Thursday, September 3, 2015

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Ferris, as you might be able to tell from the title, is all about religion in this novel. His main character, Paul C. O’Rourke, is a dentist—a dentist with a taste for the absurd. He is funny, especially when he is trying not to be. His practice in New York City keeps him crazy busy, so he allows himself only a few indulgences. He is a Red Sox fan in New York, which means he must watch every game (except the 6th inning), taping them to watch later if he has something else on his schedule. The ritual is one which gives structure, and a kind of meaning to his life. He wants something. He still has desire of a sort.

O’Rourke tries to be normal, just so that he can get along with other folks, but he is like a space bot acting human: it’s all wrong. O’Rourke is having a crisis. He doesn’t get the point “of it all,” and he especially doesn’t see God acting in the world. So when a patient tells him he is part of a long-lost race of non-believers in God (any god), O’Rourke wonders if perhaps it isn’t just possible: To be genetically indisposed to believe in God.

O’Rourke wants something to be everything: absorbing, challenging, meaningful. His girlfriends had close family ties, and O’Rourke found that to be meaningful for awhile: he wanted to be a part of their families as much as he was interested in the women themselves. But their religious affiliations always proved a barrier. O’Rourke didn’t believe in God.

One night O’Rourke wakes in the middle of the night and the city outside his window is completely quiet. Not a person could be seen, though earlier the streets were filled with people.
"I felt so forgotten, so passed over, so left behind, so lost out. I was sure not only that everything worth doing had already been done while I was asleep but also that, now that I was awake, there was no longer anything worth doing. My first instinct was to reach for my me-machine. It put me in instant touch, it gave me instant purpose…No one had called or emailed or texted. I would do practically anything, I thought, to have them back—I mean the strollers and lovers of a few hours earlier, so that I might have another chance to stroll alongside them…and, after awhile, to leave the Promenade, off to bed for a good night’s sleep—or to that one vital thing among the city’s offerings that night, that one unmissable thing that makes staying up all night a treasure and not a terror—and then to rise again at a decent hour—to walk the Promenade in the light of a new morning…oh, come back you people lost to darkness! Come back, you ghosts, the day is hard enough. Don’t leave me alone with the night…There was the hum of the river, and the last desultory traffic of the night washing by on the expressway below. I can only suggest the effect it had one me, that is the feeling that my life, and the city’s, and the world’s every carefree, winsome hour, were perfectly without meaning."

In the final pages of the novel, O’Rourke finds himself understanding a little of how others manage to get through their days. If it doesn’t hurt, there is no reason to worry about it. "What’s the point of dwelling on all the shit and the misery?" He’d like to do as others do, but one senses his melancholy. He is lonely and there is no God.

Finally, O’Rourke concludes that there is no certainty, no freedom from doubt, “there is only will.” We may retain the doubt, but we must still act, and in the acting, we may have enough to sustain us spiritually. It makes sense to me what Ferris says about religions: that they are less concerned about God than they are about the religion itself. And all religions have this problem. They can sometimes even lose sight of morality itself, a failing no involved God should permit.

O’Rourke was free to change his affiliation from the Red Sox to the Chicago Cubs, and take a swing with a cricket bat at a ball that came in fast and low one day in Kathmandu because while he still had doubt, he also had hope. The pitcher was his patient, a patient with perfect teeth.

I had to work hard on this book for many days before I caught glimmers of Ferris' meaning. I don’t think it is because I listened to it rather than read it. The listening helped because the reader, Campbell Scott, was drier and funnier than the voice I had in my head as I read, but it is true I couldn’t mark the sections that wove the religious quest together. They got buried under the avalanche of extraneous associations the story of the dentist practice provoked.

There is nothing wrong with a little existential angst, especially if it makes one doubt and not be an arrogant prick. But Ferris is right. It doesn’t get one anywhere and itself has no meaning. One can only do what needs to be done and go on with it. Unless, of course, you don’t. Go on with it, I mean. That's the other option.


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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

Belinda Bauer is now among my favorite mystery writers. I just love the way her mind works. I read her debut novel, Blacklands, (published in 2009) and was immediately captured by her assured style. She slipped under my radar until this year, when I saw hers among a listing of new books being published in the U.S. this summer by Grove Atlantic.

A young medical student discovers something unusual while dissecting a corpse cadaver and cannot let it rest. The simple story line cannot convey the host of associations and emotions, suspicions and satisfactions readers feel as Bauer leads us through events we are quite sure will turn out deadly.

This novel is classic in a timeless way. It is slim, pared to its essentials. With a phrase, a pause, and brilliant character development Bauer leads us finally to a conclusion that is wholly unexpected. I adore the way she handles the police investigation at the end. No histrionics, but a good policeman does the legwork and surprises himself with what he finds. This is good writing.

While I was reading, I was reminded in a very good way of Louise Welsh, the Scottish mystery writer, and Brigitte Aubert, the French mystery writer. Bauer has Welsh’s offbeat sly humor and Aubert’s daring: Aubert’s novel Death from the Woods featured a quadriplegic who solves a murder case. Bauer treats us to a paralyzed coma patient trying to telegraph his knowledge of a murder. It is masterfully suspenseful…and misleading.

The central character in this novel has Asperger’s Syndrome, and his differentness is handled so well that we teeter back and forth in our support for him. Brilliantly done, Belinda Bauer!



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Monday, August 24, 2015

The Complete Plays by Anton Chekhov, translated by Laurence Senelick

Chekov was an astoundingly prolific author, “publishing as many as one hundred and sixty-six stories between 1886 and 1887 while practicing medicine.” He’d been writing for magazines, newspapers, and periodicals since 1979 when he entered medical school, hoping to supplement his family’s meager income.
”On a visit to St. Petersburg [in 1885], Chekov had been embarrassed by the acclaim that greeted him, because he recognized that much of his output had been hasty and unrevised. ‘If I’d know that that was how they were reading me,’ he wrote his brother Aleksandr, on January 4, 1886, ‘I would not have written like a hack.’”
If Chekhov became more considered in his writing, his production never flagged. Senelick’s glorious contribution to scholarship on Chekhov includes some works never before translated, but also gives us a thorough understanding of the evolution of Chekhov as a dramatist.

The “Untitled Play” included first in this volume is one Chekhov wrote while still in high school. It suffered innumerable rewritings, unsuccessful submissions, tearing up (!) by the author, but survived because Anton’s younger brother Mikhail had made two copies: one was kept in a safety-deposit box. It is remarkable for its length: there are only four acts, but the first act has twenty-two scenes, runs for fifty pages, and hosts twenty characters, not including the servants. “It’s interest,” Senelick tells us, “lies primarily in its being a storehouse of Chekov’s later themes and characters: the cynical doctor, the cynosure attractive woman, the parasitic buffoons, the practical housewife, and the failed idealist.” The themes are reworked again and again: “most intricately reworked of all, the threat of losing the estate to debts was to become the connecting thread and constitutive symbol of “The Cherry Orchard.””

But pieces of that first play has provided material for playwrights and directors including “A Country Scandal,” “A Provincial Don Juan,” “Ce Fou Platonov,” “Fireworks on the James,” “Wild Honey” (Michael Frayn version), “ Player Piano” (Trevor Griffith’s version), and “Platonov” (David Hare’s version), among others. It makes one laugh, the riches to be mined in a failed play by a man, boy really, who had never before written a play meant to be performed on a stage.

Senelick includes in this collection “all the plays performed during [Chekhov’s] lifetime and posthumous works, performed or not.” He includes variants to the plays, some edited for the censor, some because the play didn’t need the extra words. But with the variants we can see the process of creation and distillation. Senelick did his own annotations and translations, and gives reasons for his word or phrasing choices. The plays I have seen performed do not use his words, but I think the sense comes through in any case. A play must have a little flexibility, though I think Senelick is right when he says that in some cases exact words must be used as written, since sometimes a word or a phrase is repeated like a chorus, meant to develop the meaning of a play over time for the audience.

What a rich experience it must be for students at Tuft’s Fletcher School to have someone direct their plays who knows so much about how a play has come to be, how it has been performed, and how it has been modified. It can't be often that a director has such a deep background in scholarship.

Anyway, included in this volume are short monologues, including one that is my very favorite, entitled “The Evils of Tobacco.” Senelick gives two versions of the monologue, each placed roughly chronologically when they were published. One is very early in Chekov’s “stage” career, and another version, continually revised over the years, is placed at the end, right before “The Cherry Orchard.” Successful professional comedians perform endless versions of the same monologue until they have it pared to its funniest and most striking essentials, and it seems Chekhov did the same here.

The piece is a miracle of parody: a distinguished educator is asked to give a lecture on a popular topic for a charity benefit. Shortly after his introduction, the lecturer merely mentions the word tobacco and is sent off onto a tangent of several minutes. He brings himself back with an exceedingly brief, boring, and overly scientific couple sentences about tobacco and veers off topic again, ranging into the territory of his health, his preferred food choices, and how his marriage is going. It is short, and it is masterful--the result of a long career thinking about, writing, and staging humorous pieces. Do not miss this.

The biography of Chekhov at the beginning of this volume is notable for its depth of knowledge and understanding of Chekhov’s oeuvre. It is short and assured, and gives information that is indispensable for a greater understanding of how, what, and why Chekhov wrote.


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Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov by Anton Chekhov translated by Maria Bloshsteyn


This collection of all-new stories by the young Anton Chekhov published this summer by New York Review of Books @nyrb reveals an artist desperate to make a living. He was twenty-two years old and collected these stories hoping to launch his career, but they were never published. Illustrated by Nikolay Chekhov, Anton’s older brother, it was censored before it could come out.

When you read the stories you may be surprised, as I was, at what the censors deemed subversive. The stories are broad comedy, slapstick satires, and absurd parodies of Jules Verne and Victor Hugo. The story “St Peter’s Day” reminds me of Jerome Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, it is so filled with manly boasting and ridiculously goofy repartee. But there is a razor streak of criticism in there and Chekhov gives no quarter. An old peasant accompanying a hunting party drifts off while the other men, middle class and aspiring, buffoonishly discuss where to avoid other rotters who were meanwhile taking the best spots. I kept expecting the old peasant to show up with a hunting bag full while the others expounded, but he never did. The others just left him there.

Translator Maria Bloshsteyn in the Introduction puts these early stories into a perspective that includes Chekhov’s later works. The old peasant left by the hunting party, Bloshsteyn tells us, appears again in Chekhov’s last play The Cherry Orchard. And the social critique of marriage, Russian life, and social strictures that appears in “Artists’ Wives” and “The Temperaments” foreshadows all of Chekhov’s work. A quick look through The Complete Plays by Chekhov, translated and annotated by Laurence Senelick (2006), shows only the late plays of Chekhov not to be “comedic anarchy.” When Chekhov dropped the broad humor for his late plays, his work still had bite but was even more damaging than his humor. “Uncle Vanya,” for instance, exhibits many of the broad categories of personality shown in his early stories but seems almost despairing.

A quote of Chekhov’s chosen for the cover of the above-mentioned collected plays shows his resistance to government interference in daily life:
”My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take.”
Chekhov trained as a doctor in the 1880s. During his residency he began publishing short humorous pieces in magazines as he was the economic mainstay of his extended family. Knowing of his extensive education adds to our enjoyment of his snide observations, and may explain the quote in which he expresses "the human body" and "health" first among his holy of holies.



In “Artists’ Wives,” a short story in The Prank, Chekhov takes a swipe at those living the bohemian life, which included himself:
”Madam Tanner’s vice consisted of eating like a normal human being. This vice of his wife’s struck Tanner to his very heart. 'I will reeducate her!' he said. Once he set himself that goal, he got to work on Madame Tanner. First he weaned her off breakfasts and suppers, and then off tea, A year after her marriage, Madame Tanner was preparing one course for dinner instead of four. Two years after her marriage, she learned to be satisfied with unbelievably small amounts of food. Namely, during the course of twenty-four hours, she would ingest the following quantities of nourishing substances:
1 gram of salts
5 grams of protein
2 grams of fat
7 grams of water (distilled)
1 1/23 grams of Hungarian wine
Total: 16 1/23 grams
We do not include gases here because science is not yet able to determine accurately the quantities of gases that we take in."

In “The Temperaments (Based on the Latest Scientific Findings)” Chekhov describes the “humours” of man, that is to say, how the “Sanguine Temperament in a Male” exhibits:
“The Sanguine male is readily influenced by all his experiences, which is the cause…of his frivolity…he is rude to teachers, doesn’t get haircuts, doesn’t shave, wears glasses, and scribbles on walls. He is a bad student but manages to graduate…”
We read on for two pages and then get the description of “Sanguine Temperament in a Female.”
“The sanguine female is the most bearable of women, at least when not stupid.”
That’s all. We learn about the “Choleric Temperament” ("the choleric man is bilious with a yellow-gray face…" and “the choleric female is a devil in a skirt…”), the “Phlegmatic Temperament” ("the phlegmatic male is a likable man…He is always serious because he is too lazy to laugh."), and the “Melancholic Temperament,” none of which reassure us that human life is worth the resources needed to sustain it.

In “Papa,” the mother of a son failing in school sounds remarkably current:
”Papa, go to the math teacher and tell him to give the boy a good grade. Tell him that he knows his math but that his health is poor. That’s why he can’t cater to everyone’s whims. Force him to do it!”
In “Before the Wedding,” a father speaks with his daughter, the bride to be:
”And, my daughter…European civilization got women thinking that the more children a woman has, the worse for her. How wrong! It’s a lie! The more children, the merrier! No, wait! It’s just the opposite! My mistake, sweetie. Less children—that’s what it is. I read it in some journal the other day—something someone named Malthus came up with.”


Anyway, this is Chekhov unbound, young, exuberant, and silly. His parody of Jules Verne is classic while the one of Victor Hugo sounds more like Chekhov than Hugo. It may have been the translation he had, no? This is Chekhov’s take:
”Then thunder rolled. She fell upon my chest. A man’s chest—it is a woman’s fortress. I clasped her in my embrace. Both of us cried out. Her bones cracked. A galvanic current ran through our bodies. A passionate kiss…”



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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Icarus by Deon Meyer


Deon Meyer is South Africa’s preeminent mystery/thriller writer and something of a wonder. His books have a richness and specificity that bring South Africa (and crimes committed there) vividly to life. This installment of the Benny Greissel series braids several strands of mystery into a single blood-red cord of baling twine from the wine country of Stellenbosch.

Meyer often posts on his website photos of the locales, restaurants, buildings he uses in his novels, and he did in the case of Icarus as well. The site of the action is South Africa’s western Cape near Cape Town.


A large storm in December reveals the body of an internet entrepreneur buried in the sand of Blouberg Strand. Ernst Richter ran Alibi.com, a South African-based website based on the success of AshleyMadison.com, a company promising discretion when arranging infidelities. The manner of his death ties him firmly to the wine country in Stellenbosch, but in the weeks leading to the Christmas holidays, we are turned in many directions, often away from the truth.





Meyer often has several threads working at once in his novels, and this book is no exception. Deliciously, Meyer shares the personalities of the police and how their prejudices, weaknesses, and particular skills influence an investigation. Benny Griessel struggles with alcohol addiction and falls off the wagon when a colleague dies tragically. The description of his ever-present desire and of his failure is agonizingly real.

Griessel’s colleague, Jamie Keyter, will do just about anything to be in the limelight of newspaper reporting, even if it means selling his team down the river. Another colleague, Vaughn Cupido, falls hard for someone he questions during the murder investigation.

While the murder investigation plays itself out, we are treated to a plausible explanation of the unreasonably high subscription numbers of Alibi.com (and by association the AshleyMadison.com), and a realistic scenario for the sites’ growth and financial requirements. Finally, we also get a fascinating short history of wine production in South Africa.

Meyer keeps readers off-balance throughout the novel with rapid and abrupt shifts between strands: the quiet droning of a man relating his family’s genealogy; the drunken stumbling of Benny Griessel on the edge of losing everything; the start-stop of an investigation where so many have things they wish to hide.

If you haven’t already enjoyed Deon Meyer’s oeuvre, feel free to start here. It is often years between novels, and to discover a new Meyer book is an event. Add Meyer to your list and get a whole different outlook. This book will be published October 6, 2015 by Grove Atlantic, but I am telling you about it now because it is being offered as a giveaway currently on Goodreads. I definitely recommend you sign up.


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Saturday, August 15, 2015

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Sappho translated by Anne Carson



This marvelous collection of the extant fragments of verse attributed to Sappho is a glorious spur to the imagination. Sappho was a lyricist, a poet, a musician. It is unknown whether or not she was literate in reading and writing, but her work was collected in writing, and reprinted, but little has survived the centuries. Only one full poem, the ode to Aphrodite, survives whole at twenty-eight lines.



Bust inscribed, literally Sapfo Eresia, meaning Sappho of Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek original of the 5th century BC
attribution of photo: "P.Köln XI 429" by Masur - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons



Sappho was known and lauded throughout the ancient world for the beauty of her poems accompanied by the lyre. She wrote nuptial songs mainly, it seems, for the tenor of the fragments suggest the happy circumstance of a marriage. The Encyclopedia Britannica suggests that Sappho taught young women the arts of courtesanship, seduction, marriage which may (I speculate here) be one reason why she was so universally adored and admired.

Can we all agree that to be a brilliant courtesan requires great intelligence: a deep understanding and acceptance of human nature and desire, and enormous self-control and discipline? Add to this her apparently unparalleled skill as a poet—alas! We do not have enough of her work surviving to adequately judge, but the fragments set us to dreaming and are an undeniable spur to writers and lyricists alike. We will have to trust her contemporaries and sup upon lines like
Eros shook my
mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees
and
you burn me

Anne Carson has chosen to reprint fragments attributed to Sappho, sometimes single words, separated by brackets to indicate lost fragments. The blank spaces are fruitful places for meditation on what was once there. Sometimes the few words jump from the page
for as long as you want
or
] ] ]
]goatherd ]longing ]sweat
] ] ]
]roses ]
]
]
Does your mind race? And this
]
]
]
]
robe
and
colored with saffron
purple robe
cloaks
crowns
beautiful
]
purple
rugs
]
]
and
]Dawn with gold sandals


attribution of fragment photo: "P.Köln XI 429" by Masur - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -


If many of the song or poem fragments are songs composed for weddings, just that concept brings a host of associations and an understanding of Sappho’s history. There is more to learn about her as an individual (she had three brothers, was married with a child, was exiled to Sicily in her twenties it is thought) but not much more. It is thought she lived from 610 B.C. to 570 B.C. A collection of her work was published during the Middle Ages in nine volumes but has not survived. Our imagination will have to suffice.

That the work of an individual has so inflamed the public imagination for such a long time is cause enough for wonder. One fragment shows an awareness of her fame
someone will remember us
I say
even in another time
Sappho was a “honeyvoiced…mythweaver,”
]nectar poured from
gold
]with hands Persuasion

The surviving fragments are a kind of spur to the creative mind, and a gift to poets and lyricists today. When becoming stuck, writers could do much worse than flip through this book for its inspiration. To my mind Sappho addresses writer's block:
for it is not right in a house of the Muses
that there be a lament
this would not become us

Apologies to Anne Carson and publisher AA Knopf for not being able to reproduce the high quality typesetting and lovely spacing in this book. If this review is at all intriguing to you, try to lay your hands on a printed copy from 2002. The formatting is as informative as the print.


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Monday, August 3, 2015

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

Many years in the making, this recounting of the deaths of young black men in the neighborhood of South Los Angeles has the intellectual and emotional impact of a rubber mallet struck hard against the head. It is sickening, anger-inducing, and confounding, like listening to the litany of femicides in Book Four of Roberto Bolaño’s masterpiece, 2666 . Only the facts elicit this reaction, for Leovy’s writing is dispassionate, cool and clear, which is the only way we could get through this horrifying accounting.

Murder rates in South Los Angeles are vastly higher than the rest of the country, a huge proportion of which are deaths of young black males. What strikes the reader first is how few of these cases are solved, or even investigated exhaustively. Police investigators are stymied by the lack of public involvement in their attempts to question witnesses and are both overwhelmed by the numbers of murders and inured to black-on-black violence. They may be sloppy in their collection of evidence, ignore hints given by bystanders, or even fail to get the names right. Unless it touches one of their own, the case may never be solved.

The community can hardly “step up” to give evidence if it means their family will be targeted next by the perpetrators. This inability to cooperate with the police creates a cycle of misunderstandings and inaction and an environment of hostility that perpetuates itself. Only the persistent and timely application of the law—conviction of murders—will break the cycle.

Leovy focuses on one case in particular: the death of the son of a police detective. She follows the case through the investigation, interrogation of witnesses and suspects, trial and sentencing. The whole story is riveting reading. There are so many ways cases in our legal system fail to result in a conviction. That this one case did not fail is testament to the work of a group of dedicated officers who sought justice and actually found it.

Leovy occasionally calls our attention away from that particular case to look at concurrent conditions and investigations in the same or other parts of the city, giving us perspective. What strikes the reader is the utter senseless and capricious nature of the murders. Families with young men play a waiting game, constantly aware of the danger surrounding them. It is an inhospitable, intolerable, and hostile environment in which to live.

Which brings us to Leovy’s closing statements. Perhaps she led us there, writing her case and its solution like a trial lawyer leading to the big reveal: the black-centeredness of the south side of Los Angeles cannot be so ghettoized if it is to survive. Leovy points out the ways that Los Angeles living is appealing—rampant tropical flowers and warm sunshine among them. And many folks resent being chased from their homes (or rent-controlled apartments). There is also the economic reality of not having the funds to move house. But if I was mother to a young black man, I would move away from there as early as I could. Not only does the violence ruin the boy, it kills the man.

Leovy conclusions suggest that crime, especially violent crime, must be adjudicated "with ceaseless vigor and determination" in order for people to feel confident the justice system is working for them. Anything less serves no one. She points out that murder rates have fallen in South Los Angeles since the time she began her writing. Demographic change is one driver:
"the city’s black population is fast disappearing…as the city’s black residents scatter to the exurbs. To some extent, their high homicide rate travel with them. But the change has also coincided with—at long last—a dramatic easing of the residential hyper-segregation that set the conditions for sky-high inner-city murder rates. As black people finally begin to integrate into more mobile and mixed communities, the Monster is in retreat."
Not soon enough for thousands of dead black men.
"Explicitly confronting the reality of how murder happens in American is the first step toward deciding that it is not acceptable, and that for too long black men have lived inadequately protected by the laws of their own country."
I first heard about this book on the NYTimes podcast, which can be downloaded for free on iTunes. This work should be nominated for nonfiction awards this year. It is a splendid job of witnessing.


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