Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors – An Amusing Drive through Copenhagen

 

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors  (2016) – 188 pages   Translated from the Danish  by Misha Hoekstra

Don’t expect any thrilling or suspenseful plot in ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’, because there isn’t any.  The novel is pleasantly inconsequential, and that is a good thing.

It is mostly the viewpoints and reminiscences of a single Danish woman in her forties named Sonya as she goes about her daily life. She had a boyfriend who left for “a twenty-something girl who still wore French braids”, so she lives alone now and that is just fine with her.  Nothing spectacular or even very noteworthy takes place in this story. It is her deadpan way of looking at things that makes the scenes humorous. This is a novel that goes its way on its attitude.

Sonya is learning to drive a car (thus the name of the novel), and her driving instructor is a forceful woman named Jytte who tends to often get hysterical and does not trust Sonya to switch gears.  Jytte does all the gear switching with her remote device, and Sonya never will learn to switch gears from Jytte. So Sonya asks to change driving instructors behind Jytte’s back, and is assigned a man named Folke.  The only problem with Folke is that she fears this married man has wandering hands.

I just want to learn how to drive, okay? I don’t want to have my hand held, I don’t want to be massaged, hugged, or interrogated, to be hit on or coochie-cooed.  I want to learn how to drive that car so I can drive over there.”

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ contains many hilarious scenes of Sonya interacting with the people around her.

Sonya translates the crime novels of Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson for her living, and she jokes about all his gory victims.

 “These days what she knows most about is how to cast bodies in ditches, the deep woods, lime pits, landfills.  Mutilated women and children lying and rotting everywhere on Scandinavian public land.”

 Although Sonya now lives in the metropolis of Copenhagen, she often remembers her childhood in Jutland on the farm.  She has frequent flashbacks to her rural childhood, her farm family and the whooper swans and the large herds of deer.  She writes a too-honest letter which she never does send to her sister Kate who still lives there.

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ is light and amiable and amusing, a pleasant interlude from all the more vexing problems of today.

 

Grade:    B+ 

 

‘One of the Boys’ by Daniel Magariel – The Father from Hell

 

‘One of the Boys’ by Daniel Magariel   (2017) – 165 pages

‘One of the Boys’ is an ultra-realistic fictional account of a monstrous family situation told from the younger twelve year-old son’s point of view.

A married couple from Kansas is divorcing, and there is the question of who gets custody of the two boys.  The mother had hit the younger boy, and the father has this idea to make the damage to the boy’s face look a lot worse than it actually was, so he would get custody.  The younger son goes along with the father’s scheme. They “enhance” the marks on the boy’s face and take some pictures so it looks like the mother has really beat up on the younger son.  Child Protective Services rules in favor of the father, and soon he and his two boys are off to Albuquerque, New Mexico where they stay in a singles apartment complex.  The father is quite well off working as an independent contractor doing accounting jobs for small businesses.

However soon after they move into the apartment, the father locks himself in his bedroom, and the boys know he’s doing drugs in there.  Sometimes the father just stays in the bedroom for a week at a time, and the boys must fend for themselves.  Occasionally the father sends the boys out to do business with his drug dealers.

When the father does come out of his bedroom, he is subject to sudden violent mood swings.  Sometimes he feels guilty and vows he will be a better father, but other times he goes into a rage. At one point he threatens his older son with a knife, and from then on the two boys plot ways to escape from their abusive situation.  They make arrangements with their mother to go back to her, but that falls through when she decides to “reconcile” with their father.

This terrible family situation is taking place in Middle America, in Kansas, among the fairly well-to-do.  The novel is a case study in how drugs can tear a family apart.  However family dysfunction is not the only hazard these boys confront living in the singles complex.  In one scene the younger son wanders into an ‘adult’ party involving a man and two women out by the swimming pool.

‘One of the Boys’ paints a vivid first-hand picture of these boys’ desperate lives.  The boys undergo a harrowing plight, and there is no redemption.  I would have perhaps preferred to have an epilogue from this boy as an adult telling us what happened later and giving us readers some perspective on their appalling predicament.

 

Grade :    B+

 

‘Red Cavalry’ by Isaac Babel – The Insanity of War

 

‘Red Cavalry’ by Isaac Babel   (1926) – 204 pages       Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk

War is terrible. It is a long-standing fact of human life.  On frequent occasions humans go to war and murder and maim each other in large numbers. Now that there are weapons than can murder millions of people in one stroke, there have been efforts to prevent wars from happening.  However can anyone or anything change human nature which has been deeply embedded in society for thousands of years?  There is always the chance that some mad man will rise to power anywhere in the world.  Even without a deranged man in power, the chances for a war to develop are quite high.

‘Red Cavalry’, a collection of short stories, paints a vivid picture of the madness of war.  War gives individuals an opportunity to go insane. During the Russo-Polish War of 1920, a war I had never heard of before, journalist Isaac Babel was assigned to a Cossack unit on the Russian side.  He was an early embedded war reporter.  After this war ended, Babel wrote a non-fiction book about his war experiences which he later rewrote into fictional stories for ‘Red Cavalry’ in 1926.

When he is assigned to his unit, Babel is a subject of derision by the Cossack cavalry soldiers.  He wears thick glasses; they call him ‘four eyes’.  He is more an educated journalist than a soldier.

“I was alone among these people, whose friendship I had failed to win.”     

Worst of all to the Cossack soldiers, he is a Jew.  Both the Cossacks as well as their foes, the Poles, detest the Jews and treat them horribly. In one of the stories, Babel predicts the Holocaust about twenty years before it actually occurred.

The peasant made me light his cigarette from his.

“Jew’s guilty in everyone’s eyes,” he said, “yourn and ourn. There’ll be mighty few of them left after the war.  How many Jews are there in the world anyway?”

“Ten million,” I answered and began to bridle my horse.

“There’ll be two hundred thousand left,” the peasant cried out and touched my hand, afraid that I would leave.

But I climbed into the saddle and galloped off toward the staff. 

One thing that most war correspondents miss that Babel gets is the glee of soldiers when they wound, kill, or defeat the enemy soldiers.  The killing of an enemy soldier is a joyous occasion for a soldier.

In the story “Afonka Bida”, Babel captures the anguish of a Cossack cavalry soldier when his horse is shot out from under him.  The soldier expresses more grief for his dying horse than he would ever have for a dying fellow soldier.

These early days after the Russian Revolution were a time of optimism for many of the Russian people including Isaac Babel.  In many towns and villages the peasants rose up against local tyrants who had been oppressing them for decades.  However this optimism did not last long because in less than ten years the Soviet Union installed an even worse tyrant, Joseph Stalin, to rule the entire country.  Stalin and his lieutenants wound up murdering Isaac Babel in 1940 on trumped up charges.

Even though the stories are fiction, they are more like powerful journalistic vignettes rather than well-crafted stories. The stories are crude and raucous with too many characters who are underdeveloped in these very short stories.  The transformation from journalism to fiction seems incomplete to me.  I found these stories difficult to digest.   Between Isaac Babel and Anton Chekhov there is no comparison; Chekhov is much the better story writer.  However Babel does capture the intense feel of a battle and the scenes he has created are crucial.

 

Grade :   B

 

‘Based on a True Story’ by Delphine de Vigan – The Mysterious Lady L.

 

‘Based on a True Story’ by Delphine de Vigan   (2017) – 374 pages      Translated from the French by George Miller

In ‘Based on a True Story’, Delphine de Vigan deals with the notions of reality versus fiction.  It is brilliant, a novel for our time.  Should a writer write only memoirs about their own personal real experiences? Take these words from the mysterious woman L. who invades Delphine’s territory:

“People have had enough of well-constructed intrigue, clever plot hooks, and denouements… Take it from me, readers expect something different from literature and they’re right: they expect the Real, the authentic.  They want to be told about life, don’t you see? Literature mustn’t mistake its territory.” 

Actually ‘Based on a True Story’ is a horror story with an atmosphere of menace with a malevolent undercurrent.  The mysterious woman L. takes over Delphine’s life after Delphine has published her first successful novel.  L. makes impassioned pleas to Delphine to write a memoir instead of fiction, that nowadays people only want what’s real.  These pleas only leave Delphine with a severe case of writer’s block.  L. even takes over Delphine’s personal computer sending out an email to all of Delphine’s friends begging them not to contact or bother Delphine because she is busy writing.  She even signs Delphine’s name to the email.  This email leaves Delphine virtually isolated and unable to write.  There are certain traits of the obsessed fan in ‘Based on a True Story’ that remind me of Stephen King’s ‘Misery’.

Delphine does fight back:

“Listen carefully.  I’m going to tell you something: I have never written to please anyone and I have no intention of starting now…Because deep down writing is much more intimate and much more commanding than that.”

My best guess as to who is this mysterious woman L. is that she is a double, a doppelgänger, of Delphine.

‘Based on a True Story’ is exceptional because De Vigan has created a fiction, a clever haunting story, with herself as the main character.  Director Roman Polanski has made a movie from ‘Based on a True Story’ which also won the 2015 Prix Goncourt.

I have thought a lot about the Reality versus Fiction debate and have come out strongly on the side of Fiction (no surprise there).  I rarely read memoirs, finding them usually self-serving as is especially true of political memoirs.  Nothing on television seems so fake to me as reality TV shows. My view is that fiction gives writers the necessary distance to tell the larger truths about themselves and their characters.  I read fiction not for escape but to better understand the world and the people in it.

 

Grade:   A  

 

‘Bad Dreams and Other Stories’ by Tessa Hadley – The Rise of Tessa Hadley

 

‘Bad Dreams and Other Stories’ by Tessa Hadley   (2017) – 225 pages

My transformation is now complete. I am now a total Tessa Hadley fan.

It has not always been this way.  A dozen or so years ago when I was swayed by some positive reviews, I read her first novel ‘Accidents in the Home’.  While reading this novel, I felt there was just too much description of inanimate objects such as household furnishings and clothing and gardens, etc.  Sure, I felt that some of this minute detailing of items was necessary and well done, but for the most part I found it insufferably mundane.  My reasoning at the time was that I read fiction in order to study and appreciate interactions among people, not to find out about common household appliances.   I’m afraid I did not rate ‘Accidents in the Home’ very highly.

A few years later as the positive reviews of Tessa Hadley’s fiction kept mounting, I tried again with her book of stories ‘Sunstroke’ but unfortunately with the same result.  I still couldn’t get past the fact that Hadley seemed to devote so much of her writing to things rather than people.   Perhaps her writing was too subtle for me at the time.

‘The Past’ which came out in 2015 is the novel that caused an abrupt shift in my attitude toward the fiction of Tessa Hadley.  I finally figured out that Tessa Hadley was not just describing objects, but she was also developing her characters’ relationship to these objects. I suppose this all has to do with the literary device known as the “objective correlative” in which objects are used in a story or poem to evoke or convey emotion.  Hadley understands that how we relate to the things around us is a critical part of the make-up of our character.  In this story of a family reunion, ‘The Past’ contains these lush outdoors scenes in which the natural details of the old family home are blended with the interactions of the human characters.  I was tremendously moved by ‘The Past’ and consider it one of my very favorite novels of 2016.

So now I return to Tessa Hadley and her book of stories ‘Bad Dreams’.  Tessa Hadley is one of those rare writers who appears to be equally adept and comfortable with the short story as well as the novel.  These stories are moving little gems that combine the characters as well as their physical objects.  In ‘Silk Brocade’ two young women starting out in the dress designing business plan a wedding dress for a poor girl who is marrying a rich man.  In ‘Under the Sign of the Moon’ a sixtyish woman traveling by train from London to Liverpool meets a younger man across the aisle.  The story takes an outrageous twist and contains such perfect lines as this:

 “This conversation took place on the surface, while their real lives were hidden underground beneath it, crouching, listening out, mutely attentive.”

Hadley is also one of the few writers who can write stories in a contemporary setting and can still be subtle and outrageous at the same time.

So my opinion of the fiction of Tessa Hadley has transformed, and maybe even the way I view fiction has also changed.

 

Grade:   A

 

‘All Grown Up’ by Jami Attenberg – A Single Woman’s Unruly Days

‘All Grown Up’ by Jami Attenberg   (2017) – 197 pages

If novels are slices of life, and I do believe they are, then the slice of life depicted in ‘All Grown Up’ is that of a single thirty-nine year old heterosexual woman living in New York City today. Her name is Andrea.  She was born in New York City, left town to go to art school, but moved back again.  Now she has a well-paying job in advertising, where the meetings are “intensely dull, soul-deadening”.  Andrea has a view of the Empire State Building from her apartment window which she draws each morning to keep up with her interest in art.

She dates men she meets through the Internet with the usual chaotic results.  After one drunken encounter, Andrea says, “This is not a date, this is an audition for a play about a terrible date.”

When a book by a woman is published about being single, everyone she knows including her mother tries to push it on Andrea, but she has no interest in reading about the plight of a single woman because “There is nothing this book can teach me about being single that I don’t already know.”

In ‘All Grown Up’, Andrea asks such timely questions as “What if I don’t want to hold your baby?”, “Can I date you without ever hearing about your divorce?”, and “Why does everybody keep asking me why I’m not married?”

With her ironic and dry perspective on things, Andrea projects a lot of humor.  However there is also sadness.  Her one year old niece has a severe birth defect and could die at any moment.  Because we do not really get to know the baby’s parents, the baby’s plight is not as poignant as it otherwise might have been.

Andrea can be difficult and selfish; she is by no means perfect, maybe more like a real woman. I give points to ‘All Grown Up’ for its amusing sincerity, but I did not feel that it transcended the daily here-and-now of this one person. Perhaps if there were another major character that could have interacted with Andrea as equals, not just someone for her to bounce her quips off of, the novel would have been more effective.  As it is, none of the other characters besides Andrea is developed beyond the sketchy. The novel could have used more dialogue so we might have gotten to really know the others rather than only as comic foils for Andrea.

 

Grade :   B

 

‘Fen’ by Daisy Johnson – The Mating Season

 

‘Fen’, stories by Daisy Johnson   (2017) – 192 pages

It is all quite amazing, really.  In every town, city, and rural area throughout the world, the young people of a certain age get together, procreate, and start raising families.  However, the process is sometimes quite messy.   In many of the places especially in the West there are bars like the Fox and Hound where the young people congregate thus helping this mating process along.   But these bars can also make the whole operation even messier.

As its name implies, the stories in ‘Fen’ take place in the Fens region of eastern England which was formerly marshland, but they could have taken place anywhere.  These stories about the mating habits of young humans are crude but honest.  Daisy Johnson is not only a primitive; she is a primitive who is fixated on sex which makes her stories fascinating.  She writes from the point of view of the female.  These stories give you a strong sense of the true oddness of human mating.

“We cared only for what they (men) wanted so much it ruined them. Men could pretend they were otherwise, could enact the illusion of self-control, but we knew the running stress of their minds.”

The writing of Daisy Johnson reminded me of that of another great primitive of English literature, Barbara Comyns.  Both of these writers have a seemingly unsophisticated view of what is going on around them, but that simple mindset allows both of them to see things as they truly are.  However Johnson gets more down and dirty than Comyns.

“There is nothing much about him you can see which would do this to you.  Affection, you tell your housemates, is a sort of sickness.  They roll their eyes and tell you they can hear you at night.

That’s not affection, you say.  That’s sex.” 

These stories in ‘Fen’ go beyond simple realism into the supernatural.  In one story three woman roommates lure men to their home, kill them, and then eat them.   In another story a girl transforms herself into an eel.  In another story a dead brother returns home in the form of a fox.

The title ‘Fen’ also reminded me of an excellent novel about this region that I have read, ‘Waterland’ by Graham Swift, not that these two books have much in common otherwise.

One of the stories in ‘Fen’ is called “How to Fuck a Man You Don’t Know”, and if you can handle that title, you probably will like this collection.

 

Grade:   A

 

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