‘The Light in the Piazza’ by Elizabeth Spencer – First a Novella, Then a Movie, and Then a Broadway Musical

 

‘The Light in the Piazza’ by Elizabeth Spencer    (1960) 110 pages

 

Set in Florence, Italy, the unique captivating plot of ‘The Light in the Piazza’ is likely the reason that it has inspired both a movie in 1962 and a Broadway play, a musical no less, in 2005 based on the novella. Now the musical is being put on by theater groups nearly everywhere.

Here is the setup. Mrs. Margaret Johnson and her 20 year old daughter Clara are in Florence as part of their extended stay in Italy as tourists from North Carolina. As Clara hurries to see a historical marker, she bumps into 22 year old Italian Fabrizio Naccarelli. From the get-go, he is entirely smitten with Clara, and in the following days he shows up wherever Mrs. Johnson and Clara happen to be. He buys and sends elaborate gifts to Clara, never mind that Clara can speak no Italian and Fabrizio speaks very little English. Soon Mrs. Johnson and Clara meet the entire Naccarelli family.

However there is a backstory. Due to a childhood injury when she was kicked in the head by a Palomino horse, Clara has the mental age of a child of ten. The accident with the horse has not affected Clara in any physical way nor her striking beauty. Deep in her heart of hearts, Mrs Johnson hopes that Clara can lead a normal life despite her injury. Should she encourage Fabrizio in his romantic intentions for Clara or should she discourage him? That is the question.

The author Elizabeth Spencer displays a sure grasp of human nature in this novella. What mother would not want the best for her daughter even in these difficult unusual circumstances? The language difficulties between Italian and English might conceal her daughter’s problems to some extent. Fabrizio might behave like your stereotypical Italian guy, but stereotypes arise in the first place because there is some truth of them, And of course Mrs. Johnson’s businessman husband Noel would not understand the subtleties of the situation going on here in Florence.

Although Elizabeth Spencer wrote several other well-regarded works, she will likely most always be remembered for this novella.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Eight Days in May’ by Volker Ullrich – A Reckoning for a Country Which was Severely Misled

 

‘Eight Days in May – The Final Collapse of the Third Reich’ by Volker Ullrich   (2020) – 271 pages          Translated from the German by Jefferson Chase

 

My favorite non-fiction of the year? Not a difficult question. This is my first foray into nonfiction this year.

As one of the German officers in a Russian prisoner of war camp put it, “You repeatedly clutch your head in disbelief that we all followed this lunatic.”

This is the story of Germany during the eight days after Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide on April 30, 1945 by taking cyanide pills. Hitler had designated Karl Donitz as his successor. On the following day, Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda murdered their six children, and then both committed suicide.

The Third Reich has dissipated like an apparition.” – Ruth Andreas-Friedrich

They were not alone. The city of Berlin alone reported more than 7,000 suicides in 1945. In the small town of Demmin in northeastern Germany, up to a 1,000 people killed themselves in “their almost apocalyptic fear of the advancing Soviets” as the Russian army advanced into the town.

Fascism, which had almost overwhelmed our world, which had almost ruined it, and which had caused more obscene misery to more human beings than any other movement in recorded time, was being buried with the men who had made and led it.” – William Shirer

While English Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was negotiating a peace for the western part of Germany, one of the German military leaders asked him if some of the units fighting the Russians could surrender to the English. Montgomery replied, “The Germans should have thought of all these things before they began the war and particularly before they attacked the Russians in June 1941”.

As the Allied forces finally liberated the concentration camps, few Germans were prepared to confront the facts and their own involvement in them. “We didn’t know!” became like a national chant for Germany. Nearly all the Germans denied they were ever Nazi supporters or avoided acknowledging their own complicity in Nazism. Hanna Arendt diagnosed in the German people, “a deep-rooted, stubborn, and at times vicious refusal to face and come to terms with what really happened”.

Every one of the millions of Nazi Party members was also culpable for Germany’s disaster.” – Friedrich Kellner

German armed forces surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945 and spontaneous celebrations erupted around the world.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘Paradise’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah – An African Novel by Someone Who Really Likes Africa and Africans

 

‘Paradise’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah    (1994) – 247 pages

 

No, I am not going to claim to have more literary knowledge than the committee which picks the Nobel Literature winner. A writer’s stock rises and falls, there are revaluations and reappraisals. A writer may be neglected for decades like one of my personal favorites Dawn Powell, and then become an icon. Other writers remain neglected.

The stock of Abdulrazak Gurnah is definitely on the rise. If he is lucky, he will not become another Dario Fo or Sully Prudhomme or others who have been nearly forgotten despite winning the Nobel prize for literature.

‘Paradise’ is written by a guy who obviously likes Africa and Africans, so its perspective is much different from that of many Europeans who wrote about it and were terrified by Africa. ‘Paradise’ is not portentous like ‘Heart of Darkness’, far from it.

‘Paradise’ has qualities we don’t usually associate with novels about Africa. It is playful, and its descriptions capture the human qualities of the people as well as the beauty of the land. It depicts the great variety of people and places in Africa.

Our 12 year old boy Yusuf has the good fortune to have been born to a family living on the coast, and his father runs a hotel. However his father gets in debt to the Arab trader Uncle Aziz (not really Yusuf’s uncle), and Yusuf is handed over to Uncle Aziz to live and work for him. We accompany Yusuf on Uncle Aziz’s trading trips into the interior of Africa to trade with “the savages” there.

‘Paradise’ is the coming of age story of Yusuf as he loses his naivety and discovers how the world really works. There are many lighthearted moments mixed in with times of high drama.

‘Paradise’ takes place just before World War I which is when the Germans had become the dominant group in this part of eastern Africa which is now Tanzania. The Germans are always referred to as “the Europeans” and are known by the Africans to be more ruthless and cruel than anyone else.

Everything is in turmoil. Those Europeans are very determined, and as they fight over the prosperity of the earth they will crush all of us. You’d be a fool to think they are here to do anything that is good. It isn’t trade they’re after but the land itself. And everything in it. . . us.”

Many of the customs in this part of eastern Africa are strange to us. A man, especially a rich trader like Uncle Aziz, can have more than one wife. And the various tribes of “savages” in the interior can have even stranger customs than that.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

In ‘Paradise’ we get a more complicated, more varied, picture of Africa and Africans than we get in most novels written from outside. There are unfamiliar and unusual African customs and practices, but there is also much joking and camaraderie.

So how does ‘Paradise’ differ from other accounts of journeys into the interior of Africa such as Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’? Nearly all agree that the Africans, even those known as “savages”, are no match for the Europeans when it comes to cruelty or heartlessness. So, after World War II, is there anyone who will argue against it?

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Faces’ by Tove Ditlevsen – Almost Too Painful to Read

 

‘The Faces’, a novella, by Tove Ditlevsen (1968) – 151 pages            Translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally

 

‘The Faces’ is a disturbing Danish novella that is almost too painful to read. It is about a woman’s sojourn in an insane asylum, and it is not as though she was put there wrongly or incorrectly.

At the beginning of ‘The Faces’, the renowned author Lise is lying in bed. Her fabulous writing talent is still with her. You can tell that by the words and similes she uses. However her constant use of sleeping pills has taken its toll and has done terrible damage to her psyche. You can tell she is sliding down the rabbit hole of insanity.

She has a husband, Kurt, who discusses his other mistresses with her. At the outset of ‘The Faces’, he tells his wife while she is lying in bed that one of his mistresses, Grete, has committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Later, he has the maid take Lise’s sleeping pills away from her.

Lise finds the sleeping pills in the maid’s room, and after her own overdose on sleeping pills, Lise is first taken to the unlocked ward of the insane asylum. However she scratches a woman in the face there, so she is put in the locked ward where she is belted to the bed.

She hears voices, voices from her family which tell her that her husband, her maid, and her daughter are plotting against her. She has hallucinations, and the reader can never be sure if what she hears and sees is real or not.

Do you hear voices?” she asked.

Of course,” said Lise. “You hear them too.”

No,” she said adamantly, shaking her head. “All the voices you hear come from inside yourself.”

It dawned on Lise that the whole staff must be in on the plot.

If I believed that,” she said, “I would be insane.”

You aren’t well, you know.”

Lise is hallucinating that her maid Gitte is one of the nurses in the locked ward.

Just listen to how meek she is,” said Gitte triumphantly’ “She thinks she’s going to go home again. As if anyone has ever gotten out of here alive.”

Is it true that Lise’s husband is having an affair with her daughter, his step-daughter? We don’t know if this is something that is happening or one of her hallucinations.

The author of ‘The Faces’, Tove Ditlevsen, was a renowned Danish author and poet herself. She was very prolific; in her lifetime she published 29 books. Ditlevsen struggled with alcohol and drug abuse throughout her adult life, and she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital several times. She died by suicide overdosing on sleeping pills in 1976, aged 58.

Ditlevsen’s astute use of similes and metaphors throughout ‘The Faces’ makes this novella a compelling if harrowing read.

 

Grade:   B+

 

Afternoon Men’ by Anthony Powell – Wayward Young Men and Women

 

‘Afternoon Men’ by Anthony Powell    (1931) – 221 pages

 

This is a novel about young men and young women in England in the early 1930s, but it will surely be real to life for many of us today.

These are young men and young women in their early twenties. The young men are volatile and unpredictable. The young women are capricious. Because that’s the way both sexes are at that age, wayward. Everything, including the future, is still up in the air.

There is lots of partying and drinking and camaraderie, a lot of dialogue. The writer Anthony Powell (rhymes with Lowell) captured the dynamics of this situation better than anyone else in his first novel ‘Afternoon Men’ which was published in 1931 when he was 25.

The main young guy to watch for is William Atwater, since he is in every scene and sees and hears all that is happening. Much of what is going on is light and amusing, but sometimes it is deadly serious. All is presented in a brisk fashion.

Atwater works in a museum. He finds his job dull, as most jobs right after college are dull. He spends most of his time away from the job socializing with his friends and drinking. He has a couple of close young woman friends, of which one Susan Nunnery he wants to get even closer despite her resistance. His two best male friends are Raymond Pringle and Hector Barlow, both of whom are toying with careers in creating art.

One of the many things that Anthony Powell captures in this novel is the way these young men and women talk, as there is much dialogue in ‘Afternoon Men’. Here is Atwater talking to Susan Nunnery between fights on a boxing night he has taken her to:

She said: “You’re rather sweet really.”

Aren’t I?”

Yes. But that’s how I feel.”

Anyway, I never see you, so it doesn’t make any difference.”

Well, if it doesn’t make any difference.”

Exactly.”

Don’t be like that,” she said.

Why not.”

I don’t like it.”

Nonsense.”

No,” she said. “I don’t.”

It can’t be helped. I’m like that.”

You’re being such a bore.”

I know.”

She said: “Why not be nice? You’re so nice sometimes.”

I don’t feel nice today.”

Anthony Powell as a writer is not flashy, and the power of his work will only creep up on you. Later, after ‘Afternoon Men’, Powell would write one of the lasting pillars of 20th century literature, the twelve-volume ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’. Each volume of that work is a separate stand-alone novel, although with the same characters. I have only put a couple of dents into that structure having read only 2 or 3 of its novels. However after reading ‘Afternoon Men’, I probably will be putting more dents into it.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘At Night All Blood is Black’ by David Diop – Trench War is Hell

 

‘At Night All Blood is Black’, a novella, by David Diop  (2018) 145 pages        Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis

 

‘At Night All Blood is Black’ has probably the best credentials of any novella or novel. It won both the prestigious French literary 2019 Prix Goncourt as well as the 2021 International Booker Prize. It is a brutal war novel depicting grisly trench battle scenes including disembowelment and evisceration during World War I. This novella is not for the faint of heart.

First a little of the background.

With World War I raging in Europe, African soldiers were forced to fight for their colonial masters between 1914 and 1918. France recruited more Africans than any other colonial power, sending 450,000 troops from West and North Africa to fight against the Germans in Europe on the front lines. These black troops were known as the Chocolat Soldiers. During the war, around 30,000 Africans died fighting on the side of France alone.

“People from Senegal, Ivory Coast and Mali died for France. It’s true that France colonized them, but it wasn’t their choice. You could almost say they died for nothing, at least not for their countries.” Clemence Kouame, an African student

‘At Night All Blood is Black’ vividly tells the ugly truth about trench warfare during World War I. Many more civilians were killed and wounded during World War II, but World War I was much worse for the soldiers who had to fight in those trenches.

This story begins with trench soldier Alfa Ndiaya from Senegal watching his more-than-brother friend Mademba Diop die after being stabbed in the stomach by a German soldier. While Mademba is pushing his own guts back into his stomach, he begs Alfa to shoot him to put him out of his misery quickly. Alfa cannot force himself to do that, and afterwards he feels tremendous guilt for not having shot his friend.

After his more-than-brother Mademba’s death, Alfa goes on his own murderous revenge spree leaving the trench each night by himself and shooting a German soldier, then using his machete to chop off the German soldier’s hand and bringing it and the German’s rifle back to the trench as trophies. He murders seven German soldiers in this fashion.

At first the French officers are very pleased with his efforts, but they begin to question his sanity.

Don’t tell me that we don’t need madness on the battlefield. God’s truth, the mad fear nothing…You’d have to be mad to obey Captain Armand when he whistles for the attack, know there is almost no chance you’ll come home alive…God’s truth, you have to be crazy to drag yourself screaming out of the belly of the beast.”

The whole idea of war, groups of people out to murder each other, is insane, but some forms of insanity are acceptable and some are not.

Temporary madness makes it possible to forget the truth about bullets. Temporary madness, in war, is bravery’s sister.”

However there are still rules about what is tolerated.

In war, when you have a problem with one of your soldiers, you get the enemy to kill him. It’s more practical.”

In one troubling scene, the French Captain Armand does exactly that.

Not all of ‘At Night All Blood is Black’ is this horrific battlefront account. When Alfa is removed from the front, he recalls scenes with his mother and family and friends back in Senegal in his childhood and youth which might or might not explain his behavior.

Up until the last 15 pages or so, I was fully prepared to give this novel my highest ranking for its clear, lucid, and moving, if grim, story line. However I cannot quite fully recommend this novella because of the somewhat incoherent ending in the last three chapters which veers drastically from the intense accurate bluntness of the novella up to this point. I can understand the reason for this incoherence. Our soldier who so blithely chops the hands off other soldiers is at a loss when his violence spills over to other parts of his life. However the last few shaky pages are quite a change for this sure-footed novel.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

‘Dead Souls’ by Sam Riviere – An Outrageous Rant on Modern Poems and Poets and Poetry Events

 

‘Dead Souls’ by Sam Riviere    (2021) – 289 pages

 

You may have heard of the Russian classic ‘Dead Souls’ by Nikolai Gogol. However this ‘Dead Souls’ by Sam Riviere is about the sorry state of the poetry community in England and the rest of the world today,

Yes, this is a delightfully unhinged rant about poetry. The narrator is so obsessed and incensed that he can’t even take time to organize his thoughts into paragraphs.

It’s about poetry readings where no one who is there wants to be there, “and though the audience members attended with an outwardly cheerful, hardy demeanor, occasionally their masks slipped”, “making the reciting of poetry at best a kind of willed insanity”.

For a long time now there had been no poetry in the poetry.”

This ‘Dead Souls’ is honest, cutting, cruel, and quite a laugh riot. This is a novel that is intended to provoke the people who read it, probably many of them in that small poetry community that he is writing about.

Most of ‘Dead Souls’ takes place, where else?, at the Travellodge bar after the poetry readings at the biennial Festival of Culture.

A long poem by the poet Solomon Wiese had been found by the computerized system named the Quantitative Analysis and Comparison System (QACS) to breach the newly introduced standards for plagiarism and thus his current and future work was deemed unacceptable by all publishers.

It’s even worse if you harbor some form of respect for the writer, Solomon Wiese said, the worst thing you can do is to meet a writer that you in some way respect, because you will leave the meeting having lost all respect for that person, and you will be unable to recapture or reconstitute that respect by returning to the work, which you will find has been contaminated by the writer’s tedious and egomaniacal private persona.”

These type of revolting statements actually attracted me to this new ‘Dead Souls’. There are many of these statements in the novel like the following one about poets without poems:

if one admitted that the things they called their poems were nothing of the sort, that they were actually word-approximations; they were arrangements of words that resembled poems when you looked at them, but turned out on further examination not to be poems at all; they turned out to be nothing like a poem, at best they were simulations of poems”

The first one hundred pages are one long merciless rant about modern poetry in London. I liked that. On the next fifty pages, Riviere kind of lost me by getting away from this subject, and I almost gave up on the novel. Whenever Riviere’s characters don’t talk about poetry or literature, the novel dragged for me. Then the novel returns for the last one hundred pages to bemoaning the current fate of literature, and once again it held my interest. The lack of paragraphs makes ‘Dead Souls’ a difficult read.

Anyone who has attended a poetry recital within the last five years will probably want to read this novel if only for its spleen.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

 

 

‘The Lincoln Highway’ by Amor Towles – A High-Spirited Wild Ride from Nebraska to New York City

 

‘The Lincoln Highway’ by Amor Towles    (2021) – 576 pages

 

‘The Lincoln Highway’ is a rollicking road trip of a novel. We start out in the rural farmlands of Nebraska and wind up in the middle of New York City. The time is the 1950s. Elegantly written as all the novels of Amor Towles are, ‘The Lincoln Highway’ is superior entertainment, but is that enough for a 576 page novel?

In this novel, even the diversions have diversions, but in the end it wraps up to a magnificent whole.

We have the straight and upright young mid-westerner Emmett, his super-precocious little brother Billy, the brisk steady neighbor young lady Sally, the New York delinquent Duchess, and the guileless childlike dreamer Woolly.

The Lincoln Highway’ is a novel of asides, glorious asides. There is the story of Fitzy Fitzwilliams, who gains fame and fortune impersonating Walt Whitman and Santa Claus at society parties only to lose it all one night by performing as Karl Marx.

The story of Fitzy is certainly a sharp turn away from the main plot, but it is a fascinating story in itself.

There is a basic decency that some people have and other people do not have. In most of the tales here basic decency prevails against all odds.

The young troublemaker called Duchess (named after the county he was from) enters the hotel room where his father had previously stayed and encounters this decrepit guy who is currently staying there.

At the Sunshine Hotel, for every room there was a weakness, and for every weakness an artifact bearing witness. Like an empty bottle that had rolled under the bed, or a feathered deck of cards on the nightstand, or a bright pink kimono on a hook. Some evidence of that one desire so delectable , so insatiable that it overshadowed all others, eclipsing even the desires for a home, a family, or a sense of human dignity.”

Later as Duchess leaves the hotel room, he makes the following observation:

Ah, I thought, seeing the corner of the book poking out from the folds of his sheet, I should have known. The poor old chap, he suffers from the most dangerous addiction of all.”

Yes, reading, the most dangerous addiction of all. These sharp, witty and, yes, insightful lines alone were worth the price of admission to ‘The Lincoln Highway’.

But should you read ‘The Lincoln Highway’?

The novel is a superb yarn, but is that enough? When I read a novel this lengthy, I usually look for something more than a high-spirited story, something with more depth and something that will change my attitude or worldview. There are a couple of not-so-recent long novels on my to-be-read list that I expect would do just that.

However, if you have not read any Amor Towles novels yet, you are missing out.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Mrs. March’ by Virginia Feito – An Appalling Mrs.

 

‘Mrs. March’ by Virginia Feito      (2021) – 288 pages

 

Too many novelists seem to figure that if you like their main characters, you will like their novel. However I’m prone to think that writing novels is more than creating ingratiating characters.

I was ready for a fiction where the main character is unpleasant and unlikable. Writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier were rather successful writing this kind of novel where the main character is not at all someone the reader would want to know. The Mrs. March in this novel is that kind of woman, quite repellent. It takes real talent for a writer to pull this off, and this is Virginia Feito’s first novel.

Here is just one example of the evocative writing style in ‘Mrs. March’ that I really like:

Mrs March strolled through the cereal aisle as if she were sightseeing along the ChampsÉlysées. It had always seemed to her the most curious of aisles, with all the garish colors on the otherwise uniform boxes, the cartoons threatening to leap out at you, screaming for you to choose them.”

George and Mrs Marsh would seem to be living the good life in an upper class neighborhood in New York City. George is a best-selling author. Mrs. Marsh has a maid Martha to do most of the work around the house. They have one eight year old boy Jonathan. They throw lavish catered parties for their friends and neighbors.

However nothing here is as it seems.

The trouble starts when the woman in the pastry shop asks Mrs. March if she were proud that the main character Joanna in George’s new novel was based on her. This stuns Mrs. Marsh since Joanna in the novel is a pathetic prostitute whose clients only paid her out of pity and who is ugly and stupid. Mrs March flies into a rage and vows never to shop at this place again.

If someone behaves toward her in the least way that reflects badly on her, Mrs, March will exact her revenge.

Everyone and everything in the novel is seen through her judgmental sophisticated upper-class eyes. She is continually hoping that terrible things have happened to the people she comes in contact with. Here is Mrs. March when her sister Lisa and her husband come to visit for New Year’s Eve dinner:

As she welcomed the couple inside, greeting them warmly, Mrs. March was thrilled to see that Lisa’s hips, tight under a hideous woolly skirt, had broadened. It always brought her joy, the sign of any physical deterioration in her sister, no matter how slight.”

The character Mrs. March is a nasty piece of work. And if the slightest thing goes wrong, Mrs. March gets hysterical.

Her mind is loaded with horrific obsessions. She spots a large cockroach on the bathroom floor and smashes it with her slipper leaving a black jelly-like stain on the tile. “Out damn spot” she shouts out loud. The reference to Lady Macbeth is surely intentional.

She also has vivid terrible suspicions concerning the people closest to her.

After seeing a newspaper clip while rummaging among her husband’s things, she becomes suspicious that he raped and murdered a young woman while on a hunting trip to Maine.

Novels this eccentric and peculiar are rare and special.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘A Calling for Charlie Barnes’ by Joshua Ferris – “My Father, a Fairly Standard Mid-Century Model”

 

‘A Calling for Charlie Barnes’ by Joshua Ferris   (2021) – 342 pages

 

Real life makes for good novels because it’s lived as a bunch of lies, and because fictions of one kind or another are the only things worth living for.”

Charlie Barnes is by no means too good to be true. Five marriages, four divorces, three or four children with different mothers. He has a libido. He’s kicked around in many jobs and has had several oddball money-making schemes that never panned out. His grown-up kids are none too crazy about him, except for his foster son Jake who is writing this novel about him.

Well, Barbara, he was a clown for a time there. A lot of other things too. That’s kind of the point. He lived a full life. He has a complicated past. A man, he’s just a man.”

What makes ‘A Calling for Charlie Barnes’ so special is that Joshua Ferris is writing about Charlie Barnes like any one of us could be writing about one of our own parents. We younger people see through our parents of course, but we somehow also see what was good about them anyway. And we just might not be as good as them anyhow.

Joshua Ferris gives a flippant raucous humorous slant to the hapless events in the life of the father Charlie Barnes. I suppose when one looks back at all the random and not-so random events that occurred in a parent’s sixty or seventy or eighty or ninety years of existence, it all does seem a bit cartoonish.

This account may at first seem laughable and simplistic but ultimately there are hidden depths, which is probably true of people’s lives in general.

The novel is divided up into three parts. First is the actual comical history of Charlie Barnes which is a farce. The second is the redemption of Charlie Barnes late in life which is a fiction. Finally there are the facts, the bitter end.

There are many, many novels where the main characters are just too good to be true. ‘A Calling for Charlie Barnes’ is not one of them, and that’s quite a high bar to attain in novel writing, especially when you are writing about your parents.

 

Grade:   A

 

‘Near to the Wild Heart’ by Clarice Lispector – Hurricane Clarice

 

‘Near to the Wild Heart’ by Clarice Lispector   (1943) – 194 pages      Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin

 

You read Clarice for the intensity.

Reading her again, I had to relearn a lesson that I had learned before.

It is often difficult to follow Clarice’s tortuous lines of reasoning. But you always think if you concentrate a little more, don’t get distracted, it will all make perfect sense in the end.

The lesson I learned is to not even try to “get” everything in a Clarice Lispector novel because no matter how hard you try you will not “get” everything. Just relax and give up the struggle to reach full comprehension, because you won’t. Relaxing is probably the best way to “get” what is there. Guilt is a terrible inhibitor to understanding.

The title ‘Near to the Wild Heart’ is taken from the following quote from the novel ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce.

He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.”

Yes, Clarice Lispector and James Joyce are both “near to the wild heart of life”.

What Lispector has in common with James Joyce is the manic flight or rush of words that go beyond reason to a deeper understanding. There are very few writers who can go beyond reason to summon up more profound truths.

As Benjamin Moser puts it, Lispector’s writing is “shot through by a ceaseless linguistic searching, a grammatical instability, that prevents them from being read too quickly”.

The situation of this novel is really quite simple. Joana’s mother died when she was very little. Her father died when she was about ten, and she was taken in by an aunt and uncle who had a daughter of their own. She is sent off to a boarding school. Her aunt says of Joana:

She’s a viper. She’s a cold viper, Alberto, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her. I think she’s capable of killing someone…”

Later Joana develops a relationship with Otávio. Here Clarice captures young romance:

Because when he embraced her, he had felt her suddenly come to life in his arms like running water. And seeing her so alive, he had understood crushed and secretly pleased that if she wanted him he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it…When he finally kissed her he himself had finally felt free, forgiven beyond what he knew of himself, forgiven in what he knew lay beneath everything he was.

From then on he had no choice.”

Been there, done that.

However even before Joana marries Otávio, she realizes that she is going to leave him.

To Otávio she’d only be able to say the indispensable words, as if he were a god in a hurry, if she rambled on in one of those leisurely aimless chats, which gave her so much pleasure, she noticed his impatience or his excessively patient, heroic face, Otávio, Otávio. What to do?”

As soon as they are married, Otávio starts up with his old girlfriend Lidia again because “he never sees a woman with a large bust without thinking about laying his head on it”.

When I read Clarice, I have a tendency to want to quote nearly every line in the book.

She felt a perfect animal inside her, full of selfishness and vitality.”

 

Grade:   B+

 

 

 

William Shakespeare on Lust – Sonnet #129

 

Here is a reprint of one of my more troublesome and popular articles:

Sonnet #129 – “The Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame”

 

Good Reading!

 

 

‘The Lincoln Highway’ – The Reasons that I Chose to read Amor Towles’ New Novel Now

 

There are more than several lengthy new novels out this Fall which I want to read. Of these, I first chose to read ‘The Lincoln Highway’ (576 pages). Why?

The decision was not a difficult one. I had been grandly entertained by both of Towles’ previous novels, ‘The Rules of Civility’ and ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’. Here are just a couple of lines from my earlier reviews of these novels:

How long has it been since you have read a smart stylish elegant novel? If you are interested, “Rules of Civility” is the ticket.”

However it is in the intriguing and warm interactions between characters where Towles excels. ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ casts a likable alluring spell like no other novel I have ever read.“

After now reading two novels by Amor Towles I have come to the conclusion that he is a great literary stylist on the order of Vladimir Nabokov. A literary stylist knows that it is not our final destination that matters but the pleasures we have along the way.”

Excuse me for quoting myself.

Basically Amor Towles is fun to read at the sentence level. He makes whatever he is writing about intrinsically interesting in a steady, clear manner that is rare today. There is a certain exuberant verve in his writing that is catching. I believe one of the reasons for Towles’ mastery of fiction writing is that he did not publish his first novel until he was 47 years old. He had many years to hone his skills before publishing, and thus did not develop any bad habits that were praised by the reviewers anyway.

Each of his novels is a departure and an arrival at another vastly different location. ‘Rules of Civility’ is his New York City novel in the 1930s. ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ all takes place in a single hotel in Moscow, Russia. ‘The Lincoln Highway’ focuses on two brothers, eighteen and eight, who leave their family farm in rural Nebraska during the early 1950s. It’s a wild road trip novel.

As you can guess, I have already been captivated by ‘The Lincoln Highway’, and I am reading it rapidly. It is a quick read since so much of it is dialogue and crystal clear exposition.

Since I am only about halfway through ‘The Lincoln Highway’ so far, I will not be posting my final review for a week or so. In the meantime I will be posting reviews of a couple, not quite so lengthy or expansive, fictions.

 

 

 

‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead – The Double Life of Ray Carney

 

‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead (2021) – 318 pages

 

Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

Ray Carney is a furniture store owner. He lives in a good neighborhood with his wife and two children. Ray has had to overcome a lot of adversity to get where he is today. His store has a good reputation, and he wants to keep it that way. But then his cousin and best childhood friend Freddie drops by.

Freddie is a small-time crook and gangster who keeps trying to drag Ray into his crooked schemes and the shady world of Ray’s now-dead father.

The rich white guys are also committing crimes to capture and hang on to their fortunes, but they usually are not held accountable for their criminal acts.

Crooked world, straight world, same rules – everybody had their hand out for the envelope.”

‘Harlem Shuffle’ takes place during the late 1950s and early 1960s. This is a vivid time, and the novel captures the excitement. The Hotel Theresa in Harlem is where all the black sports and show business stars stayed when they came to New York. Most of the other hotels in the city were segregated or at least did not welcome black people with open arms.

Even the waitress in the Hotel cafe has been a dancer on stage.

Certainly she hadn’t quit show business, waitressing being a line of work where you had to play to even the cheapest of seats.”

Ray’s in-laws are part of the upper crust of Harlem society, his father-in-law a member of the venerable Dumas Club.

Listening to his father-in-law gloat about screwing over the government had taught Carney about rich people and how they hold on to their money.”

Ray’s wife Elizabeth works for the Black Star Travel Agency which gives advice to black people on where they can’t stay and those few places where they can stay and where they can avoid trouble from the KKK, other white supremacists and assorted other angry white people.

One character in particular here stood out for me, a criminal acquaintance of Freddie named Pepper who has a “malevolent aplomb”.

I first started reading Colson Whitehead with his first novel ‘The Intuitionist’ which is one of the most unusual novels I have read, and I have kept up with his novels since then. ‘Harlem Shuffle’ can be considered a novel of the crime genre, but Whitehead’s natural audacious tone and his fine accumulation of meaningful details make it another fine addition to his oeuvre of work.

‘Harlem Shuffle’ is a wildly adventurous ride through the Harlem underworld and upper world, violent and gruesome at times, but told with an edge of humor.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

2021 – The Autumn of the Doorstop Novel

Some of these new Fall offerings I do want to read.

Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen – 592 pages

The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki – 560 pages

Cloud Cuckoo Land – Anthony Doerr – 640 pages

The Lincoln Highway – Amor Towles – 592 pages

The Sentence – Louise Erdrich – 416 pages

The Every – Dave Eggers – 608 pages

Apples Never Fall – Liane Moriarty – 480 pages

The War for Gloria – Atticus Lish – 464 pages

The Morning Star – Karl Ove Knausgaard – 688 pages

The Magician by Colm Toibin – 448 pages

My next read? I am considering ‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown which checks in at 106 pages.

 

 

A Few More Older Novels Written by Women that Are Too Good to be Forgotten

 

These are all novels that got my highest rating when I read them. For this article, I have intentionally steered away from novels and authors that have been discussed often recently already.

 

‘The Sin Eater’ (1977) by Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005) – The Welsh writer Alice Thomas Ellis had a dark and strange sense of humor. ‘The Sin Eaters’ tells of family strife as they all come for a final visit to their ailing patriarch.

 

 

‘Tirra Lirra by the River’ (1978) by Jessica Anderson (1916-2010) – Here is an Australian novel about a woman escaping a selfish sanctimonious husband and a failed marriage by relocating in London. The year it was published, the Washington Post said “There may be a better novel than Tirra Lirra by the River this year, but I doubt it.”

 

‘During the Reign of the Queen of Persia’ (1983) by Joan Chase (1936-2018) – No, this does not take place in ancient times in the Middle East. It is the story of a family in rural Ohio during the 1950s. It should be easy to find since it was reissued by NYBR in 2014.

 

 

‘Three Paths to the Lake’ (1972) by Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) – OK, this is a collection of five stories, not a novel. Each of the stories is a portrait of an Austrian woman trying to make a go of it in a male-dominated society in the 1960s.

 

 

‘Invitation to the Waltz’ (1932) by Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990) – I am enormously impressed by most of the writings by Rosamond Lehmann, and I could have mentioned several others here. ‘Invitation to the Waltz’ is a good example of her work. It is the story of a young woman preparing for her first society dance.

 

 

‘The Widow’s Children’ (1976) by Paula Fox (1923-2017) – Here is a powerful novel that takes place during a single night while a family goes out to dinner. Most of the novel is intense dialogue.

 

 

 

‘A Dubious Legacy’ (1994) by Mary Wesley (1912-2002) – An English novel about a bizarre marriage. While stationed abroad during World War II, a man marries a complete stranger at his father’s request. When the war is over, the man brings his bride back to his estate. Upon her arrival, she punches him in the eye and marches upstairs to her bedroom where she will stay for most of the time afterwards.

 

All of the writers mentioned here are worthy and deserving of being remembered by future generations.

 

 

‘Yours Cheerfully’ by A. J. Pearce – The Title Says It All

 

‘Yours Cheerfully’ by A. J. Pearce    (2021) – 291 pages

 

In this world where there are so many unresolved problems, it is easy to be dismissive of a novel so relentlessly upbeat as ‘Yours Cheerfully’. However during devastating times such as World War II in England, perhaps remaining upbeat is the best strategy.

‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ was great fun, and now, yes, its sequel ‘Cheerfully Yours’ is more of the same.

This novel jauntily steamrolls over any and all difficulties whether they are obnoxious plant managers, wartime fatalities, arriving late for your own wedding, insufferably cute kids, or plot inconsistencies. The title ‘Cheerfully Yours’ is quite appropriate.

We are back with Emmy and Bunty and their friends and family in London during World War II. It is late summer of 1941. The terrible Blitz bombings have finally ended, but the country is fully engaged in defeating Hitler and Nazi Germany. Most of the able-bodied men are off fighting, so the government is trying to recruit women to work in the factories. The magazine where Emmy works as a writer, Woman’s Friend, wants to help with this industrial recruitment of women, so Emmy gets an assignment to interview the women who work in the munitions factory, Chandlers. Of course Emmy and even her friend Bunty become great friends with these women as well as their children including one cute, cute four-year kid named Ruby.

However neither the companies nor the government has made any provisions for childcare for these women. The companies were all gung ho about hiring women to work in the factories since they paid them less than the men doing the same work. Some days when no one was available to take care of a woman’s little children, she would bring them to work. The male managers would see the kids playing in the hallway, get upset, and fire the woman. When one of Emmy’s new-found friends is fired for bringing her children to work, Emmy is of course devastated.

To win the war, we’re asking, please,

Help us get our nurseries.”

Emmy’s boss at the Woman’s Friend magazine where she works as a writer is Mr. Collins who is about the same age as Emmy’s parents. Emmy’s boyfriend Charles Mayhew is Mr. Collins’ brother. Charles Mayhew is either much older than Emmy or there is a 20-year gap in the ages between the two brothers. I suppose back in the 1940s, it may not have been so unusual to have a 20-year gap between brothers’ ages. But then why do the brothers have different last names? A little explanation would have been helpful, but I suppose the explanation could have been in ‘Dear Mrs. Bird’, and I don’t remember it.

Meanwhile Emmy gets engaged to her boyfriend Charles, and she and her friends must plan a wedding quickly before Charles gets sent off to fight. And guess who is to be the littlest bridesmaid? You guessed it, Ruby.

It is all entirely predictable, but still fun as Emmy’s and A. J. Pearce’s cheerful and upbeat spirits carry the day during this devastating time.

 

Grade:     B+

 

 

 

‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’ by Eugene O’Neill – A Doomed Romance

 

‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’ by Eugene O’Neill, a play  (1943) – 115 pages

 

Anyone who has a real interest in literature must finally confront the soul-searching dramas of Eugene O’Neill. Eugene O’Neill was the first United States playwright to take drama seriously, and performances of his plays hold up well even today.

O’Neill’s plays are often about people not facing or finally facing the hard truths about themselves, how people lie to themselves about who they really are in order to make it through the day.

Eugene O’Neill had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, years before he wrote his two most famous plays, ‘A Long Day’s Journey into Night’ and ‘The Iceman Cometh’. It was a movie production of ‘The Iceman Cometh’ in 1973 that really spurred my interest in literature. That production of the play caused me to conclude that literature had some things important to say to me.

‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’, like ‘A Long Day’s Journey into Night’, is closely related to O’Neill’s own family, and O’Neill did not allow stage production of either play until after O’Neill died. One of the main characters in both plays is Jamie Tyrone who is based closely on Eugene O’Neill’s actual older brother Jamie O’Neill.

The year is 1923. Since his actor father James has already died, Jamie is now known as James Tyrone. He is 33 and also a stage actor and a hopeless alcoholic. He has come home from New York to recover and manage his father’s holdings which includes a farm rented to Phil Hogan. Hogan lives with his daughter Josie after all six of her brothers have run off from the farm. When James comes to visit Hogan, the two joke around and kid each other while Josie listens. Then James and old man Hogan head off to the bar for the day. Hogan comes back by himself at late afternoon angry because James has said that he will sell the farm to this obnoxious rich guy Harder. So Hogan hatches this scheme for Josie to seduce James, then Hogan can catch them in bed and force them to get married.

Josie goes along with her dad’s scheme despite being strongly attracted to James anyhow. James harbors tremendous guilt because when his mother died, he was so drunk he couldn’t attend her funeral.

I won’t give away any more of the plot of this deeply affecting emotional drama.

As a dramatist, Eugene O’Neill had something of the Irish poet in him. And no one came up with better titles for his works than O’Neill.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff – Marie de France, A Strong Visionary Woman

 

‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff (2021) – 257 pages

 

And now for something completely different.

Can Lauren Groff make a novel about an abbey of nuns in 12th century England that is moving and interesting to modern readers? Well, she succeeded with this not-so-modern reader.

I suppose ‘Matrix’ could be considered historical fiction, but virtually nothing is known of the life of Marie de France, so those annoying facts do not get in the way of a good story. The 12th century was a time in English history that I was mostly unfamiliar with, so I had the added pleasure of researching this era.

Geoffrey, Duke of Anjou

In ‘Matrix’, Marie de France is a bastardess, the product of a rape by her father Geoffrey who is the Duke of Anjou and also the progenitor of the Plantagenet royal family. Thus she is the half-sister of King Henry II and sister-in-law to his wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

After her mother has already died and while Marie is still a teenager she is cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine who considers Marie too big and rough-hewn and coarse for royal life. She is sent to an impoverished abbey to be its prioress.

In the night, a voice whispers that she cannot do this, she is but an uncouth girl belonging nowhere, beloved by no one, merely seventeen, not even seventeen, not even a real nun yet, and her habit is shamefully patched in different-colored wool, and her face holds no beauty, and her arms are merely woman’s arms. How dare she.”

But Marie is a strong thoughtful woman. As at first prioress and then as abbess, Marie must contend with many adversaries to the abbey including nearby wealthy landowners, delinquent renters, gangs of ruffians and even the male Church hierarchy as well as nature itself with storms and droughts. She kicks ass, she’s tough and big and forceful. She assigns each woman in the abbey to a role for which they are suited. Soon the underfed women in the abbey are well-fed and the abbey prospers.

With their heads bent over their books like this, their words palely shining, she understands that the abbey is a beehive, all her good bees working together in humility and devotion. This life is beautiful. This life with her nuns is full of grace. Marie sends a prayer to the Virgin in gratitude.”

Eleanor of Aquitaine

As depicted in ‘Matrix’, the life of Marie de France is heroic, but Marie has someone who is her own hero. Despite having sent her off to be the prioress, her sister-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine is Marie’s hero. I researched the life of Eleanor, and it is indeed the stuff of legend. Eleanor was the most powerful woman and perhaps the most powerful person in 12th century Europe. She was Queen of France, married to Louis VII, for 15 years from 1137 to 1152. Then she had that marriage annulled due to consanguinity and married Henry II, King of Angevin (large parts of England, France, and Wales). where she was Queen for 35 years from 1154 to 1189. She led armies several times in her life and was one of the leaders of the Second Crusade. She was imprisoned by her husband Henry II for 16 years from 1173 to 1189 for supporting the revolt of her eldest son who later became Richard I (Richard the Lionhearted). While Richard went off to fight in the Third Crusade, Eleanor effectively ruled Angevin.

Meanwhile, back at the abbey, decades go by, and there are new threats to the abbey’s existence. Marie has visions from the Virgin Mary, and she has the nuns build a labyrinth to protect the abbey and then a dam to ensure the abbey has plenty of water for the animals and all. She names one of the old nuns, Swan-neck, to be the mistress of the lepers:

Swan-Neck smiles. Alas, she says, of course she is no saint. Only an old woman with pity in her heart. A rather common form of goodness. Marie tells her gently, so as to take away the sting, that such goodness can seem common only to those who see holiness in places where it is not.”

Here we have an eloquent and persuasive depiction of a successful society composed entirely of women. On one of her trips to London, as she is leaving, Marie reflects “she cannot take this seething city into her anymore, being in the proximity of so many of the far worser sex is filling her with aggression and fret. She thinks she is taking evil into her body with every breath.”

About all we know for sure with the current pandemic is that we are not so far removed from the Middle Ages as we thought we were.

Is God indeed a woman? We should be so lucky.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

 

‘The Pillowman’ by Martin McDonagh – An Ugly Grotesque Comedy. I Kinda Like It.

 

‘The Pillowman’ by Martin McDonagh, a play  (2003) – 83 pages

 

My favorite movie of all the 2000s so far is probably ‘In Bruges’, a dark comedy written and directed by Martin McDonagh and starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Since then McDonagh has written and directed the movies ‘Seven Psychopaths’ and ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’. When I found out that Martin McDonagh had been writing plays before he became a movie director and writer, I just had to read one of them.

‘The Pillowman’ is a dark comedy about a mom-and-dad killer and his child killer brother. This play is grossly offensive to a person’s sense of right or decency, and it’s great fun.

Katurian and his brother Michal are sitting in prison, waiting to be executed, Katurian for killing his parents and Michal for killing three little children.

Michal: “Don’t cry, Kat. It’ll be alright.”

Katurian: “How will it be alright? How will it ever be alright?”

Michal: “I dunno. It’s just sort of something you say at a time like this, isn’t it? ‘It’ll be alright.’ Course it won’t be alright. They’re going to come and execute us any minute, aren’t they? That isn’t alright, is it? That’s almost the opposite of alright. Mm.”

This play is definitely only for those with a warped sense of humor. I like it.

Michal: “What? My story was a happy ending. You came and rescued me and you killed Mom and Dad. That was a happy ending.”

Katurian: “And then what happened?”

Michal: “And then you buried them out behind the wishing well, and put some limes on them.”

Katurian: “I put lime on them. ‘Put some limes on them.’ what was I doing, a fruit fucking salad?”

At one point in the play, there is the following stage direction:

The dreadful details of the following are all acted out on stage.”

And in this Martin McDonagh play, that which follows is indeed dreadful.

I really couldn’t figure out the point of this play or if it even has a point. But who cares?

However much of the dialogue in ‘The Pillowman’ is grim fun, and I will continue to watch the movies of Martin McDonagh as they come out. Especially, because of  ‘In Bruges’.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

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