‘A Separation’ by Katie Kitamura – Not Exactly a Greek Vacation


‘A Separation’ by Katie Kitamura   (2017) – 229 pages


The woman telling the story in ‘A Separation’ is the opposite of an unreliable narrator.   She is sincere, honest, and steady. Her heartfelt first-person account of a marriage gone bad is refreshingly straightforward.  Perhaps some of the appeal of ‘A Separation’ for me was that I truly did like this woman.

The novel begins with the thirtyish woman, we do not find out her name, alone in her home in London.  Her husband Christopher is gone off to Greece on one of his trips to research his next book on Greek mourning rituals. However the wife realizes that her husband is a serial philanderer which probably is the main purpose of his trip.

“It was a question of things withheld, information that he had, and that I did not. In short, it was a question of infidelities – betrayal always puts one partner in the position of knowing, and leaves the other in the dark.”

She finds out in a phone conversation that Christopher’s mother is worried about him since he hasn’t called for quite a while.   Our narrator wife agrees to go to Greece ostensibly to find her husband but her real reason is to tell him she wants a divorce.  She already has a new promising boyfriend Yvan who is a friend of her husband’s.  She remembers a line she overheard that is now quite offensive to her.

“Women are like monkeys, they don’t let go of one branch until they have got hold of another.”     

The rest of the novel takes place in a Greek village, much of it occurring in the hotel where Christopher stayed and now where she is staying.  She suspects that her husband may have had an affair with the young woman Maria who is a desk clerk at the hotel.

About half way through this novel, this story of a marriage gone bad turns into a murder mystery.  The body of her husband turns up along a sparsely travelled road.  The Greek police authorities show her the body.

“But it was more than this, he looked as if he were sleeping – it was also, I now understood, an effort to pretend the journey into death, the process of dying, was in some way peaceful which it was almost certainly not.”  

Our narrator wife is so trustworthy that the Greek authorities never once suspect her of the murder. She has her own suspicions.  She overhears a bitter argument between Maria and her fiancé Stefano.

In the end she just leaves Greece and heads back to her waiting boyfriend Yvan.  There is no clear resolution as to who actually killed Christopher, but we readers don’t object.  Our reliable and likable narrator wife has outlined all the possibilities for us in her mind.


Grade :   A-


‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ by David Grossman – A Stand-Up Comedy Act


‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ by David Grossman   (2014) – 194 pages                          Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

Here is an entertaining little novel which entirely takes place on stage with edgy professional comic Dov Greenstein performing his high-wire humor act.  The comedian has invited his friend from childhood to watch the show.  Thus we watch the performance through the eyes of this somewhat impartial observer.

Greenstein is performing his act in a nightclub in the small city of Netanya, Israel.  The audience is ready for a night of light fun, and at first he gives them the jokes they want.  He is a master of insults who wears his heart on his sleeve.  This is a high-energy act with non-stop talking and jokes.  Israeli writer David Grossman deftly captures what it must be like to stand in front of a crowd and to try to make them laugh.  We also get a sense of the comedian’s self-loathing which seems to be inherent in most insult artists.

Some of the comic’s jokes delight the crowd, and some of them fall flat.  However as the night progresses, the comedian goes back to his childhood for his material, and he veers into the terrible pain of his early life.  He winds up relating one particularly horrific family event from back then in detail which makes everyone uncomfortable.  Members of the audience become annoyed that our comic is no longer telling jokes, and many of them walk out in the middle of the act.  The show goers did not come here tonight to deal with the comedian’s pain from his childhood, but that is what the comedian is compelled to give them.

“How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into its hostages?”

I had previously read only one of the earlier novels by David Grossman, ‘See Under Love’, which was moving, but did not prepare me for the gripping experience of reading this novel.  ‘A Horse Walks Into a Bar’ is a tour de force that perfectly captures all of the color and excitement of this high-wire comedy act, the triumphs and setbacks and tears of this stand-up guy as he performs his act.  It will go on my list as one of the best show business novels.



Grade :   A 


‘Encircling’ by Carl Frode Tiller – The Anti-Knausgaard ?


‘Encircling’ by Carl Frode Tiller   (2007) – 326 pages       Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland


Carl Frode Tiller has been called the anti-Knausgaard, so of course I had to read ‘Encircling’.   I found ‘My Struggle – Book 1’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard to be “self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-indulgent” and that was before the new US President gave new meaning to these words,  so I was all primed to read a novel that was the opposite.

The central character in ‘Encircling’, David Hugsar, never appears directly on stage.  David in his thirties has lost his memory, and can’t remember who he is. He puts an ad in the newspaper asking old friends and relatives to help him remember.  Three people answer his ad and write him long letters.  First there is Jon who was David’s best friend in high school, a perhaps over-sensitive anti-social musician. Second we get Arvid who is David’s church vicar stepfather. Third we have David’s girlfriend from high school, Silje, who is now many years later unhappily married.

As opposed to ‘My Struggle’ where the entire story is seen and told through the first-person narrator’s eyes, here we get a more fractured various picture of this guy David told through several people who knew him well. In the following two novels of the ‘Encircling’ trilogy we get six more people who come forward to write him long letters. Isn’t this multiple-viewpoints approach a more realistic and accurate and deeper appraisal of an individual?

 “Having someone to live for makes us human.” 

The entire story in ‘Encircling’ takes place in the coastal Norwegian town of Namsos which gives it a small town ambiance.  I found the story and situation in the novel quite captivating and involving, even though I did not know where the story was heading.  I never did quite figure out exactly where the story was going, but it is part of a trilogy so that question may be answered later.  Perhaps what threw me off the trail was that in both the Arvid section and the Silje section large portions of the story are not devoted to David but instead to Arvid and Silje’s current circumstances many years later.  Arvid is in a hospice fighting cancer, and Silje is in a miserable marriage.

What stands out about ‘Encircling’ is the depth and intensity of its portrayals.  I got the same sense reading ‘Encircling’ that I get when I watch an Ingmar Bergman movie, that I was moving in unknown unchartable human territory, where not every trait or action is explainable but is still true on a visceral level.   Human life is here, and it is still the great unknown.


Grade:   B+ 


City or Town Names in Excellent Fiction Titles


Fiction allows you to travel throughout the world without leaving your own house.  I realize this is about the worst of cliches, but whether the city or town in a novel is real or not, the imagination or precision of the author takes you there.  The following are ten excellent novels which have a city or town name in their title.


‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson (2004) – Gilead, Iowa is a fictional small town.  Robinson’s novels achieve a depth that only the finest fiction writers can reach.  ‘Gilead’ is the first novel of a strong trilogy.  It is mighty difficult being the wayward son of a preacher man.






‘Our Man in Havana’ by Graham Greene (1958) – Here is a black comedy about the British Secret Service set in Havana, Cuba predating the Castro Revolution of 1959.  Discovering Graham Greene was one of the signal events in my fiction reading career, and I tore through nearly all of his novels in about ten years.






‘Petersburg’ by Andrei Bely (1913) – Here is a Russian modernist masterpiece that was actually written in the twentieth century. What ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce does for Dublin, Ireland, ‘Petersburg’ does for St. Petersburg, Russia, though there is no indication that Joyce read Petersburg before writing ‘Ulysses’ nine years later.






 ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ by Muriel Spark (1960) – This is early Muriel Spark, another writer not to be missed.  It is about what happens to the Peckham Rye neighborhood of London when a Scottish migrant wreaks havoc on its inhabitants.  Spark is one writer who was able to come up with a totally different plot for every short novel she wrote.






‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’  by Hubert Selby Jr. (1964) – This powerful fiction is a series of stories dealing with the seamier, rougher side of life which includes drug use, street violence, gang rape, homosexuality, transvestism, and domestic assault.  It was put on trial for obscenity in England and was banned in Italy.






 ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot (1871) –  ‘Middlemarch’ is probably my favorite novel of all time.  Middlemarch is a fictional Midlands England town.  Who could possibly forget the terrible marriage between Dorothea and the older Casuabon?






‘The Road to Wellville’ by T. Coraghessan Boyle (1993) –  ‘Wellville’ is a humorous portrait of John Harvey Kellogg, the preposterous inventor of corn flakes, and his Battle Creek, Michigan sanitarium.  It is one of the funniest things I have ever read.






‘Sparta: A Novel’ by Roxana Robinson (2013) – I was born near the small town of Sparta, Wisconsin.  Robinson’s novel has nothing to do with my Sparta, rather it refers to the Greek city-state.  Actually what it is about is the plight of an Iraq war veteran returning to civilian life.  Robinson is one of the writers whose new novels I watch for.





 ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ by Sherwood Anderson (1919) – These are realistic stories of small-town American life in the Midwest.  Living in a small town is not so simple as it is sometimes made out to be. Oh, the loneliness and isolation.







‘London Fields’ by Martin Amis (1989) – Like his father Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis had great success early in his career, later not so much.   Kingsley Amis will always be remembered for his first novel ‘Lucky Jim’, and Martin Amis will occasionally be remembered for his early novel ‘London Fields’.






There are many, many more including ‘Amsterdam’ by Ian McEwan, ‘The Woman of Rome’ by Alberto Moravia, ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ by Christopher Isherwood. ‘Paris Stories’ and ‘Montreal Stories’ by Mavis Gallant, ‘Mansfield Park’ by Jane Austen, and ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada.


‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry – The Cruel Past


‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry   (2016) – 259 pages

In his newest novel, ‘Days Without End’, Sebastian Barry turns his eyes on the United States. Barry has been capturing much of Irish social history in several of his novels through the exploits and tribulations of various members of the McNulty and Dunne families.  In this new novel Thomas McNulty winds up in the United States after leaving Ireland as a young teenager after many in his family have starved to death in the Irish potato famine in the late 1840s.

His first job is as a dancer in a mining camp town in Missouri.  There is a shortage of women in the town, so the bar owner has these two young boys dress up like women and dance for the miners.  The other boy dancing, John Cole, becomes the love of Thomas McNulty’s life.

“You had to love John Cole for what he chose never to say.”    

After the boys grow too old to play passable women, they join up with the United States army to fight Indians along the Oregon trail.  Some of the soldiers in their unit have a rabid hatred for any Indians, all Indians.  There are scenes where the soldiers commit atrocities against villages of Indians, murdering the women and children when the Indian men can’t be found.  ‘Days Without End’ is not a novel to make you proud to be a United States citizen, just the opposite.  The novel is not like the heroic United States history stories I read when I was young; if anything this novel is anti-heroic.

“Everything bad gets shot in America, say John Cole, and everything good too.”

And then we move on to the Civil War, and Thomas McNulty and John Cole are fighting for the Union Army.  Many on both the Union side and Rebel side are young poor Irish immigrant guys, cannon fodder.

On and off the battlefield they witness atrocities committed against black people.  In one horrifying episode victorious Rebel troops line up all the soldiers in a black company who had already surrendered, more than a hundred, along a ditch and shoot them all.  The guys wind up in the Confederate prison in Andersonville where conditions are gruesome enough for the white soldiers, but the Rebels don’t feed the black soldiers there anything at all.

Atrocities against Indians, atrocities against black people.  It used to be that the United States was usually depicted as a shining beacon of liberty and hope.  Not anymore.

“The world got a lot of people in it, and when it comes to slaughter and famine, whether we’re to live or die, it don’t care much either way. The world got so many it don’t need to.”

I did have problems with the writing style of ‘Days Without End’.  The entire novel is written as the diary of Thomas McNulty, and it is written in a kind of diary shorthand.  Some of the paragraphs are up to three pages long.  I suppose this is not unusual for first-hand accounts, but it does make reading the novel slow going.   The other complaint I have is that there are no new or original insights into this violent cruel past of the United States, but perhaps to document it is enough.


Grade:     B  


‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson – An A+ Novel


‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson   (2016)  –  279 pages

‘Miss Jane’ is the story of a doctor and one of the babies, a girl, he delivered.  The baby isn’t perfect; she has a urological and genital birth defect.  Jane Chisholm will be incontinent and will always be incontinent unless some surgical procedure is found to fix the problem.  The time is 1916, and there will be no fix for this problem for a very long time.  She also will be unable to conceive children.

“This book is dedicated to the memory of my Great-Aunt Mary Ellis “Jane” Clay.” 

This novel is an amazing work of empathy.  It moved me greatly, and that is the most I expect from any novel.  It is true to what I have seen so far in life as only the best novels are.

Despite her defect, Jane turns out to be a strong person.  A fortune teller tells her mother the following about her then 16-year old daughter Jane:

She is strong.  Even stronger than you.” Miss Eugenia said then.  “She may even be relatively happy in life. Unlike you.”   

Some people seem to have a talent for happiness; some people don’t.  Some people learn this talent later.  It does not appear to be directly or even closely related to one’s actual life circumstances.

Her parents on their Mississippi farm are not particularly sensitive or empathetic to Jane’s situation, perhaps typical rural parents of that time.  Soon after the birth the father first notices the problem:

“Good lord,” Chisholm said.  “What trouble have we gone and brought into this world now?”

“Trouble for you and Mrs. Chisholm,” the midwife said.  “But more trouble for the child, I expect, poor thing.”   

Jane’s older sister has her own life to live. More than anyone, it is the doctor who delivered Jane who takes an interest in Jane’s plight and does what he can to help her.

As a girl, Jane does attempt to go to grade school but there are embarrassing incidents, and after a short time she decides to not go back anymore and she stays home on the family farm.  She chooses to go about her days alone for the most part.  As the doctor puts it,

 “In my opinion many I’ve known would’ve been better off following their solitary natures.”

Later though, despite her continuing condition, there is dancing and romance in her life.  These scenes in the novel are deeply touching considering what has gone before.

This is a wonderful story of a person who is quietly but persistently heroic.  Perhaps you have relatives going back over the years whose life stories are also profound and enlightening.


Grade :   A+


‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders – The Raucous Undead and Some Historical Tidbits


‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders   (2017) – 343 pages


Like many other readers I have been a great fan of the short stories of George Saunders.  His short fiction is wildly original and wickedly funny.  Now Saunders has released his first novel to universal praise.

Not quite universal praise. Keep reading.

Usually I try to avoid fiction where Abraham Lincoln is a major character, because he is always portrayed as an overly familiar depressive Gloomy Gus of a character, and ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is no exception in its portrayal.  This is especially true here, because the novel is about the death of his 11 year old son, Willy.  As for Mrs. Mary Lincoln, she is not really a character in the novel, because as a historical note conveniently points out, “Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother.” – ‘A Mother’s Trial: Mary Lincoln and the Civil War’ by Jayne Coster.

As for the little boy Willy, yes, it is sad that this little boy has died, but as another historical note again conveniently points out, the casualty figures for the battle of Fort Donelson, the first really bloody battle of the Civil War with casualties in the thousands, had just been published, so a lot of families were suffering the loss of sons.  Willy is rather a stock little boy character even when he is one of the undead.

Most of ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ takes place in the cemetery where Willy is to be buried. The “bardo” is the transitional state between life and death in the Tibetan Buddhist religion.  Throughout the novel we hear the voices of many of these undead ghosts.  They call their coffins ‘sick boxes’, because they are still transitioning between life and death.  I suppose the voices of all these undead function as a Greek chorus would function in a Greeks tragedy.

As for all these ghosts, including the two main ones Mr. Vollman and Mr. Bevins, their presence grew tiresome for this reader rather rapidly.  Saunders does not give us readers any reason to care about these ghostly figures, and this reader did not care for them.  They weren’t particularly funny.  The “disparate voices” schtick works better in a short story than in a long novel.

Throughout the novel there are short quotes from real historical accounts which ground this story that is always threatening to fly out of control off into the wind by these cemetery voices.  It is not a good thing for a novel when the most interesting parts of it are all the factual little tidbits scattered in the text.

The audiobook for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ advertises a cast of 166 different people doing the voices for the book.  I must point out that all these different voices are not necessarily a positive feature for the reader/listener.  There are just too many characters to care about.  With so many different voices, it is very difficult to attend to any particular character or characters.  Frequently the symphony becomes a discordant cacophony.


Grade :    C      


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