Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Horsemen of the Sands, by Leonid Yuzefovich (translated literature, Archipelago Books)


Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz.

This translated fiction novel combines two stories by Russian writer Yuzefovich.  Both are compelling, but "The Storm" is absolutely riveting and electric in its storytelling. 

What begins as a simple premise ends with a nightmarish scene of emotional pain and torture, with the author echoing in fiction the actual truth of the lives of many Russian children.

The Storm begins with a teacher relinquishing her class of fifth-graders to the expertise of a guest speaker, a man who ostensibly is there to teach the children about traffic safety. Surely, a dry and uninspiring prospect for the children.  However, as he begins he realizes to gain their attention he must create anecdotal events to push his message about safety. And, as any predator does, he seems to be able to suss out the weakest and most emotionally fragile students to use in his teaching.

These students are mystified and frantic as they try and figure out how he seems to know their weaknesses: one, a daughter of a drunkard, the other, a recent accident victim himself.  While he smiles and gesticulates, he is actually stabbing them with many pains.  Both try to flee the classroom. 

While this goes on, their teacher gets a needed break and leaves campus temporarily. Her outing goes poorly as she is faced with her own hypocrisy. Her sense of privilege is attacked.  A principal too lets his mind wander into dangerous territory. Even the school janitor experiences an epiphany of sorts while the children are suffering back in the classroom.

The weather becomes the driving force, as lightning and storm clouds gather figuratively and literally in the city.  Everything becomes off-kilter, yet the traffic instructor continues his attack. He is clever: nothing he says is really wrong or could be construed as emotional abuse.  But it's beyond his speech that his evil pathology lies.  Like a crocodile, he contently observes the children, eager to prey on someone weaker.

This story could stand alone in the novel.  However, the second story was far less compelling for me.  It is different in tone and style from The Storm. 

Horsemen of the Sands is complicated and wearying.  While it is of a Russian who invades Mongolia, and who uses Korean men as his guards, the narrative switches frequently leading to much confusion.  The landscape is described in artistic ways, but the interaction between characters leaves many questions and frustration.  I've read much in the way of Russian literature and this simply did not entice me.  I felt like I needed to know more history and crave less action.  Yet, the premise itself seems like it would be action-packed.  I could not follow the story enough to comment on it further.

A Change of Time by Ida Jessen (translated literature, Archipelago Books)

Translated from the Danish
by Martin Aitken

This novel seems spare at first, with dry journal entries from a recently widowed woman. However, about midway through, you see a shift and realize that "spare" is the last thing this book is. Instead, very subtle depth is created with the minimal expressions she uses to write about both her marriage and her newfound single life.

At first, I thought it was a character study of a marriage: an arrogant and aloof husband and his somewhat plain wife.  I learned about both of them through cautious comments and descriptions. However, it changes when Halloween approaches. On that date, the woman creates a story for the holiday (at first, the story is confusing out of context).  The story she tells is mysterious with suspense and confusion.  But after I read the Halloween story, I realized, she wrote it to be read. She wrote it for a reader. Thus, if the story was for a reader, was everything else intended for a potential reader as well?  And if so, does that mean her journal was less about chronicling her marriage and loss, or more about creating a narrative? Enter here the unreliable narrator: what exactly is true or false about what she is saying?

With that perspective, I started the book over. This time I focused on what was her opinion and what was fact, which can vary significantly. This made it even more complex and layered in depth.

It's important to watch the dates of the journal entries. They are significant.  Additionally, after the Halloween story she shares more details about her life before marriage.  And these details complicate the narrative further. The reader is bound to ask, why exactly did they get married?  What did she see in him?  What did he see in her? Neither of these questions are explicitly answered. Instead, we learn of another man who appears before and after her marriage. Two other men, actually.  Who is she, really?

In other aspects, her descriptions of small-town life and neighbors and the nature of a schoolteacher are equally charming and yet mysterious.  Why is she not 'one of them'?  Do the townspeople know more about her than we do, as readers? Perhaps, as her story suggests that she's not telling us everything.  And that omission becomes a fascinating focal point.

I loved the minimalism of the story. It forced me to pay attention and use my imagination to fill in the gaps. I highly recommend this elegant story of love, loss, and keeping secrets.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Paris has lost a bright light. George Hodgman, author of Bettyville, dies

It's with tremendous sadness that I relate that George Hodgman, author of Bettyville and a lovely friend, has passed away.  After reviewing his book, we started corresponding and eventually he was helping me house hunt.  He knew just what houses I would like.  Ultimately, I didn't move to his state.

However, he was always around with a wry observation, a book recommendation, a bit of comfort when I was sad.  Which was quite often, in the past.  When my Dad was ailing he had suggestions and affirmations and, helpfully, explained the concept of "sun-downers" with dementia patients in a way I hadn't understood through other means.

I'm terribly saddened by this news.  He has done other great work for Vanity Fair, but Bettyville was artful and moving and graceful.

Here's the review again.  He leaves a lovely lab named Raj.


Washington Post obituary:

And for the record, Graydon Carter can go to hell.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Spring: Karl Ove Knausgaard (memoir)


Survival mode, a day at a time
{Disclosure: Depression is the major theme of this book and one that should never been minimized, stigmatized, or joked about. My review is not intended to make light of the subject, I suffer from PTSD and GAD myself. However, I've found humor, even the dark dry stuff one seldom owns up to, is THE survival skill. So hearing him describe the crises (many) without hearing sarcasm, self-pity, or a simple "piss off" feels unreal. Surviving decades of depression defies review, but the most vital key for me has been some form of humor. Read his book for his personal and painful explorations of family ties amid disaster, the pain suffered by loved ones of the depressed, and the adoration of a father for his children.]

Things I learned in Spring.
1. Karl is a very careful driver.
2. He is a very keen parent.
3. Karl makes up part of the 1%.
4. Karl's children are perfect.
5. Karl backs up his vehicle carefully at all times.
6. His family eats out often.
7. Despite his claim to writing, he appears to hang out at Gymboree, as he's obsessed with cute baby clothes.
8. If you ever have a secret to tell, do not tell Karl.
9. Karl likes to ruminate on countless subjects.
10. He ruminates when he drives carefully.
11. Karl pretends his children only watch 1 hour of tv per night.
12. Karl frequently washes dishes.
13. Karl doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of him, except for his children and the assumption he is        not tidy.
14. Karl folds laundry into piles and sorts them. Dry laundry.
15. Karl dries the laundry first, after he does the dishes.
16. Karl dislikes pants.
17. Slobs (not him) can be stylish if endowed with a scarf tied properly, he feels.
18. Karl spends time in gardens, by plants, wherever he is. Looking at flowers. Feels things.
19. He likely would prop an azalea in the front seat, with seat belt, if it wouldn't cause a fuss.
20. Karl's face gets him money at foreign banks.
21. Karl's perfect children rarely argue.
22. Karl's family has all the pieces and the instructions sheet for a badminton set.
23. They play badminton. Often.
24. Karl is washing up the dishes again.
25. The wanker still smokes. It's when he feels.
26. The careful drive to Molma is lovely. Lots of feelings here.
27. Karl loves his family.
28. Karl's children are charming in a surreal way.
29. Karl seems tireless; is acknowledging a nap a crime?
30. Karl is loyal.
31. Karl wants you to know he's listening to Queens of the Stone Age.
32. Karl uses a radio. Still. Useful when drying up.
33. Karl drives so carefully he claims to see around corners in the villages.
34. Karl is not likely to adhere to HIPPA guidelines.
35. Karl would be interesting to eat a meal with. He'd either say nothing or talk the entire time. There is no in-between. It would be interesting either way.

See, at first I was taken aback of how he discloses subject matter so personal to another. Yet, I recall My Struggle (the series of them) did that very same thing. So after the shock, I was then sort of mentally dissing him because he cleans up good, too good, in his descriptions. He seems patient, reasonable, indefatigable, cheerful, a healthy eater (despite the smokes), and pretty much A-Ok. He actually doesn't describe anyone in less than affectionate terms. That bugged me. The Realist in me was muttering, "or so you say," over and over.

But then it clicked. It was a gift to his daughter, a memoir of a time, a day, that cannot be easily explained. It was a recreation of history. Why muss it up with tantrums, impatient driving (he's careful, you know), the ugly moods of kids, the self-loathing and constant analysis of past misfortune and current fame? Why NOT make it really lovely, like a postcard from a trip that was terrible but that you wished was better? Does it matter? Given the subject matter, I totally realize the brilliance of this move by Karl. Because he's not writing for the world, he's writing for her. This so that she doesn't have to grow up to only go back to long careful drives with the music on while ruminating on her origin story. She will anyway, but this should soften the blow. Because the pure parental love is there, not just by caregiving but by genuine affection. Like, he's choosing this life and that it wasn't bad luck.

One thing I really liked was how he relays to the reader how much time he spends talking to that voice in his head, and that he was in his teens before he figured out everyone had that begrudging, nasty, repulsive voice in their heads. I immediately thought of how I was quite old before I realized it too, like in my 30s. I just felt like I had a helpful but bad angel on one shoulder constantly crapping on my life. Then I read Diego da Silva's novel, I Hadn't Understood, and his fictional character (one of the most beloved of my reading life) is constantly arguing with that voice. And it was freedom. Now I could tell that voice to bugger off (or try to) because it was universal. How did I get so old without knowing the universal truth that we are all wondering about something and it's never, "how could I do that less well, next time?" Da Silva's novel, FYI, is amazing. Totally different vibe than this; this is far more serious and da Silva's guy was just a lovely idiot.

In all, I can't say I enjoyed the book. I would recommend it, but reading each page was more suspenseful than Hitchcock and all that suspense is tiring, and I felt it was somewhat manipulative on Karl's part. I will likely read Summer.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Impossibly Small Spaces by Lisa C. Taylor (Arlen House)

“...it isn’t fair that one species can exploit another and that sometimes even when I want to, I can’t protect those who need it most”.

A universal sentiment to be sure, but the angle Lisa C. Taylor takes in this collection of short stories is defining who most needs that protection.  Stepping back from a more traditional world view, Taylor demonstrates in Impossibly Small Spaces that it is a tiny corner of our most private self that is most at risk.  How that secret self gets protected, and what defines safety, is the core of the stories that take a fresh perspective on what we do when the unpredictable occurs.

I had read her previous book, Growing a New Tail, a few years ago. I was knocked out by how she painted characters in absolutely ordinary situations who dealt with both the mundane and the ugly in their own unique way. The flip side to this new collection is that it is the situations that are nothing ordinary, and the character reactions are complicated.  Self-preservation by denial and running from grief is a tactic these characters find necessary. They aren’t making grand gestures of expansive good works to society. Rather, they are in survival mode, which can take many forms, some of which are no good at all.

In one story, two strangers awaiting a plane arrival briefly acknowledge each other before the worst news crashes in on them. They don’t react as if in a Hallmark happy-ending movie plot.  Their next actions are spontaneous, slightly insane, poorly thought out, and terribly real.  It’s that kick of the reality of what they do that drives many of the stories:  no one prepares us for crisis, so no one can say we are doing it wrong.

Many of the stories have the basis of strangers in pairs trying to navigate a crisis. One woman needs a date for a wedding, but finds that getting one means revealing her most fragile secret. Another character creates secrets to hide his own reality, but loses himself so deeply in falsehoods that nothing is real for him anymore.

In a moment of self-reflection, he considers a fish tank: “Did [the fish] have the consciousness to know he was in a prison or did every body of water feel the same?”  The reader senses that the alternate reality he’s created is probably more prison than safety, even though he has no intention of escape.

Throughout the stories, which stand alone and are not linked, Taylor’s insightful character studies mean they are not easily forgotten.  Weeks after I first read it, I remembered certain characters with a sort of wistful, “what if” thought as to their survival skill. It was as if I’d read a newspaper article about real people.

“A life with this much colour requires a mute button.”  That mute button is the key to finding the impossibly small spaces that let us survive whatever happens. Taylor’s stories are rich and complex, and entirely unforgettable.

Review copy provided by Arlen House Press.

Review by L. R.