Recently Reviewed Books…

The Moravian Night: A StoryThe Moravian Night: A Story by Peter Handke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a rather difficult book to read, in style, structure and sequence. Although the storyline hangs on a retired writer’s journey through his past stomping grounds back to his family home, it looked like a self-indulgent romp in time and memory by Peter Handke with nary a care for the reader, as if “through his writing he could re-order time according to his own pace and escape reality.”

In summary, a retired writer (Handke?) summons a group of loyal friends to his boat house on the Morava River for a meal and to a recounting of his recent journey through Europe. The tables on board the boat are each arranged for a single person, each positioned so the person sitting at a it is pointed away from the rest of the guests. There is an attractive woman on board whom no-one knows and who flits in and out of the dinner party. That these guests, summoned at such short notice, would linger long into the night while the host rambles on about his travels suggests that they are total admirers of his work and are dedicated to his well-being.

The ex-writer’s peregrinations go from the Balkans to the edge of Portugal and Spain, back through an eight-mile tunnel into Germany, and on to the family home in Austria. The narrator is always a third person or persons, sometimes someone at the boat party and sometimes an unnamed one, and I wondered why Handke chose this complex narrative structure, for it is difficult to read and follow; the style is a confluence of many streams of consciousness, flowing and overlapping like the currents of the Morava River.

The places the wandering ex-writer winds up have shades of the macabre: a cemetery where one half of a town has killed the other half; a young girl he had once had an affair with, who has now been reduced to begging and to hurling curses and excreta at him; a symposium on sound where all the delegates have been damaged by it and yet one delegate, a monk, says, “Silence can also destroy”; hiking in the countryside with a poet who knows nothing about the novelistic craft, while our writer in turn does not get poetry; meeting a populist writer who states that only the language of journalism is alive and that literary writing is dead; meeting his brother, a world traveller, who feels the world in his body parts and has not read any of the ex-writer’s books. Our wanderer is even seen behaving irrationally on some parts of his journey by some of his guests on the boat who then take up the story on his behalf.

He meets odd characters: a young rock climber in Austria, an old man in Portugal editing a manuscript, and the idiots of Santiago de Compostella, to name a few. The woman appears and reappears on this journey, loving him and then being beaten by him. I struggled with the allegory and the symbolism here. Was she his nemesis? His muse? Does she have to be beaten like he has to batter his books to give them character? Why is she now at peace with him on the boat? Because he has finally given up writing? And what does the dog symbolize, for this animal also shows up in places along his journey?

I got it that he is mourning the break up of the Balkans into fragmented states: “new borders have cropped up, new countries carved out of old.” There is even a dying band of Central European partisans meeting annually to resuscitate a unified Balkan state. Handke has a soft spot for the Balkans due to his maternal ancestry being from that side of the world, and which was brought into focus by the recent Nobel Prize furor over his expressed sympathies for Slobodan Milosevic.

At the cemetery where his parents are buried, he has a revelation: he attains a heightened state of awareness and describes the minutia of ant colonies, bumblebees and grasses. Upon his return home to the Morava riverboat he finds that time away on his travels has changed what was home. There are bomb craters now, the signage in the enclave he lives in has changed from Cyrillic to English, the river has dried up, and the boat has been pulled ashore. Symbolism? Meaning? Go figure!

The only redeeming elements here for me were the complex but fluid sentences, the powerful imagery, the writer’s connectedness with sights, sounds and smells, and the reflections of a writer who has passed his “best by” date. Maybe the Nobel was conferred upon Handke for his boldness to go into these areas.

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The IdiotThe Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Can a man who has chosen to always speak the truth in a world filled with intrigue, insincerity and manipulation, be in love with two women simultaneously without bringing about drastic consequences for all? That seems to be the hinge of this book, for Dostoevsky, chooses not to impute meaning but sticks true to his calling as a writer and just records the actions of his eccentric characters, following them through to the tragedies (and comedies) that ensue.

Lef Nikolovitch Myshkin is a prince from an aristocratic line that has run out and is the “idiot” of this novel, so called because his Christ-like nature is out of place in a world of double speak. He suffers from epilepsy and has missed much of coming-of-age life after being in a sanitarium in Switzerland. Upon his return to Russia, he is exposed to two military-aristocratic families: the Epanchins and their three daughters of marriageable age, Alexandra, Adelaida and Aglaya, with the older two creeping into old-maid status and the youngest one spurning suitors left and right (and with the Prince being one of those spurned); the dysfunctional Ivolgins, in which the patriarch is a drunk and makes up the most fantastic stories that cause embarrassment to the rest of his family. A host of other characters make up the cast that flit between Petersburg and the country resort of Pavlosk during the summer, living, or feeding off, the lives of the idle rich: the dying Hippolyte who is intent on blackmailing everyone with his suicidal threats, Evgenie Pavlovitch, also from the military, who is one of Aglaya’s hapless suitors, Rogojin, the young and devilish nemesis of the Prince, and the mysterious but manic-depressive Nastasia Philipovna who has the Prince and Rogojin in her web of on-again-off-again love. The cast—comprised of military officers, young women seeking husbands, money-lenders, clerks, boxers, radicals, widows, matriarchs, consumptives and drunks—is a cross section of Russian society on the eve of the death of the aristocracy and the advent of the “Coming Men,” termed Nihilists here, but soon to be identified as Communists in the next century.

The novelistic style is theatrical, Shakespearean and polyphonic, where the entire cast assembles at crucial scenes for speeches dominated by one of the characters, and which usually leads to a crisis and plot-inflection point: whether that is Hippolyte with the gun that fails to fire, or the Prince breaking the vase during his diatribe on Roman Catholicism, or Burdevsky trying the expose the Prince as a fake with fake evidence, or Nastasia with her baiting of the Prince and Rogojin, or Mrs. Epanchin’s hysterical outburst condemning the Prince for appeasing swindlers. In between these set pieces, the convoluted plot veers back and forth furiously. One moment Nastasia is to be married off to Ganya, the elder son of the Ivolgins, the next the Prince is madly in love with Nastasia, the next Nastasia has run away with Rogojin, the next the heartbroken Prince is pledged to Aglaya, the next we find that Aglaya is pledged to no-one but has only been leading everyone on. Sometimes the promises and claims made by the characters (except for the Prince) cannot be believed, for, remember, they are engaged in double-speak, often meaning the opposite of what they say. And when a plot point is needed, Dostoevsky just throws one in – like the convenient way the Prince suddenly flashes a letter to say that he has become the heir to a vast inheritance left by a distant relative, thus elevating him from rags to riches in a flash just when the story requires it.

Within this crumbling society, the Prince is considered a Nihilist, for he is exposing all that is bad in the corrupt world by just speaking the truth. Nastasia puts the sins of the aristocracy on display when she plays a game with her guests where they each have to mention the most shameful act they have committed in their lives, and thereby we get an insight into the shallowness of this supposedly well-to-do society. Dostoevsky also gets to talk about what it means to be a prisoner facing execution (an experience the author had, before he was reprieved from the firing squad at the last minute) – and this section makes for riveting reading. And yet, despite his simplicity, the Prince is able to turn the tables on some deviants by sticking to his principles: he exposes Burdevsky, he gets Rogojin to see Nastasia’s limitations, he foils the proposed marriage of Ganya and Nastasia. He sees into people’s souls and speaks the truth, and they recognize his innocence and integrity and respect him for that. But we know that inevitably this world will get the better of him, hence the moniker given to him by many: The Idiot.

The tragic finale is macabre, and not as I had expected – well, at least I didn’t anticipate the way in which the predictive end would pan out. But given Dostoevsky’s experiences with firing squads, I’m sure he never planned any pat endings to his novels that followed. My one criticism of this work is that it is unbalanced and meandering in places, although it bravely explores the issues of the times in those dying days of the Russian aristocracy.

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Fear and Courage: True stories that reveal the depths of the human experienceFear and Courage: True stories that reveal the depths of the human experience by Renee Hollis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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!

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A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A DiaryA Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary by Anonymous
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Travels with Myself and Another: Five Journeys from HellTravels with Myself and Another: Five Journeys from Hell by Martha Gellhorn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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.

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