Autumn

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“Autumn” by Ali Smith is the only work of hers that I have read. She again is Long Listed for the Man Booker Prize. I have no idea why, except that it is a novel of British nostalgia and currency in a year the Long List is dominated by established writers. The platform that Ms. Smith uses for this tour is the life-long relationship between a British child,Elisabeth, and her elderly neighbor,Mr. Gluck, who expands her life horizons despite the obstacles of her mother. These obstacles include the generational conflict about Brexit, including immigration. The child become woman is the narrator. There are also vignettes about Christine Keeler, Pauline Boty and Pop Art and musings about life as Mr. Gluck lays dying. Ms. Keeler and Ms. Boty connection is the latter’s work “Scandal ’63” which captured the Profumo Affair which involved Ms. Keeler.

I previously reviewed “Days Without End” which is also Long-Listed this year. It is far superior work of literature.

Days Without End

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Long Listed for the Man Booker Prize this year Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” is a saga about survival and savagery of mid-19th century America toward Native American Sioux and Yurok, and each other through the beginning of Reconstruction in West and border states of Tennessee and Missouri. Told in first-person narrative by Thomas McNulty, it traces the harsh life he and his lover John Cole led from homeless Irish orphans to drag performers and soldiers in Union army.

In part it is a tale of Irish immigrants who survived the Potato Famine. The author is no flatterer of Irish prejudice, even among the morally pure. It can be learned merely by living, not only by the Irish.

” I don’t trust anyone. What we walked through was the strike-out of her kindred. Scrubbed off with a metal brush like dirt and dried blood on a soldier’s jacket. Metal brush of strange and implacable hatred. Even the major. Same would be if soldiers fell on my family in Sligo and cut out our parts. What that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work. Ain’t that the way of the world. No such item as virtuous people.”

The author has a gift with language. It almost masks the brutality. Thomas McNulty is a narrator who is both gripped and numbed by war and survival. The novel builds to a more emotional conclusion, narrowly circumventing some movie-like pathways.

I have not read the other Long Listed novels, save for one I am in the middle of. This novel is far better and is worthy of being Short Listed.

Sudden Death

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About 80% through “Sudden Death”  the author, Álvaro Enrigue, admits he does not know what his book is about. He just knows he was mad. Mad because in every game the bad guys have the advantage.

This too, is probably not true.

He does tell you it isn’t a book about Caravaggio or Vasco de Quiroga; Cortés or Cuauhtémoc; or Galileo or Pius I; although they are all characters. The book is not about the birth of tennis, although Caravaggio and Quiroga are engaged in a duel by tennis, the reason for which they were both to drunk to remember. It is not about the Counter-Reformation, the Council of Trent, or Carlo Borromeo, although the period of the novel is a bookend that squeezes the life out of the Renaissance. It is not about the ironic use of Thomas More’s Utopia by the conquistadors in New Spain.

It ends with art maybe being the salvation of history.  The ending, maybe the only weak part of the book in my view.

The inspiration for the novel was the exhibit at the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, “El vuelo de las imágenes. Arte plumario en México y Europa 1300 – 1700” [Images take flight: feather art in Mexico and Europe]. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPZxD9D84ZI 

This novel is a work of  incredible imagination.  Scalped hair is substituted for feathers in the composition of the tennis ball. It is made from the hair of the beautiful, but unlucky, bride of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn. The scapular worn by Cortés and ultimately by Quiroga in his tennis match, was cut from the hair of the emperor Cuauhtémoc after Cortés had him killed.

The author dedicates the book to La Flaca Luiselli. This is likely intended affectionately to his wife, the author Valerie Luiselli, the other half of this esteemed Mexican literary couple. I previously reviewed her experimental novel “The Story of My Teeth”, a collaboration with factory workers.

Carlos Fuentes, who I think writes some of the best first paragraphs in modern fiction, has an apt description of “Sudden Death”.

“Enrigue belongs to many literary traditions at once and shows a great mastery of them all… His novel belongs to Max Planck’s quantum universe rather than the relativistic universe of Albert Einstein: a world of coexisting fields in constant interaction and whose particles are created or destroyed in the same act.”

The novel is part art criticism of Caravaggio’s paintings. Some real, some imagined. “Caravaggio was to painting what Galilei was to physics: someone who took a second look and said what he was seeing, someone who discovered that forms in space aren’t allegories of anything but themselves, and that’s enough; someone who understood that the true mystery of the forces that control how we inhabit the earth is not how lofty they are, but how elemental.”

This novel is a whimsical romp through late Renaissance political, art, Catholic, and social history with a tour through Spain’s vanquishing of the Aztec empire in Mexico. They are equally bad guys to the author.

The chapter “Regarding Most Popes’ Utter Lack of a Sense of Humor” is about Cardinal Montalto.

“… Montalto also spent those years planning how the city would look it really was the center of the world- a plan he executed with violence and perfectionism once he was named Pope Sextus V. He invented urbanism, though his name wasn’t Urban. It goes without saying that he never played pallacorda. The fact that no subsequent pope was called Sixtus after Montalto, who was the fifth, is proof that the Catholic Church is an institution without a sense of humor.”

The novel was awarded the Herralde Prize in Spain and the Elena Poniatowska International Novel Award in Mexico. Forget get the awards. If you admire good con- artistry and illusion you should read this book. It is fun, entertaining and educational in the same time and space.

Winning-While we Lose

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Senator McCain spoke on the floor and echoed what we all know, politicians on both sides of the aisle are primarily interested in their own winning. This is not new. When I was in high school I wrote my first letter to the NY Times. It was a snarky response to Congress voting itself a pay raise. I also worked on the Hill when I was in college. There was less money in politics then and the media was not as focused on ratings and appealing to a certain base. Nonetheless, the business of Congress remained to get elected.

I admire the Senate Majority Leader’s ability to try to turn an extremely bad hand (most of it of his own making) into something that has an outside chance of passage. It will slightly please the President, whose sole focus seems to be about winning, or at least the appearance of winning, regardless of substance. For those in the House who he, like Obama, threw under the bus for their healthcare plans, it may salvage their need to be the party in Opposition, despite being the Governing Party. It is a nice trick, but it is beyond cynicism.

There are real healthcare issues that Americans face. Obamacare has not existed for years as the Republican Congress stripped a lot of the requisite funding from it, causing a number of insurers to fail (and later sue and win). This will continue on a regulatory basis in the cynical hope that there will be enough pain that the majority in Congress will be overlooked for failing to have a workable plan after 7+ years of griping. The Democrats for their part, while not invited to the dance, have sat on their hands and not established and promoted a plan to actually fix “Obamacare”. They too are playing for winning in 2018, regardless of the impact on their constituents. It is easy to be the Opposition party.

Congress and the President have very low public approval ratings except in their narrow gerrymandered districts. Americans across the spectrum of political interests would probably come together to support a law that would strip House Representatives and Senators (but not their staffs) of Federal health insurance that they receive. As they will likely move on to cut “entitlements”, they should also have their current pensions frozen and then prospectively terminated. Although there are many in Congress who are independently wealthy or whose spouses work in the government, lobby organizations or local business that offer employer group insurance, a message needs to be delivered that they are in the same shoes as their constituents when they change or take away benefits. This is not to discourage reform-but regulatory and fiscal. It is to rationalize it, and to make it less about winning.

In the meantime, I will have to go look for my high school letter to the NY Times. As Yogi Berra would say, it’s Deja Vu all over again.

Malefemmena

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Anyone who lives in Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge or Staten Island New York will instantly recognize the characters in Louisa Ermelino’s short story collection “Malefemmena”. These Italian-American women could be type cast in a female version of “Goodfellas”. These are women who are subservient and independent. It is a genre that may have had more public appeal in the 1950s and 1960s, but these are all good stories.

There is also an international flavor to the stories, that reflect the author’s time spent in India after college. The women have some abandon within the limited confines of the restrictive Asian societies for whom white women have some allure. Some are borderline junkies, others find comfort in the attraction of other women.

The author can be funny. In an otherwise very tender story that celebrates a long marriage,  her daughter recalls a joke told by her mother who is near death.

“Now my mother, this woman I’ve loved my whole life is leaving me. To go where? Heaven? Might all those St. Peter jokes about the pearly gates be true?

St Peter greets you at the gate and invites you in for dinner. He serves you tea and toast. Wait a minute, you say. Tea and toast? This is heaven?

I know, St. Peter says, but it just doesn’t pay to cook for two…”

The story is accurately reflect life experience as it is leaving.

“I called hospice and the dying went into full gear. It’s wonderful, the attention you get when you are dying, the attention you cannot have when your life is still open-ended.”

“I called the undertaker and I realized that undertakers come when you call. You don’t have to wait until morning or leave a message. Someone always answers. The undertaker always comes. Things move smoothly around death.”

I could not help thinking that Ms. Ermelino had contractors on her mind when she wrote that.

The author is the Reviews Director for Publishers Weekly, so she should have a lot of contacts. Most of the stories published in this collection were published in Indie Presses: Black Warrior Review; The Malahat Review; Prarie Winds; River Sytx.

While I enjoyed all the stories, my second favorite was “Sister-in-Law”. She is a real malfemmena.

I think you will find this collection enjoyable to read.

Olive Kitteridge

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This novel is a compendium of short stories in which Olive Kitteridge, a retired teacher in small town Crosby, Maine, plays a spectrum of roles in the lives of her family and neighbors . The novel is about marriage and aging and is not limited by the venue it represents. My Name is Lucy Barton, which I previously reviewed and preferred, was principally about the failed relationship between mother and daughter told from the daughter’s perspective. Here the failed relationship is between son and mother, told from the mother’s perspective. The children in both novels have failed marriages with the fault lines left to the reader.

Olive Kitteridge is complex. Understanding to a mentally and physically wounded child, but cold and scary to children and adults alike. She is fundamentally insecure and cruel to her husband who is loved by all. Marriage is also complex. The bonds are often obscure and subject to change in an outer orbital as marital relations become more distant. The overriding theme, however, is settling as we age. Selectivity is a luxury of the young.

Ms. Strout is a native of Maine so she is on her home turf. She knows the characters, and character development is her strength. The editors did a decent job combining stories without circumstances previously conveyed being needlessly repeated in later stories. Only in the chapter called “River” did I notice one small lapse. Another weakness is in other stories where Olive Kitteridge only plays a cameo role. In stories not previously published she may have been edited in. The story “Criminal” is one where this might have occurred. The story as a whole seemed contrived and out-of-place with the rest of the “novel”.

A Pulitzer Prize winning author of fiction and of the short story form, Ms. Strout is an excellent writer. The “novel” is worth reading, particularly for aspiring writers interested in characters. I did feel cheated by this not being a stand alone novel rather than an edited composite.

Night

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The Yiddish version of Elie Wiesel’s classic Holocaust autobiography “Night” was entitled “And the World Remained Silent”. It was rejected by every major French and U.S. publisher despite having been translated into French and English. The Yiddish version began:

“In the beginning there was faith – which is childish; trust- which is vain; and illusion- which is dangerous.

We believed in God, trusted in man, and lived with the illusion that every one of us has been entrusted with a sacred spark from the Shekhinah’s flame; that every one of us carries in his eyes and in his soul a reflection of God’s image.

That was the source if not the cause of all our ordeals.”

“Night” begins with the story of Moishe the Beadle, a penurious Kabbalist in Sighet, Transylvania from whom the 13 year-old author learned the Zohar and faith. He was the canary in the mine, who had witnessed the Gestapo, but he was not believed.

The Yiddish version of the book ends:

“I am not so naive as to believe that this slim volume will change the course of history or shake the conscience of the world.

Books no longer have the power they once did.

Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.”

After being liberated from Buchenwald, “Night” ends as follows:

“One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto

From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.

The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.”

“Night” is a powerful book about humanity, survival, hope, power, probabilities, faith, belief, God, love, and above all family. By virtue of forced gender separation this is a father and son tale. It is more compelling than the crematorium and the walking cadavers at Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald. Both the Yiddish version and “Night” tell of the author ignoring the call of his father to come to him so that he could tell him something, but not moving for fear of being beaten, while is father was beaten unconscious. He is otherwise a very loyal son, unlike others who for the sake of their own survival leave their father behind to be killed. Survival tests the boundary of love and faith.

Hope is the heroin of the powerful few over the masses. Upon arriving at Auschwitz one of the veteran inmates greets a hysterical new arrival:

“Shut up, you moron, or I’ll tear you to pieces! You should have hanged yourselves rather than come here. Didn’t you know what was in store for you here in Auschwitz? You didn’t know? In 1944?”

Those in Hungary and Transylvania did however avoid the brunt of the Final Solution until later in the war. Even in the camps where death was daily and a relief from survival the slim hope of not being killed supported a structure and hierarchy for extermination. It transcended faith, which was trampled and obliderated. To support God, man had to be at fault, with the resurrection of the Shekhinah in Exile only with the reformation of man. A chicken and egg problem.

Today the question is Zionism versus Judaism in the post-survivor generations. Where is the borderline between “Never Again” and predation? It is beyond religious Judaism, because the lesson of Hitler was Jew- assimilated or not- will be exterminated. Mr. Wiesel’s cynicism in the Yiddish version of this book, continues the cyclicality of the Jewish Diaspora in search of a peaceful homeland.

Moonglow

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The jacket to “Moonglow” accurately describes Michael Chabon’s novel:

“A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional nonfiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir.”

“Moonglow” is a fictionalized biography of Mr. Chabon’s maternal grandfather, who reminisces about his life before and after World War II to his grandson. It has all the embellishments of a fish story. Reading it is like watching the 1950s CBS dramatic news program with Walter Cronkite, ” You Were There”.

His grandfather was fired from his job to make room for Alger Hiss. His grandfather was sent to Germany to capture and return Wernher Von Braun, but only manages to unearth his plans for the V-2 rocket program.

It is not all heroic imagination, but a slice of life living in pre-war Jewish Philadelphia and a Florida retirement home. Space,and in particular the development of rockets, is at the historical heart of this novel. Chabon recognizes he is liberally borrowing and gives credit to Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” and apologies to those who wrote non-fiction and biographical accounts about the V-2 program and Mr. von Braun. He is unsympathetic to von Braun about the use of slave labor in the development of the V-2 program, and yet gives him the benefit of the doubt as a scientist.

“The poor bastard! He had built a ship to loft us to the very edge of heaven, and they had used it as a messenger of hell.”

I read Mr. Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” . It chronicled the comic book industry in its golden age. I think that as a boy Mr. Chabon was an avid reader of comic books and had a fascination with space. I am likely mistaken and overlook the vivid imagination and research of an accomplished author.

Jewish American identity and a bit of nostalgia runs through Mr. Chabon’s books. His family’s life and experiences also find a way into some of his novels. I prefer “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” to “Moonglow”, but both are entertaining, and make good summer reads.

 

The One Inside

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It is helpful to read Patti Smith’s foreword to Sam Shepard’s “The One Inside”. There are autobiographical elements to the novel. The characters, other than the author, are presumably Mr. Shepard’s father, Felicity, both father and son’s jail bait girlfriend, and Blackmail girl, a 20-year-old actress and love interest during a movie shoot with presumably the 70-year-old Shepard. The characters are partly developed through sketching and shading and are secondary to the author, who is narcissistic.

Mr. Shepard is descriptive of the Western vista and his dialogue reflects his experience as a playwright. It is like “Waiting for Godot” in style but without anything to say. Surprisingly the novel still holds your interest and propels you forward.

To the extent that the novel accurately reflects Mr. Shepard’s personality, it is not flattering. In this regard, he would be honest with the reader. There are no apologies. There is no emotion. Amoral.


 

We Show What We Have Learned

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If you have not read the debut short story collection “We Show What We Have Learned”, write this name down: Clare Beams. Don’t take my word, take the word of Joyce Carol Oates.

” A dazzling story collection-as if, by rare sort of magic, Alice Munro and Shirley Jackson had conspired together to imagine a female/feminist voice for the twenty-first century that is wickedly sharp-eyed, wholly unpredictable, and wholly engaging.”

Others allude to Cheever and Margaret Atwood. It is her range, clear writing, unpredictable story-telling that makes her nine poignant stories creative and at times surreal. Some of the stories are about the vision for and of women. They are modern and Victorian. The title story “We Show What We Have Learned” is a show stopper. Ms. Beams was a school teacher for six years which may explain the subject.

Like most of the stories in the collection they were previously published in short story venues such as One Story, n+1, Ecotone, the Kenyon Review, the Common, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. The sole exception is the last story “The Renaissance Person Tournament” which rivals the title story and has a universal feminist message. Like most of the messages, when offered, they are subtle. Ms. Beams is foremost a story-teller whose prose is clean and characters are real (except when deliberately, they are not). These stories are welcoming to all.

Lookout Books, which is associated with Ecotone, includes the renown short story writer, Edith Pearlman. With the addition of Ms. Beams they have added a budding literary star to their stable.

My only question is whether Ms. Beams will continue to be an author of story stories or try to venture into novel-writing. Personally I love the short story form when well executed and I hope, that at least for the time being, she continues along this path. For budding writers it would be well worth your time to pay close attention to Ms. Beams’ craft.