In Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Auschwitz a metaphorical “paradise?

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

How innately evil are humans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book of Duels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David and Goliath

Abel and Cain

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

George and the Dragon

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

Custer and Ptebola Ska (White Cow Bull)

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

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

Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tuttle, Jr.

Sellers vs. Sellers (a marital dispute)

Donatello vs. Michelangelo vs. da Vinci

Gabriel, Comte de Montgomery and King Henry II

Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory”) and Charles Dickinson

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Rain

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Takehito Miyatake photo of hime botaru (princess fireflies)

Photo of hime botaru by Takehito Miyatake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You will enjoy reading this book.

 

 

 

 

The Man Who Walked Away

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

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

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

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

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

 

The King

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Search for Heinrich Schlögel

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

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

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

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

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

“I dunno.”

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

“Ask someone else I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tinkers

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Daniel Boorstin’s fabulous book “The Discoverers” begins Book One, Time, with a picture of an hour-glass and a quote from Francis Bacon “Time is the greatest innovator.” Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “tinkers” is a rebuttal. The plot is simple enough. The hour-glass drains a dying man of his memories of his paternal forebears.

Those who read novels for plot should stop here. This is not your book. This book is about our cobbled life- we are all tinkers. Exquisite in the use of language it tethers the relationships between fathers and sons to our sense of self. For me however the most heart-felt scene is between husband and wife. Vaporous love is hurtful and destructive when it is the mettle that sustains a spouse who has no self-worth.

“His despair had not come from the fact that he was a fool; he knew he was a fool. His despair came from the fact that his wife saw him as a fool, as a useless tinker, a copier of bad verse from two-penny religious magazines, an epileptic, and could find no reason to turn her head and see him as something better.”

George Washington Crosby is laid out on the family dining room table- his death-bed. He is a horologist. His father Howard, an epileptic, traversed early 1900 rural Maine with his mule Prince Edward, selling, usually at a loss, wares from his wagon. George’s grandfather was a gentle preacher. In part like a Taoist, he was one with nature. Immersed, he kept his son Howard at a measured distance, until suffering from a mentally and physically degenerative disease he is absorbed by the woods. Howard goes in search of his father only to be saved himself.

Howard, now a parent, bites his son George during one of his seizures. Epilepsy is considered a mental deficiency in need of institutionalization. George inherits this neurological disorder, but medical science is more kind to him later in the century (it is our 4th most common neurological disorder). The cut to George’s hand is not all that bleeds. Howard is shamed and soon leaves his family. For Kathleen, his wife, the bite reveals a deeper sore. She never recovered from being a wife and a mother. Her feelings toward the children and her husband are replete with resentment and loss that are the product of obligation.

Mr. Harding writing is instructive. It will teach you the mechanics of clocks and how to build a bird house from pieces of tin. It is his observation of nature and our place in it that is more constructive. Memories grant the author a license to distribute the narrative. At times his writing is analog; precise sequential descriptions as if lines of code. Then it is digital; conceptual and expansive. It wonders at Creation. Faith in both God and Nature as time is reabsorbed into a black hole. Mr. Harding employs quotes from The Reasonable Horologist, the invented writings of Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783.

There is an interesting interview with Mr. Harding at http://www.bookslut.com/features/2009_07_014754.php. He employs the device of the Rev. Davenport to embellish and lighten the text which is partly a family biography. His interest in theology developed after he wrote “Tinkers”. It was spurred on by the author Marilynne Robinson, a renown author and friend of his. Rev. Davenport’s fictionalized writings analogize the workings of the universe to those of a clock. He minimizes our lives. At the outset of “Tinkers” George summarizes his life, preparing his obituary. Even for the most accomplished, the latter are ephemeral. This is reinforced later in the book. He mocks, through George’s grandfather’s fire and brimstone sermon, our time on earth.

“O, Senator, drop your trousers! Loosen your cravat! Eschew your spats and step into the shallow, teeming world of mayflies and dragonflies and frogs’ eyes staring eye-to-eye with your own, and the silty bottom. Cease your filibuster against the world God gave you. Enough of your clamor, your embarrassing tendencies, your crooking of paths in the nature of straightness. Enough of your calling ruin upon the Moor and the Hindoo, the Zulu and the Hun. None of it gains you a jot. Behold, and be a genius! At a breath, I shall disperse your world, your monuments of metal, your monuments of stone, and your brightly striped rags. They will scatter like so many pins and skittles. I shall tire myself more quenching a candle in its sconce. Phew! There: your are gone.”

This novel is a celebration of the world. George inherited DNA that sees the beauty despite the mundane. He finds a new wife who sees that in him.

While the novel’s language can at times be dense and slow, it should not discourage, but encourage you to reread it.  For writers, there is a lesson in  Mr. Harding’s ability to transfer acute observation into gorgeous language. The novel has a steady and increasing pace, so do not be discouraged, as a few are. It is a definite read if you like good literature.

This novel was published by Bellevue Literary Press, a small press with a stable of strong authors and published works. I previously very favorably reviewed Melissa Pritchard’s “Odditorium” which was a collection of short stories. You can choose past or future reading selections from this small press at http://www.blpbooks.org/.

I urge you to read works from small presses in 2015. In the spirit of transparency I have no relationships with any small presses, I just think they are vital outlets for quality writers and need to be supported.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2014 Reading List in Review

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I am not a voracious reader and find contests or challenges to read X number of books within a certain period to be silly. Another blog asked its readers what was their favorite book of 2014. I realized I forgot all that I read, mixing up 2013 and 2014. Thus, this list of what I reviewed in 2014 and my answer to the question.

Best Novel I read: ” A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki. Either it or Jim Crace’s “Harvest” should have won the 2013 Booker. Both were Short- Listed.

Best Non-Fiction: “Lords of Finance” by Liquat Ahamed. Although I barely read non-fiction in 2014, it would still be highly recommended.

Most of what I read, I would recommend. Some are highly recommended. In 2015 I will try to read more works published by small presses, although I do read a fair proportion now. I will try to add some more non-fiction, and may want to explore science fiction that is focused on science than super-heroes. Any recommended authors or books? I may also read other books by Neil Gaiman, as imaginative children/adult literature is wonderful (particularly when well illustrated).

January:

O Jerusalem”- Dominique LaPierre and Larry Collins- (non-fiction about the siege of Jerusalem during Israel’s war of independence)- Recommend.

Kamchatka”- Marcelo Figueras- (fiction- coming of age novel about a family caught up in Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 1970s)- Recommend.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog”-  Muriel Barbery (fiction- over-rated young adult literature). Not recommended.

You Deserve Nothing”- Alexander Maksik (fiction- coming of age young adult literature that explores economic and social class and sexual mores). Recommend.

 

February:

“Magnificence” –Lydia Millet (fiction- an entertaining read that explores taxidermy coincident with a point of view about men from the vantage point of un-grounded women). Recommended.

“The Death of Artemio Cruz”- Carlos Fuentes (fiction- great literature about the Heraclitan Mexican revolution). Highly recommended.

“The Messenger”- Yannick Haenel (non-fiction and fiction- a biography of Jan Karski, the liaison between the Polish Underground and the Allies during WWII. The book is not as interesting as the person. He was a professor of mine.) Don’t recommend the book, except to learn about Mr. Karski.

“Crusoe’s Daughter”- Jane Gardam (fiction- the life of a sheltered ophan adopted by spinster aunts who lived in the Midlands of England during WWII). An excellent writer and a good book. Recommend.

 

March:

“Yesterday’s Weather” Anne Enright (fiction- collection of short stories from an Irish woman’s viewpoint). Somewhat mean in tone with an overlay of biological (as opposed to erotic) sex throughout. A capable writer. Neutral.

“Eleven Days” – Lea Carpenter (fiction- a Navy Seal told from the perspective of his mother. The author is passionate about the subject but the characters could be better drawn). Neutral.

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane”- Neil Gaiman (fiction- a middle-aged man returns to his English countryside childhood home and visits the neighbor’s farm where he found comfort and mythical protection from real and imagined forces when he was a boy). An extraordinary writer, this book can be read by children and adults. Highly Recommended.

“Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self” – Danielle Evans (fiction- collection of short stories. Teenage African- American girls’ experiences). Recommend.

 

April:

The Good Terrorist” – Doris Lessing (fiction- about the disaffected, mostly middle class, turned IRA and communist supporters. An accomplished writer who tells a good tale). Recommended.

 

May:

“A Dangerous Friend”- Ward Just (fiction- a political Vietnam war novel that is distinctly American, for better and for worse). Recommend.

“Fire Year”- Jason K. Friedman (fiction- collection of short stories that were the recipient of the 2012 Mary McCarthy Prize. Distinctively Jewish and Southern). Recommend.

The Painter”- Peter Heller (fiction- Like his better “The Dog Stars” novel this benefits from the author’s knowledge of the outdoors and associated sports- fishing, hunting, etc. It is not post apocalyptic, but is a thriller.) Neutral.

“In the Orchards The Swallows” – Peter Hobbs (fiction- the weight of economic and social class on young love in modern-day Pakistan). Recommended.

“A Long Way From Verona”- Jane Gardam (fiction- coming of age novel for young female aspiring writers. As with “Crusoe’s Daughter” the Midlands and WWII set the scene.). Recommend.

 

June:

A Matter of Time” – Alex Capus (fiction- eccentric naval officers waging war on Lake Tanganika during WWI). Recommend.

“On The Floor” – Aifric Campbell- (fiction- a “Bonfires of the Vanities” told from a woman’s perspective from the securities trading floor during the 1990s. Business lite, summer read. The plot goes off the rails). Neutral.

“Lords of Finance”- Liquat Ahamed (non-fiction- part biography of the Central Bankers between the two World Wars, there are some parallels between the Great Depression and the Great Recession. It calls into question Fed actions during the latter, which are still being unraveled by Hank Greenberg’s lawsuit). Highly recommended.

 

August:

No Reviews.

 

September:

“The UnAmericans”-  Molly Antopol- (fiction- collection of short stories- well written stories partially Jewish in theme. It was nominated for the National Book Award). Recommend.

“Dictation”- Cynthia Ozick (fiction- collection of short stories- an award-winning author, these are good stories, but may not be up to the standards of her other writings). Neutral.

A Tale for The Time Being”- Ruth Ozeki (fiction- this was short-listed for the 2013 Booker. Although the prose in Jim Crace’s “Harvest” was better, I would have given this book the award in 2013. The plot is unremarkable, but the tour of Japanese language and culture, Zen Buddhism, botany,  philosophy, quantum mechanics, etymology and history are well worth the trip. If you had to read one book on my 2014 list, this should be it. Highly Recommended.

“Shadow Without A Name” – Ignacio Padilla (fiction- an inventive thriller of assumed identities during WWII). Recommended.

 

October:

“The Beggar Maid” – Alice Munro (fiction- collection of short stories or novella- interconnected stories of relationship failures and class from the perspective of a small town Canadian woman. An excellent writer). Recommend.

“The Luminaries”- Eleanor Catton (fiction- this 2013 Booker winning novel of almost 1000 pages is a mystery, that may have remained fascinating at half the number of pages, but which lost my interest after the summary about 400 pages into the novel. Considering the other great novels produced in 2013, I can’t imagine why this was awarded the Prize). Neutral.

“The Goldfinch”- Donna Tartt (fiction- after all the hype I was disappointed. You may learn a little about the antique’s trade, but otherwise it is a summer read. At almost 800 pages, you may need suntan lotion.). Neutral.

“The Wall” – Jurek Becker (fiction- collection of short stories. Principally about the Holocaust and life in Berlin before the Wall came down).  Neutral

“Archangel” –Angela Barrett (fiction- collection of short stories. Stories have a mechanical or science bent to them. It is historical fiction, but generally without the politics). Recommend.

 

November:

“Quartet for the End of Time” – Johanna Skibscrud (fiction- historical fiction that explores less known historical events: The Bonus Army after WWI; Allies campaign against the Bolsheviks.) Recommend.

 

December:

“1914”  Jean Echenoz- (fiction- more interesting as an exploration of writing style than as a novel. For aspiring writers it may be interesting). Neutral

The Sojurn”- Andrew Krivak (fiction- WWI novel written from the vantage point of a sniper on the Southern Front). Recommend.

The Adventures of Mao on the Long March

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E. L Doctorow recently discussed the stagnation of the novel as an art form in comparison to art and music.  He wants to tweak the form as have other so-called post-modern authors. “Outlaw writers” are not new: Melville, Virginia Wolf, Joyce were outlaw’s whose works later joined the pantheon of classics. Vonnegut, Pynchon, Barth, and Barthelme were in vogue when I attended university. It was during this period that this novel was composed.

Frederic Tuten’s “The Adventures of Mao on the Long March” is pop art literature. Part narrative, essay, criticism, parody, and documentary. The edition published by New Directions Classic, includes the author’s 2005 Postscript. Writers, who have been turned down by editors (meaning all writers) may want to start with the Postscript. It traces the history of the novels literary development and the travail of publishing outside of mainstream commercial or less avant-garde small press. The book cover by Roy Lichtenstein, a friend of the author, was key to its publication. “You Got to Have Friends..”

When the book was ultimately favorably reviewed Diana Vreeland of Vogue contacted the author about doing another interview with Mao. It was clear she never read the book, which includes an imagined interview with Mao. Mao is often a vehicle for Mr. Tuten to expound on literary and art criticism, philosophy, sex and humanity. In some of his other works the dialogue of characters have these discussions, which is less appealing to me than the tongue-in-cheek narrative approach he  uses in this book.

The most quoted and amusing scene from the novel occurs after the Tatu campaign during the Long March. Mao is alone in his tent, when a tank covered in peonies and laurel comes to a halt just before crushing him. The hatch opens,

“Gretta Garbo, dressed in red sealskin boots, red railway-man’s cap and red satin coveralls, emerges. She speaks: “Mao, I have been bad in Moscow and wicked in Paris, I have loved in every capital, but I have never met a MAN whom I could love. The man is you Mao, Mao, mine.”

Mao considers this dialectically. The woman is clearly mad. Yet she is beautiful and the tank seems to work. How did she get through the sentries? Didn’t the noise of the clanking tank trends wake the entire camp? Where is everyone?

Mao realizes the camp is empty. He is alone with Garbo. But Mao has always been more attracted to Harlow than to Garbo. What should he do not to break her romantic little heart?

“Madame, I have work to do,” says Mao gently.

“I can wait till tomorrow, my love, she answers, unzipping her coveralls.

Mao thinks: “After all, I have worked hard and do deserve a rest.” But an internal voice answers him: “Rest only after socialism”

“My Mao, this is no way to treat a woman who has made a long journey to be with you.”

“But what of my wife?”

“Ah, that is an old bourgeois ploy, Mao mine.”

Garbo hangs her cap on the mouth of the tank’s .375 recoilless cannon. And that night Mao instructed Garbo in the Chinese Way, The Five Paths, and the Three Encirclements.”

It a world of hackers, would anyone write the same about Kim Jong Un today? Here the author is turning Mao’s rejection of Western marriage on its head, as he later rates the wives and mistresses of contemporary world leaders of his time. Mao is self-effacing. A relative who is a long serving loyal soldier of the March is charged with treason and is brought to Mao for execution. He had been paid by Chiang to write criticisms of Mao. Ling explanations that the criticism was in service of the revolution. The argument is over poetry. Ling feels Mao’s is abstract and divorced from nature. Mao believes Nature is a disease. They discuss whether art imitates nature or nature art, and what is an artist. Ling is not executed and decides he will make a good cultural commissar some day.

The novel weaves excerpts from other literature into the narrative. Sometimes parodying the style, other times extrapolating from the theme. These sources and the page numbers are referenced in an abbreviated bibliography to ease the reader’s transition. These associated writings include Jack London, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, James Fennimore Cooper, Emerson, Bernard Malamud, Frederich Engels, Jack Kerouac, Washington Irving, Hemingway, Walter Pater, John William De Forest, Oscar Wilde and James Russell Lowell. A number of these are early socialist and republican works that are associative to movements during the early stages of Mao’s rise to power. Jack London’s Iron Heel and James Fennimore Cooper’s Bravo are examples.

To some extent, the novel is the author’s search for his voice. Are events post-youth elegiac? The novel does not address the Cultural Revolution, although in the interview Mao intimates that everything after The Long March was epilogue. This is not Mao’s voice, except of course to Diana Vreeland.

For writers and readers it is an interesting read. Readers who are inclined toward Realism or Impressionism in their artistic preference should be forewarned that this is modern art recast in words.

This novel was published by New Directions, a small press that has published classic and new quality fiction for 100 years. It recent publications include the well-received The King by Kader Abdolah; Robert Bolaño’s last work A Little Lumpen Novelita and the award-winning The End of Days by German author Jenny Erpenbeck. Its forthcoming 2015 publications can be found at http://ndbooks.com/books/. You can also find its editors’ and interns’ favorite books on the site, which is a nice touch for writers.

1914

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Jean Echenoz’s “1914” is a short novel about World War I. It is a narrative that juxtaposes one of the most gruesome of human wars with dispassionate detail of military and civilian life in France during the war. Anthime, the principal character, is Chaplanesque. He moves through life without objection. The travails of life never imperil him even when he suffers severe bodily harm. He is literate, but part of the uneducated working class that enters the war without heroics. He remains connected to three soldiers from his town throughout most of the war. They have common soldier complaints specific to that War, but emotions  when expressed are so muted that the characters are almost emotionless. Their personalities are intentionally not well drawn; the prose rendering them fatalistic. A times the book seems as if it is a children’s guide to WWI. The vicious consequences of war are factually rendered in detail, but not to arouse fear or loathing. Anthime’s loss of his right arm to shrapnel becomes secondary to the celebration of fellow soldiers for earning a “good wound” that will send him home. Anthime has some discomfort, but no remorse. Mr. Echenoz uses Anthime’s sense of a phantom arm to reinforce an anti-war, anti-class sentiment toward the end of the book. Following the French Army mutinies of 1917 after massive deaths at Chemin Des Dames and the Russian Revolution, Anthime witnesses bands of soldiers in Paris signing “The Internationale”. “Anthime stood perfectly still and his face showed no expression as he raised his right fist in solidarity, but no one else saw him do it.”

An interesting aspect of the novel is its focus on the mundane during war. The beautiful countryside on a Spring day once out of the field of action. The food chain affecting soldiers and animals during war: from ticks and lice, to animals of transport and animals for food. The latter becomes more expansive for those who are hungry, and the hunted that survive are more unbounded to hunt. Even during war life continues, although the scales are balanced differently.

The end of the book signifies a return to some normalcy. Anthime exhibits both direction and desire as he advances on his romantic interest with acquiescence. It is both a rebirth and an equalization of class, that sometimes war catalyzes.

This novel is not a great read, but stylistically it is interesting in approach. Mr. Echenoz was the recipient of the Prix Goncourt for “I’m Gone”. These novels are published by The New Press, which is a non-profit publisher that aims to advance intellectual work that highlights social issues and lends a voice to those underrepresented. Many of its publications are non-fiction. https://www.thenewpress.com.

I was not asked to review this work and have no affiliation with The New Press. As I mentioned previously, I will be trying to provide an additional audience for small presses and their authors.

 

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