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The Sky Over Lima
The Sky Over Lima
by Juan Gómez Bárcena
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $5.73
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Metafiction for Beginners, May 4, 2016
This review is from: The Sky Over Lima (Hardcover)
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This prizewinning debut novel by Spanish writer Juan Gómez Bárcena presents as a charming whimsy. Two rich young men in Lima in 1904 rent a garret in which to lead a fantasy life as bohemian poets. Unable to obtain the latest collection by their idol, the real Spanish poet and later Nobelist Juan Ramón Jiménez, they pretend to be a young female fan, whom they christen Georgina Huebner, and write to the master in Madrid begging a copy of his book. The volume duly arrives, and the two continue the correspondence in the young lady's name. The amazing thing is that the deception and the distant poet's response all appear to be true; Gómez Bárcena's contribution is to take us into the lives of the young Peruvians who deceived him.

It is an easy book to read in the sparkling translation by Andrea Rosenberg, but that alone would not have been enough to sustain it. Three things deepened the interest for me -- until a fourth knocked me backwards, but more about that in a moment.

The first thing to intrigue me was that, in the most natural way, the book becomes a kind of metafiction. The two friends raise their horizons from forging a few fan letters to composing an entire novel, the romance of the real Juan Ramón and the fictional Georgina, including their own role as Pygmalions. That novel, presumably, is the book we are now reading. But a mere literary conceit, no matter how clever or how approachable, would still not have been enough. What really drew me in was learning about life in Lima in the period, and my increasing sympathy with one of the two young men.

The Lima we see in 1904 is a sharply divided world of rich and poor. There are old families whose fortunes are declining, and new rubber barons making their wealth on the backs of their indigenous laborers. There are dockworkers whose daily pay is not even enough for a loaf of bread, and prostitutes whose debts to their madams rise faster than anything they can earn on their backs. In the middle of all this is Carlos Rodríguez, the more sensitive of the two young men, a naive boy with a social conscience, trying to stand up to the macho expectations of his father, and to work out his feelings for the world around him. Georgina becomes real for him, and her image colors his relations equally with the society girls presented as marriage prospects and the young prostitute he visits weekly to pour out his soul.

Then came the ending. It is psychologically believable, I suppose, and the poet's response is a matter of history. In terms of the literary concept with which this all started, it is even elegant. But in terms of my deepening sympathy with Carlos, it came as a slap in the face.
Comment Comments (12) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 8, 2016 8:23 PM PDT

The Lightkeepers: A Novel
The Lightkeepers: A Novel
by Abby Geni
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.00
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More Nature Journal than Novel, April 30, 2016
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This is a book with several distinct components, all interesting in different ways. But the ingredients are not mixed in equal proportions -- more like 4 parts nature writing, 2 parts human interest, and 1 part mystery -- and I am not at all sure that they work well together. Let me take them one at a time.

The predominant element -- so much so that I wonder if Geni originally intended a non-fiction nature book, rather than a novel at all -- is essentially the journal of a year spent on the Farallon Islands, a protected National Wildlife Refuge thirty miles off the coast from San Francisco. The one inhabited island, crumbling rock rising to a peak topped by a lighthouse, is home to a small group of scientists, living together under primitive conditions, who study the marine life that at one season or another congregate around the islands in great numbers. The four parts of the book, from summer through fall, winter, and spring to summer again, are titled "Shark Season," "Whale Season," "Seal Season," and "Bird Season." Geni's descriptions are seldom poetic -- the barren terrain does not lend itself to poetry -- but they convey very well both the hardship of living on the island and the fascination and violent beauty of the savage ecosystem that makes it all worthwhile.

The second element is that of the people. The resident scientists have their own ecosystem. Galen, the eldest by far, is the warden of the colony. There are three other men, Forrest, Andrew, and Mick, and two women. One of these, Lucy, is Andrew's partner and a bundle of energy; the other, Charlene, is a young intern. Into this sextet comes the protagonist, a thirtyish photographer named Miranda (though they all call her Melissa, and she goes along with it). She is the novel's narrator, writing a kind of journal in the form of letters to her mother -- letters that will forever remain unposted, since her mother died when Miranda was thirteen, and she has wandered the world ever since trying to work through her sense of loss. In this respect, the book somewhat resembles Helen Macdonald's H IS FOR HAWK, which also combines a nature journal with a grief narrative, although Geni's writing does not quite rise to Macdonald's heights. There is a story here, though, of Miranda's changing relationships with the others on the island, together with changes within herself that slowly transform her. Although there are a few dramatic events over the course of the year, I would never call this a plot-driven novel, and barely a character-driven one; there is just enough to sustain interest in Miranda as a human being and to string together her descriptions of the natural world around her.

But then there is that tiny third element of mystery. Over the course of the year, there is at least one crime, and several accidents resulting in serious injury or loss of life. Abby Geni drops hints that there may be more to these than meets the eye, but then immediately steers away from them; you are left thinking that any mystery element is something you are making up just to give the book some semblance of a plot. I shan't say what happens at the end, except that it left me unsatisfied. Geni inserts a tiny reveal into the story itself, but then tacks on a rather clumsy epilogue to explain the rest—or some of the rest, for we are still left in doubt about other matters. So in the end, despite my fascination with the Farallon Islands, I was underwhelmed with the novel as a work of fiction, ending up somewhere between three stars and four.

Go Tell It on the Mountain (Everyman's Library (Cloth))
Go Tell It on the Mountain (Everyman's Library (Cloth))
by James Baldwin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.91
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Running with the Lord, April 28, 2016
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"The Lord called me out, He chose me, and I been running with Him ever since I made a start."

Running with the Lord, running to the Lord, running from the Lord, it's all here. Yet it is amazing how, in a book so imbued with religion, a book that takes place mostly in the Harlem store-front Temple of the Fire Baptized, you are never entirely certain that the fierce pentecostal fire that at one time or another grips most of the characters is a chariot of glory or a flaming wheel to which they are bound in torture. Indeed the author (who is surely reflected in the novel's protagonist, the fourteen-year-old preacher's son John Grimes) became a preacher himself in his teens, but rejected the ministry when he left school. Some of the reasons, no doubt, were tensions with his adoptive father and the realization of his homosexuality. Both themes are present in the book, the one prominent, the other merely hinted, but it is too early for the great escape. It is extraordinary how, by casting his novel in the classical twenty-four hour time-frame—from the morning of John's birthday to dawn the next day—and containing it within that one high-pressure setting, Baldwin manages to compress the lives of his major characters into a tight kernel of energy that might explode at any time but miraculously does not do so.

Religion, the Bible, and the vernacular of his people give Baldwin his extraordinary language. It vaults him high above mere storytellers and places him in the company of the truly visionary American writers: Melville at his most concentrated, the Faulkner of THE SOUND AND THE FURY, and, following surely in his footsteps, the Morrison of BELOVED. And such power! Here is a portion from the early pages where the youth minister Elisha (to whom John Grimes is clearly drawn) is taken by the Spirit during a church service:

"At one moment, head thrown back, eyes closed, sweat standing on his brow, he sat at the piano, singing and playing; and then, like a great, black cat in trouble in the jungle, he stiffened and trembled, and cried out. Jesus, Jesus, oh Lord Jesus! He struck on the piano one last, wild note, and threw up his hands, palms upwards, stretched wide apart. The tambourines raced to fill the vacuum left by his silent piano, and his cry drew answering cries. Then he was on his feet, turning, blind, his face congested, contorted with this rage, and the muscles leaping and swelling in his long, dark, neck. It seemed that he could not breathe, that his body could not contain this passion, that he would be, before their eyes, dispersed into the waiting air. His hands, rigid to the very fingertips, moved outward and back against his hips, his sightless eyes looked upward, and he began to dance. Then his hands closed into fists, and his head snapped downward, his sweat loosening the grease that slicked down his hair; and the rhythm of all the others quickened to match Elisha's rhythm; his thighs moved terribly against the cloth of his suit, his heels beat on the floor, and his fists moved beside his body as though he were beating his own drum."

The first part of the novel, "The Seventh Day," introduces the Grimes family: Gabriel, the preacher; Elizabeth, John's mother; his aunt Florence; and Roy and Sarah, his siblings. After he has completed his chores, his mother gives John a little money, and he ventures into Manhattan to spend it on a movie. But he returns to a crisis that propels the family back to their church for the "tarry service" which occupies the final two-thirds of the book. [This term was unknown to me; it apparently refers to an all-night vigil in which the congregants await the gift of the Holy Spirit, often falling at the foot of the altar in a kind of fit while others in the congregation pray for them to Come Through.] Baldwin has already opened with one charismatic religious set piece; wisely, he doesn't seek to repeat it here. Instead, he uses the service for three long chapters collectively entitled "The Prayers of the Saints," in which John's aunt, his father, and his mother revisit their respective paths that have brought them to this point. I found myself thinking of Faulkner here too for the skill with which Baldwin will startle with unexpected information and only then back-track to explain how it came about. Although there are three voices involved, the focus is mainly on the preacher Gabriel Grimes, whose running with the Lord has followed a twisted path, and whose position as God's minister has by no means delivered him from evil.

In all of this, John is a silent member of the congregation, waiting, watching. Although he cannot possibly hear the internal prayers of his aunt and parents, you feel that he has been plunged into a deeper knowledge of his family, a terrible tension between love and hatred. In the short final section, "The Threshing Floor," John will undergo his own battle with God—or is it an encounter with the Devil? While the novel ends with a kind of resolution, you know that this is not the last round in the struggle for John's soul -- or in Baldwin's search for his own.
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Paris Nocturne (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Paris Nocturne (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
by Patrick Modiano
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.55
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Atmospheric, but . . . ?, April 26, 2016
Normally when I finish a book by Modiano (this is my twelfth), I am eager to write about it. But this time, I hesitate. While the writing is as atmospheric as ever, the focus is elusive. By now, I expect to walk around Paris with the author in a kind of mental fog, in which the present and the many-layered past combine, and he doesn't disappoint here. But generally towards the end something emerges from the mist that makes one say, "Ah, so THAT was the buried secret!" Not so here -- or if there was, I missed it.

Everything about the book seems set for the authentic Modiano experience: the slim size and attractive binding, the photographic cover of blurred Paris street lights, the translation by Phoebe Weston-Evans that perfectly captures the noir mood, and the opening situation that plunges you directly into the action. The narrator, an unnamed man of uncertain age walking by night in the Place des Pyramides, is clipped by a car which immediately crashes. He and the woman driver, both slightly injured, are taken in what appears to be a police van to a large waiting room filled with other people off the night-time streets. Eventually, his assumption that this was a police station turns to a hospital instead. He is put under with ether, and wakes later in a private clinic. He signs some kind of agreement and is given an envelope with a large amount of money. Of the woman, who had been kind to him, he knows only her name, Jacqueline Beausergent, and that she drives a sea-green Fiat.

All this happens in the first twenty pages. After that, the narrator wanders around Paris, mostly after dark, looking for the woman or her car. He runs into various other people, most notably a guru called Dr. Bouvière who holds forth to his disciples in night cafés, and a large man of possibly criminal affiliation called Solière who had appeared at the time of the accident and given him the money. But Modiano is now playing curious tricks with time. The narrator becomes convinced, for example, that the accident (which may not have been an accident after all), the trip to the hospital/police station, and even the woman were repeats of a very similar injury he suffered as a child, living somewhere in the country. Furthermore, the Paris accident and events that follow it do not always seem to be taking place in the present; there are suggestions that he is writing at a remove of several decades. So we never know exactly at what epoch anything is happening.

This is important, because the "key" to so many Modiano novels is his relationship with his father, who appears to have been a Gestapo collaborator during the Occupation, and a petty criminal thereafter. There is no definite mention of the wartime years in this novel, and the narrator's father never appears in person. But he haunts the novel as a phantom presence in the past, a shabby man who would meet his son in shady cafés further and further from the centre, and who once had his son arrested to get rid of him. Perhaps Dr. Bouvière and Monsieur Solière are both mysterious father figures, representing different aspects of his personality. And the woman Jacqueline Beausergent, whether symbolically or in reality, is a link to his past. Hints such as these will be enough to give veteran Modiano readers the requisite goosebumps, but I doubt that the new reader will get much other than a meandering noir story that never seems to go very far.

The Festival of Insignificance: A Novel
The Festival of Insignificance: A Novel
by Milan Kundera
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.31
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Short, Surreal, Great Fun, and… Insignificant?, April 24, 2016
A brief review of a very brief book by Milan Kundera. Brief because although I enjoyed it greatly, I have absolutely no idea what it is all about. This is not at all the Kundera of THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, the only other book of his that I have read. The Soviet power that in 1968 had brutally crushed the Prague Spring in that earlier novel is a thing of the past. The author has moved to Paris and become a literary boulevardier, writing now in French. Stalin makes a posthumous appearance as a jokester shooting the noses off statues in the Luxembourg Gardens. The sight of so many young women walking the Paris sidewalks with navels bared gives rise to philosophical reflections that may mean much -- or little more than erotic fantasy.

Confused yet? Take a look at some of the chapter headings: "The Marionette Theater," "They Are All in Search of a Good Mood," "A Little Feather Floats Beneath the Ceiling." Individual subsections are titled too, every other page or so: "The Twenty-Four Partridges," "The Toilet Revolt," "The Next Time They Meet, Charles Gives His Friends a Lecture on Kalinin and the Capital of Prussia." If those sound odd, imagine two friends who work as waiters in cocktail parties communicating entirely in made-up languages. Or a man haunted by spectral but friendly conversations with his long-departed mother, who tried to drown herself rather than give birth to him.

Have I conveyed the flavor? No? Then try it for yourself; it is scarcely more than an hour's reading and is bound at least to entertain. And do drop me a comment if you work out what it all means!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 24, 2016 6:58 PM PDT

Death by Water
Death by Water
by Kenzaburo Oe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.04
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Déjà, déjà, déjà vu, April 23, 2016
This review is from: Death by Water (Hardcover)
I have now read three books by Oe: the comparatively early NIP THE BUDS, SHOOT THE KIDS (which I greatly enjoyed), this one, and its immediate predecessor, THE CHANGELING. In my review of that, I compared it to a fractal image, in which any one part contains references to every other, not just within the novel itself but seemingly revisiting most of the author's oeuvre. For the first third of this latest novel, I felt I was reading THE CHANGELING all over again. The first-person protagonist may have a different name, Kogito Choko (known as Kogii), but the novels he has written have the same titles as Kenzaburo Oe's, he is the same age, has had precisely the same career, he is obsessed with the death of his father, and he is also the father of a brain-damaged son who is something of a musical genius. Whether Choko or Oe, he gazes obsessively into a mirror as he writes.

The self-referential quality is built into the plot premise. Choko goes back to his village in the mountains where he was born, intending to open a red leather trunk containing (he believes) documents that will enable him to complete a long-postponed novel about the death by drowning of his father, who may have been connected with an ultra-right-wing group protesting Japan's surrender after WW2. He goes under the aegis of a theatrical company, the Caveman Group, who have already mounted dramatizations of many of his earlier works, and now want to stage themes from his entire oeuvre, held together by his work on the new "drowning novel," which is to be the summary of all that has gone before. This is déjà vu raised to the level of an art form.

Not that Oe is unaware of this. Late in the book, he has a young admirer visit him, who lays it out: "Over the past ten or fifteen years all of Mr. Choko's works of fiction have more or less been cut from the same cloth, most notably in terms of the protagonist […] the author's alter ego. At some point, doesn't it become overkill? I mean, can these serial slices of thinly veiled memoir really be considered genuine novels?" [translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm]. The young man has a point, yet the repeated turning over of the same materials has a curious fascination -- for a while. [I am struck, incidentally, by how many Nobel laureates seem to turn to this autobiographical self-referentiality in their later work: Grass, Coetzee, and Modiano, to name three others. Is this something the Nobel committee goes for, or what writers tend to do after winning the prize?]

I am enthralled by this obsessiveness in the short novellas of Modiano, but the trouble with Oe is that he does it at such length. Two dozen pages are spent, for example, analyzing a five-line poem inscribed on the stone celebrating Choko/Oe's prize. And each time, the poem is quoted in full. Whole paragraphs of argument are repeated almost verbatim, with only the smallest changes. There is a scene where the director of the theater company asks if he can pose some questions, but the whole thing is basically a five-page monologue for the director, with the author merely putting in brief answers like "I suppose that's right." Entire chapters consist of letters from Choko's sister Asa, describing the same theatrical performance in excruciating detail, only to repeat much of that detail in the next and the next.

About one-third of the way through, fortunately, Choko and the Cavemen abandon this particular project, and the novel begins to address other subjects. Kogito says something unforgivable to his son, causing a breach between them, mirroring perhaps the death of Kojii's father and his rift with his mother. The thirty-something actress Unaiko, who had been Kogii's principal liaison with the Caveman Group, breaks off to start a project of her own, and the novel takes on a quite interesting feminist thrust. This links to a film that Choko had written earlier (film also plays an important role in THE CHANGELING) about a half-mythical heroine from his region. Gradually various linking themes become visible behind the thicket of orbiter dicta: the problem of coercion, whether by the state or personal; the power and victimization of women; the role of suicide; and above all the fact of old age and the handing-over of wisdom and authority from one generation to another. It may well be that even the personal themes have political resonance also. Oe is a major writer with major ideas, no doubt about it, but it takes real effort for a non-Japanese reader to separate his insights from his obsessions. [3.5 stars]

Us Conductors: A Novel
Us Conductors: A Novel
by Sean Michaels
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.38
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Return Voyage, April 20, 2016
This review is from: Us Conductors: A Novel (Paperback)
In 1927, the Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin) travels to America on board the SS Majestic, in order to demonstrate the electronic musical instrument that bears his name. Already a work-famous figure, he travels first class, with license to wander all over the ship. Eleven years later, when this book begins, he is returning to Russia aboard the Stary Bolshevik, locked in his cabin, a prisoner of the state. Sean Michaels' Giller prizewinning novel explores what happened in the interim to cause this change of fortunes -- and then, more briefly, the even more dramatic changes he survived when he got back to Russia.

In many ways, this is a pretty straightforward biography, only told in the first person in a slightly playful tone, as you can gather from the full title: "Us Conductors, in which I seek the heart of Clara Rockmore, my one true love, finest theremin player the world will ever know." Clara Rockmore, née Reisenberg, was a violin prodigy whose musical skills far o'erleaped the inventor's teaching when she started to learn the theremin, making him fall head over heels in love. They go out dancing together at night in all the clubs of Manhattan and Harlem, and are clearly made for one another, except that Léon is already married and Clara is being courted by Robert Rockmore, a rising attorney. All the same, Theremin's early years in America pass in a whirlwind of fame, hobnobbing with the classical and jazz musicians of the day, courted by companies like RCA and GE, and turning out inventions with almost the productivity of a second Edison, including musical instruments of all kinds, a burglar alarm system, an altimeter, a form of television, and various devices for eavesdropping on other people.

For if Clara's company and social success were two of the reasons for Theremin staying eleven years in America, his value to the Russian government was a third. Through him, they could gain access to major American corporations; before long his minders tell him that he will one day be expected to serve as a spy. Back home, his inventions might serve the state in more direct ways -- and the Russians have more coercive ways of getting him to perform.

Michaels notes at the beginning: "This book is mostly inventions." It is mostly about scientific devices, indeed, but I was not sure how much of its story was invented too. Halfway through the book, unfortunately, I made the mistake of looking Theremin up to find out. I quickly saw that almost all of it is true in outline, although Michaels presumably invented the details. But once I knew that, I found I had little desire to keep reading about Theremin in a novel. The voice Michaels gives him, though entertaining, is not enough to sustain the interest for 450 pages. And neither his roller-coaster ride in love nor the all-too-familiar story of yet another intellectual's treatment under Stalin were of sufficient interest to keep my reading with the commitment I had at the beginning.
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by Christopher Nicholson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.00
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hardy at Midnight, April 17, 2016
This review is from: Winter (Paperback)
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Towards the end of this elegiac novel by Christopher Nicholson, the aged Thomas Hardy reads one of his favorite poems, Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," whose closing lines I quote above. It is an appropriate image. The author, now 84, has his novels and most of his poetry behind him, although he will publish one more collection, the aptly named "Winter Words." He spends the winter of his life mainly thinking back on the past, on the changes that have come to his beloved Wessex, and the people whom he might have loved passing by on the other side of life's road. He lives in a kind of freeze himself, sitting alone in the study in his big gloomy house, unable to give his much younger second wife Florence the love she needs. Coleridge's "silent icicles" are apt indeed. Yet for all this, Nicholson's book is full of beauty, those icicles "quietly shining to the quiet moon." And much of the beauty comes from the author's masterly handling of prose, very much imbued with the regretful spirit of Hardy's late verse.

It is, nonetheless, a simple style. A review from The Guardian praises it for its inconspicuousness, its "refusal to astonish." By picking out a section to quote, I know I am doing Nicholson a disservice, highlighting a passage that the author wanted simply to take its place in the texture. But I do so since it says a lot about the aging Hardy also -- Hardy not yet at midnight but at dusk: "The maids had not yet lit the lamps. He might have rung the bell and summoned them to do so, or he might have lit them himself, but for the moment he preferred to remain in the twilight. This was his favorite time of day, when the interaction between the physical and spiritual seemed strongest, when the barriers that were supposed to part the living and the dead dissolved into nothing…."

The story is all true. Hardy has written a stage adaptation of his TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES, and is much taken with the amateur actress who plays the title character in its local premiere, Gertie Bugler. A beautiful young woman in her early twenties, it turns out that she is the daughter of the milkmaid who, seen only from a distance, was Hardy's inspiration for the original novel. Now the author wants Gertie to have the role when the play opens professionally in London. But the neurotic Florence envies her health and happiness, and is not prepared to see this butcher's wife receive the attention and acclaim she had longed for in vain from her own husband.

Florence and Thomas Hardy may love one another, but they cannot communicate anything of importance. Yet Nicholson communicates for them, alternating overlapping chapters from each of their points of view (in the first person for her and third person for him), with two interspersed chapters by Gertie, written in the 1960s, that somehow manage to put it all in perspective. It is a tragedy of a sort, of jealousy, thwarted aspirations, and misplaced love. Yet, in Nicholson's telling, Hardy at midnight is not Hardy in the dark. That quiet moon still shines.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 9, 2016 12:12 PM PDT

The Loney
The Loney
by Andrew Michael Hurley
Edition: Hardcover
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars By the Prince of Demons, April 16, 2016
This review is from: The Loney (Hardcover)
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Well might Stephen King write an endorsement for the cover of this British debut novel; it shares his sense of horror creeping into ordinary lives and places. Andrew Michael Hurley does not quite have King's knack of gripping tight and not letting go; the novel's relative slowness is what keeps me from that fifth star. But he does have something that interested me a lot: the feeling that there is little to choose between the black magic and the white. The book is steeped in Roman Catholicism of a particularly demanding variety, requiring rituals, pilgrimages, retreats, and self-mortification. The air is thick with superstition and spiritual coercion long before the first signs of any external evil become apparent.

"The Loney" is apparently a stretch of the Lancashire coastline between the rivers Wyre and Lune. Google Earth it, and you will find a stretch of marshy land, little inhabited, with wide tidal flats stretching out to sea. Hurley has added to it, giving it a small hill or two, a Saxon church, a pilgrimage shrine, and an island named Coldbarrow a mile out to sea, reached only by causeway at low tide. He also imagines two cobwebbed old houses: Thessaly on Coldbarrow and Moorings on the mainland, that serve as the opposing poles of his story, although both seem equally haunted. It is to Moorings that the Smith family has always come for a Holy Week retreat with others in their London parish, led by their authoritarian but respected priest, Father Wilfred. But Father Wilfred has died in mysterious circumstances, and Mrs Smith virtually forces his successor, the young and open-minded Father Bernard, to repeat the tradition.

She has another reason. The Smiths have two sons. Andrew, the elder, known as Hanny, has been speechless since birth and is generally thought to be mentally retarded; she has constant hopes that the week-long ritual will cure him. Hanny is looked after by his younger brother, whom Father Bernard calls "Tonto," who was a young teen at the time of this last pilgrimage in the 1970s. He is the first-person narrator of the book, looking back from four decades later. We learn in his first chapter that Hanny has indeed been cured -- but by what agency, and at what price? As an epigraph, Hurley quotes St. Matthew's account of Jesus healing a man who had been mute from birth, ending with the comment of the watching Pharisees: "It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons." Is this the case here?

The atmosphere is oppressive from the very beginning. Moorings is the house of a former taxidermist, furnished with decaying examples of his work, and still bearing traces of a daughter who was quarantined there to die. The parishioners camp there with some discomfort, settling in for the usual atmosphere of "prayers in the sitting-room [and] various shades of gloom moving about the house like extra guests." The boy's mother, whom they always call Mummer, is way over the top in her devotion, monitoring strict adherence to the Lenten fast, and demanding that the new priest carry out the rituals of the Stations of the Cross, the Good Friday Masses, and the muddy Easter Monday trek to the overgrown shrine to perform a ceremony that seems more like exorcism than healing. There are sinister forces on the horizon, yes: some local inhabitants who seem to resent their visit. But their malign presence appears to be associated with welcome miracles; almost as great an evil, for me, was the perverted religiosity of Mummer Smith and the late Father Wilfred. Hurley has turned the traditional horror story on its head; whatever his slight problems with pacing, that is quite an achievement.
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Anatomy of a Soldier: A novel
Anatomy of a Soldier: A novel
by Harry Parker
Edition: Hardcover
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3.0 out of 5 stars The Things He Carried, April 14, 2016
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The things he carried into battle: dog tags, combat boots, helmet, intercom, night vision goggles, emergency tourniquet. The things that awaited him: a bag of fertilizer, a buried IED, detonator wire, an explosion. And the things he encounters in hospital: a breathing tube, an IV bag, a surgical saw, a bell-push, a custom-made prosthesis. He does not even have a name at first, just BA5799, a British officer serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. The fighters have names, though, from the very beginning: Latif, Aktar, Faridun. And they too carry things into battle, such as the pair of Chinese copy Nikes that Latif buys with his first money.

"My serial number is 6545-01-522. I was unpacked from a plastic case, pulled open, checked and reassembled. A black marker wrote BA5799 O POS on me and I was placed in the left thigh pocket of BA5799's combat trousers. I stayed there; the pocket was rarely unfastened. I spent eight weeks, two days and four hours in the pocket. I wasn't needed yet."

The opening sentences of Harry Parker's novel quoted above give some idea of the flavor. This is the tourniquet talking -- yes, the novel is narrated entirely by inanimate objects, a different one for each of the 44 chapters. The climactic event, when BA5799 steps on a buried bomb and is critically wounded, occurs at the end of the opening chapter. But succeeding chapters dot back and forth in time, now to earlier stages in the soldier's deployment, now to a detailed account of the procedures in various hospitals intended to save his life and as far as possible mend his broken body, interspersed with the story of the young radical Latif both before and after that same climactic moment.

War is a matter of logistics. Human beings give themselves up to be just another factor in the equation. But once wounded badly enough to be no further use as soldiers, they can perhaps be returned to some semblance of humanity. At least that is what I gather of Parker's purpose: to break the man up into component pieces, and only gradually reassemble him as a human being. It is a clever idea, and once you have gotten past the silliness (verging on cuteness) of chapters narrated by catheters and the like, you can see it almost beginning to work. Almost, but not quite. We do begin to see BA5799 as a human being, with a name, a history, and loving parents. But he is only glimpsed through the gaps between all the objects. In the end, to me, the novel was less about the human being, or even the war he fought in, than about the author's originality. And that is not enough. [3.4 stars]
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