Lunatics, Lovers and Poets


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On the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare and Cervantes the Hay Festival and the publisher And Other Stories, engaged twelve contemporary international authors to write original, unpublished stories that are inspired by the works of these two writers. Six are English-language writers and six are Spanish-language writers. The former use Cervantes as their muse and the latter, Shakespeare. Salman Rushdie provides the introduction to the anthology.

The end product are irregular. My favorite is Rhidian Brook’s The Anthology Massacre, which parodies this anthology and its authors, including Mr. Brook. While the 12 literary wonders are at the Hay Festival devising their stories for an anthology like this one, a relatively unknown author is about to take the literary world by storm with his 1,837 page retelling of Don Quixote narrated by the horse.

I am fond of Kamila Shamsie’s writing and here she reverts to a common venue for her Cervantes derived story: “In the city of Kolachi there lived the last of the Qissa-Khawans, or Storytellers.” Mir Aslam is the last of the Qissa-Khawans who was trained to tell love stories and desires to travel to Qurtaba, in al-Andalus, the literary heart of Muslim Spain.

The Secret Life of Shakespeareans by Soledad Puértolas though a love story is made tragic by the real life venue for this story: Aleppo. Although this anthology was published in 2016, the life in Aleppo that existed in this story is now fiction.

The flavor of Hamlet’s love, jealousy and tragedy is captured in Marcos Giralt Torrrente’s Opening Windows, which is a play within a play.

The most interesting aspect of this anthology was that it introduced me to writers that I was unaware of. This is likely not their best writing, but all are accomplished and will be worth reading at a later date.


Distant Light


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The Distant Light is a novella that lies in purgatory. Transgressing the boundaries of naturalism and lingering within the spectrum of occultism, it surprises. At first I believed it to be dystopian, but this was belied by ready use of a car and a populated village within a short drive of the isolated homestead of the narrator somewhere in the mountain woods of Italy. He is captivated by a distant light that shows at night from a location across a gorge, that is not easily accessible. Descriptive of the surroundings the first half of this novella is slow to evolve. There are clues that portend its conclusion.

“‘ Why is there all this evil undergrowth,” I wonder, ” that tries to engulf and smoother and suffocate the larger trees? Why all this wretched and desperate cruelty that disfigures everything? Why all this teeming of bodies striving to sap other bodies, sucking them with their thousands and thousands of rampaging roots and their tiny, wild suckers, to siphon off their chemical power, to create new plant forces capable of annihilating everything, of massacring everything. Where can I go where I won’t have to see any more of this slaughter, this blind and relentless torsion they call life?”

While there is an undercurrent of darkness, the distant light is spiritually compassionate, agnostic, and supernaturally more oriental than western derived. A young boy is the source of the light, but I will leave the rest of the story for you to discover.

The author is the recipient of numerous literary awards including for children’s literature. Archipelago books is a publisher of translated literature that is based in Brooklyn, New York.

A fair description of this work was made by Kirkus Reviews, “an unsettling and strangely tender novel.” It is an interesting short read.

A Whole Life


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I was attracted to this short novel by the testimonial of Jim Crace, an author who I hold in high regard. It is an unusual novel. A fictional biography of a simple mountain man who leads an understated life in Germany, before and after World War II. The prose is unembellished, but observant of the natural surroundings encroached by progress.

Andreas Egger’s life was not easy, but the traumatic events are viewed retrospectively with little emotion. An adopted cripple who was not treated kindly lives through the Eastern front and post-war Soviet imprisonment, but these are but time markers. This existence is unremarked only because he chooses not to. He is insular, but for one relationship, and unskilled in that. The meek might not inherit the earth, but they do populate it.

He lives his life on his own terms, but he is not rebellious. He takes life as it comes and survives. His life is complete in the end. He is no different from most of us, which is what makes this novel compelling. Its progression is viewed in a rear-view mirror. A near death capstone.

This was an unexpected captivating read.



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The most recent Presidential election has left me adrift. I did not like either choice, but voted for one. The tone was embarrassing, although probably no worse than at the start of our republic. Every institution was denigrated. The broadcast media on the whole and print media, to a lesser extent, did not inform but earned revenue from railing against candidates they purportedly were against. Most are doing postmortem justifying their ignorance and bias without trying to reach out to the segments of America that these outlets ignore. The FBI lost its way. If true, foreign governments, directly or indirectly, interfering in our electoral process cannot go unanswered.

I feel no attachment to government officials from whom I receive mail, email, or phone calls once a year around elections and then ignore me the rest of the year. I have no access and they have no use for me because most districts are non-competitive design. We like competition in business, but don’t get it in government.

I look at the pool of future candidates and see none that are inspiring. The broken system of saying “no” to the other side does not encourage anyone of substance. Too much money involved to run and too much personal dirt to have to live with. Who would want it.

I think about taking my son to the U.S. Senate when he was a little boy. He saw Orrin Hatch and the late Ted Kennedy vigorously debate a healthcare matter. They seemed to dislike each other. I told him to watch them both after the debate. They had different viewpoints, but were best friends. Same with Justices Ginsburg and Scalia. I can’t find “statesmen” today.

I watch the protests over the President-elect. I can understand the feeling given how offensive he was. However, those now protesting rightly complained when Mr. Trump refused to affirmatively state that he would accept the result if he lost. Now they do the same.

We are in some respects getting the candidates and government officials we deserve. We don’t listen and empathize. The problem is us. Let’s right the ship that is America by celebrating and helping each other.


A Meal in Winter


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Hubert Mingarelli’s World War II novella was well-received. The plot is that three German soldiers stationed in a camp in Poland, do not want to be involved in killing of prisoners and receive approval to search the countryside for Jews to capture. Their immediate superior is more hard-line than his superior, so they get the latter’s permission and leave in the early morning before breakfast. The three have different personalities reflected in their conscience. One is a father who is concerned about his son who has taken up smoking. This is devastating to the father and the other two try to console him. Considering what is going on at the camp this seemed peculiar to me, but their conscience is about how they feel or will feel not about others. This becomes clear after they capture a Jew who they keep safe from a local anti-Semitic Pole who they meet. Keeping the Jew safe is only for the purpose of being able to avoid staying at the camp. They have a taste of what it is like to be without food or warmth, but give no consideration to the plight of the Jew who has had neither. Their offering is only to spite the Pole, who they despise only because he is a Pole.

The story is a twist on this genre of World War II fiction as it is from the perspective of camp guards who the author humanizes. They are neither good or bad people, just people who by circumstance fall along the spectrum of people who do or don’t do bad things. The tension in the plot is whether they will release the Jew.

Translated by Sam Taylor the prose is unembellished. The French author who resides in Switzerland was the recipient of the Prix Médicis for his novel Quatre Soldats. This novella was shortlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

A Meal in Winter is a satisfactory short read.

Springtime A Ghost Story


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Michelle de Kretser is the author of The Lost Dog, which was longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Judging from online reader reviews, it was less well received.

Springtime also has a dog in it, as it seems to be a prop for the author. What is remarkable about this book is that it got published (in paperback). At 85 pages of double-spaced large font, it could generously by volume be considered a novella, but it is more accurately a short story. It is published by Catapult (, which publishes literary fiction novels and short stories of emerging writers. This book was favorably reviewed in the New York Times Book Review this year.

The venue is Australia, the couple moving from Melbourne to Sydney after Frances got Charlie to leave his wife and son for her. The author contrasts the two locales, which was the most interesting to me, not being from Australia. The ghost story element is that Frances believes she sees an old woman in a garden while walking her dog, but that woman does not exist. The publisher points out that this is not the usual ghost story genre. I agree. For me, it hardly merited a story.

Not worth your time, even though you can read it in one sitting.

Alexander Hamilton


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Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is the basis for the highly acclaimed Broadway hip-hop musical “Hamilton”. Before this musical I thought Hamilton was the most underrated Founding Father of the United States and felt that a hip-hop version of his life would not do him justice.  I turned down tickets for the show when it was in preview. I have not seen the show to take its measure, but it did revive Hamilton in the minds of America; encourage knowledge of history that is lacking among young people; and retained A.H. on U.S. currency. I found it reprehensible that our political correctness would remove the founder of the U.S. Treasury as the face of the $10 bill. Hamilton’s contributions were immense: co-author of The Federalist Papers; First Secretary of the Treasury; establishment of coinage in the U.S.; developer of the U.S.’ first tax and budget systems; creator of a National Bank that permitted borrowing; originator of the Customs Service and the Coast Guard; and interpreter of the Constitution’s “implied powers” that was reinforced by Supreme Court Justice Marshall and  subsequently used by President Jefferson to support the Louisiana Purchase, even he opposed Hamilton’s interpretation before becoming President. He was also the first true immigrant Founding Father, and one from the lower class (and viewed as a bastard).

Like many biographies, this one does put a gloss on the subject. Nonetheless, Chernow does address Hamilton’s jingoistic executive approach to power, which I had not realized about him. I also held Washington in higher regard after reading this biography. Washingotn was never considered a great general, nor the intellectual equivalent of his peers. His skill his ability to read people and situations extremely well and balance the partisans that surrounded him. His first administration appears to be the Hamilton Administration as he supported what Hamilton devised, while holding him in check. In this regard modern Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan seem to be comparable but lesser equivalents.

The highly partisan and abusive nature of politics at that time make our current depraved situation seem tame. The Louisiana Purchase as a political ploy of Jefferson to increase the power of the slave holding South prompts New England States (Federalists) to consider seceding. It is not the civics lesson you learned about the Louisiana Purchase`. While slavery was clearly an issue at the Constitutional Convention, how emotionally charged it was early in our history was surprising to me, considering abolitionists (of which Hamilton was one) were not strong in the “North”.

The reason why Hamilton decided to duel Burr is peculiar and remains a mystery. By even current standards it would hardly constitute slander and could easily have been remedied. Hamilton and Burr careers had waned and neither was in good financial condition (Burr was insolvent). Even considering pride, the decision is inexplicable to me, as Hamilton was one of New York’s best lawyers.

Burr was a capable lawyer and his statesmanship was evident in the politically motivated impeachment trial of Justice Chase. Burr effectively saved the independence of the Federal Judiciary to the disappointment of President Jefferson. Most interesting, Burr as Vice President presided over the trial in the Senate at a time that we was indicted and wanted for murder in NY and NJ for the killing of Hamilton in the duel.

This book is over 700 pages, so it cannot be digested in one read. It is a mixture of primary and secondary sources and encourages reading of other Founding Father biographies to compare different interpretations.

Reading this highly regarded biography is certainly worth your time.

The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician


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Music and food are transporting to the diaspora community.”The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician” are emigres to Scotland from Zimbabwe. The authoritarian rule of President Mugabe is a contributing factor, though none sought amnesty. The novel is overtly more social than political, particularly as succession in Zimbabwe is again in the news.

Sungura is the music that reminds the Magistrate of his upper middle class life in , Zimbabwe, now that he is working as a health aide in Edinburgh. At the country club in Zimbabwe that background Sungura music “wasn’t his style, rather something in the background of the culture that could not be avoided, but after a while this peasant music with its whiny guitars and hard drums had grown on him.” The societal differences and change in economic class require adjustment.

”  ‘Aika, Alfonso, you are here.’ Her familiar tone bothered the Magistrate. Back home he would have been Babamudiki or VaPfukuto at the very least. This western business of calling people by their first names riled him. He reasoned it was the consequence of an individualistic culture, as though everyone had simply sprung up from nowhere. Some utopian ideal of equality- calling Her Majesty, Liz! The Shona way, the right way, stressed the nature of the relationship. The individual was the product of a community and had to be placed in relation to the next man. It was the glue that held them together, giving each value.”

The diaspora is a great equalizer. Alfonso, a servant in Zimbabwe,  is a hustler and huckster. He worked for the upper class family of the Mathematician in Zimbabwe and is under suspicion about their downfall and economic losses there. In Edinburgh, the Magistrate has to come to Alfonso for a job as a health aide, which because of need he accepts. The Mathematician is a PhD candidate in political economics and continues to live a relatively privileged life in Edinburgh, with an undercurrent of conflict with some members of the Zimbabwe community.

The Maestro is a man with an unknown past who works as a stock clerk at Tesco. He is killed by love of literature. “What are books if not vessels containing minds? Conscious thoughts comes in words, and, if a book contains an idea, then it contains something of a writer’s soul. The Maestro saw that, for all his time in the flat, he’d not once been alone. He had been at the centre, playing the moderator for conversations between a thousand other minds. At the fore were those who had written the works he’d read, but, in the shadows, lay other thinkers, other minds that had influenced them. A slew of minds linked through time and space had resided in the flat with him, challenging one another, contesting, arguing, seeking a higher truth. But, these minds had not done it alone. It happened through him, with him, in him.” He divorces himself from the world, becomes homeless, and indirectly as a reader, dies for someone else’s art.

Mr. Huchu in 2014 was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing. Ohio University Press selected this novel as one, from a number of African writers, in part because it is commentary about Zimbabwe and Western society. The novel has a surprising twist at the end.

“Sungura was the music of the time, focusing mainly on social issues in an age of hardship and despair. Macheso and his band Orchestra Mberikwazvo were a soothing balm to their fellow Zimbabweans, for who but a man who grew up on a farm, a man with little education, could speak in their voice, to their experience? And he could use his lyrical mastery, this gift of poetry, in Shona, Chichewa, Sena, Vena, and Lingala, the languages of the working-class poor.”

This novel entertains while imparting knowledge about Zimbabweans. A sample of Sungura can be heard at:

Macheso is currently being criticized for his support of Mugabe.



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Pat Barker’s Noonday is the final novel in her WWII trilogy. I previously read and reviewed Ghost Road, her Booker winning novel that was the final novel of her so-called Regeneration WWI trilogy. In both cases it is unnecessary to read the prior books in order to follow the plot. Pat Barker’s strength is character development: minor characters are not ignored in passing. In addition, her works capture the war genre from perspectives other than the battlefield. In Ghost Road it is the hospital in England where soldiers removed from the battlefield were treated. Their was also a cultural anthropology back-story in Oceania as part of one of the physician’s flashback. It was this element that made the novel distinctive. Noonday also has a subplot, but for me it was an unnecessary distraction. The novel’s venue is London during the Blitz and one of the characters is either a medium, a fraud, or a schizophrenic. The minor subplot is plausible, but in my view a more detailed examination of London during the Blitz is warranted instead. It is not that Ms. Barker does not cover the territory, but it seems superficial. The focus is upon the personal relationships of the main characters; doubtlessly a carry-over from the prior novels in the trilogy. In some respects it borders on a commercial romance novel, although I am overstating this. Catastrophes challenge marital relationships and this was certainly the case in WWII and other wars.The principal characters work as ambulance drivers and rescue wardens finding people injured or dead in bombed buildings. Ms. Barker covers the territory, and yet I didn’t feel the tension and fear in her writing. In defense, life goes on even in the worst of circumstances and there is the so-called British stiff-upper lip that might justify not overstating the tragedy that Londoners endured.

The book is a fast read and will likely entertain. It is just considerably below the standard she set in Ghost Road.

The Noise of Time


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“Lenin found music depressing. Stalin thought he understood and appreciated music. Khrushchev despised music. Which is the worst for a composer?”

Julian Barnes’ does not answer this question in his biographical fiction “The Noise of Time”, which examines Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s life and travails in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich is a facility for Barnes to question whether Art will ultimately conquer Power; the latter presumably being more fleeting despite its repetitiveness.

“What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves- the music of our being- which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.”

You can consider four personality types: believer; collaborator; critic; and martyr. Barnes’, or at least Shostakovich as interpreted by Barnes, viewed liberal critics of the Soviet Union, who criticized outside the reach of an authoritarian regime, to be no different from the autocrats who required propaganda from their artists. Shostakovich loved Stravinsky for his music, but thought no more of him and Nabokov for their criticism than he did of Stalin. Shostakovich, did not believe in the Soviet system, but did not martyr himself. According to Barnes’ his cowardice, protection of family, materialism, or wish to be left alone to be a musician, made him a collaborator.

This is not a particularly well written novel. It is principally based on Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. There is no real discussion or analysis of Shostakovich’s music.  It could be read as non-fiction, except some of its rare dialogue seems unrealistic. Shostakovich who fears the Stalin has ordered his death purportedly receives a call from Stalin requesting that he attend the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York. The dialogue has Shostakovich giving Stalin one excuse after another why he cannot attend: he is sick; he can’t fly; he does not have a tail-suit; that his music is not being played in the Soviet Union. It reads like a conversation between a teacher and a young student who has forgotten his homework. Worse, there is very little imagined dialogue in the novel. It is a narration as if it were non-fiction.

“The Testament of Mary” which I reviewed, imagined the cruxification of Christ from the vantage point of his mother, Mary. Colm Toibin’s biographical fiction, demonstrates imagination, not recounting of a secondary source work of non-fiction. As a character, Barnes’ did not create in my mind the fear of death that Shostakovich would have had waiting outside his apartment in anticipation of being taken away, tortured and killed.

I can’t subscribe to Art being immune from subjectivity and control outside of political power. There may be universality in creation for the sake of creation (without recognition), but that is individualistic and will not aggregate to be a “whisper of history”.

Julian Barnes has written better, and will write better than “The Noise of Time”.