Thursday, December 28, 2017

bye-bye, 2017

In the midst of it all, it's reading that has kept me sane this year.  

The last days of this year are sneaking up on us, and I've already been thinking about what I'm going to read in 2018.  But before I get that far, it seems appropriate to acknowledge 2017, since it's been a hell of a reading year, in a good way, of course!  For nearly 365 days,  with some exceptions,  I pretty much went off the mainstream grid and started exploring older books, discovering forgotten authors along with their obscure titles, and generally had a right jolly old time looking back on the past, or I've focused on translated works that appealed to me.  Truth be told,   I actually came to a sort of crisis point this year -- after going through a few contemporary novels this year that made me want to send them flying across the room (I'm not naming names), and especially after two DNF novels that got raves from other readers even though the writing was so poor,   I started making choices based more on personal satisfaction rather than on what's new or on books that critics deemed as buzzworthy.   It's been a liberating experience.

So how the reading year shakes out comes next, with a grand total of 118 books.  How is that possible, one may wonder; the answer is that I don't sleep a lot, I only watch 2 to 3 hours of tv at night, and I would rather read than eat. And I'm a fast reader.

From this page of my reading journal (contemporary, translated, and other literature) I have 23 under the label of 2017; I'll wait for January to discuss the books I've read but haven't yet posted about, but these two bring the total up to 25:
  • Raise the Red Lantern by Su Tong 
  • Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event , by Nicola Pugliese 
Beyond praiseworthy in this category:  The Beguiled, by Thomas Cullinan, Huck Out West, by Robert Coover, Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry.  The last three: contemporary yes, but beyond outstanding, by writers who know their craft well. 

from The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

from the crime page
 I believe I got the most joy from  reading in this genre in 2017, mainly because I did a quick look over the year at the history of crime fiction/mystery fiction.  Using different reference sources, along with input from reading friends, I had the time of my life stepping into the wayback machine to find a number of different early examples of the genre. I'd planned to take this year through the onset of World War I, but there were too many good books from the 1860s and I got sidetracked and only made it to the publication in 1887 of A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel.  Combined with more modern novels,  there are whopping 49 that I've posted about with two others sitting here just finished, bringing that total to 51:
  • The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume 
  • A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan-Doyle
I also managed to prevent myself from being a one-trick pony in this genre with a few newer novels, but it was definitely books like Devlin the Barber, by Benjamin L. Farjeon,  The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, The Mystery of the Sintra Road, by Jose Maria Eça de Queiróz and Ramalho Ortigão, The Leavenworth Case, by Anna Katherine Green, and Ellen Davitt's Force and Fraud: A Tale of the Bush that kept me the most entertained.  I'll be picking up my project again in 2018, starting in the 1890s.  

the as yet unread Valancourt Books shelf of dark fiction/horror/pulp/gothic novels

from the dark fiction page
Oh, people ... this year I discovered French dark literature from the Romantics to the Symbolists to the Decadents.  Oh my -- pure reading pleasure!   I also picked up decadent titles from Germany and they make the French look tame.  There are 32 posts on that page for 2017 but I have yet to discuss 
  • The Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales, by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
  • Devil's Day, by Andrew Michael Hurley
bringing the total to 34.  I also indulged in quite a lot of old pulpy goodness this year, as well as older, lesser-known ghost stories, and a cult novel or two, including the excellent Twenty Days of Turin, by Giorgio de Maria, which after thinking about it for some time, chilled me to the bones albeit not in a horror-story sort of way. In the horror zone, Adam Nevill's Hasty for the Dark just plain knocked my socks off with its excellence.    And then, of course, I have to give a huge amount of reading entertainment credit to Valancourt Books, who seem to publish what I want to read without fail.  The photo directly above is the books I've bought that they've published that I haven't yet read,  and here are the ones I've enjoyed so far (a few have been moved to other shelves like crime fiction and literature but you get the idea): 

And now to nonfiction, which adds a total of seven books for 2017.  The most well-loved of these books:
  • The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, by Marjorie Worthington, which  came to me by way of Spurl Editions, a small but very cool publisher.  
  • Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767,by Thorkild Hansen, NYRB.
  • Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Vols. I & II, by John Lloyd Stephens
  • Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vols. I and II, by John Lloyd Stephens
  • Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and the The Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya, by William Carlsen

Last but not least, I've started a new journal page, mostly for the Victorian reading I plan to do this year, but there will be other, older British books there as well by the time I'm finished.   That's got a total of 1 book for the year listed, a silly adventure by H. Rider Haggard called Mr. Meeson's Will.   

So that's it, happy new year, great reading to all in 2018, and wishes for inner peace and happiness.  

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Stones Cry Out, by Hikaru Okuizumi

Harvest/Harcourt, 1999
originally published as Ishi no Raireki, 1993
translated by James Westerhoven
138 pp


"They would all die in this dark cave. They were dead already." 

Another random choice and another winner -- my lucky streak continues.  I'm sure that one of these days I'll go to my shelves, pick a book completely arbitrarily and find one that not's so hot, but for now, the good luck continues.

The author of this book won Japan's prestigious Akutagwa Prize for this novel, and after reading it, I can see why.  Its short 138-page length might tempt people into thinking it's an easy, breezy read, but really, it is anything but.  In this short space, as the review blurb from The Detroit Free Press says, the author has managed to
 "create the most vivid of fictional realms, the inner world of an Everyman battered by the cruel and seemingly random hand of fate..." 
and has effectively "magnified" the horror of this "Everyman's" story in "the quietness of its telling."  If I could organize words around my thoughts like this reviewer, I would be saying the same thing.

The Stones Cry Out recounts the story of Tsuyoshi Manase, who, as we learn at the outset had become a "fanatic collector of stones."  Before realizing what would become his passion,  Manase had been a soldier during World War II, and had found himself wandering through the jungle before finding a remote cave in Northern Leyte.   When we first meet Manase, we are told that he remembers very little about his experiences in that cave or about how he came to find himself in a POW camp after having been captured.  After a year and a half Manase was repatriated and had started on the road to becoming a successful businessman, during which time his "recollections of war began to fade."   He began to view his war memories as a " brief glance into a dark hole through a window."  But what he does not forget  is a terrible fear of isolation, and more importantly,  the words once spoken by a lance corporal who had been in the cave with him, telling Manase that the "tiny pebble you pick up during a walk is a cross-section of a drama that began some five billion years ago." What stuck with Manase was what the lance corporal had said next:
"That little pebble is a condensed history of the universe that keeps the eternal cycle of matter locked in its ephemeral form." 
 It will be these words, which "lodged themselves in his heart," that will drive Manase to begin collecting stones.  As the years go by he marries, becomes very successful and has two sons; however, he finds himself becoming more isolated and more detached from his wife and children because of his passion for collecting. He also begins to find himself in situations that sort of trigger nightmares and memories and in this way, we learn little by little what actually happened to him in that cave.  When tragedy strikes his family, Manase will have to come to terms with the fact that not only does the darkness of his own personal trauma often return "like phantoms to the surface of his memory" but that it also has the potential to be passed on to take root in the physical  present, sort of infecting all of those around him in different ways.   Consider this idea in human terms and it makes for one hell of tragic story.

 Obviously I'm just sort of outlining basic plot here,  but what happens in The Stones Cry Out is best experienced rather than simply read about. This book moves well beyond simply plot to explore how memories of trauma are never really "frozen" or "locked," but rather like the crystals in the rocks that Manase studies so intently, seem to have  "an inner urge to grow," even though the "urge had been forcibly repressed by some sort of magic keeping them locked inside this narrow space."   The question is this: "if that spell was somehow broken, would not the minerals burst into movement?"  How that plays out I won't reveal, but if ever there was a book to read that highlights the human psychological costs of war, it's this one.

It's a sad but beautiful book and one I recommend.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hallucinating Foucault, by Patricia Duncker

Ecco, 1996
173 pp


I chose Hallucinating Foucault completely at random as part of an effort to read books that have been sitting on my shelves for years untouched, gathering dust and making me feel guilty for ignoring them.As it turns out,  I've picked a good one yet again.  To be honest, it's rare that I come across an author's first novel that is so polished that it's hard to believe it's a debut, but that is definitely the case here.  While not a huge fan of the ending which I found slightly overwrought, the rest of the book blew me out of the water, and these days, it takes a LOT for that to happen.

The unnamed narrator in this story is working on his doctorate at Cambridge, studying the life of French author Paul Michel, "the wild boy of his generation."  Along with his works, the narrator worked to "build" an image of his subject, a man who was, as he says "beautiful. And he was homosexual," a fact that he "insisted" on bringing up in all interviews he'd ever given. In one of these interviews, when asked which other writer "had influenced him the most," Michel had immediately answered Foucault.  There were, as we are told, several "uncanny links," between Paul Michel and Michel Foucault including the fact that they were  "both preoccupied with marginal, muted voices," and both were "captivated by the grotesque, the bizarre, the demonic."  Both also also "explored similar themes: death, sexuality, crime, madness..." (31).  While their styles were different, at the core of the works of both men (Foucault's philosophy and Paul Michel's fiction) stood "the revolutionary project of thinking differently."    All of this is background to the real story here, which begins with the narrator  falling for another student he calls only "The Germanist," a young woman studying Schiller who, as our narrator discovers, also seems to have an interest in Paul Michel.  After a while she finds an article that reveals the current whereabouts of Paul Michel, currently within "the white prison walls of a psychiatric unit" in France.  The Germanist challenges our narrator to go to France to find Michel, and he goes to do just that. And this is the point at which where the story actually begins; as it progresses, we discover that Hallucinating Foucault starts becoming less of the quest tale I thought it was going to be and much more of a space for exploring relationships, the most important being that between a writer and his readers. At its heart lies a love story, and that's about all I'll give away here.

 It's all so very nicely done, and as I said earlier, I was floored when I discovered that Hallucinating Foucault was the author's first book.  And not to worry -- it's not necessary to be familiar with Foucault's work to read this book; Duncker does  a fine job of bringing out some of Foucault's main themes here (madness, sexuality, the nature of truth)  and they flow sort of effortlessly throughout the text.    I won't kid you -- it's a challenging read that requires thought, and it grows in intensity as we come down to the ending, but it is so worth it.  My advice: spend time savoring this one, although in my case, I never wanted to put it down once I'd started.  One more thing: this book is definitely not one for those who constantly swim in the mainstream.

If this is an example of the books I've been neglecting over the years, I can't wait to get to the others. Seriously, this one is off the charts good.

Monday, November 13, 2017

an October random read: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

Penguin, 1977
originally published 1938
247 pp


"It's like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you'll still read Brighton. That's human nature." -- 198

Between the back-cover blurb of my old Penguin edition shown here that reads
"Pinkie, a boy gangster in the pre-war Brighton underworld, is a Catholic dedicated to evil and damnation. In a dark setting of double-crossing and razor slashes, his ambitions and hatreds are horribly fulfilled...until Ida determines to convict him of murder. But Pinkie, on the run from her pursuing fury, becomes even more dangerous..."
and the first line of the novel,
"Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him"
I was all set to dive in to what I fully expected to be a crime novel, but as things turned out, Brighton Rock became something entirely unexpected. To label this book as a "thriller" is to do it a grave injustice -- while there are certainly murders and other violent acts throughout the story, this book goes far beyond the reach of a crime novel and deep into complex existential and metaphysical zones.

As far as the crime aspect goes, in Greene's Brighton, violence is just an ordinary fact of life; here the focus is on the competition between gangs over who will end up with the greater part of the protection racket now that the gang boss Kite has been killed.  It's the death of Kite (from A Gun for Sale, which I haven't yet read) that leaves Fred Hale with a target on his back; evidently he'd sold out Kite to the rival gang headed by Colleoni, causing him to be murdered.  Now young Pinkie Brown, a sociopathic seventeen year old,  sets out to avenge Kite's death since 
"... when Kite had died in the waiting room at St. Pancras, it had been as if a father had died, leaving him an inheritance it was his duty never to leave for strange acres." (130)
By killing Hale and thus taking revenge for Kite's death, he sets out to prove himself to the older members of the gang, setting himself up as the new Kite ("He had inherited even the mannerisms, the bitten thumb nail, the soft drinks") ready to stand up to Colleoni and his gang.   Hale's death is put down to natural causes, so basically Pinkie and his gang have gotten away with it, but there is a big loose end that needs to be taken care of.  Hale had been in Brighton drumming up newspaper sales as Kolley Kibber (based on the real-life Lobby Lud), leaving cards all around town. After his death, Pinkie insisted that the cards be distributed so that it would look as though Hale/Kibber had been on his regular route, and at a cafe, one of Pinkie's men is noticed dropping off the card by Rose, a young waitress who could, if questioned,  easily testify that the man who left the card was not the dead man.  Pinkie decides to take care of the situation himself by courting Rose and getting her to tell him if anyone comes asking.  But Pinkie hasn't counted on Ida, a woman with whom a very frightened Fred had spent his last moments before disappearing and ending up dead.  Having read about his death, Ida is determined to find out what really happened to him, and refuses to quit until she has the answers she seeks.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown, 1947 -- from The New York Times

This beginning sets up what definitely sounds like a crime thriller, and in truth, considering what was going on in British crime fiction at the time, Brighton Rock was something entirely different in the genre.  However,  there is much more here than just crime.   What follows on the heels of that one loose end turns  into multiple problems (and creates other loose ends that must also be tied up) for Pinkie, whose own existential angst deepens and becomes more apparent,  more desperate as the story progresses.  If read solely as a crime novel, the reader misses out on the depth of the metaphysical dimension Greene has constructed, which I feel  is absolutely critical to understanding these three characters, Pinkie, Rose, and Ida, and their relation to the interplay of good and evil that dominates this book. Other thematic issues arise as well, including innocence, damnation and salvation, so thinking of this book merely as a crime thriller sort of undermines its deeper brilliance. And while  I can't really give Brighton Rock the justice it's due either, I will say that these characters haunted me for a very, very long time after finishing the book, making it one I will never, ever forget.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

You Should Have Left, by Daniel Kehlmann

Pantheon, 2017
originally published as Du hättest gehen sollen , 2016
translated by Ross Benjamin
111 p


Everywhere I turn when reading about this book I find comparisons to Stephen King's The Shining.  In one sense, I get it, because it is about a man who has taken his family off to a remote location to work on a screenplay and weird stuff starts happening around him.   In another sense, in my most humble of casual-reader opinions, to liken it to The Shining sort of cheapens this book in a big way. It also makes for a number of readers having dashed or unfulfilled expectations -- after all, if you're expecting something along the lines of a Stephen King horror novel and you don't quite get it, well, that makes for an unhappy reading experience.   On the other hand, I had zero expectations before reading this book and had quite a happy reading experience.  In fact, I was downright chilled to my bones before it was all over, and not because of any kind of supernatural element, but because of the psychological aspects of this book.

The entire book is a set of journal entries kept in a notebook, and right off the bat we learn that the narrator is "up here" with "new surroundings, new ideas," and "a new beginning."  We also learn that there had been "constant arguing" with his wife -- and that while it at least has stopped in relation to taking care of their daughter,  all is not quite right, since her bad driving caused him to say something, resulting in the two yelling at each other up the mountain road to their vacation home. He can't even work when his wife and daughter are in the room, but he pretends anyway, because he knows she'll just start complaining.  If she's not complaining about him not working, then she complains about him not spending enough time with them.  And as the arguments continue, we sort of get a picture of a not-so-blissful married life which evidently isn't being helped by the change in scene to this lovely home in the mountains of Germany.   Our nameless narrator is working on a screenplay for a sequel to a film which for which he'd also written the screenplay, and is evidently under quite a bit of pressure moneywise, what with the new town house they'd bought, carrying a mortgage which is "far from paid off."  And there's more -- he's also under pressure from the powers that be in charge of the film.  He's been told by the producer that if doesn't deliver, the production company, "which owns the rights," will have to find another writer if he doesn't deliver.   What he produces when he writes is crap, and he knows it. 

  It isn't long before he begins to have disturbing dreams, and then a trip for provisions to the small village at the foot of the mountain takes a somewhat ominous turn in a conversation about the house with the shopkeeper; it gets worse when a fellow customer tells him to "Get away quickly."  The remainder of the journal entries begins to reveal even more unsettling episodes he has in this isolated  house that will lead to some pretty bizarre behavior on the part of the narrator, especially after he makes a particularly disturbing discovery.

While reading this book, eventually I got to the point where I felt like I watching a series of nightmares unfold, but I had the even stronger feeling that I was caught inside of an MC Escher drawing.  It's a story where you really have to decide if what's going on here is due to any sort of supernatural influence or whether there's something else at play here.  I was sort of on the fence until I came across a particular journal entry on p. 89 that struck me and made me go back,  reread the book,  and re-evaluate what I thought might be happening here based on those few lines, and it all started with the discussion of a "creature drawn on paper" who "if it could live, would live entirely on paper, on its surface"  faced with "a mountain on the paper."  Think shifting of geographical contours on an existential level, and that's where this book took me, and it was downright unsettling.

You Should Have Left was billed somewhere as a haunted house novel (sorry, I can't remember where I'd read that), and that was the reason I picked it up. I discovered two things: one, it actually reminded more of the work of Oliver Onions, who wrote several tales that link creativity (or the lack of) with insanity, and two,  I was also reminded me somewhat of the style of the work of author Jac Jemc in her book The Grip  of It, read earlier this summer, where she used various tropes associated with haunted houses to get to the root of what was haunting her two characters.  And despite some low reader ratings, I thought You Should Have Left turned out to be original, definitely frightening, and frankly, up there with the most disturbing books I've read this year.   I don't know about anyone else, but reading a record of and therefore becoming a witness to someone's complete mental deterioration is far more frightening than anything a supernatural tale could possibly conjure up in my head.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Nona's Room, by Cristina Fernández Cubas

Peter Owen Publishers, 2017
originally published as La habitación de Nona, 2015
translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts
159 pp


"It’s as if she’s not seeing the same thing as everyone else”
                    --- "Interior With Figure" 

First, let me say thank you to the publishers who sent me this book, and especially to Maya, who had to put up with my loss of the e-copy she sent and then sent another one.   Actually, I lost it a second time because I forgot to save it before turning off my ipad, but as I was too humiliated to ask her for a third download, I bought a print copy. 

On now to Nona's Room, which is part of the "Spanish Spring" offerings of a collection called the Peter Owen World Series.  The blurb about these books reads as follows:
"Journey with us to explore outstanding contemporary literature translated into English for the first time. Read a single book in each season -- which will focus on a different country or region every time ...Read the world -- three books at a time ... 3 works of literature in 2 seasons each year from 1 country each season." 
I'm in, as it looks like this is going to be a great series; there is more info about these books here at Peter Owen's website.

Nona's Room puts together six short stories narrated by women, and it isn't long into the first story that I realized I had something unique in my hands.  The publisher's description of this collection labels these tales as "Gothic and uncanny stories," but I think a better way to describe them is to say that they're off-kilter, taking the reader right away into a strange sort of universe where he/she will have no idea what to expect at any moment.  That impression was cemented  in the first story, "Nona's Room," a tale of two sisters that is utterly mind blowing once the author turns a certain corner in the telling.  Then another surprise, with "Chatting With Old Ladies," which starts out with a woman trapped in a desperate situation who, as it turns out,  hasn't even begun to understand the meaning of either "trapped" or "desperate." This one reads like a mix of horror story and fairy tale, and I heard myself actually gasp at the ending of this one. By this time on  full alert, I moved on to what I consider to be the best story in this book, "Interior With Figure," in which a writer visiting an art museum stops to listen to a group of children giving their own interpretations of a particular painting, finding one little girl's thoughts beyond disturbing. However, it's this child, not the painting itself, that captures the writer's imagination...

by Adriano Cecioni, Interior With A Figure

"The End of Barbro" brings three sisters together to reflect on their past, while "A Fresh Start" finds a woman wanting to start all over discovering that "the present has slipped into her past;"  "A Few Days with the "Wahyes-Wahno" follows two children as they visit their aunt and uncle while their father is ill; the idyllic retreat will become something they will remember for the rest of their lives. "..a sad happiness or a happy sadness," only the reader can judge. 

The quotation with which I began this post really says it all -- "It’s as if she’s not seeing the same thing as everyone else," since it seems to me that Ms. Cubas has this rather eerie way of looking at things through a set of lenses that focus on the spaces between reflections and illusion, past and present; but most of all between borders and boundaries that we as readers don't get to see very often. It's not an easy read, and it does take a lot of active thought, but the patient reader will be highly rewarded.  And I have to say that as I turned the last page, I had to go sit and focus on more mundane things to shake off my sense of being left totally off balance.  When a book can provoke a reaction like that, it's one well worth reading. 

fiction from Spain

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Dunbar, by Edward St. Aubyn

Hogarth, 2017
244 p


Dunbar is another book in Hogarth's Shakespeare series, and as in King Lear, the play on which this novel is based, there is nothing happy about this story whatsoever.  I mean, come on -- it's one of Shakespeare's tragedies, so we all know things are bound to turn out badly.

In this case, the original is  best, so let's get that out of the way right now.  But St. Aubyn doesn't exactly go scene by scene and rewrite King Lear -- here he's crafted a timely tale, one that works especially well these days when it comes down to the lust for unchallenged power and wealth.  But it's also, like the play,  a book that focuses on one family, here headed by Henry Dunbar, a man entirely used to wielding the reins of absolute power and control.

 Henry is a "Canadian media mogul," one of "the world's richest, and arguably the world's most powerful man."    It all starts when Dunbar decides that it's time to "lay down the burden of running the Trust from day to day."  As he says to his attorney, he's getting old (he is in fact 80), and that his daughters would be happy to look after him, since "there's nothing they love more than fussing over their old father."  He's referring to two of his three girls, Abigail and Megan; the third, Florence, he'd turned against when she told him that she wanted nothing to do with "the family business," and they've been estranged for a long time.  He's wrong about the two daughters though  -- there is definitely no love lost between them and their father, and as soon as they possibly can they get him out of the way, getting a psychiatrist to certify him so they could stick him in an out-of-the-way care home in rural Manchester, leaving the way open for them to acquire the Trust.  The fun begins when a fellow patient named Peter decides that he and Dunbar need to escape;  while they're on the run, Abigail and Megan make plans to track down their father and get him more securely out of the way. They never counted on Florence, however, who's decided that it's time to make peace with her father and is on her way to find him.

Dunbar is a delightful read, really. Betrayals abound, plots within plots arise, and it's a sort of eye-opener as to how cutthroat people can be when they're intent on getting what they want.   And although it's not a true modern conversion from Shakespeare, many of the same elements are found in both the play and the novel. As just one example, the scenes where Dunbar is out wandering through the snow reminded me of Lear's time out on the heath, not just in terms of the backdrop of the natural world,  but also because his time there, as in the play, speaks to his understanding of his own vulnerability, his grief, and his guilt. He's only got himself to deal with and it's a major awakening.  Very nicely done; it's my favorite part of the entire novel.

Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear, from RaaD Movies, News and Technology

After the first time through this book, I was kind of put off by his portrayal of Abigail and Megan as being so over-the-top villainous, but the second time through it made much more sense.  The people in their orbit who do their bidding (and hatch nefarious side plots) are the same as well, but it hit me that the daughters are not so much villainous as completely soulless, which, I suppose, explains how people like this obtain and stay in their positions of power.  I was sort of unhappy with the ending, which came quickly and was just sort of there, but again, in the long run it just didn't matter because really, if you know what happens in the play, you know what's coming down the pike here.  And ultimately, the story in both the book and the play hinges on the central character's slowly-building self awareness, and that's what makes really this novel worth reading.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Death With Interruptions, by José Saramago

Harcourt, 2008
originally published as As intermitências da morte, 2005
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
238 pp


"It’s not that I’m laughing at death, because no one can laugh at it. But why take it so seriously?" -- 
                                José Saramago,  LA Weekly

Like the author, we may not laugh at death, but in this novel there's a lot of black humor that surfaces surrounding death, or rather its absence.  Life in one unnamed country changes when, on New Year's Day  "no one died."
"Up until the very dot of midnight on the last day of the year there were people who died in full compliance with the rules..."
but everything  changed since that "zero hour"  and "there was no record in the whole country of anyone dying."    At first, this phenomenon was seen by some as "humanity's greatest dream since the beginning of time," and after a few days, even the pessimists and skeptics joined others in the streets "to proclaim that life is beautiful."  It doesn't take too long, though, for the problems inherent in such a situation to arise, and they do so in a very big way.  The Church is less than happy since, as one cardinal notes, "without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection, there is no church," along with myriad other problems; then of course the funerary businesses weigh in, as do the hospitals, homes for the aged and infirm, the life insurance companies, etc., etc.  Then, of course, there are the family members taking care of their terminally ill, who will themselves one day become too old to continue to give their loved ones the care they need; even more importantly, the question becomes one of "how the country in years to come" would be able to continue paying the "millions of people" who receive disability pensions, who would "for all eternity" be "joined by millions of others."  And that's just the tip of the iceberg as people begin to realize that eternal life, this "global gift," this "greatest marvel ever," is, in fact, the opposite.  As things are coming to a head, though, death (with a lower-case d) speaks, and new rules are formulated between herself and "mortals," leading to the second part of this book which personifies death herself and leads her to an encounter with some very unexpected results.

So far none of what I've described here can fall under the aegis of "black humor," really, as people begin to wake up to the nightmare that death's absence has brought to this country, but up until that time, Saramago takes us along for the responses from politicians and the government, the Church, philosophers, the people themselves, the criminal underworld, and especially the media.  There is more than a touch of irony here that makes for simultaneous fun and serious reading, and I kind of see it as a way in which he asks his readers to question the answers received from all of these institutions in the event of a crisis. I could be off base here, but certainly it's something I'll take away from this novel.

I've seen some reader reviews of this novel that call it a "philosophical novel," and while the author is definitely asking people to think here, for me it goes well beyond that label. There's a lot going on in here with language and ideas, and while some people have commented on their dislike of Saramago's writing style, I have to disagree.  I think his style is actually rather brilliant.  In fact, I enjoyed the book immensely,  heard myself laughing through parts of it and I can certainly recommend it.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

Riverhead Books, 2017
276 pp

"All these things happen according to the law, but not according to justice."
                                          -- 237

When deciding which, if any books on this year's Man Booker Prize longlist I wanted to read, I came across a review on NPR that said " 'Home Fire' Puts a Topical Spin on Ancient Greek Tragedy." I didn't go on to read that review (which is standard operating procedure for me) because I don't want someone else's ideas in my head while reading the book, but wondering which greek tragedy the author was going to rework,  I kept looking.  Then I came to the New York Times review that revealed that Home Fire was "a bold retelling of Sophocles' 'Antigone,' " and that's all I needed to know. Book bought, book read, and I wasn't disappointed.  In conjunction with the second read of this novel, I also read Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone, one of the sources the author notes at the end of her book. I wasn't disappointed in that book either, although for sure there's no beating Sophocles' original.  

Home Fire is yet another one of those novels best left to readers to experience so this post will be brief. The story centers around the Pasha family living in London.  The elder sister, Isma, had been like a parent to her younger twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz since the death of their mother; their father had been imprisoned at Bagram and had died on the way to Guantanamo.   As the story opens, Isma is in America, having been detained at the airport in London  to answer ridiculous questions about her British patriotism, simply by virtue of being a Muslim.  She has come to the US to continue her graduate studies, keeping in touch with her sister via Skype, but with her brother it's obviously a different story.  We're not sure what's happening with him; all we know is that something has gone very wrong and Isma is extremely  concerned.  While in Amherst,  Isma happens to meet Eamonn, the son of a British politician who takes an incredibly tough stance on immigration issues.  As the dustjacket blurb says, the "two families' fates" will become "inextricably, devastatingly entwined," but how that happens I won't say.

The story is revealed from the viewpoints of the major characters in this novel, and unfolds little by little until we have a very clear picture of exactly what's going on.  Betrayals abound, and as in Antigone, family and other loyalties are tested, especially those between the individual and the state, but this book goes beyond a "retelling" or a rehashing of Sophocles' work to become something original in itself.  While it starts out rather slowly, later around chapter five it becomes a bit of a nail biter, leading to a most dramatic, surprising ending.

While I didn't exactly love this novel, I found myself caught up in it and couldn't let it go until it was over.  I found it to be topical and especially relevant to our world today and in that sense, it's a book that should not be missed.   Readers contemplating this novel don't necessarily need to have familiarity with Antigone, and in a big way (meaning if you don't want to know what's coming down the pike)  it might be better to read Shamsie's book first and then go to the play afterward, and Heaney's book provides an updated version written in modern English.

I certainly recommend this novel --  it didn't make it to the Man Booker Prize shortlist but it's very much worth reading.  And don't read any summaries that give away too much  before reading it!

Monday, August 7, 2017

I LOVED this book: Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry

Viking, 2017
259 pp


"Every life has its days of happiness despite the ugly Fates."
                                                                                         -- 209

There comes the time when you find that book -- you know, the one that you put down when you've finished and just sit and stare off into space for a while because you're so taken with what you've just read that you can't move. I haven't felt this way since I read Lincoln in the Bardo earlier this year.    How coincidental, since both novels have made it to this year's Man Booker Prize longlist. I'm a huge fan of Sebastian Barry's novels but really, I think he's absolutely outdone himself here.

Just very briefly, and without any sort of spoilers, Days Without End follows young Thomas McNulty, who makes his way from Ireland during the Great Famine and eventually ends up in Missouri, "Way out on those mudflats beyond old St. Louis."   It is there that he first meets John Cole, while taking shelter under a hedge as "the heavens were open in a downpour." They were, as McNulty reveals, "only children obliged to survive in a dangerous terrain," but this meeting was the beginning of what would turn out to be a life-long relationship. These "two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world" soon find suitable work in Daggsville at a saloon at the young ages of 13 and 15; after their time there is over, they decide to move on and enlist in the army.  As America continues its westward expansion, McNulty and Cole are sent first to Northern California to protect settlers there from the Yurok Indians; they will move on to Ft.Laramie and the Great Plains before they re-enlist upon the outbreak of the Civil War. The novel follows their adventures not only through these troubled times, but also takes us into their lives after the wars are over and people are trying to get on with life.  While the horrors of the battlefields (and much, much worse) come vividly alive through McNulty's eyes here, it is ultimately what he shares with John Cole that sees McNulty through it all and what makes this book so beautiful  in the long run.

That's really all I want to say about plot here because really,  Days Without End is one of those novels that is experienced rather than just simply read.  I mean, I could give away plot points here but for me it isn't really about plot when all is said and done, but far more about long-lasting, unbreakable bonds of love and friendship that  help people to withstand various forms of adversity and keep some men sane while others fall apart.  There's so much more, of course -- history, the immigrant experience, etc. etc., but it's the relationships here that are so meaningful for me and which made me just sit in awe after I'd finished the book.  My only small qualm here is that the ending probably shouldn't have actually gone the way the author gave it to us,  but truth be told, I'm happy things turned out the way they did.

As I'm fond of saying, I'm not a critic, just a very casual sort of reader, so if you want to get much more in depth as to what's going on in this book, do NOT miss this excellent interview with the author from NPR where he explains a lot about where he was coming from in the writing of this novel.   Readers for the most part are loving this book but there are still the naysayers who don't care for the violence and the bleakness depicted here to which I say well, to each his/her own, but the truth is that these terrible, bleak, and violent events actually happened in America's history, in Ireland, on the ships that brought immigrants to North America, and none of it was pretty.

I LOVED this book and most definitely think it's one everyone should read.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle (ed.) Elaine Showalter

Rutgers University Press, 1993
326 pp


"It is just when a man begins to think he understands a woman that he may be sure he doesn't!" -- Edith Wharton, "The Muse's Tragedy"

Elaine Showalter begins this most excellent book with the observation that  when we stop to consider "the literature of the fin de siècle, the writers who come most readily to mind are men."  She has a great point -- I own quite a hefty library of fin-de-siècle literature and sure enough, all of the books I own,  without exception, are written by men, although I will say that I've started to remedy that problem as I was going through this book and looking up author biographies and bibliographies. She goes on to say that while "women were a major presence in the new literary world of the 1880s and 1890s," they had also been "overshadowed" not just by the major male novelists of the time (Conrad and Wilde are the examples she offers here), but also by those she calls "minor novelists," such as Stoker or Haggard.  The women represented here (and others writing at the time) were writing
"with unprecedented candour about female sexuality, marital discontent, and their own aesthetic theories and aspirations; and speaking to -- and about -- the New Women of the fin de siècle." 
According to Karen M. Offen in her book European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History, the term "new women" had been in existence elsewhere in Europe since the 1830s, but for our purposes, it had "reemerged in English from a published debate between the British novelists Sarah Grand" (whose work appears here) "and Ouida in 1894," and that the importance of these "New Woman literary works" lies in the fact that
"their authors addressed issues ... about the constraints of marriage, about work, about the possibilities and difficulties of self realization..." (189),
in short, about the growing dissatisfaction among women re the restrictions put upon them by Victorian society.

Daughters of Decadence contains seventeen short stories and other brief pieces by thirteen of these women, both British and American;  there is also a brief chapter containing a send-up* of George Egerton's "A Cross Line" published by Punch which, according to Showalter, "gives a good sense of the ways Egerton's view of feminine nature shocked and startled readers of the 1890s."

With one exception, the stories in this book were all completely new to me as I opened the cover, and it is truly a treasure trove of great writing. Truth be told, aside from Kate Chopin, Vernon Lee, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton, I hadn't read a single thing by any of these of authors; even the ones I just mentioned have been limited to a book or a story here and there but that's about it. I've listed the contents below without any discussion; there are three stories which were my particular favorite. First,  "A White Night," by Charlotte Mew, which takes place in an old Catholic church in Spain while a wife, her new husband, and her brother are touring the countryside while the newlyweds are on their honeymoon.  It's not so much what happens in this book that's behind why I enjoyed it so much (although I must say, it was pretty horrific and the setting heightens the reading experience)  but rather the outcome as husband and wife are later going over what had happened there. If ever this book provided an eye-opener, well, it's found in that story.  In second place on the favorites list, "The Muse's Tragedy," by Edith Wharton, which is just plain sad, but actually reveals an awful truth; and finally, "The Fifth Edition," by Mabel Wooton, which focuses on an "exploitative male novelist" who is asked to look at an autobiographical novel given to him by its female author.  Like most works of the  fin de siècle, the rather uneasy relationship between art and life is a major theme here, as it is with many of the stories in this book.   Just as an FYI,  Wooton's tale is not the only one featuring a woman writer and her relationship with a male author -- Vernon Lee picks up this idea with her splendid Lady Tal, as does Constance Fenimore Woolson in Miss Grief, both of whom had Henry James in mind while writing their stories.

 As Showalter notes,
 "a century later the utopian dreams of fin-de-siècle  feminists have yet to be fully realised, but reading their stories we can take heart from their talent and courage to look with hope to the new century, and to another beginning of a new world for women."
There is this great scene in Olive Schreiner's "Three Dreams in a Desert" which sort of speaks to the overall book as a whole in terms of what these women were trying to accomplish through their writing.  A woman coming out of the desert  is looking for "the land of Freedom," and must, as part of her journey, cross a "dark flowing river."  When she asks about a bridge, she is told there is none, that the water is deep and the floor is worn."  She might "slip at any time" and be lost.  When the woman asks for the track to show "where the best fording is," she is told that "It has to be made."  That's exactly what I felt after finishing this book -- that these women had helped create a new path, knowing all the while that the journey wasn't going to be an easy one.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in women writers of the period or in the history of women writers in general.


The table of contents:

"An Egyptian Cigarette," by Kate Chopin
"Theodora: A Fragment," by Victoria Cross
"Suggestion," by Ada Leverson
"A Cross Line," by George Egerton
*"She-Notes," by 'Borgia Smudgiton'
"By Accident," by George Fleming
"The Buddhist Priest's Wife," by Olive Schreiner
"The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"A White Night," by Charlotte Mew
"The Fifth Edition," by Mabel E. Wooton
"Miss Grief," by Constance Fenimore Woolson
"Lady Tal," by Vernon Lee
"The Undefinable: A Fantasia," by Sarah Grand
"The Muse's Tragedy," by Edith Wharton
"Emancipation: A Life Fable," by Kate Chopin
"Three Dreams in a Desert," by Olive Schreiner
"Life's Gifts," by Olive Schreiner
"The Valley of Childish Things," by Edith Wharton

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Beguiled, by Thomas Cullinan

Penguin, 2017
originally published 1966
372 pp


"Seems like none of us ever stop to think how evil can collect in us"

I actually read this book some time back but I haven't forgotten it, and neither will anyone who decides to read this novel.

As the blurb tells us, we find ourselves in Virginia,  "during the height of the Civil War."  The residents of the Miss Martha Farnworth Seminary for Young Ladies find their routine interrupted when thirteen year-old Amelia Dabney is out picking mushrooms one day and comes upon a wounded Union soldier. Surrounded by cannon fire, she helps him to his feet and takes him to the school.  Corporal John McBurney tells her he'll be there long enough to get his injuries tended to,  and then he'll leave immediately and "be no further trouble."

That's what he says, but as the story progresses, we learn that we can't always take McBurney at face value. Far from it. As each of the women and the girls at the house interact with him, his presence interrupts the regular, familiar routine of the house, and worse. He preys on each of these women/girls psychologically; his manipulative behavior makes already-existing but simmering rivalries come to the forefront and in some cases explode; it causes deep and dark secrets to be revealed, and sets off of a bizarre chain of events that no one could have predicted. Wait.  I take that back -- the one person who realized from the beginning that "You chil'ren have brought destruction in this house" is the slave Mattie, who sees McBurney for what he really is, but who cannot convince the rest of the women otherwise before it's too late.

The story is related through the alternating points of view of the small group of females at the school, which gives it a much more complete feel than it may have had from a third-person narrator alone. As perspectives shift, we start to realize just what it is about each person's psyche or past  that draws them to McBurney;  we also get different interpretations of the same events, which are often misinterpreted, bringing in a fuller picture of exactly what's going on in the house. And just as the school is isolated because of a war that has divided the country, the divisions within also serve to isolate its residents until they are forced to come to a consensus over what needs to be done to bring things back to the way they were before.  The question is, though, how can any of these lives ever be the same again?

The Beguiled is a page turner of a great book, and Cullinan is a master of ratcheting the psychological tension to the point where I couldn't put it down. Unlike a LOT of readers, I thought the alternating points-of-view approach was a great one.  And also unlike a lot of readers, I didn't judge the novel on the old Clint Eastwood film made from this book, which was nerve wracking, for sure, but very different from the original story. There's so much psychological tragedy going on in the novel, and while the film version didn't spare the horror, it's of a different variety altogether than what's in the book.

Very highly recommended -- I was just floored after finishing it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wolf on a String, by Benjamin Black

Henry Holt, 2017
309 pp


" 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

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


"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

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


(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

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


(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.


fiction from Britain