Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

A Line Made By Walking, by Sara Baume***

I was gob-smacked by this author’s last book, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and when I saw she had another book out—one set in Ireland, one of my favorite settings—I immediately requested a DRC. Thank you to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for letting me read it free in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

ALineMadeByWalkingHad I no obligation to the publisher, I might be tempted to write a rare one-word review: bleak. Our protagonist is grieving the death of her beloved grandmother, and the dog died too. She’s stuck in a place she can’t get out of mentally, but since she is an artist, she takes her ennui and lets it guide her through art, and the narrative follows a pattern in which each grim thought leads her to a different art theme mentally. The story is told in the first person, and so we follow her miserable wandering thoughts from one grim topic to another, and then at some point each train of thought ends with “Works about [ fill in noun here: beds, rabbits…whatever].”

“The world is wrong, and I am too small to fix it, too self-absorbed.”

Yup.

I continued reading because it seemed to me that her earlier book started out depressing and it took some time to warm up, but then once it took off I was in love with it. I waited for this to happen here. And waited. At the 16% mark, she notes that getting drunk provides her with a “heightened sense of despair” the next day, and my notes my notes say “Fuck me.”

The protagonist tells us of an instance when she follows her very elderly landlady down a set of steps and pretends this is her usual pace also, and my notes say, “What the hell else you gonna do? Tell her to move her butt? Give her a shove to help her along?”

Each time I have one of these magic moments, I know it’s time to read something else for a while and come back to this story with fresh eyes. This is why it took me so long to read and review. Had I not bailed at 68% and peeked at the end for some sign of redemption, it would have gone even more slowly. Our protagonist has family members that want to help, but she is not interested. Instead, we notice dead animals; we notice garbage. We notice mold and other ugly things, but we can’t get up and deal with them because we are depressed and going to continue sitting here, lying here, not seeking change and wallowing.

In fairness, the word smithery here is strong in places, and I like the figurative language. However, for me the double-whammy of perpetually depressed prose followed, every now and then, by reflections about art and art history, a subject that makes my eyes glaze over, is a powerful repellent, and I am never able to engage; perhaps by now, you suspected as much.

So the third star is here because I know there are readers that have a great love of art, and if you are one of them, your experience with this novel may be completely different from mine. I wanted to tell the protagonist to take her meds and shut up, but there may be some truly redemptive aspect of the art discussion that makes the rest of it flow beautifully for art lovers.

For most readers, I can’t recommend this novel, and if you take it up anyway, put the sharps in another room and lock up your pills and firearms. Seriously. But for those with an affinity for art and art history, this book should be considered.

Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor *****

collectedstoriesWhat an unpretentious little book, and who would have dreamed it would be so full of first-rate short stories? Mr. O’Connor wrote from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, and may be one of the finest writers Ireland has produced, which is saying a great deal. Thank you and thank you again to Open Road Media and Net Galley for the ARC. It’s been a real joy to read!

O’Connor’s early life was marked by alcoholism and domestic violence, and he tosses these into the stewpot of his stories that is so congenial, so resonant, that we little know the pain he went through before he wrote them. The quality of the writing is consistent throughout, which is even more remarkable given its length, which clocks in at over 700 pages! At times poignant and wrenching, and at other times witty and a little naughty, though never breaching the bounds of good taste, Mr. O’Connor delivers.

His protagonists are ordinary people, all of them in Ireland. They live in small villages for the most part; some are wives and mothers, some are brave young lads; there are noble priests and those who are not as noble, but all of them are believable and create an instant bond with the reader. His overarching theme is to remind us, in his folksy, understated way, that all of us are human. He lets us know that whether we believe in God or whether we don’t, for the moment we are all each other has.

O’Connor lived through revolutionary times, and was no stranger to the Irish struggle, which is near and dear to my own heart. His famous opening story, Guest of the Nation, focuses on a card game that takes place between Republican soldiers and their prisoners. Its blend of the ordinary with the wrenching emotion that ran high at such a time makes it immortal. The soldiers’ ambivalence and humanity lends it much of its authenticity.

One of my own favorite quotes appears early in the collection in a story titled “The Luceys”, in which Charlie visits his uncle, a priest. Charlie thinks his uncle is eccentric and cannot fathom how the man thinks:

“One conversation in particular haunted him for years as showing the dangerous state of lunacy to which a man could be reduced by reading old books.”

May we all suffer similarly!

I loved the references he made to “a gang of women” outside of Mrs. Roche’s house in “The Drunkard”. I also laughed at his reference to “…the mood of disillusionment that follows Christmas”. And in “Darcy in the Land of Youth”, I liked how Mick traveled to work in England and “He found the English very queer as they were supposed to be, people with a great welcome for themselves and very little for anyone else.” Here I would hasten to add that I am descended of both Irish and English, though I tend to lay claim more to the former than the latter; Mr. O’Connor’s gift is in wryly touching upon the cultural nuances that sometimes lead to misunderstandings, and others to genuine disagreement, culture or no.

I could continue quoting marvelous passages, but I think it is better for you to ferret out some of your own, and let’s face it, if I haven’t sold you on this book right now, I never will.

Except for this one last bit, which is really a commentary on all strong short story collections: this time of year, many of us will have guests in our homes. If yours is a family that reads, you may choose to set something out in your guest room, and short stories are especially lovely for them to have, because whereas one may not finish a great thick book during a visit over the holidays, one can pick up a short story at bedtime and finish that story before turning out the light.

And the glorious thing is, guests don’t expect a book that is left for their perusal to be brand new; they can enjoy a well-thumbed book without worrying if they inadvertently crease a corner. Right now, you have the chance to get the book for yourself, finish it, and then leave it for company.

That’s a good thing to do, because in the end, all we have really is one another.