‘Another Brooklyn’ by Jacqueline Woodson – A Fictional Memoir of Her Early Teens in Brooklyn

 

‘Another Brooklyn’ by Jacqueline Woodson (2016) – 192 pages

 

In the deep heat of summer, we watched as kids circled around the heroin addicts, taking bets on whether or not they’d fall over.”

Jacqueline Woodson has written more than two dozen books for young adults, middle graders, and children. Thus she knows her way around a story. ‘Another Brooklyn’ is one of only three novels she has written for adults. In ‘Another Brooklyn’, Woodson captures Brooklyn in the early 1970s through the eyes of the young teenage girl August (Auggie), both the good stuff and the bad stuff. Yes, she does not avoid the bad stuff, and there is plenty of bad stuff going on in Brooklyn at that time.

Auggie is now an adult, and she remembers the time when she was 11 and when her father, her brother, and herself moved to Brooklyn from SweetGrove, Tennessee. Her mother had started hearing voices after she found out that her brother Clyde had been killed in Vietnam. Then her mother “walked into water and kept on walking”. Auggie’s own upright father also fought in Vietnam and returned home with only eight fingers.

The three move into a Brooklyn apartment. On the floor below lives a prostitute with two children until her children were taken away from her by the authorities.

We were not poor, but we lived on the edge of poverty.”

Auggie paints a prose picture of the Brooklyn as she saw and lived in then. In Brooklyn, as black people are arriving, white people are leaving.

Without her mother, the only thing that makes life tolerable for the young Auggie is the clique of young friends she makes at school.

Sylvia, Angela, Gigi, August. We were four girls together, amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone.”

Each of the girls tells the stories of her own life. Some of the stories are humiliating, some are gruesome. By each girl telling her own story, the four girls form a close bond.

When we had finally become friends, when the four of us trusted each other enough to let the world surrounding us into our words, we whispered secrets, pressed side by side by side or sitting cross-legged in our newly tight circle. We opened our mouths and let the stories that had burned nearly to ash in our bellies finally live outside us.”

In striving to capture this Brooklyn from an earlier time, Jacqueline Woodson uses a language style which is as close to poetry as it is to prose.

I have found that when writers who usually write children’s books turn to adult fiction, they often come up with a story that is vivid and easy to follow. This is true of ‘Another Brooklyn’.

 

Grade:   A-

 

 

‘The Hero of this Book’ by Elizabeth McCracken – A “Novel” about her Mother

 

‘The Hero of this Book’ by Elizabeth McCracken     (2022) – 177 pages

 

We could all spend some time thinking about our mothers. Your birth mother, that woman who went through all that trouble to bring you into this world, surely deserves it.

We love our mothers, and most of us could write nice things about them. If we couldn’t, it would probably make for a more interesting book.

Elizabeth McCracken’s mother is the hero of this memoir. I have no doubt that her mother was a wonderful person. Maybe that was the problem for me. This “novel” lacked a certain tension, a certain drama, which a conflict or a villain would have given it.

Early on, Elizabeth McCracken writes that if you invent even one minor character then your memoir becomes a novel. I believe her, and I believe that is what she has done in ‘The Hero of this Book’. Thus we have only a fictional “gentle, blinky Englishman named Trevor” who checks her into her hotel. All of the details our narrator tells us about herself and her father and her mother are just too exact to have been made up.

Our narrator takes a trip to London several months after her mother dies and recalls previous trips she had made with her mother and remembers what her mother was like. Her mother was left with a gimpy leg at childbirth either due to a forceps injury or cerebral palsy. For the last few years of her life she used a scooter device to get from place to place.

On this trip to London by herself, our narrator visits the places she visited with her mother before, the Tate Modern, the Tate Britain, the London Eye, and a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. At the Tate Britain, our narrator gives us a half-page listing of all the things she could buy at the Tate Britain museum store. This interminable list does not exactly make for scintillating reading. It felt like filler to me.

I hope no one else reads this book expecting the qualities of good fiction. It has no plot line, no conflict, no drama, not even particularly interesting characters. This “novel” is contrived to avoid criticism at all costs. It is McCracken’s paean to her mother, broken up occasionally with one of the author’s asides, usually about writing. At times one of these asides can be humorous.

She liked to quote her favorite New Yorker cartoon, a man on an analyst’s couch, saying, “I had a difficult childhood, especially lately.”

Occasionally things are lightened by an anecdote or some other tidbit. However most of the stories about her mother would only be of interest to her family members. Even as a memoir, I did not find it particularly entertaining.

However, this is still a memoir, folks. I guess I’m not as happy to be fooled into reading a memoir under the guise of being a novel as most other reviewers seem to be.

 

Grade:   C+

 

 

‘The Art of Losing’ by Alice Zeniter – From Algeria to France

 

The Art of Losing’ by Alice Zeniter (2017) – 431 pages                  Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

 

431 pages. No, this is definitely not a novella. During this November, this reader has learned that he sometimes requires something more substantial than a novella. Novellas have their place, but full novels have their place also.

‘The Art of Losing’ by Alice Zeniter has won the 100,000 pound Dublin Literary Award this year, the world’s largest prize for a single novel published in English.

Why read a novel about an Algerian family being confronted with the struggle for independence of Algeria from France during the 1950s? Because people are people the world over, and Alice Zeniter has captured so much of human behavior that applies to people everywhere.

Colonization, like slavery, was one of the great evils of the past. In nearly every case, the colonizers reaped the financial and other benefits of the natural resources from their colonies while the great majority of the native folk who lived there were mostly left in poverty. The French military patrolled Algeria like an occupied country and torture was the French technique to keep the Algerians in line.

Ali’s family is poor like most Algerian families under French rule. He enlists in an Algerian unit of the military fighting for France during World War II.

In the four battles for Monte Cassino, soldiers from the colonies were sent to the front lines; the French sent Moroccans, Tunisians, and Algerians; the British sent Indians and New Zealanders. They provided the cannon fodder, the dead and the wounded that meant the Allies could afford to lose fifty thousand men on a rocky outcrop.”

After the war, Ali has the good fortune to get an olive press, and the profits from his olive oil business as well as his French military pension allow him to provide a comfortable living for his family.

During the early 1950s, the push for Algerian independence heats up. The most fervent rebels are the Muslim mujahideen in the FLN who operate in the desert mountains. They try to force the ex-French soldiers in Algeria to give up their military pensions and have nothing to do with the French. The Algerian War for independence is usually given the time frame of from 1954 to 1962.

Both the French military officials and the FLN are ruthless not only with their real enemies but with anyone they suspect of helping their enemy.

Ali and his family are stuck in the middle. He wants to keep his olive oil business profitable and that means keeping peace in his town, so he meets with the French officials there. Of course the FLN hears about it, and Ali must worry about the safety of his family.

Lakhdaria, formerly Palestro

After Algerian independence is achieved in 1962, Ali and his entire family are denounced as traitors to the cause of independence. This is a scary time for the family, because there are brutal retaliations against traitors.

Ali makes arrangements to relocate his family to France. For the first ten months of their French life, the family must live in a tent in a relocation camp inside France. They can not travel outside the camp, and the camp is, of course, overcrowded with “harkis” which is the name given to these Algerians who supposedly helped the French and now had to leave Algeria.

For these people to forget an entire country, they would have to be offered a new one. But the doors to France were not thrown open to them, only the gates of a camp.”

‘The Art of Losing’ is a multi-generational saga covering about sixty years of this Algerian, now French, family. In the last section, the granddaughter of Ali returns to Algeria.

To have waged such a war only to end up neither with democracy or stability is a terrible waste.”

This is a family story told in vivid and affecting fashion. Near the end of Section II, there is a well-earned epiphany that brought tears to my eyes. That does not happen often.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Silk’ by Alessandro Baricco – Arduous Trips from France to Japan to Buy Silkworms

 

Silk’ by Alessandro Baricco (1996) – 91 pages              Translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman

 

Silk is a unique cloth in that it is produced by worms, silkworms, to form their cocoons. The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.

The novella ‘Silk’ takes place in the early 1860s during a time when a disease in France is making their silkworm eggs unusable. This disease is likely to put the silk enterprise of French entrepreneur Hervie Joncour out of business. The French government has even brought in young biologist Louis Pasteur to study the disease and perhaps find a solution.

Meanwhile Joncour has heard about the thriving silk industry in Japan and how their silkworms are not susceptible to this disease. Joncour decides to make the arduous many month trip from France to Japan of 8,000 kilometers and which requires riding two thousand kilometers of Russian steppe on horseback.

In Japan, he negotiates the purchase of a large number of silkworms to bring back to France with a local Japanese baron, Hara Kei. Joncour becomes infatuated with Hara Kei’s concubine, a girl whose “eyes did not have an oriental slant and her face was the face of a young girl”.

After Joncour gets back to France, the Japan silkworms do not get the disease and they keep Joncour’s business profitable. Joncour makes a couple more arduous trips to Japan, each time becoming more infatuated with the concubine girl. Meanwhile Joncour’s wife stays at home in France.

I have something important to tell you monsieur. We’re all disgusting. We’re all marvelous, and we’re all disgusting.”

I won’t go any further into the story. Let’s just say that ‘Silk’ is an elegant and exotic strange little novella. The story is a romance and is far from realistic, but it doesn’t really matter. Even though it is very short, this novella is not a quick read because the story has many natural stopping points when the reader should just stop and not try to force it.

As I said before, the story takes place in the early 1860s. The Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, reduced Europeans trips to Japan to only 20 days.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan – A Stay with Her Aunt and Uncle

 

‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan    (2010) – 92 pages

 

At the beginning of ‘Foster’, a young girl, perhaps 6 or 7 or 8, is being driven by her father to the farm home of her mother’s sister and her husband Kinsella. Her parents have packed a suitcase for her, so she knows she will be staying there for awhile. Her mother is expecting, so maybe that is why she will be staying with this couple she hardly knows.

How long should they keep her? Can’t they keep her as long as they like?”

In a novella written from a child’s point of view, the author must make sure that the child doesn’t know any more than what that child would know. Of this Claire Keegan is keenly aware. We know that ‘Foster’ takes place in rural Ireland. We are not given any exact details as to when the story takes place. The story could easily have taken place during my childhood. It could have taken place during anyone’s childhood. The story has an eternal feel to it.

This aunt and uncle treat the girl well, and soon she starts to compare her life at this new place with her life at home. She has no idea of how long she will be staying. Perhaps it is permanent.

I won’t be revealing any more about this novella. This is a very quick read as opposed to some novellas which slow you down to savor.

On the cover of my copy of ‘Foster’, there is a quote from the author David Mitchell: “As good as Chekhov”. That still seems to me like an audacious thing to say. However Claire Keegan is a mighty fine writer. And she, like Anton Chekhov, understands that what your characters don’t say is sometimes more important than what they do say and what the author doesn’t write is sometimes more important than what the author does write.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘Venomous Lumpsucker’ by Ned Beauman – An Outrageous Comic Satire about Endangered Species and Animal Extinctions

 

‘Venomous Lumpsucker’ by Ned Beauman    (2022) – 327 pages

 

Now with threats of nuclear war, we are probably more concerned with the extinction of the human species rather than the extinctions of the venomous lumpsucker fish and thousands of other species. However I have found an animal extinction novel that is worthy of spending some time with.

Yes, there really is a family of fish called lumpsuckers.

Since Beauman has set ‘Venomous Lumpsucker’ in the 2030s, the near future, he can parody the way our cell phone/internet lives are now, the way we speak, and our facile understanding of things. We can still pretend all this computer stuff is actually improving our lives.

No more browsing for hours while your dinner gets cold: let us decide what movie you’d enjoy tonight, based on your hormonal and metabolic indicators!”

The novel is mostly about the animal extinction industry that has sprung up. Underwater mining executive Mark Halyard and “species intelligence evaluator” Karin Resaint are the main characters. Companies buy and sell “extinction credits” which a company receives when it has supposedly done something beneficial to help save an endangered species. These extinction credits can be used to allow the company to eliminate other species in the course of their operation. Actually “extinction credits” are a wicked parody of “carbon offsets”, a real-life environmental concept that has had limited success.

Karin Resaint has been assigned the task of evaluating the intelligence of the venomous lumpsucker, because if the animal has been determined to be intelligent, it’s extinction would cost the company 13 extinction credits rather than 1 extinction credit.

Of course at the same time the extinction authorities are considering changing the definition of extinction so that a species would not be considered extinct if it had a living population of zero, as long as enough imprints of it were preserved in bio computer banks or clouds around the world. This change would drive the value of extinction credits way down.

Halyard and Resaint travel from body of water to body of water looking for the few remaining living venomous lumpsuckers. At the Sanctuary North in Estonia, they and the scientists there must don a complete costume of otter fur so that the black-footed otter cubs there don’t form any positive associations with humans which would make it much harder for them to reintegrate into the wild population. The scientists must also spray themselves with otter urine. The writer Ned Beauman has a lot of fun with that; sophisticated humor it definitely is not, but it’s quite funny anyway.

The Real Lumpsucker

Since ‘Venomous Lumpsucker’ is an outrageous comedy with rather broad-brushed characters, these characters really were not deep enough to sustain an over 300 page novel. These characters would have fit nicely in a 200 to 250 page novel. I found the first 200 pages quite enlightening and humorous, but I somewhat wearied of the story after that since there was very little that was new and different. However the novel does recover nicely during the last fifty pages when our characters reach the Hermit Kingdom.

The author Ned Beauman has great fun with some of these endangered animals’ names. Besides the venomous lumpsucker, we have the legless skink, the rusty pipistrelle, the Hainan black-crested gibbon, the variable cuckoo bumblebee, the marbled gecko, the hoary-throated spinetail, etc.

I decided that ‘Venomous Lumpsucker’ requires three grades.

Grade :

For techies (lacking a better word) : A-

For non-techies: B

Since I am somewhere between a techie and a non-techie, I give it: B+

 

 

The English Understand Wool’ by Helen DeWitt’ – A Novella that Avoids Mauvais Ton (bad taste)

 

‘The English Understand Wool’ by Helen DeWitt    (2022) – 65 pages

 

My early background has not permitted me to have much empathy for the upper classes, but occasionally I find myself reading fictions about them.

‘The English Understand Wool’ is written from the point of view of 17 year-old Marguerite who has been brought up in refinement by her Maman. The avoidance of mauvais ton (bad taste) is the guiding standard by which Maman and Marguerite live.

I spent a week at the keyboard. It seem to me that if I continued to work my way through Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier this would be a strong guard against acting in mauvais ton.”

Unfortunately Maman absconds with a fortune that Marguerite was to inherit.

The Paris publishers believe that Marguerite’s first-person account of her plight would make for a sensational true-life book. Her editor wants her to express her feelings about losing her fortune, but Marguerite remains loyal to her Maman.

So perhaps there were people who would like to hear about feelings, but I did not think they were people I would want to know.”

Despite the theft of her fortune, Marguerite remains thankful to her Maman for inculcating her with those aristocratic values.

This novella is written in such a way that one cannot say for sure if it is a broad parody of upper class values or a spirited defense of them.

‘The English Understand Wool’ is one of the novellas in a new New Directions series of novellas called ND Storybook.

Our new series of slim hardcover fiction books—aims to deliver the pleasure one felt as a child reading a marvelous book from cover to cover in an afternoon.”

So far there are six novellas in the series with an intriguing list of authors: César Aira, Osamu Dazai, Helen DeWitt, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Yoko Tawada.

 

Grade:    B

 

‘The Wall’ by Marlen Haushofer – A Tragedy or an Idyll?

 

‘The Wall’ by Marlen Haushofer   (1963) – 230 pages                     Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

 

Probably my favorite events in the literary world are those when a publisher decides to rescue and republish a fiction or fictions by an author who has been nearly forgotten. The publishing of ‘The Wall’ is just such an event. Marlen Haushofer was a quite famous Austrian fiction writer in her time. She died in 1970.

In ‘The Wall’, a woman in her forties finds herself alone on one side of a glass wall while everyone on the other side of the wall has been killed by a nuclear explosion or accident.

What if you became totally isolated and could not see or communicate with any other person in the world? That would be a tragedy, right? However for this woman, her total isolation from other people becomes a pleasurable idyll.

She has her dog Lynx, her cow Bella, and her cats including Pearl. At first she wanted people to find her, but by the end of the first year she is so content and peaceful, she hopes no one will ever find her.

That these animals successfully have their babies becomes a major concern for her. A man in her position might not be as concerned with births. Soon the mother cat has kittens and the cow Bella has a calf. She has two grown daughters of her own and thus realizes the importance of childbirth.

Loving and looking after another creature is a very troublesome business, and much harder than killing and destruction. It takes twenty years to bring up a child, and ten seconds to kill it. It took a bull a year to grow big and strong, and a few strokes of an ax were enough to dispatch him.”

What if, instead of being isolated by herself and her animals, there were a man with her?

She realizes that she must occasionally shoot a deer in order for her and her animals to survive. It pains her to do so, but she does it. A man’s attitude toward shooting deer might be entirely different.

In any case he was physically stronger than I am, and I would have been dependent on him. Perhaps now he would be sitting around lazily in the hut, sending me off to do the work. The possibility of delegating work must be a great temptation for any man. And why should a man, without the fear of criticism, go on working at all? No, it’s better that I’m alone.”

There have been novels, including ‘Robinson Crusoe’ about a man surviving alone in nature, but this is the first I have found with a woman surviving alone in nature. This woman’s perspective on nature’s creatures differs entirely from a man’s perspective.

I applaud the publisher New Directions for bringing this perceptive novel ‘The Wall’ back to us.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘São Bernardo’ by Graciliano Ramos – A Proud Man Fails

 

‘São Bernardo’ by Graciliano Ramos    (1934) – 169 pages              Translated from the Portuguese by Padma Viswanathan

 

Paulo, the owner of São Bernardo ranch, is a proud man but he meets his match when he marries Dona Madalena.

From the poorest backwoods northeast region of Brazil, Paulo Honório had to claw his own rough way up in the world. He started out as a field hand. After a knife fight over a woman, Paulo, at eighteen, wound up in prison for over 3 years where he learned to read and write. Afterwards somehow, by hook or by crook, Paulo becomes the owner of São Bernardo, the ranch where he had been taken in as a boy. Now, together with his lawyer and his bookkeeper, Paulo runs a successful ranch operation, and he takes great pride in his accomplishments. In his opinion, a chicken farm might be more useful than all the libraries in the world.

And then Madalena enters his life. She is 27, and he is 45. She becomes his trophy wife, but she has a mind of her own.

Madalena entered here full of good thoughts and good intentions, but those thoughts and intentions collided with my cruelty and selfishness.”

She is a schoolteacher, and she is interested in literature, politics, art, and religion. She wants to help those who are less fortunate who live near the ranch. This infuriates Paulo.

I don’t like clever women, the ones calling themselves intellectuals are abominations.”

Paolo is worried that his wife is a communist or socialist. When Madalena sees Paolo beating one of his workers, he tries to explain that sometimes it was necessary. Madalena asks, “But it’s cruel. Why do you do it?”

Paolo is still proud. “What the Hell. I don’t go around debating grammar, but I’m pretty sure I know best how to run my ranch.”

Later, Paulo is filled with regret.

Words of remorse came into my mouth, but stupid pride made me swallow them again.”

Finally Paolo has to admit, “I wrecked my life. I wrecked it stupidly.”

The author of ‘São Bernardo’, Graciliano Ramos, was a politician and a lifelong member of the Communist Party of Brazil himself.

 

Grade:     A

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Marigold and Rose’ by Louise Gluck – Precocious Twins Nearly One Year Old

 

‘Marigold and Rose’ by Louise Gluck   (2022) – 52 pages

 

This novella is a quick, quick little read that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is wry and humorous, yet profound.

Although ‘Marigold and Rose’ is prose and not poetry, it does have the quality of poetry in that every word counts. There are no throwaway words or sentences here.

‘Marigold and Rose’ is a clever little book written from the young twins’ point of view.

The nearly one year old twins Marigold and Rose are always going to be close, and they will always get in each other’s way. They already bumped against each other many times while still in their mother’s stomach.

Little Rose makes this astute observation about her twin sister Marigold: “What an odd little thing she is, Rose thought. All her energy is in her head.”

Everyone understood that Marigold lived in her head and Rose lived in the world. Well and good, Rose thought.”

Rose is the life of the party type while Marigold is more cerebral, although they probably don’t know the word “cerebral” yet.

Even before the age of one, the girls are beginning to figure out their ties with each other, their differences, and their bonds with the mother and the father.

She (Marigold) is the thinking one, Mother said. Rose was the everything else one. But everything else doesn’t count, Rose thought. And Marigold thought everything else was everything. Because you couldn’t see thinking.”

For a poet like Louise Gluck, winning the Nobel Prize is not enough. Even the readers of the world read so little poetry today, so that the poet will remain quite unknown even after they have won the Nobel Prize. That is why it is a rather sharp move by Louise Gluck to have now written this novella. ‘Marigold and Rose’ will make a near perfect Christmas gift for the literary-minded like Marigold. This is a courageous original work.

‘Marigold and Rose’ makes me want to go further into the poetry of Louise Gluck.

 

Grade:     A

 

 

‘Hotel Splendid’ by Marie Redonnet – Not Splendid Anymore

 

‘Hotel Splendid’ by Marie Redonnet   (1986) – 113 pages            Translated from the French by Jordan Stump

 

The Splendid Hotel is not splendid anymore. It is rather decrepit now.

The unnamed main character in this novel now runs the Splendid Hotel. Her grandmother started the hotel and it was quite successful in its time. But now that she, the granddaughter, runs the hotel it is plagued with problems. The lavatories are continually becoming blocked, and she has to unblock each one of them. It doesn’t help that her sisters Ada and Adel flush things down the toilets that they are not supposed to. The roof leaks, and the wood is rotting, becoming porous. The guests and her sisters are often beset with mysterious diseases, probably due to the nearby swamp. Rats are a problem at the hotel also. And the two kooky sisters create problems with the other hotel guests.

The hotel continues to have severe problems even when the railway company sends geologists, then engineers, and finally a work crew to build a railway directly in front of the hotel. Our hotel manager hopes and expects a lot more guests will stay at her hotel after the railway is built. Meanwhile the railway personnel staying at the hotel provide some revenue. The railway people need to figure out how to traverse the big swamp next to the hotel with their railroad track.

This entire novella is written in an extreme sparse short-sentence prose style as follows:

Ada doesn’t understand Adel. She has no compassion. Ada’s behavior pains Adel. Ada does everything she can to keep Adel down, without seeming to. Adel crumbles in front of Ada. Ada triumphs. I am right to say that I really don’t know my sisters. Their behavior never fails to surprise me. I can never predict their reactions. I am a long way from understanding my sisters.”

I am torn between considering this extremely plain and simple style as mesmerizing incantation or as rather a bore. ‘Hotel Splendid’ did hold my interest, but I could only read a few pages at a time.

Somehow I kept reading on of this woman hotel manager’s plight with her two sisters Ada and Adel at this decrepit hotel situated at the edge of the swamp, even though it was pretty much the same litany over and over and over and I knew there wasn’t going to be much of a payoff.

Only near the end did I realize that the condition and deterioration of the Splendid Hotel could be read as a metaphor for growing old. That puts this entire novella in a different light.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

Irresistible Fragments from the Poems of Philip Larkin

 

In one of his four essays regarding the poems of Philip Larkin, Clive James speaks of the “irresistible fragments” in the poems as one’s way into Larkin’s work. Then I decided to list a few of my own irresistible fragments that I have found in Larkin’s poems over the years. What I hope is that these irresistible fragments will cause you to read some of Larkin’s entire poems.

Philip Larkin was never married though he had long affairs with several women. At one point, he had affairs with three women at the same time. I was surprised to learn recently that one of the women he had a long affair with was Maeve Brennan, a writer whose works I have read and enjoyed considerably. That must have been quite a match. (Wrong – she is another Maeve Brennan, see comments below.)

Here are some irresistible fragments from the work of Philip Larkin.

 

From “Send No Money”    (1962) :

Sit here, and watch the hail

of occurrence clobber life out

to a shape no one sees –

Dare you look at that straight?”

Kingston on Hull, Larkin’s adopted hometown

From “Ignorance”   (1955) :

Strange to know nothing, never to be sure

of what is true or right or real,

But forced to qualify or so I feel,

or Well, it does seem so;

Someone must know.

 

From “Toads”    (1954)

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?

 

Six days of the week it soils

with its sickening poison –

Just for paying a few bills,

That’s out of proportion.

 

From “Going, Going”    (1972)

And that will be England gone,

The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,

The guildhalls, the carved choirs.

There’ll be books; it will linger on

In galleries, but all that remains

For us will be concrete and tyres.

 

From “Wild Oats”    (1962)

Parting, after about five

Rehearsals, was an agreement

That I was too selfish, withdrawn,

And easily bored to love.

Well useful to get that learnt.

 

I am going to end with an entire short poem of Larkin’s which is one of my all-time favorites of all poetry.

 

Talking in Bed”      (1960)

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,

Lying together there goes back so far,

An emblem of two people being honest.

 

Yet more and more time passes silently,

Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest

Builds and disperses clouds about the sky.

 

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.

None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why

At this unique distance from isolation

 

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words at once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

 

 

 

‘Shrines of Gaiety’ by Kate Atkinson – Nightclubbing in London in the Mid-1920s

\’Shrines of Gaiety’ by Kate Atkinson   (2022) – 390 pages

 

At the center of ‘Shrines of Gaiety’ is fictional character Nellie Coker, owner of five successful nightclubs in London during 1926 including her flagship, The Amethyst. Her six children are all involved in running the clubs. After the brutal World War I, nearly everyone in London wanted to go out again and enjoy themselves.

Men were not unwelcome, but women often partnered each other – something that was not unusual in the wider world either, as the war had taken so many men from the dance floor and never returned them.”

Each of the nightclubs had young women available to dance with the male patrons for a drink or a small amount of money.

Nothing was free in Nellie’s world, not even love. Perhaps especially not love.”

Meanwhile out on the streets, Detective Chief Inspector Frobisher is concerned about the number of young women who are disappearing only to be found floating dead in the water later.

It was the girls. Girls were disappearing in London. At least five he knew about had vanished over the last few weeks.”

Thus we have the contrast of the spectacular sparkle and gaiety of the nightclubs versus the brutal murders of young women.

Frobisher hires the intrepid young woman Gwendolen Kelling to go underground to investigate Nellie Coker’s nightclub operations. Frobisher knows that besides the always-present crime element in London, some on the police force are also on the take.

Meanwhile 15 year-old girls Freda and Florence decide to run away from their homes in York together to London. After her money runs out, Freda lies about her age and gets a job dancing with the men at one of Nellie’s clubs.

As you can tell from the above, there are a vast number of characters, both major and minor, in ‘Shrines of Gaiety’, and it is indeed remarkable how Kate Atkinson gives each character his or her due. This novel is teeming with interesting lives; one could say that it is Dickensian.

The many scenes support the various plot threads, and each scene is presented in a manner that was fascinating to this reader. It’s like a large jigsaw puzzle where each little piece fits into its place to make an almost perfect whole. The stories of so many characters come alive on the page and all somehow fit together.

‘Shrines of Gaiety’ is a superior entertainment.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘On Java Road’ by Lawrence Osborne – Murder in Hong Kong

 

‘On Java Road’ by Lawrence Osborne    (2022) – 231 pages

 

This novel centers on Adrian Gyle, a middle-aged journalist originally from England but now living in Hong Kong. Jimmy Yang who has been Adrian’s best friend since their Cambridge University days lives there also. Jimmy’s family is one of the many wealthy families in Hong Kong, and Jimmy and Adrian frequent some of the more luxurious restaurants and bars in the city. Jimmy is rather a playful good-natured guy and brings the more serious Adrian out of his isolated shell. Although Jimmy is also middle-aged, his current girlfriend Rebecca To is still in college and actively involved in the huge pro-democracy protests against the Chinese government.

Although the time in which the events in the novel take place is not specifically stated, it is at the time when there were mass protests in Hong Kong and before the Covid pandemic which would place it around 2019.

In ‘On Java Road’, a murder occurs which may or may not be related to the tense political situation in Hong Kong.

As always, Lawrence Osborne captures the local situation in an exotic locale very well, which is why I consider him the heir apparent to Graham Greene. Although his main character Adrian is a journalist, Adrian does have a direct interest in the murder. One time Adrian takes a cynical fellow journalist Bawa out to lunch to get some inside information.

We are all in this shit show together, he seemed to be saying between the lines, and there’s little point pretending you are more moral than me, or vice versa.”

That seems to be the stance of this novel and this author.

The Sri Lankan (Bawa), for all his deviousness, was at least a truthful gossip, and truthful gossip is more salacious than the invented kind.”

Today China is still cracking down heavily on those people who were involved in the protests back then, and there have been more than a 1000 trials, some still ongoing, for those who were arrested during the mass protests. China also imposed a Hong Kong national security law in 2020 which deals severely with anyone who protests.

You could say that the whole society had become paranoid as it swayed on its no-longer-solid foundations and began to disintegrate.”

‘On Java Road’ started out rather slowly for me, but it really picked up speed in the second half. It is a murder mystery which ends without telling us the details of the murder or who the murderer for sure is.

 

 

Grade:   B

 

 

 

‘The Last White Man’ by Mohsin Hamid – “What If?”

 

‘The Last White Man’ by Mohsin Hamid (2022) – 180 pages

 

‘The Last White Man’ is what I call a “What If?” novel. Perhaps the official name for it would be an allegorical novel.

The premise of this novel is stated clearly in the very first sentence:

One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.”

What if the skin of some of the white people in a town started to turn brown overnight? A provocative question.

A few days after Anders’ skin turned brown, he contemplates committing suicide with the rifle he bought to protect himself from the white militants who have now taken to the streets. The bodies of a number of brown people have been found in fields. However Anders finds his desire to live is too great.

It was there, fierce, and so he dressed as warmly as he could, and kept himself fed, and he read and he exercised and waited in his brown skin through those solitary days for what would come next.”

We are there with Anders and his girlfriend Oona as all the white people in this town gradually transition from white skin to brown skin. How will their families react? And what about those who already had dark skin? Will they accept the ones who have just turned dark?

Not many writers are skillful enough to write believable simple allegories. Jose Saramago in ‘Blindness’ and Kazuo Ishiguro in ‘Never Let Me Go’ come to mind. The thought provoking scenario in ‘The Last White Man’ is handled very deftly.

The short novels of British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid have been featured on bestseller lists, adapted for the cinema, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, selected as winner or finalist of twenty awards, and translated into thirty-five languages. Mohsin Hamid can now be considered a superstar in the land of fiction which seems quite an amazing feat. By all means, read some of his work.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

The Book of Margery Kempe – The Memoirs of an Early English Christian Believer

 

‘The Book of Margery Kempe’    (1436) – 215 pages            Translated from the Middle English by Barry Windeatt

 

No, “1436” is not a misprint. This book actually was written in 1436, and it is considered the first autobiography or memoir to be written in English. Lost for several centuries, the book was rediscovered in 1934.

I wanted to try my hand in translating from Middle English myself. Luckily I found one line on a site which was by Margery Kempe and still in Middle English:

hir mende & hir thowt was so ioynyd to God
pat
sche neuyr forgate hym but contynualy had mende of hym &
behelde hym in alle creaturys

I was able to translate this line as thus:

Her mind and her thought were so joined to God as she never forgot him but continually had mind of him & beheld him in all creatures.”

That was fun, but it would be extremely difficult and slow to read the entire book in Middle English, thus the need for a translator into modern English. Margery actually used two monks from the Church as scribes to write down her words.

Somehow Margery was able to give birth to fourteen children, but that was before her religious transformation. By her own account, she was bent on every wickedness until she found her Lord Jesus. She then takes a vow of chastity, and her husband goes along with that.

After her transformation, first she journeys around southeastern England to the various churches. There is no explanation of who takes care of all the children.

Once I was with the monks at the church in Canterbury, and they bitterly despised and condemned me because I was weeping so much. I wept for nearly the whole day, morning and afternoon alike, both for the monks and priests and for those in the secular life.”

Whenever Margery hears some distressing detail of the tribulations and injuries that her Lord Jesus suffered before and during his crucifixion, Margery starts crying and roaring, and most of the people around her become upset with her extreme behavior. She dresses in all white because her Lord Jesus told her to do so. This also offended the people around her. They defame and slander her. Margery is a religious fanatic. Some want her to be put away or imprisoned. Many think she is mad or insane. However her Lord Jesus, in direct communication, constantly praises her, and there are a few high individuals from the Church who defend her and tell her,

“Don’t be afraid of wagging tongues, for the more contempt, disgrace, and criticism you met in the world the more worthy you are in the sight of God.”

Later Margery Kempe goes on much longer pilgrimages, to Jerusalem of course, then to Rome and to Santiago Spain. Most of her traveling is done by ships I presume, but we are told very few practical details of these trips. Her traveling companions are usually disgusted with her because she is always weeping, sobbing, and crying out.

Not Margery Kempe, but Christine de Pizan

This personal account by Margery Kempe is very repetitious.

I wouldn’t recommend this book as a read for pleasure. As I mentioned before, it is much too repetitive in her holy talk and crying for that, and it contains very little detail about anything else including the places she visits or the people she meets. It instead obsesses about the sufferings of her Lord Jesus and her own defamation. I read it because it was written nearly 600 years ago, and it is a first-person account written in Middle English. I am not going to grade it, because the amazing thing is that it got written at all.

 

 

 

 

‘After Lives’ by Abdulkazak Gurnah – Standing Up for his People, the East Africans

 

‘After Lives’ by Abdulkazak Gurnah    (2020) – 309 pages

 

‘After Lives’ begins early in the 20th century. The European countries (Great Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy) had Africa divvied up among themselves. ‘After Lives’ takes place in what was then Deutsch-Ostafrika (German East Africa). Most of this area is now Tanzania.

Although all of these European countries were pretty terrible at running or ruining their colonies, the Germans were probably the worst. “There is no one as stern as a German.”

In the thirty years or so that they have occupied this land, the Germans have killed so many people that the country is littered with skulls and bones and the earth is soggy with blood. I’m not exaggerating.”

Hundreds of thousands of Africans were murdered by the German empire’s use of starvation as a technique to quell uprisings in “their” territories.

When World War I started, Germany and Great Britain took their war into German East Africa. As the two countries were fighting, they would shell the African cities indiscriminately, not caring at all about the devastating impact their bombs had on the African people living there.

Great Britain won the war in Africa and took over East Africa from the Germans after World War I. This was a relief for the people living there.

The (British) administration was also expanding its activities in agriculture, public works, and health care. If nothing else, it would show the Germans how to run a colony properly.”

Although the British were far, far from blameless in their African colonization (For the full story read ‘Imperial Reckoning’ by Caroline Elkin), they were a drastic improvement over the Germans.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

‘After Lives’ tells the story of several African people who had to cope and recover from all this European mischief in Africa. One of the main characters is Hamza who was treated well by a German missionary during his childhood and thus volunteered for the askari, the African unit of fighters who fought on the German side. Here is a description of the Feldwebel, Hamza’s commanding German officer, during the African fighting against the British which was part of World WAR I:

His temper was so out of control that he frequently hit askari and porters with whatever was at hand: a cane, a whip, or a piece of firewood. He was even more vicious than he used to be in his hatred and contempt for the local people whose land they plundered. To him they were savages and he spoke about them with greater ferocity than he showed toward the British enemy.”

This Feldwebel nearly killed Hamza when Hamza said he was leaving the askari. After a lengthy recovery Hamza finds work in a port city in Tanzania which is now under control of the British. There, left in peace, Hamza finds redemption, and finds a wife and raises a family.

We have had a lot of literature about Africa written by Europeans where it is depicted as dark, cruel, and savage. But what if it were the Europeans who were the actual savages? Abdulkazak Gurnah is one voice who stands up for his African people.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

 

 

‘Paradais’ by Fernanda Melchor – The Story of Polo and Fatboy

 

‘Paradais’ by Fernanda Melchor    (2021) – 112 pages             Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes

 

At first, this story of the two teen boys Fatboy and Polo seems quite comical, but it takes a dark, dark turn. Both Fatboy and Polo are sixteen years old.

Polo lives with his mother and his pregnant cousin Zorayda. They don’t have much money, and Polo has dropped out of school, so he has to work as a gardener at a nearby luxury housing development.

Franco, the Fatboy, is one of the spoiled boys whose family lives in the luxury housing development. Fatboy is sexually obsessed with one of the neighboring well-to-do ladies, Senora Marian Marono. When Fatboy finds out that the Marono family leaves one house door unlocked all the time, he sneaks in there while they are gone to sniff her underwear.

Polo has total disdain for Fatboy and his fantasies, but since Fatboy has the money to buy alcohol Polo puts up with him. Polo hates his boss Urquiza who makes Polo work late performing useless tasks. Polo flunked out of school, and his mother made him get this job. Polo is disgusted with his situation.

Polo’s cousin Zorayda has moved in with Polo and his mother, and Polo has lost his room and his bed to her, and he sleeps on the floor in the living room.

Now Zorayda is pregnant, and the word is that she sleeps with every man in town.

The entire story of ‘Paradais’ is told from Polo’s point of view. We see the entire world through this young guy’s eyes. The writing could be described as stream of consciousness with long sentences and pages-long paragraphs. However these long sentences and paragraphs do not detract at all from the sharpness and vividness of the prose. Author Fernanda Melchor has captured the thought stream of this sixteen year old boy perfectly. Sometimes it is a laugh riot; sometimes its a nightmare.

‘Paradais’ is a strong follow-up to Fernanda Melchor’s previous novel ‘Hurricane Season’. Like in the earlier novel, Melchor tells the truth about some very rough things. Fernanda Melchor is now on my short list of must-read novelists.

Having been a young guy myself at one time, I know that the author has nailed it, how a young guy’s mind works or doesn’t work. The two misfit teenagers Polo and Fatboy are as memorable a team as George and Lenny from ‘Of Mice and Men’.

 

Grade:     A

 

 

‘Desire Under the Elms’ by Eugene O’Neill – A Greek Tragedy on a New England Farm

 

‘Desire Under the Elms’ by Eugene O’Neill    (1923) – 70 pages

 

The reason I read the plays of Eugene O’Neill is for their psychological intensity. In such plays as ‘The Iceman Cometh’, ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’, ‘Moon for the Misbegotten’ and others O’Neill delves more deeply into what it is to be human than other playwrights before or since. If you get a chance, read or watch one of these plays either in the theater or on TV and you will see what I mean.

‘Desire Under the Elms’ is one of O’Neill’s earlier plays, written in 1923. O’Neill always did have a way with giving his plays enticing titles. His experimental idea for this play was, I think, a good one. He would take one of the ancient Greek tragedies, in this case Euripides’ Hippolytus and loosely update it into a United States play. ‘Desire Under the Elms’ takes place on a New England farm around the year 1850. Instead of Theseus, Hippolytus, and Phaedra, we have Ephraim, Simeon, Peter, Eden, and Abbie.

Old man Ephraim has worked two wives to death keeping his stony farm land producing, and now he’s working his three sons to death. Meanwhile Ephraim’s off to the city to find wife number three. Two of the sons, Simeon and Peter, decide to run away to California to find gold while he is gone, but youngest son Eden decides to stick around. Soon Ephraim returns with his new wife Abbie who is quite young, only in her thirties. Abbie is repulsed by old man Ephraim, and she only married Ephraim because she was in terrible financial straits. Since the young son Eden hates his father, Ephraim decides he wants to have another baby son to inherit the farm, and Abbie says she’s willing, because she wants the farm for herself. Meanwhile Abbie and Eden naturally develop a strong attraction for each other.

As you would expect in a play written by O’Neill, he captures the way these New Englanders talk perfectly. However the plot is straight out of Greek tragedy. When we people of today read these old Greek tragedies, we can handle the often disturbing and gory plots which include patricide, matricide, and even infanticide, since we are so far removed from these ancient Greek people. However ‘Desire Under the Elms’ brings one of these terrible events directly home to us here. It is almost too gruesome, overwrought, and intense for us modern playgoers, including myself , to handle.

There is a 1958 movie of ‘Desire Under the Elms’ starring Anthony Perkins, Sophia Loren, and Burl Ives, but the consensus is that this movie isn’t very good so I didn’t watch it. I believe that under the right circumstances, someone could make a powerful movie of this play.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

 

‘The Big Nowhere’ by James Ellroy – The Los Angeles Police in the 1950s

 

‘The Big Nowhere’ by James Ellroy      (1988) – 406 pages

 

Perhaps I was feeling overstuffed on high quality literature. It was time to shake up my reading big time. I liked the movie ‘L.A. Confidential’, so why not read James Ellroy?

‘The Big Nowhere’ is the second novel in Ellroy’s L. A. Quartet of police novels taking place in the 1950s. It does not matter in what order you read these novels; each novel is stand-alone.

And what did I get with reading ‘The Big Nowhere’? Non-stop sensationalism and wall-to-wall cynicism. Throw in graphic gross unpleasantness, the casual use of racist lingo and stereotypes by policemen, and a lot of general nastiness. I suppose cynicism comes with the job of police officer, but Ellroy’s take on the job is ridiculously extreme.

What outrageous or nasty thing will happen next? The first indication that ‘The Big Nowhere’ was different from most of the novels I read was in the first few pages where there is a detailed graphic description of an autopsy that is being performed on a Los Angeles murder victim. Ellroy is not satisfied with just having several grisly murders as the centerpiece of his novel. They have to be the grisliest murders ever, and we readers get a graphic nauseating description of all the grisly details.

Some of the cops are on the take, working for the crime boss Mickey Cohen who wants to replace the Hollywood labor unions with the Teamsters’ Union which is tightly under the crime boss Cohen’s control.

They come up with this scheme to have a grand jury investigate some of the current union people for Communist ties in order to discredit the current union and replace it with the Teamsters. The cops are all too happy to help out the crime boss Cohen’s scheme, and some of the cops use heavy-handed means to put pressure on the union members. The behavior of the cops is indeed disgusting.

Interspersed between the fictional characters and scenes, there are real personages from the Los Angeles of that time in the early 1950s – Howard Hughes and Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato – who lend a certain unwarranted veracity to the story.

The novel does have a certain narrative energy that keeps you reading. Also I believe Ellroy is quite accurate in his description of police investigations into homicides.

However I will not be reading any more fiction by James Ellroy. I believe that each member of a police force makes a choice. They can be dishonest racist corrupt right-wing fools like Ellroy’s fictional cops or they can attempt to be professional and objective in their outlook and treat people whom they must deal with honestly and fairly. Unlike Ellroy, I believe most police strive to act as true professionals. I have respect for the police unlike Ellroy.

 

Grade:    C

 

 

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