Archive for December, 2010

No Tomorrow, by Vivant Denon

December 28, 2010

Purchased at Amazon.ca

Translated by Lydia Davis

No Tomorrow has been resting in the priority bookcase beside my reading chair for more than nine months now, following an enthusiastic and perceptive review by Max at Pechorin’s Journal — he liked it so much that it was included in his list of 2010 top books. Max in turn was inspired by an equally positive review from John Self at The Asylum, who confessed that the book had sat on his shelf for 14 years before he got around to reading it. So, yes, this is one of those little treasures that the blogging world passes on to their visitors as a book to be read and appreciated and I hope this review will continue the trend.

The story (it seems too short to be even called a novella ) is only 33 pages long in the NYRB version that I have, so length was hardly a consideration in my delayed reading. Rather those two reviews convinced me that I should wait for the right time — a period when I wanted to read something that required intense, but brief, concentration. Given the celebrations and distractions that are an inevitable (and generally welcome) part of the holiday season (but equally require some contemplative breaks), Denon’s work seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It fulfilled that promise.

I cannot hope to do as well in framing the story as Peter Brooks does in the opening of his excellent introduction in the NYRB version:

No Tomorrow may be the most stylish erotic tale ever written. Erotic, while not at all pornographic. The whole art here is to stage a scene — itself highly theatrical — of sexual bliss without naming names, or parts, or detailing the acts taking place. Yet it is all perfectly lucid, even precise. No Tomorrow falls within a great French tradition of elegant eroticism — think Fragonard in painting and the line of fiction culminating in Choderlos de Laclos’s masterpiece of 1782, Les Liaisons dangereuses. It’s a tradition in which the erotic encounter becomes the outer limit and the test case of human social relations — a moment where a worldly sociability tilts into the intimacy of sex. Sex that isn’t necessarily tied to romantic love, that preserves a kind of lucid detachment about what it is, and yet sees itself as of intrinsic value. No Tomorrow, you could say, is about the ethics of pleasure: pleasure considered, planned, staged, given and received in a momentary exchange where the gift is all the more precious for its transcience.

A bit more background before getting to the story itself. First published in 1777, the author was identified as M.D.G.O.D.R. (taken to mean Monsieur Denon, Gentilhomme Ordinaire du Roi, although to this day some academics dispute Denon’s authorship since it is the only work of fiction he produced). An “improved” version (the one used here) appeared in 1812. Denon had an interesting and revealing history between those dates. He made his living as an engraver, moved into diplomacy, was a war artist (and wrote a travelogue) for Napoleon’s Egyptian war in 1798 and was appointed by Napoleon as the first director of French museums to organize and display the cultural “trophies” that Bonaparte brought home from his wars (that would be the Louvre, where Danon is acknowledged to this day). The traits that are required for those tasks — discipline, a respect for authority and convention, and, most important of all, an acute appreciation for intricate detail — are all on display here. It is little wonder that the author felt an “improved version” was demanded, 35 years after the original appeared.

The story opens in the aristocratic boxes of L’Opera, another metaphor that is reflected in the text. Opera is formal, detailed and ornate — in the story line, many elements of realism are simply ignored while those that remain often become almost grotesque in their importance. Those traits are all present in this short work.

The story is told in the first person, by a narrator looking back at his 20-year-old self in the opera box — Denon was 30 when he wrote the first version, so that seems a likely separation in time. The youth is awaiting the arrival of the Comtesse de —— with whom he is “desperately in love” — she has left him, but forgiven him (he says three times in the opening paragraph “I was naive”) and he now thinks himself “the best-loved lover”. A friend of the Comtesse, Mme de T——, beckons him to her box and the adventure that is No Tomorrow begins:

I bowed low, she hurried me into her box, I obeyed.

“Go to Monsieur’s house,” she told a servant, “and let them know he won’t be back this evening…” She then whispered in his ear and dismissed him. I ventured a few words, the opera began, she hushed me. We listened, or pretended to listen. The first act had scarcely ended when the same servant returned with a note for Mme de T——-, telling her everything was ready. She smiled, asked for my hand, went down to the street, and invited me into her carriage. We were already outside the city before I could find out what she intended to do with me.

In French fiction of this sort (more on that later), there is love, there are lovers and there are erotic pleasures. While these three sometimes overlap, they are distinct. Over-arching all three, there is a fourth — ethics? convention? society? the world in general? — which imposes a set of rules on behavior. The innocent 20-year-old understands only some of those rules and each time he is exposed to more he discovers that an even more complex set, of which he knows nothing, awaits him.

The two are headed to Mme de T——‘s husband’s house. The married couple have been separated for years and negotiating a reconciliation for six months; it turns out that reconciliation is taking place tonight. While the seduction of the narrator is underway, he has no idea what his role is in the grander picture.

The seduction lasts only one evening and, for a short work of fiction, involves an impressive number of settings — the carriage, a meeting with the husband, a grassy bank, a pavilion outside the chateau and finally, the “little room” of painted mirrors (“cabinet” in the French original) off of Madame’s apartment. And after taking the reader carefully through all that, Denon still has a third of the work (albeit only 10 pages) to pull what has happened together. The author himself frames this concluding part in a conversation the youth has with Madame’s lover (as opposed to husband), the Marquis, who arrives on the scene in the morning:

“Well, was it pleasant, my friend? [the Marquis asks] Tell me the details…tell me now.”

“Ah!…Just a minute. I didn’t know that all of this was mere playacting; and even though I am involved in the play…”

“You didn’t have the best part.”

“Oh, don’t worry; for a good actor, there are no bad parts.”

“Of course — and you came off well?”

“Wonderfully well.”

“And Mme de T——-?”

“Sublime. She can play any type.”

Sublime. Play any type. As Brooks notes in the paragraph I quoted, the French have a history of writing this kind of grim, but erotic, fiction that I don’t find anywhere else — and I make no claim to extensive reading of French fiction, even in translation. To the obvious example of Les Liaisons dangereuse that he cites, I would add two novellas reviewed here — Theophile Gautier’s The Jinx (1856) and Paul Morand’s Hecate and Her Dogs. Even with my limited reading, that gives you examples from three centuries, so I would have to say painful erotic fiction is an enduring tradition.

The brevity of the book may discourage some readers from purchasing the volume, although the NYRB version does contain the French version as well for those comfortable in the language (it was beyond my French) and Brooks’ highly readable and worthwhile introduction adds another 26 pages. I will say only that I read it three times before starting this review and will be returning to it again in the future — so it ranks as a more than worthwhile investment from my point of view. I was impressed with all three books cited in the previous paragraph — I am equally impressed by this one.

An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin

December 24, 2010

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Most of the world knows Steve Martin for his excellent comic acting ability, but along side this he has built a significant publication catalogue: five published screenplays, two plays, three non-fiction books and, now, three novels. I bought this novel for Mrs. KfC because the story line (New York’s art world) interested her — she finished it in one quick day and recommended that I read it. An Object of Beauty is outside my normal reading range, but I am glad that I accepted Mrs. KfC’s recommendation.

(Martin has actually invented a new “writing” strand in the last few weeks: Celebrity juror. Called for jury duty, he’s been tweeting on his experience as a potential juror — you will have to find the links for yourself — in a predictably disruptive manner.)

Disclosure: The KfC’s collect art (mainly Canadian) and do know a little bit about it. We have been in attendance, and bought works, at auctions where, far beyond our means or interests, records have been set for various Canadian artists. The art auction world is an intriguing (and potentially expensive) one — if you ever want a cheap evening’s entertainment go to an art auction and watch both the crowd and the results. As Steve Martin opens this novel, it is also the central focus.

Lacey Yeager is one of those young women who make the Manhattan art world work. Beautiful, smart and ambitious, they arrive from the hinterlands (which may be only 20 miles away), determined to make Manhattan and its attractions “work” for them. They find “jobs” that pay just enough to cover a share of the rent in an over-crowded flat; they take their nourishment and future hopes from the openings and parties that are part of the high expense art world.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the two premier auction houses in New York, drew young, crisp talent from Harvard and its look-alikes. Majors in art history were welcomed over majors in art making, and pretty was preferred in either sex. The houses wanted the staff to look swell as they crisscrossed the busy galleries on exhibition days, holding in their arms files, faxes, and transparencies. Because the pay was low, the young staff was generally financed from home. Parents thought well of it because their children were at respectable firms, working in a glamorous business, with money of all nations charging the atmosphere. The auction houses seemed not as dull as their counterparts on Wall Street, where parents of daughters imagined glass ceilings and bottom painting.

Lacey is from Georgia and she arrives in New York with both some training and, more important, an attractive face and figure and a lot of ambition. The narrator of the novel, Daniel Chester French Franks (yes, you can guess the puns Martin will play off that), arrives at roughly the same time. Lacey wants major success, Daniel wants to find a road to survival. His version of his goal is worth considering:

I left Stockbridge (Massachusetts), a town set under the glow of its even more famous citizen, the painter of glad America, Norman Rockwell. It is a town that is comfortable with art, although uncomplicated art, not the kind that is taught in educational institutions after high school. My goal, once I discovered that my artistic aspirations were not accompanied by artistic talent, was to learn to write about art with effortless clarity. This is not as easy as it sounds: Whenever I attempted it, I found myself in a convoluted rhetorical tangle from which there was no exit.

Obviously, Norman Rockwell is not a part of the world that either Lacey or Daniel enter.

Those two quotes frame the central conflict in this novel: Lacey wants to get ahead by whatever means are required, the narrator wants to document the process of artistic creation. Martin’s screen-writing ability is present throughout the process. The “get-ahead” story line drives the plot, the value of the novel lies in the documentation of what happens along the way.

I was, and am, more interested in that latter story line and I think the author delivers on it very well. Before she gets fired from Sotheby’s, Lacey’s job provides Martin with the opportunity of showing what the high-end (that means tens of millions of dollars) art auction world looks like, and he does that very well. Like John Updike, who was an accomplished art critic as well as being an excellent fiction writer, Martin knows his art — part of the charm of the novel is the 22 plates of artworks that are reproduced as they show up in the plot.

Lacey wants to climb up the wall of that world and through a combination of skill, beauty, sex and intrigue, she does — albeit with a disastrous fall awaiting each move forward. The narrator, taking a much more conservative course, moves along as well, although much more slowly. Martin uses that narrative structure to supply his own version of what was happening in the New York art world at the time — creators, dealers and buyers are all part of the mix. For this reader, that stream was by far the strongest in the book.

The result of all of this is a very intriguing read. If you are interested at all in the international art world, it is a fascinating picture. If you aren’t, it is probably a work best avoided — Martin as an art world chronicler is much better than Martin as a traditional novelist. An Object of Beauty offers a fascinating, populist take on a world that not many people know. If you are interested or curious about that world, it is worth the read — if you aren’t, checking out Steve Martin’s movies is probably a better investment of your time.

Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy

December 20, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

It was almost exactly a year ago that Tony at Tony’s Book World convinced me that I should read Maile Meloy. Her 2009 short story collection Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, had already attracted my attention by appearing on some prize lists. I tend to agree with Tony’s taste in short stories (too few bloggers read and review collections), so when he included it in his 2009 Top Ten, I figured it was time to take the plunge. I read the volume in early January; it was so good that it made my Top Ten for 2010 a few weeks back.

Meloy’s back catalogue is limited to two story collections and two novels (she’s only 38 after all) so I applied some unusual discipline in not immediately reading it all. Liars and Saints, first published in 2003, was her first novel — while it is not quite up to the exceptionally high standard of Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, it is a very good book nonetheless.

Liars and Saints is an American family saga that opens in the closing months of World War II and ends in the opening days of the current century. While it extends through four generations, “saga” is a bit of a misnomer because Meloy manages to accomplish all that in 260 tightly-written pages — the writerly discipline she shows in never wasting a word in her short stories extends to her novel.

We meet Teddy and Yvette Sancerre as they marry in a formal Mass in Santa Barbara, California shortly before he is shipped out as a U.S. Air Force pilot to the closing months of WWII in the Pacific theatre:

It was a quick wedding so Teddy could ship out, but they went two days later to a dance at the beach club where she met Teddy’s commanding officer at the bar.

“You can’t leave this girl so soon,” the officer said, looking at Yvette. She was wearing the ivory dress she was married in, because it had taken her a long time to make it, and she wasn’t going to wear it just once. It suited her, she knew — it set off her slimness and the way her dark hair curled under at her shoulders — and she blushed at how the officer looked at her.

Teddy said, “Sir?”

The officer laughed, and shook Teddy’s hand again, and said congratulations on the wedding, and then Teddy was able to smile.

They both thought the CO was only joking, but he wasn’t. He assigned Teddy to a squadron training at home, so he could stay a few months with Yvette. The Marine Corps put the new couple up at the Biltmore with the rest of the officers — the guests had all fled inland, afraid of the bombing — and they went to cocktails and tea dances, and were together every night. By the time Teddy left to fight the Japanese, Yvette was pregnant with Margot.

All of that happens in the first two pages of the novel and Meloy has already introduced all of her major themes — I mean it when I say she does not waste words.

The driving force of the novel will be the family story. Patriotic Teddy remains in the reserves after the war, which means he is called up again when the Korean War breaks out a few years later. Yvette, on the other hand, is somewhat of a rebel — she’s Canadian and her family doesn’t approve of this union with an American flyboy, she always seems to be stretching if not breaking the rules. If you sensed some presaging in the phrase “Yvette was pregnant with Margot”, you’re right — unplanned pregnancies are the markers of change in the family story line, something that was far more common five decades ago than it is now, but very real nonetheless.

Teddy and Yvette end up with three offspring. Margot will be the pious one who contemplates convent life before choosing an equally safe, upper middle-class conventional marriage. Clarissa, one year younger, is more unconventional, opting for a youthful marriage that eventually dissolves and sends her into the world of single motherhood. And Jamie, who joins the family more than a decade later, is effectively the representation of Generation X with all the anger and lack of opportunity that that involves. The lives of these three children as they mature provide the opportunity for the author to explore the bigger world of America in the latter half of the 20th century — the conventional, the early rebels and the confused generation that followed.

And finally there is that marriage Mass — underlying both the secular themes that provide narrative plot to the novel, Liars and Saints is an exploration of what it was like to be a (lapsed) Catholic during these 50 plus years. Teddy and Yvette are anything but conventionally religious, but it is said that being raised as a Catholic is an experience that means part of you is always Catholic, even if you reject the Church. I’m a lapsed Protestant so I experienced this theme (it is developed principally through Yvette) more as an observer than through personal memories — I suspect those raised in the Catholic faith as children (particularly women) are going to find it even stronger than I did and it becomes more powerful as the book goes on.

There are not a lot of dramatic moments in this novel, but they are there and they are important — revealing any of them would be significant spoilers, so you will just have to trust me. Suffice it say Meloy doesn’t miss the opportunity to offer extended vignettes ranging from generational conflict to drug issues to the role of women that were a part of those decades in Western America. If John Fante explored much of the rougher side of this world in his four-volume Saga of Arturo Bandini, Meloy gives us a realistic picture of the conflicts that were going in the supposedly comfortable conventional middle-class of the time. While the two authors have virtually no similarities in style, taken together they present an interesting picture of the confusion that was California in the late 20th century.

And I can’t help but conclude this review with a comparison to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, another American saga (albeit Midwestern and Eastern) of roughly the same era that has attracted much attention during the last four months. I am of an age which makes me a contemporary for the characters in both books and for my money Meloy does a much better job of showing what that world is like. She has none of Franzen’s scattered, near-polemical approach to critiquing the era; rather, her quiet narrative shows with much more depth what its impact was on “ordinary” people of the age. Her characters are more fully-structured, and hence more sympathetic, and the dilemmas that they face aroused far more personal memories.

And she is a better writer. Having said that, I have to admit that after reading only two of her books, I suspect Meloy’s real strength lies in the short story. As a number of other bloggers have observed, she knows how to use that restricted form to portray very complete pictures. And in many ways, that is true of Liars and Saints — in one sense, it could be regarded as a collection of linked stories. Extending the story over so many years in such a short book means that she does skip a lot of years — the novel is a chronological collection of very well-developed incidents that, taken together, produce the overall story, although each incident is complete on its own. The result is a very rewarding reading experience and the links that tie together her three major themes result in a compelling portrayal of both place and time. I highly recommend it.

The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt, by Wilhelm Genazino

December 17, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated by Philip Boehm

I’d never heard of The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt until it showed up in Reading Matters Triple Choice Tuesday feature as a book “that deserves a wider audience” recommendation from Tom Cunliffe at A Common Reader. Kimbofo’s Triple Choice Tuesday feature asks bloggers for three of their favorites — both she and Tom are regular commentors here and I decided I would expand Genazino’s audience by one, at least. I am glad I did.

While the author was unfamiliar to me, he certainly is not to the German reading world — eight novels, a trilogy and numerous literary prizes. Published in German in 2001, with this translation appearing in 2006, this short novel (132 pages) is probably labelled most easily as “existential”. I am not keen on labels so I’ll quote an accurate description from the jacket: “brief and poignant”, a reflection “on broken relationships and other failures” portraying “struggles to come to terms with life”.

Told in the first person by an unnamed character, the over-arching challenge he faces is defined in the opening pages:

But one day certain buildings have suddenly disappeared or else they’ve been remodeled to such an extent that I no longer recognize many of them and then I’m so annoyed that I no longer look at them. I don’t know if today is one of those days — probably not. If it were, then I’d once again have this sensation that people like me should be told to either disappear or else get remodeled like the old buildings. This sensation is connected with another feeling I often have, namely that I’m here in this world without my inner authorization. Strictly speaking I’m still waiting for someone to ask me whether I really want to be here. I imagine how nice it would be if I could grant myself this permission, let’s say this afternoon. As for the question of who should ask me to grant this permission, I have no idea — but that doesn’t matter.

That paragraph is typical of the narrative structure of the book. As he wanders the streets of Frankfurt, the shoe tester (his “job” is to try out samples of luxury male shoes by walking about and then compile reports on their comfort) continually runs into scenes, incidents and people that (a) rouse memories of his past, (b) open reflections on his present, (c) set off tangential thoughts and (d) raise perplexing questions about his future. The beauty of the book lies not so much in those observations, but in the gaps that lie between a, b, c and d. The narrator can put each of the pieces into his mind, but because he lacks that “inner authorization”, he cannot coherently connect them — that would represent an authorization of his life. They are obviously connected; the challenge to the reader is to contemplate what the missing parts are.

By way of example, one of the narrator’s desires is to deny being reminded of his past (he considers wearing a label that says “PLEASE NO CONVERSATIONS ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD OR MINE”), yet every person whom he comes across takes him back into his own history — he just cannot make the jump between the “then” and “now”. Here’s how it plays out when he comes across Susanne Bleuler, now an unhappy receptionist in a large law firm but also a childhood friend:

In me Susanne Bleuler has someone who can vouch for the authenticity of her desires, because when she was only twelve she confessed to me during a sled ride — I was sitting behind her on a two-seat toboggan — that she was going to be an actress and nothing else. That was the first time I’d ever touched a girl’s breasts. For I long time I didn’t realize I was dealing with a bosom. I always simply sat in back of Susanne and held onto her from behind. Nor did she notice that both of my hands were on top of her breasts every time. It wasn’t until she turned thirteen that she suddenly shoved my hands aside and laughed. I laughed too, and that shared laughter was the first time we realized that there were breasts and hands and something new and scary between us that quickly drove us apart, at least for a while.

Susanne is only one of a host of characters that the narrator runs into who remind him of aspects of his past (not all from childhood) — a failed photographer, a hairdresser, his “boss” at the shoe firm all spark journeys into memory and reminders of the gaps that exist between past and present, and inevitably provoke thoughts of gaps that will exist in the future. And it is not just people who start these mental journeys but random scenes and incidents — fallen leaves, a boy building a hideout of blankets on a balcony. While all of these people or incidents are real — and the history certainly did take place — the narrator sees it all with a sense of detachment as he is more aware of the holes in his experience and memory, than what is already there.

For this reader, the overall experience was like contemplating a three-dimensional (past, present, future) jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. The pieces that Genazino does give you are concrete, but he offers no hint of what the missing ones might be. The author invites the reader to join with the narrator in considering that absence. The narrator’s fear that his future may offer only two choices — insanity or death — becomes very real in the process. It is to Genazino’s credit that as the book comes to a close he does open a third possibility.

The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt is one of those short novels that invites an immediate second read, an invitation that I was happy to accept. There is enough going on in this book that the first time through a lot of attention is required just to figure out what is going on in the present. With that in place for the second read, both the past and the future are much more easily considered. And it is that consideration which represents the real value of the work.

We all have these kinds of memories and gaps. The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt is a book that does deserve a wide audience because it succeeds (at least for me) in bringing them forcefully into focus, a very worthwhile result from a very readable book.

Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon

December 13, 2010

Purchased at amazon.ca

Lord of Misrule is not just the title of this exceptional novel, it is the name of a race-horse who is a major character in the book. I will admit that I was very surprised when this novel showed up on the National Book Awards shortlist and even more amazed when it won. Having now read the book, and absolutely loving it, I won’t be surprised if 11 1/2 months from now it shows up on my 2011 Top Ten list.

Disclosure: I have admitted previously that I am a sucker for schoolboy novels and foodie novels, but I have not confessed my ultimate fiction love — racetrack novels. Mrs. KfC and I owned cheap racehorses (well, not more than one at a time) for a couple of decades and were regular patrons at the local, not very good, racetrack (actually, it was a lot like Indian Mound Downs, the racetrack featured in this volume). We loved the experience and remember it with great fondness — Lord of Misrule brought back many fond memories of both racing and the incredible characters that we met at the race track and I will confess that I know people who would compare to every character in the book. There are not a lot of novels in the genre (Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven stands out) so I don’t often get to indulge in raving about this kind of work. Stand by, because that is exactly what I am about to do.

Horse-racing is no longer a mass-market sport and for most readers the Kentucky Derby is about all the horse-racing that they know. It is the absolute top of the sport — 20 horses from a crop in the hundreds of thousands race for an impressive prize. Wealthy owners, society connections, lots of TV exposure. Those of us who love horse-racing also love it, but we know there is a vast undercard (that’s horse-racing talk) that is essential for the Derby to exist. Racing may be the Sport of Kings, but most of those who partake in it are anything but royalty. See Damon Runyan for a more realistic assessment.

Even at the very best racetracks, like Churchill Downs where the Derby is run, but also Belmont, Santa Anita and Gulfstream, the “big” races are supported by an undercard and most of those races involve claimers. “Claimers” are cheap horses racing for cheap purses to pay expenses as Gordon helpfully indicates in a pre-script quoting Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing:

Without claiming races there would be no racing at all. Owners would avoid the hazards of fair competition … The game would perish.

The claiming race changes all that. When he enters his animal in a race for $5,000 claiming horses, the owner literally puts it up for sale at that price. Any other owner can file a claim before the race and lead the beast away after the running. The original owner collects the horse’s share of the purse, if it earned any, but he loses the horse at a fair price.

That is, he loses the horse at a fair price if it is a $5,000 horse. If it were a $10,000 horse, in a race for cheaper ones, the owner would get the purse and collect a large bet at odds of 1 to 10, but the horse would be bought by another barn at less than its true value.

That premise is at the centre of Lord of Misrule and Gordon executes it with exceptional skill. You don’t have to be a serious gambler to see the potential — if you can sneak a $10,000 claiming horse into a $5,000 race and “dirty” the form so it doesn’t look like a $10,000 horse, you have the chance to cash a major gamble at a price much better than 1 to 10 and keep the horse in the bargain. At cheap racetracks around North America, this scam is being played out every day — and this never-ending effort to beat the odds is at the centre of Gordon’s tale.

To keep this “sport” in business, there are plenty of racetracks that are not at all like fancy Churchill Downs or Santa Anita. Indian Mound Downs in the West Virginia panhandle where the author sets this novel is one of them. The horses here are slow, or hurt, or once worth something but not now. Their next stop is the rendering plant and a future in glue, not some pleasant retirement pasture. It is a venue ripe for gambling exploitation. And Tommy Hansel and his rookie groom and go-fer girlfriend, Maggie Koderer, have arrived with four horses to do just that:

And now that he had cash to play and Maggie’s free labor and four ready horses who looked pitiful on paper, the trick was to get in and get out fast. It was Tommy who said so, Maggie had only soaked this stuff up faithfully for months — sitting on the curb of the shedrow writing headlines for Menus by Margaret: ORANGE RUM FILLING RAIDS MARGARET’S TEA RING, MANY LIVES OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST BEAN (no one watched what she wrote at that rag), and gazing up at Tommy more hypnotized than credulous, like a chawbacon at a snake-oil show. Get in and get out fast, he chanted. They had to arrive at a small track unnoticed (small but not too small — it had to have a respectable handle), drop each horse in the cheapest possible claiming race before anybody knew what they had, cash their bets, and ship out again, maybe without losing a single horse.

If you know horse racing (I suspect you don’t), this happens all the time — some shipper has always just arrived and hopes to cash a gamble. Having set that stage, however, Gordon then moves on to create a truly great book. Unlike any other enterprise that I know, the racetrack truly is a self-enclosed world. Once you walk through the gates — either at the front entrance or the backstretch — you have entered a place that has its own sets of rules and hierarchies, with its own characters, and, however powerful and knowledgable you might be outside those fences, you are just another greenhorn when you come in here. And the racetrack also has it own vocabulary and grammar, a dialect that Gordon is very good at. At the track, you would never say “Your horse ran very well in winning”, you would say “He win good”. Gordon knows that dialect.

Consider, for example, Medicine Ed who will become a major character as the novel unfolds:

How long would Medicine Ed last? He had been on the racetrack since he was eight years old. After sixty-four years of this racetrack life he, too, was sore and tired, and like the boll weevil in the song, he was looking for a home. He knew he would always have work, long as he could work. But where was it wrote that he had to rub horses till the day he died? And as for the medicine he could do and which long ago gave him his name, best folks forgot about that, and in these parts so far they had.

Tommy, Maggie and Medicine Ed are only an introduction to the cast of characters in this book — they will be joined by Two-Tie (a bookie), Joe Dale Biggs (the corrupt leading trainer at Indian Mound Downs), Deucy (an aging female trainer who has only one horse) and a host of others. Not to mention the race horses who are every bit as important as the human characters in this book — Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter and, of course, Lord of Misrule. They will all figure in the outcome.

Every one of them (well, not the horses but they have their own motivation to win) is trying to cash a gamble and looking for whatever edge they can find to help produce that result. That’s the entire premise of cheap claiming racing and this novel and there is no way I am going to spoil the story by revealing key details.

If you like horse-racing at all, this is a truly exceptional book. Even if you don’t, I recommend it — Jaimy Gordon has captured a world that really does exist within, but also apart from, the world that we all know and done it in exceptional prose. You are unlikely to describe Lord of Misrule as a study in realism if you don’t know the race track, but let me assure you that is exactly what it is. I opened this book at about 4 p.m. one day, thinking I would read a few pages and set it aside; at midnight the same day, I closed the last page. I can’t wait to open it again — it is a marvelous achievement.

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

December 10, 2010

Purchased at Owl's Nest Books

While I bought my copy of Freedom shortly after its release in August, the tsunami of ecstatic reviews, promotional articles and phoney controversies that preceded its arrival in the mailbox caused me to set it aside when it did show up. I had enjoyed The Corrections back in 2001 but found myself in the muddled middle with my reaction. I certainly liked it more than the considerable number of readers who hated it, but also thought it unworthy of the glowing praise (and awards) it attracted from other quarters. And while I remember some scenes from it, I’d have to pick up the volume again now to remind myself what it was really about.

All of which suggested to me that Franzen’s new book is what I characterize as a “holiday” read, one of those longish, plot-driven books to take along that are challenging enough to fill up hour-long chunks of reading, but not so compelling as to demand continued reading when other attractions beckoned. Since Mrs. KfC and I were planning a mini-vacation in snowy Lake Louise pre-Christmas, it seemed the right kind of book to save for the trip. After a wonderful three days there this week, which allowed completion of about two-thirds of the 562 pages, I am congratulating myself on the wisdom of my strategy.

I again find myself in the muddled middle. Freedom is not nearly as good — nor as deeply thought-provoking — as some of the laudatory reviews would like it to be. Neither is it as atrocious as some of the negative found it (I suspect they come from both unrealistic expectations and in reaction to the over-enthusiasm). It is an enjoyable and entertaining read, features interesting characters, has some pungent observations (but they come in scattered scenes not the over-arching wisdom that some found) and, perhaps most tellingly, was easy to put down when the winter mountain scenery or a good dinner was available as an alternative.

I suspect anyone who is contemplating reading Freedom already knows the elements of the plot, but here is a brief summary. The central characters are Walter and Patty Berglund, residents of St. Paul, Minnesota who kind of fell into marriage at a young age, followed almost immediately by family raising. Walter was an attorney at 3M, but not a very good one so he morphed into the community relations and philanthropy function, where he could develop his vaguely leftish interest in the environment and semi-unpopular causes (over-population is his lifelong obsession). Patty was a promising university basketball player at the University of Minnesota until blowing her knee. She’d chosen Minnesota to escape her oppressive upscale parents in New York — her father has a law practice in White Plains, her mother is a Democrat assemblywoman in Albany — and was content to produce two children and devote her life to her kids and restoring their Victorian house. This idyll is falling apart as the book opens.

Franzen’s continuing underlying theme is that whatever your definition of “freedom” might be, it is going to come with its share of challenges, disappointments and disasters. To make that work, he introduces a largish cast of supporting characters, most of whom demand significant licence from the reader to accept as real portrayals — Walter’s best friend, Richard Katz, is a handsome, struggling, drug-using alternative musician, Patty’s university career is disrupted by an obsessive adoring fan. As the central couple moves on, relatives, their children, a Texas oilman, a beautiful assistant and assorted others all get introduced to help the story along — and provide platforms for Franzen to launch elements of his wide-ranging critique of American society in the first decade of the 21st century.

He also plays with structure to make that easier for the author (and to an extent, the reader). If you are one of those book buyers who settles into a chair at the store to test a prospective purchase, the first 26 pages of this book are like an executive summary and the perfect length for an in-store read. Be forewarned, however, that (at least for me) it is the best writing in the book. (John Self at the Asylum called it an “overture” which is an even better description — if you aren’t acquainted with the plot of the book, he also does a much more complete job of describing it than you will find here.)

That is followed by about 160 pages of Patty’s “autobiography”, Mistakes Were Made (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion), which is a handy way of getting the rest of the disruptive aspects of the back story into play. The remainder of the book comes in a more conventional form with chapters told from the point of view of Walter/Patty, their son Joey and the often physically absent, but always thought of, Katz (yes, he, not Walter, was Patty’s first choice).

What is effective with this rather convoluted approach is that it does create opportunities for Franzen to throw his daggers — Bush/Cheney, MTR (that’s shorthand for Mountain Top Removal coal mining), self-serving philanthropy, corrupt U.S. companies operating in Iraq, the harmful results of indulgent parenting, the desctructive impact of house cats on bird species are just a few of the incredibly wide range of targets. I was frequently reminded of my experience in reading Ian McEwan’s Solar earlier this year — many of the vignettes in both books were very, very well done but the overall impression was comparable to sampling a not very good buffet that featured scores of different dishes, many of which turned out to be not very good at all.

What is also good is that Franzen’s style carries all this along at a perfectly reasonable pace. There are no quotes included in this review because he is not a writer who lends himself to quotes — short ones would look unfairly glib (he is exceptionally good at the quick phrase), longer ones would simply show that he is more than adept at stringing them together. You can open the book at almost any page (although particularly in the first 26 pages) and what you see is what you will get throughout the book. It flows at a very consistent pace.

Certainly, as someone who is living through this period of North American history (and Minnesota is the most “Canadian” of American states) and did spend three years of the book’s time frame living in Pennsylvania (next door to West Virginia, which does feature in the book), Franzen is often perceptive about the foibles of modern America — heck, even the mortgage bubble features in the latter part of the book.

The biggest problem while reading the book is that all of it — not just the book as a whole, but even many of the episodes — is simply too long. By about page 400, patience with the liberties the author was granting himself (in a novel that all too frequently explores the downside of “liberty” as a driving value) was wearing thin and there were still 160 pages to go.

And sex is almost as consistently present a feature as the consequences of liberty/freedom. All three major male characters have issues — Walter is confused by it, son Joey and Richard Katz are obsessed by it. Franzen treats sex very mechanically which starts out by being mildly annoying but his constant return to the theme, without much variation, became very tedious for me. And I suspect many female readers would substitute “crude and chauvanistically offensive” for my “tedious”.

As I said at the start, the result when the last page was turned was much like my reaction to The Corrections — reading the book was just fine, but there is no way that it makes my list of Great American Novels and I have no desire to return for a second read to contemplate the deeper thoughts that I might have missed the first time. Like the earlier book, I suspect in a few years I will remember some episodes with considerable fondness, but have trouble describing the overall work.

Indeed, I would offer two comparisons that also frequently came to mind while reading the book. Franzen is like Tom Wolfe in the sweeping panorama of his take on America — he is simply not as good as Wolfe when it comes to the overall picture that emerges as a result. And for a portrayal of modern excess, Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges takes on the same subject with better results in half the number of pages.

2010 — KfC’s 10 best

December 4, 2010

I am quite aware that 2010 has some time to run but, like the New York Times and other publications similar to KfC :-), I am also aware that December is a time when people contemplate giving (or getting) books as Holiday presents. So, if only to put your own brain into gear, here are the 10 best books I have read in the last 12 months. If you can find an inspiration to give — or to receive — any one of them, so much the better.

I don’t have a favorite in the ten. I have listed them in the order that I read them. Click on the title for the original full review.

The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton. This was a re-read of a favorite book, so it is no surprise to see it on this list (the link will take you to a couple of other Wharton novels as well). Edith Wharton (and Henry James) are two of my favorite authors. The compelling story of Undine Spragg’s exploitation of her beauty and fortune is one of the most powerful novels ever written. If you don’t know Wharton, don’t start here (The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth are both better entry points) but for my money this is the best novel from one of the best writers ever.

The Cello Suites, by Eric Siblin. This is one of the few non-fiction books that I have reviewed, but it reads like a novel and keeps coming back to mind. Siblin splits his story into three recurring parts: Bach’s composition of the Suites, Pablo Casal’s discovery of them, and Siblin’s own search for the story. An intriguing and powerful read — and you can play the exceptional Suites in the background as you read it.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy.
I am a fan of short story collections and this is an exceptional one — and Meloy has a back catalogue that will be reviewed here in the future. She is Montana born and raised and it is the stories that are set there that are my favorites. Every story features carefully developed characters, facing interesting challenges — overall the book is an excellent example of how this genre can serve readers in a very special way.

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger. Salinger’s death in January moved me to reread all his published works (the link will take you to reviews of all but The Catcher in the Rye) and I was not disappointed with the experience. Nine Stories, the volume that introduces us to the Glass family, was — and is — my favorite. Every story is an experience. And we are still wondering if there are manuscripts that might yet be published. If you haven’t read this collection, make time for it — truly exceptional.

Even the Dogs, by Jon McGregor. This was my first McGregor and a personal Booker Prize favorite, even if it did not make the longlist. McGregor tracks a collection of Birmingham drug addicts and down-and-outers in a humanistic (albeit dreary) story. It is a deeply touching novel, despite its sordid details, and one that keeps coming back to mind. A very powerful novel.

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. In sharp contrast to McGregor, the funniest novel that I read in 2010. In some ways it is a collection of linked short stories — profiles of 11 characters who work for, or read, an English-language newspaper published in Italy. Every one of them is developed in full fashion and the result is a heart-warming collection of stories of “lost souls”, trying their best to survive. A debut novel, it offers promise of much more from the author in the future — a book not to be missed by serious readers.

Ghosted, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall. Another first novel and very much a personal favorite, although it did get overlooked in the Canadian awards world. Like McGregor’s book, it tells the story of down-and-outers — and in the process presents a most interesting picture of contemporary Toronto. A mix of comedy and tragedy, it has some wonderful moments about the life of the struggling in Canada’s largest city. Excellent characterization, but for me even better is the way it captures a contemporary urban enviornment.

In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut. My choice (and that of many other serious readers) from the 2010 Booker Prize shortlist, this novel consists of three linked novella-length stories about a traveller who searches for, but never quite finds, a meaningful life. Galgut is an author with a substantial reputation and this book only adds to it. Fair warning — it is a novel that wants more than one read to really appreciate it.

Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod. Another debut work, this time a collection of short stories, all set in Windsor, Canada. It was the unanimous choice of this year’s Shadow Giller Jury, although the Real Jury opted for Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists. MacLeod (the son of Alistair, who is one of the world’s best short-story writers) recounts seven stories with a wide variety of characters — some are better than others, but every one is exceptional. Another author to be appreciated in the present and, even more, looked forward to in the future.

The Barracks, by John McGahern. Consider this a KfC version of a lifetime achievement award (the link will take you to reviews of four of McGahern’s novels). The Irish produce a lot of great writers — some of us believe that McGahern is the best. He isn’t cheery — this study of the desolate loneliness of a police sergeant’s wife struggling to make a life is typical of his work. But amidst the sorry tale, there is an undertone of struggle and hope that adds a rare depth. I have a couple of McGahern novels to go and I can’t wait to get to them.

Whoops, we are going to have an eleventh choice. I’d made my selections before I read Philip Roth’s Nemesis and there is no way that I can leave it off the list for 2010. Roth’s book is about a polio epidemic in New Jersey in 1944 — from the opening pages it brought to life my own childhood and the fear of polio a decade or so later. The first half of the novel captures that experience, for those of you who were — or weren’t — there. The second half explores notions of personal responsibility and guilt. When Roth is on he is exceptional. This book completes his recent four-novella series and, for me, they represent an amazing achievement.

A number of “name” authors produced novels this year — Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, David Mitchell, Jonathan Franzen and Jane Urquhart to name just a few — and none of them made my personal list, as good as their books might have been. If I was to characterize the fiction world of 2010, I would say it was a year when a number of new authors produced some outstanding work and some lesser-known names moved up the list. I have to think that a changing of the guard is underway — and for those of us who love to read fiction, there is very good reason to be optimistic that very good books are going to be produced in the near future.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth

December 1, 2010

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Please grant me the privilege of backing into the review of this exceptional novel. I was born in 1948 and part of my earliest memories as a child are centred on polio, or rather, trying to avoid polio. Jonas Salk had not yet discovered his vaccine (that would come in 1955) so the threat of polio was very much part of my growing up — as I am sure it was for everyone of a similar age. I can remember as a child getting the first “jab” and how delighted my parents were — selfishly, I remember even better the first sugar cube with vaccine on it which was way better than a “jab” as far as I was concerned. And I will admit that, decades later, when Mrs. KfC and I lived only yards away from the Watson Institute in Sewickley, PA where Salk did his first tests, I was humbled by living so close to a location where something so important had been tested.

For those who weren’t there, polio wasn’t just having your mother say “don’t go to the swimming pool” or “be careful of anyone who coughs”; the experience was very much one of the world suddenly changing without warning. A best friend at Sunday School was, the next Sunday, no longer there — Luke had contracted “polio” and was in an “iron lung” and not at school and if he survived he would probably never walk again. When you are six years old, that is a bit of a shock. Welcome to the real world, Kevin. I don’t think there is any modern comparison (thankfully). This was a disease that stalked children (well, adults too, but we didn’t know that) and nobody knew how it happened or what could be done to stop it.

Philip Roth’s Nemesis is set a decade or so ahead of my experience, in Newark, New Jersey in 1944, but it vividly brought to my mind my own childhood. There is a war going on (actually two, considering both the European and Pacific fronts), but in Newark that summer the threat is neither the Nazis nor the Japanese, it is the epidemic that is striking the city’s children. While the global war is never absent from this short novel, the local war against whatever this polio is is what dominated concern.

Bucky Cantor is the 23-year-old playground director in the mainly Jewish area of Weequahic. His bad eyes have kept him out of the Armed Forces, despite his attempts to enlist. And as summer arrives, so does the “polio season”. You had to be there to appreciate this — summer was not just welcome warm weather, it was the paralyzing threat of polio, with all of the restrictions and threats that that involved. Weequahic has escaped things, so far. Mr. Cantor’s work (one of the attractive traits of this book is the way Roth uses different ways of naming his central character to indicate his status of the moment) has been disrupted by the arrival of two carloads of Italians from the East Side, where there have been a number of cases:

“What do you fellows want here?” Mr. Cantor said.

“We’re spreadin’ polio,” one of the Italians replied. He was the one who’d come swaggering out of the cars first. “Ain’t that right?” he said, turning to preen for the cohorts backing him up, who appeared right off to Mr. Cantor to be only too eager to begin a brawl.

“You look more like you’re spreading trouble,” Mr. Cantor told him. “Why don’t you head out of here?”

“No, no,” the Italian guy insisted, “not till we spread some polio. We got it and you don’t, so we thought we’d drive up and spread a little around.” All the while he talked, he rocked back and forth on his heels to indicate how tough he was. The brazen ease of his thumbs tucked into the front two loops of his trousers served no less than his gaze to register his contempt.

“I’m playground director here,” Mr. Cantor said, pointing back over his shoulder towards us kids. “I’m asking you to leave the vicinity of the playground. You’ve got no business here and I’m asking you politely to go. What do you say?”

“Since when is there a law against spreadin’ polio, Mr. Playground Director?”

“Look, polio is not a joke. And there’s a law against being a public nuisance. I don’t want to have to call the police. How about leaving on your own, before I get the cops to escort you out of here?”

My apologies for the length of that excerpt, but it speaks to the amazing eloquence of the entire novel. That exchange, read in 2010, seems ludicrous — let me assure you, in the times where the novel is set, it is a portrayal of high realism. And it is only one of dozens that I could pull from this amazing novel.

The first case of polio soon strikes in Weequahic. Was it the Italians who visited the playground? Is it the highly-polluted air of the neighborhood? Or perhaps the hot dog shop where a number of the victims had eaten? Or the lack of quarantine of effected houses? Maybe all the kids getting together — and sweating — at the playground? No one knows, but everyone has an opinion. Nothing is beyond suspicion.

Roth introduces all those possiblities in the first half of the novel and every single one of them brought back memories. Can you imagine, as a six or seven year old, what it is like to know that there is a life-threatening demon lurking out there and you have absolutely no idea what form it might take or how it might “get” you? Roth is a master of language and of controlling emotion and he builds this scenario with incredible skill — I felt like he had been there in my childhood, even though what he was describing was a decade earlier and a thousand miles away.

As Playground Director, Bucky is both concerned and guilted when a number of his charges are struck by the disease, a couple fatally. Surely there was something he could, or should, have done? He attends their funerals and the guilt that is laid on him there only makes things worse — is he part of the problem? The number of his charges is steadily shrinking as parents keep their children at home — but he still wonders just what his responsibility was, or is.

Which is where Roth takes this novel in a different direction at the halfway point and turns it into a more traditional work (and does that very well, I must say). Bucky has a girl friend, Marcia, a fellow teacher in his school-year job at the grade school. She is the daughter of a doctor and comes from a family much better connected than Bucky’s grandparents who have raised him. Marcia has a job at a summer camp — Indian Hill — in the Poconos in nearby Pennsylvania. The waterfront director has just been drafted and there is an opening which is perfectly suited for Bucky. The job has a lot of attractions, not the least being the idea that isolated, fresh air locations like the Poconos are supposedly polio-free. Oh, and there is also an island where he and Marcia would have some privacy.

It is at this point that Nemesis became, for me, more a novel than a reminder of childhood — and Roth made the transition perfectly. Bucky does go to Indian Hill and the novel enters a whole new dimension. He has a wonderful time, but is plagued by guilt throughout. And yes (SPOILER) he does contract polio while he is there, setting up the kind of conclusion that readers expect from a writer as talented as Philip Roth.

A number of readers whom I respect regard Roth as the best of living American authors — I can’t disagree, but I am less entranced than they are with his major works. On the other hand, I would say that Nemeses, the collected title he has designated for his latest four works (of which this novel is the last), represents an exceptional author at his very best. For me, the short novel (all of these four can be easily read in one sitting) draws out the best of Roth — and leaves him no room for what he is not good at. The four novels — Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis — are all exceptional, a writer at the very top of his game.

There is no doubt that my personal experience has colored my opinion of this book and I do not apologize for that. Indeed, for those of you who are not yet in your 60s, you need to read this to understand what those of us who are went through as children. I do feel indebted to an author who has brought back memories of my childhood so forcefully and effectively. And, for those who have disputed my previous concerns about Roth, I must admit I will be going back to his previous work for a reread with a whole new attitude. I think I might have missed something the first time around.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 441 other followers