Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘Turbulence’ by David Szalay – A Whirlwind Trip Around the World

 

‘Turbulence’ by David Szalay   (2019) – 145 pages

‘Turbulence’ is a quick trip around the world in twelve separate airplane flights.

Turbulence – irregular atmospheric motion especially when characterized by up-and-down currents; violent disorder or commotion

This novel depicts not the turbulence in the air but instead the turbulence in people’s lives.

Thus we have twelve very short stories about 12 very diverse people of many different nationalities and occupations – pilot, co-pilot, writer, elderly mother, etc. – as they travel from city to city around the world. Thus we travel from London to Madrid to Dakar to Sao Paulo to Toronto to Seattle to Hong Kong to Saigon to Bangkok to Delhi to Kochi to Doha to Budapest to London.

Along the way we deal with people who are avoiding close members of their own family, unfaithfulness, severe illness, and other kinds of unrest. The stories are only minimally connected.

This is perhaps a clever idea for a novel, but it did not work this time. There are too many characters with not enough development of the characters and not enough plot. We barely get to know these people before we are off to the next flight and an entirely different set of people. There is little description of the landscape or atmosphere in all these diverse cities except for the airports which all tend to be about the same.

The stories are too sketchy and too diffuse to have much of an impact. All Szalay does is show the turbulence in these characters’ lives. He makes no attempt to show how each character handles the turbulence. He is in too much of a hurry to move on to the next character, and that was unsatisfying for this reader. The stories that make up ‘Turbulence’ just do not go deep enough into these characters’ lives.

Previously I had been extremely impressed with ‘All That Man Is’ which was also written by David Szalay and I considered it one of the very best novels I read in 2016. That novel was also a collection of only slightly connected stories of people on the move, in that case men traveling around Europe. However the stories in ‘All That Man Is’ were much more fully developed and entirely convincing in their understanding and insight into the male psyche.

‘Turbulence’ is a sketchy disappointment.

 

Grade:    C+

 

‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ by Nina Stibbe

 

‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ by Nina Stibbe (2019) – 275 pages

‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ has been called a comic novel, but for me it went way beyond humor to be a very fine meaningful work indeed. Nina Stibbe doesn’t try to be funny, she is just naturally funny. It is her way of putting things.

Lizzie, the first-person 19-year-old narrator here, has a mind of her own, a sharp mind of her own. She is moving out of her family house and starting her first job. When you look back on your first real job, you probably remember the people there quite vividly, whether for good or bad. Lizzie works in a dental office for a dentist she can’t stand. She lives in an apartment right above the dentist’s office. The dentist won’t do work for brown-skinned people through the National Health Service so Lizzie, having watched the dentist extract a tooth and so on, does the work herself.

Lizzie meets a young guy named Andy Nicolello who is a member of a family from her neighborhood that her family has known and that has been the subject of gossip from way back. Lizzie’s family has quite a few quirks of their own, especially her mother.

Did it honestly matter that we’d been raised and shaped by eccentric mothers?

Mine: drunk, divorcee, nudist, amphetamine addict, nymphomaniac, shoplifter, would-be novelist, poet, playwright.

His: teetotal, anti-establishment, rabbit trapper, alleged suicide-pact participant, television-forbidder, misery guts.

Did it make us incompatible in the eyes of the world? Plus, what did it matter what people thought?”

Yet often Lizzie’s mother is the voice of baffling reason. But this time it is Lizzie’s sister with the advice:

Look, you’re weird, he’s weird, together you will be a million times weirder. Your mutual weirdness will reflect forever – like mirrors that face each other.”

Lizzie’s attitude toward life and friends and love is irresistible.

‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ is a jaunty sustained spirited performance. I have found that with many comic novels I grow weary of the author’s sense of humor. These novels tend to be too episodic without a continuous story. Then I sense the author is trying too hard to be funny. In ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’, Nina Stibbe avoids all these problems. Even when events turn tragic, we are with Lizzie all the way.

‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ is a reason to be cheerful.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘A Sleepless Summer’ by Bram Dehouck – Rampant Mischief In a Small Town in Flanders

 

‘A Sleepless Summer’ by Bram Dehouck (2011) – 179 pages Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder

The folks in this little Belgian town of Blaashoek are nasty for sure, but their nastiness is the same kind we encounter in our own lives every day.

If your own life is a failure then nothing beats seeing someone else’s life fail even more. She no longer strove for her own happiness, but lived for the unhappiness of others.”

Nastiness is all around us. Bram Dehouck just takes this neighborly nastiness to the next level. When these townspeople are fed up, they grab something, usually a gun, and commit violent acts.

Sadly or comically, as the case may be, the nastiness gets out of hand, and the town descends into chaos, all to the tune of the incessant whirring noise of the ten electric wind turbines that have been installed next to the town. Perhaps it is this constant whirr that is driving the townspeople crazy.

Each character we meet is credible and crazy at the same time. Herman Bracke who runs the town butcher shop is famous for his delicious summer paté which the townspeople love. One night he uses the paté mix to cover his ears to block out the nonstop noise of the wind turbines, and his wife Claire persuades him to sell it in the meat shop anyway. Unfortunately a mass outbreak of diarrhea from food poisoning ensues. We the readers are subjected to all the individual twists and turns and embarrassments caused by this diarrhea

This may be dark humor but it is also low rather crude humor. I found most of the incidents in ‘A Sleepless Summer’ rather raunchy and coarse. One of the town ladies has wild sex with the only black immigrant in town, a man named Bienvenue, without any explanation of how they met. Here the author is just playing to town prejudices.

There are a few occasions where the humor in ‘A Sleepless Summer’ is not so crude, and these are the parts that I enjoyed the most. The quite young woman Saskia ran away from her grandfather’s farm and is now looking for work without much luck. Her advisor gives her some advice:

There was no need to feel unworthy or unwanted. Businesses received hundred of applications for a single job. The odds of them choosing you were smaller than of being run over by a garbage truck in broad daylight. Saskia had to laugh at that. Since then she had caught herself keeping an eye out for garbage trucks when crossing the street.”

However Saskia, like nearly everyone else, is ultimately caught up in the insanity and brutality of this small town.

In the end we come back to the cynicism that pervades this narrow-minded small town.

He did not believe what Catherine said, that people forgive and forget. People forget the bad things about themselves, but when it’s someone else, they forget only the good. Mistakes come back to haunt you, even years later.”

Perhaps that cynicism is warranted?

 

Grade:   B-

 

‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead – An Inhuman Reform School

 

‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead  (2019)  –  212 pages

We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” – Martin Luther King

This is good advice that applies to all of us. I got this quote straight from ‘The Nickel Boys’ which quotes King several times. The United States has a holiday for Martin Luther King, and ‘The Nickel Boys’ shows us why he is great. The family of Elwood, the main character in the novel, has a phonograph record of Martin Luther King giving a speech at Zion Hill.

Even though you can’t go to FunTown (a local amusement park)”, I want you to know you are as good as anybody who goes to FunTown.” – Martin Luther King

‘The Nickel Boys’ begins in early 1960s when King is still alive. Elwood is a smart conscientious boy who gets put in the Nickel Reform School for Boys in northern Florida through no fault of his own, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nickel magnified and refined the cruelty of the world.”

The black inmates at the reform school were kept in separate buildings from the white inmates. There the mistreatment of black inmates was passed down from the slave owners all the way to this reform school in the 1960s.

Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down their brutal heirloom. Take him away from his family, whip him until all he remembers is the whip, chain him up so all he knows is chains. A term in an iron sweatbox, cooking his brains in the sun, had a way of bringing a buck around, and so did a dark cell, a room aloft in darkness, outside time.”

Elwood gets into a fight trying to keep two bullies from beating up a smaller boy. The authorities don’t ask any questions of the boys and blame all four equally, and Elwood is administered a beating that lands him in the hospital for several weeks.

Even if you avoided trouble, trouble might reach out and snatch you anyway.”

The staff has it in for Elwood in particular, and he gets punished for acting above his station as a black boy.

Colson Whitehead’s descriptions of people, places, and events are always straightforward and matter-of-fact. He never over dramatizes for effect. Thus we readers trust what he says. We readers believe Whitehead when he writes that the black schools used the schoolbooks that were first worn out by the white schools and that some of the white students, knowing the black schools would soon be getting these worn-out test books, would scribble all kinds of racist epithets and pictures in them.

‘Underground Railroad’ was a fine historical novel, but ‘The Nickel Boys’ is even better due to its immediacy and its intensity and a surprising twist at the end.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Maggie Brown and Others’ by Peter Orner – Stories that Compress A Person’s Life into a Very Few Pages

 

‘Maggie Brown and Others’ by Peter Orner (2019) – 319 pages

The story collection ‘Maggie Brown and Others’ consists of many very short stories written from varying characters’ points of view, each story by a different individual, that somehow get to the main issues in each person’s life. The following sentence from one of the stories goes a long way in explaining why these stories in ‘Maggie Brown & Others’ are so attractive to us readers:

“I’m always interested in the way people edit the details of their lives, the way they compress all the years into sentences.”

This compression of a person’s life into a very few pages is exactly what Peter Orner does in each of these stories. These stories are character driven.

Along the way, there are penetrating insights into how we people live.

“Is it always a choice between love and pity? Back then she felt neither. Is there nothing in between?”

Many of the stories appear to be based on acquaintances that Peter Orner has met along his way from Fall River, Massachusetts to Chicago to Wisconsin and then winding up in northern California. Others are based on his relatives residing mostly in Fall River. Other stories concern himself and his wife and family.

All of the stories involve this compression technique of telling vignettes from a person’s life to get at the essence of that person. Even the 110-page novella which ends the collection is made up short one-to-seven page vignettes which tell a meaningful story of, I assume, his father’s life in Fall River.

Peter Orner uses one device that I particularly appreciate, the old-fashioned use of an astute observation or moral to tell the reader the point of the story. Even the one-page stories have a clear point. So many current writers in order to “Show, not Tell”avoid this device today, and their stories wind up seeming pointless and aimless. I see nothing wrong with a writer being straightforward and just telling us what the point of their story is.

In the story ‘On the Floor, beside the Bed’, the story about the guy who used to play for the San Diego Padres, the narrator who volunteers as a paramedic is fascinated by this former ballplayer husband and his wife.

“I’m sometimes struck by how people who don’t look like they’d fit together actually do.”

Throughout this book of stories, there are memorable characters, poignant moments, and life lessons. This is fiction at its most moving and meaningful.

 

 

Grade:    A

 

 

A Few of my My Favorite Fictions by Women Which Have Been Translated Into English

 

When I look back on my reading lists over the years, I find the number of fictions I have read by women which were translated into English has been pathetically low. At certain times in my reading career, I have steered away from translations of either men or women fearing I would not get the pure original voice of the author. However for the classic male writers there were always translations available which I ultimately read. As for females there were very few women considered classic writers, and most of them wrote in English. The women who did get translated were those like Simone de Beauvoir (Jean Paul Sartre), Elsa Morante (Alberto Moravia), or Irmgard Keun (Joseph Roth) who had connections to famous male writers.

It was not until the 2000s that I started reading translated female writers in earnest. Perhaps the turning point for me was the rediscovery of Irene Nemirovsky starting with the publication of a translation of ‘Suite Francaise’ in 2004. here was one of the major writers of all time finally getting her due. I continued to read all her fine work as it was translated.

The next major event was the discovery of Elena Ferrante. Her four-novel cycle, the Neapolitan Novels (‘My Brilliant Friend’, ‘The Story of a New Name’, ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’, and ‘The Story of a Lost Child’) , enchanted me as few fictions do and caused me and many others to pay more attention to translated novels in general and those by women im particular. 

Here are some of my other favorites by women who have been translated into English.

‘The Princess of Cleves’ by Madame de la Fayette (1676) Translated by Nancy Mitford

Here’s one from way back that has somehow survived until today. The Princess of Cleves” gives us an inside view of the French royal court in the sixteenth century.  Although Madame de la Fayette wrote the novel around 1676, the time portrayed in the novel is about 1558 when Henry II was king of France and Elizabeth was just beginning her reign as Queen of England. It seems that nearly all the men and women in the royal court of France, including the King himself, have someone on the side besides their husband or wife. This is a fascinating and different view of royal history than the usual.

‘Mitsou’ by Colette (1919) Translated by Jane Terry

Colette is one of the few translated female authors I read before 2000. Of all her suggestive novels, ‘Mitsou’ is probably my favorite.

 

 

 

 

‘The Artificial Silk Girl’ by Irmgard Keun (1932) Translated by Kathie von Ankum

Here is a German writer known for her sharp-witted humor. She had a romantic relationship with the writer Joseph Roth. Her later life was overshadowed by alcoholism and homelessness.

 

 

 

‘When Things of the Spirit Come First’ by Simone de Beauvoir (1937) Translated by Patrick O’Brian

Although I have read de Beauvoir’s more major work ‘The Mandarins’, my favorite is still this collection of interconnected short stories all titled with female names.

 

 

‘Kallocain’ by Karin Boye (1940) – Translated by Gustaf Lannestock

Here is a dystopian novel about a government who uses truth drugs to ensure the subordination of every citizen to the state. This novel transcends the science fiction genre.

 

 

 

The Door’ by Magda Szabo (1987) Translated by Len Rix

This novel contains the ultimate hate-love relationship between a modern woman and her old housekeeper. I say “hate-love” because at first these two opposites are disgusted and furious with each other, and it is only later that they recognize that there is a deep closeness between them.

‘Delirium’ by Laura Restrepo (2004) Translated by Natasha Wimmer

Colombian writer Restrepo uses a multiple narrator technique which speeds this story along because we don’t have to wait for one person to discover every little detail.

 

 

 

‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen (2010) Translated by Lola Rogers

‘When the Doves Disappeared’ by Sofi Oksanen (2012) Translated by Lola Rogers

Estonian Sofi Oksanen is one of my best recent discoveries. Oksanen has done a fine job of bringing these characters to life in these tales of politics and psychology which are never predictable.

‘Knots’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug (2012) -Translated by Kari Dickson

In these 26 very, very short stories Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug puts her characters in comic risqué situations with a lot of humor and from a quirky woman’s point of view. There is nothing that Øyehaug won’t try for a story.  These are not your standard issue stories by any means. 

 

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata (2016) Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Here is a fun way to ease into Japanese literature. Convenience Store Woman’ is a well-done enjoyable novella that celebrates someone who normally doesn’t get the credit she deserves.

 

 

There are surely other female writers from the past whose works qualify as classics but still have not been translated.

 

#100BestWIT

#WITMonth

#womenintranslation

 

 

The Snakes’ by Sadie Jones – A Whole Lot of Money Corrupts Absolutely

 

‘The Snakes’ by Sadie Jones (2019) – 438 pages

Money corrupts, and a whole lot of money corrupts absolutely. This is the novel I have been waiting for, the one that captures our time precisely, both the widespread casual racism and the dreadful power of money to corrupt.

One banknote had value, you could buy things with it- food, clothes – but a box full felt different. It had power.”

Bea’s father Griff Adamson made his first money as a slumlord and increased it through many other crooked schemes. Now he’s retired and a billionaire and thinks very highly of himself. He has a private jet, a duplex in New York, a manor house in Hampshire and a hotel in France run by his self-indulgent frivolous son Alex. The men who hang around him, lawyers and such, treat Griff and his family like royalty.

He smiled and went. He must make over a million pounds a year, he had a family, yet he tiptoed around her like a lackey.”

Daughter Bea has total disdain for her father Griff. She won’t take any of her father’s money. She, a psychological therapist, and her husband Dan get by without any help from father.

Did you think he was just hard-working and lucky? Do you know the people he associates with?”

Bea and Dan live in a one-bedroom flat in north London. Dan is the son of a black mother and a white father who left when Dan was still a kid. Up until now Bea has avoided her father and his money.

It wasn’t the love of money that was the root of all evil, only the love of it above other things. Like fire, it could be a good servant. If she could be disciplined, not be seduced, or let it master her. If she were strong enough not to be corrupted. If she were vigilant and not let it master her.”

Bea and Dan decide to take some time off and go traveling using the Cushion, a few thousand dollars they have saved. Their first stop is brother Alex’s dilapidated hotel in France.

‘The Snakes’ starts out quite light, but things get intense in France especially after Bea’s father Griff and her mother Liv show up at the hotel. Sadie Jones rolls out this story in irresistible deadpan style. We learn about her characters not by explanations or descriptions but by their own actions, words, and thoughts. And these characters are at least as off the wall as the people in real life.

‘The Snakes’ is the first novel which I have read which effectively captures the current plight of England, France, and indeed the United States today. Money corrupts, and a whole lot of money corrupts absolutely.

 

Grade:   A

 

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