Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘A Moveable Famine’ by John Skoyles – Poets in Training

‘A Moveable Famine’ by John Skoyles    (2014) – 294 pages

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How does one get to be a poet or literary fiction writer in the United States?  There are a few places here that actively encourage literary careers; the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City, Iowa and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts and Yaddo in Sarasota Springs, New York are three such places.

 “We were hell-bent to become poets and all poets stood in our way.”

 In ‘A Moveable Famine’, John Skoyles remembers his time spent at these places in the 1970s as a young man wanting to become a poet. The names of some of the participants have been changed so I suppose this book is fiction, but it very much has the feel of a memoir.

These coming-of-age memories are presented here in an offhand, slapdash style which mostly avoids the pitfall of sounding pretentious when dropping the names of famous participants and teachers.  Writers such as Denis Johnson, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Creeley, Raymond Carver, and Gregory Corso do pass through these pages.

Although some of these young aspiring poets may lack for money, one thing they do not lack is ambition.   Occasionally they criticize each other:  “He was disparaged as a lunatic and a minor lunatic at that.”

This being the Seventies, a lot of time is spent in smoky bars and hooking up with members of the opposite or same sex.  Most of the participants in these workshops appear to be males.  Females in this memoir are more likely to be seen as potential bed mates than as serious poets themselves.

 “I’m glad you cut all the adjectives and adverbs – they were like sexy cheerleaders distracting from the game. “     

 Since the memories are haphazard, sometimes sound literary advice can be hidden among the rest.  Take the following from Allen Ginsberg.

 “Yes, I still follow movements of my own mind & keep notebook for Musings.  Only raw mind creates surprises, not deliberate calculation – What’s unknown more poetic than conscious known.” –  Allen Ginsberg

 For me, ‘A Moveable Famine’ kind of loses its energy when we switch from Iowa to Provincetown.  Skoyles at Provincetown is no longer a beginner in the poetry racket, and somehow it feels like we are traveling over the same ground as at Iowa with nearly all different characters.  It is difficult for a reader to switch playing fields halfway through a book.  Perhaps it would have been better to limit the memoirs to just Iowa but go a bit deeper with them.

 

‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ by Horace McCoy – Life is a Dance Reality Show

‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ by Horace McCoy    (1935) – 122 pages

 

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Dance marathons were an early form of ‘Reality’ show.  These dance shows began as a lark in the Twenties, but when the bottom fell out of the United States economy they turned into grim contests of survival. Contestants would dance for months to the point of total exhaustion only to find that the contest was rigged against them in the first place.

Horace McCoy at one point worked as a bouncer for one of these dance marathons in Santa Monica, California.  Later he put this experience to use writing a script called ‘Marathon Dancers’.  None of the Hollywood studios bought it, so he turned it into the short novel ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’

‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ is the bleakest of all American novels, yet it captures all the color and sleaze and sexual undertones of these dance contests.  And there were sexual undertones as the churches and other moral leagues were always trying to shut these marathons down.

Our main couple in ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’, Robert and Gloria, are both Hollywood hangers on; both have had bit parts in movies.   Robert still has hopes of making it in the movie business, but Gloria is cynical.  She came to Hollywood after a failed suicide attempt, taking poison.  Robert sizes up her movie star potential.  “She was too blonde and too small and looked too old.”

They heard that a lot of Hollywood producers and directors go to these marathon dances looking for new talent, so they pair up and enter the contest. We meet some of the other competitors each with their own desperate story.  Gloria gets in trouble for urging an obviously pregnant contestant to get an abortion.  We also meet the sleazy guys who run the operation

The audience members come to watch the dancers, and each has their own favorites among the contestants.  If a pair of dancers is well-liked, a local business might sponsor them with shirts bearing their logo.  The marathon bosses try to get one of the couples to marry during the contest as a publicity stunt.

dance_marathons‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ is noir fiction with a vengeance.  I can’t imagine a darker story about humans’ plight here on earth than this one.

Fourteen years after Horace McCoy died, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ was finally turned into a movie starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. I watched the movie as part of the preparation for writing this article.  The movie is quite faithful to the book with a few minor alterations and is a fine example of what Hollywood can do if it tries.

 

‘Piano’ by Jean Echenoz – In Purgatory with Peggy Lee and Dean Martin

‘Piano’ by Jean Echenoz   (2003)  –  179 pages      Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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‘Piano’ is a wilder ride than usual into Jean Echenoz land.  Here we have the story of Max, a Parisian piano virtuoso.  We follow him as he battles stage fright and longs for some alcoholic drinks before each performance.  That’s why he has a minder named Bernie who must somehow keep him in check.

But there is trouble ahead.  Even on the first page of the novel Echenoz informs us that ‘He (Max) is going to die a violent death in twenty two days’.  ‘Piano’ is divided into three parts.  The first part has Max in Paris performing concerts.  The second part Max has died and is in purgatory under the supervision of dead celebrities Peggy Lee and Dean Martin.  In the third part Max returns to Paris which now we assume must be an urban zone of Hell.

After reading his two most recent novels, I decided Jean Echenoz is a modern master writer whose backlist would be well worth reading.  Both ‘Lightning’ and ‘1914’ are historical novels written in precise clean prose that I found stimulating and appealing.

‘Piano’, written in 2003, is a much different puppy than these two more recent fact-based novels.  Pianist Max is an obvious creature of the imagination, and his antic journey into purgatory and back to Paris is of course an invention.  ‘Piano’ is a lighter-than-air playful story that put a smile on my face from beginning to end.

As far as I can tell there is no real point to Max’s journey, but in this case any objective is beside the point.  We tag along with Max as he prepares for concerts and finds women to whom he is attracted.  He lives with his sister and has never been married, but there is this woman named Rose from his past and a new woman in his apartment building.  Later when he meets Peggy Lee and Dean Martin in purgatory the story becomes far-fetched but so funny we don’t care.  Max’s adventures after returning to Paris are delightfully wacky.

One thing that sets Echenoz apart from other modern writers is the concision of his prose.  His sentences are not short, but they carry so much detail and feeling that the novels themselves are usually on the short side.

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Jean Echenoz

Now that I’ve read both sides of Echenoz, the real documentary side in ‘Lightning’ and ‘1914’ and the surreal whimsical side in ‘Piano’, I can’t decide which I like better.  You would think that these two sides could not exist within the same writer, but there must be some force within Echenoz that conjoins them.

I will continue my exploration of the work of Jean Echenoz over the coming years, because I do believe that he is one of the true giants of the literary world today whose works should not be missed.

‘Fallout’ by Sadie Jones – Isn’t It Romantic?

‘Fallout’ by Sadie Jones    (2014) – 405 pages

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The mood of ‘Fallout’ is uber romantic.  Who could be more desirous to a young woman than a good looking boy like Luke who visits his mother every day at the insane asylum where she is forced to stay?  After he moves away to London, he faithfully writes postcards to her every week.  Did I mention that in his spare time from his job as a dust (trash) man he writes stage comedies?  After many one-night stands with always eager young women in London, he falls hard for Nina, the exquisitely sad beautiful actress who is married to theatre impresario Tony. And then there is Leigh, the girlfriend of Luke’s roommate Paul.  It is the magic of Sadie Jones that she makes all this seem almost plausible.  It would be easier to laugh at ‘Fallout’ if it weren’t so well done.

 “On 14 July, Cartwright’s Army opened.  From the first night they knew it was different to everything they had done before.  And it sold out every night; the pub was packed, queues out onto the pavement for standbys five nights in a row.  Normally, audiences were a simple crowd of separate people; for Cartwright’s Army they became one person.  The audience, the production, the actors, the words, all were part of a single mechanism, connected, and the life of it charged the air.”

 Sadie Jones knows her theatre.  ‘Fallout’ is about the glamour and excitement of the theatrical life, the flops, the hits, the stars, the also-rans, and the after performance parties. It takes place in the early 1970s when staging plays didn’t seem quite so commercial. While the novel is very much about the theatre, it feels a lot like it could be a movie itself on the order of ‘A Star is Born’, the Judy Garland-James Mason version, not the sappy Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson remake.

‘Fallout’ rolls along like a steamroller knocking logic and sense out of the way in relentless fashion as it pursues its glamorous story.  Luke supposedly writes comedies yet never does he say anything remotely humorous.  The novel does not deal at all with the realistic difficulties of the creative life.

I have a strong attraction to backstage novels of which ‘Fallout’ is an alluring example.  Sadie Jones writes with an immediacy and intensity that keeps one turning the pages.   Yes, there are soap opera qualities in the plot of ‘Fallout’ that can almost make a reader groan out loud, but at the same time the reader becomes deeply involved with this story.

The story is told in a breathless manner. The female fantasy fulfillment here is shameless, but like a lot of things shameful it is titillating.  I see ‘Fallout’ as a guilty pleasure, an intoxicating read on its own terms that avoids the harsh light of ordinary realism.

 

‘Dangerous Rhythm – Why Movie Musicals Matter’ by Richard Barrios

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I never thought I would be captivated by a non-fiction quirky compendium and detailed history of movie musicals.  Yet I read ‘Dangerous Rhythm’ like a novel, from cover to cover.  In this book Richard Barrios displays a subtle witty perceptivity that makes complex and entertaining distinctions between various musicals in the directing, choreography, acting, and singing.

 “How and why have musicals been so extreme, touching greatness and then failing so massively?  Why do some musicals made over eight decades ago still enchant while others made more recently were stale before they opened?  Why do musicals remain prone to sudden bouts of cluelessness, even repellence…and yet continue to be important and special to so many people?

 Like the people who love or hate them, musicals are balanced unsteadily between the sublime and the inane.”

It is the personal observations of Barrios that make ‘Dangerous Rhythm’ such fun to read. Barrios delights in the good (Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret, The Wizard of Oz, Love Me Tonight, etc.) and bemoans the bad (A Chorus Line, Hello Dolly!, South Pacific, etc.).

   “Even without the managerial ineptitude that hobbled everything, there was at the core of it an unbridled fraudulence far beyond the untruths that musicals are prone to tell.  ‘Paint Your Wagon’ was a big fat phony, a product of the old dying studios pretending to be a cutting-edge indie, spending millions in an effort to look cheap and current, trying desperately to corral and flatter an ‘Easy Rider’ audience that would never show up under any circumstances.”

 Of course movie musicals today are hanging by a thin thread.  The last great one was ‘Chicago’ in 2002, although ‘Once’ from 2006 is very good.  I personally think that ‘Once’ might show a way forward for the musical, just a small scale story and a few characters and some music.  Another musical by ‘Once’ director John Carney, ‘Begin Again’ with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, was released recently.

‘Dangerous Rhythm’ is a book where the footnotes are as amusing as the regular text.

 “Arlen knew as well as anyone how film operates.  In 1935, when he and Harburg wrote the gorgeous ‘Last Night When We Were Young’ for ‘Metropolitan’, a lovely rendition by Lawrence Tibbett wound up in the discard pile.  Thirteen years later Judy Garland sang it in ‘In the Good Old Summertime’, and again it was deleted, allegedly for being too sad for a lightish film.  Garland, bless her, knew better: it remained her favorite song, and Arlen’s too.”

 That ‘bless her’ alone is worth the price of this book.  As the above quote shows Barrios has an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, yet all this knowledge rests easy on him.

698I probably would not have found this book at all, except I really like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and  Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen) and Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor.  They have brought a little joy into my humdrum life just as Richard Barrios has.  Just about every sentence in ‘Dangerous Rhythm’ is instructive and amusing.  It is a great fun read. I can only conclude that Richard Barrios should have been a fiction writer.

 

 

 

‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez – The Novel That Beat ‘My Struggle’

The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez  (2013) – 270 pages  Translated by Anne McLean

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A literary award that I follow closely is the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.  This award is truly a world literary award, and they seem to get it right a lot of the time.  Of their nineteen award winners since 1996, I’ve read eleven including ‘A Heart So White’ by Javier Marias, ‘Wide Open’ by Nicola Barker, ‘The City of Bohane’ by Kevin Barry, and ‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones.   The judges so far have seemed to pick novels that will last, that people will be reading fifty years from now.

This year’s winner is ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, the first South American to win the award.   Vásquez’s novel beat out seven other nominees including ‘My Struggle’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Vásquez is from Colombia, home of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.   In ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ there is a playful mention of Cien años de soledad which translated is the title ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.  The girlfriend of a main character says of the novel, “The only thing I have here is a book the senor gave me as a going-away present, and I’ve tried to read it, I swear I’ve tried, but the Spanish is very difficult and everybody has the same name. It’s the most tedious thing I’ve read in a long time, and there’s even a typo on the cover.”  This is Vásquez having a little fun at the expense of the master.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is known, of course,  as the great practitioner of magical realism.   Vásquez is no great fan of magical realism.

 “I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics.” – Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

 ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ covers a violent time in Columbia’s recent history, the years when drug lord Pablo Escobar was controlling the world cocaine trade.  Yet this novel is in no way a drugged-out tale.  It is more about how many Columbians on the sidelines inevitably got caught up in the turbulence.

It begins with a hippopotamus which had escaped from Escobar’s old private zoo which had “during that time of freedom destroyed crops, invaded drinking troughs, terrified fisherman, and even attacked the breeding bulls at a cattle ranch.”  Marksmen shot the hippopotamus dead in 2009, thirteen year after Escobar’s reign ended.  This causes the narrator Antonio Yanmara to recall his own injurious brush with the Escobar years.

Through him we get the story of the life of Ricardo Leverde.  Ricardo as a young man meets the love of his life in American Peace Corps volunteer Elaine Fritts.  Ricardo flies private airplanes, and why not fly some stuff if they are willing to pay a lot of money?

The writing here is a wonder of superior storytelling that will leave you enthralled from beginning to end. As I mentioned before, don’t get the impression that this is a drug novel because that is far from the case. The story of Ricardo and Elaine captures the story in part of Columbia during the Escobar years and how even people not involved were severely affected. I strongly recommend this novel.

 

Fifteen Excellent Novels Since 1969 That Did Not Make the Booker Prize Short List

Man_Booker (1)There has been a lot of talk about novels that were overlooked by the Man Booker judges this year.   However this talk is not new. The Booker has overlooked great novels from its very beginning in 1969.  Neither Graham Greene nor Angela Carter were ever shortlisted, although in Greene’s case most of his great work was done before 1969.

I have read each of the novels below.  Each is so well done that it is a mystery to me why these eligible novels would not have made the Booker Prize short list.  The novels are listed in chronological order.

42864‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles (1969)    This Victorian novel influenced A. S. Byatt to write ‘Posession’ which did win the Booker in 1990.

‘Fifth Business’ by Robertson Davies (1970)   This amazing Canadian novel was the one that got me started down the path of world literature.

‘The Eye of the Storm’ by Patrick White (1973)  For whatever perplexing reason this Australian masterpiece did not make the Booker short list, although White’s previous novel ‘The Vivisector’ did make it in 1970.

9780143116950_p0_v1_s114x166‘Money: A Suicide Note’ by Martin Amis (1981)   Instead of shortlisting one of Amis’s wonderful wild early novels, the Booker shortlisted one of his lesser later novels, ‘Time’s Arrow’ in 1991.

‘A Good Man in Africa’ by William Boyd (1981)  This one did not get shortlisted, but Boyd’s equally good ‘The Ice-Cream Wars’ got shortlisted the following year.

‘Time After Time’ by Molly Keane (1983)   Although Booker did shortlist her equally good previous novel ‘Good Behavior’ in 1981.

‘Golden Gate’ by Vikram Seth (1986)   This delightful novel-in-verse was never shortlisted nor was Seth’s 1349-page ‘A Suitable Boy’ which I have not read.

41NC8M1pXDL._SL160_‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (1988)  – Spark was shortlisted three times but not for this great novel.

‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton (1991)     This Australian favorite was not shortlisted, but two of Winton’s later novels were.

‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh (1993)   Another novel that apparently was too wild, too gross, too risqué for the Booker.

‘The Blue Flower’ by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)   Fitzgerald was shortlisted four times which is a record, but it is still hard to imagine why this novel wasn’t.

landgirls ‘Land Girls’ by Angela Huth (1995)   Barbara Pym used to be England’s most overlooked writer; now it must be Angela Huth.

 ‘The Englishman’s Boy’ by Guy Vanderhaeghe  (1996) –  Vanderhaeghe is a Canadian writer who somehow hasn’t been shortlisted yet.

‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’ by Salley Vickers  (2000) –  Salley Vickers is a well-kept secret apparently even to the Booker.

 ‘The City of Bohane’ by Kevin Barry (2011) – Too edgy for the Booker?

 

“The Other Language” by Francesca Marciano – An Engaging Collection of Stories

“The Other Language” stories by Francesca Marciano  (2014) – 287 pages

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In ‘The Other Language’, Italian author Francesca Marciano has written nine exhilarating stories that capture the mystery, humor, despair, and romance of lives lived.  Each of these stories sets you down in a person’s circumstances so effectively that for a short time you become that person and see the world through their eyes.

This is the first book I’ve read by Francesca Marciano, but I will definitely read more.  There are not many writers beyond Alice Munro who can successfully write the sustained short story of fifty pages or so.  Now we can add Francesca Marciano to that short list.

Alice Munro usually sticks fairly close to her Canadian home in her stories, while Marciano’s characters travel the world over.  Stories in ‘The Other Language’ take place in Greece, Tanzania and other parts of Africa, India, and New York.  What the two writers Munro and Marciano do have in common is the ability to get the reader fully engaged in the lives of their characters.

Perhaps my favorite story in ‘The Other Language’ is called ‘An Indian Soirée’.  In this story a husband and wife travel to India.  He had been to India before, and enjoyed playing the India expert for decades. His wife had never been to India before, and she loved everything she saw unconditionally.

“He only wished she had stuck to wearing her own clothes instead of those Indian clothes that were slowly multiplying inside the suitcase, which she didn’t know how to wear.”

From this vague dissatisfaction, their marriage breaks down.  The criticized wife starts having intense dreams about a previous boyfriend, while the husband becomes entranced by a real Indian woman, a dance instructor.

“It took a surprisingly short time for sixteen years of marriage to come undone. Later, neither one of them was able to recollect how the sequence had unfolded – which phrase had prompted the next, nor how it had been possible that a mild irritation, an unpleasant remark, had revealed truths that had seemed impossible to reveal until this moment.“

Neither the husband nor wife views their marriage falling apart as a tragedy but rather as the bittersweet result of a strange dream, a strange Indian dream.

All of the stories in this collection are strong and memorable.  They are usually written from a woman’s point of view, but I did not have any trouble relating to them at all.  Most of the stories are told from the point of view of a woman looking back at an earlier episode and fitting it into the rest of her life, what she learned about herself from it, what she didn’t learn.

It has been quite a long while since I have read a story collection that is as smart, engaging, and satisfying as “The Other Language”.

 

‘Your Fathers, Where Are They?…’ by Dave Eggers – Another Angry Incoherent Young Man

‘Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?’ By Dave Eggers    (2014) – 212 pages

 

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This new novel by Dave Eggers is about a young man who takes several hostages and chains them to fixtures at a decommissioned deserted army base (Fort Ord?) in California in order to ask them questions that are important to him but certainly not important to me.  His hostages include an astronaut, a Congressman, a sixth grade teacher, a policeman, and the young man’s own mother.

The young man kidnaps the astronaut, because the young man is upset that the NASA space shuttle program was cancelled.

 “And now we kill it all, and we pay the Russians for a backseat on their rockets.  You couldn’t write a sicker ending to the whole story.  How do the Russians have the money for rockets and we don’t?”

 I’ve read and liked two of Dave Eggers novels before, ‘Hologram for the King’ and ‘The Circle’.  Both of these novels made my yearly Top Ten lists.  However ‘Your Fathers, Where Are They?…’ did not work for me at all.  I found this novel with the very long title a very thin gruel.

The main problem I believe here is that Eggers is trying to have things two opposite ways at the same time.  First he has as his main character a young man who is extremely angry and frustrated almost to the point of incoherence.  This young man is acting out his anger and frustration by taking these people hostage and asking them strident questions like those he asks the astronaut about the space program.  Yet somehow Eggers apparently thinks this inane dialogue between this confused young man and his hostages will be meaningful and scintillating to the reader.  It is not.

There is a half-hearted attempt at providing a more valid reason for the hostage taking which involves the policeman’s shooting and killing of the young man’s friend  who apparently was molested by the teacher as a boy.  However the first two hostages have nothing to do with this incident at all.

Later the young man meets a woman on the beach to whom he is attracted, but that situation is tacked on and has nothing to do with the hostage taking.

The novel is all dialogue, all conversations between this disturbed young man and his hostages.  With no outside context for the dialogue, it all seemed terribly sparse.  I know it would be artificial if a young person today were eloquent and well spoken, but perhaps sub-expressive people should not be allowed to talk much in a novel.  All this dialogue is less than interesting as it is. There is not enough variation in talking styles, so the dialogue all seems monotonic.

From now on, I won’t automatically read Dave Eggers’ next novel without making absolutely sure it is worth reading.

 

‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ by Vladimir Lorchenkov – Dark and Hilarious

‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ by Vladimir Lorchenkov   (2008) – 197 pages    Translated by Ross Ufberg

 

22020936According to ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’, everyone living in the Republic of Moldova wants to get out of the country.  Even the president of Moldova dreams of escape to Italy; he wants to open a pizza stand there.  Moldovans will even sell a kidney in order to get out of the country; some of them make the mistake of selling both kidneys.

A woman convinces her husband to sell his tractor to get the four thousand Euros to get to Italy.  When the deal turns out to be a fraud, she hangs herself in a tree.  The husband leaves her body swaying there for several weeks to help dry the garlic.  He misses his tractor.

“When things in this country are in the pits, start a war with somebody.”

 Sadly there is no country weaker than Moldova that they could beat in a war, so they will start a civil war against themselves.

For the Moldovans, Moldova is hell and Italy is heaven.  Some Moldovans question whether or not Italy really exists.

 “Fate is fate.  What I want to know is does it exist?  Italy, I mean?”     

 The Republic of Moldova is an actual country, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe stuck between the Ukraine and Romania.  It is the poorest country in Europe.  Moldova also has the highest per capita pure alcohol consumption rate of any country in the world according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Life in Moldova was bad when it was part of the Soviet Union.  Since then things in Moldova have progressed to terrible.

‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ by Vladimir Lorchenkov is a riotous black comedy. This novel manages to be bleak, sad, and outrageously funny at the same time.  Lorchenkov has taken an idea about Moldova that probably is based on some truth and gone with it to absurd levels. I found ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ wicked fun to read.  Unlike some of these comic novels, it sustains its dark energy and imagination even to the end.

Lorchenkov, a Moldovan, has taken sharp ridicule of one’s own country to a new outlandish level.  I wish some writer in the United States had the guts to write a novel making fun of the Tea Party and their Koch Brothers paid stooge politicians who are doing so much damage to our neighborhoods with their hatreds and willful stupidity, but so far no writer has dared approach that subject.

There is a grand tradition of absurdist black humor in eastern European fiction from Nikolai Gogol in ‘The Nose’ and other stories to Jaroslav Hasek in ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ to Vladimir Voinovich in ‘The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin’ to several others, and ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ is perhaps the most absurd and black of them all.

If you are always on the lookout like I am for really humorous novels, you don’t want to miss ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’.

 

‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ by Tom Rachman – Sophomore Slump

‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ by Tom Rachman   (2014) – 380 pages

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All of the characters in Tom Rachman’s new novel ‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ have a surface charm that keeps things interesting for about a third of the novel, but none of them has the depth to sustain interest for the entire book.

The central character is Tooly Zylberberg.  At the start, Tooly is a 34-year old bookshop lady who owns the World’s End bookstore in Wales which has thousands of books but only a few customers, some of whom “used World’s End Books only as a showroom for online purchases.”

The novel is organized in mosaic tile fashion as we have interspersed chapters that take place during three different times in Tooly’s life.  Some chapters are devoted to when Tooly is eleven and living in Thailand, others are devoted to when she is living in New York in her early twenties, and then there are those in the present day with the 34 year-old Tooly.

Tooly is taking a drawing course.

 “Each medium confirmed her lack of talent: each arm is longer than its leg; ears were tea saucers; fruit resembled basketballs.  Lousy though she was, Tooly adored it, and even improved in a plodding way.” 

 As I mentioned nearly all the characters here are cute and charming.

 “As for Humphrey, he was never renowned for tidiness.  “My nature abhors the vacuum,” he said. 

These witty lines sustained me for a while in the novel.  However we never really get inside any of these characters, not even the main character Tooly.  On the surface things are pleasant enough, but after about 100 pages, I wanted something more than cleverness   I never developed strong feelings for any of the people in this novel.  The characters lack intensity, and reading about them became something of a slog.

Tom Rachman is, of course, the author of that popular and critical success, ‘The Imperfectionists’.  That novel had the number one spot on my Top Ten list of novels for 2010.  One can remember that that novel was actually a collection of connected stories about people who worked for a newspaper.  A writer can charm his or her way through a short story much easier than through an entire long novel.  A reader invests a significant amount of time in reading a novel and wants to get something deep and meaningful out of it.  ‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ was a disappointment for me, because it never got any deeper than its surface charm and cuteness.

 

‘A Month in the Country’ by J. L. Carr – A Summer Idyll

‘A Month in the Country’ by J. L. Carr  (1980) – 135 pages

 

60707‘A Month in the Country’ by J. L. Carr is a novella that has been highly praised by a lot of people.  Two fine reviews for it can be found at Pechorin’s Journal and at KevinFromCanada.  It was time for me to find out what all this acclaim is about.  As it turned out ‘A Month in the Country’ proved worthy of all the applause it has received and then some.  It is one great little novella.

Did you ever have a time in your youth when the sun seemed to shine brighter?  A time when the world seemed more alive, and the people in it seemed to make a more vivid impression?

It is 1920, and twenty-five year old Tom Birkin has just made it through World War I.  As a soldier he has been through the hell that was the battle of Passchendaele coming out with a case of shell shock and a facial tic and stutter, but he is alive.

Tom came home to London and found that his wife has at least temporarily run off with another man.  He gets a commission from a village church in Oxgodby in northern England to uncover a mural from the Middle Ages thought to be buried under many coats of whitewash on the church walls.   He will stay in a little room inside the church attached to the furnace room. The job will take all summer.

During that summer Tom meets Charles Moon, another ex-soldier who has a special project of his own.  There are also the testy reverend of the church and his lovely wife and the Ellerback family and assorted other characters.

Tom has been through a lot with the war and with his wife and everything, and during these few months in Oxgodby he engages again with life relearning the small pleasures of being a civilian.

“If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy?  No, I suppose not.  People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief  that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades.  It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.” 

 J. L. Carr presents this story with a kindly humorous attitude that makes it a pleasure to read.  The narrator is Tom Birkin as an older man telling this story from his younger days.  He views his younger self and the other characters with a generous winking detachment.

‘A Month in the Country’ is a very traditional novel told in straightforward fashion that takes us back to life as it was lived almost a century ago.  I realize that some of the appeal of this novel is nostalgic, but it is so well done it is near irresistible.

If I had not already created my list of the best novellas, ‘A Month in the Country’ would certainly be on that list.

 

‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch – Boorish

‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch   (2011) – 387 pages   Translated by Sam Garrett

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Pity us poor readers of ‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’.  First we are subjected to a disgusting discourse on the naked human body by the most cynical general practitioner doctor ever, our novel’s narrator.  We are continually subjected to the doctor’s self-serving wildly over-simplified biological theories about sex and preserving the human race.

 “A woman who is past her sell-by date is no longer desirable to us, because there is no reason for her to be.  She does nothing to promote the continuation of the species.”

 To be fair, this is not the doctor speaking. He is quoting his professor whom he quotes extensively.

Now we will let the doctor speak for himself.

 “I fought back the urge to grab her right then and there and toss her onto the sand without further ado.  To take the initiative.  A half rape – women always like that.  All women.”

 To call our doctor narrator crass would be an understatement.

Our doctor is a male himself acting out in the most sexist lascivious ways, tempered only by his concern for his 11 and 13 year old daughters.  So when his actor friend who is in his forties decides to parade around the swimming pool area completely naked, the father wonders what effect this might have on his daughters.

 “I wondered whether perhaps I was, indeed, narrow-minded. Whether it was my own fault that the sight of Ralph Meier’s naked dick so close to my young daughters seemed so filthy.   I couldn’t quite decide – and as long as I hadn’t decided, I continued to consider it filthy.”

Be forewarned – this is one crude novel.   Whereas the dinner in ‘The Dinner’ had a certain amount of charm amongst all the nastiness, there is nothing that could pass for charm in ‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’.  This new novel basks in its boorishness.

‘The Dinner’ was a huge best seller.  I doubt ‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ will be as big, given its utter misogyny.  So wherein does the appeal lie for these nasty novels?  First the narrators of both of these novels are ‘unreliable’.  That is, they are fooling themselves.  Since they are fools stating crackpot biological theories, they are humorous.  The doctor here reminded me of Peter Griffin on Family Guy, not that Family Guy is all that funny.

The second appeal of these novels is that he makes us feel outrage and repulsion.  Feeling even these negative emotions is better than feeling nothing.

 

 

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King – A Love Triangle in the Wilds of New Guinea

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King   (2014) – 257 pages

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‘Euphoria’ is an exciting mix of the romantic, the erotic and the intellectual, a novel not to be missed.   The novel is inspired by the field work of Margaret Mead on the island of New Guinea in the early 1930s.  It is the fictionalized story of the real-life love triangle between Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune, and fellow anthropologist Gregory Bateson.  It takes place in the remote region along the Sepik River where the tribes had never encountered western civilization before.  The anthropologists are there to study the social, family, and mating habits of the tribal people.

margaret_mead This adventure story just comes alive in Lily King’s hands.  If you have ever wondered what it must have been like for Margaret Mead and her associates to travel to these remote villages and to stay there and become friends and study the people in these tribes, this is the novel for you.

The love triangle starts as these things usually do with the wife Nell (the Margaret Mead stand-in) comparing her husband unfavorably to the other man.  Her husband Fen is highly talented in some areas, but he is just too sure of himself and too impulsive. He blunders into actions which might upset the natives. He also envies his wife’s early success and is abusive, a bully. The other man Bankson is more thoughtful and questions everything he does to make sure he doesn’t unfavorably influence the study of the tribe.  Basically Bankson is more subtle and intelligent, a better anthropologist, than her husband.  Also there is a chemistry between Nell and Bankson.

 “ You know you love someone when you cannot put into words how they make you feel.”  – Margaret Mead

 What makes this type of story so fascinating is that they are there to study tribal behavior, and at the same time their own behavior is just as much a subject of interest.  The sure-handed writing of Lily King makes observing this love triangle just as interesting and exciting as the field work these anthropologists are doing.  She puts us on the scene from the very first page, and we fly through this story without a moment’s hesitation.  This is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.  We feel passionately for the characters’ ideas as well as their personal lives.   It is refreshing to read a novel about characters who are smarter than you are.

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

When the three anthropologists invent ‘The Grid’ of various human traits which describe differing societies, we are there.  Lily King  handles both the intellectual story and the emotional story capably.

‘Euphoria’ has been optioned to be made into a movie to be directed by Michael Apted, director of ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, and the TV series ‘Masters of Sex’.

 

‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King is Not a Literary Novel

‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King   (2014) – 449 pages

 

Mrmercedes-200x303‘Mr. Mercedes’ will be a best seller selling millions of copies.  A hugely popular movie will be made based on ‘Mr. Mercedes’, if they can find a young actor willing to risk his career playing an evil loser.  But ‘Mr. Mercedes’ is not very original, surprising, or deep. Haven’t I read this story before, even though I haven’t?

A couple of weeks ago I read a review of ‘Mr. Mercedes’ which said that maybe today our two finest novelists might now be Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King.  I’ve had my problems with Joyce Carol Oates over the years, but I do consider her a major literary figure.  But Stephen King, Mr. Best Seller?  I’ve never considered the possibility that King might be a major novelist and have not read any of his novels or stories. On the chance that I may have missed something, I decided that I would read ‘Mr. Mercedes’.

In this novel Stephen King has written a detective thriller which tackles demented acts of violence.  Like so much of what happens today, the acts are done for no other reason beyond the severe personal problems of the perpetrator. Oh, yes, ‘Mr. Mercedes’ is a rouser, a roller coaster, just what you would expect a best seller and future movie thriller would be.  We have Bill Hodges, our old recently retired detective who is at loose ends since he left the force.  Only when one of the few criminals he didn’t catch, Mr. Mercedes, contacts him does our old detective perk up.  His only pal is Jerome Robinson, a black computer-savvy teenager in the neighborhood who mows his lawn and whom Hodges recruits to help capture Mr. Mercedes.  Later Hodges meets a younger woman who of course is all too eager to go to bed with him.

A rush of older actor leading men will be trying out for the role of Bill Hodges in the movie as well as young black actors trying out for the role of Jerome Robinson.

Our villain is a dastardly villain indeed.  Mr. Mercedes is young computer geek Brady Hartsfield who lives with his mother.  Besides working for an electronics shop fixing computers, he drives an ice cream truck.  He is portrayed as sick, twisted, and evil enough so that no one would want to emulate him. In true thriller fashion, the novel alternates between sections with our hero detective and sections with our creepy villain Mr. Mercedes.

A lot of the novel consists of trying to figure out people’s computer passwords in tense situations.

‘Mr. Mercedes’ is not any kind of literary work.  The characters are all clichés, and the thrills are all stereotypical.  There is no depth here, nothing really involving or challenging.  It is a thrill ride, nothing else.  It would be a shame if Stephen King were actually one of our finest writers.   Fortunately there are quite a number of United States fiction writers with more originality and depth than King, and at the world level there are dozens. ‘Mr. Mercedes’ is like the new Batman or Spiderman movie. For a few days it captures all the hype and the excitement, but after it leaves town no one really cares.

An encyclopedic recall of product names and show names does not a literary writer make.  A clever mimic of another writer’s style does not literature make.  A deadpan pastiche of a hard-boiled detective procedural is hardly literature.  Enjoy the movie.

 

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