E. L. Doctorow – a tribute

E.L. Doctorow died yesterday.

As a teenager, I had been happily snacking my way through fine mid-level fiction from Alex Haley and James Michener when I stumbled upon Doctorow’s Ragtime. Stumbled upon is not really accurate, my literate mother had, with admirable subterfuge, left it on the table in my room without comment. So I wandered in and emerged a different person. The audacity of it, particularly the mixing of fictional characters with historical ones (Freud, Jung, Houdini, Emma Goldman, Theodore Dreiser), the impossible New York of the 20s, the impudent eschewing of quotation marks in dialogue, the the author’s quiet rage around the politics of race and class left me permanently branded – that a book should so unravel me, that mere symbols on a page could be so transformative- it left me with a hunger for this sort of art that has sustained and thrilled me for decades. It brought me to writing and it made the best of fiction larger and truer than life. I remember going to my mother and asking for more like this – leading directly to Roth and Updike and Heller and a lifelong, fully requited literary love affair with certain kind of writing.

I have read a number of other Doctorow books (I have loved them all), but I will now read Ragtime as my version of a homily in his honour.

Book review – All Involved by Ryan Gattis

Book review – All Involved by Ryan Gattis

I live a few blocks from the beautifully curated Love Books in Johannesburg. Kate Rogan, its inimitable proprietor, has gotten to know my tastes over the years, and a few weeks ago she called and said –  got something for you. She didn’t even bother to describe it, just put it behind the counter a waited for me to come in and collect it. Which, of course, I did.

This is a story of urban ravage (inspired by true events) told against the backdrop of the LA riots in 1993, which were sparked by police beating of Rodney King. I lived and worked in LA at the time, not too far from the violence, and I remember the shock of it, the disbelief at smoke-darkened skies and near hysterical TV presenters and images of graphic mayhem and brutality as I stayed home for fear of the streets that had turned from familiar to menacing. The author, Ryan Gattis, teaches at a University near LA, and this is his 5th novel.

The book’s opening chapter is perhaps the most explosive and shocking I have ever read. It is told in the first person and ends with an account of the breathtakingly brutal beating and murder of the narrator in the mean streets of an East LA Latino neighbourhood, all told from his own perspective from a early stroll walk home from work to his own demise.

Thus starts a series of chapters, each told in the first person by a new character, the thread of the plot passed along and held aloft from different points of view, and narrated in authentic vernacular. I am generally not a fan of books told in the first person, particularly in street slang (it dampens the possibility of beautifully crafted language), but in this case the reader hears the voice of each character ringing true and clear, and thus the story gains this polyphonic texture which would not have been otherwise possible. Moreover, many of the characters are from the same Latino gang – separating the voices into distinct believable personalities within single chapters is a monumental achievement.

The book is less about the riots than about a particular set of crimes that were committed under cover of the riots – as the city burned and the police and firefighters struggled to impose control (in mainly black South Central LA), a particular Latino crew uses the collapse in law enforcement for their own purposes, unleashing a truly scarring set of events – starting with a single gang-related killing and escalating beyond anyone’s control.

Even amongst these young men (and some young women and very young boys) who murder without guilt (and sometimes with a glee), Gattis manages to find some undercurrent of humanity. There are other characters – a nurse, a firefighter, an anonymous member of a government ‘revenge’ troop outside of normal law-enforcement procedures – all of whom paint a complex and multilayered picture of a truly dystopian moment in recent US urban history.

From the unusual ‘plot-by-many-voices’ structure, to the hopeless and violent landscapes of each character’s lives, to the first person descriptions of anger, fear and retribution, this book is well outside of the usual literary fare, and provided me with a reading pleasure well outside of my expectations. FInally, a health warning – this book describes human violence with unflinching urgency and detail – not for the soft-skinned.

Book review – Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Book Review – Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This is a startling book. It is startling in almost every interpretation of the word. It is startling because it is like nothing I have ever read before – it is like a new species of narrative and a re-invention of the novel form. It startling because it really, really short (perhaps shorter than any novel I have ever read), so short that I felt cheated on the price (this churlishness was quickly banished as the story took hold, softly and without fanfair). This book is startling because there was something on every page which startled me – a sentence, a tangential observation, a clamourous truth, a quote from Rilke, an unruly description.

Jenny Offill wrote her first book in 1999, where it passed largely unnoticed. This one, 15 years later, was noticed by everyone (it was one of the New York Times’ Best 10 of 2014). The praise for an offering this slim (and somewhat disorienting and singularly unusual) has been resounding and unanimous.

There is no real plot here. A 30-something married writing teacher has a child, finds out that her husband is cheating with a much younger woman, flirts with a mental breakdown, convinces him to move out of New York and into the country with her. That’s it. Nothing much more happens, and there is nothing in the way of climax or resolution.

The plot (such as it is) is a slim foundation on which the author has her protagonist scatter a set of small thoughts, railleries, quotes from philosophers and poets, snippets of conversations, fractured descriptions of grief and anger and fear and bewilderment as the she grapples with the uncertainty and fog of her life and circumstances. Even the point of view startles, as the story switches suddenly from first person to third person, rudely forcing the reader to a reluctant distance.

But there is something truly beautiful here – we care deeply for her as she stumbles and unravels and tries and fails and falls afoul of her hopes and insecurities. Even though the structure of this book falls in the invisible gaps between diary and novel and poetry and (possibly)memoir, the narrative and character flourish and bloom quickly and convincingly and the reader thinks of her long after the book is finished, rooting for her amidst her flaws.

It is difficult to properly describe the novel, or more properly, what it is about and why it works. Think rather of a young woman, unsure of herself, sometimes sharp, sometimes inarticulate, stunned into paralysing anxiety by her love for her daughter, unhinged by the disloyalty of her always sweet husband, confused by her well meaning friends, trying to find her balance – her marriage, her career, her daughter, her life.

Department of Speculation makes you imagine you are her.

Book review – Traveling Sprinkler by Nicolson Baker

Book Review – Traveling Sprinkler by Nicolson Baker

The only other book of Nicolson Baker I have read was in 1993. It was Vox, and it made him briefly famous, because the entire book was a single conversation between two young people on a phone sex line. He famously said that in order to research this book he frequented sex lines, often to the point of orgasm. Novel verite, I suppose.

He has written a number of novels and non-fictions since, none of which I have read. This book is also very strange, although nothing like Vox (there is no sex in this one). More importantly this is one the sweetest and most affecting love stories I have read in while, told through the eyes of one of the sweetest and oddest of men you will ever meet. He is Paul Chowder, an ex-bassoon player, a lonely and unemployed poet of very minor repute, bereft of his ex-girlfriend, chasing a hilariously impractical and doomed late life career as composer of doggerel-soaked pop songs (and embarrassingly awful protest songs bemoaning malfeasance and nastiness  everywhere).

Oh, and along the way we discover a great deal about amateur cigar smoking, the mechanics of the bassoon, the diversity of cheap digital home studio software, the lyrics to a great many memorable or forgettable pop songs by various hitmakers, commentary on scores of poems and poets, a long treatise on DeBussy, the politics of drone warfare, a ramble on the joys of driving in an old car, a lecture on the history and genius of the Sears traveling water sprinkler. Quirky doesn’t begin to describe our hope-filled hero. And throughout this book we sit inside his head as he stumbles through the most heartbreaking and puppy-dog approaches to winning his ex-girlfriend back for life, so gentle and earnest and good-natured you just yip with delight and root for him with beating heart.

It is almost impossible not to fall in love with this idiosyncratic and offbeat eccentric as he thinks his weird thoughts and spins his oddly simple and wonderful monologues about all manner of arcana, while optimistically and doggedly working to win back his lost love from the smart and successful doctor with whom she has become entangled.

Join him on his romantic quest in this quiet little journey of introspection and yearning. It will be worth it.

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

This much lauded book by a best-selling and feted literary author (Granta named him one ‘Best 21 American Novelists’ ) has been reviewed a quite a bit on this and other book-sites, mainly positively, but also with some grumbles. So perhaps this is a little late, but I would like to add to the pot.

Sweeping human stories told against the backdrop of war (especially WWII with its moral certainties) come with a yoke, a built in brace of sorts. You are guaranteed that there will be acts of great cruelty and great caring, and they will be amplified by the confusion and cacophony of war in ways that human dramas in peacetime cannot rely. You sort of know what you are getting into before you start, but this is not so much a criticism as statement of genre. Before I get flamed, many a great novel has been nurtured on this fertile ground, but the borders of narrative are fairly sharply drawn, particularly if the story spans the entire time frame of the war.

So it is with this book. A blind French girl child (5 in 1934 when the story starts, and 16 at the end of the war) – a beautiful innocent, protected and treasured by her loved ones and protectors until they sucked into the maw of war, one by one, leaving her alone and scared, facing what she knows must come. A young German boy, an orphan and radio savant, conscripted into the Wehrmacht for his skills, trapped by forces that initially he does not understand, and then cannot resist, finally fighting back with a small act of kindness. And nastiness and cruelties meted out by sundry Nazis of diverse and creative malice. And of course, humanity stripped to its core, with all the cliches that this portends.

Lest this sound a tad harsh, I should soften. It is beautifully written, and in parts soaringly beautifully written, with minutely observed physical descriptions and studied and gentle character development. The story and plot are carefully crafted from many small threads and draped artfully over the long war years and beyond. The inevitable meeting of the blind French girl and the German orphan boy and their graceful entanglement is quiet and powerful. An ancient and priceless diamond carrying the story along with its history and brute power as the Nazis loot European treasures. Survivors living out their days with their pasts overwhelming their presents. The dead remembered by the tiny and sad shreds of their lives – a letter, a key, a photo, a uniform, a model house. A soft and satisfying ending, ringing melancholic and true.

But there were difficulties along the way. It felt too long (over 500 pages). Someone, perhaps the author or his editor, insisted on wildly oscillating chronologies which completely wrecked the flow of the story for me, adding nothing in tension and occasionally confusion and frustrated flipping back of pages. The chapters were very, very short, mostly less than 2 pages (which was quite interesting for a while, and then jangling).

But I perhaps protest too much. I am left with the taste of the characters and the echoes of the story and a light sadness which has not yet left me. By this measure alone this must  go on my recommend list.

Book review – Euphoria by Lily King

A number of people have asked why I always write good reviews, never bad ones. The reason is simple – I only review books that I like. I stay silent on the rest. Nobody gets hurt.  When I am paid to review, then it is open season, but I review on these bookclubs to recommend, not to dissuade.

But then there are some books which sort of land in the middle. A qualified recommendation. Where I am ambivalent, uncommitted. Surely they deserve a mention. Euphoria is one of them. It has generated, well, euphoric raves from sources as diverse as the NYT, Oprah, National Book Critics Circle, Publishers Weekly, Washington Post – to name but a few. I didn’t really get it, but I can see why others may have.

The dominant and very clever conceit in the book is that all of the characters (actually only three – there are few others of any import) are all based on real people – anthropologist Margaret Mead (named Nell in the novel), her husband Reo Fortune (named Fen) and (one) of her lovers, Gregory Bateson (named Bankson). There were others lovers in Mead’s life, including the famous anthropologist Ruth Benedict who makes an occasional proxy appearance in the plot. The book is set (mainly) in tribal villages in the jungle in colonial New Guinea, in the 1930s.

My knowledge of anthropology is paper thin, what little I have was gleaned from eavesdropping on university conversations when I was a student. There is much anthropology in this book, and much that I learned. It inhabits the plot, loud and insistent and is sharply juxtaposed against the three white Western anthropologists and their interpersonal emotional entanglements as they struggle to learn and document the cultures of the tribes of New Guinea. Lily King goes to great lengths to imagine how Mead worked, she has clearly researched widely and manages to inject a great deal of the science into the narrative – the struggle understand why the tribes behave as they do, their approach to interrogation and understanding and scientific method, the constant struggle with Western conceptions of ‘primitive’, the fight against orthodoxies as Mead reveals sexual behaviours understood as shocking or deviant by many in the US – incest, tranvestism, polygamy, lesbianism.

The anthropologists are strongly drawn, especially Nell/Mead. The sense of place is palpable (the jungles Polynesia and its claustrophobic, dangerous and riotous palette). The storyline and plot is strong. The tribes and their ways are riveting. A fine and poignant ending is fashioned,

So why didn’t I love it like the rest of the literary world? I am not sure. It was not that the writing was a little pedestrian at times, it was not that the few named tribal characters were given little depth, it was not that the love story never touched me, I just didn’t look forward every day to sinking into the world that Lily King had determinedly and meticulously created. Just not really my cup of tea, I suppose. Taste is a fickle thing. I suspect I will be in the minority here, so consider this a quiet and irresolute recommendation. 

Book review – Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

If I had to list my 10 best books of the last year or so, the following would emphatically be on it, probably near the front – Ben Fountain (Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk), Kevin Powers (Yellow Birds) and Philipp Meyer (The Son).

So having not read anything completely transformative in a while I wonder into my local bookstore to have an undirected browse. I pull out a book in the new fiction stack and guess who shouts breathlessly from the front cover? Fountain, Powers and Meyer . Not polite shouts either. Loud, roaring, hot, adamant shouts. Here is a thing, I think. I tend to filter shouts with a good dose of skepticism. But not from these authors. Not all three of them. Not at the same time. So I buy.

Fourth of July Creek is the debut novel by a young US novelist named Smith Henderson. I apologise in advance for what is to follow – a tsunami of superlatives (which is a little embarrassing – reviewers should have more decorum). Language, plot, characters, sense of place, ending, emotional entanglements, interior dialogues, story arcs, unusual and compelling viewpoints (including a recurring set of questions and answers from an unexplained and invisible character, perhaps even the author himself as he made notes to about the story and its characters). The whole lot just folds together like a great complex, beautiful origami, a near perfect combination of linguistic magic and combustive plot.

This book contains harsh stuff, even though gorgeously rendered. The story unfolds in the rural backwaters of Montana in the early 80s around an alcoholic, damaged and despairingly moral social worker named Pete, employed by the Department of Family Services. From amongst his daily horror lists of neglected and abused children, meth or religion-fucked mountain dwellers and trailer trash we follow a number of stories and subplots. A deranged end-of-days fundamentalist and his terrified little boy, forced to move from crevice to cave in freezing and inaccessible mountains while the father waits for the apocalypse, undone by paranoia and the re-living of a scene of a terrible family violence closely witnessed. A damaged and warped teenaged son of a unredeemable crack and meth addict thrown hopelessly into the juvenile detention system, leaving his tiny malnourished sister to the unprotected depredations of her mother and her friends. Pete’s own teenaged daughter, run away and untraceable, lurching unrestrained into big city prostitution, while Pete drinks himself into oblivion to dull the pain. Pete’s divorced wife, mangled into grief and uselessness under cheap religious homilies.

And unexpectedly, amidst the worst of people and circumstances, Henderson manages to rip open rents of courage and humanity and light, illuminating the dark everywhere else, holding this story aloft, keeping it from descending to the cliched places into which a lesser writer would stumble and fall.

This is an unflinching and deeply caring look a world without simple explanations and without neat endings, more hard than soft, more cruel than kind, but it raises itself up to a of a sort of hope, an strange upliftment for the reader even as he averts his eyes.

Make space in your TBR pile. Put this on top.

Book Review – F by Daniel Kehlmann

Review – F by Daniel Kehlmann

I have been trawling lists again. Last year it was the Booker Longlist, which I attacked with unseemly optimism and basically fizzled after about 8 books (I am a slow reader). In December I started on the New York Times 100 Most Notable Books (of which about 20 are fiction, where I tend to nest). I also genuflect at the feet of the NYT book editors – they remain for me the best arbiters of quality writing.

First up – F by Daniel Kehlmann. Who? Exactly. I had never heard of him. He is an young Austrian/German author who is a really big deal in Germany, having struck literary gold a few years back with a novel about the poetics of science called Measuring Time.

F is an odd and riveting little novel, deeply intellectual and concerned with gravid issues of many stripes. The book has 3 main characters (there are others, but all subsumed into background). They are brothers, or more accurately twins and a stepbrother. While some background expository is given, the action, such as it is, takes place in the recent past. The stepbrother is an obese and stolidly atheist Roman catholic priest, through whom the author spelunks issues of faith and reason. The one twin is an asset manager who has lost all of his client’s money through mismanagement and Ponzi-style desperation and who is falling off the edge of sanity as he world collapses around him. The other twin is a failed artist, but spectacularly successful forger of one ageing, famous and reclusive artist, with whom he enters into a relationship as carer, lover, hospice and forger-with-permission (and here we get deep into the territory of ‘what is art, really?’).

The three brothers are not close, they intersect at odd angles and in times of need. Kehlmann uses this wobbly fictional scaffold to basically write a series of essays about matters that obviously are close to him and the resulting novel is a bit uneven, but peppered with wonderful insights about art and parenting and faith and money and selfishness and sanity, and salted with unusual dialogue and slightly off-key scenes and strange narrative colours.

There is one small section of the book where Kehlmann describes the life of the brother’s paternal grandfather, and then his father, and then his father, and then his father, and so on for about 20 generations (!), right back to feudal Europe, without no more than one paragraph given to each father. It does not drive the story forward one iota, but it was so off the wall that I imagined that Kehlmann had smoked a joint when he described the grandfather’s life, and just kept going backwards until it burnt his lip.

Weird. Magnetic. Different. Somewhat satisfying. Maybe even more than that.

Book review – Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Book review – Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Some many years ago we had a New York visitor from the literary world (who later won a Pulitzer Prize – long story). I asked her who was hot, who were the upcoming writers. Among a few others she pegged Jonathan Lethem, claiming that he would become the best writer in America. Now, with more than 18 fiction and non-fiction books under his belt, a slew of literary awards and a MacArthur ‘genius’ award, Lethem has lived up to that casual soothsay.

Dissident Gardens is my first Lethem novel. Someone smart said (I forget who, I am seaside-addled) that we should read half as many books, but we should read each one twice. I have only done that a only few times in my Life (Catch-22, My Traitor’s Heart, Ragtime, Portnoy’s Complaint). This novel absolutely demands a second reading.

At the heart of this story is family of mad and maddening Jews (before my co-religionists take offense to the phrase, they are described as such by the narrator with such affection that it borders on dazzled adulation). Communists, activists, hippies, geniuses, combatants. Failures as parents and guardians and friends. Deluded and impassioned and impractical and self-flagellating and guilt-ridden and wildly volatile, three generations of this family beat each other into misery and distress, save only for hope and unshakeable faith in themselves and their causes.

The book takes place mostly in New Jersey, close to New York. The matriarch is one Rose Zimmer, her story beginning in the 1930s, a character of such volume and heart and exasperation that she remained clanging in my head long after I had closed the book. Am American communist of boundless and cacophonous zeal, she chases off all who love her – her daughter Miriam, her husband (who flees for East Germany after the war to escape her harangues), her sisters, her communist co-conspirators. I cannot remember a character this robust in American literature for years, maybe decades – a sizzling delight (in a sort of perverse way – the reader shrieks with laughter at the many painful embers of her combustive personality).

Then there is her daughter Miriam, who eschews Communism for hippy activism –  no less infuriating than her nearly estranged mother, possessed of an explosive personality so magnetic and riveting and warped that I ached for her self-inflicted wounds and endless mistakes and doomed journey.

The cast of  many-dimensional characters in this book continues to grow shambolically and without shame – Rose’s hapless cousin looking for purpose and love finding only despair, the bickering communists of the 50s, a black academic sampling the bacchanalian homosexual candy store of pre-AIDS New York, an Irish folk singer whose career has been exterminated by the juggernaut of Dylan, an orphaned Jewish grandchild saved and nurtured by an isolationist Christian religious group, a senior black cop (a rarity in the 60s), submerged by his ailing wife and failing child and finding redemption in a cross racial and politically inadmissible love affair.

Race, child rearing, hippiedom, AIDS, homosexuality, academia, Quakerdom, Jewish secularism, Irish folk music, Nicaragua, East German revisionism, the entire sweep and tragedy of the American communist movement – this book just bursting with energies and histories whose strands tangle chaotically with each other in a great and kaleidoscopic narrative, and whose expression is found in some of the most startling language I have read in ages – where you are continually pole-axed by utterly unique pairings of adjectives and nouns and adverbs and verbs and phrases and sentences of rare and abiding beauty.

Lest I sound too slavish, there are criticisms. Sometimes that language is so, well, virtuosic, that you say – Oh, for god’s sake stop it, now you’re just showing off. Sometimes the ambition of the huge cast and the many sub-stories threaten to overwhelm the main narrative.

But even so.

Watch for the Pulitzers next year, my money is here.

And read it twice.

Book review – The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

Book Review – The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

I while ago I posted a little missive about having to shed books that had outbred our groaning bookshelves. I spoke about mercilessly wading in and excising entire ouvres. Then I got brutally flamed from some members of this site for having evicted, specifically, Justin Cartwright.

So in a fit of guilt I went onto the web and sought out Cartwright’s book-of-the-year, figuring that if I bought it and read it, I would, by some weird literary code, be redeemed. His choice was The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (yes, I know, what kind of a weird person has a surname like this). I had never heard of the book, never heard of the author, and made the decision to go in blind – reading neither reviews or cover blurbs.

What an astonishing little book. Actually more akin to a play than a book. Only four main characters, with the bulk of the book taking place in constrained locations, with long, probing and emotional interactions and unravellings between various members of this foursome, all of them sharply sculpted and clearly differentiated voices. I do not want to spoil, and will admit that this sort of tight and taught and structure will appeal more to Chekov lovers than the lovers of action-driven books, or even the ‘big books’ of award-winning novelists (it turns out that Bezmozgis is a Latvian emigre to Canada, and has been all over the literary shortlists for 2 years, and whose books have been translated into a dozen languages).

So, with caution – a celebrated Israeli politician named Kotler, a Russian immigrant who had spent decades in the horrors of the Gulag in his attempt to get to Israel, is not playing ball with the sitting government, and standing on principle on the matter of settlements. So Mossad unmasks an affair he is having with younger woman, getting it it splashed on the front pages of national newspapers. Kotler and his mistress Leora leave his long term (and beloved) wife and children and scurry to his childhood Crimea to escape the scandal.

The story unfolds entirely in Yalta, Crimea where Kotler, by co-incidence, comes face to face with the man who denounced him to the KGB all those decades ago. This forms the core of the novel. An interesting sidebar – Kotler is described convincingly as a man of unshakable integrity and near godlike morality, even in the face of his affair and, jarringly, his support for the settlers and their settlements. This last bit of combustive material is never judged, and Israeli/Palestinian politics is not part of this story at all (except in the most peripheral way).

But what is profoundly present in the story is the history of the Jewish ‘refuseniks’ (those Jews who had had the temerity to try and immigrate to Israel from a deeply anti-semitic USSR in the 70s and 80s and were cruelly persecuted for the attempt). Kotler may be based on Natan Sharansky, a current right-wing Israeli politician who was once a global cause-celebre of the human-rights movement, who helped to extract him from KGB jails in Siberia in 1986 (all fictional facts about Kotler and his wife match Sharansky’s biography).

Above all, the book is about the nature of betrayal, its shifting shape in the face of memory and circumstance and the similarly nebulous definition of forgiveness. People without an interest in the late-20th century cruelties of incipient Russian anti-semitism may have little interest in the background narrative, but the foreground issues of divided loyalties, sin, repentance and redemption and their entangled complexities are marvelously drawn, particularly within a story as small as this.