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!