Tag Archives: Wally Lamb

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2017: Part Two

Cover imgeWhereas a family theme – conventional or otherwise – ran through the first installment of June’s paperback preview, this one’s much more of a hodge-podge. Given the time of year, a book aimed fairly and squarely at the summer reading market seems as good a place to start as any. Invincible Summer has a structure that never fails to appeal to me. It follows four young people, inseparable at university, and now facing the realities of life as young adults: Eva’s off to the City; Benedict decides to pursue a PhD; siblings Sylvie and Lucien indulge themselves in a life of art, travel and adventure. Summer reunions bring them back together but recreating the intimate bonds of student friendship isn’t always easy.

Structure was what attracted me to Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s prize-winning Everything I Don’t Remember. It’s the story of a young man who dies one April afternoon in Stockholm, his car wrecked in a crash which some speculate may have been suicide, others are sure was an accident. Khemiri tells Samuel’s story through a series of interviews with those who knew him – some fleetingly, others intimately – conducted by an author planning to write a book about him. Given that the novel is a made up of interwoven fragments it’s remarkably cohesive, not to mention utterly addictive. An immensely enjoyable book, cleverly constructed and completely engrossing.

Struggling for links here but I can just about work structure in again given that Anna Noyes’ Cover imageGoodnight, Beautiful Women is a collection of short stories. Noyes’ stories share the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are recurring themes. Noyes writing is carefully crafted yet immediate – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean. Ron Rash came to mind for me although the Washington Post compares Noyes to Alice Munro with which, I’m sure, her publishers will have been very much more delighted.

Also about women, I’ll Take You There took me by surprise. It’s that rare thing: an enjoyable, commercial novel with a broad, deep streak of feminism running through it, and it’s written by a man. A divorced professor of film studies, Felix adores his daughter and is on good enough terms with his ex-wife. He’s the brother of two sisters, both of whom he loves dearly. One Monday night, as he sets up in the gloriously old-fashioned cinema in which he runs his film club, an apparition appears introducing herself as Lois Weber, a silent movie director much overlooked by her male colleagues and wanting the record put straight. There’s a nice vein of humour running through Lamb’s novel and although I suspect I won’t be investigating his backlist any time soon, this one’s well worth your time.

Cover imageMy final June choice is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad which was surrounded by a good deal of pre-publication brouhaha in hardback, not least because President Obama took it on holiday with him – remember those halcyon days? Cora is a slave in Georgia, an outcast amongst her fellow slaves since childhood. When Caesar arrives from Virginia he tells her about the Underground Railroad, offering a means of escape from her misery which Cora chooses to take. The novel follows her arduous journey through the South, a slave catcher snapping at her heels. ‘As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day’ say the publishers. A tough read, I’m sure, but not to be missed.

That’s it for June’s paperbacks. Should you be interested, a click on a title will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the ones I’ve not yet read. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new titles they’re here and the first batch of paperbacks is here.

I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb: Men can be feminists, too

Cover imageI can’t say I embraced the prospect of Wally Lamb’s new novel entirely enthusiastically: I’d read his first, She’s Come Undone, which was praised to the skies by all and sundry but left me cold, and the blurb mentions ghosts which I found distinctly off-putting. You might wonder, then, why I decided to read it. The answer is that it appeared to be a feminist novel by a man, a phenomenon well worth investigating.

Felix Funicello is a sixty-year-old professor of film studies. Divorced, he adores his daughter Aliza, encouraging her in her journalistic career, and is on good enough terms with his ex-wife. He’s the brother of two sisters, both of whom he loves dearly. One Monday night, setting up in the gloriously old-fashioned cinema in which he runs his film club, an apparition appears introducing herself as Lois Weber, a silent movie director much overlooked by her male colleagues and wanting the record put straight. She tells Felix that he’s been chosen as ‘educable’, playing him footage of significant scenes from his life and occasionally directing him to ‘re-enter’ those scenes. As he watches his family, Felix is hit by a wave of nostalgia accompanied by the benefit of hindsight. He overhears his beautiful sister Simone confide her boss’s sexual harassment to their mother and his mother’s inadequate response; he watches his sister Francis throwing herself into the Rheingold Girls beauty pageant election and her terrible struggles with anorexia. As Lois shows Felix more of his life, the pieces of his own personal jigsaw begin to fall into place until he understands the women in his life far better.

Narrated in the first person, Lamb’s novel is written in a very direct, conversational style. It bowls along nicely, interweaving Felix’s family story with historical context and movie trivia. Those worrying  ‘ghost’ scenes are carried off with humour, smartly avoiding any painful creakiness. Felix’s hindsight allows Lamb to smoothly make points about the tyranny of beauty, the exploitation of women’s insecurities and the casual dismissal of women’s potential and achievements. Aliza’s blog post towards the end of the novel is a neat riposte to her mother’s angry dismissal of ‘post-feminism’ in which she argues that a new generation of feminists is attacking sexist attitudes using a different set of tools. I’ll Take You There is a very rare thing: an enjoyable, commercial novel with a broad, deep streak of feminism running through it, and it’s written by a man. I won’t be catching up with Lamb’s backlist anytime soon but this one proved to be well worth my time.

This may well be my last review for 2016. The rest of December’s posts are likely to be taken up with looking forwards and back in that time-honoured fashion for the last month of the year.