Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries

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The latest addition to my website is Eleanor Catton‘s The Luminaries. It is on this year’s Man Booker longlist. Despite weighing in at 830 pages, it is not the longest book on the longlist (that honour goes to Richard House’s The Kills). I was particularly impressed with Catton’s first book, Rehearsal. However, while enjoying this latest book, I do not feel that it was of the same calibre as its predecessor. This book is a complicated, plot-driven novel, set in Hokitika, a small town on the West coat of New Zealand, during the 1866 gold rush in the area. Twelve men – nine of European origin, two Chinese and one Maori – meet in the lounge of the Crown Hotel to share information (they all have some individual piece of information to contribute) about recent events in the area, including the death of a loner who is found to have a stash of gold hidden in his hut, the rapid sale of his assets, the unexpected appearance of a woman claiming to be his widow as well as other events such as the apparent attempted suicide of a local prostitute and the disappearance of the most successful gold digger. They are joined by a newly arrived man, who also has some information to share. Half the book is taken up with the various stories and their background before we get both the backstory and subsequent events. It is a good read but I do not feel it as worthy as its predecessor.

Joanna Scott: Follow Me

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The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s Follow Me. This is another first-class novel from Scott, telling the story of Sally Werner (she has several pseudonyms), a woman from near the fictitious Tuskee River in Northern Pennsylvania, born of religious German parents, who does not fit in with her parents’ and siblings’ way of life. She gets pregnant (from a cousin), has the baby but refuses to marry the cousin, leaves the baby on her parents’ kitchen table and flees. She moves up the Tuskee River, each time finding a place to stay and a life, till events intervene and she has to move on again. At the same time as we follow her story (told by her granddaughter), we also follow the story of her granddaughter and the granddaughter’s parents, particularly her father. He had attempted suicide when his wife (Sally Werner’s daughter) had become pregnant and then, failing in that, had fled and started a new life for himself, just as his mother-in-law had done. Can this family settle down and have a straightforward life or will they always have to be on the move? Scott keeps us guessing, with an unreliable narrator and a few twists but, as always, tells a very good story.

Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin

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The latest addition to my website is Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin. This is a superb novel, with its central theme revolving around the other key event involving the World Trade Center Twin Towers, namely Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the two towers on 7 August 1974. McCann tells the stories of several people in New York, whose stories touch on Petit’s as well as on the fictional story of a thirty-eight year old African-American prostitute, Tillie Henderson, her daughter, Jazzlyn, and Jazzlyn’s baby daughters. The themes of Petit’s walk – its quasi-mysticism, its impact on New Yorkers and its challenge to authority (Petit was arrested after the walk) – and the theme of the story of the prostitutes – survival in the grim New York world – affect a lawyer and his wife who have lost a son in Vietnam, as well as other mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam, a couple of artists who have been heavily into drugs and, in particular, an Irish worker priest and his brother. McCann links up the stories and themes in a brilliant way, giving us a first-class novels of the pre-9/11 New York and its twin towers. If you are interested in knowing more about Petit’s walk, there is a a film of it.

Colum McCann: TransAtlantic

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The latest addition to my website is Colum McCann‘s TransAtlantic. This novel was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. The novel is in two parts. The first part tells of three sets of people travelling from North America to Ireland – Alcock and Brown, the first to fly the Atlantic non-stop, Frederick Douglass and Senator George Mitchell who was a broker for the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement. In all cases, they meet a fictitious Irish woman and, as we learn in the second part, all these women are related – mother, daughter and granddaughter. We follow their stories, from Lily Duggan who walked from Dublin to Cork and then on to Cobh, in order to get a ship to the United States, and then her subsequent life – she works as a nurse in the US Civil War and then she and her husband make a success in the ice business. Her daughter, Emily, is a journalist reporting the Alcock and Brown take-off and Emily’s daughter, Lottie, plays tennis with Senator Mitchell. We even have a McGuffin in the form of a letter given to Brown to take on his flight, which he fails to deliver, and is passed from daughter to daughter, unopened. However, though it is an interesting idea, overall it did not really work for me, with the historical characters being flat.

Arnon Grunberg: Blauwe maandagen (Blue Mondays)

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The most recent addition to my website is Arnon Grunberg‘s Arnon Grunberg: Blauwe maandagen (Blue Mondays). This was Grunberg’s first novel, written for a bet and selling 70,000 copies in the Netherlands. Frankly, it did not really appeal to me. It is an autobiographical novel, telling of his life while at high school and then, once he had been kicked out of high school, afterwards. His story is told in a matter-of-fact life way. For example, his relationship with his girlfriend, Rosie, and then, when she dumps him, with various prostitutes is told with all the passion and excitement of a dead haddock. He is something of a rebel at high school but his rebellion consists more of playing truant, often to spend time with Rosie, rather than any interesting, overt act of rebellion. After high school, it is a succession of boring jobs, culminating in working as a male escort (where the book ends) and visiting prostitutes. If you like books told in a straightforward manner about high school dropouts, this may be for you, otherwise you would be advised to pass.

Eleanor Catton: Rehearsal

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The latest addition to my website is Eleanor Catton‘s Rehearsal. This is a superb debut novel about performance and imagined performance, about the power of gossip and power in relationships, about who we really we are and who we think we are and about how the younger generation is changing, presumably in New Zealand though it could equally apply to any Western country. It tells two stories that will converge. The first concerns Mr. Saladin, a teacher of jazz band at a girls’ school who has an affair with Victoria, one of his under-age students and the repercussions this affair has on the other girls, the girl’s family, particularly her younger sister, and the community. Catton brilliantly portrays these repercussions in an original manner, exemplified by the (female) saxophone teacher, who comments, almost like a Greek chorus, on the events. The other story concerns a Drama Institute, which is very difficult to get into, and which uses challenging techniques to get the students to recognise who they are and how to become actors. It is primarily seen through the eyes of one of the students, Stanley, a somewhat solitary young man with a psychologist father who tells politically incorrect jokes about pedophilia. Stanley is conventional but sometimes challenges the status quo, as does Julia, a saxophone player in the other story, a loner who befriends Victoria’s sister. It is a complex novel, superbly written, clearly showing the maturity and expertise of a much more experienced writer.

Urbano Tavares Rodrigues

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Just noted that the Portuguese writer Urbano Tavares Rodrigues died today. None of his books has been translated into English and, as far as I can see, all the sites reporting his death are in Portuguese. I have his Bastardos do Sol [Bastards of the Soil] and A Vaga de Calor [Heatwave] but have yet to read them. He was very prolific, writing novels, stories, travel accounts and essays and lived to be ninety. He was a member of the Communist Party and had to work in France for some time. As a result, his work was influenced by existentialism. He spent sometime in prison under Salazar and this also coloured his work. I suspect that his work is unlikely to be translated into English.

Georges Ngal: Giambatista Viko ou Le Viol du discours africain [Giambatista Viko or the Rape of African Discourse]

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The latest addition to my website is Georges Ngal‘s Giambatista Viko ou Le Viol du discours africain [Giambatista Viko or the Rape of African Discourse]. Ngal’s first novel is about the struggle of writing that first novel. Giambatista Viko teaches at an institute of higher learning in what was then Zaïre. He and his colleagues discuss endlessly the nature of literature and, in particular, African writing versus Western (particularly French) writing. African writing is essentially fable writing, set neither in any particular time nor place and using elements such as magic and fantasy and with plenty of bloodshed and betrayal. In the second part, Viko is hauled before a strange court, possibly in the afterlife, where he is on trial for betraying African literature by being too Western. It is all quite clever but it does not really work for me.

Ross Raisin: God’s Own Country (US: Out Backward)

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The latest addition to my website is Ross Raisin‘s God’s Own Country (US: Out Backward). It is a story told by Sam Marsdyke, a solitary eighteen-year old who lives on a farm on the North Yorkshire Moors, with his parents, a grumpy father and an unhappy mother. Sam is a (probably) unreliable narrator. He was asked to leave school aged fifteen, allegedly for attempting to rape a fellow student. His story is that there was mutual consent. However, we know that he has a streak of wilful violence in him. The area is becoming gentrified and Sam falls for one of the new arrivals from London, a fifteen-year old girl called Josephine Reeves. They gradually become closer and, when she has had enough of her parents and wants to run away, it is to Sam that she turns, not least because of Sam’s detailed knowledge of his beloved moors. Raisin tells a good story, even though things do not really get going till they run away. Raisin is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Joanna Kavenna: The Birth of Love

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The latest addition to my website is Joanna Kavenna‘s . This is a novel about childbirth. There are four separate but linked stories about childbirth. The first is set in 1865 and is about Ignaz Semmelweis who discovered the link between infection and the death of women in childbirth. He went mad and, in this story, we follow his last days, as a man called Robert von Lucius interviews him in a mental asylum. The second and third stories are set in the present day. In the first we follow a forty-one year old woman who is pregnant with her second child. The baby is two weeks overdue. We follow what happens between the contractions starting and the birth. We also follow the story of a fifty-three year old novelist who has written a novel (his first one published) on Semmelweis. The final story is set in 2153 when all births have to be in vitro rather than in utero but one woman has managed to get pregnant the old-fashioned way and a group of people try to save her and her baby. They have been caught and we follow their interrogations. It is an interesting idea but, apart from the Semmelweis story, it all seems somewhat conventional. As the novelist’s agent (a woman) says, men are not interested in novels on childbirth. I do not think that that is so in my case but this one did not quite work for me. Kavenna is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.