Tag Archives: Nathan Hill

Books of the Year 2017: Part One

Cover imageI’ve been in dire need of distraction this year. I tend to keep politics out of this blog but ours is a very political household. It’s what we talk about over supper but this year we both decided, for the sake of our mental health, we needed to rein it back. Books, as ever, have been a solace. Far too many favourites for one or even two posts so there will be four, all with links to full reviews on this blog.

January began with a book that was published in the previous December and as a result may not have made the impression it deserved which is why it’s popped up two weeks running here. Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend  kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. Written from Audrey’s point of view, Down’s debut is a masterclass in elegant understatement steered neatly away from the maudlin. It’s about the way in which friendship can help you through the darkest of times, about resilience and learning when to reach out, and it ends on a note of hope which brought me to tears. A very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Nathan Hill’s The Nix is a big novel in every sense of the word. Through the story of a mother and the son she left when he was eleven, it explores the panorama of American life from the heady idealism of the ‘60s to 2011, the world still reeling from the global financial crisis. The writing is striking from the get-go and it’s very funny: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia to mention but a few. Careful plotting ensures that each piece of the puzzle slots neatly into place until both Faye and Samuel’s stories are told. It ends with fresh starts, a much-needed reminder that despite all that’s gone before there will always be both redemption and hope somewhere in the world, albeit personal rather than political.

Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack comes packaged in the perfect jacket. It’s the story of a marriage Cover imagespanning sixty years, contracted in 1952: Jack is about to playfully pull the laughing Milly into what they hope will be the nice warm swimming pool of married life. In many ways they’re an ill-matched couple, neither of them quite what the other expected or thought they were, but they stick it out, always finding some love left no matter how close they are to the bottom of the barrel. Jones’ narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs. An engrossing, utterly gripping novel, beautifully bookended by the repetition of Jack and Milly’s first meeting.

February also delivered three novels that hit the spot, each very different from the others, starting with Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. This elegant novella is a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past. It’s a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. Woodson is known for her young adult and children’s books but I hope she’ll find time to write some more for us grown-up readers.

Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, The Refugees is by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. It explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. Viet Thanh Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view in a collection which combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience lending it a quiet power. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades.

Cover imageAt which point you may be wondering about books as a distraction from politics but my next February choice has that in spades. Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree is a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash – gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang. It’s the story of Edgeworth Bess who is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Alongside Bess’ tale, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.

That’s it for January and February’s favourites. Goodies were thinner on the ground in the following three months but they did include one which should have won all this year’s prizes, as far as I’m concerned, but didn’t…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2017: Part One

There’s an abundance of paperback treats coming up this September, so many that I’ve split them into two posts. Top of my list is Jake Arnott’s rollicking tale of thieves and whores, The Fatal Tree, set in 1726. Told to us by Billy, a confessional writer with his own story, it’s about Edgeworth Bess, banged up in Newgate Gaol awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Replete with period detail, salaciousness and vivid descriptions, Arnott’s novel is both nicely taut and very funny at times. A wonderful piece of historical storytelling as atmospheric as Michel Faber’s The Crimson and the White.

Nathan Hill’s The Nix is an entirely different kettle of fish, although parts of it are set in 1968, certainly classed by my contemporary historian partner as history. Samuel is an assistant professor in his mid-thirties when the story of the Packer Attacker breaks: a woman in her sixties is facing prosecution for throwing stones at the Governor of Illinois. The woman turns out to be Samuel’s mother who left the family home when he was just eleven. Hill takes Samuel and Faye’s stories from the heady liberalism of the ‘60s to 2011, the world still reeling from the global financial crisis. Riveting stuff for me, full of striking writing and it’s very funny, too: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia – the latter spot-on according to H – to mention but a few.

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow also takes a long hard look at American history by the sound of it, drawing on stories told to him by his grandfather. The novel takes the form of a deathbed confession in which an old man tells his grandson stories long-buried, revealing a life far more adventurous than the grandson could ever have expected. ‘From the Jewish slums of pre-war Cover imagePhiladelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of a New York prison, from the heyday of the space programme to the twilight of ‘the American Century’, Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week’ say the publishers. Given Chabon’s storytelling skills this should be unmissable.

The next three titles are on a much more domestic scale beginning with Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade described by the publishers as ‘luminous and moving’. Set in Dublin, it’s about Sonny who falls for Vera, both of them from very different backgrounds. ‘Unfolding in the sea-bright, rain-soaked Dublin of early spring, Montpelier Parade is a beautiful, cinematic novel about desire, longing, grief, hope and the things that remain unspoken’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing.

Gwendoline Riley’s Baileys Prize shortlisted First Love could be described as exploring similar territory although the relationship between Neve and Edwyn may not seem like love to everyone. Neve is a writer, working at home and living with Edwyn who is much older than her, often cranky and unpredictable. As we learn more about Neve’s life we begin to understand why she puts up with the stream of insults hurled at her. Riley leavens her spare, pin-point sharp novella’s bleakness with spikes of humour. Unsettling and thought-provoking, it ends on a note of frail hope.

Cover imageLove and its difficulties also runs through Laura Kaye’s engaging outsider’s view of rural life, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman who leaves London to work as an au pair for a couple at Fairmont Hall, the house which is both their home and a financial millstone around their necks. Mirka arrives to the sound of bickering but despite their turbulent relationship, Richard and Sophie warmly welcome her into their home where she is surprised to find herself learning taxidermy, Richard’s new money-making scheme. A thoroughly enjoyable novel, peopled by well-observed characters and very funny at times although the squeamish may want to skip the more detailed taxidermy descriptions. I’m delighted to see that the publishers have kept that striking jacket for the paperback edition

That’s it for the first instalment of September’s paperbacks. Should you wish to learn more, a click on a title will take you to a full review for those I’ve read, and to a more detailed synopsis for Moonglow and Montpelier Parade. And if you want to catch up with September’s new titles they’re here. Second batch of paperbacks to follow soon…

My 2017 Man Booker wish list

Despite swearing off Man Booker predictions a few years back I can’t seem to keep away although I must emphasize that my track record is pretty dismal so don’t go laying any bets on my suggestions. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2016 and 30th September 2017 and have been written in English. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September but I’m sticking to novels I’ve already read. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Thursday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order:

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The Fatal Tree                                             Birdcage Walk                             Reservoir 13

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The End We Start From                      The Answers                      Conversations with Friends

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A Line Made by Walking               Before Everything                            The Nix

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The Hearts of Men                     Johannesburg                              Forest Dark

Usually several titles jostle for position as my top choice but this year there’s no contest – Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. No reflection on the merits of the other books: McGregor’s writing is sublime and this is quite possibly his best work yet. I’ll be searching for a hat to eat if it doesn’t make it on to the longlist at the very least. If you’d like to read my review, a click on a title will take you to it. A reviews of Forest Dark to follow soon, as will a what I got up to on my holidays post later in the week for those who might be interested.

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

The Nix by Nathan Hill: Nothing ventured, nothing gained

I first spotted The Nix back in September last year on our riding the Central European railways holiday. It was sitting on a table in the English bookshop wing of Dussmann’s in Berlin, too chunky to justify including in the luggage that had to be hefted on and off the train. It looked right up my alley – a novel which explored American politics through the relationship between a mother and the son she left when he was eleven years old. Hard to leave it behind back then but it’s been well worth the wait

Samuel is an assistant professor in his mid-thirties, still yearning for his first love, one acclaimed short story under his belt, a long-spent advance for a novel on the strength of it and an unhealthy addiction to computer games. He’s faced with a perennial problem for academics – the plagiarised paper – but hasn’t bargained on the towering sense of entitlement and self-esteem of its ‘author’ who soon persuades the all too accommodating authorities that it’s Samuel who’s in the wrong. Meanwhile a woman in her sixties throws stones at the Governor of Illinois, quickly becoming notorious while ensuring the Governor a foot on the presidential nomination ladder. The Packer Attacker, as the media dubs her busily adding a few salacious details into the bargain, turns out to be Samuel’s mother, last seen by him in 1988. Now she needs a letter, a character reference, to help get her off the hook but Samuel’s publisher, always a man with an eye for the main chance, sees an opportunity to cash in, persuading Samuel to write book about his mother. Like all good academics, Samuel embarks on researching his subject but finds himself looking for an answer to the question that haunts him: why did she leave?

Hill’s book is a big novel in every sense of the word. With a keen acuity, it explores the panorama of American life from the heady idealism of the ‘60s – or so it seemed – to 2011 with the world still reeling from the global financial crisis, through the lens of Faye and Samuel’s stories, shifting from one point of view to the other as it does so. It’s a completely engrossing piece of storytelling which takes you backwards and forwards from Faye’s early adulthood, brought up by a man who taught her to be afraid of failing, to her brief brush with radicalism at her Chicago university, to her 2011 infamy and Samuel’s reappearance in her life. The writing is striking from the get-go as Hill describes Faye’s long drawn out departure from the family home. He draws you in to each of his story’s time periods, gathering up your attention so that you’re loath to tear yourself away from one to the next then quickly absorbing it again. The 1968 sections are particularly sharp, the description of the riots surrounding the Democratic Convention gut-wrenching – urgent, bloody and terrifying. And it’s very funny: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia – the latter spot-on according to H – to mention but a few. Careful plotting – there’s a particularly pleasing reveal towards the end – ensures that each piece of the puzzle slots neatly and satisfyingly into place until both Faye and Samuel’s stories are told. It ends with fresh starts, a much-needed reminder that despite all that’s gone before there will always be both redemption and hope somewhere in the world, albeit personal rather than political.

I read this novel in the long shadow of the Trump presidency but it was written while that prospect must have seemed a distant nightmare. As I read it I wondered if Hill’s story might have been any different had he known what was to come but I hope that ending would have remained the same.

Books to Look Out for in January 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThe first part of January’s preview roamed around the world taking in Pakistan, Poland, Estonia, Ghana and the UK – home for me. This second part has its feet firmly planted in the US, beginning with a debut which has caused quite a stir in my neck of the Twitter woods. Emma Flint’s Little Deaths takes a crime committed in 1960s New York and fashions it into a novel. In the heat wave of 1965, Ruth Malone wakes to find both her children are missing. Paying more attention to the wagging tongues keen to emphasise Ruth’s colourful life then they perhaps should, the police jump to conclusions but a tabloid journalist new to the job thinks otherwise. Crime fiction isn’t my usual territory but the setting and premise of this one makes me curious.

Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack is set on the other side of the continent from Little Deaths near lovely San Francisco. Jack and Milly were married in 1952, caught up in the wave of optimism that swept through post-war America. Sixty years later, having weathered infidelity and disappointment, they’re still together despite sharing little in common. In what the publishers describe as ‘a love story that tells the truth – or one or two truths – about love and marriage’ Jones’ novel charts a long relationship and the social change that has transformed Jack and Milly’s world. Sounds very appealing to me.

I first spotted Nathan Hill’s The Nix back in the summer in a Berlin bookshop. I would have bought it then had we not been at the beginning of the holiday – it’s quite a doorstop. Samuel hasn’t seen his mother since her departure from the family home when he was a child. Now she’s everywhere, accused of committing the kind of crime that captivates the media who are painting her as a radical hippie. Samuel is inveigled by his publisher into telling his mother’s story but first he needs to get his hands on the facts. In a novel which ‘moves from the rural Midwest of the 1960s, to New York City during Occupy Wall Street, back to Chicago in 1968 and, finally, to wartime Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. Samuel will unexpectedly find that he has to rethink everything he ever knew about his mother – a woman with an epic story of her own, a story she has kept hidden from the world’ according to the publishers. Sounds right up my alley.Cover image

The two friends at the centre of Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others would have pounced on Faye’s story with glee, I’m sure. Film-makers Meadow and Carrie grew up together in Los Angeles. When Meadow becomes involved with a woman whose seductive powers of listening become the subject of one of her documentaries, she sets in train her own downfall. ‘Heart-breaking and insightful, Innocents and Others is an astonishing novel about friendship, identity, loneliness and art’ say the publishers. It sounds intriguing.

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators also explores friendship, coincidentally in the film world. Both from the rural South and both fanatical about comics, Sharon and Mel are visual arts majors at a snobby East Coast liberal arts college. Ten years after graduation they’re living and working together in Brooklyn, doing well for themselves in a small way. Their first full-length film is based on Mel’s childhood, making the private public which inevitably has consequences. ‘Sweeping and intimate at once, the novel is an exquisite portrait of a life-defining partnership. Whitaker captures the shifting dynamics between Mel and Sharon—between all the characters, really—with such precision and sharpness that it’s hard to let them go’ say the publishers which puts me in mind of Rachel B. Glaser’s wonderful Paulina & Fran.

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow ventures into that same public/private territory, drawing on stories told to him by his grandfather. The novel takes the form of a deathbed confession in which an old man tells his grandson stories long-buried, revealing a life far more adventurous than the grandson could ever have expected. ‘From the Jewish slums of pre-war Philadelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of a New York prison, from the heyday of the space programme to the twilight of ‘the American Century’, Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week’ say the publishers. Given Chabon’s storytelling skills this should be unmissable.

Cover imageMy final choice might well backfire horribly. In Everybody’s Fool Richard Russo revisits the down-at-heel town of North Bath a decade after the events of Nobody’s Fool, picking up the story of ‘Sully’ Sullivan, now beset by health problems. It sounds as if there’s a good deal to entertain in Russo’s novel, including an escaped cobra, but returning to the scene of a much-loved book is always a dicey game for a writer. The publishers promise ‘a novel which is a pure pleasure to read – genuinely funny, enormously heartfelt and imbued with the warmth and wisdom that are Richard Russo’s stock in trade’. Let’s hope they’re right.

That’s it for the goodie-packed January. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’re interested and if you’d like to catch up with the first part it’s here. Paperbacks to follow shortly…