Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan   (2014) – 334 pages


The father of author Richard Flanagan was a prisoner of war to the Japanese and a survivor of the building of the Siam-to-Burma Railway during World War II.  Flanagan’s new novel ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is about the harrowing construction of that railroad among other things.

In 1942, the Japanese had just conquered the country of Burma from the British.  They saw Burma as a good launching point for an attack on India, but it was difficult to get supplies to Burma.  Allied forces were bombing the sea routes.  Thus Japan decided to build a railway from Bangkok in Siam (now Thailand) to Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma (now Myanmar).  All of the Japanese men were fighting the war, so they used men from Southeast Asia and Allied prisoners of war as slave labor to build the railway.

The working conditions for building the bridge were atrocious and at least 100,000 men died during the fifteen months it took to build the railway.  The project was ill-supplied. Not enough food was available, so the men had to work while near starvation.  Huge epidemics of cholera, dysentery, and malaria swept through the workers.  Beyond that, dozens of men were beaten to death by their Japanese and Korean overseers.

There was another novel and movie about this railroad, ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’, which was hopelessly unrealistic and naïve in its treatment of the situation.  ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ captures its full horror and desolation.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is mainly about the Australian prisoners of war who had to work as slave laborers building the railroad as well as their Japanese and Korean overseers.  Dorrigo Evans is a doctor and officer, so he must deal with the illness and injury of the Australians.  Some of the scenes in the novel are horrific.

Flanagan begins each section of the novel with a short piece of Japanese poetry.  The lines from the last section serve as a good description for the entire novel.

In this world

we walk on the roof of hell

gazing at flowers.


 Not the entire novel is about building the railroad which is  ‘the roof of hell’ part of the novel.  There are also large sections taking place in Australia with Dorrigo Evans before and after the war.  These are the ‘gazing at flowers’ parts of the novel.  Early in the novel Dorrigo Evans has an intense love affair with his uncle’s wife Amy.   Somehow there does not seem to be much point to these love scenes beyond showing that the world is not all misery and heartbreak.  But these sensuous scenes also serve to make Dorrigo’s heroism seem more ambiguous later.

However ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is a complex novel, and a lot of its power derives from that it does not present its scenes as cut and dried.   The parts of this novel may not fit together neatly, but that may be a good thing as we struggle to a deeper meaning of events.   Richard Flanagan goes to great lengths to understand the mindset of these Japanese captors who treated their prisoners and workers so cruelly.  In today’s world we have seen even the United States routinely using torture when dealing with its political prisoners.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is a fine example of a novel that is open-ended, that preserves the mysteries of life and has no easy answers for them.


‘Dare Me’ by Megan Abbott – Raucous Relentless High School Cheerleaders

‘Dare Me’ by Megan Abbott    (2012) – 290 pages


Megan Abbott had fallen under my radar until now.   It is not too surprising that a novel about a girls’ high school cheerleading team would fall under my radar.  What I didn’t realize is that this isn’t young adult fiction by any stretch of the imagination.  This is brutal noir crime fiction.

‘There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.’ 

 Usually I will read an author’s current work to review in order to be as up-to-date as possible.  However, after researching the crime fiction writer Megan Abbott, I decided to read her quintessential novel ‘Dare Me’ first rather than her newest one ‘The Fever’.

What does a hard-boiled murder mystery novel involving high school cheerleaders sound like?  “‘Give us some handsprings, bitches!’, Beth’s voice boomed at us.”  Beth was the captain of the cheerleading team until the new adult coach Colette French arrives and decides there isn’t going to be a squad captain anymore.  Since Beth had always been the captain of everything since grade school, the coach’s decision does not sit too well with her.  To say the least.

I know absolutely nothing about the cheerleading world, but I am quite sure that Megan Abbott nailed it in ‘Dare Me’   Abbott writes with an unforgettable visceral intensity that makes the self-contained world of the cheerleading team come alive.    The incessant texting, the black market in Adderall,  the taking it to the next level all ring true.

“Twice last week she didn’t call for our late-night recap, our laying forth of the maneuvers of the day, who humiliated herself, whose bra is tatty, and whose fat ass is fatting up the whole squad.  We’d done these calls nightly since forever.”  

 56006_320 This is Addy speaking, Beth’s best friend and aide-de-camp until she becomes enamored of the new coach.  She is the voice of ‘Dare Me’ and in a position to understand both Beth and the new coach as well as be present as the cheerleaders practice and perform.  When a sinister suicide occurs, she is there to help us figure it out.

I expect that many female readers are familiar with Megan Abbott, but how do you sell a novel about high school cheerleaders to men?  Some reviewers have called it ‘Fight Club for girls’.



Queenpin_000At some near point Abbott will cross over into male readership, because her crime writing is so vivid and true-to-life.  It is made for the movies.  They are planning a movie of ‘Dare Me’ possibly starring Natalie Portman.

I notice that Megan Abbott has written several novels before, and they all have lurid covers just like the old noir novels of the 1950s and 1960s.





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

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


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



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


‘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.

Jean Echenoz

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


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.





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