Friday, July 10, 2020

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser

Library of America, 2003
originally published 1925
969 pp


We are finally settling back into what's normal around here after a very long delay, and I am really far behind in writing about what I've finished recently.  No time for backtracking -- just moving on. The latest book for me is Dreiser's An American Tragedy, a novel I had read eons ago but which for some reason I felt I wanted to read again.  Coming back to it again was an experience.

The dustjacket blurb for this novel notes that American Tragedy is a "monumental study in character, and a stunning jeremiad against the delusions and inequities of American society." 

Clyde Griffiths begins life in poverty with a "hard up" family, "deprived of many comforts and pleasures which seemed common enough to others."  His parents were street-corner preachers who brought their children along with them, and as he got older, he starts to realize that their "calling" was "the shabby thing that it appeared to be in the eyes of others," and that others "looked down upon him and his brothers and sisters for being the children of such parents."   Clyde also begins to think about all of the things he doesn't have, and after a series of odd jobs where he was making a small amount of money, he believed that with his own money he had a right to his freedom.  At the age of sixteen, he becomes a bellboy at a hotel, making his time and money his own for the most part,  but eventually he becomes involved in an incident that causes him to leave town  and start over.  After a chance meeting with his wealthy uncle in a hotel where again he is working as a bellboy, he moves to Lycurgus, New York where the uncle owns a shirt and collar factory and indeed he gets a job there. After some time (and the uncle's insistence that Clyde is a Griffiths and can't be seen to be involved in menial labor for any length of time), he  is moved up position-wise to become the head of a department.  It is there that he meets and seduces Roberta, ignoring the company prohibition against fraternizing with female  employees.  Except for a dinner or two with his uncle's family, they completely ignore him, but it is at one of these gatherings that he meets the social set to which he aspires.  He revels in the attention given to him by a particular young woman in that group (unknown to him, for her own somewhat selfish reasons at least at first), and as he becomes more accepted in this circle, he hopes, as David Denby says in a 2003 New Yorker article, to be a part of what he sees as their "endless exercise of freedom," since "wealth is the only transcendence he can imagine."  Clyde believes he is finally on his way,  but there's just one problem: Roberta.  Obviously there's much, much more to this story, and I could talk about it all day but time is moving on.

I admit I that I was completely glued here -- reading An American Tragedy this time around was like watching the proverbial train wreck you know is about to happen but feeling unable to look away.  I can usually find some sort of sympathy for characters I don't particularly care for, but it was difficult here, especially with Clyde.  His feelings of entitlement lead him to make some pretty bad choices, while he spends too much time  blaming his own situation on his childhood, his parents and society in general for its class conciousness in which poverty is a mark of weakness.  Responsibility is not part of his working vocabulary.  His hopes for advancement keep him on the lookout for  a "very remarkable" man who "might take a fancy to him and offer him a connection," one who just "might lift him into a world such as he had never known."   His problem, as we're told,  is "a lack of mental clarity and inner directing application" which in other people
"permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for direct advancement."
On the other hand,  Dreiser makes a very good case for pointing the finger at the societal values and forces that helped to shape Clyde's vanity, ambition and ultimately his destiny, as he offers some pretty stinging criticism of American culture in general.  As the dustjacket reveals, the novel is
"an extraordinarily detailed portrait of early twentieth-century America, its religious and sexual hypocrisies, its economic pressures, its political corruption and journalistic exploitation."
 Detailed indeed, and even though I am a patient reader, Dreiser's prose style here is often cringeworthy, so for me it was all about story, and it's a page turner.

*** potential spoiler ahead**** 

  I'm pretty sure anyone who has read this book knows that the idea for this novel was taken right out of real life,  with the death of Grace Brown in 1906 at the hands of her boyfriend Chester Gillette.   According to Harold Schechter in a piece included in Yale Reviewlong before writing this novel, as a reporter Dreiser had begun collecting newspaper articles on crimes "symptomatic of America's obsession with what he called 'money success'," meaning murders done by a "young man whose lethal act is sparked by an explosive mix of sexual hunger and social ambition."   While it didn't exactly work out for him in his first attempt (with a novel he'd "tentatively" named The Rake), the Adirondack murder case was just what he was looking for.   Dreiser's Chester became Clyde Griffiths,  and  if ever a character could be described as being "an explosive mix of sexual hunger and social ambition," it's definitely Clyde.  An American Tragedy  won't be for everyone, but sheesh -- I couldn't put it down.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

speaking metaphorically: Shadow of the Hunter, by Su Tong

Sinoist Books, 2020

"once your soul is lost, it's not easy to get it back."

First things first: my thanks to Sinoist Books for asking me if I would be interested in reading this novel by Su Tong, an author whose work I admire.  I didn't get to the Netgalley copy on time so I bought my book, but thanks so much anyway.   If you don't know Su Tong's books, that's a shame, but you might be familiar with Zhang Yimou's haunting  film  Raise the Red Lantern, which is taken from Su Tong's short story collection of the same name. 

Shadow of the Hunter is another fine novel by this author, which through the use of history, metaphor and magical realism, makes a number of observations about China's past, present, and future.  Divided into three parts, this story begins as Baorun's grandfather loses his soul.  He remembers that he has some of his ancestors' bones that he'd hidden in a flashlight and buried, but because he "didn't have anywhere special to bury them at the time,"  just can't remember where.  Some of the residents on Red Toon street aren't happy when he starts digging at their properties, which used to be his family's lands, but he's soon joined by others when he pretends to one of the residents of the street that he's actually looking for gold.  Because of all of the trouble, he is sent to Jingting Hospital, where he continues to dig , driving his daughter-in-law crazy because of all of the bills he wracking up doing so.  Baorun is sent by the family to the hospital (where he becomes a "celebrity" because of his incredible bondage skills) to  take "proper responsibility for him."  As the story with the grandfather continues, the author makes Baorun his central focus in thisf part of the novel, especially his desire to befriend a young girl known as Fairy Princess.  It is also at Jingting Hospital where he meets Liu Sheng, who also lives on Red Toon Street.   Although he knows Liu Sheng by family reputation, they'd had nothing to do with each other. Liu Sheng offers to set up a date for Baorun and Fairy Princess, but things go awry, and result in an horrific act which the three will all pay for in some form or another throughout the remainder of the book.  Understanding exactly the toll this incident has taken  on all of these characters  begins in part two, which focuses on Liu Sheng, and ends in part three with Fairy Princess (aka Miss Bai) taking center stage.  As the blurb for the novel says,  this "random act of violence sets off a spinning top, entwining the lives of three people."

I would be remiss here if I did not mention the Chinese legend of the mantis, the cicada and the yellow bird.   Again from the blurb, the tale speaks of how the "mantis hunts the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind him."  Not all is cut and dried and here -- the roles of predator and prey switch more than once.   And as I noted earlier, China's past and present are examined here, as is the changing roles of its people as history moves forward, especially in terms of family and beliefs.  There is also an ongoing theme of debt and repayment, but clearly at the center of it all the author examines what it means to lose one's soul.     As one character notes, "not having a soul is just suffering..."

When I first started reading this novel, the writing at the beginning gave it a sort of YA feel, but the further I read the darker and more intense this story became, although it is tempered with bouts of occasional humor.   Thinking caps need to be worn for this one and time for reflection should be allotted,  as it is filled with metaphor and symbols with a side of magical realism; extrapolation is also advised.   Even  without spinning mental wheels and digging deeper though,  the story will capture and captivate readers who enjoy modern Chinese literature.

Recommended highly.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar

As I generally do prior to reading any book, I take a glance at the dustjacket blurb, both for the basic outline of what it is I'm about to read and for information about the author, as well as the translator if there is one.  I got a bit of a jolt this time around -- there's the normal  bit about the author, Shokoofeh Azar, saying that she moved to Australia in 2001 as a political refugee, but the surprise is that the translator's name has not been provided, "for reasons of safety and at the translator's request."  After reading what's in this book, I'm not surprised, but to the anonymous translator: thank you and well done. 

Europa Editions, 2020
originally published 2017
232 pp

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree  is, in a word, stunning.  As the Stella Prize Judges' Report said of this book, "the novel presents a richly woven magical reality:"
"Drawing on techniques of classic Persian literature, and recalling aspects of South American magic realism, Azar powerfully juxtaposes the beauty of Persian culture and mythology with the brutality of a political regime responsible for the destruction of so many lives." 
The story begins in 1979 and plays out amidst the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution, following the lives of a family from Tehran who become caught in its wake and decide to flee, wanting only to "disappear in silence."   They make their way to remote Razan, where the father, Hushang, sees the "calm eyes of the villagers" and knows they're at the "safe place where we were meant to be."  What they don't know at the time is that this place, where as the dustjacket blurb notes, they were "hoping... to preserve both their intellectual freedom and their lives,"  will not stay remote for long, as the revolution will eventually make it way there as well, nine years later in 1988.  As it happens,  in August 1988, at 2:35 p.m. Roza, the mother in this family, "attained enlightenment" as she sat "atop the grove's tallest greengage plum tree" overlooking the village.  Not so coincidentally, 1988 was the year of the "prison massacres" (which, as of 2018 the government of Iran had still not acknowledged);  it was the very moment of her own son Sohrab's execution, in which he was
"hanged without trial and unaware he would be buried en masse with hundreds of other political prisoners early the next morning." 
 The story is narrated by Bahar, one of the two daughters in this family, and reveals the impact that events during this decade had on this family.   The fact that she is a ghost (not a spoiler since it's also on the dustjacket blurb) is not so extraordinary in this book -- as the author stated in an interview at the LA Review of Books,
"People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems. And it has nothing to do with superstition or religion. If you learn to look at these beliefs in the right way and deeply, you can find the roots of myths, and important and beautiful meaning in these beliefs."
In Azar's telling, the forests around the village of Razan are filled with ghosts as well as jinns and other spirits;  the village is plagued by different events including a black snowfall and an overflowing river of tears spilled from the eyes of ghosts, and Beeta, Bahar's sister, will go on to become a mermaid, among other sorts of mystical occurrences.  Quite honestly, it all seems perfectly natural to these people, which is why I didn't even bother to question these more fantastical elements -- here they are interacting with and dealing with their world in their own way. 

While it is often emotionally tough to read, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree addresses not just the horrors of this particular decade but also what it takes in order to survive through the worst.  It deals with grief and loss, seeking and finding, life and love.  It is a most original and powerful book that I will probably never forget, almost dreamlike in the telling.    You will have to wind your way through the elements of magical realism to keep  a chronological eye on the narrative, but as you do so, savor the time you spend there.

Most likely not a book that everyone will like, but for me, it's now of one my favorites of 2020.  I loved this book.  Absolutely.

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!