A deceptively rich and cumulatively powerful novel.
At the outset, this might seem like minor Morrison (A Mercy, 2008, etc.), not only because its length is borderline novella, but because the setup seems generic. A black soldier returns from the Korean War, where he faces a rocky re-entry, succumbing to alcoholism and suffering from what would subsequently be termed PTSD. Yet perhaps, as someone tells him, his major problem is the culture to which he returns: “An integrated army is integrated misery. You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs. Change that. They treat dogs better.” Ultimately, the latest from the Nobel Prize–winning novelist has something more subtle and shattering to offer than such social polemics. As the novel progresses, it becomes less specifically about the troubled soldier and as much about the sister he left behind in Georgia, who was married and deserted young, and who has fallen into the employ of a doctor whose mysterious experiments threaten her life. And, even more crucially, it’s about the relationship between the brother and his younger sister, which changes significantly after his return home, as both of them undergo significant transformations. “She was a shadow for most of my life, a presence marking its own absence, or maybe mine,” thinks the soldier. He discovers that “while his devotion shielded her, it did not strengthen her.” As his sister is becoming a woman who can stand on her own, her brother ultimately comes to terms with dark truths and deep pain that he had attempted to numb with alcohol. Before they achieve an epiphany that is mutually redemptive, even the earlier reference to “dogs” reveals itself as more than gratuitous.
Steinbeck refuses to allow himself to be pigeonholed. This is as completely different from Tortilla Flat and In Dubious Battle as they are from each other. Only in his complete understanding of the proletarian mentality does he sustain a connecting link though this is assuredly not a "proletarian novel". It is oddly absorbing this picture of the strange friendship between the strong man and the giant with the mind of a not-quite-bright child. Driven from job to job by the failure of the giant child to fit into the social pattern, they finally find in a ranch what they feel their chance to achieve a homely dream they have built. But once again, society defeats them. There's a simplicity, a directness, a poignancy in the story that gives it a singular power, difficult to define. Steinbeck is a genius and an original.
Roth follows his recent succession of critically acclaimed novels (e.g., American Pastoral, 1997; The Plot Against America, 2004) with a compact meditation on mortality, which partially echoes his 1991 memoir-novel Patrimony.
Inspired by the medieval English allegorical drama whose title it shares, it’s the story of an erring, death-haunted representative man (never named). It begins as his departed spirit observes his own funeral, then weaves backward and forward throughout his past life, envisioned as inevitable progression from virile youth through morally compromised adulthood and middle age, into “his sixties when his health began giving way and his body seemed threatened all the time,” and beyond—into the beyond. This Everyman grows up in Elizabeth, N.J., the son of a benevolent and prosperous jeweler, further blessed by a doting mother and a tirelessly kind and supportive “perfect” older brother. He enjoys a successful career as an advertising agency’s art director, but fails at marriage (losing three wives, as he pursues countless other women), and is almost as disastrous a parent, suffering permanent estrangement from the two sons of his first marriage, but achieving a sustaining relationship with daughter (from his second marriage) Nancy, whose patient filial devotion interestingly parallels that of the medieval Everyman’s character Good Deeds, who accompanies the title character into the realm of Death. This risky novel is significantly marred by redundancy and discursiveness (especially by a surfeit of rhetorical questions), but energized by vivid writing, palpable emotional intensity and several wrenching scenes—for example, encounters in the painting class that he (an amateur artist) organizes for other seniors at his retirement village; a blistering exchange with second wife Phoebe, long aware of his womanizing; a wonderful conversation with a black gravedigger at the cemetery where his parents are buried, where he’ll soon be buried.
A rich exploration of the epiphany that awaits us all—that “life’s most disturbing intensity is death.”
Out of Australia’s rough-and-tumble opal country, London-dwelling Rice’s debut extracts a sweet little nougat—or, it might be said, a chunk of shameless melodrama.
Ashmol Williamson’s opal-mining father drinks too much; his pretty mother yearns for the beauties of England (and the upper-class marriage prospect) that she left behind in following her husband to Australia (with his distant dream of wealth); and Ashmol’s sister Kellyanne has—well, she has two silent and invisible friends, a girl named Dingan and a boy named Pobby. The toughly boyish Ashmol ridicules Kellyanne’s friends, but his quick-witted sister is ever ready at their defense—when Ashmol punches the empty air where Dingan is supposed to “be” and asks why he gets no punches back, Kellyanne retorts, “Cos Dingan is a pacifist, stupid.” The same is true with the children’s father, whose skepticism borders on the cruel—until, that is, his wife castigates him fiercely (“You haven’t found any opal in two years. Not a glimpse of it. And opal’s real enough for you”), humiliating him so badly that he makes amends in any way he can, even including the offer to take Pobby and Dingan with him for a working day at his claim. Which he does, the only trouble being that he forgets them there. Kellyanne’s distraction at the loss of her friends sends her into a serious decline—physical? psychological?—and Ashmol into action (“And then I figured out something else. I didn’t like to admit it, but it seemed to me the only way to make Kellyanne better would be to find Pobby and Dingan”). Ashmol’s activities and the tale’s unwindings from there on are comprised of approximately equal parts of, let us say, Dickens, Twain—and Disney.
Some will grumble, feeling manipulated, while many, many more will shed a quiet tear or two.
Ms. Jansson, who wrote those "Moominland" fancies for children, has directed her inventive hook-and-button plain talk at some adult concerns. In this series of brief dialogues and adventures of Grandmother (85) and Sophia (ten), the second childhood parallels the first in new awarenesses and incipient rebellion; but on the lonely way of the aging, hobbled by physical frailty, there are moments of sudden, inexplicable sadness. Grandmother and Sophia for the most part are honest contemporaries; they forage on their nearly isolated island, plot and explore, solemnly converse and flare up at one another: "Shall I tell [your father] how you were brave?" asks Grandmother. "You can tell it on your deathbed so it doesn't go to waste," says Sophia. "That's a bloody good idea," decides Grandmother. But while the family (the father is there but not heard from) goes about island survival and diversions—the lights of Midsummer Eve, drought, a flood and storms, an alien neighbor—Grandmother tentatively exposes herself to feelings about life and its endings: "Unless I tell [a tale from my youth] . . . it gets closed off and then it's lost." She is puzzled by an elderly friend's calm: ". . . don't you ever get curious? Or upset? Or simply terrified?" Old woman and child edge toward their own thresholds, and at the close Grandmother is resting and waiting. Spindrift perceptions, fresh and penetrating.
Bringing Great Expectations to desperate children ravaged by revolution, an eccentric teacher becomes a martyr to literature and transforms the prospects of a strong-willed girl.
He’s actually “Mr. Watts.” But so identified does he become with Dickens’ wondrous coming-of-age narrative that he’s known as “Mr. Pip.” Jones (Paint Your Wife, 2004, etc.) juxtaposes this English exile, married to a native black woman and now the last white man on an unspecified Survivor-style island, with teenaged Matilda, his most eager student. He’s a stopgap professor, really, just volunteering to instruct 20 kids, seven to 15 years old, who gather for shelter from the war between the “redskins” and the “rebels.” A long-bearded Scheherazade in a white linen suit, Watts draws out the telling of Dickens’ classic to the children and soon we have the age-old tale: story as balm, spell, savior. He also invites the island mothers in for show ‘n’ tell: chances to share their wisdom. They offer fishing tips; rhapsodies of the sea; and one tells of a woman who “once turned a white man into marmalade and spread him onto her toast.” That tale spinner is Matilda’s mother, and she becomes Watts’s rival, her pidgin Bible contrasting his Victorian tale; she is imperiled nature; he’s threatening culture. He reminisces about “the smell of fresh-mown grass and lawnmower oil”; she fears the capture of her daughter’s soul. And yet in time, for Matilda’s sake, the pair negotiate a tremulous peace—one soon savaged by murder, as the redskins descend. As the revolution intensifies, the schoolhouse burns, along with Great Expectations. And Watts’s last injunction to his students is that they rebuild the story orally, for themselves, piece by piece.
A little Gauguin, a bit of Lord Jim, the novel’s lyricism evokes great beauty and great pain.
In what reads like a Bible blog—a literary, layman’s interpretation—the author comes to terms with the death of his mother and a whole lot more after discovering her biblical notes and annotations.
As a highly respected literary critic, essayist and novelist, Kirn (Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, 2009, etc.) inherited more skepticism than faith from his mother. He had not read the Bible until he discovered, after his mother’s death, that she had not only read it, likely more than once, but had taken copious notes. In those notes and the Scripture that inspired them, he discovered “my mother’s ghost. It swirled up out of the margins of her Bible and granted my wish to hear her voice again.” Thus motivated, Kirn began to read the Bible through the eyes of his “freethinker” mother and to confront the God who imbued mankind with sin and mortality—the God who let his mother suffer in her final stages. “Maybe because my first motive was love, I’m afraid there’s a lot of anger in what I’ve written,” he admits. “How could there not be? The half-shaved head. The morphine. The Bible stories themselves, so harsh and violent. Most of the anger is mine. Some is my mother’s. But all of it belongs to God in some way. It came from him; why not return it?” The entries are as short as they are provocative, frequently assuming an accusatory familiarity that fundamentalists might well find blasphemous.
If Kirn has continued reading the Bible, he should continue writing about it, for his responses to Job and the New Testament (as well as his mother’s) might well be even pricklier than what he offers here.
On the heels of The Blue Flower (1997), here's a slighter, equally charming, half as deep little novel—about snobbery and meanness in the provinces—that the immensely gifted Fitzgerald published in England in 1978. It's 1959, and the ``small, wispy and wiry'' Florence Green, a widow and middle-aged, wants to open a bookshop in the little, bleak, remote, sea-swept East Anglian town of Hardborough. And so she borrows money to buy her stock and, as a place to house both it and herself, the High Street building known as Old House, over half a millennium old and faultless except for being damp and haunted. But as Mr. Raven, the marshman, says, Florence ``don't frighten,'' which is why he has her hold onto a horse's tongue while he files its teeth. What Florence hasn't counted on, though, is the studied malevolence of Hardborough's social illuminary and civic leader, Mrs. Gamart, who now says she wanted Old House for an ``arts centre.'' And things, indeed, start going wrong for Florence—not from the real ghost, who seems frightening but harmless, but from inexplicable changes in statute, policy, and law. When Florence is tipped off by a slippery ex-BBC employee that she ought to stock Lolita, she questions only whether it's a ``good book''—and so she asks the town's one true aristocrat, the dour Edmund Brundish, veteran of WW I. He says it's good (though he dies soon after), but Florence's troubles still grow only worse, both before and after Nabokov sells out. Readers will learn the sorry end, while enjoying on the way a wondrous cast of townsfolk, including Florence's assistant, the sweetly tough Christine Gipping, who, at 11, as Florence says, ``has the ability to classify, and that can't be taught,'' though she does make an error (true human style) that costs dear. Pitch-perfect in every tone, note, and detail: unflinching, humane, and wonderful.
A master of fiction turns to non-fiction for this narrative of a sailor who was shipwrecked for 10 days on the Caribbean before being washed ashore in his native Colombia, half-dead. Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Laureate famed for his novels, actually wrote this short essay as a series of newspaper articles over 30 years ago in Bogota. Writing in the voice of the sailor, Luis Alejandro Velasco, the author narrates how Velasco had set sail from Mobile, Alabama, in a ship laden with contraband goods. Struck by an ominous storm, Velasco and four of his mates were pitched into the sea, where Velasco watched all of them drown in turn before he miraculously spotted one of the ship's life rafts floating on the turbulent sea towards him. Himself nearly drowning, Velasco managed one last Herculean effort to reach the raft. Therein begins his harrowing tale of fighting off daily rounds of hunger, thirst, blazing sun, and sharks as he drifts aimlessly, yet measurably, toward Colombia. Though near death upon his salvation on a deserted beach, Velasco suddenly finds himself a hero to the peasants who discover him, and he spends some time thereafter trying to peddle his story for money. Garcia Marquez spent 120 hours interviewing Velasco (which amounts to over an hour per page); and the result shows in its detail. When the articles first appeared, Garcia Marquez's name was not used (they were signed by Velasco himself). But the story is undeniably Garcia Marquez; there is a fatalism here which fits neatly into the normal scheme of his great fiction: at no time does Velasco ever really interfere with his fate or grasp any opportunity to transcend his situation. Rather, he drifts and Fate decrees that his direction is toward survival. A tailor-made tale for the author—himself a drifter from his native land—and one that gives great insight into his early years as a writer. To be read for that reason alone.
At 82, Dame Spark brings yet again a brimming supply of wit, drollery, understatement, and plain human interest to a tale—this one about changing sexual alliances in a tiny private school in Europe.
Rowland Mahler, 29, and his wife, Nina Parker, 26, are the founders, managers, and faculty of College Sunrise, the little school that from time to time they move from one European location to another, partly for cachet but partly for the convenience of leaving certain debts behind. Right now, the school has nine students, aged sixteen and up, each supported by well-off parents and each made touching, memorable, or amusing by the merest stroke or two of the Sparkian brush. Still, as Nina teaches her “Etiquette” course and Rowland carries on with his popular creative writing class (one reason for creating College Sunrise was so Rowland could write a novel), one student does come more to the forefront, and that’s Chris Wiley, only 18 but—troublingly indeed for the increasingly envious Rowland—visibly gifted as a writer. Worse than just being talented, Chris, unlike the badly blocked Rowland, is cruising right along with his own first novel—on Mary, Queen of Scots—and even getting some attention from publishers and movie people, fickle as they may prove to be. As the school year moves forward amid various perfections of detail, atmosphere, and event—field trips, fashion shows, hotel dances, sometimes even classes—the real story lies in Rowland’s obsessive envy of Chris and his jealousy-induced breakdown (Rowland actually stays at a monastery for a bit, trying to recover), events followed by one delicately done twist after another as a marriage fails, another comes about, and the Chris–Rowland “problem” is resolved in a most unexpected way.
Another perfect little novel of manners from the ever-wondrous Spark (Aiding and Abetting, 2001, etc.): a microcosm of the world we live in, constructed with wizardry, delicacy, sharp eye, and huge heart.