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"Dance of the Jakaranda" by Peter Kimani

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"Dance of the Jakaranda" by Peter Kimani
In Dance of the Jakaranda Peter Kimani constructs a model of Imperial Britain and its administration (plunder, despoliation, usurpation, oppression) of what was once called the British East African Protectorate, and is now called Kenya. It features an insecure and ambitious British grandee who controls, or, we should say lords it over, the hundreds of workers imported to build a railroad from Mombasa to the interior. The narrative follows the exploits and misadventures of a handful of characters, and creaks a bit as it tries to bear up under the pressure of betrayal, misunderstanding, and the larger forces of prejudice and political upheaval.

Three generations of a Punjabi family figure prominently here: the grandfather is one of the artisans imported from across the Indian Ocean to Kenya to help build the railroad as the 20th Century dawns. The middle generation is not known in the story, for a couple of reasons, but the third generation reaps the unfortunate results of the sins of their forebears. For me these characters lacked depth; they apparently stand as totems or emblems of geopolitical actors: the old Englishman with his crippling doubts and weaknesses, least entitled to hold the position he comes into; the young besotted singer and musician, who we’re to believe inspires widespread protests and dies a political martyr’s death.

The difficulties I found stem from a failure to put the reader on site with any effectiveness. The twists of the plot gain momentum toward the end, a momentum flowing from history, but came across to me as quite a bit less than inevitable - even a little forced. The strength of this book lies in its stark depiction of the human cost of colonialism. The construct of everyone’s tied-together fates is inadequate support for the themes developed.

I found this an unrewarding read.

"Outline" by Rachel Cusk

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"Outline" by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk introduces her readers to a cast of characters in Outline; these characters don’t interact with each other much, and the only action to move the narrative forward is a series of monologues about their lives. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking, Why would I want to read that? Well, you would want to read it for the unique insights that intelligent and articulate people bring to judging themselves and their lives. In Ms. Cusk’s hands, this turns into a very compelling read.

Our first-person narrator, a woman whom Ms. Cusk takes the trouble to identify only once in the book - by first name only - meets a talkative Greek gentleman on a flight from London to Athens. This older man recounts the struggles he has had through a series of marriages, and this is the first of our deep and wide-ranging conversations. His tale of woe continues on a couple of jaunts they take together on his powerboat, and the narrator finally confronts him about the self-serving nature of his complaints, and the built-in hopelessness of his approach to women. His reaction to this carries perhaps the central theme here: he confesses his attraction for her and awkwardly approaches her across the deck of his boat to give her a clumsy, ill-aimed kiss, which winds up on her cheek.

His refusal or inability to change his attitude toward the people he meets aligns with the other stories told here by other characters. There is the beautiful woman who can’t get past something she overheard her lover tell someone. There is the fellow writing teacher who climbs away from a dreary life of illness and stagnation in Ireland on a stair-climbing machine in America. There is the poetess who encounters the same unstable man, who may or may not be a fan, on all her readings throughout Europe. The narrator subjects her own life to the same kind of scrutiny, and she has imposed a self-exile with her trip to Greece.

Ms. Cusk rivets us to the page with the depth of her characters’ observations about life and love and various philosophical issues. There is a wide variance between our private and public domains, for example; in given situations some people immerse themselves in the moment while others become detached, observing for transcribing later. We have observations about the infinite capacity for humans to delude themselves, about how safety and security are illusions, about how people can go through life missing all its essential truths, remaining unaffected by all if it in their small, myopic orbits.

Throughout this, the author makes intermittent use of quotation marks, which makes all the speech appear more detached, less personal. Thus are thoughts and beliefs given to the reader, in an exposition in which we must read into the person’s remarks their frustrations and beliefs and hopes.

You will need to be prepared to encounter a wide range of ideas at the expense of structured plot; you will need accept self-exposition in place of dramatic action, to enjoy and appreciate this book. It’s fortunate that I am habitually in that realm and could sample these dishes with pleasure.

"The Eastern Shore" by Ward Just

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"The Eastern Shore" by Ward Just

In The Eastern Shore Ward Just considers the life of a newspaper editor who works his way from small-town Indiana all the way to Washington, DC. In the nation’s capital he heads up a major, influential daily. He spends his career preparing each day’s newsworthy events for the world’s consumption, but … his life contains only a few those moments of drama - becoming estranged from his father after as a teenager incurring his wrath, finding out his onetime lover has died in Africa - that form a stark contrast from the lives he publicizes. The man spends his retirement struggling to write his memoirs, and eventually he figures out that he’ll never get it done. Even the stately country home he purchases for his golden years has fallen into disrepair and desuetude.

It’s a curious journey Mr. Just takes us on: he provides the life of an unappealing protagonist, a man who’s married to his job, and lives with it for better or for worse for 40 years or more. This hero sustains his bachelorhood throughout his life, and never has any very grand regrets about it, apparently, in spite of the fact that he loves and is loved pretty deeply several times in his life.

It could be that the title provides a major clue. When the chief character Ned reaches his (ineffectual, rather stilted) retirement in a crumbling estate on the Maryland shore, he has reached the end of the land, and is forced to stop. But it’s the only thing that’s stopped him. His focus is on other peoples’ news - those who are the subject of the stories, and those for whom the various newspapers are published, has dictated his life in spite of a handful of promising affairs. Even the journalism trade is reaching a retirement point: daily print withers in favor of real-time mass consumption of “news” on the internet.

The storytelling here adds to the art, and may be the main recommendation of this book. It’s bare-bones, almost like a news article in a big-city daily. The few excursions we have into Ned’s deeper self are the times when he frustrates his would-be life partners by preferring his career to any kind of close companionship. There are a few lessons learned along the way about journalistic responsibilities, and it could be we’re supposed to be touched and gratified that Ned learned the lessons and applied them to his work.

"The Flame Bearer" by Bernard Cornwell

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"The Flame Bearer" by Bernard Cornwell
With The Flame Bearer Bernard Cornwell brings the tenth entry in his vivid Last Kingdom series (once known as the Saxon Chronicles). In it Lord Uhtred continues to focus his energy and his followers on retaking his ancestral home, the fortress at Bebbanburg. The action continues apace, with vivid, expertly done battle scenes, and  theatrical set pieces where Uhtred holds center stage at court, adroitly turning the tables on ambitious nobles and venal churchmen. Yes, all the usual thrills are here for your delectation.

While the campaigns with their vivid 10th Century battles do not come as frequently as in other Last Kingdom novels, Flame Bearer makes up for it with its climax. Uhtred must lull his usurping cousin into a false sense of security (through use of strategically placed misinformation) while running a blockade set by a fierce Norseman. Throw into the mix a third enemy, no less than the feared army of Scotland, led by its King Constatin, and you have unusually long odds, even for Uhtred. Suffice it to say the final battle scene makes up for the occasional - and comparative - calm that precedes it. Excellent stuff.

This is an escape I savor every time a new Uhtred of Bebbanburg book comes out. Cornwell excels at this writing, and is widely admired for it. It isn’t just every series that is made into a Netflix series - I was deeply interested to start watching it, but with my schedule that’s all I could manage - just the start. I am glad and proud that others have noticed the quality of the thrills, plots, characters, and yes, the truth of these tomes. Cornwell puts into his hero’s

Escape to 10th Century Britain. You couldn't find a finer time machine.
mind and speech the consciousness of war’s horrors, the plain if covered-up truth of men’s fear on the eve of battle, the honest and frank description of shit, and blood, and guts, and screams, and stench of it all. If these are things to escape to, let Cornwell be your guide. I have no idea now how many more books he will bring out in this series. I feel like I’ve been on borrowed time for a couple of books now, anything else has been and will be a bonus.

"The Loss of all Lost Things" by Amina Gautier

"The Loss of all Lost Things" by Amina Gautier
In one piece of Amina Gautier’s collection, a character sees a glimpse of a second chance, and actually seems to take it. In “Cicero Waiting” a teacher’s wife invites him to bed in a gesture so giving and so touching, that it stands out against the all-too-prominent self-absorption on display elsewhere. In “Cicero Waiting” a couple is trying to survive the loss of their three year-old daughter to kidnapping and murder. The father, who was taking care of the little girl at the time, cannot forgive himself, does not believe he is worthy.

These emotions fill this collection. The extremely human feelings of loss, guilt, regret, anger, and denial fill these pages and are very effectively portrayed. After failed marriages, characters (sometimes) grudgingly admit the possibility of their own partial fault. Others remain peevish or egotistical, or they deny their heritage, or they engage in highly ill-advised liaisons, sometimes even with their exes. The desperate guilt and loss some of these characters feel reaches us as true and authentic. This is Ms. Gautier’s achievement, and the proof of her skill.

The author sets most of these stories against a backdrop of academia, with tenured professors, respected specialists, and struggling graduate students. Ms Gautier does not shy away from depicting prejudice, or resentment, or self-aggrandizement, or confusion among this population - far from it. Her vision for her characters - and her undeniable success - is to set their raw, injured, or imperfect humanity on display.

There is a consistency in these stories. They’re executed well, their themes are set up and displayed succinctly, and some have a power to touch our hearts. And the author shows a solid range of voice and point of view, and she always suits them to her purpose. A solid collection by a young writer whom I will be watching.

"The Comet Seekers" by Helen Sedgwick

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"The Comet Seekers" by Helen Sedgwick
In her debut work of fiction, Helen Sedgwick has crafted a unique and soulful story that focuses on human loss and emotion, but also encompasses the entire universe. Lovers and family members orbit each other, comet-like, across continents and across the centuries, held in the thrall of love’s gravity. Sometimes the revelations at perihelion reward the orbiting soul; other times, we learn lessons less immediately gratifying. This is a touching and beautiful book.

We first meet Roísín as a young girl in 1970s Ireland, where she tries to indoctrinate her cousin Liam in the sights and facts of the nighttime sky, which happen to include a passing comet. Each chapter is named for a comet’s visit, and the dates range from 1079 to 2017. Comets attract scientific attention, while also heralding visits of another kind. Severine, who lives in the Normandy town of Bayeux, is visited by ghosts as each comet makes its appearance. These ghosts are her ancestors, and each has a personality and a story of their own. These ghosts carry an important load in the novel, and occupy much of Severine’s attention, to the detriment of her son François.

The conceit of the comets leavens the narrative while going it a framework. It expands the scope of the story and its imagined implications. Even this grand scale is expanded by Roísín’s shifting astronomical focus: from comets to exoplanets, to galaxies so far away they echo the beginning of the universe. And this is just her problem: with her wanderlust and her eyes on the stars, she forces away a devoted lover who will not quit his roots.


Severine meanwhile has visited the Bayeux Tapestry often, with its fanciful depiction of Halley’s Comet and its recounting of the Battle of Hastings. And the ghosts from France and Ireland visit her frequently and await her participation in their collective story.

These two protagonists occupy the lion’s share of the narrative: Roísín leaves her love to roam far and wide; Severine cannot bring herself to leave Bayeux and her ghosts, and thus continually disappoints her son’s desire to see the world. The two threads balance and contrast perfectly in an elegant construct that supports Ms. Sedgewick’s theme of the rarity and complexity of human love.

Her language does the same. There’s a restraint and a lilt that draws out the poignancy of many of the transactions. Time and again I’ve seen it: plain and quiet language leverages the weightiest themes into focus; plain language for complex ideas. This book is beautifully made and well worth your attention.

"Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton

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"Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton
In a stark New England winter, where the elements enforce solitude and solitude begets depression, one person’s crushed hopes like a domino topple into the next person’s, obliterating them in turn. In Edith Wharton’s classic Ethan Frome, this plot has the advantage of a master’s uncluttered, unerring telling, and American culture is richer for it. If you haven’t taken up this masterpiece, don’t delay any longer.

In this straightforward telling, emotions and hopes shine forth, in high relief. Ethan starts out as a minor figure in a narrative that frames the story, and when we meet him (in his fifties), he’s contorted - physically bent out of shape - from an accident that occurred thirty years prior. The accident was not only physical, but it was also an error of impossible hope, a time when he grabbed a little too greedily for fulfillment.

The bleak and isolating winters of 19th Century New England form the perfect backdrop for this grim tale. The telling is plain and masterful. This famous novella deserves its acknowledged place in the American canon. Anything more on my part would delay you from it needlessly.

"The Gustav Sonata" by Rose Tremain

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Distinguished British author Rose Tremain serves up further proof of her mastery in The Gustav Sonata. This touching piece reinforces our long-held love and admiration: she  handles the personal journey, the evolving internal consciousness, like no other.

She’s proven over and over the depth and breadth of her abilities. In The Colour she constructs the soaring symbolic conceit of Harriet’s transformation during her visit to the mountaintop. In The Road Home she very effectively portrays a Russian immigrant in London, whose class outshines that of every other character. In Trespass she brings to bear a magisterial justice in rural France, tipping the balance to triumph for a downtrodden protagonist. One can catch echoes from these lovely and memorable earlier works in Gustav, if one wants to. But Gustav excels in a quiet new way, bringing to light the long self-sacrifice of its eponymous character, and its fitting coda. Marvelous. Touching, understated, honest - with its real characters and its scope.

We meet Gustav in kindergarten in a Swiss backwater town, where he shows the ropes to the fearful new kid, Anton. They go side by side through the primary grades at school and Gustav becomes a member of Anton’s family, which is considerably better off than his own. Gustav’s mother has issues with Anton’s family’s Jewishness; we learn more about this as the story proceeds.

One episode during the two boys’ youth brings Thomas Mann squarely into the frame. The chapter’s even called “The Magic Mountain,” in which during a mountain holiday the boys play at curing sanitarium patients, eventually engaging in an experimental kiss, insisted upon by the over-dramatic Anton. “Death in Venice” makes an appearance later in the book, at a time when Gustav pines over his errant Anton, who has moved away to record Beethoven and Schubert concertos for an Austrian impresario. Gustav compares himself to Aschenbach, Mann’s lovestruck tourist in Venice, and he decides he doesn’t want to end up like that character, who (spoiler alert) dies rather unexpectedly.

But a very important echo from Mann gets no direct mention here: Dr. Faustus. Anton breaks down like Adrian Leverkühn, beset with disappointing CD sales and a degrading love life in Geneva. Gustav goes to see him at the psychiatric hospital, and from there Anton insists Gustav must move him out and care for him.
It’s a development that turns both Faustus and Magic Mountain on their heads: it appears that Anton has a chance to recover, and the mountain retreat is the locale for a conclusion rather than a beginning.

Additionally, events occur during Gustav’s parents’ lives, in the late 1930s as Europe gets ready to immolate itself again in another war. This is the subsequent war to the cataclysm that ends Mann’s Magic Mountain. Where World War I ended Europe’s lingering 19th-Century cultural edifices, World War II demonstrated the unconscionable power of propaganda and focused hatred. Against this backdrop, Ms. Tremain’s characters struggle to find the consoling habits, or better yet, the one person who will redeem them and make life livable.

This novel hides intricate and balanced principles beneath its plain telling. Its rich vein of allusion illuminates the author’s weighty themes, and I feel the need for a lot more work to fully explore them. Suffice it to say today, that like all other Rose Tremain novels, simply based on its plot and characters this is a rewarding read. Those willing to plumb its depths will find extra and wondrous layers for delectation. Outstanding work.

"Our Souls at Night" by Kent Haruf

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The spare, beautiful, clipped back style Kent Haruf perfected returns to us even more distilled in Our Souls at Night. His characters use a directness and economy of expression that mirrors the narrative, and the whole affects us with the sense of emotional logic freely followed, where pretense is abandoned as counterproductive, a waste of precious time. Our Souls at Night, a fitting valediction from a well-loved author, is marvelous for a number of reasons.

In a straightforward plot (another facet of the book in harmony with the whole) a retired widow, Addie, in a small high plains town contacts a neighbor gentleman (called Louis), and makes what many in the town consider a brazen overture. She asks him directly if he would keep her company in the evenings, and sleep in her bed with her. He assents and thus begins a very sweet and rewarding chapter in their lives. They proceed together quite openly in their new relationship, town busybodies be damned.

But pressures build within their families to halt the happiness. Addie’s son uses her grandson, whom Addie cherishes, in a crass and self-absorbed (not to mention short-sighted and prudish) ploy to try to bring an end to the relationship.  It is not the only source of overreaction.

In this book, Mr. Haruf manages to focus on virtuous people giving of themselves. This is a tricky path for any writer, but Mr. Haruf’s gift plays strongly - his treatment of these two wise and plain-spoken people works superbly, effortlessly. He composes the lovely melody of conversation and action between his two paragons; objections and ultimatums come from others who will probably never know such happiness.
His theme outwardly deals with the age of protagonists who have nothing to lose to pubic opinion, but this lesson applies to any and all. His evocations of place and human failing are perfect and powerful, as always.

As a sober valediction from a distinguished author, Our Souls at Night reminds me of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. Not only are both great achievements of superior writers, but they stand as final reaffirmations of glorious bodies of work. Spend a couple of hours or days or hours with Kent Haruf’s final accomplishment and be enriched.

"Every Day is for the Thief" by Teju Cole

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I enjoyed Every Day is for the Thief for its honesty and straightforward language. As its tale unfolds, the author accomplishes an intriguing thing: he blurs the lines between fiction and memoir, using fiction as the label for what seems thoroughly memoir-esque.   It is an engaging read, in a way displaying its purpose very clearly, depending on refreshing and fast-paced changes of scene as the vignettes flow by. He hints at truths he may or may not have teased out from his observations; one can feel his frustrations, and begins to want some conclusions along with him.

A young man with roots in Nigeria travels from New York to Lagos for an extended stay. He arrives in a Lagos that hasn’t changed in basic character: government officials of every rank expect bribes as a matter of course; the people have a defeatist attitude in the face of corruption and endemic private sector thievery and violence. These problems cripple any attempts to build an economy or infrastructure. Even with its many millions and the potential such a large population must hold, too many people demonstrate a superstitious refusal to look too deeply into problems, placing their faith in lazy aphorisms, or supporting local clerics who are in it for the money.

Mr. Cole roves smoothly from one scene to another, building his evidence case by case. He leavens his ruthless honesty with a rueful nod to the perversity of people’s approach to problems. This “life goes on” attitude drives him a little crazy and he wishes rather than hopes for something to dislodge this inertia. He finishes this tale in poetic fashion, describing a street scene in Lagos which I will not spoil, except to say that it is a brilliant cap to the narrative.

Episodic in nature, bound into cohesion by his theme of the exasperating population of Lagos, this seeming memoir engages the reader for what it is: a description of a large, vibrant city, weighed down by its tradition of vice and corruption. I found it grew on me as I went through the slim volume, and it finishes in a way that makes the trip worthwhile.