‘Here We Are’ by Graham Swift – Back to Brighton


‘Here We Are’ by Graham Swift   (2020) – 195 pages


You’re in Brighton, folks, so bloody well brighten up!”


‘Here We Are” is a Brighton novel. I like Brighton novels. There’s ‘Brighton Rock’ which is prime Graham Greene, and there is wild off-the-wall ‘Berg’ by Ana Quin, and here we are in Brighton again with Graham Swift.

As befits Brighton, ‘Here We Are’ is a small-time verging on big-time show business novel that takes place around 1959. Before there was television there was Brighton, and many of the Brighton entertainers became the early TV stars.

And anyway the show was always just what it was, a flickering summer concoction at the end of a pier.”

This is also a tearjerker romance by a high quality writer. By keeping a narrow focus on only three characters – Jack, Ronnie, and Evie – we get an emotional and believable story which is what I have come to expect from Graham Swift.

Jack is the master of ceremonies. Already a show biz veteran at 28, he is the consummate entertainer, the song and dance man who also can tell a joke. He’s the guy who attracts all the stage door Floras, and he takes full advantage of them.

Ronnie started out in “the humblest of houses in Bethnal Green”, a poorer section of London. His father was away at sea most of the time. When the bombing of London started in the late 1930s, Ronnie’s mother sent him off to safety with a well-to-do childless couple, Eric and Penelope Lawrence, with whom he stayed for almost five years. Mr. Lawrence happened to be a practicing magician and taught Ronnie the tricks of the trade.

Later Ronnie meets Jack in the army after the war, and the two team up as an act. Jack realizes there is something missing from Ronnie’s act and they place the following ad:

Magician’s Assistant Wanted. Suit Young Lady. Previous Stage Experience Essential.”

Enter Evie White. Evie answers the ad, and together Ronnie and Evie become the magic act, Pablo and Eve. They rightly figured all the men in the audience would be so busy looking at Evie, they wouldn’t be looking at the things Ronnie was doing. They become a show major attraction on the pier.

This is a show business story handled adroitly by Graham Swift. I have read a lot of Graham Swift novels over the years starting with ‘Waterland’. Among the male writers that started out with him, Ian MacEwan is probably more dramatic in his approach, William Boyd is more adventurous and humorous, and Kazuo Ishiguro can come up with more spectacular meaningful plots, but no one can draw the feelings out of a reader as well as Graham Swift.


Grade:     A





‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante


The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante (2020) – 320 pages Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

I want to start here with an exercise for you. Try to remember your life situation when you were 13 years old, your family, your other relatives, your friends, your feelings, your school. If you are like me, you will remember a lot more details and recall much more vividly everything that was going on for you then than you would have guessed. Thirteen is the approximate age when we start breaking away from our family circumstances and begin to become independent persons. That’s also when we begin to realize that our parents are just two human beings with their own set of problems just like everyone else.

So what has this got to do with The Lying Life of Adults’? Here our main protagonist Giovanna is 13. Her father’s offhand remark which she overhears sets off a startling chain of events.

She’s getting the face of Vittoria.”

Giovanna is of course curious about this aunt Vittoria, and she finds out that her father and his sister Vittoria had a big fight, and that’s why their family never visits her. She starts asserting her independence by visiting her father’s enemy sister. Soon after that the marriage of Giovanna’s own parents falls apart.

I was completely engaged in the story of ‘The Lying Life of Adults’. Much of the novel is about the intrigues of relating to the opposite sex as an adolescent and teenager. This, of course, has been the subject of hundreds of novels, but Ferrante’s approach seems fresh and interesting for the most part.

Throughout we have mentions of a bracelet that Giovanna’s grandmother had worn, and the bracelet gets handed from person to person during the story. I suppose Grandma’s bracelet would be considered the objective correlative to use a fancy literary term, but the bracelet did seem a little too obvious and artificial as a literary device.

However, overall, ‘The Lying Life of Adults’ held my interest throughout. It’s a story of growing up in Naples, Italy, but probably is applicable around the world.

Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many.”

Perhaps as a further exercise, think about the lies which your parents told you when you were a child. I really couldn’t think of any outright lies my parents told me then.


Grade:    A-


‘Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain


‘Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain   (2020) – 161 pages


‘Indelicacy’ is a powerful novella about creativity. It is a short novel with short chapters, but it has a slow cadence; it is best if you read it slowly.

Can a woman who cleans toilets and mops floors for a living have strong ambitions to be a writer? ‘Indelicacy’ answers that question with a resounding “Yes”. ‘Indelicacy’ is a novel about the struggle to create.

In books, I found even more strongly my desire to write, to write back to them and their jagged perfect words. I found life that ran close to mine.”

There are only a few characters in ‘Indelicacy’. Our narrator Vittoria and her friend Antoinette work as cleaners in a museum. Vittoria has an intense urge to write about the museum paintings when she is away from work.

One day as she is mopping the floors, Vittoria meets the man who will soon become her rich husband who remains unnamed throughout. One could say he is not one of the novella’s significant characters. Vittoria moves up in the world to a nice house with a maid, and she no longer must work as a cleaner.

Who are the other significant characters? Besides Antoinette, there is the young woman Dana whom Vittoria meets in ballet class after Vittoria is married. Dana is intensely pursuing ballet as Vittoria is pursuing writing. Then there is the woman Solange who works cleaning the house for Vittoria and her rich husband. No other characters are mentioned by name.

One of the many charms of ‘Indelicacy’ is when our female first-person narrator goes totally off the wall. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it prevents our narrator from sounding just too sincere. At one point, Vittoria attends a reading presented by two authors. Vittoria is not at all impressed by their performance and says to them on the way out, “You’re both worms of the worst kind. When you open your mouths, you are male worms eating from a toilet.”

One gets the impression that Amina Cain carefully chose each precise word in this unusual novella ‘Indelicacy’. It is a work that captures you on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level, which is always a good thing.


Grade:    A



Twelve Wildly Original Unusual Novels


Lately I have been reading the new novel ‘Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain, and it caused me to consider some of the other dazzlingly original novels which I have read in the past. I will be covering ‘Indelicacy’ in depth in a future article, but in the meantime I have put together the following list of really good novels which I have read that are well nigh unclassifiable. I tried for a wide variety in this list; the only trait the novels in this list have in common is that they would not fit into any other genre list.


‘The Intuitionist’ by Colson Whitehead (1999)– Here is an allegory about a female New York City elevator inspector. Some of the elevator inspectors are “intuitionists” and others are “empiricists”.

It is failure that guides evolution; perfection provides no incentive for improvement, and nothing is perfect.”


‘The Man Without Qualities’ by Robert Musil (1930) – Here is a novel of ideas that will change your life if you have the patience to read all of its pages. I actually found the novel quite easy to follow and understand once I got into it. Since it is divided up into Part I and Part II, I gave myself credit for reading two novels.



‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme (1984) – It was originally turned down by many publishing houses, one of which wrote:

“Undoubtedly Miss Hulme can write but unfortunately we don’t understand what she is writing about.”

‘The Bone People’ was finally published by a small publishing house and went on to win the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1984. It is now considered an unorthodox classic about the indigenous New Zealand Maori people and us.

‘Good Morning, Midnight’ by Jean Rhys (1939) – Critics in 1939 found the modernist novel ‘Good Morning,Midnight’ so repellent that it sold very poorly. Rhys then disappeared from public view, stopped writing due to feeling inadequate, and fell into obscurity. By 1964, Rhys was living in a shack made of corrugated iron and tar paper. Then there was a major Jean Rhys revival in 1976 with the publication of her novel ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. Author V. S. Naipaul wrote that ‘Good Morning, Midnight is “the most subtle and complete of her novels”.

‘Pale Fire’ by Vladimir Nabokov (1962) – It starts as a 999-line poem with commentary, but winds up being one of the most humorous novels ever written. If you want to fully appreciate Vladimir Nabokov, don’t read ‘Lolita’; read ‘Pale Fire’ instead.





‘White Noise’ by Don DeLillo (1985) – I could have picked any one of several DeLillo novels, but I picked ‘White Noise’ because it was my first love of Delillo’s work. I had read some of DeLillo’s earlier work, but wasn’t totally captivated until this one. This is a supremely ironic take on consumer life in the United States and elsewhere.



‘The Hour of the Star’ by Clarice Lispector (1977) – This is Lispector’s masterpiece. She was a Brazilian writer for which the reader sometimes must work hard to fully appreciate her novels, but in the end it is well worth the effort. The French critic Hélène Cixous has written,The Hour of the Star’ is a text on poverty that is not poor”. It is as bewildering as it brilliant.

What can you do with the truth that everyone’s a little sad and a little alone?”

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien – Here is another novel which originally had poor reviews, but now is on the Guardian’s list at #64 of the greatest novels ever written. It is an Irish comic masterpiece. Dylan Thomas gave us this line about ‘At Swim Two Birds’: “This is just the book to give your sister – if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” But don’t force me to explain what it is about.


‘Berg’ by Ann Quin (1964) – Here is one that is easy to follow and understand. Set in a seedy British seaside resort, ‘Berg’ is an outrageous and fun read. It is a sleazy tale about killing Dad. Maybe if Ann Quin had lived, English literature might have been wilder, less cautious, and sleazier than it is today.




‘Autobiography of Red’ by Anne Carson – This work is a verse novel based loosely on the Greek myth of Geryon and the tenth labor of Herakles, but that description is not even close to capturing everything that this book is about. It is a deeply odd and engaging work about creating art which in that sense makes it similar to Anina Cain’s ‘Indelicacy’.



‘Blindness’ by Jose Saramago (1995) – A mass epidemic of blindness afflicts nearly everyone in an unnamed city. Here we have a near-total social breakdown caused by this epidemic. This is a Portuguese novel for our particular time, or maybe we should avoid it just now.




‘The Book of Disquiet’ by Fernando Pessoa (1982) – ‘The Book of Disquiet’ was found among Pessoa’s possessions after he died in 1935. It was not published until 47 years later. It was Pessoa’s lifelong project and has been called “a factless autobiography” by one of the several personnas this wonderful poet assumed in his work. I consider it a fantastic work of fiction.





‘The Glass Kingdom’ by Lawrence Osborne – Bangkok is a Place Where Nearly Everyone is on the Take


‘The Glass Kingdom’ by Lawrence Osborne (2020) – 292 pages

As I have mentioned before, Lawrence Osborne is excellent at capturing the flavor of the people’s lives in the locales where he situates his novels. His stories are always well-observed. The biggest problem with ‘The Glass Kingdom’ is that it takes place in Bangkok, Thailand, and the flavor of the lives of the people who live there and who travel there is quite wretched.

Booming and exotic with a large number of visitors from other countries Bangkok, Thailand is a great place for a young woman who has just embezzled $200,000 to get lost in. Or so it seems to Sarah (a made-up name) who is from the United States. Sarah decides to hide out in Bangkok, in a luxurious residential complex called the Glass Kingdom, four connected 21 story towers. Built in the Nineties, by now the Glass Kingdom has lost some of its luster and has been surpassed by several even more luxurious residential complexes. This is exactly the kind of place Sarah wanted, a somewhat nondescript place she can lose herself in.

You can disappear in Bangkok pretty easily because it’s a big city. And it’s so free and loose.”

Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and has a population of over 8 million people. It has a large tourism industry based on restaurants, bars, and sex clubs. Both Chinese and Japanese entrepreneurs invest huge amounts of money in Thailand.

At the Glass Kingdom, Sarah meets a small group of young women who get together to play cards occasionally. Mali is herself from Thailand, Ximena is from Chile, and Natalie is from England. Bangkok is a cosmopolitan place, and nearly everyone there is on the take.

There is also a Thai maid, Goi, who plays a significant role in the story. The Thais are justly suspicious of all the white people who visit their country. The white people are referred to by the derogatory term “farangs”. Be prepared for some quite gruesome things happening.

Absolutely none of the characters in ‘The Glass Kingdom’ is likable or honest. They each seem to have their own scam going.

Sometimes a person’s unconscious falsity was more interesting than their conscious virtues.”

Thailand is wealthy today, thanks to Chinese and Japanese business owners. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect about Thailand is that it is a military dictatorship. Whenever there is any coup or disruption that might affect the tourist industry, the government uses military force to clamp down.

Everyone is brave until a soldier prepares to blow your head off.”

Osborne captures all the colorful details of Bangkok, its flowers, its lizards, its overwhelming heat. The problem is that every person in ‘The Glass Kingdom’ and perhaps all of Bangkok is compromised, and none of them seemed worthy of empathy.


Grade:    B



‘What Happens at Night’ by Peter Cameron – At the Far Northern End of the World


‘What Happens at Night’ by Peter Cameron (2020) – 299 pages


Early while I was reading ‘What Happens at Night’, I came across the following line which reminded me that Peter Cameron is remarkably adept at writing interesting sentences:

A few dark cars and trucks stoically amassed garments of snow in the small parking lot.”

If a fiction writer writes crisp, clear, engaging sentences, more than half the battle is already won.

‘What Happens at Night’ takes place in far northern Scandinavia, I suppose Finland. Much of the novel takes place at the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel. With its remote northern hotel setting and its literary qualities, the novel reminded me of ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles.

The two main characters, a married couple, are unnamed. They are throughout referred to as “the man” or “the woman”. They have come from New York to this remote location in order to adopt a baby. The wife is quite sick with uterine cancer so she stays most of the time in the hotel room, but the husband ventures out to the hotel bar where he meets some alluring characters, particularly an aging female lounge singer named Livia-Pinheiro Rima. Much of the novel takes place in that hotel bar.

The novel proceeds in serendipitous fashion with the man off having these offhand wayward adventures in the bar while his wife is mainly sleeping. They do go together to meet the baby that they are going to adopt, and on the way they meet a faith healer called Brother Emmanuel.

The sentences are always well-made, but I really don’t know what to make of the plot. The plot is not exactly playful and not exactly serious, but it does not seem to be tied to any reality to which I could relate. The story has a surreal quality that might occur at the far end of the world where this actually takes place.

But the sentences kept me reading.

It was that I could see too clearly, too devastatingly, the things, things, about people that were hurt and therefore lovable, the beautiful sacred space in them that needed touching. And once you’ve seen that in someone, it’s difficult not to love him. Or her. At least it was for me.”


Grade:    B+


‘Mauprat’ by George Sand, Part 2 – A Woman Ahead of Our Time


‘Mauprat’ by George Sand (1837) – 384 pages                     Translated from the French by Mary K. Artois

George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) was a woman who was so far ahead of her time that we still haven’t caught up with her. In ‘Mauprat’, Sand gives the reader something new and different, a woman hero, not a heroine but a woman hero.

At the center of ‘Mauprat’ is the love story of Bernard and Edmee. Bernard’s life before meeting Edmee was one of banditry and drunkenness. He falls madly in love with Edmee on first meeting her, but the young lady Edmee does not allow herself to become the victim of a tyrannical and dissolute husband. Here is Bernard, still unable to control his passion:

But I was unable to obey her. My head was turned; I locked my arms around Edmee’s waist, and it was in vain that I tried to loosen them; my lips touched her neck in spite of myself ; she turned pale with rage.”

She will not marry Bernard until he meets her requirements for being civilized. She sets the rules. Edmee transforms her brutal second cousin Bernard from an ignorant coupe-jarret (cutthroat) to a humane and tender human being. Edmee teaches Bernard to subdue his passions, to honor his fellow man, and to respect her personal freedom. In ‘Mauprat’, love leads to social justice.

As the critic Mikhail Mikhailov wrote of Edmee, she was a woman who was “sufficiently educated and idealistic to infuse life with her convictions, ideas, and actions”. Another Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky in the 1840s praised ‘Mauprat’ for “its profound and poetic idea, that of a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman raising a man above his bestial passions”.

George Sand wrote romantic novels that were full of passionate personal revolt and heartfelt feminism, attitudes that went against societal conventions and outraged her early British and American critics.

Here is George Sand in real life writing to a man she may have been having a romance with:

Immodest creature, you do not want a woman who will accept your faults, you want the one who pretends you are faultless – one who will caress the hand that strikes her and kiss the lips that lie to her.”

This was written in 1837, the same year ‘Mauprat’ was published, and it certainly reflects the spirit of that novel.

I could go on and discuss other aspects of ‘Mauprat’ such as it was one of the first novels that was written in serial installments for a magazine, but I think I will leave it with one final quote from George Sand:

The world will know and understand me someday. But if that day does not arrive, it does not greatly matter. I shall have opened the way for other women.”


Grade:   A


‘Mauprat’ by George Sand – A Novel for Our Times


‘Mauprat’ by George Sand (1837) – 384 pages                       Translated from the French by Mary W. Artois

‘Mauprat’ takes place just before the French Revolution when the landed nobility still lorded over the peasants. Wealthy land barons terrorized their poorer neighbors. Many of these landed gentry oppressed the peasants by imposing heavy duties on them while avoiding taxes themselves.

The poor have suffered enough; they will turn upon the rich, and their castles will fail and their lands be carved up. I shall not see it; but you will. There will be ten cottages in the place of this park, and ten families will live on its revenue. There will no longer be servants or masters, or villein or lord.”

This situation was made worse because certain orders of the Catholic Church were in league with the landed gentry to oppress the peasants.

It is the indelible characteristic of the Catholic priesthood,” he said. “It cannot live without making war upon families and ferreting out every means by which it can get money from them….gentle robbery.”

George Sand

The La Roche-Mauprats are a particularly cruel and rapacious family of the nobility. The Mauprat father is “a man who had a genius for wickedness, and his sons, lacking the affection they were incapable of feeling, submitted to the ascendancy of his detestable superiority and obeyed him with a precision and promptitude almost fanatical.” Sound familiar? ‘Mauprat’ is a novel for today.

The father La Roche-Mauprat and his seven sons intimidate and frighten their neighborhood. Of course no woman would go near the estate fearing for their honor.

“Bernard, do you wish me to tell you why they thought all women are liars?”


It was because they were violent and tyrannical with beings weaker than themselves. Whenever one makes one’s self feared, one runs the risk of being deceived.”

However there are two sides to the Mauprat family. The other side of the family is also well-to-do, but they are pillars of the community. Our hero Bernard was born into the good side of the family, but his mother died when he was five, and he was adopted by the cruel Mauprats. Of course one of his uncles, Jean, hates the kid for being there, and Bernard later relates that “For ten years I suffered from cold, hunger, and insult; from confinement in the dungeon and from blows, according to the more or less ferocious caprices of this monster”.

Later Bernard finally escapes the clutches of the cruel Mauprats and is taken up by the honorable side of the family where he meets his second-cousin Edmee who turns out to be the love of his life. However Bernard has learned some nasty habits during his sojourn with the cruel Mauprats, and he must make amends before Edmee can like him at all. Bernard has overpowering feelings for Edmee.

Edmee never knew in what peril her honor was in that agonizing moment; I remember it with eternal remorse; but God alone will be my judge, for I triumphed, and this evil thought was the last I have felt during my life.”

Later hiding behind a bush, Bernard overhears a conversation between Edmee and the abbe:

Now I realized fully the odious part I was playing, and I had just read in the depths of Edmee’s heart, the fear and disgust I inspired in her.”

So in ‘Mauprat’, we have a devastating romance as well as an acute depiction of the social situation in France just before the Revolution.

It was the first time that I had heard of a peasant being spoken of as a man.”

As now even the United States has lost its way and fallen into a corrupt autocracy, perhaps it is time for a second French Revolution?

Stay tuned for my second article about this novel in which I will deal with the more literary qualities of George Sand and ‘Mauprat’.


Grade:    A



‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan – The Songwriting Begins


‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan   (2004) – 293 pages

I am by no means a Bob Dylan completist.

My relationship with Dylan’s songs over the years has been erratic to say the least. I have only bought a few Dylan albums, and a couple of them I have been disappointed with. At least one of those originally disappointing albums I learned later to really like and another one I stayed disappointed with. For a long time I preferred Joan Baez’s versions of his songs, especially ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ and ‘Farewell Angelina’.

I remember when the radio became inundated with Dylan songs including ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ by the Byrds, ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ by the Turtles. ‘All I Really Want To Do’ by Sonny and Cher, ‘The Mighty Quinn’ by Manfred Mann and ‘All Along the Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix as well as Dylan’s own performances of his classics including ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’, and ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’.

I could list my 10 favorite Bob Dylan songs as of today, but tomorrow the list might change anyway.

It took me sixteen years to finally get around to reading his partial autobiography, ‘Chronicles: Volume One’. It turns out that ‘Chronicles’ is a fascinating book; it is offhand, spontaneous, and enthusiastic, everything I look for in an autobiography.

Bob Dylan did not start out as a songwriter. He started out playing other people’s songs. From the beginning he was almost totally devoted to music but not his songs. Much of ‘Chronicles’ is about how Dylan came to write his own songs. Two of his primary influences were the folk musician Woody Guthrie and Delta blues musician Robert Johnson. However he expresses enthusiasm for many other musicians and songwriters throughout ‘Chronicles’. He is for the most part generous in what he says about them, and when he can’t be generous he is sincere. I admired his sincerity throughout ‘Chronicles’.

‘Chronicles’ gives us striking word pictures of only a few of the many phases of Dylan’s life, starting when he arrives in New York City alone with his acoustic guitar from his family home in Hibbing, Minnesota, not even 20 years old. At this point Woody Guthrie is his idol, and Dylan seeks out the offbeat folk music venues where he can perform. He also visits Woody Guthrie who is hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey.

Then we jump ahead to 1970, and Dylan is working on another album ‘New Morning’. By this time Dylan is mighty tired of being “the voice of a generation’, being accused of “turning my back on the folk community”, and being hounded by the press and everyone else. He just wanted to be left alone with his family. Just before ‘New Morning’, he apparently intentionally put out a bad album ‘Self-Portrait’ to deflect attention away from himself.

The next jump in this autobiography is to 1987. This long chapter is about Dylan’s renewal as a songwriter and musician. He came together with producer Daniel Lanois and some musicians in New Orleans and created the album ‘Oh, Mercy’ of his own original songs, and that album is considered a comeback for him.

The last chapter goes back to Dylan’s very early teenage days in Minneapolis when he first discovered folk music.

Along the way, throughout the book, we get scattered appreciations of Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Joan Baez, Johnny Rivers, Johnny Cash, and Tennessee Williams, among several others. Here are some of Dylan’s words on Harry Belafonte :

Harry Belafonte was also there. Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it. He was a fantastic artist, sang about lovers and slaves – chain gang workers, saints and sinners and children…He was a movie star, too, but not like Elvis. Harry was an authentic tough guy, not unlike Brando or Rod Steiger. He was dramatic and intense on the screen, had a boyish smile and a hard-core hostility…To Harry it didn’t make any difference. People were people. He had ideals and made you feel you were part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry. He appealed to everybody whether they were steelworkers or symphony patrons or bobby-soxers, even children. He had that rare ability.”

I admired Bob Dylan’s sincerity and enthusiasms throughout this autobiography.



Grade:    A



‘The Discomfort of Evening’ by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld – Bum Holes and Poo


The Discomfort of Evening’ by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (2018) – 282 pages                                                                             Translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison

I suppose your reaction to ‘The Discomfort of Evening’ will depend on whether or not you like the following typical sentence from the novel:

I watched as the diarrhea splattered on to the grass like the caramel sauce my granny poured on to the rice pudding.”

I did not like it.

Some readers may see this analogy as clever, but I saw it as obtuse and gross. This awkward disturbing simile is probably most representative of the novel as there is a lot to do with bum holes and poo throughout “Discomfort of the Evening”. The author throws hundreds of such analogies or similes against the wall, but only a few of them stick.

I was definitely motivated to read ‘The Discomfort of Evening’ since I had just heard that it had won the International Booker prize for 2020, yet I struggled and struggled to keep my interest in the novel. I was severely disappointed. Let me explain.

‘The Discomfort of Evening’ is narrated by a 12 year old girl, Jas, as she tries to cope with the severe dysfunction of herself and her entire farm family after the death of her older brother Matthies in a skating accident.

After a major tragedy like this, there is always guilt. Guilt prevents one from feeling the honest pain of bereavement, thus the pain manifests itself in other bizarre forms. This is especially true for children.

There is a lot of self-mutilation with pins, etc. This is a novel of a family’s severe abnormal behavior, but the excesses in the writing here kind of diminished my trust in the author.

After her brother’s death, Jas has a problem with constipation and she has an epiphany when she finally does have a poo, and we get a sticky detailed description of the results.

Granny once said that poo is healthiest when it looks like the greasy veal sausages she sometimes makes. My poo looks anything but that.”

Even when the similes aren’t coarse, they didn’t make very much sense to me.

In the light of my globe, her nose looks like a capsized sailing boat.”

What is that supposed to mean?

The family is very religious, and there is a lot of quoting of the Bible. The Bible passages are not there to uplift but more often used to explain some aberrant act by one of the family members, especially the other brother Obbe.

Things go from bad to worse on the farm when the family’s entire dairy herd has to be killed due to foot-and-mouth disease. Of course we get graphic descriptions of this event. It makes for a grim read, and there is no humor or redemption.

I suppose since the narrator is only 12 years old we must forgive the clumsy syntax of many of her sentences, but these sentences do make it difficult to read and stay interested in the story.

Perhaps some readers are so moved by the dire circumstances of this farm family that they leave their critical faculties behind at the door.

Since it won that major prize, maybe you should read it anyhow regardless of my opinion. Decide for yourself.


Grade:   C-




‘Real Life’ by Brandon Taylor – Real Life at the University


‘Real Life’ by Brandon Taylor (2020) – 327 pages

As I was reading the campus novel ‘Real Life’, the descriptions of the student union and the nearby lake seemed very, very familiar. I looked at the author’s bio in the back and found that one of the places Brandon Taylor had done graduate work was the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my alma mater. As I was reading ‘Real Life’, it was almost like I was back there sitting at an outdoor table on the Memorial Union terrace near the shore of Lake Mendota.

In ‘Real Life’ we see the world from the point of view of Wallace, a perceptive sensitive graduate student studying bio-science. He is doing research on nematodes, a kind of small worm that is able to reproduce rapidly and thus is ideal for genetic research.

Wallace has a small group of friends, most of whom are also doing graduate work in bio-science. In the first chapter and throughout the novel, Brandon Taylor captures all the subtle and not-so-subtle interactive dynamics of just a few college guys and gals sitting at a restaurant table talking. Early on the readers know they are in the hands of a master. Nearly every sentence gave me a smile of recognition.

And they fell into that chilly silence that comes between two people who ought to be close but who are not because of some early, critical miscalculation.”

Wallace is gay and black.

Through his character Wallace, Brandon Taylor explores those profound racial tensions that we all know exist but we cannot express.

The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the hen house.”

Throughout the novel, I was impressed with the ability of the author to go deeper into the psyches of his characters mainly through dialogue. ‘Real Life’ is a novel a reader can immerse oneself in as Wallace probes his life situation.

Is this what Dana was trying to say to him earlier? That he’s not the only one who has a hard time? That he doesn’t have some sort of monopoly on misery? But it’s different, he wanted to say then and wants to say now. It’s different. Can’t you see that? It’s different.”

Ordinarily I cannot relate to the quite explicit gay love scenes, but from Brandon Taylor’s original insights into other subjects, I suspect these scenes in the novel are true to life.

‘Real Life’ is long listed for the 2020 Booker Prize.

If you are looking for a novel that has profound insights into human behavior yet still is enjoyable, ‘Real Life’ is an excellent choice.


Grade:    A



‘Jumping the Queue’ by Mary Wesley – A Malicious Wit


‘Jumping the Queue’ by Mary Wesley  (1983)  – 217 pages

Why am I drawn like a magnet to novels which are described as “maliciously witty”?

I first discovered Mary Wesley in mid-career with ‘Sensible Lives’, and I read her novels as they came out from that point. However I had not read her first adult novel, ‘Jumping the Queue’, which got Wesley’s career jump-started in 1983 when she was already a young 71 years old. ‘Jumping the Queue’ was first turned down by several publishers for being too scandalous and quirky for their tastes.

In ‘Jumping the Queue’ we have outrage piled on outrage: screwing around, mother murder, incest, and eating the family dog. I kind of like it. Many of the incidents in the novel seem to be taken from the sordid stories one finds in tabloids.

Do you realize I killed my mother?” he said gently.

Of course. Lots of people long to. You just did it.”

Here’s the opening plot of this black comedy. Middle-aged Matilda is standing on the bridge, ready to kill herself by jumping or walking into the sea in a manner similar to what Virginia Woolf did. Her unfaithful husband is dead, and her children are all grown and moved away. She really doesn’t want to live through her inevitable decline. Before she left her house she sold her pet gander Gus to a breeding farm so he could have some fun.

However, on the bridge, Matilda is interrupted by 35-year-old Hugh, the matricide. Yes, Hugh murdered his mother with her own silver serving tray, and the police have an all-out search for him. He also wants to kill himself in the sea.

However since these two have interrupted each other and spoiled their suicide plans, Matilda takes the polite Hugh back home with her. Soon the gander Gus returns home too.

All this happens during the first few pages, and ‘Jumping the Queue’ only gets more hysterical from there. This is a wild and raunchy novel.

Along the way we have set pieces about the faux-country life outside of London, going to an expensive stylish London hairdresser, shopping in London boutiques, attending a London concert, and just walking the streets of London. Mary Wesley makes ironic fun of everything.

And that is why I read Mary Wesley.


Grade:   A



‘Territory of Light’ by Yuko Tsushima – A Young Mother and Her Daughter on Their Own in Tokyo


‘Territory of Light’ by Yuko Tsushima   (1979) – 183 pages    Translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt

‘Territory of Light’ is the story of a young mother in Tokyo going through a separation from her husband. It covers the same terrain as quite a few United States novels, a woman and her 3 year old daughter on their own. The aesthetic qualities of ‘Territory of Light’ are unique, but it turns out that getting separated and divorced wasn’t all that different in Tokyo in the Seventies from what it was in the United States. The young mother is the narrator here, and it is her husband Fujino who initiated the separation because he was seeing a different woman. However when he sees that his separated wife is enjoying life alone with her daughter, he starts showing up suddenly and unexpectedly.

What the hell was I thinking, he demanded to know, and how could I hate him so much? I looked on in silence, ruefully aware that I didn’t hate him at all. I was just too scared of him in this state to say anything.”

He is angry with her for calmly going along with the separation. He claims he has no money for child support which very likely is true since he is trying to get somewhere with a theater group.

Every woman thinks it’s going to be different for her, but she ends up at the bottom of the heap all the same.”

After a search for a new apartment, she finds one on the top, the fourth floor, of a converted office building. She and her daughter are the only ones who live in the building.

An unusual feature of ‘Territory of Light’ is that even though the narrator’s young daughter is one of the main characters in the novel appearing in many scenes, we readers never find out her name. It is always “my daughter”.

The three year old daughter is cute of course, but also sometimes quite irritating and gets on her mother’s nerves. One night while her daughter is sleeping in their top-of-the-building apartment, the mother goes out alone to a bar. This is probably dangerous, but the narrator is honest and forthright about her isolated situation.

As the novel’s title, ‘Territory of Light’, suggests, it has a fair share of subtleties about the qualities of light and the interpretation of dreams which were rather lost on me. However the realistic details of the story are precise, unique, and effective, and the reader gets a good sense of what life is like for this separated woman and her daughter in Tokyo.

Apparently Yuko Tsushima wrote this novel day-to-day while she herself was going through a very similar separation and divorce. She said she wrote only of what she herself experienced.

‘Territory of Light’ is in the running for the Best Translated Book Award of 2020. It is an honest vivid account of a separation without sentimentality or self-pity.



Grade:    B



The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist’ by Adrian Tomine


‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist’, a graphic novel, by Adrian Tomine (2020) – 162 pages

But still…My clearest memories related to comics – about being a cartoonist – are the embarrassing gaffes, the small humiliations, the perceived insults…Almost everything else is either hazy or forgotten. It’s weird.” – Adrian Tomine

For Adrian Tomine, the humiliations start in grade school when he announces to the class that when he grows up he wants to be a famous cartoonist. The whole class breaks out in laughter and the boys in the class taunt and ridicule and shove and depants him during recess. A teacher has to ask another boy to sit with him at lunch.

On being a famous cartoonist, Daniel Clowes once said, “It’s like being a famous badminton player”. That line is the preface to this book.

The indignities continue through Adrian’s early days as a not-so-famous cartoonist as he tries to get established in the comic book industry. He goes to comic conventions to sign his books, and no one asks for his signature as other more famous graphic novelists such as Daniel Clowes get all the attention and adoration. Later Tomine is self-conscious when some of his fans see him eating pizza alone before he is to give a speech on cartooning.

‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist’ turns into a full-scale autobiography as Adrian meets his wife, gets married, and has children. By the end of the book you can imagine that Adrian Tomine is one of those major cartoonists who overshadows some of the talented but still unsure beginners.

All the humiliations Adrian puts up with get somewhat repetitive, and I wished that Tomine had some other points to make other than his jokey indignities. I preferred his previous graphic novel ‘Killing and Dying’ which had 6 separate stories and thus much more variety.

But I’m sure Adrian Tomine has the last laugh because besides his good-selling graphic novels he has done some covers for the, I suspect, well-paying New Yorker magazine, a couple of which I have included above.


Grade:    B



‘Pew’ by Catherine Lacey – A Modern-Day Fable


‘Pew’ by Catherine Lacey    (2020) – 207 pages

I suppose the first thing they tell you in Fiction 101 is to have a well-defined main character to drive your story or novel and to give that main character human emotions with which the readers can empathize and identify. However in Catherine Lacey’s new novel ‘Pew’, the main character narrator Pew is not at all well-defined. We don’t find out if the main character, Pew, is male or female, black or white or something else. Pew is homeless and sometimes sleeps overnight in churches which have accidentally or intentionally left one of their many doors open. For all intents and purposes, Pew is amorphous and talks barely at all.

But that is what significant novelists do, break the rules. Here Catherine Lacey has broken the rules to stimulate and challenge herself to come up with something new and different.

Steven and Hilda and their boys find him/her sleeping in their regular pew at church on Sunday morning. They decide to take him/her into their home and to call him Pew.

Pew is a blank slate. What we do find out in the novel is how the various townspeople react to his/her presence. Here is the son Jack:

We don’t even know if you’re a girl or a boy or where you come from or nothing and you’re sleeping in my bed. In my bed. It’s disgusting. You ought to go back where you came from, go back there and leave us alone.”

Some of the people Pew meets or is introduced to treat him much nicer than Jack at least on the surface. Steve and Hilda have Pew visit with church people or psychiatric or psychological staff. Pew sits through all these evaluations by the so-called experts.

There are a few people who relate to him/her much better than others. These people tend to be the ones who realize that they don’t have all the answers either. The people who are on Pew’s wavelength are those that have found out that life is a struggle for everyone. Pew almost wants to talk to these few people. One of these less judgmental people tells Pew:

I felt so sure then – of course I was younger. It’s easier to be certain of things then – and the older you get, the more you see that certainty depends on one blindness or another.”

The big event each year in this southern town is the Forgiveness Festival. This is when the townspeople let themselves off the hook for each other’s sins. Is it truly a Forgiveness Festival or is it a Forgetfulness Festival?

I felt that given the build-up and all the talk of the Forgiveness Festival, it could have been presented more dramatically than it was. My other complaint is that the blank-slate narrator Pew comes across as a bit sad and austere, perhaps because Pew says so little. I would have made him/her a bit more upbeat and playful, but then Pew probably would not have been a blank slate.

This is the second work of fiction by Catherine Lacey which I have read, and I still feel very strongly that she is one of the most significant fiction writers out there today because she is not afraid to deal uniquely with the larger matters. I will continue to read her work.


Grade:   A-





‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler – A Life in the Austrian Alps


‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler  (2014)  – 151 pages               Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

As its title says, this novella gives the reader a whole life, the life of Andreas Egger who lives almost his entire life in the Austrian Alps. This is the story of a man contending with the majestic beauty and the dark calamity of both Mother Nature and Human Nature.

Andreas is born to a woman who “had led an irresponsible life, for which God had recently punished her with consumption and summoned her to his bosom”. As still a young boy of four, Andreas is taken in by his uncle Kranzstocker who already has a family of his own and looks upon this little boy as an extra unwanted burden.

Later Andreas somehow overcomes his bad childhood and does all the things people do, gets a decent job working in the mountains, marries, serves a stint in the German army during World War II, comes back to the mountains. During his lifetime he watches his neighborhood change from a farming area to a tourist destination with cable-cars that take the visitors up to the top of the mountains. His job is to clear the pathways for these cable-cars in the treacherous mountains.

Its austere beauty gives ‘A Whole Life’ its power by concentrating on only those things that finally matter. Like the mountains, it is elemental and fatalistic. Perhaps it is a little too simple to be entirely realistic. Nothing is complex or complicated. Andreas Egger never has to contend with his own Bad Nature. He is a little too good to be true.

However a novella can’t be everything at once, and ‘A Whole Life’ does give us the full life of a solid man living in the Austrian Alps.

It would not make sense for me to blabber on and on about such an austere and graceful novella.


Grade:    A-



‘Your Duck is My Duck’ by Deborah Eisenberg – Stories to Challenge and Stimulate You


‘Your Duck is My Duck’, stories by Deborah Eisenberg, stories  (2018) – 226 pages

Occasionally I want to read something that really challenges me, not something I can too easily follow and figure out. Sometimes I want something more than 2 + 2 = 4. What is 759 x 3287 = ? I don’t know, but it is something substantial.

There are six stories in ‘Your Duck is My Duck’, each story about 30 to 40 pages long. Deborah Eisenberg says she spends about a year writing each story. This is dedication.

The stories are by no means straightforward, but by the end the various strands within each story usually all come together into a meaningful whole.

Entering Eisenberg’s fiction is like diving off a cliff into a freezing lake: you are plunged into a world of confusion, with no one to help you get your bearings and no recourse but to struggle your way to the surface.” – Ruth Franklin

The first three stories in ‘Your Duck is My Duck’ totally captivated me. The fourth and fifth stories did not live up to my expectations after reading the first three, and the sixth and final story was a rebound, quite good. I find this to be a quite typical arrangement of the stories in a first-published collection of stories.

Eisenberg approaches her subjects from different angles that can throw the reader off, but if the reader perseveres, he or she can capture the not-so-simple points that Eisenberg is making.

My favorite story in the collection is ‘Taj Mahal’, the second story. In ‘Taj Mahal’, Emma’s deceased mother was an actress. Emma is having lunch with some of the old fellow actors who worked with her mother. First these old actors discuss a new book of memoirs of their old Hollywood days which has just come out, and they question whether the incidents in the book really occurred or not. Then they reminisce about Emma’s mother studying a script:

She always seemed to believe there was a real person locked away in the words, no matter how inane,” Duncan says. “It was always as if she was rescuing somebody lost there or imprisoned.”

Emma’s mother was a beautiful actress who over time became romantically involved with a few of the other male actors and directors.

She never really got the credit she deserved,” Luther says. “The only thing people ever talked about was how pretty she was.”

When Emma’s mother finally did get married, one of the fellow actors describes the marriage as “Prefab rubble. What but rubble could it ever have been?”

Eisenberg does have a spiky way with words that stay in your mind.

My second favorite story is the first story in ‘Your Duck is My Duck’ which is the title story about a woman who find out that hanging out with a rich and famous couple in their vacation home in summer is not all its cracked up to be. The only other summer guest, a puppeteer, says:

Christa told me you were coming, and I figured you wanted to get your stuff done, or why else would you be here.’

Well, I mean, to relax. “

Yeah? You must have a really unusual relaxation technique going.”

If you are tired of reading stories that are the same old, same old, and you want something that is original and challenging, you might give Deborah Eisenberg a try.


Grade:    B+



‘Woe from Wit’ by Alexander Griboedov – “When I Fight Authority, Authority Always Wins”


‘Woe from Wit’, a verse comedy by Alexander Griboedov (1823) – 152 pages Translated from the Russian by Betsy Hulick

From the very first words in the prologue of this verse play in four acts you can tell that it is going to be sharp and special:

Fate’s a mischief making tease,

That’s her character in brief,

a fool is blissfully at his ease,

a man of spirit comes to grief.

Our main character Chatsky is a man of spirit, a fellow who is too smart and honest for his own good. He questions everything, even authority. He is quick with a stinging jest in this “world that eats an honest man alive”.

Chatsky tells off the rich businessman Famusov with whom he is staying for “kowtowing to the powers that be” and for being “keen to fawn upon the tsar”. Famusov does happen to have a daughter Sophia that Chatsky is deeply in love with, but Chatsky doesn’t let up on telling Famusov a thing or two:

Trample those beneath whom you despise,

Flatter those above you adulate –

an age of servile urges, in the guise

of zeal to serve the sovereign and the state.

Chatsky’s honest words anger Famusov, and Famusov calls Chatsky a subversive and “a dangerous man to know” and “a flaming liberal firebrand”. Famusov even goes so far as to question whether Chatsky is out of his mind.

The daughter Sophia is more interested in another guy Molchalin and now she only has disdain for her childhood friend Chatsky who says all these outrageous things. She tells Chatsky:

Tell me, have you ever, in a gracious mood,

or even by mistake, said something kind

about another person? Well?

If not now, then long ago in childhood?

The guy she has her eyes on, Molchalin, is just the opposite of Chatsky. Molchalin is “a fawning toady”, “a wretched spineless thing”, who is advancing rapidly up the ranks of the bureaucracy. Much to Chatsky’s disgust, Molchalin has just spent the night with Sophia.

No one happy minds the clock.”

This is the setup for the play, but be prepared for some dazzling twists.

Betsy Hulick’s brilliant translation of this exceptional play ‘Woe From Wit’ is up to date, very easy to follow and understand, and its rhymes only add to its charm. She brings the atmosphere and language of the play up to today, and the play’s theme and message will never go out of fashion.

A huge Thank You to Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for bringing this mighty ‘Woe From Wit’ to my attention. This is a must-read, and I would love to see a stage version of the play.


Grade:    A+



‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann – Tyll the Trickster and Elizabeth Stuart the Winter Queen During the Thirty Years War


‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann  (2017) – 342 pages                     Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin

‘Tyll’ is brilliant. But don’t take my word for it. Let me quote this Good Book:

A dragon that had been sighted would be a dragon that did not possess the most important quality of dragons – that of making itself undetectable. For this very reason one must treat all reports of people having sighted dragons with extreme skepticism, for a dragon that let itself be sighted would be recognized a priori as a dragon that is no real dragon.”

Olearius rubbed his forehead.

In this region, evidently, a dragon has never before been witnessed. Hence I am confident that there must be one here.”

The perfection of this reasoning is why I read novels.

Above all, ‘Tyll’ is a playful fiction which was fun for me to read.

‘Tyll’ takes place during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), an especially grim and superstitious era of European history. An estimated 8 million people died from battle injuries, starvation, or disease. Most of the war took place in what is now Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria. The war started out as a religious war between the Catholics and the Protestants but got all mixed up. Frederick II as Holy Roman Emperor tried to impose the Catholic Church on even the Protestant states of northern Germany. The war started in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague when the Bohemian Protestants threw the Emperor’s representatives out of a window. Later Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden descended into Germany with his mercenary army and won some major battles before he himself was killed. Even though France was mainly a Catholic country, they sometimes fought on the Protestants side against their old enemies of the Holy Roman Empire. The war ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. The result of all this war was inconclusive.

There are two main characters in ‘Tyll’. The first is Tyll Ulenspiegel. He is a tightrope walker, a juggler, an actor, and an all-around trickster. He and his girl friend Nele keep popping up everywhere, performing for the beleaguered peasants as well as the displaced royalty. Tyll and Nele also dance for their audiences:

We could dance fairly well, we celebrated often, but none of us could dance like them; watching them, you felt as if a human body had no weight and life were not sad and hard. We too could no longer keep still, and we began to bob, jump, hop, and spin.”

The other main character is Elizabeth Stuart the Winter Queen or as she is known here, Liz. Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of English King James I, winds up the Queen of Bohemia through marriage. The terms Winter Queen and Winter King are derisive because Frederick V was only King of Bohemia for about one season, and now they are wandering around central Europe trying to find someone to intercede for them, and they are considered a joke. However I suppose Elizabeth Stuart had the last laugh as her progeny ruled England as the House of Hanover for over 200 years.

‘Tyll’ consists of set pieces which all fit together into an attractive puzzle.

It is most of all a sometimes light, sometimes black comedy which entirely suits the Thirty Years War. This novel is fascinating at the sentence level, a real accomplishment for both the author and the translator. Daniel Kehlmann brings a smart playful quality to his fiction that makes his writing well nigh irresistible.


Grade:    A+



‘Independence Square’ by A. D. Miller – Money Corrupts, Absolute Money Corrupts Absolutely


‘Independence Square’ by A. D. Miller (2020) – 244 pages

What has been happening in Ukraine for the last twenty years is now happening in the United States. Both countries have come under the severe influence of heavy Russian-style corruption, election interference, and chaos. Thus I wanted to read this novel of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and its aftermath by A. D. Miller whose novel ‘Snowdrops’ I read and much appreciated before.

The Orange Revolution took place in 2004, set off by a much disputed election which was marred by massive corruption, voter intimidation and electoral fraud. There was a widespread public perception that the results of the Presidential election were rigged by the authorities in favor of Viktor Yanukovych over Viktor Yushchenko. During the election campaign Yushchenko’s face was disfigured after having ingested large amounts of a dioxin chemical. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Kiev to protest the election results.

The rule of law, clean elections, the things you and I take for granted. Mostly they are just tired of being ripped off – the police, you know, the bureaucrats. The corruption is off the charts, Mr. Thompson.”

The protesters also remembered that a reporter investigating the election corruption disappeared, and latter his body was found in a forest but with no head.

Finally those original election results were annulled, and another election was held which was under intense scrutiny by domestic and international observers. The final results showed a clear victory for Yushchenko. The other candidate Yanukovych, considered the Russian candidate, would later become President in 2010 until he was ousted from office in 2014 for the “mass killing of Ukrainian civilians”.

‘Independence Square’ goes back and forth between 2004 and 2017. The time frame of individual chapters are not clearly marked, and sometimes, especially early on, it was difficult to tell from the writing which of the two time frames we were currently in. This problem could have easily been prevented by clearly labeling each chapter as either taking place in 2004 or 2017. Ultimately it became clear which time frame each scene takes place in, but early on it would have helped to make it obvious.

The plot of ‘Independence Square’ was interesting and well designed and executed, but the characters were not as vividly presented as this reader would have liked.

Earlier I mentioned the relevance of ‘Independence Square’ to what is happening in the United States today. The novel has the following line:

Always accuse your opponent of whatever scam you’re working yourself – that’s the basic MO.”

This is the exact same tactic the current President of the United States uses on his opponents. Perhaps the leader that Donald Trump most resembles is Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine.  Yanukovych is now living in exile in Russia. 


Grade:     B


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