Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Dunbar, by Edward St. Aubyn

Hogarth, 2017
244 p


Dunbar is another book in Hogarth's Shakespeare series, and as in King Lear, the play on which this novel is based, there is nothing happy about this story whatsoever.  I mean, come on -- it's one of Shakespeare's tragedies, so we all know things are bound to turn out badly.

In this case, the original is  best, so let's get that out of the way right now.  But St. Aubyn doesn't exactly go scene by scene and rewrite King Lear -- here he's crafted a timely tale, one that works especially well these days when it comes down to the lust for unchallenged power and wealth.  But it's also, like the play,  a book that focuses on one family, here headed by Henry Dunbar, a man entirely used to wielding the reins of absolute power and control.

 Henry is a "Canadian media mogul," one of "the world's richest, and arguably the world's most powerful man."    It all starts when Dunbar decides that it's time to "lay down the burden of running the Trust from day to day."  As he says to his attorney, he's getting old (he is in fact 80), and that his daughters would be happy to look after him, since "there's nothing they love more than fussing over their old father."  He's referring to two of his three girls, Abigail and Megan; the third, Florence, he'd turned against when she told him that she wanted nothing to do with "the family business," and they've been estranged for a long time.  He's wrong about the two daughters though  -- there is definitely no love lost between them and their father, and as soon as they possibly can they get him out of the way, getting a psychiatrist to certify him so they could stick him in an out-of-the-way care home in rural Manchester, leaving the way open for them to acquire the Trust.  The fun begins when a fellow patient named Peter decides that he and Dunbar need to escape;  while they're on the run, Abigail and Megan make plans to track down their father and get him more securely out of the way. They never counted on Florence, however, who's decided that it's time to make peace with her father and is on her way to find him.

Dunbar is a delightful read, really. Betrayals abound, plots within plots arise, and it's a sort of eye-opener as to how cutthroat people can be when they're intent on getting what they want.   And although it's not a true modern conversion from Shakespeare, many of the same elements are found in both the play and the novel. As just one example, the scenes where Dunbar is out wandering through the snow reminded me of Lear's time out on the heath, not just in terms of the backdrop of the natural world,  but also because his time there, as in the play, speaks to his understanding of his own vulnerability, his grief, and his guilt. He's only got himself to deal with and it's a major awakening.  Very nicely done; it's my favorite part of the entire novel.

Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear, from RaaD Movies, News and Technology

After the first time through this book, I was kind of put off by his portrayal of Abigail and Megan as being so over-the-top villainous, but the second time through it made much more sense.  The people in their orbit who do their bidding (and hatch nefarious side plots) are the same as well, but it hit me that the daughters are not so much villainous as completely soulless, which, I suppose, explains how people like this obtain and stay in their positions of power.  I was sort of unhappy with the ending, which came quickly and was just sort of there, but again, in the long run it just didn't matter because really, if you know what happens in the play, you know what's coming down the pike here.  And ultimately, the story in both the book and the play hinges on the central character's slowly-building self awareness, and that's what makes really this novel worth reading.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Death With Interruptions, by José Saramago

Harcourt, 2008
originally published as As intermitências da morte, 2005
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
238 pp


"It’s not that I’m laughing at death, because no one can laugh at it. But why take it so seriously?" -- 
                                José Saramago,  LA Weekly

Like the author, we may not laugh at death, but in this novel there's a lot of black humor that surfaces surrounding death, or rather its absence.  Life in one unnamed country changes when, on New Year's Day  "no one died."
"Up until the very dot of midnight on the last day of the year there were people who died in full compliance with the rules..."
but everything  changed since that "zero hour"  and "there was no record in the whole country of anyone dying."    At first, this phenomenon was seen by some as "humanity's greatest dream since the beginning of time," and after a few days, even the pessimists and skeptics joined others in the streets "to proclaim that life is beautiful."  It doesn't take too long, though, for the problems inherent in such a situation to arise, and they do so in a very big way.  The Church is less than happy since, as one cardinal notes, "without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection, there is no church," along with myriad other problems; then of course the funerary businesses weigh in, as do the hospitals, homes for the aged and infirm, the life insurance companies, etc., etc.  Then, of course, there are the family members taking care of their terminally ill, who will themselves one day become too old to continue to give their loved ones the care they need; even more importantly, the question becomes one of "how the country in years to come" would be able to continue paying the "millions of people" who receive disability pensions, who would "for all eternity" be "joined by millions of others."  And that's just the tip of the iceberg as people begin to realize that eternal life, this "global gift," this "greatest marvel ever," is, in fact, the opposite.  As things are coming to a head, though, death (with a lower-case d) speaks, and new rules are formulated between herself and "mortals," leading to the second part of this book which personifies death herself and leads her to an encounter with some very unexpected results.

So far none of what I've described here can fall under the aegis of "black humor," really, as people begin to wake up to the nightmare that death's absence has brought to this country, but up until that time, Saramago takes us along for the responses from politicians and the government, the Church, philosophers, the people themselves, the criminal underworld, and especially the media.  There is more than a touch of irony here that makes for simultaneous fun and serious reading, and I kind of see it as a way in which he asks his readers to question the answers received from all of these institutions in the event of a crisis. I could be off base here, but certainly it's something I'll take away from this novel.

I've seen some reader reviews of this novel that call it a "philosophical novel," and while the author is definitely asking people to think here, for me it goes well beyond that label. There's a lot going on in here with language and ideas, and while some people have commented on their dislike of Saramago's writing style, I have to disagree.  I think his style is actually rather brilliant.  In fact, I enjoyed the book immensely,  heard myself laughing through parts of it and I can certainly recommend it.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

Riverhead Books, 2017
276 pp

"All these things happen according to the law, but not according to justice."
                                          -- 237

When deciding which, if any books on this year's Man Booker Prize longlist I wanted to read, I came across a review on NPR that said " 'Home Fire' Puts a Topical Spin on Ancient Greek Tragedy." I didn't go on to read that review (which is standard operating procedure for me) because I don't want someone else's ideas in my head while reading the book, but wondering which greek tragedy the author was going to rework,  I kept looking.  Then I came to the New York Times review that revealed that Home Fire was "a bold retelling of Sophocles' 'Antigone,' " and that's all I needed to know. Book bought, book read, and I wasn't disappointed.  In conjunction with the second read of this novel, I also read Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone, one of the sources the author notes at the end of her book. I wasn't disappointed in that book either, although for sure there's no beating Sophocles' original.  

Home Fire is yet another one of those novels best left to readers to experience so this post will be brief. The story centers around the Pasha family living in London.  The elder sister, Isma, had been like a parent to her younger twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz since the death of their mother; their father had been imprisoned at Bagram and had died on the way to Guantanamo.   As the story opens, Isma is in America, having been detained at the airport in London  to answer ridiculous questions about her British patriotism, simply by virtue of being a Muslim.  She has come to the US to continue her graduate studies, keeping in touch with her sister via Skype, but with her brother it's obviously a different story.  We're not sure what's happening with him; all we know is that something has gone very wrong and Isma is extremely  concerned.  While in Amherst,  Isma happens to meet Eamonn, the son of a British politician who takes an incredibly tough stance on immigration issues.  As the dustjacket blurb says, the "two families' fates" will become "inextricably, devastatingly entwined," but how that happens I won't say.

The story is revealed from the viewpoints of the major characters in this novel, and unfolds little by little until we have a very clear picture of exactly what's going on.  Betrayals abound, and as in Antigone, family and other loyalties are tested, especially those between the individual and the state, but this book goes beyond a "retelling" or a rehashing of Sophocles' work to become something original in itself.  While it starts out rather slowly, later around chapter five it becomes a bit of a nail biter, leading to a most dramatic, surprising ending.

While I didn't exactly love this novel, I found myself caught up in it and couldn't let it go until it was over.  I found it to be topical and especially relevant to our world today and in that sense, it's a book that should not be missed.   Readers contemplating this novel don't necessarily need to have familiarity with Antigone, and in a big way (meaning if you don't want to know what's coming down the pike)  it might be better to read Shamsie's book first and then go to the play afterward, and Heaney's book provides an updated version written in modern English.

I certainly recommend this novel --  it didn't make it to the Man Booker Prize shortlist but it's very much worth reading.  And don't read any summaries that give away too much  before reading it!

Monday, August 7, 2017

I LOVED this book: Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry

Viking, 2017
259 pp


"Every life has its days of happiness despite the ugly Fates."
                                                                                         -- 209

There comes the time when you find that book -- you know, the one that you put down when you've finished and just sit and stare off into space for a while because you're so taken with what you've just read that you can't move. I haven't felt this way since I read Lincoln in the Bardo earlier this year.    How coincidental, since both novels have made it to this year's Man Booker Prize longlist. I'm a huge fan of Sebastian Barry's novels but really, I think he's absolutely outdone himself here.

Just very briefly, and without any sort of spoilers, Days Without End follows young Thomas McNulty, who makes his way from Ireland during the Great Famine and eventually ends up in Missouri, "Way out on those mudflats beyond old St. Louis."   It is there that he first meets John Cole, while taking shelter under a hedge as "the heavens were open in a downpour." They were, as McNulty reveals, "only children obliged to survive in a dangerous terrain," but this meeting was the beginning of what would turn out to be a life-long relationship. These "two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world" soon find suitable work in Daggsville at a saloon at the young ages of 13 and 15; after their time there is over, they decide to move on and enlist in the army.  As America continues its westward expansion, McNulty and Cole are sent first to Northern California to protect settlers there from the Yurok Indians; they will move on to Ft.Laramie and the Great Plains before they re-enlist upon the outbreak of the Civil War. The novel follows their adventures not only through these troubled times, but also takes us into their lives after the wars are over and people are trying to get on with life.  While the horrors of the battlefields (and much, much worse) come vividly alive through McNulty's eyes here, it is ultimately what he shares with John Cole that sees McNulty through it all and what makes this book so beautiful  in the long run.

That's really all I want to say about plot here because really,  Days Without End is one of those novels that is experienced rather than just simply read.  I mean, I could give away plot points here but for me it isn't really about plot when all is said and done, but far more about long-lasting, unbreakable bonds of love and friendship that  help people to withstand various forms of adversity and keep some men sane while others fall apart.  There's so much more, of course -- history, the immigrant experience, etc. etc., but it's the relationships here that are so meaningful for me and which made me just sit in awe after I'd finished the book.  My only small qualm here is that the ending probably shouldn't have actually gone the way the author gave it to us,  but truth be told, I'm happy things turned out the way they did.

As I'm fond of saying, I'm not a critic, just a very casual sort of reader, so if you want to get much more in depth as to what's going on in this book, do NOT miss this excellent interview with the author from NPR where he explains a lot about where he was coming from in the writing of this novel.   Readers for the most part are loving this book but there are still the naysayers who don't care for the violence and the bleakness depicted here to which I say well, to each his/her own, but the truth is that these terrible, bleak, and violent events actually happened in America's history, in Ireland, on the ships that brought immigrants to North America, and none of it was pretty.

I LOVED this book and most definitely think it's one everyone should read.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle (ed.) Elaine Showalter

Rutgers University Press, 1993
326 pp


"It is just when a man begins to think he understands a woman that he may be sure he doesn't!" -- Edith Wharton, "The Muse's Tragedy"

Elaine Showalter begins this most excellent book with the observation that  when we stop to consider "the literature of the fin de siècle, the writers who come most readily to mind are men."  She has a great point -- I own quite a hefty library of fin-de-siècle literature and sure enough, all of the books I own,  without exception, are written by men, although I will say that I've started to remedy that problem as I was going through this book and looking up author biographies and bibliographies. She goes on to say that while "women were a major presence in the new literary world of the 1880s and 1890s," they had also been "overshadowed" not just by the major male novelists of the time (Conrad and Wilde are the examples she offers here), but also by those she calls "minor novelists," such as Stoker or Haggard.  The women represented here (and others writing at the time) were writing
"with unprecedented candour about female sexuality, marital discontent, and their own aesthetic theories and aspirations; and speaking to -- and about -- the New Women of the fin de siècle." 
According to Karen M. Offen in her book European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History, the term "new women" had been in existence elsewhere in Europe since the 1830s, but for our purposes, it had "reemerged in English from a published debate between the British novelists Sarah Grand" (whose work appears here) "and Ouida in 1894," and that the importance of these "New Woman literary works" lies in the fact that
"their authors addressed issues ... about the constraints of marriage, about work, about the possibilities and difficulties of self realization..." (189),
in short, about the growing dissatisfaction among women re the restrictions put upon them by Victorian society.

Daughters of Decadence contains seventeen short stories and other brief pieces by thirteen of these women, both British and American;  there is also a brief chapter containing a send-up* of George Egerton's "A Cross Line" published by Punch which, according to Showalter, "gives a good sense of the ways Egerton's view of feminine nature shocked and startled readers of the 1890s."

With one exception, the stories in this book were all completely new to me as I opened the cover, and it is truly a treasure trove of great writing. Truth be told, aside from Kate Chopin, Vernon Lee, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton, I hadn't read a single thing by any of these of authors; even the ones I just mentioned have been limited to a book or a story here and there but that's about it. I've listed the contents below without any discussion; there are three stories which were my particular favorite. First,  "A White Night," by Charlotte Mew, which takes place in an old Catholic church in Spain while a wife, her new husband, and her brother are touring the countryside while the newlyweds are on their honeymoon.  It's not so much what happens in this book that's behind why I enjoyed it so much (although I must say, it was pretty horrific and the setting heightens the reading experience)  but rather the outcome as husband and wife are later going over what had happened there. If ever this book provided an eye-opener, well, it's found in that story.  In second place on the favorites list, "The Muse's Tragedy," by Edith Wharton, which is just plain sad, but actually reveals an awful truth; and finally, "The Fifth Edition," by Mabel Wooton, which focuses on an "exploitative male novelist" who is asked to look at an autobiographical novel given to him by its female author.  Like most works of the  fin de siècle, the rather uneasy relationship between art and life is a major theme here, as it is with many of the stories in this book.   Just as an FYI,  Wooton's tale is not the only one featuring a woman writer and her relationship with a male author -- Vernon Lee picks up this idea with her splendid Lady Tal, as does Constance Fenimore Woolson in Miss Grief, both of whom had Henry James in mind while writing their stories.

 As Showalter notes,
 "a century later the utopian dreams of fin-de-siècle  feminists have yet to be fully realised, but reading their stories we can take heart from their talent and courage to look with hope to the new century, and to another beginning of a new world for women."
There is this great scene in Olive Schreiner's "Three Dreams in a Desert" which sort of speaks to the overall book as a whole in terms of what these women were trying to accomplish through their writing.  A woman coming out of the desert  is looking for "the land of Freedom," and must, as part of her journey, cross a "dark flowing river."  When she asks about a bridge, she is told there is none, that the water is deep and the floor is worn."  She might "slip at any time" and be lost.  When the woman asks for the track to show "where the best fording is," she is told that "It has to be made."  That's exactly what I felt after finishing this book -- that these women had helped create a new path, knowing all the while that the journey wasn't going to be an easy one.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in women writers of the period or in the history of women writers in general.


The table of contents:

"An Egyptian Cigarette," by Kate Chopin
"Theodora: A Fragment," by Victoria Cross
"Suggestion," by Ada Leverson
"A Cross Line," by George Egerton
*"She-Notes," by 'Borgia Smudgiton'
"By Accident," by George Fleming
"The Buddhist Priest's Wife," by Olive Schreiner
"The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"A White Night," by Charlotte Mew
"The Fifth Edition," by Mabel E. Wooton
"Miss Grief," by Constance Fenimore Woolson
"Lady Tal," by Vernon Lee
"The Undefinable: A Fantasia," by Sarah Grand
"The Muse's Tragedy," by Edith Wharton
"Emancipation: A Life Fable," by Kate Chopin
"Three Dreams in a Desert," by Olive Schreiner
"Life's Gifts," by Olive Schreiner
"The Valley of Childish Things," by Edith Wharton

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Beguiled, by Thomas Cullinan

Penguin, 2017
originally published 1966
372 pp


"Seems like none of us ever stop to think how evil can collect in us"

I actually read this book some time back but I haven't forgotten it, and neither will anyone who decides to read this novel.

As the blurb tells us, we find ourselves in Virginia,  "during the height of the Civil War."  The residents of the Miss Martha Farnworth Seminary for Young Ladies find their routine interrupted when thirteen year-old Amelia Dabney is out picking mushrooms one day and comes upon a wounded Union soldier. Surrounded by cannon fire, she helps him to his feet and takes him to the school.  Corporal John McBurney tells her he'll be there long enough to get his injuries tended to,  and then he'll leave immediately and "be no further trouble."

That's what he says, but as the story progresses, we learn that we can't always take McBurney at face value. Far from it. As each of the women and the girls at the house interact with him, his presence interrupts the regular, familiar routine of the house, and worse. He preys on each of these women/girls psychologically; his manipulative behavior makes already-existing but simmering rivalries come to the forefront and in some cases explode; it causes deep and dark secrets to be revealed, and sets off of a bizarre chain of events that no one could have predicted. Wait.  I take that back -- the one person who realized from the beginning that "You chil'ren have brought destruction in this house" is the slave Mattie, who sees McBurney for what he really is, but who cannot convince the rest of the women otherwise before it's too late.

The story is related through the alternating points of view of the small group of females at the school, which gives it a much more complete feel than it may have had from a third-person narrator alone. As perspectives shift, we start to realize just what it is about each person's psyche or past  that draws them to McBurney;  we also get different interpretations of the same events, which are often misinterpreted, bringing in a fuller picture of exactly what's going on in the house. And just as the school is isolated because of a war that has divided the country, the divisions within also serve to isolate its residents until they are forced to come to a consensus over what needs to be done to bring things back to the way they were before.  The question is, though, how can any of these lives ever be the same again?

The Beguiled is a page turner of a great book, and Cullinan is a master of ratcheting the psychological tension to the point where I couldn't put it down. Unlike a LOT of readers, I thought the alternating points-of-view approach was a great one.  And also unlike a lot of readers, I didn't judge the novel on the old Clint Eastwood film made from this book, which was nerve wracking, for sure, but very different from the original story. There's so much psychological tragedy going on in the novel, and while the film version didn't spare the horror, it's of a different variety altogether than what's in the book.

Very highly recommended -- I was just floored after finishing it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wolf on a String, by Benjamin Black

Henry Holt, 2017
309 pp


"...it is called a wolf on a string... Isn't it a strange thing that two parts of the same instrument, instead of making delightful music together, should be so disharmoniously at odds?" -- 189

When I saw that Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)  had a new novel out, I ordered it tout suite and didn't wait too long after it arrived to delve into it.  Black has given me some of the best hours of my crime-fiction reading career with his Quirke novels set in 1950s Dublin, which I thought were just terrific. So I rushed to start this one, and while it starts out in a fashion not unlike a crime fiction novel with the main character stumbling onto a murder, as I got more into it I realized that there's much more going on here than just crime. It reads to me as much more of a historical novel of court intrigue that looks at a young man who arrives in Prague and finds himself unknowingly caught up in a power struggle and has no idea who he can trust; flying blind, he has to make choices without really knowing what's going on or indeed, just what might be at stake as he becomes a pawn in the players' end game.

The story begins in 1599, and young Christian Stern has made it to Prague. Barely "five and twenty," Stern, who is recalling this part of his life decades later,  had just recently graduated from the University of Würzburg, where he'd "amassed a great store of learning," and served as tutor to "the dull-witted sons of the the city's rich merchants." Ready to move along, Stern arrives in Prague
"... in the reign of Rudolf II, of the House of Hapsburg, King of Hungary and Bohemia, Archduke of Austria and ruler of the Holy Roman Empire."
In Prague he'd hoped to
"win the Emperor's favor and secure a place among the scores of learned men who labored at His Majesty's pleasure and under his direction, in the fabulous hothouse that was Hradčany castle,"  
 including the "wise savants" Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

On Stern's very first night in the city, unable to sleep in the lice-infested Blue Elephant inn where he'd ended up, he made his way through the streets with a stranger, who after a heavy night of drinking, suddenly takes off, leaving Stern alone to get lost in the "maze of winding streets" while trying to find his way home. It was then that Stern found himself in Golden Lane, and stumbled onto the body of a young woman "where it lay a-sprawl in the snow."  He tries to lift her up and in doing so realizes that her throat had been cut.  Abandoning the body, he finds his way to a sentry to report his findings.  The sentry is reluctant but Stern eventually convinces him to follow him to the body, where the sentry makes a stunning discovery: the body doesn't belogn to a whore as he'd originally thought, but rather it's the young daughter of "the Emperor's sawbones and one of his chief wizards." Christian finds himself under arrest for her murder and thrown into a cell, but is saved by the Emperor himself, who now wants him to discover who killed this young girl, who just also happened to have been his mistress. Christian's life greatly improves with this strange commission, but as time goes by and another death occurs, he makes no inroads into the case at hand, realizing that nobody is telling him anything.  He's also quite naïve, with an "innocent heart," and while the reader gets the picture early on, this poor guy absolutely doesn't get until it's too late that he's being set up, used, and made a player in a game with high stakes.   He will eventually have to choose in whom he can place his trust, and hope for his own sake that he's made the right choice.

Emperor Rudolf II 

In the Author's Note section of this book, Black/Banville describes his novel as "a historical fantasy," saying that "real life at the court of Rudolf II was entirely phantasmagorical," which is brought out very nicely in this book. Alongside the scientists Tycho Brahe and Kepler, Rudolf surrounds himself with magicians, prophets, astrologers and alchemists; we are reminded from time to time of the "magus" John Dee and then there's Edward Kelley (who is now locked away in a castle at Most), who spends his time "writing a voluminous treatise on the philosopher's stone" while imprisoned, and much, much more.

One thing I learned while reading this book is that I really need to follow my own advice about not having expectations going into a novel. I let myself down in a big way by assuming this was going to be another crime novel, so when there was seemingly little going on, I started getting quite frustrated about the snail's pace this book seemed to be taking. Once I came to the conclusion that this book was more intrigue and less crime though, I had to do a serious rethink, and as it turns out, I ended up liking this quite a bit for what it is, rather than bemoaning what it was not.   Lesson learned.

While it's necessary to wait until the very end for all of the answers, and I was not as satisfied as I probably should have been, it was still a fun, entertaining and rather dark read.  Historical fiction fans will very likely enjoy this one, especially people who like stories set in Prague.


See this real review by Clare Clark writing for  The Guardian, but do NOT  read it until after you've finished the novel.

fiction from Ireland