20 Books of Summer

From now until 6 September I will be trying to read my 20 Books of Summer. Why not join in, read along or just cheer me as I try to get the 746 books down into the 600′s by September!

 

 

20 books of summer - master image

 

  • Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Sheteyngart
  • Nights At The Circus by Angela Carter
  • Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
  • Let The Right One In by John Avjide Lindquist
  • Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • Caught by Harlan Coben
  • The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead
  • The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
  • The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Black Watch by Gregory Burke
  • An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  • The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
  • The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
  • Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins
  • Wonder by RJ Palacio
  • The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Don’t forget to check out these other fabulous bloggers who are also taking part, there is such a great range of reading going on!

The Things We Read

Cedar Station

Read The Gamut

Lost Generation Reader

A World of Books

My Book Strings

Behold The Stars

Check my Books

Ireland. You really haven’t seen the half of it!

There was a Tourist Board television advertisement for Ireland in the late 1970’s and 80’s, which had the tagline ‘Ireland: You Haven’t Seen The Half of It’.

 
My Dad took this as a direct challenge and vowed that we would see the half of it and more! Every weekend, bank holiday and summer, myself, my Mum and Dad and the dog, were crammed into the car, touring caravan hitched on the back and set off, often with no particular destination in mind to every corner of this beautiful country.

 
I like to think I’ve seen a lot of Ireland and was sure that there wasn’t a spot in Donegal where I hadn’t been, but I was proved wrong. On holiday in Rathmullan on the north-west coast of Ireland last week, we discovered the stunning Portsalon beach. Who knew that a mere three hour drive from my house is the world’s second most beautiful beach, as voted by The Observer and beaten only by a beach in the Seychelles!

 

 

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Sometimes you don’t see the beauty on your front door and with temperatures reaching a blistering 30 degrees last week we could have been anywhere! We paddled in the sea, ate too much, found the greatest junk shop I have ever seen, took a boat trip round Lough Swilly, watched Frozen every day and, of course, had the obligatory pints of Guinness.

 

So the smoke went up from Rathmullen;
And beyond the trail of the smoke
Was a great deep fiery abyss
Of molten gold in the sky,
And it set a far track up the waters
Ablaze with gold like its own.
Over the fire of the sea,
Over the chasm in the sky,
My spirit as by a bridge
Of wonder went wandering on,
And lost its way in the heaven.

The ship is out on the lake,
The fisherman stands on the deck.
Rosy and violet sea;
Delicate haze in the distance;
Woodlands softer than summers;
Great golden eye of intense,
Concentrated, marvellous light

From A Fine Day on Lough Swilly by Archbishop William Alexander

 

The weather was so lovely that we got to sit out every evening with a glass of wine and a book, so my 20 Books of Summer Challenge got a much needed boost as I read the sublime (The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell), the ridiculous (Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins) and the downright perplexing (Just Kids by Patti Smith)!

Reviews will follow in the next week but for now I’m still basking in a little bit of that holiday glow!

 

Blog Awards Ireland – I’ve been nominated!

So, I’ve come back from a fabulous week in Donegal with my family to discover that I have been nominated for not one, but two categories in the Irish Blog Awards 2014! I am on the longlist for Best Arts/ Culture blog and for Best Newcomer.

blog awards ireland

I must say, I am delighted and pleasantly surprised and it has rounded off what has been a fantastic week. I can’t imagine I’ll progress any further but it still feels great!

You can check out the longlist here, there are some excellent blogs nominated.

Onwards and upwards!

No 712 The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

upstairs

Unreliable narrators often tell the best stories and Nora Eldridge, the narrator of The Woman Upstairs, announces her unreliability from the outset.

If you’d told me my own story about someone else, I would have assured you that this person was completely unhinged. Or a child

Tellingly, the book opens with an angry tantrum.

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that…It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/ daughter/ friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave too, is FUCK YOU ALL

We can rest assured then that Nora is angry. Why?
Nora is a 42 year old elementary school teacher in Boston, unremarkable, average, a good daughter, good friend and good teacher but reaching that ‘Lucy Jordan’ moment when time has caught up and the hopes and accomplishments, the dreams for a life as an artist will now never come to pass. She calls herself The Woman Upstairs;

We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound…not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.

Nora is a woman of missed opportunities. Almost married, almost an artist and totally disillusioned by her own cowardice and her circumstance. She is emblematic of a lack of joy in a life whose path has not gone the way that was hoped. Nora has always done what was expected of her, just like her eponymous namesake in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and like Ibsen’s heroine is smart enough to know that she is both victim that circumstance and master of her failures. Is her anger fuelled by these missed opportunities and the part she has played in them? Gradually we discover, it is not.
The bulk of the novel takes place five years earlier when she is drawn into the artistic and glamorous world of the Shahid family – handsome Skandar, a Lebanese scholar, glamorous Sirena, a successful artist and their son Reza, whom Nora teaches. As she becomes friends with the Shahids, her relationship to all three of them gives her hope. Here, at last, is the life she always thought she would experience, with the child she thought she might have. Proximity, she feels, will invite inclusion to their tribe.
She shares a studio space with Sirena, goes for walks and intellectual talks with Shankar and babysits Reza and feels the world opening up to her as she makes her art again and begins to see what could be possible for her thanks to the Shahid’s encouragement. Nora becomes increasingly enraptured by the Shahids and their way of life yet Messud cleverly leaves us in the dark as to what they think of her. The relationships are described in Nora’s obsessive and ruminative voice as she questions every nuance of the friendship. There is something odd about her affections for the family and her fantasies move from being in love with Sirena, to being in love with Skandar to being a mother to Reza. Even Nora knows that these scenarios are unlikely but the Shahids have given her a new way of seeing herself and a new sense of vitality. She is a compelling narrator because of her awareness of how the world sees her yet self- deceiving enough to allow us to question the reality she is describing.

Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Nora questions everything and places importance on often random moments.

It was a thought I made an object, and held on to and turned over and over in my hand, as if it were an amulet, as if it gave meaning to what had come before; and holding on to it changed everything

Nora has a neediness and an insatiable appetite for outside approval that will never fulfil her. She tells Skandar that she is ‘ravenous’ but can’t say for what. The art that the two women create is a reflection of their personalities. Nora is building miniature dioramas of the rooms of famous artists like Edie Sedgwick and Virginia Woolf, so that when she gets a room of her own to make art in, it is telling that all she can make are miniatures of other famous rooms, rather than something of herself. Sirena on the other hand is creating Wonderland, a fantastical space to be inhabited and imbued with meaning by others, the art of the interior versus the art of the exterior. Nora is drowning in the minutiae, creating a mere copy of reality while Sirena is the purveyor of dreams.
As her infatuation with the Shahids grows, she seems disturbingly off-balance, aware she is making more of the relationship than they.

Not only did I want Sirena and Reza and – now, most tangibly – Skandar…but I also wanted Wonderland, I coveted her very imagination, and wished it were mine

Her ‘magic unfolding’ has echoes of The Talented Mr Ripley and the book is part psychological thriller propelled along by the question of what has so enraged Nora. As always in her life, Nora is on the periphery of someone else’s story and it is Sirena’s careless ambition and devotion to her art that creates what Nora sees as a shattering betrayal.

The very fact that I can tell you without blinking that I could kill them – that above all I could kill her – says all that needs to be said. Oh don’t worry, I won’t. I’m harmless. We women Upstairs are that, too. But I could.

The betrayal is effective on several levels, because it calls into question everything that has gone before. Just how close has Nora been with the Shahids? How much of what we have been told is a fantasy created in Nora’s twisted psyche? What part has Nora played in the creation of Sirena’s art? Has she been victim of a more subtle psychological game played by the whole family?
The book ends with another tantrum, with Nora’s rage in full force promising ‘before I die to fucking well live’ but one is left to imagine the consequences of her fateful relationship with the family. This is a riveting book that reminds us of how people create mythologies around themselves to explain the journey of their lives and how identity is shaped from within, from society through the expectations of others. At times, the character of Nora can seem more like a construct, the collection of a series of female stereotypes, but there is something in her story that is easy to relate to. Haven’t we all thought, from time to time, of what might have been? Wondered what we could have been done differently in life? Ultimately, this tale of sex, lies and videotape succeeds by raising questions about the place of women in literature, art and society and about the perils of searching for your own self worth in someone else’s distorted mirror.

I’m off on  my holidays next week to the wilds of the west of Ireland so I haven’t decided yet which Books of Summer I’ll take. The forecast is for rain. Great reading weather!
Read On: iBooks
Number Read: 35
Number Remaining: 711

No 713 Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

right oneI don’t usually read something if I’ve seen the screen adaptation, I prefer to read the book first, to create my own world and people it with my imagination. Reading Let The Right One In really reminded me why. I saw Let The Right One In a few years ago and really loved it, so it was incredibly hard to read the novel and not compare the two. I do think it is interesting though that John Ajvide Lindqvist wrote the screenplay for the movie, because the things I didn’t like about the book are also the things that didn’t seem to make their way into the movie.

Set in the early ‘80s, it features a 12 year old boy named Oskar whose alcoholic father and overprotective mother are divorced. Oskar is an outcast and is badly bullied by other kids in his class. He meets Eli, a twelve year old girl who just happens to also be a 220 year old vampire and a sort of adolescent romance is played out against a backdrop of death, madness and paedophilia.

 

As a vampire story, it’s a great one. It is gruesome and horrific and not at all romantic about the vampire life. The murders are frequent and disturbing and there are some fantastic set pieces involving cats, acid and underpasses. But what strikes you when reading it is the pain and isolation of the vampire for whom all choices have been distilled into the need for blood to survive.

As Eli says to Oskar;

If you could wish someone dead and they died. Wouldn’t you do it then? Sure you would. And that would be simply for your own enjoyment. Your revenge. I do it because I have to. There is no other way

Eli’s isolation as a vampire corresponds directly to Oskar’s as a victim of bullying and what the novel does beautifully is use the vampire myth as a metaphor for that human isolation. Eli and Oskar are children who have been let down badly by the adult world. Oskar’s father is a drunk, his mother distracted and his teachers uninterested. Eli’s ‘father’ of sorts is her procurer of blood, in thrall to Eli and her pre-pubescent body due to his paedophilic tendencies. This is a town full of lost boys, with missing, dead or ineffective father figures. The town the novel is set in was manufactured for communities, but

Something went wrong. They thought all this out, planned it to be…..perfect, you know. And in some damn wrinkle it went wrong, instead. Some shit.

The community has folded in on itself, left itself open to the outside evil. The novel becomes an existential character study about “outcasts” living on the fringe of society. Drunkards, disaffected glue-sniffing teens, everyone trying to escape their reality while true horror creeps closer and closer. This for me is where the book didn’t work so much. It is sprawling. Each chapter introduces a new character, a new viewpoint which in some way detracts from the central story of Oskar and Eli. A narrower focus would have made for a more engrossing read.

The relationship between Oskar and Eli is poetically told. He reminds her of what it is like to be a child while she becomes his rock, his way of becoming someone new and teaches him to stand up for himself with devastating consequences. The scenes of bullying are as difficult to read as the scenes of barbarity and the friendship that materialises between the children is based on an understanding and loyalty so horribly missing from the rest of the story. They find each other when they are both achingly alone, and it is the ordinary fact of their loneliness rather than their extraordinary circumstances that makes the book more than the sum of its gory set pieces and genre status.

What is ultimately haunting about Let The Right One In is not the subject matter of vampires, blood and fear, but the way in which ordinary people can treat each other when they lose hope and the pain that can come from trying to make your way through the world when you are in any way different. All Oskar wants is to be loved for himself, to not always be the victim;

For a few seconds Oskar saw himself through Eli’s eyes. And what he saw was……himself. Only much better, more handsome, stronger than what he thought of himself. Seen with love. For a few seconds.

Let The Right One In spells out its message with a bit too much force for me. The film was more subtle and left more to the imagination, but this tale of Oskar and Eli is hard to shake off and the ostensibly happy ending raises more questions that it resolves. Has the right one been let in? How does Oskar, or for that matter, anyone, ever know?

estella

I read this as part of the Estella Project  and will be reading Geek Love for this challenge later in the summer.

 

 

 

So, do you like to read the book before you see the movie? Are there any adaptations you can think of that improve on the book?

Next up for anyone who wants to read along, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

woman upstars

Read On: iBooks
Number Read: 34
Number Remaining: 712

No 714 We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I remember as a child, there was a house on our street that we all thought was haunted. We would dare each other to run up the tree lined driveway and touch the dark house before running back to the safety of the streetlights and our friends. There was a story about the ghost who lived inside and reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I was struck that it wasn’t a haunted house story as such, but the tale of how the myth of a haunted house is comes in to being.

castleThis short but beguiling novel tells the tale of two sisters, Constance and Merricat Blackwood who live with their Uncle Julian in a large castle and the end of a village. They are surrounded by villagers who hate them as they are the only survivors of a scandalous poisoning incident six years previously that killed the rest of their family. Constance was acquitted of the crime and the three live an insular, ordered existence until a cousin, Charles appears with dubious intentions and shatters their peaceful routine.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot of We Have Always Lived At The Castle, as I went into it knowing very little and was rewarded for it. This is ostensibly a domestic novel, set mainly in a kitchen of the grand house, focusing on routine tasks, cooking cleaning, shopping and growing vegetables. Food is fetishised as the giver and the remover of life, as these three characters ‘eat the year away’ through lovingly prepared meals in a stark contrast to the poisoning in the past. Yet Jackson’s great skill is in locating the unsettling in the midst of the mundane, the terror in the ordinary. As I read, a sense of sheer dread built up in me. The back story is slowly revealed, Merricat teases us with what she knows and as the drops details of the crime at the heart of the novel like crumbs of bread , leading the reader to the knowledge of the utter horror of what has happened.

Merricat is a wonderful literary creation, feral yet poetic, lonely but loving, insightful and fantastical. The wonderful description she gives of herself at the start of the novel pulling together all the competing strands of her personality.

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing m myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

 

She is a compelling character, practicing magic of her own invention, talking to her cat and as likely to make you a bed of twigs and leaves if you have nowhere to sleep as she is to burn your house down if you cross her. She is a mass of contradictions, a grown woman with the habits of a child, unable to grow in the cloistered environment of the Blackwood home. On paper, Constance, her sister, may seem like the weaker of the two, but she is no less fascinating. Her wish to protect and care for her family comes first and a lot of the tension of the novel comes from the possibility that she might choose Charles and village life over her sister’s fantasy of a home ‘on the moon’.
But the bond of sisterhood, no matter how twisted that bond may be, is what drives everything in this novel, and the ‘fairy tale’ ending is both literal and ironic. The reader is left with a Grimm’s tale for modern times, where Merricat’s ‘magic’ has worked it’s spell and given her the realm of equivalence yet we are left to wonder, like the villagers creating myths around them, what will become of these damaged yet resilient sisters.

“I love you, Constance,” I said.
“And I love you, my Merricat.”

 

We Have Always Lived at the Castle was an engrossing, blackly humorous, terrifying read. I usually include spoilers in my reviews, but I would hate to take away anyone’s enjoyment of coming to this book for the first time. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Merricat and Constance, as so much of this story could continue to be told, but Jackson knows when to pull back, when to leave the reader with the most morbid of happy endings.

‘Oh, Constance’, I said, ‘we are so happy’.

For anyone who wants to read along, my next read is Let the Right One In by John Avijide Lindquist, which I am reading as part of the Estella Project.

20 books right one in
Read On: iBooks
Number Read: 33
Number Remaining:713

 

No 715 Caught by Harlan Coben

 

caught

If any of you out there are unfamiliar with the phenomenon that is Harlan Coben, here are a few facts.
• All but his first two books are still in print, and his backlist sells about 1 million paperbacks in the United States each year.
• Including his worldwide figures, he sells about 2.7 million books a year.
• It is estimated that Coben earns at least $3 million to $4 million per book, when foreign rights are factored in.
• His work has been translated into 41 languages
• His last SEVEN CONSECUTIVE novels all debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list

 
Impressive stuff, I think you’ll agree.

 

Photo Credit: Miriam Berkley

Photo Credit: Miriam Berkley

I’ve been a fan of Coben since I discovered his mystery series featuring Myron Bolitar, sports agent turned investigator, but it is his stand alone novels that have really taken him to the next level.
Here’s the thing. Coben pretty much does one thing and does it really, really well. No gritty noir or hard boiled detectives here, Coben has cornered the market in suburban family everyman/ woman in peril. You can count on there being dark secrets from the past, snappy dialogue, short chapters and twists. Then more twists. And when you think he’s finally finished with you, there just might be another twist for you to get your head around.

 
If I sound flippant, I don’t really mean to be. I enjoy Coben’s books, I mean, I’ve pretty much read them all. And I enjoy them because I know exactly what I’m going to get.

 
So to Caught. Social worker and basketball coach Dan’s life goes as wrong as a life can when he is accused of grooming a younger girl for sex, and child pornography is found on his computer. Acquitted on a technicality, he is living rough, unable to rebuild a life so shattered. Marcia’s life has also been shattered; her teenage daughter Haley has disappeared. Add into the mix the bad things that are happening to a group of men, Dan included, who were not only members of the same class a generation ago at Princeton University; they also roomed together as freshmen. The ‘detective’ role in Caught is taken by Wendy Tynes, the widowed journalist who unmasked Dan, but is now unsure of everything she believes as she tries to piece together what happened to Dan and to Hayley.
Tynes’ pursuit of the truth takes her through a maze at breakneck speed and disappearing corpses, mistaken identities, dead hookers, embezzlement, conspiracies, drugs and drunk driving are just a few of the plot points that are all neatly tied up at the end.

 

There is not much in the way of character development, most of what we learn comes from what they say. I wasn’t particularly emotionally invested in anyone and there are some caricatures in here, but none of this really matters. It is totally engrossing. The narration—which keeps moving and shifting, from one plot strand and alternative view point to another in each short chapter often featuring its own perfectly crafted mini cliff hanger—has a mesmerising effect.

The main thing I think when reading Coben is ‘just one more chapter, just one more…’ as he is a master of the page-turning, unputdownable blockbuster. What he does is impressive if you don’t expect it to be anything more than it is. I read Caught last week. I enjoyed it. I can’t quite remember a lot of it now. No matter, it was fun.There’ll be a new one next year.
If you’re new to Coben, I would recommend Tell No One which is a masterclass of a  thriller and the French movie adaptation is quite fantastic.

 

 

I went to a screening of it at the Queens Film Theatre in Belfast quite a few years ago and Coben was signing books afterwards. He was incredibly friendly and professional, asking names, getting opinions and taking time to talk to everyone . Maybe that’s why he’s so successful.

 
20 books castle

For anyone wanting to read along, my next book from 20 Books of Summer is We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

 
Read On: iBooks
Number Read: 32
Number Remaining: 714

 

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

One of the things I have loved most about blogging, is the relationships I’ve built up with other bloggers and the opportunity to talk to like minded people about one of my favourite things. Books!

 

very-inspiring-blog-award
I realise my blog is a little bit odd in that I don’t review any recent or newly released books and I sometimes feel a little out of the loop, so I was delighted to be nominated for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award by not one, but four very cool bloggers, Diana at Strahbery Fields, Friendly Bookworm, Alena at Alenaslife and Lizzi from These Little Words. Check out their blogs, everyone a winner!
I’m probably getting nominated for this one in the absence of a She Must be Fecking Mad to Set Herself Such a Ridiculous Challenge Award, but seriously, I’m very chuffed and it is nice to know that people are enjoying my blog.

So, without further ado, here are seven ‘interesting’ facts about myself! Well, you can be the judge of that……

1. I have a Masters in Theatre and had a brief and not entirely successful career as an actor. I once played all the pre-pubescent girls in the Irish Premiere of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker.
2. Liam Neeson’s Mum Kitty was my school dinner lady and she lives down the road from me.

Sure isn't he a great fella altogether, doesn't he love his Mammy

Sure isn’t he a great fella altogether, doesn’t he love his Mammy

3. My biggest regret is that my parents didn’t live to meet their grandchildren. My biggest joy is that I can see them both in my twins.
4. My obsession with the film Footloose knows no bounds. Just ask Raging Fluff. At the ripe old age of 42, I still wear my ‘Dance Your Ass Off’ t-shirt with pride. Seriously, try and watch the final dance scene without smiling. I dare ya!

5. I am currently obsessed with cross-stitching. That is probably why my 20 Books of Summer is not on target. This is my latest project:

free hugs
6. When I’m not blogging, I am an Arts Officer at the gorgeous Clotworthy House. I run the Art Gallery, Theatre and workshop programme and am blessed to have a job I love. Well, most of the time.

clot
7. I am not a girly-girl. I’m more sci-fi and Asian horror movie than chick-lit and rom-com. I wouldn’t thank you for chocolates and don’t fancy George Clooney. As my wee Mum used to say, ‘Cathy, you’re a bit odd’.

As this is the Very Inspiring Blogger Award, I would like to nominate the following blogs that have inspired me in different ways:

Raging Fluff – because he inspired me to start 746 Books

The Evening Reader – because I love her ‘Freestyle Fridays’ plus she reads cool books

Jacqui Wine’s Journal  – I love Jacqui’s reviews and she has been very supportive since I entered the wonderful and mad world of book blogging.

Elena at Book and Reviews is a bit of a crime-nerd, like myself and her Feminist Sundays posts always inspire.

Brona at Brona’s Books inspired me to read Edith Wharton for the first time with her Wharton Week and I am so glad she did. I’m a convert now!

Sasha at Pathologically Literate is one of the loveliest bloggers out there and reads at a phenomenal rate. If she had 746 unread books, they’d be done in a year!

Alex Raphael keeps me on my toes with his movie quizzes and keeps my inspired with his quotes of the day. A great blog altogether.

Bree at The Things We Read has joined me on two challenges now, March Madness and 20 Books of Summer. It’s always good to have someone with you for support when you set yourself ridiculous goals!

Juliana at Cedar Station is another challenge pal, but has been one of my favourite book bloggers since I started here at WordPress last December.

Candiss at Read The Gamut  is a girl after my own heart. She says, ‘If someone says a book is “too weird” for them, I am immediately drawn to it.’ Yup!

 

Now for the disclaimer.

I don’t like putting pressure on anyone, so if my chosen bloggers have already done this challenge, or don’t want to take part, I don’t mind at all. I’m really just doing this because it’s easier than writing my latest review :)
I follow a lot of blogs and find them all inspiring. I’ve learned so much from everyone I’ve followed in the 6 months and I’d like to thank you all for making my book wish list ten times longer than it should be!!

 

No 716 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Calling your novel Super Sad True Love Story could be seen as a risky strategy. You’ve created your own hype before a page has been read.

web_shteyngart
This super, sad, true love story is set in a futuristic New York, where the dollar is plummeting, the streets are filled with soldiers and China has the upper hand. On top of that, the worst of today’s culture is now the norm. The information age has taken over. The cool jobs are in Retail and Media. Everyone wears a scarily smart phone (think the iPhone as designed by Orwell) called an apparat, that constantly streams your personal information, most importantly your credit rating and your fuckability score. Women wear see-through OnionSkin jeans, TotalSurrender pants and shop at AssLuxury. No one talks, or ‘verbals’, anymore and no one reads. The main email system is called GlobalTeens and the search is on for the answer to eternal life.

 

They didn’t care. The world they needed was right around them, flickering and beeping and it demanded very bit of strength and attention they could spare.

 
Vacuity, pornography, youth and consumerism rule.

 
It’s a nice set-up and it’s cleverly done, but as dystopian future’s go it’s not too much of a stretch and although recognisable, is not as compelling as the world created by Margaret Atwood in Oryx and Crake.

 
Against this amusing, yet frightening backdrop, we meet 39-year-old Russian-American Lenny Abramov who works in Indefinite Life Extension who thinks he will literally be able to live forever if he can just persuade Eunice Park, a 24-year-old Korean-American, to fall in love with him. Eunice is beautiful and damaged and realises that Lenny may just be able to provide her with the love and care she has been missing at home at the hands of her abusive father. Over the next few months, through Lenny’s diaries and Eunice’s emails, the rise and inevitable fall of this dysfunctional, deluded love story is played out in what appears to be a world gone mad.

 
Smart as the book is, I had problems with it. Lenny and Eunice never really come across as a real couple, or for that matter real people. The love story part of Super Sad True Love Story is neither particularly sad, nor does it ring particularly true. The novel really drags once their relationship picks up pace and it feels a little scatterbrain and overly long. The passages detailing Lenny and Eunice’s immigrant parents seem to serve little purpose and don’t mesh well with the satire of what America has become.

 
For me, there are several books here, all vying for attention.

 
Is it a satire on consumer society and the dumbing-down of the populace? Is it an examination of getting old, and the lengths we’ll go to stay young? Is it a diatribe against America’s foreign policy and a warning to us that a totalitarian state is closer than we think? Is it an exploration of second generation immigrants and what it means to be outsider in your own country and a foreigner even with those you love?

 
The answer to all these questions is yes. It is all of these things. I get it. I couldn’t really miss it, as these issues are not dealt with in a particularly subtle or perceptive way. Dave Eggers did this sort of thing better in The Circle, mainly by keeping his focus narrow and his characters believable.

 
Unfortunately for me this was neither super nor sad and the love story was unconvincing. To give Shteyngart his due, there is some great imagination and skilled writing on display here and some fun set pieces, but the novel never becomes anything more than the sum of its very diverse parts.

 
Read on: iBooks
Number Read: 31
Number Remaining: 715

 

No 717 The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

41.Donal Ryan-The Spinning Heart

You can kind of lose yourself very quick, when all about you changes and things you thought you always would have turn out to be things you never really had, and things you were sure you’d have in the future turn out to be on the far side of a big, dark mountain that you have no hope of ever climbing over

The 21 narrators of Donal Ryan’s brief yet consuming debut novel The Spinning Heart have all lost themselves. Their community is fractured, in shock. All have been affected whether directly or indirectly by the collapse of the local building firm, the vital beating financial heart of the village. Company boss Pokey Burke has skipped town and the Celtic Tiger is a distant memory. The book opens with Pokey’s foreman Bobby Mahon who is ‘filling up with fear like a boat filling with water’ and closes with Bobby’s wife Triona noting that ‘People are scared, that’s all. I know that’.
Like one of those sliding jigsaws, Ryan gives the reader all the pieces of the story, but it is up to us to put them together and see the bigger picture. We hear from builders who don’t know where the next pennies are coming from, young people contemplating leaving for Australia, a young solicitor who has been put on part-time hours but with added duties like cleaning the toilets and a child who mimics her parent’s pain and anger which she cannot possibly understand. We even hear from a ghost. Ryan creates a powerful sense of place in this shared oral history. He looks back to those archetypes of Irish literature – the drunken Irish father, the town ‘bike’, the boy who’s ‘not all there’ and creates vivid, rich characters, often in the space of a few pages. With each story, we learn about someone new, while gaining perspective on the other characters and the town as a whole.

The use of idiom and clarity of narrative voice recalls the work of Conor McPherson and indeed there is a sense of theatre, of performance in this novel, as each character hides their true feeling to all but themselves and us. Even Seanie, the hard-nosed builder, who yearns for simpler times when his swagger could pull him through, can’t reconcile what he feels with how he knows life to be,

A few times lately my hands have been wet when I’ve taken them away from my face. No fucker knows that though, nor never will. I’ll be grand in a while. I have no right to feel like this

Each narrator in The Spinning Heart is wounded, both by the collapse of the economy and by other internal conflicts that are thrown into sharp focus by the pain and disappointment of the financial crash. From violent fathers to schizophrenia and lost children, the stories echo down the past and that past is never far away. Everything has changed but the town is stuck, literally and metaphorically, spinning like the metal heart on Frank Mahon’s gate to be blown this way and that with nowhere to anchor itself.

Image courtesy of the Irish Examiner

Image courtesy of the Irish Examiner

Everyone is trapped. Réaltín, a young attention hungry single mother lives in a ‘ghost estate’ trapped by a mortgage too big to manage and a house no one wants to buy,

There are forty-four houses in this estate. I live in number twenty-three, There’s an old lady living in number forty. There’s no one living in any of the other houses, just the ghosts of people who never existed. I’m stranded….

Réaltín’s father, in a poignant act, mows all the lawns of every house in his daughter’s street, trying to create the ordinary out of the extraordinary. A girl gives a young boy, Rory, her phone number and he talks himself out of contacting her because he knows,

It’s there for me and I won’t take it. I’ll stay at home and watch Coronation Street with the parents, thinking about how thinking about things can stop you living your life

Rory is trapped in his own insecurities, just as the ghost of Bobby Mahon’s father is trapped in his farmhouse, thinking about the things he never faced when he was alive,

I wonder how it is I was able to do to Bobby exactly what was done to me, even with my useless hands bound by cowardice. I wonder how I will ever be reconciled to myself

It might not sound like it, but there is a plot here, featuring a kidnapping and a murder and the structure of the novel allows the story to build up momentum with each telling, while at the same time stopping short just before things spiral out of control. No information comes to us first hand, the major plot points happen off stage as it were, and the reader becomes another resident of the town, piecing together what we can from hearsay and opinion. What is of main importance is how democratic pain can be. The middle classes have been affected as much as the workers, the tentacles of the crash reaching out to builders, teachers and even solicitors as each domino collapses on the next.
In the end though, The Spinning Heart is also a love story, as it is in many ways the story of Bobby and Triona whose monologues bookend the novel. Bobby has been silenced all his life by his father and even when, in awful circumstances, he should speak out, all he can say is ‘I don’t know’. But in Triona he finds a safe haven.

You can say things to your wife that you never knew you though. It just comes out of you when the person you’re talking to is like a part of yourself

Triona knows how hard it is for Bobby to share, she knows how it hurts,

But it was always too far down in Bobby for it not to cut and wound on the way out

And so does Ryan. He draws meaningful, lyrical testimony from his characters, showing us the deepest parts of them, the parts they have kept hidden, whether they be funny, banal, painful or poignant and he explores how external forces push us to look deep within and try and face up to what we find.
What we’ll find, Ryan seems to say is love. As Triona says at the end of the book,

What matters now? What matters only love?

Indeed. This is a beautifully written novel which has a compassion and honesty that left my heart spinning. I urge you to read it.

Read On: iPad
Number Read: 30
Number Remaining: 716