Shuggie Bain is all about characters and atmosphere. A noble, tragic, beautiful, troubled cast is the highlight of this story, set in Glasgow in the 1980’s. An impoverished family tries to stay afloat and survive but they are constantly knocked down by circumstance, addiction, and violence. Agnes and her sons Leek and Shuggie steal the show in this book. The cover photo for the US hardback edition captures the mood and theme of this book perfectly. The highlight of Shuggie Bain is far and away the time that the boys have with their mother while she is sober (spoiler alert: it is not a very long time).
I recently read the book Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This book was published in Feb 2020 and has been on my list of books to read for some time. When I saw that it was also nominated for the Booker Prize I knew it was time. Shuggie Bain is all about characters and atmosphere. A noble, tragic, beautiful, imperfect cast is the highlight of this story, set in and around Glasgow in the 1980’s. This is an impoverished group, struggling to get ahead but continually knocked back down by circumstance, addiction, and violence. Agnes and her youngest son Shuggie steal the show here. The cover art for the US hardcover edition gives a powerful visual synopsis of the story.
And here is the actual synopsis from Google Books:
“It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life. She dreams of greater things: a house with its own front door and a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect, but false, teeth). But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and soon she and her three children find themselves trapped in a decimated mining town. As she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves. It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest.”
Hope for the best, but expect the worst as you read this inspiring but heartbreaking story. I give it five stars out of five.
Looking for a great book recommendation? Here are five books that you can dive into, with a choice for every type of reader, chosen from my own bookshelves. These are some of the best books written over the last few years, with one from a little farther back. Whatever mood you are in, this list will help you find your next great reading adventure. Here they are (each with a brief summary from the publisher):
Best book for just about everybody: The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Jul 2019)
When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.
Adventure in Alaskan Wilderness with a touch of young love: The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah (Feb 2018)
Alaska, 1974. Ernt Allbright came home from the Vietnam War a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes the impulsive decision to move his wife and daughter north where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier. Cora will do anything for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown. Thirteen-year-old Leni, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, has little choice but to go along, daring to hope this new land promises her family a better future. In a wild, remote corner of Alaska, the Allbrights find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the newcomers’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.
Epic story of identity, self-discovery, and the early AIDS epidemic: The Hearts Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Aug 2017)
Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural Irish community and adopted by a well-to-do if eccentric Dublin couple via the intervention of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun, Cyril is adrift in the world, anchored only tenuously by his heartfelt friendship with the infinitely more glamourous and dangerous Julian Woodbead. At the mercy of fortune and coincidence, he will spend a lifetime coming to know himself and where he came from – and over his many years, will struggle to discover an identity, a home, a country, and much more. In this, Boyne’s most transcendent work to date, we are shown the story of Ireland from the 1940s to today through the eyes of one ordinary man. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a novel to make you laugh and cry while reminding us all of the redemptive power of the human spirit.
A non-fiction account of a young entrepreneur importing coffee from Yemen on the brink of civil war: Monk of Mokha – Dave Eggers and Mokhtar Alkhanshali (Jan 2018)
Mokhtar Alkhanshali is twenty-four and working as a doorman when he discovers the astonishing history of coffee and Yemen’s central place in it. He leaves San Francisco and travels deep into his ancestral homeland to tour terraced farms high in the country’s rugged mountains and meet beleaguered but determined farmers. But when war engulfs the country and Saudi bombs rain down, Mokhtar has to find a way out of Yemen without sacrificing his dreams or abandoning his people.
A gritty, bloody, punch to the face (and the brain): Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk (Aug 1996)
The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. Chuck Palahniuk showed himself to be his generation’s most visionary satirist in this, his first book. Fight Club’s estranged narrator leaves his lackluster job when he comes under the thrall of Tyler Durden, an enigmatic young man who holds secret after-hours boxing matches in the basements of bars. There, two men fight “as long as they have to.” This is a gloriously original work that exposes the darkness at the core of our modern world.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead is a fast paced journey through the streets of post-apocalyptic New York City. This book includes the jumps, scares, and carnage that you might expect from a story about zombies, but it reaches well beyond the typical limitations of the sub-genre. Zone One is set after the initial invasion of the undead, with particular focus on the efforts of the survivors who fight to reclaim the city. The main character, Mark Spitz, must survive in a dangerous place while leading a small team in their assignment of securing city blocks one by one. They make slow progress as the threats of violence and death grow ominously around their position.
Colson Whitehead has demonstrated a broad range in his talent as an author of both fiction and non-fiction. His recent novels include The Underground Railroad (2017) and The Nickel Boys (2019), each winning a Pulitzer Prize among other accolades. At the time of publication in 2011, Zone One was an early example of Whitehead’s singular ability to reach and inspire a wider audience than many authors of literary fiction. Zone One is a unique, unforgettable flavor of literary fiction. It is equal parts thriller, satire, and sociopolitical commentary thoroughly blended to a consistency that is uniquely Colson Whitehead.
One of Colson Whitehead’s most original works in terms of structure and content, The Colossus of New York, is also one of the shortest works by the award-winning novelist. This book of lyrical prose was first published in 2003, receiving praise from literary critics and Whitehead’s limited but loyal popular fan base of that time.
The Colossus of New York is the work of a masterful writer, proud of both the sparkling facade and the gritty underbelly of the place he works and lives. In reading Colossus, it is immediately apparent that the author has dedicated this work to the blood and heart of the city, rather than the glamour that is so often represented in film and popular culture. The result is a collection of beautiful, brutally raw edges; unpolished yet brilliant.
This is one of only two non-fiction works written by the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. Fans of Colson Whitehead will find that this book will only increase their appreciation for the prolific novelist. The Colossus of New York is a masterpiece that can be consumed in a single sitting, and revisited in distinct, powerful installments.
Here are three of my favorite books from Colson Whitehead’s backlist. These are books that came out well before he found widespread success with The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. If you love any of his other books, you will really enjoy these books as well.
1. Zone One
2. The Noble Hustle
3. Apex Hides the Hurt
Enjoy these less well known but equally brilliant title by award winning author Colson Whitehead.
Zone One is a novel set in New York City in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Teams of recruits move through the city block by block trying to clear buildings and expand the zone of safety.
This story focuses on the story of one of these groups and their various members, with particular emphasis on one dubbed Mark Spitz. The novel shares many elements with other works of “zombie lore”, but stands above the others in the colorful metaphors, use of dialogue, and sense of a deeper meaning behind the carnage, destruction, and struggle to survive.
If you want to experience the very best of two time Pulitzer Prize winning author Colson Whitehead, I suggest reading his latest book The Nickel Boys. This resounding work was first released July 2019, and the paperback hit the shelves just a few weeks ago (summer 2020).
This was a book that I was really excited to read and it certainly lived up to my high expectations.
I just finished reading all of the books written by Colson Whitehead, winner of TWO Pulitzer Prizes; for Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. I spread these nine books out over about eighteen months. It was really interesting to read everything that a particular author has written (there was only one that I really didn’t care for). Most of Whitehead’s books address or at least include commentary on racism and discrimination, but always from an original and thought provoking angle.
If you are looking for a great book that will also make you think, you really cant go wrong with either of his two most popular: The Underground Railroad or Nickel Boys.
What do you think about this list? Have you read any of Whitehead’s books?
I read some really fantastic, moving, remarkable books this year. It looks like 48 of them by the time the year is through, which is about ten times the number I might have read three or four years ago. I have really grown to LOVE books!
These are the books that I loved most from each month of 2019:
January – Everything I Found on the Beach by Cynan Jones
February – Misery by Stephen King
March – Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin
April – American Fork by George Handley
May – The Dry by Jane Harper
June – Lanny by Max Porter
July – The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
August – If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais
September – The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
October – The Institute by Stephen King
November – Wacko’s City of Fun Carnival by Jeff Metcalf
December – ??? Still too early to tell.
Have you read any of these fantastic books? Are any of them in your “To Be Read” pile?