Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Narrows Gate" by Jim Fusilli

"Narrows Gate" opens onto a movie house playing a feature you may already have seen. But that doesn't mean you won't want to see it again.

Jim Fusilli's Big Mob Opera is a straight-shooting affair that fits squarely within the genre, eschewing experimentation or roaming outside the lines.

"Narrows Gate," starts in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from the main stem, the Big Apple, but travels to London, Madrid, Hollywood, Havana, East Africa, and points in between.

Across this vast panorama Fusilli details the lives of three young male locals, one whose life reads a little bit too much like Frank Sinatra's. Another is headed for trouble in the rackets and the third doing his best to stay out of their way (the rackets) only to find them blocking the escape route.

There are family rivalries, gruesome hits ("Gigenti's first shot took off Verkerk's jaw."), turncoats and torture, and a wide-array of food descriptions. highwayscribery's favorite presentation was the red clam sauce.

Anyway, the narrative is rendered in the street argot certain mid-20th century metropolitan area Italian-Americans spoke and gives the book a flavor.

The texture is mostly gritty. "Narrows Gate" has nostalgia for a lost world of Italian-American life, yet it is unadorned, has no linguistic poetry, its words rolling out like row houses in Brooklyn, steady and even.

It has a love of place, but a grim one.

Fusilli is a writer of note and success with books under his belt, and the work here is professional and polished. He'll have you rooting for murderers and street punks. You'll find the feds and other people swimming against the tide of impunity dispassionate, bland, rainy day people.

You'll find a brutal cityscape where might is right, where the good play it meek and do a lot of ducking, while a crazy few head straight for the knife fight.

So, you may have seen this movie, but that doesn't mean you won't want to see it again.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"The Table Comes First," By Adam Gopknik

Eat this book!

How far things have come since Yippie philosopher Abbie Hoffman's publisher invited consumers to "Steal This Book," by giving it that very title.

Maybe author Adam Gopnik remembers former French President Francois Mitterand remarking that the United States was "a country waiting to be entertained" when he launched a body of work that mixed food and literature quite so lovingly.

A few chapters into "The Table Comes First," and you may very well try to eat it, or at least take a crack at one of the half-recipes he drops in throughout the essay.

It may be the case that the enjoyment of Gopnik's book rises inversely as one's familiarity with "food writing" drops. That was the case here. highwayscribery cannot say if the food talk contained is food news, only that everything else about it was fun.

Subtitling his essay, "Family, France, and the Meaning of Food," the author stakes out a large swath of human interest and then highlights the ties binding food to our larger life.

"The Table Comes First," passes from the particular (food) to the universal, reading in the tea leaves of peoples' food choices their politics, history, culture, the French Revolution, and the reasons for Catalonian cuisine (to name a few).

In doing so, the book becomes something for everybody, which is somewhat the point: Everybody loves food.

By way of one example, Gopnik discusses a "rule of three" he applies to cooking and life-living.

"Is there a pattern of making here, more universal than it might at first seem?" he asks. "Jasper Johns once said, with the high, significant disingenuousness of faux-naif genius, that the way to make art is to take something and do something to it and then do something else to it."

And it is applied to cooking how?

"There is first the raw thing, then there is the transformative act, and then there is the personal embroidery" and then back to the larger world, "Something borrowed, something done, something only I can do. Natures Way; Our Tribe's Way' My Way. Or else History, My Time, My Talent."

You may or may not find that particular line of analysis useful to your life, but it's a good bet other things Gopnik writes, while conjuring butterscotch pudding from scratch, will ring true.

The writer, who is a remnant of the old Manhattan talky-smart crowd, and writes for no less than "The New Yorker," has a whimsical touch, though there will be times you'll have to bear down and work a little.

It should be worth it.

The investigation into how restaurants came about, took form, and held it, is interesting stuff especially for those who frequent them. It is light fare (pun intended) yet thought-provoking.

The writer provides an exacting yet almost apolitical look at the meat debate. He puts the "local" strain of food-eating to the test in New York and comes out less-than-convinced the means are resulting in the desired ends (while ingesting a good-sounding repast).

Gopnik hews not to any ideology. He pulls what is good for his diet and mind from raging trends, rejects what does not work, and lets food-love be his guide.

The second half, less historical and less researched, lags a little by comparison. Still there are conversations with top chefs and culinary thinkers in "The Table Comes First," that enlighten.

And those who have only heard in passing what happened at elBulli outside Barcelona will enjoy the insider's view of the process Gopnik provides towards the end. Others mystified by "molecular" cuisine may find their nerves calmed, or irritated further by the contents.

Where the writer seems to be going, without banging the gong too hard, is that breaking bread has a sacred component. A strong one. That may not be a revelation, but how and why are worthwhile topics in this world where everything has already been written or said.

"Losing our faith in art is, in a secular culture," Gopnik closes, "what losing our faith in God was to a religious one."

Frothy dinner guest though he may be, a "Tea Party" invitation is probably not be forthcoming.

Monday, November 14, 2011

"The Orphan Master's Son," by Adam Johnson

If books can be passports to other places, then "The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel" gains you entree to the forbidden land of North Korea.

Of course, you have to be open to that sort of thing, and should in this case.

The author, Adam Johnson, as per his own account, bathed in North Korean culture, history and politics until they were expunged from his being in the form of characters. He traveled to the strange land of Kim Il Sung, smelled it, saw it, breathed it, and lived to come back and put it all down on paper.

And he was one of the lucky ones, if the North Korea in "The Orphan Master's Son," has even a shadow of authenticity to it.

Truly, no one gets out alive.

And so before us we have the story of Jun Do, a young fellow groomed in the hell-holes those in power set aside for orphans. Held in low regard by the regime, the kids are sent off to labor camps and mines and worked until death.

Some how Jun Do gets out, which is when the reader meets him. Hard-boiled by physical abuse, and wiser for the psychological type, he ends up on a detail kidnapping Japanese opera singers and wayward beachcombers for the entertainment and delight of the Dear Leader.

The pace of revelation is that of a classic bildungsroman, but the magic is in the details. Maybe it's because life in the People's Democratic Republic of North Korea is organized so distinctly from our own, or because Mr. Johnson is a skilled story-teller.

It doesn't really matter, a good read is a good read.

Jun Do is sent on an espionage mission to a gathering at a Texas senator's ranch. It doesn't go well and the leader of the operation, Dr. Song, is disappeared from the world for underperformance.

For his part, the young orphan-man disappears into the jail system, which the author will fill you in on, and resurfaces as a new character for the second half of the book.

Keeping it short, he kills a rival of the Dear Leader, a zany political chess player, who then lets him keep the murdered man's identity and his wife, the most famous actress in North Korea, Sun Moon.

A player in the court of a madman, Jun Do (Now Commander Ga) has much to relay about the way decisions are made in the Peoples Democratic Republic, before he is swallowed up into the void as well.

highwayscribery will leave a detailing of the myriad and piquant ways people are tortured to the author, but provide one passage for taste.

One of Johnson's narrators electrocutes people with an intervenor until the mind essentially breaks. "Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity," he explains, "the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins his crossing."

These new people are then sent off to work in rural collectives.

"We placed the professor's biography on the shelf, right next to the girl dancer from last week. She had us all weeping as she described how her little brother lost his eyes, and when the moment came to apply the autopilot to her, the pain made her limbs rise and sweep the air in rhythmic graceful gestures, as if she were telling her story one last time through movement."

Yikes. Under this umbrella of random terror, a love story, a political drama, a sly critique of the United States ("where nothing is free, not even a simple blood transfusion"), and harrowing portrait of a man requiring immediate removal from office and a good old fashion trial.

The liberal democratic way.

"The Orphan Master's Son," has many things to say, and it says them well and clearly. But it is strong coffee. A passport, yes, but no "Under the Tuscan Sun." You're traveling to the dark side.

Of the ten or so books this reviewer has cashiered through the Vine program -- very much a showcase for current writers -- this novel is the liveliest because of Johnson's willingness to go where few go, the scope of his exercise, and his adventurous approach to prose.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"I married you for happiness," by Lily Tuck

Early evening, a woman's husband comes home, greets her, goes up to their bedroom and dies. She spends the night by his side, looking back on their happy marriage.

That's the plot, such as it is, to author Lily Tuck's "I Married You for Happiness."

Philip and Nina are worldly, educated, and well-traveled so that the stuff of their otherwise anonymous lives does not weigh the reader down in boring, quotidian minutiae.

She is a painter. He is a mathematician specializing in the field of probability. The novel is peppered with lectures on this topic, some to his students, some to his wife. These can be interesting or opaque and difficult to understand.

Even in the latter case, Tuck manages to make it sound good and it's not beyond reason to suspect there was something in the language associated with probability that she found pleasing to the eye and ear.

As Philip's examples and scenarios accumulate, it seems the author is trying to say this happy marriage, with its ebb and flow, glories and pratfalls, was something that might or might not have occurred given the laws governing chance and that, even though it panned out, it was not meant to be forever.

Ms. Tuck is a prior winner of the National Book Award and her command of craft is patent in "I married you for happiness."

The remembering takes place as the night winds on. The reader is kept abreast of the changing light outside, the passing of cars, and barking of dogs. You know Philip is dead and the recollections are more poignant because you know this woman will have no more of them.

There is no chronology. The memories are placed by the author in places she needs them most, the musings on probability the same, yet for all this temporal disorder, an overall impression of control seeps from this thin tome.

Maybe it's the two lives detailed that imposed the order.

Those with happy marriages can mourn along with Nina, even apply the exercise to their won coupling. Those less fortunate can indulge in a kind of guilty pleasure, absolved, up to a point, by the underlying theme of chance and likelihoods.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"The Train of Small Mercies," by David Rowell

"The Train of Small Mercies"
doesn't take one any place in particular, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Author David Rowell has applied a subtle hand in portraits of people living places through which the train carrying the slain Senator Robert Kennedy passed.

His chosen cross section for illumination include a white housewife, a black Pullman porter, some middle-class suburbanites with a pool, and a young man who lost a leg in Vietnam.

This is time (1968), place (eastern seaboard) and class (working) literature nicely confected. To have lived through some of what Rowell renders is to be transported anew, something we ask of good literature. One can hope a like feeling affects those born in later years.

You do not have to be a fan of Bobby Kennedy, or even know who he was, to appreciate this novel, which is more about the backdrop than the foreground. Rowell, a journalist, keeps his distance, avoids the trap of Kennedy hagiography, and places the senator in the lives of his characters, uses him more as a giant, temporal bookmark.

You will not know by the end why so many people viewed Kennedy's campaign as a high-water mark in American political life, but you will know they existed and what some of them were like.

Still, there is a positive glow to the senator's swan song, not in some passionate elegy from the writer, but in his descriptions of the faces in the pictures of thousands who lined the train route that sad June day.

Kennedy was killed and the train tracks became a place of gathering and space for shared grief, and the point of focus to a curious, low-voltage novel.

There are clean easy prose and a sense of incompletion to "The Train of Small Mercies," not technically the author's fault. He delivers on the title's promise: A story about a train.

We do not follow the people we've come to know in Delaware, New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania once the casket is pulled from the last rolling car in Union Station.

Instead, we get off the train of the story with them and are left to guess not only what will happen to them, but ponder how Kennedy's assassination will alter the course of their lives.

If it has not already done so by story's end.

"Mexico: Mañana o Pasado?" by Jorge Castaneda

Según Jorge Castaneda, México es como un niño olvidado quien ha desarollado ciertos mecanismos para sobrevivir, pero que ya no le valen en el mundo moderno.

Los Mexicanos, por ejemplo, resultan ser individuales que acuden muy pocas veces a los proyectos colectivos como puede ser construir un estado de derecho o una sociedad civil.

Es lo principal y aqui dicho por Castaneda, "La supuesta devoción mexicana por la democracia choca con el individualismo de los mexicanos, y con su rechazo categórico a cualquier red horizontal de solidaridad, asociación, trabajo voluntario o forma simple de organización. El país presenta altos grados de desconfianza hacia sus instituciónes; carece de un sentido de la representación política y muestra un sentimiento profundo de ineficiencia e intolerancia politíca, ademas de un desapego generalizado respecto a la ley y una concomitante propensión a la corrupción."

Mucha palabrería, pero traza bien las fronteras de la propuesta encontrado en "Mañana o pasado, el misterio de los mexicanos."

Este deseo solitario nace de muchas cosas, entre ellas una "completa desconfianza mexicana hacia el gobierno y las instituciónes" en un país donde "la posesión de una parcela de tierra sigue representando la mejor defensa frente a un mundo exterior predatorio," opina el autor, un ex-ministro de asuntos exteriores en la administración de Vicente Fox.

Pero México anda camino hace el nuevo mundo. Castaneda nos informa que, "Para al final del periodo de Felipe Calderon, la población del país será, más o menos, dos terceras partes de clase media con todo lo que ello impílica política, económica, y socialmente; pero tal vez no, desafortunadamente, en terminos culturales."

Otro imperfección, o sea cosa poca perfecta, es la tendencia de esquivar el enfrentamiento.

Para el mexicano, "El único benefício posible derivado del la confrontación directa es que alguien pierda y alguien gane, y casi siempre, el que pierde va a ser mas 'mexicano' o mas' 'popular' que el ganador."

O, dicho de otra manera, el mexicano piensa que "Es mejor decir aquí corrio, que aquí murio."

Se tropieza con este tendencia en los ambitos de la economia, la política, los sindicatos o los medios de communicación.

En lo que se refiere al la democracia, los mexicanos lo valúa como un instrumento para "permitir y promover la convergencia entre fuerzas políticas" en ver de guarantizár que las divergencias "permanezcan en el rango de las resoluciónes pacíficas," tal y como el autor lo prefiere.

El país también sufre de una concentración del poder, poca sana para el futuro de la sagrada clase media.

Sugiere el autor que estas actitudes son arraigadas en la historia indígena de Mexico, "un tanto distinta de las otras por que la víctima es rey, la derrota es glorificada y las influencias y agentes extranjeros son decisivos e implacable," dice Castaneda.

El autor utilíza tal cantidad de datos que casi se aburre al lector, salvo que estos ejercícios académicos son compaginados con otros pensamientos mas curiosos, si no tan empiricos, como puede ser lo significado del cantor Juan Gabriel, el arte de Cantinflas, o el por que la selección Mexicana de futbol no vale diez pesos.

Un tóque suave ejerce Castaneda aqui. No grita, no insiste, sino sugiere y hasta entretiene con sus propuestas para México que, si no resuelven las grandes cuestiones aquí enumerados, abren camino hacía posibles debates y respuestas.

Para los que se interesan, quieren o aman a México, merece la pena sorber algúno de los pensamientos aquí presentados.

"Feeding on Dreams," by Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman's dissection of exile doubles as a portrait in unrequited love.

In Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile the Chilean playwright, novelist, and essayist -- exiled voice of the anti-Pinochet resistance throughout the 1980s and '90s -- blows long on the strange forces that subvert the expatriate's efforts to reconstruct a life.

But "Feeding on Dreams" is also a story of rejection. The Chile of revolutionary struggle and progressive experimentation Dorfman was forced to flee is gone once the dictatorship is lifted and he returns.

His adopted country's embrace of neo-liberal policies during the author's 20 years in the hinterlands changed Chile for good, structurally and spiritually. We learn from this account that the literal massacre of the left opposition is an act with permanent ramifications.

As Dorfman worked abroad to keep the dead and deposed president Salvador Allende's ideas alive, while exposing the Pinochet dictatorship's chronic addiction to murder, the country had moved on.

Written over a backdrop of big history, a U.S.-backed coup and narrow escape into exile, "Feeding on Dreams" is really a tale of subtler things. Dorfman lost a country and status and he writes of the slights and adjustments endured.

Trying to shield their children from the fear of capture or murder beclouding their lives, mother and father eventually learn they have done nothing of the kind. That they live in danger, insecurity, and their children are fully affected by them.

Dorfman is something of a relic: the engaged leftist intellectual who uses his art to further the working class cause, while actively pursuing goals in the political arena. They just don't make them like this anymore.

His time is one when the world was split into two large camps represented, more or less, by their choice of economic religion. Dorfman's crowd was typical of the post-war left, rainbow in aspect, but driven by communist discipline, numbers and money.

He survives exile thanks to the assistance of countless solidarity groups spawned by the socialist and communist parties around the world. Their tenacity and commitment are noteworthy and detailed.

The good and the bad.

Residing in Holland thanks to assistance from some local and left-wing outfit, the author runs afoul of a good friend and ally through some strange misappropriation of money he was given.

The help was firm, but the qualifying criteria stringent.

Dorfman made two returns to Chile, once during the dictatorship and then post-Pinochet. Neither went well. There was a nagging guilt at having escaped what became a rather expansive concentration camp. There is the change in once-idealistic allies' more cynical view of politics and its purposes.

Having not lived the fear, Dorfman stakes his claim to a rightful place in the Chilean intelligentsia by writing a play that gets up everybody's noses. Those who have lived the horror have agreed to not talk about the horror, to try and leave it behind.

Dorfman's play, successful in other places, fails miserably in Chile. They are not ready for his in-depth accusatory. He has no constituency there and ends up in North Carolina.

The author is humble, bemused, and possessing of aplomb throughout this difficult account of a man slipping, stubbing, and stumbling across the planet. He is frank about his self-assessment when it came to marketing his writings on Chile to the top newspapers in the U.S. and aware the value his personal tragedy gave that work.

He is a writer and given to metaphorical flight. Be prepared to know that a stick of a tree growing somewhere in Santiago actually signifies exile and return, a long-ago friend who has held the flame of continuity even as the spurned son floundered on foreign shores...

But we jest. The literary insight to the things Dorfman has seen open up broader vistas, engage the spiritual as much as the factual.

He writes lovingly of the place and longingly for the politics of solidarity that put him at the maelstrom of Chilean history. His pain is clear, because he confronts it in this book.

Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen

Child Wonder: A Novel (The Lannan Translation Series263)
is the story of a boy, his widowed mother, and her reckless decision to take her stepdaughter into their household.

There is something not quite right with the little girl: "Linda was not of this world," the child narrator, Finn, tells us, "one day I would come to understand this -- she was a Martian come down to earth to speak in tongues to heathens, French to Norwegians and Russian to Americans."

Her ailment is developmental, in the head, but never fully revealed by the author, a practice he applies to other issues haunting the family throughout the length of the piece.

Sensing the profile of these issues, while never being fed a full rasher of details, creates a degree of dramatic tension, though the real purpose may be to put us on equal footing with the story's children, around whom it truly revolves.

The kids do not know everything that goes on around them, nor does the reader, which may or may not be a good thing.

There is not much of plot to "Child Wonder." It covers the year after Linda moves in, measures the growing distance between Finn and his inscrutable mom, and their interaction with a lodger whom circumstances have forced upon them.

The book wanders, meanders, not tied down to the usual overarching plot and cohort of subtexts; a series of events that unfold and build up, sort of, to the ending, and author Roy Jacobson is in no hurry to divulge them.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just so you know.

If you've read your fair share of dysfunctional family dramas, the real novelty to "Child Wonder" may turn out to be where it is situated. The novel unfolds in Norway, which renders it, for the uninitiated, something of a passport to a small country not very much in the headlines, but worthy of revelation to the curious among us.

For certain, you'll not recognize "the old style swimming belts, lined with reindeer fur," nor the heavily public and collective way people exist with one another, in the 1960s, as post-World War II Europe begins to spread its economic wings.

The translation's English is England's English. You may have to skate over the fact Finn has a "quiff," although this and other expressions not common to stateside usage lend a touch of color to the white, frozen, and crystallized backdrop across which the tale is writ.

"Child Wonder," will not blow you away, shock you out of your shoes, or haunt you long. It's impact is indirect, its motives and purpose well below the surface of the page, working hard to demonstrate what becomes of our hearts and souls with age.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"My Favorite Band Does Not Exist," by Robert Jeschonek

"My Favorite Band Does Not Exist," (MFBDNE) tracks the progress of two young men, one who has a complex about being controlled by others, the second fearful of failure.

They are unfamiliar with one another, but Idea Deity has confected a fake band over the Internet that has gone viral, at the very same time Reacher Mirage's rockin' combo is rehearsing under THE VERY SAME NAME.

Author Robert Jeschonek has gone Yin-and-Yang, sun-and-moon, night-and-day, complete-me-complete-you in a text that fully embraces dualism and puts his protagonists on a track towards unity. It's for their own good and for the good of the "chain of realities," or something like that.

Their progress is aided by two sprightly girls, each with a tattoo of the other's face on the back of her head. Jumping back between Reacher's and Idea's stories, MFBDNE also inter-cuts with a novel both men are simultaneously reading called "Fireskull's Revenant."

It would result in a spoiler to say anything more than that the protagonists' fates are inextricably mixed with the two comic book-style characters, Lord Fireskull and Johnny Without, the author fashions in some alternate reality.

Follow? It's not that complicated really. MFBDNE is nothing if not a smooth read.

Mr. Jeschonek's background includes turns as a writer of the Pocket Book "Star Trek" series, podcasts, a Twitter serial, and work for D.C. comics. His first novel follows in the same vein.

There is just enough characterization to make this a novel and something other than a comic-book-in-text. Jeschonek's little machine of counterweights inter-spliced with a metaphor-laden fantasy book drives itself nicely.

He even takes Miguel Unamuno's "Abel Sanchez" a step further, empowering Idea, as character, to rebel against the intentions of his creator/author and choose a proper destiny.

For all its cartoon-like pyrotechnics, MFBDNE is mostly an oneiric yarn concerned with interior lives of its primary subjects.

The test for individual readers will be whether they care if Idea and Reacher resolve their inner conflicts. It's highwayscribery's guess younger readers will while their elders shrug.

Don't let the edgy, punky cover fool you. Jeschonek's are straight ahead, white-bread prose that take no chances and break no new ground.

That said, he writes the heck out of his story, fully developing his many threads, punching up his yarn in every sentence, and with every named character, so that nothing seems lazy or unnecessary to the piece. It is hard not to be pulled along by the writer's exuberance, as he barrles forward, tongue ever in cheek, playfully approaching his task.

"My Favorite Band Does Not Exist," is meant for the denizens of the younger generation currently afoot and, perhaps, for those who want to understand something of their reality.

"Ten Thousand Saints" by Eleanor Henderson

A good and quick way of describing "Ten Thousand Saints," would be to call it a bohemian consort to Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom."

The Berglunds, Franzen's vehicle for sifting and weighing distinct facets of contemporary American life are troubled and wacky (like all of us). But they have college degrees, own a sweet house, and (on and off) hold jobs that exceed the value of their pedigrees.

They are quintessentials (made-up word) woven from the American myth, strivers on a mad lurch upward, their familial idiosyncrasies pushing and pulling.

The parents in Eleanor Henderson's novel, by way of contrast, are pot-smokers/dealers, glass bong-blowers or long-departed.

Two of the kids in the cast, Teddy and Jude, engage in youthful tomfoolery such as snorting industrial compounds, and well, stuff so inane that Henderson's acknowledgements inform her son that he can "do anything but don't ever do any of the stupid things in this book."

Teddy dies (not a spoiler but forecast in the book's opening sentence) while they are inhaling something out of an air conditioner duct in the freezing Vermont night.

Before he did that though, Teddy had sex with Jude's step-sister, Eliza, and impregnated her.

The loss of a beloved friend and brother spurs Jude, and Teddy's senior sibling Johnny, to form a protective cloister around Eliza and nurture her to delivery.

That's your story. It moves from Vermont to New York, where Johnny and Eliza already live anyway, and situates them in the "straight edge" movement clustering throughout Alphabet City, Manhattan, in the late 1980s.

A plan is cooked-up whereby Johnny claims paternity and marries Eliza as a legal and tender way of keeping parents, grandparents and state agencies from assuming their traditional roles in the lives of confused teen-aged moms.

They form a band, The Green Mountain Boys. After running afoul of some local toughs back in Vermont, a van tour is launched, second rate venues played, and junk food imbibed on the open American road.

Sex, spirits and narcotics, are eschewed because that's the "straight edge" credo, perhaps at the story's expense.

There is something monkish about the trio that makes them not very much fun to follow, despite their admirable do-it-yourself musicianship and earnest efforts at hacking a unique path for themselves through the complex new world of maturity.

They take a shot at the open road, another American myth; The one that says somewhere in all that vastness, there is a place better than where I'm at.

"It was ten o'clock in the morning, and it was summer, and these were the best years of their lives, and they were crossing George Washington Bridge, the Hudson a spangled blue ribbon laced through it.

"On the boom box that served as car stereo was the new album by Side By Side, with whom they had just performed; behind Jude were one thousand copies of their own seven-inch record, which had just been pressed in Haworth, New Jersey, and released on Green Mountain Recordings, the label Delph had produced out of thin air."

Here, that myth is either false or a thing of the past.

The kids can't seem to escape their parents, bouncing between them, renewing entanglements. Yes they've made the big jump to The Big Town, but Les, Jude's pot-smoking dad is there, along with Eliza's overweening mom, Di.

"Ten Thousand Saints" is very nicely written by a woman with all the academic bona fides of today's top publishing recruit, but readers may split on whether the talent might have been lavished on something other than a brief bohemian idyll in Manhattan of some less-than-inspiring youths.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Conquistadora" by Esmeralda Santiago

Esmeralda Santiago's "Conquistadora" is many stories in one.

It is the story of the headstrong young Spanish girl, Ana, struggling to make it in the new world. It is the political story of a Puerto Rico running on slavery, though still in colonial shackles. It is the story of a sugar plantation that destroys a pair of families seduced by the promise of tropically tinged wealth.

The narrative covers 20 some odd years at the plantation, "Los Gemelos," with occasional visits to San Juan for an update on the temporal situation, in Puerto Rico and beyond, while recounting the progress of sundry relatives and lovers residing there.

The reader is treated to a systematic dissection of a sugar plantation's workings. Ample detail regarding slave life, and existence in Africa prior, is rendered. A thread covering the rebellious maneuvers of intellectuals with nationalist yearnings in the capital is also pulled through the fabric of "Conquistadora."

Overlaying its alternately brutal and luscious landscape is Ana's quest to make a go of the farm, which had defeated an illustrious ancestor. The plantation devours most everyone and everything around, save for Severo, a hybrid foreman and landowner who has much in common with Ana, save for social class, which favors her.

This reviewer is not familiar with Ms. Santiago's earlier works, which have achieved acclaim and significant circulation. And it is not easy to say that something with so much work put into it doesn't quite come out right.

In her efforts to provide a panoramic picture of the island and capture a historic moment, the author has peopled her landscape many characters fighting for the space to blossom.

Santiago's portraits of the slaves are most compelling, but they are not very well woven into the overall text. There are many slaves at "Los Gemelos" and it is not easy to keep track of them given their fragmented insertions into the narrative.

Ana is the primary focus, but for all the time spent on her, compared to the others, it seems she never truly wins anyone over, either in the story(characters), or outside of it (the reader).

She and Severo appear rather calculating people who will do anything, and use anyone, to keep their precious farm functioning.

In the midst of a perilous moment in their joint enterprise, Severo comforts his lover and partner by noting,

"Don't forget. Bad weeds don't die."

To which she responds, "If bad weeds don't die. We'll both live forever."

Yes, Santiago may be making a point about what it took to be a "conquistadora," in those rough and tumble days of early Puerto Rico. But authenticity and empathy don't always come in the same package.

Perhaps too much was tried here. Sometimes a novel with epic sweep can dwarf its own characters.

A story of a love gone awry over property in a strange land was enough to win with, but the author strains to fit all of Puerto Rico into the narrative of some rather starcrossed people.

Santiago resorts to description that often reads like a "National Geographic" article ("Horses, mules, pigs, goats milk cows, bulls, chickens ducks, guinea fowls, and doves to be tended...") and merely adds to the surfeit of information and slows the story's progress.

Her sentences and paragraphs often break down into listings of items, people, occurrences or actions that give the novel an unfinished feel.

Like this one from the very same page 123: "Slaves clean and improved the building where the cane was processed, repaired machinery, maintained the tracks from the canebrakes to the 'batey,' raised berm between fields, build and clear ditches. They staked new fences and mended deteriorated ones, dug trenches for drainage, built canals for irrigation."

Otherwise known as farm work.

But most of all, the conquistadora herself is a tough sell. Raised under the harsh yoke of Spanish Catholicism, she engages a lesbian lover, marries a man with a twin brother, beds down with each, and then barters an only son away, without ever losing her mind.

It's is dark stuff and Ana, young and sheltered as her upbringing has been, remains remarkably unaffected for someone steeped in the gothic influences of Seville.

In the end, it seems as if Santiago draped a new world archetype -- a pre-feminist heroine -- over an old world silhouette. It is tough purchase, the idea that this character's passion for books and a rebellious nature could so effectively inform a provincial girl in the ways of modern independence.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Bolivar: The Liberator of Latin America," by Robert Harvey

One country's demi-god can be another's historical relic.

Simon Bolivar's profile in the United States is not a prominent one. Years ago there was a chapter somewhere in the elementary or middle school textbooks, but beyond that this prominent figure has not been the subject of an HBO miniseries, a biopic starring Antonio Banderas, or any such pop culture effluvia.

Robert Harvey has set out to change that in "Bolivar: The Liberator of Latin America."

He writes of his subject, "Yet as soldier, statesman and man of common humanity he stands head and shoulders above any other figure that Latin America has ever produced and amongst the greatest men in global history."

Given South America's status as perennial political delinquent and woeful economic laggard, the first half of his proposition is neither hard to argue with, nor much of a claim.

It is in support of the second that Harvey, a one-time scribe for the "Daily Telegraph" and "The Economist," sets out to make a case.

The task is a challenging one, not because of Bolivar's accomplishments, which were myriad and impressive, rather due to the staggering size and complexity of the continent in question, and the subject's disappointing lapses in judgment or, worse, humanity.

Harvey's recounting is an A to Z affair, tarrying long on the young Bolivar's development as a dissolute young man privileged enough to steep in the thought of Rousseau and the Europe where his writings were all the contemporary rage.

It's a portrait of another time and a disappeared class of person groomed with patience for whatever great feats might be in the offing.

Here is the budding Liberator loping through the old country, from romance to romance, landmark to landmark, musing upon his destiny, brimming with a proprietary sense of the glory that is his due.

Early on, Harvey takes an unorthodox detour into the biography of Francisco de Miranda, a revolutionary forerunner to Bolivar, and the victim of a fatal betrayal at the younger man's hands.

Yes, the two men's destinies were intertwined. And no discussion of the continent's revolutionary period would be complete without covering Miranda's career trajectory, but this section runs so long one forgets that Bolivar is the subject at hand.

Nonetheless, Miranda's life, his jaunt through 19th century Europe in particular, was so interesting and extraordinary, it is easy to see how Harvey could not help himself.

As they say in the sporting world, "No harm, no foul."

The narrative, which conveys the scope and workings of Spain's empire, the complex social and racial components of the continent's far-ranging regions, and the endless rivalries of the warlords driving the epoch, are rendered breezily.

Mr. Harvey does not hide his admiration for Simon Bolivar, nor does he make an effort at concealing his many flaws.

A former member of British Parliament, Mr. Harvey knows well the cracked armor of any beloved public figure. He seems to understand that, for the great and ambitious man, most success is seen through a rearview mirror, while the life itself is a torturous swim from shipwreck to shipwreck.

Bolivar did not rise up, whole, to save the struggling masses of Ibero-America.

He had a strong sense that the Spanish should be booted from their colonial holdings, but his first attempt found him on the side of Venezuela's privileged "criollo" classes and at odds with a rather ferocious hodgepodge of Indians, slaves, poor whites, and any admixture of the three.

It seems that the coalition he assembled to oust the Spaniards through military violence was one of convenience that required a constant re-cobbling.

Bolivar delivered Miranda into Spanish hands and imprisonment at Cadiz, Spain, where he died. He ordered the slaughter of 800 political prisoners under his command, slept with an unseemly number of women, and subjected his armies to terrible suffering and staggering losses with mad, never-say-die, strategies.

Harvey does not whitewash or reason these excesses away, rather attempts to place them within the context of the times in which they occurred. Whether he succeeds or not will depend upon the politics and sensibility of each reader.

The first third of the book, concerned as it is with Miranda's and Bolivar's development in the hothouse of European political thought, makes for great storytelling. The second part, covering the military effort, might have fallen into the familiar memes of war reporting (feints, out-flankings, charges, and counterattacks) were it not for the staggering topography Bolivar alternately battled and turned to his advantage, and which Harvey renders with color and passion.

The final part details Bolivar's attempt at the consolidation of those places from which the Spaniards had been chased into something governable -- the Liberator as statesman and politician -- and is marked by the melancholy his lack of success wrought.

The failures signify personal shortcomings only to the extent Bolivar could not be the best in every arena he proactively strode into.

Harvey's portrait is that of a true Renaissance man who excelled as a general, but was also a fair hand at writing political tracts, wooing the ladies, dancing, and envisioning a framework for the coexistence of disparate peoples across a sprawling landmass.

It is the portrait of an interesting man living a rather breathtaking story.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Down These Mean Streets," by Piri Thomas

"Down These Mean Streets" gets you three books for the price of one.

The first book is true to its title: a young man's coming of age along the dangerous byways of Spanish Harlem.

Here we see the perils associated with traversing the concrete jungle, the need for toughness and concomitant death of tenderness in youth.

Author Piri Thomas details what life was like for Puerto Ricans moving into what had been an Italian neighborhood and the Italians' response to their displacement.

Thomas was born in the 1920s, so that the time covered here ranges from the '30s to, perhaps, the early '50s, rendering his once hip track of new-lit jargon and streetjabber something of a timepiece.

Thomas' novel came out in 1967 and one can imagine the liberal chic set of Mayor John Lindsay's New York jumping like cats to nip at his rough-edged peek beneath the shiny Big Apple's skin.

Although this kind of literature has become stock in the book trade (James Frey anyone?), Thomas' autobiographical recounting of life among the rough Puerto Rican boys on his street can still shock.

His detached description of when the bored kids willingly go up to the apartment of some transvestites for homosexual interaction, pot, and booze, is rather striking and unsettling.

The second "book" deals with young Piri's identity crisis. One which can be extended to all the Puerto Ricans of his time.

highwayscribery is ignorant of what they are thinking today, but in Thomas's time, there was much ado over skin color, the islanders running from evening black to lily white as they do.

Thomas' problem was that he was darker, while his brothers were white. As a Puerto Rican, he did not, at first, view himself as being in the same boat as the African-Americans with whom his people crowded Harlem.

But when the family makes an escape to suburban Long Island, Piri comes in for a bit of a shock, and slinks back to "El Barrio" with a severe chip on his shoulder and a deeper sense of shared experience with the American Negro.

This issue is aired-out in discussions with folks of different skin pigmentation, each of whom expresses a unique understanding of the related questions. For this reviewer, it went on a little too long, and seemed a little self-indulgent.

Especially for a young man confronted with the serious matter of economic survival in a cruel and unforgiving city.

Nonetheless, Thomas' youthful obsession generates an anger which serves as bridge to the third book, which is a jail tale.

Identity issues unresolved, his skin color serving him poorly in prejudiced city, the young man goes on a crime spree, again remarkable for its matter-of-fact execution, which lands him in the state penitentiary.

Perhaps it was novel at the time, but today his efforts to maintain a tough guy's rep -- primarily to avoid being sodomized by bigger, harder criminals (no pun intended) -- while rehabilitating himself with a little Nation of Islam cant and some in-house masonry training are now familiar fodder.

Thomas' attempt to forge a street-seasoned prose is uneven. He never really finds a groove and seems almost relieved to let more articulate characters do some of the heavy lifting where the expression of complex ideas is involved.

Nonetheless, he succeeds in engaging the reader, pulling of that time-tested trick of getting people to root for a guy doing bad things, by peeling back the hard layers and revealing a human and worthy heart.
gets you three books for the price of one.

The first book is true to its title: a young man's coming of age along the dangerous byways of Spanish Harlem.

Here we see the perils associated with traversing the concrete jungle, the need for toughness and concomitant death of tenderness in youth.

Author Piri Thomas details what life was like for Puerto Ricans moving into what had been an Italian neighborhood and the Italians' response to their displacement.

Thomas was born in the 1920s, so that the time covered here ranges from the '30s to, perhaps, the early '50s, rendering his once hip track of new-lit jargon and streetjabber something of a timepiece.

Thomas' novel came out in 1967 and one can imagine the liberal chic set of Mayor John Lindsay's New York jumping like cats to nip at his rough-edged peek beneath the shiny Big Apple's skin.

Although this kind of literature has become stock in the book trade (James Frey anyone?), Thomas' autobiographical recounting of life among the rough Puerto Rican boys on his street can still shock.

His detached description of when the bored kids willingly go up to the apartment of some transvestites for homosexual interaction, pot, and booze, is rather striking and unsettling.

The second "book" deals with young Piri's identity crisis. One which can be extended to all the Puerto Ricans of his time.

highwayscribery is ignorant of what they are thinking today, but in Thomas's time, there was much ado over skin color, the islanders running from evening black to lily white as they do.

Thomas' problem was that he was darker, while his brothers were white. As a Puerto Rican, he did not, at first, view himself as being in the same boat as the African-Americans with whom his people crowded Harlem.

But when the family makes an escape to suburban Long Island, Piri comes in for a bit of a shock, and slinks back to "El Barrio" with a severe chip on his shoulder and a deeper sense of shared experience with the American Negro.

This issue is aired-out in discussions with folks of different skin pigmentation, each of whom expresses a unique understanding of the related questions. For this reviewer, it went on a little too long, and seemed a little self-indulgent.

Especially for a young man confronted with the serious matter of economic survival in a cruel and unforgiving city.

Nonetheless, Thomas' youthful obsession generates an anger which serves as bridge to the third book, which is a jail tale.

Identity issues unresolved, his skin color serving him poorly in prejudiced city, the young man goes on a crime spree, again remarkable for its matter-of-fact execution, which lands him in the state penitentiary.

Perhaps it was novel at the time, but today his efforts to maintain a tough guy's rep -- primarily to avoid being sodomized by bigger, harder criminals (no pun intended) -- while rehabilitating himself with a little Nation of Islam cant and some in-house masonry training are now familiar fodder.

Thomas' attempt to forge a street-seasoned prose is uneven. He never really finds a groove and seems almost relieved to let more articulate characters do some of the heavy lifting where the expression of complex ideas is involved.

Nonetheless, he succeeds in engaging the reader, pulling of that time-tested trick of getting people to root for a guy doing bad things, by peeling back the hard layers and revealing a human and worthy heart.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Toward a More Balanced View of Italian Americans by Anthony Maulucci

Italian-American artists create! You have nothing to lose but your homogenized and degraded ethnicity.

In his short-ish book (long-ish pamphlet) "Towards a More Balanced View of Italian Americans," Anthony Maulucci issues a clarion call for artists sharing his background to, "assert their love and respect for their own cultural heritage."

His essay proposes a map for achieving this and the main road links to the old country's intellectual and aesthetic splendors.

When urging Italian American artists to celebrate their cultural heritage, Maulucci makes clear his reference is not to some of the ethnicity's leading luminaries such as Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante or Annette Funicello.

Suckled on the success of such celebrities in the 1950s, Maulucci did not see heroes.

"I saw them as cultural failures," he writes, "traitors to the rich heritage and great traditions of their family roots. To my mind they were pathetic fools who had sold their cultural souls for gold and glory."

Sure, that was a long time ago and Maulucci is willing to at least tip his hat at more authentic latter day saints like Martin Scorsese or Robert De Niro. But here again, the touch of love is qualified:

"Presumably, they are proud to be Italian, but what does that mean? of what, exactly are they proud? From the roles they play and the projects they create it's impossible to deduce whether they have even the most rudimentary understanding and appreciation of their European heritage."

Maulucci details the peculiar case of the first generation Italian American, his/hers embarrassed association with a poor and undemocratic mother country, their burning desire to assimilate and Americanize, to leave the past behind.

So successful were they in this drive, "the only traditions that were kept alive, as they were in my family, were the ones connected to food preparation."

And while Italian American artists have always striven to encompass the old country passion for what is "bello" in their work, these efforts have found scant acceptance, even among those with the best chance of gaining enrichment.

"Most people can name at least one prominent Italian American figure in the world of business, politics, sports and entertainment, but how many people," he asks, "Italian Americans included, can identify a single great American author of Italian descent?"

It is hard to argue with these sentiments or the author's larger assertion that Italian American culture is on the verge of extinction.

The answer to the crisis, he posits, lies in Italian Americans supporting "their authentic artists, the ones telling their own stories as honestly as they can." In particular, he calls for the open support of writers and filmmakers, "since they have the most widespread influence."

An Italian surname, however, should not be sufficient to gaining such support.

Instead, it must be lent to those artists who assume, "a proactive role in broadening society's view of us beyond the simplistic caricatures of lovable lunkheads, menacing mobsters, madonnas, wine-soaked imbibers, and happy gourmands."

This piece is written with a warm passion that adds to, rather than detracts from, the clarity of its arguments and insightful historical analysis.

For Italian Americans willing to confront these issues, Maulucci makes them short and sweet matters of common sense.

The author closes with an emotional elegy for Sacco and Vanzetti; rooting the challenge he has issued in the martyred anarchists' unstinting drive to make America more just and the barriers to this effort their ethnicity erected.

There is much to be learned from "A More Balanced View..." with the smallest investment of time and attention.

Monday, May 30, 2011

"The Daughter of Sienna" by Marina Fiorato

Siena, take a bow.

In Marina Fiorato's "The Daughter of Siena: A Novel,"
the principal characters turn out bit players, and the Tuscan city, a star.

Set in 18th century Italy, this is a tale of sanguinary political tribes, horseracing, love unrequited, and palace intrigue with a Sienese flavor.

The novel charts the slow-forming alliance of the low-born Riccardo Bruni, a maiden groomed for sale via marriage, Pia Tolomei, an ineffective duchess, and a street urchin, in their battle against some treasonous nobles bent on sacking Siena for their own enrichment.

"The Daughter of Siena" is as hermetically sealed as any self-respecting provincial European municipality.

The author effectively weaves Siena's ever-present swallows, rival "contrade" or neighborhoods' vibrant colors, and legendary "Palio" race -- the city's landmarks and identifying symbols -- into the stuff of the story.

The dome, towers, scalloped central square, urban landscape, pageantry and peculiar ways of the provincial burg not only inform the story, but are the very stuff it is made of.

The novel's tightly wound plot makes it difficult to do a summary without giving things away.

Perhaps it is enough to say that the cast are introduced, en masse, in the first Palio of summer, and the city's fate, which all will enlist to influence, is tied to the outcome of a second run in August.

"It is a little risky," says Pia. "To bet a city on a horse race."

Arrayed against the motley, but loveable, crew recruited to save the rein of the de Medici clan in town are some sinister city fathers with bloody predilections and a difficult-to-crack plan for seizing power from the Duchess Violante de Medici, of whom the omniscient narrator comments:

"She was aware of the new thinking, the new sciences, the enlightenment of the world, but she devoured instead legends and tales of old, because she herself was preserved in the amber of a bygone era."

As are the literary passions of Ms. Fiorato.

When Riccardo apprises Pia of so much that has occurred during her imprisonment at the hands of evil-doers, she observes, "He might have been telling her fairy tale by the fire, so incredible did it sound to her ears."

A fairy tale for adults, wherein the history and culture of a unique location are skillfully strung in narrative threads the writer successfully resolves, without the facts about Siena and its history ever appearing inorganic or forced.

The narration is rendered in a straight-up grammatical English and the whole is well-polished.

Subjectively speaking, highwayscribery prefers things a little raggedy, whereas this story stays between the lines, ties up all loose ends through sensible set-ups that can, at times, appear obvious. The resolutions comes across as neat and pat.

But that is mostly a matter of taste, not the skill so amply on display in this story of characters trying to cope with the weight of Siena, and it's history, on their efforts to hack individual paths through Italian life.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"I Could Love You," by William Nicholson

If you are middle class, or doing a little better, "I Could Love You," is not so much an escape as it is a mirror.

William Nicholson's characters can be difficult to distinguish from one another. They have generic names (Alice, Laura, Jack), are all white, and each luxuriating in the search for meaning or LOVE.

They talk similarly as well. Idioms, slang, and varied voices are not the author's strong suit, but narration itself changes pitch and tone as his assemblage of characters take turns under the literary microscope.

"I Could Love You," comes off as one of those ensemble movies that Hugh Grant stars in, featuring lots of people living in close proximity, yet only mildly conscious of one another.

"Love Actually," comes to mind.

And that's the set-up. Sometimes paths cross unexpectedly and narrative flames are sparked as a result.

This is a zeitgeist piece including references to Facebook and the MP3 player. If you are wondering whether you'll have much in common with these folks, you will, unless you're the kind who helps people in Africa or works as an undercover agent in the war on terror.

Whether you'll care about them is another question, but Nicholson is a writer of true command, a deft hand relaying a story that seems milquetoast on the surface, but offers edgy and insightful moments, meanings, and passages.

"Once you know that you don't know," he writes, "everything changes. The absurdity of so much of our lives ceases to be a puzzle. Of course we're ridiculous. Of course we make fools of ourselves. Why wouldn't we? We are fools. We know so little. But are not any the less loveable for all that."

One of the novel's strengths is its multi-generational tack. Literature has never scanted young love, but Nicholson renders the complexities and epiphanies of middle-age very nicely.

For example, Tom Redknapp finds himself oddly removed from a big issue at the hospital where he performs plastic surgeries. As the conference room debate rages, he is thinking about his extramarital affair:

"In some strange way he feels as if he's started his life over again. This time round there's no drive to achieve, no deferring of pleasure in the interests of later gain. This time, the pleasure."

The art world comes in for some particularly pointed observations the indoctrinated, and not-so-indoctrinated, may find provocative.

Nicholson's portrait of the forgotten and declining painter Anthony Armitage is a strong departure and counterpoint to the rest of the youthful, mainstream ensemble.

But as the title suggests, love is the big issue here and the characters' experiences are varied enough to offer succor, advice, and cautionary tales for those who like, enjoy, desire, or think a lot about the big L.

The author does an intelligent job of putting something across that is light and entertaining, yet somehow substantive and unsettling.

His larger point is best summed up in this passage, also from the brain of Tom Redknapp, daydreaming of his paramour who is no great shakes in the looks department:

"Nothing to write home about. And there's the wonder of it. Beauty turns out not to create desire after all. Desire creates beauty."

With its many contemporary and hip references, "I Could Love You," is not bound for the classics shelf, but its author was not trying to achieve that.

Still, what Nicholson sets out to do, he does well in this easy and entertaining read.

"The Wrong Blood," by Manuel de Lope

Manuel de Lope's The Wrong Blood is tough to review without giving up the ghost, literally.

It is the story of three people bound by a series of shared spawned by the Fascists deathly advance through the Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War.

Situated for a few passages at the front, the novel mostly broods in the enclosed worlds of two houses on the coast: "Los Sauces" and "Las Cruces."

In one of them live two victims of the conflict, in the other a lame doctor, whose affliction allows him to escape the generalized carnage, yet still be affected by its perversions

The young lawyer Goitia, looking for a place to study, returns to his childhood home at "Las Cruces" whic his deceased mother has left to her life-long house servant, Maria Antonia.

The biggest secret is revealed to the reader at the three-quarter mark, though not necessarily to the young lawyer.

But his rare visit, coupled with the advancing age of the doctor and the house-servant, provide a last chance to rewrite a small history, and the tension to keep from, or unleash upon him the truths they know, form the crux of the conflict.

"Between them," De Lope notes, "the doctor and the old woman could awaken the inexistent memory of young Goitia, assuming that young Goitia had any interest in the stories the old woman and the doctor could tell him."

The path toward that resolution is dominated by an unnamed narrator with no dog in the fight being covered. The action and exchanges between principal characters are employed to sparing effect.

Most of the narrative progress is unspoken, but latent in the air each character is sharing; air rife with narrator's presentiments and ornate musings.

"The Wrong Blood," is mostly back-story, the young man's arrival provoking "the powerful flood of memories" that had "overflowed the sluice gates."

It is a running commentary on what the trio have endured, what they are thinking at any given moment in the history; a history not presented chronologically, rather leapfrogging back and forth along the line of time.

The author's focus is trained mostly on ambience, on environment, on the oppressive realities that precede each character's birth. There are not very many choices available to these people, and still less offering a dignified path.

The liner notes for this Other Press addition quote Gabriel Garcia Marquez deeming De Lope's work, "a celebration of our language."

Since that language is Spanish, the consumer of the English-language effort must take the master at his word. Or at least the word of translator John Cullen who teases a wide vocabulary, a rich thicket of words, and somber palette out of whatever De Lope intended.

In the opening passages, the author depicts the roses of 1936 to be "plump as wet nurses breast."

Later, in a passage more characteristic of, than exception to, "The Wrong Blood, De Lope writes that, "The curtains of rain in the distant, dull-gray clouds bursting over the sea filled her with nostalgia, because, for her, the weeping of the heavens was the ultimate poetical sensation, and nothing compared with the lyrical emotions of abandonment and dispossession that the rain promised.'

In this fashion does the omnipresent narrator mostly hold forth on details and objects surrounding, giving them prior lives, symbolic charges; casting them as witnesses to both a tragedy and a forced permutation in an otherwise natural order by class and the war's outcome.

These can be historical details, the product of fine research, such as the "strange straw wraps used in those days to cover champagne bottles with a kind of cape or hood that protected the glass," or much broader and social in aspect.

Describing how the ill-fated Captain Herraiz and his bride Isabel made it work, the writer observes, "It was said that certain in those years were happy, cautious, and dissolute, and those terms included everything that a judicious and seductive mixture of good breeding and carnality entailed."

If this novel is back-story, it is also a tale of the rearguard, of noncombatants flailing about in a great and sudden disruption. Del Lope conjures it as a place no less harrowing than the front.

For more than power and money, the meaning of each being upended by the times, it is the war which forces the hope-killing obligation to compromise one highest aspirations.

The doctor, by way of example, settles for "the peace of the weak and the just, and it granted him the tranquility of opening the gate and limping back to his house to pour himself of cognac. There was no sadder peace than that."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Freedom," Jonathan Franzen

Most present-day American archetypes will see a reflection of themselves somewhere in Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom: A Novel."

And they will most likely cringe.

The author may or may not be the second coming of the greatest American novelist, but he is definitely a good, and most American novelist.

And for sure, he forgoes a place in the classical canon with his frequent pop references and appeals to the current national sensibilities, but Franzen's got a few things to say about the people of the United States and gosh darn if he isn't going to say them.

It reportedly took the author 10 years to write "Freedom," but he was not simply grooming something that was drafted in 2002. He followed the nation's progress, or lack of progress as he seems to suggest, growing his story right up until the financial crisis of 2008.

"Freedom" represents the triumph of a kind of literary reporting. Franzen's people swim in the zeitgeist the way we all do, like it or not.

The novel charts a Midwestern family of four's wade through the 1970s all the way to the aforementioned sub-prime market meltdown with a keen eye on what makes an American throughout the epoch under examination.

This family of his mind's creation, the Berglunds, with the help of their antecedents, siblings and offspring, swim in the current of contemporary events without the author ever seeming to stretch things to fit his scheme.

He comments on our ugly national mood, growing intolerance, gaping inequalities, corruptions, perversion and decadence with irrefutable accuracy, sparing none, right. left, straight, gay, Christian, secular, blue or red.

There is a density to the prose. Some have said the author uses too many words, but if that is the case, it is rarely in useless or neurotic digression. The action moves along all the while employing the kind techniques that separate finer literature from a good potboiler.

And for all the darkness and foreboding Franzen thrusts upon his ample readership, he manages to close on an optimistic note, which, too, makes him very American.

All of it while seemingly riffing an effortless path through his own sentiments, when those in the know will understand how much more went into this fine and worthy work.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"The Bed of Procrustes," by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A better title for The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms might have been "Crusts of Bread from a Pro."

The classically accented moniker refers to a character in Greek mythology who fed guests at his road house and, afterward, either cut off some part of their body to fit the bed he offered them, or stretched them to achieve the same.

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb resorts to Procrustes' bed as a parable for modern thought. Taleb says his collection of disparate aphorisms are about the Procrustean bed in which humanity currently reclines, "facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences."

Fair enough, although it was not easy for highwayscribery to see a way that, "You never win an argument until they attack your person," however true, fits into the author‘s main idea of “how we deal, and should deal, with what we don‘t know...”

Not to say that there are no engaging or provoking passages found in this mélange of thoughts plucked from Taleb’s mind. highwayscribery liked this one and found it fitting the author’s purposes:

“Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases.”

Then there is this one, which many would probably take issue with:

“To understand the liberating effect of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it.”

Tell that to Bernie Madoff’s clients. As a journalist, highwayscribery took exception to this offering as well: “An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant, the opposite.”

In fact, if you’re a businessperson or academic or, worse, hold down a job, you may find yourself among those polluting the purity of classical thought Mr. Taleb so reveres:

“Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee.”

“The Bed of Procrustes,” is littered with criticisms of those who aren’t lucky enough to have Random House pay them for musings conjured during long, carefree walks through a blessed and jobless existence.

There may be, for certain readers, something off-putting about the author’s deigning to know what is right from wrong. These aphorisms imply that Taleb is on the side of the angels he hopes to hook us up with.

To wit: “I suspect that they put Socrates to death because there is something terribly unattractive, alienating, and nonhuman in thinking with too much clarity.”

(The way I, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, do).

Anyway, this assembly of vaguely organized sentiments possesses its gems and is usually entertaining, which may or may not have been the author's intent. You don’t have to agree with every thought you read to be engaged.

Besides, if nobody assumed they were smarter than the rest of us, there'd be no books attempting to advance our thinking.

Perhaps affecting this assessment is the fact highwayscribery is unfamiliar with Taleb’s earlier effort, “The Black Swan,” which appears to be his signature work and the foundation upon which “The Bed of Procrustes” is built.

Which is another way of saying those who seek this book may gain more from than those who are found by it.

"Small Memories," by Jose Saramago

The aptly titled "Small Memories" deals in the earliest recollections of writer Jose Saramago which are, themselves, diminutive in scale.

These memories are "small" because they recall a child, because of their size, and for what they ultimately convey.

The remembrances recorded here do not constitute a breathless page-turner, rather represent a look at the early formation of a future notable.

Childhood is childhood is childhood and only a handful of times does the Noble Prize winner connect the sapling person to the one he would become in full bloom.

That said, pretty soon they won't make memoirs like this anymore. It has been a curious paradox of modernity that so much time would pass before it truly affected all people in all places more or less equally.

While machines hummed and factories rattled, great expanses of the world, even in Old Europe, lagged behind. And literature has reflected this slowly evolving reality.

Writers from such laggard places as Portugal, Saramago's country, have regaled the modern among us with fairy tales rooted in their still-traditional cultures.

These stories offered an alluring literary time-travel, an escape on the time continuum, a chance to go backwards in history and contrast old ways with those foisted upon us by the relentless drive of industrialization to make everyone over in the same image.

Saramago was born in 1922 and died in 2010. He was long-lived and sprung from the rural and pastoral setting of Azingha, complete with farm animals, harvests, and tiny villages featuring operatic occurrences seemingly foreign to the big city or suburb.

And that is where much of "Small Memories" takes place, although he alternated between the capital city of Lisbon and the country home of his grandparents.

Perhaps the most attractive section of this slim tome is the final stanza, penned as a love-letter to the family elders whom offered him that door to Azingha where, he says, "I would one day return to finish being born."

It is probably true that the publishing of this memoir would never have occurred minus Saramago's fame as the author of "Blindness" and other literary tours de force; that, on its own, it is simply not striking enough.

But there are passages where the writer of world-renown surfaces to illuminate a distant time, assembling its simple elements into beautiful literature. We'll close with this remembrance of the young boy and his uncle driving pigs to market, by way of example:

"I sat up in the trough, blinking and still sleepy, dazzled by an unexpected light. I jumped down and went out into the yard: before me, pouring a milky light over the night and the surrounding landscape, was a vast round moon, making the white seem still whiter where the light struck it full on the black shadows still deeper. I would never see a moon like that again. We fetched the pigs and set off very cautiously down into the valley, where the grass was very tall and there were thick shrubs and rocks, and the piglets, not used to being out so early, could easily stray and get lost. Once in the valley, it was easier. We walked along a dusty path, the dust slaked by the cool of night, past vineyards in which the grapes were already ripe, and I leapt in among the vines and cut two large bunches that I slipped inside my shirt, looking around all the while in case a keeper should appear. I returned to the path and handed one to my uncle. We walked on, eating the cold, sweet grapes, so hard they seemed almost crystallized."

Without "Small Memories," this limpid world might have passed without comment. Instead, it is there for those curious enough to visit.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

"The Help," by Kathryn Stockett

"The Help" author Kathryn Stockett employs clean lines in rendering the jagged ones impacting the lives of her characters.

This book is a mainstay on the bestseller lists and blessed with a nutshell profile that boils down to "black maids in old Mississippi and the women who employ them."

And the line between these two classes of women is established primarily by the colors of their skin, although in the end, it turns out be more jagged and broken than initially proposed.

Dominant employers on the surface, beneath it the southern belles typify a disappearing breed invariably affected by their reliance on the ladies from across the tracks to raise their children and smooth over their glaring imperfections.

And though at times the good girls in this story can seem too good and the bad ones excessively evil, Stockett treats us to shades of gray and cracks in the facades that allow lovely ambiguities to blossom.

The color line is not the only one rendered here. Class rises its ugly head in the form of a lesser-pedigreed country girl from Sugar Ditch who the powerful Miss Hilly and her minions reject for lack of polish and poise.

The grayest of the gray is embodied by Ms. Skeeter, whose failure to snare a man during her undergraduate turn at Ole Miss thrusts her into the netherworld of the working woman in a time and place where women didn't work much.

The slowly growing distance between she and her Ladies League friends provides space for a relationship between she and one of her friend's maids, Aibeleen, to develop.

The lines between these two women of markedly different experiences are the lines they scribble on the page. They are lines of truth in a story very much about the written word and its potential to propel social change.

Ms. Stockett's story is tightly wound with a strong narrative spine hardly interrupted by extended introspection or flights of poetic fancy - the aforementioned clean lines - so we must be wary of telling too much and spoiling the whole.

It's okay to say Aibeleen is only the first of the maids who decide to tell fledgling scribe Skeeter her story. And it's okay to reveal that this odd and dangerous literary adventure is launched in the searing crucible of the early '60s civil rights movement.

Banking on the slimmest of promises from a New York publishing editor, the white girl must mix with the black girls. Some of the more important ones have secrets we are informed of, but lack specific details about until the book's final stanzas.

Whether Skeeter's book gets published, whether the white ladies are abused or elevated by their maids, and if or how they respond will not be revealed here.

It is worth most readers' time to take the plunge and find the answers themselves.

"American Gunfight" by Hunter and Bainbridge

In "American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill President Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It" the authors' duty to assemble a historical record around a forgotten news event sometimes gets in the way of what is otherwise a gripping story.

This true tale of two committed Puerto Rican nationalists, who failed to assassinate then-President Harry Truman, renders the high hour of American imperialism. In its depiction of duty-bound, patriotic law enforcement officers, its revisits a type of American male mostly departed from the scene.

The gunfight designed to shed light on the plight of oppressed Puerto Rico, and gain the larger world's attention, lasted less than a minute.

The authors make up for this lack of material with portraits of the few players who starred in the violent drama.

For the most part, the renderings are too in-depth and arrest the narrative's progress. The same goes for the detailed discussion of guns, their types, and the ways they are fired.

Less nettlesome and better-crafted is the background information on the political fortunes of Puerto Rico and how these spawned the would-be assassins.

It is a testimony to the long-ago happening's allure that a reader probably wades through the sea of superfluous facts, to see how something they already know turned out, turned out. If you follow.

Nonetheless, Mssrs. Hunter and Bainbridge have done yeomans' work in creating a one-stop and shop nonfiction record of how things went down all those years ago.

Had they not dedicated themselves to the effort, this not-unimportant tragedy, its victims and heroes, would have been lost to the dustbin of history (as they say). Though, at times, taxing their own narrative, they triumph with the scholastic challenge "An American Gunfight" posed.

Best for readers really looking into the history of Puerto Rican politics.

"The Little Book," by Selden Edwards

In "The Little Book" what comes round goes round and round and round...and comes back again.

Shelden Edward's novel is an exquisite time machine that feeds itself events which provide the impulse for later events, and earlier ones, too.

We have before us a case for the interrelatedness between persons and epochs alike.

The main trunk to this story, with significant secondary branches, follows '70s hippy rocker Wheeler Burden on a time travel trip through the fin de siecle Vienna of Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gustav Mahler.

Edwards brings to life the intellectual ferment that powered the Austrian capital’s rise to prominence in the worlds of music, philosophy, painting, and psychiatry of the time, without being so smart as to turn off those who've come simply to savor a fine tale.

For texture and plot-thickening, the author takes advantage of his time-travel meme to visit the stuffy and WASPy world of a New England prep school, and the more open-aired environment of the Sacramento Valley.

While dabbling in matters both deep and cosmetic, mixing Frisbees with Austrian empresses, and '70s rock with the rise of anti-Semitic thought in Europe, this complex novel sustains a comfortable readability throughout.

The author is masterful in his handling of deep and important subjects in a most entertaining way.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"A Place of Greater Safety," by Hilary Mantel

"A Place of Greater Safety" proposes that revolution is a deadly game, even when you win it.

Hilary Mantel uses brushstrokes broad, thin, short, and long in rendering the French Revolution's three main characters: Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilian Robespierre, along with enough secondary and minor characters to fill a 1940s period film.

The novel depicts the desperation of those who want to be the protagonists of recorded history. For these hallowed names are certainly larger when attached to their political achievements than when cleaved to their actual personalities.

The author confects the expansive Danton, master orator, accumulator of wealth in defense of the people, slave to his appetites. Desmoulins is stripped down to an uneven boy who craves his father's love, but can write a mean-streak across genres. The in-house scribe to the bloody insurrection.

And then there's Robespierre: ascetic, asexual, emotionally economical, but increasingly haunted by conspiracies and complots, both real and imagined.

Each of them dreams a society the world might adore and imitate.

Robespierre dreams of "a free people, gentle bucolic, and learned. The darkness of superstition had drained away from the people's lives: brackish water, vanishing soil. In its place flourished the rational, jocund, worship of the Supreme Being. These people were happy; their hearts were not wracked or their flesh tormented by questions without answers or desires without resolution. Men came with gravity and wit to matters of government; they instructed their children, and harvested plain and plentiful food from their own land."

But the only gravity in matters of government visible is that pulling guillotine's blade down on some poor, and second rank, royal's neck as the radicals' dreams usher in something infinitely more ghastly, something they'd like to purge from their resumes, but can't, because they are its architects.

"A Place of Greater Safety," is a behind-the-scenes tale that takes the reader from the house of one member of the troika to another, imagines what the wives and lovers of these famed players might have thought, what those drawn to their political strength saw in them, what their nasty habits were and how they impacted the course of Western civilization.

Lady Mantel loves her politics.

If "Wolf Hall: A Novel" is mostly consigned to the inner workings of the English court and a reduced company of players, "A Place of Greater Safety," takes in the sweep of raging Paris. There are many sly and slippery exchanges among the wittiest men and women of their time, detailing the policy stuff that drove these manic activists.

The piece's tone oscillates dramatically with heroic descriptions of the terrible riots and rampages the revolution unleashed, while dishing up small-bore details like the little red chokers women took to wearing as the terror and guillotine became fixtures of city life.

"Greater Safety" is long and meandering, begging a reader's complete commitment, taking the time for multiple characters to affect one another in organic ways, for planting the deep seeds of their ultimate antagonisms, cutting the sails so that all the windy power of this historical chapter can be captured and drive events forward.