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“The Book of Chameleons” by José Eduardo Agualusa

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We experience “The Book of Chameleons” as though watching a slide show. In brief, concise chapters, these lost, searching souls grapple with painful pasts and threatening presents. One measure of José Eduardo Agualusa’s artistry and effectiveness: we certainly don’t mind that it’s narrated by a man who had returned to life as a gecko – for substantial parts of the narrative, we barely notice. Who better to tell the story of these human chameleons? As Angola struggles to emerge from decades of ruinous conflict, its citizens value nothing as highly as blending in.

Félix Ventura, an albino living in the Angolan capital of Luanda, dispenses palatable pasts to clients with something to hide, or to forget. One client takes his services, which consist of a couple of documents and a decades-old news clipping, extremely seriously. He travels to Cape Town and New York to track down his new mother, who is a highly appealing fiction. Another character, who does not seek Félix’s services, wears a ratty old red t-shirt from the Soviet Union that apparently cannot be removed. He lives in a sewer; alone among these characters, this madman longs for the past. Along the way, we and Félix meet Angelica Lucia – the angel of light – who along with Félix counterbalances the dark and disturbing forces at play.

Sr. Agualusa approaches his subject matter in such a novel way! Eulalio, so the narrating gecko is named, merges the functions of dreams and reality, throwing all of consciousness into a turmoil where meanings come and go, where interpretation rules and perception cannot be trusted. So this spare little piece, so superbly translated by Daniel Hahn, with its slivers of chapters and arresting images, bears its impressive freight of regret, yearning, hatred, bloodshed, and redemption so lightly, so effortlessly … I begin to wax on about Sr. Agualusa, and he certainly deserves the accolades he has received. Take up this highly diverting piece and let yourself be carried away, by all means! I highly recommend it.

"Mr. Toppit" by Charles Elton

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In an exceedingly funny debut, Charles Elton hoists modern fame-hungry society on its petard of greed, ego, and hypocrisy. “Mr. Toppit” features oddballs and prickly characters galore, and the strife between and within these denizens lurks never very far from the surface and frequently boils over. Almost never have I laughed out loud so often reading a book.
A Modesto, California, woman takes a vacation in London in the early days of Reagan and Thatcher. It’s somewhat out of character for her … she’s pretty much a homebody, heavily involved in volunteer work, and is taking her initial trip without her friend from work. Chance puts her on the scene of the accidental death of an obscure author of children’s books, who says a few fateful dying words to her, and the rest, as they say, is history. Laurie, the citizen of Modesto, gloms on to the poor man’s family and his nearly unknown books, and through a series of – maybe serendipitous – circumstances, the books become overwhelmingly popular. With popularity comes wealth of course, but for whom? It also brings lack of privacy, as everyone in the family finds out to their chagrin.

All this is told from the point of view of Luke, the author’s son, for whom the main character in the books is named. Luke ages from a very believable twelve to a very believable mid-20s. Although a handful of voices propel the narrative, it all comes through Luke’s filter. Our eponymous Mr. Toppit is the almost-never-seen villain in the series of books written by the deceased author, and commands fear and revulsion from his lair – over the books and over this book. His presence comes through in the way these people mistreat each other, grab at fame and fortune, and generally make oh-so-modern asses of themselves. Lest we lose focus, Luke, our nearly imperturbable narrator, presents all from his bemused and put-upon perspective. This is exceedingly funny stuff, remember. It skewers our modern TV-and-trappings mores beautifully, unerringly. It indicts us through its very accuracy.

I always assume it’s my fault, but I became a little confused about certain characters’ chronology at the end. But never mind that. If you want to read a marvelously-voiced, wickedly accurate reflection of our modern A.D.D.-addled society, pick this up.

"The Abacus and the Cross" by Nancy Marie Brown

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It’s impossible to say to what extent fear of the Apocalypse gripped medieval Europe as the calendar crept toward the year 1000 AD, but there were churchmen and self-promoters willing to preach terror and penitence to the gullible masses. Gerbert d’Aurillac, monk from southeastern France, later canon, archbishop and pope, was clearly not one of these.

In “The Abacus and the Cross” we learn of the public progress of Gerbert, the great scholar and tutor and adviser to emperors. The most sought-after schoolmaster of his day, he headed
the cathedral school at Reims, the most important church in France, from 972 to 989. He rose to the top at a time when kings and emperors sought to ornament their courts with learned men of science and with as many books as could be assembled. What we think we know of tenth-century Europe is largely just wrong. Muslims occupying the Iberian Peninsula had established Cordoba, the continent’s greatest city, with its largest library, from which it freely spread the most advanced mathematics and science knowledge of the age. In 2001, scholars uncovered an actual abacus board attributed to Gerbert, and it contains all the Arabic numerals and their equivalent Roman numerals. The abacus’s construction and use, and the use of Arabic numerals, Gerbert learned from Muslims while in Spain. Thus can historians trace and credit the introduction to Europe of Arabic counting to Gerbert, the philosopher-pope. What other enlightening things can we take away from this wonderful, engaging book?

Author Nancy Marie Brown teaches us many lessons that apply equally today as they did a thousand years ago: in politics, trust no one; be temperate in speech and writing, because you never know when you might need to turn to someone for help; you can’t do anything about your legacy once you’re gone. Gerbert had big, big dreams for the Holy Roman Empire of the time, but he and his emperor friend, Otto III, died before they could be realized. What the Saracens and Europeans then perpetrated against each other forms the great tragedy of this story.

This highly readable book brims over with eye-opening anecdotes, focusing on the story of Gerbert, never more in his element nor happy as when pursuing his scientific studies. Here the scholarly and scientific issues of the time come alive; they live and breathe in Ms. Brown’s deft and comfortable treatment. No dry tome, this. Pick it up and enjoy it, and peer into a far-off realm and time. Highly recommended.

"All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost" by Lan Samantha Chang

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As I progressed through “All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost,” I felt the hand of a careful artist, demanding the highest performance of her lean language, and observed her continued bountiful success in meeting that demand. Lan Samantha Chang has given us a deep, arresting, memorable piece, whose characters stay with us long after their story ends.

Young Roman Morris strives to write poetry and succeeds brilliantly – he wins an early fellowship and later in life, the Pulitzer Prize for his deep, unique, heartfelt verse. He lives a life in academia, and it’s a cushy life, except that something gnaws at him: he thinks his onetime mentor and lover Miranda, herself a brilliant poet of personal observation, may have exercised nepotism in vaulting him into his early recognition and success. Roman has doubts about himself as a result. He wonders whether he deserves his accolades and treats those who love him with a hard-to-forgive combination of coldness and mistrust.

We understand Roman’s inability to level with any of those around him, although we may think ill of him for it. The characters he abuses deserve better, particularly Miranda and later, his wife Lucy, who both suffer at his hands, but in rather different ways. But Bernard, the friend and shadow-character, plays perhaps the most intriguing function in the story. As Roman’s foil, he sometimes represents the Path Not Taken, for Bernard is another gifted poet who has worked on a long piece all his adult life, with no outward success. Bernard lives a far more virtuous life, Roman sees to his chagrin, and perhaps stands as the conscience Roman has never paid much attention to. This all comes to a head at the unhappy end of a long visit Bernard pays Roman and Lucy. Roman feels threatened because he didn’t realize Bernard had such impressive gifts – he even suspects Lucy and Bernard of misbehavior behind his back, and sends Bernard away. I find myself considering Bernard more and more; he’s a fine construct – he balances Roman’s baser side, and proves in the end to be a weak force (his lungs are ruined from second-hand smoke) that Roman will miss keenly after he’s gone.

How fitting that a story about brilliant writing should come to us in such brilliant language! Ms. Chang’s tightly- harnessed prose never gets in the way, and yet answers our need to see inside these characters. Graceful, rhythmic, restrained, instructive – Ms. Chang’s prose is all these. And the depth! I caught echoes of Henry James in passages describing the relationships between and among these striving, stricken souls. But, fear not, there are none of the fussy, nested phrases of the late James here. All is in wonderful, flowing order. Our author renders psychological insights and memorable stories in classy, disciplined prose, with characters portrayed truly and unblinkingly – this is a fine achievement.