The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

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“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” was Denis Johnson’s first published collection of short stories in 25 years and his last work before he died of liver cancer. I never heard of him despite his receipt of the 2007 National Book Award for Tree of Smoke and having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The testimonials on the book jacket included Zadie Smith, Philip Roth, Don Delillo, Louise Erdrich, George Saunders and other accomplished writers who all feel unworthy. The first story, “Silences”, makes such self-deprecating comments understandable. It is a series of interconnected vignettes from a shocking dinner party. There is a discussion about the difference between repentance and regret. “You repent the things you’ve done, and regret the chances you let get away.”

This short story collection is principally about repentance. Mr. Johnson plies the fringe elements of our society for his stories. The fact that he was an alcoholic, addicted to drugs, and spent time in a psyche ward, adds authenticity to his characters.

This is particularly true of the second short story “The Starlight of Idaho”.  Cass is in a rehab facility again and he is writing to everyone he knows as part of his rehab. He is looking for salvation this time, but his family are almost all alumni of rehabs and penitentiaries, their mother genetically bequeathing her addictions and frailties to her children.

“Strangler Bob” occurs in a county jail. Three inmates are seeking a way out, but Strangler Bob predicts it will all be for naught as they will end up dead.

Mr. Johnson’s stories are in the first person and are conversational in style. Dialogue is often limited. A few of the stories’ principal characters are writers and poets. “Triumph Over the Grave” and “Doppelganger, Poltergeist” are examples. The former is an end of life tale, but is partly about writing. Essentially, you sit down write and ramble. These two stories are somewhat faithful to this theory. The latter story is about an Elvis theory and was not compelling.

“Tree of Smoke” is a novel that apparently takes place in Vietnam during that era for the U.S.. Mr. Johnson’s father was purportedly a liaison between USAID and the CIA. In essence, he was probably CIA. This may have given a younger Mr. Johnson some insight into the world of foreign intrigue. His body work, limited due to his addictions, however is more aligned with the themes in this last collection of his. The first story, and the title of this collection, is worth reading.

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A Girl in Exhile

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“A Girl in Exile” is a retelling of the Orpheus Eurydice legend in the context of Albanian totalitarianism. Recasting classical myths and totalitarianism are apparently themes in other works by the renown Albanian author Ismail Kadare.

Here the prisoner of death is Linda B., a woman infatuated with the principle character Rudian Stefa, a known Albanian playwright who borders on dissidence and is paranoid about incarceration by the State. Linda B. has never met Stefa and engages her girlfriend Magena to get her an autographed copy of one of Stefa’s books. Magena has a relationship with Stefa and Linda B ultimately commits suicide. In a dream sequence Stefa tries to marry the dead Linda B., who plays the Eurydice role.

Linda B.’s family tries to retrieve her interned body from the State cemetery. The point of the novel is captured in this sequence: you are a prisoner of the State in life and in death.

“The Albanian regime was tottering but its laws remained in place, especially the regulations governing prisons and internment. One of these laws was extremely strange, and many people believed it must be unique to Albania. This law concerned political prisoners and internees who died before completing their sentences. Their bodies, even though vacated by their souls, had to continue serving their sentences in the grave, wherever they happened to be, until the end. Only after the expiry of the term of their sentence did their families have the right to exhume them from the cemeteries designated by the state, and take them where they wished.”

The plot and characters in this novel are both thin and contrived. Mr. Kadare’s other works may be better than this novel. If it wasn’t 184 pages I would have given up on it.

Dinner At the Center of the Earth

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To some extent Nathan Englander’s Iraeli-Palestinian spy novel is an homage to Ariel Sharon. As a spy novel it is more a movie version than one that reflects reality. The novel aims to entertain and in that it is successful. It presents a balanced approach, although it is sometimes from General Sharon’s point of view as he exists in a coma. His massacre at Qibya and his success and rashness are not overlooked.

The principle character is Prisoner Z. He is an American Jew  who Sharon has secretly locked away after the Prisoner’s moral balance made him a traitor to Israel. It is the moral difficulty of those at the center of the dispute to try to exist and balance the extremes on each side of the dispute that is at the heart of the novel. This balance is sought through a personal relationship between an ex-Israeli operative and a Palestinian operative. It is a typical love theme found in literature.

I like Mr. Englander’s easy writing style and may search out his other works for pleasure reading. He is a well-known author having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a recipient of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

The End We Start From

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Megan Hunter’s apocalyptic debut novel “The End We Start From” is as the title suggests a renewal short of a phoenix revival. Some have referred to this novel as a female author’s version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. It is not. Ms. Hunter’s prose is lyrical while being spare. Her story is about motherhood, as “The Road” is about fatherhood. Both are protective of their sons, although this novel’s child is a baby and not a pre-teen. There is no “Mad Max” feeling to this novel, as it is the lack of basic resources to live following a natural disaster that is the principal challenge and less so human predators. Family members disappear, but the story is on an upward curve fueled by “refugee” camps and friends with resources. Throughout the novel are sprinkled elements from creation myths from religious and mythological texts.

At 134 pages it is a novella and could be read in one sitting. The author is a noted poet and has won awards for short stories. As a debut novel it received strong testimonials from Jim Crace, Emily St. John Mandel, Tracy Chevalier, Evie Wyld and others. The praise is well deserved.

Oryx and Crake

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“Oryx and Crake” is the first book in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy. The apocalypse that is the precursor is biological and chemical engineering for power and profit. Genetic alteration leads to hybrid and mutant animals that would make any fan of Greek mythology proud.

I do not read a lot of dystopian fiction, but I consider “The Road” gold standard. It is spare, but highly emotional. “The Dog Stars” also focuses on relationship, and has more of a toned done Mad Max appeal. In contrast, this novel is inventive, but emotionally detached. The reader is an observer, even though it is told through the lens of Jimmy (later Snowman) and his relationship with his childhood friend and master-mind, Crake, and his love interest, Oryx. The society is emotionally detached, so the writing augments it. There is a perception of good and evil, but to the characters it does not exist. With us, or against us, at the corporate level, but is power related. The novel barely explores the underbelly of this society, because, Jimmy, Crake and Oryx has moved into the upper echelon who are detached from this underclass. Crake and ultimately Jimmy inhabit an insulated bubble called Paradice on the compound. As you might expect Paradise is Lost.

I had expectations for this novel because Ms. Atwood is a great writer and the trilogy is acclaimed. While Ms. Atwood is dark and creative as ever, the novel was not a page-turner for me. The conclusion is open-ended as you might expect in a trilogy.

You may not be disappointed. If you have not read “The Road” I would read that first. It is very different from this novel, but is chilling.

Stay With Me

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Ayobami Adebayo’s debut finalist Bailey’s Women Prize novel, “Stay With Me”, about motherhood and patriarchy in an upper middle class family during the cultural and political upheavals in the mid-1980s is a great story. The political coups of Ibrahim Babaginda of his predecessor Buhari are a nominal storyline that principally sets the period. The plot is about a university educated couple that is trying to break from the polygamy and extended family cultural constraints principally imposed by the women victims of patriarchy. The arc of progress for university educated women is evident in Yejide the wife of Akin. After graduation she opens a hair salon, while he obtains office work. In part, this is liberating for Yejide because she is not wholly dependent on Akin’s income, but otherwise both cannot escape male dominance and pride. At the heart of the story is the importance of motherhood in the family and society. It is how Yejide, like her mother is judge.

I do not wish to reveal the plot, although some is anticipated as you read the novel. The story is about characters, particularly the couple and Akin’s mother and brother. Breaking society and family bonds is hard to do. It is evident even in so-called developed Western countries, where women are psychologically, economically, and physically abused by men and the weak women who are their enforcers.

This would be an excellent choice for a book club, or for anyone who wants a good read.

2017 Year in Review

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2017 was for me an uneven year of reading. I read 39 books that included novels, short story collections, and a play. A few books I could not finish and two which I started I still aim to complete. The translated fiction that I read were from France, Mexico, Korea, Brazil,  and Israel. I read two classics both of which were disappointing: Moby Dick and One Hundred Years of Solitude. My expectations may have been too high.

Miss Burma was prescient about Aung San Suu Kji and her inaction toward the humanitarian plight of the Rohingya. The most challenging read was Compass. It is worth the challenge, particularly if you are interested in the Levant. I can’t decide if it is non-fiction wrapped in a novel. It might take two readings for me to decide. The best short story collection was Claire Beams’ We Show What We Have Learned. The other short story collections were also quite good and it was particularly interesting to read the diversity of styles and cultures reflected in writers such as Penelope Lively and Alberto Urrea. Giraffe may have been the most interesting historical fiction I read, because the history is obscure and it is well written. Exit West was an excellent novel as noted by its appearance on many award lists. For those who a flavor for medical fiction the heart is very human and compelling. If you have an interest in Holocaust related fiction Night and Mischling are good choices. The latter is about Dr. Mengele. For a book club and within the so-called women’s literature genre I would highly recommend Before Everything. It is an end-of-life novel that is a celebration.

Unfortunately I did not have one book that stood apart from the others. On the whole I am not disappointed in what I read in 2017, but look forward to the promise of 2018.

Reading Colin Thubron has encouraged me to read travel literature in 2018. I aim to read Virginia Woolf, more Shakespeare, and perhaps some biography and non-fiction. As always my choices are serendipity, depending on what is available at Brooklyn’s wonderful Central Library. If 2018 is the equivalent of 2013 I will be satisfied.

SS=Short Stories      HF=Historical Fiction     TL= Translated Fiction

 January

The Strangler Vine                                         M.J. Carter                           HF

Giraffe                                                         J.M. Ledgard                          HF

Abahn Sabana David                                      Kazim Ali                     TL-France

February

One Hundred Years of Solitude                      Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir                   Susan Daitch

March

The Year of the Runaways                             Sunjeev Sahota

Here I Am                                                    Jonathan Safran Foer

Every Day Is For the Thief                              Teju Cole

April

The heart                                                     Maylis de Kerangal       TL-France

Imagi e Me G ne                                            Adam Haslett

May

Miss Burma                                                   Charmaine Craig                 HF

Do Not Say We Have Nothing                          Madeleine Thien                  HF

June

The One Inside                                              Sam Shepard

We Show What We Have Learned                    Claire Beams                    SS

Cup of Rage                                                   Stefan Tobler            TL-Brazil

Mischling                                                       Affinity Komar                  HF

Pond                                                            Claire-Louise Bennett         SS

July

Sudden Death                                              Alvaro Enrigue          TL-Mexican

Malefemmena                                              Louisa Ermelino

Olive Kitteridge                                           Elizabeth Strout              SS

Night                                                          Elie Wiesel                     TL, HF

Moonglow                                                    Michael Chabon

August

Autumn                                                      Ali Smith                        HF

Days Without End                                        Sebastian Barry              HF

September

Human Acts                                                  Chun Doo-hwan       TL-Korean

Exit West                                                       Moshin Hamid

Judas                                                              Amos Oz                    HF

4321                                                               Paul Auster                 HF

October

Autopsy of a Father                                        Pascale Kramer       TL- French

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes                             Tamar Yellin                  SS

Compass                                                        Mathias Enard          TL-French

November

The Water Museum                                         Alberto Urrea                 SS

The Purple Swamp Hen                                   Penelope Lively               SS

The Prague Sonata                                          Bradford Morrow             HF

December

Night of Fire                                                   Colin Thubron

Before Everything                                           Victoria Redel

A Legacy of Spies                                            John Le Carre

The Wolf of Sarajevo                                       Matthew Palmer             HF

King Lear                                                        Shakespeare

Night of Fire

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Colin Thubron is one of England’s foremost travel writers. This skill is reflected in “Night of Fire”, his first novel in fifteen years. The plot is thin and irrelevant. It is structured as a biography of the fictional tenants of a Victorian house that is burning down. The characters are the landlord, a failed priest, a naturalist, a photographer, a boarding school boy and a traveler. For most of the novel it seems to be a collection of short stories. However, it seems more complex as it slowly progresses.

A theme may be expressed in one line of one of the last stories. “We say that life is a burning house.” What “life” is may be existential. Science is juxtaposed against religious belief, and comparative religious beliefs yield alternative views of reality and existence. In the end, you are not sure if you have read multiple fictional biographies, or a composite of a single life.

Parental abandonment is a common theme in many of the stories. It made me wonder, if the novel is partly autobiographical or merely consistent with the novel being about one life.

The novel begins and ends with the landlord. He is an astronomy buff, and is peering at the celestial wonder of the universe. His other interests align with the other tenants. He is watching a rain of fire in the sky-sixty Quadrantids from a nova that left a dark void.

The Protestant seminarians in the chapter about the Priest, are mostly broken children who are searching for their parent or parental approval through the church. Their theology is confronted by Orthodox Christianity at the monasteries near Mount Athos and by the Rwandan refugees in Tanzania who blend the teachings of the Church with their own orthodoxy. Some find the monasteries to be “a mirror of the celestial world, following a changeless scheme.” The Protestants separate from the dead. For the Orthodox Christians the soul is embodied within the body and the dead are connected to the living.

“The church in this inflamed light, was becoming as they wished: the refraction of God’s universe, inhabited less by men- who had grown small in His worship- than by the supernatural populace looming from the walls and columns, ignited by human prayer, and growing minute by minute closer and more alive.”

The converted refugee Tutsis, consistent with the storytelling of African custom, revel in the Bible, but not in the sermons. They have absorbed more life suffering then can be preached. They have “no concept of repentance or salvation through Christ. Their faith is a narcotic.”

Is belief and memory just a state of mind? Is the world created and destroyed in the brain? The chapter about the neurosurgeon is consumed by these questions. He is to operate on a man who believes he communicates with God through his seizures and is concerned that the neurosurgeon will “cut God out of me with your knife.” The surgeon explains the anatomy of God.

“Rational ideas of God evolve in the frontal cortex, Mr. Peters. The occipital lobe may anthropomorphize God, and the limbic region supply emotional experience of Him. Suppressed activity in the parietal area can induce the conviction of unity with the divine.”

The tenant Stephanie is a lepidopterist. The younger, ignored daughter of a deceased mother and a father who was cold to her. She finds wonder and beauty in the creation of butterflies. She finds love with an older woman. She is the exception to the postulate that the novel is about one life.

The photographer lives in a world of illusions. Like Stephanie his reality is altered from his practical and successful older sibling. His relationships with women reflect his image of them, not what actually appears. Before he is consumed by the fire his drug induced dream has his memories being extracted by forceps, one by one, from his surgically opened head, until his empty shell of a body is suspended and rotates to gaze at him.

The schoolboy chapter continued the theme of children that are mentally or physically separated from their parents. Here the child was placed in an English boarding school while his parents lived and worked in Cyprus. He tried to convince the Head of the school and his classmates that they died. He was reprimanded by the school and his more responsible older brother. He dreamed of a different existence.

“He used to imagine himself a great surgeon who restored the dying, or a missionary leading peoples to God. Nothing was too hard for him. He became a photographer whose creations outshone real life, and an explorer or naturalist who disappeared into the unknown and returned with butterflies as huge as eagles.”

The Traveller ties the other biographies together into a novel and not a group of short stories. An old monk in Tibet conveys a different understanding of life, memory and God.

“Yet no soul existed. There was no lasting human essence, they said. Only the journey itself, the karma of cause and effect. ..”We don’t believe in the existence of God. There is no Creator. There are gods who aids to understanding, but they die. They are illusions.'”

“The world began to thin and vanish with the illumination that led at last to nirvana. It was the self that created its surroundings. And the self too was an illusion: the greatest of all. It was meditation.. that brought this purified vision.”

“‘When people dream … they imagine that all sorts of desires and terrors are real. But then they wake up. The ‘I’ is like that too. It is dreaming illusion.'”

Reading this novel takes patience. It is rewarded in the end.

King Lear and Dunbar

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I was attracted to Edward St. Aubyn’s “Dunbar” because it was a retelling of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. The premise is that the head of a media empire turns over control of the company to his daughters. He is banished to a care home in rural England.

I got about 50 pages into the novel and then I quit. I might being doing the work an injustice, but I did not feel it worthwhile to read a modern version of the King Lear plot unless there was some elegant prose or creative take on Shakespeare’s drama. I found neither up until the point that I read, I decide to read “King Lear” instead.

The plot of “King Lear” is not original. There are past and current versions among the wealthy and powerful. The Redstones come to mind. It is the language and not the plot to which readers are drawn. It is common to dramatize Shakespeare with modern garb, but the language is kept. It is the loss of language that undermined “Dunbar” for me.

“Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind”

” What! art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine !ears. See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?”

The language is current without superficial contrivances. What is arguably  anachronistic is Shakespeare treatment of Goneril, a strong woman, who is the mirror of her father, but plays the villain. Beyond being ungrateful children, women in general receive treatment common for the period.

” Adultery? Thou shall not die. Die for adultery? No. The wren goes to’t, and small gilded fly does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive, for Gloucester’s bastard son was kinder to his father than my daughters got ‘tween the lawful sheets. To’t luxury, pell-mell! for I lack soldiers. Behold yond simpering dame, whose face between her forks presages snow, that minces virtue, and does shake the head to hear of pleasure’s name: the fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t with a more riotous appetite. Down from the waist are centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit, beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit: burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!”

Earlier this year I reviewed Amos Oz’s revisionist interpretation of Christian mythology in “Judas”. Reinterpretations are in vogue. Translation of plays to novels are on weak footings in my view.

Before Everything

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Ruth Ozeki synthesized this wonderful book: “old friends embrace … the limits of mortality and the boundlessness of friendship.”

As I was reading Victoria Redel’s “Before Everything” the music and lyrics of the Allman Brothers’ “All My Friends” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” kept running through my mind.

Anna is the hub of two group of women friends: those who have known her from childhood and those who have been her neighbors for two decades. They are two distinct circles, intersecting with her like a Venn Diagram.

Anna is dying and all her friends have come to comfort her and reminisce.

The bonds of women’s friendships are different, if not stronger, than those of men. There are endless stories, peeling away the characters of each friend and their interactions with each other, their children and their significant others. This novel is life affirming, not depressing. At times I thought of the “Big Chill”, without the sex and drugs- but a little bit of rock n’ roll.

Anna’s relationship with Reuben, her husband of many years from whom she has been separated, remains close. He is in a separate orbital from the friends.

“But now, oddly it was Anna and him. It would surprise everyone that after the friends left, after her brothers with their unraveled sorrow staggered out, she’d ask him to stay. She could say anything to him. She could be nasty with him. He didn’t flinch. However extreme. She counted on him for that.

She tried so hard with everyone. But not Reuben. She never tried with Reuben. Never had, that was part of the problem. But it was his gift to her now.”

She tried not to be defined by her illness despite being in hospice. However, end of life is a separate sphere.

“Even with all these friends–more than most people could manage or even want– she had a loneliness. She feels it now. It had always been there. Certainly with Reuben, hadn’t there been loneliness? She tried not to let her children see the hem of her loneliness, though they sensed it, the twins crawling into her lap holding her face with their baby hands. She tickled them and hid inside that delight. To be so loved and still feel the clutch of that ragged, tampered place. This was her shame. She couldn’t be rid of it. Or wouldn’t be rid of it. She clutched to hold it. This nub that often felt the truest part of her. Those secret hours curled small, shrimped into herself under the familiar blanket.”

The novel has one minor flaw. It digresses to cover a brother’s participation in the Boston Marathon on the day of the bombing. In my view, this was a needless distraction, particularly since truncated coverage of Anna’s death immediately follows. It is a small part of the book, but a rewrite without it, would keep the flow of the novel.

This book would be an excellent choice for a book club. Women might enjoy it more than men, but for all genders and ages I highly recommend it.