The world will not take it

September 21, 2017

Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan EnglanderNathan Englander won the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. This phenomenal story collection also was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. It was my initial exposure to Englander’s work and drove me to read his first novel, another impressive effort, The Ministry of Special Cases about Argentina’s Dirty War and the disappeared children. His new novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, similarly deals with a difficult political topic, that being the relentless violence caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the Gaza Strip. In one of the novel’s many memorable scenes, an Israeli prime minister says to his General: “They kill one of ours and you run off like Samson to bring back a hundred heads. The world will not take it. The enemy’s losses are too great.” The General replies: Then let them stop killing the one. Let them stay on their sides of the borders and I will stay home and sit on my hands.”

While the conflict may be the heart of the novel and its important message, espionage, betrayal and romance drive the plot, focused on the life of a Jewish American boy from Long Island. We first come to know him as Prisoner Z, isolated in an Israeli desert cell and disappeared from existence. The reason for imprisonment takes place 12 years earlier, when he’s working as an Israeli operative for the Mossad in Berlin. He’s an undercover junk electronics dealer with a shipment stuck in Egyptian customs. A Palestinian import-export dealer comes to the rescue. He offers an additional opportunity to move merchandise into Gaza. The Israeli intelligence operation succeeds, but the outcome offends Prisoner Z’s moral conscience, driving him to commit treason. He hides in Paris to save his life and recklessly gets romantically involved with an Italian waitress.

Author Nathan Englander creates captivating reading with the events that take this unusual protagonist from Paris to the Israeli desert. Meanwhile, that General I quoted earlier suffers a stroke and lies comatose in a Tel Aviv hospital. He’s the only one, other than a guard, who knows the whereabouts of Prisoner Z. The parts of the novel devoted to the General drop us into his unconscious thoughts that shuttle dreamlike between military confrontations with the Palestinians, meetings with historic Israeli notables Moshe Dayan and David Ben Gurion, and an incident with his son. The General’s loyal assistant, the mother of the young man guarding Prisoner Z, hovers at her boss’s bedside, honoring his years of great leadership.

This multilayered drama plays out in a colorful and also profound patchwork of chapters stitched together in European and Israeli locations. What results is a fascinating political thriller but also a story with an obvious agenda about the need for peace in Gaza. It’s a worthy agenda but would serve the novel’s remarkable storyline better – and more powerfully – with a lighter, subtle touch.  Also, a note of consideration: If you’re unfamiliar with the Gaza conflict, you’ll need to keep Wikipedia handy to fully understand the General’s life and Prisoner Z’s purpose.

Many good books are being released in September, several by notable authors. Jesmyn Ward is publishing her second novel since winning the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones. Celeste Ng also is publishing her highly anticipated second novel that’s set in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Alice McDermott is also on the publishing roster this month, and the novel is one of her best. Below are quick previews of these and other books not to be missed.

Sing Unburied Sing by WardSing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward’s second novel tells the story of a road trip taken by a drug-addicted black woman, her kids and a friend on their way to the Mississippi State Penitentiary to pick up the children’s father. The kids live with their grandparents in the Mississippi Gulf Coast region, with the mother drifting in and out of their lives. Ghosts from this African-American family’s past figure into the narrative. The publisher writes: “Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family.” While both Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly  give the book a star, for those who loved Salvage the Bones, the Washington Post says it “lacks the singular hypnotic power” of her first novel “only because its ambition is broader, its style more complex and, one might say, more mature.” Available September 5.

The Vietnam War by Burns_WardThe Vietnam War: An Intimate History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
This richly illustrated, comprehensive analysis of the Vietnam War is a print companion to the PBS 10-part, 18-hour documentary airing September 17. The popular PBS film-maker Ken Burns directed the film with co-director Lynn Novick. For the book, Burns and writer-historian Geoffrey Ward talked to war veterans from both sides. The publisher writes: “Rather than taking sides, the book seeks to understand why the war happened the way it did, and to clarify its complicated legacy.” The book’s 640 pages include more than 500 photos and several maps. (It’s also a bit pricey at $60.) Available September 5. Watch the documentary trailer.

Katalin Street by SzaboKatalin Street by Magda Szabo
This novel is published by New York Review Books Classics, which says its books are “discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.” I have remembered Magda Szabo’s novel The Door in that very way, and so look forward to this next novel about three families living next door to one another on the eponymous Katalin Street in Budapest. But then their lives are destroyed by the 1944 German occupation. NYRB Classics writes: “Katalin Street…is a poignant, somber, at times harrowing book, but beautifully conceived and truly unforgettable.” Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly cast their stars on this novel. Available September 12.

Little Fires Everywhere by NgLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
In Celeste Ng’s second novel, artistic Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter become tenants in a rental property owned by the Richardsons, who live in the tree-lined suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio. The unconventional mother and daughter become closely involved in the perfect lives of their wealthy landlords. The publisher writes: “Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.” The novel is receiving the attention-getting “un-put-downable” description by some, while Kirkus Reviews (“Outre and disturbingly engaging”) and Publisher’s Weekly  (“an impressive accomplishment”) also rave. Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, was a New York Times bestseller. Available September 12.

The Ninth Hour by McDermottThe Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
The Ninth Hour, McDermott’s seventh novel, takes place in Brooklyn in the early 20th century when milkmen delivered fresh milk to households and nuns “moved through the streets of the city in their black and white, doing good where it was needed, imposing good where they found it lacking.” The story centers on the widowed Annie and daughter Sally, who spend their days at the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, where Annie works as a laundress. Sally grows up under the protective eyes of the convent’s inhabitants and finds herself struggling with whether or not she is worthy to take vows. The nuns fill the pages with captivating stories. Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly give stars. Available September 19.

What was Lizzie thinking?

August 10, 2017

See What I Have DoneIt’s one of the most famous unsolved murder mysteries in America, the story of Lizzie Borden, who is believed to have murdered her father and stepmother on August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts. She was accused and put on trial for the crime but acquitted due to lack of evidence. Both Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally butchered with an ax, and it was hard to believe back then that a woman could commit such a horrific act of anger. But if you read this new fictional account of what may have happened, it’s not at all hard to believe.

Author Sarah Schmidt came across this infamous case by chance in a second-hand bookshop. The accidental discovery inspired her to write her first novel that focuses not as much on a search for truth as on the dysfunctional family dynamic. In alternating chapters dated the day before and the day of the murders, we get personal perspectives from Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the Irish housemaid Bridget and a depraved boy named Benjamin. Be forewarned. See What I Have Done is gruesomely realistic and highly disturbing. Indeed, it’s impeccably imagined in all its vile darkness.

Lizzie comes across as demented and simple-minded in her first-person narration the day of the killings, especially when she displays a sick fascination with her father’s dead body in the parlor. Neighbors, police and the doctor believe she suffers from shock, but before they find her stepmother’s body in the second floor guest room, Lizzie looks up at the ceiling, as if she knows it’s there, tipping us off to her culpability.

Emma is out of town pursuing her artistic studies and staying with a friend. She’s thinking of never returning home, where Lizzie burdens her with neediness and ruins her life with selfish manipulations. Also, their father restricts the lives of his daughters with harsh rules, and the indifferent stepmother repulses them. Emma’s hopes of escape shatter when she’s urgently called home because of the murders.

Meanwhile, the girls’ Uncle John hires the homeless, criminal Benjamin to do away with Andrew Borden. It’s never really clear whether John is angling after Andrew’s wealth or affectedly concerned for the well-being of his nieces, who suffocate under Andrew’s parenting. (John promised their deceased mother he would watch out for them.) Propelled by the promise of big money for the job, Benjamin stealthily finds his way to the Borden household, only to discover someone killed Andrew before he got there. Benjamin hides in the Borden’s barn, where he finds the bloody ax-head and takes it. His presence in the plot cleverly provides an idea of what it could look like if an intruder had committed the murders.

Schmidt perfectly creates the psychological crazy-making in the Borden household, from Lizzie’s passive aggressive manipulations of her sister and father to Bridget’s witnessing of the dysfunction as she serves meals at the family dinner table and cleans the house. Schmidt also excels at the atmospheric details, such as the smell of sickly sweet pears from a nearby arbor; the presence of bits of bone and blood; and the haunting tick of the mantel clock.

The novel concludes with the funeral of the murdered parents, and also, 13 years later, with Benjamin visiting Lizzie and Emma. He shows them not only the bloodied ax head but also a piece of Abby Borden’s skull, which he has kept all this time. Horrific as that is, Benjamin’s final act is not as chilling as Lizzie’s utterances on the last pages of this grisly, excellent novel.

 

There’s a subtle turning point in Robert Seethaler’s new novel that’s easy to miss. It occurs when the protagonist Andreas Egger asks the general manager of Bitterman & Sons Construction Company for more money. There is agreement, and then the general manager says something Andreas at first doesn’t understand but remembers all his life.

“You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.”

This scene comes one-third of the way through the book, at a point in any story we would expect something gripping to happen, or to have already happened. Andreas, however, lives a routine, uninspiring life. Indeed, one might throw aside the book like a tasteless cake. But read A Whole Life without such expectation, and you’ll be richly rewarded.

A Whole LifeAndreas lives in the Austrian Alps, in an isolated mountain village, during the mid-20th century. He is the bastard son of a woman whose brother-in-law takes him in after her death. The uncle beats Andreas when he spills milk or stammers through a prayer, and he makes the young boy work relentlessly on the farm. But Andreas defiantly leaves the day after his 18th birthday, strong and resilient. Soon after, he goes to work for Bitterman & Sons, building aerial cable cars up the mountainside. He also buys a plot of rocky land on the mountain, builds a simple house, falls in love, marries and then loses his home and wife in a devastating winter avalanche. He continues to work long, demanding hours until World War II arrives, when he leaves to fight the Russians in the Caucasus. Eight years later, including time as a POW, Andreas returns home. Time moves forward and modernization arrives in the village, from TV and the Americans landing on the moon to a holiday resort. Our steady protagonist becomes a mountain guide for tourists.

Andreas is a strong, unassuming man with spare needs and a keen instinct finely honed by the rugged, beautiful and often harsh mountain environment that fills his soul. When tourists arrive, “dispersing like bright insects over the mountain,” Andreas senses their longing for something they cannot find, which presents a stark contrast to his unflappable peace. And then, as he ages, modern villagers whisper about the odd, old man who transports his supplies on a homemade sledge from the village to his mountain home, but Andreas doesn’t care about their opinions. Why should he?

“In his life he, too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down on one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone so badly after all.”

Throughout the story, it could appear that Andreas is a slave to the  construction company, or a victim in the war, or a lonely old soul to be pitied; however, those thoughts never came to mind as I read the novel. Seethaler gives us this memorable character and the message of his unfettered life in an effortless narrative that presents contentment as not pursued, rather as allowed despite any circumstance. And the secret, I believe, lies in that turning point, that comment by the general manager when he says,“…no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.”

A Whole Life was among the finalists nominated for the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award 2017. It is also an international bestseller, translated by Charlotte Collins from German into English.

I have a lot of books. No surprise to those who know me, but for those who don’t and they enter my house, it can elicit a reaction. Such as when a city inspector stopped by to do a final check on the new furnace and air conditioner I recently installed. He did a bit of a rubber-neck glance at the books on the landing near the front door before walking to the basement. After his inspection downstairs, I asked if he would do a quick check of the gas fireplace in the living room. He was there with the testing equipment, so I figured why not, and it would only take a few seconds. His eyes spanned the room, taking in the books piled on tables and between bookends on the mantle, as well as books in and on top of the bookcases on either side of the fireplace. Visible from the living room, the dining room table held a few stacks of books to be considered for reading and review. The inspector didn’t say a word, but I could see his eyes lingering on the books, as if looking for something.

Outside on the front steps, in the small talk of me saying “thank you” and him asking “got any weekend plans?,” I said I was going to hang out with my dogs and books. That was intentional, to see if it would draw him out about the books, and it did. He said he didn’t pay attention to books when he was young but had recently started reading and wanted to continue. He had just finished John Steinback’s The Grapes of Wrath and said he didn’t know where to get ideas for what to read next. I explained why I have so many books in the house and then said, if he wanted, I could send him some suggestions. He handed me his business card and mentioned that he liked books about “older times.”

Below are five titles I emailed to him. I only sent the titles/authors, suggesting he look them up to decide which one(s) might be of interest. I kept in mind his desire to read about “older times.” Here I offer a bit more information about each novel.

All the King's Men by Robert Penn WarrenAll the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1947 Pulitzer Prize winner)
This classic novel is considered to be among the best of the best published in the 20th century. It’s about the political career of the fictional Willie Stark, who rises from an idealist lawyer to become a shady governor of Louisiana. The story is said to be based on the real-life political career of Louisiana’s Huey Long. Narrated by Stark’s press agent, Jack Burden, the story takes us into a world of political corruption during the 1930s. In The New York Times review, published August 19, 1946, critic Orville Prescott wrote: “Here, my lords and ladies, is no book to curl up with in a hammock, but a book to read until 3 o’clock in the morning, a book to read on trains and subways, while waiting for street cars and appointments, while riding elevators or elephants.”

The Caine Mutiny by Herman WoukThe Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
(1952 Pulitzer Prize winner)
Like Warren’s great novel, this also is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a best-seller during the mid-20th century. Instead of politics, it delves into the world of a U.S. Navy mine sweeper in the Pacific during World War II. Officers of The Caine feel increasing disrespect for their Captain Queeq and lose trust in his ability to safely commandeer the vessel. They mutiny and are court-martialed. The novel grew out of Wouk’s personal experiences aboard a Pacific World War II destroyer-minesweeper. The Atlantic describes the “back then” era of Wouk’s Caine novel and also his best-selling The Winds of War and War and Remembrance saying they: “…pulse with the everyday details of 1940’s America: what it felt like to wait for a letter in the post, the passage of time on a transcontinental railway trip, the crinkle of the carbon paper between two copies of an army report, the uncertainty of knowing who would win the war, and when, and how.”

Appointment in Samarra by John O'HaraAppointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
Getting away from politics and war, this classic delves into upper-middle-class snobbery, alcoholism, infidelity and more during the 1930s. John O’Hara is one of literature’s masters in portraying small-town life, specifically in his signature fictional locale of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. Appointment in Samarra is his first novel and what many consider to be his masterpiece. It takes place during three days at Christmastime, with all the glitter and festivities being embraced by the social elite. Among them, Julian English does something outrageous in a rash, liquored-up moment that launches him into a downward spiral of self-destruction. The book’s description for the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (2013) says: “Brimming with wealth and privilege, jealousy and infidelity, O’Hara’s iconic first novel is an unflinching look at the dark side of the American Dream – and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence of a major American writer.”

Angle of Repose by Wallace StegnerAngle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
(1972 Pulitzer Prize winner)
While talking with the inspector on the porch, I had suggested he get a list of 20th century Pulitzer Prize winning novels as a resource. When thinking of suggestions, I didn’t intend to recommend prize winners, and yet it turns out that’s what happened. This one, set in America’s western frontier, deeply captivated me many years ago with its engrossing family saga, narrated by the retired and disabled historian, Lyman Ward. Lyman’s son thinks he needs to enter a retirement home, but Lyman resists. He is researching/writing the biography of his grandmother Susan Burling Ward and living in the house where she lived the last years of her life. The story is Ward’s 19th century adventure into the unsettled American West, about a cultured New York woman who speculates whether or not she should’ve followed her husband into the frontier. From the publisher’s website: “…as an historian [Lyman] looks to the past, and as a disillusioned husband and father, he finds solace in it. But, as he discovers in the course of researching his grandmother’s biography, even he cannot escape the present and some measure of self-examination.”

Humboldt's Gift by Saul BellowHumboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
(1976 Pulitzer Prize winner)
I’ve recommended this novel a few times with feedback from some who couldn’t get through it. I need to reread it to figure out why. That said, I did receive vindication when I recommended Humboldt’s Gift on the air, and the show’s producer, delivering a message to the studio while I spoke, gave me thumbs up. Clearly, Bellow’s classic is not for everyone; however, for me, it’s a long-time favorite, the story about Charlie Citrine whose life is in shambles and the gift that comes to him from friend Von Humboldt Fleisher. We’re immersed in Charlie’s struggles with career failure, bitter divorce demands, love affair anxieties and mafia trouble — and then comes the gift. Anatole Broyard panned the book in a 1975 New York Times review. And yet, Humboldt’s Gift won a Pulitzer Prize.

Postscript: Several years ago, a window cleaner working at the house noticed my books. He also saw a framed newspaper article about my WOSU radio work on Ohioana Authors, so he knew what the books were all about. There was again that look of lingering interest, as if to capture some of the titles, and then small talk about reading, so I gave him a list of books, handwritten on a piece of paper before he left. When he returned another year to help with the windows, he reminded me of the exchange and said he and his wife had enjoyed the books.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

American Paperback

Near the end of Sebastian Faulks’ World War I novel Birdsong, the stoic, lonely protagonist Stephen Wraysford comes face to face with a German soldier who has pulled him from the depths of a collapsed tunnel, saving his life. At the sight of the German uniform, Stephen instinctively reaches for his revolver, which isn’t there. He then aggressively raises fighting fists. And then: “Far beyond thought, the resolution came to him and he found his arms, still raised, begin to spread open.”  The German soldier in turn sees “this wild-eyed figure, half-demented” and without knowing why “found that he had opened his own arms in turn, and the two men fell upon each other’s shoulders, weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives.”

It’s a stunning event on page 483 out of a total of 503 pages in my paperback edition. For three years in this fictional masterpiece, Stephen has fought on the front lines in France with the German enemy, and I had long been with him in all the pages before through the Battle of the Somme and the Battle at Messines Ridge. Thinking surely they would shoot one another, their reaction caught my breath.

Birdsong is Faulks’ fourth novel that became hugely popular in the UK, when it was published in 1993, and thereafter in the US. In other words, it’s not a new book but among past-published books offering a gold mine of good reading. Sometimes a good book for a beach bag is an old book. This one certainly is a top candidate.

Birdsong_Sebastian Faulks

British Paperback

While the compelling central drama of this epic story is the horrific trench warfare in Northern France, the book begins in 1910, when Stephen arrives in a small French town to observe the manufacturing practices of a textile factory. He falls in love with the owner’s wife, Isabelle, and what follows is a torrid love affair, with erotic scenes perfectly tuned to the characters’ passion. Six years later, Stephen is a lieutenant in the British infantry, boldly leading men into enemy fire and watching them die in the inhuman devastation of the crushing battles. He’s a survivor, and his men see him as a lucky charm. His cold yet not dispassionate eye to the carnage allows him to live with the ongoing senseless killing and keep moving through his days without burden of despair.

His affair with Isabelle is long over, and yet 1978 to 1979, in parts three, five and seven of the story, Stephen’s 38-year-old grand-daughter, Elizabeth Benson, born of Isabelle, reads Stephen’s diaries found in her mother’s attic. She also visits the battlefields in Northern France. While some of Elizabeth’s queries about her grandfather feel a bit over-excited, this part of the narrative gives a meaningful look-back from a generation that’s clueless about their World War I ancestors. To be so involved in reading about Stephen’s war and then catapulted ahead to a time when people can’t possibly understand it creates an eerie feeling in the narrative flow.

Faulks writes with focused, realistic detail. For some, the war scenes might be too much. The Battle of the Somme is described in history books as one of the bloodiest military battles ever fought. Indeed, the Brits and French charged toward the Germans across No Man’s Land falsely believing their enemy had been successfully shelled into vulnerability. But this war story comes across neither as too violent nor gruesome. It’s more forthright and sincere.

One hundred or so pages before the scene of Stephen’s rescue from the tunnel, Stephen takes a short leave home to England. When he’s alone outside in the fields of a countryside untouched by war — where there are standing trees and a silent sky — he’s overwhelmed with a presence of love and forgiveness that he senses in the created world: “…nothing was immoral or beyond redemption, all could be brought together, understood in the long perspective of forgiveness.” This spiritual connection deeply changes him. It is a small but mighty thread that’s tightly woven with many other threads in the tapestry of his daily life that lead to Stephen letting go of his fists and opening his arms, as the war comes to an end in this profound epic.

 

Poetry bookshelfSeveral years ago, I emailed a poem by Mary Oliver to a co-worker. She forwarded it to a friend, who then forwarded it to a friend, who then also forwarded it. In short, it went viral via corporate email. These were not poetry readers, but the timing was right, and the poem spoke to how they felt, much like Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” which recently went viral, but on a much larger scale, becoming famously known: an excerpt from “Good Bones” was read on the CBS drama Madam Secretary by Jay Whitman, played by Sebastian Arcelus, who took the poem out of his wallet.

I wonder if anyone who read “Good Bones” (or heard it on the TV show) got online and purchased one of Smith’s poetry books. I have a feeling that’s not the case, given poetry is “an art form determinedly ignored by most Americans,” as noted by David Orr in his book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. I happen to be an American with a healthy poetry bookshelf (including a copy of Smith’s book Lamp of the Body).  Some of the books on the shelf are fully read and reread, some partially read and several still unread. Pages of my favorite poems are dog-eared or flagged with slips of paper.

Here’s an excerpt from the poem “Candor” by Anne Carson that I recently fell in love with.

If you are not the free person you want to be you must find a place
to tell the truth about that. To tell how things go for you. Candor
is like a skein being produced inside the belly day after day, it has
to get itself woven out somewhere. You could whisper down a
well. You could write a letter and keep it in a drawer. You could
inscribe a curse on a ribbon of lead and bury it in the ground to lie
unread for thousands of years. The point is not to find a reader,
the point is the telling itself.

I came across this poem in Emily Berry, Anne Carson, Sophie Collins, the first book published in the revived Penguin Modern Poets series. The series originated in 1962 and ran until 1979, according to this article in The Guardian. It picked up again for a three-year period in the 1990s. These books are “succinct guides” that bring to the forefront selected work by contemporary poets.  As of today, four books have been published in this 21st century series. Each of the small paperbacks features three poets writing today, “allowing the curious reader and the seasoned lover of poetry to encounter the most exciting voices of our moment.”

Without reading much else of Carson, I dog-eared the page and moved on to Emily Berry. I don’t continuously read all the poems in a poetry book. It typically gets picked up and put down over a period of time, as I randomly read the individual poems.  And, for what it’s worth, it’s not easy for me to find poetry books that are a good match for my interests and sensibilities. The process feels like an on-going invitation to an open house with poets, where I bravely and hopefully walk into a roomful of acquaintances and strangers. I know there will be some who’ll leave me untouched and indifferent to what they have to say, or how they say it, but at least I will have spent a few minutes with them. It’s the ones who captivate me with their personal universe of insight, or the ones who write one poem, one verse or one line I’ll never forget, that make it all worthwhile. It’s because of them that I keep coming back to this open house. It’s the reason I invest in the books.

David Orr describes poets as more than “people who think of ways to write new poems,” emphasizing they are “people who imagine new ways of being and perceiving.” For me, it’s why I keep close those poets whose voices ring true for me. I suppose that’s also the reason Jay Whitman tucked “Good Bones” inside his wallet — to keep it close. Wouldn’t it be great if on another episode of Madam Secretary he pulls a poetry book from his briefcase and turns to a dog-eared page? In that small way, he could demonstrate this is an art form worth pursuing and that it’s possible to love it.

The other day, I met Debra Marquart in the The Best American Poetry 2016 anthology. Her poem “Lament” is about the suffering of North Dakota in the oil boom. Here’s an excerpt.

north dakota    I’m worried about you
the companies you keep     all these new friends     north dakota
beyond the boom, beyond the precious resources
do you really think they care what becomes of you

north dakota    you used to be the shy one
enchanted secret land loved by only a few     north dakota

The Penguin Modern Poets series is published in the U.K. and not (yet?) in the U.S. Nevertheless, the series is available via Amazon booksellers.

Mary Gaitskill’s book of essays includes a review of Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, a huge favorite of millions of readers (but not me). It’s the reason I picked up Gaitskill’s new book, just to read that one essay and get her opinion of Flynn’s best-selling thriller. Of her many comments, one perfectly describes Gone Girl as “a masterpiece of cuckoo clockwork.” But it’s the other essays in Somebody With a Little Hammer that swept me into love of Gaitskill’s work, notably for the writing style, clarity of complex topics and engaging insights. She sees beneath the veil of easy labels for people and social controversies. She peels down to that core of truth to see something new.

Here’s an example. She writes about Linda Lovelace, the star of the 1972 porn flick Deep Throat who became a controversial pop-culture icon. Known as a nice girl who rose to celebrity status due to the movie’s wide media attention, Lovelace capitalized on the fame, hobnobbing with the famous Hollywood crowd. Then, in 1980, she published a tell-all autobiography (Ordeal) that Gaitskill describes as “utterly incongruous with how Lovelace initially presented herself.” Lovelace became an anti-porn activist, censuring her abusive husband as well as the industry that made her famous. Many labeled her a victim; many others a liar.

Gaitskill saw Deep Throat close to the time she also saw the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is what I love about Gaitskill – she finds a connection in these two movies that have nothing in common, bringing Joan and Linda together in a way that expands thinking beyond the given framework. She shakes up the easy pathway of thought and diverts down the more interesting road, which herein finds a profound and compelling figure in Lovelace.

Other topics in Mary Gaitskill’s essay collection include a memoir about losing her cat, which also tells a story of racism and class privilege; a story about a time she was teaching Anton Chekhov at Syracuse University, which questions why the homeless are invisible to her students, exploring “the comfortable and the wretched” existing together in neighborhoods; and a story about date rape and personal responsibility, which includes a her own experience with sexual violence. There are 31 essays in the collection, and many are reviews of books and movies.

When reading collected essays, I don’t feel I have to read all of them. I select the ones with topics that interest me. Of the several I read in Somebody With a Little Hammer, I loved each of them, with all that Gaitskill gave me to think about, with her great insight and life experiences. She writes with such wisdom that you can’t help but come away changed, or at least challenged, in your thinking, such as when she writes this in the Anton Chekhov essay: “…no matter what we literally see, on television or in life, we nonetheless will ourselves not to see what we don’t wish to see – or to feel.”

Mary Gaitskill is also an accomplished novelist. Her most recent novel is Mare.

House of Names by Colm ToibinThe story of King Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra is a well-known tragedy in Greek mythology penned by the classical Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Contemporary Irish author Colm Tóibín (The Testament of Mary, Brooklyn, Nora Webster) re-imagines it with mesmerizing effect in his new novel. It’s a grim plot, where murder requires justice and justice results in more murder, spinning a never-ending circle of deadly revenge. Thankfully, Tóibín deftly invests in each protagonist’s emotions and needs in a way that mitigates the horrific bloodshed. Indeed, Tóibín has a powerful talent for intensely inhabiting the minds of his characters, and House of Names is no exception.

Agamemnon’s soldiers are land-bound by the wind-less weather that prevents them from sailing their ships into battle. Their leader lures his wife and beautiful daughter Iphigenia to the army’s camp, telling them Iphigenia is to marry the soldier Achilles. Instead, Agamemnon uses Iphigenia to appease the gods and kills her as a sacrifice. The wind arrives, and his army sets sail. Clytemnestra returns to the palace, devastated and filled with vengeance.

With conniving, murderous manipulation, she takes control of the palace guards and governing elders. She releases the prisoner Aegisthus from the palace dungeon and embraces him as her lover and evil co-conspirator. When the victorious Agamemnon returns from war, that night, Clytemnestra stabs him in the neck. Meanwhile, Aegisthus locks her daughter Electra in the palace dungeon and abducts her son Orestes, imprisoning him in the countryside. In response to Clytemnestra’s demand that her son be brought home, Aegisthus replies with power-grabbing steadiness, “I will decide when it is the right time for him to return. I will be the one who decides that.”

After Clytemnestra’s vivid, fateful narrative, we enter the world of Orestes, who escapes his captors. With two fellow escapees, he finds safety on a farm owned by an old woman. There he lives in peace and exile, unknowing of the fate of his family. And then we hear from Electra, aware of what happened to her father and of the evil that lurks in the palace corridors. She daily visits her father’s grave and waits for the return of Orestes, so they can avenge Agamemnon’s murder. Of all the protagonists, Orestes brings gentleness to the story with his innocence. It’s a stark contrast when he returns to the palace, bringing with him a sense of peace from the farm and the deep love he experienced there. And yet, Orestes is the heir to the throne, and justice for his father’s murder requires more killing.

Even if you know this story from Greek history lessons, or the opera Elektra by Richard Strauss, you will not know it like this. The lyric storytelling brings a human understanding to this bloody story, given from within the agony of those involved. For me, the book was hard to put down. And in the end, there’s a kind of hope that begins to rise, with hints of new leadership entering the palace that’s more reasonable and less vengeful.

Imagine Wanting Only This is Kristen Radtke’s debut graphic memoir. This personal story spans a little over five years, beginning when Radtke was 19 years old. It’s part memoir, part travelogue and part rumination on abandoned places.

In the first pages, Radtke day-trips with her boyfriend Andrew to Gary, Indiana, where they discover moldy photographs in the ruins of a cathedral. Radtke later learns the photos were snapped by a 24-year-old photographer whose friends scattered his ashes with images amidst the ruins as a memorial. This event is one of three during Radtke’s early college years that altogether change her life. The second is the unexpected death of her beloved Uncle Dan, who dies from a rare genetic heart defect that threads through her family. The third is merely driving past a deserted mining town after her uncle’s funeral.

Gary, Indiana Cathedral Ruins in Imagine Wanting Only This

What these experiences share is overwhelming loss and impermanence — and Radtke can’t shake their effect on her. She becomes restless, melancholy and emotionally removed, developing a fascination for deserted places of ruin. Radtke’s drawings precisely evoke her struggle to hold her life together, such as when her relationship with Andrew falls apart and her apartment literally rots from mold. She escapes to Italy to be alone. There she notices ruins aren’t abandoned and ignored, rather restored, honored and visited by tourists.

Kristen Radtke in Imagine Wanting Only This

From here on, Radtke feels the need to travel to make her life count. She worries she could have the family’s genetic condition and devotes pages to its medical details. But Radtke doesn’t travel for pleasure – it’s to feed this unshakable fascination that consumes her. She visits World War II ruins in the Philippines, a town in Iceland once buried in volcanic ash and Peshtigo, Wisconsin, where the nation’s deadliest wildfire took place in 1871. The drawings of her reflective face, her slump, her faraway gaze out a window portray her need to grasp what these abandoned places mean. She yearns to give them meaning, but comes to realize it’s not hers to give.

Imagine Wanting Only This moves through college, graduate school, a first job in Kentucky and then residence in New York City, with a future apocalyptic vision of New York under water. Radtke doesn’t force a gratuitous conclusion with that vision. Nor does she force a connection between ruined places and heart failure. Instead, she successfully – and beautifully — lets her detailed illustrations and dramatic narrative do that necessary work.

This review was recorded for broadcast on WOSU 89.7, with slight edits to adjust for recording time.

Title Page_The FixerI purchased this 2004 edition of Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel The Fixer for no other reason than my gently mad, inner book collector wanted it – and I wanted it for its introduction, in which Jonathan Safran Foer talks about the difference between a good book and a great book, as well as for Foer’s signature on the title page. I could’ve read the introduction online. Also, I don’t collect Foer. (Book collectors will understand this. Herein is the madness.)

The Fixer tells the story of a Jewish handyman named Yakov Bok, who leaves his small village after his divorce, hoping for a new life in Kiev. It is 1911, and Tsar Nicholas II rules the Russian Empire in a climate of fear and uncertainty. This non-practicing Jew gets caught up in a horrific, mind-bending nightmare when accused of murdering a Christian boy with ritualistic blood-letting. He’s thrown into jail, refuses to confess to a crime he didn’t commit and suffers daily beatings. After a long time, he finally is granted a trial, which is more for show than justice. In the book’s introduction, Foer writes: “Regardless of Yakov’s ultimate fate, a few good people have expressed their solidarity with him, and hence their humanity and his.” Foer tells us some of these few good people include those watching Yakov go to trial. They are waving and shouting their support. “It’s the most they can do, and it’s a lot,” Foer explains.

Great books are necessary (while good books are involving, entertaining, critically acclaimed but not necessary), according to Foer. And they are necessary when they show us the importance of our sympathy, mercy and open-mindedness in the midst of injustice and bad times: “Good books often remind us of our troubled world. Great books go a step further: they remind us of our humanity. And it’s only our humanity that can fix the world.”

I’ve learned over the years that memorable words and thoughts need to be on the bookshelf, so I can read them in the form of which they were originally created, instead of on a page printed off the internet. It’s just not the same without the book. Especially when it comes to universal concepts that resonate with as much power today as they did in the past — and as they will in the future.

“Our world – our desperate, broken world – needs existential novels, novels that give us something more valuable than hope: a call to action. The real fixer isn’t Yakov Bok. (He’s a character in that world.) And it isn’t Bernard Malamud. (He’s the bridge between that world and this one.) The real fixer is each of us. We must do something. That’s what this novel, like all great novels, reminds us.”

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

Photo credit: Work In Progress. Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the Bernard Malamud Centenary. Click on the image to access Jonathan Safran Foer’s introduction.

Recommending short story collections always feels risky. They aren’t a popular choice among readers. Rarely does a short story collection appear on the best-seller list. (Exceptions that come to mind are the stories of Nobel Laureate Alice Munro and The Stories of John Cheever.) Put another way, I’ve never met a reader who said they stayed up all night reading short stories.

Even so, story collections continue to hold a firm place in literary publishing, with the industry releasing respectable numbers of collections by new and known authors every year.* One of them, in the “new” category for this year, is The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz, who creatively employs elements of crime and mystery in her assorted plots.

An example is a story that takes place at a monastery in the 16th century. An English monk must denounce his abbot and deny his vow of obedience. That’s because Thomas Cromwell is at work, declaring the king’s supremacy over the church. The destruction of the monk’s beloved home and livelihood challenges his faith and, later, drives him to take unholy revenge.

In another story, this one set in the 19th century, children attempt to reunite an aging, beautiful woman with her one and only true love, a man whom she says turned out to be quite mad. “It was a bad plan,” the children tell us. “A wicked plan. We did not know if it came from us or the Devil so full was it of deceit.”

These collected stories are mini page-turning dramas that sparkle in their diversity of settings, including not only England during the reign of Henry the VIII, but also 19th century American cowboy towns, the 21st century Middle East and a future created by climate change. The characters are widows, thieves, holy men, siblings and survivalists. They are colorful, and we care about them, which increases our need to learn their fates.

In one story set during the present day, a girl leaves home to do missionary work in the Middle East; however, an instance of violence causes her to join forces with a brutal, manipulative mercenary. She trains as a sniper and assumes different identities. Sections of the story are disturbing but skillfully handled to keep us focused on the worry of what will happen to her.

One of the most powerful stories builds toward moral outrage and violence in the pre-Civil War South. It’s a stunning depiction of an educated black poet from Boston who visits a Louisiana plantation to give a poetry reading. She trusts her companion, a Northern white man, who assures her safety.

There are 10 stories in all, and what binds them into a cohesive whole is the similar enticing narrative style. The author writes as effectively in the present as in the near and ancient past. Weapons, notably guns, come into play in most of the stories, heightening the dramatic danger. I’m tempted to slap the author’s hand for using such easy tools to incite page-turning urgency; and yet, these stories fall together so intelligently it’s hard to find fault.

So many story collections, especially debuts, reverberate with themes of modern relationships, lost and displaced souls, and broken hearts. While two of the stories in The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead could fall into this category, for the most part, what’s at stake in the others lifts the collection away from thoughtful snapshots into secrecy and lawlessness. Some of the story titles, like that of the book, are colorful adventures in and of themselves. The title of the unforgettable story involving the monk is, delightfully, “That We May All Be One Sheepfolde, or, O Saeculum Corruptissimum”.

*Best-selling author Richard Russo and Man Booker winner Penelope Lively are both publishing story collections in May: Trajectory by Russo and The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Lively.

New this month

March 1, 2017

stranger-in-the-woods-by-michael-finkelThe Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
When my life gets chaotic and frustrating, I’ll make insincere but wistful “ditch the rat race” announcements, something along the lines of, “I’m buying an Airstream and moving to Montana!” Well, here’s a guy who actually walked away from it all. When he was 20 years old, Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, abandoned his car and disappeared into the woods. According to the book description, he wasn’t frustrated or angry, rather he simply preferred to live alone, which he did for 27 years: “Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death.” Knight got arrested for stealing food, bringing him out of the woods and back into civilization in 2013. Michael Finkel caught up with him to write Stranger in the Woods. Forecasts from Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly praise the book for the questions it poses about solitude and life meaning in these modern times.

exit-west-by-mohsin-hamidExit West by Mohsin Hamid
This new novel by the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia tells a timely story of migration. Saeed and Nadia are young lovers in an unidentified country that is descending into a civil war and tearing apart their city. They flee for their lives, joining other migrants in search of safety, finding their way to Mykonos Island in Greece, London and San Francisco. They don’t travel across treacherous waters or make long treks over dangerous lands, rather they go through doors that open up and function as portals to other places in the world. The Washington Post writes: “If in its physical and perilous immediacy Nadia and Saeed’s condition is alien to the mass of us, Exit West makes a final, certain declaration of affinity: ‘We are all migrants through time.’” Kirkus Reviews gives the book a star and writes, “One of the most bittersweet love stories in modern memory and a book to savor even while despairing of its truths.”

sorry-to-disrupt-the-peace-by-patty-yumi-cottrellSorry to Disrupt the Peace
by Patti Yumi Cottrell

In this debut novel, a 32-year-old woman in Manhattan gets word that her adoptive brother has taken his own life. Like her brother, Helen is Korean American and also adopted. She knows she must investigate the reasons for the suicide and buys a one-way ticket to the family home in Milwaukee. From the book’s description: “But what starts as a detective’s hunt for clues soon becomes Helen’s confrontation of her own place in the world — why she’s estranged from her past (she hasn’t seen her adoptive parents in five years), and what she is doing with her life as a counselor for troubled youth.” Publisher’s Weekly, in its starred review, writes: “Cottrell gives Helen the impossible task of understanding what would drive another person to suicide, and the result is complex and mysterious, yet, in the end, deeply human and empathetic.” Meanwhile, the publisher describes the novel as “a bleakly comic tour de force that’s by turns poignant, uproariously funny, and viscerally unsettling.”

 

fever-dreamFever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
When setting out to read this creepy new novel, be prepared to be initially confused over who is speaking and why. That’s because Samanta Schweblin doesn’t spell out what’s happening with dramatic set-up or a comforting prologue. Instead, she drops us directly into a nightmare where we are as clueless about what’s going on as the two main characters in conversation. It’s a brilliant technique. The initial confusion doesn’t last beyond the first two or three pages. Soon you’ll come to understand the conversationalists are Amanda, who is dying in a rural hospital, and a boy named David, who is sitting on her bed and interrogating her about the cause of her abrupt illness. He insistently urges the feverish woman to concentrate on what’s important, to not waste time, to be observant. “We have to find the exact moment,” he says in this cautionary tale. “We want to know how it starts.” I can say without a doubt the story creates a page-turning frenzy right up to the end. Highly recommended for everyone, but especially for fans of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

six-four-by-hideo-yokoyamaSix Four by Hideo Yokoyama
Readers of The Longest Chapter may recognize this book. I wrote about it last summer, when I read in publishing periodicals that it sold more than one million copies within the first week of publication in Japan. Six Four wasn’t available in the U.S. at that time, but it is this month, and if you’re looking for a gripping wallop of a book, this is it. What’s so surprising is that much of the narrative is about the politics and bureaucracy of police work in Japan. That sounds dry, but it’s just as fascinating as the sensational, unsolved kidnapping from 14 years ago that is generating questions. Press director and former criminal investigator Yoshinobu Mikami must arrange a visit by the police commissioner to the girl’s father on the latest anniversary of his daughter’s disappearance and murder, but the father refuses to see the commissioner. Mikami can’t figure out why, and he’s finding other matters related to the case that are resulting in a maze of official closed doors. The page count is daunting, at just over 500 pages, but don’t let that intimidate you. Yokoyama’s captivating narrative, short chapters and unusual police scenarios should have you hooked before page 100.

the-shadow-of-the-windThe Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Anyone who already has read this intriguing page-turner will attest to its addictive plot. This international best-seller, originally published in the U.S. in 2004, begins with a rare and used bookstore owner taking his 10-year-old son Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, an ancient, vast library that’s “a labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves”  where  “…books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands.” Visitors are allowed to take and become the keeper of one book, and Daniel selects The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. He’s completely entranced by the story and wants to read more books by Carax and discovers someone has systematically been destroying them. Indeed, Daniel may now own the one remaining copy of Carax’s literary efforts. His need to know why, and what happened to Carax, takes us into an engrossing world of mystery, murder and doomed love in 1940’s bookish Barcelona. The plot perfectly twists and turns in so many perplexing directions it’s hard to turn out the reading light and go to bed.

in-the-heat-of-the-nightIn 1965, Harper & Row published John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, and in 1967 the movie adaptation was released. Sydney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, the book’s black police detective, and Rod Steiger played Bill Gillespie, the bigoted southern police chief who needs Tibbs’ help to solve a case. (Steiger won an Oscar for Best Actor in the role.) I never saw the film and also never read the book, until now. I picked up the 2015 Penguin Classics 50th anniversary paperback, motivated not only to read this time-honored story but also curious about its depiction of racism.

While the movie takes place in a fictionalized Sparta, Mississippi, in the book the setting is Wells, South Carolina. In the late hours of night, a murder is committed, and Virgil Tibbs becomes the prime suspect. He’s found in the segregated waiting area of the train station by Officer Sam Woods, who assumes Tibbs committed the crime and is making his getaway. In reality, Tibbs is passing through the town, changing trains on his way home to California, after visiting his mother in the South. It’s obvious the arrest happens because Tibbs is black.

When the gracious Tibbs reveals to Woods and Police Chief Gillespie that he’s employed as a homicide detective in Pasadena, California, Gillespie asks him to help them solve the murder. Gillespie knows his police force, including himself, doesn’t have enough experience to investigate the high-profile case. How the investigation unfolds puts this story in the top ranks of great mystery writing – and also in the top ranks of books about racism. Tibbs never allows Woods, Gillespie and the town councilmen to intimidate him or demean his expertise with all their offensive remarks. His overwhelming courtesy, patience and self-confidence shine a large spotlight on their egregious behavior. They come across as limited and foolish, such as when Woods sincerely wonders how a black man could receive high levels of detective training. Tibbs replies:

“…it may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else. Not everybody feels that way, but enough do so that at home I can go weeks at a time without anybody reminding me that I’m a Negro. Here I can’t go fifteen minutes. If you went somewhere where people despised you because of your southern accent, and all you were doing was speaking naturally and the best way that you could, you might have a very slight idea of what it is to be constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference anyhow.”

Author John Ball takes another swipe at Officer Woods’ bigotry via the daughter of the slain man, an Italian conductor who came to Wells to establish a music festival. Woods is enamored with the beautiful young woman, but she puts him in his place with a verbal slap of a comment, when he speaks of racial prejudice as a way of life in the southern states . You can just feel Woods’ reaction of being “acutely uncomfortable” after she says:

“Some people don’t like Italians; they think we’re different, you know. Oh, they’ll make an exception for a Toscanini or a Sophia Loren, but the rest of us are supposed to be vegetable peddlers or else gangsters.”

In the Heat of the Night is a suspenseful murder mystery that offers several surprising twists and turns of events on its way toward the conclusion. All along, I kept trying to guess how it would end, but I was never even close. Published in the 1960’s, the story richly reflects race relations in the Jim Crow American south with a story as memorable as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was named one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

%d bloggers like this: