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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#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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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.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 158

Number Remaining: 588

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No 590 The Hunters by Claire Messud : Book 2 of #20booksofsummer

In Claire Messud’s acclaimed novel The Woman Upstairs, her fascinating character of Nora was held up as a perfect example of an unreliable narrator, to the point where some readers even questioned her sanity.

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In The Hunters, a collection of two novellas, Messud seems to be dissecting the very idea of what a narrator is.

Maria, the lead character of A Simple Tale, discovers blood-streaked walls at the home of Mrs. Ellington, her employer whom she has worked for and cared for every Tuesday for over 40 years. The situation is not as critical as Maria fears, but the situation her employer finds herself in triggers a reminiscence as Maria looks back over her own life, a life of displacement and disappointment which has been marked by looking after others.

As a young girl in Ukraine, Maria was enslaved by the Nazis in WW” before emigrating with her Polish husband to Canada. One form of enslavement becomes another as she works in service to a series of wealthy women for most of her life. Her hopes for her son are dashed by his marriage to a woman she feels unworthy of him and as the employer/ employee relationship becomes unstable, Maria comes to realise that she no longer needs to be silent about who she truly is. The story that she has becomes a story to be told.

In general, she knew that her employers felt an unspoken pity for her unspoken suffering; that they considered, at least initially, their employment of a Displaced Person to be a moral act; and yet, that, unable to imagine her provenance and unwilling to consider it anything other than benighted, they required her silence about her previous life as much as, if not more so than, they required her promptness and efficiency in the acquittal of their household chores.

Maria’s story is a fascinating one, from an historical perspective, and Messud captures well that feeling of superfluousness that can pervade even the most fulfilled of lives. In an attempt to make an effort with her son and his family, Maria goes on holiday with them, only to find that being in the middle of their lives only serves to highlight the distance between them.

Maria could not have explained the helplessness she felt….the hideous superfluity. It wasn’t the morning’s rage, it was instead an agony, a physical agitation, a more profound sense of not belonging than she had ever before, in all her life, experienced. She was to this scene like the flag on the back of the boat, or like the occasional burst of an engine in the distance: a tiny rootless fact, an irrelevance

However easy it is to empathise with Maria’s situation, it is hard to engage directly with her. Messud leaves her reader is kept at a distance, and like the plastic covering that Maria keeps on her living room furniture, there is a veneer to the writing that keeps us at arm’s length.

In the second, a title story The Hunters, we are distanced even further from the narrator in that we are not even aware of the American academic’s gender. Following the breakdown of a romantic relationship, our sexless and nameless narrator has moved to a disappointing London flat to carry out research for the summer. An unusual woman called Ridley Wandor, who lives downstairs and cares for the terminally ill repeatedly tries to make friends with the academic, who in turn becomes obsessed with discovering a darkness in Wandor’s seemingly innocuous attempts at friendship.

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This is a spooky tale, through inference rather than action and it has been noted that it carries a real debt to Henry James. Like the governess in The Turn of the Screw, it becomes apparent that the motives being ascribed to Ridley Wandor may actually be a projection of neurosis on the part of our narrator. Is Ridley Wandor inadvertently killing off her patients? Does her mother really exist? And what happened to the man who lived in the flat previously? All these questions come directly from the narrator’s imagination, rather than anything Ridley does, or doesn’t do.

It’s a vague story, strong on atmosphere and tension, but again distancing. This is in part due to the first person narrative voice, whose flowery prose and old-fashioned style of language may prove too convoluted for some readers.

Take this description of the woman downstairs,

I noticed her hands because I could not bear to look too closely at her face, the ugliness of which resided not in any tangible, and hence admirable, disgrace, but in the lack it represented – lack of color, lack of distinction, lack of features. No eyebrows to speak of; no nameable hue to the blinking little eyes; no form to the little nose; as I have said, virtually no lips, and what slivers there were, bloodless.

The writing is gleeful, but it goes on in this overblown vein for the whole of the novella and can, at times, be exhausting to read. Messud is a fan of parentheses and complex sentence structure which means reading these stories takes time, despite their brevity.

Overall though, these are incredibly well written stories, elegantly constructed with powerful descriptive passages. Messud seems to be exploring the power of the story itself, the stories we tell others and the stories we hide. Maria pretends that her story doesn’t exist because it is what the practicalities of her life demands. The American scholar is so bored of the narrative that they find themselves in, that they create one for an unfortunate other. Displacement looms large in these pages, the character in The Hunters does not feel at home in London, while Maria has never felt at home in Canada. Their stories have been uprooted and fragmented and as such no longer feel relevant. The breakdown of significant relationships have left them both feeling lonely and hunting for relevance.

It was not the same, but it was similar, to what she felt herself, which was too, a sensation of the lights going out – of the people who could know her, or who cared to know her, disappearing – until rather than not seeing, Maria was above all unseen.

Unwilling to be unseen, the characters in these two short novels tell stories, of themselves and of others in order to remain seen and not forgotten.

20 books

Read on: Kindle

Number Read: 157

Number Remaining: 589

 

 

 

 

Calf by Andrea Kleine: Book 1 of #20booksofsummer

 

Andrea Kleine’s Calf is catnip to me.

From the tagline that claims it is a cross between Are You There God it’s Me Margaret and Taxi Driver, to the fact that it is a fictionalised account of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinkley, this is a book that screamed ‘Must Read!’ to me.

Calf-by-Andrea-Kleine

Despite the fact that a lot of books scream the same thing at me, I managed to convince my husband that I needed this book for my birthday. Given that I now no longer buy new books, Calf came with a lot of expectation, and for the most part, it lived up to that.

Set in the heady days of 1981, performance artist Andrea Kleine takes her inspiration from real life events. While the world was rocked by John Hinkley Jr’s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, Kleine’s world was rocked by the murder of her close childhood friend by her mother Leslie De Veau. Unconnected, apart from both happening in Washington DC, these events converged when De Veau and Hinkley later became lovers while inmates in hospital.

Kleine fictionalises these real life characters, so John Hinkley Jr becomes Jeff Hackney while Leslie De Veau is Valerie, who shots her daughter Kirin while she sleeps in bed.

Set over one year and made up of dual narratives, Kleine’s story follows Jeff Hackney as he becomes obsessed with and stalks a young actress, Amber Carroll (here standing in for Jodi Foster).  Meanwhile, eleven year old Tammy, is a friend of Kirin, the young girl murdered by her mother Valerie in her sleep.

These are dramatic, almost surreal stories, but these were surreal times and Kleine deftly captures the confusion of an era when John Lennon had just been assassinated, AIDS was in the ascendant, an actor was President and the threat of the Russians and nuclear war was a cloud over everybody’s days.

The confused, fractured and violent nature of the world is reflected in the microcosm of family life. 11 year old Tammy feels alienated from her family; she is frightened of her step-father, feels abandoned by her mother and is aggrieved at having to look after her siblings. Life outside of the home is no less confusing as she deals with the emerging sexuality of her friends, bullying and shifting allegiances. When Kirin is murdered, Tammy struggles to control the darkness within her own mind.

andrea

Andrea Kleine

 

Older, but just as childlike is Jeff Hackney. He is devastated by the death of his idol John Lennon and spends his days in bed thinking about writing songs. His parents are losing patience with their drop out son and his response is to create a fictional girlfriend and move to LA to try and meet Amber Carroll, the young actress with whom he has become infatuated. Delusional, manipulative and unstable Jeffrey’s descent into insanity is chilling, and Kleine cleverly portrays his suffocating need to be noticed, to be acknowledged.

When he meets a girl in a motel whom he later convinces himself was Amber, his fixation is immediate and engulfing. A flippant remark from her becomes a talisman of self-worth to him.

‘Oh yeah. You look like you could be a rock star’

Jeffrey’s entire face began to beam. No one had ever said anything like that to him before. This girl was the one person in the entire universe who got him.

Kleine may stop short of empathising with her creation, but she does try to understand him. As he moves closer to the idea that only violence can provide what he needs, she captures his twisted logic with skill.

Better to go down in a blaze of glory. Better to let the world know I was here. Better to let Amber know I really loved her. Better to let everyone know I was here and I existed and I had feelings. I had ideas. I had thoughts. I wanted things. And nobody listened to me and nobody cared. They just erased the parts of me they didn’t like and didn’t want to see. But they could only erase the parts they saw. I still saw the rest of me, the parts they didn’t give a shit about.

Her depiction of Valerie and what leads her to shoot her own daughter is equally affecting. The reader knows what will happen between mother and daughter but the lack of surprise does little to lessen the impact of the scene when it finally happens. Rather than the more famous crime of Hackney’s, this is the real centre of the novel, a fever dream of a sequence that is so well written it’s hard not to think of how often it has played over in Kleine’s mind through the years.

She told herself to breathe through her nose. She didn’t want to open her mouth. She didn’t want to risk the chance of talking herself out of it. She tried to hang on to the feeling of lightness even though the weight of being left alone was beginning to pour over her. It was trying to push her back down to her knees. But she had to stand up. She had to. She couldn’t let them win. She wasn’t going to let that happen. This was the only way. The only way. She had to do it. She had to save her. She had to.

She turned towards the bedroom door that was still open. The angels had left it open for her. They were nice.

Kleine appears to have some sympathy for Valerie, driven by ghost angels to kill her own daughter and then try to kill herself and when the meaning of the book’s title becomes apparent, it is heart breaking.

The telling of how these worlds collide is a slow burn. Calf is more a character study, of the disaffected, the lonely and ultimately, the mentally ill than it is a page turner, despite the subject matter. The novel is taut and well-crafted with chapters alternating between Tammy, Jeff and Valerie. Kleine builds suspense by taking her time in getting to the scenes that are most dramatic and the most anticipated.

john lesley

John Hinkley Jr & Leslie De Veau

 

Where the book is less successful is in the depiction of Tammy, which is unusual given she appears to be the stand in for Kleine herself. Making Kirin, the dead girl, a friend of her sister’s rather than a friend of Tammy herself is an odd choice – distancing Tammy’s narrative and diluting her grief from that of close friend to that of acquaintance. A brief scene where her path crosses with Hackney, while tense and well-written, seems too far-fetched to be believable.

For a novel about such dramatic, violent events, the ending is a quiet one, possibly underwhelming for some, however I found it to be well-judged. The relationship that developed between the real life John Hinckley and Leslie De Veau is what holds these narratives together, but Kleine does not allow that to be the overriding focus.

In the end, Calf is not about Hinkley, or De Veau but about the fragility of children’s lives and the damage that neglect can foster.

20 books

20 Books of Summer 2017!

20 books

1 summer.

95 Days.

20 Books.

6128 pages.

65 pages a day.

Can I keep up my winning streak and complete my 20 Books of Summer challenge this year?

From now until 3 September I will be attempting to read my 20 Books of Summer. Why not join in with your own 20 (or 10, or 15!), read along with some of the books or just cheer me on as I try and get that dreaded 746 down by another 20 in just 3 months.

Here are my 20 books:

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  • The Hunters by Claire Messud
  • The Blue Tango by Eoin McNamee
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
  • Sundance Kids: How The Mavericks Took Over Holywood by James Mottram
  • Calf by Andrea Kleine
  • A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy
  • Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner
  • The London Train by Tessa Hadley
  • Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
  • Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock Star Fantasist by Simon Armitage
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee
  • Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  • Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley
  • Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Now, anyone who knows me, knows I am flexible with rules, so I may swap some books for something else during the course of the challenge and I will be keeping reviews short and sweet for the sake of my sanity!

If you are taking part, please link up your list of books to the Linky below. I look forward to seeing your choices!