Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Philip Roth, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA, Vintage

‘Nemesis’ by Philip Roth

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 2011; 280 pages.

Reading a novel about a polio epidemic while the world is grappling with the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic might seem like an odd thing to do. Aren’t we all scared enough? But I thought that Philip Roth’s Nemesis might offer some insights into how people behave during health scares and whether there are any lessons to be learned.

Newark polio epidemic

The story is set in Newark, New Jersey during the summer of 1944. It’s a scary time — there’s a war raging in Europe and the Pacific — but closer to home there’s another threat, a contagious disease that largely targets children. It’s called polio and is known as the “summer disease” because it only appears during the warmer months.

It starts with a headache and a fever and then leads to paralysis of body and limbs. In severe cases, patients are put in “iron lungs” — a mechanical respirator which enables a person to breathe on their own — for months at a time. Survivors can end up in wheelchairs or have to wear calipers to support withered limbs. Many die. There is no known cure.

The story is framed around 23-year-old Bucky Cantor whose poor eyesight means he hasn’t been able to enlist in the Army. His thoughts are never far away from the battlefield: two of his best friends signed up and are fighting somewhere in France. Bucky finds a good job as the director of a playground, in a Jewish part of town, where he teaches his young charges physical education and supervises their games.

He is well-liked and popular; never more so than when he stands up to a group of Italian teenagers who arrive in two cars to “spread polio” one sunny afternoon. “We got it and you don’t, so we thought we’d drive up and spread a little around,” says one of the guys, who then proceeds to spit all over the sidewalk.

Several days later two of Bucky’s students come down with polio; both eventually die. There is no proof the Italians spread the disease (after they spat on the sidewalk, Bucky washed it all down) but no one really knows how the contagion is passed on. Is it via human contact? Maybe it’s from food? Or is it the water? Why are some neighbourhoods more badly affected than others? So little is known that rumours and conspiracies abound. People want the playground shut down, the Italian gang to be lynched, the local hotdog vendor to close, entire apartment blocks to be quarantined.

Bewilderment and fear

Bucky begins to feel the weight of people’s grief and fears, their panic and bewilderment, their pain and outrage. People on the street mistake him for a Health Department official and yell their fury at him. He is devoted to the playground, at keeping it open and providing a safe place for boys to play, but he’s fearful of who might fall sick next. He begins to feel guilty that maybe he didn’t do enough to stop two of his charges from dying.

His girlfriend, a first grade teacher working at a summer camp in the hills, offers him a reprieve. There’s an opening at the camp for a waterfront director and Bucky, an accomplished diver and swimmer, would be ideal for the job. He prevaricates for a week or two — he needs to stay in the city to keep an eye on the grandmother who raised him — but eventually succumbs to the idea of fresh air and a fresh start.

The second half of the book charts Bucky’s time at the India Hill camp and his romance with Marcia. But when a fellow camp instructor falls ill, Bucky can’t help but think he brought the poliovirus with him. How many children has he now put at risk? How many parents will suffer the loss of a loved one?

Surviving a contagion 

Nemesis is a gripping account of an epidemic from another time and place seen through the eyes of one man.

It’s eloquently written in Roth’s typical forthright style and is told in the third-person. But midway through we discover it is being told through the eyes of one of Bucky’s former students looking back on the summer of 1944. The narrator, it turns out, caught polio but survived. It’s an unusual device, and perhaps not entirely necessary, but it does show that the disease was not always a death sentence.

This novel also shows how rumour and fear can spread almost as fast, if not faster, than the contagion itself, and looks at the responsibility that we all hold to behave with the good of others in mind. Washing your hands and the need for quarantine are frequently mentioned. Yes, I think there might be lessons in this book for us all.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book, but it first attracted my attention when the late KevinfromCanada reviewed it on his blog back in 2010.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London: This story is set in a children’s convalescent home in Perth, Western Australia during a polio outbreak in 1954.

This is my 9th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. The press release tucked into the cover of this book indicates that it was sent to me unsolicited in October 2011. I was obviously interested in reading it because it survived dozens of book culls over the years and was packed in my suitcase when I moved back to Australia in June last year. It may possibly be the oldest book I own here.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Setting, USA

‘Benediction’ by Kent Haruf

Benediction_hardcover

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 272 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Kent Haruf’s Benediction is the final volume in the author’s Plainsong Trilogy, which also comprises Plainsong and Eventide, two of my favourite novels from the past couple of years. All three are set in the fictional rural town of Holt, Colorado, and each is just as lovely, heartbreaking and joyful as the one that precedes it.

One last summer

In Benediction, which was recently shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, we meet Dad Lewis, the owner of a local hardware store, who has terminal cancer. His last final summer is spent getting his affairs in order — making sure the business goes on without him, preferably with his somewhat reluctant adult daughter in charge — and catching up with old friends and loved ones, who visit him and his wife, offering prayers and assistance.

But as the story gently unfolds and Dad recalls incidents from his long life, we discover that he won’t be entirely at peace until he finds his son, Frank, who fled the family home as a teenager, more than 30 years ago.

Several other characters dance around the edges of this main narrative: an orphaned girl called Alice, who moves in next door to live with her grandmother; Alene and Willa, the elderly mother and adult daughter, who befriend Alice; and Reverend Rob Lyle, a new arrival in town, whose familial relationships are strained, along with the relationship he has with his congregation.

And, once again, the town of Holt, is also a character — in this case, melting in the heat of a long, hot summer, some time after 9/11, when America is mired in the “war on terror” and public suspicions are running high.

Ordinary people

There’s a telling scene about mid-way through this book, when Reverend Lyle, who has been accused of being a terrorist sympathiser, wanders around the streets observing the residents through the windows at nightfall. He’s not stalking them or doing anything deliberately creepy. He tells the police that he simply wants to witness people’s lives — he wants to capture the “precious ordinary”.

And that’s an apt description for what Haruf achieves in this novel: he captures the precious ordinary of people leading ordinary lives in ordinary small-town America. He makes no judgement about them. He simply shows us their struggles and their small joys, he gives us their back stories and highlights the various decisions — some bad, some good — they made along the way, and he lets the reader come to their own conclusions about them.

I read the book in a kind of hypnotised wonder, not just at the beautifully clear and concise prose, but at the way in which Haruf exposes the inner-most workings of the human heart — the lies we tell ourselves to get by, the shame, the pride, the desire for connection we all feel. But what I most admire is the way he manages to wring so much emotion out of the story without it ever tipping over into sugary mawkishness. It always feels genuine and real.

I think it’s largely to do with his under-stated, limpid prose style and the simple, to-the-point dialogue between characters (of which there is much) that puts you firmly in the thick of the “action”  in much the same way a good theatre production would do so.

But perhaps it is because he addresses universal themes — what it is to be a good person and to lead a good life; the importance of little kindnesses, acceptance, love and friendship; the sense of community between people and places; the need for connections, whether spiritual or sexual; what it is like to face death; and the struggle to achieve the “precious ordinary” — that makes Benediction such a wise, humane and powerful read.

And finally…

Please note, even though Benediction is part of a loose trilogy, it is very much a standalone book — you do not have to read the first two to appreciate it. There’s a whole new cast of characters and only one or two passing references to those who appear in the previous two novels, so you won’t be missing out on anything if you start with this one. That said, I must warn you: if this is your first Kent Haruf novel, I’m pretty sure it won’t be your last.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Corsair, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Yan Lianke

‘Dream of Ding Village’ by Yan Lianke

Dream-of-ding-village

Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 352 pages; 2011. Translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter.

I read Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village while lying by a pool on the Greek island of Rhodes and I have to say this did not make for a good holiday read — it was far too grim and oppressive to truly enjoy while soaking up the sunshine.

Nevertheless, it’s an important story — and one that needs to be told if we are to learn anything about the value of our health, prevention of disease and the importance of proper regulated medical care.

It is set in a village in rural China devastated by the AIDS virus, which has been spread by the unfettered and wholly unregulated business of blood banks. These banks, which are run by blood merchants, pay poor peasants meagre sums for any blood they donate. Sadly, they reuse needles and other equipment, and thereby contaminate donors so that, before too long, an entire village is suffering from “the fever”.

This book, which is narrated by the ghost of a dead boy, reminded me of Ma Jian’s rather brilliant Beijing Coma, especially in its depiction of a crude and corrupt health care system in which access is dependent not on need but on the ability to pay. It also reveals much about the modern Chinese value system in which everything — including blood — has been commodified in order to make profit.

This is quite an eye-opening, confronting and gruelling read, and definitely not one for the faint-hearted. It was longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize and shortlisted for the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle

The-Guts

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 328 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown TrilogyThe Commitments (published in 1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) — is one of my favourite ever volumes, so I was falling over myself with excitement when I heard he had a new novel out that turned the “trilogy” into a “quartet”.

Back with the Rabbitte family

The Guts is set in modern-day Dublin — there are references to Whitney Houston’s death, boxer Katie Taylor‘s gold medal in the London Olympics, and Christy Moore, Sigur Ros and The Cure playing the Electric Picnic, which suggests the date is 2012.

Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who invented and managed the soul band The Commitments in The Commitments, is now 47. He’s married to the lovely Aoife and has four kids — all named after soul singers.

While he’s not rich, he has managed to survive the collapse of the Irish economy via an online business (www.kelticpunk.com), which he founded with his wife, selling long-lost Irish punk songs as downloads. After paying off the mortgage, he sold 75 per cent of the business to a partner, Noeleene, but keeps his hand in by managing reunion gigs and other associated projects.

But now things aren’t so great: Jimmy has been diagnosed with bowel cancer. He needs an operation and a series of chemotherapy treatments. And just when it’s all looking pretty grim he stumbles upon three things to distract him — the gorgeous Imelda Quirke, who was a singer in The Commitments he hasn’t seen in 20 or so years; trumpet lessons; and a project to find punk-like music recorded in the same year as the International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in 1932.

Black comedy

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the company of the Rabbitte family — and I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it. I knew I was going to love this book when I got my first laugh on page 3. From then on, I pretty much tittered my way throughout it.

Occasionally Doyle does waver into sentimentality, especially where cancer is concerned, but he usually reigns it back in with a good dose of black humour —  I especially loved that Jimmy’s purple velour tracksuit bottoms, given to him as a Christmas present by his wife, are dubbed “cancer trousers” and that the book Chemotherapy & Radiation for Dummies sent to him as a joke actually becomes bedtime reading material.

There are some delightful set pieces involving the family that particularly tickled my fancy. For instance, when 10-year-old Brian, nicknamed Smoke (presumably after Smoky Robinson), requests a  sat nav for Christmas, his parents buy him one even though he “doesn’t have a fuckin’ car”. And this is what happens on Christmas morning:

He walked down the road with Brian and got excited with him when they came to the first corner, and there it was, on the sat nav.
—Brilliant.
They took the left and watched themselves taking it.
—Coolio.
Here, Smoke, tell it where we’re goin’ and it’ll tell us where to go.
Brian impressed Jimmy, the way all his kids did, with his ability to negotiate the buttons, the confidence, the effortless speed. No grunting from this boy.
—Where we goin’? he asked.
—The Spar, said Smokey.
—It’s only over there.
—Drive forward, said the sat nav.
The voice was posh and reassuring, like an Aer Lingus pilot’s. […]
They found the Spar and were going on to Brian’s school. […] Brian turned right.
—The wrong way, Smoke.
—I know.
—Turn left, said the voice.
Brian kept going.
—Turn LEFT, said the voice.
Brian looked down at the sat nav.
—Fuck off, he said, and laughed.
He looked at Jimmy. And Jimmy laughed too.
—It’s brilliant, Dad, said Brian.

A musical project

The main story arc charts Jimmy coming to terms with his cancer treatment and reconnecting with the people he loves, including his long-lost brother, whom he manages to trackdown via Facebook. He also re-establishes contact with Outspan, another character from The Commitments, who has lung cancer and is in far worse shape than him.

But the real highlight is Jimmy’s musical project in which he hunts for tracks to include on a record of controversial Irish songs from 1932, the idea being to sell it during the 50th International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in the summer. As he hunts about in people’s attics, looking for old recordings, he can’t quite find the song he’s looking for — one that will sum up “the great escape”, one that will “say things that weren’t allowed” — and because of that he hits upon a rather radical idea: he will simply write one himself and find someone to record it.

What ensues is a kind of modern-day farce, involving YouTube and social media “buzz”, culminating in a very public, very surreal performance at the Electric Picnic music festival.

A heartfelt story

I think it’s clear from The Guts that Roddy Doyle has written this one from the guts: it’s frank and funny, it’s about things that matter (love and family and friendship), and it crackles with feisty Dublin dialect and richly comic exchanges. And the endless music references are just brilliant.

Despite the tragic illness at its core, the story is largely optimistic and upbeat, though it does stray into the saccharine every now and then.

But on the whole I loved spending time with Jimmy, a middle-aged man getting back in touch with his emotions and enjoying what he loves: women, family, pints and music, not necessarily in that order.

Author, Book review, chick-lit, England, Fiction, general, Jojo Moyes, Michael Joseph, Publisher, Setting

‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes

Me-Before-You

Fiction – paperback; Michael Joseph; 512 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jojo Moyes is a former newspaper journalist turned novelist. Her books tend to fall into the chick-lit category — she has won the Romantic Novelists’ Association Romantic Novel of the Year Award twice for Foreign Fruit (2004) and The Last Letter From Your Lover (2011). But Me Before You, her ninth novel, isn’t so easy to pigeonhole. I was looking for a light read to take away on holiday with me, and convinced by Simon’s recent review, I packed it in my suitcase.

Before I explain about the story, I must say that the pastel pink cover is truly terrible. It looks so girlie and twee, and if I saw it in a bookshop I would pass over it without a second thought. (I was reading a proof edition adorned in a plain, sunset-yellow jacket so I didn’t feel so self-conscious reading it.) Why do marketing departments insist on packaging “women’s fiction” in this clichéd, dare I say it, patronising way? Does it really shift copies?

Me Before You deserves better treatment, because this isn’t your average run-of-the-mill romance. Yes, I can see that it is probably aimed at 20-something women; yes, it’s not “literary”; and yes, it occasionally feels over-written and predictable. But the story deals with big issues — the class divide, quadriplegia, rape and the right to die, among others — and is handled with acute sensitivity and a good dollop of humour to lighten the load.

Waitress turned carer/companion

Louisa Clark is 26 and still living at home with her invalid grandfather, her parents, her younger sister and her sister’s young son. She has a dead end job working in a local cafe, but it’s hugely important to her, because she’s the breadwinner of the family. When she loses that job through no fault of her own — the cafe is closed down — she must hurriedly find something else to keep the family afloat. And that is how she ends up becoming a carer/companion to a local man, eight years her senior, who was paralysed from the neck down in a road accident several years earlier.

The job throws Lou in at the deep end. She has no experience as a professional carer, but she’s been employed because she has a bright personality and it is hoped her presence will lift Will Traynor out of the doldrums. What Lou doesn’t know is that she has six months to convince Will that life is worth living — he has already made an appointment with Dignitas to end his life through assisted suicide.

The narrative, told from Lou’s point of view, shows how her relationship with Will develops and changes over time. (There are also solo chapters from Will’s magistrate mother, Will’s adulterous father, Will’s New Zealand male nurse and Lou’s intelligent sister, which provide a three-dimensional view of the relationship.)

At first, the pair intensely dislike each other. Will was once the type of man who relished adventure sports such as mountain climbing, scuba diving and motorbiking. But now, stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he is bitter, angry and frustrated. He takes this out on Lou by snapping at her or making patronising comments. (In one scene, he pretends to drool and have a fit, just to scare her off.) But as time goes by and they spend more time in each other’s company a true friendship — and love — ensues.

Two people who change each other

The essence of the story is that these two people, from completely different backgrounds and mindsets, must find common ground to get along. Lou, who has settled for a quiet life living in the town of her birth, learns it’s okay to want to spread your wings and live a different kind of life. And Will, once a richly paid City worker with a beautiful girlfriend to match, discovers that small moments of joy can be found in unexpected places.

Moyes somehow manages to balance deep poignancy with black comedy — there’s one episode at a racecourse which is outright hilarious — so the narrative never feels heavy-handed or overly sentimental. And her depiction of life as a quadriplegic, including the detailed medical care required, is handled with compassion and dignity. She makes Will a flesh-and-blood real, three-dimensional character, when it would have been so easy to resort to cliché and stereotyping.

Despite the sadness at the heart of this novel, Me Before You is actually a life-affirming read about making the most of our lives and not taking anything for granted. The ending is hugely emotional — and not quite what I had expected — so if you decide to take the plunge and give this book a whirl, here’s one piece of advice to take on board: read the last 40 or so pages in the privacy of your home, unless you particularly like sobbing into your Kleenex in public.