no

"Where My Heart Used to Beat" by Sebastian Faulks

No comments
Sebastian Faulks presents a book-length confessional of a man alienated from his own feelings in Where My Heart Used to Beat. Robert Hendricks grows up in England, having lost his father in the Great War. His mother refuses to talk about his father, saying it would be “too painful.” Hendricks’s life becomes painful in its turn, too, and through a physician’s knowledge of symptoms, and the self’s absorption with its own history, he tries to get some sort of closure on the pain.

Born during the cataclysm of World War I, Robert grows up with his mother, reads incessantly, has a very active imagination and desire to read, and eventually goes to university. His degree in medicine assures his installation as an officer in a celebrated British Army regiment for World War II. He serves with distinction in Dunkirk, North Africa, and Anzio. It is the fraught and frustrating Italian that seems to do in his mental state. While recuperating from wounds, he falls in love with a comely Italian woman, who proves to be the love of his life.

Hendricks tells these episodes late in his life to an elderly doctor on an island off the south coast of France. These conversations amount to an extended therapy session where Hendricks is encouraged to unburden himself. Talk ranges far and wide. The older doctor admires the book that Hendricks wrote in the 1960s, about mad people, and how they could best be supported, because curing them seems beyond the reach of the medical community. 

I read of this Hendricks, of his problems and doubts, but nowhere along the way did he engage my sympathies. He is a fine fellow, stalwart with his comrades at war and caring   with his patients as a doctor. But the purported alienation he feels, his inability to find comfort or a happy ending … I missed the part that would have made me feel these in my viscera. That may not have been Mr. Faulks’s point, but in a novel of this kind - a highly personal journey in search of comfort or love or support - it certainly seems like it has to have been.



This novel is quite vivid in its descriptions of the British experience in World War II. Its philosophical asides - spoken by our first-person Dr. Hendricks - about the violent worldwide paroxysms of the 20th Century, and how they become embedded on an individual’s soul, are undoubtedly strong. These supports deserve a clearer and more forceful main plot, I felt.

"Sweet Lamb of Heaven" by Lydia Millet

No comments
Lydia Millet has captured something in Sweet Lamb of Heaven, and I feel at the very end of my abilities to say what it is. This Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel captures in frightening detail the horrifying political world we live in today - this example deals with the American version. This novel will haunt you, and stretch your imagination, and scare you, in an Alfred Hitchcock mode. It’s challenging, head-turning stuff. Supremely rewarding.

Anna, a sometime college lecturer in languages and literature, takes her six year-old daughter Lena and flees her emotionally-remote husband. (The husband is so remote, in fact, that midway through the story Anna checks off a long list of characteristics, and decides he is sociopathic. It doesn’t take the reader that long to figure it out.) We learn from the outset that after her daughter was born Anna had hallucinations - I don’t say “suffered” because the term doesn’t fit. She hears voices speaking to her. The voice seems versed in a wide range of subjects: “single-cell organisms, hockey scores, feathers on dinosaurs, celebrity suicides, the pattern of Pleistocene extinctions, the fate of the tribe called the Nez Perce; relativity, particle accelerators,” and so on. It speaks to Anna in English, Spanish, and French. Anna also thinks she hears English that sounds like Shakespeare, and Middle English, which she encountered while reading Chaucer.

And it is this breadth of the voice, in subject matter, language, and temporal origin, that is the key for me. It supports Anna’s fellow “listeners,” a group of people who have also had the auditory hallucinations, which we meet at a motel on the rocky coast of Maine - the end of the earth. The one salient opinion to emerge from the motley crew is that the voices have something in common with a common subconscious, a language which is the foundation of all life on earth. 

Lay on top of these metaphysical considerations the thread of Anna’s cold, repellant husband. He uses his over-the-top charisma and ingratiating acting ability to start a career in politics. He corners Anna in Maine, coerces her back to Alaska to appear as part of his campaign for state senate, all the while having coopted the “family” agenda of a reactionary political party. After getting her back “on board” for photo ops and meet-and-greets, he sends her emails with each day’s appointments, bullet points of opinions to express if pressed; Anna and her daughter have daily sessions for makeup and clothes.


And thus is the shallowness and venality of modern-day politics exposed to us. Estranged husband Ned despises Anna, but hauls her up before cameras and microphones during his campaign. He threatens her and treats his daughter as though she doesn’t exist - and then the real fun starts. In a few jarring pages, Anna hallucinates something very strange indeed. She watches herself age before her eyes: terrified at the pace of her growing hair and nails, she emerges from her bath to see Lena and a trusted friend still seated on a hotel bed, reading, where she just left them. The sequence abruptly turns to a midsummer festival in Anna’s home town, and she has apparently lost three months, just like that. She has been in an altered state the whole time and cannot remember any of it.

Thus through strong drugs and an outwardly orthodox relationship, does Ned control and attempt to ruin Anna’s life. This Hitchcockian episode illustrates the very real and ruthless impulse of those who would control speech and discourse to their own ends and agendas. Ms. Millet takes it further: the totalitarians would control or even exterminate not only the public policy discussion, but would ruin language of any and all kinds. There is grist here for a much more in-depth treatment, which I promised to try to grind to fine flour at some point in the near future.


Suffice it at current to say that any modern reader interested in communication, politics, sensory perception, or theories of language would be challenged and delighted with this book. It’s also a damn fine read: something sinister’s always lurking near the surface; a group of friends and supporters are a particularly motley crew and we can’t be sure they’re reliable. Anna lives a desperate existence on the margin, and sometimes has reason to doubt her own stability. It seems unlikely that you’ll be as confounded as I was by Sweet Lamb of Heaven. I recommend you go ahead and try to find out.

"Miss Jane" by Brad Watson

No comments
Brad Watson presents the story of Jane Chisolm, born in Mississippi in the early part of the 20th Century, in Miss Jane. Delivered at home by a country doctor, Jane comes into the world with a birth defect that complicates her bodily functions, and which the doctor believes would put her at perilous risk during a pregnancy, if such is even possible for her. If Jane is unique, this narrative treats her with reality, candor, and honor.

The book opens with Jane’s birth, the doctor’s concerns, and her superstitious parents’ doubts. During her childhood Jane only spends a few months going to the one-room school, but learns how to read in that short time. She learns her numbers watching her dad sell items and make change in his roadside store. But she learns to trust and love the avuncular doctor who takes an interest in her growth and development, in her life.

At length it is the doctor, Ed Thompson, who becomes her most important mentor and confidant. He researches possible cures for her physical abnormalities, but given the time period, the first half of the 20th Century, these will not pan out for Jane. The doctor visits frequently during her infancy and babyhood, and as she grows up, his visits become more those of a devoted and caring neighbor. When Jane travels socially to the doctor’s home, she encounters the peacocks with which the doctor has populated his property. These unique creatures give piercing calls, and keep insect numbers under control, but most importantly allow Jane and the doctor to consider some of life’s essential questions. 

Dr. Thompson introduced peafowl to the area early in his practice, and they become part of the story as his and Jane’s years pass. She becomes familiar with them during her visits, and at length the doctor shares his thoughts about them. He sees them as magnificent and proud creatures, who make extravagant display at no slight cost to themselves. The very illogic of it is a wonderment to the doctor, and generates thoughts on creation, life, and the apparent lack of reason to it all. He explains to Jane that, like her, the birds do not have apparent outward genitalia, but must procreate through a small puckered opening called a cloaca. Thus does her communicate his opinion of Jane’s grace, beauty and uniqueness in the world. It is a beautiful moment in a book rife with them.


Mr. Watson has placed in Jane’s life the wonder and unsolvable riddle of life. Jane is no scholar, but her wisdom and ability shine through. In Jane’s dotage, the peafowl have colonized Jane’s property, and the reader is moved to admire Jane’s resilience, and the author’s wondrous though very plainspoken skill in showing it to the world.

"Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami

No comments
When his debut novel Norwegian Wood put Haruki Murakami “on the map” when released, it launched a career for a writer of some very speculative fiction, featuring other-worldly plots and settings. Norwegian Wood however, takes place in very down-to-earth terms with very realistic people, events, and settings. Protagonist Toru Watanabe pursues his college career in the late 1960s and with its inevitable romantic attachments, with typically mixed results. This book took me on a voyage and surprised me with its constant allusions to popular songs of the times, including the Beatles’ song of the title.

Watanabe has few friends while living at a dormitory in Tokyo. He simply doesn’t find the young wastrels who are his fellow students very interesting. His one friend from high school killed himself when he was 17. In this bereft and unforgiving world Watanabe turns to his friend’s girlfriend Naoko, and she looks to him. This vulnerable and enigmatic girl doesn’t necessarily return Toru’s affection, but needs him nonetheless. He remains steadfast in his friendship, visiting her at the sanatorium where she tries to recover some emotional strength.

Toru, working and studying, cannot see her often at her remote hospital in the mountains, and captures the eye of Midori, a pretty and vivacious young girl who wears her skirts too short. Midori leavens this story with her wit, audacious flirtation, and her worldly-wise take on all situations. She deflates egos, spots a sham a mile away, and is out for herself, in pretty teen-age girl style. Toru catches her eye, and the interactions between these two characters is a definite highlight. Toru’s dense and slow reaction to her overt affection and effort at seduction is hilarious. Typical nineteen year-old guy.



This has the very strong flavor of memoir. The tribulations of becoming an adult affect us all, and this book is a bittersweet journey for anyone who has gone through it. If you happen to be of Toru’s age, a time when the Beatles absolutely ruled pop culture, this book captures that moment superbly. But even more noteworthy, Murakami captures a timeless, sympathetic, and beguiling path for his hero. This was a wonderful diversion for me, and I treasure it. While is doesn’t represent an attempt by the author to capture any of the alien and fantastical worlds of some of his other work, this is wonderful in its own right.

"Before We Sleep" by Jeffrey Lent

No comments
At the end of Jeffrey Lent’s Before We Sleep, Katey Snow must call her mother. She’s spent an eventful week on the road, having taken her father’s truck on an extended sojourn from Vermont to Virginia, but her imperative is to speak to her mother, from whom she had a fraught departure. The two characters, Katey and her mother Ruth, carry this graceful novel, and have alternating chapters named for each in turn. In Mr. Lent’s usual style, their stories unfold at an even pace, their revelations laid out in a magisterial and majestic tone. Another beautiful and gratifying book from Mr. Lent.

Salient events begin with yet another verbal set-to between Katey and her mother. This story, set in the mid-1960s, captures the era’s terrible tension between parents and teen-age children; Katey sees things simply and in straightforward terms, as 17 year-olds do, but her mother sees the same things in terms of threat to be avoided, and stridently challenges her daughter at every turn. One tense evening holds more of the same as mother and daughter go at it  hammer and tong yet again.

Oliver, the father and husband, sits by as usual, but then, perhaps fed up by the constant bickering, lets fall a bombshell. It is a revelation that sends Katey off on a journey, one in which she discovers certain things about herself and her mother, which lend a new perspective to her life.

Mr. Lent deals with the heart’s agendas in unique ways. He makes his characters’ thoughts and feelings so abundantly clear, and in such plain language, that we find our journey with his characters rewarding and believable. This is a sympathetic group - Mr. Lent has a way of making you love his novels’ populace. 

This novel follows Katey’s journey from indignant youth to sadder-but-wiser young adult in a matter of days. This speeded-up time frame allows for Katey’s progress - it is an eventful trip, as I say - and enough happens that she graduates into a much more nuanced and understanding view of Ruth. Ruth’s own narrative includes the horrifying truth about Oliver’s wartime experience in Germany, and how he and her life are altered as a result of it. Katey’s trip involves meetings with a gallery of strangers, each described in chiaroscuro-type clarity in which Mr. Lent specializes, and which I find kind of a drug.


In temporal setting and theme, this piece allies itself more to A Peculiar Grace than to the epics Mr. Lent has set in days of yore: Sleep and Grace portray young people coming of age through their own particular trials on the way to reflective and wise adulthood. 

The speed with which Katey’s point of view shifts reflects the shock of her experience with true independence. Ruth’s position as a teacher gives her a close-up view of the novel vagrancies of 1960s high-schoolers; in her mind this warrants her carping over her daughter’s direction in life, although frankly there’s nothing much alarming there. As always, Mr. Lent achieves a deft touch with the simplest language. Conversations are real-life oblique and laconic in New England style. Real human growth through everyday striving and stumbling - these are Mr. Lent’s stock in trade and they are fully on display here. Take this one up by all means!


"The Water Diviner and Other Stories" by Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer

No comments
New author Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer won the 2018 Iowa Short Fiction Award by hewing close to the theme of the culture shock experienced by immigrants to the United States from Sri Lanka. In “The Water Diviner and Other Stories,” these uprooted people react and adjust - or fail to adjust -  in a wide variety of ways to the strange American customs and culture. Their stories are told in effective and unadorned language; the emotions and tensions are plainly depicted, sometimes lurking below the surface, sometimes erupting strongly into the open.

There are the childhood friends visiting in young adulthood, in which old grievances prove surprisingly durable (“The Beauty Queen”); in “The Water Diviner” a woman emerges from the thrall of a televangelist to turn once again to her “real” life when a prophecy turns false. In “Sunny’s Last Game” immigrant parents find reason to back off their tendency to over-protect their junior-high student son. The urge arose from perceived slights inflicted by classmates. 

In one of the more interesting pieces - among 15 absorbing stories collected here - “The Lepidopterist” portrays the struggles of a girl who treats everything she reads and everything everyone says as strictly - abnormally - literal. However she grows to become a scientist spurred by her childhood fascination with butterflies. She triumphs over the prejudices she faced as a young girl, and this is often the case with other characters whose talents and attitudes serve them well and provide the basis for success in life, in the U.S. or Sri Lanka.


It is plainly the skill in executing these stories that won Ms. Vilhauer the award. Pacing and structure, characterization and treatment of theme, all bear the stamp of an accomplished fiction artist. These stories feature both variety and clarity: characters are found and portrayed in very different circumstances and stages of the assimilation process - often within a single story. It’s a pleasing, impressive display taken together. Congratulations once again to the jury giving the Iowa short fiction awards. This is another deserving winner.

"The Lightning Jar" by Christian Felt

No comments
In The Lightning Jar author Christian Felt spins out a curious mix of the imaginative and the impossible - or seemingly impossible. For nothing is really impossible in a child’s imagination. This short story collection contains perplexing shifts in which the reader must allow for fanciful surprises and arresting changes of scene and mood. But how better to conjure a child’s active mind, and where better to set it than in Scandinavia the backdrop Hans Christian Andersen used.

Mr. Felt twirls his spell over us, challenging us with his cuts and swerves, in his adept evocation of a child’s imagination. One loose series of stories leads us on the trail of Karl’s life by a lake, with his sister and cousins. At least I think the cousins are real. He arranges a series of empty jars outdoors during a thunderstorm, hoping to capture lightning, and then wonders what to do about rainwater accumulating in them. 

“She washed their castoff shells, it seemed, every day, yet the cousins always found something smudgy to wear.” Are these hermit crabs? They leave at the appointed time, but leave the youngest. The smallest cousin (the name of one of the stories) apparently falls into a tube of fulgurite; Karl can hear him laughing at the bottom of the tube. Karl then wears a jar with a captured ghost to a bonfire, wants to dance but doesn’t. A guest comes to visit at the lake (he’s presumably real - he smells like Cheerios), and turns out to be an excellent storyteller.

A subsequent series features a deformed youngster named Mons who vaguely pursues collecting a tax on whales in the local pond. He guards a magic ruby from a kind of troll who
apparently takes half of everything you have when you encounter it. 


Midway through this collection and at its end, the author provides vivid tales of family history; these stories are more orthodox, and interesting for the contrast they exhibit. Taken on the whole, Mr. Felt achieves a beguiling mix of fancy and image. We’re never quite sure what will happen next, since it almost always depends on the imagination of a bright and energetic child. The stories mark the arrival of a writer whose future is hard to imagine. His language is effective, his vision highly spectacular. I clearly look forward to more of this young man’s spectacles.

"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

No comments
The Sympathizer forces our sympathies in the first-person narrator’s direction. His exposition of a spy’s secret and challenging life endears him to us; it’s honest, funny, even charming. Set in the years following America’s pullout of Viet Nam, Sympathizer presents us with the narrative of one man’s navigation of the treachery, prejudice, and continued illusion of those who would dream of re-establishing a capitalist regime in the South.

The story’s narrator is not named, but he works for the victorious forces of Ho Chi Minh, spying on the tatters that remain of the army of the Republic of Viet Nam. Author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016, and its theme, plot, and style give ample reason. He treats American cultural imperialism, Vietnamese cunning and venality on both sides, and the helplessness of individuals in the face of powerful historical forces, with equal ease, wisdom, and a kind of fatalistic black humor.

This is a highly engaging piece. Mr. Nguyen approaches each idea and episode with an everyman’s pluck and sarcasm. His hero dabbles in some pretty nefarious activities, but when he’s forced into schemes which result in murder, the victims haunt him throughout the rest of the book. In fact, when he returns to his homeland, a spy embedded in an ill-fated recon mission with a motley group of zealots, his capture by the Communists results in imprisonment instead of the favorable treatment he would be justified in expecting.

The book has a light framework into which it fits: in his solitary confinement, he is made to write his confession, and this book is it. He seeks to please the commandant and commissar in charge of the prison, to convince them he is true to the revolutionary cause. But his style displeases them; his decadent Western influences betray him; his consulting work on a major motion picture failed to please anyone, even when he tried to help show Vietnamese in a favorable light.

One element of this story weighs on the personal story of our narrator. He is one of three men who swore a blood oath during their early teens. One of the others fights for the capitalist side, and the other leads Communist forces trying to rebuild the south. The protagonist leads a double life: his heart is that of a revolutionary Communist, but by all outward appearances, he’s a Southern capitalist soldier all the way. In the imprisonment which covers the end of the book, the commissar ultimately brainwashes him and splinters his personality in two.


So at story’s end, he is truly riven in two, and to get on with the remainder of his life he must first find a way to heal his mind and heart. Mr. Nguyen shows stunning cleverness and aplomb with this conceit. His main character loves both sides of View Nam; he tries to reconcile the split that has reached even his own person.
The love of his homeland flavors every sentence and thought here, and the pain in the face of the staggering human cost shows through in unutterable sadness. The author sings a long, loving ballad in the key of the blues for Viet Nam, and places within his protagonist all its elements: grief at the human loss, a knowing and sarcastic nudge for the human failings, and ultimately a wisp of hope. With this debut piece, Mr. Nguyen has run the table: historical sweep, thrills and skullduggery, a sympathetic, Everyman-type hero, and assured treatment of major themes. Take this up, by all means!

"Giovanni's Room" by James Baldwin

No comments
David, a young American man, sleepwalks through Paris in the years following World War II. He lives on money in a trust which his father charily metes out to him - requests for which may or may not be met. David ostensibly awaits the return of his fiancée from Spain, although it’s never clear that he looks forward to her return all that impatiently. 

Instead, he falls in with a couple of lecherous Parisian businessmen, whose tastes clearly run to the homoerotic. David falls in and dallies with these men; these are his own deepest proclivities as well. He’s kept his orientation secret from his father, and has remained in Paris as a way of keeping a distance from him. He does love Hella the fiancée, or thinks he does. He may see her as a way of returning to a more orthodox life, but this isn’t clear.

What is clear in this work is David’s love for Giovanni, a young excitable Italian who falls hard for David. It is the tragedy of the story that David turns his back on Giovanni and leaves him in a desperate situation, with life-and-death consequences. David cannot see a way out of his prison; even the promise of his fiancée evaporates, as she leaves him, disheartened and disillusioned to return home to America.

He has built a prison for himself, out of the worst materials possible: guilt and shame. He sees no escape and argues and recriminates with himself constantly. He rationalizes every move, every cruel decision, as another step in “finding himself,” or in curing himself. But in David’s case, there is no cure for selfish.

The story plunges toward a grim singularity - Giovanni’s death - his desperate crime bringing down France’s ultimate sentence. David knows, or again, thinks he knows, the date; he tortures himself by imagining what Giovanni’s last minutes will be like, but he feels he cannot help from doing so. Such is the love he once had for Giovanni.

In a dark and horrific sequence, David imagines Giovanni’s last moments before execution. He does this in the home he and Hella had rented in the south of France. He stares into a mirror as he packs to leave; as the daylight shifts, his own image begins to grow transparent and disappear. From the book:

I move at last from the mirror and begin to cover that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it be never so vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life. I must believe, I must believe, that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.

Here I read a kind of surrender, in which David finally finds himself alone in the world, turning to a faith he does not feel, and somehow hopes that it will deliver him from his crisis. This patently will not work.

And further:

And at last I step out into the morning and I lock the door behind me. … And I look up the road where a few people stand, men and women, waiting for the morning bus. They are very vivid beneath the awakening sky, and the horizon behind them is beginning to flame.

David thus accompanies the only person he’s ever loved on the bier to the next world. But he’s been riding down the slippery slope with Giovanni since the beginning of their relationship. David’s absorption in his shame makes this inevitable. Baldwin uses plain language to illuminate David’s state of mind. David’s shame, lust, guilt, and fear all bear the bright unflinching glare of David’s disgust with himself. This is remarkable writing. Baldwin wanted to lay bare the torturous rationalizations and admissions of cowardice felt by a man in this trial of life. He succeeds admirably. 



He succeeds also in aligning the outcome for his hero with a strict morality, in which the completely self-absorbed man ends with nothing, facing a void in the awakening, flaming sky.

"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro

No comments
Kazuo Ishiguro’s imagination lives in a world all its own. He beguiles his readers in rich and confounding ways, with tricks too outré. In Never Let Me Go he lays out for our edification the lives of three children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Something is off fairly immediately with these young ones: they spend their days at a boarding school called Hailsham, and we learn nothing of their parents.

At first I expected to see them described, hear them speak, but no. The children age from early elementary school age up on up through their teen years, and the school is their only home. And we begin to hear about “donations,” and school guardians, whom I took to be their teachers, who behave strangely, speaking in riddles and having tearful episodes that seem full of regret. Regret and a certain amount of fear also apparently plague the guardians. So what’s all this add up to? It is well you should ask.

The children themselves appear more normal than normal. The young girls, on whom the story focuses, establish cliques, within which hierarchies rule. Kathy belongs to Ruth’s group, which Ruth rules cunningly; Ruth’s occasional openness and charity toward Kathy strings her along until the ultimate honest moment, in which Ruth finally admits to past transgressions. What she has done stuns Kathy and us, and her motivation for it only lightly touched upon.

The point of dwelling so long on childhood intrigues and teenage rivalries? Mr. Ishiguro wants to leave no doubt as to the full humanness of his subjects. For in his fictional reality these youngsters have no actual parents, other than someone on whose genetic code each of the young people was modeled. The word “clone” does not appear in the book, but these young people are genetic copies who exist only for the grisly purpose of providing healthy tissue to the rest of the population.  He wants to highlight the tragedy of human lives lived only as incubators. It’s so callous, that when a donor finally dies after going under the knife and donating organs three or four times, they call it “completing.”



So the author shows us a horrifying reality from within the victims’ viewpoint, and makes certain to imbue his unfortunates with all-too-real human nature. This book bears the unmistakable Ishiguro stamp of blinkered humanity, and the chilling consequences of single-minded pursuit of ends that never justify the means. As with other Ishiguro works, the author’s conception vies with his execution for aesthetic supremacy; I’m very happy to call it even and recommend this book without reservation. It’s haunting, elegant, cautionary, and masterful.