‘Dunce’, the Poems of Mary Ruefle – Explaining the Inexplicable

 

‘Dunce’, poems by Mary Ruefle (2019) – 96 pages

 

Playful and profound. That’s a good combination. And Mary Ruefle pulls it off in her poems.

Here are some rather typical lines of Mary Ruefle, from the poem “Tuna and a Play”:

Earlier I picked grasses with J.

Blue grass, pink grass, silver grass,

We each carried a bouquet.

I asked J. if she was happy to be human –

J., are you glad to be a human?

But she couldn’t say;

She walked through the grasses

for what seemed like a day,”

We can be happy as long as we don’t question it. I’m one of those who believes good poetry, actually good anything, is visceral. Reason and analytical thinking only take you so far, no farther. Beyond that, there is an intuitive gap that must be jumped by any simple means necessary, the simpler, the better.

Thus we have the poetry of Mary Ruefle. I will use her short poem “Sequoia” as an example.

I keep some moss in a bowl

Tiny unreal deer there

looking out over the hills for some water.”

What do you see when you look into a bowl of moss? Probably something that looks like green vegetation or rocks, but you probably don’t see tiny deer looking out over the hills for some water.

At the black glass lake

Alone at the edge

I stand shaking myself out

didn’t think to bring a towel.”

Standing by a lake, Mary has plenty of water, so much that she could have brought a towel.

In nearly every poem, Mary Ruefle goes that extra step beyond reason to really communicate with us. I found that I needed to be in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate these poems. Sometimes I could pick up the book, and none of the poems made much sense to me. Other times I would pick up the book and every poem hit home.

At one point in the poem “A Late Dense Work”, Mary is her harshest critic:

Do you want I should make

some rapt contemplation

descending into useless particulars?”

I must say that when I read the poems of Mary Ruefle, I get the same feeling I get when I read the poems of Robert Frost. There’s something there, and it’s often inexplicable. She starts with a bowl of moss and winds up somewhere else entirely.

‘Dunce’ is a collection of poems that one can keep coming back to and get something else each time.

‘Tis a gift to be simple.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Black Sheep’ by Honoré de Balzac – Two Brothers, A Cain and Abel Story

 

‘The Black Sheep’ (La Rabouilleuse) by Honoré de Balzac (1842) – 339 pages             Translated from the French by Donald Adamson

 

For me, the sign of a good historical fiction is that it captures the joys as well as the hardships of those olden times. This Balzac does in spades. Anyone can write of hardship and misery, but very few can communicate or describe joy. Perhaps the greatest example of an author communicating joy for me is ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. Of course Balzac and Dickens weren’t writing historical fiction; they were writing about their own time, the post-Napoleonic Era.

‘The Black Sheep’ is one of Balzac’s collection of interlinked novels called ‘The Human Comedy’ depicting French society in the post-Napoleonic Bourbon Restoration era (1815-1830). So far I have read about 5 or 6 of these novels.

‘The Black Sheep’ is what I call a Cain and Abel novel. Two brothers, Philippe and Joseph, are very different from each other. Joseph is a would-be artist spending his time even as a boy learning artistic techniques from the monks at a nearby monastery. Philippe is a soldier rising to the level of Colonel as a young man in Napoleon’s army before Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Philippe is a dashing young man who later gets in trouble for plotting against the Bourbon Restoration with some of the other soldiers remaining from Napoleon’s army.

While Joseph labors away making little money on his art, the dashing Philippe rises to the heights of society. For Philippe, life is wine, women, and song. However Philippe is brought down by his gambling addiction. His family catches him stealing money from under a mattress from his aunt.

A frequent cause of death in a Balzac novel is the shock to the system of a woman caused by a close relative’s behavior. Twice this happens in ‘The Black Sheep’. This plot point may not be medically sound but is psychologically sound.

One thing that is always true in the novels of Honoré de Balzac is the author’s fixation with money. Balzac is always aware of the financial situation of each of his characters down to their last franc. If a son disobeys his father, the father will reduce the amount of money that son will inherit or write that son out of the will entirely. And there is always a will or bequeathing from some shoestring relative that is being disputed.

Later, when Philippe returns, no mention is made to his addiction to gambling which supposedly has been cured by his time in prison. He becomes a hero and later becomes even a lord under Charles X. The reader senses that Balzac favored the Bourbon Restoration over the Napoleonic remnants of the French Revolution, but one never knows for sure under Balzac’s embedded sarcasm.

All in all, ‘The Black Sheep’ is a rouser and a page-turner of a novel, showcasing Balzac’s storytelling capability.

The Guardian listed ‘The Black Sheep’ by Balzac at number 12 on their list of the 100 greatest novels of all time in 2015. I would place it at number 72 or 73. (Actually I have no idea where I would rank ‘The Black Sheep’. This is just my little joke making fun of ranking these 100 greatest novels.)

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Dressmaker’ by Beryl Bainbridge – A Humorous Gothic Horror Novel

 

‘The Dressmaker’ by Beryl Bainbridge     (1973) – 183 pages

 

Bainbridge has no truck with counting your blessings or happy endings or spelling out the psychology of her disparate characters. She writes as she sees life (I think) – she knows that our struggles and hopes make comic figures of us all and sometimes, quite often, turn us nasty. I have never heard Bainbridge be pompous; I have never heard her suggest that she has ever got life right, or, indeed, that there is a right way.” – Mavis Cheek, The Guardian

I didn’t miss much in my early days of fiction reading, but I surely neglected a great fiction writer in Beryl Bainbridge. I am making up for my mistake now, and the down-to-earth novels of Beryl Bainbridge are one of my major reading pleasures today.

‘The Dressmaker’ was the first of five of her novels to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It captures perfectly the ambiance of English working class life during World War II in Liverpool, including “the spam fritters cooking on the stove”. The two aunts Nellie and Margo have brought up their niece Rita since she was not yet five when her mother died. Rita’s father Jack, who is a butcher and is Nellie and Margo’s brother, visits them often. Now Rita is 17.

A German bomb blast in the neighborhood had killed 12 people and “cracked the little mirror bordered in green velvet with the red roses painted on the glass” in their living room. Now young United States soldiers are flooding into Liverpool, and they are of much interest to the young women including Rita. When Rita attends an engagement party for a neighbor girl and her US beau, Rita meets her own young US soldier Ira. Aunt Nellie invites Ira to dinner to determine if his attentions with Rita are good or bad.

Not all of the Liverpudlians welcomed the US soldiers. Jack says,

There’s only three things wrong with them Yanks. They’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here.”

This is a Gothic horror novel, but I had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading it. Each of the characters is flaky in his or her own way. Much of the fun stems from that.

Nellie is the dressmaker, “and it was her instrument, the black Singer with the hand-painted flowers.” Nellie is practical minded, but she does have her rages.

At this she made a funny little gesture of contempt with her elbows, flapping them like a hen rising from its perch in alarm.”

Margo, who works in a munitions plant, is flighty.

.

Margo was a follower. She’d do what anyone wanted, provided it was silly enough. Her intentions were good, but she lacked tenacity. She was the big blaze that died down through lack of fuel.”

And the niece Rita is in love with her Yank soldier.

Every time he spoke to her, color flooded her cheeks. She wondered how anyone survived being in love, let alone get married – condemned to live forever in this state of quivering anxiety…”

Later, this story which starts out as a deadpan English working-class comedy of manners takes a very wicked turn indeed.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘Act of the Damned’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes – “Hatred is Vital to Good Health.”

‘Act of the Damned’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes   (1985) – 246 pages            Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith

If you have not read Antonio Lobo Antunes before, please, please, do not start with ‘Act of the Damned’. It is a novel that is quite difficult, especially for a novice, to appreciate. It is not the best place to start with Antunes.

‘Act of the Damned’, this tale of familial sin and disintegration, is Antunes’ William Faulkner novel. It is an over-the-top cacophony of voices similar to ‘The Sound and the Fury’ but even more extreme.

Perhaps my personal experience with reading William Faulkner will be instructive. As a farm boy in school, I always did fine in school classes, especially in math and science. However I was a disaster to my parents on doing the work on the farm. After high school I set off for the University of Wisconsin – Madison to major in mathematics. However my interests started turning in different directions. During my sophomore year, I decided to take a course in Contemporary Literature. This opened up a whole new world for me, but one of the novels we were to read for the course was ‘Absalom, Absalom’ by William Faulkner. Now ‘Absalom, Absalom’ is a difficult novel with some of the sentences running on for pages. I couldn’t finish that novel and dropped out of the Contemporary Literature course.

However by this time I was so intrigued by literature that I signed up for the same Contemporary Literature course the following semester. This time the assigned Faulkner novel was the much easier ‘Light in August’, and I sailed through that and through the course.

I realize that William Faulkner is rather “out” today in the world of literature, but I still consider him one of the most powerful of writers. Later, I even read ‘Absalom, Absalom’ and ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and was much moved by both.

‘Act of the Damned’ is the nasty story of one of the old rich families in Portugal who helped the dictator Antonio Salazar stay in power for 36 years. The time is the mid-1970s, just after the Carnation Revolution, and the family is plotting to flee first to Spain and then to Brazil. There are nine separate narrators in ‘Act of the Damned’, each with their own tale of decadence and twisted motivation. This dissolute family is described in all its decreptitude.

All of the characters in ‘Act of the Damned’ are contemptible except for the mongoloid daughter, the result of incest, who is now a grown woman with the mind of a small child and who at least has an excuse for her behavior.

Some of the paragraphs in ‘Act of the Damned’ run on for four pages.

It would have helped the novel to have a list of the names and a short description of each of the characters at the beginning of the novel.

‘Act of the Damned’ is a novel that if I were to read it slowly a second time, I would probably find it to be brilliant. However, I don’t feel like doing that now.

This is not the novel you should read if you are just discovering Antunes. Antonio Lobo Antunes is still definitely one of the few major figures in world literature today, and a good place to start is ‘The Land at the End of the World’.

Grade:    C+

‘The End of Me’ by Alfred Hayes – His Sixties Novel

 

‘The End of Me’ by Alfred Hayes    (1968) – 178 pages

 

‘The End of Me’ is very much Alfred Hayes’ Sixties novel. In other words, it is partially about fooling around with sex. The Sixties were famous for fooling around with sex.

Alfred Hayes was a Hollywood screenwriter, and it much shows in his writing. He writes in short declarative sentences which is what I imagine screenwriters do. It is not stylish, it is a steady plain style like giving stage directions which does have its advantages but also its limitations. Alfred Hayes is the only successful Hollywood screenwriter I know of who also became a successful literary novelist as well.

‘The End of Me’ is the third novel of what they call a “loose trilogy” as the other two novels have different characters but all have a screenwriter as the central character. The other two novels in the trilogy are ‘In Love’ and ‘ My Face for the World to See’ which I have also read and reviewed.

At the beginning of this novel a husband in his fifties, a Hollywood screenwriter named Asher, accidentally catches his wife having sex with her tennis instructor.

On the floor through the window with the unheard music he reached under the soft sweater and unhooked her brassiere. I had not howled. I had run. I was finished.”

Not only Asher’s marriage but also his career as a screenwriter have crashed as he has not gotten any scripts to write lately.

Asher immediately leaves, takes a flight to New York City which was his childhood home and where he lived for thirty-five years.

In New York City, the screenwriter meets up with a young nephew Michael and his girlfriend Aurora d’Amore (which does sound like a stripper’s name). Michael takes Asher around to places from the past that have meaning to the screenwriter. Meanwhile Michael and Aurora try to get money out of Asher.

Later Michael and Aurora have a fight, and Aurora winds up in bed with Asher. Thus we have the partial redemption of a man in his fifties when he sleeps with the young woman Aurora d’Amore. Sure, sure.

The writing in ‘The End of Me’ is of the same good quality as the other two novels in the trilogy, but this is a very Sixties plot, quite outdated.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘We Had To Remove This Post’ by Hanna Bervoets – The Content Moderator

 

‘We Had To Remove This Post’ by Hanna Bervoets      (2022) 134 pages         Translated from the Dutch by Emma Rault

 

This is a novel; I say that first, because otherwise you might wrongly guess that it is non-fiction.

In the novel, Kayleigh is a content moderator for an on-line social media platform called Hexa. A content moderator screens the livestreams, videos, photos, and text-only posts that are coming into the platform. Kayleigh is telling her story to Mr. Stitic who is, I suppose, a psychiatrist.

Is it OK to leave this up on the platform? If not, why not?”

With their cell phone cameras, people can now film just about anything. Acts of self-mutilation, animal cruelty, death threats, suicides, etc. The platform has these supposedly rigid guidelines as to what can be posted and what cannot be posted. However being a content moderator is a Hell of a job, watching all this stuff.

But how on earth were you able to stand it there under those conditions?”

I expect that by now most of the reputable sites err on the side of caution as to what they will post.

While this subject of content moderation is definitely of interest, I felt that ‘We Had To Remove This Post’ did not sufficiently turn this real-life account into fiction. Much of the novel centers around the love affair of Kayleigh and her fellow worker Sigrid and the effects that their job has on their love life. Kayleigh and Sigrid often sneak up to an empty work room in their office building between their work sessions. The other characters in this novel besides Kayleigh and Sigrid did not really come alive for me and remained little more than stick figures.

At the end of this novel is a list of the selected sources which the author used as research. Two of her sources are:

The Back End of Facebook: Eight Months in Hell”

Revealed: Catastrophic Effects of Working as a Facebook Moderator”

 

Grade:   C

 

 

 

In Praise of the United States Author Theodore Dreiser

 

Theodore Dreiser   (1871 – 1945)

 

Yes, but another writer I read in high school who just knocked me out was Theodore Dreiser. I read An American Tragedy all in one weekend and couldn’t put it down – I locked myself in my room. Now that was antithetical to every other book I was reading at the time because Dreiser really had no style, but it was powerful.” – Joan Didion

I feel pretty much the same way about Theodore Dreiser as Joan Didion did. I have read most of his work, and it is powerful. His two masterpieces are ‘An American Tragedy’ and ‘Sister Carrie’ but the novels ‘The Financier’, ‘The Titan’, and ‘Jenny Gerhardt’ are also excellent.

Theodore Dreiser was never as stylish as F. Scott Fitzgerald; Dreiser never intended to be stylish. But when it came to getting inside the heads of his characters whether it be aspiring actress Caroline Meeker in ‘Sister Carrie’ or hapless murderer Clyde Griffiths in ‘An American Tragedy’ , Dreiser far outclasses Fitzgerald and nearly every other writer this side of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

You may have accidentally encountered Theodore Dreiser’s work already. ‘An American Tragedy’ was made into the movie ‘A Place in the Sun’ in 1951 starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff and Shelley Winters which is an outstanding movie that captures the essence of Dreiser’s work. In ‘An American Tragedy’, Dreiser felt a kinship with his protagonist that allowed him to portray him as a pitiable, arresting, trapped creature.

The novels of Dreiser are strong examples of the literary view called naturalism, a literary view first expounded by Emile Zola that says our lives and our character as individuals are determined by our father, our mother, the rest of our family, and the upbringing circumstances of our lives. The novelist is then an outside observer who records the effects of these factors on their characters’ lives. Thus naturalism is a step beyond realism which records what actually happens. Naturalism brings in to play those factors that cause a person to be the way he or she is.

He (Dreiser) shared with Hardy, James, and only a few other male novelists the capacity to portray women convincingly and unpatronizingly.” – Martin Seymour-Smith

‘An American Tragedy’ is rather a massive work (880 pages) so you probably will want to start with Dreiser’s other acclaimed masterpiece ‘Sister Carrie’ (464 pages). ‘Sister Carrie’ is the story of a small town girl who struggles to become a world famous actress. At its time, it was considered too sordid and almost too realistic, but the London Express said of it, “It is a cruel, merciless story, intensely clever in its realism, and one that will remain impressed in the memory of the reader for many a long day.”

Theodore Dreiser earned his place as one of the great United States fiction writers, and his novels have withstood the test of time to remain masterpieces.

 

 

 

‘Reverse Engineering’ – Modern Short Stories Disassembled by their Authors

 

‘Reverse Engineering’, a collection of short stories by various authors  (2022) – 170 pages

 

I read collections of short stories by various authors for my own purpose. Usually in a collection I will find that one story which I like more than the others. In that case I will often later get a novel or an entire story collection by that author alone. Anthologies are a good way to try out a number of authors to find those few who appeal to my individual taste.

The stories in this anthology have nothing in common that I am aware of, except all examples of vivacious diversity.”

In ‘Reverse Engineering’ the editor, Tom Conaghan, has re-published one of the more acclaimed stories written by each of these authors, and then discusses that story with the author. The authors included in order of their stories are Chris Power, Sarah Hall, Jon McGregor, Mahreen Sohail, Jessie Greengrass, Irenosen Okojie, and Joseph O’Neill.

How did the author achieve the effects of their story?

All of the authors seem to agree that a story is powerful because it is not completely determined by the author ahead of time. In other words, it is not all cut and dried, not all prearranged ahead of time. This allows room for the imagination, for surprises. Perhaps a good story goes beyond its author’s original intentions.

I didn’t see it coming either. You don’t want to see it coming, if you’re the writer. Because if you don’t, neither will the reader.” – Joseph O’Neill

This is a good solid collection of short stories. I had read only one of these authors, Jon McGregor, before. I quite enjoyed the stories by Chris Power, Sarah Hall, Jon McGregor, Mahreen Sohail, and Joseph O’Neill. My favorite somewhat surprisingly was ‘Hair’ by Pakistani writer Mahreen Sohail. ‘Hair’ is about the somewhat universal way young men and young women interact, using the metaphor of cutting or not cutting your hair as the example.

She is eighteen, almost nineteen, and most of her friends are dating the men they believe they will marry. Surely a man she is here for right now in the most impossible moment of his life will want her by his side forever, the girl thinks.”

Sohail discusses her inspiration for ‘Hair’ afterwards:

I was talking to a friend about how you know when a relationship is over, how you can like someone and then they seem suddenly irritating and even physically unattractive – I thought the idea would make for a funny story, a bit ironic.”

Two of the stories in the collection I could not appreciate. The story ‘Filamo’ by Irenosen Okojie is dense and surreal, two qualities which I am not fond of in stories. I guess I prefer the stories I read to be plain-spoken and realistic. Although a quite short short story, the Jessie Greengrass story has one paragraph that is three pages long. This is another case where the density of the writing got in the way of my appreciation. This may be my problem, not the author’s.

This is the nice thing about anthologies of stories. They give the reader an opportunity to try out a variety of authors with little effort.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘The School for Husbands’ by Molière – Molière and Richard Wilbur, A Match Made in Literary Heaven

 

‘The School for Husbands’ by Molière     (1661)  76 pages        Translated from the French by Richard Wilbur

 

Among the great pleasures of literature (at least for me) are the translations of the plays of 17th century French playwright Molière by the poet Richard Wilbur. With Wilbur’s light touch with the verses, these plays sparkle and shine. Moliere’s playful and lusty wit are on full display.

‘The School for Husbands’ is typical Molière. A young woman outfoxes the old stern wretch who intends to be her husband and instead she finds true young love. Molière gives the plot away early in the play. It doesn’t matter. it is still great fun.

I’m one of those who think there is still a much-needed place in writing for verse, especially light verse. The verse here has the studied carelessness that makes it a delight. Here we have simple rhythmic verses that advance the story.

Here is the old wretch Sganarelle describing his treatment of his young ward Isabelle:

But my charge, be it known,

Shall live by my desires, and not her own;

She’ll dress in serge, in simple browns and grays,

And not wear black except on holidays;

Like any prudent girl, she’ll stay indoors

And occupy herself with household chores;”

His brother Ariste has a very different view of how he will treat his young ward Lèonor:

As you like, but still I say

That we should school the young in a pleasant way,

And chide them very gently when they’ve erred,

Lest virtue come to seem a hateful word,

I’ve raised Leonor by maxims such as these;

To all her young desires I’ve given consent –

of which, thank Heaven, I’ve no cause to repent.”

Ariste has some advice for Sganarelle which is of course not followed:

Farewell. Do change your views and realize

That locking up one’s wife can be unwise.”

When the man is mean and tyrannical, a woman’s main tool is deception. In Molière, it’s great fun to watch the woman and her chosen mate, Valère , outwit and deceive her overbearing fool of a husband or guardian.

For the young suitor Valère :

A woman closely watched is halfway won,

And a harsh husband or a crabbed sire

Is just what any lover should desire.”

In short, if you have hopes of Isabelle,

Her guardian’s cranky ways may serve you well.”

That Richard Wilbur takes such liberties with translating the rhymes is part of the fun.

The final lines of the play are by Lisette who is a maid to one of the young women in an aside to the audience:

D’you know any churlish husbands? If you do,

Send them to us, we’ll teach them a thing or two.”

I have read several of the ten Molière plays which Richard Wilbur has translated, and each has been a delight.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘ The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ by Henry Handel Richardson – The Very First Article I Wrote for the Internet

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, a trilogy by Henry Handel Richardson   (1930)

 

I wrote this article in 2007 for “The Neglected Books Page”, a site that is still going strong 15 years later. This was long before I had a site of my own. I didn’t change one word for this reprint, and I still believe every word in it.

Here goes:

An Appreciation of “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony,” by Henry Handel Richardson

9 December 2007

How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography. I’d have every wart and every pimple emphasized, every murky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it.” These are the words of Henry Handel Richardson, a woman writer from Australia who lived from 1870 to 1946. Yes, woman writer, for like George Eliot, she wrote under a male pseudonym.

Mrs. Richardson applied this principle of exact unrelenting truth she stated above to her own fiction. Her masterpiece, completed in 1929, is ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’, a trilogy of novels, which tells the story of a family living in the gold fields of frontier Australia, immigrated from Ireland, having to cope with the devastating effects of the young doctor father’s severe mental and physical deterioration from syphilis. I’ve read it is based quite closely on Mrs. Richardson’s own childhood.

I read this trilogy of novels about at the same time in my life as I was reading the great Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The trilogy, being over 900 pages, is related to these Russian novels in size. But more importantly ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’, is similar to these Russian novels in its penetrating psychological realism Not often will you find a novel written almost eighty years ago that deals this honestly with no sugar coating or sentimentality with the severe mental illness of a young doctor head of a family. You can feel for the young mother and her children having to face the growing ostracism by her neighbors caused by her husband’s bizarre behavior. Of course, the doctor’s patients drop away after several of his episodes, and the family is reduced to poverty.

But not only is this family’s story courageous. Henry Handel Richardson is a writer of the very top rank. Although here in the United States she is little known beyond the movie of her novel ‘The Getting of Wisdom’ which was made by Bruce Beresford in 1978, in Australia Henry Handel Richardson is considered a classic novelist. Sentence for sentence, the writing holds your interest as only the best novels do. Here is a writer in English we can read without the filter of translation.

Later in my reading life, I discovered Patrick White, another writer from Australia, whom I consider probably the greatest novelist ever to write. I can’t help but think he must have read Henry Handel Richardson in his youth. If you like one of these writers, you will probably like the other.

Since ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ is divided into three separate novels, I would recommend a reader start with the first volume, ‘Australia Felix’, and see if you are not hooked as I was into reading the other two volumes, ‘The Way Home’ and ‘Ultima Thule’.

 

I must say this was not a bad start.

 

 

‘Homesickness’ by Colin Barrett – Humorous and Eloquent Slices of Irish Life

 

‘Homesickness’, stories by Colin Barrett   (2022) – 213 pages

 

I wanted something a little lighter and less intense than my recent reading and I found it in the collection of stories ‘Homesickness’ by Colin Barrett. What stands out is the expressiveness of many of these stories’ sentences.

In the story “The Alps”, we have this description of the three Irish Alps brothers, Rory and Eustace and the youngest Bimbo:

The Alps were not men comfortably acquainted with the carnal, but they could become as fissured and rent with yearning as anyone.”

And here’s more on the Alps brothers:

The Alps still felt young in their souls but it was the bloodshot eyes, pouched necks and capitulating hairlines of middle age that leered back at them from mirrors. They ate too much takeaway, slept fitfully, downed vats of Guinness every weekend.”

In ‘The Silver Coast’, a woman, her mother, and her friends attend a funeral luncheon in January while her husband and son dispose of the Christmas tree.

Lydia Healy? Having a tumultuous affair? A woman who when you looked at her, made you think of terms like beetling and doughty, words that were archaic and obscure and cumbersome and probably didn’t mean what you thought they meant.”

But “the world is filled with unaccountable things if you’re keeping track”.

These stories are often told in a humorous vein, but several of them have a sad twist which is something I associate with Irish fiction in general.

One characteristic which all of the stories share is that they have open-ended endings. By this I mean that you get the sense that the real story continues after the written story ends. Life goes on. This is probably more realistic than to end a story with a more conclusive final ending. I like it.

‘Homesickness’ had for me that good effect when I am looking forward and anticipating what Colin Barrett would do with his next story. It was a pleasure to skip around from story to story.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘In the Distance’ by Hernan Diaz – The Western Legend of a Man Called Hawk

 

‘In the Distance’ by Hernan Diaz    (2017) – 356 pages

 

After reading and much admiring ‘Trust’, I absolutely had to go back and read the first novel of Hernan Diaz, ‘In the Distance’.

Like ‘Trust’ which deals with the history of Wall Street, ‘In the Distance’ deals with an aspect of United States history in a personal way. ‘In the Distance’ is the personal history of one Swedish man, Hakan Soderstrom (called Hawk), during the great westward expansion of the United States during the 1850s, fueled by the gold rush in California.

But Hawk is going the opposite way; he’s going east. While he and his brother Linus were migrating from Sweden, the young man Hawk accidentally got on the wrong ship, one headed around Cape Horn and then going all the way up to California, while Linus presumably got on the right ship headed for New York City. Hawk sets out from the gold rush site near San Francisco, California to go to New York City to hook up with his brother in New York City. Sometimes he walks, sometimes he’s fortunate enough to have a horse or burro. Everyone else on the trail is headed in the opposite direction toward the west.

On his long, long lonely trek, Hawk meets up with various individuals and groups of people. Ultimately Hawk becomes a legend and is pursued by law enforcement throughout the West.

Hawk’s encounters with others along the way are sporadic. Thus ‘In the Distance’ necessarily is not as tightly plotted as ‘Trust’. For me at least, the long stretches when Hawk is alone in the desert or prairies make for less lively reading than the times when he encounters people along the way. These alone stretches were somewhat slow going for me. The prose is stately and perceptive, but I get impatient for conversation or more things to happen.

But Hawk’s encounters with others tend to be quite engaging. His encounter with the naturalist Lorimer on the Utah salt flats I found to be particularly interesting. Lorimer dissects the various small animals he finds as he travels with his crew by covered wagon. He does not catalog the differences between the various species, but instead the similarities.

Everything we do, from breathing to walking, from thinking to defecating, is governed by the cord traversing our upper body.”

All animal life is controlled and determined by that nexus of the spinal cord and the brain. Thus,

All animal life was, in essence, the same.”

Is Lorimer brilliant or a crackpot? Hawk and I were both won over to Lorimer’s way of thinking.

Knowing nature, Lorimer would often say, means learning how to be. And to achieve this, we must listen to the constant sermon of things. Our highest task is to make out the words to better partake of the ecstasy of existence.”

For me, ‘In the Distance’ is not as tightly plotted and brilliant as ‘Trust’ but is still an insightful and thought-provoking read.

 

Grade:   B+

 

 

‘A Town Called Solace’ by Mary Lawson – Glorifying the Small Canadian Town

 

‘A Town Called Solace’ by Mary Lawson   (2021) – 292 pages

 

Solace is a small town in northern Canada that is far, far away from the big city of Toronto and its problems. This is a novel that centers on everyday life in this hometown – housework, cooking, cleaning, home repair, taking care of children. Nostalgia for small town life in northern Canada in the 1970s drives this novel.

The writing of Mary Lawson here is straightforward and as clear as a bell. In ‘Solace’, a simple style is used to confront difficult truths.

Our author Mary Lawson is a small town booster, a Canada booster, a far northern Canada booster. She wears her prejudices on her sleeve. That is obvious from the first few pages of ‘Solace’. With all the guns they have, these small Canadian towns probably still have their problems, although Canada does have smarter gun laws than the United States.

The chapters of ‘Solace’ are each told from the perspective of one of three people who live in the town: Elizabeth, Liam, and Clara. Childless Elizabeth is in an old folks home, and she knows she is dying. Her chapters are written in the first person. Liam, in his thirties, has inherited Elizabeth’s house and is temporarily staying there. He came from Toronto leaving behind a mundane accounting job and a failed marriage.

Be warned: think twice before you take those vows, because there is nothing, absolutely nothing, as lonely as a bad marriage.”

Liam has no more idea of what he was going to do next than he had the day he arrived. Clara is a seven year-old who takes care of the cat at Liam’s house. Clara is worried about her missing wayward teenage sister Rose who has run away from home. Liam’s and Clara’s chapters are written in the third person.

Much of the novel centers around the efforts to find the missing teenager, Clara’s sister Rose. Finding her is the number one goal of the town’s police chief. Here is Liam considering the police chief:

Liam nodded, thinking how easy this guy made life look, even when, as now, he was carrying a serious weight of worry and responsibility. How he knew his place in the world and to be in all senses at home in it.”

I expect the police chief of even a small northern Canadian town sometimes feels terribly uncomfortable with some of the aspects and responsibilities of his job.

If you are not interested in the home or family life in a small town, this probably is not the novel for you. But who are those who would really like this novel? If you like the novels of Anne Tyler (I’ve been an avid fan of Tyler for many, many years starting in 1977), you will probably like ‘Solace’.

‘A Town Called Solace’ has the strong emotional ending that you would expect in a novel like this, one that deals with life and change and death in a small town.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘Becoming Strangers’ by Louise Dean – A Caribbean Resort Vacation

 

‘Becoming Strangers’ by Louise Dean   (2004) – 305 pages

 

Ever since I read ‘The Old Romantic’ in 2011, I’ve been waiting for Louise Dean to publish her next novel. ‘The Old Romantic’ was my favorite novel that I read in 2011. Dean still has not published any more novels since then, so now I gave up waiting and decided to read her first novel, ‘Becoming Strangers’, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize instead.

‘Becoming Strangers’ is about a group of people staying at a Caribbean spa resort. As with most vacations, you share a closeness with a few others who are also staying at the resort, but chances are you will never see them again. However for those few days, those staying there with you are vivid and significant.

We have the elderly working class couple George and Dorothy who have never before stayed at a fancy resort like this. There is the middle-aged Dutch couple in their fifties, Jan DeGroot who has terminal cancer and his over-sexed wife Annemieke. Then you have the available Irish businessman Bill Moloney and the young resort workman Adam, as well as the American couple Jason and Missy and the resort manager Burns.

One of Louise Dean’s real strengths as a writer is dialogue, and the witty and wicked interchanges between these various characters at the resort are never less than entertaining and are one of the highlights of ‘Becoming Strangers’.

As on any good holiday vacation, some notable and memorable events occur among the resort guests, events that will make a few of the guests question their entire life situations past and present.

I found the novel a bit too digressive and meandering, especially in the early parts. It takes awhile to establish all of these people. Somehow it does not quite cohere. It is never less than interesting; it is never more than interesting.

There is only one quote from the book which I want to share:

There are two types of people – the righteous who are sinners and the sinners who are righteous.”

I am still trying to figure out what that means.

This could be a case when my extremely high expectations based on a previous novel by the author were not quite met.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘An Untouched House’ by Willem Frederik Hermans – A Very Short Respite from War

 

‘An Untouched House’ by Willem Frederik Hermans (1951) – 88 pages          Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

 

In an ‘Untouched House’, World War II is raging toward its end, and the fighting for an unnamed Dutch partisan soldier is intense along the border of The Netherlands and Germany.

A German emerged and ran for the road. I shot him. A second, as well. A third. A fourth. They bent forward like butterflies being mounted. I stabbed them to death with a pin six hundred feet long. I didn’t manage to hit the fifth before he jumped into the river. I clicked a new magazine into my rifle and by the time I’d emptied it, I was certain the German’s head was no longer visible above water.”

The partisans push into German territory. They wind up in a town that looks to have been a luxury resort town of spas. Our soldier wanders off by himself into one nice rather large house which appears to so far have been untouched by the war. There is nobody there except for two dogs who ignore him. He looks through the belongings of the German man and woman who lived in the house, sees their grand piano.

In their bathroom, there is a large bathtub. Our soldier turns on the hot water tap and finds the water to be nice and hot. He takes his clothes off and takes a long bath and washes away the detritus of months of fighting.

He settles in to the house. But soon the German owners, husband and wife, show up.

The world is once again involved in a violent war confrontation which could well lead to World War III. ‘An Untouched House’ is a vivid reminder of the violent savagery that is unleashed by war. In his Afterword to this novella, the writer Cees Nooteboom perhaps expresses it best when he speaks of “the bungling, the pointless fumbling in what he (Willem Frederik Hermans) called a sadistic universe, the chaos in which human lives are played out when the semblance of order called civilization has been breached.”

Will the humans be able to save themselves from their own innate brutal savagery this time?

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘Trust’ by Hernan Diaz – “I am a financier in a city ruled by financiers.”

 

‘Trust’ by Hernan Diaz    (2022)  –  402 pages

 

At the center of ‘Trust’ are the husband and wife Andrew and Mildred Bevel. Andrew Bevel is a New York City financier, one of those few who manipulate our markets, our businesses, and our economy for good or for evil. ‘Trust’ is the story of his marriage to Mildred, told from four differing perspectives.

First we have the novella ‘Bonds’, written by Mildred’s associate Harold Vanner. Then we have an outline for a memoir written by Andrew Bevel himself. Then we have the perspective of the woman, Ida Partenza, who has been hired by Andrew to flesh out his memoir. Finally we have notes from the diary of Mildred Bevel.

A quote from Andrew Bevel himself:

Every financier ought to be a polymath, because finance is the thread that runs through every aspect of life. It is indeed the knot where all the disparate strands of human existence come together. Business is the common denominator of all activities and enterprises. This, in turn, means there is no affair that does not pertain to the businessman. To him everything is relevant.”

Andrew Bevel has a mighty fine view of himself. After all, he has made a fortune on Wall Street. As a financier, he is one of the movers and shakers of the entire world economy. The time is a few years after the stock market crash of 1929 from which Andrew escaped unscathed with his fortune intact. After that, Andrew has even a more rosy view of himself.

Most of us prefer to believe we are the active subjects of our victories but only the passive objects of our defeats. We triumph, but it is not really we who fail – we are ruined by forces beyond our control.”

Wall Street

‘Trust’ is 402 pages which might seem quite long, but don’t be intimidated at all, because ‘Trust’ is a page turner for literary people. I sped through it quickly, never stopping. Also there are tons of white space. Plus author Hernan Diaz uses innovative ways to move his many stories of financiers through US history along quickly.

‘Trust’ is the story of how a rich person can use their wealth and money to alter their present reality as well as their personal history, their past. A rich person can buy the past he or she wants even if it is counter to the facts, if we let them.

One of the features which make ‘Trust’ an outstanding novel is the smooth and effective way that Hernan Diaz handles these four different sources so that we readers wind up with a full picture of the situation. One perspective is perhaps never enough to capture the full essence of a person.

 

Grade:    A+

 

 

‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner – An Antic Non-Binary Satire

 

‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner   (2021) – 182 pages

 

And now for something completely different…

‘Sterling Karat Gold’ is more non-binary than anything I have read before.

First, what is non-binary writing? It is gender neutral. The most common set of non-binary pronouns is they/them/their used in the singular. In order to avoid saying the gender pronouns “he” or “she”, author Isabel Waidner uses “they”. This is what non-binary writing looks like:

Anyway Chachki built a portfolio from basically nothing, old curtains, while working at Tesco most of their life. ‘Shouldn’t have left last summer either’, they say. ‘Starting to think it was a mistake.’ They stub out their cig.”

On my first attempt to read ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ I gave up after reading three pages. Bullfighting on the streets of London? This is too crazy for even me.

Then, since it won the Goldsmiths Prize, I decided to give ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ another try. The first chapter is disorienting; it becomes more clear and a bit more straightforward in the following chapters.

The first sentence of the novel gives the reader a good idea where we are headed:

I’m Sterling. Lost my father to AIDS, my mother to alcoholism. Lost my country to conservatism, my language to PTSD. Got this England, though. Got this body, this sterling heart.”

One chapter is entitled “My Father’s Lover was Never the Step-Dad I wanted Him to Be”. Sterling’s father’s lover is Justin Fashanu who was a real person, an openly gay soccer star who hanged himself in 1998 after being accused of sexual assault by a seventeen year-old guy in Maryland.

In ‘Sterling Karat Gold’, there is a trial due to someone getting killed in the bullfight, and the Judge in the case is referred to as “His Dishonor”, not “Their Dishonor”.

It taught us to trust the feeling we had that we were non-consensual participants in a reality put together by politicians, despots, more or less openly authoritarian leaders.”

Along the way, Waidner makes great fun of Google Earth. It turns out Google Earth does have a primitive time travel function, but it’s tied to Street View and Photo Spheres and it does not work very well. Instead Sterling uses Keyhole Inc. fine-tuning software as a better alternative to go back in time in their spaceship.

For a novel that has such a wild unruly beginning and middle, the author could have come up with a more imaginative ending. It’s not that I disagree with the novel’s positions; I just thought it could be more clear and thus more subversive and persuasive.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

 

 

‘O Caledonia’ by Elspeth Barker – A Gothic Parody, The Life and Untimely Death of a Girl from Scotland

 

‘O Caledonia’ by Elspeth Barker    (1991) – 224 pages

 

We find out the ultimate fate of our young heroine Janet in the very first paragraph of  ‘O Caledonia’ :

Here it was that Janet was found, oddly attired in her mother’s black lace evening dress, twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.’

Janet is 16 years old at the time of her gruesome death.

What genre is ‘O Caledonia’? It is a humorous Gothic in the same vein as ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ but with completely different predicaments. It is also a parody of the British family novel. ‘O Caledonia’ is a brilliant tongue-in-cheek performance.

Many children take to their roles in their family like a fish takes to water; in other words they get along swimmingly. Then there are the rest of us. Once in awhile there is a star-crossed child who is looked on askance and with disapproval just for being who she or he is. Janet is one of those unfortunates.

Of the five children of Hector and Vera, Janet is the oldest. Soon the baby boy Francis and her little sisters Rhona, Lulu, and Caro follow in somewhat rapid succession.

The scent of baby powder pervaded the house, visitors came with flowers, tender little white garments were constantly airing over the nursery fireguard and an exuberance of nappies billowed in the sea breeze.”

As the little children play, we hear an old nursery rhyme:

Hink, minx,

The old witch winks,

The fat begins to fry;

There’s no one at home,

But Jumping Joan,

Father, mother, and I.

Even at the age of four, Janet is called upon to watch her younger siblings, but she is negligent in that task.

Once again it was spanking and disgrace and a distant overheard muttering of “…simply can’t be trusted”, “We should have known better”, “After what she did before”, “Keep her away from the little ones”.

At a young age, Janet is met with the disapproval of her parents. She had learned to cope, even to survive by deviousness, by reading, and, as always, by day-dreaming.”

When Janet is about 10, the family moves to the highlands in far northern Scotland to a castle called Auchnasaugh where the weather is harsh and the church doctrine is even harsher. “Be ye ashamed, for ye were born in sin.” At her school, Janet discovers that there were one or two other girls who were nearly unpopular as she was. Janet goes on “fungus forays” in search of mushrooms with the tipsy eccentric old woman Lila who the rest of the family detests and stays away from.

It was a rigorous life, but for Janet it was softened by the landscape, by reading, and by animals whom she found it possible to love without qualification. People seemed to her flawed and cruel.”

The author of ‘O Caledonia’, Elspeth Barker, died recently at the age of 81. ‘O Caledonia’ is the only novel she ever wrote. I wish more writers would consider this. Instead of inundating us with novel after novel and story collection after story collection, leave us with just one superior novel or story. OK?

‘O Caledonia’ lacks the mind-numbing and soul-smashing sincerity of much of what passes for writing today. It is all the better for it.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘All the Lovers in the Night’ by Mieko Kawakami – Trapped in the Prison of Herself

 

‘All the Lovers in the Night’ by Mieko Kawakami   (2011) – 221 pages           Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd

 

I figured it was about time I read Mieko Kawakami having so far missed her first two acclaimed novels that were translated into English (‘Breasts and Eggs’ and ‘Heaven’).

Is it possible for someone to feel desperately alone in the twenty-first century, this time of cell phones and social media?

Tokyo woman Fuyoku Irie is 34 years old, a single woman. She works as a proofreader, looking for errors in books that are about to be published. This is a job she can do at home, on her own. The only woman who she comes into regular contact with is Hijiri who assigns her books to proofread and stops by occasionally. Hijiri is about the same age as Fuyoku, but her life is much different from that of Fuyoku. Hijiri has several boyfriends with whom she goes on weekend or extended vacation trips. Meanwhile Fuyoku stays home.

November came and went one day at a time, without my speaking to anyone. Sometimes a wind from the depths of autumn hit my window with a dry rattle. I spent a few hours of the day with galleys, flipping through reference materials or visiting the library if necessary. Nobody attempted to talk to me, and I made no attempt to talk to anybody else.”

And then Fuyoku meets 55 year-old male physics professor Mitsutsuka. We never do find out his full name. Over several months she meets up with him a number of times, usually at the restaurant bar he frequents. She gradually begins to open up to him, but it is a slow process.

Fuyoku starts to question her solitary and isolated life up until then.

The job that I was doing, the place where I was living, the fact that I was all alone and had no one to talk to. Could these have been the result of some decision I had made?”

I won’t go any farther into the plot. In ‘All the Lovers in the Night’ we are dealing with a real, specific woman and how she lives her life, not a bunch of cliches that are strung together. And the prose is as clear and resonant as a bell ringing.

I count the lights. All the lights of the night. The red light at the intersection, trembling as if wet, even though it isn’t raining. Streetlight after streetlight. Taillights trailing off into the distance. The soft glow from the windows…Why is the night made up entirely of light?”

Truth is in the light, the colors, and the sounds.

Grade:    A

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers – 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Stars in 2 Trillion Galaxies

 

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers      (2021) – 278 pages

 

OK, ‘Bewilderment’ brought me up to date on current thinking in astronomy. Thanks to the Hubble telescope and dozens of other super powerful telescopes in outer space outside the Earth’s atmosphere, astronomers now believe there are 100 octillion ( 100,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000 ) stars in 2 trillion galaxies. There are more stars than there are grains of sand on Earth. Many, many of these stars have planetary systems. The chances that there are conditions that support so-called intelligent life on many other planets are very, very good.

I told him what some astronomers now thought: a billion or more planets at least as lucky as ours in the Milky Way alone.”

In his novels, Richard Powers goes big. Instead of a guy who feeds the birds over winter, the main protagonist is an astrobiologist. Instead of going for short walks in the forest, he and his son go for full survivalist expeditions in the Smoky Mountains with the full camping regalia. Sometimes I wish Powers would just keep things small, so I could identify with the people in his novels more. However I keep reading Richard Powers so he must be doing something right.

Nobody’s perfect, but, man, we all fall short so beautifully.”

I wanted so much to love ‘Bewilderment’ as much as I have loved several of Richard Powers’ other novels in the past (‘Galatea 2.2’, ‘Gain’, ‘Generosity: An Enhancement’ – maybe I should stick to his novels that start with the letter “G”). Here I came close, but not quite.

First there is the precocious but troubled 9 year-old kid Robin whose mother Alyssa was killed in a traffic accident avoiding an opossum in the road. Alyssa studied animal law and was an expert on what constitutes legal cruelty to animals. Another major theme of this novel is avoiding cruelty to animals. Both Robin and his father Theo are vegans. The father who is an astrobiologist professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is bringing up his son alone.

Son Robin is deeply troubled, and his father makes arrangements with another professor at the University to use a new behavior technique, Decoded Neurofeedback, to help the son deal with his psychological problems. However both professors feel the pressure since critically important scientific projects are being shut down by political caprice.

An Image from the Hubble Telescope

There is an issue when the main person telling the story is also the chief advocate for the story’s line of reasoning. We readers are naturally skeptical, always on the lookout for a stacked deck. It would be more convincing to have someone who is originally skeptical tell the story and be slowly won over to the positions being advocated.

I suppose I react to environmental polemics like a spoiled kid would react when told by a parent, “Eat it, it’s good for you.” I stubbornly pigheadedly resist.

People, Robbie. They’re a questionable species.”

One optimistic way to look at it is if nuclear explosions or climate changes destroy life on Earth, it won’t be so bad because so-called intelligent life would probably continue to exist in many other places elsewhere in the massive Universe.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

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