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Monday, September 26, 2016
GOD'S LITTLE ACRE
Open Road Media
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now
Rating: 3.75* of five
The University of Georgia Says: Like Tobacco Road, this novel chronicles the final decline of a poor white family in rural Georgia. Exhorted by their patriarch Ty Ty, the Waldens ruin their land by digging it up in search of gold. Complex sexual entanglements and betrayals lead to a murder within the family that completes its dissolution. Juxtaposed against the Waldens' obsessive search is the story of Ty Ty's son-in-law, a cotton mill worker in a nearby town who is killed during a strike.First published in 1933, God's Little Acre was censured by the Georgia Literary Commission, banned in Boston, and once led the all-time best-seller list, with more than ten million copies in print. (This is the edition I read in 2012, which has a foreword by Lewis Nordan that I consider very important to read.)
Open Road Media Says: Caldwell’s blockbuster bestseller: In the Depression-era Deep South, destitute farmer Ty Ty Walden struggles to raise a family on his own
Single father and poor Southern farmer Ty Ty Walden has a plan to save his farm and his family: He will tear his fields apart until he finds gold. While Ty Ty obsesses over his fool’s quest, his sons and daughters search in vain for their own dreams of instant happiness—whether from money, violence, or sex.
God’s Little Acre is a classic dark comedy, a satire that lampoons a broken South while holding a light to the toll that poverty takes on the hopes and dreams of the poor themselves.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Erskine Caldwell including rare photos and never-before-seen documents courtesy of the Dartmouth College Library.
**THE E-BOOK EDITIONS ARE ON SALE FOR BANNED BOOKS WEEK 2016**
My Review: First published in 1933, when the author was a mere slip of a thirty-year-old, this novel starts in a hole and keeps digging deeper and deeper. Literally, not metaphorically. Well, literally AND metaphorically.
Ty Ty and his sons are poor white Southern Americans in the grimmest economic times of the 20th century. There was revolution brewing because of the depth of the economic crisis, and the complete absence of any safety net for anyone at all. Ty Ty and his boys, like modern-day conservatives, are digging for gold in their unpromising Georgia home's unyielding land, and finding lots of dirt and not much else. The womenfolk are trying to keep food on the table and as many rapists as possible outside. The ones at home, well, we all have our crosses to bear, don't we?
Since the land's being dug up for gold instead of farmed for food, the boys go off to work in the textile mills. Yes Virginia, there once was a textile industry in the USA. Now it's all in Pakistan, where a couple dollars a month is a (barely) living wage. Mill owners naturally want to keep their costs down to maximize profits, and families are going hungry to make sure the rich get richer (is this sounding familiar?), until the unions come to town. With predictable results.
There's death, there's misery, there's hard work followed by failure, there's more misery, the end.
And what an end! What a beautiful piece of writing this is, and how very grim the picture it paints in its simple shapes and clear colors. There is nothing unclear or muddy about the book, except the minds of the characters, and that is by the author's design.
The search for gold isn't as stupid as it sounds. The Georgia north was Cherokee country until white folks found gold in them thar hills and booted the native inhabitants off the land. In the novel, some few flakes are found, but never enough to do what Ty Ty wants, which is free him and his family from want and dependence on others. It works well as a metaphor for the frayed and threadbare Murrikin dream, too: Keep working keep working keep working and the rewards will (not) come! Or if they come, at what cost, and ultimately to what end?
The title, God's Little Acre, refers to Ty Ty's gift of one acre of his farmland to God to support the church. But because Ty Ty wants gold for himself and his family, he moves the location of the acre at will, so he'll be sure not to give his gold away. Not so unfamiliar here, either, is it?
Murder, betrayal, lust, rage, and that's all before we get to the workplace! Is it any wonder this book was called obscene by the forces of reaction? It *was* obscene! The horrible exploitive relationships in every single nook and cranny of the world the characters inhabit is obscene. The dreadful ignorance, the grinding and maliciously intentional poverty, all of it obscene!
Sadly, with the slow withering of liberalism, the story's outlines are rapidly recrudescing in the modern Murrika being carved from the living flesh of the unwashed masses too drugged on the crack of an American Dream they will never, ever attain by Lotto or hard work or virtue rewarded. The horror is we've been here before, and a few brave and good men tried to steer us away from this hideous abyss. And here we are, back again.
Sick-making, isn't it? Read the book, and use it as a cautionary tale.
Saturday, September 24, 2016
ARE YOU AN ECHO?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
MICHIKO TSUBOI (editors and translators)
Chin Music Press
The Publisher Says: In early-1900s Japan, Misuzu Kaneko grows from precocious bookworm to instantly-beloved children’s poet. But her life ends prematurely, and Misuzu’s work is forgotten. Decades later her poems are rediscovered—just in time to touch a new generation devastated by the tsunami of 2011. This picture book features Misuzu’s life story plus a trove of her poetry in English and the original Japanese.
**CHIN MUSIC PRESS OFFERED ME AN ARC OF THIS TITLE IN EXCHANGE FOR AN HONEST REVIEW**
My Review: Whenever a package arrives from Chin Music Press, I know that everything else has to go to the Later pile. As always, I was *so* richly rewarded when I opened these covers.
This gorgeous and extremely touching sampler of Kaneko Misuzu's poetry is perfectly illustrated. It is introduced by a brief recounting of Kaneko's unhappy life. While I would most definitely want my grandkids to read the poetry, I'd want to read Kaneko's story to them, and make sure I was fully present to gauge their need for explanation and/or comfort as the tale unfolds.
Even if you have no kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, or strange kids you can borrow, buy this beautiful object for your coffee table. You will be the coolest kid on the block.
At sunrise, glorious sunrise
it’s a big catch!
A big catch of sardines!
On the beach, it’s like a festival
but in the sea, they will hold funerals
for the tens of thousands dead.
Friday, September 23, 2016
YOKOHAMA YANKEE, the burden and blessing of Being Other in one of the world's most homogeneous societies
YOKOHAMA YANKEE: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan
Chin Music Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now
The Publisher Says: Leslie Helm's decision to adopt Japanese children launches him on a personal journey through his family's 140 years in Japan, beginning with his great-grandfather, who worked as a military advisor in 1870 and defied custom to marry his Japanese mistress. The family's poignant experiences of love and war help Helm overcome his cynicism and embrace his Japanese and American heritage.
This is the first book to look at Japan across five generations, with perspective that is both from the inside and through foreign eyes. Helm draws on his great-grandfather's unpublished memoir and a wealth of primary source material to bring his family history to life.
**CHIN MUSIC PRESS PROVIDED ME WITH AN ARC OF THIS TITLE AT MY REQUEST**
My Review: It's the "to life" part of the book description that I want to discuss. How many of us have family secrets? Okay, silly of me to ask. How many of us wish we could spill the family secrets and get away with it? Helm decides to take a look back at the whole sweep of his German-Japanese-American family's riot of repression and dysfunction so as not to have to write Yet Another Adult Child of Alcoholic Father story. I don't like Helm's father Don, not because he's an alkie but because he's a mean drunk. Got no time for that. Me, I'm a happy drunk, I like to laugh and screw and do pep-u-uppo drugs while drinking. Still not someone who should engender and "raise" four kids as Helm senior did. Or didn't, exactly.
So Helm sets out to put the whole sad affair into a multigenerational context that stops this from being cringe- and yawn-worthy, going into detail about the life of his ancestors in Germany and Japan before and between the World Wars in a well-documented and quite vividly drawn way. It's here that the narrative launches itself into some very interesting territory, and here that the stars are earned. Once we get to Don and Barbara, I don't care anymore because we've heard it all a zillion times and nothing makes this iteration any more interesting than the others were. Leslie and his wife facing racism in Japan was fascinating to me; the sheer incomprehension of Japanese people as to why these weirdos would adopt *strangers* which is to say the children of people they aren't related to makes me a lot clearer on the reason Japan's such a strange place, so much duty and honor and ceremony and so little welcome for the other, the different.
I won't quibble with the odd absence of wartime tales and stories. It's a great deal like Memoirs of a Geisha in that way; a paragraph or two of musings and oh will you look at the time it's 1945! What is it that exerts such a very powerful repulsion on those who write about Japan, let alone the Japanese, when WWII comes up?
This trope, or rather tropelessness, aside, the book is an engrossing and edifying read, and a pleasure to look at, and a very entertaining way to spend a day or so. The photos throughout are well-chosen and the design accommodates them exactly as one wishes all publishers would require it to do. This being a Chin Music Press title, that statement could easily go without saying, but I enjoy saying it.
Broken Levee Books
$18.00 hardcover, available now
Rating: 5* of five
The Publisher Says: Hurricane Story is a spellbinding odyssey of exile, birth and return told in forty-six photographs and simple, understated prose. This first-person narrative told through dreamlike images of toys and dolls chronicles one couple’s evacuation from New Orleans ahead of the broken levees, the birth of their first child on the day that Katrina made landfall, and their eventual return to the city as a family. Shaw’s photographs, at turns humorous and haunting, contrast deftly with the prose.
This clothbound hardcover edition includes an introduction by Rob Walker, author of Letters From New Orleans and former “Consumed” columnist for The New York Times Magazine.
My Review: Very, very pregnant photographer, husband, dogs, and cats, all escape New Orleans barely ahead of Hurricane Katrina. Son is delivered, family is displaced, much of New Orleans is destroyed, to our lasting national shame, and family returns to rebuild and resume living in the place they love and call home. The story isn't new, and it's not the first time anyone anywhere has told it in this words-and-images fashion.
But no one else anywhere has Ms. Shaw's extraordinary and amazing eye; her terse prose style, so beautifully suited to both story and images; or her quite astounding luck in being published by this amazing press, Chin Music via its New Orleans-centered imprint Broken Levee Books.
The book itself is worthy of being purchased simply to put on your front room's most prominent table. It is gorgeous. Bound in real cloth (my dog is still sniffing it, she's never encountered real cloth binding before) which is printed (let me assure you that this technique is far from simple, and its failure rate is significant; the technical demands on the printer, the designer, and the person making the color separations are quite significant; and the aesthetic that demanded this *exactly*right* production is quite rarefied) with an eerie, atmospheric image of great subtlety, the object itself begins its acquaintance with you by offering an uneasy glimpse into the mind of its makers. This will not be a candy-coated, literal, easy-to-process exercise in the journalism of indignance.
Opening the book, one reads the perfectly serviceable prose of two brief essays, one by Rob Walker, a former New Orleanian, and one by Ms. Shaw. Now we are mise en scene (oh, the badness of the pun), and the next page-flip takes you to spread 01: "We left in the dark of night." That's all she says in words. The photo facing the page bears a moment of painful clarity, expressed in a simple image of a red toy truck's tailgate retreating down a highly textured, shining road. The dark world closing in claustrophobically around this single spot of life, vividly red, the beautiful shining cobblestone-like texture of the road, the smoothness of the chiaroscuro...well, I could wax rhapsodic until you beg for mercy, but I won't. No point. Has to be experienced.
The use of toys and models to create the photo story is delightful. If I see one more image of people on a roof waving at the news copter while their house gives way beneath them, I shall scream blue murder. I avoid picture books of 9/11 for the same reason: I can't bear it. I've seen it! I've seen it! Stop smacking me! I won't look! But Shaw doesn't smack me. She wallops me ten minutes after I've seen her images. Dolls, with their awful starey eyes, usually make me uneasy. They still do here, but they are meant to, and they are deployed in simple, uncontrived story-telling, not some absurd, doomed effort to be archly Commenting On Life. The documentary "Marwencol" has much the same effect on me, and the same affect on its medium, as Shaw's dolls do.
And I must mention one thing in particular: Shaw's son is represented here by the King Cake baby. It's a nice, quiet, unpretentious symbol of her son's heritage. To someone without New Orleans knowledge, it's invisible and unnecessary to appreciate the story; to someone who knows what the symbol is, it's poignant and fitting.
Love New Orleans or loathe it, care about personal stories or not, this beautiful object should be in your home if for no other reason than to demonstrate quietly that you have excellent aesthetic taste and a real love for the object we call book. And the best part? It's only $18.
Buy one. Tell me I'm wrong. I dare you.
HOME, AWAY by Jeff Gillenkirk is a four-1/2 star corrective to the woman's point-of-view divorce novel
Broken Levee Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five
The Publisher Says: How much is a father's love worth? Jason Thibodeaux has a $42 million contract to pitch for the Colorado Rockies and a romantic bachelor lifestyle when the son he lost in a searing custody battle reappears in his life. Home, Away follows Thibodeaux's colorful rise to the pinnacle of Major League Baseball and his agonized decision to quit in the prime of his career to care for his troubled son. Their evolving relationship and resulting confrontations—on the baseball field and off—test the limits of loyalty and the meaning of fatherhood itself.
My Review: I won this book in a LibraryThing giveaway in 2010. I was in a very raw and emotionally vulnerable state vis-a-vis relationships, marriage, parenthood, etc., so my review written at the time reflects that:
It's taken me *weeks* to calm down enough to write a review of this book that didn't amount to a woman-hating scream of fury at the stupidity and unfairness of a court system and a culture that privileges mothers to the exclusion of fathers.
So I don't intend to say a single word about that hugely important part of this novel. I can't be objective in the least on the topic. I limit myself to the broad observation that this is a much needed corrective to the man-bad, woman-good writing that infests family fiction like maggots infest a dead cat.
I can tell you that novels about baseball are seldom so deeply satisfying...a man who pursues his dream to become a major league pitcher, gives it up several times to be a father to his son, screws *everything* up and crawls into a bottle to stop the hurting, and then, and then—well, then a dream beyond dreaming comes true, and it's so wonderfully imagined and so movingly presented that I read the ending three times and cried each one of them.
I doubt a large number of women will read this book because it's so very honest about them, and who wants to read about *that*, right? And it's got LOTS of baseball in it. That's too bad, really. But it is what it is. I am very, very glad Mr. Gillenkirk wrote this book. I truly treasured it. I hope other divorced men, baseball fans, and frustrated fathers will find it.
So that's a quick take on me, my feelings and frustrations, and my misogyny six years ago.
What makes me happiest about this somewhat tough read, due to its subject matter, is that it is the first book I received from Chin Music Press and, in fact, was the first moment I was aware the press existed. I was delighted by the immediate and apologetic way in which the press's representative, David Jacobson, handled a minor issue I had with my first copy's quality: Instantaneous apology and replacement with even more helpings of mea-culpa soothing my ruffled feathers.
No one does that for a nobody reviewer over a truly tiny complaint (pages bound and trimmed oddly, a coffee stain on the front over). I was impressed, I made it my business to poke around their website, and decided I'd order some other books to see what they were up to. I ordered two novels, BUDDY ZOOKA IN THE FRENCH QUARTER AND BEYOND and LAST OF THE RED-HOT POPPAS; and a ghost story, BIG IN JAPAN. All three of these were enjoyable reads, getting three and a half to as much as four stars. (Reviews ill appear when my ancient hard drive renders up its secrets at last.)
Be sure of this: A book with the Chin Music Press logo is a book worthy of your attention, and most probably will, given that attention, become your own for its sheer irresistibility.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
Open Road Media
$9.99 eBook edition, available now
Rating: 3.5* of five
The Publisher Says: It all starts with the radio. Dorothy’s husband, Fred, has left for work, and she is at the kitchen sink washing the dishes, listening to classical music. Suddenly, the music fades out and a soft, close, dreamy voice says, “Don’t worry, Dorothy.”
A couple weeks later, there is a special interruption in regular programming. The announcer warns all listeners of an escaped sea monster. Giant, spotted, and froglike, the beast—who was captured six months earlier by a team of scientists—is said to possess incredible strength and to be considered extremely dangerous.
That afternoon, the seven-foot-tall lizard man walks through Dorothy’s kitchen door. She is frightened at first, but there is something attractive about the monster. The two begin a tender, clandestine affair, and no one, not even Dorothy’s husband or her best friend, seems to notice.
Selected by the British Book Marketing Council as one of the greatest American novels since World War II, Mrs. Caliban is a story of passion and loneliness, love and loss. Wryly subversive, it brilliantly combines surrealism, satire, and the female perspective.
**OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA OFFERED ME THIS DRC VIA NETGALLEY**
My Review: I was reminded of why I liked this novel when I first read it twenty-plus years ago:
"Have you ever seen so many tilted mirrors and hidden cameras?"On this second reading, in my later fifties instead of middle thirties, I'm still smoothed and soothed by Ingalls's lovely prose and her razor-sharp tongue. Now, however, I see something I missed then: her rage. This is a deeply angry book, and not just on the levels I expected it to be. The passage of those years has taken things away from me that finally showed me the level of compressed outrage that Dorothy, the author's voice, must feel to live through this scene:
Gives me the creeps. Really. It's a Presbyterian's dream come true—you know, God sees it all, He's watching you no matter where you are and what you're doing."
"I bet he's really out in the kitchen getting a beer out of the icebox."
...[s]he was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice, safe kitchen, when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring her straight in the face.Dorothy, average person in average home living under the radar of all the world including her husband, has this vision of a man-thing in the kitchen (her proper realm, being a woman) and doesn't decompensate, throw fits, scream, run...she invites the creature in, feeds him, makes love to him, and builds a life for the first time in many long years.
She stopped before she knew she had stopped, and looked, without realizing that she was taking anything in. She was as surprised as if she had heard an explosion and seen her own shattered legs go flying across the floor. There was a space between him and the place where she was standing; it was like a gap in time.
That takes (metaphorical) balls. What happens as this life unspools takes literal balls.
All in good time. Dorothy and Fred, her husband, haven't been in a marriage for a long time. Their son, Scotty, died several years before; during her grieving for Scotty, Dorothy lost their unborn baby; and, as is so often the case, the parents drift into their own worlds of misery and rage, unable to discover the back passages and sea currents that swept them together before their loss. While a commonplace story, it's not a cheerful one.
So much more cheerful is Dorothy's startled awakening into lust:
She was just beginning to convince herself that down at the bottom of the sea he was hurt or dying, when she saw his shape moving up out of the water. In that light and at that distance, he looked exactly like the statues of the gods, except that his head was slightly larger and rounder than it should be. And he walked with a rounded, swimming motion from hip to knee, holding his large, powerful shoulders and arms easily.This isn't the way a woman looks at any old man, this is the attitude and the inventory a lover makes of the beloved. It's clear that Dorothy has no sense of wrongness about her six-seven green-skinned frogman lover, she is simply infatuated and lusty.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
TERRY RICHARD BAZES
$22.00 trade paper, available now
$11.00 via the publisher's website
$10.00 as a "We Gambled, You Gamble" SALE!
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: A dentist from New Jersey, marooned at midnight in the Florida swamps, makes the mistake of falling into the clutches of a hilariously depraved family of amateur surgeons devoted to a seventeenth century libertine whose discovery of an elixir has kept his evil presence alive for the past three-hundred years.
My Review: Three centuries of bizarro nonsense in the Florida swamps, featuring dentists who rob teeth from cadavers or maps from old ladies, English earls with horrifying maladies, German hunchbacks with one-eyed daughters who give rise to a dynasty of detestable Southern crackers, and a buncha buncha croakadells. (Gators to thee and me.)
Oh, and fiction's only known were-horsefly.
Not a big bizarro reader, me. I wondered sometimes what I was doing wandering in the humid swamps of Bazes' imagination. I found such repulsive images there as people being farmed for their organs, clouds of gator-musk inspiring ick-ptui sex, and a claustrophobic sense on nausalgia vu...the dear and familiar stomach-roiling horror of having been here before...that Florida inspires in me.
So why rate it so highly? Because, dear reader, in an increasingly bland and featureless literary and cultural landscape, where gay couples are the normal ones on TV and wacky neighbors on sitcoms are largely indistinguishable from the leads in a vain attempt to spice things up, Bazes takes us into places we haven't been taken since A Modest Proposal. The adjective "Swiftian" has been waiting for this book for many long, lonely years.
So, go buy it. I promise you no one will fail to remark on the unique cover art, and the erudite among your acquaintance will be gobsmacked by the fact the BARNEY ROSSET blurbed it. (Frankly, after one repugnant scene involving a wire hair brush and the aforementioned were-horsefly, this was the only reason I kept reading.) Oh, so did Charles Palliser and Peter Coyote, but BARNEY! If not for him, we wouldn't have smutty books to read at all!
Sunday, September 11, 2016
ROLAND RUGERO translated by Christopher Schaefer
$16.00 trade paper, available now
Rating: 3.5* of five
The Publisher Says: When Nyamugari, an adolescent mute, attempts to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relieve himself, his gestures are mistaken as premeditation for rape. To the young woman's community, his fleeing confirms his guilt, setting off a chain reaction of pursuit, mob justice, and Nyamugari's attempts at explanation. Young Burundian novelist Roland Rugero's second novel Baho!, the first Burundian novel to ever be translated into English, explores the concepts of miscommunication and justice against the backdrop of war-torn Burundi's beautiful green hillsides.
My Review: A fable of modern life, not just in Africa but the world over: An atmosphere of fear and mistrust arising from more than a decade of endless war causes Nyamuragi (not Nyamugari as above) the mute to be accused of rape, then of murder as the heat of the moment causes passions to rise higher and higher. His "victim" is a teenaged girl who is accustomed (horribly) to the idea that every woman is a man's fair game. She isn't even close enough for Nyamuragi to touch until after she screams, when he grabs her to put his hands over her mouth. The whole village hears the commotion and, being on edge as a whole, assumes that there's trouble and sets out to find the screamer and help her. They see Nyamuragi manhandling their woman-child, assume the worst, and the pursuit begins. Running, of course, makes Nyamuragi look guilty, so the pursuers begin to stone him.
An elder of the village, widow of one of the wealthy men, is out tending her goats when the kerfuffle starts:
With her left eye, the one-eyed woman tries to make out the pack of pursuers.Her comprehension about matched mine, as the age of our protagonist Nyamuragi changes from elevn to twenty-six and hovers in an uncertain state from beginning to end. This is intentional, per the translator's note. The author is working in the oral storytelling tradition and piles on details that contradict each other as a means of overwhelming the reader, making the story more intensely alive, and who am I to argue with success?
With the other eye, her bad one, she searches her thoughts. Tears escape them both. It is hard work with sweat trickling down. One eye makes out reality, and the other seeks the explanation for its harshness. One sees, and the other deliberates. The old woman's comprehension in either case is muddled.
As the mob drags Nyamuragi towards his death by hanging with a "virgin hemp rope" (this will be important later), the one-eyed old woman hears the word ejo, which leads to her reverie:
Tomorrow and yesterday: two different times, a single word to label them both. Two places in time, a single name. As a result, one becomes the other. Or maybe "tomorrow" and "yesterday" meld into one another, because they contain two chimeras: past and future.(itals in original)
It seems that Nyamuragi has tried, in his torment, to assent to the mob's mistaken murder of him, to offer himself as a scapegoat for the rage and terror of the whole nation of Burundi, by shouting ego, an assent; since he's been electively mute for his whole life, his vocalization is misuderstood and the crowd roars ejo back at him. They wonder what he means, did he do mischief yesterday or will he if they let him live until tomorrow? In the throes of their rage and fear, they can't decide and no one can agree with anyone else.
Nyamuragi is, in the extremity of his manhandling and torture, driven by his agony to retreat into the waiting state. He's not fully in his body, he keeps blacking out, falling asleep, waking again to be dragged up and up the hill where his village mates are going to hang him from the giant fig tree. His ejo is very much where he is:
In fact, at a very young age Nyamuragi had loved to read, this way of summarizing life with signs. Letters which possessed hats, ties, crooked dashes, feet, arms pointed upwards or turned downwards, hooks above and below, commas, periods, scrawls and scribbles, with the odd one crossed out.It is always safer, Nyamuragi has learned, to avoid speech and trust silence. Words on paper are blessedly mute. He has emulated them through the horrors of his parents' murders; he has emulated them so well that now he can't summon them despite his great need.
If Nyamuragi had possessed speech, perhaps he would have prayed for divine intervention. He needn't bother, since the divine has already intervened by sending his Uncle Jonathan the demobbed soldier to the village to see his nephew now that the wars are over:
He had served on the frontlines. He knew that tactical decisions win wars. The disorderly two-hundred-strong crowd did not overwhelm him. He knew they were weak. Because he was systematic. And especially because kuvuga menshi siko kuyamara—to speak much does not imply exhausting one's words.It is Uncle Jonathan who saves the day, and saves Nyamuragi.
This fable of rage, fear, revenge, guilt and expiation, is as relevant to US society as to Burundian. While the scapegoat isn't guilty of the crime of rape, he looks like he is, so he is targeted and the sins of the villagers are heaped on the outsider-from-birth. Mob action might be more direct in Burundi than here, but only just. That the village unites around its young woman and protects her, promises her vengeance, is a refreshing difference from US society's casual, uninterested assumption that the rapist is more "innocent" than the victim. (Typing that sentence nauseated me.)
I recommend to you that, if you read this book (and I think you should), be prepared to do some involuntary soul-searching. How would you have handled the mob rule's decision to murder someone you knew for something you don't know whether or not he did? How would you have tried to comfort the terrified girl whose screams set off the whole nightmare? Would any course of action you can imagine have made any difference?
Only the best books can do this to a reader. This is art of a high order.
Saturday, September 10, 2016
A SHORT WALK IN WILLIAMS PARK
$14.99 trade paper, available now
Rating: 3.5* of five
The Publisher Says: Francis Norton is an elderly bachelor who enjoys nothing better than spending a warm day outside in one of London’s parks. When one afternoon he innocently overhears the earnest conversation of two young lovers, Edward and Mirrie, whose relationship is complicated by Edward’s unhappy marriage to a drunken wife, Francis decides to interfere in an attempt to help the pair. But despite his good intentions, his matchmaking efforts have unexpected consequences, and he soon finds himself caught up in a complicated triangle involving blackmail, a mysterious death, and courtroom intrigue. Will Francis’s well-meaning manipulations lead to a happy ending for his two young friends, or will his meddling end in tragedy and disaster?
Found among C.H.B. Kitchin’s papers after his death, A Short Walk in Williams Park was published posthumously in 1971. As L.P. Hartley writes in his Foreword, this short novel has the same distinction of style as Kitchin’s other acclaimed works and displays many of its author’s finest qualities.
My Review: A very short novel indeed, this coda to a fine and distinguished, if unremunerative, career might have been best left in his papers. It's a charming idea, I suppose, but it doesn't develop into much. One is left wondering at the alacrity with which Mirrie rises to catch Francis's fly, how quickly and completely she trusts this stranger, and why in the event George goes along with all of it.
Kitchin's trademark beautiful, precise language is much in evidence; by the end of his career, I suppose he simply couldn't write any other way than beautifully. Lucky us, he's left more novels than just this, and many of those are a bracing, invigorating journey through human nature's many sides. Unless you've read other Kitchin novels, don't pick this one up.
Friday, September 9, 2016
TANKA & ME
KAETHE SCHWEHN (Mineral Point Poetry Series #1)
Brain Mill Press
$14.95 trade paper/eBook bundle, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: TANKA & ME is a visceral, pleading, and fierce collection of poems, underpinned with thudding vessels and satisfying wreckage. Kaethe Schwehn externalizes the overlooked power of women into a multidimensional character who hunts both the speaker and the reader. Our wild Tanka engages down deep with role-play, sex, prayer, and refusal until we can’t look away or stay quiet. These are love poems, but they love with claws and whiskey, bolt cutters and saws. You can love someone for a long time without knowing how, our speaker realizes, and Tanka prowls and preens and breaks us down until we know how to love ourselves, how to know ourselves, how to free ourselves. TANKA & ME is feminist poetry with muscle, bones, and heart.
My Review: It is a modern axiom, supported by rigorous scientific research, that reading literary fiction demonstrably improves the reader's ability to empathize, possibly in my own opinion to identify, with others unlike themselves. I suppose it is a sad statement on a culture that we produce men who believe that rape is ever, in any way, at any time, acceptable—or even tolerable.
Here's an idea: Parents of sons need to give them reasons to read literary fiction, which I'll somewhat arbitrarily assume includes poetry. Start here. Schwehn's poetry is accessible to anyone, at least in my never-humble opinion. It is a speaker, self-described "...Midwestern white girl living in a town / where a bank raid is reenacted every year", in a colloquy with the titular character Tanka. She is both real and imaginary, both wild and tame, both alive and unreal. Yes, the antecedent is vague, but that characterization isn't:
Tanka, help.—from "Plea" on p27
I am here museless.
Water in the glass
and no flower or pubis or mule in the glass to amuse me.
My students have white smiles and even the soft blond
hair at their brows is pulled back tightly.
I am becoming deathly afraid that I am normal.
That the neon hills that once erupted in my dreams
will not return.
Fun wordplay, fine imagery, a tight and focused poem. A window into the soul of each of us, certainly each adolescent, each creative soul, each adult working out how to do this mundane piece of work called living while still finding some sort of beauty and meaning in the exercise.
So, parents of sons, give them a reason to read this short book of accessible poems, and see if they don't come out the other side a bit more able to see beneath the surface of The Other to the core of human existence: No one knows how to do it; we're all floundering for meaning and connection; so speak to The Other just like you would to your own inner self.
It sure as hell can't hurt. It's a cheap experiment that might just change your son's life for the better.
Thursday, September 8, 2016
THE ATOMIC WEIGHT OF LOVE
ELIZABETH J. CHURCH
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$25.95 hardcover, available now
2017 NEWS! THE PAPERBACK EDITION IS OUT NOW! $15.95
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: In her sweeping debut novel, Elizabeth J. Church takes us from the World War II years in Chicago to the vast sun-parched canyons of New Mexico in the 1970s as we follow the journey of a driven, spirited young woman, Meridian Wallace, whose scientific ambitions are subverted by the expectations of her era.
In 1941, at seventeen years old, Meridian begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago. She is soon drawn to Alden Whetstone, a brilliant, complicated physics professor who opens her eyes to the fundamentals and poetry of his field, the beauty of motion, space and time, the delicate balance of force and energy that allows a bird to fly.
Entranced and in love, Meridian defers her own career path and follows Alden west to Los Alamos, where he is engaged in a secret government project (later known to be the atomic bomb). In married life, though, she feels lost and left behind. She channels her academic ambitions into studying a particular family of crows, whose free life and companionship are the very things that seem beyond her reach. There in her canyons, years later at the dawn of the 1970s, with counterculture youth filling the streets and protests against the war rupturing college campuses across the country, Meridian meets Clay, a young geologist and veteran of the Vietnam War, and together they seek ways to mend what the world has broken.
Exquisitely capturing the claustrophobic eras of 1940s and 1950s America, The Atomic Weight of Love also examines the changing roles of women during the decades that followed. And in Meridian Wallace we find an unforgettable heroine whose metamorphosis shows how the women’s movement opened up the world for a whole generation.
**ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL SENT ME THIS REVIEW COPY. THANK YOU!**
My Review: At long, long last, a book about a woman's life of rigorous self-denial and eventual blossoming that cleanses the humid, metallic bloodiness of The Awakening from my mental palate. A dry, cold blast of piñon-scented mountain air sweeping clean a century's accumulation of moldy, clammy death-scented grave dirt.
And that, in case I am being unclear, is as rave a review as a novel not aimed primarily at me is ever likely to get. How utterly refreshing it is to have a heroine whose many personal sacrifices are made 1) NOT for her children and 2) result in a genuine, joyous opening of her own and her friends' eyes to the very real obstacles faced by young women in making independent lives for themselves and each other. It seems a shame that this is fiction, in point of fact. Meridian Wallace Whetstone should be a real woman. (I am quite sure that Author Church composited many of the women she grew up among into Mrs. Whetstone, but she...Whetstone...is so lovingly limned it seems a shame she isn't "real"-real.)
We meet Meridian in the fullness of her life as she glances over her shoulder down the slope of her life's mountain. It is a tried-and-true narrative technique, and one I've always been a bit suspicious of; I put my reservations on hold because, early on, I came to trust Author Church and her choices:
I remember an ozone-scented April afternoon when he pulled my hand from my raincoat pocket and held it in his hot, enveloping hands. Abruptly, suddenly aware of his own gesture, he paused in his description of atomic half-life, radioactive decay. We stood on the rain-darkened campus sidewalk, looked at each other, and I used my free hand to tuck a curl of his hair behind his ear. I felt so calm with Alden. ...[He] gave me sure footing. He's solid, I thought... My thoughts surprised me. Unconscious, unbidden, I was falling in love.I resonated with this description of the moment of falling in love like a gong. Okay, then, I said aloud, where to now?
Where to indeed. We went to the altar, metaphorically anyway, as Meridian and Alden marry in the rush of wartime; Meridian remains in school, takes her bachelor's degree and is accepted into graduate school at Cornell, while Alden lives and works in Los Alamos on the Trinity Project. What comes next is, I suppose, the central incident of the novel. As one might expect, Alden is offered a permanent place at the Los Alamos research facility that succeeded the Trinity Project. As Alden most clearly expected, Meridian was to drop her own plans and fall into line with his. There was some sense to that in the day: His job was both prestigious and well-paid, whereas her career after graduate school, even after a Ph. D., would never be either of those things. Women in academia, as in all other parts of the postwar economy, were not accorded the respect or remuneration that men were. I am told things are different now. *snort*
Meridian adjusts herself, not entirely willingly, to a culture of secrecy as the wife of an employee of "the Lab" as it is referred to. She adjusts herself to childlessness with much greater ease, especially after an ectopic pregnancy. Alden isn't so sanguine about that. He thought he had made himself clear in their courting days, referring to his first wife's miscarriages, as wanting children. Their absence of communication is beginning to tell on their relationship, but neither is equipped with the words or the inclination to reach beyond his or her own ideas of communication. Each is perfectly clear...to themselves, anyway...so what is there to do but accept the other's limitations, sigh, and move forward?
The issue is forward which way. Meridian's disastrous ectopic pregnancy has led her into the life of a woman nurse, Belle, who is wide-open, fun-loving, outspoken, and married to one of the Lab's security guards. It's instant chemistry between the two women, a best friendship that is unique in Meridian's experience and comes to be the most important relationship in her life. Alden, unsurprisingly to everyone except Meridian herself, wants none of it, and makes himself obnoxiously clear about it. So Belle stays exclusively Meridian's friend and remains a touchstone in her life until its end.
Years tick by, Meridian brings her widowed mother from Pennsylvania to New Mexico for her one and only visit to see this strange new place her only child has made her home. Mother is an old-school working-class mama. She cleaned houses and took in laundry and did without any selfish luxury to be sure her daughter could go to college and be more than she herself had had the education to be. We can only guess at her feelings, since Meridian is our first-person narrator. This is one of the risks of first person narration, that some major emotional seams are left unmined. I would have loved to hear more of and even from Mother. Nonetheless, Mother comes through her visit to the Brave New World and the knowledge of her daughter's increasing isolation from and anger towards her husband in true Mother fashion. She writes Meridian a thank-you letter, sends a charmingly left-field gift of a hostessing manual, and offers some excellent insight:
Maybe I didn't teach you enough about how couples get along or about the necessary compromises wives must make. Love does not stay romantic. It changes. Sometimes it's even boring. ... Don't ask Alden to give your life meaning.Yuh-huh. Every grown-up in the room knows what the lady's talkin' bout, though I surely hope that nowadays it's *both* parties who compromise. I don't have the liveliest confidence in that assertion, but don't nobody mess with my denial, 'kay?
Meridian sets her sights on making her life mean something. She lines up activities like ninepins, with and without Alden, sets about knocking them down, and thus distracts herself from her increasing isolation from her emotional core. She does continue her undergraduate interest in crows by observing the families of crows an easy hike away from Los Alamos. It leads her into discovering art, drawing then watercolor painting. The years continue to tick by. The inevitable happens when Meridian learns that her mother, her life's bedrock for her entire thirty-nine years on the planet, has died. She returns to her Pennsylvania home alone as Alden is too busy to attend the ceremonies with her. The return itself is her first ever airplane flight:
It was magic to be above [the clouds], to see their uppermost contours, the way they caught the light and held it, their vast shadows moving upon the face of the earth. I wished I could open the window and know what the world sounded like at that altitude. I thought about the solitude of that world, how it must be inhabited by the voice of the wind, only. ... I thought about what my crows saw as they flew above canyons and treetops, the birds-eye view of life. They would recognize specific trees, perches, and nesting sites from a completely different perspective than I could. Their maps differed from mine; they knew the topography, the contours of the landscape, on a much grander scale.Nothing makes me happier than beautiful appreciations of the value of perspective. Meridian has lost her anchor and is floating far above the mere mundanity of land; she gains from that loss a brand new idea of her relationship to land. So nicely done, Author Church.
Returning to earth and to Alden, Meridian is no longer content to jog along in her well-worn path. She casts about for something, anything, that will both satisfy and fulfill her. It's one thing to want satisfaction and fulfillment, and quite another to know it when you see it; yet another to accept the gift that the goddesses have given you. Clay enters Meridian's life at their mutual peak. She is a woman in her prime, forty-six; he is a twenty-five-year old man fractured by war and healing himself with the one universal balm, the world of nature. Their courtship is abbreviated, their love urgent, their time limited, and for all that it transforms each of them into so much more than either would ever have been without the other. Many new experiences are had:
Next to his stove lurked a bowl containing an ominous dark brown liquid and pale, beige cubes of some unidentifiable matter.I suppose an equivalent sense of being completely at sea would be a well-off woman today falling for a rapper, someone with few if any cultural touchstones in common with her. Equally laughter-inducing is Clay's introduction of marijuana to Meridian. Author Church's description of that is also big fun, but too long for my arthritic fingers to transcribe.
"This is dinner?"
"Tofu. I'm marinating it in soy sauce."
"Tofu. It's bean curd, or coagulated soy milk."
"You can't afford meat? I could have brought some steak or chicken."
"I'm a vegetarian, Meridian. I don't eat meat."
I stood there, flummoxed. Now I was involved with a vegetarian hippie.
Happiness and fulfillment, emotional and sexual, must needs be fleeting in drama (and all too often in life). It is obvious to Meridian from the start that this isn't a life-long love affair. Clay wants her to leave the stale mundanity of her marriage to Alden, and works long and hard for her to acquiesce. She does, and the goddesses exact their price for the brief interlude of joy: Alden is dying of cancer.
That is the end of the affair. Only it isn't, because like every Great Love I've ever known or read about, the Greatly Belovéd is always part of one's mental furniture. (Twenty-four years after his death, I still have mental conversations with my own Greatly Belovéd, and I expect I always will.) As Meridian grieves the loss of her intimate enemy, she grows into the fullness of herself she glimpsed for the first time during her passion with Clay. She takes charge of herself and sets about taking charge of a corner of her world. Her life is now about making changes in the worlds of young women in New Mexico using the sizable wad of money that Alden socked away before his death, and which Meridian had to struggle against a restrictive, almost vengeful, trust to get control of for herself.
It is a wonderful third act to a long life, making a difference in the lives of the young. And the ending of that journey is where we began, where Meridian began talking to us. Remember the reservations I set aside at the beginning of The Atomic Weight of Love? I am so glad that I did, because this narrative frame is exactly what made the ending of the book so very deeply satisfying and so beautiful. I can't bring myself to say why, but you will, I very much hope, see for yourself soon.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
ISLAND OF DEMONS
$16.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4.25* of five
The Publisher Says: Many men dream of running away to a tropical island and living surrounded by beauty and exotic exuberance. Walter Spies did more than dream. He actually did it. In the 1920s and 30s, Walter Spies - ethnographer, choreographer, film maker, natural historian and painter - transformed the perception of Bali from that of a remote island to become the site for Western fantasies about Paradise and it underwent an influx of foreign visitors. The rich and famous flocked to Spies' house in Ubud and his life and work forged a link between serious academics and the visionaries from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Miguel Covarrubias, Vicki Baum, Barbara Hutton and many others sought to experience the vision Spies offered while Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, the foremost anthropologists of their day, attempted to capture the secret of this tantalizing and enigmatic culture. Island of Demons is a fascinating historical novel, mixing anthropology, the history of ideas and humour. It offers a unique insight into that complex and multi-hued world that was so soon to be swept away, exploring both its ideas and the larger than life characters that inhabited it.
My Review: The Balinese chapter of artist/musician/anthropologist Walter Spies's life, as told by the intimate companion of those years, Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet. Spies, a German of the Hanseatic sort, was in Russia during the revolution (one thing we tend to forget at a hundred years' remove is that Germans were the Americans of Eastern Europe for several hundred years), in Berlin during the grisly Weimar Republic, and ran away from his demons after breaking up with F.W. Murnau ("Nosferatu"?) by moving to the Island of Demons...Bali.
Here he spent the entire rest of his life. He became a stop on the tour. He was largely responsible for the view the decadent, rich West held of Bali as a land of lush, lovely, lascivious lads and, well, really, what else matters? So come (!) they did in their legions, infecting and changing and generally making Bali a Disney park. The Dutch, in that day and time the colonial power, thought that was just ducky...until WWII. *bam* into prison camp, *swoosh* out of prison camp when the Japanese won, *whisk* off to a less sensitive location...this then the end of our story, since Bonnet lived for many years after his beloved Walter's death, but the ostensible reason we're reading this novel is that Bonnet is visited by a handsome stranger, James Grits (Grits? Barley? Get it?), who is researching Walter, and these are his memories of the love of his life. It's a hoary old technique, but hey, who's to argue with tradition in an historical novel?
I loved this book. It felt so good to sink into Barley's nicely crafted sentences, into his clear and present love for Bali, for Spies, for the dear and dull Rudi, and the dead past. So many historical novels read like research papers gone metastatic. This one *reeks* of longing to be there, to be part of the world the author has studied and documented.
I recently read another historical novel, this one set in 1980s New Jersey, and clearly a roman a clef...and it was grisly, a Bataan Death March of a book, it was so very very evidently not a lover's nosegay to the subject, that I wanted to remove it from my belly-pillow with tongs and dispose of it in some dog-safe way so she wouldn't even sniff it. I was ready to exorcise that demon from my brain. Island of Demons did the trick.
I suggest the book to gay people, well, men mostly; the frankly disagreeable presentation of the female characters is unlikely to meet with the common or garden lesbian and/or feminist's wholehearted approbation. All you misongynists, whatever gender, c'mon down! This is your reward for wading through all the anti-man crap out there!
It really helps to know who some of the people who helped Spies put Bali on the map are: Barbara Hutton the stunningly rich heiress, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson the anthropologists, Vicki Baum the German Jewish Lesbian Hollywood Screenwriting Legend, Rosa and Miguel Covarrubias the depressing socialist straight people (GOD are they boring), composer/queer ikon Colin McPhee and his depressed, schizophrenic wife Jane; there are others, but that list, if it makes you pucker your lips and say "...wha...? Who...?" to each entry, means this is a fun romp, a good-time read; if there are little "aha!" moments, well, there is some lovely, bitchy subtext of the sort we *used* to call camp (a dying art, camp; so sad). But no matter! Just read it! So much pleasure to be had! Have some.
Monday, September 5, 2016
HOPE FOR A COOL PILLOW
$16.00 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five
It's been a week, I can tell you. I am appalled to report that some idiot in management brought in a new resident with a nasty case of oppositional disorder. She's made life a living hell for those around her, and even *I* screamed at her when she started with me! Fortunately, it didn't interfere with my writing of a new style of think piece on publishers in the "Mittelstand" and the rewarding work they're publishing.
My essay on the publishing house Outpost19 and Margaret Overton's deeply moving and supremely timely memoir HOPE FOR A COOL PILLOW is live at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud: My Reading Life.
This slim book should, in a properly ordered world, ignite a nation-wide conversation about the events at the end of our lives. It is a wonderful book.
Saturday, September 3, 2016
QUIET CREATURE ON THE CORNER
JOÃO GILBERTO NOLL tr. Adam Morris
Two Lines Press
$9.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 3.75* of five
The Publisher Says: When an unemployed poet finds himself thrown in jail after raping his neighbor, his time in the slammer is mysteriously cut short when he’s abruptly taken to a new home — a countryside manor where his every need seen to. All that’s required of him is to . . . write poetry. Just who are his captors, Kurt and Otávio? What of the alluring maid, Amália, and her charge, a woman with cancer named Gerda? And, most alarmingly of all, why does Kurt suddenly appear to be aging so much faster than he should?
Reminiscent of the films of David Lynch, and written in João Gilberto Noll’s distinctive postmodern style — a strange world of surfaces seemingly without rational cause and effect — Quiet Creature on the Corner is the English-language debut of one of Brazil’s most popular and celebrated authors. Written during Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy — and capturing the disjointed feel of that rapidly changing world — Quiet Creature is mysterious and abrupt, pivoting on choices that feel both arbitrary and inevitable. Like Kazuo Ishiguro, Noll takes us deep into the mind of person who’s always missing a few crucial pieces of information. Is he moving toward an answer to why these people have taken him from jail, or is he just as lost as ever?
**TWO LINES PRESS PROVIDED ME WITH A REVIEW COPY AT MY REQUEST**
My Review: João Gilberto Noll might not be known in the USA yet, but that will change with the publication of this fine novella. It has that certain something, that extra dimension, that comes from a beautiful book being very well translated:
I doubted I'd be able to sleep with a downpour starting to rail against the window, the water blocking my view outside. I thought how my life was really taking its time figuring things out, and my mother snored as if saying don't even start—and there I was, staring at streams of raindrops that wouldn't let me see outside, unable to sleep, without even a way to take a walk in the street due to the rain, so I went to the living room, the light was still on, and I could've stolen my mother's wedding ring right off her finger, and even taken my time rolling out since she wouldn't wake up, but that wedding ring probably wasn't worth a nickel, and I was a coward anyway: I called out to her, asked her to make me a tea because I was feeling woozy, ready to vomit.And so we're firmly established in the stream of a wastrel's consciousness, a kid whose pointless little life has been spent in a slum without even an idea that he could be anywhere else. In this moment, he is unable to sleep, probably because a short time earlier he forced himself on a young woman from his slum; he is human enough to find this troubling, not quite self-aware enough to prevent this casual, indifferent violation from occurring. Oh, and that mother referred to here? She's packed off to another city before his rape is discovered, and completely forgotten, never even referred to again.
So is this youth merely solipsistic, as most youths are, or is he a full-blown sociopath? This story is about the experience of being unmoored in time, only slightly connected to place, and that solely in reference to an older man's rescue of him from a certain prison sentence. Kurt show up at the courtroom and whisks our narrator away to his country estate, there to be fed and ignored, left to do whatever he wishes to do. He writes poetry, he bangs the maid (consensually), he chats up the handyman, in short his rootless aimless existence doesn't leave any mark on even his, let alone the, world:
I passed Kurt in the hallway, and for the first time he showed me a real smile. What's happening? I wondered. what am I doing that could make him so decisively happ?The narrator isn't alone in this musing. It is the slightly seasick effect of having no contact with anything real, tangible, requiring effort. There is no reason for Kurt to feel happy with the narrator, and no special reason for him to feel unhappy either. So what is this sudden real smile, this pleasure in seeing, that's all, just seeing, the narrator? It makes the reader as well as the narrator uneasy.
Soon enough, Kurt's wife Gerda needs to go to Rio in order to have her late-stage cancer treated. It is clear to all that Gerda will not be coming home, that her disease has reached its final crisis. Kurt takes the narrator with him to Rio, either as company or simply to have him nearby instead of alone at the estate. It's the slum-born narrator's first time visiting Rio and his first time staying in the brave new world of a luxury hotel:
I ran a hand over my chin, summoned the elevator, the uniformed operator asked me smilingly which floor—everyone was smiling at me in that four-star joint—I remembered I wanted to have a whiskey in the hotel bar, asked for the first floor, the bartender treated me like a prince, yeah, I shaved, I told him, also smiling, a whiskey poured over the stones in my glass, and the bartender saying he hadn't recognized me with my face like a baby's bottom, then turned back to the same chatter as always, recommending where to go later, at night, beaches, bars, women, I barely followed what he was saying, but it pleased me to confirm that someone behind the bar was capable of busying himself with my day's itinerary just because I had the money to pay for the hotel and leave tips.He has the money? Interesting. Kurt's fortune, most likely Gerda's before Kurt's, pays for the narrator's very existence. Now the narrator has been with Kurt and Gerda long enough that he has assumed the mantle of privilege. How much time has passed since the narrator was bought out of his prison sentence? Unknown. In fact, unknown to the narrator, bobbing as he is in the currents of life and time.
After a deeply discomforting passage where Gerda, in her final moments, mistakes the narrator for Kurt, the surviving pair return to Porto Alegre, there to...well...continue, I suppose, to go on living in their weird ménage. Unknown amounts of time pass before Kurt reveals his true feelings about Gerda's passing and his own aging:
I sat down at the other end of the table and thought, I don't want this: What good did it do me to have him bail me out of jail just to get caught up in illness and old age? First Gerda, then Otávio, and tonight I get home and find him drunk and besides that all rotten, telling me he's not going to die. What do I get out of this?The sheer breathtaking ingratitude of the man! The astonishing, if indulged, self-centeredness! It was here that my opinion of him as a sociopath solidified once and for all.
Or, if I wasn't going to get anything from it, why was he telling me all this? Wouldn't I be better off among the prisoners, who lacked any appetite for reward?
At the end of the day, I was very enrapt by the tale of our nameless rapist, mostly because he has no sense of himself as a moral actor. He simply does things he wants to do, damn the consequences, and ends up smelling like a rose. It's blindingly infuriatingly unfair, but so is life. Noll's first English-language appearance is a tale of rootlessness, of anomie, and was written about the time the last set of generals were loosening their grip on the country's government. It reflects that moment, the weird and unsettled time between things as they were and as they could possibly be. It's a wonderful story. It will reward your dollars and your eyeblinks.