Saturday, March 28, 2020

Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann

Pantheon, 2020
originally published 2017
translated by Ross Benjamin
339 pp


Tyll begins in a town where "the war had not yet come" and where the people "prayed often" to keep it away.  The townspeople stopped what they were doing at the arrival of  Tyll Ulenspiegel, whom they recognized by his "pied jerkin ... battered hood and ... calfskin cloak."  Ignoring the calls of the cows who needed milking,  they watch as Tyll and his small retinue put on a play and  dance; Tyll sings a number of ballads and then walks a tightrope.  As he "stood with his right foot lengthwise on the rope, his left crosswise, his knees slightly bent and his fists on his hips," the crowd looking up at him
"understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people."
Ulenspiegel moves on, his coffers full of their coins, but not before leaving the people in a battle that began with shoes, and not before asking young Martha to join them, an offer she declines.   But "a good year later," the war did arrive;  the soldiers decimated the town, leaving behind only three survivors.  As she hears the beams of the roof of her burning house "splintering,"  young Martha realizes (among other things)  that 
 "Tyll Ulenspiegel was now perhaps the only person who would remember our faces and would know that we had existed."
Tyll represents a freedom that most regular people at this time do not have nor will ever obtain; rejecting his proscribed lot in life is something that began during his childhood after his father, the local miller and student of alchemy, magic, and herbs was arrested, tortured, and executed by Jesuits for witchcraft.  When he and a young girl he's convinced to go with him join up with a traveling entertainer, he begins to hone not only his tightrope and singing skills, but also his ability to survive under the most adverse conditions.  He is the Fool who is not a fool, carrying a bag of tricks which include among other things a talent for mockery and a fearlessness when speaking to power.

From the start we are put directly into the midst of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) -- the mercifully-short version of which you can read about here;  the many stories that follow trace Tyll Ulenspiegel's life before and during this period.    It was a war which, as one character notes,
"has been going on so long that most people alive have never seen peace. That only the old can still remember peace."
However, the author cleverly sidesteps presenting Tyll as a typical work of historical fiction by not following a straightforward, chronological narrative.  He does not in any way ignore the horrors suffered by people during the war,  but while he does this, he has also embedded the story of Tyll Ulenspiegel within these chapters, having him interact with various historical figures and others with whom he crosses paths, most all of whom are connected in some way.  Since it is not your average plot-based narrative, you have to put some work into piecing things together, but it is well worth the time and effort. 

I found myself engaged immediately, often moving between laughing and trying to force down the lump in my throat, but always, always enthralled.  Seriously recommended for very patient readers.  I loved this book.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

read in January
Doubleday, 2019
210 pp

Knowing ahead of time that I was going to be receiving The Nickel Boys as part of my subscription to  Powell's Indiespensable, I decided to make myself familiar with the Dozier School of Boys in Marianna, Florida, since I knew that what had happened there was behind this novel.   Author Colson Whitehead had first heard of it in 2014; I had no clue that such a place ever existed, but I was curious enough to want to know about it.  I went through countless newspaper articles and watched a number of videos (and being thoroughly horrified about what I was learning), and then went through the report by Dr. Erin Kimmerle and her colleagues whose investigation focused on determining (as quoted in the report, 11)

 "the location of missing children buried at the former Florida Industrial School, also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in order to excavate and repatriate the remains to their families."
 At this point the book had arrived at my house and I thought about reading it right away, but I was just too afraid to do so after having immersed myself in the horrors of the Dozier School.  So there it sat until I had the guts to pick it up.  While Whitehead does not at all set aside the horrors of the school (here the Nickel Academy), his main focus is on the boys who for whatever reason have found themselves there.

It is significant, I think, that Whitehead opens his novel with a prologue discussing  the discovery of bodies in a "secret graveyard on the north side of the Nickel Campus."  Found during an environmental study of a field that developers hoped to turn into a "lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event,"  a "new inquiry" had to be launched:
"there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history."
 Looking ahead to the final chapters of this novel, when two former Nickel Boys get together to talk about "the old days," one of them notes that the school
"didn't stop when you got out. Bend you all kind of ways until you were unfit for straight life, good and twisted by the time you left."
While the "whole damned place" might be razed,  memories and damaged psyches remain; as the dustjacket blurb puts it: the school "warped the lives of thousands of children."   The Nickel Boys examines how this happened, following the life of Elwood Curtis, an African-American teen whose life fell apart the minute he accepted a ride from the wrong person.   Never mind that he had absolutely nothing to do with the other man's crime;  just being black and in the car was reason enough for him to be sent to Nickel.

from the title page of my book

Elwood has grown up listening to speeches  by Martin Luther King, and on his first day there he thinks back to one given to high school students in Washington D.C. where King had spoken of "the degradations of Jim Crow and the need to transform that degredation into action."  He had  "never permitted himself the kind of misbehavior that landed others in trouble," and decides that to make it through his sentence he would have to "keep doing what he'd always done: act right," and to, as King had said "Make a career of humanity."   Elwood that realizes that he's "stuck" at Nickel, but he plans to "make the best of it," and believes that "Nickel would soon understand that about him too." He's so naive and so idealistic  that it's painfully sad when he discovers what life is really like there.

As the author says in an interview at NPR,  King's speeches about "loving the oppressor" spoke to "suffering and rising above it and loving in the face of impossible odds;"  the question facing Elwood now is "can I do this?"   He befriends Turner, who is not at all interested in idealism, but reality.  He  tells Ellwood that the "key" is to
"see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course." 
In short, play the game, since making it through Nickel depends on those in the system who put him in there.

 As Amanitta Forma writes in her review at The Guardian, Nickel Academy is a
"corrupt world, in which the rule of law is is meaningless and the real laws are unwritten." 
 It is a place where spirits and bones are crushed and broken; where rewards come with keeping one's head down, "just like they wanted."

 A good historical novel should prompt readers to go and dig out the facts behind it; in this case, what you discover is beyond painful but a story which needs to be told. This book offers an opportunity for the story of one of these Nickel Boys  to be heard, but there is also this:  you can't read this book without making a leap to our own time and recognizing a sad and painful constant.  In my opinion, that's what makes this book so powerful.

very highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Everywhere You Don't Belong, by Gabriel Bump

Algonquin, 2019
advance reading copy (thank you!!)

When I began reading this novel, I was sort of taken aback at the simplicity of it all and I was a bit on the iffy side, but the truth is that the further I got into it the more I realized that it's not simple at all -- it is intelligent and works at a level of complexity I hadn't quite anticipated. 

I suppose it is what most people are calling  it, a coming-of-age story, following Claude McKay Love beginning with childhood growing up in an African-American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. His life is a series of people leaving, with his parents taking off first, followed here and there by his friends. The only solid thing in Claude's life is his grandmother, who along with her live-in friend Paul, brings him up as best as she can, which isn't always easy.  Although his grandmother believes that Claude is "not a follower" but will eventually become "his own man,"  by the time middle school rolls around she and Paul also see that he is "sentimental, no backbone, adrift, unspectacular."  He is not good at sports like his friends and is the kind of kid who at a lunchtime assembly at school sits in the back "behind band kids and the science club." He is an empathetic sort of kid, who cares about his friends, who cries when he sees an injured squirrel; he suffers through periods of depression, and has been called "soft" more than once.   This "unspectacular" boy, however, not only has to make his way through being abandoned, but also through other challenges that present themselves in various forms.  Everywhere You Don't Belong chronicles not only how he weathers these storms and survives and what he learns about himself in the process,   but also highlights the people in his life who help provide love, friendship, and a measure of stability as he's doing so.

What makes this somewhat atypical of a standard coming-of-age tale is in the way the author also examines different forms of oppression,  racism and ideology that find their way into Claude's life, as well as how he copes with it all.   I don't want to spoil things for potential readers but a pivotal point in this novel is a riot in his neighborhood (mentioned in the blurb so not a spoiler) caused by the wrongful killing by the police of a young African-American boy which, in the long run not only highlights ideological divisions among the people there but causes him to question his life in South Shore.   As he is finishing high school, he has decided to get out of what he calls "the toxic bubble" in which he feels trapped, believing that "the rest of the world isn't like this."  Once he's moved on to college in Missouri, leaving behind his home, friends, family and everything he's known, his past comes back to him in a very big and unexpected way.  However, he also comes to an even greater awareness from his experiences in both Chicago and Missouri, one which I'll leave readers to discover on their own. 

Do not let the simplicity of the prose or the style fool you. And think out of the box when you get to the end, which seems both simplistic and unrealistic, but the author is making a point here.  While there are a number of funny moments where I couldn't help but laugh, Everywhere You Don't Belong is a serious novel telling a serious story that needs to be heard.  Very highly recommended, and Mr. Bump should be congratulated for a first novel very well done.


There is an excellent interview with Gabriel Bump which I read after finishing this book at Electric Lit that opened my eyes wide, but do not read it until after you've turned the last page and closed the cover. Spoilers abound so beware. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Ashenden, by W. Somerset Maugham

Vintage UK, 2000
originally published 1928
332 pp


In the preface to Ashenden,  Maugham wastes no time in revealing that this book is "founded on my experiences in the Intelligence Department during the war, but rearranged for the purposes of fiction."  He later goes on to say that

"the work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable,"

and that is exactly what Maugham does here.

Ashenden was first recruited by a man known only as "the Colonel" or "R,"  whom he had met at a party, who later in a private meeting noted Ashenden's "particular qualifications for the secret service."  His knowledge of different languages was a plus, as was the fact that he was a writer, allowing him the perfect cover -- traveling to a neutral country to work on his latest project, as he was already known for his plays.  Once he takes on his duties in intelligence Ashenden's "official existence," as we learn, is "as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk's," but the work he does is  "evidently necessary."  He knows that he functions as a "tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine," in which he "never had the advantage of seeing a completed action," most of the time not knowing "what his own doings led to."  His main job is to keep an eye on things, listen, and report back to his superiors.  Over the course of this book he will find himself involved with a unique array of people, including a strange general known as the Hairless Mexican whose destiny is often told in the cards, an elderly British chaperone to two princesses, an Italian music-hall dancer in love with a seriously-dangerous Indian agitator and "fanatic," and a talkative American who "would not listen to reason."  Love and betrayal weave their way through these stories, and while some are a bit on the entertaining side,  it is impossible not to be absolutely devastated at the outcomes of a few of the others.   What Ashenden has to do is often not pretty, but he never fails in his duty, despite what he feels toward "the bigwigs," who
"shut their eyes to dirty work so that they could put their clean hands on their hearts and congratulate themselves that they had never done anything that was unbecoming to men of honour."
 Ashenden is a fine book, filled with stories which Maugham handled with a mix of deadly earnest and levity.   It is definitely not the edge-of-your-seat stuff of later spy thrillers in which the work of intelligence gathering often becomes life-threatening business, although Maugham makes crystal clear that there are risks involved in what Ashenden does.  While his work is "evidently necessary," there is another side to it that comes with very human consequences, which are played out again and again throughout this novel.  By the way, feel free to argue that it is not actually a novel -- we'll just agree to disagree on that point.

So very highly recommended -- I loved this book. 

What an excellent start to the new reading year!

drawing the line in 2020: make more book space!

In a perfect world, my home bookshelves would be neatly organized, every book in its place, but I don't live in a perfect world.  Instead of this

from Bookbub
I have this

and that's just one wall of three in that room, with the other bookshelves in other rooms looking much the same.  I'm sure that if went through them book by book, I'd even find duplicates.  Who knows -- maybe even triplicates.   I cringe now whenever a book arrives by mail because there is absolutely no room to put it -- just this morning my husband asked me if I wanted to go to one of my favorite bookstores when we're down south of here on Friday and for the first time I actually had to say no.  

This year it's time to draw the line and to actually read the books I already own and to clear up this mess. I'll be back at the end of December with another photo to see how I've done.    

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Suicide Woods, by Benjamin Percy

Graywolf Press, 2019
193 pp


"No one would a done a thing like that on purpose. It's against nature." 

Another of my most anticipated books for this year, I'm happy to say that Benjamin Percy's Suicide Woods didn't let me down.  I worry sometimes that something I'm really looking forward to reading is going to just tank, but any fear on that score was swept aside once I started reading this book.   It is a collection of ten short stories, well, actually, nine short stories and one nearly novella-length tale at the end; it's also a book that actually lives up to the blurb by author Luis Alberto Urrea, who  says right there on the front cover for all to see that it
"deals in a shivery fear, a dreamlike unease, a sense of eldritch hallucinations creeping toward us."
Never a truer word spoken.    Word of warning: if you're not inclined toward the weird, eerie, or sometimes downright creepy,  pass. This is not the book for you.  On with the show.

It's always a good sign, I think, when a collection of stories like this opens with one that sets the tone and acts a sort of teaser for what to expect throughout the rest of the book; this one certainly passes that test with flying colors.  The first story, "The Cold Boy" begins with a description of the forest as "hardwood," where the sycamore and oak trees would be completely bare if not for the hundreds of crows, "huddled like little men in black jackets."  The sounds they make create "rusty voices" that are audible a quarter of a mile away where a man named Ray stands on a frozen pond in the middle of a Minnesota cornfield, where there are "two sets of footprints, yet he is alone on the ice." First of all, when crows make an early appearance in a story, things rarely turn out for the best since everyone knows that the crow is a harbinger of doom; then, of course,  there's the immediate question of why there are two sets of footprints if Ray is out there by himself.    At this point, which is just two paragraphs in, the sense of something ominous starts making itself known in my blood, creeping under my skin as if to mirror the feeling of cold that rises and creeps up Ray's legs and into his chest, where his "heart feels frosted with tiny white crystals."  And after we realize what's going on here (which I won't divulge), Percy makes a shift into the realm of the unexpected, throwing his readers (well, me anyway) completely into off-kilter mode, where, quite honestly, I stayed throughout the entire book.   At the same time, there's more to this collection opener than just the eeriness and the unsettling creep factor; for me it begins a clear line of thought running from this first story through the last, in which attempts to alter or conquer nature, both human and otherwise, turn into the stuff of nightmares.

I don't want to go through each story in the book;   while there were only a few that left me with what I call FTG (Failure to Grab) syndrome, only natural for me in the case of an anthology of stories, for the most part I was beyond impressed.  The best stories for me included "The Cold Boy," "Heart of a Bear," and "The Balloon," while the absolute chart toppers were the titular and breathtaking "Suicide Woods," which made me put the book down for a few hours before returning to it and "The Uncharted," a story I visualized while reading much more than any of the others in the collection.  Both of these were superb, and not only because of their eerieness and the fact that they both completely messed with my head.   "The Dummy," "Dial Tone" and most especially "Writs of Possession" all resonate in our current social/political/economic climate, with the latter being one of the saddest stories I've ever read in my life while certainly one of the best written of the bunch.  The blogger at Minnesota Monthly reviewing this book quotes Percy as saying about the writing of this story that "It's like I took this larger portrait of America and dropped it, and it shattered," and after I read that statement, I realized how perfectly it describes what he's done here.

If you are a reader who prefers uplifting, follow-the-dotted-line sort of stories or  stories full of nice nice and happy endings, or who demands fully fleshed-out characters in your reading, move along.  That sort of thing you just won't find here.  It's going to appeal more to those people who enjoy books along the lines of what I call "strange with purpose," where thinking is required,  which is pretty much the bread and butter of my fiction reading these days.  It is unforgettable, really, and I can certainly recommend it.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Good People, by Hannah Kent

Picador, 2017
384 pp


"There's queer things happening up the mountains if you believe half of what goes round. And they're after finding patterns in it all. They're after finding reason for it." 

As with this author's fine novel Burial Rites, The Good People is based on real events, this time from  nineteenth-century Ireland.  In 2011,  Kent (as she described at Lit Hub in 2017)  came upon  an article from the Morning Post reporting on the Tralee assizes of 1826 which mentioned
"the trial of 'Ann Roche, an old woman of very advanced age' indicted for a serious crime 'committed under the delusion of the grossest superstition.' "

Finding little else about Ann Roche, she went on to write Burial Rites, and then came back to find out more about her elusive subject in 2015.  Back to the microfilm she went, and finally discovered another article, one that mentioned two more women associated with Roche, Honora Leahy and Mary Clifford.   The Good People brings the three together in a story that  kept me up until 3:30 a.m. when I had to stop just for the sake of actually sleeping for a few hours two days ago.  I am still thinking about it; I'm still haunted by it.

Nora Leahy has recently lost her daughter, and now she's lost her husband.  After the new priest visits her and reluctantly prays for him ("the sacraments are for the living and cannot avail the dead"), the house fills with neighbors.  Martin's body is turned on the bed, "so as to avert further misfortune," and Nora's nephew Daniel, who had witnessed Martin's death at the "crossroads next to the the blacksmith's," reveals that as he and another man, Peter O'Connor, were taking the body to the Leahy's home, they had seen lights ... "Coming from where the fairies do be, down by the Piper's Grave." Peter confirms Daniel's story, commenting that
"You mark my words, there'll be another death in this family before long... First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company.  And if the Good People have a hand in it ... well." 
In just a few pages then,  we discover that the people of this small village live in a world where the Church and superstition live side by side; where fairies, aka the Good People, are believed to exist as  more than just fodder for storytelling.

The gathering is interrupted with the arrival of  Nance Roche, who has come for the keening, a practice that is frowned upon by the priest.   She is a woman who is known for her cures, whose job is to see to "the daily blights and bruises of the living."  She is an herbalist, but also has what she refers to as "the knowledge," and lives in a small cabin "between mountain and wood and river" where she's been for the last twenty years:
"...she stood in for that which was not and could not be understood.  She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars.  She was a pagan chorus. An older song."
 and she is known to some as "Nance of the Fairies."  Whether her "gift" is, as one character notes, "God-given or a token from the Good People," no one knows, and it is not for them to know.  All she will say is "Twas them that gave me the knowledge to cure folk and bring the fairy dart out of them..."

Grieving for the loss of her daughter and now her husband, Nora now finds herself alone to take care of her grandson, young Micheál, whose condition has caused him to change from a happy, healthy infant to one who, according to Nora, is "ill-formed" and now unrecognizable from the baby he was.  For her, he is "burdensome" and she needs help during her grief, so she hires fourteen year-old Mary Clifford who needs the job to help support her starving family.   Although Mary develops a sort of bond with  Micheál, it doesn't take long for her to catch the women's gossip at the well, referring to Micheál as the "blasted cratur" and "changeling" that has caused all of the ills of the village; and indeed, things are getting pretty bad there.  Nora's grief has taken over her life, there is no help coming from either the priest or the doctor, so she begins to believe that there may just be something in what they're saying -- that her grandson is a changeling, but what does she need to do to get her real grandson back? 

With the same sort of claustrophobic atmosphere so excellently evoked in Burial Rites, The Good People delves into the story of these three women; it also looks at the conflicts between religion and superstition, medicine and traditional folk healing, and the forces of the time that come together to precipitate the events in this novel.   I think though that  one of the characters here points to the heart of it all when she says that
"There's queer things happening up the mountains if you believe half of what goes round. And they're after finding patterns in it all. They're after finding reason for it."  
I so very highly recommend this book.  Beware -- it will haunt you.