Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

There is such breath and humanity to any of Safran Foer’s works. 

There’s a deep sorrow that lingers throughout Here I Am.

There’s deep hope that never faulted throughhout Here I Am.

The Jewish American family slowing falling apart. Sam’s hand injury haunts them. An ageing patriarch, an ever loyal and loved dog dying and the land of the Jews under attack- by nature and by its neighbours. 

There’s so much going on in this novel. The relationship between Julia and Jacob, 16 years of marriage, is seemingly coming to an end. There’s such warmth and authenticity to the dialogue. The discovery of a second phone and explict text messages, Julia’s frank assessment: it would be easier if Jacob actually acted upon his words. She knows he can’t, that he doesn’t, and hasn’t. 

Jacob is a writer. Words mean everything to him. His TV show is watched by millions, but he is pouring his heart into a show about his family. The set pieces of dialogue around the kitchen table, in the car, visiting his grandfather are tight, funny, heartbreaking and endlessly compelling. There’s no one who can write like this. 

The intricatities of being Jewish is something I found to be so important to the novel. How a people after 5000 years of persecution remain so resolutely loyal and spiritually connected to their faith is something I will never fully understand. With each character this history lives. With each intersection in the novel, this past and the potential for the future to be different lives. There is such burden and such hope. 

The novel is a sprawling family saga. The divorce is just one part of the experience. The natural disaster that strikes Israel and the consequent war against the Jews could be straight from next week’s news. There’s no grandstanding. The withholding of medical supplies and food from the West Bank raises the moral dilemmas of the two state solution. But it’s Jacob’s answering of the call to return to Israel and to fight, and his subsequent choice to instead return home to his soon to be ex-wife and his children that is most profound. We do have choices, sometimes not making a choice is harder than making the right choice. 

This is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It will be in my top ten favourite novels. 


The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes (2016)

Julian Barnes is one of those story tellers who is able to say so little, yet so much. There are traits of his non-fiction in his latest offering, The Noise of Time,  Barnes captures the life of Russian composer Shostakovich in a slender, tender and vivid novel. The effect of time- on memory, Power and freedom plays out as Russia transcends the Soviet ideals and the contemporary realities. 

This fictional biography – not quite Carey’s True History- seems to be more concerned with what is not immediately present. The ever evolving Power is constantly shadowing Shostakovich. The poignant establishing scenes, with the ‘character’ packing his suit case, standing next to his building, waiting to be arrested is one of the most darkly comical pieces of literature from Barnes.

The internal debates that ravage the composer as he awaits his fate are more than comments on Soviet Russia. They raise questions that the arts face in every society, particularly more so in as extreme capitalism wants to define the economic value of every facet. As Shostakovich faces censorship as Stalin didn’t enjoy his opera of Lady MacBeth, the reality of being a pawn for the regime temps Shostakovich to flee. On the visit to America the darkly comical draws him back to Russia. All through this, he continues to compose, not producing art, but simply being.

The travel through time- every leap year bringing something evil upon our man (as he comes to feel to embody anyone) works brilliantly in the paranoid mind of the brilliant composer. It is those missing pieces, the figures of history, without a voice, marginalised, that makes the novel a special exploration of time and space and the human mind. 

As the novel draws together the events of the past and sweeps into Shostakovich’s mind, the reading does become weighted down with convetion and the scarcity of interaction with over characters. 

It is a stunning novel, one not stagnant or consumed by the contraits of the genre, instead it rejoices in the importance of art, so important that those in Power do their all to wield influence.

The Eye of the Sheep, Sofie Laguna

Sometimes award winning novels are bold, vivid creations. Sometimes award winning literature compel and transform. Sofie Laguna, a respected young adult fiction writer, is the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award winner. A beautiful, but harrowing novel of multiple layers of splendid character and plot development, The Eye of the Sheep is a brilliant novel.

The warm feel from the novel comes from Laguna’s ability to transcend age and gender to provide the reader with one of the most profound characters in any novel I’ve read. Jimmy, a boy, somewhere on the Aspeger’s Spectrum, is a character of pain and hope. As the youngest in his family, he is a constant worry for his brother and mother. 

The relationship between Jimmy and his mother is beautifully crafted. The vivid recreation of the family and home from the 1980’s is provocative. The domestic violence and alcoholism tears the family a part. To see these events from the eyes of Jimmy is a great choice by Laguna. There’s a raw, honesty to Jimmy’s vision of these tragic but realistic events. With so much discussion around alcohol fuelled violence and family violence we must remember that for generations no one cared about the mother and child being abused simply for being who they are.

If the relationship between Jimmy and Paula is beautiful, but harrowing, his relationship with his father is disjointed. As much as his father can’t comprehend his son, so too his son him. Both suffer. But the adult is immature and emotive, the child controlled and restricted in emotional display. 

As much as the novel explores Autism and violence, so too it is a novel of redemption. For Jimmy the sense of comfort and the way his father changes, rises to fulfil his role, is a warm and heartfelt conclusion. A novel to be remembered and loved. 


Paris by Edward Rutherfund.

What preconceptions might a reader bring to a novel entitled simply, Paris?

This is a soulless, egocentric novel that relies on recount and cliché. It is the heart burn of a McDonald’s meal when surrounded by elegant restaurants. I came to Rutherfund having never read his previous ‘historical’ novels. I won’t be reading his other novels. He can write. But not very well.

A series of family’s, from the different classes and distinct parts of the city of Paris, converge through time. Through war, revolution and more war, the characters are drawn with self indulgence and little heart. There is no moment of substance. The characters could be from any place, any time.

What doesn’t this novel have? A poetic core, a romantic edge, an immediate response of jealously on the part of the reader. Any one could have written this and it would not have been published. Is it unfair to come to a novel titled Paris with desire and hope for beauty?

It isn’t so much the content, many will enjoy the saga like intersecting of the individuals across time, but it is the soulless, heartless monotone writing. Paris has had many lovers, many romances with novelists, poets, artists and film makers, many come back. I hope Rutherfund leaves Paris alone. I hope the publishers make plenty from this novel, hopefully that will lead to some great writers being published.

The Silver Linings Play Book…

I have heard the hype around the film. I had seen a brief trailer. I promised, like all novel to film adaptations, to read the novel first.

The main surprise was the literary quality of the novel. Recently, many people, myself included, have lamented the fact so many novels read as if constructed for that lucrative film option. Matthew Quick doesn’t do that. For me, this was not a cinematic novel. This is not a simple novel made for a possible shot at Hollywood. Instead, this is a character driven novel. It is Pat’s world. It is middle America. It is hopeful. But before the hope, comes the pain.

There are things Pat tries to forget and there are things he tries to remember. He was once a teacher, a successful coach, a son with a sole connection with his father via their favourite football team. These parts are important. He clings to the love of American football and little things that relate to the ‘before time’.

He was a poor husband. He longs for his now ex-wife, Nikki. She is a shadow over the novel. Because of this broken relationship, this is one of those novels that is quirky and layered with pain. Pat’s therapist, the irresistible Cliff and Pat’s long suffering mother are compelling pieces in Pat’s attempt to complete the jigsaw puzzle of his life.

The catalyst for Pat’s ‘away time’- being institutionalised-is given to the reader in tiny snippets. Here the first person narrator ideally suits. We learn, as Pat re-learns. It is not as if Pat is a voice over, the prose is too authentic for that. The pain is clear, it becomes the readers. Quick allows Pat to share that this is his therapy. This writing is a part of Pat’s recovery, in turn it becomes the readers. I felt I owned the characters, that these characters could be a family I know.

There are two more elements that make this novel a special read. The first of these is how Quick deals with the human desire to please. This is Pat’s obsession. He wants to please Nikki, he reads her favourite novels, he works his body, building it into something strong and commanding. He wants to please his mother and father. It is only when he tries to be happy with himself that he sees Tiffany as an individual dealing with her own tragic situation.

That’s the other delight to Quick’s writing, how tragic events are used. It isn’t shock and awe. It is what isn’t shown that compels the reader. There is a polite understatement and illusion to how and why some incidents can turn the complex brain of humans to mush.

I read the novel in a day. I don’t think I need to see the film. The elegant and heartfelt words are enough.