Dysfunctional Family Bonding Dysfunctionally: The Red House by Mark Haddon

Book Cover Image of The Red House by Mark HaddonDaily crises,  confrontations, misunderstandings, adolescent hormonal outbreaks, sexual tension, attempted suicide, a nervous breakdown, a dramatic brush with death, and no cell phone reception except in a tiny corner of an upstairs bedroom don’t make for a relaxing family holiday, but make The Red House by Mark Haddon, where much of what happens is happening inside someone’s head, an intriguing novel of family and identity.
Angela’s brother Richard phones Angela out of the blue after their mother’s funeral, to invite her, her under-employed husband of twenty years, Dominic, and their three kids (athletic Alex, age 17; born-again Daisy, 16; and dreamy Benjy, 8) – to spend a week’s holiday with him and his new wife, Louisa, and stepdaughter Melissa (age 16) in a rented house in the hilly countryside of Herefordshire on the Welsh border. Although resentful of Richard because of the years she spent dealing with their mother’s long, alcoholic decline while her financially successful younger brother paid the bills and kept his distance, Angela accepts his invitation –  unable to take her family on any vacation at all otherwise, much less to a more exotic locale, as she pointedly reminds Dominic, the failed family breadwinner. Five weeks from the surprising phone call, they’ve all met up at the shabby but comfortable rental house and started getting to know each other, somewhat stiffly and awkwardly.*
Sentence fragments. Many fragments. Passing thoughts, random images, partial memories, inchoate yearnings. (This was how I thought of starting out the review, but I was afraid it would sound negative, and I want readers of literary fiction to read The Red House, even though it is more like A Spot of Bother,** the author’s second novel, than his more popular first, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.)
It takes a while to get used to the poetic style of the author’s writing. (Sentence fragments. Many fragments.) You don’t always know what is being thought or who is doing the thinking at first, but this is the way the author gets the reader into the characters’ heads. People don’t think in fully-formed, coherent paragraphs, or even in full sentences, sometimes not even verbally.
Also confusing at first is the way the author uses italics instead of quotation marks to signify that a character is talking, not thinking – the opposite of the usual use of italics. I don’t know why the author decided to do this. Maybe just because most of the book would have been italicized if it had been done the usual way.
Even those who aren’t relative strangers to each other learn something about their siblings, spouses, parents, children, or themselves during the week away – some good, some bad – and have had to revise their thoughts about themselves or someone else during their time outside of usual life. Nothing is charming or particularly heartwarming (no group-hugs), but the brief period of togetherness makes their individual lives of quiet desperation a little less lonely and desperate.

*understatement of the year
**understatement of THAT year

Read a Telegraph article about author Mark Haddon here, which includes a short excerpt from near the beginning of The Red House.

Disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.

The Red House
Haddon, Mark
Doubleday
June 12, 2012
978-0-385-53577-9
272 p., $25.95, hc

More Speed Dating with Must-Read MassBook Authors, Part 2

Speed dating with the Must Read Massachusetts Authors at the Massachusetts Library Association conference on Wednesday, May 9, was so much fun. Six of the authors whose books have been selected as finalists for Massachusetts Book Awards in one of four categories (Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Children’s/Young Adult) had just 4½ minutes at six different tables crowded with librarians to get each group excited to read their books.

Photo of the six authors

L to R: Laura Harrington, Diana Gordon, Kimberly Marcus, Jef Czekaj, Lawrence Vincent, and Leonard Rosen

Book cover image of All Cry Chaos

Leonard Rosen drew on his academic and nonfiction writing background to write his first literary thriller.

Leonard Rosen‘s experience in teaching writing classes at Bentley University and Harvard University came through as soon as he sat down and hooked the attention of the classroom table with a show-and-tell. “The idea for All Cry Chaos came to me when I was on a flight from Boston to L.A. and looked out the window and saw this,” he said, showing the group a enlarged aerial photograph of ridge lines branching out from a main trunk in a dry desert landscape. Flipping through a succession of photos of hands, bloodshot eyes, trees, and a cabbage leaf (“even my appetizer at dinner”) he explained how he began to notice a similar pattern all over the place. “It made me wonder, ‘Is there a Pattern-maker?’ That is to say, ‘Is there a God?’ And that is the question the character in my book takes on.” His main character, Henri Poincaré, is close to retirement as an Interpol agent when a prominent mathematician/Harvard professor is dramatically murdered at the World Trade Organization meeting in Amsterdam. Poincaré gets drawn into the victim’s complex theories and mathematical discoveries to solve the case.

Cover image of book Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible

D.M. Gordon’s book is from Hedgerow Press, a new poetry imprint from Levellers Press in Western Mass.

Somewhat sadly, Diana Gordon, whose second collection of poetry has the intriguing title Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible, had to endure a moment of awkward silence when she sat down and asked the group at the table: “Do you like to read poetry?” When no one answered, however, she smoothly segued into the relationship of authors and librarians (“Writers need libraries and libraries need writers.”) and read a short poem from her book. She suggested offering poetry readings at the library where people would read and discuss other people’s poems, not just share their own poetry, and that librarians would not have to be poetry experts to facilitate a group like this. She herself facilitates a weekly poetry discussion group at the Forbes Library in Northampton.

Photo of Jef Czekaj

Jef Czekaj of Somerville explaining how he came to write and illustrate  the children’s book, A Call for a New Alphabet.

Jef Czekaj is a cartoonist, children’s book author/illustrator, and a D.J. He uses his real name for his writing and illustrating (“Czekaj” is pronounced CHECK-eye,) but D.J.s under a pseudonym. His Must-Read children’s picture book, A Call for a New Alphabet, is about an exasperated letter X. Jef took the confessional approach at our table, announcing straightaway, “I was a linguistics major, and when I graduated, I realized I couldn’t do anything with my linguistics degree.” Luckily, he found an artistic niche that also allows him to use his fondness for language. His books Hip and Hop, Don’t Stop!, Cat Secrets, and The Circulatory Story were all Junior Library Guild selections.

See the previous post, More Speed Dating with Must-Read MassBook Authors, Part One, for the speed-dating skinny on Kimberly Marcus, author of the YA novel Exposed; L.M. Vincent, author of the quirky microhistory In Search of Motif No. 1; and Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss.

All six of the Must-Read authors were friendly and engaging to talk with, and all were open to a second date, i.e. being invited to libraries to speak. The full list of Must Read authors will be posted by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and all Massachusetts libraries will be receiving a copy of the poster showing all of the Must Read titles.

Photo of Must-Read Books Banner 2012

Must-Read Books selected by Massachusetts Book Awards judges

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More Speed Dating with Must-Read MassBook Authors, Part 1

Authors wait as they are introduced

Authors appear a little nervous waiting for their first table assignments.

Speed Dating with the Authors sponsored by the Massachusetts Center for the Book was a big hit for the second year in a row, with over a hundred attendees on the opening day of the Massachusetts Library Association conference. Twelve finalists for Massachusetts Book Awards have been selected as Must Reads in each of four categories – Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Children’s/Young Adult. Six intrepid Must-Read authors agreed to take part in matchmaking with a roomful of librarians eagerly looking for their newest favorite book. All of the authors were great sports about being rotated around the six packed tables to talk about their books, their writing process, and themselves.

Photo of Kimberly Marcus

Author Kimberly Marcus drew on her knowledge as a clinical social worker to write Exposed, her first YA novel.

The action of Kimberly Marcus‘s first young adult novel, Exposed, set in Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, begins when 16-year-old Liz – a gifted photographer – learns that her brother is accused of raping her best friend. How did she come to write the entire novel in free verse? A friend suggested writing a scene she was stuck on as a poem to get unstuck. That advice helped her get unstuck, and later on, it helped again. That’s when she realized “the idea of snapshots and verse really worked” and she wrote the whole book that way. Kimberly Marcus has also written a children’s picture book, Scritch-Scratch A Perfect Match. A North Dartmouth resident, she lives near the beach and has set Exposed in a fictional town on the Cape.

Cover image of In Search of Motif No. 1

In Search of Motif No. 1 by L. M. Vincent

L.M. Vincent’s “quirky” new book, In Search of Motif No. 1: The History of a Fish Shack, intrigued librarians with its eye-catching cover art and Rockport theme. Comfortable with an audience, Lawrence Vincent (a multi-talented humorist and playwright, as well as radiologist in a Boston hospital) talked about how he came to write about the iconic Cape Ann shack lost in the Blizzard of ’78 and later rebuilt. “I didn’t even know what a fish shack was when I moved to Massachusetts,” he said, but he became curious about the proliferation of paintings and photographs – good and bad – with the shack as their subject. Researching the “truly fabulous pieces” that came out of the heyday of the artists’ colony there (1920-1946) led him to write the history of the shack, which is, he says, “in many ways, the history of small-town America.”

Blurry photo of Laura Harrington

Alice Bliss, Laura Harrington’s first novel, is getting a lot of buzz.

Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss, her first novel, is also a playwright. She made instant friends at the table I was at by sitting down and declaring, “Librarians are my favorite people.” A Gloucester resident and native of Rochester, New York, Laura said that her own family’s history (Her father fought in World War II and her two brothers in Vietnam) led her to write about the war in Iraq. “I want to get people thinking about the war,” she said, “but I hope the book will also get people thinking about a girl. Alice Bliss, centered around a 15-year-old daughter’s relationship with her father, is about the Iraq War but is “really a classic coming-of-age story,” she said. Alice Bliss has also been named a Best Adult Book for Teens by School Library Journal.

All six of the authors were friendly and engaging to talk with, and all were open to a second date, i.e. being invited to libraries to speak. Part Two of this blog post will talk about Jef Czekaj, author/illustrator of A Call for a New Alphabet; D. M. Gordon, author of the poetry collection Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible; and Leonard Rosen’s literary thriller All Cry Chaos.

Photo of Must-Read Books Banner 2012

Must-Read Books selected by Massachusetts Book Awards judges

The full list of Must Read authors will be posted soon by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and all Massachusetts libraries will be receiving a copy of the beautiful poster that premiered at the Speed Dating with the Must Read Authors yesterday.

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