Category Archives: Non Fiction

Is It All In Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan, M.D.

It is not necessarily the greatest suffering that receives the greatest consideration and sympathy. Illness is not scored in that way. Deadly disease obviously scores higher than others. After that there is an unofficial ranking system for illness in which psychiatric disorders are the out-and-out losers. Psychiatric disorders manifesting as physical disease are at the very bottom of that pile. They’re the charlatans of illness. 

In Is It All In Your Head? True Stories of Imaginary Illness, M.D. Suzanne O’Sullivan, whose specialties are neurology and clinical neuropathy, offers a casebook of patients who presented with powerful physical symptoms and yet in time various illness and diseases were systematically ruled out. This left these ill, debilitated people, technically speaking, or at least in the eyes of the doctors who treated them, with nothing wrong, no diagnoses.

Up to one-third of people seen in an average general neurology clinic have neurological symptoms that cannot be explained; in these people an emotional cause is often suspected. It is very difficult for a patient to be given the news that their physical illness may have a psychological cause. It is a difficult diagnosis to understand, let alone accept. And doctors can be reluctant to offer it up, partly for fear of angering their patients but also for fear of what they might have missed. Patients often find themselves trapped in a zone between worlds of medicine and psychiatry.

The book’s introduction builds a pathway to the case histories here, and I particularly loved the way the author pointed out that “modern society likes the idea that we can think ourselves better,” and while accepting that a “positive mental attitude” is invaluable, Suzanne O’Sullivan argues that “society has not fully woken up to the frequency with which people do the opposite–unconsciously think themselves ill.” The lead-in intro paves the way with commonly acknowledged physical symptoms caused by emotions or stress, and from this common point of acceptance, the author takes into her patient casebook.

 is-it-all-in-your-head

As for the case histories, there’s a range: Pauline, a 27-year-old woman with an extensive medical history, whose been ill since age 15. A general feeling of being “unwell” morphed into burning pain when passing urine. Then followed years of, how can I say this, being bounced around the medical community, being given vague diagnoses and even an unnecessary appendectomy. Finally after losing the use of her legs, Pauline ended up in a wheelchair. If you think this sounds bad, well just keep reading Pauline’s case; it’s truly appalling. I’m not going to blame the doctors here because if a person keeps complaining about pain & various other symptoms, the doctors are going to keep looking for causes (that’s their job,) and that, at the very least, led to even more complications for Pauline who ended up being kicked out of the hospital only to suffer seizures right before her release.

Wheelchair-bound Matthew is convinced that he has Multiple Sclerosis ( he can’t feel anything in his lower body, yet “despite the lifelessness of his legs the reflexes reacted as they should”) ; Shahina‘s problems began when someone accidentally steps on her hand. Yvonne becomes blind after a few drops of glass cleaning solution accidentally land in her eyes.  The treatment given her by the junior doctors and medical students is appalling, (“there’ll be no Oscars for that performance.”) Alice, I found perhaps the most interesting of the case histories, since her story started with breast cancer and from that moment on, the experience tapped into Alice’s subconscious mind. Camilla spent years with unacknowledged grief which manifested itself in other ways.

The most disturbing, controversial chapter concerns Rachel, who suffers from Chronic Fatigue symptom/ME and ends up in a locked psychiatric unit. Rachel seems to be the other end of the spectrum–someone who does indeed have something physically/clinically wrong with her even though Dr O’Sullivan argues that “psychological factors and behavioral issues, if they are not the entire cause, at the very least contribute in a significant way to prolonging the disability that occurs in chronic fatigue syndrome. Do I know that for sure? No, nobody does: but I am influenced by the lack of evidence for an organic disease. ME/CFS sufferers do not usually have any objective physical findings to explain their fatigue. They have been likened to those who had multiple sclerosis before that disease was properly understood.”  Fatigue (CFS) is a problem as it tends to gather up the label of malingering and that is so unfair. And on the subject of Rachel, just because a patient makes a big demonstration of being unable to do something doesn’t necessarily mean a thing. We all bring our characters to our illnesses and our diseases. Some of us suck it up and some of us don’t.

The chapters go back and forth from the case history under examination to other cases and also the history of various medical practices. This can be distracting, even though I can understand why the author took this approach. Some of the stories were tied up too neatly with a bow, but I suppose that is how the doctor’s casebook ends when the patient walks through (or wheels out of) the door for the last time and lands on someone else’s patient list. Ultimately this was an interesting read–even though I didn’t agree with the author about every issue.

In a matter of semantics, I had a bit of a problem with the book’s byline: True stories of Imaginary Illness as it implies, at least to this reader, that the patients in these pages ‘imagined’ their illnesses as in fabricated. But the whole point of the book is that these patients suffered very real physical symptoms as a result of psychological distress. They weren’t imagining anything.

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Take Me to Paris, Johnny: John Foster

“He was like an exotic bird, the only one of his kind.”

The title of John Foster’s memoir, Take me to Paris, Johnny, is emblematic of the character and life of Juan Céspedes, the author’s lover until Juan’s death from AIDS in 1987. The two men met in New York in 1981 when John, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, travelled to America to research a book.

take-me-to-paris-johnny

The memoir begins when John Foster travels to Guantánamo to visit Juan’s family. The visit which took place a year after Juan’s death should have been the end of Juan’s story, but in Foster’s hands, it becomes the graceful introduction.  It’s a moving, powerful beginning: travelling to a beautiful foreign country of “red earth, banana plantations and hills that were crowned with a darker canopy of royal palms,” eventually to arrive at a landscape that has a “desolate air; it was brown, scarred and smudged with a confusion of railway marshalling yards. The end of the line.”

Deeply interested in dance and loathe to follow his state assigned career, Juan struggled under Cuban culture in which individualism was not encouraged, and like other young friends, Juan “more charmed than ever by the forbidden music from the radio station ar the base,” decided to seek political asylum by escaping to the US naval base at Guantánamo. And it was in this fashion that Juan finally  landed at age 15 in Hell’s Kitchen in 1969 “where the Catholic agency had installed its Cuban refugees in a cheap apartment house.”

The other residents, according to Juan ‘s calculation, consisted of 25 per cent ex-cons, 25 per cent drag queens and 50 percent addicts.

From 1969 until 1981, when Juan met John Foster, Juan’s history is patchy but involved attempts at establishing a professional dance career and a series of patrons–including a priest, but the relationships ended perhaps because Juan’s “tastes [were] too expensive or his occasional tantrums too exhausting.” Juan carefully constructed narratives around these relationships:

They each occupied a space in his memory, and he referred to them habitually, and most fondly, as if they were a line of popes or kings in whose reign an event could be located. That was the way he ordered his memories, very tidily, in much the same way that he arranged his life, in little compartments, so that there would be no unnecessary confusion or unpleasantness

Foster met Juan when the latter was homeless, and a one-night stand morphed into a long-distance relationship. Finally Juan, already ill with various mysterious ailments, moved to Australia where his tenuous residency teetered on a bureaucratic foundation. Some of the details regarding the illness were difficult to read, but Foster powerfully brings home the times and the fears. I’ll mention the Grim Reaper ad here and luckily and coincidentally I saw it recently on an Australian television programme. I’m glad I saw it as I wouldn’t have understood Foster’s reactions to the ad; it’s one of those things you have to see for yourself.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny is Juan’s story, as the author intended, but ultimately it’s the story of a relationship. We see Juan through the eyes of Foster: an exotic figure with a taste for drama, engaging, entertaining, a man whose very existence defies his humble hard-scrabble beginnings.

We walked home, stopping off at the corner store to buy a bottle of Lucozade. According to the label  Beecham Bros supplied this energizing drink by appointment to HM the Queen, which Juan imagined she probably swigged in large quantities to fortify her in her battles with Mrs Thatcher.

While Foster remains in the background, refusing to assign blame or guilt to Juan, their relationship most effectively holds a mirror up to reflect back Foster’s character to the reader. Author John Foster wanted to create a story that transcended death and decay (the afterword by John Rickard goes into some explanation on this issue), and it’s through this afterword that Foster’s character shines through. He was a remarkable human being–full of love, tenderness and grace.

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Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster by Susan McNicoll

“His propensity for immense cruelty had begun to show itself.”

Running at just under 100 pages, Susan McNicoll’s book, Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster is a brief overview of a criminal career. Giancana, with his iconic appearance (see the book’s cover) is a significant figure in the history of organized crime, and like many other figures in the underworld, he started off in poverty, with humble beginnings. Sam’s  (Salvatore) father was a Sicilian peddler who left behind his pregnant bride to emigrate to America. Arriving in 1905 at age 24, Antonio Giancana moved to a  Chicago slum. An unsavoury picture emerges of Little Italy with crowded conditions, inadequate plumbing, rampant disease, and dead animals in the streets.

Antonio, working as an independent street peddler, managed to save enough money to send for his wife, and the family moved to slightly better living conditions.  Momo Salvatore, or Sam, was born in 1908, but in 1910, Sam’s mother died from a miscarriage. Sam’s father remarried, and Sam’s childhood, brief and violent, sounds miserable. The author argues that perhaps these frequent beatings led to “a defiance few adults knew how to control.” Sam ended up in a reformatory school for boys but escaped, and at age 11 was living, homeless, on the streets of Chicago until he joined a gang of boys who specialised in stealing “shorts” slang for unattended cars. Sam’s skill at “whipping” (“taking corners at high speed”) developed into skills as a getaway driver. This band of young criminals eventually became known as the 42 Gang.

By the age of 13, he was dubbed “Mooney” because of his unpredictability and crazy, out-of-control behaviour, alluding to people who supposedly go crazy to the time of the full moon. 

This information about Sam’s formative years sets the stage for what’s to come–a life of violent crime, murder and racketeering.

sam-giancana

As always with mob bios, we enter a murky world, and there’s always a degree of speculation about just who did what….In other words, what can actually be proved? The book delves into the muddy connections between Joseph Kennedy and Sam Giancana, and mob hits contracted by the CIA on Fidel Castro. The information about Sam’s relationships with Sinatra, the Kennedys, election rigging, and Marilyn Monroe is fascinating (see The Empty Glass). There’s a lot here I’d like to know more about, FBI agent William Roemer, “Sam’s true antagonist,” for example. But the book’s length aims at an overview more than an in-depth exploration of Sam Giancana’s life with the result that while the reader, at the conclusion of the book, may know what Sam Giancana did, just what made Sam tick, eludes the narrative. There are many quotes included from Sam Giancana’s daughter, Antoinette’s biography, Mafia Princess, so that’s probably a good source for additional reading.

One complaint. The swear words are abbreviated. I’m sure there was a reason for this but given the subject matter, it’s odd, and feels as though there’s a censor at work. Here’s an example.

If I was gonna get f-ed, at least it shoulda felt good.

On a final note, at one point, the book mentions that a hit was ordered on Big Jim Colosimo by Johnny Torrio, and while I’m not arguing that Torrio wasn’t responsible, I’m not sure that that’s ever been proved solidly.

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Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

“Not that I like to blame things on tequila, but…”

Eve Babitz: it’s not what she sees or who she’s with, it’s her wryly witty observations that make Slow Days, Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., from New York Review Books, so much fun to read. So who is Eve Babitz? According to Wikipedia, she seems to be mostly famous for who she slept with, but if you dig around a bit, shove the notoriety aside, then you find her work as an artist and as a writer. Matthew Specktor’s introduction tackles the issue of how Babitz’s notoriety buries her books: “to start laying out the names of Babitz’s paramours is to begin building the wall that obscures our view of her work.” Specktor also points out a major point with Babitz’s work: yes she may have slept with this or that famous person, but these very real people are “largely pseudonymous, or brushed aside in a way that feels aptly dishabille.” Babitz’s reputation, unfortunately, seems to subsume her books, and while I approached Slow Days, Fast Company prepped for pretentious name dropping–there’s none of that here, and instead the book is a refreshing, disarming perspective of California life. Whether it’s Bakersfield, Orange County, Forest Lawn, Palm Springs or even something as simple as California rain, Babitz’s canny observations make us see things through her eyes, and that’s quite a vista.

slow days fast company

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. is a series of essays–each gives a snapshot of some aspect of the author’s California 1960s and 70s life. Her writing is a mesmerizing blend of worldliness mixed with innocence, and the result is, ultimately, unique and fascinating. A part of the Hollywood fast track glamour scene, nonetheless, Babitz managed to mix with the in-crowd but always kept an outsider’s critical eye. While it’s clear that Babitz loves California, still she always maintains a healthy skepticism about the lifestyle as, for example, when she mulls over the thought that “in Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”

One essay finds Babitz visiting a fan in Bakersfield. It’s a unique area–you can think you know California and then you visit Bakersfield and realise that it’s a world apart. It’s an epic journey for Babitz: “It takes two hours for an ordinary person to get from Hollywood to Bakersfield, so I planned on three.”  She mingles with the locals and marvels, with an anthropologist’s interest, at the social mores, but always with curiosity–never condescension. The scene at the Basque restaurant echoed my own experience: “The forty of us from the party went to the White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.”

If I had a favourite essay, it would have to be Emerald Bay, which records a visit Eve Babitz made with Shawn, a gay man, who becomes her constant companion. In this affluent community, Babitz meets a boring woman called Beth Nanville, and while the essay could have dwindled into a diatribe of the affluent set in Orange County (where everyone is “so sadly hideous and Nixony,“) instead, the essay becomes a soliloquy of just what the author missed in the deeper, indecipherable side of Beth Nanville.

Ultimately, there was so much I liked about Eve Babitz, and this was unexpected from the things I’d read about her. I applauded the way she kept her love affairs more or less off the page; I loved the way she acknowledged feeling claustrophobic in San Francisco; I laughed when she describes her stylish friend Pamela and how she keeps  “hoping for something that is evil and brilliant to come out of her boyish mouth, but all she ever says is ‘Why aren’t there any men in this town?’ ” But here is, I think, the best quote from a highly quotable book:

Since I’ve started carrying a book everywhere, even to something like the Academy Awards, I’ve had a much easier time of it, and the bitterness that shortens your life has been headed off at the pass by the wonderful Paperback. Light, fitting easily into most purses, the humble paperback has saved a lot of relationships for me that would have ended in bloodshed.

A big thank you to Jacqui for reading and reviewing Eve’s Hollywood. I was on the fence about Eve Babitz’s work, but after reading Jacqui’s review, I decided to take a chance. Sometimes books written by people who are famous for being famous are pretentious, egotistical and boring. Not so Babitz. She has a remarkable eye and this book has a freshness that belies the society Babitz lived in.  Slow Days, Fast Company; The World, The Flesh and L.A. is highly recommended for regular readers, Emma, Carolina, Marina, Max, and, of course, Jacqui.
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The Mistresses of Cliveden: Natalie Livingstone

Cliveden, once the home of noblemen, is now a five-star hotel. It’s only five miles from Windsor Castle, but Cliveden, a huge spectacular house, in spite of its size and grandeur, somehow exudes illicit intimacy. Perhaps it’s the Fountain of Love statue or perhaps it’s the reputation of the Spring Cottage added in the early nineteenth century and rented by Stephen Ward. I first read about Cliveden in connection to the Profumo Affair, for it was at Cliveden that John Profumo met a naked Christine Keeler frolicking in the pool.

the mistresses of cliveden

But the Profumo Affair is not Cliveden’s only claim to fame. In the 17h century, Cliveden was originally two lodges on 160 acres when it was purchased by the notorious rake, George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham who then built Cliveden as a “monument to his scandalous affair” with his married mistress Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury. Their very public affair led to a duel between Buckingham and Shrewsbury which resulted in Shrewsbury’s death, and eventually a penitent Countess of Shrewsbury gave up Buckingham and reconciled with her son after many years of estrangement.

It’s the history of Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury that launches this non-fiction book, and sets the tone for the idea that Cliveden is a very special place–initially designed as a splendid, shameless love nest for the married-to-other-people couple who flaunted their love affair and damned the consequences. The fact that with the death of Shrewsbury, Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury got what they wanted–only to discover that it came at too high a price, also places a sort of mark upon Cliveden. Not a stain, not a blemish, but a reputation….

During its dawn in the 1660s as much as its twilight in the 1960s, Cliveden was an emblem of elite misbehavior and intrigue.

This reputation which includes a huge degree of notoriety continues with the stories of the other women who inhabited Cliveden throughout the centuries in The Mistresses of Cliveden: Three Centuries of Power, Scandal, and Intrigue in an English Stately Home by Natalie Livingstone.  Other mistresses of Cliveden include: Elizabeth Villiers, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, and Nancy Astor. Adding to the sense of scandal which seems to hang like a cloud over Cliveden’s history, Elizabeth Villiers was mistress to William III, a rather lucrative job, as it turns out.

Author Natalie Livingstone clearly loves her subject providing minute details about the building of Cliveden. For some readers who are familiar with British history, some of the information will be already well-known. The section of the Duke of Buckingham, for example, goes into the English Civil war and Buckingham’s privileged relationship to Charles II. While it’s necessary to include this information in a where-does-a story-begin-and-end sort of way, some of it will be a repeat for readers at all familiar with the period. However, there’s masses of information here about daily life including the stringent 18th century mourning requirements that necessitated the covering of any shining surface.  While the book’s title emphasizes The Mistresses of Cliveden, this is essentially the history of a house–originally designed as an ostentatious love nest (the word ‘nest’ seems ironic in this case,) and the history of this house is set within the larger context of the shifting history of England.

Cliveden had been reduced to a charred ruin. Following the fire, Mary lived alone, a tragic figure, residing in the dilapidated wing that had escaped the flames. The remains of the house, along with the lone inhabitant, became a source of morbid fascination to the public.  Her fallen situation and the ruins in which she lived fitted well with the late 18th-century trend for Gothic sites. In the latter part of the century, under the influence of writers such as Horace Walpole and William Sotheby, ‘picturesque’ and ‘melancholy’ settings began to attract artists, writers, and as the fashion for the Gothic took hold, crowds of tourists.

The house, soaked in scandal, rebuilt in the nineteenth century following a catastrophic fire, morphs with the times and with each new owner until it became a huge unsustainable white elephant that could be put to best use as a hotel. For its owners however, the house started as a temple to a licentious  man’s mistress, and ended as a symbol of monumental indiscretion.

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The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot: Thomas Maeder

There’s a scene in Gone with the Wind in which Rhett Butler gives Scarlett some advice:

I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the up-building of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the up-building, fast money in the crack-up. Remember my words. Perhaps they may be of use to you some day. 

That quote came to mind as I read the non-fiction book The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot from Thomas Maeder. Marcel Petiot (1897-1946) certainly knew how to cash in on the realities of the German Occupation of France. Of course, he’s not alone in this, but there’s something particularly horrific about this opportunistic, sadistic serial killer who fed off the terror of the Gestapo by promising safe passage to South America to those who could pay his fee. It’s impossible to create a spectrum of cruelty when it comes to murderers, but Dr. Petiot is right up there with the worst–not just for the numbers involved but for the way he capitalized on fear, preying on the most vulnerable people.

unspeakable crimes

The book opens on March 6, 1944 at 21 rue La Sueur in Paris, a three-story nineteenth-century building in the affluent sixteenth arrondissement owned by Dr. Marcel Petiot. A “greasy, foul-smelling smoke began pouring from the chimney,” and by March 11, one of the residents, who could stand it no longer, telephoned the police. Firemen broke into the building, and the police made a macabre discovery next to two coal-burning stoves. A pile of body parts and chunks of flesh,  a large pile of quicklime, rooms “crammed with an incredible assortment of furniture, art objects, chandeliers, and gadgets stored in chaotic piles,” but also a bizarrely constructed triangular room with a fake door and iron rings on the wall. The police on the scene knew that they had stumbled onto a mind-boggling crime scene, but before the case was solved, many questions (not all of which were ever answered) were raised.

This was the beginning of the infamous Dr Petiot case, and although this book could easily be categorized as ‘true crime,’ it’s also a look into the historical realities of the time, for it shows how a diabolically intelligent serial killer could operate by preying on those who were willing to take enormous risks to escape the Gestapo. Jews disappeared every day, and if dozens disappeared after making contact with Petiot, was there anything to report? And who would you report the disappearances to?

One of the fascinating aspects of the Petiot case is the glimpse into the heavily fragmented society which was pieced together under German occupation. Many government officials had heard rumours of an escape network run by a doctor, and while some turned a blind eye, in 1943, the Gestapo investigated an organization that “arranges clandestine crossings of the Spanish border by means of falsified Argentinian passports. ” Yvan Dreyfus, a wealthy Jew in prison awaiting deportation was unknowingly set up as part of the trap to snare Petiot’s escape network–a network which in reality did not exist–unless death is an acceptable escape route. Dreyfus disappeared after meeting Petiot, and a witness later claimed that someone else had seen Dreyfus dead at 21 rue La Sueur.

Ironically the mystery of the disappearance of Yvan Dreyfus led to Petiot’s arrest, torture and incarceration by the Gestapo–all things that unfortunately fed Petiot’s claim that he was a resistance hero, ran a group known as Fly-Tox and that he should be lauded for executing French traitors. Petiot argued that he’d ‘disappeared’ several French criminals who had collaborated with the Germans and then decided to take Petiot’s escape route. These people were just a few of Petiot’s victims, but most of his victims remained unidentified as they were Jews who’d kept their desperate flight secret.

The book covers Petiot’s childhood and his early adult life before this chameleon hoofed it to Paris and formed a niche for himself embezzling the state and eventually turned to murder. There are some very relevant details to be found in the Gestapo files and also in the backgrounds of the non-Jewish victims who took a one way trip to Petiot’s house. Then of course there’s the spectacular trial…But overriding the entire story is the question of just how this man, with multiple scandals in his past, a stay in a mental hospital after being declared insane and the instigator of various criminal acts was able to continually operate freely within society with all the privileges of being a physician.

Throughout the investigation, despite all the facts gathered, the question of just who Petiot was remained unanswered. No image of a human personality emerged, no motive surfaced; one could scarcely even imagine greed or sadism in a person who seemed to exist only as an incredibly dexterous performance. Petiot had fooled the French, the Germans, the Resistants, the courts, the psychiatrists, his friends and his own wife. He had acted as a solitary enigmatic force amidst a world in which he did not participate, and which he regarded only with scorn.

This is the second book I’ve read about Petiot. I’ve also seen the fantastic film Dr. Petiot, and I’ll be watching a documentary soon. For this reading I saw his resistance to Gestapo torture as just more evidence of the man’s arrogance and narcissism.  The most poignant aspect to the story has to be the mountains of suitcases found amongst the loot of the mostly unidentified victims.

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The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction: M. A. Orthofer

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction provides an entry point and more general overview of various nations’ literatures, as well as a foundation to help readers navigate what is available on the internet.”

Years ago, I was so busy burning through the ‘canon’ of British and the American literature, I didn’t give a great deal of thought to reading books in translation. Certainly, I read the Greats–the ones most of us come across in university courses, and I can comfortably say that almost everything assigned, I loved. Tolstoy, Madame Bovary, etc. etc. Well, why bore anyone–after all most of us have read those same books… It’s only been the past few years that I really became interested in books in translation, and again, not as a topic, but the awakening probably began through curiosity about crime novels in translation. Of course, there are a handful of publishers who do a marvelous job of bringing books to the shelves that we would not have otherwise–special thanks here must go to the publisher of international crime titles,  Bitter Lemon Press who delighted me, repeatedly, with Claudia Piñeiro.

complete review guide

Thanks to the efforts of some publishers I’ve read some marvelous books in translation, but let’s face it, beyond the Great Novels, it’s almost impossible to ‘break’ into a country’s literature without some sort of help. Someone who can point us in the right direction … And that brings me to The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction from M. A. Orthofera must-have reference volume for any reader seeking to broaden the reading experience. And I’m going to add here that ‘reference’ book sounds a bit ominous, and yet this book is very accessible, very readable, and very well organized. Don’t miss reading a page of this book.

The intro begins very informatively laying out the current publishing situation in America with “only a few hundred” translated books hitting the market very year. Orthofer points out that we “are arguably spoiled for choice,” and that’s a good way of putting it as when I visit a brick and mortar book shop, I see row upon row of new books but very little captures my attention. But things aren’t bleak at all: Orthofer states “an established group of smaller publishers that have found success in focusing largely or exclusively on fiction in translation,” are shaking up our choices, and that we may very well be “entering a golden age of literary dissemination and exposure.” The goal of Orthofer’s book, then is to “lead readers into and through this rapidly expanding world.”

Does this volume accomplish this admirable goal? Yes indeed it does. I can’t remember ever being this excited about a reference book, so that should tell you something. Here’s a quote I loved:

When publishers in the United States do seek out translated works, they often take their cues from elsewhere. Critical acclaim, literary prizes, and best-seller status–preferably in  several different markets, rather than just the original local one–are prerequisites for most foreign fiction to be considered for the American market, especially by large commercial publishers. The herd mentality is widely practiced elsewhere as well, leading to a narrow, homogenous tier of international fiction that is widely available throughout the world and in many languages whereas excellent works from less internationally celebrated authors can struggle to find the recognition and readers they deserve. Even though exceptional works do come into circulation this way, too often it is the second-rate works-the earnest prizewinning novels and imitative local thrillers that make the cut and disappoint readers (with their mediocre quality) and publishers (with their low sales).

Sound familiar?

Orthofer goes on to explain that “smaller and more nimble publishers” are bringing a “broader and more innovative range of foreign fiction to American audiences,” but as we all know, these publishers have “fewer resources.”

Another quote I must add, simply because I’d never come to this conclusion, even though I loathe a lot of the mush being published here:

Readers in the United States seem to prefer that in this nation of immigrants and assimilation, their authors become recognizably Americanized beyond writing in English. Nostalgia for the old country is permissible, but America should be the reference point. The durable formula of combining ethnic background and American contexts has proved remarkably successful, and variations on the multigenerational, transnational historic saga are the most popular kind of vaguely foreign fiction-as long as they are strongly tied to present-day America: The Joy Luck Club, to name just one title out of thousands, is indicative of this phenomenon.

Finally I understand The Joy Luck Club’s success. I’ve been baffled about that for years. And that brings up another point–probably a fairly obvious one–that “the success of a movie version can lead to the rebranding of a book” for the American market.

I knew I loved this book when Orthofer mentioned a pet peeve of mine when it comes to foreign crime series:

publishers also continue to present foreign series out of sequence. When new authors are introduced into translation, American and British publishers generally select the particular volume they believe will appeal most to English-speaking readers, and in the case of mystery series, this is rarely the first volume. If more work by the author is deemed worth translating, publication may be haphazard, a major irritant when authors develop their characters across several books.

Rants and excitement aside, I cannot empathize enough what a great resource this book is. Countries and/or regions are separated geographically into chapters. First we get an overview of the books considered classics, then the important writers of the 20th century (with brief descriptions of their work), sections about more modern writers and then there’s a ‘Keep in Mind’ section in some of the chapters. There’s a section called Eastern Europe which goes into some detail regarding how the collapse of Communism impacted the book market. Apparently modern Russian books are a much harder sell than books published in the Soviet era. Some chapters are shorter than others, which is to be expected, and if a reader is knowledge about a specific country’s literature, I’m sure he/she will argue that a name or two has been omitted or disagree with the author’s opinions.

I came away from this guide with a long list of new names, more book titles to read, and a determination to increase support for publishers bringing translated fiction to the marketplace.  I should add, though, that getting this knowledge doesn’t solve all the problems. Just check out the price of Lucky Per, a classic from Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan. The paperback on Amazon is 82.95 (as of 6/25/16) with private sellers running about $20 less. But on a positive note, I found plenty of other contemporary titles, some out of print, very reasonably priced.

Special thanks to Karen from BookerTalk for turning me onto this book in the first place. This book is going on my Best-of-Year list.

Review copy.

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Filed under Non Fiction, Orthofer M. A.

The Search For the Man in the Iron Mask: A Historical Detective Story by Paul Sonnino

“By 1872 there were at least nineteen different theories about the man in the iron mask, each one more preposterous than the other.”

I’ve long been interested in the story of the man in the iron mask. It seems a particularly cruel fate that this man died without his identity revealed, and, recently, while reading The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel, all my interest resurged. Wrangel mentioned, that as a young boy, he visited the Peter Paul fortress which served as a prison run by his great-uncle, the Commandant. One day, Wrangel sees an old man called only “the unknown” who’s been imprisoned for more than sixty years. So here we have two young men both locked up for the duration of their lives. Both unidentified.

the search for the man in the iron mask

If you dig into the story of the man in the iron mask, you immediately run into the notion that this man was masked in order to conceal his identity, and that theory, of course, leans towards the idea that the prisoner was recognizable (an idea Voltaire was quite excited about)–an identical twin of the king, for example. But if you stop and think about it, this was not the age of social media. There was no facebook, no television, cameras did not exist. Just how many people would recognize the king, let alone someone who resembled him?

And that brings me to The Search for the Man in the Iron Mask: A Historical Detective Story and it’s thrilling that the author, Paul Sonnino, a history professor at UC Santa Barbara tackled this fascinating historical mystery. First he lays out some of the popular theories regarding the possible identity of the man in the iron mask:

  • a son of Oliver Cromwell
  • the rabble-rousing” Duke de Beaufort
  • a bastard child of Anne of Austria produced from rape
  • the child conceived between Anne of Austria and a lover
  • a bastard son of Louis XIV

The quest begins with the very simple known facts: “On or about August 20, 1669,” The prisoner was taken to the “citadel of the fortified town of Pinerolo in northern Italy.” Already a prisoner there was “the notorious Nicolas Fouquet, one-time superintendent of finances under Louis XIV.” The author picks up the development of the legend of the man in the iron mask again in 1687:

By that time Fouquet was dead, and the author of a handwritten news letter began to spread another rumor. According to him, the governor, whom he referred to as Cinq Mars, had picked up a prisoner wearing an iron mask in Pinerole and transported him to the island of Sainte-Marguerite off the Mediterranean Coast. The author, moreover, intimated that this prisoner was Fouquet, who was, therefore, still alive. This was the beginning of the legend of the man in the iron mask.

Sonnino argues that amidst all the rumors, gossip, scandal sheets, anti-royalty sentiment, and creative elaboration “evidence of some sort of prisoner, moreover, eventually surfaced. When, in September of 1698, the governor, whose name happened to be Saint-Mars, assumed a new position as governor of the Bastille in Paris, he brought the prisoner with him, and this event was broadcast all over Europe by the Gazette d’Amsterdam. ”

Tracing the legend’s exponential growth, the author then tracks the creative embellishments added by Voltaire while the mask morphs from iron to silver to pewter and ultimately black velvet. But it’s finally thanks to Jesuit Henri Griffet, “former chaplain of the Bastille,” who had in his possession a journal belonging to Etienne de Junca, second-in-command at the Bastille from 1690-1706, that a breakthrough appears in the mystery. De Junca “noted the arrival of Saint-Mars accompanied by an old prisoner who was masked and who had been with Saint-Mars since his days in Pinerola. We read nothing more in this journal about this prisoner until November 19, 1703, when Junca noted that the prisoner, ‘who was always masked with a black velvet’ had died and was quickly buried under the name of ‘Marchioly.’ “

Sonnino’s aim, in discovering the identity of the man in the iron mask, is to separate fact from legend. This is an extremely personal, passionate quest, and the author explains how the germ of this novel was created when former student, Ron Martin, suggested a logical argument regarding the “secret of the iron mask.” Essentially this is a detective story with Sonnino taking us through the popular list of suspects and eliminating them one by one, and then the real quest begins. There are times when Sonnino thinks he has his man only to uncover evidence, or a timeline, to the contrary. It’s best if the reader comes to this book with a grounding in French history as there are many many names here as the quest continues

It takes a love of history–not fiction–to tackle this sort of monumental quest, so bravo to Sonnino for having the energy, curiosity and the desire to discover the truth. For this reader, the story of the man of the iron mask has always been paradoxical. The prisoner seems to have been ‘important,’ and yet apparently no one lobbied for his release, no influential family seemed to step forward. This indicated that the prisoner was, arguably, a ‘nobody,’ friendless or powerless, so why all the secrecy? Why all the security?  We will probably never know the identity of the prisoner beyond any doubt, but the author certainly provides a cogent, logical and satisfactory theory backed up with documentation that fits his discovery.

review copy.

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Best of 2015

December again, and it’s time to compile my best of 2015 reading list.

Best Classic Russian:

Notes From a Dead House: Dostoevsky

Want to know what life was like in a Siberian prison camp? … read this. Human nature at its best and its worst. Sentencing to a Siberian prison camp must have come as a terrible blow to Dostoevsky, but this book–a gift to the world–is the result.

Best Non Fiction:

This House of Grief: Helen Garner. This emotionally wrenching non-fiction book gives the reader an insider look at the Farquharson case in which a divorced man was accused of murdering his three sons. While this is the story of the trial, Helen Garner gives us so much more than this–an eyewitness account but also the torturous cost of the trial on those involved. Again–the best and worst of human nature. I want to read Joe Cinque’s Consolation, but after reading This House of Grief, I think it’s best to put some distance between the two books.

Best New American Crime Fiction:

Canary: Duane Swierczynski

I enjoyed Swierczynski’s fantastic Charlie Hardie trilogy, so I was eager to see what he’d achieved with Canary the story of how a college student gets in over her head when she’s roped in by the police as a ‘confidential informer.’ This is a topical subject and with his usual wizardry Swierczynski creates a formidable, unforgettable heroine in a tale which has many surprises.

Best Classic American Crime Fiction:

The Big Heat: by William McGivern

This moody, hard-hitting tale of corruption involves a lone cop who goes rogue while following a violent path for revenge. Read the book. See the film. Gloria Grahame…. enough said.

The big heat

Best New American Fiction:

Eileen : Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen was one of the most interesting fiction books I read this year. Not sure what I expected with this one, but someone did a great job with the cover design which drew me to the book in the first place. This is the story of a strange, disconnected young woman who works at a local prison as an office worker. With a horrible home life and no social life whatsoever, something has to give for Eileen, and just what sets her free is the substance of this marvelous, dark tale.

eileen

Best Australian Fiction:

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop: Amy Witting. A sequel to I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop is set in a TB sanitorium, and Isobel, ill, stuck in bed, is forced to interact with people she likes as well as those she dislikes. This is a heroine we cheer for as she finds a place for herself in an institution, and receives more kindness from strangers than she ever received from her family. People who’ve never been given love, aren’t sure how to receive it, and Witting knows just how to create this on paper. Read both novels.

Best New British Fiction:

A Pleasure and a Calling: Phil Hogan. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for unreliable narrators. Phil Hogan’s novel is told by a middle-aged, successful estate agent– trustworthy, respectable, reliable…  but is he?… cross this man and your life will suddenly take a turn for the worse. Wickedly funny and dark, this book is nothing less than creepily delightful.

a pleasure and a callling

Best Reprinted British Fiction:

A View of the Harbour: Elizabeth Taylor

I read two Elizabeth Taylor novels this year, both from NYRBs–A Game of Hide and Seek and A View of the Harbour. A View of the Harbour, IMO, was the better novel. Perhaps the seaside setting helped, but overall, I found the characters in A View of the Harbour much more interesting.

Best new Crime Series: Glasgow Underworld Trilogy by Malcolm Mackay

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

How a Gunman Says Goodbye

The Sudden Arrival of Violence

A punchy trilogy… but wait… Now there’s Every Night I dream of Hell which includes some of the same characters. Will we see this series extended?

Best Irish Crime Fiction:

Gun Street Girl: Adrian McKinty. Sean Duffy struggles with an open-and-shut case which reeks of a staged crime.

Best Scottish Fiction:

For the Love of Willie: Agnes Owens

I’m a long-term fan of the criminally under-appreciated Scottish author Agnes Owens; she hasn’t written a great deal but if you pick a book by Owen, you can’t go wrong.   For the Love of Willie is narrated by a woman who lives in a mental hospital, and regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for this type of setting. Draw your own conclusions.

for the love of willie

Bext French Crime Fiction:

Vertigo: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narejac. This two writers, working as a collaborative team, wrote crime with the idea that the ‘nightmare would never end’ for the protagonist. Most of us have seen the Hitchcok film made from the book, but there are many differences, so crime fans shouldn’t miss this. This is one of the titles in the very impressive, new Pushkin Press Vertigo line.

Funniest Book:

Crane Mansions: Gert Loveday

I don’t normally go for books featuring children, but I’ll read anything Gert Loveday writes. This mischievous tale involves a child who ends up at Crane Mansions, Regulatory School for the Indigent. If you think this sounds like a horrible place, you’d be right, but this very funny tale subverts all reader expectations.

crane mansions

Best reread:

Birds of the Air: Alice Thomas Ellis. I never tire of this book. A wonderful story of grief, secrets and family relationships.

A novel I meant to read for a long time:

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand: Franz Werfel. The story of a successful bureaucrat who is forced to revisit the sins of his past.

Pale Blue Ink

Best Short Story Collection:

Marseille Noir . Crime stories which give the flavor of this city. I moved from watching the French-Belgian film The Connection to reading about crime in Marseille. Review to follow.

marseille noir

 

 

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Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction, Garner Helen, Hogan Phil, Loveday Gert, Mackay Malcolm, McGivern William P, McKinty Adrian, Moshfegh Eileen, Owens Agnes, Swierczynski Duane, Taylor, Elizabeth, Werfel Franz, Witting Amy

A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising: Miron Bialoszewski

“Then-the sun was just going down-the partisans undressed at a command. Then it became fairly dark and we were sent down the road to our new quarters. We saw them standing there and standing here, stripped down to their underwear for the time being. There was nothing ominous-despite this-in the warm breeze. And yet, as we know, after dark they had to strip naked and wait. What happened later-is hard to determine. Some were taken elsewhere. Some came back. Survived. But the others-no one knows what happened. They vanished. Were they silently taken off somewhere to the side that night? Or later? It’s never been completely explained.”

A certain synchronicity brought me to A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising on the tail of Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz. The latter book, a fictional account of a brief segment in the life of the Polish author shows Bruno Schultz, in 1938, desperately trying to communicate with the outside world via Thomas Mann. The Germans have yet to arrive in Schultz’s hometown of Drohobycz. The novel makes reference to the horrific slaughter committed by the Nazis yet to come, and in Miron Bialoszewski’s A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, the slaughter is well underway.

memoir of the warsaw uprisingThe memoir begins on August 1 1944. Author Bialoszewski was a civilian during the uprising so this is not a military overview of the event but rather the book concentrates on memories which recall the chaotic period. Almost immediately, we know that the author survives:

I shall be frank recollecting my distant self in small facts, perhaps excessively precise, but there will be only the truth. I am forty-five years old now, twenty-three years have gone by, I am lying here on my couch safe and sound, free, in good health and spirits, it is October, night 1967, Warsaw once again has 1,300,00 inhabitants. I was seventeen years old when I went to bed one day and for the first time in my life heard artillery fire. It was the front. And that was probably September 2, 1939. I was right to be terrified. Five years later the all too familiar Germans were still walking along the streets in their uniforms.

Bialoszewski tells his story rather as though we are sitting in the same room with him listening to his account. His memories are subject to revision–almost as though he tries to pull the scenes out of the fog and present them to his audience. Sometimes his style is abrupt–staccato, and there’s breathlessness to the action.

August 1 starts inauspiciously enough with the author being sent, by his mother, to collect bread. People are gathering on the streets and he hears that “they killed two Germans in Ogrodowa Street.” Tanks are “cruising around,” the author hears shooting, “heavier weapons” including cannons, and then people begin cheering: “The uprising,” we told each other immediately like everyone else in Warsaw.

In spite of the sounds of machine guns and rocket flares, the general mood is definitely excitement. Civilians join in; barricades are erected. The author, now at a friend’s house, has a meal, nonchalantly plays a game and goes to sleep.

It was raining. Drizzling. It was cold. We could hear machine guns, that rat-a-tat. Nearer burst, then farther off. And rocket flares. Every so often. In the sky. We fell asleep to their noise, I think.

That short quote is a good example of the author’s style as memories flood back. There’s a sense that every detail is important. Every incident witnessed must be recorded.

The holiday mood of the uprising continues with intense organization. Partisans “showed up,” and “several fronts” are established on the streets. Tanks ride right over the barricades, and the author remembers people “throwing down tables, chairs, wardrobes onto the street” to fortify the barricades. But when furniture proves futile against tanks, concrete is removed from the pavement. Still, in spite of dire signs, the excitement continues. But by the fourth of August, the atmosphere begins to change.

We ran out into Choldna Street. The street was covered with clouds. Rust colored and dark brown. From bricks, from smoke. When it settled we saw a terrifying transformation. A reddish-gray dust was covering everything. Trees. Leaves. A centimeter thick, I think. And that devastation. One Wache less. But at what a cost. Anyway. Things were already beginning to change. To anxiety. And always for the worse. Visually too. From Zelazna Bram Square, from Bank Square, from Elektoralna Street along our side of Choldna against the wall, people were running and running–women, children, all hnched over, gray, covered with some kind of powder. I remember the sun was setting. Fires were burning. The people ran on and on. A flood of people. From the bombed-out houses. They were fleeing to Wola.

The atrocities begin….Water and food become critical issues, and at one point in the book an exciting escape via the sewers takes place, yet grim realities set in as the author asks if the Polish will receive help from the outside world: “perhaps it was worthwhile to defend, to rescue whatever and whomever could be rescued. Maybe at this point someone would smile pityingly.”

The Warsaw Uprising: August 1, 1944-October 2, 1944 –an important event in the history of WWII for several reasons–is recounted here by someone who lived through it, and this remarkable memoir grants the reader a sense of this event. Miron Bialoszewski (1922-1983), who was just 22 years old when the uprising took place, wrote the memoir more than twenty years after it occurred. The book’s introduction explains the background of the uprising: the Red Army was “encamped in the working-class suburb of Praga, directly across the river from Warsaw,” and how the Polish resistance Home Army “encouraged and directed by the London government in exile […] initiated the uprising in the capital.” But as the introduction, by translator Madeline G. Levine, tells us “the people of Warsaw were left to fight and die by themselves.” By the time the uprising ended, over 200,000 Poles were dead.

Originally published in 1970. Maps are included at the end of the book.

Translated by Madeline G. Levine

Review copy

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