Category Archives: The ladies who say ooooh

‘The Burgess Boys’ by Elizabeth Strout

strout_burgess

2013, 326 p.

The ‘Burgess Boys’ are both lawyers: Jim a hot-shot defence lawyer and Bob, an easy-going, rather aimless legal-aid lawyer, both living in New York.  They are called home by their sister Susan, who needs their legal help after her rather gormless son Zach throws a pigs-head into a mosque, triggering outrage over the hate crime. The family had grown up in the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine but the Burgess Boys had both escaped as soon as they could, leaving Susan a rather embittered, passive single mother after her marriage had broken up. As the title suggests, the family was about The Boys, not her. Shirley Falls had received a large number of Somali immigrants, which had caused tension in the town, which was whipped up further by Zach’s action.

Beside the pig’s head, this is a story of adult siblings who have drifted apart after their parents died. Their father had died while they were young, as a result of a car accident for which Bob felt responsible, and there is a lot of unspoken business between them.

I’ve read quite a bit of Elizabeth Strout in recent years, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ve read too much, because my satisfaction seems to decrease with every book after the brilliant Olive Kitteridge, which I loved. There was too much time spent inside the heads of these rather unattractive people, and the Unitarian minister was so saccharine that I felt ill (AND I’m a Unitarian myself!)  The significance of the  disparity between New York and Maine tended to pass me by, and it felt as if there were just too many issues bubbling away in the pot here.

So, along with writers like Ann Tyler and Sue Miller, whom I’ve enjoyed a great deal in their early books but then felt jaded towards,  I think I need a bit of a rest from Elizabeth Strout.  I’ll come back to her later.

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups

Read because: CAE book group selection (although I missed the meeting unfortunately)

My rating: 7/10

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‘This Must Be the Place’ by Maggie O’Farrell

O'farrell_thismustbetheplace

2016, 483 p.

I’ve long had a rather ambivalent relationship with Maggie O’Farrell’s books.  I looked back in my reading journal to the first O’Farrell I read, After You’d Gone (2000).  I scored  a 10/10 (so I obviously liked it a great deal), but I also wrote:

I couldn’t work out if the author was sloppy and undisciplined or very very good…The book teetered on the edge of Mills and Boon but the strength of the writing anchored it.

Coming now to my fourth Maggie O’Farrell, I still feel much the same way, but I’m not as generous this time round.  I’ve since read My Lover’s Lover (2002) and Instructions for a Heatwave (2013) and I think that I’m starting to tire of O’Farrell’s repeated themes of disappearances and the fragility of relationships and her stylistic technique of multiple narrators and tenses.

They are all here in this book. The plot circles around the marriage of the two main characters: Daniel, an American linguist and Claudette, a famous film star who stages her own disappearance at the height of her fame.  After Daniel encounters Claudette and her stuttering son Ari on the side of the road with a broken-down car, they fall in love and he leaves his American wife and eczema-crazed son and doomed daughter to marry her. Both are flawed characters, being willfully absent at times and veering between oblivious and judgmental. They are surrounded by a wider constellation of other characters – mothers, siblings, children, a woman on a bus in South America -and complicated backstories. The book is set over 70 years, but most of the action takes place between 2010 and 2016 in Ireland, London and America. As well as a mixture of present and past tense narrative, it has a breakout section in the form of catalogue, and a chapter in the form of an interview.

The book seemed to take an inordinate time to get going, and this kaleidoscope of characters is too big to keep in mind. They swoop in and out of the narrative, and I found myself flicking back to see if I could find where they last appeared, cursing the absence of a contents page.  I used to think that jumping around in time and place required masterful plotting. It probably does, but I’ve come to value more highly writing that can take responsibility for time shifts through the narrative, instead of just plonking the reader into the middle of it and expecting them to make the connections. I don’t mind having to work hard as a reader, but I need to feel that it’s not because the author is being lazy.

I simply didn’t care enough for any of the characters to sustain me over such a lengthy book. It has received good reviews from readers who enjoyed its narrative skittishness, but with this particular writer, I’m finding it a bit stale.

My rating: 6.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup (The Ladies Who Say Ooooh)

‘The Philosopher’s Doll’ by Amanda Lohrey

Lohrey_Philosopher

2004, 306 p

It’s a strange thing, re-reading a book. You’re not the same reader that you were the first time and the context in which you’re reading the book is often very different. I read Amanda Lohrey’s The Philosopher’s Doll soon after it was released back in 2004, straight after reading two big, fat books: The Sotweed Factor and Tristam Shandy. At the time I leapt on it because it was local, domestic and female in comparison to the two hefty tomes that preceded it. Now, twelve years later I’m reading it again, this time for my face-to-face bookgroup. I didn’t view it quite as kindly the second time round.

The book is set in Northcote  with social worker Kirsten trying to summon up the courage to tell her husband Lindsay about her pregnancy. Lindsay does not want children, (or at least, not yet) and Kirsten is aware that she has fallen pregnant in benignly deceptive circumstances. Her philosophy lecturer husband Lindsay, on the other hand, thinks that all she needs is a dog to settle her maternal urges and so he embarks on a secret plan to buy a pure-bred Chow, a breed whose aloofness appeals to him. The dog is not Lindsay’s only secret: he is also receiving letters from an infatuated doctoral student, Sonia,  that he just puts away for now, not telling anyone about them.

The book is presented in four parts, and this part of the storyline plays out in the first two parts over a matter of several weeks. It is told in the third-person present tense (a tense that I don’t enjoy much) and the two perspectives are interwoven. Then, abruptly, in the third section, the infatuated student Sonia is speaking in the first person, past tense, some ten or more years after the events first part of the book.  Things have changed, and we see them in their new form, but not how they arrived at that point. Coincidences may be more planned than they appear, some mistakes are replicated and new ways of being are learned and embraced.

This is a very Melbourne book, and as a resident of the northern suburbs, I could pinpoint almost to the street – James Street, Northcote do you reckon?- where Kirsten and Lindsay lived. In this regard, the book has Garnesque features, but it is burdened with a didactism that you don’t find in Garner’s work. Lindsay’s occupation as philosophy lecturer gives scope for digressions into the emotional capacities of humans v. animals, and the question of the rhetorics of the heart. The final section of the book launches into a discussion of stunt -no – precision flying that almost sinks the book, if the lengthy retelling of dreams hasn’t already done so.

Does the book need all this philosophy trowelled onto it? I tend to think not. I felt a little betrayed as a reader by the abrupt change half way through, and as if I were sitting through a boring, one-sided conversation in the philosophical parts.

Reading back on the review that I wrote on this book back in 2004 (before I started this blog), I didn’t mention any of these criticisms. Did I just read it as a Melbourne-based story, and did I skip the philosophy? Or did I enjoy the philosophy perhaps?  Have I changed since then? Or am I more conscious of Lohrey’s earnest spiritual intentions in writing now after reading A Short History of Richard Klein, which I found even more didactic than this book?

Sourced from: C.A.E. Bookgroup

Rating: 6.5/10

aww2017-badge I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

‘Death Sentence’ by Don Watson

deathsentence_watson

2003, 191 p.

I must confess that my heart sank when I saw that my CAE reading group book for this month was Don Watson’s Death Sentence. I had read it when it came out in 2003 and now  I struggled to re-read it for our meeting.  It seemed repetitive and unstructured, with just one argument repeated over again. So I was interested to dip back into my reading journal from 2003, prior to starting this blog, to see what I thought of it then. Here’s what I said in 2003:

An interesting reading experience, given that at the time I was reading RMIT’s Teaching and Learning Strategy as part of an assignment. This is part-diatribe, part-essay about the intrusion of managerialist language into places where it doesn’t belong. It certainly makes reading the ads in Saturday’s Age, policy documents and government advertising at all levels an exercise in cutting out ‘clag’. Knowledge Management as a discipline comes in for a particular serve. In many ways this is an extension of Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ but longer, and at times less disciplined. Good critique of the use of public and political language, but just a bit self indulgent. 8/10

I’m surprised now that I rated it so highly, but perhaps it was a new perspective back in 2003. After all, in the midst of a Howard Government, we hadn’t at that stage been deluged with Rudd’s verbal sludge, which made Watson’s critique almost self-evident.

The book itself has several unnamed chapters, marked only by a blank page separating them from the previous chapter. It’s hard to work out quite how one chapter differs from the next, or if there is a theme to distinguish one chapter from the other, especially as the book goes on.  The pages have a wide margin, in which are quotes from other texts: some pithy and elegant; others the type of verbal glue that he declaims against.  I can’t help feeling that the book is too long: that it would have been better served in a Quarterly Essay format of a lesser length.

Some fourteen years on, I suspect that Watson’s howl of anger is more about the application of managerial thinking as a construct, rather than the language itself (although the two are, admittedly, inseparable). It’s something that I abhor too, and I’ll have more to say about it anon.  However, I think that programs like the ABC’s brilliant parody of the National Building Authority Utopia have done much to skewer it, far more than this book with its arch tone could ever do.

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice

My rating (now): 6.5

‘Human Croquet’ by Kate Atkinson

atkinson_humancroquet

1999, 352 P.

Kate Atkinson is one of our favourite authors amongst The Ladies Who Say Oooh, a.k.a. my CAE bookgroup. We have read five of her books over the last ten years or so. I first encountered Kate Atkinson with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and that book stood out for me as a 10/10 read.  After that, I read Emotionally Weird and was disappointed, because it felt like a re-hash of her earlier book.  I was quite sure that I had read Human Croquet years ago and found it similarly derivative, but I can’t find any sign of it in my reading journals which predate this blog.

So, convinced that I was reading this for the second time, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Human Croquet. It is similar to Behind the Scenes in that in this case there is a missing mother, and the grief and questions that follow the disappearance of a person.  Atkinson picks up on the same multiple realities/time warp themes that she would use again in Life After Life and A God in Ruins. She writes of  a white-bread, Blytonesque 1960s England that is familiar to Australian readers of a certain age, but it’s a darker world with incest and abuse. There’s a lot going on here: Shakespeare, the lost forests of Olde England, the theatrical stage, destiny and timetravelling. It’s too convoluted to even try to explain what the plotline is, but there most definitely is one, even though it has been embroidered with other possible scenarios and counterfactuals.

I’ve looked through my other reviews of Atkinson’s books here in the blog, and I’m becoming Atkinsonesque myself in my sense of deja vu when reading her second book here. I do enjoy the experience of reading her books, but there’s a sameness about them that is becoming rather stale.

My rating: While reading it, 8.5.  Thinking about it afterwards: 7.

Source: CAE bookgroups.

‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar

matar

2006, 245 p.

When reading this book I found myself thinking of Ian McEwan’s Atonement or L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between.  An odd connection to make, in many ways, with their golden summers and racketty affluence.  Late 1970s Libya does not at all have the benign somnolence of Edwardian England: instead, it is edgy, tense and brutal.  However, what Matar’s book does share with these other two is the child’s-eye view  that misconstrues events and wreaks an unwitting destruction.

The narrator is nine-year-old Suleiman, the only child of his ‘Baba’ (father) Faraj el Dewani and ‘Mama’ Najwa. His father is emotionally distant and caught up in political activities, and Suleiman prefers his father’s friend Moosa, who although a fellow-activist, has a more demonstrative and affectionate relationship with the young boy.  His mother Majwa is an alcoholic (no small thing in a country where alcohol is banned).

Suleiman is an observer, not understanding the political ramifications of what he is seeing. Sulieman exists in a world of  “quiet panic, as if at any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath my feet”. In the mess that Libya has become since Gaddafi’s overthrow, it’s easy to forget the menace of his regime.

It was good to read about a country and politics that is unfamiliar to me, even though the tropes of innocence, bravery and courage are universal.  The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and I enjoyed it. It was my selection for my bookgroup, and I was a little apprehensive about how it would be received, but ‘the ladies’ liked it too.  (Unfortunately I left this blogpost half-written, and I’ve forgotten the detail about the book. Sorry!)

Rating: 8.5

Read because: It was a CAE bookgroup.

‘The Legacy’ by Kirsten Tranter

tranter

2010, 438 p.

Like all good titles,  the title ‘The Legacy’ is a double-barrelled one.  It could refer to the unexpected financial bequest that sets the chain of events in this novel into action, or it could refer to the aftermath of the news of a death.  Both interpretations work.

The novel opens with a prologue voiced by Ingrid, as her step-daughter  Fleur watches Ingrid emerging from a beating in what we assume is domestic violence.  Somehow – illogically – this violence seems incongruous with the New York affluence within which Ingrid is living.  This is the last we hear of Ingrid in her own voice.  From then on, the narrative is taken over by Julia, her friend from Australia, whose relationship with Ingrid oscillates between awe, jealousy, love and anger.

Told in retrospect, Julia’s life was financially straitened and emotionally unsatisfying. She worked at a video store while she was at university, and became friendly with Ralph, who called in at the video store and watched films behind the counter with her. Ralph was wealthy, and Julia was drawn into his wake, invited to lunches at his parents’ quietly opulent Kirribilli House, overlooking the Sydney Harbour. She was not the only young woman attracted to the Kirribilli enclave; so too was Ingrid, brought over from Perth by Ralph’s aunt Maeve when Ingrid’s parents diee.  Ingrid enchanted Ralph and his family, and when Ralph’s father died Ingrid was left a huge legacy- something encouraged by Ralph who was infatuated with Ingrid, despite his bisexual leanings. Ingrid used her legacy to travel to New York, and it was there that she met an older man, Gil Grey and his precocious young daughter Fleur, lauded as a prodigy for her artwork from early childhood.  She married him, despite the misgivings of her friends Ralph and Julia who were unnerved by his controlling nature.  The friends drifted apart.  But when news came of Julia’s death in the Twin Towers (and how telling that I just need to say ‘Twin Towers’ and you know exactly what I mean), the increasingly-ill Ralph dispatched Julia over to New York to find out what happened to her and to fill in the details.

This is a long book – 438 pages- but I didn’t find that it dragged.  The first 2/3 of the book reminded me of an Antipodean Brideshead Revisited or Great Gatsby, with the outsider narrator watching wealthy people living out their greed and insecurity. There is an artificiality and staginess to the lives of these wealthy and ruthless people, and the glamour of the New York art scene does not disguise the curdled ugliness of  these so-called ‘ beautiful people’.    The last 1/3 of the book took on the pace and tone of a mystery, although its ending was too open-ended to be really satisfactory on that score.  The descriptions of both Kirribilli and New York were well-drawn, and the dialogue flowed  so naturally that it was barely noticeable.  There were too many paranormal deadends – a neighbour who read tea-leaves and too many dream sequences- but she captured well the uneasy line between enterprise and exploitation, sexual adventureness and abuse.  The book was an amalgam of a coming-of-age love triangle, shot through with a mystery.  It worked for me.

My rating: 7.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup (the Ladies Who Say Oooh)

aww2017-badge I’ve posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.