Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Mills of Love

Adore: A Novella by Doris Lessing

Lil and Roz have been best friends since they were little girls. Their respective sons have followed suit, and now it looks like their granddaughters are following the same path. All this sounds like the epitome of perfection, and that's exactly the exterior they want everyone to see.

I am ashamed to say that I never read anything by Doris Lessing before. This seems strange because, as a person and as an author, there was much I admired about her. Despite this, I failed at my attempt to read her "Diaries of Jane Somers," the two stories from the 80s she wrote under a pseudonym. That I never attempted to read Lessing again is to my detriment. Thankfully, this novella piqued my interest to try again.

One thing I learned about Lessing is that you cannot easily classify her work, despite the labels that people try to pin on her, particularly as a feminist. This novel does seem to take on some undertones of feminism, even as it denies them on the surface. This isn't so much of a dichotomy as it is a way to show how certain elements of feminism can creep into the life of a woman who herself cannot be considered a feminist. I have a hunch that Lessing's point is that labels put unnaturally stark boundaries on people, and her mission was to blur those lines.

With this book, Lessing starts us at the end of the story with the climax, which takes place in a contemporary setting. She then goes back to the beginning to show us everything that led up to this ultimate moment of drama. That is, a story of two women from apparently affluent backgrounds for whom marriage and children are their expected futures, with which they comply with grace. Unfortunately, these two have a more-than-sisterly-like friendship, which doesn't always mesh perfectly with having husbands, despite their ability to show society that they are model homemakers and mothers. That both women find ways not to bend to their husbands' wills is a type of feminist stance, and yet, they do so with such subtlety that their rebellion is only visible from within.

That their young sons become like brothers is not a problem, and in fact, makes their relationship even stronger. However, once they are young adults and both of their fathers are out of the picture, things change. It is here that Lessing inserts a quiet and insidious aspect into the relationships of these four people, which could be ruinous, but instead has the opposite effect.

In this, Lessing treads quite a fine line between disaster and victory for these characters. Her genius is in how we believe her balancing act will get them artfully from one point to another without much more than the tiniest faltering, and then she cuts the tightrope. At the same time, her readers will be holding their breaths throughout this tale, even though they've already gasped at the final fall at the beginning of the book. Furthermore, she does this with the simplest of prose written in a tone that borders on snobbish gossip, making it even more compelling to read.

If all of this isn't literary brilliance, I don't know what is. This book has made me interested in reading more of Lessing's work, and I fully intend to start catching up on what I've missed. I cannot give it less than five out of five stars, and sincerely recommend it. 

(By the way, this was made into a movie in 2013 by the same name, which isn't bad, but the novella is better. This was originally published as "The Grandmothers" in 2003.)

"Adore" by Doris Lessing is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This review originally appeared on my Times of Israel blog.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What is and what is not

This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle

The publishers of this book offer the following teaser: "This should be written in the present tense. But it isn’t. Dorte should be at uni in Copenhagen. But she’s not. She should probably put some curtains up in her new place. And maybe stop sleeping with her neighbor's boyfriend. Perhaps things don’t always work out the way they should." To this, I only would add "or do they?"

Once again, I was attracted to this book by how unusual it sounded, and I wasn't wrong, it is particularly unique. Admittedly, while reading this novel, there were times I felt uncomfortable with its aimlessness. However, this was more because of the way the stories from the past and the account of the present seemed to meld into one another than the fact that, essentially "nothing happens." Certainly, this is what all the detractors of this book will say, but I have to somewhat disagree.

When I say, "somewhat" I mean that as far as action goes, there really isn't very much, both internally and externally. Dorte seems to hover on the edges of her life, drifting from place to place and man to man. Sometimes the place she goes to brings her a man and sometimes it is a man who moves her to another place. As for why she is like this, we are never sure, although some incidents Dorte recalls certainly must have had something to do with her itinerant and random habits. Strangely enough, the beauty of this story is that whatever that thing was, is almost entirely irrelevant to the book as a whole.

Essentially, this is a personal account, and that makes it an introspective character study. What Dorte sees and remembers is secondary to how she feels and reacts to those things. While she seems ephemeral, there is constancy in both her outlook and demeanor, which unfortunately works to her detriment. However, as depressing as that sounds, there is still an undercurrent of positivity throughout this book, which just barely tinges the text.

If all this sounds a bit vague, I'm sorry, but there is just no other way to talk about this book. Because of this, some people will probably dismiss this novel completely. I would urge them to reconsider this, mainly because of the writing, or rather, the translation. Originally written in Danish, Helle Helle is one of their most popular award-winning authors, known for her minimalist style. Of the reviews I found for this book, the one I found matched my own feelings was from Weekendavisen, that said:

Some pieces of literature, no matter how great an effort you make as a critic, cannot be opened or captured in a way that does justice to the work. That’s how I feel about Helle Helle’s new and unusually precious novel... Most of the sentences are small works of art, containing a whole story in themselves.

I would further add that Helle practically whispers this story in gentle, soothing tones that soften any harshness underneath. If the original Danish comes off the same way, then the translator has done a stellar job.

Despite this, I have to admit that while Helle gently slides between Dorte's present life and stories from her past, the lines between the two are sometimes slightly blurred. This means that readers might have trouble determining what passages refer to what time in Dorte's life. I found this confusing in several instances and although it only took a line or two to get myself acclimated, this slightly detracted from the overall effortlessness feeling of the story. Even so, I still enjoyed this remarkable novel, and I believe that anyone looking for something truly distinctive to read will fall in love with this book. For all this, I'm going to give it a high recommendation with four out of five stars. 

"This Should be Written in the Present Tense" by Helle Helle is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance copy for review via NetGalley. (This review originally appeared on my Times of Israel blog.)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Protections and Professions

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

The Israeli Government has decided to pull out of a large block of West Bank settlements with the hopes that this grand gesture can kick-start the peace process. The famous refusnik and leader of the Russian Immigrant party, Minister Baruch Kotler, is adamantly opposed to this and refuses to keep quiet about his opposition, and even blackmailing him about his love affair won't shut him up. To avoid the onslaught of the impending scandal, he takes his mistress to Yalta in the Crimea. There he chances upon Volodya Tankilevich, the man whose betrayal to the KGB that led to Kotler's 13-year imprisonment.

Take a heavy helping of Natan Sharansky's fame, add a handful of Avigdor Lieberman's recent history and a dash of a sex scandal (but not as horrid as Moshe Katzav) and mix them all together and you'll get David Bezmozgis's fictional Minister Baruch Kotler. Refusnik turned politician whose outspoken objections to Israel's giving up any land, get him into trouble when someone finds out he is having an affair. In this fictional universe, a pullout from the West Bank is a foregone conclusion. Under such conditions, continuing to be so vocally obstinate with his government while deciding to run away with his mistress to Yalta seems a reasonable option for Kotler.

Of course, the real-life personality would probably never have conducted a secret affair, or run away, but we must remember that this is fiction. This is even more obvious when you look at Israel's situation right today. After the latest Gaza operation, any possibility of a West Bank pullout, let alone a land-for-peace negotiation, seems about as likely as kosher pigs flying.

Furthermore, having someone choose to vacation in the now Russian-annexed Crimea in 2014 is equally as unlikely. Still, we can easily forgive Bezmozgis for these oversights, precisely because it is fiction, and more importantly, because he lays out such a compelling story, with a streamlined, crystal clear style with just enough flourishes to keep it from being stark or sterile. Even the coincidence of Kotler ending up taking a holiday room in the home of his archenemy is believable when drawn by Bezmozgis's artful prose.

In fact, this book is as close to a masterpiece as one could ever desire in a writer. So much so that the whole love affair bit got me thinking. What I thought was what has happened to Avital Sharansky over the past decades? She was so candid and visible when her new husband was a prisoner. Even after his release, we still heard from her from time to time. Within a couple of years, she slowly fell off almost everyone's radar. That Bezmozgis would hit on this, and make up a slowly growing distance between these two, makes opening the door for an affair feel nearly factual, and frankly, I thought it was a stroke of genius.

However, that isn't the point of this book, which is more about what prices we pay for standing steadfast in the face of conflict and why we might succeed in standing by our morals, and when we have to give up on them. It is also about consequences, and how some decisions can seem to be bad, but if we look beneath the surface, some outcomes are actually far more positive than we originally thought. When Bezmozgis brings all of this together in his dramatic climax, you can be sure that no one is going to be taking the easy way out, and that's exactly how it should be.

As you can probably tell, I truly enjoyed this book, but to be completely honest, I did find something that didn't sit completely right with me. This had to do with the pullout operation, which seemed to be happening far too fast, especially if you look at how long it took Israel to leave Gaza under Ariel Sharon. It could be that Bezmozgis is suggesting a longer timeline than what we seem to witness in this story, but it just wasn't evident enough for me. Other than that, I can only praise this novel and highly recommend it with a full five stars out of five. 

"The Betrayers" by David Bezmozgis, published by Little, Brown and Company, released

September 23, 2014 is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a copy of this novel for review via NetGalley. This review also appeared on my Times of Israel blog.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Precious... but that's about all

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith

Mme Ramotswe is a female detective in Botswana, the only one there until Mr. Buthelezi arrived, claiming it as "man's" work. Mme Ramotswe isn't convinced and nor is her assistant, Mme Makutsi, who graduated top of her Secretarial College class. However, small towns don't have much call for private detectives, so when Mme Ramotswe gets a particularly delicate new case, the customer wants only Mme Ramotswe's help. That means Mme Makutsi needs to find other things to fill her days and increase her bank balance (which might also help her find a husband). Helping with the clerical work for the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, the garage below their offices, doesn't earn her much, and so she establishes the Kalahari Typing School for Men. When another case comes to the "#1 Ladies Detective Agency" via the unhappy customer Mr. Buthelezi, things start getting complicated.

From this summary, one might think that this mystery novel would be quite a long book. Especially since I didn't even mention Mme Ramotswe's fiancé, the garage owner reluctant to set a wedding date, or the two orphans she's adopted with him. However, this is a very slim volume, which is suspicious. With so much to cover, and this being the fourth book in the series, there seems a whole lot is missing here. Perhaps if I started with the first book I would have had more background. Still, most detective novels I've read seem to have enough background on the detective to make them complete on their own (no one I know ever read Agatha Christie in the order her books were written). Unfortunately, my first impression of this book was that I felt somewhat lost.

Of course, as the book progressed, I did get to understand these characters much better. McCall Smith's draws his central characters to work in a type of blurry harmony, as if they're all in this haze of a place and move through it in slow motion. If that is how McCall Smith sets a mood, he's been very successful. While these stories take place in Botswana, a foreign location to most of us, McCall Smith makes us feel it's the most natural place in the world. His settings are human and believable and the characters fit into them like a hand in an old glove. As we get both their thoughts and their actions, we get deeper into their psyches and more comfortable with them and their situations. This is probably McCall Smith's greatest achievement - he can really make the reader empathize with his cast of characters, which I think is essential to a character driven story.

This is primarily due to McCall Smith's writing style, which is very charming. He gives us a lovely feeling of what this African place is like, how the people move through it and how life is there in general. His descriptions of places are done via observations by the characters, which is far more effective than just straight-out listings of details. His dialogs work to help the reader understand the character's personalities and he gives them very clear and unique voices. Furthermore, he knows how to get the reader to feel part of his character's lives by setting up situations of interactions, which reveal more than the words on the page themselves. Despite the dream-like manner, it still feels realistic.

Unfortunately, where McCall Smith excels with his characters, he underestimates the need to give them something read-worthy to do, but not for lack of trying. This book has not one, but two mysteries to solve, and they completely unrelated. In addition, there is the dilemma of the #1 Detective Agency's new rival detective. These three things were pivotal to the story but only whitewashed into this book, making one wonder why they were even included. Into this mix, we have the garage's two apprentices and their antics, as well as Mme Makutsi's business venture. While the latter does factor in one of the cases, the former seems to be there just for color. It just felt that McCall Smith bit off more plot than he could chew, which got lost under about 200 pages of (an albeit nicely done) character study. That leaves two easily answered mysteries and tossing off the rival detective with several unattended loose ends, which made me say "huh?"

All this made me think that McCall Smith was making light of the day-to-day problems of the people. Almost as if he's saying that, nothing is complex in this world that uniting of a minimal amount of attention with a heavy dose of nature taking its course won't solve. Of course, maybe this really is life in Botswana, but I don't buy it. After all, human beings are complex creatures. So even the most idyllic of places have complications, mysteries and dilemmas that take at least some effort and thought to resolve, if not learn how to live with. If McCall Smith is showing his nostalgia and affection for his roots through rose-colored glasses, I'm afraid I don't care for that shade of pink.

On the positive side, this is a very pleasant way to escape for a few hours into another place and mind-set, which today is a true blessing. Its escapist fiction vaguely disguised as a mystery and the most complimentary word I can use for it is "precious," which is also our protagonist's first name. If you're a hard-core mystery lover, who needs cliffhangers, twisty plots and situations that are practically impossible to get out of, this isn't for you. However, if you want a fast reading, short feel-good book, this may be just the thing. Even so, I can't give it more than two stars. 

"The Kalahari Typing School for Men" by Alexander McCall Smith published by Polygon Books in 2002 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audio from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you.

(This is a greatly revised version of a review that I originally published on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Voices.)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

That which was gone for those that remain

The Living by Léan Cullinan

Working on the website for the small publishing house Bell Books is hardly an exciting life. Even so, since it is Cate's first job after graduating Dublin's Trinity College, there is no reason for her to balk about it. She has her college friends and her choir - Carmina Urbana - to keep her busy and entertained after a boring day at work. Then Eddie MacDevitt's memoire manuscript comes in, and strange things begin to happen. Her boss is hiding the book from everyone, there's that dark car Cate keeps seeing, that new British tenor in the choir who is so secretive, and even her family are being unusually guarded. Surely, the meanderings of some ex-activist (who knew her uncle, and her boss, back in the day) can't be all that hush-hush, even if there are still people who want him dead. This is "The Living" by Léan Cullinan.

I don't pretend to understand Irish politics, but I do remember some of the horrors that happened there before they started working out peace in the 1990s. My interest in Ireland is more of a touristic nature; the little I've seen made me fall in love with that island. That combined with their accents, makes me a sucker for anything Irish. Few other thrillers would have ever caught my eye, and I'm glad this one did. The main reason for this is because our protagonist - Cate Houlihan - isn't the one doing the politicking or spying; instead, she is an unwitting piece in a puzzle she could never have thought had anything to do with her. This is the feeling we get about her all along, despite her being a strong character. While there is little to nothing she can do to work out what's going on, she's at least got her suspicions. Although Cate doesn't understand what she has anything to do with the book and all the cloak and dagger business surrounding it, at least she isn't stupid. This overflows into her budding relationship with Matthew Taylor, the British new tenor in her choir.

Several things made sense in this book, and brought it to life for me. For instance, Cullinan hints that Cate hasn't had the best track record with men, yet whatever problems she had are enough in her past that she's ready to give romance a go again. This worked perfectly with Cate's willingness to get involved combined with her instinctual feelings that he wasn't being totally honest with her. Being a writer, any character that has anything to do with books and publishing are immediate draws for me. However, what really brought it all together for me were the additions of the musical aspects and Cate's choir. Cullinan really knows her stuff here, and this little added value helped take this story into a far more personal sphere for me. I particularly liked how Cate was able to identify a car following her by "singing" the car's registration plate numbers (which doesn't work if your plates are alphanumeric). All of this fed into the atmosphere of a woman caught between simply wanting to get on with her own life and her inability to keep her family's past from looming over her.

Of course, a truly good thriller needs thrills. Cullinan sprinkles threats in Cate's path, all of which ultimately lead to her into innocently entering into an untenable situation. I liked how Cullinan built up the suspense here, which kept me reading on. However, I do have to admit that I found two sections (one in the middle and again after the climax) that seemed to go at a bit slower pace than the rest of the story. These are what I call the "oh, get on with it already" passages. While these are distractions, it also means that I had made an emotional connection with the characters, which is a good thing. As for the suspense elements, while that they were definitely there, took a back seat to the characters. This left me feeling divided about if this was a good thing or not. I mostly prefer character driven stories - which this one certainly is; I just wonder if the plot didn't need to drive just a bit more of this one.

All told, I truly enjoyed this book. Cate is the type of character I'd like to see more of, and while I'm still unsure if Matthew is the right man for her, I'd like to get to know him better, as well. Cullinan takes full advantage of how a country's terror filled past has left angry-looking scars, and its peace is still tenuous, with a very clear and straight-forward style. In short, Cullinan has brought us a book that captures the essence of today's Ireland, with honestly believable characters placed into a fascinating plot. For this, "The Living" deserves a solid four out of five stars. 

"The Living" by Léan Cullinan released June 10, 2014 and published by Atlantic Books is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance copy of this novel for this review, which originally appeared on Curious Book Fans.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Best Laid Schemes and “Rancid Clichés״

The Escape of Malcolm Poe by Allison Burnett

Malcolm Poe is turning 50 and is unhappy, but this isn't a recent development. He's wanted to get away from Louise since very shortly after they met. Then she got pregnant and well, one thing led to marriage, four children, and the death of his only son along with everything else that got in the way of writing a literary masterpiece. Now that his girls are almost all out of the house, and he stopped taking his anti-depressants, he can finally plan his escape. To this, Robert Burns would have said, "The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain, for promised joy!"

Yes, this does sound like male menopause mixed with a mid-life crisis, but there's far more to this book. Malcolm is a complex man, who thinks he knows just what he wants and is out to get it. The problem with Malcolm is, despite his being extremely well read and intelligent, when it comes to his life and himself, he is clueless. He's also a bit of a hypochondriac; he hates his trust-fund wife almost as much as he hates the job her parents made him take after their shotgun wedding; his daughters hardly speak to him anymore and; the only friend he can tolerate is his dog Chuck. Despite all of Malcolm's problems, being alive is one of the things he's not bad at, and isn't ready to quit. Although he's off his meds, most times he seems almost chipper, probably because he's chronicling the last leg of his journey to the "light at the end of the tunnel," if you will allow the cliché.

While the journal format is hardly an innovative literary mechanic, the rare thing Mr. Burnett brings to this form is the inclusion of many random thoughts (including drunken ones) and relevant quotes. This is something that real journals usually possess but literary ones often lack, and sadly so. I say "sadly," because it is just those casual tidbits that give true insight into a person, and bring the character writing them, fully to life. Since he's the one writing it, he is far too involved to see either the humor in his actions or the huge mistakes he's making (or made in the past), despite his air of self-discovery. Some of what he reveals makes him seem despicable, but at the same time, he is also irresistibly loveable, and we cannot help but ache to learn even more about him.

And learn about him we do, through these accounts of his various sober and inebriated escapades that rouse in him a reason to reflect on his past and how he got to where he is today. In this way, while the action only takes place over less than a year, the story is far more expansive, without being overly descriptive. All of this gives this novel a contemporary feel, which at the same time feels very familiar and comfortable, like a perfectly fitting pair of fashionable jeans.

One reviewer called Malcolm "haunting, elegant, and wise" but while I was in the middle of this book, I disagreed with this assessment. To me, he was more witty (even glib), crass and naïve. However, as I got further into this novel, I could see where we were both right. Of course, this multi-faceted aspect, and the changes in him as the story unfolds, is a sign of a well-developed character. Interestingly, in contrast to Burnett's previous novels, on the surface, he certainly has more in common with Malcolm than he had with his other protagonists. Burnett is no drunken, unattractive homosexual like his B. K. Troop and he's certainly not a 17-year-old, emotionally confused and overly hormonal girl like Katie from Undiscovered Gyrl.

However, what all three of these protagonists have in common is their combination of being intellectuals who are completely dense about themselves, and the love-hate relationship they evoke in his readers. Burnett also revisits the common theme from his other books; our potential and the paths we take that steer us either towards reaching it, or away from it. Only this time, he does it from the point of view of a 50 year old, husband and father, desperate to get back on track with his destiny.

This is usually the point in my reviews where I add the "but" disclaimer. In all honesty, the only one I have is that I couldn't find anything that didn't sit right with me. If pressed, I might say that the only drawback to this book is the slightly abrupt ending but even so, I've always preferred to have things left to my imagination than having everything tied up too neatly at the end of a novel. This can only mean that I'm giving this book a full five stars and warmly recommend it. 

"The Escape of Malcolm Poe" by Allison Burnett, published by Writers Tribe Books, released on September 8, 2014 is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris. I would like to thank the author for sending me a copy of his book for review. (This review originally appeared on my Times of Israel Blog.)

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