‘If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino – Advanced Calvino

 

‘If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino (1979) – 253 pages        Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

 

The best description of ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’ is provided by Italo Calvino himself within the novel itself:

I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning….He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged….

I could write it all in the second person: you, Reader….I could also introduce a young lady, the Other Reader, and a counterfeiter-translator, and an old writer who keeps a diary like this diary….”

So here we have the first chapters of ten separate novels, each with its own separate characters and situations. This is the challenge that Italo Calvino has set for himself, switching the narrative ten times while somehow maintaining the readers’ interest

This is the kind of ridiculous challenge the members of the avant-garde literary group OULIPO, which included Georges Perec and Italo Calvino among others, would set for themselves.

Each chapter starts out with a section where You the Reader is the main character who is just trying to find a good novel to read but keeps getting interrupted after the first chapter for some technical or ridiculous reason and must start again still another novel on the first chapter. Along the way You the Reader meet the female Other Reader Ludmilla to whom you are strongly attracted.

Then each chapter winds up with the first chapter of one of the ten different novels that You the Reader begins.

It took me a long while to warm up to ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’. Why would I want to read the first chapters of ten different novels, each with its own separate characters and plots? I longed for the simple playfulness of Calvino’s early work like his Our Ancestors trilogy (‘The Cloven Viscount’, ‘The Baron in the Trees’, and ‘The Nonexistent Knight’) or of the stories in his whimsical ‘Cosmicomics’ series. My first impression was that “If on a Winter’s Night…” was way too cluttered and convoluted for its own good.

The plot, as well as the humor, of “If on a Winter’s Night…” is more convoluted, more difficult to follow, than in his earlier novels.

It is complicated tying all these first chapters of ten novels together, and Calvino makes it as far-fetched as possible. That is part of the fun, but this work lacks the simple playfulness of many of his earlier novels.

In each of the ten first chapters of novels, the reader must cut through a thicket of obscure references to get to Calvino being his usual playful self. It is hard work to read this novel, harder than it ought to be.

By all means read Italo Calvino because he is one of the best, but start with something else other than “If on a Winter’s Night…”.

‘If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler’ is not for beginners to Italo Calvino. People new to Calvino should start with the ones I mentioned above and fall in love with his playful writing right away as they are most likely to do.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘Suite for Barbara Loden’ by Nathalie Léger – The Movie ‘Wanda’ and its Director Barbara Loden

 

‘Suite for Barbara Loden’ by Nathalie Léger (2012)  123 pages Translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer and Cecile Menon

 

Barbara Loden was a real person, a United States actress who also directed one movie in 1971 titled ‘Wanda’.

Nathalie Léger is not only fascinated by the movie ‘Wanda’; she is also fascinated by the life of Barbara Loden. In this book, exact detailed descriptions of each and every scene from the movie Wanda are inter-cut with biographical accounts of incidents from Barbara Loden’s own life.

One requirement is to watch the movie ‘Wanda’ first before reading this book which is what I did. Otherwise you will not be able to follow this book.

The actress/director Barbara Loden started out as a “hill-billy’s daughter” in Asheville, North Carolina. She moved to New York in 1949 at age 16 and found minor success as a model for detective and romance magazines, then worked as a pin-up girl, model and dancer at the Copacabana nightclub. Then she started studying acting. She joined the cast of the Ernie Kovacs Show as a “scantily clad” sidekick to Kovacs. By 1957, she also appeared on stage in a play with Robert Redford. She had minor film roles in Elia Kazan’s ‘Wild River’ and also the film ‘Splendor in the Grass’ and she took up with Kazan who was 23 years older than she. They were married in 1966.

Barbara Loden’s greatest acting success was playing the role of Maggie in the stage play of “After the Fall” in 1964 which Arthur Miller wrote about his recently died ex-wife Marilyn Monroe. Loden won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress.

Although Loden preferred the stage and had claimed that she hated movies saying “People on the screen were perfect and they made me feel inferior”, she did direct and star in the low-budget but heartfelt film ‘Wanda’ which won the International Critics Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival.

‘Wanda’ is an honest portrayal of a woman made vulnerable by her own weaknesses, misdeeds, and failures who slides through her life by any means she can. Early in the movie Wanda goes to court for a custody hearing for her children.

When she comes in we already know all about her, the husband has let it all out, we know he has to prepare his own breakfast, that she doesn’t care about anything, doesn’t take care of the kids, neglects them, spends her days lying on the couch.”

Wanda agrees that their children would be better off with their father than with her.

Because she is alone, Wanda drifts aimlessly into bad relationships and situations. To whom is she vulnerable? She is vulnerable to unscrupulous men.  Critic David Thomson says the following:

Shot originally in 16mm Kodachrome, ‘Wanda’ is full of unexpected moments and raw atmosphere, never settling for cliché in situation or character.”

The movie is a fine example of the cinéma vérité style.

Nathalie Léger’s mind is totally engaged with every detail of the movie ‘Wanda’. No one has ever watched a movie as closely as Nathalie Léger has watched ‘Wanda’. She gives us the backstory of every moment in ‘Wanda’.

Barbara Loden died of breast cancer at the age of 48 in 1980.

 

Grade:   A

 

‘The Passenger’ by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz – To be a Jewish Man in Germany on and after Kristallnacht

 

‘The Passenger’ by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (1938) – 266 pages           Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

 

The night of November 9-10, 1938 – Kristallnacht in Germany, the Night of Broken Glass.

I haven’t committed any crime, and not once in my life have I had anything to do with politics. Nevertheless they came to arrest me and they smashed up my apartment. Not entirely, but to a great extent. They’re arresting Jews, as you know.”

The Germans are consumed with Nazi hatred for the Jewish people, and each Jewish person faces annihilation. ‘The Passenger’ vividly captures the sense of impending doom which all the Jewish people there must have felt.

For a Jew the entire Reich is one big concentration camp.”

Otto Silbermann is on the run. He should have gotten out of Germany years or months ago. He moves from train to train to escape Germany and avoid the authorities. He does have the ultimately slight advantage of not looking Jewish. However his passport is marked with a big red “J”. His wife is non-Jewish, but Otto still fears what the Nazis will do to her. He fought for the Germans in World War I but the new breed of Nazis are a people driven by hate.

Don’t walk too fast or too slow. Because if you stick out precisely when you’re trying so hard not to, if you look suspicious because you’re trying so hard not to, if you look suspicious because you’re trying to look as unsuspicious as you can…My God, what do these people want from me?”

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz

Otto’s non-Jewish business partner uses Otto’s impending arrest as a bargaining chip to cheat him out of large amounts of money. The guy who buys his apartment does the same.

‘The Passenger’ is a rapid read, a thrilling page turner that is filled with suspense.

The discovery and publishing of this novel written by 23 year old Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz in four weeks after Kristallnacht is quite a story also which you can read about here.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘New Teeth’ by Simon Rich – Wildly Imaginative Humorous Juxtapositions

 

‘New Teeth’ by Simon Rich, stories (2021) – 227 pages

 

The stories in ‘New Teeth’ are wildly inventive and laugh out loud funny. I would recommend this collection to anyone but especially to young adults who are beginning to develop an interest in literary fiction.

Simon Rich takes typical situations and gives them an off-the-wall twist.

In the first story ‘Learning the Ropes’, the two pirates Black Bones the Wicked and Rotten Pete find that they have a 3 year old girl stowaway who was left on their ship. The story juxtaposes pirate lingo with modern parenting psychobabble to comic effect. Thus we have “Shiver me timbers” alongside “acting passive-aggressive”, “walking the plank” with “limit testing”.

The second story is called “LaserDisc”. Remember the LaserDisc machine, vintage 1991, that was supposed to replace the VHS and Beta players with a much better sound and picture quality, only to be quickly cast aside by the advent of the DVD player? Now it is 2018.

They’re watching you ironically,” explained the DVD player. They’re watching you to laugh at how you suck.”

The LaserDisc machine began to weep, and thick tears of battery acid slid down his display screen. He sobbed so hard, his wires convulsed, shooting sparks into the air, like something out of the classic film Backdraft.”

That mention of Backdraft as a classic film is a nice humorous touch.

‘The Big Nap’ is a funny title for a detective story with its play on ‘The Big Sleep’. In ‘The Big Nap’ our world-weary tough detective spouts most of the conventions that are found in detective stories. Except our detective is only two years old.

He searched the couch for clues, but all he found were Cheerios.”

Then there is ‘Chip’ who is an office robot who gets caught up in bureaucratic office politics.

The ability to be humorous is not spread out democratically. At any given time, there are only a few people in the world who can actually make me laugh. Simon Rich is one of them.

In ‘Case Study’ a London physician rescues the deformed Elephant Man Joseph Merrick from a sideshow only to find that the Elephant Man forms a romantic attachment with the physician’s wife. The comedy here is in the physician’s less-than-scientific jealous reaction to this romance.

In “Raised by Wolves”, a woman raised by wolves and her husband entertain her parents for Thanksgiving dinner.

Only ‘Screwball’, the Babe Ruth baseball story, does not rely on this other-worldly juxtaposition device, and I think Simon Rich would be wise to study this story to see how it achieves its moving and comedic effects without resorting to these artificial ruses.

But every one of these stories in ‘New Teeth’ put a smile on my face. These are the first stories that I found that were laugh-out-loud funny in a long time, and I can well see why the New Yorker would want Simon Rich to write for them.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

 

‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk (2021) – 180 pages

 

Here is the first sentence of the narrative by the woman M in ‘Second Place’ that really stood out for me:

I had spent the evening in the company of a famous writer, who was actually nothing more significant than a very lucky man.”

This is one plain-spoken sentence that particularly resonated with me. I’m wishing that more sentences in this novel were as easy to follow. Often it was difficult for me to figure out the sophisticated and abstract reasoning of our M.

M, now in her late forties, lives in the coastal southern part of France. M is married to Tony, a supremely practical, successful, and even-tempered man. M herself has artistic longings and has been enthralled with the work of the artist L for a long time. She invites him to stay with them in the building which she calls their second place. She describes L as “wiry and small, dapper and goatish”, nearly the opposite of her husband. However, she is struck by his paintings. Unbeknownst to M and Tony, L brings along his quite young girlfriend Brett.

Throughout the novel, It is a struggle to follow our narrator M’s sophisticated speculations and ruminations, but I suppose I prefer this mental struggle to the overly simplistic reasoning often found in much other fiction.

Rachel Cusk is a special case. Her style of writing is so finely tuned, she can get away with a level of lofty abstraction that most writers wouldn’t dare.

The pattern of change and repetition is so deeply bound to the particular harmony of life, and the exercise of freedom is subject to it, as to a discipline. One has to serve out one’s changes moderately, like strong wine.”

Just when you think M is going to go wandering off into the cosmos with her thoughts, she brings them back to Earth with strong wine.

However there are many other sentences from M that if you can comprehend and appreciate their full meaning, you are a more perceptive reader than I am.

An image is also eternal, but it has no dealings with time – it disowns it, as it has to do, for how could one ever in the practical world scrutinize or comprehend the balance sheet of time that brought about the image’s unending moment? Yet the spirituality of the image beckons us, as our own sight does, with the promise to free us from ourselves.”

All this dense theorizing about art camouflages the rather simple theme of the novel which I assume to be the never-ending conflict between the practical and the artistic or, in terms of this novel, the practical Tony and the artistic L.

In a final note to the novel, Rachel Cusk says she owes a debt to ‘Lorenzo in Taos’, a memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan. and that L is the D. H. Lawrence figure in the story. ‘Second Place’ did make me curious about that memoir.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

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‘Wild Swims’ by Dorthe Nors – Explaining the Inexplicable

 

‘Wild Swims’ by Dorthe Nors, stories (2018) – 124 pages              Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra

 

How can I best describe these stories by Dorthe Nors?

Elsewhere the style of Dorthe Nors has been described as “minimalism that is under attack from within”. Each of her stories are only a few pages long but there is a lot in each story. All are written in short blunt sentences that don’t always connect with the sentences before.

A device that Nors often uses is for some image or small event in the current daily life of her character to set off in him or her a memory from childhood or previous family life. I suppose you could call her technique “stream of consciousness”, but in Nors’ case the stream is quite choppy and rough.

These stories capture the free flow of thoughts that enter her characters’ minds. Their current situation causes them to remember specific events from the past that are only peripherally related to it. Sometimes the connection is not immediately apparent. Sometimes it is just the funny way their minds work. Nors’ stories capture some of this absurdity of our thought and memory processes. However sometimes these slant-wise memories are the most profound and meaningful of all.

In ‘By Sydvest Station’ Karina and Lina are supposedly collecting for the Cancer Society but they are keeping the money themselves. Meanwhile Lina is thinking about the guy who dumped her and also her own cancer diagnosis.

In ‘The Freezer Chest’, the story starts out with a guy in her high school class telling his female classmate straight out “I don’t like you”.

In “Between Offices”, a guy visiting his company’s Minneapolis office sees the Mississippi River, and it spurs memories of his childhood and family.

The characters in these stories usually seem to have other things on their minds besides what they happen to be doing now.

Nors’ overriding theme is her characters’ connection or lack of connection with the people around them. More often than not, Nors is most interested in the lack of connection or self-imposed isolation of her characters. Her previous novel ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ was quite humorous, but these stories are more on the discomforting side.

Sometimes the references in the stories are a little too scattered for me to make much sense of them. In that case the story may have formed an interesting word picture but remained somewhat incoherent for me.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

The Case of the Missing Masterpiece, ‘East of the Mediterranean’ – A Real Life Mystery

 

The acknowledged Arabic masterpiece ‘East of the Mediterranean’ has never been translated into English. Why not?

‘East of the Mediterranean’ was written in 1975 by Saudi Arabian writer Abdelrahman Munif. Some of his other novels had already been published to wide acclaim, even by fellow author Graham Greene. No other writer has had as deep an impact on changing my view of the world as  Abdelrahman Munif with the powerful novels in his ‘The Cities of Salt’ series. Yet ‘East of the Mediterranean’ is nowhere to be found.

Munif opened my eyes to how the real world operates. He was born a Saudi Arabian national in Jordan in the year 1933. He studied law in Baghdad and Egypt, and got his law degree from the Sorbonne and also got a doctorate in oil economics in Belgrade. In 1963, he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship for his political activity and his opposition to the Saudi royal family. Forced into exile, he then moved to Syria to work as an economist in the oil ministry and also as an editor of ‘Oil and Development’ magazine. In the late 1970s, he quit working in the oil industry to concentrate on his fiction writing. He died in 2004 at the age of 71.

His novels deal with the history of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia, how the United States and British oil interests came in and propped up these authoritarian Saudi princes with unlimited money and resources, destroyed the environment with their oil drilling and devastated the lives of the common people living there. His work so offended the rulers of Saudi Arabia that many of his books were banned for their scathing criticism of the oil industry in the Middle East and of the elite Saudis who played along with the oil companies.

The ‘Cities of Salt’ trilogy tells a compelling story which had a profound effect on me. It has been translated into English and is there for us to read. The message of ‘the three ‘Cities of Salt’ trilogy novels is that in the Arab oil countries, the Arabs have been the victims of their rulers and the foreigners. It is a gripping disturbing work. However according to Arabic sources, Munif’s most celebrated work is ‘East of the Mediterranean’ which has never been translated into English. Why not?

According to Arabic sources, ‘East of the Mediterranean’ reveals in graphic detail the torture and abuse that prisoners suffered in Arab prisons and detention centers of which Munif had personal experience. It highlighted the fact that “a human being in the lands east of the Mediterranean is cheaper than anything and a cigarette stub has more value than him”.

‘East of the Mediterranean’ is a political prisoner novel to rival the classic ‘Darkness at Noon’ by Arthur Koestler, yet no publisher has felt the need to translate it into English. It has been translated into German. One can obviously see that it would be deeply embarrassing to the Saudi elite and probably to some of the oil interests in the United States and Great Britain too.

Yet we readers of English are being denied an acknowledged masterpiece, and the reasons for this have never been explained at least to me.

 

 

‘The Land at the End of the World’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes – Part 2 : The Sublime Use of Simile and Metaphor

If you love words, you will probably love what Antonio Lobo Antunes does with them. Nearly every sentence captures its subject so brilliantly and devastatingly as to have left nothing unsaid. Multiple similes and vivid metaphors roll off his pen (or computer) in every sentence.

While reading ‘The Land at the End of the World’, I was so impressed with Antune’s skillful use of those two literary devices, similes and metaphors, that I decided to write an entire article about it. Never have I encountered such effective use of similes and metaphors. All quotes in this article are from that novel.

A simile draws a resemblance between two dissimilar things. Similes can usually be spotted by seeing the words “is like a” or “is ___ as a”. Similes are apt comparisons.

The ship’s orchestra blasted out boleros for the officers, who looked as melancholy as owls caught in the dawn light”.

speaking a strange language I could barely understand, which sounded like Charlie Parker’s saxophone when he’s not screaming out his wounded hatred for the cruel ridiculous world of the white man.”

kisses as loud as the sucking of sink plungers”

ah, the meals eaten in silence opposite one another, full of a rancor you can smell in the air like a widow’s cologne.”

We are therefore in a condition to go over to the bed to make love, a love as insipid as that frozen fish we ate in the restaurant, whose one eye fixed us with the dying glassy glare of an octogenarian among the faded green of the lettuce.”

these long winters as dull as blown light bulbs”

An exhausted soldier slings his rifle “over his shoulder as if it were a useless fishing rod”.

Knitting needles “secrete sweaters as they clashed like domesticated fencing foils”.

As these examples show, Antunes frequently goes over-the-top with his similes, brazenly and delightfully over-the-top.

A metaphor is the direct comparison of two unlike things by saying that one of them is the other.

inside my head, a slow October rain is falling on the sad geraniums of the past.”

If I were a giraffe, I would love you in silence, gazing down at you from over the wire fencing, as melancholy as a dockyard crane, I would love you with the awkward love of the very tall, and, thought-fully chewing a leaf as if it were gum, jealous of the bears, the anteaters, the duck-billed platypuses, the cockatoos, and the crocodiles, I would slowly lower my neck on the pulleys of my tendons in order, tenderly, tremulously, to nuzzle your breasts with my head.”

The war has made animals of us, you see, cruel stupid animals trained to kill”.

In the case of ‘The Land at the End of the World’, the effective use of these literary devices makes for a colorful entertaining read.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Land at the End of the World’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes – Part I : A Particularly Imbecilic War

 

‘The Land at the End of the World’ by Antonio Lobo Antunes (1979) – 217 pages              

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

 

Nothing of the many, many works of fiction I have read before has prepared me for the brilliant and devastating expressiveness of Portuguese writer Antonio Lobo Antunes.

But first, some background about the story here.

The Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar sent his army off to a misbegotten, godforsaken war in southern Africa in order to quell an uprising and to keep Portugal’s African colonies including Angola and Mozambique.

Portugal’s involvement in the Angolan War (1961-1975) was almost as contemptible as the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

The original title of this novel was “Os Cus de Judas” or “Judas’s Asshole”.

Here is a guy sitting and drinking at a bar telling his war story to the woman sitting next to him, intending to pick her up just for the night. And what a story it is, since it is the truth.

Our hero is one of those reluctant young men on a ship from Portugal “dragged from the native forests of their government offices, billiard tables, and clubs, and catapulted, in the name of vehemently held but imbecilic ideas, into two years of anguish, uncertainty, and death.” They are headed to southern Africa to fight the people who live there.

In the Portuguese army, our guy was a nurse or what we would call a medic. When someone gets shot in the stomach and their intestines come dribbling out, he is there to push them back in until the doctor arrives. Or when someone has their leg or legs shot or destroyed to the point that they will be amputated, he is there to console them.

We were fish, you see, in aquariums of cloth and metal, dumb fish, simultaneously fierce and tame, trained to die without protest, to lie down without protest in those army coffins, where we would be welded in, covered with the national flag, and sent back to Europe in the hold of a ship, our dog tags over our mouths to quash even the desire to utter a rebellious scream.”

This novel is not for the self-satisfied or the faint of heart. ‘The Land at the End of the World’ is for those who have adventurous minds and those who appreciate the magic of powerful coruscating evocative sentences.

Despite being a fairly short novel, this is not a quick read. Each sentence is filled with metaphors, similes, other literary devices, and historical and cultural references as well as allusions to pop culture such as Charlie Chaplin, Andy Warhol and even ‘Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover’ by Paul Simon. It is exhausting yet wonderfully flamboyant and outrageous.

Extraordinary fiction sometimes requires extraordinary readers. Antonio Lobo Antunes is a writer who could make even a Leo Tolstoy feel inferior.

In my next article, I will examine Antunes’ skillful and sublime usage of literary devices such as similes and metaphors and others by providing examples from his writing.

In my efforts to fully appreciate every one of its magnificent sentences, I found reading ‘The Land at the End of the World’ slow-going but richly rewarding. I found reading this novel akin to digging up a literary treasure.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Here is the Beehive’ by Sarah Crossan – A Modern Novel in Free Verse

 

‘Here is the Beehive’ by Sarah Crossan   (2020) – 266 pages

 

Over the years I have had good luck reading novels in verse. I must admit that I find a lot of other regular short stand-alone poetry too abstract and impenetrable for my taste and comprehension. However when a novel is written in verse, I find that the verse usually moves the story along in a pleasant rhythmic way. Here is a list of some of my favorite novels in verse. I actually seek out verse novels to read.

‘Here is the Beehive’ is my latest written in a lyrical free verse. This is the first novel for adults written by Sarah Crossan. She has written numerous books for children and young adults.

‘Here is the Beehive’ on the contrary has a very adult subject. It is narrated in the first person by estate lawyer Ana Kelly and is addressed to Connor Mooney, a man with whom she has been carrying on a three-year affair, unbeknownst to their respective mates. Connor has already died in the first chapter in a bicycle accident.

I miss the freckles on your shoulders,

the wispy tufts of hair there

and the clean soapy smell of you.”

Somehow despite Connor and Ana’s intense affair, they have kept it a secret. When Ana and her husband Paul go on a trip,

Paul showers,

leaving the door to the en suite

open so I can’t get even

ten uninterrupted minutes

to think of you and touch myself.”

After Connor’s death, Ana secretly attends his funeral and encounters his wife Rebecca there.

She is forty-six, rich, with incredible posture.

But she is nervous, I think, busily fussing.

Her hair is greasy.”

This is a tale as old as time, a woman’s obsessive adulterous love affair with a man who ultimately has no intention of leaving his wife. The man’s death provides an original slant to the story.

I imagined you writing a list –

pros and cons

me and her

for and against

good and bad

stay or go

wondering how I measured up

and

knowing I was always the loser.”

Both couples have children, but the children play barely any role in the story.

I found ‘Here is the Beehive’ a fresh affecting take on an old story and found the writing both lively and sociable.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

‘Shaky Town’ by Lou Matthews – The Real Los Angeles?

 

‘Shaky Town’ by Lou Matthews (2021) – 232 pages

Before I read this work, I did not know that Shaky Town was a nickname for Los Angeles. Shaky Town refers to Los Angeles due to the earthquakes that make the buildings shake.

There are two sides to Los Angeles. There is Hollywood, the unreal Los Angeles most of us know about, and then there is the real Los Angeles.

Here are two surprising statistics about Los Angeles. Latino or Hispanic residents of any race make up over 47% of the population of the city while non-Hispanic whites make up less than 26% of the population. A definite south-of-the-border atmosphere infuses the city, and Mexican-Spanish words are in common usage.

‘Shaky Town’ is a collection of stories and a novella that all take place in the real Los Angeles. A novel? Not so much.

The first story ‘Crazy Life’ is told from the point of view of a young woman whose boyfriend Chuey calls her from jail because he was involved in a drive-by shooting.

The second story ‘The Garlic Eaters’ is written from the point of view of a Korean small convenience store owner who is beset by a group of drug junkies who steal merchandise from him and one time severely beat up his wife to the extent she was in the hospital. He buys a gun.

“So who you dealing with there?” Again, he answered his own question. “You got crackheads, right? You got street gorillas, crazies, glue-sniffers, red freaks, junkies. You got kids, right?”

Most of these stories here deal with the rough part of Los Angeles. The violence and cruel acts seemed somewhat excessive and sensationalistic, beyond the point of realism even for this rough neighborhood. Is the picture presented here overly grim? Having never been to Los Angeles, I cannot judge.

One device that the author uses a few times is to end a story with a shocking particularly violent act. These stories reminded me of Chekhov’s famous line, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

As I mentioned before, as well as the stories there is a novella, also called ‘Shaky Town’. It deals with a teacher facing an abusive situation in a Catholic high school. The novella has some surprising and engaging twists.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘Sweet William’ by Beryl Bainbridge – A Quintessential 1970s Novel

 

‘Sweet William’ by Beryl Bainbridge  (1975) – 204 pages

 

‘Sweet William’ captures the ambiance – the permissive atmosphere and the sexual politics – of the early 1970s. Ann is a young woman who has had relationships with a few men, even a short go with a married man. Now she is engaged to Gerald. However nothing has prepared her for her encounter with William.

Despite being engaged to Gerald who has headed off on a trip to the United States, she is swept off her feet by the insufferable playwright William.

You don’t want to expect normality from him. He’s an artist after all.”

He says the most beautiful things. He is an elemental charmer, and soon she winds up in bed with William.

There were no preliminaries. Nor did he take any precautions.”

Only later does she discover that he has been divorced and has kids. Only later does she discover that he has also remarried and thus has another wife now. Only later does she discover that he has started something going with her younger female cousin Pamela. Only later does she discover that she is pregnant.

She had been happier when he indicated love, not practiced it.”

But Ann still figures she can work things out with William. She loves him.

Oh he was terribly sincere. At least that first week.”

Ann’s mother Mrs. Walton takes a differing view of things. Her mother got married to a British officer shortly after he returned from World War II.

You talk about modern life and things being different now. You haven’t learned anything at all. All this permissiveness has led you young girls into slavery.”

Things are definitely different for Ann in the 1970s from her mother’s World War II times. Her mother and her aunt preferred the company of women and to “leave the nasty men alone with their brutish ways and their engorged appendages”.

It was very difficult for her under the circumstances. All those years of duty and conformity gone for nothing. Of no value. Twenty years later the old standards swept away as if they had never been.”

In our time more than forty years later, Sweet William would be accused of serial sexual harassment which doesn’t sound so sweet.

It is difficult to comprehend that we are now farther distant from the 1970s than those people in the 1970s were distant from the time of World War II.

 

Grade:    B+

 

 

 

‘All the Names’ by Jose Saramago – A Central Registry of Records for the Living and the Dead

 

‘All the Names’ by Jose Saramago   (1997) – 238 pages             Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

Jose Saramago was one of the few modern authors who could fully imagine complete meaningful allegories which he did time and time again. I have read a lot of the work of Saramago who I consider an absolute master of fiction, and ‘All the Names’ is another deeply intelligent work. However I found reading its long sentences and longer paragraphs rather slow going.

Of all of the works of Jose Saramago that I have read so far, ‘All the Names’ is the one that I have found to be the most difficult to read. For readers new to Saramago, my recommendation would be not to read ‘All the Names’ until you have read a few of Saramago’s other novels. ‘Blindness’ was a best seller; it has been a gateway into Saramago’s work for many people. I have found his two novels based on religious figures, ‘The Gospel According to Jesus Christ’ and ‘Cain’ to be quite accessible and enjoyable. Saramago’s amazing novel about fellow Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, ‘The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis’, is another entertaining strong passage into his work.

However we are here today to discuss ‘All the Names’ which is probably the most metaphysical of all of Saramago’s work.

Our main character Senhor Jose, no last name, is a lowly clerk in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. Above him are senior clerks, above the senior clerks are the deputies, above the deputies is the all powerful Registrar. Each level of management must keep their employees operating quietly and smoothly, thus not causing any problems for the next upper level of management. If you have ever worked in a business or government office, you know all about the bureaucratic decision-making process here.

In the Central Registry’s filing system. The records for the dead are kept separate from those for the living. That means that when any person in the living section of records dies, a clerk must retrieve their record from the living section and take it to the vast rarely-accessed dusty dead archive.

With all this trafficking between the living and the dead, you can easily see the allegorical possibilities here, and Saramago takes full advantage of them. ‘All the Names’ is profound as all of the work of Saramago is profound.

Our main character Senhor Jose becomes captivated with the search for an unknown woman when he comes upon her record in the living section. His quest for this woman begins quite humorously, but soon turns into a desperate obsession which interferes with his work life at the Central Registry. The Registrar sees certain actions that Senhor Jose takes as “mistakes committed against oneself, born of loneliness”.

‘All the Names’ is indeed profound.

Senhor Jose both wants and doesn’t want, he both desires and fears what he desires, that is what his whole life has been like.”

As Senhor Jose descends ever deeper into his compulsive obsession to find this woman, the reader gets long interminable paragraphs, some several pages long, of conversations with himself or, more absurdly, with the ceiling of his room. This is where I started to have problems as these expressions of the inner turmoil of his mind went on and on with little relief for the reader. I found all these lengthy machinations of Senhor Jose’s mind rather tedious to read.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘The Great Mistake’ by Jonathan Lee – The Man Who Got Things Done

 

‘The Great Mistake’ by Jonathan Lee  (2021)  –  289 pages

 

I pride myself on knowing a lot about United States history, but I had never heard of Andrew Haswell Green before. Green is the primary character of ‘The Great Mistake’. He was a New York City lawyer and city planner and civic leader, and he was responsible for many of the things New York City is famous for including Central Park, the Bronx Zoo, the New York Public Library, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Green was also responsible for consolidating the five boroughs of New York into one city. At the age of 83, he was shot to death outside his home on November 13, !903.

‘The Great Mistake’ alternates between two modes, a fictional biography based on details from Green’s life and the police investigation into the circumstances of his shocking death.

The power of ‘The Great Mistake’ is in its individual sentences. The sentences are subtle and expressive and have a dramatic immediacy that puts you on the side of our hero Andrew Haswell Green. If you are the kind of reader who values fine evocative sentences, by all means read ‘The Great Mistake’.

The concert of barely connected moments that make up any life.”

If you can write lines like that, congratulations, you are a writer.

The entire novel left me quite moved. Our author Jonathan Lee finds the words and the scenes to express truths that are not often expressed. Green was a man who had to overcome circumstances which became all too apparent to him in childhood in order to accomplish what he did. Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us has had a childhood situation which has shaped most of our entire lives. That childhood situation includes:

Our parents attitudes toward us

Our own interests and proclivities

Our relations with our brothers and/or sisters

Other factors

Did anyone in the heavens really believe in him, Andrew Green, this awkward boy below, his spirit, his potential for good? His own question frightened him into muteness, the kind of silence the living rarely know, the moon hanging sullied by smoke in the sky, filthy with the expulsions of men.”

Central Park, New York City

Later Green leaves the childhood farm for New York City.

To be a gentleman in New York, one needed an education. To obtain an education in New York, one needed money. To obtain money in New York, one needed to be a gentleman. The city formed its circles.”

‘The Great Mistake’ was a very poignant and meaningful reading experience for me. Jonathan Lee finds the words and the scenes to express truths that are not often expressed.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘Barcelona Dreaming’ by Rupert Thomson – Day and Night Life in Barcelona

 

‘Barcelona Dreaming’, stories, by Rupert Thomson (2021) – 215 pages

 

Rupert Thomson lived in Barcelona, Spain, from 2004 to 2010. Thomson created the first draft of these three stories while still living in Barcelona.

Barcelona is a seaport on the Mediterranean in northern Spain. It is in a region near the Pyrenees called Catalonia and they speak their own language Catalan. It is the fifth largest city in the European Union with over five and a half million people, and in many ways it resembles the towns and cities along the southern coast of France and the French Riviera more than the rest of Spain.

The three stories are “The Giant of Sarria”, “The King of Castelldefels”, and The Carpenter of Montjuic”. I suppose Sarria, Castelldefels, and Montjuic are place names in or near Barcelona.

The stories are all written in the first person. Each is about 70 pages long, and I would consider them long stories rather than novellas. All of the stories center around somewhat odd offbeat relationships between men and women.

In the first story, a woman in her forties tells of her love affair with a young guy in his early twenties from Morocco. She lives in a fashionable section of Barcelona; he lives in a slum where mostly illegal immigrants live. While one of her friends try to dissuade her, she continues the affair.

I felt the part of me that might have questioned what I was doing fly off into the night, fast as a flung stone.”

In the second story, it’s the other way around. A 65 year-old man tells of his affair with a Brazilian woman in her thirties who has a 10 year-old son.

The third story is not about an affair. A man becomes friends with another guy who lives in his apartment building who intrigues him.

What if in a roundabout, almost allegorical way he was trying to warn me about himself? At first glance, he might seem open and accessible, someone you could talk to, but he was capable of unexpected and terrifying transformations.”

These stories share a distinctive enigmatic exotic atmosphere which I suppose is Barcelona. That some of the same peripheral characters float through the three stories somewhat loosely ties them together. Notice that on the cover above are the words “a novel”. Hardly.

These stories capture the lives of these diverse characters in this city of Barcelona without trying to instruct us with a moral or any other lesson. I’m too old to learn anything so I actually prefer fiction that doesn’t try to teach me lessons.

 

Grade:    A-

 

 

‘Secrets of Happiness’ by Joan Silber – A Lot of Random Persons Doing a Lot of Random Things

 

‘Secrets of Happiness’ by Joan Silber   (2021) – 274 pages

 

Secrets of Happiness’ is filled with men and women and their always frenetic activities. All this signifies very little. The characters in these very loosely linked stories go to the far reaches of the world, usually far south eastern Asia, and get involved in myriad affairs, but nothing has any real impact.

As far as I am concerned, all the characters could have been named what’s-his-name or what’s-her-name. They were all quite interchangeable.

An insignificant peripheral character in a previous story becomes the main protagonist in the next story. This is a valid stance as every person’s existence is significant on its own terms. However each story is an accumulation of near arbitrary events and movements for these people without any underlying motive.

The novel is divided up into seven sections each from a different character’s perspective except that the first and last sections are from a character named Ethan’s point of view.

The title ‘Secrets of Happiness’ is supposed to be the unifying factor that turns these loosely linked stories into a novel. So what are the secrets of happiness? About the only guidance that I found in this novel is to follow your own proclivities. However there is a line of dialogue in the book that contradicts that advice:

People think that if they are honest about their cravings, it makes anything OK,” I said. “That’s a fallacy of modern life.”

The onrush of incidents and forever more, more minor characters leaves no room for any real depth. All we are left with is a surface word-picture of frenetic activity and scattered casual acquaintances.

There were a couple of individual lines which I did enjoy in this “novel”:

“She’d been an English major in college, perfect preparation for not having a job,”

My mama so poor the ducks threw bread at her.”

However, overall, I found this work off-putting. You can read the more favorable reviews of ‘Secrets of Happiness’ after you read mine. There are some out there.

 

Grade:    C-

 

 

‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams – She Grew Up With the First Oxford English Dictionary

 

‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams (2021) – 359 pages

 

This book began as two simple questions. Do words mean different things to men and women? And if they do, is it possible that we have lost something in the process of defining them?” – Pip Williams

‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ is a very traditional substantial novel, and that is not at all a criticism. It is also a very perceptive and impassioned story.

The time is the early 1880s. Six year-old Esme is the daughter of one of the lexicographers, the men who are assembling the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Her mother died in childbirth, so the men allow her to stay around in the Scriptorium or as she calls it, the Scrippy, where her father and other men are at work putting together the dictionary. Even as a young child, Esme develops an early liking of words and their meanings.

A family maid Lizzie takes care of Esme as Esme grows up, and the bond between them becomes like that of a mother and daughter. The maid’s way of talking is much different from that of the learned Oxford men who are working on the dictionary.

The world ain’t like the Scrippy, Essy. Words don’t lie around waiting for some light-fingered girl to pick them up.” She turned and gave me a reassuring smile.

That’s just the point, Lizzie. I’m sure there are plenty of wonderful words flying around that have never been written on a slip of paper. I want to record them.”

Esme develops a life-long interest in the common words that were excluded by the Oxford authorities because they were used by the poor or by women. Some of the words Esme hears from Lizzie and Lizzie’s friends are not in the dictionary because they have never been written down. Some of the words are Old English words written even by Chaucer but are excluded by the Oxford men as being “obscene”.

One of the tamer examples of a word that is excluded is a “git”. The word is now in the Merriam-Webster dictionary defined as “British; a foolish or worthless person”. Another word that was lost is “knackered”.

The first Oxford English Dictionary took over 40 years to complete, Each of its twelve volumes was published as it was completed. When Esme grows up, the Oxford men allow her to work on the dictionary, not as a lexicographer but performing other necessary tasks. Along the way, Esme compiles her own list of words that have been excluded from the dictionary.

And also along the way, we get Esme’s own dramatic and poignant life story.

Some of the Oxford lexicographers are more dogmatic than Esme’s father or the head editor, Dr. James Murray, and in time Esme learns to tell these men off:

You are not the arbiter of knowledge, sir. You are its librarian.” I pushed Women’s Words across his desk. “It is not for you to judge the importance of these words, simply to allow others to do so.”

I found ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ to be a very satisfying stimulating read that raised some issues about language and words that need to be raised.

The Dictionary, like the English language, is a work in progress.” – Pip Williams

 

Grade:     A

 

 

‘The Mission House’ by Carys Davies – An English Gentleman in India Today

 

The Mission House’ by Carys Davies (2021) – 258 pages

 

What does one read after the exceptional ‘The Promise’?

‘The Mission House’ is nothing like ‘The Promise’. That is why it is the perfect follow-up read after ‘The Promise’. After I finished reading ‘The Promise’, I started and gave up on a couple of novels. That is what usually happens after I read an extraordinary novel; the next can never measure up. ‘The Mission House’ has the distinct advantage that it is nothing like ‘The Promise’. Where ‘The Promise’ is loud and angry, ‘The Mission House’ is reticent and quiet and almost gentle. The strengths of ‘The Mission House’ are almost the complete opposite of ‘The Promise’.

Vive la différence.

‘The Mission House’ is not at all sensational; it is life-affirming. It is about redemption at the individual person-to-person level. It is at the one-to-one level that saving souls occurs. Davies’ fiction is not about religion; it is much deeper than that.

Although Carys Davies is a writer born in Wales and now living in Edinburgh, her previous excellent novel ‘West’ takes place in the United States. ‘The Mission House’ takes place in a town in the hilly thus cooler region of India.

An Auto Rickshaw

‘The Mission House is a quiet little novel about a man traveling to India seeking redemption. We gradually, gracefully find out about our main protagonist, Hilary Byrd. After leaving England, first he escaped the hot, damp, crowded southern part of India and found this high grassy plateau town. Since he doesn’t drive, his main means of travel is the auto rickshaw which are in general use throughout India. Later we find out that Hilary has lost his longtime job as a librarian in England and is at loose ends seeking something from life he has not yet found. With his shy reserve, Hilary gives off an aura of being unmoored and lost. Despite his restraint, somehow he establishes a small network of friends in this Indian town. His letters back to his sister in England reflect his new-found good spirits.

It was the combination of the strange and the familiar that suited him.”

I really liked the style of ‘The Mission House’ with its short chapters and its understated pleasures. Like I said before, it’s the near opposite of ‘The Promise’, but each of these two are excellent in their own ways.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘The Illustrious House of Ramires’ by José Maria de Eça de Queirós – “It isn’t worth letting bad politics spoil a good supper.”

 

‘The Illustrious House of Ramires’ by José Maria de Eça de Queirós  (1900)  346 pages                              

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

 

I have become an Eça de Queirós aficionado, and I believe a lot of others would do well to be Eça de Queirós aficionados also.

Consider the renowned Portuguese fiction translator Margaret Jull Costa. She has made an excellent career of translating the best in Portuguese fiction. So far she has translated 12 works of José Saramago and 12 works of Javier Marias and has translated other works of such writers in Portuguese as Machado de Assis, Paulo Coelho, and António Lobo Antunes. She won the Portuguese translation prize for translating ‘The Book of Disquiet’ by Fernando Pessoa. ‘The Illustrious House of Ramires’ is the eleventh fiction by José Maria de Eça de Queirós she has translated.

José Saramago who was no slouch of a novelist himself has called Eça de Queirós “Portugal’s finest novelist”. I tend to agree with Saramago.

Here is a line from ‘The Illustrious House of Ramires’:

None of us can really be judged guilty by a God who made us such fickle, fragile creatures, so dependent on forces over which we have even less control than the wind or the sun!”

Goncalo Mendes Ramires, the Nobleman of the Tower, is the scion of the Ramires family which has been prominent in Portuguese history since the 10th century, even before the Portuguese kings. He is writing an heroic novella about one of his ancestors and has come to the conclusion that the main occupation of those glorified legendary ancestors had been murdering people.

A childhood friend of Goncalo has risen to be an influential Portuguese politician, and much to Goncalo’s chagrin and dismay, this guy is pursuing an affair with Goncalo’s married sister. It is a fictional case history of how political power debases people, how men (and women) are so easily corrupted by a despot.

Your letters? What did you say in your letters? That the governor is a despot and a Don Juan? Do you really think he was wounded by that? No, he was delighted.”

I must say that ‘Illustrious’ did give me some valuable insight into recent United States history.

But what happens when Goncalo himself is offered an influential position by this governor scoundrel? Will he himself succumb to the temptations of power?

Although I found ‘The Illustrious House of Ramires’ to be quite impressive, I would not recommend it as the place to start with Eça de Queirós. It starts out somewhat slowly before building up to its rousing climax. You probably won’t want to start with ‘Eça de Queirós’s masterpiece ‘The Maias’ either since it is over 600 pages, but I would recommend either the short novel ‘The Relic’ or the even shorter novella ‘The Yellow Sofa’ as a good starting point for this outstanding writer.

 

Grade:   A-

 

 

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut – A Lively Account of Four Deaths in an Afrikaner family

 

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut  (2021) – 269 pages

 

The Promise’ is the devastating story of an Afrikaner family through about thirty years starting in 1986 with the mother Rachel’s death and funeral. Each of the four chapters deals with another death in the family, yet ‘The Promise’ is not at all gloomy or morose. Sometimes it is lurid and over-the-top with frightful imagery. It’s personal. Damon Galgut is heavily invested in this story.

There is something brilliant in the way Damon Galgut continuously and quickly shifts the focus from person to person here, each with their own vivid, frequently shocking, insights into what is happening. Sometimes the point of view shifts to minor walk-on characters like a homeless guy named Bob who sleeps outside the church where one of the funerals is being held. These people are by turns angry, sarcastic, nasty, stubborn, and petty, just like regular human beings. The son Anton says to his father on his father’s deathbed:

You were an alcoholic shit to my mother before you found religion and after that you were a sober kind of shit.”

It’s not for the squeamish. The detailed description of the cremation process here might make one decide against cremation, but the alternative is also shown not to be very attractive either. There are a lot of gross scenes including opening up the coffin in front of the funeral attendees to make sure the correct dead person is in it. We get a full description of the decaying body and its attendant smells.

Sometimes the vantage point even darts to an animal who wanders into the picture. Here is how Galgut sets the picture:

In the various rooms downstairs, everything is inert, except for the occasional scuttling insect, or is it a rodent, and the tiny expansions and contractions of the furniture. Pitter, patter, creak, creak.”

I forgive Damon Galgut all of his faults – his purple prose, his deliberate gruesomeness and crudity, his morbid fascination, and the mean turns he puts his characters through, because in the end ‘The Promise’ is near perfection. It’s rude and crude and outrageous, and that’s what makes it a stimulating read.

I guess I can reveal “the promise” since it is explained early in the novel. On her deathbed, the mother Rachel has decided to give one of their properties to their black housemaid and nurse Salome, and the father Manie has promised to do so.

As a side benefit to this intense and wild story, we get some major insights into the South Africa of today. I will let you read those for yourself which I urge you to do.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

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