Book reviews

The Victim by Saul Bellow

The Victim by Saul Bellow reminded me a little of the sadness, drabness and dinginess of other stories set in the 1940s, namely The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, The Pearl by John Steinbeck and a set of four crime novels by female writers, which included Laura by Vera Caspary, The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis, In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes and The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay. These are all good books which to some extent also reflect the difficulties of that era.

I haven’t read or heard of Saul Bellows prior to reading The Victim and chose to read this because it was a Penguin book. My theory is that I don’t usually go wrong with Penguin books!

The story follows Asa Leventhal, who was batching in New York City for the summer while his wife was visiting her mother in the south. It began with him being interrupted at his work as an editor at a trade magazine by an unexpected phone call from his sister-in-law to ask for assistance in a family emergency. Her young son was sick, and her husband, Asa’s brother Max, was away working in Texas. When Leventhal left work in the middle of the day, he felt judged by his boss for putting his personal concerns before his work. As Leventhal walked out of the office, he overheard his boss complaining that he was taking unfair advantage, “Like the rest of his brethren,” a slur on Jewish people which Leventhal resented but felt he couldn’t address.

Leventhal was judgemental of his brother’s situation when he arrived at his home. In Leventhal’s opinion the child should have been in hospital, the mother, who was Italian, was too emotional and superstitious (like the rest of her people), she didn’t look after her children properly, their home was a pigsty, and his brother, Max, should be at home where he was needed, instead of sending money home from Texas.

One hot evening soon after, Leventhal took a walk in a park and was accosted by a drunken man whom he knew slightly as a friend of a friend some time ago. Leventhal was horrified when the drunk, Kirby Allbee, accused him of ruining his life several years ago. As it happened, Allbee provided Leventhal with an introduction at his own workplace where Leventhal was offended during his job interview by anti-Semetic comments made by Allbee’s boss and he lashed out. Allbee claims that Leventhal’s behaviour cost Allbee his job which had a flow on effect to his entire life and cost him his marriage. Leventhal outwardly refused to take any responsibility and instead blamed Allbee’s drinking problem and unpleasant personality of being the cause of his own ruin, but privately, he wondered if he was guilty of Allbee’s charge.

Over the next few weeks Allbee continued to harass Leventhal, as Leventhal tried to cope with the worsening health of his young nephew, missing his wife and his own lack of confidence and propensity for making the wrong decisions in general.

Allbee claimed to be Leventhal’s victim, but Leventhal was as much and more of a victim than Allbee was. His Jewishness attracted bullies, as did his anxious, sensitive personality (which one came first, or if the two can even be separated, is impossible to know). I found it difficult to understand why Leventhal entertained Allbee and his bullying, aggressive, anti-Semitic nastiness at all, but I’m a privileged Australian woman from a different time and place who enjoys opportunities which would be equally as difficult for Leventhal to believe. The idea also struck me that victims and bullies are co-dependent, in that they need each other in order to exist.

The story is very well-written, but Leventhal’s lonely, guilt-ridden and angry personality and the austere setting left me planning to avoid novels written in the 1940s until I start feeling more hopeful again.

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I have been busting to read Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood ever since reading Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields, where I learned that Harper Lee travelled with her childhood friend, Truman Capote, to Kansas to assist him to research the book that became In Cold Blood.

It wasn’t until I read Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee that I realised In Cold Blood was based on a true story. The definition of a non-fiction novel (something else I’d never heard of) is a true story written in a fiction style, with the inclusion of fictitious conversations or other inventions that help to tell the story. In Cold Blood was the book which formally established this genre.

For those who are unaware of the basic events of In Cold Blood, in 1959 in a small town in Kansas, a family of four were robbed and murdered in the middle of the night by two recently-paroled prisoners who had met in jail. The murderers left very few clues, but a tip-off from another prisoner led the crime investigators to the suspects, who confessed to the crimes during interrogations. Both men were eventually hung for murder.

The book itself broadly follows three main points of view, that of the murdered Clutter family, the two murderers, and the townspeople and investigative team. Other members of each of these group’s communities also have input.

The Clutter family included Herb Clutter, a successful farmer who was admired and respected in the Holcomb community, his wife Bonnie, their sixteen-year old daughter Nancy and fifteen-year old son Kenyon. Truman Capote’s story successfully established the family as real people with real lives, feelings, friends, employees, duties and a close community.

In Cold Blood isn’t really about the Clutter family through. They were the victims of the crime, but without their murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, there isn’t a story.

Dick and Perry were a pair of petty criminals who brought out the worst in each other. Dick came from a loving family but was no good. He heard of the Clutter farm from another cellmate and believing that Herb Clutter kept a safe filled with cash, made the plan to rob him. When Dick was paroled, he contacted Perry and told him of his plan. Perry happily went along.

Dick and Perry drove 800 miles to rob and murder the Clutters, but instead of the $10,000 they expected, they left the farm with less than $50, a pair of binoculars and a radio. A week later, the pair left Dick’s hometown to go to Mexico where they thought they would live their life in the lap of luxury, but when that didn’t work out, they returned to the USA, carrying out robberies and bouncing cheques until they were eventually arrested in Las Vegas six weeks after the murders.

The book then follows Dick and Perry through their trial, and their time in jail as they waited to be hung, with the story eventually circling back to the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey and a chance meeting with Nancy Clutter’s best friend.

I surprised myself by feeling sorry for nearly everyone involved in this story. The Clutter family, of course. The murderers, both of whom were losers in every sense of the word, but in Perry Smith’s case particularly, as his family background and upbringing were so tragic I believe it would have taken a better man than he was to have made something of himself after coming from that. I felt sorry for the Holcomb community, the Clutter’s friends and family who not only lost the Clutters but also their sense of security, and the investigative team, who do a job that most other people have no stomach for. I even felt sorry for the other prisoner who provided the tip-off as he too came to a bad end.

When I finished reading In Cold Blood, I looked up the crime online. I wanted to see the faces of the Clutter family, their farmhouse and the faces of the murderers, but was immediately directed to photos of the crime scene. Of course I looked, but have been wishing ever since that I hadn’t. It seems to me to be an enormous invasion of anyone’s privacy for these photos to be in the public domain.

The story and probably the photos also played on my mind to the extent that I had nightmares. Clearly I’m not cut out for true crime, however I’ve also learned there is another book about the crime called And Every Word is True by Gary McAvoy, who wrote his book in collaboration with the son of another of the crime’s investigators. The McAvoy book supports a different motive for the Clutter murders, and despite feeling unsettled for some time after reading In Cold Blood, I intend to read this book too.

In Cold Blood is one of the best written stories I’ve read. It reads as if the author was telling it directly to me, and Truman Capote is a good storyteller. I never once had to interrupt to ask a question, because the story is told in exactly the right way, there were no loose ends and the story completely caught my attention and imagination. Since reading In Cold Blood I’ve learned that others object to parts they say were fictionalised, but as a reader, I don’t have a problem with that.

I added The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan to my list of books to watch out for after reading a review by Ami from Luv To Read. Ami loved the book and in her review praised the story for focussing on the people who carried on at home during World War Two as best they could, which is a different point of view than many other stories set during this time.

The story is told using the letters and journals of the various female characters who live in Chilbury, in Kent in 1940. Many of them are members of the Chilbury Ladies Choir, which was formed after the Vicar announced the closure of the regular choir since so many of the men had left to go to war.

There are a number of stories going on at the same time, including a scheme between the enormously unpleasant Brigadier Winthrop and an unscrupulous midwife to swap new-born babies in order to keep the Chilbury Manor estate in his family. Another story-line follows the Brigadier’s beautiful young daughter as she falls in love with an artist who may or not be a spy or a black-marketeer, while another plot-line follows his younger daughter, who desperately wants to be grown up and important.

Other characters and storylines follow a lovely widow whose only son has gone off to war and a stand-offish Colonel billeted with her, a young Jewish evacuee from Czechoslovakia, a bossy older woman who was opposed to the choir, a young mother and the music teacher who brought the choir together.

As the story takes place, the characters endure the bombs that drop on them and witness frightening dogfights between their own RAF planes and German planes, all the while trying to do the best they can for themselves and (in most cases), for each other.

Some of the letters seemed too contrived and read as if their only reason for inclusion was to advance particular story lines. I also found that some of the descriptions went on for far too long, but the story itself was heartwarming.

The Chilbury Ladies Choir seemed to me to have been written on purpose to be a movie or even better, a musical, particularly the scenes with the choir. I think I’ll like this better as a film than as a book.

I read My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises by Fredrik Backman last year and loved it, so was delighted when I came across Britt-Marie Was Here.

The author takes a minor character from My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises and makes this story Britt-Marie’s own, to the point where I think this book could stand alone.

The story started with 63-year old Britt-Marie at an employment office, driving the poor girl behind the counter crazy as she tried to register for a job. It soon became clear that Britt-Marie and her philandering husband Kent had separated, and sadly, the reason why Britt-Marie wanted the job was so that if she died, someone would notice. In desperation, the girl found Brit-Marie a job as the caretaker of the Borg Community Centre, a dying town in a regional area.

Britt-Marie is socially inept and awkward. She is precise, demanding and enormously difficult for other people to deal with, but she has a good heart and wants to do the right thing by others.

Britt-Marie soon found herself coaching the Borg children’s football team, even though she had no understanding of football or why the game was so important to everyone else in town. She became friends with some of the children at a time when she needed them and they needed her, and even attracted the romantic attention of the local police officer.

I loved Britt Marie asking various characters which team they supported and why because their answers were delightful. For example, Liverpool supporters never give up because they believe they can turn anything around, no matter how bad. Aston Villa supporters chose their team because no one else has and because they have nice jerseys. It seems other teams supporters can recognise Manchester United supporters in social situations for reasons that are too unflattering to describe here.

Anyway, I loved that Britt-Marie was able to touch other people’s lives and as a result of her courage found that she had choices in her own life. My plan now is to go back to the beginning of this series and read A Man Called Ove.

Aunty G recommended All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr to me a cat’s age ago. I dutifully went off to the library to find the book at the time but took home About Grace instead, which I read and enjoyed. I’ve been looking forward to reading All the Light We Cannot See since then.

All the Light We Cannot See has been in the most popular book lists for several years and also won the Pulitzer Prize, so is probably already known to most readers. I’m not sure how I missed all of the hype, but I began reading without knowing anything about the plot.

The chapters rotate between two main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, whose lives don’t intersect until the end of the book. The story began in the mid 1930s, when Marie-Laure was a little girl living in Paris with her father and Werner just a few years older, an orphan being brought up in a children’s home in Germany along with his much-loved younger sister.

Marie-Laure’s father, a locksmith at a prestigious museum, brought Marie-Laure up to be free, courageous and to know her physical world, despite her having gone blind as a small child. When France was invaded by Germany, Marie-Laure’s father was entrusted with the ‘Sea of Flames’, a priceless diamond owned by the museum. Together, they fled Paris to take refuge with the locksmith’s brother in Saint-Malo, in a tall house next to the sea. Soon after arriving in Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure’s father was arrested and after a few smuggled letters to his beloved daughter, disappeared.

Meanwhile, Werner’s talent for repairing radios was developing and he and his sister used it to listen to educational radio programs being transmitted across Europe. Soon after, Werner gained a place at a frighteningly vicious school for Nazi boys where his skill, bravery and obedience allowed him to advance, despite his misgivings about the inhumane treatment of his fellow students and more particularly, the prisoners whom the students ‘trained’ on. When Werner found himself on the wrong side of one of his instructors, he was shipped off to the war to track illegal radio transmissions, even though Werner was underage.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel where one of the main characters was a German soldier in World War Two. I felt enormous sympathy for Werner and his fellow students.

Marie-Laure’s character provided an ideal, someone to protect who was also brave and resilient, but most of all, she was someone who represented the best of humankind, leaving us with hope.

The writing is beautiful, but for me the story lacked emotional depth. I think this was because the chapters switched between the two characters so often and so quickly. Longer chapters may have allowed Werner and Marie-Laure to become more real and less of an ideal.

Despite this complaint I don’t regret reading All the Light We Cannot See, which is a surprisingly fast read due to the short, alternating point-of-view chapters.

I’ve been slow to jump onto the Sally Rooney bandwagon, but after sitting up far too late on a weeknight reading Conversations with Friends, I can now consider myself to be a fan of this author’s writing.

Conversations with Friends is told in the first-person by 21 year-old Frances, a frighteningly clever university student, who I hope never meets and takes a liking to my husband.

Frances and her best friend Bobbi, who were previously lovers, were performing spoken-word poetry together when Melissa, a journalist, saw their performance and asked if she could write an article about them. She invited them home with her (that was her first mistake) which was when Frances met Nick, Melissa’s handsome husband.

They moved in the same social circles and Bobbi and Melissa became friends, as Frances and Nick started an affair. Frances fell in love with Nick, despite thinking herself to be too unemotional and indifferent to do so (not realising that not only was this untrue, but she was also self-absorbed, domineering and cruel).

As the title suggests, the story is told as if Frances is relaying it directly into the ear of the reader, including retelling the listener the details of the phone, email and face-to-face conversations she had with other characters.

Frances is enormously unlikeable and most of the other characters, except for Nick, have very little charm either. Frances and Nick’s affair is messy and so is Frances’ relationship with Bobbi, her parents and her other friends. All of the characters were very real.

I feel as if I should have been annoyed by the lack of quotation marks used but the story flowed without them. The writing is very good and the story is too.

Normal People is next on my list.

The Man Who Didn’t Call, published as Ghosted in the United States is by Rosie Walsh, an English author who previously wrote four novels as Lucy Robinson.

In this story, Sarah and Eddie met, fell in love and spent a wonderful week together. At the end of the week Eddie left for the airport to go on holiday in Spain, telling Sarah that he’d ring her but he didn’t. Instead, he disappeared.

When the story began, Sarah was convinced that Eddie was the love of her life and that something must have happened to him while he was on holiday, but her friends thought it more likely that he had had second thoughts about their relationship and had ghosted her (for anyone else who didn’t know what this means, ‘ghosting’ is breaking up with someone by stopping all communications with them without telling them why). In Sarah’s case, Eddie did not respond to her phone calls, texts or Facebook messages. At first, Sarah thought he was dead but eventually she realised that her friends were right about Eddie, he was alive but was not responding to her attempts to contact him.

Sarah wasn’t prepared to give up on Eddie so easily so she continued to try to track him down, only to find that his reasons for not wanting to continue their relationship were more terrible and insurmountable than she could have guessed.

For the first half of the book, I smugly thought I knew why Eddie had disappeared, but it turned out that I was entirely wrong, which I quite liked. However, the book had several plot faults which annoyed me enormously, but I can’t think of how to discuss them in my review without them being spoilers for anyone who intends to read this.

The plot twists in The Man Who Didn’t Call weren’t enough to keep me interested in the story, but I imagine that die-hard romance readers will enjoy this book far more than I did.

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