Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield


Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 2018
461 pp


"...he must exist forever in between the two states..."

"Grief is a powerful force, and who knows to what a man might be driven when his child is lost to him." 

England, at some point in the late nineteenth century.  It is solstice night, the "longest night of the year."  Everyone knows that it is 
"a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen."
Whether or not the solstice had something to do with the "strange events at the Swan," well, that is but one of the questions that arise in this story, and as we're told,  the answer is a matter of judgment on the part of the reader. 

The Swan at Radcot, just a day's walk from the source of the Thames, is a "very ancient inn," well known for its centuries-old "specialty" of storytelling.  As this story begins, Joe Bliss, the husband of the landlady, is just beginning a story of his own to entertain his customers when, as the dustjacket blurb reveals, something "extraordinary" happens.   At a time "late for a newcomer," the door opens, and in walks a man carrying what turns out to be a little girl.  He collapses, the local nurse is sent for, and finds that the girl is dead.   However, as the dustjacket reveals (so this isn't a spoiler), while the locals at the Swan are contemplating these strange events, a "miracle" occurs:  some time later the little girl opens her eyes, fully alive but mute.   As the word gets out about this "impossible event," at this point in the story, as in the case of the "streams and rivulets" that feed into the Thames,  the author brings in "tributaries" to add their own "volume and momentum" to this strange story.  These come in the form of the people who may have some claim on the child at the Swan.   I do believe that's all I should say at the moment about this book, since everything later, if you will, begins to flow from that point.

The author nicely interweaves folklore, superstition and legends into this book, which is at its heart a story about storytelling and grief; it is much more character driven rather than one relying on plot.  The legend that continually pops up, unsurprisingly, is that of  of Quietly the ferryman.  As the story goes,  his daughter went missing, and three days later was found dead downstream.  A year later, her mother gets a shock when her daughter returns, telling her mother she'd been "on the other side of the river," where her Daddy had come for her. But a price had been paid: it had cost him his life, and "it cost him his death too."    The ferryman, it is said, "for all eternity,"  exists "forever in between the two states,"  watching the river, helping those who "get into trouble" there to make it home safely.  If it is "their time," though, he "sees them to the other side of the river."  An understanding of this particular story among all of the stories told here, I think, is part of the key of reading these characters, who each in his or her own way, sort of exist "in between...two states."  I won't go into it so as not to wreck things,  but my own reading took that particular approach and it worked very well.

I do have to admit that after the initial events occur at the Swan, the story sort of meandered (it seems I can't get away from the river metaphor here) a bit, picking up for me somewhere around page 150, where, coincidentally, the full story of the ferryman appears.  At that point things started to click in my head and come more into focus, and then I didn't want to put this book down.  There were times I felt that where a particular story (this is after all a book of several stories) was heading became  a bit too obvious, and toward the end I ran into what I felt was a bit of awkward, even cringeworthy  (actually, pretty bad) dialogue between a father and his son that could have come right out of the The Empire Strikes Back. On the flip side, though,the story of the little girl captured me and   I did enjoy the focus on the natural world as well as the interplay, again quoting the dustjacket, of "folklore and science, magic and myth."   In her two previous novels, she has focused on these elements, as well as the nature of grief, a huge theme here,  in crafting some pretty captivating stories within stories, and she's done it again here.   Don't worry if you're not into what just might be a supernatural edge in your reading; as I said in the beginning, if it is or isn't is up to you.

Just a final word:  if you play by the 50-page rule and give up on this book early on,  you'll be sorry.  I know, because while I don't have a set limit about when to let go, I ended up giving it a chance when I thought it was going nowhere,  which was in my case, a very good decision.

Monday, November 26, 2018

continuing to work through my shelves of long-neglected books: The Broken Lands: A Novel of Arctic Disaster, by Robert Edric

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press,1992
first US edition, 2002
369 pp

"She's seen us coming, opened a door for us and then slammed it tight shut behind us." 

The US edition of this book came out in 2002, so it has been sitting on my shelf for the last sixteen years, and it's another one I'm kicking myself for not reading sooner.    In The Broken Lands, as the dustjacket blurb says, the author has chosen as his subject the 1845-1848 Franklin mission to discover the Northwest Passage and "re-creates what may have happened to this doomed expedition."

To this day nobody really  knows what happened to the men who sailed with Franklin on HMS Terror and HMS Erebus.  Along with important scientific discoveries, there has also been a lot of speculation and theorizing, but despite everything that's been discovered since this book was first published (including the discovery of the two ships in the Canadian Arctic),  the mystery remains.  Truth be told, I love a mystery, and it's that sense of the unknown that has drawn me to anything written about the Franklin Expedition, fiction or nonfiction.  The author has given us what I feel is a  plausible story here, and his research is highlighted throughout this book in which  he incorporates the historical facts into his account, which begins and ends with James Fitzjames of the Erebus  It is largely through his eyes that the story unfolds.

As the dustjacket blurb reminds us,  "The Broken Lands" is "a treacherous labyrinth of ice through which the fabled Northwest Passage was sought for centuries."   The book is not unexpectedly bleak, with the men eventually succumbing one by one to their long ordeal.  While the expedition starts on a high note with hurrahs and hopes for success, as time goes by the mission becomes one of survival and desperation.  While there are ongoing mentions of possible human causes contributing to this disaster,  in the end it comes down to the ice as the true master of them all.  As Harry Goodsir, the assistant physician and scientist notes:
"We pin our hopes on brute strength and ingenuity and whereas the latter might be the most admirable and readily acknowledged of our qualities, deep down we are convinced that without the former it is all to no avail...Look around you. What have we done but pitted our strength against the ice, barging and blasting our way into this miserable dead-end? where is the ingenuity of that?" 
Or, even more fittingly, while ice masters  Reid and Blanky set out in late August to assess the nature of the ice and to seek out possibilities of a lead by which the ships might escape, Blanky realizes exactly what they're up against:
"Nine summers out of ten we wouldn't have come halfway from Barrow Strait to get here...She's seen us coming, opened a door for us and then slammed it tight shut behind us."
I see that several readers weren't as fond of this book as I was, and that's okay.  A lot of people found the first chapter of the book a bit boring, but I saw a lot of foreshadowing here in terms of attitudes toward the Eskimos and  of the fate of  the expedition itself.   As I said, I wasn't at all disappointed with this book. 

Since I'm just a casual reader and not a reviewer/writer,  I'll link to what I think is the best review of this novel, found here,  written by Russell Potter whose blog Visions of the North  I discovered a couple of years ago.   Not only is he extremely knowledgeable about the Arctic, but his review says everything I would say if I could actually write one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, by Luigi Pirandello

Spurl Editions, 2018
originally published 1926 as Uno, Nessuno e Centomila
translated by William Weaver

"The capacity for deluding ourselves that today's reality is the only true one, on the one hand sustains us, but on the other, it plunges us into an endless void, because today's reality is destined to prove delusion for us tomorrow, and life doesn't conclude.  It can't conclude. Tomorrow if it concludes, it's finished." 

One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand is a novel which, in the author's words,  "deals with the disintegration of the personality. " It is a very dark read, in which a man  reaches a most extreme "cure" for the "sickness" that all started with  a conversation between a husband and wife about his nose.  Once his eyes have been opened to the awareness that his nose tilts, twenty-eight year old Vitangelo Moscarda finds himself  in a serious existential crisis.  While that may seem to be a somewhat absurd premise, the story that develops from that point is anything but, as Moscardo's sense of reality and self awareness veers off course and he becomes determined to untangle his true self from all of the others that have been constructed for him.

It is the initial short exchange that begins this novel between Moscarda [aka Gengè, a name (and likewise a self!)  given to him by his wife Dida] and his spouse that sets the stage for all that is to follow.  She wants to know what he's doing standing in front of the mirror looking at his nose.  He tells her he's looking inside one of his nostrils, which, when pressed, makes him feel a little pain. It is then that Dida changes the course of Moscarda's life by saying that she thought he was "looking to see which way it tilts." She clued him in to other things as well that he didn't know about himself: 
"My eyebrows stood over my eyes like two circumflex accents, ^ ^, my ears were badly placed, one protruded more; and there were other shortcomings..."
It isn't so much that the "slight defects" have any importance to him, but Moscarda's personality is such that he is prone to "plunge...into absysses of reflection and consideration," so her comments start him pondering.  In serious contemplation of his tilted nose, he starts to wonder if it was possible that he didn't even know his own body, but even more importantly, he begins to question whether other people had been aware of his tilted nose all along. As he says,
"And I didn't know, and, not knowing, I believed everyone saw me as a Moscarda with a straight nose, whereas everyone saw a Moscarda with a bent nose."
It is then that the "first germ of the sickness" started taking root, as he became "obsessed" by the thought that "for others I was not what till now, privately, I had imagined myself to be."  And if that was the case, he wondered, "if for the others I was not what the one I had always believed I was for myself, who was I?"  This obsession begins to grow as he engages in "pantomimes ... at every mirror in the house," discovering "the outsider, opposite me, in the mirror,"  but never his "self," making him "no one." He also realizes that it is not his real self that others see, but rather the Moscarda who is constructed by different people from different points of view in different contexts,  "the hundred thousand Moscardas that I was..." In order to free himself from their perceptions, and to get down to truth of who he really is,  he comes up with the idea of an "experiment of the destruction of a Moscarda."   In short, as the blurb from the Spurl edition states,
"his self-examination quickly becomes relentless, dizzying, leading to often darkly comic results as Vitangelo decides that he must demolish that version of himself that others see."
What I've posted here is just the rudimentary plot, and doesn't even begin to convey the depth of this fine, dark, and mind-boggling novel. 

I love books which explore perceptions of self and others and the delusions inherent within  (my true raison d'être for reading), but  One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand is unlike anything I've read before, presenting a portrait of a fragmented and torn man whose understanding of his own misperceptions of  his self set him on a path that takes him smack into the  "endless void" of the quotation I placed at the beginning of this post.  It is frightening on one hand, comic on the other, and all the while we are caught in Moscarda's head as he undergoes his "sickness", in which was found the "remedy" that would eventually cure him. It's extreme, and for me, a bit sad,  to say the least. 

 I won't lie to you -- the book is challenging, philosophical in nature, and in my opinion, it requires the reader to stop and think along the way and even more so at the end of this story, which makes it right up my reading alley.   One more thing: for anyone who might wonder how a book written in 1926 is relevant to our times, I'll refer you to social media, an entire universe of constructed realities.

My huge thanks to Eva at Spurl for my copy of this book; it is so disturbing that it will probably never get out from underneath my skin.  I loved every second of it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

another hidden treasure discovered on the shelves: The Vet's Daughter, by Barbara Comyns

NYRB Classics, 2003
152 pp


I've been sitting here trying to think of ways to describe this book, and no matter what I write, it seems that nothing I can say can give it the justice it deserves.  It's one of the rare few novels that left me sitting  in my chair unable to move for a while, unable to stop thinking, and it followed me on into the rest of my day.  While I was completely absorbed in this story, I was even more impressed and carried away because of the writing.  It is, in a word, brilliant. 

The vet's daughter is young Alice Rowlands, seventeen, and she lives in a household completely dominated by her father.  It takes no time at all to discover that there is something utterly monstrous about this man, who, when given animals to be put down, sells them instead to the vivisectionist.  He has always been a cruel man, but the disappointment he'd suffered upon buying what was to supposed to have been a "flourishing practice" along with a "commodious, well-furnished house" only to discover it was nothing of the sort seems to have scarred him for life.  His frustrations are taken out on his wife and daughter -- his wife is timid, looks "scared," and is afraid to speak in his presence; she eventually falls ill and even then tries to hide her illness from her husband. Alice is treated much more like a servant than a daughter, sometimes subjected to cruel treatment at his hands, and mainly ignored.   Life is bad enough for Alice, but when her mother dies and is replaced three weeks later by a barmaid ("a strumpet if ever there was one"), things move from bad to worse.  Somehow though, Alice discovers something within herself that allows her to detach from it all, a power that manifests at her lowest moments.

At this juncture, just before Alice is about to escape from the tyranny of her father and his mistress, we move into the world of the strange. All along, Comyns writes so believably, eloquently mixing the mundane with the horrific so that when we get to the point of Alice's discovery, what happens now seems no stranger or any less plausible than anything in this novel so far.  Alice is so trapped in her world that her newly-found ability makes sense as way to escape for a while, or to detach herself from her situation, even if only for a short time.

The Vet's Daughter is bleak, sad, and difficult to read emotionally, but at the same time it is hauntingly beautiful. The story told here is one of overwhelming loneliness and powerlessness, the stuff of many a novel, but recounted in a unique way that sets this book apart from others with the same themes.   Not one word of the author's exceptional writing is wasted here -- she has this knack of not only  making the horrific seem normal but also of turning the implausible into something believable in the world that her main character inhabits.

I can't recommend this book highly enough or offer enough superlatives about it.   It won't be for everyone, especially those people who insist on strict realism in their reading, but for it is perfect for readers who want a great combination of captivating story and superb writing.  This is my first book by Barbara Comyns but far from the last.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Watson's Apology, by Beryl Bainbridge

Carroll & Graf, 1985
222 pp


"I have waded in blood ... and it was not of my doing."  
July seems to have been the last time I made a post here which is like eons ago but I've been been gone, busy, gone, reading in other areas and what have you.  My current push is to read some of the books that have been sitting on my shelves forever so I'll definitely be filling up more space here from now on.  Seriously committed to this project, I started in the room that holds all of the British/UK fiction with J.R. Ackereley's charming and delightful Hindoo Holiday (NYRB) which I won't write about but which is a book I'd definitely recommend.

 Then it was on to this book, Watson's Apology, which is based on a real-life murder that took place on October 8, 1871 on St. Martin's Road, Stockwell.  The back-cover blurb reveals that the murderer was "a Victorian clergyman, John Selby Watson," and that he bludgeoned his wife "brutally to death." 

from The Sun
 Moving from the cover to the inside we discover right away what Bainbridge is going to be doing with this book from her "Author's Note," in which she says the following:
"This novel is based on a true story. The documents presented have been edited here and there to fit the needs of the narrative, but are otherwise authentic. Almost all of the characters are drawn from life, as are the details of the plot...What has defeated historical inquiry has been the motives of the characters, their conversations and their feelings.  These it has been the task of the novelist to supply."
 And what she supplies is a look inside of a miserable Victorian marriage, beginning with letters from Watson to the woman who he had briefly met "some years ago" while attending Trinity College in Dublin, Anne Armstrong.  Anne, whose socially-prominent family fell into decline when her father had "lost all his money," now  lives with her sister Olivia in a lodging house under destitute conditions, doesn't remember Watson at all, but with a "present so drab and the future so bleak," decides that "she would use him to free herself." She had written him
"telling him of the poverty of her existence and the vexations she endured, day after dreadful day, through being force to live, cheek by jowl, among people who were inferior to her in intellect and imagination." 
During their brief courtship it becomes obvious to each of them  that all is not quite right, but neither says anything to the other and they eventually marry.  At first she is convinced that she's made a "love match," while he is "astonished at how easily he'd adapted to marriage," but as time goes on, he finds himself in "an existence that is unpleasing," feeling rather victimized and at a point where he feels that "my marriage has destroyed me."  On her part,  Anne feels that all she's done has been "out of love;" at the same time she remains haunted by her family's past.  In the marriage, events begin to take their toll, sparking a desperate downward spiral for both Watson and his wife.   Where sympathy should lie is, I think, one of the big questions asked here, and the entire story made me wonder if the title of this book is meant to be a sort of "apologia" on Watson's behalf rather than an apology in the true sense of the word.  Whether Watson's wading in blood is or is not of his own doing is also a question, and the answer to that one will be down to the reader.

Very nicely done, and  although many readers thought that the courtroom scenes were dull, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel from its beginning to the very last page.  Then again, I'm a huge fan of Beryl Bainbridge and have many more of her books on my shelves waiting to be read.   I'd advise patience in reading this book and would recommend it to thinking readers rather than to those who just want a rehash of an old Victorian crime. This book is not that.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Dream of the Celt, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
originally published as El Sueño del Celta, 2010
translated by Edith Grossman
358 pp


"...he told himself that his life had been a permanent contradiction, a series of confusions and cruel complications, where by chance or because of his own clumsiness, the truth of his intentions was always obscured, distorted, turned into a lie." 
                                                    -- 208

I came to this book in a sort of roundabout way, after recently finishing Robin Furneaux's  The Amazon (1969).  Chapter eleven of that book examines  "The Putamayo Affair," which focuses on the Peruvian Amazon Company, the largest rubber enterprise on the Peruvian side of the border between Peru and Colombia.  I hadn't known about Casement's work in the Amazon, so I was glued to this chapter, and I wanted to know more.  After a bit of research linking Casement to the Putamayo, I came up with Dream of the Celt, a book I actually owned.  I was familiar with Casement and his work in the Congo having read Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, which is a book that in my opinion, everyone should read.  But I have to say that I was not as happy with Dream of the Celt as I think I might have been .     Let's put it this way:  I think it is absolutely outstanding that the author brought Casement's story into the public eye, but reading this book was beyond frustrating since the fictional narrative that could have emerged felt overwhelmed by what felt like a recitation  of the author's research findings.

from RTE

The Dream of the Celt begins in a cell at Pentonville Prison, where Casement is hoping that a request for clemency will come through and that he will escape the death penalty.  But the news isn't good -- evidently Scotland Yard has discovered Casement's diaries, "portions" of which have been "circulating everywhere," have been "the only topic of conversation in the city," and evidently might have some sort of damaging effect on his case.   While Casement continues to wait for news, and while his friends are doing whatever they can to help, we are taken back into his past, beginning with Africa.    It was there, as a very young and idealistic man, that he bought into the civilizing mission --  "the emancipation of Africans from backwardness, disease and ignorance," only to later go on as British consul  to gather evidence to detail the horrific atrocities against the natives in the Congo by those who  supported and oversaw King Leopold II's rubber trade, "the abuses committed here in the name of so-called civilization."  He meets and befriends writer Joseph Conrad, and inspires E.D. Morel to form the Congo Reform Association in 1904.  But it is also in Africa, as Casement reveals in a letter, that
"this journey into the depths of the Congo has been useful in helping me discover my own country and understand her situation, her reality. In these jungles I've found not only the true face of Leopold II. I've also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman." 
It was his African experiences that caused him to question whether Ireland wasn't also a colony, "like the Congo," and which made him decide to devote himself to learning about and understanding the "history and culture of Ireland."

Later, Casement is called upon by the Foreign Secretary to investigate the truth of reports made by two Americans who had been in the Putamayo region (along the Peruvian/Colombian border)  who had collected  evidence of atrocities against the indigenous peoples there, once again in forced service to the rubber trade.  This time though, the company under scrutiny was registered in London, with three British directors, and when the Americans had their findings published in Truth magazine, the government couldn't just sweep things under the rug.  By 1910, Casement was on his way to South America.  [Anyone who is interested can read a brief history of the "Putamayo Atrocities" here, at the website of the Latin American Bureau.]    Here, he comes to another realization linking the oppressed peoples of the Putamayo to his Irish kinsmen:
"We Irish are like the Huitotos, the Boras, the Andoques, and the Muinanes of Putumayo. Colonized, exploited, and condemned to be that way forever if we continue trusting in British laws, institutions, and governments to attain our freedom.  They will never give it to us." 
The only way to freedom for the people of the Putamayo, he says, is for them to rise up in arms "against their masters;" for the Irish, it must be "an irresistible pressure" that "can only come from weapons."  To gain freedom, one must "fight to achieve it." 

Throughout the first two sections of this novel, it becomes apparent that his experiences in the Congo and in Amazon left Casement a conflicted man -- he served the British crown, but he knew that the only road to Ireland's freedom meant that he would have to turn against it.  Part three picks up in Ireland, after Casement's retirement from consular service where he brings with him his dream of a liberated Ireland.  As he says, it was time for him to "concern himself with other natives, the ones from Ireland."  It is just after the outbreak of World War I when he decides on a bold move that takes him to Germany, which eventually leads him to a major betrayal and to Pentonville Prison. 

The book is more than simply the question of Casement as hero or traitor, though, since Casement is portrayed as a man filled with contradictions and prone to self examination and even second guessing.  He does constant battle with his physical health, and in Germany was told that his mental health had become "destabilized" and would become undone without some rest.  He was also a man who had to keep his homosexuality hidden,  but made notes in his diary about his encounters.  In a big way, we can also see that the political and the personal are hard to separate in this man, for example, when at one point he notes that while Africa was a place of "enormous suffering," it was also
"a land of freedom, where human beings could be mistreated in wicked ways but could also express their passions, fantasies, desires, drives, and dreams -- without the whipping and judgment that Britain used to drown out pleasure." 
In the epilogue, the author explains that
"... a hero and a martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection, but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodo wrote, 'is many men,' which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality." 
 Controversy over the "black diaries" still exists, as does controversy over Casement himself, but I think that for me a major part of this book asks the question of what it is that we expect from people we view as heroes or champions for a cause, especially considering that the very people who supported him throughout his career as an advocate for human rights were dropping their support at the end. I understand the reluctance of his friends to support his actions as a traitor to the British during the war, but it was the diaries revealing his homosexuality that seemed to seal his fate, more so than his actual crime.  If only we had had less facts here and more (albeit fictional) insight from Casement himself here, or had we heard more from his friends and supporters,  this could have been a great book -- as it is, the novel becomes somewhat of a chore to read which is, as I said earlier, a shame.  However, I would certainly recommend it because it is most certainly well worth reading.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Feathers of Death, by Simon Raven

Valancourt Books, 2018
originally published 1959
226 pp


I picked up this book based on its description as a "gripping thriller," but I'm not so sure I'd agree with that label. Thriller, no.  Gripping, yes: once I started it I couldn't stop reading.

The Feathers of Death centers around the army regiment known as Martock's Foot,  which dates from England's Civil War and has been now posted to a fictional country known as Prepomene,  a British colony where there have been "rumblings of rebellion." The regiment is a sort of closed little society within itself, professing standards, "moral or otherwise"  that are "liberal, tolerant, civilized and worldly," according to the narrator of this story, Captain Andrew Lamont.  He reveals that
" is usual in regiments where most officers have reckonable social standing quite apart from their Army rank, relations between the officers were very informal," 
and that "a very easy relationship could and did exist between commissioned and 'other ranks.' " We also learn that the men were "by nature respectful, docile, loyal and, above all, responsive to kindness . . ."  so that there was none of the "prying into mess bills, complaints about gambling, or investigations of sexual morals so common in the dowdier regiments."  Even when some of the officers become aware that Lynch has become attracted to young Malcolm Harley, they pass it off as "infatuation at worst. Passing fancy. Here today, gone tomorrow."  But as the situation between Lynch and Harley becomes more widely known,  tensions begin to grow both among the officers and among Harley's companions, threatening the long and carefully-established order within the regiment and ultimately leading to a moment of personal reckoning that results in tragedy.

Obviously, there's much more to this book but I don't want to give away any more than necessary.  I was fascinated by Alistair Lynch more than by any other character -- the author has afforded him a level of complexity that allows the reader to simultaneously blame him for his abuses of power, yet  in a way, admire him for breaking the rules. But there are also questions of complicity, justice, of class tensions, male friendships and more that arise throughout the story, as well as the qualities that hold this small but close regiment together.  All of these factors taken together make for an intense few hours of reading.  I will also say that while this is a story written in the 1950s and set within the space of the British military, this book does not end up as either an indictment of or a moral commentary on homosexuality -- on the contrary, the author approaches the subject in his thoughtful, well-grounded and no-nonsense approach  to this story.

Very very much worth the read; I so wish I could say more but that won't be happening.  It is a very human story, and one I recommend highly.

ps/don't miss the fascinating introduction to this Valancourt edition, but save it until the end.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

recent reads, digested: Madness is Better Than Defeat, by Ned Beauman; Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, and The Hole, by Hye-Young Pyun

Good grief! I didn't realize that I haven't posted since March!  It's not that I haven't been reading because I have -- it's more that I'm reading a lot of books I've really liked in the last few months but finding myself with little time to talk about them.  Today I do.

Up first is Ned Beauman's Madness is Better Than Defeat, which made me laugh out loud more than once.

Knopf, 2018
399 pp -- hardcover

I was introduced to Ned Beauman's writing with his The Teleportation Accident, which also made me laugh out loud more than once, Madness is Better Than Defeat begins in 1938 and follows two different expeditions into the Honduran Jungle, both focused on a particular Mayan temple with a design very different from the norm.   One of these has to do with the production of a movie, the other involves actually taking the temple apart and returning it to New York, where it will be reconstructed at the home of a wealthy and powerful businessman.  A standoff ensues between the two sides when the movie people discover that the New York faction has already started demolishing the temple, but each side is determined to follow through with their tasks.  As the decades go by and no one is sent in search of these people, they create their own society, which evolves through several forms over the years.  If that's not weird enough, the arrival of the CIA in Honduras makes things even more hectic.  While we live in their world for a while, the narrator of this story, an OSS/CIA veteran who may or may not be under the influence of psychotropic spores has his own problems, busy day and night in an impossible search for evidence buried deep in a warehouse, which he hopes will exonerate him from charges stemming from his actions in Honduras.   The author brings into his work a number of movie references, history, and philosophy before all is said and done; satire and allegory combine, especially when it comes to the CIA. It is crazy good, and highly recommended, especially for fans of Beauman's work.

Knopf, 2016
305 pp -- hardcover

A real-world book group read, and a book on the very serious side, Homegoing follows two branches of one family from eighteenth-century Ghana on into the present.  It begins with two sisters, born in two different villages, who each end up at Cape Coast Castle -- one as the wife of a white man from England who oversees slave trade operations, and the other, unbeknownst to her sister, a slave being held in the dungeon of the same castle awaiting transport.  The story is divided between the descendants of both women, exploring a bit of Ghana's history  as it pertained to the side of the family who remained in Africa,  and taking readers through different points of American history to discuss the lives of those descended from slavery.  In Ghana we live through the continuing tribal wars and conquests that lead to the capture of people who supply the slave ships, as well as colonization, while in America we go through slavery, the period of Jim Crow, the use of convict labor and the coal mines of Alabama, the migration north, and the hard existence of life in Harlem, where a black man's shade of color makes a world of difference.  Very nicely done, a bit of a tear jerker, but I have to say that as much as I enjoyed this novel, the ending was much too predictable for me -- I saw it in my head long before we got there.  Still, I definitely recommend it -- it's a brilliant piece of historical fiction.  It was also a book that my IRL book group all enjoyed, which isn't always the case. 

And now for something completely different, it's

Arcade, 2017
originally published in 2016,
translated by Sora Kim-Russell

This book was recently nominated for the Shirley Jackson award, but I'd read the author's short story "Caring for Plants" in the New Yorker last year, which actually led to me buying the novel.   It's a frightening tale, told solely through the point of view of the victim of a car accident (Oghi) in which his wife died and he was left in a coma.  Now he is awake, he paralyzed and unable to speak.  He has now returned to 
"the world where, as his doctor explained, the only way to survive was through sheer force of will."
 He has no family he can call on to help him once he leaves the hospital; his friends and colleagues at the university where he works obviously have their own lives, so his mother-in-law takes it upon herself to take care of him.  As it turns out, that probably was a bad idea, because while he lays, completely trapped in his own broken body, depending on his mother-in-law for his very survival, his mother-in-law is quietly making her way through secrets left behind by her daughter, who, as we begin to realize, was beyond unhappy in the marriage. While Oghi has plenty of time to contemplate his marriage, his mother-in-law begins to crack under the strain not only of her grief, but by being the caregiver to the person who she feels is responsible for her daughter's death.  

I've seen this book compared to Stephen King's Misery, but The Hole has much more weight and depth than King's book ever could.  Some interesting points come up in exploring Oghi and his relationship to others, making you wonder if he is deserving more of sympathy or dislike.  To tell more would be to spoil, and while not perfect, this is a dark page turner of a novel that I absolutely could not put down.  It's one of those books where every time a page was turned I was afraid of what would happen next;   I had to force myself NOT to turn to the ending more than once.   

I think this catches me up at least for now. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Alienist, by Machado de Assis

Melville House, 2012
translated by William L Grossman
originally serialized 1881 in A Estação as "O Alienista"
published 1882 as part of  Papéis Avulsos 
86 pp

(read earlier this month)

"I know nothing about science, but if so many men whom we considered sane are locked up as madmen, how do we know that the real madman is not the alienist himself?"

The Alienist is part of Melville House's lovely Art of the Novella series; books are available individually or as part of a subscription service, and they're well worth every penny.  I certainly got my money's worth with this book, which is true satire in every sense of the word.

We discover right away that the titular Alienist, Doctor Simão Bacamarte, "one of the greatest doctors in all Brazil, Portugal, and the Spains" is driven by science and rationalism.  As he replies when offered two very high offices by the King of Portugal who tried to prevent his return to Brazil, " my only office..."  And for sure, he makes scientific studies of everything. When he married his wife, for example, he chose her because she
"enjoyed perfect digestion, excellent eyesight, and normal blood pressure; she had had no serious illnesses and her urinalysis was negative."
She was also "neither beautiful nor charming," another point in her favor, since Bacamarte wouldn't be "tempted to sacrifice his scientific pursuits" contemplating her "attractions."  When she couldn't conceive, he even started on an "exhaustive study of sterility,"  as we're told, reading the "work of all authorities."  When his prescribed "special diet" didn't work, he "cured himself of his disappointment by plunging even deeper into his work."  As a result, he finds himself studying psychopathology, a "field, indeed, in which little responsible work had been done anywhere in the world."  In his town of Itaguai, the mentally ill have been neglected; eventually Bacamarte is able to persuade the Council to build a "madhouse," which comes to be known as the Green House.  It is there that the doctor plans to
"study insanity in depth, to learn its various gradations, to classify the various cases, and finally to discover the cause of the phenomenon and its remedy."
The trouble is, however, that there is no true scientific definition of what exactly constitutes mental illness, and as Bacamarte develops new theories, his ideas begin to change and so do his candidates for those to be sent to the Green House, to the point where "one no longer knew who was sane and who was insane."   Needless to say, there are people in Itaguai who don't necessarily agree.

 That's a very quick summary of the plot, but in this book there's much more than merely plot to consider as is usually the case in satire;  aside from the focus on the changing definitions of insanity by a self-professed authority  (a commentary, I think, on the folly of relying solely on science-based reason), ideas,  society and politics of the time are put squarely under the microscope here as well.  And then there's an interesting look at conformity, both inward and outward.  I don't want to say any more than that because it certainly is a story not only worth reading, but also worth spending time pondering to pick up what's actually going on here.  I loved this little book.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

finally out of obscurity: True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life, by Sarah E. Farro

Forgotten Books, 2017
originally published 1891
121 pp


I don't even remember what I was looking up when I came across an article in The Independent (1 June, 2016) about the author of this book, an African-American woman named Sarah E. Farro.  Once again, it was the title that caught my eye:

"Sarah E Farro: Why was one of only four African-Americans to publish a novel in the 19th century forgotten?"

Having never heard of her before, I was beyond intrigued.  As Professor Gretchen Gerzina notes in the Independent article, Farro wrote only this one novel, which seems to have
"disappeared from the historical record."
She also tells us that Farro was born in 1859, had two sisters, and that her parents had moved to Illinois from the South, information she gained from census reports from 1880.  We also learn that True Love was among 58 books by women writers from Illinois to be on exhibit at the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893 and that it was "heralded" in contemporary newspapers, both here and in the UK.  And finally, we know that in 1937
"Farro was feted at a celebration of Chicago's 'outstanding race pioneers."
 I can only imagine Professor Gerzina's excitement on rediscovering Sarah Farro and her book; heck, I was excited to learn that it existed myself!   And now, thanks to her discovery, Farro's True Love has not only been digitized, but it also appears in Penguin's  The Portable Nineteenth Century African American Writers (2017), bringing this woman and her work out of obscurity for modern readers.

my photo -- title page

The story begins with the Brewster family, consisting of a mom and her two daughters.  While the outside world thought highly of Janey, "with her sweet countenance and her merry heart," Mrs. Brewster is much more attached to Mary Ann, a "pale, sickly, fretful girl, giving trouble to everybody about her."  Janey is engaged to Charles Taylor, "a quiet refined gentleman, the son of a wealthy capitalist," which doesn't sit well with her mother.  Mom believes that "If Charles Taylor had not been blind his choice would have fallen upon Mary Ann."  As the novel opens, the "fever" is making its way through the area, and Mary Ann has had the bad fortune to have succumbed.  Charles wants to take Janey away, to get her "far from the fever," but that is not to be. Aside from worries about what people will say, Mrs. Brewster needs Janey there to help her out while Mary Ann is ill.  As it turns out, Charles is away when he gets word that death has come to the Brewster home, but as he learns to his horror, it's not Mary Ann who is dead.  The novel follows Charles and various members of the Taylor family after this tragedy which has clearly taken its toll on the poor man.

You'll note that I haven't said a thing about slavery or about race;  this book, as Farro notes in her preface, is written
"to give to the public a sketch of her ideas on the effect of 'true love.' " 
She wants us to "sympathize" with her characters, whose "language and conduct may be appreciable or reprehensible according to circumstances." And certainly, as the novel unfolds, we come to realize that with the Taylor family and their set of friends and acquaintances, we're looking into the lives of a very well-to-do group of people who, in many ways, are bound by the confines of social convention in true Victorian fashion.    Race has no place here, and as Professor Gerzina states in the article cited above, Farro''s novel of "domestic romance that tends toward melodrama," doesn't "fit the mold" of other  "revived and 'rediscovered' " works of other African-American women who have been "noticed and celebrated not just because of their race, but because they all "wrote about race."  I'll turn once again to Professor Gerzina to relate why Sarah E. Farro and her work are significant:
"Today we assume that early African-American writers inevitably wrote about race, that 19th-century writers necessarily referred to experiences of slavery and struggle and that their access to literacy -- let alone the Victorian literary canon -- must have been limited.  Finding Farro's novel changes that. Because we didn't realize that authors like Farro existed, we had limited perspective on their work."
I'll quite frankly admit that the book isn't as polished as it could be, and frankly, neither the story nor the writing is all that good, but that's not why I chose to read it: I was absolutely delighted with the prospect of reading the work of a previously-unknown African-American female author who wrote during the 19th century.  I mean, a lot of books I read are from obscure authors, but I rarely get the opportunity to discover one which itself has only recently been discovered.  It was well worth every second of my time and even though I wasn't fond of the story, I feel great just having the ability to read Sarah Farro's work.  I feel privileged, actually.

Monday, March 5, 2018

A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley

Anchor Books, 1990
originally published 1962
240 pp


William Melvin Kelley is an author I discovered while reading the January 29, 2018 issue of The New Yorker.  Before that, I'd never even heard of this man, although after finishing this book I'll be looking to read more of his work.  Two things caught my eye in the New Yorker article: first, the title: "The Lost Giant of American Literature," and then the question that immediately follows:
"A major black novelist made a remarkable debut. How did he disappear?"
Always intrigued by a mystery -- in this case three: who was William Melvin Kelley, why had I never heard of him if he was a "major black novelist," and finally, the question of how he disappeared -- I combed through the article and became even more intrigued when Kathryn Schulz started to describe Kelley's A Different Drummer.  This part was really all I needed to read before hitting the "add to cart" button on Amazon:
"Kelley turned his considerable intellect and imagination to the question of what it is like to be white in this country, and what it is like, for all Americans, to live under the conditions of white supremacy -- not just the dramatic cross-burning, neo-Nazi manifestations of it common to his time and our own but also the everyday forms endemic to our own national culture." 
I hadn't even finished the article and the book was on its way to my house.

William Melvin Kelley in 2012; from The New York Times

While I'm not going to divulge many details here, what is most stunning about this book is that given the theme, the story is revealed through the eyes of the white residents of this fictional town, set in a fictional Southern state.  Their narratives try to account for the reasons why one day Tucker Caliban (as revealed on the back cover blurb)
"... a quiet, determined descendant of a magnificent African chief brought to America in chains...for no apparent reason ... salts his fields, burns down his house, kills his livestock, and heads, with his wife and child, for parts unknown -- an act that sets off an unexpected mass exodus of the state's entire black population."
These narratives from the white residents of the town also uncover their thinking on how they process the behavior of the African-Americans in this book, and more importantly, how their own relationships with African-Americans reflect their own needs at different times.  It is both heartbreaking and haunting; but on the other hand, Tucker Caliban is one of the most courageous literary figures I've encountered in some time; he is the epitome of dignity and pride, a silent leader whose actions speak much louder than words ever could.

This book could likely be the focus of a graduate seminar, and there is so much to be found in here that I can't begin to scratch its surface in just words and there is a lot which even after two reads I'm sure I've missed. I won't kid you -- this is not an easy book to read and answers are not simply handed to readers on a plate.  However, it is one of the most thought-provoking novels I've had in my hands recently; it also, although written in the early 1960s, remains extremely relevant.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Mefisto, by John Banville

David R. Godine, 1999
(originally published 1986)
233 pp


In the long run, Mefisto is a sad and depressing novel, a book in which it seems that all of the characters are just plain lost.   I'm not surprised -- I've  spent a lot of time with the people in Banville's crime novels written under the name of Benjamin Black (the Quirke series),  in which all and sundry are lost in some fashion. 

This is one of the most challenging books I've ever read, to be sure.  I spent tons of time online and in my own library tracking down the numerous references to mythology, art, literature, philosophy etc that appear in this novel; even after a second reading I'm still not sure I will ever be fully comfortable with it in any sort of comprehensive way.  I've read a number of reviews that cite its "intertextuality," and I've come to this conclusion: since I'm merely a casual reader sort of person and  not a walking encyclopedia who is gifted with perfect knowledge of all things literary, philosophical, artistic and mythological, I'm sure I missed a lot of what lies underneath this novel.

In Mefisto the main character is Gabriel Swan, whose account of his life is what we're reading here.  He  was born a twin but his twin brother did not survive the birth.   He does, however, note that as a boy he "had something always beside me... not a presence but a momentous absence," and that he was burdened with "emptiness."  At the same time, as he writes,
"It seemed to me that I was not all my own, that I was being shared. If I fell, say, and cut my knee, I would be aware immediately of an echo, a kind of chime, as of a wine-glass shattering somewhere out of sight, and I would feel a soft shock like that when the dreamer on the brink of blackness puts a foot on a step which is not there."
Gabriel also had "a gift for numbers," and was "obsessed with the mystery of the unit."  We learn right away that for Gabriel, it's all about the "sense of order...the harmony, of symmetry and completeness."  It is this idea that sets the stage for what's going to happen next, as we continue through Gabriel's childhood of no friends except "figures," and a strange relationship with his family.  One day while out walking he notices a man with a "pigeon-toed gait" that he will encounter again accompanied by a young girl.  It is on this second encounter that he notices he is being watched by still another person, a man with a "narrow foxy face and high cheekbones and a long, tapering jaw."  This is Felix, who introduces the other man as Kasperl. The girl is Sophie, and all three are living together in a decaying home on the old Ashburn estate.   At first Gabriel makes sporadic visits to Ashburn, but then he becomes a regular visitor.  It is there, he believes, "the horizon is limitless" and that he
"moved in a new medium there, a dense silvery stuff that flashed and shimmered, not like air at all, but a pure fluid that held things fixed and trembling, like water in a brimming jet of a fountain."
As the blurb on the back cover of my book says, in this "abandoned mansion" the "changing relations" between Gabriel and these three people will ultimately end up with Gabriel "in his own private season in Hell." 

The story continues in part two, and it took me a while but I realized not too far into this second part that the author has done something very clever here in the telling itself.  I don't think it's a spoiler to say that even as the story goes on, it starts again.  This time, however, it's as if Gabriel has been reborn, and with the exception of Felix, his fellow characters reappear as darker mirror images to those in part one.

Challenging, for sure, and it's definitely another one of those books that could be the subject of study of a graduate literary course, so to say I came through it with some sort of detailed understanding of it all  is not even close to accurate.  I do think, though, that what I get from the book is just genius and that Mr. Banville's writing is superb.  The last forty pages of part one are so beautifully written that while reading them I was absolutely spellbound and could not have put this book down for anything.   After the second reading, I was taken in directions I hadn't even contemplated during the first time through -- focusing much more on the idea of consciousness, twins and most of all the dualities that are present throughout this story.  I also found myself drawn to and appreciating on an entirely different level  Gabriel's brief flashes of insight that seemed to me to show him the truth of things, even during his search for some sort of knowledge that might order his world.    It really is a stunning novel even if I didn't come anywhere close to a full appreciation.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Smile, by Roddy Doyle -- one of the most ironic titles ever

Viking, 2017
214 pp


If there was one word to describe how I felt after finishing this novel, I think I would have to say  "shocked."  I just sat here thinking about the last page, and continued to think about it for hours.   It really is the kind of ending that will stay with you for a long, long time; you might also want to consider following it with something light, if just for your own sanity. 

Smile begins with the return of Victor Forde to his hometown decades after he'd left it. He's just moved into a new apartment, is very lonely, and he decides that maybe he'll scout out a new local.  Sitting in the pub looking at his iPad, his quiet time is interrupted by Eddie Fitzpatrick, who insists that they were schoolmates together back in the days when they attended the Christian Brothers School.  Victor can't place him, but Eddie continues talking and bringing up things that seem familiar to Victor.  Although Victor is quite lonely at this stage of his life,  he has no desire to be friendly toward Fitzpatrick, taking an instant loathing to him and hoping he'll never see him again.  Alas. That is not to be. 

The thing is though, that those few moments spent in Donnelly's in Fitzpatrick's company prompt Victor to start spinning through his memories of his school years; as  he starts to relive those days,  certain things start to come back to him that take us back into his childhood in a working-class home, moving forward through his adolescence, his exit from the old neighborhood, and on into his adult life where he meets and falls in love with Rachel and begins to enjoy a fleeting sort of fame.   We also learn that Victor is a failed writer who had wanted to write a book about Ireland's history; he has all the best intentions, taps out a few pages here and there, but he just can't quite get it together enough to actually produce anything.   Interspersed with his past is his present, in which Fitzpatrick and Victor continue to bump into each other at the pub, and as their relationship begins to unfold, we watch as things begin to take a strange, dark turn with these two men.  

It's so difficult to discuss the book in any sort of depth because I don't want to give away anything at all that would ruin things for potential readers. Anything I say past what I've already said here will do just that so let's leave it at this:  it is, as the cover blurb says,  a tale of memory and contending with the past, and I think I'll leave it there.  I would strongly advise not reading any reviews that give away the show; I noticed on Amazon that many readers went ahead and blew the ending for others in what they had to say so avoid reading those at all costs.  

For me, Smile was a brilliant novel; I have only read Doyle's Barrytown books (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van and The Guts) which I absolutely loved, but that leaves several other novels of his on my shelves remaining to be read.  Smile goes into deeper, darker territory than those four, although I have to admit that there were quite a few humorous moments here that actually made me laugh before the story began to take the turn toward the dark that culminates in those final, mind-shattering pages.

I can't recommend it highly enough.  Don't buzz through it, and don't be surprised if after the last page you want to immediately read it again.  It's just that kind of book.