Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘You Should Have Left’ by Daniel Kehlmann – A Family Falling Apart


‘You Should Have Left’ by Daniel Kehlmann   (2016) – 111 pages                   Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin

Since I am a big fan of the four previous Daniel Kehlmann novels that I have read, ‘Measuring the World’ and ‘Fame’ and ‘F’ and ‘Tyll’, I must warn you not to start with this novella ‘You Should Have Left’ as your first Daniel Kehlmann read. It does not represent his real talents.

In ‘You Should Have Left’, our narrator writer is working on a screenplay, a comedy called “Besties 2” about two young teenage girls Jana and Ella. It’s a sequel. Our young writer is on Alpine holiday with his wife Susanna and four year-old daughter Esther, but he’s also here to work on that screenplay.

The novella starts out warm and playful as Kehlmann works usually do, and I started out really into reading it. Of course the screenplay he is writing is typical bad Hollywood fare, but he has to go through with it.

In a movie it’s funny when a life falls apart, because the people say clever things while it’s happening, but in reality it’s only dismal and repugnant,”

Lives fall apart. That’s what actually happens in this novella. Soon things aren’t at all warm and playful. Our narrator surreptitiously listens to the messages on his wife’s cell phone, which, I suppose, is always a terrible thing to do. His wife Susanna leaves.

Then we have scenes of quiet horror, strange men showing up unexpectedly in rooms, pictures on the wall that weren’t there before, a woman shouting “Get away quickly” as he drives by in his car. However to me these edgy scenes were unconvincing, because they didn’t fit the warm beginning or lead anywhere. One time after he leaves his daughter’s room, he sees a strange man in his daughter’s room on the child monitor and then realizes it is himself, and the camera must have a time delay.

Although parts of this novella were effective and fun to read, it ultimately left me lost as to what was going on. It is too fragmented. I am not sure what really happened or what point the author was trying to make. It starts out lighthearted, but the later parts containing elements of horror seemed out of place.


Grade:    B-



‘Bend Sinister’ by Vladimir Nabokov – Can a Dystopia be Humorous and Tragic at the Same Time?


‘Bend Sinister’ by Vladimir Nabokov  (1947)  –  217 pages

”Bend Sinister’ is Vladimir Nabokov’s take on authoritarian rule. Nabokov had a lot of first-hand experience with tyrannical regimes.

First Nabokov was born and raised in Russia until the Communists took over, and his family fled the country in 1919. After a short stint in England at Cambridge University, Nabokov moved to Germany where he stayed until 1937. In Germany, Nabokov married a Russian-Jewish woman. In 1936 she lost her job due to the increasingly anti-Semitic environment. In 1937 the Nabokovs fled Germany for France. In May, 1940, the Nabokov family fled from Paris due to the advancing German troops and headed for the United States.

‘Bend Sinister’ is more of an absurdist black comedy about one man’s plight rather than a more direct broad account of tyranny. Our first person narrator Adam Krug is a celebrity in his own country having written the world famous book ‘The Philosophy of Sin’. Thus he is not too worried when his old schoolmate Paduk takes over the government. When Krug meets with the dictator, Krug teases him about how he used to sit on Paduk’s face back at grade school. However Paduk is rapidly setting up a brutal police state and has other plans for his former schoolmate.

Sometimes this dystopian novel gets quite humorous which is a strange thing in a dystopian novel, but ultimately the terror becomes intense. Perhaps this is realistic. At first, Krug, remembering the mixed-up Paduk he knew as a child, does not take Paduk seriously and discounts the threat, until it is too late. Nabokov even injects humor when acquaintances of Krug are arrested just for associating with him.

One of the joys of reading Vladimir Nabokov is that he is skilled enough at writing fiction that he doesn’t have to be plain and sincere with his readers. In other words, Nabokov plays subtle tricks. I, for one reader, get a little tired of writers who are just too earnest and sincere; I’m ready to be deceived for my own good. However sometimes Nabokov just takes his erudition too far and too far off course.

The University in Padukgrad does a rewrite of ‘Hamlet’ where they turn it into “intricate convolutions of sheer stupidity” in order to please the dictator Paduk. Nabokov has great fun telling us this new ridiculous version of ‘Hamlet’. There are pages and pages in this rewrite of ‘Hamlet’ in which Nabokov makes his own humorous changes to the play, many involving mythology and some in various languages.

A Younger Vladimir Nabokov

I an quite familiar with ‘Hamlet’, yet many of these sly changes to Hamlet were still extremely difficult for me to follow. That is one problem with ‘Bend Sinister’ – although many parts are clear as a bell to follow, other parts get extremely murky in all the references and puns and word play that Nabokov manages to shove into them. I did not have this difficulty of understanding at all with Nabokov novels such as ‘Pnin’ and ‘Pale Fire’. Some sections of ‘Bend Sinister’ seem almost intentionally unreadable.

The sumptuousness of Nabokov’s writing in ‘Bend Sinister’ sometimes distracts from the terror of the evil dictator.


Grade:   B



‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill – Musings on the Impending Climate Disaster


‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill  (2020)  –  201 pages

As was Jenny Offill’s previous novel ‘Dept. of Speculation’, ‘Weather’ is made up entirely of short frequently related vignettes or sketches to give us a word picture of what is going on in the minds of the various characters at the time. Instead of telling a straight story, ‘Weather’ approaches its subject sideways via short, mostly one paragraph, seemingly unrelated sketches. The idea is to resemble the way wayward thoughts enter and leave the mind, disjointed and clever.

In “Weather’, our narrator Lizzie is answering letters that come in for a climate change warning podcast called “Come Hell or High Water” hosted by her former mentor Sylvia.

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

I feel slightly less dread,

When I am with you.”

Jenny Offill requires an overwhelming backdrop to give her short vignettes a genuine poignancy. In ‘Dept of Speculation’ it was the breakup and dissolution of the narrator’s marriage that provided this effective backdrop. In ‘Weather’ the backdrop is the predicted hardship coming due to climate change which is supposed to provide this poignancy. The election of Trump makes the sense of impending disaster more immediate and urgent in nearly every way. Then Lizzie’s drug addict brother Henry stays at Lizzie’s house and disrupts her family and everything else. We are “tilting into the abyss”.

It is dusk when Henry and I leave the park. A car nearly runs us over. Now we’re right next to her at the light. My brother goes up to the window. ‘Lady you almost killed us,’ he tells her. But she won’t look at him. ‘You and your precious lives,’ she says.”

Although I was quite taken by her earlier novel ‘Dept of Speculation’, the short one-paragraph sketches in ‘Weather’ did not achieve the greater poignancy for me which the backdrop is supposed to give them.

Some of the items seemed inane and pointless:

And then it is another day and another and another, but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.”

Other items were quite banal:

I go to get my permanent crown. I have been putting off my dental work, but now I go. The hygienist talks to me about the weather. The dentist comes in with his gloved hands and mask. He says I have an unusually small mouth. I open it wider for him.”

For me ‘Weather’ was insubstantial, mildly interesting chatter with no big ideas that hold all of the various concerns together.

When I am asked to confront the dreadful state of the nation and much of the world, I want more than cute tidbits.


Grade:    C+




‘Agua Viva’ by Clarice Lispector – The Stream of Living


Agua Viva’ by Clarice Lispector  (1973) – 88 pages               Translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler

I have now read ‘Agua Viva’. My understanding of it is fragmentary, but, wow, the sentences. I expect there are many readers of it who have only a fragmentary understanding of what they have just read. If ‘Agua Viva’ made complete sense to someone, I would worry about that person. But the fragments are deeper and make more visceral sense than most writers’ complete thoughts.

Although ‘Agua Viva’ takes the form of a novella, it is probably more helpful to approach it as a poem or a chant.

Rather than to stick ‘Agua Viva’ with any sort of review, I am instead going to quote fragments that were particularly meaningful to me. There were many. Here are some lines from ‘Agua Viva’.

What is this that I am writing? As far as I know I never saw anybody write like this.”

And the world trembles within me.”

I’m after whatever is lurking beyond thought.”

When I think a painting is strange that’s when it’s a painting. And when I think a word is strange that’s when it achieves its meaning. And when I think life is strange that’s where life begins.”

I am a heart beating in the world.”

One of the most striking images in ‘Agua Viva’ is of a female cat giving birth to kittens. “The mother licks the sack of fluid so many times that it finally breaks and there a kitten almost free, only attached by its umbilical cord.” Reason alone cannot explain how birth takes place.

I may not have meaning, but it is the same lack of meaning the pulsing vein has.”

Whoever can stop reasoning – which is terribly difficult – let them come along with me.”

As for music, where does it go? The only concrete thing in music is the instrument. Far beyond thought I have a musical background. But even farther beyond there is the beating heart. Therefore the most profound thought is a beating heart.”

Am I one of the weak? A weak woman possessed by incessant and mad rhythm? If I were solid and strong would I even have heard the rhythm?”

I don’t want to have the terrible limitation of those who live merely from what can make sense.”

I struggle to conquer more deeply my freedom of sensations and thoughts without any utilitarian meaning: I am alone, I and my freedom.”

Nature is enveloping: it entangles me entirely and is sexually alive: just that, alive. I too am ferociously alive – and I lick my snout like a tiger who has just devoured a deer.”

I who come from the pain of living. And I no longer want it. I want the vibration of happiness.”

I hear the mad song of a little bird and crush butterflies between my fingers. I’m a fruit eaten away by a worm.”

The world has no visible order and all I have is the order of my breath. I let myself happen.”

It’s so hard to speak and say things that can’t be said. It’s so silent. How to translate the silence of the real encounter between the two of us? So hard to explain: I looked straight at you for a few instants. Such moments are my secret. There was what’s called perfect communion. I call it an acute state of happiness.”

This is not a message of ideas that I am transmitting to you but an instinctive ecstasy of whatever is hidden in nature.”

In one part of ‘Agua Viva’, Clarice Lispector describes various flowers. Here she describes the rose. “Rose is the feminine flower that gives herself wholly and such that the only thing left to her is the joy of having given herself.”

But I want to have the freedom to say unconnected things as a deep way of touching you.”

And so I realize that I want the vibrating substratum of the repeated word sung in Gregorian chant. At the bottom of everything, there is the hallelujah.”


Grade:   A+



‘Cosmicomics’ by Italo Calvino – It’s Cosmic Fun!


‘Cosmicomics’ by Italo Calvino (1965) – 151 pages                      Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

It still stuns me that even while I’m standing in one place or sitting or even lying down, I’m traveling through space at thousands of miles an hour.

In ‘Cosmicomics’, Italo Calvino’s playful conceit is that there were people, a family, around to witness the creation of the Universe, the Sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets. Humans with their naive cute notions were there at the time the dinosaurs walked the Earth and the time when dinosaurs became extinct. Humans saw it all, or at least the young guy called Qfwfq and his family saw it all. ‘Cosmicomics’ is a laugh riot, but much more than that.

There’s Grandma, Grandpa, and Mother and Father, as well as the boy and his sister as well as some of their neighbors, and especially there is always a lady or girl friends to help Qfwfq on his way.

Having read some of Italo Calvino’s earlier works such as the ‘The Nonexistent Knight’ and ‘The Baron in the Trees’, I was well familiar and delighted with his playful approach to his fiction. I was a bit afraid that his later work would lose that childlike attitude, but happily in ‘Cosmicomics’ he kept that light-hearted spirit. ‘Cosmicomics’ is great fun to read.

Every story in ‘Cosmicomics’ starts out with a, shall we say, spurious scientific notion. The first story, “The Distance of the Moon”, begins with:

At one time, according to George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth.”

At this point, you may think these stories are very scientific, too scientific to be any fun, and you would be wrong.

So then we proceed to a story about a group in a boat raising a ladder and grabbing a hold of the moon. Actually the story winds up being very romantic, when our hero gets stuck on the moon with his lady love as the moon moves away from Earth. Read it for yourself.

In the second story, ‘At Daybreak’, Father and Mother and Granny are all there as the Earth begins to solidify via the condensation of a shapeless nebula. For the family, the transformation starts out as a troublesome itching for which they all have to scratch themselves.

Italo Calvino was a member of the Parisian literary group Oulipo along with Georges Perec and others. Calvino’s specialty was the short story while Perec wrote long novels, but they are both playful and like to play games with their readers.

Sometimes Calvino’s playful exuberant constructs seem almost magical; other times as he continues with them to the merciful end it feels like he is kicking a dead horse or at least beating a lame construct. Fiction is all about taking chances.

In the third story, ‘ A Sign in Space’, first we are given the information that it takes the Sun 200 million years to make a complete revolution of the Milky Way galaxy. So our hero in the story puts up a sign at a point in space so he can tell when the Sun has made a full revolution.

Italo Calvino puts the fun back in fiction for me.


Grade:    A



‘Deacon King Kong’ by James McBride – Living in the Causeway Housing Projects


‘Deacon King Kong’ by James McBride (2020) – 384 pages

Satire works best when the writer really likes the people he or she is making fun of. This is the secret of ‘Don Quixote’. This is the secret of ‘Deacon King Kong’.

Sportcoat is an old guy, 71, who has somehow survived it all, living everyday in the Causeway Housing Projects in New York City. The year is 1969. He drinks his King Kong alcohol several times a day, He is also a deacon in the Five Ends Baptist Church, whatever a deacon does. He still has long conversations with his wife Hettie who died two years ago. He knows just about everyone in the neighborhood.

Here is a good description of Sportcoat:

What’s his job?” he asked.

Odd jobs mostly. Does a bit of everything. Works over at Itkin’s Liquors some days. Cleans out basement other days. Takes out the trash. Gardens for a few white folks around these parts. He’s got a real green thumb. Can do just about anything with plants. He’s known for that. And for drinking. And baseball.”

Most everyone in the Projects has a colorful name: Sportcoat, Hot Sausage, Sister Gee, Bum Bum, Miss Izi, Soup Lopez.

In the Sixties a new kind of trouble has come to the Projects. The kid who was the star of Sportcoat’s baseball team and who had major league scouts showing up at their games, Deems Clemens, is now 19 and a ruthless drug dealer.

And now heroin was here to make their children slaves again, to a useless white powder.”

The Church is at the center of life in the neighborhood. Miss Gee is married to the pastor of the Church and also she cleans houses. She talks to the white policeman Potts who grew up in this area, and there is a spark of good feeling between them. Miss Gee sees that Potts is a man of underlying kindness.

Sister Gee shrugged. “There’s plenty tipping goin’ on in church, just like in anyplace in this world. People got feelings, y’know? They get lonesome even when they’re married. There’s love in this world, mister. It don’t stop for nothing or nobody. You ain’t never seen that?”

As for the policeman Potts, there also is attraction for Miss Gee on his side.

The best he could get out of it was standing right in front of him, as gorgeous and kind a woman as he’d ever seen.”

James McBride does not make the mistake of portraying all white people as bad or evil. The majority of the white people in the novel are racists and don’t even try to cure themselves of it, but at least three of the main characters in ‘Deacon King Kong’ are white people who do their best to try to be fair and unprejudiced and decent, even to the black people who live in the Causeway Housing Projects.

Why couldn’t more people get along that way?”

There are parts to this story that are preposterous, but it’s all in good fun. The Venus of Willendorf? Yeah, sure.

‘Deacon King Kong’ is colorful, alive, busy, and good natured throughout.


Grade:   A



The Top 12 List of the Favorite Fiction I Have Read in 2020


This being the year of the lockdown, I had time to read a couple of lengthy doorstop novels (‘The Maias’ and ‘Life A User’s Manual’) just like I used to do before I began writing regular blog posts. Also this year I discovered that there was some amazing fiction from the past which I had missed previously.

Click on either the bold-faced title or the cover image to see my original review for each work.


The Maias’ By Eça de Queirós (1888) – ‘The Maias’ is a jaunty vastly pleasurable trip in mid-to-late 19th-century Lisbon, Portugal society with some lively quick-witted companions. Readers new to Eça de Queirós can start with the short novella ‘The Yellow Sofa’ to determine if you like his style of writing or not.


‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar (2020) – ‘A Burning’ is a vivid powerful novel which focuses on one of the major crises in our world today, racial hatred. ‘A Burning’ is a world-changer if enough people read it and take it to their minds and souls.




‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) – A most intense depiction of family life and death in the late 16th century. Imagine an entire novel about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.




‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann (2017) – ‘Tyll’ is a sometimes light, sometimes black comedy which entirely suits the Thirty Years War. This novel is fascinating at the sentence level, a real accomplishment for both the author and the translator. Daniel Kehlmann brings a smart playful quality to his fiction that makes his writing well nigh irresistible.


Missionaries’ by Phil Klay (2020) – ‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is most focused on the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. It is a novel that will change your entire worldview.


‘Woe From Wit’ by Alexander Griboedov (1823) – From the very first words in the prologue of this verse play in four acts you can tell that it is going to be sharp and special:

Fate’s a mischief making tease,

That’s her character in brief,

a fool is blissfully at his ease,

a man of spirit comes to grief.


‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman (2017) – Someone could argue that the story in ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is not very sophisticated. I do not see sophistication as a necessary or even desirable attribute of literature. Rather I see stating situations as simply and clearly as possible as one of the hallmarks of good literature, and that ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ does. Eleanor Oliphant’ is a poignant and affecting story.


‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (2016) – ‘Hurricane Season’ is not for the squeamish or easily offended. The characters in this novel tell the truth about some very rough things. They are angry and the words they use are coarse and direct. Read ‘Hurricane Season’ if you are brave and honest enough to take it.



Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen (2018) – These eloquent stories go deeper into the circumstances and the psyches of their main characters than most stories do. People in them almost connect but not quite. This is a collection of short stories which will move you if you are willing to be moved.


‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid (2020) – ‘Such a Fun Age’ is a novel with a light touch that captures the dialogue of people socializing, whether it be a group at a party or dinner or just two people alone. Rather than an individual character contemplating a problem or situation, we get the interplay of many voices. What this novel really excels in are exchanges between groups of young women, whether young mothers or young single women. Kiley Reid’s enthusiasm for her story rubs off on the reader.


Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain (2020) – ‘Indelicacy’ is a powerful novella about creativity. Can a woman who cleans toilets and mops floors for a living have strong ambitions to be a writer? ‘Indelicacy’ answers that question with a resounding “Yes”. ‘Indelicacy’ is a novel about the struggle to create. One gets the impression that Amina Cain carefully chose each precise word in this unusual novella ‘Indelicacy’. It is a work that captures you on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level, which is always a good thing.


‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec (1978) – I just cannot leave this novel off my year’s best list even though at times I loathed, loathed it and at other times I loved, loved it.






Also this year I read two excellent works of non-fiction – ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson and ‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan.





My favorite collection of poems in 2020 is ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen.










‘Annihilation’ by Jeff Vandermeer – Don’t Go Into Area X

‘Annihilation’ by Jeff Vandermeer   (2014) – 195 pages

I must admit that ‘Annihilation’ was out of my reading comfort area. I don’t read much science fiction. although this year I did enjoy ‘Roadside Picnic’ by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.  I was willing to give science fiction another try.

In ‘Annihilation’ four unnamed woman researchers explore a mysterious abandoned area known as Area X. They are the psychologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, and our narrator the biologist. There have already been eleven expeditions into the area, and many of the previous explorers have met a tragic or strange end. Our narrator’s husband had been on the previous mission and had returned little more than a zombie. Our biologist goes there to investigate what happened to him.

We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be uncanny.”

The leader of the group, the psychologist, can use hypnotic commands to control the others.

Much of Area X is like a marsh, teeming with creatures both below and above the water line.

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that seemed to soak the cypress trees.”

I suppose this novel could be classified into the subdivision of ecological science fiction.

‘Annihilation’ is heavy on physical description with little or no character development. The characters have no names and there is little mention of their character traits. Since most of the fiction I read is character-driven where each of the protagonists has a well-defined personality and a name, this was really alien territory for me, my own Area X. The writing here seemed rather amorphous to me and not at all spellbinding even though the events taking place were monstrous and scarifying.

One of the reviews I read of ‘Annihilation’ mentioned the author’s “deliberate vagueness”. That intentional vagueness of the characters and the creatures they encounter left me with a vague impression of this novel.

I will not attempt to grade this novel, since it is written in a style that I could never appreciate.

‘Annihilation is the first of a trilogy of novels called the Southern Reach Trilogy. I won’t be reading the others.

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell – A Primal Fiction about the Wife and Kids of William Shakespeare


‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell  (2020) – 305 pages

Besides the immortal plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare, we know next to nothing about himself, his family, or his circumstances. This is the ideal situation for a writer with a rich imagination to write a fiction of his family life. It allows a vivid mind to freely roam without factual constraints.

So few records regarding Shakespeare’s family exist that I probably wouldn’t even classify ‘Hamnet’ as historical fiction.

We know he married Anne Hathaway (Her actual name was probably Agnes), had three children, and that his son Hamnet died in 1596 at age 11. We also know that he wrote and staged the play Hamlet three years later. Hamnet and Hamlet were considered the same name at that time.

Imagine an entire book about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.

In ‘Hamnet’, William is but a lesser character while his wife Agnes and his daughters Susanna and Judith and son Hamnet take center stage.

In the Afterword, Maggie O’Farrell writes, “This novel is the result of my idle speculation.” Hooray for idle speculation. In ‘Hamnet’, the author fully inhabits the wife Agnes. You can feel it in the matter-of-fact tone of her short sentences.

She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself about where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.”

This is the most intense depiction of life and death in the late 16th century and how they must have been like. As well as the delights of courtship and marriage, we get an affecting portrayal of the grief of the mother, the father, and the rest of the children when young Hamnet gets sick and dies.

Agnes is a woman broken into pieces, crumbled and scattered around.”

‘Hamnet’ is about the elemental events in human lives – procreation, birth, childhood, courtship, marriage, illness, death – but not necessarily in that order. There is only a single reference in the entire novel to William’s genius:

You know what she said to me?”

The husband standing straight as a reed now, arms folded, lips pressed together, shakes his head. “What did she say?”

That you have more hidden away inside of you than anyone else she has ever met.”

William’s birthplace at Stratford on Avon

There has been much scholarly conjecture that William Shakespeare and his wife did not get along very well. First they point to the fact that she was three months pregnant when they married and he had to marry her. Then after the marriage, William spent most of his time in London writing and producing his plays, and only occasionally visited home. Then finally in his will written shortly before his death, he made only one bequest to his wife, “his second-best bed with the furniture”.

There is none of that in ‘Hamnet’. In the novel they are both totally enamored of each other.

Her husband holds her close as she clasps him with both arms, despite everything, just as she did that night, his body fitted to hers.”

Whether the conclusion contains a spark of historical truth or not, it is nothing less than grand. If you are not moved by this ending, you are a bigger fool than I am.


Grade:   A+



‘Telephone’ by Percival Everett – Affecting, Outlandish and Entertaining


‘Telephone’ by Percival Everett    (2020) – 216 pages

I was genuinely impressed with the first Percival Everett novel I read, ‘So Much Blue’, and so I read another. ‘Telephone’ is again well-written and emotional with an odd mix of plots.

Zach Wells is a professor and geologist-slash-paleobiologist. He studies the bodies of ancient birds found at or near the Grand Canyon and other places. He and his wife Meg and their daughter Sarah live in Altadena which is near Pasadena and Los Angeles in southern California.

It starts when his chess-proficient daughter Sarah does not see an obviously threatening bishop on the chessboard. After some other incidents, it is determined that she has Batten disease, which is the common name for a broad class of rare, degenerative, inherited disorders of the nervous system. There is no known cure.

Would that my daughter could have clawed her way back or that I could have rescued her, but no such thing was possible.”

Meanwhile the professor must get on with his work. He gets little satisfaction from teaching undergraduates. It is the study of the bones of these ancient birds that really fascinates him. Through one of his female associates, he must deal with campus politics which he really dislikes.

Meanwhile he and his wife and daughter try to adapt to their new situation as best they can.

I had a smart, lightsome partner…I appreciated the fact that I should have loved her completely, but being the unhappy wretch that I am…”

And then there is one further off-the-wall plot. He buys clothes over the internet from this company in New Mexico, and he starts getting these messages on a piece of paper inside the pockets of these clothes saying “Ayuadame” which means “Help Me” in Spanish. Using the pretense that he is going to New Mexico to find some more ancient bird bones, he investigates what is going on there.

All of these disparate elements add up to a dramatic and entertaining read that kept me fully engaged despite some of the plot elements being outlandish and over the top.


Grade:    B+



‘Life A Users Manual’ by Georges Perec – A More Traditional Review


‘Life A Users Manual’ by Georges Perec (1978) – 568 pages         Translated from the French by David Bellos

Reading ‘Life A Users Manual’ was an exasperating yet rewarding experience.

I am not going to pretend that I loved every one of the interminable lists of objects that Perec inundates us with or all the ornate or banal items on these lists. I remember one time when Perec is enumerating and lengthily describing all the appliances in a home improvement catalog, I skipped a couple of pages until the list finally ended. And I’m someone who usually has to read every word of a fictional work in order to feel that I’ve given it a chance. I certainly felt bad about skipping whole pages, but I could not see the point in reading them.

It took me awhile to discover the playful, antic, mischievous spirit of this work.

In the chapter “Valene (Servants Quarters, 9), Perec gives us a list of 179 story ideas including:

82 The lady who was interested in hoarding clockwork mechanisms

108 A painstaking scientist examining rats’ reactions to poisons

Some of these story ideas Perec later uses in ‘Life A Users Manual’.

At one point, Perec includes in one of his tales the story of someone who works for a company that produces a dictionary. New words are constantly being added to the dictionary, but Perec imagines someone whose job it is to remove words from the dictionary in order to make room for the new words. How do you decide that a word is no longer of use, for example a locomotive horse for children called a velocimane? Of course Perec gives us other examples of words which are removed.

LOUPIAT (masc. nn) Fam: Drunk “She was bloody stuck with her loupiat of a husband.” (E. Zola)

Georges Perec is the kind of writer who can find the magic in old dictionary definitions of obsolete words.

A Bedroom at 11 Rue Simon Crubellier

You must approach Perec with the spirit that he might just be putting you on, playing a trick on you. He might be taking advantage of your good intentions as a reader. You might not get the joke right away, but when you look back on it you might figure out that he was fooling you. The last thing you can assume is that Georges Perec is being straight with you. There is always a twist.

At last ‘Life A Users Manual’ with all of its endless lists and misbegotten tales broke down my resistance to it.


Grade:   A-


The Distinguishing Characteristics of ‘Life A Users Manual’ by Georges Perec which I Have Now Read


Some of these items may be contradictory. So be it.

In ‘Life A Users Manual’, the lives of all the people who lived in the apartment building at 11 Rue Simon Crubellier in Paris fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

We are introduced to the residents of each apartment in the building by a description of the furnishings in the apartment. Georges Perec takes a sensuous pleasure in describing the objects in the rooms of the various flats in the building. These descriptions of objects are opulent, colorful, exquisitely detailed, and exceedingly long. There were such greater varieties of objects back in the days before all our products became mass-produced, uniform, and always the same with little diversity or spirit.

George Perec is a completist. Perec cannot mention anyone drinking whiskey without describing the picture on the label of the whiskey bottle (“a jovial wench giving a dram to a mustachioed grenadier in a bearskin hat”).

When Perec makes a list, it is sure to be exhaustive and exhausting. When listing all of the food provisions stored on the left hand wall shelves of the Altamonts’ cellar, he lists (I counted; I may have miscounted, but this number is close) 121 items including large jars of mustard and gherkins to sardines in oil to vermicelli to sausage and lentil stew. I found these massive lists which go on for pages and pages quite exasperating. The lists for furniture and room decorations and clothing tend to be somewhat more interesting, but the list of home decorating and outfitting appliances found in a catalog was even less engaging and more lengthy.

This is the busiest novel I have ever read. It wears you down, your resistance.

For some time, I considered the possibility that Perec created these interminable lists of sometimes banal items as a sly comic trick on his readers, and I still believe that may be partially true.

The reader can’t be sure if he is being conned or enlightened. In the long run, it probably doesn’t matter.” – Paul Auster

With his elaborate lush descriptions and long, long sentences, Perec’s style is the opposite of minimalism. I will call his style maximalism.

In many of the sentences I would often lose track of what Perec was first discussing as he moved on to involved situations of his many, many characters or long lists of ornately described objects. This was quite vexing for me.

If you could make your way through each long sentence without getting distracted, you are a better reader than I.

Georges Perec was a member of Oulipo, the Parisian group which had/has as its goal “constrained writing”. One of Perec’s constraints must have been that before telling his characters’ story, he had to describe all the flat’s furnishings and objects of interest. I can see how describing these objects in the rooms could be a spur to creating an interesting story.

I much preferred the sections in the novel where Perec tells a straightforward story without all the clutter.

Certainly ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is often quite annoying for the reader, but it is also endlessly inventive.

Life A Users Manual’ gives the lie to the literary trend of minimalism. Sometimes more is more. Sometimes more is better.

When Perec finally gets around to telling stories about his characters, they are quite fun and humorous to read. If you are not overwhelmed by all the ornate description of objects in front of them, you will probably enjoy them.

Perec expends seven pages capturing the high drama of one of his main protagonists Bartlebooth fitting the 750 pieces of a wooden jigsaw puzzle into a finished picture.

His characters tend to be hugely successful at first but ultimately come to a disappointing end or visa-versa. Many of these human endeavors screw up.

To read Georges Perec one must be ready to abandon oneself to a spirit of play.” – Paul Auster

‘Life A Users Manual’ gives the lie to the literary trend of realism. Sometimes the more far-fetched, the better. Take, for example, when Perec likens the apartment building to an iceberg. I have rarely read anything so humorous as what Perec describes as being in the basement of the building. I’m learning to love lists.

Finally ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is a collection of tales. In the last index in the novel he lists all of the 108 tales therein and in which chapter they can be found.

Perec is mischievous. In the chapter titled “Foulerot, 3” after spelling out all of the other objects in the apartment, Perec spends a couple pages lavishing attention to a painting sitting on the floor of the apartment. Then he proceeds to tell the detective story which is depicted in the painting, a ridiculous story where all three of the suspects have murdered the Swiss diamond trader Oswald Zeitgeber who also commits suicide. The story has nothing to do with the apartment building besides being depicted in that picture, but it is fun to read anyhow.

Perec’s theme in ‘Life A User Manual’ appears to be the uselessness of human endeavor, perhaps starting with reading this novel. One could spend years tracking all the obscure references that Perec makes in ‘Life A User’s Manual’, but that would also be useless.

Here is what Perec seems to be really telling us. The main point in both literature and life is not the end destination but the trip along the way. You and I might as well take our time and enjoy the objects, people, and stories around us.

A more traditional review of ‘Life A User Manual’ will soon follow.


‘The Boy in the Field’ by Margot Livesey – An Economy of Style

‘The Boy in the Field’ by Margot Livesey    (2020) – 272 pages

‘The Boy in the Field’ begins with three children from the same family, a boy Mathew aged 17 and a girl Zoe aged 15 and another adopted boy Duncan aged 14, saving a life. They discover a boy in a field who has been severely injured in an assault. They get an ambulance thus saving his life.

The following chapters each are from the point of view of one of these three young siblings. Matthew, while trying to track down the assailant, finds out that his girlfriend has become involved with his best friend. Zoe has her first real love affair. Perhaps most poignant, Duncan begins a quest to find his real mother. Meanwhile their parents are having their own problems in their relationship.

The story takes place in Oxford, England.

The sparseness, economy of style, and the short declarative sentences in this novel reminded me of the trend of minimalism among United States writers more than those of England. Most of the famous minimalist fiction writers were from the United States following in Raymond Carver’s footsteps at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I do not associate minimalism with English writers at all.

Margot Livesey was born in Scotland and now lives in the Boston area. It turns out that she is now a professor of fiction at this Iowa Writers Workshop which is the epicenter of the minimalist movement in fiction.

Here is a good example of the minimalist style of Livesey from the character Zoe:

The pavement echoed under her new boots, the people she passed looked chilled, cramped, in their tiny lives, the blood inching through their veins. Litter rattled across the pavement; a beer can rolled in the gutter.”

I have read more than my fair share of minimalist fiction and I do like its plain no-nonsense style. It was quite unusual to find an English novel written in this fashion, but as shown above Margot Livesey does have the necessary credentials.

In the next to last chapter, all the main characters come together and the various strands of these three teenagers’ stories as well as one strand of their parents’ story are resolved. And then in the final chapter, we see the five members of the family in their new situations eight and a half years later. This is the grand finale.

‘The Boy in the Field’ has a real economy of style, so I won’t blather on about it.


Grade:    B+


‘The End of a Childhood’ by Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson…I Mean Henry Handel Richardson


‘The End of a Childhood’ by Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson)   (1934) – 76 pages


How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography. I’d have every wart and every pimple emphasized, every murky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it.”

These are the words of Henry Handel Richardson, a woman writer from Australia who lived from 1870 to 1946. Yes, woman writer, for like George Eliot, she wrote under a male pseudonym.

Mrs. Richardson applied this principle of exact unrelenting truth she stated above to her own fiction. Her masterpiece, completed in 1929, is ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’, a trilogy of novels, which tells the story of a family living in the gold fields of frontier Australia, immigrated from Ireland, having to cope with the devastating effects of the young doctor father’s severe mental and physical deterioration from syphilis. You can feel for the young mother and her children having to face the growing ostracism by her neighbors caused by her husband’s bizarre behavior. Of course, the doctor’s patients drop away after several of his episodes, and the family is reduced to poverty. I’ve read It is based quite closely on Mrs. Richardson’s own childhood. This is one of the world’s greatest works of literature.

The stories in ‘The End of a Childhood’ are about this same mother Mary and her two children Cuffy and Lucie after the husband and father Richard Mahony has died. A reader unfamiliar with the work of Richardson can fully appreciate these related stories in ‘The End of a Childhood’ without knowing the background of the characters, but for those of us who have read ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ trilogy these stories are extra special. The stories bring back characters we know and care about.

Mary Mahony speaks of her children thus:

In other words, they both were very highly strung, and in consequence, the strain of his illness, and the unhappy years preceding it, had told on them more severely than if they had been ordinary children.”

No writer is better than Richardson at capturing the poignancy of those tragic and not-so-tragic incidents that occur during a normal lifetime. A neighbor lady caring for the children during their mother’s sickness, says the following to Cuffy:

Well I know this, my boy, there’s precious little of your poor Ma in either of you. It’s your Pa you take after, both of you, more’s the pity. He was just such another. What she had to put up with, her life long, simply doesn’t bear telling.”

I can never get enough of the story from the ‘Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ trilogy. It is amazing how vividly I remember the plight of the Irish family of Richard Mahony out in the Australian bush in Ballarat.


Grade:    A




The Art of the Angry Rant – The Fiction of Thomas Bernhard


Another in my continuing series about my favorite writers


All my life I have been a trouble-maker, I am not the sort of person who leaves others in peace.” – Thomas Bernhard

It took me awhile to fall in love with the fiction of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Early on, I read ‘The Lime Works’ and ‘Concrete’ and I couldn’t figure out what was so special about his odd work. I must go back and read those two early novels.

However, now I can strongly recommend Bernhard’s novels ‘Extinction’, ‘The Loser’ (one of the characters is the pianist Glenn Gould), ‘Woodcutters’, and the short novella ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’. I also notice that the novella ‘Walking’ gets very strong reviews, but I haven’t read it yet.

Thomas Bernhard was born in 1931 to an unwed housemaid mother, apparently the result of a rape. His father, a carpenter and petty criminal from Germany, never acknowledged him as his son.

When Thomas was eight, a social worker arranged for him to be sent to a home for “maladjusted children”. Considering that at that time all Austrian young people were required to join a branch of the Hitler Youth which Bernhard hated, who really were the maladjusted ones? In a later play, Bernhard represented Austria’s Nazi legacy as a pile of manure on the stage.

While establishing a worldwide reputation as one its finest writers, Bernhard was always a figure of controversy in his home country of Austria. One of his plays included the line “There are more Nazis in Vienna now / than in thirty-eight.” referring to Austria’s Nazi past. Austrian leaders on the right called for his expulsion from the country.

After a strong literary career in which he wrote eleven novels and more than twenty plays, Thomas Bernhard died in 1989 in an assisted suicide at the age of 58. He had been having severe problems with his lungs.

His will was controversial in not allowing publication of his works or staging of his plays within Austria’s borders.

What makes the work of Thomas Bernhard special?

One of Bernhard’s main writing techniques is the monologue or, more precisely, the rant. He gives his characters free reign to say exactly how they feel and think about things, and it is often harsh and astringent.

Recently I read Bernhard’s early work, ‘Gargoyles’ which is about a doctor who sees the sometimes ugly truth in his patients’ lives. He sees people get sick and die close up, and sometimes it’s their own fault. He sees people’s families during these rough times in their lives and sees the breaking points within the family. In his village many of the men are cruel and spend all day drinking in the bar and then come home to beat their wives and children. These men are frequently anti-Semitic. There are two doctors in his town and the only Jew in town, Bloch, has “relieved the other doctor of the lasting shame of having to treat a Jew by consulting my father”. Now Bloch is one of the very few men in town in whom the doctor can confide.

I was quite impressed with the first half of ‘Gargoyles’, but later when the doctor visits The Prince the novel turns into a long incoherent deranged rant. I downgraded the novel a bit for that reason. However later in his career Bernhard perfected this monologue or rant technique, and in such novels as ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’ and ‘The Loser’, the included rants held my interest throughout.

Sometimes these rants get so over-the-top in their anger that they become humorous. The comic element in Bernhard’s work is frequently overlooked.

Thomas Bernhard told it like it was for him and it wasn’t all peaches and cream, and what more can we expect from any writer? He is one of the great ones.




‘Transcendent Kingdom’ by Yaa Gyasi – From Ghana to Alabama to Harvard to Stanford


‘Transcendent Kingdom’ by Yaa Gyasi (2020) – 364 pages

First, a few facts. Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989. She and her family moved to the United States in 1991. From the age of ten, she was raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She received her Bachelors’ degree from Stanford University and her Masters degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She completed her first novel in 2015. After initial readings from publishers, she received several offers for the novel. She accepted a million dollar advance for the novel from Knopf. That novel, ‘Homecoming’, won several major awards including the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel. ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ is her second novel.

When the New York Times has an artist draw a picture of you, you know you have arrived.

So why all this excitement over Yaa Gyasi?

The writing of Yaa Gyasi is cerebral and thoughtful yet vivid and passionate. She brings an intensity to her character portrayals that makes you care about what happens to them.

Our female narrator here, Gifty, is a Stanford neuroscientist. Her research involves modifying the behavior of mice by altering their brain activity. If the behavior modification techniques are successful for mice, similar techniques could be applied to humans in the hope of controlling addictive or other abnormal behavior patterns. Gifty has a special family interest in addictive behavior, because her brother Nana died of a heroin overdose before he became 20 after becoming addicted to Oxycontin prescribed for a basketball injury. Then Gifty’s grief-stricken mother took to her bed and did not get up. Eighteen years later Gifty’s mother has a recurrence of her sleeping mental sickness, and Gifty who is now a graduate student at Harvard brings her mother to her campus apartment.

While reading ‘Transcendent Kingdom’, I learned a new word for Gifty’s mother’s ailment, anhedonia:

Anhedonia – lack of pleasure or the capacity to experience it

Gifty’s father came over to the US from Ghana with the family, but was unhappy living in Alabama where his family are treated worse than second class citizens because they are black:

In my country (Ghana) neighbors will greet you instead of turning their heads away like they don’t know you.”

He returns to Ghana leaving his wife working two jobs and raising the two children.

It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”

Gifty’s mother works hard to hold the family together under difficult circumstances.

She was a matter-of-fact kind of woman, not a cruel woman exactly, but something quite close to cruel.”

The familiar, perhaps over-familiar, plot of Oxycontin addiction is offset by a spirited portrayal of living in Alabama and then on to Harvard and Stanford.

Do we have control over our thoughts? When I was a child this was a religious question,” she says, “but it is also, of course, a neuroscientific question.”


Grade:   A-



‘Missionaries’ by Phil Klay – It Opened My Eyes


‘Missionaries’ by Phil Klay   (2020)  –  404 pages

‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is especially about the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. The United States has inserted themselves into the local battles in these countries with little understanding of what’s going on, like the war in Vietnam. This is about the new kind of wars the United States is fighting in the 21st century, wars that never end.

‘Missionaries’ is a novel that will change your entire worldview. It is an example of how fiction can provide more meaningful information than non-fiction and provide it in a more enjoyable and palatable form.

In Columbia, the United States has been heavily involved in the conflict since its beginnings, when in the early 1960s the U.S. government encouraged the Colombian military to attack leftist guerrillas in rural Colombia. This was part of the U.S. fight against “communism”. Besides the military, the United States also encouraged right-wing paramilitary groups to fight the guerrillas. These paramilitary groups soon developed into ruthless violent vigilantes, and they also became heavily involved in the illegal drug trade of cocaine and other substances themselves.

Here is what happens when a man is chainsawed in half in the public square of a small village.”

Now US private mercenary army companies such as Academi (formerly Blackwater) and Dyncorp recruit former members of Colombian paramilitary groups to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere because these guys have no qualms about killing or torturing people.

Even military people tend to hold mercenaries in contempt.”

In ‘Missionaries’, four narrators tell the interlocking stories in Colombia of the coco growers, the narcotics dealers, the Colombian army, and the paramilitary groups. And overseeing it all are the US Special Forces with their drones, a “higher level of badassery”. Most of the people who have been killed or tortured in these drug wars in Colombia do not belong to any of these groups but instead have been civilians. Shoot first and don’t ask questions later. It was not unusual for a former Colombian military officer to turn paramilitary operator, then turn narcotics dealer.

By relating the stories of each of the main characters up until then, Phil Klay has found a fascinating way to bring us up to speed on his intricate yet tragic story. And then ‘Missionaries winds up with a rousing scary thrill ride.

And now there is the war in Yemen, “one half war and one half extermination”, which the journalist in ‘Missionaries’ refers to as “the most fucked-up war we’re engaged in right now”.

‘Missionaries’ goes a long way to explain why the United States wound up with a nasty corrupt authoritarian fool for its President.


Grade:   A



‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson – Unforgiven


‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson (2020) – 309 pages

In the first three novels in this Marilynne Robinson series (‘Gilead’, ‘Home’, and ‘Lila’), we see Jack Broughton from a distance. His close relatives in Iowa see him as the prodigal son who could not restrain himself from misbehaving. However the new novel, as the title suggests, is written almost entirely from Jack’s point of view. In ‘Jack’, we see him close up in St. Louis, and Jack is a mess. He can’t keep a job, drinks alcohol heavily, and spent a couple of years in prison. Jack is unrelentingly obsessed with his own failures as a person, in religious terms his perdition. We are told over and over about Jack’s view of himself as a sinner and reprobate. Jack’s main goal in life is to make himself harmless to other people.

It was really all about shame.”

The novel gets quite repetitive in Jack punishing himself. Jack is so self-absorbed or self-centered in his own failures and transgressions, you would think there is hardly room for anyone else in his life, but the novel ‘Jack’ is also a romance. In the first quarter of the novel, Jack spends a chaste night locked in a St. Louis cemetery with a young black woman, Della Miles. Jack is in his late thirties; Della is in her early twenties. They share a religious background, both of their fathers being Protestant ministers. They also share a sustaining interest in poetry and literature.

This lugubrious opening overnight scene in the cemetery could have been drastically shortened with no loss to the story. The focus is always on Jack and the supposedly monstrous sins he has committed. We find out very little about what Della Miles thinks about herself.

The time is the 1950s. St. Louis still has anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and even for a white man and black woman to be seen together walking the streets causes a furor. Jack knows that by continuing to associate with this respectable young black woman, he will only drag her down, but he can’t help himself. Jack realizes he is doing harm to Della just by being with her.

In nautical terms, the novel ‘Jack’ is not a speedboat nor a sociable cruise ship but instead a lumbering cargo ship with a heavy load. But we readers who have followed Marilynne Robinson’s serious novels throughout her career expect and want something with substance. Robinson does not disappoint in that way. ‘Jack’, like all of her previous novels, has gravitas. However I have to downgrade it because it is so self-centered on Jack himself and gets terribly repetitive.

‘Jack’ is a dark heavy read, but if you have read and been moved by the other three novels in the series as I have, I’m sure you will want to read ‘Jack’ anyhow.


Grade:    B-



‘The Unbearable Bassington’ by Saki, Master of the Back-Handed Compliment


‘The Unbearable Bassington’ by Saki (1912) – 244 pages

Somehow in my vain attempt to become acquainted with all of the world’s great literature, I had left out Saki. I have now corrected that omission.

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ is for those of us who love literature not only at the story level but also at the sentence level. What Saki manages to do with his sentences is amazing. In nearly every one of his sentences, Saki is arch, droll, supercilious, coy, mischievous, and whatever else you want to call it.

Saki is a master of the backhanded compliment.

Their one child had the brilliant virtue of never saying anything which even its parents could consider worth repeating.”

His talent lay so thoroughly in the direction of being uninteresting, that even as an eyewitness to the massacre of St. Bartholomew he would probably have infused a flavor of boredom into his description of the event.”

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of the House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity.”

Few people talk as brilliantly to impress a friend as they do to depress an enemy.”

There is no fear that I shall degenerate into that fearsome thing – a cheerful talkative husband.”

A close-cut peaked beard lent a certain dignity to his appearance – a loan which the rest of his features and mannerisms were continually and successfully repudiating.”

I found these facetious lines entertaining and great fun to read.

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ is Saki’s only novel which was written shortly before World War I in which Saki, who was already over-age and who refused an officer’s commission so became an ordinary trooper, was killed in combat.

The two main characters in ‘The Unbearable Bassington’ are the lady Francesca and her wayward son Comus.

Fate had fashioned him with a certain whimsical charm, and left him all unequipped for the greater purposes of life.”

Francesca realizes that her son Comus, “the young lord of misrule”, will never amount to anything substantial, so his and her only hope is for him to marry a rich woman. Besides unless they can come up with some money, they will lose their beautiful house with all its luxurious furnishings. This story is about Francesca and her pursuit of an advantageous marriage for her son.

She saw him as he was, the beautiful wayward laughing boy, with his naughtiness, his exasperating selfishness, his insurmountable folly and perverseness, his cruelty which spared not even himself.”

This is a drawing room comedy or tragedy. With Saki it is difficult to tell the difference between the two.

I suppose the rap on Saki is that he is so enamored of his wicked sentences that they get in the way of the drama and flow of his story. But ‘The Unbearable Bassington’ was fun while it lasted.


Grade:   A-





‘Failing Heaven’, Poems by Charles Behlen – The Real, Sometimes Cruel, World


‘Failing Heaven’, Poems by Charles Behlen     (2014) – 103 pages

The poems in ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen are ones to which I could easily and fully understand and relate. These poems are forthright, blunt, explicit, and candid. These are valuable qualities that you don’t often find in poetry.

My problem with much other poetry is that I cannot empathize with the writer. A lot of poetry seems to be written by the Lord or Lady of the Manor as he or she surveys the flora, fauna, and fowl on their estate. It is all so very restrained and refined, but the poetry doesn’t hit me where it hurts. The poems in ‘Failing Heaven’ hit me where it hurts.

I was born on a small farm near a Wisconsin town where the local Rod and Gun club during their annual event hung up a canvas in which a guy, my uncle’s hired hand Harry, was paid to stick his head through a hole in the canvas, and the local townspeople would pay money to throw ripe tomatoes and raw eggs at his head. Harry was happy to get a little extra beer money. I watched this when I was a kid, but it was discontinued when I was about 6 or 7.

So in the first poem, ‘Iron Lung’, when the county fair has a display of little children with polio on ventilators, I remembered when county fairs pulled stunts like that.

A couple of the farms in our neighborhood were rented out to poor families. Sometimes a landlord would kick a family out of their home on short notice for not paying the rent or for some other reason. The short poem ‘Home’ captures that sense of hurried abandonment.


by Charles Behlen

Someone must have given up                                            halfway to the alley.

In backyard weeds                                                                            a rocking horse

lies upside down                                                                              on a wadded dress,

shoebox swollen                                                                           with cancelled checks.

Now the rain starts to fall                                                           and the bell in the horse’s

broken-out chest                                                                         sings to a house

that is silent, cold                                                                         and growing dark.

Even though many of these poems take place in Texas, I am a guy from up north in Minnesota who could easily identify with them.

Not all of these poems are about the coarse side of life in the sticks. The poem ‘Uirsche’s First Three Decades ‘ deals with the battle of Arnhem in World War II, and the poem ‘National Corpse’ concerns the battle of Verdun in World War I. These lines from ‘National Corpse’ express my own view of World War I:

But the big and obvious question remains:

How did a bunch of interrelated royals

churn this earth into a boiling barbed-wired mass

of blasted trees, blown-off faces

face-up on the roads – all hung with the unshake-

able stink of cordite, alcohol-soaked bandages,

dead horses, dead men?

These poems aim directly for your senses, and they are accurate. Not every poem hit home for me; that would be too much to ask of any poet, but enough of them did to make reading these poems several times a rewarding experience.

Finally, the scenes of nature in ‘Failing Heaven’ are not your typical serene idyllic scenes of nature. Here is from “Ballad of MacKenzie Park”:

A swan lay in the rushes,

killed with a bottle of beer.

It’s neck lay in the water,

one white wing on a tire.”

The poems in ‘Failing Heaven’ depict the real, sometimes cruel, world.


Grade:    A




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