Wednesday, December 30, 2015

So You Don't get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano

In his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in 2014, Patrick Modiano has spun an absorbing tale of mystery and suspense.  He is a French novelist who also won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2012 and the 2010 Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca from the Institute of France for lifetime achievement.  His other prestigious awards include the Prix Goncourt  The Street of Obscure Boutiques in 1978 and the 1972 Grand Prix du Roman de L’Académie for Ring Road.  His work has been translated into more than 30 languages.  Most of his novels had not been translated into English until he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Jean Daragane is a novelist who is in a funk and living as a recluse in Paris.  One day he discovers he has lost his address book, and he receives a phone call from a stranger, who found the book in a train station.  His first thought is blackmail, but he agrees to meet the caller, Gilles Ottolini, who brings a woman friend, Chantel Grippay.  Jean retrieves the book and leaves.  The next day, Gilles calls again, and wants to talk about an entry in the address book – Guy Torstell.  Jean has no memory of who this man is or even why he is in his address book.  Gilles reveals Jean also used the name in his first novel, 30 years ago.  The mystery thickens when Jean receives a call from Chantell and reveals several apparently coincidental items, which connect Gilles and Jean.  The next day, Chantel calls Jean, and ask him to meet at her apartment.  Modiano writes, “She leant over to him, and her face was so close to his that he noticed a tiny scar on her left cheek.  Le Tremblay.  Chantel.  Square de Graisvaudan.  These words had traveled a long way.  An insect bite, , very slight to begin with, and it causes you an increasingly sharp pain, and very soon a feeling of being torn apart.  The present and the past merge together, and that seems quite natural because they were only separated by a cellophane partition.  An insect bite was all it took to pierce the cellophane.  He could not be sure of the year, but he was very young, in a room as small as this one with a girl called Chantel – a fairly common name at the time.  The husband of this Chantel, on Paul, and other friends of theirs had set off as they always did on Saturdays to gamble in the casinos on the outskirts of Paris: […] and they came back the following day with a bit of money.  He, Daragane, and this Chantel, spent the entire night together in this room in square du Graisvaudan until the others returned.  Paul, the husband, also used to go to race meetings.  A gambler.  With him it was not merely a matter of doubling up on your losses” (31-32). 

As Modiano expands on this peculiar web of coincidences, the suspense rises.  Chantel gives Jean copies of notes for an article about Tostel.  It is not apparent that she had permission to do so.  Later, Jean examines the copies, and notices a passage from his first novel, Summer Night.  Modiano reads from his novel, “In the Galeris de Beaujolais, there was indeed a bookshop behind whose window some art books were displayed.  He went in.  S dark-haired woman was sitting at her desk. //.  ‘I should like to talk to Monsieur Morihien.’ // Monsieur Morihien is away,’ She told him.  “But would you like to speak to Monsieur Torstel?’” (41).  The tenuous threads, which hold this story together, create a tale of mystery and suspense, which you can finish in a day.

The more clues Patrick Modiano supplies, the more mysterious the story becomes.  So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood is a good introduction to a writer for those interested in a good mystery mixed with fine literary fiction.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/29/15

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill has numerous nominations for book awards, including the Pen/Faulkner and the National Book award.  Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, and The best American Short Stories in 1993, 2006, and 2012.  She also won an O. Henry Prize in 1998.  Her novels involve emotional relationships and family tragedies.  These poignant stories never fail to touch the heart.  Her latest novel, The Mare, is a lovely story of a woman who has suffered a loss, but finds comfort in hosting a young, inner city girl who manages to bond with a dangerous horse.  Ginger, the woman, Velvet, the young girl, and Fugly Girl, the horse, all suffered abuse.  The story is told in parts by all the main characters, each of whom narrates their own chapters.

Ginger and her husband agree to accept Velvet for a two-week sting in upstate New York through the “Fresh Air Fund” sponsored by The New York Times.  In a chapter narrated by Velvet, she describes their first meeting.  “They said they were Ginger and Paul.  They took me to their car.  We drove past lots of houses with flowers and bushes in front of them.  In the city, when the sky is bright, it makes everything harder on their edges; here everything was soft and shiny, too, like a picture book of Easter eggs and rabbits I read in the third grade when I was sick on the nurse’s station cot.  I loved that book so much I stole it from the nurse’s station, and the next time I was sick, I took it out and looked at it, and it made me feel better even though by then I was too old for it.  I don’t have it anymore; probably my mom threw it out when we moved” (20).  This stark contrast between Crown Heights in Brooklyn and rural New York is a thread which wends its way through the entire novel.

Ginger is in successful recovery from alcoholism when she met Paul.  They soon married and decided to have a child.  Gaitskill writes, “I didn’t get pregnant.  Instead my sister Melinda died.  I know the two things do not go together.  But in my mind they do.  My sister lived in Cleveland, Ohio.  She had been sick a long time; she had so many things wrong with her that nobody wanted to think about her, including me.  She was drunk and mean and crazy and would call saying [obscenities] in the middle of the night” (10).  This might appear to be depressing and morbid, but the silver lining of the relationship between Ginger and Velvet rose to a level of poignancy rarely encountered.

Fugly Girl suffered from the same type of verbal abuse as Velvet does from her mother.  The girl and the dangerous horse developed an emotional attachment.  On their third encounter Gaitskill writes, “I came home early and went to talk to Fugly Girl.  Pat [the stable owner] pretended not to see me leaning right up against the door of her stall.  The horse came to me and stretched her head out like she wanted some apple, but when she saw I didn’t have anything, she stayed still and licked her stall, like thoughtfully.  I asked her if I could touch her nose for courage.  She looked down, Oh, all right – and flared it open; quickly I kissed it” (48).  That scene, that small victory of acceptance, was, probably the first shining moment in that twelve-year-olds dark life.

Mary Gaitskill has written a novel of emotions we all face: acceptance and rejection, love and hate, tenderness and depravity.  Even Ginger faces emotionally damaging incidents from her past.  IN the end, The Mare is a novel of love and bonding and overcoming obstacles to happiness.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/26/15

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days by Salman Rushdie

By all means do not allow the reputation of Salman Rushdie prevent you from reading his latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days.  Like all his works – with the possible exception of The Satanic Verses – his latest novel contains jokes, puns, humor, and erudition of every sort.  According to his website, Rushdie has won numerous awards from around the world, including the U.S., France, Germany, The European Union, Mexico, Italy, Hungary, and India, to name only a few.  He holds honorary doctorates and fellowships at six European and six American universities, is an Honorary Professor in the Humanities at M.I.T, and University Distinguished Professor at Emory University.  His list of humanitarian and cultural awards from around the world is equally impressive.  His Booker Prize winning novel, Midnight’s Children, was adapted for the stage in London and New York, and by a public vote, the novel was overwhelmingly named the “Best of the Booker.”  It was also turned into a film and translated into forty languages.  Only the Nobel Prize eludes him, which, in my opinion, stems from the unfortunate uproar surrounding the publication of Satanic Verses.  He is truly an international literary treasure.

Deep in to the novel, Rushdie provides an interesting theory of “story.”  He writes, “We tell this story still as it has come down to us through many retellings, mouth to ear, ear to mouth, both the story and the poisoned box and the stories it contained, in which the poison was concealed.  This is what stories are, experience retold by many tongues, to which, sometimes, we give a single name, Homer, Valmiki, Vyasa, Schererzade.  We, for our own part, simply call ourselves ‘we.’  ‘We’ are the creature that tells itself stories to understand what sort of creature it is.  As they pass down to us the stories lift themselves away from time and place, losing the specificity of their beginnings, but gaining the purity of essences, of being simply themselves.  And by extension, or by the same token, as we like to say, though we do not know what the token is or was, these stories become what we know, what we understand, and what we are, or, perhaps we should say, what we have become, or can perhaps be” (182-183).

Admittedly, reading Rushdie requires great concentration, lest the reader miss out on all the fun.  My review will concentrate only on the second chapter, which has all his powerful attributes at full strength.  The novel revolves around the tales in the style of the thousand and one tales of Scheherazade; that is, the story of a jinniri, Dunia, who slipped between worlds and interacted with ordinary mortals.  Some of these jinni (male) or jinniri (female), were good, some evil, but all were mischievous.  Ibn Rushd fell under the spell of the princess of the jinniri, and she produced thousands of children, all of whom had no earlobes.  Her group of jinniri were known as Duniazát, and Rushd forbade her to take his name for any of the children.  Hundreds of years later, a descendant of Dunia, Raphael Heironymus Manzes known as Mr. Geronimo Manzes, had no earlobes.  When the slit between the worlds opened again, jinni and jinniri poured into our world, wreaking havoc known as “The Strangenesses.”  Geronimo was affected when he suddenly found himself unable to touch the ground with any part of his body.  He had been away many years, and found the new Bombay – Mumbai – dramatically different.  Rushdie writes, “It was the garden that spoke to Geronimo.  It seemed to be clawing at the house, snaking its way inside, trying to destroy the barriers that separated the exterior space from the interior.  In the upper regions of the house, flowers and grass successfully surmounted its walls, and the floor became a lawn.  He left that place knowing he no longer wanted to be an architect.  […] Manzes made his way to Kyoto in Japan and sat at the feet of the great horticulturist Ryonosuke Shimura, who taught him that the garden was the outward expression of inner truth, the place where the dreams of our childhoods collided with the archetypes of our cultures, and created beauty” (35).  

Salman Rushdie’s intellectual allegory, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days, brings to one time and place – the present – and lays all the problems and difficulties we face from climate change to financial collapse at the feet of the jinni and jinniri.  The web of “Magic Realism” stories Rushdie has spun will enchant and dismay at times, but those tales will always intrigue.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/18/15

The Blue Guitar by John Banville

Banville recently turned 70, but there is no sign of his slowing down the writing of the marvelous novels which made him famous.  John claims influence from James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Franz Kafka among others.  He captured the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea – my introduction to this erudite and clever writer.  I never fail to learn several new words from his novels, The Blue Guitar included.  A sixteenth novel has recently been published.  He is quickly becoming my favorite writer for a whole host of reasons.

Typically, his novels delve into the psyche of his characters, which results in a rich and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.  Here Banville describes Gloria, wife of Oliver Orme Orway, the narrator, “Gloria was her usual glorious self, a big bright beauty shedding radiance all around her.  And, my God, but my wife was magnificent that day, as indeed she always is.  At thirty-five she has attained the full splendor or maturity.  I think of her in terms of various metals, gold, of course, because of her hair, and silver for her skin, but there is something in her too of the opulence of brass and bronze: she has a wonderful shine to her, a stately glow.  In fact, she is a Tiepolo rather than a Manet type, one of the Venetian master’s Cleopatra, say, or his Beatrice of Burgundy” (10).  A quick search reveals the work of this master painter from eighteenth century Venice.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Oliver is a painter, but he has lost his muse, and despite pestering from his agent, he cannot bring himself to resume his chosen occupation.  He frequently refers to painters he admires and often speaks in metaphors about painting and artists.  Clearly, he has a passion for visual arts.  Banville writes, “I was rummaging among scores of old canvases stacked against the wall in a corner.  I hadn’t looked at them in a long time – couldn’t bear to – and they were dusty and draped with cobwebs.  I was after that still life I had been working on when I was overtaken by what I liked to call my conceptual catastrophe – how much nakedness they cover, the big words – and my resolve failed and I couldn’t go on painting, trying to paint” (62).

Banville always drives me to my dictionary to discover a whole slew of new – and sometimes archaic – vocabulary.  For example, in Blue Guitar, he uses “bibelot,” “coevals,” “hieratic,” “epicene,” “jourums,” “louche,” “cullion,” “plosive,” “knout,” “risibly,” “winceyette,” “moly,” “quaff,” “losel,” and several others I could not find.  Interesting words all -- and lots of fun looking them up!

John Banville also has written a number of detective/suspense novels under the pen name, Benjamin Black.  According to an interview in Publisher’s Weekly, Banville's stated ambition is to give his prose "the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has.”  Do not miss reading this marvelous writer, considered by many as THE master of English prose, before he wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, so you can say, “I read him when…”  The Blue Guitar would make a great place to begin.  5 Stars.

--Chiron, 12/17/15

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize for his splendid novel, The Sense of an Ending, which explores the memories a group of friends has upon the death of one of their number.  Barnes returns to that theme in Levels of Life.  In this essay, he explores the idea of two people coming together for the first time, and then how they are torn apart.  But the story is much more complicated than that,

The essay is divided into three parts – “The Sin of Height,” “On the Level,” and “The Loss of Depth.”  These three parts revolve around historical figures who came together in unique ways.  The first involves a photographer and the renowned 19th century actor, Sara Bernhardt.  Barnes provides an outline of the history of ballooning and early photography.  Colonel Fred Burnaby is an aeronautical enthusiast, and when he meets up with Sara Bernhardt, the world is changed.  Part Two continues with Burnaby and Bernhardt and the sudden collapse of their affair.  In Part Three, Barnes begins a lengthy meditation on life, love, and loss following the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008.

Barnes’ prose is vivid and heart rending.  He writes in part two, “We live on a flat, on the level, and yet – and so -- we aspire.  Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods.  Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love.  But when we soar, we can also crash.  There are few soft landings.  We may find ourselves bouncing across the ground with leg-fracturing force, dragged towards some foreign railway line.  Every love story is a potential grief story.  If not at first, then later.  If not for one, then for the other.  Sometimes, for both” (39).  His language is quite poetic.

In part three, he explores the meaning of loss.  Following condolences by a friend, Barnes writes, “The same friend, four years later, said, ‘I resent the fact that she’s become part of the past.’  If this isn’t yet true for me, the grammar, like everything else, has begun the shift: she exists not really in the present, not wholly in the past, but in some intermediate tense, the past-present.  Perhaps this is why I relish hearing even the slightest new thing about her: a previously unreported memory, a piece of advice she gave years ago, a flashback in ordinary animation.  I take surrogate pleasure in her appearances in other people’s dreams – how she behaves and is dressed, what she eats, how close she is now to how she was then; also whether I am there with her.  Such fugitive moments excite me, because they briefly re-anchor her in the present, rescue her from the past-present, and delay a little longer that inevitable slippage into the past historic” (117).

He provides an interesting quote from Dr. Samuel Johnson who, “well understood the ‘tormenting and harassing want’ of grief; and he warned against isolationism and withdrawal.  ‘An attempt to preserve life in a state of neutrality and indifference is unreasonable and vain.  If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention.’  But it doesn’t.  Nor do extreme measures, like the attempt to ‘drag [the heart] by force into scenes of merriment’; or its opposite, the attempt ‘to soothe it into tranquility by making it acquainted with miseries more dreadful and afflictive.’  For Johnson, only work and time mitigate grief.  ‘Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away’” (118).

I found Julian Barnes essay, The Levels of Life comforting.  I know I will face loss, and I will return to this interesting essay as an excellent companion through dark times.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/8/15

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

One fun source of books for my staggering TBR pile is Workman Publishing’s “Page a Day Calendar for readers.  Every morning I am greeted with a novel, biography, history, or poetry for my reading pleasure.  I knew about Kingsley Amis through the Booker Prize, which he won in 1996.  Lucky Jim is considered by many critics to be his best comic novel.

According to the biography in my copy, Kingsley Amis was a novelist, poet, and critic widely regarded as one of the greatest satiric writers of the 20th century.  He was born in suburban South London.  He attended St. John’s College, Oxford on a scholarship where he began a lifelong friendship with poet Philip Larkin.  He served in the British Armey during World War II, and upon his “demobbing” – as the English put it – he finished his degree and joined the faculty of the University College of Swansea in Wales.  Lucky Jim, his first novel, was published in 1954.  He also taught for a year at Princeton University.  Amis published 24 novels, including his Booker Prize winner, The Old Devils.  He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990.  He died in 1995. 

Lucky Jim is the story of Jim Dixon, a beleaguered lecturer of Medieval History.  Hanging onto his perch at an unnamed provincial university and capturing the girl of his dreams are his principle occupations.  Despite the age of this novel, it struck me as remarkably timely even today.  I place it on a shelf with other of my favorites set in academia, such as Beet, The English Major, Stoner, and Straight Man.

A cautionary word, the British humor is typically dry and requires some close attention to get the jokes.  Here is a sample of Amis describing a hangover: “He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning.  The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again.  A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse.  His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as a mausoleum.  During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run, and then been expertly beaten up by secret police.  He felt bad” (60).

In an introduction by the critic and writer, Keith Gessen, Jim Dixon is modeled on Philip Larkin.  When Amis sent the manuscript to his friend for comment, Larkin responded that he ought to make Dixon more like Amis.  A funny exchange ensued with a catalogue of faces Amis could use. 

Amis gave up teaching, because it interfered with his writing.  Eventually, Amis surpassed his friend Larkin in notoriety, and the two drifted apart, despite a dedication to Larkin.  Kingsley Amis’ debut novel, Lucky Jim, is a hilarious romp through academia in the aftermath of World War II, and Amis deserves the acclaim he garnered.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 12/3/15