Review: Let Me be Frank with You – Richard Ford

let me be frank with youA new book from a writer as renowned as Richard Ford (PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) is always welcome particularly when the main character is Frank Bascombe, sports-writer and later estate agent (“realtor” in the USA) – surely one of the most enduring characters in American fiction.

Richard Ford led Frank on to the scene in 1986 in his novel The Sportswriter in which we met Frank as he goes through an existential crisis following the death of his son.  In 1995 we could read Independence Day in which we join Frank during a holiday weekend as he visits his ex-wife, his troubled son and his current lover.  Frank returned to our attention in 2006 in The Lay of the Land, in the middle of what he calls the “Permanent Period”, that stage of life where most things that can go wrong have already gone wrong.

Then in 2014 Richard Ford published what is probably the final Bascombe novel, Let Me be Frank with You.  This is really four episodes, almost little novellas in themselves, in which Frank shares incidents which happen in the run-up to Christmas 2012 and finds whatever meaning he can from them.  It is fair to say that this is Richard Ford’s meditation on end-of-life issues and ultimately death itself.  As someone approaching the same age to Frank Bascombe, this book spoke to me over and over again and apart from the quotations in the review below, I have included some others on a separate page here for anyone who may be interested.  Do take a look at them if you have time – there are some gems there.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the North-East coast of America in 2012, it turned out to be the second most costly hurricane in American history.  The book opens with Frank, now 68 years old and retired, receiving a call from Arnie Urquhart, who bought a beach-front house from Frank about ten years earlier.  The  house has been blown over onto its side and is now a total wreck.  Arnie wants Frank to take a look at it and advise him whether to accept an offer from a re-developer.  Reluctantly, Frank makes his way to the New Jersey shore and finds himself in a desolate landscape full of builders and building materials.  Frank, ever the philosopher finds himself thinking about the stripping away of life as age and decay makes its unremitting progress.  The wreckage on the shoreline becomes a metaphor for the general decline we all suffer  and Frank sees that it’s better to simplify your life voluntarily before old-age does it for you.  Frank, with his passion for unusual words suggests that even the words we use must be simplified –

When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway. Not that much is happening, except on the medical front. Better to strip things down. And where better to start stripping than the words we choose to express our increasingly rare, increasingly vagrant thoughts. It would be challenging, for instance, for a native Czech speaker to fully appreciate the words poop or friggin’, or the phrase “We’re pregnant,” or “What’s the takeaway?” Or, for that matter, awesome when it only means “tolerable.” Or preemie or mentee or legacy. Or no problem when you really mean “You’re welcome.” Likewise, soft landing, sibs, bond, hydrate (when it just means “drink”), make art, share, reach out, noise used as a verb, and . . . apropos of Magic One-Oh-Seven: F-Bomb. Fuck, to me, is still pretty serviceable as a noun, verb, or adjective, with clear and distinct colorations to it’s already rich history. Language imitates the public riot, the poet said. And what’s today’s life like, if not a riot?

Frank has a hard time with Arnie.  Despite the random nature of a hurricane, Arnie has a deep-seated opinion that Frank, as the seller of the house, is somehow to blame for it’s loss. Frank dislikes being back in the territory of his old estate agency business, having left behind that stage of his life some years ago.  But Arnie insists on involving Frank with walking around the ruined house, testing every possible solution, talking about building materials and the difficulty of finding anyone to do restoration work at this time.  Frank tires of the whole thing, knowing that Arnie’s house has suffered a kind of death and tells him to sell the plot, let it be someone else’s problem.  Time is too short at their stage of life for this kind of project.  A kind of detachment comes over him and he remembers Emerson’s words, “an infinite remoteness underlies us all”, as he turns back to his car and leaves the bitter Arnie to his impossible decisions.

Damage to New Jersey shortline (image from Wikipedia)

Damage to New Jersey shortline (image from Wikipedia)

In the second novella, Frank arrives home one day to find an elegant black woman at his door.  She seems uncertain what she is there for but as Frank talks to her, he finds out that she lived in his house many years ago and wants to ask him if she can look around it once again.  Frank has had this happen to him before, and as an estate agent he is used to  people looking around houses so he agrees to let her go in and wander around his house.  All goes well, until just before she leaves, she tells him of a shocking story about what happened to her family while they lived in Frank’s beautiful home.

By now we realise that everything in this book is going to be about the ageing process, with metaphor after metaphor piling up – the hurricane and the wrecked homes, and now the pollution of a current home by other people’s memories.  In this few days in late December there is evidently going to be no let-up in this chain of disappointments.

So on to the third novella in which Frank visits one of his ex-wives, now suffering from Parkinson’s disease and living in a very up-market care-home.  Frank tells us that “the goal at Carnage Hill is to re-brand ageing as a to-be-looked-forward-to phenomenon. Thus, no one working inside wears a uniform. Smart, solid-color, soft-to-the-touch casual-wear is supplied from Land’s End. No one’s called “staff” or treated like it. Instead, alert, friendly, well-dressed, well-groomed “strangers” just seem to happen by, acting interested and offering to help whoever needs it”.

Retirement community New Jersey

Retirement community New Jersey

Needless to say, the visit is difficult on every level.  The care-home has over intrusive security guards (in plain clothes and utterly friendly until you start to annoy them), who make getting into the place an ordeal in itself.  Anne has even acquired a “boyfriend”—a former Philadelphia cop named Buck.  Buck is “a large, dull piece of cordwood in his seventies, given to loose-fitting permanently-belted trousers, matching beige sweatshirts of the kind sold at Kmart, big galunker, imitation-suede shoes, and the thinnest of thin pale hosiery –  he’s officially on the record as ‘handsome’ “.

Despite Frank’s efforts to do good by helping old friends, ex-wives, and relatives, his life’s experience has taught him that none of the good he attempts to do actually amounts to anything that was worth the effort.  It’s not that he’s cynical, more that he’s a good man who finds the world does not really want to have good done to it.  He is now re-considering his approach to relationships and planning a thinning-down of his commitments.

Indeed, for months now—and this may seem strange at my late moment of life (sixty-eight)—I’ve been trying to jettison as many friends as I can, and am frankly surprised more people don’t do it as a simple and practical means of achieving well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity. Lived life, especially once you hit adulthood, is always a matter of superfluity leading on to less-ness. Only (in my view) it’s a less-ness that’s as good as anything that happened before—plus it’s a lot easier.

The final novella is entitled, “The Deaths of Others” and in it, Frank realises that “for any of us a point comes when most of life’s been lived and there’s much less of it than there used to be, and yet what’s there is not to be missed or pissed away in a blur”.  The meditation on mortality continues when he receives a voice mail on his phone from an old friend who is dying of cancer and wants to see him for the last time.  By this stage I was reminded of T S Eliot’s poem Little Gidding:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and should begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been”.

This final chapter is perhaps the most difficult to read of all.  Frank’s old friend Eddie is in a terrible condition in his final days and Richard Ford pulls no punches in describing it.  And to crown it all, Eddie has a terrible revelation to impart to Frank which would rock a lesser man.  A death-bed confession can ease the conscience of a dying man but leave the living with knowledge they would be better off not having.  Frank however is an expert at living in the present moment and despite having some precious memories ruined by Eddie, as he leaves, he remembers that “in one day’s time, all will be white and Christmas-y, and I will be on a sentimental journey to the nation’s mid-section.  My son and I will have some laughs, crack some corny jokes, see a great river and the Great Plains’ commencement, east some top Kansas City sirloin, possible visit Hallmark and talk long into the night about rent-to-own”.

In an interview in New Yorker magazine, Richard Ford confirms Frank’s goal of living in the present moment:

All these novels and stories are at least partly about Frank’s effort to live vitally in the present. They’re all told in present-tense verbs, as though to corroborate Wittgenstein’s assertion that “to live eternally is to live in the present.” It seems to me that to live in the present (and, of course, that’s a term of art, which merely stresses one’s effort to live vitally at all) … but to live vitally one has to escape the vitiating grasp of the past.
Living with Frank Bascombe: An Interview with Richard Ford” by Deborah Triesman, The New Yorker, 5 November 2014

Frank isn’t dead yet and another day beckons.  Alas for us, we will probably never see him again and for someone who has seen him as a fellow-spirit for the last thirty years or so, this is a sad thought.  As with all great literature, the reader feels a sense of loss when a book comes to an end – even more when you are at the end of a series of novels as fine as these.

With a writer as good as Richard Ford you keep finding memorable quotations in his book.  As I wrote above, I’ve included a few in this review but in case you want to read any more, I’ve added another page of quotations.

frank bascombe novels

Catching up with Frank Bascombe

In 2009, Everyman published a very beautifully-produced combined volume of the first three Frank Bascombe books, with a fine portrait photograph of Richard Ford on the cover.  This is an object of desire if ever there was one, unless like me you have them all on Kindle and find replicating them in print an unjustifiable luxury.

By the way, you will find that all the book links on this website now lead to the Wordery online bookshop.  I have used this quite a few times and have found their prices and service to be very good.  I used to be an affiliate with Book Depository but got fed up with their slow delivery times. Wordery seems to get the books to me much quicker.  In the interests of transparency, I will soon be a Wordery affiliate and get a very small commission on any purchases you make through following the links which I will donate to a charity of my choice, Medicin Sans Frontieres.


Other Richard Ford books reviewed on this website:
The Lay of the Land (reviewed 2008)
Canada (reviewed 2012)

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Review: F – Daniel Kehlmann

9781848667341Having previously enjoyed Daniel Kehlmann’s book Measuring The World, I was pleased to receive his new novel  “F”.  I found it to be a complex piece of work; on one level the story of three brothers in their journey from childhood to adult life, and on another level, a philosophical exploration of the meaning of existence and our quest for authenticity. At the heart of the novel is the relationship with a father with his sons; identical twins Eric and Ivan and a third son Martin who has a different mother. However, this is no family saga, for at its heart are some disturbing questions about human motivation.

The book opens with Arthur Friedland, an unpublished writer, taking his three sons to see a stage hypnotist at a local theatre. The show begins with adults being called out of the audience onto the stage where they suffer the usual indignities at the hands of the hypnotist. But soon, Arthur’s son Ivan is called up.  Despite his attempts to resist the commands of the hypnotist (lift your foot! forget your name!) he finds himself obeying the hypnotist’s every word, feeling consciously helpless to resist. When Arthur himself is called up the hypnotist is unable to affect him in any way, a hint perhaps of the distance Arthur keeps from everyone he becomes involved with.  After the show, Arthur drives his sons home and then walks out his son’s and their mother’s lives, not to return until years later.

The book moves forward a number of years and we read of the three boys as they begin to enter adult life. The focus shifts to Martin who has become a Catholic priest. All his life, Martin has been obsessed with the Rubik’s Cube puzzle which his father gave him years before and has gone so far as to enter and win various competitions.  Martin is also seriously overweight and seems unable to resist buying chocolate bars, consuming two at a time, an annoyance for the people who come to confess their sins and have to endure not only the clicking of the Cube but also munching sounds as they tell Martin about their promiscuous lives. Despite Martin’s skill at the Cube, he seems to be unable to gain the experience of God which would make his priestly calling real, but soldiers on with his calling, not realising that his perseverance is in fact the faith he is seeking.

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Review: The Leipzig Affair – Fiona Rintoul

Leipzig-Affair-for-web-708x10241985 was not a good year to live in The German Democratic Republic.  While the country was still in the grip of an oppressive communist government, the wealth and freedoms of the west were becoming ever more visible thanks to the population’s exposure to western radio and television.  Only the most loyal communists could continue the pretence that the government of Eric Honecker was leading the country to prosperity and economic equivalence with the west.  Citizens needed a rare type of party commitment to ask with any degree of sincerity, “why would you want more than three brands of shampoo in the shops?” when packages from the west contained unheard of bounty.

The book is the story of Magda and Robert, two young people from both sides of the almost unbreachable political divide of West and East.

After a period of rebellion against her government, Magda has seen that there is no future in resisting the powerful state with it’s STASI secret police and it’s control of all job opportunities.  She is now training to be an official translator while continuing friendships with her old crowd of radicals and planning for the day when she will be able to flee to the West.

Over in Scotland, Robert is writing a thesis on Heinrich Heine and wondering whether to study iu West or East Germany.  Although the Heine archive is in Dusseldorf, his application to study there gets lost by a drunk lecturer and he instead gets offered a student exchange in Leipzig in the communist East.

A communist-leaning lecturer, John Bull-Halifax asks Robert to take with him four pairs of Levi jeans for Magda, a contact from a previous visit.  Once in Leipzig, Robert arranges to meet Magda in a train station bar and is immediately struck by her beauty.  He hands over the jeans and Magda invites him to a friend’s 30th birthday party, poor Robert begins a relationship which will induct him into the smoke and mirrors world of East Germany, where nothing is as it seems and informing and intrigue bedevil every relationship.

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Review: Piano from a 4th Storey Window – Jenny Morton Potts

pianoI have read quite a few books based in Brighton from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to the police procedural thrillers of Peter James. Robert Dickinson presented a dystopian vision of a Brighton of the future in which social order had disintegrated (The Noise of Strangers), and Robert Rankin described a Brighton Zodiac with carriageway constellations criss-crossing the city (The Brightonomicon). I now have another fine novel to add to my Brighton collection – Piano from a 4th Storey Window by Jenny Morton Potts (buy paperback or Kindle)  which while being full of local colour and locations, also offers the story of a full-blown, head-over-heels romance with highs and lows both heavenly and hellish along the way.

Marin Strang is a Spanish teacher who’s life hasn’t quite worked out as she expected, leaving her single and existing on temporary teaching contracts, rootless and at a loose end for much of her time. Marin was brought up in a family of strict Jehovah’s Witnesses but one which mixed adherence to religion with real relationship difficulties which blight her to this day. She has been “dis-fellowshipped” by the JWs but has the remnants of a relationship with her ageing father who remains a loyal member.

“Marin’s childhood was the ideal preparation for solitude, finding her membership of the sect separating her from her natural friends at school. She developed,

 – an isolation to shield her from occasional major hurt. Or an isolation which drip fed daily minor hurt. She’d had so much practice at being on her own, she should manage it with ease.

Following a painful breakup from her last boyfriend, Marin finds herself wandering around The Lanes in Brighton (a quaint shopping area famed for its boutiques and quirky shops). She stops for a coffee at a café called Number 8 and catches a glimpse of an enticing social melée revolving around the café, particularly when she sees and hears Lawrence Fyre, a tall, unkempt, but charismatic individual who owns Sargasso Books in The Lanes.

Mr Tall’s tawny hair draped across his shoulders and sharp bones were poking at his clothes. His shirt, well, capacious, was the kindest description and it was almost white but there was a suggestion in the (crushed) fabric that it may have been a vivid colour once, decades back. With his back to her, she could comment internally no further but she heard herself say very quietly, ‘Turn round. Just turn around. Go on.’ This, you can enunciate without moving your teeth. Continue reading

Review: The Betrayers – David Bezmozgis

betrayersI enjoyed reading this unusual book, The Betrayers, which charts a few days in the life of senior Israeli politician Baruch Kotler as he travels to Yalta to escape press coverage of his extra-marital affair. Along the way we pick up on Baruch’s intriguing back-story as a Soviet dissident, and also meet the man who denounced him to the authorities many years ago in Russia.

David Bezmozgis was born in Latvia but brought up in Canada, where, after publishing a successful collection of short stories, he published his first novel, The Free World about a group of Russian/Jewish refugees who settle in Italy.  In The Betrayers, Bezmozgis writes about Israeli Cabinet Minister Baruch Kotler who wishes to resign his post in protest at the Israeli clearance of West Bank settlements (based on real-life events from 2005).

Baruch is a Russian émigré to Israel, with a long history of protest against the regime, which earned him 13 years in a Soviet prison camp.  Even then he was a stubborn prisoner at one point being so infuriated about interference with his mail that he went on hunger strike and had to be force-fed by tubes.

The book opens with Baruch and his young lover Leora arriving in the resort town of Yalta in the Ukraine, having fled Israel because of an encroaching scandal.  A day or two earlier, Baruch was called to an evening meeting in a park with a government agent.  The agent tells him that he must withdraw his objections to government policy towards the settlements.  Baruch, with a stubbornness born of resistance to Soviet power, refuses to change his views whereupon the agent produces an envelope of photographs which Baruch refuses to even open, but assumes reveal intimate moments between himself and Leora.  He leaves the park, picks up his girl-friend and together they leave the country on a flight to the Ukraine.

In Yalta, the hotel the couple intended to stay in is full and so by a long chain of coincidences they end up staying in a guest-house owned by the wife of Vladimir Tankilevich, the very person who denounced Baruch back in Soviet Russia, leading to his incarceration.

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Review: Lila – Marilynne Robinson

lilaMarilynne Robinson came to fame with her novel Gilead in which an elderly small-town Congregational Minister John Ames reflects on his own life and the lives of his immediate family, particularly his second wife Lila and his seven year old son. In her second book Home, Robinson write about the family of John Ames best friend Robert Boughton, focusing on his son Jack, the black-sheep of the family who’s reappearance after a break of several years resurrects a whole series of conflict within the family.

Lila is the third book in the series and returns to focus on a period a few years before Gilead, when a homeless woman comes to lives in a broken-down shack on the edge of Gilead and slowly starts to impact the community, eventually marrying John Ames, despite his great age.

This book, like the others, is extremely well-written and it is immediately obvious that Robinson has taken great care with every sentence, convincingly writing in the “voice” of Lila for much of the book but also bringing out the dignity and maturity of John Ames whenever he becomes the focus of the story.

Lila was abandoned by her mother as a very young child and was brought up by an itinerant woman called Doll, who found the four-year old child living a precarious life on the steps of a rough-and-ready bar. Doll picks up the child and runs off with her, cuddling her in her shawl and finds an elderly lady who takes both Doll and Lila in for a while as they try to clean up the semi-savage child.

As we read of Lila, now an adult woman living in the shack in Gilead, the book keeps flashing back to lengthy passages in which we read Lila’s story. Doll cared for Lila throughout her childhood and youth. Times were extremely hard and for much of the time they joined up with a small gang of itinerant workers who took on the most menial jobs on farmsteads in return for a few coins or perhaps for a few meals of potatoes and corn.

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Review: The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

UntitledBack in 2002 Michel Faber published a novel called The Crimson Petal and the White which Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian called “a supremely literary novel” and “dizzyingly accomplished” – a description which I totally agreed with.  Looking back on this superb book I still feel it would be up in my top ten ever list (if I had such a thing).  Since then I have been waiting for Michel Faber to write another book of equal quality and my hopes were raised when The Book of Strange New Things was published this summer.  At 592 pages, it looked reassuringly long and the subject seemed sufficiently unusual for me to expect something really special here.  I will tell you at the end of this review whether I found it.

First the story, which can’t be better summarise than in the publisher’s description from the cover:  “Peter Leigh is a missionary called to go on the journey of a lifetime. Leaving behind his beloved wife, Bea, he boards a flight for a remote and unfamiliar land, a place where the locals are hungry for the teachings of the Bible – his ‘book of strange new things’. It is a quest that will challenge Peter’s beliefs, his understanding of the limits of the human body and, most of all, his love for Bea”.

It would seem that a vast and mysterious commercial company called UCIS have managed to colonise a remote planet.  It is so remote that visitors to the planet have to be put into a state of suspended animation while travelling on the space-ship.  When they arrive and are brought round, they find themselves in a bland, shopping-mall style building with a very relaxed community of engineers, scientists and medics, all of whom have been selected for having little to lose by spending large parts of their lives in this remote location.

Peter, a highly committed Christian, has been selected to travel to the planet because the planet has other inhabitants who require his services as a pastor.  These are strange near-humanoid creatures (Peter names them the Oaseans from the word Oasis) who interact with the human colony by providing food in exchange for pharmaceutical drugs (quite what they do with them is never fully explained).  A proportion of these creatures have been converted to Christianity by a previous human visitor but following his disappearance, the Oaseans threaten to withdraw the food supplies from the human colony unless they are supplied with another Christian teacher.

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