I finished reading JL Carr’s novella (or novel, depending on your definition: it’s about 100 pages, probably 35,000 words) about two weeks ago, and have found myself thinking about it daily since. It’s not that usual for me to be so haunted by a book, so it’s prompted me to consider why. Some of you might not have read it but may be familiar with the 1987 film, which starred a very young Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, as well as Natasha Richardson—an unusually sensitive, faithful adaptation, of considerable power, too.
Let’s start with a synopsis and statement of theme. It’s set in the summer of 1920, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, an area I know quite well, having spent a year there in my youth, when I was unemployed and forced to live with my mother. It’s an area of moors and fells, bleak in winter, but charming in summer: very rural, and by English standards, sparsely populated. Into this land, which at the time was almost untouched by motor traffic, come two men to work at a village church, both of them ex-soldiers in the recent Great War, and both suffering from what we now call PTSD, but which was then known as shell shock, and simply dismissed, usually, as weakness and whining. Both have been hired by the vicar in order to fulfil a bequest, which requires that efforts be made by an archaeologist to find a grave belonging to one of the dead person’s medieval ancestors, and that an artist or restorer try to recover what is believed to be a medieval wall painting, long since whitewashed over. The archaeologist, who it turns out has a rather shocking secret—one that was shocking in those days, at least—is named Moon; the artist (although he refuses to call himself that) is Birkin. Both men are penurious: Moon camps in a tent in the churchyard, while Birkin bivouacs, much to the vicar’s disapproval, in the belfry. Along the way, Birkin falls in love with Alice, the vicar’s wife. But if that were not impediment enough, we learn that Birkin too is married, although his wife has run off with someone else, more than once in fact. Still, in 1920 being legally married was taken seriously.
The unusually fine, hot summer turns out to be a chance for both men to recover from their horrific experiences in Flanders, as their work, which turns out to be unusually rewarding, proves redemptive. But of course there’s more to it than that. As Birkin slowly recuperates, he’s tempted by the young vicar’s wife, who seems far too lovely and gay (in the old sense of the word) for the embittered, irritable, insensitive Revd. J.G. Keach. So there’s a classic ethical quandary that drives the narrative (along with a certain amount of suspense considering what the men will uncover in the church). Will he or won’t he?
It may sound like a nostalgic work, and unquestionably it’s an elegy to an England now departed, which J.L. Carr, who was born in 1912, must have remembered. But the background, which we’re never allowed to forget, is the senseless slaughter of the trenches. This lends the story a depth and seriousness that it might otherwise not have had. Carr asks how traumatised men can hope to be integrated into society again, and what right they may have to seek their own happiness. He also asks—a question as pertinent today, or more so today than then—how we are linked to our ancestors, and what responsibilities we bear towards them. For these reasons, although by contemporary standards it’s an undramatic, contemplative work, and indeed one which wouldn’t find a publisher nowadays, because of its length, the little book has extraordinary power. In fact it was shortlisted for the Booker—William Golding won it, for Rites of Passage—and did win the Guardian Fiction Prize. (A glance at Booker winners around that time shows how far we have fallen since then.)
But back to why this very ‘slim volume’ has had such an impact on me. Apart from the themes I’ve indicated, which I consider important, and the clarity of the prose, which is admirable, I think it’s precisely because Carr doesn’t follow ‘the rules’ for a modern novel that it’s so engaging. We all know that a novel needs a protagonist with a clear, strong desire, for a start. Birkin’s only aim at the start of the book is to prolong his employment as long as possible. Then there has to be conflict—strong opposition to the fulfilment of the protagonist’s desires. In fact there are none, unless we except a certain amount of internal struggle. There should be crises, a climax, and constant drama—show don’t tell, and all the other rubbish students are taught on creative writing courses. But in fact the true masters of the art (who most often don’t have an academic title to prove it!) don’t necessarily follow those rules. This is something like a great Japanese novel in tone—like some of the works of Kawabata, for example, in which not much happens, but a great deal is suggested and implied, and, as with Japanese pictorial art, in which much is asked of the imagination of the viewer or reader.
It strikes me that maybe we should stop writing to the formulae that the creative writing professors (the bad ones!) and the money-grubbing agents and editors insist are the path to success. Maybe we should stop painting by numbers. If we were true to ourselves, as the modest J.L. Carr was, we might just start creating great art again, as few people are doing in these days of ever-increasing conformity in fiction.
Richard Russo is a star . . . in Bulgaria––to wit, a few years ago he was invited to their annual writers’ conference and when his flights got scrambled, he thought about saying sorry . . . until they told him he was the headliner. That’s what happens when you win a Pulitzer Prize. It also means publishers want books and are even willing to publish nine essays that barely hang together. Oh, by the way, Russo participated in the conference during which he meditated on the life of writers in a country where not long ago you had to remain silent lest you be imprisoned or worse for writing the wrong thing about the country’s rulers.
The Destiny Thief should be read by fiction writers, as well as by devoted Russo fans. The essays that will be of most interest to authors are the title essay, “The Destiny Thief,” as well as “Getting Good,” and “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omnipotence.”
That Russo is also a star in the U.S. is an object lesson for writers. He wasn’t a child prodigy nor was he a top student at the University of Arizona where he earned a Ph.D. in American Literature and a MFA in fiction. His career began like many lit/MFA graduates, teaching intro classes at third-tier colleges to students who looked much like he did not too many years earlier––working class and battling mixed emotions about their abilities and ambitions.
That Russo found his rhythm and produced award-winning novels seems to have taken him by surprise; it also irked some of his fellow AU grads. Reflecting on his success, which required him to come to terms with his origins as the son of divorced parents in the same upstate New York mill-town that I emerged from several years earlier, Russo concludes that “writing isn’t easy. Most people who want to be writers end up abandoning the struggle.”
That Russo didn’t give up is testimony to how the need to write can subsume the pretensions that often go with ambition and the tendency some have of connecting one’s self-worth with career recognition. “And so,” he tells us, “with no one left to impress, not even myself, I began, finally, to write.”
Russo’s first ambition was to be a rock and roll star. In high school, he formed a band, played badly and eventually gave it up, but the experience was instructive. More so, his relationship with his grandfather, a skilled glove cutter, who taught him to value good work, as well as not to place oneself above one’s fellow man. When the glove industry replaced skilled craftsmen with machines, his grandfather refused to downgrade the care he put in his work and yet he supported the union movement that eventually displaced him.
Reflecting on his early experiences as a laborer and as an underpaid instructor, Russo supports collective action, but when it comes to writing fiction, he stands on the side of craft, harking back to the guild model where an apprentice worked along side a skilled craftsperson for years before he was entitled to call himself a master. In addition to putting in one’s hours, however, an artist needs to “slow down, observe, contemplate, court quiet, practice stillness.”
In “Getting Good,” Russo raises questions that proponents of self-publishing ought to consider––namely, whether the absence of gatekeepers who stand in the way of traditional publication is a good thing. Becoming good at the craft of writing fiction, Russo believes, requires would-be authors to have one’s work rejected because only out of rejection can come the dedication it takes to reach a high level of craft.
Beginning fiction writers often flounder on the question of point of view. Should my story be written from first person perspective? The drawback is everything known to the reader must come from the protagonist’s senses and thoughts. Should it be written in third person? That means the story can be told by more than one person, but the writer’s viewpoint must be intuited from what his/her characters say and do.
Once upon a time, most novels were written from an omniscient viewpoint. The writer, in effect, was another character, telling us what his characters saw, felt and thought, but adding his views as well. The narrator knows things none of his characters know and thus is able to provide history and detail that can only be revealed awkwardly in first person or third P.O.V. stories. Omniscience, Russo tells, us “favors writers who know things, who are confident of their knowledge and generous enough to want to share it.” Needless to say, Russo’s novels are written in omniscient viewpoint.
The other six essays in The Destiny Thief are of less value to writers, but nevertheless are worth reading for insight into Richard Russo’s life and career. They show the kind of man he is . . . apart from being a star. They include a piece on Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, one on Mark Twain’s non-fiction, a brief graduation address, his friendship with a transgendered person, and his trip to Bulgaria. All are worth reading.
Within the first few sentences of Waiting for Eden, readers realize they are in for something out of the ordinary when the first-person narrator says matter-of-factly, “I was sitting next to Eden and luckier than him when our Humvee hit a pressure plate, killing me and everybody else, him barely surviving.”
But out-of-the-ordinary has become the rule for the novels of Elliot Ackerman, author of the critically acclaimed debut Green on Blue, National Book Award finalist Dark at the Crossing, and now his latest, Eden, being released on September 25.
As a journalist, Ackerman was based for a number of years in Istanbul, starting in 2013, where he covered the Syrian Civil War. Among other publications, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine, and his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories. He is both a former White House Fellow and a Marine, and has served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.
Those tours of duty fully inform his novels, which are often bleak and claustrophobic, and still utterly compelling. What may seem remarkable for a U.S. Marine-turned-author is the level of empathy he displays for his subjects. The narrator in Green on Blue is a young Afghani soldier, Aziz, while the protagonist in Dark at the Crossing, Haris, is a native Iraqi and naturalized American working as a translator with U.S. troops in Iraq.
Now, in his latest, the narrator is a dead U.S. serviceman whose name we never learn. He is waiting for his best buddy, Eden Malcolm, “the most wounded man in the history of war,” to cross over to the other side and join him. But Eden, down to seventy pounds and no remaining limbs, improbably persists. His pregnant wife Mary does not leave his side for three years, even when her family and his beg her to let him go. She gives birth in the hospital’s maternity ward, and the baby spends her first years with them before finally going home with Mary’s mother.
A common theme in Ackerman’s novels is a sense of there being no choices, of the main characters almost lacking free will. The narrator posits that this story is all about the choice that Mary makes, but it doesn’t appear that Mary sees or believes there is a choice to be made. Nonetheless, she has called out her husband and their friend for looking at things exactly the same way.
She comments to the narrator, “It’s always have to with you all, as if you have no choice, as if you’ve conveniently forgotten you volunteered for all this . . . You ever think that once or even never was enough?”
In response, he tells her, “The first time, I wanted to go. Now I need to.”
Mary, though, is desperate to keep Eden from re-enlisting, and knows that he won’t go if she is pregnant. So she is doing her best to give him only one choice.
Waiting for Eden is a spare but tightly-packed novel. Most gripping — and, for me personally, hardest to read — are the times when the narrator takes us inside of Eden’s head, when he is awake but unable to communicate. I considered Ackerman’s earlier books to have a sense of claustrophobia, but Eden — with its portrayal of a man being trapped entirely inside his brain — offers a glimpse directly into hell.
One of Ackerman’s talents is his ability to ratchet up the tension in the smallest moments, when on the surface not much is happening, and he does that perhaps most expertly here. Each of the characters is waiting for something, even if they aren’t sure why. But at least they are waiting together.
The English publication of the volumes of Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle coincides with a renewed interest in “auto-fiction,” also known as the autobiographical novel. While I have read and enjoyed several of these works of auto-fiction, my favorite is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which seemed to draw on some auto-fiction elements, but also used other literary devices such as image patterning and developing character arcs, while incorporating motifs of class, politics, art, motherhood, friendship, and feminism.
Since finishing the Neapolitan series I’ve found myself wanting to read more novels that span generations, placing themselves in historical context, in which history itself (just as Ferrante’s working class post-war Italy) becomes a character. Three recent novels fit this bill, and I recommend them to anyone desiring epic historical novels that educate as well as entertain.
The first novel I recommend is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016). Shortlisted for the Booker and winner of both of Canada’s top literary awards, The Giller Prize and the Governor’s General Award, Thien’s novel spans generations of several Chinese families from before the Revolution to the present day—the nexus of the novel being the lead up to and the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. Successfully ambitious on all levels, the novel is well deserving of all its accolades.
Min Jin Lee’s breakthrough Pachinko (2017) covers a generation of a South Korean family living in Japan during the twentieth century. Although the novel, a National Book Award Finalist, is going to be made into a TV miniseries by Apple, I encourage you to read this riveting novel about the hardships Koreans faced in Japan before then.
Finally, Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018) is an epic novel of trees and the people transformed by them. Intricately plotted—like the complex root system, this novel (currently longlisted for the Booker Prize) also spans more than a hundred years, and is my favorite novel of the year so far.
If you are looking for stories that take you out of the mundane world and instead challenge and expand your own understanding, I recommend any or all three of these powerful novels.
Half a century ago, readers of the New Yorker thirsted for the short stories of John Cheever for the window he opened into suburban life and the tensions he exposed between an emerging post-scarcity society and the vanishing World War II way of life that fertilized his stories. That role today might be assigned to Andre Dubus III. Best known for his novel House of Sand and Fog, the movie version of which, starring Ben Kingsley, earned three Academic Award nominations, in Dirty Love, as in his other works, Dubus mines the tension between generations and the widening gap between traditional behavioral norms and today’s technologically-driven anything-goes code.
Dirty Love consists of four interconnected novellas. In “Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed,” Mark Welch, a fifty-year-old project manager, has discovered his wife is having an affair. Dubus takes us through Welch’s stages of rage to the moment when he finally admits his role in the rift.
In “Marla,” a single bank clerk, despairing of getting married, finds herself courted by a man who it turns out is not her perfect match. Will she repair to her uncompromising approach to life or settle for a man who says he loves her?
In “The Bartender,” Robert has trouble leaving behind a lifestyle where alcohol is the doorway to do-it-if-it feels-good-behavior. When he gets married without thinking through the consequences, he quickly puts himself in a position where he jeopardizes the good fortune that fell into his lap.
Dubus’ fourth and longest piece, “Dirty Love,” reveals the gap between generations as 18-year-old Devon moves in with her grand-uncle because of conflict at home. Francis is still mourning the death of his wife and wants to be a positive influence on his niece. He drives her to and from her job at the same restaurant where Robert is the bartender and where Mark Welch nurses his anger. He wants to help her study for her GRE so she can go to college, but the future Francis envisions for Devon is years away from her present concerns.
Devon––like many young women––is the product of a culture where sexual activity begins at a younger and younger age. Does her method of dealing with those pressures and her attempts to retain her self-worth differ from that adopted by others? Women who have had similar experiences to this character can answer that question better than I. I can only marvel that Dubus has portrayed her inner life with such sensitivity and depth.
Dubus deserves to be read not only because he sees the ways that people live at cross purposes, but because he helps us see them as well, and because he treats his characters as unique individuals without moralizing or stereotyping. You won’t find easy answers in Dirty Love, but you will come away with a greater appreciation of life’s questions.
1954, offshore from Bikini atoll: Never mind radiation, naval crew, bored by days of waiting for a hydrogen bomb test, were taken ashore afterward to swim and drink so much beer that many couldn’t jump from the dingy to the hatch of the ship on their return, and their drunken bodies had to be piled en mass into netting and raised by a crane to the deck. So reports self-aware, precocious young naval officer Bill, a college graduate from Illinois. “We were a military attachment aboard a naval supply ship that had civilian officers…I chatted my head off with the second mate, who sometimes took his duty on hot days wearing only shorts. Not bad at all. But he ran a poor second to the third mate, who was really sexy. That is, his body was sexy. He wasn’t sexy at all. In fact, he was incredibly boring. But I was young. I couldn’t tell the difference in those days.”
We’ve all heard someone say that the right book appears at the right time. That sounds mystical, as if there were a benevolent deity planning every detail our lives, which I think the Holocaust disproves. But it may be that the Taoist notion of simply paying attention to the universe, and let’s say ‘using the current’ (rather than the horrible cliché ‘going with the flow’) comes closer to what happens. In any case, I was very low, partly because I couldn’t write—at least I wasn’t writing anything worth a damn. Then by happenstance I came across Carol Bly’s Beyond the Workshop, a book I’ve owned for years, I believe, but had never read. And lo, it was exactly the book I needed.
I should say first that it purports to be a book for creative nonfiction writers, but almost everything Bly says applies to fiction too (and I daresay poetry as well.) I should add that it appears to be intended mainly for teachers of creative writing, which I used to be, but although I see how useful it would be for anyone who teaches, it’s also valuable for someone who simply writes, particularly if they are stuck or re-evaluating, as I was.
Bly is not afraid to give her own very strong opinions. She criticises many writing teachers for being lazy, or simply unskilled—she doesn’t blame most of them for that, if they’ve been given assistantships before they’re ready—and she argues that most American students are badly under-read, and too committed to being pleasant and neutral in the classroom. She also disapproves of peer responses. However, her main arguments are that writing has an ethical dimension, i.e. that the best writers are working not merely to describe the world, but to change it, to make people more aware of the injustices and cruelties and plain stupidities of human behaviour. She thinks that craft is over-emphasized in most writing workshops, and content is under-valued. She thinks that there is an important part of the writing process that is usually neglected, the middle part between inspiration (and composition of the first draft) and revision (the completion of the final one.) That middle part involves a deep psychological enquiry by the writer into herself or himself, to make sure that their deepest concerns have really been addressed.
Such a short summary doesn’t do her ideas justice, of course, but I found this liberating. I realised I had been looking for a story, as if one might descend upon me out of the air, like some archangel with his annunciation, whereas what I needed to do was focus more clearly on my philosophy (which, Bly thinks, all writers should have.) That’s not to say, as I understand it, that your story should be didactic, a kind of essay in fancy dress; but that the story should grow organically (and indeed subconsciously) out of one’s philosophical and ethical concerns. In other words, the best stories come not out of the shimmering world of sensory images, but out of our inner worlds. Bly discusses developmental psychology, which she is knowledgeable about, relating it to ideas about how writers develop by authors like Schiller and Orwell. According to this theory, many people, and some writers, are stuck in stage one, which is driven by practical and physical desires: for good food, drink, comfort, sex, and so on. A great deal of junk culture—most of Hollywood, it seems to me—is frozen at this stage. The characters are driven by greed, lust, revenge: primitive instincts. Obviously thoughtful art can be made out of this, but Hollywood mostly prefers to keep things superficial. Next comes the aesthetic stage, and many writers, including very successful and skilful ones (she mentions Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Borges) do not go beyond this. They reject the idea that writing might have a political or ethical dimension. The final stage is awareness of the suffering of others and the desire to alleviate it, to protest and to rectify.
Just a few weeks ago I moderated a panel on politics and the short story at the International Short Story Conference in Lisbon—and yet, despite my conscious espousal of the idea that all writing must have this dimension, I believe that after getting home, I fell into an earlier, one might almost say an atavistic stage, the physical and practical stage. So strong is our culture of hedonism and mindless materialism that it is easy to revert to a childish, feckless mode of storytelling, one designed merely to pass the time, to amuse and to reassure. (By the way, neither Bly nor I am against genuine humour. What I deplore is the silly kind, which is also often cruel—as in those detestable Adam Sandler movies, for example.)
Not everyone will like Bly’s book—she is too forthright, in an age that likes its truths to be sugar-coated—but it is a truly humanistic one, in that she thinks people come to writing classes and retreats not necessarily to learn how to write, but in protest against the junk culture, because they are hoping to find meaning in their lives. And she finds that a brave and noble aim. So do I. In a world in which philosophy as a formal discipline is hardly studied any more, perhaps the writing class is one of the last refuges of philosophical thought, and writing may be the best way people not trained as philosophers have to find out what they think and develop a coherent philosophy of life. In short, know thyself, and then change the world. Not a bad aim.
A good story or novel isn’t just beautiful: it makes meaning.
You learn what you think and believe as you write, provided you go deep enough.
Now all I have to do is put into practice.
In the Soviet Union in 1922, men who had been counts under the Tzar were either dead or in exile, with one exception. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who had returned to Russia from exile to participate in the 1918 revolution, was brought before a tribunal, and when his answers were found wanting, he was confined on penalty of death to The Metropol, Moscow’s largest hotel. Why was he spared the firing squad? A revolutionary poem published under his name in 1913.
Count Rostov has little choice but to make the best of his situation. As it turns out, this gentleman displays¬¬ all of the attributes one would normally assign to that title, and thus accomplishes the necessary adjustment with relative ease. Even when he contemplates suicide, it takes no more effort than showing up for his weekly trim at the hotel’s barber.
The irony of a gentleman confined to a hotel during thirty plus years of life in the Soviet Union offers Towles a large playing field that he exploits with entertaining side stories, many focused on food. The story line that will win over many readers is how Rostov becomes the parent to a six year old and raises her to become a concert pianist. This situation is used to justify Rostov’s compliance with the request of a high level communist to provide him insights based on his life in France, as later that official aids the count during a crisis in the life of his adopted daughter.
Yet to entertain the reader with Rostov’s survival story, Towles downplays the milieu in which his gentleman lives. Yes, his adopted daughter’s parents are sent to the Gulag and are never heard from again; yes, his friend, the poet Mishka, who it turns out was the real author of the poem that saved Rostov’s life, is similarly punished. But two cases don’t convey the horror and the death toll experienced by millions under communist rule.
For example, we don’t hear from Towles what happened to people who wished to practice their religion under communism. Rather we learn that people lined up for miles upon Stalin’s death, many of them crying. Why? Stalin, we are told, helped defeat Nazi Germany and converted a backward country into a world power. Stalin did those things––not the soldiers who died in the tens of thousands nor the factory workers who were worked to death¬¬!
Also missing from the story of the count’s life are money and religion. Towles doesn’t seem interested in the role religious belief played in the lives of Russians prior to the revolution. His count gives up whatever religion he might have had prior to the revolution without a second thought. Nor do we learn how he is able to pay his bills, although lack of currency right to the end is never a problem.
The ending? Rostov could escape the Soviet Union, but doesn’t. We are left to imagine that a gentleman can go to the village near his family’s estate and that his gentleman’s personality will dissuade locals from turning him in or making him join them in the fields.
A Gentleman in Moscow is an enchanting story as long as one is ignorant of the real history of the Soviet Union and is not foolish enough to try Towles’ technique for survival in places like Cuba, Argentina or China.
I’ve often written about my admiration of and appreciation for small, independent book publishers, those folks who are in the business much more because of their love of books than their pursuit of the next big blockbuster. Publishing these days has an ever-slimming profit margin amid fierce competition, and that makes things even more challenging for those who do this for love.
A small publisher that has drawn positive attention for its business model and a gratifying level of success is She Writes Press. In 2016, books from She Writes Press were awarded seventeen medals at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, the most awards to one press in that year. Under the guiding hand of publisher Brooke Warner, the press has gone from a catalog of eight titles in 2013 to an impressively long list for both spring and fall in this, their six year.
One of the titles being released this fall is Hard Cider by Barbara Stark-Nemon. Stark-Nemon is an alumna of She Writes Press, which published her award-winning debut novel, Even in Darkness. (See my review of that book for LLNB here.) Fans of the first book—a historical novel covering many decades leading up to, though, and beyond World War II—should expect a quieter, more intimate, contemporary portrait here. What remains the same, though, is the focus on a single family through the eyes of a strong female protagonist.
Abbie Rose Stone is a mature woman who, having built and raised her family through a number of trials, is now ready to take on a challenge entirely for herself, simply for the joy she feels it will bring her: starting a business producing hard cider in northern Michigan. Her husband and three grown sons have trouble understanding her desire and even more trouble being supportive of it.
Abbie tells her own story, which she starts by recounting the trauma of losing their house to arson. She weaves in the details of building her family with husband Steven through infertility and the painful journey of treatments and disappointments, including a brush with surrogacy that Abbie cannot bring herself to repeat. Instead, over time, they adopt two boys, Alex and Andrew, and then end up having one of their own—the third boy, Seth—without any intervention.
From the outside, Abbie seems to have a comfortable, successful life in her early retirement, with a house in Ann Arbor and another on the northern peninsula, with time to spend on various quiet projects now that all three kids have established lives of their own. But the cracks are there. Each conversation with Steven or the boys is an exercise in eggshell-walking, in which Abbie carefully reads tone and sometimes body language in her attempts to navigate through the rocky shoals of each relationship. She mentions eyeing, and sometimes reaching for, the scotch bottle, and though she seems to drink in moderation, there’s a hint that the impulse is something she wrestles with.
Alex in particular represents her biggest maternal struggle, and perhaps failure. A strong-willed child who tested boundaries all along the way—though we never quite learn how—Alex’s parents finally felt that sending their troubled adolescent to boarding school was the answer. As an adult, his troubles stem primarily from his desire to protect the underdog, so that his best impulses cause the greatest issues. Now, as Abbie tells it, Alex has built a good life for himself a few states away, and she pushes to strengthen her connection with him.
As she spends an increasing amount of time at her northern retreat, learning the ins and outs of the hard cider business, Abbie meets a young woman, Julia, who seems to have a particular interest in Abbie’s family. The mystery of Julia’s attention becomes the book’s central question, though the true journey is Abbie’s reaction to what she sees as an assault on her family and on the delicate balance that she still struggles to achieve and maintain within it.
Stark-Nemon’s writing pulls us along, keeping the pages turning as we make this journey with Abbie Rose. For women of a certain age who have their own stories of dreams deferred in service to family, Abbie’s story resonates. Many readers will bring their own understanding of the landmines lurking when a wife and mother works to carve out a role separate from the centrality of family.
There are some opportunities that Stark-Nemon misses. One of the traps for an author of first-person narration is the tendency to tell more than show. Abbie describes her relationship with Steven and alludes to their issues far more than we see or experience them for ourselves. Often, it feels as though characters are talking at each other rather than to each other, making their points but not necessary striving for mutual understanding. Emotional scars left by trauma—the arson, Alex’s feelings of abandonment—are only tangentially explored.
That said, Hard Cider is a warm and inviting book, which may make readers long to spend some quality time in northern Michigan, enjoying the seasons on Abbie Rose’s lakeshore retreat.
Abandoned Homes: Vietnam Revenge Murders by Frank E. Hopkins looks back at the turmoil, deception, intrigue, and anger of the late sixties and early seventies in this engrossing, hard to put down mystery. It won first place for a mystery/thriller novel in the 2018 Maryland Writers’ Association novel contest.
The author dedicates the book, “To those individuals and families whose lives were disrupted, injured or lost in unwise and unnecessary wars.” That statement brought back memories. When the protests against the Vietnam War engulfed the University of Maryland, from which I had graduated just a couple of years before, I lived nearby. We marched and we housed anti-war protestors, but nothing seemed to sway this country’s leadership and that senseless, unwinnable war continued.
The story begins on Monday, May 8, 2008, in Delaware. Paul O’Hare is investigating and photographing abandoned houses. He plans to write a book with photos on southern Delaware’s declining number of small private farms.
When he falls through the rotten floorboards into the crawl space under one of the houses, he finds two long-decayed skeletons. He suffers a black widow spider bite in the fall, which he later learns exposed him to the deadly hantavirus. He calls the Delaware State Police who send Detective Margaret Hoffman, Homicide Unit, to the scene to investigate.
The novel then becomes a police procedural as Hoffman, the other police officers, and O’Hare work together to track down the killers. As they study missing persons reports, they identify the victims as among those studying politics and economics as graduate students in the 1990s in a list with an unusual number of students missing or murdered. On the list is Paul O’Hare who now becomes a suspect as he develops a romantic relationship with Detective O’Hare.
When the murderers are finally tracked down, they are out of reach of the authorities, and one brutal murderer is never discovered. Still, it is a thought-provoking, exciting read. Many of the locations in this book are easily recognizable to readers in the Mid-Atlantic area.
The author, Frank E. Hopkins, writes realistic crime novels and short stories involving social and political issues. He attended Hofstra University in the 1960s and later as a consultant, he managed proposals in responses to Federal government solicitations. His novel, Unplanned Choices, takes on illegal abortion and murder. People today don’t remember that when abortions were illegal, they were done by criminals, resulting in dead and dying women being found in motel rooms or dumped on hospital grounds. The Opportunity is a story of crime in the federal government.
He is active in the Rehoboth Bay Writers Guild, the Eastern Shore Writers Association, and the Lower Eastern Shore Chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. His website is http://www.frankehopkins.com
Inspiration for good novels can come from anywhere. Sometimes stories spring from experiences in the author’s life. Other times they explore experiences the author never had but wonders about. Recently I read two very good novels that were heavily influenced by horrific events of the recent past, and they started my thinking about how authors can use such events to give life to engrossing characters and spellbinding stories.
The first novel, Before We Were Yours, draws on the history of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, run by Georgia Tann in Memphis during the first half of the twentieth century. The Society was well respected until the 1940s when authorities discovered that Tann had destroyed most of the adoption papers to cover up how many children were taken illegally from their parents to be offered to film stars and other wealthy clients for exorbitant adoption fees.
To tell the story, author Lisa Wingate creates the Foss family, who live in a shanty boat on the Mississippi in 1939. While the father takes the mother to the hospital to give birth to twins, police officers take the children off the boat and place them with the TCHS, where they suffer from malnutrition and abuse, except on “party days,” when they are fed, cleaned, and dressed up to be presented to prospective adoptive parents.
In a parallel story, Wingate tells of Avery Stafford, a successful lawyer and daughter of a senator in present-day Aiken, S.C. At a nursing home for a political event, Avery meets an elderly woman who steals Avery’s bracelet and claims it is hers. Through the bracelet, Avery discovers a mysterious connection between her grandmother, who has dementia, and the woman at the nursing home. Later, a lawyer shows Avery some of her grandmother’s confidential papers, including a birth certificate for a boy named Shad Foss.
Wingate makes the story come alive through Rill, the eldest Foss daughter, who narrates her family’s travails at the hands of Georgia Tann and her effect on their lives beyond. As a 12-year-old, she’s smart, brave, and compassionate.
The second novel, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills, involves the genocide that killed 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994. Lillian Carlson, disillusioned by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, leaves Atlanta and moves to Rwanda, where she starts an orphanage. Years later, her lover in Atlanta, Henry Shepherd, abandons his wife and young daughter to follow Lillian to Rwanda. In 2000, his daughter, Rachel, now an adult, goes to Rwanda in search of her father and finds a community, including Lillian, who are no longer under siege but mourning great loss and injury.
The author of 10,000 Hills, Jennifer Haupt, went to Rwanda as a journalist in 2006, so she knows firsthand the misery and courage that inform her story. Although her characters are fictional, they embody the ongoing grief of the genocide survivors or the need to understand of those, like Rachel, who didn’t realize they were affected. Rachel is mourning a loss of her own, but she doesn’t grasp the universality or the true functions of grief until she goes to Rwanda. Haupt does an excellent job showing how life changes but continues following great sorrow. Lillian has found her source of strength and joy in the orphanage, but Rachel has to seek out the source within herself that enables her to give meaning to her life. Her journey is challenging and compelling.
In both of these novels, the authors speak with an authority that makes the events and characters ring true. I learned a great deal about two historic events that I knew little about. I had never heard of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and was familiar with only the basic facts of the Rwandan genocide. Knowledge is important because only by knowing the horrors of history can we hope not to repeat them. Yet the authors were able to find within these tragedies stories of hope and love. The stark contrast between the darkness of the events and the brightness of the characters gives these novels a deep beauty. Good fiction is about people, and people show their true selves best when they are tested.
Ali Smith—Scottish, 55, fearless—has already made a reputation as one of most ambitious, offbeat, and mesmerizing novelists of our time. Now she’s pushing it a step further with an unusual “seasonal” quartet. The first two volumes, Autumn and Winter, are already out, and you better hurry up and read them because you want to be ready when Spring arrives. And it won’t be long.
The novels are being rushed out, but Smith has her reasons. She wants to put her mark on current events. Most writers of contemporary fiction struggle with an age-old dilemma: Is it better to be timely or timeless? Smith is one of the few with the talent to be both.
Autumn was published in 2017, barely eleven months after the Brexit vote, and it serves partially as a novel of protest over what Smith clearly believes was a misguided decision by Britain to leave the European Union. The novel is set in a small village a week after the vote, and half of the local people won’t talk to the other half because of it. Brexit also is an issue in Winter (there’s a marvelous bit in which Boris Johnson is compared to Samuel Johnson and found wanting), but the American election and immigration policy also play big roles, with Smith going so far as to quote some of Trump’s more controversial bits.
This is not to imply these novels are mostly political protests. Yes, they capture the conflicts and struggles of the day but in a way that
shows their roots in historical precedents. Smith does that, in part, with discerning references to literature, particularly the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Huxley, cleverly finding much in their time-tested novels that still applies today.
Autumn is first and foremost a novel about the friendship between Elizabeth Demand and her neighbor Daniel Gluck (And yes, every name in both books is fraught with meaning). They met when she was eight and he was seventy-six, and now, at 101, he is on his deathbed and Elisabeth has come home to sit by his bedside. Theirs is a charming, deep, friendship, filled with meaningful conversations about art, culture, imagination, and literature—the kind of friendship we can all envy. Smith artfully uses flashbacks to trace its roots. Consider their first meeting:
“Very pleased to meet you,” Daniel says. “Finally.”
“How do you mean, finally?” Elisabeth asks. “We only moved here six weeks ago.”
“The lifelong friends,” Daniel says. “We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.”
Daniel doesn’t appear in the opening chapter. That’s devoted to Elisabeth’s day-long effort to renew her passport, an all-too-real, hilarious episode that ends in failure because Elisabeth’s face is the wrong size. While she waits hours to be rejected, she reads Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a title taken from Shakespeare’s Tempest.
When she arrives at his bedside, he greets her with the same greeting he’s used since he’s known her—“What are you reading?” Later she reads him Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a novel Smith borrows from when she describes her country’s views of the Brexit vote: “All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the county, people felt it was the right thing. All across the county, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.” (Daniel, half asleep, twists the opening line of Dickens to “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”
Shakespeare and Dickens also play prominent roles in Winter, which alternately feels like a rewrite of A Christmas Carol and Cymbeline. The plot opens with Sophie Cravens, a Scrooge-like character if there ever was one, chatting to a disembodied child’s head that dances around her like the light of Christmas past. Sophie is expecting her son Arthur and his former girlfriend Charlotte for Christmas dinner, but when they arrive (Art has actually hired a homeless immigrant named Lux to pretend she is Charlotte), Sophie can offer neither a bed (though her house has 15 bedrooms) nor food (only a bag of walnuts and a half a jar of glace cherries).
Art calls Sophie’s estranged sister Iris (aptly nicknamed “Ire”), and she soon arrives with bags of groceries to fill the fridge and rekindle her age-old battles with her sibling. It’s not long before we’re treated to the kind of dysfunctional Christmas dinner befitting a dysfunctional family (though the conversation at this one is far more engaging than at yours or mine). Lux proceeds to play the role of the uninvited guest who speaks the truth when others prefer to remain silent. (Think Paulina in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale or Amber in Smith’s earlier novel, The Accidental.)
Winter is not as powerful a novel as Autumn. There’s something more rushed about it that leaves it lacking focus, with a few too many preachy speeches and maybe a little more politics than necessary to make the point. Writing in the The Chicago Tribune, Charles Finch describes it as Smith’s angriest work. I haven’t read enough of her work to judge that, but it clearly has a sharper edge than Autumn.
Winter draws a lot from Shakespeare Cymbeline, which Sophia notes is “about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning. (James Wood writing in The New Yorker calls Winter a postmodern Shakespearean comedy.)
And Lux captures the essence of that when she explains to her hosts why she emigrated to England from her native Croatia:
I read [Cymbeline] and I thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is at the end, where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, then that’s the place I’m going, I’ll go there, I’ll live there.”
It’s a comforting hope, but the way things are going, I fear it will just get Lux deported.
Using fiction to bring readers around to one’s point of view is not just difficult, it’s also very risky. Even when a novelist is not attempting to sway the reader to a particular viewpoint, plotting a story to reach a certain ending can force the writer to ignore inconvenient facts, portray odd character behavior, or rely on twisted logic.
The Legacy (Bombardier Books, 2018)) is British political commentator Melanie Phillips’ first novel. In it, her protagonist, Russell Woolfe, a British Jewish TV producer, comes to see the flaws in his previous worldview. In particular, as a result a series of unexpected events, he revises his connection, or the lack thereof, to Judaism as well as alters his relationship with his daughter.
Book-marking Woolfe’s personal journey are two historical massacres of Jews that Phillips mines for their ability to change her protagonist’s view of the world and his place in it.
Woolfe learns of both tragedies when he is approached at a service for his deceased father by an elderly man who asks him to translate the contents of a rare book written in an odd form of Hebrew. It turns out the book is a first-hand telling of a 12th century atrocity against the Jewish residents of York, England. When Woolfe learns the book’s owner is not who he thought, he undertakes a second quest––one that results in his uncovering the horrific murder of thousands of Polish Jews in a specific city in Poland during World War II.
Poland has been in the news lately as a result of the passage of a law that outlaws claims that the Polish people were involved in the Holocaust. The true story of the Jedwabne atrocity refutes the assertion that the Poles were innocent by-standers and, in Phillips’ story, bringing out the truth of that event helps her protagonist realize that his lack of knowledge about his family’s past represents a hole in his life.
It’s clear that Phillips seeks through The Legacy to “educate” her readers about the Jewish people being a convenient scapegoat for religious and political tyrants right up to the present. By taking her protagonist to Israel she hopes to open the eyes of liberal Jews to the distortion inherent in the notion that the Palestinian people are victims of Israeli occupation, apartheid, and genocide.
While her story is cleverly constructed and while she avoids hammering readers over the head, hoping to persuade via the transformation of her main character, the question I wonder whether her target readers will feel manipulated. It’s hard to hide your underlying message when you create a character you don’t particularly admire and force him to change as a result of unusual events.
I must also find fault with Phillips’ publisher for putting the following teaser on the back cover: “Does the mystery behind a recently discovered medieval manuscript hold the secret to the survival of the Jewish people?”
The answer to that question is ‘no.’ Worse, it sets forth a false expectation for the novel.
While Phillips clearly had ambitions for the story behind the awakening of one human being, the publisher’s tag line sets up readers to be disappointed. A better tag line would focus on the main character’s story line.
I also wonder if it was the publisher’s decision that the resolution of Woolfe’s changed relationship with his daughter is skimmed over. She seems to disappear from his life in the final chapters except for a reference to his intent to let her move in with him. That omission leaves the reader uncertain whether Woolfe’s awakening occurred in time to save his daughter from her bigoted mother’s oversight.
Despite it’s flaws, The Legacy not only readable, but will make you ponder some difficult questions while learning about some unsettling, but historically accurate, facts about the past. To that end, Phillips is to be applauded.
In May, as Ireland voted to end its ban on abortion, I thought back to the Ireland of my youth and to Edna O’Brien, the Irish-born novelist whose vivid and unself-conscious description of sexuality shocked her native land.
When I was twenty-one, I traveled from New York to Europe with a college friend. The last week of the trip was the most exciting and the most terrifying for her. We were to visit her extended family in Ireland and meet her boyfriend from home, who was on vacation with his family. She worried that the garda, the Irish police, would somehow find the birth control pills she’d hidden in her purse, or the hotel wardens would catch her and her boyfriend sharing a bed. The pill was illegal in Ireland then, and premarital sex was such an affront to Irish propriety that it might as well have been.
Our trip was more than ten years after publication of Edna O’Brien’s first book, The Country Girls (1960), but from our vantage point, Ireland was still the zipped, buttoned, and closeted country that greeted O’Brien’s writing with outrage and censorship.
The Country Girls together with its sequels, The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964), tells the story of childhood friends Caithleen and Baba. Although very different, the girls are best friends and rely on one another. Caithleen is intelligent and artsy, and Baba is outgoing, brash, and impetuous. When they are sent to a stifling convent school, they connive to be expelled so they can leave their drab homes for life in the big city.
Writing the novel from her self-imposed exile in England, O’Brien depicts the friends’ high spirits and passion for exploring independence, romance, and sexual pleasures in precise, vivid, and eloquent prose. Caithleen, the narrator, says:
“I was not sorry to be leaving the old village. It was dead and tired and old and crumbling and falling down. The shops needed paint and there seemed to be fewer geraniums in the upstairs windows than there had been when I was a child.”
Baba’s father sends her to Dublin to take a commercial course, and Caithleen gets a job in a grocery store so she can go with her. Once on the train to Dublin, they look for a smoking car:
“[We] went down the corridor, giggling and giving strangers the ‘So what’ look. I suppose it was then we began that phase of our lives as the giddy country girls brazening the big city. People looked at us and then looked away again, as though they had just discovered that we were naked or something. But we didn’t care. We were young and, we thought, pretty.”
Caithleen reports her memories with keen attention to what her younger self felt and thought. She doesn’t analyze or take advantage of hindsight. There is an immediacy as well as an urgency that can leave the reader breathless. In a hotel bar they meet Henry and Reginald, two middle-aged men.
“‘You know, I understand you,’ Harry said, moving his chair closer to mine. I was uneasy with him. Apart from despising him, I felt he was the kind of man who would get in a huff if you neglected to pass him the peas. I decided to drink, and drink, and drink, until I was very drunk….”
You want to scream at Caithleen to leave, but this is a coming-of-age story and she has to learn from her foolish mistakes. She gets in a car with Harry, Babs, and Reginald, thinking the men are taking them home.
” ‘Sit close to me, will you?’ Harry said in an exasperated way. As if I ought to know the price of a good dinner. Obediently I sat near him. …
“ ‘Closer,’ he said. The way he spoke, you’d think I was a dog.”
O’Brien’s honest depiction of young women’s willfulness and sexuality shocked Irish readers, particularly in her parents’ town in County Clare. To no one’s surprised, the Irish Censorship Board banned The Country Girls and several of O’Brien’s other novels. Publicly scorned, the books were often privately devoured.
A caller to a radio program told Edna O’Brien that he remembers finding a copy of “O’Brien’s dirty book” under his mother’s mattress sometime in the 1960s. “There were more Country Girls under mattresses,” she said, “than there were mattresses.”
Today’s readers are sure to wonder what so enraged Ireland about The Country Girls — that its characters were human?
O’Brien’s ability to express the human quality is sheer genius. The novelist Eimear McBride wrote of her, “Beyond all the tales and tellings of how the novels came into being and then made their progress throughout the world, they are a work of art. Sometimes painful, often funny, O’Brien lifted the linguistic play she so loved in Joyce and, taking note of his relish in the interchange of the high and low in human nature, went away and fashioned something wholly her own.”
Today’s Ireland is a world apart from the stultifying country it had been. The vote on abortion is evidence enough of that. But in the literary sphere there are changes, too. O’Brien received the Irish PEN Award in 2001, the first of several awards from her native country.
Now eighty-seven, with seventeen published novels as well as short stories, plays, poems, nonfiction, and a memoir, O’Brien continues to write and to surprise, but Ireland is rarely far away.
Her recent novel, The Little Red Chairs (2016), begins in a small village in Ireland with the arrival of an escaped Bosnian Serb war criminal, modeled on Radovan Karadžić. As the novel evolves, our interest turns to a woman who is victimized by him.
Her forthcoming novel is inspired by reports of the Boko Haram kidnappings of school girls in Nigeria, but I expect she’ll work Ireland in somewhere.
We can be sure that O’Brien will write with vivid honesty, showing us the world around us that we may not want to see.
Does anyone care what someone else is reading? Possibly not, but other than serendipity, choices are usually meaningful and those meanings might prove informative. “So here goes nothing.”
- Dennis Lehane, Coronado (2006). Lehane is one of my favorite contemporary authors. In addition to being best sellers and earning critical acclaim, his novels Mystic River and Shutter Island were made into excellent movies. Coronado consists of five novella length stories and a two-act play. In this thin volume, Lehane demonstrates why his stories are so compelling. The characters are those we don’t often meet, but yet link back to American culture and tell us something about ourselves.
- Rick Ollerman, Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals (2017). An analysis of a particular subset of mystery novels from the 1950s through the 1990s, Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals consists of inside baseball. In other words, it’s not for the general reader, but is perfect for students of the genre who want to learn more about writers such as Peter Rabe, Donald Westlake, and Jada Davis. It is also filled with typos.
- Michael Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance (2004). A new edition of the 1987 compilation with fancy cover and new introduction can’t disguise the fact that Moorcock has it in for certain writers and wants to laud those he likes. His arguments are obtuse. Very disappointing.
- Steven Beller, Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938 (1989). Beller disputes the earlier thesis that so many of the leading intellectual lights in fin de siècle Vienna were Jews is irrelevant because those men were highly assimilated and not typically religious. Beller finds reason to credit the Jewish connection for the accomplishments of men like Freud, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, and Schnitzler.
- John Le Carre, The Mission Song (2006). Compared unfavorably to The Constant Gardner, an earlier novel set in Africa, which was made into a well regarded movie, The Mission Song demands a little extra from the reader. It is the story told in first person of Bruno Salvador, the son of a missionary father and African mother, who becomes a translator of Swahili and other African languages, and finds himself in a hotly contested project. The story develops slowly but reaches a pitch after about 200 pages.
- Avi Jorisch, Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israel Ingenuity Repairs the World (2018). A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing a presentation at the Israeli stock exchange in Tel Aviv about how Israel has almost overnight become a leading force in high technology. The beginnings of that story were ably told in Start Up Nation (2009), but Jorisch has a different agenda. He uses case histories to explain why many of the inventions coming out of Israel are benefitting the entire world and not just the inhabitants of Israel. Jorisch reinforces the message I heard from our presenters: that Israeli inventors almost by necessity are focusing on products and services that can be used across the globe. On the one hand the Israeli market by itself is very small, which forces investors to think big; but there’s also a Jewish connection that Jorisch emphasizes. The idea that Jews have an obligation to ‘heal the world,’ is something that has been taught for thousands of years. Whatever the reason, Israel has produced more public companies on the NASDAQ than any other country other than the U.S.––more than all the nations of Europe combined. Read this fine book to meet the founders of companies whose products you’re already using.
At the Washington Writers Conference coming up in May, I’ll be moderating a panel with four local authors whose debut books made it to publication through very different paths. Each book is also a different genre — memoir/journalism, biography, novel, and short story collection — which means I’m reading four very different books to prepare for the panel.
The short story collection, Don’t Wait to Be Called, is by Jacob R. Weber. Publication resulted from Weber’s winning the annual fiction prize given by Washington Writers’ Publishing House, a non-profit small press that publishes authors from the Baltimore/Washington area. Weber’s roots, which are on display in his stories, hedge towards the Baltimore end of that geography.
Weber’s biography reads like someone who has lived a few different lives, as a Marine, a translator, and an English tutor to adult immigrants, as well as a waiter and a retail clerk and manager. His experiences infuse his stories in fully authentic ways, and are rendered in voices that are unique to each story.
The title of the collection comes from its final, wrenching story, “Dogs and Days Don’t Wait to Be Called,” which is also one of four stories in the collection that highlights the experiences of Eritreans fleeing their home country in hopes of something better than slow starvation. The escape is arguably as bad or worse than staying put, because of the high risk of becoming a hostage of the ruthless Rashaida, who “were like grizzly bears feeding off the salmon run of the Eritrean exodus,” as protagonist Daud notes in the story “Silver Spring.” He lost one and a half fingers to the Rashaida’s favorite method for hurrying the twenty thousand dollar ransom payments: making hostages shriek on phone calls to family members.
Weber’s ability to create fully realized protagonists in distinctly different voices and personas is one of the great joys of the collection. We have no idea who we’re going to hear from next, whether it’s a black high school kid from the projects writing about the Freddy Grey riots in the journal given to him by his earnest teacher from the suburbs, or a young widowed mother desperate just to enjoy one Sunday afternoon with her son, however pitched the battle of wills. The mediocre student in “Mr. Sympathy” decides to become a math whiz to make his dying father finally proud of him.
Chase, the protagonist in “Brokedick,” is a former active-duty Marine tortured by not having been as active as his buddies who went downrange; he earns his shot at redemption whether he feels he has or not. In contrast, the obtuse narrator of “Dawn Doesn’t Disappoint” ends up self-satisfied in a better spot than he started, having learned nothing, and without ever getting the punch in the nose or knee to the groin that he so richly deserves. Life, as we know, isn’t fair in ways that run on a sliding scale from miniscule to unendurable.
In this collection, the top end of that scale plays out most strongly in the example of the two unnamed characters that appear in both “Silver Spring” and “Dogs and Days Don’t Wait to Be Called”. Daud and Helen in the former story, and Hiwet, the pregnant young woman in the latter, have all run afoul of the same two torturers in the Rashaida desert camp. One is fittingly ugly and deformed, but the other is strikingly handsome. “Hiwet had time to wonder why he was raping girls in the Sinai, when he could have been charming them on television.” Daud names him Gallantandregal, and notes that he is the most brutal enforcer among them. Gallantandregal enjoys his job, gets paid well for it, and has an endless stream of refugees to choose from. It’s almost certain that he and his ilk are still at it today.
Unjust? You bet. Jacob Weber’s stories capture life as it is, in which there aren’t always good guys and bad guys, and even when there are, the bad guys don’t always get what’s coming to them. It doesn’t matter, though; Weber makes you want to read about them all.
Note: While you’re waiting for Don’t Wait to Be Called to download to your e-reader or show up in your mailbox, you’ll want to check out Weber’s short story, “Directions, Partially Step-by-Step,” which appeared in the January 8th edition of Drunk Monkeys.
The first thing that intrigued me about the novel I’m about to review was the title: The Book That Matters Most. With all the great books in the world, choosing one that matters most seems nearly impossible, so I was curious to see where the author would lead me. The second thing that intrigued me was the main character, Ava, whose husband has recently left her for a woman who attempts to personalize public places by covering objects with colorful yarn.
But the deeper I got into the novel, I found I was most captivated by the idea that novels have the power to change lives. I’ve written before about the way fiction can decrease readers’ needs to reach quick conclusions in their thinking and to avoid ambiguity and confusion. (“Can Reading Fiction Make You Smarter?”) I’ve also read a great deal about fiction’s ability to inspire readers with empathy for others. But actually change somebody’s life?
Author Ann Hood supports this premise with characters in a book club. Lonely and heartbroken about her husband, Ava begs her best friend to let her know if an opening comes up in the friend’s book club. When a place finally opens, the theme for books to be read that year is “the book that matters most,” and each member must name the book that fills that role for him or her. The list of books selected hooked me totally because it includes the two novels that obsessed me in my youth: To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I don’t know if I would say these books matter most or that they changed my life, but I’ve read them so many times I can quote passages and give detailed descriptions of scenes, so they mean something to me.
Other books the club chooses include Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Catcher in the Rye, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Slaughterhouse-Five.
When Ava’s turn comes to name a book, she’s totally unprepared, and the only book that comes to mind is a novel from her childhood: From Clare to Here. Nobody in the club has heard of it, and nobody can find a copy anywhere. And thus begins Ava’s journey into dark places of her life she thought she’d left behind.
Hood does an excellent job weaving Ava’s history in with her current involvement with the book club and the books they read. Ava remembers she first read From Clare to Here shortly after the first anniversary of her younger sister’s death and a few weeks after her mother jumped off a bridge and was presumed dead. She read it over and over and felt as if it had been written just for her.
In the current story Ava not only mourns the break-up of her marriage but also worries about her adult daughter, Maggie, who has left school in Florence to flee to Paris where she becomes the mistress of an older man. The chapters told from Maggie’s point of view were hard for me to read because they describe the way Maggie’s new lover leads her into heroin addiction and her struggle to escape. But even this difficult experience eventually intertwines with From Clare to Here.
At the book club, Hood uses the novels the members choose to reveal elements of their character and includes appropriate quotes from each book at the beginning of each section. The quote she offers from To Kill a Mockingbird is especially appropriate, not only for its section but for the entire book:
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
Hood has created a celebration of literature, and I recommend it highly. I promise it will make you want to decide which book matters most to you.
As a transplanted but still loyal New Jerseyite, I was skeptical when a friend recommended Richard Ford’s book Let Me Be Frank with You as a humorous take on Hurricane Sandy. I couldn’t imagine anything funny about the storm that leveled large swaths of my former state, but I was curious to see how anyone could. While I differ with her characterization of this as a humorous take, I wholeheartedly agree with her recommendation of this book.
Let Me Be Frank with You is humorous the way Chaplin’s Little Tramp was humorous, the way Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is humorous, and the way life is humorous. There’s artistry in blending the bitter and the sweet, and Ford is a master at it.
The book begins two weeks before Christmas 2012, eight weeks after Hurricane Sandy walloped the New Jersey Shore. Frank Bascombe, the main character and narrator, drives to the Shore to meet the man who’d bought his house there eight years earlier and to see what, if anything, survived the storm. The opening lines set the mood:
“Strange fragrances ride the twitchy, wintry air at The Shore this morning. … Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.”
“It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and re-hab. Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, singing sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits.”
New Jersey has been the landscape for Ford’s three Frank Bascombe novels—The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. Let Me Be Frank with You, which Ford calls “a Frank Bascombe Book,” is made up of four linked short stories.
In the first, “I’m Here,” we see that Bascombe’s diminished home state reflects his own mood. To him, “Life’s a matter of gradual subtraction.”
Bascombe is the same thoughtful, if acerbic and droll, man that he was in the earlier books, but he’s older and has more to ponder. He was thirty in The Sportswriter and is now sixty-eight, somewhat shrunken, just like his former house and his home state. Bascombe says little but thinks a lot. A casual acquaintance would be startled at how reflective he is.
In “I’m Here,” he walks along the beach and wonders if he’ll fall. He thinks:
“I feel a need to more consciously pick my feet up when I walk — ‘the gramps shuffle’ being the unmaskable, final-journey approach signal. It’ll also keep me from falling down and busting my ass. What is it about falling? ‘He died of a fall.’ … Is it farther to the ground than it used to be? In years gone by I’d fall on the ice, hop back up, and never think a thought. Now it’s a death sentence. … Why am I more worried about [falling] than whether there’s an afterlife?”
Bascombe describes himself as “a member of the clean-desk demographic, freed to do unalloyed good in the world, should I choose to.” He chooses to, though he doesn’t seem to realize it. The thrust of each of the four stories is the help he gives, though often begrudgingly.
In the second story, he welcomes into his current house a woman who’d lived there until she was nearly seventeen. As they talk, both unsure about whether she’ll reveal her story, she says:
“‘We seem to need to know everything, don’t we?’”
“‘You’re the history teacher,’” I said. Though of course I was violating the belief-tenet on which I’ve staked much of my life: better not to know many things. Full disclosure is the myth of the fretting classes.”
In the third story he visits an assisted-living facility to bring an orthopedic pillow to his ex-wife who’s suffering from Parkinson’s. In the final story he visits someone he knew from a Divorced Men’s Club who’s on his death bed and wants to confess to him. Both are reluctant visits.
He reads to the blind, greets veterans returning from overseas combat, and writes a monthly column called “What Makes That News?” for the We Salute You magazine that his group gives to the returning troops. The column, which he signs HLM—as in H. L. Mencken, perhaps?—illustrates that “some of the idiotic stuff in the news can be actually hilarious, so that suicide can be postponed to a later date.”
Bascombe reveals his doubts to us readers, but the other characters in the book are not privy to them or his reflections. He tells us, “we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that.”
He’s reflective, smart, a bit cynical, and, in the main, a good man. He’d probably be surprised to hear me say that. If you read Let Me Be Frank with You or Ford’s other Bascombe books, which I also recommend, I think you’ll agree with me.
After years of neglect, I decided to try to read all three volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. How depressing it was to discover a bookmark towards the end of Volume 2. I had no memory of making it so far. I also had virtually no memory of anytihng I had read.
Just over a week ago I was reading a column in the magazine of the Expresso, a Portuguese newspaper, by Ana Cristina Leonardo, whom I appreciate for her ironic wit and culture. It was called ‘Curses and Poor Diction’ (in Portuguese, the title was the far more euphonic ‘Maldições e Más Dicções’) in which, as a relief from what she called ‘interesting matters’ (which I took to mean idiotically fashionable or politically correct terminology), she recommended the novel Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. As I happened to have a copy unread on my shelves, in English, I plunged into it, and am glad I did.
Barbara Pym’s name is not well-known in the States these days, if indeed it is even in England, her home country. And yet it deserves to be. In the late 1970s, when the novelist had been out of print for some fourteen years, she was ‘rediscovered’ by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, who declared her the most underrated writer of the century. They may well be right. Excellent Women is a great comic achievement.
At first sight, it’s an old-fashioned novel of manners, much in the style of Jane Austen, with a first-person female narrator whose self-deprecating voice belies a sharp eye and an acerbic wit. Mildred is a single woman in her early thirties, who regards herself as plain, and is quite content to live alone, although naturally enough, in mid-century England, her friends all think she must want to be married. Her best friend Dora, whom she’s known since boarding-school (the characters are all middle-class, ‘genteel’ but not wealthy), believes that she should marry her—Dora’s—brother, William (a boring and self-centred man). Mildred is an enthusiastic church-goer, and friends with Father Julian Mallory and his sister Winifred—who hopes that Mildred will marry her forty-year old bachelor brother. But the ‘inciting incident’ of the novel, which sets the real conflicts in motion, is when Helena, a female anthropologist of liberated views, moves into the adjoining flat with her naval officer husband, Rockingham or ‘Rocky’—a libidinous and charming man, who already has a history of conquests of Wren officers (female navy officers). Mildred promptly falls in love with him, although she never explicitly says so, and although he flirts with her—his own wife is having an affair with another anthropologist, the improbably and almost obscenely named Everard Bone—Mildred is constrained by the knowledge that he is married, and by her religious views. Still, when Rocky and Helena break up, it seems the way is open. Rocky even invites Mildred to stay at his country cottage. Everard also appears to be interested in her. And although the priest seems to be snapped up when he gets engaged to Allegra Gray, a ‘merry widow’, it becomes clear that he may be wondering whether Mildred was a better bet. In a sense, then, as in Austen’s novels, the dramatic question is: who will the heroine marry? But we’re no longer in Austen’s world, and if mid-twentieth century England appears inconceivably archaic to contemporary eyes, it’s clear that women with jobs (Mildred works for a charity for distressed gentlewomen) have more freedom than the heroines of Georgian England.
As A.N. Wilson says, this is a quiet novel, and one which might, at first sight, appear irrelevant to the modern woman or man. There is no violent action, or even violent speech—these characters have all been brought up to be gentlemen and ladies, and although their behaviour isn’t always impeccable, their manners are. And many of the attitudes of the characters (not necessarily those of the author, it goes without saying) appear quaint and absurdly archaic, such as when Mildred is shocked, or at least says she is, when her neighbour says she’s too busy to cook for her husband. And yet the novel is hilarious, and even, if not in an obvious way, feminist: Mildred sees clearly the hypocrisy of society, especially male society, with regard to ‘excellent women’—that is, those women who are not glamorous like her neighbour or Mrs. Gray, but are deemed worthy of being useful—of doing good works for the church and community, and (of course) providing food and tea and comfort for men.
This is one of those novels that doesn’t fare well in summary—imagine having to give the idiotic ‘elevator pitch’ to an agent or editor—and yet it’s far better than my inadequate sketch might suggest. For a start, the ironic humour, which is one of the most defining features of English literary fiction, is a delight—and, as Wilson points out, unlike much humour, these characters are believable, not caricatures. Second, there’s real suspense. At one point Mildred seems to have her choice of three men, each of them highly eligible in different ways, and we wonder which, if any, she will take. But we shouldn’t be fooled by the humour into thinking that the novel is slight. What’s at stake here is not merely marriage, but the meaning of life itself—is it love, as the romantic novel insists? Or something else? Or may there be no meaning at all? (Bear in mind that Larkin was a great admirer of Pym’s fiction, and eventually became a close friend.) Beneath the comedy lurk existential questions worthy of Milan Kundera or Graham Greene.
Finally, I find, perhaps inevitably, that I’m led to some dangerous conclusions. (I’m aware that any man who risks making pronouncements on anything to do with women risks opprobrium—but when it comes to literature, I find I can’t help myself.) Of course no contemporary woman is nostalgic for the mid-twentieth century, when men so often took women for granted and treated them—the attractive ones, at any rate—as objects of desire. Still, among all the strident voices one hears in the gender wars nowadays (and I use the adjective deliberately, aware that it’s often proscribed as misogynist—but why not use it, since there are strident voices on both—or should I say all?—sides?) one is struck by the quietness and politeness of Pym’s voice, which is, however, far from weak. One is struck by her irony and self-deprecation, in contrast to the ferocious and self-righteous rhetoric (on all sides) in the current debates. And although I’m aware that terms like ‘gentleman’ and ‘lady’ are politically incorrect now, indicative as they are held to be of a patriarchal and patronising attitude, still one is struck that however the men in Excellent Women take the women for granted, there’s no sexual harassment, let alone assault. One wonders what women may have lost, along with what they’ve obviously gained. This is not to advocate a return to more conservative values, of course. But I am certainly advocating a return to some of the great female writers of the past century, among them Barbara Pym. We could learn much from those old ladies, as they would certainly have described themselves. Excellent women, indeed.
Thrillers tend to be plot heavy and character thin. Usually, however, the primary protagonist is more complex by necessity since he must drive the plot like a race driver behind a Peugot.
Gabriel Farago’s history based thriller, The Empress Holds the Key, is unusual in that instead of a single protagonist, he gives us at least half a dozen main characters. As a result, each character of necessity is secondary to the underlying story, which is not always a blessing.
In several instances Farago’s plot moves past a character so fast loose ends are left behind. Jack Rogan, an investigative reporter, seems to be the primary protagonist early on along with Jana, a woman he dated in the past and who comes back in his life with a case that interests both. Someone is out to hurt Jack for a reason he either doesn’t know or refuses to share with Jana. His car is scratched and side-swipped, and when that doesn’t scare him off, he’s beaten up so badly he’s hospitalized. Then two inexplicable things happen: Jack submits an investigative piece from his hospital bed despite suffering from a concussion and broken bones and Farago never explains who did it or why.
With Jack out of the way (for the moment), we think Jana is the novel’s protagonist, but her turn passes to an attorney who is an amateur Egyptologist, who then shares the stage with a violinist composer who is a Holocaust survivor. Additional point-of-view characters include a Egyptian police detective and several of the antagonists.
In addition to Nazis, Holocaust victims, Vatican officials, Islamic terrorists, and Knights of the Templar, there are plenty of minor characters who come and go––sometimes quite violently.
As for the plot, which begins with the discovery of artifacts that link a prominent Australian banker to Nazi Germany, the story’s complexity often gets in the way of logic.
What makes the story even more complex is that we’re several hundred pages in before we discover that the story revolves around a search for the tablets on which Moses wrote the ten commandments.
Needless to say, Farago strains logic from time to time in order to make it all hang from the same hook. The most extreme example is the violinist/composer’s origins and connection to the underlying mystery. It seems he’s not really Jewish after all since his father was a Catholic priest who sent his son to be raised by a Jewish family with a secret that he didn’t know he was carrying.
Here’s how the author explained the connection to me in a private email: “The Abbé Berenger Diderot is a central character. He is a French priest who discovered the famous Templar archives hidden in his church in the 1890’s. . . Diderot had an affair with a famous French opera singer, Francine Bijoux, and they had a son – also called Berenger after his father. The boy was put up for adoption and ended up with a Russian Jewish couple, the Krakowskis. . . Berenger Krakowski is the father of another one of the central characters, Benjamin Krakowski, the famous violin virtuoso and composer, who escaped from the German concentration camp with his brother.”
After you’ve memorized the above, you still may get hung up on Farago’s method of disposing of characters. Jewish characters in particular are vulnerable to quick demise. There’s the Holocaust survivor who falls asleep while Jack and Jana interview her, the Jewish husband of the Nazi’s daughter who disappeared, and the Jewish clock repairman who is executed by the Austrian police for reasons it’s hard to fathom.
Now for the good news. Farago has put a lot of research into this story in order to create an aura of plausibility; he also writes well. I didn’t encounter any typos or grammatical errors. So, if you aren’t bothered by twists that occasionally miss their turn, you probably enjoy the ride. Thrillers after all are supposed to take you to another reality. To that extent, Farago succeeds.
Among books I pulled off my shelves in search of especially interesting beginnings, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men struck me not only because it’s captivating but because it captivates by description. I must warn the reader, however, that this 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is set primarily in the U.S. South between the two world wars, and its first-person narrator employs racist slurs as a matter of course. But, really, isn’t it better that we face our heritage as a country of slavery and racism?
So if you are willing to accept being shown in the national mirror something we are collectively ashamed of, I ask whether you’ve ever read better descriptive prose than Warren’s beginning of All the King’s Men or whether you’ve ever been more drawn into a book by a descriptive beginning?
I’m reading mysteries featuring elderly sleuths, and I’m looking for descriptions that allow the elderly to be whole, able, and alert. No other will do. My own cozy mystery series features the 90-year-olds at Whisperwood Retirement Village, and my characters are able, alert, and active as are many 90-year-olds and 100-year-olds.
As the critique group of my first manuscript read and commented on it, I was appalled at what they said. They wanted me to present the elderly, or rather, the perennials, using all the stereotypes of the elderly, when I am pulling for a better reality. Have you seen 90-year-old Dick Van Dyke dancing with his wife on YouTube?
So I began collecting articles about people in their 90s and 100s who are running marathons, winning tennis matches and canoeing races, even learning how to read for the first time. I also googled elderly sleuths. I found one cozy mystery site that listed 104 authors who write mysteries featuring an elderly sleuth. Some of the elderly sleuths are well-known like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Polifax, and Donald Bain’s Jessica Fletcher. I’m starting my way down the list to read at least one of each series. First up is Peter F. Abresch who writes the James P. Dandy Elderhostel (Elderhostel is now called Road Scholar) Mystery Series.
I just completed her latest novel, Improvement, and it is a stunning work, full of subtlety and insight, conveying an understanding of how ordinary people struggle to make something of their lives. Politicians who want to connect with “real” Americans would have a better chance of doing so if they studied Silber’s work, beginning with Improvement.
Reviews often describe this novel as one of linked short stories, but I don’t think that’s fair. While most of the chapters can stand on their own (and some were published that way), they are more linear and more intertwined than the linked-story novels you may be used to (think Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible or Olive Kitteridge). In Silber’s novel, you have to consider the stories together to appreciate the rich tapestry that Silber has created. The technique is particularly effective in her hands. Each chapter allows her to focus on–and fully explore–a single character, but too much is lost if you don’t consider how those individual lives affect the people around them.
The key character is Reyna, a single mother of a four-year-old, whom we first see as she treks each week from Brooklyn to Rikers Island to see Boyd, a boyfriend who is doing a short jail stint for a minor drug offense. When he gets out, their relationship reignites in every way, but it can’t last, largely because Boyd hangs with the wrong crowd and can’t steer clear of the law. When Reyna is enlisted to help, everything goes wrong, including their relationship.
Then there is Kiki, Reyna’s scolding, sixty-something godmother. Kiki has an interesting backstory that fills a couple of the chapters. As a young woman in the 1970s, she left her family in New York for Turkey and ends up marrying a carpet merchant. They’re happy for a few years, but before long, Kiki gets bored and eventually returns to New York, alone and mostly happy and close by for Reyna.
The novel is alive with other vibrant characters: Darisse, another struggling single mom, works as a home health care aide, kind and tender with her patients despite her troubled personal life. She can’t understand why her greatest love, Claude, stood her up and won’t return her texts and calls. Hers is the kind of world where no one would know to tell her that Claude is dead.
Lynnette, Claude’s sister and closest companion, struggles with her sibling grief, both because of genuine love and because her brother’s death seems to mean the end of her dream to go into business with Claude, who has promised to use his share of the illegal loot to set her up with her own nail salon.
One of my favorite chapters is about Teddy, a 57-year-old truck driver whose guilt over Claude’s death contributes to the end of the affair he’s been having with his ex-wife. Teddy has trouble coming to terms with his role in Claude’s death as well as his role in the death of his first marriage (and maybe the second).
Improvement proves to be the perfect title for this book. It’s the elusive goal that all the characters are striving for, though it takes many forms—domestic, financial, romantic, and professional. Silber is particularly good at exploring her characters’ personal relationships—with all their needs, joys, frustrations, and fulfillments. She often challenges the reader to separate fact from what her characters believe is fact. She drives the challenge home when one character’s life is turned around by an anonymous gift that she wrongly believes comes from an ex-lover. Knowing he’s still keeping an eye out for her welfare powers her personal improvement, even as the reader knows she’s mistaken.
At 72, Silber has written at least three great books, according to Washington Post critic Charles Finch, whose review of Improvement first brought her to my attention. I found Fools, a book of more loosely linked short stories, somewhat uneven, with the stories ranging from superb to just good. Like Fools, the third book mentioned by Finch, Ideas of Heaven, was a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s next up on my list.
The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, translated by Philip Simpson, Penguin Books, 2016
A former Israeli intelligence officer, Yiftach Reicher Atir gives us a novel of a young woman recruited into the Israeli Intelligence Service–the Mossad––based on his vast experience. In a foreword, he describes the novel as “the true story of what never happened.” In other words, it is true in the sense that this is how the Mossad operates and how lives can be shaped by their methods.
One might expect such a novel to be exciting––a page turner. It is not. The problem is instead of telling it largely from the point of view of the primary character—the young woman, Reicher Atir tells the story from too many viewpoints including at times himself as the author. This creates distance between the reader and the characters. As a result, we don’t care as deeply about the young woman as we might have.
The bulk of the novel is told about Rachel by her handler, a Mossad agent named Ehud. Rachel has gone missing fifteen years after completing her mission and leaving the service. They fear she will spill the beans––tell the truth about events they don’t want revealed––and so they bring Ehud back to help them hunt her down.
Over half of the book is Ehud telling her story with only a few pages from Rachel’s viewpoint. As a result, when he reaches the story’s climax, Reicher Atir has to try to convince us that we should empathize with Rachel and understand her motives. It’s too little too late.
As readers we can’t be expected to sympathize with characters because of their roles. They have to come alive as individuals. Neither Rachel nor Ehud come alive for me. She succumbs to her loneliness as a spy in an Arab country by falling in love with a man she is teaching English to. I can buy that, but not her thinking fifteen years after being pulled out that she can go back and reignite that flame. Ehud had strong feelings for Rachel during the years he was her handler, but now in this moment of crisis he thinks those feelings will be enough to save her. Ehud is pathetic, not sympathetic.
The English Teacher may have been a hit in Israel where the Mossad’s role is crucial to the country’s survival, but in the rest of the world, where people do not have such a strong identification with that organization, a story about the Mossad has to win us over––not assume we’re on board. In contrast to Reicher Atir’s approach, Daniel Silva’s stories about Mossad agent Gabriel Allon come alive. We care about Allon because Silva helps us feel the agony of the life-threatening dilemmas and hard choices he faces. No doubt Reicher Atir would say Silva’s Mossad is not realistic, but readers are not primarily interested in realism. The want a good story with characters they care about. Reicher Atir needs to learn that lesson.