… is relentless. When I started to read it, I needed long breaks between chapters to take in the harsh realities of Hugh’s (aka Shuggie’s) life. The author Douglas Stuart describes the boy’s relationship with his mother – a Liz Tayloresque beauty with a drinking problem of epic proportions – in all brutal honesty, showing the meanderings of hope during her „dry“ episodes and the repeated falls back into the fog of alcohol that seem to be unavoidable. The book is also an introduction to some parts of Glasgow, a city I haven’t been to yet. Places like black & white photographs where lost people live, left behind by economic policy changes that got rid of mining. Hope seems scarce, children grow up tormenting those who don’t fit in (boys that don’t want to finger girls, for example), and Shuggie bears the brunt of the envy that surrounds his mother in spite of her many problems. Men fall for her and are ultimately her downfall. Predictably, things don’t end well for Agnes, but Shuggie finds some beauty in a new friendship. Towards the middle of the book, I didn’t need to pause reading any more. Not because the words didn’t hurt any more, but because I’d fallen for their harsh beauty. A must-read!
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Shuggie Bain …
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Neighbours (in Mumbai)
I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but when I do, I like the book to tell me a good story. When I heard about Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the title made me curious and the fact that it was set in India even more so. Mumbai – vast, with many hidden corners – that is the setting – or rather, Annawadi, a neighbourhood where very poor people live in the vicinity of bustling Mumbai airport. The author Katherine Boo spent three years with the people we get to know in the book and witnessed their joy and their pain – well, it’s mostly pain with a glimpse of hope here and there. Corruption is one big theme and while I was reading the book, I almost despaired of all the injustice, the tedious criminal law procedures and the unfair medical treatment of the very poor. But above all, there was a sense of the very familiar – the squabbles of neighbours, the suspicious looks at somebody who is different, the girl struggling for a better life through education. The kids dream the universal dream of a better life. May at least some of them find it!
If John Burnside writes well about men, Siri Hustvedt writes well about women. The title The Summer Without Men somehow implies who plays the main role. Men have a presence in this book. A presence that is examined and re-evaluated.
And then there are the women – remarkable in old, middle and young age. A very loving portrayal of what it means to be old and frail is one aspect that I loved about this book. And what it means to have hidden so much in a lifetime, yet to find a way to tell the story in the end (in the case of Abigail – one of the so-called Five Swans). Then there are the changes of perspective. The analysis of „indirect“ emotions (while watching a film) versus „direct emotions“ confronted with the death of a loved one. The dialogue with me, the reader. A woman myself, drawn into the circle in Boden.
After the bout of madness comes Mia’s healing. The only thing I was missing in that process was a female friend from her past. Somehow, that person didn’t seem to exist. Maybe she’ll come after the return to New York. After all, a substantially changed life always invites new people in. Let’s see where it takes the poet and teacher Mia. I liked her. And I liked reading about her circle.
I had met the author before I read the book. It was a beautiful summer evening in Berlin. Das Blaue Sofa – brilliantly hosted by Barbara Wahlster – was taken apart and the discussion began. About the importance of editors. And translators. Social networks were also mentioned. And when we all gathered on the roof of the house to admire the sights and building sites of ‚Unter den Linden‘, the conversation continued, the story unfolded and I knew what I wanted to read next. A Lie About My Father by John Burnside is one of those books that I won’t forget. It’s honest. It’s fiction and autobiography and it let me choose between the two. It is uncomfortable and heart-warming. It rummages in a family’s entrails and leaves me wondering why it’s so easy to take the wrong turn. And yes – it’s about addiction. Alcohol, other drugs – it’s all there. The mess, the hurt and the betrayals of self and others. And about men who want to hide.
At the beginning, there’s a quote by Patti Smith. I went to her concert the day after ‚Das Blaue Sofa‘.
The Empty Family are short stories by my favourite Irish writer, Colm Tóibín. The writer „spoke“ to me in a very quiet voice – and I listened between the lines while reading and immersed myself into the multi-layered emotional world of the characters.
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