Review 2179: A Shock

If I hadn’t been reading A Shock for my James Tait Black project, I certainly would not have picked it out based on its description on the back cover: “a rondel of interlocking stories . . . both deracinated and potent with place, druggy but shot through with a terrifying penetration of reality.” How pretentious.

The stories are unusually linked, by characters but also by stories told in a pub. Although I found some of them interesting, I did not find them emotionally engaging, and the explicit sex in some of them is not my thing.

Notice that I haven’t said what they are about. That’s because it’s hard to describe, and a short recap of each story wouldn’t help. Although not exactly magical realism, some of the stories, while apparently set in reality, become a little fantastical.

And that’s what I have to say about that.

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Review 2173: Iza’s Ballad

When Ettie Szȍcs’s husband Vince dies, she is terrified of being left alone in her house in the small town where they’ve lived for many years. So, she is relieved when her daughter Iza tells her Ettie will come to live with her in Pest, in her modern apartment. Iza has always been the light of her and Vince’s lives, a proud defender of her father as a child after he was dismissed from his position as a judge for political reasons, an excellent student who worked against the Nazis during the war, now a respected doctor, a post-Stalinist modern woman. Ettie also has an invitation to stay in her own house with Antal, her ex-son-in-law, who bought it. But even though she still treats Antal like a son, she pays little attention to his invitation. In fact, she is more than a little befuddled by grief.

Iza is self-assured and always tries to do the right thing. However, she allows her mother no input into her own fate. She arranges to sell her mother’s house to Antal and puts her mother on a train directly after the funeral, not even giving her time to attend the little gathering that was planned. When eventually Ettie arrives in Pest expecting to see her furniture and little keepsakes, she finds Iza has sold or given away most of her possessions.

Ettie just wants to be useful. Although a simple soul who is easily frightened, she is still an active woman in her 70’s who is used to doing everything for herself and her husband. In Pest, she thought she could cook and clean for her daughter, but Iza has a housekeeper and doesn’t want Ettie to interfere. Iza believes Ettie should be happy to relax, but Ettie literally has nothing to do.

Iza works hard and then wants time alone or with her friends. It takes a remark from Domokos, Iza’s lover, to make her realize that Ettie is lonely. But even when they try to arrange a treat for Ettie, it’s something they want to do rather than something that would please Ettie.

The introduction to the NYRB edition says the novel asks what to do with the old and talks about Ettie’s inability as a country person to adapt to the city, but I think this novel is more a character study of Iza, a person who always thinks she knows best and is blind to the feelings of others. Her marriage to Antal was her only failure, and she still doesn’t understand why he left, since he was clearly in love with her. It’s a fascinating but sad novel.

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Review 2168: The Deadman’s Pedal

I had a few thoughts when I began reading this novel that weren’t necessarily connected with how well I liked it. One was how much male writers and critics love coming of age stories, at least if they’re about boys. If they’re about boys, they’re literary fiction (hence the James Tait Black prize win). If they’re about girls, they’re women’s fiction. Take Philip Roth, for example. He’s written the same novel over and over, and back at the turn of the century, he was the only writer who appeared twice in Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best Books of the 20th century. This coming of age novel was one I read for my James Tait Black prize project.

My second observation was more personal. In the beginning of the novel there is some joking around between 15-year-old Simon Crimmons and his friends. Now, I know that at this age a lot of things are said between boys to impress each other, but I found the way they talked about girls disturbing. I actually asked my husband if when he was this age, boys talked this way, and he said no. But he would have been about ten years older than these boys at the time these scenes are set in 1973. Everything they said was so objectifying, it’s no wonder young girls have image problems.

Anyway, Simon is nearly 16 at the beginning of the novel and wants to quit school and get a job. His father owns a fleet of trucks, but Simon can’t work for him until he is 18, so he ends up accidentally applying for a railroad job. His parents are very much against his quitting school, but he is headstrong. Another title for this book might be “Adolescents Making Poor Decisions.”

Simon seems to be a grounded individual who knows who he is, but even as he is getting sexually involved with his girlfriend, Nikki, he meets Alexander and Varie Bultitude and is fascinated by them. They are the teenage children of the area aristocrats, and they seem much more fluid in nature, trying on the hippie look of the times. Simon and Alexander have books and music in common, but we get the sense that to Alexander, Simon is just a way to spend time while he’s home from school. Simon and Varie, on the other hand, have little in common. She’s interested in horses, geology, and the occult. But she is beautiful and he’s fascinated by her.

Much of the novel is about class. Simon complains once that he is too middle class for his fellow railroad workers and too working class for the Bultitudes. Varie is surprised to find he lives in the largest house in his village, and she mistakes his mother for the gardener. His parents have worked their way up from the working class and are dismayed to see him going back down.

Warner seems to have captured the banter of the railway men and the dynamics of small-town Scotland, remote Scotland, too, where they are nearly at the end of the railway line.

I became more interested in this novel when it moved away from Simon’s school friends, especially the frightful Galbraith, to the working world of the railroad. However, I wasn’t much interested in the adolescent obsession with sex.

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Review 2142: A Passage North

Readers looking for a fast-paced novel will not find one in Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North. Instead, they’ll experience a novel that’s meditative and introspective.

Krishan returned several years ago to his native Sri Lanka after living away in India during his education. He returned when his relationship with Anjum ended determined to help his people in northeastern Sri Lanka after the end of the Tamil rebellion. However, after two years, he has retreated to the city of Colombo, where he lives with his mother and grandmother.

At the beginning of the novel, he learns of the death of Rani, a woman who had been caring for his grandmother and had helped her come back from a mental and physical breakdown. Rani herself had been severely depressed after the death of both her sons as a result of the war, and the work with his grandmother had begun as a help to her state of mind as well as his grandmother’s comfort. However, after Rani returned for family business to her village in the northeast, she kept delaying her return and finally died by falling into a well.

Krishan decides to attend Rani’s funeral, and this long trip into the northeast of his country gives him ample opportunity to dissect his relationship with Anjum, his own motives in returning to Sri Lanka, the possibility of Rani’s suicide, and many other issues.

Arudpragasam likes long, involved sentences with many clauses, embedded in paragraphs that sometimes continue for pages. His prose is dreamy and meandering. Krishan spends so much of his energy considering all the ramifications of everything that even though he acts, he seems oddly inert.

I found the sections about the recent history of Sri Lanka very interesting, but Arudpragasam assumes a knowledge of the situation there that I do not have.

I read this book for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 2139: French Braid

In 2010, Serena and her boyfriend James run into her cousin Nicholas in the train station. James is surprised that Serena isn’t quite sure it is him and doesn’t seem to know much about her Uncle David’s family. French Braid explores the roots of this division in the family, beginning in the 50s or 60s.

It begins with a family vacation, the only one the family every took. Robin Garrett isn’t very at home on the lake. He is interested in gadgets but finally finds a fellow vacationer to talk to. Mercy Garrett gets preoccupied with her painting, and neither she nor Robin seem to think there is anything wrong with their 15-year-old daughter Lily hanging out with a college-age boy. Silly Lily thinks her new boyfriend is going to ask her to marry him. We see most of this holiday from the point of view of Alice, the older girl, who is worried about Lily. Mercy is at least attuned to her youngest, eight-year-old David, and notices that something has happened while Robin was teaching David to swim.

As with other Tyler books, the attention isn’t always focused on Alice. The next section is about Mercy and how she gains her independence after David leaves for college. Both his sisters are now married, but Lily has decided she picked the wrong man. Mercy looks for word from David, but he begins his separation right after he leaves for college, and we don’t find out why until the end of the novel.

Tyler employs some of her tropes here—the work-obsessed husband and the ditsy wife for one—and is occupied with the same generations she usually deals with. But her characterizations are always rich and empathetic, her stories always interesting. This one is right up there as she explores the intricate connections of family life.

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Review 2118: Afterlives

An interview I heard with Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah made me interested in reading his latest novel, Afterlives. This novel is set in what once was German East Africa, from the early 1900s to the 1950s.

At first, the novel seems rambling, beginning with one character then moving to another, reminding me a bit of Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, but Gurnah eventually returns to the characters he started with. This novel begins with Khalifa. In Gurnah’s fashion, we first hear all about Khalifa’s family and education before getting down to the story of how he goes to work for the merchant Amur Bi-ashara. They become close, and Khalifa marries Amur’s niece, Asha. Asha’s father was ruined before he died, and Amur bought the house they live in, but he promised the house to Asha. However, he dies before giving it to them, and his son, Nassor Bi-ashara, keeps it. Although Khalifa continues to work for Nassor, resentment is there.

The story moves to Ilyas, who arrives in town for work and befriends Khalifa. Ilyas was stolen away from his family as a child, and so after he is settled, he returns to his village to look for his family. His family is gone except for a much younger sister he didn’t know he had, Afujah, who is living with her uncle and being treated like a slave. Ilyas brings Afujah back to town to live with him for a year, but then he decides to join the askaris in the German army, so he takes her back to her uncle. There she is mistreated until she sends a message to Khalifa, who comes and takes her back to town.

We meet Hamza when he is serving as an askari just before and during World War I. This is the story in which the theme of colonialism really gets going. Hamza eventually meets Khalifa, but much else happens first.

Gurnah employs a detached tale-telling style, which I noticed bothered some Goodreads readers, but he is a true storyteller. The ending seemed a bit of an anticlimax but wrapped up all the story threads.

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Review 2066: The Candy House

The Candy House is billed as a follow-up to A Visit from the Goon Squad, but at first, aside from its structure as linked short stories, I wasn’t sure why. Bix, a wealthy high-tech entrepreneur, is not one of the characters from the original novel, I don’t think, nor is Alfred Nollander, whose quest for authenticity leads him to scream in public just so he can see the expressions on people’s faces. (Although later I realized he was a child in the first book.)

However, as I continued reading, I encountered familiar names and realized I was dealing mostly with descendants and connections of the original characters. A lot of the novel deals with social media run amok, a world where it is common for people to upload their unconsciousness to the internet using the software provided by Bix’s company, Mandala, and the opposition to this and other such practices by the company formed by Chris Salazar, the son of Benny of the previous book.

The novel doesn’t seem as experimental in form as the original, although there is a chapter constructed in Instant Messages and another of a recorded manual, but that’s really because Egan’s approach, which was unusual when the previous novel was published, is more common now. Set from the 1990s to roughly the 2030s, the novel is more futuristic.

Although I wasn’t blown away by this book as I was by its predecessor, I was happy to revisit the lives of its characters, all of whom eventually reappear, even those from the ridiculous tale that parodied the P. R. field. Another good one for Egan.

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Review 2012: Mohawk

The town of Mohawk, New York, seems very similar to Empire Falls, the setting of another Russo novel. It’s another rustbelt town on the skids supported by the leather industry, which is now being found responsible for polluting the town. Of Russo’s works, it is these tales of ordinary people in rustbelt towns that I think are best.

This novel centers mostly around one extended family but with plenty of auxiliary characters. Dallas Younger is a feckless, unreliable but kind mechanic divorced from Anne, who has moved back to Mohawk from New York largely because she’s in love with Dan Wood, the wheelchair-bound husband of her cousin. Anne’s father, Mather Grouse, is known for his upright life, but he has a secret involving Wild Bill Gaffney, a mentally handicapped young man who was in love with Anne when they were in high school.

Russo’s characters are flawed but mostly likable and fully realized. This novel has a complex plot that is masterfully handled. The novel skips from 1967, when Anne’s son Randall is unhappily attending middle school in Mohawk, trying to avoid a group of bullies and purposefully scoring a bit low on his homework because it doesn’t do to be so smart, to 1971 when he is 18, has quit college, and is avoiding the draft.

For a long time, I avoided reading Russo’s novels because they sounded depressing. They are not. Instead, they demonstrate a warm understanding of and fondness for human nature. This novel sustains me in my belief that his rustbelt novels are his best.

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Review 2009: The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a 12-year-old boy who spends most of his time on a Montana ranch mapping things. Not just making geological maps but mapping the everyday activities on the ranch—his sister’s technique of shucking corn, the regularity of his father’s sip of whiskey, as well as numerous scientific subjects. In fact, his mentor, Dr. Yorn, has encouraged him to submit drawings to various journals, and he has had some published.

T. S. does not feel comfortable at home. He is mocked by most of his schoolmates. He feels he is a disappointment to his rancher father, and his scientist mother, whom he calls Dr. Claire, seems to be completely obsessed by the search for a particular beetle. Worse, his oldest brother has recently died.

One day he gets a call from the Smithsonian. It appears that Dr. York submitted one of his diagrams as an entry in a prestigious fellowship and he has won. Dr. Jibsen, unaware of his age, informs him he is expected at the Smithsonian on Thursday to give a speech.

At first T. S. hesitates about accepting the award, but then he decides to go to Washington. He packs up some things and hops a freight train east.

Liberally decorated with T. S.’s drawings and musings, this novel is inventive and sometimes funny. In a way, it is meant as a wild romp with a philosophical dint, so maybe we’re meant to overlook the truly implausible aspects of the story, such as that a recipient of an important award would have someone on the Smithsonian end immediately organizing his flight.

I was drawn along at first and ready to suspend my disbelief, but first, what can your hero do while he spends several days on a freight train getting to Chicago. Nothing, right? If you are expecting a picaresque series of adventures like I was, you’ll be disappointed. But T. S. has brought along one of his mother’s notebooks, which is how he discovers she is writing a novel about one of his father’s ancestors. Larsen inserts the entire contents of the notebook into the middle of the novel, with a few interruptions. At first, it was interesting, but after a while I sighed every time I saw the typographic clue that the novel was restarting.

This is all fairly unimportant, though, against the criticism that T. S.’s voice is never convincing as that of a 12-year-old, genius or not. Yes, he is childish at times, but then his voice is much too young for a 12-year-old. But most of his musings and concerns are those of an adult.

Is the book fun to read? Yes, mostly. But I tired of it after a while.

I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1893: The Sidmouth Letters

I have a relatively uneasy relationship with short stories. They often leave me unsatisfied. However, I found most of the stories in The Sidmouth Letters fascinating. And, of course, since they’re written by Jane Gardam, they’re elegant.

Some of the stories are very satisfying:

  • In “The Tribute,” some women are trying to arrange a tribute for a deceased nanny who, their conversations reveal, was never paid, never left a pension, and not helped when her niece asked for assistance. One of her old charges has a surprise for them.
  • In “The Sidmouth Letters,” a woman gets a chance for revenge against her old professor who stole one of her papers to publish after granting her a poor degree.

Others provide unusual insight into relationships:

  • In “Hetty Sleeping,” Hetty finally wakes up from her infatuation with an old lover.
  • In “Transit Passengers,” a young man who thought he was in love loses interest.
  • The narrator in “For He Heard the Loud Bassoon,” a witness to a wedding, is left in an awkward situation.
  • “A Spot of Gothic” is an unexpected ghost story.

The only story I didn’t like very much was “The Great, Grand Soapwater Kick,” about a homeless woman who decides to take a bath.

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