Tag Archives: Literary Fiction

Review: Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Today is the first Sunday in the U.S. for 2016 American football season.  In case you haven’t read my bio., I am a life-long fan of the New York Football Giants and every Sunday in the fall I can be found glued to the scores rolling in throughout the day.  I am also in a fantasy football league with the guys at work so this gives every Sunday some added excitement.  Graham Swift, in his latest work of fiction, also uses the tradition of Sunday being a special day in England at the time when large estates employed servants.

My Review:
mothering-sundayThe most important decisions and in our lives can oftentimes be traced to the events of a single day.  Jane Fairchild is a writer in her nineties and decided that this would be her career on one preternaturally warm spring day in March of 1924.  Jane was a maid at the Beechwoods estate for the Niven family and she was having a secret affair with the upper class son who lived on the neighboring estate and on this day in March her lover summons her to his room for an afternoon of sensual pleasure.

The annual Lenten tradition of giving the staff a day off, called “Mothering Sunday,” was carried on in Britain during the era of large estates which employed servants.  The maids, cooks, butlers and other servants were allowed the day off on this special Sunday and many of them made it a habit to visit their mothers.  But Jane Fairchild is an orphan and, in fact, she is a foundling so she has no idea what her real name is, if she was ever given one, or what her actual date of birth is.  The orphanage named her Jane and assigned her May 1st as a birthday.  But Jane is never bitter or upset about her fate as an orphan.  She believes that if it were not for her humble and unknown beginnings then she never would have experienced that special Sunday in 1924 and might not have ever become a successful writer.

Jane came into service at Beechwoods as a young girl of sixteen and not long after that she meets and begins a passionate affair with Paul Sheringham.  Paul is the confidant and spoiled son of the neighboring Upleigh estate.  He had two brothers who were both killed in The Great War so the fact that he is still alive is a miracle and as the only surviving male heir no one ever questions his actions or choices.   When Paul and Jane begin their affair Paul pays Jane for their little trysts but as the relationship between them develops and becomes more mature they both find themselves invested in their time spent together and they carry on like this for seven years.

Paul is engaged to a woman named Emma Hobday and when the Sheringhams, Hobdays and Nivens are all meeting for lunch on a warm Sunday in March in 1924 Paul immediately summons Jane to his bedroom so that they can take advantage of her day off in the Sheringham’s empty house.  Jane and Paul usually meet in places between the two houses, like the garden path, so this Sunday is very special for Jane.  Paul even greets her at the front door, a place where a common maid would never enter the lavish home.

The first part of the book is a description of Jane’s invitation to Paul’s room and what happens once she gets there.  Swift’s writing is detailed, sensual and mesmorizing.  Jane describes what she sees in Paul’s room since she is visiting it for the first time, she describes how their encounter begins and she describes how Paul gets dressed when they are finished.  There is a focus on their nakedness and the sheer revelry of doing what they want in a place that is normally forbidden to them.  I was captivated by Swift’s writing and the suspense he creates in the story through Jane’s narrative of what happens on this special Sunday.  Jane and Paul never talk about the future or his impending marriage, but Jane assumes that this will be their last encounter and they will never find the time again for these secret and passionate trysts.

My only complaint about the book is the ending.  The last part of the narrative becomes solely about Jane and her feelings about being an author.  By this time she is a ninety-year-old woman who has had a long and successful career and she becomes philosophical about her progress as a writer.  The eroticism and mystique of the first part are lost by the end.   Overall,  this is definitely a book worth going back and starting from the beginning many times over.

About the Author:
graham-swiftGraham Colin Swift FRSL (born May 4, 1949) is a British author. He was born in London, England and educated at Dulwich College, London, Queens’ College, Cambridge, and later the University of York. He was a friend of Ted Hughes.

Some of his works have been made into films, including Last Orders, which starred Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins and Waterland which starred Jeremy Irons. Last Orders was a joint winner of the 1996 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and a mildly controversial winner of the Booker Prize in 1996, owing to the superficial similarities in plot to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Waterland was set in The Fens; it is a novel of landscape, history and family, and is often cited as one of the outstanding post-war British novels and has been a set text on the English Literature syllabus in British schools.

 

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Review: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Gallic Books through NetGalley.

My Review:
Lena GauntWhen we first meet Lena Gaunt, she is a lonely octogenarian who has been invited to play her theremin at a music festival near her home in Perth, Australia.  Lena has had a long and interesting life and her most notable accomplishment has been as an innovative musician.  After her performance on her theremin, a odd looking electric instrument that one plays by manipulating one’s hands in the air without touching it, she relaxes in her trailer by smoking some heroin.  At first this seems funny that a woman her age is engaging in such extracurricular activities; but as we learn more about Lena’s life, we come to understand that her dependence on mind altering drugs helps numb the pain of the  devastating losses she has experienced.

Lena is actually born in Singapore in 1910 where her father is a successful and wealthy businessman.  When Lena is only four-years-old she is shipped off to Australia to attend a boarding school.  This is the first experience of lost love that Lena experiences.  She is alone at this school, far away from any family and her only comfort is her music.  Her mother’s brother, Uncle Valentine, drops in on her every once in a while and it is Uncle Val that eventually introduces her to the cello.  Music becomes, for Lena, an escape, a comfort; it soothes her and gives her something on which to focus.

When Lena is a young adult she finally settles in Sydney among a group of artists and their patrons.  It is during this period where she is introduced to a professor who has invented the theremin and her expert playing and manipulation of this innovate instrument are what launches her into the spotlight.  It is also during this time that Lena meets the love of her life, Beatrix, who is a talented painter and artist in her own right.

Lena has a full life during which she is showered with accolades and acknowledgement for her musical talent.  But despite her success,  a feeling of loss and loneliness pervade her life.  She moves around the world, from Paris to London to New York City, but in the end she finds her way back to Perth and to the beach and ocean which she loves so much.

This seems, at first, like a quiet and slow book but about half way through it grabs you and sneaks up on you until you can’t put it down because you so desparately want to know what happens to Lena and those she loves.  I will admit that I had to wipe a tear or two from my eyes after finishing her story.

Gallic Books has brought us another brilliant, character centered story that I highly recommend.  They were one of my favorite publishers last year and their winning streak continues with me.  Kudos to Tracy Farr for a successful first book that is being published not only in her native Australia, but in England and the United States as well.

About the Author:
Tracy FarrTracy Farr is an Australian novelist, short story writer, and former research scientist. Since 1996 she’s lived in Wellington, New Zealand

Tracy’s debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt is published in Australia and New Zealand by Fremantle Press (2013), and in the UK by Aardvark Bureau (2016) for international release (excl. Aus/NZ).

 

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Review: Bird by Noy Holland

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Counterpoint Press through Edelweiss

My Review:
BirdThis is a bizarre and surreal book that follows two different periods in the life of a woman named Bird.  And actually Bird doesn’t even seem to be her real name, but a strange nickname given to her by a former boyfriend named Mickey.  When the book opens, we are given a glimpse into a typical day in the life of Bird, a housewife and a mother of two young children.  Her oldest child, although a little boy of an indeterminate age,  is apparently old enough to go to school, is getting ready to catch the bus.  Bird is trying to get her son ready for his day at school and make him breakfast while also dealing with the needs of her infant daughter.  From all outward appearances, Bird seems to have a happy and content domestic life.

But in between her domestic tasks Bird keeps remembering the time she spent with her old boyfriend named Mickey.  Bird met Mickey when she was very young and they lived on very little money in horrible, decrepit apartments.  For quite some time, they carried on a vagabond existence fueled by drugs and sex.  When Bird finds out that she is pregnant, she and Mickey could not be happier and they immediately name their unborn child Caroline.  Even though they have little money and no jobs, they are happy and want to make a life together with their baby.  But when Bird has an unexpected miscarriage, things begin to come apart in their relationship.  Mickey starts wandering off for days at a time and his moods and behavior become unpredictable and erratic.

After the miscarriage, Bird and Mickey go on a road trip, traveling part of they way in his old car and eventually ending up on foot and hitchhiking.  The parts that describe their journey are very strange and disjoined, especially when compared against the backdrop of Bird’s current, orderly life.  At one point when Bird is home alone with her baby, she drinks rum and takes a hot bath with her baby.  This episode of drinking during the day makes us wonder if there is some discontent in Bird’s life, or if she maybe at least has a longing for the chaos and freedom that she experienced with Mickey in her youth.  Bird also revisits her past through conversations with her old friend Suzie with whom she speaks to a several points throughout her day.  And Bird further recounts letters that she has written to her mother which express the extremes of happiness and sorrow that she experiences in her life with Mickey.

I also have to mentioned the language of the book which takes some getting used to.  When I first started reading the story I almost gave up because I found the disjointed and choppy sentences very distracting from the story.  Some paragraphs even go on for half a page with single words that serve as sentences.   However, as I read the more cohesive parts of the story, I  became very interested in Bird’s narrative.  I also started to view the disjointed language as something very fitting for the turmoil that Bird feels in her mind.  On the one had she loves her husband and children, but on the other hand she can’t help but feel pulled back by the memories of her past.  I don’t think Bird would give up her family to find and be with Mickey again, but her time with him has left an indelible and ineradicable impression on her memory and on her soul.

About the Author:
Noy HollanNoy Holland’s debut novel, Bird, is forthcoming from Counterpoint in Fall 2015. Her collections of short fiction and novellas include Swim for the Little One First (FC2), What Begins with Bird (FC2), and The Spectacle of the Body (Knopf.) She has published work in The Kenyon Review, Antioch, Conjunctions, The Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Western Humanities Review, The Believer, NOON, and New York Tyrant, among others. She was a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council award for artistic merit and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She has taught for many years in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts, as well as at Phillips Andover and the University of Florida. She serves on the board of directors at Fiction Collective Two.

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Review: The Blue Guitar by John Banville

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher through Edelweiss.

My Review:
The Blue GuitarOliver Orme, in the opening part of the novel, is fleeing his home, his career and his life.  He has had an affair with his friend’s wife and the torrid details of the tryst has been uncovered.  Oliver is not sure how his own wife, Gloria, will react and he isn’t even sure how his lover, Polly will react to his sudden departure.  All Oliver knows is that his life is spiraling out of control and his instinct is to flee.

The first part of the book describes Oliver’s relationship with his wife and his meetings with his lover.  Oliver has fled to his boyhood home so there are also many scenes in which Oliver reminisces about his family and his childhood.  He is the youngest boy in a large family and was particularly close to his mother.  When he is a child Oliver picks up a very bad habit of stealing minor things.  He relates in great detail his first theft which was a tube of paint in a local art store.  The rush that Oliver feels when he is engaging in his kleptomania is like a drug that compels him to keep stealing from his friends and family well into middle age.  The latest thing he has stolen is Polly and now that the affair is out in the open he wants nothing more than to flee the entire unpleasant situation.

In the second part of the book Polly shows up at Oliver’s boyhood home with her two-year-old daughter Pip.  Polly has decided to leave her husband and is on her way to her parents’ house and asks Oliver to accompany her.  This episode in the second part of the book is very bizarre as Polly’s eccentric family is described in great detail.  Oliver stays there overnight and manages to escape the house secretly without anyone noticing.  It is really unclear why Polly wanted Oliver to accompany her home in the first place.  It is, however, very evident that this passionate, nine month affair has run its course and Polly and Oliver no longer love each other.  Banville provides us with unique insight into an affair because this is one that never could have lasted.  It leaves the characters wondering whether having a brief relationship was really worth disturbing the lives of so many people.

The final part of the book deals with Oliver’s return home and his confrontation with his wife Gloria.  At this point Gloria has some disconcerting news of her own to share in return.  The third part of the book actually has two shocking twists to the tale that I never saw coming.  To be perfectly honest, Oliver was such an unlikeable and almost despicable character in the first part of the book that I almost gave up reading it.  However, I am very glad that I pressed on because the reasons for his emotional instability are revealed further into the book.  Oliver is a well-recognized and talented painter and because of the tragedy he has suffered in his life he has pretty much given up on his career.  Banville demonstrates, through the characters of Oliver and his wife that grief is a tricky emotion that we all deal with very differently.

Finally, I have to mention the beautiful prose and language that Banville uses to relate this story.  The entire book is told in the first person, through the eyes of Oliver himself.  There are a number of interesting rhetorical devices and plays on words and language that Banville uses throughout the writing.  I highly recommend this novel just to experience a taste of Banville’s clever and elegant prose.

About The Author:
J BanvilleBanville was born in Wexford, Ireland. His father worked in a garage and died when Banville was in his early thirties; his mother was a housewife. He is the youngest of three siblings; his older brother Vincent is also a novelist and has written under the name Vincent Lawrence as well as his own. His sister Vonnie Banville-Evans has written both a children’s novel and a reminiscence of growing up in Wexford.

Educated at a Christian Brothers’ school and at St Peter’s College in Wexford. Despite having intended to be a painter and an architect he did not attend university. Banville has described this as “A great mistake. I should have gone. I regret not taking that four years of getting drunk and falling in love. But I wanted to get away from my family. I wanted to be free.” After school he worked as a clerk at Aer Lingus which allowed him to travel at deeply-discounted rates. He took advantage of this to travel in Greece and Italy. He lived in the United States during 1968 and 1969. On his return to Ireland he became a sub-editor at the Irish Press, rising eventually to the position of chief sub-editor. His first book, Long Lankin, was published in 1970.

After the Irish Press collapsed in 1995, he became a sub-editor at the Irish Times. He was appointed literary editor in 1998. The Irish Times, too, suffered severe financial problems, and Banville was offered the choice of taking a redundancy package or working as a features department sub-editor. He left. Banville has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books since 1990. In 1984, he was elected to Aosdána, but resigned in 2001, so that some other artist might be allowed to receive the cnuas.

Banville also writes under the pen name Benjamin Black. His first novel under this pen name was Christine Falls, which was followed by The Silver Swan in 2007. Banville has two adult sons with his wife, the American textile artist Janet Dunham. They met during his visit to San Francisco in 1968 where she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Dunham described him during the writing process as being like “a murderer who’s just come back from a particularly bloody killing”. Banville has two daughters from his relationship with Patricia Quinn, former head of the Arts Council of Ireland.

Banville has a strong interest in vivisection and animal rights, and is often featured in Irish media speaking out against vivisection in Irish university research.

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Review: Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

My Review:
Call me By Your nameThe twenty-four year old university student named Oliver who is one of the two main characters in this intense novel is writing a manuscript about the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.  I took a Pre-Socratic seminar in graduate school and translated some of Heraclitus’ fragments which, to say the least, are mind boggling.  Even in antiquity he was known as Heraclitus “the obscure.”  Heraclitus could not be a more fitting author with which to compare the emotional turmoil, upheaval and even confusion that both Oliver and Elio share in this book.

Elio is a shy seventeen-year-old who is interested in music and literature.  He spends all of his summers at his parents’ villa on the Italian Riviera; and each summer Elio’s father, a university professor, invites a young scholar to come and live with the family for six weeks as a type of mentorship.  There have been a string of writers and house guests for Elio’s entire life, but this particular summer becomes unforgettable and life changing as soon as Oliver steps out of the cab and greets Elio.

The author is a genius at describing, in beautiful and intense prose, the initial resistance between lovers when the first stages of attraction are felt.  Elio finds that he cannot stop thinking about Oliver, he craves Oliver’s attention and wants Oliver’s approval in all he does.  When Oliver is not around the house and when Oliver is not in a talkative mood then Elio feels like he has had a bad day.  We have all had these experiences where our mood and our happiness are dependent on the small scraps of attention we may or may not receive from the one with whom we are in love.

One of the most significant and symbolic scenes in the book is when, after they play a tennis match together,  Oliver puts his arm around Elio and Elio at first leans into his embrace but then feels embarrassed and shrugs Oliver off.  Throughout the first part of the book Elio and Oliver repeat the scenario of this embrace by coming close to having a physical relationship but then resisting and pulling away from each other.

One of my favorite fragments of Heraclitus is one that is attributed to him by Plato (Cratylus 402A): “Heraclitus, you know, says that everything moves on and that nothing is at rest; and, comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says that you could not step into the same river twice.”  As Elio and Oliver finally confess their feelings to one another and fall into a very intense physical relationship they know that the six weeks at the Italian countryside can never be replicated again.  They meet again at Christmas and several years later when they are older but they can never recapture the physical and emotional intensity of their summer on the Riviera.

The mutability of life, identity, and sexuality are all highlighted in this book through Elio and Oliver’s relationship.  This is one of those books that is very difficult to describe fully and to do justice in a short review but I promise that it will bring out a variety of emotions in every reader.

I first discovered this book on my of my favorite blogs, roughghosts.  Joe has a beautiful review of this book (and many others) so please check out his site as well.

About The Author:
Andre AcimanAndré Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is an American memoirist, essayist, novelist, and scholar of seventeenth-century literature. He has also written many essays and reviews on Marcel Proust. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Condé Nast Traveler as well as in many volumes of The Best American Essays. Aciman received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University, has taught at Princeton and Bard and is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at The CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently chair of the Ph. D. Program in Comparative Literature and founder and director of The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center.

Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995), an account of his childhood as a Jew growing up in post-colonial Egypt. Aciman has published two other books: False Papers: Essays in Exile and Memory (2001), and a novel Call Me By Your Name (2007), which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Lambda Literary Award for Men’s Fiction (2008). His forthcoming novel Eight White Nights (FSG) will be published on February 14, 2010

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