Cormac McCarthy – Child of God

I think book synchronicity is fantastic! I just finished reading a disturbing book about the beauty and brutality of the British countryside and my next book is about the ugliness about the American south and is equally disturbing.

The main protagonist of Child of God is Lester Ballard, and there is no other way to describe him, is a degenrate human being. Take all the bad qualities of the human race and they are all encapsulated in Lester Ballard. To actually describes the actions he performs throughout the book is something I’d rather the reader discover but I will say that it’s not pleasant.

Saying that Cormac McCarthy is a master at this. He knows how to get into his character’s psyche and get a reaction from the reader. He did in Blood Meridian and also in All the Pretty Horses . McCarthy excels at bringing out the nastier side of people.

He also great at describing the environment his characters inhabit. In this case it’s a backwards town : The garbage man has nine daughters named from the medical dictionary, there are special needs children, racism exists, people steal, lie and cheat. Like Myers there are juxtapositons; along with all this ugliness there are digressions in which nature is the focus.

The book is presented as a series of three page vignettes but a plot of sorts does emerge as one keeps on reading and that’s definitely worth doing as McCarthy takes Lester Ballard’s actions to different territories: this is a man who has no moral compass whatsoever.

One thing it is worth noting: Child of God is McCarthy’s third novel. Although in later books his style got more refined, it’s interesting to see that even in the early days his themes about the dark side of the mind were fully formed. I won’t say that Child of God is a masterpiece but it’s a fine snapshot of great things to come.

Benjamin Myers – Beastings

There’s something about Benjamin Myers writing that just draws me into his books. I like the way he manages to juxtapose the beauty of nature and the habits of farming folk with the ugliness of human nature.

The book is about a mute girl on the run through the fens after stealing her owner’s baby. On the chase are a priest and a poacher. The narrative shifts between the girl’s point of view and the priest and the poacher. Occaisonally there’s some back story.

This plot may seem simple but Beastings is a rich novel, mainly due to the characters, especially the priest: a bad tempered, snobbish hypocrite who manipulates religion to suit his needs. The Poacher is a bit shifty, tough and has a ‘take life as it is’ philosophy. The girl is a survivor, especially in this brutal world of men with animal instincts. Then there are the evocative descriptions of woodlife (having lived a long time in the Canadian forests, I could definitely relate to the nature related descriptions)

I saw the book as one of survival: the girl has to battle the elements in order to preserve the baby’s life. She also has to cope with human nature and by the unforgettable conclusion she does survive but at a cost. One could say it’s also about female strength. As I said the males she meets in the book, bar one are all led by a primal desires, which involve a disregard for human dignity.

Beastings also has other themes. The conversations between the priest and the poachers are philosophical, mostly about God’s will. To a certain extent the priest and the poachers’ chats do display the difference in social class, although the priest may intellectualise life, he is no different than the poacher as they both like to take advantage of a situation.

Beastings is a brutal novel which displays the nastier side of human nature. At times violent (and there are quite a few different types of violence so a trigger warning to sensitive readers), at times beautiful, this is an unforgettable novel.

Like this? try these : Graham Swift – Waterland, Magnus Mills – The Restraint of Beasts, Cormac McCarthy – All the Pretty Horses (although in the American west, this book displays the beauty and brutality of nature)

Abidemi Sanusi – Looking for Bono

Satire is a powerful tool. It can take something serious, stretch it, blow it up until it becomes funny. Such is the case with Abidemi Sanusi’s looking for Bono.

The book begins with Baba who unemployed, illiterate, who lives in Palemo, Nigeria. One day, while hanging around the car repair shop he sees Bono on television. He then decides to ask Bono if he can persuade the Nigerian president to provide Palemo with running water. From there Abidemi Sanusi unleashes a horde of jabs that hit hard. This is no ordinary satire, which pokes fun at one aspect of Nigerian society. There’s a lot of targets and it’s bullseye everytime.

As Baba announces his quest, things spiral out of control: he is hounded by the media, mainly by a BBC reporter. He is then embroiled in a triangle involving the head of an NGO called Water for Nigeria, A ruthless Chinese businessman and his own wife, who desperately wants to be a movie star and sees Baba’s quest as a chance to get into the limelight.

Looking for Bono may seem like a novel full of hijinks : there’s a scene involving a domestic helper which is straight out of a Carry On film, not to mention passages, involving breasts, bodily functions and odors. However it goes much deeper. Other than the theme of media manipulation, the book also focuses on abuse, corruption and social class. There are weighty topics.

I will not say that all the problems that are described in Looking for Bono are only about Nigeria. Media hype is worldwide be it Television, print or the World Wide Web. Governments will focus on other things in their campaigns and class preference will always exist as well. The plot may be about running water but if placed in other situations it could be over development, ignoring the weather – all which are important for our survivial. What I mean is that there are universal needs and some are not always a priority for a government.

Looking for Bono is a wake up call of sorts, like all good satires it makes the reader aware of the problems that occur in other countries but they can be relative.

If you’re curious about Baba meeting Bono, well that’s another reason why politics is the filthiest business ever.

Many thanks to Jacaranda for providing a requested copy of Looking for Bono.

Jacob Sundberg, Duncan J. Lewis (trans.) – We’ll Call You

The job interview is quite an odd procedure. In an hour, via a series of questions, you have to prove yourself to a group of people that you are actually capable of performing the job you are applying for. Which means that answers to ten or so questions will change your future. Sometimes there’s a tour chucked in but the process is the same.

Obviously this leads to certain situations. In one particularly memorable interview I experienced , all the people in the interviewing board all had the same name and the skills they required were not of a librarian but a computer programmer as they wanted someone to create a sophisticated database (no XL sheets please they said) of their library AND to restore their books in the process. When I told them this the reply was – you are an apostle, we want Jesus, Goodbye.

The job interview can be absurd.

Jacob Sunderberg, in his short story collection, We’ll Call You is about the weirdness that is the job interview. All 9 of these pieces touch upon an aspect, which I’m sure most people have experienced at one time or another.

The opening story, An Exotic Touch is straight out of Monty Python sketch : an interviewer is interviewing a foreigner and is doing his best to present the company as open minded but in his quest to be politically correct he ends up sounding condescending AND a racist and the interviewee just walks out on him.

The following story, A Sense of Style, is about another type of personality, the one who lies to impress. In this case it’s a person with heightened aesthetic qualities who is interviewed for a job at a high end interior design shop. The owner then tests her by praising a Moomin mug and seeing if she will betray her opinion on the mug to get the job. I’m sure at all points we have gone against our tastes in order to be hired at a dream place. (well I never did as you can see by my fiasco).

The exact opposite happens in the stand out story, That’s Just so me. An interviewer asks the interviewee to be honest about the poetry he writes as a hobby. This piece displays the eccentric/conniving side of bosses.

There are more aspects to the interview that is explored. Bigger than Dylan is about the overly nervous interviewee, Slow Cooker Saturdays is about the overly enthusiastic boss and Close to Home is a witty look at how a prestigious location of a workplace may not be the best reason for changing a job.

All 9 stories in We’ll Call You are humorous, relatable and, more importantly, fun. There’s a deadpan vibe that one sees in Roy Andersson’s films. At the same time one does learn about Swedish culture, which something I appreciate when reading translated literature. If anyone has gone through a rather strange job interview, I definitely recommend this book and even if you haven’t We’ll Call You is a pretty good guide/forewarning of what can can happen to you or how to avoid acting like these people when interviewing prospective candidates.

Many thanks to Nordisk Books for providing a requested copy of We’ll Call You

Alex Pheby – Mordew

I will admit I am not a big reader of fantasy. In fact, probably the last time I read it was back in 2010 when I decided to read all seven Narnia books. Saying that I was VERY excited to read Mordew as I knew it would take me out of my comfort zone and explore a genre where my knowledge of it could fill a thimble and leave room for the thumb.

As I expected Mordew is complex and to describe everything that is going on could create spoilers and ruin one’s fun in discovering all the secrets the book reveals. Also due to intricate details, I could write long paragraphs focusing on every nuance of this world that Alex Pheby created but I don’t want to bore the reader either. In other words I going to simplfy the novel’s plot.

Nathan Treeves lives in the slums in the country of Mordew. His father is dying and he needs to earn money to buy medicines. Nathan also has the ability to spark, that is he can destroy things and give them life, something a lot of people envy. After a failed attempt to work for the master, who is the creator of Mordew, Nathan joins a gang of teen criminals. This does not work out either and the Master, with the help of his consultant, Bellows takes Nathan under his care and educates him.

As Nathan grows wiser, especially when the secrets of Mordew and his father are revealed to him, he is sent to kill the master’s enemy , the mistress of rival country Malarkoi. Nathan succeeds, but at a price as he discovers more secrets about his powers.

On the way back he finds out that the mistress’ daughter, Dashini, has been kept by the master as a prisoner. He meets up and he finds out that the master is not as innocent as he seems, which leads to an epic escape act and a journey into the very heart of Mordew. Obviously I won’t say the ending but be prepared for a stunning conclusion that is grandiose in every way possible,

Mordew is a novel of talking dogs, magic creatures and clever world building but it’s also rich in other ways. There’s definitely a Dickensian vibe going through the whole book, especially in the first part. The unbound creativity reminded of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil and Jeff Vandemeer’s Borne. The whole idea of Mordew’s structure as a country has whiffs of Nietzschean philosophy and the glossary at the back, which delves into more detail about Mordew and it’s characters borrows aspects from Plato’s theory of forms. Not to mention that the book is also a coming of age novel of sorts.

Personally, to say I enjoyed this book is an understatement. I had a ton of fun reading Mordew. I was able to be transported into another world and I felt like I was a part of it. I loved discovering all the secrets which helped Nathan grow mentally. I liked all the characters, good or bad. I thought the creatures where brilliantly described. At points I was thrilled and my heart was thudding, at other points, especially the last part. I appreciated the fact that there was a glossary and a detailed addendum about Nathan’s spark. I was flabbergasted from the first page to the last. Furthermore this is the first part of a trilogy (or is it a hexology?) Anyway I’m definitely on board.

Meg-John Barker, Julia Scheele – Queer: A graphic history

I first heard the term queer when I moved to Malta in 1992 and remembered telling a classmate that I liked eating crisps in hamburgers. To that she said ‘you’re really queer’. Then another classmate told her not use that word because it means you’re calling someone gay.

I’m mentioning this anecdote because Queer: a graphic history opens up with the many definitions of the word queer – it’s now a term with positive connotations.

The does exactly what it says on the tin : we readers are presented with queer theory, from it’s roots with Havelock Ellis, Freud, Simone de Beauvoir , Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, Audre Lorde all the way to Jack Halberstam. As one may expect there are a lot of theories about many topics ranging from gender fluidity to queer attitudes in cinema (which were my favorite sections) it even goes into post queer theory.

The information is presented clearly and the illustrations complement the topics, since I know nothing about queer theory, I had some insight and basic knowledge. It also dispelled some myths and surprised me in a couple of places. I don’t know any other beginner guides on this topic so, for me, this is a good one.

Clare Chambers – Small Pleasures

Clare Chambers Small Pleasures hits a lot of plus points with me ; I like books based in Suburbia which have an unusual plot and an unpredictable one at that.

Journalist Jean Swinney receives a letter from a lady called Gretchen stating that she gave birth to her daughter without any form of sexual interaction. The book takes place in 1957 England and a claim like this is seen as audacious (now in 2021 it would just be the subject of some pretty cruel memes). Jean is curious to see if it is true and using her journalistic skills, decides to take on the case.

As Jean meets Gretchen and her daughter Margaret, she is smitten with them, furthermore this is cemented by her meeting with Gretchen’s partner Howard ( basically the modern day equivalent to the Biblical Joseph). At first she thinks they are the perfect family but as her investigation leads her to more people, she discovers that maybe things are not as they seem. Even Jean is enmeshed in this saga and commits certain actions with repercussions.

I saw Small Pleasures as a book about motherhood and sexuality, especially attitudes towards it. As the book takes place in the tail end 50’s Britain, in a time when the Second World War was still fresh, Clare Chambers provides an interesting look at values of that era.

Writing-wise the book is perfect; every sentence has it’s place and due to elegance of the style, the more uncomfortable paasages are handled without any need to use shoock tactics. Yet the prose is subtle enough to make the reader realise that there’s something a bit quirky going on.

Small Pleasures is a great novel. Full of panache and, yet, executed in a subtle manner.

Like this, try this : Margaret Drabble – The Radiant Way (more for style) , Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata (the talent of writing about suburban lives. I was also reminded of Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake.

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club

Ever since I saw Richard Osman’s (Suede fans he’s bassist Matt Osman’s brother) Thursday Murder Club, I’ve been wanting it and .. I received it as a Christmas gift so I dove straight into it.

The Thursday Murder club consist of a group of seputgenarians who try to solve cold cases. That is, until someone is actually killed and they try to find out who the murderer is. Obviously since the group are older than the average sleuth, there’s an emphasis on the problems which beset old age.

This is not a cozy crime book though. Osman makes the whole thing unpredictable with a lot of twists and turns thrown in, although I did solve the mystery by the end, I’ll admit I was fooled a couple of times. However there are flaws which prevented me from enjoying the book.

First of all there is overuse of Deus Ex Machina, how can problem solving coincidences crop up every single time?? it renders a mystery cheap I can accept it now and then but it is done frequently in the novel. Also way too many characters are introduced without any context (I know this is rich coming from a Pynchon fan). I do get annoyed when a character just appears to help the plot move a bit. Thirdly Osman’s writing style is a type I don’t particularly like – not dissimilar to Terry Pratchett’s instructional writing with a few funny parts (which I didn’t find particularly humorous) thrown in. One final note just because someone has a lot of tattoos, that does not make them thugs!! – who edited the book?

The end result was that the book is ok. Not great, not life changing but a pleasant read. I do understand that Thrusday Murder Club is the first part of a series and from my experience first parts do tend to have some wrinkles that usually are tended to in forthcoming volumes.

Book Round Up – December 2020

December started a bit slow with some disappointing reads but picked up quickly and was consistent.

After four months with a 10 page a day schedule, I finally finished Gravity’s Rainbow and it is indeed, a masterpiece. GR is not my book of the month though, that has to be Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49 , which is brilliant.

The other stand out is Lucy Atkins Magpie Lane , a gothic thriller and was a perfect post Christmas read.

I also enjoyed Irvine Welsh’s Dead Men’s Trousers, which made me laugh a lot. Wide Open, Dominicana and The Good Immigrant were pretty solid reads.

What’s next? Just tackling the TBR stack, Maltapost has been beyond frustrating lately and are testing my patience and I am a VERY patient person so no more book buying until they get their act together. Anyway my next book buying spree will be on the 2nd April when The International Booker shortlist is announced.

Nikesh Shukla (ed) – The Good Immigrant

Frequent followers of this blog know I was born in Canada. My parents moved there, from Malta in 1974, mainly for political reasons ( that’s a story for another day). The first 9 years were spent in an North American Indian reservation. The remaining 4 years were spent in a small town in Ontario. That’s were problems started for me.

The first sign was when on my first week, some of my classmates heard my parents speak in Maltese and behind their backs made turkey noises at me, indicating the rapid fast guttural inflections of the Maltese language. Other incidents cropped up : children saying Maltese are stupid (how would they know!) even my fourth grade teacher making fun of my mother’s accent and when National Geographic dedicated an article on Malta during the second world war and published a picture of twin girls who resembled elaborate plum puddings. The flak I got for that! Once I got fed up at one particular nasty comment involving Maltese and the ovens in Auschwitz and retaliated. I was the one who got into trouble.

On returning to Malta in 1992, I found out that other problems occurred but I don’t want to make this whole review about me.

The reason behind my rather long spiel is because the 21 BAME authors, journalists and actors in The Good Immigrant all speak about their experiences in 21st century Britain as children of immigrants. Rascist slurs, being ignored or bullied and cultural appropriation all feature here. In fact the title itself comes from the fact that immigrants have to earn their right to be a British citizen proving themselves, be it in a baking competition or in a TV programme. That is how they become ‘good’ immigrants.

However, the main emphasis is on language: how certain foreign phrases are ingrained incorrectly in culture, how in the language of media the representation of BAME characters is poor, even when it comes to fashion there are prejudices and assumptions.

Generally with such a varied collection, the quality will vary but it’s pretty consistent. Obviously there will be some favourites. I laughed LOUDLY at Daniel York Loh’s Kendo Nagasaki and Me which speaks about Asian representation on TV, Nikesh Shukla’s essay on British bastardization of Indian culture, Namaste is brilliant. I could relate to Chimene Suleyman’s My Name is my Name ( all those years of my surname being pronounced as Pis-ZANY) , Sabrina Mahfouz’s Wearing Where You’re at: Immigration and UK Fashion is an insightful piece about fashion trends and also about skin color.

The Good Immigrant creates an awareness, sometimes through humor, sometimes through more tragic events but it does succeed in giving these contributors voice and helping us realise that both U.K. and U.S. cultures have to start paying more attention. In Bim Adewumni’s essay What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism she states that there are slow steps being made, but they can take everyone back just as easily. Personally I see this anthology as part of that progression. Considering the events that have been happening in 2020 alone, I see The Good Immigrant, which was published in 2016, even more relevant than ever.