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Richard Bausch’s novella is a slice of war: World War II, the Italian Campaign.

It could be a three person play. Joyner, a soldier with prejudices; Asch, a non-practicing Jewish soldier; and Marston, the immediate commanding officer, who is the “good soldier”. They are ordered to do a reconnaissance up a hill, that becomes a mountain, in search of retreating German troops, after the surrender of Italy. They capture an elderly Italian on the road who becomes the guide up the mountain. It is uncertain whether he is guide or collaborator.

At the heart of the story are two crimes against humanity. Both witnessed by all three. One is a singular event that contextually had some temporal provocation and the other an unprovoked mass killing. As all three were more directly involved in the first, it dwells on their minds more than the second.

It is not their primary concern however. They are trying to survive being hunted.

This is an entertaining page turner with good character development.

The author is a well-regarded short story writer. Among his fans are Richard Russo, Richard Ford and Colim Toibin.


Brooklyn Book Fair


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I just returned from the 10th annual Brooklyn Book Fair. Brooklyn is the home of many well-known authors and editors so the Fair usually has a stable of accomplished writers giving reading or participating in panel discussions. Some of the authors participating this year were Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Lethem, Phil Klay, Joyce Carol Oates, Renata Adler, Joseph Steiglitz, and Russel Banks. The Book Fair is essentially a week-long event with the last two days devoted to children’s books and adult fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Given the compressed time and different but close locales was necessary to choose a few panels and miss others. I opted for:

  1. The National Book Foundation Presents 5 Under 35 Alums- with Yelena Akhtiorskaya (Panic in a Suitcase); Danielle Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self) and Kirstin Valdez Quade (Night at the Fiesta). I had read and previously reviewed the latter two, both of which I recommended. A general comment I have about most readings is that authors choose excerpts without regard to how that work as oral presentations. Ms. Quade understood this and actually read with emotion and dialect. Ms. Evans was at a disadvantaged because she was reading something she had just written and was doing it from her phone.  She read quickly. Ms. Akhtiorskaya needs to improve her oral presentations and despite the difficulty she admits having, she should be able to summarize her book. Ms. Quade will be teaching at Princeton.
  2. Making a Novel from Life with Mitchell S. Jackson (The Residue Years), Sarah Gerard (Binary Star) and Valeria Lusielli (The Story of My Teeth). Ms. Lusielli was the star of the panel. Her earlier work Faces in the Crowd won awards and is another 5 under 35 author to pay much attention to. I have added her books to my TBR pile.
  3. I had to choose between a number of venues, so I only partially attended the following:

Whiting Foundation presents: Writing for a Live Audience. This was a panel of playwrites that included Tony Award-winner Lisa Kron (Fun Home), Anne Washburn (Mr. Burns), Lucas Hnath (The Christians) and Virginia Grise (blu). The discussion was to be about making characters come alive on stage via the page. During the time I attended they were not on topic, which unfortunately is a common occurence.

Between Two Worlds which included Naomi Jackson (The Star Side of Bird Hill), Yitzhak Gormezano Goren (Alexandrian Summer) and Juan Villoro (The Guilty: Stories). Unfortunately, Mr. Goren dominated the panel’s time during the time I attended. I found Mr. Villoro interesting and I will investigate his writing. The general topic was staying authentic when writing cross-culturally.

Intimacy with Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies), Rebecca Makkai (Music for Wartime) and Chinelo Okparanta (Under the Udala Trees) was packed. I only managed to hear the last few minutes as there was a waiting line. The subject was capturing the title of the lecture.

There was also a panel at the same time with Phil Klay and Ann Hood that I had to miss.

4. I wanted to see Breaking the Silence: Hidden Stories with Aatish Taseer (The Way Things Were), Eka Kurniawan (Beauty is a Wound) and Taiye Selasi (Ghana Must Go). The subject was telling vivid personal stories while also giving voice to suppressed narratives of national tumult. The countries covered were India, Indonesia and Ghana. Unfortunately, I only could attend the following.

The New Latin American Literature: A View From Within, with Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel, Yuri Herrara, Alejandro Zambra, Andres Neuman and moderated by Daniel Alarcon (excuse my omission of accents). The moderated was principally focused on sociopolitical upheavals in countries such as Mexico, Chile and Argentina, although it seemed as if none of the authors (with the exception of Mr. Herrara to a degree) were writers of historical fiction. They principally wrote about relationships so his focus was distracting to me when the subject was how their works intersects, inspires and speaks to each other across borders. Ms. Luiselli made a personal comment that her novels were rejected presumably by some major publishers because they were not Mexican enough. She is now with a smaller press (Coffee House Press). Other panelists also confirmed that US publishers expected magical realism, when Latin American authors do not generally write in this genre today. When asked what each knew about their readers, Ms. Luiselli was frank that she did not know and she likely did not have many. I think her point was generally valid, because literary fiction and translated fiction in the US does not have a large audience. I think she will eventually have one however. Mr. Zambra took the question to mean what do US readers think about his work and to great applause said that he and other Latin American writers don’t write for the US. While I understood that authors don’t target an audience (save for commercial writers), the reaction said more about Latin American feelings about the US, because he answered a question that was not asked. The “colonial” response is from an US literary perspective because I think Ms. Luiselli’s point that Latin American literature is relatively ignored by US readers is more accurate. I don’t know anything about Mr. Neuman’s prolific writing but I will look into his writings as well as the others.

One author whose novel I added to my TBR list after seeing it at Coach House Books’ stall is Andre Alexis’ (ignore my lack of accent) “Fifteen Dogs”. He looks like an author worth reading.




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I love the short story form, especially if it is done well. Edith Pearlman does it very well.

There is nothing exquisite about her prose. Her stories are plainly told. Her characters are interesting, but not extraordinary. It is her imagination and how she tells her tale that puts in the pantheon of great short story writers. Like a wilderness guide she often leads you through switchbacks. You trust her, but you have no idea where you are going.

To tell you the end of these stories would spoil the journey. So I give a brief summary or will tell you where each story begins and the meaning I believe Ms. Pearlman is trying to convey. As stories are open to readers’ interpretations, I might be wrong.

For writers interested in learning the craft of short story writing she is required reading. Her earlier anthology Binocular Vision, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist to the National Book Award. She is a recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story. She is admired by her peers, Ann Patchett considering her a national treasure whose stories compare with John Updike and Alice Munro. In short, this book, and likely others I have not read, are well worth your time and a must if you write short stories.

The first story is Tenderfoot. It begins with a woman who gives footrubs. The story concerns the moral choices we make and the consequences of those choices. In short, nothing to do with footrubs.

The second story is Dream Children. It begins with an elderly immigrant woman who has come to the US to look after the children of a younger and more modern couple. She discovers some unusual drawings in their chest draw. The story is about superstitions and traditions.

“Castle” begins with Zeph, a single anesthesiologist who is dedicated to his job. Choices of the heart simply describes this story, but does preclampsia and congenital droop complicate the diagnosis?

“Stone” is a straight-forward beautiful tale about practical aging and family relationships. As in a number of stories, she is a fine observer of nature. Some are metaphorical.

“He pointed out things that she was not yet clever enough to notice: the hunting spider, which does not build webs but instead spies her prey and chases it and pounces. He showed her a toad crawling to his death while nearby a generation of tadpoles, some of them his progeny, sped through the water. His fingers lifted a low branch and there blossomed a miniature plant with a tiny dark flower: as plant that lives its whole life under a leaf, hostage to its own nature, visible to no one except some expert winged pollinator.”

“Her Cousin Jamie” is merely about an affair. Nothing compelling.

Godolphin, Massachusetts is the setting for a number of Ms. Pearlman’s short stories. It is drawn in part from her residence in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. The linkage between these stories are the “Forget Me Not’ antique store and its owner Rennie, and the nearby Devlin Hotel. The locations are less important than the ensemble of characters that inhabit them.

The Flaxbaums live in Godolphin. The father, Myron Flaxbaum, is a teacher of Latin at Caldicott Academy, a private girls’ school. He moonlights selling shoes for extra money. His wife is a nurse, and he has two children who are academically inclined. Myron receives an email from King’s College in London to speak about the topic “The Mystery of Life and Death”. The story “Blessed Harry” provides one answer.

Rennie acquires against her usual better judgment a statute called “PucK” from Ophelia, a 75-year-old regular customer of her antique store, whose husband has just died.

“Ophelia Vogelsang had staggered in three months ago with this fellow in her arms. “From Henry’s apartment,” she’d crowed, as if saying “from the Vanderbilt collection.” She set the statue on the floor and sank onto the striped love seat.”

Puck is not the image of the sprite, but he had guarded Uncle Henry’s back parlor fifty years ago. “Though parlor isn’t the right word”. In the spirit of Las Vegas, Puck is a quiet enchanter in the aptly named story “Puck”.

“Assisted Living” provides a little rogue history about the “Forget Me Not” store and some rogue.

“What the Ax Forgets the Tree Remembers” is an unsettling story with a distinctly feminist and human rights tone. In this very strong story, Gabrielle, the concierge extraordinary at Devlin’s Hotel, against type, becomes involved with the Society Against Female Mutilation.

“The brutality practiced in the photographs-shamefully, it made Gabrielle feel desirable. She was glad that sha and her stylists had at last found a rich oxblood shade for her hair; and such a Parisian way, complementing the Parisian name that her Pittsburgh parents had snatched from a newspaper the day she was born. She knew that at fifty-two she was still pretty, even if her nose was a millimeter too long and there was a gap between a bicuspid and a molar due to extraction; how foolish not to have repaired that, and now it was too late, the teeth on either side had already made halfhearted journeys toward each other. Still the gap was not disfiguring. And her body was as narrow and supple as a pubescent boy’s. She was five feet tall without her high-heeled shoes, but she was without her high-heeled shoes only in the bath- even her satin bed slippers provided an extra three inches.

“The Golden Swan” is the name of the cruise ship that two cousins sail on to the Caribbean as a gift from their grandpa. It is a tale of class separation and invasion of private lives.

In “Cul-de-Sac” three Godolphinites who live in one spend their free time trying to avoid Daphna who like a garrulous invasive species exceeds their tolerance. In the end Daphna returns to Jerusalem “where, I’m told, everybody talks at once, brags all the time.” The story questions what it means to be a neighbor, at least in the suburbs.

There is no scientific evidence that madness can be transferred between species, but in “Deliverance” a temporary worker at a soup kitchen employs this alchemy to keep the place sane.

Toby is an author of fictohistoriographia whose popularity ignored the grain of truth within her writings.

“Fabrications, they say…”

“Oh,  fabrications. Literally yes. I make things up out of whole cloth-that’s to fabricate definitions one and two. One ‘to make; create.’ Two, ‘to construct by combining or assembling diverse parts, as in to fabricate small boats.’ However, three: ‘to construct in order to deceive, as in to fabricate an excuse’- I don’t do that darling.” He blushed.

“I concoct,” she continued, “but only to illuminate!”

What is concocted, and not to illuminate, is not that Roman/British longboats preceded the Vikings to North America, it is her family history. “Fishwater” is another example of Ms. Perlman’s serpentine path to an unexpected and powerful conclusion.

The chromatic scale is the base coat for the two succeeding stories: “Wait and See” and “Flowers”. Primates are trichromatic, unlike butterflies and pigeons which are pentachromatic. A small tribe in Namibia, the Himba tribe, is also pentachromatic. Lyle is believed to be a descendant. In “Wait and See” is has to decide which world he wants to see and live in, after his step-father invents spectacles that would let him existence in the trichromatic world of children his age. Differences and exceptionalism can be confining.

Like “Her Cousin Jamie”, “Flowers” is of lighter fare about marital relationships.

“Conveniences” returns us to Godolphin, where a summer affair between Amanda, a college student, and Ben, a mid-thirties resident of New York is ongoing under the watchful eye of Frieda, the child niece of the owner of the antique store. Along the way, Ms. Perlman reviews Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel Fanshawe.

In “Hat Trick” a mother despairing of four nubile 1950s love seeking girls tells them that all men are interchangeable. To prove it she tells them to write down all potential suitors in Godolphin on pieces of paper which they will draw from a hat. She tells them to keep the choice to themselves and to pursue that boy, as they will have a happy enough marriage and life with him. They take her seriously.

“Sonny” is about class and status in Godolphin. A professor and a son of the local vegetable man are both deathly ill. Along the way Ms. Perlman references Lear, Arcimdoldo and provides a lesson in grammar and writing. All entertaining, but the ending is draw dropping.

“The Descent of Happiness” is a very short story about a moment of happiness.

The title of the anthology, “Honeydew” is the same as the last story. It is Ms. Perlman’s like joke. The story is not the best in the collection; the education in the journey being the high water mark. The central character, Emily, is an anorexic student at a Caldicott Academy (where Mr. Flaxbaum teaches) who has a passion for entomology. Her father and the headmistress have other passions, in a case of rules can be broken.

“The uses of shit were many. The most delightful was manna. Emily liked the story of Moses leading the starving Israelites into the desert. Insects came to their rescue. Of course the manna, which Exodus describes as a fine frost on the ground with a taste like honey, was thought to be a miracle from God, but it was really Coccidae excrement. Coccidae feed on the sap of plants. The sugary liquid rushes through the gut and out the anus. A single insect can process and expel many times its own weight every hour. They flick the stuff away with their hind legs, and it floats to the ground. Nomads still eat it-relish it. It is called honeydew.”





His Own Man


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The so-called dirty wars in South America that began in the 1970s and accounted for the disappearance and torture of thousands of citizens of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru and Brazil is the backdrop for this novel. This history is narrated  from the perspective of a diplomat in the Itarmarty (Brazil’s State Department) who as a young man is befriended by Marcilio Andrade Xavier, a slighty more senior colleague with whom he shares an interest in jazz, theatre, film, literature and a socialist bent. Brazil’s involvement in the coups is traced through Marcilio (Max), who moves from the Itarmarty to working with Brazil’s National Intelligence Service (SNI), the Church, and foreign governments’ spy agencies in the U.S. and the U.K. that worked behind the scenes to destabilize the existing governments in Uruguay and Chile. The novel is mainly a character study of Max, who apart from being ambitious, cannot be defined by those who knew and worked with him. He is part chameleon; teflon and a survivor. He may be more sinister than those who committed or orchestrated the atrocities. For him there is neither good nor evil. He accepts the present for what it is and deftly moves with each new present. He ultimately secures a senior diplomatic post after the revolutions and becomes a supporter of human rights. His narrator friend, questions him early in the book.

“I decided to cut to the chase. ‘If that’s the case, why did you feel compelled to take a stand in 1964? To switch sides without even batting an eye? What happened in the mind of Marcilio Andrade Xaxier?’

Unflappable as always, Max looked me head-on and asked, ‘Who told you I switched sides?”

Max is a realist, devoid of emotion. Overheard in conversation, his troubling remark could be his epitaph. “Convictions are a luxury, my friend. Reserved for those who don’t  play the game. I played the game.”

Max’s wife from whom he is distant and ultimately divorced, felt the terror while they briefly lived in Santiago, Chile. She conveys to narrator friend that cultural blindness comes with terror. The narrator recalls photos he has seen.

“Like the scenes of Paris during the German occupation, where what matters isn’t so much what is shown in the image-but what isn’t there. The couples sipping coffee along the Rive Gauche or ambling hand in hand in the Blois de Boulogne are not in themselves noteworthy. Except for the fact that, just steps away, at the exact same time, hundreds of Jews-men, women, and children- were being boarded onto trains and sent to concentration camps.”

Is Max’s relativity correct? Which blindness is better?

“Unlike his peers, he had been among the privileged few to live in the present without, at any moment, losing sight of the future. Whereas we… we had remained suspended in time, tied to the past, facing realities that had nothing to do with our values. How could we envision the future if the present reflects fear, torture, and resentment?”

Martina, Max’s ex-wife tries to understand societal evil in the context of human nature. “I read a line about Eichmann in the Economist the other day that applies to all of them. ‘Like most of his fellow Nazis, he was monstrous only when fate gave him power.”

The novel is a very interesting. It has elements of Graham Greene and John Le Carre. The author’s background makes it more interesting. His father was a diplomat and the a graduated from the Diplomatic Academy in 1967 when he joined the Brazilian Foreign Service. He remained in the diplomatic corps, moonlighting in writing and film.

The novel is published in the U.S. by Other Press (, a small press that recently published Kamel Droud’s well-regarded The Meursault Investigation, a reimagination of Camus’ The Stranger. It is a publisher that is worth investigating.

The only criticism I have about this book, is that the translator seems to occasionally forgets that the diplomat is the narrator. It is nit-picking, but having the diplomat convey what Max is doing on occasion by referring to him as “our hero” is misplaced. This description does not convey cynicism in context.

Like Max, the novel is not judgmental; which is its allure. The conclusion, or lack thereof, is strong.  It says as much about Max as it says about us.



Night at the Fiestas


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I often ignore literary awards because of the hype. I am going to make an exception. Kirstin Valdez Quade, the author of the short story collection “Night at the Fiestas” was selected by Andre Dubus III (author of “House of Sand and Fog”) to be one of the 2014 recipients of the 5 under 35 award of the National Book Foundation. She joins, Phily Klay (selected by Andrea Barrett) for “Redeployment”; Alex Gilvarry (selected by Amy Bloom) for “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant”; Valeria Luselli (selected by Karen Tei Yamashita) for “Faces in the Crowd”; and Yelena Akhtiorskaya (selected by Aleksandar Hemon) for “Panic in a Suitcase.” “Redeployment”, which I previously read and reviewed, won the 2014 National Book Award. If the other three books are as good as “Night at the Fiestas” and “Redeployment”, the 5 under 35 award  winners should be followed.

I find it difficult to review short story collections. You don’t want to reveal the plot. It is hard to capture the emotions conveyed and characters developed. This is particularly the case where the stories have an atmosphere.

The locale for the ten stories is Northern New Mexico. I felt the weakest of the stories was “Night at the Fiestas”. The story captures the insecure angst of a sheltered, small town teenage girl embarrassed by her bus driver father and his tired stories. He proudly drives her on his route to the fiesta in Santa Fe, where she hopes to find romance that she believes she can handle. The story’s weakness is relative to the strength of the other stories.

Ms. Quade writes well, but these stories are not embellished by literary prose. Some plots are dramatic, but the author’s specialty is conveyance of emotion and family relationships. Tension is the emotion in the first two stories: “Nemecia” and “Mojave Rats”. A child, Maria, both fears and is jealous of her seven-year older cousin Nemecia who has come to live with her family. Mystery shrouds her reason for living with them. Her parents dote on Nemecia and to Maria seem to favor her. Nemecia only shares with Maria her secret that she murdered her parents.

A fragile marriage is unraveling in the desert in “Mohave Rats”. Monica’s new marriage to a geologist has moved her from upscale to downscale. She is left alone with her child for a few days in a trailer whose heater is broken. Hungry and cold she won’t approach the trailer class for help. When a child from the adjacent trailer comes into her trailer to sell trinkets, Monica impulsively gives the child her the remnant of her former life, including her only remaining expensive dress that her own child jealously claims an interest in. She subsequently resents charity voluntarily given, but taken as an expectation. The theme of class charity is also explored in “Canute Commands the Tides”, where a housewife retiring from wealthy Connecticut comes to Santa Fe to free and find her artistic self again in the lightness of the Southwest. Darkness envelops her as she burdens herself with her housekeeper and her family.

In ” The Five Wounds” a failed husband and  father to an out-of-wedlock daughter tries to find respect and salvation by being actually crucified in a reenactment of the Passion Play. In “The Guesthouse” an alcoholic father and a perennially weak daughter claim rehabilitation and trump the responsible son who juggling his fragile mother while trying to close the estate of his grandmother by selling her house. In “Ordinary Sins” an out-of-wedlock clerical worker in the parish hears confession of the on the wagon priest who believes he is about to be replaced by a more conservative cleric.

“Claire was always in trouble for swearing, usually for saying “Oh my God.” It popped out without her noticing and hard to control because no one could explain to her why Mormons thought God was a bad word. She thought they were supposed to like God. It was particularly galling to get in trouble for swearing, because her mom didn’t even allow stupid or hate or shut up, which all the kids got to say.

“Try detest,” her stepfather Will had suggested. “Try loathe or abhor or execrate.”

“Claire’s mother shifted Emma to her other breast and smile across the table at Will, shaking her head. ‘Thanks, sweetie. That’s very helpful.”

In “Family Reunion” Claire, whose father is an alcoholic and who is from the wrong side of the tracks and religion, is trying to ingratiate herself by melding with a Mormon family who takes on a purported family reunion. There are many places to find God, but this was not one of them.

In “The Manzanos” and “Jubilee” remembering where you came from is the point. Cuipas is a small dying town who  has more family history below ground than above. A young woman stays for her ailing grandfather, but while she loves the simplicity of the life, in “The Manzanos” she longs to cross the mountains to change her life.

Class consciousness is often heightened by insecurities of those who perceive themselves as underclass. In “Jubilee” the daughter of a farm worker and taco truck owner attends Stanford, with the daughter of the owner of the farm where her dad worked. She is resentful and subconscious of her perceived position, even though the owner’s family has been generous to her own and not condescending. She makes a scene at party of the farm owner, even as she learns their family and their daughter are having emotional problems. Some time in the fields brings her back to her roots.

When asked what she would have done if she was not a writer, Ms. Quade said she would be a biologist. There is no evidence of this in this collection, but maybe this will be revealed in later works. Someone to watch.





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Asymmetrical loneliness and revelation grip the two principal characters in Marilynne Robinson’s classic novel “Lila”. Lila is a dispossessed child mercifully stolen by an itinerant young woman, Doll,  who despite the oppression of the Depression, like Rose of Sharon, wills Lila to live. Reverend Ames, an elderly minister in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, has an inherited Calvinist teaching that overrides his loss of a wife and child. Lila finds her way into Reverend Ames’ church and life after Doll likely dies in a knife fight, possibly with Lila’s father, over the possessory interest in his abandoned property right. Lila’s sole possessions are Doll’s knife and a stolen bible from the Church.

Barely literate, Lila begins her readings with Ezekiel, despite the Reverend’s warning that it is sad and a difficult place to start.

“All right. She was mainly interested in reading that the people were a desolation and a reproach. She knew what those words meant without asking. In the sight of all that pass by. She hated those people, the ones that look at you as if they want to say, Why don’t you get your raggedy self out of my sight. Ain’t one thing going right for you. Existence don’t want you. Doll couldn’t hide her poor face anymore, the way she did when they were all together and Doanne did their talking for them. People would try to figure out that mark. A wound, maybe a scar? It was an astonishment to them. They would stare at it before they realized what they were doing, and Doll would just stand there waiting till they were done, till they looked past her and spoke past her. And then she would try to sell them what little she had in the way of strength. Or they could just swap something for it, if that was easier. In those days it seemed to Lila that they were nothing at all, the two of them, but here they were, right here in the Bible. Don’t matter if it’s sad. At least Ezekiel knows what certain things feel like. That voice above the firmament. He knows the sound of it. There is no speech nor language. But it was asking a hard question all the same, something to do with the trouble it was for them to hold up their heads, and where the strength came from that made them do it no matter what.”

“What could the old man say about all those people born with more courage than they could find a way to spend, and then there was nothing to do with it but just get by?”

The Reverend is not judgmental. He sees life in Lila, no more or less pure than Mary. He allows Lila her own time to explain, or not, as she is inclined to do, having been in the wilderness for so long. His dogmatism is in the question; the failure to know or to explain. He confesses that he must seem like a fool to Lila, as he has no answers to many of her questions. He prays often and she respects it, but her revelation is through mere existence. The teachings are reaffirmation for her.

“I don’t understand theology. I don’t think I like it. Lots of folks live and die and never worry themselves about it.”

“She thought. An unborn child lives the life of a woman it might never know, hearing her laugh or cry, feeling the scare that makes her catch her breadth, tighten her belly. For months its whole life would be all dreams and no waking. The steps in the road, the thought of the knife, then the dread sinks away for a while, and how is a child to know why?…. Well child, Lila thought, I will see you weltering in your blood. And mine. Lonely, frightened, my own child. If the wildness doesn’t carry us both away. And if it does.”

“Lila” is the last book of the author’s Gilead trilogy. Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize and Home was a National Book Award finalist as was Lila (it lost to Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which I previously reviewed and enjoyed, but to the extent literature can be compared, it is not equal to Lila). I would be very surprised if this book does not make the 2015 Booker Short List. As literature it is far superior to The Moor’s Account which I recently reviewed and enjoyed. I have not read the other Long Listed finalists to make a comparison.

I regret not reading the other two books in the trilogy, but Lila stands on its own. I will read the others as I believe this trilogy is timeless literature. To read this is like entering a house of worship.  It is spiritual for the agnostic. An atheist might be dissatisfied, but not with the prose.

It is a must read. The author is an American treasure.

The Body Where I Was Born


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I don’t know if is still a feature at Yankee Stadium, but statisticians ran amuck when you attended a baseball game. It became a source of humor with my son to look at the scoreboard to see the latest announcement about how well a player was doing. It wasn’t as if the players did not have legitimate records, but there seemed to be a need to embellish. If a player’s batting average for the season was .225, the scoreboard would announce that he was hitting .425 since the beginning of the month, even if it only started a week ago.

With this in mind I read on the back jacket the biography of Guadalupe Nettel, the author of “The Body Where I Was Born”. Ms. Nettel has received a number of prizes for Spanish literature and her first book in English Natural Histories was well received by the New York Times. What made me laugh was that she was designated a Granta “Best Untranslated Writer”. Granta’s description of the series is understandable: established writers select and showcase fellow writers from their own language who are not yet widely translated or read. Nonetheless, the designation makes me think of the sound a tree makes when it falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it. I am interested in knowing who the “Worst Untranslated Writer” is.

In any event, hopefully this novella is not representative of this “new” Mexican writer’s body of work.  The plot description on the book jacket is “that from a psychoanalyst’s couch the narrator looks back on her childhood”.  Except for intermittent one line rhetorical questions to the doctor, the reader would not discern that this is other than a memoir or diary. It is a monologue, where the psychoanalysis seems contrived.

The young girl has a deformity in one of her eyes, although this is only a concern raised at the beginning and end of the book. The book otherwise traces the life of a Mexican child of presumably middle class background, who has a dysfunctional family principally composed of a mother who likely did not want the obligation of a child and leaves the young girl with her strict grandmother and a father who is loving but away avoiding capture or in jail. The child suffers from some neurosis (with an allusion to Kafka), but survives, living for a time with her mother in a rough neighborhood in the south of France. There is nothing dramatic or incisive about the story or the prose. I don’t think it would interest a young adult as a coming of age novel, but I might be wrong. On rare occasion, there is some humor.

“I remember so well the time the math teacher, a woman with pronounced lordosis, while teaching us the x-axis and y-axis declared that her own posture was perpendicular to the floor. Camila burst into a loud and contagious laugh. ‘Miss!’ she blurted, ‘how can you say that? Have you looked in the mirror?'”

For me this novella would have been better left untranslated.


Paris Stories


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I had been told that Mavis Gallant is a writer’s writer. A master of the short story whose tales for years found a home in the New Yorker. “Paris Stories” is a collection of 15 of her stories that were chosen by Michael Ondaatje. I will only review the stories that appealed to me.

There is little dialogue in most of these stories. They are period pieces, all related to France, mostly in the period after WWII. She has a journalists eye for detail and observation and is similarly emotionally detached. She recounts the inner thoughts of her characters, building as on a canvas, a layered vision. Not stream of consciousness, some stories wander, but in an orderly fashion. Her protagonists are often strong woman by circumstance, as feminism would be a movement of a later generation.

“The Moslem Wife” is a derogatory label applied to the proprietress of a small hotel in the south of France who supports her flighty husband and sustains the hotel throughout Nazi occupation. She is unemotional rather than stoic. A victim of her own personality she is a servant to his whims. It is a peculiarity of some strong women in need of weaning.

“Speck’s Idea” is a Parisian story. The protagonist is a small art dealer who had carved a niche in the world of collectors, but needs a new show to sustain a declining appeal. “… he developed as his specialty the flattest, palest, farthest ripples of the late middle-traditional Paris school. This sensible decision had earned him the admiration given the devoted miniaturist who is no threat to anyone.”  It is an interesting study of small business, the art world, personalities and widows and widowers. “But there was even more to Speck than this, and if he was respected for anything in the trade it was for his knack with artists’ widows.” The story is about how he plied this trade.

“Indoors the widow sat, her walls plastered with portraits of herself when young. Here she continued the struggle begun in the Master’s lifetime- the evicting of the upstairs tenant- her day made lively by the arrival of mail (dusty beige of anonymous threats, grim blue of legal documents), the coming and going of process servers, the outings to lawyers. Into this spongy territory Speck advanced, bringing his tactful presence, his subtle approximation of courtship, his gift for listening. Thin by choice, pale by nature, he suggested maternal need. Socks and cuff links suggested breeding. The drift of his talk suggested prosperity. He sent his widows flowers, wooed them with food. Although their taste in checks and banknotes ran to the dry and crisp, when to eating they craved the sweet, the sticky, the moist. Speck brought soft macaroons, savarins socked in rum, brioches stuffed with almond crean, mocha cake so tender it had to be eaten with a spoon. Sugar was poison to Speck. Henriette had once reviewed a book that described how refined sugar taken into one’s system turned into a fog of hideous green. Her brief, cool warning, “A Marxist Considers Sweets,” unreeled in Speck’s mind if he was confronted with a cookie. He usually pretended to eat, reducing a mille-feuille to paste, concealing the wreck of an eclair under napkin and fork. He never lost track of his purpose- the prying of paintings out of a dusty studio on terms anestheizing to the artist’s widow and satisfactory to himsel.”

The title “Remission” is an interesting choice for this story as each of the multiple definitions could apply. A forty  year old man moves with his wife and three young children from England to the south of France in the hope that he will recover his health. It is temporal. Their marriage was not loveless, but his wife is ambivalent, feeling that the marriage deprived her, despite her taking advantage of the relatives supporting them. She takes up with an English actor while her husband is dying, finally finding love and cancelling the debt of ther marriage. The children do not approve, nor offer forgiveness for sins she is indifferent to.

“August” is imbued with Parisian class distinction, ironically expressed through a fragile family of expatriate Americans beset with an increasingly recluse daughter and wife instilled with phobias. Bonnie, the resented, judgmental middle-aged mother of little means projects class she aspires to as she seeks a renewal of life. Bob, the husband is the victim hero who is liked by all, supports all, but has been drained of love for his fading wife. Flor, the fractured daughter who believes she is becoming invisible, while promoting anemia as her excuse. Doris, an interloping American neighbor whose marital difficulties have left her economically stranded in Paris and in search of an attachment. The author demonstrates perspective as they look at a painting in Bob and Flor’s apartment.

“They all turned to the painting. Bonnie looked at a bright patch on the bright wall, and Doris at something a child of six might have done as well. Flor saw in the forms exploding with nothing to hold them together absolute proof that the universe was disintegrating and that it was vain and foolish to cry for help. Bob looked at a rising investment that, at the same time, game him aesthetic pleasure; that was the way to wrap up life, to get the best of everything. ….. Distress on the fringe of horror covered the faces of the three women, like a glaze, endowing them with a sudden, superficial resemblance. Florence’s horror was habitual: it wa almost her waking look. Bonnie suffered acutely at her son-in-law’s trambling of taste. Doris, the most earnest, thought of how many children in vague, teeming, starving places could have been nourished with that sum of money.”

“In Plain Sight” meanders. As in numerous stories in this collection, the principal character, Henri Grippes, is a writer. He is a writer now in the late Fall of his life, when all his affairs with married women, fly to him like homing pigeons after their husbands have passed. One particularly loyal companion in waiting, willing to forfeit her more upscale real estate for Henri’s disheveled accomodations, is Mme. Parfaire. His indifference to her offerings is treated as abuse by the other residents. However, the story does not linger here. The author has a penchant for tracing the political and fashion history of post-war France through her characters. Here Henri is the disenchanted political naif, who upon the election of Francois Mitterand, the Fifth Republic’s first socialist, realizes that governing and utopianism are incompatible. Henri’s expression of radicalism is reduced to writing a piece that bemoans the multi-plex cinema. Ms. Gallant now moves on. She now traces Henri’s socio-political lineage. His grandfather was a collaborator with the Vichy, but for economic reasons. Henri as a child, is the inadvertent cause of his arrest. The story’s title is borrowed from Henri’s advice to the police in search of contraband.  It is then back to Mme. Parfaire and an inconclusive ending. The latter is a style of am not enamored of, particularly if the test is only to guess what the author has in mind.

“Scarves, Beads, Sandals”, substitutes Theo Schurz, an aged and well-known painter for the indifferent author, Henri Grippes. He lives on the fringe of Montparnasse in a grimmy flat that is destined for condemnation. Like Grippes he seems to be impoverished, although his paintings are in demand. He had multiple muses, the last, Mathilde, married him to be Mme. Shurz. She subsequently realizes she wants a more refined- bourgeois- existence. Their divorce is amicable and her remarriage, to a cultural attache doomed to be downscaled to an academic, is accepted by Shurz. Despite the marriage, she spends more time with Shurz, mothering him. Each marriage seems to be one of convenience; principally Mathilde having the economic security to remain attached to Shurz. Shurz is as indifferent as Henri: ever the artist.

My verdict on Ms. Gallant’s writing is capable, but not overwhelming. It is too detached for me. The prose is not lyrical, but her observations and sense of character development are strong. It is only one collection, so it is hard to judge the body of her work.


Stone Mattress


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For those of you who stay for the credits after a Monty Python movie there is a reward.

I have never understood why books include a note about the typeface. At first I thought it might be a copyright issue, but some typefaces are hundreds of years old. Certainly no one is afraid of being sued by a medieval guild.

The type for Margaret Atwood’s compendium of nine tales is Waldbaum. For those from the northeast U.S., you immediately think of a supermarket. This is not far off because the originator was Justus Erich Waldbaum (1768-1839).  The note reads: “Young Waldbaum began his artistic career as an apprentice to a maker of cookie moulds. How he managed to leave this field and become a successful punch cutter remains a mystery.” Sometimes it pays to stay for the credits.

Margaret Atwood is an extraordinary writer.  It has been my loss not to have read her since I read “The Handmaid’s Tale” decades ago. She is darkly imaginative, with a feminist point of view. The first paragraph of the first tale, “Alphinland”, is evidence of her mastery of language.

“The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. Under the streetlights it looks so beautiful: like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment. The beauty is an illusion, and also a warning: there ‘s a dark side to beauty, as with poisonous butterflies. She ought to be considering the dangers, the hazards, the grief this ice storm is going to bring to many; is already bringing, according to the television news.”

She then proceeds to parody television  weather reports. She is funny and spot on.

Constance is a recent widow who continues to converse with her less than faithful deceased husband. She was a fantasy writer with a bohemian past that predates her husband. The tales morph into a computer game which becomes popular with youth who would be surprised by the age of its creator. The game is her world that embodies her past. There are chambers of secrets to which her husband is not  allowed entry. Her unfaithful lover Gavin is imprisoned in the game. As you might expect, Ms. Atwood’s imagination is mind bending and the fantasy is enchantingly dark.

The second story “Revenant” is immediately less appealing. I had followed the famed short story writer, Mavis Gallant, suggestion that compendiums of short stories should not be read as a novel. “Read one. Shut the book. Read another.” Here a renown aged poet in failing health is being cared for by his 30 year younger wife who is his reluctant gatekeeper from budding poets who come to pay homage. There is a Virginia Wolf tension between the two. The poet reminisces about his affair that soured in his youth, retrospectively desiring his muse to his wife. He is visited by a graduate student who he initially believes is doing her thesis on his earlier poems. Age has made him lecherous in mind, but not of body, and he is brutally sexist to the young woman. The revenant she is researching is connected to Alphinland. Once you are past the literary name dropping, the surprising plot is gripping. Ignore Mavis’ suggestion and read the two stories together.

“Dark Lady” retraces the lives of twins Jorrise and Tin, the product of a father killed in action and an alcoholic mother who collected boyfriends. Jorrise and Tin are not their given names and this is not a story about both of them. It might have been titled “A Musing” or “Disabused” or simply “The Biography of Gavin”.  This story completes the trilogy. A biography, unlike an autobiography, is told from the perceptions of others. Ms. Atwood is having a bit of fun with us and her characters, quietly mocking and redeeming those who have been spurned.

The six remaining stories stand on their own. “The Freeze Dried Groom” borders on the crime genre. As in many of the stories in this collection there is a failed relationship due to sex, although here the protagonist as in Ms. Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” is a con artist; the art being furniture.

“The Dead Hand Loves You” is another pulp fiction horror story. A jilted lover’s severed hand returns to retrieve what should have been his. It is not Ms. Atwood’s usual standard, but perhaps she spent an evening what “B” movies.

Quality returns with the title story “Stone Mattress”. A crime story this time. There is something worse than a woman scorned. The author captures a certain type of male whose presumed attraction is  checkmated.

Ms. Atwood is getting on in years. These stories are adult stories; particularly adults who are or near senior status. “Torching the Dusties” focuses on a woman in an upscale assisted living facility who is trying to stay in the “independent” wing of the facility. Ms. Atwood captures the fear of seniors in such facilities who are held mentally, if not physically, captive like prisoners in a penitentiary. The reader has to decide if the tale is just a hallucination writ large as an extrapolation of Wilma’s Charles Bonnet syndrome, or an actual dystopian tale of revenge of the young.  Ms. Atwood writes about relationships between men and more astute women. Here she examines it once sex is mythology, but men due to scarcity, are in demand.

This collection is fun to read becauce Ms. Atwood is as twisted as ever.


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