I’d only vaguely heard of Lousie Erdrich before coming to this book but have now found out that she is an acclaimed writer of books featuring Native Americans and is enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Her Wikipedia entry tells us that she is one quarter Native American and runs a book store called Birchbark Books in Minneapolis which provides a wealth of resources to school-teachers and others who wish to find out more about Native American culture.
The Round House is a very well-written book from an obviously mature writer. You don’t get to be this good a writer overnight and Erdrich’s previous dozen or so novels have born fruit in this complex novel about a Native American boy on the cusp of manhood grappling with a terrible violation of his mother Geraldine by an anonymous stranger.
The book opens one Sunday in 1988 when Joe’s mother fails to return home in time to make the dinner. Joe and his father go out in the car to look for her and after a few visits to places she might be, they suddenly see her speeding towards them in the other direction, “riveted, driving over the speed limits, anxious to get back home to us”.
When Joe and his father have turned round and arrived home they find Geraldine in a terrible state, vomit down the front of her dress, and her dark blood soaking the car seat. She has been raped. They rush her to hospital but she is unable to talk about what happened to her, either to her family or to the police, a silence which continues long after she returns home. Geraldine is so traumatised that she takes to her bed and retreats into herself, refusing to talk to anyone and spending much of the day either sleeping or pretending to be asleep.
Joe’s father Bazil is a judge, and Joe has always looked up to him, respectful of his place in the community. But while Bazil tries hard to get to grips with his wife’s condition, nothing seems to penetrate her psychic isolation. Joe is on the cusp of manhood and begins to feel frustrated by his father’s impotence, and also discovers that the great man he looked up to all his life, is in fact a judge of very petty cases, anything more serious being referred upwards away from the Reservation court system to the Federal courts. So Joe, together with his three best friends tries to investigate what happens for himself.
At this point I saw elements of Huckleberry Finn in the story for the the four boys go off on their bikes into the woods where his mother was attacked – a wonderful depiction of a boy’s own story of amateur detection work – until of course Joe finds himself completely out of his depth by what he discovers.
The book tells us much about Reservation Life. We read of a very communal life, with aunties and uncles, aged grandparents and a network of inter-related friends and other family. One fascinating section tells of a “sweat lodge” which is created by a local shaman to hold tribal ceremonies in which sacred pipes and medicines are used and special prayer requests are dealt with.
The book diverts into the personal history of some of the characters with for example, 15 pages devoted to a woman called Linda who was adopted into the tribe having been abandoned by her white parents as a baby due to her disabilities. We read of the loving treatment handed out to her as her Native American adoptive parents massaged her damaged skull and limbs back into a more normal shape. Another lengthy passage is devoted to the memories of Joe’s grandfather, Mooshum, who had a traditional Native American upbringing.
The tribal community is still awash with mythical beliefs. Ghosts haunt the local cemetery and charms can bring good luck. Legends and rituals abound and provide a backdrop of meaning to the complexities of a hybrid life in which children play computer games and adults have to make their way in the modern world while holding to tribal values.
There are so many themes in this book it’s difficult to home in on one in particular. On one level The Round House is a mystery novel – what happened to Joe’s mother? On another level, it’s very much about Joe’s coming of age as he takes responsibility for researching matters the adults find themselves unable to. And then there is so much about the difficulties of tribal co-existence with the white community who so easily slip into seeing the Native Americans as a subject people, a curiosity, with the Reservation being almost an curious exhibit.
I really can’t fault this book. It’s very well-written and has complex plotting with many inter-linking themes. I certainly closed the last page knowing far more about how Native Americans live while also having been entertained by a very wide-ranging and unusual cast of characters.
A helpful Afterword tells us that 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped during their lifetime and that 86% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by non-Native men. President Barack Obama called the situation “an assult on our national conscience” and signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law in 2010. An article on the White House website reports that this Act will “include a strong emphasis on decreasing violence against women in Native communities”.
The photograph of Louise Erdich above comes from Wikipedia and can be used for promotional purposes.
It’s not often I feel this enthusiastic about a debut novel from a newly-published writer. In A Wolf in Hinelheim Jenny Mayhew has created a very believable community of characters and placed them in a fictional region of Germany in 1926. Her writing and complex plotting shows a maturity which might suggest that she has written quite a number of books and I was not surprised to read that she has taught literature and creative writing at four universities and has written film scripts.
The book is set in a deeply rural community which is about to go through a leap into the modern world when a new road is constructed, bringing with it new commercial opportunities and better jobs. A a tension runs throughout the book between the old and the new, with most of the villagers being steeped in the folk-lore and legends of the surrounding forests.
Theodore Hidebrandt, the local constable runs his office from the home he shares with his son and daughter in law, his son Klaus acting as Deputy Constable. Theodore is an interesting character; having been badly injured in the First World War he stuggles with disabilities but applies a fine mind and a sceptical nature to the minor crimes and offences of the villages he is responsible for.
Theodore and Klaus are called out one day to a nearby village to investigate the case of a missing baby belonging to the village doctor’s sister. Two couples live in one house, together with a disabled older child who’s difficulties cause all manner of problems for the family. Only one member of the family, the doctor’s wife Ute is prepared to speak candidly about the missing child. Theodore, interviews her alone and despite his professional approach, he finds himself deeply intrigued by this attractive woman and she occupies a place in his thoughts long after the interview is over.
Click here to continue reading Review: A Wolf in Hindelheim – Jenny Mayhew
Anna Kim was born in South Korea but was brought up in Germany where her father was appointed a Professor of Fine Arts. She writes in German and her book Anatomy of a Night is one of the first four books to be published by new Berlin-based publisher Frisch and Co who specialise in publishing contemporary books in English translation. The publisher’s website says that Anna Kim, “is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Austrian State Fellowship for Literature, the Elias Canetti Fellowship, the Robert Musil Fellowship, and the 2009 Austrian Prize for Literature, among others”.
This novel deals with a difficult subject; an epidemic of suicides among the Innuit community in Greenland. Apparently Innuit suicide is an ongoing problem and a quick search on the Internet brought up some in-depth studies by Canadian academics about the possible reasons for it such as
- Lack of coping skills when relationships break-up
- Lack of access to mental health treatment;
- Loss of control over land and living conditions;
- Socio-economic factors such as poor housing and employment opportunities.
Click here to continue reading Review: Anatomy of a Night – Anna Kim
From the Fatherland With Love is a vast novel (664 pages), written on an epic scale, an alternative reality novel describing the events surrounding the invasion of and economically bankrupt Japan by an opportunistic North Korea. It’s author, Ryu Murakami, wrote the book in 2005 when the Japanese economy had gone into decline. By setting the book just a few years in the future, he offered his public a vision of a dystopian future close at hand and which seemed at the time (and perhaps still is) all too plausible. Here and there we can see that elements of Murakami’s vision have actually come to pass, not in Japan perhaps, but certainly in Greece and Cyprus.
The year is 2010, but things are not quite how they are in today’s world. Japan has gone into serious economic decline and nation can no longer afford social care, resulting in vast shanty towns constructed in city-parks. The banks have implemented stringent controls on how much money can be withdrawn from cash machines and sales tax has soared. The public sector is the only employer offering real jobs, but security guards have to protect government workers from demonstrating crowds of less fortunate citizens. Criminal gangs are rife and the black-market flourishes.
The rest of the world has responded to the economic crisis by retreating into isolationism. America has a vast financial deficit and can no longer afford to act as the world’s policeman. Instead it is pushing for security agreements with East Asian countries, even a non-aggression pact with North Korea. Europe is concerned only with its own boundaries and China and Russia no longer want to get involved with other nation’s problems. Japan is effectively abandoned to its fate.
Click here to continue reading Review: From the Fatherland With Love – Ryu Murakami
Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein takes us on a literary pathway through Marcel Proust’s great work, À la Recherche de Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). This slim volume (141 pages) is a printed in blue ink on high quality paper, with attractive illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.
I can’t say that I have finished reading Proust’s seven volume work despite its having been on my shelves for ten years or so. I have made several attempts but have only read three of the books so far and I am beginning to wonder if I will ever complete the set.
It is not that La Recherche isn’t fascinating but that reading it slows you down so much that it takes weeks to read it properly; Proust keeps bringing you to a halt, sentence by sentence, so much is there to think about on each page. As Anka Muhlstein says, Proust “is the master of long sentences with a grammatical foundation so refined that they accommodate themselves miraculously to all the meanderings of his thoughts”. What a job for a translator!
Despite the difficulty I have in reading the book, I would not like to be without it – the books sit there on the shelf both as a rebuke and an invitation, the ultimate reading challenge. But would reading it be enough? Proust’s work is so loaded with literary and artistic references you’d almost need to read an annotated version to understand fully what was going on in it.
I can only admire people like Anka Muhlstein who have not only read the book but have made it their own by absorbing it so much into their system that they can write books as clever as this one, making an in-depth analysis of the text so they can guide others through “Remembrance” and help them to understand it.
Click here to continue reading Review: Monsieur Proust’s Library – Anka Muhlstein
When I first saw this book, C. S. Lewis: a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet I wondered why anyone would want to write another biography of C S Lewis. After all, George Sayer, A N Wilson, Roger Lancelyn Green, Walter Hooper have all published biographies of Lewis. Most Lewis fans will also be familiar with William Nicholson’s excellent biographical screenplay Shadowlands which has been produced on both stage and screen.
However, the highly qualified Alister McGrath (Professor of Theology and Ministry Kings College London and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University) explains in the preface to his book, the huge significance of the publication of the collected letters of C S Lewis during 2000-2006 which has added 3,500 pages of source material to our knowledge of Lewis and provides a “continuous narrative backbone for an account of Lewis’s life” which was not available to earlier biographers.
I am now very pleased that I have read McGrath’s book for three reasons. Firstly, it reminded me of how important Lewis has become as a writer and thinker. Secondly, it definitely draws out some elements of Lewis’s life which I hadn’t fully understood before. Thirdly, it is a very readable biography, not over-long, nor too scholarly and full of interest throughout.
Earlier biographers were reluctant to cover some of the darker sides to Lewis’s character. McGrath’s new biography does not flinch from some of the more controversial sides to Lewis, such as his relationship (probably an “affair”) with a Mrs Moore which started when Mrs Moore’s son Paddy, a close friend of Lewis was killed in the First World War. Lewis had managed to serve in the same regiment as his best friend but was soon hospitalised with trench fever and later wounded by shrapnel, returning to Britain, while Paddy was lost in action. An intimate relationship soon developed between Lewis and Paddy’s mother and there is now a consensus among scholars that Lewis and Paddy’s mother continued as lovers for many years.
Click here to continue reading Review: C S Lewis: A Life – Alister McGrath
I’ve only been posting one article a week for the last couple of weeks. I seem to have taken on some lengthy books and it’s taking me a while to get through them. Also, I’ve written a couple of reviews of books which are embargoed until next month – which suits me quite well as I’ll be going away for a short break and I can set the reviews to auto-publish while I’m away.
I was asked how I manage to get through so many books, with the obvious follow up question, “Do you really read them? Or do you just skim them?”.
I was pleased to be able to say that yes, I read every book I review from cover to cover, and probably every word in them. I am a very fast reader and I think this is partly because I’ve been reading huge amounts of stuff since being 11 years old when I had a lengthy commute on the train in order to get to school. I then went to work in London which was an even longer commute, and then later, I took on a job on the South Coast of England which still required many journeys to London which took over one and a half hours each way. What do you do on a train other than read? (the answer today is of course lots of things related to tablets and mobile phones).
Click here to continue reading Speed-reading, a photograph, and Marcel Proust
In Nostalgia, Jonathan Buckley has done for the Tuscan town of Castelluccio what William Nicholson did for the Sussex town of Lewes (The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life) by writing a novel which captures the essence of people and place as he gently unpacks the life of its inhabitants for the delight of his readers.
The Castelluccio of Nostalgia is small enough to be a backwater, but large enough to have enough cafe’s, restaurants and other locations in which various social set-pieces can take place. The town is steeped in history, and the author regularly diverts into descriptions of people and events in the town’s past which together build up to make a fascinating background to the unfolding events which make up the novel.
Gideon Westfall is an elderly artist who has exiled himself from the London art-scene in protest at their rejection of the “representational art” which goes to make up the majority of paintings in galleries around the world. Critics describe Gideon’s paintings as “nostalgic”, and despite their popularity with wealthy purchasers around the world, they do not appear in any of the great London galleries. Customers commission his portraits because he knows how to create a likeness with just a touch of flattery which will lessen the effects of age, while still being recognisable. The work he produces without commissions sells equally well, with elegant and tasteful nudes predominating.
Gideon has an assistant, Robert Bancourt, a painter himself but one who realises that he will never make the grade as a professional artist. Robert deals with emails, contracts, websites. He makes frames for Gideon’s paintings and arranges exhibitions and other publicity in exchange for a reasonable salary and a near-perfect life in Tuscany.
One day, a woman arrives to see Gideon. At first Robert tries to turn her away, but she persists in demanding an appointment and on seeing Gideon announces that she is his long-lost niece, Claire Yardley. Claire’s father has recently died and she has found a number of family photographs of Gideon and his brother which she thinks may be of interest to Gideon. Claire knows that the two brothers fell out long before she was born, and in coming to Castelluccio she hopes to find out the background to this family rift.
Click here to continue reading Review: Nostalgia – Jonathan Buckley
I’ve not read any South African books for a long time – noteworthy South African novels which stick in my mind would be Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Disgrace by J M Coetzee and a couple of books by Nadime Gordimer (I am ashamed to notice that these are all by white South Africans). I read in a newspaper that Damon Algut’s highly-regarded 1995 novel, The Quarry has just been re-released (at a very reasonable price on Kindle) and needing a break from lengthier books I decided to try it.
Damon Galgut has been short-listed twice for the Booker Prize and has also won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for The Good Doctor. He is noted for writing about Post-Apartheid South Africa and uses his position as a well-known writer to take a stand on human rights issues.
As I read The Quarry I felt that Galgut was using the fewest words possible – this is undecorated prose, matching the bleak landscape of pre-reformed South African townships. Into this landscape walks an unnamed man. He has been walking for days, living off the land and sleeping in ditches. Before long we learn that he is on the run and doesn’t care where he is going, only that wherever it is, it is somewhere other than the place he is fleeing from.
The land he walks through seems to be a desolate place; neglected scrub-land, with scattered villages which have turned their backs on the world – and passing travellers. A car stops and a lift is offered, but who is in more danger, the driver of his new passenger? The sinister landscape adds to a sense of tension:
It was early afternoon and the sun was hot as they drove. They passed the carcass of an animal next to the road on which three black crows were feeding and one of them flapped up ahead of the car and lumbered off over the veld. The road went through a salt pan that was cracked like a mirror and in which there was nothing alive. There were river beds that were dry. Boulders glistened occasionally from side to side with that fulsome pinkness of flesh.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Quarry – Damon Galgut
Back in late 2011 I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Edward Stourton joined an annual walk, Le Chemin de la Liberté, across the Pyrennees which celebrates the Second World War route used by Allied soldiers, Jews, French resistance fighters, spies and many other groups of people who were trying to escape Nazi tyranny. The annual “pilgrimage” across the Freedom Trail (as it has become known) is joined by many people around the world, including those who travel with the Royal British Legion’s party.
The “Chemin” has become a “walking memorial” for the Second World War Escape Lines Memorial Society (who have a fascinating calendar of events including various other lengthy walks and bike rides).
Following his radio programmes, Ed Stourton has now written a book, Cruel Crossing, which is a very detailed account of the history of the Freedom Trail and also an account of his own journey on the route. He has included interviews with fellow walkers on the annual pilgrimage, and also some of the remaining survivors from the 1940s. His thirteen pages of notes at the end of the book amount to a a meticulous survey of written sources about the trail, many of them previously unseen. These include recorded interviews, published books and original documents.
Stourton has divided his book into themed chapters such as “Tales of Warriors”, “Tales of Children”, “Belgians, Bravery and Betrayal” and “Guides, Smugglers and Spaniards”. Under each chapter he tells the stories of people who braved this challenging mountain range in an effort to escape the Gestapo. We read of many heroic people such as Paul Broué, an escape line helper who carried on walking the trail well into his eighties and who was still participating in the ceremonies which open and close the trek when Stourton walked it in 2011. Other helpers like Andrée (Dédée) de Jongh were betrayed and arrested and experienced a brutalising imprisonment, eventually ending up in Ravensbruck concentration camp where with other helpers on the trail, she met her death.
Click here to continue reading Review: Cruel Crossing – Edward Stourton