellow verges towards science fiction as couples try to catch flying babies in a net – the style of the story perfectly capturing the surreal nature of infertility treatment.

Joyride to Jupiter is a collection that shows a writer with complete mastery of her craft. The best of the stories hint rather than shout but all are poignant and complex, riding on the dichotomy between hope and despair. She is clear-eyed when exploring the dark realities of human behaviour, but the humour and wit displayed within her affecting prose allow this collection to soar.

 Nuala O'Connor author 2

Nuala O’Connor AKA Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, she lives in East Galway. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island in June 2017. Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. Miss Emily was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015 and longlisted for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, will be published in 2018.

www.nualaoconnor.com

 

June Round Up! – #20booksof summer

The curse of 20 Books of Summer has struck again!

For yet another year, my reading is going really well, but the reviewing is falling by the wayside.

I swore I wouldn’t do mini-reviews, but I have to face facts. We’re one month in and by my calculations, I should have 6.66 books reviewed. I haven’t. I have managed to review the grand total of three. So, I’m going to do quick reviews of the two books I have read and while they both deserve a full review in their own right, I am afraid they are going to have to be disappointed in me.

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No 588: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood is not at all what I expected from my first Murakami. I anticipated something weird, futuristic and challenging, but instead got a beautiful, languorous meditation on youth, love and the power of memory.

When he hears the famous Beatles song as he touches down on an international flight, Toru Watanabe recalls his first love Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. The song transports him back almost twenty years to his student days in 1960s Tokyo, a world of faltering friendships, obsessive love, loss and passion, He recalls his consuming relationship with Naoko, conducted mostly at a sanitarium where she has chosen to stay and how their relationship is threatened by Midori, an impetuous and passionate young woman who forces Watanabe to choose between the future and the past.

The novel is set at a time of student unrest and volatile demonstrations, but this only serves as the background to a more delicate love story as Watanabe tries to recall all the details of this emotional time in his life.

What if I’ve forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?

If this were just a straightforward tale of a love triangle, Murakami would give answers, relationships would be cemented. What he presents instead is not a rose-tinted love story. It is an honest, beautifully written coming of age story that explores the difficult transition between adolescence and adulthood, where sanity and self-preservation are constantly under threat and ‘ordinary’ love is anything but ordinary.

”I once had a girl / Or should I say, she once had me,” are the opening lines of the Beatles song and they are an apt summary of this lovely, questioning book. Murakami gives us no resolution, but then this is a book of memory with all the shadows and whispers that memories contain.

Read on: iPad

Number Read: 159

Number Remaining: 587

yellow wallpaper

No 587 The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I did cheat slightly by including The Yellow Wallpaper in my 20 Books, given that it is really a short story. But what a story it is and I would argue, it packs more emotional intensity and vivid imagery into its 30-odd pages than a lot of novels I’ve read.

The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

The Yellow Wallpaper has become a classic of feminist fiction, a pioneering portrait of the trauma of postnatal depression. Written with a barely concealed fury, this autobiographical horror story scandalized readers on its publication with its portrayal of a woman who loses her mind because she has literally nothing to do.

A century on and The Yellow Wallpaper has lost nothing of its unsettling power. The first person narration, in the form of a diary, gives it an urgent immediacy, and the fact that it was born out of Gilman’s own experience of mental illness, makes it undeniably prescient. The narrator is a nameless young woman who has recently had a baby. She is suffering from a ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’ as diagnosed by her husband and her brother, both doctors. Treatment for her illness is rest. She is confined in an upstairs room of a large country house and it is in this room, with a lack of anything else at all to occupy her, that she becomes at first disgusted, then enthralled and finally obsessed with the yellow patterned wallpaper.

I never saw a worse paper in my life. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions… The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

Studying the wallpaper becomes her only self-chosen activity. She is not allowed to look after her child, see friends, read or write – so the examination of the wallpaper becomes a kind of freedom. Before long, she begins to see women trapped within the pattern, jailed just as she is. When she starts to see these women from her barred window, creeping in the garden below, her madness is complete.

I don’t like to look out of the windows even–there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?

The lack of mental stimulation has created a situation where she is literally bored out of her mind and Charlotte Gilman Perkins captures perfectly the eroding of her mental faculties brought about by the actions of the very people who were supposed to care for her. This is an incredibly well-written story, paced perfectly with a growing sense of paranoia and terror. It would be powerful enough without knowing the biography of its writer and as it stands is a stark rejoinder to the treatment of post-natal depression and the repression of the female mind.

Read On: Book

Number Read: 160

Number Remaining: 586

So how is everyone else doing in the challenge now that we are one month in? I am three-quarter of the way through THREE other books, so if I could just get them finished, I’d be close to be on track with my reading.

Do let me know how you are all getting on!

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No 589 The Blue Tango by Eoin McNamee: Book 3 of #20booksofsummer

 

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Eoin McNamee has made his name as an author of noirish literary reimaginings of real life crimes. From the Shankill Butchers to Princess Diana, he mines the novelistic possibilities that real life murder and conspiracy is alive with. His writing is lyrical, at times beautiful and always at odds with his subject matter.

The events of The Blue Tango may read like a fiction, but are actually based on an actual murder. In November 1952, the body of 19 year old Patricia Curran was discovered in the driveway of her home in Whiteabbey near Belfast. She had been stabbed 37 times. Iain Hay Gordon, a shy and solitary Scotsman serving with the RAF in Northern Ireland was convicted of her murder on the grounds of temporary insanity. It emerged that there had been a serious, high-level cover up into Patricia’s murder and despite it emerging that evidence had been withheld and that Gordon had been coerced into signing a confession, it wasn’t until 2000 that Mr Gordon managed to clear his name and has his false conviction quashed.

It is easy to see what would have drawn McNamee to this story. The wrongful conviction aside, the circumstances and characters surrounding Patricia Curran’s murder are the stuff of pulp crime novels. Her father, the high profile, highly connected Judge Curran was a gambler and heavily in debt. Before her death they had fought and he had cut off her tuition fees at university. Her moralistic, brow beaten mother hated the fact that Patricia had boyfriends and that she took a summer job driving a truck.

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Patricia photographed with her family

 

Her brother Desmond was a prominent member of the evangelical Moral Rearmament, and it was Desmond’s attempts to convert Iain Hay Gordon that initially brought Gordon in to contact with Patricia. Throw into the mix a dark, foreboding family house, a gothic Manderlay of sorts that held secrets that can still only be guessed at.

There was something not right up in that big house. There’s a twist in that Curran family that’s what I’m saying.

Outside of the big house, the peripheral characters are equally unsavoury from the bookie who is holding Judge Curran to ransom over unpaid debts, to the homosexual barber who is in the middle of everyone’s business, McNamee captures them all perfectly, particularly their need to be in the middle of the drama and excitement that such a high profile crime brings to a small town. They discover roles for themselves within a story that seems to be driven along by the hand of some invisible narrator. A local doctor is ‘a minor character, but one determined to imbue his role with an air of competent integrity’ while the Judge’s ‘role in the public narrative was established early. He was to be the good man bowed low by parental grief’

Rather than play this down, McNamee heightens the noir aspect of the story, emphasising how everyone begins to play the part expected of them. This is a book full of men hiding their true selves. Iain Hay Gordon pleaded guilty to the murder of Patricia Curran on threat of his mother being told that he was gay. Patricia’s father maintained the façade of successful upper-class business man while his life was falling apart around him. The only person who seems to have been truly herself was Patricia Curran.

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The search of the crime scene

 

The great success of The Blue Tango is to bring Patricia to life as something other than victim. Brash, headstrong and lively, the Patricia that comes off these pages is a fascinatingly independent young woman who loved painting, drove a delivery truck for a builder’s yard and had a wicked sense of humour. McNamee highlights her early feminist leanings, her disdain for the societal pressures put upon her and her yearning for a different kind of life away from the suffocating atmosphere of the family home.

He cleverly depicts how Patricia, in her role as murder victim, simply became a vessel for everyone else’s thoughts and fears – an iconic figure defined only by the mystery of her last few hour, rather than the life, albeit a short one, that came before.

Patricia seemed to accumulate images about her that day. The kind of images that photographers look for when they are attempting to find a study of grimy, mid-century atmospherics…the policeman wasn’t asking for evidence of a crime, but for a sign that she was already in the vicinity of death, that she was within its spectral confine and had conceded part of herself to it

Her final night at a club called Orchid Blue takes on an eerie prefiguring, as what happens later that night casts a shadow back over what has gone before.

Others maintained that there was indeed an escort, one that accounted for her deathly pallor, the way she drank and refused conversation with others, and that, at the end of the night, she was seen in the middle of the dance floor on her own, dancing with jerky reluctant steps as though she took her lead from a sure footed and macabre suitor.

In order to make Patricia’s death fit a neater narrative, her virtue is pored over – her sexual activity, her relationship with a married man, the nature of her death. The press and the public found it more palatable to think that she in some way deserved what she got.

They talked about Patricia Curran. Rumours had reached them of her sexual history. They said she drank in the bars of Amelia Street where the whores were. She was the kind of girl that was referred to as out of control. They thought she might be better off as a victim of murder. It brought a softness to her….They felt it had rescued her femininity. It brought a grandeur and a pathos to the meanness of her life. It enabled them to feel sympathy for her, feel for her as if she were a daughter, full of promise, a little wayward, in need of a guiding hand. They used words like wayward. They used words like guiding hand.

So, what did happen to Patricia Curran? Why did her father call her boyfriend and ask him if Patricia was there after he already knew she was dead? Why was there a delay in the finding of the body and calling the police? Why was Patricia’s body moved and taken to the local GPs office, disturbing the crime scene? Why did her parents strip everything from her bedroom, including carpets and curtains and burn them?

While these questions are mulled over, The Blue Tango doesn’t answer them. How could it? The facts are that Patricia was murdered and high ranking members of the police and the judiciary moved in and framed an innocent man. To protect whom? The most likely answer is Judge Curran or another family member, but McNamee has said himself that he doesn’t explore these crimes through fiction in order to offer solutions. There are no solutions because the facts of the case are unchangeable. But fiction can shine a light on what we can’t know, the humanity at the centre of these lurid, headline grabbing tales. As McNamee says,

“I often feel if you get the art right, the truth tends to follow. Someone said the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery, there aren’t any easy solutions and I’m not trying to offer any. I would like people to come away with an appreciation of the depth of humanity and the mysteries of life, not offer glib solutions. This is where my books differ from the crime genre where things are tied up neatly at the end.”

The Blue Tango is undoubtedly a crime novel, but despite the dark and painful subject matter, the writing style is luminous and lyrical, often poetic at times. McNamee is particularly thoughtful in his depiction of the other victim of this story – Iain Hay Gordon.

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Iain Hay Gordon pictured entering the courtroom

 

Gordon had constructed a version of his childhood that portrayed his parents as small, unemphatic people, tending to their child with gentle hands. This illusion of their vulnerability was among the elements that contributed to his eventual confession to the murder.

He thought his mother could not bear any pain. In fact, following his conviction his parents sold their house, moved into rented accommodation, and set about attempting to establish his innocence with a calm-eyed and undemonstrative rigour that sustained them for years….until at first one then the other died and were buried in a shabby Glasgow graveyard.

This is where the writer’s imagination meets with factual realism to create a picture of the humanity at the heart of this noirish tale. Patricia Curran was a victim of someone and Iain Hay Gordon was a victim too. In The Blue Tango, Eoin McNamee remembers them as people, rather that characters in a lurid press story and that is the main success of this fascinating book.

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