Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘Mothering Sunday – A Romance’ by Graham Swift – A Perfect Novella

 

‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift   (2016) – 177 pages

 

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“Once upon a time…”  Thus  ‘Mothering Sunday’ begins that old reliable way, and by its end it fulfills my ideal of the perfect novella.

It is a simple story with broad insights into maids, class, love, sex, war, and writing.  It takes place on Sunday March 30, 1924.  Two rooms in the Sheringham manor have been left unchanged since two of their sons left for World War I never to return.  Remaining son to the manor-born Paul Sheringham is soon to be married to his arranged fiancé.  However the day is Mothering Sunday which is the one English day of the year on which domestic servants are given a holiday, and this is Paul’s last chance to dally in bed with the next-door neighbors’ household maid Jane Fairfield, his secret lover for the past six years.  All is told from the maid’s point of view.

‘Mothering Sunday’ captures the sunny ambiance of an unseasonably warm spring day in the Twenties and the sparks of an illicit but romantic love affair.

“It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feeling of being alive.”  

During the course of the story, we learn Jane Fairfield’s entire biography via flashbacks and flash-forwards from her days in an orphanage up to the time when she is 98 years old and a renowned writer.  As the years go by, the world changes, and new opportunities open up even for a girl who was born as a foundling.   Thank heaven that things are not set in concrete.

“Many things in life – oh so many more than we think – can never be explained at all.”

I completed ‘Mothering Sunday’ in one day, and I am not a fast reader.  Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with that other recent English romantic novella, ‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan.  I believe ‘Mothering Sunday’ will hold up very well in the comparison.   From his early novels such as ‘Shuttlecock’ and ‘Waterland’, Graham Swift has been writing excellent unique novels that defy expectations.  Perhaps Swift has been underrated in recent years, but ‘Mothering Sunday’ should change all that.

‘Mothering Sunday’ is a good-natured exquisitely written small slice of life from the 1920s.  I can hardly wait for the movie.

 

Grade:   A   

 

‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo – Can One Complain About a Lack of Warmth in a Cryonics Novel?

 

‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo    (2016) – 274 pages

 

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It is not that I lack appreciation for Don DeLillo’s previous work.  I consider his three novels ‘White Noise’, ‘Libra’, and ‘Mao II’ among the finest totally captivating modern fiction I have read.  Somehow I still haven’t gotten to ‘Underworld’ which is supposed to be his ultimate masterpiece.

“In ‘Mao II’, DeLillo said, “Stories have no point if they don’t absorb our terror”.  DeLillo has confronted the all-encompassing horrors and frights of our modern world for his entire career from Hitler studies (‘White Noise’) to the Kennedy assassination (‘Libra’) to global terrorism (‘Mao II’).

However his new cryonics novel ‘Zero K’ did not work for me.  Sorry.

I fully expect that many of the robber barons of the 21st century, after gloriously partaking in all the good and great things in this short life, now are doing all imaginable to extend that life beyond its mortal limits.  If that means having their bodies frozen in a cryonic chamber until a cure for death can be found, so be it.

“Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth.”  

First, here are some facts about the reality of cryonics.  Way back in 1967, James Bedford was the first person put in successful cryonic suspension by the actual non-profit Alcor Foundation of Scottsdale, Arizona which is the largest cryonics organization in the world.  He is still waiting to be thawed.  Perhaps the most famous person to be suspended there is baseball Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams.   The Alcor Corporation currently holds 52 whole bodies and 94 human brains in suspension.

So the idea of cryonics has been around for at least 50 years.  DeLillo personalizes his cryonics story by putting his fully developed fictional characters in this situation.

DeLillo’s novel ‘Zero K’ mainly takes place in far-off Kyrgyzstan where an operation called Convergence has built a cryonics compound.  Wealthy businessman Ross Lockhart has brought his ailing wife here to be frozen.  Ross’s son Jeffrey accompanies them, and he tells the story.

“At some point in the future, death will become unacceptable even as the life of the planet becomes more fragile.”

Much of the dialogue in ‘Zero K’ consists of such pronouncements, and many of the scenes are apocalyptic visions rather than actual events.  All of these disembodied voices and images make the novel seem distant and cold, and I never did warm up to these characters.

The major part of the novel which takes place at the compound in Kyrgyzstan is at least susceptible to human understanding, stark and cold but still comprehensible.   However I found the later scenes that take place in New York to be a pointless portentous muddle.

By all means read Don DeLillo, because he is for sure one of the modern great fiction writers, but once again perhaps you might skip ‘Zero K’.

 

 Grade:   C+ 

 

‘Everything Flows’ by Vasily Grossman – “The Madness of False Accusations”

 

‘Everything Flows’ by Vasily Grossman (1964)  – 208 pages

Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Anna Aslanyan

 

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After World War II, reporter Vasily Grossman gave one of the first eyewitness accounts of the atrocities and conditions at the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka.  His account was used as evidence for the prosecution at the Nuremburg  war crime trials after the war.  Later Grossman’s faith in the Soviet Union itself was severely shaken by Josef Stalin’s harsh dictatorship and anti-Semitism.  So who was there better than Vasily Grossman to track the brutal failure of the Communist Soviet Union in a novel?

It is all there in ‘Everything Flows’, the state-induced famine in the Ukraine, neighbors denouncing their neighbors who are then separated from their families and sent off to Siberia, women taken away from their husbands and children, relocated to Siberia, and made to live in barracks in forced-labor camps.  Those who denounced others were rewarded with all the good things in life, while millions of people were displaced and their lives virtually destroyed.

At one point in ‘Everything Flows’ one of the characters asks the question “How could the Germans send Jewish children to die in the gas chambers?”  His answer to that question is I believe one of the most powerful of all.

“From looking at his victim as other than human, he ceases to be human himself.” 

It is much easier to mistreat other people, if you have been persuaded that these others are less than human.  However in this dehumanizing process, you become less than human yourself.

‘Everything Flows’ is an extremely powerful book.  It was written in 1962 shortly before Vasily Grossman’s death, but it was not allowed to be published until 1984.  After it was published, the Soviet Union had to give up any pretense that Communism was a form of government that was in any way good for the people, and Communism quickly fell thereafter.  You may see this as an over-simplified view of the publishing of ‘Everything Flows’ but read the book first.

‘Everything Flows’ is obviously lacking and inadequate as fiction, but it is the  best, most honest, diagnosis of what went wrong with Communism in the Soviet Union I have ever read. About two-thirds of the way through ‘Everything Flows’, Grossman abandons all pretense to fiction and writes a strong polemic about Lenin and Stalin and the Soviet state.   It covers the same territory for the Soviet Union as Lianke Yan’s masterpiece ‘The Four Books’ covers for Red China, but the two novels are not that similar at all.  Whereas ‘The Four Books’ is allegorical, ‘Everything Flows’ is a passionate argument.

“In order to make the State all-powerful, freedom had to be killed in all facets of life. It was not only in politics and public activity that freedom was overcome.  Freedom was overcome everywhere, from the realm of agriculture – the peasants’ right to sow freely and harvest freely – to the realms of poetry and philosophy.  It is the same whether we are talking about shoemaking, the choice of reading matter, or moving from one apartment to another; in every sphere of life freedom was overcome.

Freedom, after all, is life; in order to kill freedom, Stalin had to kill life.”

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Grade:    A

 

‘99 Poems: New and Selected’ by Dana Gioia – A Versatile Selection

 

‘99 Poems: New and Selected’ by Dana Gioia    (2016) – 188 pages

 

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I could connect with many of the poems in ’99 Poems’ by Danas Gioia.  For me, that is high praise of a poetry selection indeed.  I call ’99 Poems’ a selection because it is made up of new and selected poems.  I try to avoid collections, because collections tend to bombard you with everything the poet ever wrote whether good or bad. My love of poetry is not to the extent that I want to wade through mediocre poems.  I like my poetry books to at least be selective.

‘99 Poems’ is made up of seven sections.  Like everyone else, poets like to put their best foot forward at the start, and the first section ‘Mystery’ contains several of the best poems.

Let’s start with the poem ‘Insomnia’.  It is about a man lying awake in bed in his house unable to sleep.  The entire poem is excellent, but the following lines particularly hit home for me.

 

But now you must listen to the things you own,

All that you’ve worked for these past years,

The murmur of property, of things in disrepair,

About moving parts about to come undone,

And twisting in the sheets remember all

the faces you could not bring yourself to love.

The second section is called ‘Place’, and these poems are observations of nature.  The third section is called ‘Remembrance’ which contains poems in memory of his first son who passed away. Some of the poems he wrote about his son are quite poignant, but I also like the ones Gioia wrote in a minor key.  Consider these lines from the poem ‘Words’ which is in the first section:

The world does not need words.  It articulates itself

In sunlight, leaves, and shadows.  The stones on the path

Are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.

The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being,

The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.

The fourth section is entitled ‘Imagination’.  One poem here is ‘Title Index to My Next Book of Poems’ which I found to be quite humorous.

The fifth section is called ‘Stories’ which as its title implies are story poems which can be up to fifteen pages long.  Fortunately Gioia gives these longer poems a less intense narrative style that makes them easy to read quickly.  I enjoyed these stories, particularly the one called ‘Style’.

The sixth section is entitled ‘Songs’, and these poems have the traditional qualities of rhyme and measure and thus are easy to like and appreciate.  The final section is called ‘Love’.

So in this poetry selection, we have nearly all the different kinds of poems that exist.  Dana Gioia is a versatile poet, but one wonders if instead of doing so many different kinds of poems, he might have gone deeper with one particular type of poem.  Perhaps in the future he might take his strongest suit and develop his own unique style.

Overall in these poems, I found Dana Gioia to be an amusing and acute companion.

 

Grade:   B+

 

‘High Dive’ by Jonathan Lee – Trouble at the Grand Brighton Hotel

 

‘High Dive’ by Jonathan Lee    (2016)  – 318 pages

 

41RRBHZa4BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Somehow I missed the news story of the Grand Brighton Hotel bombing when it actually occurred.  The United States was right in the midst of its Presidential and other elections of 1984 when it occurred on October 12, 1984, and the media here gets obsessed with our own elections to the exclusion of all else.   Anyhow the then ruling Conservative Party in Great Britain was holding its annual conference at the Grand Brighton Hotel. The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was there along with her husband Dennis as well as many other government dignitaries.  Unbeknownst to them, the Provisional Irish Republican Army had planted a big bomb with a long delay timer within the hotel weeks before, set to go off at exactly 2:51 AM on October 12.  The bomb did explode as planned doing severe damage to the hotel, and five people staying in the hotel were killed and dozens were injured.  Margaret Thatcher and her husband Dennis were unharmed, although their room was damaged.

‘High Dive’ is a vivid audacious fictional account of this incident.  There are three main characters.  We have Dennis who is one of the IRA guys who set the bomb, Moose Finch who is the assistant general manager at the Grand Brighton Hotel, and his eighteen year old daughter Freya who is working at the reception desk at the hotel over summer.

I knew I was going to really like ‘High Dive’  when I found out that the hair salon where Freya goes is called Curl Up and Dye.   The writing here is wicked and lively, and there is a surprising delightful curve ball in nearly every sentence.   While I was reading ‘High Dive’, especially for the first 200 or so pages, I got this strong sense of exhilaration that I only get when I am reading the best novels.  Jonathan Lee has a strong empathy for his characters and his handling of scenes is especially well done.

‘High Dive’ is not a technical thriller in any sense of the term.  The actual wiring and planting of the bomb or any of the details regarding the bomb are not even covered in the novel.  Instead ‘High Dive’ is a novel about the emotional lives of the people listed above.

After the bomb is planted at the Hotel, it is a matter of waiting for the ultimate explosion.   As the pages mount up as we are awaiting the detonation of the bomb, the high energy of the novel dissipates somewhat.   Although as I said before, Jonathan Lee has great empathy for his people, the everyday events that Dennis, Moose, and Freya deal with at the hotel are almost too mundane to carry the novel.

But overall ‘High Dive’ is an exceptionally strong performance, and I expect most everyone will feel curiously uplifted by this vivid and devilishly well-written story about a bomb.

 

Grade:    A-

 

‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin

 

‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin   (2015) – 399 pages

 

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During her lifetime Lucia Berlin wrote 76 stories of which 43 of them were selected for ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’.  She lived for exactly 68 years, passing away on her birthday in 2004.  She was married three times and had four children.  As a child she lived in mining camps in Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and Chile.  As an adult she lived in New Mexico, Mexico, California, Colorado, and Wyoming.   To support herself and her family, she taught creative writing, worked as a cleaning woman, as a ward clerk in emergency rooms and as a telephone switchboard operator, etc.   She was plagued with health problems including double scoliosis which required her to carry an oxygen tank for many of her last years.  She had severe bouts with alcoholism which she was able to conquer in middle age.  Earlier she had spent time in detox centers.

I think that it is pretty safe to say that this is not your typical biography of a fiction writer.

“God sends drunks blackouts because if they knew what they had done they would surely die of shame.” – “Mama”

Lucia Berlin tells her stories by indirection.  She allows her characters to do things that are not totally scripted.  Compared to hers, other people’s stories are too tightly plotted.  She allows her characters the freedom to do and say surprising things.  Her characters’ behavior is not pre-ordained.   At first this freedom of behavior is a little disorienting to the reader. Just about anything can happen in one of Berlin’s stories at any time.  These are glimpses of shapeless, formless, unfiltered reality.

“I tried to hide when Grandpa was drunk because he would catch me and rock me.  He was doing it once in the big rocker, holding me tight, the chair bouncing off the ground inches from the red-hot stove, his thing jabbing, jabbing my behind.  He was singing ‘Old Tin Pan with the Hole in the Bottom’.  Loud. Panting and grunting.  Only a few feet away Mamie sat, reading the Bible while I screamed, “Mamie! Help me!” Uncle John showed up, drunk and dusty. He grabbed me away from Grandpa, pulled the old man up by his shirt.  He said he’d kill him with his bare hands next time.  Then he slammed shut Mamie’s Bible.” – “Silence” 

   At first I thought these stories were exceptionally rough, crude, and unpolished to the point where they were difficult to read.    My thanks to JacquiWine for convincing me to give ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ one more chance.

In Berlin’s story “The Step”, a bunch of alcoholics in their identical blue pajamas gather around a TV screen at a detox center to watch a fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Wilfred Benitez.

In “Carmen”, a pregnant woman takes a taxicab to a Mexican slum to complete a drug deal for her addict boyfriend.

 “That’s the lousy thing about drugs, I thought.  They work.”  – “Carmen”

Whether the drug is cocaine, OxyContin, heroin, or even alcohol, I suppose this is true.

Even in the most daring unconventional fiction there are limits as to what can happen.  Events are limited by the writer’s imagination.  However in unfiltered reality anything can happen.  Perhaps things occurred in your classroom or neighborhood that were so shocking or disgusting that you won’t even remember them.  These are the kind of things that happen in Lucia Berlin’s stories.

 

Grade: A-

‘Agostino’ by Alberto Moravia – Mother Love

 

Agostino’ by Alberto Moravia    (1942) – 102 pages       Translated by Michael F. Moore

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‘Agostino’ begins with an idyllic summer morning scene of a thirteen year old boy, Agostino, out in a rowboat on the Mediterranean with his mother.

“Agostino’s mother was a big and beautiful woman still in her prime, and Agostino was filled with pride every time he got in the boat with her for one of their morning rides.” 

Agostino’s father has died, so he spends a lot of time with his mother.  On their boat trips, sometimes his mother would dive into the sea.

“Agostino would see the mother’s body plunge into a circle of green bubbles, and he would jump in right after her, ready to follow her anywhere, even to the bottom of the sea.  He would dive into the mother’s wake and feel as if even the cold compact water conserved traces of the passage of that beloved body.” 

Later while Agostino rowed the boat, his mother would remove the top of her bathing suit to expose her whole body to the sunlight.  Agostino steered the boat and did not look back at his mother.

One morning however a tanned young man appears, intruding upon the mother and son’s profound intimacy.  In a couple of days the young man and Agostino’s mother go off rowing by themselves, leaving Agostino behind.    After that Agostino must fend for himself.

He encounters a gang of rough boys his own age or older who hang around the beach with an adult lecherous homosexual sailor.  These ragged boys have disdain for Agostino since they can tell by the way he talks and dresses that he is upper class, not one of them.  With nothing else to do, Agostino soon runs with the gang every day.

“The dark realization came to him that a difficult and miserable age had begun for him, and he couldn’t imagine when it would end.”

‘Agostino’ is a fine novella, and as always in Alberto Moravia’s fiction, it deals with elemental issues.  Here we have a young boy enraptured by his beautiful mother who must move on and grow up, and growing up is not easy.   He must come to terms with his mother being just another woman.

Alberto Moravia captures the real down-to-earth drama that occurs in our lives, not on the glamorous or noteworthy occasions, but instead the subtle every day transformations each of us must undergo.  A boy growing up to become a man (‘Agostino’), a wife whose attitude changes toward her husband after two years of marriage (‘Contempt’),  a woman who works as a prostitute (‘The Woman of Rome’).   By tracing problems that face individuals, he can deal with what causes the fascism sickness of entire societies (‘The Time of Indifference’, ‘The Conformist’).

The lyrical and passionate realism of the novels and stories of Alberto Moravia is just as strong and meaningful today as it was back when they were written in the middle of the twentieth century.

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Grade:   A 

 

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