Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

And here’s more on the Alps brothers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grade:   A

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grade:   B+

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am still trying to figure out what that means.

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

 

Grade:   B

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

A quote from Andrew Bevel himself:

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

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

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

Wall Street

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

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

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

 

Grade:    A+

 

 

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

 

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

 

And now for something completely different…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grade:   B

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hink, minx,

The old witch winks,

The fat begins to fry;

There’s no one at home,

But Jumping Joan,

Father, mother, and I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade:    A

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Image from the Hubble Telescope

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

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

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

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

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

‘The Pages’ by Hugo Hamilton – Rescued from a Nazi Book Burning

 

‘The Pages’ by Hugo Hamilton   (2021) – 261 pages

 

Wherever they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.” – Heinrich Heine

The narrator of the novel ‘The Pages’, instead of a person, is an old worn copy of the short novel ‘Rebellion’ by Joseph Roth which was rescued from a Nazi book burning in 1933.

Does this conceit of having a copy of a book telling the story work? I must say that for me it did not add anything. The narrator does not have a distinct or engaging personality which might have helped.

I have not read ‘Rebellion’. Although superficially it did not seem necessary to do so, I’m wondering if there are some subtexts to ‘The Pages’ that I may have missed.

We get two parallel stories here. One is the harrowing plight of the Jewish writer Joseph Roth in Germany in the 1930s. The other is a modern-day tale of the granddaughter of the man who rescued ‘Rebellion’ from the Nazi fires who now has possession of the book.

A Nazi Book Burning

I found the story of Joseph Roth interesting in a biographical way.

In Oxtend, in a small group of exiled writers, he enters a new relationship with the German novelist Irmgard Keun. She is not Jewish, but her books still fell victim to the book burning for portraying liberated female characters.”

I found the modern-day story less engaging and less memorable. It culminates in a treasure hunt which seemed like a letdown from the major issues of anti-semitism and book-burning that were raised earlier in the story of Joseph Roth. Whenever ‘The Pages’ switched to the modern story, I had difficulty remembering the specific circumstances of the various characters.

The two parts of the novel never gelled, never came together for me. I also found the novel cluttered and less than direct.

 

Grade:    C

 

 

‘Job’ by Joseph Roth – Another Job

 

‘Job’ by Joseph Roth    (1930)  –  238 pages                             Translated from the German by Dorothy Thompson

 

I guess I won’t be giving away the plot of ‘Job’ by Joseph Roth by saying it is about a Jewish man who is beset by terrible misfortunes. In the novel that man’s name is Mendel Singer. He and his wife Deborah and their children live in the city of Zuchnow in Ukraine during the years before World War I. Deborah and Mendel have four children, Jonas, Shemariah, Miriam, and Menuchin.

Strong and slow as a bear was the oldest, Jonas; sly and nimble was the son Shemariah; thoughtless and coquettish as a gazelle, the sister Miriam.”

The youngest Menuchin is deformed, can hardly walk and can only say the one word, “Mama”.

Barely earning a living for himself and his family, Mendel “instructed twelve six year-old scholars in the reading and memorizing of the Bible”. The family grows most of their own food in their garden. One gets a good picture of what life was like for the Jews in eastern Europe in the latter days of the 19th century. The Jewish people face daily humiliations by the other peasants.

For a thousand years, nothing good has ever come of it when a peasant asked a question and a Jew replied.”

The story is not politically correct and thus more vivid. This is life with all its faults and wrong turns and all. It is not at all unrelieved misery as one might assume a novel called ‘Job’ might be.

As Mendel is walking near a wheat field on his way home, he espies his daughter Miriam flirting with a Cossack (a Christian) and hiding among the wheat stalks. Miriam “is going with a Cossack”. This causes a sudden change of plans.

We will go to America. Menuchin must remain behind. We must take Miriam with us. Misfortune hangs over us if we stay.”

After they arrive in New York City, things go very well indeed for Mendel Singer. His son Shemariah (now called Sam) is already there in New York, became good friends with a Christian named Mac, and accumulated enough money to send for Mendel and the rest of the family. However the little one Menuchin, must stay behind since he is retarded and deformed.

Everyone wished Mendel luck. Some looked at him doubtfully; some envied him. But all said that America was a wonderful country. A Jew could wish for nothing better than to get to America.”

For a number of years everything goes very well for the family.

Russia is a sad country. America is a free country, a happy country, a gay country. Mendel would no longer be a teacher. A father with a rich son, that’s what he would be.”

Then World Wars I begins, and Mendel’s family is besieged by misfortunes.

Some readers may be turned off by the title ‘Job’. However it is not a depressing read at all, and the novel has an incredible upbeat ending. I found ‘Job’ to be a very lively and vivid read.

Roth’s advice appears to be, that if one is besieged by misfortunes, they should still hang in there and keep plugging away, some really good things might just happen yet.

However this novel was written in 1930, a few years before the Holocaust.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘Where the Light Falls’ by Nancy Hale – Eloquent and Keenly Observed Stories

 

‘Where the Light Falls’, selected stories by Nancy Hale (2019) – 347 pages

 

It makes me riotously angry that such a brilliant and important writer as Nancy Hale could fall out of public consciousness.” – Lauren Groff

On the surface, it would appear that no two writers could be more different than the two writers whose selected short stories I have read recently, Anna Kavan and Nancy Hale. Kavan and Hale do have in common that they were both active writing from the mid-1930s until the late 1960s. However their lives and styles of writing are totally different.

Anna Kavan of course is known for her heroin addiction, her asylum incarcerations, and her numerous suicide attempts. Meanwhile Nancy Hale, if she is remembered at all, is remembered as an elegant stylist who had eighty stories appear in the New Yorker, and ten of her stories received the O Henry Prize for fiction. Whereas Kavan’s stories are choppy and blunt and often grotesque, Hale’s stories are more readily accessible, more expansive, more traditional, smoother, and more readable.

Kavan and Hale also do have in common that they were both born into money. Nancy Hale was born to an upper class family in Boston and after her third marriage relocated to Virginia. If you happen to have the misfortune of being born into a family with money, you are probably stuck with writing about rich people. Hale wrote about rich people which is even the title of one of her stories.

Rich, they looked rich, irritated, fussy, with eyes bright as jewels; cynical, bored, unhappy.”

The well-to-do have their own set of problems. In Hale’s story “Sunday Lunch”, a young minister can sense through experience the emotional dynamics that are going on between the members of a family that he is visiting for lunch. The dynamics are not good. In her story “Crimson Autumn”, a college girl is in love with the star Harvard running back Davis, but finds herself thinking more and more about his best friend Richard.

I found all of the stories in this collection affecting, sharply observed, and enjoyable. Sure, these stories are not momentous or world shattering, but what’s wrong with something being entertaining and “merely pleasant”? You can always tell a good story collection when you are actually looking forward to reading the next story.

By the way, Nancy Hale’s life did have some turmoil. She had two failed marriages by her mid-thirties and also suffered a nervous breakdown and sought psychiatric treatment in a sanitarium. Later she would have a successful marriage that would last forty-five years.

The stories in ‘Where The Light Falls’ are steady and consistently interesting, not overwrought or excessive.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

 

 

‘Machines in the Head’, by Anna Kavan – Harrowing Stories

 

‘Machines in the Head’, selected stories by Anna Kavan   (2019) – 170 pages

 

As a writer, Anna Kavan was a one-off. Kavan is known for her freely admitted heroin addiction, her asylum incarcerations, and her numerous suicide attempts. Her fiction, especially her early stories, is taken from her shocking life.

Most of Kavan’s stories are in the first person. One story is about someone waiting to be institutionalized against her or his will. Another story is about lying on a psychiatrist’s couch being forced to remember what he or she did during a blackout of memory. Sadly these profoundly upsetting stories seem to come directly from Kavan’s own experiences.

They do not know what it means to be sad and alone in a cold room where the sun never shines.” – “Going Up in the World”

Anna Kavan did not become Anna Kavan until her mid-thirties, Up until then she had been Helen Ferguson who had already written 5 novels, all of which rarely get mentioned or read today. In 1940, she published a story collection called ‘Asylum Piece’ as Anna Kavan, tales about breakdown and forced institutionalization, which brought her to the world’s attention.

If the jailer looks into my mind now, I think he cannot raise any objection to what is going on there.” – “At Night”

These early Kavan stories are choppy, rough, and painful to read. It is difficult to get through more than a few pages at a time.

A later story, “The Fog”, is an outstanding story. “The Fog” is a first person story about someone driving a car who apparently runs over a teenager with their car in the fog. The driver freely admits to being a drug user:

I felt calmly contented and peaceful, and there was no need to rush. The feeling was injected of course. But it also seemed to have something to do with the fog and the windscreen wipers.” – “The Fog”

The driver says of the policeman who stops the speeding car, “I looked indifferently at his mass-produced nonentity’s face.”

Some of the later stories go beyond the limits of realism. In “The Visit”, a leopard appears one night and sleeps in her bed. The leopard shows up each night. Then one night the leopard leads her out of her house to show her something. That night there is a torrential rain and she hesitates to follow him. After that the leopard does not show up although she waits for him. What or who does the leopard represent?

One of Kavan’s main influences is Franz Kafka. My experience with reading Kafka has been that the main protagonists face ominous abstract amorphous threats to their existence. I find this quality also in Kavan’s work. I must admit that I prefer more definite, clear, and straightforward writing. I found the writing in these stories choppy without smooth transitions.

Anna Kavan stories often contain lucid descriptions of the trees, the plants and animals, the weather. Kavan got along fine with the natural world. It was only the human world that was fearful to her.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘An Explanation of the Birds’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes – A Stunning Portrait of a Hapless Fellow

 

‘An Explanation of the Birds’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes (1981) – 261 pages     Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith

 

Talk about darkly funny. ‘An Explanation of the Birds’ is an often uproarious novel about this Portuguese guy named Rui who ultimately commits suicide when he is 33 years old, We find this out quite early in the novel, but it doesn’t spoil the comedy somehow.

Rui’s father is a successful industrialist who owns his own business. His father is severely disappointed when Rui takes up history in college.

One of my father-in-law’s cherished dreams,” Carlos said, “was that Rui would work for us, but the guy didn’t have the slightest knack for business. Come to think of it, he didn’t have much of a knack for anything.”

Rui’s upper-class first wife Tucha chimes in:

Sexually, I’ve never seen such a washout, he couldn’t get it up, he’d get all frustrated, apologize, cry. I don’t know why you’re so interested in him, nobody else is.”

And Rui’s second wife the communist Marilia has her say:

And not only your father,” she added in a wrathful torrent, “but also your mother, your sisters, your brothers-in-law, the whole shitload. First class assholes.”

Marilia again:

My relationship with you was like a time-out in my life,” Marilia explained, wiping her mouth on the sleeve. “I discovered that marriage wasn’t for me, you see; there are other things that mean a lot more to me.”

‘The Explanation of the Birds’ is part stream-of-consciousness, part remembrance, part Greek chorus, and part eulogy of “his unremittingly hapless existence”. Each sentence, some of which are pages long, crackles with its own manic energy.

The novel is written in a kaleidoscopic modernist disjointed fashion which is often confusing. The author juxtaposes several separate story lines without any transitions which often threw this reader off. However I see the novel as challenging rather than difficult. I got a lot out of reading ‘An Explanation of the Birds’. If I had paid more exacting attention, I’m sure I would have even gotten a lot more.

And then there are always the birds.

A flock of sparrows hopped among the reeds on the shore, the heavy moldy lagoon smelled like an unwashed armpit: something along the way went kaput, life took an abrupt ninety degree turn, and here I am more lost than ever.”

The novel it most reminded me of is ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’, about the only United States classic to come out of the 1960s. Though written in the 1960s, ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ was not published until 1980, by which time its author John Kennedy Toole had already committed suicide in disgust and discouragement in 1969. To compare a novel to ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ is high praise indeed. However ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ is a much easier read than ‘An Explanation of the Birds’.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

Who Does an Aging Rocker Listen To? Jerome Kern

 

My fascination with Jerome Kern all started a few years ago when I somehow wound up with a CD by Light Opera of New York of the musical comedy or light opera ‘Sally’ with music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Clifford Grey, and book by Guy Bolton. ‘Sally’ was first produced by Florenz Ziegfeld on Broadway in 1920 and ran for 570 performances, one of the longest runs on Broadway up to that time. It was based on a 19th century show called ‘Sally in Our Alley’.

This lively ‘Sally’ recording is a delight for me to which I listen over and over as I drive around in my car. There is something buoyant and cheerful about this recording that puts a smile on my face every time I hear it. The young gal ‘Sally’ rises from lowly dishwasher to the star of the hotel lounge show. Besides a lighthearted and easy-to-follow story, the show has many wonderful songs with perhaps the most famous being ‘Look for the Silver Lining’. However the songs ‘Joan of Arc’, ‘The Schnitze-Komisske’, and several others are fun also. ‘Sally’ quickly established itself as my favorite musical.

I spent my youth like most of those my age listening to rock and pop. I still keep an ever-changing and ever-expanding playlist of favorites on Spotify to which I have now added some of the songs from ‘Sally’. But what about this Jerome Kern? Here was a songwriter I knew very little about.

Then I bought a compilation album ‘Capitol Sings Jerome Kern – The Song is You’. It features songs performed by various artists including Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, etc. It turns out that Jerome Kern wrote some of the most well-loved songs of all time: ‘Ol’ Man River’, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’, ‘A Fine Romance’. Perhaps his most famous work is the musical ‘Showboat’ to which I still have not sufficiently listened. That will be my next Jerome Kern.

Some of the performances on this compilation album are from the 1950s and have somewhat insipid arrangements, but still the joy shines through. It would be a good opportunity for some musicians today to come up with new arrangements for these classic songs.

Jerome Kern died in 1945 at the age of sixty, before I was born. Now almost eighty years later, his songs still enrapture at least one person, me.

 

 

 

 

‘When I Sing, Mountains Dance’ by Irene Solà – A Celebration of Human and Other Nature in All its Mess

 

‘When I Sing, Mountains Dance’ by Irene Solà (2019) – 198 pages             Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem

 

So you don’t consider nature a mess? Consider birth. I rest my case. Now have I convinced you? A glorious mess. Most fiction hides all the grisly details and just tells you that a baby has been born. The novel ‘When I Sing, Mountains Dance’ revels and dwells on all the gore as well as the glory. It is all part of nature, the crudities that are inescapably part of nature as well as the beauty.

Notice that this novel is translated from the Catalan rather than from the Spanish. The Catalans are citizens of Catalonia which is a region in northern Spain in and near the Pyrenees Mountains. The largest city in Catalonia is Barcelona. The Catalans have their own language.

It’s a damp morning. I inhale bringing all that clean wet pure mountain air into my lungs. That aroma of earth and tree and morning. It’s no surprise the people up here are better, more authentic, more human, breathing this air every day. And drinking the water from this river.”

In ‘When I Sing, Mountains Dance’, each chapter is a separate monologue from a separate point of view. The point of view might be that of a cloud or a group of black chanterelle mushrooms or a young roe-buck deer or one of the humans who live in this neighborhood of the Pyrenees. In other words, you might say in more conventional fashion that this novel is a group of unusual interconnected stories.

Emotions are more naked up here too. More raw. More authentic. Life and death, life and death and instinct and violence are present in every single moment up here. The rest of us, we’ve forgotten how sublime life is.”

Here are the black chanterelle mushrooms speaking to us:

There is no pain, if you’re a mushroom! Rain fell and we grew plump. The rain stopped and we grew thirsty. Hidden, out of sight, waiting for the cool night. The dry days came and we disappeared. The cool night came and we waited for more. The damp night came, the damp day came, and we grew. Full. Full of all the things. Full of knowledge and wisdom and spores.”

I am not at all sure this is the way mushrooms speak, so fervently. The mushrooms speak for three tightly written full pages. They won’t shut up.

In another chapter, a very young roe-buck deer speaks to us for five pages.

Here is not only the natural but also the supernatural, witches and ghosts.

The art, the poetic flourishes, sometimes got in the way of the straight facts of the story for me so that I could not fully understand and appreciate what was really happening. Sometimes I was moved by the poetic excesses of the text without fully understanding the basic plot.

Sometimes I wished that the writing was drier, somewhat less earthy, more plain and less poetic. However it is also somewhat refreshing to encounter a writer who lets it all hang out.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘Willful Disregard’ by Lena Andersson – An Unrequited Love Story

 

‘Willful Disregard’ by Lena Andersson (2013) – 196 pages               Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

 

She was by turns furious with him and filled with enormous tenderness and love for everything he had ever touched or been touched by (with certain obvious exceptions).”

This is the story of the Stockholm writer Ester and the artist Hugo.

Ester is sent by her employer to interview the famous artist Hugo Rask. They seem to hit it off during the interview and he asks her out to lunch following the interview. She immediately falls intensely in love with him.

Passion was raging inside her. It’s internal combustion engines were firing on all cylinders. She was living on air.”

However although Hugo sleeps with her three times during the next six days, he wants to avoid a close tie with her at all costs. They were intimate for a few days and Ester thought they were starting a relationship. However after that, Hugo just doesn’t call or contact her for weeks, and Ester almost goes crazy.

She calls him repeatedly and he doesn’t answer. She lingers outside his house and studio when she knows he’s in there. She texts him repeatedly. Still no answer. You might say she almost stalks him. Hugo makes it quite clear that he doesn’t want an ongoing relationship with Esther, but she somehow never gets the message. She keeps grabbing at straws, looking for the smallest signs that he hasn’t totally dropped her.

Something that had been of crucial importance to her had been nothing but a way of passing the time for Hugo.”

Over and over, Hugo gives some small sign that he might not be as disinterested in Ester as he seems, and Ester builds her hopes up to only once again be disappointed. It gets quite repetitive. I kept waiting for something else to happen, but it never does. Ester never comes to her senses that this guy Hugo is not really interested in her anyway. Her persistence may be because Hugo Rask is a world-famous artist.

Only a famous artist could get away with this behavior and still retain the good opinion of Ester. Finally she rings his doorbell and confronts him. Hugo claims he has been extremely busy with his art with no time to spare. She thinks:

How can anyone be so stupid as to believe it’s to do with time when people give time as their excuse?”

One wishes and hopes that Ester would give up on Hugo as a lost cause, maybe even hate him a little or a lot, but that never happens.

If she could only purge herself of that longing for contact.”

Despite my finding the occasional views expressed on current political events rather lame, I found the intensity and insights into this unrequited love plight did hold my interest and attention. Some of Ester’s insights seem quite profound at first but begin to wear thin as her obsession with Hugo continues.

Who is right or wrong here, Ester or Hugo?

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘Gentleman Overboard’ by Herbert Clyde Lewis – All Alone in the Middle of the Ocean

 

‘Gentleman Overboard’ by Herbert Clyde Lewis   (1937) – 152 pages

 

I have often asked myself, “Is there no more to United States literature than what I have already discovered? ”Somehow it seems that the limited United States literary history is set in concrete with the same old names recurring over and over again. Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. It is rare to find anything written about any other writers. The last great United States literary figure who I discovered was Dawn Powell, and that was almost thirty years ago. Is there no one or nothing else in the United States literary past to uncover? Whereas in the British and Irish Isles, every three weeks or so a formerly neglected author will be at long last remembered, in the United States it’s nearly always the same old, same old names.

However this week I have discovered a new long-neglected author and novel from the United States. That author is Herbert Clyde Lewis, and his novel is ‘Gentleman Overboard’ which was written in 1937. It was republished recently by Boiler House Press after being out of print for 70 years.

‘Gentleman Overboard’ is the seemingly simple story of a businessman from New York falling off his ship as it sails from Hawaii to Panama, and thus he is left floating in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean.

In the novel, Henry Preston Standish is a thirty-five year old quite successful manager at a New York brokerage firm who lives in a well-appointed apartment in Central Park West in New York City with his wife Olivia and their two small children. Adventure was missing from his life so he goes on this long cruise vacation by himself. Little did he know that he would wind up floating by himself in the Pacific Ocean with no ship in sight.

Of all the idiotic tricks since time began, he decided rather heatedly, falling off a ship into the middle of the ocean was by far the most colossal. It was so stupid, so absolutely without reason or precedent, so out of place for a man in his position!”

It may seem an obvious story, but here is a man floating in the ocean with little hope of rescue contemplating his fate and his entire life. Meanwhile those on the ship wonder what happened to him. It becomes existential, something we can all relate to. The novel is written in clean spare affecting prose.

Herbert Clyde Lewis in his early 20s

The author Herbert Clyde Lewis wrote three novels as a young man between 1937 and 1940, ‘Gentleman Overboard’ the first. His novels received favorable reviews but met with limited success. He and his wife then moved to Hollywood for him to work as a screenwriter, and one of his scripts, ‘It Happened on Fifth Avenue’, did receive an Academy Award nomination in 1947. However by then he had sided with those Hollywood figures who had been blacklisted for possible Communist infiltration in the film industry and faced blacklisting himself when an FBI informant identified Lewis as a member of the Communist Party. He was drinking heavily. He moved back to New York alone without his wife. He filed for bankruptcy and was found dead in his apartment at the age of 41 in 1950.

‘Gentleman Overboard’ is a lost gem of a short novel that has now been found again. It is a welcome addition to the United States literary canon.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

‘The Blunderer’ by Patricia Highsmith – “Proof is not the thing. Doubt is the thing.”

 

‘The Blunderer’ by Patricia Highsmith (1954) – 265 pages

 

No, ‘The Blunderer’ is not my biography.

Although the US crime author Patricia Highsmith was never married, she understood the complications, the petty differences, that can arise between a husband and wife. These differences usually start out as being quite minor, but after repeated instances and increasing aggravations, they often turn into major altercations.

Highsmith captures how we real people think, and takes it just a little farther into the realm of murder. Thus some of us can strongly identify with the murderer or the victim or at least with the situation. Above all, Highsmith’s crime stories and novels are psychologically astute.

A lesser writer would make the good guys and gals really good and the bad guys and gals really bad. However in ‘The Blunderer’, you probably will empathize with a murderer and fully understand and relate to his or her motivations. Highsmith does not let you off the hook.

In ‘The Blunderer’, the lawyer Walter Stackhouse has a fine upstanding life in his suburban New York City home. He gets along well with his many friends, his neighbors, his fellow workers, etc. His wife Clara also earns good money as a real estate agent. They have a maid Claudia to take care of their home. They don’t have children. The couple Walter and Clara get invited to frequent parties and they occasionally host a party at their house.

There is only one problem for Walter. His wife Clara’s overbearing behavior is alienating his friends and associates and spoiling his life.

It isn’t enough anymore to be in love with you physically – because mentally I despise you,” Walter said quietly.

Walter becomes fascinated, obsessed with this news story where a woman in Newark has been killed during a bus rest stop. Walter even drives to Newark to meet that woman’s husband.

I won’t relate any more of the plot, since there are many surprises.

One of the main characters in the novel is the police detective Corby. The way that Corby manhandles suspects, it’s obvious this novel was written before the Miranda ruling of the accuseds’ rights of 1966.

‘The Blunderer’ is a psychologically intense novel with many twists and turns.

A Young Patricia Highsmith

Patricia’s Highsmith’s first novel ‘Strangers on a Train’, published in 1950, was soon after made into an acclaimed movie by Alfred Hitchcock. However in the Author’s Notes in the back of ‘The Blunderer’ it says that despite this, Highsmith was unappreciated in the United States for the entire length of her career.

By now, I expect that Patricia Highsmith probably has more readers than just about any other US author from that time.

 

 

Grade:   B

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