According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, traveled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and the booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.
The amount of times I thought ‘this would have been more interesting with a female protagonist’ was more than ten. The amount of times I wondered if Paul Auster has any kind of editing team or editor is even higher. Seriously mate, if you need fifteen-plus item lists to get to almost 900 pages, consider aiming a bit lower in page number.
Oh, and definitely change that ending.
What did I like about this story about a young Jewish boy growing up in fifties – sixties – seventies’ USA? Well, it’s one big ‘What if’ story. Every chapter starts with a new Ferguson, but some of them die, some of them grow up to be sterile, some have parents that divorce, some get into accidents. And Paul Auster shows the impact of all these internal and external factors on a human life.
But besides that, he shares a visual description of every woman in the boy’s life, and of every sexual encounter and masturbation session. And then there’s the lists.
If I’d be more aggressive about this time wasted, I’d create an abbreviated version of this book; instead I just want more ‘What if’-stories that won’t repeatedly tell me about a boy’s first erection.
4 3 2 1, Paul Auster, Faber & Faber 2017
Evening swept through the Delta: half an hour of mauve before the sky bruised to black.
I read books situated in South America and Asia and Africa to remember that Western culture and/or society isn’t the only one on this planet. With Welcome to Lagos I sometimes felt like I was ready a satire of how people think about African cultures. Surely it isn’t really like that? But when a (semi-)local is writing about it, you might take their word for it. And see that some known things about African countries aren’t exaggerated.
In this story the reader follows people from different walks of life that come together in Lagos. And Lagos is a creature, not just a city. The country of Nigeria is a beast, and the different people living in it are sometimes prey, sometimes predator. I’m not just talking about literal, military violence, but about poverty and corruption as well. And yet, these people find each other and connect in some way.
It’s a story about people functioning (in some way) in a country that isn’t even half way there on the road to whatever. As an ignorant white person I was surprised by the casual poverty and people abusing it, by the reach of the corrupted in power. As mentioned before – is it really that bad?
It’s with credit to the author that it doesn’t turn into one long complaint about the city and its civilians. Welcome to Lagos feels like something you could read for Anthropology class: to make sure you see the people not the system.
Welcome to Lagos, Chibundu Onuzo, Faber & Faber 2017
I was tethering the cows out by the pond when a boy came into our pasture saying that Father Cléophas himself want to see me tout suite in the morgue.
And even based on true events, although I have to admit that the note from the editor(s) and shared background information took away from the story, for me anyway. I could have not read them, of course.
The story here is how two slaves on Martinique are sent to another island to bring back the slaves the French Fathers think they own while the island is English now. Sounds like nothing could go wrong, right? Nothing fishy at all at sending two slaves to silently invite slaves to move islands.
Lucien and his brother Emile are the ones that are tasked with this, and Lucien is the one telling the story of these few days. He does so in a mix of English, French and Creole, which works well with their surroundings and situation.
The only gripe I have with the story only being about this one event, is that as the reader you feel slightly dropped into someone’s lives and left behind when you (probably) only want to learn more. Maybe Jane Harris should have gone with a bit more creative freedom there. But what she writes, she writes appealingly.
Sugar Money, Jane Harris, Faber & Faber 2017
When I woke up that morning, it was still pretty early.
I didn’t know there was a book before the film. Now I know the story, I’m … going to skip the film. There are amounts of pain/trauma you don’t want to go through twice. See also: The Green Mile.
Lean on Pete is a horse, but it’s Charley’s story, and it’s a collection of miseries. Charley and his little-good father move through the USA to wherever work is, his mother is mostly unknown and there’s never enough money, furniture or food.
Because his father disappears from time to time, and it’s the summer holiday anyway, Charley (15 years old) goes looking for a job. He finds one in taking care of race horses, with a dodgy fellow, because those seem to be the only kind in his life.
The story is hailed for being Americana, humane, a slice of life and so on, but for a large amount of time it is just sadness upon badness upon abuse. Don’t mistake this book to be something for horse fans, either.
The only reason I’d call this a summer read because in winter there isn’t even nice weather outside to distract you from the shit luck Charley has, again and again. Yes, all of it is nicely written, but just consider the sacrifice of happiness.
Lean on Pete, Willy Vlautin, Faber and Faber 2010
It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.
Not for this story, but my opinion on it. A Nobel Prize winning author it may be, a deep, emotional romance in the loved city of Istanbul it may be, I only found egoism and sexism, with a dollop of patronizing ideas towards women.
The male main character starts an affair with a much younger, and poorer woman when he’s engaged to a nice, intelligent woman of his age and social standards. He steamrolls his mistress into many things, while not giving anything in return, only to throw a tantrum in any way but yelling when she disappears after his engagement party. There’s moping, pouting, dramatic thoughts and work-omitting behaviour. But don’t view it as that, he all has to do that because he’s so in love!
This goes on for years and years. Whenever there’s an interesting look into (high) society in Turkey of the seventies and eighties, the lens is turned back to the ever-suffering man. How dare she, how dare his mother worry, how dare his brother ask to come to work again, and so on, and so on. After eight years things turn in his direction again, but still there’s the woe-is-me tone.
An exhausting, frustrating novel that is interesting for about 10% of its pages: whenever Kemal Bey deigns to show a look at the world around him, instead of the one inside of his head.
The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk, Faber and Faber 2009
Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair.
You could say that this is the school/teenager version of Everything I Never Told You: someone dies, the reader learns about all the lives connected to and entwined with the death character.
But that would ignore a large number of differences, so let’s just keep the second part of the sentence. Skippy’s dying isn’t a large part of Skippy Dies, really.
The reader moves around Seabrook College, following some of the students and staff. Male teenagers of every age, with the familiar (male) teenage problems.
But there’s never just one dimension when there’s humans involved, and Paul Murray slowly peels away all the layers. Illnesses, abuse, shame, and is the reader supposed to change their judgment of character because of them or not? What does that say about our view of the world?
Of course there’s coolness, girls and futures to worry about as well. The characters are frustratingly human, rooting for them sometimes only possible because of how the story moves them.
I finished the book with a final sprint of the last 200 pages and am still a bit subdued. Skippy Dies isn’t a 600 page sob story about the decline of the (educational) world, but it definitely does remind you of all the sides of a person we never/barely see, yet shouldn’t forget about.
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray, Faber and Faber 2010
Slowly I’m changing my mind about collected (short) stories.For a long time I thought the short story was for the writer that couldn’t come up for a novel-spanning plot, while these days it only shows that creating a good short story is tougher than filling x number of hundred of hundreds pages. The Nocturnes dip and fall, while still managing to leave some element of each story behind.
As the title tells us, all the stories are about music. Musicians, the influence music making or not making has on someone’s life. Some stories are shorter than others, which gives a strange extra experience – a cadence, maybe?
None of the stories are excessively bright gems, it’s more the entirety of the five that leaves a certain feeling behind. Do the characters mentioned need help, was the reader an active participant or was it really only about music?
For a short collection, and for starting readers of short collections, definitely something nice to read.
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber and Faber 2009