[REVIEW] The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

Salt Publishing
April 2015

REVIEW BY CATH BARTON

It is the late 1970s. Mickey Donnelly is 10 years old. He lives in Ardoyne in West Belfast. Mickey has passed his 11+ exam and has been offered a place at St Malachy’s Grammar School. But he is told that his family cannot afford to send him there.

In The Good Son, Belfast-born Paul McVeigh tells the story of the nine weeks of Mickey’s summer holidays before he goes to secondary school. He tells it through young Mickey’s eyes, conveying all the spark and wild dreams of a pre-pubescent boy. Ardoyne is a Roman Catholic area more or less surrounded by Protestant areas. It is not safe anywhere in Ardoyne, for this is the time of the Northern Irish “Troubles,” when sectarianism violence can erupt on the streets at any time. Mickey is quite matter-of-fact about the reality of this. He has grown up with it, although he’s only ever seen Protestants on TV.  On an errand to a shop by the iron barricades which mark a boundary between Catholic and Protestant areas he says:

“They’ve started calling them peace lines which really makes me laugh cuz actually this is where people come to kill each other.”

Mickey is innocent about the worst atrocities and we can laugh at his misunderstandings. When he is heard shouting in the streets about another child’s father being in prison for stealing sausages he gets a visit from one of the Ardoyne Hard Men to set him straight about the man having “fought hard for his country.. But Mickey is still confused:

“They wanted him to steal sausages? Why? Were they hungry? And could they not just buy them from the butcher’s like everyone else? There’s no way I’m ever going to join the IRA if that’s the kinda missions you get sent on.”

There are more immediate issues that concern Mickey day-to-day. As he dodges through forbidden streets, his pre-occupations are looking after his mother, the mysteries of sex, and the initiation torments which await him at St Gabriel’s secondary school. His dream is to go to America, where he plans to work in a diner. And one day, he tells his Ma, he will be President of Ireland, because he is a good boy. Like all small boys though, he does not differentiate between large and smaller ambitions. He is given a five pound note with which to go shopping and he knows it’s a lot of money:

“One day, when I grow up, I’m goin’ to have a five of my own and I’m goin’ to spend it all on sweets.”

Mickey Donnelly is truly, at heart, a good boy. The guile of adolescence has not yet infected him and he loves his Ma, his little sister Wee Maggie and his dog Killer—who makes him “as happy as a pig in poo”—with a protective ferocity. When he spies Ma through the fence, railing against a world in which she has married a drunken waster, he begs her to give him a job in the house so he can help her out.

In this family, a slap round the head is more common than a hug and sorry is not a word used very often, but there is laughter and underneath there is palpable love. Paul McVeigh navigates the choppy sea of Mickey’s shifting experiences and rapidly-changing emotions with skill and verisimilitude. Having lost food coupons which he had been given for shopping, the boy devises a way to repay his Ma by chopping up wood to sell round the houses, getting his hands full of painful splinters in the process. When she finds out she talks to him with uncommon tenderness:

“ ‘My son,’ she says, and her body sort of shudders. She shakes her head. ‘Your wee hands are destroyed.’ She traces the splinters and welts with her fingers.”

Next minute she’s wiping her eyes and flying at an accusing neighbour with the hatchet that Mickey uses to chop his wood.

Mickey may live during the Troubles with a capital ‘T,’ and he gets often into trouble with a small ‘t,’ but I don’t experience him as a troubled character. Yes, he is often confused, but aren’t we all confused as children? Yes, he suffers heartbreak, but is that not part of growing up? Mickey is an intelligent boy and he has a strategy for survival—he acts. He’s seen lots of films on TV. He knows how to look cool—he practices the Ardoyne Hard Man Dander, chest puffed and knees pointed out as he walks. Other boys may call him names because he’s a loner, but he’s plucky and resourceful and he cares about other people. When he sees a bunch of girls chanting insults at one who has been tarred and feathered he wants to rescue her:

“Even though she’s a Brit-lover, I don’t think it’s right. I mean, you can’t help who you fall in love with.”

At the end of the summer of this story, Mickey works out a way to help his Ma and possibly even get himself to America. Possibly. Whatever the difficulties of his life, it is not, at least at the point where this story ends, tragic. Though we are bound to wonder what will become of young Mickey.

In The Good Son Paul McVeigh traces the physical geography of Ardoyne with as much precision as he depicts the geography of the human heart.  As a reader you run up and down those streets with Mickey, onto the wastelands where kids sniff glue and bombs explode unpredictably. He navigates the tricky first person narrative style with assurance and peoples the story with vivid characters. Fartin’ Martin, Ma’s-a-Whore and Minnie the Tick Woman may sound like the names of caricatures, but they step off the page as realistically as young Mickey himself and as brightly as the characters in Mickey’s favourite film, The Wizard of Oz.

Mickey Donnelly deserves to take his place in the litany of boy literary heroes. Paul McVeigh’s prose sings from page one in the accents of the North Belfast streets, and is rich in detail. While The Good Son does not have the same breadth, it has something of the spirit of Dickens or Zola, transformed for our times. Gritty realism with a human face. Not only is it hugely enjoyable, but it also conveyed to me more of the atmosphere of the Troubles than any number of factual accounts.

 

 

[REVIEW] Not a Self Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai

Shade Mountain Press
218 pages
Released May 6, 2016

REVIEW BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA

As long as we suspect we’re falling short in some area of our lives, there’s really no end to the books we will buy to try to improve: a 2014 article I read stated that self-improvement was “a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S. alone.” As it turns out, when it comes to solving the problem of ourselves, we have very deep pockets — and solving herself is exactly what Marty, the smart but hapless narrator of Yi Shun Lai’s wonderful new novel, Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, seems on a quest to do.

From the outside, twentysomething Marty Wu appears to be doing pretty well. She moved to New York from Taiwan when she was five, and when the novel opens she has a job in Manhattan working in advertising sales for a magazine. Unlike her previous job as an illustrator, advertising sales isn’t a line of work that particularly excites Marty. Still, she appears to be good at it: the early pages of the novel find her on the verge of closing a deal that promises a fat bonus check.

Yet Marty, whose story comes to us in the form of a diary she began on the advice of a self-help book, is someone we come to know intimately, and all is not perfect in Marty’s world. We know, for example, that her fascination with self-help books borders on an obsession born of insecurity. Each interpersonal interaction and emotional reaction is noted carefully in the pages of this diary and compared to an ideal version that she might have read, say, in The Language of Paying Attention to YOU or a similar user’s guide to life. We also know that advertising sales is a poor fit for this vibrant and creative young woman, and that the aforementioned bonus check is a potential way out of the gig. Alone at her desk, she listens to fashion and design podcasts, and daydreams about investing her windfall into a little storefront: the type of warm and intimate costume boutique that would, she hopes, allow clients to “slip into another skin” for a time.

But Marty is our heroine, and as she says herself, “I think somewhere in one of my books it says that I must be a Protagonist, like characters in novels. Protagging is hard. Characters in novels never have it easy.” Yi Shun Lai, for her part, pulls no punches with Marty. Rather, as Lai steers Marty into increasingly uncomfortable and painful situations, Lai writes with an incisive humor and a light, chatty tone that often had me laughing aloud as I read.

While this was one of the funniest books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a while, though, it isn’t all laughs. Marty, we understand, has a serious longing to go after what really matters to her, but she is hobbled by variety of obstacles — the very challenges that made her such an avid consumer of self-help books in the first place. The promise of such books, after all, is one of hope — hope that Marty might finally learn how to be a better leader, colleague, saleswoman, daughter, person. Since there are no guides for learning simply to be a better, stronger Marty, our narrator flails. She searches relentlessly for advice from people and books that are so distant from the reality of her life and relationships.

This brings us to Marty’s relationship with her mother. Mama excels at cutting Marty down: thoroughly, efficiently, and often while switching in rapid succession between English and Taiwanese. “I double-step,” Marty writes when meet Mama for the first time, “trying to move quickly, and trip. ‘Sloppy,’ says my mother, only in Taiwanese it sounds like more than that, like you haven’t just tripped, but that you’re a tripping, drooling shadow of a functioning creature.” Watching Marty endure what she does is often heart-wrenching, and we aren’t entirely surprised that she will try anything to please and appease her mom — even resorting to lies in order to make herself seem like the Good Daughter she imagines would make Mama happy. After an epic career misfire in Las Vegas, however, Marty’s constructed self falls away in a hilarious and startling way. Marty, now forced to reevaluate and refocus, decides that the Old World might be a good place for a fresh start, so she accompanies Mama on a trip to the family home in southern Taiwan.

It all sounds very serious in the telling, but the writing is efficient and funny, with Marty’s voice making the whole thing really pop. Still, the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship and how Marty navigates its tremendous challenges charmed me more than I expected. Where another novel might make stronger use of a romance plot to keep us interested, Lai sidelines the romance a bit, giving the mother-daughter relationship enough room for serious exploration and nuance. This dynamic is where all that humor digs deep into the particular challenges of defining and asserting an artistic identity in the world — whether that world is the hectic atmosphere of New York City business, or the strong family landscape and rich tradition of small-town Taiwan, or even just within the heavy gravitational pull of a difficult parent. I don’t wish to spoil anything, so I will say only that there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers for Marty, and it’s better that way. It’s a complicated journey to learn to help oneself, but it’s also a joy watching this fun and multidimensional character navigate it.

What blindsided me was the expert combination of humor and deep feeling that I found here. Where Not A Self Help Book initially engaged me with its light and enjoyable storytelling, I found that by the final pages I was impressed by the subtlety and the seriousness Lai treated the relationships between the women of the novel. Some, I think, will see parallels between this book and Bridget Joness Diary, as it shares some similarities with that book — epistolary storytelling, young female narrator, the preoccupation with self-help books. If, like me, you enjoyed Bridget Jones, you’ll probably delight in Marty Wu as well. My feeling, though, was that underneath the superficial similarities, Not A Self Help Book was an entirely different sort of novel. It’s one that cares deeply for its complicated female characters for their own sakes, and more than for their entertaining antics and romantic attachments. As I read, I felt keenly aware of real, lasting consequences for Marty Wu, as one who must become her own authority on bridging different cultures, ideals, geographies and life stages. A novel that can do all of this and still make me laugh out loud is one I can heartily recommend.

[REVIEW] Juventud by Vanessa Blakeslee

 

Curbside Splendor Press

REVIEW BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA

Vanessa Blakeslee prefaces her remarkable debut novel, Juventud, with a quote by Gabriel García Márquez: “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” It’s fitting, then, that memory casts such a long shadow over the events of this coming-of-age narrative that opens amid the turbulence and uncertainty of late-1990s Colombia. Memory and forgetting shape this narrative, however, and it is in in this tumultuous historical moment that we first meet our fifteen-year-old narrator, Mercedes: a Colombia after the takedown of Pablo Escobar, where regular citizens are caught between rivaling FARC, ELN and paramilitary forces, a deeply corrupt government, and a socially activist Church. Juventud covers all the usual trials of the coming-of-age story, but the expertly- rendered world and clever, strong-willed narrator make this novel snap with tension.

While hijackings, kidnappings, and desperate desplazados all belong to Juventud’s setting, Mercedes, the half-American only child of a sugarcane farmer named Diego, is largely protected from the violence at first. News reports babble in the background of her home, a bucolic hacienda near Cali de Santiago, and early in the novel she witnesses a bus hijacking while being driven home from her private day school in town. Yet Mercedes is a member of the small affluent class whose wealth is concentrated behind well-guarded gates. Diego would like to send his daughter away to boarding school in the United States, where her mother lives and where Mercedes will be safe.

Nevertheless, when Mercedes meets Manuel, a passionate social activist with a great talent for guitar, her country’s problems begin to take on a horrifying solidity around her despite her father’s efforts to keep her insulated from danger. Mercedes’s instinct is that Diego is also keeping her from some fundamental truths about the past, including the reason for her mother’s abandonment and Diego’s own place in Colombia’s recent history. Manuel offers a few answers about Diego and many opportunities to break out of the strictly defined role of obedient daughter. As Mercedes and Manuel begin to fall in love, Mercedes increases her own involvement with Manuel’s activist youth group, La Maria Juventud. Meanwhile, back on the farm, Diego decides to allow for some of the country’s many displaced people to camp on a plot of land. As Diego pushes her to leave Colombia, Mercedes digs in, reinvesting in her birth country by attending peace rallies in an environment that is increasingly hostile, if not deadly, to social activists.

Yet here, about halfway through the novel, Juventud expands beyond the scope of a romantic novel about youth. At its heart is a mystery story of sorts — a terrible personal tragedy that befalls Mercedes, whose solution is interwoven not only with her own family history, but with that of her country. Mercedes has a keen and curious mind, and one of the joys of this novel is seeing her investigative bent assert itself after the youthful naiveté falls away. Mercedes’s own family history, like that of Colombia, is patchy and marred by trauma, and even so both are confronted with the task of constructing an identity and a coherent story with what facts they do possess. From this point, the novel’s scope ranges widely as Mercedes immigrates to the United States, tries to connect with her mother, and makes her home among family members who are also strangers. The story brings us far and wide, to suburban Florida, academic Berkeley, Washington DC, and even an Israel that reminds her all too much of the Colombia she left. Through all of it, Mercedes excavates personal memory and official history, truth and lies and everything in between.

Juventud is a solid coming-of-age story with a refreshingly fleshed-out female narrator. Admittedly, the strongest parts are in the first two-thirds of the novel, but the somewhat sagging tension in the final act is forgivable in the face of such a well-rendered novel of memory and history in Latin America. Even through the most heavily plot-driven sections in the first half of the novel, I admired Blakeslee’s close eye for the little details of life and character: the sweet corn and hot grease of the street arepas Mercedes loves, the telling detail she notices on a knockoff designer handbag, the quiet way in which she notes when father has had a woman stay overnight. The novel is well done and wonderfully researched on the whole, and it makes for an enjoyable read. Readers who enjoy novels of Latin American history, engaging female leads and coming-of-age stories should all enjoy Juventud.

[REVIEW] Washing the Dead, by Michelle Brafman

dead

Prospect Park Books

344 pages, $19.99

 

Review by David S. Atkinson

 

Barbara confesses an odd thing to her sonographer when eighteen weeks pregnant with her daughter. She says she “prayed that God had spared a girl from landing in [her] womb.” That’s a pretty heavy way to start Washing the Dead, the debut novel by Michelle Brafman (a teacher at The Johns Hopkins MA in Writing program whose writing has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, the minnesota review, Blackbird, Slate, the Washington Post, and elsewhere). Regardless, knowing what I know now, it seems like a pretty apt place to begin.

Barbara is terrified about raising a girl because of her traumatic relationship with her mother. Her mother was loving, but could occasionally be inexplicably distant:

My mother’s mood hovered over us, a mist that could either turn to rain or vanish into the sunlight. During our family walk to Shabbos services, I saw her eyes honeying over, the first sign that at any moment she could dip away from us, into that place inside herself. Even since last April, the mist had turned soupy, and I worried that we would both drown in it.

“Let’s do the last block fast, Mom.” If we moved quickly, we could outrun the fog.

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[REVIEW] The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney)

teeth

Coffee House Press

184 pp, $16.95

 

Reviewed by Leland Cheuk

 

In Valeria Luiselli’s first novel Faces In The Crowd, a promiscuous, melancholy mother loses herself so thoroughly while translating the work of a Mexican poet named Gilberto Owen that her narration slowly becomes that of the equally promiscuous, swashbuckling poet. In Luiselli’s funny new picaresque The Story of My Teeth, Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez picks up where Owen left off. He too is a charismatic raconteur whose first-person narration simultaneously charms and cuckolds. Highway not-so-humbly describes himself as “the best auctioneer in the world.” He collects all kinds of objects, including the teeth of the famous. He claims to be wearing Marilyn Monroe’s choppers. He’s got a serious case of Napoleon Complex because he attributes many of his unusual aphorisms to Napoleon (I doubt the French emperor ever said “it wasn’t all velvet petals and marshmallow clouds”). As an auctioneer, Highway spins elliptical, impressionistic love letters about the objects he’s trying to sell. About Plato’s teeth, he says:

Our first lot is a piece in a somewhat deteriorated state…Significant flattening of the point leads to the supposition that the original owner, Mr. Plato, talked and ate continuously…Mr. Plato once made a comparison between the period of dentition and a man falling in love: “In this state, the soul enters into effervescence and irritation; and this soul, whose wings are just beginning to develop, can be compared to a child whose gums are inflamed and enervated by its first teeth.”

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Books We Can’t Quit: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

fire

Picador

 

Review by Martha Anne Toll

 

I heard her on the radio; I found her book at the library. Neither sufficed. I had to own Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. The leading man in this taut, beautiful novel is Aldred Leith—measured, strong, true—crisscrossing continents out of duty, curiosity, and ultimately love. Co-starring are Helen and Benedict Driscoll, seventeen and twenty respectively; together, a single force of nature. Winner of the 2003 National Book Award, The Great Fire inspires and intimidates. I would die happy if I could execute a single sentence as compact, poetic, and meaningful as any in this novel.

Here’s the opening, two sentences to illustrate the depletion of war:

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation.

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Reading Colorfully: Traveling through the World’s Literature

 

 

By Nichole L. Reber

 

confession_2.inddIt’d be hard to deny Mia Couto’s sparse detail and simple (though stunningly gorgeous) prose echo that of Papa Hemingway’s. But the fissure between hunter and writer in Couto’s novel, Confessions of the Lioness, makes me wish the two authors could have a public discussion over tea or, more likely, beers. Here’s a line that gets me wondering what Hemingway would have thought:

“There’s a time to love and there’s a time to hunt. The two never mix. If I were to give in, I would be betraying an age-old tradition: when one is hunting, one cannot have sex.” Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last cover

Nan A. Talese

326 pages, $26.95

 

Review by Mary Akers

 

As a thirty-year fan of Margaret Atwood, I eagerly purchased the first few episodes of The Heart Goes Last back in 2012 at Byliner, a reader’s website, when the working title was “Positron” and Atwood was still figuring out what form the story would take. When it grew into a novel and the opportunity arose to review it, I jumped at the chance.

As the novel opens, Stan and Charmaine are down-on-their-luck newlyweds. They have lost their home, their jobs, and are living out of their “third-hand Honda,” doing their best to avoid gangs of marauding rust-belt thugs after a financial crisis leaves middle class citizens marooned in a sea of debt and desperation. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

 

FifteenDogs_cover

Coach House Books

171 pages, $17.95

 

Review by Lynne Weiss

 

Fifteen Dogs, the latest novel by Canadian writer Andre Alexis, compellingly explores the human condition—the need for purpose, spiritual sustenance, food, sex, sensual gratification, and most of all, for love and language—through the perspective of fifteen dogs who have been given human consciousness in the course of a bet between Hermes and Apollo.

All fifteen dogs happen to be in a veterinary clinic next to the Toronto tavern where Hermes and Apollo formulate their wager. “I’ll wager a year’s servitude,” says Apollo, “that animals—any animals you choose—would be even more unhappy than humans are if they had human intelligence.”

Apollo’s brother Hermes (they are both sons of Zeus), accepts the bet on the condition that if even one of the creatures to whom they grant human consciousness dies happy, he wins the bet. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Prague Summer, by Jeffrey Condran

Prague

Counterpoint Press

288 pages, $26

 

 

Review by Michelle Elvy

 

Long after I finished reading Jeffrey Condran’s novel Prague Summer, the opening quote by WB Yeats lingers in my mind: “What do we know but that we face one another in this place?” It is the most suitable of quotes to set the scene, and this idea that there’s nothing more important than the space between us creates a haunting mood.

The novel begins twice, really. First with a body falling quite beautifully from the sky:

The body seemed almost to float as it left the protection of the window casement. Against the dark sky, buoyed on a humid night’s air, its pale green skirt billowed like gossamer around thin hips and legs. The passive face of the woman looked toward the heavens, mouth open, a few strands of dark hair caught in the corner of her colored lips. For a moment, the whole—skirt, legs, hips, hair—paused cinematically before remembering its obligation to fall swiftly to the unforgiving cement below.

A strong opening moment, a defenestration to set the mood. A woman falling effortlessly, almost gracefully, toward her eventual and inevitable demise. Continue reading