Tag Archives: Darcy O’Brien

My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading

For me, 2015 was another year filled with great reading. I read around 90 books in 2015 (mostly older books), and only a handful turned out to be disappointing in some way. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve managed to whittle it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of excellent books, plus a few honourable mentions along the way! These are the books I love, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each ‘winner’ in this post, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

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First up, five category winners:

Reread of the Year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Considered by some to be Yates’ best, this novel follows two sisters who take very different paths in life. Their story taps into a familiar theme in this author’s work: the search for happiness and fulfilment that always seems to elude his characters. Despite the deep sense of sadness running through the novel, this was my favourite reread of the year. A superb book (I doubt whether it gets much better than Richard Yates).

Honourable Mentions (All of these are winners in their own right): After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys; A Heart So White by Javier Marías; The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler.

Crime Novel of the Year: The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War, the story focuses on the bond that develops between a clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court and the husband of a murder victim. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

Honourable Mentions: Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac; Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

Autobiographical Novel of the Year: Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, I’ve only read a couple of autobiographical books this year, but the de Vigan was so good that I had to find a slot for it somewhere! Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing book, beautifully written – de Vigan’s prose is luminous. 

Novella of the Year: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Poor Florence Green is up against it at every turn as she tries to open a bookshop in the (fictional) Suffolk town of Hardborough. The town is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everybody else’s business, a place where gossip, hierarchies and class systems all play an important role. Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too – every scene is so finely observed. Of the three Fitzgerald novels I’ve read to date, this is my favourite.

Honourable Mentions: Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós; Madame de___ by Louise de Vilmorin; Agostino by Alberto Moravia.

Short Story Collection of the Year: Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this edition of forty-two pieces drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her stories point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for something different.

Honourable Mentions: Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile; Subtly Worded by Teffi.

And now for the novels, eight favourites from a year of reading:

Run River by Joan Didion

It was a tough call between this book and Didion’s iconic Play It As It Lays; in the end, Run River was the one that stood out for me. I love the melancholy tone of this novel which explores the disintegration of the relationship between a husband and wife living in California. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a time that has all but disappeared. One for fans of Richard Yates – there are similarities with The Easter Parade.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This novel follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into the Claremont Hotel where she joins a group of residents in similar positions – each one is likely to remain there until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, bittersweet, thought-provoking novel, one that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness, the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on (there are some very funny moments). A real gem.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Part compassionate satire, part touching coming-of-age story, this semi-autobiographical novel was inspired by O’Brien’s experiences of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. The boy’s father used to be a famous actor, but his career has faded over the years. By the time he is twelve, the boy is living with his melodramatic, alcoholic mother, acting as her confidante and helping her through the bad times. This is a wonderful book – funny, sad, ironic and sympathetic. In many ways, it reminds me of early-to-mid-period Woody Allen (you know, the good ones before things went astray).

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker makes my reading highlights for the second year running, this time with Young Man with a Horn, a novel inspired by the music of jazz legend, Bix Beiderbecke. The story focuses on the life of a fictional character named Rick Martin, a jazz musician whose passion for music is so great that he struggles to keep pace with his own ability. This is good old-fashioned storytelling strong on mood, atmosphere and the rhythm of the music. Baker’s writing is top-notch.

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Set in the 1940s, this novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Probably my favourite read of the year – a must for Patrick Hamilton fans.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper-middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. When Sophie is bitten by a cat, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence. This is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. A novel that has grown in my mind over time.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Set in Enniscorthy (the author’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s, Tóibín’s latest novel is the touching story of a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. This is a novel that speaks to me on a personal level; so much of Nora’s story reminds me of my own mother’s experiences following the loss of my father. A subtle character study of a woman’s inner life. As one might expect with Tóibín, the sense of place is wonderful, too.

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s ‘underground’ novel centres on the development of a relationship between Therese, a young aspiring designer and Carol, an older woman in the midst of a divorce and custody battle for her child. I really love this book; it is beautiful, insightful and involving. The central characters are so well drawn – the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. While Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar Highsmith themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context. This is the source novel for Todd Haynes’ recent film, Carol – both the novel and the movie come with a high recommendation from me.

Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

Finishing my #TBR20 – a few reflections

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been tagging my recent reviews with #TBR20. You may have heard about this initiative on twitter, or read about it posts by other bloggers (Emma and Max have joined recently – I’ve included links to their posts. Other participants are here). In essence, #TBR20 is a way of tackling the ever-growing ‘to-be-read’ pile of books by reading twenty books you already own before buying any more. It’s Eva Stalker’s idea – you can read Eva’s original post here. Eva started her #TBR20 in November with the aim of finishing by the end of March – you can read her latest post here (one month on from completing her twenty).

Like Eva, I already owned more unread books than I knew what to do with, so I decided to start a round of #TBR20 at the beginning of December. By the first week in April, I’d finished reading my twentieth book, Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart (not my favourite book of the twenty, but an exhilarating read nonetheless). If you’re interested, here’s a picture of my twenty books (well, nineteen of them as I read Mary Costello’s Academy Street on kindle).

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One month on from finishing my #TBR20, I thought it would be useful to jot down a few notes on how it worked for me, partly for my own benefit but also because it might be of interest to others.

From the outset, I decided to pick my twenty books as I went along. I had a ‘draft’ set of twenty books piled up on the bookshelf, but I tinkered with it every now and again. My reading tends to be driven by my mood; I need variety, a change of pace or tone. I want books that take me to different periods and places. There are times when one book leads to another, something with a similar idea or theme or an interesting contrast. I found this relatively easy to manage by maintaining the flexibility to move a few books in and out of the pile.

This approach came into its own when I reached the end of January. I hit a difficult period at home. A mysterious pain appeared on one side of my body and refused go away. A protracted sequence of tests, hospital visits and periods of uncertainty followed. I’ll spare you the details, but it turns out that I have a crack in one of my ribs, a fracture that is taking some time to heal. It’s still there, and it’s rather painful.

Out went a few challenging or intense books; in came a few books I just knew I would enjoy. Novels like the warm and affectionate A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien; an escape to 1950s LA in the form of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Good-bye; and the comfort of rereading a favourite novel, A Heart So White by Javier Marias. (I checked with Eva, rereads are in line with the spirit of #TBR20 – it’s about valuing the books you already own even if you’ve read them before.) All three turned out to be terrific choices.

I also decided only to count the books I intended to review, mainly to tag and record them on here. In addition, I excluded a couple of review copies which I read and posted about while I was doing #TBR20. Library loans (which I used for books chosen by my book group) were also excluded. All in all, I ended up reading 24 books from my TBR/reread shelf (20 reviewed + 4 not reviewed), two review copies and two library loans. You can find links to all my reviews in this index here, or you can click on the #TBR20 tag at the bottom of this post.

So what have I learned from #TBR20?

  • Well, I’ve rediscovered a sense of excitement about the books I bought many months or years ago, several of which were personal recommendations or purchases prompted by other bloggers’ reviews.
  • My original ‘draft’ twenty did not include enough crime, hardboiled or noir to satisfy me; that’s where I would have struggled had I not made at least one tweak.
  • My current TBR includes more than enough choice and variety to satisfy my reading whims. I don’t need any more books. (That doesn’t stop me wanting a few more every now and again.)
  • I don’t feel attracted to the new releases just because they are ‘new’. I still crave books, but the ones I want to buy tend to be older releases, backlist titles by some of my new favourite authors (Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joan Didion, Ross Macdonald and Javier Marias spring to mind) or other reissues that have caught my eye.
  • I have missed the enjoyment of browsing in bookshops. This has been the biggest challenge, to keep away from temptation. I allowed myself just one visit to a bookshop during the four months of #TBR20, a trip to the new Foyles. Time for a small confession. It was my birthday in March, and I cracked – I used a birthday book token to buy myself a little something: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr. I nearly read it that very week, but it’s sitting on my bookshelf for a late summer treat. I just know I’m going to love it.
  • When I started my #TBR20, I set up a new wishlist for the books I wanted to buy. By the beginning of April, there were twenty books on that list, and that’s following a couple of rounds of pruning. I had intended to allow myself six new books, but temptation got the better of me and I ended up buying twelve (eek!), the others remain on the wishlist. Here they are – as you can see, I’ve gone a bit NYRB Classics crazy.

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  • I’ve already read three of them, all fantastic: Philippe Beaussant’s Rendezvous in Venice, Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn and Alberto Moravia’s Agostino (reviews to follow). I intend to keep the others for a while; they have joined the ranks of the great TBR.
  • I need to carry on with the spirit of #TBR20, of valuing the books I already own rather than allowing myself to be distracted by the next craving. I’m not sure if I can go another four months without buying ANY new books; it might be a little too soon after the first round.
  • As an alternative approach, I’m going to try to cut back on buying books (especially now that I’ve had a splurge). I’m still thinking about what might work for me over the next few months. Possibly a TBR10 or a ‘Three Out, One In’ approach? Maybe I’ll try a TBR10 and see how I get on. If it works out, I might push on through to another twenty, but I’ll need to choose the books I want to read as I go along. I know that much. There are still a good 200+ unread physical books (and around 50 e-books) in this house, so there’s plenty of scope for me to appreciate the ones I already own.

Good luck to those of you who are doing the #TBR20. I hope my thoughts are of some interest – do let me know your thoughts on #TBR20, tackling the reading pile or on any of the books I’ve mentioned. All are welcome.

Belinda Farrell has also posted her thoughts on finishing #TBR20 here.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien (review)

Darcy O’Brien was the son of actor George O’Brien (star of several silent films and 1930s Westerns), and stage and screen actress Marguerite Churchill, a frequent co-star of John Wayne. A Way of Life, Like Any Other, is Darcy’s semi-autobiographical novel inspired by his experiences of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. It’s a terrific novel: part compassionate satire, part touching coming-of-age story, and another absolute gem from NYRB Classics. Guy and Max have already written such great reviews of A Way of Life that I doubt whether my thoughts will add much to the discussion. But if nothing else, I hope this post might encourage one or two other readers to take a look at this noteworthy book.

As the novel opens, the unnamed narrator recalls the idyllic days of his early childhood years living with his mother and father at the Casa Fiesta ranch in Malibu. His father is a famous actor, in demand for films and personal appearances, and the family are living the high life enjoying all the benefits that success can bring.

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All too soon though, this dream world crumbles around them. As the father’s career fades away, life strips the family of many of their glamorous possessions and pleasures, and a divorce is inevitable. By the time the narrator is twelve, he is living with his melodramatic, alcoholic mother acting as her confidante and helping her through the bad times. In this passage, the narrator remembers life as a twelve-year-old:

The dinner parties were amusing unless Mother allowed herself to get too drunk before they were well under way. I would act as bartender and I would know it as a sign of trouble if she took little drink from me, because that meant she was swilling in the kitchen. Guests praised my highballs and martinis and wondered that a twelve-year-old could attain such skills.

“He’s the man of the house,” my mother would say. “Children should be treated as adults. Make Maggie another bourbon.” (pg. 15)

Mother embarks on a search for the perfect man, the love of her life, a man who can finally make her happy. Men come and go, some stay longer than others, but none of them seem terribly suitable. Guy’s review contains a wonderful quote on a couple of the contenders: the father’s handball partner (a short-term player) and the guy who invented the Hawaiian shirt (he lasts almost a year).

Then Mother meets Anatol, a Russian sculptor who finances his art by making mock-ups of animals for Disney. Anatol looks to be a strong bet; he’s rumoured to be the best lay in Hollywood, and his status as an artist puts him at the top of Mother’s pecking order:

I had only an approximate idea of what being the best lay involved, or of what it might involve to Maggie or to Mother, but I knew that Mother considered artists a superior class, on a scale that ran down toward men of independent wealth, Marine colonels, corporation executives, journalists and retail businessmen, with actors at the bottom. Athletes and manual laborers never entered her mind. (pg. 21)

Mother marries Anatol, but the relationship is a stormy one. She is self-centred and demanding; nothing he (or any other man) can do is ever good enough, and a trip to Europe ends in disaster. As an example of her behaviour, here’s Mother when she asks the narrator’s father to pay the boy’s fare to Paris so he can meet her there:

“What do you mean you won’t pay for it? For Christ’s sake what kind of a father are you? I suppose you want him to sit around this crummy town for the rest of his life with all the bums. Don’t you want him to see what culture is? Do you want him to grow up uneducated not knowing anything better than how to shovel horse manure? You’re broke, what a laugh that is. I know you’ve got money stashed away I never knew anything about. You called that a settlement! I don’t care if you are broke, you haven’t worked in fifteen years, what do you expect? It’s not like the old days getting thousands for sitting on your ass on a horse…” (pgs 41-42)

O’Brien has a great ear for speech and dialogue, and that’s just one of many quotable passages in this novel.

Following his divorce, the father ends up moving in with his ex-mother-in-law, ‘a tough, unsentimental plainswoman’ who considers him worthless and contemptible. When his mother decides to stay in Europe on a permanent basis, the narrator goes to live with his father and grandmother. With his movie days apparently behind him, the father is lost and diminished. Searching for meaning in life, he gets swept up by a religious craze, attending Mass and participating in every Church function that moves. His faded glamour still retains some currency here:

The Ladies’ Altar Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacramental bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member. He twirled the cage at bingo, he raffled automobiles and turkeys. When the parish sedan was broken down or otherwise in use, he chauffeured priests on their errands of mercy. He never missed a funeral. Because of his physique and the glamour that still trailed from him, he was in great demand as a pallbearer. (pg. 54)

The narrator’s Granny wears the trousers; she has a hard heart and resents the boy’s presence in her house. Things look up though when a high-school friend, Jerry Caliban, invites the narrator to come and live with his family in Beverley Hills. Not since his Casa Fiesta days has the boy experienced such a warm and loving family living together in joy and harmony.

The Caliban era is one of my favourite sections in the novel; it’s full of sketches of the Caliban’s house, their lives and habits. Mr Caliban is a movie director, a friendly guy with the common touch. (He started small and worked his way up.) When the narrator arrives at the Caliban’s house in Beverley Hills, he can tell they have money. Mrs. Caliban has an allowance of $25,000 a year just to go to the horse races.

Mrs. Caliban’s bedroom knocked your eyes out. It was entirely chartreuse, the walls, the rug, the bedspread, everything. The bed was a four-poster job and the chartreuse hangings had been made to order by some nuns in France. In each of the corners of the room stood a stuffed bear, Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear. Papa Bear was as tall as the ceiling, Mama Bear about eight feet, and Baby Bear about the size of an average American male human being. These, I learned, were symbolic of Caliban family members, and Mr. and Mrs. Caliban called each other “Bear” or sometimes “Big Bear” and “Little Bear” out of affection. “Why we’ll just have to get another Baby Bear now you’re here, won’t we sweetie?” Mrs. Caliban said to me. Sometimes she slept with one of the Bear family. (pg.61)

O’Brien’s description of a Thanksgiving trip to Las Vegas is another highlight from this section. Mr. Caliban sweats it out in a thirty-hour non-stop gambling session; it’s a pivotal episode.

In the final stages of the novel, the narrator moves back in with his father. Granny has died, and father has neglected the house allowing it to go to rack and ruin. There are some touching scenes as the teenager helps his father get to get back on his feet, and a sense of camaraderie develops between the two. The old movie star still holds out some faint hope of going places.

A Way of Life is a wonderful novel – it’s funny, sad, ironic and sympathetic. In many ways it reminds me of early-to-mid-period Woody Allen (you know, the good ones). At one point during the narrator’s Paris trip, there’s a terrific vignette of a married couple arguing over the task of mailing their postcards home. I could visualise it in an Allen movie.

The writing is note-perfect (Max’s review includes some great examples of the author’s playful use of language). Despite the horrors of the boy’s childhood, the early chapters are warm, compassionate and full of humour. The warmth also comes through when the narrator falls for Linda, an attractive girl he admires during English class.

As the boy matures, the novel’s style and tone develop too. The final chapters covering the boy’s teenage years are tinged with anger and bitterness. He sees his mother for what she really is, a self-interested wreck who has failed to live up to his hopes and dreams. Towards the end, the narrator feels trapped by his father’s desire to cling on to the past, a wish to relive the memories and fantasies of years gone by. I’ll leave it there as I want to avoid saying anything more about the finish.

A Way of Life is one of my favourite novels of the year so far, a near certainty for my end-of-year list.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 12/20 in my #TBR20.