Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn –King Lear Comically Revisited


‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn   (2017) – 244 pages

‘Dunbar’ is a pastiche on ‘King Lear’ that is a lot of fun. Instead of a King, we have a media mogul. Edward St. Aubyn writes under the reasonable premise that the world media owner families of today are at least as ruthless, petty, and cruel as the ancient royal families of yesteryear. Think Rupert Murdoch.

King Lear is considered one of the most depressing tragedies ever written, depressing even for a Shakespeare tragedy. St. Aubyn turns King Lear from a tragedy into an over-the-top comedy.  We realize from his Patrick Melrose series of novels that St. Aubyn knows just how dysfunctional and flat out crazy some of these aristocratic families can be.  In ‘Dunbar’ he has perfectly captured the lust for power and the wretched behavior of the super wealthy and privileged.

Old man Dunbar as a media king was the high priest of tabloid entertainment for the masses. Now he has just had his lofty position in his media empire swiped from him by his two elder daughters, and they have stuck him away in a remote sanatorium in the Lake District in rural England.

“They stole my empire and now they send me stinking lilies.”


The older daughters outdid themselves professing their great love for their father. The youngest daughter refused to play that game, so Dunbar in a rage disinherited her, a bad move because she is the only one who truly loves him. From the beginning, the two older daughters are portrayed as having an evil wickedness that knows no bounds.

St. Aubyn is one of those authors who understand it is not a novel’s final destination that matters but instead the joys and jests and other acute feelings we experience along the way that matter.  The story is played for laughs, but I suppose it also does contain its share of truth. Edward St. Aubyn is rapidly becoming one of my favorite fiction writers.  There is a verve to his individual sentences that carries the tale. Take this sentence from when Dunbar escapes from the care home into the pastoral moorland of the Midlands:

“The white noise of rushing water helped to camouflage the anxious murmur of his thoughts.” 

Here one of the few quiet moments in the novel is well captured. The humor early on is helped along by Peter who is a drunk but sharp-tongued comedian who plays the Fool in the story.

‘Dunbar’ would be an excellent zany novel even without the shadow of King Lear.


Grade:   A 



Why Poetry?

‘Why Poetry’ by Matthew Zapruder  (2017) – 226 pages

About half way through reading ‘Why Poetry’, I realized that the main purpose for the book is to serve as a textbook for a college survey course perhaps called Poetry 101.  It is written to be a guide book both for appreciating poetry and, to a limited extent, for writing poetry.

Matthew Zapruder occasionally mentions his experiences instructing students in such a course, sometimes at a college near Amherst, Massachusetts.  Amherst is the home of Emily Dickinson so it is the ideal place to be teaching poetry.

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”   Emily Dickinson 

I cannot imagine a more perfect line of poetry than that.

I totally agree with Zapruder’s main point which is that we readers of poetry should take the words of a poem at face value, trust what is said on the surface of a poem, and not overextend ourselves looking for deep or buried meanings. Poetry is mainly about using words effectively, and we must count on the poet to do just that.

As for writing poetry, Zapruder’s advice is to not pursue a career of writing poetry unless you absolutely have to, which I think is good advice.  For myself, I majored in mathematics in college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and I stayed safely on the technical side for my career despite becoming increasingly enamored of literary fiction and poetry during my off hours.  I did not have to write fiction or poetry, so I didn’t, although I tried occasionally.

So ‘Why Poetry’ has that comprehensive textbook feel to it which isn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I stuck with it.  At the beginning there are some meaningful quotes by famous writers as to what poetry is which I appreciated.  Marianne Moore said that a poem is “a place for the genuine”.  Aristotle said poets are those who “have an eye for resemblances”.

  “A poem, when it works, is an action of a mind captured on a page.” – Anne Carson 

The book does not mention my favorite quote about poetry:

“A poet is one who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.”  – Randall Jarrell

Unfortunately for Randall Jarrell he never did get struck by lightning, and he does not have that one great poem that everyone has heard, although he was a wonderful critic who was responsible for single-handedly rediscovering the novel ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ by Christina Stead.

Anne Carson also has another great quote about poetry which is not mentioned in the book:

“Words bounce. Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do.” – Anne Carson, Autobiography in Red  

Here is a line from Matthew Zapruder himself that I liked:

“Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” – Matthew Zapruder

The beginning analyses of poems in ‘Why Poetry’ were quite rewarding for me, but as the analyses grew more complicated, they became less helpful to me.  I suppose to some extent my tastes in poetry diverged from Zapruder’s as I prefer the clear, simple and direct whereas he has a taste for the dreamlike and distracting.  There are some poets we both like including the aforementioned Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson, and Wallace Stevens.  However other poems he uses as examples left me high and dry.  I certainly did not study the examples with the intensity required for a college course.

There may be several reasons for my lack of appreciation for a poem.  Often, I suppose, it is me not paying close enough attention to the poem.  Other times a poem is fine, but it’s just not on the same wavelength as me.  The third possibility is that the poem is just not that good.

‘Why Poetry’ probably will work very well as a textbook, but it might not turn you into a poet or even a poetry aficionado.


Grade:   B      


‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck – A German Takes an Interest in the African Refugees

‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck  (2017)  –  283 pages                                               Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky


“Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?”

One of the main reasons I read fiction is curiosity about my fellow humans.

‘Go, Went, Gone” tells the story of Richard, a retired, widowed professor in Berlin, who discovers a whole new world of people outside his door.  Near his home, he discovers a group of African refugees, all of them men, who are protesting their treatment by the German authorities.  These refugees are treated by German society in general as nothing more than a problem and to be ignored unless and until they cause any disturbances.  They are moved from school building to office building to warehouse.

In German society where work is so important, these African refugee men are not allowed to work, not even to wash dishes. That is one of these men’s biggest complaints, that they have nothing to do all day long.  Some of them were skilled metalworkers in Libya or Niger or elsewhere, and others had different jobs.

“People have no respect, no empathy for other people; they have no sense of who other people are.  There’s a kind of withering away of the human sensibility, and that leads to the collapse of just about everything.”  – James Purdy

Yet these refugees were treated just as poorly in other European countries. Of Italy, one of the refugees says, “In the subways the Italians get up and sit somewhere else if I sit next to them.”

Richard gives these black men who are stranded in Germany with no place else to go the most important gift anyone can give them, an interest in their lives.  He listens to their stories of their harrowing times while still in Africa.  Many of these men had led relatively comfortable lives when suddenly all was upset by unrest and violence.  They were forced onto unseaworthy boats, and for one man, Rashid, he watched both his children drown when the boat capsized.  Rashid escaped.

The Germans tend to treat the disruptions in these men’s lives as something totally foreign outside of themselves, completely forgetting all the disruptions to Germans resulting from World War II and the division of Germany afterward.  Richard lived in the Eastern sector of Berlin and recalls how he was treated as a second-class citizen when Germany was reunited.

An immigration lawyer tells Richard that two thousand years ago the Teutons in Germany were quite hospitable.  In his book ‘Germania’, Tacitus wrote of these ancient Germans: “It is accounted a sin to turn any man away from your door. The host welcomes his guest with the best meal that his means allow.”

Some writers go overboard with special effects to win over their readers.  Instead Jenny Erpenbeck is one writer, like perhaps J. M Coetzee, who is confident enough in her technique that she remains resolutely unflashy and austere in presenting her story here. Also the lives of these refugees are necessarily plain and austere as they are prevented from doing anything useful and are moved around from building to building.  Perhaps the story Erpenbeck is telling here is so important it goes beyond artifice. “Go, Went, Gone” is not a fun or happy read, but the world is not always a fun or happy place.

In the final Acknowledgements section, Jenny Erpenbeck expresses her deep gratitude to the thirteen African refugees she had many good conversations with.  It shows in her writing.


Grade:  A


‘New People’ by Danzy Senna – She is Engaged Yet Out There Stalking


‘New People’ by Danzy Senna   (2017) – 229 pages

Maria is a young woman who ostensibly has it made.  She is in graduate school working on her dissertation on the Jonestown Temple massacre.  Her fiancée Khalil, after graduating college at Stanford, is hoping to cash in big on the first boom since this is the 1990s.  Both Maria and Khalil are biracial, “the same shade of beige”.   They will soon be married and against all odds they appear to be gliding into a happy upper middle class life.

But there is a slippery problem, and it all has to do with Maria.

Actually Maria is a “one dropper” and could pass for white, but she rebels by embracing her blackness.

“She grew up listening to Whitney Houston and she had never liked or known music out of the mainstream.  Being black and looking white was enough of a freak show.” 

Maria attends a poetry reading with Khalil and a friend, when a black poet she had seen before takes the stage and reads from his work.

“She wasn’t expecting to see him here tonight.  Now her face feels warm while she watches him step on to the stage and pick up the microphone.” 

“In the audience, listening to his voice, she realizes that she has been waiting to see him again.  She feels uneasy in this awareness.”

These short sharp lines are good examples of the lucid bold style of Danzy Senna.

Maria is immediately obsessed with “the poet”. She stalks him mercilessly and gets into some outrageously funny situations.  There are some most surprising hilarious turns in ‘New People’.  Totally engrossed in her search for the poet, she forgets her bridal dress fitting, much to the disgust of Khalil’s family.  She sneaks into the apartment next door to the poet and winds up holding and caring for a screaming baby when the woman living there mistakes her for the occasional babysitter Consuela.   In her crazed attraction for the poet, Maria drives even the trusting Khalil to suspicion.

I really liked the rapt yet playful tone of ‘New People’.  Even someone who is engaged can become terribly obsessed with someone else.  It is not fortunate, but it does happen.  Maria’s brazen obsession with the poet leads to some of the most ridiculous situations this side of ‘I Love Lucy’.  Just like Lucy, Maria is comical in her audacity.

‘New People’ loses some of its original merry energy towards the end, but up until then it is an unpredictable mad lively read.


Grade :   B  


‘Sisters’ by Lily Tuck – “First and second wives are like sisters.”


‘Sisters’ by Lily Tuck   (2017) – 150 pages

If you ever read ‘Sisters’, I can guarantee you it will be one of the quickest novellas you have ever read.  It is only 150 pages, and there is a lot of white space in those pages.  At the same time it is an elegant witty performance based on the following premise which is stated in the novel’s epigraph:

“First and second wives are like sisters.” – Christopher Nicholson (Winter)

In the old days, it was not unusual for a man to marry his wife’s younger sister after his wife died.  Lily Tuck gives several examples of this phenomenon including Jane Austen’s brother Charles.  Although our first-person heroine narrator here in ‘Sisters’ is not a real sister to her husband’s ex-wife and the ex is not dead, she considers that there is a sisterly connection between them.

“And we don’t look alike.  She is blonde, fair-skinned, big-boned, and taller than I.  I have also seen photos of her as a young woman, and I have to admit she was lovely.  Truly.” 

This woman is clearly obsessed with her husband’s ex.  She calls the ex from a phone booth, so the call cannot be traced.  Phone booths are another object that is almost obsolete today like typewriters and film and cassettes.  The new wife gets chances to hear about and see the ex through the son and daughter from that previous marriage.

‘Sisters’ is filled with literary and other allusions which I always enjoy in a novel.  These references have a collage effect similar to that of the works of David Markson.  However, Markson’s allusions are more scattered while Lily Tuck’s allusions always fit into the context of the story in this short novella.

“Once while we were making love my husband called out her name instead of mine.”

‘Sisters’ is much more nasty and erotic than Jane Austen ever could be, and there is a surprising risqué twist at the end of ‘Sisters’.

Elegant, witty, literary, risqué, short.  How could a novella be any better than that?


Grade:   A   


‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack – One Long, Fascinating Sentence


‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack   (2017)   – 217 pages

There are no periods, no stopping points, in ‘Solar Bones’, not even at the very end of the novel. (I looked.)   It is one long stream of conscious thoughts, and what a stream it is!  You could say that what James Joyce started, Mike McCormack has finished by writing his entire novel as one long stream of consciousness.

This one is not a gimmick; this one is for real.  The absence of a period and the presence of a conjunction propel the reader forward on to the next paragraph and the next paragraph and the next and…  Just as our minds go from one thought directly to another that may only be peripherally related to the first, so goes ‘Solar Bones’.  I generally don’t like to take my breaks from reading in the middle of a sentence on an ‘and’, but with this novel I had no choice.

Often ‘Solar Bones’ reads like poetry, poetry written by an Irish engineering supervisor which is who our narrator Marcus Conway is.

“yes you’re an engineer, math and physics and suchlike, but it was always a bit of a mystery where all your references came from, all the poetry and philosophy that overtakes you from time to time, but now I know, it was all part of the old ecclesial schooling am I right” 

Yes, a time spent in religious training as a young man has made the difference for Marcus Conway.  He combines the rigorous calculation of the engineer with the more expansive view of the world that poetry and philosophy provide.

Don’t be put off by this talk of stream of consciousness and poetry; ‘Solar Bones’ is compulsively readable.  I sailed through this novel smiling at this guy’s vivid frequently humorous portrayal of his family and of his engineering fights.  His loving concern shines through for his wife Mairead, his daughter Agnes, and his son Darragh who’s in Australia but sometimes calls home via Skype  It is all overlaid with that old Irish charm which I try hard to resist but somehow fall for anyway.  If I have any complaint at all, it is that McCormick lays that Irish schtick on a little too thickly.

‘Solar Bones’ was the 2016 winner of the Goldsmiths Prize.  It definitely fulfills the Goldsmiths slogan “Fiction at its most novel”.


Grade :     A+   


‘Beast’ by Paul Kingsnorth – An English Man Alone

‘Beast’ by Paul Kingsnorth  (2017) – 164 pages

‘Beast’ is what I call an isolation novel.  Like Robinson Crusoe, Paul Buckmaster is a man alone. Buckmaster is a contemporary man who willingly left his village and wife and baby daughter to live by himself in a dilapidated shack out in the West Country English moors.

‘Are you looking for God or looking for your self? she said. Can you even tell the difference any more? … Six years, she said, it’s been six years, and you leave now, at the worst time there could be, and for nothing … You are a child, she said, you always have been, and now I have two children.’

Buckmaster sees his former village life as empty:

“Everywhere there were voices and I added my voice to them and we spoke out together and said nothing at all.”

“I walked the streets, I sat on the couches, I passed through the sliding doors, I talked but never listened, I sold but I never gave away.”  

He went to the wilderness seeking solace:

“I came here to measure myself against the great emptiness.”

‘Back there,’ Buckmaster says of his abandoned life, ‘I was an item, an object, a collection of gears, a library of facts compiled by others, a spark plug in a universal engine, an opinion machine, I was made of plastic and bamboo canes and black bin bags. I walked like I was human and alive but I was neither. I could know anything in an instant and I knew nothing … I need to be in the places where the light comes through, where people are thin on the ground, where the old spirits still mutter in the hedges and the stone rows.’

However by now Buckmaster has gone nearly insane after a year of solitude. ‘Perhaps I am losing my mind,’ he says: ‘I do hope so.’  On one of his long rambling walks through the woods, Buckmaster encounters a beast with penetrating yellow eyes: ‘a long low dark animal with a thin curling tail that it held above the ground as it walks’.  He has no idea what the creature is but is determined to see it again.

Although of course Kingsnorth never comes out and tells us what the Beast means, my own theory is that it represents this man’s guilt over leaving his wife and baby at a critical time.  Perhaps I’m being a little too straightforward and prosaic.

Whenever I read one of these heavy-duty isolation novels, I find myself longing for Jane Austen and her amusing congenial banter across the kitchen table.


Grade:   B+        


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