Tag Archives: American authors

#Bookreview ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides #literary

Jeffrey EugenidesThe title of this, the third novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides, refers to the entanglements of three students and the plotting of Victorian romance novels. The Marriage Plot tells of the romantic, sexual, philosophical, religious and literary coming togethers/going aparts of a literature student Madeleine Hanna, scientist Leonard Bankhead and theology student Mitchell Grammaticus at Brown University in 1982 America. It is a tale of youthful assumptions, experimentations, dreams and disappointments. Perhaps it is a tale which will strike a chord with people of the same age as Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, rather than those who are older.

None of the three main characters are particularly likeable and at times the book gets bogged down in literary theory, philosophy, science and religious theory. Leonard is brilliant but a manic depressive, something which colours the entire book. The portrayal of his illness is convincing and shows the knife edge of pharmaceutical dosage needed to maintain a healthy mental balance. Leonard yo-yo’s back and forth, coping and not coping, at times allowing his manic tendencies to win. Madeleine accuses him of liking being depressed all the time. Mitchell is the idealistic one who goes to India to work for Mother Theresa’s Calcutta hospice and confronts some unpalatable truths. In comparison, Madeleine seems rather spoiled. Both men dote on her however and this is the spine which holds the story together: who will Madeleine finally choose?

Eugenides describes mundane things so beautifully. “Outside, the temperature, which had remained cold through March, had shot up into the fifties. The resulting thaw was alarming in its suddenness, drainpipes and gutters dripping, sidewalks puddling, streets flooded, a constant sound of water rushing downhill.” Simple writing at its best. But at other times the writing feels manic and not just in Leonard’s sections. There is an authorial indulgence with many clever asides from the plot and characters. I soon learned to read these parts slightly out-of-focus, not worrying for example that I didn’t grasp Leonard’s sections on yeast or Mitchell’s constant references to Something Beautiful for God, Malcolm Muggeridge’s book about Mother Theresa. The last third of the book passed much quicker than the first two.

The Marriage Plot is ambitious, as Middlesex was, and rightly so, but is perhaps the inevitable ‘difficult’ book after such a huge success. This will not deter me from reading Eugenides again.
Amazon UK

Read the first paragraph of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

If you like this, try these:-
‘If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go’ by Judy Chicurel
‘A Sudden Light’ by Garth Stein
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx

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Book review: Gilead

Marilynne RobinsonGilead by Marilynne Robinson is a read like no other. A slow, contemplative journey through the memories of one man’s life, as he waits to die. In 1956, the Reverend John Ames writes a letter to his young son. It tugs the heartstrings.

Robinson writes with a clear unadorned style drawing heavily on biblical texts but it is not a religious tract, it is the story of a man’s life, his memories, his regrets and loves. The first few lines grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Do not start reading this book if you are feeling impatient. Some passages are easy and quick to read, others deserve more thought. It unwinds slowly like a length of thread, telling us the story of John Ames, his father and grandfather, the legacy of the Ames family which has been inherited by the Reverend’s seven-year old son.

I am not religious and some of the references will have passed me by. In the first half of the novel, I would think ‘oh no not another section about religion’, but as I read deeper into the book I became drawn into the stories of John Ames and his forebears and how their beliefs shaped their lives. I wanted to know what happened to John Ames Boughton, the troublesome son of his best friend and fellow reverend. I wanted to know how the Reverend Ames met his second wife. Some of the questions posed are not answered until the very end.

It is a peaceful novel, set against the backdrop of Fifties Iowa, which draws on local history including the Underground Railroad. Robinson draws a picture of the Gilead community, the people, their kindnesses, their grievances. She paints a clear picture. ‘We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town.’

At times, the writing was so sublime I re-read. For example, ‘Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.’

Gilead, the second novel by Marilynne Robinson, won two prizes in 2005: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award. I came to it with trepidation, having respected the writing style of her first novel, Housekeeping, but struggled with the pace of the narrative. Read my review of Housekeeping.

If you like this, try:-
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx
‘Did You Ever Have a Family?’ by Bill Clegg
‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley

‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson [UK: Virago]

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Book review: Anything is Possible

Elizabeth StroutAnything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is an extraordinary book about normal people living normal lives. On the outside, people live private, God-fearing lives, they get by, they smile, they work. Inside, they hide secrets, horror, misgivings, sadness and love. With the same vision and delicacy she displayed in My Name is Lucy Barton, Strout tells us about the people of Amgash, Illinois, the small rural town where Lucy Barton grew up.

In Anything is Possible, as in real life, threads of small town life are tangled together, generation after generation, each seemingly isolated but all connected by invisible tendrils of family, neighbourhood, school, farming. The shared history of living together through the years in close proximity, a community where everyone knows everyone else, their shame, their success, their failure, their betrayal and loyalty, is a community it is impossible to escape. Where adolescent misdemeanours, which may or may not have happened, are remembered as fact and decades of distrust attached. But as well as secrets and shame, there is redemption and love for those who face change and find a way to the other side.

This is more a collection of inter-connecting stories rather than a novel with a single narrative spine, but it is finely written with care and grace. A companion novel to My Name is Lucy Barton, it is not essential to have read that novel first but in some ways it does help.

There are nine chapters each focussing on one character and each, you realize at the end, are firmly entwined like the roots of a closely-planted grove of trees. In the first we see Tommy Guptill, elderly now, but once the caretaker at Lucy’s school. In the second, school counsellor Patty Nicely is insulted by student Lila Lane, daughter of Lucy’s sister Vicky. And so the stories keep coming as you gradually build up a picture of the Amgash citizens. After seventeen years away, writer Lucy is drawn back to the dirt-poor family farm where her brother Petie still lives. There, like the other characters in this novel, she discovers how your history cannot be left behind because it is hard-wired within you.

In her portrayals of these straightforward straight-talking Amgash citizens, Strout poses questions for the reader and does not give answers, expect to do some work yourself when reading her novels.

Read my review of My Name is Lucy Barton.

If you like this, try:-
‘A Thousand Acres’ by Jane Smiley
‘The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout [UK: Viking] Buy now

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Book review: We Are Water

Wally LambWe Are Water by American author Wally Lamb is the examination of a family riven by differences, tragedy and horrors, how they first avoid then finally admit the truths and shame, in order to face the future. It is a story about looking forwards, not back.

I loved the storyline set-up in the Prologue, elderly artist and curator Gualtiero Agnello recalls the discovery of a self-taught artist, Josephus Jones, a poor black man in the Sixties with a raw untapped gift. But then as the story develops, Jones is not centre stage. The focus is on Annie Oh, another untutored artist discovered by Agnello, who lived in the same house where Jones lived in a shed out back and where he died in a well. Murder or accident, it is never proven.

Via the Oh family, Lamb explores the imbalance of family life, its events and consequences. When she is small. Annie loses her mother in a flood which devastates the town of Three Rivers in Connecticut. This flood is based on a real-life event though the town is fictional. Growing up, Annie is subjected to abuse which remains unspecified for a long time. The reader comes to realise she was abused, but not how or why. Annie’s husband Orion knows only that she had a difficult childhood. As a psychology professor, he suspects a tough childhood but backs-off challenging her about it.

Raising her three children – Ariane, Andrew and Marissa – Annie is a strict mom who occasionally hits her son, but never her daughters. In an escape from motherhood she starts to make art in the basement of the house, using materials foraged from refuse. When a New York art agent sees her work, this is the catalyst for change. Annie leaves Orion and falls in love with her agent, Viveca. This action puts the focus on all the fissures within the Oh family and raises various issues they have denied and hidden. Andrew finds God, Marissa is a jobbing actress and an alcoholic, Ariane conceives by artificial insemination. When they gather for the wedding of Annie and Viveca, a sequence of events brings the past to life again and the secrets and horror come crashing back.

Lamb’s focus on family reminds me of the novels of Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley, although of course he is a man writing a woman’s point of view. Once I got over my disappointment at not reading more about Josephus Jones I enjoyed this, at times difficult, novel.

If you like this, try:-
‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ by Bill Clegg
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
‘If I Knew You Were This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go’ by Judy Chicurel

‘We Are Water’ by Wally Lamb [UK: Harper] Buy at Amazon

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Book review: Early Warning

Jane SmileyIt opens with a funeral, Frank Langdon, the patriarch. A funeral is a great introduction to the characters, a reminder of Some Luck, the first part of this trilogy. This, the second instalment by Jane Smiley of the life of Frank and Rosanna Langdon’s family, focuses on their children and grandchildren. And it is a sprawling family. Not just who they are but WHO they are, their relationships, their quirks, their oddities.

Jane Smiley is an excellent observer of human behaviour, she reminds me of Jane Austen’s interpretation of family connections, secrets, tensions and disguised emotions. And it is all written in such an unassuming, subtle way. The death of a parent is a landmark in anyone’s life, a reminder of mortality, and in this book we see the maturing of the five Langdon children – ambitious, tricksy Frank; farmer Joe; home-maker Lilian; academic Henry; and youngest Claire.

Smiley has a way of writing these characters from birth to maturity, through changing times, the social and political upheavals of Sixties and Seventies America, without losing the essence of personality. And what a cast it is to handle. Not once did I lose the thread of who was who, except with the appearance towards the end of a character called Charlie. I examined the family tree at the front of the book, no Charlie. The mystery is answered at the end, and sets up part three of the trilogy, Golden Age.

Frank and Andy’s troubled marriage produces troubled children: Janet who becomes entwined in a dodgy religious sect, argumentative twins Michael and Ritchie. Joe has to manage not only the family farm but also the additional land inherited by his wife. The Cold War affects grain prices and he considers whether to borrow money to plant seed when the crop may not earn enough to fulfil the loan. Lillian and Arthur’s son Tim goes off to Vietnam, meanwhile Arthur continues to cope with the emotional stress of his Government intelligence job and what comes with it, the prior knowledge of horrible secrets, dirty tricks and bribes. Henry confronts his sexuality, but will he tell his conservative family? Claire, the youngest, marries a doctor who wants to control her life, and that of their sons, in a protective instinct which becomes overwhelming.

It is impossible to summarize a plot which strides the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Civil Rights movement and AIDS, but Smiley handles the transition – with one year for each chapter – with ease.

This is a big book [over 700 pages] but few big books are this easy and pleasurable to read. Jane Smiley has already won the Pulitzer, with this trilogy she enters the territory of ‘greatest living’ American author.

Here’s my review of Some Luck, first of the trilogy.
If you like ‘Early Warning’, try these other ‘big’ American novels:-
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler
‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen

‘Early Warning’ by Jane Smiley, LastHundredYears#2 [UK: Mantle] Buy at Amazon

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Great Opening Paragraph 88… ‘To Have and Have Not’ #amwriting #FirstPara

Ernest Hemingway“You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars? Well, we came across the square from the dock to the Pearl of San Francisco Café to get coffee and there was only one beggar awake in the square and he was getting a drink out of the fountain. But when we got inside the café and sat down, there were three of them waiting for us.”
‘To Have and Have Not’ by Ernest Hemingway

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
Animal Farm’ by George Orwell 
Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding 
Possession’ by AS Byatt 

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Great Opening Paragraph 87… ‘Time Will Darken It’ #amwriting #FirstPara

William Maxwell“In order to pay off an old debt that someone else had contracted, Austin King had said yes when he knew that he ought to have said no, and now at five o’clock of a July afternoon he saw the grinning face of trouble everywhere he turned. The house was full of strangers from Mississippi; within an hour, friends and neighbours invited to an evening party would begin ringing the doorbell; and his wife (whom he loved) was not speaking to him.”
‘Time Will Darken It’ by William Maxwell

Click here to read my review of Time Will Darken It

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
Such a Long Journey’ by Rohinton Mistry 
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ by Mark Haddon 
Death in Summer’ by William Trevor 

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A 1st para which makes you want more: TIME WILL DARKEN IT by William Maxwell http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1Vh Chosen by @SandraDanby #novels

Book review: My Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth StroutThis is a gem of a little novel by Elizabeth Strout. I read it in one sitting on a winter’s afternoon, drawn into the life of Lucy Barton. Lucy looks back, ostensibly telling the story of her nine-week stay in hospital and an unexpected visit by her mother, when in fact she tells the story of her life. Mothers and daughters, no two relationships are alike and no woman can make assumptions about another’s experience as either mother or daughter. Stranded in her hospital bed, Lucy remembers her childhood and tries to make sense of it.

Economically [208 pages] and beautifully written, this is the first of Elizabeth Strout’s novels I have read. I have of course heard of Olive Kitteridge but did not realize it is a Pulitzer winner, and so have the treat awaiting me. Strout writes about the everday, the ordinary, the normal [and not-so-normal] and sees the truth behind what is and isn’t said.

Lucy is a kind of everywoman. Through her Strout examines the mother-daughter relationship with an acute eye which will make you examine your own relationships. Lucy tells the story of her hospital visit and her mother’s appearance with the benefit of hindsight, looking back at her childhood, her daughters and female friendships. Sometimes she is baffled, other times she joins the dots and makes acute observations while her mother remembers their life in extreme poverty. There are hints to things in the past which are never confirmed, this is a book as much about what is not said as about what is. In revisiting her childhood, trying, and mostly failing, to get her mother to talk about it, Lucy learns that although your upbringing shapes who you are, that shaping continues throughout your life.

I thought about this book for days afterwards.

Click here for Elizabeth Strout’s website.

If you like ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’, try these other short novels:-
‘Ethan Frome’ by Edith Wharton
‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell
‘The Great Gatsby’ by F Scott Fitzgerald

‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ by Elizabeth Strout [UK: Viking] Buy now

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Great Opening Paragraph 43… ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ #amwriting #FirstPara

Thomas Pynchon“One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed, executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. Oedipa stood in the living-room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work. She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlán whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby, a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faces west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them. Was that how he’d died, she wondered, among dreams, crushed by the only icon in the house? That only made her laugh, out loud and helpless: You’re so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which knew.”
‘The Crying of Lot 49’ by Thomas Pynchon

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
‘The English Patient’ by Michael Ondaatje
‘The Secret Agent’ by Joseph Conrad
‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’ by Haruki Murakami

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Great Opening Paragraph 41… ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ #amwriting #FirstPara

Carson McCullers“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless grey sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gently, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed.”
‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ by Carson McCullers 

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’ by Anne Tyler
‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’ by Clare Morrall
‘Sacred Hearts’ by Sarah Dunant

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