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"Horse" by Geraldine Brooks

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Australian author Geraldine Brooks, who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, leavens the history of the great American Thoroughbred Champion Lexington in 2022’s Horse. She wields the imagination of a brilliant novelist, bringing alive historical figures about some of whom a fair amount is known, and about others, almost nothing.  Given her subject matter, it is entirely appropriate that she deals at such length with the American race issue: her protagonist, Jarrett Lewis, spends the bulk of the novel an enslaved Black man. The chapters illuminating his imagined life succeed better than the 20th- and 21st-Century sections, which in comparison, feel clunky, cobbled a bit hastily.

Yes, the deep trust and loving rapport between the horse Lexington and the slave Jarrett form the heart of this book, and provide nearly all its charm. Jarrett’s father Harry is an exceptional trainer in his own right, and has earned enough through an arrangement with his owner, Dr. Warfield, to purchase his own freedom. Jarrett is present when the colt, originally named Darley, is born, and Harry sees the relationship between it and his son grow and flower, and he knows well enough to leave them to it.

Darley is renamed Lexington in honor of the area of Kentucky from whence he hails, and begins to race in 1855 at five years of age. Jarrett is devoted to the young horse, and he ends up training him into America’s greatest Thoroughbred of all time. His racing career is cut short because of failing eyesight (due to an infection), but his stud history will likely never be matched. I invite you to look him up. Jarrett struggles under the yoke of slavery, in which he controls nothing about his life, but is fortunate to be able to live with and work with the horse who loves and trusts him, through the horse’s entire life.

Brooks captures horses in Horse. She imagines their herd mentality and their personalities quite convincingly. I think it’s brilliant, because I don’t know better. I have, however, spoken extensively to people who have spent a lot of time around horses (and not just after reading this book), and everything in the book on this subject rings true. This book is also part horse advocacy: clearly American Thoroughbreds are raced too young, and abused horribly in the process. The other overarching theme is American race relations: slavery and the onset of the Civil War occupies much of the book; Brooks brings this up to date for the 21st Century with a fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black man.

The narrative of Jarrett and his horse took my heart and made it soar. The contrast between that and Jarrett’s relationships with the slaveholding class strikes me as brutal, and one of the chief points of the story. And Brooks avoids depicting the slave owners as cardboard cutouts; as a group, they are more merciful and generous than was probably the norm. The author spends considerable effort on the histories and provenance of paintings of the great stallion; this was necessary for the design of her book, but as I said above, to me it fits ill with the balance of the story. Overall though, a very worthy read.







 

"Elsewhere" by Alxis Schaitkin

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A new work of fiction out this year takes up the themes of belonging, of motherhood, of temporal and spatial perception, and of the human need to make sense of life. Its tight focus helps it succeed in teaching us about ourselves, but its occasional asides jumble its lessons, or rather, fall short of clarity of what it would instruct.

Vera, the first-person narrator of Alexis Schaitkin’s novel Elsewhere, spends the entire novel elsewhere. We meet her during the last year of her schooling in an unnamed and  remote mountain town where clouds form the everyday atmosphere, and in which the citizens are unusually close-knit. This location strongly evokes a fairy tale: it is a closed, completely insular community in which every citizen has a sort of celebrity, their personal business out in the open for all to see and inspect.

The salient feature of the town results in this closeness, and makes the town unique. Young mothers suffer an “affliction,” in which they disappear, evaporating figuratively into thin air. No one sees them go, and in the aftermath of each “leaving,” the mother’s friends and neighbors compulsively recapitulate how they might have known who would leave, of what the prior indicators were.

I’m spending time on the setting of this novel because of its paramount importance. Through it, the author considers such timeless human themes of parental love, tribal groupthink, shifts in perspective arising from growing older, and setting’s influence on moral character. Vera considers some refined points of her existence: her interactions with her family and what they indicate about her fears of “going;” what does her love mean, and how much of it is actually self-reflective; can she buck the universal expectation of “going,” and thereby disrupt the town’s Otherness?

Frequently fiction answers such questions, but Schaitkin leaves the answers much less certain than usual. Nothing wrong with that, but it felt to me like more certainty would have made the novel better. Her language is perfectly suited to its subject; her pacing variable but very appropriate to the protagonist’s progress. Motherhood is the kernel at the core of this book, and the author holds it up for close inspection: its trials, its effect on the mother and the child, and how absence and the passage of time alter it.

If these themes move you, by all means take up Elsewhere. I found its unusual setting and plot unique and refreshing, but its personal issues of growth and change lacking somewhat in depth.





"Paris Trout" by Pete Dexter

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Pete Dexter’s justly renowned Paris Trout traces the inexorable decline of its eponymous character, and the few citizens of Cotton Point, Georgia, whom he takes with him. Dexter delivers his grisly, unfortunate story in robust language, making clear his central characters’ lack of choice, or their delusions, or their destructive impulses. Dexter’s greatest achievement in this book is the inevitability if its climax, and yet he  manages to surprise us anyway. Typical of Dexter, this book boasts plain, strong language, an unflinching gaze at human failing, a pace that never lets up, and the overall impression that we are in the hands of a master. It’s unforgettable.

It’s the 1950s, and Paris Trout is a local businessman who has been active in a small Georgia town for decades. He runs a small general store, deals in used cars, and lends money out at interest, serving the town’s Negro population as well as its white people. He manages his interests in an unorthodox manner, not being one to write anything down, including books of account. He retains all transactions and balances in his head, for he has a powerful, capacious mind.

He also has a deadly, unswerving focus on his own interests, and this focus leads him to nefarious activities, the worst of which results in the fatal shooting of a 14 year-old Negro girl in her home. His trial on this charge constitutes a good portion of the book, and is the central trigger for the acceleration of his downward spiral.

We only get to follow Paris’s reasoning, such as it is, at a remove. We are much closer to the other characters in the book, his wife Hanna, Harry Seagraves, his attorney, and Carl Bonner, a lawyer who arrives halfway through the narrative, and represents Hanna in divorce proceedings against Trout. The mental and emotion journeys these people take in the wake of Paris Trout’s deeds and misdeeds show Dexter’s superior ability with the human mind and heart.

Take this up. It’s an important work of American fiction from the last century, and it showcases the astonishing ability of its celebrated author.

 


 

"The Order" by John-Patrick Bayle

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John-Patrick Bayle has added to the generous tide of titles taking Medieval Europe as its subject and focus. In The Order he has published an adventure story which follows Brother Jan, a Benedictine monk residing at a wealthy abbey in France. His is a truly harrowing Central European journey, nearly resulting in this death several times; he’s  injured and humiliated enough that he begins to think he might prefer it. The year is Anno Domini 1513, a year of upheaval for Holy Mother the Church, shaken out of its smug and profitable ways by the conscience of that extraordinary iconoclast, Martin Luther.

I admire Bayle’s handling of some of the problems he set for himself. I’ll start with the level of diction in the dialogue. His milieu requires straight every-day speech between characters, as does any novel’s, really, but he sets a tone that keeps it from sounding like 21st Century conversation. And neither is it too stilted. It’s hard to see how it could be improved.

His pacing is strong, even jolting at times, as deathly threat and delivering rescue happen in rapid succession. We spend the bulk of his book as baffled as is the lead character about why he should be so maniacally sought, rescued, and re-sought by the two opposed sides. And who are these two warring parties, anyway? Bayle pulls off one of the trickiest effects in the book, the hero’s slow-dawning realization, and consequent growth into, his role in the world, about as well as it could be done.

I wondered a few times about the plotting. I was troubled by his initial desperate flight from his home abbey. One expects daring escapes, hiding in laundry baskets as thuggish churchmen comb the town, that sort of thing. And instead we get a sort of leisurely conversation with a witch-like figure, a forlorn beggar in a muddy street, who gives Brother Jan his initial deliverance. As the rapid-fire events of the book unfold, however, my questions faded.

The book contains another strong attraction: the leader of the side that wants Brother Jan alive engages him in a lengthy theological and liturgical discussion near book’s end. It rings true for anyone familiar with Luther’s objections to the 16th-Century Church. The young monk, although extensively read, is eventually dazzled by the learning, the logic, and the charitable thinking of his guide.

Above all, this is a rousing adventure, and I read on avidly as each rescue and hair’s-breadth escape delivered our hero safely. It’s unusual that such an ecclesiastical dispute with so much death and destruction could be kept secret, which it is even within the book’s constructed reality. Once you get past this sticking point, you can enjoy the adventures for what they are, good fun as a larger mystery unfolds.
 

 


 

"Chronicle in Stone" by Ismail Kadare

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Translated from the Albanian by Arshi Pipa and David Bellos

Never has an adult written so convincingly in the voice of a child than Ismail Kadare in Chronicle in Stone. Set in a small crossroads town in southern Albania that closely resembles Kadare’s home town, Chronicle follows a dreamy juvenile boy who imagines the relationships between houses, between and among streets, between clouds and the sky. World War II air raids force the unnamed boy and his fellow townspeople out of their homes and into the citadel. Not even these visits to the dank, maze-like fortress can ground this boy’s flights of fancy. The whole novel is riveting, atmospheric, and utterly  convincing.

The boy predictably idolizes the aircraft occupying the newly constructed airfield across the river, until a monstrous, silver behemoth arrives and asserts itself as alpha. He spends much of the novel in the company of his neighborhood’s old women, who are a funny combination of superstitious and worldly wise. In particular, his grandmother knows and understands much about the real world, and condemns a good portion of it. He watches the occupying armies come and go: Greek, then Italian, two and three times each, and they all anticipate the ultimate monstrous German forces.

He’s acquainted with two young terrorists in their twenties, partisans, as they’re called, who encourage and belittle him by turns. Their leader, another young man from the same town, called Enver Hoxha, has left to study abroad. His specific inclusion in the book has been seen as a sop to Albanian authorities to allow publication, but shadowy veiled references that hint at his rumored unorthodox sexual orientation have been cited as well.

Chronicle in Stone was first published in Albania in 1971. Its English translation wasn’t released until 1987. It balances the daydreams of a young boy with the horrific events of political and wartime violence. This balance makes it possible to view the bloody events of the novel from something of a distance; this lens also perfectly catches the modern anarchic political machinations while acknowledging Albania’s remoteness and inward—and backward—focus. It’s an intriguing construct, very rewarding, very balanced, and very strong. And the point of view gives the novel an enchanted quality. For these reasons, it won the International Booker Prize in 2005.



"The Books of Jacob" by Olga Tokarczuk

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This extravagant book has an extravagant subtitle: Or: A Fantastic Journey Across Seven Borders, Five Languages, and Three Major Religions, Not Counting the Minor Sects. Told by the Dead, supplemented by the Author, drawing from a range of Books. and aided by Imagination, the which being the greatest natural Gift of any person. That the Wise might have it for a record, that my compatriots Reflect, laypersons gain some Understanding, and Melancholy Souls Obtain Some Slight Enjoyment.

Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.

Lengthy, and freighted with endless details, Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob tells the story of the 18th-Century Messianic figure Jacob Frank. And it tells it with such scrupulous care that nothing of any bearing on the story is omitted. At 961 pages, and consisting of seven books within its covers, this is truly an epic effort on the parts of the author and her translator.

Jacob Frank was born Yankiele Leybowicz bar Yehuda in 1726, in western Ukraine, at a time when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. He fraternizes while in his 20s with a group of learned and disputatious rabbis. They congregate in the evenings and interrupt one another, raising their voices to try to gain ascendancy on the doctrinal or philosophical point at issue. During these disputes they try for eloquence and erudition, to out-speak and out-argue all others, vying for attention and victory in their endless debates. Never mind that they always focus on some minor, arcane prescriptive point in the Talmud or the Old Testament. From time to time these discourses actually bear on larger matters of legitimate human concern. Most of the time, not.

In this milieu, young Yankiele begins to have startling visions and to make enigmatic pronouncements on Hebrew beliefs, and uses his charisma and self-effacing approach to become the center of attention. His learning cannot match that of the rabbis, but his down-home observations and his magnetic personality win him a following. He espouses a schism from the Hebrew faith, a complete break, in which Moses is exposed as a fraud and his law repudiated. The group travels to Turkey, where Yankiele takes the name Jacob, and is given the surname Frank, which is the generic Ottoman term for a European.

He converts to Islam briefly while in Turkish territory but soon his sect gains notoriety as an anti-Talmudist group of Jews which seeks baptism into the Catholic faith. This gains them both friends and enemies in high places, and after nearly interminable machinations on all sides, Jacob is imprisoned in Częstochowa, and takes on an air of martyrdom.

Tokarczuk focuses her weighty narrative on Jacob’s family, his beliefs, his close associates, and the cause célèbre of this curious and unorthodox sect. She has done so much research that she admits she can’t include all the notes that would be necessary in such an exhaustive work. I do honor the labor because the characters always reflect the truth of human nature, which is an unerring focus throughout. Readers will get the real benefit of a deep insight into 18th-Century Europe, seen through the surprising superstitions of the time, which in large part flow from religious beliefs.

I wanted to read The Books of Jacob because of Tokarczuk’s 2017 novel Flights, and because (as I’ve seen written) it was a prime reason she won the 2018 Nobel Prize. It seems to me that Jacob is a stupendous achievement, and reflects the impressive energy and honorable motives of its author. It also confirms for me that the Nobel committee confers its Literature prize on writing hewing to a theme of outrage at human suffering, and the effects of intolerant societies.

If you wish to work through 961 pages based on these things, or it you have a particular interest in Jacob Frank, then take up The Books of Jacob.

"The Promise" by Damon Galgut

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A South African family disintegrates in Damon Galgut’s The Promise, and this disintegration occurs concurrently with the collapse of Apartheid. This family never functions well: each of the three siblings grow up with their own particular debilitating neurosis, and collectively they learn how not to love, keep promises, or reach their potential. The ‘promise’ of the title represents a bequest to a Black character in the novel, but on the wider scale it’s the promise South African society makes to its Black citizens. But it inevitably comes to nothing, or less than nothing: a bungled—nay, wrong—attempt to make reparation for decades of hatred and degradation.

The Promise contains multifarious riches for the reader: the theme of the grudging and at times malicious shift away from state-run racial persecution; the emblematic deterioration and eventual eradication of the family at the heart of the novel; the conflicted and ineffective care offered by priests at critical life moments; the addled self-absorption of nearly everyone. The youngest of the three, however, survives to nearly forty, her siblings both dead from unnatural causes, and she at length keeps the promise made to the family’s long-suffering Black maid, now in her 70s. But keeping the promise might actually plunge the poor elderly woman into yet deeper difficulty.

Galgut takes economy of language further than I have seen before. A thought in one scene immediately becomes the bulwark of the next, in so few words, it’s striking. I didn’t think it was something that he could sustain, but it gains momentum and becomes normal as the book goes on. I didn’t find it jarring, but it was new to me. I have not read his other work to see if he uses it there; it’s a worthy project, and I do have In a Strange Room in my possession.

This book won the 2021 Booker Prize and I begin as I review it to get over my mild surprise at that. It’s extremely proficient work, it deals with weighty eternal problems, its characters achieve their proper actualization throughout, and psychologically, these stories are spot-on. Fairly certainly this will become required reading, as are all Booker winners, really, but I felt less of the normal thrill I get when finishing a fine novel. It could be the pessimistic tone and message, but that wouldn’t normally affect me that way. Put it down to an off-moment for your reviewer. I do recommend it; it should definitely be part of you and your consciousness.


 

"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 well 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.