Literary Pop: A Spool of Blue Thread

Author: Anne Tyler
Nationality: American
Year: 2015

 

Spool of Blue ThreadNext on the list for 2016 was A Spool of Blue Thread, the 20th novel by the long-standing American novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler.  I’d never read anything by her before and this Booker Prize shortlisted effort (in only the second year of eligibility for American authors) seemed as good a place to start as any.  She’s one of those authors I’ve seen around a lot (I work in a charity bookshop) without any standout classics to her name, yet I know she carries a good reputation among the reading public as well as the reviewing experts.  Reading this also continues my happy trend so far of reading books by women this year, although the streak will end here (for now).

The plot revolves around the Whitshank family, with an emphasis on matriarch Abby and her husband Red.  The Whitshanks, also comprising sons Denny and Stem, daughters Amanda and Jeannie, and their respective spouses and children, are a “typical” American family living in present-day Baltimore (though much of the narrative takes place in various recent pasts).  The novel takes place in three parts. In part one (the bulk of the book) Abby and Red are aging and the time has come for the younger generation to figure out what to do with their increasingly and reluctantly dependent parents.  Part two steps back in time to take a look at the earliest stages of Abby & Red’s courtship; part three chronicles the mysterious history of Red’s parents Junior and Linnie.  Time weaves back and forth around these main subject lines, as the “spool of blue thread” gradually winds and unwinds itself through the lives of the Whitshank family.

I liked it a lot.  I felt a little bit like an outsider at times, as the themes in the book are very reminiscent of Americana-like nostalgia in a way that didn’t entirely resonate with me, but in a way that actually heightened my curiosity in the strange-yet-normal setting and characters.  I particularly enjoyed how the second and third parts gradually explained some of the intriguing goings-on in the first (often contradicting the accepted family version of events) and it makes me almost want to read it again with my new-found expert knowledge.

It’s a great relief sometimes to read a nice, normal novel without having to deal with highbrow writing styles, deep dramatic themes and the like.  Tyler seems to be an honest and unpretentious author who doesn’t have to try too hard to write something eminently readable.  And so I will definitely look out for her books in future (as if I needed to add another back catalogue to my to-read list).   Overall I would highly recommend A Spool of Blue Thread – it’s not a ground-breaker, but it’s a page-turner, and sometimes that’s all you need from a book.

 

My rating: 8/10

 

Literary Pop: Go Set a Watchman

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious”

Author: Harper Lee
Year: 2015
Nationality: American

watchmanAs I looked to pick my second book for 2016 I began to realise that, as appropriate as it seems, January might not have been the best choice of month for “published in 2015”.  I have been asking my girlfriend to choose which books I read so far this year, and from a pool already reduced to three she selected Go Set a Watchman, the surprise sequel(ish) to 1960’s classic (in the truest sense of the word) To Kill a Mockingbird.  (Readers may note that Watchman was originally finished in 1957 but fortunately my category is “published” and not “written” in 2015!) This was obviously a book near the top of many 2015 lists and in fact probably the most talked-about book of the year.  I approached it with mixed feelings – surely it would never live up to the hype?

In 1950-something, Jean Louise Finch returns by train from New York (where she lives without making clear what she does) to her (fictional) hometown of Maycomb, Alabama.  She is met at the station by “childhood sweetheart” Hank Clinton in lieu of her father, her usual chauffeur, who is growing arthritic in his old age and often unfit to drive.  It soon becomes clear that Maycomb and Jean Louise are not totally suited to each other; things take a turn for the worse when Jean Louise finds out something about her father that shatters her opinion of the man who had been her moral and intellectual beacon since her earliest years. Between flashbacks from her childhood, Jean Louise picks up the pieces and tries to come to terms with developments she could never have imagined.

Now I’ve only read To Kill a Mockingbird once, and that was in 2011.  So while I do remember thoroughly enjoying it I don’t really recall the finer points of the plot or even too much of the style and as such I can’t make any great comparisons here.  In truth it’s probably not fair to compare anything to one of the best books I’ve ever read – I should consider Go Set a Watchman on its own merits.  But that’s incredibly difficult when the latter is essentially an early draft of the former and such juxtaposition is thus inevitable.  To be perfectly honest, I’m willing to forgive the shortcomings of a book that was shelved and forgotten about in favour of what the author herself considered to be a better story, and would probably never have been rushed to print without the hype around what had previously been Harper Lee’s single published novel.

So anyway, Go Set a Watchman was decent without being fantastic.  It’s pretty slow to get going – it’s not until about a hundred pages into a 278-page novel that anything really happens.  And a particular passage later on between Jean Louise and her uncle Jack is so unnecessarily confusing and convoluted that I abandoned it having read it three times without really deciphering what it was on about.  The plot is interesting enough but the writing seems a bit bland.  It’s a delicate line to tread – if you want to see how your favourite characters from Mockingbird develop as they age (although, again, this was written first) then read on.  But if you want to preserve your memory of a perfect book and its pristine characters, it might be best to avoid.  Your call.

 

My Rating: 6.5/10

 

Literary Pop: Jonathan Livingston Seagull

“Do you want to fly so much that you will forgive the Flock, and learn, and go back to them one day and work to help them know?”

Author: Richard Bach
Year: 1970
Nationality: American

jlsAfter finishing the behemoth of a novel that is Wolf Hall, I decided to take it easy for the next few books I read. This led me appropriately to Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, numbering just 93 pages (including, in my edition, several pages of photographs). It’s something I’d been half meaning to read for a while, without entirely knowing what it was about. So, I sat down on the train and took up the less-than-daunting task.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a seagull, lives his life as something of an outsider from his flock. While his fellow gulls live a short, boring, food-centric life, all Jonathan wants to do is fly. One day he discovers a new method for attaining high speeds in flight, and in his eagerness to enlighten the flock disturbs their breakfast scavenging. Unimpressed, the elders banish him from the flock forever. This is hardly a disappointment for Jonathan Livingston, who continues to use his days improving his flying until one day, having seemingly reached his peak, he is transported to a higher plane of existence populated by gulls like himself. Here, capable of flying even higher and faster, Jonathan outshines even his fly-happy contemporaries and is taught the power of apparent extratemporal flying by an elderly gull. He is given the option of ascending to an even higher plane or returning to his old, close-minded flock; Jonathan chooses the latter, keen to impart his new-found skills on any willing gull. He soon meets Fletcher Lynd Seagull, a bird like himself shunned by the flock, and convinces him to join him in his quest to enlighten the (unwilling) unenlightened. Eventually the two gather a huge following and teach the flock once and for all that “a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom”.

seagull

In the end, it only took me about half an hour to read so whatever my verdict it can hardly be described as a waste of my time. It’s not exactly my thing, and I suppose it was a bit of a let-down given that, as I say, I’d been looking forward to it for a while. Unsurprisingly I was strongly reminded of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, the other famous spiritual/motivational novella that I feel achieves a very similar end with a little more literary prowess. Jonathan Livingston Seagull‘s simplicity is nevertheless integral in getting the motivational message across, and the message is a commendable one – that sometimes you have to ruffle a few feathers (sorry) to move forward, but that progress is only really progress if those at the back are helped along as well as those flying ahead.

I think.

My rating: 6.5/10

Literary Pop: Slaughterhouse-Five

“There was a big number over the door of the building. The number was five. Before the Americans could go inside, their only English-speaking guard told them to memorize their simple address, in case they got lost in the big city. Their address was this: ‘Schlachthof-fünf.’ Schlachthof means slaughterhouse. Fünf was good old five.”

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Year: 1969
Nationality: American

I read many books these days.  This puts me in a difficult position regarding what to review, especially since I’m out of the habit.  Since this was a book I read last week, and has been one of my most urgent “t0-read”s for a long time, Slaughterhouse-Five seemed to me a sensible enough choice to review.  On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut’s best-known work is hardly a sensible book.  Despite the odd reference I’ve picked up over the slaughterhouse-5years, I had virtually no idea what to expect from the (relatively short) novel, and this was compounded by my tendency not to read blurbs (why spoil the surprise?).  Retrospectively, I’m not sure much could have prepared me for this book.

Slaughterhouse-Five is something of a meta-novel – the narrator sets out the events in third-person, occasionally including his own perspective on a story in which he features as a less-than-minor character.  He does nevertheless appear to have an insight into the inner workings of Billy Pilgrim, our hero (of sorts).  Billy claims to have the ability to travel in time, and as such the narrative constantly flashes forwards and backwards around the central event, the February 1945 firebombing of Dresden.  A conventional view of time sees Billy born in 1922 in Ilium, NY.  A tall, weak youngster, Billy enrols in optometry school before being drafted in 1943, sent to Germany and captured as a POW following the Battle of the Bulge.  Along with his fellow prisoners he is transported to Dresden as contract labour, quartered in the titular Slaughterhouse, and survives the bombings that wipe out the majority of the city.

Billy returns home after the war, and is soon diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  However, he soon completes his studies in optometry, marrying the daughter of the school’s owner.  They have two children, and several years later, on his daughter’s wedding night, Billy is abducted by aliens, taken to the distant planet slaughterhouseTralfamadore and forced to live as an exhibit in a zoo.  He later returns to earth, survives a plane crash and is considered crazy by those who hear his alien experiences, particularly his daughter.  Billy’s life and the novel ‘s narrative converge for the final time at the close of the book, with an event indicating that Billy’s experiences with time might not be all in his head…

I feel like I’ve done the book an injustice by my synopsis.  The flexibility of the temporal structure of the novel and Vonnegut’s sharp wit made this an excellent read, and it certainly loses something when the events are forced into their proper order.  It’s quite short, which is probably wise in ensuring it doesn’t become unreasonably complicated.  I’d definitely recommend it to any fans of Catch-22, although to be honest I’d have to recommend it to almost anyone.  It’s not as confusing as it sounds – read it for yourself and find out!

 

My rating: 8.5/10

52 Pops: Flowers for Algernon (#4)

Author:  Daniel Keyes
Year:  1966
Nationality:  American

Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.”

This week I’m going to have to cop out somewhat, as I’ve been so busy with two jobs that I haven’t had the time to read more than a chapter of anything a night.  I foolishly started A Tale of Two Cities a week and a half ago thinking (based on my reading trajectory so far this year) that I’d have the time to get in that and another book in before today, but I was sadly mistaken (I’m about a third of the way through).  And so that led me to my only option of reviewing a book I’ve already read.
Flowers for Algernon, a book I’ve read twice, was originally my first choice to re-read for this post anyway because I own it, I like it a lot and haven’t read it for a while, but I didn’t see any way of getting hold of my copy.  I first read it for school about ten years ago and I even enjoyed it then, which I’m sure many will agree is not always the case.  A few years later I found that I’d never returned my school copy by accident and saw fit to give it another go, to my great pleasure.  As such I haven’t read it since then but it’s pretty well stuck in my memory.

FlowersForAlgernonFlowers for Algernon is the chronicles of a young man named Charlie Gordon, seen from the perspective of his journal entries.  Charlie, beset in life by an IQ of 68, works as a janitor in a bakery and is constantly used and abused by his co-workers and others.  He is selected to undergo an experimental operation to permanently increase his mental capacity; the first successful patient, a mouse named Algernon, becomes Charlie’s beloved companion.  The operation is a success and raises his IQ to a whopping 185, but the sudden elevation to the adult world proves difficult for Charlie as he struggles to cope with his new-found independence (not unlike Tom Hanks in Big, although far less whimsical).  He encounters relationships, sex and alcohol before trying to reconnect with his family, who could not cope with him as a child.  Meanwhile, Algernon begins to exhibit behaviour that suggests the procedure might not have been as permanent as everyone had hoped, and Charlie finds himself in a race against time to make the most of his intelligence in the event that it may not be his forever.

Personally I think this book is a must-read.  The story is emotional and moving and even perhaps quite painful to read on this account as Charlie writes down his struggles in a style which evolves with his intelligence.  The novel, based on a short story written by Keyes seven years previously, is relatively short and will appeal to anyone interested in fiction from the perspective of the mentally-handicapped, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the more modern Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (or even Forrest Gump.  Tom Hanks galore!).  It challenges perceptions of mental health without needing to diagnose Charlie as one thing or another, but even if you’re not particularly interested in that sort of thing you should still give Flowers for Algernon a go as a very worthwhile read.

My Rating:  8/10

Literary Pop: The Sun Also Rises

Author:  Ernest Hemingway
Year:  1926
Nationality:  American

Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.

Although Ernest Hemingway’s first novella, The Torrents of Spring, was released earlier in 1926, it was not until later in the same year that he would publish his first serious novel and begin to stake his claim as one of the most respected authors of the 20th century.  The Sun Also Rises, which was released first in America and then a year later in Britain under the name “Fiesta”, has been argued to be one of Hemingway’s best and most important books.  It came into my hands as a part of the large collection I received for my birthday and Christmas, although it was a bit of a surprise to receive as my other half makes no effort to hide her dislike of the works of the author concerned.  It’s not a particularly long book, and so it took me about 4 days to read.

tsarThe novel follows protagonist Jake Barnes, an American expatriate author living in Paris, as he journeys with some acquaintances to Pamplona for the annual Festival of San Fermín, famous for the “running of the bulls” and subsequent bullfights.  Jake is in love with English aristocratic divorcee Lady Brett Ashley but, although she loves him too, is rendered impotent by a war wound and thus unable to fulfil her needs.  Following some jaunts around the Paris nightlife, Jake heads to Spain with drunkard American friend Bill and generally-disliked Robert Cohn for some trout fishing; they are at length joined by Brett, with whom Cohn recently had a brief affair (and remains in love), and her latest fiancé Mike, who deals with his girlfriend’s discretions by drinking himself into oblivion.  Mike is by no means the only drinker of the group, as they each consume gallons of wine daily while attending the (sort of) titular festival.  Jake, who attends the festival regularly and is popular around the town, is embarrassed by the actions of his friends (and himself), not least Brett’s illicit relationship with a promising matador.  The group breaks up as the fiesta comes to a close, and everyone heads their separate ways until reliable Jake is once again called to the aid of the woman he loves but can never have for his own.

As my first Hemingway novel, I’ve seen enough I like to give him more of my time.  I found it relatively easy to read, and quite funny in parts (something I value highly in a book).  The writing style is a little unusual, characterised by understatement, and as usual it took me a little while to adapt but once I got going it was quite refreshing.  Some of the attitudes seem a little outdated, such as the glorification of the bullfight and the blatant (although not severe) anti-Semitism towards the Jewish Cohn, but this can’t really be taken as much of a criticism given the time in which it was written.  It’s often called one of the first modernist novels, and as an early example I thought it was good.  Not spectacular, but good.

My Rating:  7/10

Literary Pop: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Author:  Mark Twain
Year:  1884
Nationality:  American

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter.”

A couple of years ago I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain’s second novel from 1876.  This week I finally got around to trying out my girlfriend’s Kindle (I was sceptical; she was sure I’d like it; as usual, she was right) and one of the books already downloaded was this, Twain’s 1884 sequel.  I didn’t want anything too heavy right after finishing Pride and Prejudice and I remembered the pleasant readability of Tom Sawyer, so this seemed the natural choice at the time (although the first sentence (above) took me a few tries to comprehend).  This proved to be a good selection, as I thoroughly enjoyed the book and finished it in a little over three days.

HuckJimRaft_6518Picking up soon after the conclusion of Tom Sawyer, the book finds Tom’s acquaintance Huck struggling to adapt to the civilisation offered to him by the Widow Douglas, who took him at the end of the previous book.  He is more accustomed to the outdoor life, to which he is returned when his drunken, vagrant father returns and coerces him into a cabin in the woods.  Huck escapes by dramatically faking his own brutal murder, fleeing to an island in the Mississippi River where he meets Jim, escaped slave of the Widow’s sister Miss Watson, who finds himself under suspicion for the aforementioned act.  Huck and Jim contrive a plan to secure the latter’s freedom by following the river as far as it will take them.  The pair are often separated, Jim not being able to risk coming too far ashore, but they never stay far apart.  Huck spends some time in a feuding household in Kentucky before they head to Arkansas, picking up a pair of unwelcome conmen and becoming embroiled in their plot to fraudulently inherit the estate of a wealthy corpse. The tricksters are served their just desserts but not before betraying Jim to the Phelps family who take him into captivity and endeavour to return him to his owner (for a hefty reward).  Huck finds himself taken in, mistaken for their nephew, who turns out to be none other than Tom Sawyer himself.  Tom plays along with Huck’s scheme to free Jim while at the same time making things as difficult as possible for anyone and everyone, only to reveal that Miss Watson died weeks ago, freeing Jim in her will, and so they return triumphantly to their home town of St. Petersburg, Missouri.

Another one of those books called “the Great American Novel”, there’s not a lot to fault in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; it’s the quintessential adventure story.  The language has of course come under incessant criticism for its explicit use of racist terms, and now some from me just because the dialect makes it a little difficult to read at times.  In addition to this, there’s a distinct point in the novel when the plot begins to go downhill a little (did someone say Tom?).  But the rest of the book is almost relentlessly exciting and certainly makes up for any slow ending.  There’s a whole lot of action poured into a relatively small book, all seen through the eyes of a deceptively intelligent ruffian.  I think this book is superior to Tom Sawyer mostly because the protagonist is far more endearing in his mischief, and that’s what makes the book.  I’d be ashamed to be a little upstart like Tom Sawyer, but I’d be proud to be Huck Finn.

My rating: 8.5/10

Literary Pop: The Grapes of Wrath

Author:  John Steinbeck
Nationality: American
Year:  1939

Muscles aching to work, minds aching to create – this is man.”

Perhaps one of the best-known novels of John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize-winning bibliography, The Grapes of Wrath is (like 1937’s Of Mice and Men) set mostly in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  I had originally intended upon picking up something a little lighter after my desperate struggle with James Joyce, but something about this meaty book of 500 or so pages drew me in and, burning through the first hundred that night, I was sold.  Although I didn’t manage to maintain anywhere near that pace for the rest of the novel (some of us have to work, you know), I finished the book in about ten days overall.

The book begins by following young Tom Joad immediately following his parole from prison, having served four years for killing a man in a fight.  Tom returns to his family farm in Sallisaw, Oklahoma to find it abandoned and the family about to make the 1500 JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath mile trip to California in search of a new life picking cotton, peaches and the titular grapes in the Golden State.  The party soon heads for the road, consisting of Tom, his younger brother Al, older brother Noah, Ma and Pa, Granma and Grampa, Uncle John, pregnant sister Rose of Sharon and her husband Connie, youngest siblings Ruthie and Winfield, and former preacher Jim Casy.  It soon becomes clear that this bizarre bunch are by no means unusual on Highway 66, the main road to the West; the Joads are in fact merely the central characters of the much wider narrative of Depression-era migration in the USA.  They drive day after day across town and desert until reaching their destination, which offers them yet no rest.  Along with thousands of other families they are driven from camp to Hooverville to government camp, starving, desperate for work and wholly unwelcome and abused.  Various members of the party drop out along the way, and the book closes at the approach of winter, bringing with it the torrential rain and hopeless prospect of even less work.  We leave the five remaining Joads sheltering in a mostly-empty barn, having been forced to abandon their possessions to escape a flood.  The chances of them surviving until spring are grim.

The novel is, overall, pretty hopeless.  All the Joads seem to do is fight on and work, and all they ever get in return is hunger and pain.  This is I suppose what it must have been like for countless families in the US in the early 1930s;  over 1 million families lost their farms between the years of 1930 and 1934.  Steinbeck, living and writing in the era himself, does an excellent job of portraying the unrelenting hopefulness of these most hopeless of people.  Published while the Depression still had a hold on the country, the book was hard-hitting and contained a number of Steinbeck’s own controversial views regarding the abysmal treatment of the poor migrants.  Nevertheless, it has been wholeheartedly accepted as one of the greatest American Novels, and to my mind deserves the praise it gets in full.

Although The Grapes of Wrath is a little long, you shouldn’t let this deter you from reading it.  Steinbeck’s style is simple (in a good way) and eminently readable.  The depressing subject matter is dealt with in an remarkably light way without losing any of the gravity it deserves.  I thought this was an excellent book, and I’m certainly going to put more Steinbeck higher on my to-read list.

My Rating: 8/10