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Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be The Place

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Hopefully it is.

Publisher: Tinder Press (Headline)
Pages: 483
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-755-35880-9
First Published: 17th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 13th September 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Daniel is outside; across the fields he spots a man who may have a camera. When he tells his wife she grabs a gun. Living in the middle of nowhere in Ireland, the American is generally used to his wife’s reactions, born as they are from her past. In addition to this – even though it’s a particularly compelling aspect of his life story – there is more, the children back in America and the father he doesn’t want to see.

This Must Be The Place is a novel of multiple subplots and narrators which stretches from the 1980s to the 2010s with a brief trip to the 1940s. An effective family saga in one book, it’s more about the journey of the people and their relationships than any destination.

This book is the sort that will either enthrall you or frustrate you – it’s incredibly literary, the artistry itself the mainstay rather than the content. Daniel, one of the many characters, has built his career on his love of linguistics, and to an extent O’Farrell herself has adopted the study of the subject to use in this book. A lot of the time, the writing is poetry in prose; O’Farrell uses language both for its art and for its characters, with Daniel, the only first-person narrator, the one through which most of her passion has been funneled. You know he’s American, this Daniel who’s in Donegal, Ireland, before he tells you, his dialect matching his home country, the first hint of the linguistics to come.

O’Farrell’s play with linguistics extends to her chapter headings – phrases taken from the main body of the chapter in question; the book’s title is also in the text, as a line of dialogue. It’s an interesting feature because whilst the phrases chosen tend to provide you with a hint of what’s to come, they aren’t always ‘clever’, so to speak, O’Farrell showing a range of concepts that can be used to both similar and differing results. (One chapter is but a series of photos and captions, a fictional auction catalog.) All do, however, link back to the idea of poetry, of meaning in the simplest of phrases. And, most often, you can spot the effort made in each line. It’s all rather stunning.

The characters themselves, away from the artistry, are well written and developed. Development is limited in the traditional sense due to the plethora of people involved: Daniel and the children, and Claudette, his wife, are developed both over the course of the years written about and those before the book begun; the other characters mostly in terms of what came before. None of the adults are particularly nice. The children are pretty great, especially given the variety of poor hands their lives and parents have shown them. But the adults… whilst O’Farrell has indeed created real, believable people, and whilst they have some good traits, they’re difficult to read about, which is another reason this book is about the experience rather than anything else.

To look at the possibility for frustration, then: likely, if you haven’t read the book, are reading this (and have potentially read the views of others), and have weighed up the content in terms of your own interests, you’ll probably have a good idea by this point whether you’ll like it or not. The plot is pretty well formed and, for the number of characters, very detailed, but you do have to piece it all together yourself, and as much as it’s arty is also just a literary device. And sometimes, having to piece it together lessens the impact certain aspects may have. To be sure, not all of them – some of them have a lot of impact regardless of how they’ve been woven through the pages, brief moments that take up mere lines being perhaps what you’ll remember most – but a lot will lose their impact. Chronological order would’ve been better.

On that note of impacts that do work regardless, they relate to up-to-the-minute occurrences. Agency and consent in the medical sphere; gun violence in American cities, written in a way that shows both how awful it is and how usual, now, an occurrence. Then there is the domestic sphere, the family saga aspect evident in the theme of children: conversations and concepts over having them, the effects of the past – things before they were born – on those children, and various parental issues and rights.

There are also a few extra characters that dilute the plot a bit, some familial – presumably included for more background and to show how problems can continue in families – and one in particular that seems to have no bearing on anything else, a person used to show Daniel in a different way where it might have been best to make the chapter another of his first-persons. You also end the book with questions that aren’t resolved, some whole points on their own, others minor details that would nevertheless have rounded it all off further. And for all the characters, one or two aren’t included that may have better explained those that are included.

So, no, not really escapist. Not your usual idea of reading for escape, for fun – the fun is under that more studious, literary, definition.

    Anyway, the older, longer, sluggish Marithe had looked up at the stars [decorative, on the ceiling] and asked her mother, who was sitting in the char opposite, whether it would come back, this sense of being inside your life, not outside it?
    Claudette had put down her book and thought for a moment. And then she said: probably not, my darling girl, because what you’re describing comes of growing up but you get something else instead. You get wisdom, you get experience. Which could be seen as a compensation, could it not?
Marithe felt those tears prickling at her eyelids now. To never feel that again, that idea of yourself as one unified being, not two or three splintered selves who observed and commented on each other. To never be that person again.
    For Calvin, she feels a simultaneous jealousy and pity. He sill has it, that wholeness, that verve. There he s, on the trampoline, completely on the trampoline, not worrying about anything, not thinking, but now what? Or: what if? Pity, because she knows now he’ll g through it. He’ll have to lose several skins; he’ll wake up one day wearing new, invisible glasses (p.456).

This Must Be The Place is a time investment – a long novel, one needing your attention. In terms of its genre, over all the payoff is worth it (certainly I enjoyed it a lot) but it’s not without its problems.

 
Michelle Obama – Becoming

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The journey to the White House.

Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Pages: 421
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-33414-0
First Published: 13th November 2018
Date Reviewed: 16th July 2019
Rating: 4/5

Michelle Obama, previous First Lady of the United States, was born on the South Side of Chicago to working class parents. Her family strove to ensure she and her brother had all they needed to ‘launch’ successfully. Michelle went on to study law at the prestigious Princeton University, and then started work at a law firm. Her path in life was altered by the arrival of a socially-conscious and driven, yet very casual, intern.

In Becoming, the lengthy and detailed autobiography, Obama (from now on referred by her first name) tells us her story from birth to the end of Barack’s presidency. A fairly honest account (understandably limited), the book provides a lot of information about the workings of the presidential office, and a well-written and considered critique of American society, mostly in the context of childhood and education.

Becoming is split into three parts – Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More, with the rough alignment of life stages you would expect. Several pages of photographs are slotted into the middle and, at least in the hardback edition, more photos line the inside of the front and back.

The first section has a fair amount going for it in terms of preference due to the relative lack of politics involved in a person telling the story of their childhood, and the fact that Michelle is able to spend more time on the subjects she most wants to discuss in the way she wants to discuss them. It is where Michelle has the time to talk about the make-up and complexity of American society, Chicago in particular, her experience as a black girl and later teenager in a working class area of a big city, together with the more general experience as a person in that time (1960s) informing the text; Michelle shares vast insights about issues that remain to this day, issues that have naturally had a knock-on effect on the decisions she made in terms of the creation of First Lady sociopolitical campaigns. (First Lady is not considered a job but does come with sociopolitical requirements.)

During the first section, Michelle talks about the way her neighbourhood, and by extension her school, was composed of a racially diverse group of people, and how the mass migration of the white population away from the area during her elementary (primary) school years had a huge effect on the lives of those remaining. The subject is one of the forerunners of Michelle’s book-long exploration of the issues children from less advantaged backgrounds have to deal with in the education sector. It’s an excellent study wherein the author situates her thoughts on the side of the kids:

If you’d had a head start at home, you were rewarded for it at school, deemed “bright” or “gifted,” which in turn only compounded your confidence. The advantages aggregated quickly (p.18).

Now that I’m an adult, I realize that kids know at a very young age when they’re being devalued, when adults aren’t invested enough to help them learn. Their anger over it can manifest itself as unruliness. It’s hardly their fault. They aren’t “bad kids.” They’re just trying to survive bad circumstances (p.22).

Michelle’s look at life in the suburbs of Chicago includes her father, who worked in the boiler rooms at a factory, her mother, who kept the home and also found work in a bank, her grandfather who for reasons related to his social position distrusted the medical profession, and her great aunt whose house the family lived in and who taught Michelle to play the piano. There are a couple of mentions of Michelle’s great-great-grandfather, necessarily less detailed. He was a slave.

When it comes to Barack, who enters in the second section, there is a surprising amount of honesty. Michelle details his personality, particularly in the social and domestic sphere where his drive for a better local and then national community is often on the same page as his lack of attention regarding household duties. So honest in the household area of life it is, in fact, that it goes almost too far to where it feels as though Michelle’s words are there to persuade you into thinking the couple were (and are) not well suited enough, which surely was not the intention. Thankfully, it comes to an end before the end of the section and the narrative as a whole remains relatively unaffected. Perhaps it needed to be better written. Certainly with three pairs of eyes continually on the manuscript (Michelle acknowledges the contributions of another writer and her speech writer) it would have helped the book in general if various repetitions had been omitted.

The final section, where the Obamas look at the possibility of the White House, moves back towards the success of the first half. It is here where all the thoughts about children’s education and lifestyles come full circle as Michelle moves into a position that allows her much more freedom in regards to doing what she wanted in her previous roles (the second section had discussed her early work for lawyers and charitable organisations).

Michelle was coming into the idea of growing your own food and teaching children just as a number of researchers were starting to promote the idea. Robin Shulman, whose book, Eat The City, a look at the quiet revolution in New York high-density housing areas where residents used any patches of unused land to grow vegetables, cited Michelle’s then-new campaigns in the afterword to her book. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published a little after the garden was started, also had favourable words to say (though they were in an article rather than his book).

The main thread of the final section however, is of course that of Barack’s presidency. The information included will for many people be a culture shock, as the family are unable to open any windows, go outside or even simply go to another part of the building without 30 minutes debate from security; a date night involves shutting down access to all the streets on the journey and checking anyone who is unfortunate enough to have booked their table for a time after the Obamas got there. In many ways, non-American readers will gain a lot more from this section than Americans.

Michelle’s stories include those that show why some people wouldn’t have been happy with Barack leading their country – the book continues in its honesty and this relative objectivity is a good thing. She is honest and harsh in her thoughts of the man who took over, but that’s to be expected; it also explains her choices at the inauguration where her lack of smiles was noted.

A big shining light of the final section is the family as a whole; with the children now old enough to understand the basics, and Michelle’s mother living in the White House, the parts that focus on the individual members are, for all their briefness (for privacy’s sake), often the best parts of any one chapter. Michelle’s mother remained relatively free to come and go and the two girls’ conduct and answers to various questions they receive show a level of maturity that’s compelling.

As much as Becoming is lengthy, it’s also a pity when it comes to an end; you will find yourself investing a lot of different mental resources in this book. It could definitely have done with more editing. It could also have done with more of what’s only touched on, but given the people involved, this is one of those few occasions where that can’t be called an active drawback. Becoming isn’t perfect but the subjects it looks at in detail, namely those more unique to Michelle than to Barack and the rest of his team, are fascinating. The social history, the social present, and Michelle’s chosen angle for her commentaries, are compelling. There is plenty here to learn and be inspired by and more than a few stories you’re going to want to jot down and remember.

I received this book for review.

 
Birgit Vanderbeke – You Would Have Missed Me

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They certainly might have.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 114
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-90867-052-6
First Published: 2016; 15th June 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Ich freue mich, dass ich geboren bin (I am glad, that I was born)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Birthday number 7; a kitten is still wanted but won’t be coming, mother still brings up her wealthy ex-fiancé, and father remains emotionally distant. As does mother. As the days move on our young narrator talks about her life as a new resident of West Germany where life is plentiful but, for her, still troubled. She misses family friends, struggles to understand house rules, and would like it if her mother let her have a drink more than twice a day.

You Would Have Missed Me is a novella written in the style of a stream of consciousness. A semi-autobiographical work, the book shows the realities of everyday life in 1960s Germany (both sides), and the further realities of life for a child whose parents could be a lot better.

The narrator works through her past, wrapping memories back around every so often, showing the impact of a life of neglect on the psyche of a child. The affect of this neglect, and outright abuse – both emotional and physical – causes problems for the girl who isn’t yet fully able to understand what is going on; she has a fair idea, but there is a lot more for the reader to pick up from the subtext of what Vanderbeke is saying. The abuse is accounted for very slowly, dripping through the narrative.

The differences between East and West Germany are shown often, mostly as items and social mores in the background. In the context of the narrator’s childhood life, the particulars are obviously more noticeable than the general, political, aspect, but there are moments when these are covered enough to clue you in to the wider social contexts. Sometimes the parents’ insults can seem to meld with the standards of living – it’s worth having a quick read up on the intricacies of life in Cold War Germany if it’s not a topic you know much about.

Between these strands, created by them, is the narrator’s fantasy of travel, escaping from everything that has happened in her life to somewhere better, if only for a moment. A snow globe, a gift from a friend in the East who knew a lot about the world, and their later gift of a book she had been wanting to read, H G Wells’ The Time Machine, are key.

The age-appropriate prose has been translated by Jamie Bulloch, who has worked on a good few other Peirene Press publications. Bulloch has opted for a mix of general comprehension and word-for-word; the book both seeming to echo what is surely the original language whilst translating into the English emotional dialect, if you will, the few things that would not work so well, the end result a careful, wonderful, rendering.

As a slice-of-life story that nevertheless recounts a lot of details on a specific few themes, You Would Have Missed Me is very character-driven, almost topic-driven, and whilst it does have an ending, there is a fair amount left for you to decide; the narrator’s story is only on year 7, and so there is plenty of scope to decide the likelihood of the various directions her life could go in regards to the personality she presents you, and how much her fantasies of better places are a part of it (looking at the book as a work of fiction). This is a book about the impact of the Cold War on the general public, and of an upbringing on the rest of someone’s life. It’s difficult to read, it’s sometimes shocking, but it’s a good dose of reality, history, and things that still today need improvement.

I received this book for review.

 
Nicola Cornick – The Woman In The Lake

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Too beautiful to lose. Too dark to keep.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 324
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45694-5
First Published: 26th February 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2019
Rating: 4/5

Lady Isabella Gerald would like her husband dead. Lord Gerald is a bully, an adulterer, and involved in shady practices; and he is often violent towards her. Meanwhile Isabella’s maid, Constance, isn’t as silly and sweet as Isabella thinks she is – in fact Constance is spying on her Lady for her Lord. One day, Isabella declines to wear the new dress her husband has bought her; after raping her he tells Constance to destroy the dress. But Constance doesn’t destroy it, although its presence seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth. Centuries later, young Fen Brightwell visits Lydiard House, but upon walking into one of the rooms she finds herself alone; there’s an angry man in the next room, who is dressed in historic clothes and screaming at her to take away the dress that is lying there. She does so, and keeps it. Years later, after an abusive marriage and the death of the grandmother she lived with, the dress comes back into her life, together with thoughts and propensities she thought she’d left behind.

The Woman In The Lake is an appropriately fast-paced novel full of secrets and crime. Set in two time periods – the 1760s and the present day – it doesn’t use time travel/slip to the same extent as Cornick’s previous two dual-plot novels, instead spending time on both eras equally, the extra time afforded by the relative lack of travel spent on a stunning few ideas that slowly become more complex and exciting.

The story is good but it is specifically Cornick’s construction and execution of the various elements that makes this book what it is. The novel is like a whodunnit doubled, or even tripled; the amount of thought and planning that’s gone into it is obvious and it is as much this easy-to-see display of composition as the actual effect of it that makes the reading experience so vibrant.

This remains true even on those occasions wherein secrets and answers are predictable (sometimes they’re not hidden from you at all). The predictable nature of a fair number of plot and character elements may seem at first a drawback; but it’s not. Cornick has populated her novel with a fairly standard number of main and secondary characters but because she’s brought the use of secrets to them all – some more than others, of course – those secrets that are predictable are often of the sort that you need to know to be able to work out others. And even if you do work out more secrets than you may have been expected to, you’ve still got that complexity of the writing itself to enjoy.

The use of history is brilliant, and where it turns to historical fantasy it’s well thought out. You may need to suspend a bit of belief but that is part and parcel – if you’re happy reading a book where someone slips back in time, you’re going to be okay with the rest of it.

So there is a lot about the process to like about this book, and it could well be the best part, but the rest is right up there. The plot is paramount in general; the characters each in their turn bring the focus to their small section of the world, their individual lives within the whole. Cornick uses some social history here, particularly the alcohol smuggling that went on in Swindon, and then there’s Lydiard House and the parkland; in a break from her work in this genre so far, she populates her locales with fictional characters for both eras, using Lydiard Park and its past inhabitants for inspiration and spinning her own story from there. (A word about Lydiard House: Cornick’s history about the house as its own entity is based in facts – the council owns it now and it’s open to visitors. The council uses the upper floor for meeting rooms and so forth, so the bedroom as a museum piece is downstairs, a recent creation, as are other rooms that may have been upstairs; this is to say that if Fen’s visit confuses you at all, this is the reason. I wrote about the House and Park last year, including photos.)

The characters are good, but considering everything discussed so far, you may not find in them much to take away; they do each propose things to consider and the historical people provide food for historical thought but it is those ‘things’ that will likely stand out to you most, the characters interesting enough but more of a vehicle for the plot. No one is particularly winsome, however this is part of the point of the narratives. The historical characters are mostly loathsome, even those who have been treated badly aren’t very nice, and the present-day characters have many flaws to their traits; Cornick’s tale looks beyond perfections and dreamy heroes, in fact you may not be one hundred percent sure about any of the relationships or friendships. It’s a good reflection of reality and often also a good reflection of humanity in general. (The narrative is written from four points of view as a whole, with three taking the majority of the time.)

Domestic abuse is an important thread in both of the narrative eras with different stories behind them, the differences in society weaving into them in their own ways. In conjunction with this, Fen’s life includes a lot of child neglect, which combines with her married past. Cornick looks at Fen’s experiences as a fact-of-the-matter – Fen’s been hurt, and still is hurt, but it’s been happening for so long that emotions are largely off the table. It’s a hard-hitting tale that Cornick is careful not to tie up too neatly – some people never change.

The Woman In The Lake is a spooky book, a somewhat Gothic tale, that might just keep you up a bit longer than you’d thought, the story taking twists you may not have seen coming in terms of the way the characters deal with them, and Cornick being unapologetic in her writing of it. This is a solid work of fiction, factual when needed and when it works with the fantasy, and fantastical where it fits. It looks a various concepts with care and consideration. But most of all, it’s simply chock full of good literary action.

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Orlando Ortega-Medina – The Death Of Baseball

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‘Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring’ — Marilyn Monroe.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 452
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-999-58735-2
First Published: 21st May 2019 (ebook); 21st June 2019
Date Reviewed: 16th May 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Japanese American Clyde lives with his caring mother and highly abuse father; when his father causes him to kill his cat, the effect of continued causes Clyde to change. At the same time, Clyde comes to discover the films of Marilyn Monroe, who died the night he was born – this, he believes, is no coincidence. Not far away, Jewish Raphael fights with himself and over the rules of others; he’s a passionate believer in his faith but a problem for his family. He’s been told he’s special, chosen.

The Death Of Baseball is an epic novel about the psyches of two young men in 1970s America, one who believes he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe, and the other, a kleptomaniac with what appears to be an anti-social disorder, both accidentally and on purpose destroying what he holds dear. The story chronicles their early years and eventual meeting, ending in a fast-paced and fitting conclusion.

Ortega-Medina has a particular handle on storytelling that’s a dream to experience; as we saw in his debut, Jerusalem Ablaze – a collection of stunning short stories in which on one the defining stylistic features was that short stories need not end with a moral – his take on writing draws you in and keeps you reading. And, whilst you of course want to be tempted by the story, you don’t actually need to actively like it to enjoy the book. In short, this author could write a story about paint drying and it’d be one of the most engrossing and compelling things you’d ever read.

So this has carried over into his first novel. The story is well executed, and suitably stretched out over a number of years and locations that aid your continued interest when the characters’ ethics go downhill (more on them in a bit). Provided the genre of psychological thriller, the things to get you thinking are varied and clever. The first of these you encounter is Clyde’s reaction to the death of his cat, an accident caused by his terror of his father’s violence; Clyde’s mother suggests a method to put the cat out of his mind and the written ‘version’ of this that Ortega-Medina adopts brings to the fore the devastation of abuse on a child and shows the difficulties present in trying to deal with such a thing at such a young age. If you love animals and/or have recently experienced the death of a pet you may find it hard to read, but the perseverance pays off; read it slowly, you get through it, and the pain you may feel only goes to display further what the author is communicating.

Ortega-Medina includes a lot of abuse – this book shows how abuse can lead to abuse, or to mental issues that often get seen solely as part of the individual rather than also in the context of the cycle. The writer looks at both child and adult; focusing on the effects on the child he nevertheless spends a moment here and there on the abuser, not to explain away problems but to show the beginnings in terms of facts. It affects Clyde’s maturity and sense of person but the writer is careful not to explain away the thriller element of the story, suggesting also places that aren’t impacted by childhood. Raphael’s treatment is a lot more subtle, his own awful deeds blurring the neglect from his family.

The characters are incredibly well written. Clyde is somewhere just left of the middle in terms of ‘goodness’, a person who is either misguided (and delusional) or real (Marilyn gets a word in at the start). Raphael is towards the anti-hero end of the scale, a troublemaker of a particular persuasion who often says he is sorry but isn’t, a person fairly akin to Alex of A Clockwork Orange, who you go back and forth between hoping it’s just a phenomenally bad case of understanding, and a true, intentional, lack of care. A lot of the book deals with the question of redemption, whether Raphael will ask for it and act appropriately, and how many times he might be afforded a chance.

This book has a strong LGBT thread running through it – the characters are gay. The book includes a lot about religion in it – Judaism – however sexuality isn’t discussed in this light; they are two separate themes of equal importance. It’s worth noting, particularly given the label, that the acronym does not extend to transgender issues – Clyde is not trans; his thought as to an operation, which is in place for a short while, is due to his belief that he is Monroe – he wants to look like her rather than become a woman for the gender itself. (I think this important to note in case you’re wanting to read the book due to what may appear to be the inclusion of trans issues – this book isn’t it.)

In looking at Judaism from the perspective of a person who deems themselves devout we read about the faith, and in travelling to Israel learn a bit about the situation there (the perspective is mostly that of Raphael’s family who are heavily involved in the military). Mostly the stay in Israel is about the place itself, the way it is regarded by various peoples (Raphael meets a born-again Christian who seems completely indifferent to the troubles), and the journey to different areas within the country draws out the epic feel of the book.

The ending, whilst quick, is nevertheless a little drawn-out – partly because by this time you have completely given up hope over certain things. The conclusion isn’t rewarding in the ‘usual’ way, perhaps in deference to the fact that by that point, it would be difficult to make it such. The Death Of Baseball, then, is a book in which the reading experience is everything – it’s hard to relate to the characters, the story itself is often difficult. Whilst the ending is a metaphorical race to the finish line, an exhilarating ride to a shocking conclusion, it is the act of reading the book itself that you will miss, Ortega-Medina’s style of storytelling irresistible, compelling. The book is akin to a road trip, where the time spent travelling, the progression of the trip, is what you take away with you, and the easiness of the reading alongside a complexity that is hard to define means you’ll miss this book for quite a while after finishing it.

(On the subject of baseball, if you don’t know about Monroe’s marriages, have a quick read before you start this book. It’s not necessary to know, per se, but it’ll add just that bit more to your reading.)

I received this book for review.

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