Conspiracy theory nonsense. I read this because I thought it might shed some light, even if lurid and distorting, on the novels of J D Salinger. It does not. Waste of time. Fortunately, it was very short and very cheap.
Conspiracy theory nonsense. I read this because I thought it might shed some light, even if lurid and distorting, on the novels of J D Salinger. It does not. Waste of time. Fortunately, it was very short and very cheap.
Anthony Gilbert is the pseudonym of a woman named Lucy Malleson whose Mr Crook mysteries were published between 1936 and 1974, which is a pretty good run. Unfortunately all of her books appear to be out of print.
Which, judging from The Spinster's Secret, is a shame. Published in 1946, the story is about an old lady, Miss Martin, whose callous niece moves her out of her little one-room flat into a home for old ladies. When she realizes a little girl she had known in her happier life is now one of dozens of listless girls in a nearby orphanage she answers an ad in the paper for a private detective.
Mr Crook, who is dumpy, has an unfortunate accent, and wears loud plaids, is the first person who believes her suspicions and who takes seriously her worries about the little girl. The well-meaning lady who runs the home where Miss Martin lives stops her from making a crucial phone call and the results are disastrous.
I figured out what was going to happen before it occurred and could foresee what was coming, but the plot is not the heart of this wonderful little story. When I began reading it I thought the author was a man and I was astonished at his understanding of and empathy with an ageing lady who must rely on a relative who abuses her power. I was not surprised to learn that Lucy Maleson was a lonely spinster herself. I was reminded of Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (which was published in 1971).
This title didn't appear to me out of thin air, but it may as well have as I can't figure out who posted about it in a blog. If you were that blogger, please let me know so I can thank you properly. This is a treasure.
Update: Col at Col's Criminal Library blog, which is worth a visit, by the way, reminds me that Moira at Clothes in Books reviewed this book recently. And that is, indeed, where I learned about it. I'm most grateful as this is a mystery with the most carefully developed characters I've encountered in a while. Do visit Clothes in Books and read the reviews Moira posted here and here.
Mind you, I tried it because so very many people have said it was wonderful. I'm reporting on it so that those of you who find your taste parallels mine will have an idea what to expect. And the many who have discovered that if I hate a book you're going to LOVE it, here's another title for your TBR list.
Dovegreyreader recently reviewed a new book by Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks. Unfortunately, it won't be published in the US until September. But I couldn't wait for the Macfarlane experience so I borrowed from the library The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.
The author does a lot of walking, mostly in Britain, but sometimes off in Iberia or the Near East. His descriptions are not to be confused with those pastoral paragraphs you skip in most novels. I hung on his descriptions of sunken roads and hedgerows and distant peaks.
Landmarks is in my Amazon cart. I haven't bought it yet, but soon I will reach the tipping point and come September I have no doubt I'll be sounding like Dovegreyreader, singing the praises of this latest book of geography, literature, history, botany, physical fitness and so much more.
Go read that review.
The author, Kirsten Powers, although a liberal, strongly condemns what we called for a while political correctness and what she considers censorship and calls Silencing.
Her thesis is that it's easier for people "to demonize their opponents and sanctify themselves as higher moral beings than treat differences of opinion respectfully." This applies to the right as well as the left, but it's the left she's going after in this book. If people are punished for saying something that offends someone else (and they are) and if "offended" is undefined except by the person who takes offense, that is a critical loss of free speech.
Powers doesn't quote it but the point she makes is that power corrupts and when you give college students the power to have a septuagenarian professor suspended because of "micro-aggression," you need not be surprised if things escalate and they attempt to destroy others for less and less significant "offenses."
A good book, a little unorganized, filled with examples we have seen in the news in recent years.
“This habit of reading, I make bold to tell you, is your pass to the greatest, the purest, and the most perfect pleasure that God has prepared for His creatures. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will support you when all other recreations are gone. It will last until your death.It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”
-- Anthony Trollope
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
-- Billy Collins
“Bird’s Eye View” by Elinor Florence vs “Shotgun Lovesongs” by Nickolas Butler
Judge Dave Irwin
The final pairing in the Buff Orpington this year features a battle between the traditional and the (slightly) avant garde. “Bird’s Eye View” is the more traditional work, a straight-forward story that evolves outward from the role of Canadian women in World War II. “Shotgun Lovesongs” is more quirky in its storytelling and smaller in its scope, using sequential first-person narrative by its characters to move the story along, even while continually shifting the perspective of that story.
“Bird’s Eye View” blossoms from the microcosm of one girl’s peaceful life in a small Saskatchewan prairie town until it encompass the chaos of war and a Europe full of death and devastation. Leaving her job at the local newspaper, Rose volunteers to join the British Royal Air Force. Her knowledge of photography lands her an elite intelligence analyst position, reviewing reconnaissance photos.
From there, the war proceeds apace along historical lines to the inevitable defeat of the Nazis, aided by Rose dutifully doing her part. Her distance from the actual fighting itself is a metaphor for Canada’s role as an Ally. Placid Canada and its abundant farms eagerly and willingly contributed their sons and daughters to the fight, but faced no direct threat at home, in sharp contrast to the fury of life in wartime England, with bombs raining down daily. Along the way, Rose falls in and out of love, tries to understand this big ol’ crazy world, and eventually (spoiler alert!), the war won, she goes home and marries the boy next door, much as she likely would have had a global conflagration not sidetracked things.
I enjoyed the memoir-ishly detailed descriptions of WWII, the plain-spoken narrative, and the character of Rose. I’m a fan of WWII history, especially the European air war, as my father was a B-24 crewman. Florence gives a good sense of the drudgery and excitement of the air war, including the guilty relief of the ground crews and support infrastructure for not being the ones being shot at.
The problem with “Bird’s Eye View” is that in trying to embrace the immensity of a war in which Rose is only one more pawn, it conflates to a Canadian approximation of magical realism. Plot points align far too smoothly and neatly, people end up in exactly the right place at the right time for otherwise inexplicable things to happen. Had there been a little more chaos in the course of the characters, more genuine surprises or legitimate plot twists, “Bird’s Eye View” might have felt more authentic and less manipulated by the author’s hand.
“Shotgun Lovesongs” is also about a small prairie town: Little Wing, Wisconsin. It starts there and rarely leaves – even when visiting New York or Chicago, Little Wing looms large. The story focuses on five school chums, four guys and one girl, some of whom leave to make their fortunes and some who will never leave.
The most successful is Lee, a world famous pop star who at the end of the tour always finds his way back home to Little Wing (itself the name of a Jimi Hendrix song). This character is seemingly influenced by the true story of Justin Vernon, who, after failing repeatedly in the music business, retreated to a Wisconsin cabin, reinvented himself as Bon Iver (“good winter”) and single-handedly created his massive 2008 hit album, “For Emma, Forever Ago.” There are also echoes of John “Cougar” Mellencamp and his heartland paeans, as Lee has his choice of earthly delights, but keeps returning home physically and in his songs and his friends struggle to find the real Lee beneath the swag and bling of stardom.
There is also Ronny, a good-hearted, but damaged rodeo cowboy; Kip, spiritually adrift despite an instinct for making money; Hank, a farmer, father and all-around decent guy; plus his wife, Beth. Each sequentially shoulders the narrative duties in short, chapter-length chunks.
I enjoyed the freshness of “Shotgun Lovesongs,” and its strong sense of people living real lives in a real place, despite being fiction. The book is like a novel of characters from Bruce Springsteen songs. But a key character in “Shotgun Lovesongs” is Little Wing itself, and unfortunately, the characters’ devotion to this bit of geography is never clearly articulated beyond a generalized nostalgic wistfulness for a simple life of honest work and meaningful relationships.
Also a technical note: Butler’s prose often takes poetic flight, especially during interior monologues, which reduces the uniqueness of the speakers and makes them seem artificial, as when Ronny uses the word “gleaned,” which should be far beyond his normal vocabulary or Lee describes the flower petals in his hand at Henry and Beth’s wedding. This is clearly an artistic choice, which while tying the tone together more coherently, robs the characters of more individualized voices.
One of the results of a bracketed single-elimination competition is that, as in college basketball’s March Madness, the results are not necessarily reflective of overall strength but of the cumulative results of each single competition. A great team may have one bad day and be out. One book may be paired against a book that simply resonates better with a particular judge on a particular day. That bit of randomness is one of the things that makes the Buff Orpington exciting.
That said, the 2015 Buff Orpington winner is “Shotgun Lovesongs,” for a variety of reasons. Its firm sense of presence and people made it a more interesting read, though not necessarily any more compelling than the epic action of “Bird’s Eye View.” The characters of “Shotgun Lovesongs” felt more human, while many characters, especially ancillary ones, in “Bird’s Eye View” seemed stereotypical. The more experimental approach to a novel’s form in “Shotgun Lovesongs” pays off, while “Bird’s Eye View,” with its traditional historical narrative, is limited in the range it can even attempt and be true to its genre. Finally, over-manipulation of the narrative to achieve predetermined outcomes in “Bird’s Eye View” eventually weakened my engagement with the story, while the sheer openness of “Shotgun Lovesongs’” potential endings kept me turning the pages eagerly to the end.
Congratulations to Nickolas Butler’s “Shotgun Lovesongs,” the 2015 winner of the Buff Orpington Book Tournament.
Elinor Florence, Bird’s Eye View vs Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 3
Judge Laurel Hicks
Here are two first-person tales, one a memoir of the author's early years, the other a historical fiction novel about a young Canadian woman in World War II. You have already been given synopses of the stories by Judge Pamela and Judge Brooke, so I will simply give my opinion of the two books.
"Bird's Eye View," the story of the Canadian farm girl who went to England to help in the war effort, is well written and interesting; it added to my knowledge of photography, landscape interpretation, and spying methods, and it has some sympathetic and some decidedly unsympathetic characters. I kept thinking that it was probably a young-adult novel, but that's all right. It is a good, though not great, book.
In "My Struggle, Book 3,” Knausgaard offers up his memories of childhood in Norway—every single one of them, it seemed as I was reading. I like stories of childhood, and I am interested in Norway, but the excruciating, perhaps obsessive, details made me weary. I didn't really like little Karl Ove, and I got tired of listening to him. I love the book cover, though.
And so, my confessedly opinionated opinion is to give the prize to "Bird's Eye View."
Nikolas Butler, Shotgun Lovesongs vs Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Judge Ann Stetson
While I’ve lived most of my life in and around NYC, I spent a few years living in upstate New York. I also spent a great deal of time in the 1980’s driving across the US and Canada. Maybe it those two reasons, but for whatever reason, Shotgun Lovesongs resonated with me in a way that Lila did not. Lila was perhaps the more “literary” book, the book that I could more likely see someone using as an example of “real” literature.
But Shotgun Lovesongs reminded me of Richard Russo, especially Mohawk and Empire Falls. There is a sense of place in SL that speaks to me. That’s often absent in modern literature, where place is to be honest, in the character’s head and not rooted in an actual place. But as with Richard Price in Clockers, Butler has taken a small area of the US and made it his own. It’s a place that I am not all that failure with (unlike Russo’s upstate New York, and Price’s fictitious Jersey suburbs), but still: it walks that border in fiction where you say, yes this is a story, but it’s based on something that is part of the author’s life, and thus is very real.
Again, I had hoped for more from Lila and I will go back and read Gilead and Home and see if that makes Lila better. But for now, for me, Shotgun Lovesongs. The fiction of place and geography is something I always enjoy, be it The Hobbit and Middle Earth, or Bonfire of the Vanities and the South Bronx.
Jane Smiley, Some Luck
vs Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 3
Judge Frandy Garrett
My Struggle – Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
For a largely unknown writer here in the U.S., many will soon make this name a household one. Knausgaard’s title, whether book 3 or any other number, initially seemed off-putting. Merely by its small print and thickness – embarrassing as it may be – seemed a daunting task. However, it soon became apparent that the author, and this book, would be what a terrific read should be. It is no surprise that the “My Struggle” series is internationally acclaimed.
My Struggle: Boyhood tells the story of boy’s early years in Norway. Surprisingly, Knausgaard has an incredible gift of making his story seem universally relatable. Rarely has a writer been able to convey a sense of place better, yet make the story as soon ours as his. There are so many poignant adventures and moments within the book that can harken back to one’s own childhood. Whether the moment is experiencing a first kiss to that of having learned a hard life lesson, this prose is unsurpassed. Any reader can relate to exploring forbidden places or acting without the thought of consequences. All the while, although this book can be read as a solitary story, both the earlier two books, as well as those to come, will be enlightening to the whole.
The reader can only hope that the stories keep coming – quickly – so we avid readers can continue the rave reviews! Unquestionably, this book is the winner between it and Jane Smiley’s Some Luck.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley
When one thinks of a fine writer, one needn’t look further than Jane Smiley. Since writing A Thousand Acres, she has been highly respected in the publishing community. This particular novel is the first of a trilogy, a chronology of the Langdon family which commences in 1920 and takes us to 1953. For someone from the’ baby boom’ generation, this is reading to relish.
Time is faithful carried chapter by chapter, as the years continue, beginning with the patriarch Walter returning from soldiering in WWI. Rosanna Vogel Langdon, his devoted wife, soon gives birth to Frank, the first of their five children. Frank’s perspective, deft fully told in his ‘head speak’ adds to the nuanced opening of the family’s story. We see, as the narrative moves on, each sibling’s differing personality developing. We also see the interconnectedness of the families within the Langdon’s circle at their Iowa farm. Smiley easily draws us to fully engage in the lives of many of these characters, allowing us to become enmeshed as their lives move on. While some family members remain in the same community, others move far beyond. The story is so credibly written, the reader genuinely cares what happens to each of the characters. We follow the family, in this particular book, to 1953.
Because Smiley can make us so easily relate to her story, the reader looks equally forward to reading the sequel. Writing such as this makes the reader champion the works of Jane Smiley. However, it cannot compare with the universal appeal of Karl Ove Knausgaard.
vs Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
Judge Bobby Lee Eason
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters---the non-winning choice
Set in 1924 post WWI England, The Paying Guests one supposes is a historical novel although little context of the period is provided. The topic focuses on the personal and legal consequences of an illicit love affair gone bad. Albeit a love affair between a married woman and her landlady, overtly lesbian protagonists are regularly featured in Waters’ previous novels which have won numerous UK awards including the 2002 Fingersmith, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Roll the wheel and take your pick, themes included love betrayal, sorrow, British classism, passion, lust/power, despair, panic, jealousy, and catastrophe. The protagonist, 26 year old Francis Wray, a pacifist, has lost three members to the consequences of the Great War, two brothers and a father. From this upper middle class family only she and her mother survive; however, the family fortune has been lost and the Wrays must take in lodgers to make expenses—the Barber couple Len and Lilian.
Nearly immediately, Francis is attracted to Lilian who seems shocked by her bisexual feelings for Francis. One thing leads to another, they are in each other’s arms, and eventually discovered by Lilian’s outraged husband. A three-way fight ensues. It ends when Lilian frees Francis from the grasps of Len by violently smashing him with a deadly object. Faced with a choice of telling the police or displacing the body to an outdoor path known to harbor violent thieves, they opt for the former thus not having to expose their illicit love affair to a world not ready.
There is an investigation which strangely did not involve the police seeking clues from the Barber’s living quarters. Instead a 19 year old thug was found, arrested, and tried. The strain of the trial and fear of an innocent man being hanged broke the relationship between Francis and Lilian. Yet somehow, the youth was found innocent and the book ended with Francis and Lilian holding hands as if a shared future still might be conceivable.
As for the non-vote, it is not that The Paying Guests was not a page turner; nor is the reader offended that a murder/detective story used a lesbian/bisexual couple as a plot source; nor that the characters were not particularly likable or even well developed; rather it was the structure that weighted against this book. From the beginning, the police had inklings that all was not right between the Barbers and Francis, but rather than investigate their instincts, they chose to indict an innocent man, a perpetrator more palatable to the social mores of the times.
Elinor Florence and Bird’s Eye View—the Quarter-final Winner
Bird’s Eye View is Elinor Florence’s maiden trek into novel creation but she is far from a novice. Having spent years as a newspaper reporter, editor, and owner along with being a feature writer for the Canadian Reader’s Digest, she is well versed in telling a good story. Moreover, her newspaper predisposition to get the story front and center helped draw the reader immediately into Bird’s Eye View. Once in, I was hooked for the duration
BEV is a historical novel portraying the role of Canada’s reluctance to enter into WWII. The lead character is Rose Joliffe, a 19 year old farm girl from the wheat prairies of Saskatchewan. To earn college money, she finds work with the local newspaper. The editor, a scruffy ill-mannered isolationist, is won over by Rose’s sharp intellect and work ethic. He taught her the newspaper business including dark room photography and a sharp eye for detail. Through their dialogue the reader is provided interesting point/counter point reasons why Canada delayed entering the war.
As the war raged on, Rose lost patience with Canada’s reticence and enlisted with the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Rose’s high test scores and knowledge of photography landed her in an intelligence division as an aerial photographic interpreter. After several brilliant detections she was promoted and became a star of the division.
But all was not perfect. Rose was sucker punched by a British officer promising love but only wanting sex; her brother was killed in combat; and she was severely injured in a bomb raid. Suffering near mental and physical collapse, she found solace when a high school friend reappeared in her life; sparks ignited; and promise was given hope for a replenished Canadian workforce.
Florence’s work was not without structural flaws. Once she referred to the Tower Bridge as the London Bridge. She enjoyed perhaps too much the use of similes and other obvious literary devices. Still, the story that developed her prevailing theme of the backstory heroes of WWII left the reader appreciating the importance of the role played by smart dedicated women toward the Allies victory.
To finish, Herman Wouk wrote of two kinds of novelists—life-enrichers and life-impoverishers. Elinor Florence by creating Bird’s Eye View is a life-enricher.
Colm Toibin, Nora Webster vs Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Judge Phyllis Mitchell
I’m pleased I was assigned the delightful task of reading two novels whose main characters are diverse in background and temperament. I chose “Lila” rather than “Nora Webster” not for any literary reason but because I admired her raw, elemental courage.
”Norah Webster“ is the tale of a recently widowed woman. She defined herself as a wife and mother who was dependent on her husband for decisions, opinions and security. It was a happy marriage for her.
The story is set in a small village in the county of Wexford, Ireland, during the late1960’s. Nora is at odds with her widowhood. She wrestles with her future and the opinions of her neighbors, friends and family. She finds solace in music, which helps her to channel her restlessness and overcome her grief.
A novel, simply and gracefully written, that portrays a woman’s journey through grief to redefine her life and to move forward with hope and courage.
“Lila” tells the story of a very different woman. The setting is the small, dusty, rural town of Gilead, Iowa, during the depression of 1920’s. Lila finds shelter from a rainstorm in the church of the Reverend John Ames.
She brings with her a hard lonely life of homelessness and poverty. Her family had been pieced together not by blood but by circumstance.
The Reverend Ames is attracted to her when she appears at his church to get out of a rainstorm. They begin a romance born of fear, loneliness, and wonder. It becomes love. The honesty and courage of Lila unfolds as the author moves between the past and the present.
Robinson uses dialogue between the Reverend and Lila to pose many theological concepts. When Lila becomes pregnant, her thoughts and concerns are shared with her unborn child. Why do things happen in life? Is there a heaven? Is this heaven worth the sacrifice if you never see loved ones again? What is death? Why pray?
Lila comes to happiness through a simple honesty with herself and the raw courage to wonder.
I have chosen “Lila” as the winner of this match. This is a novel with many layers. It is poetically written with a thread of wistfulness meandering throughout. I have shared questions with Lila. Lila has become a friend.
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Almeddine vs
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
Judge Kim Barton
I had a hard time choosing between these two books as neither one of them really jumped out at me as the clear winner. If I had to give them a star rating, I’d give each book a three. They were both beautifully written, but they each had flaws too. I liked them, but didn’t love them. In the end, I chose the book I’d be most likely to read a second time.
An Unnecessary Woman
I wanted to love this book, I really did. It started out well when Aaliyah, our 70-something year old protagonist, accidentally dyes her hair blue. She tells the reader about her collection of book translations that she’d done over the years, translations that no one has ever seen and that sit in her extra room. Then her estranged brother shows up with their mother telling Aaliyah she has to take the mother in, that he and his wife are done taking care of the aging women. The mother takes one look at Aaliyah and screams. The author sets the reader up for some big life-changing event.
And then…nothing happened for most of the book. The middle part dragged, with a few lovely vignettes, like Aaliyah and her niece washing her mother’s feet, in between her long digression about the books, authors, and philosophers she’d read. I found myself skimming, wanting to get past all that.
Her depictions of Beirut and of the war were beautifully done, but it wasn't enough for me to get past the boring middle.
A couple of weeks after I’d read the book, someone asked me about An Unnecessary Woman. I had to stop and think for a moment. What book was that? What happened? It did not leave a strong impression on me.
One thing both books have in common: home. For Aaliyah it’s Beirut and her beloved apartment. In Shotgun Lovesongs, home is a small Wisconsin town. But that’s all they have in common! Shotgun Lovesongs is also about friendship, particularly male friendship. The story, told from the point of view of each of the four friends begins and ends with the marriage of the foursome’s most famous friend, the musician who wrote the album Shotgun Lovesongs. Although rich and famous, Lee always comes back home to recuperate. He loves his small town and his friends who have stayed behind. Hank, the rancher who has never left has a wonderful wife and family.
All four men, and the one woman they have in common, tell their stories of friendship and life in a small town. At the end, a revealed secret threatens to ruin their friendships and tear the group apart. I enjoyed how the author weaved together their stories and also each person’s story as it lived in the past and the present. The scenes where the boys and then men sat on the mill tower and watched the sunrises and sunsets were beautifully done and very poignant. I also appreciate a good story about male friendship, something I don’t encounter in literature very often.
The one thing I didn't like about Shotgun Lovesongs was how each story was wrapped up neatly, and yet when something unexpected happened, it did not seem believable. The last quarter of the book lost it for me. I was unhappy with the way the author handled the reveal of the big secret. It didn't seem to fit the characters of the two men. The very last scene dragged on for much too long and then quickly became ridiculous.
Perhaps I engaged in Shotgun Lovesongs more easily than An Unnecessary Woman, because the characters were closer to me in age and I could relate to their lives. They had friends, loving families, and got out into the world to live. Aaliyah, living alone with no friends or family and subsisting on books was completely alien to me.
The Winner: Shotgun Lovesongs
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 3 vs
Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank with You
Judge Brooke Lunee
Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford
Richard Ford has been writing books with the first-person narrator Jack Bascombe since the early 1980s. His first Bascombe book is The Sportswriter, which he wrote when he lost his job as a sportswriter. There are many other parallels between the character’s life and that of the author, but there are also some wide differences.
This novel is a set of four tightly attached short stories with the action, what there is of it, occurring in the two weeks before Christmas in 2012, just weeks after the hurricane, Sandy, which destroyed much of the construction on New Jersey’s barrier islands. The character, Jack Bascombe, was in the past a realtor living in a fictional town near Seaside Heights. And he begins this book with a call from the man to whom he sold his house years ago – a man who, like all property owners in that area, lost everything but the residual value of the sand dune on which his house had been built.
The title of this book is key. What the character, Frank, is trying to do in this narrative is tell the reader who he is. “I’m Here” is the title of one of the stories and in another he attempts to explain his Default Self and his use of this straightforward persona with no past and no future, a terse, non-lying, matter-of-fact guy who is the essence of Frank Bascombe. Tricky but Ford pretty much carries it off.
So we have a story that is based on sorrow and loss and anger and the attempts we make to deal with these inevitabilities. There is a good deal of looking back in this short novel, including a wrenching visit to Bascombe’s ex-wife who is now in a continuing care facility with Parkinsons. Although a reader new to Ford can read this book as a stand-alone, it would be much more effective if one has already read The Sportswriter and the other Bascombe books.
My Struggle, Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
As with the Richard Ford book, Let Me Be Frank with You, this third book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s monumental My Struggle, is a book you can read without having read books 1 and 2. It is the story of the author’s youth in the 1970s seen from the child’s point of view but filtered through the mind of the 40-something author writing in the 21st century.
It is with the publishing of this third of six books that the reviewers began to get serious, calling My Struggle a masterpiece and comparing it with In Search of Lost Time Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist all gave it starred reviews, and I would star it also. I can’t remember reading anything so engaging since Wolf Hall.
The reviewers are correct when they say that this novel can be read alone. But to really catch the allusions and understand the development of Knausgaard as an author I really think you need to read the earlier books.
Because of the freshness and ingenuity of this novel and because of the depth of feeling and understanding of youth it depicts, it wins this round of the tournament.
Jane Smiley, Some Luck vs Rachel Joyce, Perfect
Judge Sarah Psitos
The two books assigned to me were a bit of a challenge. I have read and admired Jane Smiley for many years. I am completely unfamiliar with Rachel Joyce. Both novels are very well-written with characters the reader grows to like and care about. The difference is more in the atmosphere and focus of the stories. Joyce’s “Perfect” jumps between 1972 and about 40 years later. Byron Hemmings, a worried 11-year-old, and his unhappy, lonely mother are trying to make sense of the community they live in. Byron is obsessed with a two-second adjustment to the atomic clock. How can scientists change time without a noticeable change in the world? He is sure those two seconds will lead to disaster and in a way, it does.
There is a dark and tight focus in the plot of “Perfect”. Diana Hemmings is a woman who is bullied by her much-absent husband to be perfect in her dress, her housekeeping, her looks, her children. Byron tries to help her, but he does not understand the adult world rules. It seems as if everything is headed for a dark end. Forty years later we meet Jim who has spent most of his adult life in a mental institution that has recently closed. Jim is crippled by his obsessions. Sometimes it takes him hours to perform all the evening rituals before he feels safe at home in his trailer. Slowly, as she cycles between 1972 and the present, Joyce brings the two stories together. The end is not a surprise, but is satisfying.
By contrast, Jane Smiley has written an expansive novel that covers more than 30 years with one farm family, the Langdons, starting in 1920 when a young couple, Rosanna and Walter, and their baby son, Frank, have moved into a farm a few miles from their parents’ farms. Smiley describes the milestones in the family’s lives – births, crop yields, money worries, drought, deaths – and manages to make each new character an individual person. Over the years the parents, with some prodding from the children, go from using plow horses to tractors, kerosene lanterns to electricity. The description of the family’s fortunes is an illustration of what was going on in the country in those 30 years from just after World War I, through the Depression, World War II, and the early 1950s “red scare”.
The plot is more of a chronicle of interwoven lives as families are. Smiley’s writing is crisp and vivid. The characters were interesting enough to make the reader want to see what kind of adults they became by the end of the book. In “Perfect” it seemed as if Jim was not ever going to get out of his grim, difficult world.
This was a hard decision, but I have to go with Jane Smiley’s “Some Luck”.
Roddy Doyle, The Guts vs Elinor Florence, Bird’s Eye View
Judge Pamela Thomas
The Guts by Roddy Doyle
Roddy Doyle’s new novel “The Guts” continues the story of life in the working class of fictional Barrytown, a small scruffy town on the fringes of Dublin, Ireland. Its protagonist, Jimmy Rabbitte, is 25 years older than when he was the heroic manager of the band “The Commitments” in Doyle’s first Barrytown novel of the same name. Jimmy is still engaged in life and is passionate about nostalgic off-beat rock bands. He’s married to the saintly and supportive Aoife and has four children who relate lovingly but with some trepidation to their offbeat dad.
Jimmy has colon cancer, and literally 80% of his guts have to be removed. He must also undergo chemotherapy treatments that make him very sick. “The Guts” chronicles his story of grappling with mortality, his family and friends, and continuing to find meaning in what he does. Not only does he have to sacrifice most of his guts to beat the cancer, but he must find the guts inside of himself to keep going under the cloud of his mortality.
“The Guts” is drop-dead funny at times. How do you explain Facebook to your elderly father? “It’s like a club but yeh have your own room, for the people yeh want to meet. Except there’s no room an’ yeh meet no one. Unless yeh want to.”
Jimmy puts his heart into bringing some of his old bands back to light at the biggest music festival of the year, the Electric Picnic. And there he orchestrates the hoax debut of his son, whom he has set up as a Bulgarian singer presenting a 1932 pounding number written as a hoax by Jimmy. It would seem this is Jimmy’s proudest moment. It bothered me a bit that Jimmy is so proud of the hoax he has created centering on his son.
There are a lot of subplots that don’t seem fully fleshed out – a relationship with a long-lost brother, the creation of the band hoax, even an illicit love affair. But you get the feeling Jimmy is walking around in a bit of a fog with his illness and treatments, and he relates to most everything in his life with vagueness. He talks to his buddies and father but doesn't really say much. He has strikingly uninformative conversations with his estranged brother, and he tries to figure out how to behave as a potentially dying husband and father. He and wife Aoife bounce back and forth between humor and pathos in dealing with his illness.
It has been said that the novel’s commentary on rock and pop culture insights are right on, though I’m in no position to judge. While critics praise his sparse descriptions and profane dialog, I found the novel disconcerting to read because virtually no page was left without the F word, or the C word, or the S word (ending in an ‘e’, the Irish spelling). Heck, almost no LINE was left without one of these words. The other word in constant use was “grand” – not obscene, but most everyone used it to describe every single thing: something was ‘grand’ or ‘not grand’. I do believe most characters got by mostly with those four words. Perhaps this depicts the local dialect – I’m no expert here. But it was off putting as a first time Doyle reader who lives in middle class US.
There’s some fun and much poignancy and vulnerability in “The Guts”. There is great warmth and sympathy for these everyday lives of Jimmy’s world. Jimmy takes his friend and former band member Outspan, who is dying of cancer, to the festival. Both Jimmy and Outspan are determined to make it through the festival and see and do it all even if it kills them. They are wringing one last hurrah out of life, a lesson for the rest of us. In the end the display of grit and zest for living in “The Guts” is enough to make it worth a read.
Bird’s Eye View by Elinor Florence
Rose Jolliffe is a young Canadian woman who lives in a small Saskatchewan town called Touchwood. She’s naïve and inexperienced but smart enough to brazen her way into a job at the local newspaper. She longs to join the military to participate in Canadians helping to win the war like her brother and male friends. Finally she finds a way to pay her own way to England and join the Royal Air Force. Along the way she finds some discrimination against Canadians and struggles to represent her country well.
Rose becomes part of a unit assigned to perform photographic interpretations of aerial photos taken on spy and bombing runs. It is important work as it helps determine troop movements, defenses, damage, and other strategic fighting information. Rose has an exceptional gift of interpretation, helped along by her growing up in a rural community and her photographic work at the newspaper job.
Rose suffers from loneliness and from the losses and deprivations of war, making mistakes in love and friendship along the way. But each experience contributes to her growing into a capable and centered woman who makes major contributions to the war effort through her skillful detective interpretations. For example, Rose figures out there are many more troops in a location than it appears in the photographic evidence because one building doesn’t have snow on the roof as it should – the warm bodies inside have caused the snow to melt, as Rose has seen on the cattle barn at home.
“Bird’s Eye View” is the story of Rose growing up in the tense atmosphere of a world at war. Many are the back-breaking hours the interpreters put in to discover the tiniest out of place feature of a photo. The reader is given fascinating insights as to the little-known photographic interpretation activities, all done with black and white photographs until close to the end of the war. Many of the war’s secrets were kept or uncovered by the aerial interpreters. It’s worth a read just to enter the world of interpreters. This is author Elinor Florence’s first novel, and I say well done.
I had some problems with both books, and there wasn't a clear winner in my mind. I couldn't fully relate to the world of Jimmy Rabbitte in “The Guts”, and I was off put by the coarse and sparse dialog. Eventually I did recognize that some of the sparseness of the book was the interior world of Jimmy and his fight with cancer. But some humor aside, it just wasn’t much fun to read. That may be my personal failing in not being able to relate to Jimmy’s world.
I approached “Bird’s Eye View” with reservations because the first pages seemed ‘girlie’. Was this going to be a naive girl’s romance story? Not my cup of tea. But the naivety disappeared as the story and Rose grew, and in the end Rose seemed a fully formed character worthy of our reading time. Her Canadian viewpoint was also a plus. Most importantly, I found myself caught up in the fascinating world of aerial photographic interpretation and wanting to know more.
The winner by a hair is “Bird’s Eye View”, primarily because I enjoyed the able and exciting story presentation of the role of aerial photographic interpretation in World War II.