Rules for Old Men Waiting

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I thought Peter Pouncey’s “Rule for Old Men Waiting” might be a bookend for “Nora Webster” which I just read and reviewed. Both are told from the perspective of spouses who had a very strong marriage. Nora Webster is a widow, MacIver, a Scottish history professor whose artist wife just died, is a widower.

There are differences. MacIver is near death and isolates himself to occupy his remaining time by writing a World War I short story. Pouncey’s book is more soliloquy and therefore less engaging than “Nora Webster” which uses well drawn characters to paint a picture of Nora Webster’s survival and growth in changing times. The intent of Mr. Pouncey’s book seems to be a version of war and remembrance. The biological and mental agony of those near death seems to me to be a writer’s ploy to disguise a novella principally about war. The chapters begin with MacIver having to deal with his current physical state. This usually entails about a page or two of narrative and then it is back to the war story. As this was Mr. Pouncey’s debut novel I felt as if he did not want to be judged on the war story, so nested it within a novel about a widower’s remembrances and end of life experience. The war story about a fragging is fine as is MacIver’s remembrance of his son who died in Vietnam. To me, the rest is a hurried distraction.

Unlike “Nora Webster” the writer “tells you” and not “shows you”. This is dictated by the novel being a remembrance, but for me it constrained emotional attachment to MacIver.

Mr. Pouncey is a classicist, so there are references and parallels to Greek mythology sprinkled throughout the book. The book has strong testimonials from good writers, which is what attracted me to the novel: Frank McCourt; Ward Just; Louis Begley; Norman Mailer and Shirley Hazzard.

It is a short book if you care to have a go. I mostly felt underwhelmed, particularly because the title of the book was not its center.

Nora Webster

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If I was not a fan of Colm Tóibín’s writing I might not have finished his most recent novel, “Nora Webster”. Unlike Jumpa Lahiri’s “Lowland” which I had just finished reading, it is not plot driven. It is a character study of an Irish widow in the early 1960s in a small town in the southeast of Ireland near Wexford. The novel moves at a small town pace capturing the fears of a sheltered widow thrust into economic and sole parenting decisions to support two young boys and teenage girls in a changing world. It is Irish in tribalism, petty grievances and grudges, Catholic upbring, family, and community. It captures the disruptiveness of Northern Ireland and the IRA on Catholic Ireland at a personal level. It is a novel that if you have or had a strong bond with your spouse you will relish.

The change in my perception of the novel began with Chapter Eight, about half-way through the book. Religion is more than a faith when practiced well. It offers both comfort and guidance in various dosages from those who know their flock very well. Like politics, religion is local. It is a wonder anyone would give confession in Nora Webster’s town as Sister Thomas is as good as a bookie at a turf parlor. As Ms. Webster appreciatively notes “that in any other century, Sister Thomas would have been burned as a witch.”

The book makes a passing reference to the theologian Thomas Merton, who I know the author takes an interest in. He had spoken on a panel about Mr. Merton last year in New York City. What I found most revealing about the panel discussion was his Irish ability to tell stories that are both funny and sometimes deprecating. As a social people the Irish offer plenty of characters and caricatures. It is no wonder that gifted writer such as the author finds a treasure trove to write about.

There is however, universality to this book: marriage; widowhood; community; parenting; sibling rivalry; women’s rights; and economic and culture class. Those who speak with a Dublin dialect are to be mocked. Classical music and opera are pretensions. Politics is argued about openly by men, not by women. Ms. Webster is not the meek person that she appears to be outside of her family and with the help of supportive family and community she becomes an individual.

From one character, and that character’s thoughts and relationships, a whole canvas of the times is painted by the author. It is a great gift to be able to write with but shadow and light, but Mr. Tóibín is highly gifted.

I would definitely recommend this book; particularly for older readers who have lived through and will continue to live through the joys and tribulations of daily life.

Lowland

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Jhumpa Lihari’s 2013 short-listed Man Booker novel is her last exploration of her Indian émigré experience. The transitional culture influences and pressures are layered over the larger theme of single parenting within broken families. The historical backdrop the Naxalite student uprising in Calcutta in 1971 who were supporting the sharecroppers revolt that the West Bengali police crushed in the late 1960s. The Naxalites are and remain followers of Mao and continue to destabilize Kashmir.

The novel traces the lives of two Hindu boys who grow up in Muslim Calcutta initially under British rule. Both are the first in their families to attend university. The younger, more independent Udayan falls into the student Naxalite movement, the older, submissive Subhash, is more respectful of his parents, but emigrates to the United States for graduate study. Sudhash tries to repair family damage after Udayan is killed, notwithstanding that others are more selfish or constrained by their beliefs or culture.

I do not want to reveal the plot because this is a fast paced story. Ms. Lahiri writing conveys the atmosphere in Calcutta and Rhode Island through characters that are developed. While some novels draw their plot from their characters, this is a generational epic sweep, so plot takes precedence. Years are skipped, so the reader is an interloper on events during different periods and at different locales.

It was an enjoyable read that is hard to put down. It is not a literary masterpiece. The prose is competent and apart from some history of the Naxalite movement, it imparts no new knowledge to those who do not know recent Indian history. From an educational standpoint Sudhash’s wife, a philosophy major, says that her study group argues about praxis, immanence and absolute.

I  have long listed the book if I was judging, as other 2013 short-listed works were superior.

Orfeo

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Richard Power’s most recent novel “Orfeo” intertwines minimalist classical music and bioterrorism paranoia in an ironic homage to Orpheus. For those without musical training or knowledge of the history of avant-garde classical music composition a multi-media version of this novel linked to orchestral performances, or end notes about musicology, would have been a beneficial supplement. Monteverdi’s opera, “Orfeo” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ma4OelX45I) , though capturing the theme of music and death in the Orphic-Eurydice Greek myth is too melodic for Richard Power’s protagonist, Peter Els. The Nouveau Classical Project Kamea string quartet’s interpretive performance of Richard Power’s “Orfeo” edges closer. (http://centerforfiction.org/calendar/notes-on-fiction-orfeo-by-richard-powers). Unfortunately there is no score for Mr. Els dissonant compositions. Unlike Orpheus’ lyre, Mr. Els’ works are the risk of artistry: works never to be heard. The novel is a chronology of the modern classical music genre and its influences that for better or worse Peter Els borrows or revolts from: the polyphonic Pérotin; Bach; Mahler; Bartók; Shostakovich; Messiaen (see my earlier review of the novel “Quartet for the End of Time” and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYpBHc8px_U); Stravinsky; the indeterminate John Cage (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4); Terry Riley (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hy3W-3HPMWg); serialists Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and George Rochberg; Jon Gibson; Steve Reich; Philip Glass ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Stu7h7Qup8and); and Pierre Boulez’s Orientations. This novel is “In C”.

A young Peter Els begins his odyssey for musical perfection by trying to impress his first love, Clara Reston, whose critical ear isolates sound and discards conventional musical form. He alters his career choice from chemistry to musical composition; the fascination for underlying notation interlocking the two. She discards him for London and a husband and he finds a substitution in his monetarily supportive vocalist wife, Maddy and their emotionally supportive daughter, Sara. The “happenings” of U.S. in the 1960s catalyze him to discard both for his music; an addiction orchestrated by his manipulative colleague Richard who commissions him for his mostly uncompensated operatic librettos and modern dance pieces. He discards their fifteen seconds of fame achieved by inadvertently reinvigorating Meyerbeer’s Le prophète. Both are operas that memorialize the later socialist hero Thomas Münzer who in 1534 at the behest of the Reformation’s Martin Luther is massacred with 30,000 Anabaptist families. On the heel of Waco, for moral reasons, Els precludes encores of his piece. He becomes reclusive, but in middle age finds sanctuary and a little income teaching at a college. Ever the perfectionist in his own mind in this 70s he seeks perpetuity of his unheard score by encoding and mutating a bacterium’s (Serratia) with elements of his compositions. Federal agents, paranoid about bioterrorism, brand him one and he becomes a fugitive. A temporal cult hero on Twitter his pieces finally find an audience.

Mr. Powers employs music in some of his other works, so I first thought that the novel only employed the currency of security paranoia for commercial reasons. The novel can be a little slow at the outset, particularly if you have no musical background. A 2014 long listed Booker Prize novel, it is far more engaging than the plot and is worth pursing to its conclusion. For book clubs that read challenging literature it is an excellent choice.

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” Are sound and music synonymous? What is the music in things and the pauses between sound? Is conventional music a mathematical construct that begs to be unconstrained. avant-garde music extends the reach beyond limited tonality, but Els is venturing into nanomusic.

“A year of reading, and the scales fell from El’s eyes. … Microbes orchestrated the expression of human DNA and regulated human metabolism. They were the ecosystem that we just lived in. We might go dancing, but they called the tune.”

Steve Reich’s Proverb (based on Wittgenstein’s “how small a thought it takes to fill a whole life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5lgAUHVFC4) is a relativistic beautifully melodic inversion that hauntingly chants through Els, until he learns that the thought is love, not music.

“To call any music subversive, to say that a set of pitches and rhythms could pose a threat to real power… ludicrous. And yet, Plato to Pyongyang, that endless need to legislate sounds. To police the harmonic possibilities as if there were no limits to music’s threat.” Els’ tells the history of Shostakovich’s Fifth. Compelled by Stalin for him to be more melodic, the composer had to abandon his acclaimed inventive Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldRJQfES8hA). Censorship is a chill that leads to a putinesca score. Els buries is dog Fidelio, who unlike Beethoven’s heroine of the same name, will not be able to free him from political prisons.

“He goes on writing, of music converted into a string of zeros and ones, then converted again into base four. He writes of Serratia’s chromosome ring, five million base pairs long. He tweets how he divided those two numbers to produce a short key. ”

“People now make music from everything. Fugues from fractals. A prelude extracted from the digits of pi. Sonatas written by the solar wind, by voting records, by the life and death of ice shelves as seen from space…. String quartets were performing the sequences of amino acids in horse hemoglobin. No listener would ever need more than a fraction of the music that had already been made, but something inside the cells needed to make a million times more… His own music had no corner on obscurity. Almost every tune that the world had to offer would forever be heard by almost no one.”

Mr. Powers is a musician, and although he attended college for physics, he became a literature major. He worked as a computer programmer and was an adjunct faculty member at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. His novels are a blend of these skill sets, although weighted more to biology than physics. In short, he is interesting and thought-provoking. Make the effort.

In Paradise

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“In Paradise” is the last book of the multiple National Book award-winning author Peter Matthiessen. In baseball parlance, it is a walk-off. Mr. Matthiessen was a co-founder of the famed literary journal The Paris Review. He was a renowned naturalist and former CIA agent. The Paris Review was created to be his CIA cover.

In 1996 a cast of characters attend a week-long ecumenical retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenhau to pray and “bear witness”. As in good theatre, the ghosts of the dead bring out the skeletons in the closet. The plot centers around Professor Olin Clements, poet and historian, who as a child of a patrician Polish family came to the U.S. in the late 1930s. He attends the retreat facially for research purposes; secondarily to uncover the history of his mother whom his father left behind. The plot, though deftly handled, is the palette for various themes on the Human Condition, genocide, and religion. More Devil’s advocate than Socratic, it raises but does not try to answer these questions. The novel challenges perspectives and prejudices and is a great choice for a book club.

Like Hannah Arendt’s “Eichman in Jerusalem:A Report on the Banality of Evil” it takes no prisoners from the temporally coven of Israeli, German, Polish, Canadian, American, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, and Italian witnesses. It mocks those who “bear witness” that were not survivors, as it challenges the ethical fiber of those who found a means to survive. Earwig the most inflammatory of the author’s voices for piercing hypocrisy. There are no delusions about the role of class. An uneducated local Polish woman, who grew up seeing the smoke from the camp, like survivors of the camp inexplicably continues to return to it. Her viewpoint is not compassionate.

“I think… I am a natural oppressor. I know I am. I would be good at it.”… She declares that she has no sympathy for the people killed here except for those who fought back.”

Is Auschwitz for the educated.  A shrine over which the Ashkenazi hold a monopoly while the mass graves outside of and within the more deadly Treblinka, represents the Eastern Europe and of Catholic Polish experience. Mattiessen’s characters do not give the Poles nor the Vatican a pass. It is not just Jews. At the retreat a gay priest is vilified and then attacked. Tadeusz Borowski’s suicide note, is in part a rebuttal against a “German” or “Polish” condition.

“.. there is no crime that a man will not commit in order to save himself. And, having saved himself, he will commit crimes for increasingly trivial reasons… first out of duty, then out of habit, and finally– for pleasure.”

Is Auschwitz a metaphorical “paradise?

“Footsteps on the bare wood floor resound too loudly. A stifled cry and many weep. Still, they do not look at one another. Like the first sinners fleeing Paradise in a medieval painting, hands clasped to their errant genitals, they cannot in this moment face the shame they see reflected in the eyes of other human beings.”

How innately evil are humans.

“Anders says he has always been embarrassed by Jews who insist that their suffering was more terrible than other people’s. Sitting motionless on their platform all day long in winter weather, it has seemed to him more and more idle to judge whose ordeal has been worst. Or whose guilt, for that matter. Germans, Poles, Romanians, Croats, Ukrainians– are these ethnicities intrinsically more cruel, historically ‘worse’ human being than the racists and torturers in other lands? If so, does ‘worse’ signify simply signify ‘inferior’? And if so, do these peoples remain inferior in perpetuity? Or should all Homo sapiens  be given the benefit of the doubt by reason of incurable insanity? Accept that we can’t help ourselves, were ‘only human’.”

The author describes the Auschwitz home life of Rudolf Hoess, one of the Kapos at the camp.

“The Hoesses and their four offspring, waited on by emaciated slaves, inhabited a brute heaven of gourmet delicacies, silks, furs, jewelry, and assorted loot stripped from doomed prisoners. His wife would sigh, ‘I want to live here till I die”, according to one slave…”

The much older Professor Clements is infatuated with noviate Catherine who is with other nuns and priests on the retreat. She is bound to the Church but uncomfortable with the orthodoxy.  He mentions to her the apocryphal parable of her namesake, St. Catherina of Siena, a Dominican of the fourteenth century.

“Christ crucified is importuned by a penitent thief, in agony on his own cross on that barren hillside. ‘I beseech you, Jesus, take me with you this day to Paradise!’. In traditional gospels, Jesus responds, ‘Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,’ but in older texts-Eastern Orthodox or the Apocrypha, perhaps?- Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, ‘No friend, we are in Paradise, right now.'”

Before leaving Poland Dr. Clements goes to a Franciscan church to see a modern stained glass window that a survivor recommended to him. The survivor is an artist who is representing the suffering of those in the camps in a cave in the vicinity. How should art represent the evil of genocide for it to be impactful?

“The only way to understand such evil is to reimagine it. And the only way to reimagine it is through art, as Goya knew. You cannot portray it realistically.”

Yet the stained glass window at the Franciscan church is not abstract.

“Lifting his gaze, he eventually locates Malan’s stained glass window. A thunderous Jehovah brow, a torrent of white beard, cascading downward from on high; the white is soon lost among the livid greens and blues of sun-filled Evil emerging out of chaos. And there it sits, crouched in the swirl of colors–a gray claw with long stiletto nails and carmine veins like lethal wires under the rotting skin, the dead had of an aghast Almighty withdrawn from His Creation.”

This is a masterful work of literature that I highly recommend that you read.

The Book of Duels

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I am half-way through Michael Garriga’s debut collection of stories and I am thinking Michael Garriga, the name of the author, is nom de plume. His biography reads shrimp picker, bartender, soundman at a blues bar and writing teacher at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. I never heard of the school, so I looked it.  Mr. Garriga is now an assistant professor of English teaching undergraduate creative writing at the University. There are no professional Writers’ Workshop; no the graduate writing program. The latter is limited to teaching education. The book is published by Milkweed Editions, a small press  located in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.  The front cover has a very engaging pen and ink drawing and other such illustrations by Tynan Kerr and presumably Mr. Garriga’s wife, grace the book. Milkweed Editions is promoting the illustrations in the book. The book and Mr. Garriga have received favorable reviews. The back cover has a testimonial by Robert Olen Butler, a short story writer who was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. The testimonial in part reads, “‘The Book of Duels’ is one of the most extraordinary first books of fiction I’ve ever read.” I second this.

The title is a little misleading, as these are not all duels in the traditional sense. The book sets the stage with quotations about traditional duels. Mark Twain’s is among the best.

“I thoroughly disapprove of duels. I consider them unwise and I know they are dangerous. Also sinful. If a man should challenge me now, I would go to that man and take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet retired spot, and kill him.”

Mr. Garriga triangulates the dual. The stories are 4-5 page vignettes, with three perspectives: the two protagonists and the second; a witness; a relative bystander; or a peripheral victim. As expected the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is included. The perspectives and other protagonists are unexpected. The language is at times sermonic, poetic, streetwise or historically vernacular, and Faulknerian in cadence. These are soliloquies, the prose is confessional in search of a period. Stripping the vignettes to excerpt would not be representative of the whole. Both style and emotion would be diffused. You have to take my word about the quality of this writing.

Mr. Garriga is a storyteller of Southern Creole origin. I could as easily hear these stories on The Moth or at a story telling venue as read them. In my opinion, it is rare, even in well written literature, to be both visual and aural. Authors at book readings often fail to grasp this.

For short story writers you wonder if they have a novel in them. The same may be asked about Mr. Garriga- does he have longer short stories in him. It is the wrong question, although I think he has the skills and imagination to write both literary forms. He invents and inhabits the minds of the protagonists in revisiting historic and allegorical events. It is not unlike what Colm Toibin did in “The Testament of Mary.” Mr. Garriga has taken a vise grip to the short story form and compressed it to its essential elements. These compressed stories may be the new form of short story for an impatient age.

The range of “duels” is expansive. He categorizes them into Offense, Challenge, and Satisfaction. The weapons are varied: instruments of death, words, art form, children, labor, roosters (cocks), and vehicles. The “duels” are confrontations and contests. The historic periods covered extend from Biblical times until today.  Abolition and slavery are well represented, as is the Creole experience.  Broadly the subject “duals” include:

David and Goliath

Abel and Cain

Don Quixote and the Windmill (a.k.a Argus Nicholas the Giant)

George and the Dragon

Musashi  and Kojiro (Samurai and Founder of the Kenjutsu School)

Custer and Ptebola Ska (White Cow Bull)

Fuego (Miura Bull) and Ignacio Lopez Avaloz (matador)

Jacques Le Gris and Jean de Carrouges (last trial by combat in France, Charles VI in attendance)

Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tuttle, Jr.

Sellers vs. Sellers (a marital dispute)

Donatello vs. Michelangelo vs. da Vinci

Gabriel, Comte de Montgomery and King Henry II

Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory”) and Charles Dickinson

Arthur John (Jack) Johnson (World Heavyweight Boxing Champion) and Gregori Rasputin

I admire Milkweed Editions in bringing attention to this book and Mr. Garriga. I am not sure if it has the resources to appropriately promote both and this would be unfortunate. For me, I think this is what appropriation editors and literary agents dream of. This is a diamond in the rough. It would be a lost opportunity if someone does not help polish this stone.

This is a definite read. You are not likely to find it in a library (save for the great Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library). I will be buying a copy, and I would suggest you do the same. It is available on Amazon (it got great reviews) and through Milkweed Editions (http://milkweed.org/). A MUST read!

In the interest of full disclosure, I have no conflicts of interest. I was not asked to write this review; have no affiliation with Milkweed Editions, Amazon, the Garriga’s or anyone affiliated with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Rain

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Takehito Miyatake photo of hime botaru (princess fireflies)

Photo of hime botaru by Takehito Miyatake.

“I did love your mother, you know, he said. People thought I had gone native, the way so many do. But they didn’t understand what she and I felt for each other.” …

“We would row downstream, and she would lie in my arms, and we would wait in our boat for the fireflies to appear in the trees along the riverbank. There were thousands of them, lighting the darkness for us, showing us the way.” …

“A few weeks after we were married, I came home late one night. The house was dark. I ran inside, convinced something terrible had happened.” ….

“She had let the mosquito netting drop over the bed, covering it completely. And in the darkness, between the creases of the net were hundreds of fireflies she had collected from the river.”…

“We spent the night beneath a shower of light. That was the night you were conceived.”

Philip Hutton is a half-breed of two influential families in Malaysia. His father, Noel, is the scion of one of England’s powerful trading families. His mother, Noel’s second wife, dishonored her influential Chinese family by marrying outside of her race. Like Philip she is an outcast. He is taken under the wing of his father’s Japanese diplomat tenant, Hayato Endo (Endo-san), who becomes his sensei in aikijutsu.

This is a World War II novel about family, honor and prejudice born of race and history. The Japanese occupation of Malaysia is principally told from the British, Chinese and Japanese perspectives. There is only passing reference to fleeting support by the Malays for Japanese ouster of the colonial British. This limitation does not detract from the novel, which is a proverbial page-turner.

The Gift of Rain was Malaysian native Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel. It garnered a nomination for the Man Booker Prize. The author sprinkles cultural references throughout this epic novel. Having a first-dan ranking in aikido, the author educates the reader about this style of martial arts. “The Garden of Evening Mists”, Tan’s second novel, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It too is set in Malaysia during the Japanese occupation.

There is a ying-yan to “collaborate”. In a positive sense it is encourages working together to produce or to create something. In a negative sense, it is cooperate traitorously with the enemy. Tan avoids the latter simple view. It is shaded by the life of half-breeds and by conflicting goals. In this sense, collaborate means to compromise. This does not diminish, nor excuse, the brutality of the product. For Endo-san and Philip, family and honor constrain choices, with fatalism and free will being the operative cultural debate between them. Each are emotionally scarred as the middle ground is the hard choice between extremes.

Both of Tan’s books are published by the indie press Weinstein Books ( http://www.weinsteinbooks.com) . It is a partnership between The Weinstein Company and The Perseus Books Group (http://www.perseusbooksgroup.com), which publishes The Economist and other non-fiction imprints. The Weinstein Company is a multimedia and distribution company that was launched by the Weinstein brothers who founded Miramax Films. There is commercial value to this book, as it could readily be turned into a film or cable series, as Herman Wouk did with “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” with TV. James Clavell’s Asian series books have the same feel, although based in part on Jardines in an earlier historical period of Hong Kong and Japan.

You will enjoy reading this book.

 

 

 

 

The Man Who Walked Away

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Maud Casey, the author of “The Man Who Walked Away” is a capable writer. The historic fictional account of the psychiatric treatment of Albert Dadas by Dr. Philippe Tissié in 19th Century France is creative. It is a fictionalized account of a patient who compulsory traveled on foot through Europe, Turkey and Russia seemingly without a rational purpose.

“For this man, it appears travel is a broken shard that has lodged inside of him, causing him not to be so much consumed by an obsession to pursue travel as consumed by travel itself. Travel, from the word travail, bodily or mental labor or toil of a painful, oppressive nature. From the Old French travail, suffering or trouble. In German “tearing free.” Travel, from the Latin word for a three-pronged stake.”

Albert is looking for a place to rest. A home. Having lost his relatives he is taken in at an asylum, which progressively provides those with mental illness, freedom to be themselves without hurting others. Each have a compulsion and fear, sometimes assuage by each other. At times they are lost in oblivion, but as Ms. Casey writes, “the problem with oblivion is it doesn’t last.” There is some serenity and love of life within Albert, despite being confronted by the prejudice of those who are rational. This is the story of an invisible life, where even the treating doctor is fragile.

The idea for this novel was Ian Hacking’s Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness. Ms. Casey’s book is more character study than plot driven. For me, though readable, it was an exercise in prose. Ms. Casey interposed musical references throughout, with Rachel, a patient, playing classical pieces in concert with her illness. She reminds us of the dual meaning of fugue. Musically a composition with a repetitive and increasingly complex theme. Psychologically, dissociative fugue, which is reversible amnesia for identity that may include unplanned traveling or wandering. This is apparently Albert’s condition. He was treated, unsuccessfully, through hypnosis.

At times I believe writers enjoy doing the research for their book more than they enterprise of writing it. Ms. Casey has a voice that is perhaps philosophical or science oriented. Here her prose is strong, but not so extraordinary to satisfy the reader with a snapshot of plot. The book is good, but given the wealth of reading choices it may not be enough for all readers.

 

The King

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The last line of Kader Addolah’s novel, “The King”, best summarizes the book.

“The kings’ tales are never really finished, and this is because the storytellers always have to save something for the night that is to come.”

This is a parable unmasked. As simple as a child’s fable it retells a history of the reign of Naser Muhammad Fatali Mozafar, the shah of Persia from 1848-1896. Palace intrigue is inherent in monarchies, particularly when those who assume the throne after an assassination of their father,  are young. Inexperienced and less educated, they often are manipulated. Naser al-Din Shah is directed by his mother Mahdolia and his viziers, some who are allies of his mother and others who are not. The viziers are conscious that Persia is economically and technologically undeveloped relative to Victorian England and Tsarist Russia, each of whom have their own agendas. The Shah is in a century he is first trying to avoid understanding. Steeped in tradition, he is a leader displaced. Persians have a historical love of poetry. This Shah is both a writer of verse and a painter. Vocations of eldest sons are pre-ordained in monarchies and leave emotional scars. Spoiled, this Shah’s passion is mostly ruthless. Empathy is genetically and spatially deprived though controlled isolation. His solace is in his cat, his daughter Taj, his grandson and the Qur’an. The latter is a source of guidance during difficult times. Random surahs are chosen likes lines on a palm.

Divine guidance is unpredictable. In the midst of negotiations with the British the Shah’s first vizier, Mirza Tagi Khan Amir Kabir, sought help from the Qur’an. It read in part Alif lam meem, which is the opening line of many surahs. My understanding is that there is no exact meaning for the language, as Allah did not reveal the meaning to anyone. British arrogance and love of the Middle East is apparent in the negotiations, which are to their continuing advantage.

There are wonderful characters in the book, but it is the tale that sparkles like a gem. The culture of Persia during that period is deftly handled and the reader is educated without distracting from this fast-paced tale. Like any tale, it is all in the telling.

“The King” is translated from Dutch. In English it is published by New Directions Books, a small press. My last book review reviewed one of their publications. Their current and past offerings can be found at http://ndbooks.com/. You will enjoy this book.

The Search for Heinrich Schlögel

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There is a feeling that you have after reading this book that is not easy to describe. Pretend you lost your sight and are standing on a very cold windy busy corner with only the rays of a slight winter sun to warm you. Listen to what you hear but usually ignore. Hear the wind displaced by the passing cars. With the sun, the sound is like the ocean waves and wind at the beach. You hear footsteps as they move toward you and away. Time and other distractions melt away. You may actually feel more alive, even as the world becomes a cold, desolate place.

Layer this feeling with the brilliant white and blue light reflecting off the ice and snow on the extremely cold and dry Arctic tundra and glacial erratic. No life save for mosquitos and one hare.  Surround it with the Inuktitut language and Inuk culture of the Northeastern Canada and you have been transported to a very foreign world.

This is the soul of this novel although it starts in 1980 Tettnang, Germany and ends in Toronto, Canada. Baffin Island is the largest island in the Arctic archipelago and sixth largest island in the world. In the north the Inuvialuk dialect is spoken and in the south the Qikiqtaaluk nigiani dialect. It is in south where Heinrich, the principal character, goes to hike for two weeks. It was not his original intent. He had intended to follow the path of the 18th century British explorer Samuel Hearne who traveled overland from Fort Prince of Wales on Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean  (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/38404/38404-h/38404-h.htm ). He had read his diary and was his hero. Diaries are important, because the story is narrated by an unnamed archivist captivated by reading the Heinrich’s thin diary while hiking and is in search of him. Heinrich’s sister Inge, an asocial suicidal teenager, is immersed in language and convinces Heinrich, whose is only slightly exposed from his shell, to go to Canada to hike. Her passion at the time was the Inuktitut language. Hoping to go with a Canadian companion who he met while working the hops fields of Tettnang, his plans are waylaid when the companion does not go. Heinrich travels from the Baffin capital Iqaluit (on Frobisher Bay) to Auyuittuq National Park on the Cumberland Peninsula, past Mount Thor and Mount Asgard (the home of the gods in Norse mythology) along the Weasel River to Pangnirtung. Auyuittuq is the land that never melts. For a view from Mount Asgard see http://www.summitpost.org/this-is-a-view-looking-out/42154/c-152334 . Upon reaching Pangnirtung he realizes that 30 years have past, but that he has not aged. He boards with two Inuk women, grandmother, Sarah, and granddaughter, Vicki, while he earns money to go to Toronto to try to find his sister.

The relationship between Sarah, Vicki and Heinrich exclusive of the time on the tundra, are the best parts of the book. For those who may recall a TV show called Northern Exposure, which aired in the U.S. in the early 1990s, the women remind me of the undemonstrative Alaskan native Marilyn Whirlwind whose words and imperturbable demeanor were in contrast to Mainland loquaciousness. Not knowing Inuk culture, it is unclear to me if they are representative, or a caricature. It is a culture of sharing, at times literalness, and of resignation and acceptance.

“What was Pangnirtung like thirty years ago, Sarah? I maybe walked by you on the road, perhaps on my way to the parks office? I was preparing for my long hike. Maybe you saw me get in this fishing boat to go up the fiord? Are you sure you didn’t see me?

“I dunno.”

“But you were here. What was Pangnirtung like? I passed through so fast. How was it different from now?

“Ask someone else I don’t know.”

Without another word, Sarah walked down the hallway, went into her bedroom and closed the door. A qallunaaq, she thought, as she rested on her bed, is someone who demands answers, but who doesn’t want the answers that you give.”

The Inuit culture has changed and is changing. The novel highlights the historically poor treatment of the Inuit population by Canadians, who like Americans with Native Americans, sought to marginalize and assimilate them at the expense of their culture.

The “appendix” to the novel is most captivating. It is presumably a fictionalized account of a November 24, 2010 event captured in the Globe and Mail when a fox and stag followed a young man, not unlike Heinrich, through the streets of Toronto, presumably to return him to the wild. The author uses a version of the fox wife Inuit folktale in one of Heinrich’s dreams. I preferred this magical realism to the thirty year time warp vehicle. For me, the latter was a distraction from the feel of the rest of the book.

I think the author Martha Baillie is an excellent writer who will produce more great literature.  Although thus far she plows the Canadian fields for her books, she has the curiosity, is inventive and does the research as better writers do. Her first novel “The Incident Report” involved a modern-day Rigoletto bent on protecting a young librarian in a Toronto library who he imagines is his daughter. It was long-listed for the Giller Prize. This novel made the Globe and Mail’s 100 Best Books of 2014 list.

Ms. Baillie is an author you should pay attention to and this is a novel to read.

It was published by Tin House Books a well-regarded small press whose website is  http://www.tinhouse.com/books/. It was also published in Canada by Pedlar Press whose website is http://www.pedlarpress.com/. The author credits editors Meg Storey of Tin House and Beth Follet of Pedlar Press in her acknowledgements.

 

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