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Magpie Book Club: Shuggie Bain and The Poor Mes.

There is an interesting colloquialism in Douglas Stuart’s novel Shuggie Bain: when someone is wallowing in self-pity, or even vaguely referencing the difficulties he bears, the characters refer to it, disparagingly, as “the poor mes.” The subtext being — Well, everyone has it bad. Suck it up! And within the depressed context of the 1980s Glaswegian public housing in which the novel takes place, and among the battered and penurious characters that populate it, everyone really does have it bad. There were moments in the book in which I felt there were no depths to the gritty and unrelenting darkness in which these characters lived. At one point, we learn that there are even people worse off, financially, than impoverished Shuggie Bain, when he befriends a girl who lives in a trailer on the outskirts of the public housing complex he calls home. I will admit to misgivings about this aspect of the book: at times, I would set it aside, rub my eyes, and think, “And why am I reading this mercilessly bleak book? To what end?”

I listened to an interesting interview with Stuart in which he explains, while discussing why he chose to write fiction versus memoir (as he also lost his mother to alcoholism at a young age and grew up in a context similar to that of Shuggie):

“Men from the West Coast of Scotland are never encouraged to speak about how they feel. And we’re never encouraged to think of ourselves exceptionally, whether exceptionally great at something, or exceptionally hard done-to. And so throughout my entire childhood, when something horrible would happen, the refrain was always: ‘Aye, there’s bad things for everybody. Everybody’s got it hard.’ And you internalize that and just keep it to yourself. And it’s super damaging to men, which means it’s super-damaging to — well, if men have the power in the world, it makes it damaging to everybody.”

An element of my readership of the novel that had previously escaped me clicked into place: I suddenly saw the novel in a different discursive context, one not only pertaining to trauma but also to gender norms. All at once, I saw the book as both determined to realize — to see — the horrific experiences that many children (including the author) raised in such difficult circumstances have had to face and to renegotiate cultural expectations for men who have endured such cruelties. The book centers, exceptionalizes, the trauma of Shuggie Bain. It even takes Shuggie’s name as its title! “These are horrible things that happened to this specific boy,” the book says, as it overwhelms us with a sequence of unthinkably horrible incidents. “Don’t look away; don’t shrug this off; don’t dismiss this as ‘the poor mes.’ See this! See him! See me!” It is a heart-rending rebuke to the “men should be tough” culture in which he was raised. It is also, by virtue of being a published work and generating the deserved acclaim it has, an assertion of Stuart’s exceptionalism as an author. That is, the fact that Shuggie Bain exists as a title available for purchase reifies the novel’s ethics: Stuart demonstrates that he is both “exceptionally great at something” and “exceptionally hard done-to.”

Unpacking this element of the novel some three weeks after finishing it has elevated its status in my own personal canon, and I encourage you to add it to your tsundoku pile if you’ve not already.

2021 is off to a hot start in the good book category — between this and Hamnet, I am electric! I’m currently on the last few pages of Alafair Burke’s The Wife, a suspense I would liken in some ways to HBO’s “The Undoing” series in that there are allegations against a high-profile, Manhattanite man and we are constantly shifting our opinion of what happened, who is culpable, etc. It has been an engaging, compelling read, though a bit heavy-handed on the legal and procedural aspects of the narrative for my taste. (This level of detail impressed me and elevated the book within its own genre as particularly sharp and well-researched, but had the unfortunate effect of decelerating the pace of an otherwise gripping story.) I am then reading re-reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula before picking up Didion’s just-released collection of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean. The collection is mainly a re-printing of early pieces, but if Didion publishes something (anything!)…my head turns. I am also still excited about several of the books on this suggested reading list, to which I would now add Anna North’s just-released and much-touted Outlawed, which has been compellingly described elsewhere as “a feminist Western set in an alternative nineteenth-century America…True Grit meets The Crucible.” Um, yes.

What about you? I love hearing what you’re reading and how you’re thinking about what you’re reading and welcome thoughts on Shuggie Bain in particular!

Post-Scripts.

+Swooning over the cardigans from recently-launched brand Kilte.

+Adore Minnow’s latest collection — especially this terry cloth dress (great cover-up / pool-to-lunch look) and these swim trunks for my little man.

+Digging on some of the new J. Crew arrivals — especially these fun pastel striped tees, these cheerful gingham flats, this Liberty dress for littles, and these Liberty London headbands.

+More Liberty florals here!

+PSA: Bellabliss just re-released their pima cotton footies for babies, which make the most adorable baby gift when monogrammed on the rear end. I’ve given this as gifts to multiple friends with newborns (and also gifted it to myself after Hill was born). So special to have something monogrammed, and I love the classic white with either a navy, light blue, or “rose champagne” monogram.

+This throwback LL Bean sweatshirt! Vintage vibes in the best way.

+Theory now has an outlet with some insanely good buys, including this chic ice blue puffer, everyone’s favorite cashmere joggers (!!), and this absolutely stunning pleated midi dress. Wish it weren’t sold out in my size in that gorgeous blue!

+Whimsical blockprint stationery. Fun for quick pick-me-up notes in the mail to friends. More great (affordable!) stationery options here.

+Mini literally outgrew her Sperry snowboots after one snow. One snow, and then we couldn’t even squeeze the boot on her foot! And so when the weatherman forecasted 7-10 inches of snow last week, I bought this less pair that arrived the next day but still has that classic snowbird styling, as this could well be the final snow of the season.

+Sweet $8 eyelet sweatshirt for a little!

+Love this mock neck sweater in the robin’s egg blue.

+Some good Molton Brown buys on sale at Off Fifth! (You know MB is among my favorite brands for hand soap!)

+My favorite hairspray, on sale!

+Just the most darling dress. Could be another good option for a birthday dress for your little one!

+Love this gingham top for spring.

+Sounds like a lot of us have struggled with self-blame. (The comments are great – thanks to so many of you, on that post and across countless others, for being so vulnerable with me.)

+Everyone loves toile.

10 Comments

  1. Shuggie Bain is on my list! I’ve heard it’s a bleak read, but worth it … your review has me bumping it up towards the top of my tsundoku, though.

    I am still working my way through Uncanny Valley (engaging & fascinating, if somewhat navel-gaze-y) and am reading The Heir Affair for a bit of fluff as well. I recently completed Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam — have you read it? It’s so dark and foreboding but so well done, at least in my opinion (it does seem like a polarizing pick.)

    xx

    1. I haven’t read the Alam, but have heard a lot about it. I like a book with controversy. Will add it to my list!!

      xx

  2. Shuggie Bain… can’t stop thinking about this poor boy. It was hard to get through this book but glad I did. The sad life he had, poverty, horrible father, alcoholic mom, siblings that left him. Somehow he raised himself up., Found a friend, and never left his mothers side and most of all gave his mother dignity in the end. I cannot express myself as well as you(Jen) would critiquing a book but there you go. There is so much more to this book then what I have said. I would recommend.

    1. Hi Carleen – I am so glad you appreciated this book! I so agree that it was difficult, heart-rending, exhausting reading. My sister and I talked about how reading it felt like falling into a deep, bottomless pit. So difficult to read but so moving and enlightened.

      xx

  3. Hello, Thank you for your blog and reading recommendations.
    Something you might want to look into along the lines of Shuggie Bain is the trio of semi autobiographical books by Edouard Louis. They tell his story of growing up as a poor, gay youth in Picardy. I’ve only read the first two, but they are riveting and heartbreaking. A very interesting exploration of socioeconomic conditions in France and the rise of right wing parties.

    1. Hi Karyn – Thank you so much for this comment! Had not heard of Louis or his books. They sound heart-rending! Thank you for sharing. xx

  4. Between your endorsement and my Scottish friend raving about this book, I know I need to read it! This post reminded me of Rohinton Mistry’s book “A Fine Balance”, set in India largely during “The Emergency” of 1984. Have you read it? Probably one of the most profoundly moving novels I’ve ever read.

    It also reminds me of how, sometimes, people use truth as oppression. What I mean: I think it *is* true that everyone in life suffers. It is said that the Buddha reached enlightenment—and then his first ever teaching, of all the earthly topics, was on suffering. But I believe it is inaccurate to then extrapolate that since everyone suffers, your individual pain and suffering doesn’t matter. How powerful that Stuart seems to have reclaimed the importance of his personal narrative through this book. I must read it!! 🙂

    (Aside: I see this done with gratitude too. “You should be thankful for what you have!” As a way of saying “shut up.” haha.)

    Thanks for a thought-provoking Monday morning post!

    1. Echoing recommending “A Fine Balance” – I read it about 7 years ago and it’s been on my bookshelf ever since, clamoring for a re-read.

      In that vein, I’d be curious – are most Magpies repeat readers or vehemently opposed? I’m always so interested in whether people make it a habit to revisit books, especially impactful ones. I am a definite re-reader and relish in revisiting characters and plot lines years later, even for more trite quick mystery/easy reads! Just re-read “My Absolute Darling” by Tallent and found it just as captivating the second time around.

    2. Hi Erica! Thanks for the upvote of “A Fine Balance”! Was unaware of this book! Merci.

      I am not at all opposed to re-reading (in fact, wish I did it more / love when friends say they re-read a specific book every year at Christmas, or every few years, etc) but find it rare that I actually follow through on my own. I think it’s because I feel the weight of my tsundoku pile knocking at my door and I’m always desperate to get to the next thing on it!

      xx

    3. Hi Joyce – You are SO right about using the logic that either “everyone has it bad” or “but be grateful for what you have” as ways to silence or diminish or otherwise sublimate true feelings.

      I hadn’t even heard of the Mistry book but am now VERY intrigued. Thank you so much!

      Let me know what you think if/when you read Shuggie!

      xx

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