Archive for the ‘Author’ Category

Crimes Against My Brother, by David Adams Richards

August 3, 2014

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

One thing can be said for certain: in the literary world, the Miramichi River, the rugged terrain surrounding it and the people who live there are every bit as much “David Adams Richards country” as southwestern Ontario belongs to Alice Munro. A list of his publications, both fiction and non-fiction, numbers more than 20 and most are centred on the Miramichi. And those works have produced recognition, spread over decades: A Governor-General’s Award for Fiction in 1988 (Nights Below Station Street), another one for non-fiction in 1998 (Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi) and a Giller Prize in 2000 (Mercy Among The Children).

I was born in 1948, Richards in 1950, so his writing career and my reading one have certainly overlapped. I don’t count him as one of my favorite authors but over the decades I have read a number of his books (I can’t say exactly how many), although Crimes Against My Brother is the first since the KfC blog started 5 1/2 years ago. Let’s just say that I am willing to venture into the Miramichi valley every now and then, but the fictional version is not one of my favorite destinations.

Richards’ Miramichi is not a particularly pleasant place. At the top end of the scale, it is an environmentally stunning one — a world-famous salmon river surrounded by incredible stands of timber. That produces the mid-level conflict — lumbering companies who strip the land, endanger the river and its tributaries and cruelly exploit their workers. And right at the bottom, we have the people who struggle to live there. As is the case with so many people who are born and live their lives in resource-rich areas, they are pawns in the global economy and that powerless status becomes amplified in the way they relate to each other.

Crimes Against My Brother features all of those elements. If you haven’t yet ventured into Richards’ Miramichi it would not be my recommendation as the place to start (Mercy Among The Children would be my choice) — if as a reader you have been here before (and appreciated the experience), you will want to explore this latest part of the ongoing saga.

Here is the author introducing this latest Miramichi volume:

Ian Preston had some good times with his two cousins, Evan Young and Harold Dew.

There were two or three things that united them, as if they were tethered together in the hold of a ship.

One, each boy grew to manhood on the Bonny Joyce-Clare’s Longing stretch of the river.

Two, all three know Joyce Fitzroy and Lonnie Sullivan, all of them had to work for Sullivan and all had a chance at getting Joyce Fitzroy’s inheritance. But the one who didn’t seek it got it. That fact is a strange anomaly in the heavens, one that might make us believe or disbelieve. That is, no matter how things happen, some will say yes, there is a God, and others will say no, this proves no God exists. As for God himself — he has already made up his mind.

The narrator of the novel is himself a product of the Miramichi from the same era. He is from the same generation as Ian, Evan and Harold but “escaped” to college in New York, went on to Yale and is now a tenured professor but his heart and soul (and this is typical of Richards’ work) remain in the Bonny Joyce-Clare’s Longing stretch of the river:

I spoke to my students often — all of whom had written their interminable essays, their left-leaning theories on the dispossessed, their brilliant studies of our disenfranchised, every piece so polished you would think it is publishable in The Globe and Mail — about these three. Yet I realized that not one of my students had ever slept in a room with rats walking across the floor like Ian Preston had. Not one of them, at fourteen, had stood up against men coming in at night drunk to fuck his mother, like Evan Young. Not one had carried a water bucket up a gangplank, or tossed wood all day until dark, like Harold Dew. Not one had cut his own wood for the winter, trapped beaver against a black brook, killed an animal with a stick. Or gone at twelve years of age to work for Lonnie Sullivan. That is, even as I taught these students, these pleasant, affable upwardly mobile young men and women, I wondered what could their inestimable essays ever say beyond what I myself had known in my blood by the time I was ten years old? And why did my mother and father want this for me — this world where I had become something of a figure of merit? To fuss and preen over me when I came home?

In the world that Richards creates, the powerless people in this valley — not just the three cousins and the narrator, but everyone who appears — have three options about the fundamental source they will choose as a guide for their lives:

  • They can choose to devote themselves to God as Sydney Henderson has (he was a central character in Mercy Among The Children, a minor one here). He made a pact with God, but as you can tell from the first excerpt his God was not a particularly beneficent one. There are others in this book who have a made a similar pact — although not Ian, Evan or Harold.
  • Or you can reject God, as the three boys did when they were caught for three days in the terrible ice storm of 1974 on Good Friday Mountain where they were cutting and hauling Christmas trees for Lonnie Sullivan. In a blood brother ceremony before they are saved, they reject Sydney’s God and vow to survive on their own. That puts them at the mercy of the mercantile, commerce-cheating, global-economy world — a world that has little patience for the children of the Miramichi.
  • And then there’s the “get by as best you can” option, the choice of most of the secondary characters in the book — Annette Brideau, the Robb sisters, the narrator himself, to mention just a few. This choice has its problems as well, since both the malevolent God of Sydney and the equally malevolent powers of commerce keep intruding on the Miramichi — “as best you can” is an ever-moving target.
  • Crimes Against My Brother will follow the three boys through to adulthood — a concise summary of the story would describe it as “relentlessly bleak”. Two of them, in fact, will “succeed” in conventional economic terms; they do not in any way “succeed” in finding an enjoyable life. The narrative stream pretty much moves from one upheaval to another, following the stories of each of the three.

    Like the other Richards’ novels that I have read, this is a look at the inherently powerless, how life treats them and how they respond. There are truly despicable creatures in the novel (Lonnie) and there are sadly misguided ones (Annette), but for the most part it features decent people doing their best to find a decent life — and almost always failing, sometimes from their own weaknesses, more often because of external forces.

    From my experience, that seems to be consistent with Richards ongoing exploration of the Miramichi and its people and one can hardly fault him for returning to this world and those who live there. If Alice Munro looks at her part of Canada through sepia-toned glasses as some have observed, Richards looks at his with razor-sharp, penetrating precision — life in his Miramichi Valley is definitely not pleasant, but it is a story that deserves to be told.

    The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman

    July 30, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

    Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

    Author Tom Rachman gives the reader three starting points in the life of Tooly Zylberberg in this novel:

  • 2011 — Thirtysomething Tooly owns and operates a used bookstore in a converted pub in Wales, aided (sort of) by Fogg. Trade is slim by any measure, but it has its moments — and Fogg’s wandering philosophical meanderings are in themselves a source of some amusement. The shop is the kind of place a tightly-united community welcomes. A powerful symbol is the Honesty Barrel, “a cask of overstock”, left outside the store where passersby can take a volume (suggested contribution £1) and move on — the Barrel has to be taken in when rain threatens, which is a major decision in the quiet life of running the bookshop:

    Caergenog — just across the Welsh side of the border with England — was populated by a few hundred souls, a village demarcated for centuries by two pubs, one at the top of Roberts Road and the other at its foot. The high ground belonged to the Butcher’s Hook, named in recognition of the weekly livestock market across the street, while the low ground, opposite the church and roundabout, was occupied by World’s End, a reference to that pub’s location at the outer boundary of the village. World’s End had always been the less popular option (who wanted to carouse with a view of iron crosses in the graveyard?) and the pub closed for good in the late 1970s. The building stood empty for years, boarded up and vandalized, until a married couple — retired academics from the University of Bristol — bought the property and converted it into a used bookshop.

    That business plan failed, but Tooly has resurrected it, alas with no positive results to date. As the previous owners said, maybe “some youthful energy” could turn it into a break-even business “but you won’t get rich”.

  • 1999 — The 20-year-old Tooly, resident of Brooklyn, but self-directed student of Manhattan who is keeping a marked map of her excursions:

    Tooly intended to walk the entirety of New York, every passable street in the five boroughs. After several weeks, she had pen lines radiating like blue veins from her home in the separatist republic of Brooklyn into the breakaway nations of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, although their surly neighbor, Staten Island, remained unmarked. Initially, she had chosen neighborhoods to explore by their alluring names: Vinegar Hill and Plum Beach, Breezy Point and Utopia, Throggs Neck and Spuyten Duyvil, Alphabet City and Turtle Bay. But the more enticing a place sounded the more ordinary it proved — not as a rule, but as a distinct tendency.

    This Tooly has discovered a tactic that helps fuel her curiosity: if she knocks on a door and says she used to live in this very apartment and wants a look round to remind her, people tend to let her in. This thread of the story acquires momentum when she does just that at a suite occupied by three students near Columbia University and moves into their convoluted lives.

  • 1988 — Tooly is not quite 10 and she and her father Paul are about to land in Thailand. Paul is an IT expert whose job consists of upgrading computer access in minor U.S. diplomatic posts so they can dip into massive data bases to check on possible terrorists. He has just finished a contract in Australia and now the two are moving to Bangkok — even though most of his work is in outposts, he likes to operate from a base in a larger city.

    “Landing cards,” Paul said, thinking aloud, and grabbed two as they waited in line at the border control. “When were you born?”

    “You know that.”

    “I know that,” he acknowledged, filling it in. He looked around, startled at the slightest noise — he was rigidly tense in public with Tooly. A Velcro strap on his shoe had come unstuck, so she knelt to attach it. “What are you doing?” he asked irritably. “It’s nearly our turn.”

    The immigration officer summoned them. Paul was a man who followed rules — indeed, their absence unnerved him. Yet whenever he addressed authorities his mouth became audibly dry. “Good morning. Evening,” he said, sweat budding on his upper lip.

    We know from the other two threads (where Paul is absent) that Tooly got away from Thailand. We don’t know how, and that will become the dramatic dilemma of the novel.

  • For this reader, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the latest example of a new fiction phenomenon (I’m reluctant to call it a genre): authors who have been “raised globally” bringing that experience to their writing.

    Now authors have always travelled: Byron and Shelley headed to Italy; Fitzgerald, Baldwin, Hemmingway and a host of others Paris. But that used to happen after they started writing — now we see young (or at least youngish) authors, most of them currently based around New York it seems, producing “globally wandering” novels that capture their growing-up life. From just the last year, I’d give you Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. That’s a Pulitzer winner, a Booker winner and a New York Times 10 best, so you can hardly say the trend isn’t attracting attention.

    Rachman fits the profile: born in London (the English one), raised in Vancouver, attended the University of Toronto and Columbia in New York, headed off to Europe where he worked for the Associated Press in Rome and Paris. Indeed, his first work — the delightful The Imperfectionists — is a novel-in-stories that I absolutely loved centred on an English-language newspaper published in Rome.

    I only wish that I could say the same about this novel. Given that the 10-year-old Tooly stream is mainly a set up, I didn’t expect much from it.

    But 20-year-old Tooly in New York as the millennium comes to an end seemed to be fertile ground and 31-year-old Tooly running a used bookshop in Wales sure had promise — promise that kept looming on the horizon but never arrived.

    Part of the problem for me was the supporting cast. To keep his story together, Rachman needs to have “Tooly manipulators” and he never succeeded in making them three-dimensional — instead, they became plot advancers. And while I was quite willing to engage with Tooly herself (and often did), bouncing between the decades often left me more frustrated than satisfied. I should confess I had the same problem with Tartt and Kushner’s novels — maybe I am just a reader who wants more “stay at home” depth and less “wandering the world” panorama.

    Please don’t let that grumpy response put you off the novel. Rachman is a very talented wordsmith and some of the set pieces in this one are delightful — given my more positive response to The Perfectionists, it is easy to say that at this stage in his career the short story model remains his strength. While I don’t think The Rise and Fall of Great Powers succeeds, it is a step in the right direction — I am pretty sure that sometime in the future Rachman will produce a truly outstanding novel.

    God Telling a Joke and Other Stories, by Dave Margoshes

    July 27, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Oolichan Books

    Review copy courtesy Oolichan Books

    A few decades back (well, more than three, to be slightly more precise) Dave Margoshes and I were colleagues in the newsroom at the Calgary Herald. I was a political reporter (and not a bad one, if I can toot my own former horn) — his brief was pretty much everything but politics, so our day-to-day reporting paths didn’t often cross.

    Our journalistic paths did, if only in what I learned from one of the best news reporters with whom I ever worked. A reporter’s basic job is to collect all the information you can (not just the parts that serve your tilt on the story) — and Dave did that on every assignment. A far more important and difficult task is “selecting” the relevant bits that capture the story — I could do that with politics, but was in awe of the way that Dave could do it with almost any subject he was handed.

    And then there was putting it all together for publication — in as few words as possible. In the news business in those days, there were lots of people who could write a “good” story in 2,000 words. A few talented ones could take the same data and produce an even better story in 1,000. Only the best could take all that “stuff” and make 500 words tell the story — I could not do that very often, but Dave sure could. “Rewrite” is a task that has disappeared in modern newsrooms but it was very alive then — and it seemed that every morning, Dave was called on to reduce 2,000 words of someone else’s work to 500 and not lose a thing. The 500 almost always said more than the 2,000 did (okay, he rewrote my work on occasion and, of course, I always felt something had been lost, hence the “almost always”).

    I provide that lengthy introduction to say that those reporting/story-telling skills (I’d label them “observation” and “reduction”) are on full display in this new collection of 16 stories. We don’t get a lot of “big” plot events to help the author along here — we have human, humane incidents where observing, selecting and recounting show the writer’s craft. Anyone who has ever tried to write anything, be it a news story or fiction, would be well advised to get a copy and appreciate the result.

    Consider as a starter the third story in the collection, “Bucket of Blood”, and the way that it is introduced:

    The bar had no proper name but was known as the Bucket of Blood. The day that Archie Duggan dies there, two Wednesdays ago, and the following day, when his death was mentioned in the news, it was the first time that the place, which had stood at the corner of 11th Avenue and Osler Street for over a hundred years, had registered in the minds of most of the people of the city in decades.

    The bar was located in the basement of a rundown hotel that had once been called the Earle. The hotel had been built be a man named Louis P. Earle, a flamboyant former railway worker who had washed up in what was then still a town, not yet a city, after the construction of the CPR. In its heyday, the Earle Hotel was a good dignified address at which to spend a night or two, or even longer, though there was always a confusion, among both guests and the residents of the town alike who had not had the occasion to ever meet Louis P. Earle, or hear his name said aloud, as to the pronunciation of the hotel’s name: was it sounded Earl or Early?

    The second paragraph in that excerpt extends for almost another page, but I’m thinking that provides flavor enough. We know that Archie Duggan dies, but to understand that story we need more backstory. And, in good journalistic (and fiction) tradition, we get it. The bar has its aging regulars (Archie included) who show up everyday and its share of “other” trade, drug dealers included, but that has dropped off. Danny, the bartender and general manager, is a recovering alcoholic — and has sponsored a number of AA members from his customer base over the years, but Archie wasn’t one of them. Like Danny, Archie is also a recovering alcoholic who only drinks ginger ale — but they never discuss what brought both of them to this bar.

    On that day [the day Archie died] — the 17th of August, a Wednesday — Archie came into the bar, smiling to himself over the reassuring creak of the heavy door, at his usual time, more or less fifteen minutes after three in the afternoon. Danny O’Hara, who had a railroad man’s eye for detail, had often wondered about the significance of that time — never 3 p.m., never 3:30, but always 3:15, give or take a minute or two in either direction. Early on in their relationship — hardly friends, but bartender to customer, warmed by their mutual knowledge of the past they shared, the past they had, for different reasons, put well behind them — Danny had glanced at his watch as Archie took his preferred seat at one end of the bar, and Archie commented without elaboration “School’s out.” That was intriguing: was the man a teacher? A parent — or grandparent — of a school-age child? A student himself? From the looks of him, his neat but shabby suit, the Blue Jays ballcap on top a full head of snow white hair, his well-used face and rough hands, Archie was more likely to be a school janitor than any of the other possibilities. But when he died, the small write-up in the paper, the same story that invoked the name and reputation of the Earle Hotel for the first time in the public prints in many years, identified him merely as “a pensioner”, so Danny would never know.

    Margoshes is more fiction writer than reporter now, so “Bucket of Blood” does have a twist — I won’t be spoiling the story and we will move on to another one.

    “Lightfoot and Goodbody” was another personal favorite in this collection. Bob Klebeck is 77 and his life in a Winnipeg senior citizens’ apartment is too much for him: a pathetic schedule of activites (“the Globe and Peter Gzowski in the morning over two cups of coffee — no more — plus doctors’ appointments, counsellor’s appointments, poker games, chess games visits to the library…”), children who are too busy to care, etc. etc.

    So he decides it is time to become a modern-day tramp. First off, he adopts the name Lightfoot (yes, after the folk singer — we Canadians are devoid of imagination). Much as he would like to pack a bindlestiff, he opts for a knapsnack — underwear, socks, two knit shirts, a chunk of cheddar and a half loaf of Winnipeg-style rye, a bottle of water, reading glasses and a 95-cent used copy of The Grapes of Wrath — and decides to head west.

    The romantic image, too, called for him to shuffle off into the sunset. Instead, leaving early in the morning, the sun was still at his back as he headed west along the Trans-Canada Highway (a brief bus ride brought him to the edge of town), his thumb stuck out in the most desultory of fashion. The mountains, where he imagined himself laying his head beside a free-flowing stream, beneath rain-fresh resin-smelling pine trees, were many hundreds of miles away — he still steadfastly refused to use the word “kilometre” or any of the other metric vocabulary. They were surely too far to reach in a day’s tramping, maybe two, even with good luck and many rides. Between them lay miles and miles of undulating fields of amber wheat, sky-blue flax, bright-yellow canola — his mouth paused in sour annoyance at the made-up name for the perfectly legitimate rape his grandfather had once planted, some people’s sensitivities be damned; miles of grain, then equal miles of undulating rangeland where, if he was lucky, he might see an antelope in the distance and a hawk observing his progress disdainfully from high above. Many, many miles, far too many for any man to walk, let alone a seventy-seven-year-old man with bad knees, a bad stomach, and a stroke, mild though it was, only two years behind him. Still, what lay ahead, he knew — thought he knew, at any rate — was do-able, weighted down merely be discomfort. And with all this in mind, and a hundred and seventy-seven dollars, in various denominations and combinations of change in his pockets, a VISA card in his wallet, a pair of poorly fitting sunglasses perched on his nose, and a jaunty porkpie hat set on an angle on his almost hairless head, Lightfoot set out.

    He gets a couple of typical rides — a Mercedes-Benz salesman delivering a new car to Swift Current, a farmer on his way back to the homestead. And he stops for pie and coffee at the Pilgrim truck stop. And then he gets picked up by Doris Goodbody, a female version of Lightfoot himself, and the story really starts. Two finer people in fiction you cannot meet, I would say.

    As much as I appreciate my old friend Dave and those stories, I suspect I have done him no favor by choosing those two to highlight in this review. Most of the 16 in this book have far more substance to them (imagine how long the review would be if I’d tried to describe them?) and the author is very good at applying the distinctive twist that often features in good short stories. And while the two I have highlighted are set in Western Canada, let me assure you that the 16 in this collection go much father afield (and beyond worldly field in the title story).

    Whatever. This is a first-rate collection, from an old friend, that I would recommend to anyone. Margoshes last collection (A Book of Great Worth) was a novel-in-stories devoted to his father — this equally stunning collection is a series of observations and ruminations (and quite a few jokes) developed over a modern lifetime. It was a quiet joy to read — you won’t be disappointed.

    The Confabulist, by Steven Galloway

    July 16, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

    Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

    Steven Galloway struck a responsive chord with both critics and readers with his most recent novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008). In that book, he started with a real incident: a bomb attack in the destructive Yugoslavian war that killed 22 people waiting in a bread line and the decision by a cellist to return to the scene for 22 days in a row and play Albinoni’s Adagio as a memorial to mourn their fate.

    While that well-known, and evocative, event provided the over arching framework, Galloway’s attention was devoted to three “ordinary” individuals and how they were influenced by the conflict. One was Kenan; his story concerned his dangerous weekly walk through the conflict to fetch water for his family. A second thread was the story of Dragan and his equally threatening trek to a free meal. And the third was “Arrow”, the pseudonym for a talented female sniper whose task was to protect the cellist and his memorial concerts from a hidden sniper.

    The novel worked very well — it explored the way that destructive conflict has a profound effect on those who have the misfortune to be living where it takes place, even if they have no direct involvement in the hostilities and are just trying to get on with life.

    In his latest novel, The Confabulist, Galloway has again returned to a well-known real story: the life and, more importantly, death of illusionist Harry Houdini, arguably the most famous person in the world at his prime. That death came from a ruptured appendix, perhaps the result of an incident in Montreal where a visitor to his dressing room punched him several times in the abdomen, testing a kind of urban legend that said Houdini was immune to that kind of attack.

    There is a key difference in this volume however. While The Cellist of Sarajevo focused on the stories of three individuals who were impacted by the central event, in this one author Galloway’s interest is in three story lines which he speculates came together to create the “event”.

    Magicians are clever. They understand that a magic trick is all about turning illusion into substance in such a way that we never fully comprehend what happened, or what we think happened. They know that a trick loses its power once we understand how it was done, and also that it loses its power once we no longer wish to understand how it was done.

    There are four elements to this grand tug-of-war between substance and illusion. There is effect, there is method, there is misdirection, and finally, when it’s all over, there is reconstruction. Magic is a dance between these four elements. The actor playing a magician seeks to choreograph a way through the trick with these component parts. If he does so, he will have achieved magic. If not, he is a failure.

    The author uses those paragraphs to introduce an explanation that extends for some pages (and quite a good one, I must say) of how an artist produces his illusion/magic, but that is not why I have quoted them here. Rather, they serve as a précis of the elements that Galloway will keep in play in the novel itself: there’s effect, method, misdirection and reconstruction involved, we just don’t know which is predominent at any moment.

    Like the previous novel, this one comes with three narrative streams:

  • One is Houdini’s life itself, starting in 1897 when he and wife Bess are part of a travelling vaudeville show in the American mid-West. In the opening passage of this thread, Houdini, with Bess’s help, resorts to a cheap spiritualist trick that ends up disgusting him — it is the origin of his obsession to develop his talents as a craft, not merely some perverse show that produces commercial success.
  • The second is the story of Martin Strauss, set in 1926. While he is introduced as a McGill University student deeply in love with one Clara, that’s part of the author’s “misdirection” — he turns out to be the person who punches Houdini in the abdomen and ruptures his appendix.
  • The third is Martin in “the present day”, some decades on from that punch. We are introduced to him just after he has been diagnosed with tinnitus “where you hear a ringing that isn’t there…a symptom of other maladies, but the constant hum of nonexistent sound has been known to drive the afflicted to madness and suicide.” We also learn in that passage that he has also recently come into contact with Houdini’s daughter, Alice. And, with dramatic foreshadowing, “what no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.”
  • The novel alternates between those three streams in both voice and time, but it also involves three contextual elements that become increasingly interwoven as it proceeds:

  • Houdini’s magic: Galloway has done his homework so we don’t just get that longish explanation of how it works, but also a number of detailed explanations recounting (and revealing) some of his most famous illusions — both those that he used frequently and memorable one-off events. If you like magic and don’t want it spoiled, give this book a miss on that front.
  • Spiritualism: The incident that provoked Houdini’s disgust turned into a life-long crusade against this gang. Even he admitted that both magic and spiritualism shared the four elements described above but whereas he was openly an entertainer charging admission, the spiritualists used them to create power and to abuse it. In a generation where prominent individuals ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King to American cabinet ministers were acknowledged spiritualists, that abuse could have globally damaging effects.
  • State manipulators: Government intelligence and spying are based on the same four elements — so both magicians and spiritualists are attractive resources for national secret services in pursuit of their own devious ends. The CIA, MI5 and Soviet intelligence all feature in the book, determined to co-opt people like Houdini as agents for their own agendas of power.
  • (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT)

    While all those elements and people were part of the real-life story, Galloway needs to severely adjust reality for the purposes of the novel as he hints early on with the “I killed him twice” reference. Since the author reveals the secrets of many Houdini tricks, I don’t feel particularly guilty about revealing his own big one here (albeit after an appropriate warning): in this book, Houdini did not die from that ruptured appendix. Rather, it was a ruse that allowed him to go underground and devote his life to pursuing his anti-spiritualist crusade.

    (END OF SPOILER ALERT)

    As you can probably tell from that summary, there is a lot going on in this novel — and that was the source of most of my problems with it. One of the problems with multiple narrative streams is that just when you get interested in the one you are reading, the author abruptly moves to another. In addition to the voices and elements that I have described, Galloway in each stream includes a wealth of personal detail and story designed to humanize his characters but which end up confusing the bigger story even further. While part of that may well have been deliberate “misdirection”, I found myself often uninterested in what the concluding “reconstruction” was — to use the author’s own words, “it loses its power once we no longer wish to understand how it was done”.

    That certainly did not happen all the time, but it came often enough that it was a source of frustration. Perhaps an even bigger factor in my ambivalent response is that I found the opening “tricks” much more successful that I did the later ones. While I’d give Galloway an A for ambition with this one, for this reader the execution falls well short of that mark.

    The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner

    June 8, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

    Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

    Second novels from authors whose debuts have been very impressive always face an uphill challenge. Will the author break free from — or extend — the elements that defined that first success or merely try to repeat them? Can he or she maintain the strengths (be it structure, plot, voice, prose, or whatever) that worked while finding some new spice to add to the mix? And finally a winning debut automatically produces raised reader expectations for effort number two — a challenge that is difficult even for authors with a string of successes.

    Alexi Zentner’s 2011 debut, Touch, certainly fits the category of “impressive” and not just in the opinion of this reviewer. Now published in more than a dozen countries, it made a number of prize longlists, including the Giller and Governor-General’s in Canada. A multi-generational story set in British Columbia gold rush country (but featuring a logging community, not a mining one), it featured an intriguing cast of frontier characters, all of whom the author developed fully. While most of the narrative was straight-forward, Zentner showed the impressive ability to occasionally introduce “unreal” elements (mythical, spiritual, even “natural” — the novel features one of the most massive snowstorms in my experience in fiction) that sent his story off in a totally different direction.

    I will cut straight to the chase: for this reader, his second novel, The Lobster Kings, is even better than the debut. It does have some issues (which I’ll mention later in the review) that may cause others not to share that opinion — I’ll just say that as I approached the finish, I felt even more enrolled in the book that I had with Touch.

    The Lobster Kings is also a multi-generational story — and it too involves a “frontier”, although it is cross-continent from the setting of Touch. The Kings family of the title has lived on Loosewood Island off the coast of New Brunswick and Maine for almost 300 years. Brumfitt Kings was the island’s first “settler” back in 1720, left behind by the Irish fishing fleet to tend to the drying racks, gear and supplies that would be needed when they returned for the next fishing season.

    To catch his first lobster, Brumfitt didn’t bother with boats or traps or anything more complicated than simply wading into the water at low tide and gaffing a lobster ten or twelve pounds or more. He caught lobsters five feet long. When I was young I heard old men down at the harbour and in the diner talking about how when their grandfathers were boys they saw lobster claws nailed to the sides of boathouses, claws big enough to crush a man’s head. The lobsters are smaller now, but they’ve done well for the Kings. Back when I was a girl in school, we were told about how lobsters used to be cheap trash fish for filling bellies, but it’s hard to believe. Daddy and I both drop pots and haul lines and he’s raised all three of us girls on the money the lobsters bring in.

    That excerpt is from the opening paragraph of the novel and Zentner has already thrown his first curve to the reader — “back when I was a girl”. The second-oldest Kings son has always been the “king” of Loosewood Island. Woody Kings (the “Daddy” of the quote) is in his late 50s and will soon have to leave the back-breaking work of lobster fishing — Cordelia, the narrator of the novel and skipper of Kings’ Ransom, is in line to become the first “matriarch” Kings to “rule” Loosewood Island.

    Second-oldest son? Here’s where the mystical creeps in. Family legend says that Brumfitt’s wife was a mermaid who emerged from the sea wearing a pearl necklace (which is still in the family). She promised bountiful prosperity to the Kings who would rule both island and surrounding sea, but there would be a price: the first-born son of each generation would be claimed by the sea.

    That prophecy has proved true ever since, including in the present generation — Cordelia’s brother drowned in a fishing accident when he was eight. In this generation, there is no second son to take over.

    Cordelia has been aware of all this since she was a child as reading Brumfitt’s old diaries has long been a favorite pastime. Also, Brumfitt was not just a diarist, he was a painter (there isn’t much to do when you are the only soul on an island for an entire winter) and not just any amateur. His “folk art” works which feature Loosewood Island, its people (including himself and family) and mythical sea creatures are represented in major gallery collections in both the U.S. and Canadian northeast. When the lobster season shuts down for the summer on Loosewood, “Brumfitt tourists” are the island’s sole source of revenue. And some of them choose to stay, so the island now has a well-established artistic community.

    Times are changing, however, and not just with the prospect of a matriarch Kings. The fishers of James Harbor, the closest mainland community, are crowding each other out of fishing areas and lobster stock is declining: they have started dropping their traps off Loosewood Island. While there is no legally protected space, there is a generations-old code of honor about who gets to fish where — and this “invasion” needs to be met. One of the jobs of the ruling Kings is to serve as the Loosewood community leader in the response.

    In fact, the invasion is even worse than one of fishing territory. For some years, mainland fishers with a need for money have been running loads of marijuana from Canada to U.S. shores — one trip yields as much cash as a couple months of fishing. Now the lower elements of James Harbor have expanded into meth production and distribution. Drugs have never been part of Loosewood culture and the small community wants no part of them now.

    Just to complete my sketch of the key elements of the book, let me add a few of the human ones. Cordelia has two sisters, neither of whom want any part of being on the water, but who are equally attached to Loosewood and its history. And her “sternman” Kenny, husband of the local teacher (and they are both from “away”), is both handsome and adept. Cordelia, who has always restricted her relationships with men to summer flings with visitors, is discovering a personal side that she has not experienced before.

    Given that sketch, it does not take to much imagination to speculate on how the plot develops. For this reader, by the time Zentner was starting to pull all those elements together I was more than willing to go along for the trip. And I was more than satisfied when the dramatic final chapters came to a close.

    Now about those concerns that I mentioned earlier. With the range of elements he uses, from the mermaid and deadly curse at one end to the violence of drug dealing at the other, Zentner needs a fair bit of unlikely coincidence and happenstance to pull his story lines together. I was more than willing to accept that because I found his characters, especially Cordelia, to be worth granting the licence — those who are less enrolled by the characters may be more disturbed by some of the unlikely developments.

    Perhaps more of an issue for those less impressed with the novel than me will be the sentimentality that runs through the book, including its conclusion. Sentimentality is one of those “killer” elements that frequently sinks a novel (Aside: In a Martin Amis presentation I was at a couple years back, he confessed that it is only in the last few years he has allowed himself to be “sentimental”). It didn’t bother me (although I confess I was conscious of it) because I had positive feelings for all the members of the Kings family — I suspect some readers will find it more of a hurdle.

    Those caveats noted, The Lobster Kings was still a five-star success. I’ll be awaiting Zentner’s third novel with even higher expectations than I had for this second one.

    Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas

    May 26, 2014

    Purchase at The Book Depository

    Purchased at The Book Depository

    The defining moment in Danny Kelly’s life comes on his very first day at Cunt’s College in Melbourne. No, that is not the real name of the prep school, but it is what Danny calls it. He comes from working class, immigrant stock (his hair-stylist mother is Greek, his truck-driving dad has an Irish mother and Scottish father) and it is only because of his swimming ability that he has won a scholarship to the upper-class school.

    The rich boys at his first swimming practice have been mocking Danny’s “loose synthetic bathers”:

    They were all wearing shiny new Speedos, the brand name marked in yellow across their arses. Danny’s swimmers were from Forges — there was no way his mum was going to spend half a day’s pay on a piece of lycra. And good on her. Good on her, but he still felt like shit.

    The Coach keeps Danny back after that first day of practice:

    ‘Why do you take their shit?’

    You could hear his accent in the way he pronounced the word, ‘chit’.

    Danny shrugged. ‘Dunno’.

    ‘Son, always answer back when you receive an insult. Do it straight away. Even if there’s a chance there was nothing behind it, take back control, answer them back. An insult is an attack. You must counter it. You understand?’

    It is February, 1994 when Danny gets that advice and he will live by it for the rest of his life. The Coach has seen him swim before (that’s how Danny came by the scholarship) and knows he is a rare talent. It won’t take long before Danny ranks at the top of the Cunts College team — and even the rich boys have to grant the “Barracuda” their respect. And the Coach has never trained an Olympic swimmer.

    Danny soon has a life goal. After he wins the Australian championship, he’ll move on to the Pan-Pacific and then the Commonwealth Games. And he will win gold for Australia at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. It gives nothing away to say that one of the lessons of Barracuda is that dreams are easy to create and can just as easily be shattered.

    That summarizes one of the two narrative threads in Barracuda. We know from the start of the novel when author Tsiolkas introduces the second thread that that dream has not come to pass.

    In this thread (set some time after 2000) we meet Danny in Glasgow, searching for a scarf that he wants to take to his great-aunt Rosemary whom he is about to visit in Edinburgh. We also learn quickly that Danny is gay, but his relationship with his partner, Clyde, is somewhat rocky. And the main reason it is rocky is that Danny is homesick for Australia.

    Homesickness, I am discovering, is not a matter of climate or landscape; it does not descend on you from unfamiliar architecture. Homesickness hits hardest in the middle of a crowd in a large, alien city. Oh, how I miss the Australian face.

    Barracuda is a longish novel (513 pages in my version, although the type is a decent size, the spacing generous and the narrative quickly paced) but that summary of the two threads pretty much defines the book — it is a story of the trials and tribulations that happen on the road from A at the prep school to B, the young adult Danny in Glasgow, desperate to get back to Australia.

    Tsiolkas attracted a lot of attention with his last novel, The Slap, (shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and IMPAC, winner of the Commonwealth Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Booker) and for good reason. Another longish book, it took an apparently mundane backyard barbeque incident (the “slap” of the title) and turned it into several hundred pages of consequences that took us inside Australian society today. (It has also been turned into an excellent television mini-series that is worth hunting down if you aren’t up to reading the book.)

    Barracuda is at its best when Tsiolkas is exploring those themes. Those of us who live in the Old Dominions are well aware of the stories of second-generation immigrants like Danny — he may have Greek, Irish and Scot’s blood in his veins, but he is a living example of the “new” Australia. The cold shoulders he experiences at school and later are familiar territory as Australia (and Canada for that matter) moves into the 21st century and Barracuda features a wealth of sub-plots and characters which develop that part of the story.

    While I loved that aspect of the book, I have to confess that the two principle themes wore thin before I reached the halfway point. Danny is not an uninteresting character, but he is not a particularly deep one — and the “chip-on-his-shoulder” device becomes entirely too familiar long before the end of the novel is in sight. As well, the present tense thread of the story lacks the depth and appeal of Danny’s student days — two-thread novels require the author to keep both of them equally interesting, I’m afraid, and Tsiolkas did not do that in this book.

    Despite those quibbles, Barracuda is a worthwhile read. The author has an eye for cinematic qualities (I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one show up as a tv mini-series as well) and his understanding of the challenges of multi-cultural Australia adds a layer of depth to the novel, just as it did in The Slap. I don’t think this one will do nearly as well in the prize wars as The Slap did but you can’t hit for six with every ball (that was my Canadian attempt at a cricket reference).

    2014 kimbofoI have had Barracuda on hand for some months, but saved reading it so I could include it in Kimbofo’s Australia and New Zealand Literature Month project. If you click here it will take you to her site and a host of links to reviews of fiction from the Antipodes (25 at last count) and numerous sites with even more Aussie and Kiwi titles. It is a great project to acquaint those of us in the rest of the world with the excellent writing that is going on there — and Tsiolkas is a worthy example. While the month is coming to a close, I still intend to get to a New Zealand example, Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon, so stay tuned.

    Landing Gear, by Kate Pullinger

    May 20, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

    Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

    It is safe to say that Kate Pullinger’s last novel, The Mistress of Nothing, took me by surprise. As a read, the book (her sixth novel but the first that I had read) seemed a conventional society-based historical novel, a cultural conflict, travel story narrated by Lady Duff Gordon’s maid who has accompanied her to Egypt where the aristocrat is seeking relief from consumption.

    Enjoyable, but hardly challenging, the surprise was that it won Canada’s 2009 Governor-General’s award for fiction and was long-listed for that year’s Giller Prize — a sign that two juries saw significant literary value in a book that I would have (and did) characterize as escapist fiction. While she was born and raised in Canada, Pullinger has been based in the U.K. for some time and the novel had no Canadian content, so recognition from Canadian juries was just as surprising on that front.

    All of this sparked curiosity on my part when I read descriptions of her new work, Landing Gear. The author says she was inspired by a 2001 story in The Guardian concerning a Pakistani who had stowed away in the landing gear of a British-bound jet and somehow survived the fall when the airplane approached Heathrow. The promotional stories promised that the author uses this as the framework for the exploration of tensions in a modern English family. For this potential reader, at least, that seemed a long way from Lady Duff Gordon heading to Egypt when it is still part of the Ottoman Empire.

    A brief prologue alerts the reader that the novel will involve the story of Yacub, the stowaway, and the fact that he “arrives” in England by crashing on the roof of Harriet’s car just as she is approaching it with her cartload of groceries. She decides to take him home. The prologue also alerts readers to a device that Pullinger will occasionally return to throughout the story — it recounts the event in snippets of less than a page, each told from a different point of view.

    The fictional version of Yacub’s fall takes place in 2012, but when the novel proper gets into motion, Pullinger moves back to 2010 to introduce Harriet and her family — Landing Gear is more than anything else their story. I was willing to give the author licence to use the highly-unlikely fall as her centrepiece; she gained credibility immediately when she used another “aeronautical event”, the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano which shut down European air travel for days, as the device to introduce her characters.

    It was the day after the volcano erupted that Harriet noticed the sky. Extraordinary.

    The day before, she’d been too caught up with the chaos in the radio newsroom [where she works as a presenter] as the airports had closed, one by one, north to south, like roman blinds being pulled down over the entire country: Glasgow — Edinburgh — Manchester — Birmingham — Heathrow — Gatwick. In order to read the news properly, she’d had to learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, along with a host of other Icelandic names. News bulletins had been bumped up from once an hour, to twice, to every fifteen minutes. She’d stayed late and left in a car her boss, Steve, ordered, the underground having long since stopped for the night. Once home, she found her son, Jack, asleep on the sofa, clutching his gaming handset, surrounded by pizza crusts, sticky glasses and other debris.

    (Full disclosure: Pullinger may have had an advantage with this reader when she used that volcanic eruption and resulting flight shutdown to frame her story. Mrs. KfC was on a trekking vacation to Spain when that Iceland volcano erupted — both her trip there and scheduled return home were disrupted by the highly unusual shutdown of virtually all European air space so I have some personal experience with the uncertainty that it created.)

    Harriet’s husband Michael (a boring actuary) is in New York on business when flights back home are halted. He chooses to head to Toronto to stay with an old flame to await the resumption of air travel — it is a decision that will lead to an event that disrupts the entire family balance for much longer than the air travel shutdown.

    And then there is 14-year-old son Jack:

    Jack had lived through what felt like millions of school holidays, with their distinct combination of freedom and boredom, like a weekend that never ends, a whole string of exciting Saturdays that turn into dismal Sundays. The Easter holiday was always very long — sixteen days this year, Jack had counted — and his family hadn’t gone away. Sometimes they did go away, Jack and his parents, city breaks in posh hotels with swimming pools. Why did his parents think that all he needed was a swimming pool to compensate for being dragged around endless churches, museums and art galleries? But this year Jack’s dad was in New York on business and Harriet was busy at the radio station.

    Jack will be using this freedom to head to the Dukes Meadows for a party, a sort-of outdoor rave. It will prove to have two features: the silent sky (the family lives in Richmond on the Heathrow landing path where the noise of overhead planes is normally a constant feature) and the drug-related death of well-known local lad, a death in which Jack has a minor part.

    And finally the author introduces Emily who “buried her father the day the planes stopped flying”. In her own way, Emily is also part of the family. As part of a personal search, she has been stalking Harriet — as a project, the stalking has also involved preparing a video documentary. Indeed, Harriet has been surreptitiously filming Harriet in the supermarket parking lot when she sees Harriet look up and directs her camera into the sky — she captures Yacub’s fall, his non-fatal landing and Harriet’s response.

    Those excerpts and descriptions should be warning enough that Pullinger continues to demand licence from her readers as the novel progresses. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that she rewards this with some highly perceptive observations on what is involved in modern family life, whether or not the planes are flying.

    For the most part, I would say that Pullinger succeeds in this project — the novel is both entertaining and engaging and there are a number of chuckle-inducing comic set pieces. I am not certain just how memorable it will turn out to be, but during the reading I was more than willing to go along with the author.

    I’ll conclude by noting that there is an aspect to Landing Gear in which I did not take part. Pullinger is Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University and has expanded this creative project to include that latter discipline:

    The digital world gives authors and publishers completely new opportunities for experimentation.

    With Landing Gear, Random House created an API (application programming interface) that allows programmers to get content in multiple ways. An excerpt-length section of Landing Gear is stored in a content management system and tagged to define characters, locations, events and times. Programmers can access this data and build new products with it.

    To get access to the Landing Gear API or see some of the resulting projects, please visit
    http://www.randomhouse.ca/LandingGearAPI

    I am a reader, not a programmer, so I admit that note was a large “No Go” sign for me and I have not visited the sight. I also acknowledge that that makes me an out-of-date curmudgeon — I would be delighted to receive comments from anyone who has. :-)

    The Tivington Nott, by Alex Miller

    May 8, 2014

    Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

    Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

    Alex Miller left his native England for Australia at age 17. As an author, his 11 novels (this is only my third but I intend to get to them all over time) have concentrated on telling Australian stories — but he never forgot his roots.

    The last one reviewed here (Watching The Climbers On The Mountain) can certainly be read as an autobiographical story — set on a cattle station in Queensland, it features an 18-year-old stockboy, newly arrived from England.

    The Tivington Nott, first published in 1989, is even more personal — and unlike the rest of Miller’s works, it is set in England. Here is an explanation from the author, included in the 2005 Allen & Unwin version that I read:

    All the episodes [which take place in 1952], not just a few of them, may be traced back to actual events and experiences in my life, and in the lives of the people, and some of the animals, portrayed here. There was such a stag as the Tivington nott, a horse such as Kabara, a cocky Australian who owned him, a farmer for whom I laboured for two years and who had rightly earned the nickname, ‘Tiger’, a labourer by the name of Morris with whom I lived, a harbourer who would know himself in the figure of Grabbe, and a huntsman of the Devon and Somerset who broke his neck while chasing a hind one winter afternoon. I loved them all, and loved the landscape they inhabited. Briefly, they were my reality.

    In some ways, I could stop this review right there since it is a perfect summary of the book (note in particular “I loved them all”) — perhaps the addition of a personal opinion that Miller tells this story exceptionally well would provide the best conclusion. And in offering that enthusiastic endorsement, let me say it shows that Miller overcame a number of well-ingrained, going-in prejudices.

    Firstly, I’m not a fan of memoirs, fictional or otherwise. Too often, I find them to be self-indulgent, manipulated versions of history — I’d rather the author let his or her imagination run wild instead of offering a sanitized version of what happened. Miller disposed of this personal bias from the opening paragraph: The Tivington Nott may be based on real events that Miller lived through but the author applies himself conscientiously and completely to developing a fair portrait of what he experienced, including the people (and animals) that were involved.

    Secondly, the elements of the story lie far from my interests. Until I picked up the book, I did not know what a “nott” is (a stag without antlers, if you share my ignorance). While I knew elements of rural English society hunted foxes to their death while mounted and chasing a pack of hunting dogs, I wasn’t aware that in parts of the country this also involved deer. I can say with certainty that if I lived in England, then or now, I would be firmly anti-hunt. Once the characters have been introduced, The Tivington Nott is the story of a hunt — to Miller’s credit, I was sympathetically engrossed in the narrative throughout.

    Let me offer an extended excerpt where Miller introduces both himself and some of the characters noted above as in illustration of how the author both offers insight of those around him and places himself suitably in the picture:

    Even though he is a real grinder I did not mind working for the Tiger. He is not just an uncomplicated farmer. His hard good sense about managing the farm deserts him when it comes to the matter of hunting the wild deer on Exmoor. He fears this passion as a disability and is forever guarding himself against it. Everything he does is complicated for him by this duality in his nature. He tried to get me to address him as ‘Master’ when I first came here from London two years ago. It is the tradition and Morris [the senior farm labourer] abides by it. I respect traditions and have one or two of my own. One of them is not calling people ‘Master’. I could see how much it meant to Tiger to have me conform, however, so I did have a go at it, just to be fair. But it was no good. I couldn’t look him in the eye and say it. I wasn’t being stubborn. There was more to it than that.

    Tiger is just a tenant farmer and, as noted, a “grinder” who works his staff hard. But when it comes to the hunt, as that excerpt indicates, his self-image becomes more one of “nearly a squire”. His class is undoubtedly a cut or two below the other hunters, but in both dress and behavior, he tries to narrow the gap. The “grinder” becomes a bit of a sycophant.

    What sets the drama off is the arrival in the neighborhood of the “cocky Australian”, Alsop, and his impressive hunting stud, Kabara. Like Tiger, Alsop has pretensions to become one of the upper, hunting classes — unlike Tiger, he has the money to follow through on them.

    Alsop’s plan comes apart early in the book when he crashes his car into a rural stone wall and disables himself. He needs someone to look after Kabara and looks to Tiger, whose own hunting stock consists of two, not impressive, geldings. Sensing that Alsop will need to sell the stud (at almost any price) Tiger accepts — and turns the stud over to the narrator.

    Miller proves to be an excellent hand at this, exclusively because he lets Kabara have his head and only offers gentle guidance — the stud is more than willing to go along with this bargain. The narrator is fully aware that Tiger, with his “dominate the horse” approach to riding and hunting, will face immediate disaster if he ever mounts the horse — the horse will definitely best the man.

    All of which sets up the hunt that occupies most of the 167 pages of the novel. Tiger agrees to take Kabara along as his “second” horse, tended by the narrator. But he instructs Miller to hunt the horse hard, rather than just standing by — he wants the horse to return from the hunt exhausted in order to lower the price he will offer Alsop.

    All of that suggests a narrative of simple lives in a closed society that has its own complicated set of hierarchy and rules, all of which the author develops with careful precision. The narrator is certainly an active participant but you can tell from the start that Miller, when he actually lived these events, was every bit as much an acute observer as he was a part of the action.

    Miller’s prose is definitely one of the reasons this endeavour succeeded so well for me. For the most part, it is tight and almost journalistic — but when he decides to divert into extended description of nature or action, he does it perfectly.

    His eye for characters, and the ability to bring them to life, is equally impressive. This novel, particularly when we get to the hunt, involves a number of individuals from very different classes in a community. Miller finds the ideal balance between sympathetic and critical portrayal to bring both the individuals and broader community to impressive life.

    Discipline in writing, discipline in character and, perhaps most impressively, discipline in length — too many authors who can deliver on the first two often fail on that final one. The Tivington Nott is a longish novella/short novel (I read it in one extended sitting) that does not have a single extraneous word. On more than one occasion while reading the book, I thought of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, another gem of a book (with a somewhat similar story) whose author knew exactly what it would take to tell his story.

    That makes Alex Miller three for three for me (Autumn Laing is the one I have not yet mentioned). While the three have some similarities, they are very different novels — although each one truly showcases a rare talent for prose. This Australian sure can write and I am delighted to know that I have eight more novels to go (and he is still publishing — yeah!). Stay tuned.

    2014 kimbofo While I have an ongoing Alex Miller project, I saved this novel for this month as part of Kimbofo at Reading Matters May project encouraging the reading of Australian and New Zealand books. For full details on the project (and links to reviews from others who are participating), click here. I hope to get to at least two other Antipodean books before the month is out.

    Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

    April 22, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

    Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

    My reading of Us Conductors was very much influenced by the confluence of two streams of personal serendipity, so it seems only right that I acknowledge them before discussing the novel itself.

    Strange as it may seem, stream one originates with the hugely entertaining UK television series, Midsomer Murders. Mrs. KfC and I are fans and have been entertaining ourselves in the last few months by revisiting our DVD collection. Along the way, we paused to watch the show’s tenth anniversary special and I was intrigued when the series music director talked about his decision to use the “theremin” in Midsomer Murders’ distinctive theme. While I enjoy many types of music (and almost always have something playing while I read), I’m no expert — and I’d never heard of the theremin. Some quick Internet research left me intrigued.

    Stream two has a much stronger literary connection. Since 1996, Random House of Canada has been running its New Face of Fiction program. Every year the publisher features at least one (and often more) debut Canadian novel and they have an enviable record of success in spotting superb new writers. Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel, Timothy Taylor, Drew Hayden Taylor and Alexi Zentner are just a few of the exceptional authors who first appeared under the New Face of Fiction banner (you can see the full list here — I’ve read many and heartily recommend almost every title).

    Us Conductors is this year’s only title. I was looking forward to it and (here comes the confluence) became even more intrigued when the book arrived — it’s based on the life story of Lev Termen, the Russian scientist and inventor who in the early decades of the twentieth century gave the world the theremin. Three weeks before I had never even heard of the instrument and here’s a whole novel about its inventor!

    A theremin

    A theremin

    What’s a theremin? It’s an electronic box, much like the one by your tv set, with two antennas emerging from it — one sticking straight up, the other a loop. The world’s first electronic musical instrument (pre-Moog synthesizer, although Moog markets the modern version), the straight antenna controls pitch, the looped one volume. The musician “plays” the instrument with movements much like an orchestra conductor (the cover of the novel is a fair representation), the right hand controlling pitch, the left volume. The sound is very distinctive but talented players can produce quite recognizable versions of classic pieces (more on this later in the review).

    That’s enough background on KfC’s going-in attitude — let’s get to the book itself. Part One of Us Conductors consists of a journal that Lev Termen is writing from a below-decks locked cabin on a ship, the Stary Bolshevik. He is on his way back to Russia (obviously as at least a semi-prisoner) after some decades in the United States. He is addressing his journal to Clara Rockmore: “My one true love, finest theremin player the world will ever know”. Here’s the way the novel opens:

    I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked “termenvox.” He likes its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox — the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.

    I laughed at this notion, and yet in a way I think I also believed it. Not that the theremin emulated my voice, but that with it I gave voice to something. To the invisible. To the ether. I, Lev Sergeyvich Termin, mouthpiece of the universe.

    As Lev chronicles his story, we learn that his first invention, while still at Petrograd University, was “the radio watchman”:

    I was still a student, scarcely out of adolescence, and I invented a magical box. The radio watchman emits an invisible electro-magnetic field and then waits for a disruption. If a human body passes inside this field, the circuit closes and an alarm goes off.

    Imagine a vigilant wireless set, keeping guard.

    The principles of the radio watchman eventually evolve into the idea of the theremin — Lev begins developing it while employed at the Physico-Technical Institute in 1921. He demonstrates his first model to the engineers and physicists there and they are impressed. Indeed, so impressed that he soon demonstrates it to Lenin himself. And the new Russian rulers, eager to show people that their regime equals exciting new science send him on a tour to give concerts around the country.

    It is not long before global politics takes over. Lev’s discovery (and it is only one of many that spring from his brain) is viewed as a national asset that needs to be exploited. With Pash as his minder (Lev is hopeless at normal things like administration and business), he is sent to America — not as a normal type of “spy” but rather an early version of global corporate espionage. Lev’s inventions get the pair into companies like RCA Victor (which actually contracted to build the first commercial theremins — the Crash of 1929 coincided with their launch and sales were few); once inside the organizations, Pash goes to work on finding information that is of use to the mother country.

    While things are going well in the initial pre-Crash years, Lev does all this from a posh suite at the Plaza Hotel. When those bills mount up, the wealthy husband of one of his theremin students offers him the use of a four-storey midtown brownstone that becomes rehearsal hall, laboratory and living quarters. It is the jazz age and Lev is living the good life — he meets Clara (who switches from the violin to theremin), falls in love with her despite her being much younger and enjoys considerable early success.

    Throughout Part One of the novel, I found myself comparing it favorably to Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, an excellent novella based on the American adventures of Nikolai Tesla, another Russian scientific genius (also with no everyday life skills), who a century before Lev Termen had followed the same route. Both books not only make invention and science an interesting story, they offer insightful pictures of the New York of the day.

    Clara Rockmore playing her theremin

    Clara Rockmore playing her theremin

    Part One of Us Conductors exceeded all my considerable expectations — I even spent $10 to buy Clara Rockmore’s “Lost Theremin” album from iTunes to play along as I read it. (If you are interested but not up to the investment, a You Tube of her playing Saint-Saens’ The Swan can be found here — she’s accompanied on the piano by her sister, who also features in the novel).

    Alas, Us Conductors has a Part Two and that locked cabin on the Stary Bolshevik is ample foreboding. Part Two is also a journal directed to Clara — this one written in 1947, eight years after Lev’s return to Russia. Stalin was firmly in control when he arrived, his American experience was viewed as treason not a service to the state and he was soon off to the Gulag. He has “escaped” that fate by the time he is writing the journal — his inventing abilities are now being exploited in Moscow where he is resident in one of the state’s “scientific prisons”.

    While Part One was an entertaining and illuminating fantasy, despite its basis in real life, Part Two fell flat with me — I have trouble reading fiction about Stalinist prison life when it is written by Russians who experienced it and balk completely at versions produced by Western writers. To Michaels’ credit, he does conclude with a plot twist that restored my interest.

    I’d like to quote Michaels’ “Author’s Note and Acknowledgements” as an indication of the spirit of the novel. While it is based on known facts about Termen’s life, “it is full of distortions, elisions, omission, and lies”. In the real life, the author saw the elements of a good story — and at least in the first half, he certainly delivered on it.

    Perhaps, in the interests of being honest myself, I should follow Michaels’ approach. My Midsomer Murders and previous New Face of Fiction experience left me inclined to like this novel — and I very much did, until another stream of serendipity (aversion to Gulag fiction) provided a stronger, negative current. Other readers may well not experience the disappointment in the second part of the book that I did. And even with that caveat, I would call this another success for the New Face of Fiction project.

    Embers, by Sándor Márai

    April 14, 2014

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

    While it was hardly a deliberate decision on my part, Embers is the third “dinner-based” translated novel that I have read in the last year:

    Herman Koch’s The Dinner involves two contemporary Dutch couples. The first third of this one is an hilarious put-down of those restaurants where the waiter spends more time explaining what is on the plate he just put in front of you than it takes you to eat it. Then the book takes a turn to the dark side and the four become increasingly selfish and dislikable as the novel proceeds — by the time you finish it, you can’t stand any one of them.

    Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast opens with a mother and two children preparing the meal of the title while they await the arrival of father. Again, about a third of the way through the book it turns noir as the child narrator begins revealing more and more about her father’s abusive nature. The feast is anything but joyous.

    Embers, first published in Hungary in 1942, predates both those works by decades but a quick Google scan shows that it has been a reader favorite ever since. The dinner in this one involves neither a pretentious restaurant nor a waiting family — rather it is a meal involving two military men who have not seen each other for decades.

    It does involve appropriate formality: in the opening pages, the host (“the General”) instructs his gamekeeper to harness the Landau, don full-dress livery and head to the White Eagle in the nearby town and tell them that the carriage awaits the Captain who is staying there. And author Marai wastes little time in letting the reader know that this dinner will involve a return to an ominous shared history:

    There was a calendar hanging on the wall. Its fist-sized numbers showed August 14. The General looked up at the ceiling and counted: August 14. July 2. He was calculating how much time had elapsed between that long ago and today. “Forty-one years,” he said finally, half aloud. Recently he had been talking to himself even when he was alone in the room. “Forty years”, he then said, confused, and blushed like a schoolboy who’s stumbled in the middle of a lesson, tilted his head back and closed his watering eyes. His neck reddened and bulged over the maize-yellow collar of his jacket. “July 2, 1899, was the day of the hunt,” he murmured, then fell silent. Propping his elbows on the desk like a student at his studies, he want back to staring at the letter [which announced the Captain's impending arrival] with its brief handwritten message. “Forty-one,” he said again, hoarsely. “And forty-three days. Yes, exactly.”

    The General has been living in a single room of his castle since that day:

    For decades now, since he had moved into this wing of the building, and torn down the dividing wall, this large, shadowy chamber had replaced the two rooms. Seventeen paces from the door to the bed. Eighteen paces from the wall on the garden side to the balcony. Both distances counted off exactly.

    He lived here as an invalid lives within the space he has learned to inhabit. As if the room had been tailored to his body. Years passed without him setting foot in the other wing of the castle, in which salon after salon opened one into the next, first green, then blue, then red, all hung with gold chandeliers.

    It is worth noting the details in those excerpts, because that approach will continue throughout the 213-page volume. As you can probably tell from the foreboding in those brief excerpts, the General has been nursing vengeance throughout those 41 years — when he instructs his “nurse” (he’s 75, she’s 91, but the clock has effectively been stopped for some time for the two of them) to open the dining room in the castle and set the table for two, we know that the dinner will serve as his excuse to exercise it.

    Just a bit of back story, to help set the stage. The General and the Captain first met as pre-teenage youths at a military academy and became inseparable friends. While both came from military families, the General has both breeding and money — the Captain came from a military tradition but his Polish parents have fallen on tough economic times and are sacrificing everything to enable him to attend the academy. And to add a bit of spice to the story, he’s a distant relative of Chopin and is musical himself — even as a child, the General could not understand this “emotional”, non-rational interest/talent of his friend.

    Once that back story is in place, the dinner can begin. While it is ostensibly a conversation between the two, Embers, like The Mussel Feast, is effectively a monologue — the General has been preparing for this occasion since that fateful hunt 41 years ago and he gives his guest precious few openings to take part in the conversation.

    Part of what is so impressive about Embers is the careful, precise way that the General proceeds with his story over dinner and I don’t want to spoil that by revealing details. He is a deliberate, non-emotional, calculating soul — like any accomplished military man, he has prepared his “assault” with careful precision. For the reader, part of the strength of the book is the chilling way that he moves in on his target and what happened on that day of the hunt — and the lonely pain that has dominated his life ever since.

    The result of all of this is an engrossing, compelling read. If anything, the General’s total lack of emotion makes the story even more fearsome as it unfolds. To Marai’s credit, it felt like I was sitting at the dinner table myself, between the two combatants, watching with horror as his attack gathered force. Embers is a quick read (I finished it in two sessions) and it is a good thing — I think the author would have been over-reaching if he tried to sustain it for another 100 pages. Having said that, I would be hard pressed to name a more powerful novel that I have read in the last couple of years.

    One final observation: All three of the “dinner” books that I have cited invite an allegorical interpretation. Vanderbeke has said that The Mussel Feast is intended as an allegory of life in Soviet-dominated East Germany. Koch’s novel can certainly be read as an allegory for contemporary Europe. And Embers is set in 1940 Hungary during the Nazi era — Marai never references it directly but the Empire that the General and Captain were trained to defend has been replaced by an even more frightful one.

    I don’t like to offer my interpretations of allegories in reviews here. It seems to me they are best developed between the author, his story and the individual reader — and putting my version forward here is worse than a bad spoiler. Suffice to say that you will probably find one if you choose to pick up the book — and it is probably every bit as valid today as it was in the war era when this fine novel was written.


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