Man Booker Shortlist

Although I have only read two books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist, I would read them again.  Both were books I started to listen to on audible and then switched by the first one hundred pages to reading online, to better savor the nuances.  George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo was a complicated chorus of voices accompanying Abraham Lincoln as he fought to make peace not only with his young son’s death but also a battered nation during the Civil War.  Autumn was Ali Smith’s gentle nod to the battering of circumstances (Brexit) and the relationship of time to life. Both books have a lot to say about personal perspective and national angst.  Both are award winning novels and well deserve to be on the shortlist.

The others on the list now have my attention; Sewall Chan quickly summarized each for the New York Times:

  • Paul Auster’s “4 3 2 1” – the story of a young American, Ferguson, across much of the 20th century, in four different versions. Events like the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement “reverberate around and through what’s happening in Ferguson’s life.”
  • Fridlund’s debut novel, “History of Wolves” about a wild adolescent, Linda, who lives on a commune in the Midwest and is changed by the arrival of a young family.
  • Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West,” about a couple uprooted by turmoil, in an unnamed city swollen by the arrival of refugees.
  • Fiona Mozley’sdebut novel, “Elmut,” about an English child’s struggle to survive and his memories of Daddy, a moody, bare-knuckle fighter who defies rural social norms.

Fridlund’s story catches my interest, but I’m not sure I will read the others.  Have you?

Review:    Lincoln in the Bardo

 

 

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The Burning Girl

Messud_final_front.indd   In her interview of Claire Messud for the New York Times, Ruth Franklin identified the writer as the “one of the foremost chroniclers of women’s hidden appetites.”  Just as in her slow building tale of shocking exposure in The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud uses her character’s yearning as a focal point,  and turns tedium into introspective terror in The Burning Girl.

This story involves the relationship between two girls – best friends as they are growing up – until they are not.  In the interview Messud mentions her inspiration for her premise, the unraveling of a friendship not long after her family moved from Toronto to Sydney.  “I’m not talking to you,” a close friend told her one day.  “Why?” Messud asked.  “You know why,” the girl replied.

In the novel, the narrator, Julia, notes “My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point.”  It happened to me, and I saw it happen to one of my daughters.  Messud told the interviewer she viewed “the ending of a friendship as a universal rite of passage,” and she effectively uses the disconnect between Julia and Cassie in her novel.

More than the estrangement of the two friends is Messud’s handling of their differences that eventually causes them to see each other differently.  “As if I’d been holding an apple and thinking it was a tennis ball…”  As young girls, Julia and Cassie play and have adventures.  By middle school, Julia is clearly destined for a better life.  Her grades are better, she is tapped for the speech team, her parents send her to drama camp in the summer.  Cassie, whose single parent works late hours as a hospice nurse, finds make-up and boyfriends, works summer jobs, and is disinterested in making the grade in school.  When her mother finds a boyfriend who moves into their house, her life changes dramatically.

Their friendship suffers and Cassie finds a new best friend.  Her unhappy home life leads her to look for her real father, only a name to her, declared dead by her mother.  She finds his name on the internet and decides to confront him – another piece from Messud’s real life.  Messud cites a friend who did just that with dire consequences.  When Cassie disappears, Julia knows where to find her when she remembers their old childhood secret haunts, but the discovery is not welcomed.

Just as in the ending of The Woman Upstairs, the ending of The Burning Girl leaves the reader with more to think about than a tidy conclusion.  Julia’s life seems to be on a trajectory for success, but Cassie’s life is in question.  What will happen to her?  Will she continue to want more for her life or be beaten down by circumstances? In her interview, Messud says her work offers space for women to be “appetitive,” to love inappropriately, to be ambitious, to simply want more…”sometimes…they manage to find ways to get what they want.”

In the interview Messud cites her favorite British fairy tale – “Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep.”  In the story, Elsie saves the day by skipping with a magic rope – as an old woman, she’s still skipping.  Maybe Cassie will have that – maybe we’ll all have that magic – to keep skipping, no matter what bumps come along in life…and for young girls – that burning fire in the belly to want more.

Review:  The Woman Upstairs

Interview with Claire Messud

 

 

Short Stories

thumbnail_IMG_4133    After listening to Lauren Groff read her short story “Dogs Go Wolf” in the New Yorker about two little girls, ages four and seven, left behind on a deserted island, I thought about why I preferred novels to short stories.  In Groff’s voice, the little girls came alive, their trials of fear and hunger seemed more acute than if I had read about it.  Their misery continues through a half hour – or six pages in the New Yorker – getting more and more horrible, until they eventually fall into a stupor – “two little girls made of air.”  To distract from the horror, Groff inserts a promise of their future – one becoming a lawyer, the other married – before returning to the blazing sun and the little wolves they’ve become.   By the end of the story, they are rescued, but the gap in their lives seems hollow in the short description of the incident on the island that made them whoever they became.   Perhaps Groff will write more in a novel.  I’d like to know more about these brave souls.

Short stories offer a quick glimpse into a moment of the characters’ lives.  Edith Pearlman and Jane Gardam have successfully navigated the difficulty of the short – both offering soundbites worth remembering.  I am looking forward to reading Penelope Lively’s collection in “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.”  When I write, I prefer the short story, as difficult as it may be to condense, to spending years with the characters of a novel – but maybe that will change.

For now, the short story is a quick diversion, and when well-written, has a lot to offer, but I still prefer immersing myself in the novel.  Claire Messud’s two little girls in “The Burning Girl” have me mesmerized right now, and I am glad to have them with me for longer than a short.

Do you have a preference?  short story or novel?

To hear Groff’s story – listen to the podcast here

Reviews of Other Books by Groff:

Cocoa Beach

Unknown   Despite Beatriz Williams’ complicated plots with murder, deceit, and harrowing escapes, she always delivers a happy ending, and Cocoa Beach is no exception.  With American volunteers in London during World War I, wealthy aristocrats in Cornwall, and rumrunners at a posh plantation in Florida during the Prohibition, the varied settings add to the historical context of a fast-paced melodrama of romance and intrigue.

Virginia Fortesque, young American volunteer ambulance driver, meets Simon Fitzwilliam, the tall dashing British doctor, and, of course, they fall in love as she drives him across the battlefields.  Their lives are complicated by their families.  She has a wealthy father who has been imprisoned for murdering her mother; he has a wife and son, with a huge debt attached to the ancestral home.

When the war ends, he divorces his wife, marries Virginia, and leaves to make his fortune at the downtrodden family investment in Cocoa Beach, Florida, while she returns to her family in New York.  When he dies suddenly, she and their two year old daughter travel to Florida to settle the estate.  And so the real story begins.

Williams cleverly changes tacks frequently, as she alternates between the war years and the present in 1922.  No one is who they seem, and the intrigue hardens into murder for greed, with lies about everything.  The reader is never sure who is telling the truth until the end.

Virginia remains the only character who is decent and true, the victim of the villains surrounding her.  If you read Williams’ A Certain Age, you may remember her as a minor character whose father is accused of killing his wife, Virginia’s mother.  Williams fleshes out her story in Cocoa Beach, with her usual successful combination of romance, mystery and murder, adding a dash of prohibition and infidelity, and the compelling formula of distracting foils and dangerous tension.

Fun and compelling – Cocoa Beach is a great beach read.

Review: A Certain Age

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

225x225bb     In telling the story of a small community overrun by gossip, prejudice, and secrets, Joanna Cannon humorously reveals the dangers of obstinate righteousness through the voices of two ten year old girls.  In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a series of mishaps and strange occurrences threaten to upset the quiet row of British country houses in a small neighborhood – small enough that every knows every one else’s business, and if they don’t, they are willing to create their own versions of reality.

The driving focus of the story is Mrs. Cleasy’ s sudden disappearance.  As the search for her continues throughout the story, Cannon introduces a series of related incidents as possible clues to the mystery through the voice of ten year old Grace.  Mrs. Cleasy’s disappearance could be simply escape from her life or something more sinister.  The neighbors fear she may have uncovered a secret that could expose their past shameful action.  Ignorant of the adults’ trepidation,  Grace, a resourceful 10-year-old convinces herself and her loyal friend, Tilly, that everything might go back to normal if only they can find God.

Posing as Brownies seeking badges, Grace and her friend Tilly, pursue their own investigation, and as they interview each neighbor they slowly uncover the neighborhood’s secret – an insidious plot against one resident that happened nine years earlier.

The title refers to a biblical verse:

“…He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire…”

The trouble, Grace discovers as she interviews her neighbors,  is deciding who are the goats and who are the sheep.  Under the guise of a quiet existence, each has a secret misery:  Dorothy, bullied by her husband, Eric; Brian, who cannot escape his overbearing mother; John Creasy, husband of the missing woman, who fears his wife has discovered what he has done. Each character is concealing a secret, but not necessarily the one you suspect.  In addition, two unexplained scandals lurk in the air – a kidnapped baby and a house fire – as well as the neighbors anxiety and anger over two who do not fit into their expectations – an Indian family newly moved in and a bachelor with long hair who likes to take photographs.

With so many diversions, the story may seem overwhelming.  Cannon’s wry humor, however, manages to expose human frailty while cautioning the reader to beware of making assumptions.  Her diversion into a creosote stain on a drainpipe that looks like Jesus is hilarious, with the neighbors keeping watch and fighting over the placement of lawn chairs to keep vigil.   In her review for the New York Times last year, Samantha Hunt noted:

Jesus’ manifestation births a driveway vigil, a Chautauqua of folding chairs and a struggle. Who sits closest to Jesus? This caldron of neighbors grows hot. At what temperature will community boil over into mob violence? Fear is contagious in small spaces… What belongs where? Who owns what? And what hollow treats will be developed to distract us from the real crimes committed in the name of safety?

Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist, privy to many secret fears; she has said her book was inspired by her patients and by the story of Christopher Jefferies,  the retired teacher and landlord who was falsely implicated in the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol in 2010, and later won libel damages for the way he was portrayed in some newspapers.

In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Cannon may be sharing her insights about inner miseries and hypocrisies,  and their manifestations on others – and perhaps, cautioning that we may not know our neighbors as well as we think.

Although a friend recommended this book a year ago, I returned my library copy unread – just could not get to it.  I was reminded of it recently from an interview on By the Book, and glad I read it – a book full of humor and profound moments worth thinking about and discussing.

Cannon has another book due to be published in January – Three Things About Elsie.  This time I’ve preordered it.