Monday, 30 January 2012

Freedom: Jonathan Franzen

Freedom is a highly political book - not that Franzen's other books aren’t - but this is very obviously a ‘state of America today’ family fable - as the Time reviewer puts it 'he shows us how we are'.  Which I find quite pretentious, because  - shouldn't every contemporary novel reflect how we are in some way or other?  What's so special about this one? I want to ask.  And I don't just want to be instructed or admonished, I want to be entertained, moved, shaken out of my socks with sheer joy.

The novel is centred around an American family - not necessarily typical.  Patty is the daughter of a New York politician and her successful businessman husband.  They have four children - all expected to be high achievers.  Patty is a sports star but, curiously, her parents aren’t interested in her or her achievements at all, so caught up in their own lives they don’t even have time to watch her play.  When Patty is raped in high school by a prominent citizen’s son,  their response is all about damage limitation rather than her emotional well-being.

When an accident cuts short her career while she’s still at college she marries - not the rock musician she lusts after - but his best friend - the caring, altruistic, save-the-planet, law student Walter, who idolises her.

Things work out as badly as you might expect.  Their children grow up as screwed up as their parents, and the marriage gradually unravels, against a background of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Haliburton, and skulduggery in high (and low) places.

Walter heads a conservation project that’s a front for coal mining and mineral extraction, and his son Joey gets involved in a dodgy, but lucrative, project selling vehicles to the military for use in Iraq.

The funniest scene in the book is when Joey, who has made a crazy secret teenage marriage, accidentally swallows his wedding ring just as he’s about to embark on a weekend of guilt-ridden adultery, and has to extract the ring from his turds in a hotel bathroom - it brings a whole new meaning to the expression ‘a dirty weekend’!

The style of the book didn’t appeal to me though - it’s narrated in a very old fashioned 'told story' way - and I was sometimes bored by the long political conversations that the characters have with each other - but this is Jonathan Franzen.  He writes compellingly and his characters are always fascinating and three dimensional.

The story is told, like The Corrections, from the point of view of each character in turn, but unlike The Corrections, the voices are not really distinct from each other, but told by the impersonal narrative voice I found frustrating because it distanced me from the people I was reading about and whose heads I was supposed to be in.

But it is compelling and I read to the end (though I skipped through some of the conversations).  I’m afraid I didn’t believe the ‘happy-ever-after’ ending, but that probably has to do with the fact that the plot echoes episodes in my own personal history.  I empathised with battery-chicken Patty, whose legs and wings atrophy as she tries to make her marriage work, and I cheered her on when she finally grasped freedom.  But at the end of the book I was shouting ‘don’t do it’, with all the wisdom of experience.

This novel isn’t JF's best book, but it’s still seriously good.  Incidentally,  Jonathan Franzen’s controversial ideas about the E-book were aired on Norman Geras’ blog today.  Interesting, considering the fact that I read the book on my Kindle!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Bella Pollen: Summer of the Bear

I first encountered Bella Pollen when my daughter gave me a proof copy of Midnight Cactus a few years ago.  I loved it and went on to read Hunting Unicorns (she has wonderful titles).  Then I just forgot about her, or perhaps her work didn't cross my line of vision.

But then I saw Summer of the Bear on a book blog and bought it as soon as I realised it was available on Kindle.  I felt slightly wary when I saw it had been a Richard and Judy book choice - I'm often disappointed by over-hyped books - but the first chapter set my mind at rest.  This book is beautifully written and characterised and I completely lost myself in it.  Yes, I suppose it is classifiable as 'women's romantic fiction', but only in the widest possible terms.  It's a very literary novel that should appeal to both sexes.

It's set during the cold war - the jittery era of Philby, Burgess and Maclean.  As the book opens a middle aged woman, Letty, recently bereaved, is taking her children to spend the summer (and possibly the rest of their lives) on the remote scottish island where she spent her own childhood summers.  Her husband, a high-flying diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, has - apparently - committed suicide by throwing himself off the Embassy roof.  There's a suspicion that he may have been a traitor.  Like a wounded animal, Letty is going to ground in the one place she feels safe.   Her three children know very little about their father's death and their mother is so numbed by grief she seems barely aware of their existence.  A Hebridean island isn't exactly where they want to be.  The teenage daughter, Georgie, is ready to fly the nest and missing her life in Bonn;  the middle daughter, Alba, an angry sociopath, is determined to make everyone's life hell as punishment for something she can't even identify;  and Jamie, the youngest, autistic, son is just trying to make sense of life and death.

The narrative is told from each point of view - Bella Pollen is able to get inside the heads of the children with absolute conviction.  The only parts I didn't like were the short sections from the bear's point of view, which I felt were unnecessary.  The bear - an object of the boy's fantasy, connected in some obscure way with his father - has escaped from a travelling circus and Jamie sets out to track him down.  (The escape of the bear is a real event that happened when Bella Pollen was staying in the Outer Hebrides as a child and she has built a whole fiction around the incident.)

This is a serious, very moving story.  I felt alternately exasperated and deeply sorry for the incompetent Letty and constantly anxious for the family she has lost her grip on.  All the children seem at risk and the bear prowls around the edge of the story like Frankenstein's monster. Will it survive starvation and the hunter's guns?  Will the family survive?  At the end of the book you begin to believe that they will.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Susan Hill: Howard's End is on the Landing

Susan Hill is considered to be one of the best contemporary authors, so  a book about the books she liked to read was a very intriguing prospect. Her house, like mine, is full of them, higgledy-piggledy in every room and piled on the stairs.   Howards End is on the Landing is subtitled 'a year of reading from home' and promised a trawl through her bookshelves, reading the books she'd never managed to get round to as well as re-reading old favourites. I love books about books and hoped to find some new recommendations, or authors I'd missed and I began to read with great anticipation.  But I have to say that the book was a disappointment.  Susan Hill seems to read very few contemporary authors - or perhaps they just weren't featured.  W.G. Sebald gets a look in, but most of the books discussed are classics or youthful enthusiasms from the fifties and sixties.   She dismisses Jane Austen as boring, but without saying why and is definitely not going to have another look.  Anything not printed in a serif font is unreadable, Poetry is another no, and oddly, she thinks Alice Munro's short stories are all the same.  I suppose I have to give her the credit for her honesty.

The way the book is structured enables memoir, so it's a trawl through Hill's life as well as her library.  And, though this should have been interesting, it wasn't.  There is very little personal revelation here, and a great deal of name-dropping.   What young aspiring author still at university wouldn't love to go to a party with TS Eliot and find Ian Fleming draped across the mantlepiece.  And how good it must be for your career to be able to pop round to C.P. Snow's house and get him and his wife Pamela Hansford Johnston to sign your London Library application!   Hill seems to have had the address file any would-be author would die for.

I know a lot of people, including DoveGreyReader, have loved this book, so I'm sorry I couldn't join their number.  Susan Hill says that when a book isn't enjoyed it's wholly the fault of the reader, so it's obviously mine!   I didn't like the tone of voice it was written in and didn't find inspiration, or a real passion for books, within the covers, though I read it to the end.  And having now read some rather guarded reviews in the heavyweight press, I suspect there are others out there who agree with me. But if you love Susan Hill's work and you share her taste in books, then this will definitely be for you.