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"March" by Geraldine Brooks

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Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women ranks among the American classics of fiction. It covers the tribulations of the young March family of sisters as they come of age and begin to navigate the adult world. The young ladies’ father, John March, returns toward the end of the novel from fighting in the Civil War. He is a deeply wounded individual emotionally. At first he struggles even to speak amid the joyous holiday uproar which celebrates and surrounds him.

One can’t say, really, how much demand there might have been for the story of John March. We are all extremely lucky Geraldine Brooks felt the lack, because her brilliant, compendious, and utterly convincing March fills it for all time.

March tracks the progress of John March’s ghastly, harrowing, nearly fatal, journey to the front lines in 1861 Virginia. He sets off as a highly idealistic chaplain, who quickly learns he doesn’t understand the men in his charge, and who in turn do not trust him and ridicule him. He transfers to a plantation which has been converted to a refugee camp for slaves who have been liberated. The central, the searing, episodes of John March’s war experience occur here.

But can such wrenching, epochal events in a man’s life be told without telling their effects on his adoring wife? His self-centered idealism combines with his lack of quotidian skills to force Marmee—on her own—to maintain a home, hold off creditors, raise five daughters during critical years of their lives, and cope with the poverty John’s idealism has plunged them into. When she travels to Washington to try to nurse him to health after his grievous wounds, she learns things about his life—secrets—which astonish and infuriate her.

Which brings us to Grace Clement, the gracious, soft-spoken slave whose father was a plantation owner. She shows both John and Marmee the path to postwar life: one must hew it with love, light it with understanding, and smooth it with forgiveness. Her presence provides the book with a beacon; her very name provides hope.

A book so full of brilliances: the gracious 19th-Century diction which never gets in the way; the appalling treatment of slaves by both sides; the insight that abolitionists probably made  up similar percentages of combatants in each opposing army; the kindness and wisdom flowing from an unexpected quarter; the chaos, callousness, and contagion of war. Its central power, as in all excellent, brilliant fiction, flows from the foolish hopes and then the grace under fire of transformed human beings. Superb.


 


"Chouette" by Claire Oshetsky

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As we read through Claire Oshetsky’s Chouette, we dwell in a confusing landscape of fantasy on the one hand, and hardpan reality on the other. Tiny, a diminutive virtuoso cellist, becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby owl. She knows it’s an owl-baby from the moment of conception: there’s an imagined scene in which her owl lover, a female, sleeps with her in a place cryptically called “the Gloaming,” in a tender, sensual scene, and during which Tiny conceives. The author then lets hardpan reality dominate, and result is a unique, quirky flight of fancy requiring agility on the part of the reader.

Chouette, Tiny’s daughter owl, proves a challenge from the get-go, even before she’s born. Tiny has a relatively difficult pregnancy, what with talons and a beak inside her, and the birth causes very predictable consternation on everyone but her. The delivering doctor tries to forget what he’s seen, and succeeds rather too quickly. Her husband, at first thrilled with her pregnancy, is repelled by his infant daughter, and never stops trying to turn her into something a little, or a lot, more human. Her husband’s family does its best to repudiate Tiny and Chouette, eventually ostracizing them completely. Tiny’s husband goes along with it.

Readers can take Chouette as a very typical example of how a child can be pulled in opposite directions by parents who apparently want very different things for their child.  The conflict between Tiny and her once-doting husband rings honest and true, and he sides with his family, alienating Tiny, and making her ever more protective of Chouette. Her husband’s family of five tall brothers and their opinionated wives come through as a single unit of suspicion and rejection. The medical profession fares poorly in this book, too. The doctors are self-absorbed, greedy, dismissive, brusque, and hostile. A woman doesn’t have to give birth to a baby owl to experience any of this.

Chouette is spare, well-paced and suspenseful, and contains characters you wish well. It builds with anticipated gloom and failure, and yet does not yield to run-of-the-mill expectation. It will surprise you every time. It does stretch one’s willingness to suspend disbelief, but once you’re on board with the fantasy, its other virtues come to the fore. For me, it’s really a study on one young mother’s struggle to love her baby against odds, and can stand for thousands, or millions, of other mothers in the same boat.

 


 

"The Moor's Account" by Laila Lalami

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In The Moor’s Account Laila Lalami offers the first-person narrative of a black Moorish slave who, after selling his freedom, sails with a Spanish explorer-plunderer to the Gulf Coast of Florida in 1527. The story is a sweeping, detailed account of the newcomers’ struggles with the natives, the weather, and the would-be conquistadores’ geographical blundering and amoral arrogance. Through her storyteller, the author simply lets the heinous and cataclysmic events unfold. It is highly skilled and effective, and rivets the reader to the page.

Our narrating Moor Mustapha tells the unvarnished truth about the brutal treatment meted out by the Spaniards to the natives. Led on and addled by the thirst for gold, the explorers treat the natives with murderous efficiency. Alongside the bigotry and brutality, the Europeans display an utter lack of common sense as events, natural and social, conspire against them. Through it all Mustapha hopes for eventual manumission—his servitude extends will past its original end date—and he occasionally imagines he sees positive signs where there truly are none. He marries a charismatic, self-assured native woman and becomes a renowned healer who unfortunately attracts a large following. To learn why this is unfortunate, give yourself the blessing of reading the book.

The magisterial judgments we make these days about injustice and iniquity about Europeans’ behavior in the New World, Mustapha makes for us. There are moments when he compares the Spaniards’ actions with those of contemporaneous Mohammedan caliphs and sultans, and the Europeans always come out worse.

This review became a retelling of the sins of white European explorers, but this book is a lot more than that. Mustapha’s travels, his concern over feeding his mother and brothers, his flexibility and resourcefulness, and his eventual crossing the goal line make him an unforgettable character, and this a truly well-crafted novel.

 


 

"The Shape of Water" by Andrea Camilleri

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Translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli. 

The first in the Sicily-set Inspector Montalbano series, The Shape of Water establishes the good inspector in a jaded community on the southern coast of the Italian island. Always struggling against the scofflaw traditions of his home, Inspector Montalbano pushes through the local political and ecclesiastical objections to his investigation, but what he finds casts him into the role of maverick as he seeks justice for all involved, regardless of the legal niceties that may be involved.

The case revolves around the death—by natural causes—of the town's charismatic lead politician and civic booster. He is found in suspicious circumstances, at a place he had no apparent reason to be. The dogged detective must juggle two beautiful young women—neither of whom is the Inspector's Milan-based fiancée—a medical examiner who never met a secret he couldn't blab, and a police force more concerned with thwarting the investigation than pursuing it properly. 

The book has twists and turns, a highly sympathetic lead detective, colorful local types, and politics and hostility in high places. Well put-together, entertaining, unorthodox. It might be possible that a different, more nuanced translation would serve it better.


 

 

"The Confidential Agent" by Graham Greene

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The Confidential Agent recounts the struggle of a man dispatched in the very late 1930s from an unnamed European country (Spain) to England to complete a mission for his side in a civil war. Things don’t go well for this guy, identified only as D. His passport photo is a few years old, and he’s aged a lot; the enemy tries to buy him off and his refusal ends in a beating; he is shot at in London, and even his bosses don’t trust him. At the climactic meeting where he will complete his mission, he finds that his credentials, proving he is who he says he is, have been stolen.

Greene tries for realism, certainly, and, with moderate success, achieves it. More important to the author, though, is the sinking spiral in which his hero falls for the first half of the book. D. lives in fear, the only possible outcome for someone who has been imprisoned by the Spanish fascist rebels. He cannot get past the accidental death of his wife; he can’t stand physical confrontation because he has no idea how to defend himself. He is constantly on his guard about his person and his documentation. Rare indeed is the character he feels he can trust.

A series of reversals would likely have been fatal, at least for his mission, if it weren’t for Rose, a woman he meets on his first night in England. An attractive blonde who cannot resist what she calls “melodrama”—which is what she calls D.’s predicament after she begins to believe him—Rose as a surprising knack for knowing what to say to whom in any given situation, and rescues D. on several occasions. D.’s and Rose’s developing love didn’t convince me; it could be Greene was too British to do any more than suggest and imply on that aspect.

The Confidential Agent charges along at a good pace. It has enough plot twists to satisfy anyone, but don’t expect a lot of physical action. Having accompanied a man to the man’s apartment building, D. shoots at him but misses, although the man does die of heart failure a few minutes later. Only a few times do we encounter any sense of real physical danger for the hero; no, what endangers his life is going back home and joining in the actual war itself.

This book entertains in the skulduggery genre, but its strengths lie is its treatment of the larger questions of life, loyalty, betrayal, wartime morality, and the shifting ideologies of a fraught moment in history.

 


 

"The Silk Roads" by Peter Frankopan

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I picked up The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan to get a historian’s read on the commercial basis for how people have behaved down through the ages. I thought it would focus on prehistoric and early literate-era trade, and how it allowed European and Levantine peoples to become familiar with China. I was not disappointed, but I learned as I went the author’s thesis: the vast swath of land from the east end of the Mediterranean to the Pacific has borne the lion’s share of commercial trade, and thus the strongest influence over world political and social deeds and misdeeds through the millennia.

Frankopan sticks closely to his chosen scope. However, owing I’m sure to the relative abundance or scarcity of written material, the detail of political exigency and economic flow burgeons as we go, so that 20th Century events are treated in much greater detail than anything that went before. The author treats each major trend and era in sufficient detail to help the reader comprehend the roots of each: I found the early central Asia administrative system ensuring the safety of cargo and traveler especially intriguing.

Broad-ranging trade evolution, which shifted focus from the Middle East to Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, the economic foundation for building empire, and the conflict between regional and global powers all receive treatment here. I found as I read into more current periods that my energy began to flag from the snowballing detail. The concluding chapter went to even more wordiness, and I will confess to the cardinal sin of skimming it. It just ran to such length, and I had gotten what I wanted already.

Frankopan is his own man; he doesn’t blink when citing the constantly American policies and short-sightedness in dealing with the Middle East, and is especially harsh when dealing with the brutish and bigoted practices of his own country, Britain. He is always authoritative and always well-grounded in his research and views. What more could a reader want in a historian?



 

"Oh William!" by Elizabeth Strout

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I’ve come to the point in reading Elizabeth Strout that all I can say is, ‘Well, she’s done it yet again.’ And I mean that she has made the most straightforward, plain language carry the freighted, unwieldy, insistent battle between personal doubt and self-worth, and charge it so perfectly full of emotion and redemption. And made it look easy and  natural!

Her latest, Oh William!, continues Strout’s captivating saga of Lucy Barton, the heroine who comes from such a modest, not to say debilitating, background to rise to the height of admired novelist and university professor. Here she engages with ex-husband William, whose own wife has left him with a half-empty apartment and a sense of devastation. They have other family news of a disturbing kind, and together they travel to Maine to make sense of it all. Through it all, we are treated to Lucy’s inner dialogue, delivered so pitch-perfectly.

The novel flows on Lucy Barton’s memories and current dilemmas, not on a substantial plot. This design—the constant flow of Lucy’s doubts and affirmations, the jumping-around in Lucy’s memories—requires other-worldly skill in my opinion. How did Strout get these thoughts and impressions in such perfect order? How did she deploy them so they come to us at such a pace, lined up in the proper sequence, to build Lucy’s consciousness and decision process? Strout’s a marvel, everybody knows that. This novel is simply further proof.

Space doesn’t allow a discussion of all the rewarding ways the author deals with the issues raised. Lucy thinks she’s invisible, but it’s proven otherwise to her over and over. William needs to be told the truth about his emotional detachment from the women in his lives, but Lucy skirts the issue, since being his ex, she feels no responsibility any more. The story concludes with an odd invitation from William to revisit another scene from their shared past, and we are left to guess why.

Oh William! proves again Strout’s mastery of this voice and this design of storytelling. Very highly recommended, as is everything I encounter of hers.

 


 




"10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World" by Elif Shafak

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Author Elif Shafak constructs a highly unorthodox frame for her narrative in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. She starts off with the death of her heroine Tequila Leila, and how she can still notice and remember things for several minutes as she lies dead, newly murdered, in a dumpster. We follow newly-dead Leila along as she recalls things from her life; it revolved around a motley group of her devoted friends and would-be lovers. Through this device Shafak hones in brilliantly on the injustice, prejudice, greed, and inhumanity with which middle class and devout society deals with its outcasts. Powerful, creative, and compassionate, this book was short-listed for the 2019 Booker. No surprise there.

Tequila Leila was born Leyla, the daughter of a devout Muslim tailor in Van, in eastern Turkey. An uncle begins molesting her when she’s six years old, and this continues for a decade. In this cruel and unjust episode, Shafak shows the family using the very true-to-life strategy of blaming the poor girl so as to shield the uncle and the family from shame. She refuses the punishment of a face-saving marriage and runs away to Istanbul. Of course immediately on arriving in the big city, she’s sold into prostitution.

Four of her devoted friends are women, and none of them come from conventional backgrounds, either. There is the four foot-tall dogsbody at the brothel where Leila works; the over-the-hill cabaret singer whose voice and looks are gone; the frail, wasting-away Ethiopian whore; and the strapping six-foot-two trans woman who  provides a modernist, secular foil to all the backwater Islamic superstitions in which characters bathe and into which readers dip their toes.

With this squad, the author provides a cross section of oppressed women on the fringe of Turkish society. She instructs open-minded readers with the strongest and best tool in existence: clear, effective fiction. The interplay of these characters, and the one soon-to-be-ruined man who had been friends with Tequila Leila, after her death, forms the tragicomedy that makes up the last quarter of the book. There’s a wonderful suspense-filled sequence in which her friends rescue Leila from her (almost) unmarked grave and race across the Bosphorus Bridge ahead of the pursuing police just as the sun comes up from the Asia side.

Replete with topical social and political themes, full of vivid and well-rounded characters, deeply informed about human nature, both in individuals and in mobs, dosed with humor, and built on a highly diverting and unorthodox narrative apparatus, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is a rewarding, memorable read. I marvel at it and recommend it unreservedly. 







"the book of form and emptiness," by ruth ozeki

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Ruth Ozeki shows once again the Buddhist path to happiness in The Book of Form and Emptiness. As in 2013’s touching and memorable (and short-listed for the Booker) A Tale for the Time Being, Buddhist principles make a powerful appearance and form an influential background voice, deeper even than the voices heard by Form and Emptiness’s hero Benny. Our compassionate author offers to take us, her Kindergarten class, to a portal where The Way is apparent, in all its enigmatic glory and deceptive simplicity. It is the path on which young Benny takes his first confused, halting steps. Do yourself the everlasting service of picking this brilliant book up.

Benny’s father, Kenji, is fatally injured when run over by a delivery truck. Benny, a fourteen year-old at the time, and his mother Annabelle, must make a way for themselves in the world, bereft of the beloved and outgoing husband and father. Unfortunately, they enter a downward spiral, which forms the tense energy of the book.

Annabelle falls into a depression when she cannot keep up with the demands of her job; their duplex, in an unnamed West Coast city (but resembling San Francisco) becomes impassibly clogged with the trash bags containing her work-related archives. Benny begins to show schizoaffective symptoms: objects begin to speak to him—unhappy disused pots and pans, an angry pair of scissors, his scruffy second-hand shoes.

We focus on Benny’s halting and harrowing journey. He doesn’t trust the mental health system and doesn’t tell his doctor the truth. His doctor, in turn, launches Benny on an evolving cocktail of psychoactive drugs, which only makes his path murkier. Help shows up in the form of the Aleph, an alluring, substance-abusing girl a few years older than Benny. She’s allied with the “B-man,” a one-legged, homeless older Slavic gentleman whose real name is Slavoj.

In their way, the pair try to care for Benny and guide him, in spite of how difficult he makes it. Along the way Benny’s mental state deteriorates, in large part because of his medications. He’s injured on more than one occasion, spends nights away from home, ditches school for weeks at a stretch and participates in a riot in the wake of the 2016 election. While objects become central to Benny’s life and consciousness, his mother’s lethargy and depression causes her life and home to become inundated by them. She hangs on to Kenji’s worn flannel shirts because she plans a memorial quilt; she doesn’t throw anything out. And her job generates countless trash bags full of paper files, floppy drives, CDs, and DVDs. She feels no ability to cope with the growing clutter that chokes her home and her life. She even looks to buy more knick-knacks to try to feel better.

And here we come to one of story’s main thrusts: in spite of the highly diverting profusion of things in our lives, and the seeming demands they make on us, we are in fact, each an integral part of a universe full of atoms, some of which have somehow helped us achieve consciousness. We’re just complex creatures precipitating out of stars’ life cycles. The things that speak to Benny—cranky file prongs and amiable rubber ducks, dismayed shards of glass and angry baseball bats—somehow show that human fabrication is no less a process of this universe, as much as the economic and social structures would like us to treat them separately.

Benny is the obvious protagonist throughout, but on reflection, I admit the centrality of Annabelle, too. Both lives become dismayingly cluttered (albeit with different things), and both psyches strain under pressure. Annabelle finds a book (or rather, the book finds her) on the Zen practice of un-cluttering her home, and this becomes a reflection of her recovery. Benny receives help from two very different new friends, and learns that maybe he’s not so mad after all.

I’m not sure what Slavoj Žižek is doing in the story, except providing Benny with some broad guidance in interpreting what he sees and hears. The Slovene poet and philosopher studied among other things, the Real, which in philosophical terms means the actual and authentic, the unchanging and eternal. The nature and epistemological implications of the Real force themselves into Benny’s consciousness forcefully, front and center. As a follower and interpreter of Lacan, Žižek would be directly on point as a current thinker and psychologist to bring in to this story. Further than these basic observations, I can’t go without more study. It’s an alluring feature of this book, with its plethora of alluring features.

Ozeki has many ambitions for The Book of Form and Emptiness. One obvious priority lies in the area of Buddhist teaching, where one finds enlightenment on discovering their true nature as inhabitants of an incomprehensible universe, consonant and consistent with it, and that one is also a universe unto oneself. She pulls another of her theses from the psychology of unorthodox states. Her character Benny hears voices not only of  objects, but voices also flow freely in the air, untethered to things. She acknowledges what she calls the pioneering work of Drs. Marius Romme and Sandra Escher, “for their experience-focused, non-pathological approach to perplexing states and unshared experience.” She includes web addresses for two organizations which deal explicitly with the experience of hearing voices.

And she wraps all this up in a vivid, wrenching story of loss and recovery and coming of age. It’s full to the brim with compassion, full of surprises, gratifying to the end. Ruth Ozeki ranks in the very vanguard of current novelists.



 

"Matrix," by Lauren Groff

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Matrix is the quasi biography of Marie, an illegitimate millstone around the neck of Eleanor of Aquitaine, living in the second half of the twelfth century. Marie is too tall, raw-boned and unappealing to be married off and consigned to obscurity, so when she is 17, Eleanor banishes her instead to a nunnery. She is thus sent from the comfort and gaiety of the French court to the boggy and foggy island of Britain. In Lauren Groff’s hands, Marie’s journey promptly gratifies the reader’s expectations of Marie’s mettle, and then grows to include her magisterial and deft stewardship of the abbey. And beyond these rewards, we are treated to Marie’s mystic side, in which she sees rapturous visions which guide her earthly agenda and impress the nuns in her care of her saintly nature.

I do wonder whether Groff set out to propound the life of a saint, but it doesn’t matter. The life she provides us is, in the most straightforward way, that of a woman of vast abilities and an indomitable will. She carves out for herself and her “daughters”—the nuns in her care—an island of safety and devotion in a very hostile and suspicious world. She guides her charges through treacherous times; she takes over an impoverished abbey and guides it through the “interesting times” of Richard the Lionheart versus his royal brother John, all the while building its holdings—a labyrinth confounds outsiders who would broach the defenses—and it becomes the leading abbey in terms of wealth and prestige on the entire British island.

Groff endows her heroine with impressive political savvy and resourcefulness—this is my favorite feature of the character and the novel. This shrewdness serves her well with her ongoing jousts with the outside world, particularly with her monarch and former close associate, Empress Eleanor. Marie also must call upon her wits when dealing with the sometimes rebellious nuns serving under her. The author handles these episodes with a deft touch, showing the abbess’s intelligence and indomitability in shining, gratifying form.

So this is a book portraying a petit monarch, a woman who decides to build an impregnable fortress-like settlement for herself as much as for English nuns. Groff shows her further assurance (as though any were necessary) as a novelist of the very first rank. Unreservedly: take it up!