It is 2008, in the middle of the great banking crisis and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Salinger Nash, an artist based in London, receives a phone call from his brother Carson who has lived in America for most of his adult life, asking him to travel to America where the two of them will go on a road trip to try to track down their father. This is the essence of Tim Lott’s new novel, Under The Same Stars, his first adult novel since 2009 when he published the highly regarded Rumours of a Hurricane.
The younger brother Salinger is named after the writer J.D. Salinger of Catcher in the Rye fame, and Carson is named after Carson McCullers – two great American writers who specialise in the theme of loneliness. Their father abandoned the two boys and their mother when they were young and refused to have any further contact with them. Perhaps the exigencies of the time are reminding them that their father must be very old now and is going to die without seeing how his sons turned out (and don’t we all want to show our parents what happened to us?).
Salinger’s character is imbued with a typically London cynicism which is his defence against disappointment and rejection. Salinger lives with his girlfriend but the relationship seems to be floundering and perhaps this is time to go to the USA and see what happens when he returns. Carson on the other hand is a born-again Christian, and is relentlessly upbeat, responding to every negative remark with a unrealistically optimistic cliché. Perhaps both men have adopted personas which in some way protect them from the sense of rejection they acquired as boys when their father left them.
Salinger is not surprised to find that Carson’s has done extremely well in America. He has a perfect home, a perfect wife and a shiny new Lexus sitting in the driveway. The car is Carson’s pride and joy and he wipes it clean both inside and out at the end of every day. Salinger seems to delight in dropping small items of rubbish on the floor knowing that this will irritate his older brother.
As they travel across the American South, the banter between the two men has a cutting edge with childhood rivalries never far below the surface. The contrast between Carson’s positivity and Salinger’s cynicism leads to endless bickering between them, not only on personal themes but also on the contrasting attitudes between Britons and Americans. I enjoyed the spat which erupted when Carson erupts at yet another one of Salinger’s cutting remarks about bland, corporate America:
“All this bitching about globalization, standardization, homogenization. Think what England was like before it arrived. What was there before Starbucks? Second-rate greasy spoons where the tea was stewed and the coffee tasted like mud. What was there before McDonald’s? Wimpy Bars. What was there before Gap? Burton. And you’re telling me we’re screwing up the world?”
The Lexus came to a halt. The Holiday Inn sign flickered high at the end of the street. A static jigsaw of traffic held them in its grip.
“1951. That was the golden year. Coming of the malls. Victor Gruen, the first modern mall in Seattle. Model taken up all over the world. Clean, quiet, dry, temperature-controlled. What did we have in Willesden? The high street. What was in the high street? Bakers selling soggy rolls. Butchers selling sausages filled with cardboard and toenails. Fishmongers with three varieties of fish. The Cosy Nook café, the Copper Kettle, the Buttery”.
Tim Lott puts the two brothers through various adventures, not least the theft of the beautiful Lexus. An unlikely cop helps them out and the brothers travel on by motorbike, enjoying the temporary thrill of living for a few days in a James Dean movie.
American road trip
Eventually the brothers arrive at their destination, the small town where their father was last reported to be living. They do not know his address and have to hunt round various cheap cafés and diners in the hope of spotting him. I won’t say what happens in the end but it is definitely a suitable ending, despite some reservations about the final resolution which although satisfying seemed a little trite to me.
I read this book while on holiday and it turned out to be a perfect match for my mood. Light enough to be amusing, but also having enough grit to hold my interest and keep me returning to it as I hovered between promenade benches and open-air cafés. While my wife read the newspaper I found myself eager to travel the next few miles with the two brothers as they drove along America’s giant freeways and quiet back-roads. A 4-star read but still very good.
This was not a review copy.
I’ve been away on holiday for the last few days, and apologise to anyone who has left comments on my reviews and hasn’t had an answer from me yet. I’d set up a couple of posts to publish while I was away so it may have seen like I was at the computer as usual.
We went down in Swanage further west along the south coast and saw quite a lot of Thomas Hardy country as we drove around to locations such as Lulworth, Sherborne and Dorchester and were surprised at the sense of “remoteness” that some of the villages still maintained well into the 21st century.
I particularly enjoyed visiting Sherborne Abbey where the honey-coloured sandstone lent a wonderful warmth to the interior.
I’ve decided to stop taking review copies of books. This is an independent book review website and while I’ve only ever reviewed books I enjoyed reading, I find that by taking review copies I can’t plan my reading properly. I’m passing over books I discover on my own in favour of books which I’ve agreed to take on review. So while I have a couple of outstanding books I’ve agreed to review I’m not going to take any more.
And finally . . .
Can I recommend the excellent Brain Pickings website, which presents archive material on writing and the nature of creation from countless names from the past, both well-known and less well-known. I’ll end this post with a quote from the website originally from Samuel R Delany on the difference between good writing and talented writing.
If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story. It will still not be a good one. The major fault of eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all fiction is that it is banal and dull.
Now old stories can always be told with new language. You can even add new characters to them; you can use them to dramatize new ideas. But eventually even the new language, characters, and ideas lose their ability to invigorate.
Either in content or in style, in subject matter or in rhetorical approach, fiction that is too much like other fiction is bad by definition. However paradoxical it sounds, good writing as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction. On one level or another, the realization of this is finally what turns most writers away from writing.
Talented writing is, however, something else. You need talent to write fiction.
Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.
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.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Round House – Louise Erdrich
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