Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin – Young Lovers Who Are Kept Apart

 

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin (1974) – 197 pages

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” – James Baldwin

In ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ has created a precarious love story and family drama that has now been made into a movie by Barry Jenkins (he of Oscar Best Picture winner ‘Moonlight’) which will very soon be coming out in theaters. I have not seen the movie and will discuss only the novel by James Baldwin instead.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is the story of a young couple, Fonny aged 22 and Tish aged 19, living in Harlem in New York City in the 1970’s. It is told from the point of view of Tish. She visits Fonny in jail, framed for a rape he did not commit. Later we learn that Fonny was set up by a white racist policeman. Tish goes to the jail and visits him there every day.

“I was sitting on a bench in front of a board, and he was sitting on a bench in front of a board and we were facing each other through a wall of glass between us…I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

On one of her jail visits, Tish tells Fonny that she is pregnant.

I guess it can’t be too often that two people can laugh and make love, too, make love because they are laughing, laugh because they’re making love. The love and the laughter come from the same place: but not many people go there.” 

Their two families meet and discuss what to do about this predicament. Despite differences between the two families, they agree that they must get Fonny out of jail. Tish’s mother goes to Puerto Rico in an effort to locate the woman who accused Fonny of rape and talk her into dropping the charges.

Tish has the bright optimism of youth but must deal with a dire situation made more dire by prevailing casual white racist attitudes.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is a realistic intense black American love story and family drama of people trying to survive in an inherently unfair world. Baldwin captures the poignancy of both of these two young people and their families as they are caught in this unjust situation. As in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the world, in this case the white world, is conspiring to keep this loving young couple apart. As Stacia L Brown wrote in Gawker, Beale Street  “belongs to a collection of literature that seeks to humanize black men, through their relationships with parents, lovers, siblings, and children. It swan-dives from optimism to bleakness and rises from the ash of dashed hopes.”

Why Baldwin titled the book ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ remains a mystery, as there are no references to Beale Street in the novel.

Besides being a novelist, poet, essay writer, and civil rights activist, James Baldwin also came up with some great quotes. I will leave you with one more.

Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.” – James Baldwin

 

Grade:    A

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My Top Ten Fiction Reads of 2018

I really have no strategy for making these top fiction lists beyond that I enjoyed each of these works of fiction immensely. However the lists are far from just pure entertainment lists as two of the qualities in writers I enjoy most are their insights into human nature and their subtle intelligence.

You can see my original reviews for each of these books by clicking either on the picture or the bold-faced title and author.

So here are my this year’s selections, starting with my favorite fiction of the year and proceeding in order from there.

 

‘The House of Broken Angels’ by Luis Alberto Urrea – This novel gets family life right in a humorous yet loving way. Old man Big Angel will have one last big Mexican-American birthday party before he dies with the whole extended family there.

 

‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ by A. J. Pearce – Here is a lively moving novel of the terrible Blitz in London in 1940. With all the death and destruction around them, living well is even more precious for young Emmy and her friend Bunty.

 

‘West’ by Carys DaviesPennsylvania settler and farmer John Cyrus Bellman heads out west in the United States in 1815 in search of giant dinosaurs which he figures must still be roaming around out there. Along the way he picks up an Indian scout named Looks Like A Woman From Afar. This is an entertaining story.

 

‘Modern Gods’ by Nick Laird – ‘Modern Gods’ is a rich Northern Ireland family story that tackles the thorny issue of religion both in their hometown of Ballyglass in Ulster and in the far reaches of New Guinea. Laird, a poet, really gets inside the heads of his characters to convey precisely what they are thinking and feeling.

 

‘Those Who Knew’ by Idra Novey´Those Who Knew’ is a modern political drama about the never-ending liberal struggle against homegrown fascism, racism, and oppression. Novey uses diverse means to convey her story.

 

‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor – Thirteen year old Rebecca Shaw disappears from a small northern English village. Jon McGregor views the people of this rural village with the same calm steady keenly observant attitude with which he observes the trees, the birds, the fish, and the other animals. His view appears to be that we humans are as much a part of nature as everything else.  After you read ‘Reservoir 13’ , you might also want to read the related work ‘The Reservoir Tapes’.  

 

‘Warlight’ by Michael OndaatjeOndaatje’s main achievement in ‘Warlight’ is capturing the ambiance and atmosphere of bombed-out England after the war and the mystery and excitement and color of these people waking up and resuming their peacetime lives.

 

‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer – Here is a gay guy novel even a non-gay guy can appreciate. That is because it is one of the most humorous novels I have read, and Greer’s type of humor is universal, a guy laughing at himself and those around him as they sometimes make utter fools of themselves with their outrageous behavior.

 

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata – This is a well-done enjoyable novella about someone who doesn’t usually get the credit she deserves, an upbeat efficient convenience store woman.

 

‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna – Now that England has banned fox hunting, there are many urban foxes in London where our main character has come to study them. The foxes are frequently found prowling the garbage for food. By capturing more than just what is happening on the surface, Aminatta Forna achieves a depth that is missing from many novels.

 

 

Happy Reading!

 

 

´Those Who Knew’ by Idra Novey – The Never-Ending Battle Between the Left and the Right

 

´Those Who Knew’ by Idra Novey    (2018) – 248 pages

 

´Those Who Knew’ is a modern political drama about the never-ending liberal struggle against homegrown fascism, racism, and oppression.  It takes place on an unnamed island in the South which had been ruled by a ruthless dictator named Cato who had been propped up by a powerful northern country (US?).  A progressive movement, in part led by radical college students, had been successful in ousting Cato several years ago. One of the college student leaders, Victor, is now a Senator and may soon run for President.   

Lena is one of Victor´s ex-girlfriends.  She hears that Victor´s current girlfriend Maria P. has been killed after being run over by a bus.  Lena recalls a time when Victor almost choked her to death in his uncontrolled anger, and now she suspects that Victor perpetrated the death of Maria P.

´Those Who Knew’ is a politically intense and realistic story.  One of its many pleasures is its cast of offbeat characters. There is the elderly radical Olga who is Lena´s best friend and who runs a used bookstore as well as a marijuana business on the side.  There is also Victor´s brother Freddy who is a gay playwright. Lena´s current boyfriend Oscar is from the North and likes to cook meals and desserts for his friends.

The author Idra Novey relies on diverse means of telling her story, and these changes in approach and tone kept this reader enthused.   The chapters are usually very short, and the story is told from the points of view of various characters. Also the narration takes several forms including entries from Olga´s makeshift log and short scenes from Freddy´s plays.  The variety of narrators and narrative forms keeps one interested in the proceedings.  

The progressives here are fighting against the slick well-organized corruption and oppression of the rich and powerful.  The progressives are a motley unruly crew of offbeat individuals, but isn’t that usually the case? Those who believe in personal freedom usually practice personal freedom in their own lives, while the fascists who wish to limit the lives of others usually live limited oppressive lives themselves.

One of the continuing problems for the Left is that some of their own trusted leaders can turn ruthless and authoritarian as they become enamored of their own power. 

The battle between liberalism versus fascism has become more intense as fascism has spread again over large parts of the world.   After World War II, most of the world realized that the next war could destroy life on Earth, so they took moderate steps to prevent that from happening.  However today world leaders seem to have forgotten the 60 million people who were killed in World War II, and now all Hell is breaking loose again.

´Those Who Knew’ takes place on an unnamed island, ¨this fascist-hearted country of ours¨, but this island represents our entire world.

 

Grade:   A+

 

 

‘Love is Blind’ by William Boyd – Love is Blind, but Not Deaf

‘Love is Blind’ by William Boyd (2018) – 369 pages

‘Love is Blind’ is the good-natured story of Brodie Moncur, a young man from Scotland who has a great ear for tuning pianos. This gift takes him to Paris where he tunes the pianos for the famous concert pianist John Kilbarron, “the Irish Liszt”. At the same time Brodie is tuning pianos, he falls madly in love with Kilbarron’s lover Lika Blum.

This rollicking tale takes place during the early days of the twentieth century in various locales including Edinburgh, Paris, St. Petersburg, Nice, and the Andaman Islands. This is a light-hearted adventure yarn not to be taken all that seriously. Even though piano tuning is usually not considered adventurous, I would still call ‘Love is Blind’ an adventure novel.

I have read several of William Boyd’s previous works. I was tremendously impressed with his first two novels that I read, ‘A Good Man in Africa’ and ‘The Ice Cream Wars’. Boyd seems to specialize in high-spirited adventure stories in exotic locales. Over the years I have read a few more of his novels and always prick up my ears when I hear he has a new one out but do not always get around to reading it, but this time I did make room for ‘Love is Blind’ in my reading routine.

This time around, William Boyd kept me entertained for the full length of the novel with humor and adventure, but I guess I was looking for something more than entertainment. For me, ‘Love is Blind’ lacked intensity and depth.

At the heart of the novel is the clandestine romance between Brodie and Lika and its complications. They must sneak around behind the backs of the pianist Kilbarron and also his brother Malachi. For one thing I did not find the romance between Brodie and Lika convincing. They meet and instantly fall totally in love for no good earthly reason. Perhaps that is true to real life, but in a novel there must be compelling reasons for a love affair to happen.

I realize there is a difference between a fiction being light-hearted and humorous and a fiction being intense and deep. Perhaps a writer must stay on the surface in order to keep things light. I just think that depending on the dexterity of the writer, it should be possible to be both amusing and intense. But maybe I am wrong.

 

Grade :     B

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grade:    A+

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

 

Muriel Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loitering With Intent”

A Far Cry from Kensington”

The Girls of Slender Means”

The Public Image”

Symposium”

Aiding and Abetting”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”

The Ballad of Peckham Rye”

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grade :    B-

 

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