Monthly Archives: December 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton

I bought this book as a Christmas present for my 90-something (and still going strong!) grandmother, but after reading it decided I should get her something, um, a little more cheerful. I LOVE dark melancholy books with very little plot though, so this novel was basically perfect for me. I’d read Olive Kitteridge and loved it, and now My Name is Lucy Barton has firmly placed Elizabeth Strout in the camp of masterful authors I will consistently seek out, read, and feel awed by. There’s no better feeling than ending the year having read an excellent book that makes you feel like you’ve learned something about life and writing both.

What most impressed me about this book is Lucy’s steady, unwavering voice. Oh, and yet there is so much under the surface! Especially in her interactions with her mother. The style is what you would call “Hemingway-esque,” I suppose, but never annoyingly so. The language is so simple, yet so effective: it really builds on you from how understated it is. Excerpts don’t quite do it justice:

I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

*

Do I understand that hurt my children feel? I think I do, though they might claim otherwise. But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.

I feel like I learned so much from reading this book about the value of silences, of implied but never shared information. The book is all the more powerful for what we end up not knowing, as it’s directly linked to what Lucy herself chooses deliberately not to share (what she wishes she didn’t even know).

The novel opens with Lucy Barton being hospitalized due to a case of appendicitis. Her mother, whom she has not seen in years, unexpectedly comes to visit her for five days. The mother shares gossip about folks back home in Illinois, and in doing so, reveals not only uneasy details about Lucy’s childhood of extreme neglect and poverty, but also Lucy’s somewhat disturbing dependence on pleasing her mother. I thought this was something the book did very well–making us see Lucy’s (at times painful) desperation in having her mother approve of her. It’s a brilliant evocation of an unreliable yet very human narrator.

There are so many interesting themes and motifs in this book: mothers and daughters. Wives leaving husbands. The legacy of World War II and Nazism (Lucy’s father is a Battle of the Bulge veteran, and refuses to speak to Lucy’s husband, the blond son of a German soldier). Men and war, what it means to be a man. Writing, courage, and ruthlessness. AIDS and 9/11. And then there are disturbing references to things that are never expanded upon. What Lucy calls “the Thing,” her father’s episodes in which he lost control of herself, the times in which she was locked up for hours in her father’s truck, her uncontrollable terror at hearing the word “snake”–we don’t learn much more than these details, but they’re enough to deeply unsettle us. It doesn’t help that Lucy’s siblings seem quite worse off than her: whereas Lucy moved to New York and became a writer, her brother sleeps in a barn next to pigs who are about to be slaughtered and develops an obsession with the Little House on the Prairie books, while her sister complains over the phone about her useless husband and sends Lucy requests for money to pay for yoga classes.

This is definitely one of the best books I read this year, and one I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

 

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The Secret History of Costaguana

The Secret History of Costaguana (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

Colombia is a play in five acts that someone tried to write in classical verse but that came out composed of the most vulgar prose, performed by actors with exaggerated gestures and terrible diction.

It took me three attempts to read this book in full but I’m so glad I did. It’s definitely very rewarding. A knowledge of Joseph Conrad and of Panama-Colombia history would be useful, though that being said it was fun to read this and have no idea what was true and what wasn’t (I definitely want to know if the anal abscess story is true!).

What can a famous novelist have in common with a poor, anonymous, exiled Colombian?” With this opening question, the book is propelled forward, and as readers we remain curious throughout as to how the narrator, Colombian exile José Altamirano, ends up encountering and sharing his lifestory with the rising writer Joseph Conrad, who goes on to use Altamirano’s story as the basis for his novel “Nostromo.”

In telling us about how he came to meet Conrad, Altamirano also ends up telling us about his journey to Panama at age 21 to meet his estranged father, who is working as a reporter. The tale is digressive, as Altamirano informs us at varying points about how his mother and father met via Simón Bolívar and Manuelita Saenz’s love affair (I loved the throwaway comment about Saenz meeting Herman Melville; can this possibly be true?? Probably not, but that’s what makes fiction so delicious), and how his father came to be excommunicated and exiled thanks to a mummified Chinese railway worker’s hand. This digressive style is one of the book’s real pleasures, and encompasses one of its main themes: that of everyday life versus History, or as Altamirano puts it, how “the small incident had been obliterated by the Big Event.” As Altamirano tells us the story of his family, he is also telling us the story of the Thousand Days’ War in Colombia, of Liberal-Conservative fighting (The regular massacre of compatriots is our version of the changing of the guard: it’s done every so often, generally following the same criteria as children at play (‘It’s my turn to govern,’ ‘No, it’s my turn’), and of how the U.S. came to secure both Panama’s independence and a hundred-year lease on the canal zone (I remember feeling embarrassed when learning about this in middle school, and likely had to resort to apologetically insisting to my classmates that “I’m half-British, not all gringo, don’t resent me, please!!”)

There are traces of The Informants and The Sound of Things Falling here with the father-son theme, as Altamirano’s father becomes famous for publishing enthusiastic journalism about the Panama Canal, journalism that is far more fiction than factual (it’s hard not to see echoes of contemporary events here). It’s interesting to contrast the father’s writing about reality vs. Conrad’s fiction: which is a more “true” version of Colombian history? Or as Altamirano puts it at one point, “There are good readers and bad readers of reality; there are men able to hear the secret murmur of events better than others.”

Other echoes with Vásquez’s novels include the impossibility of keeping your loved ones safe (Yes, yes, yes, we’re safe, no one can touch us, we have stationed ourselves outside of history and we are invulnerable in our apolitical house) and the form and style of rhetoric. On this latter point, Anne McClean’s translation (as is per usual for her) deserves heightened praise, for translating the book into such a readable and engaging style.

Part of what made this book a bit hard for me was all the names, but at a certain point I was just like “well, I’m just going to keep reading and not be too fussed if I don’t know who everyone is,” and that ended up working really well for me. Overall, what I admired most about this book is the angle it took towards writing historical fiction, with its focus on juxtaposing, interconnected stories that underly the bigger ones:

Stories in the world, all the stories that are known and told and remembered, all those little stories that for some reason matter to us and which gradually fit together without us noticing to compose the fearful fresco of Great History, they are juxtaposed, touching, intersecting: none of them exists on their own… Here is a humble revelation, the lesson I’ve learned through brushing up against world events: silence is invention, lies are constructed by what’s not said, and, since my intention is to tell faithfully, my cannibalistic tale must include everything, as many stories as can fit in the mouth, big ones and little ones.

A big theme throughout is the story of individuals versus that of Big Historical Events, and what gets forgotten as opposed to remembered. One of my favorite sections that best exemplified this was one that focused on a single rifle and who used it. Although the novel comments early on (and very knowingly so) about the mechanisms of magical realism (this is not one of those books where the dead speak, or where beautiful women ascend to the sky), the rifle section stands out not only for its examination of how do objects “speak” to us, and its haunting question of “what do rifles know of us?”, it is also serves as a sad eulogy (among many) about the constant presence of violence in Colombian history. “It is 9.30 when its shot perforates the right lung of Miguel Carvajal Cotes, chicha producer; it is 9.54 when it blows apart the neck of Mateo Luis Noguera, a young journalist from Popayán who would have written great novels had he lived longer.” At another point, Altamirano says “The things we don’t see tend to be the ones that affect us most,” and it’s passages like the rifle one–where the book tried to show us who and what often gets lost/ignored/”disappeared” from history–that affected and impressed me the most.

All in all, major respect for this book. Another fine addition to the author’s canon, and highly recommended for all lovers of historical fiction (especially Borgesian-style). There is much food for thought in here.

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THE LUCKY ONES UK cover + excerpt

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Many things are happening very quickly. HERE IS THE FINAL UK COVER of “THE LUCKY ONES”. The talented people at Faber were able to turn it into a gif–how, I don’t know. I don’t know how to post it as a gif here, but I think if you click on this link, you will be able to see it. Anyway, I love it. Via this link you can also read “Lucky,” the story that opens the collection.

Thanks to the kind assistance of generous people, I also now have a professional website. Ideally I will be posting book related events and news in that space from now on, so that way I can save this blog strictly for the function it’s had since 2007, that of reviewing books that I’ve read.

But for now I have these two forthcoming events:

I’ll be reading at the Swimmers Christmas party in London this Thursday, which will be a fun way to visit London before I leave for the U.S.

And on February 23rd (so this is super early notice lol) I’ll be reading at UEA Live, which will also serve as my Norwich launch.

In terms of my personal reading, I have to read 12 books this month if I want to achieve my goal of 8o books read this year, which I don’t anticipate being a problem unless something unexpected happens, as I usually have lots of time to read during the Christmas holidays (the cruelly long bus and plane rides also help). I’m definitely looking forward to reading people’s Best of 2016 round-ups and writing my own… I already have a good idea of what books are going to end up there but time will tell…

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