Unpopcult Book Club: ‘The Sorrows of an American’, Siri Hustvedt

All done?  As is traditional, first crack at the review goes to the person who chose it.  So over to you, Red:

Finished, lying underneath a pine tree.

I’m not sure I made the best choice. Unlike the lady from the Independent, I found this book utterly possible to put down. In fact I took a month-long hiatus before reading the last 50-odd pages. And as for wanting to read it over again… I was quite tempted to leave it in Ibiza to save myself a few hundred grams on the baggage scales. I think my reluctance may have been partly to do with timing. I was getting on fine at the beginning, but then I got really busy both at work and domestically, and frankly I found reading ‘Sorrows’ exhausting.

I said before that I didn’t particularly dislike any of the characters, but now I’m not sure about Miranda. I liked her when she was interacting with, or talking about, Eggy, whom I loved, but otherwise I found her to have a bit of a superiority complex. I didn’t like the way she knew Erik was in love with her, and lorded it over him. I much preferred Erik’s relationship with Laura, but the whole reciting her mother’s recipes to her lover in bed thing was just weird, and reminded me of the theory that shrinks themselves are all fucked up. Overall, the book was hard work, and I haven’t really decided if it was worth it. Oh, and I found the Lisa reveal totally anticlimactic, but maybe that was the point?

CJ, did your feelings about the father’s journals and the Dave the Pencil Man story change in any way after reading the Acknowledgements?

I made it through most of the other contenders while I was away. In comparison to ‘Sorrows’ ‘Mummy Said the F-Word’ by Fiona Gibson positively tripped along, and is one of the best books in its genre I’ve read in a long time. Although I am probably biased, as I’m a big fan of Ms Gibson’s Sunday Herald column. (Was a little bit disappointed to discover that the exotic sounding ‘J’ has a very Scottish name indeed.) Peanuts is of course right that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ really is, ”irresistible, a perfect mix of wistfulness and joy, substance and froth”. Jed, you shouldn’t have been so ageist. ;-p

I loved ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ and have decided that if I were 30 years older and Japanese and a man, all of which, I imagine, I am quite patently not, I would actually *be* Haruki Murakami. I’m still impressed that Pan Macmillan had the savvy to create the non-existent book that SATC fans were requesting in the shops. ‘Love Letters of Great Men’ is a little bit different, in a good way. David Hume in non-philosopher mode is in itself a treatise of human nature. It was interesting to find out what happened, in the end, to ‘That Hamilton Woman’. The Channel 4 broadcast of the Vivien Leigh movie, on 11 September 2001, was interrupted for obvious, everything (including Sonia) changing reasons. Emma Hamilton’s life turned pretty shitty after Lord Nelson died. It’s beyond depressing, and, for me, beyond comprehension that we are still losing our servicemen, and now women, to war, 200 years later.

Unpopcult Book Club – June ’09: “The Sorrows of an American”, Siri Hustvedt

It’s summer, and time for the fourth in our occasional Unpopcult Book Club series.  After one which attracted unanimous approval, and two which had a more mixed response, which way will the Unpopcult posse go with selection number four?  This time it’s longstanding friend of the blog Dona Hunt, aka Red, who’s chosen the book, and here’s a few words from her introducing her selection (and getting one or two things off her chest).  Over to you, Red:

Given that the Unpopcult Book Club was Officially My Idea, I really should have been asked to choose a book long before now.  However, when my turn finally came, the task proved rather difficult.
Like all the best invites, Jed’s came with a dress code.  Nothing vintage (which ruled out Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and the Gabriel Garcia Marquez I’d been eyeing up).  No backstory.  He even specified the material (paperback only).  I had my own requirements too.  Naturally, my choice had to make me look good. I was tempted by chick lit, but there are some things one can only get away with on the beach.   In this particular case, I’d also decided against anything too short or too sexy. 
Initially, I’d hoped that one of my birthday presents might get an outing. Alas the Winifred Watson had been vetoed.  The others just weren’t suitable.  What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is far too sporty.  Love Letters of Great Men is not particularly reviewable.  ‘Must try harder, Napoleon, I’m not feeling the romance’.  In any event, non-fiction was banned.
I consulted my favourite glossy, but, as usual, their selections were too expensive.  (We only do hardbacks, darling.)  In the end I went with a personal shopper.  Amazon recommended.

‘The Sorrows of an American’ is narrated by a psychiatrist called Erik, who finds a mysterious note amongst his recently deceased father’s papers.  The reviews have been good, but let’s give it a go, Unpopculters, and make up our own minds.

Thanks, Red.  The critical response to ‘The Sorrows of an American’ has been positive, with The Guardian describing it as “engaging and absorbing… an intimate, personal treat”; The Observer as “wonderful”; The New York Times as “complex, contemplative… thought-provoking”; and The Independent as “almost impossible to put down, and even harder not to re-read”.

This one sounds like a bit of a challenge, Unpopculters, but I mean that in a good way, and I for one am up for it.  We’ve got all summer.  See you here when the schools go back.

Unpopcult Book Club – ‘The Paradise Trail’ by Duncan Campbell

As tradition requires first shot at reviewing the last Book Club selection goes to the person who chose it. Without further ado, here’s Lady Seaward:

“I must confess that I carried on to the end of the book merely to find out the explanation for the deaths; to tie up the loose ends, as it were, and not through any force of interest. I liked the start, really liked the factual stuff – although, as Jed pointed out, this was probably biased and I do not have enough knowledge to confirm its accuracy. Thereafter, it started to drag a bit. I liked the detail in the author’s description (although it bugged CJ), but the lyrics references started to grate after a while. Whilst it was interesting seeing how the lives of the characters ended up (and the girly side of me felt the frustration of the love that never quite made it, although the heroine found out she preferred girls anyway), and the explanation for the deaths was interesting and from my point of view, unexpected in an Agatha Christie kind of way, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the book as a whole. I found that it dragged in many places and, once the momentum had been lost, was hard to regain at times.”

A lukewarm review, then, from la Seaward. Anyone else?

Unpopcult Book Club – January 09: ‘The Paradise Trail’ by Duncan Campbell

The third book in our occasional Book Club series comes chosen by Unpopcult’s friend, Lady Seaward.  The floor is hers:

When Jed asked me to contribute to the book club, I panicked. I read a lot of books, but generally on the recommendation of other people. To go to a bookshop and select a book off my own bat was a novel experience; and one which took me 2 and a half hours.

I had to consider something which would appeal to both boys and girls, as well as to all tastes. Finally, in the ‘recommended by’ section at my local Waterstones, I happened upon a book the praises of which had been sung by one of the shop’s employees. On skim-reading the back of the book, it seemed a bit out of the ordinary, and an apparent mix of genres.  “At least one of the mix should appeal to all”, thought I. And so, I introduce to you ‘The Paradise Trail’ by Duncan Campbell.”

Thanks, seaward, and thanks also to the anonymous Waterstones employee.  ‘The Paradise Trail’ is set in 1971 in a rundown hippy hangout hotel in India populated by a group of Western drop-outs, one of whom might well be a serial killer on the loose.  Campbell himself is The Guardian’s crime correspondent, and the book has been praised – in The Guardian, obv – for its “compulsive narrative” , “wonderfully drawn characters”, and for having the “wittiest dialogue” one reviewer had ever read.  Other reviews, in fairness, have been generous as well.


Usual rules – at your own pace, comments here when you like, and we’ll meet up in a while for the metaphorical wine and crisps.


(You might like to note that it’s currently available in Waterstones in their 3 for 2 offer, as is Kate Atkinson’s ‘When Will There Be Good News?’, the third in her Jackson Brodie series, which is shaping up at the moment, improbably, to be even better than the first two.)

Unpopcult Book Club – “The Importance of Being Kennedy” by Laurie Graham

Is everybody done?  If not, shut your eyes, as Peanuts has kindly returned to give us her review of this session’s Unpopcult Book Club Book.  Take the floor, Peanuts………


“The time has come, Unpopcult readers, to say goodbye to Irish nanny Nora Brennan and her Kennedy brood. And I, for one, am very sorry to let them go. Well, not all of them right enough. I suspect that, although views might differ widely about the book itself, we readers will form one united boo-hissing, foam-finger brandishing mob of ‘herself’ (aka Rose Kennedy, ‘Mrs K’, ‘her ladyship’) loathers.


Above all, though, I’ll miss Nora. In her, Graham created a warm and winning character imbued with gentle humour and a sort of compassionate worldly-wisdom. Through her time with the Kennedy clan little escapes Nora’s long suffering eye and their story is related in her words. And this is where the real success of Graham’s novel lies: the reader’s consciousness that this is (after all) pure fiction, is lost amidst a wryly enchanting Irish yarn.


I inhabited Nora’s world – in all its mundane splendour – avidly. I appreciated, because Nora did, a little of what it might have meant to live at the epicentre an era which spawned the stuff of modern American legend. I sympathised, because of Nora, with the growing pains, the domestic tragedies and the magnificent social scheming that could have marked the rise and fall of this fascinating family. And, as someone who knew relatively little about the Kennedy clan, I googled…. oh, fellow unpopculters, how I googled!  And, so much of the novel is based on fact, or at least v-e-r-y well rehearsed theory and gossip! Therefore (as with those who count a vegetarian pizza to be one of their ‘5 a day’) I also felt I had learned something of historical significance and value. Yey! I had gained some insight, albeit with the ‘fictography’ caveat, into what is considered by so many to be ‘the importance of being Kennedy’. 


So, farewell Nora, invented backbone of the Kennedy tribe and true heroine of the tale!  You were so easy to believe (and to believe in) because you seemed to me to be the honest everyperson upon whose sweat and love these so-called great families stood. 


Anyways, sniff, that’s just what I thought… I’m sad I have to put the book away now. But, at least there’s another novel for us around the corner!”


Sob!  I’m wiping away a little tear myself, Peanuts.  Thank you once again for choosing the book, introducing the book (and introducing us to Nora and Co) and reviewing it for us.  Great job on all counts.  And great book, too.

Unpopcult Book Club – October 08: “The Importance of Being Kennedy”, Laurie Graham

Order!  Unpopcult Book Club round 2 is now in session.  Jed suggested we change things around a little this time, and so one of our commenters, Peanuts, has very kindly agreed to choose this month’s book and write the intro for it, giving us someone else to take the credit if it’s a hit, and the ire if it’s a dud.  Peanuts, I salute you.  Without further ado, let’s hear what you have to say about this month’s choice: – 

“I thought we’d try something a bit different for our next read. Laurie Graham’s The Importance of Being Kennedy is one of many fictographies (or fictionalised biographies) to hit shelves in recent years. 

The great thing about this evolving genre is that it offers us something of the salacious gossip found in trashy magazines but (and here’s the conscience- satisfying ‘I smoked but I didn’t inhale’ part) it doesn’t pretend to be true. What’s more, it’s actually literature. Whoohoo! Well, of a lounging-in-the-tub, flopping-on-the-beach sort anyways. 

Told in the words of Nora Brennan, the fictitious Irish nanny who raised JFK and his eight siblings, The Importance promises to be an “entertaining delve into the Kennedy family legend, with energetic pace, witty dialogue and vividly drawn characters’”(The Observer). 

If Graham’s previous books (The Future Homemakers of America; The Great Husband Hunt) are anything to go by this should be a warm, funny and involving yarn. Maybe this fictography will provide some more bizarre theories on the supposed lobotomy of Rosie Kennedy and the infamous ‘Kennedy curse’, but we’ll soon find out, either way.

As with the last book (The End of Mr. Y) there aren’t really any rules. The “plan” is the same – for book clubbers to work our way through this one too, comment as and when, and we’ll post a review in a month or so.  Go on – join us.” 

Thanks, Peanuts, sounds good to me.  Who’s in?

The other review – ‘The End of Mr. Y’

CJ has already posted her review of the first Unpopcult Book Club selection: she liked it.  Fair enough.  I didn’t, much, and as it was ultimately my selection, and as CJ has set out her reasons for enjoying it, it seems only fair that I should say why it missed the mark as far as I was concerned.

The novel is ostensibly about unlikeable student Ariel Manto, a specialist in obscure Victorian author Thomas Lumas.  One of Lumas’s works, ‘The End Of Mr. Y’, has more or less passed into mythology: hardly anyone has even read it, and rumours of a curse attach to it.  Ariel, however, comes across a copy in a second-hand bookshop, and starts reading it.  It turns out that Lumas’s book is mainly about Mr. Y’s discovery of an alternative world, the Troposphere, which he can access after consuming a particular potion.  Ariel tries this herself and successfully enters the Troposphere.

I say ostensibly.  What the book in fact is about, I think, is the exercise of constructing fiction (and in support I would pray in aid the first six words of chapter 1, which mean nothing when the reader starts the book, but have huge significance when re-read).  And here is where I start to get irritated: partly, at least, because the book is not wholly without merit.

I don’t claim to be an expert on literary theory.  But at a crude level I understand one of the basic tenets of postmodernism to be that the distinction between fiction based in the “real ” world and fiction based in an “imaginary” world is illusory.  So, for instance, Donna Leon’s Venice, or James Lee Burke’s Louisiana, or Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik, are literary constructs every bit as much as Scarlett Thomas’s Troposphere – and, in this case, every bit as much as Scarlett Thomas’s “real world”.  Well, perhaps.  The problem with that, of course, is that the ordinary reader knows that, at an intuitive level, to be a misleading comparison; and unless it’s exceptionally well done the novel-as-literary-exercise is trite at best and suffocatingly sterile at worst.  (‘Cloud Atlas’, for example, does it well without sacrificing the essential need to put together a coherent and satisfying narrative.)  This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why literary fiction is suffering at the hands of pile-’em-high chick-lit.

What’s particularly annoying here is that Thomas can write.  The first few chapters are well-written, suspenseful stuff: Ariel’s drab life is convincingly portrayed; the book-within-a-book ‘Mr. Y’ is an unusually convincing pastiche; and until she runs away with her desire to show off her research the fusion of literature and science is fascinating.  But then Ariel hits the Troposphere, and by the time she’s encountering sodding mouse gods my patience was more or less exhausted.  I was kept going by one of the reviews which promised, as you might recall, “debauched sex”: frankly, if ever a book could have benefited from more shagging, it’s this one.

So there we go.  I’m not sorry I read ‘The End Of Mr. Y’, and I positively enjoyed the communal experience of the Unpopcult Book Club, which we’re about to do again.  However, as a novel ‘The Story Of Mr. Y’ is not a success.