‘Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight)’ by Emile Zola – aka ‘The Ladies Paradise’ – Part I

 

‘Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight)’ by Emile Zola (1883) – 421 pages    Translated from the French by Robin Buss

 

Part I:  The Department Store Itself

Once you have the women on your side,” whispered he to the baron and laughing boldly, you could sell the very world.”

In this novel, the Ladies Paradise is one of the grand department stores in the middle of downtown Paris during the 1860s, that prosperous time of the Second French Empire. The merchandise the store has on display are the silks, the woolens, the ready-mades, “the lace, the shawls, the furs, the furniture, the under-linen, and winding up with dresses”, and all fashions and colors are on dazzling display.

Octave Mouret is the fairly young man in his early thirties who is the top executive of this department store operation. Mouret is a ladies man.

Mouret, on the contrary, affected to worship them, remained before them delighted and cajoling, continually carried away by fresh love affairs; and this served as an advertisement for his business. One would have said that he enveloped all women in the same caress, the better to bewilder them and keep them at his mercy,”

He has visualized this huge store and successfully brought it into being. The store provides jobs for hundreds and soon thousands of people, many of them women. Unfortunately the store has also put out of business many of the small family-owned shops in the neighborhood who specialized in only one of the many products the department store sells such as draperies or shoes or lace.

Each day Octave Mouret makes the rounds of the various departments that make up the department store: mail ordering, the financial, the silks, etc. Being the top boss, Mouret is genial and has a kind word and a smile for everyone. On these trips through the store he brings along his “executioner”, Bourndocle who does all the heavy duty disciplining and firing of store personnel after Mouret has left the area.

Denise is a 20 year-old young woman who travels to Paris with her two younger brothers in tow after their parents died. She makes her way to her uncle’s home who owns one of those small shops. Her uncle is facing hard times and has no job for her. Denise has already been swept away by the brilliance and excitement of the Ladies Paradise store, and soon she gets a lowly job there.

Zola captures that festive feverish atmosphere at the department store on the Day of the Big Sale when hundreds of women descend upon the store to capture all the bargains, and the harried sales persons vie with each other for the largest sales and thus the largest commissions.

Before one of the store’s big sales, Mouret has the brilliant idea of putting some items for sale below cost at the entrance to the store. This causes a shopping frenzy among the ladies and girls as they try to get into the store and purchase these bargains. The constables are called in to control the crowd.

We shall lose a few sous on the stuff, very likely. What matters, if in return we attract all the women here, and keep them at our mercy, excited by the sight of our goods, emptying their purses without thinking.”

Most fiction writers are content with sending their small number of characters through their narrow if sometimes intense paces. However Emile Zola goes after the Big Picture. In ‘The Ladies Paradise’, Zola captures the inner and outer workings of a grand department store. In ‘Germinal’ it is a coal mine. In ‘Nana’ it is the life on stage for an actress. In ‘The Dram Shop’, it is a liquor store operation. ‘L’Argent’ focuses on the financial world. In each of the twenty novels in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, he presents a different facet of Parisian life.

In ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ Zola covers everything, and I do mean everything, relating to the operation of the department store from the financial arrangements, to the gossip among employees, to the delight of the women shopping at one of the big sales events to shoplifting to inventorying the merchandise as well as every other facet of the business. He surely did a lot of painstaking research into the department store operation. Zola displays a profound understanding of human nature from the lowliest clothing sorter to the chief officer of the department store.

Emile Zola wrote novels in which you can fully immerse yourself, novels which contain an entire world. ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ is a fine example of one of them.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘La Celestina’ by Fernando de Rojas – A Bawdy Brazen Tragicomedy

 

‘La Celestina’ by Fernando de Rojas (1499) – 215 pages                 Translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush

As you may have surmised I do love novels, so I just had to read what is considered the first European novel ever written, ‘La Celestina’, and what a novel it is!

‘La Celestina’ has been described as the second best classic Spanish novel. With ‘Don Quixote’, probably my favorite novel of all time, being the first best classic Spanish novel, I was willing to take my chances with second best.

What do we really know of the 1400s? We usually just get the stuff about the Kings, the Queens, the nobility, and The Church. But what was life really like for everyone else? That is one reason I read ‘La Celestina’, to find out, and it is an eye-opener.

‘La Celestina’ contains some of the wildest, most scandalous but also most direct, remarks and conversations about men and women you will ever read. In ‘Celestina’ the men are openly obsessed with sex. The women are too, but most of them try to hide it. They resist a man’s advances at first.

Old woman Celestina makes her living procuring fresh virgin girls for the monks, friars, and priests in the church. If the girl doesn’t happen to be a virgin, Celestina does the operation to make the girl a virgin again. Celestina is usually referred to as “the filthy old whore”. However Celestina is a strong female character. She owns this novel.

Celestina is a fount of earthy wisdom. Celestina is “wise in every wickedness that exists”.

One day young man Calisto’s falcon gets away from him, and he wanders into Melibea’s yard to retrieve it. Upon seeing Melibea, he is immediately struck by her beauty. Calisto says, “Melibea, I look at you and see that God is great.” Soon Calisto makes his moves; he’s a hands-on kind of guy. Melibea is offended by the insistent pawing of his rude and annoying hands.

And you, my lord, are such a model of politeness and good manners, how is it you can bid my tongue to sing but not your hands to keep still? Why don’t you give up these ways? Tell them to be quiet and stop their unseemly commerce with me.”

Melibea rejects Calisto’s brazen advances. Calisto is love-sick and distraught.

Calisto’s servant Sempronio gives him some advice about women:

Avoid their double dealing. You will never understand them! They’re hard to fathom. They’ve no sense of measure, reason, or fair play. First they play hard to get. When they’ve let you through the eye of the needle, they insult you in the street: summon and dismiss you; call and reject you; lovey-dovey, then kick you in the teeth, then quick to anger and slow to abate. They always keep you guessing. Their company is incredibly poisonous and infuriating, much more than any tingle of pleasure they might give you in harness!”

Calisto doesn’t listen to his servant’s advice, and later neither does Sempronio himself. Then Calisto comes up with the bright idea of paying Celestina, the filthy old whore, a hundred coins to smooth things over between Melibea and himself and thus procure Melibea for him.

Since every advantage was tilted toward the nobility during this time, everyone else had to survive by subterfuge.

‘La Celestina’ is almost entirely dialogue. In these conversations the author de Rojas frequently has his servant characters “mutter” what they are really thinking so that the ones they are talking with cannot hear before they directly respond. This is good fun for the reader.

This is a recent, 2009, translation of a very old novel, so the language is up to date and I had no difficulty at all following the lascivious story line.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Kent State’ by Derf Backderf – Thirteen Seconds of National Guard Mayhem in Ohio

 

‘Kent State’ by Derf Backderf, a graphic novel   (2020) – 280 pages

‘Kent State’ is a grim read, but the Kent State campus shootings are now a part of United States history. It is a graphic re-enactment of the events leading up to and including the National Guard shooting on May 4, 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio.

The book explains the circumstances which led to the National Guard to fire indiscriminately into a crowd of demonstrators and Kent State students on a grassy hillside outside Taylor Hall. Two of the four people who were murdered by the National Guard were not even participating in the protests but were instead walking from campus building to building to get to their classes. Besides the four dead there were nine others who were shot, two who were crippled for life. Despite various legal processes afterwards, no one was ever held responsible for the shootings and the murders.

Derf Backderf (which I would guess is a pseudonym) has a sure-handed knowledge of the available facts of the situation, a steady drawing hand, and a righteous anger about what transpired. Unusual for a graphic work, ‘Kent State’ has 28 pages of notes at the end documenting everything that appears in the book.

In 1970, the United States was at the height of the Vietnam war, and there were demonstrations against the war on college campuses throughout the United States. A lot of the townspeople had disdain for these campus long-haired radicals and hippies, and it was a useful ploy for politicians to stomp down hard on the protesters in their rhetoric and actions. Ohio was one of two states that orders its National Guardsmen to carry loaded guns in civil disturbances.

The president at the time, Richard Nixon, had just announced the expanding of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Six years later, the United States would bring their troops home in defeat after an estimated 58,220 US soldier deaths and another 153,303 US soldiers wounded.

As I said at the beginning of this article, it’s grim but its history.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘The Evenings’ by Gerard Reve – A Hilarious Novel About Everyday Boring Life

 

The Evenings’ by Gerard Reve    (1947) – 317 pages          Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

How many novels tackle the routine dailiness and dullness of everyday life?

Believe it or not, my life is not an amazing thrill ride doing exciting things and filled with scintillating conversations with intriguing people. In fact most of my life is spent doing rather mundane things and having less than interesting conversations.

‘The Evenings’ is a humorous droll novel about all those less-than-engaging times during our days. The German author Herman Koch has called ‘The Evenings’, “the funniest, most exhilarating book about boredom ever written.” The Dutch consider the novel a classic.

Twenty-three year old Frits van Egter lives with his parents in a small town in the Netherlands. He works in an office.

I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.”

Since it is a small town, a lot of Frits’s free time is spent avoiding or not avoiding meaningless conversations with people he knows from around town. He cannot avoid interactions with his parents who bother him to distraction. He also visits his brother Joop and sister-in-law Ina. Whenever he sees Joop, Frits can’t help but mention that Joop is quickly losing his hair. Joop and Frits have fought like this since they were little kids, but it’s mostly in good fun.

His parents with whom he lives annoy him. Their eating habits disgust him. He makes fun of the nasty faces his father makes. It’s the little things in home life that grate on you.

Here is a typical interchange between Frits and his mother:

Does this coat look funny with this hat?” she asked.

“God preserve us,” Frits thought, “what a combination.”

“Cheerful, simple attire,” he said. “It suits you well. Muted and by no means extravagant.”

Of course Frits is pretty annoying himself. He makes his mother call for him three or four times before he finally answers. He tells his parents they are “backwards provincials”.

A lot of the humor in ‘The Evenings’ centers around Frits being obnoxious to his parents, his brother, and his small circle of friends. Everyone expects him to be disgusting, and Frits does not disappoint.

Frits likes to needle his brother and his friends, always teasing and annoying them about their loss of hair and fast approaching baldness.

Frits also enjoys telling rude, gruesome, and disgusting stories which are repeated in the novel. One of Frits’s favorite expressions is “Grand, quite grand, distasteful, but grand.”

To a woman friend (Bep) who lives alone and is scared of intruders, he relates gruesome news stories of break-ins where the occupant or occupants are murdered or maimed.

Frits starts each day off he has from work with high expectations, but by nightfall he finds that it has been just another wasted day.

Gerard Reve makes this boring mundane daily life of Frits Van Egter as entertaining as possible but still for me it does get somewhat repetitive. Instead of accompanying Frits for 10 days, maybe it would have been sufficient with just 7 days.

 

Grade:   B+

 

 

‘The Hunger Angel’ by Herta Müller – “Hauled Off by the Russians”

 

‘The Hunger Angel’ by Herta Müller (2009) – 285 pages            Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

‘The Hunger Angel’ is a first person account of being hauled off to a Soviet gulag in a cattle car and being forced to spend four years there. A gulag was a Soviet labor camp – it was both a form of punishment and a hard work site.

The novel is based on the actual experiences of a friend of Herta Müller . ‘The Hunger Angel’ is what I would call a fictional memoir. It is probably the most vivid fictional memoir of all about what it is like to be locked up in a Soviet gulag during and after World War II for 4 years. Fictional memoirs are not usually so devastating.

In 1945 the Soviet General Vinogradov presented a demand in Stalin’s name that all Germans living in Romania be mobilized for rebuilding the war-damaged Soviet Union.

Our first person narrator Leo Auberg is only 17 years old when he is forced on to a railroad cattle car and taken from Romania to Novo-Gorloka in eastern Ukraine.

 

His overseer, who was also from Romania, was a sadist who could speak the same language as the prisoners. The prisoners, even the women who are healthy enough, shovel coal or slag or harsh chemicals.

For years now, shoveling was the only thing left to be proud of.”

The prisoners are never given enough to eat.

No words are adequate for the suffering caused by hunger.”

By Leo’s fourth year at the camp, 339 of the inmates had died, most of starvation.

Scarcely has the corpse been cleared away than it’s forgotten, because bodies that thin hardly leave any track in the snow.”

When Leo eats the frozen potato peelings from the garbage pile behind the mess hall, he remembers all the potatoes he used to eat back home.

But arriving late was bad. Then the soup was gone. Then you had nothing except the big empty night, and the lice.”

One night all the prisoners are put into a ravine and Leo thinks “This is the night we will be shot.” Then the prisoners are handed shovels which they think are to dig their own graves. However the authorities bring out some trees, black poplars, to be planted instead.

We get a full accounting of the privations of work camp life.

It’s impossible to dance without toes, so Trudi Pelikan sits on a bench off to the side, and I sit down next to her. In the first winter her toes froze. The following summer they were squashed by the lime wagon. That fall they were amputated because worms got under the bandage.”

What keeps Leo going through all these hardships are his grandmother’s words as he left, “I know you’ll come back.”

I suppose some readers might avoid ‘The Hunger Angel’ for fear that it is an account of unrelieved misery. However ‘The Hunger Angel’ is not only that; it is a perceptive person’s original provocative thoughts, feelings, and reactions to living through this ordeal.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal – A Dickensian Thriller

 

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal    (2020) – 358 pages

Why do I use the adjective “Dickensian” to describe ‘The Doll Factory’?

In short direct sentences, Elizabeth MacNeal captures that dark yet lively atmosphere of early Victorian London circa 1851. That year was the opening of the Great Exhibition for which the huge Crystal Palace was built. The Great Exhibition was the first World Fair and foresaw many advancements to daily life. However most of the city people in London still lived in grinding poverty, and even the children had squalid working conditions.

Let’s take a brief look at the main characters in ‘The Doll Factory’.

The twins Rose and Iris Whittle work at Mrs. Salter’s Doll Emporium painting dolls for up to 12 hours a day. For young women in London without family money at this time there are really only three choices, either get married or work in a hellhole of a job or become a prostitute.

Albie is a fifteen year old street urchin; he earns the money to survive by doing disagreeable tasks for others; his sister works as an underage prostitute.

Not everyone in this thriller is poor. Louis Frost is so sufficiently well-to-do that he can devote his time to his career as an artist and a member of the Pre-Raphaelite artistic circle. Louis has a pet wombat named Guinevere.

Silas Reed is the proprietor of his own shop, Silas Reed’s House of Curiosities Antique and New. His avocation is taxidermy.

‘The Doll Factory’ is well imagined, and all the vivid details make this story come strikingly alive. It starts out rollicking and jaunty just like a Charles Dickens novel yet with ominous forebodings. As befits a female author Elizabeth MacNeal takes a more feminine view of the proceedings than Dickens.

‘The Doll Factory’ is a novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

Homeland Elegies A Novel’ by Ayad Akhtar – At Home in the United States

 

‘Homeland Elegies A Novel’ by Ayad Akhtar (2020) – 343 pages

I found myself in the presence of one remarkable American after another, each Muslim, each involved in some work that made my self-absorbed preoccupation with drama and contradiction start to seem not only trivial but also shameless.”

By calling his book ‘Homeland Elegies A Novel’, Ayad Akhtar wants us to be sure and recognize this book as fiction. However the writing has the verisimilitude of a memoir. The main character is called Ayad Akhtar, and he recalls specific instances from his and his family’s and his friends’ lives. I expect one of the reasons the words “a novel” are added to the title is to prevent lawsuits, etc. If his father and mother were still alive, they might have even sued him. He might even consider suing himself; Ayad Akhtar is very open here, perhaps too candid. I expect some details and names probably are made up. This work is an interesting hybrid of non-fiction and fiction that is a smooth effortless read that just rolls along.

And yet though I’ve clearly shown neither shame or compunction about exposing my loved ones – and myself – to the ridicule likely headed our way upon publication of this book, I’ve decided (mostly) to leave my half-sister, Melissa (not her real name), out of it.”

Ayad Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with his play ‘Disgraced’ in 2013. In 2016, American Theatre magazine declared Akhtar the most produced playwright in the country. He also published an earlier novel ‘American Dervish’ to critical acclaim Besides that, Akhtar was raised in my home state of Wisconsin.

Mark Twain doubted there was a writer yet born who could tell the truth about himself.”

In this novel, Ayad Akhtar and his father confronted two different United States. His father immigrated to the United States in the 1960s as a research doctor, and the United States welcomed him with a high position at a hospital and a comfortable salary. He was Wisconsin’s leading specialist in all manner of arcane heart rhythm problems. His father had a “fundamental optimism” of our country and its leaders.

At least fifty percent of the best doctors in America were not born in America.”

His mother has a more skeptical view of Americans:

They run around telling everyone else about human rights. But not for them. Look how they treat their own blacks.”

Ayad Akhtar was born here in 1970. He struggled for a long time with little income as a writer. He was still trying to establish a career on 9/11/2001. After that, many in the United States looked upon Muslims with suspicion, distrust, and frequently hatred. When Donald Trump became President, he deliberately incited even more hatred against Muslims.

In one episode, Ayad and his father experience car trouble on an Interstate. Of course finding a service station that fixes the car is a different, more fraught, issue for a Muslim in the United States than it is for a white Christian.

The most meaningful part of ‘Homeland Elegies’ for me is his take on what happened to the United States that it could descend to having Donald Trump as its President. The country has become “ensnared in a materialism from which it couldn’t escape”. Its people “knew not to trust a world that was now nothing more than a marketplace”. There is “less and less place in America, for the middle class of things”.

Certainly the rich people of the United States are far richer than they have ever been before. However the quality of life for everyone else has declined. Whereas formerly the United States was filled with vibrant towns and cities, now middle class people must settle for chain Walmarts and fast food joints. It used to be that you could go to your local shoe store or hardware store where its owners probably knew you and your family, and they would make sure you would get the right shoe or tool you needed. It was a much different experience from dumping something in your cart at the local huge discount store. Now we are dealing with “the treachery of an American society that abandoned the weak and monetized the unlucky”.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘Snow’ by John Banville – A Murder in the Mansion

 

‘Snow’ by John Banville   (2020) – 299 pages

The author John Banville has decided to ditch the Benjamin Black pseudonym and write his detective novels under his own name. ‘Snow’ is the first with his new detective inspector St. John Strafford. Strafford is 35 years old, never been married, and lives by himself. He finds detective work in the 1950s Irish countryside rather a drag.

Strafford nodded. He didn’t care for this fellow, with his gruff jollity and his man-of-the-world patter. But then, there weren’t a great many people whom Strafford did care for.”

Strafford is not exactly a people person, and he sure doesn’t enjoy his job.

He always found it a tedious business, extracting information from those too dim or distracted to offer it unprompted. Only the guilty were garrulous.”

‘Snow’ is mostly written from Strafford’s dismal point of view. We get elaborate descriptions of pathetic meals he is served. We get frequent unnecessary weather reports. Most of Strafford’s evaluations of the townspeople and everything else are quite negative, but they are still somewhat fun to read. Strafford’s inner voice is well written.

‘Snow’ starts with a setup that is as old as Agatha Christie. Catholic priest Father Tom Lawless has been stabbed to death in the Colonel Osborne mansion in rural Ireland, and the family who live in the mansion are the prime suspects along with a couple of others who live outside it but have access to get inside. Whodunit?

Banville deliberately festoons the early parts of the novel with cliches. Thus we have the uptight stiff Colonel Osborne, his young nervous second wife, a teasing daughter, an obedient son, a fierce young rogue who lives in a trailer and tends the horses, even a dutiful proper maid.

She too, like everybody else Strafford had so far encountered at Ballyglass House, had the look of a character actor hired that morning, and fitted the part altogether too convincingly.”

‘Snow’ is in a way like Strafford himself, somewhat grim and quite glum. In Agatha Christie, the solving of the murder is almost playful and fun. In ‘Snow’ it is anything but fun. It is a chore for the depressive Strafford which he does only because it’s part of his job.

However Banville does have a dexterous style of writing. His approach is subtle enough to allow shifting viewpoints in the same sentence.

He was bright too, but not as bright as he believed himself to be, as Strafford had often cause to note, with a certain sympathy.”

But ultimately these grim proceedings lack the zest of some detective novels. ‘Snow’ offers the reader few pleasures beyond the ultimate reveal of whodunit.

 

Grade:   B-

 

 

‘My Mortal Enemy’ by Willa Cather – A Young Woman’s Disillusionment

 

‘My Mortal Enemy’ by Willa Cather (1926) – 85 pages

‘My Mortal Enemy’ is a short novella about a 15 year old girl Nellie Birdseye who idolizes a woman who grew up in her neighborhood, but who by the time the girl turns 25 has become quite disillusioned with the woman.

The idolized woman, Myra Henshawe, was from one of the most prominent well-to-do families in her town. However Myra as a teenager met a guy named Oswald of whom her father disapproved. Myra eloped with Oswald, and they ran off to New York. When Myra’s father found out, he wrote Myra out of his will and left her nothing.

Willa Cather

The story of Myra and her elopement has now become part of the town’s folklore, and young Nellie is captivated by the story. She is excited when her Aunt Liddy decides to take Nellie along to visit Myra and her husband in New York City. By this time Oswald and Myra are living the high life in New York City. Oswald is a prominent businessman, and the couple are part of the cultural elite of the city. Myra takes Nellie out to concerts and theatrical performances. Nellie is enamored of the couple.

However 10 years later Nellie is struggling to make a living after college, and she moves into a decrepit apartment building and is surprised to find the couple Oswald and Myra living there.

That’s enough about the plot. There is an entirely fascinating article about the real life couple that Willa Cather based this novella on. Willa Cather was an editor for the McClure’s Magazine during her career, and the speculation is that S. S, McClure and his wife Hattie were the models for Oswald and Myra.

SS McClure

Time spent reading any of Willa Cather’s fiction is time well spent, including reading ‘My Mortal Enemy’. However the novella is somewhat sketchy and some of the behavior and reactions are somewhat inexplicable. This could very well be because Cather was trying to protect the identities of the McClures who were still alive when Cather published it.

If you are new to reading Willa Cather, I would definitely recommend reading ‘My Antonia’, ‘A Lost Lady’, ‘The Professor’s House’, or ‘O Pioneers!’ before ‘My Mortal Enemy’.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘The Glass Hotel’ by Emily St. John Mandel – From Vancouver Island to New York City to a Ship on the Atlantic Ocean

 

‘The Glass Hotel’ by Emily St. John Mandel (2020) – 301 pages

Odd things happen to real people. The things that happen to young woman Vincent and her brother Paul in ‘The Glass Hotel’ are perhaps odder than most but entirely plausible in today’s world. They make a good story.

‘The Glass Hotel’ is a novel you can fully inhabit. The characters are engaging and well-rounded with both interesting virtues and faults. There are several instances of each of the main characters acting in dishonorable ways in order to advance their own interests, These characters are only human, not too good to be true.

The focus in ‘The Glass Hotel’ shifts from young man Paul nightclubing in Toronto to his half-sister Vincent working as a bartender in the Hotel Caiette on Vancouver Island to Vincent’s new man friend financier Jonathan Alkaitis in New York City to various individuals who worked for his investment firm to one of his investors Leon Prevant and his wife Marie. And so on.

I appreciated the sheer originality of the plot of ‘The Glass Hotel’.

Young woman Vincent is at the center of ‘The Glass Hotel’. For some young women, the choice is between going to college while accumulating a huge student loan debt with little promise of significant financial reward afterward or meeting and hooking up with a rich man whom she may not love but can easily tolerate. Vincent works as a bartender and chooses the second option.

…because that’s what money gives you, the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life.”

There are physical presences, not ghosts, in ‘The Glass Hotel’, people the characters have known in the past who are no longer there but who have had such a profound impact on our lives that they show up on occasion.

During the course of ‘The Glass Hotel’, Emily St. John Mantel presents a couple of ideas for ghost stories. There was one I particularly liked. Women past the age of forty tend to disappear from view even though they are still there. Why not write a story about a woman who turns into a ghost after she turns forty, a ghost who can see every little incident that is going on, but no one can see her?

From an elegant glass hotel on Vancouver Island to the high life in New York City with a stop-off at a federal prison to a tanker ship called the Neptune Cumberland on the north Atlantic, one could say that ‘The Glass Hotel’ meanders from place to place and from person to person. However there was no time during my reading of the novel when I was not fully engaged with the people and their adventures in the novel.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘You Should Have Left’ by Daniel Kehlmann – A Family Falling Apart

 

‘You Should Have Left’ by Daniel Kehlmann   (2016) – 111 pages                   Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin

Since I am a big fan of the four previous Daniel Kehlmann novels that I have read, ‘Measuring the World’ and ‘Fame’ and ‘F’ and ‘Tyll’, I must warn you not to start with this novella ‘You Should Have Left’ as your first Daniel Kehlmann read. It does not represent his real talents.

In ‘You Should Have Left’, our narrator writer is working on a screenplay, a comedy called “Besties 2” about two young teenage girls Jana and Ella. It’s a sequel. Our young writer is on Alpine holiday with his wife Susanna and four year-old daughter Esther, but he’s also here to work on that screenplay.

The novella starts out warm and playful as Kehlmann works usually do, and I started out really into reading it. Of course the screenplay he is writing is typical bad Hollywood fare, but he has to go through with it.

In a movie it’s funny when a life falls apart, because the people say clever things while it’s happening, but in reality it’s only dismal and repugnant,”

Lives fall apart. That’s what actually happens in this novella. Soon things aren’t at all warm and playful. Our narrator surreptitiously listens to the messages on his wife’s cell phone, which, I suppose, is always a terrible thing to do. His wife Susanna leaves.

Then we have scenes of quiet horror, strange men showing up unexpectedly in rooms, pictures on the wall that weren’t there before, a woman shouting “Get away quickly” as he drives by in his car. However to me these edgy scenes were unconvincing, because they didn’t fit the warm beginning or lead anywhere. One time after he leaves his daughter’s room, he sees a strange man in his daughter’s room on the child monitor and then realizes it is himself, and the camera must have a time delay.

Although parts of this novella were effective and fun to read, it ultimately left me lost as to what was going on. It is too fragmented. I am not sure what really happened or what point the author was trying to make. It starts out lighthearted, but the later parts containing elements of horror seemed out of place.

 

Grade:    B-

 

 

‘Bend Sinister’ by Vladimir Nabokov – Can a Dystopia be Humorous and Tragic at the Same Time?

 

‘Bend Sinister’ by Vladimir Nabokov  (1947)  –  217 pages

”Bend Sinister’ is Vladimir Nabokov’s take on authoritarian rule. Nabokov had a lot of first-hand experience with tyrannical regimes.

First Nabokov was born and raised in Russia until the Communists took over, and his family fled the country in 1919. After a short stint in England at Cambridge University, Nabokov moved to Germany where he stayed until 1937. In Germany, Nabokov married a Russian-Jewish woman. In 1936 she lost her job due to the increasingly anti-Semitic environment. In 1937 the Nabokovs fled Germany for France. In May, 1940, the Nabokov family fled from Paris due to the advancing German troops and headed for the United States.

‘Bend Sinister’ is more of an absurdist black comedy about one man’s plight rather than a more direct broad account of tyranny. Our first person narrator Adam Krug is a celebrity in his own country having written the world famous book ‘The Philosophy of Sin’. Thus he is not too worried when his old schoolmate Paduk takes over the government. When Krug meets with the dictator, Krug teases him about how he used to sit on Paduk’s face back at grade school. However Paduk is rapidly setting up a brutal police state and has other plans for his former schoolmate.

Sometimes this dystopian novel gets quite humorous which is a strange thing in a dystopian novel, but ultimately the terror becomes intense. Perhaps this is realistic. At first, Krug, remembering the mixed-up Paduk he knew as a child, does not take Paduk seriously and discounts the threat, until it is too late. Nabokov even injects humor when acquaintances of Krug are arrested just for associating with him.

One of the joys of reading Vladimir Nabokov is that he is skilled enough at writing fiction that he doesn’t have to be plain and sincere with his readers. In other words, Nabokov plays subtle tricks. I, for one reader, get a little tired of writers who are just too earnest and sincere; I’m ready to be deceived for my own good. However sometimes Nabokov just takes his erudition too far and too far off course.

The University in Padukgrad does a rewrite of ‘Hamlet’ where they turn it into “intricate convolutions of sheer stupidity” in order to please the dictator Paduk. Nabokov has great fun telling us this new ridiculous version of ‘Hamlet’. There are pages and pages in this rewrite of ‘Hamlet’ in which Nabokov makes his own humorous changes to the play, many involving mythology and some in various languages.

A Younger Vladimir Nabokov

I an quite familiar with ‘Hamlet’, yet many of these sly changes to Hamlet were still extremely difficult for me to follow. That is one problem with ‘Bend Sinister’ – although many parts are clear as a bell to follow, other parts get extremely murky in all the references and puns and word play that Nabokov manages to shove into them. I did not have this difficulty of understanding at all with Nabokov novels such as ‘Pnin’ and ‘Pale Fire’. Some sections of ‘Bend Sinister’ seem almost intentionally unreadable.

The sumptuousness of Nabokov’s writing in ‘Bend Sinister’ sometimes distracts from the terror of the evil dictator.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill – Musings on the Impending Climate Disaster

 

‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill  (2020)  –  201 pages

As was Jenny Offill’s previous novel ‘Dept. of Speculation’, ‘Weather’ is made up entirely of short frequently related vignettes or sketches to give us a word picture of what is going on in the minds of the various characters at the time. Instead of telling a straight story, ‘Weather’ approaches its subject sideways via short, mostly one paragraph, seemingly unrelated sketches. The idea is to resemble the way wayward thoughts enter and leave the mind, disjointed and clever.

In “Weather’, our narrator Lizzie is answering letters that come in for a climate change warning podcast called “Come Hell or High Water” hosted by her former mentor Sylvia.

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

I feel slightly less dread,

When I am with you.”

Jenny Offill requires an overwhelming backdrop to give her short vignettes a genuine poignancy. In ‘Dept of Speculation’ it was the breakup and dissolution of the narrator’s marriage that provided this effective backdrop. In ‘Weather’ the backdrop is the predicted hardship coming due to climate change which is supposed to provide this poignancy. The election of Trump makes the sense of impending disaster more immediate and urgent in nearly every way. Then Lizzie’s drug addict brother Henry stays at Lizzie’s house and disrupts her family and everything else. We are “tilting into the abyss”.

It is dusk when Henry and I leave the park. A car nearly runs us over. Now we’re right next to her at the light. My brother goes up to the window. ‘Lady you almost killed us,’ he tells her. But she won’t look at him. ‘You and your precious lives,’ she says.”

Although I was quite taken by her earlier novel ‘Dept of Speculation’, the short one-paragraph sketches in ‘Weather’ did not achieve the greater poignancy for me which the backdrop is supposed to give them.

Some of the items seemed inane and pointless:

And then it is another day and another and another, but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.”

Other items were quite banal:

I go to get my permanent crown. I have been putting off my dental work, but now I go. The hygienist talks to me about the weather. The dentist comes in with his gloved hands and mask. He says I have an unusually small mouth. I open it wider for him.”

For me ‘Weather’ was insubstantial, mildly interesting chatter with no big ideas that hold all of the various concerns together.

When I am asked to confront the dreadful state of the nation and much of the world, I want more than cute tidbits.

 

Grade:    C+

 

 

 

‘Agua Viva’ by Clarice Lispector – The Stream of Living

 

Agua Viva’ by Clarice Lispector  (1973) – 88 pages               Translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler

I have now read ‘Agua Viva’. My understanding of it is fragmentary, but, wow, the sentences. I expect there are many readers of it who have only a fragmentary understanding of what they have just read. If ‘Agua Viva’ made complete sense to someone, I would worry about that person. But the fragments are deeper and make more visceral sense than most writers’ complete thoughts.

Although ‘Agua Viva’ takes the form of a novella, it is probably more helpful to approach it as a poem or a chant.

Rather than to stick ‘Agua Viva’ with any sort of review, I am instead going to quote fragments that were particularly meaningful to me. There were many. Here are some lines from ‘Agua Viva’.

What is this that I am writing? As far as I know I never saw anybody write like this.”

And the world trembles within me.”

I’m after whatever is lurking beyond thought.”

When I think a painting is strange that’s when it’s a painting. And when I think a word is strange that’s when it achieves its meaning. And when I think life is strange that’s where life begins.”

I am a heart beating in the world.”

One of the most striking images in ‘Agua Viva’ is of a female cat giving birth to kittens. “The mother licks the sack of fluid so many times that it finally breaks and there a kitten almost free, only attached by its umbilical cord.” Reason alone cannot explain how birth takes place.

I may not have meaning, but it is the same lack of meaning the pulsing vein has.”

Whoever can stop reasoning – which is terribly difficult – let them come along with me.”

As for music, where does it go? The only concrete thing in music is the instrument. Far beyond thought I have a musical background. But even farther beyond there is the beating heart. Therefore the most profound thought is a beating heart.”

Am I one of the weak? A weak woman possessed by incessant and mad rhythm? If I were solid and strong would I even have heard the rhythm?”

I don’t want to have the terrible limitation of those who live merely from what can make sense.”

I struggle to conquer more deeply my freedom of sensations and thoughts without any utilitarian meaning: I am alone, I and my freedom.”

Nature is enveloping: it entangles me entirely and is sexually alive: just that, alive. I too am ferociously alive – and I lick my snout like a tiger who has just devoured a deer.”

I who come from the pain of living. And I no longer want it. I want the vibration of happiness.”

I hear the mad song of a little bird and crush butterflies between my fingers. I’m a fruit eaten away by a worm.”

The world has no visible order and all I have is the order of my breath. I let myself happen.”

It’s so hard to speak and say things that can’t be said. It’s so silent. How to translate the silence of the real encounter between the two of us? So hard to explain: I looked straight at you for a few instants. Such moments are my secret. There was what’s called perfect communion. I call it an acute state of happiness.”

This is not a message of ideas that I am transmitting to you but an instinctive ecstasy of whatever is hidden in nature.”

In one part of ‘Agua Viva’, Clarice Lispector describes various flowers. Here she describes the rose. “Rose is the feminine flower that gives herself wholly and such that the only thing left to her is the joy of having given herself.”

But I want to have the freedom to say unconnected things as a deep way of touching you.”

And so I realize that I want the vibrating substratum of the repeated word sung in Gregorian chant. At the bottom of everything, there is the hallelujah.”

 

Grade:   A+

 

 

‘Cosmicomics’ by Italo Calvino – It’s Cosmic Fun!

 

‘Cosmicomics’ by Italo Calvino (1965) – 151 pages                      Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

It still stuns me that even while I’m standing in one place or sitting or even lying down, I’m traveling through space at thousands of miles an hour.

In ‘Cosmicomics’, Italo Calvino’s playful conceit is that there were people, a family, around to witness the creation of the Universe, the Sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets. Humans with their naive cute notions were there at the time the dinosaurs walked the Earth and the time when dinosaurs became extinct. Humans saw it all, or at least the young guy called Qfwfq and his family saw it all. ‘Cosmicomics’ is a laugh riot, but much more than that.

There’s Grandma, Grandpa, and Mother and Father, as well as the boy and his sister as well as some of their neighbors, and especially there is always a lady or girl friends to help Qfwfq on his way.

Having read some of Italo Calvino’s earlier works such as the ‘The Nonexistent Knight’ and ‘The Baron in the Trees’, I was well familiar and delighted with his playful approach to his fiction. I was a bit afraid that his later work would lose that childlike attitude, but happily in ‘Cosmicomics’ he kept that light-hearted spirit. ‘Cosmicomics’ is great fun to read.

Every story in ‘Cosmicomics’ starts out with a, shall we say, spurious scientific notion. The first story, “The Distance of the Moon”, begins with:

At one time, according to George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth.”

At this point, you may think these stories are very scientific, too scientific to be any fun, and you would be wrong.

So then we proceed to a story about a group in a boat raising a ladder and grabbing a hold of the moon. Actually the story winds up being very romantic, when our hero gets stuck on the moon with his lady love as the moon moves away from Earth. Read it for yourself.

In the second story, ‘At Daybreak’, Father and Mother and Granny are all there as the Earth begins to solidify via the condensation of a shapeless nebula. For the family, the transformation starts out as a troublesome itching for which they all have to scratch themselves.

Italo Calvino was a member of the Parisian literary group Oulipo along with Georges Perec and others. Calvino’s specialty was the short story while Perec wrote long novels, but they are both playful and like to play games with their readers.

Sometimes Calvino’s playful exuberant constructs seem almost magical; other times as he continues with them to the merciful end it feels like he is kicking a dead horse or at least beating a lame construct. Fiction is all about taking chances.

In the third story, ‘ A Sign in Space’, first we are given the information that it takes the Sun 200 million years to make a complete revolution of the Milky Way galaxy. So our hero in the story puts up a sign at a point in space so he can tell when the Sun has made a full revolution.

Italo Calvino puts the fun back in fiction for me.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Deacon King Kong’ by James McBride – Living in the Causeway Housing Projects

 

‘Deacon King Kong’ by James McBride (2020) – 384 pages

Satire works best when the writer really likes the people he or she is making fun of. This is the secret of ‘Don Quixote’. This is the secret of ‘Deacon King Kong’.

Sportcoat is an old guy, 71, who has somehow survived it all, living everyday in the Causeway Housing Projects in New York City. The year is 1969. He drinks his King Kong alcohol several times a day, He is also a deacon in the Five Ends Baptist Church, whatever a deacon does. He still has long conversations with his wife Hettie who died two years ago. He knows just about everyone in the neighborhood.

Here is a good description of Sportcoat:

What’s his job?” he asked.

Odd jobs mostly. Does a bit of everything. Works over at Itkin’s Liquors some days. Cleans out basement other days. Takes out the trash. Gardens for a few white folks around these parts. He’s got a real green thumb. Can do just about anything with plants. He’s known for that. And for drinking. And baseball.”

Most everyone in the Projects has a colorful name: Sportcoat, Hot Sausage, Sister Gee, Bum Bum, Miss Izi, Soup Lopez.

In the Sixties a new kind of trouble has come to the Projects. The kid who was the star of Sportcoat’s baseball team and who had major league scouts showing up at their games, Deems Clemens, is now 19 and a ruthless drug dealer.

And now heroin was here to make their children slaves again, to a useless white powder.”

The Church is at the center of life in the neighborhood. Miss Gee is married to the pastor of the Church and also she cleans houses. She talks to the white policeman Potts who grew up in this area, and there is a spark of good feeling between them. Miss Gee sees that Potts is a man of underlying kindness.

Sister Gee shrugged. “There’s plenty tipping goin’ on in church, just like in anyplace in this world. People got feelings, y’know? They get lonesome even when they’re married. There’s love in this world, mister. It don’t stop for nothing or nobody. You ain’t never seen that?”

As for the policeman Potts, there also is attraction for Miss Gee on his side.

The best he could get out of it was standing right in front of him, as gorgeous and kind a woman as he’d ever seen.”

James McBride does not make the mistake of portraying all white people as bad or evil. The majority of the white people in the novel are racists and don’t even try to cure themselves of it, but at least three of the main characters in ‘Deacon King Kong’ are white people who do their best to try to be fair and unprejudiced and decent, even to the black people who live in the Causeway Housing Projects.

Why couldn’t more people get along that way?”

There are parts to this story that are preposterous, but it’s all in good fun. The Venus of Willendorf? Yeah, sure.

‘Deacon King Kong’ is colorful, alive, busy, and good natured throughout.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

The Top 12 List of the Favorite Fiction I Have Read in 2020

 

This being the year of the lockdown, I had time to read a couple of lengthy doorstop novels (‘The Maias’ and ‘Life A User’s Manual’) just like I used to do before I began writing regular blog posts. Also this year I discovered that there was some amazing fiction from the past which I had missed previously.

Click on either the bold-faced title or the cover image to see my original review for each work.

 

The Maias’ By Eça de Queirós (1888) – ‘The Maias’ is a jaunty vastly pleasurable trip in mid-to-late 19th-century Lisbon, Portugal society with some lively quick-witted companions. Readers new to Eça de Queirós can start with the short novella ‘The Yellow Sofa’ to determine if you like his style of writing or not.

 

‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar (2020) – ‘A Burning’ is a vivid powerful novel which focuses on one of the major crises in our world today, racial hatred. ‘A Burning’ is a world-changer if enough people read it and take it to their minds and souls.

 

 

 

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) – A most intense depiction of family life and death in the late 16th century. Imagine an entire novel about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.

 

 

 

‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann (2017) – ‘Tyll’ is a sometimes light, sometimes black comedy which entirely suits the Thirty Years War. This novel is fascinating at the sentence level, a real accomplishment for both the author and the translator. Daniel Kehlmann brings a smart playful quality to his fiction that makes his writing well nigh irresistible.

 

Missionaries’ by Phil Klay (2020) – ‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is most focused on the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. It is a novel that will change your entire worldview.

 

‘Woe From Wit’ by Alexander Griboedov (1823) – From the very first words in the prologue of this verse play in four acts you can tell that it is going to be sharp and special:

Fate’s a mischief making tease,

That’s her character in brief,

a fool is blissfully at his ease,

a man of spirit comes to grief.

 

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman (2017) – Someone could argue that the story in ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is not very sophisticated. I do not see sophistication as a necessary or even desirable attribute of literature. Rather I see stating situations as simply and clearly as possible as one of the hallmarks of good literature, and that ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ does. Eleanor Oliphant’ is a poignant and affecting story.

 

‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (2016) – ‘Hurricane Season’ is not for the squeamish or easily offended. The characters in this novel tell the truth about some very rough things. They are angry and the words they use are coarse and direct. Read ‘Hurricane Season’ if you are brave and honest enough to take it.

 

 

Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen (2018) – These eloquent stories go deeper into the circumstances and the psyches of their main characters than most stories do. People in them almost connect but not quite. This is a collection of short stories which will move you if you are willing to be moved.

 

‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid (2020) – ‘Such a Fun Age’ is a novel with a light touch that captures the dialogue of people socializing, whether it be a group at a party or dinner or just two people alone. Rather than an individual character contemplating a problem or situation, we get the interplay of many voices. What this novel really excels in are exchanges between groups of young women, whether young mothers or young single women. Kiley Reid’s enthusiasm for her story rubs off on the reader.

 

Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain (2020) – ‘Indelicacy’ is a powerful novella about creativity. Can a woman who cleans toilets and mops floors for a living have strong ambitions to be a writer? ‘Indelicacy’ answers that question with a resounding “Yes”. ‘Indelicacy’ is a novel about the struggle to create. One gets the impression that Amina Cain carefully chose each precise word in this unusual novella ‘Indelicacy’. It is a work that captures you on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level, which is always a good thing.

 

‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec (1978) – I just cannot leave this novel off my year’s best list even though at times I loathed, loathed it and at other times I loved, loved it.

 

 

 

 

 

Also this year I read two excellent works of non-fiction – ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson and ‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan.

 

 

 

 

My favorite collection of poems in 2020 is ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Annihilation’ by Jeff Vandermeer – Don’t Go Into Area X

‘Annihilation’ by Jeff Vandermeer   (2014) – 195 pages

I must admit that ‘Annihilation’ was out of my reading comfort area. I don’t read much science fiction. although this year I did enjoy ‘Roadside Picnic’ by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.  I was willing to give science fiction another try.

In ‘Annihilation’ four unnamed woman researchers explore a mysterious abandoned area known as Area X. They are the psychologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, and our narrator the biologist. There have already been eleven expeditions into the area, and many of the previous explorers have met a tragic or strange end. Our narrator’s husband had been on the previous mission and had returned little more than a zombie. Our biologist goes there to investigate what happened to him.

We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be uncanny.”

The leader of the group, the psychologist, can use hypnotic commands to control the others.

Much of Area X is like a marsh, teeming with creatures both below and above the water line.

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that seemed to soak the cypress trees.”

I suppose this novel could be classified into the subdivision of ecological science fiction.

‘Annihilation’ is heavy on physical description with little or no character development. The characters have no names and there is little mention of their character traits. Since most of the fiction I read is character-driven where each of the protagonists has a well-defined personality and a name, this was really alien territory for me, my own Area X. The writing here seemed rather amorphous to me and not at all spellbinding even though the events taking place were monstrous and scarifying.

One of the reviews I read of ‘Annihilation’ mentioned the author’s “deliberate vagueness”. That intentional vagueness of the characters and the creatures they encounter left me with a vague impression of this novel.

I will not attempt to grade this novel, since it is written in a style that I could never appreciate.

‘Annihilation is the first of a trilogy of novels called the Southern Reach Trilogy. I won’t be reading the others.

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell – A Primal Fiction about the Wife and Kids of William Shakespeare

 

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell  (2020) – 305 pages

Besides the immortal plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare, we know next to nothing about himself, his family, or his circumstances. This is the ideal situation for a writer with a rich imagination to write a fiction of his family life. It allows a vivid mind to freely roam without factual constraints.

So few records regarding Shakespeare’s family exist that I probably wouldn’t even classify ‘Hamnet’ as historical fiction.

We know he married Anne Hathaway (Her actual name was probably Agnes), had three children, and that his son Hamnet died in 1596 at age 11. We also know that he wrote and staged the play Hamlet three years later. Hamnet and Hamlet were considered the same name at that time.

Imagine an entire book about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.

In ‘Hamnet’, William is but a lesser character while his wife Agnes and his daughters Susanna and Judith and son Hamnet take center stage.

In the Afterword, Maggie O’Farrell writes, “This novel is the result of my idle speculation.” Hooray for idle speculation. In ‘Hamnet’, the author fully inhabits the wife Agnes. You can feel it in the matter-of-fact tone of her short sentences.

She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself about where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.”

This is the most intense depiction of life and death in the late 16th century and how they must have been like. As well as the delights of courtship and marriage, we get an affecting portrayal of the grief of the mother, the father, and the rest of the children when young Hamnet gets sick and dies.

Agnes is a woman broken into pieces, crumbled and scattered around.”

‘Hamnet’ is about the elemental events in human lives – procreation, birth, childhood, courtship, marriage, illness, death – but not necessarily in that order. There is only a single reference in the entire novel to William’s genius:

You know what she said to me?”

The husband standing straight as a reed now, arms folded, lips pressed together, shakes his head. “What did she say?”

That you have more hidden away inside of you than anyone else she has ever met.”

William’s birthplace at Stratford on Avon

There has been much scholarly conjecture that William Shakespeare and his wife did not get along very well. First they point to the fact that she was three months pregnant when they married and he had to marry her. Then after the marriage, William spent most of his time in London writing and producing his plays, and only occasionally visited home. Then finally in his will written shortly before his death, he made only one bequest to his wife, “his second-best bed with the furniture”.

There is none of that in ‘Hamnet’. In the novel they are both totally enamored of each other.

Her husband holds her close as she clasps him with both arms, despite everything, just as she did that night, his body fitted to hers.”

Whether the conclusion contains a spark of historical truth or not, it is nothing less than grand. If you are not moved by this ending, you are a bigger fool than I am.

 

Grade:   A+

 

 

‘Telephone’ by Percival Everett – Affecting, Outlandish and Entertaining

 

‘Telephone’ by Percival Everett    (2020) – 216 pages

I was genuinely impressed with the first Percival Everett novel I read, ‘So Much Blue’, and so I read another. ‘Telephone’ is again well-written and emotional with an odd mix of plots.

Zach Wells is a professor and geologist-slash-paleobiologist. He studies the bodies of ancient birds found at or near the Grand Canyon and other places. He and his wife Meg and their daughter Sarah live in Altadena which is near Pasadena and Los Angeles in southern California.

It starts when his chess-proficient daughter Sarah does not see an obviously threatening bishop on the chessboard. After some other incidents, it is determined that she has Batten disease, which is the common name for a broad class of rare, degenerative, inherited disorders of the nervous system. There is no known cure.

Would that my daughter could have clawed her way back or that I could have rescued her, but no such thing was possible.”

Meanwhile the professor must get on with his work. He gets little satisfaction from teaching undergraduates. It is the study of the bones of these ancient birds that really fascinates him. Through one of his female associates, he must deal with campus politics which he really dislikes.

Meanwhile he and his wife and daughter try to adapt to their new situation as best they can.

I had a smart, lightsome partner…I appreciated the fact that I should have loved her completely, but being the unhappy wretch that I am…”

And then there is one further off-the-wall plot. He buys clothes over the internet from this company in New Mexico, and he starts getting these messages on a piece of paper inside the pockets of these clothes saying “Ayuadame” which means “Help Me” in Spanish. Using the pretense that he is going to New Mexico to find some more ancient bird bones, he investigates what is going on there.

All of these disparate elements add up to a dramatic and entertaining read that kept me fully engaged despite some of the plot elements being outlandish and over the top.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

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