Tag Archives: America

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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Man Booker Longlist 2016 – 6

BeattyPaul Beatty‘s The Sellout. I have nothing good to say about this book, so I will say nothing, save to give you a health warning. The N-word appears more times on each page than in each page of Huckleberry Finn (unless you read the bowdlerised version).

I think it is a transatlantic thing and it appears I am not alone in that opinion.

ManySo it is something of a relief to turn to The Many, a first novel by Wyl Menmuir.

This is also a vernacular novel, in the sense that it is rooted in place, in this case Cornwall, or Kernow as I am sure he calls it.

This is not a perfect book, there are many threads that hang in the air like spider’s webs, it is mysterious, troubling and there is one extra non-human character – dread.

An emmet (stranger) moves into an empty cottage that has stood untenanted since the last occupant Perran died, a matter of about ten years. Though his reasons for choosing this particular place to move to are more than puzzling.

It cannot be an accident that Perran is also a version of the name of the patron Saint. St Pyran or Piran is one of several saints associated with Cornwall, Petroc and Michael being others. St Piran was thrown into the Irish Sea with a millstone round his neck, but he miraculously survived and made landfall at the coastal town, now called Perranport.

So it is particularly upsetting for the local fishermen that Perran drowned. Ethan, his friend and shipmate is particularly upset at the arrival of Timothy, and others too give the impression of being suspicious.  Clem has taken Perran’s job looking out for boats coming back to harbour to work the winch that drags them to the beach, he seems more accommodating but just as clammed up when asked questions.

But all is not well at sea either, a ring of container ships prevent vessels from going far out to fish, and in the permitted area chemical waste had polluted the water so badly that such trawls that catch any fish at all, find the fish are hideously deformed or damaged. The men from the ministry greet each successful fishing expedition, and there are not many, buying up the entire catch.

It is all redolent with misery, failure and fury. The violent outpouring of which comes suddenly, and centres on Perran: the untouchable, the pure, the faithful.

The ending seems like a non-sequitur, though not one of the cobwebs.

This is another edition from  a small imprint, Salt.


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Man Booker Longlist 2016 – 5

There have been many grotesques in literature, both fictional and real. It would be hopelessly tedious to name even a few, and probably mine are not the same as yours, anyway.

EileenBut the eponymous grotesque in the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh is right up there near the top of the list. Of all the books on the longlist that I have read so far, Eileen is outstandingly the creepiest, most unsettling book.  I would go so far as to say, the most disturbing book I have read in a very long while.

Quite apart from the fact that Eileen is a really ghastly woman: grimy, dysfunctional, anorexic, sexually deluded AND virginal.  She is quite simply unpleasant.

One cannot blame her exactly for any of these qualities. Her upbringing, even before her mother died, was inadequate to say the least.  Her father is a drunk and is now retired from the police force; the house they live in is squalid, filthy and neglected; Eileen is in a dead-end job in a local youth offending institute, a job she took up to be near her mother in her last, thankless, illness and one she has never had the energy to leave; X-ville, where she lives seems to be a dead-beat place and on top of that her fantasies of leaving to find a better life are hopelessly unrealistic.

The novel is written from a first person perspective some fifty years on from the events that Eileen describes, but the coldly impersonal way that she tells the story indicates in some measure her lack of empathy. Her cruel observations about the boys in the institute and her immediate colleagues; her sexual fantasies about the in-aptly named Randy; and her deluded ideas about friendship all add up to a picture of a dismal lack of self-awareness.

That she has got away is clear, and it is also clear that she has found some sort of a life, though exactly what is not made obvious; she mentions two marriages but now is gleefully living alone.

However, this book is almost un-put-downable.

In spite of the fact that reading it made me feel dirty, I kept reading; transfixed and struggling, I turned page after page long into the night. The writing absolutely nails the subject, it is totally remarkable. In tone, mood and characterisation it is a masterpiece.

Ottessa Mossfegh is another American author, which makes three so far, though there are more in the pile.

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Man Booker Longlist 2016 – 2

It is a peculiar fact, but each of the recent books I have read on the Longlist so far have at their heart of the story a crime or crimes committed by the protagonist/s.

My previous post dealt with Hystopia, which was about a Vietnam veteran on the rampage in Michigan; His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is about a massacre in a small Scottish village and Work Like Any Other is about a man convicted of unintentional manslaughter and larceny and is by Virginia Reeves.


This novel has its genesis in a project started in 2014, when the author was researching his grandfather’s background and history, but along the way was diverted on to a series of documents concerning a brutal killing by another Macrae.

In a way very similar to Hystopia, the novel begins with testamentary evidence given by neighbours who witnessed the perpetrator on the day of the killings, both before and after he had killed the people in the house of Lachlan Mackenzie.

Also in a similar way to Hystopia, much of the narrative is in the first person and contains an account of the killings, justification – not quite convincing; this is followed by a report on the states of lunacy pertinent to the case; the trial itself and the outcome. Unlike the previous novel, Hystopia though, there is a level of sanity or rational thought, so although what happened seems insane, the reasons can be seen refracted through different lenses depending on where you stand in the historical perspective.

It is a great deal easier to read, though whether one could actually describe it as enjoyable is doubtful. Gripping – certainly; intriguing – absolutely; suspenseful – in every sense of the word: for Roderick Macrae is guilty of the deed, but will he hang?

This is a second novel, an interesting and clever voice and better yet, a small imprint – Contraband – which is always a welcome sight on the longlist shelf.

Another novel, another look at crime.  This time from America, which makes three American authors so far and I have only read four from the list, maybe it is just how they piled up randomly and there are no more…I have not checked.

Reeves.jpgWork Like Any Other is set in Alabama in the 1920s. It is a work in two parts, the first part is what takes Roscoe T Martin to Kilby Gaol and the second part is after his release.

Virginia Reeves has created a world on the cusp of modernity, electricity has reached the cities with all its magic and wonder, but as yet rural communities have not had the benefit. Roscoe however is an electrician by  profession, understands its wonder and its power and decides to wire up his wife’s farm illicitly, with the assistance of Wilson the farm worker, he rigs up power to the house, the farm and the thresher. From penury to profitability, the farm prospers for two years, but then the Sheriff arrives to arrest him.

This is an extraordinarily powerful book. A story that includes human error, frailty and greed; it contains within its pages all the woeful mischances that can occur to sour a marriage and all the compassion that serves to build an abiding and strong one and in its exploration of both we arrive at a place of generous and overwhelming forgiveness.

This is also the story of the State of Alabama penal service, the strange inadequacies of the people in charge, the brutality of the guards and the grinding down of the personalities of the inmates, even before the arrival of the electric chair – which became a tool of execution in the State right at the starting point of possibility.

Although Virginia Reeves has previously had work published, this is her first novel. A tour-de-force, full of direct and beautiful language and a power of description that takes you to the heart of the land.




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Man Booker Longlist 2016 – 1

Well, my prognostication post could not have been more wrong! Not to worry. Here is the real thing. First up:

MeansHystopia by David Means. This is his first novel, though there are several other writings, mostly collections of short stories, so it is not strictly a debut piece. I find it hard to say what I make of this book.  It is a novel within a novel, so that the beginning of the book is a small snapshot of how the book came to be written, there are: Editor’s comments, comments from people who knew the ‘author’ and some background notes by the ‘author’, Eugene Allen about the programme of ‘enfolding’.  This is an experimental treatment for returning Vietnam veterans to help them deal with the trauma that they have undergone.

Enfolding is a drug-induced omerta, in which the veteran re-enacts the trauma while taking a drug called Tripizoid under the control of an organisation called the Psych Corps; all this while John F Kennedy runs his third term as President. So far, so peculiar…

Then the reader gets to the ‘novel’ and follows the story of various members of the Psych Corps, who are discussing various cases but are not allowed to fraternise (naturally we are following two members of the team who are disobeying this rule) and at the same time are following the playing out of a failed treatment which is the case study for one of the team, Singleton.

Singleton is also a veteran and part of the enfolding treatment which more or less wipes his memory, he can vaguely remember childhood things, but at times of extreme emotion, gets flashbacks. His illicit partner, Wendy, is the same, but seemingly for different reasons.

In the other parts of this strange novel, we are following Meg. Meg is also part of the enfolding programme, but her treatment is not quite finished before she gets picked up by the guy whose treatment has failed and who is out on the rampage. Meg is Eugene’s sister and has lost a boyfriend in Vietnam, KIAed in vaguely sinister circumstances.

When I say that these parts of the book read a bit like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, you will get the gist.

StroutThere was only one book on the Longlist that I had already read. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.

This is a very short but penetrating novel by a supremely gifted author. It is a study of the complicated relationship between Lucy and her mother, it ranges over the reasons that they have been estranged for many years.

Lucy is in hospital after a simple operation that has not gone according to plan, at one point when she is awake, she finds her mother by her bedside. Because she is weak from her ordeal, this visit opens up avenues of tender reconciliation and remembrance, instead of opening up old wounds.

The writing is spare, every word crafted to carry meaning and emotion without superfluity. A short but brilliant masterpiece from the author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys. It is a book of simply joys and is simply joyous.


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