Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Blanche Passes Go by Barbara Neely

Neely writes genre fiction that is quite unlike any other out there: crime without the cops, mystery without a clue, and the romance of a strong, opinionated woman. It is beautiful and flawed and very real. Neely has an agenda, yes she does, but it’s revelatory to hear her concerns. She talks it all out on the page, so we get the picture from where she’s standing. She is fun but thoughtful; playful, but looks straight in the eye of some edgy situations. I mean, maybe you’ve thought about what to do when your neighbor is being beaten by her husband inside her house, loud enough for all the world to hear. Day after day. Well, Blanche comes up with a solution that worked pretty well and it didn’t involve a weapon of mass destruction or murder. Blanche constantly surprises us.

This mystery novel, #4 of the Blanche White series, brings Blanche down to North Carolina from Boston. Her sister’s son and daughter who are in her care, Malik and Taifa, are children no longer and are off for summer work in Vermont and Maine. Blanche is going to help her best friend, Ardell, with her catering business during the bicentennial celebrations in Farleigh, her hometown. Blanche had left behind in her hometown both a former lover, now married, and her rapist, so the pleasure of her homecoming was mitigated somewhat by what she might uncover hidden in her psyche. Besides, her Mom was as armored against intimacy as always, and never seemed to listen, even though she was getting older and needed more assistance than ever to keep everything in working order.

Nothing about this novel was ordinary. Almost every page expressed some real truth or revelation. Neely must have decided at some point she might be polite in company but she was going to write what she thought people ought to know. Thank god for it. Thank god for her. You don’t have to adhere to her beliefs, but by golly, she’s going to tell you what she thinks. She might even give some of us the words to articulate our own defense for a course of action we wanted to take but for one reason or another, felt unable. She makes a lot of sense. Blanche is an example to us.

As a mystery, the novel works very well. The denouement is guaranteed to blow you out of the water. As we begin, we imagine this novel might just be another opportunity to spend time with Blanche and hear her wisecracks on everything from real food to what men like. Nothing wrong with that! But Neely is too sophisticated and wise to just give us what we think we want: she’s gonna surprise us with something we can learn from, delighting us at the same time she is instructing us.

Blanche makes mistakes--really big, life-and-death mistakes--in this novel, all the while sounding like she has things pretty much under control. But we all have done that, haven’t we? Just as we think we’ve learned a few lessons and can dish it out, life and people surprise us. Neely makes us think. She teaches us how to think.

As the train from Boston to North Carolina makes it way south, Blanche slips into patios, anticipating her homecoming. It feels perfectly natural, though we know Blanche of Boston looking after teens is less lenient with herself. We want to relax, too, and hear the real Blanche fooling with Ardell, or romancing her new love interest, Thelvin.

The following quote is classic Neely:
”When the children were small and using up every moment when she wasn’t working for money, she’d soothed herself with a one-day-they’ll be grown fantasy. Now that they were practically grown, instead of trying to convince them to be careful of strangers, pick up their toys, and eat their okra. She was urging them to use condoms, to avoid hard drugs, and to become their very best selves. Different topics, more stressful topics. Who started that bullshit about parenting getting easier as the children got older? What parenting lost in intensity it picked up in worriation.
Or this:
”[Blanche] made up her own spiritual practice, including reverence for her Ancestors and the planet, and seeking energy from trees and healing from the sea. Some things she’d learned from African, Afro-Caribbean, Native American, and Asian ways of having a spiritual life, but she always added her personal twist. Until she’d come up with her own rituals she’d been hungry for ways to demonstrate her belief that there was more to life than she could see—ways that didn’t require her being a member of the Christian or the Muslim or any other religion that had played a part in African slavery. She also had no time for any religions that said she needed a priest or priestess to act as a go-between or worshipped a god called He. She was her own priest and goddess.”

The Blanche White series has four books. Each of them is special in its own way. Originally published in the 1990s by Penguin Books, they are now published in eBook format by Brash Books and can be bought wherever books are sold. Neely’s voice is extraordinary and outside the usual genre categorizations. The Blanche books are a little mystery, a little crime, a little romance, a little social commentary, and altogether unique. As a special treat, we are given a recipe for Blanche's Muscat Sauce from Blanche's Gig from Hell at the end.

My earlier review of Blanche Cleans Up has links to video of Neely talking about her work.


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Monday, July 27, 2015

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This novel is considered by many to be Bulgakov’s masterpiece. The translation copyrighted by Mirra Ginsburg in 1995 is quite modern enough for today’s readers to get a sense of the arc of Bulgakov’s life (1891-1940), for it is there, thinly disguised. Bulgakov trained & worked as a doctor in provincial towns, but since childhood was enraptured with literature--with words. And words were the cause of his joy and anguish, for his whole life he was never allowed to publish or produce anything without severe rancor from government censors.

Bulgakov saw war. He was sent to the front by the Red Cross just out of medical school in 1913, when he was twenty-two years old. He was badly injured, twice, and suffered such pain that, after a stint as a provincial doctor after the war, he became a morphine addict for a two-year period. The horror of that addiction is recalled in his short fictional monograph, Morphine, which is also immortalized in the BBC 2012 TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook now playing on Netflix, starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame and John Hamm, who starred in Mad Men.

What would Bulgakov think now, that so long after this death his work is exciting audiences around the world? He would be pleased, though sorry it took so long, I’m sure. He was writing for those suffering through the reign of Stalin, writing to bring them joy and to urge perseverance. It never happened. Many of his works were unable to be published, and he was reduced to writing screenplays or librettos for opera. Even these came under attack.

His work on The Master and Margarita commenced in 1928, but because of the vitriolic reaction to his work, he burned the work in the 1930s in despair. As a medical man, he became aware he had an inherited kidney disease (his uncle had died of it), and began rewriting his great novel, knowing he would never see its publication.

Bulgakov’s parents and grandparents were Christian. His father was a clergyman. The Master and Margarita is a novel imbued with a Christian mentality and perspective. The scenes that riveted me the most were those in which Bulgakov imagines the sentencing of Jesus by Pontius Pilate. Pilate had a migraine, and couldn’t focus on his task: to sentence four men to death, and to reprieve one. What enormous arrogance, intellect, empathy, and knowledge of humanity it takes to imagine a scene two thousand years earlier, if it took place at all. All is shrouded in myth, and we feel that, palpably, in this novel filled with humor and tragedy.

Bulgakov’s great gift was to see clearly, and to speak truth to power. This work is a humorous fiction, but no less searing for that. Dante wrote about man’s weaknesses and Bulgakov parallels him in another century. It is said this work is modeled on Goethe’s Faust. The devil seduces Moscovites and plays on the delights of human desire, and then strips it all away in the most caustic way possible.

The novel references important events or experiences in Bulgakov’s life and can be read as a philosophy, an allegory, a stinging indictment of the Soviet state, or simply as a humorous play on words. Gogol’s Dead Souls is named explicitly, as is Dostoyevsky. Bulgakov wrote contemporaneously with another playwright whose work also couldn’t be published, the Jewish writer Isaac Babel. Soviet intelligentsia in the 1920s and 1930s must have kept the censors very busy and made the public very canny. It was a fantastically fruitful environment for satire. At one point in this novel, terrorized artists make casual reference to “they are coming to arrest us” as they sit at the dining room table finishing breakfast. One man replies, “Ah…well, well…” When a Mauser appears from under the goon’s coat, it sets off a scene of comedic slapstick, ending with a Browning in the hands of a demon cat.

Pontius Pilate returns at the end of the novel and we are treated to Bulgakov imagining Pilate’s discomfiture over the death and disappearance of Christ. The Master is a writer who wrote a novel on the imagined meeting of Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ. He is confined to a mental institution where he meets a poet imprisoned there for imagining he’d heard just such a story.

Margarita is a lusty, outspoken woman married to a man who was “young, handsome, good, honest, and [who] adored his wife.” But Margarita loves the Master and tries to find him when he disappears, but cannot. “She often cried bitterly and long in secret. She did not know if she loved a living man or a dead one.” She blamed herself for allowing the Master to write about Pontius Pilate.

One of the most remarkable things about the story is how period Moscow comes so vibrantly to life. There is so much intellect, passion, love, and yes, absurdity in the prejudices and manners exposed. Bulgakov names a character with a patronymic matching his given name, Archibald Archibaldovich; shares the mores of drinking houses and artists’ clubs; stages a grand ball; exposes apartment-house living and lust: the uncle of a murdered man tries to secure his nephew's Moscow apartment before handling the details of his funeral. It is a marvelous parade of woe and fury.

We cannot mourn Bulgakov. We can only read him. His work is the result of the pressures in his life. But he does need to be celebrated for the great humanist that he was. Ah, humankind!


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Thursday, July 23, 2015

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

Rebecca Mead manages to sort George Eliot’s personal life from her fiction, enlightening us on both:
"[Eliot’s] most straightforwardly autobiographical character is Maggie Tulliver, and as a grown woman Eliot discussed with a friend the ways in which The Mill on the Floss was inspired by her own history. Everything in the novel was softened, she said; her own experience was worse."
This nonfiction is a hybrid of criticism and biography, but I argue it may be best viewed as a series of connected essays. It can’t be strictly chronological but at the end of each chapter Mead leaves us with a large conclusion and insight that would stand alone but only leaves us wishing to know more.

Mead was able to lay out with ravishing clarity the twists and turns of a long-ago life, pair it coherently with the novels that were the result of that life, while at the same time making us interested in the life and work of Mead herself. Many of us have a favorite novel, but perhaps not so many of us revisit it at different stages in our life to see how our perceptions have changed and what it means for our understanding, and for our judgment. One of the loveliest true things Mead shares with us is how her distaste for the "sad, proud, dessicated" Middlemarch character of Casaubon waxed and waned through the decades she revisited the book:
"He is a frail creature tortured by his own insufficiencies…Once Eliot was asked whom she had in mind as the original Casaubon; in response, she silently tapped her own breast. As I read Middlemarch in middle age, [Casaubon’s] failures and fears no longer seem so remote or theoretical to me as they once did, when I was in my Dorothea youth."
Mead begins by telling us she wanted to understand why some people considered it the greatest novel in the English language, but she was also simply captured by its relevance and urgency though written nearly one hundred years before her birth. She wanted to see how Eliot’s life shaped her fiction, and how that fiction might have shaped Mead herself, it being a lens though which she looked at life time and again. What a large task for even an experienced biographer! But Mead was a journalist, and this may have been her salvation: "how to ask questions, how to use my eyes, how to investigate a subject, how to look at something familiar from an unfamiliar angle." Even so, what Mead has done is nearly mystical in both its containment and inclusion.

When describing Eliot’s beginning consciousness of an artistic life, Mead tells us Eliot
"greatly admired the novelist George Sand: 'I shall never think of going to her writings as a moral code or text book,' [Eliot] wrote to a friend…'I cannot read six pages of hers without feeling that it is given to her to delineate human passion and its results…that one might live a century with nothing but one’s own dull faculties and not know so much as those six pages will suggest.'"
Yet in the very next paragraph Mead admits she’d never read George Sand. I haven’t either, though I have tried in youth and again lately as an adult…I just couldn’t manage it. The experience reminds me that all of us find our inspiration in such disparate and (can I say?) unlikely places. We are all working within our own limited spheres and with "dull faculties" but it turns out finding inspiration has as much to do with the inspired as it has to do with the object of that inspiration.

Much has always been made of Eliot’s looks and yet she managed to make a life so full of love she wondered if she had enough in her. In middle age (when she was thirty-two), she was pursued by George Henry Lewes, a man married in law only, and moved in with him, adopting his name to fit in better with society. She was brave in spite of social constraints, and had enough fierce intelligence to know that her life was her own to live. "One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy," Eliot wrote to a friend. Her long liaison with George Henry Lewes ended only when he died twenty-four years later. Eliot displayed such boldness and intellectual courage in her unconventional life.

Eliot, born in 1819, died in 1880, only eight years after finishing the fourth book of Middlemarch. It had been published in eight five-shilling installments from December 1871 to December 1872 and was received with great acclaim among the general populace. The critics were, well, critical. Lewes died in November 1878, and seventeen months later Eliot married John Walter Cross, a man younger by twenty years. Both Lewes and she had known Cross since 1869 and had addressed him as "nephew." She had her reasons, she told a friend, and once again proved her independence of thought and great social courage.

Now for my admission: I have never read Middlemarch, though I think I might try now. I especially liked the final sentence of that novel, which Mead tells us was not always as it appears in the books. It went through drafts until finally Eliot thought she said what she’d intended. Below, it reads to me like a sad but painfully true kind of epitaph:
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been in half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."



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The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

This delightful confection about a young girl, Sally Jay Gorce, in Paris has the kind of timeless voice that one can imagine sounding piquant and fresh in just about any decade of the last century, right up until today. Sally Jay has a closetful of designer clothes that she bought on sale but always seems to find herself wearing the wrong thing…like a cocktail dress in the daytime or a rumpled, layered schoolgirl look while trying to intimidate a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy. I can sympathize. Wearing the right thing is a learned skill, but what I could tell her is that people always wearing the correct attire either never go anywhere or change their clothes a lot.

Sally Jay is on a learning tour of Europe but she doesn’t really like travel, which is why she’s settled in Paris. She didn’t like Paris, either, when she first got there, but after a few days was having a pretty good time, so she stayed. She met folks she knew from back home, one especially, a man who directed plays at the American Theatre in town. He was a bit of a mystery and hard-to-get because he always seemed to have a different girl in the wings. This was plenty enough for Sally Jay to pursue him--when she could find him.

What is so pleasing about this voice is its bare-faced honesty. Sally Jay has dreams of luxury but most of her plans turn out rather differently. What at first seems like a sophisticated local boyfriend turns out to be a rather officious and salacious old bore. Her trip to “the south of France” in May suffers several weeks of unending rain. Her hair, dyed blonde for more pop, turns greenish in the sun. Her “big break” in the movies does turn out to be so—but only for another of her party.

She has fun anyway, and so do we. Listening to her complain is much more fun than imagining she got all she wanted out of excursions. She has a heart, we know, because it is so tender. When the film director she’d met down south invites her to dine when she gets back to Paris, they talk about avocados: how the hard center seed can just be put in water and it sends out shoots and roots wherever it is. Sally Jay never had much success with avocados…her center perhaps was not hard enough.

This book is about 250 pages but it reads like a novel one-third its length. Sally Jay has so much momentum, it takes nothing to follow her tale with real curiosity. When will she learn an important lesson and how will she react? The story is fascinating because Dundy could have ended it much earlier than she does, but she keeps us on to give us significance and meaning and true joy and romance. At one point tears sprang from my eyes quite suddenly: she must have groomed us closer emotionally than I was aware. We buy into the myth of Sally Jay, and don’t want to see her fail. And the last two words of the book are as cryptic and inappropriate and school-girlish as Sally Jay herself.

Best of all, the New York Review Books (@nyrb) 2007 edition has an Afterword by Elaine Dundy all these years later which explains to some extent the origins of the character of Sally Jay Gorce and the public's reaction to her over the years. Originally published in 1958, it has gone through countless reprints and still sells successfully today. It is a pleasure to hear how natural it was for Dundy to create the character. It was not a tortured creation scene, and it is not a tortured read. Treat yourself.

I read this book along with the nyrb Classics Group, so click on the link if you want to follow the discussion. It’s a terrific summer read.


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Friday, July 17, 2015

Morphine by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov was trained as a doctor and went to the front in the First World War where he was badly injured twice. [Wiki] To curb his pain, he began taking morphine. His addiction grew, and though in 1918 he gave it up altogether, the torture of that addiction never left him. In 1926 he published a short fictional pamphlet or monograph about a doctor in the backwoods who succumbed to morphine addiction. This work, translated by Hugh Alpin and published in 2013 as part of the New Directions Pearl series, is that account.

A doctor happily residing in a small provincial town receives word that a colleague in the backwoods clinic where he once worked is in a perilous state of health. As he readies himself to go to his assistance, he learns from further communication that the ill man is dying of a gunshot wound. The doctor rushes to the remote village only to be in time for the man’s death. Before he dies, the man presses upon the doctor his diary, which tells the confusing and harrowing story of a slide into morphine addiction.

The pamphlet is not long, only 53 pages, and yet we understand the agonies of increased dosages, the paranoia, the regression into solitude, the despair experienced by the man. It was impossible for him to become free of the drug. The gunshot was self-inflicted.

Bulgakov was raised as a Christian (his father was a priest), one of seven children. He began publishing stories and plays after several years working in war-torn areas, but his work was often repressed by censures. He became “a satirist at a time when true satire is absolutely impossible in the USSR.” (from the Intro to The Master and Margarita by Mirra Ginsburg). He was reduced to producing librettos for opera and dramatizing the works of others. He continued to write, however, and from 1928 to 1940 when he died of inherited liver disease, he worked on his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, which was not published in the Soviet Union until 1966.


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Monday, July 6, 2015

Taking Pity (DS Aector McAvoy #4) by David Mark

There is something friendly-sounding about a man with two first names. It is deceptive in one way at least: this police procedural is the fourth the Aector McAvoy series, a U.K. Yorkshire-based crime series, and it curates ways in which one man can hurt another. The skein of characters is tangled by this point in the series, but Mark invites us in with detailed descriptions of Detective Superintendent Trish Pharaoh and her suspended, injured, retired, or otherwise sidelined crew of detectives and irregulars who help her orchestrate a career-enhancing drug bust and solve a fifty-year-old cold case.

Mark created a literary, character-driven novel firmly based in the Yorkshire area. Gangs have their hands in every kind of wrongdoing, but only within their own little kingdom. East Yorkshire, West Yorkshire have their own fiefdoms and woe to him that tries to muscle in on taken territory. The feeling of containment is so sharp I am not even sure when one thug complains about "them from the South" if he is talking about the southern district of Yorkshire or further south, London.




New to this series as I am, every character had equal weight in my mind until their story starts pulling things in one direction. For that reason, the previously (before this book) wounded "Call me Hector" McAvoy did not feel like center stage in this novel. He had a lot to do with one of the threads, but Detective Superintendent Pharaoh seems central to this installment. She orchestrates the different cases and becomes the target of last resort for our lead thug, Mahon. McAvoy is still too physically and mentally damaged to take the kind of abuse handed out in this novel.

This can be a strong crime series. David Mark certainly has the writing chops to bring us in, tie us down, and scare us silly. I adore stories about Yorkshire rough and watched the Red Riding TV series with relish. There is something particularly sinister and criminal about living high on the hog in a low rent district.

If at first I felt a lack of urgency about the story, gradually the action sped up to meet the demands of a crime novel. I think Mark may have to sacrifice a bit of his descriptive tendencies to the impetus of the storyline. That balance is particularly hard when one is very good at writing detail, and that means details of torture as well. This is where theatre experience might come in handy. We don’t actually need to see (or read) gruesome details of torture. It slows our eye and the story. Our imaginations are quite thorough and frightening enough: just a whiff or suggestion of some kind of harm dilates our pupils and sends our heart rate skyrocketing. I don’t particularly like to linger in this space. I take refuge in the story.

There was one creation that stood out in the lineup of characters in this book: Colin Ray. Blunt and crass and bloody-minded, he could have sprung from the head of Julian Barnes, writing as Dan Kavanagh in the Duffy chronicles or anything (Rebus or Fox) done by Ian Rankin. Ray is funny and furious and embodies a kind of chivalrous cop code that makes us like him even when we recognize his faults. Congratulations to Mark for creating a character that lives in the imagination long and well.



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Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Fermor is considered by many to be one of the great travel writers in our time. I note he waited many years before he wrote of his wanderings. He kept a notebook, several really, and added and embellished what had not occurred to him at nineteen when he was walking to Constantinople. He admits to being a green young thing and, while he had a good education and many gifts, it is his insatiable curiosity and open demeanor that gained him so many friends and helpful companions.

This is what should be required reading in high school. Not college, but high school. We want youth to realize that the world is theirs, but they must first learn to navigate just a little, and prepare to be on their own. One should not have to require the whole book: just the first 120 pages should suffice. By the time Fermor has told of his "hoggish catalepsy" at Munich’s Hofbraushaus, if there is no comprehension in dull minds, there is no need to explain that one must have something to work with before one goes off wandering alone. The ecstatic enthusiasm and excitement of youth is everywhere evident. What it takes to succeed in the world is a great deal, but mostly it is interest in the world. It can be taught. I think.

Fermor indulges and cultivates his interest in architecture on his journey. It would be hard not to be impressed with the gorgeous relics on display throughout Europe. His impression of the "scenes of Biblical bloodshed [run] riot" in the churches made me laugh with recognition. My first visit to Europe produced the same feelings of shock and awe to see in churches the graphic display of Christ’s crucifixion.

Oh, what a moment in time Fermor captures: the brown shirts consolidating their power in Germany and Europe between the wars. He caught a little of that held-breath tension, and reviled himself for ever after for missing the significance of the street fighting in Vienna.
"I bitterly regretted this misappraisal later on: like Fabrice in La Chartreuse de Parme, when he was not quite sure whether he had been present at Waterloo."
When I was younger, though not young enough perhaps, I remember someone pressing into my hands a copy of the terrific travel story News From Tartary by Peter Fleming. It made me realize that such kind of travel was achievable, even something to strive for.

If only Cheryl Strayed in her memoir Wild had taken a leaf from Fermor’s book, her own work would have been substantially improved. But then, her work would have been better also had she followed the very different and equally anguished memoir by Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk which of course did not come out until after Strayed’s memoir. The exceedingly popular Wild did nothing for me but put me in a bloody state of mind while the other two memoirs add something both to my understanding and to my enjoyment of the world.

Rather early on in this book, Fermor makes glancing reference to his time in Crete when he captured a German general and secreted him away in a cave, something for which he would ever be famous. He tells of how they spoke lines of the same poem, first one then the other, realizing that at some distant time "they’d both drunk from the same spring." That capture was immortalized in a 1950s book by Stanley Moss called Ill Met: By Moonlight and a 1957 film starring Dirk Bogarde called Night Ambush.

I adore what Fermor discovers about Shakespeare as he searched for reasons Shakespeare would have placed an Bohemia near the sea in one of his plays:
"Shakespeare didn’t care a fig for the topography of the comedies. Unless it were some Italian town—Italy being the universal lucky dip for Renaissance playwrights—the spiritual setting was always the same. Woods and parkland on the Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire borders, that is; flocks and fairs and a palace or two, a mixture of Cockayne- and Cloud-Cuckoo- and fairyland with stage mountains rather taller than the Cotswolds and full of torrents and caves, haunted by bears and washed, if need be, by an ocean teeming with foundering ships and mermaids."

And this is a small thing, perhaps, but it so illuminates why Fermor was such a great travel writer: he becomes completely enraptured one night standing on a bridge in Prague, looking over the Vltava and tracing in his mind the twists and turns of the river--distances and changes in culture--on its way to the sea. It is Fermor looking at it, thinking about it, and speaking of it that makes the river a marvel of space and time.

Though this first in Fermor's travel trilogy starts just before Christmas 1933, this book and its companions are perfect summer reading material. Indulge your better self.


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