"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan

Sunday, March 1, 2015



Throughout The Narrow Road to the Deep North protagonist Dorrigo Evans strives unwillingly, unwittingly, “… (t)o follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” These lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses capture the hero’s plight: the more he experiences, the less he seems to know, the less he seems to be capable of dealing with. Like Ulysses, Dorrigo finds late in life that he lives among “a savage race,/That hoard, and sleep,  and feed, and know not me.”

After becoming a doctor and enlisting in the Australian army in 1942, Dorrigo Evans, promised to another, meets – or is captured by – Amy, a young woman who is married to his uncle Keith. And in her arms he finds he understands nothing of love, of human conduct, nor of the attractions of any other woman. He experiences extremes of confusion. Life, the world, the human race – all are incomprehensible. He never feels more alive nor more confused as during his weeks with her by the Adelaide seaside. His resulting unmooring, through his heroic service with doomed Australian POWs in Siam and Burma, and his subsequent honors and fame, imprisons him in an impenetrable solitude.

Richard Flanagan, author of the astonishing Gould’s Book of Fish, has produced a work of overwhelming power; it will sear your consciousness with the staggering facts of heroism, murderous cruelty, a boundless love beyond comprehension. And yet through it all, our hero cannot feel certain of these basic facts. Dorrigo’s confusion rings true because the author displays a master’s command of language and consciousness. He sets Dorrigo and Amy alone in the universe at the seaside resort, in the thrall of a passion that overwhelms any description, that surpasses rational thought. He tells of the POWs on the death railway in a more straightforward way because that story has its own enormity, its own incomprehensibility.


I’m tempted to quibble about a couple of plot points that seem to rest on flimsy foundation, like Dorrigo’s and Amy’s postwar failure to seek each other out, or the not-quite-necessary family connection from the POW camp. But these are quibbles, and certainly not the right way to end this review. Take this stunning book up. It deserves its accolades, and Richard Flanagan deserves his prominent place in today’s pantheon of writers.

"Goliath Gets Up" by Starbuck O'Dwyer

Sunday, February 15, 2015



As one gets further away from first-person narrator David “Dragon” Horvath in Starbuck O’Dwyer’s gonzo Goliath Gets Up, the characters become less and less real. And Dragon himself, although his heart is always in the right place, is a few cards short of a full deck when it comes to brains. Don’t look for the ordinary or the logical, or even the responsible, because they’re all missing from Goliath Gets Up. What this frenetically funny book has: a small band of down-on-their-luck adventurers, a Chinese-American woman who would be an eco-terrorist, a criminal lawyer with ambitions to be a stand-up comic (he’s terrible at both), and two geriatric women. One of these is the 87 year-old sex-crazed mayor of Rochester who wants to bring the Oscars ceremony to her Upstate New York city (along with gambling and prostitution), and the other is the narrator’s 102 year-old grandmother who wants to jump into the Genesee River and go over the High Falls in downtown Rochester.

Got all that? If it sounds ridiculous, it is, but author Starbuck O’Dwyer has done something remarkable. Early on, he fills his book with over-the-top one-line gags, but that style won’t sustain a novel-length book. So he transitions gradually away from the merely laugh-out-loud funny and lets the absurd premises flow to their inevitable conclusions. (I can’t believe I just typed that about this book.)

The plot revolves around some men in early middle age and stunted emotional development who agree, kind of, to try to stop the mayor’s evil plan to develop and corrupt a beautiful natural section of Rochester. Their strategy involves a major stunt at Rochester’s High Falls, which attracts national media attention. Along the way we have a writer of doggerel who’s on dialysis, an overweight man with discolored teeth who wears t-shirts that say “Have a Penis Day,” and who becomes engaged to a feminist college professor. We have a politician who employs loan sharks and hit men and an older couple named Biff and Beatie. I didn’t look for it, and so didn’t find it, but if the author included a disclaimer about characters and events not referring to anything or anybody real, it wouldn’t have been necessary. Nothing in this book resembles anything real, except for the greed, ambition, ruthlessness, and lack of any moral compass on the part of politicians.

This book was a 5-star finalist in the 2012 Indie Reader Discovery Awards humor category. That’s perfectly understandable. What’s harder to understand is that there was something funnier out there to win. Incessant humor, frequent misadventures, and a roaring climax – take it up if you dare!

"Beethoven Was One Sixteenth Black"

Thursday, February 12, 2015

And other Stories by Nadine Gordimer


One encounters the full majesty and weight of Nadine Gordimer’s prose in this wide-ranging, inspiring collection. What this artist accomplishes with her plain language and her oblique approach strikes me as uncanny, as a sort of sleight of hand, the whole of which is a great deal more than the sum of its parts. As in the title story, in which a man leaves a European city to investigate, in some aimless way, whether his forbear had taken a black African mistress. The concluding word, freighted with multiple levels of meaning when uttered by the protagonist, causes mirth and merriment among his colleagues. We know how inappropriate this reaction is, but we hardly know how to describe what reaction would make sense.

In Tape Measure our daring author lays out the highly amusing musings of an intestinal parasite, and concludes the story with a very understated glimpse of menace. Dreaming of the Dead is Ms. Gordimer’s highly personal elegy to three admired colleagues: Edward Said, Anthony Sampson, and Susan Sontag. This piece so highly praises the dearly departed that it shows the Nobel-winning author’s skill in a new light. It also provides a quick and highly useful introduction to the three. Again, at an extreme economy of words.

Certain themes recur in this collection, in addition to the usual highly charged political viewpoints. Characters in most of the stories navigate the treacherous waters of love and marriage. The higher the stakes, the more care the characters take. Like the wife in Alternative Endings – The Second Sense, who chooses to spare her cheating husband, the owner of a soon-to-be-bankrupt airline. But the widow who visits the gay man who had a love affair with her husband many years before, hadn’t bargained for so much involvement. However, in Mother Tongue, one of the most haunting and rewarding stories here, a beautiful young German bride moves to South Africa with her new husband. Although her English is more than passable, she doesn’t comprehend all the slang and lingo thrown around at the parties she attends. Even when her husband is embraced by another beautiful woman amidst of all the banter, she’s justified in her confidence that she knows all that’s necessary. I found the concluding language here quite sensual and alluring.

In some stories, the younger generation engages an older one to search for and sometimes find answers. A grandson wonders at the actions taken by his grandmother, a German Jewish performer who returns to Europe from Africa at exactly the wrong time before World War II. The Frivolous Woman of the title seems to have survived her brush with death, all right, and thought hardly anything was amiss. In The Beneficiary, a pleasing and surprisingly powerful piece, a woman comes to love and appreciate her adoptive father, as the story concludes with the line, “Nothing to do with DNA.”

All the stories here offer rewards for the reader. Ms. Gordimer’s oblique language and unadorned handling of her plots camouflage the vast range of her subject and theme. This is remarkable: varied, engaging, uniformly brilliant. If you haven’t made Ms. Gordimer’s acquaintance yet, this is an excellent place to start.

"The Almost Archer Sisters" by Lisa Gabriele



Georgia “Peachy” Archer learns a lot about herself over a weekend in which she takes an impromptu trip from her home in rural Canada to New York. She takes this trip under false pretenses, although the pretenses are not her own doing. We ardently want the best outcome for this character, but in the end, I felt torn between a couple of different outcomes, any one of which would be fine. Such is the balance and artistry on display.

Peachy Archer, now Mrs. Laliberté, has a husband and two young sons, one of whom is sick. Her glamorous sister Beth has the looks, the fame, and the addictions that Peachy never aspired to. Beth’s dazzling New York success seduces Peachy’s two impressionable sons. And her history with Peachy’s husband adds to the general disruption when she comes for one of her regular visits. Peachy and Beth briefly collaborate on a plan to get back at Beth’s ex-boyfriend (the false pretenses part), but events take an unexpected direction when Peachy heads for New York unaccompanied.

The Almost Archer Sisters bulges with family: family history, family failure and strife, tough love, and shocking weakness. Peachy, at one point an aggrieved party, flirts with a beautiful, appealing man and with the possibility of forbidden fruit, all the while knowing very well the needs of those who depend on her. This story has a highly unusual balance – a reflecting quality. Peachy’s yang dynamically anchors Beth’s yin, and we see some of Beth’s fast-lane influence on Peachy during Peachy’s excursion. This centrifugal balance drives the narrative, pulling our emotions along for the suspenseful ride.


Ms. Gabriele takes her heroine on a journey, a richly dramatic one, and she treats the reader with laugh-out-loud comic touches throughout. This book shows the author’s power and assuredness with a fraught family situation; it never approaches anything cloying, and holds a ton of promise for Peachy, the heroine. This story soars, it delights, and it rewards the lucky reader. Well done!

"The Love Book" by Nina Solomon

Wednesday, February 11, 2015



A motley group of four American women meet in Normandy on a tour of Emma Bovary sites, and against the odds stay in touch with each other after their low-grade tour is over.  The one talisman that binds them – barely – is the trite and New Age-y Love Book, with its red binding and its exhortations to make oneself available to one’s soul mate by changing one’s “vibrations.”

I put this book aside several times while reading it, and moved on to other material, because I have an extremely tough time with the self-pity and angst of women having difficult love affairs. The men always seem to fit one stereotype or another: the beautiful and charming serial philanderer; the trying-to-be-suave number who is pathetically past his prime; the maladroit too-eager nerd in the sweater vest. This novel chronicles the misadventures of the four women; the men are nearly all ghastly, the women confused and put-upon. I must say the men in particular are cardboard, and only rarely described as even visually interesting.


But: I honor Ms. Solomon’s attempt to throw the happy-love-affair convention on its ear. She distributes the Love Book in a comic, almost magical, way among the protagonists. She recounts its hopelessly naïve and silly instructions – and I think this is the point: the things we, especially women, are meant to believe about finding a “soul mate” are ridiculous – insanely counterproductive. This couldn’t be clearer from the book. 

The frequent comic moments and the lack of a tidy wrap-up for Emily, the chief and most sympathetic of the four, struggle to outweigh the characters’ constant frustration and disappointment. They struggle, and they fail. Can’t recommend this one.

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