‘Modern Gods’ by Nick Laird – An Outstanding Vivid Story about Religion and Family in Ulster, Northern Ireland and New Ulster, New Guinea

 

‘Modern Gods’ by Nick Laird (2017) – 308 pages

‘Modern Gods’ is a relatively unheralded novel which finally came to my attention, and it proved to be outstanding on reading.

Sometimes it doesn’t work for a poet to write fiction, but here it works perfectly. This is the most expressive meaningful novel I have read in a long time. The wording and the sentences are just exquisite and exact. Every sentence is well thought out to convey precisely what each person is thinking and feeling at that time, and each person is delightfully their own soul.

Much of ‘Modern Gods’ is about the interactions and complications and logistics of the Donnelly family from a small town called Ballyglass in Ulster in Northern Ireland, written in such a way that I could easily relate to this cast of characters. Just as in any family the individual members have different traits and desires and locales even though they are related. There is the never married Liz who ventured far away from home to become an academic in New York and then there is the dutiful stay-at-home daughter Alison who has two little kids and who is marrying her second husband and then there is the younger son Spencer in his twenties who is carrying on his father’s real estate business.

Liz lugged her rucksack up the stairs, and set it on the bed beside one of her old exercise books. She flicked through it and felt a great rush of sadness. There is such pathos in childish handwriting, especially one’s own. Time had this terrible habit of creeping up and pistol-whipping you on the back of the head.”

Nearly every sentence in ‘Modern Gods’ is that good.

Liz is returning to her parents’ home in Ballyglass from New York on the occasion of her sister Alison’s second marriage to a solid local guy Stephen. Their parents are pleased to have the family all together again, and the wedding will be a joyous celebration. However in contrast to this warm family story,there are also in the early chapters short sections dramatically relating a mass Halloween shooting that took place at the Days End pub in Londonderry.

After the wedding, Liz is headed off to New Guinea for the island of New Ulster to be the presenter for BBC for a documentary of a new religion which has started up among the native people there led by a native woman named Belef.

Ultimately ‘Modern Gods’ is about the beneficial and pernicious effects that religion can have on people all around the world from Ulster in Northern Ireland to New Ulster in New Guinea. I am going to borrow some exceptionally good lines from Carlo Gebler of the Irish Times in a review for ‘Modern Gods’ (with proper acknowledgment) which to me fully capture the theme of this novel:

Whether you’re from Ulster or New Ulster, you face the same problems as a human being: one, you hurt others and two, you die, and with both of these it is necessary to make some sort of accommodation and that’s the function of religion.”

Aren’t those the two basic human problems, we hurt others and we die?

So not only is ‘Modern Gods’ a rich family story, it tackles the thorny issue of religion. It goes beyond just telling a story to having psychological and philosophical depth.

Here’s an interesting fact. Novelist/poet Nick Laird is married to novelist Zadie Smith.

 

Grade:    A+

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Muriel Spark – One of my Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century (and 21st)

 

Muriel Spark

Born:  February 1, 1918         Died:  April 13, 2006

This is a good time to write about Muriel Spark because we are still in her centenary year. With her economy of style, she was the master of the sparkling witty yet meaningful novella. I have been a great fan of her work since even before I became devoted to literature, having read ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ in my college Contemporary Literature class.

One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.”

Spark’s descriptions of her characters were not always kind. Take this one from ‘Jean Brodie’ which does finish with a bit of poignancy:

Mary Mcgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire,”

Her most famous novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is indeed a fine, fine novel, but it is not my favorite Muriel Spark novel. My favorite is ‘The Girls of Slender Means’. It also deals with a group of girls, but now they are very young women just out of high school living in a youth hostel in London. It begins with this excellent sentence:

“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.”

The young women have one Schiaparelli dress gown between them, and they take turns wearing it on dates. Later there is a fire.

Spark was born and spent her childhood in Edinburgh, Scotland, but later she lived in London, Rhodesia, New York, and Italy. Graham Greene recognized her talent early on and financially supported her when she was a young struggling writer. She wound up writing 22 novels in all.

Reading Muriel Spark novels is the ideal way for a person to slide into literature as the novels are all novella length and easy to relate to. Spark is sometimes called a Catholic novelist, but I was brought up a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant and that did not interfere at all in my appreciation of her work.

Just about anything can happen in a Muriel Spark, and it isn’t always realistic. However it always does make a kind or cruel point. ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is about the head nun of a convent secretly recording the conversations of all the other nuns a la Watergate. ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ is about a London neighborhood beset by a Scottish migrant who wreaks havoc. Spark is one writer who was able to come up with a totally different plot for every short novel she wrote.

This is Spark’s particular genius: the cruelty mixed with camp, the lightness of touch, the flick of the wrist that lands the lash.” – Parul Sehgal, The New Yorker

I am going to finish with a list of some of the Muriel Spark novels that I personally have admired:

Loitering With Intent”

A Far Cry from Kensington”

The Girls of Slender Means”

The Public Image”

Symposium”

Aiding and Abetting”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”

The Ballad of Peckham Rye”

I am quite positive there are some wonderful ones that I have missed.

 

 

‘Act of Passion’ by Georges Simenon – The Repulsive Doctor

 

‘Act of Passion’ by Georges Simenon (1947) – 217 pages Translated from the French by Louise Varese

‘Act of Passion’ is written from the point of view of a younger middle-aged man, a doctor, on trial for the murder of his young lover. It is an admission of guilt, and it is quintessential Georges Simenon but even more nasty and vile than most.  .

Simenon is psychologically astute on how the humans in his stories misbehave.

They can behave terribly yet we perfectly understand them and their reasons for doing so.

Although several characters in the previous novels of Georges Simenon which I have read have been abhorrent, the doctor Charles Alavoine who first-person narrates ‘Act of Passion’ is by far the most repulsive Simenon character of all. He beats up his young lover Martine with whom he is having an affair on the side, and he gives as his justification that he wants to beat the bad out of her and return her to her innocent girlhood. Ultimately he murders her by beating and the novel is the account he gives after his trial.

I suppose Simenon’s reason for writing a novel about this evil doctor is that such men do exist and this is real, but I am not sure that is sufficient. It is too honest and squalid to be uplifting.

The doctor’s wife Armande is too perfect in everything she does. “Do you realize how discouraging that can be? It is like being married to your schoolmistress.” He feels the need of deceiving her as sordidly as possible, so he finds Martine who is a big young blonde with a vulgar smile. Martine is a professional, has been with a number of men.

The doctor’s affair with Martine continues. He claims he loves Martine but wants to return her to her innocent girlhood state by beating the bad out of her.

I was not ashamed. I was no longer ashamed of my outbursts, my fits of violence, because I knew now that they were a part of our love, that our love, just as it was, just as we wanted it to be, could not have existed without them.”

Ultimately he beats her up so hard she dies. His wife Armande testifies in his defense at her trial.

I must admit that I was repulsed by this doctor and this novel. Perhaps the novel is a study in how men, even doctors, can become violent with their wives or girlfriends and thus the story is worthwhile, However this guy’s justifications for his murderous behavior sickened me

I can usually separate my reactions to a horrible and violent story about wicked people from my judgment of its literary quality, but this time I can’t. This is sordid.

 

Grade :    B-

 

‘The Beauties’ – Essential Stories by Anton Chekhov

 

‘The Beauties’ Essential Stories by Anton Chekhov (1880-1904) – 218 pages     Translated from the Russian by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

 

I am pretty sure that I had read all or nearly all of these stories before, but as someone who loves good fiction I like to return to the stories of Anton Chekhov from time to time. Besides these are all new translations of the stories by Nicolas Pasternak Slater.

Slater does a fine job of capturing the poignancy in each of these stories. All of these stories are beautiful and affecting; they are from Anton Chekhov after all.

I would like to concentrate on one story, ‘About Love’, in particular which moved me greatly. It is about a guy who is ‘adopted’ by a husband and wife to be their very good friend. It is this guy who has been adopted who is telling the story.

First there is a sentence which frames the story.

There is only one indisputable truth that has been told about love, and that’s ‘This is a great mystery.”

So the husband and wife invite this guy into their house as a good friend to both of them, but soon the wife realizes there is a strong bond and attraction between her and this male friend, and the male friend realizes it too. But neither wants to hurt her husband.

When I came to town, I could always tell from her eyes that she’d been expecting me; and she herself would confess that right from early morning she’d had sort of a special feeling, and guessed that I would come. We spent a long time talking or saying nothing, but we didn’t admit that we loved one another – timidly, jealously, we kept that secret. We were afraid of anything that might reveal that secret to ourselves.”

Circumstances bring them together frequently, and they both realize that they were meant for each other. That over the years they never go beyond just being great platonic friends makes the story even more moving. Finally the husband and wife move away.

Some might claim that not much happens in this story, but that they restrain themselves for the sake of not hurting the husband despite their strong feelings for each other only makes the story more intense.

Chekhov frequently uses a device that seems almost a natural one for telling a story. Two friends are discussing a mutual acquaintance. This seems like the perfect way to get introduced to the traits, peculiarities, and foibles of a character. We all have strong opinions about our friends.

This is a strong starter collection because the stories for which Chekhov is famous are here. Chekhov captures the essence of each of his characters, and the stories are always true to his characters.

The stories are compassionate, warm, understanding, and kindly. In other words they are just the opposite of the writing of Georges Simenon except for the understanding part.

I want to end with two quotes about Chekhov and his art.

Chekhov is a hero to many writers. He was so immensely skilled at revealing character – and describing life – without sentiment, without judgmental-ism, and ostensibly without the least show of self. It’s his sense of the ridiculousness of human life that intrigues, because we aren’t sure what to take from it. Maybe we are tragic because we are ridiculous. Or perhaps it’s the other way round.” – Lynne Truss, author

He saw the world and the human condition with absolute clarity and no sentimentality. He did not believe in any god (and was baffled by intelligent people who did). He refused to judge. He changed the way we wrote and thought. He was a very complex, flawed, kind man.” – William Boyd, author

 

Grade : A+

‘Transcription’ by Kate Atkinson – Listening in on the Fascists

 

‘Transcription’ by Kate Atkinson (2018) – 329 pages

England faced a severe Fascist threat in 1940 just like it does today. At that time the threat was from Germany instead of Russia. ‘Transcription’ is a novel about spying on fifth column British Fascists who were secretly trying to help Hitler and Germany during World War II.

Do not equate Nationalism with Patriotism. Nationalism is the first step on the Road to Fascism.”

So much depends on an intelligent personable voice to carry a novel. Juliet Armstrong is that vivacious voice in ‘Transcription’. She was only eighteen when she started with the British spy organization M15 as a typist and soon she is recruited for a special mission transcribing conversations taking place in an adjacent bugged hotel room between M15 agent Godfrey Toby and assorted British Fascists. Later she becomes even more heavily involved in the dangerous spy work.

It must be awfully handy to have a scapegoat for the world’s ills. Women and the Jews tend to be first in line, unfortunately.”

Most of the first half of ‘Transcription’ is taken up with Juliet Armstrong’s work with these operations for M15 and the various people she works with and also some of the British Fascists. I found this part of the novel entirely fascinating and high energy. We get a captivating picture and insight into the various individuals who make up this operation as well as those who are being spied on. Certainly the equipment used to bug the hotel room was primitive by today’s standards, but that’s part of the fun.

In her M15 work Juliet ultimately gets involved in some dangerous grisly situations.

Later we jump forward to 1950, and the war is over. Juliet is now working for the BBC as a radio producer. Somehow the characters and situation at the BBC don’t have quite the impact of those in M15. For one thing Juliet naturally has somewhat of a condescending attitude toward her BBC work which is of course nowhere near as exciting as her time at M15. Later her M15 connection comes back to haunt her even during peacetime.

‘Transcription’ is a compelling read, perhaps not quite at the level of Atkinson’s amazing ‘Life After Life’ or ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’, but still gripping and engaging.

Intelligent fun. That is why I read Cervantes. That’s why I read Chekhov. That’s why I read Shakespeare. That’s why I read Kate Atkinson.

 

Grade :   A-

 

‘The Third Hotel’ by Laura Van Den Berg – My Husband, The Zombie

I do not read zombie novels…except this one accidentally. I have never read a zombie novel before and I probably will never read another zombie novel again. I do not find the concept of zombies at all compelling. However this zombie novel ‘The Third Hotel’ has an enticing locale in Havana, Cuba, and an interesting backstory.

To call ‘The Third Hotel’ a zombie novel is perhaps too harsh. It is not at all uncommon for a person who has lost someone close to them recently to imagine that dead person to still be there with them occasionally. Author Van Den Berg ties the events of this story close enough to reality so that I did not lose interest.

Claire has just arrived in Havana, Cuba to attend the New Latin American Cinema Film Festival. Her film critic husband Richard had gotten tickets for both of them to attend but he has been killed by a passing car while walking a few weeks ago. The grieving Claire decides to attend the festival alone. Soon after she watches the movie her husband was particularly interested in, ‘Revolution Zombi’ by director Yuniel Mata, Claire while wandering in Havana spots her dead husband Richard walking away from her.

The museum cast an enormous shadow and her husband was standing within that shadow. She recognized him first from behind, from several hundred feet away, and stopped in the middle of the sidewalk because she was dizzy and her mouth was packed with rocks. She ordered herself to stop recognizing him, because what she was recognizing was plainly impossible, but then she crept closer and saw just how possible it was.”

During the next few days she spots him several times.

You are dead. How could you have forgotten?”

We get the story of the marriage of Richard and Clare. Clare works in elevator sales traveling to towns and cities throughout the United States. Of course the hotel she stays at in Havana has an elevator of interest.

The tone of ‘The Third Hotel’ is overwrought, dreamlike, trancelike, surreal. There is a deliberate confusing of what is real and what is unreal that left me … confused. This is a fever dream of a novel.

‘The Third Hotel’ does capture the exotic atmosphere of the now booming tourist destination Havana nicely. This setting of a horror film festival in Havana is original, colorful, and interesting.

 

Grade:   B

 

Ten World Class Fiction Writers I Have Discovered Since I have been Blogging

 

I have been blogging for a little over nine years now, but I have been an avid reader of world fiction for over forty years. I had read most of the world’s great authors before I started blogging, so they are not included here. However I have discovered many new authors and some existing ones I hadn’t read before then. Some have been featured on other sites. Here are ten I consider the best of the new finds.

Note: I discovered Irene Nemirovsky and Hans Fallada just before I started blogging, so they are not included.

Here goes.

Elena Ferrante – Elena Ferrante has pretty much taken over the world. Her 4-volume Neapolitan Novels will stand as one of the landmarks of Italian literature, and I’ve also read some of her excellent previous work now too. I expect the Neapolitan Novels are quite autobiographical, but she definitely captures what it must have been like growing up in Naples, Italy.

Yan Lianke – I’m only two novels in to Yan Lianke’s work, but I can tell his work will last. I see him as the great political novelist of our time. His ‘The Four Books’ captures the dislocation and devastating results on the Chinese people of the Great Leap Forward started by Chairman Mao Zedong. Lianke is now in my ‘Must Read’ category.

Amor Towles – Amor Towles is the last thing you would expect from the United States today, a smart, stylish elegant charming writer. Both of his novels ‘Rules of Civility’ and ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ are winners.

Georges Simenon – I never read Georges Simenon in the past because I thought he was a detective genre novelist. Then I discovered his romans durs, and now I am hooked. This French writer deals with the gritty side of life, tacky nasty people, and terrible acts. I find that Georges Simenon has more insight into the way men and women misbehave than just about any other writer.

Aminatta Forna – Forna’s Croatian novel ‘The Hired Man’ is written in the style of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day’ where the sins and conflicts of the past come back to subtly haunt the people of today. Forna’s newest novel ‘Happiness’ about urban foxes in modern-day London captures more than just what is happening on the surface and achieves a depth missing from many novels.

Sofi Oksanen – Finland and Estonia are pretty much twin countries, and Sofi Oksanen has roots in both of them. Both of the novels I have read of Oksanen’s, ‘When the Doves Disappeared’ and ‘Purge’, have taken place in Estonia. Both of these novels have characters and an intensity that makes them superior reads.

Luis Alberto Urrea – I have only read the one novel, ‘The House of Broken Angels’, but it is one of the most affectionate humorous family portraits I have ever read. Old man Big Angel gathers the family for his one last big birthday party before he dies. Like any occasion when we have not seen many of our relatives for a long time, we think back on these people and what they were like when they and we were young.

Viet Thanh Nguyen – Watch for this guy, because he has written two thoroughly wonderful works of fiction. ‘The Sympathizer’ tells the story of the Vietnam War from the victors’ point of view which we in the losing US rarely get to see or hear. ‘The Refugees’ is a fine collection of stories about the Vietnam refugees’ experience in the United States.

Tove Jansson – Tove Jansson was another Finnish writer who wrote both children’s books and adult novels and stories. The wonderful NYBR Classics series has brought back many great authors, and Tove Jansson is one of them. The simple language and dramatic events, especially in ‘The True Deceiver’, make her work outstanding.

Karen Russell – On no other novel have I lavished such paroxysms of delight as I have on Karen Russell’s ‘Swamplandia’. Afterwards I read a collection of Russell’s stories that was somewhat a disappointment, so now I’m wondering was ‘Swamplandia’ really that good? Sometimes a novel will just sweep you off your feet.

 

I could also have mentioned Jon McGregor, Lauren Groff, Lawrence Osborne, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Anthony Doerr, etc. etc.

 

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