Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘Orange World’ by Karen Russell – Vivid Peculiar Situations

 

‘Orange World’, stories by Karen Russell (2019) – 266 pages

Each story in ‘Orange World’ has a supernatural element which drives the story. In ‘The Prospectors’, two young venturesome women visiting a ski resort are entertained by a group of twenty-five men who were buried in an avalanche when the Evergreen Lodge was first being built. In ‘Bog Girl: A Romance’, a teenage boy falls in love with a girl who was murdered two thousand years ago and whose body was preserved in a peat bog. In ‘The Tornado Auction’, customers buy and sell tornadoes for their own enjoyment and fun. ‘In ‘Orange World’ a woman makes a deal with a porcupine-looking devil in hopes of keeping her baby healthy. And so on. Each story has its ghostly or fantastical premise.

The stories of course require a suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Through the clever use of metaphors, similes, and other literary devices, Karen Russell makes each of these stories almost believable to the point where we readers withhold our skepticism. The author puts us inside the persons who are experiencing these strange things. These situations are vivid and entertaining throughout. There is also quite a lot of comedy and humor as the characters in these stories react to their strange unusual circumstances.

I mentioned Russell’s use of simile, and this is a tried-and-true literary method that she uses effectively throughout. When the aforementioned young women look out the window of the ski lodge, they see the face of one of the ghost men who inhabit the place.

His wild eyes were like bees trapped on the wrong side of a window, bouncing along the glass.”

In each story Russell builds a complete fascinating imagined world where this strange event might actually happen.. The stories are long, usually 30 or 40 pages,

Usually in story collections there are stories near the end that don’t quite measure up to the early stories, but in ‘Orange World’ there is not a weak story among the eight. I see Karen Russell as a writer who has learned to use the proven literary techniques so effectively that the reader willingly enters the world of each story no matter how off-kilter it happens to be. Karen Russell is one of the most effective, imaginative, and entertaining writers of today.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Afternoon of a Faun’ by James Lasdun – An Era of “Errant Masculinity”

 

‘Afternoon of a Faun’ by James Lasdun   (2019) – 164 pages

Here is a novel with a story ripped from today’s headlines, and I actually liked it.

A woman accuses a man of raping her while they slept together in the 1970s, and she is going to get her story published in a magazine. By this time, both man and woman are in their sixties. The man realizes that soon his life may be ruined for all intents and purposes by “the ritual of public denunciation”.

Yes, this story focuses on the assault and harassment scandals that seem to be breaking every week in the news. It is also a firsthand account of the sexual mores of the 1970s.

The gist of it was that men were more overtly sexist then; more condescending, imperious, entitled, aggressive and preeningly lustful.”

It was an era of “errant masculinity”. All kinds of behavior we question now were considered perfectly acceptable in those days. One-night stands , the sexual revolution, the birth control pill, “The Joy of Sex”.

If you think James Lasdun vehemently takes either the man’s side or the woman’s side, you do not know James Lasdun. The narrator of ‘Afternoon of a Faun’ sees himself as “an appraiser of the truth” who is only interested in finding out what actually happened. He meets with the woman who is an old family friend of his deceased mother who was a confidant to her.

There was no such thing as rape in those days, once you’d gotten in bed with a man. I didn’t even think of it as rape myself, at the time. The word didn’t enter my head.”

The narrator decides she is telling the truth. The narrator is also a friend of the man accused.

On one occasion he said he was surprised I hadn’t already written a book about a predicament exactly like his. I’d explained the difficulty: that in a made-up story you’d have to clarify in your mind who was lying, the man or the woman, and that this would inevitably read as a larger statement about the relative truthfulness of men and women in general, which would in turn reduce the story to polemic or propaganda.”

I have read all of the novels and stories James Lasdun has written including his first wonderful collection of stories, ‘Delirium Eclipse’. Lasdun also writes poetry, some of which I have read. I have found all of his work reliably well-written and fascinating, and ‘Afternoon of the Faun’ is no exception.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Promise of Elsewhere’ by Brad Leithauser – Not the Journey of a Lifetime

 

‘The Promise of Elsewhere’ by Brad Leithauser (2019) – 331 pages

‘The Promise of Elsewhere’ is many things. It is part travelogue of Rome, London, and Greenland. It is part comedy of a down-and-out loser confronting his life. It is part romance, part self-absorbed analysis of a life lived. But throughout, the author offers the reader no compelling reason to read this story.

Louie Hake is a guy in his early forties with a lot of problems. He was a professor at a small Michigan college which he considers is below him. His wife Florence has taken up with her director in an amateur theatre company, and these two are arrested one night in January for a violation of section 750.338b of the Michigan Penal Code , or “gross indecency between male and female persons” in a car. Now Florence has moved out of the house and is staying with her boyfriend ironically on one of the Virgin Islands. Besides that, Louie has been diagnosed with a macular eye condition that may eventually cause him to lose his sight. Besides that, he is manic-depressive or bipolar and sees a psychiatrist.

Louie gets an inheritance of about $20,000 and decides to leave his job and take the Journey of a Lifetime starting with Rome. After Rome, he travels to London and Iceland, but our main character’s travel observations are for the most part mundane, forgettable, and self-absorbed. There are attempts at humor, but mainly you feel sorry for Louie’s plight. Ultimately this novel turned into more a slog than a jaunt for me.

Louie is definitely not enough of a compelling character to sustain such a long novel.

The only bright parts of the novel for me were when Louie meets someone interesting on his travels. When good things start to happen to this ordinary guy, we take notice and root for him. The London section where Louie meets a woman who has been stood up on her honeymoon is particularly a ray of sunshine in this mostly dismal novel.

If this world had its priorities straight, statues would be erected to the kindest people, for in the whole history of civilization, what achievement is more impressive than human empathy?”

The prose in the novel is well-done, but the subject is hopelessly mundane. This may have worked as a shorter novel but at 331 pages it is too much. The main character just cannot sustain our attention.

I suppose there are times when I am open to a lengthy disquisition on the color blue but not on page 242 of a 331 page novel. The last Greenland section of the novel is particularly forlorn and forgettable.

I had read Brad Leithauser’s first two novels, ‘Equal Distance’ and ‘Hence’, and thought they were extremely well-done. I had high hopes and expected big things for Leithauser. However I read one of his later efforts, I forget which one, and did not enjoy it. I had not read him for many years until now.

‘The Promise of Elsewhere’ is not a comeback. This experience has convinced me to in the future give up on a novel I don’t care for sooner even if I have enjoyed that writer in the past.

 

Grade:   C

 

 

‘The Polyglot Lovers’ by Lina Wolff – “Keep an Eye on Your Masculinity.” “Be Nice. Just That.”

 

‘The Polyglot Lovers’ by Lina Wolff  (2016) – 244 pages                 Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel

There is no reason a novel this wildly disjointed and far-fetched should succeed, but ‘The Polyglot Lovers’ somehow does. It is strange, mesmerizing, fascinating. The three parts of ‘The Polyglot Lovers’ are greater than the sum of the whole which really does not make much sense at all.

The writing here is delicious and fun to read.

In the first part, Ellinor posts the following on an internet dating site:

I’m thirty-six years old and seeking a tender, but not too tender, man.”

Of course she gets many responses from men. One man named Ruben wrote back,

Other than the fact that your age suggests you and I will be able to engage in many interesting conversations and you in all likelihood can cook a very good dinner (I will, however, choose the wine.), I’m convinced that your body, which I assume has already been enjoyed by many, contains a wealth of possibility. And your sex must be a cache of dirty acts of which I too can enjoy.”

Ellinor immediately replies,

You devil!”

She travels to Stockholm to meet him. This guy Ruben is a disgusting creature in many ways. Besides his favorite author is Michel Houellebecq. But Ellinor stays with him trying to make it work.

Ruben has been given a copy of a novel by its author Max Lomas for assessment. The title is ‘The Polyglot Lovers’. This is the only copy of the novel so dreadful things happen to it.

And things only get more grotesque and dubious as we proceed to parts two and three of ‘The Polyglot Lovers’.

The second part shifts to the author Max Lomas who is also a fan of Michel Houellebecq. This famous French author whose works have been criticized for their vulgarity and misogyny is a recurring obsession of this novel. An underlying theme here seems to be disgust with men’s behavior.

Keep an eye on your masculinity. Don’t let it consume you.”

What are you getting at?” he said.

Be nice. Just that. Be nice.”

Later Max encounters Ruben’s ex-wife Mildred, and the following conversation ensues.

I write too”, I said.

Yes, she said, “About sex, right?”

No”, I said, “I don’t write about sex. I write about love.”

That’s what all men say,” she said. “But actually they’re just writing about men. Men and sex.”

I laughed. I took her point.

The third part takes us back a few years to Italy when Max is first writing ‘The Polyglot Lovers’.

There is a lot going on beneath the surface of ‘The Polyglot Lovers’, more than I totally comprehend. Some novels are simple and austere; ‘The Polyglot Lovers’ is the opposite. It challenges our attitudes, especially men’s attitudes, and I do like to be challenged. This is not a novel for the faint of heart.

‘The Polyglot Lovers’ is a wild and wonderful, if disjointed, read.

 

Grade:   A-

 

‘England Made Me’ by Graham Greene – Twins in Stockholm

 

‘England Made Me’ by Graham Greene (1935) – 207 pages

My favorite story about the author Graham Greene is when the New Statesman magazine held a writing contest in 1949. The three best parodies of Greene’s unique style of writing would win prizes. Unbeknownst to the magazine editors, Greene secretly submitted his own entry under the name “N. Wilkinson” which was made up of the first two paragraphs of a novel set in Italy called ‘The Stranger’s Hand: An Entertainment’. He won second prize in the contest.

In ‘England Made Me’, Kate and Anthony are twins in their thirties. Kate, having been born first by a half hour, has always been protective of her younger brother. Anthony is a charmer with the ladies.

You’d be gone on me,” Anthony said, turning on her the same glance as he turned she knew, on every waitress, calculated interest, calculated childishness, a charm of which every ingredient has been tested and stored for future use.”

So Anthony is a charmer, but he is also a ne’er-do-well. He cannot keep a job. Each time he tells his family that he has resigned, but they all know that he has been sacked again.

Kate is the mistress of Sweden’s most successful businessman Eric Krogh, owner of Krogh Industries. After Anthony loses his last job and has no prospects, Kate puts in a good word for him with her boss and lover who gives Anthony a job at Krogh Industries as a security guard protecting Krogh himself.

As in all Graham Greene novels, there is a subtle and fascinating interplay between the characters and the plot of the story. Each character has his or her own set of traits which prove crucial to the plot.

In Greene’s stories, no one is ever too good to be true. All the characters are morally ambiguous. Certainly some are worse than others, but even the best are bad enough. To err is human. Each person has his or her own set of faults. Greene always portrays, in his words, “a world of black and gray”.

There are more sinners among the bourgeois than among peasants.” – Graham Greene, ‘Monsignor Quixote’

They did make a movie of ‘England Made Me’ starring Michael York in 1973, but they reset the location of the story from Stockholm to Germany. The movie’s producers must have felt that Nazi Germany fit the moral climate of the novel better than Sweden.

 

Grade:    A

 

‘Spring’ by Ali Smith – A Slapdash Effort

 

Spring’ by Ali Smith   (2019) – 340 pages

‘Spring’ did not work for me at all. It has all the ingredients of an Ali Smith novel but does not meld into a coherent whole. It is a slapdash effort.

This novel did not work for me even though I certainly agree with Ali Smith on most of her opinions of Brexit and Donald Trump. Ali Smith and I would agree that something has gone terribly wrong with our societies, and that this wrongness is imbedded in our current online world.

‘Spring’ begins with a rant. While reading the first few pages of ‘Spring’, I almost gave up on the novel due to its incoherence. I actually wish I had quit the novel. However I did not have anything else pressing to read so I gave ‘Spring’ another try starting from the beginning again. Ultimately I made it through the entire novel.

There are two main strands of the plot in ‘Spring’ which are united in what I consider haphazard fashion. The first strand is about Richard Lease who is working on a film project about the weeks that the writer Katherine Mansfield and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke spent in the same Swiss town in 1922. Even though the two did not even meet each other in real life and were unaware of each other’s presence, the movie producer wants to turn it into a great love story.

In Smith’s previous novel ‘How to Be Both’, these obscure references to the artistic and literary past delighted me but here they seem almost gratuitous.

The second strand of ‘Spring’ is about Brittany Hall who works in an IRC, an Immigrant Removal Center. Conditions for the immigrants at this place are atrocious. The people locked in there are called “deets” for detainees. The place resembles a prison.

I did not know that now England had a problem of mistreating its new immigrants. I thought that only the United States was mistreating its immigrants.

We want you to know you have full access to your information – you and anyone who shadows you.”

One day Brittany hears about a schoolgirl named Florence who somehow got past security and has somehow shamed the director into cleaning all the toilets at the Center. I suppose that this young girl could count as an instance of the literary device magical realism, but it all seemed rather makeshift.

Soon Brittany, Florence, and another woman are off to Inverness in Scotland, and somehow they pick up Richard along the way. How this all happens did not make any sense at all to me. I doubt if it was supposed to make sense. I suppose the author meant this trip to Inverness to be a whimsical juxtaposition of the two plot strands but to me it just seemed absurd.

In baseball parlance, Ali Smith’s ‘How to Be Both’ is a home run, and her ‘Spring’ is a strike out.

 

Grade:   C

 

‘Women’ by Mihail Sebastian – Foolish Love Affairs

 

‘Women’ by Mihail Sebastian   (1933) – 186 pages                 Translated from the Romanian by Philip O Ceallaigh

‘Women’ relates the frivolous love affairs of Romanian medical student Stefan Valeriu. It is the frivolousness of these love affairs that makes them seem so modern. The affairs are not intense or fraught with feelings as we seem to associate with romance in the olden days. Instead they are light and playful.

‘There haven’t been very many women in my life. But there have been a few. As many as any man of average unattractiveness might have, when he acts kindly and knows when to insist. I’m not boasting, as I know any number of acquaintances of mine, taller and darker and better looking, who have had ten times the number of “conquests”.’

There are Renee, Odette, Maria, and Arabela among others.

I suppose an aspiring doctor would have no problem finding available gals at a vacation resort in the Alps even back in the olden days. A couple of these available gals happen to be married to tedious husbands.

What makes ‘Women’ stand out are the beautiful evocative sentences. I expect that the translator Philip O Ceallaigh had much to do in making ‘Women’ so readable for a modern audience.

‘In all this, the sound of Stefan Valeriu’s own breathing is one more detail, no more trivial or essential than a squirrel leaping or that grasshopper perched on the toe of his boot, believing it to be a stone. It’s good to be here, an animal, a creature, a nobody, sleeping and breathing on a two meter patch of grass under a common sun.’

My compliments to the writer and to the translator for these lines.

In the last chapter, Stefan meets Arabela who gets him to abandon his medical career to become part of a music act traveling throughout Europe.

‘I sat at the piano and looked at Arabela and told myself, as I did every evening, that she wasn’t beautiful and couldn’t sing, and then accompanied her earthy voice with the same astonishment and profound peace, and it made me so melancholy, like ten slim fingers combing through memory and forgetfulness.’

These are bright and sunny stories about intriguing and exasperating women, and I will be looking to read Mihail Sebastian’s other acclaimed novel ‘For Two Thousand Years’ soon.

 

Grade:    A

 

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