Saturday, March 12, 2016

Dancing in the Baron's Shadow, by Fabienne Josaphat

Unnamed Press, 2016
231 pp


Any time anyone writes a novel about Haiti during the 1960s and the reign of Francois Duvalier, aka "Papa Doc," I am going to read it.  It was such an horrific time in Haiti's history, where anyone at any time could be accused of anything and sent to prison on trumped-up charges; some of these people were never again to see the light of day.  The intelligentsia had it especially bad, but everyone was at risk.

I was so excited to find and to start reading this book, since it's set in Haiti during the reign of Francois Duvalier, aka Papa Doc. As I started to read, I realized that the true focus here is on two brothers who took very different paths in life, their broken relationship and the crises that ultimately bring them together again.  They are two men, who, each in his own way, are looking for justice after a series of events tears their families apart and takes them away from the lives they'd built in Port-au-Prince.  I got the feel of the period here through the author's descriptions of repression, fear and the presence of Duvalier's Tonton Macoutes -- his personal goon squad who did the dirty work -- out on the streets, as well as the poverty that a large part of the population suffered, and overall, it is a good story that I think ought to be read.  What was happening in Haiti is a story that needs to be told as well -- and here we get a tiny slice of what it must have been like to live under a brutal and repressive regime.  

On the other hand, for me the story moves way too quickly and things feel very rushed here. I felt that things happened so very fast in this book that the story as a whole just didn't the depth it could have had , and the character development sort of loses a lot of steam as the narrative quickly becomes focused on plot.  It's as if  the author knew where she wanted to go with this story, but in the hurry to finish, the book ends up falling back too much on plot rather than the characters under study here. And then there are things plotwise that don't necessarily ring true in the telling. I can't really give an example, but there were times when I just went "huh?" 

It is, however, the author's first novel, and I do think she has a lot of talent so I'll look forward to reading more from her in the future. Slowing down, fleshing out both setting and characters to a much stronger degree, and not relying so much on a whirlwind plot would have made this book much better for me. However, I am very much applauding her choice of topic because I don't think a lot of people are very familiar with this horrific time in Haiti's history and any novels that bring out even the slightest bit of that time are well worth writing and even more worth reading. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

back in time we go again to the 1880s: The Truth About Tristrem Varick & Mr. Incoul's Misadventure, by Edgar Saltus

Underworld Amusements, 2015
294 pp


Before I even turned the first page, I knew what I was in for just by reading the quotation on the cover:
"Truth is not always in white satin like a girl on her wedding-day. And when it is of mud and of blood, when it offends the nostrils, so much the worse; I, for one, will not sprinkle it with ottar of rose. Besides, I am not here to tell fairy tales and pastorals." 
Somehow I just knew that things weren't going to be rosy here, and I was definitely right. These are two novels focused on corruption and pessimism, and they're dark. Very, very dark.

Beginning with The Truth About Tristrem Varick (1888)  Saltus describes this story as an "attempt in ornamental disenchantment" in his dedication.  And indeed, that is what we get here time and time again.  Tristrem Varick is the ultimate poster boy for disenchantment, and Saltus sets up his character quite nicely -- he makes Varick the ultimate idealist who  fails to see what the reader knows right away,  and takes a big fall because of it.  His main failings here are that he truly believes that life carries with it some sort of meaning and value, but  he has ultimately placed his trust in the wrong people. His sentiments are noble, but at the same time unrealistic, especially in regard to the woman he loves, but the poor dupe just doesn't get it.   In that sense, with Saltus bringing Tristrem to an otherwise less than perfect ending, the reader can't help but feel sorry for this poor guy who is about as delusional as they come -- the saddest sort of "hero" one can possibly imagine. It's just painful to watch.

On the other hand, Mr. Incoul's Misadventure (1887)  makes Tristrem seem  tame, and the titular character is as opposite of Tristrem Varick as any two men can be.   Mr. Incoul is a very wealthy (think millionaire)  widower, who, unlike Tristrem Varick, holds very little in the way of ideals. He believes in "refinement," since he disavows any connection with being a "Puritan," but on the other hand, he doesn't hold with "immorality," since according to him, "refinement and immorality are incompatible." He is also a man of action when he thinks he's been wronged, and has been since childhood, whereas Varick was often seen as an "umpire," whose ability to judge a situation fairly gained him respect from his peers.   Incoul is in love with his much-younger second wife Maida, who had once been the lover of a Mr. Lenox Leigh, and who agreed to marry Incoul because her mother forced her to accept his proposal owing to their financial situation. Maida puts a condition on this union, though:  he must accept her terms of a platonic sort of relationship, to change only when she is ready to move to the next level.  Things begin to come to a head while the two are on a trip to Europe, where Incoul discovers the disenchanting  truth behind the woman he married, leading him to manipulate things so that he becomes the one in control.

If someone reads these two books as a commentary on both European and American societies of the time, I think that would be an incredibly accurate judgment. They also, at least to me, come across as a misogynist commentary on the folly of placing faith in a woman's virtue --   the deceptions of the two main women characters here are at the root of  the men's problems in both stories. On the other hand, this misogyny as well as the sheer narcissism  I see here isn't far off the mark from some of the European writers of the same era (a really good example is found in Lorrain's Monsieur de Phocas, which I've recently read) revealing Saltus' flair for and appreciation of  European decadence, highlighted in Mr. Incoul's Misadventure.  For example, in that book,  Incoul and Maida take up residence in rented villa belonging to a French nobleman, whose library is just chock full of works by such decadent writers as Verlaine, Beaudelaire, The Marquis de Sade, Mirabeau; even the paintings reek of decadent strangeness.  It's all over Maida's head, though, which turns out in a way to provide some of the best irony found in this novel, since it seems that she's not quite finished with her "man of appetites," absinthe-drinking, debauched former lover.

Again, there's way more in this book than I'm capable of evoking here, and it is my first experience (although likely not my last) with this author.  When Saltus says he is "not here to tell fairy tales and pastorals," he definitely means it in this book.  There is absolutely nothing pretty, nothing redemptive and definitely no happy endings to be found anywhere.  In other words, it's just my kind of book.  It's extremely dark,  pessimistic, and  tough to read at times since Saltus doesn't hold back, but very well worth every second.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

and we're back -- this time with Boris Fishman's Don't Let My Baby do Rodeo

HarperCollins, 2016
336 pp

arc copy -- thank you TLC book tours and to the publisher

" People camp here through the winter. Some people seek out wildness at all costs. And God blessed you with your own supply."

While it is very true that I've pretty much stopped taking advance reader copies in my somewhat Sisyphean effort to get through my toppling TBR pile, I enjoyed Boris Fishman's A Replacement Life so much that when I got an email asking if I'd care to read this novel for TLC book tours, I had to read it. Once again, the author delivers and does another excellent job.  

Like A Replacement Life,  the author once again explores identity in this book, and again, as in the earlier book, he looks at inheritance as well as  the conflicts that can occur among immigrants in America as a result of the influence of both cultures.  As the blurb notes, the book also looks at "the universal question of how we reconcile who we are, and whom the world wants us to be." 

Just briefly, the woman at the center of things is Maya Rubin (née Shulman), who had come to America from Kiev to go to school but when it was time for her to return to the Ukraine, she ends up marrying Alex Rubin instead. Alex had immigrated to the  US from Minsk with his parents while still a child, and became a US citizen. The Rubins are unable to have children, so they end up adopting a little boy. When the novel begins, Max is eight, and Maya has gone down to pick him up as he gets off the school bus, only to discover that he's not there.  He does eventually come home, but they discover that he'd been found in a river, looking at pebbles close up. His running away is just sort of the last straw for Maya -- Max also likes to eat grass, sleep outside in a tent and is very much at home with the animals who make their way into the Rubins' yard.  Maya simply doesn't understand him, and begins to wonder if he acts this way because of his birth heritage -- Max's very young birth parents had come from Montana, where his father, Tim, had a career in the rodeo.  In fact, although Max's adoption was supposed to have been closed, the birth mother had insisted on personally delivering the baby ("like takeout")  to the Rubins, leaving Maya with a request before they leave:  "Please don't let my baby do rodeo."   Max's "strange" behavior, understood neither by his adoptive parents nor his paternal grandparents, ultimately makes Maya wonder about herself as a mother and motherhood in general, but also leads both Maya and Alex to questions about adoption and genetics as well as the question of nature vs. nurture.  Maya gets the idea that she really needs to go to Montana where she hopes answers about Max will be found with his birth parents; this quest becomes a "vacation" for just Alex, Maya and Max.  

However, when all is said and done, the vacation turns out to be a vehicle for Maya's own journey of self exploration. Having never been west of New Jersey before, Maya sees an America she never knew existed, but more importantly, a chance meeting with a divorced man with two daughters in a diner steers Maya toward an understanding of just where Max's identity with the wild may come from. 

There were some moments I didn't care for (shower scene at the campground, for example), but there's a lot of humor as well as some very poignant moments. I love the adoption and birth metaphors that run throughout the novel -- both  vehicles to explore the whole cultural/self question.  He also does such a great job in both setting up and resolving Maya's Russian/American identity crisis to the point where the second part of this book is nearly perfect.  Most of all, I loved the symbolism of Maya's meeting with Marion and what happens as a result -- it is just so very nicely done, and really gets to the heart of what's happening in this book.   While I did note a few similarities in overall plot structure between this book and his first one, Don't Let My Baby do Rodeo definitely stands on its own.  It is a beautiful story, one that I can certainly recommend.  Trust me here -- normally I can't stand this sort of thing but in Boris Fishman's very capable hands, it works and works extremely well.  He's got this way of doing that to me -- it's bizarre. 

Obviously this is a rather simplistic look at this book, and I'm not giving it the treatment it deserves, but Mr. Fishman offers his readers so much to ponder  in this book  that it's pretty much impossible.  From my very casual reader point of view, this book is a definite winner, and I hope it goes on to sell megathousands of copies.   Kudos. Wonderful novel. 


I want to thank Trish at TLC Book Tours for offering this book to me -- I enjoyed it so much I'm buying a copy for my home library.  Others are reading this book as well, and their ideas can be found here.