Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘Topics of Conversation’ by Miranda Popkey – Over the Edge

‘Topics of Conversation’ by Miranda Popkey (2020) – 205 pages

 

Not everyone is immediately repulsed by tenderness as I am.”

‘Topics of Conversation’ is an edgy novel, perhaps a little too edgy for its own good.

The main idea of the novel is that this unnamed woman relays memorable conversations she has had with usually other women over 17 years (from 2000 to 2017). We are given such sketchy scant information about our narrator that she remains a shadowy figure, a near mental case. There is very little evidence of her maturing. This reader did not develop any empathy for this woman’s situation. She definitely is not a role model and seems almost self-loathing.

There is little comfortable continuity in our narrator’s living circumstances. Our narrator nor her husband are fully developed. All we learn about John is that he is nice to her, and she disdains men who are nice to her. She instinctively hates kindness.

The conversations are more interesting than the circumstances of our narrator’s life which seem often so outrageous and edgy as to defy any normal interest in her.

The novel does raise some provoking and scandalous questions. Is it possible that a married woman today might want to have sex with a stranger, a man? Is it possible that a woman today might have such disdain for her husband because he treats her too nice, and thus she goes out and picks up a strange (in more ways than one) man at a hotel bar? Popkey raises these questions that others do not dare raise in this #MeToo era.

In one conversation, a woman friend tells about how she admitted to her husband that she had an affair with a man, but that she had made up the affair to get out of the marriage. At that point our unnamed narrator observes that “beneath the first premise of our friendship was the understanding that we were, both of us, bad people.”

At one point, one of the women talking raises the question that if men leave their families and little children to go off on their own all the time, shouldn’t women be able to do the same thing. To me this question is over the edge, but I suppose that mine is just a male point of view.

Some of the conversations are quite meaningful; others not so much. In one chapter, our narrator watches a lengthy You Tube video of a woman describing being at a party where the famous incident of author Norman Mailer stabbing his wife Adele occurred in 1960. In some chapters our female narrator attempts to relate the conversation to her own situation, but in the Mailer chapter not so much, and I wondered how this gross incident related to anything at all.

Many of the individual sentences in ‘Topics of Conversation’ are strong and insightful, but the novel as a whole fails to cohere. These somewhat sporadic conversations force the novel to be necessarily episodic.

Perhaps if the narrator had been given a name and a more solid, understandable. and less edgy life situation, she could have sustained my empathy and interest throughout this short novel, but unfortunately that did not happen.

 

Grade: C+

 

 

‘Deception’ by Philip Roth – Sketchy at Best

 

‘Deception’ by Philip Roth (1990) – 202 pages

‘Deception’ is a novel that consists entirely of dialogue, most of it between a man named Philip and his mistress. Their trysts and their conversations take place in a room in London that Philip has rented to get the privacy he needs to write his novels.

There are not even “He said” or “She said” openings, so we don’t even know for sure who is saying which lines, although the context of the words usually does indicate one or the other. The mistress is usually talking about her home and her husband who is also cheating on her. Philip is usually quiet while he listens to her or otherwise he is making political or boorish or misogynist or racist against black people or above all self-centered comments. Philip is opinionated.

Philip Roth published this novel in 1990, the same year he married his longtime companion Claire Bloom. Roth was set to give the name of Claire to the wife who Philip is cheating on in ‘Deception’. However Claire Bloom saw this use of her name as “nasty and insulting” and Roth finally relented. Their marriage only lasted about four years. Bloom soon after wrote a memoir in which she portrayed Roth as a self-centered misogynist.

I found the dialogue between Philip and his mistress completely lacking in charm or romance with Philip constantly using the F-word to describe their physical relationship. Also I did not think Roth did a very effective job of capturing how a woman would speak.

There is also a subplot about Philip’s affairs with two young Czech women, also told in dialogue only, which for me did not coalesce into a coherent narrative.

In his boorishness, Philip does make some valid points as an author that other writers are too polite to make.

As though it’s purity that’s the heart of a writer’s nature. Heaven help such a writer! As if Joyce hadn’t sniffed at Nora’s underpants. As though in Dostoyevsky’s soul, Svidrigailov never whispered. Caprice is at the heart of a writer’s nature. Exploration, fixation, isolation, venom, fetishism, austerity, levity, perplexity, childishness, et cetera. The nose in the seam of the undergarment. Impurity.”

Anyhow I was quite disappointed with ‘Deception’ up until about the last thirty pages when Philip’s cheated-upon wife confronts him. At this point we get the real subject of the novel which is writers’ use of their own autobiography or their own imagination in the fiction they write.

I write fiction and I’m told its autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, and since I’m so dim and they’re so smart , let them decide what it is or isn’t.”

These last thirty pages do not entirely redeem the mess that comes before, but at least they brighten things up a little with some relevant observations.

I have read some meaningful and worthwhile novels by Philip Roth including ‘The Ghost Writer’, ‘American Pastoral’, and ‘The Plot Against America’; however ‘Deception’ is not one of them.

If you want to appreciate Philip Roth as a writer and as a person, don’t read ‘Deception’.

 

Grade:    C+

 

 

‘The Bridge of Little Jeremy’ by Indrajit Garai – A Boy and His Dog Along the Banks of the Seine in Paris

 

‘The Bridge of Little Jeremy’ by Indrajit Garai (2019) – 367 pages

Some of the best stories are far-fetched and require a suspension of disbelief. ‘The story of ‘The Bridge of Little Jeremy’ surely is improbable, but this story is told in a direct and sincere manner which makes reading it a pleasure. Along the way, we get delightful scenes of pleasant Parisian ambiance and street life.

Jeremy is a 12 year old boy, almost 13, and he is the first-person narrator of this story. He lives with his mother in an old, old apartment which was passed down through several generations and is near the Seine River in Paris. They are within walking distance of several of the Parisian landmarks as well as a few of the bridges that cross the Seine. Now they may lose the apartment for failure to pay inheritance taxes, and his mother might wind up in prison.

Jeremy is truly a precocious boy. He can already sell his own paintings through a dealer with a shop near the Seine. He has had one surgery for his bad heart but requires another as soon as they can afford it.

One day as Jeremy is exploring his apartment building he discovers an underground vault in which there is what looks to him like a valuable old painting which has been slightly damaged by dampness, and he sets about restoring it himself. Of course there is a story behind this painting.

Jeremy’s dog Leon is also one of those amazing dogs you will only find in fiction.

The boy and his dog spend a lot of their time walking along the Seine. Here they gaze upon an impromptu music festival:

At eight in the evening, the sun is still beating down harshly, but the heat doesn’t bother those singers and dancers on the boat going over the river with their colorful banners. The festival is going on around the Ile Saint Louis too, and from our isle, with its shape of a vessel and all these people singing and drinking and dancing everywhere, looks like a huge discotheque cruising through the wakes of the Seine.”

When I was in my twenties, I took a two semester night extension course on the history of art which had a profoundly beneficial effect on my life. When discussing the Impressionists, our instructor made sure that we did not overlook or underrate “the merely pleasant”. Since then I have associated Paris with “the merely pleasant” which might amount to a walk along the Seine or any other river for that matter.

So ‘The Bridge of Little Jeremy’ is a fantastical tale with a light touch and with charm, beauty, and almost magic.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘By Night in Chile’ by Roberto Bolano – Silence in the Face of Evil

 

‘By Night in Chile’ by Roberto Bolano (2000) – 118 pages        Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

I was getting somewhat tired of reading too much simplistic fiction where the good guys or gals contend with the bad guys or gals, and everyone is sharply defined. I wanted something more difficult, more ambiguous. So I read ‘By Night in Chile’ by Roberto Bolano, a challenging author that I have enjoyed before.

For one thing, the entire novel is one long paragraph, and there are no convenient stopping points for the reader. For another, the main character in the novel who tells the story, a literary priest, is not someone that Bolano wants us to applaud or approve of but is instead someone we readers are supposed to deplore and reject. Finally, the story is somewhat difficult to follow and understand, so I had to do a lot of research as I was reading just to follow the story. So it was a challenging read, and that is just what I wanted.

The entire novel is a deathbed confession by this literary Chilean Jesuit priest, Father Sebastian Urrutia LaCroix. Early on, Father Urrutia prefaces his words by saying:

One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, and so one must be very careful with one’s silences.”

Yes, silence in the face of evil is the sin we are dealing with here. We are confronted with the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet came to power in Chile in a United States backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and ended civilian rule in Chile. During Pinochet’s and the military’s time in power, 2279 people were murdered by the military government, 31,947 people were tortured, and 1312 people were exiled. During this time Bolano himself was arrested, and though he was not tortured himself, he could hear the cries and screams of others being tortured.

‘By Night in Chile’ is Bolano’s critique of the Catholic Church and the Chilean literary establishment for standing by and allowing Pinochet and the military to murder and torture so many Chilean people. In one scene Father Urritia attends a literary soiree in a prominent lady’s house, and one of the other attendees searching for a bathroom opens the wrong door and witnesses someone being tortured in the house while they are talking about literature upstairs. On his deathbed, Father Urrutia makes the convenient excuse for not speaking out against this torture by saying he “would have been able to speak out but didn’t see anything [and] didn’t know until it was too late.” Sure, sure.

‘By Night in Chile’ is a challenging read in more ways than one.

 

Grade:     B+

 

‘Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen – Stories Which Will Move You, If You Are Willing To Be Moved

 

‘Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen (2018) – 209 pages

I did not realize until now that anyone was still writing stories with this much depth and perception and feeling anymore. The stories in ‘Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen remind me of the stories of William Trevor and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom are now gone. If you like either of those two writers, you will probably like these stories of D. Wystan Owen.

These stories go deeper into the circumstances and the psyches of their main characters than most stories do. People in them almost connect but not quite, and we readers are moved just as we would be in real life.

The power of an individual short story is that an event in our lives can reflect our entire life situation. Thus by concentrating on the details of this one event we can nearly entirely understand this person’s hopes, setbacks, hesitations, strengths, and weaknesses.

All of the stories take place in the town of Glass, a small English town on the southeastern coast. These love affairs are not what we typically call love affairs but rather off to the side.

In the story “A Bit of Fun” a widower revisits the cinema called the Princess where, as a teenager, he had trysts with an older married woman who confessed, “My husband isn’t any good to me, Gerald.” These trysts were a long time ago, but he recalls them vividly after his wife dies.

Perhaps the quality that gives these stories their emotional power is their subtlety. When two people almost connect because one person feels more strongly than the other, there may be sadness. One technique that Owen uses in several of the stories is to tell both sides of a relationship. The poignancy and the emotion for us readers develop when one person feels more strongly than the other.

In the title story, two women have been living together for many years when one of them dies. The woman who remains discovers that in the will she has been left everything to her except for the roll-top desk which was left to a local male bar owner. She is quite curious about this connection she did not know about and seeks to find out more.

In “Virginia’s Birthday” a small nightclub owner has had a lady singer perform there for years and years as his club has slowly lost its business and now may have to close. The story is told in the alternating perspectives of both the nightclub owner and the lady singer, and as it turns out the connections between these two people are much deeper than we originally suspected.

By the end of these stories you might shed a tear for the subtle but eloquent plight of its main characters or you might have a smile of recognition. What more can a story do?

 

Grade:    A+

 

‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli – A Provocative Novel of World War II

 

‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli (2012) – 138 pages Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

Why do people read Holocaust literature when there are so many more pleasant things to read about? Because some of us want to face the worst there is in human beings, the bottom dregs of atrocious human behavior and perhaps somehow deal with it. It is just not possible to sweep the deaths of over six million people under the carpet and pretend it never happened.

In ‘A Meal in Winter’ three German soldiers who are in Poland are sent out on a harsh cold day in winter to hunt for Jewish people who are hiding and to bring any that they find back to their camp. They specifically requested this mission of their base commander because otherwise they would have had to stay in camp and shoot the Jewish people who were already captured.

We explained to him that we would rather do the hunting than the shootings. We told him we didn’t like the shootings; that doing it made us feel bad at the time and gave us bad dreams at night. When we woke in the morning, we felt down as soon as we start thinking about it, and if it went on like this, soon we wouldn’t be able to stand it at all – and if it ended up making us ill, we’d be no use to anybody. We would not have spoken like this, so openly and frankly to another commander. He was a reservist like we were , and he slept on a camp bed too. But the killings had aged him more than they had us.”

They do capture one Jewish person who is hiding in the woods. One of the soldiers notices an embroidered star on the winter hat that the Jew is wearing.

Because if you want to know what it is that tormented me, and that torments me to this day, it’s seeing that kind of thing on the clothes of the Jews we’re going to kill: a piece of embroidery, coloured buttons, a ribbon in the hair. I was always pierced by those thoughtful maternal displays of tenderness.”

Then to pass the rest of the day they go into an abandoned house of which there were many in Poland during the German occupation. The three soldiers will spend the rest of the day in the house since they have done their duty already by capturing a Jew. They lock up the Jew in the pantry and then start a fire in the furnace of this bitterly cold house by breaking up some of the furniture.

They decide to prepare a makeshift meal with whatever food they can come up with. Another Polish guy shows up at the house as they are preparing this meal. In order to get enough fire to heat the meal properly they must burn more and more of the furniture.

This novel is a strong attempt to watch this atrocity from the viewpoint of the perpetrators. Some of the perpetrators were gung-ho with the German high command; others may have been only reluctantly following orders.

This is a simple but moving story.

 

Grade:   A

 

‘The Dutch House’ by Ann Patchett – This Old House

 

‘The Dutch House’ by Ann Patchett (2019) – 337 pages

Again I found out that not every work of fiction is meant for every reader. There are extreme differences in taste and in interests from author to author and from reader to reader. The reading of fiction is a very subjective activity.

Sometimes a particular novel is just not suited for an individual reader. Unfortunately that is the case of ‘The Dutch House’ for me. And I should have known. Just by the title alone I could have known that one of the main characters in the novel would be the Dutch House itself, and I am just not that much into real estate.

‘The Dutch House’ is the life story of mainly two children, brother Danny and sister Maeve, who live with their father in a spectacular old house built by a Dutch businessman named VanHoebeek in the 19th century. The furnishings of the house are elaborate including portraits of the VanHoebeeks which hang on the wall in the drawing room. The entire third floor of the Dutch House is taken up with a ballroom.

The mother of Danny and sister Maeve was in the convent training to be a nun when she got married, and she couldn’t stand the ostentation of living in the Dutch House so she took off for India to help the poor people there, leaving her two children and their father behind.

Enter the wicked stepmother, Andrea, and her two daughters Norma and Bright.

My daughters are none of your business.” Her face was burnished with the energy it took to hate us, the energy it took to convince herself that every wrong thing that had happened in her life was our fault.”

A lot of things happen in this novel, but the focus always remains on the Dutch House. Even in one of the scenes that pass for high drama here, a character is not too busy or involved to note that the crown molding on the ceiling of one of the rooms in the Dutch House is called egg-and-dart. Admittedly this house is of superior crafting, but these kind of details rather bored me to distraction.

There are a few nice scenes in the novel. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Danny first meets the woman he would later marry, Celeste, on a train.

Even though ‘The Dutch House’ is an account of the entire lives of these two characters Danny and Maeve, three of the other characters are the housekeepers and nanny who worked in the Dutch House when the two were little. The focus is always on that old house.

Rather than a suspenseful or brilliant story, this is more a steady workmanlike account of these two people’s lives along with a few of the people they meet along the way. I thought there was going to be high drama involving the wicked stepmother, but that story line is dropped with no resolution until near the end of the novel.

I did not find ‘The Dutch House’ compelling, but it is kind of my own fault for choosing this novel to read in the first place.

 

Grade:   B-

 

 

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