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The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
by Vladimir Nabokov
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.67
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Groaning Smorgasbord, March 16, 2014
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There is undeniable value in having the complete stories of Vladimir Nabokov collected in one volume, but there are far too many to be tasted, let alone digested, in a few days. This is a book to be sampled, then set aside for something else, then sampled again.

This collection contains all the stories previously published in NABOKOV'S DOZEN and the three volumes that followed it, a round dozen in each. To these about have been added about enough for a further volume, making 68 stories in all. One thing that surprised me (not being a Nabokov scholar) is that the stories do not evenly cover the writer's career. Roughly half his novels were written in English, but the great majority of the stories, though published in his American period, are translations from earlier works in Russian, mostly by his son Dmitri, who also edits this volume. There is comparatively little, for instance, that matches his extraordinary vision of America as seen in LOLITA. Mostly they deal with the rootless lives of émigrés in the twenties and thirties, or memories of pre-revolutionary Russia. All are well-written; that goes without saying; quite a few are politically incisive. But having sampled about a quarter of the stories in the book, selecting from all periods, I have to say I have been left with an almost physical depression. I am sure I will return to read others, but I have no desire to do so soon.

Still, let me give some examples of things that I did enjoy. There is "Music," in which a man with no ear for music goes to a salon recital, and sees his ex-wife there, the music providing a capsule of suspended time in which he can ponder their changed relations. "Mademoiselle O" is essentially a memoir of his privileged childhood and the triple-chinned French-Swiss governess who stayed with them for seven years; a hitherto unpublished story, "Easter Rain," is a sad extension of the governess character into old age, treasuring memories of Russia that nobody will share.

One interesting thing about the governess story is its metafictional frame. Nabokov enters the memoir mode as giving back their life to real characters that he had pilfered for his fiction. This theme occurs again in "Recruiting." An impoverished elderly émigré attends a Russian funeral in Berlin, then sits on a bench in a public park. A man comes to sit next to him, who turns out to be the author, who has "recruited" this old man (who may not even be Russian at all) as a character in his fiction. A similar trick is also seen in "Terra Incognita," whose narrator, a butterfly hunter in the remote tropics, is feverish with malaria. But it is not clear whether he is hallucinating about his living room in the jungle, or if the whole jungle sequence is an hallucination from some illness he suffers at home.

Perhaps the most striking story I read was "The Vane Sisters." It begins with a description of thaw in a New England college town, wonderfully detailed even in its depiction of garbage cans in the alleys between clapboard houses:

"I remarked for the first time the humble fluting -- last echoes of grooves on the shafts of columns -- ornamenting a garbage can, and I also saw the rippling upon its lid -- circles diverging from a fantastically ancient center. Erect, dark-headed shapes of dead snow (left by the blades of a bulldozer last Friday) were lined up like rudimentary penguins along the curbs, above the brilliant vibration of live gutters."

The story goes on to contain one of the most brilliant suicide notes on record, then segues to an account of the narrator's old relationship with the suicide's sister, abandoned by him when he could no longer keep up with her interest in spiritualism and the occult. And so the story ends -- or does it? For the final paragraph, another piece of colorful description, is in fact an acrostic, the first letters of its words spelling out a message from beyond the grave that ties back to that opening description and mocks the narrator's skepticism. I did not notice this myself -- few people would -- but had to have it pointed out to me. But I am not in bad company; apparently the New Yorker also rejected the story until Nabokov wrote to the editor explaining the trick. The whole story has become emblematic for me: brilliant writing, even more brilliant cleverness, but also self-regarding -- the story as art rather than story as simply story.
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Be Near Me
Be Near Me
by Andrew O'Hagan
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Diary of a Country Priest, March 15, 2014
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This review is from: Be Near Me (Hardcover)
Andrew O'Hagan's wonderful novel is written against the well-known trope implied by my title. A Catholic priest comes to a depressed village where Mass attendance is down, and many of the inhabitants seem to be hostile, but gradually, by the conscientious performance of his office, he.... But no. Written against the trope, I said, not within it. Although there is no doubt about Father David Anderton's commitment to God, his commitment to humdrum pastoral duties is less total. And Dalgarnock, the community where he is sent on the Ayrshire coast, southwest of Glasgow, is no picturesque rural hamlet. It is a place of endemic boredom inhabited mainly by workers laid off from shuttered factories, now unable to find work. It is also a town where Protestant/Catholic rivalries are waged almost as fiercely as they are in Northern Ireland, just a few miles over the water. And Father David, though born in Edinburgh, was educated and worked in England, so he is despised by both parties as the worst thing of all, a foreigner.

And indeed he is not one of this community. He is the product of an exclusive education (Ampleforth, Balliol, and Rome), a man of cultured tastes (classical music, literature, and fine wine), and the funds to enjoy them. All the same, he does seem to have a gift for making contact with those of very different circumstances. In an early chapter, we see him teaching a remedial class at the local comprehensive school, and somehow turning the foul-mouthed (and well-nigh incomprehensible) responses of these fifteen-year-olds into a real teachable moment. Indeed, he begins to spend time with a couple of them, Mark and his girlfriend Lisa, rejuvenated by their youth and stimulated by the contrast with his own life of taste and decorum. And although we don't yet know how, it is clear that these contrasts will eventually get him into trouble.

All the way through the novel, there are flashbacks to various episodes from his youth, including one in which he arrives at a picnic at his boarding school riding on a circus elephant. But none is as significant -- or perhaps as incomprehensible to the non-initiate -- as that describing his undergraduate years at Balliol College, Oxford. There, he falls in with a group of well-heeled aesthetes making a game of quoting Proust at each other and bibbing rare wines. But then he is drawn into almost the opposite world: that of solidarity with the left-wing protest movements of the sixties, taking arms against imperialist fascism in all its forms. He also falls gloriously and tragically in love. We come to see that these are the still-unresolved dichotomies being fought out in him at Dalgarnock thirty years later.

One of the remarkable things about the book is the way you never lose sympathy for the central character, even as your moral assessment of him changes and changes again. There is a wonderful dinner he gives later in the book for his bishop (an old friend from Rome) and some local clergy, one of whom is gauchely out of place in this suave gathering. The discussion turns to Iraq (this is 2004 or so). David's views are disturbingly different from those he held as a Vietnam protester, and it is left to the odious oddball to make the points that I think most readers will agree with; I found my social and moral sympathies being torn most interestingly in two opposite directions. The other example I would cite is Father David's relationship with his housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, an autodidact and traditional Catholic who often seems more concerned with pastoral matters than the priest himself. Behind their verbal duels and awkward friendship may lurk a search for true spirituality. All in all, a deep, complex, and highly satisfying novel.
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The Confabulist: A Novel
The Confabulist: A Novel
by Steven Galloway
Edition: Hardcover
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Magic and Memory, March 12, 2014
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Readers who know Steven Galloway from his beautiful CELLIST OF SARAJEVO will not find anything of its poetry or political relevance here. But Galloway does not attempt that. This is a fast-moving historical novel full of color and detail, and encapsulating a narrative mystery of its own. I read it in a single day (aided by long periods in doctors' waiting rooms) and could not put it down. Besides, with a novel whose short prologue ends "I didn't just kill Harry Houdini; I killed him twice," who could resist?

Before I started, I had only a general impression of Houdini's career as a magician and escape artist, and am glad that I didn't check further until afterwards. For Galloway's account of how a Jewish immigrant named Ehrich Weisz became the great Houdini is fascinating, as are his accounts of his various tricks and growing theatrical successes in North America and Europe. He is especially good on the psychology of illusion, how making a person believe one thing is a carefully-prepared matter of suggestion and misdirection. In this version, Houdini soon finds himself working for the American Secret Service and a parallel organization in Britain; I felt slightly less comfortable when the action moves to matters of political intrigue in the Romanov court, but Galloway does a fine job of taking known facts and extrapolating between the lines.

Galloway begins his account of Houdini's career with an episode in which he tricks a grieving couple by pretending he has a message from their recently deceased child. Almost immediately, he rejects this lapse in judgment, and at the end of his career he mounts a national campaign to debunk fraudulent spiritualists. This also is part of the record, as is his break with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who (as readers of Julian Barnes' ARTHUR AND GEORGE will know) was a committed advocate for spiritualism. Here, though, Galloway's extrapolations just seemed too fantastic for me, smacking too much of paranoia in the Dan Brown mode.

At least half the book is taken up, however, by chapters involving a totally different character, Martin Strauss. We see him in a neurologist's office at the start of the book, and continue to follow him for the next few hours, interspersed with flashbacks to a much earlier time. His story does not seem to hang together in literal terms, and we may suspect some magic realism. But the connection between Strauss and Houdini requires no magic when it is revealed, though it is an astounding piece of authorial chutzpah. In a different kind of novel, it could even have been profoundly moving. In this one, let's just say it gives a new twist to the concept of Unreliable Narrator, and that is enough for me.
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The Blazing World: A Novel
The Blazing World: A Novel
by Siri Hustvedt
Edition: Hardcover
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Masks, but what's behind them?, March 11, 2014
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Harriet Burden, the protagonist of this novel, frustrated by the inability of a female artist to gain the exposure or respect accorded to men, collaborates in turn with three male artists willing to exhibit her work as theirs. Although there are common themes in all three exhibits, their styles are radically different, changing with each mask that Burden puts on. I found this interesting, since the three books by Siri Hustvedt that I have read (WHAT I LOVED, THE SUMMER WITHOUT MEN, and this), while also sharing similar themes, are so different in texture and approach as to present quite different facets of their author. WHAT I LOVED inhabits the art world as brilliantly as this new book does, but it is full of characters that you care about as human beings, and is built around a linear story that keeps you reading. THE SUMMER WITHOUT MEN, the weakest of these three books, is basically a justified feminist lament centered around a character who is difficult to like, and told more or less in scrapbook form, though with flashes of real brilliance.

And this one? First of all, it is as tightly engineered intellectually as a BMW. Although it continues some of the scrapbook approach of SUMMER, being a collection of statements, cuttings, and journal entries illuminating the last decade of Burden's career, it has none of the random feel of its predecessor. The "Editor's Introduction" immediately introduces an atmosphere of scholarly rigor, footnoted with references to writers, artists, and thinkers who, whether famous or obscure, all seem to be real. Harriet Burden's range of knowledge (and therefore by rather too obvious implication that of her creator) is phenomenal. A very small selection of the names referenced in her book might include: Margaret Cavendish, Edmund Husserl, Sřren Kierkegaard, Tertullian, and Aby Warburg. These are just some of the names I happen to recognize, but the list of those I don't is inexhaustible: Gallese, Gassendi, Manturana, Metzinger, Varela, Zahavi.... Every reference that I followed up turns out to be the genuine article, so I assume they all are, but I do get the feeling that part of Hustvedt's reason for writing is to display everything she knows, and wow it's a lot! I was blown away... but not drawn in.

About art, Hustvedt writes well, as she always has. It is interesting that when artists are mentioned in modern fiction, they are almost always conceptual artists or the makers of installations -- probably because such art is much easier to convey in words. The last major novels I recall whose protagonists are actual painters are MY NAME IS ASHER LEV by Chaim Potok and THE UNDERPAINTER by Jane Urquhart. But in A MAP OF GLASS, Urquhart turned to sculptors and environmental artists. Bill Wechsler, the leading artist in Hustvedt's WHAT I LOVED (also referenced here) begins as a painter, but turns to constructions. And both artists in Claire Messud's recent THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS -- a novel with remarkable similarities to this one, and I think the more successful of the two -- are engaged in making environments that develop feminist themes.

As does Harriet Burden: everything ranging from doll-houses through soft sculptures to room-filling labyrinths. Her first "mask" collaboration is a piece called "The History of Western Art," in which a huge sculpture based on a Titian nude is pasted all over with witty references to women over the past 600 years of art. Her second, "Suffocation Rooms," is a series of kitchens where the furniture gradually gets larger and the temperature hotter. Her third, "Beneath," a collaboration with a neo-Warhol media star known only as Rune, is an oblique response to 9/11, in which the viewer penetrates a maze of distorted passages pierced with windows and peepholes giving onto disturbing sights. If there is a conventional plot in the novel at all, it is the mystery of why the collaboration with Rune went so very wrong, and possibly contributed to the death of both artists. [All the above, incidentally, are facts that we learn from the introduction.]

When I started this review, I was sure I was going to give the book a five-star rating, if only for its intellectual density and the fascination of its multi-voiced approach. But as I write, I realize that while these things can intrigue or amuse me, they do not make me care about the people. I miss the plot of WHAT I LOVED, and Oh how I miss the characters! After reading 360 pages by and about Harriet Burden, I still don't feel I know her. I sympathize with her plight, yes -- most of what Hustvedt says about women's issues is spot on -- but that is very different from caring about her as a person. And while there is much of interest in the story of the failings of Harriet's parents and her late husband (a wealthy art dealer), or perhaps her own as a mother, there is simply too much there -- together with musings on sexuality and a dozen other topics. I just feel that on the emotional and thematic planes Hustvedt is trying to repeat what she does in the intellectual sphere -- cramming in a lot of everything, but leaving little for the reader to embrace. So those five stars for effort must alas be rounded down.
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The Angel of Losses: A Novel
The Angel of Losses: A Novel
by Stephanie Feldman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.84
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stories of the White Rebbe, March 9, 2014
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I recently wrote in the context of another review (Helen Oyeyemi's BOY, SNOW, BIRD) that I disliked fantasy. That thought came back to mock me as I found how much I was enjoying this, a book that begins with a fairy tale told by an old man to his granddaughters, and is punctuated by fantastical tales throughout. I was not just tolerating the fantasy, I was reveling in it. The difference was not in the writing, since both Oyeyemi and Feldman make words obey their bidding, but in the subjects. Oyeyemi writes (inter alia) about race, a subject that plays out very much in the real world; Feldman is writing about religion, which can impact the real world, certainly, but also occupies an entirely different plane. All religions that I know rely on stories; the Judaeo-Christian Bible is a vast compendium of them. Whether you regard them as metaphor or revealed truth, these stories have entered the bloodstream of their respective religious communities. And when you leave the Bible behind to enter the world of the Apocrypha, Kabbalah, and folk legend, the pursuit of stories becomes almost an end in itself.

Or so it is for Marjorie Burke, a Barnard PhD candidate in Comparative Literature. Though born and raised a Gentile, she is researching the many legends of the Wandering Jew, the man who cannot die but is condemned to roam to earth forever. She is a little rootless herself, since she feels unwelcome in her family home, which has been taken over by her younger sister Holly and her husband Nathan. Nathan is a member of the (fictional) Berukhim sect, and Holly has converted to orthodox Judaism and changed her name to Chava in order to marry him. What upsets Marjorie most is that, in order to make a nursery for their soon-expected baby, Nathan has gutted the study of her beloved grandfather, and may even have destroyed some of his books. But Marjorie gets hold of one of a series of notebooks that the old man was writing in before he died. She finds it to be a story about a miracle-working "wonder Rebbe" in the eighteenth century, every bit as fascinating as the secular stories of the "White Magician" that her Grandfather used to tell, but clearly with wider-reaching implications.

The publishers compare Feldman's novel to THE TIGER'S WIFE by Téa Obreht, but this is only true in that both books are interspersed with folk tales. They also mention Nicole Kraus' A HISTORY OF LOVE, which brings the storytelling into a Jewish context, but it would have been even more appropriate to cite Dara Horn's THE WORLD TO COME, and even THE FLAME ALPHABET by Ben Marcus. The latter is an altogether more fantastical book than the others, but I thought of it because both Marcus and Feldman make use of the Jewish mystical belief that there is a 23rd letter to the Hebrew alphabet that will be revealed only upon the arrival of the Messiah, and that will complete the holy name of God. By the time this is mentioned in Feldman's novel, we have gone way beyond folk tales to eschatological issues that might almost come from a Jewish version of the Book of Revelation.

For three-quarters of the novel at least, I was in five-star territory, being totally drawn in to the stories of the White Rebbe and at least somewhat invested in Marjorie's life in the real world: her research, a budding romance, and the increasing complications of her relationship with her sister. But inevitably there comes the point where the two worlds of fantasy and reality must intertwine. And indeed it becomes increasingly clear that the tale of the White Rebbe is by no means over, and that its outcome can affect Marjorie and all she holds dear. But there it lost me. Not because I was not prepared to accept that real problems might have fantasy-based solutions (an allowance I was less prepared to make with Oyeyemi), but because the fantasy itself became so complex, and I got confused between the various angels and revenants in their various guises. I am still not sure exactly what happened in the last thirty pages. But up to that point, it was a terrific ride.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 9, 2014 10:14 AM PDT


Every Day Is for the Thief: Fiction
Every Day Is for the Thief: Fiction
by Teju Cole
Edition: Hardcover
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Corruption, March 6, 2014
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Readers enthralled by Teju Cole's award-winning novel OPEN CITY would be thrilled to know that he is back. Well, he may be, but not with this book. For this is the first American publication of a book that appeared in Nigeria in 2007, and despite its claims to be a work of fiction, it doesn't feel like a novel at all. Essentially, it seems a memoir of the author's brief trip back to Lagos after living in the US for many years. OPEN CITY felt like a memoir too, but it had a differently-named protagonist (a psychiatrist called Julius) who did not reproduce quite every aspect of the author's real life. Here, the protagonist is unnamed, though as a medical resident, he may well be intended as an earlier incarnation of the psychiatrist Julius. For the purposes of this book, however, when the narrator shares so much of the author's biography and writes in the first person, he essentially IS the author.

He has one basic fact to report: Nigeria, for all its vibrancy, is corrupt to the core. He has to pay bribes to get his visa even in New York, to get his luggage out of Lagos airport, to get past a police check point, to fill up with gas. He is depressed by the sight of inefficiency and dilapidation everywhere; the holdings of the National Museum, plundered to almost nothing, are a shadow of the Nigerian collections in New York or London; nearby, there is a sparkling new music conservatory, but it is only open to those Nigerians rich enough to own their own pianos, and you have to pay many times more for a non-Nigerian teacher. The preachers at the evangelical mega-churches drive Rolls and Mercedes, and the mosques have to turn to greater absolutism to hold their own; Nigeria is reputed to be one of the most religious countries on earth. I wonder if the Nigerian government knew that this book was about to be reissued in America, and if they made any attempt to stop it. I cannot imagine worse publicity.

Cole has also exhibited as a photographer, and there are a dozen or more of his photos here. But I don't know if it is deliberate or just the poor printing of my pre-publication copy, but most of them appear as smeary grey-on-grey in the manner of WG Sebald, only with no obvious relevance to the text in hand. So it all rests on that text. Fortunately, Cole can be an excellent writer when he tries, and some of his word-pictures are precise and illuminating. Here, for instance, is one of his few positive memories, of an alley in the old city occupied entirely by coffin-makers: "There is a dignity about this little street, with its open sewers and rusted roofs. Nothing is preached here. Its inhabitants simply serve life by securing good passage for the dead, their intricate work seen for a moment and then hidden for all time. It is an uncanny place, this dockyard of Charon's, but it also has an enlivening purity."

Forget that I ordered this book in the assumption that it was a new novel. Just as what it is, a memoir of an expatriate's brief return, did I enjoy it, was I intrigued by it, would I want to keep it? It was easy enough to read -- more direct and believable than, say, the returning-exile chapters in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's much-lauded AMERICANAH -- but it did not particularly draw me in. I was certainly informed, but the repeated reports of corruption soon became so predictable that the book was like a one-string fiddle; the few glimpses of the protagonist's personal or inner life were not sufficient to give it dimension. And as to keeping it, no: I shall give the book to charity; I see no reason to open it again.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 11, 2014 5:29 PM PDT


Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel
Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel
by Helen Oyeyemi
Edition: Hardcover
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Ideas Don't Coalesce, March 5, 2014
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First thing: do NOT read the back-cover book description in advance. It gives away at least two important plot points that the author does not reveal until well after page 100. It also offers an interpretation of the novel as a riff on a familiar fairy story. While this is plausible, and the unusual nature of the writing certainly demands some inventive explanation, it is also too limiting. Readers deserve a chance to enter Oyeyemi's strange world on their own, and reach their own understanding.

Boy. Snow. Bird. All three are names of young women. Yes, even Boy, the novel's protagonist. Boy Novak, in her late teens in 1953, runs away from her abusive father, a rat-catcher in Lower Manhattan, and takes the first bus she finds at Port Authority Terminal, which gets her to Flax Hill in Massachussetts. I can't say that this setting really comes alive -- a town of artisans, apparently, that also happens to be the terminal of an interstate bus route -- but the people that Boy becomes involved with soon spring to vibrant life. There is a fellow lodger at her boarding house that takes her on double dates, an Italian-American journalist she meets on the crew of a party boat, the old lady who owns the bookshop where she works. All women. There are men in the story too, but increasingly it becomes a story about women and women's relationships of all kinds, first horizontal among peers, and then vertical, involving mothers and grandmothers, and children -- especially when the time leaps forward by a dozen years and Boy's daughter Bird takes over the narration, in a delightfully infectious voice.

I mentioned that fairy story. I won't say which one, though actually there are elements of several. The book begins with a wonderful passage about Boy standing between two mirrors and seeing herself reflected countless times, and mirrors do odd things with several of the women in the story, either not reflecting them, or showing them altered in some way. Then there is the odd business of a person's right hand not having the same mind as her left. Many of the women in the story, at different times, get described as having a special power, or even feeding on unhappiness or evil, though this is seldom fully explained. I never fully came to grips with the third title character, Snow, for example; one had to accept that there was something strange about her without ever being able to put a finger on what it was.

Normally, I don't like fantasy. But Oyeyemi uses it so sparingly that for the most part I was intrigued rather than alienated. But it is not sufficient as a means for holding this novel together. Indeed, were I rating solely on narrative structure, I could not give more than three stars. For Oyeyemi tackles some pretty major themes in this novel, not least of them sexuality and race. Her choice of the latter subject especially, in the setting of pre-Civil-Rights-Act America, requires a much stronger anchor in reality. Not only could I not believe in Flax Hill, I never felt that the novel was truly grounded in an America where these things hurt. I could not forget that the author was writing neither about her own country nor her own time. But she does create some interesting characters and, believable or not, she keeps coming up with delightful surprises.
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Morte D'Urban (New York Review Books Classics)
Morte D'Urban (New York Review Books Classics)
by J. F. Powers
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Subtle, Deceptively Simple Book, March 2, 2014
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JF Powers' MORTE D'URBAN, the winner of the National Book Award for 1963, has featured among the favorite books of several other writers and one can see why. This gentle comedy about a Catholic priest in the fifties is a descendant of works like Sinclair Lewis' BABBITT or ELMER GANTRY, but is told in the much quieter Midwestern manner of John Williams' STONER, another sleeper of a novel that has gradually acquired an admiring readership. It is a book to read slowly, though unfortunately my circumstances forced me to go faster than I should have liked, so this is a less detailed review than most.

Father Urban is a priest in his early fifties, working out of Chicago as an itinerant preacher, going out to communities throughout the Plains States to stir up their congregations in five-day missions. Pragmatic, ambitious, and instinctively good with people, he is a perfect example of that energetic secularism one sometimes encounters among Catholic clergy, and he definitely loves the good things in life; my comparison to George F. Babbitt is not irrelevant. By courting wealthy donors, he manages to bring a good deal of money into the Clementine Order (a fictitious group "unique only in that they were noted for nothing at all"). But the Father Provincial sends him to a broken-down retreat center at Duesterhaus in Minnesota (another joke: "duester" is the German for "gloomy"). There, he is subject to the petty concerns of his penny-pinching superior, Father Wilf, who is concerned only with redecorating the building in depressing colors and issuing recruiting pamphlets of such banality that it is a wonder they attract anybody. Urban manages a few achievements even here, including temporary work at a local parish and attracting funding for an addition that would attract a better class of retreatant. But though Powers comic accumulation of small detail is amusing throughout, it began to seem just a matter of watching Urban's trajectory sink towards the death implied by the title, accompanied by the gradual loss of his original energy. When I finished, I would have given the book three stars.

But then the discussion in our book club pointed out another side that I had largely missed. Counterbalancing this decline of Urban's secular drive, there is a rise in his spiritual awareness: he begins as a go-getter; he ends as a true priest. This is subtly handled; the novel is not written as a religious tract. Nonetheless, once you start reading it in this way, you can see all kinds of symbolism (analogies with the three temptations of Christ, for instance) that support this view of its intent. Powers' success came from writing partly for audiences that would applaud all that was UN-priestly in Father Urban. A bit like Graham Greene, in effect. But, also like Greene, he nonetheless managed to testify quietly to those qualities that count most in making a good man.

Elizabeth Hardwick's otherwise fine introduction should be read as only an Afterword.
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Trieste
Trieste
by Dasa Drndic
Edition: Hardcover
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Behind Every Name there is a Story, February 25, 2014
This review is from: Trieste (Hardcover)
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"Abeasis Clemente, Abeasis Ester, Abeasis Giorgio, Abeasis Rebecca [...] Zundler Henriette Cecilia, Zwirblawsky Enoc Hersch, Zylber Szaya, Zynger Jerachmil." These are the first and last of a list of around 9,000 Jews from Italy or Italian-occupied countries killed between 1943 and 1945. Forty-four pages printed in four columns of small type, they stand like a granite wall separating the first half of this book from the second. Although visually the most unusual feature in this totally extraordinary Holocaust novel, it is not the only one: there are court transcripts, poems, entries from a biographical dictionary, fragments in many languages, and even grainy photographs in the manner of WG Sebald. And names, names, names.

The protagonist, though based on fact, is fictional. Haya Tesdeschi, an old woman of 83, sits in her room in Gorizia, on the border between Italy, Austria, and Croatia, and waits to meet her son, stolen from her by the Germans as a baby, 62 years before, in 1944. But the photos in the basket at her feet go back even farther, to when her parents had not yet met and Gorizia was an international spa. As she does throughout the book, Drndic paints the picture in Homeric fashion, by conjuring up names:

"Ah, all the actresses, duchesses, dancers; all the poets, journalists, singers and marquises whom He gets to know and love long after his first forays to local brothels at sixteen (when He pawned His grandfather's watch); ah, Teodolinde and Clemenze, and Giselda Zucconi, and Olga Ossani; Maria Luisa Casati Stampa, amasser of exotic animals and bizarre furniture; oh, Ida Rubinstein, Isadora Duncan, the singer Olga Levi Brunner, and after her, the pianist Luisa Baccara, then the wealthy American painter Romaine Goddard Brooks, who later comes out as a lesbian; then, oh Lord, celebrated Eleanora Duse...".

It goes on, the list of names, famous and forgotten, beginning as an unstoppable lyrical stream, but changing eventually to a meticulous accounting of atrocity. Haya is born, grows up, meets a charming young German soldier nicknamed "The Doll," bears his child. Meanwhile trains pass through Gorizia, trains whose schedules are notated in numbing detail. A nearby rice factory is converted as a detention center. The parade of names continues, but now they are the biographical entries of personnel from Sobibor or Treblinka, excerpts from their trials, and a note of what happened to them after the war (in most cases, nothing).

Haya becomes a mathematics teacher, retires, and waits. She still amasses information, but the witnesses in the trials she now sees in her mind are mostly ghosts. The poets Elliot and Pound have more to say to her than the voices of living people. But her story is still about names. Somewhere in Germany, in the small town of Bad Arolsen to be precise, there are millions of them, archived documents that might reunite her with her son. And so the focus passes to the next generation, people who wake up one day to discover that they are the children of mass murderers.

With the one exception of its central character, this is a book of facts. But facts marshalled with such variety of technique, such ingenuity, such anger, and such compassion that the book makes compelling reading from its beautiful start to an ending that, with so much purged away, has its own very different kind of beauty. A masterpiece.
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Have Mercy on Us All: A Novel (Chief Inspector Adamsberg Mysteries)
Have Mercy on Us All: A Novel (Chief Inspector Adamsberg Mysteries)
by David Bellos
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.37
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Overcomplex Mystery in a Magnificent Translation, February 24, 2014
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Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of the French historian, archaeologist and writer Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau. Think Umberto Eco, only younger, French, and female. But definitely an academic with a fascination for language and the ways in which distant history can impinge upon present-day events. In this case, the historical legacy is the Plague, a.k.a the Black Death. It appears that some madman is loose in Paris aiming to spread the disease by means of rat fleas, and Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg must catch him before more victims die. In this, he is aided by advice from a medieval historian living a quasi-monastic life with two others, calling themselves The Three Evangelists. Both the trio and the detective have their own series in Vargas' considerable part-time oeuvre.

As a detective story, I would rate it only three stars. It takes a very long time to get going, by means of a retired Breton trawler captain who has taken up the outmoded profession of town crier in the district around Gare Montparnasse in Paris. Since he will eventually drop out of the story, the fifty or so pages devoted to him seem too many. The middle section of the book, though, is quite good, with Adamsberg keeping a frustrating step or two behind the crimes, while trying and failing to keep a handle on his own private life. But the end quite falls apart, I think, relying too much on over-complex back-stories that were not so much as hinted at before, and long confessions in lieu of patient detection.

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I was given this book originally to read in French, under the title PARS VITE ET REVIENS TARD ("Leave quickly and take your time coming back"). It is some of the most difficult French I have ever read, given Vargas' verbosity, unfamiliar vocabulary, and abundant patois -- and the fact that there is hardly a normal character in it for four of the first six chapters. Then I checked part of the translation by David Bellos in the Look Inside feature, and immediately realized that this was something very special. So I ordered it and waited to finish the book in English, with occasional checking of the French for comparison.

Bellos is a distinguished English translator and head of the translation program at Princeton. But he does not write like an academic at all, treating the text with remarkable freedom and much recourse to slang -- British slang, I should emphasize: for instance the phrase "bloody great howler" for glaring error. He goes further than I have ever seen a translator go in altering the structure, images, and even the literal meaning of its model. Yet he comes up with a creative work in its own right, a living being of a different nationality, but with the spirit and bloodstream of the original flowing in its veins. Here is a short example, which I give first in my own literal translation from the French:

-- The least error in handling, since it gives the thing an unexpected freedom, however small, sets off a chain of calamities that can run the gamut from annoyance to tragedy.*

Here is Bellos:

-- The merest slip of the hand can give a supposedly inanimate object enough freedom of movement to set off a chain of catastrophes which may peak at any point on the Murphy Scale, from "Damn Nuisance" to "Bloody Tragedy."

Now I can see that some authors or publishers might think this was going too far (though Vargas used Bellos twice). But for me, it created a unique object: a book I read virtually for the vigor of the translation alone. And reveled in it from beginning to end.

*I give the French original in the first comment.
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