Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn (2009)

Brooklyn

I can’t understand why I haven’t read Colm Tóibín before. He’s outstanding. I admire his writing, his luminous prose. It’s not easy to say why it is so great but it is. His descriptions, the details he chooses, the settings, are so precise and conjure up a whole world.

It’s the 1950s and Ellis Lacey is living in Ireland with her mother and older sister. She wants to be an accountant but is only a shop assistant. Thanks to her sister, she can emigrate to America where she’s hired in a shop, goes to an accounting school and betters herself. Here, she meets a young Italian man and begins a relationship with him. After tragedy strikes, she has to decide whether she will stay in America or go back to Ireland. The novel has four parts. The first is set in Ireland and on the ship crossing over to America, the second and third are set in Brooklyn, the last in Ireland.

Ellis is a passive character but interesting as she’s introspective and a keen observer of what happens around her and inside of herself. I loved reading about the way she processed things that had happened to her during the day. In the beginning this passivity isn’t exactly attractive but it’s not as infuriating as it is in the last part. Ellis never speaks up, never fights for herself and in the end, she pays a high price for this behaviour. One aspect that stood out for me was the way Tóibín wrote about the experience of being an immigrant. I’ve lived abroad a few times, in some cases in places where I knew hardly anyone. Many of the feelings described, brought those experiences back.

Here’s a quote showing Ellis in the shop she’s working in Brooklyn.

The morning was full of frenzy; she did not for one moment have peace to look around her. Everyone’s voice was loud, and there were times when she thought in a flash of an early evening in October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy, the Slaney River, glassy and full, and the smell of leaves burning from somewhere close by, and the daylight going slowly and gently. This scene kept coming to her as she filled the bag with notes and coins and women of all types approached her asking where certain items of clothing could be found or if they could return what they had bought in exchange for other merchandise, or simply wishing to purchase what they had in their hands.

Ellis may be the main character but there are numerous other characters, some who only appear briefly. They are all complex and rich in facets. One could also say that the two main settings, the eponymous Brooklyn and Ireland are treated like characters. They are described in detail, juxtaposed, compared, contrasted. Two very distinct worlds come alive between these pages.

I highly recommend Brooklyn. It’s beautiful and I can’t wait to read more of Tóibín. Just be warned – Ellis can, at times, be an infuriating character.

If you’d like to read a more in-depth review here’s Max’s take on the novel.

Georges Simenon: La chambre bleue – The Blue Room (1963)

The Blue RoomLa chambre bleue

While I’ve read some of Simenon’s Maigret novels, I hadn’t read any of his so-called “romans durs” until now.  Many people say they are far better than the Maigret novels and after having read The Blue Room –  La chambre bleue I think I can understand why. I can also see the influence the romans durs must have had on some newer authors like Pascal Garnier. Luckily for me, I liked Simenon’s novel much more than the Garnier novel I’ve read so far. The Blue Room is excellent.

The book starts with a scene in a hotel room – the blue room. Two people, Tony and Andrée, have just made love and he’s standing in front of a mirror, wiping away blood from his lips. The book starts in medias res, with a conversation. Andrée, who is watching Tony from the bed, is asking him, if she’s hurt him. Apparently she bit his lip. From the way she asks, we can deduce that it wasn’t as accidental as he believes. No, she probably bit him, so his wife will ask questions. What Andrée doesn’t know is that she’s not Tony’s first affair and that his wife is likely to ignore this one just like she ignored the others. Andrée then asks Tony whether he loves her and would love to spend his life with her. Tony’s not very attentive and says yes. A fatal error as the reader will find out very quickly. At the end of the scene in the hotel room, the book seamlessly switches to the examining magistrate’s chambers, where Tony is trying to defend himself in front of a psychiatrist and his lawyer.

The scene in the hotel room is a pivotal moment. From there the book moves backwards and forwards in time, unfolding Tony and Andrée’s whole story, from when they met as kids, to when they became lovers. It also switches from scenes set in the past to scenes in the present in which Tony, who has been arrested, tells his side of the story. The way Simenon has interwoven those narrative strands is pretty amazing. Nowadays, we’d have the different strands either separated by breaks between paragraphs, or chapters. Not so here, which makes it much more fluid, much more like watching a film.

Simenon’s style is hard to describe. It’s unadorned but so precise. Everything he chooses in his descriptions works masterfully. It’s like we’re looking at his characters through a microscope. The tiniest ugly little detail is laid bare.

While I don’t think his books are about suspense, it was suspenseful nonetheless because for a long time we have no clue why Tony got arrested. Nothing in the pivotal scene let’s us suspect that.

The Blue Room is a cruel, bleak analysis of a love affair that goes terribly wrong, written in evocative and pared-down prose. A great little book.

If you’d like to read a more eloquent review of the novel, here’s John Banville’s review of the Blue Room. He goes as far as comparing Simenon to Kafka.

The Blue Room has been made into a movie. I hope I can watch it soon.

 

 

This book was on the 20 under 200 list I did last summer. I must admit, I’ve been slacking. I’ve only read five or six from that list.

Lucie Whitehouse: Keep You Close (2016)

Keep You Close

This is just a quick review of Lucie Whitehouse’s latest novel Keep You Close. It’s short because it’s more easily spoilt than other crime novels. It has a couple of really surprising twists and it would be sad to give them away.

The famous, rich young painter Marianne Glass is found dead in her garden. The police say that it was an accident. Her former best friend Rowan Winter doesn’t believe this. Marianne suffered from crippling vertigo and would never have gone this close to edge of the roof.

When Rowan hears of her former best friend’s death, she travels to Oxford and the home of the Glass family. Marianne’s house is a place where she once used to be a constant visitor. Rowan, who lost her mother as a young girl and whose father never had time for her, found a second family in her friend’s family. Coming back after all these years is intense, to say the least. Although the circumstances are dire, the Glass family, or what is left of them, are happy to see Rowan again and even ask her to house-sit for them. Rowan however has a hidden agenda. She’s the only one who cannot belive that Marianne’s death was an accident. Could it have been a suicide? She doesn’t think so, she thinks that something far more sinister has happened and wants to investigate Marianne’s death.

Early on we find out that Rowan and Marianne hadn’t been in contact for ten years because of something that happened back then. This was right about the same time Marianne’s father died in a car crash. The official version was that they had a falling out because Rowan intruded too much and didn’t let Marianne grieve. But the reader questions soon whether Rowan isn’t hiding something.

A lot of things are mysterious. Someone seems to watch the house at night. Someone else or maybe the same person tries to break in. A lot of people seem to gain, one way or the other, through Marianne’s death. Some even attack Rowan, saying that she’s profiting as well, since she was able to renew her friendship with the Glass’s and begins a relationship with Marianne’s brother.

Keep You Close is an entertaining book but not entirely convincing. I didn’t mind the slow pace as much as the implausibility of some of the twists. One was really surprising and well done, the others were over the top. All in all, it’s not a bad book, but not as good as some of her older novels. This is her fourth and I’ve read three of them so far. I liked both The House at Midnight and Before We Met better than this. If you’ve never read anything by Lucie Whitehouse, I’d suggest to start with one of her earlier novels. I read The House at Midnight before blogging, so you won’t find a review, but here’s my review of Before We Met.

 

On Maria Stankowa’s Novella The Black Woman and the Archer – Bulgarian Literature Month

Stankowa

I’ve never read Bulgarian literature before and when Thomas (Mystwostotinki) announced he would host a Bulgarian Literature Month in June, I thought it would be a great idea to join him. Since I didn’t know any Bulgarian writers, I picked a book by Maria Stankowa (or Stankova) that had received praise by German critics when the translation came out in 2010. The book is called Langeweile – Boredom and consists of three novellas. One of which The Black Woman and the Archer I’ve read for Bulgarian Literature Month.

Maria Stankowa was born in 1956 in Burgas. She’s a musician, assistant director, and editor. She has written plays, scripts, and prose and is said to be one of the greatest writers of contemporary Bulgarian literature.  The three novellas in Boredom tell stories of women in crisis. In The Black Woman and the Archer, a woman tries to break free from the boredom of a loveless marriage. When she meets her first love, she begins an affair but has to understand, that she’s not really able to love this man either. Instead, she moves on to the next man and we are led to believe that she’s not really able to love but loves being in love. The story explores marriage and relationships and turns a lot of the assumptions that people have upside down. It plays with clichés and stereotype and pairs those with new insights into gender relationships.

Not that much of a story and certainly not something I haven’t read before. What I haven’t read before though is Maria Stankowa’s style. It’s like nothing I’ve encountered before. It blends almost everything you could possibly blend. Straightforward story telling, myth, irony, metaphor, wordplay, poetry, lyricism. Nonetheless, there’s a unity of style. The novella wasn’t always easy to read but it had so many surprising elements, so many fresh and new ways of describing something, that I enjoyed it a great deal and will certainly read the others in the book as well.

Unfortunately, since I’ve read a German translation of a Bulgarian text, it’s not easy to convey her style but I’ll add two small quotes that I’ve translated from my German edition to give you at least a bit of an idea.

“. . .You can’t understand. You’re a woman . . . I have to go to work.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“That’s impossible. The wife has to stay at home. She has to take care of the house. And worry. You have to learn that – to worry. It’s very important.”

He left and she stayed at home and worried. The worries had only waited for that. They were crawling around everywhere. The black woman bought worry poison, swept them up, filled bags and carried them out of the house. But the worries didn’t diminish. And every morning the black woman asked the same question—shouldn’t she leave?

 

Once, a very long tome ago, he met a girl. She was his first girl. He was her first boy. Their love had been so clumsy and coy. They loved each other. Clumsily and coyly. When she left, she left behind the aroma of burnt grass and the decline of summer, a pain and the almost unbelievable feeling of being a man.

If Maria Stankowa is anything to go by, then Bulgarian literature has a lot to offer.

 

New Fiction in The Vignette Review and Ink in Thirds

Ink in Thirds

May was a particularly good month for acceptances. I’ve had three stories accepted, two of which have been published by now, the third is forthcoming at the end of this month.

I’m particularly happy about these acceptances because the stories are so diverse. One is a prose poem, one is a historical, and one a YA short story.

For those who would like to read them, here’s my historical flash.

The New Girl

and here’s my prose poem:

I Keep the First for Another Day

Ursula Bloom: Wonder Cruise (1934)

Wonder Cruise

Before Corazon Books contacted me and asked me whether I would be interested in reviewing Ursula Bloom’s Wonder Cruise, I had never even heard of the author before. It sounded like a novel by one of those wonderful English authors who wrote and published in the first half of the last century – Mary Stewart, Angela Thirkell, Barbara Pym -, so I said yes immediately. When the book arrived I was a bit worried because of the cover, but as soon as I started reading I knew I had nothing to worry about. Although it has an unfortunate cover, Wonder Cruise is an absolutely delightful book; it’s as charming as it’s witty. I could hardly believe that an author who wrote like this has become a forgotten author. Especially since Ursula Bloom wrote far over 500 novels. Yes, you read correctly – over 500. She’s even in the Guinness Book of Records.

Written and set in the 1930s, Wonder Cruise tells the story of Ann Clements. You could call it a story of awakening and transformation. Ann is a spinster of 35, with little hope of marriage or an otherwise fulfilled life. She works at an office, doing tedious, boring jobs. In her private life, she is pretty much under the thumb of her older brother Cuthbert, a pompous, self-righteous clergyman who manipulates Ann constantly. It doesn’t look as if there was a lot of hope for Ann’s future but, from the first page on we know that Ann’s a very keen observer and someone who is very much aware of the beauty surrounding her, and we instantly root for her.

She’s aware that she doesn’t like her life and her work but she doesn’t think it could change.

That was life at the office.

It went on and on and on for years, as it would go on and on, Ann felt, long after she was dead. It was a place that she had been sucked into by the giant machinery of life. An intricate pattern of living, and always dismally the same. You could not escape it.

Then something wonderful happens. Ann wins a lot of money in a sweepstake and suddenly life has promise. However, there’s Cuthbert to deal with. He wants her to save the money, so his own daughter will have something to fall back on. Ann’s torn between her feelings of duty and her yearning for another life.

Until this actual moment she had not realised that she was sick of digging, and of doing the same thing in the same way day after day. She had not realised that Mrs. Puddock’s rooms were awful, and that Monday washing, Tuesday ironing, Wednesday mending, Thursday hair-wash were much like a pair of handcuffs set like shackles on her wrists.

Once she’s conscious of her situation and the manipulations of her brother, she is able to break free. She books a cruise along the Mediterranean coast. The ship lands at Marseille, Gibraltar, Naples, Malta, Venice  . . . With every kilometer, Ann becomes more herself, discovers that she is still young and attractive. For the first time, she enjoys herself.

There was the scent of tuber roses, and of lilies and wistaria all blending together. It was far more beautiful than anything she had ever imagined, far lovelier than any picture she had seen, even the one inside the portal of the steamship company in Cockspur Street.

Cockspur Street.

How terribly far away that seemed – and was!

After a few weeks of enjoyment, Ann has to ask herself fundamental questions: Who is she really and what does she want? Can she ever go back to her dull life of routine? And what about the men she meets? Is there one among them that she could love?

I’ll stop here and let future readers find out from themselves how Ann answers these questions.

The descriptions of the various settings are so lovely and spot-on. I’ve been to many of these places and the way Ursula Bloom described them, shows that she knew these places very well. Ann is a delightful character. She’s endearing, naïve but enthusiastic and a witty and keen observer. It’s great fun to read her take on the various people who are on this cruise with her. Bloom enjoys poking fun at stuck-up, uptight Brits who treat the places and people they meet like artifacts in a museum and constantly complain about the heat and the food. Some of the scenes are really funny.

Wonder Cruise has been such a discovery. It offers intelligent, charming entertainment, features an endearing main character, and is full of witty observations and enthralling descriptions. I’d love to read more of Ursula Bloom’s books.

James Salter: The Hunters (1956) Literature and War Readalong May 2016

The Hunters

The Hunters was James Salter’s first novel. It is based on his own experience as a fighter pilot during the war in Korea.

The Hunters tells the story of Cleve Connell, an excellent, seasoned pilot who is sent to Korea. Cleve is anxious to get there. He wants to prove himself and become an ace, a fighter pilot who has shot down five enemy planes – MIGs. He knows he’s running against time because he isn’t a young pilot anymore.

One thing he was sure of: this was the end of him. He had known it before he came. He was thirty-one, not too old certainly; but it would not be long. His eyes weren’t good enough anymore. With a athlete, the legs failed first. With a fighter pilot, it was the eyes. The hand was still steady and judgement good long after  man lost the ability to pick out aircraft at the extreme ranges. Other things could help to make up for it, and other eyes could help him look, but in the end it was too much of a handicap. He had reached the point, too, where a sense of lost time weighed on him. There was a constant counting of tomorrows he had once been so prodigal with. And he found himself thinking too much of unfortunate things. He was frequently conscious of not wanting to die. That was not the same as wanting to live. It was a black disease, a fixation that could ultimately corrode the soul.

Cleve and every other pilot lives for nothing else but the adrenaline rush of a mission that may bring the possibility to shoot down an MIG and to survive another dangerous mission. The pilots are all competitive but that doesn’t mean they would endanger each other.

They had shot down at least five MIGs apiece. Bengert had seven, but five was the number that separated men from greatness. Cleve had come to see, as had everyone, ho rigid was that casting. There were no other values. It was like money: it did not matter how it had been acquired, but only that it had. That was the final judgement. MIGs were everything. If you had MIGs you were standard of excellence. The sun shone upon you.

Then, one day, Pell arrives. Pell is by far the most competitive pilot Cleve has ever met. And the most reckless. He’s assigned to Cleve’s flight, a small group of pilots of which Cleve’s the leader. Cleve hates him immediately. Not only because he’s so competitive but because he senses he would do anything for a kill and that he’s dishonest. Pell hates Cleve just as much. He’s jealous of his reputation and undermines his authority from the start.

At first, Cleve’s very sure of himself because he’s known to be one of the best pilots but after he returns from many missions, without one single kill, he loses confidence. On top of that, Pell shoots down one enemy plane after the other and, so, killing turns into an obsession for Cleve.

Cleve’s not the only pilot who seems to have forgotten, that ultimately they are in a war. The following quote might explain why this is the case.

They talked for a while longer, mostly about the enemy, what surprisingly good ships they flew and what a lousy war it was. The major repeated that despairingly several times.

“What do you mean, lousy?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Abbott said distractedly, “it’s just no good. I mean what are we fighting for, anyway? There’s nothing for us to win. It’s no good, Cleve, You’ll see.”

The Korean war is often referred to as the “forgotten war” and this sense of not really knowing what they were fighting for, seems to have been almost universal. Many of the pilots who fought in the Korean war, fought during WWII. While they had the sense of having done good in Europe and the Pacific, they often didn’t really understand why they fought in Korea. However, the book doesn’t explore the political or historical dimensions of the war. It only focuses on the drama of the pilots.

The Hunters is an excellent novel and the reader senses that from the beginning. The writing is tight and precise. Salter uses metaphor and foreshadowing with great results. He’s also very good at capturing emotions and moods like in this quote:

He was tired. Somehow, he had the feeling of Christmas away from home, stranded in a cheap hotel, while the snow fell silently through the night, making the streets wet and the railroad tracks gleam.

The book offers a fascinating character study, or rather the study of two characters. And it’s suspenseful. We wonder constantly whether Cleve will make it, become an ace and leave Pell behind or whether Pell will leave him behind for good. And then there’s the almost mythical figure of “Casey Jones”, a Korean Fighter pilot who is so reckless and successful that everybody speaks about him and thinks he’s invincible. Shooting down a pilot like that, would make up for everything else.

I can’t say more as it would spoil this excellent novel. It’s amazingly well written and surprisingly suspenseful. And, as if that was not enough, the end is unexpected and satisfying.

The book comes with a foreword, for which I was glad as it’s key to understand in what formations the pilots flew and to know what the characteristics of the respective planes were. There’s a great scene towards the end, in which Cleve and another pilot fight with almost empty tanks. The logic of this and other fights would have been difficult to understand without the introduction.

Other reviews

 

 

 

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The Hunters is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the US novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. Discussion starts on Friday 30 September, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.