‘The Pastures of Heaven’ by John Steinbeck – Transitioning into a Major Writer


‘The Pastures of Heaven’, linked stories, by John Steinbeck   (1932)  201 pages


John Steinbeck put together ‘The Pastures of Heaven’, this collection of linked stories about a rural area of central California, while still a nearly unknown writer. However his situation changed rapidly within a few years with the publication of the novella ‘Of Mice and Men’ in 1937 and the full-scale novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ in 1939.

With this collection, Steinbeck was still developing his talent as a fiction writer. I found the early stories to be more sketches, although quite interesting sketches, rather than fully developed stories. For me, Steinbeck does not really come into his own until more than half way through this collection, until Chapter 8, which is the story of Molly Morgan. Abandoned by her good-natured entertaining alcoholic father at age twelve, Molly is hired as the teacher in the Pastures of Heaven grade school after a job interview. Molly soon becomes an integral member of the community. She still misses her father, but when a drunken man matching his description shows up in a nearby town she is agonized.

In all of these sketches and stories, Steinbeck finds redemption in even the sorriest of human creatures. He is accepting of all kinds of behavior as long as people mind their own business and do not interfere in other people’s lives. A generosity of spirit permeates these sketches and stories.

John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, is often described as a writer of the naturalism school rather than of the realism school. Emile Zola is considered the founder of naturalism. Whereas realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, naturalism attempts to determine the underlying forces influencing the actions of the subjects. Today, realism has seemed to have won out over naturalism as writers are most concerned with accurate descriptions of behavior rather than root causes for it.

The real Pastures of Heaven

For readers new to John Steinbeck, I would certainly recommend you read his two masterpieces, the novella ‘Of Mice and Men’ and the novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ first, and then perhaps read other of his work – perhaps ‘Cannery Row’ or ‘Tortilla Flat’ or the novella ‘The Red Pony’. ‘The Pastures of ‘Heaven’ I would save until you are fully immersed in Steinbeck.


Grade: B-



‘The Laughter’ by Sonora Jha – Big White Man on Campus


‘The Laughter’ by Sonora Jha   (2023) – 302 pages


In ‘The Laughter’, Oliver Harding has been a tenured English professor at a Seattle university for a long time. He is working on a book on the life of the English writer G. K. Chesterson. He is in his mid-fifties. Harding, a quite conservative white male professor, tells his own story in ‘The Laughter’.

Oliver has been divorced for a long time. His daughter Kathryn will not even invite him to her wedding, let alone let him walk her down the aisle. Oliver has long been interested when younger women join the university faculty, so when Juhaba Khan, a woman in her thirties, arrives, he admits that it began as lust.

Juhaba arrived from Paris, but her family is originally from Pakistan. Her 15 year-old nephew Adil Alam is staying with her after he got in some school trouble in Paris. Oliver thinks he can win Juhaba’s affections through this boy, so he hires the boy to walk his dog daily.

Meanwhile the FBI and other local and school authorities begin to monitor the Muslim Juhaba and her nephew. Oliver informs the FBI about Adil’s school problems in Paris, whereupon the authorities become even more concerned. Oliver even tells the FBI agents about a hidden folder on Ruhaba’s computer in which she writes private sensitive messages expressing her anger and her rages about police activities that she has become aware of. Meanwhile Oliver pursues Juhaba as a possible romantic interest.

All of this takes place in the lead-up to the 2016 US Presidential election in which everyone assumes Hillary Clinton will prevail.

Despite its title, ‘The Laughter’ is not always a humorous campus novel in the vein of ‘Lucky Jim’ or ‘The Groves of Academe’. The issues raised are much too weighty and serious for that. The novel does capture the current situation of campus politics. I suppose one could see Oliver Harding’s behavior as funny in a certain light when he is not being cruel. When out driving he sees a young hipster with a man bun riding a bicycle, Oliver drives “too close to the mandated bicycle lane in my hope of tipping him over”.

The ending of ‘The Laughter’ is very effective. This incredible yet entirely believable ending of ‘The Laughter’ dramatizes the current state of paranoia toward Muslims in the United States.


Grade:   A-




‘My Phantoms’ by Gwendoline Riley – No Sentimentality


‘My Phantoms’ by Gwendoline Riley   (2022) – 199 pages


‘My Phantoms’ is a daughter’s portrait of her mother, a mother she cannot love or even like very much.

Even as a young daughter, Bridget was embarrassed by her mother Helen (nicknamed Hen, which is probably appropriate). Hen has had two failed marriages to two totally unsuitable men and is desperate in her yearning for a third. Instead she has a gay male friend Griff who hangs around her.

They were each other’s closest friends, but my mother often didn’t much like Griff. She was grateful for him sometimes. Sometimes, especially these last few years, she had such a sullen look when I asked about him, as if it were just one more humiliation for him to be what she got.”

The daughter Bridget is severely critical of both her father and her mother. When Hen brings her daughter to meet her new boyfriend, the daughter reflects,

And I remember thinking, how curious that she couldn’t tell the difference between that and this. Between wit and coarseness, sensitivity and boorishness. These are different things, didn’t she know? Opposite things.”

So the daughter Bridget figured out right away that her mother’s second marriage was going to be a terrible failure too.

When Bridget grows up, Bridget wants to keep her needy mother as far away from herself as possible. She will only allow her mother to have dinner with her once a year in a restaurant. Why doesn’t Bridget invite her mother to her apartment so her mother could meet her boyfriend? Bridget’s sister Michelle is not that crazy about Hen either, but does help her out occasionally.

Hen is a desperate, sad ridiculous old woman. But the real story is daughter Bridget. Why has Bridget shut her mother out of her life so nearly completely?

It’s so much easier to deal with our parents maintaining a comfortable dishonest sentimentality than to deal with them as real, frequently annoying, people.

I found this unsentimental approach to family life entirely refreshing. The author Gwendoline Riley has a gift for getting at the root of her characters’ personalities and for noting the subtle differences between people that might cause them not to get along with each other. Mother love is not an automatic thing.

If you are looking for a novel that has a hard realistic edge to it, ‘My Phantoms’ might be the one for you.


Grade:   A





‘The Consequences’ by Manuel Munoz – Caught in a Double Bind, US Migrant Workers and Their Families


‘The Consequences’, stories by Manuel Munoz   (2022) – 181 pages


Most of the stories in ‘The Consequences’ take place around Fresno, California, perhaps the truck farming capital of the United States, and most involve people who speak Spanish. The truck farm owners need workers who will pick their fruits and vegetables at small expense to the owners themselves, and thus they hire many workers from Mexico and other South American countries. However many of these workers and their families who work hard still get in trouble with the migration authorities. Sometimes the truck farm owners are in collusion with the migration authorities.

Here is how the large scale California fruit and vegetable farmers get their produce picked. It is the last day of the month so these California farmers near Fresno or Bakersfield or Visalia – grapes or peaches or plums – call the migration police. Then the migration police in their green uniforms arrive at the farm and round up the Mexican or Latin American men and women working there – illegal migrants – and put them in vans. None of the workers are paid for that week’s labor, and they are all hauled off to jail in Fresno or Visalia. That night they, the illegal migrants, are hauled back to Tijuana in the migration police vans.

Then many of these Mexican men and women somehow make their way back into Los Angeles where they are picked up by vans to work on another farm or the same farm the next month. This is the regular process by which our fruits and vegetables get picked. It is all very convenient and profitable for the large-scale fruit and vegetable farmers, and wretched for their Mexican and Latin American workers.

Liz, one of the field workers, describes the picking the vegetables or fruits:

It’s easy but hard at the same time, said Liz. Anyone can do it. It’s just that no one really wants to.”

‘The Consequences’ is a strong collection of stories because it causes its readers to relate to and even identify with characters who are much different from the readers themselves. In the stories we have migrant workers, both legal and illegal, We have legal Latino Americans who have relationships and families with illegal migrants.

Manuel Munoz helps us identify with these people by showing them doing the same types of things we do for much of the day. Instead of playing up the differences, the author shows those things we have in common.

We have men in these stories who live with and are in love with other men. Often when I have read stories about people having intimate relationships with others of their same sex, these seemed distant and far removed from me. These stories help one understand the various situations.

In the story “Compromisos”, Mauricio is married to Alba. They have been married for a long time and have two children, a teenage boy and a seven year-old daughter. They are separated, and Mauricio is now intimate with a male friend Pico. Mauricio realizes that everyone including his future wife and even himself recognized early on his natural inclinations, and if he had been braver when he was younger, life could have been different.

A couple of the stories, “Presumido” and “Susto”, have one-word Spanish titles. In “Susto”, a foreman driving a tractor in the row of a field finds the dead body of a man lying in the field.

Susto, she said. You know Spanish? You know what that is?

I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.

She searched upward to find the right meaning. A scare, she tried. But in your soul, deep down.

Here in the United States, the migrant workers and their families are caught in a double bind. Our agricultural industries require these migrant workers, yet our politicians and authorities treat them wretchedly.


Grade:    A



‘Forbidden Notebook’ by Alba de Cespedes – A Notebook and a Life of Her Own


‘Forbidden Notebook’ by Alba de Cespedes    (1952) – 259 pages                 Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein


In ‘Forbidden Notebook’, Valeria Cassati must make entries in her notebook surreptitiously. The other family members must not find out about it, which is not so easy to do with a husband and two college age children. She does not have a room of her own in their small house. Her husband Michele, her son Ricardo, and her daughter Mirella expect her to devote herself entirely to her family as she has always done in the past.

Then I couldn’t find the notebook, I’d hidden it so carefully in the folds of a sheet in the closet. When I finally found it, I hugged it to myself like a treasure. But if Michele wakes up and comes in here, I’m lost. I have no plausible excuse, and the idea that he might read what I’m about to write terrifies me.”

The biography of the author Alba de Cespedes states that in 1935 she was jailed for anti-Fascist activities in Italy, and she was again imprisoned in 1943 for her anti-Fascist work. I felt the author was someone who has earned my attention, and I was not wrong. Apparently Alba was no shrinking violet like her protagonist Valeria.

Now under everything I do and say, there’s the presence of this notebook. I never would have believed that everything that happens to me in the course of a day would be worth writing down. My life always appeared rather insignificant, without remarkable events, apart from my marriage and the birth of my children.”

Both of her children are involved in relationships that make her uneasy. Her daughter Mirella goes out with a 34 year old lawyer and sometimes returns home later than two in the morning. Her son is devoted to his girlfriend who is rather a doormat.

The family formerly was well-to-do, but the war has reduced their circumstances. Valeria must work in an office as well as do the housework. After she starts writing in her notebook, she notices that her boss Guido has taken an interest in her. She starts going to the office on Saturdays so she can be alone with Guido.

I carried home this shiny black notebook like a bloodsucker. Everything started then; even the change in my relations with Guido began the day I admitted I could hide something from my husband, even if it was a notebook. I wanted to be alone, to write, and those who want to be enveloped in their own solitude, in a family, always carry in themselves the seed of sin.”

Did keeping this forbidden notebook which was hidden from her family cause Valeria to seek out a life of her own, including this forbidden romance with her boss Guido?

Before she had a notebook she was selfless, doing everything for her family. The secret notebook gives her a sense of self.

If I had already known that Guido loved me I would never have bought it (the notebook), but perhaps if I hadn’t bought it, I would never have noticed Guido, as I hadn’t noticed myself.”

Will Valeria be able to make her two-week escape to Verona and Venice with Guido, or will family problems prevent her from doing so?

After reading the four-book series of Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, I seek out translations by Ann Goldstein. ‘Forbidden Notebook’ is another winner.


Grade:    A




‘Old Masters’ by Thomas Bernhard – A Long, Long Rant


‘Old Masters’ by Thomas Bernhard   (1985) – 156 pages            Translated from the German by Ewald Osers


The Austrian fiction author Thomas Bernhard wrote several fictions that have captivated me. ‘Old Masters’ is NOT one of them.

‘Old Masters’ is a sustained rant. We get the outrageous opinions of a bitter eighty-two year old man named Reger who sits in the Bordone Room of the Austrian Kunsthistorisches Museum next to the Tintoretto painting of the White-Bearded Man. Reger’s rants are reported by his friend Atzbacher. Here are a few examples of Reger rant statements:

Velasquez, Rembrandt, Giorgione, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Goethe, he said, just as Pascal, Voltaire, all of them such inflated monstrosities.”

Why do painters paint at all, when there is such a thing as nature? Even the most extraordinary work of art is only a pitiful, totally senseless, and pointless effort to imitate nature, indeed to ape it.”

There are only falsehoods and lies in the books which the so-called great writers have left us, only falsehoods and lies in the paintings which hang on the walls.”

A chaotic rubbish heap, that is what today’s Austria is, this ridiculous pygmy state which drips with self-overestimation and which forty years after the so-called Second World War, has reached its absolute low only as a totally amputated state; this ridiculous pygmy state, where thought has died out and where for half a century now only base state-political dull-wittedness and state-adoring stupidity have reigned, Reger said.”

There have also been long rants by Bernhard characters in some of his other novels which I have admired. Why did I not appreciate the rants in “Old Masters”? I believe it is because I could recognize the thought and wisdom that went into those other rants, and the rants made me question my own views of history and art. However the rants in “Old Masters” are so over-the-top, there is no way that a reader can make any justifications for them. The rants go on for over a hundred pages, It doesn’t help that the novel consists of only one paragraph of densely-packed prose.

As it turns out, there are no intellectual justifications for any of these rants; these are just the ravings of an opinionated bitter old Reger whose wife died, falling on the slippery sidewalk outside the museum. The ambulance arrived way late to pick her up, and the hospital botched his wife’s care, so she died. Reger is left alone, and no art or music or prose, not even the finest, can relieve his loneliness. So he rants.

As for me, I resented being subjected to over a hundred pages of senseless ranting before finding out the reasons for it. By reducing the ranting by a hundred pages or so, “Old Masters” could have made a nice short story.

Thomas Bernhard bills “Old Masters” a comedy, I suppose, because the ranting is so-over-the top.

I would recommend that readers, especially readers new to Bernhard’s work, avoid “Old Masters” and instead read ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’, ‘The Loser’, ‘Woodcutters’, or ‘Extinction’.


Grade:    C+




‘This Other Eden’ by Paul Harding – The Apple Islanders


‘This Other Eden’ by Paul Harding   (2023) – 221 pages


The plot of ‘The Other Eden’, strikingly original as it is, is based on a real incident in the history of the US state of Maine.

Malaga Island … was home to a mixed-race fishing community from the mid-1800s to 1912, when the state of Maine evicted 47 residents from their homes and exhumed and relocated their buried dead. Eight islanders were committed to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded…

[In 2020], the Maine legislature passed a resolution expressing its “profound regret”.”

In ‘The Other Eden’, we have former slave Benjamin Honey arriving and settling on Apple Island off the coast of Maine with his Irish wife Patience in 1793. By 120 years later, when most of the novel takes place, there are about three dozen people living on the island in primitive conditions. The government of Maine wants to kick them off the island.

A reporter recently accompanied a Governor’s Council to notorious Apple Island, to investigate the little rock’s queer brood of paupers and the squalor in which they live.”

The author Paul Harding does not make the mistake of portraying these residents of the island as being too good to be true. Some of the residents are indeed retarded and have poor vision due to inbreeding. None of them has any formal education, but one woman, Esther, can quote long passages from Shakespeare and the Bible. One teenage boy, Ethan, has an extraordinary talent for drawing. They all live in makeshift houses that somehow protect them from the severe winters. They are humans, beset by all kinds of problems, some of their own making.

The Actual Malaga Islanders who were Evicted in 1912

Why is the government so anxious to evict them from their island? Many of the islanders have dark features, so white racism enters into it. Also the study of eugenics was becoming popular in United States colleges at that time. The Nazis in Germany were believers in eugenics, and we all know how that turned out.

A minister/teacher, Matthew Diamond, comes to the island and sets up classes for the young islanders. Diamond’s faith tells him “all men are brothers, all women his sisters”, but he still feels a “visceral, involuntary repulsion in the presence of a living Negro”. Diamond is well-meaning in his concern for the inhabitants of Apple Island, even though they don’t pay as much heed to his school instruction and sermons as he would like. Meanwhile Diamond’s interest in the island has alerted others on the Maine mainland whose intentions are not so good. Esther Honey, one of the islanders, thought,

Terrible how terribly good intentions turn out every time.”

Diamond takes a special interest in the aspiring young artist Ethan, especially since Ethan could pass for white on the mainland.

Malaga Island today

This is a well-written, imaginative fiction. By the time a reader finishes this novel, he or she will surely believe that Apple Island at that time was ‘The Other Eden’, and that the islanders who were evicted were God’s people.


Grade :   A+



‘Mr. Breakfast’ by Jonathan Carroll – A Back to the Future Vibe


‘Mr. Breakfast’ by Jonathan Carroll   (2023) – 261 pages


In this novel, the plot hinges on the special magical powers of a tattoo design. Very early on, I realized that I should not let my aversion to tattoos interfere with my appreciation of this novel.

However tattoos are not natural; they are contrived. I will never figure out why some people, many people, allow these ugly blotches to be put on to their skin.

At the same time, if I had to choose one word to describe the novel ‘Mr Breakfast’, that word would be “contrived”.

At the beginning of the novel, Graham Patterson is a comedian, somewhat of a failed comedian. We never get to hear his act, but we find out that he can be funny at times but perhaps not funny enough to pursue a career as a comedian. His long-time girlfriend Ruth Murphy has broken up with him because he doesn’t want children. Graham decides to drive to California alone to figure out what he is going to do next. Along the way he picks up a camera and decides he might become a photographer.

Somehow he winds up in this tattoo shop and gets this special tattoo. The woman at the tattoo parlor explains how the tattoo will give him the ability to try out three different life choices. One is the life he is living now, another is the life if he were a successful comedian, and the third is if he had married Ruth Murphy.

When you’re ready, you’ll choose one of your three and live it until you die. The moment you do decide which you prefer, you’ll forget you ever had a choice, and the tattoo will disappear.”

Somehow these three versions of his life all get mixed together like a tossed salad, and Graham experiences both his past and his future at the same time. At one point Graham sees a Teratornis bird, a bird that went extinct with the dinosaurs. What we wind up with is a mish-mash version of his life.

We all live in the past sometimes; our memories become our present.”

As a writer, the author Jonathan Carroll is known as a fantasist. A fantasist does not, by definition, have to be realistic. ‘Mr. Breakfast’ takes full advantage of this and is often absurd and ridiculous. That would be OK with me, but the novel is often absurd and ridiculous in a stereotypical and boring way.

The evidence in the novel that Graham did even the basic training to become a famous photographer is minimal at best. But it’s all a fantasy I guess, so who cares about evidence?


Grade:    C




‘Another Country’ by James Baldwin – “Dark, Strange, Dangerous, Difficult, and Deep”


‘Another Country’ by James Baldwin    (1962) – 436 pages


My own experience proves to me that the connection between American whites and blacks is far deeper and more passionate than any of us like to think.” – James Baldwin

‘Another Country’ is a novel in which James Baldwin confronts his own demons of white racism and social intolerance to his gayness.

The first long section centers on Rufus Scott, who is black and living in Greenwich Village, “the place of liberation”, in New York City near Harlem. He is a jazz musician who plays at the Harlem nightclubs. He meets and hooks up with a white woman Leona at one of these music clubs. Their relationship is rocky from the start. Rufus takes out his frustrations on her, beats her. Leona, after a stint in the Bellevue mental hospital, heads back down South where she came from.

Although unstated, we know that Rufus is wrestling with his guilt. His woman friend Cass tries to console him:

I hope,” Cass said, “that you won’t sit around blaming yourself too much. Or too long. That won’t undo anything. When you’re older you’ll see, I think, that we all commit our crimes. The thing is not to lie about them – to try to understand what you have done, why you have done it. That way, you can begin to forgive yourself. That’s very important. If you don’t forgive yourself you’ll never be able to forgive anybody else and you’ll go on committing the same crimes forever.”

However, at the end of the first section, Rufus leaps from the George Washington Bridge committing suicide.

In the other two sections the friends of Rufus as well as his sister Ida take center stage. We have Eric who had been a previous white male lover of Rufus. Eric is now living in Paris with his new lover Yves. There is Vivaldo, another white friend of Rufus and the white couple of Richard and Cass and their two children.

One theme is how much easier it is for two male lovers like Eric and Yves in Paris than it would be in the United States. Eric does return to New York to pursue his acting career, where he becomes involved in a heavy affair with Cass who is disappointed in her writer husband. Meanwhile Rufus’s sister Ida takes up with Vivaldo.

I wasn’t totally satisfied with ‘Another Country’. I felt the character Eric was just a little too precious to be realistic, and the affair between Cass and Eric seemed unlikely. Also the connections between the first harrowing section about the troubling Rufus Scott with the other two sections seemed tenuous and disjointed.

Still ‘Another Country’ is a major attempt by James Baldwin to confront his world in all its disruptions.


Grade:    B+



‘Joy in the Morning’ by P. G. Wodehouse – Is Wodehouse Real Literature?


‘Joy in the Morning’ by P. G. Wodehouse   (1946) – 264 pages


I had gone over fifty years of my adult life without reading P. G. Wodehouse. My aim has always been to pursue real literature, and P. G. Wodehouse was not real literature. Or so I was led to believe. However, after all these years, during this long cold winter, I finally decided to give him a chance.

You probably already know that Wodehouse was a humorist. Much of his humor derives from the contrast between the competent servant Jeeves and his boss, the idle dimwitted but charming Bertie Wooster.

In ‘Joy in the Morning’, the upper class characters, both the women and the men including Bertram “Bertie” Wooster, are twits and fools.

Aunt Agatha is like an elephant – not so much to look at, for in appearance she resembles more a well-bred vulture, but because she never forgets.”

The only character who exhibits real intelligence is the servant Jeeves.

In ‘Joy in the Morning’, Wodehouse tells the tale of the Steeple-Bumpleigh Horror. Don’t even ask what that is. Most of the novel is taken up with Bertie’s attempts to avert the tragedy of having to marry Florence, a woman who wants to mold Him.

She would be a good influence in your life, remember. Steadying. Educative.“

Would you torture me, Bobo?”

We get several artificial subterfuges to get Florence’s father to approve of the marriage of his daughter to another guy or, as usual in Bertie’s case, to get him out of the engagement altogether. All of the artificial subterfuges are Jeeve’s brilliant ideas. The fellows around Bertie compare Jeeves to Napoleon to Napoleon’s disadvantage. Jeeves tends to often quote Shakespeare.

Along the way, our author P. G. Wodehouse can’t resist making fun of even himself.

I doubt if you can ever trust an author not to make an ass of himself,” I responded gravely.

The absolute ridiculousness of the happenings are all just part of the laughs. I had great fun reading ‘Joy in the Morning’, but I doubt I will read any more Wodehouse. I fear if I read any more, it would get repetitious awfully fast.

I don’t know where P. G. Wodehouse stands in the literary pantheon if at all, but I suspect people will keep reading him for the very best reason; they are enjoying themselves.

P. G. Wodehouse is real literature, probably.


Grade:   A



‘Baron Bagge’ by Alexander Lernet-Holenia – War and Love, a Novella written by a Viennese Poet


‘Baron Bagge’ by Alexander Lernet-Holenia   (1933) – 64 pages              Translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston


The time of this novella is 1915 during World War I while Russia is still fighting the war and the United States has not yet entered it. It takes place in the Carpathian mountains somewhere around northern Romania and southern Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian patrol of which Lieutenant Bagge is a member is looking for Russian forces in the mountains, going from village to village.

Early on, the patrol encounters three men who have been hanged in a tree. Each has a scrap of paper pinned to his chest saying “This was a traitor!”.

The figures looked like assortments of clothing carelessly stuffed with straw. – like scarecrows. They wore neither shoes nor boots; someone had probably donned their footgear and gone off with it. Foxes had gnawed at their toes.”

The patrol’s mission is only supposed to be reconnaissance, to find the Russians, but the leader of the patrol, Semler, is dead set on engaging and fighting with the Russians. Baron Bagge questions his leader’s authority to the point of insubordination. Semler refuses to listen.

That’s enough!” he bellowed and his face, partly plastered with snowflakes inside his turned-up fur collar, abruptly took on an almost maniacal expression of arrogance and hatred.”

The patrol must fight the Russians for control of the bridge which leads to the Hungarian town of Nagy Mihaly.

Only later do we find out the full results of this battle. Instead we get an account of the patrol arriving in the Nagy Mihaly village where Baron Bagge meets the young woman Charlotte at a formal dance whom he vows to marry after the war is over.

But what is real and what is unreal, especially during the terrible time of war? The author of this novella, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, was also a poet, and it very much shows in this short novella. ‘Baron Bagge’ is written in an elegant lucid style.


Grade:    B+



‘La Jalousie’ (Jealousy) by Alain Robbe-Grillet – A Suspicious Husband


‘La Jalousie’ (Jealousy) by Alain Robbe-Grillet     (1957) – 106 pages             Translated from the French by Richard Howard


Alain Robbe-Grillet was a French author and film maker who was one of the main practitioners of the Nouveau Roman literary movement in the 1950s. The main purpose of the Nouveau Roman movement was to subvert the traditional narrative and plot structures of novels. It was a welcome bold experiment with the fundamentals of fiction.

The French title ‘La Jalousie’ is a play on words that can be translated as “jealousy” but also as “the jalousie window”. In the novel, the narrator is a jealous husband, a tropical planter on a banana plantation, who spies on his wife A… through the jalousie window of their house. He suspects his wife of having an affair with his neighbor Franck.

The bedroom window – the one nearest the hallway – opens outward. The upper part of A…’s body is framed within it. She says “Hello” in the playful tone of someone who has slept well and awakened in a good mood; or of someone who prefers not to show what she is thinking about – if anything – and always flashes the same smile, which can be interpreted as derision just as well as affection, or the total absence of any feeling whatever.”

What makes this novel different is that we see only what this obsessed jealous husband sees. Since he is so obsessed with his wife and his neighbor’s carrying ons, we never get an objective view of events.

He watches his wife and his neighbor interact through that jalousie window, and he becomes extremely jealous. He becomes obsessed with a squashed centipede that Franck had smashed with his hand and is still sticking to the wall. When the neighbor Franck drives our narrator’s wife in to town so she can do some shopping and the two stay overnight our husband’s suspicions know no bounds.

Franck has driven A… into town so she can run some errands. However Franck’s car, his new blue sedan has broken down. They must stay in town. The next afternoon when the three are having drinks, Franck said he was sorry he had given A… that night “in that miserable hotel”.

And now Franck and A… plan another trip into town. Will they return at a reasonable time this time or will they again be forced to stay overnight?

We get lengthy meticulously detailed descriptions of the house construction carpentry and appearance and the smashed centipede staining the carpentry. These lengthy descriptions are somewhat annoying and frustrating for the readers, but they are probably what this guy occupies his mind with as he waits for his wife A… and Franck to return.

These long stretches of less than scintillating prose are probably why the nouveau roman is not popular today. Let’s just say the nouveau roman is quite old now. Otherwise it is a quite captivating and moving scenario.


Grade:    B




‘The Disappearance of Josef Mengele’ by Olivier Guez – “This is the story of an unscrupulous man…”


‘The Disappearance of Josef Mengele’ by Olivier Guez (2017) – 213 pages              Translated from the French by Georgia de Chambaret


Here is a novel that meticulously recreates the life of the most notorious one of all the Nazi war criminals who fled to South America after World War II, Josef Mengele. It is fiction because no one knows for sure what Mengele thought or said or did during those more than thirty years he escaped punishment for his crimes.

This is the story of an unscrupulous man with a small, hard soul struck down by a poisonous and deadly ideology that spread through a society weakened by the disruptions of modernity. The ambitious young doctor offered no resistance to the disease of Nazism.”

Mengele was a member of the team of doctors at the Auschwitz concentration camp who selected victims to be killed in the gas chambers and administered the killing gas. He performed deadly experiments on prisoners and was known as the Auschwitz Angel of Death.

He somehow escaped arrest after World War II, and in 1949 sailed to Argentina. Mengele’s father had founded a company that manufactured farming machinery, and the family was able to funnel Josef money throughout the rest of his life.

The leaders of Argentina at that time, Juan Peron and his wife Eva, welcomed these Nazi war criminals with open arms.

Peron opens the borders of his homeland and welcomes thousands upon thousands of Nazis, Fascists, and collaborators: soldiers, engineers, scientists, technicians, and doctors. War criminals are invited to build dams, missiles, and nuclear power plants, turning Argentina into a superpower.”

During the Peron years, Mengele adopts a new name, Helmut Gregor. Otherwise he can live pretty much out in the open with little fears of arrest. In 1956, he obtains a West German passport and goes back to Germany to visit his son Rolf. He starts a relationship with his widowed sister-in-law Martha. Mengele returns to Argentina and starts living under his real name. Martha and her son come to Argentina, and Mengele marries Martha.

Life in Argentina is relatively quiet for Mengele until 1959. In West Germany, Nazi hunters start collecting information on Mengele’s wartime activities and start extradition proceedings against Mengele. Mengele moves to Paraguay to avoid arrest, and his new wife and stepson move back to Germany.

Then in 1960, Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann is arrested in Buenas Aires by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Eichmann was executed in Israel in 1962. To escape arrest in 1960, Mengele goes to Brazil.

He may have despised the Argentines, but he truly hates the Brazilians; half-breeds every one of them, mixing Indian, African, and European blood. To a fanatical race theorist who mourns the abolition of slavery, they are the Anti-Christ.”

At the end of this novel, the father Josef Mengele talks to his son whom he hasn’t seen for many years and tries to justify what he did at Auschwitz. Old Josef Mengele is unrepentant.

His son asks, “Have you never felt compassion for the children, the women, the old men you sent to the gas chamber? Do you have no remorse?” Mengele gives his son a filthy look.”

In 1976, Mengele suffered a stroke, and he drowned in the coastal Brazilian town of Bertioga on February 9, 1979 while suffering another stroke. He was 67 years old.

In the end, though, the novel portrays Mengele as a thoroughly despicable character, who came to a miserable — if not miserable enough — end.” – Julia M. Keith, The Forward.


Grade:    A




‘Blue Pages’ by Eleanor Perry – A Hollywood Roman a Clef


‘Blue Pages’ by Eleanor Perry    (1979) – 271 pages


In the 1960s, the husband and wife team of Frank and Eleanor Perry made several acclaimed movies. Eleanor was the scriptwriter, and Frank was the director. The movies they made together include “David and Lisa”, “The Swimmer”, and “Diary of a Mad Housewife”. However as such things go in Hollywood, they were divorced in the early 1970s and went their separate ways.

‘Blue Pages’ is Eleanor Perry’s thinly disguised roman a clef of her married partnership with Frank Perry and her screenwriting days. As a couple, the Perry’s went against the trend in Hollywood as Eleanor was 12 years older than Frank. In this novel, their names are Lucia and Vincent Wade. Both are nominated for Oscars for their first collaboration on a movie that was made on a shoestring budget.

The wife’s experiences have left her quite bitter, There are two reasons for her bitterness:

  1. The shabby way scriptwriters are treated in Hollywood.
  2. The shabby way women are treated in Hollywood.

Being both a woman and a writer, she had double reason to complain. She was “only the writer”, the lowly woman at the bottom of the Hollywood totem pole.

We were writers, despised menials.”

‘Blue Pages’ is about what goes on behind the scenes between the director, the producers, the stars, and the scriptwriters. The fact that it is a woman who wrote the original script makes it all the more subject to criticism by everyone else, even the actresses. The script is vulnerable.

It suffers from being filtered through a – feminine sensibility. Or should I say a feminist sensibility.”

The star of the movie is rewriting the script to make himself even more of a hero. The director is cutting out key scenes of character development.

Along the way, the author captures a Hollywood party at the time where even the old men and women at the party try to look and act like young hippies. When they find out that Lucia’s husband is a director, all the aspiring young actresses immediately surround him.

Eleanor Perry casts a wearily skeptical eye on all the outrageous doings at this typical Hollywood party. It is all quite droll and amusing.

Toward the end of the Sixties, Vincent comes up with a young girlfriend, and Lucia questions their relationship.

I should leave him, she thought. She’d thought it before – every time he cut her down, wiped out her confidence, drew blood when she was most undefended.”

This is an insider’s view of Hollywood, where every director, producer, and actor thinks they can re-write a better script than the scriptwriters.


Grade:   B+



‘One-Shot Harry’ by Gary Phillips – Photographs and Murder in Los Angeles in 1963


‘One-Shot Harry’ by Gary Phillips    (2022) – 274 pages


‘One-Shot Harry’ is a lively mystery about black free-lance photographer Harry Ingram investigating the death of his white friend in racist 1960s Los Angeles. It takes place in Los Angeles during the time of a visit to the city by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Harry is called One-Shot because of his camera work. He is a veteran having served and fought in Korea.

When I came back from over there, I figured me and all them other negro troops bleeding for democracy and all that would be appreciated. How could Mr. Charley deny us our due on the home front?”

But then it was the same old, same old.”

What a surprise.”

Let’s get a drink.”

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college back in 1968, I read the book ‘Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness’ by Robert Conot which was an exhaustive study of the Los Angeles Watts riots of 1965. It was an excellent balanced analysis of the causes of the riots and the situations that occurred during the riots with many first-hand accounts of witnesses and victims. In the book, Conot traces in detail how each of the 34 people who died in the riots was killed. It opened my eyes and gave me a much clearer picture of racial injustice in the United States than I had before. However for me, the very title ‘Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness’ shows just how all-pervasive the problem of racism is in the United States, even in the very specific meaning of words in our English language.

‘One-Shot Harry’ takes place two years before the Watts riots and just months before King’s major March on Washington in 1963.

I think the March on Washington is going to be a watershed event, don’t you?”

Maybe, but crackers digging in their heels to preserve the way of life they like has usually been the response to any forward motion us colored folks have tried.”

That’s kind of cynical, isn’t it?”

Or just a realistic observation.”

One of the pleasures of reading is an opportunity to root for the underdogs who are being oppressed by others. In the Los Angeles of the 1960s, people who are black are certainly one of the large contingent who make up the underdogs, along with Latinos.

‘One-Shot Harry’ uses 1960s Los Angeles more as a backdrop for it’s mystery story rather than for any more political or instructional purposes, which is fine.


Grade:   B





‘Kick the Latch’ by Kathryn Scanlan – A Woman in a Horse Racing Community


‘Kick the Latch’ by Kathryn Scanlan   (2022)     129 pages


Almost everyone wants to be a part of at least one community. That community might be the people who work at your office or other job site; It might be the people who live in your neighborhood. It might be your fellow churchgoers, or the people who regularly go to the same bar where you go.

The woman who tells her story in ‘Kick the Latch’ is a member of a very tight community, the horse racing community.

The author has immersed herself completely in the life of this woman Sonia who is a race horse trainer. The author then tells Sonia’s life story as simply and clearly as possible, both the bad and the good. ‘Kick the Latch’ consists of many very short vignettes from her life as a horse trainer.

The New Yorker has published a long, long article by Leslie Jamison about ‘Kick the Latch’ which I have read. The New Yorker article is almost as long as the novella itself. The article is titled “Kathryn Scanlan’s Violent Compression”. In the article, Jamison posits that Kathryn Scanlan is using a radical new technique in presenting this woman horse trainer’s story which Jamison calls “violent compression”. I thought the story in ‘Kick the Latch’ was very well told, but I did not feel that the technique used was much different from effective story-writing in the past. I also disagreed with the byline to the article: “In her latest work of fiction, “Kick the Latch,” Scanlan continues to make art about ordinary life by distorting it.” I did not feel this story of the life of a horse trainer was distorted at all.

You get your triple-tie timothy hay bales, a hundred pounds each. Oats comes in ninety-six pound sacks. No one’s going to run up and say, Oh, Miss, let me get that for you! You carry your own. You lift them.”

I appreciated Scanlan’s minimalist approach to her subject; she doesn’t waste a word.

I was seven the first time I seen a horse break down on the racetrack.”

Of course there is the seamy side to horse racing, the betting, and many of the people involved are quite fly-by-night. In one of the early vignettes, she starts out by saying “I got raped”. The man who did it was a jockey she knew. It was devastating for her, but she then takes extra precautions, she gets her hair cut short, and she continues on with her horse training. She doesn’t report it because then her parents would never let her keep working as a horse trainer after that.

Also working with horses is often dangerous, and the people who do it are subject to severe injuries. I guess there are down sides to every occupation.

There’s always puzzlers. Just when you think you know a lot about a horse he’ll show you how stupid you really are.”

‘Kick the Latch’ is a very effective minimalist novella that presents both the up and down sides of the horse racing life.


Grade:    A




‘Injury Time’ by Beryl Bainbridge – A Demented Dinner Party


‘Injury Time’ by Beryl Bainbridge    (1977) – 203 pages


‘Injury Time’ starts out sanely enough. Edward is a married tax accountant. Binny is a hapless divorcee with three children. Edward and Binny are having an affair. It is the 1970s after all.

Edward feels guilty about Binny.

He gave her so little; he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.’”

Binny wonders why Edward couldn’t “pretend that he longed to leave his wife, so that she in return could pretend she wished he would.”

In order for Binny to feel more involved with his life, Edward decides to arrange a dinner party at Binny’s house with his friend Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel. Edward must get home by 11:00 PM so his wife does not get suspicious.

So Simpson and his wife arrive that evening at Binny’s house for the dinner party.

As for Simpson, he was just another Edward – too pompous for words. Men were all alike. It was not being involved with children every hour of the day that made them appear to be superior.”

And then everything goes crazy.

First Binny’s woman friend Alma shows up…drunk, and Alma proceeds to vomit all over the floor and pass out.

Then some even more unexpected guests arrive, bank robbers with sawed-off shotguns. ‘Injury Time’ turns from a social comedy of middle-aged passion into a surreal comedic hostage drama with a baby carriage full of cash. When all hell breaks loose, Edward is still worried about getting home to his wife in time.

‘Injury Time’ captures that wildest of times, the 1970s, when things between men and women seemed to go to ridiculous extremes. I do think that Beryl Bainbridge could have better prepared us early on for the unhinged conclusion. However I admire Bainbridge’s willingness to go the dark comedy route rather than settling for a straightforward story.


Grade:   B+




‘The Prank’ – The Best of Young Chekhov


‘The Prank’ The Best of Young Anton Chekhov (1882)

114 pages, Translated from the Russian by Maria Bloshteyn, Illustrated by Nikolay Chekhov


‘The Prank’ is an early collection of stories written by Anton Chekhov as a teenager and in his early twenties and illustrated by his older brother Nikolay Chekhov. At this beginning point in his career Anton saw his writing self mainly as a humorist and wrote these light sketches and stories for various magazines. At the same time Chekhov was training to be a doctor. Chekhov famously wrote,

Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get [fed up with] one, I spend the night with the other. “

In 1882 when Chekhov was only twenty-two, Chekhov put together a group of his sketches and stories to be published as a book. However a stern Moscow censor blocked it from being published. Checkhov would submit his later collections of stories to publishers in St. Petersburg who would print them.

The first sentence from the first story, “Artists’ Wives” (which Chekhov playfully subtitles “Translated….from the Portuguese”) sets the comical good-natured tone for the rest of the collection:

Alphonso Zinzaga, a free, utterly free citizen of the capital city of Lisbon, a young novelist, very famous (only to himself), showing signs of great promise (only to himself), was returning home exhausted and as hungry as the hungriest dog after a whole day of trudging the boulevards and making the rounds of editorial offices.”

In this story, Chekhov laments the plight of the artist’s (literary or otherwise) poor wife who has to put up with him.

You know what, single girls and young widows? Don’t you go and marry an artist!”

The next story, ‘Papa’, also starts out to very humorous effect:

Mama, lean as a Holland herring, walked into the study of Papa, fat and round as a beetle, and gave a little cough. As she entered, the maid jumped off Papa’s lap, darting behind the curtains; Mama paid no attention. She was used to Papa’s little weaknesses. She was the intelligent wife of a civilized husband. She understood.”

In the third story, ‘St Peter’s Day’, this is the day all the men in the village get together with their guns to go hunting. Everything is fine until Mikkei Egorovich, brother of one of the hunters and “the world’s most insufferable man” shows up.

The secret to the success of Anton Chekhov as a fiction writer and as a playwright is so obvious it is a wonder more writers haven’t followed his path. It is Chekhov’s good-natured empathy for all of his characters from the generals, and doctors and lawyers to the ne’r-do-well layabouts and drunks who make up a good part of a village’s population. Of course the generals, doctors, etc. are likely to get pretty drunk too. This all encompassing good-natured empathy of Chekhov’s also extends to the society matrons and housewives of the village to the lowliest servant girls.

At this early point in Chekhov’s writing career, he was most interested in finding the humor in various human situations; later, his writing would become more poignant.

Young Chekhov

This is quite a fun collection to read, but if you have not read Anton Chekhov before, I would recommend you read a collection of his later stories before reading ‘The Prank’. After you have read his greatest stories, turn to his plays which are more dramatic, ironic, and subtle.

No writer has a higher standing in my literary world than Anton Chekhov.


Grade:   A




‘Stone Mattress’ by Margaret Atwood – Nine Wicked Tales


‘Stone Mattress’ by Margaret Atwood   (2014) – 268 pages


What is the difference between a tale and a story? According to Margaret Atwood, a woman whose penetrating wisdom I treasure from many of her quotes, it is the following:

Calling a piece of short fiction a “tale” removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long ago teller of tales. We may safely assume all tales are fiction, whereas a “story” might be a true story about what we usually agree to call “real life”, as well as a short story that keeps within the bounds of social realism.”

Margaret Atwood calls the fictions in ‘Stone Mattress’ tales rather than stories for a good reason. Tales are wilder than stories and are not limited by what actually could happen to real people.

Alice Munro, another famous Canadian fiction writer, is a wonderful writer of stories that do not veer far or at all from real life as we know it. On the other hand, Margaret Atwood excels at going beyond the everyday world as we have seen from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and other of her works.

These tales in ‘Stone Mattress’ are wild and strange, living up to Atwood’s definition of a tale. In the title story, an old woman on a guided tour spots a man who mistreated her cruelly back in high school. He doesn’t recognize her, and she decides to get her revenge using a billions-year old rock.

In the tale ‘The Freeze Dried Groom’ Atwood writes about a slimeball husband. Instead of being angry about this scuzzbag, Atwood writes a humorous story from his point of view but with him getting his comeuppance in the end.

In the tale, “The Dead Hand Loves You”, the narrator Jack says to his old girlfriend Irena:

I wouldn’t have forgotten you. I can never forget you.” Is this bullshit, or does he really mean it? He’s been in the bullshit world for so long it’s hard to distinguish.

I couldn’t imagine Alice Munro writing a sentence like the following about Jack:

Their view of him was that he was a fuck-up and a jinx from whom stray dogs fled because they could smell failure on him like catshit.”

Both the tales and language of Margaret Atwood are wilder and looser than those of Alice Munro. I really liked the imaginative flourishes and un-restraint of all these tales in ‘Stone Mattress’.

Sometimes it’s good for the imagination to go beyond realism.


Grade:   A





‘The Candy House’ by Jennifer Egan – “Own Your Unconscious”, the Apps of the Near Future


‘The Candy House’ by Jennifer Egan   (2022) – 334 pages


Can you elude the Internet? Certainly not if you carry a cell phone or are using another computer. The cell phone or computer tells Google and whomever else exactly where you are. When you call someone else with a cell phone, the system could easily reveal both of your locations to each other, but they consider that an invasion of privacy, discounting the fact that the entire tech world already knows where you are. When using GPS, we are perfectly happy that the tech gods know exactly where we are. Perhaps someday there will be tiny tracking devices implanted into our bodies so they will always be able to keep track of us.

In ‘The Candy House’, we have eluders and also counters to track the eluders down. In the novel, we also have government-implanted weevils in some people’s brains, apps implanted there for specific purposes.

Among civilians, terror of weevils was rampant in the post-pandemic years, a figment of the mass psychosis that characterized that time in American life.”

But later we have the following words of advice:

Knowing your latitude and longitude is not the same as knowing where you are.”

‘The Candy House’ is a sequel to ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, but I, having read ‘Goon Squad’ over ten years ago, remember none of ‘Goon Squad’s characters or plot scenes and will thus treat it as a stand-alone novel.

There are many different characters and plot lines in ‘The Candy House’, sometimes only marginally connected with what has gone before. This is cutting edge fiction dealing with our near future and the new applications that await us. The novel takes place in the near future, about ten years from now.

We start with Bix Bouton, inventor of the “Own Your Unconscious” app. which allows individuals to upload all their thoughts, feelings, and memories. The goal is to “externalize your consciousness”.

After Bix, the novel meanders from one person to another. Several tell their stories in the first person. These people may be hardly or not-at-all linked to Bix Bouton. And their stories may only be marginally related to what has gone before.

This is one of those novels when if for a moment you are unhappy or bored with the plot line or characters, relax, soon it will be somewhere else entirely with nearly all different unrelated characters. What is it about? Tough question.

The various stories were usually quite entertaining, but for me they didn’t cohere into a meaningful whole.

Maybe the internet has changed us so that we readers are no longer satisfied with only one straightforward story, and now we require multi-faceted works like ‘The Candy House’.


Grade:   B



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