Recently Reviewed Books…

A Treatise on the NovelA Treatise on the Novel by Robert Liddell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I consider myself fortunate to have finally read this book that was gathering dust in my personal library, one picked up at some used book sale years ago and marked “to be read” with no real hope that it would ever be. Though dated, it has some pearls of authorly wisdom.

Liddell breaks out the book into sections that deal with Literary Criticism, the Novelist’s Range, the Novelist’s Values, Plot, Character and Background, and sums up the book by bringing all his teaching into critical evaluations of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and the works of Ivy Compton-Burnett.

In the opening on Criticism he has two categories: (I) Novels Worthy of Criticism and (II) Novels Below Serious Criticism. In section (I) There are (a) Good Novels and (b) Novels that might have been good. Section II is comprised of Middlebrow and Lowbrow works. He makes no bones about whom his favourite authors are: Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Gustav Flaubert, Henry James and Compton-Burnett. Among his section (I)b and (II) fall his less desired authors such as Aldous Huxley, Thomas Hardy, E.M. Forster, Marcel Proust, D.H. Lawrence and John Galsworthy. Edgar Wallace gets a passing mention, no doubt consigned to the Section II – Lowbrow category.

In the section on Range, he delineates Experience from Range. Only fragments of a writer’s experience filter into his creative space to create range. A writer should always write within her range even if it is narrow, for one is able to go deep and not get lost in going broad – e.g. Jane Austen, Emily Bronte and Compton-Burnett who did not have much experience in the world outside of their domestic and social circles but kept their fiction within this milieu. Two novelists who exceeded their range and failed according to Liddell are Maugham and Isherwood.

In Values, he argues that a Novelist should be a humanist above their political and religious leanings. Humanism is defined here as making for breadth, tolerance, equilibrium and sanity. D.H. Lawrence is pointed out as a failure here for distorting plot and character to serve his anti-humanist values. Liddell argues that the values between the novelist’s “writing self” and “worldly self” may differ. He emphasises the need for detachment of the novelist: “if Rome were burning, the novelist cannot be filling buckets of water, and must resist efforts at mobilization.”

In the next two sections on Plot and Character, he agrees that the two are only artificially separable and endorses Henry James’s view that “Character is Action and Action is Plot.” He debates the “perversity” of the novelist and argues the pros and cons of developing a plot based on a single episode. Plots should result from growth not manipulation. In the Character section, he argues how flimsy is the disclaimer that “any resemblance to people living or dead is entirely co-incidental” – it’s more for the benefit of the bookseller’s assistant charged with stocking shelves with fiction and non-fiction than for the reader. All characters are selectively drawn from a collection of real life personages the novelist has come into contact with. He makes a distinction between “flat” characters ( i.e. Dickens’s) who embody single or similar traits and “mixed” characters who have strengths and flaws.

Background, he claims, must always be incidental to character in action. There are physical backgrounds and the more dramatic backgrounds of the mind, the latter that authors like Austen and Woolf (with her stream-of consciousness style) were able to exploit to stronger effect. The background of the mind is also a strength of the novel, for other art forms have difficulty conveying it effectively. He rails at Gallsworthy for his minute descriptions of physical detail: “We learn about everyone in The Forsyte Saga from their furniture or food.”

The final section, his critical appraisal of James’s The Turn of the Screw and Compton-Burnett’s oeuvre, is deep but as I have not read these works, I couldn’t get a full appreciation of it. I have made a note to self to read these books and revisit Liddel’s appraisal of them.

I have only made a cursory tour of this book which is loaded with wisdom on the evolution of the novel and is a gem, for authors in particular. A Treatise on the Novel may now be out of print and been superseded by others that have extended the study of the novel. But I found it useful, particularly Liddell’s observations and quotes, as well as the quotations by other authors that highlight their deep investment and attachment to this form, one that continues to evolve and challenge us.

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The Golden HouseThe Golden House by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(This review was published in The Wagon Magazine in July 2018, and is reproduced here)

The Golden House, a novel by Salman Rushdie, reviewed by Shane Joseph

This was one of my more enjoyable Rushdie books, similar to Shame that I read years ago, where the pomposity of narration, the digressions into classical mythology, the literary allusions—Rushdie hallmarks—were kept to a minimum while the author focussed on a rollicking good story and the central question: Can Good and Evil reside in us?

The denizens of House of Golden reminded me of the Trump family (I’m sure Rushdie didn’t mean it, did he?) on the inside; the Joker who wins the US election in 2016 is Trump on the outside (I think Rushdie definitely meant this one, including labelling Hillary as Batwoman). DC Comics’ Gotham and Metropolis both reside in New York City. The narrator, Rene, is a budding screenplay writer, and so the story is a combination of movie scenes, monologue, dialogue (with and without quotes), first person and third person narration, all wonderfully woven and easy to comprehend, making me now question the traditional form of the novel that we learned in writing school. We pan in and out of scenes as if we are wielding a movie camera: Bombay is initially “the city whose name can’t be mentioned” until we zoom into the Taj Mahal Hotel; Nero Golden, the patriarch, a throwback to a Roman emperor and now exiled in an upscale neighbourhood of New York City’s Greenwich Village, pans into an Indian billionaire who made his money in construction, hobnobbed with Bollywood starlets and laundered money for the mob. Nero’s dysfunctional adult sons (living at home with Daddy) embody all that’s wrong in America: Petya is a ADHD affected video game designer, Apu is a doomed artist living the hedonistic lifestyle, and Dionysius is gender confused and suicidal. Enter the young Russian femme fetale, Vasilia, determined to score a son off Nero, by hook, crook or proxy, and the connection with America’s First Family is complete.

I learned a lot about the movies in this book, for Rene is unable to restrain himself from bringing half a dozen movie metaphors into each scene. And The Golden House itself reminds me of The Great Gatsby crossed with The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Rushdie’s insightful and inciting observations on contemporary society filter unabashedly through his characters:
a) The big bucks are in fantasy and non-fiction (when it came to films and literature).
b) “Post-factual” = “mass market and information age troll-generated.”
c) The reality-check for the immigrant is “the day when he accepts that the idea of return is an illusion.”
d) “Guilty secrets make paranoids of us all” (with apologies to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of course).
e) “Faith dies when you are praying and suddenly realize that no one is listening.”
f) Another way of looking at the elites, hated by Trump supporters: “Knowledge is not power, knowledge is beauty.”
g) Identyism is the legacy of the Joker, and the reclamation of America from its super-villain is now the focus, arming oneself with love and humanity for weapons.

Rushdie’s penchant for irony is abundant: Nero the money launderer, the dhobi, receives a pile of dirty Indian clothes on his doorstep one day, heralding his doom; the construction industry that made Nero is also the one contributing to his downfall; Apu goes to India to exorcise his mother’s ghost, only to become one himself; Rene attains stardom with his film on the Goldens only to lose the people he values most in life.

Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Rene, is both observer and participant in the Golden tragedy. The story line is more movie than novel, including the dramatic ending where the principle characters get their just deserts while others suffer random deaths at the hands of the likes of active shooters and platform pushers. I thought the obvious foreshadowing that bordered on Bollywood could have been toned down, though.

The House of Golden collapses just like Emperor Nero’s did (even fiddle music is heard during the inferno, but is not confirmed!) and I wondered whether this was Rushdie’s warning to The House of Trump? One can’t help but feel sorry for Nero Golden: for all the wealth and hubris he amassed, he also paid dearly for these transient, material gains during his life. He may have been a bastard, but he was a bastard with conscience—good and evil did reside within him, and within most of the principal actors.

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Thirteen MoonsThirteen Moons by Charles Frazier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fictionalized attempt to being to life the history of Appalachian North Carolina in the 19th century.

Will Cooper is a stand-in for the real-life William Holden Thomas (despite the author’s assertions to the contrary), a white orphan who lives among the Cherokee, rises to the position of “white chief” among them, becomes a Confederate soldier, US senator, lawyer and landowner in those halcyon days when the West was opening up, and then who loses everything as he gets to the end of his life and the Thirteen Moons of the year spin faster and faster for him, as they do for everyone nearing their end.

Will’s adopted father is the wise Bear, a landowner himself on the American side, replete with farmstead, cabins, winter house, cornfields, orchards, corrals, lean tos and a menstrual hut for his many wives. Will buys land too, but while Bear owns his land outright, Will owns his by debt. The bad guy is Featherstone, a mixed breed wine connoisseur with a penchant for literature, who owns houses, plantations, slaves, steals horses and gambles for wives. The fictitious element is Claire, one of Featherstone’s wives won in a game of chance, who is Will’s perennial love, a woman who flits in and out of his life many times over but never stays.

The Indian and the White Man are interbred but not integrated when President Andrew Jackson enacts his great “Removal” legislation and the indigenous are pushed out of their lands to the west of the Mississippi, a deal, the author contends, that was hatched with the complicity of the Indian chiefs who profited from it. Will manages to keep Bear’s people whole in their land, but the Civil War that follows thirty years later upends that arrangement; Will’s debts and general mismanagement of his affairs lead to the loss of most of his land. The real-life William Holden Thomas suffered mental illness in his twilight years, and this is alluded to in Will’s erratic behaviour, but is never clearly spelled out. I mean, why would Will spend his last days shooting birdshot at passing trains?

The novel is episodic, with the obvious intent to capture the chronological order of historic events as they transpired. This leads to an “up and down” pacing that never really reaches a novelistic climax. There is a lot of detail that could have been taken out in the interest of brevity. But the author faces the classic conundrum of how much to put in and how much to take out in drawing the landscape and the characters. The excess verbiage helps in that the Appalachian landscape is captured beautifully and the principal characters are well drawn. Some scenes—the duel between Will and Featherstone, Will’s nights with Bear in the winter house, the hunting of Charley, and the nocturnal escapades of Will and Claire—stand out. But in between there is a lot of telling and placing of the historical record.

I learned a lot about the customs, currencies, and food of the time, and about how people survived off the land. New words like jimson (penis), linkster (translator) and chaffering (chafing) pepper the narrative. The difference between the indigenous and the settler also come out: The Indian kills to live, the White Man kills to trade; The Indian claims the land he needs, the White Man claims the land he wants. It is unfortunate that over time the Indian adopts the White Man’s practices.

I ploughed through this slow moving novel mainly because I was interested in the history and culture of nineteenth century Appalachia that I had not studied closely before. It made me appreciate why there are so many indigenous land claims today—the White Man created the conditions for the dispute. Had the immigrants, coming across the ocean in shiploads, intermarried with the locals, as they seemed to be doing before 1830, without carving out the land between “them and us”, we may have had a more harmoniously integrated America today.

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The RavineThe Ravine by Paul Quarrington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“I went down a ravine and never came out,” is the introduction to this novel, and it sums up the life of narrator Phil, a proxy for the author, in this his last and most autobiographical novel.

Something happens when Phil and his younger brother, Jay, go down a ravine near their home with their school friend, Norman. Although we never find out what the two older boys, Ted and Terry (or was it Tom and Tony? Even the younger boys’ memories are selective about the event) did to the three pre-teens, it certainly scarred the latter for life, leaving them angry with the world. Phil’s anger is compounded with guilt, for, being an expert knot-tier, he is forced by the attackers to tie the other two boys up. It takes no stretch of imagination to know what happened, but Quarrington plays with effects not the gory details. The boys grow into adulthood to become artists: Phil, a playwright turned TV screenplay writer turned novelist; and Jay a classical pianist until his anger boils over and he damages his promising career, leaving him to thump piano keys in a bar. Both brothers have troubled personal relationships, between each other, and with their spouses who all end up exes. Only Norman escapes the ravine of their souls to become a priest and have a normal family.

The book converges along two story lines: the first from Phil’s early days as an artist, pre-marriage to budding actress Veronica (Ronnie), and the second from his post-breakup with Ronnie when he is writing his autobiographical novel and trying to recall and reconcile with what happened in that damned ravine, the source of all his emotional unrest. Phil admits that he is a novice at novel writing and that his prose is pedestrian (I have to agree, the humour notwithstanding), and mixes screenplay format with novel format to get his points across; he also uses a telephone call at the end of each chapter with one of the characters in the story, during which Phil is seen furiously trying to find out information about the past, especially about what happened in that ravine. The story lines, once merged, take the brothers on a hilarious road trip to find Norman in distant Thunder Bay, Ontario, the one person they believe has the answers to their dilemma. And he has: “Evil is a choice, and forgiveness, including forgiving oneself, is the answer.” Easy for a priest to say, hard for artists to practise, especially siblings.

Phil admits that being a novelist was his true calling and that instead he sold his soul to TV for the “rivers of money” to be made in that industry. We are treated to insights in the life of an executive producer in the television industry. Quarrington must be laughing from the other side of the grave at the shenanigans now emerging in that industry with respect to sexual harassment, which are par for the course in this novel. He also pokes fun at this business where with the copying of a couple of plot devices from books or films one can turn a new “teevee” program into a money spinner. Ironically, the plot devices that provide Phil with his success also play out in real life for him, damning and saving him in equal measure.

Of course, like in TV, all conflicts must be resolved before the show ends, and Quarrington does that well by implanting a contrived bad guy in the last chapter, and using Phil’s rope tying skills to…well…tie all the loose ends.

I kept reading this easy-read because the humour and original jokes took me beyond Phil’s disjointed narrative. The repetitious arguments between the brothers, and between Phil and Ronnie, mundane though they become, also provide insight into their flawed characters. Some of the larger-than-life characters such as Hooper (Giller prize-winning author), Edward Milligan (star actor) and Rainie (Phil’s mercy fuck during his estranged days) provide added colour.

The humour lightened the dark theme of rape and its lasting damage on the victim(s), and watered down the impact for me. Given that Quarrington was a humorist, he obviously chose to tell this story laced with laughter, a sure-shot way to garner readers in our genteel North American culture that has difficulty dealing with unpleasant themes (hence probably why we never see what went on in that ravine). I wonder how he would have fared had he chosen to bare the evil that took place, in all its starkness and misery?

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The Child Finder (Naomi Cottle, #1)The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“The abused become abusers” is never more true in this novel. A cycle of child abduction plays out through the generations, as child finder Naomi, herself a victim of kidnapping and confinement during her childhood tries to solve the disappearance of 5-year-old Madison, now missing for three years.

Naomi is a driven, closed person fleeing her own nightmares as she develops her child finder reputation. Not all her children are rescued alive but her efforts help the families gain closure. In the Madison case, Naomi returns to her roots, to where she was found as a runaway 9-year-old with no memory of her past, in the snow-covered backwoods and mountains of Oregon. She was adopted by the kind widow, Mrs. Cottle, who specializes in taking in abandoned kids. The indigenous boy, Jerome, also one of Mrs. Cottle’s charges, forms an indelible bond with Naomi.
Madison is a gifted child who learns to cope in captivity by assuming the persona of one of her fairy tale characters, the Snow Angel. The unusual element of this story is that the reader is exposed to the narrative voices of Naomi, Madison and the little girl’s captor, a deaf mute known only as Mr. B. It is hard to feel anger towards Mr. B despite the unspeakable things he does to Madison, for he too is a damaged person, kidnapped when he was Madison’s age and never rehabilitated to society.

The story moves back and forth in time in short chapter breaks that shift point of view continuously. I found this to be the weakness of the book for the movement is slow. I felt 50 pages could have been cut out of this book without missing a beat. And yet the slow pace helped build not only the haunting landscape of the Oregon interior during winter and it’s quirky people like the Murphys, but it also built a landscape of the minds of these damaged people. “In the spectrum of hurt it is better for a child to be attached to her abuser than to face the hole of neglect,” is a fact that rings out clearly when we see how attached Snow Angel becomes to Mr. B, accepting his abuse and his imprisonment, sleeping in his bed and facing his tantrums rather than challenge him or try to escape. She even helps to civilize him by introducing him to play and to take baths. And yet one part of her retains the dream of escape into the world she came from, for she ties little scraps of yellow ribbon on trees under the sight line of Mr. B in the hope that one day the rescuers will come for her. Madison’s three years of captivity become a proxy for the missing years in Naomi’s childhood which is not covered in this book. I also thought that despite her giftedness, Madison was drawn as a much older child than a 5-8 year old.

A sub-plot lands out of nowhere in the middle of the book, when Naomi takes on and solves the disappearance of another child, Baby Danforth. The two cases are unrelated and I wondered whether this had been inserted to deepen and complicate the story line that was plodding along extremely slowly up to this point. At least, it highlighted to us that Naomi is not always rewarded with the outcome she is seeking.

As the Madison investigation intensifies, Naomi reaches deeper into her own past and regurgitates her lost years and the reasons for her intense detachment and remoteness from people. Jerome helps her face up to the fact that she is able to love without fear and does not have to keep running. And in her delving she uncovers that she was not the only one kidnapped back in her childhood—setting us up perfectly for the sequel to follow, when Naomi is bound go on the trail of that other missing child from twenty years ago, one she blames herself for losing in her flight for safety.

This book provides a good perspective of child kidnapping from the victim’s point of view, for Naomi, Madison and Mr. B are all victims of this horrible crime, and even though we have to choose sides between them, the real criminal is the abuse itself. Victims like Naomi cannot rest until another victim is found…and another. There is no rest for the abused, the book seems to say, they have to keep running.

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Writing Creative Writing: Essays from the FieldWriting Creative Writing: Essays from the Field by Rishma Dunlop
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Creative writing is now a business, more for the teachers than for the writers, for there are set wages for the former and uncertain ones for the latter. Creative writing has mushroomed from 77 programs across North America in 1977 to over 900 today. Every aspect of the craft has been analyzed and categorized, and every attempt is being made to extend the form through these programs. One gets the sense that it is impossible to become a creative writer today unless one takes one of these courses.

The book is a smorgasbord of essays written by teachers of creative writing. The subjects vary from the “how to”s of the various forms (poetry, prose, scriptwriting, blogging etc.) to subtle selling pitches for various programs by the highlighting of their unique approaches to teaching the craft, to snapshots of life in the classroom, to glimpses into the lives of the teachers and students. Women in writing is an area of exploration, as is the lamentation on funding cuts to creative writing programs in Canada. I felt the chafing that is going in universities where often the creative writing program is subservient to its colonial master, the English Department.

One essay deals with the challenge faced in teaching creative writing to students, especially overseas students, who have always learned by rote; in this instance, there is a need to “unlearn” past habits and arrive at “point zero” in order to begin the creative writing journey. This prompted me to ask the question: Can one ever be taught creative writing? As a former student of one of these programs, I grant that a student can learn the finer points of craft from such a course, but the writing comes from within, from an area that no creative writing program can reach.

I was intrigued by Priscila Upal’s essay on adaptation—the adaptation of ancient myths to portray contemporary personal stories—for I saw a connection with my novel The Ulysses Man that I wrote several years ago, where I modelled the travels of Odysseus to the modern immigrant story. I also liked the essay on writing sex scenes. and promised myself never to use metaphor in that context again. The reference to the writer as a keeper of secrets, where the subtle is preferred over the overt, was a refreshing perspective.

What I didn’t like was the academic buzz-words that infest this book: pedagogy, textual, intertextual, patriarchy, decolonization, agency; these words are overused in practically every essay. Given that this is a book about creative writing, I wished that more variety had been used in word choice.

There is universal agreement that the greatest contribution literature makes to society is empathy, which leads to social cohesion. But what of the teacher? Stephanie Bolster sums up the life of the creative writing instructor when she says, “A writer in academe gives up the freedom to write—in exchange for the freedom from poverty and perhaps obscurity.” Which prompted another question in my mind: Is the creative writer who seeks the safety of academe truly a courageous soul putting himself out to the winds to collect material for his work? How does one, who plays it safe, teach the really good writer who wants to take the risk? Food for thought…

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The CounterlifeThe Counterlife by Philip Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Roth continues exploring his pet themes, male sexuality and Judaism, in this novel that is bewildering in its role reversals.

Nathan Zukerman, married to a much younger English woman he supposedly seduced and stole away from her quarrelsome husband, is on the trail of his younger brother Henry, a New Jersey dentist with a loyal wife and three children. Henry is prematurely impotent from a heart medication and undergoes a mind altering operation to fix his ailment so that he can go on banging his dental assistant and salvage his manhood. Henry dies during the procedure and Nathan attends his funeral in New Jersey. Then it is revealed that Harry has survived the operation, experienced an epiphany, and deserted his family for Israel to take up arms with a pro-settlement renegade named Lippman. Then comes another reversal: we find out that it is Henry who is attending Nathan’s funeral, and it is the latter who had the sexual dysfunction and went through the unsuccessful operation to secure the fealty of his younger wife. My head was spinning at this point and I decided to focus on the dialogue and on Roth’s commanding narrative style to find out what the heck he was trying to convey through this novel.

I’m inclined to believe that both stories, Nathan’s and Henry’s death scenarios, are fictitious and that Roth (through his alter ego, Nathan) is suggesting that we are all each others’ authors, that it is only through others that our lives get their shapes and their stories. He also uses this novel to go into voluminous discussions on what it is to be Jew in America vs. a Jew in Israel. The former is an assimilated part of the New World, wielding the power levers of finance and culture, while the latter is a colonizer determined to squash the encircling Arabs with a display of raw power. Both types of Jewry are estranged from each other; Henry is trying to be the bridge between the two but he doesn’t quite make it in this book. As Nathan summarizes in a letter to Henry (there are a lot of letters in this novel , a bit of a cop-out when Roth is stuck to explain a point): “ You’ve become a Jewish activist, a man of political commitment, driven by ideological conviction, studying the ancient tribal tongue and living sternly apart from your family, your possessions, and your practice on a rocky hillside in biblical Judea. I’ve become a bourgeois husband, a London homeowner, and at forty five, a father-to-be, married this time to a country-reared, Oxford educated English woman. You have a land, a people, a heritage, a cause, a gun, an enemy, and a mentor. I have none of these things.”

The Jew vs. Gentile conflict is also explored, for Nathan finds his wife’s (his fourth wife and the first to bear him a child) family to be both overtly and assertively anti-Semitic. He provokes a quarrel with her in order to explore this prejudice further and ends up estranged again. In the process he learns that he doesn’t do “pastoral” very well, but needs to be constantly embroiled in conflict in order to thrive. I suspect that this material comes from personal experience, for Roth did live with actress Clair Bloom in England for several years, a relationship that ended in acrimony. He was also the second brother in his family, and in real life lived the inversion of the fictitious Nathan and Henry roles, a form of counterlife.

The other subject that is heavily on the table is male sexuality, a subject deeply associated with Roth’s oeuvre. And this subject is bookended with the imagery of impotent men in their forties at the beginning of the book and a tumescent and healthy circumcised penis at the end of the novel. In the middle we see the lengths that men will go to restore their libido, the life force that drives them, according to Roth. Less developed themes were those of sibling rivalry, the soft genocide ( a.k.a. Jews marrying Gentiles in America) and the mouth as a sexual organ (imagine the life of a dentist if this were so!)

Apart from the intellectual arguments and the frenetic humour, I was left unfulfilled by this novel. And that could very well be because there was no real conclusion. Who really died and who lived in this book is never answered. Were the disparate chapters merely Nathan’s writing experiments for future novels, for surely there were more Nathan Zukerman novels that Roth produced after this one?

One thing I took away from the book was that for a writer like Roth, the fictitious world was part of his real world and that he couldn’t function in the real world without his fictitious one. Perhaps with the blending of what could have been a real story (Henry’s death, or vice versa) with a fictitious one (Nathan’s death, or vice versa) we see this counterlife illustrated. Take your pick, for it is us readers who give these characters (and their author) their interpreted life stories.

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Shane actively reads and reviews books by other authors. Below are his most recent reviews.