Thursday, November 7, 2019

Suicide Woods, by Benjamin Percy

Graywolf Press, 2019
193 pp


"No one would a done a thing like that on purpose. It's against nature." 

Another of my most anticipated books for this year, I'm happy to say that Benjamin Percy's Suicide Woods didn't let me down.  I worry sometimes that something I'm really looking forward to reading is going to just tank, but any fear on that score was swept aside once I started reading this book.   It is a collection of ten short stories, well, actually, nine short stories and one nearly novella-length tale at the end; it's also a book that actually lives up to the blurb by author Luis Alberto Urrea, who  says right there on the front cover for all to see that it
"deals in a shivery fear, a dreamlike unease, a sense of eldritch hallucinations creeping toward us."
Never a truer word spoken.    Word of warning: if you're not inclined toward the weird, eerie, or sometimes downright creepy,  pass. This is not the book for you.  On with the show.

It's always a good sign, I think, when a collection of stories like this opens with one that sets the tone and acts a sort of teaser for what to expect throughout the rest of the book; this one certainly passes that test with flying colors.  The first story, "The Cold Boy" begins with a description of the forest as "hardwood," where the sycamore and oak trees would be completely bare if not for the hundreds of crows, "huddled like little men in black jackets."  The sounds they make create "rusty voices" that are audible a quarter of a mile away where a man named Ray stands on a frozen pond in the middle of a Minnesota cornfield, where there are "two sets of footprints, yet he is alone on the ice." First of all, when crows make an early appearance in a story, things rarely turn out for the best since everyone knows that the crow is a harbinger of doom; then, of course,  there's the immediate question of why there are two sets of footprints if Ray is out there by himself.    At this point, which is just two paragraphs in, the sense of something ominous starts making itself known in my blood, creeping under my skin as if to mirror the feeling of cold that rises and creeps up Ray's legs and into his chest, where his "heart feels frosted with tiny white crystals."  And after we realize what's going on here (which I won't divulge), Percy makes a shift into the realm of the unexpected, throwing his readers (well, me anyway) completely into off-kilter mode, where, quite honestly, I stayed throughout the entire book.   At the same time, there's more to this collection opener than just the eeriness and the unsettling creep factor; for me it begins a clear line of thought running from this first story through the last, in which attempts to alter or conquer nature, both human and otherwise, turn into the stuff of nightmares.

I don't want to go through each story in the book;   while there were only a few that left me with what I call FTG (Failure to Grab) syndrome, only natural for me in the case of an anthology of stories, for the most part I was beyond impressed.  The best stories for me included "The Cold Boy," "Heart of a Bear," and "The Balloon," while the absolute chart toppers were the titular and breathtaking "Suicide Woods," which made me put the book down for a few hours before returning to it and "The Uncharted," a story I visualized while reading much more than any of the others in the collection.  Both of these were superb, and not only because of their eerieness and the fact that they both completely messed with my head.   "The Dummy," "Dial Tone" and most especially "Writs of Possession" all resonate in our current social/political/economic climate, with the latter being one of the saddest stories I've ever read in my life while certainly one of the best written of the bunch.  The blogger at Minnesota Monthly reviewing this book quotes Percy as saying about the writing of this story that "It's like I took this larger portrait of America and dropped it, and it shattered," and after I read that statement, I realized how perfectly it describes what he's done here.

If you are a reader who prefers uplifting, follow-the-dotted-line sort of stories or  stories full of nice nice and happy endings, or who demands fully fleshed-out characters in your reading, move along.  That sort of thing you just won't find here.  It's going to appeal more to those people who enjoy books along the lines of what I call "strange with purpose," where thinking is required,  which is pretty much the bread and butter of my fiction reading these days.  It is unforgettable, really, and I can certainly recommend it.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Good People, by Hannah Kent

Picador, 2017
384 pp


"There's queer things happening up the mountains if you believe half of what goes round. And they're after finding patterns in it all. They're after finding reason for it." 

As with this author's fine novel Burial Rites, The Good People is based on real events, this time from  nineteenth-century Ireland.  In 2011,  Kent (as she described at Lit Hub in 2017)  came upon  an article from the Morning Post reporting on the Tralee assizes of 1826 which mentioned
"the trial of 'Ann Roche, an old woman of very advanced age' indicted for a serious crime 'committed under the delusion of the grossest superstition.' "

Finding little else about Ann Roche, she went on to write Burial Rites, and then came back to find out more about her elusive subject in 2015.  Back to the microfilm she went, and finally discovered another article, one that mentioned two more women associated with Roche, Honora Leahy and Mary Clifford.   The Good People brings the three together in a story that  kept me up until 3:30 a.m. when I had to stop just for the sake of actually sleeping for a few hours two days ago.  I am still thinking about it; I'm still haunted by it.

Nora Leahy has recently lost her daughter, and now she's lost her husband.  After the new priest visits her and reluctantly prays for him ("the sacraments are for the living and cannot avail the dead"), the house fills with neighbors.  Martin's body is turned on the bed, "so as to avert further misfortune," and Nora's nephew Daniel, who had witnessed Martin's death at the "crossroads next to the the blacksmith's," reveals that as he and another man, Peter O'Connor, were taking the body to the Leahy's home, they had seen lights ... "Coming from where the fairies do be, down by the Piper's Grave." Peter confirms Daniel's story, commenting that
"You mark my words, there'll be another death in this family before long... First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company.  And if the Good People have a hand in it ... well." 
In just a few pages then,  we discover that the people of this small village live in a world where the Church and superstition live side by side; where fairies, aka the Good People, are believed to exist as  more than just fodder for storytelling.

The gathering is interrupted with the arrival of  Nance Roche, who has come for the keening, a practice that is frowned upon by the priest.   She is a woman who is known for her cures, whose job is to see to "the daily blights and bruises of the living."  She is an herbalist, but also has what she refers to as "the knowledge," and lives in a small cabin "between mountain and wood and river" where she's been for the last twenty years:
"...she stood in for that which was not and could not be understood.  She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars.  She was a pagan chorus. An older song."
 and she is known to some as "Nance of the Fairies."  Whether her "gift" is, as one character notes, "God-given or a token from the Good People," no one knows, and it is not for them to know.  All she will say is "Twas them that gave me the knowledge to cure folk and bring the fairy dart out of them..."

Grieving for the loss of her daughter and now her husband, Nora now finds herself alone to take care of her grandson, young Micheál, whose condition has caused him to change from a happy, healthy infant to one who, according to Nora, is "ill-formed" and now unrecognizable from the baby he was.  For her, he is "burdensome" and she needs help during her grief, so she hires fourteen year-old Mary Clifford who needs the job to help support her starving family.   Although Mary develops a sort of bond with  Micheál, it doesn't take long for her to catch the women's gossip at the well, referring to Micheál as the "blasted cratur" and "changeling" that has caused all of the ills of the village; and indeed, things are getting pretty bad there.  Nora's grief has taken over her life, there is no help coming from either the priest or the doctor, so she begins to believe that there may just be something in what they're saying -- that her grandson is a changeling, but what does she need to do to get her real grandson back? 

With the same sort of claustrophobic atmosphere so excellently evoked in Burial Rites, The Good People delves into the story of these three women; it also looks at the conflicts between religion and superstition, medicine and traditional folk healing, and the forces of the time that come together to precipitate the events in this novel.   I think though that  one of the characters here points to the heart of it all when she says that
"There's queer things happening up the mountains if you believe half of what goes round. And they're after finding patterns in it all. They're after finding reason for it."  
I so very highly recommend this book.  Beware -- it will haunt you.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Out of Darkness, Shining Light, by Petina Gappah

Scribner, 2019
303 pp


Without wasting time, the author reveals right out of the gate what we are about to read:

"This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land." 
As our narrator reveals, this is a story that "has been told many times before, but always as the story of the Doctor."  This time around, however, those whose voices have not been heard have their say about their roles in Dr. Livingstone's "last journey" from Chitambo to Bagamoyo, a place whose "very name means to lay to rest the burden of your heart."   It was a journey of over 1500 miles and 285 days, as revealed via two narratives: first that of Halima, Livingstone's cook, followed by an account kept in a diary by Jacob Wainwright, a freed slave who had been taken in and educated by missionaries early in his life. 

 As we are told before the first chapter even begins,
"On the long and perilous journey to bring him home, ten of our party lost their lives. There are no stones to mark the places where they rest, no epitaphs to announce their deaths. And when we who remain follow where they led, no pilgrims will come to show their children where we lie. But out of that great and troubling darkness came shining light. Our sacrifice burnished the glory of his life."
 With only minor complaints, overall it is a fine novel, and some of the comparisons to Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account made by readers is not too far off the mark here (although I liked Out of Darkness Shining Light more), as her book also put the voices of those who followed in the shadows of more famous historical figures front and center.  I love this sort of thing, really, when done well.  Halima's account begins prior to Livingstone's death at Chitambo and ended all too soon for this reader; Wainwright's rather stifled, pious journal entries purposefully read like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, as he intends his diary for future publication.  Both, however, reveal that outside of  the singular cause of delivering Livingstone's remains to the coast, within the group there were conflicts based on ethnic and religious divisions, jealousies,  and much more.  The members of the caravan also faced hardships including disease, hunger, superstition from outsiders, fear of being captured by slavers and other horrors.  Throughout the book there are also ongoing questions about Livingstone's own relationship with slavery, and colonialism is put under the microscope here.  Wainwright's account of himself, his worldview, and his desire to be ordained in order to save his fellow Africans stands out as just one example, and his self-serving narrative  is often giggleworthy and eyebrow raising as we see him sometimes justifying what he does through the filter of his Christian beliefs.

Once I picked it up, that was it; any moment away from this book was spent thinking how quickly I could get back to it.  This novel was on the list of my own ten most anticipated books for the remainder of 2019 and I was not at all disappointed.  Recommended mainly for readers of historical fiction done well.  There's so much bad historical fiction out there, so it was a pleasure to read something so well researched and well written.

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa

Pantheon, 2019
274 pp
translated by Stephen Snyder


It wasn't too long after starting this book before I noticed something strange about it.  By page 98, it hit me that for a story  labeled as "Orwellian,"  it was written in a surprisingly quiet tone.  Without discounting the bizarre events recounted in this book, the understated style alone was actually disturbing in its own right, and I experienced a sort of weird off-kilteredness throughout the story.

As the novel opens, the narrator finds herself wondering
"what was disappeared first -- among all the things that have vanished from the island."
A curious beginning, and by the time you reach the ending, it becomes all that much more curious given the fact that the novel is written in the first person.  (Cryptic I know, but cryptic in terms of this novel seems par for the course.)    I said somewhere that the book has a surreal feel to it, and I don't use the term lightly here.

Our narrator also recalls a conversation she had with her mother as a child, in which she was told that
"...that's just the way it is on this island. Things go disappearing, one by one..."
Continuing, her mother tells her that losing a memory "doesn't hurt," that
"One morning you'll simply wake up and it will be over, before you've even realized. Lying still, eyes closed, ears pricked, trying to sense the flow of the morning air, you'll feel that something has changed from the night before, and you'll know that you've lost something, that something has disappeared from the island."
As just one example of things that were "disappeared from the island" among many,  her mother explains to her about perfume:
"In those days, everyone could smell perfume. Everyone knew how wonderful it was. But no more. It's not sold anywhere, and no one wants it. It was disappeared the autumn of the year that your father and I were married. We gathered on the banks of the river with our perfume. Then we opened the bottles and poured out their contents, watching the perfume dissolve in the water like some worthless liquid. Some girls held the bottles up to their noses one last time -- but the ability to smell the perfume had already faded, along with all memory of what it had meant.  The river reeked for two or three days afterward, and some fish died. But no one seemed to notice. You see, the very idea of 'perfume' had been disappeared from their heads." 
At some point things get "back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can even recall what it is that disappeared." 

One never knows what will disappear next -- various types of food, birds, hats, roses, photos, etc., --  but not all people lose the memories of what was, however, and to ensure that their dictates are followed, the Memory Police try to round up these people and take them away to some unknown location, the fate of the narrator's mother.   They are "men who are determined to see things disappear,"  and
"from their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable.  So they force it to disappear with their own hands."
 The narrator is a novelist, despite the fact that on the island, few people seem to have need for novels; interspersed throughout her story are pieces of the unsettling but telling story she is currently writing.  She works closely with her editor known only as R, and as the blurb notes, she discovers that because he is one of the people whose memories haven't disappeared, he is at risk of being taken away by the Memory Police.  She hits on a plan to hide him, and builds a secret space in her home where he can live in relative safety.  In the meantime, things on the island continue to disappear ...

  As author Silvia Moreno-Garcia says in her NPR review of this novel,
"If you view The Memory Police as one big, fat metaphor for state control -- and I'm sure many people will see it as that -- you'll probably find more pleasure in it than if you attempt to consider it in other terms."
While the Orwellian tag is beyond appropriate (I was downright haunted by the thought of what the Memory Police might cause to disappear next, and also by the matter of  complicity) there is most certainly much more going on here in terms of  isolation, memory, loss, and the self.  In this world, to forget is to survive,  but at what cost?

While I was at first curious about the island's backstory, hoping it would be explained, eventually  it just became easier to  accept that things are the way they are here, making the reading of this book much more of an experience in the long run.   I finished it well over a week ago one morning about 2 a.m., laid there thinking about it for another two hours, and it hasn't left my head yet.   It is one of the strangest books I've read, but honestly, for me, that's part of the appeal.

Recommended with the caveat that this is a novel that will likely leave readers with more questions than answers;  there is no explanation as to the why of things, described here as "the laws of the island;"  they just are.  It also has an ending that  might just leave people scratching their heads with a big WHAT? standing out in their minds, as so many readers have noted.   While it may not be everyone's cup of tea, I loved this book; then again, I'm very much drawn to novels that I've labeled "strange with purpose," so I'm not surprised.


real reviews
Silvia Moreno-Garcia,  NPR
Michael A. Morrison, World Literature Today

Monday, September 9, 2019

Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry

Canongate, 2019
213 pp
(read in August)

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

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

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

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

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

cover of the US edition, from Doubleday

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

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

I loved this beautiful, haunting book. 


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

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

I loved this book.

Friday, July 12, 2019

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

image from we❤it

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

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

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

The Promise, by Silvina Ocampo (City Lights)

Forgotten Journey, by Silvina Ocampo (City Lights)

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

Suicide Woods, by Benjamin Percy (Graywolf)

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

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

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

Dead Astronauts, by Jeff VanderMeer (MCD)

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

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

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

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

Melville House, 2019
344 pp

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

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

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

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

from Wikipedia

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

from Wikipedia

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

Monday, July 8, 2019

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

NYRB Classics, 2016
253 pp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 15, 2019

Mrs. Rossi's Dream, by Khanh Ha

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

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

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

U Minh Ha, from Vietnam Tourism

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 3, 2019

All My Goodbyes, by Mariana Dimópulos

"I had as many pieces as a broken vase, and I never found a way to put them back together or even to number my porcelain remains."  

Transit Books, 2019
originally published as Cada despedida, 2010
translated by Alice Whitmore (who did a brilliant job here!)
125 pp

The truth of the matter is that I bought this book expecting that it was going to be a crime novel, and while there is a murder, All My Goodbyes turned out to be something completely unexpected, another one of those books where I had to sit for a while trying to wrap my head around what I'd just read.   It begins quite simply as the unnamed narrator ("In Málaga I called myself Luisa; in Barcelona, Lola") reveals something of herself in the first paragraph:
"It's the same thing time and time again, shamelessly, tirelessly. It doesn't matter whether it's morning or night, winter or summer. Whether the house feels like home, whether somebody comes to the door to let me in. I arrive, and I want to stay, and then I leave."  
Her arrivals and departures move her to a series of cities over the following decade; she will go from Buenos Aires, away from her life with her father,  to different cities in Europe and then back to Argentina again, where she ends up in Patagonia, on a farm near El Bolsón.   Within those places she's lived in different rooms of different hostels and houses, taken on different jobs and different lovers, yet there was a sameness about her "pilgrim years," in that
"..staying put was not an option, those years spent in a kind of conspiracy with habit and daily routine, despite myself, but always with a ticket under my arm, or perhaps up my dirty sleeve, always with a passage to somewhere else at the ready. I would always arrive with the intention of staying. And even then I wouldn't stay."  
As she also says, "it was all about arriving," something to keep in mind as you read.

Then on page two we learn that after
"all those years lost and won and lost again, after testing a thousand times the raw stock of my being, which never seemed to cook; when at last I had found a man and I had loved him, they called me up so I could see how the story ended, the living room covered in blood from wall to wall, the ransacked house, the abandoned axe. " 
All My Goodbyes is not written chronologically, however, so while we do get glimpses of her life here and there as she sifts through her memories while going over the murder in her head,  the emphasis is on place rather than on time.  There are short bursts of her recollections of  Heidelberg, Berlin, Málaga, etc., sometimes made all at once, as she offers observations about herself and the people in her life during that time, the people to whom she said all of her goodbyes during those years.   She views herself as a woman in pieces, a woman of different identities always on the move, searching for something, never finding it.   It's only when she comes back to Argentina at the end of that decade that she realizes that she has the opportunity to finally become "a magnificent animal: soft, compact, whole;" it is at the farm where she can see herself with a chance to
"recline without a shred of skepticism, trusting completely in the resilience of chairs and beds" 
 but obviously, things don't quite work out as planned.

I get that some people weren't so enamored with the style, the nonlinear approach and lack of any particular chronology, and to each his/her own,  but actually I don't think the book would have turned out to be as powerful as it was had it been written any other way.   Admittedly, it does take a bit of time to get into the rhythm of the writing style and it is a bit disorienting at first before things start to click.  The lack of a timeline didn't bother me -- I had the feeling that time was less the issue as the author allowed past and present to exist side by side in the form of these brief bursts of  memory. 

Movement, detachment, alienation, and dislocation in this story all loom large here but at the same time, the author also lays down the foundation for a suspenseful read at the beginning and allows it to build slowly.  While I have no intention of spoiling things, the ending is a bit of a shocker that left me thinking for quite a long time about the implications of what I'd just read.  I  very much appreciate the originality in terms of style and story; I get so tired of same old same old and this book is dark and refreshingly different .  And while there's way more to talk about here, I'll call it a day and link to a couple of reviews by people whose intellect goes well past that of my casual-reader self and who actually know what they're doing. 

Recommended for patient readers who appreciate originality and inventiveness.

James Errington at Mascara
Anna McDonald at 3:a.m. Magazine