Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘The Old Man and Me’ by Elaine Dundy – Young Lady Honey Flood in London and England

 

‘The Old Man and Me’ by Elaine Dundy   (1964)  – 231 pages

Just as Elaine Dundy’s first novel ‘The Dud Avocado’ was about a young American woman visiting Paris and France, her second novel is about a young American woman visiting London and England.

Twenty-two year old Honey Flood is on the hunt for C. D. McKee, a fifty-six year old man whom she has never met before but who has wound up with the large amount of money that she was supposed to inherit. He is in London, and the year is 1962. London is just on the verge of becoming the Swinging London of the Beatles and Twiggy. She meets up with him in a trendy avant-garde Soho bar called The Crypt.

This is Honey’s first time in London, and we get a running commentary from her on how the English speak:

C. D. smiled. “You’ve been listening at any rate. What else have you heard?”

Lots and lots. Oh, such masses and masses, dear boy. The elative d, for instance – dazzling, delicious, devastating, divine – and the deflative b – beastly, bloody, boring, the bottom.”

Some of the nicer touches in ‘The Old Man and Me’ are Honey’s reactions to the people and places she encounters in England. C. D. McKee takes her to museums, an Antique Fair, a Rolls Royce dealer, and for a stay at an old English boarding house. She reacts to all things British, and the British react to her:

Well, you’re an American, they can see that all right and they know what to make of that. On the other hand you are calm and reposed and they don’t quite know what to make of that.”

What do they expect?”

Arms like windmills. Gushing about how quaint everything is. Drunkish. Loud. That sort of thing.”

How charming.”

For me, the lamest characterization in the novel is of this older man C. D. McKee. Perhaps part of the problem is the formal name that Dundy gives this character. He comes across as bland and not at all vivid throughout the novel, not at all as colorful as some of the minor characters. People that Honey meets in passing have a sharper impact on her than this guy that she is supposedly intimate with.

Later ‘The Old Man and Me’ transforms itself from a light travel diary into a black comedy, and Honey Flood becomes an anti-heroine.

‘The Old Man and Me’ did not quite have the refreshing impact of ‘The Dud Avocado’ for me. While some of Honey’s reactions to all things British were quite spot on and enjoyable, I found my attention and interest wavering, especially toward the end.

 

Grade:   B-

 

 

‘Exciting Times’ by Naoise Dolan – Even the Ironies Have Ironic Twists

 

‘Exciting Times’ by Naoise Dolan  (2020) – 242 pages

Early on in my reading of ‘Exciting Times’, I found that Naoise Dolan displays a sharp attitude in her writing which told me that I was going to like this novel. Our twenty-two year old Irish first person narrator Ava gets a job teaching children English in Hong Kong.

Because I lacked warmth, I was mainly assigned grammar classes, where children not liking you was a positive performance indicator. I found this an invigorating respite from how people usually assessed women.”

A little later Ava hits us with the following about this rich cool (cold?) British guy she meets, Julian. :

He’d said everything very slowly that night, so I’d assumed he was drunk – but he still did it sober, so I gathered he was rich.”

A bit later Ava mentions:

For Brits, class was like humility: you only had it as long as you denied it.”

Clever, clever, clever.

There are a lot of sentences in ‘Exciting Times’ with the following kind of ironic twist in them:

Victoria had large teeth. This made it difficult for her to smile without scaring people, which is why Victoria smiled a lot.”

Sometimes these ironic twists make it confusing to follow what is really going on in the novel, but the twists are still fun anyway.

Victoria had left us and joined Julian by the window. She was giggling and doing most of the talking, so I gathered she was laughing at her own jokes.”

You have got to believe me; there are plenty of quotable lines in ‘Exciting Times’.

Sometimes the complicated reasoning is too subtle and acerbic for its own good. And the reasoning never stops. Ava moves in with the passionless caustic Julian early on, and she detests herself for it from the very beginning. Julian comes across as “a banker who would sell his mother to diversify his portfolio” :

I told him he wasn’t always nice to me. He asked for even one example. I said that sort of reaction is exactly what I meant.”

Is Ava just using Julian so she doesn’t have to pay rent, or is Julian using Ava as a sexual convenience?

I looked out my window and told myself it is fair enough to find it stressful that my entire life revolves around someone who does not care very much about me. This is a permissible experience.”

Julian goes away on an extended business trip, and Ava meets Edith who has lived in Hong Kong most of her life. The two hit it off, and Ava invites Edith to stay in Julian’s apartment while he is gone.

What finally is my opinion of ‘Exciting Times’? I admired the sharpness of the writing as you probably can tell, but I found the novel a little stretched out with over-analysis of a complicated situation. Sometimes the reasoning is too subtle and ironic for its own good. Naoise Dolan could remember that there is nothing wrong with being straightforward and direct once in a while. It even helps the reader figure out what is really going on.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘Never Mind’ by Edward St. Aubyn – The Wretched Lives of the Very Rich and Prominent

 

‘Never Mind’ by Edward St. Aubyn (1992) – 132 pages

 

Is ‘Never Mind’ a comedy or a tragedy? The answer has to be that it is a great deal of both. It is very difficult to mix the comic and the tragic, but somehow Edward St. Aubyn maintains the delicate balance between wretchedness and wit.

The father David Melrose is a monster.

David grinned. He was in the mood for fun. After all, what redeemed life from complete horror was the almost unlimited number of things to be nasty about.”

And David’s behavior only gets nastier and nastier.

Mother Eleanor Melrose is an alcoholic.

At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.”

Poor five year old son Patrick Melrose!

Most of ‘Never Mind’ consists of aristocrats making insidious wicked fun of other rich and prominent aristocrats they know only too well. The Melrose’s friend Nicholas Pratt is a rich baronet. He has had five wives; now he has a young teenage girlfriend Bridgette.

She had left Nicholas in bed, snoring, like an old pig with terminal flu.”

It is great fun to read in a novel or story, one character describing another character in such a crude nasty fashion.

Obsequious and giggly with older and more powerful people, he turned savage at the smell of weakness, and would attack only easy prey…. Like many flatterers, he was not aware that he irritated the people he flattered.”

Nearly every sentence in ‘Never Mind’ has a mischievous, malevolent, wicked, nasty twist.

This party is really getting on my nerves. Men used to tell me how they used butter for sex, now they tell me how they’ve eliminated it from their diet.”

‘Never Mind’ is the first in the series of Patrick Melrose novels in which Patrick grows up. Considering his horrible start in life, it is somewhat surprising that Patrick would survive for four more novels.

With its curtains drawn, and lit only by pools of urine-coloured light splashed under the dark-yellow lampshades, the room looked both dim and rich. Like so many of one’s friends.”

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar – India and the United States Today

 

‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar (2020) – 289 pages

‘A Burning’ is a vivid powerful novel which focuses on one of the major crises in our world today, racial hatred.

A young Muslim woman, Jivan, posts a response to a Facebook post. Jivan’s post happens to be earlier on the same night as a train is firebombed near her home killing over a hundred people. It turns out the unknown person she was responding to on Facebook is the leader of a terrorist group. Jivan was seen carrying a package near the railroad station. Jivan is arrested and put in prison to await trial. This is India today.

The majority Hindus in India make sure the cards are stacked against the minority Muslims in every way. They are unwilling to waste justice on beef-eaters; no humiliation or punishment is too severe for beef-eaters. Every Indian wants to be at least middle class, and the best way to achieve this status for many is to become complicit in the campaign against Muslims. This is the underside of Indian society today.

The devastating plot of ‘A Burning’ is just as applicable to the people of the United States in their treatment of black people as it is to Hindus in their treatment of Muslims.

‘A Burning’ is a world-changer if enough people read it and take it to their minds and souls.

The economy of the writing style in ‘A Burning’ is remarkable. The novel is written in short direct sentences that capture the drama or intensity of each scene.

The novel is made up of short chapters, switching from three interrelated characters and story lines as well as a few occasional interludes to advance the plot. One story line is of course Jivan, the young Muslim woman in prison. Jivan is locked up with a ragtag group of other women. She makes this observation regarding one of her jail mates:

Her husband threw acid on her but, somehow, she is the one in jail. These things happen if you are a woman.”

Another main character is Lovely who is a hijra who is aspiring to be an actor. I looked up the Indian translation for “hijra” which came back with “eunuch”. However Lovely is not a eunuch. A friend of his who had a makeshift operation in a dentist’s office has died, so Lovely will not have the operation. She is a transvestite. In this society hijra are assumed to have a special connection to the divine and are sought after to bless weddings and births, but also hijra are subject to abuse and mockery.

Nothing is simple for me, not even an hour on the train. My chest is a man’s chest, and my breasts are made of rags. So what? Find me another woman in this whole city as truly woman as me.”

‘A Burning’ does have its lighter moments, and most of them involve Lovely in pursuit of his/her acting career.

The third main character in ‘A Burning’ is PT Sir, Jivan’s former Phys Ed teacher. The story of PT Sir is an object lesson in how people who ordinarily would want to do the right thing for someone else can be corrupted into doing the wrong thing by the promise of advancement in their own careers or lives. He starts out by attending a political rally and soon he is giving false testimony against Muslim defendants in trials “because the police are one hundred and ten percent sure that the accused is guilty”.

With its short sentences and short chapters, ‘A Burning’ is a quick read, but it had a tremendous impact on me. I was so sure ‘The Maias’ by Eça de Queirós was going to be my favorite novel of the year but here comes along another major contender in ‘A Burning’.

‘A Burning’ has become a giant international bestseller. It’s refreshing that there are still some people who still root for the underdogs in this world. I wish more of them did.

 

Grade:    A+

 

 

Abdelrahman Munif – One of My Favorite Writers of the Twentieth Century

 

No other writer has had as deep an impact on changing my view of the world as Saudi Arabian writer Abdelrahman Munif with his powerful novels in ‘The Cities of Salt’ series. Abdelrahman Munif opened my eyes to how the real world operates. The two novels ‘Cities of Salt’ and ‘The Trench’ are masterpieces and are must-reads as far as I am concerned. They contain some of the most moving scenes I have encountered. I personally believe that Munif should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature before Egyptian author Naiguib Mahfouz, although I have read and treasured several of Mahfouz’s novels. Maybe they both should have gotten the Nobel Prize.

Munif wrote 15 novels, but all of his work has been banned in Arab countries and only a few of his novels have been translated into English. I was very lucky to discover Munif and read his novels.

First, some background on Abdelrahman Munif. He was born a Saudi Arabian national in Jordan in the year 1933. He studied law in Baghdad and Egypt, and got his law degree from the Sorbonne and also got a doctorate in oil economics in Belgrade. In 1963, he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship for his political activity and his opposition to the Saudi royal family. Forced into exile, he then moved to Syria to work as an economist in the oil ministry and also as an editor of ‘Oil and Development’ magazine. In the late 1970s, he quit working in the oil industry to concentrate on his fiction writing. He died in 2004 at the age of 71.

What is the message of Munif’s novels? Through his fictional characters, Munif traces the shift over decades of Arab society from an almost egalitarian community into one dependent on oil and the shift from a spiritual Islamic society into a radically authoritarian Islamic state. These shifts occurred because of the rise of the oil industry and the resulting foreign, British and American, influence. The Arab people, except for the Saudi royal family and a ruling few, became “the subjects of injustice, deprivation and oppression”. The great majority of Arabs in the oil countries have become victims of their rulers and of the foreigners. With his oil background, Munif had a deep understanding and appreciation of the lives of the characters in his novels. Edward Said has said of ‘Cities of Salt’ that it is the “only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans, and the local oligarchy on a Gulf country”.

The tragedy is not in our having the oil, but in the way we use the wealth it has created and in the future awaiting us after it has run out. Trees were cut down, people uprooted from their land, the earth dug up and oil finally pumped out only to turn people into a crowd of open mouths waiting for charity or a crowd of arms fighting over a piece of bread and building an illusory future…Oil could have been a road to the future, but what actually happened is nothing like that. As a result, we shall again have to face a sense of loss and estrangement, this time in complete poverty.” – Abdelrahman Munif

Munif was a dedicated foe of monarchy and dictatorships and the despots who control most of the Middle East’s oil. The Yemen conflict shows that the Middle East despotic crisis continues and only gets worse.

Is the world now so depraved that a murderer’s victim is at fault, that a man is imprisoned for seeking his rights? Can a man take all this and remain silent?” – Abdelrahman Munif

In his writings he exposed the complicity between the oil companies and the brutal repressions inflicted on the Arab people by undemocratic, unpopular, oil empowered regimes that he calls “genocide by environmental means.”

But if Munif’s novels were only political diatribes, I would not have liked them so much if at all. Abdelrahman Munif had the talent of a superior story teller and his characters come alive so that the reader cares what happens to them. He savagely ridicules the despotic rulers of these oil countries while his empathy clearly lies with the average people who are trying to make a go of it in these difficult circumstances.

Read ‘Cities of Salt’ and ‘The Trench’ and watch your view of the world change. If my words haven’t convinced you, perhaps these words from Graham Greene about ‘Cities of Salt’ will: “An Arab novel – and an excellent one at that.  It opens up new vistas for the imagination.”

 

 

 

‘Nothing’ by Henry Green – A Novel Composed Almost Entirely of Dialogue

 

‘Nothing’ by Henry Green (1950) – 183 pages

Henry Green is an English novelist from an earlier time to whom I keep coming back in my reading. There is an immediacy, an intensity at the sentence level that makes Green’s writing fun to read even when he writes about supposedly mundane things like office life or just walking in a park. Reading Green, one gets a sense of the wondrous strangeness of ordinary life for all of us.

I was somewhat surprised to find that the New York Review Books Classics series published eight of the nine novels Henry Green wrote, all except ‘Concluding’. (Is there any author other than Henry Green for whom NYBR Classics has published 8 novels?) What surprised me is that the last two of his novels, ‘Nothing’ and ‘Doting’, have not been highly praised by critics. ‘Nothing’ and ‘Doting’ are almost entirely all dialogue and have been variously described by critics as “talky”, “brittle”, “lacking the old magic”, and not at all approaching his earlier masterpieces like ‘Party Going’ or ‘Loving’. I have read and much enjoyed five of his earlier esteemed-by-critics novels and consider Henry Green one of the high points in English literature in the 20th century, so it was time for me to go off the deep-end with Henry Green and read one of these two so-called “talky” novels.

The main characters in ‘Nothing’ are John Pomfret and his 20 year old daughter Mary and his friend Jane Weatherby and her 21 year old son Philip. John Pomfret and Jane Weatherby had a torrid affair many years ago despite being married to others, and now they are still platonic friends. Now her son Philip and his daughter Mary have gotten together, and these two serious young people worry that they might be more closely related than they thought. Philip discusses it with his mother:

It wasn’t anything I could mention over the phone. Look here you won’t be annoyed will you but am I Father’s son?”

Mrs. Weatherby went deep red under the make-up.

Henry Green, as a writer, did not believe in omniscient all-knowing narrators. Nobody knows for sure how another person feels about anything. All we know for sure are the words they say and their physical reactions such as smiles, frowns, turning red, etc., and these physical reactions might not reflect their true feelings. Thus in ‘Nothing’, besides the dialogue, we get frequent mentions of what a character “seemed” to be feeling. Any description of a character’s feelings must be tentative, because we really don’t know what they are feeling.

He seemed very comfortable in the chair with his sherry.”

Mr. Pomfret appeared to ignore the dryness of her tone.”

she said with apparent sincerity”

I believe that this absence of an omniscient narrator is one of the reasons that Henry Green’s novels still charm while other writers’ works have fallen by the wayside.

However, ultimately ‘Nothing’ did not measure up for me to the other Henry Green novels which I have read. As good as Green is with dialogue, I missed the connective tissue of description to back up the story. If you have not read Henry Green before, don’t start with ‘Nothing’. Read ‘Party Going’ or ‘Loving’ or ‘Living’ or ‘Back’ instead.

 

Grade:   B-

 

 

Are You Tough Enough to Read ‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor?

 

‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (2016) – 210 pages            Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes

‘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.

It takes place in the state of Veracruz which is near the eastern coast of Mexico. The Witch lives alone. The only people who come to visit her are the prostitutes and other women who want to buy some drugs or require her services from time to time. The police and some of the other guys in the town believe she has a lot of money stashed away somewhere in her house.

Much of ‘Hurricane Season’ is written from the stance of females’ righteous anger at “the full, brutal force of male vice”, although the females in this novel are not exactly exemplars of good behavior either.

The writing is crude, lewd, explicit, and powerful. This is savage eloquent writing conveying these women’s justifiable anger at men. Melchor’s writing is compelling and forceful in the extreme. Her sentences are long, sometimes pages long, with each phrase hitting home.

I cannot adequately convey the awful force of Fernanda Melchor’s writing in ‘Hurricane Season’ except by quoting some lines one of the women says to a pregnant 12 year old girl:

Because if you don’t want it, I know someone who can help you, someone who knows how to fix these things. She’s half gone in the head, the poor dear, and between us she gives me the creeps, but deep down she’s a decent person, and you’ll see at the last minute she won’t take any money. You’ve no idea how many fixes she’s gotten me and the Excalibur girls out of . We can tell her to sort you out if you don’t want it. Or do you want it? You’d best make your mind up, mamacita, and pronto, because that bump’s not getting any smaller.”

All the gruesome and disgusting things revealed in this novel make for compulsive reading. One justifiable criticism of ‘Hurricane Season’ is that much of the obscenity, the violence, and the body part dismemberment might seem gratuitous. “Telling it like it is” is one thing; “Exaggerating the Horrific for Effect” is another.

One feature of ‘Hurricane Season’ which actually helps make it so effective is the extremely long sentences in which Melchor piles phrase upon phrase in a torrent of words. These sentences have a shattering impact and make for a gripping read. The trend in writing for the last few years or decades has been for sentences stripped down to the bare essentials. ‘Hurricane Season’ goes totally against this sparse trend, and it is so successful that it might itself start a new trend toward more expansive writing.

Read ‘Hurricane Season’ if you are brave and honest enough to take it.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Such Small Hands’ by Andrés Barba – Children vs. Child

‘Such Small Hands’ by Andrés Barba (2008) – 105 pages            Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman

‘Such Small Hands’ is about a world we adults are not much aware of, the world of children versus children. Adults tend to consider the lives of children as all sweetness and light, but those little lives are not.

‘Such Small Hands’ begins with an horrific car accident. Marina, the seven-year-old daughter is injured but survives. Her father died instantly; her mother died in the hospital.

Early after the accident a woman psychologist gives Marina a doll “to make her a real girl once and for all”.

After she recovers from her injuries, Marina is sent to a girls’ orphanage. The rest of the girls treat her as an outcast, probably because she is new and she has had a well-to-do childhood up to that point. She had even visited Disneyland Paris with her parents.

What do we care about Mickey Mouse and Disneyland and your stupid vacation?”

We stuck our tongue out at her.

And there was a roller coaster, and I went on it three times.”

There are two “voices” or points of view in ‘Such Small Hands’. One is the voice of Marina and the other is the collective voice of the other girls at the orphanage.

If the adults weren’t watching, we hit her.”

‘Such Little Hands’ is a novella that captures the real world of small children. Things aren’t always nicey-nice in their world, despite what adults may assume. Remember your early days in grade school. Little children can be mean and cruel especially to those children who are considered outcasts. Children quickly pick up their parents’ values, and those values can be awfully prejudiced. The children have few restraints to their behavior.

‘Such Small Hands’ causes us to remember the extreme cruelty of children. Thus it is disquieting to read.

 

Grade:   A-

 

 

‘Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World’ by Donald Antrim – Drawn and Quartered, Not by Horses or Oxen but by Toyotas and Subarus

 

‘Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World’ by Donald Antrim (1993) – 164 pages

In the unnamed Florida community in which Pete Robinson lives, taxes have been reduced so much that the schools can no longer operate, and the city can no longer afford a multiple library system so all the library branches are being consolidated into the one main library. They now have duplicate volumes of items such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. Pete Robinson wants to set up a school at his home to replace the defunded schools so he could use these dictionaries and encyclopedias, but his neighbors instead throw the over-sized volumes to set off the land mines that warrior neighbors have installed in the park. Other neighbors have set up traps and moats in their yards to defend themselves from their warrior neighbors.

From the skies it came, a gargantuan blue tome, one of those Compact Editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, end over end hurtling in projectile descent, pages fluttering and tearing in the wind, a screaming index of printed and bound lexical data, half a language heavy with gravity and gathering velocity. I dove for turf and covered my head as the OED cruised thumping to the earth.”

The former mayor, Jim Kunkel, lobbed a Stinger missile into the town’s Botanical Gardens killing several of the town residents. For that, Jim was drawn and quartered, not by the old way using horses or oxen, but instead with Toyotas and Subarus. Now Pete Robinson stores the various parts of Jim’s body in his freezer with plans to bury the various parts in separate spots around town.

What an unusual novel. This is black comedy with tongue firmly in cheek.

I suppose this black comedy novel could have worked, except for its total lack of any character development. There is very little differentiation among all of Pete Robinson’s neighbors. There’s Bill, Abe, Jerry, Tom, Rita, Ray, Chuck, Jim, Clara, Barbara. They are all pretty much the same, more like ciphers than human beings. There is no real character distinction, and I see that as a real problem for a reader trying to sustain interest in these people’s predicaments. Even the main protagonists, Pete and Meredith Robinson, do not come across as real human beings.

I realize that character development is not the real point of this novel. This is supposed to be a broad satire of town life in the Nineties. However even in a broad satire there needs to be some empathy with its characters. Take ‘Catch-22’. Every crazy character is clearly defined with just a few key words and phrases from author Joseph Heller, and it definitely works. In ‘Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World’, I developed little interest in these characters, even the main ones.

The reason I read this older novel is that I much enjoyed a collection of short stories, ‘The Emerald Light in the Air’ by Donald Antrim which was published in 2014, and Antrim’s novels were reprinted in anticipation of that story collection.

Now I am of the opinion that the talent of Donald Antrim is better suited for the short story form rather than the novel form.

 

Grade:    C

 

 

‘Pedro Páramo’ by Juan Rulfo – Eerie Folks in a Mexican Town

 

‘Pedro Páramo’ by Juan Rulfo (1955) – 124 pages                   Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden

A dying mother sends her son on a quest to find his father in a town called Comala. After his mother dies, the son heads out to this town, and the townspeople treat him kindly. However he soon discovers that many of these same people who greet him are, surprise, already dead.

What happens with these corpses that have been dead for a long time is that when the damp reaches them they begin to stir. They wake up.”

This novella is filled with the sounds of the rustling and murmuring of dead people.

As the son stays, he finds out all about his father, Pedro Páramo. Pedro owned nearly all the land that surrounds the town. He was a ruthless tyrant who subjugates all the men in town to his brutal rule and subjects many of the women in town to his desires. The only son that he actually claims as his own, Miguel, is spoiled and even worse than he is.

We also hear from the last wife of Pedro Páramo who is in the cemetery.

A woman’s voice? You thought it was me? It must be that woman who talks to herself. The one in the large tomb. Dona Susanita. She’s buried close to us. The damp must have got to her and she’s moving about in her sleep.”

Who is she?”

Pedro Páramo’s last wife. Some say she was crazy. Some say not. The truth is she talked to herself even when she was alive.”

The novella ‘Pedro Páramo’ was at first met with a cool critical reception and sold only two thousand copies during its first four years. However over the years it has gained stature as a classic. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges have both championed this little novella with Garcia Marquez claiming he “could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards”. Now ‘Pedro Páramo’ has been translated into more than thirty different languages and the English version has sold over a million copies.

I found this to be a haunting Mexican tale but somewhat confusing in places.

Sometimes they say the dead speak to us but they usually don’t mean it this literally.

 

Grade:   A-

 

‘Actress’ by Anne Enright – Katherine O’Dell, The Star

 

‘Actress’ by Anne Enright   (2020) – 264 pages

At its beginning, it would be easy to mistake ‘Actress’ for Anne Enright’s actual memoir about her own mother; it has that veracity. The novel takes the form of a first-person memoir of the actress Katherine O’Dell by her daughter Norah. Katherine O’Dell is not the actress mother’s real name; she’s not even Irish, but English instead. Coming from a family of stage actors, young Katherine gains fame and fans on the stage and is swept off to Hollywood.

It happened instantly. Perhaps there is no other way. A star is born, not made, because stars are not actors – some of them, indeed, are very bad actors, at least that is what my mother used to say. Whatever a star has, they had it all along, and, at nineteen, Katherine O’Dell had it in spades. Offstage, you could hardly see her, onstage, you could not look away.”

Who is daughter Norah’s father? It is probably not the gay actor to whom Katherine O’Dell was married off to in a Hollywood-arranged ceremony when she was just 21. For a homosexual man, getting married was definitely the best cover there was at that time.

Of course Katherine had other lovers, but it is difficult for her daughter to figure out who they might be.

Later in her acting career Katherine faces the plight of many middle age actresses.

In 1975, Katherine O’Dell finally gave in. At the age of forty-seven, she moved from her unconvincing twenties to her mid-sixties – there was nothing for her to play in between.”

The novel ‘Actress’ is not entirely successful. Some of the problems result from the format as a daughter’s memoir. Most of the scenes of Katherine O’Dell as a young actress occurred before her daughter Norah was born, so Norah recalls them from a remote distance rather than up close, vivid, and personal.

Much of the second half of the novel is concerned with Norah herself, her love life, the Irish troubles of the 1970s, her marriage, etc. In fact Norah addresses some of her discourse to her husband which is a strange thing to do in a memoir of her mother. I found these asides by Norah to her husband to be clumsy, distracting and diverting from the remembrance of her mother. The story of her mother is sidelined to some extent.

Ultimately my assessment of a novel is usually based on the level of enthusiasm I have when I return to it after having put it down. ‘Actress’ kind of dragged for me in this regard especially in the second half.

 

Grade:   B-

 

 

Some Fiction From the First Decade of the 2000s (2000-2009) That is Too Good to be Forgotten

 

Below are ten works of fiction from the early 2000s all about which I became enthusiastic and which led me to put these writers in my Must-Read category.

 

‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vickers (2006) – Salley Vickers connects the great works of art, in this case the art of Caravaggio, with the conscious daily lives of her characters in a compelling way. Her novels are definitely literary, yet are as light as a soufflé.

 

 

 

‘Ludlow’ by David Mason (2007) – Here is a novel-in-verse but not with the subject matter you would expect for a novel in verse. The coal miners of Ludlow, Colorado go on strike in 1914, one of the cruelest, bloodiest chapters in the history of American labor. The verse novel strategy works brilliantly to describe scenes that are not always pretty.

 

‘The Beauty of the Husband’ – A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos by Anne Carson (2001) – In lyrical lines that suggest the movements of tango dancers, Carson describes scenes from a doomed marriage. This is a modern take on the intimate cruelties of marriage.

Three minutes of reality

All I ever asked

She stands looking out at rain on the roof.”

‘The Inheritance of Loss’ by Kiran Desai (2006) – I read much of the work of her mother Anita Desai, and daughter Kiran Desai carries on brilliantly. ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ has depth, emotion, hilarity, and imagination; what more can you ask for?. But why hasn’t Kiran Desai published any fiction since 2006?

 

 

 

‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones (2003) – By focusing on a black slave owner, Edward P. Jones avoids turning this novel into a morality play of good and evil. There is no one preaching. The matter-of-fact tone only intensifies the reader’s reaction to this story.

 

 

 

‘Black Swan Green’ by David Mitchell (2006) – This is David Mitchell’s lightest most engaging novel, and it is my favorite of his work.

These jokes the world plays, they’re not funny at all.”

 

 

 

‘Gilgamesh’ by Joan London (2001) – A teenage woman and her young child take an amazing trip from rural Western Australia to Armenia and back. This is a blunt and beautifully written novel that deals with life’s tough truths.

 

 

 

 

‘John Henry Days’ by Colson Whitehead (2001) – Even before ‘Underground Railroad’, Colson Whitehead wrote wonderful novels. This novel is more humorous and thus more fun for me than ‘Underground Railroad’. Sometimes it seems writers lose their lightness as they get older.

 

 

‘Lush Life’ by Richard Price (2008) – Richard Price is the excellent writer of novels that take place on the streets of New York. He lived in a housing project as a child and knows all about the city street life. He has branched out to writing for TV and the movies, but I have followed his written fiction from the beginning.

 

 

 

‘How the Light Gets In’ by M. J. Hyland (2004) In 2004, M. J. Hyland was the new female novelist who burst on the scene with this her first wonderful novel and got much of the attention and some awards. After reading this novel and her next, ‘Carry Me Down’, I put her in my must-read category. However she has not published a novel since 2009.

 

 

Generosity’ by Richard Powers (2009) – A likable and passionate novel about the search for happiness and the Happiness gene. And you thought our state of mind was the result of happy or sad events in our lives?

 

Happy Reading!

‘My Life’ by Anton Chekhov – “Worms eat grass, rust eats iron, and lying eats the soul!”

 

‘My Life’ by Anton Chekhov (1896) – 106 pages          Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

 

I am always up for reading more Anton Chekhov so I grabbed the chance to read Chekhov’s novella ‘My Life’ especially since it was translated by the current gold standard in Russian translation, the team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

In the novella, young man Misail is the son of the town architect who is well-respected in the town. At first, friends of Misail’s father were happy to hire the young man. So far his father has lined Misail up for nine office desk jobs around town, and Misail has been dismissed from every one of them.

I keep you only out of respect for your esteemed father, otherwise I’d have sent you flying long ago.”

Many townspeople look upon Misail as a ne’er do well, but he isn’t enamored of the town either. Misail sees the corrupt underside of the most prominent people in the town. Even his own father is not exempt.

I didn’t know a single honest man in the whole town. My father took bribes and imagined they were given him out of respect for his inner qualities; …And those who didn’t take bribes – for instance the court administration – were haughty, offered you two fingers to shake, were distinguished by the coldness and narrowness of their judgments, played cards a lot, drank a lot, married rich women, and undoubtedly had a harmful corrupting influence on their milieu.”

Everywhere Misail looks in these upper echelons of town society, Misail finds dishonesty, chicanery, and mendacity. After losing his ninth office job, Misail finally decides to forsake his family’s position in the community and takes a job involving physical labor; he becomes a house painter. His father threatens to disown him.

Here he encounters the rough peasants of the town, but are they any more dishonest than the upper classes? Misail finds satisfaction in honest physical work. He actually becomes a town sensation among the younger people of the town for making this choice to forsake the town’s conventions. This is probably Chekhov’s most political work.

But as always with Chekhov, some of the main characters are female. We have Misail’s sister who tries to bridge the gap between him and his father. We have Misail’s girlfriend who is one of the young people who is enamored of him for choosing to do hard physical labor. Both of these young women figure in poignant story lines in ‘My Life’. There is always an emotional payoff in reading Chekhov.

‘My Life’ is a good indicator of the Russian people’s mindset just before the Communist revolution. What does a people do when the upper classes of society are rampant with corruption?

 

Grade:    A-

 

 

The Difficulties and the Delights of ‘A Twilight Celebration’ by Marie-Claire Blais

 

A Twilight Celebration’ by Marie-Claire Blais (2015) – 255 pages       Translated from the French by Nigel Spencer

Again I have read Marie-Claire Blais. She is a highly lauded author originally from Quebec who has written many novels and has earned some of the highest literary awards in French literature. She has even been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Most of her work has been translated into English including  ‘A Twilight Celebration’ which I have recently read. So how come is it that when I go to GoodReads there is not one review of ‘A Twilight Celebration’ there? Very strange. To remedy that sad situation, I posted this review there this morning.

I have read enough of Marie-Claire Blais to know that whatever difficulties her text presents, it will ultimately be worth my while. First I am going to explain the difficulties I encountered in reading ‘A Twilight Celebration’, and then proceed to describe how this novel finally transfixed me.

Marie-Clare Blais makes no concessions to her readers when in the pursuit of her vision. The entire novel is one long paragraph composed of about twenty sentences. It tries to capture the rapid-fire stream of thoughts that pass through several collective individuals’ minds in what Pasha Malla in the New Yorker calls “dizzying cascades of language”. There are several seemingly unrelated plot scenes, and Blais switches from one scene to another scene in mid-sentence without warning the reader. So you might start one sentence reading about Daniel at his writers conference in Scotland and wind up the sentence reading about transsexual Victroire dancing on stage in San Francisco. Along the way you also may have dealt with Angel’s misfortunes or Petites Cendres’s struggles somewhere else.

Actually Marie-Claire has written a ten-novel cycle about these same characters. I started with one of the later numbers in the cycle because with Marie-Claire Blais, as with Virginia Woolf, plot doesn’t much matter.

If your plan is to read only complete sentences at one time, forget about it. The few periods appear inconspicuously, and you will probably miss them. What really stunned me was that after several of her rare end-of-sentences, she would start her next sentence with “And”. Apparently everything in Blais’ world is connected.

I must say that at first I resented the author for not making her work less difficult for me to follow. I don’t like to have my inadequacies as a reader shoved in my face. I would have much preferred that this novel had been written in the relatively straightforward manner of Blais’ brilliant ‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’. ‘A Twilight Celebration’ does get easier to comprehend and appreciate as you go along.

However, on to the delights of reading ‘A Twilight Celebration’.

‘A Twilight Celebration’ is intense, driven, and heartfelt. I suppose you might call this stream of revelations a reverie, but Blais gets it right – the actions and events that are occurring in front of us intrude on our reverie. This is not a distant reverie but instead an engaged reverie. Some of the reflections as well as some of the actual events are strikingly vivid.

The subjects of Marie-Claire Blais are those who are oppressed in this world, the social outcasts and those marginalized persons who lead rough lives. She deals with political, religious, and especially sexual oppression. One of her subjects is mothers who are left stranded by men with whom they had loveless relationships and one baby or more. The forces of society make it particularly difficult for these mothers.

Here is a good statement of the theme:

we need to get beyond this world that reeks of the worst kind of prejudice,”

Here is a good example of the writing in the novel, this one from the poet Daniel. Of course it begins in mid-sentence.

we are the cantors of a fury too long contained, even asphyxiated, by a hypocritical society that reduces its poets to positions of inertia and impotence, paying them so little heed they end up dying,”

Here is one last example. This concerns the transsexual Victroire as he prepares to dance on stage.

you’re not the lonely fighter you think you are, soon enough you will be teaching the most rigid sectors of society not only basic tolerance but respect, so I’m telling you, Victroire, don’t be afraid, don’t be intimidated by threats and bald-faced blackmail, oh my Victroire, you’ll make love work for everybody, the young are listening to you,”

What if I find it more rewarding to comprehend 60% of what Marie-Claire Blais writes in ‘A Twilight Celebration’ than comprehending 100% of what some other writers write?

Finally, I cannot grade ‘A Twilight Celebration’. My reactions to it are just too complex. This is the second novel that I have refused to grade. The other was written by Jane Bowles.  I encourage you to give ‘A Twilight Celebration’ a try.

 

Grade:    ?

 

 

‘The Maias’ on Living, Loving, and Writing

 

‘The Maias’ by Eça de Queirós  (1888) – 628 pages              Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Not only does ‘The Maias’ have a moving and enjoyable story, but also some of the lines from the novel are quite striking. I want to share with you some excellent words from ‘The Maias’ about art, literature, love, and life. Don’t worry; I won’t be giving away any of the plot. These are incidental comments made along the way. I found this novel not only delightful but also perceptive in the extreme.

Due to circumstances described in ‘The Maias’, our hero Carlos is raised by his grandfather Afonso who discusses the boy’s upbringing with the parish Abbot.

You see, abbot, that’s the main difference. I want the boy to be virtuous out of a love for virtue and honest out of a love of honesty, not out of a fear of Old Nick’s cauldrons, or because he’s tempted by the thought of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Carlos grows up to become a doctor.

The keen-eyed Dr. Teodosio had one day said to him quite frankly “You’re too elegant to be a doctor! What female patient could resist flirting with you! And what good bourgeois gentleman is going to trust you with his wife in her bedroom? You would terrify any paterfamilas.”

Thus we move on to the Carlos’s love life.

You really are extraordinary! But your case is a perfectly simple one. It’s the old Don Juan syndrome. Don Juan experienced these same alternations between fire and ashes. He was looking for his ideal woman, and looking for her principally, and quite rightly too, among the wives of other men. And once he had slept with a woman, he’d declare he’d been deceived, that she was not the one for him.”

However all is not a bed roses for Carlos in these adulterous romances.

And this wasn’t the first time he experienced these false rushes of desire, which always came disguised as love, threatening at least for a time, to absorb his whole being, but which always ended in tedium and boredom.”

Then Carlos meets Maria Eduarda, another married woman.

She sincerely believed that there could be such a thing as pure disinterested friendship between a man and a woman, based on the loving meeting of two sensitive souls. ”

Carlos falls hard.

It did not even occur to him to think that this ideal friendship, with its entirely chaste intentions, was the surest road to deceive her gently into his ardent male arms.”

Meanwhile Carlos continues to see and have lively discussions with his friends, two of whom are writers. First a couple of quotes about writing in general:

It’s a matter of temperament. There are inferior beings to whom the sound of an adjective is more important than the exact working of a system – and I’m one of those monsters.”

In poetry, it’s often the need for a rhyme that produces the most original image…Long live the beautiful phrase!”

There is much talk of Romanticism vs. Realism.

All this business about realism and romanticism is a lot of nonsense. A lily is as natural as a bedbug. If some prefer the stench of the gutter, fine, open up the public sewers. I prefer a dusting of powder on a soft white breast, you can do what you like. What you need is heart.”

However at that time naturalism, a form of realism, was advancing by such writers as Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola. Flaubert was the writing idol of Eça de Queirós.

It was a social necessity to call things by their proper name. What use, otherwise, was the great Naturalist movement? If vice continued unabated, it was because an indulgent romantic society gave it names that embellished and idealized it. Why should a woman scruple to roll about in the conjugal sheets with a third party if the world insisted on referring to it sentimentally as “a romance” and if poets sang about it in golden verses?”

Here’s one last exchange in the Romanticism vs. Realism debate which I found particularly meaningful.

And what are we, if not romantics?” exclaimed Ega. “What have we been since we were at school, since we were sitting for our Latin exam? Romantics, which is to say, inferior individuals ruled in life by feelings and not by reason.”

Carlos wanted to know if, deep down, they really were so much happier, these people who were guided solely by reason, never deviating from it, determined to toe that inflexible line – dry, rigid, logical and emotionless to the last, and putting themselves through torments.

Finally an observation from ‘The Maias’ about the Portuguese people of that time:

Basically, we are nothing but thugs. What we like is cheap wine, a bit of guitar music, a good brawl, and plenty of back-slapping bonhomie afterwards! That’s how it is!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Maias’ By Eça de Queirós – A Portuguese Romance

 

‘The Maias’ By Eça de Queirós  (1888) – 628 pages           Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

As of today, it looks like ‘The Maias’ will be the novel of the year for me. ‘The Maias’ is romantic and passionate as I expected somehow a Portuguese novel to be, but it also quite humorous in places and with finely drawn characters and a gripping busy plot. It is a jaunty vastly pleasurable trip in mid-to-late 19th-century Lisbon, Portugal society with some lively quick-witted companions. Whenever our characters get into a position that is just too comfortable or romantic or pleasing so that they start to notice the luxurious flower gardens and the old trees and sunny days of Portugal, a new predicament arises.

With this excellent translation by Margaret Jull Costa, ‘The Maias’ is filled with appealing details of its time which is the 1870s in Portugal. The descriptions of the settings are precise, and the descriptions of nature are luminous. The characters in the novel are the well-to-do, the rich of inherited money, who don’t really have to work to maintain their place in society. Thus they are avidly interested in literature and the arts and have almost violent arguments pitting the new naturalism and realism of such writers as Zola and Flaubert against the lyricism of the old school of writers.

Writers, for their part, read the precise chiseled style of a Goncourt or a Verlaine and immediately tortured and tangled and mangled their own poor sentences until they descended into the crazed or the burlesque.”

Sometimes these young men are fiercely critical of Portuguese society:

Here we import everything, ideas, laws, philosophies, theories, plots, aesthetics, sciences, style, industries, fashions, manners, jokes, everything arrives in crates by steamship.”

Carlos Maia, the main character in ‘The Maias’, is living the good life. He comes from a family which is well-respected in Lisbon and has enough inherited money so he barely has to work at all, even though he has been trained as a doctor. He has a wide group of well-to-do friends who spend their time playing cards, fencing, drinking alcohol, discussing the artistic and literary and political issues of the day, and pursuing women who are already married. That’s right, most of Carlos’ and his friends’ romances are on the sly with married women.

One of the premises of ‘The Maias’ seems to be that many beautiful young women want to improve their status in life by marrying a rich husband. Frequently these potential rich husbands are several years or decades older than the young woman. These young gals find their rich suitor, get married, and then discover that their husband is a dreadful bore. Thus these young married women are easy marks for romance by the right young guy who approaches with the appropriate smooth line. The first step is to become very good friends with the woman’s husband.

Yes, one does not read ‘The Maias’ for moral or spiritual guidance. ‘The Maias’ is a novel of marital infidelities.

Her urgent kisses seemed to go beyond his flesh, to pierce him through, as if wanting to absorb both will and soul.”

‘The Maias’ has a passionate, romantic, and world-wise plot that coheres throughout the entire novel.

One thing that ‘The Maias’ is not is introspective. It is very much a novel of people conversing and socializing. On a continuum of extroversion to introversion, Eça de Queirós would definitely rate as an extrovert. He was a diplomat for much of his lifetime, and ‘The Maias’ reflects his love of being around people. ‘The Maias’ is above all a social novel.

There are several grand set pieces in the novel, one is of a horse race. Many of Carlos’ friends have shown up for the horse races and are placing their bets. Carlos is sitting in the grandstand with his current married mistress Countess Gouvarinho and awaiting the arrival of his new prospective married mistress Maria Eduarda who is the wife of Castro Gomes.

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. If you do like his work then you can read ‘The Relic’ or ‘Cousin Basilio’ or one of the other novels he wrote and then you can finally graduate to his masterpiece ‘The Maias’.

 

Grade:    A+

 

 

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler – Back to Baltimore

 

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler (2020) – 192 pages

In a review of Anne Tyler’s early novel ‘Searching for Caleb’ for the New Yorker in 1975, John Updike wrote “Funny and lyric and true, exquisite in its details and ambitious in its design…This writer is not merely good, she is wickedly good.” Updike took an interest in Tyler’s work and reviewed her next four novels as well, thus launching Tyler’s career into the stratosphere where she has remained since then. The English novelist Nick Hornby has stated that his ambition was to be a male Anne Tyler.

I have read nearly every one of Anne Tyler’s twenty-three novels, even the first four which she doesn’t like anymore but which I thought were very good. All of her novels take place in Baltimore, and that city has Anne Tyler bus tours for tourists except during the lock down. Tyler’s subject has always been the inexplicable personal mysteries in our ordinary routine day-to-day lives. She finds the fascination in even the most mundane of lives. Her novels of ordinary people connect with us readers on a visceral level.

However…

Micah Mortimer in ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ is still another of Anne Tyler’s gentle, cautious, fastidious male characters who view women, especially women with whom they might have a close relationship, as disruptive and a source of problems and thus trouble. He is in his forties and has never been married. In many ways Micah is the archetype for most of the males that appear in Tyler’s novels. He is seemingly happy with his life in his small apartment which he keeps fussily clean. Micah is a home computer software guy who runs his own small door-to-door business in Baltimore. He has a girlfriend Cass who is a school teacher.

Tyler starts the novel with these lines about Micah:

“You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.”

Etched in stone? That was the problem for me. Anne Tyler has used this same type of male character in so many of her novels, it’s almost like she etches them in stone. These quiet, finicky, mild guys have become almost a formula for Tyler. The novel had somewhat of a “been there, done that” feel for me. This guy Micah seemed like nearly every other male character who has ever shown up in an Anne Tyler novel.

I suppose I would have been bowled over by ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ if I had not read so much Anne Tyler before.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

Tony’s Stay-At-Home Song PlayList

 

These videos from YouTube are my background music for the lock down. I’ve played these tunes hundreds of times. Just ask my family! Either click on the title or on the accompanying picture to play the YouTube video.

 

‘Whenever You Come Around’ by Alison Krauss with Vince Gill – I will never be able to get this Vince Gill song off my mind; it is haunting and romantic at the same time. If you like this song, also play ‘Tryin’ To Get Over You’, another Vince Gill song sung by Alison Krauss. Astonishingly Alison Krauss, I don’t believe, has ever put these two songs on an album. Her talent is an embarrassment of riches.

‘If Ever You’re in My Arms Again’ by Peabo Bryson – This is the quintessential romantic tune sung by The Voice.

 

 

Don’t Worry Baby’ by The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys’ finest (in my humble opinion). Brian Wilson himself sings lead vocal on this one.

 

 

‘The Last Cheaters’ Waltz’ by Emmylou Harris – It’s the last waltz of the evening. The guy she came with is dancing with some other woman. She has been relegated to the sidelines. She’s a little bitter.

T. G. Sheppard first had a hit with this song, but I like Emmylou’s version better.

‘You Can’t Change That’ by Raydio – It’s Ray Parker Jr. and his band of the theme from Ghostbusters fame, but this is a much, much better song. This one makes you want to dance like an eighteen year old. I’ve already devoted an article here to this song, and one of the comments there was from Arnell Carmichael who gives a wonderful performance singing on this song.

‘Travelling Alone’ by Jason Isbell – This is proof I’m still listening to new songs to find ones I like. It is my favorite Jason Isbell song.

 

‘How ‘Bout Us’ by Champaign

Some people are made for each other
Some people are made for another for life, how ’bout us

Because he was part of a band from Champaign, Illinois, Paul Carman has never received his due as just an incredible vocalist. Just listen.

‘Misty Blue’ by Dorothy Moore – This is a One-Hit Wonder, but what a wonder it is.

 

 

 

 

‘I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You’ by Linda Ronstadt – Linda Ronstadt sings Hank Williams. What could be better?

 

 

‘River in the Rain’ by Alison Krauss and Union Station – This is the only sad song on the list, but it’s not really sad. It was written by Roger Miller for his play ‘Big River’ in 1983. As always, Alison Krauss sings it beautifully. This song is on her album ‘Windy City’ which is Krauss’ perfect album, but some critics couldn’t figure that out.

 

Honorable Mention: You can click on the titles  to watch these videos too. You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma’ by David Frizzell and Shelly West, ‘Need You Now’ by Lady Antebellum, ‘What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted’ by Jimmy Ruffin, ‘When Did You Stop Loving Me’ by George Strait with Sheryl Crow, ‘September’ by Earth, Wind, and Fire

 

 

The Strangers in the House’ by Georges Simenon – He Didn’t Know About his Daughter’s Wild Parties?

 

‘The Strangers in the House’ by Georges Simenon (1940) – 194 pages     Translated from the French by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Here is another engaging roman durs (hard novel) from Georges Simenon, this one starring retired lawyer Hector Loursat.

Loursat comes from one of the most prominent families in the community and thus is well-to-do and lives in a big house with three floors. He is only 48 years old, but has already retired from his position as a lawyer several years ago. He has a twenty year old daughter Nicole. He was married, but his wife ran off and left him when Nicole was only two years old.

As a young man he was already a lonely figure, too proud, perhaps. He had imagined a person could marry and still keep his solitude. Then one day he came home to an empty house.”

The housekeeper took care of Nicole, and Loursat has spent most all of his time in his study drinking wine and reading poetry and philosophy. He is a virtual recluse in that study.

He doesn’t even realize that his 20 year old daughter Nicole is going to bars and is inviting her disreputable friends over to their house and having wild drunken parties in the third floor of the house.

On the night which begins our story Hector Loursat is sitting in his room as always drinking wine and reading when he hears a loud noise that seems to be coming from his own house. He goes upstairs to investigate and finds a man lying in bed, apparently shot, who dies as soon as he arrives. Stunned, he asks his daughter if she knows anything about it, and she claims to know nothing. Then he calls his cousin who happens to be the public prosecutor for their town to report the murder. Thus begins our murder mystery.

Since the Loursats are one of the most respected families in the town, they want to keep the news and gossip about this murder as quiet as possible.

Since Loursat is a retired lawyer, he agrees to defend his daughter’s male friend Edmond who has been accused and arrested for the murder. Thus the story evolves into a courtroom drama.

Daughter Nicole is surprised and gratified by her father’s interest in the case.

Not only had he said something, but he had actually betrayed an interest in what went on in the house. It was incredible!”

That the daughter Nicole would begin to have admiration for her father after being neglected by him for 18 years seems a little far-fetched. That is the only false note in the whole novel.

This novel did not grip me to the extent of some of Simenon’s other hard novels, for example ‘Dirty Snow’, but did hold my interest throughout.

At some point I will finally break down and read one of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret detective novels, but I haven’t reached that point yet.

Could someone recommend a really good Inspector Maigret novel?

 

Grade:    B+

 

‘Roadside Picnic’ by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – The Aftermath of a Space Alien Visit

 

‘Roadside Picnic’ by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972) – 193 pages     Translated from the Russian by Olena Bormashenko

“What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?” – Ursula K. Le Guin

I was looking for a change of pace, something totally different from what I normally read, and I found it.

I don’t usually read science fiction, but ‘Roadside Picnic’ has a strong recommendation from Ursula K. Le Guin and a number of others so I read it.

This is down-to-earth working man’s science fiction. The men in town smoke all the time, get drunk, and pick up women. ‘Roadside Picnic’ details small town life – the small cafes, the town bars, the local police – so well that we almost believe it when they introduce reanimated corpses and a Golden Sphere that grants human wishes. Almost.

Space alien creatures landed in six different zones on Earth and stayed for several weeks and then just took off and left. For them, Earth was just a roadside picnic ground. One zone is in a fifty mile wide area just outside the Canadian town of Harmont. The Canadians sent in a military unit to deal with the aliens, but the aliens killed them all. Then the aliens left, and they left behind a treasure trove of objects, things never before found on Earth and have properties no Earth items have. These items are eerie, mysterious, and dangerous. They are also very valuable, and some men risk their lives to go into the Zone and get these items and sell them on the black market. These men are called stalkers. They get top dollar for these items but working in the Zone is extremely dangerous, and many stalkers have been killed or severely injured there. And the police are vigilant in arresting known stalkers.

He didn’t know the driver, a pimply beaked kid, one of the thousands who had recently flocked to Harmont looking for hair-raising adventures, untold riches, international fame, or some special religion; they came in droves but ended up as taxi drivers, waiters, construction workers, and bouncers in brothels – yearning, untalented, tormented by nebulous desires, angry at the whole world, horribly disappointed, and convinced that here, too, they had been cheated.”

At the center of ‘Roadside Picnic’ is one of these stalkers named Redrick Schuhart, called Red. Originally Red worked for the Harmont Branch of the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures but after his best friend gets killed in the Zone he quits and becomes a stalker. He now lives a comfortable life with his wife Guta and their daughter Monkey who has some mystifying qualities which may be a result of Red’s line of work.

Red keeps in touch with the scientists at the Institute. In fact one of the scientists, Noonan, is involved with the item bootlegging himself. I found some of the conversations among the scientists quite interesting.

At its core is a flawed assumption – that an alien race would be psychologically human.”

Why flawed?” asked Noonan.

Because biologists have already been burned attempting to apply human psychology to animals. Earth animals, I note.”

Just a second,” said Noonan. “That’s totally different. We’re talking about the psychology of intelligent beings.”

True, and that would be just fine, if we knew what intelligence was.”

And we don’t?” asked Noonan in surprise.

Believe it or not, we don’t.”

What makes ‘Roadside Picnic’ a winning novel for me is that it is not at all cold or antiseptic or remote like science fiction sometimes tends to be, but rather it is coarse and sometimes crude and deals with real people. 

And compared to what is happening these days, ‘Roadside Picnic’ does not seem all that outlandish or strange.

 

Grade:    A-

 

 

%d bloggers like this: