Tag Archives: Books

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

The next book I read from my “Summer Haul” was The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante. As I stated in my previous post, the novels I picked up in July seemed to anticipate my travels and my embracement of the season. They were thin books, foreign books, and all of them focused on relationships of one kind or another. I’ve been meaning to read more non-English language authors, as well as more female authors. Ferrante was the perfect choice. Her novel The Lost Daughter, in particular, is one that fits the season; it is set over a single summer, the narrator is herself on vacation, and the setting is a coastal town in Italy. But don’t get the wrong impression: this book is anything but light and cheery. It’s light in the sense that it’s easy to read, but it’s certainly not light in tone. This novel is one of the darkest, most unflinchingly-sober portraits of the human psyche and all its fascinating grotesquerie that I have ever read. And I love it. This might just be one of the greatest books I have ever read. I don’t really have favorite novelists, whose works I consume one after the other like so many Aunt Sally’s pralinettes. I drift from writer to writer, genre to genre. But Ferrante might just break this attitude of mine. I have to go back. I must go back. This person has something to say. Something unique and important. Ferrante’s insights into human nature are as cutting as they are utterly compelling. I’m going to read more of her work, and do my best not to read all her novels at once, so that I may maintain some basic semblance of variety. Even though Ferrante writes in a way completely different from Cormac McCarthy, they are alike in that they are the only two active writers that make me feel like I’m reading the work of genius. Something about them just seems- at least to me- a cut above the rest.

But who is this mysterious person upon whom I’m lavishing such praise? No fucking idea. You tell me. All that we know about Elena Ferrante is that she’s an Italian woman, born in 1943, raised in Naples, and that she has a degree in Classics. Since her literary career began in 1992, she’s opted to remain anonymous. There’s a lot of curiosity regarding her true identity, which I think is natural. But I nonetheless sympathize with the idea that everything a writer has or desires to say can be found in their work alone. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with someone trying to find out who she is- but what I don’t like is the idea of that person making her identity public. The instinct to know is fine, but the decision to violate her wish for privacy is flat out wrong. It’s egregiously offensive to publish someone’s personal details in the public sphere if they’ve requested anonymity. Besides, it achieves little of anything. We have her body of work in the public domain, and that’s all we need.

A lot of what is commonly believed about Ferrante is inferred from recurring themes in her novels. She writes about motherhood in a strikingly unsentimental way. The theme of ambivalent motherhood is very much at the center of The Lost Daughter– my introduction to Ferrante. In brief, the premise is thus: Leda is a single mom living in Florence, whose two daughters- now in their twenties- have left Italy to live with their father in Canada. At first, Leda feels like a weight has been lifted. With no responsibilities, she decides to take a break for the summer and do something for herself. She rents an apartment in a small coastal town and begins taking her books to the beach each day to study. It’s at this beach that she discovers this loud, brash, uncouth family from Naples that make her feel uneasy. A small crime is committed that brings her path and the Neapolitans’ together. As she becomes obsessed with them, she is forced to confront some dark things from her past.

You’re hooked now, aren’t you? Go out and buy a copy, because it doesn’t disappoint. The novel itself is only 140 pages long and it’s very straightforward. Like the last couple of books I’ve read, it’s not very plot-heavy. The adjective that comes foremost to my mind when describing the tone of this book is “confessional”. The events of the present are interspersed with Leda’s memories of the past. She muses on things and goes on tangents of thought, and much of it reads like an interior monologue. That might not sound exciting, but her thoughts are so raw and interesting that every page grows more addictive. I had to re-read several passages, not because I didn’t understand them, but because I found them so compelling. Every page seems to have a revelation of one kind or another. Like I said, it’s quite easy to read, for the reason that the protagonist is so forthcoming and straightforward. Nothing is dressed up in style, nothing is omitted for us to infer. Everything is conveyed in a very direct manner. But it’s no less profound or complex for being so accessible. The narrative voice suits the story. I’d like to see a creative writing professor try to tell Elena Ferrante she’s “telling and not showing” because to do so would be to invite a verbal truncheoning by every literary critic from here to Bishkek.

I loved this novel, and I can’t wait to read more Elena Ferrante and blog about it here on TumbleweedWrites. It’s a dark story, but it’s not dark in the Gillian Flynn sense of the word. The mothers of Ferrante aren’t poisoning their daughters, they’re just neglecting them. I’m just pointing this out in case you’re a squeamish type. There’s no gore here. Instead, The Lost Daughter’s darkness is manifest in its tone. It’s unsettling. It’s a powerful, challenging look at the relationships between mothers and daughters and the way the sins of the past come back to haunt the present. Anyway, I hope I’ve encouraged some of y’all to give Ferrante a read.

Let me know in the comments what you think of Elena Ferrante!

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Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg

Before departing for the USA this summer, I decided to head to my local Waterstones and use up a couple gift-cards I had. My purchases really did seem like a “summer book haul”, reflecting the warm weather, travel, and sociability that was sure to come. The haul also reflected my recent reading choices and the desire to change things up. By the end of July I had just got done finishing Niki: The Story of a Dog and No Country for Old Men. One focused on politics, the other on violence. Both were written by men. Cormac McCarthy, in particular, is noted for writing terse, dispassionate, “manly” fiction, with very few female characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love McCarthy. He’s a genius. But I like to enjoy a variety of literary voices to freshen things up. Aside from the lack of female characters, McCarthy is noted for his interest in themes such as life & death, justice, violence, and he admits to having a dislike for novelists that focus on love and sex, such as Marcel Proust and Henry James. I more or less like both styles equally. My tastes in literature have become a lot broader in the last two years. I knew that I wanted a different voice to McCarthy before going back to him, but I didn’t know what I’d find when I reached the bookstore. I ended up getting several novels from a table with a sign saying “Summer Reads”, mostly by female authors, all of them foreign, and almost exclusively focusing on emotional themes such as love, desire, relationships, identity, loneliness et cetera. I tend to group these kinds of themes as being “human-oriented”, examining the human condition as it relates to individuals. The opposite approach, the way I see it, is a focus on themes such as society, power, justice, existence, politics, and all that, which I tend to group as being “concept-oriented”. They examine the human condition as it relates to groups of people and institutions. What does our political framework reveal about our nature? I don’t see either stylistic approach as being superior or more profound than the other, and what I choose really does come down to whatever I fancy in a given moment. On this occasion, as I said, I believe my choices reflected the season I was in, and my travels to come.

One of the books in the haul was a novel by the name of Pages for Her, written by American author Sylvia Brownrigg. The cover instantly caught my eye; a beautiful woman, natural-looking and unpretentious, staring off into the distance at something. The color scheme was very effective- there were echoes of pop art that accentuated the curious woman and made the book stick out from the pile. The blurb told me that the book was about a woman who reunites with the professor she had a short (but intense) affair with 20 years ago. It seemed like just the sort of thing I was looking for- something realistic and emotive that went to the heart of the soul. It was only when I got home however, that I discovered this new book (published in 2017) was in fact a sequel. I debated just reading it anyway. I’ve done that sort of thing before. But the book was promising to be a hit with me already, so I ultimately ordered the original- Pages for You– off of Amazon.

Which brings us to the topic of today’s post! Pages for You is a novel published in 2001 by Sylvia Brownrigg, that details the rise and fall of a love affair between Flannery, a curious student, and Anne, her sophisticated professor. That might sound like a spoiler, but it’s really not: it’s made clear at the beginning of the book that the narrator, Flannery, is looking back on a relationship that has concluded. In truth, Pages for You isn’t really the kind of novel you can spoil. You know what’s going to happen, and the way it happens doesn’t involve some shocking twist that subverts your expectations. So why read the book at all, if it’s a series of realistic, pre-determined events? I wouldn’t recommend this book to lovers of intricate plots. There’s no suspense here, no revelations, no red herrings. And yet I couldn’t put the book down. I breezed through it like a Liane Moriarty thriller. Pages for You is a character-driven book if ever I’ve seen one. It’s not plot-driven, but it’s no less compelling and addictive. It reads like a memoir, covering Flannery’s freshman year of college. Seeing the world through Flannery’s eyes, interpreted through her unique voice, is the greatest strength of the novel, and the reason I read it so earnestly.

Throughout the novel we are treated to an intimate account of Flannery’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts, all of which are in flux. She’s not the same person at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning. She’s a fish out of water for a start, having traveled alone from her native California to Connecticut for college. She’s intellectually-curious, impulsive, goofy, creative, inelegant, anxious, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s hungry for experiences. She challenges her self-doubt in order to explore and to learn. She’s not got any prior sexual experience to speak of. She unravels, her worldview expands, she discovers nascent truths about herself that catch her off-guard. I love the little details that highlight the clash of cultures between east and west. I love the way her impressions of New York are tied inexorably to the woman she falls in love with. Indeed, one aspect of the book that I have seen so many other readers praise, is its close examination of tiny, seemingly mundane details. Each chapter is about 1-2 pages long, and a given one might focus on her thoughts about nicknames, kissing for the first time, or simply holding hands. The minutiae of life, so often left unexamined by writers, is something that greatly interests me. It interests me because I often find myself fixated on small things, ascribing to them an inflated sense of importance. The sequence of little vignettes that cover Flannery’s freshman year each contribute to the central theme of her coming-of-age; Flannery’s journey to make sense of both herself and the world around her.

The catalyst for this journey is Anne Arden- a woman ten years her senior, whom she crosses paths with one morning in a diner. This event occurs right at the start of the book; it’s with Anne that this story begins and ends for Flannery. In short, the book is about the things Anne awakens in Flannery. Anne represents sophistication, knowledge, and confidence. She’s cultured and ambitious. She has an effortless sense of style and poise. She’s the reason the adjective “wry” was invented. She has a distinctive, mysterious, intoxicating aura that leaves people breathless and intrigued. Her sardonic remarks and sharp tongue can leave people cold, but as Flannery discovers, there’s a big heart underneath her armor. I’ve observed some readers complain that Anne seems one-dimensional, wishing that she were more well-rounded. However, I think the portrayal of Anne is justified because everything in the book is filtered through the lens of Flannery’s desire. It’s not Anne so much as Flannery’s experience of Anne, her image of Anne, the things Anne represents for Flannery. If we were to be given Anne’s perspective of events, then Pages for You would be an entirely different book. It wouldn’t be called Pages for You for a start. I’m hoping that the sequel explores Anne’s character more, because I think there is a lot to work with. It’s made clear throughout the novel that Anne has her own demons, insecurities, and troubled past. She has a life much bigger than just her affair with Flannery, a fact that becomes painfully obvious to the protagonist at the end. And as I said, that’s really what this book is about; Flannery’s affair with this enigmatic woman, and the idea that as big and special as it seems, there is an entire world beyond it.

I enjoyed this book. The format suited the theme very well. Not only did the short chapters and constant breaks help sustain my interest and increase my reading speed, but it gave the book a picaresque feel that I really liked. Each chapter had Flannery documenting a different aspect of her love affair, ruminating on it, musing about it, digesting the experience as a part of her personal growth. She has to come to terms with her obsessive, overwhelming sexual desire. Then she has to get used to the idea that she too, might be an object of desire, that unbeknownst to her she has an eroticism of her own. She describes being naked in front of someone for the first time. She discusses sleeping in the same bed as another person for the first time. She details at length what it feels like to be in a relationship, to feel anchored by someone, to be an anchor to someone. This is the heart of the book, the heart of what makes it a compelling read. What Flannery confides in us is resonant. I think we can all relate to Flannery. Her words touch our own lives and memories. The tangled mix of curiosity, jealousy, anxiety, pride, desire, possessiveness, and confusion that is the tapestry of the human experience. I encourage you to give this novel a try, especially if you are interested in character-driven fiction! I can’t wait to get started on the sequel.

Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry

I visited Budapest last April, and I came back with several works of Hungarian fiction in my luggage. The first author I tried from my pile was the great Tibor Déry, who lived and died in the nation’s capital.

You would be absolutely right to classify his book Niki: The Story of a Dog as both a fable and a satire. The qualities at the core of each of those genres are easily discernable to the reader as being at the core of this novel too. And even though I agree with this assessment, I can’t help but flinch upon hearing it. Not because the assessment is incorrect- but because to label the novel as both a fable and a satire seems to negate its identity as a “proper novel”. A fable has connotations of fairy tales, folklore, or grandmotherish bedtime stories based on instilling moral virtues. A satire seems to imply an agenda of sorts- more often than not political in nature- whose importance overshadows that of the novel’s other qualities. And by other qualities I mean the sensuous literary aesthetics that are characteristic of novels. A novel, as a genre, is very much its own beast. And all I’m trying to say is that Niki’s “sensuous literary aesthetics” are not insignificant. This isn’t just a satirical fable wearing the skin of a novel; it is a proper novel in its own right. But why is that worth pointing out? Because I think that if the cashier in Írók Boltja had referred to Niki as a fable or a satire, I would have had second thoughts about buying it. They’re labels that- one way or the other- color the reader’s preconceptions of the book. I may have doubted the depth of the novel’s character development or the pleasure to be had in its plot. But upon reading it I am pleased to say that the book is indeed very readable and enjoyable. It’s emotive. It’s full of wit and charm and heartache. It is a fable. It is a satire. But it’s also, in a very straightforward way, simply the story of a dog.

And this, in my opinion, is the book’s greatest strength. There is true genius in creating a work of art that can be experienced on different levels. Niki is equally effective as both a political satire and a story. In short, the book is about an unwanted pup that falls into the hands of Mr and Mrs Ancsa, an old couple still mourning the loss of their son in WW2. The setting is Budapest, Hungary, in the years after the war. At first things look promising; Mr Ancsa accepts a new job in the capital and is enthusiastic at the idea of playing his part in creating a better society. He’s a firm believer in Communism and a longtime member of the party. But after he is detained by the Communist Party for seemingly no reason, the initial hope that came with Hungary’s Soviet liberation fast becomes a nightmare. The gradual erosion of the family’s optimistic idealism is reflective of the wider population as the Soviet stranglehold tightens. The process is slow and quiet, and as the country’s would-be saviors are revealed to be nothing more than new Nazis, lofty utopian concepts are extinguished. The novel does an excellent job of illustrating how the hollowness of these utopian ideals results in a kind of societal degradation. Budapest becomes a toxic environment. Neighbors are suspicious and cold. I love how the novel focuses on the minutiae of everyday life. It explores the subtler effects of Soviet oppression, examining not the imprisoned or the persecuted, but those left behind. As the public grows more and more desperate, alienated, and paranoid, their worst qualities emerge. People are isolated and miserable. And through all of this- with her husband missing and her community abandoning her- Mrs Ancsa finds strength in her canine companion.

At its heart the novel is about the story of Niki and how she and the old woman depend on each other. It really is quite moving in some passages. I felt extremely invested in this old woman and her dog. I got emotional reading it- even volatile. The book keeps insisting that it is purely the story of a dog and nothing more. Obviously this isn’t true, and it’s amusing how the book never goes too in-depth into its political commentary. Every time it touches on politics, the narration yanks things back to focus on the dog. This is intentional; the novel is layered, but as I said above, it is genuinely the story of a dog. The behavior of the dog is captured in exquisite, very intricate scientific detail. There were so many times during my reading of the novel that Niki reminded me of the little collie that I dog-sit when I’m living in Houston, TX. I’ve written a couple blog posts about my roommate’s Border Collie mix Adelaide, and the fictional fox terrier Niki bears a striking resemblance to her. Everything about Déry’s descriptions of the pup rings true to me. The novel presents so many fascinating ways of looking at a dog’s behavior. Every scene brought back memories of my time with Adelaide. What struck me most were the beautiful passages that recount Niki’s tendency to jump up at people in joyous greeting. That’s exactly like my Adelaide. It felt like Déry was describing my roommate’s dog. I treasured those poetic extracts that so perfectly tied the dog’s spirit to her springy back-legs. Here’s my favorite quote: “It was as if her muscular, quivering little body were constantly being launched and relaunched in the air on the springs of gaiety. She would bound like a ball on to any object she coveted, her muscles regulated like the parts of some finely adjusted mechanism and her heart full of a tigerish boldness.”

In conclusion, Tibor Déry’s Niki: The Story of a Dog was a fantastic introduction into the rich world of Hungarian Literature. I am so glad I picked it up while I was in Budapest, and I will definitely continue my foray into this nation’s great body of books. I thoroughly recommend this book to all my friends and subscribers. If you prefer thrillers, then perhaps this isn’t for you. It’s not a fast-paced book. But if you have an interest in dogs or European history, then this is most assuredly the novel for you. And it will satisfy you no matter which angle you are coming from; it’s philosophically incisive, but not without good-humored, big-hearted warmth.

The Crescent City Diaries #5 – Faulkner’s Footsteps and Tarot Readings

When I traveled to Budapest last April, I made it a mission of mine to see as many of the city’s literary sites as possible. I bathed in the rich bookish legacy of the Hungarian capital, visiting half a dozen indie bookstores, ordering “The Writer’s Dish” at the famous New York Café (once the hangout of choice for the city’s greatest writers), and visiting Írók Boltja- the city’s greatest bookstore, whose name translates as The Writers Shop. Like Budapest, New Orleans is a writerly city, with a proud history for cultivating literary greatness. And like Budapest, it offered me the chance to follow in the footsteps of wild, bohemian writers. Only this time, instead of tapping into the silvery, cigarette-in-the-rain mood of Hemingway and the impoverished American expats, I would be seeking Tennessee Williams and the whorehouse ambience of screeching streetcars and frantic, cocktail-fueled punching of typewriter keys.

New Orleans is both a place that grows writers from within and attracts writers from afar. And the writers that come want to make this tragic metropolis and its decadent, Old World affectations their own- to capture it in their work the way no one else has. As I got to know the French Quarter well, I asked myself if I could truly live here or not. It would be difficult to invest in real estate with the knowledge that at any time all my possessions might get carried out into the sea. And add to that that New Orleans is quite a boisterous place. It was a little intimidating at first, but as I became used to it I thought more about the Quarter as a home. Part of the anxiety attached to its loud, extroverted revelers and shifty-looking characters comes from simply being alone and not knowing anyone. As a location for inspiration, it’s perfect. There is so much art and creativity to feed off of that I could see myself really happy here, if I were able to afford an apartment of course. All I had at this moment in my life was five short days, so I endeavored to experience whatever trace of the writers I idolized that I could find. I found echoes of Tennessee Williams in unpretentious bars, drinking Hurricanes and listening to sweet jazz beneath the ceiling fans of Americana.

One of the few things I wrote down prior to coming to New Orleans was to visit Faulkner House, which had once been the residence of one of my favorite authors- William Faulkner- and now operated as a bookstore. It was the only thing I had planned for my first day, and after I finished my beignet in Jackson Square, I set about trying to find it. My phone was dying and I just couldn’t seem to locate the darn thing. It ought to be staring me right in the face. Eventually, after much retracing of the same steps, I learned that it was in an alley to the side of the St Louis Cathedral, and set off at a quick pace.

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The bookshop is small but very charming, and you can tell it was once a cheap guesthouse. It’s just one room and a corridor, filled all the way around from floor to ceiling with books. The corridor ends in a gate, beyond which is the private residence of the proprietors of Faulkner House. Inside the store is a lady employed by the proprietors to run the place. But she doesn’t just work as a cashier; she serves as an expert on the house, William Faulkner, and literature in general. As I examined the books on offer, other customers engaged the lady and asked her advice on what to get. They told her what sort of thing they were after and she would give them a recommendation. I found this very appealing, and after picking up a copy of Mosquitoes by the man himself, I decided to make use of the woman’s knowledge. I said I wanted a modern novel by a female writer that is set in New Orleans and touches on female themes. She then recommended The Snare by Elizabeth Spencer. Lastly, I said, I need a gritty thriller set in New Orleans. Something dark, a murder mystery, a page-turner, but that featured real place names and captured the atmosphere of the Quarter that I so deeply cherished. The lady then handed me a copy of The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke. There we go. Three books ought to be enough. As we continued to chat about William Faulkner and his work, I noticed that a fifty-something-year-old man to my side was listening in. His tousled hair was going white and his clothes were utilitarian, even scruffy. There’s no cash register in this place, so the lady added up the total of my purchases using a pencil and paper. As she did so, she turned to the man and asked if she could help him. He said straight up that he wasn’t buying anything, and had come here to ask about poetry readings in the area. The lady informed him that Faulkner House didn’t do readings, but there were open mic nights at a few select bars. The man nodded, telling us how he was from San Francisco. He mentioned the city’s famous City Lights bookstore, which is probably my favorite bookstore in the world that I’ve been too. It’s up there with Faulkner House and Írók Boltja for me. He asked the lady if this was New Orleans’ answer to City Lights, and the lady blushed, saying “There can only be one City Lights, only one!”

The total for my order was sixty-five dollars. I swallowed a lump in my throat, sweat entering my palms. In the U.K the average paperback goes for about ten bucks. I was shocked that these novels were going for twenty each. I paid and left, feeling somewhat uneasy, as though my long-desired pilgrimage to this place had a permanent mark scratched into its once wholesome image. As I closed the door behind me and turned down the alleyway, I saw the man waiting for me by the iron fence of the cathedral’s courtyard. He called me over. I thought he was saying “See ya,” so I waved and kept going. Then he called out again, beckoning me to join him.

“Why’d you do that?” he said.

“Do what?”

“Pay her sixty bucks. There’s a dozen used bookstores in the Quarter. You could have gotten them for less than ten altogether.”

“Right,” I said, and I started to feel down. He was right of course. Books should never be that pricey. But I had assumed these would be the same price as any other standard paperback, and now I had already paid and left.

“You shouldn’t be paying her sixty fucking bucks,” he said, and after he kept saying it I didn’t know what he wanted from me. I just stood there looking sad. He acted like he had just witnessed a real tragedy unfold. “I just wish I could have told you sooner,” he said, seeing my miserable expression. “I’m just saying.”

He asked me where I was from. I told him.

“Don’t they have used bookstores in England?”

“Yeah.”

We got on to talking about literature and the man said that Faulkner never really did it for him. He said that “In America, there are only three writers worth reading: Herman Melville, Henry James, and Henry Miller. Miller is my favorite.”

I told him I had read some Miller years ago, and asked what British writers he liked. He said that as far as literature, we Brits had “everything”, and that he was especially fond of the Lake Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc). He also really liked the novels of Graham Greene. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, we agreed. Enough said.

However the subject came back around to my folly again, and he lamented that he couldn’t have advised me sooner. He eyed the window of Faulkner House with contempt and I stared at my feet like a schoolkid in the wake of being told “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”

Sensing my growing misery, the man offered me a weak smile. Several of his teeth were missing. “Hey listen- cheers– alright?”

He waited for me to acknowledge his use of the British word, but I could only find enough strength to smile back and wish him well.

As always with me, indecisions and doubts snowball, tumbling over each other and coloring my mood- as well as my perception of everything around me. I questioned what I was even doing here, on this trip. I felt very unsure of myself for some reason, like I had no idea what I was doing in New Orleans in the first place. I questioned my ability to simply be an adult and live independently and interact with the world around me. The idea that I’d been duped reinforced the nagging doubt that I still belonged in my mother’s womb. I also had to deal with the notion that Faulkner House- after much excited anticipation- was now stained forever in my memory. The city romped past me, blurring into a kaleidoscopic carnival as if to say that to be here, you had to be happy. The French Quarter is a party after all, right? I then began to question New Orleans as a city too. By this point I was standing in Jackson Square again, and I wondered if the city wasn’t meant for me- that it was meant for adults instead. And here I was, the lost boy trying to find his way home in the glare of neon lights.

Yep, I thought all that, when any normal person would probably just say “O shoot, that was a little pricey. But hey, at least I got what I wanted, three awesome books!”. At least, that’s how I assume other people think.

Before I knew what was happening I was sitting myself down beside one of the palm readers outside the cathedral. She asked me what kind of reading I wanted.

“Tarot,” I said.

Now, you wanna talk about an unambiguous waste of money: this is it. I don’t believe in anything religious or supernatural. If anything I think psychics and mediums and all that are utter charlatans and exploitative shysters. But New Orleans is a supernatural city. I didn’t even think about why I was doing it, I just did it. It seemed simply to be the thing to do here.

The woman told me first off that I was a person that said what I wanted and disregarded what people might think. So that’s completely wrong from the outset. She asked me to draw cards and I pretended to take the whole business very seriously like every other tourist in the Square. Something about a Water Demon. The woman must have picked up on my negative energy, because she told me to stop beating myself up all the time, and that if I put myself first instead of trying to please others, everything I wanted in life would fall into place. She even said there was love in my future- I could share this life with someone, if I wanted to.

Against all odds I started crying. Nothing dramatic, just a light trembling and watering of the eyes. The woman looked at me coldly and asked if I had any questions. I quickly paid and left, careful not to leave my overpriced purchases behind.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Between my job, my novel, my travels, and this here blog, it’s been a chaotic and frustrating year for my reading. As I have stated in some of my recent posts, 2018 has so far been a year in which I’ve felt a little stressed and a little anxious. I’m awful at balancing multiple targets, at tending to each with equal effectiveness so that no one target stagnates. It’s all self-inflicted of course, and I’m going to spend the second half of 2018 trying to improve my lifestyle. Anyhow, I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, having started it a few months ago. One thing I noticed is that my pace picked up massively after the first 100 pages. I think this is for two reasons though; the first being that those initial 100 pages were read in March-April during which I had just started work at the warehouse. After my trip to Hungary I didn’t touch the novel for almost two months, before returning to it again in June. Since my rediscovery of my love for reading in 2017, I’ve been on a hot streak with books and haven’t given up on a single one. So I picked up where I left off with McCarthy, determined not to break my streak of finishing every book I’ve started since January 2017. And it’s not like I wasn’t enjoying the book. Which brings us to the second reason: although I liked the first 100 pages or so, I wouldn’t say I was hooked. However the next 200 pages of the novel I consumed with a feverish hunger. I really started to get invested in the characters and their struggles once I got to the hotel shootout where Moss first encounters Chigurgh.

I had seen the film version of No Country for Old Men years ago, but I didn’t quite remember everything about it when I started reading. I received my copy of the book as a Christmas present last year, and figured it would make an interesting contrast to my last read- The Center of Everything. When I finished the book a couple weeks ago, I re-watched the Coen Brothers’ movie adaptation. Right off the bat I knew that I could never love the movie the way I had before I read the novel. And I used to love that movie. I’m not at all one of those pretentious bibliophile cum-rags that insist the book is always better than the movie. I can think of loads of examples where the movies outdo the original source material: The Last of the Mohicans, The Godfather, There Will Be Blood. But No Country for Old Men certainly isn’t one of them. The Coen Brothers are good at making films, but Cormac McCarthy is a living genius. The Coen Brothers adapted McCarthy’s novel as well as it can be adapted, but having read it I don’t see any way in which a movie could have anywhere near as much depth and complexity. And as I stated earlier, that’s not because books are inherently superior. Each art form has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on the kind of story you want to tell and the effect you want it to have. And the advantage a novel has is how far you can go into the souls of its characters.

Once I re-watched the movie, having read the book, I felt a pang of disappointment as I realized that all I was watching was a watered-down version of the same narrative, with nothing particularly outstanding in it that didn’t come originally from McCarthy’s mind. Even the dialogue was lifted straight from the text. For obvious reasons it’s abridged, but the way it’s been cut and pasted into the script means that it lacks the flow of the scenes in the book. It’s not as punchy and powerful.

The character of Chigurgh feels similarly hollow compared to his counterpart in the novel. The film makes him out to be more of a bogeyman or an alien, whereas in the book he is strikingly articulate. The passages where he gives us an insight into his strange worldview and twisted morality are some of the most fascinating in the book. When I was reading those passages, I didn’t interpret him as just some crazed lunatic- and that didn’t make him any less menacing either.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the relationship between Sheriff Bell and Chigurgh. They never meet or have a conversation, but they’re connected. Bell is obsessed not just with catching Chigurgh, but with understanding him. He becomes the personification of a heartlessness that chills Bell to his very core. And Bell always interprets Chigurgh as being the symptom of something larger- a new breed of killers toting a violent, remorseless philosophy that he feels incapable of dealing with. In the novel you really get a sense of how invested the sheriff is in the case, and why, at the end, it consumes him. But in the film we are given very little of Bell’s motivations, so that he seems hardly bothered with what’s going on. The Bell of the novel seems much more agitated and much more desperate to solve the case.

I think the moment I went from simply enjoying the book to falling in love with it occurred in the lengthy denouement. And this is where my criticism of the movie does feel a little unfair. There is no way a standard, feature-length movie could replicate such an ending without killing the pacing. But in the context of a novel, the pacing of the last 50 pages is perfect. It’s a beautifully subtle and understated conclusion to such a bloody narrative. Bell tries his best to track down Chigurgh but he slips through his fingers once again. He is, as Bell says, a “ghost”.

You really get a sense of how deeply the murder of Carla Jean affects the sheriff. And it’s the catalyst for Bell’s unravelling in those final 50 pages or so. Bell confesses that, his whole life, he has been haunted by an experience in World War 2 in which he abandoned his men in order to save his own skin. He survived, his buddies were murdered by the Nazis, and the army gives him a medal for bravery. What I found most interesting about his confession was his idea that since then, he has been living “a stolen life”. He believes that he ought to have died in that field with his fellow soldiers, and this echoes Chigurgh’s fatalistic philosophy. Chigurgh tells Carla Jean, before he shoots her, how every little event, non-event, decision, and decision-not-taken, in her life led to her death at his hands. All roads lead to the same place. Bell feels like he cheated death- or better yet- that he avoided his destiny. Having sworn a duty upon entering the armed forces, his path was set for him, and he reneged on his oath instead of seeing it through.

I can’t stop thinking about his “stolen life” remark though. It implies that he was never meant to return to Texas, marry his wife, serve as sheriff. To him it feels fake, that he is living someone else’s life. It was someone else that was meant to marry Loretta and hunt down Chigurgh. These thoughts send Bell into a depression. We realize that it was his shame and his feelings of inadequacy that drove him to running all over Texas trying to solve a case that was far beyond his jurisdiction. Moss is a member of the community he swore to protect, and in trying to save him Bell is really looking for a second chance to save his wounded men from the Nazis. Bell is driven by a sense of failure, and for me he is the most fascinating character in the book. It was his journey that affected me the most.

Not every Cormac McCarthy book is a page-turner. They’re all brilliant in their own way, but if I’m going to the beach I’m probably not packing Suttree– for the same reason I wouldn’t pack Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. But I would pack No Country for Old Men. It’s layered and intelligent but it’s also a hardboiled thriller. The language is so crisp and succinct. There are echoes of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain in the dialogue that made me think McCarthy was having a lot of fun writing his own stylish noir.

In conclusion, this was an awesome read! However I’m going to change it up and read something more sentimental next.

The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty

It’s been a while since my last book review here on TumbleweedWrites, and I’ve always considered the sharing my reading adventures to be the backbone of the blog. Life has been a little crazy recently. I’ve got a new job and I’m still getting used to being on my feet for 9 hours every day. The physical nature of the work threw my writing schedule out of kilter for a week or two, but now I’ve restructured my schedule and settled into a new routine. I write in the evenings and on the weekends, and I read whenever I get a chance- usually on my lunch break. I should have finished this book a good month ago, but I struggled to distribute my energy in several directions at once. But I think having this new job has made me a better reader- I’ve got less free time than I had when working at the pub or traveling the USA- and it’s when you are faced with such obstacles that you become more efficient. So as soon as the boss would holler “Break time, lads,” over the din of power drills, claw hammers and thrash metal, I’d open my book as fast as I could and get reading.

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But what have I been reading exactly? For a while now, I have been borrowing books from my American roommates and trying to get a little book club going. Faithful readers of my blog will remember that last summer Anne-Marie lent me her copy of The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. It was an excellent read, and it was made all the more enjoyable by having my best friend around to discuss it with. Anne-Marie would get home from the clinic and I’d be like “Oh my God, Tess totally just slept with that P.E teacher.” As I stated in my review for that novel, Anne-Marie is a big Liane Moriarty fan. While she was out at the bookstore one day looking for more Moriarty novels, she was ecstatic to find one she hadn’t yet read: a beautiful hardback called The Center of Everything. It’s a gorgeous-looking book, with a striking cover of an inverted tree with big flowers on its branches. I can see why my roommate grabbed it instantly. It was only later that she realized that it wasn’t a Liane Moriarty book at all. The name on the cover in fact read Laura Moriarty. This, however, turned out to be one of the best mistakes Anne-Marie had ever made.

Before I left Texas, she lent me this beautiful mistake. I got home, and I let my mom read it first as I worked through my backlog. My mom is a thoroughbred reader, and breezed through the novel in a couple days as she relaxed poolside in the Cretan sunshine. Before she even finished it she was filling my lughole with snap reviews about how great the book was, how the writing style reminded her of To Kill A Mockingbird, and how I had to read it as soon as humanly possible. After enduring several months of these frenzied reminders, I decided that the time was right to read- and blog- about this other Moriarty the women in my life were raving about.

The Harper Lee comparison is an apt one. The Center of Everything is a blue-collar coming-of-age story set in 1980s Kansas. It follows the life of Evelyn Bucknow from middle school to college as she lives with her mom Tina in a low-income apartment complex off a highway. I’m drawn to character-driven novels, but this one might just take the cake. I can’t remember reading a book with such complex and compelling characters. The fact that this isn’t a memoir astounds me. If you just picked this book up off the floor and started reading without knowing anything about it, you would assume that all this stuff actually happened. Every character is just so vividly brought to life- from Evelyn’s troubled, curly-haired crush Travis to her zealous, Bible-believing grandma Eileen. In many ways the novel is about how each of these quirky personalities has an effect on the way Evelyn sees the world. It’s exactly the kind of book I want to be reading, because it examines the minutiae of human behavior and how we are all sculpted by our experiences, our circumstances, and our peers.

What Moriarty does so well is weave the overarching themes of the novel into almost every scene. It’s an example of masterful storytelling; each scene feels like the natural consequence of the last, nothing contrived or out of place, and yet each one exists as a microcosm of the novel as a whole. Evelyn’s life is a patchwork of hormones, intellectual curiosity, poverty, the need to be loved, the search for identity, and the tendency of the human psyche to desire simple, absolute truths in a world of infinite complexity. In short, it’s about growing up. I think almost anyone can relate to Evelyn at some point. This book captures adolescence with a razor-sharp authenticity. It’s a book that’s both hilarious and poignant in equal measure, but above all it’s a book with a big heart. As good as it was, The Center of Everything was actually a struggle to read for me sometimes; not because it was hard to understand, but because I was so invested in it that my eyes kept jumping ahead to the next paragraph or the next page. It’s never really happened to me before, but I had to physically stop myself from spoiling the events of the novel and making sure I read every line. My eyes just wouldn’t behave. As a writer, this book was both inspiring and demoralizing. Inspiring because it was just so well-crafted, and demoralizing because every time I finished reading I did so with a sigh and a pang of despair that I could never write anything as good as this.

Moriarty states that a book that influenced her writing of The Center of Everything was Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, and I can see how. Carl Sagan was one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, and an important proponent of the skeptical movement. In The Demon-Haunted World he stresses the importance of critical thinking and maintaining a skeptical disposition. He makes clear distinctions between science and pseudoscience, and that any idea should be able to stand up to rigorous scientific and skeptical testing before it can be accepted as valid. They’re important values for our society moving forward, and ones I absolutely hold dear to my heart. It reminds me of my old philosophy professor from college who said “While everyone has the equal right to an opinion, not all opinions are equal. If one theory states that we evolved from apes and that we can measure this evolution by examining fossil data, and another states that God made us, because a dusty old storybook called the Bible says so, then the former is clearly a better opinion.” Throughout the novel Evelyn is torn between the liberal professors that feed her burgeoning passion for science and her grandma Eileen’s religious doctrine. As the school debates whether to teach evolution or not, Eileen cries that it’s unfair to teach the kids one theory and not the other. The scene reminded me of my professor’s words.

I didn’t like the character of Eileen, because she seemed to represent the sinister nature of organized religion. She’s sweet and smiley in appearance and voice, but when you listen to her views you realize that she’s a shockingly hateful and bigoted person. It’s difficult for Evelyn to reconcile Eileen’s kindness and generosity with her subscription to a belief system that castigates homosexuality and pre-marital sex as being evil. In contrast, Evelyn’s free-spirited mom Tina preaches nothing, but practices tireless love. To my mind, she emerges as the true heroine of the narrative. She can be childish and impractical, but she has a heart of gold. The crux of the novel, I believe, is Evelyn’s journey to understanding that no one is wholly good or bad, that in every person’s wake there lies a trail of bad decisions, hypocrisy, and the search for truth.

Five Guys Read Hemingway: My Reading Experiment

I’ve discussed my relationship with reading many times on this blog. It’s the skill I’m most eager to improve day-in, day-out. It’s something that’s absolutely fundamental to the way I live, for the simple reason that healthy reading has a ripple effect that improves every other aspect of my life. My improved mental well-being, productivity, creativity, and my growing appetite for vivid experiences, all started with my renewed commitment to reading. It was the first block, and the foundation upon which all others were built. This blog, my novel, my increased sense of happiness, would not exist without my initial commitment to regular reading. In many ways it’s like exercise- something that I make time for, that changes every aspect of my life for the better. All I can say is how this process has worked for me, and I’m aware that reading means different things to different people.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s post. For the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a little reading experiment aimed at exploring how other people read and what reading means to different people of the same generation as me. The fact that we were all born into an increasingly digital world is an important point, and is why I decided to focus the attention of my study on young folks. I gathered five willing volunteers, who would each read one of my favorite short stories, and whom I would then interview about the experience. I wasn’t sure if this research would yield anything of any worth, but the results have proved more interesting than I could have ever hoped.

Even though I love books, I’m not necessarily a brilliant reader. People tend to associate books with intelligence, and as someone that enjoys reading, I’ve found that non-readers often think of me as being hardwired differently. But the truth is, as this research shows, that we actually have more in common than we realized. Reading is very much a craft that one can improve through time and dedication. Like anything in life, there are those naturally suited to it, but that doesn’t mean that the joy of reading is or should be exclusive to them. I don’t consider myself such a natural at all; if anything I’m a just a keen reader. I’m a very slow reader, I’m an anxious reader, and haven’t always been this keen. I assured my volunteers that this little experiment was not a measure of their intelligence, but rather a study of the medium of reading. I was quick to point out that each of them consumed various forms of media, and stressed that the only difference between me and the non-reader is a preference of mediums.

My five volunteers are all from the North Somerset area of England, are male, and between the ages of 23-26. They are each talented and quirky in their own way, representing a range of interests and abilities. Some are scientifically inclined, some are more philosophical, and others still are intrigued by everything from fitness to technology. For the purposes of this experiment, their names will remain private. I figured calling them “Test Subject A” or “Test Subject B”, while amusing, would make it hard for you to distinguish a particular candidate. So I’ve gone ahead and given them nicknames. Here are the interviews:

 


Q1: HOW OFTEN DO YOU READ?

HUNTER: Books? Never. I used to read textbooks…

FROSTY: Never.

COWBOY: I don’t read books, but I consume newspapers often.

SPACEMAN: I listen to audiobooks almost every day, both fiction and non-fiction. As far as printed books go, I’d say I read at least one novel per year.

WISEGUY: I read fiction books daily, perhaps 30 minutes a day.

 

Q2: DID YOU ENJOY READING AT SCHOOL?

HUNTER: Not overly. We read Old Man and the Sea…that was alright I suppose.

FROSTY: No.

COWBOY: No.

SPACEMAN: It wasn’t my favorite activity, but I didn’t mind it. It was okay.

WISEGUY: Not at all.

 

Q3: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE BOOK?

HUNTER: The Railway Cat – Arkle Phyllis

FROSTY: The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

COWBOY: A Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket

SPACEMAN: The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

WISEGUY: Supernatural: Meeting with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind – Graham Hancock

 

Q4: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU READ A SHORT STORY?

HUNTER: About four months ago actually. Remember that collection we had to read in school called Opening Worlds: Short Stories from Different Cultures by OCR? I found it and started reading.

FROSTY: I love reading Creepypastas online actually. A while back I read one about a sleep deprivation experiment.

COWBOY: I’m not sure to be honest.

SPACEMAN: One of yours actually. Remember that story about the automated wind farm on an alien planet that you asked me to proof for you last year?

WISEGUY: You know, this might be the first one.

 

Q5: DID YOU ENJOY TEN INDIANS?

HUNTER: Yeah it was alright, that. It was uneventful and it wasn’t clear what the meaning was, but that’s not a bad thing.

FROSTY: Nope. I found it a struggle to take in. I think I’m much more visually-oriented. I was reading the words but I couldn’t digest them.

COWBOY: No. There was nothing engaging about it. Maybe if it was longer, and more stuff happened in it, I might have enjoyed it. It was brief and boring.

SPACEMAN: Yes. I liked trying to figure out the meaning, which isn’t really revealed until the end.

WISEGUY: Well, it didn’t blow me away. It was OK, but it felt like a chapter of a longer story.

 

Q6: DID IT MAKE YOU WANT TO READ MORE HEMINGWAY?

HUNTER: No.

FROSTY: Probably not. I hated Old Man and the Sea at school.

COWBOY: Not particularly.

SPACEMAN: Yes, absolutely.

WISEGUY: Not especially. I’m into different genres of fiction, mate.

 

Q7: IN A GENERAL SENSE, DO YOU WANT TO READ MORE?

HUNTER: Nah.

FROSTY: Yes. Even though I find reading a struggle, I have a copy of Stephen King’s It upstairs, and it makes me want to improve my reading ability.

COWBOY: Yes- but not because of this story.

SPACEMAN: Yes.

WISEGUY: Yes. A lot more.

 

Q8: WHAT DID YOU THINK OF HEMINGWAY’S WRITING STYLE?

HUNTER: Yeah mate, it was alright. However I didn’t get the tone of some sentences- probably because it was written in a strange dialect.

FROSTY: Well, I dunno about the style, but I did like print. The font was pretty friendly. There were a few regional words I didn’t recognize, like “squaw”.

COWBOY: No. Me- I like a definitive beginning, middle, and end. I just wasn’t sure where this story was going. It’s like it wasn’t long enough to hook me.

SPACEMAN: Oh yes. I liked the ending in particular.

WISEGUY: Yeah. His straightforward style made the story accessible and friendly to me as a reader.

 

Q9: DID YOU READ IT ALL IN ONE GO?

HUNTER: Yeah.

FROSTY: Yeah.

COWBOY: Yeah.

SPACEMAN: Yeah.

WISEGUY: Yeah.

 

Q10: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU?

HUNTER: 17 minutes.

FROSTY: 10 minutes.

COWBOY: 10 minutes.

SPACEMAN: 7 minutes. After I was done, I went back and re-read some sections near the beginning to gain a better understanding of the story as a whole.

WISEGUY: 25 minutes.

 

Q11: WHERE DID YOU READ IT?

HUNTER: In a computer chair at my desk.

FROSTY: On a couch in a quiet room.

COWBOY: On a couch in a room shared with three guys quietly playing Minecraft.

SPACEMAN: In a leather armchair. The TV was on, but I muted it.

WISEGUY: On a couch in a café with noisy, annoying distractions. Make sure you include that detail.

 

Q12: WERE YOU IMMERSED IN THE WORLD OF THE STORY, OR DID YOUR MIND WANDER?

HUNTER: Mostly I was immersed. My focus shifted a few times and I had to go back and concentrate again.

FROSTY: Oh, it wandered alright. I had to re-read a few lines I wasn’t sure about. Overall it was just very hard to process the events and meaning of the story for me.

COWBOY: Immersed makes it sound like I was enjoying it. I wasn’t. I read it the way I read the news. Not fun, but no real effort either.

SPACEMAN: It took a while to get into at first, probably because I knew I was taking part in an experiment instead of reading normally.

WISEGUY: Remember, I was very distracted by external noises. However I want to say that I liked the subtlety of his story. I think that kind of subtlety suits the concise medium of short fiction.

 

Q13: IN A WORD, WHAT DO YOU THINK THE STORY WAS ABOUT?

HUNTER: Heartbreak.

FROSTY: Racism.

COWBOY: A Journey.

SPACEMAN: Love. Specifically “first love”. The line that stood out to me was that he was “hollow but happy”. I quite liked that I did.

WISEGUY: Heartbreak.

 

Q14: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR BIGGEST REASON FOR NOT READING IN YOUR LIFE?

HUNTER: Can’t be arsed. It seems like an effort.

FROSTY: Because it’s boring. It seems like a task instead of a pastime. This experiment felt like homework. However I’m hopeful. Perhaps I just haven’t found my genre of fiction yet. I didn’t like this story, but I guess it’s like the movies- there’s so much choice that there has to be one for everyone.

COWBOY: I’d say my answer is probably true for a lot of people of our generation, so think of this as not just my reason, but mine and so many others. Alternative forms of media. Things like video games and TV are so much more accessible. But the biggest one reason, in my opinion, is my phone. I take my phone to bed and the time I spend on it before going to sleep is probably the time I would otherwise be spending reading, if I were into books.

SPACEMAN: I just consume other forms of media so much. The big three for me are video games, Netflix, and Youtube.

WISEGUY: I get put off reading. Because I’m so slow, reading seems like this big task, and I end up procrastinating and not reading as much as I would like.

 

Q15: DO YOU TEND TO READ NON-FICTION FASTER?

HUNTER: I haven’t noticed a discernable difference.

FROSTY: O yes.

COWBOY: Absolutely. For me, the dialogue present in fiction breaks up my flow. I definitely read articles and news columns faster.

SPACEMAN: Yeah actually, I do read it faster.

WISEGUY: No. I read works of fiction faster. With non-fiction, I feel the pressure to remember facts.

 


As you can see from their answers, each of my volunteers has a completely different relationship with books. There are aspects of each person’s experience that hold true for me as well. What COWBOY and SPACEMAN said about the accessibility of digital media was very interesting to me, and I think it’s something that probably holds true for a lot of Millenials, whether they are readers or non-readers. I know the big reading slumps I have had in the past had a lot to do with my pouring hours into addictive games like The Witcher 3 or Bioshock Infinite. Games, movies, and binge-worthy TV shows all tell fascinating stories, only they are passive activities as opposed to sitting down and reading a novel, which is active. We’re all interested in storytelling and we always will be. It’s the medium that is changing- with increasingly sophisticated technology designed to be as comfortable and accessible as possible. You have to remember, just 100 years ago, sitting down to read just one more chapter of Great Expectations was the equivalent of hitting the “Continue watching” button after your third straight episode of Mindhunter. In 1841 American fans of Charles Dickens were so desperate to find out if Nell had survived in The Old Curiosity Shop, that they caused a riot and stormed the harbor in New York where a ship was bringing in the latest chapter of the book.

So are novels disappearing as a storytelling medium? No, I don’t think so. But they might become more of a niche interest. And it must be remembered that the volunteers I selected represented a pretty homogenous demographic. It would be interesting to carry out this experiment with strictly female volunteers, or volunteers from America instead of the U.K. What do you think of my results? Should I carry out more of these experiments? Can you relate to any of the answers my wonderful volunteers gave? Please let me know in the comments!