"West With the Night" by Beryl Markham

The 1942 publication of West With the Night witnessed the arresting arrival of a skilled, wise, worldly storyteller into the public consciousness. Beryl Markham certainly had an interesting story to tell. The British-born girl was moved to British East Africa (later Kenya) in 1906, at the age of four. Living on her father’s farm - something Americans would tend to call a “spread” - she became familiar with horses, agricultural production, and local native tribes. More remarkable, she became active in native hunts, where various tribesmen would bring the teen-ager along to witness the predators and game of East Africa.

And of course on top of all this, she was the first aviator to fly west across the Atlantic, from England to Nova Scotia, where she survived landing under duress in a crippled airplane.

But: West With the Night is so much more than a simple re-telling of a memorable life by an indomitable woman. It’s irrefutable evidence that the gift of telling a story dwells in certain individuals, and cannot be denied. Markham shows a grace, a natural flow, and an undeniable logic in her memoir. She also sprinkles short speculative nuggets throughout, in which she tackles philosophical subjects: life, family, morals, character,  history, politics. And I want to affirm the two essential features of these études: they come just at the moment where they belong for the flow of her narrative, and they  display the deep wisdom, sophistication, and wit of their author. 

The Africa of primal and primeval forces comes alive under her treatment. The safaris, the deadly hazards, natural and human, the paternalism of subjugators, the intimidating fauna, from elephants to insects - all these form the backdrop of Markham’s life. Her willing spirit takes them all on; she suffers a lion’s mauling and a stallion’s pummeling hoof, among much more, and goes on to achieve local and global celebrity as a pioneering aviator. Africa at this transitional time cannot have a clearer guide than this eyewitness.

This memoir is a distinct pleasure, from beginning to end. Read it, and you will take a flight of your own. Its joys are manifold, unflagging and rewarding. Come for a re-telling of a remarkable life; stay for the pure reading pleasure.

"The Book of Strange New Things" by Michel Faber

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A young British Christian minister signs up to spread the Gospel on another planet. The lovely wife he leaves at home is pregnant, as it happens, and must navigate her way through the alarmingly hazardous Earth of the near future. She watches aghast as tsunamis, volcanoes, drought, famine, and genocide devastate more and more of the planet. She waits in vain for rubbish pickup service, becomes injured cleaning up her home after a freak storm, and faces life-threatening conditions at the hospital where she works as a nurse.

Author Michel Faber clearly wanted to make a statement about the 21st-Century state of the planet - he shows it to us from the incomprehensible distance of the planet Oasis, where the minister has gone as a missionary. But the alien planet is so placid and unchanging, and its human complement of staff so phlegmatic and so complying, that barely anything happens there, other than to Peter, the cleric.

The fraying relationship between Peter and his wife Bea forms the core of this story. They send text communications back and forth and through these we watch as the tension mounts. As befits his central theme, Faber handles this progress more subtly and more effectively than anything else in the novel. He sets this against the backdrop of the collapsing, disaster-beset Earth, where human society takes pains to tear itself apart.

A few notes for sci-fi readers: the author describes the alien planet in fairly rudimentary terms, and he invests zero text to the science of inter-galactic travel. His devout aliens have a certain personality, but aside from hinted-at physical weaknesses, do not hold our (my) interest strongly. No, the marriage of Peter and Bea occupies center stage, and their threatened separation focuses the book.

Faber handles this focus well; his strategy of placing millions of light years between them has a certain novelty. It’s difficult for me to develop strong feelings about this novel, so perhaps be guided by that lack.

"Confessions of a Pagan Nun" by Kate Horsley

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Author Kate Horsley dresses up her novel as a codex found on an archeological dig in Ireland. It purports to be a first-person narrative of a woman trained as a druid in early 6th Century Ireland; it even includes a Translator’s Note explicating the scholarly treatment of the text. Horsley establishes this as a way of lending a present-day flavor to a long-ago text. It works really well, and at the same time the story manages to be a compelling text with human suffering, thwarted romance, power-mad clerics, and a deft treatment of how some true stories evolve into legends, embellished with magic.

Gwynneve, our wise and realistic narrator, tells her first-person story of passion, growth, and loss. This serves as a cross-section of the wrenching Irish conversion from the ancient Druidic faith to Christianity. In fact, the story by design straddles the exact period where the Christian faith takes strong root in the land, and succeeds in eradicating all traces of the old ways. But not in our Gwynneve!

This woman trains the full nine years required to become a druid, travels that path, and gains some renown. Her passion, which she discovers quite young, is for reading and writing; she burns to know what the long dead philosophers and seers and poets and clerics said and thought. This leads her to Giannon, a tall and rather unfeeling druid, from whom she finds she desires affection and partnership. He does not provide these in any gratifying amount, but he does teach her the druidic disciplines. Through a series of adventures and misadventures Gwynneve is admitted into a convent devoted to St. Brigit.

At this convent, Druid Gwynneve pursues her love of writing as a scribe, and sets the current manuscript to parchment. Before very long she runs afoul of the new Christian male hierarchy, is imprisoned and martyred. She thus personifies the dying of the old, nature-based beliefs prevalent in Ireland - she couches this often harsh transition in very human terms. In addition, there is a fine and lovely lilt to the writing, as befits something composed in English by an Irish wielder of words.

Straightforward, feeling, well-paced and lovely, there is much here to use your time well. It imagines its time and place thoroughly, much to the delight of the modern reader.

"Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison

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Upon its 1947 publication Invisible Man became a cultural phenomenon. It’s easy to see why. In it Ralph Ellison produces a novel-length polemic observing and decrying the treatment of blacks in America. A first-person African-American man’s consciousness changes from the accepting subservience (and bootlicking) during his college years to big-city radical political activism, to a disillusioned resignation, through which he finally emerges a thoughtful, perhaps hopeful, individual. It’s a vivid indictment, and required reading for anyone even reflecting casually on race relations in the modern world.

From the outset we witness the shocking prejudice and mistreatment of African- Americans in the Depression-era United States. But because he shows skill in parroting back the “modern” Negro approach of acceptance through good manners and mindfulness-of-his-place, his native Southern town grants him a scholarship to college.

Through no fault of his own, he runs afoul of the college administration and is expelled. After he removes to New York his skill as a speechmaker lands him work in a subversive political organization, where he eventually chafes under the boot-heel of a central committee’s iron discipline. His career there disintegrates during a vivid description of the Harlem riot of 1935.

Of overarching importance: Ellison’s recounting in cringe-worthy detail a broad sample of the degrading stereotypes and rituals white people employed to keep blacks in their “place.” These accrete a weight as the book progresses, and establish the background in which our story takes place. They distill to the razor-sharp tip of Ellison’s spear; he aims this weapon at American race relations and lets fly.

However, in his introduction to the 1981 re-issue, Ellison cites Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and observes “ … that a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal.” It’s difficult to find any passages in “Invisible Man” that indicate a course toward the “democratic ideal.”

His invisibility evolves from his withdrawal from all aspects of his world and life. He lives where he can’t be seen, he understands his voice will be ignored by all sectors of society, be they black, white, radical, or reactionary, or any combination. He first encounters the idea of invisibility on the bus between his native South and New York. He is distressed to see the “vet” on the bus, the black onetime doctor and current mental patient who caused him so much trouble at the whorehouse where he found himself one fateful day.

The vet tells him:

Play the game, but don’t believe in it - that much you owe yourself. Even if it lands you in a strait jacket or a padded cell. Play the game, but play it your own way - part of the time at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate - I wish I had time to tell you only a fragment. We’re an ass-backward people, though. You might even beat the game. It’s really a very crude affair. … You’re hidden right out in the open - that is, you would be if you only realized it. They wouldn’t see you because they don’t expect you to know anything …”

After affirming in the Epilogue that he is forced into action, and cannot remain invisible, or at least that he can’t remain on the sideline, the narrator says:

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? … There seems to be no escape. … I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some if it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness, I’m a desperate man - but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I renounce and I defend and I hate and I love.”

The author takes pains to describe an outcome, a result of his journey. 

Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge. And there’s still a conflict within me: With Louis Armstrong one half of me says, ‘Open the window and let the foul air out,’ while the other says, ‘It was good green corn before the harvest.’ Of course Louis was kidding, he wouldn’t have thrown old Bad Air out, because it would have broken up the music and the dance, when it was the good music that came from the bell of old Bad Air’s horn that counted.”

So ultimately, Ellison’s narrator finds that love is necessary to telling his story, but that the love will always be mixed, polluted, by rampant hate and repudiation.

As I said, it’s easy to see why this title has risen to such prominence. Angry but wise to the human condition, unforgiving even as it admits to limited hope, “Invisible Man” remains a canonical work illuminating an issue still vexing America today.

"Fallen Leaves" by Shirani Rajapakse

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In Shirani Rajapakse, the small and long-suffering island of Sri Lanka has its voice of reason, its staunch advocate for the local people shredded in the maw of bloody insurrection. Rajapakse, award-winning poet and writer, casts her tired eye and her energetic pen to the multiple civil wars - only concluding in 2009 - waged on her island. Fear and greed and loss and genocidal mania emerge as the main themes in these poems, and the reader is never relieved of them. This steady load of sorrow mirrors exactly Sri Lanka’s unending grief, and lends this collection its magisterial weight.

Ms Rajapakse sings of displaced peoples, of the haunted look in a grieving mother’s eye, of baked and ruined earth, of greed, hypocrisy, and the murderous folly of the powerful. The poet explores multifarious points of view to record the destruction: the bereaved mother, the wife for whom hope is fading, the child soldier dressed in belts of bullets, barely able to carry his weapon. Dogs and cattle too witness the destruction, and smell the arresting odor of blood soaking the dusty ground.

Striking also, is the thought-provoking measurement of distances: from the living to the remembered dead; from the place of death to where the bodies are discovered; from the midnight knock on the door to the first, exhausted glimmering of hope; how far refugees must walk to find safety; from reason to ghastly reality. These gulfs yawned for far too long for poor Sri Lanka; Ms Rajapakse attends to the work of bridging them.

The title “Fallen Leaves” refers chiefly to the dead: soldiers and civilians alike. In “Anuradhapura, the Sacred City,” after two elderly Buddhist monks are murdered by terrorists: “Bodhi leaves whispered / your last rites as the breeze / gently bore it down to you lying there / where once sat a man / a woman, a human on earth …” Falling leaves are introduced by this elegy, and the very next poem, “The Lonely Watch,” focuses on a lone soldier on guard, listening for footsteps in the leaf litter, and then: “Fallen leaves, fallen heroes / there was something poignant about it all / he mused as he cocked his gun at the sound of the wind / nudging the old leaf next to him …”

Such stark realities populate this series: baked by an angry sun, sorrowful, regretful at the folly of humanity. This moving collection will remain a scathing indictment of the Sri Lankan factions at the root of the chaos, and a bright highlight of Ms. Rajapakse’s career.

"A Vist from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

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Author Jennifer Egan puts into her characters’ consciousness a purported saying that time is a goon, and the rough treatment these denizens have at the hands of time makes up the plot of this novel. This story represents, in fact, one long, indiscriminate, and mostly rude visit from the goon which is time. We witness youngsters in the ‘80s punk world: they wear their partisanship like a safety pin piercing, swearing fealty to this band, that singer, the true-to-the-cause club they all go to. We encounter a varied cast, but at the center are Bennie and Sasha, the impresario/record producer and his assistant.

Egan presents her diverting cast as it careens from one crisis to the next - I try to part the thicket, and succeed only partially. Bennie and Sasha occupy central roles, as I said, and we get Bennie’s wife Stephanie and his unending series of mostly unidentified  paramours; Stephanie works for a PR executive who goes by the moniker La Doll, until an unmitigated disaster at a gala event forces her to change her name and join the soft underbelly of the publicist’s ilk. She even has her nine year-old daughter Lulu along when they witnesses a Latin American dictator fly into a rage and arrest an American film actress, who seems doomed to find an ignominious end.

The moral assumptions these characters make strike one with their callousness and calculation, although some characters swing well to the other end of the spectrum, a dizzying and unpredictable spectacle. Don’t look for a unified plot here. Look instead for sweep of time, for characters in the midst of crisis and resolution, and especially find dark humor and sharp observation of sketchy morals at work.

We bounce around in time, a little, but mostly time is the inexorable force mutating people’s appearance and approach to life, the insensate goon who pays everyone a visit everywhere. It’s hard to know whether to recommend this vivid but disjointed work. By all means pick it up if the ‘80s punk scene fascinates you; if outrageous and life-threatening scenes get your heart a-pumping; if watching the ravages and regrets from time’s irresistible march speaks deeply to you, this is the place to go. Otherwise, pass.

"A Box of Matches" by Nicholson Baker

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A Box of Matches stands as a brilliant example of the urge to write focused minutely on the quotidian. But author Nicholson Baker turns mundane activity into deep imaginative realms and far-fetched speculations: an inchoate blaze in a fireplace becomes a far-off corner of a violent universe; a burning Quaker Oats box becomes a coastal British fort. Such are the pathways of Baker’s mind and observations. And they prove once again that it’s not the subject matter that counts in fiction, it’s the way the subject matter is presented. For me, Baker has yet to disappoint. Far from it.

He greets us each morning with the time and sometimes adds an observation about the weather. It’s winter in the Northeast of the U.S., so cold and snow occupy the land and lives. And because cold is a factor, our narrator builds a fire in the fireplace each morning, and he uses a box of strike-anywhere matches during the course of the book. The business of this novel is the minutiae of daily life. But far from boring, Baker leavens his prose with not only thought-provoking observations, but takes journeys out over the town, the landscape, and the history of his area, to destinations philosophic and speculative.

I love Nicholson Baker’s work. He makes startling and original revelations about everyday objects and activities, and in his hands these ordinary things and events take on a mysticism, an inherently more meaningful and illuminative existence. A Box of Matches is no exception, and I urge you to take it up and be charmed with very little investment in time.

"Girl, Woman, Other" by Bernardine Evaristo

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I began to wonder, while reading “Girl, Woman, Other,” what would the concluding device or strategy be, that would lead to this novel winning the 2019 Booker Prize. I began to anticipate something memorable because the book follows the lives of its various characters in a casual way, expounding the history of each in telling detail and sympathy, and occasionally, almost as an afterthought, ties them to each other. So I began to wonder. At the conclusion of the novel, I found out.

These characters are in the main women of color who have immigrated to England from Africa either directly or with ancestry in the Caribbean. Author Bernardine Evaristo makes her salient point in each of the histories: she focuses her very sharp eye on the variety and degree of hardship and discrimination each has been made to feel. These hardships range from very unsubtle discrimination in ‘50s and ‘60s Britain all the way to gang rape. The character who has endured this rape goes on to amass a  fortune, taking her place among the City’s elite investment bankers.

Evaristo has an unerring eye for human nature and foibles, like all writers of good fiction. She presents her characters here with the full range of emotion and behavior, warts and all. She and we repeatedly shake our heads over their attitudes and actions. The narrative expands as we go, accreting more and more characters over time; Evaristo defers follow-up or conclusion until well after we become impatient for it. Notwithstanding the haphazard “guest appearance” of a few dramatis personae in someone else’s story, narrative streams run parallel, without substantive cross-pollenating, until the premier of an edgy theater production at the book’s conclusion.

So it is a rich book; it is full of characters and full of humanity and full of the plaintive, injured recriminations of the oppressed.

These strains and these characters all gather at book’s conclusion for the performance of a play written and produced by Amma, a principal character. The premier of the play, called “The Last Amazon of Dahomey,” is the loose reason for these disparate characters gather and interact, some of them for the first time in perhaps decades. But even beyond this, there is an even further meeting which you will have to read the book to experience.

“Girl, Woman, Other” proceeds in an unexpected, deceiving pace, and introduces us to a variety of glib, sassy women. These women love and aspire and fight and suffer and wax wise through four hundred breezy pages - until an offhand suggestion leads one woman in a completely unexpected direction with stunning, memorable results. It is a book-long buildup and denouement well worth your while.

"Dolly" by Anita Brookner

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A first-person narrator named Jane tells the story of her aunt Dolly in this novel of family uneven fortune and emotional manipulation. It features uniformly strong characterizations throughout, and proves once again Anita Brookner a pass master in the family arena. It proves Brookner’s mastery of all types of family dramas. 

Dolly, who comes of age during World War II, lives her life in a constant state of lack - she lacks love, she lacks the material means to live comfortably, and she certainly lacks any scruples about pointing out the difference between her circumstances and those of her late husband’s family. Her expectation that  family or loved ones will contribute to her economic well-being is the salient and constant feature of her personality. I consider the characterization of Dolly to be challenging, but brilliantly executed by Brookner. 

This pecuniary dependence colors everything in Dolly’s life, from the time she’s a little girl in Vienna. She marries Hugo, a fairly well-off Londoner, and extricates him from his mother’s clutches by having him take a job in Brussels. Brookner devotes quite a lot of narrative to the questionable, slightly creepy relationship between Hugo and his mother Etty, and the point, I think, is to develop Hugo’s wishy-washy character and his susceptibility to Dolly. Dolly and Hugo mow through Hugo’s money, and then Hugo dies unexpectedly. So Dolly returns to London, hoping Hugo’s family will take care of her, but she runs into a roadblock in Hugo’s mom.

Dolly’s dependence becomes a family heirloom; first she asks Hugo’s mother, then after her passing, she transfers her dependence to Henrietta, Hugo’s sister. Our narrator, Jane, is Henrietta’s daughter, and as Henrietta dies in her turn, Jane rebels against the apparent obligation to throw money at Dolly. But the rebellion doesn’t last.

Jane has a hard-to-credit epiphany about Dolly, and winds up setting Dolly up happily in a small London flat, surrounded by new and accepting friends.

Brookner concludes her novel with a discussion of feminist issues, which she brings up as Jane, a celebrated children’s author, gives lectures on Sleeping Beauty at a couple of American universities. There she is quizzed by women in academia on her position on various issues; the whole thing gives Jane pause … she can’t help but think about feminism against the backdrop of her experience with Dolly. Jane thinks of her as a “working woman,” highly adaptable, who made a career out of getting by.

In the end Jane acknowledges and agrees with her American friends’ views on feminine personhood, but can’t help hearing a voice, an offstage echo as it were, that asserts the old ineluctable questions, Will I be loved, will I be saved? She knows Dolly comes from a different epoch, another world in which support for women could not be relied upon. This last-minute consideration of modern feminist issues moves Jane to an even deeper understanding: she learns that love is unpredictable, that one may love someone for whom she has felt distaste, even detestation. Jane learns that love only unreliably attaches one to someone worthy.

I admire the inclusion of these discussions in modern gender politics at the end of Dolly. They bring Dolly’s struggles into deeper focus, and add a level of enjoyment and appreciation to the novel’s characters.

"Olive, Again" by Elizabeth Strout

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There is something uncanny about the way Elizabeth Strout portrays her famous and familiar protagonist, Olive Kitteridge. In its blunt exposition Strout’s treatment achieves both a subtle exposition of change and a blunt assessment of Olive’s warts and attractions. In fact, the only thing blunter than a pronouncement by plain-spoken Olive is Strout’s description of her through the months and years of her dotage. Through a magisterial tour of Olive’s latter years, we learn the need for honesty, particularly honesty with oneself; the interconnectedness of life in a small town; and the absolute need to stop anticipating what’s coming up and what’s already been, but to enjoy the moment at hand. The late days of Olive Kitteridge prove in Olive, Again just as readable,
just as revelatory, just as captivating as her earlier days in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge.

In this sequel we ultimately see Olive in a very telling, very surprising moment of self-knowledge, and the way Strout renders this moment in all its stunning inevitability, colored by Olive’s irascible personality, proves the author’s utter mastery. The cunning author lays out invisible groundwork for change in Olive and I just didn’t see it coming. Is it ever worth the wait!

As in the prequel, Strout illuminates the fraught, often desperately lonely lives of Crosby, Maine, in short independent stories. The characters have aged, naturally enough, as has Olive. With the exception of one eighth-grade girl who cleans houses, Crosby’s denizens come to light in the autumn of their lives. We are given by various means to understand these are difficult people, not very enlightened, nor exposed to much of what the world offers. Children who have grown have moved away and remained estranged. People who visit are mostly struck by the oddness and lack of polish of small-town Mainers.

No one is odder or less polished than Olive. Known throughout her life as one who would speak her mind openly and often rudely, Olive is still opinionated. As she has aged, what decorum she may have had has worn off, burnished by her clear sight and curmudgeonly nature. But something else happens here, something happens to Olive as she ages, something unexpected. If good fiction deals with changes and growth in characters, then this constitutes excellent fiction indeed. Somehow Strout has made growth and change in Olive - which readers would give about one chance in a million - appear inevitable. 

Fit this one into your schedule. Read both for the full treatment. They’re unforgettable.