Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘The Invaders’ by Karolina Waclawiak – Trouble in Paradise

‘The Invaders’ by Karolina Waclawiak (2015) – 236 pages


Country Clubs. There must be thousands of them spread throughout the United States. These are the sanctuaries of the wealthy. According to ‘The Invaders’, the members are golf-addled, shallow, and exclusionary. Some things never change.

‘The Invaders’ is a novel about the dissatisfactions of the country club life in Little Neck Cove, Connecticut off Long Island Sound. It is told in alternating chapters by former trophy wife Cheryl, now forty-four, and her Dartmouth dropout, spoiled brat stepson Teddy. Life for these wealthy residents revolves around the country club with its golf outings, fashion shows, and other social party occasions. It is a major disaster for the club when Teddy wrecks his car on the club tennis court causing it to be closed for the summer.

The ladies and gentlemen in the neighborhood are upset about outsider fishermen invading their territory, some of them possibly Mexican – hence, ‘The Invaders’ – and they build a wall to keep out undesirables. Where have we heard that before? After they build the wall, the residents are more scared than ever that someone might surmount the wall.

Cheryl is a bit of an outsider herself coming from a sales clerk background before she married her older wealthy husband Jeffrey while he was on the rebound from the death of his first wife. Now he has lost interest in her and hardly figures in the story. She is enough of an outsider so that she can look askance upon her rich neighbors. However she has been there long enough to fit in to some extent.

The stepson Teddy is a total waster. He is always going through other people’s medicine cabinets looking for opioid painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin to take. Apparently Teddy hasn’t found out about heroin yet which has the same effects as Oxycontin at one-fifth the price. Of course the Oxycontin is usually prescribed and thus covered by health insurance. Perhaps the character of Teddy is portrayed too broadly as a good-for-nothing so that it is impossible to empathize or identify with him.


An early novel to look on the lives of the American rich with a skeptical eye was ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The two writers John Cheever and John Updike used to cover the sleazy mores of these rich suburban communities in their fiction. Rick Moody in his excellent novel ‘The Ice Storm’ covers this same territory. It is a good thing to have a skilled writer like Karolina Waclawiak take up this subject of how the lives of the wealthy aren’t as wonderful as they are cracked up to be.

‘The Invaders’ is a decent entry in this genre. Perhaps it is a little too sincere in its complaints without the necessary irony which would have given it some perspective.

After all, I suspect the country club life still has its attractions for many.

Grade: B+

‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley – A Family Reunion in the English Countryside

‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley (2015) – 310 pages

The PastIn an article in the London Review, Tessa Hadley discusses a biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson, an English novelist who also was married to the scientist and writer C. P. Snow. Usually this type of an article is an occasion for over-praise of the biographical subject. However Hadley winds up her article with the following lines:

“These lives are interesting now because they are history; but I suspect there’s nothing to recover from the novels. All writers are susceptible, it goes without saying, to vanity and panic, but these things drove the Snows crazy; and in their case too much obsession with the outer forms of success looks in the long run like a failure on the inside – it reflects something hollow in the work, as if the writing has failed to be its own fulfillment, its own life.”

Such severe criticism of a novelist, especially of a female novelist, is practically unheard of. The criticism is refreshing, and besides now I don’t have to read Pamela Hansford Johnson. So instead I have read ‘The Past’.

Now with her sixth novel ‘The Past’, Tessa Hadley has arrived. ‘The Past’ is a superior family reunion novel that takes place in their old childhood home in the English countryside.

Her vivid depiction of natural phenomena is a particular strength of Tessa Hadley. In many novels, descriptions of nature seem tacked on, isolated from the plot. However in ‘The Past’ the natural details of the old family home are blended with the interactions of the human characters so smoothly that they actually enhance the story. Thus we have “the jostling of water in the stream that ran at the bottom of the garden, the tickle of tiny movements in the hedgerows and grasses.” It is an “archetypally English” old home place.

The story in ‘The Past’ flows smoothly along just like the stream that flows past their old house. However at one distant point the stream goes over a rocky cliff and becomes a waterfall. The people in the novel too have their turbulences. The reader gets the strong impression that the characters here are just as subject to the laws of nature as everything else.

In the main part of the story, ‘The Present’, there are nine main characters. The three sisters called Harriet, Alice, and Fran and their brother Roland are now all middle-aged. Harriet and Alice are single, but Alice has brought along the college-age son Kasim of one her old flames whose family was originally from Pakistan. Fran’s husband couldn’t make it, but Fran has brought her two children Ivy and Arthur, nine and six. Roland has brought his new third young wife, the Argentine Pilar, and also his daughter from a previous marriage, sixteen-year-old Molly.

1470804-verano-de-vista-de-un-arroyo-que-fluye-en-buttermere-ingl-s-en-el-lake-districtWhen a writer has nine main characters, he or she must juggle different small groups of them in the various scenes. Many of the scenes take place outdoors in the countryside or along the stream or in an old abandoned house near the stream. Hadley is quite adept in her handling of these outdoor scenes, and this reader felt like he was there. The children enliven things, and soon Kasim and Molly develop a strong attraction.

However the novel is called ‘The Past’, and one section is devoted to the backstory. We go back to 1968, when the three sisters’ and brother’s mother was still alive. Also their grandparents still lived on the old family place. The grandfather was a poet and the vicar of a small church near the home. The episode from the past helps us better understand the way things are today.

This is confident and assured story telling with a strong sense of place.

Grade: A

‘Fair Play’ by Tove Jansson – Humans, Not Hippos

‘Fair Play’ by Tove Jansson    (1982) – 100 pages


Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.  ‘Fair Play’ is about the friendship between two middle-aged women, Mari and Jonno.  Mari is a writer, and Jonno is an artist.  They each live separately on opposite ends of an apartment building on an island off the southern coast of Finland.  They argue and annoy each other frequently, yet there is a quiet center between them that enhances both of their lives.  ‘Fair Play’ is ultimately a love story between these two women, told in short understated vignettes.

From the Wikipedia entry for Tove Jansson, ‘Fair Play’ seems quite autobiographical and perhaps based on her long-term friendship with Tuulikki Pietila.  Here are two female artists going about their creative work separately, each having some good productive days and other days not so worthwhile.

“They never asked, ‘Were you able to work today?’ Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected – those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.”

In a chapter called “Videomania” the two ladies watch films on Jonno’s video player together, Truffaut, Bergman, Visconti, Renoir, Wilder, Fassbinder, etc.  Afterwards they discuss these movies. Mari says:

“We don’t always have time to think, we just live!  Of course a filmmaker can depict what you call quirkiness, but it is still just canned.  We’re in the moment.  Maybe I haven’t thought this through…Jonno, these films are fantastic, they’re perfect.  But when we get involved in them as totally as we do, isn’t that dangerous?”

As a novel, ‘Fair Play’ does not reach the dramatic level of ‘The True Deceiver’.  The vignettes are episodic with no real coherence beyond the close relationship of these two women.  It does not have the vivid tension of ‘The True Deceiver’ which has a true villain and thus more conflict and drama.

I did have one problem with ‘Fair Play’ that may be particular to me. Previously I read one of the many Moomin children’s books written by Jansson, and in several ways it seems to me the relationship between Mari and Jonno resembles that of the hippos Moominpappa and Moominmamma. They communicate on this same quiet visceral level which is sometimes beyond words. They have their differences, but all is set right between them by the end.

I guess what I’m saying is that the Moomin shtick seems to carry over to ‘Fair Play’, and while I was reading this novel I kept being reminded of the Moomins.

Each of the chapters in ‘Fair Play’ is well-written and engaging in itself, but the whole does not go much beyond the sum of its parts.


Grade: B


‘Conspirata’ by Robert Harris – The Republic is Threatened

‘Conspirata’ by Robert Harris   (2010) – 334 pages



9780743266116_p0_v3_s260x420At the beginning of ‘Conspirata’, Cicero has been elected as consul, the highest office in the Roman republic.  He shares the office with Gaius Antonius Hybrida who plays a minor role.

Being the most powerful man in the Roman republic, Cicero has powerful enemies.  Soon he finds out that Catilina, a Roman Senator, is attempting to overthrow the Roman republic and is leading a conspiracy to murder Cicero.  Five traitors are captured and sentenced to death.  Although Julius Caesar is involved in the conspiracy behind the scenes, he survives.

“They may not all plot together but they all see an opportunity in chaos.  Some are willing to kill to bring chaos about, and others just desire to stand back and watch chaos take hold.  They are like boys with fire, and Caesar is the worst of the lot.  It’s a kind of madness – there’s madness in the state.”   

After breaking up this conspiracy to destroy the republic, Cicero is hailed as “the savior of Rome” and “the father of his country”.

The trouble is that all this praise went to Cicero’s head.   When his consulship ended, he took up writing heroic poems about himself.  He bought an expensive mansion from the wealthy Crassus that he can’t afford, but arranges to get some of the money by defending one of the traitors.  The rest he borrows from moneylenders.  Pride goes before a fall, as Cicero’s faithful assistant Tiro points out:

“But I fear there is in all men who achieve their life’s ambition only a narrow line between dignity and vanity, confidence and delusion.  Instead of staying in his seat and disavowing such praise, Cicero rose and made a long speech agreeing with Crassus’s every word, while beside him Pompey gently cooked in a stew of jealousy and resentment.” 

Yes, the two most powerful military leaders in Rome, Pompey and Julius Caesar, are also receiving an acclaim which threatens the republic.  Whereas Cicero is willing to control his drive in order to save the republic, the ambitions of Pompey and Julius Caesar have no limits.  In order to achieve their goals, they make Cicero’s enemy Clodius, “a man of great ambition and boundless stupidity, two qualities which in politics often go together”, a tribune.

Robert Harris has written this trilogy of Cicero as an object lesson on the threats to a republic’s checks and balances which keep any one person, whether it is king or emperor or dictator, from getting too much power.  Cicero fought for the rule of law and statute against some powerful enemies.  Danger comes from all sides.  The rich aristocrats can use their money to buy a government which unfairly gives them even more power.  On the other side, unscrupulous politicians can enflame the mob by using racism and patriotism.

SPQRIt is a huge accomplishment for a nation to keep a rational set of legal checks and balances protecting the rights of the less rich or powerful or fortunate and not succumb to dictatorship.


Grade: A- 

‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen – The Victors’ View of the Vietnam War

‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen    (2015) – 371 pages



‘The Sympathizer’ is like a fine Graham Greene novel which is told from the perspective of the local Eurasian in Vietnam rather than that of the white colonialist.  Make no mistake; what the United States was fighting for in Vietnam was the last gasp of colonialism which officially ended with the fall of Saigon.  Remember the United States took over from the French who were trying to hold on to their colony.

Not only is our narrator in ‘The Sympathizer’ a French-Vietnamese, he is a double agent.  As well as being a Captain in the South Vietnamese army, he is an undercover operator for the Viet Cong forces.  His true loyalty is to the Communist side. Thus he has a most skeptical attitude about the General he ostensibly works for.

“Whatever people say about the General today, I can only testify that he was a sincere man who believed in everything he said, even if it was a lie, which makes him not so different from most.”   

Graham Greene would have approved of that line.  This novel has that Greene quality of being able to deal with things as they actually are.  Your own side is probably at least as wicked as the other side, and thus you can see the treachery on your side. Thus you can point out your friends’ deceptions and self-justifications as well as that of your enemies’.

“As the Congressman arose, I calmed the tremor in my gut. I was in close quarters with some representative members of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.”

‘The Sympathizer’ will give you perspectives on the war that are vastly different from those of any other Vietnam War novel.

Early in the novel, there are vivid scenes of the fall of Saigon when the Vietnamese who worked for the Americans are desperately and hopelessly rushing for the helicopters to get out.

“The truth, in this case, was that at least a million people were working or had worked for the Americans in one capacity or another, from shining their shoes to running the army designed by the Americans in their own image to performing fellatio on them for the price, in Peoria or Poughkeepsie, of a hamburger.” 

Later the story turns devilishly humorous as our Captain becomes “a technical consultant in charge of authenticity” for an ‘Apocalypse Now’-style Hollywood movie about the Vietnam War.  This is devastating parody with an arrogant director and an insufferable egomaniac as its star.  From the silly movies which Hollywood made, you would have a difficult time realizing that the United States did indeed lose the Vietnam War.   The films “marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write the history instead of the victors.”

‘The Sympathizer’ is as close as most of us will ever get to reading the victors’ perspective on the Vietnam War.  It is an audacious performance.


Grade: A-


A New Strategy for Reading and Writing about Current Poetry

‘Application for Release from the Dream’ poems by Tony Hoagland   (2015) – 81 pages


Who could not like a poet who named a previous collection ‘What Narcissism Means to Me’ ?

My old strategy for reading and reviewing poetry collections was to find a positive review of a single collection and then read that collection.  Too many times I discovered that I absolutely did not want to write about the selected collection due to my own lack of interest.  The collection wasn’t necessarily bad; it just did not captivate me.  Each person’s response to a set of poems is terribly individual.  Just because one writer’s poems do not interest me does not mean that someone else will not devour them hungrily.

I only want to review collections to which I have a positive reaction.  Therefore I don’t even mention the ones that I discarded due to my own lack of enthusiasm.

So I came up with a new strategy.

This time I started with four books of poems by different authors.  All four of these books showed up on ‘Best of Year’ lists for 2015.  Despite their being on the year-end lists, I figured that I would probably be enthused by at most only two of them enough to write about them.

I had hoped to find two books of poems that I really liked so that I could compare and contrast.  However it turns out that of the four, only one book made the grade by totally spurring my interest and enthusiasm.  Fortunately I consider that one book a mighty fine one indeed. I don’t want to overdo the praise, but ‘Application for Release from the Dream’ by Tony Hoagland is a humorous penetrating down-to-earth book of poetry.

Here are a few lines from his poem called “Misunderstanding” that I particularly like.

“All those years I kept trying and failing and trying
to find my one special talent in this life –

Why did it take me so long to figure out
that my special talent was trying?”

Clever, honest, and insightful.  What more can one ask from a poet?  That same poem has the following lines.

 “When I compared humanity to a flower growing in the shadow of a munitions factory,
it may be that I was being unfair to flowers.”

In his poem “A History of High Heels” he considers the wearing of high heels by women and their effect on him.

       “Because today is one of those days when I am starting to suspect

That sex was just a wild goose chase

In which I honk-honk-honked away

Three quarters of my sweet unconscious life.”

Nearly every poem in this collection has lines I would like to quote, but I won’t.  It is quite unusual for me to be captivated by nearly every poem in a collection like I am here, even when I’m reading masters like Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson.   Throughout this collection, Hoagland’s outlook is quirky and original in a way that I can appreciate.

Of the countless lines I would like to quote, I will end with these from “Wasp”.

“a human being should have a warning label on the side
that says, Beware: Disorganized Narrative Inside;
prone to frequent sideways bursting

of one feeling through another”



Grade: A


‘Imperium’ by Robert Harris – The Lawyer Cicero in Ancient Rome

‘Imperium’ by Robert Harris  (2006) – 305 pages


The Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris is the second major fiction I have read about ancient Rome.  The first was ‘I, Claudius’ by Robert Graves.  ‘I Claudius’ was wild, wacky, and preposterous, much like those early Roman emperors who were presented so unforgettably by Graves.  The Cicero trilogy, on the other hand, is solid, workmanlike, invigorating, and intelligent, befitting Cicero, the lawyer and orator and defender of the Roman republic.

The entire Cicero trilogy is told by Cicero’s slave Tiro.  We do not know if Tiro was actually white or black or some color in between, since a slave in ancient Rome could be of any nationality.  Tiro was very much a remarkable man himself.  He invented a shorthand system which allowed him to exactly transcribe Cicero’s speeches word for word while they were spoken, and thus the speeches were saved for posterity.  After Cicero was killed, Tiro worked to save as many of the words of Cicero as possible up until his own death at age 99. Tiro also wrote a book on the life of Cicero which unfortunately was lost.

The first novel of the trilogy, ‘Imperium’, covers the significant events of Cicero’s early career as a lawyer.  The first half of the book deals with the prosecution and trial of Verres, the magistrate of Sicily, who robbed temples and private houses of their works of art.  Verres had many friends in the aristocracy which allowed him to steal from other rich Sicilians with impunity.  When finally Verres was arrested and taken to court, it was Cicero who was assigned to prosecute the case against him.

Cicero is the leader of a small group of honest people fighting massive corruption among the rich aristocratic ruling classes of Rome.  His is a thankless task, and he will need all his eloquence and intelligence to defeat his powerful rotten foes.  This is the classic battle of the underdog against a relentless ruthless enemy.  I read this bracing story with always a smile as they battle the forces of evil and corruption much like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, except instead of physical prowess they use rhetoric and reason in the battle.

“If you must do something unpopular, you might as well do it wholeheartedly, for in politics there is no credit to be won by timidity.”

Cicero fought the patrician aristocracy in this trial but later he will join forces with some of the patricians in battles against the plebian masses.  Of his many gifts, a talent for friendship was not the least.

Robert Harris also has put some humor into the proceedings which makes ‘Imperium’ easy to enjoy.  He has a lot of  fun with Cicero’s wife Terentia who apparently ruled their household.

“Terentia regarded her husband – arguably the greatest orator and the cleverest Senator in Rome at that time – with the kind of look a matron might reserve for a child who has made a puddle on the drawing room floor.”

In the second half of ‘Imperium’ we meet two of the major figures of the time, Pompey and Julius Caesar.  Both are popular military heroes who have hugely increased the size of the Roman republic as well as its treasury and thus are worshipped by the masses.  Later Cicero will have to defend the republic from power grabs by these two war superstars.


Grade: A-     



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