August 24th, 2012

Ianto with cut on cheek

Book #1: At Swim, Two Boys

At Swim Two Boys

Title: At Swim, Two Boys

Author: Jamie O’Neil

Genre: Historical Fiction, LGBTQ Fiction

Summary:At its core, this is a love story. Two 16 year old boys, a college boy, Jim Mack and a laborer, Doyler Doyle, make a pact to practice swimming for a year so on Easter of 1916 (unknowingly to them a time of the Easter Rising and Irish rebellion), they will swim to a beacon of Muglins Rock. As their friendship develops, so do other, deeper feelings. But it is also much more than a love story. Mr. Mack, Jim’s father, is a corner shopkeep who has dreams of going up in society. He also has a history (military and broken friendship) with Doyler’s father. Eve MacMurrough is a woman ahead of her time, tough and revolutionary. Anthony MacMurrough is a deviant who doesn’t have a purpose in life. Their stories, and that of so many more characters, collide when Irish nationalism, sexual orientation, Catholic guilt, alcoholism, class identity, socialism, wars, unwed pregnancy, unionism, and loyalty push and pull them in directions they couldn’t imagine.

Stars: ***** (5)

Review: I read this book twice. At first, I thought I was going to give up because of the language. It is a hard read, the author writes in first person, stream of consciousness and uses an Irish dialect and slang. But the more I read, the easier it became (also one of the reasons I re-read it, I missed so much at first before I became used to the writing). The author weaves so much into the story, rich with symbolism and foreshadowing, that every single word on the page matters. The language transformed me into the moment, as if what I was reading on the page was actually happening around me, his use of imagery was vivid and alive. The author also weaves story lines like an expert (and tackles many really hard topics), the fully formed characters with their own motivations and flaws interact with each other and the world at large while being pushed and pulled in unexpected ways. Some of the characters are even predatory or cruel, but have redeeming qualities which adds to their realism. This book also made me cry, the harshness of life during that era is a constant presence throughout the story. This isn’t a read for everyone, it is difficult and requires patience, but for those that can persevere, it is a gem, a literary work that is completely beautiful and moving while being gritty and realistic. And the love story between Jim and Doyler is so innocent and awkward and moving, I fell in love with the boys myself.

book and cup

#89 Devil by the Sea - Nina Bawden (1976)

I already had got this book on my all Virago all August pile for this month, when I heard the news on Wednesday that Nina Bawden had died at the age of 87.
Like many readers I was first introduced to Nina Bawden as a child, when I read Carrie’s War, which has always remained one of my top three favourite children’s books. A few months ago I read The Grain of Truth – the first of Nina Bawden’s adult novels I had read.
Devil by the Sea – I can imagine not being to everyone’s taste – it is a chillingly dark story. The strange and claustrophobic world of a seaside town at the end of the season is seen through the eyes of unattractive nine year old Hilary. She and her family live in the town, her seven year old brother Peregrine is good while she, Hilary believes is bad. Janet, their seventeen year old half-sister is preoccupied with her innocent dalliance with a married man and the continuing battles with her step-mother. Auntie a once free spirit is now deaf, spends her days secretly beachcombing, hiding her “treasures” in a cave. Hilary’s father Charles goes off to work in the shop each morning, while his wife Alice stays at home. The adults, each concerned with their own lives fail to listen to Hilary.

As the novel opens, Hilary and Peregrine are watching an outdoor seaside show, their half-sister is supposed to be watching them, but is busy with her boyfriend. It is here they see the man Hilary and Peregrine call the Devil.
“Looking at the man sitting next to them, the children thought he must be old too, or sick. He wore a full-skirted naval bridge coat and a blue woollen muffler knotted round his neck. Beneath his cloth cap his face was thin, the cheeks so hollow that his mouth stuck forwards like a dog’s mouth.”

They watch as the man leads another child away, Hilary is at once horrified and fascinated by the man, who slowly draws her into his net. The child Hilary watched him lead away is pictured in the paper the next day, and Hilary knows he is the Devil. Bawden’s depiction of children, their way of thinking, is brilliantly done. Hilary is by turn terrified and interested in the man, she promises to meet him again, but later is terrified of seeing him, of him seeing her in the window of her bedroom.

“She knew him now, for certain, and the knowledge was terrible. She pressed herself against the cold bars, hoping that stillness might save her. What she could not see from the window, her memory supplied: the wide, black coat sweeping low over the twisted foot. Feeling his eyes burn into her, she gave a low cry and closed her own. Holding herself rigid, she thought: he won’t recognise me, not in my nightgown. And then she knew, with awful certainty, that God had marked her for just this occasion. For what other reason, when she had been born so plain, had she been given her one beauty, her bright, unmistakeable, red hair?”

The adults live in fear – there is a murderer in the town, and they want him caught. However the atmosphere of fear which hangs over them all doesn’t stop them being too preoccupied to listen and see what is happening.
There was one slightly odd thing for me – which doesn’t detract from an enjoyable book at all. In the Grain of Truth (1968) that I mentioned I read a while back, the central character’s back story concerns the death of a child who she had always believed she had killed in game not ever realising the boy had an illness. This incident is almost exactly the same as an incident in Hilary’s own back story in this novel. Strange that Nina Bawden should use the same thing twice.
Nina Bawden’s storytelling is compelling, the confusing, frightening world of things we don’t quite understand as children, is a dark place, and one that Nina Bawden understood well. I enjoyed this book a lot, and have more Nina Bawden TBR that I look forward to.

Book 25

Originally posted by audrey_e at Book 25
25 VILLETTE Charlotte Brontë (England,1853)

Lucy Snowe is a poor young lady with very little prospects who moves to the fictional state of Labassecour to teach at a boarding school. While this allows her to become independent, she starts to suffer from loneliness. 

I read Jane Eyre years ago and did not like it. I think my main issue with it was that it had none of the power of her sister's Wuthering Heights, one of my favorite novels of all time. However, Villette was excellent. Lucy's loneliness and quiet sorrow made her a great heroine from the beginning of the novel to its slightly happier ending. The gothic elements, as well as the claustrophobic environment certainly made this novel stand out from the majority of the texts I have so far read this year. Villette does share a lot of elements in common with Jane Eyre, both in terms of story-line and style. But I somehow found that this was a more mature novel. Maybe it so happens that I am more mature too.
I'm glad I took the opportunity to change my mind about Charlotte, it was worth it. Who knows, maybe one day I'll change my mind about Anne, whose Tenant of Wildfell Hall I thought was incredibly tedious despite its bold message.


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Book 26

Originally posted by audrey_e at Book 26
26 THE MAN WHO ATE EVERYTHING Jeffrey Steingarten (USA, 1997)

This is a collection of culinary essays that were originally published in Vogue and that touch on a wide range of topics such as the author's attempts to cook delicious food, his visits abroad, or his stand on scientific debates.

I had been meaning to read a book about food for a long time, but this is not what I wanted. Unfortunately, I made the mistake to purchase it at a secondhand bookstore on an impulse, without making sure it was what I was looking for. 
The title was misleading. To me, The Man who Ate Everything evokes a Bizarre Food type of culinary travelogue. But while  there is a small section dedicated to his culinary trips, Steingarten is far from being as curious as a good food critic should be. The vast majority of this book is dedicated to retellings of his attempts to bake a perfect pie crust or find the best ketchup. The truth is, I found most of these "adventures" very tedious. 
A few debates regarding diets, such as the French paradox were touched on in this book. These topics were somewhat interesting, but since I happen to be French (as in born and raised in France), they are not as controversial to me who is used to a far more diverse diet than my fellow Americans. 
My other problem with it is that the voice of the author is very childish. Steingarten does not like salads which leads him to complain about how they delay desserts and write a whole essay on why salads aren't that good for you. He even says that salads in France and Italy are better because they put meats such as Foie Gras on them. What nonsense! Now, of course, if you go to a four star French restaurant you may get foie gras on your salad, but on an day-to-day basis, simple salads are very popular in the average French home. In the end, why would I listen to the recommendations regarding salads of a man who admits that he is obese and needs to lose weight?
The only aspect of this book I enjoyed was the fact that it was sprinkled with history. But far less than I wanted.