Recently Reviewed Books…

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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Ways of EscapeWays of Escape by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” – quoted towards the end of the book, but a theme that reverberates throughout. Greene not only wrote to escape, he escaped to places far beyond the safe reaches of his British Empire to tempt death and assuage his manic depressive impulses.

Unlike his previous autobiography, A Sort of Life, this book begins with the writing of his first published novel, The Man Within, and takes us through the circumstances that led to and resulted from him writing each subsequent piece in his large and diverse oeuvre. He was a typical journeyman writer in his early days, working on an “entertainment” and a serious novel at the same time, constantly in debt to his publisher, writing 500 words a day (or 2000 when he was on Benzedrine while writing The Confidential Agent and The Power and the Glory simultaneously). He claims six weeks of Benzedrine killed his marriage, but his itinerant and solitary lifestyle and brothel-child proclivity did not leave much room for family. Later, in Indo-China while writing The Quiet American, he graduated to opium.

Greene is critical of his writing: he admits to a terrible misuse of simile and metaphor, to an excess of adjectives and explanations of motives. He preferred the novel to the short story: the former allowed him to roam not knowing which plot twist or new character was around the corner. Although not considered an intellectual, his insights into human nature and the art of writing abound: “True glory is private and discreet and fully realized in solitariness,” “To an Englishman war is like passion, to a Frenchman war is like adultery,” “Love isn’t safe when pity is prowling around,” “To a novelist, his novel is his only responsibility.”

Greene never saw combat, being born too young for WWI and too old for WWII, but he served in the British Secret Service (I suspect for his entire life, hence his access to various hot-spots and colourful political personages) during the 1940’s. His solitary world became a shadowy world too; among his colleagues numbered double agent Kim Philby who critiqued Greene’s novel The Human Factor while hiding out in Russia. The 1950’s saw Greene as a travelling journalist, landing in international conflagration points: Cuba, Paraguay, Mexico, the Philippines, West Africa, the Belgian Congo, Panama, Haiti, Vietnam, Israel, Kenya among others. Much like his fascination with Russian Roulette during his teen years, he exposed himself to situations where death could come randomly, but like the miracle portrayed in his classic The End of the Affair, God seems to have saved him for a higher purpose, that of revealing his learning to us in gripping novels coming out of those experiences. Not all places produced novels: the Philippines and Kenya did not; “A writer doesn’t choose his subject, it chooses him.”

He pushed the envelope in his writing: J.B Priestley sued Greene for the character, Savory, in Orient Express who was apparently modeled on him; Twentieth Century Fox sued Greene for a derogatory comment made about child-star Shirley Temple in a film review; Paraguayan dictator Stroessner didn’t like him, although Greene travelled in that country and set Travels with My Aunt and The Honorary Counsel there; the Americans declared him persona non-grata for having joined the Communist party during his youth.

A Burnt Out Case was to be his last novel (ironically it was the first Greene novel I read before applying immediately for permanent residence in Greeneland) for he was truly burnt out from his travels at the time. But like all consummate writers who need to write to breathe, he went onto produce more books, some even after this autobiography was written.

In typical Greene fashion, he ends the book discussing the Other: a person who impersonates Graham Greene and usurps his glory. There are many Other sightings and transgressions that Greene is held responsible for. Greene even begins to believe that he is the Other and leaves us with the question: Who is the real Graham Greene? I doubt anyone really knows.

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Angela's Ashes (Frank McCourt, #1)Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

McCourt’s classic puts the misery of the Irish squarely on the table. No bones about it, 800 years of colonization, along with an uncompromising religion, produced a terrible legacy of poverty, hunger and guilt relieved only by humour and alcohol.

This book covers Frank’s life journey out of America, where he was born and raised until age four, back to Ireland, and until he returns to the Land of the Free at the age of eighteen. The eldest in a family where younger siblings are destined to die unless they have strong survival instincts, Frank grows up early in the presence of an alcoholic and irresponsible father, Malachy, who could never hold down a job and who drank away his earnings. Changing his younger siblings diapers and looking after them when he was not quite out of diapers himself, Frank learns self-reliance and survival on the mean and cold streets of Dublin where consumption is the biggest killer. Everyone is eternally hungry, everyone is unwashed and dirty, everyone is yoked to a life of unending misery. That is my one criticism of this book—there is too much misery! The only escape is join the war effort; then one is able to send home money from the front, making proper meals possible again for the family. The war creates a two-tier society back home: those who receive telegrams with money and those who don’t. The other escape is America, the beacon that Frank yearns for, for after all, he is an American living in this shithole of his ancestors.

Frank’s Ireland also envelops its inhabitants with guilt. Frank’s guilt is legion:
a) Sleeping with the older and consumptive Theresa
b) Wanking in the field while the cows and sheep look on. I saw shades of Joyce here— someone always wanks in the open in a good Irish book.
c) Slapping his mother in anger over her sleeping with the landlord.
d) Smoking with his friends.
e) Drinking at age sixteen and heading down that giant path to perfidy carved out by his father.

When Malachy vanishes to England to work and send money home (he never does) the family gets evicted and is forced to live with a crippled man who lives in an attic. The new landlord offers them board in exchange for favours from Frank’s still-young mother, Angela, by night; and he expects Frank to empty his chamber pot by day. Frank detests his mother’s forced “duty.” He quits school and works at the post office delivering telegrams, and becomes a letter writer to a debt collector, counting his pennies for when he could escape this sorry place. Finally, he has to top up his savings to make his passage fare across, and he does that by robbing his employer. In this environment, I think the robbery is justified.

The strong feature in this book is not the hard luck story of a dirt-poor Irish family. There are many of those. What sticks in the mind is the way in which it is narrated: with quote-free dialogue, in the quirky vernacular of the Irish, and peppered with a myriad of humorous and tragic situations that Frank and his family find themselves in. Imagine toddlers woken up in the middle of the night by a drunken father to sing old battle songs of Ireland, or a little boy climbing on a table to reach the attic and bring down a fully loaded chamber pot smelling to the high heavens of excrement and urine, or the “excitement” that a pubescent and naked Frank experiences when he is out in the fields trying to dry his clothes. Imagine traditions where a father takes his son out to the pub for his first pint on his 16th birthday, or a rite of passage where you can’t take a girl out if you don’t smoke? Although supposed to be a memoir, this book certainly is Dickensian in its treatment.

When Frank finally arrives in America, his first night in his new home is enough to wipe out all the guilt, pain and sadness of Ireland. Instead of adding a spoiler and telling you what happens to Frank on that night of mind-bending pleasure, I will end with the last line of the book, “My God, that was a lovely night, Frank. Isn’t this a great country altogether?” And in answer, we are pointed to the one-word final chapter that follows: ’Tis. Which is ironically the title of the second book in this memoir trilogy. Frank may have learned survival in Ireland, but he certainly learned his marketing in America.

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Crossing to SafetyCrossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“How do you make a book that everyone will read from lives as quiet as these?” is the pre-occupation of narrator Larry Morgan, a proxy for Stegner, who along with his polio-stricken wife Sally and another couple, Sid and Charity, form the foursome about whose lives, stretching from the 1930’s to the 1970’s, this novel is all about. It’s a novel about friendship, and their friendship and love for each other transcend the physical limits of their bodies.

Larry and Sally are orphans from the west, while Charity and Sid are from prosperous east-coast families, brought together in academia where the two men are employed as university professors. Sid is henpecked and dominated by Charity who wants him to abandon his poetic drive and write text books instead in order to achieve tenure, while Sally is supportive of Larry’s attempts to become a literary writer no matter what the job prospects. Both marriages are built on addiction and dependence by husbands upon wives and vice versa. The resentment and tension that builds up over the years between Sid and Charity provides the fuel for this otherwise slow-paced novel which is praised as Stegner’s best. It was also his last.

Stegner takes the time to paint academics as an insecure, cliquish, class conscious bunch of intellectual snobs to whom credentials matter more than creativity, and who pursue the security of tenure relentlessly. Their speech is littered with literary allusions and they read poetry at parties. This was at a time when “literature mobilized the masses and poetry brought thousands to the barricades.”

Strong women and weak men characterize this novel. Charity and her mother, Aunt Emily, dominate their husbands, Sally, with her illness, commands Larry’s attention. When Charity is stricken with cancer, it raises the specter of when Sally’s sudden “cave in” would occur due to her polio, and the deeper question in both Larry and Sid’s minds: can they survive without their wives?

Charity is a master planner, not only mapping out Sid’s career and life (during her life and after her death), but parcelling out her vast family estate so that their five dispersed adult children will return to the nest after her death. From the recounting of one of her children, we wonder whether the children fled the coop in the first instance just to escape their domineering mother. However, Charity is a wonderful caregiver and feels for all those around her, in particularly, Sally, her best friend. “Overachievers have more fun without drugs and orgies than hedonists,” and Charity is the supreme overachiever. Yet her well-ordained life is not without its deep disappointments, like when Sid loses his job during the war, or when Sally contracts polio due to a forced hike that Charity drove the foursome to undertake just after Sally had delivered her one and only baby. And the men achieve their goals despite their women’s efforts to help or hinder them: Larry becomes a recognized writer and Sid finally gets his tenure just as he is reaching retirement, more out of seniority than for any text books he wrote.

Stegner takes the time to provide wonderful descriptions of the land, including a sojourn in Florence where the foursome meet while Larry is writing one of his books. The genuine camaraderie these four enjoy in each other’s company is palpable throughout the book, although we have to endure lots of commonplace events; picnics, hikes, dinner parties and visits to each other, to see that emerge. There is a fair amount of overwriting and many non-events, judged by today’s speeded-up tastes. As the book nears its climax, there is a lengthy meditation on death and how it impacts survivors of the dying.

Stegner’s life seems to mirror this book: men dominated by strong women, stuffy academics, writers who make it to respectability relatively quickly with a bit of luck and good timing, sojourns in various parts of America and abroad. Yes, it is a story about quiet lives, none that left a mark on the world, but on whom the world left its marks. And that would mean, most of us.

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HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A powerful novel that traces the evolution of the African in his homeland as well as in the New World over the last two centuries.

Two half-sisters in eighteenth century Ghana—unaware of each other’s existence due to a runaway mother, Maame, who sets fire to her village and escapes—begin divergent life paths: one to marry a British colonizer and walk the ordered pathways and hallways of the Cape Coast Castle in Fanteland, and the other to be captured by slavers and buried under a barrage of women mired in their shit and piss inside a dungeon of the same castle while waiting to be walked out the Door of No Return on a voyage to America.

Chapters alternate with the story of one member of each of the sisters family line, down through the generations, from the late eighteenth century to the turn of the twenty-first. And therein lies the book’s weakness, for a collection of linked short stories, dramatic though each story is, does not a satisfying novel make. I had to often refer back and pick up the trail from a previous chapter. The multitude of characters, barring a few, do not have enough space and time to develop fully. Although the vital family trees are presented at the beginning of the book, it would have been helpful to have the year in which the respective stories were taking place in order to connect them with real historical events. But if the author’s intention was to present the Ghanaian and the African-American archetypes as her two principle characters, and to show us their evolution over the last two centuries in as short a possible narrative with these short stories acting merely as inflection points along their respective journeys, then she has succeeded.

What emerges is a bloody picture. “There is evil in our lineage,” says grandmother Akua, the Crazy Woman, who, like her ancestor Mamme, set fire to her household, killing her daughters and scarring her son. And the evil is on both sides, among whites and blacks alike. The Fante and Asante tribes (both who are represented in the Ghanaian side of this story due to a strategic marriage somewhere along the line) are hostile to each other, raiding and procuring slaves for sale to the white man; the Asante fight wars against their colonial masters, the British; American slave owners treat their “human resources” horribly; the post-civil war period in the USA ends only with segregation and the Jim Crow laws that makes one wonder whether the days of slavery were better; the Civil Rights Act provides temporary relief only to be replaced by the War on Drugs that puts blacks at a further disadvantage. Ghana, post-independence, seems to gain a measure of self-confidence, and with the discovery of cocoa, members of the family tree on that side start to find their feet, even managing to immigrate to the USA as academics, leapfrogging their ancestors’ slave legacy.

It is left to the final descendents of the original half-sisters, Marjorie (Ghanaian) and Marcus (African-American), to close the circle by meeting accidentally and falling in love. They will never know of their connected past, for family history has been obliterated through slavery, migration and the lack of written records. They both carry the phobias of ancestry: Marjorie is scared of fire (Akua is her grandmother) and Marcus is scared of water (slaves were reputedly afraid of the ocean that took them away from their homeland). Both know that they are different even though they share a common African heritage; this becomes obvious when they visit each other’s countries and realize that they are black but not black enough to belong; they speak, think, and view the world differently. They carry the mixed child’s legacy: knowing that their white parent can choose a life, but they, the children, cannot.

Marjorie (who I suspect is a proxy for the author) and Marcus—both gifted with the education their ancestors never had—are tasked to overcome, to face their phobias and bury this awful legacy, and be reborn as free men and women in a supposedly enlightened world that seeks to forget its dark history.

I was left wondering which branch of the family was left more spiritually advanced after two centuries of tortuous evolution. I wasn’t sure. Both branches are still marginalized. Perhaps the big leap will come with Marjorie and Marcus’s children—we can only hope.

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The Colony of Unrequited DreamsThe Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mixing a historically significant character with a fictitious one is an interesting conceit, especially if the fictitious one outshines the real guy.

Joey Smallwood, first premier of Newfounland post-confederation with Canada, is the real person, a kid from the sticks of St. John’s, whose father is an alcoholic and whose mother can’t stop having babies, who dreams big and seeks power, believing that one day he will be the premier of his country (yes, it was a country, a rather bankrupt one, before it became a Canadian province). Sheilagh Fielding, the fictitious character, is a doctor’s daughter from the “quality” side of the social strata; she is a journalist and Smallwood’s nemesis, a cynic oozing irony when she is not boozing on Scotch. Fielding is a metaphor for Smallwood’s Newfoundland: tortured, secretive, betrayed, impoverished, alcoholic, brash. They are in love with each other but are too intellectual and uptight to consummate their passion—they address each other by their last names even during intimate and private moments. In fact, for a politician, Smallwood’s sexual appetite is strangely…well…small. He prefers to sublimate his energy by walking or sailing around the Rock in all kinds of inclement weather, collecting union dues for his socialist cause from uneducated people who would prefer to hide from their neighbours in coves and harbours and spend their time fishing.

Smallwood and Fielding have gaping character holes in addition to physical deformities. He is small, myopic, emaciated, pre-tubercular and is a lousy father and husband who never spends time with his family. She has a game leg, cannot shake off the booze, is tubercular, and is alienated from her family.

A letter sent to the local newspaper that gets 15-year-old Smallwood expelled from his prestigious high school begins the life-long duel between this formidable couple and turns into a mystery that runs through the book, taking on sinister implications as new information is unearthed. Smallwood’s takes to a career in journalism and radio, and uses his media platforms to solidify his political position in the rural areas outside St. John’s. In fact, when the referendum on confederation is finally fought, it is these outlying areas that swing the vote towards a union with Canada—Smallwood’s goal all along. He is obsessed with writing Newfoundland’s history to counter the inaccurate attempts made thus far by others. And Fielding is out to do the same; but she belittles this impossible and inhospitable colony that seems to be run by charlatans and has-beens of the Colonial office.

The novel covers Smallwood’s and Fielding’s lives from age 15 through to their retirement years in a combination of first person narrative (Smallwood), journal entries and unsent letters (Fielding) and short extracts from Fielding’s irony-laden, condensed version of The History of Newfoundland. I laughed during sections of this novel, particularly throughout the “true story” of prime minister Sir Richard Squires’ escape from the mob, aided by our dynamic duo. The unravelling of Fielding’s dark secret was heart wrenching, although reminiscent of most Canadian family dramas that reveal skeletons in closets brought about by lust and impropriety.

Most importantly, I believe this novel is a better introduction to the history of Newfoundland than the books Smallwood and Fielding were trying to either discredit or write themselves.

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