Recently Reviewed Books…

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

IncendiaryIncendiary by Chris Cleave
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A chilling debut novel presented in an unfamiliar epistolary format: a letter to Osama bin Laden by one of his victims, narrated to read like a first person novel.

Our unknown narrator is a working class woman whose husband is a policeman in the bomb disposal unit. She is highly strung and suffers OCD due to the pressures of her husband’s job. Her remedy for nerves is extra marital sex, whenever and wherever she can find it, while hubby is away diffusing bombs at all hours of the night. She falls in with Jasper, an upper-class journalist who is engaged to Petra, a dead ringer for our narrator in looks, but a ruthlessly ambition journalist in her own right. While our narrator is engaged in hard core sex with Jasper in her living room one afternoon, the blaring TV reveals the blowing up of the nearby stadium where her husband and four-year year-old son are attending the much heralded Arsenal-Chelsea soccer match. The guilt and the loss of loved ones during her act of transgression will never leave her. Nor does it seem to leave other Londoners exposed to the explosion. Everyone starts behaving badly. Rich boys take to cocaine, rich girls go shopping, and poor girls just try to get on with it, although they start seeing their dead relatives everywhere.

Our narrator, in her grieving and addled state, next takes up with a police superintendent who was her dead husband’s boss, and finds out that the explosion was a known one to the authorities, but it was allowed to happen in order to avert a much larger act of terrorism in London; preventing the soccer match explosion would have prematurely sent the perpetrators into hiding. This discovery leads to many conflicted emotions in our narrator: a sense of betrayal by her country’s politicians, a sense of revulsion towards her new lover, and a craving for revenge to release the little ghost of the four-year old boy who is now following her everywhere. Things come to a head when Petra acts in her own self-centred way, and the cocaine-riddled Jasper decides to take matters into his shaky hands.

The book is full of irony: the narrator’s sexual climax coming just as the stadium explodes; the husband planning to transfer out of the bomb squad only to go out the day before to a soccer match and be killed by a bomb; the narrator falling in love with the superintendent only to find out that he has “known” all along; the narrator aspiring for Petra’s social standing as much as Petra seeks to emulate the narrator in order to win Jasper’s affections; a bomb scare leading to deaths caused by various factors other than the exploding of bombs themselves; the blatant fact that civilized London and its denizens are no more civilized than the desert-hiding Osama and his gang—it only takes a bomb and the breakdown of social order to reveal the similarities between the two civilizations.

The style is epistolary and conversational: the narrator is having a conversation with Osama throughout the narrative. She doesn’t hate him for what he has done to her family, but sees a kinship with him through her loss. In fact, she would like to live with Osama. She is a representation of London: “a city built on the wreckage of itself, too ignorant to know when it is finished.” All that said, it is hard to ignore the stark madness that these acts of terrorism reduce civilized society to, and our raving lunatic of a narrator remains a good example of that.

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Last Night in Twisted RiverLast Night in Twisted River by John Irving
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Irving keeps writing the same story over and over again, albeit mixing up the characters and the situations, and though I was looking for the “three-peat” to top Garp and Owen Meany, I didn’t find it in this over-written novel.

One could argue that this is Irving’s autobiographical novel, for the protagonist, Daniel Baciagalupo, alias Danny Angel (there are a lot of nom-de-plumes in this book as much as there are parenthetical explanations, like this one, within sentences—an Irving hallmark), a fiction writer, follows the same career trajectory as his creator. But the writing is obfuscated by lots of unnecessary detail about logging, cooking and Italian family names. After the first part of the book, which leads up to what happened on the fateful last night in the logging town of Twisted River when Daniel was twelve, the story rambles on for another 50 years with intermittent pauses to take stock of how the lives of Danny, his cook father Dominic (alias Tony) and their spiritual advisor, the river driver Kechum, evolved at various locations in the USA and Canada.

The writing appears aimless and clunky, flitting back and forth in time in each of the long chapters, but Irving foreshadows strongly and strews clues that he pulls together for a dramatic ending in each of those chapters. Danny says he starts his novels from the end and works his way to the front, and that could very well be how this book was written. Irving’s obsession with finding that perfect opening sentence is revealed here, and that sentence bookends the novel.

The usual suspects are present: a strong step-father figure (Kechum), strong female matriarchal figures (and weak ones), the Oedipus Complex, the pivotal event that begins the odyssey, and the grand theme (it is 9/11, and Bush’s reaction to it this time). The one variation is that the absentee father scenario—another Irving hallmark—plays out in Dominic’s life instead of his son’s, for Dominic is a strong presence in Danny’s life. The Irvinesque comi-tragic situations abound: Danny mistaking a woman humping his dad for a bear, a young man perishing at the wheel in a car crash while getting a blow job from his girl-friend, a naked woman parachuting out of the sky into a pig sty, and a drunken trio do-si-do-ing on thin river ice, are but a few. There is also the bogeyman, Cop Carl—Danny and Dominic’s nemesis—who provides impetus to the peregrinations of the Baciagalupos that end up forging young Danny into a writer.

Irving uses his characters to voice his political leanings about what ails America. Like Owen Meany did with Vietnam, Danny keeps score of how many are dying in the Iraq war. Danny situates himself in Canada so that he can be an outsider looking in and write about the USA from a distance. There are observations on writing and the writer’s life: “symbolism, sublety and restraint characterize Danny’s novels, and he dodges the squeamish stuff,” per Kechum.

This book should have ended on that final night in Twisted River, Instead it went on, and on, and I didn’t understand why it was necessary other than to fulfil some publisher’s quota of words, because we ended up getting the same Irving novel of yore with a few variations, and not a very good novel at that. Perhaps the long digression of nearly 400 pages after that fateful night in Twisted River was to illustrate Irving’s philosophy that sometimes people and events just fall into our lives unexpectedly.

I think I am going to have to keep looking for that three-peat in another of his books.

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The Last WordThe Last Word by Hanif Kureishi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“The madness of writing is the antidote to true madness”- one of the myriad of insights into writing and publishing that pepper this book, suggests just that: this is a writer’s novel, a novel about writers and their hangers-on, and one that discards pretensions of plot, character, pacing and all those other elements of craft that readers come to expect in a novel, but which writers consider necessary evils to accommodate when delivering a novel.

The story covers a month in the life of a biographer, Harry, who spends it with his subject: a renowned but fading Nobel-prize winning Indian-born, colonial writer, Mamoon, and his gatekeeper Italian wife, Liana, in a crumbling country manor. Mamoon is a despicable man and so is his biographer; both are libidinous, adulterous and self-absorbed. The wives, partners and lovers of these men crave love and attention from them, which they are unable to provide because they are absorbed only in themselves and their work. As Harry plumbs into Mamoon’s life, pulling out as much salacious detail as he can, the Nobel winner in turn is getting his own back on the biographer by writing a novel about him, exposing Harry’s own peccadilloes. As for the women, Liana has a “see but not touch” sexual flirtation with Harry, while the aging Mamoon has a “see, but we are not sure whether he has touched” relationship with Harry’s pregnant partner, Alice. And Harry has a sexual relationship with the maid, Julia, while proclaiming his undying love to Alice. No one feels guilt, they just get on with it.

The modus operandi of the publishing industry is laid bare: write a saucy biography of this fading literary star and rekindle interest in him; issue reprints of his many books in their many translations to catch this wave of renewed interest; sell the salacious bits unearthed during the research for the biography to the tabloids; spin off into a TV show; republish the biography in five years as a second edition with a new chapter detailing the writer’s death and start the circus rolling all over again.

The story line is haphazard, the characters are one dimensional; all that matters is what spews from their mouths in terms of their insights into the “madness of writing.” Quotes are abundant:
“Literature was a killing field—no decent person had picked up a pen”
“Words were the bridge between chaos and reality.”
“Art is seduction. Indiscretion is the essence of biography.”
“Marriage domesticates sex but frees love.”
“All sex must include a poisonous drop of perversion to be worth getting into bed for.”
“A writer is loved by strangers and hated by his family.”
“In London, you never see white people working.”
“Frustration makes creativity possible.”
“All religions are concerned with weaning their adherents off desire.”

Why am I regurgitating these quotes? Because they are all that is merit worthy in this book. The story line spirals into a cartoon and the scenes jump around with a lack of continuity and fluidity. Character information is strewn all over the book, some at the very end, resulting in us not quite knowing these people even by the time the novel concludes.

One thing is obvious: biographies can lead to fractured relationships and ill health, and there is no guarantee of the planned outcome. A lot of emotion gets released, many secrets are revealed, and new and tangled relationships are formed.

As for the work itself, the publisher at one stage looks at the biographer’s manuscript and says, “This is shit. Improve a million times,” and I wondered whether this was a true quote hurled at Kureishi himself while he was wrestling with this book, a criticism that he didn’t quite take to heart, or if he did, resulted only in a half improved version. I suppose he set himself up with a tough challenge when, given the premise, this story is derived primarily from encounters between the biographer and his subject, and the supporting cast, and when all there is to work with is dialogue between the players about events that had occurred in the past. The only way I could reconcile myself to reading this book was to say, “It’s a book about a writer and a touchy subject: the writers’ biography. How would you feel if people went poking into your personal life trying to find skeletons in the closet?”

The last word left with me was more a question: can one separate the life of an artist from his work, and appreciate or depreciate each half separately and distinctly? This is a question for our times as many artists are falling off their pedestals today for lives improperly lived.

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The EmigrantsThe Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an unusual novel, and reads more like a writer’s search for real lives destroyed by the Holocaust. When supplemented with a number of photographs, the novel transcends fiction into biography. But yet, is this a novel as the cover suggests, or a collection of real-life stories?

The four character-stories that make up the novel embrace the lives of a doctor, a teacher, a butler, and a painter, all assimilated Jews in a Germany that is going Nazi, all chronicled by a younger writer (Sebald, presumably) who takes a deep interest in them. The four characters lived either on the German side of Switzerland, or in Germany, prior to the Second World War. Let me try to cover some highlights of their lives:

Henry Selwyn (doctor) is living out his last days, estranged from his younger, richer, more active wife, in a hermitage located on the grounds of the large manor house owned by her. Love and matrimonial life have faded. Dr. Selwyn pines for the mentor from his youth who was lost in an avalanche in the Swiss Alps. He keeps practicing firing a gun on the grounds, one he purchased when he was an army surgeon in India. He intends to use the gun on himself one day.

Paul Bereyter (teacher) is only a quarter Jewish by birth, but is subject to the same anti-Jewish laws of 1935 in the Swiss/German border area he lives in, laws that prevent him from practicing his profession. His family’s emporium is sold for a song when his father dies of “fire and fury” for being discriminated against and his mother follows a few weeks later, succumbing to depression. Cataract surgery loses him his eyesight but provides him with an internal vision he has never exercised before.

Ambrose Adelwarth (butler) emigrates to America with many of his multi generational family members, where they make a living in the ghettos of New York City, grabbing any job, legal or illicit, to survive. Ambrose becomes the personal assistant to Cosmo Solomon, heir of the wealthy Solomon family. When his employers die out, Ambrose is unemployed though well provided for, and slumps into a depression that can only be treated with electro-shock therapy. In the early days of this form of therapy, it was hit and miss, and Ambrose suffers progressive paralysis from the cure. What is salvaged by the writer of this chronicle is Ambrose’s diary in which he and Cosmo take a colourful trip through Turkey to Israel and down to the Dead Sea.

Max Ferber (painter) lives in Manchester, a city he chose when he fled Germany in 1939, leaving the rest of his family behind. Manchester, at the time, was the largest indoor port in the world, the Industrial Jerusalem, but it began its death spiral in 1930 and reached rock bottom in the late 1950’s. Max is drawn to dust and decay and lives in a studio full of it, painting and sketching relentlessly despite gaining fame internationally for his work.

The narrator paints vivid pictures of life among assimilated Jews in Germany and surrounding Europe who were dislocated from their comfortable existence during the Nazi era and gradually reduced to lives of quiet desperation. As this novel is an exercise in capturing and freezing memory of a lost time, the author is detailed to a fault, perhaps too detailed, and in the absence of dialogue, the reading is heavy. The absence of dialogue must not be confused with the absence of voices, for the voice of the first person narrator morphs between young Sebald, the four principal characters, and key members in their lives like wives, mothers and sisters, all seamlessly woven into the narrative. There is also the motif of a man with a butterfly net who flits in an out, and represents a grim reaper in some stories and a saviour in others, depending on the frame of mind of the observer.

The ending left me wanting more, for the lives being exposited, stop abruptly. Perhaps the author was trying to conjure what it must have been for the millions whose lives were snuffed out suddenly with a barrage of gas pellets surreptitiously dropped into a locked chamber they had mistaken for a communal shower.

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NemesisNemesis by Philip Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roth retreats into his childhood during the 1944 polio epidemic in Newark to reveal the nemesis of guilt that can destroy lives far more insidiously than the poliomyelitis did.

Bucky Cantor is an athletic young man of 23, battling personal handicaps. His poor eyesight has kept him out of the war (every eligible male in that time was hunkering to get a shot at the war, it seemed), his mother had died during childbirth, and his father was a crook; his much- loved grandfather had passed away three years ago and he now lives with his ailing grandmother. He is in love with Marcia, the daughter of a wealthy doctor, and she is his ticket out to a prosperous future.

During the summer of 1944, polio breaks out in the Jewish neighbourhood where Bucky is the playground director, sparking irrational fears. Many are blamed for spreading the disease: the Italians by the Jews, a mentally handicapped man due to his lack of hygiene, a hamburger restaurant for serving the first victim’s last meal, even Bucky for not shutting the playground despite his superhuman efforts at keeping the place clean and engaging the children in healthy physical activity.

An invitation from Marcia to escape the city for the cleaner Poconos to spend the rest of the summer, is one Bucky is unable to resist, although his conscience pricks him to stay and fight the good fight with the afflicted ones in his hometown. When the disease arrives in the summer camp in the Poconos, hot on the heels of Bucky’s arrival, some stark questions surface.

The nemesis of this book’s title is guilt, not necessarily the obvious polio that gives rise to it. Bucky is conflicted between his anger towards a cruel God, that, in his opinion, is killing these innocents, and his love for Marcia who believes in a merciful God. The polio is depicted in all its creeping stages, as not one that merely infects and damages the body, but one that also alters the mind, forever, in Bucky’s situation.

Certain set scenes are played up, out of proportion to this short novel, I thought. The wake for the first victim Alan Michaels is overdone to emphasise polio’s lack of discrimination when it strikes; Donald’s swimming practices to show his perfectly functioning lungs; and the hokey Indian ceremony performed by white boys and men at the summer camp smacked as a sign of support for the protestors of cultural appropriation.

Roth seems to rely on a third person narrator, not unlike himself, for most of his novels—hence Zukerman, Kepesh and others. In this book it is Arne Meshnikoff, a 11year-old boy (Roth’s age in 1944) who was also afflicted with the disease that summer, but went on to become an architect of handicapped-accessible buildings. Years later (in 1971), the older Bucky meets Arne and they compare notes on how their lives had diverged post-polio, a major inflection point for everyone who was afflicted. The wages of guilt vs. the power of optimism become clear. Bucky is no Roosevelt (or even Arne) who used his disability as leverage to achieve greatness. Instead, Bucky can only remembered positively when he made that perfect javelin throw, before polio came calling to Newark.

This is a powerful novel, and a fitting curtain call for a great writer who announced his retirement (do writers ever retire, or do they die with their pens in their hand?) soon after this book was published.

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In One PersonIn One Person by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Irving is known to tackle the tough issues of our times, sexuality, Vietnam, abortion, and in this novel: gender crossing.

Billy, the bi-sexual narrator, is a successful author in his late sixties, who has had an upbringing and career not unlike Irving’s, who is reflecting on his life and his “outsider” status. His theatrical family helped confuse gender for him right from the get-go: his grandfather was a cross-dresser, so was his absentee father, the Shakespearean theatre productions put on by his high school often had boys playing female characters, and his first real love was transgender librarian Miss Frost. Billy also is attracted to a wrestler on his school team, Kittredge, who is in turn gender-confused; Kittredge’s mother has been sleeping with her only son for years to help cure him of his attraction to the male sex. Billy makes no bones that he is attracted to both sexes and has many transient lovers throughout the book, his ideal being the lover “with small breasts and a big cock.” The only long-term relationship he has (on and off sexually, but permanently on a platonic level) is with his childhood friend Elaine, whose bra he keeps hidden under his pillow. I wondered whether with some of the explicit but humorous situations described in this book, Irving was trying to take on Philip Roth’s Portnoy.

The most dramatic part of this book is Billy and his cohort’s passage through the AIDS epidemic between 1981 and 1989. Irving describes, in excruciating detail, the AIDS related illnesses that take so many of Billy’s contemporaries away: pneumocyctis pneuomnia, vacuolar myelopathy, esophageal candidiasis, cytomegalovirus and fulminant diarrhea, to name a few. Billy (who’s been using condoms since ’68) is spared, and walks through this death passage like a ghost, full of survivor guilt, feeling even more the outsider. He sees gay caregivers succumb, the wives of bisexual men get infected and their children commit suicide, and single mothers of afflicted children inject themselves with their dying offsprings’ blood in order to share in the tragedy. What was a funny book detailing Billy’s coming of age in the ’60’s becomes a dark tale by the time we arrive in the ’80’s.

The narrative style is disappointing: conversational, first person, jumping forward in time and back frequently and full of parenthetical explanations. We return to the same scene or situation many times over during the book and on each visit Irving gives us a bit more information for dramatic impact, a kind of writer’s cop-out.

I wondered whether Billy’s adventures and reflections were meant to arrive at the conclusion given to him by his father: “We already are who we are, aren’t we?”. All he can do is find a greater deal of acceptance and integration as we move into the new millennium. And yet, with this book, Irving has blown our stereotypical impressions of gender wide open to embrace new permutations and combinations of what it is to be “normal.”

This is not another Garp, but it certainly is an extension of Owen Meany with its amateur theatrical family setting, weak narrator, absentee father, surrogate step-father, strong maternal figures, and grand theme (AIDS instead of Vietnam)—yet another exploration of a subject that we prefer to keep in the taboo closet.

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