Sunday, 22 January 2017

MORE GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2017

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett


           Assistant District Attorney Albert (called Bert) Cousins gatecrashes a christening party one Sunday in Los Angeles.  He hardly knows Fix Keating, the detective who is celebrating his baby Francie’s baptism, but he’d heard other police and colleagues discussing the upcoming Sunday festivities, so he decided to come too – even though he hadn’t been invited.
            For Albert Cousins cannot bear to go home;  his wife and he have had three children in very quick succession, and Teresa is now hugely pregnant with a fourth.  His reckless statement when courting Teresa that he would love to have kids – ‘lots of them!’ is now coming to grim fruition, and he finds that he would rather work himself into the ground than spend any more time than he has to in the chaos and mayhem created by small children.  And the gilt has definitely worn off the gingerbread for his poor wife, who might as well be a solo mother for all the assistance she gets from her absentee husband:  she would feel even more fury if she knew that instead of coming home he has secreted himself at a party to which he wasn’t even invited, just so that he can kill time until after the yelling, disgusting, slobbering wee ones are in bed.
            To add insult to painful injury, Bert meets Fix’s wife Beverly whipping up a storm of drinks in the kitchen.  He cannot believe that a perfectly ordinary looking guy like Fix (short for Frances Xavier) could be wed to such a beautiful woman.  HE should be her knight;  her champion;  her lover.  Beverly thinks so too, and both embark on an affair that breaks up both families, and the hearts of all.
            They eventually marry, but not for keeps – spitefully, Bert makes life as hard as possible for Teresa (he is a legal eagle, after all), tying up their finances in drawn-out, complicated exchanges – then, when he is successful in having his four children stay with him for the entire summer vacation, palms them off onto his new bride.  Beverly didn’t bargain for a job as nanny to six children, all of whom have ‘issues’ caused by the divorces.  Both her daughters live with her – again, clever legal representation – and Fix is only allowed to see his daughters for two weeks in the summer break.  In her mind, this is entirely fair.  But four extra kids?  And such weird ones?  And where is their father, when he should be on deck being a strong, firm role model?  Hiding in his office, pretending to work;  repeating the behaviour that wrecked his first marriage.  Divorce # two coming up.
            Ms Patchett’s Dramedy of family life is one that every family can recognise, especially for those with new Stepsiblings they are supposed to blend seamlessly with so that they are all One Big Happy Family – which is what the new Stepmums and Stepdads always hope for but seldom occurs, as is proven by Frannie, whose christening party it was twenty-four years ago. 
            In the first flush of a wonderful love affair with a famous novelist, she recounts to him her summer vacations with her stepsiblings, their secrets and their faults and their view of their respective parents’ ill-starred union, never dreaming that her lover would weave her family’s travails into a best-seller, with future movie rights up for grabs.  The ructions caused by her indiscretion reverberate throughout the family.  Their lives – and loyalties - will never be the same again.
            Ms Patchett effortlessly demonstrates yet again her superior gift to transform what she sees and feels into a chronicle of lives wasted, lost – and celebrated.  What a pleasure she is to read.  FIVE STARS

Those Who Leave, and Those Who Stay, and
The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, Books four and five
Of The Neopolitan Novels.


            Elena Ferrante is justly famous for her quartet of novels recounting the lifelong friendship of two girls born in Naples in the same month of the same year, August 1944:  Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo and Elena (Lenu) Greco have travelled far from the violence and mean streets of their childhood – though Lila, whose mighty intelligence and beauty could have endowed her with a future of her choice, elects to stay in the neighbourhood, despite the breakup of her marriage and the end of her affair with Nino Sarratore, Elena’s great, unrequited love. 

           The neighbourhood is still controlled by the Solara brothers;  they now have fingers in many financial pies, and those who cross them or those who cannot pay the exorbitant cost of the ‘protection’ of being friends with them are soon ruined, financially, physically and spiritually:  the Solaras are very thorough.  And they are both obsessed with Lila, because she is the only person who has never been afraid of them;  her cheerful contempt is a constant thorn in their side and sooner or later they will find the means to bring her to heel – where she should be.  Elena, by contrast, decides that the only way she can have a happy life is to leave Naples, that city of the raucous working-class, academic Brahmins playing at being socialists and the sham modernism of its gimcrack architecture:  for her own survival she must find another life elsewhere – when all is said and done, there is nothing to keep her in Naples anyway:  she is at constant loggerheads with her family, who are proud of her educational achievements on one hand, and simultaneously contemptuous of her on the other, for not contributing any money to the family coffers.  And there is no chance of her great love for Nino Sarratore being returned;  in fact no-one seems to know where he is.  So!
            Yes, it is time to go and Elena is fortunate to gain a scholarship to a university in Pisa:  for the first time in her life, she is exposed on a semi-permanent basis to a completely different lifestyle;  different accents, manners, fashions and ways of learning.  The southern bumpkin has to transform herself as quickly as possible, or become an object of fun to her more sophisticated class mates.  Desperation to fit in, and her own academic excellence pave the way for a new Elena, one who discovers politics and socialism in particular, thanks to her new boyfriend Franco:  it is the late 60’s and the time of student unrest, particularly in Paris – she and Franco even travel to Paris (her first time out of Italy – could this really be happening to Elena Greco from the neighbourhood?).  Life’s boundaries have suddenly disappeared, and Elena cannot believe the intellectual, social – and sexual freedom that now exists.  And she begins work on her first novel.
            By this time, Franco is a figure from the past;  he failed his exams and after sporadic correspondence disappeared who knows where;  Elena is now seeing Pietro Airota, a young professor with a glowing future.  His mother is very encouraging of her work and through her many contacts arranges to have it published, much to Elena’s joy – and apprehension, for the story is about a secret, something she did entirely for revenge and self-disgust, and wrote originally as a cathartic exercise.  In the way of these things, her little book takes on a life of its own.  It becomes a success.
            And her marriage to Pietro is not.  After the birth of two daughters, the daily grind of domesticity and looking after a man whose head is always somewhere else, plus the absolute lack of enough inspiration to start another book means that Elena is more than ready for another titanic change in her circumstances.

           Nino Sarratore reappears.
            Suddenly, Elena is assailed – pursued by her god, he who had never shown any romantic or sexual interest in her before now finds her irresistible.
Nino has also advanced his own academic career prospects by marrying into a wealthy and influential Neopolitan family but, afire with his huge passion for Elena, swears to leave his wife (‘I never loved her!’) and child – if only Elena will join him in Naples – what a life they will have, together at last, always.
            It takes some time for Elena to realise that her idol has feet of clay:  after persuading her to burn all her boats and end her marriage to move south to join him she is deeply hurt to find that he is not prepared to jettison his own ties to his wife;  instead he maintains two households – well, why not when he has access to so much money?  And though he acknowledges paternity of a daughter born to them, he still refuses to make any permanent commitment.
            Lila adds insult to injury by disclosing that he has made advances to her as well, and other old friends from the neighbourhood report instances of his casual, almost daily betrayals:  finally, Elena must make the break and stand or fall on her own – and, once again, Lila and her companion Enzo come to the rescue.   The apartment above theirs in the neighbourhood is vacant.  Why not move in?
            Why indeed.  Elena is back where she started, in the mean streets of her childhood, there to hate herself for subjecting her daughters to a reduced standard of living in a low-class area, yet simultaneously revelling in the loyalty and affection of her dearest friends.  Lila and Enzo have discovered gold in computers (it’s the 80’s) and have started their own company;  they are even computerising the files of the Solaras – a task more fraught with danger than they realise, especially when Lila still won’t show them the proper respect.
            It is only a matter of time before the Solaras take their revenge with an act so terrible that it destroys lives, friendships, and the neighbourhood:  everything that defined Lila, Elena and their loved ones as good and inviolate has been shattered like breaking glass .  Their old lives have gone;  it is up to them as to what they will make of the future.  Elena manages and gains more success as a writer;  Lila is not so fortunate;  she rejects everyone and becomes angry and reclusive.  All friendships are over and Elena eventually leaves the neighbourhood for the last time, but not before witnessing the just and terrible retribution wrought on the Solara brothers.

            Yes:  the old adage ‘Revenge is a dish that people can eat cold’ was never more amply demonstrated.  Ms Ferrante has created a master work.  Her stark prose has the same effect as a fist in our faces.  She richly deserves all the praise heaped upon her.   FIVE STARS                    

Thursday, 5 January 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2017

Blue Dog, by Louis de Bernières

            ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ made Mr de Bernières so famous that he needs no introduction here;  currently he is working ‘on an enormous trilogy’ (his own words) the first volume – I hope – reviewed below.  Several of his books have been filmed, including ‘Red Dog’, a lovely tale based on the true story of a dog called ‘The Pilbara Wanderer’ who travelled whenever he could get a lift to various mining towns in Western Australia – he wasn’t adopted by people:  he decided who he would befriend, and for how long.  I hadn’t read the book, and after seeing the film decided that I was a big girl’s blouse and couldn’t bear more tears – it was a six-hanky movie!
            Anyway, a film prequel has been made which I shall be brave enough to see, for Red Dog doesn’t die at the end - hooray!  Again, Mr de Bernières has written another charmer, this time based on the screenplay by Daniel Taplitz. 
            We meet Red Dog’s original owner, 12 year-old Mick, who arrives in the middle of the Woop-Woops courtesy of a battered Cessna piloted by a rough and ready aviator who, after depositing him in the middle of a red desert excused himself ‘to shake hands with the unemployed’, shocking Mick to the core, for ‘he was from a polite family in Sydney, and they didn’t wee in public.’
            Mick has been sent to live with his grandfather who has a sheep station in what appears to be Mars;  his father died six months ago and his mother has had a mental collapse.  There is no-one else to look after him and he hasn’t visited his Granpa since he was two.  He has never felt more alone in his life.  He is trying not to be sad, trying not to cry, but it’s hard yakka:  he hopes he will be able to show a brave face, and not be a disappointment, a pale-faced city boy, albeit covered in red dust from the plane’s messy landing.
            Mr de Bernières weaves his reliable magic and we are hooked from the first page;  Mick’s  Granpa is the predictable rough diamond, helping his grandson to assimilate into the life of an outback station with lots of homespun wisdom – and uniquely Aussie humour.  I was so impressed by the writer’s effortless grasp of the wonderful slang that I had to Google him because I thought he was a Dinky-Di Aussie disguised as a Pom!  (My apologies to those of British ancestry – including Mr de Bernières, but I am paying him a huge compliment!)  
            For those who find all the dialect mystifying there is a Glossary at the end of the book where all shall be revealed, but what becomes beautifully clear is the healing process gradually established by good, rough and ready men who, despite their own losses (Mick’s dead father was Granpa’s beloved son) work together to make the world liveable again for a child who has lost everything.  
            And when a shivering, half-drowned puppy makes his appearance after a flood, Mick couldn’t ask for more – except a name for his new friend:  well, that was pretty easy, according to Granpa.  ‘All red dogs are called Blue.  It’s just a fact of life, the same as fat people are always called Slim.’
            This is a beautiful, poignant little story, made even better because Blue doesn’t die.  SIX STARS!

The Dust That Falls From Dreams, by Louis de Bernières

            It is August, 1902, and loyal Britons are holding Coronation parties throughout the land, for the dear old Queen has died after ruling for 63 years,   and her elderly and high-living son Edward the Seventh has ascended the throne.  The Victorian era has ended and the Edwardian age has begun, those sunlit years that reinforced – for the last time – the rigidity of class and certainty of one’s station in life:  everyone knows where they stand, and all is right with the world.
            Three prosperous neighbouring families meet on this beautiful summer day to celebrate the King’s ascension;  Mr and Mrs Pendennis, lately come from Baltimore, U.S.A. with their three fine sons;  Mr and Mrs Hamilton McCosh and their four vivacious daughters, and Mr and Mrs Pitt, parents of four strapping sons, two of whom are already fighting in the Boer War.  They are all fast friends and the children call themselves The Pals, certain that they will be friends always – in fact Rosie, the oldest McCosh girl has already accepted an offer of marriage (when they are old enough) from Ashbridge Pendennis, formalised by the gift of a brass curtain ring.  She will be his forever.
            It transpires that several of the other boys have crushes on Rosie, for she is the prettiest and because she has eyes for no-one but Ash, the most unattainable, despite great feats of courage and daring performed by the Pitt boys, Archie and Daniel in an effort to impress.  And Rosie IS impressed, but not long enough to alter her unswerving devotion to her beloved.
Mr de Berniéres, author of the wonderful ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is a master at setting the scene for this lovely story of the War to End all Wars and the  death of an Empire;  his characters beautifully personify the times, especially when ‘that dreadful Kaiser’ starts the war and the flower of England’s youth rush to enlist – after all, ‘it will be all over by Christmas’ and no young man wants to miss out on the excitement and the opportunity to ‘do his bit’, including Ashbridge Pendennis and Daniel Pitt, leaving their loved ones at home to fret and marvel at their bravery.
And the worst happens:  Ash dies of his wounds in France, leaving Rosie with a yawning hole in her life which she tries to fill with religion.  She and her sisters attempt to give meaning to their lives by volunteering at the hospitals to look after the wounded and are horrified and chastened by the suffering they see and try to alleviate.  Daniel Pitt’s two brothers did not return from South Africa and his widowed mother fears for her remaining two sons, for Daniel has become an Air Ace, and Archie is fighting on the NorthWest Frontier.  Life will never be the same again.  They will never return to the halcyon days of Coronation parties and certainty of place and Empire, and Mrs. McCosh, a gentlewoman who corresponds upon occasion with the King – and his secretary always replies – is horrified at the breakdown of manners and mores which now allow common people to Actually Come to the Front Door.  It’s entirely too awful to think about!
This is a story that is not finished in this book;  there are many characters (some extremely irritating, Rosie’s twitty sister Sophie being a prime example) that still have parts to play and the pace is so leisurely (except for the superb, brutal battle scenes) and the ending so inconclusive that Mr de Bernières MUST be planning a sequel.  I live in hope!  FIVE STARS.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry.

            In an obscure Essex coastal village, rumours flourish:  it has long been accepted by the locals that their little settlement of Aldwinter has been the occasional home of a sea serpent, a huge creature with ‘wings like umbrellas’ and a long thrashing tail, capable of taking  livestock and children when fish are in short supply.  It first made its appearance in the 17th century, and has been a stock explanation ever since for inexplicable absences; after a long period of quiet there have been so many puzzling and tragic anomalies lately that the rumour machine is working overtime:  the serpent has returned!
            Into this divided camp of superstition and ‘seeing-is-believing’ comes Cora Seaborne, a wealthy woman recently widowed (and not the least bit mournful.)  She has a keen interest in the fossils of millions of years ago, so recently discovered at Lyme Regis by – dare she utter it – A WOMAN! And Cora Seaborne hopes to discover the truth or otherwise of the tales that have reached as far as her upper-class home in London.  That her husband, the source of her wealth, has just died very painfully of throat cancer concerns her not at all:  he was a sadist and deserved his end and if anyone asked Cora (which they haven’t) she would reply that she earned every minute of the new-found freedom her wealth has given her.  Her only regret is that she does not have a more loving relationship with her son Francis, a solitary boy who does not regard the world as ordinary children do.
            Cora has a paid companion of whom she is very fond, Martha, originally hired to be a nurse to Francis, but becoming more of an indispensable friend as the years go by;  Martha is a socialist and wishes to make life better and more liveable for the poor, and to that end she harbours contempt for all the idle rich she meets through Cora but, emboldened by her friend’s heady first tastes of freedom and new-found feminism she is convinced that the Victorian male-dominated world can be breeched if only there were more women like themselves!
            Ms Perry paints a vast and splendid portrait of a world that in its strictures and mores still bears a chilling similarity to our own supposedly ‘enlightened’ one, especially with regard to price-gouging investors and their connection to homelessness and poverty;  she also employs through her main protagonists spirited combat between superstition, blind religious faith and scientific logic – for Cora meets the local vicar William Ransome and his beautiful wife Stella and is charmed by their whole family – but not enough to keep her revolutionary opinions to herself.  And the Reverend, trying all the while to turn his frightened flock away from what he sees as absurd superstition applied to coincidences (rather a number of them, it must be said) has also to fight a growing attraction for the hurricane force that is the newly-released Cora Seaborne, who wants only to be recognised as a person of intellect, of ideas, not the wearer of silks, corsets (!), jewels and perceived conventions.
            In the hands of a lesser writer, we would have had a good old-fashioned Victorian Fruity Melodrama, but Ms Perry writes with beauty and elegance and her stunning imagery lays bare the ugliness of Victorian life as well as its sumptuousness.  Does anything ever really change?  FIVE STARS.