Monday, June 19, 2017

Wolf on a String, by Benjamin Black

9781627795173
Henry Holt, 2017
309 pp

hardcover

"...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


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Tale of Aypi, by Ak Welsapar


978784379834
Glagoslav Publications, 2016
originally published 2012
translated by W.M. Coulson
163 pp

paperback

"What a twisted world, where weakness spurred men to mete strife out to each other, with the mortal weapon of fear in their hands. Until they put it aside, injustice, tyranny and war would not be laid to rest in the world." -- 51

I have to give credit where credit is due. I need to thank the awesome people at Glagoslav for my copy.  The link is on purpose: I've read a number of Glagoslav titles now and they continue to  impress. I've also been trying to keep up with what's out there from smaller presses across genres, and Glagoslav, it seems, never sleeps.  Anyone interested in discovering more works in translation might benefit from visiting their website and perusing their offerings -- as noted there,
"The primary focus of Glagoslav Publications is to bring out translations that embody values that are uniquely Slavic in nature and celebrate universal values as reflected in diverse cultural demographics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other nations in the region. Every book that we publish has already achieved an engaged readership in its native land, has been recognized by international critics, and, in many cases, has either received or been short-listed for prestigious national and international awards."
It's a win-win from where I sit.

the author, Ak Welsapar, from his website

First, a bit about the author.  Born in Turkmenistan (a former Soviet Republic), in 1956, Ak Welsapar obtained his first Master's degree in Journalism, then went on to get another in Literary Theory (1989) after joining the Soviet Writers' Association.   In 1993, a piece he wrote about ecological issues in Central Asia got him kicked out of the Soviet Writers' Association, and he was put under house arrest.  At this time, and through 2006, Turkmenistan was ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov, who according to Paul Theroux writing for  the New Yorker,
 "treated Turkmenistan as his private kingdom, a land in which everything belonged to him."  
Welsapar's work didn't at all sit well with the government -- he was declared a "public enemy,"  the government wouldn't allow his work to be published, and all previously-published works were banned, "confiscated from bookstores and libraries, to be burnt." The author left in 1993 to avoid both imprisonment and persecution of his family, and they became residents of Sweden the following year.  To this day, he is still a "black-listed" writer in his native country. So we are beyond fortunate that Glagoslav has chosen to publish it. It is significant, as author Brian W. Aldiss notes in a brief intro to the book, since it is "the first novel ever to emerge from Turkmenistan." It is also a winner of the English Pen Award in 2014.

and now to the novel:

Several years before this story actually begins, the small fishing village that is the setting for this tale was visited by a "group of medical scientists" who discovered that the coast there was "simply a natural wonder." According to their findings, the place would be great for a "sanatorium for asthmatics and people with other respiratory diseases," and soon government officials began to arrive from the capital. At first the people in this village were quite proud and thought this was a good thing:
"Look here, if they hadn't been living for generations in such a health-giving, astounding location,"
thinking the government would build "nice new brick houses" for them.  Trailers were brought in for the construction workers, and building began on the new sanatorium. Then, when the money ran out, construction stopped, only to start up again several months later. This time was different -- the villagers soon found out that they were ordered to leave the area, "without causing any interruption to the ongoing work."  Now these people are being "deported" and relocated to a town a few hours away by government order. As the relocation begins and the fishermen become slowly adjusted to their impending move, there is one among them who refuses -- Araz Ateyev, with a wife and two young children.  Their age-old way of life has been proscribed since sturgeon fishing is now illegal, but Araz continues to fish and believes that the coast is the "inheritance" left to him by his father.  Without it, he'd "be nothing."

At this point, the author goes back three hundred years earlier, to introduce the legend of Aypi, a local woman who was out gathering stones one day from the beach as was her regular custom.  A "group of strange men from unknown lands"  had found their way to this  part of the coast, and "not being particularly timid," she began to talk to them. When their conversation was over, the men left her a "stunning ruby necklace," and back at the village, she was told that by talking to these men she would bring "calamity" on them all. It wasn't so much what she'd said, but rather it was the fact that she'd had "dealings" with these outsiders that brought fear to the villagers, so they decided to get rid of her, and her husband threw her into the sea from an island cliff just off the coast.  The story goes that from then on, the people living and working on this coast were "haunted by the fear that those uninvited guests would return someday, bearing not gifts, but weapons."

 Aypi continued to slumber under the sea,  but
"the regret from her life lingered in the living world lingered in the living world, she could not leave it, that was impossible."
And now, it seems, Aypi's spirit has returned to the "living world" to exact her own form of vengeance.  As she moves swiftly through this modern world, the story begins to encompass not only Araz's resistance to the powers that be while trying to protect his birthright, but it also explores the conflicts between men and women, based on her idea that men want "dependent wives," since, according to her, "The thing men most fear is independent females." She believes that
"in every man's heart was the dread of being weaker than his wife and so losing her. This provoked them to their false bravery, brutality and inhumanity," 
and wonders how women could "be content" with the situation.

Aside from following the story of Araz, The Tale of Aypi also, among other things,  examines generational divides as well as the differences between traditional and modern ways of life, making for plenty of food for thought in this deceptively slim book. It may be short, but there is a lot going on in here.

Recommended, and as soon as I have word that there are more of Welsapar's novels in translation, I'll be picking them up as well. It's one of those books where the beginning made me think it was going to be one thing, but in the end, I got a whole lot more than I expected.  How rarely does that happen??


fiction from Turkmenistan


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

9780374530945
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
originally published 1991
232 pp

paperback

(read earlier)

"It is a characteristic of human beings, one I've often noticed, that if they don't have a family of their own, they will invent one." 

Wise Children is a lovely book in which there is never a dull moment, and I do mean never. It is funny, audacious, bawdy, and often flat-out farcical crazy, and I loved every second of it. Why is that, you might want to ask, and my answer is that above all, it is just teeming with life.

The novel begins at 49 Bard Road, Brixton, London, South West Two. It's a special day -- the Chance sisters ("Chance by name, chance by nature") are celebrating their seventy-fifth  birthday. Notice I used the word "their" -- the women are twins: our narrator, Dora, was born just five minutes ahead of her sister Nora.  On this day, Dora  gives a "little shiver," because she knows that "something will happen today." She doesn't "give a monkey's" what it is -- as she says, "Just as long as something happens to remind us we're still in the land of the living."  It's also the day of the centenary birthday celebration of their father,  the actor Sir Melchior Hazard,  "though not, ahem, by any of his wives."  Notice also the choice of last names here: Chance and Hazard, which you'll understand more as you go through this book.

The title of this book comes from an old saying that is brought out now and again here: "It is a wise child that knows its own father," and one thing Carter does quite well in  Wise Children is to examine the idea of parenthood -- not just on the paternal side, but the maternal as well.

As Dora notes at the beginning, some readers may want to know "Just who is this Melchior Hazard and his clan, his wives, his children, his hangers-on," so her role is to "provide some of the answers:"
"It is in order to provide some of the answers to those questions that I, Dora Chance, in the course of assembling notes towards my own autobiography, have inadvertently become the chronicler of all the Hazards..."
and with that, we are launched into a saga which, as W.B. Gooderham notes in a Guardian article
"contains all the juicy Shakespeare tropes of ambition, greed and revenge; fathers and daughters; brothers and sisters; twins, mistaken identity, incest and adultery."
In and around all of that, there's a lot happening in this book about these twins (just FYI, twins and twinning play a huge role here)  and this rather odd family with roots in the theater.  As just one example, Carter's biographer Edmund Gordon points out that the author wrote books  about "performance and self-invention in one way or another," and that is certainly the case here.  He believes that at its heart, Wise Children is
"about what happens to women's identities as they grow older and the culture ceases to treat them as sexual beings." (375)
and quotes Carter as saying that
"Show business, being a showgirl, is a very simple metaphor for being a woman, for being aware of your femininity, being aware of yourself as a woman and having to use it to negotiate with the world."  
Whether anyone concurs with Gordon's idea or not, women's identities are definitely a huge, unmistakable  part of this story.

Throughout this zany, but excellent family history as related by Dora, another thing that is also quite obvious is the ongoing contrast between legitimate and illegitimate, between high culture and low, between lower class and upper class. The book  begins with Dora welcoming us to "the wrong side of the tracks."    As she reveals, though, "you can't trust things to stay the same", and I think that's one of the most important ideas to come out of this novel. Nearly everyone in this story has ties to the English theater, which like the Hazard clan, is also a mix of legitimate and illegitimate, and we are treated to a rather unique look at its history that happens to coincide with that of the family.  So well done!  

I would love to just go on and on about this book, but time and all that. So I'll finish by saying that I'm sure I could read this book another two or three times and find something new I'd missed before -- that's just the sort of book  it is.  Anyone who hasn't read this novel is in for a treat -- I can promise that this book is one of a kind, and that it is a story not soon forgotten.   It's a lovely book, really, and it's sad to think that this was the last book Angela Carter ever wrote.

There's a reason I love her work, and this book is just one example of why.

******
For a more in-depth examination of this book, you can read (after you've finished, of course),

this essay by Kate Webb, "Seriously Funny: Angela Carter's Wise Children", which I highly recommend. Actually, I highly recommend the whole book that this came from, Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter, ed. Lorna Sage. 




Monday, April 10, 2017

Harriet Said..., by Beryl Bainbridge


9781844088607
Virago Modern Classics, 2013
originally written 1961;  published 1972
175 pp

paperback

(read earlier this month)


"It was all his fault. We are not to blame." 



Harriet Said ... is neither  horror nor  thriller, and after looking at  several reader reviews,   I do feel badly for those readers whose cover blurbs promised them either one of the other, and I can understand the low ratings given that expectations based on said blurbs didn't match up to what's actually in this book.  I also get that people may have been expecting a rehash of the Parker-Hulme case of 1954,  since publicity re  Bainbridge's book made the comparison.  There are readers who also expected something along the lines of Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" and this book didn't go there.

But hold on a second -- perhaps there is a tie-in here.   In 1994 Jackson noted that he wanted his movie to "focus on the incredibly rich friendship between the two girls, rather than the end result," -- as he says, "an intense relationship that went terribly wrong." While very, very different, this same sort of thing happens in Harriet Said... a dark, psychological portrait where the focus is on two very young teens (13/14) who are trying to make an entrance into the adult world while still in many ways just children, and who have no idea what they're about to get themselves into.   In that sense, they're at a time of transition -- as Linda Grant says in her excellent introduction, they are "young girls in the confusion of puberty."  Harriet is the older of the two girls, much less innocent than her friend who is the narrator of this tale; she is extremely manipulative, and has a "chilling disdain and ignorance of youth for the complexities of adult life."

The beginning of this book is actually its ending -- obviously something terrible has happened, and Harriet tells her friend (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) that they "are not to blame."  She goes on to give the other girl instructions while they walk home:
"When I say run, you start to run. When I say scream, you scream. Don't stop running, just you keep going."
However, it's not until our narrator sees her mom on the porch of her house that her screaming begins (and after finishing the book and going back to the first chapter, the significance of this particular moment really hit me), after which Harriet's parents are brought in and the police are called.  We have no clue as to what's happened, just that it has something to do with a certain Mr. Biggs. The remainder of the book (which I'm not going to reveal in much detail because once again, telling is spoiling), leads us to this moment as the story goes back in time, beginning with our narrator having "come home for the holidays," while "Harriet was away with her family in Wales."  Without Harriet, we discover that the narrator was "irritable and bored," is friendless without her, and significantly, that she was kicked out of private school when younger, and that "they," as she says, "were scared of me and Harriet being so intimate."

It's when Harriet comes home that certain decisions are made that set the girls on their course toward the ending.  The narrator has seemingly developed a crush on the very married Mr. Biggs, whom the girls refer to as "The Tsar," and as the novel progresses, Harriet develops "a good plan" to help her, as she says,  "get over my active love for the Tsar."  Even though the narrator isn't sure that she wants to "get over it," she can't tell Harriet, who at a certain, pivotal time decides that the narrator must actively go after him, and "humiliate" him.  The narrator does what she can to place herself in his vicinity, opening up another line of inquiry here -- she seems to be pursuing Biggs, but the reader has to ask, given other hints that are thrown out here and there, if Biggs wasn't pursuing her at the same time, a possibility about which the girls have absolutely no clue.

To this point, I once again turn to the introduction of this edition where Grant notes Bainbridge's understanding of
 "the men whose marriages, jobs, homes have led them to the beach, to look out to sea with hope, longing and despair, their backs against the land. Part of what they have lost is their own youth, life has slipped past under bowler hats and heads rested against antimacassars. They are lost and lonely..." 
and this description describes Mr. Biggs in a nutshell, as we find out here and there throughout the book.

 There are a number of telling moments about the relationship between Harriet and the narrator, one of which comes when the narrator decides to stay at home to be "nice" to her little sister since she's had to "push her from me for her own sake, because of Harriet and me." As she states,
"I did not want her to be like us. God willing she would grow up normally and be like everyone else."
According to Vicky Janik in her Modern British Women Writers: An A-Z Guide,
"...there are implications that the narrator harbors secret erotic desires for Harriet..." , (10)
which may explain her willingness to allow herself to be so horribly manipulated by Harriet, but then again, after I'd  finished this book, I seriously had to question the narrator's own reliability.  Once I read it through the second time, thinking about this story as the product of an unreliable narrator, well, it changed quite a bit.

I'll end there, except to say that unlike several readers I enjoyed this book very much, as I have also enjoyed a number of novels written by Beryl Bainbridge in the past.  It's not an easy book to read for sure, but certainly well worth the time it took me to read it twice. I suppose it all depends on expectations, but as I am so fond of saying, going into a novel with no expectations is what I do and it generally works out well.

Recommended.


fiction from Britain




Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón

9780374212438
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
originally published as Mánasteinn: Drengurinn sem aldrei var til, 2013
translated by Victoria Cribb

hardcover

I loved this book. Not only does it satisfy my craving for out of the mainstream different,  but by the time the end came rolling around, I was just plain floored, not just by the story,  but by the absolute, sheer beauty of the writing.  If you don't know Sjón's writing, he is the master of short but downright deadly (in a good way) novels. In this novel he's outdone himself -- jeez Louise, the writing is just brilliant here.

The most striking thing about this book, in my opinion,  is the theme of isolation against the fear of contagion that runs through this novel in more ways than one, and in my opinion, it's what the author does with these ideas that makes it so brilliant. It wasn't until the final page that I understood exactly how near-perfect this novel really was, and a second reading made things much clearer than the first.  The subject here is  Máni Steinn Karlsson, 16, who lives in the attic of a house with his great-grandmother's sister where the two have lived for about the last ten years since the death of his mother.   He's an independent kid who "does what he likes;" he is gay, and earns money by having sex with men. This is not, however, a novel about exploitation -- let's just get that out of the way up front.  Máni  is a "loner" and an "outsider" who loves the cinema, a boy who "lives in the movies," who when not watching them, replays them in his head. He's an interior sort of person who amuses himself
"analyzing the life around him, with an acuity honed by watching some five hundred films in which every glance, every movement, every expression, and every pose is charged with meaning and clues as to the subject's inner feelings and intentions, whether for good or for evil,"
someone for whom "mankind's behavior" is an open book.  He lives in Reykjavík at a rather momentous time in Icelandic history.  It's 1918 -- the spectacular eruption of the Katla volcano lights up the skies and covers houses and streets in layers of ash, Iceland been granted its independence, and the nation that had isolated itself from World War I now faces its own intrusion from the outside as the deadly outbreak of Spanish Influenza lands on its shores.  Through all of it, Máni , who exists on the fringes of Reykjavik society, and whose homosexuality keeps him in dark corners or behind closed hotel-room doors, acts as spectator, impassively watching from the outside until he is thrust into the middle of things with a young woman who fascinates him because of her particular resemblance to a figure in his favorite film.  But life returns to a sense of normal, and well, I have already said enough.

from Iceland Geology

The book is a gorgeous mix of realistic and surrealistic ("mind-bending" is what the cover blurb says which is definitely the case); and the way the author incorporates Mani's love of cinema as well as his favorite films into the narrative is beyond outstanding. The ending seriously left me floored as I realized exactly what the author had done here.

It won't be for everyone;  for example, anyone who has problems with gay sex scenes probably may not want to pick it up. However, if you want to experience a work of excellent, artistic writing, then don't miss it.  I've been so very lucky this year in finding very good books -- and my winning streak just continued with this one.  Just wow.


fiction from Iceland



***

and now the pros weigh in: my casual-reader self now offers you real reviews, from people who can actually write them 

from The Guardian, by Hari Kunzru
from Lambda Literary, by Nathan Smith
from Open Letters Monthly, by Robert Minto

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Huck Out West, by Robert Coover

9780393608441
W.W. Norton, 2017
308 pp

hardcover

I knew I had to read this book when I first heard about it in The New Yorker last September during an interview with the author, Robert Coover. In that article, Deborah Treisman asked Coover what inspired him to write Huck Out West -- to which he replied


"Twain was a somewhat racist white boy (he belonged to Confederate militias in the early days of the looming conflict) who was changed for the better by his own writing—another phenomenon that many writers have shared, growing into their own best selves. Twain grew up among African-Americans, mostly slaves, and he learned to love them, but Native Americans were another story—a story he actually began, called “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.” Very early in his narrative, the savages reveal their irredeemably vicious nature by massacring everybody in sight, and, soon after that, probably because it had in effect dead-ended, Twain abandoned the story. I decided to take up his notion of Huck and Tom heading West just before the American Civil War, seeing the horror of the time through Huck’s eyes, while retaining the feel of “A Boy’s Adventure Story." 
To prepare for this book, I took the time to reread Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and I was amazed how different both books became after reading it as an adult.  One huge thing I missed as a kid reading this  novel,  something which has great bearing on Huck Out West, is that while Huck and Jim are making their way on their raft down the Mississippi, they find that they share a desire for freedom -- Huck is escaping from not only his abusive Pap but also from what he sees as entrapment by civilized society,  while Jim is seeking to find and buy freedom for his family who are slaves.  It's during this journey that the two bond, Huck ultimately coming around to see Jim as the human being he is.

In just the barest of nutshell summaries because I do NOT wish to give anything away, in  Huck Out West, which is narrated by Huck himself, our friend is older now but still trying to avoid the trappings of "sivilization." After a series of adventures that have a certain General Hard Ass (think Custer) out for Huck's head, he ends up "making camp"  in the Black Hills, "sacrid to the Lakotas,"  the "mighty warriors" who "did not like white folks like me...," who make an exception in Huck's case.  He bonds quickly with a young Lakota named Eeteh, since he, according to Huck, "was having about the same kind of trouble with his tribe as I was having with mine." Huck sets out on his horse with his teepee, ending up at Deadwood Gulch
"nigh to cricks too fast and shallow for rafting, but prime for fishing -- there was even a patch of sweetly clovered meadow beside the crick for Tongo to graze on -- I knowed I was at home."
  Huck is happy there, beyond happy --
"there warn't no town, just the Gulch, not no saloons nor churches nor women, nor not no gold, nothing to trouble the peace, only a few hairy old bachelors..."
 -- but he finds his peace shattered by the influx of emigrants who begin to flood into the area as word gets out about gold in the Black Hills. Soon the place is swarming with missionaries, prospectors, opportunists, deserters, drifters, and others who are there to claim their own piece of the American pie in any way they can, and who view the Lakota as  "savages ... ain't even completely human," including his old friend Tom Sawyer, who shows up on the scene.  Huck knows what's coming, having seen it before while working as a horse wrangler for the General, and along with Eeteh,  just wants to get away from  "all this sivilizing" as he had tried to do so many years before. But his hand is forced when he must make a choice between his past and his future.

Where there are some genuinely funny moments in this novel, the story told here by Huck is quite frankly, horrific. As Mr. Coover notes in the New Yorker interview mentioned earlier, it's "Not a pretty history:"
"The story starts at the outbreak of the Civil War and ends with the Deadwood Gold Rush. This era, not the Revolutionary period, was what truly made us who we are. It was an adventurous time, but also one full of greed, virulent hatreds, religious insanity, the slaughter of war and its aftermath, widespread poverty and ignorance, ruthless military and civilian leadership, and huge disparities of wealth." 
There is much, much more to this book (the power of storytelling and myth, what it actually means to grow up, etc.,) but what struck me the most about it  was reinforced later by something I heard after finishing the novel  in an online interview on WNYC (which you absolutely shouldn't listen to until after you've finished the book).   It's all to do with the bonds between Eeteh and Huck that transcend their differences, and the image of the two living the  "possibilities of human-to-human peace and reconciliation,"  just as Jim and Huck managed to do a long time ago while floating down the big river.   What a lovely thought, especially right now.

 I didn't  read this book as just a modern sequel or to spend time comparing it to Twain's original work.  I don't think that's the point and frankly,  it's just a big waste to approach this novel that way. Despite the horrors of the reality found here, it's a gorgeous book and one that needs reading right now.
****

My favorite real review of this book (but do yourself a favor and don't read it until after reading Huck Out West) is by 

Edwin Turner, Biblioklept, 02/06/2017

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

9780812995343
Random House, 2017
343 pp

hardcover

"Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch." (306)

With apologies for interjecting what some people might consider an f-bomb here, Caitlin PenzeyMoog from The A.V. Club absolutely nails my own experience with this book when she says that Lincoln in the Bardo "will blow your fucking mind."  I don't think I could say it any better.  I loved and was beyond awed by this book, and while it's only March, unless something equally outstanding comes along, this novel just may turn out to be my favorite book of the year.  It is absolutely stunning, and highly deserving of every superlative I can think of.

"The Bardo" is not a place on any map, but in Tibetan Buddhism, is considered to be an "intermediate state," referring to
"the in-between existence experienced during the transitional period from the moment of death to the moment of conception. However, this term has also been used to express all transitional experiences throughout life; for example, the experience of sleeping is an intermediate state between the moments of falling asleep and waking, and even the moment of death itself is considered an intermediate state between life and the after-death experience."
In addition,  "adherents of Tibetan Buddhism consider people always to be in a transitional state between one experience and another," a concept that will become very important as the book progresses. 

To give a brief, simplistic peek at what's happening in this book,   Abraham Lincoln has just lost his young son Willie to typhoid, and he is laid to rest in a borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery before the Lincolns can return to Illinois for a proper burial.  After the funeral, a severely grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt to spend time with his boy, finding it beyond difficult to leave him. While Willie's body is dead, his soul/spirit  (or however you want to define it) continues on, and he finds himself in the company of countless other  souls who have not yet made the transition.  They are a varied group in terms of who they were before they passed away, a multitude of spirits all with their histories and their own voices that talk to us as this journey progresses. The chief among them are Hans Vollman, The Reverend Everly Thomas, and Roger Bevins III, who have not yet transcended and are waiting for things to be as before (meaning they don't quite understand their situation),  and who serve as our window into what is happening in the cemetery. As a child, though, Willie can't afford to linger -- our guides reveal that he is deteriorating and worse -- for the sake of his soul he absolutely must move on before it is too late. As Bevins reveals, "the young ones were not meant to tarry." 

In a genius move on the author's part, we stay with these spirits and with Willie throughout most of the book, but then he shifts his focus after a time to the President, who is not only paralyzed with grief, unable to make himself leave his son in the crypt, but also stuck in a critical moment.   As we're told, while "young Willie lay under embalmment," the President and citizens learn of the incredible number of casualties
 "from the Union Victory at Fort Donelson ... an event that caused a great a great shock among the public at that time, the cost in life being unprecedented thus far in the war."
As one account notes,
"As the dead piled up in unimaginable numbers and sorrow was added to sorrow, a nation that had known little of sacrifice blamed Lincoln for a dithering mismanagement of the war effort."
He has become to many the worst president in American history; he is hated and reviled; and as he continues to grieve for his son he grieves for the nation; he also wonders how to proceed in the midst of so much sorrow.  Ultimately, it will be his own time spent lingering in the Bardo that will help him to achieve his own transformation that will allow him to move on.  How that comes about I won't say, but the last few chapters of this book will, as the AV Club writer said, blow your ***ing mind.

As always, since I'm just a reader and not a writer, and not someone who knows how to do real reviews,  it's difficult to convey the intensity of this novel in a short post and I can never fully seem to give the best books the justice they're due.  But  Lincoln in the Bardo is a beautiful novel  and Saunders' writing is an experience in itself.   In terms of style, it is not written as one long historical-fiction narrative, but in a format that is itself unique.  In the first chapter, we encounter our first glimpse of the cemetery inhabitants, whose names appear beneath every utterance, so that there are no quotation marks to denote speech. 


Sorry about the crappy blurry photo - I was in a hurry. 

 Then there are alternating chapters of what appear to be contemporary accounts and some from modern histories that provide voices of the time or historical perspective, noted in the same way to give the names of the speaker, the historian, the journalist, the diary writer, etc.   These seem to be a blending of real and fictional works, all done brilliantly.  There is just so much genius, beauty and power to be found in these pages, and in my opinion, some readers might just discover that although the book is set in 1862,  it is also a perfect book for our own time.   






Friday, February 24, 2017

Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle

9780374282103
Farrar, Straus and Giraux, 2017
224 pp

arc, thanks to Powell's Indiespensable and to the publisher

The very first word that popped into my head after finishing this novel was "strange."  That's a positive in my reading universe, since I actually prefer books that are a fair distance from ordinary.
I'm not going to do plot in any big way here, because once again, to tell is to spoil and I don't want to do that.  What I will say is that readers who are expecting a horror novel or thriller based on the back-cover blurb may want to think twice, because it is neither.

The novel opens in the late 1990s, in the small midwestern town of Iowa, Nevada at the Video Hut where young Jeremy Heldt works as cashier.  Normally it's a routine job -- people turn in their videos, pick another one, and move along.  But all of that is about to change, when more than one person tells Jeremy that there's something on the tape they'd rented.  Jeremy takes a look at She's All That, and discovered that someone had indeed "transferred a scene" onto the movie.  At first his reaction is "who cared," but then he's reminded by another customer that there was something weird about the film Targets and decided to take a look for himself. The woman who'd first reported the anomalies was curious enough to take detailed notes about what she'd seen, as did Jeremy's boss when she watched. Unlike the customer, though, Sarah Jane actually recognizes the location "beyond question,"  and makes a trip to the place where she meets the current owner.  Her visit is where this story really begins, and with that I will say no more.

I can see why some people have been disappointed; many readers thought the novel should have moved along different genre lines, because the first few chapters set up a scenario not unlike several horror novels I've read. I'm not at all disappointed though,  because a) I tend to go into a book without expectations and b) again based on reader negatives, I like the move in and out of the present because it makes for a more fully-developed story.  In the long run, I found Universal Harvester to be mainly about absence, loss, and those who are left behind who are often stuck in a sort of purgatory to cope in any way they can. Another thing that comes out in this story is that we may think we really know someone, only to discover that we may never actually truly understand them. And finally, I also saw in this book a story about a disappearing way of life as time and technology make their marks on society and on individuals as well.

I enjoyed this book,  and while I have to agree that it does tend to meander a bit, when all is said and done it is a poignant novel, and despite the fact that it turns out not to have been a horror novel, it's frightening enough in its own way.  The best way to read it is to keep an open mind and concentrate on what it is, rather than on what you think it should have been.

***
real reviews:
NPR, by Carmen Maria Machado
LA Times, by Michael Schaub

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

from January -- Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig

9780679724490
Vintage, 1991
originally published as El beso de la mujer araña, 1976
translated by Thomas Colchie
281 pp

paperback

Still behind both readingwise and postingwise, so this will be a short post as I continue to go through my January reads.   I think it's a shame that I just don't have time to give this beautifully-written novel the attention it deserves, but I  have a LOT to catching up to do both in the book world and in the real one.  In my opinion, Kiss of the Spider Woman is an exquisite novel, one I could not put down until the very last word.

To give away too much about this book is to spoil, so it will be just barebones here. Set in Argentina in the mid-1970s,   Luis Molina and Valentín Arregui are cellmates in a prison -- Molina, a gay window dresser, for corruption of a minor, and Valentín for being a Marxist guerilla who will not give over any information to the authorities.  Molina spends much of their time together recounting films he's seen, which at first seems like an escape mechanism, but as the novel progresses, it becomes very clear that there's much more than passing time going on. As Molina works his way through several movies, the reader begins to notice that they cover a wide range of themes, including  political awareness, power, questions of identity and the true nature of the characters, sacrifice, betrayal, and the nature of relationships, but even more importantly, they are all about different forms of repression and imprisonment. The movies offer both prisoners a chance to begin serious and meaningful dialogue about their own inner anxieties, and their relationship becomes closer as they begin to open up to each other. But of course there's more than meets the eye here, leading to terrible, tragic consequences.

The films provide great insight into various means of repression forced on others by outside forces; it is also, in part, a story which examines the ways in which different people seek to transcend their own forms of imprisonment. Obviously, there's much, much more but this post just has to do for the time being.

Like so many great novels, Kiss of the Spider Woman has been studied, scrutinized, analyzed and it has become the topic of a number of scholarly works, so there are numerous places to turn to for serious analysis if anyone's interested.  As I said earlier, I just don't have the time right now to give it the recognition it deserves.  It is not very often I use the term "beautiful" to describe a novel, but it certainly fits in this case.  Kiss of the Spider Woman appears in Boxall's original 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, and while it doesn't seem to have been a lot of readers' cup of tea, in my opinion, it's one that should not be missed. After reading the book, see the film -- absolutely amazing.

Friday, February 10, 2017

real-world book group read: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

9780393960570
W.W. Norton, 1993
originally published 1899
324 pp
read in January

paperback

"The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings." 

The original,  intended title of this novel was A Solitary Soul, which once you've read the book, actually makes a lot of sense. Both titles work well, though, since main character, Edna Pontellier, is both "awakened" to her passions and to her own mind, and afterwards sets out to try live the life she wants, defying the social conventions of her class, of nature, of her gender, and of her time.  It's a lovely book and the story itself is quite short -- this particular edition has a lot of commentary and critical contemporary reviews which bumps up the page count, but the story itself ran to only 109 pages.  It's to her credit  that the author was able to express so much in such a brief space and come up with a work that is so powerful that it still resonates more than one hundred years later.

The story is very well known, so I won't rehash it here. As far as the book group goes, The Awakening prompted a great discussion as we talked mainly about Edna and about the other women in this story (Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz) and how they may have represented two alternative paths, both rejected by Edna.  The men also became a focal point of discussion, as did the fact that Edna's privileged life allowed her to make the choices she did, since she had servants to do everything including taking care of her children, leading to a discussion about the lack of choices among women in lower classes.  And then, of course, there's the ending, which we talked about for quite a long time.

Reading over several readers' comments on this book, a LOT of people were unhappy with Edna, and I'd be lying if I said I would have given her an award for mother of the year. On one hand, it's  possible to see the book focusing on someone who refused to give up on freeing herself from the strictures that bind her as an individual;   on the other, some people have seen The Awakening as a "cautionary tale" about "the danger of elevating passion over love," or as one person noted, a reminder of the consequences of people "especially women" stepping "outside those unforgiving boundaries."

The only negative (and not for me since I read quite widely in books of this period) is that the prose style can be a bit tedious, but once you've figured it out, the story just pops right out at you and you're hooked.  I can very highly recommend this book -- considering how long ago it was written, it's very much pertinent today.

do not miss this article:

"The Awakening: Learning to Swim," by Barbara Kingsolver


Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Bleeding of the Stone, by Ibrahim al-Koni

I haven't posted in a while. Two reasons -- one, Larry and I have been very ill with some stupid respiratory virus that someone so nicely shared with us; two, the other day I was scrolling through facebook and saw this

from Wittitudes


and thought to myself, yep -- that is definitely me, since as I've discovered,  recent events have yielded a multitude of WTF moments that I'm struggling to cope with, bringing on stress-induced lethargy, which is a struggle to try to overcome. Anyway, the point is that it's been a beyond-tough month.

The Bleeding of the Stone is the work of Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni.  Mr. al-Koni, according to the blog Arabic Literature (In English), was born in 1948,
"raised in Libya's Fezzan region among nomadic, Tamasheq-speaking Tuareg. It wasn't until he was twelve that he began to formally study Arabic. He went on to study literature in Russia, after which he moved to Poland, and then finally to Switzerland in 1994." 
He has won several awards, among them the Swiss State Award (1995) for this book,  the Japanese Translation Committee Award for his Gold Dust (1997), and in 2010, the Arab Novel Award. His novel New Waw won him a place on the shortlist for the National Translation Award in 2015, the same year he found himself as a finalist for the Man International Booker Prize.

In general, as noted by Ursula Lindsey  at The Nation, al-Koni's entire "oeuvre"
"charts the disintegration of the country's nomadic, tribal and mythic culture under the impact of foreign intrusions and then of oil wealth."
9781566564175
Interlink Books, 2013
translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley
136 pp
softcover

"Only through dust will the son of Adam be filled." 

Set in Libya, Asouf grew up living with his family "alone in the desert, alone in all their movements and wanderings." He can't even remember a time when he lived around "human neighbors," and even as a child when another family came to settle close to where Asouf's family, his father decided it was time to move on. He often said that  he'd "rather have jinn as neighbors than people," and that all he wants is peace.  As Asouf was growing up, he'd learned how to hunt, how to break wild camels, and how to hunt the waddan (the moufflon referred to on the cover).  As an adult, Asouf continues to live alone in the desert, still shunning most human interaction, even though he has been given a job by the Italian government  as a tour guide and "guardian of the Wadi Matkhandoush." His task is to escort people who come to view the sacred stones and ancient paintings in the rocks.  However, when two hunters arrive demanding that Asouf take them to find the waddan,  he does all he can to protect these creatures that his father had told him were "possessed by the spirit of the mountains."  But more importantly, his resistance to the hunters comes after his "transformation" following a life-changing event in which he  sees his father's eyes in one of these waddan, leading him to realize that "He, his father, and the mighty were one now. Nothing could separate them."

The Bleeding of the Stone pulls in the reader not just because of  the story, but also because of the lovely blending of mysticism, Sufism, Islam, the Old Testament, and traditional beliefs.  Additionally, some of its chapters have epigraphs from such thinkers as Herodotus, Sophocles, and Ovid that set the stage for what's to come within.   Sofia Samatar, writing for The Interstitial Arts Foundation explains that the book can be read as an "ecological parable and also a portrait of the desert as a rich and vital center,"  but it is also a story that pits the traditional world against the worst of  modern intrusions, and a novel that speaks to resistance. Finally, it is just flat out beautiful in terms of the writing. I really wish I could give this novel the treatment it deserves, but I'd be here a long time so check out the links at the end of this post.

 The Bleeding of the Stone is not going to be for everyone -- it's a very out-of-the-box kind of read that absolutely demands reader participation and lots of think time,  but it is an incredibly powerful novel that I can most heartily recommend.

***
a couple of things:
1. an interview with the author
2. one of the best articles I've found on this novel by Sofia Samatar -- at interstitialarts.org 


 fiction from Libya 


Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O'Brien





9780316378239
Little, Brown and Company, 2015
299 pp
hardcover

"Come away, O human child
To the waters and the wild,
With a faery, hand in hand, 
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."  
                                                                              -- 152

In 1999 while a full-scale manhunt was on for Radovan Karadžić, aka "the Beast of Bosnia," who was just last year convicted of "genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity" by a UN tribunal, Karadžić managed to escape into Serbia.  In 2005, as Julian Borger reports in The Guardian
"a self-styled spiritual healer and clairvoyant, Mina Minic, answered a ring on his doorbell in Belgrade to find himself face-to-face with a tall man with a long bushy beard, abundant white hair done up in a top-knot tied with a black ribbon. He looked 'like a monk who had done something wrong with a nun,' Minic would recall later." 
This "tall man with a long bushy beard" was none other than Karadžić himself, 
"trying out a new identity provided by sympathisers in Serbian intelligence. He introduced himself as Dragan Dabic, a therapist who had just returned home from a stint in New York following an ugly split with his wife."
He was arrested in Belgrade in July, 2008, but only after
"working for years in a clinic...practicing alternative medicine. He even lectured on videotape at local community centers, in an open and active life..." 
The Little Red Chairs moves the scene from Belgrade to the small Irish town of Cloonoila, where one winter night, Dr. Vladimir Dragan arrives and proceeds to take up work as a holistic healer and sex therapist. People would later remember some bizarre occurrences on that night -- "dogs barking crazily, as if there was thunder, and the sound of the nightingale." At first
"There were those who smelt vice and corruption, while a few lone voices were insisting that he might be an artery for good."
The local schoolmaster responds by relating the story of Rasputin,
"...who hailed from the wilds of Siberia and infiltrated himself into the very nucleus of the Russian court, presenting himself a a visionary and a healer. He was going to lift Russia from its lethargy, and darkness, he was going to cure the sick child of the Czarina, the future heir, of his haemophilia and he was going to perform miracles ad infinitum. Did he cure the heir? No. Did he save the Russian family from the firing squad? No. He was a fornicator and had carnal knowledge of most of the women in the court."
His last words on the topic were a warning that "Rasputin's last supper was a plate of biscuits laced with cyanide." His little speech gave me a jolt -- not knowing anything about this story prior to reading it, the mention of Rasputin and how he had "infiltrated himself into the very nucleus of the Russian court," gave me my first clue that something just may not be right here, that what's on the surface isn't the real story.    On the other hand, throughout the town the thought also floated that perhaps the newcomer would "bring a bit of Romance into our lives."  Eventually the town gets used to him, incorporating their new healer into their lives and activities. Over the space of  the first few chapters O'Brien captures individual thoughts and reactions among the people living there, among them Fidelma McBride.

Fidelma is forty to her husband Jack's sixties, and as we meet her, we find out that the age difference "had begun to matter."  Jack, the local draper, prefers "keeping her to himself, shutting the world out, drawing the heavy velvet curtains too early on a bright evening."  She, however, of the "Gioconda smile,"  is "in her element" among the "warmth and the banter" of others, but most of all, Fidelma is desperate for a child, having lost two during her marriage.  She above all others is drawn to Dr. Vlad -- not necessarily a matter of love but rather centering on her desire to have a baby. The two begin an affair, which leads to serious implications down the road, especially when Dr. Dragan's past catches up with him.  The revelations about his history have a life-changing impact on this woman's life, who eventually makes her way to London after an horrific incident, where she meets other refugees from different parts of the world who have also had to flee their homes, who have suffered as Fidelma states, "fates much harder than mine, excruciating."

O'Brien's introduction of these people into this book as they relate their own stories offers a glimpse of the sorts of horrific realities that would cause people to flee their homelands and just what sort of realities exist for modern refugees trying to make a new life for themselves. This displacement, and the loss of home is a huge theme that carries throughout the story, and not just in Fidelma's situation.  Fidelma carries the added burden of guilt based on what she feels is her complicity, another thematic element that crops up throughout this book. Why, for example, are people so drawn to these self-deluded, "false prophets" who have appeared throughout history and will continue to do so to such horrific ends? It's a good question, and one that people should be considering, especially now.  There is much more, of course, and I'm only scratching the surface here, but it  is a novel very much worth reading.


  The title of O'Brien's novel reflects the line of 11,541 small red chairs laid out on Titova Street in Sarajevo, April 6, 2012  "on the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War."

from The Atlantic, April 13, 2012
In July of 2016 an interview with Edna O'Brien appeared at Faber & Faber's blog where she notes that these "little chairs" are the "emblematic coffins, so to speak, of infants and children who had lost their lives."  She also notes that
"We cannot ignore or avoid what is happening in the world, it is presented on our screens every single moment. It must by necessity come into the work, because we are all witnesses to what is happening. To write about it is not to ease one’s conscience or exalt one’s status. It is simply to be one of the witnesses along the way."
I'm thinking that on a personal level,  the message of standing as witnesses and not looking away just may be the most important one of all in this novel. 

I'm also looking at readers' takes on this book and several people have had a less-than-sterling response to it, largely because it doesn't seem to be the work of the same Edna O'Brien as in her other novels (to which I can't respond because this is my first by her).   I'll agree that in some spots things seemed a bit contrived, and there's a sort of clunky, disjointed feel here and there in terms of structure, but overall, I was completely engrossed in this book which asks some very difficult but pertinent and timely questions. Recommended. 


real reviews: 
James Wood at  The New Yorker
Joyce Carol Oates at The New York Times
Ron Charles at The Washington Post