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.

 

 

Lila

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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.

Reprise: America the Beautiful

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“O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!”

America is a work in progress. By law this year we assured equal standing for all Americans regardless of sexual preference to marry consistent with their religious beliefs. Our first African-American President is completing his second term in office. We our now comfortable to criticize him as we have other Presidents. This is acceptance and progress, although for some it remains bigotry. It took some deaths in South Carolina, but we are poised to at last have the Confederate flag removed from government buildings. As a vestige of disunity and bias its time had come. We are starting to move on.

This country offers freedom of thought, belief, race, sexual preference, speech, religion, association and opportunity. Not all Americans share or practice these beliefs but each year we inch forward to meet these aspirations. There are more inter-racial and inter-cultural marriages and single families each year. We are not a nation of pedigrees. Class exists in this country, but it is economic class. We need to chip away at this to preserve the middle class and those who aspire to it. Our strength is that we are a nation of mutts. Our heritage is a combination of the world’s heritages. We continue to build on this. This self-improvement will sustain us as a great nation.

We are critical of ourselves, but this is a strength, not a weakness. Like a big dog we tolerate little dogs that bark and nip at its heals.  No one should under-estimate that we are a big dog, especially those who are intolerant of beliefs other than their own.

I watched a rerun of the “Seventies” this week. It was about Watergate. I had not thought about it for a long time. I lived in Washington during that period and I remember as vividly as watching Congress reluctantly put TARP in place while in Zurich. We had real statesman at that time who recognized a threat to our constitutional government and the world’s economy. During Watergate they risked their careers to preserve our “liberty in law”. I have been fortunate and unfortunate to live through and witness significant periods of our recent history. Landing on the moon; the assassinations of President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the Civil Rights and Vietnam War and movements; Watergate; and 9/11 which I saw unfold downtown. I am first generation. My parents lived through the Depression and WWII to give us a life and an opportunity in the U.S.. There are many parents who have done this and will continue to do this from all over the world. We need to preserve this.

As I did last year, I again wish all Americans a Happy 4th of July. I particularly wish those in our armed forces, in our police departments and in our intelligence communities a safe 4th and safe return home if they are abroad. It is not easy to keep this country safe and they often make this sacrifice of themselves and their families, without notice.

 

Bathing the Lion

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Jonathan Carroll’s new novel is brilliant, fun and entertaining. I am not a reader of the fantasy genre, but I was convinced by Neil Gaiman’s high praise for Mr. Carroll and this novel. His other fans include Jonathan Lethem and Pat Conroy.

This is not fantasy with mythical beings. It is subtle, metaphysical and surreal. I don’t know the borderline between magical realism and fantasy but it must be in this realm. There is a fabulous Gene Wolfe quote about the dividing line: “magical realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.”

The “fantasy” underwhelms you at first. Set in a small Vermont town being gentrified by up-scale liberal New York City transplants it is a story about marital infidelity and mid-life crisis. Tolerant Vermont is not New Hampshire. The characters provisionally are: a lesbian bar owner and to a lesser extent her bookstore owner partner; an owner of an upscale men’s clothing store and his selfish and adulterous wife who is banging his business partner; and a long-time resident and recent widower barely known to any of them. The fantasy starts when they all realize they are sharing the same dream. Unraveling the meaning of this dream in time and space is the trajectory of the plot. Like a good mystery, clues are pearls slowly revealed.

Underlying the plot, this novel is about what it means to be human. As in a Lev Grossman novel, childhood stories come to life imparting clues. As with most fantasy good and evil are balanced and weighed. The theme is understated and left undecided. There are aliens who are omnipotent. Here omnipotent is mentally more powerful, but not all-knowing. Whether a theological statement is being made is open to interpretation. The aliens have the mental acuity of an automaton. Aliens are not necessarily enemies. The novel is uplifting about our species in spite of our foibles.

There are reviews of this book that will explain the plot and themes in more detail, but I would rather not spoil it for you. Readers who prefer fantasy or science fiction to be in their face may be disappointed in its build-up. There is a part of the novel where the fantastic elements predominate, but I found this less satisfying than when they are integrated with the normal lives of the characters. Having never read Mr. Carroll, I cannot tell you how it compares with his other works. I am interested in reading more of his works based on this novel. Mr. Carroll has an interesting family history: his father was a screenwriter of “The Hustler” and other movies; his step-brother is the composer Steven Reich. Between the two of them dinner conversation must have been interesting.

I apologize for leaving you in the dark about this book. I’d rather have you enjoy it with your eyes wide closed.

 

Amnesia

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The back jacket indicates that Peter Carey is available for select speaking engagements. I am thinking honorarium before I begin reading “Amnesia”. Peter Carey was a “Mad Man” in Australia, so self-promotion would not be inconsistent. On the other hand, he is one of only three two-time recipients of the Booker Prize. Is it money, rather than promotion?  He did not want to expand the Booker Prize to include A.merican authors, although he has lived and written in New York for two decades. His venue remains Australia in spite of this. A bit of a puzzler.

Unfortunately “Amnesia” is more a maze than a puzzle. It might have been aptly titled “Adolescence” or “Australia and America”.  I have not read Mr. Carey’s other works, and perhaps he was experimenting with a cyber spy-thriller genre, but this is not a successful experiment.

Gaby Ballieux, a love striken adolescent from a dysfunctional family of an actress mom and minor Australian Labor minister dad has released a worm into the Australia’s prison computer system which is apparently linked to U.S. prison. Prisoners are released and she is to be prosecuted. A failing but notable Australian writer is coerced to write a favorable biography in hopes of proving Gaby’s innocence. The writer, whose life is in danger for aiding and abetting, is in hiding throughout most of the book while writing this biography. The plot is very contrived.

The cyber aspect is thin. It is wrapper to make the book commercially current. Mr. Carey’s main theme appears to be anti-Americanism in Australia starting with the 1942 Battle of Brisbane during World War II. This violent  multiple day street brawl between the armed services from both countries was attributable to a variety of factors: women; racism; cultural differences and the economic privilege of Americans; liquor and misunderstandings. The event was censored in the spirit of allied unity. The other aspect of this anti-American theme is the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis. Exercising Section 64 of the Australian Constitution for the first time,  Australian Labor party Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr in favor of Liberal party Malcolm Fraser. Parliamentary issues aside, Mr. Carey focuses on alleged CIA (he does not mention MI6) interference because Whitlam wanted Australia to be non-aligned and was to reveal the CIA’s spy base at Pine Gap near Alice Springs Australia. Purportedly Governor- General Kerr was on the CIA’s payroll. As with Snowden and NSA it was claimed that MI6 and the CIA bugged the Australian government. The alleged “coup” was Chile redux.

If all of this seems disjointed and directionless it is. I kept waiting to learn about the hacking of the prison system, but the focus on hacking  was on the systems of a dioxin polluter of an Australian creek. Mr. Carey’s cyber research for this book seems to be less in-depth than Wikipedia.

The only consistent theme in this novel is teenage angst: To get approval of her nerd boyfriend during the formative years of computer hacking a girl becomes bourgeois radical. Yawn.

Perhaps the editors at Knopf knew they could get testimonials for this book or just could not tell a prize-winning commercial success to do a rewrite.  Fortunately, I am in the middle of two rewarding books. Maybe “Amnesia” is a good title, as this book is forgettable.

The Rebel Flag

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This evening the Governor of South Carolina announced that she did not believe the Confederate Flag should be flown at the State Capitol. This is a positive step if followed through by South Carolina’s legislature. They should also provide through legislation that it must not be flown on State or Federal land.

South Carolina did not always fly the Confederate Flag at the State Capitol. It did so, as did other southern states, after the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. There certainly was a racial tinge to this change, but it, nor the recent murders in Charleston are the only driving force for removal of the flag from government property.

It is now over 150 years since the end of the Civil War. As in all wars, not everyone who fought on one side or the other were strong believers in a particular cause or mission. Some clearly were, but young men and families fought as an expression of manhood; family and community loyalty; conscription, economics; pride and revenge. The Civil War was not just about emancipation; it was about union and secession.

Southerners are some of the most loyal Americans in many respects. This is true for South Carolinians.  Within and without the state for many the Confederate Flag is a reminder of racism and bigotry. For some (maybe a substantial minority) it remains an outward symbol of it. For many southerners the rebel flag is a cultural symbol of southerner heritage. It some respects it is a regional unifier. It is embedded in country western music. It is the rebel yell and the rebel spirit.

Unfortunately, the flag is also an expression of dissociative behavior. This would be understandable within a generation of the war. However it has been 150 years to get beyond this trauma and recognize that this symbol is disloyal to the United States of America to which southerners are otherwise so loyal. Southerners may not overtly or otherwise think of the rebel flag in this context, but it is. It goes beyond states rights and an extreme extension of Jeffersonian democracy. Southerners can be more polite and gracious than northerners (who also a significant number of racists). It is time they looked at this flag in the context that many in this country see it.

Our country is built on free speech. Those in South Carolina, or elsewhere, who wish to fly the rebel flag are entirely free to do so. Flying it or not, will not change the racial beliefs of those who associate the Confederate Flag as supportive of those beliefs.

However, it must not be flown on government property in South Carolina or any other state. We are one nation and there is no need to commemorate in act to destroy it. It would be an act of grace to the country if South Carolinians, who are so loyal to this country, to move this flag off all government property and to find another symbol for the pride of the South.

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