41. John Irving “The Water-Method Man”

29 May

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One Sentence Review:

More than a little disappointing.

Extended Review:

People who usually read difficult books read John Irving when they go on holidays. A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp got me, relatively unscathed, through two different, very long transatlantic journeys. They’re page turners but they’re really well-written, witty and insightful page turners. I was hoping The Water-Method Man would help me navigate the long day’s journey from April to June but it was nothing if not disappointing. This is Irving at his most forgettable. The plot is disjointed and difficult to follow. The characters are all thoroughly unlikeable and there are entire sections which can be skipped over with no significant impact upon the flow of the novel. I was hoping for an easy and enjoyable read and what I actually got was a dismal plod and a desire to re-read Garp. John Irving, you’re capable of so much more than this.

If you enjoyed this you might also like:

John Irving “The World According to Garp”

Philip Roth “Portnoy’s Complaint”

40. Bernie McGill “The Butterfly Cabinet”

26 May

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One Sentence Review:

I can’t stop recommending this book to people.

Extended Review:

I’m very fortunate to have a number of friends who’ve published books over the last few years. However, there’s always a little trepidation involved in reading a friend’s book. Just because they’re fantastic company, thoroughly wonderful people, great cooks or stunning conversationalists, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be great writers. Over the last year I’ve got to know Bernie McGill through some mutual friends and I’ve grown extremely fond of her. She’s a very warm person; genuine, encouraging and blessed with a beautiful reading voice which I’ve heard her put to great effect, reading from her fantastic Whittrick Press, published short story collection, Sleepwalkers. However, I had yet to read one of Bernie’s books and was a little anxious to do so, just in case I was disappointed. I should have had no reservations whatsoever. The Butterfly Cabinet is an absolute masterpiece. It’s a deftly told story which unfolds slowly across some 400 pages, allowing the tension, and indeed the horror, to keep pace with the twin narrators’ meandering styles. I can tell that a tremendous amount of historical research went into this book but Bernie has a very light touch with her dates and facts and what might drag a lesser novel down actually adds to the lightness of The Butterfly Cabinet as the history gently supports what is essentially a story about family, class and culture. Flitting between a contemporary narrator and the memoirs of the main protagonist, Bernie weaves both narrative accounts together seamlessly to reveal that events from fifty odd years previous, are still having a horrendous impact on the present. Perhaps, however, my favourite aspect of The Butterfly Cabinet is the depths of its appeal. This is a novel so well-written it will sit easily with those who are most comfortable with traditional literary fiction and yet it is also accessible and equipped with such fabulous characters and plotlines anyone with a head for a good story will thoroughly enjoy spending time with this wee book. Go and buy a copy now. If you know me don’t be too surprised if you get this as a birthday present this year.

If you enjoyed this you might also like:

Lucy Caldwell “The Meeting Point”

Colm Toibin “The Blackwater Lightship”

 

(Ps. Apologies for the slightly creepy image.)

39. Breece D’J Pancake “The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake”

25 May

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One Sentence Review:

Gritty, grounded and almost perfectly formed.

Extended Review:

Last year at Belfast Book Festival I attended a fantastic discussion on the future of the short story where Irish short story wonder, Kevin Barry heartily recommended this collection. It was the first time I’d ever heard of Breece D’J Pancake, but it’s not a name you forget quickly. I finally got round to reading Pancake’s stories this month. Unfortunately Pancake passed away extremely young and this slim volume is all that remains of his work. However, these stories are fantastic. The characters contained within are expertly drawn from what can only be personal experience of a life lived in rural West Virginia. His stories are simple, lost love, disappointment, hardship, poverty. His characters are incredibly believable. Their dialogue and deeply flawed emotional lives are reminiscent of Carver at his best and, read together as a complete collection these are snapshots of West Virginia not dissimilar to Joyce’s portrait of Dublin life in Dubliners. The stories stick with you because they seem so very real and shot through with the kind of tragic potential which made Flannery O’Connor’s stories such disturbing reads. Brilliant stuff.

If you like this you might also like:

Raymond Carver “Cathedral”

James Joyce “Dubliners”

38. Edna O’Brien “The Country Girls”

17 May

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One Sentence Review:

Not what I was expecting.

Extended Review:

I should have read this years ago. It’s one of those Irish rites of passage novels you’re supposed to read when you’re still in your teens but I never quite got round to it. In February I read my first set of Edna O’Brien shorts and, being duly impressed, thought I should finally give the Country Girls a read. It’s a great wee book; a quick read but a substantial one nonetheless. Though it’s definitely a very Irish coming-of-age story with all the tropes of religion, family, sex and gender, loitering just beneath the surface, it’s a lot gentler and more subtly told than I was anticipating. The characters are beautifully and quite delicately drawn, and the relationship between the two main characters complex and incredibly believable. There is a tangible sense of foreboding in this book, a momentum driving towards the final grand disappointment which made me recall Joyce’s “Evelyn” from Dubliners. However, there is also an incomplete sense to the Country Girls and a real feeling that it belongs within a bigger story. I am looking forward to reading the next episode.

If you liked this you might enjoy

Donal McCann “The Spinning Heart”

John McGahern “That They May Face the Rising Sun”

37. Colm Toibin “New Ways to Kill Your Mother; Writers and their Families”

11 May

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One Sentence Review:

What a treat.

Extended Review:

I’m awfully partial to Colm Toibin’s prose and when I heard him read from this book at the Belfast Book Festival in 2012 I was really looking forward to diving into his non-fiction. It took a couple of years but I have to New Ways to Kill Your Mother really did not disappoint. Each chapter covers the strange, and often deeply disturbing, relationships between writers and their families. Yeats is in here, of course, as are Henry James, Beckett and a fantastic, slightly scandalous chapter on Borges. The stories range from the hilarious, to the downright odd with a number of anecdotes which might cause you to wonder why the authors in question were not arrested for mistreating their spouses and children. I found it completely addictive. Perhaps I am by nature a nosy person but I thoroughly enjoyed these wee snapshots into the weird world of some of my favourite writers. In places the stories add to these writers’ now-mythical status. In other places they appear vulnerable and subject to the odd quirks of their own genius. Be warned however, this is the kind of book you’ll be falling back on at dinner parties for months after you’ve finished it. I’ve already bored a number of people, recounting some of Toibin’s anecdotes and I foresee more of this kind of behaviour in the future.

If you enjoyed this you might also like:

Mary S. Lovell “The Mitford Girls”

Rupert Everett “Vanished Years”

36. David Dalton “Who is that Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan.”

4 May

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One Sentence Review:

A very Dylanish Dylan biography.

Extended Review:

I’ve read, and continue to read, a heck of a lot of Bob Dylan biographies, (approximately 40 at the last count). Most of them are run of the mill. They attempt to approach Dylan’s life and work in the same, largely linear, way you’d approach an ordinary historical figure. They try and, almost universally, fail to understand Dylan, to offer some explanation for his behaviour and the ever-changing nature of his creative output as it spans the last five decade. Only the most devoted and discerning, (I’m thinking Clinton Heylin, Michael Gray and the ubiquitous Greil Marcus), seem fit to acknowledge that there is no Bob Dylan. Instead the discerning critic/biographer is faced with the mammoth and insurmountable task of trying to pin down a multiplicity of Dylans; a man with no overriding manifesto save an on-going commitment to both change and defy those who would seek to understand him. Dalton’s biography is by no means perfect. His own peculiar biases are present throughout: a dislike of Greil Marcus, a tendency towards dismissing anything which might be mistaken for earnestness, a churlish distrust of the folk movement. The prose is sloppy in places and could easily stand to lose fifty pages of filler. However, in my opinion, Dalton is a welcome addition to my Dylan bookcase for a number of reasons. Primarily the language in which he writes is pure Dylan pseudo-speak from start to finish. This is a biography couched in terms and language Dylan himself might have used in the mid-sixties and as such it feels more authentic than reading some Harvard academic tackling Dylan’s lyrics with an Oxbridge writing voice. Secondarily, and perhaps most pertinently, this is a biography which resists the urge to pursue a cheap resolution. Dalton is quite happy to leave the many Dylans be, without trying to force Bob’s multiplicity of voices into a single cohesive meta-narrative. Dalton’s Dylan differs wildly from one chapter to the next as does Bob himself as he traces his progress from folk saviour to rock recluse to born again believer, all the way through to present day. Finally, Dalton himself seems, for the most part, (folk and Christian era aside), critically detached from the subject matter. As such he is able to call out Dylan’s shit; praising the venerable and criticising the truly crap in a manner which very few of his loyal band of biographers, (those men who’ve been worshipping Bob and reading wonder into every syllable he utters for the last fifty years), are capable of. A refreshing, eclectic and creative snapshot of a troubled genius’s mind.

If you enjoyed this you might also like:

Michael Gray “The Dylan Encyclopaedia”

Greil Marcus “Invisible Republic; Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes”

35. Donna Tartt “The Goldfinch”

23 Apr

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One Sentence Review:

Bloated.

Extended Review:

There is a character in Michael Chabon’s devastatingly brilliant, Wonderboys named Grady Tripp, (played by Michael Douglas in the equally delightful film adaptation). Grady Tripp has written one candidate for the Great American novel and has been hunched over his typewriter ever since, wearing a faded bathrobe and hammering out page after page of an increasingly bloated and spiralling second novel. He appears incapable of taking constructive criticism, incapable of committing to an increasingly elusive, full stop which could bring the horror to an end. The Goldfinch is the 2014 version of Grady Tripp’s opus; bloated, meandering and seemingly above the influence of the editorial pen. The first 150 pages are decent enough. The last ten- whilst perhaps coloured by the reader’s understandable relief as the last page looms tantalisingly close- are actually quite good. The SIX HUNDRED AND TEN pages sandwiched in-between are rambling, self-indulgent, dull and not a patch on the genius Tartt exhibited in The Secret History and The Little Friends. And yet it is The Goldfinch for which Tartt received the Pulitzer Prize last week. I’m not angry Donna Tartt. I’m just desperately, desperately disappointed.

If you enjoyed this you might not like:

Donna Tartt “The Secret History”

Donna Tartt “The Little Friend” for they are both expertly written, concise and memorable novels.