Saturday, March 28, 2020

Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann




9781524747466
Pantheon, 2020
originally published 2017
translated by Ross Benjamin
339 pp

hardcover

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
9780385537070
Doubleday, 2019
210 pp
hardcover

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


9781616208790
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




9780099289708
Vintage UK, 2000
originally published 1928
332 pp

paperback

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.