Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

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Social Reading with Scott & Friends

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

YanagiharaI had been reluctant to read this much-hyped Booker longlisted novel, but after Rebecca’s review for Shiny New Books I was beginning to move off the fence, so that when Scott of Me & My Big Mouth announced a readalong, or as he calls it ‘social reading’ I was ready to join in.

The book has seven parts and the plan is to read one every two or three days. Today is report-back day on the first part ‘Lispenard Street‘ which is 83 pages long.

Most novels use the first chapters to introduce their characters, A Little Life is no difference in that respect.  We meet the quartet of college roommates who have now graduated, moved to the Big Apple and are busy trying to make a life for themselves a few years on.

There’s JB the Haitian painter who’s waiting to be discovered; Willem, a Scandinavian from the Midwest, waits tables while waiting for his big break as an actor; Malcolm is coasting as a junior architect at a prestigious firm while still living at home with his (well-off) parents; and there’s Jude whom we’ll come back to later.

All the bases are covered too: racially – black, white, half and half, and an unknown mix; sexually – straight, gay, undecided; economically – rich and poor; personalities – Willem is kind and handsome, JB. is outgoing, Malcolm is inhibited, and Jude is the brilliant, tortured one.

This first section concentrates on Willem and Jude finding a bijou and run-down apartment to move into in Lispenard Street, it is being sub-let by a friend of JB’s. At the viewing Willem asks:

“Does the elevator work well here?” Willem asked abruptly, turning around.

“What?” Annika replied, startled. “Yes, it’s pretty reliable.” She pulled her faint lips into a narrow smile that JB realized, wit a stomach-twist of embarrassment for her, was meant to be flirtatious. Oh, Annika, he thought. “What exactly are you planning on bringing into my aunt’s apartment?”

“Our friend,” he answered, before Willem could. “He has troule climbing stairs and needs the elevator to work.” (p11)

This is the first intimation that Jude is in some way disabled – but whether from birth, accident of other injury we don’t know yet.

The novel goes on to give us some back stories on JB, Malcolm and Willem, saving Jude for later.  We will find out a little about Jude’s present though – he’s a talented lawyer who’s good at maths. He also self-harms and is in constant pain.  Jude looks bound to be the main protagonist of the novel, with his three protectors.

Well, based on these beginning chapters, I’ve fallen for Willem already and can’t wait (although I know it’s bound to be awful) to find out about Jude.

It’s still just summertime – and the reading is easy!  I’m hooked, and it’s part two on Friday (I’ll only post again at the end, but will comment over at  Me & My Big Mouth.)

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A modern take on Jeeves & Wooster

Wake up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

wake up sirJonathan Ames is apparently a bit of a cult author in the USA as novelist, essayist, columnist, storyteller and creator of a sitcom for HBO called Bored to Death. I’d not heard of him before, but was piqued by the premise of his 2004 novel Wake up, Sir! which has recently been published in the UK and is an unashamed contemporary tribute to Wodehouse.

Alan Blair is a thirty-year-old American writer with one book under his belt and is struggling to get started with his difficult second one. He is a drinker, single, Jewish and full of neuroses, sexual, mental – you name it he suffers from it. He lives in Manhattan sponging on his beloved Aunt and ghastly Uncle, but having come into some money via an inheritance, he employs a personal valet to look after him. Said valet just happens to be called Jeeves.

…I went into the kitchen and Jeeves was there, beaming in at the precise moment that I made my entrance, which he’s very good at. He’s always appearing and disintegrating and reappearing just when the stage directions call for him.

Now I come to think of it, given the Star Trek analogy, there is a Vulcan quality to Jeeves, matching the unemotional Mr Spock always looking after Jim Kirk isn’t there?

Even with the assistance of Jeeves, Alan can’t stop drinking and his relations have had enough. Tough love is required – they offer him rehab or eviction. Alan has already decided to take off for a writing retreat so chooses the latter option and goes to bed worrying.

I started rubbing the bony center of my nose, which I always rub when things have gone badly. Then midway through this nose massage, I heard a slight aspiration – Jeeves, like humidity, had accumulated on my left. Jeeves, I think, is closely related to water. They say we’re all 50 percent H2O but Jeeves is probably 90 percent. Jeeves and water seep in everywhere, no stopping them, like this underground lake that starts in Long Island, I’m told, and then pops up in Connecticut. So Jeeves spilled over from his lair, the bedroom next to mine, and was now standing alongside me, like mist on a mirror.

Blair and Jeeves set off for an upstate Jewish spa town Sharon Springs and arrive only to find it mostly boarded up, the bathhouse abandoned and ruined. Alan, drunk as usual, manages to get beaten up badly after a disastrous phone call to a number in a lavatory stall! However, they discover that in Saratoga nearby, there is a proper artist and writer’s retreat called the Rose Colony, and they have a vacancy. It would be the ideal place for Alan to dry out and get on with his writing …

We’re now halfway through the book, and so far it had been an entertaining slog with not enough happening, but once we’re through the gates of the Rose Colony the pace picks up and we finally meet a bunch of characters that are just as crazy as Blair himself. Blair is communing with novelist Alan Tinkle and his whisky bottle (falling off the wagon afresh each day). Tinkle is telling him all about his particular problem of overstimulation:

“Along with heavy drinking, I do preventative masturbation four or five times a day so that I can go out in public.”

This all sounded oddly familiar. Then I reassured myself: I might have shared some of his symptoms, but that can be said for most psychiatric illnesses.

“Why do you think this has happened to you?” I asked. “Maybe you should see Oliver Sacks. It could be neurological. Like the man who thought his wife was a cocktail waitress.”

“I don’t get any sex. That’s my problem. I’m thirty-one; I haven’t had sex in nine years.”

What could I say to comfort him? Nine years was a terribly long time. One hardly goes nine years without doing most things, except maybe trips to the Far East. …

It soon becomes clear that sex is high on everyone’s mind at the Rose Colony. Alan himself falls for an artist called Ava, who has a magnificent nose. They eventually succumb and there is a drawn out and often cringeworthy, but occasionally hilarious, sex scene:

The robe opened up. She was naked.
I put my hand on her full, fat breast. Then I put my hand under her breast. Nobody had enjoyed weighing something as much since Archimedes.

Alan manages to get into scrape after scrape, upsetting most of the residents and staff including the enigmatic giant Dr Hibben, the colony’s director. Thank goodness for Jeeves whose ubiquity will always save the day.

Jeeves-and-Wooster

Fry & Laurie as Jeeves & Wooster from the ITV adaptation

Although the character of Jeeves in this novel could have been lifted straight from Wodehouse, that of Alan Blair is, while remaining true to Bertie Wooster’s essential nature is a little different.  Like Bertie, he is the narrator of the tale, and he shares Wooster’s dandyish tendencies, and naive refusal to grow up for instance. However, he is pathetic in his alcoholism and you can’t help but feel sympathy for him in his desire to deal with his condition, which is something I have rarely felt for the buffoonish Wooster. I loved the way that Jeeves is able to insinuate himself into any situation without anyone noticing. Indeed, in another review of this book in Quadrapheme web magazine, the reviewer wonders whether Jeeves might be a figment of Blair’s imagination? Upon reflection, that seems entirely possible!  (It didn’t stop me picturing Stephen Fry as Jeeves all the way though).

I did feel that this book took far too long to get going, we don’t reach the Rose Colony, scene of most of the comedy and bawdiness, until halfway through it’s 334 pages – the Wodehouse inspired Charlie Mortdecai books (well the first two, see here) are at least as racy, consistently funny and all over inside 200 pages.  Although not actually as filthy as I’d imagined reading the publicity, I enjoyed Ames’s creation which is more polished than mere pastiche, I just wish the first half had been compressed. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames (2004, pub Pushkin Press, 2015) paperback original, 334 pages.

Simenon's most autobiographical roman dur…

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

three bedroomsLast month I had the opportunity to meet John Simenon, Georges’s son at an event celebrating the prolific Belgian author and his work. Apart from all the Maigret novels, Simenon was famed for his romans durs (hard novels) which are standalone, and typically quite dark and noirish in character  – I previously reviewed one of them, Dirty Snow, here. At the event, I mentioned to John that I’d read one of the romans durs in preparation for the event: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, which is reputedly very autobiographical and he told me that it was basically a novelisation of how his mother and father met.

John’s mother was Denyse Ouimet. Georges met her in Manhattan in 1945 when he interviewed her for a secretarial job. She was seventeen years younger than Georges and they married in 1950, once Georges’s divorce from his first wife was finalised. Their relationship was, by all accounts, tempestuous and Denyse suffered from psychosis in later years, but Three Bedrooms was written in 1946 when the couple were still getting to know each other, and could seen as coming straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Being so autobiographical, it’s not perhaps a typical Simenon in plot terms being a romance, but it is a typical Simenon in writing style.

Francis Combe is middle-aged, a noted French actor who has escaped to Manhattan from Paris when dumped for a younger man by his wife. However, once in New York, he finds parts difficult to come by and makes ends meet voicing radio dramas and living in a small apartment in Greenwich village. The novel opens with him waking at 3am and going out to walk rather than listen through thin walls to the drunken antics of his neighbours:

What were they doing, up there in J.K.C.’s apartment? Was Winnie vomiting yet? Probably. Moaning, at first softly, then more loudly, until at last she burst into an endless fit of tears.

Forced to be an insomniac, he goes into a late night diner and meets Kay in a scene that comes straight out of Hopper’s painting Nighthawks which was painted in 1942, (and is even more amazing in real life at the Art Institute of Chicago – it was one of my main reasons for choosing to visit Chicago one vacation ages ago – another was to see Grant Wood’s American Gothic there too, but that was out on loan. Grr!)

Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942

Nightawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. Art Institute of Chicago

‘You’re French?’
She asked the question in French, a French that at first he thought betrayed no accent.
‘How’d you know?’
‘I didn’t. As soon as you came in, even before you said anything, I just thought you were French.’

They eat a little, make small talk – he finds out she’s from Vienna – then, they walk through the streets of the Village and end up in the second bedroom – in a hotel.

The next day, Francis takes Kay back to his apartment, she essentially moves in straight away having been thrown out of the one she shared with a girlfriend which had been financed by Jessie’s now ex-boyfriend. At first Francis tries to resist falling in love with Kay, but Kay immediately and totally falls in love with him:

She said, ‘When we met’ – and she said it even more softly, so that what she was confiding to him now seemed to vibrate within his chest – ‘I was so alone, so hopelessly alone, I was so low, and I new that I’d never pull out of it again, so I decided to leave with the first man who showed up, no matter who he was.
‘I love you, François.’

Having been found and her feeling declared, Kay becomes resolutely upbeat, willing to put up with all of Combe’s moodiness (and boy, he is a moody one!). He is the half of this couple that needs convincing, allowing Kay to look after him, sometimes almost smothering him it seems, but over the course of a few weeks as they walk for miles, eat (slowly), drink (lots), smoke, talk, embrace, being quiet together, collecting Kay’s things from the third bedroom,  Combe will eventually succumb.  It’s touching that they find ‘their song’ on a jukebox, and this is a trigger for Combe – realising his own feelings after fits of jealousy, wondering what she is doing when they are momentarily parted.

The style may be typical Simenon but, there’s a Gallic coolness to it. If you weren’t aware of the autobiographical elements of the story, it would take you some time to warm to Combe, or Kay, but you actually do will them to work it out and find the happiness they are both searching for.  That certainly raised this short novel in my expectations, and I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

I read the NYRB edition which has an excellent introduction by Joyce Carol Oates.  The novel was translated by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman.  For another review of this story, read that by Jacqui – click here

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The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon

galletSpace here for a short word about the second Maigret novel in the new Penguin editions, translated by Anthea Bell. This was the first Maigret to be published as a book, rather than serialised as Pietr the Latvian had been (reviewed here).

Maigret is sent to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Monsieur Gallet, a travelling salesman – or so his widow thinks.  He turns out to be living a double life, and his family seem to be rather unpeturbed by his death – What is going on?

In a mere 155 pages it got so complicated I struggled to keep up and Maigret had to display much dogged determination to solve the mystery too. Aside from Maigret himself,  there were no characters to really warm to either. Not one of the best for me. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, affiliate link, please click below:
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (New York Review Books Classics)
The Late Monsieur Gallet: Inspector Maigret #2 Penguin classics.

'I like a fresh bowl.'

Yes, it’s a quote from that late 1990s TV series Ally McBeal which was set in a Boston legal firm. I watched it religiously for most of its run. Partner John Cage was the chap who said it – he had many quirks including a remote control for his favourite toilet stall, which he’d pre-flush before going… I bring it up because it was the first thing that popped into my mind when I spotted this book at a book sale last year!

 

The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms by J.P. Donleavy

donleavy lady clean Donleavy is Irish-American; born in New York he moved to Ireland after WWII where, now aged 88, he still lives. The Ginger Man was his first novel, published in 1955, and he continued writing up until the late 1990s. He wrote several plays in his early career in addition to his novels and occasional non-fiction.

I have The Ginger Man and A Fairytale of New York (1973) on my shelves but, despite them being broadly classed as comedies, I worried that they might be slightly challenging to read. This short, late novel from 1995 with its arresting title thus seemed a perfect compromise as a good introduction to the man and his writing.

Meet Jocelyn – a fit, fortyish divorcée living in Scarsdale, a prosperous suburb of New York City. Jocelyn got the big house and a chunk of cash from the settlement but is rattling around in this money pit and slowly going mad.

…she got so drunk she found herself sitting at midnight with a loaded shotgun across her lap, after she thought she heard funny noises outside around the house. Then watching a bunch of glad facing so called celebrities spout their bullshit on a T.V. talk show and remembering that once someone told her how, when having quaffed many a dram, they turned off T.V. sets in the remote highlands of Scotland, she clicked off the safety, aimed the Purdey at mid-screen and let off the no. 4 cartridges in both barrels. And she said to herself over and over again as the sparks and flames erupted from the smoke.
‘Revenge is what I want. Nothing but pure unadulterated revenge. But my mother brought me up to be a lady.’

Jocelyn’s family harks back to the Mayflower, she went to Bryn Mawr – but since the divorce, her friends have melted away and her children don’t talk to her, she has no help any more. She cashes in the big house, but bad financial advice loses her her capital. She moves again into a tiny apartment in Yonkers (not Scarsdale – eek!), tries waitressing and finds that her fine palate is not suited to serving uneducated ones. She can’t find another job, so she wonders if she can get a man – maybe one of her old flames would pay her for it!

The one thing that keeps Jocelyn sane are her regular forays to the big art galleries in Manhattan. The only problem with being out though is the need to pee – and Jocelyn, like her South Carolina grandmother taught her, “My dear, if you really have to, only clean, very clean rest rooms will do”, and there aren’t many around in the businesses and big hotels that will tolerate regular non-resident visitors. But one day she finds the perfect rest room in a funeral home and has to pretend to be at a viewing …

I won’t deny that this text was an easy read – I so nearly let it bog me down, but persevered as it was only 100 pages or so! Donleavy’s sentence structure can be very convoluted in its clauses, and he ignores grammatical convention a lot of the time. His almost stream of consciousness style of writing, all in the present tense, felt more like the story had been written in the 1960s than the 90s, and it frequently obscured the laughs at first which did become apparent on closer reading – for underneath it all was a funny little plot, although it is a rather sad book.

It was surprisingly vulgar in places and at first I wondered how Jocelyn could stoop so low, but as we all know – social standing is no measure of bad behaviour, and what those Bryn Mawr girls got up to!… Despite her demotion from socialite to lonely mad cat-lady-type, I didn’t like Jocelyn at all and I wasn’t entirely convinced by her characterisation either.

This book is a definite Marmite one – some readers will love it and others will hate it. The experience reminded me of reading Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard as similarly challenging stylistically; I appreciated both, but didn’t like either particularly. (6/10)

Are all Donleavy’s books like this?
Should I go on to try one of his full length novels?

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured about Around New York by J P Donleavy. Paperback.

The boy, the stolen painting and the Russian…

Just occasionally, I believe I can read minds – well in a Derren Brownish way – you see by my title of this post, I hope to have manipulated you into thinking you were getting a(nother) post on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; some of you will be thinking but Annabel’s already reviewed that, hasn’t she? They would be correct – see here.

Yes you would be right too – partially – for this post will concern The Goldfinch – but only in passing…  for on my shelves the other day I found a book which I had bought years ago, and its subject matter does concern a painting which gets stolen, and a Russian who is initially very much in the Boris mould. This book though was published in 2006, thus it predates The Goldfinch by years. Let me tell  you a bit about it…

 

The World to Come by Dara Horn

world to come

The story starts with Benjamin Ziskind, recently divorced. His parents are dead, but he’s still very close to his twin sister Sara who persuaded him to go to a singles cocktails event at the Jewish Museum in New York where there was an exhibition of paintings and drawings from ‘Marc Chagall’s Russian Years’. He was about to leave when he saw a painting and it stopped him in his tracks:

It was a painting of a street. The street was covered with snow, and lined by a short iron fence and little crooked buildings whose rooftops bent and reflected in all directions. Above the street, a man with a beard, pack, hat, and cane hovered in the sky, moving over the houses as if walking – unaware, in murky horizontal profile, that he was actually in flight. The painting was tiny, smaller than a piece of notebook paper. The label next to the painting offered its date as 1914 and its owner as a museum in Russia, titling it Study for “Over Vitebsk.” This intrigued Ben, who despite his mastery of trivia on all topics, including modern art, had never before known this particular painting’s name. All he knew was that it used to hang over the piano in the living room of his parents’ house.

Ben steals the painting. The story of whether he’ll get away with the theft or not forms half of the rest of the story, the other tells how the painting came into the family and what happened to it and them through the generations.

In the second chapter, we meet Boris Kulbak, an orphan in the Jewish Boy’s Colony in Malakhovka just outside Moscow. These orphans are lucky – they have school lessons, and the new art teacher takes a shine to Boris’s painting of a cave-like womb lined with bookcases and stalactites, and in it a fat, pink baby. The teacher offers to trade him one of his own paintings for Boris’s one – and this is how Boris (whose real name was Benjamin), met Marc Chagall, and Chagall’s friend, the author Der Nister (‘The Hidden One’). All are Jewish, but call each other Comrade. Boris/Ben chooses the tiny painting above in trade. All three will eventually escape from Russia making a life for themselves elsewhere, Chagall in Paris, Der Nister in Berlin – but as a Jew, he will struggle to get his stories published.

So back to Ben – who meets his own ‘Boris’ type – Leonid from Chernobyl – in High School. After a rough start, the two become friends and Leonid will marry Sara. The story continues to flit back and forth between the ages, and somewhere amongst all this we meet the other really important character – Rosalie, Ben’s mother – who becomes a famous author of philosophical fables based on Yiddish folktales. Meanwhile, back in the present day, Erica at the museum is onto Ben…

The story was inspired by the real-life theft of said Chagall painting (it was later recovered). Chagall did teach for a time at the orphanage too along with various poets and Yiddish writers, so Horn had a rich vein of historical fact to base this novel upon.

The straight-forward mystery part of this story works really well. She (yes, this Dara is a woman) weaves in and out of the time-line and we begin to see how the past fits into the present and how everything links together. So far, so ‘Goldfinch’ and I really enjoyed it.

Where it didn’t work well for me though were the parts where it went all mystical and dived deep into Yiddish fables of birth and rebirth – the world to come, what happens to souls when you die and all that. Also some of Der Nister’s and Rosalie’s tales were included and these did nothing for me either I’m afraid. Most of this occurred in the last third of the book, confusing matters quite a lot and not giving me the satisying ending I was craving.

The book had multiple rave reviews when it was first published – it was very different then to the literary mysteries that had come before. Now with post-Goldfinch hindsight, and I apologise to the author for comparing it all the way, despite its faults and length I preferred the straight story-telling of Tartt. The World to Come is not short either at just over 400 pages, and parts of it were brilliant – just not enough for me. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The World to Come by Dara Horn (2000). Penguin paperback, 416 pages.

A post Cold-War spy drama

A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter

porter spy Many moons ago I read Henry Porter’s first novel Rememberance Day (2000) which was a fast-moving spy thriller and I enjoyed it very much indeed. Finally, years later, I’ve read his second – another standalone spy-thriller about an ex-spy who finds out that you can never truly leave your former life behind.

British ex-spook Robert Harland now works at the United Nations in New York. Returning from a trip to DC in a plane full of colleagues including Alan Griswald whom he’d known for years – when the plane inexplicably crashes into the Hudson as it was coming in to land. Harland is the only survivor. Later, he talks to the crash investigators, then has another call from his old boss …

Vigo! What the hell did he want? He hadn’t seen Vigo for at least a decade. On the day he left MI6 for good in 1990, Vigo had come to him and offered a limp hand of regret together with the assurance that their masters would take Harland back if he found he could not make a go of it on the outside. They both knew this was impossible.

Convinced by Vigo’s interest it wasn’t an accident, Harland pledges to Griswald’s widow that he’ll find out what happened, and it soon appears that Griswald was onto something and that there could be a connection to some coded messages which are being broadcast on hijacked radio frequencies – but you need both parts of the code. When Harland is contacted by Tomas Rath, a young man, who claims to be his son and turns out to be involved too – Harland is completely drawn in – raking up his past as a spy in Europe, his doomed affair with Eastern European agent Eva, his capture and torture –  and it seems that everyone now wants to get him again – dead or alive…

This is a solid, all-action spy thriller – full of twists and turns, and you’re never sure who’s on whose side for a large part of it. Harland leaps back into his former life with abandon, playing all those who want him off against each other until it becomes clear what they want and all the time – the body count increases…

Harland, although obviously a superman physically, is likeable underneath his slightly gruff exterior which tries not to let anyone get close to him again.  His confusion when faced with the possibility of being a father shows a vulnerable side which, let’s face it, we need in our heroes for them to be believable. Walter Vigo, the British top spook is suitably oleaginous, but the character I liked best was Robert’s sister Harriet – who is immensely practical, capable and clever too – she would have made a great agent herself. When Tomas comes to see them in London, she takes Bobby to task after Tomas goes…

“Well, I think you had better get used to him calling you something else. Bobby, he couldn’t be anyone else’s child. He’s a dead ringer for you when you were that age – all gangly and intense. There’s no question about it. He’s yours.”

There was one scene which reminded me very much of George Smiley’s encounter with Karla in Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, although reversed. Harland is younger, fitter and more action-oriented than Le Carré’s leads though, so any similarities are fleeting.

Going from New York to London and Eastern Europe and incorporating the war-crimes and their remnants from the Bosnian War, Porter has found a great post-Cold War setting for his story. It may be 470 pages long, but they raced by and I enjoyed this novel very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter – W&N paperback, 480 pages.

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