The Centurions


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I decided to read Jean Lartéguy’s story about France’s political and military response to guerilla warfare and terrorism in Indo-China and Algeria, after reading General Stanley McChrystal’s testimonial that in 1974, while at West Point, he read the novel as a primer on modern warfare. The General later had command of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. JSOC’s Task Force 6-26 was credited with the death of Al-Queda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Task Force 6-26 later was accused of the use of torture in interrogation, and 34 members of the Task Force were disciplined after Abu Gharib. McChrystal was publicly outspoken. It cost him his job, when Rolling Stone magazine reported disparaging remarks, made mostly by his aides, about Vice President Biden, National Security Advisor Jones, Ambassador Eikenberry, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke. Military distaste for political masters is common, but the attitude of Special Forces reflected in this book represents and reinforces that attitude and the distaste of field officers for central command.

As I finished this novel Paris sustained multiple terrorist attacks that resulted in its first state of emergency since Algeria. McChrystal’s testimonial about the book’s description of assymetrical warfare is summarized by his line, “The lands, languages, uniforms and personalities were different but the themes and emotions were constant.”

The title of the novel is cautionary. “A large number of the centurions of the Proconsulate of Africa abandoned the legions and came back to Rome. They became the Praetorian Guards of the Caesars until the day they adopted the custom of nominating them and then electing them from themselves. This was the beginning of the end of Rome…”

The novel is part of the author’s trilogy on the Algerian War; The Centurions being the middle novel between The Mercenaries and The Praetorians.The protagonists of the novel are French soldiers: Major Raspéguy; Captain Glatigny; Captain Esclavier, Captain Boisfeuris, Captain Dia; Lieutenant Marindelle, Lieutenant Pinières; Lieutenant Mahmoudi; Lieutenant Lascome; Lieutenant Lescure; and Lieutenant Merle. All were captured by the Vietminh at the after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. They bond as POWs at Camp One. There they learn from their Vietminh captors about organization, temperament, and strategy of insurgent fighting. This cellular, insular, classless, flat structure, devoid of military pomp and conventional bureaucracy, is translated into a special forces paratrooper regiment. It is employed to do the dirty work of the corrupt local French and Algerian political organization, the incompetent central and conventional field military command, and the duplicitous French government that does not want to lose power because of Algeria. It uses this unconventional fighting unit to succeed at any cost, and then to destroy it.

The prisoners become professional soldiers in Algeria, who disparage and ignore senior command and politicians. Their willingness to fight without rules, based on intelligence, speed and surprise is tolerated, but disliked. Through a range of interrogation techniques, that includes torture, they get necessary information and create fear in the Algerian populace who like most societies under siege will align with the temporal winners that scare them the most. Torture is not what these soldiers learned from the Vietminh. They were treated like Vietminh soldiers who lived on scarcity and were purposed to be enlightened and reeducated as Communists. The captors wanted the POWS to lose their sense of self.

As professional soldiers in Algeria the concept of Geneva rights, as with Sherman’s march to the sea, did not exist. The local community was correctly assumed to be the enemy of France, as willing or unwilling suppliers and supporters of the insurgency. The soldiers were apolitical or otherwise supportive of the aspirations of the Algerians, which they believed was inevitable. Their strategy was simple.

“Yes, and hold all the surrounding villages, collect information at any price and by any means, force Si Lahcen and his men to really take to the mountains, and cut them off from the population which provides them with information and feeds them. Only then will we be able to them on equal terms.”

This is a novel with strong character development. The core of this special forces unit came from different classes  with varied education and regional and national backgrounds. Their different and often dysfunctional family and romantic histories and relationships colored their world. At the outset, a chapter is devoted to Captain Glastigny, Lieutenant Pinières, Captain Bosifeuris, Lieutenant Mahmoudi (an Algerian), Lieutenant Marindelle, Captain Dia; and Major Raspéguy. They and the other principal characters are later developed. This is an ensemble cast where thoughts, emotions and ideas are more important than the otherwise engaging plot. It is far more than a war novel; at times romantic, and occasionally even strategically “feminist”.

“How could one awaken the Moslem women, how could one make them feel that their emancipation might come from us? Certainly not by treating them to feminist lectures… At this point an idea occurred to the captain which most of his comrades found extremely odd, not to say unpleasant. On the following morning he had a number of women and young girls rounded up in the Kasbah; he filled three trucks with them and drove them off to a wash-house. There he made them scrub away at the paratroopers’ sweat-stained vests and pants. These women had been hauled off without any of their menfolk raising a finger to protect them. They thereby lost their prestige as warriors, which suddenly reduced the ancestral submission of their wives and daughters to nothing. Bent all morning over their washing, these women felt as though they were submitting to being raped over and over again by the soldiers whose garments they were purifying.

When they came back to the Kasbah without having been molested, when these strong young men had helped them out of the trucks with a courtesy which they were rather inclined to exaggerate (more often than not their fiances or husbands were old, decrepit and ill-mannered), some of them thought of abandoning the veil, and others that they might take on a lover who was not a Moslem.”

The sexual advantages in the recruitment of young men to ISIS and similar causes is at the price of women who could be a weapon in counterinsurgency.

These soldiers are not mercenaries, nor are they devoted to a common cause. Captain Esclavier explains:

“If you were to ask me what I have come out here to fight against, I would say: in the first place, excess. Sophpocles says ‘Excess is the greatest crime against the gods.’ I’m fighting against the savage, lawless nationalism of the Arabs because it is excessive, just as I fought against Communism, because that was excessive.”

Boisfeuras, the intelligence officer who rejected family wealth and connections in Indo-China and spent years in China, thought it his duty to take part in the defense of the individual.

For many, Algeria was an excuse to distance their revulsion of French civilian society and family upon returning from Indo-China. For soldiers returning from war, particularly ones where civilians had no stake, this psychology remains a serious personal and societal problem. Excessive materialism, hypocrisy, bureaucracy and loss of community and the removal of the adrenaline rush of battle, are barriers to reentry.

“What passed through the minds of the Roman centaurions who were left behind in Africa and who, with a few veterans, a few barbarian auxiliaries ever ready to turn traitor, tried to maintain the outposts of the Empire while the people back in Rome were sinking into Christianity, and the Caesars into debauchery?

Elite military units are both the heroes and enemies of failing democracies and corrupt political institutions. Africa, Asia and the Americas are replete with examples, but developed Western nations have had similar histories and threats when economics and political polarization encourage society to look for easy alternatives with appealing narratives.

The novel expresses an interesting, but questionable viewpoint about the reason for the war in Indo-China.

“What does Lenin say? ‘The future of world revolution lies with the great masses of Asia.’ China is Communist, but there still remains India which is closed to China by the Himalayas, to Russia by the Pamirs and the ranges of Afghanistan. The only point of entry is through Bengal and South-East Asia.

‘Among the seething races of the Far East which can hardly be numbered, there’s only one ethnic group of any historical or political interest: the Thais. They’ve got a history, they’ve built an empire. They’re called Chans and Karens in Burma; they’re also to be found in Thailand and Laos. In the Haute Region they represent three-fifths of the population and they’re also established in Yunnan. The capital of this Thai empire is Dien Bien Phu.

The Communists decided to work on the Thais so as to force entry into India. They set up the Thai majority in Yunnan as an autonomous people’s republic and, I can tell you now, it was on that business that I was engaged. The Chinese want to group all the other Thais round their people’s republic. Once that is done, all that is needed is a slight nudge for the whole of South-East Asia to collapse. Then every gateway into India will be open to them. They therefore could not allow the historical and geographical capital of the Thais to be held by western anti-Communists. Mao-Tse-Tung ordered the capture of Dien Bien Phu while Giap was dreaming about the delta.'”

The book is well written and at times the prose is superior.

“The Moslems hugged the walls and avoided running into the Christians; hatred had become a living, a palpable thing, it had its own smell and habits; at night it howled in the streets like a famished dog.”

For some the rabid dogs now prowls the streets both day and night. As humanity does not change, The Centurions will always be relevant and timely.

Lazarus is Dead


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“In churches observing the Byzantine Rite, Lazarus Saturday is a leading religious festival. Bright colours are used for vestments and the Holy Table, and uniquely in the Christian year, the standard order of service for a Sunday can be celebrated on a different day of the week.

For one Saturday every year, a week and a day before Easter, Lazarus is the equal of Jesus. In the Apolytikion for St. Lazarus they sing We cry out for you, O Vanquisher of Death! On Lazarus Saturday the Russians bring out the caviar. The Greeks make a spiced bread called Lazarakia, shaping the dough into a man bound for burial.

Catholics and Protestants are less enthusiastic: perhaps they’re inhibited by three of the four gospel writers who ignore Lazarus completely. In some ways they’d prefer him to disappear, but Lazarus keeps coming back. The memory of Lazarus is stubborn, and insists on his survival.

In Jerusalem on the Saturday after the execution of Jesus, one week after the resurrection of Lazarus, it is feasible that Lazarus Saturday will become the central day of a newly forged religion. Jesus will be secondary, because Lazarus has vanquished death. He is a survivor, and the only living pathway to god.”

In The Testament of Mary Colm Tóibín invents a humanistic version of the cruxification of Christ, retelling Jesus’ last days from the vantage point of his mother Mary. Richard Beard’s Lazarus is Dead is more inventive because Lazarus only appears in one of the four gospels, and John’s version is considered less reliable than Mark, Matthew or Luke.

In John11:1 there is a small reference. “A man named Lazarus, who lived in Bethany, was ill.” In John 11:1-2, “Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, who brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.” In John 11:3, obliquely there may be a reference to Lazarus: “So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord the one you love is sick.'” “when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days.” (John 11:6). Jesus is rebuked for his delay by Mary and Martha, telling him that if he had been there Lazarus would not have died (John 11:21 and 32). Lazarus is the only friend of Jesus mentioned in the Bible. It is a harsh way to treat a friend. In John 12:10-11, after the resurrection “So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus too, because on his account many Jews were rejecting them and believing in Jesus.”

The seventh miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is not expressly found in the gospels. There is an indirect reference in John 12:9. “A large crowd for Jews found out that Jesus was there [in Bethany] and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus.”The marketing benefits of raising the dead is questioned by Jesus according to Luke: “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses the Prophet, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:29-31).

Lazarus is not the first to vanquish death, nor the first that Jesus has resurrected. He and Jesus are childhood friends in this novel. Lazarus is the leader, the risk taker. Jesus is the timid follower. He cannot save Lazarus’ brother Amos from drowning, nor can he resurrect him. They go there separate ways, Lazarus becoming successful in Bethany by selling sheep for sacrifice to the rabbis. He chisels them, but as he is ambitious he seeks the chief rabbi’s daughter in marriage, because she has physical problems and has not found a more suitable match. He maintains a mistress prostitute who he loves. His illnesses are like the seven plagues compounded. With each new miracle performed by Jesus, his condition worsens. The healer that he hires, who is in the pocket of Cassius, the Roman administrator, cannot cure him. Cassius prefers to have Lazarus to be the messiah because he is more manageable than Jesus.

The Lazarus story has many variations in literature and art. The novel reviews them while maintaining the story line. Aside from these interesting critiques, the novel can be funny. “The disciples were practically strangers to Jesus. Also they were incredibly slow. They needed every story repeated, every lesson explained with exemplary images from their simple peasant lives. ‘Fishermen, Lazarus said. ‘They carry around that smell.  Rotting fish. In the web between their fingers.'”

In 890 CE a tomb was discovered with the inscription “Lazarus, Bishop of Larnaca. Four days dead. Friend of Jesus.” The bones of this Lazarus are kept beneath Agios Lazarus Orthodox Church. Lazarus is an indestructible icon that the Church could not erase.

The many Lazarus stories in literature and art could make an interesting series of readings and discussions for book clubs that have an interest in religion. I would recommend this book in any case.

Khirbet Khizeh


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This is a well-known novel in the Israeli canon of literature. It is historical fiction written just following Israel’s War of Independence. The edition I read was published in English in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux based on the 2008 translation by Ibis Editions.

Although heralded for the quality of its prose, for me it seemed as if much was lost in translation from the Hebrew. This is illustrated by the Afterword by David Shulman written in 2007. The Biblical connotations seem as if they would be more apparent in Hebrew than as translated.

The author was an intelligence officer in 1948, so the story may reflect actual experience. The plot is simple. A unit of Jewish soldiers are charged with a mop up action at the end of the war. They are to take the village of Khirbet Khizeh and to have its existing Arab residents relocated. The soldiers do not seem well-trained, as many were outgrowth of gangs or had little military experience. The village is almost completely deserted and offers no resistance. The soldiers are bored. They are poor shots, which accounts for few escaping residents being wounded or killed. They just want to go home and all but one are indifferent to the Arabs who they are evicting. The evicted would be replaced by Jewish refugees from Europe and elsewhere.

The heart of the novel is the ongoing question about occupation and conquerors.

” I felt that I was on the verge of slipping. I managed to pull myself together. My guts cried out. Colonizers they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. What hadn’t they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue … our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out- that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were the masters now.”

The question is not unique to Israel. It is the history of all peoples and all nations. The vanquished become conquerors and the conquerors become the vanquished. Is what is won an occupation or is what is lost, just lost? All nations exist on occupied land. No one people are immune from being occupiers. The only issue is whether the cycle of violence continues or there is a reconciliation between winners and losers with each compromising. Some conflicts are so localized that they are effectively family feuds passed from one generation to the next. This has been the case in the Balkans and is the case between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The book for me only shows a slice of the conflict. It is told only from the Jewish soldier’s perception. It is one that is sympathetic to the villagers, but ignores what the Arab perception would be toward a Jewish village. In all likelihood, the sympathetic soldier would be in the minority if the shoe were on the other foot.

The morality of this novel is weakened for me because in the scheme of war there was little violence done. Loss of home should never be ignored, but here there was going to be a eviction for refugees who had suffered far worse. Was it a necessary eviction- probably not. Was it an eviction merely because of power- partially so, but incompletely.


The Blind Man’s Garden


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“Kyra opens the Book of Prophet’s Savings. Number 813: I was given the following words of the Prophet by Hukum bin Nafa, who was given them by Shoaih, who was given them by Zehri, who was given them by Abu Salma, who was given them by Abu Horaira. The Prophet said, ‘The End of the World won’t be until two armies have gone to war proclaiming an identical goal.'”

9/11 has just occurred and the Americans are having their revenge in Afghanistan. There is spill-over of the wounded into Peshawar. “The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation.” A coin has three sides. The Americans and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are the opposite sides squeezing the thin diameter of Muslims between them. They are compelled to defend themselves and their family- often to choose a side.

“There are a few seconds of utter silence and then more tha a thousand attackers penetrate the smoke and dust, firing and being fired on, kissing their guns before pulling the triggers, both sides shouting Allah’s name.”

Nadeem Aslam’s novel The Blind Man’s Garden is exquisite in language, observation and perception. History is captured within a page turner.

Rohan is an imperfect but devout Muslim. He is the father of Jeo, a soon to be doctor, and guardian of his brother,  Mikal, whose parents were of the wrong political persuasion in Pakistan. Rohan is aggrieved by the loss of his wife, Sophia. She is secular, rooted in the beauty of her garden.

“He raises the louvered blinds and looks out at the train tracks and the Grand Trunk Road running along them. Eternity suspended over human time, the stars shining above the world like grains of light, this world that she loved and called the only Paradise she needed.  Preparing himself for blindness he commits everything to memory as she committed everything to paper, painting the garden’s flowers and birds onto his mind, and for several years after she was gone the garden looked as though something important had befallen it. The limes and the acacia trees seemed to mourn her, the rosewood and the Persian lilacs, the peepal and the corals, and all the different fruits, berries and spores, the seeds as tough as cricket balls, or light enough to remain afloat for half an hour. Inside the earth the roots mourned her even without having seen her, and the white teak whose bark came off in plates the size of footprints, the lemon tree that produced twenty-five baskets of fruit each year. He was sure that all of them, as well as the lightning-fast lizards of the garden, were mourning her with him, and the stiffly rustling dragonflies and the blue-winged carpenter bees and the black chains of the ants and the tough-carapaced beetles and the various snails. In grief he had whispered her name as he walked the red paths set loose in the garden, and the word had gone among the glistening black brillance of the crows and the butterflies floating in the sunlight– the Himalayan Pierrot, the Chitrali Satyr, the blue tigers and the common leopard and the swallowtails and peacocks. She loved them and the world in which they existed, saying, “God is just a name for our wonder.” There was no soul, only consciousness. No divine plan, only nature, and we were simply among the innumberable results of its randomness. Saying, “I will miss this because this is all there is,” her last words, and then she slipped out of his life, consigning him to decades of apprehension on her behalf, because he knew that the soul existed, and not only that, it was accountable to Allah and His providential rage. Unlike her he knew that the dead were not beyond harm.”

Jeo and Malik both loved Naheed, the latter secretly because she was married to Jeo. Jeo goes to Afghanistan to offer medical assistance and Malik goes with him because he is mentally and physically stronger than Jeo. Afghanistan smothers the innocent. Tara, Naheed’s mother, is a fallen woman under Islamic law. She tries to shield Naheed from all her life fears by marrying her above her status to Jeo. Tragedy befalls the intertwined extended family as it does Pakistan and Afghanistan. War, warlords, corruption, custom, and fundamentalism take their toll. I will not spoil the plot, except to mention that Rohan loses his sight while searching for Jeo and Mikal in Afghanistan.

Rohan wishes to have colors described to him one by one, all shades and subtleties. Tara reads to him from the Dictionary of Colour.

” Dragon-A bright greenish yellow.”

“Dragon’s Blood- The bright red resin of the Indian Palm tree, Calamus draco (or perhaps of the shrub Pterocarpus draco).”

We take for granted all the processing of vision. As the light fades we process  through our ears.

“He listens to the streets as he travels with the girl, the rickshaw crossing the major roads and entering the density of the bazaars. She holds his right hand, her own two hands placed gently above and below it. Beneath the bandages and the closed lids there are specks of light like coloured sand in his eyes, a vast visual song of the cells expressing their internal life, and out there is another song called Heer, called Pakistan, the people buying, selling, asking, shouting, the minarets insisting on Paradise at every street corner, and in his mind he sees the shop signs painted with heartbreaking precision and beauty by barely literate men and he listens to the slap of wrestlers against each other, gleaming with oil, the arcades under which pieces of meat sizzle, cubbyhole shops selling Japanese sewing machines, English tweed and Chinese crockery, the fruit sellers standing behind walls of stacked oranges, and women’s clothes hanging in shop windows in sheaths of pure lines and colours, teaching one the meaning of grace in one’s life, and he wishes Sofia were here so he could ask her to describe these things for  him, she who made an entire life out of seeing, possessing an enraptured view of the everyday, who knew which section of the house received the most moonlight on any given night of the lunar calendar, and he wonders if this is how the dead mourn the world they have left behind, if this is how she mourns it below ground.”

The book is written in third person. It is a Passion Play, each taking turns in the crucifixion. Fundamentalism was not invented by the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

“Spain was once a Muslim land,” Rohan says, cupping the flowers in his hands. ‘In October 1501, the Catholic monarchs ordered the destruction of all Islamic books and manuscripts. Thousands of Korans and other texts were burned in a public bonfire.” Inquisition is a collective memory for many ethnic and religious groups. It is the privilege of conquerors.

Aurangzeb [Abul Muzaffar Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad Aurangzeb] the sixth Mughal Emperor is often cited as a precedent for the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and fundamentalist beliefs. While there is any proof to this purported historical precedent, he did consolidate power by ordering the eradication of all religions except Islam. His destruction of musical instruments, the barring of women from visiting shrines are captured in the novel. Women who visit the graves of their relatives recently killed are beaten by true believers.

Some true believers are stamping the ground around Mikal. He thinks it a snake, but the man tells him it’s the boxthorn.

“Mikal nods. The despised plant. The Prophet Muhammed said, In the Final Flght between Muslims and Jews, when a Jew hides behind a rock or a tree, it will say, ‘O Muslim, O Servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’ All the trees will do this except the boxthorn, because it is the tree of the Jews.”

It is from Sahih Muslim Book 041, Number 6985 and is considered an authentic hadith. The boxthorn or qharqad in Arabic, is not considered a protective plant by Jews, although it does appear in the Book of Proverbs as a pitfall for the wicked. For fundamentalists this hadith is a continuing prejudice or truth.

The latter is exemplified by a driver who says to Mikal “The West has dared to ask itself the question, What begins after God?”

It is a perspective not understood by those who do not share a fundamentalists belief. It is reflected in the lack of understanding of fighting to the death. It is reflected in the futility in believing there is a middle ground.

The only disappointment I had about this otherwise wonderful novel is its conclusion. It was disappointingly made for movies. The brevity of the chapter makes me wonder if there was another alternative that was rejected either by the author, the editor, or the publisher. Given that Mr. Aslam’s other novels were the recipient of many awards, including long-listed for the Man Booker, it seems unlikely that an editor or publisher would have imposed their will. The other novels you may want to explore are Season of the Rainbirds, Maps for Lost Lovers, and The Wasted Vigil. In 2012 the author was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.







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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.


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