Thursday, April 30, 2015

Capital Punishment: Charles Boxer #1 by Robert Wilson

This is an interesting novel, if not always for the reasons Wilson hoped. It had me thinking back to my experience reading the new Richard Price novel, The Whites. Price admitted that he wrote that novel under the pen name Harry Brandt because, strapped for cash, he needed to write a pot-boiler that would sell fast and well. He wanted to keep his legacy as a literary writer under the name Price intact, but was finding it costing him audience.

Fortunately or not, Price’s Harry Brandt novel is a deeply plotted, psychologically dense, character-driven novel not unlike earlier Price novels. He missed his mark. The Whites is emphatically not a pot-boiler. Wilson may be feeling some of the same pressures. He seems to be trying something completely different in this first novel of a new series. He calls this work a “thriller” as opposed to characterizations of his earlier work as “crime” or “mystery.” I note that thrillers have evolved with the times: plots must be as sophisticated as the world is now, and readers must be willing to put up with what was previously thought to be unreasonable complexity. Life is complicated.

Charlie Boxer is a private security consultant based in London. He is hired to deal with the kidnapping of the adult daughter of an Indian billionaire business magnate in London just before the Olympic Games. Once word gets out, every far-flung contact of the billionaire is suspected and suspicious: they find themselves looking for their own advantage while looking at allies and enemies within and without their own organizations for perpetrators. The only thing we know for sure is that Charlie Boxer seems out of his depth with both the billionaire and the billionaire’s ex-wife.

This thriller actually has very little action and a whole lot of revenge plotting going on. The complexity becomes amusing. Wilson knew very well what he was doing by layering one set of potential kidnappers on the others, along with their attendant informants, security personnel, and hangers-on. The violence is fierce and gratuitous. As the body count mounts, readers might find themselves placing bets on which set of thugs will kill the others and would the overseas set arrive in time to participate in the melee? The whole circus became a murderous joke, all centered about a smart, beautiful 25-year old woman who made mincemeat of the men she encountered. It’s a riot, in all senses of the word.

That having been said, there were times when I wondered if I were the only one in on the joke. The first false note—Boxer falling into bed with his client, the wife of the kidnapped girl--had me curious what Wilson was thinking. As the number of investigators and their targets multiplied, I began to think of the whole construction as tongue-in-cheek. Wilson didn’t try to obscure the seams. It was a nightmare of connections and hitmen. I began to enjoy the ride to see how it would all unravel.

One character I wanted to survive the damage was Dan, alias for a nurse with an addiction that sent him to jail for a couple years, wrecking his legitimate career but placing him on the payroll of a thug lord. His restraint, sincerity, gullibility, skills, and skepticism made a complex character. A very good series could be made out of his adventures in the underworld. I note we did not get a sufficient description of his death.

In what becomes a large piece of the action, an Afghan terror group sidesteps the Indian Mafia (both Hindi and Muslim factions), the Pakistani Military Intelligence, and London’s drug lords and lowlifes to mix it up with MI5, MI6, the anti-terror units of the military, and the police. When Wilson tells us in his Acknowledgements that writing is the most "exquisite torture" but that sometimes one hits a gusher, our smile of recognition hides a wince. Yes, we agree, but perhaps we don’t need the whole nightmare.

Another thread, if one were needed, is the backstory of Charlie Boxer. He still works with his ex-wife and his daughter is an opinionated teenaged terror at seventeen. Apparently it is this thread that continues in the second novel in this series, You Will Never Find Me, due out next month.

Robert Wilson is an author I have followed from Africa to Seville to London. I have enormous respect for his talents. Wilson places the following in the mouth of one of his characters in this novel:
"The sad thing about goodness is that is it’s bland. Evil has the power to provoke extraordinary emotions. And we’re drawn to the excitement of the extreme, rather than the dullness of the everyday."
Wilson writes thrillers now. His earlier mysteries were more literary, but time marches on. He must feel the pull, like Richard Price, of financial considerations, eyeballs on the page, a larger audience. Unless Wilson meant to be humorous, I think he missed the mark on this thriller. It was complex--perhaps too much so. It was difficult to suspend disbelief.

Wilson has the talent and experience now to write whatever he decides he wants to write. If he has fun and satisfaction and lack of angst from writing novels like this, I totally understand. I don’t want to put the kibosh on a successful literary franchise. But Wilson is one who could go deep, if he wanted, on a literary thriller. I’ll probably check in regardless.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

"The archeology of grief is not ordered."
Helen Macdonald’s book-length nonfiction is so many things at once: a eulogy, an elegy, a biography, a memoir, a training manual, a journey. It is a conversation about death, and community. It is so filled with passion and pain that one reads, breath bated, to see which will crush the other. This book is only partly about a hawk, despite the title. It records the author’s journey of a few years, starting with the unexpected death of her father, through the purchase and training of a hawk, to a new place of understanding about what and who humans are and what we need to live well.

The author looks closely at the life and writings of another vulnerable person, T.H. White, to express sorrow and a kind of sympathy with his derangements. She learns the origins of his extraordinary flights of fancy in literature, tracing over the sores of his upbringing until we see clearly the agonies of his confused psychopathy. White was a hawker, but a hawker one might quote to show how not to train a hawk. Macdonald loathed his book The Goshawk as a child. When she gets her own hawk after the death of her father, she reads it again. This time she discovers White’s pain--seeing, feeling, tracing it until it is as clear as her own.

Macdonald shares one of the best descriptions of bereavement that I have ever encountered (italics are hers):
"Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning 'to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.' Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try. 'Imagine,' I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, 'imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them, All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it’s like.' I finished my little speech in triumph, convinced that I’d hit upon the perfect way to explain how it felt. I was puzzled by the pitying, horrified faces, because it didn’t strike me at all that an example that put my friends’ families in rooms and had them beaten might carry the tang of total lunacy…

...I’d dreamed of hawks again. I started dreaming of hawks all the time. Here’s another word: raptor, meaning 'bird of prey'. From the Latin raptor, meaning 'robber,' from rapere, meaning 'seize.' Rob. Seize."
Hawks apparently have a shamanic tradition of being able to cross borders that humans cannot and "were seen as messengers between this world and the next."

The author trains a bird of prey, a hawk called Mabel. Mabel is a predator; she is all about death, violent death. The wildness of the bird seeps into the author’s consciousness, and her perceptions become acute. Macdonald is recovering from a loss, and her bond with the reptilian raptor Mabel underscores her warm-blooded need for love and her bond with the human community. This book is the author working through grief and terror and want and coming out naked and vulnerable on the other side.

The language Macdonald employs in this memoir is as extraordinary and ingenious as her laying out such diverse topics as death, hawking, T.H. White, and history as interlocking pieces. She holds us rapt as she defines her grief. The words she chooses make us hypersensitive to differences in shade, angle, meaning: "Goshawks in the air are a complicated grey colour. Not slate grey, nor pigeon grey. But a kind of raincloud grey…" Or this: "I was…grey, loose-spun wool on an aching set of bones." Or this: "I felt like I was holding the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle." Her meanings are exquisitely clear.

Macdonald was born a hawker. We are all born with something innate but dormant until awakened by opportunity. Fortunately Macdonald was able to find and exercise her passion because she liked to read. It reminds me of teachers we may have had that spark an interest in something that feels as natural to us as breathing, and as necessary. Macdonald discusses six books that formed her consciousness about nature, makes us realize once again that a seed spilled on tilled ground can yield the most amazing things. It breaks my heart a little to think that every child probably has some thing in them that would burst into flame with the right tinder. Not all of us find it, early or ever.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The actor Mark Rylance brought Thomas Cromwell to life for me but it was Hilary Mantel that gave Rylance Cromwell’s head: his context, his history, and his words. Without Mantel’s fantastic and detailed imaginings of the Tudor reign of King Henry VIII, the BBC film could not have been the success it is. The book focuses on Thomas Cromwell, lawyer, statesman, Henry’s right-hand man. Little is known about Cromwell’s early life. He was born to a blacksmith around 1485-6 but it is only when he begins to work with Cardinal Wolsey around 1516 that details of him begin to appear outside of town records.

Mantel told Mona Simpson at the Paris Review that she wanted to be a historian, but when she'd read all the histories and novels about a place and time, she wasn't satisfied. So she began to invent and embellish. I had tried both reading and listening to Mantel’s novel of Cromwell years ago when the awards started flooding in; despite my admiration for Mantel’s work, I simply could not keep my mind on this man and his rise to power. I didn’t like her Cromwell, I lacked knowledge about the Tudors and their dynasty, and I just didn’t see why it mattered. Rylance’s performance in the BBC drama changed all that. The filmmakers followed the books closely, catapulting over huge swathes of text but somehow including all relevant detail and context provided by Mantel. In the BBC drama Cromwell is scrappy but dignified, mentally adroit, and enormously capable in the art of living. Cromwell lives.

I’d read somewhere that Mantel wrote her novel as a kind of drama. In a recent interview she reminds us,
“We believe our happiness depends on the choices we make, but sometimes fate takes over. If you strip away hindsight, and try to imagine the Tudors living their lives as we live, without knowledge of how their stories will end, then in a heartbeat they leap out of the history books: you find them next to you, in the street….they take us to the centre of ourselves, our own needs and secret wishes, our own pleasures and torments.”

She really did make Cromwell live again, and reimagined an Anne Boleyn that vastly changes my earlier view of her as victim. It is a vivid rewriting of what we call history. The real Wulfhall, family seat of the Seymour family and of Jane, Henry VIII’s third wife, is no more, torn down in 1665.

Wolf Hall Manor
Wulf Hall

Nearby Wolf Hall Manor was built on the original family estate and stands now (pictured above), dilapidated but still somehow grand, carrying the name if not the history of that fated moment when King Henry decides to rid himself of Queen Anne Boleyn. Anne becomes the instrument by which Cromwell loses his position and his life. The full article showing more pictures of Wolf Hall Manor is here.

I love that Mantel showed the arc of Cromwell’s rise and fall in her title, Wolf Hall. The name of the manor house holds such portent, knowing what we know now. Her follow-on Bringing up the Bodies elaborates the downfall and death of Anne Boleyn, and the third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light will highlight the fall of Cromwell himself. Mantel talks candidly about her work and her direction in this interview with the Australian radio host Gillian O’Shaughnessey. It is astonishing and thrilling to me that Mantel only just discovered that her talent might be best suited to plays. Of course! It is a revelation that gives her a new lease on life and us the hope of great and meaningful work yet to come.

And here is a fascinating radio interview with the great Mark Rylance.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

The King of Shanghai (Ava Lee #7) by Ian Hamilton

Hamilton continues to thrill us with his unique angle on business dealings in Asia, this time in China. While there is always something to learn in Hamilton’s take on international business, this time we are treated to very well-financed business women negotiating new ventures in and around Shanghai. Ava Lee finds herself involved with Uncle’s old contacts in the Triads and takes some time away from her own concerns to straighten out the tangle of Triad relations in the region leading up to the vote for a new Chairman of Triads across Asia.

Particularly realistic is the description of the Shanghai Triad’s business plan: making, distributing, and selling around China knock-offs of Western products. The PRC government like the Taiwanese government before them currently turn a blind eye to copyright infringements, looking after their own self-interest in keeping employment and disposable incomes high. Ava undergoes a complicated calculus deciding whether or not to cooperate with Xu, leader of Shanghai’s Triad, given the illegal nature of his business. After an early morning visitation from the ghost of Uncle, she decides to ride that beast. Very quickly she becomes embroiled in their internecine warfare.

What I loved about this particular addition to the series is how Hamilton manages to once again to keep the series fresh by remaking the wheel on which Ava Lee, financier and businesswoman, is forged. Her close colleague, Uncle, is dead and when Ava has finished grieving (one month in Toronto essentially alone and unbothered by anyone else’s demands), she gets on a flight to Shanghai eager to turn the page from the financial fraud investigations she’d done previously. She’s now keen to invest in businesses of her own choice and although she flies to Shanghai with clear boundaries and standards defined, she quickly jettisons those safeguards in favor of more risk once on the ground.

Hamilton always surprises me with the direction of his narrative and the development of character. He gives some thought to how this careful, clever woman might experience the ordinary humiliations of daily life in Hong Kong and places her, dripping with sweat after a run in Victoria Park, crushed among fellow passengers in a crowded rush-hour bus for three agonizing stops, during which time she suffers the imprecations and haughty looks of her fellow passengers. This completely believable and ordinary scenario brings the controlled Ava back to earth and sisterhood.

An interesting feather of a sideline with which Hamilton teases us is the introduction of Richard Bowlby of the law firm Burgess and Bowlby in Hong Kong. Bowlby, a gweilo knowledgeable about Asia, sounds self-deprecating and funny on the telephone when speaking with Ava, making her laugh! Hamilton has her canceling several appointments with him, seeming to provoke Bowlby's ire. This standard thread in romance novels feels like a come-on by Hamilton and he manages it skillfully. Perhaps we’ll see another side to Ava in the future.

As the day-to-day work involved in managing a large investment fund begins to dawn on Ava, she clearly is dreaming of ways “to get her life back.” Near the end of this novel we see her doodling her way to a new reporting structure, hoping to find ways to jettison some of the hands-on responsibility of management. Ah, yes, how to keep the income and lose the responsibility is something top managers have been struggling with since time immemorial. I look forward to seeing how she manages it.

Hamilton clearly seems to enjoy writing this series and I admit to continued admiration for what he has been able to do. I love reading these novels because of the realistic descriptions of business scenarios, locations, and for the element of surprise in character development. Hamilton doesn’t detail Ava’s backstory in this seventh in the series, but moves directly into her new life as a venture capitalist. While there is less discussion of what Ava eats for dinner, something I admit to a healthy interest in, we learn that she quite likes white burgundy and pinot grigio to unwind. Unwind? Perhaps even Ava finds her constant effort to stay poised a strain.

Now that I know this book series is being planned as a TV miniseries, I can’t help but imagine ways this dialogue-heavy addition to the series could play out on film. Can it be shot on location in Asia or will green screens have to do? It makes for fascinating mental exercise. I can’t wait to see what’s next. Now that Hamilton has created insatiable demand, he has to manage supply, something he and the Triads have in common. So far he's managed wonderfully.

The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee #1)

The Disciple of Las Vegas (Ava Lee #2)

The Wild Beasts of Wuhan (Ava Lee #3)

The Red Pole of Macau (Ava Lee #4)

The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (Ava Lee #5)

The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee #6)

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard translated by David McLintock

In one of his many interviews Karl Ove Knausgaard praised the work of Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian writer (1931-1989) of whom I had never heard. His work was placed in the canon of great 20th Century literature. He wrote in German. Scrolling through the list of titles translated into English I chose Woodcutters to get an idea of his work. First published in 1984, it was translated and published in English by Knopf in 1987. It references the atmosphere of the 1950s or perhaps the early 1960s.

A middle-aged man taking his daily constitutional along a popular avenue in Vienna sees old acquaintances who, in passing, invite him to a dinner soirée that evening. The man accepts before he remembers that he doesn’t even like these people. As the couple is walking on they mention the death that morning of a dear friend of the man. The soirée would honor her memory.

What follows is a harrowing descent into the twisted confines of one man’s mind as he “sits in the wing chair” in the well-appointed flat of the couple he does not like and passes judgment on all who circulate around him. His thinking is circular, observant, riven occasionally by memories. His thoughts are “morose, vulgar, repellant and self-indulgent,” attributes he assigns to the other guests. He does not participate, but sits in the corner “in the wing chair,” radiating disdain and waiting with the others for an actor the couple has invited to appear.

When the actor (how the man hates actors!) finally arrives, late, the man, “sitting in the wing chair” proceeds to dine with the group, exhibiting the same lack of control he displayed by accepting the invitation in the first place. Only when the actor openly attacks one of the guests does our man’s attitude begin to modify. Suddenly he finds himself admiring the actor, “enthralled” with his cruelty, who had “suddenly became a thinking human being, even a philosopher of sorts, transforming himself from a gargoyle into a philosophical human being, from repellent stage character into a real person.”

The man finds himself now enjoying the soirée, reveling in the atmosphere, loving the actor and the phrase he speaks as he stands to leave: ”The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter—that has always been my ideal.”

The man, as he takes his leave, murmurs to his hosts “Perhaps it was best that [his good friend Joanna] had killed herself, it was probably the best time for her to go.”

This small novel has the whiff of a classic in that it takes the human condition and holds it boldly up for us to examine.
“To get ourselves out of a tight spot, it seems to me, we are ourselves just as mendacious as those we are always accusing of mendacity, those whom we despise and drag in the dirt for their mendacity; we are not one jot better than the people we constantly find objectionable and insufferable, those repellant people with whom we want to have as few dealings as possible, though, if we are honest, we do have dealings with them and are no different from them…I told [my hosts] I was glad to have renewed my ties…and as I said this I thought what a vile hypocrite I was, recoiling at nothing, not even the basest lie.”
Ah, self-loathing—such a good topic for a novel. This is a difficult read in many ways, but it does highlight some important truths. And yes, I see the connection with Knausgaard.

For a brief look at each of Bernhard's novels, check out this book blog review by Blake Butler at Vice.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Whites by Harry Brandt

Richard Price is something of a wonder. Word on the avenue is that he wrote this under the pseudonym Harry Brandt hoping a popular pot-boiler would bring in some fast cash while he could keep his street cred as a literatteur. It is kind of laughable when you see what he did with the form. His characters have motivations so deep we can cut loose our therapists, the plotting is so intense and detailed I needed a name map, and his language is so fly I had to learn on the job. Nah, this is like no pot-boiler that I can think of. Brandt overshot the mark by a mile, coming in way high on this one.

At a time in our nation’s history when we are steeped in talk of race, cops and black men, and justifiable shootings, a book called The Whites grabs our attention. But the treatment of race in this novel is the healthiest, most irrelevant subject in this novel. In this book race is a descriptor, not a definition.

The Whites instead refers to the white whales, suspects who got away: “those who had committed criminal obscenities…and then walked away untouched by justice…” Every cop has his or her own personal “white,” and Price is democratic in this, too. One of the five hard-core detectives who started as cops in one of the worst precincts in the East Bronx and were then promoted and dispersed as detectives across the boroughs is a woman. As a group, they are called the “Wild Geese.”

All of the WG were obsessed with their Whites,
“heading into retirement with pilfered case files to pore over in their office and basements at night, still making the odd unsanctioned follow-up call: to the overlooked counterman in the deli where the killer had had a coffee in the morning of the murder, to the cousin upstate who had never been properly interviewed about the last phone conversation he had with the victim, to the elderly next-door neighbor who left on a Greyhound to live with her grandchildren down in Virginia two days after the bloodbath on the other side of the shared living room wall—and always, always, calling on the spouses, children, and parents of the murdered: on the anniversary of the crime on the victims’ birthdays, at Christmas, just to keep in touch, to remind those left behind that they had promised an arrest that bloody night so many years ago and were still on it.”
Only Billy Graves, the youngest of the WG, is still on the job. “His flatline personality and bland solidness” is the rock in his marriage to a damaged ER nurse, and to the group of WG who find they fear his uncompromising relationship to the truth and duty.

There was also another detective, not a WG, who had his own personal White. This novel is about finding Whites and bringing them to justice, legally or not. Price makes us see the struggles, hear the backstory, recall the misery, and gives each man and woman a reason for murder.

This novel recalls “mean streets” narratives of the past, either in film or fiction, either in Europe or the United States. The idea of Whites is not new. But Price makes it as American as Melville, as classic as Moby Dick. The laconic questioning, the deadness behind the eyes, the sense of justice, the quality of the brutality, the mean streets—these are all ours.


I was looking for something to listen to while working and this one was available. I'd already liked the book, so was very pleased to find the audio terrific. Read by Ari Fliakos and produced by Macmillan Audio, this audiobook is a perfect listen. All the confusing bits come clear, and the desperation of the characters comes through loud and clear.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Columbia University's 2015 Pultizer Prize Announcement

Twenty-two winners in twenty-one categories are announced today. My reviews of some of the finalists and winners are attached below the announcement.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
TheAge of Ambition by Evan Osnos

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Links to all the prizes and mentions are here.

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The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan, I only just discovered, has been nominated for a number of prestigious awards, including the Booker Prize (1999), the Man Booker Prize (2006) and was voted one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists for 2003. He is editor-at-large for the London Review of Books. In September of 2014, O’Hagan interviewed Karl Ove Knausgård for the London Review of Books at St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury. At that time, Books 1-3 of Knausgård's six-volume novel/memoir, Min Kamp (My Struggle), had been translated into English.

O’Hagan elicited something more from Knausgård than earlier interviewers had: his silence as an interlocutor was voracious. He raised questions citing Nietzsche, Camus, Saul Bellow, Emile Zola, Ibsen. He elevated the level of discourse, provoking revelatory statements from Knausgård about living an "authentic life," and the "lies" that we must tell in order to live with others. The question "Do individuals own their own life story?" is one question which O’Hagan posed to Knausgård and is also a central question of The Illuminations, O’Hagan’s fifth novel.

Luke Campbell, the grandson of Anne, finds himself rooting about in his grandmother’s history in an attempt to clarify his own life. Recently discharged from the 1st Royal Western Fusiliers serving in Afghanistan, Luke is suffering a crisis of conscience from events that took place before his departure from the war zone. Looking after the affairs of his aging grandmother began a journey of discovery for Luke, revealing long-held secrets and answering the question, "whose story is it?"

The title, The Illuminations, refers most directly to the city of Blackpool and the festival of lights it sponsors each year in September, streamers of bulbs illuminating the seaside promenade until the wee hours. But the title also refers to a young man viewing a firefight in Afghanistan, Anne emerging intermittently from the dark clouds of dementia, and Luke’s mother Alice experiencing flashes of insight: "It’s the hallucinations, as I call them…My mother always behaved as if the truth was the biggest thing. The photographs she took when she was young were all about that." Alice’s mother Anne, a once-famous documentary photographer, had stopped taking photographs long ago and no one knew why.

Luke Campbell had joined the Fusiliers to "look for his father" who had died patrolling Belfast during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Sean Campbell had been in the Western Fusiliers, the same regiment that Luke joined. Luke knew his father had died but he did not know the story of his grandfather who, it was said, had flown reconnaissance planes in WWII. Without consciously setting out to uncover the whole story, Luke offers himself as a means by which Anne could return to Blackpool and her past.

Luke is close with Anne, and though his grandmother "always made too much of the men" in her life, she "spoke [to him] as a person not only ready to invest in you but ready to bear the costs to the end." On the other hand, Luke's mother Alice was always taken up with practicalities and resentments for being "sacrificed" growing up. "I didn’t ever think it would be so hard. So hard to face it," Alice tells her doctor. "I didn’t get to ask about my father or get a grip on the past...I would love to spend half an hour with the woman who made those pictures." Alice faces the truth with no filters, and feels the cut.

O’Hagan is a spokesperson for The Scottish Trust and he takes seriously the responsibility for following in the footsteps of great literary figures: "some of what we understand to be literary values come from Scotland in the first place." O’Hagan points to Rudyard Kipling at least twice in this novel and the poem "If" almost charts Luke’s personal journey to manhood. Kim, Kipling’s book about the great power struggles in an India that included parts of Afghanistan, sits comfortably in parallel with a young soldier’s disillusionment: the military affair in which Luke was involved in Afghanistan illustrated for him the ways that men and nations can be crushed under the weight of their experiences.

This novel is not the seamless piece one associates with "great novels," but it is packed with the insights of a work three times its length. One might even say that the work is at the service of big ideas. O’Hagan, like his central character Luke, is "a bit of a thinker," and strives to touch on important themes that we face today in the world. I admit to wanting to look at whatever O’Hagan has written "and test it all against reality."

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

I don’t exactly recall when I first came upon the name of Roxane Gay, but it may have been when I was looking over the book made from blogposts by the essayist and thinker Rebecca Solnit, called Men Explain Things to Me. A critic of that book mentioned Gay and then I came across her name a couple more times in different contexts in quick succession. Intrigued by the opportunity to hear a literate black woman’s take on popular culture, and having recently been made especially aware of my lack of overlap, knowledge of, and understanding of the lives of black citizens in the United States, I ordered this book. I am keenly aware, too, that one literate black woman, articulate though she might be, is simply that: one literate black woman and not the voice of a generation, a culture, or a sex.

Gay’s writing reflects the contradictions and confusion of a real person. That may be her appeal, and her strength. Gay is almost unfiltered, giving herself permission to be humorless about rape, slavery, use of the ‘N’ word. Her opinions on everything from reality television to unlikeable central characters in novels and movies add to a fruitful debate about what really informs our culture. She thinks, and takes the time to tell us what she thinks. She has permission to change her thinking—would relish it, I trust—if someone had a better, more convincing, more nuanced argument.

Best of all, I liked the short blogposts at the end of this book in the section called “Politics, Gender & Race.” In these, Gay discusses “The Racism We All Carry,” acknowledging we all have beliefs formed on impressions of race. In “A Tale of Two Profiles,” Gay compares the investigative reporting of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, with that of Trayvon Martin, the black teen murdered in Florida. She asks if it is queer that in-depth “looking for the good” reportage had been done for Tsarnaev while “looking for bad” had been done for Martin. In “The Alienable Rights of Women,” Gay explains again to those that “still don’t get it” that the burdens of reproduction fall on the woman in the pair, and therefore she should have some say in how it all comes down. Finally, in “The Politics of Respectability,” Gay insists we stop pointing to the exceptions who have managed to penetrate the color bar but look at the teeming masses who are having trouble making that leap from the lowest level to the highest.

Gay’s pronouncements on matters of culture do not have the stamp or weight of convention. She does not constrain herself to write only about the best literature, the finest examples of music or TV, or what will become our classics in film. She talks about what is spilling out of media machines every day…those things we actually watch, or wade through helplessly to find “the good stuff.” For this reason I sometimes found the arguments aimed elsewhere, at an audience with whom I share a world but not a culture. I have a limited appetite for arguments about the relative merits of reality television shows, though I can see how this may inform some.

Opinionated bloggers, myself included, are sometimes best in small doses, when they can prick the conscience by criticizing (both good and bad) things they see, thus arming readers with support for their own views or by challenging long-held but not sufficiently-examined positions. I applaud Roxane Gay for thinking and writing and know she is learning as much as we are by taking the time to do it out loud. Brava!

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters by Elizabeth Bishop

A friend of mine recently divulged his personal favorite among Bishop’s poems, "The End of March," which I immediately sought out, the end of March bearing some significance to me, now. I’d always thought of Elizabeth Bishop as a short story writer, and having sought out the Library of America edition of her collected poems, prose, and letters, I discover that I like best of all her essays, which read to me like her poems must read to others. Her essays are the real thing—life--in color, with context, in language as carefully chosen as any of her poems. She manages to pick among the all the true things in an experience for particular words which tell us volumes…she was a careful curator of the authentic, one with a true artist’s eye.

Bishop has a fearful darkness at the core of her writing. I don’t know why—it almost seems as though she must have an illness that tired her and reminded her how close nothingness is. I did not read any biography of her; perhaps I should. Why it is that poets can make blackness blacker than any other artists, I could not say. But even in her short stories, for instance "The Last Animal," there is an air of menace, a whiff of death. In the essay, "Gregorio Valdes, 1879-1939" we know right from the title that the character we read about is dead, or will die, as it happened. We had forgotten that at the promising start, all hot sun and bright flowers, the shade of palms and the act of creation (paintings) make us forget that death is waiting, and not patiently.

The poem "The End of March," it shouldn’t surprise us, is also about death. Walking along the beach with a cold biting wind freezing one side of the face, two walkers come upon a splayed "man-sized" tangle of kite string "but no kite" washed up on the shore. At the same time, one walker glimpses a boarded-up beach house tethered by a wire (electricity?) to something off beyond the dunes. The walker imagines a retirement there,
"....doing nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light."

Robert Pinsky was asked in this week's The New Yorker poetry podcast to choose a poem to read from the New Yorker archives and he chose a Bishop poem first published in that magazine in 1947. Called “At the Fishhouses,” the poem Pinsky calls "plain" has something of the “cold dark deep and absolutely clear” description that she reprises more than once.
"…I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
Slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
Icily free above the stones…

…It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
Dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
Drawn from the cold hard mouth
Of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
Forever, flowing and drawn, and since
Our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown."

As it often happens in the way of things, Colm Tóibín has recently published a book with Princeton University Press, On Elizabeth Bishop, whom he has been reading for forty years. Tóibín shares his thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop and the poet Thom Gunn in this article in The Guardian. Also in The Guardian, Lavinia Greenlaw reviews Tóibín's new book. Each of these yields great insights into Bishop's life and style.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Into the Savage Country by Shannon Burke

This old-fashioned western set in the Bighorn Range of the 1820s takes us back to the days when reading a novel was pure entertainment. With this third novel, Shannon Burke exhibits once again his deep curiosity about the world and how it works, and his magnificent talent in writing fiction that makes us notice. His versatility of subject matter is extreme: his first two novels were set in modern-day big city-scapes rather than 19th Century landscapes, though his great talent for making morally ambiguous characters facing difficult choices was as suitable then as it is now.

Burke’s second novel Black Flies featured a rookie paramedic on an ambulance crew that serviced New York City’s Harlem district, Station 18. Reviewed here by Liesl Schillinger in the New York Times, it is described as a reading experience not unlike war reporting. It is a deeply felt, visual, and psychological portrait of a young man learning in the school of hard streets and hard blows.

Now Burke’s third novel is also a psychological novel, though set in big sky country rather than the fast lanes of New York City. The young man narrating, William Wyeth, came from a good family who thought humility important in forming character, and he left home angry and eager to flog what he suspected were his natural gifts in the wide world west of the Mississippi, in unsettled lands. From the first pages when we sink into the muddy streets of a frontier-town St. Louis, we are more than a century away from fifty states and a United States that resembles our own.

The real riches in this novel come from thrilling acts of stupidity and the resulting heroism among the team of men who banded together as trappers. We come to know the men, their faults and their skills, and miss them as they meet their end with a crazy bravery that many of us will never know. Two of the men among the band are artists of a sort: one pens a record of the years together and the other sketches with charcoal the scenes they encounter. Another man is so contrary and full of vinegar that the men consider killing him to keep themselves from aggravation. In the end every man is needed for what they bring, good and bad, and it is Burke’s skill that brings this realization home to us.

This wonderful novel brings with it the scent of cold, fresh air and the color of rocks in the streambed of a fast-moving creek surrounded by tall evergreens shading snow. The work is hard, and though the financial gains aren’t usually great, the pleasure that the men take in working outdoors in a constantly changing landscape is payment in part. Indians of various tribes feature in the story, and the tale wouldn’t be the same without their shifting loyalties to the white intruders on their land.

A strong female character, Alene Chevalier, is the heartthrob that balances the male egos-gone-wild, and she doesn’t seem out of place in this romantic view of the western edge of civilization. All in all, this novel has just about everything one would want for a hot summer weekend or a snowbound winter day. The writing is assured, the story ample, and the author capable of involving us in adventures of long ago. Bravo, Burke!

A final note: this would also make a great teen title that teachers could add to a syllabus reading list or summer reads. It is beautifully and engagingly written and so instructive in observation about personalities that mesh or grate. And of course, it fills the mind with images of Indians and the differences in their lifestyles and culture.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid

This memoir/novel is one long loud lament, an agonized and agonizing recall of the dissolution of Kincaid’s marriage to Allen Shawn, son of the famed New Yorker editor, William Shawn, who gave Kincaid her first big break to a career as writer. Every woman, every person wishes someone would love them for who they are, beautiful or not, talented or not, admirable in all things or not. For what is love if there is no flaw…”a flaw being necessary in perfection and in love too.”

Kincaid expresses her own love, and sadness, and regret in this memoir: love she thought she showed to her husband, to her children, and to herself; sadness that her children, though they loved her as one loves the hand that feeds them, were still embarrassed by her otherness; and regret that she could not relieve herself of the weighty burden of her upbringing, her first family, her otherness.

Children were born before Kincaid married, the name Persephone standing in for her firstborn, a daughter, after which she experienced severe post-partum depression. Her husband-to-be, called Mr. Sweet in this fictional memoir, carried the “beautiful” Persephone in the pocket of his coat on walks they took together, bonding. Kincaid mentioned her son Heracles, born three years and nine months after Persephone, so often and so warmly in the opening pages of this short memoir that I felt for the ignored and discarded daughter. But I came to see that Kincaid felt her daughter’s ire and contempt (“which is a benign form of hatred”) and it pained her. Having myself been the object of contempt (who hasn’t?), I cannot judge her reaction—writing a book about her pain—in the way some men who have reviewed her have done, calling her work “half séance-half ambush” (Dwight Garner writing for the New York Times). Writing is what Kincaid does, and does very well indeed. She made me feel that pain as though it were mine.

This being said, some things Garner says in the review are true: many sentences either read like a child’s book, a phrase repeated with one element changed or added, or run on to such length and convoluted meaning that one must backtrack and refocus. Not such a bad thing since one wants to be done with this horror of a breakup so we try to skim but the backing up forces one to internalize those sentences until we realize that every marriage has these things: “love is accompanied by hatred and contempt, too.” One has to decide if one is worth the other. It sounds like Kincaid came down on the side of wishing it weren’t so, though the pain—she has to realize it was felt on both sides—mayn’t have been worth it.

Kincaid is a kind of force as a writer who has shown us time and again that she has long-held feelings about relationships that she examines in their essential truths again and again. Her decision to marry Shawn was not a path that many of us need to walk: her non-renewable visa was coming up for review and in her pack of New York sophisticate friends one suggested “one of us will have to marry Jamaica.” Shawn, presumably as her longtime paramour and father to her children, stepped up.

Kincaid was adrift and striving when she arrived in the United States “on a banana boat” from Antigua when she was still a teen in 1966. She was first published, writing for magazines, in 1971, and became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1976. She was untethered and maybe a little wild, anxious for every experience and every expression of love.

Kincaid tells us she loved her husband, and we are inclined to believe her. She is eloquent in the ways he did not love her, and each addition to the list hurts us as though it were being said about us. She was not lovely with her naturally black hair coarse as ropes, and her torso like a very old tree, her skin like a piece of old, worn-out fabric, her thick lips “like night mixed up with day”. Kincaid seems almost to relish the bloodthirsty ways her husband loathed her: the sound of her voice “made him want to kill her, take an ax…and chop off her head and then the rest of her body into little pieces” and the sound of her chewing—the sound of “delicately cooked tender flesh parts of cow trapped inside her jaws”—enraged him.

We never hear the ways Kincaid loved her husband, though claims she did. She cooked and cleaned, the chores of loving (and not so loving) housewives. She expressed admiration and delight for his ability to play other people’s music. Mr. Sweet himself created music which “nobody liked,” “no one wanted to hear.” Kincaid was far more popular and financially productive, it is suggested, than he. “Old and the size of a mole” Mr. Sweet had found a younger someone who liked his music, and who coincidentally had the potential to become “the next extraordinary piano genius of the century.” His chance to jump to the next food wagon, it is implied, had come and he grabbed it, tossing insults like firebombs into the wreck of his marriage.

How much of this comes from the battered psyche of a woman scorned? Perhaps all, but while we know that, we know the ways the psyche cannot bear another blow before it needs to lay it down, get it out, scream the house down. And Ms. Kincaid is perfectly able to defend herself in that way. She admits to faults: obsessing over the insults of her youth, endless knitting and purling clothes no one wanted nor could wear, lavishing attention on her large but messy garden, her hundreds of beautiful bulbs eaten close to bloom by the fatted deer. Killed, murdered, eaten at ripeness.

Kincaid mentions several times John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Books I & II, which she had to copy over twice (!) when she was young and misbehaving in school. Milton was nearing 60 years old when Paradise Lost finally published and according to John Leonard, editor and writer of the Introduction to the Penguin edition, that work “is, among other things, a poem about a civil war.” The Fall of Adam and Eve is preordained—a certainty but not necessitated by divine decree. This point has been argued through the ages since the work was published (how could it be both?), and Leonard writes that Milton himself was arguably confused about this point. The Fall was permitted but not forced upon Adam and Eve.

The parallels with Mr. and Mrs. Sweet choosing to destroy themselves in the garden in New England by the River Paran are clear. Mr. Sweet loved Mrs. Sweet’s innocence in the beginning. He taught her things, though Mrs. Sweet often did things with the knowledge he shared that he did not understand. While Mrs. Sweet does not offer an apple to Mr. Sweet, she offers a crab soufflé, which gives her a kind of knowledge that love was gone already.
what if God hath seen,
And death ensue? Then I shall be no more,
And Adam wedded to another Eve,
Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct. (Paradise Lost, ix, 826-9)

The end is not the end in this book, but the promise of a new beginning. The Sweets are no more but the garden remains, and springs forth again each season with new growth.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

The Circle by Dave Eggers

As a novel this huge piece of work has almost too many faults to name, but Eggers’ imagination and style makes the experience of reading or listening to it a special kind of pleasure. Filled to the brim with fledgling discussions of privacy, freedom, fairness, democracy, and control, the novel has in its DNA all the previous great works who have posed the questions “What is privacy and is it good?” and “What is democracy and is it good?” and “What is personal freedom and is it good?”

This is a long but easy read because it brings us a glimpse of a world many of us have only heard of and yet cannot help but be intensely curious about: the campuses of the technology giants like Google or Facebook. The company in this novel is called The Circle, based loosely on what is known of the more famous real life companies. We have heard enough, perhaps, to know Eggers is not making all of this up: the campus, company structure, and internal reporting requirements are drawn (and undoubtedly exaggerated) from life. But the mania and mindthink of bright young things anxious to gain approval in a large, successful, innovative, and fast-moving company is perfectly believable.

Eggers creates a character, Mae, who unwittingly is drawn into becoming the “voice” of company philosophy. Her not-well-thought-out responses to carefully posed and invasive questions by the company leadership are too-highly praised and said to exemplify what the human populace really wants. Her soundbites are clipped and pasted to the walls of the media space created by the company as though she had expressed the unfettered will of all the people, when in fact, Mae had been groomed, prodded, bullied, corrected, corralled into making the utterances that became an command that can not be challenged.

I enjoyed Eggers’ imagination and willingness to engage the important subjects of technology, privacy, education, and democracy but grew weary before the end. This may be a great book for teens who may have a larger appetite for the glamour of high technology campuses and need a point hammered home by a thousand blows. Part of the story involves Mae developing a crush on someone she does not really know, as well as instructive incidents ill-considered sex with someone she doesn’t even like. These ring true, as does the celebrity side of Mae’s meteoric rise to stardom at The Circle.

Certainly the questions at the heart of Eggers book are not merely for teens. The pace and direction of our lives leaves little doubt that technology has changed concepts of privacy, celebrity, and participatory democracy. These are issues we need to consider now. Opting out of the whole system is not really a possibility. In Eggers book, the person that tried that did not end well and he ended early. Eggers also points out that our politicians are not going to do this for us, being “bought” as it were by corporate interests. This is up to reasonable people taking reasoned positions and fighting like hell.

I listened to the audio of this title, produced by Random House Audio, read by Dion Graham. Graham did a terrific job, especially with the Human Resources folk at The Circle. The absolute conviction in the right of the company to know all came through in their voices and gave this a very spooky feel.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

My Struggle Volume 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The third book in the Knausgaard saga explores Karl Ove’s boyhood. The family moves to the largest island in southern Norway, Tromøy, where Karl Ove's father teaches Norwegian in high school and his mother works with families experiencing trauma. Finally we learn why Karl Ove was so terrified of his father. The older brother Yngve now becomes the shadowy enigma we only glimpse but cannot see. Yngve is the essence of the older brother—a little dismissive of his younger sibling, but generally supportive and friendly enough. I yearn to see more of him, but suspect Karl Ove’s penchant for self-revelation did not extend to his brother.

This is a remarkable piece of work. The more I read the more I want to read. Fiction or nonfiction? Of course it is both. In a series this long and detailed one could only have used elements of both. In order to ring true it must have recognizable motivations and actions, yet the detail feels new rather than remembered. I found myself mesmerized by the thirteen-year-old Karl Ove. The scene in which he takes “the prettiest girl” he’s met to the forest by bicycle to kiss is positively painful—and classic.

The difference between the personalities of Karl Ove’s parents is spelled out in a paragraph about driving styles:
”Speed and anger went hand in hand. Mom drove carefully, was considerate, never minded if the car in front was slow, she was patient and followed. That was how she was at home as well. She never got angry, always had time to help, didn’t mind if things got broken, accidents happened, she liked to chat with us, she was interested in what we said, she often served food that was not absolutely necessary, such as waffles, buns, cocoa, and bread fresh out of the oven, while Dad on the other hand tried to purge our lives of anything that had no direct relevance to the situation in which we found ourselves: we ate food because it was a necessity, and the time we spent eating had no value in itself; when we watched TV we watched TV and were not allowed to talk or do anything else; when we were in the garden we had to stay on the flagstones, they had been laid for precisely that purpose, while the lawn, big and inviting though it was, was not for walking, running, or lying on...Dad always drove too fast.”

This revealing paragraph shows us two critical portraitures and Knausgaard’s run-on style which impels the reader forward. We know immediately the difference in the two personalities, and Karl Ove’s as well. On the day Karl Ove was reprimanded for embarrassing another boy, Edmund, for not being able to read, Karl Ove tells us “I both understood and I didn’t” why his family was mean to him and kind to Edmund, whom they hardly knew. He was learning two sets of behaviors and being confused by which to adopt. By including this incident in his record we know that it became clearer to him at some later point.

There is no mention of Knausgaard’s overall direction with this third of the six books, though in the very last pages Karl Ove comes across a photograph in a history book of a naked woman starving to death. The next page of the history book contains images of a mass grave with many strewn, emaciated corpses. Immediately readers' minds go to the Holocaust with no further prompting. The juxtaposition of the sunny warmth of impending summer and the stark brutality of the images jerks us from our reverie and places Karl Ove's boyhood in a larger context. The years are passing but there are a few holes in the picture of a forty-year old life. We’ve now had the beginning and the end, but early adulthood and a first marriage are still missing.

Is it literature? I think so. We have already “gone somewhere” though each volume leads only to another at this point. A person with contradiction and depth is given life in these pages. The detail is lush and ample and oh-so-readable, the story instructs us, and the context haunts us. I look forward to seeing what Knausgaard wants us to understand with his linked volumes, but he has already given us something very special indeed.

My Struggle Volume 1
My Struggle Volume 2
My Struggle Volume 4

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