Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘The Young Bride’ by Alessandro Baricco


‘The Young Bride’ by Alessandro Baricco   (2015) – 174 pages        Translated by Ann Goldstein


‘The Young Bride’ is the elegant story of an eccentric aristocratic Italian family who live all together in a mansion except for the son who is away to England on family business.  The son’s eighteen year-old fiancé who now lives in Argentina shows up at the mansion one day and stays there awaiting the son’s return.  The family members are never given names; instead they are referred to as the Father, The Mother, the Daughter, the Son, as well as the Young Bride.  Only the old man servant who runs the household has a name; he is Modesto.

For me the best part of the novel is the first third when this strange family is grandiosely described in Baricco’s rich style.   Several pages are devoted to the family’s great daily morning awakening, but I will quote only a short sample to give you a feel for Baricco’s style:

“The table for breakfasts – a term no one ever thought of using in the singular, for only a plural can conjure the richness, the abundance, and the unreasonable duration – is indeed a well-laid sea.  A pagan sense of thanksgiving is evident – the escape from the catastrophe of sleep.”

Each morning three-hour breakfasts are served as thanksgiving for the family having survived the previous night.

“For a hundred and thirteen years, it should be said, all of us have died at night, in our family. That explains everything.” 

‘The Young Bride’ is one of those novels which started out spectacularly strong for me, but wound up slowly dissipating my enthusiasm.   For me the least effective and least comprehensible parts of the book are where Baricco experiments with changing the narration from third person to first person.  These sections are near impossible to follow.  The novel’s conceit is that the Young Bride is relating the story many years later.  However at the beginning of the novel, the young bride is not in the house, so the narration necessarily becomes third person.  Later the narration goes back to first person occasionally which jars and is confusing.

‘The Young Bride’ is just one long story not divided into chapters.  If the narration changes had occurred at the chapter level, I probably could have followed them better.

The translator of ‘The Young Bride’ is Ann Goldstein, now justly famous for her Elena Ferrante translations.  It is difficult to imagine two writers more different than Elena Ferrante and Alessandro Baricco.  Ferrante is down to earth while Baricco writes in an over-the-top grand experimental style.


Grade:   B- 


‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ by Bob Dylan


bob-daylan-8x10-photo-107There is some controversy over Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature,  yet it would be difficult to find anyone who has had more of an impact on more people with their words than Bob Dylan.  Many consider Bob Dylan a poet, and the tradition of a poet putting their words into music goes way back.

Another reason Dylan is a good selection is that, yes, Bob Dylan is from the United States, but he is known and admired throughout the world.

As my last argument that he deserves the prize as well as to honor Bob Dylan, I am setting down the words to one of his great lyrics.  You might want to listen to the song too.  Here are both the Bob Dylan version and the Joan Baez version.


“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” by Bob Dylan   (1965)


You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun
Look out the saints are comin’ through
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The empty handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home
Your empty handed armies, are all going home
Your lover who just walked out the door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor
The carpet, too, is moving under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start a new
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan – To Be or Not to Be


‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan    (2016) – 197 pages


‘Nutshell’ is an English low comedy about a nasty modern-day murder told by an eight-month fetus who is still inside his mother.

Two of the protagonists in this novel are Trudy and Claude.  Do these names ring a bell?  They might.  Remember Gertrude and Claudius in ‘Hamlet’?  Claudius is the King’s brother, Gertrude is the King’s wife, and Hamlet is the King’s son.  The same setup is here in the novel with Claude fooling around with Trudy behind the father’s back, except our Hamlet is still unborn, still in the womb.  Being inside he feels every aftershock from Claude and Trudy’s frequent sex escapades.  At one point our unborn Hamlet is so disgusted, he tries to strangle himself with the umbilical cord.  This is a scene which brings to mind McEwan’s early black humor phase.

So our Hamlet in ‘Nutshell’ is a troubled young fetus instead of a troubled young man. ‘Hamlet’ is high drama; ‘Nutshell’ is low comedy.

If you recall the play ‘Hamlet’, you probably remember that Hamlet does not have much respect or use for his uncle Claudius.  The same is true in ‘Nutshell’ with Claude being a particularly self-serving dolt who speaks in the lamest of clichés. Claude is the joke figure of the novella, especially when Claude and Trudy are plotting the murder.  However our unborn prince still loves his cheating mother.

The father here, named John Cairncross, is a poet instead of a King.

Our unborn first-person narrator speaks like a hyper-articulate English aristocratic twit since Trudy listens to self-improving podcasts.  This is all great comic fun for the reader with none of the sincerity that had crept into McEwan’s work of late.

Of course ‘Nutshell’ could not be a take on ‘Hamlet’ if the father’s ghost did not appear.  The ghost does show up.

The play ‘Hamlet’ does have that effect on writers.  The plot of the play is so vivid that writers like to do parodies of it which ‘Nutshell’ essentially is.  The American writer John Updike also did a parody of Hamlet called ‘Gertrude and Claudius’ which I consider Updike’s finest work.

‘Nutshell’ is great fun to read although it, being a pastiche, is not at all original or profound, unlike the original play ‘Hamlet’.  There is no one with the wisdom of Polonius here, and Hamlet himself being a fetus, his ideas are kind of unformed.


Grade:   B+


‘Ninety-Nine Stories of God’ by Joy Williams – “We Only Know What God is Not, Not What God Is”


‘Ninety-Nine Stories of God’ by Joy Williams   (2016)   – 131 pages



First it must be said that Joy Williams finds God in unusual places, a hot dog eating contest, an aquarium in Berlin, a drive-by shooting of a child, a short-haired dog who saves a newborn baby abandoned in Kenya.

As the title indicates, here are 99 stories of God.  These are not stories about a human representation of God.  Rather the stories are subtle and not-so-subtle situations which bring the question of a God to the fore.  ‘Ninety-Nine Stories of God’ is very much a minimalist work as we have 99 stories spread over less than 150 pages.   Some of the stories are two pages, some only a page, some just a sentence.

I like the concept of the very short story but was disappointed somewhat by its execution here.  I felt the style of the writing of the sentences was just not varied or lively enough for me to get enthusiastic about these stories.  There is a droning quality to the writing style that just did not put these stories across for me.   What was missing for me was a clever and/or interesting voice telling these stories.  Instead we get unending sparseness which only makes the individual stories seem dry.  These very short stories are already sparse enough without a minimal style making them even more meager.  The style of writing is plain and workmanlike rather than sparkling and brilliant like these short little vignettes ought to have been.

Before reading  this, I have read and been favorably impressed by several of the fictions of Joy Williams including ‘State OF Grace’, ‘The Quick and the Dead’, and the short stories of ‘Taking Care’.  She originally was considered one of the literary minimalists along with Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, Mary Robison, and others.  As such her work was characterized by an economy of words, simplicity, and directness.   Joy Williams was known for throwing comedy into the mix.

Certainly there is irony and humor in some of these short short stories.  There is one very short story called “Museum” which contains only the following sentence: “We were not interested the way we thought we would be interested.”  I know I have had that experience in a museum, and you probably have too.  And maybe there is room for God somewhere in there too.  Joy Williams has a very broad interpretation of God which I do like.

The entire ‘Ninety-Nine Stories of God’ does not take much time to read, and rather than relying on my rather lukewarm opinion, you might just want to read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.


Grade:   B-


‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles– In Praise of the Literary Stylist


A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles    (2016) – 462 pages



After now reading two novels by Amor Towles I have come to the conclusion that he is a great literary stylist on the order of Vladimir Nabokov.  A literary stylist knows that it is not our final destination that matters but the pleasures we have along the way. A stylist can go on and describe a game of Hide the Thimble for several pages, and we will not complain; in fact we will be charmed.

“For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.” 

The year is 1922. Count Rostov is an unrepentant aristocrat in Moscow even though now the Communists are in charge in Russia. This usually meant being “put up against a wall”, but instead the authorities restrict Count Rostov to the Metropol, a showcase hotel for foreign dignitaries visiting Moscow.  He becomes a head waiter in the hotel, a position for which he is well suited.  He cannot leave the hotel.  He is reassigned to a small room at the hotel.

‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ tracks the Count’s entire stay at the hotel from 1922 all the way up to 1952.  He is a part of a triumvirate which also includes the chef Emile and the maître d’hôtel Andrey who keep the hotel and restaurant running smoothly. One might assume that things would get claustrophobic being restricted to a hotel, but one would be wrong.  The Count’s days are filled with elegance and delight.  Famous actresses and authors and diplomats stay at the hotel.  The Count becomes friends with the young Nina, and later she drops off her daughter Sofia at the hotel for him to bring up which he somehow manages admirably.

Sometimes the bureaucrats intrude upon the hotel.  In the Metropol’s wine cellar, “was assembled a staggering collection of Cabernets and Chardonnays, Rieslings, and Syrahs, ports and Madieras – a century of vintages from across the continent of Europe. “  A complaint was filed that this fine wine list ran counter to the ideals of the Revolution.  The Commissar of Food then forced the hotel to remove all of the identifying labels from every bottle of wine, and from then on the hotel could only distinguish red wine from white wine with every bottle sold at a single price.

“Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself.  Yet here it was, cast back into the sea of anonymity, that realm of averages and unknowns.” 

The entire novel is written with a distinctive Old World charm.   Amor Towles is a sensuous stylist who doesn’t waste his skills on something as mundane as sex but uses them instead to describe a spectacular food dish or a unique bottle of wine.  However it is in the intriguing and warm interactions between characters where Towles excels.

‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ casts a likable alluring spell like no other novel I have ever read.


Grade:   A


‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London – Why We Read Novels


‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London   (2014) – 221 pages



I have often thought about why people read novels or, more in particular, why do I read novels.  I came up with the following reason. Reading a really good novel can be transformative for me just like a few of the people that I have met during my lifetime who have changed me. ‘The Golden Age’ is one of those really good novels which had this profound effect on me. Why I feel such a need to transform myself is another question.

Joan London is a transcendent old-fashioned novelist, and that is a glorious thing.  She writes about people being heroic in desolate circumstances.  Take the following lines about the nurse Lidja who works at the children’s polio hospital called The Golden Age:

“Everyone knew that Lidja would not give up on you.  She bent their fingers and wrists, twisted their torsos, stretched their legs, brought their heads down to their ribs.  They learned not to whimper or to complain.  She presided over their momentous occasions – the first time they stood alone, the first step they took.

The reward was Lidja’s smile and the way she said their name.  She made them feel like athletes training for a race.  They must fight, they must never give up, they were going to win!” 

The novel is mainly the story of the Golden Age makeshift hospital, its staff, and the child polio patients.

Thanks to doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin I missed the terrible epidemics of polio by a few years.  In ‘The Golden Age’ the Gold family somehow escaped the Holocaust in their hometown of Budapest and migrated to Australia, only to have their only child Frank come down with polio six years later.  Frank is a rather precocious 13 year-old, and soon he falls in love with 12 year-old Elsa, another polio patient.

One admirable quality I find in Joan London as well as in several other Australian fiction writers is that she does not confine her characters to little tightly defined compartments where their every word or action can be guessed ahead of time.  Instead she allows all of her characters the freedom to be eccentric or unique or different from the others as they see fit.  Thus we get a novel of several unique independent people interacting with each other with sometimes unexpected results.  This is true for the patients at the hospital as well as the staff and the parents.  I find Australian novels in general more unpredictable than others, and that is a positive trait.

‘The Golden Age’ is a fine traditional heroic novel.  The characters in the novel not only persevere despite bleak conditions, they triumph.


(However I do have a complaint about the cover.  In the cover I did not use, the boy is at least sixteen, and Frank in the book is only thirteen. The cover I’m using isn’t great, but it is not so bad.)


Grade:   A 


‘City of Secrets’ by Stewart O’Nan – Jerusalem Right After World War II


‘City of Secrets’ by Stewart O’Nan    (2016) – 190 pages



A blurb on the back of this novel from fellow novelist Alan Furst said, “’City of Secrets’ will keep you up all night reading.”   Sorry, it did not work out that way for me.  Instead I would drag through a few pages, anxious to quit the whole time.  Then I would stop reading and find out I had read only four pages.  You can imagine that reading the entire novel seemed interminable.

Perhaps part of the problem for me was the ambiguity of the novel’s situation.  The year is 1946.  World War II is over.  Jewish refugees from all over Europe are rushing into Jerusalem, the capital of British Palestine.  Our hero, the Latvian Brand, is one of these Jewish refugees.  He lost his entire family in the Holocaust.  Brand survived only “because he was young and could fix an engine.”

For five years during the worst part of World War II, Great Britain allowed only 10,000 Jewish immigrants per year into Palestine. Also about 20-25,000 Jews illegally migrated to Palestine during that period, more power to them.  After the war, makeshift groups of Jews worked to undermine British rule by committing terroristic acts in Jerusalem.  Brand as a taxi driver was a member of one of these underground groups.  Ultimately by 1948, Palestine became the independent state of Israel.

“He wanted the revolution—like the world—to be innocent, when it had never been.”

So do we root for these terrorists against the British government?  Not Sure.  ‘City of Secrets’ describes the planning and execution of several of these dangerous assignments.

At its best, at times ‘City of Secrets’ reminded me of a Humphrey Bogart movie.  Here we have an exotic location in the 1940s and a shady group of people committing desperate acts.  Brand does have a girlfriend Eva who is a former actress now working as a call girl at the King David Hotel. Perhaps part of the problem for me is that Brand has experienced all of the trauma of losing his family during the war that he almost seems to be sleepwalking through his life in Jerusalem.

Why does one novel affect you deeply and another leave you cold?  I was much affected in a good way by Stewart O’Nan’s ‘Last Night at the Lobster’, the seemingly mundane story of a Red Lobster restaurant closing in Connecticut.  However ‘City of Secrets’ left me relatively unmoved, even though the story would seem to be much more dramatic and exciting.   I was more affected by the plight of a waitress losing her job in ‘Last Night at the Lobster’ than by a hotel bombing in ‘City of Secrets’.  Maybe that’s just me or maybe that’s the way reading novels goes.


Grade:   C     


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