How has your reading been going the last few months? I’ve been a little slow. Not sure why. That just happens sometimes, doesn’t it? I did feel a little red-faced after doing a book swap with one of my friends and she returned all those I had lent her before I had even had a chance to start reading hers! Happily, I am now halfway through one of them! So what was I reading in the meantime? Here’s a selection.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout This is a little gem of a book, and I’m looking forward to re-reading it after it has done the rounds of some reading buddies! The book is set in New York and tells the story of Lucy Barton, a writer, who is in hospital recovering from complications after an appendectomy. By her side is her mother, whom Lucy hasn’t seen for a number of years, but in her time of ill health, it is this maternal that voice she needs to hear. Through their bedside exchanges we learn of Lucy’s dirt poor upbringing in Amgash, Illinois. A bookish child, she felt isolated from her family on an intellectual level, and there are hints that there was abuse perpetrated in the family home at the hands of her father, a WWII veteran who suffered from PTSD. We learn of how she came to physically distance herself from her family as she moved away to college, and then her early experiences in New York, meeting her husband and becoming a mother to her daughters. As the story progresses, we understand that the hospital stay is not present day but in the past, and an older Lucy is reflecting upon this event in her life. For me, this story showed how families are bound together even where there is distance and strain in that relationship; it was about what lies unspoken yet defines our lives; it illuminated how our lives are made up of many episodes, many little stories, but, in the end, we have only one overarching story. Having recently read Hillbilly Elegy and listened to S-Town, I felt that this sat as a companion piece, albeit fictional, to the two stories of JD Vance and John B McLemore who both grew up in disadvantaged rural communities but possessed an intellect that separated them from their peers. Lucy’s story, and those who featured in her life, are explored further in Elizabeth Strout’s new work, Anything is Possible. It’s on my list of ‘to-reads’!
The Sellout by Paul Beatty This won the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and I was keen to read it. The premise of the novel as set out on the blurb is how one black man, nicknamed Bonbon, attempts to save his town, Dickens, from being wiped off the map by reintroducing segregation. As a consequence, he lands before the Supreme Court for breaching the Constitution. The idea for resegregation came about by accident. Bonbon’s friend, Hominy Jenkins, was a long time ago child actor in the television show Little Rascals, where he was the sop made fun of through racist humour. Hominy hankers for the days of segregation where he knew his place in the world and urges Bonbon to take him on as his slave. Bonbon humours Hominy, and as a birthday present makes him a sign to be erected on buses requiring blacks to give up seats for whites. As social behaviour amongst black residents improves, Bonbon has the idea of introducing segregation to other institutions in town. Alongside this storyline, we learn of Bonbon’s upbringing by his single father, who used Bonbon as the guinea pig in psychological experiments; his reignited relationship with his teen sweetheart, Marpessa; and how he relates to his father’s old friendship group, The Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, and their regular meetings to discuss issues of race. So what did I think? There is some cracking writing in this satirical novel. Having visited there a few years ago, I loved his description of how Washington D.C. “with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns and, domes, is supposed to feel like ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of ancient Rome were lined with black homeless people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses and cherry blossoms).” And who cannot raise an ironic laugh at the idea of the black school kids participating in “Whitey Week”, a week showcasing the contribution of the Caucasian race the “the world of leisure”; where at a car wash the kids could choose three levels of white washing: Regular Whiteness, Deluxe Whiteness and Super Deluxe Whiteness with their attendant benefits of benefit of the doubt, higher life expectancy, decent seats at concerts, warnings instead of arrests? But there were times, for me, that the novel became too dense and beyond my comprehension: the sentences curled around themselves, and pop, gang culture and Spanish language references went over my head. And the whole resegregation bit? It took a long time to get there. Whereas the blurb had me thinking this is what the book was going to be about, it was really only a part of the story, and I wasn’t that much interested in the other bits. In the end, I found it a bit of a slog. Maybe it is better suited to the US audience?
Between A Wolf and A Dog by Georgia Blain So after a fair share of reading US fiction and non-fiction, I thought it was time to turn my reader’s eyes back to home, and bought the late Georgia Blain’s novel with a birthday gift voucher. Sigh. What a beautifully written novel, and , of course, made all the more poignant because of the way Blain’s life imitated the life of the character, Hilary, who suffers brain cancer. It is impossible, for me, to read the sentence “It is as though her life has been in fast motion until now, racing forward, a great crush of people, places, moments, anger, joy, love, despair all coming to a sudden stop, colliding into each other at the gate, while she slips though, walking onwards, alone in a quiet land” without my heart being pulled into my throat; that the author, herself, would know this experience all too soon. The novel takes place over the course of around forty eight hours and follows the lives of Hilary, her adult daughters, April and Ester, Ester’s ex-husband, Lawrence, and their young twin daughters, Catherine and Lara. The relationship between April and Ester has broken down, and Ester and Lawrence are barely on speaking terms. A sense of betrayal hangs heavy over the characters, and though the use of flashbacks we understand why. There is a sense of life drifting, which contrasts with Hilary’s clarity about where her life is headed. The novel does not end neatly tied with a bow but there is a strong sense that love, despite its being challenged, binds the characters together. An excellent read.
Tell me, have you read any of these? What did you think?