31 July 2009

The Hour I First Believed (Wally Lamb)

You know those independent films that come from nowhere, with little budgets, amazing casts (composed equally of the famous and the nobody), simple storylines and MASSIVE FOLLOWINGS? Those wacky movies that blow Tom Cruise's latest cheesy offering right outta the water? Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Lars and The Real Girl, The Garden State, and others?

Wally Lamb's writing reminds me of those movies. Every single time.

His breakthrough first novel,
I Know This Much Is True, knocked my socks off and made my exclusive Top 10. His second, She's Come Undone, made me cry in the car. That never happens. And this masterpiece, The Hour I First Believed, set as it is in the run-up to and aftermath of the Columbine shootings, blew me away - if you'll pardon the totally inappropriate pun.

Why is Wally Lamb such a genius?

Because he creates sad, damaged, lonely, real people. They're not characters. They're human beings; flesh and blood. They're the sad guy at the corner cafe. The fat lady who cleans the canteen. The unfriendly nurse at your doctor's office. They're present in your life - and their heartbreaking stories weave slyly through your legs like mangy cats - only you don't see them.

Right, now, onto the story at hand.

Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen co-exist in a shaky marriage with more downs than ups - there's a lot of bitterness; a lot of mutual resentment. So off they go to Littleton, Colorado, hoping to find the elusive fresh start. He's a teacher and she's a nurse, and in no time at all, they're settled in a new school. But if you think that's 'all she wrote', you don't know Wally Lamb.

Caelum and Maureen make connections with the kids and with their fellow staff members. Maureen even takes a troublemaking teenage stray under her wing. And then, catastrophe. For their place of work is Columbine High School and one day, two students go on a murderous rampage. But again, in Lamb form, this book manages to be about more than the massacre.

It's about what happens after the tragedy; about how the people involved come to terms with their losses and with being spared; about the many ways in which they don't deal with it at all. Like Lamb's first two novels, it's about the small, prickly, maddening sufferings of real people.

"I just wish to Christ I’d gotten up the stairs that night. Made love to her. Held her in my arms and made her feel safe. Because time was almost up. They’d bought their guns, taped their farewell videos finalized their plans. They’d worked their last shift together at Blackjack—had made and sold me that pizza that, piece by piece, Mo and I had lifted out of the box and eaten. Chaos was coming, and it would drive us both so deeply into the maze that we’d wander among the corpses, lost to each other for years."

Other reviewers have called it 'bloated', 'massive', 'big' - for me, though it did ramble a little in places, it is a book into which I could quite happily have dug for another 617 pages. It is an exceptional book.


44 Scotland Street (Alexander McCall Smith)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa.

I loved the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I loved it to distraction. I loved it so much I bought several copies of each book and widely distributed them. I’m a one-woman Ladies Detective Agency road show. And when McCall Smith began to branch out, into philosophy clubs and bohemian buildings, I rubbed my little hands in unmitigated glee.

But, ‘twas not to be.

Don’t get me wrong: 44 Scotland Street, the second in its series, is a sweet little book. I took it with me on a weekend trip to Cape Town and read it in the bath. But I guess the familiarity and charm and goodness inherent in the divine books set in Africa, and their plump, pleasant and deeply shrewd protagonist, are missing entirely from number 44.

For a start, its characters/inhabitants are astoundingly irritating.

Pat is a pain. She knows she’s a bit of a delinquent (she admits as much in Chapter 1), but despite this obviation, I can’t get past how badly I want to slap her.

Bruce, too, is unbearable – representing every smarmy, smug, self-adoring, gel-addicted, pretty-but-not-very-bright boykie I’ve ever met and disliked on sight.

The rest aren’t too bad. I particularly like the gifted five-year-old Bertie. A prodigy. A genius. A precocious but delightful little monster. And a source of complete confuddlement to his pretentious (altogether slap-worthy) mother, the glossy Irene.

Having read this book some time ago (the intervening few weeks have been enough to wrench the blissful Cape Town weekend from my memory), I can’t quite recall the plot – which doesn’t bode well. I know there was an art gallery, a lovely nerd, a misappropriation of something precious and expensive, and some other interesting events, but can’t remember much else.

All I can say is, if you’re an avid fan of observing human nature and the weird things it makes strange people do, this is a nice light book to carry around with you til you’re done. It’s also exceptionally well-written (what d’you expect?), but for me, that didn’t save it. Sorry.


A Bitter Harvest (Peter Yeldham)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa

I have a serious pash for books set in early Australia. This, despite not being a fan of Australia at all. Perhaps it’s because I like colonial settings? Perhaps because I like tales of struggle and strife? Perhaps because Australian writers write well? Whatever... The fact is, if it’s a book set in Oz in the 1800s or so, I’m into it in seconds.

You can imagine my joy when I opened my monthly box from Penguin Books and discovered in it the latest offering from Peter Yeldham – of whom I’d never heard. Positioned as ‘the master of the Australian historical blockbuster’, Yeldham has written several books about and set in the dry land down under, and is considered to be a king of his genre. Yeeha! A new friend for me.

So here’s an idea of plot: On a dark night, a desperate man does something criminal and is forced to run for his life. Many years later, when he has built a new life elsewhere and is a wealthy, settled, influential husband and father, he looks unkindly on the young, penniless immigrant who would woo his precious daughter, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth runs away, to be with her Stefan, and they begin a hard life in an unwelcoming place. From there, it’s a short leap into prejudice, political turmoil, betrayal and community conflicts – and as you watch Elizabeth and Stefan’s life take shape, you become ever more entangled in their dramas, despairs and decisions. True to Ozzie form, they unfold over generations. My best!

It’s not complex, sophisticated writing, but it is absorbing and it is epic and it is engaging.

If you liked Courtenay’s early stuff, or the early writings of Paullina Simons, you’ll love this book. (I subsequently tracked down other books by Peter Yeldham and so far, have loved them.)