A quote from what has been described as Tasmanian Gothic fiction, published in 1874, and THE classic Australian convict novel. It is For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. You can read more about it in the 1 April 2016 post of the blog, Vintage Novels.
In my career as a reader I have encountered only three people who knew The Long Ships, and all three of them, like me, loved it immoderately. Four for four: from this tiny but irrefutable sample I dare to extrapolate that this novel, first published in Sweden during the Second World War, stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to every single human being on the face of the earth.
Let me make that five out of five. I am immoderately excited about this novel, a story in a genre that I never, ever read - slam, bang adventure, war, sea stories taking place in the 9th century. But this tale about a red-haired Dane called Orm, who accidentally goes off on an adventure with a ship full of Vikings and comes home a hero is irresistible.
Red Orm is kidnapped and becomes one of the adventurers in an open boat that heads for the south coast of England to rape and pillage. They pick up a slave from some other adventures who don't want him because he won't eat pork and refuses to row on Saturdays. He turns out to be a Jew from Spain, which had not too long before been conquered by the Moors. He is a wealthy goldsmith, who directs them to Cordova, where they are themselves enslaved by the caliph.
Orm is a sensitive lad, at least by Viking terms, and a bit of a hypochondriac. He gets nervous when the slave next to him on the rowing bench has a cough. There is an adventure a minute in this book and before you know it Orm and his friends have stolen a bell from Santiago de Compostella, summered with some monks in County Cork, and offered the bell as a gift to King Harald Bluetooth.
There are other adventures, sword fights, a bit of wooing, and a trip to the Black Sea, all moving along at a brisk clip. The book is surprisingly entertaining in many ways, not least of which is the dry, understated wit of the author as he regards the world the Danes look on as normal and we look on with horror. His religious characters are a delight, especially the poor monks who are trying to convert these warriers to Christianity while they continue to attribute their luck or lack of it to the old gods.
This book stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to almost any reader. It has done so for me.
Reposting of a review from April 24, 2012
BY Edna St Vincent Millay
Judge Dave Irwin
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig vs by Chigozie Obioma
One of the delights of the Buff Orpington Book Tournament is that there are no rules. Judges are given no criteria for how to select the better of their two assigned books, nor told, for that matter, what “better” means. Is a book that has great audience appeal better than a well-written novel about a disturbing topic? Is a masterfully executed text of an improbable narrative better than a competent execution of a highly compelling story? Which is better: apples or oranges?
Fortunately, the judges take their nebulous charge very seriously and somehow make a determination. Otherwise we’d never even get this far.
The single-elimination bracketed competition format also adds an arbitrary quirk: a book that didn’t survive the first round might have been a finalist if matched against different contenders or if adjudicated by different individuals. In the Buff Orpington, serendipity abounds.
This year we have two strong finalists with vast differences and some interesting similarities: Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig and The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. Both are novels about a boy on the cusp of manhood facing a world much bigger and more powerful than he could imagine. Both stories are told in present tense from that boy’s first person perspective, refracted through the lens of an older self recalling events in the past. Both narratives hinge on “magical realism,” unexplainable forces beyond the physical world, though within very different contexts. Both stories are deeply rooted in the particulars of their respective landscapes and cultures.
Doig, a veteran novelist who died earlier last year, is famous for his many hard-scrabble tales exploring the history, environs and people of Montana. Obioma, a first-time novelist, is a 40 year old* Nigerian emigrant who honed his craft at the University of Michigan Writing Program. He was recently appointed to an Assistant Professorship in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
The Last Bus to Wisdom, is a nostalgic take on the rural West in the early 1950’s. The narrator, Donal Cameron, is a twelve year old boy, who has endured hardships, though he hardly sees it that way, embracing a life surrounded by actual cowboys. His parents killed by a drunk driver, he is in the care of his tough-as-nails grandmother. When her health and job as camp cook are compromised, he is sent to his only other relative, Aunt Kate, spawning a delightful road trip via Greyhound Bus that includes thieves, law men, hoboes, Native Americans, a grandfatherly fugitive German and a cameo by Jack Kerouac. The story includes many autobiographical elements of Doig’s own life, giving his description vivid detail. Doig writes nostalgically through rose-colored glasses, and his skill as a compelling storyteller expertly masks an improbable narrative with more twists and turns than a two lane switchback through the Rocky Mountains.
The Fishermen is set in the turbulent world of 1990’s Akure, Nigeria. Nine-year old Benjamin is the fourth of six children, their authoritarian father a local bank official in this Third World country. (Obioma himself grew up as one of 12 children in Akure.) When the father leaves his family for a position in a distant city, his rule at home and his dreams for his children unravel. A madman’s prophesy sends Ben and his three older brothers into personal chaos and despair, against the backdrop of the country’s violent politics.
As a novelist, Doig is a highly entertaining master of language and character. Obioma evokes a much more foreign world than Doig’s more recognizable America. To my mind, Obioma, creates a novel that is easier to embrace, compared to Doig’s unlikely machinations. Donal’s hardships are personal but despite his sense of their importance, little is a stake, really, other than his level of comfort, as we sense that he is already fully formed. Ben is still a child and his situation is primal and life threatening. Doig’s plot twists are formulaic, and right on time, breezily moving the story along, while Obioma’s tale seems much more authentic, building organically to a tragedy of biblical proportions. For these reasons, between two great reads, the winner of the final round of this year’s Buff Orpington Book Tournament, is The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma.
* Correction: Obioma was born in 1986
Judge Sarah Psitos
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig vs Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig
Eleven-year-old Donal (without a terminal d) Cameron is sent to stay with his grandmother’s sister Kitty and her husband Herman because Gram needs surgery for “woman problems”. She puts him on the “dog” bus with $30 and some change that needs to last him the whole summer while he is gone. He also takes along his memory book so he can collect signatures of the people he meets. And in three days on the bus he meets all kinds — soldiers, families, grifters, old people, young couples, a waitress on the run, rough boys going to camp. He finally gets to Wisconsin where his great-aunt Kitty turns out to be a bossy, overweight, unhappy woman. She takes over his life and makes them miserable.
But Donnie is a resourceful lovable boy who just wants to get back home to the ranch where his grandmother is the cook. His adventures along the way tax his ever-vivid imagination and confidence, but he learns a lot about getting along in the adult world and the variety of people in it — some good, some bad, some just annoying. This book, told by Donal as an adult looking back at that important summer, draws the reader in by the lapels and makes one want to be sure this boy is going to be alright in the end. I recommend it highly.
Last Days of Video is told from the points of view of three of its main characters most of whom are pretty unlikable. Waring Wax, the misanthropic alcoholic owner of a video store, is horrified to see a Blockbuster store opening up fifty yards from his own shop. Over the years he has built up a business despite insulting customers and not paying much attention to things like paying bills. His staff consists of Alaura, a tattooed almost 30-year old who is starting to think she is getting a little old for the rackety life she has been leading. Jeff is a freshman at the local college who has not seen many movies, but is anxious to watch and learn.
The staff spend a lot of time watching obscure movies and drinking. It was like watching a slow motion accident. You know it won’t end happily but you just can’t stop reading. The characters were well-written, as you can tell by my reaction to their weaknesses and quirks. It certainly is worth reading, but I much-preferred “Last Bus to Wisdom.”
Judge Kimberly Wold
The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins vs Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins
This book brings back memories of those independent video stores tucked in the corner of a strip mall back before the Blockbuster days. The title says it all. Despite knowing how it ends for these video shops, the characters are engaging enough to keep me reading despite the crude language which diminishes the enjoyment for me.
The Last Days of Video has all the makings to be an indie film. The author, Jeremy Hawkins, is a good writer, tells both a funny and sad story with quirky characters (Waring Wax, Alaura, and Jeff) who I want to shake by the shoulders, and a grungy enough setting to add to the atmosphere. Hawkins also includes enough side adventures to enrich the story .
I loved the writing, never read anything like it, hated the language, and found the ending to be quite satisfactory.
Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
Bright Lines is about a Bangladesh family living in Brooklyn, New York. From Amazon: A vibrant debut novel, set in Brooklyn and Bangladesh, follows three young women and one family struggling to make peace with secrets and their past. This description gave me the idea it would be interesting and possibly hopeful.
If I didn't have to read Bright Lines I wouldn't finish it. The story is a depressing picture of drug use (by the adults), revenge, horrid language, explicit and crude scenes, and not a whole lot of hope. Yes, the characters are well developed but there was only one (Ella) I cared much about.
There is one scene I loved in this story. Hashi, Ella's aunt, owns a beauty salon and one day gives Ella a hard look knowing she needs a change that more reflects who this girl is. She closes the salon and working her magic helping Ella transform to "the truest she had ever felt to her insides." A lovely and kind act by an observant aunt.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is a good descriptive writer and I could almost smell the surroundings. Learning about the Bangladesh culture helped me keep going. But good writing and full character development is not enough for me with this book.
The winner is Last Days of Video.
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig vs Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is less of a novel and more a collection of loosely associated short stories, with the purported main character as the tie that connects them. The publisher's blurb had me excited about a woman's exploration of a variety of dishes common to the Midwest and how each dish related to her growing up and becoming a celebrity chef. I'm still confused how some dishes turned up on the final menu. While still an infant, two tragedies strike Eva Thorvald: her mother running away to become a sommelier, and her father dying of a heart attack shortly after reading the farewell/apology letter his wife sends from Australia. All the characters are fully developed in this book and the mother's departure, while sad for Eva, was understandable and even laudable for the mother. Her father's death was needless. Of the successive 'chapters', each changes perspective and only one seems to actually be about Eva. Her role in each varies according to the narrator's association with her. (The brother of a new boyfriend, for instance, only barely knows her, so she only briefly appears at the end.) While learning about the development of the 'main character' through the eyes, or even ears, of different narrators is an interesting conceit, it did not make a very compelling novel. That said, each section was a vivid account of a moment in each narrator's life. If this has been billed as a book of short stories, with all connective tissue removed, I likely would have enjoyed it. As it was, I spent half the book wondering how it related to Eva and how the dish/ingredient related to her development as a chef.
I did not have such troubles with Last Bus to Wisdom. The story of one summer of an eleven-year-old's life, Last Bus tells of Donal, who lives with his grandmother in Montana, but is sent to Wisconsin to spend the summer with his great-aunt Kitty while Gram has surgery and recuperates. Donal travels by 'dog bus' and his ebullience and desire to get as many signatures as possible in his 'memory book' introduce him to a wide variety of characters, from average travelers to run away waitresses. Meeting so many people provides ample fodder for his active imagination and saves his skin multiple times. Once in Wisconsin, he learns that Kitty is a controlling, angry, unhappy woman who nags and picks at her partner, Herman the German. After one misstep too many, Donal is sent back to Montana early with nothing but the potential of the orphanage to look forward to. But Herman the German has decided to fly the coop and together they make their way back to Montana. On their way West, they meet cowboys, Indians, and thieves, and each episode flows seamlessly into the next. Through a remarkable, but believable, series of events, they end up harvesting hay, something I had never thought about before. But I will certainly think about it more now. I rooted for them the entire time, hoping for a happy ending.
The clear winner was Last Bus to Wisdom.
Judge Pamela Thomas
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley vs All Together Now by Gill Hornsby
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street has such an enchanting cover that I want to buy it just to own its cutout of a gold watch peeking behind the deep green cover boards. Imagine what confidence publisher Bloomsbury must have had in this first time novelist to commit to the extra cost of such a cover!
But to get back to this fantastical novel: it starts out fairly conventionally with Thaniel Steepleton, a telegraphy operator in the year 1883 who gave up a promising career as a pianist to support his widowed sister and her family. Almost immediately we learn that things are not quite normal. Thaniel sees colors in sound. Someone leaves an intricate gold watch in his room which eventually alarms just before a bomb from Irish separatists vying for home rule blast out Scotland Yard. Thaniel is worried his superiors will think he had something to do with the bomb and so seeks out the Japanese watchmaker (and it turns out Baron), Keita Mori. Mori also has special powers. He is prescient, seeing things that can be reasoned out in the future. He is also apparently able to manipulate the future. He makes charming and intricate clockwork beings including a pet octopus, Katsu. Thaniel’s superiors have Thaniel move in with Mori because they suspect Mori of being the bomber.
The other major thread of the novel is Grace Carrow, a feminist physicist who is trying to prove the existence of ether, measure the speed at which light moves through ether, and determine if ether transports human impulses outside the brain. The Thaniel and Grace threads are quite separate for the first part of the book, and I wondered how they were relevant. Eventually Grace and Thaniel meet, and Grace proposes they marry so she can inherit a relative’s house in which she can establish a laboratory. Tension develops between Grace and Mori as Mori and Thaniel have formed a love relationship. Grace also is afraid of Mori and his special powers and fears he manipulates Thaniel like he does his clockworks. Mori has his own issues rising out of the changes in Japan caused by civil wars and his ability to know the future.
There’s a lot going on in the novel. Publisher Bloomsbury says “blending historical events with dazzling flights of fancy, [the novel] opens doors to a strange and magical past.” In the latter part of the book a riveting chase across London of Grace and Mori involves Grace trying to move without logic so Mori won’t already know her next move. There are themes of free will versus fate, responsibility, historical elements such as the Irish unrest and Japanese civil war, the mystery of the bomber’s identity, and the fantasy elements dealing with the characters’ special powers.
Pulley even brings in a historical Gilbert and Sullivan performance perhaps just because it happened in this time period. I felt confused and felt the book difficult to follow at times, perhaps because of the non-linearity of time theme. Sometimes I found her sentences magical, and sometimes awkward. At the end some plot lines didn’t seem resolved, and I wasn’t entirely sure what happened. There are sequels in the works, so I suppose some threads were left hanging on purpose.
I am not a fan of fantasy, so perhaps this wasn’t a fair read for me to judge. I did find the characters intriguing, even dreaming about them the night I finished the book! I would have preferred less complexity of story line or a longer book with more time to develop the character motivations and historical events in the book. It just felt a little unbalanced with too many elements crammed in a little over 300 pages. All that being said, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is an impressive first work by author Natasha Pulley, who has put together an intricate and imaginative work with characters you won’t forget.
All Together Now is the story of the disintegrating English village Bridgeford and its community choir coming together to reinvigorate the village and its quirky residents through music and a growing awareness of the possibilities of teamwork. There is a whole host of characters. Nerdy Bennett has recently lost his job and separated from his belittling wife Sue. Single mother Tracey hides away in her apartment with secrets and with her 22 year old do-nothing son Billy. Annie subsumes her own interests to run everyone else’s lives. Father Lewis devotes himself to his wheelchair bound daughter Katie. Jazzy is an outrageous young woman who yearns to be a national star singer but is devastated by her constantly disappearing mother. And so on.
The story starts on a jarring note, seeming to set up choir director Constance as a lead character. But Constance is in a car wreck and disappears into the background. The Bridgeford Community Choir is rather pathetic and now lacks leadership without Constance – and doesn’t have much hope to win the county competition. But several of these isolated souls eventually show up at choir practice, and things start to happen through music, leadership, and a new caring for each other. The dialog is clever, and the characters are sharply drawn.
It all seems a dream of community spirit, and it is a sweet dream. I have serious doubts that all these diverse people would so happily make this a new, vibrant community – it’s too easy. But it is fun and would make a light, entertaining movie with the music pulling everything together. Sort of like a musical “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. There is some message worth pondering – the magic of music and “just how much bigger all our lives can seem when they are lived in a smaller space”. Value what surrounds you.
I seemed to have some trouble for much of the book in getting invested in the characters. The plot was minimal and a bit derivative, sort of an old version of the TV Series “Glee”. I do think in this day and age of isolation the importance of community (and music!) needs to be reemphasized, and All Together Now does this nicely. I admit I closed the book with a smile because of the invigoration of the town and its cast of ordinary people finding a better way to embrace life. I’m always a sucker for a happy ending.
I would have given good odds after reading The Watchmaker of Filigree Street that All Together Now would be my choice. The reasons: I am not a fan of fantasy, I struggled some the Watchmaker story, and I play in a band and thus am emotionally bonded with music. Easy choice! But the choice was not easy. In the end I chose The Watchmaker of Filigree Street ultimately because of its imagination and originality, which far surpass that of All Together Now.
Judge Laurel Hicks
Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf vs The Last Days of Video, by Jeremy Hawkins
Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf
This book was a sleeper for me, but here goes. A widow of seventy years is lonely and has a hard time sleeping at night, so she invites a widower of even more years to come spend the night with her sometimes, just so they can share each others' warmth and talk themselves to sleep. With some reluctance, he comes, and as their live grows, we learn about their town, their families, and their flawed marriages. The town is old-fashioned, the relatives are clingy, and the cozy project is about to fall apart. I'm supposed to be on the edge of my mattress waiting to see what happens next, but I'm so very, very sleepy.
The Last Days of Video, by Jeremy Hawkins.
This is a tale of dinosaurs, of misfits, of windmill chargers trying to keep a past century alive. Fat, lazy Waring Wax is on the wane, and his lumbering old video store is about to be eaten alive by a shiny new Big Box across the street. When he is about to give up, two of his retainers, a beautiful, quirky femme fatale and a gangly, misfit youth, swords brandished, reluctantly come to the rescue. What the three wacky characters have in common is an enormous love for the films of days gone by. Will love be enough to save the day?
The characters are impossible, the language is deplorable (I do wish contemporary writers would get a vocabulary and eschew spouting the same two rude words over and over), but there is something endearing about the work as a whole. As I read, John Kennedy Toole's gangly, gargantuan A Confederacy of Dunces kept popping into my head. I turned back to the front matter, and lo and behold, that's the source of the epigraph: “Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,” Ignatius belched. “Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.” For old times' sake, I declare The Last Days of Video the champion of the round.
Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam vs The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.
Both books take place in cities that have become a little rough around the edges, Brooklyn in the first, and Detroit in the second. But Brooklyn is on the upswing in Bright Lines, while Detroit can only look to its past for a better day.
Both are debut novels for their authors.
Both books also have, as a main character, a house. In the case of Bright Lines, it’s a house purchased for almost nothing by Anwar, to be an anchor for what is left of his family after living thru the war in Bangladesh. The house becomes the place that is central to his family, but still lacks a total feeling of home for them, especially for Anwar.
The Turner House is the house that the Turner family has lived in for generations and for almost a century. The family has roots in this house and neighborhood, that Anwar’s family has yet to build.
But Anwar’s house is, as is most of Brooklyn, a thing that is gaining in value. Regardless of what is going on with his family and friends, the house that he bought for almost nothing, will continue to appreciate. In contrast, the Turner family has learned that their house has almost no monetary value, and may just be a white elephant.
I enjoyed both books. However, Bright Lines edged out The Turner House for me. In part it’s because Brooklyn is such an important character in the book. I lived and worked in Brooklyn for many years, including the 1980’s, when Brooklyn was a disaster. To read about a neighborhood that I know well, and to see how accurately the author showed its ascendancy, was enjoyable. I don’t know Detroit as well, and while the author did a great job in presenting it to the readers, it doesn’t have the same hold on me that Brooklyn does.
Having said that, if Islam had gotten Brooklyn wrong (and that is always a risk, especially for a young and new author), I would now be trashing the book. But she did not.
Tanwi Nandini Islam has also drawn amazing characters, especially Anwar and his niece, Ella. Neither one truly fits into the place that they live, but they strive to make it work and be a better fit for them.
The end of Bright Lines is unexpected. I will leave it at that, to avoid spoilers.
The Turner House was a solid read, but Bright Lines edged it out, in my estimation.
Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen vs David Vann, Aquarium
Judge: Judge: Nancy Vieira Couto
Judging by the titles of these two novels, you might think they had a lot in common. And you might be right. Both authors organize their action around motifs of fish or fishing. In David Vann's book, the fish are acquarium fish, seen swimming in tanks, and no fishing is done. Chigozie Obioma allows his characters to actually go fishing, but very little time is spent on the riverbank. Another similarity is that both books have very young narrators. Aquarium is narrated by Caitlin, a twelve-year-old girl in Seattle who wants to be an ichthyologist when she grows up. Caitlin's narration is heavy on dialogue, with little space for rumination or philosophizing. What is happening is what it's about. The Fishermen is set in Nigeria, with the events narrated by Benjamin, a nine-year-old boy, or, more accurately, by an older Benjamin presenting his memories of that time when he was nine years old and he and his brothers decided to become fishermen. Both books attempt to deal with family tragedy, but in my opinion only one succeeds.
I found that I never quite believed in the events portrayed in Aquarium. Caitlin seemed like a nice girl, and I wanted to like her, but her characterization was off, somehow, as if she was always either younger or older than she was. The events in this book do not come across as tragedy, in my opinion, but rather as a series of bad things happening in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sort of way. I felt the author was piling it on, and, because I had no faith in the characters, I didn't really care what happened to them. My mother always told me that if I didn't have anything good to say I should say nothing at all, so I won't say a whole lot more about Aquarium, except that the illustrations of the fish were very nice, even in the ebook version. But the author really should be told that twelve-year-old girls are not deathly afraid of snowmen.
Chigozie Obioma is a first-time novelist, but his writing impressed me. Through Benjamin's detailed and thoughtful narration, he made an unfamiliar (to me) setting come to life so that I never doubted the characters' actions, although I wanted them to make different decisions. Woven throughout the chapters is the story of M.K.O. Abiola, a popular Nigerian politician whose chance meeting with Benjamin and his brothers figures in the story. Hopes and dreams don't have a chance in this powerful book, with its prophecies and its chain of truly tragic actions.
The winner: Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen
Ivan Doig: Last Bus to Wisdom Vs Laura Van den Berg: Find Me
Judge: Mary Ronan Drew
Find Me is an apt title for Laura Van den Berg’s novel. The narrator is a young woman who was abandoned as an infant and was found on a hospital doorstep. When she is grown and the country suffers from a lethal disease that kills a significant percentage of the population she does not catch it and is found by some people who are running an experiment in an isolated hospital in the Midwest to study the disease.
She discovers who her family are and believes her mother wants her to search for her. Meanwhile a young man whom she met in the foster care system growing up finds her when she leaves the hospital. All this searching and finding add mystery to the story, which is divided into two parts. The first is about the epidemic and the hospital where the protagonist is more or less incarcerated. The second half is about her travels with her childhood friend to find the marine biologist she believes is her mother.
Unfortunately the book is filled with too many mysteries. Who are the people who stand outside the hospital and stare at it? Who are the twins who are residents but want to dig their way out and go to Hawaii? Who exactly is the young friend from foster care? Who, for that matter, is the protagonist? I read the book twice with care and I have no answers for these questions.
Last Bus to Wisdom is a picaresque novel about a young lad who must travel alone, by bus, from the Montana Rockies to Wisconsin to stay with a great-aunt when his grandmother, with whom he lives, has to have surgery. It’s just for the summer, she assures him. As soon as she is well she will send for him. Neither the boy nor the reader is reassured by her promise.
Donal Cameron’s trip across country in 1951 on the “dog bus” (Greyhound Bus Lines) is eventful as he meets fellow-travelers like a plump lady who is returning home from a stay at a dude ranch with her friends and a waitress who is moving to another city to change jobs. He encounters some soldiers who are being sent to a camp from which they will embark for the Korean War. He deals with bus drivers and sheriffs but does ok on his own in those more innocent post-World War II days.
The bus of the title is the one he takes when he runs away from his aunt and ends up in the poor town of Wisdom. His uncle decides to go with him and between them they meet more interesting people than the boy has yet encountered and they find themselves in some scary situations. As they travel the boy learns a good deal about himself and the world around him – not to mention some surprises about his “uncle.”
Ivan Doig died less than a year ago and although he is known for more than a dozen novels and memoirs, especially This House of Sky, I had not read him before now. He writes beautifully and his prose carries a stream of humor and goodwill that makes his work a treat to read. There is something very American about a picaresque novel in which a young man and an older man encounter beautiful women, cowboys, American Indians, and some threatening lawmen.
Because his book is so filled with interesting characters and hair raising events as well as much satisfying dialogue, and because it is steeped in a sense of the American heartland, I’ve chosen Ivan Doig’s Last Bus to Wisdom as the first Buff Orpington pick of 2016.
Tomorrow is the first day of the Fourth Annual Buff Orpington Book Tournament. Tomorrow and each weekday until the end of the month we will announce the winner of that day's matchup.
We have a splendid lineup of books in the Sweet Sixteen this year:
Ivan Doig: Last Bus to Wisdom
Laura Van den Berg: Find Me
Chigozie Obioma: The Fishermen
David Vann: Aquarium
Sydney Paddua: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Nuala O’Connor: Miss Emily
Angela Flournoy: The Turner House
Tanwi Nandini Islam: Bright Lines
Kent Haruf: Our Souls at Night
Jeremy Hawkins: Last Days of Video
Priya Parmar: Vanessa and Her Sister
Lauren Groff: Fates and Furies
Natasha Pulley: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
Gill Hornby: All Together Now
Anne Enright: The Green Road
Ryan Stradal: Kitchens of the Great Midwest
Tomorrow: Last Bus to Wisdom vs Find Me
Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alice McDermott is a writer akin to Stewart O'Nan and Anita Brookner, whose work is quiet and slow. McDermott won the National Book Award for Charming Billy and Child of My Heart is worthy of such recognition as well.
The narrator, a beautiful girl whose parents have moved to the Hamptons and encouraged her to care for the children of and to do pet sitting for rich and powerful summer visitors, hope that she will make a "good" marriage, something not quite as peculiar in the early 1960s as it seems today. She invites her favorite cousin, Daisy, the child of her heart, to stay with her for the summer.
Slowly, as the two girls walk the dogs and pet the cats and care for the child of summer people from the city the precarious state of Daisy's health, the wandering eye of an old and famous painter, and the dysfunctional family living next door come together to create a stunning denouement.