07 November 2019

Olive, Again... Wow, Again

Since Elizabeth Strout burst on the literary scene in 1998 with the novel “Amy and Isabelle” she has been revealing less than attractive truths about small town America in extremely attractive prose. Her fictional town of Crosby, where much of her fiction has been set, is a microcosm of the American culture – neighbors whose personal narratives are unfathomable and often astray while their motives can be mysterious despite ostensibly simple in design. In this place we find marriages without passion, angry spouses, false friends, repressed children, misogyny and harassment… And all, once again, under the watchful eye of the irrepressible incorrigible, often intolerable, but nonetheless captivating, Olive Kittredge, the heroine of the eponymous novel that won Strout the Pulitzer Prize. She’s back in the aptly named, “Olive, Again.”
I confess, when I began reading this book, I wondered, briefly, why the author, and reader, should go back to Olive, to her often warped perception and harsh rules, or why I wanted to return to that town, and those small town people, but, in a matter of pages, it is clear: the cast of characters is not only a fascination, and the prose exquisitely crafted, but we need to go back there to be reminded of all that ails us and what might redeem us.
In the end, to forgive Olive, to understand her and sympathize with her, is what we all need to do for each other.
Olive’s second husband says it best: He understood that he was a seventy-four-year-old man who looks back at life and marvels that it unfolded as it did, who feels unbearable regrets for all the mistakes made. And then he thought: How does one live an honest life?
Strout says she took six years to write that first novel, but clearly those characters remained in her heart and on her mind. [And watch for a timely reappearance.] Who knows how many stories of the fictional town residents she has logged over time to resurface at just the right moment in just the right book, most taking place in that same place.
Here, a decade after her first appearance, Olive woos us again with her determination to understand herself, as well as her friends and neighbors and, again, with her surprising compassion for those least understood, those least seen, as if she has a filter through which she observes those who need the most and miss what’s right in front of her eyes that matters more. And, we are right there with her as she grapples with age.
It was almost panic that she felt. “Damn man” she said, and she meant the doctor, who was still young and had no idea – he had no idea – what it was like to be old and alone. But other days she felt okay. Not wonderful. But she could drive and get her groceries and she visited her friend Edith at that awful old folks’ home she lived in called Maple Tree Apartments. Then when she came home she was glad to be there, although she could not shake the feeling that it was Jack’s house. She sat in Jack’s chair these days so that she wouldn’t have to look at it gapingly empty. And sometimes as she sat there a deep sadness trembled through her…
Olive is as real as it gets. The new novel lives up to its origin story and, as award-winning writer Pico Iyer said recently, Strout may be the most important fiction voice today. In their deceptively simple way, she and Olive speak for us all. As Olive would say, What a thing!

17 August 2019

THE WEIGHT OF INK by Rachel Kaddish

Rachel Kaddish
“The Weight of Ink” is in the spirit of “Possession” the great novel by A. S. Byatt, although that was a mind-bending tale of secret passions and this is an understated novel of faith. Both use the literary technique of parallel tales, in this case London in the 1660s and in 2000, and also the discovery of medieval writings of historical significance. Both also feature two scholars – an academic and, and in this case, an arrogant graduate student – both in search of enlightenment as well as connection to repressed passions.

The novel reveals the often overlooked history of the migration of Spanish/Portuguese Jews, post-Inquisition, to Amsterdam and then to England. Known as Marrano Jews, they were previously forced to live as Christians, following their faith in secret, until they were permitted in England to observe Judaism but with few other rights. 

Kaddish introduces a fictional Marrano rabbi and his scribe – a young woman with unusual intellect and curiosity. In 2000, the scholars discover her writings and set about to uncover her story.

The novel is a testament to what I fear is the diminishing art of scholarship. In the new millennium we have so much information at our fingertips and a subsequent propensity to come quickly to conclusions. [But I digress.] More to the point, we have here another story of a woman trying to rise above her limitations and her station. She’s a terrific character who charts a unique course, and both scholars find in her pursuit the answer to their questions.  

The Christians, it seemed to Ester, wished to fathom the mechanism of the soul: by which levers did it pull the body into motion, and by which was it pulled by the divine? Yet the rabbis had little concern for such deliberation. What, they wished to know, were the minute instructions for doing God’s will? How most the economy of devotion be paid in laws of kashrut, in decorations of house and body, in the number of repetitions of a prayer… how were laws for behavior to be observed under this and that specific circumstance… the distance between the two manners of thought seemed to hold the key to something she couldn’t name. Must the two – the Christian and the Hebrew, the soul and the measurable, tangible world – remain disconnected?

There is a subtle element of mystery and suspense throughout and a powerful narrative arc, with exceptional historic detail and contemplations of faith. Beyond the history, there is the evolution of characters past and present. The great Toni Morrison said it best on the book cover: “A gifted writer, astonishingly adept at nuance, narration, and the politics of passion.” Agreed.

A literary journey for those who like to snuggle into a big book with sufficient twists and turns, clarity of prose and compelling characters to keep you cozy.

Along the narrow street, youths hauled sacks of sand, an ink vendor cried his wares, saltpeter men hauled stained sacks through a stable door. A girl leading a milch-ass knocked on a door and, when there was no answer, leaned her forehead to the door with a bleary call for any with babies in need of milk. Above the street, signboards mutely announced their wares – one carved in the shape of a mortar and pestle, another in the shape of a barrel of ale, another painted with a picture of crockery, that the unlettered might know where to enter with their coin. And now the road sloped downward beneath her shoes – first the slightest dip, barely perceptible. Then a steeper slope, as though not only her feet but the whole city were rushing toward the river.

Enjoy the journey.

08 July 2019

Mexico to Zambia: Two Magical Novels

A MURMUR OF BEES by Sofia Segovia [Translated by Simon Bruni]
THE OLD DRIFT by Namwali Serpell

If you are a fan of the Russian epic, magical realism, or historical and/or geopolitical fiction, these two new novels incorporate the best of those forms. Great storytelling with a solid dose of magical realism or cultural realism and a rich line-up of characters.

Debut Novelist Namwali Serpell
THE OLD DRIFT, which is Russian in scope, tells the tale of three families from Europe, Africa and India, over three periods of time, whose lives and interactions define the formation of a nation. Serpell sporadically adds a most unusual Greek-style chorus [think mosquitoes] to remind the reader that the land has existed forever, and will continue to exist, despite colonists and xenophobia, diseases, and personal and political disaster. THE OLD DRIFT is filled with Homerian journeys and heroes and a large cast of characters that will be daunting, at first, but Serpell does an excellent job grouping their stories to make it easier to follow. She begins way back, in the depth of a jungle, with Livingstone, and carries us all the way to a future ruled by drones and electronic surveillance. To be sure we recognize the epic nature of the novel, she drops in nods to Shakespeare, Milton, and Virgil, and a finale reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The ride is fast-paced, filled with what I’m sure most of us never knew about this country, and a style of writing deceptively simple, although she goes in and out and back and forth, and because she is a masterful writer, we follow until we wonder, where does it all go and how did it get to this point? This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or people – so it begins, of course, with a white man… That introductory colonist tells us, The worst difficulty of exploration, I learned, is that it is a tormenting isolation. There was no chumming it up with blacks, naturally. Although THE OLD DRIFT is fast-paced [despite the length] read it slowly, savor it, tell your friends. Available in hardcover or for your favorite e-reader.

Sofia Segovia
The Mexican writer Sofia Segovia’s sweet novel, A MURMUR OF BEES, her first to be translated into English, was issued recently by Amazon for Kindle as a special event tied to International Book Day, and there is also a hard copy available. The novel is, at heart, a fairy tale – a direct descendent of Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A baby, smothered in humming protective bees, is taken in by the town wet nurse, a modern day good witch. Named Simonopio [yes, think Pinocchio] his otherworldliness and unusual powers, despite an inability to speak, form the backbone of the novel’s story, from prerevolutionary Mexico during the great flu epidemic of the early 1900s to the cultural and economic struggles of generations. Like Tolstoy, or Marquez, also Isabel Allende, we encounter wealthy landowners surrounded and influenced, often protected, by servants, laborers, priests and magicians. A large cast of characters with a large imprint, but an intimate tone of voice. Along the way, we experience the upheaval and magic of Mexican history – family connections, tragedy, redemption, spirituality and superstition, and the healing bond of love. The narration is lyrical and rich, and you might shed a few tears, all in service to good storytelling. As the boy reminds us, we listen to what life sometimes murmurs into your ear, heart or gut. Or as his friend says, familiar music transports him to warm days swimming in the river, to the toads that croaked at nightfall, to the summertime cicadas, to the orange-tree mazes, to the footstep of a bee on my face, and to its sound when it flew off. Transporting indeed and a lovely read.

30 April 2019

A wow debut: ELMET by Fiona Moxley

Now and then a first novel knocks your socks off. In ElMET, without fuss or complexity, and told in humble descriptive prose, you are from the first in the clutch of narrative tension  and you know you’re headed dark places. 

The Guardian called it “an impressive slice of contemporary noir steeped in Yorkshire legend…”

I’m not familiar with Yorkshire legend, but I was able to picture the landscape – the loamy smells, the rustling of the wind – where families live largely off the grid. What we used to call down-home living. A culture of hard work and stoicism. Also an eye for an eye, and a take-what-you-can-get-when-you-can-get-it way of life.

And so it is for this family – an enigmatic father, a mighty independent daughter, and a delicate son, the narrator, who speaks to us now and then from a distance of time and place so we know he survived, but we’re not sure who else might have. Their mother is long gone and although she occasionally makes an appearance in flashback, we learn little of her, and their father, a large looming figure, with nearly mythological strength, is their rock: a surprisingly gentle man sometimes called upon to earn a living as a fighter, also a sort of fixer [that’s where the noir comes in] and a lumberman. A man who respects land and neighbors and tries to do what’s right, with a priority to protect his own, whatever that takes. 

Like many country settings where families are known to feud, he is opposed by another powerful man and his sons. The story revolves around their struggle for control and the inevitably destruction that will be left in its wake. No good can come of this rivalry, not in this landscape. 

I wondered if she thought about it too. Or if the boys did. Or if any of the other small people t the far reaches of my recollection spent the time that I had thinking about the bits in which they played a part. It seems to me that so much of everything came from this, and that if anyone thought about moments like this enough, the future would be done before it had even started, and I mean that in a good way.

Despite the Robin Hood setting and the dominance of malevolence, this is Cathy’s story – a slip of a girl mothered only briefly by a grandmother, determined to survive on her own terms. Cathy is no victim, and not one to play by the rules. She is her father’s daughter. And although [avoiding a spoiler here] there is a moment where the Christ figure enters, it is Cathy who may rise from the ashes.

In this novel, the climactic conclusion, a startling denouement, is secondary to the journey. The reader is voyeur. We make every move with them, and the characters surrounding them, and with each page we hold our breaths a little more until barely breathing. We don’t know what’s coming, but we know enough to fear it.

ELMET is a unforgettable little novel and I suspect we will read more from this lovely writer.