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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.

The 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.

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.

the-life-you-save-may-be-your-ownOver the years, I’ve given books to friends who come to my house for dinner on Christmas Eve. It’s a joy for me and them, this book carefully selected and then placed on the table to function as their place card. Below are the selections I made this year and the reasons behind my decisions.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
I’ll start with a misfire. It’s not the book you see here. This actually was my first choice, but I second guessed myself and instead gave Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air. With Kalanithi’s book being front and center in the media and on bestseller lists, I knew I was risking that my friend would already have read the book, and indeed she had. That was the misfire, i.e., not listening to my gut instinct. With my first choice on hand, I was able to get it to her the next day — Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, focused on the literary life and religious faith of mid-20th century writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. I thought my friend, an entrepreneur and ordained minister, who enjoys deep, thoughtful topics, would find many pause-worthy moments in Elie’s acclaimed work that The New York Times described as “a freeze frame from another era of the perennial search for truth.”

the-snow-childThe Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
I always look for an absorbing novel for this friend. She’s one of those readers who will stay up all night to find out what happens next. She tells me she must plan her reading so as to miss not just sleep, but also appointments or anything else that would get in the way of The End. And so this novel, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and penned by the lyric Alaskan native author, came to mind for its intrigue of an unusual child’s presence in the lives of a struggling couple. Jack and Mable are trying to make a life together in 1920’s frontier Alaska when the snow child comes into their lives, but is the child fantasy or reality? Ivey released a new novel this past summer, To the Bright Edge of the World, but I selected her first novel because my friend is a specialist in early child education. I thought the combined mystery and child focus would deeply absorb her.

upstreamUpstream: Selected Essays
by Mary Oliver
Oliver is a popular poet whose beautiful words, philosophies and insights transport readers into the natural world and its wisdom. Among forests, rivers, ponds and fields, she presents a kind of peace and acceptance that transcends the hysteria of modern life. An example is her poem “Am I Not Among the Early Risers” in which she writes: “What will ambition do for me that the fox, appearing suddenly / at the top of the field, / her eyes sharp and confident as she stared into mine / has not already done?/” Oliver’s new collection of essays seemed like a no-brainer for this friend who loves poetry and the outdoors. These essays have been gathered together as a sort of autobiography, with Oliver reflecting on the natural world, as well as topics from childhood and her adult writing life. As much as I knew my friend would enjoy the book, though, I afterwards wondered if I should’ve reached for something more unexpected. Oliver’s essays are a best-seller, like Kalanithi’s memoir, and while my friend hadn’t read it, upon opening it, she recognized it. Is there more magic in receiving a book that’s completely unknown?

between-the-world-and-meBetween the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Speaking of bestsellers, here’s another one. I tend to avoid the bestseller list because it is the go-to source for many when they want a book selection – and the list is so limiting, given the phenomenal choices beyond it. Alas, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ phenomenal book also came to mind. I selected it for a friend who read Hillbilly Elegy and loved it. I don’t believe she’s an avid, even frequent reader, and so I thought giving her this important, highly lauded book about ideas of race would capture her attention. Between the World and Me is a letter to Coates’ adolescent son about what it’s like to be black in America today. It’s universally described as “required reading.” Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction and came in as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

rosemaryRosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Here is another friend whose reading habits I believe are spotty, at best, and by that I mean it’s possible she doesn’t think to read, except maybe when someone hands her a book. Given the Kennedy family story continues to fascinate this nation of readers, I thought this new biography of a lesser-known Kennedy daughter — sibling of the famous Jack, Robert and Ted, her brothers of political fame — would capture my friend’s interest. Rosemary Kennedy was intellectually disabled and kept as a family secret. It’s a tragic story that is the reason her Kennedy relatives established and supported government opportunities and resources for the disabled. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, author Kate Clifford Larson said of Rosemary: “She was virtually hidden for decades, but the siblings apparently — or so it has been said — that they were not aware of what happened to Rosemary, or where she was, for nearly 20 years. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate … but they had learned not to ask, and so they didn’t ask.”

Speak, Memory by Vlaspeak-memorydimir Nabokov
Finally, a classic autobiography chosen for a friend who has become an avid reader, one who keeps a list of books to be read, frequents the library and reads every day. She posed a challenge in that I know she reads this blog, and so I didn’t feel I could select from anything I’d written about here. Likely, if it was a good match, she would already have it on her list. I’ve given her literary novels she has loved and not loved so much (yet she has read every page); and then, I remembered she loved Friday Night Lights, a book I recommended a while back. I took that non-fiction cue and immediately this beloved memoir by Nabokov came to mind for its nostalgia, beautiful writing and Nabokov’s insight into his Russian childhood. It struck as a perfect combination of literary style and a true story that my friend would enjoy. From the Humanities article Why Nabokov’s Speak Memory Still Speaks to Us: “After closing the pages of Speak, Memory, John Updike, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, was carried away.” I hope the same for my friend.

a-christmas-carolI haven’t been much in the holiday spirit this year. It’s been hard to allow it into an already full schedule. Meanwhile, sitting before me has been a new, special edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I borrowed it from the library, wanting to look at the photos of Dickens’ original manuscript pages that are included. Each page in his handwriting is positioned opposite a page of what it says in print.

It occurred to me to read the book, but why read this well-known story? I know what happens from all the TV and stage adaptations I’ve seen: The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, whose visitations transform him into a generous man. And yet, maybe the story would light up my Christmas spirit. So I began to read it.

The conversation between Scrooge and his nephew at the beginning of the story is where it grabbed me. Because the nephew, who enters Scrooge’s business on Christmas Eve to invite him to Christmas dinner, doesn’t easily give up when verbally attacked by Scrooge, who snarls:

“What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

The nephew retorts: “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

Dickens sustains their opposition in a momentous argument, driving home how firmly Scrooge is encased in his bitterness and his nephew in hope.

christmascarol1

A bit later in the story, the girlfriend of a young Ebenezer breaks up with him in a similarly memorable rejection scene shown to Scrooge by the Spirit of Christmas Past. She eloquently speaks about how Scrooge has changed, identifying why, and so I newly became aware of what fueled Scrooge’s life choices.

“You fear the world too much,” she says. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its reproach.”

The transformation of the man alone is not what felt strongest to me in this reading of The Christmas Carol, rather the impact of these and other moments that took my attention in meaningful directions.

Also, Dickens’ descriptions gave much to think about, such as when the Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a ship on “the black and heaving sea” where he witnesses men isolated by their work –“dark, ghostly figures in their several stations” – and yet they are humming Christmas carols and speaking of “bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it.”

Note to self: Those men at sea didn’t need to be participating in all the seasonal busyness and galas to have the Christmas spirit. It resides in their hearts. And so with carols playing and several trees glittering in the house, I stopped being so hard on myself. Perhaps I’m more in the spirit than I’ve thought.

christmascarol2

Tiny Tim, the son of Bob Cratchit, who works for Scrooge, speaks the story’s hallmark last line: “God Bless Us Every One!” But it’s the previous line that lingered with me: “And it was always said of [Scrooge] that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

This unique edition includes a foreword by author Colm Tóibín and introduction by Declan Kiely, chief literary curator of The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, where Dickens’ original, hand-written manuscript resides and is displayed at Christmastime.

news-of-the-worldThere are many moments in this small, enticing novel that showcase its excellence, with one that particularly stands out for me. It’s when a 10-year-old girl is perplexed by windows. For four years, she has lived with Kiowa Indians, who kidnapped her after murdering her family. Now she’s being returned to relatives, but she’s lost all acclimation to her former life: “There were drapes hanging in front of the windows against all logic. She did not know why one would make windows in a stone wall and put glass in them and then cover them over with cloth.”  The phrase against all logic is the power punch. How silly of us to shut out the natural world. To live separately from the outdoors, rather than with it, something the girl must unlearn.

The half-savage Johanna Leonberger steadily, suspiciously observes Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. He’s transporting her from Witchita Falls, through the heart of Texas, to Castroville, just outside San Antonio. Not an easy trip in 1870. The unsettled territory between towns is lawless, populated by raiders, vigilantes and Indians. It’s also a politically unstable time during Reconstruction after the Civil War. The Captain’s been paid a $50 gold coin to make the difficult journey. Still, he’s annoyed by the imposition, which he can’t honorably refuse: Kidd drifts from town to town reading newspapers to audiences in assembly halls at ten cents per person. A trip to Castroville is do-able, more so than for the men hauling freight, who have no business in the area. Also, the Captain will protect her.

These are two of fiction’s strongest, most colorful characters I’ve come across in recent books. Captain Kidd is a 71-year-old widow, who fought and lived through the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War. His experience, self-confidence, moral character, insight and empathy get him and the girl through the uncertainty of the three-week journey. So, too, does money he receives from reading articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Memphis Daily Appeal, London Times and other newspapers to the public. Meanwhile, the dark blonde, freckled Johanna remains a Kiowa at heart, from a tribe for whom “the baseline of human life was courage.” She’s wise beyond her years and so her choices – and how she interacts with the Captain – provide insight on the nature of her Indian soul.

Not surprising, News of the World is showing up on lists for notable and best novels of the 2016 year. The interesting time in history and unique bond between the Captain and Johanna deliver a solid masterpiece of perfect storytelling. News of the World also was a candidate for the 2016 National Book Award in Fiction.

do-not-say-we-have-nothing-by-madeleine-thienI’m listening to Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations due to Madeleine Thien’s absorbing epic novel, set in 20th century China. Sparrow, one of the main characters and a composer, passionately embraces the Variations and notably this recording. For a week I’ve been listening to it — I wanted to experience what the gifted Sparrow was hearing.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing spans a large chunk of time from the early years of Mao Zedong’s rise to power through the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square – essentially 1949 through 1989. It follows the lives of three musicians studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music: Sparrow, who’s working on the final movement of his symphony; his cousin Zhuli, a violin prodigy living with Sparrow’s family after her parents are denounced and sentenced to hard labor; and Jiang Kai, a brilliant pianist, orphaned by the sweeping famine of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958 – 1962). Together and apart, the composer, violinist and pianist remain devoted friends and musicians who struggle through the terrifying repression of Mao Zedong’s communism, including the Cultural Revolution that began in the late 1960s.

Their fates are deeply involving, as one would want from an epic story. Also, the historical perspective pierces with an unsettling recollection of China’s violent, cruel past where people were randomly accused of crimes against the state, tortured and sent to labor camps. The detail of the music, which the three study, share and keep close to themselves, uplifts the narrative with inspired joy. For those who know and love classical music, there’s a thrill of satisfying recognition.

In this small paragraph toward the book’s end, Sparrow is now a husband and father working at a factory. He long ago had to abandon his symphony, due to repressive communist rule. Here he listens to the Goldberg Variations.

It was dawn by the time Sparrow cycled home from the factory. The 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations rippled through his headphones, and the music felt both long and momentary. For this new recording, Glenn Gould had instilled a continuous tempo, a pulse, so that all thirty variations more clearly belonged to a unified piece. A few weeks after the 1981 recording was released, Glenn Gould had died suddenly at the age of fifty. Sparrow had not learned of Gould’s death until years later, and convinced himself the radio announcer was mistaken. So much so that a few months ago, when a letter from Kai mentioned the death of Glenn Gould, Sparrow had been upset by it all over again. What kind of a man had the celebrated pianist been? he wondered. If Gould had been prevented from playing the piano for twenty years, what other form might his music have taken?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing begins in December 1990, when Sparrow’s teen-aged daughter Ai-Ming arrives in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the home of Jiang Kai’s daughter and widow. She becomes close to them, and through Ai-Ming’s storytelling about the past, the lives of the musicians and their extended families come to life. Do Not Say We Have Nothing was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It’s a large, engrossing novel.

When I talk to you

November 22, 2016

The first page of Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoir may put you off for its darkness. She confesses she has changed, that she is no longer the cheerful person she has been throughout her adult life (she is now in her late 80s). There’s no bitterness, she says, rather a recognition she knows what’s happening. “I don’t belong here anymore,” she writes. “Perhaps it’s an acceptance of death, or a lack of will. I’m slowing down.”

The book is only 100 pages, and she’s not writing it to you, the reader. She’s writing to her father, and that keeps the emotional burden from pulling you in too close. It’s like secretly overhearing Marceline talk to him in the next room, safely hearing difficult material without demands. So I wouldn’t put the book down just yet.

but-you-did-not-come-backMarceline is a Holocaust survivor. When she was 15 years old, she and her father were arrested by the Vichy government’s militia at their château in southern France and deported to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. While the book is concerned with telling a Holocaust story, it is also firmly in the realm of doing what books do so well: putting us in someone else’s life to walk the proverbial mile in their shoes.

Marceline’s one-way conversation with her father, who never returned from Auschwitz, accomplishes this with meaningful clarity. She tells her father about her time in Birkenau, with particular emphasis on the small note he managed to get to her via a messenger. She remembers only the salutation and closing, not the essence of the message, and that torments her. She recalls the time they saw each other, when she marched by his camp. And she explains how she left Birkenau, spent a short time at Bergen-Belsen and then worked in a factory at Raguhn near Leipzig, Germany. When the war ended, she describes walking toward the Americans in Prague, and away from the Russians. “Where were you? All I could think about was you. But I didn’t try to find you among the others. That’s not how we’d be together.”

The effort here is not a capturing of facts, rather an intimate sharing. She knows her father will understand her life, when so many others have not understood it. That’s particularly true about coming home to a mother who wanted life to continue normally for Marceline, with a wedding and children. “If you had been there, you wouldn’t have been able to bear her questions, you would have told Mama to be quiet. You also would have told her to let me sleep on the floor. She didn’t want to understand that I couldn’t stand the comfort of a bed anymore.”

The adult years take Marceline into a career as a documentary film-maker, giving her purpose, and she finds a deep connection with her second husband, giving her the love she needs. In the last pages of the book, there is concern that “everything is getting tense again,” referring to “threats that sounded like echoes from the past” and “policemen outside of synagogues but I do not want to be someone who needs protection.”

This is profoundly moving literature, with the last pages expressing a trust Marceline brings to her telling of the story. This trust allows her to be vulnerable — and us to be immersed in an important life story. “When I talk to you, I don’t feel consoled. But I release what is clasped tightly in my heart.”

constellation-cover-260x390Constellation is Adrien Bosc’s first novel. It’s based on the true story of the October 28, 1949, crash of the Air France F-BAZN Lockheed Constellation passenger airplane. More than a simple re-telling of the event, Bosc connects the dots of chance decisions and unusual incidents that occurred before and after the accident. While he chillingly recreates the tragedy, he builds a theme of coincidence.

One of the passengers on the Constellation was Marcel Cerdan, the French middle-weight world boxing champion. He was taking the Paris-to-New-York flight to recapture his title at Madison Square Garden in a rematch with Jake LaMotta, a.k.a. the Bronx Bull. Cerdan originally was scheduled on a later flight, but Cerdan’s lover, the famous French singer Edith Piaf, begged him to move up his date of departure, so they could spend more time together in New York. Giving priority seating to the celebrity’s last-minute reservation, which included his manager Jo Longman and friend Paul Genser, Air France bumped a newlywed couple returning from their honeymoon and a woman. Lucky for them. The plane crashed into a mountain while attempting to land at the Santa Maria airport in the Azores, an archipelago of islands west of Portugal.  None of the 37 passengers or 11 crew members survived.

Bosc delves into the lives of other passengers and their reasons for flying, including Ginette Neveu, a famous French violin virtuoso, scheduled to go on tour in America. A violin apprentice, who helped maintain her Stradivarius violin, was to accompany her, but Neveu asked him to delay his departure. He traded in his plane ticket for a trans-Atlantic crossing on an ocean liner. (The Stradivarius was never recovered from the wreckage.) Air travel in the 1940’s was a luxury, but a young spool operator in a textile mill was on the flight. Her wealthy godmother in Detroit had made her the sole heir to her estate and purchased the girl’s ticket on the doomed flight, which she otherwise would not have been able to afford. On October 26, a successful artist on a Paris-to-New-York flight gave his seat to an actress, who had too much luggage. He got transferred to the October 27 Air France F-BAZN flight. Bosc also writes about Kay Kamen, the merchandising genius behind Disney products, including the Mickey Mouse watch. He was on the flight not out of chance, but the dots rather suggest an unusual fate. Disney wanted to disengage from Kamen’s company and bring the merchandising business in-house.

The story is powerful, building on curiosity and dread all the way to the investigation into why the plane went off course. As each page is turned, there’s a stunning coming-together of Bosc’s information, with theory and conjecture, that’s carefully drawing a constellation of people and how they came to board — or be affected by — the flight. The story does have its flaws, but they don’t interfere with the enticement of this brief story. One is the author’s out-of-the-blue, awkward insertion of his voice midway through the book, and another is occasional references to places and people that aren’t clarified. “A vast confluence of causes determines the most unlikely result. Forty-eight people, forty-eight agents of uncertainty enfolded within a series of innumerable reasons, fate is always a question of perspective,” Bosc writes.

Marcel Cerdan visited a fortune-teller in Paris in early October. She warned him not to fly, but Cerdan didn’t take her seriously. She felt so strongly about her premonition that a week later she sent Cerdan a letter telling him to avoid air travel, especially on Fridays. He continued to ignore her, even though he had superstitious tendencies, such as holding fast to pregame rituals to ensure a winning game. The Air France F-BAZN Constellation crashed on a Friday.

when-in-french-by-laruen-collinsThroughout my adult years, I’ve sporadically tried to become fluent in French, drawn by an unrelenting desire to converse casually and flawlessly in this language I studied in high school. This has led me several times down the subscription path to French language audio magazines, such as  Champs-Elysées and Bien-Dire, as well as to the print magazine Paris Match. Each time I subscribe, I enthusiastically embrace the prospect of French reading and learning, only to abandon the effort shortly after.

One year, I took private French lessons on Saturdays. I hauled myself out of bed for the early morning sessions on the other side of town, feeling more lost than proficient during the brain-twisting 90 minutes of only-speak-in-French conversations and tutorials. The accountability of meeting with a teacher kept me going, and I got to be pretty good. I was able to hold my own in a French conversation with a French-speaking customer in a coffee shop, and I could understand random French blurt-outs in movies. Even so, I let the tutoring go, tired of getting up so early and wanting my Saturday mornings at home.

Lauren Collins’ decision to learn French wasn’t a casual choice, like mine. While living in London as a staff writer for The New Yorker, she fell in love with a Frenchman from Bordeaux. They moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and married. Collins, from North Carolina, opens her new memoir about the challenges of learning French with an uneasy meeting at the Geneva apartment with a chimney sweep arriving for the annual, mandatory cleaning. She fumbles her way through the service call and later tells us she felt untethered and displaced living in a non-English speaking country. “’Language, as much as land, is a place,’ she writes. ‘To be cut off from it is to be, in a sense, homeless.’”

Much of her fumbling also occurs in her communications with husband Olivier, who is fluent in English. It’s not so much about speaking French with him as it is about the two of them culturally understanding each other — Olivier’s French literalism butts up against her American enthusiasm. Some of the liveliest moments in the book occur when the two get testy with each other over nuance in meaning, such as when Collins said she would clean the kitchen, and Olivier asked why she said “clean” when she meant “tidy up”.

There’s more to this delightful memoir than personal experience. Collins expertly detours into topics about the nature of language – fascinating topics – such as the controversies of bilingualism in the United States and France; the assimilation of English words into the French language (which the French government tries to stop); untranslatable words and translations gone wrong; and the importance of not just learning the words of a language but understanding its culture, as she experienced with Olivier.

As one would expect from a writer at The New Yorker, Collins’ prose is concise and rich with investigative details. And yet it’s not clear if she ever mastered speaking French. This, of course, I wanted to know about in depth, with all the excruciating moments of confusion. I also wanted to know more about her successes and failures in conversations not just with Olivier but in public. Did she ever become good enough so as not to feel homeless surrounded by French speakers? Does she now think in French? Can she follow conversations and understand French radio and TV?

I recently signed up yet again for another French learning experience, this time with an app that uses Victor Hugo (yes, that Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables) and French-speaking extraterrestrials. They are very funny, smart and definitely not teacherly, which I like. Every day the app sends me a lesson and story, plus personalized corrections — all in French, no English — that take 10 minutes, maybe 15. So far so good. (I think it’s the ET factor that’s making the difference.) Mais, nous verrons si je peux garder avec elle. (We’ll see if I keep with it.)

 

Britain’s Man Booker Prize is given to the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom. According to the Man Booker website, contenders must be novels originally written in English and published in the UK in the year of the prize, regardless of the nationality of their author. The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and published by a registered UK imprint; self-published novels are not eligible.

Below are this year’s six finalists. Two are from the United States. The others are from the UK and Canada. All are available in the US. The winner is to be announced on October 25.

the-sellout-by-paul-beattyThe Sellout by Paul Beatty
The narrator from Dickens, California, (a city that’s been disappeared, which he’s trying to get back on the map) initiates the unthinkable when he reinstates slavery and segregates the local high school. But hold on — it’s a “biting satire,” according to the publisher’s website, about “a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court  … It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality — the black Chinese restaurant.” The New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly listed Beatty’s comic novel among their Best Books of 2015. Also, it won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction.

hot-milk-by-deborah-levyHot Milk by Debra Levy
Levy’s previous novel, Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker 2012 prize, is an unforgettable story I recommend. (A family arrives at their vacation villa and finds an attractive woman swimming in the villa’s pool. And from there, it gets interesting.) Hot Milk, Levy’s new novel, promises to be similarly intriguing. Bloomsbury, the publisher, writes on their website: “Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She is frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints, but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant — their very last chance — in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis.” From The Guardian: “This isn’t a long novel, but it is dense in the way a poem is dense, rich with meaning poured into its simple language.”

his-bloody-project-by-graeme-macrae-burnetHis Bloody Project
by
Graeme Macrae Burnet
This novel had me from the forecasts, portending to be one of those “gripping” novels that hook you ‘til the end. Skyhorse Publishing lays out the book’s premise: “A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? And will he hang for his crime?” The narrative is multi-layered, including a collection of documents (e.g., medical reports, psychological evaluations) and the accused’s memoir. Skyhorse describes it as “both thrilling and luridly entertaining from an exceptional new voice.”

eileen-by-ottessa-moshfeghEileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ever since its publication in the United States last year, Moshfegh’s novel kept popping up and enticing me to read it – from rave reviews to being a contender for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. When it got short listed for the Man Booker I thought, okay, that’s it, I surrender. My hesitancy was only that I wasn’t in the mood for one more “girl crime” or “wicked girl” book. Now, having read this brilliant novel, I not only see why it received high marks but wonder why it didn’t win more awards. It’s a classic novel, whose perverted narrator is of the memorable kind, like Humbert Humbert (Lolita) or Frederick Clegg (The Collector). In 1964, Eileen works in a juvenile boy’s prison and lives with her constantly drunk father in a mess of a suburban home. Then, an enigmatic woman is hired by prison administration. Eileen wants to please her, and she falls into a dark situation that changes the course of her life. What’s brilliant about this book is the patience the author gives to her narrator, slowly letting her interior story unfold to a highly rewarding conclusion.

all-that-man-is-by-david-szalayAll That Man Is by David Szalay
This Man Booker nominee is a collection of nine connected short stories. From the website of the US publisher, Graywolf Press: “Nine men. Each of them at a different stage in life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving — in the suburbs of Prague, in an overdeveloped Alpine village, beside a Belgian motorway, in a dingy Cyprus hotel — to understand what it means to be alive, here and now.” A few critics have mentioned running out to read Szalay’s previous novels and, by that, indicate talent not to be overlooked. The Guardian writes: “But if you are unfamiliar with [Szalay’s] work, let me urge you to read him since, on this evidence, he is one of those rare writers with skill in all the disciplines that first-rate fiction requires.”

do-not-say-we-have-nothing-by-madeleine-thien Do Not Say We Have Nothing
by Madeleine Thien

Of all six, this novel is the one door-stopper at more than 400 pages. But it’s an epic story, and epics tend to warrant the length. From the publisher’s website: “Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations — those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming.” A talented pianist, a brilliant composer and a violin prodigy are among the characters. From the Man Booker website: “It is a story of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians – the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai – struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to.”

Six Four by Hideo YokoyamaSix Four has caught my attention not as much for the story as for the fact that it sold one million copies in six days in Japan, according to its publisher (via The Guardian). Author Hideo Yokoyama is hugely popular in Japan for his crime novels and often likened to Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author who penned The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. From The Independent: “Like Stieg Larsson, with whom he has been (unhelpfully) compared, he is a driven workaholic and, like the late Swedish writer, suffered a heart attack after working continuously without breaks for many hours.”

The plot of this immense book (640 pages) is typical crime-novel fare. In 1989, a seven-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl was kidnapped, ransomed and murdered. The killer was never identified or found, and the Japanese public neither forgot nor forgave the botched investigation. In 2002, Inspector Yoshinobu Mikami must arrange a visit by the police commissioner to the girl’s family on the latest anniversary of the crime. Mikami is the police press director. He takes a look at the case file and discovers an anomaly. From the publisher’s book description: “He could never imagine what he would uncover. He would never have looked if he’d known what he would find.”

From what I’ve read about the book in several publications, much of the story is spent delving into police bureaucracy, hierarchy, procedure and corruption. While such detail can be antithetical to what one would expect in a page-turning crime thriller, it sets this book apart. Reviewers agree time invested in the long story is well worth it, claiming readers will find themselves involved, gripped and rewarded. The Guardian calls Six Four a “binge read.”

The Times Literary Supplement writes,“The denouement is surprising, but there are no neat endings to the various strands of this well-written epic tale, which reads beautifully in Jonathan Lloyd-Davies’s translation. Six Four is far more a monument to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese bureaucratic life than it is a simple detective story.”

The Japan Times writes: “Yokoyama’s strength lies in his portrayal of the police: the stifling hierarchy, the politics and duplicity Mikami has to navigate. In true police-procedural fashion Six Four takes its time to reach its conclusion, all the while fleshing out characters who are headed for a denouement that is as original as it is ingenious.”

The Guardian writes: “The plot would grip in any language but, for readers in the west, there is extra fascination in Six Four being not just a police procedural but a guide book to Japan. Some of the local details – such as the cops’ repeated concerns with ‘losing face’ – might have been rejected by an English writer on Japan as too stereotypical. Other material, though, is educationally exotic.”

All of this fascinates me and, given the time, I’d jump into this book for the adventure of it. The Guardian writes: “It’s very different, in tone, narrative and style, from almost anything else out there.”  I don’t often read that – or say that myself – about a book. Six Four is Yokoyama’s sixth novel and the first to be translated into English. It’s not been published by a U.S. publisher, but it’s released in Britain by Quercus, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies.  You can order it online. Maybe by the time – and if – it arrives in the U.S., I’ll have reading space and be ready for it.

It’s always fun to check out what the literary community believes is “best in show” for novels. Here are three major international awards and their winners, recently announced.

Family Life by Akhil SharmaInternational Dublin Literary Award
Akhil Sharma wrote seven thousand pages over twelve and a half years to produce his 224 page novel Family Life. The story is based on the author’s own experience, according to an article he wrote for The New Yorker. (The article reveals the technical difficulties Mr. Sharma encountered writing the book.) Nominations for this award, formerly known as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, are received from public libraries in cities all over the world. Family Life was selected from 160 contenders nominated by librarians in 118 cities and 43 countries. The prestigious award recognizes both writers and translators. Mr. Sharma is the third American author to win the International Dublin Literary Award in its 21 year history. Here’s the plot summary of his novel, from the publisher’s description: “Growing up in Delhi in 1978, eight-year-old Ajay Mishra and his older brother Birju play cricket on the streets, eagerly waiting for the day they can join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more—until tragedy strikes. Young Ajay prays to a God he envisions as Superman, searching for direction amid the ruins of his family’s new life. Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.”

The Vegetarian by Han KangMan Booker International Award
The 2016 Man Booker International Prize has a new focus this year – to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction in translation. The prize money, divided equally between the author and the translator, is now awarded annually for a single work of fiction. Prior to 2016, the Man Booker International Award highlighted one living writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage and was announced every two years. The 2016 award went to South Korean author Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian. The novel’s spare prose tells an unsettling story of a woman who, after a disturbing dream, stops eating meat. Her husband and family react with shock, anger and disapproval, as if Yeong-hye has committed an unforgivable crime. What unfolds is a difficult family story about Yeong-hye’s emotional demise and her family’s controlling abuse and angry incomprehension. From the Man Booker International Award website: “As her rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing, and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.”

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerneyBaileys Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize)
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s annual international book award for fiction written by a woman. According to the award website, founded in 1996, the Prize was set up to celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women throughout the world. This year’s winner — The Glorious Heresies written by Irish writer Lisa McInerney — is about life on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Set in the dark, underbelly of the city of Cork, the story brings together several misfits after a murder, including a 15-year-old drug dealer, his alcoholic father, a prostitute and a gangland boss. From the publisher’s press release: “In this gritty, darkly comic novel, McInerney crafts a twisted web of shifting loyalties and betrayals while interrogating notions of salvation, shame, and the legacy of Ireland’s past attitudes towards sex and family. She quietly explores money, violence, and the unbreakable bonds we form with each other through the story of one accidental murder and its rippling effects on five people who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society.” From a review in Britain’s Telegraph: “The Glorious Heresies is a spectacular debut … Tough and tender, gothic and lyrical, it is a head-spinning, stomach-churning state-of-the-nation novel about a nation falling apart.” The Guardian’s more tempered review says “the energy level flags in the final third of the book, as the characters keep repeating the same patterns of behaviour to less compelling effect.” The book is scheduled for release in the United States in August.

 

 

 

 

 

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