Hame is a satirical takedown of romanticised Scotticism with its bards, bagpipes, and tartan trews.
The basic premise is that Mhairi McPhail, a Scot by birth but with a New York accent, is returning to her homeland to establish a museum on the Isle of Fascaray dedicated to the Isle's famous son, the poet Grigor McWatt. The novel is made up from interleaved sections of Mhairi's diary, her published work A Granite Ballad - The Reimagining of Grigor McWatt, various essays and writings of McWatt from published sources, and McWatt's poems. Together they make up the story of McWatt, compared and contrasted to the experience of Mhairi as an incomer. But they also paint a portrait of a Scottish island community; of the Scots arts and literature community; of Gaelic and Scots; of Scotland as a whole.
The result is hilarious. As real islanders worry about the weather and fuel supplies; shopping trips to the mainland; how to get seven days' work done in six - McWatt and those like him spend their time banging out doggerel poetry in a mish-mash of Scottish dialects purporting to be a language; pontificate on the decline of traditional values; and drinking in the comfort of bars in Edinburgh's New Town.
Fascaray itself is a fictional island, but much of it bears a close resemblance to Lewis, with a fair dose of the Inner Hebrides thrown in (especially Islay and Jura) and even the odd nod to the St Kilda archipelago. The issues feel authentic: the tension between preserving the natural beauty and exploiting natural resources; the tensions between the faiths; and the quest to curate/create a visitor attraction that will bring the tourists rolling in. Some of the events are real: the annual guga hunt is a real thing in Ness; the threat of offshore wind farms (and onshore wind farms) have divided real island communities; islanders really have protested against the establishment of Sunday ferry crossings; and the Morvern peninsula really is being slowly excavated.
The literary angle to Hame also rings true. In small communities across Scotland, poets and writers are local legends despite the dubious quality of their works. Their works are published by small presses that survive on arts council subsidies, sold in souvenir shops and read by nobody. The writers augment their earnings by penning diaries and editorials for local newspapers. McWatt was a mainstay of the Auchwinnie Pibroch - his opinions given credence because of his fame, and his fame deriving from giving opinions. McWatt's poems are truly terrible: translations of great works into Scots dialect. The typical reader is unlikely to understand all of the verse - the dialect is too obscure - but will understand enough to see how the metre and the imagery have been ripped away from the original poems. And please don't be tempted to translate the verse back into English as that would be just as pointless as McWatt's original translation. The whole Scots dialect thing is paraded for comic effect; we can imagine arty Glaswegians professing to understand all the Scots because it is their language (and requires less effort to learn than the real language of Gaelic), yet failing to agree with each other about what the words actually mean.
Hame is an absolute gem of a work; relatively long and at risk in the early sections of not having enough of a story to hang together. But as the book builds momentum, so the stories build and the multiple strands come together. The ending - the twist - is perfectly predictable but no less funny for its obviousness. It is rare to coe across a book with quite so much going on and for it all to land.
Magnus Mills writes short, quirky books about ordinary people in rule-bound situations. In this case, we have a number of blokes – all with blokey names: Dave, Peter, Kevin, Keith, Barry, Mike, etc. – who form a club in the backroom of their regular pub, The Half Moon, where they listen to each others’ records. And that’s all they do, listen. They mustn’t comment or judge. As the weeks go on, the rules get added to – a new rule every time someone tries to do anything that slightly deviates from the norm.
And understandably, the rules don’t please everyone and rival record clubs are formed, each meeting on a different night of the week, but always in the backroom of The Half Moon. This does not amuse the true believers in the original Forensic Records Society who set out on missions of subterfuge, espionage and ultimately diplomacy.
Like other Magnus Mills novls, this is a stripped down work. There is little superfluous detail; there is minimal scene setting and no depth of characterisation, no backstory and not a great deal of logic underpinning the basic premise of the story. Instead, it is a parody of officious bureaucracy with the occasional side-foray into punishment, personal freedom and the nature of social compliance.
There are occasional points of intrigue – the mysteriously disappearing hours whilst the society meets; the mysterious record with the white label; and what, precisely, goes on in the Confessions hosted by a rival group. These are not explained and this will not surprise Magnus Mills fans. Oddity is expected and simply accepted.
There is some humour derived from how seriously the participants take their records when many of them (those the reader will have heard of) and really quite average. And there is humour derived from these sad little men with sad little lives whose sole interest seems to be an obsolete form of musical recording. But it is quiet humour – nothing terribly sidesplitting.
This is a short read, not dazzlingly different from other Magnus Mills novels, but a welcome addition to the canon.
An elderly couple become foster carers in their mid-sixties. The Times Higher Education of June 2015 wrote in its column What Are You Reading? ('A look over the shoulders of our scholar reviewers') : "This is an unusual, amusing, sometimes heart-rending memoir. Learmont offers a compendium of family breakdowns and other social problems, narrated in a style that ranges from Catch-22 to Bertie Wooster. The Learmonts are now enjoying 'a second retirement' in Andorra, and after reading this book, you feel they deserve it."
A non-fiction book with two intrepid oldies.
Heaven Inc is a big company and God is its CEO. He's an ideas man who spends most of his day in his swanky office watching baseball and NASCAR. His Angels spend their time arranging miracles where they nudge small details of life to try to make humans end up with happy results. They are able to watch any episode of history from multiple angles and therefore spend their time fascinated by the love lives of Americans. Africa gets two mentions - Nigerian e-mail scammers and a Tanzanian farmer whose horse explodes (no cities and tractors in Africa), and Asia is a type of food. The Angels all speak English but no worries if they want to look at someone in Europe - there are subtitles available. The technology available to the Angels is that of the present day, although there is a mention that before e-mails Heaven ran on faxes. So nothing terribly eternal here. And God and Heaven are venal.
At first, this really grates. It feels as though Simon Rich believes he lives in the ultimate country with the ultimate culture and the ultimate technology. Sure, he mocks his own society by making God look superficial, but at heart it is still as sense of mocking perfection. But bear with it and there is a story underneath of trying to use miracles to get two humans to love each other. OK, it's not much but it is better than nothing. And because the novel is so short, it doesn't particularly outstay its welcome. It's light, it's fluff and it passes the time. But there's nothing deep. No real hidden message - although if you wanted to stretch a point you might try to say it shows how miraculous it can be to find a life partner. There are no real insights into humankind or spirituality. And it is gratingly mono-cultural.
Simon Rich is my discovery of the year and I shall be reading more soon based on the evidence of this collection of 29 stories - well, sketches really - in a little over 200 pages.
The book is split into three sections: “Boy Meets Girl,” “Boy Gets Girl,” “Boy Loses Girl”. It opens with the story of a boy's coming of age told from the perspective of the condom he's been carrying in his wallet. This, I hope, gives you some perspective on the skewed and very funny take Simon Rich has on the world of love and relationships.
It is generally the male half of these relationships that is the butt of the jokes. In Occupy Jen's Street, a radical anti-capitalist sets up a protest camp in the street of a girl who has spurned him. Musicians are lured onto East River rocks by sirens playing Arcade Fire songs. Dogs place lonely hearts ads. A man is dumped for a 120 year old Adolf Hitler, another is set up on a blind date with a troll. A secret agent uses an invisibility drug to spy on his ex-girlfriend rather than foil an Islamist plot. The Adventure of the Spotted Tie parodies Sherlock Holmes.
If I have a criticism at all, it is that the stories are a little bit one note and more variety might have made me even more envious of Rich's abundant talent. You have to have a taste for the zany and the smart ass to enjoy Rich's work. I do, and enjoy it I most certainly did.