Monday, September 30, 2013

Harvard Square by André Aciman

Harvard Square
The first time I read anything by André Aciman was an essay called "On Loss and Regret," published in the Opinion section of The New York Times. I remember after a paragraph or two looking with startled curiosity at the name under the title again. Who is this man who writes with such clarity of matters of the mind and heart, and about how we deceive ourselves? Sometimes we ourselves do not even know what we think, but this man appears to see. Since that time--February 2013—I ordered several of his books, though I begin reading his work with his latest. It is fall and I live near Boston, and late summer-early fall days will always recall Harvard Square.

An early press release or an early review gave me the mistaken notion that this novel detailed a homosexual love affair. It is nothing of the sort. It is a love story between two men, but it is both less and greater than physical love. The two men see into one another's souls, like brothers. This story details a fleeting moment (the action takes place over a matter of months) in the lives of two very different, transplanted Middle Eastern men who are finding their separate ways in the rarified air of Cambridge, Boston. There is gladness and pain in the recognition of their differentness, for one salts the other and makes life vital and more interesting.
”I was shifty. He was up-front. I never raised my voice; he was the loudest man on Harvard Square. I was cramped, cautious, diffident; he was reckless and brutal, a tinder box. He spoke his mind. Mine was a vault. He was in-your-face; I waited till your back was turned. He stood for nothing, took no prisoners, lambasted everyone. I tolerated everyone without loving a single one. He wore love on his sleeve; mine was buried layers deep, and even then…He was new to the States but had managed to speak with almost everyone in Cambridge; I’d been a graduate student for four years at Harvard but went entire days that summer without a soul to turn to. When he was upset or bored, he bristled, fidgeted, then he exploded; I was the picture of composure. He was absolute in all things; compromise was my name…He was a cabdriver; I was Ivy League. He was an Arab, I was a Jew…”

I admit to a long-standing curiosity about the mind of the Middle Eastern male, and this novel goes some way to reveal and explain that mind and character, insomuch as one or two men can be examples of their culture. This is fiction, but the motivations and rationales are as believable as nonfiction, which is all any reader can ask of a novelist. Almost every line carries an insight which propels us forward. Besides showing us the lonely, uncertain lives of recent immigrants, the smell and feel of a scholar’s life in Cambridge has a resonance that any student will recognize.

One morning I awoke to begin reading again, about two-thirds of the way through the novel. The spell I operated under while reading the previous night had been broken and my eyes and mind were back in assessment mode. I realized with a laugh that I was once again ‘listening’ to a capable man with scads of talent telling me who he slept with…what was it about me that invited these revelations? But my biting sarcasm soon passed and I was once again under Aciman’s spell.
At Café Algiers he was almost always the first to arrive in the morning. Like Che Guevara, he’d appear wearing his beret, his pointed beard with the drooping mustache, and the cocksure swagger of someone who has just planted dynamite all over Cambridge and could wait to trigger the fuse, but not before coffee and a croissant. He didn’t like to speak in the morning. Café Algiers was his first stop, a transitional place where he’d step into the world as he’d known it all of his life and from which, after coffee, he’d merge and learn all over again how to take in this strange New World he’d managed to get himself shipped to. Sometimes, before even removing his jacket, he’d head behind the tiny counter, pick up a saucer, and help himself to one of the fresh croissants that had just been delivered that morning. He’d look up at Zeinab, brandish the croissant on a saucer, and give her a nod, signifying, I’m paying for it so don’t even think of not putting it on my check. She would nod back, meaning, I saw, I understood, I would have loved to, but the boss is here anyway, so no favors today. A few sharp shakes of his head meant, I never asked for favors, not now, not ever, so don’t pretend otherwise, I know your boss is here. She would shrug, I couldn’t care less what you think. One more questioning nod from Kalaj: When is coffee ready? Another shrug meant: I’ve only got two hands, you know. A return glance from him was clearly meant to mollify her: I know you work hard; I work hard too. Shrug. Bad morning? Very bad morning. Between them, and in good Middle Eastern fashion, no day was good.”

Before you begin reading, you might consider razoring out the Prologue and the Epilogue, which one might argue actually detract from the narrative since they are clumsy and feel tacked on. In Chapter 1, we immediately sense the mind and hands of the master.
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Clancy Martin reviews the book in the NYT, May 2013.

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Good Lord Bird
"[John Brown] traveled variously as "Nelson Hawkins," "Shubel Morgan," or "Mr. Smith," depending on what he could remember, for he often generally forgot his fake names and often asked me to remind him which one he was using. He made various attempts to comb out his beard without success, but with me traveling incog-Negro, posing as a consort, he weren't tricking nobody. I looked raggedy as an old knot rope from weeks on the prairie, and the Captain was famous as bad whiskey. The Pro Slavery passengers cleared out the car when they saw him, and anytime he professed a need for food or drink on the train, why, the other Yankee passengers ponied up whatever food they had for his pleasure. He took these gifts without a blink...That was the ironical thing about the Old Man. He stole more wagons, horses, mules, shovels, knives, guns, and plows than any man I ever knowed, but he never took anything for hisself other than what he used personally. Whatever he stole was for the cause of fighting slavery."
Historical novels come in many forms and McBride has gifted us a winner, engaging our every sense and every emotion as we imagine John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry that hastened the start of the Civil War. He places the story in the mouth of an unreliable narrator, Onion, a young boy dressed as a girl, who shares his experience and opinions on how that raid came about and why it failed as an insurgency. Living for years with John Brown’s travelling band gave Onion an up close and personal look at the man and his mission.

Funny, propulsive, painful, the words of his main character speak to white and black among us in the same voice, making us laugh before we weep with his insights into the natures of the two races and of the wild Connecticut white man John Brown who tried with every fiber of his being to free black slaves. Much of the story is told like an old-fashioned gin-fueled bull session featuring tall tales, joy juice, and laughter that eventually devolves into fighting and tears.

The Good Lord Bird, the feared-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker with a thirty-inch wingspan, features in the story as well. Spotting the large bird in the forest is thought to be an exceedingly good omen, though one of John Brown’ many sons unwittingly kills one of the birds—not so good. The feathers of the bird make the rounds of important people in John Brown’s life in the period before the disaster at Harper’s Ferry—being handed off one to another like a talisman to keep them safe. In the end, perhaps, the bird comes to signify the need to consider and keep safe something precious that has no defenses against the evil in the world, something which can be killed at will but that has its place in the circle of life, spreading seeds in fertile soil.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the sometimes raucous nature of the tale, our deep interest in the life and cause of John Brown flickers to life, fanned by gales of laughter. I find myself genuinely interested in how much detail is actually known of the men following Brown in that period, and how closely McBride’s description of the disaster at Harper’s Ferry detailed the truth. And, of course, one cannot help but wonder anew how much violence, or the threat of violence, manages to finally galvanize the populace when good intentions and good words are simply insufficient.

This is a fine addition to the magnificent fiction long list for the National Book Award for 2013. My suggestion is to read them all since those on the list I have read each deserve honors.
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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Red Pole of Macau by Ian Hamilton

The Red Pole of Macau (Ava Lee, #4)Is the mainstream mystery-reading public ready for a lesbian leading lady? I think so, especially when that lead is someone like Ava Lee, so controlled, fastidious, and (can I say?) moral in her professional work, she does not push her sexuality to the forefront. This book opens, however, “to the sensation of lips kissing her forehead. She opened her eyes to semi-darkness and saw her girlfriend, Maria, hovering over her, her face in shadow.” Ava understands that others might have reservations about her lifestyle, but she rock-solid sure their concerns are not her own.

The books in this series never fail to arouse my interest, partly because Ava is so finely drawn and so exceptional that we are curious how she will react in any situation. Things don’t always go well in her chosen profession as forensic accountant chasing deadbeats who don’t honor their financial commitments. While Ava can’t be said to be fearless (we are privy to her anxieties), she is darn near flawless in her execution (and yes, this is a double-entendre). I am still horrified when Ava makes good on her threats of violence, but this is fiction after all, though fiercely intelligent and involving international fiction it is.

A Canadian filmmaker, Karen Walton, has been chosen to turn the books into a film series, and I sincerely hope all the follow-on choices of actors, directors, producers can keep pace with the standards set by this fictional character. She is something else altogether and it could be a wildly successful film franchise.

In sum, buy the books—start with The Water Rat of Wanchai. You may have to buy from House of Anansi Press in Canada (houseofanansi.com) but do yourself a favor. These are completely addictive.


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A Serpent's Tooth by Craig Johnson

A Serpent's Tooth (Walt Longmire, #9) I love this series and it never lets me down. And it didn't this time, either, though I did sense a change in tone. Johnson has a particular sense of humor that seems casual and learned at the same time. It is the result of thoughtful living, with the kind of distance that only long life can bestow. The same jokes or asides on the lips of a younger person would seem impertinent or studied, but somehow Johnson’s observations bring to mind that old cowboy hat Longmire uses--capacious enough to keep off a cold rain, but bruised and ratty with time and has seen better days.

Our old man sheriff has changed a bit--more hardbitten, furious, and full of vengeance. He is less composed and sure of himself and knows perhaps too much of the range of human cruelty. As a result, he is jumpy when it comes to criminal acts, and doesn’t always display that generous and reassuring control that I so appreciate in a law enforcement officer. He needs to be reminded to consider before exacting revenge for a loathsome act of arson.

Longmire references his mountain trip a few stories back in the series—the one where he very nearly met his maker—as a reason for his declining robustness and lack of patience when it comes to chasing suspects. He still takes extraordinary risks in his professional life: witness the fire rescue and facing the man who can throw a stiletto switchblade with uncanny accuracy. It is a little curious then, that Longmire doesn’t display that same risk-taking behavior in his personal life and grab hold of the opportunity that his beautiful and beloved deputy presents. He should jump her bones, marry her immediately, lock in that elusive chance for romantic happiness. At his age he should know how rare and fleeting a thing it is to find love, and how easily it slips away.


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Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Wrong Kind of Blood by Declan Hughes

The Wrong Kind of Blood (Ed Loy, #1) I can’t remember now where I heard about Declan Hughes, but he is the real McCoy…an Irish writer with a depth of knowledge about human decency and failure, crime and motivations. His canvas is local—there is a known-ya-a-long-time intimacy to Irish novels that are quite unlike anything coming out of America, and families pass on curses and debts and deep knowledge of their community. Before turning to crime novels, Hughes was a theatre director and playwright, so he has the goods (knowledge of how to use conversation, structure, tension) to make a novel work.

In this first of a series Hughes wrote before the great economic downturn—the implosion it was in Ireland--with its inflated housing market and ballooning wealth. Since 2007 we have seen many follow-on novels that tell us how the aftermath of the financial crisis played out in Ireland, e.g., Tana French Broken Harbor and Ian Rankin The Impossible Dead, but this comes before the end when the crazy changes in living standards made one feel wildly giddy, as though one were looking in a funhouse mirror. It is fascinating now to look back at that time and wonder how everyone really thought it would end, or if it would end.

The main character is Ed Loy, transplanted for years to sunny California, where he escaped for a while his Irish roots. Come back to bury his mother from whom he was estranged, he found himself seeking the fate of his father, who had disappeared without a trace many years before. Nothing is finished until we decide it is so, and Ed finds old friends and enemies just about where he left them years before.

The story may become a bit unwieldy in its convolutions by the end, but the skill is sufficient to make us curious to look for more of Declan Hughes, Irish son that he is.


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