Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Mystery of Henri Pick, by David Foenkinos

9781782275824
Pushkin, 2020
originally published as La Mystere Henri Pick, 2016
translated by Sam Taylor
270 pp

paperback

"This novel changed lives." 



My curiosity was more than aroused by the idea that Pushkin Press would be partnering with Walter Presents "for a series of timeless novels with strong international appeal."   The books chosen have been "handpicked" by Walter Iuzzolino himself, whose long-running Walter Presents has been a tv staple in my house for several years, even before the move to PBS in 2018, so there was no doubt that I would be buying this novel.  I've also preordered Walter's second Pushkin pick, The Second Life of Inspector Canessa, due out here in the US January of 2021. 

I admit to being a bit surprised as I started reading this book, as most of the time Walter tends to lean toward international crime.  The Mystery of Henri Pick, as I discovered, is much more on the lighter side than I'd expected.  At first it was a bit discombobulating not having the full-fledged crime/mystery novel I thought I'd bought, so I had to regroup, let go of my original expectations and move on.  Once I relaxed, the book became a fun read, albeit with a slightly serious edge.

In the small town of Crozon in Brittany, librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec had set aside a space at the municipal library "for the world's homeless manuscripts," inspired by his reading of The Abortion by American writer Richard Brautigan.   After placing ads in trade magazines "inviting all authors" to bring their rejected books to his library,  writers throughout the country came to
"rid themselves of the fruits of their failure. It was a sort of literary pilgrimage. There was a symbolic value in travelling hundreds of miles to put an end to the frustrations of not being published."
Meanwhile, in Paris, Delphine Despero has gone to work for Grasset, hired as a junior editor for this publishing firm. It was in this context that she met and fell for a young, aspiring writer by the name of Frédriéc Koskas who later accompanied her on a trip to the home of her parents in the village of Morgat, near Crozon.  Delphine is curious after hearing about the library of rejected books, and after  the pair make couple of visits, Delphine takes one of the manuscripts, The Last Hours of a Love Affair away with her and becomes throroughly enchanted with it, ultimately deciding that it absolutely had to be published.  The book's author is one Henri Pick, now deceased, but who used to run a pizzeria in Crozon.  As the dustjacket blurb  informs, "The book is an immediate sensation, prompting fevered interest in the identity of its author."  Curiosity grows about Henri Pick, not just for the journalist who wonders how this pizza chef could write such a novel, but also for his family, who'd never even seen him pick up a book, let alone spend time writing.   The publication of Pick's work also sets off a number of "unforeseen consequences" which make up the bulk of The Mystery of Henri Pick, as it is definitely a novel that "changed lives." 

This book fortuitously arrived at a point when I needed something mind-refreshing, something on the lighter side, and the author threw a few hours of happy reading my way.    Author David Foenkinos noted that his book is "a playful reflection of the literary world,"  as well as a "tribute to books and literature and to the writers that have long been heroes of mine," and I have to admit that I couldn't help feeling rather guilty every time he mentioned a title that has been sitting on my shelves, sadly neglected and sadly unread.  The story is definitely "playful," and while I loved the literary references as well as the great love for books and literature displayed throughout, for my taste it goes too much into the private lives/soul searching of all of the characters affected by the publication of Pick's book, making it drag a bit in the reading after a while and sometimes turning toward the "cutesy" side which is just not my cuppa.  I also want to say that the dustjacket makes a lot of the "obstinate journalist," but in reality, he takes up far less space than I would have thought from the book's description.    But then came the ending which  I can only describe as completely unexpected and which I greeted with mental applause and a silent shout of bravo in my head.  Now to watch the film.

Overall, it's fun, it's lighthearted, and we can all use some of that happening in our lives at the moment. 




Thursday, August 6, 2020

Hurricane Season, by Fernanda Melchor





9780811228039
New Directions, 2020
originally published 2016 as Temporada de huracanes
translated by Sophie Hughes
207 pp

hardcover


The discovery of a corpse floating in an irrigation canal near a small rural village opens this most harrowing novel.  The person known as "the Witch" has been killed;  the question of who is responsible and why is asked and answered here, but it quickly becomes apparent that this book is not just a simple murder mystery.  In Hurricane Season, the author explores the hopelessness and the violence that plagues this small village as well as the myriad forces that shape and perpetuate it.

  The narratives of four different but interconnected characters living in the village of La Matosa form the very core of this book, moving the story forward (although not always in linear fashion)  from their various vantage points.  Each one takes us somewhat closer to the crime as well as to an understanding of the character of the Witch herself.  It is telling that she remains voiceless here while her presence remains central to everything.  Since these stories happen to build from one another however,  any certainty you may have gained from one person is quickly shaken as seeds of doubt begin to creep into your mind with the next, often changing your perspective and understanding. Yet as they relate what they know (or think they know) about the Witch and events that may have led to her murder, taken together these accounts paint a grim picture of a more collective reality of life in the village of La Matosa, a place one character refers to as "the ass end of nowhere," a place where the inhabitants  have been passed by, ignored or forgotten on many levels.    What we find in their lives reveals much about these people, especially  their dreams of escape from a hopeless future while stuck in a society where abandonment, poverty, misery, and violence of all sorts never seem to end.   What's more, the institutions that could make a difference don't seem to work here:  families break down,  religion and superstition mingle into one and neither the government nor the law bring any sort of justice.

I have opted not to detail any of the plot since the less a potential reader knows about what happens here the better.  What I will say is that as truly bleak as it is,  I thought this novel was brilliant and unflinchingly honest on so many levels, and that as the dustjacket blurb says, the author did manage to "extract some tiny shred of humanity from these characters" that leaves room for empathy and understanding.  More importantly, the novel underscores a number of ongoing horrors plaguing parts of Mexico, including narcotrafficking, homophobic prejudice and violence, and especially femicide.

 I read an article about Hurricane Season a few days ago in which the author is quoted as saying about this book (you'll have to trust my translation here):
"Of course, it's a love novel, only the characters never find it. It's something you lack so much that you don't even know what's it like. And even if they find it, it doesn't matter, because what good if everyone is drowning, it's all fucked up."
Reading Hurricane Season made me very uncomfortable for a number of reasons, two of which I'll name. First, there's an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that pervades this book, and I'm left with the feeling that the future holds little resolution to the underlying problems that exist in La Matosa leaving things to continue on as usual.   Second, while I loved the writing style, the language is just brutal and raw; the author doesn't hesitate to use some pretty foul words and her portrayal of heartbreaking sexual abuse is just downright ugly.   Then again, I had to ask myself how someone could otherwise write a book that captures "the brutal force of male vice,"  rage that doesn't quit, and the sense of it all being so "fucked up," and I couldn't come up with an answer.









Friday, July 10, 2020

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser

9781931082310
Library of America, 2003
originally published 1925
969 pp

hardcover

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


 9781910760888
Sinoist Books, 2020
ebook



"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. 




9781609455651
Europa Editions, 2020
originally published 2017
232 pp
paperback


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




9781524747466
Pantheon, 2020
originally published 2017
translated by Ross Benjamin
339 pp

hardcover

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
9780385537070
Doubleday, 2019
210 pp
hardcover

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.