Recently Reviewed Books…
A parody of contemporary life in America modelled on the story of Don Quixote. When magic realism creates a fusion between reality and fiction, interesting truths are revealed, while some questions remain unanswered and are left to the imagination of the reader.
Sam de Champ (also known as Brother) is a mediocre spy novel writer. Breaking from the genre, he embarks on his masterpiece, a novel called Quichotte, based on the travels of a retired pharmaceuticals salesman across America, with his imaginary son, Sancho, to meet with the love of his life, Salma R., a celebrated TV talk show host who revels in unearthing queasy human interest issues. Quichotte is a proxy for Sam; they are both of Indian origin (as is Salma R), they come from dysfunctional families, are estranged from a son and sister, and this is their last gasps at immortality: love for Quichotte at the end of his trip and recognition for Sam at the end of this book. Quichotte is also media obsessed, spending most of his time in hotel rooms, devouring TV.
The parallel stories of these two characters interweave as Quichote crosses his seven mythical valleys, heading from west coast to east to meet with Salma, who is a secret drug addict, given that she is bipolar but needs to be always “on” in order to perform on her show. The parallel with Oprah is strong here, but is deflected conveniently when Salma’s show is rated as the “second best talk show in America,” next to Oprah’s. Salma’s sort-of-boyfriend and protector is Andersen Thayer (do I need to spell out the real-life equivalent?). And there are bad guys (also of Indian origin): Dr. Smile, the millionaire pharmaceuticals magnate who is distributing unwarranted opioids through a network of unscrupulous doctors; Evel Cent (real life equivalent needed or not?), the millionaire scientist who is creating a parallel Earth for those who can afford it to escape when our dying planet implodes from stupidity, ignorance and bigotry, and when the masses start turning into mastodons. When Dr. Smile employs Quichotte as his mule to carry a super dose of the deadly opioid InSmile to Salma, the stage is set for a meeting of the ill-fated lovers.
What ails America today is on parodic display: the opioid crisis, racism, active shooters, gender confusion, political polarization, spy networks, hacking, fake news, media obsession, the blending of the real with the unreal in our entertainment culture, the disappearance of cursive writing, and the inability to spell correctly. While Rushdie’s humour softens the blows, it is difficult to ignore his sarcastic dissecting of all streams of society. By having his characters come from an Indian background, he sticks close to his voice and worldview, and also suggests that Indian immigrants have contributed much to America, but aren’t recognized for their efforts. Through Quichotte’s odyssey, he invokes other classic search literature: Jason, Sir Galahad, the Pilgrims, Dante, Rama et al. There is however a lot of overwriting and there are places when the action seems to be spinning in the same place, or looking for a way to launch the next plot point.
Seeking forgiveness, and receiving it, is the key to releasing Sam and Quichotte from their entrapped worlds. Approaching death is also a catalyst for forgiveness. And when forgiveness ultimately takes place, Quichotte is free to proceed with meeting his beloved, while Sam is able to make the reverse journey with his son from east coast to west, retracing his fictional character’s footsteps. After the bad guys get their come-uppance (just like in a TV show) the fictional and real worlds merge in a dramatic finale, that left me with questions. I’m sure Rushdie wanted it to be so. Questionable endings make for good literature and become talking points on the cocktail circuit.
This is not my favourite Rushdie book, for I think he tried to tackle all the ills that plague America and spread himself too thin in the process. I preferred his previous attempt at portraying dysfunctional America in The Golden House, for he picked a few themes and executed them very well.
View all my reviews
This is a true brain-buster of a novel, Dostoyevsky’s last, in which he brings together all his pet themes of God, the Devil, the rise of socialism, the end of serfdom, madness, love, unbridled passion, debt, greed, crime and punishment—all explored in his previous work—into one massive saga. It’s as if he decided to explore every nook and cranny of Russian society, poking into some areas in depth and side-stepping others, unearthing some fleshed-out characters and leaving others as cardboard cut-outs. The result is a family story of the four brothers Karamazov and their profligate father, and a large cast of external characters, with a central murder trial and a half dozen sub plots that either connect with the main story line or not, and with some characters who are embroiled right through while others fizzle out midway.
The plot is simple (simple?). Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov has four sons: the first, Dmitri (Mitya) from his first marriage, who is given to passion and profligacy like his father; the second, Ivan, is an intellectual, writer and researcher, who challenges organized religion, and yet succumbs to brain fever and begins conversations with the devil; Alexei (Alyosa) is pious and studying to be a monk in a monastery under the tutelage of the saintly elder Fr. Zossima; and Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son, prone to epilepsy, is working for his father as a servant. Fyodor and Mitya are vying for the hand of an “enchantress,” Grushenka, while Mitya’s spurned lover Katarina Ivanovna is burning with revenge in her heart, a heart that is being quietly stolen by Ivan. Alyosa drifts between all these parties carrying the story for us. The Karamazovs are born sensualists and are a reflection of Russian society that espouses mysticism and chauvinism unlike the rest of Europe that looks towards idealism and liberalism. “They have their Hamlets, we have our Karamazovs.”
Events bubble to a head when Fyodor disowns Mitya who has stolen Katarina’s money to have a debauched weekend with Grushenka. Desperate to repay Katarina, Mitya runs in circles to find money, threatening to kill his father and commit suicide. When the patriarch is found murdered and 3000 rubles stolen, the main suspects are Mitya, who is found drunk and carousing with Grushenka while spilling money out of his pockets, and Smerdyakov who has just had the most violent epileptic fit that evening. Enter a raft of new characters: prosecutors, defense counsel, police inspectors and witnesses, and the trial gets underway full of big speeches from everyone—giving credence to Dostoevsky’s polyphonic style: many voices from many directions.
Lest I give off spoilers as to whodunnit, let me describe the sub-plots instead: Fr. Zossima’s final hours and his life story that had nothing to do with the Karamazovs; Ivan’s conversations with the devil and his treatise on the Church; the impoverished peasant family of the Snegirigovs and the sickly son Illusa who defends his father’s reputation by throwing stones at and stabbing his tormentors (strangely, when Illusa dies his body does not smell, but saintly Fr. Zossima’s cadaver does); the Hohlakovs, a graceful mother (she is 33 years old at one point and 40 at another – Dostoevsky had poor continuity management, it appears) with an invalid and mercurial daughter; the Krassotkin family and it’s wunderkind, 14 year old Kolya, who talks like an adult and who once slept on the railway lines and wasn’t killed by a train passing over him, who is an avowed socialist and has “no knowledge, but unbounded conceit” per Alyosa.
Then there are characters who walk on and walk out or get lost along the way: Miusov who is suing the monastery, Kalgonov who is heading to university, the two Poles, one of whom is a former lover of Grushenka, the monks in the monastery, Maya and Grigory who are serfs at the Karamazov residence and who decided against accepting their emancipation, Smurov the cheeky student, and the unknown narrator himself who appears to be a resident of this town of Skutoprigonyevsk (which gets only one mention in the book) where this tale largely takes place.
One could argue that there are reasons for these lesser characters and subplots: that Snegirigov is a better father than Karamazov despite the former’s humbler circumstances; that Miusov exists to point out “in dealing with Russian officials, Catholic Socialists are the most suspect”; that Illusa is the saint over Fr. Zossima; that Kolya is the embodiment of the Communism to come, and Grigory is an indicator that change can be legislated but needs to be adopted to take root; that the mentally ill Ivan cautions us against jousting with the devil which reduces atheists to madness, and so on with all the rest of the cast, primary or peripheral. Therefore, these digressions only enrich the canvas that Dostoyevsky draws his final masterpiece upon.
The narrative and the characters brim with freneticism and energy, another Dostoyevsky hallmark, that keeps you reading. The female characters are capricious and forever lapsing into hysterics. “Never trust a woman’s tears,” says the most balanced Madame Hohlakov. The ladies suffer from “self-laceration”; they hurt and betray as much as they love their men. And everyone, men and women alike, is in a state of “aberration.”
Being a devout believer in God, Dostoyevsky leaves us with hope that there will be better days in the end, even for the surviving Brothers Karamazov, each trapped in their respective hells, as we attend a funeral and wish everyone in this very long book, including Dostoyevsky, goodbye.
View all my reviews
A testament to memory, an extension of The Cat’s Table, where mysterious adults surround impressionable kids, to protect or to harm, leaving those kids permanently altered in adulthood.
15 year-old Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel are abandoned by their parents in 1945 England at the end of the war, the father to go off to South East Asia on assignment for a multi-national corporation and the mother to follow. But does she? The teenagers are raised by shadowy but caring characters nicknamed Moth and Darter and others who flit in and out of their home in London. They pick up some interesting jobs: washing dishes in restaurants, recovering art treasures from tunnels, and ferrying illicit greyhounds on barges to populate the 150 unregulated dog racing tracks around England. As an adult, the cloistered and secretive Nathaniel, enters the British Secret Service and is given the job of poring over old war files to extract information that may still be of interest to authorities. In the process, he decides to track down what happened to his mother.
Rose, the mother, emerges as the most enigmatic character in the book. A secretive sort herself, who was recruited into the secret service by a man who fell off a roof and whom she fell in love with but never married, Fallon. She went onto become a legend in that world of secrets, codenamed Viola. Her marriage to Nathaniel’s father gets short mention, in fact the father disappears after the first chapter and is dismissed as “smart but damaged.” Along with Fallon, who was also a ladies man with not only Rose among his conquests, she ranges across the world on secret missions, acquiring enemies along the way. For the safety of her children she has them entrusted to buddies in her cohort, such as Moth and Darter. When her children are threatened with harm, Rose quits the service and takes to a life of solitude and exile in her family home in Sussex. But her reputation tragically catches up with her. All this emerges from a combination of the service files and from Nathaniel’s memory and imagination, and the picture of Rose’s life is completed in a series of chapters that jump forward and back in time and place.
This was not one of Ondaatje’s stronger books for me. While uncovering a mystery in fragmented memory recall is an effective device, the danger and menace implicit in this story is dulled and leaves more questions. For instance, how did Rose escape her torturers? Rose comes across as a cold-hearted person, hated by her daughter, and unknown by her son. Her duty to country overrides her care for family. The British stiff-upper lip and reticence is quite evident in this family of secrets. That she and Fallon had sex while on mission is clear, but did they love each other? Why was he living in exile not too far away from her and not getting in touch? A lover’s rift, perhaps?— not explained, and subject to the failure of memory, which also becomes an easy out for the author from having to tie loose ends.
Just like with previous Ondaatje novels, I learned new things that do not fall under the popular radar: WWII-spawned vendettas that went on long after the war ended, the canal system of England, the area called the Saints in Sussex, and the peculiar and unsanitary habits of British boarding schools.
On the credit side, this is an unusual angle at which to approach the old WWII story, from the eyes of a 15-year old looking upon his world which the adults are doing their darndest to destroy, leaving him a solitary in his adulthood, content to live in a house with a large wall around it. I wonder whether millennials today view their climate-destroying boomer parents in the same way?
View all my reviews
This is not a review, I’ll be up front. I have one of my stories included in this anthology, so how can it be a review? However, I felt that this book would not have come to be published if the writers of this anthology hadn’t chosen to write about their subjects (many of whom are not writers and would never have been able to tell their stories otherwise), and the best thing I could do as a writer was to highlight to the world, that these kinds of stories also do exist apart from those of the rich and famous, and that they too are well worth reading (and for me, writing) for their authenticity.
These twenty-five, 1500-word pieces come from the English speaking world of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, and the USA. They are written by mature writers (i.e. 60 years and above) and deal with the fear experienced in venturing into the unknown and how the overcoming of that fear lends the doer the mantle of courage, leaving lessons behind for others. Some examples:
1) The 69-year old camping in Florida is bitten by a recluse spider and develops gangrene
2) The 65-year old circumnavigates Ellesmere Island and discovers the difference between pain(unavoidable) and suffering (avoidable).
3) The 21-year old social worker, investigating a case of child abuse, has a shotgun pointed her by the abuser.
4) The 65-year old Canadian-Italian grandmother tells her adult granddaughter how Grandpa wanted to use a condom for more regular sex after the Catholic Church permitted birth control, leading to a schism in the marriage.
5) The 12-year old boy escaping the London blitz to Canada witnesses a Canadian convoy being bombed by German U boats.
There are stories of “first time plunges,” whether that is a gay woman “coming out” in the 1980’s in conservative Toronto, or a swimmer’s first dive off a diving board, or the first time a naturist disrobed in public, or the public singing debut by a 70-year old. There are stories of illness, of cancer not only striking the protagonist but also members of the family at the same time. There are indigenous stories: the Maori woman sailing 800 km over four days in a gale to die in her beloved Chatham Islands; or the Maori man going inside an MRI machine for a shoulder scan, suffering the anguish of incarceration, and fleeing the hospital when he is told that he may have to come back for a retake.
My story was about my father, an 88-year old who has cheated death so many times that I titled it “Outliving the Cat.” I am glad I did, for Dad is not a writer, and this was one of the best gifts I gave him by leaving his life lessons for others to gain from.
Each story is headlined with a quote from a famous writer such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Maya Angelou or Stephen Hawking. But the one that stuck for me was a quote by 70-year old in one of the stories who is dying: “In acceptance lies peace.”
In these times of shortened attention spans and the trend towards non-fiction, this collection makes for a quick and timely read. I told you, this was not a review!
View all my reviews
A strictly observational diary covering two critical months in Berlin: from the fall of the city to the advancing Russian army, to the point where a modicum of normalcy is restored and the restoration begins. In these two months, Germans, especially the women, descended into a hellhole reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, for which they have only their blessed Fuhrer to thank.
The writer of this diary is titled Anonymous, although her identity became well known after the book was initially published, and her life story makes for interesting reading. Yet, in this book, she is a nameless 34-year old journalist whose publishing company has closed down, just like most businesses in Germany did as the war wound to its close. In dispassionate terms she goes onto describe—each chapter being a day’s events—the bombing, the loss of water, food and civil order, the advancing enemy, and the talk by German women as they hunker in their bunkers about the “impending humiliation,” being under no illusions that what the German soldiers did to women in captured Russian territory would not be visited upon them.
I guess one must mention the rapes for it is central to this book. In Berlin, a city of 2 million survivors, between 95,000 to 130,000 women were estimated to have been raped at the end of WWII. Rape was an instrument of war, an expression of revenge, and no woman of any age was spared. Our narrator was raped by about four different men, and, because she couches these incidents in veiled language, there could have been more. The Red Army soldiers are portrayed as underpaid, overworked, and undisciplined, with their eyes set on plunder and rape, shitting and pissing everywhere; they are sexually starved beasts who can only approach a woman after consuming large quantities of alcohol. Some are 15-year old adolescents with unbroken voices, pleading for a deflowering that would turn them into men. The German women in turn become wily after the first wave of rapes sweep the city; they take on “protectors” — soldiers of rank who can keep the riff-raff at bay. Our narrator moves up the ranks from a sub-lieutenant to a major for protection, providing sexual favours in return. She unabashedly confesses to becoming a prostitute, trading her body for protection and for something to eat.
The graphic descriptions take you to a place where people have no privacy, live without electricity, have to scrounge for food, line up for a trickle of water, have no work or money, have no news about what is happening around them other than for rumours pouring out of anecdotal grapevines, have to make unfamiliar and temporary relationships for survival, and who are waiting for the next assault on their bodies, being too tired from the many already exacted upon them. New terminology like “plunder wine,” “coal filching,” “rape shoes,” and “my major’s sugar” enter the vernacular. Two women meeting at the communal water tap may open a conversation with, “And how many times were you raped?” with the response being, “Four—and you?”
As April goes into May, glimmers of light, revelation, and hope emerge: the Soviets ban their soldiers from consorting with German women (a few still break the law with impunity), the survivors are organized into work teams to clear away the rubble, and a few entrepreneurs start new businesses to capitalize on the reconstruction that is to come. News filters in about the Fuhrer’s death, and the deaths or capture of his inner circle members; the horrors of the concentration camps come to light, and so does the crushing realization and humiliation that Germany has fought two world wars and lost them both.
Given that this was a diary written in the moment, there are some limitations in it. It lacks the drama of this dark period as the writer is trying to mask the horror while describing the events. Continuity is lacking in places where people filter in and out without their motivations or purpose being described. Some chapters are short and others long, depending on how much time the author had to document the day’s events. With the view being so narrow—the author’s sojourn in her apartment building and the surroundings she travels to for work and foraging, all located within the Russian sector of Berlin—we don’t get a picture of what was happening in the larger Germany during this crucial period.
Much was done to discredit this book after it was initially published in 1954. Germans, still smarting from their defeat, were affronted that their women would conduct themselves in such a way with the enemy in order to survive. The author therefore withdrew the book until after her death in the early 21st century, and this version was published posthumously to critical acclaim from a younger, more enlightened and unaffected audience in Germany.
This is essential reading for those interested in the lesser documented events of WWII. It is also a brilliant testament to the indomitability of the human spirit.
Travelogue with a Difference – Journeys that Suck!
Martha Gellhorn, third wife of Ernest Hemingway, was reputed to be the most courageous and celebrated female journalist of the 20th century, covering all the major conflicts and trouble spots in the world during her long career. And in typical Hemingway-esque style, when her journalistic powers waned due to age and illness, she popped herself off with a cyanide capsule. This book covers six trips that didn’t go as smoothly, but then one wonders, whether they were of her making…
Her first “disaster” trip is to China in 1941 with a companion called UC (Unwilling Companion) whom we soon discover is none other than Hemingway, aboard planes that deliver freshly minted money in the millions to General Chiang Kai Shek’s Republic of China in its battle against the invading Japanese. She admits to being contemptible when it comes to condemning the impoverished Chinese way of life. She is particularly allergic to hawking, scraping throats, and spitting, and to “night soil” which is human excrement, the national manure. Unusual situations abound: UC drinks his Chinese colleagues under the table (at breakfast!) and gets on the boat by lunchtime; there are dead snakes in the wine jug, only discovered when pouring out the dregs, and the Japanese use the walled city of Kunming for bombing practice, hitting it daily.
Her next journey is to the Caribbean to spot German U boats. She charters a local sailing boat in the middle of hurricane season for the purpose, visiting St. Bart’s, St. Maarten, Sabah, the Virgin Islands and Antigua. “On St. Bart’s I met the schoolteacher, a middle-aged Frenchman married to an island black. He wasn’t bubbling over either, and talked about the mistake of marrying a black woman; you sank into their slovenly customs, and fathered litters of noisy stupid half-breed kids.” Her biting criticism of people not of her kind will qualify her as a racist today. Later, in Africa, on another trip, she feels ashamed when she starts to smell like the blacks after a leper celebration. She is convinced that although we are all of one genus, we are not of one species. The difference between black and white, foreigner and local, colonial and colonized, journalist/explorer and guide, help to maintain distance as she travels alone with teams of local men, on storm wracked sees, through jungles and muddy rivers, and stays in flea-ridden hostels in derelict cities. There is also hubris: she has the balls to tell the townfolk in one place to release the woman whose screams she overhears. Her conclusion on the Caribbean is that the Dutch ran the best colonial shop down there.
Her next trip is across equatorial Africa in 1962, from Cameroun to Kenya, via Chad, Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania, travelling part of the way with a thoroughly inept guide/driver named Joshua who can neither guide nor drive, leaving Gellhorn to do all the heavy lifting. She observes the unmanageable diversity: Cameroun alone has 200 tribes and 122 dialects, Uganda has 40 tribes. In Kenya, she observes, “The social structure was clear at once: Europeans, Asians, Africans (‘black’ being abusive here); First, Second and Third Class citizens. Perhaps, I felt the supremacy of white skin in this British colony with more force because I had just arrived from independent African states where white skin was carefully unassertive.” On democracy in Africa, her prophecy is, “I think all these countries will have one election, supervised by the retiring colonial power, and that the President then elected will stay in for life, unless (until?) there’s a palace putsch or assassination; and I do not see how it could be otherwise.” How prescient!
She travels to Moscow in her 60’s to meet an unknown, ailing female writer whose husband was executed as a traitor for writing four lines of anti-Stalin poetry. Gellhorn frequents the salon run by the Russian writer, meets intellectuals, dissidents and other artists, and treats them to imported goods from the west. Her view on Russia is dim: “Main sensation is pure Big Brother fear. The fear (based on facts and fed by everyone’s imagination) serves the regime – keeps the people silent and in line. If the rulers ever released the people from fear, it could be a great nation. But then, released from fear, the people might string up the rulers on the nearest lampposts.”
Her final journey is to Israel, where she stays in a settlement with young foreigners who are taking a vacation from the rat race. “Books were either non-existent or a hidden vice. No one expressed any interest in man-made beauty; art and architecture were for old squares. They littered the landscape (superb landscape) while condemning Israelis for doing the same.”
Although supposed to be writing for Colliers during her travels, I wondered, given the connections she had with the authorities, and its underlying tacit understanding, whether she was safe wherever she went.
View all my reviews
I attempted this classic as I wanted to try out another 19th century Russian author. It takes a lot of energy to dive into these books that don’t translate well in English, where the style is archaic and even amateurish by today’s standards, and, being in the Realist style, where nothing much happens other than for a lot of talk that highlights the pre-occupations of the age.
Arkady is a recent university graduate returning to his widowed father Nikolai’s farm home with his friend and mentor, Bazarov, a doctor and a nihilist. Arkady ascribes to nihilism too, as in the complete annihilation of czarist society, but is more of a blind follower of Bazarov rather than an activist with the strength of conviction. Arkady represents weakness, while Bazarov represents strength and is a precursor of the Bolshevik revolution to come. It is a time of reform when landowners are forced to “share the land” with their serfs in exchange for rent. The serfs however have not risen to the equality bestowed upon them and are content to fritter their money away on booze. As Bazarov observes, “I have looked at all your father’s establishment. The cattle are inferior, the horses are broken down; the buildings aren’t up to much, and the workmen look confirmed loafers; while the superintendent is either a fool, or a knave, I haven’t quite found out which yet.” Nikolai has taken in a destitute young woman, Fenitchka, as a ward, but has given her child in the process. Completing the dysfunctional farm is Uncle Pavel, a solitary bachelor, who “is entering upon that indefinite twilight period of regrets that are akin to hopes, and hopes that are akin to regrets, when youth is over, while old age has not yet come.” Pavel fell in love with a princess once who broke his heart and ditched him; he has retired to Nicolai’s farm, adopted English manners and clothing and stands up for the peasants, while supporting his brother financially. Brother Pavel has the hots for Fenitchka too!
The two nihilists carry the story by travelling between their parents’ farms and the manor home of a wealthy widow, Madame Odintsov and her unmarried younger sister Katya. Turgenev thereby opens us up to the lifestyles of the Russian landed gentry who seem to spend their time visiting each other unannounced and spending long periods during those visits, taking long walks, having long intellectual and political discussions, and reading books in quiet niches of their vast properties. They also feel inferior to their counterparts in England and France, for they adopt many English and French affectations. Through the peregrinations of our nihilist duo, we see a pairing off between Arkady and Katya, and Bazarov and Madame Odintsov. The younger couple give into love and Arkady’s unformed nihilist tendencies fly out the door. Bazarov falls passionately for Madame Odintsov and expresses it as strongly he does his nihilist views, yet the widow is a rather shallow person—in her own words: “I am unhappy because… I have no desires, no passion for life. I love what you call comfort, and at the same time I have little desire to live,” and she is unable to reciprocate his passion.
Bazarov is a restless soul, wanting to change the world, wanting to love—he even makes a pass at Fenitchka that lands him in a duel with Pavel who represents the established order and who despises all that Bazarov stands for. When love is not reciprocated, Bazarov returns like the proverbial prodigal son to his family farm (better managed than Arkady’s), where he is greeted with warmth and affection by his parents. There he practices as a district doctor until he contracts typhus. The climax of the novel comes when Madam Odinsov visits the sick Bazarov, and both come to realize the depth (or shallowness) of their emotions and the limitations of their idealism.
Turgenev sums up for us in the last chapter and tells us where each of the characters will land up over time, and this telling, apart from other “old fashioned” novelistic devices—intrusive omniscient narrator, commentary by author to the reader, granular and catalogued descriptions of characters that fill entire paragraphs—make for laboured reading. In addition, this edition also has several typos and clearly lacked a proof reader.
The moral of the story seems to be that idealism ultimately succumbs to love, and although we may want to change the world, the world may not want to change. As for the Fathers and Sons as mentioned in the title, the fathers come across as loving and vulnerable, beaten down by time and circumstance; the sons are idealistic and cold until love whacks them on the head, for better or worse.
Shane actively reads and reviews books by other authors. Below are his most recent reviews.