Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Tartar Steppe, by Dino Buzzati

Canongate, 2018
originally published as Il deserto dei Tartari, 1940
translated by Stuart Hood
275 pp


"...perhaps I might be some use if there was a war. Maybe I wouldn't. Perhaps in a war -- but otherwise no use at all..."

Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the first page of this novel starts on the day that Lieutenant Giovanni Drogo has "looked forward to for years -- the beginning of his real life."  I didn't fully appreciate the impact of these words until after I'd finished The Tartar Steppe and went back to the beginning before closing the book.

It is on this day that Drogo leaves the city to start his posting at Fort Bastiani, beyond which is desert:
"Stones and parched earth -- they call it the Tartar Steppe."
The soldiers at Fort Bastiani are there, it seems,  to protect against a possible incursion by the Tartars, who may have lived in the desert "Long, long ago..." but have not been seen since.   On reaching the Fort, Drogo realizes that he may have made a mistake, but was convinced to "put up with staying" there for four months.  Late at night, unable to sleep, he starts to question his decision wondering if somehow his superiors wouldn't let him go after the four months were up, unable to keep his thoughts from wandering to the possibility that he may have to
"stay up there for years and years, in this room, in this solitary bed."
He is warned by the brother of the Fort's tailor  to "see that you leave as soon as possible, that you don't catch their madness"  --    a "kind of illness" common among soldiers who believe that "Great things are coming and that "something must happen."   It is imperative, the old man tells him, to 
"Watch will let them convince you, you'll end up by staying here too." 

Drogo refuses to accept this, believing himself  to be "an outsider, an uncontaminated spectator," who will be leaving them forever in just "four months' time." However, at the end of the four-month period, he's decided to stay, having become used to things and having 

"within him dull sluggishness born of habit, military vanity, love for the accustomed walls which were his home." 

As time goes by, he slowly becomes more entrenched at the Fort as he and the men there continue to wait for the "enemy to advance across the steppe, for one great and glorious battle." None of the officers ever utter the word war, as "in it lies their hope," and Drogo waits for "something different," something 
"truly worthy of him, so that he could say: Now it is over and I have done what I could." 
While all at Fort Bastiani continue to wait over the years, Drogo discovers that life in the city has "become completely foreign to him," that it is now "a world of strangers where his place had been easily filled."  His old friends marry and have families, while Drogo's opportunities come and he lets them pass.  Eventually he finds himself  unable to hold back the "mysterious flood" as 
"Everything goes by -- men, the seasons, the clouds, and there is no use clinging to the stones, no use fighting it out on some rock in midstream; the tired fingers open, the arms fall back inertly and you are still dragged into the river, the river which seems to flow so slowly yet never stops"

as his years of expectations fade away into years of emptiness, and as his life becomes no more than an existence as barren as the Tartar Steppe.    And it just might be, according to Buzzati, that Drogo may have been deluding himself all along;  he may just be "an ordinary mortal for whom only a mediocre fate is reserved." 

The Tartar Steppe speaks to a life of waiting and hoping for something that may never happen, walling oneself off from everything while hoping for that moment of  meaning in one's life.    It's a good thing I don't mind reading bleak, because this book is one of the bleakest.   At the same time though, it is a beautiful and haunting piece of writing and I'm absolutely kicking myself for having let it sit on my shelves forever.  This one I can very highly recommend, but leave the introduction by Tim Parks until the end.  

I loved this book. Absolutely.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

tissues a must: Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart


Grove Press, 2020
423 pp

(read earlier this month)

Quite honestly, had I not seen this book on the Booker Prize longlist, I may have never read it and that would have been a shame.   I nearly passed on it after reading the back-cover blurb by Sandra Newman who described the book as 
"an intimate and frighteningly acute exploration of a mother-son relationship and a masterful portrait of alcoholism in Scottish working-class life..." 
because  my initial impression was that this is yet another book about yet another dysfunctional family and I have been avoiding that sort of thing for some time.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  As it turns out, Shuggie Bain not only turned out to be a great book, but also one that now, ten days after finishing, I'm still thinking about and still talking about to anyone who will listen.  

While the novel opens in 1992, the bulk of this story takes place during the 1980s.  Hugh "Shug" Bain, his wife Agnes and their three children are all living in Glasgow, in a "high-rise flat" they share with Agnes' parents.   Agnes had been married before to Brendan McGowan, the father of Catherine and Alexander (who goes by the name of Leek); Shuggie (Hugh Jr.) came along after she'd left Brendan and married Hugh.  Agnes spends time reflecting on happier times, and  has dreams of a better life, but all too often alcohol gets in the way.   On one particular night while Shug and the older two children are out and Agnes' parents are watching TV,  she is feeling somewhat sorry for herself and decides that she and Shuggie should "have a wee party."  He dances for her, makes her laugh, and to keep her laughing, 
"he did whatever had caused her to laugh another dozen times till her smile stretched thin and false, and then he searched for the next move that would make her happy." 
The night ends with Agnes singing along with the music, "her voice cracked with the poor me's," then deliberately setting the bedroom curtains on fire.  The pattern of her "poor me's" while drinking and Shuggie searching for "the next move that would make her happy" will continue over the years, as the Bain family (minus Catherine, who's married and gone abroad) leaves Glasgow for a house Hugh had bought in desolate Pithead, and as Hugh decides he can't stay with her any longer because of her "wanting" and "All that drinking."

The remainder of the novel takes us through Shuggie's childhood and his relationship with Agnes as  her drinking becomes worse.  Although Leek tries to look out for the family, eventually he is unable to take much more and leaves Agnes to Shuggie's care, not always easy for this young boy who is also trying to deal with his own growing pains, including, as the dustjacket cover says, a feeling that he is "no right."  

This is just a thumbnail sketch, of course -- I haven't said anything about the times or the Thatcher era policies that sadly left so many people out of work, nor have I said anything about Glasgow as a setting or the bleak landscape of Pithead that mirrors the bleakness of the lives of the working-class families who live there.  That's all to be discovered  in the novel, so vibrantly and yet so achingly described. 

My worries about this book completely dissipated once I got into it, and it came to be a story not just about an alcoholic mother, but of the boy who loves her so unconditionally and so deeply despite all of her failings as a parent -- as he said to her at one point, "I'd do anything for you."  It was difficult to watch Shuggie take on so much at such a young age, having to deal with Agnes' ups and downs; at the same time, the intensity of his devotion to his mother fairly leaps off of the pages, even during the worst of times.   Agnes presents as a character in conflict, but she was also an object of my sympathy.  As frustrated as I was with her most times, there were times when I couldn't help but admire her fortitude.  As we're told in Chapter 20, 
"She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but ... Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise."
Shuggie Bain is the author's first novel, and it is absolutely gorgeous.  While it is bleak, there are parts here and there that will make you laugh, and the book leaves you with a small bit of hope at the end.  I made it through the story dry eyed, but I must have been holding everything inside while reading because the minute I read the last word, the floodgates opened and I had to run for tissues.   I can't stress enough the beauty to be found here, and it is a book I very highly, highly, highly recommend.  

One final thought:  From the author in The New Yorker, September 7 2020:
"Shuggie and Agnes feel like real people to me. I only hope that I can make them proud."

I'm sure you did, sir, especially Agnes.  Very much so. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O'Farrell


Knopf, 2020
300 pp


"... I may run mad with it."

Certainly one of the most absorbing novels I've read this year, Hamnet paints such a moving picture of  loss, grief and pain that at certain  points I had to put the book down just to get out of Agnes' world and back into mine.  

The dustjacket blurb reveals only a brief glimpse into this story, concluding with the following:
"...a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time..."
The play, of course, is Shakespeare's Hamlet, written about "four years or so later" after the death of his son Hamnet.  As O'Farrell explains in a segment of NPR's All Things Considered,  
"spelling in -- of course, in Elizabethan times was a lot less stable, so Hamnet and Hamlet are, in fact, the same name name."

 In the same segment, the author explains that at 16 she was studying the play, and her English teacher happened to mention "in passing" the fact that Shakespeare had a son.  Her thought at the time was to wonder "what does it mean for a man like Shakespeare to call a tragedy like this after his dead son?"

In this book, she reimagines how this came about, and does so without mentioning Shakespeare by name at all, explaining to host Mary Louise Kelly that 

"He's the husband, or he's the father or the playwright or the actor. I needed people in a sense to forget who he is. I wanted them to think about him as a human being."

She also says that Hamnet, as a person, has been "really overlooked," and indeed Hamnet is the first person encountered on opening the novel, knowing that he needs to get help for his twin sister Judith who unbeknownst to her brother has been infected by the bubonic plague.  Scouring the house and the streets for his mother, he is unable to locate her or anyone else, and you can just feel his panic rapidly rising as he searches and waits.  The reader also has to wait for help to arrive since the next chapter goes back in time, introducing the young man who through some hinky business dealings of his father, is forced to serve as Latin tutor to the younger sons of a yeoman as part of a "debt or a fine" which his father "cannot--will not? -- pay."  It is while doing this job that he meets Agnes ("Ann-yis. Agnyez") , whom at first he mistakes for a young man "wearing a cap, a leather jerkin, gauntlets...," holding a bird on "his outstretched fist."   The novel alternates between present and past, as we learn the personal and family histories of both parties since their respective childhoods, including Agnes' skills in the ways of nature, her upbringing, her pleasures and pain as wife and mother, and the absent father that her husband becomes, unable to stay at home, going off to London to seek his fortune only to eventually find that fame which keeps him there for longer periods of time.  

The Shakespeare Family, from The Guardian 

In the present, as Judith becomes ill,  Hamnet succumbs as well.  Death spares his sister; it is he who dies.  While no one at the time had ever recorded the actual cause, O'Farrell fills in the blank with bubonic plague, offering an excellent few pages of describing how it made its way to Judith  via a glassmaker in Murano. Agnes is frantic, as none of her healing knowledge helps save him; she feels guilty for being away when her children needed her, for being  "an absent mother," missing "the unheard cry" of her son, something that will "lie at her very core, for the rest of her life:"

"Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother's...."
 Hamnet's death is the catalyst for Agnes' deep and painful spiral into a grief that cannot be assuaged and affects not only her but everyone around her.    As much as she would like to "unmake the skein of Hamnet's death," she also knows that for all of her pain, the world will keep spinning, indifferent to her pain,  and that 
"There will be no going back. No undoing what was laid out for them. The boy has gone and the husband will leave and she will stay and the pigs will need to be fed every day and time runs only one way."

 There is so much anger and hurt in this woman that as a mom myself,  it was often unbearable to watch her going through such a depth of anguish and pain at the loss of her child, while Hamnet's father continually looks for him "everywhere, in every street, in every crowd, in every audience" to the point where, as he says, "I may run mad with it."  

David Mitchell and Liza Tarbuck from Upstart Crow  -- after the death of Hamnet.  It's the one episode across the entire series that gave me lumps in the throat and a good cry.  From Luke McKernan

Hamnet is a fine example of historical fiction, a fine re-imagining of the "overlooked" Hamnet and his death, but above all, it gives Anne Hathaway whose life is also somewhat of an enigma,  an identity as a strong woman who had to endure so much on her own. I did find it to be sometimes for my taste too overly detailed, with every herb, every remedy, every this and every that of the period eventually finding its way onto the pages.   It was just too much, and I would often find myself skimming these parts because really, I just wanted to get on with the story. Unlike a lot of historical fiction fans who love this stuff, it often becomes tedious for me until it's time to just move on.     I also found the prose a bit on the overwrought and heavy-handed side at times which dropped this book from a loving it to liking it status.  However, the story itself is so good that I was utterly absorbed in it from the very start and had trouble letting it go, and it is a book I can recommend.   Warning: you may need tissues.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Mystery of Henri Pick, by David Foenkinos

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


"This novel changed lives." 

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Hurricane Season, by Fernanda Melchor

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, July 10, 2020

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser

Library of America, 2003
originally published 1925
969 pp


We are finally settling back into what's normal around here after a very long delay, and I am really far behind in writing about what I've finished recently.  No time for backtracking -- just moving on. The latest book for me is Dreiser's An American Tragedy, a novel I had read eons ago but which for some reason I felt I wanted to read again.  Coming back to it again was an experience.

The dustjacket blurb for this novel notes that American Tragedy is a "monumental study in character, and a stunning jeremiad against the delusions and inequities of American society." 

Clyde Griffiths begins life in poverty with a "hard up" family, "deprived of many comforts and pleasures which seemed common enough to others."  His parents were street-corner preachers who brought their children along with them, and as he got older, he starts to realize that their "calling" was "the shabby thing that it appeared to be in the eyes of others," and that others "looked down upon him and his brothers and sisters for being the children of such parents."   Clyde also begins to think about all of the things he doesn't have, and after a series of odd jobs where he was making a small amount of money, he believed that with his own money he had a right to his freedom.  At the age of sixteen, he becomes a bellboy at a hotel, making his time and money his own for the most part,  but eventually he becomes involved in an incident that causes him to leave town  and start over.  After a chance meeting with his wealthy uncle in a hotel where again he is working as a bellboy, he moves to Lycurgus, New York where the uncle owns a shirt and collar factory and indeed he gets a job there. After some time (and the uncle's insistence that Clyde is a Griffiths and can't be seen to be involved in menial labor for any length of time), he  is moved up position-wise to become the head of a department.  It is there that he meets and seduces Roberta, ignoring the company prohibition against fraternizing with female  employees.  Except for a dinner or two with his uncle's family, they completely ignore him, but it is at one of these gatherings that he meets the social set to which he aspires.  He revels in the attention given to him by a particular young woman in that group (unknown to him, for her own somewhat selfish reasons at least at first), and as he becomes more accepted in this circle, he hopes, as David Denby says in a 2003 New Yorker article, to be a part of what he sees as their "endless exercise of freedom," since "wealth is the only transcendence he can imagine."  Clyde believes he is finally on his way,  but there's just one problem: Roberta.  Obviously there's much, much more to this story, and I could talk about it all day but time is moving on.

I admit I that I was completely glued here -- reading An American Tragedy this time around was like watching the proverbial train wreck you know is about to happen but feeling unable to look away.  I can usually find some sort of sympathy for characters I don't particularly care for, but it was difficult here, especially with Clyde.  His feelings of entitlement lead him to make some pretty bad choices, while he spends too much time  blaming his own situation on his childhood, his parents and society in general for its class conciousness in which poverty is a mark of weakness.  Responsibility is not part of his working vocabulary.  His hopes for advancement keep him on the lookout for  a "very remarkable" man who "might take a fancy to him and offer him a connection," one who just "might lift him into a world such as he had never known."   His problem, as we're told,  is "a lack of mental clarity and inner directing application" which in other people
"permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for direct advancement."
On the other hand,  Dreiser makes a very good case for pointing the finger at the societal values and forces that helped to shape Clyde's vanity, ambition and ultimately his destiny, as he offers some pretty stinging criticism of American culture in general.  As the dustjacket reveals, the novel is
"an extraordinarily detailed portrait of early twentieth-century America, its religious and sexual hypocrisies, its economic pressures, its political corruption and journalistic exploitation."
 Detailed indeed, and even though I am a patient reader, Dreiser's prose style here is often cringeworthy, so for me it was all about story, and it's a page turner.

*** potential spoiler ahead**** 

  I'm pretty sure anyone who has read this book knows that the idea for this novel was taken right out of real life,  with the death of Grace Brown in 1906 at the hands of her boyfriend Chester Gillette.   According to Harold Schechter in a piece included in Yale Reviewlong before writing this novel, as a reporter Dreiser had begun collecting newspaper articles on crimes "symptomatic of America's obsession with what he called 'money success'," meaning murders done by a "young man whose lethal act is sparked by an explosive mix of sexual hunger and social ambition."   While it didn't exactly work out for him in his first attempt (with a novel he'd "tentatively" named The Rake), the Adirondack murder case was just what he was looking for.   Dreiser's Chester became Clyde Griffiths,  and  if ever a character could be described as being "an explosive mix of sexual hunger and social ambition," it's definitely Clyde.  An American Tragedy  won't be for everyone, but sheesh -- I couldn't put it down.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

speaking metaphorically: Shadow of the Hunter, by Su Tong

Sinoist Books, 2020

"once your soul is lost, it's not easy to get it back."

First things first: my thanks to Sinoist Books for asking me if I would be interested in reading this novel by Su Tong, an author whose work I admire.  I didn't get to the Netgalley copy on time so I bought my book, but thanks so much anyway.   If you don't know Su Tong's books, that's a shame, but you might be familiar with Zhang Yimou's haunting  film  Raise the Red Lantern, which is taken from Su Tong's short story collection of the same name. 

Shadow of the Hunter is another fine novel by this author, which through the use of history, metaphor and magical realism, makes a number of observations about China's past, present, and future.  Divided into three parts, this story begins as Baorun's grandfather loses his soul.  He remembers that he has some of his ancestors' bones that he'd hidden in a flashlight and buried, but because he "didn't have anywhere special to bury them at the time,"  just can't remember where.  Some of the residents on Red Toon street aren't happy when he starts digging at their properties, which used to be his family's lands, but he's soon joined by others when he pretends to one of the residents of the street that he's actually looking for gold.  Because of all of the trouble, he is sent to Jingting Hospital, where he continues to dig , driving his daughter-in-law crazy because of all of the bills he wracking up doing so.  Baorun is sent by the family to the hospital (where he becomes a "celebrity" because of his incredible bondage skills) to  take "proper responsibility for him."  As the story with the grandfather continues, the author makes Baorun his central focus in thisf part of the novel, especially his desire to befriend a young girl known as Fairy Princess.  It is also at Jingting Hospital where he meets Liu Sheng, who also lives on Red Toon Street.   Although he knows Liu Sheng by family reputation, they'd had nothing to do with each other. Liu Sheng offers to set up a date for Baorun and Fairy Princess, but things go awry, and result in an horrific act which the three will all pay for in some form or another throughout the remainder of the book.  Understanding exactly the toll this incident has taken  on all of these characters  begins in part two, which focuses on Liu Sheng, and ends in part three with Fairy Princess (aka Miss Bai) taking center stage.  As the blurb for the novel says,  this "random act of violence sets off a spinning top, entwining the lives of three people."

I would be remiss here if I did not mention the Chinese legend of the mantis, the cicada and the yellow bird.   Again from the blurb, the tale speaks of how the "mantis hunts the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind him."  Not all is cut and dried and here -- the roles of predator and prey switch more than once.   And as I noted earlier, China's past and present are examined here, as is the changing roles of its people as history moves forward, especially in terms of family and beliefs.  There is also an ongoing theme of debt and repayment, but clearly at the center of it all the author examines what it means to lose one's soul.     As one character notes, "not having a soul is just suffering..."

When I first started reading this novel, the writing at the beginning gave it a sort of YA feel, but the further I read the darker and more intense this story became, although it is tempered with bouts of occasional humor.   Thinking caps need to be worn for this one and time for reflection should be allotted,  as it is filled with metaphor and symbols with a side of magical realism; extrapolation is also advised.   Even  without spinning mental wheels and digging deeper though,  the story will capture and captivate readers who enjoy modern Chinese literature.

Recommended highly.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar

As I generally do prior to reading any book, I take a glance at the dustjacket blurb, both for the basic outline of what it is I'm about to read and for information about the author, as well as the translator if there is one.  I got a bit of a jolt this time around -- there's the normal  bit about the author, Shokoofeh Azar, saying that she moved to Australia in 2001 as a political refugee, but the surprise is that the translator's name has not been provided, "for reasons of safety and at the translator's request."  After reading what's in this book, I'm not surprised, but to the anonymous translator: thank you and well done. 

Europa Editions, 2020
originally published 2017
232 pp

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree  is, in a word, stunning.  As the Stella Prize Judges' Report said of this book, "the novel presents a richly woven magical reality:"
"Drawing on techniques of classic Persian literature, and recalling aspects of South American magic realism, Azar powerfully juxtaposes the beauty of Persian culture and mythology with the brutality of a political regime responsible for the destruction of so many lives." 
The story begins in 1979 and plays out amidst the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution, following the lives of a family from Tehran who become caught in its wake and decide to flee, wanting only to "disappear in silence."   They make their way to remote Razan, where the father, Hushang, sees the "calm eyes of the villagers" and knows they're at the "safe place where we were meant to be."  What they don't know at the time is that this place, where as the dustjacket blurb notes, they were "hoping... to preserve both their intellectual freedom and their lives,"  will not stay remote for long, as the revolution will eventually make it way there as well, nine years later in 1988.  As it happens,  in August 1988, at 2:35 p.m. Roza, the mother in this family, "attained enlightenment" as she sat "atop the grove's tallest greengage plum tree" overlooking the village.  Not so coincidentally, 1988 was the year of the "prison massacres" (which, as of 2018 the government of Iran had still not acknowledged);  it was the very moment of her own son Sohrab's execution, in which he was
"hanged without trial and unaware he would be buried en masse with hundreds of other political prisoners early the next morning." 
 The story is narrated by Bahar, one of the two daughters in this family, and reveals the impact that events during this decade had on this family.   The fact that she is a ghost (not a spoiler since it's also on the dustjacket blurb) is not so extraordinary in this book -- as the author stated in an interview at the LA Review of Books,
"People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems. And it has nothing to do with superstition or religion. If you learn to look at these beliefs in the right way and deeply, you can find the roots of myths, and important and beautiful meaning in these beliefs."
In Azar's telling, the forests around the village of Razan are filled with ghosts as well as jinns and other spirits;  the village is plagued by different events including a black snowfall and an overflowing river of tears spilled from the eyes of ghosts, and Beeta, Bahar's sister, will go on to become a mermaid, among other sorts of mystical occurrences.  Quite honestly, it all seems perfectly natural to these people, which is why I didn't even bother to question these more fantastical elements -- here they are interacting with and dealing with their world in their own way. 

While it is often emotionally tough to read, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree addresses not just the horrors of this particular decade but also what it takes in order to survive through the worst.  It deals with grief and loss, seeking and finding, life and love.  It is a most original and powerful book that I will probably never forget, almost dreamlike in the telling.    You will have to wind your way through the elements of magical realism to keep  a chronological eye on the narrative, but as you do so, savor the time you spend there.

Most likely not a book that everyone will like, but for me, it's now of one my favorites of 2020.  I loved this book.  Absolutely.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann

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


Tyll begins in a town where "the war had not yet come" and where the people "prayed often" to keep it away.  The townspeople stopped what they were doing at the arrival of  Tyll Ulenspiegel, whom they recognized by his "pied jerkin ... battered hood and ... calfskin cloak."  Ignoring the calls of the cows who needed milking,  they watch as Tyll and his small retinue put on a play and  dance; Tyll sings a number of ballads and then walks a tightrope.  As he "stood with his right foot lengthwise on the rope, his left crosswise, his knees slightly bent and his fists on his hips," the crowd looking up at him
"understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people."
Ulenspiegel moves on, his coffers full of their coins, but not before leaving the people in a battle that began with shoes, and not before asking young Martha to join them, an offer she declines.   But "a good year later," the war did arrive;  the soldiers decimated the town, leaving behind only three survivors.  As she hears the beams of the roof of her burning house "splintering,"  young Martha realizes (among other things)  that 
 "Tyll Ulenspiegel was now perhaps the only person who would remember our faces and would know that we had existed."
Tyll represents a freedom that most regular people at this time do not have nor will ever obtain; rejecting his proscribed lot in life is something that began during his childhood after his father, the local miller and student of alchemy, magic, and herbs was arrested, tortured, and executed by Jesuits for witchcraft.  When he and a young girl he's convinced to go with him join up with a traveling entertainer, he begins to hone not only his tightrope and singing skills, but also his ability to survive under the most adverse conditions.  He is the Fool who is not a fool, carrying a bag of tricks which include among other things a talent for mockery and a fearlessness when speaking to power.

From the start we are put directly into the midst of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) -- the mercifully-short version of which you can read about here;  the many stories that follow trace Tyll Ulenspiegel's life before and during this period.    It was a war which, as one character notes,
"has been going on so long that most people alive have never seen peace. That only the old can still remember peace."
However, the author cleverly sidesteps presenting Tyll as a typical work of historical fiction by not following a straightforward, chronological narrative.  He does not in any way ignore the horrors suffered by people during the war,  but while he does this, he has also embedded the story of Tyll Ulenspiegel within these chapters, having him interact with various historical figures and others with whom he crosses paths, most all of whom are connected in some way.  Since it is not your average plot-based narrative, you have to put some work into piecing things together, but it is well worth the time and effort. 

I found myself engaged immediately, often moving between laughing and trying to force down the lump in my throat, but always, always enthralled.  Seriously recommended for very patient readers.  I loved this book.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

read in January
Doubleday, 2019
210 pp

Knowing ahead of time that I was going to be receiving The Nickel Boys as part of my subscription to  Powell's Indiespensable, I decided to make myself familiar with the Dozier School of Boys in Marianna, Florida, since I knew that what had happened there was behind this novel.   Author Colson Whitehead had first heard of it in 2014; I had no clue that such a place ever existed, but I was curious enough to want to know about it.  I went through countless newspaper articles and watched a number of videos (and being thoroughly horrified about what I was learning), and then went through the report by Dr. Erin Kimmerle and her colleagues whose investigation focused on determining (as quoted in the report, 11)

 "the location of missing children buried at the former Florida Industrial School, also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in order to excavate and repatriate the remains to their families."
 At this point the book had arrived at my house and I thought about reading it right away, but I was just too afraid to do so after having immersed myself in the horrors of the Dozier School.  So there it sat until I had the guts to pick it up.  While Whitehead does not at all set aside the horrors of the school (here the Nickel Academy), his main focus is on the boys who for whatever reason have found themselves there.

It is significant, I think, that Whitehead opens his novel with a prologue discussing  the discovery of bodies in a "secret graveyard on the north side of the Nickel Campus."  Found during an environmental study of a field that developers hoped to turn into a "lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event,"  a "new inquiry" had to be launched:
"there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history."
 Looking ahead to the final chapters of this novel, when two former Nickel Boys get together to talk about "the old days," one of them notes that the school
"didn't stop when you got out. Bend you all kind of ways until you were unfit for straight life, good and twisted by the time you left."
While the "whole damned place" might be razed,  memories and damaged psyches remain; as the dustjacket blurb puts it: the school "warped the lives of thousands of children."   The Nickel Boys examines how this happened, following the life of Elwood Curtis, an African-American teen whose life fell apart the minute he accepted a ride from the wrong person.   Never mind that he had absolutely nothing to do with the other man's crime;  just being black and in the car was reason enough for him to be sent to Nickel.

from the title page of my book

Elwood has grown up listening to speeches  by Martin Luther King, and on his first day there he thinks back to one given to high school students in Washington D.C. where King had spoken of "the degradations of Jim Crow and the need to transform that degredation into action."  He had  "never permitted himself the kind of misbehavior that landed others in trouble," and decides that to make it through his sentence he would have to "keep doing what he'd always done: act right," and to, as King had said "Make a career of humanity."   Elwood that realizes that he's "stuck" at Nickel, but he plans to "make the best of it," and believes that "Nickel would soon understand that about him too." He's so naive and so idealistic  that it's painfully sad when he discovers what life is really like there.

As the author says in an interview at NPR,  King's speeches about "loving the oppressor" spoke to "suffering and rising above it and loving in the face of impossible odds;"  the question facing Elwood now is "can I do this?"   He befriends Turner, who is not at all interested in idealism, but reality.  He  tells Ellwood that the "key" is to
"see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course." 
In short, play the game, since making it through Nickel depends on those in the system who put him in there.

 As Amanitta Forma writes in her review at The Guardian, Nickel Academy is a
"corrupt world, in which the rule of law is is meaningless and the real laws are unwritten." 
 It is a place where spirits and bones are crushed and broken; where rewards come with keeping one's head down, "just like they wanted."

 A good historical novel should prompt readers to go and dig out the facts behind it; in this case, what you discover is beyond painful but a story which needs to be told. This book offers an opportunity for the story of one of these Nickel Boys  to be heard, but there is also this:  you can't read this book without making a leap to our own time and recognizing a sad and painful constant.  In my opinion, that's what makes this book so powerful.

very highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Everywhere You Don't Belong, by Gabriel Bump

Algonquin, 2019
advance reading copy (thank you!!)

When I began reading this novel, I was sort of taken aback at the simplicity of it all and I was a bit on the iffy side, but the truth is that the further I got into it the more I realized that it's not simple at all -- it is intelligent and works at a level of complexity I hadn't quite anticipated. 

I suppose it is what most people are calling  it, a coming-of-age story, following Claude McKay Love beginning with childhood growing up in an African-American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. His life is a series of people leaving, with his parents taking off first, followed here and there by his friends. The only solid thing in Claude's life is his grandmother, who along with her live-in friend Paul, brings him up as best as she can, which isn't always easy.  Although his grandmother believes that Claude is "not a follower" but will eventually become "his own man,"  by the time middle school rolls around she and Paul also see that he is "sentimental, no backbone, adrift, unspectacular."  He is not good at sports like his friends and is the kind of kid who at a lunchtime assembly at school sits in the back "behind band kids and the science club." He is an empathetic sort of kid, who cares about his friends, who cries when he sees an injured squirrel; he suffers through periods of depression, and has been called "soft" more than once.   This "unspectacular" boy, however, not only has to make his way through being abandoned, but also through other challenges that present themselves in various forms.  Everywhere You Don't Belong chronicles not only how he weathers these storms and survives and what he learns about himself in the process,   but also highlights the people in his life who help provide love, friendship, and a measure of stability as he's doing so.

What makes this somewhat atypical of a standard coming-of-age tale is in the way the author also examines different forms of oppression,  racism and ideology that find their way into Claude's life, as well as how he copes with it all.   I don't want to spoil things for potential readers but a pivotal point in this novel is a riot in his neighborhood (mentioned in the blurb so not a spoiler) caused by the wrongful killing by the police of a young African-American boy which, in the long run not only highlights ideological divisions among the people there but causes him to question his life in South Shore.   As he is finishing high school, he has decided to get out of what he calls "the toxic bubble" in which he feels trapped, believing that "the rest of the world isn't like this."  Once he's moved on to college in Missouri, leaving behind his home, friends, family and everything he's known, his past comes back to him in a very big and unexpected way.  However, he also comes to an even greater awareness from his experiences in both Chicago and Missouri, one which I'll leave readers to discover on their own. 

Do not let the simplicity of the prose or the style fool you. And think out of the box when you get to the end, which seems both simplistic and unrealistic, but the author is making a point here.  While there are a number of funny moments where I couldn't help but laugh, Everywhere You Don't Belong is a serious novel telling a serious story that needs to be heard.  Very highly recommended, and Mr. Bump should be congratulated for a first novel very well done.


There is an excellent interview with Gabriel Bump which I read after finishing this book at Electric Lit that opened my eyes wide, but do not read it until after you've turned the last page and closed the cover. Spoilers abound so beware. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Ashenden, by W. Somerset Maugham

Vintage UK, 2000
originally published 1928
332 pp


In the preface to Ashenden,  Maugham wastes no time in revealing that this book is "founded on my experiences in the Intelligence Department during the war, but rearranged for the purposes of fiction."  He later goes on to say that

"the work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable,"

and that is exactly what Maugham does here.

Ashenden was first recruited by a man known only as "the Colonel" or "R,"  whom he had met at a party, who later in a private meeting noted Ashenden's "particular qualifications for the secret service."  His knowledge of different languages was a plus, as was the fact that he was a writer, allowing him the perfect cover -- traveling to a neutral country to work on his latest project, as he was already known for his plays.  Once he takes on his duties in intelligence Ashenden's "official existence," as we learn, is "as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk's," but the work he does is  "evidently necessary."  He knows that he functions as a "tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine," in which he "never had the advantage of seeing a completed action," most of the time not knowing "what his own doings led to."  His main job is to keep an eye on things, listen, and report back to his superiors.  Over the course of this book he will find himself involved with a unique array of people, including a strange general known as the Hairless Mexican whose destiny is often told in the cards, an elderly British chaperone to two princesses, an Italian music-hall dancer in love with a seriously-dangerous Indian agitator and "fanatic," and a talkative American who "would not listen to reason."  Love and betrayal weave their way through these stories, and while some are a bit on the entertaining side,  it is impossible not to be absolutely devastated at the outcomes of a few of the others.   What Ashenden has to do is often not pretty, but he never fails in his duty, despite what he feels toward "the bigwigs," who
"shut their eyes to dirty work so that they could put their clean hands on their hearts and congratulate themselves that they had never done anything that was unbecoming to men of honour."
 Ashenden is a fine book, filled with stories which Maugham handled with a mix of deadly earnest and levity.   It is definitely not the edge-of-your-seat stuff of later spy thrillers in which the work of intelligence gathering often becomes life-threatening business, although Maugham makes crystal clear that there are risks involved in what Ashenden does.  While his work is "evidently necessary," there is another side to it that comes with very human consequences, which are played out again and again throughout this novel.  By the way, feel free to argue that it is not actually a novel -- we'll just agree to disagree on that point.

So very highly recommended -- I loved this book. 

What an excellent start to the new reading year!

drawing the line in 2020: make more book space!

In a perfect world, my home bookshelves would be neatly organized, every book in its place, but I don't live in a perfect world.  Instead of this

from Bookbub
I have this

and that's just one wall of three in that room, with the other bookshelves in other rooms looking much the same.  I'm sure that if went through them book by book, I'd even find duplicates.  Who knows -- maybe even triplicates.   I cringe now whenever a book arrives by mail because there is absolutely no room to put it -- just this morning my husband asked me if I wanted to go to one of my favorite bookstores when we're down south of here on Friday and for the first time I actually had to say no.  

This year it's time to draw the line and to actually read the books I already own and to clear up this mess. I'll be back at the end of December with another photo to see how I've done.