Tag Archives: America

61st London Film Festival – Day 2.i

Busy day today, spent at the Picturehouse Central, which if you do not know it, is off Shaftesbury Avenue towards Piccadilly Circus. Lovely comfortable armchair-like seats, lots of leg room and a good tilting action if you like lying back to enjoy the film.

StrongerMy first film today was a biopic of a man who was catastrophically injured in the Boston Marathon bombing. His name is Jeff Bauman and in the film he is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, his girlfriend Erin by Tatiana Maslany and his mother is played by Miranda Richardson.

Because it is a biopic, I daresay one has to be quite careful how to portray a family that is blown to pieces by the bombing, both figuratively and literally. Jeff Bauman is, in this film, something of a loser.  He is irresponsible, late for everything or simply fails to show up; he lives with his mother who is portrayed as being frequently drunk, and indeed all family gatherings involve a disproportionately generous liquid element.

At the beginning of the film, Erin and Jeff have bust up, not for the first time, but she turns up in the pub where he is drinking with his brothers and friends. She is hoping to get some cash sponsorship for running the marathon the next day. Jeff promises to be there at the finishing line, which she patently does not believe.

But guess what? Just for once there he is waving a banner for her, only unfortunately he is right by the bomb.

It is hard to avoid plot spoilers because actually the world was made aware of Jeff Bauman at the time, he was regarded as a sort of hero-mascot, wheeled out at ice hockey games, at ball games and for the papers and finally was given “first pitch” when the Red Sox played. (If that means nothing, it simply means that you do not follow the American national game, baseball).

The tragedy has brought Erin and Jeff back together again, after a fashion. But it is not all together satisfactory. The acting in this film is quite exceptional. Taking on such a role must have been challenging, for Jeff isn’t exactly a nice person, and his family are quite loud and garish as well. Erin remains the calm one, but this doesn’t necessarily go down well with the family or with Jeff.

But the emotional scenes, and the physical realities that present themselves both to the victim and the carers, showing the enormous challenges facing them all, and national heroism is not the least of it; these are brilliantly captured here, turning the screws on the audience time after time.

I cannot commend the film highly enough. But it is intense and frightening, there is a lot of swearing but in the end, all of it amounts to something very moving and remarkable.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 10

And so on to weightier matters, literally. Paul Auster‘s door-stopping novel weighs in at 1200 grams and 886 pages, a mere bagatelle when compared with David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest which is on my TBR for post Booker reading.

42314321 is the title of this massive book and is the story of Archie Ferguson, grandson of newly arrived Russian immigrant Ichabod Ferguson. Family legend having it that Isaac Reznikoff was told  that he would get on better with a more American sounding name, and that Rockefeller was a good name to choose, but on being asked his name, he said in his own tongue Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten).

I have gone into quite a lot of detail to demonstrate here the complexity of the characters and their relationships, so if this seems to be a spoiler to you, rather than an exposition, stop reading where the text colour changes. This novel is a work of philosophy, an exploration of nurture versus nature, of the ‘what ifs’ of life. Ferguson is a thoughtful, observant and rather lonely little boy, in the section where he learns to read he ponders on the accident that has caused his immobility, unwinding the actions and causes and giving some thought to the vagaries of cause and effect, at this point he is only six…

This is an unashamedly American novel, rooted in place and time, rooted in fact, very much, in Paul Auster’s own place and time. Various key world events lock us into when this is all taking place: the ending of the war in Europe, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Korean War and other similar. Baseball features, teams that in Europe may have little meaning, take on importance, at some level and probably mirror actual games and players, I have no idea.

Like Michael Chabon and Howard Jacobson it is also decidedly Jewish, though not in an synagogue attending way, but in family gatherings, food and culture. Auster uses the novel form to address existential issues and questions of identity, space, language, and literature, creating his own distinctively postmodern (and critique of postmodernist) form in the process. Identity, Ferguson’s, being the key ingredient here.

It may take a while to read, but it is worth the effort. As with several other longlisted titles it is stylistically unusual, but do not let that put you off. Like going to France with a smattering of French in your memory, you get used to hearing it, and your ear becomes attuned – in this case you will find your “ear” and eye quickly pick up the familiar patterns.

There are constants in this book. Archie’s relationships with his parents, their parents and siblings remain the same, as does the date of his birth. On his father’s (Stanley Ferguson) side he has two uncles Lew (Louis) and Arnold (Aaron), whose wives are respectively Millie and Joan. Lew and Millie have two children, Andrew and Alice; Arnold and Joan have three, Jack, Francie and Ruth. His mother, Rose Adler has one sister Mildred, her parents Benjy and Emma live in New York. Ike and Fanny live in New Jersey and then there are inconstants!

But at this point is becomes complicated. In 1.1 Stanley, the youngest Ferguson is ambitious and driven, he starts with a leather goods store which eventually expands into the 3 Brothers Home Store, and sells everything from furniture to white goods. It would do better if the two elder brothers, layabouts both, were not constantly helping themselves to takings from the till; Lew is a gambler and has borrowed money off Stanley to cover mounting debts, however his gambling has become more serious, he then suddenly has a huge win, but far from repaying his brother, he buys mink for Millie and a Cadillac for himself and then throws a big champagne party, he eventually has a fatal crash in the Cadillac; the store is doing well until there is a huge warehouse burglary, which it eventually turns out is an inside job, and since he does not want to bring down his brother Arnold, Stanley endures the loss in silence, sending his brothers away; by 1.2 Stanley’s store has burnt to ashes, Ferguson is six and is learning to read, having broken his leg falling from tree; 1.3 fills in some of the more lurid details of the store fire. Archie’s cousin Andrew is killed in the Korean War, Lew goes off the rails and his debts become insurmountable, with his book-maker he conceives of an insurance scam that includes burning down the store, with fatal results and Lew ends up in prison; 1.4 finds Stanley with three prosperous stores, with two more due to be opened, he sees very little of his son Archie [who, by the way is known as Ferguson throughout]. Rose, his mother, is a professional studio photographer in all these sections, but in various guises. In 1.4 she spends quite a lot of time looking for a suitable studio/shop space which she eventually finds. 

The absolute inconstant is Ferguson’s aunt Mildred, in each section she is sometimes unmarried and does meet and marry, or remains a spinster. But each time she does marry it is to somebody completely different. And in different ways this affects Ferguson, especially the last husband, Donald Lomax a divorced man with a son, Noah.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 8

A writer’s first book is always something to celebrate, an achievement for them and an adventure for us, especially when the book is a novel. Emily Fridlund is one of only two first book writers in this longlist, there are other first novel writers, but that is slightly different.

Wolves History of Wolves is set among the lakes of North Minnesota.  On the shores of Still Lake, one a small family live in a rustic cabin; once part of a larger commune, they are the remnants. Madeleine can remember a time when there were more of them, and the book centres around her childhood, more or less between the age of twelve to fifteen.

At some point during that time, another small family move into a modern summer cabin across the lake from where she lives. They first appear in the summer, but then one autumn they arrive again and she sees them unpacking. She can see through their windows exactly what they are doing, a father, mother and young child.

Drifting in loneliness between school and a dismal job in a local diner, Madeleine (Lindy) eventually fetches up babysitting for Patra and looking after the little boy, Paul, who is about four years old. Time passes and she earns sufficient money for the babysitting to give up the diner job. Leo, Paul’s father is away a great deal, and Lindy senses the unease that this causes Petra, but cannot quite focus on its source. Leo is a scientist, and it turns out a Christian Scientist, and when he is there seems to Lindy to be austere, but capable and generally kind, though he does grill her with penetrating questions about her understanding of life.

This novel is written in lucent, patient prose. Lindy observes and considers and we see the world almost entirely through her eyes and her experience. There is a terrible vacuity in her existence, limited as her life is. She is regarded as a freak at school and makes almost no friends, and has no contact with anyone her own age during the long holidays.

The days gaped open after that. No school, no job, daylight going on and on like it would never quit. I cleaned two perfect northern pike and did the north-forty wood the first day, then I dithered about in the boat for a few more, catching crappie near the beaver dam. I filled the net without trying, sorted all the tackle one morning, took a comb to the dogs and teased out the mats left over from their winter coats. One afternoon I walked the five miles into town and bought toothpaste and toilet paper from the drugstore.

Somehow, it is not surprising that this child ends up wrapping herself tighter and tighter around the novelty of a different family. It is not exactly that she is neglected, her father is there, caring and comfortable and her mother is there, but more spikey and dismissive, she is fed and housed and then left to her own devices…

This is a smashingly evocative novel, you feel the extreme cold, hear the damp thump of snow falling from the roof and branches, you smell the pine trees in the heat and hear the lonely call of the loons that swim and dive and you live inside the head of the narrator. It is compelling and insightful and I can hardly wait to see what Ms Fridlund will write next.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 4

There are a great many novels dealing with slavery and the Underground Railroad and to mention only a few: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sacred Hunger and The Last Runaway barely covers the ground. Some of them deal with the subject in a slightly glossed over fashion and others go deep into the fleshiness of it.

Underground RailwayThe latest in this long line, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, spares the reader nothing. The story of Cora begins in the forests of Africa with her grandmother Ajarry, at the time a small child. Eventually Ajarry arrives on the Randall estate, and at some point in the dreadful progression, this estate switches to cotton.

Cotton demands many hands, you only have to read Gone with the Wind to know that, planting is the first hazard; weevils, drought, lightning strikes are next, but then there is the picking. For picking you needs many and nimble fingers and the negro slave was the answer.

The Randall estate eventually passes to the two sons, one takes the Southern plantation and the other the Northern. Ajarry has passed on long since, and Mabel, her daughter, has by now had a daughter of her own, Cora.

At the beginning of the novel, not the backstory, Mabel is a hunted runaway and Cora a young, abandoned child. We are spared nothing, not the labour, not the beatings, not the rapes and not the fear. The pages are saturated in it.

This novel has, not surprisingly, already won one book award, The National Book Award Winner 2016 (of America). Endorsed by Obama and Oprah Winfrey this climbed the America charts and has now climbed the British lists.

This is Cora’s story, possibly a unique account, but more probably one that would have been familiar to many African slaves. It is a tale of courage, indomitability, fear, joy and survival against the weight of white suppression. It is not a book to enjoy, but one to learn from and consider. unsworthAnd like Barry Unsworth‘s Sacred Hunger, it makes very clear the relationship between Britain’s prosperity and slavery. It was not only the traders in human misery who were implicated – but each and every person who took a mouthful of sugar, drank rum or wore fine cotton.

Its position on the shortlist is a likely outcome.

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Knitting, not reading (pace Stevie Smith)

Typical, nothing for weeks then three come along at once! I have been on a long knitting jag, with jerseys, blankets and cardigans flying off the needles, it becomes compulsive after a while, but impedes the reading, AudioBooks become the order of the day (& night)…

So what have we in mind today. Two books about World War II, a non-fiction treatment and a semi-fiction treatment and one book about the “Indian Wars”, that is to say the European Americans and what they then called Red Indians, now spoken of as Native Americans.

So I shall start with that one. Paulette Jiles has written many books about this period of American history, that is to say the Civil War and the Indian Wars.

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It was while writing a previous book, Enemy Women, that she came across the story of Britt Johnson. Moses Johnson with fifteen white women and  five black including children left the war torn areas and moved to North Texas. Britt Johnson was a manumitted African American (called negro, black or nigger at the time depending on the speaker), he took the family and settled in North Texas. Britt had a wife and three children. The Colour of Lightning is their story. How the Comanche and Kiowa descended on the settlement, killed one child and captured Mary and the remaining two children, went on to capture another woman, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, and her two grandchildren.

None of this was written down at the time, 1865-1870s or thereabouts, and was only recorded after Britt Johnson’s death by people who knew him, or had heard about him, in 1900. So Paulette Jiles has pieced together the myth and the historical facts as known and created a story that brings all the characters to life, most of the people in this book are real, one or two are like people that existed, like the Indian Agent, a pacifist Quaker named Samuel Hammond, sent for purposes that only God knew, to control and negotiate with the most war-like tribes: the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache.

Britt Johnson is real, he was away when his family were attacked, he determined to recover his family, and other captives and having accomplished that to set up as a freight-driver. This is the story of how this ambition was realised.

Samuel Hammond, however, is based, but lightly, upon a real Indian Agent called Lawrie Tatum and Samuel is in the novel in order to explore the dilemma facing the Quaker settlers from Philadelphia, who took no part in the Civil War (though Samuel drove an ambulance), and therefore were little regarded by many European (white) Americans, and were now part of the great re-settlement (in reservations) of the Native (Reds, as they were known) Americans. How does a pacifist deal with a tribal custom that includes killing, raping and mutilating victims, taking of captives and a nomadic life that cannot be contained in a reservation, no matter how big?
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This map shows the territory as it was in 1864-65.

The other two books are rather different. Hemingway at War by Terry Mort, rather speaks for itself. Much has been written, not least by Ernest Hemingway himself, about his escapades, much has been exaggerated, mostly by EH and much has been denigrated by others. Moonglow, on the other hand, is a fictionalised account of a grandfather’s experience in Europe, principally Germany, towards the end of World War II. In this book, Michael Chabon recounts the stories told him by his grandfather towards the end of his life, while in a hospital and dying, suddenly and for the first time, he began to describe incidents in his past life, especially those dealing with his experiences in Germany. The novel is an amalgam of things that Michael knew about his grandfather and also these revelations made almost when it was too late to press for details.

Both books in their own ways give us an account of that cataclysm which cannot but broaden our view of the conflict.

Hemingway, though a non-combatant, saw quite a lot of fighting at first hand as he attached himself to the American 22nd Regiment and went with them from Normandy right through to the liberation of Paris and on to Germany, until they were decimated at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, this small but intense part of the war was the bloodiest, most deadly encounter that the 22nd had experienced. Not unlike the Battle of the Bulge, it was fought in dense forest, with little or no room for deep trench defenses, and splinters of wood from blasted trees inflicting as many casualties and fatalities as ordinary shrapnel.PhotoScan (6)

Hemingway himself, claims to have killed at least 100 Germans, which as a journalist he was not entitled to do, but at the same time it was known that for him “enough was never enough” and he was inclined to dress it up a bit. Strangely, the one engagement about which he wrote not one sentence was Hürtgen, perhaps finally, “enough” was way too much. In any event, he left the combat zones for good and returned to Paris, a privilege not afforded to what remained of the 22nd, who fought on to Berlin.

Moonglow was, in many ways, a more satisfactory book. Maybe novels are always better at presenting messy, complicated lives in a digestible fashion. Chabon’s grandfather was also in Europe towards the end of World War II, but on a quite different mission. As a noted chemist and engineer himself, he was tasked with seeking out as many German engineers and chemist, especially those involved with the V1 and V2 Rocket programme, to find them, capture them and extradite them to America, preferably before the Russians.PhotoScan (4)

The other parts of the book present a wonderful eccentric, a talented engineer engaged in rocketry, even before the war. Passionate about space exploration, but also with a haunted and difficult married life. This is a truly remarkable book, by a wonderfully talented and inventive writer.

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More of America

darktownAs promised in the last post, here is Darktown by Thomas Mullen. Set in 1948, it is a fictionalised account of early police work in Atlanta, Georgia. However, on this precinct all the policemen are black; eight men, under a white mentor, operate out of a hot basement apartment in an area of Atlanta largely populated by African Americans. These eight men have all the appearances of the white city police: guns, batons, badges and uniforms – but they have no squad cars and they are not allowed to arrest white citizens, furthermore they can do nothing if white cops decide to bring their operation into the black neighbourhood.

This happens, frequently and often violently, especially if a policeman called Dunlow happens to be around. Known for violent and often wrongful arrests of African American citizens, he is the nemesis of Officers Boggs and Smith.

So on a dark night when Boggs and Smith stop a car, one with a white driver and a young African American passenger in a yellow dress, there is not a great deal they can do; but a few hours later they seen the same car being stopped by Dunlow and Rakestraw, by this time it is clear that the young girl is in trouble as they have seen her being hit and when she jumps from the car and runs away, they assume that Dunlow and Rakestraw are dealing with it…

This is, at one and the same time, a police procedural thriller, a search for the perpetrator of several  untimely deaths and the extreme difficulties faced by the black officers who are not permitted to investigate crimes, even ones committed on their patch; they are not permitted to walk about in their uniforms unless actually on duty or appearing in court, so they are required to carry their uniforms in garment bags and to change on the site – generally in a cupboard and finally, they are not permitted under any circumstances to enter the police HQ.

This is also about race relations, the gulf between the two sides of Atlanta. The invisible dividing line between the areas where the white folk live and the areas for other people, and woe betide any uppity African American who builds a property on the wrong site, real estate being what it is, an area needs to maintain its status as a white neighbourhood, otherwise property values will nose-dive…

The writing is brilliant, the story breath-taking and the message is plain.  It is hard to believe that we have moved such a short way beyond this divided and hideous world and to many people it looks as though some of it may come back any time soon. This is the book to read, being forewarned is some way towards preventing it all coming back to haunt us.

Searching through the TBR pile I came upon another, very different American novel. Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen is so different that it is hard to relate the two books as being placed on the same continent. This is the tale of a woman, a doctor, looking back over her life and upbringing on a farm near to Philadelphia. In fact it is not clear where exactly the eponymous place, Miller’s Valley is exactly, but it must be East somewhere.Millers Valley.jpg

Mary Margaret Miller is the only daughter of Bob Miller and his wife, a nurse, who farm in the lower reaches of the valley.  They have two sons Ed and Tommy, Ed is quiet, stolid and hard working and eventually goes off to become an engineer, Tommy is fabulously good looking, and wild with it.

The thrust of the story, though, centres around plans to dam the valley. The state engineers come round offering deals to people who will give up their homes and relocate, this process is slow and many people think it will never happen. Often after severe rains there is catastrophic flooding, but still the residents are reluctant to move. The Miller family have been there at least since 1822, a matter of about one hundred and twenty five years and possibly more.

The characters, their families, their successes and failures are bewitchingly drawn for us, the readers. We really care and appreciate their dilemmas. The mistakes they make are terribly human and familiar and the Miller family are not unique in their triumphs and their tragedies.

This is also a novel about change, change resisted and then embraced. Mary Margaret moves away to study, marries and has a family and circumstances bring her back to Miller’s Valley to work as a GP. Looking back over her life, she muses on the things that change, the hidden secrets even among families and those things that remain unchanged – among them love.

Anna Quindlen has written several novels, but is virtually unknown in this country, hopefully that will change.

edricFinally, another book about the flooding of a valley, this time an English valley and written mostly from the perspective of the engineer. He comes to look at the feasibility, but finds his decisions are made much harder once he gets to know the residents. This is The Gathering the Water by Robert Edric, and author I have frequently recommended.

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America on my mind

No, this is not a “dump Trump” polemic (for a change). I am concerned with two remarkable novels about America before and during and after the Civil War, that is between 1861 to 1870. These will be followed by another book about America which lies at the top of my TBR pile – Darktown by Thomas Mullen, set in Atlanta in 1948 – watch this space.

barryRead in order of chronology, Sebastian Barry‘s new novel – Days Without End follows the fortunes and misfortunes of one, Thomas McNulty. It is a given that SB mines his own family history, not always as popular with said family as with his readers, and this is another fictionalised account of a distant relative.

Thomas leaves Sligo for Canada after his mother and sister have died in the potato famine; he knows what hunger is and escapes. Canada spits him out and he signs up with a friend, John Cole for the US military.

If you know your history, this will remind you that it is at the time of the “Indian Wars”. Thomas and John are both drafted into battalions hiking out towards California on the Oregon trail. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, there are graphic descriptions of killing, brutality and inter-race misunderstandings. Thomas and John do what they are told, without liking it one bit.

But the tale has a twist in it, and they end up with responsibility for a young Indian girl from the Oglala Sioux tribe.

So this is also a book about love, between two men and between these two men and the young girl, aged about ten. They leave the army and head off towards a peaceful future, but then the Civil War starts and they need to sign up again…

The second book has many attributes that echo Days Without End. News of the World follows the fortunes of one Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd who after the Civil War, but while the country is still unstable not to say frankly lawless, goes around the States giving public readings from newspapers.jiles

Bearing in mind that many people were illiterate, these were popular events and Captain Kidd made himself a living from it. But in Wichita Falls, he is called upon to take a young German-born child, also about ten, back to her relatives in Castroville. A tremendous distance, pretty much the length of Texas.

Paulette Jiles has presented us with a densely packed novel of exceptional interest, daring and emotion. Beautifully crafted and written, Captain Kidd and the young girl whom he calls Johanna, travel in a second hand buggy through plains and mountains, along and across flooded rivers braving Indians, cowboys, and plain evil-minded pimps.

This too, is by way of a love story. Johanna is an Indian-captive child, she has witnessed appalling horrors.  The Captain is old enough to be her grandfather but he grows to respect and admire her, and she grows to love him. Their adventures bring them even closer together, but he knows, even if he cannot get her to understand, that his mission accomplished will sever their connection.

The inevitable tension in this arrangement, and the growing bond between the two is exquisitely written.

If you read this and enjoyed them, you might also like The Son by Phillip Meyer [Not the Booker – a motley collection posted 4th September 2013]scan0003

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