20 books of summer (2017)

20 books of summer recap

20 books logoIf you cast your mind back to early June, you may remember I vowed to participate in Cathy’s “20 Books of Summer” challenge. Summer is, of course, over in the northern hemisphere and there’s a definite autumnal feel in the air, so I should really report on how I got on.

Life, unfortunately, got in the way (my job has become increasingly more hectic in recent months, with no let up in sight), so I only managed to make my way through 15 novels from my TBR.

The original list I posted got ditched somewhere along the way: I only read six books from it; the remaining nine were selected to suit my particular mood at the time, but all were from my TBR. In fact, most were ebooks. That’s because I bought a new Kindle in July and had to reorganise my library in the Cloud to get them to download on to the new device and in doing so I rediscovered a ginormous amount of novels I’d forgotten I’d purchased over the years.

Here’s what I read, in alphabetical order by author’s surname (links will take you to my review):

There were some real standouts in this list — Our Souls At Night, In a Strange Room,  Beastings, The Long Prospect and The Jesus Man — and a couple of duds (Provocation and Instructions for a Heatwave), but overall I really enjoyed making my way through old novels in my TBR. Now, however, it’s time to bring on the new books!

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Evan S. Connell, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell

Mr Bridge

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 304 pages; 2013.

First published in 1969, Mr Bridge is a companion novel to Mrs Bridge, which was published a decade earlier.

I read and reviewed Mrs Bridge in 2013 and loved the way it told the quietly understated story of one woman’s married life in Kansas City largely before the Second World War. Mr Bridge tells the story from the husband’s perspective.

Unconventional novel

Like its predecessor, Mr Bridge is not a conventional novel. Yes, there is an overarching narrative — that of one man’s life moving forward from the beginning of his marriage through to his children becoming adults and forging lives of their own — but it’s told in an episodic style in brief, self-contained chapters, each one almost a short story in their own right.

There’s no real plot, apart from Mr Bridge and his family growing older, and the setting is purely domestic: think suburban America in the 1930s and 40s. It is, essentially, a portrait of a financially successful man who’s emotionally stunted, unable to fully connect with his wife or their children on any truly meaningful level and leading a fairly safe, yet dreary, life.

What makes the story so poignant (and perhaps frustrating) is that Walter Bridge lacks self-awareness: he has no real knowledge that his obsession with doing “the right thing” and shunning risks of any kind makes him an entirely dull and boring man. He’s a good provider, yes, but he never gives into frivolity or spontaneity and lives his whole life by a strict moral code where joy simply does not exist. The most excitement he can ever muster is giving his children stock certificates for Christmas, which he immediately takes back to manage for them.

Prejudices from another era

In his world of white male privilege, he does not think black people should go to college, fails to see the benefit of his daughters gaining an education when they’re simply going to be married off, and believes his wife is happy because she has all the material comforts for which she could wish.

The thing is Mr Bridge is not a bad person. He’s kind and often charitable. He wants the best for his children. And he works hard. But he never sees the room for self-improvement. Even when a friend of his wife tells him he’s an odd man, he doesn’t quite get it:

“You’re not as cold as you pretend to be,” she said. “I think your doors open in different places, that’s all. Most people just don’t know how to get in to you. They knock and they knock, where the door is supposed to be, but it’s a blank wall. But you’re there. I’ve watched you. I’ve seen you do some awfully cold things warmly and some warm things coldly. Or does that make sense?”
“I’d have to think about it,” he smiled, and picked up the menu. “What do you recommend?”

Perhaps the crunch comes right at the end, when Mr Bridge’s past actions come home to roost: his older daughter plans to marry an impoverished student he does not approve of; his son wants to join the military against his advice; and his long-serving secretary breaks down when she realises he takes her entirely for granted. And then, dragged to church by his wife to celebrate Christmas, he reflects that he has not known joy and that it is, in fact, beneath him.

He remembered [feeling] enthusiasm, hope, and a kind of jubilation or exultation. Cheerfulness, yes, and joviality, and the brief gratification of sex. Gladness, too, fullness of heart, appreciation and many other emotions. But not joy. No, that belonged to simpler minds.

This is my 15th (and final) book for #20booksofsummer. I have no memory of buying it, but I do know that it was at the same time as I bought Mrs Bridge, so it’s been sitting on my shelves for at least four years.

20 books of summer (2017), Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Random House Australia, Setting

‘The Jesus Man’ by Christos Tsiolkas

The Jesus Man by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Random House Australia; 414 pages; 1999.

Christos Tsiolkas is one of those writers who divide opinion: you either love him or hate him. Regular readers of this blog will know I fall into the former camp.

The Jesus Man is his second novel. It’s not quite as over-the-top grungy as his debut, Loaded, but it is definitely confronting and just as sexually explicit. It’s also quite violent, perhaps gratuitously so, and there are scenes within its pages that are truly stomach-churning and, well, distasteful. It makes the hard-hitting nature of The Slap (pun not intended) tame by comparison.

But it’s a well-crafted, authentic story about a first generation immigrant family that makes for compulsive reading. I loved the raw, visceral nature of the writing and the door it opens onto a distinctly working class world where pride, politics and prejudice often collide.

The outfall of a shocking act

The novel is framed around a shocking act carried out by Tommy Stefano, a 20-something man, who has broken up with his long-term girlfriend and shut himself off from his family.

The story is told through the eyes of Tommy’s younger brother, Lou, who claims that he wants to “offer a history of my family”:

But remember, please, this is also my story, in my own words. I’ll try and be honest, tell you what I know. But it is an interpretation; and I have to go back to beginnings and in the beginning I wasn’t there. So it may be that some of what I say is bullshit, is speculation, lies and fabrications passed on.

What ensues is a multi-layered, complex tale divided into three major sections devoted to each brother — Dominic Stefano, Tommy Stefano, Luigi Stefano — and two smaller sections about the sibling’s parentage between an Italian father and a Greek mother. Lou takes his time to explain what his close-knit, loud and opinionated family was like before his brother carried out his unspeakable deed and then examines the outfall — social, mental, emotional — on those closest to Tommy afterwards.

The UK edition of The Jesus Man by Christos Tsiolkas
UK Edition published by Atlantic books

Trademark themes

Like all of Tsiolkas’ work, there are recurring themes:  the fraught and complicated relationships between generations; cultural baggage that comes from being the child of a European immigrant in a white anglo-Australian society; and the confusion and shame that arises when a young man raised in a macho culture realises he might be gay.

It’s typically left-leaning (Lou’s mother is a socialist) and there’s a lot of commentary about Australian politics (it’s set in the era of economic rationalism) and it’s often negative impact on the working class. Melbourne, as ever, is faithfully reproduced, almost as if the city is a character in its own right.

Occasionally the prose feels uneven — often angry and over-the-top when Tsiolkas is writing the sexually explicit bits; more sedate and polished when writing about everything else — and it’s debatable as to whether the final section (titled “Epilogues”) adds anything to the story. But on the whole, The Jesus Man is a powerful and absorbing read about the power of family, love and the ties that bind.

This is my 14th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in on one of my trips to Australia — possibly in 2005 — and it has sat in my TBR ever since.

20 books of summer (2017), Africa, Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut

In a strange room by Damon Galgut

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 192 pages; 2010.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.

Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room is a lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.

Divided into three seemingly unrelated parts — The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian —  it merges in the reader’s mind to form a seamless whole.

If you’ve ever gone travelling/backpacking, felt alienated or not known what you want from life, it will resonate.

Melancholy sadness

Written in straightforward prose, but with a haunting lilt to it, Galgut takes the reader on a journey that feels like a blend of autobiography (in some sections the narrative switches between first person and third person, with a meta-fictional “Damon” as the focus), reportage and literary fiction.

He beautifully captures the sense of dislocation one can experience when passing through places so that nothing feels quite real and yet everything appears strange, almost threatening, especially if you are not “a traveller by nature” and are riddled with anxiety. Yet this heightened vulnerability also gives the world “a power it doesn’t have in ordinary life”.

He’s wonderful at exposing the myth that travel is always glamorous or exciting: sometimes it’s nothing more than waiting around.

A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile. The irregular sputter of a fluorescent bulb. From this particular place he will retain the vision of a cracked brick wall growing hotter and hotter in the sun.

Petty squabbles on the road

And he’s very good at examining the relationships between people on the road, whether the tensions between travelling companions or friendships forged with people you meet along the way. This element is particularly well examined in the second part of the book, when the narrator goes on an extended walking holiday with Reiner, a German he meets in section one.

There is an unspoken sexual tension between the two, but neither of them acts on it and this spills over into bickering and conflicts over simple things such as where to set up their tents and what to eat. And behind all this is a further point of strain: Reiner is financing the trip for both of them and in holding the money he also wields power over his companion:

But whenever they stop to buy something there is a silent battle about what they will choose and who will be allowed to have it. Reiner continues to buy his chocolates, for example, but if I want something there is often a dispute, hmm I don’t know about that what do we need that for. And sometimes Reiner will buy something for himself, a box of sweets or a bottle of water, and wait for his companion to ask. The asking is humiliating, which Reiner knows. Money is never just money alone, it is a symbol for other deeper things, on this trip how much you have is a sign of how loved you are, Reiner hoards the love, he dispenses it as a favour, I am endlessly gnawed by the absence of love, to be loveless is to be without power.

(Notice the switching between “he” and “I” in the paragraph above.)

A realistic portrait of travel

The book also looks at the more pragmatic problems of travel, such as border crossings, finding safe accommodation in hostile territory and what happens when you or your companion falls ill on the road. There’s also the age-old problem of whether you should bother to keep in touch with people once you part ways.

And my favourite dilemma: what to do when the travel stops? Do you put down roots, or keep hitting the road? Do you sacrifice the security of a conventional life, or take a risk and lead your life in a more adventurous way?

He goes to London, but the same restlessness comes over him there, and he goes on somewhere else. And somewhere else again. Five months later he finds himself in a strange country, at the edge of a strange town, with dusk coming down. He is watching people drifting into a funfair on the other side of an overgrown expanse of ground.

If you haven’t already guessed, I really loved this book, so much so I ordered Galgut’s entire back catalogue in the wake of it (apart from The Good Doctorwhich I read a couple of years ago). But to write about it here seems almost impossible. This isn’t a book heavy on plot or even character; it’s about feelings, moods, movements and journeys. But it’s so evocative, so fleeting and ephemeral, that it’s like trying to pin clouds to paper.

In fact, Galgut describes a journey as “a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made” — but he could have well been explaining what it is like to read this book.

You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again.

In a Strange Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Pieces of it originally appeared in the Paris Review.

This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer. This is yet another Kindle special (99p) that has been lurking on my device for several years. I bought it in December 2011, but have no memory as to what prompted me to make the purchase.

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Smashwords, William Weintraub

‘Why Rock the Boat’ by William Weintraub

Fiction – Kindle edition; Smashwords; 160 pages; 2011.

The first law of journalism is that something must always be found to fill the space between the advertisements.

I love a good journalism novel and this one, by Canadian writer William Weintraub, fits right into that category. First published in 1961, Why Rock the Boat is about a rookie reporter, Harry Barnes, trying to make a name for himself on a Montreal newspaper that is in serious financial trouble.

Surviving redundancy

Harry hopes he can survive the constant rounds of lay-offs on the Montreal Daily Witness by making himself indispensable, but first he has to get off the general assignment beat (doing mundane jobs such as taking down the names of funeral attendees for publication) and onto the slightly more prestigious hotel beat (interviewing interesting guests).

He knows that if he keeps practising his writing during quiet moments in the office he will get better at his job. What he doesn’t realise is that he should never leave his joke stories lying around for they are bound to get published, whether by accident or design. And so that is how one of Harry’s practise stories makes it into print:

DRUNK SENTENCED
“This man was corned, loaded and pissed to the very gills,” Judge Elphege Boisvert said in Criminal Court yesterday as he sentenced Philip L. Butcher, local newspaper executive, to two years’ hard labour. Butcher, charged with drunk and disorderly conduct, was arrested Tuesday in the lobby of the Imperial George Hotel, where he had climbed up the big Christmas tree and, with obscene cries, was throwing ornaments down on passing citizens.

Fortunately, Harry gets away with it, and an older reporter, whose career is on the slide, gets blamed — and sacked — for it instead. This sets into motion the pattern of the novel: a succession of blackly funny set pieces about Harry’s cheeky mishaps, all of which he somehow manages to get away with.

Feels contemporary

Why Rock the Boat is set in the 1940s, but there’s so much about it that feels relevant today — almost 80 years on.

It not only debunks the myth that newspapers were hugely profitable until the arrival of the internet and social media, it dismisses the idea that there was ever a “golden age” of journalism where ethics always trump the chase for profit.

And it shows how journalistic jobs have always been under threat, whether through lack of resource or a misunderstanding of what journalists actually do so that others feel they could do it better. For example, the following paragraph, about PR people taking over the world, feels deliciously spot-on today:

Public Relations, Erskine had told him in the car on the way up, was the coming thing. Reporters would eventually become relics of the past, with practically all stories “pre-written” by firms like Erskine-Gainsborough-Gotch and “tailored” to fit each paper’s needs. All of them, from the humblest Bellringers to the mightiest Rotary Club, would have their P.R. agencies to tell “their story” for them in a way that would create the best impression. Industry, labour, government, police forces, criminals, lawyers, churches – everybody would have their P.R. outlets to make sure the papers got things straight. Newspapers would just have a few editors to get the press releases ready for the printers. Eventually, Erskine said dreamily, the editors themselves might be eliminated and the press releases would go directly to the printers. What about reporters, Harry had asked. There would be no jobs for them. No, said Erskine, there would be plenty of work for them in the P.R. agencies, turning out the press releases.

Role of women

Perhaps the one element that makes the book seem slightly dated is the role of women in the media.

In this novel, Harry is bewitched by Julia Martin, a rival reporter on another title, who just happens to be female, something rare in the newspaper game. When he is put on the same beat as her, Harry’s superior, Scannell, offers the following advice:

“The whole subject of women in the newspaper business is extremely disagreeable,” Scannell was saying. “But we have to face up to it, don’t we?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Now this is – um – a little embarrassing,” Scannell said, lighting a cigarette and butting it out. “But women reporters can be fantastically competitive. There is no feminine wile they will not use to get a story. Weeping, of course, is standard procedure. Hence the term sob sister. But they have far more insidious methods. You know, of course, what I mean.”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“It can be pretty sordid, my boy,” said Scannell. “But a female reporter may go to great lengths to get a male rival to share his exclusive story with her. She may even – uh, how shall I put this? – she may even offer him certain – uh – favours. Do you understand?”

As you may imagine, I highlighted a great deal of quotes from this book, because it’s so deliciously funny in places. No one is immune from Weintraub’s scathing commentary: readers (or “civilians” as he describes them) are dull and small-minded, advertisers are too easily offended, editors are bullies, newspaper managers are hypocritical and only interested in money, not a free press, and reporters are cynical and manipulative.

There’s some terrific characters in it, including Philip Butcher, whose role on the paper is two-fold: to keep news out of it and to fire reporters whenever he feels like it, and Scannell, the City Editor, an anxious man who “showed an un-Witnesslike interest in the actual content of the paper”.

While the romantic element of the story is a little clichéd — young male virgin tries to impress beautiful colleague by doing and saying things that aren’t exactly true — in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. This is a fun story with plenty of belly laughs and it makes a worthy addition to my collection of novels about journalists and old-time journalism.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought this one in January 2012 after I’d seen a review by the late KevinfromCanada. We both shared a love of newspaper novels, so as soon as I saw this one on Kevin’s blog I knew I had to buy it! 

1001 books, 20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, Janice Galloway, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, Vintage

‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 236 pages; 1999.

Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a profoundly disturbing story about one woman’s mental breakdown following the death of her lover.

Written in a series of fragments, often sharp, melancholy or bleakly funny, the book reflects the slow inward collapse of Joy Stone’s world as she struggles to make sense of all around her.

This claustrophobic story, which won the American Academy of the Arts E.M. Forster Award in 1994 and the Mind/Allen Lane Book Award in 1990, is a soul-destroying portrait of what happens to someone when their grief cannot be publicly acknowledged.

As the “other woman”, Joy must mourn in private and keep her thoughts — and her tears — to herself, but such a burden eats away at both her psychological and physical health. Food becomes a punishment tool, rather than a source of sustenance or even medicine, and she develops an eating disorder that leaves her painfully thin.

She also begins to numb herself with drink:

Gin tastes sweet and bitter at the same time, stripping down in clean lines, blooming like an acid flower in the pit of my stomach. I top up the glass till it’s seeping. If I get drunk enough, I won’t go to work tomorrow either. This is cheering and helps me through another mouthful.

As Joy spirals into a deeper and deeper depression, the book’s structure becomes more fragmentary, more fractured. There are diary entries, extracts from magazines, recipes and letters all jostling for position in the narrative. It’s almost as if the reader is immersed in Joy’s brain as her thoughts whirl around in a jumble of confessional anecdotes, painful flashbacks and disjointed thoughts about her present and future. The fine line between sanity and insanity gets increasingly more blurred.

I haven’t read a book so immediately immersive nor as bleak for a long time. There are shades of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in it, particularly in its depiction of the pressures and burdens placed on young women trying to find their rightful place in the world, but it does end on a positive note: Joy forgives herself and comes to understand that survival is something you can learn. The trick is simply to keep breathing.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing is featured in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it Edinburgh way back in 2007 as a souvenir of my trip (I always like to buy books by local authors) but it has shamefully sat in my TBR ever since then. 

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, literary fiction, Maggie O'Farrell, Publisher, Setting, Tinder Press, UK

‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions for a heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

Fiction – Kindle edition; Tinder Press; 338 pages; 2013.

In 2013 Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave was THE book of the moment. It was all over Twitter,  was a favourite with bloggers and became a Sunday Times bestseller. Four years on, I thought I’d give it a try.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really get on with it.

The story is a relatively simple one. It’s set in 1976, during the height of the infamous British heatwave of that year, and examines the outfall on one family when the patriarch, the last man rescued at Dunkirk during the Second World War, walks out of the family home never to be seen again.

Here’s what I liked about the story:

1. It has a rich cast of characters — an Irish mammy, a trio of adult siblings and their various partners and children — all of whom are richly drawn and believable. Each character grapples with their own personal dilemmas: Aoife hides the fact she can’t read from everyone she knows, including her family; Monica is struggling to make friends with the step-children she never wanted and is still coming to terms with her own miscarriage many years earlier; Michael Francis is in love with someone else he cannot have but does not want his wife to leave him; and Gretta is devoutly Catholic but has committed a mortal sin that no one except her husband knows about.

2. The dialogue is spot on and O’Farrell is very good at capturing more than two people speaking at any one time (a tricky skill to pull off if you’ve ever tried to write fiction).

3. The depiction of sibling relationships is especially good, particularly the ways in which misunderstandings and perceived betrayals can lead to years of silence, heartache and estrangement.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the story:

1. The heatwave element was poorly done. Perhaps I’ve just read too much Australian fiction in which sizzling summer temperatures and drought becomes a character in its own right. But in Instructions for a Heatwave it felt tacked on and didn’t feel central to the story; from the mid-way point it could well have been set during a big freeze in the middle of winter and we’d be none the wiser.

2. It was too reliant on flashbacks. Each character seems to spend an inordinate amount of time remembering things from the past. I know this is a good way to flesh out a character, to tell their back story, but it slowed the pace down. A choppy, more fractured structure might have given the narrative more of a “push” but I realise that may not have been the author’s intention, which, I assume, was to spend a lot of time with each character so that the reader would come to know them well. But this structure didn’t really work for me; I quickly grew bored. (As an aside, I wanted to know more about the missing father, but we only ever hear about him through second-hand accounts.)

3. The ending tied up all the loose ends too nicely. Everyone seemed to suddenly mend their years’ long disputes and grievances in the space of a couple of days. It didn’t feel very believable, but maybe I’m just not used to happy endings…

As a domestic drama, Instructions for a Heatwave is fairly conventional; it doesn’t do anything particularly original and if you’ve read dozens and dozens of novels by Irish writers (who excel at this kind of story) it feels fairly run-of-the-mill. But it’s readable and peopled with interesting, well drawn characters, and if you like your books to have neatly drawn endings, then it won’t disappoint.

This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in September 2013 and kept it hidden away on my Kindle all this time. I’m tempted to say something along the lines of “perhaps it should have stayed there”, but I won’t <insert winky face here>.

1001 books, 20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, Green Light Press, literary fiction, Nathanael West, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ by Nathanael West

Miss Lonelyhearts

Fiction – Kindle edition; Green Light Press; 108 pages; 2011.

I’m quite a sucker for books written or set during the Great Depression. Nathanael West’s novella Miss Lonelyhearts, published in 1933, fits into this category, but I’m afraid it didn’t really tickle my fancy.

This dark and comic tale about an agony aunt on a Manhattan newspaper is described in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as an “interesting examination of the problematic role of Christianity in the modern world”. But for me it serves as a warning to be careful of what you wish for.

The Miss Lonelyhearts of the title is actually a young, fervently religious man eager to be a success. He eagerly takes the newly created newspaper job answering people’s personal problems even though many of  his colleagues regard it as a joke. He takes a more pragmatic, long term approach, seeing it as a mere stepping stone to something more desirable at a later date. Perhaps it might even win him Brownie points with God.

His column would be syndicated and the whole world would learn to love. The Kingdom of Heaven would arrive. He would sit on the right hand of the Lamb.

But over time he comes to realise that the job is not a joke; that he has an important role to play in the moral and spiritual welfare of those who write in to him seeking advice.

He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.

Miss Lonelyhearts paperback edition
Miss Lonelyhearts paperback edition
If this makes the novella seem horribly righteous, let me assure you that it is not. It’s profoundly dark in places, littered with references, many of them euphemistic, to sex and sexual practices, and there’s a menacing undercurrent of misogyny running throughout (I was shocked by several references to women in “need of a good rape”).

Miss Lonelyhearts is not the angelic young man he strives to be. Desperate to be seen as a man of honour, he asks his long suffering girlfriend to marry him, only to keep avoiding her for weeks on end. He also develops unwise attachments to troubled readers but doesn’t seem to be able to extricate himself from complicated, unethical relationships. Indeed, he’s everything you would not want an agony aunt to be.

Some people might find humour in these situations, but to be honest, this kind of comedy is generally lost on me. The saving grace is that Miss Lonelyhearts is short and takes just a matter of hours to read; I might have begrudged a longer book for wasting my time.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it on 9 February 2012, but not sure what provoked me to do so. Maybe it was the price (77p!), the idea it was about someone working on a newspaper and therefore might fall into my “newspaper novel” category, or the fact it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which I use for inspiration when I’m not sure what to read next.

20 books of summer (2017), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Elizabeth Harrower, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Long Prospect’ by Elizabeth Harrower

The Long Prospect

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 292 pages; 2013.

First published in 1958, The Long Prospect was Elizabeth Harrower’s second novel. It is a powerful example of Australian postwar literature, the kind of meaty novel that thrusts you into the messy lives of fascinating characters (some of them unkind), and then leaves an indelible impression.

Life in a boarding house

In it we meet 12-year-old Emily Lawrence, a lonely and unpopular girl living in a boarding house run by her maternal grandmother, Lilian, in the industrial northern town of Ballowra (said to be a thinly veiled version of Newcastle in NSW). Her parents, Harry and Paula, are estranged and live separate lives in Sydney.

Lilian is a domineering personality and she has few kind words to say to her granddaughter, whom she largely ignores, preferring to focus on her other interests instead — namely horse racing, gossiping with her friends and bossing around her new lover, Rosen, who also happens to be one of her boarders.

It’s only when a new boarder arrives, the fiercely intelligent scientist, Max, who works in the steelworks, that things begin to look up for Emily, for Max is a kind-hearted man and recognises Emily’s need for friendship and adult attention. He talks to her about great literature and science, treating her as an equal and encouraging her to pursue her studies and to dream big. But Lilian is not keen on their friendship and the novel’s storyline pivots on a dramatic confrontation with far-reaching consequences.

An immersive, slow burning story

Admittedly, it took me a long time to get into this story. It’s a slow burner, perhaps because the text is so dense and Harrower takes her time to build up a picture of the inner lives of this small dysfunctional family and its bitter, often cruel, self-absorbed members.

Long before we are ever introduced to Max, we come to know Emily quite intimately. We understand her love-starved existence  — the crush she had on a former boarder and career woman, Thea; the other crush she developed on a teacher, who failed to truly notice her; the disintegration of a valued friendship with a girl when she realised Emily was from a poorer, less socially acceptable class; her distant relationship with her father, Harry, whom she regards as a stranger; the lack of bond she feels with her mother, who was packed off to Sydney to earn a living when her marriage began to fail — and wish we could teach her to see beyond her troubled life.

That’s where Max comes in, for when he arrives the narrative begins to pick up speed, as he teaches Emily to try new things, to overcome her shyness, to learn about the world beyond the four walls of her bedroom.

“About people—it’s still true, Emmy. Don’t spend your nights being afraid of murderers and your days being shy, but at the same time, remember—”
He hardly knew how to voice a warning without frightening her, her reaction to his least word was apt to be disproportionate. He said, “Learn from people, but don’t be dispersed by them. And remember that the bad times have compensations. Unhappiness is not all loss. Not by any means. […]”

The Long Prospect fully immerses the reader in the domestic realm of an unconventional household. The characters are flawed, authentic, original. Harrower’s uncanny eye for detail and her descriptions of the heat and the industrial landscape make Ballowra a character in its own right, too.

But she’s also incredibly perceptive about the psychology of people and what makes various “types” tick (especially prepubescent girls, in this case), and her dialogue, complete with barbed comments and little cruelties, is brilliantly believable.

This deftly written story about family ties, cruelty, heartache, friendship and coming of age only confirms my opinion that Elizabeth Harrower is one of Australia’s most important writers. I can’t wait to read the rest of her back catalogue.

This is my my 9th book for #AWW2017 and my 8th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it at the start of the year when I decided to purchase all of Harrower’s back catalogue and read them in the order in which they were written. I read Down in the City, her debut novel first published in 1957, in January and absolutely loved it.

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canada, Denis Thériault, Fiction, Hesperus Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman’ by Denis Thériault

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hesperus Press; 128 pages; 2014. Translated from the French by Liedewy Hawke.

Denis Thériault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman is one of the most unusual love stories I’ve ever read. Part fable, part treatise on Japanese poetry, it also “flirts with the fantastic” (as the author states in a Q&A published at the rear of the book) and delivers a quietly understated story about the power of the written word and the Buddhist concept of Ensō.

A man on a mission

Set in Montreal, Canada (where the author hails from), we are introduced to the postman of the title: 27-year-old Bilodo, who lives on the 10th floor of a high-rise apartment block with his sole companion: a goldfish called Bill. He rarely goes out, preferring to stay home to watch TV or play video games, but he loves his job and is super-efficient at it.

It wasn’t all roses, of course. There were those blasted advertising flyers to be delivered; the backaches, the sprains and other run-of-the-mill injuries; there were the crushing summer heatwaves, the autumn rains that left you soaked to the skin, the black ice in winter, which turned the city into a perilous ice palace, and the cold that could be biting, just like the dogs for that matter – a postman’s natural enemies. But the moral satisfaction of knowing oneself to be indispensable to the community made up for these drawbacks. Bilodo felt he took part in the life of the neighbourhood, that he had a discreet but essential role in it.

But Bilodo has a bit of a moral blind spot. If he comes across a handwritten letter — an increasing rarity in today’s modern world — he takes it home, steams it open, reads it, makes a copy of it for his records, seals the letter back up again and then delivers it the next day as if nothing has happened.

Through this illegal practise Bilodo stumbles upon a correspondence between Ségolène, a woman who lives in Guadeloupe (a French overseas territory, part of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean), and Grandpré, an academic from Quebec.

The pair send haiku poetry to each other and Bilodo, transported by the beauty of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables apiece, soon finds himself falling in love with Ségolène, a woman he knows he will never meet. And so he undergoes a psychological transformation that has him leading the peculiar life of the title.

A moral ambiguity

This short but powerful novella is deceptive in both its tone of voice (slightly mundane) and its subject matter (a dull man leading a dull life), but then about half way through it turns into something else entirely (although I will put up my hand and say that I predicted the major plot development that occurs). This is not one of those “happy” books where the lonely protagonist learns to live a more fulfilling life; there’s a really dark edge to it and a moral ambiguity at its core.

There’s something about the whole “atmosphere” of the story that is hugely reminiscent of Japanese fiction: the functional prose style, the themes of alienation, chaste love and loneliness, and the lovely poetry in it, both haiku and tanka (the oldest and most elevated classical Japanese verse form).

Even the ending, which is unexpectedly strange and unsettling but ultimately satisfying, brought to mind Taichi Yamada’s Strangers, one of the most compelling and intriguing Japanese novellas I’ve ever read. I could almost say the same about this one, although I realise it’s Canadian…

This is my 7th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in December 2014, partly because of Susan’s review at A Life in Books, for the princely sum of 99p.