A 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.
Marilynne 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.
I apologise to my readers once again for the infrequency of my posts at the moment. When I took on the job of creating a website for a charity I hadn’t really taken on board the size of the task, and while I’m really enjoying doing it, my book reviewing has taken a hit while I spend an hour or so every day working with Serif WebPlus to create the new website.
While I’m here, I’d like to wish all my contacts a very happy Christmas. I hope you get the books you want and that you find plenty of time to read them.
I’ve not read a John Grisham novel for a very long time but was tempted by his new book Sycamore Row which is a sequel to his very first book published in 1989, A Time to Kill. In the first novel we see young attorney Jake Brignance defending Carl Lee Hailey, who has murdered two white racists who have raped and terribly injured his ten-year old daughter. Jake takes on Carl Lee’s defence but as a result, the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan pursue a vendetta against him, leading to Jake being shot at and his house and property torched. A Time to Kill made John Grisham’s name as a crime writer unafraid to tackle the most inflammatory topics and he has had a hugely successful career as a result, publishing about 30 best-selling novels.
It has taken John Grisham 25 years to return to Ford County but the events described in it happened only three years on from those in A Time to Kill. Let’s set the scene by quoting an article in the Washington Post which describes Ford County perfectly:
The little town is surrounded by rural enclaves, woods and farmland, acreage that shelters poor farmers but is also coveted by shady developers. The streets of Clanton are lined on one side with the mansions of old white landowners and on the other with the modest homes of African-Americans who have lived there as long as the gouging landowners. It’s a microcosm of America — at least of those citizens who haven’t run off to the anonymity of big-city life and all the daydreams of urban success.
While I have been reading as much as ever, I have been so busy with other things that I’ve not really had time to write reviews for the last couple of months. For one thing, we have a new grandson, Arthur, and our daughter has needed help with the baby’s two sisters, Iris and Florence, who are both under five years old (leading to many afternoons surrounded by plastic bouncers, ball-pools and climbing frames in “Soft Play”). I’ve also taken on the creation of a website for a charity which is taking up huge amount of my time. However, I’ve found time today to write a review of a book which has consumed much of my attention for the last week and here it is:
I am one of the many people who have been waiting for years for Donna Tartt to bring out a novel equal to her first – The Secret History. Her Second Novel, The Little Friend, did not really hit the spot for me, although I read through it happily enough while waiting for the same literary buzz that The Secret History gave me. Now at last, Donna Tartt has met my expectations by producing this fantastic, nearly 800 page novel, The Goldfinch.
I was fortunate enough to see a review copy of the book and while I was initially daunted by the scale of the book (and not exactly attracted by the blurb on the cover), I started to read it and was immediately drawn in and captivated. There is something about good writing which makes is just as satisfying as a good meal. I found a sort of nourishment going on in my head as I read through Tartt’s elegant prose. It’s not just the elegance however, it’s the sheer pulsating interest of the book – this is the ultimate “good read” sought after by book-lovers the world over. Even the first chapter has an extremely dramatic event at it’s core, and straight away you find yourself wondering “where can this go to next”?
Many reviewers have suggested that there is a sort of Dickensian feel to this book for like Dickens, Tartt can delve into huge amount of detail without being boring. There are even some similarities between The Goldfinch and Great Expectations in the way that a young boy finds fame and fortune through an extremely convoluted route.
Although the book has an epic scale, it can also seem microscopic in the way the author recounts small episodes. A tour round an art gallery makes you feel that you are there yourself, and nobody reading this book will be able to resist seeking out the painting of The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius on the website of The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in order to ponder the predicament of this tiny bird, chained to its perch.
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.
I’d never heard of American writer John Fante before being recommended this book, The Road to Los Angeles by Emma and Guy of Bookaroundthecorner and His Futile Preoccupations under their Merry Christmas Humbook scheme. I had no idea what to expect but knew that John Fante has attracted attention as a significant American writer of the 1930s era.
In The Road to Los Angeles we read a first person account of a year or two in the life of aspiring writer Arturo Bandini, a young man still living with his mother and younger sister and trying to support them by working at menial jobs for minuscule wages.
Bandini seems to have a touch of ego-mania, believing he is called to higher things but full of frustrations of all types – sexual, professional, familial and also with a hefty does of status-anxiety. He believes he is a gifted writer in the making although as the book opens this seems to be more aspiration than reality and it is only towards the end of the book that he finally gushes out a vast sprawling novel which seems to be an example of the “angry young man” genre.
I found Bandini to be a pretty unappealing character. Vivid bursts of verbal abuse, largely targeted at innocent bystanders, reveal him to be racist, sexist and full of contempt for almost everyone he encounters. He is seems to be without friends and almost completely alienated from his family. No doubt this comes from his sense of bewilderment that he, a great writer, has to work for 25 cents an hour in a canning factory and use a broom-cupboard as his study.
In my last article I reviewed a book written about a group of people in an English village going through various changes and crises – but with an authors gentle touch which left a warm glow as I finished the book. Today, in Music for Torching, the subject matter is similar – families, their problems and their hidden lives, but with a far edgier touch, an altogether rawer treatment.
Paul and Elaine live in a middle-class suburban community with their two young boys. We find ourselves in a place of mown lawns, washed cars, dinner parties, neighbourhood barbecues and enough evidence of the good life to show us that these are well-heeled people, competing with each other for status and accustomed to hiding their dirty washing rather than airing it in public.
But Paul and Elaine are slowly going mad with the boredom of it all. They’ve been married a few years now and neither of them have realised their dreams (it is debatable whether they ever really knew what they were!). Paul’s office is go-getting, competitive sort of place while Elaine seems to have missed the boat career-wise and has drifted into the role of a resentful and not very successful home-maker. Their boys, Sammie and Daniel are growing into difficult late-childhood and Daniel is involved in some pretty unsavoury activities in the privacy of his bedroom (a padlock appears on his bedroom door at one stage as he attempts unsuccessfully to keep his parents out of his life).
It won’t be spoiling the book to reveal that on a Sunday evening at the end of a boring and frustrating holiday weekend, Paul and Elaine decide on a course of alcohol-fuelled self-destruction (the clue is in the title of the book and is mentioned in the blurb anyway). But their attempt to demolish their home and their lives is only partly successful. The house remains roughly intact and a surge of good-neighbourly benevolence leaps into action to salvage what remains. Continue reading