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.

10 April 2019

A most unusual ladder to success

By John Boyne
John Boyne
The Irish writer John Boyne is on a winning streak. Following the commercial success of THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS, he published a fan-favorite entitled THE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES, a charmer. Both are what you might call smart, and poignant, page-turners. He captures the reader’s attention at once and holds you in his tender hands throughout.

Now another, except a change in style: an edgy sharply-observed parody of our celebrity and media-driven culture. 

Boyne tells you right up front that this lead character, Maurice Swift, whose name is scribbled over the author’s name on the title page, is of dubious intent. 

You’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, haven’t you? That it’s like setting a ladder to the sky. It can lead to a long and painful fall. This is a tale about ambition.

This novel is about ambition in a Machiavellian way. Ambition at all costs. 

In alternating narratives by key players – a writer who’s life is destroyed, a brilliant writing-wife, a biographer, and Mr. Swift’ himself, we discover this talented wordsmith is a manipulator without a story of his own to tell, who nonetheless becomes a celebrated author. He also starts and serves as editor of a magazine cleverly named Stori. Over a lifetime, he manages to seduce men and women willing to pave his path and none, except the great writer Gore Vidal, in a razor-sharp scene set in a fabulous villa, of course, are wise to his dark secrets. Boyne does an excellent job capturing Vidal’s perspective when he comments on the public humiliation of a great writer Swift has decimated.

And as far as I can tell, half the world’s novelists have chimed in with their opinions, which has provided each one with their intended few minutes of publicity. How competitive everyone is in expressing their outrage! As far as I can tell, Bellow is the only one who’s said anything sensible on the subject.

Secrets are Boyne’s literary concern – all his books are centered around what people hide, for the sake of salvation as well as opportunism. In a review of an earlier novel, THE ABSOLUTIST, John Irving said, Boyne is very, very good at portraying the destructive power of a painfully kept secret — not to mention the damage done by the self-recriminations (and other condemnations) that are released when that secret is revealed.

Maurice Swift is ruthless to the point of unscrupulous. In fact, diabolical. We slowly, with that pit in the stomach, recognize he is a sociopath. Rare to discover this depth of amorality in a lead character that does not diminish the reading. I imagine my jaw was in permanent drop position through the last third of the novel. He is a fascination. A direct descendant of Raskolnikov, of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, one of my personal favorites, and another of the road-kill genre of literature: you simply cannot turn your eyes away. 

16 February 2019

First Readings 2019

Toni Morrison speaks in a new
collection of essays:
The Source of Self-Regard

Many wonderful writers are publishing early this new year – novels, short stories, essays, true crime and memoir – and many candidates for book groups. A sampling.

Tessa Hadley: Late in the Day
A terrific writer, this novel is all about relationships, past and present, and the impact of grief. Reminiscent of Crossing to Safety by Stegner. I’ve also returned to an earlier work, the Marriage Bed, in which she subtly takes you into the mindset of a lonely woman who doesn’t realize how desperately she’s in need of attention.

Dani Shapiro: Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love
Shapiro has mined her life frequently in memoir and fiction, and still new revelations keep it interesting.

Robert Bolano: The Spirit of Science Fiction
For the Bolano fans, from a world far far away.

Elizabeth McCracken: Bowlaway
Might be the zaniest premise of a novel ever – McCracken loves to explore whacky characters. [Remember the Giant’s House?] This one lands on earth with a bowling bowl! She is a true original and lovely writer.

Claire Adam: Golden Child
A wow debut novel of a family coming to terms with twin sons, one of whom is born challenged and stays a challenge, but only when he goes missing do we begin to understand why. A touching and insightful work of fiction that feels like a docudrama.

Leila Aboulela: Elsewhere, Home
A new master of the short story, she writes about what it means to be an immigrant in a wider world. Great characters.

Yuval Taylor: Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal
Yummy literary gossip.

Karl Ove Knausgaard: So Much Longing in So Little Space 
The title alone makes it a must read, if you like his style and his [incessant] introspection. This tale weaves in the artist Edvard Munch - might make you scream. 

Claire Harman: Murder by the Book
Dickens’ London, literary, and literally, true crime. Might be a curl-up-on-a-wintry-night read.

Dave Eggers: The Parade
In an un-named middle eastern country, a set of conflicted characters confront conflicting agendas, what Eggers does so well in fiction. Reminds me a little of Hologram for a King, one of my favorites.

Siri Hustvedt: Memories of the Future
This lesser-known great-brain writes with longing and imagination, and I look forward to this new novel. [And she’s married to the great Paul Auster!]

Frederic Tuten: My Young Life
I had the pleasure of meeting this relatively unknown but prolific writer some years ago and I was struck by his Chekhovian persona – subtle, stoically quiet and quirky. Now he’s written a memoir that sounds as intriguing as his fiction. [He too was born in the Bronx, so we’re kindred spirits.] If you’ve never read The Green Hour, I recommend. 

Kathryn David: The Silk Road 
Davis' writing is enigmatic to the point of metaphysical, sometimes surreal, 
often allegorical, and I don't always get it, but she's always worth a try. 

Dryer’s English
If you write just about anything, or just have a fascination with the written word, this new take on grammatical correctness is smart and engaging. At the very least, a good book to add to the how-to shelf.