Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

“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.

 

‘The Death of the Heart’ by Elizabeth Bowen

‘The Death of the Heart’ by Elizabeth Bowen   (1938) – 418 pages

 

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I am happy I listened to ‘The Death of the Heart’ on audio because the dramatic and comedic qualities of the dialogue are clearly apparent that way.  Each of the characters comes vividly alive as they interact with each other.   It is the talk which makes ‘The Death of the Heart’ an exceptional novel.

This is a coming-of-age story that takes place in the England of the 1930s between the wars.  It centers on sixteen year old Portia Quayne, recently orphaned.

First there is the entertaining back story of Portia’s upper class father Mr. Quayne who in his late fifties has a dalliance with young woman Irene – ‘Irene, you know, was not what anyone would want at all’ – and gets her pregnant.  Mr. Quayne’s wife forces him to do the right thing in divorcing her, leaving his settled life much to his chagrin, and marrying Irene.  Portia is the outcome of this affair.  Mr. Quayne dies when Portia is only four years old, and Irene and Portia move from hotel to hotel for the next twelve years at which time Irene dies.  Then Portia has nowhere to go so her much older half brother Thomas and his wife Anna agree to take her in for a year.

During that year Portia meets ‘the astonishing cad’ Eddie, a 23 year old friend of Anna’s, and falls hopelessly in love.

Here we are in the home of Thomas and Anna, an upper class mansion with three maids.  Anna feels stuck with Portia, doesn’t really want her in the house.  Thomas just wants to withdraw from any emotional scene.  There is cruelty just under the surface of the polite genteel conversation.

For those minutes of silence, Thomas fixed on her (Anna) his considering eyes.  Then he got up, took her by one elbow and angrily kissed her.  “I’m never with you,” he said. 

“Well look how we live.”

“The way we live is hopeless.”

Anna said, much more kindly: “Darling don’t be neurotic.  I have had such a day.”

He left her and looked round for his glass again.   

 Can we speak of the comic energy of a novel with the melodramatic name of ‘The Death of the Heart’?  Each of the characters except Eddie is portrayed in a somewhat positive light, but that doesn’t stop Elizabeth Bowen from exposing each one’s flaws in the full light of day.   Mainly through the back-and-forth of sharp dialogue, Bowen nails each one of these people.  You laugh at them even as you loathe them.

This is a story of the betrayal of an innocent girl in a mad scene in a movie theatre while on holiday.  It is also the betrayal of an adult reading her secret diary.  The betrayals seem rather tame compared to the betrayals possible in modern-day romances, but they are devastating betrayals for Portia nonetheless.

As in so many of the great novels, there is an energy in the writing, both tragic and comic, that sets this apart from lesser works.

 

‘Wonderland’ by Stacey D’Erasmo – The Comeback Tour

‘Wonderland’ by Stacey D’Erasmo   (2014) – 242 pages

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‘Wonderland’ is the perhaps too authentic story of the comeback tour of 44-year-old indie rock artist Anna Brundage.  Her first album ‘Whale’ was a monster hit, her next two not so much.  She dropped out of the music business for seven years, and now she’s back touring Europe with a new band.

The rock performance life is all here.  The shows where the band is hot, the bad scenes, the casual hookups, the drinking, the all-pervasive drugs.  For most of us the Sixties and Seventies have long been over, but these musicians and their entourages are still living the life.

This is the first novel by Stacey D’Erasmo that I’ve read.  I think she was faced with two ways she could have portrayed the rock life. One way would have been to portray these musicians as sincere serious artists who are attempting to create and perform valuable work that will last.  That would be the Rolling Stone magazine approach, that rock musicians are real artists.  The other way is that D’Erasmo could have presented the rock-and-roll life as an outrageous scam with everyone in it for the drugs and the adulation and the casual sex and the money.

It would have been much easier for D’Erasmo to take the ‘serious artist’ approach, but she took the more complicated route where the musicians, including the main character, are somewhere between artists and shams.

My problem with ‘Wonderland’ is that I did not like any of the characters in this novel.  I had an active dislike for most of them that never went away.  Throughout the novel we see Anna Brundage hooking up with one loser nonentity after another, all of them on a rather casual basis.  Her father is a world-famous artist all because he sawed a train car in half.  This kind of stunt was big in the art world at one time, but it is difficult to see it as anything but a scam.  So this father, though famous and loved by Anna, was an obvious fake and a phony.  He also is a cliché, and he pretty much undermined any appreciation I had for ‘Wonderland’.

And the other characters aren’t better.    The dialogue in ‘Wonderland’ is terrible, mainly because they talk like musicians talk in real life.  ‘The vibe was kind of weird.’  ‘I’m being such an asshole.  Let’s rock this thing.’  Verisimilitude is not always a good thing in a novel.

There have been novels where all the main characters are unlikeable, yet the élan and the spirit of the writer wins us over.  I felt that in ‘Wonderland’ D’Erasmo didn’t realize how detestable her characters really were, and she expected us to like them anyhow.

On the cover of ‘Wonderland’ there is the following quote from Michael Stipe of the band REM: “The world of Wonderland is authentic, vibrant, and genuine.  D’Erasmo explores the delight and terror of second chances.  A great read.”  Michael Stipe is a rock hero of mine, but we kind of disagree on this novel.

 

‘With A Zero at its Heart’ by Charles Lambert – A New Way to Tell Your Life Story

‘With A Zero at its Heart’ by Charles Lambert   (2014) – 147 pages

 

GetImage (1)In ‘With a Zero at its Heart’, Charles Lambert has come up with a powerful new way for each of us to describe his or her life.  There are rules to the method; let me explain the rules.

First he chose twenty four different aspects or subjects from which to view his life including ‘Clothes’,  ‘Money’, ‘Work’, ‘Home’, ‘Sex’, and ‘Language’.  For each category, he posts exactly ten items that have meaning for him.  Sometimes these are early memories from childhood.  For example for ‘Clothes’ he tells how as a young teenager he wanted for Christmas a velvet frock coat just like the ones worn by the music group the Kinks.  Instead his parents bought him a dark green corduroy double-breasted jacket “which he hangs in the wardrobe that evening and will never wear again.”  In ‘Animals’, he remembers the three white mice in a plywood box he was given as a child and their tragic end.

We all have these very early memories, memories that sometimes go back from even before we started school.  My very first memory was when my mother took a picture of a few kids including me when I was four years old sitting by some of her tulips which had just come into full bloom that spring.  I vividly recall those bright flowers, or is it the photograph that I remember?

My mother told me that even when I was three or four I memorized the song names that were on each of their records and could recognize the record associated with each song, so would yell out, “Play this one, ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window’, again!”  I don’t recall this at all.

In Charles Lambert’s book, an item can deal with any part of his life, young or old.  Each item must be about 100 words long.  Why this limit of 100 words?  The limit has several beneficial effects.  First this rigor keeps the writer from getting too long-winded on certain subjects which is always a danger in autobiography.  Second each item at 100 words has equal weight so that no single item is given a disproportionate weight.  That becomes important because of the next unstated rule.

The unstated rule is that one must be honest.   One item in ‘Sex’ shows Lambert’s early disinterest in girls.  An item in ‘Danger’ tells about his wild sex “with men whose names he doesn’t know and doesn’t ask.”  For each of us, our items would surely be of a different nature, but all the items together would hopefully achieve an accurate picture of our life.

I found this a brilliant method of autobiography, a rigorous honest approach to conveying a life, the bad stuff as well as the good stuff.  It approaches what we do in our own minds when we look all the way back to our earliest memories up to our current situation.  Each of our life stories would be different, perhaps not unique, but with tremendous variety.

The best method for understanding the items is to read each item – a paragraph – twice, first to get the main idea and second to fully appreciate it.

In the afterward to ‘The Zero at its Heart’, Charles Lambert thanks his publisher for taking an enormous risk in publishing this book.  No risk, no gain.

 

‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones – A Great Novel from Early in This Century

‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones (2003) –  388 pages

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Of all the novels that were published in the early 2000s, the one I have most regretted not having read was ‘The Known World’.  I have read both of his two spectacular collections of stories, ‘Lost in the City’ and ‘Aunt Hagar’s Children’, so I knew how profound and moving a writer Jones is.  ‘The Known World’ won both the Pulitzer Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, so it was way past time that I read this novel.

‘The Known World’ recreates the rural world that included slavery in the state of Virginia in the 1850s.  Slaves – humans – were the property of slave owners and were bought and sold.  In Virginia a few of the slave owners were black, and that is a situation that is dealt with in this novel.  By this time Great Britain had already outlawed slavery throughout the entire British Empire.  The nearby state of Pennsylvania passed a law in 1780 that gradually abolished slavery so that by 1860 there were no slaves in the state.  The American South was one of the few last places in the world that still allowed slavery.  The Civil War was still a few years away.

There were the slave owners, the slaves, and those people who neither owned slaves nor were slaves.  Up to three quarters of the white people did not own slaves.  As opposed to the slaves who had a specific property value, these white people had no recognizable value to the slave owners.

The slaves were either field slaves or house slaves.  The house slaves sometimes grew quite close to the owner and the owner’s family due to proximity.

Since the slaves had a property value to the owners, most owners would take care of their property.  There were some vicious owners who did not and would usually wind up with their farms foreclosed.  This only caused more devastation for the slaves as they would be auctioned off, their families split up.

Slaves who attempted to run away and were caught were often hobbled by having their Achilles tendon cut.  Then they could never run away again and would walk with a hobble for the rest of their lives.

By focusing on a black slave owner, Edward P. Jones avoids turning this re-creation of the days of slavery into a morality play of good and evil.   There is no one preaching in this novel.  The matter-of-fact tone of this narrative only intensifies the reader’s reaction to the events in the story.

edward jonesJones’ strong story-telling skills are on full display here.  We care what happens to all of these characters.

I’m happy that I went back and caught one of the big novels from the early part of this century.  Now that I’m caught up with the work of Edward P. Jones, all I can do is wait for his next novel or collection of stories.

 

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry   (2014) – 307 pages

“After all the world is indeed beautiful and if we were any other creature than man we might be continuously happy in it.”  – Sebastian Barry,  ‘The Secret Scripture’

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At one point Jack McNulty, our main guy in this novel, is in the army and assigned to the bomb disposal unit in London during World War II.   He has the job of defusing undetonated bombs which the Germans had dropped.  The men who did this dangerous explosive job were naturally called ‘Temporary Gentlemen’.

It is now the 1950s.  Jack McNulty is living in a small apartment by himself on the Gold Coast of Africa in Ghana as he recounts his life back in Ireland.  The novel alternates between short scenes in Ghana and Jack’s memories of his youth in Ireland.

 “Was there really such happiness?  There was, there was.”

 As a young student Jack met Mai Kirwan in Galway.  She is a local beauty, ‘a fierce gaiety to her every move’.  Mai is the love of his life, and they marry.

Alcohol plays a major role in this sad Irish story as Jack is a guy who drinks too much and bets on the horses.

 “How is it that for some people drinking is a short-term loan on the spirit, but for others a heavy mortgage on the soul?”

So far I’ve read three previous novels by Sebastian Barry, ‘A Long, Long Way’, ‘The Secret Scripture’, and  ‘On Canaan’s Way’.  I consider him one of the finest novelists writing today and will always read his novels.   Barry has a dexterity with words, a sense of the music of language, which places him above most other novelists.

I realize I’m being terribly unfair, but there is one defect for which I’m always on the lookout especially in novels by Irish writers.  That is excessive sentimentality.  Maybe it is because I’ve been stuck in too many Irish pubs on too many St. Patrick’s Day nights listening to dreadful renditions of ‘The Unicorn’.  Not being Irish myself, why should I care any more about the Irish than about anybody else?

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ does not escape that cliché of an Irish man crying in his beer.  That seems to be the sad story of Jack McNulty‘s life.   It would be difficult telling his story without getting maudlin.

But Sebastian Barry makes his characters come alive, and if you haven’t already read dozens of other similar novels, you will get caught up in Jack McNulty’s story.  I preferred ‘A Long, Long Way’ and ‘The Secret Scripture’ because they didn’t seem so stereotypical, but ‘A Temporary Gentleman’ is a strong moving novel nonetheless.

 

‘The Ballad of a Small Player’ by Lawrence Osborne – Gambling in Macau

‘The Ballad of a Small Player’ by Lawrence Osborne  (2014) – 257 pages

 

cover210x330Our hero, ‘Lord Doyle’ (he’s not really a lord), in ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’ is sitting at a high rollers table in the Greek Mythology casino in Macau, a small peninsula off the Chinese mainland near Hong Kong.  Macau is called the Monte Carlo of the Orient, and its gambling revenue has surpassed that of Las Vegas since 2007.  Most of the gamblers in Macau are Chinese business people, but gamblers from all over the world come there.

Our hero is playing the punto banco version of baccarat which is his game.  He is quite forthright on how he came by his money.  Previously as a lawyer in England he embezzled a large sum of money from a wealthy elderly female client, and then he flew away and escaped to Macau.

Earlier I was quite taken with Lawrence Osborne’s novel ‘The Forgiven’, because of its expert depth in presenting life in a foreign land which I found similar to writers such as Graham Greene and Paul Theroux.  Thus I had high expectations for ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’.

The entire plot of this novel revolves around gambling in the Macau casinos.  If you are not deeply interested in the world of high stakes gambling, you are probably not going to have much interest in the story in this novel.  That was my problem.  I have absolutely no appreciation for the world of gambling.   I figure the odds in gambling are always stacked in favor of the house, and I have never been tempted to gamble.  There is a reason that casino owners from Aristotle Onassis to Donald Trump to Sheldon Adelson are among the richest people in the world.

‘…everyone knows you are not a real player until you secretly prefer losing.’

 Beyond my lack of interest in gambling itself, I wound not want to go to these flashy plastic places like Las Vegas and apparently Macau.  These casino areas always seem like cold and bitter lifeless places.

Macau Casino District

Macau Casino District

My lack of enthusiasm for gambling is not the only reason for my lack of enthusiasm for ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’.  The characters in the novel did not appeal to me.  Most of the novel focuses on the main character Lord Doyle who is absolutely obsessed with gambling.  He meets a call girl Dao-Ming who stupidly, in my opinion, gives him some of her money to gamble.  There is a lot of talk about synchronicity and causality and the Chinese mind and supposedly having control over one’s luck, all of which may just as well have been nonsense gibberish as far as I’m concerned.

So ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’ was a severe disappointment for me.  The next time if I consider reading a novel by Lawrence Osborne, I will make sure it has nothing at all to do with gambling.

‘Marta Oulie’ by Sigrid Undset – Unfaithful in Christiania

‘Marta Oulie’ by Sigrid Undset  (1907) – 112 pages   Translated by Tina Nunnally

Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset

 

The first sentence in ‘Marta Oulie’ by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset is “I have been unfaithful to my husband.”  It happens, even back in 1902 when this novel takes place.  This is a personal painful account, written in diary form, of one woman’s coming to terms with her adultery.  Not only has she been unfaithful; her youngest daughter is not her husband’s child.

The Marta Oulie diary entries start a couple of years after her affair with Henrik, her husband Otto’s partner and her first cousin.  Now Otto, the husband, is in a sanitarium suffering from consumption, and she feels tremendous guilt.   She relates her story up to this point.

She had always been good in school and achieved academic success while young.  Then she meets Otto in her early twenties, and they fall in love and get married.  He is practical, simple-minded, optimistic, and good at business, and soon they have three children.  She is a school teacher, but Otto convinces her to stay home with the children.  That is when she becomes dissatisfied.  Otto must travel to London on business for a few months.  Otto has charged his partner Henrik to look after Marta and the family, so Henrik hangs around the house.  You can guess the rest.

18778004 This first novel by Sigrid Undset was a success de scandal in Norway when it was first published in 1907. This intimate realistic story of an unfaithful wife is much different from Undset’s most famous work, ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’, which is a historical trilogy about Scandinavia in medieval times. ‘Marta Oulie’ had never been translated before this new edition by the University of Minnesota Press.

Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928.  She was a vehement anti-Nazi and had to go into exile to the United States during World War II.  She returned to Norway after the war.

I was surprised and delighted to find out that Tim Page, the critic who almost single-handedly rescued Dawn Powell out of the ash heaps of literary history, has also taken up the work of Sigrid Undset.  He discovered that one of Dawn Powell’s favorite books was the novel ‘Jenny’ by Undset, and then he put together a collection called ‘The Unknown Undset’.

12425s So there are two sides to Sigrid Undset, the historical novelist of the medieval and the daring scandalous contemporary novelist.  Yet her historical novels speak in an intense realistic voice of the continuing problems of living, and her intimate contemporary novels put the modern problems of living into an objective framework.   I have read both sides of her work and believe Sigrid Undset is a valuable novelist who still speaks to us today.

‘Marta Oulie’ is an intense novel and a quick memorable way to become familiar with the work of Sigrid Undset.

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