‘O Caledonia’ by Elspeth Barker – A Gothic Parody, The Life and Untimely Death of a Girl from Scotland

 

‘O Caledonia’ by Elspeth Barker    (1991) – 224 pages

 

We find out the ultimate fate of our young heroine Janet in the very first paragraph of  ‘O Caledonia’ :

Here it was that Janet was found, oddly attired in her mother’s black lace evening dress, twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.’

Janet is 16 years old at the time of her death.

What genre is ‘O Caledonia’? It is a humorous Gothic in the same vein as ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ but with completely different predicaments. It is also a parody of the British family novel. ‘O Caledonia’ is a brilliant tongue-in-cheek performance.

Many children take to their roles in their family like a fish takes to water; in other words they get along swimmingly. Then there are the rest of us. Once in awhile there is a star-crossed child who is looked on askance and with disapproval just for being who she or he is. Janet is one of those unfortunates.

Of the five children of Hector and Vera, Janet is the oldest. Soon the baby boy Francis and her little sisters Rhona, Lulu, and Caro follow in somewhat rapid succession.

The scent of baby powder pervaded the house, visitors came with flowers, tender little white garments were constantly airing over the nursery fireguard and an exuberance of nappies billowed in the sea breeze.”

As the little children play, we hear an old nursery rhyme:

Hink, minx,

The old witch winks,

The fat begins to fry;

There’s no one at home,

But Jumping Joan,

Father, mother, and I.

Even at the age of four, Janet is called upon to watch her younger siblings, but she is negligent in that task.

Once again it was spanking and disgrace and a distant overheard muttering of “…simply can’t be trusted”, “We should have known better”, “After what she did before”, “Keep her away from the little ones”.

At a young age, Janet is met with the disapproval of her parents. She had learned to cope, even to survive by deviousness, by reading, and, as always, by day-dreaming.”

When Janet is about 10, the family moves to the highlands in far northern Scotland to a castle called Auchnasaugh where the weather is harsh and the church doctrine is even harsher. “Be ye ashamed, for ye were born in sin.” At her school, Janet discovers that there were one or two other girls who were nearly unpopular as she was. Janet goes on “fungus forays” in search of mushrooms with the tipsy eccentric old woman Lila who the rest of the family detests and stays away from.

It was a rigorous life, but for Janet it was softened by the landscape, by reading, and by animals whom she found it possible to love without qualification. People seemed to her flawed and cruel.”

The author of ‘O Caledonia’, Elspeth Barker, died recently at the age of 81. ‘O Caledonia’ is the only novel she ever wrote. I wish more writers would consider this. Instead of inundating us with novel after novel and story collection after story collection, leave us with just one superior novel or story. OK?

‘O Caledonia’ lacks the mind-numbing and soul-smashing sincerity of much of what passes for writing today. It is all the better for it.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘All the Lovers in the Night’ by Mieko Kawakami – Trapped in the Prison of Herself

 

‘All the Lovers in the Night’ by Mieko Kawakami   (2011) – 221 pages           Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd

 

I figured it was about time I read Mieko Kawakami having so far missed her first two acclaimed novels that were translated into English (‘Breasts and Eggs’ and ‘Heaven’).

Is it possible for someone to feel desperately alone in the twenty-first century, this time of cell phones and social media?

Tokyo woman Fuyoku Irie is 34 years old, a single woman. She works as a proofreader, looking for errors in books that are about to be published. This is a job she can do at home, on her own. The only woman who she comes into regular contact with is Hijiri who assigns her books to proofread and stops by occasionally. Hijiri is about the same age as Fuyoku, but her life is much different from that of Fuyoku. Hijiri has several boyfriends with whom she goes on weekend or extended vacation trips. Meanwhile Fuyoku stays home.

November came and went one day at a time, without my speaking to anyone. Sometimes a wind from the depths of autumn hit my window with a dry rattle. I spent a few hours of the day with galleys, flipping through reference materials or visiting the library if necessary. Nobody attempted to talk to me, and I made no attempt to talk to anybody else.”

And then Fuyoku meets 55 year-old male physics professor Mitsutsuka. We never do find out his full name. Over several months she meets up with him a number of times, usually at the restaurant bar he frequents. She gradually begins to open up to him, but it is a slow process.

Fuyoku starts to question her solitary and isolated life up until then.

The job that I was doing, the place where I was living, the fact that I was all alone and had no one to talk to. Could these have been the result of some decision I had made?”

I won’t go any farther into the plot. In ‘All the Lovers in the Night’ we are dealing with a real, specific woman and how she lives her life, not a bunch of cliches that are strung together. And the prose is as clear and resonant as a bell ringing.

I count the lights. All the lights of the night. The red light at the intersection, trembling as if wet, even though it isn’t raining. Streetlight after streetlight. Taillights trailing off into the distance. The soft glow from the windows…Why is the night made up entirely of light?”

Truth is in the light, the colors, and the sounds.

Grade:    A

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers – 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Stars in 2 Trillion Galaxies

 

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers      (2021) – 278 pages

 

OK, ‘Bewilderment’ brought me up to date on current thinking in astronomy. Thanks to the Hubble telescope and dozens of other super powerful telescopes in outer space outside the Earth’s atmosphere, astronomers now believe there are 100 octillion ( 100,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000 ) stars in 2 trillion galaxies. There are more stars than there are grains of sand on Earth. Many, many of these stars have planetary systems. The chances that there are conditions that support so-called intelligent life on many other planets are very, very good.

I told him what some astronomers now thought: a billion or more planets at least as lucky as ours in the Milky Way alone.”

In his novels, Richard Powers goes big. Instead of a guy who feeds the birds over winter, the main protagonist is an astrobiologist. Instead of going for short walks in the forest, he and his son go for full survivalist expeditions in the Smoky Mountains with the full camping regalia. Sometimes I wish Powers would just keep things small, so I could identify with the people in his novels more. However I keep reading Richard Powers so he must be doing something right.

Nobody’s perfect, but, man, we all fall short so beautifully.”

I wanted so much to love ‘Bewilderment’ as much as I have loved several of Richard Powers’ other novels in the past (‘Galatea 2.2’, ‘Gain’, ‘Generosity: An Enhancement’ – maybe I should stick to his novels that start with the letter “G”). Here I came close, but not quite.

First there is the precocious but troubled 9 year-old kid Robin whose mother Alyssa was killed in a traffic accident avoiding an opossum in the road. Alyssa studied animal law and was an expert on what constitutes legal cruelty to animals. Another major theme of this novel is avoiding cruelty to animals. Both Robin and his father Theo are vegans. The father who is an astrobiologist professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is bringing up his son alone.

Son Robin is deeply troubled, and his father makes arrangements with another professor at the University to use a new behavior technique, Decoded Neurofeedback, to help the son deal with his psychological problems. However both professors feel the pressure since critically important scientific projects are being shut down by political caprice.

An Image from the Hubble Telescope

There is an issue when the main person telling the story is also the chief advocate for the story’s line of reasoning. We readers are naturally skeptical, always on the lookout for a stacked deck. It would be more convincing to have someone who is originally skeptical tell the story and be slowly won over to the positions being advocated.

I suppose I react to environmental polemics like a spoiled kid would react when told by a parent, “Eat it, it’s good for you.” I stubbornly pigheadedly resist.

People, Robbie. They’re a questionable species.”

One optimistic way to look at it is if nuclear explosions or climate changes destroy life on Earth, it won’t be so bad because so-called intelligent life would probably continue to exist in many other places elsewhere in the massive Universe.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

‘The Pages’ by Hugo Hamilton – Rescued from a Nazi Book Burning

 

‘The Pages’ by Hugo Hamilton   (2021) – 261 pages

 

Wherever they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.” – Heinrich Heine

The narrator of the novel ‘The Pages’, instead of a person, is an old worn copy of the short novel ‘Rebellion’ by Joseph Roth which was rescued from a Nazi book burning in 1933.

Does this conceit of having a copy of a book telling the story work? I must say that for me it did not add anything. The narrator does not have a distinct or engaging personality which might have helped.

I have not read ‘Rebellion’. Although superficially it did not seem necessary to do so, I’m wondering if there are some subtexts to ‘The Pages’ that I may have missed.

We get two parallel stories here. One is the harrowing plight of the Jewish writer Joseph Roth in Germany in the 1930s. The other is a modern-day tale of the granddaughter of the man who rescued ‘Rebellion’ from the Nazi fires who now has possession of the book.

A Nazi Book Burning

I found the story of Joseph Roth interesting in a biographical way.

In Oxtend, in a small group of exiled writers, he enters a new relationship with the German novelist Irmgard Keun. She is not Jewish, but her books still fell victim to the book burning for portraying liberated female characters.”

I found the modern-day story less engaging and less memorable. It culminates in a treasure hunt which seemed like a letdown from the major issues of anti-semitism and book-burning that were raised earlier in the story of Joseph Roth. Whenever ‘The Pages’ switched to the modern story, I had difficulty remembering the specific circumstances of the various characters.

The two parts of the novel never gelled, never came together for me. I also found the novel cluttered and less than direct.

 

Grade:    C

 

 

‘Job’ by Joseph Roth – Another Job

 

‘Job’ by Joseph Roth    (1930)  –  238 pages                             Translated from the German by Dorothy Thompson

 

I guess I won’t be giving away the plot of ‘Job’ by Joseph Roth by saying it is about a Jewish man who is beset by terrible misfortunes. In the novel that man’s name is Mendel Singer. He and his wife Deborah and their children live in the city of Zuchnow in Ukraine during the years before World War I. Deborah and Mendel have four children, Jonas, Shemariah, Miriam, and Menuchin.

Strong and slow as a bear was the oldest, Jonas; sly and nimble was the son Shemariah; thoughtless and coquettish as a gazelle, the sister Miriam.”

The youngest Menuchin is deformed, can hardly walk and can only say the one word, “Mama”.

Barely earning a living for himself and his family, Mendel “instructed twelve six year-old scholars in the reading and memorizing of the Bible”. The family grows most of their own food in their garden. One gets a good picture of what life was like for the Jews in eastern Europe in the latter days of the 19th century. The Jewish people face daily humiliations by the other peasants.

For a thousand years, nothing good has ever come of it when a peasant asked a question and a Jew replied.”

The story is not politically correct and thus more vivid. This is life with all its faults and wrong turns and all. It is not at all unrelieved misery as one might assume a novel called ‘Job’ might be.

As Mendel is walking near a wheat field on his way home, he espies his daughter Miriam flirting with a Cossack (a Christian) and hiding among the wheat stalks. Miriam “is going with a Cossack”. This causes a sudden change of plans.

We will go to America. Menuchin must remain behind. We must take Miriam with us. Misfortune hangs over us if we stay.”

After they arrive in New York City, things go very well indeed for Mendel Singer. His son Shemariah (now called Sam) is already there in New York, became good friends with a Christian named Mac, and accumulated enough money to send for Mendel and the rest of the family. However the little one Menuchin, must stay behind since he is retarded and deformed.

Everyone wished Mendel luck. Some looked at him doubtfully; some envied him. But all said that America was a wonderful country. A Jew could wish for nothing better than to get to America.”

For a number of years everything goes very well for the family.

Russia is a sad country. America is a free country, a happy country, a gay country. Mendel would no longer be a teacher. A father with a rich son, that’s what he would be.”

Then World Wars I begins, and Mendel’s family is besieged by misfortunes.

Some readers may be turned off by the title ‘Job’. However it is not a depressing read at all, and the novel has an incredible upbeat ending. I found ‘Job’ to be a very lively and vivid read.

Roth’s advice appears to be, that if one is besieged by misfortunes, they should still hang in there and keep plugging away, some really good things might just happen yet.

However this novel was written in 1930, a few years before the Holocaust.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘Where the Light Falls’ by Nancy Hale – Eloquent and Keenly Observed Stories

 

‘Where the Light Falls’, selected stories by Nancy Hale (2019) – 347 pages

 

It makes me riotously angry that such a brilliant and important writer as Nancy Hale could fall out of public consciousness.” – Lauren Groff

On the surface, it would appear that no two writers could be more different than the two writers whose selected short stories I have read recently, Anna Kavan and Nancy Hale. Kavan and Hale do have in common that they were both active writing from the mid-1930s until the late 1960s. However their lives and styles of writing are totally different.

Anna Kavan of course is known for her heroin addiction, her asylum incarcerations, and her numerous suicide attempts. Meanwhile Nancy Hale, if she is remembered at all, is remembered as an elegant stylist who had eighty stories appear in the New Yorker, and ten of her stories received the O Henry Prize for fiction. Whereas Kavan’s stories are choppy and blunt and often grotesque, Hale’s stories are more readily accessible, more expansive, more traditional, smoother, and more readable.

Kavan and Hale also do have in common that they were both born into money. Nancy Hale was born to an upper class family in Boston and after her third marriage relocated to Virginia. If you happen to have the misfortune of being born into a family with money, you are probably stuck with writing about rich people. Hale wrote about rich people which is even the title of one of her stories.

Rich, they looked rich, irritated, fussy, with eyes bright as jewels; cynical, bored, unhappy.”

The well-to-do have their own set of problems. In Hale’s story “Sunday Lunch”, a young minister can sense through experience the emotional dynamics that are going on between the members of a family that he is visiting for lunch. The dynamics are not good. In her story “Crimson Autumn”, a college girl is in love with the star Harvard running back Davis, but finds herself thinking more and more about his best friend Richard.

I found all of the stories in this collection affecting, sharply observed, and enjoyable. Sure, these stories are not momentous or world shattering, but what’s wrong with something being entertaining and “merely pleasant”? You can always tell a good story collection when you are actually looking forward to reading the next story.

By the way, Nancy Hale’s life did have some turmoil. She had two failed marriages by her mid-thirties and also suffered a nervous breakdown and sought psychiatric treatment in a sanitarium. Later she would have a successful marriage that would last forty-five years.

The stories in ‘Where The Light Falls’ are steady and consistently interesting, not overwrought or excessive.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

 

 

‘Machines in the Head’, by Anna Kavan – Harrowing Stories

 

‘Machines in the Head’, selected stories by Anna Kavan   (2019) – 170 pages

 

As a writer, Anna Kavan was a one-off. Kavan is known for her freely admitted heroin addiction, her asylum incarcerations, and her numerous suicide attempts. Her fiction, especially her early stories, is taken from her shocking life.

Most of Kavan’s stories are in the first person. One story is about someone waiting to be institutionalized against her or his will. Another story is about lying on a psychiatrist’s couch being forced to remember what he or she did during a blackout of memory. Sadly these profoundly upsetting stories seem to come directly from Kavan’s own experiences.

They do not know what it means to be sad and alone in a cold room where the sun never shines.” – “Going Up in the World”

Anna Kavan did not become Anna Kavan until her mid-thirties, Up until then she had been Helen Ferguson who had already written 5 novels, all of which rarely get mentioned or read today. In 1940, she published a story collection called ‘Asylum Piece’ as Anna Kavan, tales about breakdown and forced institutionalization, which brought her to the world’s attention.

If the jailer looks into my mind now, I think he cannot raise any objection to what is going on there.” – “At Night”

These early Kavan stories are choppy, rough, and painful to read. It is difficult to get through more than a few pages at a time.

A later story, “The Fog”, is an outstanding story. “The Fog” is a first person story about someone driving a car who apparently runs over a teenager with their car in the fog. The driver freely admits to being a drug user:

I felt calmly contented and peaceful, and there was no need to rush. The feeling was injected of course. But it also seemed to have something to do with the fog and the windscreen wipers.” – “The Fog”

The driver says of the policeman who stops the speeding car, “I looked indifferently at his mass-produced nonentity’s face.”

Some of the later stories go beyond the limits of realism. In “The Visit”, a leopard appears one night and sleeps in her bed. The leopard shows up each night. Then one night the leopard leads her out of her house to show her something. That night there is a torrential rain and she hesitates to follow him. After that the leopard does not show up although she waits for him. What or who does the leopard represent?

One of Kavan’s main influences is Franz Kafka. My experience with reading Kafka has been that the main protagonists face ominous abstract amorphous threats to their existence. I find this quality also in Kavan’s work. I must admit that I prefer more definite, clear, and straightforward writing. I found the writing in these stories choppy without smooth transitions.

Anna Kavan stories often contain lucid descriptions of the trees, the plants and animals, the weather. Kavan got along fine with the natural world. It was only the human world that was fearful to her.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘An Explanation of the Birds’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes – A Stunning Portrait of a Hapless Fellow

 

‘An Explanation of the Birds’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes (1981) – 261 pages     Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith

 

Talk about darkly funny. ‘An Explanation of the Birds’ is an often uproarious novel about this Portuguese guy named Rui who ultimately commits suicide when he is 33 years old, We find this out quite early in the novel, but it doesn’t spoil the comedy somehow.

Rui’s father is a successful industrialist who owns his own business. His father is severely disappointed when Rui takes up history in college.

One of my father-in-law’s cherished dreams,” Carlos said, “was that Rui would work for us, but the guy didn’t have the slightest knack for business. Come to think of it, he didn’t have much of a knack for anything.”

Rui’s upper-class first wife Tucha chimes in:

Sexually, I’ve never seen such a washout, he couldn’t get it up, he’d get all frustrated, apologize, cry. I don’t know why you’re so interested in him, nobody else is.”

And Rui’s second wife the communist Marilia has her say:

And not only your father,” she added in a wrathful torrent, “but also your mother, your sisters, your brothers-in-law, the whole shitload. First class assholes.”

Marilia again:

My relationship with you was like a time-out in my life,” Marilia explained, wiping her mouth on the sleeve. “I discovered that marriage wasn’t for me, you see; there are other things that mean a lot more to me.”

‘The Explanation of the Birds’ is part stream-of-consciousness, part remembrance, part Greek chorus, and part eulogy of “his unremittingly hapless existence”. Each sentence, some of which are pages long, crackles with its own manic energy.

The novel is written in a kaleidoscopic modernist disjointed fashion which is often confusing. The author juxtaposes several separate story lines without any transitions which often threw this reader off. However I see the novel as challenging rather than difficult. I got a lot out of reading ‘An Explanation of the Birds’. If I had paid more exacting attention, I’m sure I would have even gotten a lot more.

And then there are always the birds.

A flock of sparrows hopped among the reeds on the shore, the heavy moldy lagoon smelled like an unwashed armpit: something along the way went kaput, life took an abrupt ninety degree turn, and here I am more lost than ever.”

The novel it most reminded me of is ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’, about the only United States classic to come out of the 1960s. Though written in the 1960s, ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ was not published until 1980, by which time its author John Kennedy Toole had already committed suicide in disgust and discouragement in 1969. To compare a novel to ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ is high praise indeed. However ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ is a much easier read than ‘An Explanation of the Birds’.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

Who Does an Aging Rocker Listen To? Jerome Kern

 

My fascination with Jerome Kern all started a few years ago when I somehow wound up with a CD by Light Opera of New York of the musical comedy or light opera ‘Sally’ with music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Clifford Grey, and book by Guy Bolton. ‘Sally’ was first produced by Florenz Ziegfeld on Broadway in 1920 and ran for 570 performances, one of the longest runs on Broadway up to that time. It was based on a 19th century show called ‘Sally in Our Alley’.

This lively ‘Sally’ recording is a delight for me to which I listen over and over as I drive around in my car. There is something buoyant and cheerful about this recording that puts a smile on my face every time I hear it. The young gal ‘Sally’ rises from lowly dishwasher to the star of the hotel lounge show. Besides a lighthearted and easy-to-follow story, the show has many wonderful songs with perhaps the most famous being ‘Look for the Silver Lining’. However the songs ‘Joan of Arc’, ‘The Schnitze-Komisske’, and several others are fun also. ‘Sally’ quickly established itself as my favorite musical.

I spent my youth like most of those my age listening to rock and pop. I still keep an ever-changing and ever-expanding playlist of favorites on Spotify to which I have now added some of the songs from ‘Sally’. But what about this Jerome Kern? Here was a songwriter I knew very little about.

Then I bought a compilation album ‘Capitol Sings Jerome Kern – The Song is You’. It features songs performed by various artists including Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, etc. It turns out that Jerome Kern wrote some of the most well-loved songs of all time: ‘Ol’ Man River’, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’, ‘A Fine Romance’. Perhaps his most famous work is the musical ‘Showboat’ to which I still have not sufficiently listened. That will be my next Jerome Kern.

Some of the performances on this compilation album are from the 1950s and have somewhat insipid arrangements, but still the joy shines through. It would be a good opportunity for some musicians today to come up with new arrangements for these classic songs.

Jerome Kern died in 1945 at the age of sixty, before I was born. Now almost eighty years later, his songs still enrapture at least one person, me.

 

 

 

 

‘When I Sing, Mountains Dance’ by Irene Solà – A Celebration of Human and Other Nature in All its Mess

 

‘When I Sing, Mountains Dance’ by Irene Solà (2019) – 198 pages             Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem

 

So you don’t consider nature a mess? Consider birth. I rest my case. Now have I convinced you? A glorious mess. Most fiction hides all the grisly details and just tells you that a baby has been born. The novel ‘When I Sing, Mountains Dance’ revels and dwells on all the gore as well as the glory. It is all part of nature, the crudities that are inescapably part of nature as well as the beauty.

Notice that this novel is translated from the Catalan rather than from the Spanish. The Catalans are citizens of Catalonia which is a region in northern Spain in and near the Pyrenees Mountains. The largest city in Catalonia is Barcelona. The Catalans have their own language.

It’s a damp morning. I inhale bringing all that clean wet pure mountain air into my lungs. That aroma of earth and tree and morning. It’s no surprise the people up here are better, more authentic, more human, breathing this air every day. And drinking the water from this river.”

In ‘When I Sing, Mountains Dance’, each chapter is a separate monologue from a separate point of view. The point of view might be that of a cloud or a group of black chanterelle mushrooms or a young roe-buck deer or one of the humans who live in this neighborhood of the Pyrenees. In other words, you might say in more conventional fashion that this novel is a group of unusual interconnected stories.

Emotions are more naked up here too. More raw. More authentic. Life and death, life and death and instinct and violence are present in every single moment up here. The rest of us, we’ve forgotten how sublime life is.”

Here are the black chanterelle mushrooms speaking to us:

There is no pain, if you’re a mushroom! Rain fell and we grew plump. The rain stopped and we grew thirsty. Hidden, out of sight, waiting for the cool night. The dry days came and we disappeared. The cool night came and we waited for more. The damp night came, the damp day came, and we grew. Full. Full of all the things. Full of knowledge and wisdom and spores.”

I am not at all sure this is the way mushrooms speak, so fervently. The mushrooms speak for three tightly written full pages. They won’t shut up.

In another chapter, a very young roe-buck deer speaks to us for five pages.

Here is not only the natural but also the supernatural, witches and ghosts.

The art, the poetic flourishes, sometimes got in the way of the straight facts of the story for me so that I could not fully understand and appreciate what was really happening. Sometimes I was moved by the poetic excesses of the text without fully understanding the basic plot.

Sometimes I wished that the writing was drier, somewhat less earthy, more plain and less poetic. However it is also somewhat refreshing to encounter a writer who lets it all hang out.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘Willful Disregard’ by Lena Andersson – An Unrequited Love Story

 

‘Willful Disregard’ by Lena Andersson (2013) – 196 pages               Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

 

She was by turns furious with him and filled with enormous tenderness and love for everything he had ever touched or been touched by (with certain obvious exceptions).”

This is the story of the Stockholm writer Ester and the artist Hugo.

Ester is sent by her employer to interview the famous artist Hugo Rask. They seem to hit it off during the interview and he asks her out to lunch following the interview. She immediately falls intensely in love with him.

Passion was raging inside her. It’s internal combustion engines were firing on all cylinders. She was living on air.”

However although Hugo sleeps with her three times during the next six days, he wants to avoid a close tie with her at all costs. They were intimate for a few days and Ester thought they were starting a relationship. However after that, Hugo just doesn’t call or contact her for weeks, and Ester almost goes crazy.

She calls him repeatedly and he doesn’t answer. She lingers outside his house and studio when she knows he’s in there. She texts him repeatedly. Still no answer. You might say she almost stalks him. Hugo makes it quite clear that he doesn’t want an ongoing relationship with Esther, but she somehow never gets the message. She keeps grabbing at straws, looking for the smallest signs that he hasn’t totally dropped her.

Something that had been of crucial importance to her had been nothing but a way of passing the time for Hugo.”

Over and over, Hugo gives some small sign that he might not be as disinterested in Ester as he seems, and Ester builds her hopes up to only once again be disappointed. It gets quite repetitive. I kept waiting for something else to happen, but it never does. Ester never comes to her senses that this guy Hugo is not really interested in her anyway. Her persistence may be because Hugo Rask is a world-famous artist.

Only a famous artist could get away with this behavior and still retain the good opinion of Ester. Finally she rings his doorbell and confronts him. Hugo claims he has been extremely busy with his art with no time to spare. She thinks:

How can anyone be so stupid as to believe it’s to do with time when people give time as their excuse?”

One wishes and hopes that Ester would give up on Hugo as a lost cause, maybe even hate him a little or a lot, but that never happens.

If she could only purge herself of that longing for contact.”

Despite my finding the occasional views expressed on current political events rather lame, I found the intensity and insights into this unrequited love plight did hold my interest and attention. Some of Ester’s insights seem quite profound at first but begin to wear thin as her obsession with Hugo continues.

Who is right or wrong here, Ester or Hugo?

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘Gentleman Overboard’ by Herbert Clyde Lewis – All Alone in the Middle of the Ocean

 

‘Gentleman Overboard’ by Herbert Clyde Lewis   (1937) – 152 pages

 

I have often asked myself, “Is there no more to United States literature than what I have already discovered? ”Somehow it seems that the limited United States literary history is set in concrete with the same old names recurring over and over again. Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. It is rare to find anything written about any other writers. The last great United States literary figure who I discovered was Dawn Powell, and that was almost thirty years ago. Is there no one or nothing else in the United States literary past to uncover? Whereas in the British and Irish Isles, every three weeks or so a formerly neglected author will be at long last remembered, in the United States it’s nearly always the same old, same old names.

However this week I have discovered a new long-neglected author and novel from the United States. That author is Herbert Clyde Lewis, and his novel is ‘Gentleman Overboard’ which was written in 1937. It was republished recently by Boiler House Press after being out of print for 70 years.

‘Gentleman Overboard’ is the seemingly simple story of a businessman from New York falling off his ship as it sails from Hawaii to Panama, and thus he is left floating in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean.

In the novel, Henry Preston Standish is a thirty-five year old quite successful manager at a New York brokerage firm who lives in a well-appointed apartment in Central Park West in New York City with his wife Olivia and their two small children. Adventure was missing from his life so he goes on this long cruise vacation by himself. Little did he know that he would wind up floating by himself in the Pacific Ocean with no ship in sight.

Of all the idiotic tricks since time began, he decided rather heatedly, falling off a ship into the middle of the ocean was by far the most colossal. It was so stupid, so absolutely without reason or precedent, so out of place for a man in his position!”

It may seem an obvious story, but here is a man floating in the ocean with little hope of rescue contemplating his fate and his entire life. Meanwhile those on the ship wonder what happened to him. It becomes existential, something we can all relate to. The novel is written in clean spare affecting prose.

Herbert Clyde Lewis in his early 20s

The author Herbert Clyde Lewis wrote three novels as a young man between 1937 and 1940, ‘Gentleman Overboard’ the first. His novels received favorable reviews but met with limited success. He and his wife then moved to Hollywood for him to work as a screenwriter, and one of his scripts, ‘It Happened on Fifth Avenue’, did receive an Academy Award nomination in 1947. However by then he had sided with those Hollywood figures who had been blacklisted for possible Communist infiltration in the film industry and faced blacklisting himself when an FBI informant identified Lewis as a member of the Communist Party. He was drinking heavily. He moved back to New York alone without his wife. He filed for bankruptcy and was found dead in his apartment at the age of 41 in 1950.

‘Gentleman Overboard’ is a lost gem of a short novel that has now been found again. It is a welcome addition to the United States literary canon.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘The Blunderer’ by Patricia Highsmith – “Proof is not the thing. Doubt is the thing.”

 

‘The Blunderer’ by Patricia Highsmith (1954) – 265 pages

 

No, ‘The Blunderer’ is not my biography.

Although the US crime author Patricia Highsmith was never married, she understood the complications, the petty differences, that can arise between a husband and wife. These differences usually start out as being quite minor, but after repeated instances and increasing aggravations, they often turn into major altercations.

Highsmith captures how we real people think, and takes it just a little farther into the realm of murder. Thus some of us can strongly identify with the murderer or the victim or at least with the situation. Above all, Highsmith’s crime stories and novels are psychologically astute.

A lesser writer would make the good guys and gals really good and the bad guys and gals really bad. However in ‘The Blunderer’, you probably will empathize with a murderer and fully understand and relate to his or her motivations. Highsmith does not let you off the hook.

In ‘The Blunderer’, the lawyer Walter Stackhouse has a fine upstanding life in his suburban New York City home. He gets along well with his many friends, his neighbors, his fellow workers, etc. His wife Clara also earns good money as a real estate agent. They have a maid Claudia to take care of their home. They don’t have children. The couple Walter and Clara get invited to frequent parties and they occasionally host a party at their house.

There is only one problem for Walter. His wife Clara’s overbearing behavior is alienating his friends and associates and spoiling his life.

It isn’t enough anymore to be in love with you physically – because mentally I despise you,” Walter said quietly.

Walter becomes fascinated, obsessed with this news story where a woman in Newark has been killed during a bus rest stop. Walter even drives to Newark to meet that woman’s husband.

I won’t relate any more of the plot, since there are many surprises.

One of the main characters in the novel is the police detective Corby. The way that Corby manhandles suspects, it’s obvious this novel was written before the Miranda ruling of the accuseds’ rights of 1966.

‘The Blunderer’ is a psychologically intense novel with many twists and turns.

A Young Patricia Highsmith

Patricia’s Highsmith’s first novel ‘Strangers on a Train’, published in 1950, was soon after made into an acclaimed movie by Alfred Hitchcock. However in the Author’s Notes in the back of ‘The Blunderer’ it says that despite this, Highsmith was unappreciated in the United States for the entire length of her career.

By now, I expect that Patricia Highsmith probably has more readers than just about any other US author from that time.

 

 

Grade:   B

‘Marrow and Bone’ by Walter Kempowski – A Young German Man Visits East Prussia, Now Part of Poland

 

‘Marrow and Bone’ by Walter Kempowski  (1992) – 188 pages        Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

 

German author Walter Kempowski was punished by the Nazis as a teenager and later imprisoned for 9 years by the East German Communists. In other words, he is my kind of hero. Walter Kempowski was also an exceptional fiction writer, especially in his novel ‘All For Nothing’ about the last days of World War II in East Prussia.

‘Marrow and Bone’, originally translated as ‘Homeland’, is a very different work of fiction from that novel. Whereas ‘All For Nothing’ is a deeply imagined and intensely moving work of historical fiction, ‘Marrow and Bone’ is ironic, deadpan, and topical, taking place at nearly the time it was written in 1992. Some of the offhand observations in ‘Marrow and Bone’ are ones that the German people of that time could more readily appreciate than us outsiders. It is contemporary fiction aimed at the Germans of the time and risks being somewhat outdated now. However ‘Marrow and Bone’ still has its rewards for today’s readers.

A young Hamburg writer, Jonathan Fabrizius, decides to go on a road trip to what was formerly East Prussia and which is now part of Poland, his expenses paid for by a Japanese auto manufacturer. Both his parents lived in East Prussia, and both died near the end of World War II.

Jonathan’s girlfriend Ulla does not accompany him since she is busy with her project organizing depictions of cruelty in art for an exhibition. Besides Ulla and Jonathan have not been getting along very well anyway.

Cruelty? The subject was infinite.”

This is an example of Kempowski’s irony. Ulla is studying cruelty throughout history but has no interest in Poland where 6 million citizens were killed as a direct result of the German Nazis. She’s too busy with her cruelty project, and she’s had enough of “that Jewish stuff”.

The author’s sarcasm is directed at the attitudes of these young Germans toward their Nazi past and even the Holocaust. These young Germans are preoccupied with all their new gadgets, and touring an old concentration camp from World War II is such a bore.

Anyway Jonathan goes on this road trip through Danzig, now Gdansk, all the way to eastern Poland to what was East Prussia. He still wants to refer to these villages and cities by their old German names rather than their new Polish names. Jonathan has the typical German disdain for the Poles.

Gdansk, Poland Today

A lot of the sarcasm here went over my head. One would need to better understand the opinions and attitudes that Germans and Poles have had about each other through the ages to fully appreciate some of the subtle humor here.

Only when Jonathan visits the church where his fleeing mother died giving him birth at the end of World War II and only when he visits the Vistula Spit where his father was killed in battle is Jonathan finally moved.

My final grade for ‘Marrow and Bone’ is probably more a result of my not fully comprehending some of the ironies and sarcasm here rather than deficiencies in the novel itself.

 

Grade:    C+

 

 

‘Lolly Willowes’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner – The Transformation of Laura

 

‘Lolly Willowes’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner   (1926) – 222 pages

 

‘Lolly Willowes’ is what I would call a serious comedy about a single woman who finds a very unusual, definitely bizarre, and highly effective way to achieve her goal. And what is Laura’s goal? To keep her other family members and anyone else from interfering in her single life.

Her father being dead, they took it for granted that she should be absorbed into the household of one brother or the other. And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best.”

Laura likes to wander the hills and valleys looking for herbs, flowers, weeds, and other plants to boil into concoctions. In this, she shows herself to be the true heir of her ancestors who created a brewery where beer is distilled from various plants and grains. However she will be given no chance to operate the brewery, since her brothers were designated to run the operation.

World War I was even more brutal than World War II in terms of the large number of soldiers who were severely injured or killed. After the war, there was a large surplus of women to men in England and other places. Thus many women remained unmarried.

Instead of having a place or a life of their own, these middle-aged English single women, then called spinsters, would live with their close relatives’ families as somewhat of a fifth wheel on a four-wheel car. Her nieces and nephews do not call her Laura; they call her Aunt Lolly.

There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature, and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the history of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayer-book, the Bank of England, prostitution, the architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other props of civilization.”

After many years, Laura finally escapes the clutches of her extended family and goes to live in rural Great Mop which is in the Chiltern Hills. Here she has the best time of her life wandering the hills and valleys, picking flowers and herbs, and visiting with her neighbors. It was “lovely to live at your own sweet will” and she was “pleased to be left to herself”. She is just beginning to enjoy herself, when her nephew Titus shows up. Titus is the one relative who is the closest in attitude and avocation to Laura, but she still resents his intrusion into her new life.

When she was with him she came to heel and resumed her old employment of being Aunt Lolly. There is no way out.”

However Laura does indeed find a way out, as I said before, in a highly unorthodox manner.

Towards the end of ‘Lolly Willowes’, Laura gives a long impassioned speech (to Satan) on the plight not just of single women but of all women. If you get a chance, read it carefully. It still rings true.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Black Cloud Rising’ by David Wright Falade – Literally Fighting for Their Freedom

 

‘Black Cloud Rising’ by David Wright Falade   (2022) – 290 pages

 

Imagine a troop of black soldiers marching in the South of the United States in 1863, freeing the slaves on the farms and plantations there.

‘Black Cloud Rising’ tells a fictionalized account of the experiences of the real person Richard Etheridge. Richard was born a slave in 1842 on one of the islands of the Outer Banks near Virginia. When the Civil War started, these islands were among the first to be recaptured by the forces of the Union. In 1863, Richard became a Sergeant in the African Brigade, a recently-formed black troop. One of the first duties of the African Brigade was to go around to the various farms in rural Virginia and actually emancipate the slaves living on these farms. As the slaves were being freed, many of the men would then enlist in the African Brigade.

‘Black Cloud Rising’ takes off to a rousing start when the slaves on one farm tell the troops how their owner used to beat them using a whipping post. The troops then subject the owner to a beating using his own equipment.

Later the African Brigade moves into North Carolina. There they had to deal with the bushwhackers, loosely formed Rebel guerrilla groups who would be particularly cruel to these ex-slaves if they could get away with it. Some of the white slave owners took off to Texas keeping their slaves.

We will be in the enemy’s country, men, so look sharp and bring pride to the African Brigade.”

Some of the white officers expressed surprise at how fiercely the black troops fought. But black soldiers were fighting for much more than restoring the Union. They were fighting to liberate their people.

Since, in the days of slavery, the slave owners themselves often took on the task of impregnating the young female slaves in order to replenish their slave supply, you had situations where the white and black children on the farm or plantation were nearly all half-brothers or half-sisters, and they would play together as little kids. Later the black kids would be put to work from sunup to sundown, while the owners would tell their white kids not to associate with the black kids, their half-brothers and half-sisters, anymore.

Thus in some cases, the Civil War was a family feud, with half-brother fighting his half-brother.

Richard’s half-brother Patrick uses the N-word, and Richard calls him on it. Then Patrick says, “It’s different with you, we come up together. You’re like family”.

Like family? Patrick, you and I are family.”

The upper echelon of officers in the African Brigade were white. Some of these white officers were better than others.

As I said before, ‘Black Cloud Rising’ is a rousing lively novel dealing with a little-mentioned aspect of the Civil War. This is a dramatic stirring historical novel.

At one point, we get a first-hand account of the public hanging of a bushwhacker.

How well did the members of the African Brigade perform as soldiers? One of the white officers of the African Brigade, Colonel Draper, said:

It seems to me that what makes you and your lot good soldiers has to do with what was beaten into you to make you learn to submit. Soldiers and slaves, their daily surrender to authority was similar.”

As for me, I expect they performed as well as many of the black players in the major sports leagues of football, baseball, and basketball today. In other words, I have no doubt that they probably excelled as soldiers.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘Cold Enough for Snow’ by Jessica Au – A Sightseeing and Shopping Trip to Japan With Her Mother

 

‘Cold Enough for Snow’ by Jessica Au   (2022) – 95 pages

 

Instead of a heavy-duty plot or unusual characters, the novella ‘Cold Enough for Snow’ flows from subject to subject like a stream. It has a quiet strength which requires attention.

A grown-up daughter has taken her mother on a sightseeing and shopping trip to Tokyo, Japan. As well as this elliptical mysterious story of a daughter and her mother, we get views of and insights into some of the major tourist places within and near Tokyo. It saved me an airplane ticket. Japan has an atmosphere all its own, and here we get meticulous descriptions of some of its features.

Inside a beautiful church they are touring, the daughter asks her mother a question.

I asked my mother what she believed about the soul, and she thought for a moment. Then looking not at me, but at the hard white light before us, she said that she believed we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting”.

Here is an example of the kind of quiet wisdom you will find in ‘Cold Enough for Snow’ if you pay attention.

I thought of how, at the bathhouse, the babies and younger children had clung to their mothers as they bathed them, tipping water over their heads while holding up a hand to protect their eyes, how they did not feel separated from each other yet, but rather still part of the same body, the same spirit. There was a time when my sister and I would have felt the same.”

Mother and little child, “how they did not feel separated from each other yet, but rather still part of the same body, the same spirit”. Priceless, and something I had never considered before, and I very well could have missed it.

Other times I got impatient with some of the lengthy descriptions that did not advance the plot, whatever there is of a plot.

There is an enigma between the daughter and her mother throughout this novella which is never fully explicated, which is probably a good thing.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘Blank Pages’ by Bernard MacLaverty – An Irish/Scottish Master of the Short Story

 

‘Blank Pages’ by Bernard MacLaverty, stories (2021) – 259 pages

 

Since this is ‘Blank Pages’, it was a very quick read. Just kidding.

I had the good luck, though not actually good luck since I do pay attention to what’s going on in the world of fiction, to discover Bernard MacLaverty quite early in his career in the early 1980s. At that point, he had written two novellas, ‘Cal’ and ‘Lamb’, and only two collections of stories. I have been keeping up with his work ever since.

His latest collection of stories, ‘Blank Pages’ is another winner as his collections of stories usually are.

In these stories, MacLaverty captures the poignancy of everyday routine domestic life. Most of these stories take place or at least start out in the home, usually in Ireland or Scotland. His characters frequently live alone or with one close relative in an often seedy apartment. MacLaverty has always been able to find the pathos and feeling without resorting to wild plots or flashy techniques.

In ‘The Fairly Good Samaritan’, a man in his fifties spends most of his days and nights drinking at the bar or in his room. Here his landlady talks to him:

You need someone to help you mend your ways, m’boy.”

I’m much too old to change now.”

It matters not how crooked the hook, the picture can be hung straight.”

That’s the kind of stuff she comes out with all the time. When the lecturing starts, he always nods his head and stares vaguely in the direction of the window.

In the story the man comes back from the bar to find her lying on the floor. Drunk as he is, he saves her life.

Many of these stories manage to deal with mortality without becoming morbid. The final story is about a man escaping almost certain death. Yet the stories are quite sociable with a lot of dialogue.

In MacLaverty’s previous novella called ‘Midwinter Break’, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the mundane circumstances of the few characters, and I downgraded it for that reason. However, here, with 12 different stories and different characters in each story, I feel MacLaverty is just sketching ordinary plain life as it is lived. With the everydayness spread and dispersed over so many different stories and characters and each separate story so moving, it presented no problem at all in this excellent collection.

My favorite story in the ‘Blank Pages’ collection is the first story, “A Love Picture”. Nothing is more unexpected or moving than a small act of kindness given by one person to another person.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘Fictional Father’ by Joe Ollmann – Sonny Side Up

‘Fictional Father’, a graphic novel, by Joe Ollmann    (2021) – 192 pages

 

Whereas other publishers’ comics are loud and violent and repetitive with their endless stockpile of superheroes and super-villains, the Montreal, Canada publishing house Drawn and Quarterly produces comics and graphic novels that are subtle, moody, nuanced, and human. These are graphic novels that could actually qualify as fiction and literature.

‘Fictional Father’ is about a cartoonist who is very famous and beloved for his daily comic strip ‘Sonny Side Up’ which features an adoring father and his little boy, but in real life the cartoonist is actually a terrible father.

The critics of the comic strip say, “Who knew that the relationship of a father and son could be so dog-gone funny? And heartfelt?”, yet the real cartoonist father locks himself up in his home office and never has any time for his kid.

Along the way in this amusing story we get a lot of commentary on the state of the newspaper comic strip industry (not good) and the famous comic strips and their makers: Dennis the Menace by Hank Ketcham, Peanuts by Charles Schultz, the Family Circus by Bill Keane, Hi and Lois, Blondie, even Dilbert and others. Nobody reads newspapers anymore, so apparently the future is in graphic novels.

The son is grown up now, trying to make it as an artist (not a comic book artist), and living with his boyfriend James. There are all these unresolved issues from his childhood and from his parents that intrude. And then his father, the famous comic strip artist, dies. Should the son take over for his father and continue the daily comic strip ‘Sonny and Me’? He could do it, but should he?

His roommate and partner tells him,

It’s pathetic, fretting over how many Likes you get. Jesus, I’m embarrassed even saying “Likes…”

You’re a grown man, Cal. Are you really that desperate?”

‘Fictional Father’ is a fine example of the humor, the artwork, and the depth of story that can be achieved in the graphic novel. It has a cohesive plot, well-defined characters, vivid scene-setting, and at times is a laugh riot.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan – The Magdalene Laundries

 

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan    (2021) – 114 pages

The main subject of ‘Small Things Like These’ is a Magdalene Laundry located in the small town of New Ross in Ireland in the year 1985. Magdalene Laundries were mostly Roman Catholic institutions that operated from the 18th century to the late 20th century, ostensibly to house and employ “fallen women”. They were often owned and operated by convents.

According to one of the girls working in this Magdalene Laundry:

Those were put in there because “they hadn’t a soul in the world to care for them. All their people did was leave them wild and then, when they got into trouble, they turned their backs.”

Many of the laundries were effectively operated as penitentiary workhouses. The young women locked up there had to work long hours, the heat in these laundries was often unbearable, and the women were subject to severe punishment. Most of the public outside figured it was OK since it was being run by the Church.

In a mass grave at the Donnybrook Cemetery in Dublin, Ireland, 155 unmarked tombs were found that touched off a scandal that exposed the horrific treatment of the inmates of these Magdalene laundries. The deaths of these women were shrouded in secrecy. The last Magdalene laundries closed in 1996.

‘Small Things Like These’ is about a husband and father with four small daughters who happens in 1985 to find out what is going on in one of these Magdalene Laundries. This man has a differing perspective than most, since his mother was left unmarried to raise him alone with the help of a kind employer.

This father is told to keep his nose out of the convent’s business:

Tis no business of mine, as I’ve said, but surely you must know these nuns have a finger in every pie.”

Even though the events in the novel are said to take place in 1985, ‘Small Things Like These’ feels like it could have occurred a hundred years ago. The more things don’t change, the more they stay the same. Excuse me for the tautology.

Claire Keegan makes absolutely no concessions to modern attitudes or times; her scenes and her characters are almost Dickensian. Every scene, every remembrance, every sentence has a moral purpose. I’m not criticizing; it’s just that it’s an out-of-fashion way to write.

 

Grade:    A-

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: