Book review: “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth

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The theme for July in my Facebook Reading Challenge was an American novel. It was a tough choice as I wanted to select something that captured the American ‘story’. I at first thought about The Color Purple, which had been on my shortlist for February (a work by a feminist writer) but I felt it was too similar to June’s choice of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I also thought about The Bonfire of the Vanities, but decided it was a bit long and my fellow readers on the Challenge would not thank me! So, I finally alighted on Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which seemed appropriate in terms of both subject matter and timing, since Roth died just a couple of months ago. I’m not sure how other readers on the challenge got on, but I’m afraid I failed to complete it within the month – it’s not overly long at 423 pages, but the writing is so rich that it was almost impossible to read at any pace. I had to (and wanted to!) savour every word. That gives you an idea of my overall feeling about the book – it is tremendous, epic, glorious and tragic. If you want to understand anything about the American experience, especially the immigrant experience over the last hundred years or so and the effect that has had on the mindset of American-born second and third generation immigrants, it is essential reading.

2018-07-23 16.19.23The plot is not complicated: ‘Swede’ Levov is a third generation Jewish immigrant whose grandfather came to America from Europe. He was a glovemaker and set up a business in Newark, New Jersey which became highly successful. Swede’s father continued the business, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s when glove-wearing for respectable women was the norm and most would have several pairs. (There is more information on gloves in this book than you will ever need to know, but it’s fascinating!) Swede inherited the business from his father, while his more wayward brother became a cardiac surgeon.

Swede Levov pursued the quintessential ‘American dream’ – he excelled in sports at school, served in the military, followed his father into the business, and learned the glove trade, married an Irish-American Catholic former beauty queen, with whom he had a daughter, Merry. From the outside everything seems perfect except for one small flaw – Merry has a stammer, which no amount of expensive medical or therapeutic treatment seems to be able to fix. This is the first indication that Merry perhaps represents some flaw which will undermine the Levovs and all that they represent.

Slight spoiler alert (though not really because you learn of the event quite early in the book): as a teenager Merry becomes obsessed with opposition to the Vietnam war. She becomes increasingly frustrated and rebellious. Her parents lose control and it culminates in her planting a bomb in the general store of Old Rimrock, the solid New Jersey semi-rural idyll in which the family has settled. The bomb kills the local doctor.

Swede’s world begins to fall apart; he cannot accept that his daughter has committed this crime, believing that she must have been put up to it by others, or indeed that others did it and are allowing her to take the blame. For a number of years Swede lives in the hope that he will be able to find his daughter, that the truth will come out and that she will be exonerated, and that their life will return to ‘normal’. For a time, it appears that he might find be able to find Merry, when a woman known as Rita Cohen contacts him saying she knows Merry’s whereabouts. Swede becomes convinced that she is in fact the real bomber because she is cruel and threatening and extorts money from him.

The Rita Cohen thread is all part of Swede’s self-deception, however, and this is the central theme of the book – Swede, his wife and his family, represent the ‘American dream’, which is in fact, just that, a fantasy, a mirage. Merry’s actions put Swede on a path where everything he held dear, which he believed to be real, unravels and is exposed as a sham.

As I have already said, the plot is not complex because it is not a novel so much about events as it is a deep exploration of the American psyche. The structure of the book is quite complex, however, but so brilliantly done that it is not hard to follow. It flits effortlessly between different stages, between different characters and their individual stories and the handling can only be described as masterful. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize (1998)! It explores notions of religion in America, particularly the Jewish experience as told through the Levov family, and through the eyes of our first narrator, former schoolmate of Swede’s and now author Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman, the Catholic experience (through Dawn Levov) and the American Protestant experience through the residents of Old Rimrock. The decline of the glove industry and its craft, and also the city of Newark where the Levov family business was based, is a metaphor for the gradual collapse of the concept of the American dream which now seems to lie degraded and in ruins. A further metaphor is the Garden of Eden story, itself Old Testament fiction. The book is written in three parts (Paradise Remembered, The Fall and Paradise Lost) echoing Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, because for Swede Levov the experience is truly a destruction of all that he once understood to be real and to be good.

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In American Pastoral Roth explodes the idea of the ‘American dream’.

This is the longest review I’ve written in a while and yet I feel I have only scratched the surface in telling you about this book. I have only just completed it so I may write more in a few weeks once it has had a chance to sit with me! Truly, as I savoured the last few pages I was open-mouthed at the unravelling. It is truly an American tragedy (the title is a kind of oxymoron), and it reminded me of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf similar examples of the collapse of an American dream happening in slow motion before our very eyes. The final dinner party scene is quite spectacular.

Needless to say I recommend this book highly. It’s not an easy read but it rewards in spades.

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

Hot new reads for the Summer

As Britain swelters under a seemingly relentless heatwave, thoughts are turning to holidays, even though perhaps that fortnight in the sun could just as easily be had at home at the moment! So, if you are looking for ideas for your holiday reading list here are some new titles that you might look out for. It’s quite an international list so if you are outside the UK you should be able to find most of these too.

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse – I haven’t read any Kate Mosse but having just finished The Birth of Venus I am in the mood for historical fiction! Set in 16th century Carcassonne, France, it concerns an elderly bookseller and his family and the impact of the religious wars on their lives.

The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi – already a best-seller in Dubai and the UAE, this novel, set in the time of the first Gulf war in 1991, looks at how the conflict affected the ordinary people of the city of Baghdad. When our television screens are full of images of refugees caught up in war, of bodies and of bombed-out buildings, I hope this novel will give us an insight into the reality of the lives of people just like us.

Lala  by Jacek Dehnel – an elderly woman recounts her extraordinary life to her grandson. Born in Poland in 1875 she lived through two world wars, life under communism and then liberation. This book has already won prizes in the author’s native Poland.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton – set in New York city this novel concerns the increasingly oppressive friendship between two young women, aspiring writer Louise and wealthy social butterfly Lavinia. The two women meet when Louise goes to tutor Lavinia’s younger sister. Their friendship becomes necessary to both of them, but for different reasons, and is characterised by deceit, jealousy and an unhealthy dependency.

The Hour of Separation by Katharine McMahon – McMahon’s The Rose of Sebastapol is one of my all-time favourite books. I haven’t read anything she has written since, but I really like the sound of this novel. Another novel about friendship between two women, Christa and Estelle, this time set in 1939, who have in common Fleur – Fleur was the Belgian Resistance fighter who saved Christa’s father in the Great War. She was also Estelle’s mother. The two women meet just before the outbreak of World War Two.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – I loved Moshfegh’s thriller Eileen, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Her new novel, published in the UK this week, promises to be equally dark and thrilling. Set in 2000, around the corner in time from 9/11, our narrator is a wealthy young New Yorker. The deaths of her parents while she was studying at Columbia university, a sense of the pointlessness of her own life, and dysfunctional relationships with her so-called best friend and her Wall Street boyfriend, lead her to take a ‘narcotic hibernation’. It is not without consequence.

The Temptation of Gracie by Santa Montefiore – the cover tells you this is going to be perfect for poolside! Gracie Burton blows all her savings on a week-long cookery course in Tuscany, much to the consternation of her daughter Carina and granddaughter Anastasia. The trip turns out to be about more than just mid-life crisis, however, and aspects of Gracie’s past that her family were not aware of, are revealed. Tantalising!

Some of these books are only just out and so may only be available in Hardback, or e-reader – perfect for holiday packing!

What are your recommendations for the summer?

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Book review ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

I saw Ruta Sepetys speak at the Hay Festival in May and I’m so glad I did, because otherwise this book may not have crossed my radar. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel (though DO NOT let that put you off) and there were many young people in the audience with whom Ruta was gracious, charming and generally lovely.

RutaThis book is magnificent and I urge you to read it. It was my book club read this month and we all loved it. It concerns a period in hsitory that is seldom openly discussed – the brutality of the Russian advance into Germany at the end of the WW2. One of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog was A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous author) which was an account, reputedly a true story, of the siege of that city and its final capture by Russian troops who, half-starved and brutalised themselves, set about rape and pillage of the native population (which by that stage was mostly women, children, older men and the infirm) on an industrial scale. It is tough reading. My WW2 history is not great so correct me if I’m wrong, but these events are not widely recognised and discussed because of course Stalin was part of the Allied group which defeated Hitler. There was, and, arguably, continues to be, a reluctance to openly acknowledge anything which might tarnish the glory of that victory. We all know that the Allies committed many atrocities in the name of war, but somehow these have been brushed over.

Enough of the political history because Salt to the Sea is so much more than that; it concerns an event that almost no-one knows about, the sinking of the civilian ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 by a Russian submarine, resulting in the largest loss of life at sea in maritime history, My children at school know all about the Titanic, thanks to the movie and the 100th anniversary of its sinking in 2012. A little over 1,500 people died in that disaster. Nine thousand died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, over half of them children and almost all of them desperate refugees.

It is a story beautifully and skilfully told through the eyes of four characters – Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse, Florian, A Prussian who worked for but then subsequently fled from the Nazi art theft effort, Emilia, a Polish girl from Lwow, whose parents sent her away from home to live with a German family with whom they thought she would be safe, and Alfred, a young German soldier, conceited, inept and deluded. Joana, Florian and Emilia are part of a small group, which includes an elderly shoemaker nicknamed ‘Poet’, a young boy, Klaus, a young blind girl, Ingrid, and Eva, a bold and forthright German woman. The raggle-taggle group has come together on the road, along with thousands of others, and is making its way to Gotenhafen, fleeing the brutal Russian advance, in the hope of boarding a ship which will take them further west and to what they hope will be relative safety.

It is the end of the war and they all know the Nazi Reich is close to collapsing, but the military remains in charge and committed to the Fuhrer’s cause. The group is also well aware of the fates of others who have fallen into the hands of Russian soldiers, some of them having direct experience of Russian violence. The group is facing multiple threats, not just from the Nazis and the Russians, but also from starvation and sickness. We follow the group as they trek across Prussia, learning about their back-stories, and the relationships between the group’s members evolve.

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“Freedom” – my copy, signed by the author!

Once they reach Gotenhafen, they feel relief and begin to feel safe. Although the town has become a ghetto, with thousands of desperate people trying to escape on a handful of ships, they are hopeful and begin to imagine a future once again. Alfred is one of the sailors on the ship and by the time the group meets him we have learned much about his earlier life. He will become an important character in the events our group is about to face, and his back-story is important to understanding the motivation behind his actions.

For the reader, the tension here is excruciating because although the characters are hopeful and relieved, we know that tragedy will strike the ship. It is just a question of who, if any of them, will survive.

Sometimes, knowledge of the general outcome of a story can have a profound effect on your reading experience. This was very much the case for me here. The tentative joy, so long held-back and so fragile, that the characters experience, contrasted so deeply with the doom and dread that I felt for them.

This is a Young Adult novel and I would suggest that it is appropriate for 14 years and upwards. Even then, some younger teens might find it quite challenging. I would liken it to The Book Thief. The characters are fictional, but the events portrayed in this book are real and we have a duty to acknowledge what happened in the past rather than to airbrush it.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The NHS at 70: 9 books with medical themes

There is a great deal of debate and attention on the UK National Health Service at the moment as it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. If you live in Britain, you can’t move for television, radio and newspaper commentaries at the moment. But the talk is not just about celebration, but about what we want and expect public services to provide in the way of healthcare, and, just as important, how the immense costs of it all should be met. The challenges are mind-boggling: we have an ageing population, advanced medicines come at a high price, the long-term nature of public health investment, not to mention dealing with developed world problems such as obesity, addiction and mental illness. The issues are massive.

The NHS was described by politician Nigel Lawson as “the closest thing the English people have to a religion” and it is indeed dear to the hearts of many. Observe the profile it enjoyed at the opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics and the influence the promise of extra cash for the NHS most likely had on the Brexit debate.

I have no intention of starting a political debate here, but if health is on your mind, you might want to dip into some books with a medical theme. Here are some of my suggestions (not all of which I have read, I should add):

  1. Still Alice by Lisa Genova – a moving account of a 50 year-old woman’s development of early onset Alzheimers. Made into a film starring Julianne Moore.
  2. Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon – a YA book about a young woman suffering from a rare condition which means her immune system is dangerously impaired.
  3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby – a harrowing true story where the author developed locked-in syndrome after a car accident. He was initially thought to be in a coma, but was in fact fully conscious. He was eventually able to communicate through blinking, and wrote this book using only this tool. Incredible and reminds you of the fragility of life.
  4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – another YA novel, both my daughters love this book, about teenage terminal illness. Also made into a tear-jerker of a film.
  5. This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay – award-winning non-fiction writing from a junior doctor telling it like it is on the NHS front-line.
  6. Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth – love the TV show, currently reading the follow-up Farewell to the East End, Worth was a young midwife in East London in the 1950s so for a taste of the early days of the NHS look no further.
  7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a young Scottish woman’s mental illness, compounded by loneliness, detachment and the harshness of modern life.
  8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon – challenging life events, seen through the eyes of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. A must-read.
  9. Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill – I have recommended this book so many times. It’s an intense novel about eating disorders, mental health and sexuality.

 

If you have suggestions for any other books with a medical theme that you have enjoyed, I would love to hear them.

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A little light reading

I usually have two or three books on the go at any one time – at the moment it’s my book club book and a children’s book, and then I usually have one other. Sometimes this ‘other’ is necessary as a bit of light relief! Many people tell me that they love to read, but can’t find the time, so they read in bed…and fall asleep after a few pages. I know that feeling! It makes reading anything at the more challenging end of the spectrum very frustrating because you can easily lose the flow.

In this grave hour imgI have learnt my lesson and carve-out reading time for myself in the day. My bedtime reading is usually reserved for lighter books, entertainment. I have recently discovered the Maisie Dobbs series by British-American writer Jacqueline Winspear. I picked up In This Grave Hour whilst browsing at the local library. Set in London in 1939, at the time of the outbreak of World War Two, my principal interest in it was as background for a book I am currently working on. I ended up enjoying the book far more than I expected.

Maisie Dobbs is a private detective, working in London. She is titled, due to marriage, but hails from a humble background herself, though she clearly has many high level Establishment connections. Maisie is a widow, her husband having been killed in the First World War. There is clearly a sadness to her life, as there seems always to be with great literary detectives.

The mystery Maisie solves in this book concerns the violent murders of three Belgians, all of whom escaped Europe and the Nazis as they began to make their way across the continent. Maisie uncovers links between the incidents that the police have been unable to find. At the same time, war preparations are being made in London and children are beginning to be evacuated from the city, including to her own father and stepmother in Kent. Maisie finds herself particularly drawn to a young girl who goes to live with them, whose identity is unknown and who refuses to speak. Another, parallel, mystery that Maisie has to get to the bottom of.

Once I had got past my snobbery about the “this kind of book”, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was easy to read, a good story, competently written and with easy likeable characters. In This Grave Hour is the thirteenth book in the series, (the fourteenth was published earlier this year), and the author seems to have produced one a year pretty consistently. The first book is set, I believe, at the end of the First World War. It reminded me of a couple of books I have read in the past, the Kate Shackleton Mysteries by Frances Brody. Set in the 1920s, the heroine is a widowed private detective, based in Yorkshire. I read Murder in the Afternoon and Murder on a Summer’s Day, which I have reviewed on here, and enjoyed them both. There are nine Kate Shackleton books altogether.

So, if you’re looking for some light reading, for bedtime, or perhaps for a forthcoming holiday, I would recommend either Maisie Dobbs or Kate Shackleton. You could do a lot worse and you may actually find they keep you awake!

What is your recommended ‘light reading’?

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Easter Greetings

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Easter is falling rather early this year, and with the weather not looking great for the UK this weekend, it could be a rather chilly Spring break. Perfect for spending time with a book! My kids will be getting the usual smallish chocolate egg from the Easter mummy bunny, plus a book token, a tradition I started a couple of years ago.

I’ll be away for a few days and have been giving some thought to what reading material I will take with me. I will, as always, take far more than I will actually get through, but I do that because I get a bit nervous when I have only one book available to read! I like to have a choice and nearly always have a couple of books on the go, in any case.

I’ll be taking Paul Auster’s 4321, about which I posted here a couple of weeks ago. I started it last Autumn and have found it really hard-going. I have been pondering whether to give up on it, but I think I’m going to give it one last focussed go, to see how I get on.

I’ll also be taking Frankenstein, the 1818 classic by Mary Shelley, which celebrates its bicentenary this year. I’m reading that with my girlfriends from my book club and we have booked to see the new production that is currently running at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in a couple of weeks. Really excited about that.

That’s it. Just the two books! That demonstrates an unusual realism about my reading and my commitment to doing justice to 4321, I think. (Although I do have a couple of back up books on my e-reader. Just in case.)

I bought a couple of magazines for the journey (I can’t read a book in a car) and nearly choked when I discovered they were £4.30. Each! Is it really that long since I bought a magazine? You can buy half a book for that!

Have a wonderful Easter, with plenty of reading and chocolate!

What will you be up to this Easter? What are you reading?

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Book review: “The Girl in the Green Dress” by Cath Staincliffe

Last week I posted a review of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the first of two crime fiction novels I read over the Christmas holidays. The Girl in the Green Dress could hardly be more different, despite also being a crime novel and it is indicative of how the way we entertain ourselves has changed in the eighty odd years that separate the publication of these two books. Where Agatha Christie provided escapism, upper class characters, exotic locations and traditional murder mystery with the big reveal at the end, Cath Staincliffe’s book provides gritty realism, some repellent characters, familiar locations and a limited amount of mystery. There is no job here for the reader to play the detective, spot the clues and guess the outcome. The job of the reader is to engage with the characters at a deep level.

The girl in the green dress imgThe book starts with 18 year-old Allie Kennaway, and her friends heading out for their college prom night. They are at Allie’s home with her father Steve and younger sister Teagan. Steve is a single parent, his wife, the girls’ mother, Sarah, having died a couple of years earlier from cancer. Allie, we learn is a transgender woman, formerly Aled.

We meet the other characters who will form the main part of the drama, in quite quick succession: Donna, the workaholic Detective Inspector, who has four children and a less than happy marriage; Jade, a new detective, Asian, and whose mental health problems are hinted at early on; Martin, a long-standing colleague of Donna’s, a horny-handed old-fashioned copper. The murder takes place quite early on; Allie’s body is discovered in a deserted street near the nightclub where the prom was being held. Soon after, we meet Sonia, single mother of the feckless youth Oliver, who spends his days eating junk food, hanging out with his mates and playing online games. His culpability for the crime is fairly obvious.

If we know whodunnit, then what is the story about? Well, there is a fairly major and dramatic plot twist, which, of course, I shan’t reveal. Mostly, though, it’s about the characters and their internal lives, their hopes, dreams, motivations and frustrations. The police (Donna, Jade and Martin) are all flawed in their own individual ways and are trying to deal in a systematic and process-orientated way with a terrible event, trying to set aside their personal selves, and yet completely unable to do so. Work and ‘home’ cross over in the most challenging ways. Much like the crime shows I watch on television (I’m thinking Happy Valley, Morse, Prime Suspect), the issues of the central character are part of and not separate from the story. Although, for Agatha Christie, Poirot’s personality is key to the narrative, it does not form part of the plot in the way that more modern crime fiction does. Or perhaps you would disagree?

There is also the storyline of transgender young people and their experiences, which the author handles deftly with great care and sensitivity. It is a huge and topical issue to tackle and the result is commendable.

I struggled to get into this at first. The clipped writing style, which reminded of the way police officers narrate radio dramas, ie not in fully-formed sentences, was off-putting to me, and I found the structure, short chapters within chapters focussing on a different character in turn, meant it did not flow so easily. Having just read Agatha Christie, however, knowing the murderer from the outset seemed odd and I wondered what on earth the rest of the book was going to be about! There is that twist, of course, and as I got to know the characters, so I began to engage with them and their stories more.

I did get hooked and enjoyed the book immensely. It’s a quick read, though its grittiness makes it hard-going in places; the reader is not spared any detail! I’d recommend this book, though, and I will definitely read more of Cath Staincliffe’s work.

If you are a reader of crime fiction do you prefer the modern or the more old-fashioned Christie-style writing?

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