Mother land

Paul Theroux

Book - 2017

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Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017.
Main Author
Paul Theroux (author)
Item Description
"An Eamon Dolan book."
Physical Description
509 pages ; 24 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

ANATOMY OF TERROR: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State, by AN Soufan. (Norton, $18.95.) Soufan, a former F.B.I. agent who was a supervisor of counterterrorism programs after the Sept. 11 attacks, offers a grim view of jihadism since Osama bin Laden's death in 2011. He writes, "the cancer of bin Ladenism has metastasized across the Middle East and North Africa and beyond, carried by even more virulent vectors." LESS, by Andrew Sean Greer. (Back Bay/Little, Brown, $15.99.) To avoid his former lover's wedding, the middling novelist Arthur Less decides to accept every literary invitation he receives, cobbling together a multicountry journey from New York City to Japan. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize this year, and is the next selection for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times Book Club. THE FAR AWAY BROTHERS: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, by Lauren Markham. (Broadway, $16.) Markham follows Ernesto and Raúl, twins who decide at age 17 to make the perilous journey from El Salvador to Oakland, Calif. Our critic, Jennifer Senior, praised the book for making "vibrantly real an issue that some see only as theoretical, illuminating aspects of the immigrant experience normally hidden from view." MOTHER LAND, by Paul Theroux. (Mariner/Eamon Dolan/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15.99.) A fiendishly nasty Cape Cod matriarch - called only Mother - outwardly seems like a pillar of her community, but on her homestead, she lobs insults and pits her seven children against one another. The novel can occasionally read like a long exercise in score-settling; regardless, our reviewer, Stephen King, praised the author's "fabulously nasty sense of humor," writing, "Theroux ends up assassinating all of his characters, but I still enjoyed the play." COMING TO MY SENSES: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, by Alice Waters with Cristina Mueller and Bob Carrau. (Potter, $17.) The founder of Chez Panisse reflects on her formation as a sensualist: meanderings in France that informed her interest in excellent food; Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s; and the aesthetic demarcation between her culinary approach and what she derided as "hippies' style of health food." SING, UNBURIED, SING, by Jesmyn Ward. (Scribner, $17.) In a follow-up to her 2011 novel "Salvage the Bones," Ward tells the story of Jojo and his young sister, who travel with their drug-addicted mother to pick up their father from the Mississippi State Penitentiary. This lyrical and richly empathetic novel won the National Book Award, and was named one of the Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2017.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 3, 2018]
Review by Booklist Review

In this novel-cum-memoir the details of narrator JP's life align so closely with the author's that fans will find it impossible to read this purely as fiction Theroux depicts a late-career writer who has returned home to Cape Cod, where the siblings in his large family live in thrall to the Machiavellian manipulations of their aging mother. They feud, fight over money, and grow old while becoming weirdly infantilized as Mother, though brittle and ossified, remains stronger than them all. This is occasionally repetitive, and some readers may wish for greater understanding of what made Mother who she was, but it's as intense and searing a portrait of mother-as-monster as exists in literature. It's also an unstinting examination of the author-narrator's late-life downhill slide and, as the book progresses, provides insight into the way Mother made JP both a traveler and a writer by driving him away. A fascinating, minutely observed portrait of family as both dictatorship and closed society, Mother Land is richly written and will enthrall fans but, at 500-plus pages, may overwhelm the uninitiated. It's a good bookend to My Other Life (1996), in which Theroux also novelized his life, but with Paul Theroux as a character. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: With first serial rights sold to The New Yorker, audiences will be primed.--Graff, Keir Copyright 2017 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The diminutive matriarch of a large Catholic family is the powerful center of Theroux's engaging novel. Noted for including thinly disguised family and friends among the characters in his stories, Theroux creates an unsparing portrait of Mother, who has fostered malicious backbiting and animosity among her seven children. (The only "perfect" child was Angela, dead at birth, from whom Mother receives guidance in daily conversations.) The narrator, J.P. or Jay, is, like the author, the twice-divorced father of two sons with another son given up for adoption. A successful but financially struggling writer, he has tried to distance himself from his siblings, but the death of his elderly father has brought him back to what he calls Mother Land, the tyrannized clan on Cape Cod. Theroux's gifts for narrative drive and using darkly humorous descriptive details propel the plot through decades of the fractious lives of middle-aged siblings ceaselessly engaged in insults and rivalry to gain their mother's favor. Mother's 90th birthday party is the hilarious essence of family dysfunction. One of the novel's big surprises is an audacious ploy that revives an old scandal and mixes reality with fiction. The book includes text from a blistering review of a novel by the fictional Jay-which is in fact taken from a real-life review of Paul's novel My Other Life by his brother Alexander Theroux. The effect is disorienting, if clever. As the pages turn, though, Theroux seems determined to describe every event during years of family discord, with the result that the novel is bloated with dramatic incident, and while each event provides a new spin on Mother's outrageous manipulation, readers may want Jay to grow up and leave his toxic family long before the end. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Theroux's title character is a recently widowed Cape Cod octogenarian and mother of seven surviving children, all of whom she manipulates and pits against one another with telephone-delivered gossip and selectively doled-out monetary gifts. Son JP, a writer, wryly reminisces about a childhood spent under her control and an adulthood trying to recover from the trauma while maintaining a relationship with his often fractured family. The siblings deal with Mother differently as individuals-some capitulate and coddle, while others ignore or oppose-but all are scarred by a woman seen by outsiders as a "salt of the earth" matriarch. The best-selling author of both fiction (The Mosquito Coast) and travel literature (The Great Railway Bazaar), Theroux turns his jaded gaze to his -immediate family in this fictionalized memoir (or work of autobiographical fiction, if you prefer). The result is detailed, intricate, and dark, and like JP, readers may yearn to flee. Whether your scale of readerly judgment tips toward calling this vitriol or catharsis may ultimately determine your ability to make it through this weighty tale of unceasing maternal meanness. VERDict Be selective when recommending this one. There is little balance and even less joy, but there is, sadly, some truth that many will recognize. [See Prepub Alert, 11/14/16.]-Jennifer B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll. Northeast © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A well-traveled writer contemplates the long, menacing shadow his mother has cast over his life.Jay, the narrator of this bile-infused family saga, is a little like Theroux (Deep South, 2015, etc.) himself, a late-middle-aged novelist and travel writer with Massachusetts roots. Jay is one of seven living children whose mother, as the story opens, has just been widowed. Every child has disappointed her in some regard, with the exception of a stillborn daughter: one is too fat, another married badly, another is a poor parent. Jay? He writes novels ("trash," mom says), is twice divorced, and shamed the family by getting a girl pregnant at 18. And, now living a 10-minute drive away, he's damned for either not visiting enough or upsetting her when he does arrive; siblings routinely call to chastise him for some misstep or other, and he suspects dear mother deliberately sabotaged a budding relationship. Is mom a monster, or is Jay projecting his own self-loathing upon her? Some of both, though the storytelling is too straightforward to suggest an unreliable narrator, and once Jay sneaks a peek at mom's finances he has genuine proof he's low on the pecking order. Theroux's writing is robust as ever, but this story is overly repetitive, filled with countless metaphorical comparisons of the family to uncivilized brutes ("a savage tribe that practiced endocannibalism, feeding on ourselves," goes one typical riff). And the dramas that surround mother as she ages past the century mark tend to be well-worn matters of money and property, along with slights real and perceived. That goes a long way toward suggesting that family life can be a death by a thousand cuts, but it makes for a long trek in a hefty novel. A sodden study of domestic resentment. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Part One 1 Mother of the Year   Weather is memory. Even the wind matters. The slant of rain can serve as a nudge, so can a quality of light. You don't need a calendar to remind you of personal crises. You smell them, you feel them on your skin, you taste them. If you go on living in the same place year after year the weather begins to take on meanings, it is weighted with omens, and the temperature, the sunlight, the trees and leaves, evoke emotions on every anniversary. The whole venerating world turns on this principle of weather-sniffing familiarity: all such pieties have their origin in a season, on a particular day. That lovely morning in May we were summoned from our homes and told Father was ill. Mother ​-- ​frugal even in emergencies ​-- ​seldom called long-distance, so the implication of this expensive phone call was that Father was dying, that we were being gathered together for a deathwatch, but a peculiar ritual all our own. You come from a family as from a distant land. Ours was an outlier with its own customs and cruelties. No one knew us, nor did we invite any interest, which is why I told myself that when the moment was right I would put my family ​-- ​Mother Land in every sense ​-- ​on the map. There were eight of us children, and one of us was dead. Our parents were severe, from hard work and their fear of the destitution they had seen in the Great Depression. They seemed ancient to us, but as long as they were in our lives, no matter how doddering, we remained their much younger and unformed children ​-- ​still children, still behaving like children, when Mother was a living fossil. In old age we embarked on our true, awful childhood ​-- ​infantile fogies ruled by their triumphant mother. The fact that two of us were writers was a nuisance to the others, and often an embarrassment, since writing had little value in the family's estimation. Being a writer seemed to this rabble a conceited form of laziness. I was blamed for what I wrote. I doubt that my writing will figure much in this family story, except incidentally when it becomes a problem for the rest of them. My concern here is the life I lived, while I was still a flight risk, before I left home, when I was about eighteen, and the continuation of it after I returned to confront death and failure and confusion, forty years later ​-- ​the beginning and the end; not the books of my life, but the bookends. When I was very young my mother, all smiles, used to tell me the story of a man who was shortly to be hanged. As a last request he said, "I want to talk to my mother." She was taken to the foot of the gallows, where her son stood handcuffed. "Come closer, Mother," he said, and when she inclined her head he made as if to speak confidentially to her and bit into her ear. As she screamed in pain, the condemned man spat out a piece of her ear and said, "You are the reason I'm here, about to die!" Telling the story, my mother always folded her hands in her lap and nodded in satisfaction. Was she telling me that I was luckier than that man, and that she was not that kind of mother? Or did she think I was too confident and unruly. I didn't know why, though the story terrified me, because I often felt like that condemned man, someone who had to be punished, a child among unruly children, a potential ear biter. Even sixty years later, that was how we behaved toward one another, too, childishly, with pettiness and envy. The taunting was endless, and years after, all these big stumbling teasers, bulking and bullying, late-middle-aged potbellied kids, balding, limping, belching with ailments and complaints, went on mocking each other, wagging their fat fingers. When we were older there was much more to mock. Our childishness was so obvious that Floyd once said, "Who was that dreamy French philosopher who talked about the permanence of childhood: A motionless but enduring childhood, disguised as history. Nobody in this family has the slightest idea of his name! Is it Pecos Bill? Time is the arch-satirist! It was Gaston Bachelard." Each of us children had the same father ​-- ​he was solid, though he was often ill. He had the nervous anxiety of a compulsive saver. Frugality was his obsession. He would take a stick of gum and tear it in half, because chewing a whole stick was a needless luxury. He saved string, saved rusty nails and screws in a jar, saved planks of wood, saved everything. To the end of his life he retained a great fondness for the town dump, for the treasures it held. Going to the dump was an outing, and it made him smile as he set off, as though headed to Filene's Basement, certain to return with a bargain. He always took a barrel of trash, but he returned with half as much in possibly reusable items he'd found, scavenging on the heaps of smoking refuse surrounded by contending seagulls. The dump was also one of his meeting places ​-- ​he had friends there; the other was church. A boyhood of poverty left him with something like a lingering illness he carried with him through his life and made him grateful to be alive. Mother was unreadable and enigmatic, at times unintelligible, like a wrathful deity. Insecure in her power, she had an enduring and demanding cruelty that seemed to come from another century, another culture, and it was never satisfied. It made her a willful killjoy. Mother's contradictions, her moods, her injustice, her disloyalty, and her unshakable favoritism made her different to every one of us; we each dealt with our own version of her, we each had a different mother, or translated her, as I am doing now, into our own particular idiom. Fred might read this book and say, "Who is this woman?" Franny or Rose might object. Hubby might growl, "You ree-tard." Gilbert did not know the woman who raised me. But Floyd, the family's other writer, had more than an inkling, and when we talked he might raise a fist and say, "The Furies! The betrayals! The cannibalism! It's the House of Atreus!" Mother's stories and confidences varied according to which child she was talking to. I should have guessed this early on, because her habit was to see us one at a time. She encouraged us to visit her separately and hinted that she loved to be surprised with presents. But the phone call was her preferred medium of communication; it allowed for secretiveness and manipulation; she liked the surprise of a ring, the waywardness of conversation, the power of hanging up. In seven phone calls ​-- ​needy people are chronic phoners ​-- ​she would tell a different version of her day. It might be Fred, the eldest, the only child she deferred to and respected. He was a lawyer, with a lawyer's circumspection and the ability to hold two opposing notions in his head, neither of which he believed. She poured out her heart to him and he responded, "This is what you should do, Ma," and then the opposing view, "Or you could do this." Later he would act as her counselor, her defender, her explainer. Or it might be Floyd, second oldest, whom she despised and feared, saying, "He never was right." He was a university professor and an acclaimed poet. Floyd used to say, "Art is the Eden where Adam and Eve eat the serpent." Or the sisters, Franny or Rose, both of them bulky and breathless, like those anonymous startled eyewitnesses on TV who gasp, "I've lived here my whole life and I've never seen anything like it!" Both of them, teachers of small children, addressed everyone as if addressing a child. Or Hubby, the brooding one, of whom Mother said, "He's so good with his hands." He was an ER nurse with a fund of gruesome stories. Or Gilbert, her favorite, a diplomat, cheerfully oblique. "He's so busy, poor kid, but I'm proud of him." Mother never said no to him. Or me, known from birth as JP. Mother was wary with me, blinking in uncertainty when I visited her and always eager for me to leave. She had wanted me to be a doctor; she had never liked my being a writer. When someone praised a book of mine she said, "Oh?" ​-- ​as if someone had woken her by prodding her with a stick. Mother spoke to Angela, too, through the power of prayer; Angela was the dead one. This infant girl had died at birth, her life snuffed out when she was hours old, yet she had a name ("She was like an angel"); she had a personality and certain lovable quirks and was part of the family. Angela was often mentioned as the perfect one, whom we should emulate. Excerpted from Mother Land by Paul Theroux All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.