Monday, September 9, 2019

Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry


9781782116172
Canongate, 2019
213 pp
hardcover
(read in August)

"There's grief, and the longer we go on, the more of it we've the burden of."

"You look for quiet spaces in a life, Charles. And do you find them?"


I couldn't wait for the US publication of this novel, which happens September 17th,  so off to the UK it was for me via an online purchase.  Money well spent, as it turns out; when I finished it, I noticed my spouse staring at me like "what?" because I was a wee bit choked up on turning the last page.  It is such a fine book, really -- sad and moving with more than a touch of black humor, and for me, excellent. Then again, it's the work of Kevin Barry we're talking about so no surprise there.

It's October 2018, and two men "in their low fifties" are sitting on a bench at the ferry terminal in the Spanish port of Algeciras, a place with a "haunted air, a sinister feeling" that "reeks of tired bodies, and dread."  Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are men for whom
" The years are rolling out like tide now.  There is old weather on their faces, on the hard line of their jaws, on their chaotic mouths. But they retain -- just about -- a rakish air." 
Maurice has a "jaunty, crooked smile," that appears "with frequency."  Charlie's face has an "antique look, like a court player's, medieval, a man who'd strum his lute for you... Hot adulterous eyes and again a shabby suit... Also, stomach trouble, bags like graves beneath the eyes, and soul trouble."

They are awaiting  Maurice's twenty-three year-old daughter Dilly, from whom he's been estranged for over three years. They've been told that she'll be headed for Tangier on the titular Night Boat or "possibly coming back" from there, and  while they wait they pass out flyers with her picture on them, look for and harass "crusty types" who might know something about Dilly.  We meet them as they are looking
"blithely at the faces that pass by in a blur of the seven distractions - love, grief, pain, sentimentality, avarice, lust, want-of-death." 
 As "the hours melt one into the other," during this "lizard night,"  they also spend time reflecting on the past.  Exactly how these two men have come to this point  is revealed via a series of flashbacks that encompass these "seven distractions" while recounting how their years  in the drug trade not only made their fortunes, but also took a tremendous toll on their lives and those of the people closest to them, leaving no one unscathed, most especially Dilly and her mother Cynthia. 




cover of the US edition, from Doubleday


Night Boat to Tangier is many things, the history of a friendship, a story of love and loss, but most especially it is a tale of the past that continues to haunt the present, in more ways than one. It is
"a tremendously Hibernian dilemma -- a broken family, all the melancholy rest of it..."
 and while it can verge into the morose and become brutal in places,  there's also a sort of humorous, witty edge that offsets things so that you don't find yourself stuck deep in "all the melancholy rest of it"  the entire time.  The back-and-forth bickering/repartee between Charlie and Maurice ranges between funny and heartbreaking at times, then there's the story of Maurice's doomed building site which just may be a fairy fort, two men watching tv and mouthing the words to Rumblefish while in a mental hospital ... sometimes you can't help but laugh. 

As with the two men waiting in the terminal whose stories manage to entrance some of their listeners, Kevin Barry has "woven a ring" that "shimmers" here, one that is "made of these odd, circling words."  The man is truly a gifted storyteller.

I loved this beautiful, haunting book. 

****

real reviews:
Nicole Flattery, The London Review of Books
Alan Warner, The Guardian


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A "novel-bomb" ... Harbart, by Nabarun Bhattacharya

9780811224734
New Directions, 2019
originally published 1994
translated by Sunandini Banerjee
122 pp

paperback

Every week I grab my copy of The New Yorker out of the mailbox, and before I do anything else, I turn to the "Briefly Noted" section for leads on new books to read.  [It's hell on the wallet, but so far I haven't been let down by my choices.]  In one of the July issues, I came across this title and knew I had to have it -- I just sensed it would one of those out-of-the-ordinary books I look for but rarely find.  I was so right.

This novel hits so many of my reader buttons it's unreal. Harbart is  political, gritty, loaded with satire and teeming with history, as well as social critique; it is sad but graced with a measure of dark humor that will leave you giggling when least expected,  and at times it not only teeters on the very edge of the fantastic, but gives it free rein.    It really is, as Siddhartha Deb says at The Paris Review website, "a novel that ticks like a bomb."  (FYI, Deb also provides the Afterword in this book, which is the same material found at Paris Review.)   It's also one of those stories where I enjoyed the dark humor but at the same time felt guilty for laughing.  I'm so impressed with Banerjee's translation -- it couldn't have been easy at all to carry this "novel-bomb" from its original Bengali to English with such relish and passion.

Without saying too much here, the novel begins with Harbart's suicide in 1992. From there it weaves its way through the story of what exactly prompted his death, introducing us to the main character who had lost his parents when he was just an infant.  His aunt is the only one who seems to actually care for him, along with his nephew Binu, who Harbart respects and admires.  As Harbart gets older, he becomes caught up in forces and events  greater than himself over which he has absolutely no control, a scenario which, by the way,  the author mirrors in the story he tells of Calcutta over Harbart's lifetime.   It is the death of this beloved nephew that strikes Harbart to his core and leads to his newly-found career as someone who can speak with the dead, a vocation that will eventually lead to  some unforeseen consequences of its own.

While the story itself is a great one and Harbart is one of the most hapless but lovable characters I've come across in a long time, there is so much more to be found here.  Siddhartha Deb notes in the Afterword that "Harbart's character does not encompass the novel as a whole," and that it focuses more on relationships
"between the individual and the scattered collective, between revolution and the afterlife, between cockroaches and fairies."
At the same time, "it is always about language."  So true.  So very, very true.  The author's writing is described on the back-cover blurb as "anarchic," which describes it perfectly.

With afterword and translator's notes, this book runs to only 122 pages, but don't let that fool you.  I started reading this book late one afternoon, but the 70-something pages I'd read replayed in my head over and over and over again until I actually got up at 4:30 in the morning to finish it.  That's  just the sort of novel it is.   I will say that for many readers it may be a challenge; as John Domini notes in his review at The Washington Post"the names alone can present a stumbling block," but sticking with it yields great rewards.  It is a book I will never forget; I am only frustrated because my few words here don't even begin to do it the justice it deserves.

I loved this book.


Friday, July 12, 2019

book excitement: new preorders. I'll definitely need more tea.

image from we❤it



Although I knew it would be deadly, I was just glancing through Lit Hub's "Most Anticipated Books of 2019, Part 2" from July 9 and got so excited that I couldn't help myself and preordered ten.   I'm not ashamed to admit that I have compulsive book buying disorder, but then again they're books I really want to read so I suppose that makes it okay on some level.     Here's the list -- a strange mix to be sure, but then again, that's my reading life:



Out of Darkness, Shining Light, by Petina Gappah (Scribner)

The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom (Grove Press)

The Promise, by Silvina Ocampo (City Lights)

Forgotten Journey, by Silvina Ocampo (City Lights)

False Bingo, by Jac Jemz (MCD/FSG Originals)

Suicide Woods, by Benjamin Percy (Graywolf)

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, by Susanah Calahan (Grand Central)

Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, by Nina MacLaughlin (FSG Originals)

Mary Toft or The Rabbit Queen, by Dexter Palmer (Pantheon)

Dead Astronauts, by Jeff VanderMeer (MCD)


Luckily I have plenty of books to keep me busy in the meantime; otherwise I'd be going a little bit crazy with anticipation.    As it is I can't wait.  

and now, I must go to Nepali Tea Traders for more tea....

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

the coolest showdown ever: The Great Eastern, by Howard A. Rodman


9781612197852
Melville House, 2019
344 pp
hardcover


"Let us watch. We have some tales to tell." 



There are books that you hate to see come to an end, and The Great Eastern is one of those.  

From the moment I read the blurb I knew I had to read this novel: 
"A sprawling adventure pitting two of literature's most iconic anti-heroes against each other: Captain Nemo and Captain Ahab. Caught between them: real-life British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, builder of the century's greatest ship, The Great Eastern.  But when he's kidnapped by Nemo to help design a submarine with which to fight the laying of the Transatlantic cable -- linking the two colonialist forces Nemo hates, England and the US -- Brunel finds himself going up against his own ship, and the strange man hired to protect it, Captain Ahab, in a battle for the soul of the 19th century."
 History meets literature in this novel, which is based around the laying of the Transatlantic cable.  Before we get to that, however,  through a rather sinister but ingenious plot, the renowned engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel is kidnapped, brought to a clinic and diagnosed as having had a stroke.  Although ill, unable to move or speak, he is taken aboard his ship The Great Eastern for its launch, which was interrupted by an explosion that killed eight people and caused enough damage to send the ship for major repairs.    By midnight some few days later, Brunel is pronounced dead and afterwards "interred in Kensal Green."  But wait.

Moving from England to New York, while the city is immersed in celebrations over the initial success of the laying of the Transatlantic cable,   financier Cyrus Field, who had realized the "commercial possibilities of connecting Europe and America," and was responsible to the "community of capital," aka his investors, is in panic mode because the cable,
"having carried a few fine and select messages, had flickered. Guttered. Was now: extinguished." 
 He can't let anyone know since his "livelihood and freedom would be upon the rack," but the biggest secret he must keep is that he knows there was no fault in the laying of the cable, but rather that something has "snapped it."  After giving some contemplation to the issue, and after eliminating various possibilities, he comes to the one "simplest and most terrifying" conclusion: that there is a "sea-creature, of malevolent will and unimaginable might" at work here, an "oceanic Leviathan."  As Field ponders what to do, he asks himself
"Who in our Republic would have the knowledge to find him, the instinct to track him, the desire to slay him?  'Twas not a long list. 'Twas not even the fingers of one hand.' "
Field needs a "knight to slay a sea-dragon," and he knows there is no one more eminently qualified  than a certain Captain Ahab to accomplish the job.



from Wikipedia


Meanwhile, on board this "oceanic Leviathan," or rather the Neptune, the captain of this "sub-marine vessel"  has a guest, brought on because of his great engineering feats in order to make the Neptune into a machine that can further the mysterious captain's cause: to "combat a savage empire."



from Wikipedia


I meant this as a summer read, but really, it is a book to be enjoyed any time of year.  While definitely inspired by Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (yes, seas, plural,  Vingt mille lieues sous les mers..." ) and Melville's Moby-Dick,  this novel is original, fun, and the "sprawling adventure" the blurb paints it to be.  I'd add "rollicking good yarn" as well, but it's so much more than story.   As Janet Fitch says in her back-cover blurb, the genius here is in the author's "outrageous linguistic brio," and author Steve Erickson is spot on in his contribution when he states that
"Not another scrivener alive or dead but Rodman -- lyrical and witty, erudite and passionate, dare we say rapturous, dare we say obsessed -- could have charted let alone helmed this singular, exhilarating Flying Dutchman of an epic."
 I couldn't agree more. I can only imagine what great fun he must have had while writing this novel; matched only by the great fun and immense pleasure I had while reading it.  It is an adventure story par excellence, but at the same time in the telling the author has paid an amazing tribute to two great authors and two unforgettable literary characters, while highlighting, as one reader puts it, the
"European transformation of the world in the 19th century -- violently globalizing, spawning enormous wealth but also the seed of perpetual violence, domination, and vengeance ..."
Purists may have issues (I hear the grumbling in my head and I don't care), but for readers of adventure stories who want something completely different, you can't do any better.   And when the movie comes out, I'll be first in line to see it.  And yes, there is a film in the works, and if it doesn't get screwed up, meaning doesn't stray too far from its source, it ought to be one hell of a movie, in the same way that this is one hell of a book.



Monday, July 8, 2019

the book group read: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D.G. Compton


9781590179710
NYRB Classics, 2016
253 pp
paperback


I would normally post about a novel like this one at the oddlyweirdfiction page of my reading journal, but reading The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe solely as science fiction is just not accurate. It is a novel that, as Jeff VanderMeer notes in his introduction to this edition, offers its readers a
 "portrait of an intelligent, middle-aged woman grappling with the ultimate existential crisis: How does one conduct oneself while dying?" 
This book was my real-world book group's read at the end of June; it is also one of the most thought-provoking novels I've read in a long while.  Written in 1974, and alternatively titled The Unsleeping Eye, it is almost prescient, as it deals with issues that are at the center of much debate forty-plus years later.  It's also one I can highly recommend.

In a society where disease and serious illness exist no more, forty-four year-old Katherine Mortenhoe is facing her last four weeks of life.  Terminal illness is rare in this version of the future, but Katherine is suffering from "an affliction of the brain cells," and for the short remainder of life she will be slowly deteriorating.  But NTV has an idea: Katherine's final weeks and her death will be televised for the "pain-starved public" on Vince Ferriman's "Human Destiny" show.  The company has invested fifty-thousand pounds in Roddie, their star reporter, surgically replacing his eyes with cameras, and has offered him a three-year contract that would as he puts it, "keep me in luxury the rest of my life."  As he also notes, with his new eyes, he now had the "most staggering tool for reportage the world had ever known."  Katherine Mortenhoe's death is something he has to get right.  The more immediate the coverage, the more empathy will be garnered from the public, and the higher the ratings will climb:

"The point of suffering in the Human Destiny shows was that it could continue to excite horror and compassion because it was never trivialized - it was always real. And because there was time for study in depth, the participants could be shown as individuals, not merely as newsreel symbols - the legless soldiers, the starving baby, the shredded bomb victim. They were real people, with real mothers-in law, and real dinners burning on the stove unheeded. It was details like this that kept the show alive, kept alive the capacity to involve."

 There's only one problem: Katherine wants nothing to do with any of it.  For her, death is not a commodity to be bought and sold; her only option, it seems, is to disappear.   To work around that problem, Roddie follows her until he finds himself in a position of trust, but soon he begins to have qualms about what he's doing, even as the cameras are "rolling."

As VanderMeer says, the world in which Ferriman and Roddie do their work  is
"an uncanny mirror of our own, of an age in which everyone really is a camera eye, or at least carries one around in his pocket." 
Aside from the focus on the overreach of technology and reality television, which caused no end of discussion with the ladies in my book group, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a very human novel at its core.  It unravels slowly to eventually become a story of not just death and dying, but also of relationships in a society where everything is driven by technology.  Each of the people in Katherine's life sees her differently; it is only through Compton's careful writing that we can begin to put her together as a whole.  My group also noticed that when Compton is writing about Katherine, he does so using a third-person point of view, whereas Roddie narrates his own sections, which I think is appropriate given that we're seeing her then through his eyes, aka, the camera, broadcasting to us, the readers, if you will.

There is so much more to this novel than I can ever throw into a few words for this post, but it is a deeply-moving story that kept me reading almost without stopping.  It is also most pertinent to our own time of  intense media saturation into private lives, or as Roddie's ex-wife puts it, "Peeping Toms. Voyeurism. Selling misery."  It's also not hard to imagine while reading that yesterday's fiction has become today's reality, which for me at least in this instance is a rather disturbing thought.



Just fyi: there is also a film based on this novel which I'll be watching this week before the spouse gets home  --  Death Watch (1980). I'm a bit nervous since I'm not sure a film could actually do justice to this book.

Friday, April 26, 2019

You have no idea what you're missing if you haven't read Barbara Comyns: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead -- just bloody brilliant.


My introduction to the work of Barbara Comyns was her The Vet's Daughter, which I absolutely loved.   Like that book, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is disorienting, dark, and filled with small moments of rather wry, black humor that caused instant guilt feelings whenever a laugh escaped.  It is also an excellent read, one I went through twice and which I loved even more the second time. 
9780984469314
Dorothy Project, 2015
originally published 1954
193 pp
paperback



The back-cover blurb says that this book is "the story of the Willoweed family and the English village in which they live," which is true on one level, but it goes well beyond your standard English-village novel into something completely different.  Graham Greene is also noted on the cover as saying that Comyns has the "innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or most ominous occurrence." This statement came from a review of her The Vet's Daughter, but it also applies here. 

 Published in 1954, The story is set "Summer about seventy years ago," in Warwickshire,  and its title reflects the passing of time and a look back,  as captured in Longfellow's "The Fire of Drift-wood"


"We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead."

The book begins almost whimsically as this small English village has just suffered a flooding of the river that runs through it at the beginning of June.   Ducks are swimming through the windows of a drawing room of the house belonging to the Willoweed family, "quacking their approval," while the maids laugh while chasing a "floating basket filled with eggs" and a child is gleefully  "floating a fleet of toy boats" in the dining room of a flooded house.  It isn't long, however,  until what seems to be cute and cozy makes a change into something darker and foreboding as the author describes the "sorrowful things under the blazing sun and blue sky," found in the flood's aftermath, including dead animals and 

"A passing pig squealing, its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding, "
thrashing about in the river as some men in a boat were trying to rescue it.  And then there's this:
"As the day went on the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below, leaving only the cocks alive. The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered with water." They squarked a little, but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared." 
It won't be until later that the significance of these scenes becomes apparent, but in this book the natural and human worlds mirror each other, and the reader starts to notice that like this mirroring, there are also dual meanings to be had here.  

Just briefly, because I don't want to spoil things,  while the story looks back on this summer and the inhabitants of this village  after the flood,  it takes us into the home of the Willoweeds, run by the family matriarch Grandmother Willoweed, on whom her son Ebin and his three children Emma, Hattie and Dennis are utterly dependent.   Ebin had returned to the family home after he'd been dismissed from his job at a newspaper; his wife had died while giving birth to their third child.  He feels himself to be "humiliated and a failure in everything he undertook," since it had been ten years since he'd earned any money from his writing -- he has a stack of "half-completed, mouse-nibbled manuscripts" just sitting in his room.   He's a neglectful parent, focusing mainly on himself and his bitterness, leaving the oldest daughter Emma to pick up the slack to provide the attention and needed security to her siblings.   Ebin is greatly "cowed" by his mother, who runs a most austere household in a tyrannical way, and Comyns' descriptions of her fall anywhere between bird and reptile, at one point revealing her as having a "forked tongue."  Comyns' use of animal attributes to describe the humans (and vice versa) here is not only inescapable but also compelling, almost as if the author is making the statement that it's often difficult to discern between the two.  It is only after the flooding subsides that something happens to cause a  series of "gruesome deaths" that "plagues the villagers,"  to the point where Ebin, whose self-interest knows no bounds,  notes in a newly-penned newspaper article, 
"The inhabitants of this remote village are asking each other 'Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?"
This "fatal madness," it seems to me, describes not only the effects of the strange plague moving throughout the village, but also provides a rather chilling insight into  the darker aspects of human nature.  

 I know that sounds rather cryptic, but I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who may wish to read the novel.  Let me just say that you can't skim over any parts of this book because everything, no matter how minor it may seem, has meaning here.   This is a novel that mingles and mirrors both landscape and people, the natural world and the "civilized" world.  And while it's dark and at times disorienting, it's not all bleak -- while there are a number of people here who seem to thrive on their own self-interest and their own needs,  compassion and caring are to be found in this village as well. 

Barbara Comyns is a brilliant writer, at least based on what I've seen here and in her The Vet's Daughter, and it is a true shame that she is not more well known and her works underappreciated.  Seriously, you don't know what you're missing if you haven't read her books.  I can recommend this book with no hesitation.  

Friday, March 15, 2019

Mrs. Rossi's Dream, by Khanh Ha

Not too long ago (and borrowing from Rodgers and Hammerstein),  I was that girl who cain't say no.  As a result, I had tons of books to read from Netgalley, from various publishers, and from people who organized book tours for various bloggers.  At first it was great and there were books arriving at my door on a daily basis.  But there was also a downside --  I started noticing that I had little time for the books I'd been buying that were starting to seriously pile up.   So with a few exceptions,  I quit accepting offers and got back to my own tomes which had been sadly neglected, and became a much happier person.  But I will always make time when asked if I would like to  read a novel by indie author  Khanh Ha, who has been the recipient of several awards for his fiction.  Mrs. Rossi's Dream is his third novel, and in my opinion, the best he's written.


9781975625689
The Permanent Press, 2019
312 pp
my copy from the author, thank you!!!!


Once again, the author takes us into the vivid but harrowing landscapes of Vietnam.  The Lower U Minh National Reserve in the Mekong Delta  is teeming with life, but at the same time  it is also a place of death.   During the years of the Vietnam War,  as we are reminded, it was the "territory of IV Corps," but it was also home to North Vietnamese forces and the Vietnamese civilians who lived there. Heavy casualties on all sides were suffered in the area, where all too often the bodies were not recovered -- in this place, "The dead remain where they died."  


U Minh Ha, from Vietnam Tourism


Some twenty miles south of there, a couple in their late sixties own and operate a roadside inn for tourists, many of  whom come to visit the National Reserve.  Every day the husband takes a shovel and digs in the same spot, pulls out a bone from his pockets, and buries it.  When the narrator of this story, Le Giang, asks the woman what he is doing, she remarks that their son, who had been an ARVN soldier during the war, had been killed in combat twenty years earlier but they had never recovered his body.   This scene sort of sets the tone for what's coming, when a Mrs. Rossi arrives at the inn with her adopted daughter. Her son,  Nicola Rossi was an American lieutenant who had served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, and had died during a firefight in the forest when a mortar blew up.  He had been trapped beneath the trunk of a fallen cajeput tree; missed by the Viet Cong who likely would have shot him in the head had they seen him.    Like the old man at the inn, her son's body had never been recovered; she has come to the area hoping to locate his remains and to make another connection with him by visiting the River of White Lilies, a place she knows he'd been.     She has nothing to go on except a crude map drawn by someone who served under Lieutenant Rossi, her dream of finding him, and a guide who knows the area like the back of his hand and who has taken many people on the same sort of mission. 

  It is her  arrival that sets the story moving into different directions,  mixing the past with present,  as both the living and the dead draw on their memories to reveal not only stories of the Vietnam War and its aftermath,  but also to reveal how in some cases, humanity manifested itself as compassion in some very unexpected ways.  Mrs. Rossi's Dream is a most human story at its core, underscored by the idea that 
"When you held a fragment of bone in your hands, or a skull marred with spiderweb cracks, you couldn't tell if it was Vietnamese or American." 
It is also a story that gives prominence to the dead, which comes as no surprise in this setting.  As just one example,  there is an excellent short chapter in which a young woman draws on her childhood memories to describe a nighttime visit to a strange marketplace at the site of a deserted village that had been "shelled to ash." While wondering about the "eerie stillness"  of it all, she learns that at just past midnight at the beginning of the Lunar Year the dead return from "their yin world into our yang world" in order to "enjoy again our worldly pleasures for one brief moment."

I will say that while I enjoyed the book overall, I thought that there were a couple of scenes that could have been left out with no problem. As far as the ending,  I'm of two minds there. While it is poignant, realistically speaking what happens probably isn't practical at all; at the same time in a story where the dead speak and walk the yang world, well, I suppose anything could happen.  I will also say that the novel is probably not going to appeal to readers who rely on total realism to enjoy a novel.  Thankfully, I don't,  and I think the way in which the author has constructed this book was the right one.   


*******
I read Mrs. Rossi's Dream as part of a book tour, and at the tour's website there is an interview with the author as well as a schedule of other readers' blog/goodreads thoughts about this novel.  If anyone's interested, there's also a link for a giveaway as well.  My many, many  thanks to Khanh Ha for my copy. As I said earlier, I believe that this is best he's written so far and I will certainly look forward to reading his next book.