Category Archives: Serious

A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan


I selected this book for book club after reading a review in the Weekend Australian. I liked it. It has different points of view – the structure is quite intriguing ranging from first person to third person there is even an amazing chapter in second person. The time period changes as well from the near past, to the present, to the near future (where the environment has suffered – solar panels in the desert, etc.)

Here is the blurb …

Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.

I would say this novel is a series of interconnected short stories. Although it is more than that – the characters grow, change and adapt, the writing technique alters with each chapter (including one chapter that is consists of power point slides) and then there is the inner lives of the extremely diverse characters – who would have thought that an attempted rape could be so hilarious? And the idea of a suicide rock tour?

The goon in the title is time and all of the characters have certainly been visited by time. I enjoyed the different stages of people’s lives – it seems like one part is going to last for ever and before you know it you’re at a different point with different people and then that changes and your some where else again.

For me this novel was also about appearances and spin. With just the right hat you can make a war criminal look benevolent. By using ‘parrots’ you can create enthusiasm for a musician (he must be good if all of these seemingly independent people say he is).

This might all sound quite chaotic and although I think this book deserves a second reading, it all comes together quite convincingly. From the experience of my book club, it would appear that different readers take different things away.

Some where in my ‘to be read’ pile is The Keep (also by Egan), which I look forward to reading soon.

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The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

After having enjoyed Freedomthis one was a must read. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Freedom – the characters weren’t as appealing – although I did get the same sense of an America not normally described in novels.

Here is the blurb …

After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson’s disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man-or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.

Franzen has the ability to write from quite varying viewpoints; from Enid wilfully refusing to acknowledge her husband’s descent into madness (if only he would do his exercises he would be OK), to Chip who seems determined to destroy every opportunity that comes his way, and Alfred in his madness (which from Alfred’s point of view seems to make sense). This creates sympathy for a cast of characters and I was interested in their ‘trials and tribulations’.

The narrative shifts around in both time and view point allowing the story to unfold slowly – a technique that seems to be quite popular of late Maggie O’Farrell did something similar in The Hand That First Held Mine. I like it. I like having my opinions about particular characters challenged when I read their version of events.

More …


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Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

This book is about Patty and Walter’s marriage, but it is also about so much else; America’s involvement in Iraq, the environment, parenting, the effect of poverty on a community and individuals, etc.

Here is the blurb …

Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul – the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter – environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man – she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz – outré rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival – still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become ‘a very different kind of neighbor,’ an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?

In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom’s intensely realized characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.

This book was easy to read, however, it is quite complex. It reminded me of Middlemarch – so much going on. I’m not going to do it justice in this review, which (as is my custom) is going to be short – I’ll like to some other reviews at the end. For me this was novel was about the American condition in a post 9/11 world. This isn’t the America portrayed by Hollywood. There is no black and white only shades of grey. For example, is it OK to allow MTR (Mountain Top Removal) mining in your bird sanctuary if the miners are going to return it to a near pristine state and then the land will be off limits for future development? Walter, Patty and Richard participate in a love triangle that lasts for decades and inflicts pain on all of them.

This novel is beautifully written, the characters are true to life – messy, confused. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.

Here are some more reviews … (This is the First Tueday Book Club’s take on Freedom)



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Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell

When my Victorian book club decided to read Mary Barton as our first Gaskell book (we read three of each author) I was slightly nervous. I’ve read North and South and Wives and Daughters and enjoyed them both, but Mary Barton just sounded depressing. I was pleasantly surprised, however I don’t think it will appeal to a modern audience, but more of that later.

Here is  the plot summary from Wikipedia (read it at your own peril it does give the story away).

The novel was subtitled “A Tale of Manchester Life.” It begins in that city, where we are introduced to the Bartons and the Wilsons, two working-class families. John Barton is a great questioner of the distribution of wealth and the relations between rich and poor. Soon his wife dies–he blames it on her grief over the disappearance of her sister Esther–leaving him and his daughter Mary to cope in the harsh world. Having already lost his son Tom at a young age, Barton now falls into depression and begins to involve himself in the Chartist, trade-union movement.

Having taken up work at a dress-maker’s (her father having objected to her working in a factory), Mary becomes subject to the affections of hard-working Jem Wilson and Harry Carson, son of a wealthy mill owner. She fondly hopes, by marrying Carson, to secure a comfortable life for herself and her father, but immediately after refusing Jem’s offer of marriage she realizes that she truly loves him. She therefore decides to evade Carson, planning to show her feelings to Jem in the course of time. Jem believes her decision to be final, though this does not change his feelings for her.

Meanwhile, Esther, a “street-walker,” returns to warn John Barton that he must save Mary from becoming like her. He simply pushes her away, however, and she’s sent to jail for a month on the charge of vagrancy. Upon her release she talks to Jem with the same purpose. He promises that he will protect Mary and confronts Carson, eventually entering into a fight with him, which is witnessed by a policeman passing by.

Not long afterwards, Carson is shot dead, and Jem is arrested on suspicion, his gun having been found at the scene of the crime. Esther decides to investigate the matter further and discovers that the wadding for the gun was a piece of paper on which is written Mary’s name.

She visits her niece to warn her to save the one she loves, and after she leaves Mary realises that the murderer is not Jem but her father. She’s now is faced with having to save her lover without giving away her father. With the help of Job Legh (the intelligent grandfather of her blind friend Margaret), Mary travels to Liverpool to find the only person who could provide an alibi for Jem–Will Wilson, Jem’s cousin and a sailor, who was with him on the night of the murder. Unfortunately, Will’s ship is already departing, so that, after Mary chases after the ship in a small boat, the only thing Will can do is promise to return in the pilot ship and testify the next day.

During the trial, Jem learns of Mary’s great love for him. In the nick of time Will arrives in court to testify, and Jem is found not guilty. Mary has fallen ill during the trial and is nursed by Mr Sturgis, an old sailor, and his wife. When she finally returns to Manchester she has to face her father, who is crushed by his remorse. He summons John Carson, Harry’s father, to tell him that he is the murderer and to explain that the act was carried out in vengeance against the rich. Carson is still set on justice, but after turning to the Bible he forgives Barton, who dies soon afterwards in Carson’s arms. Not long after this Esther comes back to Mary’s home, where she, too, dies soon.

Jem decides to leave England, where, his reputation damaged, it would be difficult for him to find a new job. The novel ends with the wedded Mary and Jem, their little child, and Mrs Wilson living happily in Canada. News comes that Margaret has regained her sight and that she and Will, soon to be married, will be coming for a visit.

This novel is full of interesting historical detail (some of it quite horrifying – the conditions of the poor!), the characters and the dialogue are superb. From this far away in time it is difficult to say how realistic it all is, but it was very convincing.  Why do I think it won’t appeal to a modern audience? Too much religion – it was definitely an open-hearted loving version of Christianity (not brimstone and hell fire),  but I think modern audiences aren’t use to such overt religious over tones in their reading. I’m glad that I’ve read it, but I won’t be re-reading it.


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The Book Shop – Penelope Fitzgerald


This is just a quick post (more of a reminder to myself) to say I read this book, I enjoyed it, the ending was unexpected, but realistic and I shall be looking for more of her work.

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Reading Madame Bovary – Amanda Lohrey

A friend recommended this one. It is a book of (longish) short stories. Nine all together. I preferred the ones that had a female point of view Lohrey does a great job of getting inside her character’s heads and writing their innermost thoughts – like the sexual fantasy in ‘Primates’. The stories felt very real (I wonder if some are her own experiences or maybe her friends?)

One thing I’ve been noticing lately is dialogue. If it seems wooden and unrealistic, then I’m jolted out of the story. Like the Mills&Boon elements to The Discovery of Witches. That didn’t happen with this book, so I must conclude that the dialogue was good.

I seem to be far more articulate about what I don’t like then what I do like – the things that put me off reading seem to stand out whereas it is hard to catch the good things in the act – definitely something to work on. I’m looking forward to reading more of Lohrey’s work.

You can listen to an Interview with Amanda Lohrey.

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Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

I selected this novel because one of the members of my Victorian Book club recommended it (we read Victorian novels). I really enjoyed it. It was like a series of short stories, but a few of the characters (like Olive) appeared in all of the stories. The novel had sad undertones and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it if I was in a dark patch in my life.

Olive Kitteridge: indomitable, compassionate and often unpredictable. A retired school teacher in a small coastal town in Maine, struggling to make sense of the changes in her life a’s she grows older. She is a woman who sees into the hearts of others, discerning their triumphs and tragedies.
We meet her stoic husband, bound to her in a marriage both broken and strong, and a young man who acts for the mother he lost – and whom Olive comforts by her mere presence, while her own son feels tyrannized by her overbearing sensitivities.
A penetrating, vibrant exploration of the human soul in need, Olive Kitteridge will make you laugh, nod in recognition, wince in pain and shed a tear or two.

The writing was excellent and the characters lived off the page. I will definitely be looking for other Strout novels.

Here is the review from the New York Times Olive Kitteridge

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Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey

My book club has had this novel in our sights for a while. We read Rhubarb and all enjoyed it. Craig Silvey not only tells a good story, but he puts words together in an interesting manner.

Here’s the blurb …

Late on a hot summer night in the tail end of 1965, Charlie Bucktin, a precocious and bookish boy of thirteen, is startled by an urgent knock on the window of his sleep-out. His visitor is Jasper Jones, an outcast in the regional mining town of Corrigan. Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is a distant figure of danger and intrigue for Charlie. So when Jasper begs for his help, Charlie eagerly steals into the night by his side, terribly afraid but desperate to impress.
Jasper takes him through town and to his secret glade in the bush, and it’s here that Charlie bears witness to Jasper’s horrible discovery. With his secret like a brick in his belly, Charlie is pushed and pulled by a town closing in on itself in fear and suspicion as he locks horns with his tempestuous mother; falls nervously in love and battles to keep a lid on his zealous best friend, Jeffrey Lu.
And in vainly attempting to restore the parts that have been shaken loose, Charlie learns to discern the truth from the myth, and why white lies creep like a curse. In the simmering summer where everything changes, Charlie learns why the truth of things is so hard to know, and even harder to hold in his heart.

This novel has a real sense of place. A small Western Australian town in the 1960s – with all that that implies;  racism, sexism, etc. You can almost feel the heat coming off the page.

The characters are beautifully written; Charlie trying to do the right thing, but hopelessly out of his depth; Jasper Jones, self-reliant he has dealt with the town’s racism for ever, if anything ever goes wrong he is suspected; Jeffery witty and resilient; and Eliza who seems so knowing and self-possessed.

There is an undercurrent of menace throughout this novel with occasional outbursts of violence. Corrigan is a town seething in it’s own juices.

This is a fabulous novel and I look forward to the next Craig Silvey novel.

Some more reviews …

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The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I was intrigued by the title of this novel and simply had to read it. I’m not religious but I am fascinated by religion. This was simply written and a very quick read.

Here’s the blurb …

In this genius spellbinding retelling of the life of Jesus, Philip Pullman revisits the most influential story ever told.

Charged with mystery, compassion and enormous power, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ throws a fresh light on who Jesus was and asks the reader questions that will continue to resonate long after the final page is turned. Above all, this book is about how stories become stories.

Pullman retells the story of Jesus. However, Jesus had a twin brother Christ. In this story many of the miracles are explained; for example the water into wine at the wedding of Cana miracle was simply Jesus telling the stewards to bring out the wine they had hidden away. Here is the passage describing the conception of Jesus:

One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.

‘Mary do you know how beautiful you are? You are the the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips …’

She was confused, and said ‘Who are you?’

‘I am an angel’, said the voice. ‘Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.’

She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.

When Jesus is baptised Christ sees a dove fly above them and settle in a tree. Christ decides it’s an omen. It is Christ who tempts Jesus in the wilderness. He wants him to perform miracles to convince the simple minded plus he has visions of a ‘kingdom of the faithful’

[…]Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise else in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a king of regent on earth!

Jesus is horrified.

About this time Christ meets an enigmatic stranger (is he an Angel?).He tells Christ that he is the ‘word of god’, that he and Jesus’s names will both be remembered, and that sometimes truth is outside of history (i.e you might need to manipulate history to make it true). He encourages Christ to make a record of Jesus’s ministry.

I don’t want to reveal too much more or I’ll spoil the story.

This novel is about the making of myths, about how the telling of a story can change it from something ordinary to something magical. The prose is simple almost spare, but it is very thought provoking. I think if you are religious, then you might find this story offensive. I, however, thought it was clever and interesting and might even lead me to read the relevant sections of the bible.

Here are some other reviews …

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Bleak House – Charles Dickens

This was a marathon reading task, but I’m quite pleased that I finished it. I liked it. A lot. Unlike Little Dorrit, which I thought needed editing, I enjoyed all aspects of this novel.

Here is a synopsis from Wikipedia

Sir Leicester Dedlock and Honoria, Lady Dedlock (his junior by more than twenty years) live at his estate of Chesney Wold. Unbeknownst to Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock had a lover, Captain Hawdon, before her marriage to Sir Leicester — and had a child by him, Esther Summerson. Lady Dedlock, believing her daughter to be dead, has chosen to live out her days ‘bored to death’ as a fashionable lady of the world.

Esther is raised by Miss Barbary, Lady Dedlock’s spartan sister, who instills a sense of worthlessness in her that Esther will battle throughout the novel. Esther does not realize that Miss Barbary is her aunt, thinking of her only as her godmother. When Miss Barbary dies, the Chancery lawyer “Conversation” Kenge takes charge of Esther’s future on the instruction of his client, John Jarndyce. Jarndyce becomes Esther’s guardian, and after attending school in Reading for six years, she goes to live with him at Bleak House, along with his wards, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Esther is to be Ada’s companion.

Esther soon befriends both Ada and Richard, who are cousins. They are named beneficiaries in one of the wills at issue in Jarndyce and Jarndyce; their guardian is a beneficiary under another will, and in some undefined way the two wills conflict. Richard and Ada soon fall in love, but though Mr. Jarndyce does not oppose the match, he does stipulate that Richard (who suffers from inconstancy of character) must first choose a profession. When Richard mentions the prospect of benefiting from the resolution of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, John Jarndyce beseeches him never to put faith in what he calls “the family curse”.

Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock is also a beneficiary under one of the wills in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Early in the book, while listening to her solicitor, the close-mouthed but shrewd Mr. Tulkinghorn, read an affidavit aloud, she recognizes the handwriting on the copy. The sight affects her so much that she almost faints, which Tulkinghorn notes and thinks important enough to investigate. He recognizes that Lady Dedlock has focused on the affidavit’s handwriting, and seeks to trace the copyist. He discovers that the copyist was a pauper known only as “Nemo” and that he has recently died. The only person to identify him is a street-sweeper, a poor homeless boy named Jo.

Lady Dedlock also investigates the matter, disguising herself as her French maid, Mademoiselle Hortense. In disguise, she pays Jo to take her to Nemo’s grave. Meanwhile, convinced that Lady Dedlock’s secret might be a threat to the interests of his client, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Tulkinghorn begins to watch her every move, even enlisting the aid of the maid, who detests her.

Esther happens to meet her mother unwittingly at a church service and has a conversation with her afterwards at Chesney Wold – though, at first, neither woman recognizes the tie that binds them. Later, Lady Dedlock realises that her abandoned child is not dead, but is, in fact, Esther. She waits to confront Esther with this knowledge until Esther has survived a bout with an unidentified disease (possibly smallpox, as it permanently disfigures her), which she contracted from her maid Charley (whom she devotedly nursed back to health). Though they are happy at being reunited, Lady Dedlock tells Esther that they must never recognize their connection again.

Meanwhile, Esther has recovered her health, but her beauty is supposedly ruined. She finds that Richard, having tried and failed at several professions, has ignored his guardian’s advice and is wasting all his resources in trying to push Jarndyce and Jarndyce to a conclusion (in his and Ada’s favour). Further, he has broken with his guardian, under the influence of his lawyer, the odious and crafty Mr. Vholes. In the process of becoming an active litigant, Richard has lost all his money and is breaking his health. In further defiance of John Jarndyce, he and Ada have secretly married, and Ada is carrying Richard’s child. Esther experiences her own romance when Dr. Woodcourt, who knew her before her illness, returns from his mission and continues to seek her company despite her disfigurement. Unfortunately, Esther has already agreed to marry her guardian, John Jarndyce.

Hortense and Tulkinghorn discover the truth about Lady Dedlock’s past. After a quiet but desperate confrontation with the lawyer, Lady Dedlock flees her home, leaving a note apologizing for her conduct. Tulkinghorn dismisses Hortense, no longer any use to him. Feeling abandoned and betrayed by Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn, Hortense kills Tulkinghorn and seeks to frame Lady Dedlock for his murder. On discovering his lawyer’s death and his wife’s flight, Sir Leicester suffers a catastrophic stroke but manages to communicate that he forgives his wife and wants her to return to him.

Inspector Bucket, who up to now has investigated several matters on the periphery of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, accepts the commission of the stricken Sir Leicester to find Lady Dedlock. He suspects Lady Dedlock, even after he arrests George Rouncewell (the only other person known to be with Tulkinghorn on the night of the murder, and known to have quarrelled with the lawyer repeatedly). Nonetheless, Bucket pursues the charge given to him by Sir Leicester and ultimately calls on Esther to assist in the search for Lady Dedlock. By this point, Bucket has cleared Lady Dedlock’s name by discovering Hortense’s guilt, but she has no way to know this, and, wandering London in cold and bitter weather, she ultimately dies at the cemetery where her former lover Captain Hawdon (Nemo) is buried. Esther and Bucket find her there.

Developments in Jarndyce and Jarndyce seem to take a turn for the better when a later will is discovered which revokes all previous wills and leaves the bulk of the estate to Richard and Ada. At the same time, John Jarndyce releases Esther from their engagement and she and Dr. Woodcourt become engaged. They go to Chancery to find Richard and to discover what news there might be of the lawsuit’s resolution. To their horror, they discover that the new will is given no chance to resolve Jarndyce and Jarndyce, for the costs of litigation have consumed the estate, and as there is nothing left to litigate, the case melts away. After hearing this, Richard collapses, and Dr Woodcourt determines that he is in the last stages of consumption. Richard apologizes to John Jarndyce and succumbs, leaving Ada alone with their child, a boy whom she names Richard. Jarndyce takes in Ada and the child. Esther and Woodcourt marry and live in Yorkshire, in a house which Jarndyce gives to them. In time, they have two daughters.

Many of this intricate novel’s subplots deal with the minor characters and their diverse ties to the main plot. One of these subplots is the hard life and happy though difficult marriage of Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop. Another focuses on George Rouncewell’s rediscovery of his family at Chesney Wold and his reunion with his mother and brother.

There is so much going on in this novel – mystery, romance, court drama. Esther Summerson is another unbelievably good heroine ( a bit like Amy Dorrit). The characters are brilliant – Mr Bucket, Mrs Jellyby  and her African causes, the child-like Mr Skimpole, the lovely Allan Woodcourt and the lost Richard Carstone.

This is my favourite Dickens so far…

Here are some other reviews …


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