book review: Country by Michael Hughes

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COUNTRY by Michael Hughes
★★★★☆
John Murray, 2018 (UK)

 

Country is the most literal Iliad retelling I’ve ever read, which came as a surprise given that its premise is worlds away from Ancient Greece. Michael Hughes’s interpretation is set in 1990s Northern Ireland, twenty-five years into the conflict known as the Troubles, and yet despite the wildly different setting it hits all the same beats as Homer’s tale, each scene and character a perfect mirror to the original story, and easy to identify with names like Achill (Achilles), Nellie (Helen), Henry (Hector), and Pat (Patroclus).

This level of faithfulness was a double-edged sword for me: it led to moments of brilliance and moments that were a little too on the nose. Mostly brilliance, so let’s start there: the decision to adapt the Iliad to the Troubles was an inspired one, a pairing linked by the tragedy of lives lost needlessly to a cause whose rhetoric is shrouded in talk of honor, but whose reality is starker and more senseless.

This passage in particular as the Hector figure, a war-weary SAS man, is on the verge of death called to mind a passage from the Iliad that hits home its driving thematic conceit:

“The fucking spooks, the fucking politicians. Moving the pieces on the board, doling out life or death with a flick of the wrist. Not one of them was in harm’s way. Not one of them could ever die this death. He was charged to defend their will, their country’s honour, but all he could ever defend was his own life. It wasn’t their blood on the road. It never would be. They didn’t understand.

No. They understood. They didn’t care.”

– Michael Hughes, Country

“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows.”

– Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles

Used as a pawn by gods in one case and government and/or paramilitary leaders in the other, the individual lives affected amidst the brutality are the focus of both texts, and Hughes capitalizes on the opportunity to tell this story with the abject tragedy it deserves.

And overarching themes aside, the level of detail here is just delightful for Homer fans: the SAS base is called Illiam because the W fell off the William Castle sign; the IRA pub is referred to as ‘The Ships’ in reference to the Greeks’ camp outside the walls of Troy.

However, there were some bits that didn’t translate perfectly: Achill’s widely accepted irreplaceability felt shoehorned in – the role of the individual in modern-day warfare just isn’t perfectly equitable with ancient battle. And a few scenes felt like they were only there in the name of keeping the structure as close to the Iliad as possible – I wouldn’t have minded, for example, the omission of a few scenes like the funeral games (which went into a level of detail that was admirably authentic but frankly excessive) in favor of adding a bit more heft to the weightier scenes like Achill’s confrontation with the Priam character.

I was very cognizant as I was reading that this wasn’t going to be an easy book to recommend; it’s not, so to speak, baby’s first Troubles book. You don’t exactly need a PhD in Irish History to be able to follow this, but I do want to be clear that almost none of the dialect (which Hughes renders beautifully) or cultural references are explained or contextualized (read Say Nothing first!). I’d actually stress that an interest in the Iliad is much less essential to get something out of this than knowing a bit about the Troubles. Still, for the right reader this is a sharp and cleverly written retelling whose literality is an asset more often than not. Though it did strike me that I may, ironically, be a bit too familiar with the Iliad to be this book’s ideal reader.


You can pick up a copy of Country here on Book Depository.  It will also be published in the US in the fall.

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book review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong | BookBrowse

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ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
★★★★★
Penguin Press, June 4, 2019

 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the bold and bracing debut novel by acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong, centers on Little Dog, the son of a Vietnamese immigrant mother and an absent father. Raised in present-day Hartford in a predominantly white community, Little Dog struggles from an early age to both assimilate with his peers and to honor his Vietnamese heritage, but here Vuong deviates from the standard immigration story blueprint in favor of something more darkly sensual and internal. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to understand that the novel is an elaborate letter written from Little Dog to his mother, though she will never read it, as she is illiterate: the story he tells her is consequently private and unsparing. “The impossibility of you reading this makes my telling it possible,” Little Dog confesses.

Read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and if you’d like a little more context on this book, you can read my piece on Vietnamese Amerasians HERE.


You can pick up a copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous here on Book Depository.

book review: Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

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HUMAN CHAIN by Seamus Heaney
★★★★★
FSG, 2010

 

A sparse, supple collection of poems that each capture something singular and striking about human connections. The standouts to me were Human Chain, Route 110, “Had I not been awake,” and “The door was open and the house was dark,” the latter of which I’ll copy here because I think it captures what’s so elegant and perceptive about Heaney’s style:

The door was open and the house was dark
in memory of David Hammond

The door was open and the house was dark
Wherefore I called his name, although I knew
The answer this time would be silence

That kept me standing listening while it grew
Backwards and down and out into the street
Where as I’d entered (I remember now)

The streetlamps too were out
I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger,
Intruder almost, wanting to take flight

Yet well aware that here there was no danger,
Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

Or an overgrown airfield in high summer.


You can pick up a copy of Human Chain here on Book Depository.

book review: We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

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WE WENT TO THE WOODS by Caite Dolan-Leach
★★★★☆
Random House, July 2, 2019

 

Like most books compared to The Secret HistoryWe Went to the Woods isn’t as good, so let’s just get that out of the way. Which I’m not saying to be spiteful, I just genuinely don’t want to see this book flop because of unrealistically high expectations. Yes, it follows a group of friends who isolate themselves and end up propelled inevitably into tragedy, and yes, it reads like a train wreck in the best kind of way, so it’s an understandable comparison. But it’s also a deeply aggravating book, and I say that as someone who thoroughly enjoyed it.

We Went to the Woods focuses on Mack, a grad school dropout who, fleeing some kind of messy event in her past (more on that in a second), joins a group of idealistic young people who essentially endeavor to live in a modern-day socialist commune. That’s basically the plot: many pages of gardening and rivalries and sexual tension and social activism ensue.

My biggest issue with this book was the way Mack’s backstory was handled: what should have been presented to the reader on page one was nonsensically withheld for a lame kind of ‘gotcha!’ moment halfway through the book that added nothing to the narrative or the suspense. When Mack finally tells her story, it feels like a stranger reciting it rather than the narrator whose head we’d been inhabiting for several hundred pages – so little does the event actually impact her thoughts or actions (other than providing the incentive she needed to abandon her life and join this project).

My other main issue is pace: though I found this compelling, mostly due to Caite Dolan-Leach’s elegant and clever writing, I imagine that for a lot of readers, it’s probably going to drag. With a cover and title like this it’s easy to imagine that you’re in for some kind of thriller, but like We Went to the Woods‘ predecessor, Dead Letters, I fear that this book is going to suffer from ‘marketed as a thriller, gets bad reviews because it’s actually literary fiction’ syndrome. However, where Dead Letters (an underrated gem, in my opinion) is the kind of book where a single word isn’t out of place, We Went to the Woods languishes, unnecessarily so. I can only hope a few hundred more redundant words are chopped before its publication date.

But to be honest, the only reason I’m dwelling so much on the negatives is because I did enjoy it so much – it’s the kind of book that fully earned my investment and therefore frustrated me all the more in the areas where it fell short. That said, there’s so much to recommend it. This book is a contemporary zeitgeist, taking a premise that seems to belong in the 60s and modernizing it with urgency. In a scene where the characters learn the results of the 2016 election, their reactions are almost painfully recognizable, and the book’s main themes and social commentary dovetail again and again, always asking the same question: how important is activism in late-stage capitalism; is it better to try something that turns out to be futile or not try anything at all? Though the characters do quite a bit of moralizing, Dolan-Leach doesn’t, as she recognizes the complexity of the book’s central conceit.

And on top of all that, I found it incredibly entertaining. Slow pace aside, I was so drawn into this story and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who needs their protagonists to be likable, but if you enjoy character studies about twisted, flawed individuals, this is a pretty good one.

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pre-order a copy of We Went to the Woods here on Book Depository.

mini reviews #6: nonfiction and theatre of the absurd

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

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BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou
★★★★☆
date read: February 26, 2019
Knopf, 2018

Wow. This was every bit as wild as everyone has been saying. Bad Blood is probably the best embodiment of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ that I have ever read. Trust me, you do not need to be interested in Silicon Valley or business or medicine in the slightest to be riveted by this incredible piece of investigative journalism.  You can pick up a copy of Bad Blood here on Book Depository.

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WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett
★★★★☆
date read: April 7, 2019
Faber & Faber, 2006
originally published 1952

This is famously ‘the play where nothing happens,’ so I certainly didn’t expect this to be the surreal, madcap romp that it is. I’m going to have to think about this one for a while.  You can pick up a copy of Waiting for Godot here on Book Depository.

 

1035312SPY PRINCESS by Shrabani Basu
★★★☆☆
date read: May 22, 2019
Sutton, 2006

This is a competent biography of a really remarkable woman. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Noor Khan, an SOE agent and the first woman to be sent into occupied France, who was executed at Dachau after being imprisoned for a year and not revealing anything under extensive interrogation. But while Spy Princess certainly has value in filling in the gaps left by other biographers, it does occasionally beatify Noor at the expense of other women (what does Shrabani Basu have against Mata Hari, my god) and fall victim to making very generic statements about Noor’s life when there isn’t documented information (i.e., a page-long description of the global advancement of WWII followed by a lazy statement like ‘Noor was worried about this’). Still, Basu does an impressive job at chronicling Noor’s life and contextualizing her legacy.  You can pick up a copy of Spy Princess here on Book Depository.

13944THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
★★★☆☆
date read: May 28, 2019
Atria Books, 2006

In this book’s introduction the authors state that although they did an extensive amount of research, they made a decision at times to spin fact into imagined dialogue. That should set your expectations for this biography: wildly entertaining, often sensationalized, but decently informative nonetheless.  You can pick up a copy of The Secret Life of Houdini here on Book Depository.


Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: Devotion by Madeline Stevens

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DEVOTION by Madeline Stevens
★★★★☆
Ecco, August 13, 2019

 

Devotion is this summer’s Social Creature, a propulsive ‘poor girl meets rich girl’ story set in Manhattan, chronicling the mutually destructive relationship between two young women, Elle and Lonnie. Elle is hired as a nanny for Lonnie’s infant son, and soon her resentment toward her employer turns into an unhealthy obsession.

Despite the inevitable Social Creature comparison, Devotion isn’t quite as suspenseful or climactic, and its protagonists left less of an impression on me. Even so, I had a hard time putting this down; for a slow-moving story it never really loses momentum, and it has that ‘need to know what happens next’ quality that mercifully doesn’t feel like a cop-out when nothing ever really happens.

Madeline Stevens achieves this with pitch-perfect characterization of the novel’s narrator, Elle, whose ‘do I want to be her or do I want to sleep with her’ dynamic with Lonnie is the morbidly compelling thread that holds this plotness novel together and keeps you turning pages. Ultimately: a quick, addictive read that doesn’t offer much in the way of thrills or chills, but still has an eerie and unsettling quality that makes it impossible to look away, and which offers a deceptively nuanced commentary on living on the periphery of extreme wealth.

Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pre-order a copy of Devotion here on Book Depository.

book review: The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

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THE FIRE STARTERS by Jan Carson
★★★★★
Doubleday, April 2019 (UK)

 

For whatever reason I never tire of reading about the Troubles, but The Fire Starters is not your average ‘Troubles book.’ Set in modern-day East Belfast, Jan Carson imagines a series of fires that break out throughout the city, initiated by an enigmatic figure referred to as the Fire Starter, who revels in the blood lust that his havoc causes. Amidst this violence we have two fathers, Sammy Agnew, an old man and former paramilitary, and Jonathan Murray, a socially awkward new father, both of whom fear their own children, as Sammy begins to suspect that his son is the cause of the Tall Fires, and Jonathan begins to suspect that his newborn daughter is a Siren.

This is a singular, inventive, tragic, and wildly funny book about the legacy of violence and the lasting scars it leaves on a community. The novel’s central conceit is reminiscent of Milkman, and of other quintessential Northern Irish lit – that terror begins at home, that trust cannot automatically be extended to one’s own family – but Jan Carson’s interpretation of this theme is far more abstract than any I’ve seen before.

I’ll be honest, I’m so relieved that I didn’t know there was going to be a magical realism element to this book before picking it up, because as I’m sure you all know by now, magical realism almost never works for me – but fortunately, Carson shows us how it’s done. This book quite literally mythologizes the Troubles as the threat of Sophie the maybe-Siren looms large over Jonathan, but her narrative role is more ambiguous; is Jonathan merely appropriating the grandiosity of the cultural narrative he was raised into, or is Sophie actually a danger to society? As Jonathan fears for the future, Sammy reminisces on the past and the violent role he played in the conflict in the 1970s; he fears that he can never wash his hands clean, and that his actions have irrevocably damaged his son.

As I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Jan Carson’s writing is sharp and funny and piercing; the fusion of perspectives works magnificently; the examination of Belfast’s history of violence and the ever-present threat of its resurgence is timely and unapologetic. And this is, frankly, one of the most original things I’ve read in a very long time.


You can pick up a copy of The Fire Starters here on Book Depository.