Book review – “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

2019-06-14 10.49.53This book has been on my to-read list for some time now, ever since it caught my eye over a year ago when it was published. I recommended it as a hot new read for Spring last year, in fact! Following in my footsteps (he must have read my blog post!) Barack Obama recommended it as one of his Summer reads last year and he is quoted on the cover as saying this is “A moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.” Notably, it also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in June.

Let me get my cards on the table straight away – I loved this book, and it completely lived up to the hype it has had. It is such an interesting topic for a novel and yet one in which very little actually ‘happens’. It is a tender account of a relationship and the effect that one single event has upon them. It does not once get sentimental, does not set out actively to campaign about the injustice of the one event, and does not take sides. It just lays everything bare for the reader to draw their own conclusions. It will break your heart and fill you with hope at the same time.

Roy and Celestial are a young African-American couple, living in Atlanta, Georgia and their lives are on the up. They come from rather different backgrounds: Celestial is the daughter of a teacher and an academic, and is hoping to forge a career as an artist. Roy is the only son of Olive and Big Roy (who is not his biological father), decidedly more blue-collar but with strong values, pride, and deep Christian faith. They met through a mutual friend, Andre, who has lived next door to Celestial’s parents since they were children. Roy and Celestial are very much in love, but it is still early days in their marriage and they have their ups and downs.

They visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend and decide to stay in a motel; Olive has a slight suspicion about her daughter-in-law’s commitment to her son and it is more comfortable for both women if the couple do not stay in the family home. Roy and Celestial have an argument and Roy storms out of their motel room. He meets with a white woman whilst fetching ice and the two get talking. He tells her about the argument with his wife. Later that night, the police storm Roy and Celestial’s room whilst they are sleeping and arrest Roy on suspicion of rape of the woman he had chatted with earlier in the evening. At the trial, the woman testifies with certainty against Roy and it is quite apparent that Roy has little chance of escaping a guilty verdict, even though his innocence is clear to all who know him. Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison.

The early chapters set the scene, switching between first person accounts by Roy and Celestial of their backgrounds, how they met and their recollections of the fateful night. The following chapters are an exchange of letters between the couple whilst Roy is in jail. Although Celestial visits him every month from Atlanta, the letters are an important way for them to keep their love alive. Just a couple of years into Roy’s sentence, however (and only 80 pages into the book), Celestial tells Roy that she can no longer go on being his wife, that they have spent longer apart than they were together, and that the situation is intolerable for her. We learn that Celestial was pregnant at the time of Roy’s trial but that they decided she should have an abortion as neither wanted their child to grow up with its father in prison. It is a metaphor for the doomed future of their marriage. Their correspondence ceases, and the remaining letters in this section are between Roy and his lawyer, Robert Banks, a family friend of Celestial’s parents, both about Roy’s appeal, which seems futile at this stage, and the status of his marriage.

This might seem the like the end of the thing. What we know about the couple at this stage is that Celestial is a strong-willed, independent woman who knows her own mind, and that Roy is proud, stubborn and conservative. The situation seems hopeless.

Roy spends five years in jail altogether, during which time he learns things about the status of African-Americans in the penal system he had no concept of before. He also, by chance, meets and shares a cell with his biological father, Walter. Also, Roy’s mother, Olive dies of lung cancer, never to see her son walk free. Eventually, Roy’s appeal succeeds and he is released, but he is by now broken, alone, his career in ruins. The remainder of the book is about Roy’s reunion with his old life, his hometown, Big Roy, and most importantly, with Celestial. Can their relationship be salvaged?

I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but I would just suggest that if you are looking for a romantic ending this book, thankfully, chooses not go (entirely!) down that route. It is a fine and up-close examination of the real human impact of judicial complacency, institutional racism, social prejudice and how some sectors of American society just get fewer life chances. It is also about a clash of values, between the more conservative older generation and the younger, educated, more metropolitan groups who assume there is equality.

This book is fascinating, beautiful, gripping and challenging and I recommend it highly.

If you have already read this book I would love to know your thoughts.

Follow my blog if you have enjoyed this review, and get regular updates on my posts. 

Book review – “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

This was a recent choice for my book club. It was not a title I was familiar with although I had a vague recollection about a film adaptation coming out a few years ago. It was adapted for the screen in 2008, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. I had high hopes for the book and was excited at the prospect of reading it, especially since the comments on the cover of my edition were extremely enthusiastic. I’m afraid we were all slightly disappointed. The following review contains some spoilers.

2019-06-26 20.31.04The story begins when 15 year-old Michael, off school for many months after contracting hepatitis, seeks out Hanna Schmitz, a woman who had been passing when he found himself being sick in the street and who had helped him. Once he is well again, Michael’s mother sends him off to find the mystery good Samaritan in order that he can thank her. Hanna is twenty years Michael’s senior and employed as a bus conductor, but despite the social and age gap between them, they begin a passionate affair, both parties equally consenting. One of the more intimate aspects of their relationship is that Michael reads aloud to Hanna, after sex and in the bath mainly, although never the other way around. Michael never questions Hanna’s desire to have him read to her, he just accepts it. This makes up the first part of the book and perhaps it is a testament to events that have occurred since the time of its writing that all of us (mothers of teenagers!) found the prose rather discomfiting, and not a little implausible. Hanna disappears mysteriously out of Michael’s life, leaving him heartbroken and perhaps also rather damaged.

In part two, Michael is older, now at law school, when, as part of his studies, he is sent off to observe the trials of a number of former female guards of a concentration camp who are being charged with allowing the deaths of dozens of Jews, locked in a church when it was hit by a bomb and destroyed by fire. Michael is horrified to discover that Hanna is one of those on trial. There is a detailed report of the events that Hanna is accused of writing, thereby implicating her as the main guard responsible for the atrocity, a charge she does not deny. Michael observes the trial in horror unable to come to terms with the back-story of the woman he once loved. Only at the end of the trial, does he realise Hanna’s secret, that she is illiterate (and therefore could not have written the report), and he finds himself with the dilemma of whether to intervene and tell the judge, with all the implications that would have. He elects not to, realising that Hanna confessed in order to conceal her illiteracy and for him to expose her would breach her autonomy, even if it means there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The final part of the book is about Michael’s life after the trial, his failed marriage, and his eventual decision to make contact with Hanna in prison. He sends her cassette tapes of himself reading aloud although he never includes any personal messages or letters. Eventually, he sees Hanna again, as she is about to be released at the end of her sentence, and helps to set her up with work and accommodation for when she is released. Hanna never gets out though as she hangs herself in her cell on the night before her release.

Set in the late 1950s and 1960s, the novel is said to be about Germany coming to terms with its wartime past; there is Hanna’s trial, the account of the events in which she was involved, the opportunity for the survivors of the camps to give an account of their experiences, and for the German judiciary to rightfully punish those responsible and be seen to dispense justice. On the cover of the book, the late Sir Peter Hall is quoted as saying “[This] is the German novel I have been waiting for: it objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible.” I’m afraid, I just don’t think it reaches these heights. Yes, it is quite well-written and is arguably an interesting story, though one which my fellow book club members and I found deeply uncomfortable since we saw the relationship between Michael and Hanna as borderline child sexual abuse. The fact that this is in no way acknowledged is a problem. The story for me, though, just didn’t go anywhere; I reached the end and had nothing to say, no great realisation or revelation, or even closure. I just don’t think the book really knew what it was about.

So, a disappointing read, I’m afraid and not one I can recommend. I’d quite like to see the film, to see what Director Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliot fame) made of it.

I’d love to know what you thought, if you have read it – did something different come out for you? And how are we to view works of literature written at times when societal norms, or our understanding of them, are different?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

YA book review – “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and regularly review both kids and YA books. I haven’t done a kids book review post for a while, for reasons that have been rehearsed in recent blogs, so it was a joy to pick up a YA book again and to be able to start another ‘Kids Books Week’.

The Hate U Give imgThis book is Angie Thomas’s debut novel and it caused a sensation when it was first published in the United States in February 2017. It enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim, remaining at the top of the New York Times YA best seller list for almost a year. It was made into a film which was released last Autumn. The novel came out of a short story Thomas wrote in college following the police shooting of a young black man in 2009.

The narrator is Starr Carter, a 16 year-old who lives in a poor neighbourhood of an unnamed American city, but who attends an elite private school. Her parents are not wealthy (her mother works in the health sector, her father owns a shop and has spent time in jail) but they are ambitious for their three children and determined that they should have a good education and defy the expectations of their birth. Throughout the novel Starr tells us how this presents her with some complex challenges and how she effectively has to be two different people – school Starr and ‘Garden Starr’ (the family’s neighbourhood is called Garden Heights). She is constantly torn between these two identities at an age when she is still trying to work out who she really is, and doesn’t feel she truly belongs in either place. This puts her in conflict at times with her wealthy, white boyfriend, who cannot fully empathise with her and from whom Starr keeps many of her true feelings, and indeed her father, who is angered when he discovers Starr is going out with a white boy.

Starr’s life is turned upside down when one of her friends, Kahlil, a boy she has known since kindergarten, is shot and killed by a police officer while he is giving her a lift home in his car after a party. Starr and her older brother have been drilled by their father about how to behave with the police, but non-threatening, compliant behaviour does not save Kahlil when confronted by the police officer who carries assumptions about young black males. This is the second time in her short life that Starr has seen a friend killed. As the only witness to the killing, Starr is in an impossible situation – it is her word against that of the police officer. The police officer is also a colleague of her uncle’s, so the whole family is affected and divided by the events that follow the shooting. Furthermore, the shooting raises tensions in the neighbourhood between the police and the residents, in particular the two main gangs that effectively control the area, and whose actions are presented very much as part of the problem.

The reader is carried along with Starr’s pain at the loss of the her friend, fear for the position in which she has been placed as the only witness and what this means for her family, especially in the context of the gang elements in Garden Heights, and ongoing confusion at her place in the two worlds in which she moves.

This is a profoundly moving and fascinating novel; as a reader I really felt drawn into Starr’s dilemmas – she is such a powerful narrator. On one level, the novel left me feeling despair at how easy it clearly is for young black people to become the victims of violence for which they are not responsible and how, for young black men in particular, this presents a constant threat. The author’s note at the end of the book expands on this. On another level it is a novel full of hope as the strength of the community, family bonds and Starr’s maturity and dignity shine brighter than the injustices.

The novel pulls no punches and parts of it are a tough read, but the themes are important ones for all of us to be aware of, and it is an important contribution to the Black Lives Matter  movement. Young people will I think empathise with Starr’s agonies; even though most will never have to face the terrible ordeal that she has, they will understand her teenage outlook, her anxieties and her emotions, because these are universal.

There are drug and sexual references as well as some strong language, so I would recommend this for mature 14 year olds and over. I also recommend to all adults  – it’s a cracking read.

Have you seen the film of this novel? I’m keen to know if it does justice to the book.

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

 

Book review – “Perfume” by Patrick Süskind

This book is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of the late twentieth century. It was first published in the original German in 1985, and published in English the following year. It has sold over twenty million copies worldwide and been translated into 49 different languages. It won numerous prizes, remained on the bestseller lists in Germany for many years and was universally acclaimed. Despite this, its author published only a handful of other works (Perfume was his second book) and virtually retired from literary life in the mid-1990s and now, in his seventies, lives as a recluse between Germany and France, shunning all publicity. None of this surprises me; this book has surely to be the product of a very unusual mind.

Photo 11-03-2019, 13 52 18The book begins in mid-eighteenth century Paris when the central character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born beneath a fish stall, to an indigent mother. She pauses her work briefly in order to give birth to him but then, believing or perhaps wishing him to be yet another of the many stillbirths she is said to have had, she leaves him for dead amongst the discarded fish guts. When he is discovered alive, his mother is tried for infanticide and executed. He is left to the mercy of the church, but proves a demanding and difficult baby, who, despite his unpromising start, appears to enjoy rude health. So much so that the wet-nurse hired to take care of him, returns him as he is drinking too much of her milk, making it impossible for her to take on any other infants and therefore make a living. The sense of his insatiable appetite and how he sucks the life out of those around him is established. As he goes through life, we learn that those who come into contact with him invariably meet a tragic end.

Once old enough he is apprenticed to a tanner and lives a brutal existence. He also begins to learn that he has an exceptional sense of smell – it’s almost painterly in its precision. An unscrupulous perfumer in the city, whose best days are behind him, discovers the boy’s skills and buys him from the tanner, obviously without revealing Grenouille’s gifts. The vain Baldini uses him to copy the successful scents produced by others and to create remarkable new fragrances which restore Baldini’s fame and fortune.

It is whilst working for Baldini that Grenouille commits his first murder, spontaneously and without any particular malice. He follows an enchanting smell only to find that it belongs to a young nubile girl. In its purity and its goodness, the smell is like nothing Grenouille has ever come across and he wishes to possess it. He kills the girl and remains with her body until he has absorbed every atom of her odour into himself. The curious thing about Grenouille is that despite his acute sense of smell her has no odour of his own and can pass through society virtually unnoticed. With this first murder he realises that he will never be found out.

Years pass and Grenouille moves out of Paris, including spending a number of years as a hermit, living in a mountain. He is constantly searching, for some essence of life that he lacks in himself and covets in others, for some sort of olfactory peace. He has the capacity to deceive others and, although he is cruel and unfeeling, by doing so he exposes the foolishness, vanity and greed of others. It is inevitable that Grenouille will become a prolific serial killer. His final act is a kind of aromatic climax, following which he is both spent (there is nothing left for him to do) and satisfied.

The opening chapters of the novel are an assault on the senses – eighteenth century Paris, with all its filth, poverty and physical and moral dereliction, is right there beneath your nostrils. Grenouille’s journey is narrated in the most extraordinary prose that you will ever read. The final scenes, with the baying crowd of thousands that gathers to witness his execution but which then, utterly transfixed by the hypnotic odour he has doused on himself, stolen from the bodies of his young female victims, descends into a wild orgy. It’s like the author presents a Hogarth painting on the page! (Hogarth was working at around the same time and I wonder if the author had him in mind?) It is quite extraordinary.

Perfume was one of the first books I read after graduating. I had a reading holiday after I’d finished my degree in English and this novel reminded me of my love for literature (at the time I was feeling pretty spent myself!). The other memorable book I read around this time was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and I count both among my favourite books of all time. I was nervous coming back to Perfume, concerned that I might not find it as good and therefore its memory may somehow be spoiled. I needn’t have worried – it was an even greater pleasure second time around. Parts of the book left me breathless they were so powerful.

Highly, highly recommended, whether as a first or subsequent read. Astonishing.

Have you read Perfume? If so, how do you rate it?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

 

Blogging and stats, and why we do it

traffic-1597342_1280

It is two and a half years since I started blogging. In that time I have published 216 posts. My front page says I have 1,292 followers (thank you!) and I get between six and a dozen likes per post. Whilst there is definitely a gradual increase over time, I know this is not that great, especially after this amount of time and I have often pondered why this is the case. No great revelations to come – maybe what I write just isn’t that interesting! I look enviously at the five and six figure followers other book bloggers have but, to quote Matt Haig quoting Theodore Roosevelt:

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I subscribe to a few ‘blogging bloggers’ (!) who write lots of tips about how I can increase my following, but, to be honest, I don’t read a lot of the posts exhorting me to do x or y, or find out how z increased their following to so many hundred thousand in a week. As a busy mother of three with a part-time job, I find I don’t really have the time to read all these emails, let alone follow the advice. And frankly when I want to read, I’d rather read a book!

At the end of 2018, I spent some time reflecting on what my life’s priorities are and what I want to achieve in the year ahead. I turned fifty last year so that also gave me pause for thought. There’s no point doing things in life that don’t serve you. I like blogging, I like writing about the books I read, it helps me to enjoy them more, reflecting on what I’ve learned, so that’s why I do what I do. I don’t do it for followers, or for money (sorry, blogging bloggers, I don’t want to do ads), and whilst I accept a bit of social media is important, I don’t want to do it ALL the time. I blog because I like to communicate my thoughts about books, and it’s a great thrill when someone comments and you can engage in a conversation. (It’s also made me realise that I should comment more on other people’s blogs that I enjoy.)

So, forget the stats, ignore the number of likes, self-worth should not be dependent on that. In 2019 I’m going to do what I enjoy and enjoy what I do!

Do your blogging stats ever get you down? What do you do to try and increase your reach?

I would love it if you could follow me!

 

 

Book review: “The Children Act” by Ian McEwan

I haven’t read that many books by Ian McEwan – about four I think, not as many as I would like. Each time I read one, I am so overwhelmed by the quality of the work, the writing, the ideas behind each novel, that I wonder why on earth I haven’t read every single thing he’s written, especially as most of them aren’t terribly long. I’ve just finished The Children Act which was my book club’s choice for January. I read it in just a couple of days; the story was not only utterly compelling, but the prose was a joy. McEwan’s easy brilliance just draws you in and I found it hard to put down – one of those books you just have to pick up while you wait for the kettle to boil, just to enjoy the next couple of paragraphs. I felt similarly about On Chesil Beach which I read in 2017, but I’d go so far as to say this book is even better.

The central character is Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in the Family law division. She is considered brilliant at her job. She deals with both high-profile celebrity divorces, as well as complex and difficult cases. Not just difficult, but the kinds of cases that most of us would find virtually impossible to adjudicate, such as one particularly challenging case we are told about of two conjoined twin babies. Left together, both would eventually die, but separation would mean doctors could save the stronger of the two, but with the certain and immediate death of the weaker one. In essence, killing one baby to save the other. Fiona reaches conclusions on these kinds of impossible moral dilemmas.

Fiona is 60 and married to Jack, an academic. They have no children, but plenty of nieces, nephews and god-children. They seem settled in their comfortable, affluent, London life until, on the eve of a difficult case, Jack announces that he is finding their marriage sexually unsatisfying and would like to go and have a final fling while he still has it in him. Fiona is horrified and they argue bitterly. The evening ends with Jack leaving the flat, to go off to the young woman he plans to have an affair with, Fiona presumes.

The case over which Fiona is about to preside is an urgent one and she must immediately switch off from her marital crisis in order to focus on her work, where she feels in control.

“No denying the relief at being delivered onto the neutral ground, the treeless heath, of other people’s problems.”

The case on which she is being asked to rule concerns Adam Henry, a teenager, three months short of his 18th birthday, who has leukaemia. His proposed treatment involves a combination of drugs which will also require him to receive a blood transfusion, but, as a Jehovah’s Witness, his parents object to this course of action, and so, it is reported, does Adam. The hospital wants to proceed with the remaining treatment and the transfusion, and to do so immediately in order to save his life, and wishes the Court to rule that, as a child, he can be forced to have it (if he were an adult he would have the right to refuse treatment). Fiona hears the evidence from all sides and decides that before reaching her decision she will visit Adam. The visit affects Fiona deeply, more than she will realise.

It is tense reading as we wait to find out what Fiona will decide. No spoiler here, I won’t tell you her conclusion. Suffice to say that her decision has repercussions, which are primarily about her going through a kind of breakdown, of all that she has believed and taken for granted up to now, and this affects also how she responds then to Jack and the situation of their marriage.

This is both a touching and deeply affecting novel about one woman’s internal struggles and about human relationships in general and the nature of marital love in particular. And at the end we are invited, in a way, to judge Fiona, the Judge. McEwan has some brilliant turns of phrase which left me breathless with admiration and his economical style of writing makes him highly accessible and exciting to read.

I loved this book and recommend it highly.

Which McEwan shall I read next? What is your personal favourite? 

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

Man Booker shortlist review #5 – “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner

I have finally finished The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, my penultimate read on this year’s Man Booker shortlist. I blogged last week that had been finding it quite hard-going. I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘difficult’ book, like Everything Under, where it helps to be aware of the Oedipus myth in order to be able to enjoy it. No, I just found the pace of the book very slow and, I’m afraid, uneventful.

The Mars Room imgThe story concerns Romy Hall, a young woman whom we first meet in a prison van en route to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. Romy was convicted of a brutal murder and has been given two life sentences plus six years. Romy worked as a lap dancer at The Mars Room nightclub in San Francisco and it was a former customer at the nightclub that she killed. Romy is at once similar but different to her fellow convicts. For one thing she has a seven year old child, Jackson, whose welfare she becomes increasingly concerned about during her incarceration, and she also completed high school, so she is considerably more educated than many of those around her.

 

Romy quickly finds her way in the prison and most of the book is about prison life, the community, the social norms and the formal and informal rules that dictate life inside. There is also the cast of characters, the gender non-binary, the ambiguous sexualities, the weak and the strong, the hierarchy. The women appear to have two things in common, one implicit, they are mostly racial minorities, the other explicit, they are nearly all poor and of low educational attainment.

To that extent the book is, in my view, largely a political one. The author has insisted this is not the case, preferring to think of it as showing the humanity, the variety of life and the personalities in prisons in America, where society is normally inclined to dehumanise and to view homogeneously, the prison population. However, I think the political message is inescapable – that prison is a dumping ground for the poor and under-educated that society does not know what to do with. Kushner is also exposing the twisted logic of differing sentences for similar crimes. I found the comparison of the crimes committed by Stanville’s residents to the killings of civilians by the American state in Iraq, and the notion of double standards, a little clumsy, but she has a point.

The book is not just about Romy and prison life, there are the back stories too: the unsavoury characters both Romy and some of the other women knew before they ended up in prison, many of them no better than the convicted women, and the events and circumstances of their lives, which most of us will never experience. This is the world of an American underclass. An underclass which usually ends up in the corrupt and failing (in Kushner’s view) penal system. There is also the character of Hauser, the prison teacher who Romy hopes might help her find out what has happened to Jackson. It is strictly against the rules for Hauser to do this, but there is something about Romy which appeals to him, and he breaks with procedure when he finds himself inexplicably attracted to her. (Spoiler alert: I was hoping this storyline might go further but it doesn’t). Hauser represents grey, upstanding, dutiful middle America which wants to do the right thing, recognising that some of those in jail have some good qualities, but which is clueless and naïve, and which cannot deal with the brutal realities of prisoners and prison life.

This is an exposing book and Kushner spent a lot of time inside jails in America, talking to women prisoners, trying to understand their lives and their perspectives, and for that she is to be commended. Whilst I appreciated what the author is trying to do here, and certainly it was an eye opener, for me the book didn’t go anywhere. Some have described the ending, where Romy is driven to extreme action on account of her son, as intense and thrilling. For me it wasn’t. I found it anti-climactic.

The book reminded me of those Louis Theroux documentaries, where he went into American jails, and talked to prisoners. The people he met were a complex mix of terrifying, troubled, under-educated and deeply in need. And mostly black and Hispanic. The book is a bit like that, but, for me, with not quite enough of a story going on.

Recommended if you like Louis Theroux documentaries about American jails.

Have you read The Mars Room or any other of the books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist? If so, I’d love to hear how you’re getting on.

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.