Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has outdone herself in this re-staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. For those of you unsure whether or not you will grasp it, forget that notion. The play, which is being performed scene by scene for film, is thoroughly explained by the director to the players who happen to be presently the Fletcher Correctional Institute. Eventually, the screening of the play for an audience of government and prison officials is paralleled with a real-life enactment of the play featuring the inmates, a female dancer, and the play's director. Atwood kindly gives a short and snappy synopsis of Shakespeare’s original story after her own presentation to refresh our memories. If you have the book, you can read that first if you want.

The Director of the Fletcher Correctional Players, once a Duke who directed plays for Canada's prestigious Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, takes the role of Prospero himself. He loses his position at the theatre festival one year and is pushed out to sea in a small boat (rusty old car) where he washes up in a cave-like rental for some years before he decides to stage a comeback using the Fletcher Correctional Players.

The audio for this book is particularly good. Some of the Fletcher Players shorten and update Shakespeare into current rap rhyming lyrics. This seems so entirely appropriate since Shakespeare often did the same, not in such short meter, but to the same end. And as the Director/Duke points out, Shakespeare often appeared to modify and create character’s speeches on the spot in the theatre, depending on the skills of the person in the role.

The Director had a rule for inmates: they couldn’t swear at one another using the more commonplace four-letter words we are familiar with, but they were allowed to use Shakespeare’s own swear words, e.g., born to be hanged, whoreson, pied ninny, hag-seed, abhorred slave, red plague, etc. Caliban calls himself hag-seed, and though his role is central to this retelling, the real thrust of Shakespeare's story belongs to Prospero, who seeks revenge for his dismissal so late in life.

There is real tension in this re-telling, and readers are dying to know how it is going to work out. Prospero’s plan is an elaborate deception featuring magic, and in this case, eavesdropping and kidnapping within a prison environment. We are at the edge of our seats to know what Prospero has in mind and whether his chosen goblins can pull it off without losing the thread (or losing their parole).

The play is a big success, and after the production is all over, the Director/Duke/Prospero gives the players the opportunity to discuss the outcome of the play as they see it. This important part of Atwood’s presentation fills out our modern perception of the centuries-old play, as each of the main characters tries to explain what might have become of them after the action of the play as written has ended.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we get at least one unpleasant but realistic take on the journey back to power for Prospero. The Miranda role, in another’s telling, is a completely unexpected evolution along the lines of the action movie grande dames like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill or Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger.

But the most rewarding of the after-stories is the one presented by Caliban, the Hag-Seed himself, who escapes the play altogether and creates a new one. And this is why this book is called Hag-Seed. In the end, the story is not about that old revenge play The Tempest at all, but about the rolling ball of creation, and how it is impossible to stop its onward journey.

I had access to the paper copy of this book while I listened, which allowed me to get every nuance. If one must choose one, I think I would go with the audio, which is beautifully read by R.H. Thomson, and who has a string of screen and theatre credits to his name. Produced by Penguin Random House Audio, the production is also available as Whisper-sync from Audible. Hogarth Shakespeare, a division of Penguin Random House, produces the paper copy. Choose your weapon and let the show begin.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei translated by Canaan Morse

This wonderful short novel, Ge Fei’s first translated to English, has just been published by NYRB as a Classics Original. The cover copy calls it a “comic novel” and it the sense of the straight man in a comic duo undergoing relationship trouble, family trouble, and job trouble in a fast modernizing Beijing. Our hero—we only ever learn his surname, Cui (pronounced Ts-wei)—plays the straight man role to the end, never quite losing his nerve, though he comes close, while we watch helplessly.

Cui is not completely destitute, except in terms of money, love, and friendship. He has skills. He can put together hi-fi sound systems that audiofiles want to buy. When forced to move from his sister’s unused apartment one winter, Cui develops a sound system that should qualify as “the best in the world,” for any discriminating buyer in China, in hopes that the profit will give him enough to buy a small courtyard for himself to live in.

What elevates this novel is the ordinary man quality, the sense we have of a human fleck bobbing on a wind-tossed sea over which he has no control. The bad things that happen are outside of his control, and though he makes plans and efforts to extricate himself, there is a certain inexorable flow to his outcomes.

This novel is not especially dark, though it has delicious elements of horror and mystery. We become genuinely terrified when a mysterious wealthy stranger offers to buy the "best sound system in the world," but who exudes a hard inflexibility and sense of ferocity when challenged...or when asked to pay. There is some evidence that he has done damage to those that oppose him.

Who wears the invisibility cloak in this novel? Cui tells us that
"In the 1990s, Mou Qishan, the celebrity tycoon, was a household name in Beijing. He liked calligraphy, climbing mountains, and hanging out with female movie stars—all an open secret. Other rumors, however, told of his eccentric and often unpredictable behavior. The wildest story I heard was that he could show up at any event unseen because he wore an invisibility cloak…"
When Mou died, Cui bought a pair of hexagonal Autograph speakers from Mou’s estate. He used them to construct the “best sound system in the world.” It could be the invisibility cloak passed from person to person with ownership of the speakers.

When Cui’s childhood friend Jiang Songping played a joke on Horsewhip Xu, an old man in his neighborhood, Cui had a personal revelation:
"...the best attributes of anyone or anything usually reside on the surface, which is where, in fact, all of us live out our lives. Everyone has an inner life, but it’s best if we leave it alone. For as soon as you poke a hole through that paper window, most of what’s inside simply won’t hold up to scrutiny."
What do we take from this? If you are wearing the invisibility cloak, you not only cannot be seen, there isn’t much worth seeing? It does seems as though once ownership of the Autograph speakers changed hands, the “freed man,” as it were, becomes once again visible, and able to express himself “on the surface,” without us having to look through “the hole in the paper window” to their inner thoughts.

One of the more intriguing things Ge does in this novel is debunk the integrity of Jiang Songping, Cui’s best and only friend, and he does it using a pomegranate. Jiang Songping was a clever boy, but Cui’s mother could see right away he was going to be the kind of person who owned people. Jiang had a way of sounding authoritative, even when he spoke rubbish. All of us come under his spell to some degree when he states categorically that all pomegranates, no matter how big or how long they've grown, contain the exact same number of seeds, 365 to be exact. Our eyes pop a bit with this news, for who has ever actually counted pomegranate seeds, and who could dispute this entrancing fact? Later, we learn with the chagrin we share with Cui’s sister that, in fact, Jiang lied on this occasion, and perhaps on many others.

One of the more poignant moments in the book was when Cui returned to the neighborhood where he grew up and discovered it much changed:
"Human memory really is unreliable. I could clearly remember this alley being long, wide, submerged in green shade or sprinkled with white locust flowers, and nowhere near as cramped and seedy as it looked that day…As I sat on the stoop and surveyed the cluttered street under the setting sun, I felt vaguely alienated from everything."
Not all change is good...but memory is unreliable.

This is a delightful addition to the canon coming out of China today, having none of the syrupy schmaltz that earlier, more severely censored works demonstrated. Terrific translation by Canaan Morse, and many thanks to NYRB for picking this one out to share with us. Kudos to all on this one.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Arab of the Future, Part 2 by Riad Sattouf, translated by Sam Taylor

Volume II is a continuation of the adventures of Riad as a young French-Arab in Homs in the mid-1980s. Riad is still a child, blond-haired and six years old. He is ready to go to school for the first time, and is terrified. With good reason, it turns out.

Sattouf positively outdoes himself drawing scenes from the classroom. The headscarf-wearing teacher has a skirt so short and legs so large that our eyes widen in fear. Riad takes a frame to zero in on the impossible narrowness of her high heels, her calves looming dense and heavy above, like a boulder snagged over a walkway. She looks dangerous. That is to say nothing of the smile she holds a second before she strikes the boys on the palms with a wooden rod. Nothing so thin as a ruler, her tool is a rod that looks very solid and hard in her hand.
"Ha, ha, [Riad’s father chortles that evening] you’re funny. You’re just like me at your age. Scared of everything…Don’t worry, nothing will happen."
More false words were never spoken. Lots happens, and much of it is life-threatening. But perhaps most importantly we see the utter cruelty with which people treat one another. If there was ever a time to be grateful for political correctness in our daily interactions, after reading this you will breathe a sigh of relief for those tedious niceties. You will remember the menace of schoolyard bullies, and realize Arab society, in Syria at least, is taught this is normal human behavior: to be admired if you win, killed if you do not.

Sattouf takes his time with this installment of the story of young Riad. We spend a couple of days sampling the coursework in first grade: patriotic songs, basic characters for writing, reading skills without comprehension, and inventive slurs and punishments. We meet the neighbors: a police-chief-cousin whose stash of gold jewelry could finance a bank, and whose home is a huge unfinished concrete pile cratered with moisture-seeping cracks. We go on a day trip to Palmyra with a general while Riad’s father spends his time trying to wrangle the general into “putting in a word” for his advancement at the university where he works. Palmyra is littered with ancient-looking pottery shards which Riad’s father disdains.
"In the third century after Jesus Christ [Riad’s father says dully, lighting a cigarette] Zenobia turned the nomad’s city of Palmyra into an influential artistic center."
Riad returns to France and enjoys it at the same time he begins to realize he is changing…has changed. He is a desert child now, confused with the plenty that surrounds him in France. It is a poignant section we all recognize for its dislocation. He does not read or speak French particularly well. The French language is difficult, and complicated. Where does Riad fit in? Where does he belong? Where will he be accepted?

The scenes of RIad with the men in his community when he returns to Homs are memorable. Very little is said; the drawings do the work here. I did not understand all that was implied, but someone will. Perhaps the punchline will be revealed in another installation of the life of Riad in Syria. Riad’s father is becoming more and more unbearable as a husband, as a father, as a man. He is hopelessly out of his league wherever he is, and always aspirational, never in control. His wife is losing patience, and he himself is recognizing a few hard truths that have him sitting by himself in some frames, smoking and silent.

Sattouf leaves us feeling unsettled and unsure. Do we want Riad in this place with these people? I think his mother is feeling similarly unsure. The father…one gets the sense that however much the father thinks he is the man, there is precious little he does control.

This installment just cements my sense that this kind of graphic novel may be the easiest, most immediate, most fun way to learn about a culture. When it is done well, a boatload of information can be transmitted in a couple of frames. Sattouf appears to be completely frank about life in Homs as he sees it, and it is remarkable for its insights as well as its humor.

I love this series and will insist upon reading everything about Riad growing up. The Tintin series was the first set of books Riad had access to, the series being only one of two books his academic father had in his personal library. The other book was the Quran. Will look to see if I can see the influences from Tintin in Sattouf’s marvelous story of growing up Arab before his third book hits the stands.

The terrific translation of this work is done by Sam Taylor, and the U.S. publisher is Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt.

Paperback, 160 pages. Published September 20th 2016 by Metropolitan Books (first published June 11th 2015) Original TitleL'Arabe du futur 2 : Une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1984-1985) ISBN 1627793518 (ISBN13: 9781627793513)

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

There is much to admire in what Thien tried to do in this 2016 Booker-shortlisted novel, and judging from the laudatory reviews, she must have succeeded. Personally, I struggled against the style of this novel, which I found cloying, despite the fact that different members of one family each had pieces of the story to tell. I have yet to find the author who can tell me a Chinese fiction that I really enjoy, except for classics like the The Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) and Journey to the West, which have always held me in thrall.

The period of this novel, from the end of the revolution through the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen is almost impossible not to find interesting as straight history because of the wrenching societal upheavals, personal traumas, the hugeness of the country, and pace of change. What Thien did was to put a face and family history through that trauma and connect that history to the great Chinese migration east, to the West.

Her lens was a good choice for the story she chose to tell, musicians who played western instruments and music, for it is they who were targeted during the Cultural Revolution most harshly, along with other specialists in western thought or sciences. The part about getting “sent down” to the countryside was not as thoroughly fleshed out as it could have been, but she included details which placed many friends and colleagues in far reaches of China long after that decade passed. The dislocation and missed opportunities were apparent in the lives of those she spoke of who had returned, to some extent, to their old lives. The interpretation of western music by Chinese musicians is a fascinating thread that could have been a story in itself, another frustration. Thien's story is both too big and too small.

The Book of Records was a strangely effective tool, if I understood it correctly, to tie together the lives of those past and future, and the samizdat quality of appearing and disappearing chapters had an authentic feel. Citizens had a real fear of the reach of the state. The scenes before and during the Tiananmen incident also had an immersive, completely authentic quality. When Thien talked about the buildup to June 4 on college campuses, the innocence of the students, the terror of the parents, the gradual buy-in by the factories and universities from around the country, the sense of held breath, and the euphoria, these details rang true.

So why was it difficult for me to listen to this novel? It could be the uncomfortable sense of listening to heartstrings, or perhaps it was the Western connection. I'm not sure. This was a nation ripping itself to pieces. Pity is not an appropriate sensation, nor is any sense of a Western mindset. There is much that was pitiable about life in that period, but perhaps it was the lack of distance, or humor, or sense of historical moment that I missed. These small stories against the backdrop of fifty years in the life of a nation in revolution seemed too small, or too magnified. I never felt really engaged.

The last portion about Tiananmen filled in pieces in my understanding of that time and was detailed and involving for me in a way that the rest of the narrative wasn’t. But this is what I mean about the history being much more interesting than the individual stories. Her characters didn’t matter. We are looking at this spectacle of a nation struggling between revolt and control. The individuals are swept away, a distraction to the magnificence of something on the scale of a natural disaster. It seemed too much for her tiny story, though how else could such a thing be described, except in this way? One day we may find someone who has figured that out.

Thien deserves credit for the enormity of what she attempted, successful or not. It seems that those who didn’t already know this history intimately might have found much to interest them. Those who do know China more intimately might, like me, be waiting for a work that even comes close to encompassing even a piece of the inexpressible and unfathomable hugeness of China as we know it, with no inkling of the West. It is the East that interests us, not the West looking at the East.

I listened to the Recorded Books audio production of this novel, narrated by Angela Lin. Beautiful Mandarin pronunciations were dubbed in for place and people names. There were times when I wondered if the paper copy would help me to understand the form and function of the Book of Records, the form of which I only had a hazy idea about after listening for some twenty hours. And I wondered if the paper copy had ideographs copied out, which would add to the reading experience. If one wants the immersive experience and is unfamiliar with China’s recent history, I think I would recommend the Whisper-sync option, so that one could listen or read alternately, or one after the other, perhaps, to capture all the nuance in this big, ambitious novel.

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The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine

This novel contains so much naked yearning, sadness, despair, and exhausted hilarity—poking fun at man’s powerlessness in the hands of Satan and Death accompanied by Angels—that we could be forgiven for imagining it a memoir. Alameddine has given us something rich upon which to sup, slowly, for there is much to assimilate. A poor Arab son of a whore (literally, as it turns out) is intellectually realized by nuns and priests in Beirut, schooling paid for by an absent father.

The boy and his schoolmates discover his gayness early, and the rest of his life is nary a denial, only acceptance, and once he found his circle, a verbally rich and figuratively celebratory consummation. Consumption is the other half of the story, the harvesting of lives, the dropping away of the circle. Alameddine does not shrink from the most revealing descriptions of life, love, and death in the life of a "little brown gay" man, just giving us pieces sometimes, as though he can’t remember clearly. He probably can’t, which is how we get the feeling that this is something remembered rather than merely invented.

This is not an easy read, there is so much thoughtful erudition here. Our eyes take in more than our brains can process. References to earlier works are everywhere apparent, some boldly proclaimed—Mikhail Bulgakov, Goethe, the Bible, the Quran—others we see faint outlines of in the swirl of colors and language that comprise invention, memory, and forgetting. This is a novel unlike any other, for that little brown gay Arab has given us something we have not seen before, all beauty and crescendo and wit and the most unbearable sense of loss. This is a revealing, naked novel that expresses a longing for acceptance, despair of a kindly world, and a stunning reversal—that hoarse, defiant shout, drenched in a kind of mad joy, into the void.

The novel opens with Satan having a conversation with Death. Shortly we learn that the man they came to discuss, Jacob, has signed himself into a mental hospital…to check his despair. The man, the little brown gay Arab, had lost many friends to AIDS in the scourge. He wants both to forget and to remember. It is not just his life he must remember, but all of it. All of his history, starting with his Yemeni blood. Satan tells us “forgetting is as integral to memory as death is to life.” It is not immediately obvious why we need to know this, and we are not sure we understand it anyway. We will forget it, and remember it again and again.
"Yemen is one of my favorite places, [said Death]...That nation has refreshed and rejuvenated me for centuries."
Love between partners is a momentous thing, not easily found and not easily lost. It lasts forever, some believe, or its vestiges linger forever. It leaves a mark. One is not supposed to lose one’s partner to death in mid-life. It is cruel. It is unnatural. This is the place where Jacob finds himself, struggling through a life filled with losses since childhood. Now in adulthood, he should be expert at it. And there is some resilience there that we poke and prod with interest. How will Jacob respond to his challenges?
”As it was in the beginning, said Satan, lying on my bed, so shall it be in the end, so shall it be first, last, midst, and without end, basically you’re screwed, Jacob, you know, the supremacy of Western civilization is based entirely on the ability to kill people from a distance….You can never win, Jacob.”
Death, on the other hand, promises peace, lethe, forgetfulness, and silence. “Peace on demand, instant gratification.” Which will our confused and suffering Jacob choose? His answer is foreshadowed throughout the novel and has something to do with his covering angels. Despair is normal, despite Jacob’s need for a psych ward. Despair is what we get, sometimes. Forgetting and remembering…you can’t have one without the other.
One early memory is Jacob envying his older cousin, a schoolgirl who faced life silently, in a beige school uniform. Jacob tells us “My Halloween costume that years [was] a headscarf with two pink pigtails sprouting out of it…”

An interview with Rabih Alameddine gives some notion of his carefully hidden depths. This link has the conversation recorded in a noisy cafe. I prefer it, though there is also a written transcript. It is a messy, imperfect thing, this interview, but Alameddine is just so irrepressibly himself.

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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Dead Soon Enough (Juniper Song #3) by Steph Cha

Those of us interested in mystery series, crime novels, and police procedurals are usually on the lookout for the next series by a newcomer that is going to excite us. A Korean-American private investigator called Juniper Song headlining a series set in L.A. looked promising, and I jumped in at book #3 in the series to see what Steph Cha had done with the form.

The voice in this novel is young, smart, and challenging. Song widens our eyes with her opener:
“When I was twenty-two, I sold three sets of eggs for a total of $48,000. I was broke, bored, and quietly depressed, and had no strength to fight the call of easy money…
…Apparently, [Asian-American egg donors] commanded high premiums for rarity on the market…”
Everything about Song’s story as it unfolds in this installment of her adventures is current, relevant, and raises important issues designed to make us think…think not only about her perspective as an Asian-American woman but also about corporate law, the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century, online shaming and stalking, and surrogacy in childbearing. There is a lot going on, but Cha manages it handily.

The fictional private eye Philip Marlowe and his creator, Raymond Chandler, are mentioned explicitly in this novel more than once, drawing our eye to parallels Cha hopes to highlight. There is a hard-boiled, noirish feel to this piece, despite its clear generational separation from those earlier novels. The comparisons are still a bit aspirational, as there were areas in this novel that did not measure up to the more limited word count of the Marlowe detections.

What did work was the somewhat world-weary tone Song takes in the beginning, which is plenty hard to pull off for a twenty-something with a degree from Yale. Somehow Song manages to make us believe she is one of those disaffected bright young things who is simply bored with the more usual job prospects she could be seeking out. Cha perhaps plays a bit with our stereotypes and expectations about terribly bright Asians here, but she has my sympathies for this approach, and I could laugh soundlessly with her. Besides, intelligence can be used to make most jobs interesting, and in this case, she would have missed out on private detection if she had been more aggressive uncovering well-paid employment opportunities.

What also paralleled Marlowe and worked well was the consistently moral standpoint from which Song conducted her investigations and follow-ups. She had to make some tough decisions about people that may not have been completely straightforward, but her real-life judgements about truth and honesty asked a complicated question about where those two things got everyone in the end.

The final half of the book was beautifully fluent, well thought-out, and moved at a pace befitting the more usual form of a crime novel or police procedural. The first half was workman-like, explanatory, and needed tightening. Young women were the focus of this novel, but sometimes their thought processes, chatty conversations, and questionable choices are simply not interesting enough to hold our attention.

Overall, the attempt to raise important, thoughtful issues in a crime novel and its unusual point of view through the eyes of a Korean-American elevated this genre novel beyond its peers. Though I liked the idea of a brainy woman pulling off an escape from some pretty rough characters in this novel, it did occur to me that her lack of physical prowess might be a hard sell down the line. Perhaps Juniper needs to take some exercise in the form of self-protection skills that might be more useful to her than the gun she yearns to carry.

Hardcover, 292 pages, Published August 11th 2015 by Minotaur Books,
ISBN13: 9781250065315

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Friday, October 14, 2016

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James

The 2016 Preface to this collection of stories invokes Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and Agatha Christie. James mentions that short story mysteries are challenging to write because the author must give their psychological studies an immediate point, without all the space that a novel presents, all in service to the surprise and satisfaction of the reader. Agatha Christie is explicitly mentioned in at least one story, but it is Sayers and Conan Doyle who I think are evoked most completely. This collection brings together four very short detective stories all centered on the Christmas season and, no matter when James actually wrote her preface, there can be no doubt that these are a substantial Christmas gift to her readers.

I listened to the Penguin Random House (Faber Audio) production of this book, and enjoyed them absolutely. The stories are not new: one was written in 1969, another in 1979, 1995, 1996. It may be possible to find the stories elsewhere, but I am going to recommend you listen to these. Altogether the reading is about 3 hours, and the time spent listening places you way back in time, out of your daily life and into the early 20th Century, recalling a time when the mystery greats were stalking the earth.

Born in 1920, James centers her first story, "The Mistletoe Murders", about the time she in real life married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor, in 1941. Her husband White developed a psychological illness during World War II, and James subsequently had to support the family which included two young daughters. She did not begin writing until the 1950s, but from the time of the war she worked in hospital administration for a London hospital board, a job she held until her husband died in the mid-1960’s, two years after her first novel featuring Adam Dalgliesh, called Cover her Face, was published. James then took a position as a civil servant within the criminal section of the Home Office. [info courtesy of Wikipedia].

There are two Dalgliesh stories in this collection, both deliciously demonstrating his unrivaled talent for observation and deduction, which prompts one character in “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” to compare him to Ms. Marple. Dalgliesh was of course a man in a man’s world and was recognized as a great detective by his own colleagues and those of the local constables. It is reassuring for me to find in this story the understanding of the staff of a local CID is quite up to the standards of the Met, though they allow Dalgliesh to strut his stuff before they take the case in hand themselves, on Christmas Day.

Each of these stories have James’ special intelligence and quiet control about them. If I had to choose a favorite from among these, it might be the first story, “The Mistletoe Murders,” which reveals the abyss most creepily, the dark river flowing beneath the surface of our world.

This Penguin Random House CD set or audio download is a great Christmas treat for parents or anyone who appreciates stories told in the vein of those earlier great mystery story-tellers, Conan Doyle, Sayers, Christie, and Poe. The reading is done most ably by TV and film star Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, narrator of the complete series of Dalgliesh novels. Publication date is set for October 25, 2016. Of course the set will be available in e-reader and paper formats from Knopf as well. Don’t miss these little gems.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"The Arrangements" A short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For months now nearly every piece of fiction I’ve read has a character in it that reminds me of America’s presidential candidate, the infamous Donald Trump, perhaps because he is larger than life. Earlier this year, the New York Times commissioned short stories about the election, and then published this one by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in their newspaper available to read anytime by subscribers. I have just learned that Penguin Random House is publishing an audio version that will available for download October 25th.

Adichie mentioned in an interview that she patterned the story on Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but my sense of Adichie’s story is far more Shakespearean, or Greek tragedy-ish. (Not having read Mrs. Dalloway recently, perhaps I am missing an obvious parallel.) Adichie makes the Trump women “clever as foxes,” which was my impression as well. Not only do they work hard at their beauty, which anyone with any sense will realize is an obvious advantage they are by now well-skilled at controlling, but they are astonishingly resilient and forgiving, which only comes from understanding, which comes with a certain amount of knowing. Clever as foxes.

I recommend this read or listen for the opportunity to imagine the whole big familial tragedy of Trump’s run for president. Thanks to Adichie to making the effort to add her imagination and skill (and the twist).

The PRH audio version is quite good, getting Melania’s accent down almost perfectly, though the reader, January Savoy, hammers the American accent pretty hard when it comes time for Janelle or Ivanka to speak. Anyway, the whole thing is amusing. You will be surprised at the twist in the story, and it all takes less than a half hour. Check it out.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

All That Man Is by David Szalay

I’ve just found my best book of the year…in a year filled with best books. Szalay (pronounced SOL-loy) writes nine stories about men, different men, each approximately seven years older than the man preceding him. The men are white Europeans, visiting or living in a country not their own. The youngest man is seventeen, the oldest is seventy-three. I laughed my way through this tragicomic look at what it means to be a man, for Szalay put in more than enough to qualify this as the best sort of literature.

Some critics have raised the point that a collection of stories about white heterosexual males isn’t rounded enough without a diverse population. While I crave the author’s take on the immigrant experience or that of a black male in London, the truth is I want his opinion on everything...with jokes, please. He has chosen to share this delicious, mordant look at what adherence to the masculine role has done to several generations of white males adrift in their culture, and that has produced an entirely sufficient and complete work of art. I look forward to what he comes up with next.

Women are the sun and stars about which the stories revolve. Their roles appear to be supporting ones, waitresses, prostitutes, mothers, wives, vacationing lushes, but any woman would recognize that there is ample going on behind their eyes. Their power is undeniable, if only they would seize it. A few of them do. Szalay “fleshes out” several of his female characters, but the most gorgeous one is never physically described, except by the double exclamation, “Wow. Wow.” That was a wise cop-out, sparing the author attacks for focusing on a woman’s physical charms, or for mistakenly forgetting to emphasize a reader’s most fantasized-about body part.

The whole collection of stories together are unforgettable in their descriptions of the haplessness of European white males, but the amusement we experience is tempered by the knowledge that men like these are responsible for fighting wars, closing borders, electing nitwits, denying climate change, and any number of other scourges plaguing our societies. Their lack of self-examination is our annoyance.

Murray Dundee on the “Croatia Riviera” had me screaming with laughter and weeping tears of hilarity. At the beginning of #7, Dundee returns to his mother’s memorial service in Scotland, sleeping overnight in his sister’s house, in his nephew’s bed. He doesn’t sleep well, though he claims he does. Too much thinking going on. Murray has hit a few speed-bumps settling in Croatia in his attempts to 1) make friends, 2) start a business, 3) bed a woman. A local man Murray can’t call a friend, “short, muscular, untalkative - the sort of man that Murray instinctively defers to,” suggests Murray might be cursed, and he does seem that. Murray goes to see a woman about it.
She’s in a dressing gown, A solid, surly woman…like someone who sells you a train ticket to Zagreb, frowning at you through the perforated glass as you try to explain what it is you want, while the queue lengthens. Short hair. Little buds of gold in her earlobes, Breath that smells of cigarette smoke, bacteria.

She says something to Murray in a sharp, imperative voice.

“She says you should relax,” is the translation…

...He has the weird fear that she’s going to ask him to strip.

The stories begin strong and just get deeper and richer as we progress though the novel. The glitz and glamour and misplaced attention in story #8 brought to mind the outsized ambition of Donald Trump (can I ever not see this man in the novels I read?) but I found myself slowing my reading as the stories went on. There is something about the accretion of sorrow and of despair, no matter how funny, that makes us feel these men. There is always the edge of the precipice in sight. Each new story presents the prospect of fulfillment: would you be happy if you…took a sun vacation in the Mediterranean? Had a luxe apartment in the Alps? Took your retirement on the Croatian Riviera? Owned a multi-storied yacht? Unexamined lives and denial bring them there…alone…and their fate, when they realize it is too late to change anything, describes our pain.

In a Paris Review interview Szalay tells us that he originally thought of calling these linked stories Europa. It does seem like a good title, but perhaps the current title with the word “man” in it is more appropriate. Certainly one gets the sense of Europe in this novel, in much of its diversity, but the subject is both broader and narrower than that.

All I can say is if you don’t read this one you are missing something very special indeed. I won’t expect Szalay will top this one immediately (isn’t that the problem with writing something so very good to begin with?), but whatever he comes up with next is going to be interesting. All my chips on the man with the x-ray vision.

This novel has just won the 2016 Gordon Burns Prize, and has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

It is the dispassionate telling of this story that makes the mystery of Culduie such a success. Roddy Macrae, discovered walking through his village covered in blood, acknowledges freely that he killed Lachlan Mackenzie and “the others.” The novel opens with Macrae’s confession, solicited by his advocate in court. The author then tells us that in the spring of 2014 he began investigating the background of Donald “Tramp” Macrae, his grandfather, and came upon the documents surrounding Roddy Macrae and the mystery of the deaths at Culduie.

We are already interested, but what we discover is that the confession written by Roddy is fluent and complete, not the brutish scribblings of an ignorant man, but full of nuance and scenes of extraordinary power, despite the limited understanding of a childish comprehension. Roddy was only a boy during most of the time his account describes, but we get the sense of a dawning recognition that what he was witnessing deserved retribution.

Burnet keeps the interest level cranked to high and the outcome of the trial unresolved to the very last pages, making jury-members of his readers. He includes village histories in the accounts of Roddy’s neighbors, Roddy’s personal history, and court documents which spell out officialdom’s opinion of his actions. By the end, even the most sympathetic or jaded among us would have put their legal reasoning and beliefs to the test.

Whatever realism the novel provides, one has to admit to the skill that produced a fiction so compelling, given that the whole thing was concocted by the author. The story of the village with its seasonal requirements and communal reliance, its meager crops and neighborly dramas, its distant overlords and handed-down wisdom reminds us how limited horizons can be for those who grow just enough to survive.

Graeme Macrae Burnet has a favorite crime author, Georges Simenon. Burnet created this novel out of bits and pieces of real-life histories that intrigued him. The setting is one he is familiar with from vacations in his childhood, the name of the protagonist came from his personal family history, and the main bit of the murders from Pierre Rivière, who has been remembered for the account of his wrongdoing since the 19th century. Perhaps the thing that resembles Simenon best is Burnet’s inclusion of so many details of village life, at which Simenon was a master.

Apparently the literary world is aflame with the question of whether or not this novel constitutes a “crime novel,” and is therefore perhaps the first time genre fiction has been given the honor of being nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2016. Since I am not really part of the literary establishment, I may amuse myself with stating my opinion on this case. Yes, His Bloody Project is definitely a “crime” novel, one of the very best of its type….using an innovative structure and an unusual setting and time frame…and is among the best examples of literature produced in English this year. It is a fine addition to the Booker Prize shortlist, other nominees which include innovative and unusual works of fiction by playwrights, story writers, and novelists.

One of the things I liked best about this novel was the way Burnet was able to involve us so completely in the story that even changing the names of individuals did not throw us off the scent of mystery…Lachlan Mackenzie was also Lachlan Broad, and Roddy Black was the infamous Roderick Macrae. Unusual tools, like a croman and a flaughter, did not blunt our curiosity about how they may be used in cleaving the skull. The words and the justice system themselves seemed foreign. We became quite versed, in the end, in the quiet unspoken menace that plagued residents of Culduie when a person against which they had no protection became dispenser of justice.

Personally, I did question why Roddy, clever boy that everyone seemed to acknowledge he was, couldn’t have come up with a better solution to Lachlan Mackenzie’s transgresses than killing him, which was sure to stop the behavior, but also his own life. Since the schoolteacher acknowledged Roddy’s clear superiority over other students, Roderick never seemed to cotton-on that he alone might find a way to best the brute Lachlan. But no matter. I accept what Burnet has offered us and enjoyed it thoroughly, and consider it fine literature.

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Friday, October 7, 2016

Blitz by David Trueba, translated by John Cullen

Somewhere in the middle of this book I experienced a moment of unrestrained joy. It came from the novelist’s art. He was able to twist me around, following the unexamined actions and attitudes of a confused 30-year-old struggling architect from Spain who had just been dumped by his girlfriend. Much of the joy came from the novelist showing me his chagrin at the heart and soul and underdeveloped mind of a young man under duress.

The young man travels to Germany with his girlfriend to defend his landscape architecture project for an international prize before a jury. The novel opens with his girlfriend dumping him by email, an email missent to him. He becomes disoriented, and a day later he is fumbling through the streets of Munich with his suitcase. It hits us viscerally. We’ve been there. But almost immediately the young man turns his anger and disappointment on his competitors in the landscape competition, which compromises our affection for him. He is taken home by a 63-year-old conference organizer, and proceeds to insist himself on her sexually.

The whole bedroom scene is etched in spell-binding detail, down to the uncomfortable moment he fingers the underpants of a woman not expecting a moment of intimacy. She fairly clearly (they are both drunk) resists his advances, but finally concludes that resistance is futile. The result is a conclusion each think of as a “pity fuck,” the young man chortling over the details to his friends later.

It is a gorgeously written, naked, painful, seeing moment. We watch as the callow young man stumbles into a job that suits him, and it is somewhere here that I experience the joy I spoke of. It comes when we realize the novel is not really about Beto, the young man. The meaning of the novel comes from Helga, the older woman, and her fears and understanding about the passing of time, and how life changes and fades one’s ambitions. The pity fuck was all on her side, and eventually the young man begins to see her, the German mütter, with her heavy breasts hanging to her waist and her dry cunt and her understanding and acceptance of all that life is.

Every review I have seen of this novel mentions David Trueba’s earlier novel, Four Friends (or Cuatro amigos) and compares this one unfavorably. I haven’t read Trueba’s earlier work, but just reading this novel makes me think he is something very special indeed. It isn’t just the young male viewpoint in this novel, but how Trueba brings us along to admiration and acceptance and real feeling for both characters. The idiocy and dignity of human beings capable of compassion are equally on display.

Trueba is a novelist as well as a well-respected actor, screenwriter, and film director in Spain. His brother Fernando won a Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1994 for the film Belle Epoque, and David's film, Living is Easy with Eyes Closed, was nominated in 2015 for Best Foreign Language Film. The movie, about John Lennon's roadtrip in Spain, swept the prestigious Goya Awards the year before. The synergy of David Trueba’s set of skills creates, in screenplays or in novels, quick, sharply-focussed images that we recognize from the pain and distress or joy in our own lives. A prop, a bottle of vodka with a blade of grass resting at the bottom, is the “gun” in this novel, the object that once brandished, means something consequential is about to take place.

The paperback copy of this novel has included several color plates that are so sudden and so unexpected that one actually experiences a kind of gratitude. One plate is a photograph of a postcard of an unnamed bay in Mallorca on a glorious, sunny day, the photo showing the rooftops of several gargantuan summer homes for vacationing Europeans and a few boats dotting an aqua inlet. The other plates are relevant to the story and imbue the work with a richness and glamour. There is also an excellent, absurd pen-and-ink drawing of Beto as he stands before the sum total of his life to that time.

This is a hilarious, painful, meaningful novel that has a sophisticated European feel, despite the ordinariness of the lives of the characters. I am delighted to be introduced to the work of David Trueba. I’ll be looking for his films, and of course the much-lauded Cuatro amigos. Many thanks to Other Press for finding this and sharing the wealth.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way it Does by Philip Ball

This is a gorgeous-looking book. Since this topic has been one I have been promising myself to examine for some time, I picked up this striking volume from a face-out display in my public library which has, I was surprised to learn later, a large collection of Philip Ball's books, but not yet his latest, called The Water Kingdom, about China and its relationship with water. It sounds fascinating.

This book about patterns found in nature has very little discussion within. One must make do with the magnificent photography that includes some of the very best pictures I have seen of a certain weather phenomenon, say, or a geologic feature. Many of the microscopic subjects (viruses, insect eyes, closeups of sea creatures) are artificially colored so that the features stand in stark contrast. It is definitely coffee-table quality.

For creatives and artists, this work is positively inspirational. Scientists may use it to demonstrate some observable phenomenon, but although the photos are labelled, the text sometimes proved insufficient to adequately explain the complicated reasons for why such patterns appear. Some of the less complex subjects and accompanying text were sufficient to pique further investigation elsewhere.

Something I may have encountered before but do not recall ever seeing in quite the same way were pictures of Chladni figures, or fine grains on a flat surface subjected to sound waves. The grains formed intricate patterns. The figure I use an example here is not from Ball's book. His was so glamorous it sent me spinning to find more information.

The other single coolest thing I have ever seen was a photo of Fingal's Cave on the Isle of Staffa in Scotland. Again, this is not the photo that Ball included in his book, but hopefully will give you some idea why it was so thrilling to me. Cracks have formed six-sided posts of basalt.

Something similar can be found at a place in California called Devil's Postpile: columnar cracks in the side of a hill. Unbelievably cool.

Devil's Postpile

There is much, much more in this book. While I did not find answers to all my questions, the book contains gorgeous examples of patterns you will wish to research further, having seen them in such brilliant detail.

Hardcover, 288 pages Published April 5th 2016 by University Of Chicago Press ISBN 022633242X (ISBN13: 9780226332420)

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

A twitter storm this summer brought this book to my attention. I read several articles and interviews with Vance before managing to get my hands on a copy of the book. That circuitous introduction led me to expect some kind of treatise on working class attitudes, so at first I experienced the work through the distorting lens of others’ interpretations.

This book is not any kind of treatise. It is a brave, funny, unsentimental growing-up story, introducing us to a cussin’ gun-brandishing grandmaw who knew instilling accountability and backbone was the best way out of hill country. But when the time came for young Vance to leave via induction into the Marines, grandmaw was reluctant to let him go. She probably wasn’t sure that he’d live long enough to get that college degree she wanted for him.

Mawmaw sounds like a very special person, with her sometimes conservative, sometimes liberal political thought. She didn’t take anything as creed, except the hillbilly creed. That lack of credulousness, that lack of naiveté is something we should all aim for. It is the road to a well-informed, sophisticated citizenry. Wouldn’t she be surprised to know we are thinking of her now. Wish I’d met her.

J.D. Vance is an avowed conservative, but he has some of that “thinking for himself” thing going on. When he was young he turned to the church for answers, and while the church gave him some answers and some help, he could see that it wasn’t going to be the whole answer. “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s what I learned also...the hard way.

While I find myself on the other side of the political spectrum from Vance’s self-described “far right” position as that spectrum is defined in common parlance, I can listen to him enunciate his thinking without having a coronary because he clearly thinks about his opinions and would probably listen to mine, if I am reasonable, and focussed on a solution that is fair and do-able. He is as entitled to his opinions as I am. I believe he is recommending thoughtfulness, openness, creativity, and a willingness to compromise. I suppose he is ultimately headed to political office. His favorite job in college was the state senate, after all.

In a way, this bare-all, plainspoken memoir reminds me of Obama’s family history, Dreams from my Father, that Obama wrote before his big political push. You can’t talk behind the back of a man who has told you the worst already. I wish everyone was able to be so frank with us, but let’s admit that not everyone has the writing skill to pull this off. Vance is in his early thirties and freely admits he does not have all the answers to joblessness and hopelessness in hillbilly country, but he is one of the few conservatives who appear to give a damn.

It is important to note that Vance is better at presenting a balanced, less objectionable point of view in writing. In a book interview on PBS Newshour, Vance said that Trump was one of the few people who “cared” about the plight of poor working class. I think that can be challenged on a number of fronts. There have been public policies put in place in the past thirty years after all, even if they haven’t worked well in practice.

When asked, in that same PBS interview, about Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” Vance says “a lot of these folks are just really hard-working people…” I don’t understand. He spent most of the book telling us that in fact, “white working class” meant hardly working. They have reasons for their disaffection, but the solutions are in community, family, and values, none of which necessarily have much to do with money.

As it happens, I also believe in community, family, and values despite not agreeing with practically anything else on the agenda of the “far right.” I agree with Vance that attacking political leaders for things that are demonstrably untrue (e.g., birtherism) has fomented an unhealthy distrust of government. The press has an important role to play in challenging power, but intentionally creating suspicion helps no one. Vance agrees that conservatives need to do a better job in healing the country and bringing folks together rather than pushing them apart.

Republicans desperately need a rational spokesman, and Vance has put himself up for the job. For a political party that has so lost its moral compass, this man must bring great hope. He has something he cares deeply about, knows something about, and knows how to go about trying to find solutions. Broken family ties is a subject we all need to think about whether black, white, rich, or poor. Rich people have broken families as well, with equally devastating consequences. Hopelessness and despair of ever being able to turn one’s life around—this is something rich folks can share if they, too, are addicts. But learned helplessness and the lack of social capital--that is something rich people do not share.

There is a great deal to discuss in this book, including Amy Chua's advice in law school that Vance not pursue the most prestigious and shiniest job in the basket of opportunities, and how the lives of poor inner-city blacks may parallel and reflect the lives of hillbilly whites. I think we can all be part of this conversation. I believe that is why he started it.

J.D. Vance gives a TED talk (September 2016)

I listened to this book read by the author and produced by HarperAudio. The author read a little too fast as this material was new to me and required thinking as well as listening, but it is still a worthwhile way to gain access to this remarkable personal history.

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Sunday, October 2, 2016

WTF? What the French by Olivier Magny

How impoverished would the world be without the French? Olivier Magny, whose qualification to expound upon the French way of life is without qualification (he was born in France, grew up in France, and runs a business in France), pokes some fun (love of Nutella, love of rap music, inability to dance) but mixes in surprisingly astute social and political commentary on the nature and attitudes of the French for those of us who do not travel there frequently. Arising from the success of Magny’s blog and an earlier book called Stuff Parisians Like, this book carries his cultural introductions further and deeper.

Magny shares some of what he considers the most beautiful places in France, pointing out the wide variety of regions and styles: “Whether you’re drawn to beautiful beaches, mountains, hills, plains, lakes, river, cold water or warm water, dry weather or wet weather, arid vegetation or lush forests, chances are France has it somewhere.” Which makes us especially curious when he tells us that Anglo-Saxons, comprising Great Britain and America, and often New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, are lumped into one category of human that the French have no need, nor any desire, to examine in detail. Les Anglo-Saxons are to blame for most of the drinking and warmongering in the world, but also have admirable business practices, good universities, and research. By analogy, perhaps, we shouldn’t be lumping “the French” in anything like a monolithic category.
"Since the inception of Vatican II, France went from being…the first child of the Catholic Church to being one of the least religious countries on earth. Among the general public, the Church went from being viewed as a profoundly respected and heeded institution to being an inaudible and questionable organization…the tremendous surge of Islam is a response to the collapse of the Catholic Church…While official reports continue to claim that Catholicism is still the number one religion in France—which happens to be impossible to prove since the French state is prohibited from keeping such statistics—there is no doubt that if it is still the case (which is unlikely), it won’t be for long."
In another section, Magny tries to explain the rise of the far-right nationalist party in France. Many Western countries are experiencing the same phenomenon, and the phrases Magny uses to describe “the switch over to the extreme right” has many parallels in the U.S. We are not alone, then, in our population's severe disaffection with politicians in government, and the media’s horrorstricken and ineffectual analyses. Magny's discussion deepens our understanding of how flattening the wealth pyramid has worked out in France.

This book is meaty, considering the essays max out at three or four pages for each topic, and is unfailingly interesting. After a few more serious topics including immigration, police, and three(!) sections on taxes, Magny returns to a lighter note, discussing the haircuts of older women, pessimism, divorce, TV debates, how speaking English is now cool, and the comment thread in online communication. Absolutely surprising was the low rate (to me) of daily wine consumption in France and the fact that younger French are being influenced by America’s fascination with wine to drink it in greater amounts. And the omnipresence of yogurt in every refrigerator.

Most of us remember a hunger for French panache and elegance in design and style, but Magny tells us that has changed in France these days. “Aiming high has become suspicious,” and therefore folks are looking more for value and convenience. It is an absolute change in focus, quality, and lifestyle that changes the meaning of France for many of us. “France is the worst country to make money in, but is the best one to spend it in.” This statement opens the door to another discussion of taxes and how “very few people are sitting on a very large stack of cash. Savings and generational wealth are almost unheard-of in France.”

This extraordinary collection of essays is completely engrossing to someone tangentially acquainted with France and its systems. Magny must have some critics. The more we know the more we'd be able to critique this work. Can all France's problems be laid at the feet of a leftist mentality in education and government? The best thing this book does is make us look, really look at France with a questioning eye. We aren't tourists anymore.

Magny takes a stab at examining the real roots of cultural change. Many essays include suggestions for further online research into French taxes, governance, music, film, and TV celebrities, suggestions given with the equivalent of a Gallic shrug: “If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourselves and make up your own mind.” Thought-provoking and much deeper in tone than I was expecting from a book of this type, the book should spur some discussion and counter theories by others who have some experience living and working in France.

Intriguing, easy to read, and worth seeking out. Makes great conversation starters if one is planning to visit France.

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