Archive for June, 2009

The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

June 27, 2009

with dust cover

with dust cover

Translated by Lucia Graves

Just as there must be Christmas movies, so also must there be summer books. In the winter, with holiday time off, there needs to be a place to go. In the summer, we are already there, away from it all, but we need something to do — and we complain the rest of the year about not having time to read, so now is the time.

Ideally, the summer book is written by an author with an established reputation for producing them (debut novels where the publisher pays an enormous advance also qualify, but marketing expenses go way up). It needs to be long, at least 500 pages, because it has to last the whole vacation, if not the whole summer. “Gothic” or “epic” is a useful descriptor; “intrigue”, “romance” and “tragedy” are also helpful. It needs to be serious but not too serious — a worthy vacation project, but it is a vacation after all. And all of this must be packaged in a very distinctive cover, not just to be recognized across the airplane aisle or beach but also to serve as the conversation opener to help meet new friends (and sell more copies of the book). In recognition of the importance of the work, it also requires a suitably hefty cover price.

without dust cover

without dust cover

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game meets all the above criteria and all the phrases in the paragraph above are used in Amazon’s blurb to describe it. It is the second in what the author says is “a fictional universe” of four volumes (franchise here?) set in Barcelona, all featuring the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The first, The Shadow of the Wind, was an international bestseller — this one is already #3 on The Times hardcover list, was #10 on the literary fiction list only 10 days after publication and is an online bestseller at (EDIT: And it debuts June 28 as #3 on the NY Times fiction list.) It is serious in a non-threatening kind of way and the North American cover pictured at the top of this review is one of the best-designed for sales in recent memory, although somewhat clumsy when it comes to actually reading the book. That cropped individual in the picture is actually a three-quarter dust jacket; take it off and the cover is a beautiful array of six shelves of ancient books.

A steady diet of books like this is not for me, but I cheerfully admit I read at least one of them a year (last summer it was The Gargoyle by Andrew Davison — this one is light years better). I do it partly so I will have a “read” book in common with good friends who don’t get a lot of time to read but also because, when read in the right frame of mind, and in moderation, a summer book of quality offers quite a decent return on the time invested. The Angel’s Game meets that test.

Novels like this are plot-driven, so spoilers in a review are devastating and I will offer the bare minimum of description. In Act One, City of the Damned, we meet a young man, David Martin, a copyrunner in the newsroom of a Barcelona newspaper, who wants to be a writer. He has attracted a powerful mentor to help him along and soon is turning out potboilers (The City of the Damned) under a pseudonym. He has “great expectations” (summer books need references to great writers) and eventually meets up with a French publisher (who may or may not be real) who commissions him to write a specific work.

In Act Two, Lux Aeterna, David signs on to the project for 100,000 francs and the promise of a cure to the brain tumor that is supposed to kill him within nine months. Echoes of Faust? Asking the question is no spoiler but there is no way I’m giving you the answer here. This pact with the “angel” (the publisher wears the lapel pin of an angel that is on the dust jacket) spins subplots too numerous to count, let alone mention.

Act Three, The Angel’s Game, brings them all to a conclusion — any description would be fatal.

Zafon carries this all off with a writing style that is fast-paced and reader friendly. It is impossible to illustrate in a short quote but Doubleday helpfully provides
the first chapter here. If you are interested in the book at all, it is worth checking out. Even if you aren’t, it is a no-cost example of how successful authors of books of this genre write.

Zafon also frequently uses dialogue and conversation (often extended over a couple of pages) to both advance the story and, more unusually, offer some humor. An example:

“Will you accept a cup of tea?”
“Or two. And a Bible. If possible, one that is easy to read.”
“That won’t be a problem,” said the bookseller. “Dalmau?”
The shop assistant called Dalmau came over obligingly.
“Dalmau, our friend Martin here needs a Bible that is legible, not decorative. I’m thinking of Torres Amat, 1825. What do you think?”
One of the peculiarities of Barcelo’s bookshop was that books were spoken of as if they were exquisite wines, catalogued by bouquet, aroma, consistency, and vintage.
“An excellent choice, Senor Barcelo, although I’d be more inclined toward the updated and revised edition.”
“Eighteen sixty?”
“Eighteen ninety-three.”
“Of course. That’s it! Wrap it up for our friend Martin and put it on the house.”

Zafon and translator Lucia Graves (the book was originally in Spanish — poor Graves finally gets a mention on an inside title page) carry this off with some aplomb. The little asides like the above are particularly appreciated while you catch your breath from the galloping plot.

The Angel’s Game is a “page-turner” (yes, Amazon’s description includes that, although they throw in a “dazzling” adjective). Also, and this you won’t find in the description, it is “putdownable”. That sounds like a bad thing, but for a summer book it definitely is not. The book is “putdownable” in the sense that when it is time for a trip to the village or to take a swim or to fire up the barbeque, the response of “just let me finish this chapter” will never involve a wait of more than five minutes and there is no need for memory refreshing when the book is picked up later. That is an invaluable trait in a good summer book.

As noted earlier, this is volume two in a projected four book project, centred on the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (sorry, but description of that is a spoiler). I haven’t read the first — The Shadow of the Wind — but in his little Amazon essay Zafon says each of the four is meant to be stand-alone. If you want, the cemetery has four gates and you can enter just as well from any of the four. In timing, this book is set earlier (1917 to 1930) than The Shadow; I suspect those who read the first will find things that I didn’t but I never felt I was missing something.

So. “Intrigue”? There is never a point where there aren’t a number of intrigues of varying complexity going on. “Tragedy”? Constant — if not from the past, then in the present, with ultimate tragedy looming in the future. “Romance”? Yes, but frankly less than the other two.

The Angel’s Game has lots of weaknesses, but it is holiday-time and we overlook all sorts of weaknesses then. My biggest problem with the book will probably be its greatest strength with most readers. I can just hear people saying: “It goes on and on and I hope it never ends”. Whereas my (relatively minor) problem was “it is going on and on; will it never end?” Unlike a lot of similar books (including the previous volume from Zafon as I understand from reviews) when it ends, it ends. There is a short epilogue but it is almost like an HBO trailer promoting past and future episodes.

I have to confess I read this book at home because I wanted to get this review up for consideration by visitors here who are looking for a vacation book. The problem for me is that a mini-vacation is coming up in a month and now I am going to have to find another summer book. I already have the sinking feeling that it won’t be nearly as entertaining as this one was.


The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

June 23, 2009

adichieChimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of 12 short stories, is a frustrating book, at least for this reader. One-third of the stories are so outstanding in both insight and depth that I found myself making mental comparisons with Jhumpa Lahiri, in my opinion one of the most outstanding current writers in the genre. A second third produced a neutral response — usually because the themes were similar to those of the outstanding stories but the execution was lacking. And the final third (what I would call the “political” stories) were unrewarding at best, lacking all the strengths of the better stories.

I should admit that I am not a good reader of short story collections, which may well have had an effect on my opinion of this book. Usually when I sit down to read, it is for a period of hours, which means I read several stories at once. Even though I did manage to discipline myself to take a week to complete this book, the empty echoes in those neutral stories may well have been influenced by reading the good ones so recently.

Let’s start with the disappointing stories (Cell One, A Private Experience, Ghosts and The American Embassy) so we can save the good stuff for last. While this was my first exposure to Adichie, her last novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the Orange Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. Adichie spends her time in both Nigeria and the United States and that novel does deal with the civil conflict and its fallout that has plagued Nigeria. I don’t know much about the country but discovered in critical opinions from readers that I respect on various forums that they found that part of the novel uninformative and wanting. So I came to this book with some warning (I don’t think bias) about that trait.

All four of the stories that I didn’t like are about innocent individuals affected negatively by that conflict or what followed. In each case, I found not only little that expanded my limited knowledge, I didn’t learn much about the characters or their experience. I certainly appreciate the author’s desire to recount that story — I can’t help but wonder if her own history gets in the way of her obvious writing talent when she turns to those issues.

Where Adichie is strongest is when she explores the experience of the dislocated Nigerian woman in a Western culture (hence the comparison with Lahiri). Consider the opening of the title story, The Thing Around Your Neck:

You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.

They trooped into the room in Lagos where you lived with your father and mother and three siblings, leaning against the unpainted walls because there weren’t enough chairs to go round, to say goodbye in loud voices and tell you with lowered voices what they wanted you to send them. In comparison to the big car and house (and possibly gun), the things they wanted were minor — handbags and shoes and perfumes and clothes. You said okay, no problem.

That dream does not last long. The “uncle” who sponsored her expects sex as part of the deal. The narrator ends up in Hartford “because it was the last stop of the Greyhound bus you got on.” Another dream starts when she hooks up with a senior at the state university who has Boston Brahmin roots, but seems to know a fair bit about Africa. That too runs into problems (male readers should be warned that sympathetic male characters are not a feature of these stories) and the heroine decides to return home.

The story, told in the second person almost as a memory, is compact, with both tender emotions and perceptive observations. The inevitable sadness has overtones of sentimentalism but only that. It is impossible not to care for the narrator and her experience.

Another strong story, Imitation, does have a similar theme — Nkem is new to America, her husband Obiora a “Big Man” who divides his time between there and Lagos. He also divides his affection, as an intruding friend can’t wait to inform Nkem on her return from Lagos:

“…I wouldn’t tell you sha, I know men and their ways, but I heard she has moved into your house. This is what happens when you marry a rich man.”

Without spoiling the story, Nkem is a fighter. It is definitely worth the read.

As mentioned before, the middling stories tend to be less well-written versions of these two. In one of my favorite stories in the book, Jumping Monkey Hill, Adichie goes in a completely different, more complex direction.

The story is about the African Writers Workshop, held just outside Cape Town at a resort where the only blacks are seven of the eight participants in the workshop, sponsored by the British Council and chaired by Edward Campbell, an old Africa hand with an accent the British would call “posh” and who “could have been anything from sixty-five to ninety”. It is hard not to believe that this story isn’t based on a personal experience.

Like most writers’ workshops, participants are expected to spend part of the time writing, then read their work aloud, then take part in a critical review from the other participants. Also like most workshops, each has his or her own agenda, from fawning attention to the leader to agressive isolation.

Odichie captures this well — I laughed several times and it brought back not entirely fond memories of writing, editing and managing workshops that I have attended. She also spices up the narrative with excerpts from the story that the narrator writes and eventually presents to the group. “The whole thing is implausible,” Edward said. “This is agenda writing, it isn’t a story of real people.”

When I reread the story before writing this review, that quote brought me up short. Am I as a reader guilty of exactly that same response with the stories that I found wanting? I don’t think so, but…Cell One was published in the New Yorker; The American Embassy was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2003.

So just as the Orange Prize jury reached a different decision on Half of a Yellow Sun from the comments of readers whom I respect, perhaps you might like this collection better than I did. That’s why I decided to describe the book as “frustrating” — the strong stories show that Adichie is a writer of considerable talent but I don’t think it is consistently shown in this collection.

(An excerpt from Cell One can be found here).

Two early novels by William Maxwell (Part Two)

June 21, 2009

They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell

So far as I can see, there is no legitimate sleight of hand involved in practicing the arts of painting, sculpture, and music. They appear to have had their origins in religion, and they are fundamentally serious. In writing — all writing, but especially in narrative writing — you are continually being taken in. The reader, skeptical, experienced, with many demands on his time, and many ways of enjoying his leisure, is asked to believe in people he knows don’t exist, to be present at scenes that never occurred, to be amused or moved or instructed just as he would be in real life, only the life exists in somebody else’s imagination. If, as Mr. T. S. Eliot says, humankind cannot bear very much reality, then that would account for their turning to the charlatans operating along the riverbank — to the fortune-teller, the phrenologist, the man selling spirit money, the storyteller. Or there may be a different explanation; it may be that what humankind cannot bear directly it can bear indirectly, from a safe distance.

maxwell 3

Extended quotes are not really my style but the one above, from a 1955 William Maxwell lecture, The Writer as Illusionist, very accurately captures what he achieves in They Came Like Swallows, his outstanding second novel. Maxwell’s own mother died in the post-Great War influenza epidemic when he was 10 — this short novel is his effort to tell us a story that we as readers can bear indirectly, from a safe distance. In a most impressive way, it succeeds; it is a gem of a book.

They Came Like Swallows is told in three “books”, which are actually more of chapter length (the entire work comes in at 121 pages). The first centres on Bunny, the Maxwell character (age 8 in the book), who doesn’t quite get along with his brother or his father, but is truly attached to his mother. A contemplative child, he finds the pressures of “getting along” with family life just too much:

Ever since that time he had been trying to make a place for his father within his own arranged existence — and always unsuccessfully. His father was not the kind of man who could be fit into anybody’s arrangement except his own. He was too big, for one thing. His voice was too loud. He was too broad in the shoulder, and he smelled of cigars.

While Bunny is trying to figure out how to deal with this (wanting all the while to hide in his mother’s embrace), there is another looming challenge — his mother has been hemming diapers and the family will soon have a new member. This upsets Bunny’s equilibrium even more, but that strain moves into the background when he becomes the first member of the Morison family to fall victim to the flu. Conflict avoidance — even serious conversation avoidance — is a family trait; becoming part of the global epidemic produces a stress for which all family members are simply not prepared.

Book two of the novel is told from the viewpoint of his brother Robert, 13, who has his own challenges, having lost part of a leg in a wagon accident. Robert is a hail-fellow-well-met type and deals just fine with that problem. His own disruption comes when he inadvertently lets his mother into Bunny’s room after strict instructions from the doctor that the expectant mother is to be allowed nowhere near her sick son.

Having set the stage of the reality that none of us want to face directly, Maxwell uses the last, most poignant part of the book to explore two very relevant themes. The first is the guilt of “what if?” What if Robert had not let his mother into Bunny’s bedroom? What if Mr. Morison had boarded his wife and himself onto the interurban with the near-empty parlor car instead of pressing on into a crowded coach, with all the risks of infection? What if, what if, what if.

Book three explores answers to those questions but also opens a new one — how do we grieve? While Bunny and Robert certainly have to face that, the father becomes the focus of this part of the book. He has been comfortable in his boring life but, like most people who must face such a sudden tragedy, he is utterly unprepared for what the world ahead will look like.

This is a very brief review, but only because this is such a powerful book. There are some things that we hope we do not have to bear directly but “can bear indirectly, from a safe distance.” That is exactly what William Maxwell has achieved in They Came Like Swallows.

Two early novels by William Maxwell (Part One)

June 20, 2009

Bright Center of Heaven, by William Maxwell

maxwellCan editors write?

That is not a rhetorical question. As someone who spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, most of them in editor roles, I can assure you that a lot of very good editors are not very good writers (that’s part of the reason they became editors, I would presume).

And then there are those who can.

William Maxwell was fiction editor of The New Yorker from 1936 to 1975. The writers he worked with include Nabokov, Updike, O’Connor, Gallant, Singer, Welty, Munro — and I have hardly started (oh, did I mention Salinger?). After his death in 2000, a number of them contributed to A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations. While he is well known in writing and academic circles, many serious readers don’t know his work. I certainly did not until some authorly references to the two-volume Libarary of America collection of his work published in 2008 (the centenary of his birth) came to my attention. Even then, it sat on the shelf for several months until an interview with Jayne Anne Phillips on theMookseandtheGripes, citing him as an author of influence, brought him back to mind. I took Vol. 1, the early novels and short stories, off the shelf and am I ever glad I did. This review is the first of two from that volume, dealing with his first novel, Bright Center of Heaven (1934). I will post on his second and much better known, They Came Like Swallows (1937), tomorrow — I still have a number of stories and two more novels to go before I even start Vol. II.

In my opinion, Bright Center of Heaven may qualify as the best, least-read, novel in the American canon (that doesn’t really make sense but I am sure you get my drift). The original press run of 1,000 sold out, a second press-run languished and the book was out of print for more than 70 years until the 2008 Library of America edition pictured in this review. Maxell himself, like many authors on their first works, was not that keen on it — I think it is a wonderful piece. It will get undue attention in this post, since They Came Like Swallows, the other novel to be reviewed, has had a more illustrous hisory. Suffice to say, they are both exceptional pieces of work.

I can understand why both Maxwell and the publishing industry overlooked this novel. In one sense, it is a writing exercise based on a tricky presumption: Can an author create a piece of fiction, with numerous characters, who share only one trait — each is totally self-preoccupied and virtually uninterested in the people around him or her? By my count, there are 11 of these characters in this novel and each of them is developed. Set on an isolated farm/retreat in Wisconsin, the only memories they have of the bigger, outside world are those that feed their particular preoccupation. To this reader’s mind, given my recent reading, this novel is a fascinating prequel to Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn where the author creates a totally passive character, surrounded by people who want to help her.

I won’t attempt to background all those characters, but here are just a few. The farm is owned by the widow, Susan West — it is the start of the Great Depression and she is taking in boarders to make ends meet but her cheerful and hopelessly unbusinesslike approach to guest selection means that most of the farm residents are not paying guests. Susan at breakfast:

As Mrs. West sipped her orange juice, her eyes wandered to the patches of yellow sunlight between the trees and along the fringe of the wood which began just outside the window. The wood was cool and deep and much too quiet. She listened a moment until she heard the reassuring strife of the red-winged blackbirds down in the marsh, and knew that the world was no better and no worse that it had been the day before; that it was, indeed, very much the same.

One of the non-paying boarders is Aunt Amelia, a hypochondriac who has lived on cottage cheese and “very weak tea” for the past three years. Here is her entrance to the book — and the breakfast room:

In another part of the house a door closed. The kitchen door swayed, passing along the information to Mrs. West, who was helping herself to the toast, that Aunt Amelia was coming; that she was crossing the living room; that in a second she would stop on the threshold of the dining room to fasten the breastplate and make sure the helmet of her invulnerable gloom.

Mrs. West has two sons, Trevor aged 18 and Whitey 15, and they too get fully developed. Aunt Amelia is a guardian to Bascomb, who does deserve an excerpt:

Bascomb beamed his gratitude upon her (Mrs. West). “I woke up in a Victorian mood,” he explained, sliding into the place left vacant by Whitey, and picking up crumbs of toast. “I lay there looking at the chamber pot, and the the pitcher and the bowl on the washstand. They all had pink roses on them.” His voice was high and rather unpleasantly nasal. Mrs. West wondered vaguely why it was that Amelia should prefer this strange creature — whose madness was amiable, to be sure, but none the less mad — to her own angels. “Then I got to thinking of the Queen,” Bascomb was saying — “and all of the chamber pots, water-pitchers, wash-bowls, and shaving-mugs in Windsor Palace, each with pink roses on it.”

To this family, add the paying boarders. Nigel, a young actress (her father really, really wanted a son, hence her name) who is tranfixed by thinking she is pregnant by Paul, a former college teacher who quit seven months ago and is still searching for his future (farmer, fruit shop co-owner and writer are all possibilities); Josefa, a not-very talented pianist, who is preparing for a fall concert with the Boston Symphony and Cynthia, an artist hard at work at exploring the relationship on canvas between a pair of oranges (not quite spherical) and an oil can in a painting that does seem to presage Andy Warhol. Throw in a cook who wants to go back to Bavaria to her ailing mother and a farmhand with a bad knee and you have the entire crew. All, I might say, in 166 pages in this edition.

What is so charming about this book is that none of these characters are selfish in the judgmental sense, they are just so pre-occupied with their particuar dilemma that they can’t engage with each other on any significant level. A summary from Paul, the ex-teacher:

It seemed to Paul that a really high-class insane asylum must not be so very different from this. Not so out-of-the-way, perhaps, and without the pleasant landscape. But the inmates could not be much farther from sober sanity than most of the people here. Doubtless in a nuthouse there was less going on, and the inmates were probably allowed to retire from time to time and be free from interruption in their padded cells.

I have gone on at too great length with this bunch, but for a reason. In my life — and I suspect yours — I have run into a version of every one of these characters and the frustration that knowing them produces. In conclusion, I can only hint at the unifying event that pulls this all together: Mrs. West, in her cheerful wisdom, has offered refuge to a black activist (remember, this is the mid-1930s) and his arrival makes this exercise a very real book. Jefferson Carter introduces the real world to the Wisconsin farm asylum and self pre-occupation finds itself threatened — it would be a spoiler to say which wins.

William Maxwell went on to write some very well-regarded novels, one of which I will write about tomorrow. For me, it is wonderful to have discovered him. I know many readers find historical collections such as this Library of America version daunting — in this case, they have brought a very talented writer back to attention. I look forward to reading the rest of his work.

February, by Lisa Moore

June 17, 2009

mooreLisa Moore is a Newfoundland-based novelist who has attracted substantial attention in Canadian book prize circles despite have only published three books. Her second volume of short stories, Open, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. Her first novel, Alligator, was also Giller shortlisted and won the Canadian-Caribbean section of the Commonwealth Prize. So when word went out that her second novel, February, would be a story based on the tragic sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig in 1982, many Canadian readers — including this one — awaited the book with anticipation.

The Ocean Ranger disaster took the lives of all 84 men on board. Throughout its history, Newfoundland has been accustomed to the sea claiming its men — in some ways this (entirely preventable) tragedy was a reminder that while the world and Newfoundland’s economy has changed, the destructive power of nature and the ocean has not changed at all.

Moore’s central character, Helen O’Mara, lost her husband of eight years, Cal, in that sinking. She was left with three children, five, six and seven years old, and another on the way. While all that happened many years ago, the author tells most of the story from a viewpoint 26 years later in 2008, with periodic flashbacks to 1982 and even earlier in Cal and Helen’s relationship.

Helen is still haunted by the loss — while Moore never actually says it, it is hard not to assume that Helen has thought about it every single day since. Life has been lonely throughout that quarter century, but has become even more lonely since her children left home. At least when she was rearing them, Helen had something to pay attention to. Now, even though her three adult daughters have remained in St. John’s and are nearby, that loneliness has become even more oppressive and her memories even more haunting:

Her black cardigan hanging on the closet door. Always there is that high-pitched terror when the phone rings at night: Is someone hurt? Louise (her sister) has had a few scares with angina. An ambulance last winter. Helen is frightened of the phone.

Her cardigan looked like a presence, a ghost. She was old, after all, and yes, years had passed. The bed flying over the edge of a cliff and a siren ringing out across the water and her body seemed to fall at a slower rate than the bed and she felt the bed hit with a plosh and then she hit the bed and began to sink, but it was just the phone, not a siren. The phone. Answer the phone. I’m certainly not old, she thought, snatching the receiver before she missed the call.

The phone call that provokes this is from her son John, the most independent and rebellious of her children, the only one who has not fallen into a “traditional” Newfoundland life. He is a consultant with a firm that specializes in reducing costs for energy firms by “rationalizing” their safety procedures, eliminating the waste of both time and money (the irony is rather crude). He is phoning from Singapore where he has just got a call from Jane Downey, a woman with whom he had a one week fling in Iceland, has not heard from since and who has just called him to say that she is seven months pregnant. John is headed home, he is not sure to what.

Moore does keep both these story lines going in the present, interspersed with flashbacks centred around Helen’s married life, the Ocean Ranger and the days, months and years immediately following the disaster. It is an awkward structure but she does make it easier to follow with helpful subheads that introduce each section with both subject and date.

I will admit I had problems with both Open and Alligator and have the same problems with February. For this reader, Moore’s books have a lot of breadth and not a lot of depth. She loves description, she loves a geographically roaming narrative (this book goes to Florida, Greece and Mexico in addition to Singapore and New York). I find it distracting and as the book goes on increasingly annoying — given the recognition her previous books have received it would seem that other readers don’t find this to be the case.

Consider this example. It is a description of Jane’s academic work for her master’s thesis where she studied the street people of New York City:

But she had learned things she didn’t put in the thesis. The street people had frightened her. Some poor people were right-wing and violent. Some were avaricious. They were hungry and cold. They had runny noses and glittery snot-caked sleeves. They ate with their mouths open. They had glazed eyes and addictions. They were illiterate and they had lice. Or they were brilliant and meticulous with their appearance and saintly. They could see ghosts. They were fair-minded. They shared what they had. They had nothing. They fed the pigeons. They were full of wisdom. They were full of worms. They were full of AIDS. They were spiritually bereft. They were luckless. They were a they. Best of all, they knew the scope of a single lifetime and how not to make a mark.

Jane is a minor character in the book, not fully developed, and that section is the only reference to her work in New York. The novel has numerous other similar digressions, most of which feature the same clipped sentences and shotgun prose that that quote has. It wouldn’t be so bad if these flights reflected on the author’s central themes — instead I can’t help but wonder if the author is using them to avoid fully addressing and developing those themes or, worse yet, doesn’t know how to do that.

I plead guilty to having a preference for depth over breadth. I would make the same criticism of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and it won the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Certainly, it is consistent with Lisa Moore’s style in her previous books — I’ll just have to acknowledge that writing which disturbs some readers like me is attractive to others.

Lisa Moore deserves credit for taking a significant, tragic event and examining how it wounded and effected not just individuals, but an entire community — some of the best parts of the book are the sections describing what it was like in St. John’s immediately after the Ocean Ranger tragedy. I would have liked more of that. For me, February ultimately fails because it does not deliver on that promise.

Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick

June 14, 2009

ozickCan a novelist successfully integrate the following, apparently wildly disperate, themes:
— the mid-1930s commencement of the diaspora of scholarly and scientific German Jews as the Nazis begin their persecution.
— the dysfunction of one of those families in the America that has “adopted” them.
— the adult angst of Christopher Robin Milne, destined to be remembered forever by everyone as a boy in short pants with a bear of very little brain.
— the never-ending conflict between literal and interpretive readings of fundamental texts and indeed literal and interpreted meanings of life experiences.
— the intellectual wasteland of pre-Depression up-state New York.
— a handful of love stories, each characterized by the fact that only one-half of the couple feels the love.
— the maturing of an intelligent, if confused and passive, young woman who is personally affected by all of the above?

ozick 2That’s a very quick summary of the challenge that Cynthia Ozick has set for herself in Heir to the Glimmering World (2004) her eighth volume of fiction and most recent novel. It is called The Bear Boy in the UK version — I much prefer the North American title because it at least hints at more than one of the themes, instead of focusing on perhaps the most obvious one. And while the image on that UK cover is very appealing, I am afraid it is a total misrepresentation of the book.

Reading Ozick is a too long delayed project for me and this book is the first extended work the I have tried. I had nothing but praise for Dictation, a quartet earlier this year. And I can’t improve on John Self’s Asylum review of her short masterpiece, The Shawl. As my opening indicates, however, Heir is a work of completely different magnitude — and a challenge that I think this outstanding author meets most successfully.

Here’s the opening of the book:

In 1935, when I was just eighteen, I entered the household of Rudolf Mitwisser, the scholar of Karaism. “The scholar of Karaism” — at that time I had no idea what that meant, or why it should be “the” instead of “a”, or who Rudolf Mitwisser was. I understood only that he was the father of what seemed to be numerous children, and that he had come from Germany two years before. I knew these things from an advertisement in the Albany Star:

Professor, arrived 1933 Berlin, children 3-14, requires assistant, relocate NYC. Respond Mitwisser, 22 Westerley.

It read like a telegram; Professor Mitwisser, I would soon learn was parsimonious. The ad did not mention Elsa, his wife. Possibly he had forgotten about her.

You will note how many of those themes are at least hinted at in these three short opening paragraphs (you don’t have to know anything about the Karasites — I didn’t — to pick up on the literal/interpretive theme). Ozick, perhaps best known as a masterful short story writer, doesn’t waste a word, regardless of the length of what she is writing.

So let’s look just a bit at some of those streams. Professor Mitwisser is “the” scholar of the Karasites, an obscure Jewish sect from about the year 1,000, who totally rejected any rabbinical interpretation of religious texts. He lost his academic post as part of the first Nazi wave — the forgotten Elsa, a more than competent physicist with close connections to one who would soon win a Nobel Prize, soon lost hers. A Quaker community in Albany, New York, mistaking Karasites for Charismites (a sixteenth century, mystical Christian sect), adopts the family and brings them to the United States. Mitwisser is cheerful about teaching the Charismites but, as the ad indicates, he needs to get to New York City to have access to papers that will feed his main research obsession. It is lonely and all-consuming work — that is why he is “the”, not “a”, scholar.

The professor and Elsa have five children, two daughters bracket three sons. Elsa has not merely retreated from her scientific work, she has pretty much retreated from the world. With a totally-preoccupied father and isolated mother, what little organization takes place in the family is done by the eldest daughter, Anneliese. She is the first “heir” in the book; her father regards her as the natural heir to his work. The three sons and youngest daughter, Waltrup, are comic studies of the first order.

I will let Ozick herself explain the literal/iinterpretive theme:

It would be grandiose to call my novel a novel of ideas, but I hope I may venture that it is a novel of at least an idea: the idea of the necessity of interpretation, but also the danger of interpretation. What makes a human being? Language first, and then imaginative interpretation, the human mind cannot live without it. Like all literalists, the Karasites stood against imagination and interpretation, and they vanished out of history’s mainstream. The author of the Bear Boy books weighed down his son with so much ineradicable embellishment that the man could never free himself from the invented boy. Whether interpretation is too little or too much, a withering will follow.

(Major reviewer digression: Those of us who try to follow the American debate over whether Supreme Court judges should read the Constitution literally as the framers wrote it or apply interpretation to it can’t help but applying Ozick’s thought as a metaphor in that debate — I know I’m interpreting there, but still. End of digression.)

My apologies — the Bear Boy slipped in there without a proper introduction. Ozick has also said he was inspired by an obituary of Christopher Milne, who did spend most of his adult life trying to escape being Christopher Robin. In the novel, he is James — who as a five-year-old inspired his father, James Philip A’Bair, to write The Boy Who Lived In A Hat. The A’Bair boy became the Bear Boy (partly because he resembled a bear), fourteen other books followed and a franchise was born (even without the help of Disney for those of us who know our Winnie-the-Pooh history). Jimmy’s mother rouged him and dressed him in lace shirts to help support the franchise. He now rejects it all (hence the James) but with the death of his father he is now heir to the continually expanding fortune. He has done his best to spend as much as he can on travel and drugs but it keeps expanding. James has now adopted the Mitwissers and is their sole means of support — although given his lack of respect for any structure it is an on-again, off-again thing.

All of these threads are gathered together through the observant eyes of the eighteen-year-old who responded to the ad, Rose Meadows. The daughter of an upstate mathematics teacher who was more interested in drink and gambling than math, Rose has been well-schooled in the arts but not much else, including life. When she signs on with the Mitwissers, she’s not really sure if it is as nanny, governess, mother-minder or amaneunsis to the scholar — turns out it is all of these things, depending on the circumstances. Also trying to keep James under control and watching out for her cousin Bertram, who himself is enthralled with the radical woman, Ninel, (spell it backwards) and headed into his own life of ruin (sorry, there are only so many threads I can deal with in this review but he too is an interesting character).

I realize it is asking for a leap of faith to believe that all of this works — it does. In one sense, it is as if Ozick, the short fiction writer, has written five or six novellas and then, rather than publishing them sequentially, has braided them together in a single novel. It is arranged chronologically but she moves confidently from one theme to another and then back again. Even if you like some themes or characters more than others (that would seem to be inevitable), you can plunge on with confidence, knowing that the author will soon return to one of your favorites. And she does.

I noted in my review of Dictation that Ozick frequently gets mentioned in what I will call the American female triumverate — with Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson (who just won the Orange Prize for Home). I do think the three deserve to be mentioned in the same breath and that it is an individual reader’s tastes that will determine which you think is “best”, because they all have exceptional strenghs. Having said that, my tastes say Cynthia Ozick. Her short fiction is as good as anyone’s — this novel also stands in the first rank.

The Disappeared, by Kim Echlin

June 13, 2009

echlinHave the atrocities of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields become so far removed from our experience that we need a novel to remind us that they occurred?

When I first read Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared, I would certainly have said “no”. Now that I have had a few days to think about it, I am not so sure. Given my age, this atrocity was a contemporary experience — young men of my generation in the United States were being sent to Viet Nam (and Cambodia as well), so I knew the story. Many who chose to leave their country settled in mine. For me, Pol Pot was part of growing up.

But with all that has happened since, I suspect there is now a generation that doesn’t know that story. While I don’t think The Disappeared is a great novel, it might be a good place to start in learning about it.

Echlin frames her story as a love story. Anne Greves is a liberal Montrealer who hooks up with Serey, a Cambodian exile waiting to return home. (There is an interesting subplot here that Echlin does not explore — the diaspora of French-speaking colonials from places such as Indo-China and Haiti to Montreal as opposed to New York or Toronto). When the borders of Cambodia re-open, Serey is quick to return, in search of both his family and his future. Anne hears nothing — eventually she decides to head to Cambodia in search of her lover.

She finds him in a coincidence that stretches credibility, but we do have to give the author some licence. They co-habit — while it is obvious to the reader that Serey is active in the resistance movement, Anne manages to overlook it.

With that, Echlin has established the platform for her deeper story, the repression and hopelessness of Cambodian society of the time. And the denial of the history that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge created. That history produces a present and Serey becomes part of it — Anne can do nothing but follow the trail of his experience.

A great book? No. A readable book? Definitely yes. And perhaps it might open your eyes to some things you don’t know.

KFC IMPAC contest winner

June 11, 2009

ThomasAnd the winner of the third KFC contest is……

John Self of The Asylum, the only entrant who picked Michael Thomas’ Man Gone Down. He was the last entry and admitted that he was only entering as a last-ditch Anybody-But-William effort. It was successful beyond his wildest dreams.

Let me know how you would like the $75 prize money, John. I can’t think of a more deserving winner.

KFC continues to be hopeless when it comes to contests — as visitors here know I found this book so unappealing that I abandoned it. The only comments that I received supported that decision and no one sprang to the book’s defence so I will admit to being baffled by the IMPAC judge’s decision. Any explanations of why it is a deserving winner would be welcome — since I did read 274 pages, I’ll admit in advance it will be a tough task to persuade me to pick it up again. Then again, as I have said before, it would be a very boring world if we all thought the same about every book.

Many thanks to all those who entered and who commented on the IMPAC reviews. It was a fun project from my point of view and I look forward to KFC’s fourth contest in a few months.

Molly Fox’s Birthday, by Deirdre Madden

June 10, 2009

maddenA number of visitors to this blog drew my attention to Molly Fox’s Birthday after my From Page to Stage posts indicated my interest in theater and drama and the way that plays became productions. The unnamed narrator of this intriguing novel is a playwright, the Molly of the title is an actor (we don’t call them actresses) — and the visitors who pointed me to this book were right.

Molly Fox’s Birthday is a “one-day” book in that all of the action takes place on a single June 21, the birthday of the actor which only her brother is allowed to acknowledge (as we actors get older, the parts get harder to find). The narrator is in temporary residence in Molly Fox’s terrace house in Dublin, trying to get a start on her 20th play. Molly is in New York, having a holiday before heading to London to record an audio book of Adam Bede — while our narrator lives in London, she and Molly fairly often swap residences since both have movable careers.

Their friendship goes back decades. The narrator’s first play — Summer with Lucy — was also Molly’s first glowing success. From the playwright’s point of view, that play wrote itself and she could hardly keep up as the words demanded to be put onto the page. With 19 plays produced since then, she has hardly been a failure (although her last play was a critical disaster) but the writing process has become more and more of a struggle as time goes on. Molly, on the other hand, moves from triumph to triumph — her latest performance in The Duchess of Malfi, an exceedingly difficult part, the most recent in a string. Molly does not act, she lives her character. The playwright has to work a lot harder to create those characters, except when it is Molly:

Molly has been something of a muse to me over the years. The best roles I have written for women have been created with Molly in mind. Our gifts complement each other in a way that is, I believe, rare. Often when I am writing for her I can hear her voice. Sometimes it is so clear it is as if she is speaking aloud, as if she were there in the room with me. It is almost occult. It gives me confidence and courage to know that I have such an instrument at my disposal.

While Madden has said elsewhere that she does not know a lot about the theater, the novel says that she does — and anyone who finds the theater interesting will appreciate that throughout the first part of this book. It is a most interesting exploration.

Unfortunately (for me) that is not what Madden means this book to be about. There is a third character, an art historian named Andrew, who is equally important. A university classmate of Molly’s, he has gone on to fame as a TV presenter who brings art to the masses. (Yes, I could not help but think about Sister Wendy, but he is not like that at all. On the other hand, the business model is similar.) He and the playwright keep in touch; our narrator is also somewhat upset that he and Molly seemed to have developed a friendship which is beyond her control.

All three of these characters have brothers and, as much as I wanted this book to be about theater, by the halfway point I knew the author meant it to be about something else. From here on, theater moves into the background and explorations of family move center stage. While that may have disappointed me, I suspect a lot of other readers will welcome it.

The narrator is the youngest of seven children but her closest sibling is the eldest, who is now, in the Irish tradition, a priest. Father Tom has potential as a character — for him the Church is a vocation, in the sense of being a good job as opposed to a calling for the soul. He loves his visits to London to be with his sister as a chance to explore all that that wonderful city represents. Alas, Madden does not give him much space.

Molly’s sibling is Fergus, an alcoholic, disturbed person whose shortcomings she puts down to their mother’s desertion of the family on her seventh birthday. Fergus has a different opinion.

Andrew’s sibling is Billy, his parents’ favorite, even though he was a failure who was murdered/executed for his part on the Loyalist side in the Irish Troubles. His position in the family has left a mark on Andrew since childhood; it has become even worse since his death. He needs to resolve it.

I loved the first half of this book because I think Madden does a wonderful job of exploring the theatrical experience — and that is something that is important to me. I’ll admit that I trudged through the latter half, but that is not the author’s fault. What was important to her was not that important to me, and my admiration for the way she set up the book extracted a price when she came to her main point.

Molly Fox’s Birthday was short-listed for this year’s Orange Prize and deservedly so. If you like theater and reading about how it comes to pass (as I do), there is much to recommend here, at least in the first half of the book. I’m afraid my enthusiasm for that part of the book did effect the way I viewed the rest. Mea culpa.

Piano, by Jean Echenoz

June 6, 2009

echenoz piano Translated by Mark Polizzotti

One of my shortcomings as a reader gets exposed almost every time I first encounter — and like — an established writer whose work I don’t know. On the “patient-excited” continuum, you can place me firmly at the “excited” end. Even when the logical, thinking part of me says waiting a month or two before reading another book would be advisable, I can’t wait to order the backlist and dive right in.

So it was with Jean Echenoz. As regular visitors to this blog will know, I was very impressed with Ravel, his IMPAC short-listed fictional biography of the French composer. Hence, two of his previous works — Piano and I’m Gone were on the way almost as soon as the Ravel cover was closed.

While I’m Gone was a Prix Goncourt winner, the entrancing cover of Piano moved it immediately to the top of the pile. (Judging books by their cover is another short-coming but we’ll save that for a later post). I do have to say that The New Press which published both Ravel and Piano deserves high praise for the covers of both books — these slim, well-produced hardcovers are as physically attractive books as any I have read in a long time.

I knew from some internet scanning that Ravel was not typical of Echenoz’s work. Grounded in the composer’s life, it did not have the surreal — often bizarre — twists of plot that characterize his previous novels. Piano has that in spades.

The book’s central character is Max Delmarc, a 50-year-old concert pianist whom we meet as part of a strolling pair on the streets of Paris:

One, slightly taller than average says nothing. Under a large, light-colored raincoat buttoned to the neck, he is wearing a black suit with a black bow tie. Small cufflinks with onyx-quartz mounts punctuate his immaculate wrists. He is, in short, very well dressed, though his pallid face and gaping eyes suggest a worried frame of mind. His white hair is brushed back. He is afraid. He is going to die a violent death in twenty-two days but, as he is yet unaware of this, that is not what he is afraid of.

Announcing that your central character will die in precisely twenty-two days in paragraph two of a book is not really conventional — Echenoz is definitely not conventional. And since that is not the reason for his fear, what is? We soon find that the second figure explains that. Accomplished a pianist as he is, Max is terrified of performing — and responds to that terror with alcohol. The other half of the walking pair is Bernie, a young man retained by Max’s imressario to keep him off the pre-concert sauce and, literally, push him onto stage and at the piano at the appropriate time.

A few bars into the piece (Chopin’s Piano Concerto #2, which Max knows so well that he is bored with it at this point) and all is well. Plus the deal with the impressario is that he gets to imbibe after the concert. While we soon discover that, along with drink, Max likes to look at and build scenarios around beautiful women, it is the music that dominates his life. Here’s the description of the taping of a concert that will be televised:

After disembodied voices had given the countdown, the concert could begin. The conductor was fairly exasperating, full of mannered grimances, unctuous and enveloping motions, coded little signs addressed to different categories of performers, fingers on his lips and inopportune thrusts of his hips. Following his lead, the instrumentalists themselves began to act like wise guys: taking advantage of a frill in the score that allowed him to shine a little, to stand out from the masses for the space of a few measures, an oboist demonstrated extreme concentration, even overplaying it to win the right to a close-up. Thanks to several highlighted phrases allocated to them, two English horns also did their little number a moment later. And Max, who had quickly lost the scrap of stage fright that had held him that day and was even starting to feel bored, himself began to make pianist faces in turn, looking preoccupied, pulling his head deep into his shoulders or excessively arching his back, depending on the tempo; smiling at the instrument, the work, the very essence of music, himself — you have to keep interested somehow.

I apologize for the length of that excerpt but it represents all that is Echenoz and his ability to create word pictures of the highest order (and equally high marks to the translator for bringing them into English). On the one hand, the eye for detail and the Proust-like cascade of it that precedes the subject and/or object of the sentence. But also, the metaphor of the performance itself. For just as the musicians use the formal structure of the piece to create their riffs and make their statement, the author uses the structure of the novel mainly as a platform for his own improvisations. The book’s strength is in those “improvisations”, not the plot.

Max does get stabbed and die about one-third of the way through the book and wakes up in the Orientation Center, Echenoz’s version of Purgatory, from which he will be assigned to either the park or the urban zone for the rest of time. Allow me one more Echenoz riff:

White in color and emerging from who knows where, this second figure seemed gently but firmly to admonish Yellow Bathrobe, who immediately vanished. Apparently White Silhouette then noticed Max, who watched it walk toward him, become transformed in its approach into a young woman who was the spitting image of Peggy Lee — tall, nurse’s blouse, very light hair pulled back and held with a hair tie. With the same implacable softness, she enjoined Max to go back into his room.

“You have to stay in here,” she said — moreover in Peggy Lee’s voice. “Someone will be here to see you soon.

“But,” started Max, getting no further, as the young woman immediately negated this incipient objection with a light rustllng of her fingers, deployed like a flight of birds in the air between them. When you get down to it, she did look phenomenally like Peggy Lee, the same kind of big, milk-fed blonde, with a fleshy, wide mouth, and excessive lower lip forming the permanent smile of a zealous camp counselor. More reassuring than arousing, she exuded complete wholesomeness and strict morals.

No marks for guessing that it is, in fact, Peggy Lee. As well, no marks for figuring out whether Max gets assigned to the park or the urban zone — in analysing his meagre volume of sins, he humanely manages to completely overlook the most obvious one.

While I liked Ravel somewhat more than Piano, that says more about me as a reader than it does about either book. I enjoyed and appreciated both books — the grounding in reality of Ravel is probably more to my taste. And I did not do Echenoz any favour by reading Piano so quickly after the first book. The concise and precise digressions, with their incredible detail, are a feature of both books and can be grating, even though they are the best parts of the book. I doubt that I would have noticed that if I had waited a couple of months before reading Piano. Echenoz is for sipping, not gulping.

Which is precisely what I propose to do with the rest of his work. Even I should be able to put a lid on excitement, or at least cork it for a bit.

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