Nobody’s Fool -Richard Russo

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Nobody’s Fool is a warm, rambling account of life in Bath, a small community in upper New York State that history has passed by.  It is dwarfed by its much more successful, though also quite tiny neighbour, Schuyler Springs.  Bath consistently fails to win at sport or business.  It is on the way down, though some locals have ambitions to build a theme park on the swampy land bordering the highway, next to the graveyard.  Here coffins of casualties of the Vietnam war float down the slope in the boggy ground, eventually finding themselves located under the wrong headstones!

Bath is a place where the generations carry the sins of their forebears in their genes, and no one forgets.  The protagonist of Nobody’s Fool, Sully, a local workman, is near to the bottom of the pile, but doesn’t seem to care.  He is sixty and divorced.  His knee is swollen with arthritis, and the pain is intense. He is in the middle of a long term affair with another man’s wife; their relationship is off and on.  Sully is claiming sickness relief, and has been following mandated college courses to retrain: his philosophy teacher is busy disproving the existence of everything.

Unimpressed by the professional abilities of his one legged lawyer and drinking buddy, Wirf, and by the intransigence of the welfare system, Sully decides that compensation will never arrive and begins to work again, playing truant from college and indulging his anarchic and compulsive personality.  He taunts workmates and bosses, teases waitresses and secretaries, argues and steals.

Sully is a work of art, a hopeless father.  He is the son of a drunken wife beater, and unprepared for family life.  He has completely ignored his own son, leaving his rather neurotic wife not long after marrying her.  He is on good terms with her new husband, a much more conventional character. Now he lives in the flat above Miss Beryl, his former 8th grade teacher.  Her husband is dead, and she suspects her son, the local bank manager, is trying to farm her off to an old people’s home.

Sully’s son arrives back in town for Thanksgiving, along with his wife and three children. Their marriage is on the rocks and he has been refused tenure by the English Department at his university.  Sully is reluctantly drawn into this family conflict.

Sully has charm and wit.  He has a sharp tongue, and the combative dialogue this gives rise to provides some of the best passages of the novel. I could hear the voice of Frank Sobotka, the dockers’ union leader in HBO’s The Wire.  There is that same sharp intelligence and cynicism: the aggression of the essentially powerless manual worker, pugnacious, unwilling to be used and exploited.

Russo has created a small group of characters whose lives are interlinked by location, by family ties and by the mistakes of their past.  Each is brought to life with compassion and humour, in situations which we can all recognise: personal rivalries and animosity, jealousy and greed, love and hypocrisy.  As a picture of American small town life this book is perfect.  It will make you laugh out loud. Sully has a fire in his heart that you will warm to, and whilst the downtrodden characters will draw your sympathy, the more conventional display hypocrisy, neurosis, coldness and greed.  It could be a parable from the New Testament.

Nobody’s Fool is a rerelease of a novel first published in 1993.  Apparently Russo has just published a sequel based on the same small town – it’s called Everybody’s Fool, and is due out in paperback in the UK later this year (2017).  I can’t wait to read it.

About Grace – Anthony Doerr

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I chose this book because I recently read Doerr’s second book, All the Light We Cannot See, and it was the best book I have read in several years.  I was hoping for more of the same.

About Grace tells the story of an awkward and unheroic character, David Winkler, who for some reason has  premonitions, or dreams that come true.  So the book opens on a plane journey when the protagonist, realising that a bag will fall from the luggage locker, warns the owner, and is first ignored then, when the bag falls, scorned by her for having deliberately left the locker open!!

Later in a supermarket in Alaska he meets a young married woman in a similar fashion – he knows she will knock a magazine to the floor, so rushes to help her pick it up.  Even so she walks away, though later he is able to meet her again.  They have an affair, and run off to Ohio, where Grace is born.

At this point Winkler begins to have recurring dreams about the baby, Grace, drowning in a flood.  In his vision he sees himself holding the dead baby above the flood waters.  Eventually the fear is too great.  When the rains come in floods, Winkler runs away, leaving his family to their fate, hoping that because he won’t be there, the dramatic image of death will not become reality.

He crosses America, takes a berth on a freight ship and ends up in the West Indies where he spends the next years.  Here Winkler makes friends with locals including political refugees from Chile who have a daughter called Naaliyah: she becomes almost a surrogate child for him.  At one point he has similar dreams about Naaliyah drowning; he becomes obsessed, and follows her everywhere, much to everyone’s annoyance, but eventually saves her from this death.

Winkler tries to contact his wife, Sandy, to discover Grace’s fate, but receives no reply.  Eventually Naaliyah, inspired by Winkler, who is a scientist, gains a scholarship to a university in Alaska to study entomology.  Shortly after, Winkler decides to return to the USA to try to find Grace.

After a library search facilitated by a man in a wheelchair, and armed with the names of all the Grace Winklers in the USA, Winkler sets off on a tour of the states, visiting each Grace in turn, but none are his daughter.  There is a crisis when his last visit results in accusations of theft and damage.  Winkler escapes across the open plains, becomes lost and nearly dies.  Stumbling onto a road, he hitches a lift to Alaska, where he finds Naaliyah.  He spends the winter at her research centre deep in the wilderness of the Yukon.  The final section of the book sees his return to Anchorage and the denouement of the story of Grace.

I don’t normally give such detailed accounts of the plots of books, but this one is pretty weird and seemed worthy of some detail.  It’s a very odd book.  I suppose it’s about Winkler finding Grace, and so that in itself is a pretty fine metaphor, suggesting there is a theme of morality in this book.  And after all Winkler did run off with a married woman, did fail to live up to his responsibilities as a father and husband, and did hurt several innocent people, so I guess he needed Grace, as we all do.

On the other hand the whole book is based on a pretty weird and whacky premise and that in itself is a big question mark against a novel that seems to preach psychological realism.

Winkler is a scientist – a meteorologist actually.  He is obsessed with the beauty of snowflakes and the nature of hydrology, of the water cycle.  Naaliyah is inspired by his scientific knowledge and becomes  an entomologist.  In Alaska she is breeding insects on a remote experimental station.  The book contains lots of descriptions based around these two scientific disciplines. So the scene before the flood, and the scenes in the Yukon, are fraught with images of water cycles and snowflake and frost, of death and hibernation.

As the story reaches its denouement Winkler begins a correspondence with his wife’s former husband in the hope of finding Grace.  A few quotations here will show you how Doerr attempts to pull all these ideas and images together.

Collecting snowflakes and admiring their beauty, Winkler claims the ones in the wild are bigger and more real than in the lab – like wild animals that make zoo animals seem like shadows.  Here he encounters the heart of life – its essential beauty and integrity, as if even snowflakes have a soul.  But there is more.  It’s not so  much a science for him he says, it’s the light, the way it absorbs sound.  The way we feel that the more that falls, the more we are forgiven.

He goes on: dreams are a ladle dipped, a bucket lowered. The imagery of water continues: dreams are the deep cool water beneath the bright surface; the shadow at the base of every tree. Now his only dream is to find Grace.

Doerr is clearly a great writer with a fantastic imagination and a beautiful turn of phrase.  He uses imagery extensively to explore themes and ideas, and to show the way that Winkler is alienated from life by his own self consciousness, by his fear and inability to engage.

For me About Grace was not as good as his second novel All the Light We Cannot See.  The plot focuses on the question of what has happened to Grace, and this was not as compelling an issue as the wartime dynamic in Doerr’s second book.  Nevertheless I think it is a book that would repay a closer reading, a book that is ambitious, well written and carefully constructed.

 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is an intriguing and unusual story of hypocrisy, guilt, judgement and forgiveness, set in an avenue on a small housing estate in the middle of England – in Nottingham I think.

The narrator of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep can pop in and out of the houses in the avenue at will, and into the minds of most of the residents, but principally we see this suburban world through the eyes and ears of two small children, Grace and Tilly.  They offer an innocent and naive perspective on this little England, and the sections concerning their escapades are told with wit and charm.

Early in the novel the children attend the local church, where they are told that God is everywhere, and that for Him the world consists of goats and sheep.  So they set off to search for God, seeking him in the different houses and on the avenue itself.  This in itself is an amusing and lighthearted conceit that offers a moral perspective to the story without being at all didactic.

The narrative thread concerning the children’s search for God runs in conjunction with a second concerning the night of a fire several years earlier. There are flashbacks between two eras – the night of the fire in 1967, and the present of the novel in the hot summer of 1976.

During the house fire an old lady died.  Her son survived, but has been an outcast ever since.  There are hints that some of the residents of the avenue were involved in some way with the fire, and that others know the secrets of that night.  Some have feelings of guilt, whilst others merely remain judgemental and self justifying.

When a woman from The Avenue goes missing, and the police arrive, memories are stirred and we are able to see how each person deals with events they have consciously hidden in their past.  As their guilty secrets return to haunt them, some become worried that the police will investigate

Much of the book deals with a slow reveal about the state of affairs in The Avenue. We are introduced to interesting characters, each with their own burden to bear.  There is a real sense of compassion and humanity in this book, which interestingly was written by a psychiatrist.  Well she would know about guilt wouldn’t she?

As the story progresses, a patch of creosote leeches out of the whitewashed wall of a local garage forming an image of Jesus.  This exciting and unexpected event brings the characters of the book together.  Here they sit in deckchairs eating Quality Street and chatting, whilst we learn more about their lives, and feel quietly urged to consider the nature of guilt, judgement and forgiveness.  The writer makes no explicit comments about these issues, but shows us the hypocrisies and dishonesty, the lack of courage and the prejudice that have led to this situation.  It is the clever use of the image of Christ that brings this theme most clearly to the reader’s attention.

Throughout, the writing in this book is simple and plain, but the writer does have a facility with words, and uses the simple language of child’s point of view especially well.  So a cat padded along with careful paws before it  folded itself  into a hedge.  She also has a fine insight into the mind and vanities of her characters, whether an eleven year old child, or her grandmotherly ward.

If the issue of human frailty is of interest to you, I would recommend this book.  At the beginning there is a little map of the housing estate – the avenue – showing the names of the characters residing at each house, and you will find this helpful if, like me, you have a terrible memory for names.

Fiction Titles – Authors M-P

McCabe, Patrick                                    The Stray Sod Country

McCann, Colum                                     Let the Great World Spin

McCullers, Carson                                 The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Miller, AD                                                Snowdrops

Miller, Andrew                                        Pure

Mitchell, David                                       Ghostwritten

              number9dream

              The Bone Clocks

              The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Mo Yan                                                     Big Breasts and Wide Hips

Murakami                                                1Q84

Naipaul, VS                                             Half a Life

Nicholls, David                                       One Day

              Us

Norris, Barney                                       Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain

O’Farrell, Maggie                                   The Hand that First Held Mine

Obreht, Tea                                             The Tiger’s Wife

Pamuk, Orhan                                       A Strangeness in my Mind

Power, Kevin                                           Bad Day in Black Rock

Pep Guardiola – The Evolution – Marti Perarnau

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Pep Guardiola – The Evolution focuses on the three years Guardiola spent at Bayern Munich, and includes the summer of 2016 in which he completed his move to Manchester City.  It is the sequel to Perarnau’s first book, Pep Confidential, which was about Pep’s time in charge of Barcelona.

Pep Guardiola – The Evolution has a distinct approach to Guardiola’s coaching career.  Each part ends with a section looking at one particular Pep game from a tactical point of view, or considering Pep’s response to a specific game, setback or triumph.  So the second chapter ends with an analysis of Munich’s successful 7-1 demolition of Roma on 21st October 2014.  Perarnau makes some interesting points in these sections of the book, looking closely at Pep’s methods, and at specific tactical variations.

In a book 370 pages long, these separate sections take up 67 pages.  They look at a cup game against Dortmund, managed by Klopp, a game against Koln, and analyse the developing role of Thomas Mueller during Pep’s time at Munich.  Amongst other topics, Perarnau also considers Pep’s use of the pyramid, and dedicates one of these sections to a France Spain basketball match.  They are the most interesting parts of the book.

In the contents list the remaining sections are neatly subdivided into chapter headings and subheadings : Why City?, How Germany Changed Pep, What Makes Him the Best, Pep’s Influence on German Football.  When I tell you that the subheadings of just one chapter include phrases like Ideological Eclecticism, Doubt and Decision Making, and Barriers to Innovation you will get some sense of what the rest of the book is like.  European cultures have the benefit of using Romance languages in common parlance, so that what in English is the excessive use of latinate or over educated vocabulary is for them more normal, but it’s clear that Perarnau goes a step beyond, using Greek terminology – Ideological Eclecticism – as well as the more common Latin roots – innovation.  This language epitomises the style of the book which is highly intellectual and because of this extremely un-British.

It’s a moot point for me whether football merits such an intellectual approach.  It is after all a game of passion, and essentially a game of improvisation, whilst tactical play can lead to boring approaches such as parking the bus.  (Note the English approach to tactical vocabulary by the way – rather more down to earth than Perarnau’s approach.  Hoofing it upfield is another phrase we use, though some English coaches have intellectualised this, calling it the long ball game.)

If you are going to write about football in intellectual terms though, I do think you need to show the barest of intellectual rigour when doing so, and in my view Perarnau did not achieve this. For example, the chapter subheadings aren’t really accurate descriptions of what is included; instead they are more often distinct starting points for what turn out to be quite rambling though very enthusiastic musings about Pep and football.  So one particular line of argument goes like this:

Preparation and a Passion for Detail – subheading – an interesting section early on in  the book which details Pep’s training methods approaching a match against Dortmund. It is about five pages long, and immediately followed by the section entitled Ideological Eclecticism, which begins Having explained how important it has been to Guardiola to incorporate new concepts into his football bible… But this sentence was a complete non-sequitur – there was nothing explicit about new concepts in that previous section.  There were many other logical inconsistencies like this, which obscured the thread of the argument, and made it difficult for me to get an overall sense of what Perarnau was saying about Guardiola.  It was very frustrating.

Examples of Perarnau’s over intellectualisation and adoration of Pep abound.  I’m tempted to say his approach is hagiographic, but I’m trying to eliminate the Greek roots from my own writing – anything else would be sheer hypocrisy.  But during the course of Pep Guardiola – the Evolution, Pep’s approach to football is regularly compared to that of a painter, sculptor or musician.  These are fairly cliched ideas.  His achievements are described in glowing terms throughout: Guardiola’s great achievement, his genius for tactical planning, his charisma.  I happen to think he’s a brilliant manager, but in this book these terms were overused.

At other times Perarnau disappears into pure verbiage and even more over intellectualisation, for example when he takes time out to define the exact meaning of a game plan –what does it consist of, what are its constituent parts.  Then there is the list of all the different possible permutations of 11 players on a football field, starting with 4-3-3. It takes up two full pages.

I found this book in The Works, a remaindered bookshop in Torquay – not a renowned centre for Manchester City or Bayern Munich fans.  There must be a lot of unsold copies.  I can see why.  Pep has not read this book, or its predecessor. I think he would be surprised if he did.  Pep is a perfectionist, and this is far from perfect!  The impression I got was that it was rushed to print.

The Works – 275 Shops Nationwide

 

 

Fiction Titles – Authors R-Z

Redfern, Elizabeth                               The Music of the Spheres

Russo, Richard                                      Nobody’s Fool

Shaffer and Barrows                            The Guernsey Lit Potato Peel Pie Society

Sheers, Owen                                         Resistance

Simonson, Helen                                  Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Strout, Elizabeth                                  Olive Kitteridge

My Name is Lucy Barton

Swift, Graham                                       Last Orders

Tempest, Kate                                       The Bricks that Built the Houses

Thompson, Hunter S                           The Rum Diary

Toole, John Kennedy                           A Confederacy of Dunces

Torday, Paul                                          Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Unsworth, Barry                                   The Quality of Mercy

Ward, Katie                                            Girl Reading

Winton, Tim                                          Dirt Music

Yanagihara, Hanya                              A Little Life

Fiction Titles – Authors F-L

Farrell, JG                                 The Siege of Krishnapour

  Singapore Grip

Ferrante, Elena                      My Brilliant Friend

 The Story of a New Name

Flanagan, Richard                 The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Franzen, Jonathan                Freedom!!

Frayn, Michael                        Headlong

Gardam, Jane                           The Man in the Wooden Hat

        Old Filth

Grenville, Kate                        The Lieutenant

Guareschi, Giovanni              The Little World of Don Camillo

Haig, Matt                                 The Humans

Hollinghurst, Alan                  The Stranger’s Child

Ishiguro, Kazuo                         Never Let Me Go

Jacobson, Howard                    The Finkler Question

Jonasson, Jonas                         The 100 Year Old Man etc

Joyce, Rachel                               Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Kane, Ben                                     Spartacus the Gladiator

Kaufman, Andrew                     All My Friends are Superheroes

Kelman, Stephen                        Pigeon English

Krauss, Alison                             The History of Love

Lanchester, John                         Capital

Llosa, Mario Vargas                    The Feast of the Goat