‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason – A Charming and Amusing Novel about Crushing Depression Issues

 

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason (2021) – 337 pages

 

The title ‘Sorrow and Bliss’ suggests that this is an emotional roller coaster of a novel, and that it is. However the novel maintains a wry droll tone throughout.

First, we have our first person narrator, Martha.

Unless I inform you otherwise, at intervals throughout my twenties and most of my thirties, I was depressed mildly, moderately, severely, for a week, two weeks, half a year, all of one.”

Martha has had rather a bohemian London upbringing with a poet father and an aspiring sculptor mother. Here is her mother talking:

…but all I’ve been trying to do, all these years, is take rubbish and turn it into something beautiful and much stronger than it was before. I’m sorry if that’s a bloody metaphor for everything.”

Martha also has a close best-friend relationship with her sister Ingrid. The family is financially supported by their well-to-do aunt Winsome (“win some, lose some”) and uncle Rowland.

Then we have the boy Patrick who is a friend of the family and has been “always just there” since Martha was 13.

Martha has an early short unfortunate marriage to Jonathan. As her cousin tells her afterwards,

I wish marrying a total fuckwit was the worst life-choice I’d ever made.”

Sometimes Martha is really funny. By avoiding all the stultifying analytic terminology usually associated with mental illness, our author presents us with a real emotional human being in Martha who is dealing or not dealing with her mental problems. Despite her manifest psychological issues, Martha manages to be both charming and witty as the narrator of this novel.

That I’m not good at being a person. I seem to find it more difficult to be alive than other people.”

Both medical and mental diagnoses make a person’s private situation seem all so cut-and-dried, so well-defined and predictable. One forgets that under that short phrase of a diagnosis there is still a real human being struggling with whatever problems their crushing condition creates.

When Martha notices that the female marriage counselor she has been seeing is no longer wearing her wedding ring, Martha stops going because “It’s like having a fat personal trainer”.

I hope that I have conveyed my pleasure in reading the sentences in ‘Bliss and Sorrow’ by the quotes that I have included.

Martha’s story takes a very dark turn as stories about people with severe mental problems tend to do. However Meg Mason maintains this wry deadpan tone throughout ‘Sorrow and Bliss’, a major accomplishment.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘The Plot’ by Jean Hanff Korelitz – A Crime Thriller About the Writing of Fiction

 

‘The Plot’ by Jean Hanff Korelitz (2021) – 320 pages

Our main character in ‘The Plot’, Jake Finch Bonner, had his first novel listed in the New York Times New & Noteworthy section. His second was nowhere near as successful. Now, having not written much of anything for three years, he is teaching creative writing at the small Ripley college campus and desperately trying to come up with a subject for another novel. Jake Finch Bonner has been relegated to “the special purgatory of formerly promising writers”.

What was out there, in 2013, for a writer whose two tiny patches of real estate on the great cumulative shelf of American fiction were being left farther and farther behind with each passing year?”

Where can Jake possibly find an engaging plot?

Our author here of ‘The Plot’, Jean Hanff Korelitz, knows this publishing industry whereof she writes. We get a cynical but entirely realistic take on the book writing, publishing, and reviewing industry.

People don’t realize you can’t copyright a plot.”

Beyond plagiarism or plot-theft, this story raises a fascinating question. What if an author wrote a work of fiction, and, accidentally or not, it resembled the real life story of someone so extremely closely and that person didn’t like the way their life was presented?

‘The Plot’ itself pushes many of the buttons required to be a best seller. It’s got a brisk jaunty style and a catchy unique ultimately scary plot and it’s not so deep as to scare ordinary readers away. And then Jake finds romance. Later, at its climax, it has spine-tingling suspense. What more can a reader ask for?

The plot of ‘The Plot’ is not very deep and quite improbable. No, this is not the next ‘Madame Bovary’, but it is bestseller-y enough. Last week, ‘The Plot’ was number 13 on the NYT bestseller list. This week it is missing from the list. I will be watching the list for the next few weeks.

Stephen King called ‘The Plot’ “insanely readable”. Yes, this is a novel that could give even Stephen King a run for his money. Think ‘Misery’.

 

Grade:   A-

 

 

My Method for Writing These Reviews of Fiction

 

After writing these fiction book reviews for almost twelve years now, I’m finally ready to describe the method I use. Here is a short description of my approach. For better or worse, this is my method.

First I put in a ridiculous amount of concern into selecting the next work of fiction I am going to read. I try to maintain several balances in my reading such as classic or new, male or female, novel or play or story collection or even poems, an author whom I am familiar with or an author who is new to me. Also I try to maintain geographical and racial and time period diversity. Of course a perfect balance in my reading would be a much too constraining goal, but I do keep all of these factors in mind when selecting my next work of fiction. At the same time I try to find something that I actually do want to read.

And then I will start reading. However, I may quickly or slowly find that the current work is unsuited for me. I give up on these unsuitable books, because there is always something else I want to read. I won’t write reviews of those works which I don’t finish.

What happens when I do land on a suitable book?

As I read, I write down notes about the work, some of which I may use later. I will write down quotes from the book, especially those quotes that reflect the particular flavor or qualities of that work. If it’s a humorous work, I will look for a funny quote, etc. I will include those quotes from the work in my review that will give those reading my review the style of the writing.

I try to find a meaningful adjective or adjectives that describes the style of the work in question. Recent adjectives I have used to describe books are “deadpan”, “self-obsessed”, “jaunty”, “confessional”, “passionate”, “pleasant”, good-natured”, “off-putting”, “angry”, “brutally direct”, “intense”, “authentic”, “honest”, “a sad disturbing read”. Later I will look up these adjectives in the thesaurus to find other words that might even better describe the work. The trick is to make it seem as though those adjectives don’t sound like they were stolen out of some thesaurus. 🙂

After I finish reading a work, I will wait a couple of days until I “recover”. I don’t know if waiting a couple of days is a good or bad thing, but it is something I must do.

When I do write the review, I usually try to include a short phrase in my review title to capture the spirit of the work.

My review will always contain short descriptions of the basic situation and characters without giving away any of the plot.

Then I will discuss issues that the work of fiction raised for me. These are not necessarily judgmental, but sometimes they are. The issues usually reflect the effect that the work had on me. Also I will usually include my extraneous thoughts concerning the work.

Finally I will give a grade to a work which is in itself a rather harrowing experience, grading a work of possible art. I don’t feel that the grade that I give has to necessarily reflect what I have written in the article.

One of my main criteria for evaluating a book is how enthusiastically I return to reading it after I have put it down a few times. Sometimes I just cannot express my doubts about a fictional work but will still downgrade it anyhow.

So that’s my method. What method do you use?

 

 

‘Trio’ by William Boyd – Filming A Movie in Brighton in 1968

 

‘Trio’ by William Boyd (2021) – 312 pages

 

‘Trio’ gives us a nice mix of interesting characters and clever plots. William Boyd’s fictions are usually rollicking reads with lots of memorable persons and events. Perhaps he is not the most original or most deep or most intense of novelists, but I have usually found his novels to be pleasurable adventures to read, and ‘Trio’ is no exception.

William Boyd has been a dependable read for me over the years. Boyd can juggle the situations of each of a large group of characters and keep me entertained with their various stories. Boyd has a talent for making characters and scenes come alive on the page. This is no small talent, a talent for old-fashioned story telling.

This is not a novel with a lot of or any fascinating quotes, but the plot of the story and the interesting way William Boyd tells the story propels the reader forward, keeps the reader reading at a breakneck pace.

It starts out as a fairly light almost comedy, but the three (a trio) main characters’ lives gain resonance and poignancy as the novel progresses.

The movie being made is a typical swinging Sixties English movie entitled ‘Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon’, perhaps a little too ridiculous for a movie title.

Twenty-eight year old lead actress Anny Viklund has fallen in love with her current leading man Troy Blaze who is four years younger than she is. However a previous boyfriend causes trouble for her on the set.

Talbot Kydd is the producer of the film. He has a wife and two children, but he cannot deny that he has an underlying sexual attraction toward men. This is treated as just another feature that some of the characters in this large cast of characters have. There is no judgment or approbation, it is just there like everything else.

Elfrida Wing, the director’s wife, is a fiction writer. She had published some early novels, but for ten years she has suffered from writer’s block. She has now started a new novel called ‘The Last Day of Virginia Woolf’, after a long dry spell. The river Ouse at Sussex in which Virginia Woolf drowned and the house that Leonard Woolf still lived in in 1968 are nearby. Our author Elfrida actually gets into the River Ouse at one point.

I found ‘Trio’ to be a lively and enjoyable read.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

‘Hold’ by Bob Hicok – “Who can explain lonely to ants?”

 

‘Hold’, poems by Bob Hicok (2019) – 104 pages

 

Words are Bob Hicok’s playthings, and he loves to play. This is the second of Hicok’s lively poetry collections which I have read.

Will you appreciate Hicok’s humor? I suppose it depends if you think the following lines are funny.

“My Way” should only be sung underwater,

so the narcissism is softened a bit by drowning.”

I am going to quote you the first sentence of the poem “Waiting is the Hardest Part of Waiting” which is in this ‘Hold’ collection, and it will give you some more indication whether or not you will like these poems:

“I like the way your nose wrinkles

when you confuse a coping saw

for a coping mechanism and cut a duck

out of balsa to float on the lake and keep

the mallard with one wing company

badly, in that your duck has the shape

and soul of a potato.”

And then there is this great line in the poem “Baby Steps” about Bob Hicok’s father:

Joy isn’t a hat I ever saw him wear”

Hicok’s mind moves so fast from one thing to another it is difficult to keep up with him. Many of the poems I did not fully appreciate until multiple readings. However then I really did appreciate them, and that is saying a lot for any poems.

Sometimes he goes completely off the rails, but that is partly the fun of this poem collection.

In a few of his more political poems, I missed some of his usual whimsy and they seem somewhat pedestrian and overly polemic although I agree with most of his positions. Hicok is plenty aware of the problems of putting politics into poems:

Now I’m stuck, as politics

and poetry get along about as well as lips

and soldering irons, hawks and wet cement;”

Sometimes the playfulness of the words doesn’t match the seriousness of the poem’s intent, but that’s OK. Bob Hicok takes chances.

What is it about poetry that it refuses to die no matter how often TV shoots it in the head?”

 

Grade:    A-

 

 

‘Long Live the Post Horn!’ By Vigdis Hjorth – Introspection at Its Most Nordic Miserable

 

‘Long Live the Post Horn!’ By Vigdis Hjorth (2013)  196 pages              Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barsland

 

Much of  ‘Long Live the Post Horn!’ transpires in Oslo, Norway, home of our first person narrator, Ellinor:

Saturday morning in Oslo in late November. Morose people with their heads bowed against the cold. Slush under neath my feet and oppressive sky above my head. My chest felt tight and there was a blinding, enervating light in the shops mixed with Hammond organ music everywhere. Rushing people, their eyes frantic, humiliated, and wounded.”

The inner thoughts of our first person narrator Ellinor are often as gloomy as the Oslo weather, but sometimes we are all beset with such doubts. The usual fiction process is to remove any self-doubts from the main characters to achieve a more sprightly and lively read. Instead Vigdis Hjorth has loaded up young woman Ellinor, with misgivings about her approach to life.

I hadn’t made much progress, I was just as inadequate as I always had been.”

Ellinor is one of three members of a public relations team for Kraft-Com. The team’s new task is to convince the Norwegian public that a postal directive from the European Union should be rejected. This new postal directive would allow competition in postal service, the downside being that competitors would try to cut costs by cutting wages and services and thus ultimately reduce the mail service, especially for remote northern areas of Norway.

This novel was published in English recently, soon after Donald Trump and his Postmaster General Louis DeJoy deliberately damaged the United States Postal Service in order to interfere with the mail-in voting process. Now that was really dismal.

The Post Horn

Ellinor does have a boyfriend Stein to whom she composes the following letter:

I feel my life is too banal for despair. That our relationship is too trivial and not passionate enough for our despair. What do we do with our despair if our lives are too small to contain it?”

She tears up the letter and doesn’t send it.

Very little actually happens, and everything that does happen is filtered through this depressed woman Ellinor’s reverie. For the first three quarters of ‘Long Live the Post Horn!, we have a woman lost in self doubt. But then the novel finally does build to a somewhat jubilant climax.

This is Nordic literature with a vengeance.

 

Grade:    C+

 

 

‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ by Beryl Bainbridge – “an outrageously funny and horrifying novel” – Graham Greene

‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ by Beryl Bainbridge    (1974)  –  219 pages

 

So much of literature today seems designed to placate everyone who reads it. ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ will placate no one; it is uncompromising in its starkness and its gallows humor. It’s sheer originality is amazing; I doubt that there would be anyone else who could write a novel quite like ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’.

It is the story of two women, Freda and Brenda, who room together and work together in the same wine bottle factory in London. I picture the two women as both in their late twenties or early thirties. Freda is big, blonde, and aggressive while Brenda is more hapless and self-effacing, yet it is Brenda who was previously married.

They are the only women who work in the bottle factory besides an older Italian woman Maria. The factory is owned by Paganotti, an Italian entrepreneur transplanted to England, and most of the other employees are Italian men. Freda has her eyes and her heart set on fellow worker Vittorio.

It’s not so much that I want him, she thought, but I would like him to want me.”

Beryl Bainbridge

Meanwhile Brenda is beset by the unwanted fumbling attentions of the plant manager Rossi or what we would call sexual harassment today.

She couldn’t think how to discourage him – she didn’t want to lose her job and she hated giving offense. He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly.”

The novel centers around a Sunday outing for the workers in the bottling plant. I won’t go into any of the details of the shocking plot so that you can discover it for yourself.

‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ is a deadpan comedy like nothing you have ever read before. Somehow Beryl Bainbridge manages to keep a straight face while telling us this outrageous story.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Book of Embraces’ by Eduardo Galeano – Imprisoned for Writing in Support of the Downtrodden

 

‘The Book of Embraces’ by Eduardo Galeano (1989) – 272 pages          Translated from the Spanish by Cedric Befrage

 

‘The Book of Embraces’ is a collection of short passionate vignettes or word pictures. Most of the items are about people who actually lived and events that really happened. It is a collection of short scenes or ideas for us to contemplate. Here are parables, paradoxes, dreams, anecdotes, and fragments of autobiography. I would classify this book as an enlightened journalism. These brief texts are illustrated with line drawings by Galeano himself.

Galeano had started out writing more traditional history, fiction, and analyses of Latin America with his ‘Open Veins of Latin America’ and his ‘Memory of Fire’ trilogy. However later he decided the more fragmentary style of writing was more effective in getting his messages across. I found this method quite compelling; for me, it does qualify as literature of a high order.

I write for those who cannot read me: the downtrodden, the ones who have been waiting on line for centuries to get into history, who cannot read a book or afford to buy one.”

In the 1970s Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Peru were all ruled by United States-sponsored dictatorships. These dictators ran roughshod over the people they were supposed to be governing. Many of the people who opposed these dictators were “disappeared”, in many cases taken up in airplanes and dumped into the ocean. Eduardo Galeano was imprisoned for his writing in Uruguay, and when he was released he fled for exile in Argentina in 1976. However in that same year there was a bloody military coup in Argentina and Galeano’s name was added to the list of those condemned by the death squads. Galeano escaped again, this time to Spain.

Yes. Yes, finally, I fled away from Argentina also, because—I couldn’t stay in Uruguay, because I don’t like to be in jail, and I didn’t stay in Argentina. I could not, because I didn’t want to lay in a cemetery, because, as I told you before, death is very boring.”

Eduardo Galeano, who died in 2015, was known for the courage of his directness and outspokenness in defying repressive Latin American regimes. He was also known for his love of and his writings about soccer.

Here is a fine example of one of these vignettes called “System/1” which also could be used to describe the Trump years in the US:

Functionaries don’t function,

Politicians speak but say nothing,

Voters vote but don’t elect,

The information media disinform,

Schools teach ignorance,

Judges punish the victims,

The military makes war against its compatriots,

The police don’t fight crime because they are too busy committing it,

Bankruptcies are socialized while profits are privatized,

Money is freer than people are,

People are at the service of things.”

In one short section called “Paradoxes”, Galeano writes, “North American blacks, the most oppressed of peoples, created jazz, the freest of all music”.

Finally, in 1984, Galeano was able to return to Uruguay.

The human murder by poverty in Latin America is secret: every year, without making a sound, three Hiroshima bombs explode over communities that have become accustomed to suffering with clenched teeth.”

Eduardo Galeano is a good place to begin to understand Latin America and its history of brutal repression.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘The Perfect Nine’ by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o – The Eternal Verities

 

‘The Perfect Nine’ – The epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (2021) – 227 pages

 

I’m going to start with some lines from ‘The Perfect Nine’:

The trinity appears in many states of being.

Father,

Mother,

Child.

The trinity of Birth.

Birth,

Life,

Death.

The trinity of Life.

Morning,

Noon,

Evening.

The trinity of Day.

Yesterday,

Today,

Tomorrow.

The trinity of Time.”

This is brilliant. I have never encountered such a profound meditation on the number three before. This is religion without the excess baggage. Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o reaches for the eternal truths that all religions share.

The words seem etched in stone rather than written.

‘The Perfect Nine’ is an epic that deals with the timeless verities, the continuation of life from generation to generation. It is based on the lore of the Gikuyu people of Kenya. These are the origin stories that have been told and retold from the early days.

One unusual feature of this saga is that the women are at least as heroic as the men.

It is an ancient tale of Gikuyu and Mumbi.

They faced hazards big enough to shatter the hearts of many.

Their bodies trembled, but their hearts remained unshaken,

For Gikuyu and Mumbi had robed themselves with hope

And fastened themselves with courage and had moved on.”

They now have ten daughters. The youngest Warigia is born with crippled legs.

When the daughters get to be of marrying age, 99 male suitors arrive. Each daughter must select the suitor who is right for her.

The birds hopped up and down in their nests, letting forth their rapturous song,

As if whistling advice to the man and woman that

They too should set up their own nest there, under the trees.”

As a test, the daughters and their suitors must go on a hazardous journey to the Mountain of the Moon. They must contend with several ogres that threaten their existence. Several of the suitors are lost along the way.

This primitive heroic poem is by turns joyful and elegiac.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘The Mystery of Henri Pick’ by David Foenkinos – “Merely Pleasant”

 

‘The Mystery of Henri Pick’ by David Foenkinos (2016) – 281 pages           Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

 

‘The Mystery of Henri Pick’ is a playful French literary mystery. It is not a world-changer but instead an amusing interlude. After reading the intense stories in James Baldwin’s ‘Going to Meet the Man’ which were passionate and insightful and angry, I was ready for something that was “merely pleasant”.

In the town of Crozon in Brittany there is a library where would-be authors can take their manuscripts that have been rejected by one or many publishers and have never been accepted. Somehow Delphine who is a literary agent for a publishing house comes across one of these rejects, ‘The Last Hours of a Love Affair’ by one Henri Pick, and believes she has found a best-seller. Henri Pick is the owner of a pizza shop in Crozon who has died a couple of years ago, and his wife and daughter are quite shocked that he had literary ambitions.

The story in the rejected manuscript blends the last moments of a love affair with the death throes of Russian writer Alexander Pushkin after he had been shot in a duel. Delphine believes this is a surefire hit if handled the correct way.

Delphine had realized that the best way to publicize the novel was to talk about it as little as possible, to let a feeling of mystery surround it, perhaps even a few false rumors.”

‘The Mystery of Henri Pick’ makes good-natured fun of the world of books and writers. There is much tongue-in-cheek literary humor here about publishing or not publishing books, marketing books, and writing fiction itself. There are even subtle mischievous jokes about famous French authors including Michel Houllebecq and Laurent Binet. This novel is too light and fluffy to be called satire.

We are introduced to a merry-go-round of characters. We get to know these characters superficially, all on the surface. Although there are break-ups of old romances and the beginnings of new romances, none of these are at all intense. In ‘The Mystery of Henri Pick’, David Foenkinos views the lives of his multitude of characters through rose-colored glasses. This is a lighthearted novel.

I enjoyed it. Just as with all of those paintings of the French Impressionists, one can never underestimate the power of the “merely pleasant”.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

 

‘Going to Meet the Man’ by James Baldwin – A Fearless Artist

 

‘Going to Meet the Man’, stories by James Baldwin (1965) – 249 pages

 

I wanted to read more James Baldwin, and I had read a lot of good things about his collection of stories, ‘Going to Meet the Man’. It did not disappoint.

These are deep stories with an acute and often angry understanding of the predicaments of his characters. One theme in each of these powerful stories is our refusal to really know other humans and to accept out differences.

The subjects of these eight stories are wide-ranging, and whatever the subject that James Baldwin takes on, he approaches it with an insightful humane intelligence.

It’s always been like that, people always try to destroy what they don’t understand – and they hate almost everything because they understand so little.”

The early story ‘The Outing’ is about a church outing when the members of the church and a few others take a boat trip up to Bear Mountain where they would spend the day. Since it is a church outing the pastor Father James preaches to those who came along.  Johnnie, the son of the Deacon of the church, is attracted to his male friend David. David is more interested in the girl Sylvia who is an upstanding member of the church than in Johnnie. Neither Johnnie nor David has committed to the church, thus they are both unsaved. Can this almighty God forgive Johnnie’s “sin”?

I found this story to be powerful and caused me to eagerly read the following stories.

These lines from the story “Previous Condition” resonated with me:

Acting’s a rough life, even if you’re white. I’m not tall and I’m not good looking and I can’t sing or dance, and I’m not white; so even at the best of times I wasn’t in much demand.”

Many of the stories confront the racial prejudice which the characters must contend with, being a black person in the United States. There is justifiable anger in the shabby and sometimes much worse treatment these characters face every day. However in the story “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon”, our main protagonist escapes to Paris where racial attitudes are different.

 

In “Sonny’s Blues”, one man finds his escape through music:

For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

‘Going to Meet the Man’ finishes with the devastating title story depicting the lynching of a black man in a small southern US town, told from the harsh view of the white deputy sheriff who is overseeing the proceedings.

There has been a James Baldwin revival lately, and the compelling stories in ‘Going To Meet the Man’ are strong examples of his eloquent insight into daily life.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The War of the Poor’ by Eric Vuillard – “You cannot serve both God and Money.”

 

‘The War of the Poor’ by Eric Vuillard   (2019) – 79 pages               Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti

 

When someone writes a book propping up the kings, queens, and aristocracy of the past, we call that history. However if someone attempts to explain a major peasants’ revolt that occurred in the 16th century, then do we call that fiction? The German Peasants’ War of 1524 and 1525 was Europe’s largest and most widespread popular uprising prior to the French Revolution of 1789.

The German Peasants’ War was a revolt against both the aristocracy and the Catholic Church which through its doctrine and practices bolstered the aristocracy. The religious leader of this revolt was the German preacher and theologian Thomas Müntzer.

Why the God of the poor was so strangely always on the side of the rich, always with the rich. Why his words about giving up everything issued from the mouths of those who had taken everything.”

At first the Protestant reformer Martin Luther supported Müntzer, but when Müntzer’s sermons started to inflame the peasants into revolt Luther turned against him.

The Catholic Church services in the Middle Ages were in Latin which very few people in Europe could understand, and the Bible, untranslated, was also in Latin. In ‘The War of the Poor’ author Vuillard traces reformers like John Wycliffe who translated the Bible into English.

And as the icing on the cake, his most terrifying idea of all, he (Wycliffe) preached the equality of all human beings.”

Martin Luther translated the Bible into German.

When the sermons and the Bible became things ordinary people could understand, then religion became more personal and thus more susceptible to logic. The poor began to question the King’s and the Church’s authority over their wretched lives.

There are no fictional characters or events in ‘The War of the Poor’. Here is an example of why ‘The War of the Poor’ would be treated as fiction:

Thomas Müntzer must have blazed white-hot during those days. He must have gone off like a firecracker, bellowed his faith and brought to bear misery, rage, despair, and hope.”

This kind of colorful zippy conjecture would never do in the staid non-fiction world.

This book is a scant 79 pages. What there is of it is very good. I wish there were more. I would like to see a fuller depiction of the life of Thomas Müntzer. He seems to be a fascinating pivotal figure in European religious and social history.

 

Grade:    A-

 

 

In Praise of the Negative Review, but Only if It is Honest

 

Today nearly every newly published book is sent off on its bright cheery way with its glowing encomiums on the back cover and sometimes even on the front cover. The readers are already aware of the book’s existence through various on-line lists of What To Read This Month.

Then we get the warm-hearted reviews who first point out all the wonderful aspects of this book and perhaps add some quite mild criticisms near the end of the article. Most of us surfeited users of the Internet will never get to that end of an article anyway.

Thus the minds of we readers are filled to overflowing with Books to Read, yet we are given next to no guidance as to Books to Not Read.

When every book is marketed and discussed as the next ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or the next ‘War and Peace’, it really becomes difficult for a potential reader to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In the olden days thirty years ago, there were curmudgeonly critics who were known not to like much of anything. Their negative sometimes nasty reviews would be fun to read if only to imagine their impact in spoiling the hopes and dreams of the books’ publishers. Since these, usually guys, didn’t like much of anything or only one narrow favorite genre of book, these curmudgeons weren’t very helpful for the readers either.

I guess what it comes down to is that if a reviewer likes everything, then it’s about the same as not liking anything, not very helpful. An occasional negative review would restore some balance.

Most of the books I don’t particularly like, I give up on and quit reading and I won’t ever review a book I haven’t entirely read, so the majority of books I complete get positive reviews. However there are still degrees of liking which is why I use an ABC rating. Unfortunately publishers seem to feel that a grade of B is a death-knell for a book.

Basically my opinion has nothing to do with the actual quality of a book, but I am still entitled to my opinion.

Of course if you or I write a negative review, there is a chance we could be wrong, God forbid. Imagine some poor fool of a reviewer criticizing and tearing apart ‘Pride and Prejudice’ over 200 years ago.

But there’s nothing wrong with sticking one’s neck out once in awhile either.

‘Disgraced’ by Ayad Akhtar – A Devastating Play

 

‘Disgraced’, a play by Ayad Akhtar  (2012) – 96 pages

 

‘Disgraced’ has probably had the most stage productions of any play in the last ten years. It is about time that I got to it. In the absence of any live performances these days, I read the play which also works for me. Most of my experiences with Shakespeare have been through reading.

The words and the actions of ‘Disgraced’ are as clear as a bell. There is no mistaking their import. There is no attempt to soften the play’s devastating impact on the audience.

Here are words of the author, Ayad Akhtar, regarding ‘Disgraced’:

I aspired to accomplish with this structure a kind of shattering of the audience, after which they have to find some way to put themselves back together.”

The play is one act, four scenes. All scenes take place in the fashionable New York apartment of married couple Amir and Emily. Amir is an American-born corporate attorney who has renounced his Muslim background and is awaiting his promotion to partner in his law firm. His wife Emily is a white Christian and an artist who is fascinated with Islamic art and tradition. I won’t go into the details of the play since I don’t want to blunt its force on those who have not seen it yet, but let’s just say the play is about the severe trials and tribulations of this well-to-do couple in the United States of today.

The play’s sharp brutal directness is probably responsible for the overwhelming success of ‘Disgraced’. Ayad Akhtar speaks of his play as “something that is so troubling, so multivalent, that the people in the audience cannot easily answer or release the questions that the piece has raised for them.”

Ayad Akhtar, again:

I want the audience to be so fully identified with a protagonist who acts out in an understandable but tragically horrifying way, that no matter what text you put on top of it, it doesn’t change his humanity.”

Despite some spirited criticism from some Muslim viewers of the play, I would still recommend you see or read the play in order to draw your own conclusions.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘Infinite Country’ by Patricia Engel – A Family Trapped between the United States and Colombia

 

‘Infinite Country’ by Patricia Engel  (2021) – 191 pages

 

‘Infinite Country’ is a novel of a family from Colombia coming to the United States to make a new life for themselves. Over the years there have been many novels of families immigrating to the United States, and these books have usually been upbeat, optimistic, and hopeful. However ‘Infinite Country’ is a tragic story about a family torn apart by United States harsh attitudes and cruel policies. This family would have been much better off staying in Bogota despite Colombia’s ongoing problems. Colombia is troubled, but the United States may be even more troubled.

Last year I read Phil Klay’s ‘Missionaries’ about the disastrous effects of the United States inserting itself into the Colombian situation. Patricia Engel does not cover that part of the story but instead paints a vivid picture of a family trapped between Colombia and the United States.

When you get to the United States, nobody will understand you. I don’t mean just the language. It’s a country of strangers. It will be another kind of sentence. But one that as an immigrant you can’t escape.”

Colombians Mauro and Elena have three children named Karina, Nando, and Talia. Nando and Talia were born in the United States and are thus United States citizens. The father Mauro gets kicked out of the United States and cannot return. Elena decides to send her youngest Talia, a toddler, back to Colombia.

Now Talia is 15, and she gets into trouble. Talia is sentenced to a religious reform school after pouring a pot of hot cooking oil on the head of a guy who had used that same hot cooking oil to scald and murder a stray cat.

Bogota, Colombia

Talia escapes from the reform school and goes on the run, trying to get to Bogota and her father so she can catch a flight to the United States and her mother and the rest of her family. She has the following dialogue with Aguja who is a young guy who gives her a ride on his motorcycle.

I have a flight to catch.”

Where to?”

The United States.”

Why?”

My mother lives there with my brother and sister. They’re waiting for me.”

Aren’t you afraid?”

Of what?”

Over there people walk into schools and buildings with weapons and kill everyone. They are not even guerrilla or paramilitary. Just regular people. What are you going to do when you’re out shopping and some gringo points a machine gun at your forehead?”

I don’t think it’s any worse than here. Just different.”

‘Infinite Country’ is the intense story of one family’s plight stuck between two nations, told in short sharp sentences.

 

Grade:    B+

‘Cane’ by Jean Toomer – The Devil was Already in Georgia

‘Cane’ by Jean Toomer   (1923) – 160 pages

 

‘Cane’ stunned me. It contains scenes which are so real that they never make it into fiction. ‘Cane’ surveys the hard and dangerous lives of the people of this Georgia neighborhood in the 1920s without getting sentimental. Thus the writing comes across as authentic and honest.

A young man from the North is visiting a black neighborhood in the South in Georgia. There are poems scattered among the stories, but all of the writing, even the prose, has a slow rhythmic cadence. The writing here is so atmospheric and compelling, you must read these stories and poems slowly to capture their full resonance. In his own words, Jean Toomer is “shapin words t fit m soul.”

In the first section of ‘Cane’, the stories depict the lives of six women, five of them black and one of them white, all of them doomed. The stories each are titled by the woman depicted – Karintha, Becky, Carma, Fern, Esther, and Louisa. Actually the story about Louisa is called “Blood-Burning Moon” and is probably Jean Toomer’s most famous story. You will never read anything more intense than the eleven pages of this story.

Men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.”

In each of these stories, there is a contrast between the loveliness of the natural surroundings and the ugliness of the plights that these people must contend with.

God Almighty, dear God, dear Jesus, do not torture me with beauty. Take it away. Give me an ugly world…There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches…and tortures me.”

In the final section we get the long story ‘Kabnis’ which tells directly of this young man who has traveled South to teach but must confront the horrors of rural Georgia. This story comes directly from Jean Toomer’s own experiences.

His friends remind Kabnis what he’s gotten himself into. The “land of cotton” has a legacy of slavery, and not much has changed since then. Black people are targeted just for being black. Danger is always present. His friends keep quiet about racial atrocities so they don’t become the next victims themselves. Asking too many questions is dangerous. By the end of the story, Kabnis is physically scared of getting lynched himself.

Throughout ‘Cane’, the atmosphere recalls the eerie silence in which the black community is forced to live, keeping quiet about lynchings and threats.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘The Committed’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen – The Sympathizer in Paris

‘The Committed’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2021) – 345 pages

It doesn’t happen very often. With his first audacious novel in 2015, Viet Thanh Nguyen immediately rose to the very top echelon of United States fiction writers. It told the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a fictional Vietnamese double agent known as the Sympathizer whose viewpoint we in the United States had not encountered before. Then following that success, in 2017 Nguyen published ‘The Refugees’, a powerful collection of stories about a few of the over 600,000 Vietnamese people that had to be evacuated from Vietnam after the United States lost the war.

Now we have ‘The Committed’. After having spent some time in the United States after having been evacuated there, the Sympathizer returned to Vietnam where he was immediately sentenced to a harsh re-education camp. Now it is the early 1980s, and he has wound up in Paris. There were quite a number of Vietnamese people who came to Paris back in French colonial times.

He decides to become a capitalist; in other words he is dealing drugs to left-wing intellectuals in Paris. He becomes a gangster, a capitalist gangster.

As he wanders the streets of Paris selling drugs, he is disguised as a Japanese tourist with a camera because no one cares about or notices a Japanese guy taking pictures. He is haunted by the ghosts of the two men he has killed, Sonny and the crapulent major.

Wherever he goes, the Sympathizer is “the most cynical person in the room”. As most of us true cynics are, he is most cynical of his own motives.

Being conversant with the writings of the famed French theorists, he enjoys contrasting their high ideals with the brutal conditions many of the people in French Indochina had to contend with under French colonial rule. Here he replies to Rousseau:

“Thank you, Jean-Jacques!…I learned to love confessing and have never stopped acknowledging my crimes of violence, torture, and betrayal, all of which our French masters had taught us through the violence and torture they had inflicted on us as they betrayed their own ideals.”

His scathing insights all developed from his early years living in Vietnam. For an engraving on a proposed statue of Ho Chi Minh, he suggests the following:

“Now that we are the powerful, we don’t need the French or the Americans to fuck us over. We can fuck ourselves just fine.”

If you like to have everything that you believe in confronted by hard logic, you will definitely like ‘The Committed’.

“I am through with your Western philosophies and beliefs and ideas and systems! Your Catholicism! Your colonialism! Your capitalism! Your Marxism! Your communism! Your nihilism too! I am not a nihilist, for I believe in something – I believe nothing is sacred! Life is full of meaning! And I am full of principles!”

‘The Committed’ is a novel of compelling ideas. It is a wicked political novel disguised as a humorous crime story.

“When it comes to crime stories, I think any crime writer who’s any good understands that the individual crimes are nowhere near as serious as the crimes of the state and crimes of corporations and crimes of the powerful,” Viet Thanh Nguyen said in an interview.

Every group of people throughout history has at some point committed atrocities against other groups of people. Perhaps, instead of recognizing our common humanity, we could be recognizing our common inhumanity. This is one of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s main points, and the more that I consider it, the more this point seems to be valid.

Grade :   A

‘No Exit’ – Enjoying Jean-Paul Sartre

‘No Exit’, a play by Jean-Paul Sartre (1946) – 46 pages

Are you intimidated by Jean-Paul Sartre? I used to be terribly intimidated by this French philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, political activist, biographer, and literary critic Jean-Paul Sartre, the only person ever to turn down the Nobel Prize in Literature. I remember a long time ago trying to figure out what existentialism is. I never did figure it out, but the Ortega y Gasset sentence ‘I am myself plus my circumstances’ pretty well sums it up for me. I knew that Sartre was also a novelist, but although I was reading every other famous and deep novelist, I was too intimidated by Sartre. I figured his fiction would be way too abstract and metaphysical for me.

However when I finally did turn to Sartre’s fiction in the early 1990s, I got a pleasant surprise. His fiction was very easy to follow and was entirely engaging for me. I read the first novel ‘The Age of Reason’ of his ‘Roads to Freedom’ trilogy and was so captivated that I immediately read the other two novels ‘The Reprieve’ and ‘Troubled Sleep’. Later I would read his excellent short novel ‘Nausea’.

Never mind his philosophy; Jean-Paul Sartre wrote great fiction.

‘No Exit’ is the first play of Sartre’s that I have read. After reading the play. I watched two separate performances of the play including the 1962 movie.

‘No Exit’ takes place in Hell. In the play, Hell is a sitting room with three sofas. One man and two women know that they have arrived in Hell. They don’t know each other, but together they try to figure out what they each did while they were alive that got them sentenced to Hell. Since this is Hell, they wonder when the torturer will arrive, but the torturer never shows up. However sitting around and talking about their past lives, they get on each other’s nerves and they wind up yelling and screaming at each other. They finally figure out that they are each other’s torturers, and the play ends with the famous line “Hell is other people”.

After discovering Jean-Paul Sartre, I went on to read some of the fiction of his wife Simone de Beauvoir who was also a mighty fine novelist. Two of her works I can recommend are ‘The Mandarins’ and especially ‘When Things of the Spirit Come First’.

 

Grade:    A

 

‘Acts of Desperation’ by Megan Nolan – Looking Back at Her Affair Seven Years Later

‘Acts of Desperation’ by Megan Nolan (2021) – 279 pages

‘Acts of Desperation’ is not a novel that you read for pleasure. It is a sad disturbing read. However its mercifully short chapters keep you reading. One hopes, for the author’s sake, this is not autofiction.

Ciaran was the first extremely good looking guy our unnamed first-person female narrator has dated.

“It was a strange experience for me going out with someone so objectively attractive. In public, I was split between taking childish pleasure in it and feeling terrified that people looked at us and were puzzled by the discrepancy.”

However Ciaran, handsome as he is, is a cold fish. All of her friends secretly or not-so-secretly hated him and thought he was bad for her. That should have been the tip-off for her not to get involved with him. However she likes the idea of this attractive guy as her boyfriend. Also Ciaran is still hung up on his old long-time girlfriend, Freja.

With “his natural coldness”, the best that Ciaran can do with her friends and relatives was to be “passably convivial”. Other times he is worse.

“I had chosen someone who was by nature indifferent and made it my project to make him love me.”

It is not like her life was perfect before she met Ciaran. She was into cutting herself and starving herself to lose weight already since she was an adolescent. When she started going to bars, she would get real drunk and pick up men for sex.

This is confessional self-obsessed fiction on the order of our Scandinavian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. If you like his work, you will probably like ‘Acts of Desperation’. I must admit that I am not a fan of Knausgaard’s work, after having to struggle through ‘My Struggle’.

Interspersed among all the short chapters about her oppressive two-year affair with Ciaran are short chapters she has written from her new home in Athens, Greece seven years later. She is looking back at this terrible time trying to gain some perspective from a distance.

At the novel’s end our female narrator seven years later wonders, “What would I think about, now that I wasn’t thinking about love or sex?”

Grade:    B

‘A Virtual Image’ by Rosalind Brackenbury – A Road Trip to France

‘A Virtual Image’ by Rosalind Brackenbury (1971) – 187 pages

In ‘A Virtual Image’, young English woman Ruby Smith is driving by car from England to southern France to meet her best friend since childhood, Anna Parrish. Both have just broken up with their boyfriends, and they are now each on their own enjoying the freedom of the open road.

They are to meet at a summer outdoor art colony run by a French husband and wife on a farm.

“And, Thomas,” she said: “Of course he’s the most marvelous painter. But somehow the thing for me here is the atmosphere. You know, there are so few places in the world that are really congenial. And they are such a marvelous couple. So complementary. Almost enough to make one think marriage isn’t such a bad idea after all.”

However when Ruby arrives, Anna has already left. Ruby must track her down.

In many ways ‘A Virtual Image’ is the quintessential early 1970s novel. The early Seventies were the bright dawn of the New Feminism. Women were just starting out to discover and treasure their independence from men. The women speak of self-realization. When Ruby does hook up with the young man Caley, there is a noticeable lack of the cynicism which would come later.

“Beside me he sits, a person I hardly know but who persuades me in the movement of his hands and the rise and fall of his voice, and in a hundred small gestures, that he will tell me something, change the way I am.”

‘A Virtual Image’ is kind of a road map for a romance between an independent woman and a guy who can handle her independence.

“Out of such things, out of the prosaic and the glib, I felt companionship grow, and our ease with each other; so that it was no longer necessary to talk all the time about Anna and explain all our actions in terms of our search for her.”

It is easy to tell who the guiding light for ‘A Virtual Image’ is. It is Virginia Woolf brought into the 1970s. I am no expert on the style of Virginia Woolf, but I have read ‘To the Lighthouse’ and ‘ Mrs. Dalloway’. We are always aware of what is going on in the mind of the main protagonist who is Ruby. We view events mostly through her eyes and insights, although occasionally there are abrupt unannounced shifts in the perspective to Caley or Anna.

The sentences and the paragraphs in the novel tend to be longer than those we get today. The novel was written before the “less is more” style became predominant.

Despite finding the ending somewhat melodramatic and over the top, I enjoyed ‘A Virtual Image’ throughout and found the scenes quite vivid.

Grade:  B

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