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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

July Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín

This 1992 second novel by Irish author Colm Tóibín is the story of Eamon Redmond. Eamon is a prominent judge from the Irish town of Enniscorthy, infamous for his harsh, strict, and unwavering deliberations, many of which have caused contention among the community. On holiday, Eamon and his wife Carmel visit their family’s beach house on the cliffs of Cush, a house which has long been a part of Eamon’s childhood; each time he returns to the house, painful memories are unearthed and coming rolling forward into the present. This novel is an exploration of those memories–how memories, both pleasant and painful, come to influence an individual; how the role of family impacts the development of a young boy into a young man; and how tragedy can shape and change a person, in the past, present, and future.

It is a deeply moving novel, with complex and incredibly rounded characters; a family marked by tragedy, an individual grappling with identity, morality, and family. Tóibín explores the various complicated facets that build an intricate mosaic of a man’s life, and does so in his signature prose, elegant, terse, and profoundly enthralling. The novel is split into three sections with six chapters each. And interestingly, dissimilar to his first novel The South which I read back in January, The Heather Blazing is nonlinear–the chapters fluctuate in time: from the present-day, Eamon as a middle-age man, a judge, a husband, a father; to the past, Eamon as a young boy, coming of age, growing into a young man, learning who he is and who he is meant to be. This chronological juxtaposition inspires a fascinating parallel that conveys the aspects, events, memories that transcend the passage of time, seeping, affecting, and pervading the present, inescapable and timeless. This is what makes Tóibín so masterful; the virtuosic quality of his work lies in the exploration of time, memory, and family, and this novel is a coalescence of those attributes. I cannot wait to read more of his work; next one up will be The Story of the Night.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

This 1978 debut novel by English writer Ian McEwan is the shocking story about four young children grappling with the death of their parents. Julie, Jack, Sue, and Tom live in a big house with a large garden in their backyard. Tragically, their father dies after a heart attack, and the four kids are left in the sole care of their mother, a weak, sickly woman who not long after the death of her husband becomes bedridden with illness, eventually succumbs and dies in the house, leaving her four children alone in the world. The children, who for as long as they’ve been together have a had deep emotional and unnervingly close connection, are left to fend for themselves, to figure out how to live, how to endure, and how to dispose of their mother’s body. What ensues is an absolutely fascinating, shockingly morbid, and completely subversive novel driven by a psychological exploration of innocence in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.

The novel earned him the nickname “Ian Macabre” and rightly so. McEwan explores the intersection of tragedy, deviance, and naivete, all the while capturing the juvenile innocence that obscures a child’s understanding of the world. It is at once a psychological exploration of childhood and all the tribulation associated with burgeoning puberty as well as a philosophical examination of abjection. This novel, by the nature of its content and form, inherently disrupts conventionality and cultural universality. And how it does disrupt such norms and understandings is in itself a feat of artistic vision. McEwan, his wild imagination pouring through his elegant, captivating prose, has crafted a novel that subverts all expectation and pulls at the heartstrings of the reader. This one was heartrendingly fascinating. I read it cover to cover and am still reeling from its ending. An absolute tour-de-force and modern cult classic.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

This 1856 debut novel by French writer Gustave Flaubert is one of my absolute favorite novels of all time. The story centers around Emma Bovary and her marriage to physician Charles Bovary. Emma Bovary is a complicated figure; a fan of fantasy novels, fairy tales, and with a penchant for the luxurious, she romanticizes her life, so much so that she begins secretly scheming to attain the idealized picture of life that she has contrived her head. She begins having affairs with other men, men more capable and financially endowed than her husband Charles; she begins accumulating an enormous amount of debt, buying elegant dresses and items on credit, and despite all she does, all the leaps and schemes she plans, it seems that every glimpse of happiness Emma obtains is fleeting, short-lived, and before long, she falls despondent, the glimpse of the golden life of her dreams flying far away once again. What ensues is a tragic and timeless tale, a humanistic exploration of reality versus illusion, and one of the greatest novels ever written.

I first read in back in 2019 and upon reading it again for a second time my first impression and undoubtedly universal opinion on this novel still holds strong if not a hundredfold stronger: it is impossible to overstate the sheer brilliance and significance of this novel. Literary scholars, critics, and readers alike have long hailed it as one of the greatest novels ever written–even my favorite Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote “Madame Bovary is the perfect novel, and it is the best novel that has ever been written.” But why it is so great has long been a topic of debate, a point of contention among the literary sphere. It is probably one of the most written about novels, as it is widely regarded as one of the influential in history. In my opinion the novel is great for three reasons: the writing itself–Flaubert, in his meticulously crafted prose, sought to capture as realistically as possible not only the external world but the internal as well, over a cast of varying characters; the conflict of the plot–the psychological, philosophical excavation and critique on idealism vs pragmatism, expectations vs reality, truth vs illusion, etc.; and of course the timelessness of the novel–how it is a novel that still resonates today, especially in an age where disinformation abounds and the uncertain portrait of the future belies the thwarted dreams of younger generations. It is one of my favorite novels of all time and that description will never change. There is so much in the novel.

Also, I wrote an essay on the novel because I couldn’t help myself.

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

This 1966 novel by American writer Larry McMurtry is a brilliant, vivid, comical, and captivating portrait of a small town in rural Texas during the early 1950’s. The story centers around three high school seniors: best friends Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson, and Jacy Farrow, a young beautiful romantic interest of the two boys. At the beginning of the novel, Duane and Jacy are a couple, happy but not without their issues. As the school year unfolds, winter turns to spring and soon to summer, romantic flings and affairs abound; Sonny, nearly eighteen, finds himself caught in a secret affair with the football coach’s wife Ruth; Jacy finds herself caught between her relationship and the idealistic picture of herself, doubtless affected by her freewheeling mother, and tensions begin to rise among the inhabitants of the town. Wrought by the impoverished conditions and a growing sense of hopelessness in the wake of burgeoning adulthood, all must confront the issues that bind one another together. What unfurls is a coming-of-age tale unlike any other, timeless, deservingly cemented in the annals of 20th century American literature.

Larry McMurtry recently passed away, back in March of this year. I had heard his name, was familiar with his magnum opus Lonesome Dove, and knew that he was highly regarded, especially in the Western genre. But I hadn’t realized how or why he was so highly regarded, and this novel, a timeless classic which was adapted into a 1971 classic film, spanning nearly 250 pages, was a perfect introduction to his work. The novel is a drama, one situated against the brutal backdrop of the Western genre, however, without the emphasis on themes, motifs, and elements that trademark the genre. No, this one is entirely character-driven, and with a large cast of unique individuals, McMurtry paints an elaborate, searingly human portrait of life–of life in a small Texan town on the outskirts of nowhere, in the 1950’s, with all the teenage angst, confusion, frustration, sexuality, and innocence that such a portrait holds. The novel is endlessly entertaining–I laughed out loud more than once–strikingly poignant, and beautifully written. I truly couldn’t put this one down, and upon ending the last page, I vowed to read all of his work, which is extensive. Next one with likely be Moving On.

Enigma Variations by André Aciman

This 2017 fourth novel by Italian-American author André Aciman is an artistic exploration of romantic and sexual ambiguity and the intersection of love and insecurity. The novel, split into four sections, follows Paul, an Italian American who from a young age has been wracked with intense emotional attachments. In his boyhood the object of his infatuation was a cabinetmaker employed by his parents, who took him under his wing and showed him the ways of woodworking. As an adult living in New York City, it is a young woman, a former classmate, who has his heart, his attention, along with his fear of abandonment. However, as Paul contemplates his relationship, grapples with his insecurities, jealousies, misinterpretations, his long-thwarted urges from his childhood come soaring back, and what unfolds is a searing portrait of the power of our desires in the face of our dreams.

This novel falls very much in the same vein as Aciman’s famous debut 2007 Call Me by Your Name. At the center of the novel is a complicated young man coming of age, finding himself, grappling with sexual desires and confronting his identity. And like his other novel, what I found most enjoyable, even beyond the complexity of the character study, was Aciman’s descriptions of setting. Aciman’s settings are dreamscapes–dusty stone-cobbled back alleys of an Italian city merge into the golden vegetation of the bucolic banks which fall into valleys and a sandy coastline lapped by the sparkling sea stretching on into infinity. From Italy to America, the steel and iron skyscrapers looming above the crowded city streets, horns and shouts echoing off the glass windows, filling the air, co-mingling with the youthful warmth that an industrious metropolis inspires. Aciman has a keen eye for setting, an acute spatial awareness, and while this novel, like his other, is emphatically character-driven, his beautiful descriptions add a masterful element to his work, which only serves to emphasize the virtuosity of his craft.

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