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"A House Among the Trees" by Julia Glass

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A highly honored and beloved children’s author dies just before the outset of Julia Glass’s wonderful A House Among the Trees, and plunges his associates into a temporary chaos. This book features intimate views on acting, museum curation, the pressures of celebrity, loneliness, art, literature, and grief. It’s packaged up in typical Julia Glass fashion: characters with gratifying depth, lots of humor, and lots of striving for the best outcome.

Tomasina (Tommy) Daulair, for three decades the indispensable assistant to world-famous children’s author and illustrator Morty Lear, inherits a whirlwind at the time of his sudden death. Not only does Morty leave her the stately Connecticut house, property, furnishings - the whole physical kit and caboodle - he also makes her the executor of his will. And it’s a will with some very unpleasant surprises for a children’s museum curator in New York. Tommy is nowhere near ready for the responsibilities.

Into this fraught moment steps a young British actor, fresh off an Oscar win for a film from the prior year, and a truly fetching young man he is, with a posh accent to match. He’s visiting because he’s going to portray the author in a film. There’s Meredith (Merry), the spurned museum director and Dani, Tommy’s put-upon younger brother. As Tommy struggles to cope with her postmortem duties, all descend unexpectedly on Tommy, and the house, at a kind of impromptu summit meeting.

The author meticulously prepares the reader for this gathering, so that the way it plays out and its effect on the participants ring perfectly true. All the novel’s notes of selfishness, betrayal, of love, professionalism, and devotion come together to sound a lovely carillon arpeggio. The reader comes away with further devotion to Ms. Glass.

This novel mixes its lighter threads (the actor’s apprenticeship to a brilliant older actress in his Oscar performance, and his later relationship with Tommy, and the dead author’s oeuvre and his creative process, described sumptuously with depth and color) with its more discouraging story lines (Merry devastated by the snub in the author’s will, and Dani’s imagined slights, nurtured over the decades). Like the other Julia Glass  pieces I’ve read, this one shows a deep love for New York. I recommend this book - it’s vivid, gratifying, paced beautifully, and has Ms. Glass’s signature big heart.

"Chant of a Million Woman" by Shirani Rajapakse

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"Chant of a Million Woman" by Shirani Rajapakse
Toward the end of Shirani Rajapakse’s plaintive and eloquent book of poetry, she has a piece called “The Poetess.” In its final lines she writes:

She walked with a spring in her step.
Her expression serious. They turned around
as they saw her pass.
She felt such pride. At last to be known.
Even if to just a few.
They did not know she had
nothing to show.

The last line surprised me, and moved me to immediate disagreement. Chant of a Million Women is certainly a notable achievement: it chronicles so many moods, in so many stories, from ancient Indian epic legends to the insurmountable challenges of every day. It consolidates and focuses our attention on the myriad ways men subjugate and objectify women, and the paltry few effective means women have to fight back. This applies particularly to cultures bound by tradition, such as one finds in India and the Middle East.

And women’s situations are so hopeless in this collection that fighting back isn’t really what it’s about. It’s about maintaining something so basic as one’s identity. So often used as a simple ornament, a status symbol, or property to be hidden away, the women in these poems lose their onetime promising selves to a male society, be it as some idealized - but definitely owned - prize, or a simple, reviled piece of furniture, or worse, a victim of violent crime.

Ms. Rajapakse places her poems in a number of milieux: traditional sexist households, dangerous, sometimes murderous, public thoroughfares, urban settings and rural. Often, no setting is specified, except the consciousness of the dispossessed woman.

A million women would indeed raise this chant. They would be fortunate were they to make it this resoundingly, with such force. The poetess distills their suffering to a specific litany, as though a bell were ringing to toll the offenses, forming a high-relief frieze of the hundreds of thousands of wives, daughters, and princesses whose stunted lives impoverish us all.

This is a distinctive, consistent collection in which the milk of human kindness has no place. Nowhere are the kind whispers of a lover or even the support of a life partner. Ms Rajapakse has consistently chosen her pieces with a eye to the plaints and sorrows of women. I salute the courage with which she lends her voice for the forgotten and uncared-for women suffering in so many places in the world. Take up Chant of a Million Women and experience its elegant phrases and its moral force.

"What Counts as Love" by Marian Crotty

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"What Counts as Love" by Marian Crotty
Readers in need of insight into the lives of young women today - challenges, fears, aspirations, consternations, could do no better than take up What Counts as Love. Marian Crotty has been awarded the 2017 John Simmons Short Fiction Award for these nine haunting stories, which testifies to their power and their topical nature. 

The protagonists here, mostly young women, struggle to cope with the duress they encounter trying to navigate and negotiate their way. They, the stories, remind us of the lasciviousness, callousness, abuse, or plain indifference the world heaps in their path. The author depicts these struggles in an honest yet plaintive way; this leads to a certain sameness in tone and diction. However, after completing this collection, I became impressed rather with the variety and fairness on display. Ms. Crotty spares no one, not the young woman with the eating disorder, nor the violent teen about to be banished to the desert, nor the poor heroine addict on the verge of death.
We trespass on these private moments, some of which hold despair, and some what passes for hope, or at least attaining of a plateau of freedom.

The girls and women here emerge with clear character: hope, motivation, delusion, misguided desire, naked aggression. They’re crystal clear. The male characters, even when they lead a story, are less clearly drawn, but that doesn’t matter here. This collection succeeds very well because of the author’s unblinking honesty and very subtle sympathy in the face of the horrifying 21st Century. Congratulations on the award, it’s well deserved.

"Dryland" by Sara Jaffe

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"Dryland" by Sara Jaffe
The strength of this novel arises from Sara Jaffe’s intimate treatment of her heroine’s painful self-questioning and doubt. Fifteen year-old Julie holds forth in Dryland; her just-awakening attractions and aversions play perfectly true. The somber, expect-the-worst tone of her monolog suits her situation perfectly. Julie is genuine and has kindness in her soul and we root for the best for her.

At story’s outset she misses her brother, nine years her senior, and purportedly living in Europe. His departure is wrapped in mystery for Julie, and at the newsstand she looks through swimming magazines for him pictures that might look like him - he was a notable athlete, a hero made of multiple school records and loads of trophies, some still displayed in the school lobby. It isn’t until she joins the swim team herself that her perspective begins to change.

This novel encompasses a passage for Julie. She tries to balance friends from different camps while still forging her own path. She grapples with her attraction to other students, and tries to make sense of her friend’s sometimes baffling crushes. This is the stuff of millions of young people’s lives, and Ms. Jaffe makes Julie’s journey special by couching it in unmistakable teen language. It’s a language built with rebellion, and an immanent maturity, but its largest ingredient is of course uncertainty. It all too clearly and accurately demonstrates that an adolescent’s life is brutally difficult.

The author keeps her descriptions to the bare minimum.
That and the young girl’s narration of her own process give the book a dream-like quality, but at the same time certain scenes have an indelibility that will stay with you. Swimming scenes are few, actually, and while I expected at least the possibility that competitive swimming would give Julie some transcendent moments, this is not the case. Julie is being born to everything. She needs to experience all the trials and triumphs first-hand, and experience these she does.

Dryland is soulful, honest work. It lives up to fiction’s highest calling: it is an accurate, sympathetic telling of a person’s progress through life. Take it up!

"The Nature of the Beast" by Louise Penny

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"The Nature of the Beast" by Louise Penny
In The Nature of the Beast, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sureté Québecois has become simply Monsieur Gamache, a retired officer. He has retreated to the remote and tiny village of Three Pines, Québec, but trouble soon follows him there. Louise Penny has worked more of her familiar magic in this entry, either the eleventh or twelfth entry in the Chief Inspector Gamache series, depending on your source.

As this story starts, a fanciful and attention-grabbing nine year-old announces to all and sundry at a local bistro that he has found a big gun, and it has a monster carved on its side. The boy Laurent is soon murdered because his observational skills are keen (though few believe him) and his big mouth cannot be subdued.

This is my first encounter with the Inspector Gamache series. He has been through the wars for his department, and the author’s fondness for her hero is evident. There are features of this story that weaken it, however. The murdered boy lacks the understanding that a responsible adult should really see the immense weapon hidden in the remote forest; that such a weapon could indeed be hidden for so long; that the Canadian intelligence service would perpetuate dangerous secrets at the expense of local citizens’ safety – all these plot factors placed a strain on my credulity, even as a fiction reader in good standing.

Be all that as it may, this mystery does contain the reasoning and deductive sequences which readers expect. And we can tell how much affection the author has for her hero, given the sympathetic portrayal. I have read a few mystery series in my time, and I can understand the attraction of Ms. Penny’s popular Inspector Gamache novels.

"The Undoing Project" by Michael Lewis

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"The Undoing Project" by Michael Lewis
The Undoing Project contains many charms, and chief among these is its full and intimate description of the friendship between Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. These are the two pioneering psychologists who revolutionized decision theory and demonstrated its effect on economic thought. In Mr. Kahneman’s case, it led to the Nobel Prize in economics.

Michael Lewis tells his story with the enthusiasm of a newcomer to the subject. And these two innovative thinkers, who rattled the cages of the academic establishment in both psychology and economics, deserves this bight and spritely telling. The title refers to the emotional tug a person feels in the midst of regret - often people have the impulse to change an unfortunate circumstance or fact of their lives, because of its unpleasant consequences.

We follow the joint careers of Tversky and Kahneman as they discover each other: they become inseparable friends while performing a wholesale revamp of economic behavioral theory. They eventually drift apart, professional jealousy

playing a small and perhaps misunderstood role in their separation. This book excels in its portrayal of the progress of their joint thought. It does a good job of showing just how revolutionary their thoughts were, and the consternation they generated in the economics community.

"Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

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"Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout has blessed us again. Anything is Possible is a faultless series of observations of the family and townspeople of her recently renowned heroine, Lucy Barton. She adopts the format that served so well in Olive Kitteridge - lives become illuminated in a series of superb short stories relating to the principals. I waited in vain for one of the pieces to revert back to a main character covered earlier in the book. It didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen because it didn’t need to. I expect Anything is Possible to bring home the hardware, just like Olive Kitteridge (2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) and My Name is Lucy Barton (long-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, so far). It’s sublime.

A plot summary doesn’t really apply to this book, since it consists of a roundelay of short stories. In them, an older retired gentleman’s faith is tested by an unexpected response to kindness. A veteran of Viet Nam laughs at the (to him) antiquated concept of “character” when deciding to help his mistress out for the last time. A high school guidance counselor polices her own behavior, and shows kindness to a disrespectful teen (Lucy Barton’s niece) desperately in need of it. A middle-aged woman finally reaches an understanding with her mother who has fled to Europe to remarry. Children raised in abject poverty - foraging-in-Dumpsters poverty - raise themselves up to own and manage businesses.

And these bare synopses do nothing to tell how beautifully paced and painted these vignettes are. Strout again shows utter mastery of this form. We witness in distinct, utter clarity the heart-rending events in these lives; the language and heart couldn’t be more sympathetic or understanding. It inspires that awe we experience when in the presence of a master.

For instance, in “Snow Blind” we learn of the innocent and sanguine upbringing of a girl who becomes a captivating actress later in life. Farmland under a new blanket of blinding snow stands in for the young girl’s successful navigation of the threats around her. The beautiful and stark colors of the Italian coast set the scene in “Mississippi Mary”

of an elderly woman’s choice to live the last chapter of her life deeply in love. The uncertainty of his mistress’s given name corresponds to a troubled man’s confusion about the direction of his life in “The Hit-Thumb Theory.”

I could go on, but I don’t want to indicate that I followed the corners turned and characters revisited from story to story, because in fact I didn’t. I drank up these stories as they were poured out, with such clarity and such charity as can only be accomplished by Elizabeth Strout.

"Human Acts" by Han Kang

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Author Han Kang splinters her narrative in Human Acts into fragments, and thereby captures the pulverized lives of the survivors of the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. It’s not only highly evocative of the partial, debilitated existences of these poor unfortunate people, but in Deborah Smith’s translation, it’s eloquent and riveting.

An estimated quarter of a million South Koreans demonstrated for democratic reform a few months after General Chun Doo-Hwan seized power in the vacuum left after the prior strongman Park Chung-hee was assassinated in late 1979. These demonstrations took a particularly popular and energetic form in the historically under-represented city of Gwangju. (So much so that the city and its inhabitants have become emblematic of the struggle for human rights.) Human Acts depicts the fallout in human misery from the brutal crackdown that suppressed the uprising.

And this depiction achieves a stunning effectiveness by its unadorned painting of simple human reaction to atrocity. People lived through it somehow, their tortures starting out as physical but lasting their entire lives in their haunted psyches. This is where Deborah Smith’s sterling translation comes to the fore: she renders in beautiful, simple terms the human face of suffering South Korea. It’s beautifully done.
As another chapter in the saga of population under an authoritarian heel, this book takes its rightful place.

"Traveller - Inceptio" by Rob Shackleford

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"Traveller - Inceptio" by Rob Shackleford

Rob Shackleford’s ambitions are many for Traveller - Inceptio, his first novel. He strives to portray how a post-graduate project in security technology can evolve into a device for time travel. He wants to depict modern elite soldiers as they train for an unprecedented and intimidating mission. He wants to focus on a modern media frenzy over heroic and beautiful pioneers, and most importantly, he deeply desires to render realistically eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon villagers’ lives and culture.

The fact that he comes as close as he does to realizing all these ambitions testifies to the strength and consistency of his book.

A bare plot outline: 21st Century Australian students accidentally invent a device that will transport anything, animate or not, 1,000 years into the past. After thoroughly testing the device, the university and the corporation which funded the research become partners with various governments. In response to the clamorous calls of historians they settle on Saxon England as a logical destination to begin to use the apparatus. The authorities train a small squad of modern elite soldiers for the journey; they must learn the language, culture, and perhaps most important of all, the fighting techniques of the time. These soldiers do in fact make this trip, first singly, and then they go as a group. It turns out Saxon England is quite a challenging place, especially when vengeful Danish Vikings are roaming the land bent on plunder and destruction.

This broad ambition means that Shackleford must deal with events on the surface and carefully pick an choose which of his characters’ psyches deserve deeper treatment. This is not too hard a puzzle. After all this a science fiction novel of action. We start with a band of brilliant doctoral candidates whom we just begin to get to know, and from there the focus is on progress to actual time travel, and then time travel with a purpose. There are just too many elements to deal with in any depth, but our intrepid author stays his course, keeping the action, and the international politics of the action, in the foreground.

On a couple of occasions characters voice the existential questions and concerns which surround time travel. We don’t encounter any issues with creating different futures, for instance, or changing the courses of one’s own ancestors. Shackleford expounds competing theories on these issues, and comes down on the side that allows for minimal alteration of the future given traveling to a specific time in the past. Again, it’s an action novel, not a philosophical treatise.

The best thing about this novel is its sustained level of imagination. The author shows solid storytelling instincts in his pacing and his treatment of his readers. He makes good on his fictional promises and continues to surprise, even in such a lengthy piece. Ultimately, it’s a novel containing a whole series of elements for today’s reader: limited time travel is invented by a motley crew of young scientists; elite Special Forces soldiers live like Samurais, dispensing wisdom and protecting the innocent; Saxon England comes vividly alive, with its crude scents, its face-to-face fencing with death, and its superstitions. I congratulate Rob Shackleford for his effort. I don’t know if this is the start of a series, but even if it isn’t, it’s a memorable piece of science fiction.

"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov

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"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov

Translated with notes by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Introduction by Richard Pevear.

The Master and Margarita teases the reader in many ways: improbable people and the  supernatural activities they engage in confound you a little at the outset. But as with any consistent narrative we learn to expect traits and characteristics; outcomes begin to gratify us, and treat us to a series of accelerating surprises.

Bulgakov composed and revised Master between 1928 and 1940. (He died in 1940, a short time after dictating the last revisions.) It contains multiple narrative threads, each with its own style and level of speech. There is a prominent story featuring Pontius Pilate, a close and almost sympathetic portrait that includes forgiveness for the Procurator. Moscow’s ordinary citizens populate another strand, and they exhibit pomposity, cynicism, greed, and jealousy. The main players, the writer called the Master, his lover Margarita, and a poet named Homeless emerge with deeper coloring, and a lot more sympathy. The third distinct thread folds in the eerie and omnipotent Satan and his retinue, slumming in Moscow for a time.

These three skeins have something in common: they each prominently display themes and scenes forbidden from Soviet literature under Stalin. Master and Margarita first saw light when it was serialized in the Soviet Union in 1966 and it caused an immediate sensation. We encounter many scenes which satirize and vilify the Soviet police state, sometimes through the use of a code word, like “sitting,” a term for incarceration in a work camp or prison. Or when citizens disappear, Bulgakov’s narrator says no one knows where, such a mysterious thing! The book almost certainly would have made Bulgakov disappear had it appeared in his lifetime.

The mix of fanciful, almost fairy tale aspects, with the everyday drabness and shiftiness of Moscow life, sharpens both into crystal focus. This juxtaposition proves Bulgakov’s brilliance. It makes several points clearly, unmistakably: there is a desperation and dreariness to life when it contains no freedom; the devil is all-powerful and you may need his services to achieve a happy ending; certain citizens live a life of luxury and work assiduously to keep others from it. Lay over the top of these observations a vivid, remarkable picture of Pontius Pilate in his moment of cowardice and doubt, and the whole sparks and trembles and shifts in our consciousness. It’s a product of its time and place, but that doesn’t stop it from being brilliant, a masterwork.

I don’t usually read introductions to books, preferring to let the work settle on me with my own set of views and experience. But after finishing Master and Margarita I took up Richard Pevear’s introduction, and if more were like his, I would definitely read more. He impresses with his knowledge of the book’s compositional history, and makes a number of compelling observations about the historical and political milieu in which it was written and then published. His observations on the text are astute and helpful, and the end notes eminently useful. This introduction definitely adds something to the reading, which a good introduction should.

Take up Bulgakov’s parable. See what all the fuss is about.