Book choice for March 2009

The Wrong Boy [suggested by Esmé Caulfield]

front cover

The Wrong Boy is the debut novel of Liverpudlian playwright Willy Russell, famed for his plays-turned-films Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, and the West End musical stalwart Blood Brothers. Both Rita and Valentine were star-making roles and if (and when) The Wrong Boy makes it to the screen, the main character Raymond is likely to have the same effect on one lucky young actor.

Teenager Raymond Marks has not had a charmed life. His profligate, instrument-loving father made an early exit, leaving him with a struggling mother and doting Sartre-fan grandmother. Fifteen minutes of potential glory when he saved a boy from drowning are cruelly compromised when it's discovered that the boys were near the canal indulging in what they called "flytrapping", and Raymond becomes "the precocious pervert, the evil influence, the filthy little beast". Eventually packed off to "Gulag Grimsby" at the suggestion of his despised Uncle Jason, Raymond pours out his life's woes in a series of missives to his idol, one-time Smiths' star Morrissey.

Writing his letters with improbable speed, Raymond is ingratiating, unstoppable and superbly miserable, as befits a Morrissey devotee - and lucky enough to be surrounded by a bevy of gift-wrapped Northern character parts. Russell's genius is to take situations and characters that are firmly placed in the banally familiar - and then push them to their comic limits. In The Wrong Boy those limits are tested to the full. [review from]

The novel has a page of Russell's website devoted to it.

About the Author

Russell was born in Whiston, Lancashire and grew up in a working class family in Liverpool, England. After leaving school with one O-level in English, he first became a ladies hairdresser and ran his own salon. Russell then undertook a variety of jobs, also writing songs which were performed in local folk clubs. He also contributed songs and sketches to local radio programmes. At 20 years old, he returned to college and became a teacher in the Toxteth area of Liverpool. Around this time he met his later wife, Annie, and became interested in writing drama.

His first success was a play about The Beatles called John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert commissioned for the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool and transferring to the West End in 1974. Three of his later plays became outstanding successes: Educating Rita (1980); Blood Brothers (for which Russell also composed the music), first produced in 1983; and Shirley Valentine, which first opened in Liverpool in 1986. Russell received BAFTA and Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay for both Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine.

He published his first novel, The Wrong Boy, in 2000.

Russell has a both a website and a Wikipedia entry.


Shortlisted for this month

The nominator can bring one, two, or three books to be chosen by the group (or mandated in the case of only one book being selected).  This month, Esmé also brought the following interesting selections:

The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried

A finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Things They Carried marks a subtle but definitive line of demarcation between Tim O'Brien's earlier works about Vietnam, the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone and the fictional Going After Cacciato, and this sly, almost hallucinatory book that is neither memoir nor novel nor collection of short stories but rather an artful combination of all three.

Vietnam is still O'Brien's theme, but in this book he seems less interested in the war itself than in the myriad different perspectives from which he depicts it. Whereas Going After Cacciato played with reality, The Things They Carried plays with truth. The narrator of most of these stories is "Tim"; yet O'Brien freely admits that many of the events he chronicles in this collection never really happened. He never killed a man as "Tim" does in "The Man I Killed," and unlike Tim in "Ambush," he has no daughter named Kathleen. But just because a thing never happened doesn't make it any less true. In "On the Rainy River," the character Tim O'Brien responds to his draft notice by driving north, to the Canadian border where he spends six days in a deserted lodge in the company of an old man named Elroy while he wrestles with the choice between dodging the draft or going to war. The real Tim O'Brien never drove north, never found himself in a fishing boat 20 yards off the Canadian shore with a decision to make. The real Tim O'Brien quietly boarded the bus to Sioux Falls and was inducted into the United States Army. But the truth of "On the Rainy River" lies not in facts but in the genuineness of the experience it depicts: both Tims went to a war they didn't believe in; both considered themselves cowards for doing so.

Every story in The Things They Carried speaks another truth that Tim O'Brien learned in Vietnam; it is this blurred line between truth and reality, fact and fiction, that makes his book unforgettable. [review from]

Another novel with its own Wikipedia entry.

About the Author

Tim O'Brien is from small town Minnesota. Born in Austin on October 1, 1946, he grew up in Worthington, "Turkey Capital of the World," and matriculated at Macalester College. After graduating in 1968 he was drafted, and although against the war, he reported for service and was sent to Vietnam with what has been called the "unlucky" Americal division due to its involvement in the My Lai massacre in 1968, an event which figures prominently in In the Lake of the Woods.

After Vietnam he became a graduate student at Harvard. No doubt he was one of very few Vietnam veterans there at that time, much less Combat Infantry Badge (CIB) holders. When an opportunity arose for an internship at the Washington Post, he left Harvard to become a newspaper reporter, a career which gave way to his fiction writing after publication of his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Send Me Home.

Tim O'Brien is now a visiting professor and endowed chair at Southwest Texas State University where he teaches in the Creative Writing Program.

In common with Russell, O'Brien has both a Wikipedia entry and a website, from which the above biography is abridged.

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake

In Oryx and Crake, a science fiction novel that is more Swift than Heinlein, more cautionary tale than "fictional science" (no flying cars here), Margaret Atwood depicts a near-future world that turns from the merely horrible to the horrific, from a fool's paradise to a bio-wasteland. Snowman (a man once known as Jimmy) sleeps in a tree and just might be the only human left on our devastated planet. He is not entirely alone, however, as he considers himself the shepherd of a group of experimental, human-like creatures called the Children of Crake. As he scavenges and tends to his insect bites, Snowman recalls in flashbacks how the world fell apart. [review from]

Oryx and Crake is unusual in that it has not only the obligatory Wikipedia entry, but also its very own dedicated website.

About the Author

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario and Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.

Throughout her thirty-five years of writing, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and many honorary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.

Atwood's dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake, appeared in 2003. The Tent (very short fiction) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006.

Margaret Atwood has been said to have an uncanny knack for writing books that anticipate the preoccupations of the public. Acclaimed for her talent for portraying both personal problems and those of universal concern, Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than thirty-five languages. She lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson.

Atwood too has both a Wikipedia entry and a rather annoying website (from which the above is abridged) which delivers its gems of wisdom in a small window. Whether that is allegorical I can't tell, but it is certainly woefully out of date, since it mentions that her next volume of poetry, The Door, "will be" published in the fall of 2007.


Previous Months' Book Choices

February 2009
January 2009
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006