Tag Archives: american fiction

A Dancer in the Dust by Thomas H. Cook

When I first came across a book from the author Thomas H Cook, I read that he is known for writing cerebral crime novels. That description got my attention, for while I thoroughly enjoy a good crime novel, I prefer my crime reads to be a little off-the-well-beaten track with more time spent on the why rather than the how. A Dancer in the Dust, my third Cook novel so far, concerns a murder that takes place in New York, and the novel begins with its narrator, Ray Campbell, returning to the African country of Lubanda as part of an unofficial investigation. Decades earlier, Ray, an idealistic Aid worker lived in Lubanda and fell in love with Martine, a female farmer. We don’t know the details of what happened, but we do know, within a few pages, that the western-supported president of Lubanda was deposed in a bloody coup led by the psychotic Abbo Mafumi who called himself “the Lion of God and Emperor of All Peoples.” Ray left his idealistic past far behind wrapped up in his memories of Lubanda, and now he works as a New York based risk management consultant. Ray lives in a “risk aversive world,” but all that changes when he’s contacted by Bill Hammond, a man he knew in Lubanda who now runs a charity trust.

He was now at the top of the heap, the Mansfield Trust being a kind of holding company for a large number of charitable institutions and NGOs. At its recommendation, billions in aid might or might not pour into an particular country.

With the death of Mafumi, Lubanda is again about to start receiving billions in aid money, but before Bill makes his decision to begin sinking money into Lubanda, there’s a “loose end” that bothers him. He’d been contacted by Seso, a refugee from Lubanda, now an African street vendor in New York. Seso asked for a meeting with Bill, but before that takes place, Seso is tortured and murdered Mafumi style. Bill asks Ray to assess the risk of giving money to the newly established Lubanda government by investigating the death of Seso, who was Ray’s employee in Lubanda twenty years earlier….

a dancer in the dustSo here we have our crime, the murder of a penniless African that takes place in New York. In due course, Ray finds himself on a plane back to Lubanda and all the painful memories he’s shoved aside come flooding back.

Everything had gone wrong. The three Cs of devastation: corruption, crime, chaos. Add the rampant spread od AIDS to that mix and the road to hell was fully paved. Of course, it was easy to lay all this at the foot of that fourth demonic C, colonialism.

The death of Seso is just the first crime in the book. Other crimes include reference to the atrocities of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo (Martine is of Belgian descent), and of course there’s also the bloody takeover of Lubanda by a psycho dictator who unleashes his frenzied army on the entire population. But at the heart of the novel is the story of yet another crime–Ray’s betrayal of Martine. Martine was born in Lubanda and so she considers herself Lubandan, yet when the political climate in the country shifts, Martine, who is white, is in the crosshairs of both the government that wants to grab her land, and the forces of Mafumi who want to see her destroyed. Ray is told to persuade Martine into accepting the government demand that she abandon growing crops that support the local economy and culture, and instead move to a crop that is supported by western aid.Ray’s best intentions lead to a horrific chain of events, and in a world in which there’s no room for principles, Ray spies on Martine and reports back her activities while Martine stands her ground and takes the ultimate risk.

While this is the story of how one man made some really bad decisions, in many ways  in his relationship with Martine, Ray is a symbol of western colonialism and exploitation of Africa. He wants Martine and is capable of doing some very underhand sneaky stuff to get his way, all in the name of the ‘best intentions.’  In the final analysis, he doesn’t understand Martine at all, and his desire for her blinds him to everything else. Ray’s self-serving plans backfire and lead to destruction. While he wants ‘what’s best’ for Martine, we can’t forget that this is a white American putting himself into the voting position of deciding what is best for Lubanda & what is ‘best’ for Martine when his stake in the country’s future is non-existent; he’s just a man passing through while Martine’s family has owned the farm for over 50 years. The morally complex plot examines many issues and on a meta level, the novel questions the well-worn model for African aid which breeds a system of unhealthy dependence.

A Dancer in the Dust has an elegiac tone laced with regret and memory. The novel questions the risk we take when taking a moral stand, and yet compromise is also not without risk. In spite of the fact that Ray is obviously damaged and never recovered from the decisions he made in Lubanda, he’s hard to like. There’s something a bit slippery about Ray and his actions, and while the novel doesn’t overwork this aspect of the plot, it’s there beneath the surface. The plot is occasionally heavy on metaphors & similes which weigh the novel down unnecessarily–the slow style conveys the moral heft of Ray’s decisions, and the metaphor/simile embellishments make the narrative voice sound pompous rather than sincere–although this may be the author’s intention. Ray, a morally rubbery man has managed to live with his actions and feels guilty about his choices while somehow skirting the essential core of desiring Martine so much, he was willing to destroy her.

Review copy.

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” (from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the debut novel from David Shafer pits three thirty-somethings against  ‘The Committee,’ a powerful, sinister organization that appears to infiltrate every layer of society.  While Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a techno-dystopian thriller, it’s a dark-mirrored reflection of the world as we know it–a world in which technology advances have eroded privacy–those aspects of our lives that we have not chosen to share with governments, mega-corporations and/or the world in general.  Novels in this genre take risks and often don’t work, but Shafer carries the day with spiky humour, salient, identifiable issues and realistic characters, normal people who find themselves fighting against the sinister committee. The novel begins very strongly indeed, and when plausibility is stretched a little as the plot deepens, I was happy to go along for the ride.

WTFThis is the kind of novel where discussing too much of the plot will spoil the experience for other readers, so instead I’ll stay on safer ground by focusing on characterization and the author’s tone and style. Readers should not read this with the expectation that all will be resolved (is there a sequel in the pipeline?), so the conclusion may prove frustrating.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (and you can’t miss what that stands for) should appeal to fans of Duane Swierczynski’s Charlie Hardie novels: Fun and Games, Hell and Gone, and Point and Shoot. Swierczynski’s trilogy begins with an overweight housesitter inadvertently stumbling across Hollywood Star Whackers. Each subsequent novel takes our hero deeper into a global conspiracy, and once you accept the initial premise, the impossible, the conspiracy theories, the shadowy power-brokers, our deepest fears and paranoias becomes strangely, and terrifyingly, possible, and that’s also the scenario with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

The novel begins by grounding us in the lives of three excellently drawn main characters: Leila, Mark and Leo–all in their 30s and all just a little bit lost when it comes to their place in the world. Persian-American Leila works in Myanmar with Helping Hands a “bush-league NGO.”  Intense and directed, she’s trying to establish a public health program but is making little headway when she stumbles across something she isn’t supposed to see. Bad things begin to happen to Leila and, more importantly, to her family back in America.  She’d chalk it all up to a horrible misunderstanding, some sort of error to be fixed with litigation,  but then she receives the tip that the actions against her family have been deliberately manufactured to divert her from asking questions.

Leo Crane, trust fund kid, failed bookshop owner (“he’d emptied his trust fund like a kid shaking a ceramic piggy bank,”) and fired daycare centre worker ends up in a strange rehab facility after his sisters jointly conduct an intervention. To Leo’s sisters, he’s good-hearted but going off the rails:

He drove a wine delivery truck, he drove a taxi; he was a mediocre waiter, a drunken bartender. The periods of hope and courage came less frequently. And as his twenties became his thirties, the landscape came to feature swamps of gloom doted with marshy hummocks of anxiety. He worked on getting better. He tried jogging; he limited his drinking; he sprinkled seeds in his yogurt. A girlfriend got him into yoga. He practiced having a good attitude. But it was trench warfare. He lost his yoga mat and had to buy another one. Then he lost that one and couldn’t see buying a third. He watched other people claim to enjoy drinking; they baffled him. The same people spoke of hangovers almost fondly, as evidence of their propensity to dissipation. His own hangovers were whole days mined with grim, churning thoughts, He saw therapists and psychiatrists; he tried Wellbutrin, Klonopin, Effexor, Celexa, Paxil, Xanax, Zoloft, and Lexapro. Also meditation, core work, and juice fasts. He cut out meat. Kept a garden. Clawed through months of clean living, then fell back into blurred days like and acrobat into a net.

“Tell me about the people who you say were watching you,” said the doctor.

Oh that. “You mean the paranoia, right?”

“If you call it paranoia, you will think I don’t believe you.”

After being fired from the daycare centre, a job Leo genuinely valued, he started a blog: I have Shared a Document with You–a venue for his conspiracy theory that a shadowy organization engineered a “massive plot to control all the information in the world.”  Certain he’s being followed and monitored, dropped supposedly due to ‘concerns’ by his pot dealer, Leo sinks into paranoia and isolation until his sisters intervene and toy with sending him to a mental health lock-up but finally agree to rehab. But in the rehab unit, Leo begins to wonder just how the doctor there knows all the little details of his life. Is the doctor even a real doctor?  There are brief moments of illumination in Leo’s life when “truth holes [..] flare” in his “field of vision” and appear to connect information. Is Leo paranoid or via his blog was he on to something big?

The third main character is Mark, the author of an immensely popular hip self-help book Bringing the Inside Out.  Mark, Leo’s former best friend from college, a vain, weak, self-centered dickhead catapulted to fame largely thanks to “craven SineCo squillionaire James Straw” whose “devotion” and patronage comes with a price. There’s a complex financial arrangement between James Straw and Mark, Straw’s “life coach” which includes Mark’s promotion of the Node, “SineCo’s newest gizmobauble,”  a “biometric and surveillance device.” Mark sees two diverging paths for his future, and Straw’s powerful friends make it clear that if he doesn’t sign on for the full programme as a SineCo executive, then his brief meteoric career as a celebrity is about to go down the toilet.

Opposing The Committee is an underground network known as Dear Diary which can be accessed in the Darknet through various portals, including one that appears to be a “house-swapping” site. Leila, unaware that she’s already picked a side, and unaware that “she could be extraordinarily renditioned from, like, a women’s toilet,” contacts Dear Diary for help, and then it’s down the rabbit hole…

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a great romp and yet still manages to be surprisingly prescient by maintaining just the right note of quirky, sharp-edged humour and serious, imminent threat. The author presents the 21st century of socialverses, and electronic gadgetry where technology is in every aspect of our lives and runs headlong into surveillance–a world in which “85 present of electronic correspondence (worldwide) and 100 percent of electronic correspondence (English-language) was run through a threat-sieve network commission by the U.S. government but increasingly outsourced to a consortium of private companies.”  This is a world in which special contact lenses exist that implement  “visual-channel-collection technology,” and private security firms possess extraordinary power to reach into and ruin people’s lives. Finally, the book isn’t about left or right politics (a few passages make that clear); the focus is on power.

Why didn’t she know more about computers? That knowledge suddenly seemed more important that feminist theory or eighties’ song lyrics, both of which she was well acquainted with. Computers had risen around her all her life, like a lake sneakily subsuming more and more arable land, but she’d never learned to write code or poke behind the icons or anything like that. She was like a medieval peasant confounded by books and easily impressed by stained glass.

Review copy

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Bluff City Pawn by Stephen Schottenfeld

About a fifth of the way into Stephen Schottenfeld’s debut novel, Bluff City Pawn,  Memphis pawn shop owner Huddy Marr tells a simple story concerning Jenks, Huddy’s predecessor, and it’s a story that says a great deal about the process that makes the pawn shop business work for the customers and the owner:

So Huddy tells a story about Jenks. About a customer with a TV, and Jenks would give him twenty-five dollars and when the man picked up the TV, he’d give Jenks back thirty. “Sometimes, the man would bring his thirty in a month, sometimes a week, sometimes just a couple days. This man’s carrying his TV in and out of the store for years, Jenks making five dollars, five dollars. So one day, the man comes in empty-handed, depressed, and Jenks asks him what’s wrong. ‘My TV broke,” the man said, ‘and now I don’t have anything to loan on.’ So Jenks walks over to the TV shelf and grabs a set and gives it free. ‘Here,’ he says, ‘now you can loan on this.’ “

That story gives a great sense of the author’s tone and style, but it’s also indicative of the experience you’ll have when you sink into the pawn shop world created here. This is the world of the haves and the have-nots, and to Huddy’s down on their luck customers, Huddy is both a savior and a devil–the man with the cash. But Huddy, with a new baby arrived, is a bottom feeder in the pawn shop world, trading on low-end products and making a buck here and there. Renting from his much more successful older brother Joe, Huddy barely makes ends meet, and scenes of Huddy’s would-be customers emphasize the desperation involved in both ends of the transactions. With two-thirds of the customers “forfeiting on their loans,” the average loan just forty dollars, a robbery of the liquor store next door, a blood bank moving in and the general decline of the neighbourhood, Huddy scouts out Liberty Pawn with its excellent location, high-end merchandise, better tools and “bigger stones.” Coming up with the cash to buy this business is impossible, but then Huddy is offered the deal of a lifetime when a gun collector dies and his wealthy widow offers  to sell the entire collection to Huddy. 

bluff cityHuddy knows that getting that gun collection will yield a high return profit–especially since the gun collector’s widow, a woman from an old money family, doesn’t seem to realize the value of the rarer guns. Huddy cannot afford to buy the collection, but knows he has to move fast on the deal before the family looks elsewhere for the sale, so he goes to the only person he knows who has money, his brother, building contractor Joe.

Joe laughs. “Sure I’m rich. But it would help if someone paid me to do more than fix a door or window. That’s all anyone’s doing. Everybody else in a bind puts me in a bind.”

“But you got your money diversified. Nobody wants a door or window, you just get it somewhere else, right?”

“Multiple streams of income,” Joe says, as if he were confiding life’s secret. ” ‘cept they’re all drying up. Six months ago, people were calling for everything. This one fella, lives on a dead-end street with the street named after him. He pays me to turn his garage into  a bar, and then he pays me again to build him a garage next to the bar. People were spending like they could never spend all they had … What I’m saying, Huddy is right now I don’t have room for bad ideas.”

To Huddy, buying and selling the guns will allow him to move to the next level in life; he and Joe just have to “hit it right.” In addition to contractor Joe and pawn shop owner, Huddy, there’s a third brother, the black sheep of the family, Harlan. With all of the brothers involved in one form or another in the gun collection, it’s just a matter of time before the old family dynamics emerge with trouble right behind. Huddy wants the deal to work so badly, and for a while it seems as though the plan is working, but add impatience, lack of caution and greed to the mix, and the deal goes south.

Bluff City Pawn starts slowly as Huddy’s working life is described, and since I love books that give me a sense of worlds that would otherwise remain impenetrable to me, I appreciated all the details of Huddy & his customers surrounded by pawnshop detritus–evidence of a shifting civilization and its discarded televisions. Here’s Huddy reading about a pawnshop bust:

The pawnshop bust has moved off the front page, and Huddy checks to see if it’s buried elsewhere. It’s gone. Fast Pawn over on Winchester, only open a year, which means to Huddy they were criminal from day one. It’s been over a year since a pawnshop got busted, that one over on Park, where the guy got in so deep and stupid he was giving orders: You think you can get me computers, stereos, jewelry? And then before that the shop near the tool plant, where the owner had employees from the plant stealing from the factory, and you’d walk in there and see shelves and shelves of brand-new industrial tools. These stories happening just often enough to make people think every pawnshop has a truck parked out back doing these midnight deals.

 While Bluff City Pawn has elements of crime, this is primarily a tale of how we fail to understand money, how it’s made, where it all goes, and just how hard it is to move from one level of society to another. Huddy, who knows the pawn business well, sees desperate people living on the edge of poverty, trying to catch a break every day. He lives off of their failures, while Joe lives off of people’s success. To Joe, Huddy charging 20% interest sounds like a hell of a deal, but it’s 20% interest on stuff that is usually unclaimed. To Huddy, Joe with his lavish mcmansion, high maintenance third wife, and extravagant water feature must be rolling in green. Neither man understands the other’s position, the pressures, the restraints, the temptations, and that’s part of the problem. The rest of the problems occur simply because of impatience, carelessness and greed.

He can already hear the customers coming in, saying , “hey man, you’re taking fishtanks? I’ll get you a bigger one.” Give him a month, he could turn the place into an aquarium. It’d be the same way if he bought an accordion, a bowling ball, frozen steaks. Whatever he buys, the street  wants to bring him more. “Steaks, man, I can get you beautiful cuts. All packed up, ready to go.”

 Review copy.

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The Hundred-year House by Rebecca Makkai

“This place doesn’t want me,” he said. “It’s rejecting me. Like a transplanted organ.”

Rebecca Makkai’s engaging novel The Hundred-Year House spans a century, focusing in on 4 specific time periods: 1999, 1955, 1929, and 1900 through the story of the various residents of a splendid ancient manor house, set in gorgeous grounds, located outside of Chicago. This was once the Laurelfield Arts Colony, but in the present, 1999, when the novel begins, the Arts Colony is a thing of the past, and all its secrets are hidden under lock and key in the attic. Matriarch Gracie, married to second husband Bruce, guards the past and the keys. Her only daughter Zee, a Marxist scholar, teaches at the local university, and Zee and her husband Doug live in the former coach house on the grounds of the family mansion. Doug, a “freelance PhD” is unemployed and is still working (for the last nine years) on a book about obscure poet Edwin Parfitt, who once stayed at the colony.  While Zee’s frustration grows at Doug’s inability to finish his book, he is actually secretly employed writing formulaic books in a popular teen series called Friends for Life. He’s ashamed of this job which he found through his friend, Leland, a “luckless poet.”

They give you the entire plot,” he said, “and you just stick to the style. Really there is no style. It’s refreshing.” Leland claimed they took a week each, and Doug was enchanted with the idea of shooting out a fully formed book like some kind of owl pellet.

While Doug stays in the coach house writing series teen novels, his book on Edwin Parfitt is frozen. He has piles of xeroxed articles, but he becomes obsessed with the old art colony attic files and convinces himself that there’s previously unknown information about Parfitt to be uncovered somewhere in the attic. Strangely, Gracie proves to be very difficult when it comes to allowing access to the files, and she’s an elusive person whose air of distracted eccentricity may be genuine or may be a way of effectively avoiding confrontation. Doug convinces himself that if he can just get his hands on the files, he’ll be able to finish the book, and his life will take a new direction. His quest leaves him with the “horrible feeling that he’d jumped down the wrong rabbit hole.”

Hundred year houseMeanwhile, Gracie’s second husband, Bruce sinks into an end-of-world millennium scenario, so hoarding and stockpiling, he prepares for Armageddon. To add to the complications, Bruce’s severely depressed and freshly fired son, Case, and his artist wife Miriam arrive from Texas to share the coach house with Doug and Zee. All the old status quo dissolves as new alliances form: Zee begins a campaign to get a colleague fired in order to get her husband a job, a trail of bad luck dogs Case, and Trash Artist Miriam forms a renegade bond with Doug. …

Other sections take us back into the history of the house and questions or incidents left in previous sections are eventually answered. The first section of the book set in 1999 was lively & very funny. There’s an ongoing joke that Zee, a Marxist scholar is Marxist–a difference people either don’t understand or deliberately choose not to. Many of the things Zee does or says have a way of boomeranging back at her with snide comments that she’s a commie. Here’s a scene at a university party in which Zee’s arch nemesis,  fellow professor Cole, a professor gets his digs in:

Cole, she realized, was talking to her from down the table, pointing his empty fork at her chest. “Comrade Zilla Grant is uncharacteristically withdrawn today,” he called. “I suspect she’s planning her Marxist revolution!” Before the laughter died down, he continued. “This is why I’ll never leave. She’ll replace me with her minions and all the seniors will take ‘Why Dickens Was a Stalinist.’ “

Misogynistic Professor Cole, who pokes fun of Zee at every opportunity, is one of my favourite characters:

Cole stood to give a brief speech about how he planned, in his twenty-first year at the college, to scare each and every student out of his classes, until he was left with “exactly one attractive and intelligent specimen that will grade its own papers and massage my neck.” When even Golda laughed, Zee pretended to as well. Cole must have felt his age protected him against rumors of impropriety, though Zee understood there were plenty of whispers about the man back in the eighties. Zee heard a senior boy claim he knew “for a fact” that the policy of leaving office doors cracked during office conferences could be traced to Cole’s misbehavior some fifteen years earlier. He’d been married once, briefly, but by the time he came back to campus he’d long been a swinging bachelor–attractive, back then, too–so rumors were bound to follow him. The fact that the rumors stuck, though, spoke to his behavior, not his erstwhile good looks.

With sharply drawn, wonderful characters, it was great fun to see all these people acting badly to get what they want, and there’s the definite sense that the arrival of Case and Miriam unleashes a previously dormant force within the house. Something wakes up–something mischievous. Perhaps it’s the creative presence of artist Miriam, but the house seems to reject those it doesn’t want while others blossom in its environment.  Many mysteries are deep in the history of the house, and these include the secret of Edwin Parfitt, exactly what took place during the colony years, and the reasons behind the suicide of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr whose portrait is in the house, and “no matter where you stood, you couldn’t get Violet to meet your gaze.”

This is a place where people aren’t so much haunted by their pasts as they are unknowingly hurtled toward specific and inexorable destinations. And perhaps it feels like haunting. But it’s a pull not a push.

In some ways, The Hundred-Year House reminds me of Kate Atkinson’s  Life After Lifeboth novels cover long time spans, with buried clues and connections to the central story revealed as the plot moves backwards, and both novels, for their approach, are ambitious. The Hundred-Year House doesn’t quite succeed, and this is only because not enough attention is given to other time periods. As the novel flashes back, the earlier sections–1900 and 1929 screamed for the attention to detail found in the first two sections: 1999 & 1955. I loved the first section with Miriam’s Trash Art and her so-called Barf Period, the way she collects rubbish, stuffing it in her pocket like some sort of bag lady. There’s also the rowdy family poodle, Hidalgo, who has to be distracted by peanuts or he’ll romp on top of visitors. By the time we’re back in 1900 and 1929, the details aren’t there, the characters aren’t as delightfully developed, so the novel feels rushed and sketchy when compared to the first half. But in spite of the novel’s flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed it, loved the optimism, loved the ideas, and the characters, and so I look forward to this young author’s next book. Wanting a book to be about 200 pages longer isn’t a bad thing.

Review copy

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A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

I would not change the beginning for anything.”

Author Darcy O’Brien (1939-1998) was best known for books on true crime, including Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers. While I’ve read about the case, I won’t be reading that book about a couple of sickos who hunted, tortured and killed women in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s. Given that O’Brien produced a seminal book on those brutal murderers, it’s practically impossible to align that part of O’Brien’s career with A Way of Life, Like Any Other, his wonderfully lighthearted book told by a young man, the sole offspring of unstable Hollywood film stars. O’Brien was the child of silent star George O’Brien and actress Marguerite Churchill, and while no doubt O’Brien incorporated many experiences from his real life into the book, some major differences exist.

Our unnamed narrator begins by recollecting the golden years of his early childhood which was spent mostly at Casa Fiesta, a ranch in the Malibu hills owned by his father. It’s here that the narrator lives an almost dream childhood. He’s the cosseted son of Hollywood film stars, and while his surroundings are real, there’s still a sense of fabrication–as though someone somewhere has sketched an idea of stage-set perfection, but as always in the book, the narrator’s parents behave inappropriately, and we see that sneaking into the scene even in these halcyon days:

I would not change the beginning for anything. I had an electric car, a starched white nanny, a pony, a bed modeled after that of Napoleon’s son, and I was baptized by the archbishop of the diocese. I wore hats and sucked on a little pipe.

The only child surrounded by various Hollywood luminaries, the narrator’s role, even in early childhood, seemed to cast him as part of the entertainment, a miniature adult. The first crack in this picture appears when the narrator is seven and his mother begins talking longingly about New York. Meanwhile the boy’s father, George, lives the acting roles he loves by dressing as a cowboy all in black and riding his horse “just like the old padres” even when he’s off the set. There’s a telling moment when George decides to take a grueling four day trek by horse to Santa Barbara which is ended by a stay in a luxury hotel, an expensive meal, and a drive home in a Lincoln.

The war intervenes in everyone’s lives, and after that, nothing is the same.

Life turned round on Mother and Dad, and stripped them of their goods and pleasures. It was not the war that did it, but by the end of the war everything had changed.

The marriage between the narrator’s parents sours and peels apart. At first, the pre-teen narrator lives with his needy, hysteric mother in Los Angeles, and their roles, in terms of maturity and responsibility are reversed; he’s her confidant throughout her many love affairs, her nurse when she attempts suicide and her 12-year-old bartender for the parties she throws. A long, steady stream of unsuitable men pass though their lives:

Mr. Johnny Standfast, whose real name turned out to be Reilly, and who had been a handball partner of my father’s at the Hollywood Athletic Club, came to stay for a week, but the old magic didn’t click. He left with a black eye. The man who invented the Hawaiian shirt ran strong for almost a year. He would fly in from Honolulu and take us to expensive restaurants. We were going to live on his yacht. Life would be an endless cruise. Then he began to notice mother’s drinking, and one morning he had to drive me to school because she couldn’t get up. Mother said she hated the sun anyway. She had had enough of it with my father.

Aging and losing her looks, the narrator’s mother confesses that she’s spent her life “looking for the perfect man, the perfect love.” After a series of disastrous relationships, the ‘perfect’ man turns out to be Anatol, a short Russian sculptor, a “compact rhino of a man” who works for Disney, but this regular paycheck supports Anatol’s real love–statues of “mythological creatures performing sexual acts of every description.”

As his mother’s life sinks into alcohol-soaked drama, eventually the narrator returns to live with his father.  George, “his money almost gone, his wife gone altogether, his motion picture career apparently behind him,”  lives “in diminished circumstances,“with his ex-wife’s mother, a strange arrangement laced with disgust:

She watched him pining and growing fatter and behaving more and more peculiarly. He had fallen into a religious mania, attending mass and taking holy communion every morning, participating in every sort of church function–novenas, missions, Holy Name Society breakfasts. The Ladies’ Alter Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacrament bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the Infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member. He twirled the cage at bingo, he raffled automobiles and turkeys. When the parish sedan was broken down or otherwise in use, he chauffeured the priests on their errands of mercy. He never missed a funeral. Because of his physic and the glamour that still trailed from him, he was in great demand as a pallbearer.

With “the Navy and the Church” now the “twin props of his existence,” George’s ex-mother-in-law addresses him derisively as Captain, yet this militarism invades the household with George granting her military status and promoting her rank periodically.

Within a month of Mother’s desertion she was made Chief Petty Officer, and soon afterwards Chief Engineer and First Mate. Yet her climb in status was accompanied by no improvement in her decorum. She flouted military discipline, rising and retiring in defiance of the Order of the Day; defacing the labels he so painstakingly affixed to every cupboard, closet, and drawer; taking out the garbage on the windward side of the house; refusing to stand watch, causing many a sleepless night for him; battening down the hatch to her compartment so that it was impossible for him to carry out his inspection rounds; countermanding his orders for provisions

George trying to run his ex-mother-in-law’s house to military standards is, of course, very eccentric, but the behaviour goes deeper and addresses George’s need to bring status, order and some meaning to his life. No wonder then that the narrator imagines he’s found greener pastures when he moves in with the son of a famous director, but if he’s hoping to find the stability that has so far eluded him, he still has lessons to learn. Affluence does not equal stability, and neither is it a replacement.

Upstairs, Mr Caliban’s bedroom was done in a Genghis Kahn motif, all read, black, and silver with weapons on the walls and full set of Mongolian armour standing in a corner. Mr. Caliban used the armor to hang his suits on, when he came home from work and changed into his relaxing clothes. Mrs. Caliban’s bedroom knocked your eyes out. It was entirely chartreuse, the walls the rug, the bedspread, everything. The bed was a four-poster job and the chartreuse hangings had been made to order by some nuns in France.

This story could have been written with anger, resentment and bitterness, but there’s none of that here. A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a coming-of-age story told by a young man who grows up & matures in spite of his many problems. While never critical of his parents, the narrator instead matures to understanding and acceptance, approaching his damaged parents with empathy & humour, and part of the book’s magically light tone is created by the narrator’s initially naïve explanations of the unfiltered adult life which surrounds him. He grows up listening to a running commentary of his father’s faults, but there’s one painful moment when he sees his father’s weak character unadorned by movie screen presence or Navy bluster, and it’s a scene of painful truth.

For Max’s review 

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God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster

Epistolary novels were tremendously popular in the 18th century, and now we’re seeing an emergence of the e-pistolary–a novel told exclusively though e-mails. In the case of Alyson Foster’s novel, God is an Astronaut, the e-mails are one-sided; they’re written  over the course of a few months from married Botany professor, Jessica Frobisher to her “favorite colleague” and fellow professor Arthur Danielson, who is on sabbatical in the “wilds north of Winnipeg.” Jessica pours her private thoughts into the e-mails to Arthur while she shares a lot less with her emotionally distant husband, Liam, the senior engineer for Spaceco, a shuttle company with a long waiting list of commercial passengers who want to travel into space.

astronautJessica, or Jess as she prefers to be called, begins writing e-mails to Arthur a few days after the explosion of the Spaceco shuttle Titan which resulted in the deaths of the two crew members and four passengers. With reporters camped out in the driveway, and Liam travelling back and forth to Arizona to the Spaceco launch site, Jess is left to her own devices. The shuttle explosion heralds disaster for Jess’s marriage–a marriage already in trouble and locked into a “passive-aggressive standoff.” Jess admits “we have no shortage of skeletons in our marital closets–the predictable collection of festering specimens, the things that go bump in the night, etc.” She begins an e-mail exchange with Arthur, and also begins long-delayed work on a greenhouse.  While the physical labour of digging trenches is a satisfying distraction, the e-mails to Arthur reveal Jess’s private, candid thoughts. Liam is entrenched in the details of the shuttle explosion and the subsequent media storm, and for Jess, under scrutiny from the neighbours and colleagues, the e-mails to Arthur seem to be the one way she can express her real feelings and moral concerns about the shuttle explosion. Troubled and yet trying to hold her life and home together for her two children, Jess admits to Arthur: “There’s something about trying to sum up your own take on a terrible truth.”

While Liam tells Jess not to speak to reporters camped outside (“the CNN crew had some sort of miniature grill out, and they were barbecuing what appeared to be breakfast sausages,”) she is required to show solidarity with her husband and other Spaceco executives and wives. Spaceco hires a pushy crisis consultant who orders Jess to dress a certain way for the press conference:

she finally settled on the least objectionable outfit she could find, that green silk suit I wear once a year when I’m presenting at a conference, the one you said makes me look like a woman playing a politician in a mini-series.

Much to Jess’s annoyance, Liam invites filmmaker Theo Lacroix and his latest wife Elle back to Michigan in order to make a documentary film about Spaceco. Lacroix has a habit to popping up at the most inconvenient moments with his camera, and Jess finds that Lacroix’s presence in her home is unsettling. How much does he see and understand? Here’s Jess explaining to Arthur her exchange with Lecroix after telling him that she retained her maiden name:

But he didn’t seem offended. “Ah,” he said, “A woman after my own heart. I wouldn’t allow any of my wives to take my name. ‘Get your own,’ I said.”

He bent down, picked up my ergonomic shovel, and inspected it. “Besides you never know when you might have to change it back. And then there will be all that bureaucratic nonsense and—” he waved his hand dismissively. “It is all very tiresome. When it comes to marriage, most people are very … What is the correct word? Unrealistic. It is better to be prepared.”

It was impossible to tell, Arthur, whether he was bullshitting me or not. “That’s a great philosophy,” I said. “I bet all your wives really loved it.”

“They understood. Some of them sooner than others.” Lacroix flicked a piece of dirt from the sleeve of his sweater. “They were smart women,” he said. “And beautiful.” He sighed with a touch of what I assumed was nostalgia.

 Jess’s voice is engaging, lightly humorous in tone and very real, but the e-mails occasionally do not sound like e-mails at all. Ok, so perhaps not everyone knocks off short e-mails, and perhaps some of us wax poetic, but sometimes the writing here is just too good to be a believable e-mail.  Conversely, there are also times when the e-mails seem to be a false construction:

I shut the laptop. I left the bathrobe in a puddle on the kitchen tile. Still half naked, I walked through the living room and up to the bedroom.

At other times, Jess is describing a dramatic event, and divides it into several long e-mails, and again, this felt a little false. I read some reviews in which people expressed frustration that the e-mails were just one-sided. Actually I liked that aspect of the novel because I had to read between the lines, and also pay close attention to the subject header topic which was the best way to gauge Arthur’s response. Plus on a deeper level, just what is Arthur to Jess? A colleague or something more? Over time, of course, we learn the truth which was easy to guess almost from the first e-mail, but even when the truth is finally revealed, it’s clear that Arthur served many purposes for Jess, and here he is as a sounding board as Jess rides out the greatest crisis of her life.

I particularly liked the way in which Jess is shown avoiding dealing with reality through the distraction of her greenhouse, and at one point she even describes the space beyond the dining room designated for the new greenhouse as “an escape hatch.” Liam disapproves of the project, mumbling about their “sasquatch-size carbon footprint,” which is hypocritical given what he does for a living, and there’s the sense that he disapproves of a great deal to do with Jess. Perhaps she finally begins construction of her greenhouse, not only as a meaningful distraction, but as a type of defiance. After all, she buys many exotic, delicate plants with the plan that they will defy the Michigan winter in this superb construction and, as Lecroix, points out, with her “ruthless gardening.”  God is an Astronaut, a light read,  is well-written and engaging. Author Alyson Foster captures that period of disintegration in a marriage when both partners are aware that the relationship is pathological, but neither chooses to acknowledge the problems. Yet.

Review copy

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Funny Once by Antonya Nelson

“I’ve had to deduce that women grow hard over time while men grow soft.”

A few years ago, I read Antonya Nelson’s novel Bound, the story of a woman who unexpectedly finds that she’s the guardian of a teenage girl. Bound explores the issues of obligation, responsibility and loyalty through the lives of its characters, and while I enjoyed the novel, I have to say that these short stories in the author’s latest collection, Funny Once, are truly superb.

If there’s a common thread in the nine stories and novella in  Funny Once, then that common thread must be the unexpected links we make with people, and once again obligation, responsibility and loyalty are issues at play.  These stories are not about dysfunctional families, but rather it’s fractured families that are examined here. What sort of stew do you get when someone has been married 3 or 4 times, has children and step-children from various marriages, and old relationships with former in-laws? Move over the theme of dysfunctional families and instead let’s look at a very common scenario, at least in my part of the world, the crazy quilt of fractured families.

Funny onceIn Soldier’s Joy, Nana, a woman married to her much older husband returns home to Kansas following her father’s accident. There she meets a former lover,  a man who was a crucial factor in her much later marriage.  Nana’s husband is her former professor:

She and Helen had met Dr. Shock at an apex, his as a certified celebrity, theirs as nubile acolytes. He had then been a casual tenant of his attractive still-young body, but now was a fearfully vain and anxious one of the older model. For two consecutive years he had gone about claiming to be sixty-nine, not even consciously, so averse was he to the number seventy.

Nana and her husband  don’t have children, but they own dogs.

Lacking children, Nana and her husband had settled for dogs; their friends no doubt pitied their misplaced affection. This was the third pair of siblings they’d owned. First black labs, next Cocker Spaniels, now the Corgis–each set a slightly smaller breed. “We’ll die with Chihuahuas,” Nana had once told her husband.

“You” die with Chihuahuas,” he’d corrected her. “”I’ll die during the dachshunds.”

Nana’s parents have never really understood her marriage or why all of her education “led her no further than housewifery.” When Nana returns home, she discovers that her parents have become surrogate grandparents to the children of the neighbours, and that the neighbour is her first boyfriend. This difficult situation is fraught with might-have-beens and fantasies of a possible future. There’s a shock in store for Nana, but it’s not what you expect.

One of my favourite stories in the collection, and it’s hard to just pick a few favourites, is The Village. In this story, Darcy, now middle-aged recalls how a car wreck she caused as a teenager led to a strange confession by her father of an extra-marital affair with a woman named Lois. He begins with the sentence “sometimes people do things that other people might call mistakes.” Circumstances lead to Darcy meeting Lois, and she becomes one of the formative people in Darcy’s life. When Darcy goes to Lois’s funeral, she thinks she’ll finally be able to acknowledge exactly what her father’s long-time mistress meant to her, but she learns otherwise. This is a wonderful, and curious story, as Lois is a shadow figure. We never actually meet her so we only see her reflected in the mirror of various memories. To one lot of people, Lois was a remarkable woman, while to her own family, she’s something else entirely.

In IFF a woman finds herself living with hairdresser Gloria, her ex-mother-in-law, detritus from the divorce from Nathan.  Gloria is Nathan’s stepmother, and while he’s moved on, and is about to remarry, there’s simply no room in his new life for his step-mother, and Nathan seems to think Gloria is an -ex too. Like unwanted baggage, Gloria is left behind, yet she and her former daughter-in-law share a bond that goes beyond the tenuous bond of a wobbly marriage.

In First Husband, Lovey now married for the second time, deals with her step-daughter, Bernadette, her “ex-husband’s youngest most difficult girl.” While her other step-daughters found Lovey “lacking,” Bernadette, was “needy” and formed a relationship with her young stepmother which continues in spite of the divorce and remarriage. Lovey and Bernadette share a complicated bond of loyalty and disappointment stemming from their relationships with the same man–Bernadette’s father and Lovey’s ex-husband.

When she married him, he was at the tail end of his fruitful handsomeness, it’s fulmination, at forty-five, still moving in the world with the confidence of a man who’d bedded a lot of women, all of them except the first few–when he was a beginner, when he was on the receiving end of a romantic education–younger than himself; he was a serial seducer. “Handsome men are dangerous,” Lovey’s mother had warned her. Lovey had been his third wife; perhaps she could have predicted that she would not succeed where those others had failed, but that was the nature of love, and of youth, and the combination, youthful love, to make one arrogant, or stubborn, impervious to the lessons of others.

If you took all the lessons of others, you might never do anything.

Now Lovey has moved on to a very placid, comfortable re-marriage to William, a doctor, but still the past intrudes through the obligations she feels to Bernadette. Bernadette was her step-daughter, and now she has children. Is Lovey a grandmother? Are these her grandchildren? And what of Lovey’s second marriage to William?

And she understood that William, too, had been disposed of, that his ex-wife had had a similar nuclear potency, and that he loved Lovey with the same conscious intensity of somebody exacting a kind of revenge, or, perhaps, simply forever behaving with the belief that his ex was paying attention, that he had need to prove he’d survive and thrive, the victor. A victor, anyway.

The novella, Three Wishes, follows the lives of the three Panik siblings, Hugh, Hannah, and Holly, and the story begins when they deliver their father, duct-taped into his recliner, to a nursing home. With their father in a home, the siblings return to their lives. Hannah, the only one who’s married, is the one who seems to have her life together whereas Hugh and hopeless single-parent, Holly are visibly stunted. There’s a great scene when the siblings enter a bar called Ugly’s:

Hannah had a nervy awareness of her femaleness, the way the den of men had vaguely stirred, straightened its collective spine–math nerds, slackers, divorced professors–when she and Holly had entered. Her older sister looked like a woman who knew how to have fun in the world, whose smile came from zealous desire, whose mind was worth investigating, who wouldn’t reject you without a test run.

His little sister looked like somebody who’d threaten to kill herself if you broke up with her.

Hugh, who’s been living in the ramshackle family home (with hippies next door), and works a marginal job, returns there and begins attending creative writing classes at night at the local college–“his current attempt to curtail his drinking.” Over time we learn that there should have been a fourth sibling, Hamish, who died, “animation suspended at age nineteen.” Even though he’s been dead for decades, Hamish’s shadow lingers over his siblings who never quite connect with their lives.

The characters here are aging and trying to come to terms with the mistakes in their lives even as they mull over the invisible crossroads that took them to unintended destinations. Even Ms. Fox, the bitter creative writing professor in Three Wishes doesn’t seem to know how she ended up in Kansas. Antonya Nelson’s stories are relevant to today’s family situations where the nuclear family is riddled with fault lines–multiple marriages and divorces, step-children, step-parents, & step-grandparents. We know that responsibility doesn’t end with divorce, and with great sensitivity and insight Antonya Nelson explores the reaches of loyalty which trumps legal obligation. This is a marvellous collection and comes highly recommended.

Review copy.

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The Travel Writer by Jeff Soloway

“I’m a travel writer, and corrupt as they come. I’d sell my journalistic principles for two nights at the Four Seasons with a free meal and a massage.”

Jeff Solway’s debut novel, The Travel Writer, the first in a new series, is for those who enjoy reading mysteries set in exotic locations. This is a modest little book, and as I write this, it’s being offered for the modest sum of $2.99 on Amazon US. I’m mentioning this because The Travel Writer probably won’t get a great deal of attention when compared to the GIANT blockbuster novel I just read: Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair–a novel which overreached and failed. The Travel Writer, in comparison, is a novel that accomplished what it set out to achieve, but that shouldn’t be too surprising as the author was an editor and writer for travel guides.

the travel writerThe self-imagined hero and narrator of The Travel Writer is Jacob Smalls, a man who scrapes together, barely, a marginal living as a travel writer. This isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds–at least not at Jacob’s bargain basement level. He has a matchbox sized studio apartment in Queens which he shares with an amphibian turtle. If you think about it, both Jacob and his turtle live in their own tanks:

At home in my tiny studio apartment in Queens I cook massive meatless stews and freeze the leftovers or, when I’m feeling flush, order pan-Asian takeout by the pint. But when I’m working I live like a vacationing CEO, eating for free at multi-Michelin star restaurants and staying for free at hotels that charge two months of my rent per night. Some travel writers call themselves journalists; I refuse to debase the term. Just that morning I’d been trying to book another fact-finding trip for my yet hypothetical Ritziest Ritz series. Whether or not I could sell the thing hardly mattered.

The novel begins with a press conference given by a Bolivian luxury hotel’s PR agent, Pilar Rojas. The press conference is supposed to help satisfy the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance of New York based travel editor, Hilary Pearson. Hilary, young and attractive, vanished without a trace from the prestigious Hotel Matamoros, “the Xanadu of the Andes, the super resort that had risen up like Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome.”  Local police, and even the FBI have failed to find even the smallest clue about Hilary, and it’s feared that she’s been kidnapped and murdered. Pilar, who has a past romantic history with Jacob, asks him to come to Peru and help her find the missing woman. There’s a great deal at stake here as Bolivia’s entire tourist industry is threatened by Hilary’s disappearance. Pilar offers Jacob free plane tickets and a week’s stay at the Hotel Matamoros, and she hints that she’s in danger.

Jacob, who after all, lives for free trips, takes the bait, and under the guise of writing a puff piece for the Hotel Matamoros, flies to La Paz. Stringing along is the uninvited 26 year-old Kenny, another work acquaintance of Hilary who’s nursing a giant crush for the missing woman.

I read The Travel Writer before knowing that it’s the first in an intended series of novels. As the first of a series, this is a good start, so if you like light-hearted mysteries with a touch of humor, set in exotic locations, this series should appeal. Jacob Smalls makes a humble interesting hero. He leaves New York with images of being a prize winning journalist, saving Hilary (a woman he’s never met but knows through e-mails), and winning back Pilar, and while those are all, perhaps, fairly predictable daydreams, the author injects a fresh aspect to the storyline by sticking Jacob with Kenny. Jacob has a tendency to patronize and pity Kenny, and once down in Bolivia, Jacob, who’s a seasoned traveler, can very easily dominate the relationship. But there are a couple of moments when, through his relationship with Kenny, Jacob realizes that he’s being unkind, and there’s not such a huge difference between the two men after all. Since he views Kenny as a pathetic loser, it’s an uncomfortable realisation for Jacob, and one that makes him a better human being.

As for the location, readers get a tourist’s view of La Paz and its marketplace as well as the hungry tourist industry desperate for an injection of foreign money. The magnificent Hotel Matamoros, which will be to expanded with new branches deeper in the jungle, is a vital concern for Bolivia’s tourist industry, and the fact that an American travel writer has gone missing while staying there just isn’t good for business. According to another hotel owner, “Matamoros was all built on narcotrafficking money,” and Jacob discovers that Hilary’s disappearance is a topic of concern for a Bolivian political group.

The novel, built on the idea of tourism, takes a insider’s skeptical view of the industry, and while the issue is never overworked, the idea of a ‘genuine’ tourist experience is lampooned through scenes with the Kallawaya and mention of the “handful of Amazonian medicine men” hired by the hotel for a “splash of color.” The novel takes the position that tourism is a artificial construct, and that by its very nature has built in voyeurism and paranoia. There are moments of shameful self-revelation for Jacob when he realizes his life of privilege is based on freebies from Bolivians who live on pennies a day. Jacob’s character was a little fuzzy at times–a little too Walter Mittyish at the beginning with his fantasies of heroism, but I liked the framework of a small-time travel writer leveraging freebies through hints about glowing articles.

Review copy

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During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

I’d never heard of Joan Chase’s novel: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, and while the title caught my eye, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the content. This was a case of trying the book simply because of the publisher, New York Review Books, and after ending this magnificent tale, I can easily predict that it’ll make it to my best-of-2014 list.

during the reign of the queen of persiaDuring the Reign of the Queen of Persia is set in the 50s and concerns the lives of a three-generational matriarchy with Gram at the top, her 5 daughters and 4 female cousins: Celia, Jenny, Annie and Katie. The title has an edge of irony, as the ‘Queen’ is a not an exotic figure, but a tough Ohio woman who in one scene throws a tin can at her retreating husband while yelling “horse-piss. shit-face.” Still, Gram, a woman whose early life was miserable until she inherited money, in definitely in charge, and she does what she wants:

“The way Gram told it was that all she had ever had in life was kids and work and useless men and what she wanted, and had earned besides, was to be left alone.”

The story, divided into 5 very specific chunks of history, is told collectively by the 4 young cousins. It’s impossible to tell which girl is the narrator, and identification defies logic. I tried to narrow the choice in the first section, and thought I’d nailed it, only to be trumped in the other sections. The result of this unusual, superb narrative style is that the reader intuits that the thread of the story is childhood, and its fluid narration transcends a specific character or a single version of events. Instead we have the collective experience of four young girls as they witness, respond to, and try to make sense of the tumultuous lives and the messy world of adults. The collective narrative occasionally acts as a chorus of experience as in this section which follows an episode with one of Gram’s son-in-laws, ne’er-do-well Neil, as he symbolically reestablishes his male dominance over females through a strange, sadistic ‘game’ that takes place with his two daughters (Annie and Katie), and two nieces (Celia and Jenny):

We four climb up into the haymow, up to the rafter window. We vow we will never forgive him. We swear to avenge ourselves, even if we have to pay with our lives. We tell each other how he’d feel if we died. Dry-eyed, exhausted at last, we lie in the sun-shot darkness of the barn, and the soft cries of the doves seem to be the sound of Neil’s grief when he knows that he has lost us, when he views us, innocent girls, cold and still in death.

We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies. after our dip, cool, absolved, we lie upon the bank, brushed dry by the coarse grasses, which hold a mosaic of daisies and Queen Anne’s lace.

While each of the sections covers some specific, non-sequential events in the history of the family, common threads appear throughout the book: the unreliability of men, the treachery of sexuality, and the importance of the female hive. Women dominate the story, and most of the men in the story are feral–either on the periphery or drifting in and out periodically, causing trouble. The book’s first section, appropriately called Celia introduces the multi-generational family as it describes Celia’s explosive entrance into puberty which begins with the appearance of a “pack of boys” who hang around “with a patient wistfulness.” Celia’s burgeoning sexuality sprouts a series of inappropriate lectures from her mother, Libby.

“Don’t think I don’t know the charms of young men,” Aunt Libby said, and we knew she did; beautiful again, a trace of blood spurting from her cold heart, illuminating the texture of her skin, warming yellow to gold. And her eyes softening like a melting amber. They hardened again. We trembled to hear her. In Aunt Libby there was none of Gram’s flip “You may as well fall for rich as poor.” For Aunt Libby it was a matter of outrage and contest.

She spoke incessantly of love. Endless betrayal, maidens forsaken, drowned or turned slut, or engulfed by madness. Most chilling were the innocent babies–stabbed with scissors and stuffed into garbage cans, aborted with knitting needles. In all this, love was a blind for something else. For sex. Sex was trouble and when a girl was in trouble, sex was the trouble.

Nor would Aunt Libby allow us the miscalculation that marriage put an end to trouble. Men were only after what they could get. When they got it they didn’t want it anymore. Or wanted what someone else had. The same as the cars they bought and used. It was their nature. Some got nasty about it. That she attributed to liquor–which men turned to out of self-pity and petty vengeance.

Even Rossie, a young male cousin, is a destructive, disruptive presence for the duration of his unsettling visits, and significantly he never integrates with his female cousins. Rossie, as a male child, cannot penetrate the world of his female cousins, and after the death of one of Gram’s daughters (in spite of the best efforts at intervention by a Christian Science sibling) we see that according to Uncle Dan, the exclusion of males continues beyond the grave:

Gram had refused to pay for that kind of burial. She had said she wasn’t going to get mixed up in any heathen ways when not a bit of it meant anything anyhow. “She’ll lay up there aside of me, where she belongs,” Gram said then. granddad was already there, on top of the hill at the cemetery, and Gram had bought plots for herself and her five children. “I don’t know what the rest of us are supposed to do,” Uncle Dan had said. “Just wander, I guess. Outside paradise.”

For most of the book, two men are residents at Gram’s Ohio farm; there’s Gram’s husband, Granddad, a surly man who takes care of the cows, and whose relationship with the rest of the family is restricted by his own resentful, anti-social behaviour, and Dan, the husband of Gram’s daughter, Libby. Dan, a butcher, the father of Celia and Jenny, and one of the book’s most stabilizing forces, who never meant to stay at the farm for long, appears to have made some sort of pact with his wife which included the return to the farm and leaving California behind. Dan, “the surviving male figure” for part of the novel, surrounded by women, is affable and easy-going–although he does have a brief rebellion through the purchase of an outdoor swing which represents his longing for California.

There was one memorable fight; it lasted two days. Uncle Dan came home with groceries and a flowered lounge for the yard or porch and Aunt Libby hit the roof the second she saw him unloading it, yelling from the window, “we can’t afford that kind of thing. you have no business. What would we do anyway with a thing like that?” Going on to tell Uncle Dan that he was forever needing some new trinket for amusement. When would he ever grow up? And when had he ever had a spare minute to lay in the sun?

“In California,” he said, as he worked to adjust the mattress, “they’re set up for this kind of thing. They don’t mind a little fun. A fellow works all his life. What’s the harm?” His face looked as though it had rained all his summers, his eyes gray from clouds that had passed over his heart.

Aunt Libby’s voice spurted anger and something of alarm too. “You! You have an uncontrollable notion to lay in the sun. What are you, a beach boy/ Use a blanket. a towel, for god’s sake. I don’t live at home with my mother, scrimping and saving, to look out the window and see you snoozing on a bed of roses–orange roses at that. The thing reminds me of an orgy, just looking at it.”

“That thing reminds me of everything I’ll never have,” Uncle Dan said.

It would be easy to say that not a great deal happens in the book–people die, fall in and out of love, one girl becomes engaged, one gets married and a baby is expected, but in this rich story of life with all of its messy complications, the focus is on the details of these tribal relationships. Gram, a wise, solid life force, has experienced and endured a great deal, and “fed up with cooking” and work, she spends her evenings at “bingo parties, horse racing, roulette at a private club” opting to stay out of her children’s lives, except for the occasional battle with her husband or one of her sons-in-law. Now her children are adults, she mostly ignores them even though her large home is a refuge from trauma for her daughters. With just one daughter, Libby, there permanently, the other daughters come and go, particularly at times of crisis, gathering strength from each other even as they acknowledge differences and weaknesses. Interestingly, apart from the occasional neighbor, we don’t see much of life beyond the farm, but it simply doesn’t matter in this wonderful, timeless tale of family, childhood, love and loss.

 

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The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

“For years, I worked so hard to hold my tongue, I nearly swallowed it. For years, I had slid around the dining room table in various costumes of the bright, eccentric variety, opposite the Klee, directing traffic with deft signals and smiling, always smiling.”

The Blazing World, and it’s no coincidence that the title is the same as a largely forgotten work from 17 th century female author Margaret Cavendish, is a complex look at Perception, Identity, and Gender politics in the art world. In this challenging intelligent novel, author Siri Hustvedt presents a fragmented, troubled portrait of a now deceased woman, artist Harriet Burden. Harriet, or Harry, as she was known, was at one time a young artist in New York with a few shows to her credit in the 70s and 80s. Then she met and married the phenomenally wealthy art dealer, Felix Lord, and for years lived in the background as his wife, a mother to two children and as a “chic” hostess to various, critics, dealers, and artists involved in the art scene. In her fifties and widowed Harriet is a deeply unhappy woman, a rejected daughter, a forgotten artist and once the wife of a prominent wealthy man. But these were all unsatisfactory roles for Harriet who is left, after the death of Felix, with a lingering feeling that life has passed her by and that the overwhelming bias of the art world ignored her talents.

The blazing worldHarriet devises a master plan, Maskings–an “experiment that took her five years to complete,” that was “meant to not only expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover complex workings of human perception.” Maskings was a series of three arts shows, The History of Western Art, The Suffocation Rooms and Beneath in which she masked her female identity by exhibiting her art under the names of male artists who colluded with her ‘experiment.’ According to Harriet, this project Maskings, would not only reveal the bias and hypocrisy of the art world but also yield a sort of gender and personal triumph.

The Blazing World appears to be a non-fiction book in which Harriet’s story unfolds through multiple narratives pieced together through Harriet’s labyrinth layers of deceit by an editor, a professor, who takes extracts from Harriet’s many cryptic journals as well as interviews with various people including her two children, filmmaker Maisie and writer Ethan, the artist Phineas Q. Eldridge, a friend, art critics, one of those “New Age fruitcakes,” and a final lover. A complex fragmented portrait of Harriet emerges, and as we see though her journals, she’s an angry woman intent on revenge. But revenge against whom? Against what?

After a meltdown, Harriet sought therapy which according to her daughter “unleashed a Harriet Burden none of us had ever seen before, as well as a number of other characters or personas she had been sitting on for quite some time. … protean artist selves that needed bodies.” Seeking to renter the art world using a succession of male names, Harriet selected three male artists as three successive beards or “masks,” who “acted as fronts for her own creative work.” While Harriet created the art for display and sale under the names of the three male artists, Harriet argued that an intriguing transaction occurred in each masking. She “insisted that the pseudonym she adopted changed the character of the art she made. In other words, the man she used as a mask played a role in the kind of art she produced: each artist mask became for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a hermaphroditic self which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to a mingled reality created between the two of them.”

The three male artists Harriet chooses are all very different types; the first man, young, naïve Anton Tish, is a blank slate whose interactions with Harriet destroy his already fragile persona. The second artist (and one of my favorite voices) whose professional name is Phineas Q Eldridge, a black gay man who defends Harriet’s arguments of sex bias and who has already struggled with identity, is perhaps the most savvy and understanding of the voices when it comes to his relationship with Harriet. The third artist is Rune, a cultural icon, a virile blond, blue-eyed hunk of an artist who knew what it meant to be a celebrity. Rune’s show The Banality of Glamour which ensured his place as a rockstar in the art world included film footage of “facial morphing technology,” and “plastic surgery patients under the knife.” Rune offers various versions of his own elusive life, constructing fable upon fable, but according to one source, that’s just Rune:

Those stories he told to journalists were part of his shtick, a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-promotion, making a mystery of himself.

It’s with Rune that things really begin to go wrong. Rune’s dealer cannot answer whether Rune’s show Beneath was out of context for Rune and he admits that he “could tell you what was in or out of character for Rune,” a man who continually re-invented himself, using “maskings” of his own and whose previous great triumph of Art was vinyl crosses–a yellow cross, sold for 3 million dollars because “he had only made one.”

Of course, there’s a paradox to Harriet’s theory. If the art world is indeed hypocritical and disinterested in the work of an overweight, unattractive middle-aged woman, yet ready to worship the work of three male artists–no matter how moronic (Tish) or slick (Rune) they are, why would those who hold the reins of power–the critics and the dealers–care or even believe her when she reveals how she duped them all? Will they believe she was the “virago mastermind” behind the three art shows or will they see her as just another bitter, deranged, disappointed and talentless woman? Through the voices of the critics, in which fame and perception are locked together, we see absolute, blind adulation directed to the famous artists whose work fetches millions. According to one critic, Harriet’s early work was not ignored when she first appeared on the art scene; she simply opted out to be a wife and mother, yet another critic who profoundly disliked Harriet, insists that she  was “so obscure she wasn’t even a has-been.”

One of the interesting aspects of the book is its structure. It’s written as though ‘edited’ by a professor of aesthetics who is trying to reach the ‘true’ story about Harriet Burden, now dead, so we get multiple perspectives about Harriet and her actions. I was intrigued by the author’s approach. How much easier to have written a straight fiction book–let’s say, for example, a book that was written chronologically starting with Harriet married to wealthy art dealer Felix Lord and watching any hopes of her career crumble away as she recedes into the roles of betrayed wife and ignored hostess to various luminaries in the art world.  Instead this fictional work is presented as a faux non-fiction book. This construct is more complex and also takes a much more scholarly tone with many footnotes referencing the very real people mentioned throughout. While this approach doesn’t make an easier read (the footnotes can be distracting at times–I launched off on a whole tangent concerning James Tiptree Jr. at one point), Siri Hustvedt certainly creates a much more intriguing, in-depth and complex read by her bold approach to the topic. While this is the story of Harriet, her rage at a “phallocentric world,” and her attempt to unmask the hypocrisy of the art scene, this story is just one layer on the deeper questions: who decides what is great Art? Why is something Art while something else is trash? How much are critics and then by the trickle-down effect the audience swayed by image and celebrity? These questions are addressed in the multiple narratives within the novel–in particular through the voice of Case, an acidic art critic, one of the influential gatekeepers of the art scene, a man who decides what is great art and what is tired and boring. Throughout the book, the image of Harriet remains with some disturbing questions–how greatly was she tainted and damaged by her early perceptions of herself? How much was self-sabotage, lack of confidence, or simple life choices?

Thanks to both Caroline and Emma for pointing me to this author.

Review copy

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