Meet an Iranian Poet

Song of a Captive Bird     Jazmin Darznik     (2018)

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If you’ve never heard of the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967), get ready to be introduced to the startling voice of a woman who writes viscerally about the emotions of repression, alienation, and love. In Song of a Captive Bird, Iranian-American writer Jazmin Darznik has fictionalized the life of Forugh Farrokhzad, who is known primarily as “Forugh.” Inserted throughout Darznik’s prose text are excerpts from English translations of Forugh’s poetry, which provide a taste of her style and illuminate the events of the novel.

Song of a Captive Bird gave me insights into a culture that I knew very little about. The Persian literature of Iran goes back at least two and a half millennia, with a strong tradition of love poetry, and Forugh steeped herself in this literature as she wrote her own poems. Here, in first-person narrative, novelist Darznik imagines Forugh’s struggles with writing candidly, as a woman, about sexuality in mid-twentieth-century Iran:

“Mine was a country where they said a woman’s nature is riddled with sin, where they claimed that women’s voices had the power to drive men to lust and distract them from matters of both heaven and earth. Yet, when I leafed through magazines and opened volumes of poetry, I found that men has always described their love and their lovers with utter frankness and freedom. For thousands of years men had compared their beloveds to whatever they pleased, voiced all manner of amorous petitions and pleas, and described all the states to which love delivered them. And people read this poetry with complete equanimity. No one screamed out in protest. No one cried, ‘Oh God, the foundations of morality have been shaken!’" (170)

Reviewers of Forugh’s poetry sometimes compare her to Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), who was her contemporary, though there is no evidence that the two knew of each other’s work. I see similarities, in that both expressed women’s emotions in a raw style that was often criticized during their lives as unwomanly or otherwise inappropriate.

Readers should be cautious not to accept as fact all the incidents in this novelized version of Forugh’s life. As Darznik explains in her “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, she extrapolated, because biographical information about Forugh is sparse. In the novel, Forugh characterizes herself as a difficult girl-child in a highly patriarchal society: “My willfulness was my mother’s torment. An Iranian daughter is taught to be quiet and meek, but from earliest childhood I was stubborn, noisy, and brash. A good Iranian daughter should be pious, modest, and tidy; I was impulsive, argumentative, and messy. I thought of myself as no less than my brothers, with wit and daring to match theirs.” (367) Darznik’s portrayal of Forugh continues her brashness and daring into adulthood, as she publishes what is viewed as scandalously explicit verse under her own name and as she takes on lovers. Forugh specifically defies and undermines the strong cultural emphasis on female virginity.

Darznik’s casting of the novel in first-person narrative lends an immediacy and also creates tension for the reader: Does the story extend through Forugh’s entire life? If so, how will Forugh explain her own death?  I found the last 75 pages (out of 401 pages) of Song of a Captive Bird to be weaker than the rest of the book, with many years of Forugh’s life skipped over and with the cause of Forugh’s death left ambiguous. But these critiques do not significantly diminish the power of the story.

From a twenty-first-century standpoint, we know what was going to happen in Iran after Forugh’s death. In the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Pahlavi dynasty of monarchs was overthrown, and an Islamic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Many Iranians who could afford to leave the country emigrated, including Jazmin Darznik’s own family. In the two suitcases that her family was able to take with them when they fled, Darznik’s mother brought a slim volume of Forugh’s poetry. This act speaks to the influence of Forugh.

Near the end of Song of a Captive Bird, Darznik puts into Forugh’s mouth a prophetic statement, lamenting Iran’s adherence to patriarchal traditions and its reliance on its vast oil reserves:  “I feared an age that had lost its heart, and I was terrified at the thought of so many crippled hands. Our traditions were our pacifiers, and we sang ourselves to sleep with the lullaby of a once-great civilization and culture. Ours was the land of poetry, flowers, and nightingales—and poets searching for rhymes in history’s junkyards. The lottery was our faith and greed our fortune.” (373-4)

After the Civil War

Varina     Charles Frazier     (2018)

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By page 3 of Varina, you know that you are in very competent hands. You can trust that Charles Frazier will imprint the landscape of the Civil War era on your brain for a long time. You will see into the souls of the characters and perhaps learn some truths about the issue of race in the United States. And his telling of the tale may break your heart.

Backing up a bit, let me explain that Frazier’s novel is a fictionalized version of the life of the second wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. The teenaged Varina (“V”) Howell marries the widower Jefferson Davis, who is the age of her parents, and goes on to social prominence in Washington, DC, in the 1840s and 1850s as the spouse of Congressman and then Senator and then Secretary of War Davis. The secession of the southern states in 1861 upends her life.

The bulk of the novel is the story of Varina’s incredibly difficult trek from Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, toward Florida in the spring of 1865, as the Confederates surrender to the Union to end the war. Varina, her children, and a small entourage (not including her husband), hope to reach Florida and then cross over to Cuba to escape retribution from Union soldiers or prosecution by the federal government. Varina’s trip is recounted in flashbacks from the standpoint of 1906, when a middle-aged man of mixed race, James Blake, tracks down the elderly Varina, living in upstate New York, and asks her how he happened to be part of her household for a few years during his early childhood.

Is this plot vaguely reminiscent of the plot of Cold Mountain, Frazier’s 1997 international bestseller and winner of the National Book Award? Oh, sure. Both books present in grisly detail the wasteful destruction of life and land during the Civil War; both involve treacherous journeys against the backdrop of the ravaged American South; and both feature strong, educated female characters. The story is one that encompasses multitudes and can be told from countless points of view. Although many events in the novel Varina hew closely to the biographical facts of the actual life of Varina Davis, Frazier has invented the character of James Blake and has speculated about Varina’s analyses of master-slave relationships and about her intellectual struggles with the institution of slavery. Here are a couple of samples of Varina’s (fictional) thoughts:

“Even very young she saw slavery as an ancient practice arising because rich people would rather not do hard work, and also from the tendency of people to clench hard to advantageous passages in the Bible and dismiss the rest.” (102)

“. . . they—she and Jeff and the culture at large—had made bad choices one by one, spaced out over time so that they felt individual. But actually they accumulated. Choices of convenience and conviction, choices coincident with the people they lived among, following the general culture and the overriding matter of economics, money and its distribution, fair or not. Never acknowledging that the general culture is often stupid or evil and would vote out God in favor of the devil if he fed them back their hate and fear in a way that made them feel righteous.” (328)

Although I learned a great deal about Varina Davis and her family in this novel, I see the heart of the book as the American South.

“V thought about how the landscape would never be the same after this war even if the blasted battleground healed with new green growth and burned farms were either rebuilt or allowed to rot into the dirt. The old troop movements, battles and skirmishes, places of victory and defeat and loss and despair. Slave quarters, whipping posts, and slave market platforms. Routes of attack and retreat. Monumental cemeteries of white crosses stretching in rows to the horizon, and also lonesome mountain burials . . .” (212)

I agree with Varina, and presumably with Charles Frazier, that the wounds of the Civil War are still festering in the United States today.

For another novel about the aftermath of war, this time World War II, see my review of The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017).

The English Country Estate

Peculiar Ground     Lucy Hughes-Hallett     (2018)   

Walls: perimeter walls, border walls, the Berlin Wall, walls between persons, walls between peoples, the wall around the Garden of Eden, walls of inclusion, walls of exclusion, the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down. Walls both solid and figurative are found everywhere in Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s fascinating foray out of biographical writing into fiction. 

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The “peculiar ground” of this novel’s title is a fictional Oxfordshire estate, Wychwood, a country house and huge expanse of land surrounded by a high rock wall. Readers drop in on the construction of this wall in 1663, with a first-person narrative by John Norris, the landscaper who is rearranging the terrain all around the estate, creating a British version of Eden in conjunction with the building of the wall. We get fully settled in at Wychwood, meeting the owners, the many people who tend to the owners and their property, and the mysterious and possibly magic-making groups who glide through the surrounding forests.

Then Hughes-Hallett whisks us away to 1961, the year when a barbed-wire fence is suddenly erected one summer’s night in Berlin, and armed guards are posted to keep East Berliners from heading to the West. The British reactions to this actual Cold War gambit are the backdrop to an extensive update on the Wychwood estate and its twentieth-century inhabitants. The wall around the pastoral paradise of Wychwood still stands, in glaring contrast to that threatening one in Berlin. Or is it so different?  Various assemblages of outsiders visit, invade, or otherwise challenge the enclosure of Wychwood as the narrative moves to 1973 and then to 1989. We meet direct descendants of characters from the 1663 segment of the story as well as new blood. But tragedy can visit in the twentieth century just as in the seventeenth.

Perhaps I was especially taken with Peculiar Ground because of its embrace of the seventeenth-century tradition of poems in praise of country homes. Ben Jonson initiated this subgenre in 1616 with “To Penshurst,” written to curry the favor of a wealthy patron of the arts. I found many echoes of this tradition in Peculiar Ground, with Hughes-Hallett’s sumptuous and specific descriptions of the verdant British landscape. Horticultural references slide right on over into other descriptions. A lord of the manor tells his lady, “I will cover you with Brussels lace, as the roadside is covered with a froth of flowers this Maytide.” (423) In the twentieth-century section, a dress is made of “bias-cut Liberty lawn covered with convolvulus, silvery-green pleats like the chitons of Athenian caryatids.” (102) When a young female character visits her aunts, she loves “to feel the slithery fineness of face powder in a gilded round cardboard box . . . to sense the odd peacefulness of their house, where no one had to be decisive or busy, or do anything other than exchange fragmentary quotations from the works of unfashionable poets, and wonder aloud when it would be time, finally to throw out the dusty arrangements of dried flowers.” (123) Such sentences made me stop and revel.

Peculiar Ground has so many layers—walls, gardens, magic—that it demands the close attention of the reader. I put bookmarks at the pages with the map of the estate and with the dramatis personae so that I could turn back frequently. But the reward is a richly detailed portrait of a particular and peculiar place on Earth. There are also morals to be found, especially for the current international political situation, in which refugees and other migrants face walls both literal and metaphorical. Check out John Norris’s comment during the plague of 1665, when the gates to Wychwood are locked: “Here, those suspected of being diseased are kept without the wall. In London they are kept walled in.” (386) As the plague threat retreats, the lord of Wychwood speaks condescendingly to his underlings, inadvertently summing up, “It is not upon heaps of stone that our safety depends, but upon the loyalty of our friends.” (429). 

If you like Peculiar Ground, you might want to read Edward Rutherfurd’s The Forest (2000), another British saga about magical woodlands. And on this side of the Atlantic, see my review of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016), set in the forests of Canada and the northern United States. For different fictional approaches to Berlin and the Berlin Wall, see my reviews of Here in Berlin by Cristina García (2017) and Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2015/2017).

Vermont Secession?

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance     Bill McKibben     (2017)

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This novel . . . wait! Bill McKibben doesn’t write novels, does he? Isn’t he the one who produced that groundbreaking book about climate change, The End of Nature, way back in 1989? Isn’t this the guy who founded the climate activism group 350.org? Yup, same guy! And now he’s broadening his scope to generalized civic resistance and expanding his genres to include prose fiction. And can Bill McKibben write a respectable novel? Absolutely.

The story:  Vern Barclay is a 72-year-old Vermonter who for decades has hosted a radio show on which he interviews local folks, plays a few tracks of music, and covers events like store openings. He stumbles into becoming the leader of a movement for Vermont to secede from the United States, as the US is currently being led by President Trump, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. To Vern’s surprise, the secession movement snowballs, and he goes into hiding on an isolated farm, since he’s being hunted by both state and federal law enforcement officers for his involvement in an act of civic resistance that got him into a pile of shit.

Vern’s sidekicks in his adventure are a teenaged computer geek, a survival camp instructor, and an Olympic athlete. Vern records podcasts for Radio Free Vermont—“underground, underpowered, and underfoot”—as his team plots comical, nonviolent subversive capers. By including in the novel some of Vern’s ad-libbed broadcasts, McKibben can expound for a couple of pages on topics such as the corporatization of America, the value of Vermont’s town-hall decision-making process, and the problems with agricultural subsidies. McKibben does get in a few environmental points, as Vern laments the warming of Vermont’s winters and rejoices over the return of moose to the wild. But this is not primarily a book about the environment. Instead, the time-honored phrase “All politics is local” is extended to its logical conclusion as Vern rehearses the long history of community activism in Vermont, which was originally established in 1777 as an independent republic and only joined the United States in 1791. Throughout the book, the many small, owner-operated breweries in Vermont are promoted by name, as are other products for which the state is famous (hello, Ben and Jerry’s).

I read this book in one sitting, and I laughed out loud at several points. McKibben’s sarcasm ranges from gentle mockery of uptalk (speech that ends every sentence with an interrogative tone) to outright scorn for the private military companies that are employed by the feds—the bumbling operations of “Whitestream” in Radio Free Vermont evoke the infamous Blackwater activities in Iraq. The narrative spirals into incredible territory toward the end, but that’s part of the appeal of this novel. It’s a fable. In an “Author’s Note” at the back of the book, McKibben acknowledges that secession is not really a viable option. That isn’t what Radio Free Vermont is about. Instead, I think McKibben wants to show us how an appeal to reasonableness, combined with deft use of the internet and the media, can encourage the American populace to rise up against policies that undermine ethics, morality, and the rule of law. He may be speaking only to the converted, but his voice is loud.

Guest Review: Cloaks and Daggers

Hunting Eichmann:  How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi     Neal Bascomb     (2009)

Today, as a bonus Tuesday post, another guest review by ethicist and philosopher Paul R. Schwankl!

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Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) managed the Third Reich’s plans to exterminate Jews. For fifteen years after World War II, he was the most notorious alleged war criminal still at large. In 1960, a team from the Israeli security services smuggled him from Argentina to Israel to be tried for crimes against humanity. These are the bare facts of the case.

As someone who was trained in moral philosophy, I’m interested in analyses of the evil in this man. But I also love cloak-and-dagger stories, so I’m grateful to Neal Bascomb for his magisterial book Hunting Eichmann, based on an immense number of interviews and memoirs, detailing the lucky breaks and good choices that allowed Eichmann to hide—and allowed the Israelis to capture him.

At the end of World War II, the victorious Allies didn’t at first realize how important Eichmann was to the Holocaust. He didn’t run individual death camps; he was the distant overseer who made sure that Jews got to them. Significantly, he hated being photographed. After the war, he got swept up along with millions of other German soldiers and put into a crowded and understaffed prison camp, where he passed as a low-level officer. He easily escaped and worked as a rural laborer in northern Germany. But by 1950 his adversaries had figured out his role in Hitler’s Final Solution, so he made his way to the seaport of Genoa, staying with pro-fascists along his route, including Catholic priests and monks who felt that as long as Eichmann was against communism it didn’t matter how many Jews he had killed. Eichmann sailed to South America and had no trouble entering fascist-friendly Argentina, getting a job, and, in 1952, bringing his wife and three sons over to join him. It seemed that Adolph Eichmann, now named Ricardo Klement, had won.

But a remarkable happenstance, combined with one of Eichmann’s few mistakes, started to unravel his cover. Eichmann allowed his sons to use the surname of their birth; they claimed that their father was dead and that Ricardo Klement was their uncle. In 1956, the eldest son, Klaus, starting dating a German Argentinian, Sylvia Hermann. When Klaus visited her German-speaking home, he assumed that it was safe to brag to Sylvia’s blind father, Lothar Hermann, that his dad had been big in the Wehrmacht. Klaus did not know that Lothar was half Jewish and had gone blind from beatings by the Gestapo. Eventually, Lothar and Sylvia got in touch with Israelis who were still pursuing war criminals. Lothar and Sylvia also, with much difficulty, found out where the Eichmann family lived. In a highlight of the book, Sylvia risked her life by calling on the family and coming face to face with Adolf Eichmann (Ricardo Klement) himself.

From there Israeli operatives largely took over the hunt, first undertaking a positive identification, which was hampered by a lack of photographs. The capture of Eichmann and his transportation to Israel took three years of work. It was an amazing accomplishment by the Israelis, though the details were long kept secret. Argentina complained that the Israeli captors had violated Argentine sovereignty, which Israel admitted they had done. Israel asserted that it was standing for a righteous world in which criminals like Eichmann must not go free. The Jewish state ultimately patched things up with the post-Peronist Argentine government.

In reading Bascomb’s account, I was impressed with the expertise of the career spies and agents who captured Eichmann, but the amateurs and part-timers also did some truly amazing things. For example, one Israeli started wooing a former mistress of Eichmann in Vienna. After several excruciating dates, the Israeli persuaded her to open her photo album, which contained one of the rare pictures of Eichmann. He got the Vienna police to seize the album on the pretext that the woman was hiding stolen ration tickets in it.

 Many war criminals have come and gone since Eichmann’s day, and it is still possible to bring them to trial; an ex-Nazi in his nineties was sentenced just recently. I would like to think that the Israelis’ success with Eichmann helped, by laying an effective foundation separate from the Allies’ work at Nuremberg. Eichmann was hanged and cremated and his ashes scattered at sea; he remains the only person to whom Israeli courts have applied the death penalty. In the United States today, we can all use a reminder that law can indeed rule.

A Mother Disappears

Swimming Lessons     Claire Fuller     (2017)

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On the southern coast of England, across from the Isle of Wight, the sea is a relentless presence. If you’ve had swimming lessons, you might venture out into the frigid waters, to contest with the treacherous currents. Two of the characters in this novel feel an inexorable pull to the sea, and they’re both strong swimmers.

One is Ingrid Coleman, wife to Gil and mother to Nan and Flora. She disappeared twelve years before the main action of the novel, presumably drowned despite her expertise at swimming. In the month before she disappeared in 1992, she wrote long letters to Gil, recalling how they met in London in 1976, married, and moved into a ramshackle house on the beach. Ingrid’s letters form about half of the text of Swimming Lessons, though where the letters are to be found is mysterious. Ingrid slipped each one into a book that linked thematically to that segment of her story, but Gil owns so very many books that the letters would be hard to locate.

Flora is the second strong swimmer of the novel. She’s never recovered from Ingrid’s disappearance when she was a child, and she displays her anger and grief in her adult relationships. Flora’s point of view is represented in the non-epistolary portions of Swimming Lessons, taking place in the present day. She clings to the belief that her mother is still alive, and she swims on the same beach where Ingrid vanished. “The water was the colour of mint tea, and sometimes if she listened hard enough, her mother’s voice sounded amidst the swish of the weed and the tumble of the sand, telling her to straighten her legs, to keep her lead hand in motion, to swim against the current so that it was always easy to return, even when tired.” (162)

The present-day crisis that brings Flora, her sorta-boyfriend Richard, and her sister back to the family home is Gil’s hospitalization from a bad fall that he takes while chasing after a woman he thinks is Ingrid. Whether the woman actually is Ingrid or whether Gil is hallucinating is another of the mysteries in this novel, which is not officially billed as a mystery.

Despite the richness of the writing, I wanted author Claire Fuller to develop the characters of Nan and Gil more fully. From the evidence presented, Gil is a reprehensible fellow—a middling writer and a manipulative womanizer who lies obnoxiously to cover his tracks. The clutter of his life is reflected in the stacks of books that fill his house to overflowing: “Hardbacks about space and time, paperbacks about love affairs, tumbling together with poetry pamphlets and novella, knocked the top off another stack and then another, like a line of dominos.” (312)

Although I didn’t get enough of a sense of Nan and Gil, the forward movement of the narrative is kept brisk by unanswered plot questions, with twists and turns right up to the end. Meanwhile, Fuller tosses out sumptuous descriptions like this one: “She . . . took the uphill footpath through the small beech wood, the trees stained by streaks of copper where the rain dripped in slippery runnels. She slapped their trunks with the palm of her hand as she passed, as if she were whacking the meaty rumps of giant horses.” (261)

The moral of the story, if that might be allowed, may be that when people are not honest with each other they can be swept away from those they love. Claire Fuller is an author to keep an eye on.

Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part 2

Here in Berlin     Cristina García     (2017)

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The cover of Here in Berlin tells us that this is “a novel,” but upon opening it you’ll be excused if you mistake it for a collection of short stories. Either way, Cristina García has produced a striking picture of contemporary Berlin by presenting pieces of historical Berlin.

The construct is this:  a Visitor, never named, interviews Berliners, many of them aged residents of a nursing home, and records their stories in their own words. The Visitor also sets down a few third-person accounts of Berliners. In addition, the Visitor records some interviews with Cubans, both in Berlin and in Cuba, as she explores the connections between East Germany and Fidel Castro’s Cuba as those connections existed from the end of World War II until 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. It had never occurred to me before, but now it’s obvious that there would have been movement of people between these two centers of Communist power in the twentieth century. Students would have traveled from Cuba to study in Berlin, for instance, and transatlantic business would have been conducted.

How did the (fictional) Visitor secure her (fictional) interviews? “The Visitor struggled with balancing what she found with what eluded her. On fortuitous days, stories dropped like gifts out of the windless skies, typically prompted by loneliness, or happenstance. Other stories—the forgotten, interstitial ones she’d come to Berlin to collect—she coaxed from the grist of history. Why was apocalypse so compelling? What did war keep offering that ensured its survival?” (109)

Oh, the stories that emerge! The primary revelations concern the Nazi era and the period of the late 1940s, when Berlin was an apocalyptic landscape of destruction and starvation. Nonagenarians reveal to the Visitor long-hidden secrets of their precarious survival, and slightly younger Berliners recount grim childhoods, when World War II was grinding to a horrific conclusion, with Hitler’s troops fighting to the bitter end and the Russians storming Berlin. The voices are so authentic that you may start to think of the book as documentary rather than fictional.

War crimes are prominent in the stories, as ordinary Germans explain how they were sucked into the Nazi machine. Toward the middle of the book, a former Luftwaffe pilot laments, “We grew old, very old, before our time. Sometimes I think it’s better to remember nothing at all. Memories are selective. We pick and choose what we need to believe, what we require to survive.” (122) The specter of collusion in war atrocities hangs over almost all the speakers. An amnesiac photojournalist explains: “Dear Visitor, the ghosts in Berlin aren’t confined to cemeteries. Listen. Don’t you hear their whisperings? Feel their tugs on your sleeves? Their stories lie beneath the stories that nobody want to talk about. They haunt the present like palimpsests, shaping it with their hungers.” (96)

Over it all, the Visitor tries to pinpoint her reasons for conducting the interviews in the first place. She finds linkages between some of the characters, making Berlin sometimes seem like a small town where everyone knows everyone else. For instance, an ophthalmologist whom the Visitor interviews has a couple of the other story tellers as patients. A Cuban who moved to Berlin and became a geology professor reports his long-ago affair with a crippled German ballerina whom the Visitor also interviews. To fully appreciate Here in Berlin, it helps if you can read German, or at least are willing to Google the meanings that you can’t get from context. Sure, most readers will know that “danke” is “thanks,” but I’m guessing that fewer will recognize “Ku’damm” as the shorthand for “Kurfürstendamm,” the broad avenue of shops in Berlin. A few misspellings in the German are unfortunate editing errors. The bits of Spanish that dot the text are less problematic.

The memories of war cannot be erased by time, it seems, or even by the deaths of the participants. In the gleaming new Berlin, a city of lovely lakes and rivers, heinous acts linger: “Most of the city’s new architecture—dazzling, sleek—has sprung up along these riverbanks. Berlin longs to define itself by the future, yet it remains a hostage to its past.” (88)

For a different take on Germany in the years right after World War II, see my review of The Women in the Castle, a novel by Jessica Shattuck. And for another collection of linked short stories, try Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout.

Kids in 1930s Australia

The Strays     Emily Bitto     (2014/2017)

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This mesmerizing novel from Emily Bitto, first published in Australia in 2014, is now available in the United States. Set in Melbourne, The Strays is the first-person narrative of Lily, who finds a fast friend in Eva when they meet as children in third grade. It’s 1930, and the worldwide Great Depression has led to downward economic mobility for Lily’s family. She’s a friendless only child of conventional parents, so she jumps at the chance to become one of “the strays” taken in by Eva’s parents, Evan and Helena Trentham.

Lily’s parents don’t have a clue what they are exposing their daughter to when they allow Lily to spend increasing amounts of time with Eva and her two sisters. The Trentham household is unusual, to put it mildly. Evan Trentham is a modernist painter in a society that prizes more traditional art. He breaks with convention in other ways, too, for example by walking around the house nude and by squatting to defecate on the patio in full view of his family and Lily. Helena is a frustrated artist whose inherited wealth keeps the Trenthams afloat. Evan and Helena are terrible parents, by any standards, seldom attending to the basic needs of their three daughters. The young girls have to scrounge in the kitchen to find minimal food to eat, but they have ready access to alcohol and marijuana.

Yet Lily is entranced by the Trenthams, their huge old house, and their overgrown gardens. She’s especially besotted with Eva, in what she calls “that first chaste trial marriage between girls.” (55) Novelist Bitto’s descriptions of the girls’ closeness are striking: “I felt giddy as we walked arm in arm to the train station, playing our usual game, involving one of us attempting to walk in time with the other, while the other tried to avoid being walked in time with. This led to such a strange, hopping, arrhythmic gait that we always ended up laughing hysterically, pulling on each other for support and lurching all over the pavement. Some of the other girls in our class aimed disdaining glances at us as they passed on their way to the station, but this pleased us.” (81)

Alas, the situation gets out of hand when Evan and Helena invite several young modernist artists to move in with them, creating a kind of commune. The sexual liaisons of the artists are not described in detail, because we’re hearing the story from Lily, who is a young innocent. “There was a darkness that fluttered at the edges of my feeling, a tiny trace of rot on the jasmine-scented air, aroused by these rumors of sex that wafted toward us on our chaste couch-back; but I swatted them away.” (102) Several shocking crises ensue, and Lily leaves the Trentham household permanently at the age of fifteen.

The Strays is set up in four sections, with the first and last sections set in 1985 and the middle two sections set in the 1930s, as Lily’s memoir, after a fashion. The language in these two middle sections is particularly rich in imagery: “The light in the foggy kitchen window was a deep blue. The jagged leaves of geranium pressed against the glass were coral, and we were staring out into deep water from some sunken domestic bathysphere.” (155)

I have a couple of very minor complaints about this novel. The ages of the characters don’t quite square with the timeframes (1930s and 1985). And the transitions in the last section of the book are somewhat ragged, as Lily goes back and forth in time, filling us in on the years between her childhood and her late middle age. But this piercingly moving story about loneliness and friendship and the choices we make is a winner.

For other historical novels set in Australia, try The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman and The Golden Age by Joan London.

 

Among My Faves—McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series     Alexander McCall Smith

Some of my friends seem abashed to admit that they read a “soft” author like Alexander McCall Smith. His novels run around 225 pages, with simple plots, mostly lovable characters, and generally happy endings. I can consume one in an evening, and I relish every minute of it.

McCall Smith writes most of his books in series, so you get to know the characters and want to find out the next events in their lives. You can, however, select any book from a series as your first foray, and McCall Smith will provide you enough background to get oriented. I’ve reviewed two of his series previously on this blog:  the Isabel Dalhousie series and 44 Scotland Street series. But the grandmother of them all is McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

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The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is set in Botswana, where McCall Smith taught law in the 1980s and for which he plainly has a great affection. After I’d read a couple of the Botswana novels, I educated myself about this nation in southern Africa (bordered by South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe), to get some context. Since Botswana is at 24 degrees south of the equator, and since the Kalahari Desert makes up about 70% of its territory, you’ll find ample references in the novels to hot, dry, dusty, sunny weather conditions. Thanks to cattle farms and the mining of gemstones and precious metals, the economy of Botswana is especially strong, and residents enjoy a good standard of living, especially with respect to education and health care. Still, the AIDS epidemic has hit the country hard, so a recurring feature of McCall Smith’s books is an orphanage that shelters children whose parents have died from AIDS. The Tswana African people are the predominant ethnic group, and Christianity is the predominant religion. English is the official language of Botswana, but you’ll find honorifics in the Setswana language:  “Mma” for women and “Rra” for men. You’ll also find the English adjective “late,” referring to the deceased, used not only as a modifier (“her late father”)  but also as a predicate adjective (“her father was late”). 

Zooming in to the series, you’ll meet Precious Ramotswe, the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in the capital, Gabarone, a bustling city with a mix of Western amenities and traditional African dwellings and family affiliations. Precious, who is 34 at the start of the series, was raised primarily by her beloved Daddy, the cattle farmer Obed, in a rural village. Although she had a happy childhood, she married the musician Note Mokote, who physically abused her and then abandoned her, leaving her unable to bear children. When her father dies, Precious is able to sell some of his herd to launch her business, the first detective agency in Botswana. She hires the capable Grace Makutsi as her secretary and sets up an office near the auto repair shop of  JLB Matekoni, an excellent mechanic. The detective agency usually takes on cases that involve domestic or business problems—cheating spouses, thieving employees, missing persons, petty vandalism.

Although Mma Ramotswe does thorough surveillance and research, she also applies levelheaded thinking to solve the cases, and she encourages her clients to utilize compromise or forgiveness as part of the solutions. Readers have access to her thoughts as she ponders motives and ethical challenges. McCall Smith’s specialty in his years as a law professor was ethics, and through Mma Ramotswe’s cases he presents many moral quandaries. Is a legal approach or personal reconciliation preferable? What are appropriate punishments for various degrees of crime? How have societal views of women affected attitudes toward domestic violence? At a much lesser level, what should the response be to a coworker who is good hearted and efficient but irritating in manner? These are the kinds of tough questions that underlie the easygoing banter of McCall Smith’s dialogues. He paints scenes of kindness, but not without pushback on ethical issues. Oh, and there’s romance in some of the novels, too.

McCall Smith churns out writing at a prodigious rate. Remember that he’s publishing books in several other series at the same time as he’s writing more for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In addition to the two series I’ve mentioned above, he has books in the Corduroy Mansions series and in the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. He’s also written versions of African folk tales for children, and he’s produced half a dozen freestanding novels for adults. I’d recommend steering away from the freestanding novels, which vary in quality.

But the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is highly recommended. I offer the list to date below. At your library or book store, be sure to look under “M” for “McCall Smith,” since that’s his full, unhyphenated surname.

  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
  • Tears of the Giraffe (2000)
  • Mortality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
  • The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
  • The Full Cupboard of Life (2003)
  • In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004)
  • Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
  • The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
  • The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
  • Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
  • The Double Comfort Safari Club (2010)
  • The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (2011)
  • The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (2012)
  • The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013)
  • The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café (2014)
  • The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015)
  • Precious and Grace (2016)
  • The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017)

Video side note: In 2008-2009, BBC/HBO broadcast seven episodes of a  television series loosely based on the early books about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I found that these episodes, filmed in Botswana, admirably captured the spirit of the books. 

Bonus Post: A Woman in the Chem Lab

Chemistry     Weike Wang     (2017)

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Don’t let this book fool you. The simple declarative sentences and frequent thematic tangents might lead you to believe that it’s the work of an unsophisticated novelist. Not so. Weike Wang makes her readers think hard about the role of immigrants in American society, about the difficulties that women (of any race) face in choosing careers in the sciences, and about the tensions between the personal and the professional in the lives of talented people.

No one in Chemistry except the narrator’s boyfriend, Eric, is given a name, which emphasizes the universality of this tale. The first-person narrator is a young woman who should be heading into her final year of a doctoral program in chemistry at a prestigious university—never named but presumably Harvard. She’s Chinese American, brought to the United States as a young child and raised by parents who would make Amy Chua of Tiger Mother fame seem tame. Boyfriend Eric is a paragon, a white guy who has had spectacular success in pursuing science degrees and who is just embarking on what will undoubtedly be a rewarding academic career. He wants to marry the narrator, but she demurs, worried about forfeiting her intellectual capacity. Added to this tension is a side plot about the narrator’s best friend, a physician in New York, who talks to the narrator frequently on the phone. On the edges of the novel are also students whom the narrator tutors in math and science topics.

Readers glimpse about two years of the narrator’s life, as she gets counseling to help with her decisions, eats a great deal of carryout pizza, drinks too much wine, and muses about scientific topics ranging from the details of electrical circuitry to the discovery of radium. Should she plow on with the doctorate even though the highly competitive lab work no longer gives her any joy? Should she marry Eric, a man very well suited to her personality and intelligence, even though he can never fully understand her family’s culture and language? If she doesn’t pursue chemistry, what should she do with her life? And if she moves to the Midwest to follow Eric, should she take her comical, untrainable dog with her?

The narrator touches on these questions, wanders off, and then circles back to them. Chemistry doesn’t give readers all the answers, but that’s it’s charm. And Weike Wang is an author to watch.

Brazil, Early 1960s

All Is Beauty Now     Sarah Faber     (2017)

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Historical facts that I learned from this novel:  After the American Civil War, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 Southerners fled to Brazil, where slavery was still legal and where the Brazilian government offered them incentives to settle. These immigrants, called the Confederados, and their descendants lived in enclaves, mostly near Rio de Janeiro and Sấo Paulo. Although there was considerable intermarriage with Brazilians over the decades, Confederados were an identifiable ethnic group in Brazil as late as the 1960s and 1970s.

Dora, a descendant of Confederados, is married to Hugo, a handsome Canadian engineer. They live outside Rio and have three daughters. In the opening pages of All Is Beauty Now, the eldest daughter, Luiza, disappears while swimming in the South Atlantic in March 1962. Canadian novelist Susan Faber slowly unfolds the back story to this disappearance, probing deeply into the psyches of each of the five members of the family. The chapters move forward and backward in time and switch off among characters. It soon becomes apparent that Hugo’s mental illness is a catalyst for many other actions in the plot. Hugo would likely be diagnosed today as having bipolar disorder, but in the early 1960s the term did not exist, nor did effective treatments.

I dipped into All Is Beauty Now over a period of several weeks, soaking up descriptions of the white-sand beaches and lush gardens, the wild riotousness of Carnival, the extravagance of the nightclubs in Rio. Hugo finds that, compared with Canada, “Rio was a demented Eden, crackling with newness and feeling . . . Here, below the equator, as the Brazilians say, there is no sin.” (37)

Beneath the surface issue of Luiza’s presumed drowning, Faber analyzes, perhaps in too much detail, the effect of Hugo’s mental state on his family and on others around him. The question of drug treatment for Hugo is fraught. For example, in a flashback, Luiza asks herself, “What if the doctors stripped away his moods, then found there was nothing left?” (55) As the family prepares to move to Hugo’s native Canada to seek better care for him, Dora muses on the luxury of having servants in Brazil:  “When the Confederados arrived in Brazil, her father told her, they found cockroaches the size of a fist, and mosquitoes carrying dengue, malaria, encephalitis. A third of her ancestors died; a third went home, and accepted Northern rule; a third stayed, thrashed and coaxed the landscape. And now she, their descendant, can do almost nothing for herself, by herself. Some part of her is grateful that Canada will be hard. Perhaps all that labour will wash away the slick sheen of her advantages.” (260)

Faber’s prose ranges from languid to exotic in this melancholic novel. The pacing of this novel is very slow, totally unhurried, like a drowsy day on a magnificent beach. But the ocean can sweep anyone away with cruel rapidity.

Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part I

Go, Went, Gone     Jenny Erpenbeck     (in German, 2015)

Translated by Sarah Bernofsky     (in English, 2017)

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Richard is retiring from his position as a classics professor in Berlin. In his university office, he packs up books, clears out drawers, sorts stacks of papers. His next steps are somewhat unclear, both to him and to us as readers. Maybe he’ll write some journal articles. Maybe he’ll kick back and take his boat out on the lake on which his suburban house is situated. Richard is a widower with no children, no close family, and an ex-mistress who is no longer part of his life; he does have a good circle of friends.

By chance, Richard walks by some refugees who are protesting the poor living conditions in a ramshackle tent village in a city park. In Germany, the refugee crisis is not abstract but obvious from makeshift camps and from daily news reports. Ever the academic, Richard wonders about the backgrounds of the refugees flooding his country. He decides to do some background reading, particularly on conflict in African nations, and he draws up a list of questions to ask individual refugees from Africa. It’s unclear what the end product of this “research” will be. Will he produce some written piece? If so, will he come down as pro-refugee or anti-refugee?  Without much trouble, Richard gains access to a group of African refugees housed in an abandoned building near his home, and he starts working through his question list. (I’ll pass over the potential ethical issue of failing to seek permission for doing research on human subjects!)

Go, Went, Gone holds many layers of meaning, and as a reader you can unpeel as many of these as you want. For instance, as Richard gets more and more involved with the refugees, he’s reminded of lines in classical literature that speak to moral quandaries. He’s trying to figure out how Germans should respond to the situation, all the while Erpenbeck reminds us, by brief references to online forums, of a thriving racist element in German society.

The novel is set in the present day, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has left residual tensions between West and East, between capitalism and communism. Richard lived for decades under an oppressive regime in East Berlin, so he’s receiving a pension that’s significantly less than that of his counterparts who worked in West Berlin. Still, in some ways he’s a beneficiary of the removal of the Wall:  “Who deserves credit for the fact that even the less affluent among their circle [in the former East Berlin] now have dishwashers in their kitchens, wine bottles on their shelves, and double-glazed windows? But if this prosperity couldn’t be attributed to their own personal merit, then by the same token the refugees weren’t to blame for their reduced circumstances. Things might have turned out the other way around. For a moment, this thought opens its jaws wide, displaying its frightening teeth.” (95)

As Richard’s views on the refugees are slowly, slowly developing, small incidents take on larger meaning. Here it’s windblown dust on leaves: “The Sirocco . . . came from Africa and across the Alps, sometimes even bringing a bit of desert sand along with it. And indeed, on the leaves of the grapevines you could see the fine, ruddy dust that had made its way from Africa. Richard had run his finger across one of the leaves and observed how this small gesture produced a sudden shift in his perspective and sense of scale. Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.” (55) Bodies of water take on a liminal quality, marking some critical transition. Richard thinks often about the lake in his backyard, which holds the body, never found, of a man who presumably drowned a couple of months before the novel begins. This sad fact reminds Richard of the thousands of refugees who’ve drowned in dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean.

Novelist Erpenbeck could easily have slid into didacticism or preachiness, but she doesn’t. She juxtaposes the quotidian activities of Richard’s life (making toast, taking his car in for service) with his increasing existential concerns about the direction of his life and the direction of the world around him. She presents the refugees mostly as benign figures, victims of civil wars or sectarian repression in their native countries, but not every refugee is honest or honorable.

Sarah Berofsky’s translation of this novel is exceptionally good, especially considering the difficulties of dealing with characters who are presented as speaking in many different languages. Richard himself speaks German, English, Russian, and Italian, in addition to his fluency in ancient Greek and Latin. He communicates with the refugees mostly in English and Italian—many of them crossed the Mediterranean and landed first in Italy. They work hard to learn the language of each country they arrive in, with the hope of remaining. The “go, went, gone” of the title refers to their language learning, since the conjugation of the German verb for “to go” (gehen, ging, gegangen) is important to eventual fluency. The title also refers to the constant “going” of the refugees, their peregrinations from one European nation to another, from one government office to another, from one squalid camp to another, in hopes of finding asylum and work.

Very few books written in other languages get translated into English. I try to report on a few of them on this blog, to reveal non-Anglophone patterns of thought. Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant and profound novel that you should not miss.

Watch for my upcoming review of Here in Berlin by Cristina García, under the heading "Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part 2."

20th-Century British Women

Freya     Anthony Quinn     (2017)

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My household has a treasured old photo of my husband’s parents in a restaurant on VE Day. My father-in-law is in Navy uniform, and a newspaper proclaiming “Victory in Europe” in World War II is on the table in front of the smiling couple. Roving photographers across the United States probably captured many scenes like this.

May 8, 1945, must have been even more joyous for the people of Great Britain, who had endured six years of war, including widespread bombings of civilian targets and the constant threat of German invasion. Anthony Quinn captures the exuberance of VE Day in London with the opening scenes of his novel Freya. In the celebratory crowd, the title character, Freya Wyley, meets Nancy Holdaway, and this meeting sets in motion a long and fraught friendship.

Freya is already a military veteran at age 20, having served for three years in the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Naval Service, as a radar plotter. This background is key to understanding her career motivations. She was entrusted with highly classified and complex tasks to further Britain’s war effort, often putting in fifteen-hour shifts, but at the end of the war, the need for women to perform such work evaporated. Civilian jobs went to male soldiers returning from battle. Freya had gotten a taste of high-powered career possibilities and had engaged in several brief affairs, so the prospect of attending tradition-steeped Oxford University, which had been holding a place for her, seems, in her words, “trivial.” (22)

“To her the undergraduate routine felt becalmed after the frenetic rhythms of wartime; she missed the perilous excitement of being always on-call in the Wrens. . . It was not the war she wanted back but the sense of a shared endeavor, of knowing her own role in the grander scheme and being good at it . . . It also disheartened her to realise that the age-old accommodations of male chauvinism had not been eradicated by war—merely displaced.” (108)

On that fateful VE Day in 1945, Nancy, at age 18, is fresh out of secondary school in the north of England and is thrilled to be headed to Oxford. To Freya, Nancy at first seems hopelessly naïve and introverted, but as the story unfolds, it’s clear that Nancy has a depth and solidity of character that Freya lacks. Freya is strong-willed and ambitious, priding herself on her verbal banter and profanity, traits that sometimes made me want to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to shut her sassy mouth. Both young women aspire to be writers—Freya as a journalist and Nancy as a novelist.  

In three segments, this novel traces the relationship between Freya and Nancy:  at Oxford right after the war, in London in the late 1950s, and again in London in the early 1960s. The power dynamic between the two women shifts back and forth as each builds her career. Freya senses this early on, as Quinn notes: “It was an enlivening sense of being admired, perhaps even adored, and in consequence a desire to justify that admiration by becoming a cleverer and wiser person than she actually was. She supposed this striving for a better self was rather like being in love.” (77)

Larger-than-life supporting characters enliven the tale, including the louche actor/writer Nate Fane, the dissolute photographer Jerry Dicks, and the befuddled young model Chrissie Effingham. The names of these characters alone will point you to their personalities—“fane” quite close to “fame”  and so on. Freya, Nancy, and the crew get involved in fictionalized versions of the British events of the era, including political sex scandals and criminal prosecutions of gay men. (Some of these events could have been lifted right out of the 1983 biography of Alan Turing by Andrew Hodges, made into the film The Imitation Game in 2014.) All along, Quinn dissects the roles of women in post-World War II Britain with surprising insight.

Freya is oversized in many ways, including its length (556 pages) and theatricality, so I consumed it in great gulps. Although the novel is dialogue driven, Quinn’s prose descriptors are arresting. Here’s one example:  “He was wearing an undershirt and grey trousers with thin braces pooling about his waist like the dropped strings of a marionette.” (258-9) The cover photograph, which does not at all resemble the Freya described in the text, is a disappointment. The publisher, Europa, tends to use vintage photos for its covers, usually with more success.

In recent years, several excellent BBC television series have been set in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Grantchester, The Hour, and Call the Midwife. If you’re a fan of any of these, you will likely enjoy the novel Freya as much as I did.

Lonely French Siblings

How to Behave in a Crowd     Camille Bordas     (2017)

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Isidore Mazal starts narrating this novel as a beleaguered eleven year old, and he tells us about the next couple of years of his life. He lives in France with five siblings; four of the siblings are in their twenties, working on advanced degrees, and they never come into sharp character focus. We do get a good picture of his sister Simone, who is only eighteen months older than Isidore but far ahead of him in school. Simone, like the rest of the family, calls her brother “Dory” despite his requests to be called “Izzy.”  She insists that he take notes for the biography of her that she assumes he will write once she’s famous. She comes right out and tells him, “I take it for granted that you’re gonna love me no matter what. I don’t do anything for it.” (101)

The five older children in the unusual Mazal family are academic prodigies, while Isidore is merely smart. He does fine in his grade level at school, but he’s also smart in ways that his family members don’t appreciate. He’s very observant of the situations around him. This is especially apparent during his many unsuccessful attempts to run away from home; his family scarcely notices that he’s left the house. When, early in the book, his father dies suddenly of a heart attack while on a business trip, Isidore catalogs the grief patterns of his mother and siblings. He tells us, “Because we never talked about the father—the fact that he was dead, the fact that he’d once been alive—saying the word dad itself felt out of place, or like I might’ve used it wrong.” (120) That’s a lot of alienation for a kid in adolescence.

You may notice in this quote about his parent that Isidore shies away from the term “dad,” using instead “the father.” This Francophone locution, found throughout the book, points up not just the estrangement that Isidore feels from his distant—and then deceased—father but also the mix of French and American language and cultural references  in the novel. I wasn’t bothered by it, but some other reviewers found it jarring. It may help to know that Bordas was born in France and has written two previous novels in French, but now lives in Chicago. She creates a generic France, perhaps from her memories.

Isidore’s observations, and his repeated attempts to offer his family an emotional compass for life, are poignant. Someone needs to help those friendless siblings, those pitiful sloggers in academia. In addition, Isidore does his best to cheer up Denise, a girl at his school who suffers from severe depression. His compassion is remarkable, given the cheerless atmosphere of his home. Simone explains to Isidore: “There’s a big drawback to being smarter than the rest, and I’ll tell you what it is, because I assume it will be in part responsible for the kind of person I’ll become: loneliness.” (50) Truly, most of the Mazal family does not know how to behave in a crowd.

I have a few reservations about this novel. Some of the witty repartee goes on too long, as do didactic components that don’t fit the flow of the narrative. For example, Isidore’s middle-school German class carries on a long discussion of Bertolt Brecht’s concept of the Verfremdungseffekt. (Don’t ask! Yawn, skip a page or two!) But novelist Bordas sparks up the story with side plots such as Simone’s unwanted pen pal and the town’s celebration of the oldest woman in the world. Overall, How to Behave in a Crowd is a pleasant little novel with an appealing hero.

A Connecticut Family

The Children     Ann Leary     (2017)

Oh, no, I thought—another fluffy tale of wacky, self-absorbed New England trust-fund kiddies seeking personal gratification at the expense of those around them. I almost sent The Children back to the library. But I kept reading and watched the plot twisting, folding back on itself, and finally turning dark, very dark. The fluff definitely receded.

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You have to pay close attention up front to sort out all the family connections in this novel. Charlotte Maynard, a 29-year-old single, agoraphobic woman, is one of the kiddies and is the narrator of The Children. She lives in a huge Connecticut house named Lakeside with her zany mother, Joan, who exercises excessively and pinches pennies ludicrously. Charlotte is involved intermittently with Everett, the groundskeeper at Lakeside. Charlotte’s sister is Sally, a gifted musician with mental health problems. Stepbrothers Spin and Perry Whitman are offspring from Charlotte’s stepfather’s first marriage, which ended acrimoniously when the stepfather, Whit Whitman, fell for Joan. As the novel opens, Whit has recently died, and the family dynamics are reshuffling. Got all that?

Spin, who teaches and lives at a nearby private school, arrives at Lakeside with a girlfriend, Laurel Atwood, who is preternaturally accomplished in skiing, fiction writing, and life hacks. Laurel’s life hacks veer daringly into illegal territory. Charlotte doesn’t see this as a problem, because she herself runs a profitable internet scam, a fake “mommy blog” with corporate sponsorship. But Sally, who is back at Lakeside from New York after losing her orchestra job, has serious reservations about Laurel.

This is the setup, but I won’t spoil the plot development for you. Author Ann Leary takes the basic framework  in directions you’d never expect, with characters who are believable despite—or maybe because of—their oddities. We see people and events through the eyes of Charlotte, which creates a layer of reportorial unreliability, since Charlotte is an admitted scammer. Through Charlotte, Leary pokes fun at several aspects of contemporary culture, especially internet culture. For example, Charlotte’s wildly successful blog revolves around children whom she’s invented (another reference to the novel’s title), and Leary revels in skewering the blog’s fervent mommy-followers. The technological references, which are up-to-the-minute as of 2017, may soon date this novel, but for now it’s trendy in a good way.

The pace of The Children is fast, the dialogue is clever and authentic, and the storyline is well executed. I see the novel as a work of warning about the consequences of seemingly innocuous lies and the seeming innocuousness of consequential lies. The human heart can have unexpectedly sinister depths. That’s the dark part. Yet Charlotte reminds us that we can always count on the stars, which are as stable as it gets in our universe. “Once you find Polaris, you’ve found true north. You can navigate anywhere from there.  Find a landmark . . . You have to find a hill or a house or a tree while it’s still dark; that way you’ll be oriented the next day, when the stars are gone.” (245)

Bonus Post: 2 International Novels

Spring Garden     Tomoka Shibasaki    (2014)

Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton     (2017)

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In bustling present-day Tokyo, Taro is a loner. He’s in his thirties, divorced, and living in an apartment building that will be torn down as soon as the leases of the last few tenants expire. Taro’s entire neighborhood is undergoing change, with other buildings slated for demolition and with constant construction work at the commuter train stations. As people in his building move out, the only remaining inhabitants besides Taro are a comic-book artist named Nishi and a retired woman whom Taro calls “Mrs. Snake,” after the zodiacal designation on her apartment door. Despite Taro’s resistance to social interaction, the three neighbors get to know each other, exchanging small gifts in the Japanese custom. Nishi reveals to Taro her obsession with a large sky-blue house nearby, and she gives him a copy of a photography book, called Spring Garden, that was published many years previously about the house. Very gradually, Taro also becomes interested in the house and its current residents. That’s the basic story, and every element of the plot’s unfolding is delicately and purposefully executed. 

The lovely house serves the purpose of getting Taro out of his isolation to some degree. Writer Tomoka Shibasaki is finding a way to tell us about Taro’s deep unhappiness. His beloved father has died, his marriage has collapsed, and even his physical surroundings are disintegrating. He’s so sad that he doesn’t realize that he’s sad. Even if you live in one of the world’s most exciting cities, even if you have a decent professional job and friendly colleagues and neighbors, you can feel alienated and depressed.

This wisp of a book—a novella really—won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in Japan. It’s been artfully translated by Polly Barton, retaining the spare feel of a Japanese garden but rendering the dialogue in idiomatic English. You can read it in a couple of hours, but it will stay with you for a long time.

Three Floors Up     Eshkol Nevo     (2015)

Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston     (2017)

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From the suburbs of Toyko in the book reviewed above, we go to the suburbs of Tel Aviv for Three Floors Up, a trio of linked novellas about the residents of another apartment building. This is an upper-middle class neighborhood, mockingly called “Bourgeoisville” by some.

Arnon, on the first floor, is a businessman who is obsessed with the possibility that an elderly neighbor who often babysits for the family has sexually assaulted his young daughter. This obsession gets tangled up with Arnon’s relationship with his wife and his sexual attraction to the neighbor’s teenaged granddaughter.

Hani, on the second floor, worked as a graphic designer until her two children were born. Now she’s a stay-at-home mother who is stifled by the role, especially because her husband travels internationally for his work and is frequently away. The defining event for Hani is the appearance of her husband’s brother at her door, on the run from creditors and the police.

Devora, on the third floor, has recently been widowed and is estranged from her son. A retired judge, she’s casting about to find meaning for the remaining years of her life, so she marches in a political demonstration and meets characters who lead her in directions that she never anticipated. Devora has been reading Freud, and (speaking, of course, for the author) she gives us a Freudian interpretation of Three Floors Up:  “The first floor, which he [Freud] called the id, contains all our impulses and urges. The middle floor is the ego, which tries to mediate between our desires and reality. And the uppermost level, the third floor, is the domain of His Majesty, the superego, which calls us to order sternly and demands that we take into account the effects of our actions on society.” (211)

Each story in Three Floors Up is told in first person, with the person speaking to someone else—Arnon to an old Army buddy at a restaurant, Hani to a childhood friend in a long letter, and Devora to her late husband through an old answering machine. I found this approach somewhat contrived until I read the explanation, which is contained in Devora’s further analysis of Freud:  “I thought that he made one mistake. The three floors of the psyche do not exist inside us at all! Absolutely not! They exist in the air between us and someone else, in the space between our mouths and the ears we are telling our story to. And if there is no one there to listen—there is no story. . . . alone, a person has no idea which of the three floors he is on, and he is doomed to grope in the dark for the light switch.” (281)

I recommend that you read each segment of Three Floors Up in one sitting; ideally, read the entire book in one sitting so that you catch all the tiny links. Novelist Eshkol Nevo deftly probes the profound and yet tenuous connections between family members, neighbors, friends, and total strangers. At the end of the book, you may question how honest the three speakers were in telling their stories, you may think about what their next steps will be, and you may wonder how you would handle their predicaments.

Two Multi-Biographies

The Kelloggs:  The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek     Howard Markel     (2017)

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In the small southwestern Michigan city of Battle Creek, two brothers distinguished themselves in separate but related arenas. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), a physician and author, established the Battle Creek Sanitarium (“the San”) in 1878, treating thousands of patients and promoting some surprisingly prescient wellness regimens on both dietary and exercise fronts. Will Keith Kellogg (1860-1951) founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company (now the Kellogg Company) in 1906, revolutionizing breakfast foods through manipulation of ingredients and industrial mass production.

Both brothers were raised as Seventh-Day Adventists and sought, at least early in their careers, to advance the tenets of this faith, which encourages regular physical exercise and prohibits meat, tobacco, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. John and Will experimented extensively to find food products that would be acceptable to Adventists and that would also encourage “biologic living” in the general population. Two strong-willed characters, they frequently clashed, and Will finally left his position as business manager of the San to go national with corn flakes, the cereal that seems to have been a joint invention. In the 1920s, John became involved with the eugenics movement and set up the Race Betterment Foundation; medical historian Howard Markel treats frankly the brutal racism inherent in eugenics theory, now scientifically discredited. Although John’s Sanitarium buildings were sold off in 1942, Will’s food empire continues to this day, as does the humanitarian WK Kellogg Foundation that he created with his massive profits.

In researching this book, Markel did not have access to the many private documents that Will Kellogg placed in a highly restricted archive at the WK Kellogg Foundation, yet this dual biography is exhaustive, drawing on numerous other archival sources. I was especially taken with Markel’s background information on nineteenth-century dietary, public health, and medical practices and with his explanations of the grain-processing machinery that the Kelloggs invented by trial and error. I decided to overlook occasional outlandish analogies. (One painful example: Will was “slower to pardon than most glaciers used to melt.” 336) The Kelloggs is not only a lively and fair-minded story about two dynamic, flawed men but also an absorbing chronicle of their era.

Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas    Donna M. Lucey     (2017)

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If you like Gilded Age gossip, this is a multi-biography that you may want to read. I thought it would be focused primarily John Singer Sargent’s relationship with four of his female subjects, whose portraits are widely known and reproduced:  Elsie Palmer, Sally Fairchild, Elizabeth Chanler, and Isabella Stewart Gardner. (That’s Elizabeth Chanler on the cover of the book.) Sargent painted portraits of these wealthy American women between 1888 and 1922, but in fact his contact with them outside his professional role was fairly limited.

So . . . what this book does offer is a view into the excesses that the upper classes indulged in during a period of American industrial expansion and political corruption. Oddly, the chapter that is supposed to be about Sally Fairchild is devoted almost entirely to the biography of her sister, Lucia, whose portrait Sargent did not paint. My favorite section was the one on Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose private art collection became the famed art museum in Boston that bears her name. Do watch out for typos and small errors in this book as well as in the Kellogg book reviewed above.  

Bonus Post: Big Data

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are     Seth Stephens-Davidowitz     (2017)

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Forget all those social science surveys that ask 200 people about their sexual preferences or their attitudes towards those outside their own racial group. Everybody lies, or at least enough people lie to make the results of such surveys highly suspect. We also lie to our families, to our friends, and to our doctors. This is the message from economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who mines vast troves of anonymous data from Google searches, social media sites, and similar sources to try to get closer to the truth.

Stephens-Davidowitz has an engaging way of presenting the complex statistical analyses that he performs. He proceeds by topic, telling stories that uncover fallacies in our assumptions about subjects such as prejudice, child abuse, abortion, economic mobility, and basketball stardom. For example, there’s an assumption that African American boys from impoverished neighborhoods have a good chance of making it in the National Basketball Association. Stephens-Davidowitz crunches the Big Data and finds that it’s actually mostly middle-class African American boys who succeed in basketball, though there are notable exceptions, like LeBron James.

The analyses of Americans’ views on race—particularly in relation to the presidential elections of 2008, 2012, and 2016—are enlightening. Stephens-Davidowitz studied millions of Google searches for such topics as racist jokes, as well as the rise of the website Stormfront, which he describes as “America’s most popular online hate site” (137). He concludes, “Trump rode a wave of white nationalism. There is no evidence here that he created a wave of white nationalism. Obama’s election led to a surge in the white nationalist movement. Trump’s election seems to be a response to that.  . . .States disproportionately affected by the Great Recession saw no comparative increase in Google searches for Stormfront.” (139) In other words, racism has probably played a larger role than economic hardship in recent elections.

To his credit, Stephens-Davidowitz does not view everything through the lens of the internet. “The Big Data revolution is less about collecting more and more data. It is about collecting the right data. But the internet isn’t the only place where you can collect new data and where getting the right data can have profoundly disruptive results.” (62) He recounts the story of how one horse enthusiast’s meticulous data collection about the physical characteristics of race horses led to a highly accurate method for predicting winners.

Stephens-Davidowitz does touch on the issue of the ethics of tapping Big Data for understanding human nature, particularly with respect to financial transactions. “Do we want to live in a world in which companies use the words we write to predict whether we will pay back a loan? It is, at a minimum, creepy—and quite possibly, scary.” (260) He also has plenty of cautions against confusing correlation with causality. But I would have liked to see more discussion in this book about the ethical implications of using Big Data in the first place. Do we give up all our rights to privacy when we initiate a search on Google, even if big data is supposedly anonymous? Where are the protections for human subjects that are required in more conventional social science surveys? How can we be sure of the motives of the data seekers typing in those Google queries?

And what about corporate abuse of Big Data?  Stephens-Davidowitz says, “Data on the internet . . . can tell businesses which customers to avoid and which they can exploit. It can also tell customers the businesses they should avoid and who is trying to exploit them. Big Data to date has helped both sides in the struggle between consumers and corporations. We have to make sure it remains a fair fight.” (265) I’m skeptical that consumers can be protected against corporations in the current political climate. And the conclusions that Stephens-Davidowitz presents about Americans’ racial prejudices must be pretty disheartening to anyone interested in societal equity and social justice. All the more reason why you should read this important book, which explains an effective means of probing the truth beneath the lies that everybody tells.

This post was a mid-week bonus. Come back to the Cedar Park Book Blog on Friday for the regular post!

Two from the Bascombe Tetralogy

The Lay of the Land     Richard Ford     (2006)

Let Me Be Frank With You     Richard Ford     (2014)

These books are the third and fourth in Richard Ford’s tetralogy that follows the adult life of the character Frank Bascombe. Some background:

  • In the first novel of the series, The Sportswriter (1986), Frank is deep in grief over the death of his young son and his subsequent divorce from his wife. Although he had wanted to write fiction, he’s turned to writing about sports to support himself.
  • In Ford’s second offering, Independence Day (1995), Frank has changed careers and is selling real estate in New Jersey. This novel, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, is set at the titular American holiday.
  • Holiday celebrations, which often cause simmering family tensions to boil over, figure prominently in all four books about Frank. An Easter dinner is a key scene in The Sportswriter, and the two books that I’m reviewing here are set at Thanksgiving (The Lay of the Land) and during the Christmas season (Let Me Be Frank With You).
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In The Lay of the Land, the political backdrop is the contested presidential election of 2000, which was still not decided by Thanksgiving of that year, so tension and accusation and fear are in the air. As always, Ford’s focus is on Frank Bascombe’s inner life, narrated in first person. Speaking to his adult daughter, Clarissa, Frank says, “I’ll commit suicide before I keep a fucking diary. Diaries are for weaklings and old queer professors. Which I’m not.” (240) And yet this entire novel is like a very detailed, highly reflective diary. Frank is now fifty-five and married to his second wife, Sally Caldwell. He’s recently been treated for prostate cancer at the Mayo Clinic. You might find Frank’s trips to the toilet tiresome, but his need to empty his bladder frequently is a constant reminder of the threat of death that hangs over him.

He calls this phase of his life “the Permanent Period—no fear of future, life not ruinable, the past generalized to a pleasant pinkish blur.” (249) There’s a fatalism to Frank’s categorization of late middle age in this way. He’s still selling real estate, though he does have occasional regrets about giving up his dream of writing fiction. He rationalizes: “Realtors share a basic industry with novelists, who make up importance from life-run-rampant just by choosing, changing and telling. Realtors make importance by selling, which is better-paying than the novelist’s deal and probably not as hard to do well.” (84)

The Lay of the Land is expansive, exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting. It’s the work of an accomplished prose stylist who gives us a view into an ordinary life on ordinary and non-so-ordinary days. The exquisite specificity with which Frank describes his surroundings contrasts with his inability to connect with some people. These people are sometimes fairly conventional—like Sally—and sometimes quite unusual—like the Tibetan Buddhist with the Americanized name, Mike Mahoney, “a five-foot-three-inch, forty-three-year-old realty dynamo” (14) who works for Frank’s real estate office on the Jersey Shore.                                 

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The theme of Frank’s relationships is developed further in the most recent volume of the tetralogy, Let Me Be Frank With You, four linked short stories in which Frank Bascombe meets with four different people from his past. The year 2012 is coming to an end, and New Jersey is reeling from the October onslaught of Hurricane Sandy. All around him is destruction, but Frank has survived that cancer diagnosis so far, and in retirement he’s withdrawn more into himself. “For months now—and this may seem strange at my late moment of life (sixty-eight)—I’ve been trying to jettison as many friends as I can, and am frankly surprised more people don’t do it as a simple and practical means of achieving well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity. Lived life, especially once you hit adulthood, is always a matter of superfluity leading on to less-ness.” (187) He provides a summation of how he sees his own character: “. . . a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice.” (140-41) Well, Frank may think he’s always “nice,” but readers can catch him in some unkind deeds.

I found Let Me Be Frank With You less masterful than The Lay of the Land, and I noted a few discontinuities, such as Sally’s birthday moving from summer to near Christmas. Still, Ford’s trademark particularization pulls you in, letting you gape at the damage wrought by the hurricane (and by the previous collapse of the real estate market in 2008), letting you linger on the inevitable wrinkles in the aging faces of the characters.

The Frank Bascombe tetralogy is by turns hilarious and devastatingly serious, honest and deceptive, reflecting the life of one American man—and a slice of American history.