Recently Reviewed Books…

Operation Shylock: A ConfessionOperation Shylock: A Confession by Philip Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Rothologist’s Collector’s Item

Just when I thought I had read the most bizarre of books from Philip Roth, I stumble upon another. This is one of those, written at the time when Roth was recovering from a nervous breakdown after taking the drug Halcion for pain management that reduced him to paranoia, a deadly state for a novelist who already skirts that area of the mind.

Fact merges with fiction in this book. The facts are that Roth uses his own name for the protagonist and relates his visit to Israel to interview author Aron Apelfeld, a holocaust survivor. While in Isreal, Roth also visits the trial of John Demjanjuk who is being tried for potentially having been Ivan the Terrible during WWII. The fiction is that there is a doppelganger in Israel claiming to be Philip Roth and stirring up support for another Jewish diaspora, this time a migration out of Israel and back to Europe where the memory of the Holocaust is quite not extinguished; the rationale is that the Israelis face certain extermination by their Arab neighbours but that Europe will never let Holocaust II happen.

Everyone is not who they claim to be: the two Roths who keep switching roles; Damjanjuk is not Ivan the Terrible, or is he?; is Smilesburger a seller of antiquarian books or a Mossad agent? The book is seeded with long swaths of dialogue where the pros and cons of Diaspora vs. Settlement are discussed ad nauseum. Roth and his doppelganger emerge as representatives of the diaspora and Apelfeld as a supporter of settlement. In between, Roth is gifted the diaries of Leon Klinghoffer, the victim of the Achile Lauro hijacking, and we are entertained to a travelogue on Israel. The Palestinian viewpoint is presented by Roth’s old university friend, George, who is eternally spewing anti-Israeli comments and dubs himself a “word-throwing Arab, not a stone-throwing one”. And sex? There is no Roth book that is complete without the urging of the loins. The sex bit is provided by Jinx Posseski, the fake Roth’s nurse, who sleeps with the original and the double, and physically makes love to the latter even after death does them part.

The twist in the book is the last chapter, which is purposefully omitted, and which ostensibly describes a “task” Roth performs for the Mossad that he wants to put in the book but which they want to keep out. Roth, the career novelist, is committed to his art and abhors censure. In his words: “The writer redefined the permissible. That was the responsibility. Nothing need hide itself in fiction.” And yet the penalty of crossing the Mossad is not death on a dark road for Roth but the worse sentence of loshon hora—evil speak—that which can destroy his literary career. And so we get another twist that leaves the plot, in Roth’s words, “the story is frivolously plotted, over-plotted, too freakishly plotted, with outlandish events so wildly careening around every corner that there is nowhere for intelligence to establish a foothold and develop a perspective.”

Plot inconsistencies apart, the fluency of prose with this author is at its height in this book, and so is his manic expression, which is understandable given his addled mental state caused by Halcion. I wondered why Roth wrote this book, other than to keep up his regular output that must have been demanded by his publisher, sickness notwithstanding. And I toyed with the idea that perhaps it may have been his attempt to atone for his Jew-bashing by showing himself undertaking work for the Mossad. But since the missing final chapter holds the key, we really wonder whether that assignment, which is the title of this book, is also a work of fiction.

Given the platitudes to Roth as an imminent novelist and political influencer that dot the book, I wondered whether this novel was Roth’s own pat on the back to himself; in George’s words, “Philip, you are a Jewish prophet and you always have been. You are a Jewish seer.” Smilesburger has a less than complimentary view and describes Roth as “one who has made his fortune as a leading Jewologist of international literature.”

Overall, a good addition to the library of an ardent Roth-o-logist, which I am.

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Travels in the ScriptoriumTravels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Auster invites us into his labyrinth again, then twists and turns us around with various possibilities, and leaves us hanging wondering where the heck we have been to and where the heck this story will end up.

This is one of his sparsest novels. Mr. Blank— the unknown old man who wakes up in a sterile but clean room with a bed, an adjoining bathroom, a swivel chair and desk, some manuscripts and a pile of photographs—is either a spymaster or a writer. Perhaps Spymaster is an apt description for Fiction Writer. Mr. Blank is on some treatment regimen that has robbed him of his energy and memory. He has a series of visitors, each revealing a piece of his past, each featured in one of the photographs on his desk; each has been in his employ during which he had sent them on dangerous assignments abroad, the results of which did not often end satisfactorily. A camera takes a picture per second, recording all his movements, burps and farts. He is ministered to by nurses, Anna and Sophie, who also provide him sexual favours, given that his incarceration is devoid of touch and love, and he is still capable of sex even though his body is failing him. And yet, Mr. Blank is afraid to check the door to his room to see whether it is unlocked. Instead he spends his time perambulating around the room on the swivel chair, reading the manuscripts, and trying to recall his earlier life. He appears to have agreed to this incarceration, a clue perhaps to the fact that he is a writer, safest while spending his time in his room in isolation with only his characters and stories for company.

The manuscript that he reads has an eerie resemblance to his own life, that is, as much of that life which is revealed through his visitors and his own faulty memory. However, the story in the manuscript is set in the early 1800’s in some fictitious country and appears to be a metaphor for how the west was won in the USA, replete with the decimation of indigenous tribes by white settlers. If he was writing about what he knew, was Blank himself a racist who committed murder and genocide? When the manuscript ends abruptly, Mr. Blank is intent on finishing it and dives into the myriad possibilities on where this story could go. This is where Auster treats us to a showcase of storytelling virtuosity and provides us the second clue to the fact that Mr. Blank is indeed an author living inside his own fiction. The title “Scriptorium” alludes to this too. That Blank likes certain characters, even loves them like Anna, and dislikes others like Flood, strengthens this supposition. An unknown narrator appears at the end, summing up the case, and this adds another dimension to the “story within the story”; perhaps there is a third story, or many more—the classic Auster labyrinth.

Is there a way out of this maze? Auster seems to suggest not. The author once ensconced in his world reaps the reward and the punishment for creating it. His characters punish him too, for the descriptive labels that have been stuck to various objects in the room get moved around mysteriously, and Blank struggles to restore the order by sticking them back properly, again conveying that very human of drives, of needing to control one’s environment if only for one’s sanity. Is he suffering from Alzheimers? This thought crossed my mind at one point, but Blank seems to dredge up characters we haven’t even met, leading me to believe that under that cloud of medication lies a sound mind trying to assert control.

The temptation for the reader of such surrealistic novels is to try and make sense of them. Some have compared this book to Kafka or the Kabbalah. But I never made sense of Kafka or Kabbalah, both were too deep for me, so let me skip the comparisons and make one punt at a more surface level possibility. I could be wrong, but this is only one reader’s perspective: Auster was visioning his own end as a writer. If so, it is a story without a happy ending.

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MolloyMolloy by Samuel Beckett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Stream of consciousness novels are either the work of a higher genius or the prattling of an addled mind, I have never been able to figure out which. And this is a mind-boggling work of what, I really don’t know. Given that Beckett wrote this book during his recovery from a nervous breakdown, I think the addled mind theory is more probable to me.

The book is split into two equal halves: the first covers the voice of Molloy, a crippled, derelict of a man who can still ride a bike, who is going to see his mother (I suspect she is dead and this journey is his way back to his maker), he may even have killed her; he meets and falls into various misadventures along the way; the second half is narrated by Moran the inept investigator, or agent, who is on the hunt for Molloy for a crime the latter has ostensibly committed, and what that crime is we never know. Both men have eerie similarities: they have game legs, their minds wander although Moran is a bit more coherent than Molloy, sex is a chore, just get it done and out of the way, whether it is by Molloy picking up derelict women for anal sex or Moran masturbating while his son is not around; both do not know why they are going or where they are going or what they are going to do when they arrive except that something is pushing them on. Shades of Waiting for Godot.

There is poetry in the rambling prose, and words that I couldn’t pick up in the dictionary, like “absterge” and “podex.” There is an element of criminality. At one point Moran has killed a man and dismembered him but he doesn’t know why, and because he is our narrator, we don’t either. At another point he has “a savage row” with his son who is accompanying him on the hunt for Molloy, how savage we will never know, but sufficient for the son to abandon his father. Both stories end inconclusively: Molloy gets lost in a forest and Moran doesn’t get his man. And I asked myself, what the hell was this story about? And why was it only called Molloy, why not Molloy & Moran? Or Going to Godot?

Of course this is the work by none other than Samuel Beckett, and we should not say unkind things about him, other than pay homage to his superior genius that we will never comprehend. I looked at the reviews of this book on this forum and even the most cynical of reviewers rate it a respectful 4 stars. So let me cast the first stone and be stoned in turn. If I were to judge this book as a novel, or as an extension of its form, I think it’s dismal. The essential element of story is missing or badly mangled. I think Beckett is better to have stuck to poetry and theatre—at least, I understood those. Writing a novel to heal oneself from a nervous breakdown and then inflicting its maniacal prattling upon a faithful readership is unkind.

And now I face the ultimate unkindness: the other two novels in this trilogy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, sit in my Kindle, crying out to be read. They will just have to lie there. For them, waiting until I pick them up will be like waiting for Godot.

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The Piano MakerThe Piano Maker by Kurt Palka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel reminded me of the movie Chocolate, where a strange woman arrives in a small town and starts to transform it. But the comparison ends there for the light hearted movie does not end with the same dramatic and tragic revelations contained in this book.

Helene is a middle aged French woman, skilled in playing piano and in the craft of piano making. She is well dressed, walks with a limp and drives a brand new car. It is 1933 and she arrives via Montreal at a rural Nova Scotian village, St. Homais, on the French Shore. Rather quickly by displaying her talent for music, she obtains work and accommodation at the parish church, playing piano and conducting the choir. Like with all small towns, she attracts both fans and detractors, for she is from away. And she has secrets. Big ones. Some even leading to murder. When her dark secret is outed and she is placed under house arrest in the church pending trial, business booms in St Homais, for everyone wants to attend church to see a suspected killer, everyone wants to attend a murder trial. The fans and detractors alike, except for Helen’s inner circle of loyal friends, become gawkers.

We are quickly introduced to two story lines: one in the present day beginning when Helene arrives in St. Homais; and the older one of Helen’s childhood, her apprenticeship in the family piano factory, marriage, and business partnership with a man, Nathan, who was to shape her future in more ways than one. The two story lines interweave slowly and build up to a rapid-fire climax when they become inseparable from each other, one scene from the past leading to the next from the present and vice versa. A very clever device on the part of the author to maintain suspense and interest.

In the process, we are given glimpses into the affects of World War I on survivors and on the occupied territory, France, in this case: the conscription of men, the inevitable news of a loved one dying, the futility of love when the men are transient and very soon dead, the shutting down of businesses due to the lack of labour, the monotonous meals scrounged from anywhere, even hunted in one’s backyard, the scramble for firewood during winter, the routine billeting of soldiers in citizens’ houses. We get an insight into piano making, and the sale of antiquities that Helene gets into with the aid and coaxing of Nathan, an older man who once desired her but had to settle for being her business partner. Hers is a charmed life amidst the devastation of war and the perils of travelling to colonized foreign lands to secure treasures paid for so richly by colonial museums and private collectors, a practice now considered illegal with former owners seeking redress. Inevitably Helene too has to face the occupational hazard of the lure of filthy lucre.

To discuss the plot any further would be to create spoilers, so I will refrain other than to say that Palka spins a good tale, backed with rich historical data and exercising strong narrative control. As much as he will dwell inordinately – perhaps to create suspense and mood – on a scene where Helene paces her bedroom awaiting trial, he will rush through the entire year she spent in Indo-China in a few pages. I thought he would get into trouble depicting the platonic, non-sexual relationship between Nathan and Helene but he manages that well, for it is a pivotal hinge and could have snapped the story apart like being caught in a bear trap.

I have read Palka’s earlier novel, Clara, and I saw shades of similarity: war and its effects (In Clara we were dealing with WWII), strong women with tragic flaws who marry soldiers, converging story lines. However while Clara, read like a family history being fictionalized, The Piano Maker is a suspense novel and is far more interesting to read once you get through the early set-up chapters. I had the pleasure of meeting the author at a reading recently and I hope he continues to write more fiction in the years ahead.

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4 3 2 14 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We’ve all heard of a holy trinity, but a not-so-holy quartet? And that’s exactly what Auster does in this autobiographical novel covering his life ranging from the years 0-25 of age, in which he renames himself Ferguson and sends this fictitious self down four possible life paths, subject to the winds of chance.

The book is a “novel” construct, if I could pun on the word: seven distinct phases during Ferguson’s 25 years, each life repeating after the next as in 1.1, 1.2,1.3,1.4 and then onto the second phase of 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4 etc — I think you might have the hang of it by now. The problem for the reader is that keeping track of the divergent paths of each life is difficult and I had to keep notes of what happened in 1.1 so that I could pick up that particular life of Ferguson again in 2.1. Not all of the lives will make it to the final phase 7, and that speaks to Chance, Auster’s pet theme that occurs in many of his books, but all lives are tortured, because all four Fergusons aspired to be authors. Only one of the lives may be attributed to the real Auster, or so we find out. The opening chapter 1.0 was by far the most interesting for me for it reveals the genesis of the Ferguson family, starting with our quartered hero’s grandfather, Reznikoff, who arrives at Ellis Island and is urged by a fellow émigré to change his name to Rockefeller lest he become an outcast; Grandpa forgets his new name when he faces the immigration official and says in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten), and winds up being named Ichabod Ferguson—in one fell stroke of chance, a Russian Jew is converted to a Scottish Presbyterian. Welcome to America!

The other problem that glares in this book is Auster’s telling style. He is known for very little dialogue (and even that is never in quotes) and for a strong narrative preference. Well, when you have four repeating stories that have the same cast of characters alternate roles, and where the same incidents have to be altered as well, the novel becomes a pile up of incidents and a long, repeating journey through the mind of Ferguson for almost 900 pages. The characters get muddled up and it is difficult to get a fix on them. I began skipping.

The book covers the period starting at the end of WWII and ends around 1970 when the Vietnam War was tearing America apart. The early years show the birth of the post-WWII American Dream: courtship, marriage, economic growth, jobs, consumerism, the buying of houses, pregnancies, deaths, and scams – the stuff of middle class life during a boom. In the later years, we see the death of the American Dream as the young men of Ferguson’s age hover on the brink of being drafted into a war crafted by Nobodaddy (the term used for old men who send young men to war to achieve their own selfish ends). The only hope for those who can afford it is to continue their post-secondary education or damage parts of their anatomy so that they would be considered ineligible for the draft. Ferguson comes of age amidst the college protests in Columbia and Kent State, prison riots in Attica, the flower power of Woodstock, and the sexual revolution when sleeping around was de rigueur. The libidinous scenes are well done, including the homosexual ones.

I was left wondering why Auster needed this doorstopper to record his early life, when one of the four lives, the real one, would have sufficed. I came up with the following possibilities:
a) He was writing to please himself, now that he is at the end of his career and really doesn’t have to give a damn about the critics.
b) All of his early life’s experiences wouldn’t fit into a single linear narrative and he needed four to cover them all.
c) His need to experiment with Chance required many permutations and combinations.
d) In prepping for this novel, he had scoped out four story lines and was reluctant to let go of any of them when he got down to the writing.
e) He was trying to develop a new form for the novel, the achievement that most novelists are remembered for—remember Joyce, Hemingway and Proust?

Well, if it was the last reason, this new form doesn’t inspire me much. Although I liked the glimpse into the world of the writer that he offered me. Young Ferguson, in each of his lives, begins writing from an early age. He is also involved in the world of small presses, which on reflection doesn’t look much different from the small presses of today; they are usually started by a bunch of young writers looking to get their own work published; they have limited circulation and provide little or no monetary reward, are backed by a rich patron, and inevitably go belly up when the patron loses interest or the life circumstances of the founders change. And Nixon-era America doesn’t look any different from Trump-era America, probably worse.

I wondered about the four lives of Ferguson and about my life at that stage. How easy was it for a chance incident—a falling tree, a runaway car or a carelessly thrown cigarette—to have altered or short circuited a life, my life or anyone’s life. Auster is not easy reading for this very reason. His existentialist stance implies that the best of efforts may amount to nothing in the end.

As for Rockefeller, despite all his prior attempts to govern the country, he too ended up as Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford only by sheer chance.

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Go Set a Watchman (To Kill a Mockingbird, #2)Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Something goes out when innocence dies. And just as the light goes out for Jean Louise Finch (JL) when she sees her father for what he really is, the shine on Atticus Finch as an upholder of the downtrodden and underprivileged went out for many readers with the publication of this sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. I can understand the shock, dismay and curiosity that vaulted this unexpected follow-up novel to best-seller status, just like the idealistic messages of honour, justice, and human decency did the same for its predecessor.

The turning of Atticus from clean guy to racist is the pivotal conflict in this book as experienced by 26-year old JL returning from New York for a two-week vacation in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. JL (like us) has elevated her father to God status, and then discovers his activities in the local citizens’ council that is opposed to the civil rights movement. What results is a metamorphosis for JL, showdowns with her father, Uncle Jack, Aunt Zandra and long-enduring boyfriend Hank, and a coming to terms with her new reality, not the idealized one of her childhood. She is forced to accept her father for the fallible man he is. And so are we.

The first hundred pages are a drag as they serve only to introduce characters, setting, relationships and past history. There is a decided lack of conflict in this opening, something not tolerated by publishers today, unless of course the author happens to be Harper Lee. I was at the point of setting this book aside when the “discovery” is made. Then the book vaults into the melodramatic with JL exhibiting convulsive physical symptoms of her mental anguish. This is followed by verbal showdowns, which amount to political arguments between the North (JL) and South (everyone else in Maycomb) that have existed since the Civil War, and yet they provide the fire in this book. We are forced to reframe our view of Atticus and his cohort. They are not opposed to black emancipation, but it has to take place over a long period of time, not overnight, for they believe the South is only just beginning its Industrial Revolution and the consequent drift from farms to factories. They stand for less government which should only be present to prevent crime, preserve contracts and provide common defence. They oppose the collective conscience and believe in each person for himself, the reason why men of the South entered the Civil War, leaving farms and lands behind to fight for their personal and political identity. This is a lot for JL to stomach, for she is colour blind having been raised by a white father and a black housekeeper, and who looks upon blacks as people with souls in need of hope, just as white people are. JLs ultimate subsiding into acceptance comes as a slap in the face to her, as well as to the reader, and I thought this turning point was contrived rather simplistically. I am glad however that all her conflicts are not resolved through this act, which today would be referred to as a misogynistic one.

This is a southern novel with shades of Falknerian streams of consciousness. The dialogue is stilted and melodramatic in places, especially during the showdown scenes. Eccentric characters abound: like the man who carried a dead fish in his suitcase and kept a jackal in his room, or the man who disinters his grandfather to steal the corpse’s gold fillings to pay off a debt, or the woman who writes a cow obituary in verse for the local newspaper. Uncle Jack compares the South to England: both were agrarian countries that went industrial, and both believed in slavery.

What was revealing to me was that this was the first novel submitted by Harper Lee to her publisher and also the more sincere one. Yet, she was persuaded to write another more popular one that would appeal to the zeitgeist, and so Mockingbird was born. It was as if Lee was back in writing school, being ordered by her creative writing professor to reverse roles of characters for her next writing exercise. Although, back then, I doubt that writing schools even existed. By the time her second novel was written, the amateur style of Watchman had also been straightened out.

Should Watchman have been published these many years later? There is divided opinion on this. I’m glad it was, for although it killed the Mockingbird for me, it also enlightened me on the evolution of a writer.

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Washington BlackWashington Black by Esi Edugyan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book that attempts to cover a wide geographic canvas of six eventful years in the life of a gifted and lucky slave boy. Although the fantastical elements of the story spurred me on, and the brilliant prose was a pleasure to read, I found some serious shortcomings that made me question this book winning the Giller Prize.

Washington (Wash) Black is a 13 year-old slave in a plantation in Barbados. He doesn’t know who his parents are but is drawn to a slave woman, Big Kit, who cares and protects him from their cruel master, Erasmus Wilde, and from other slaves. The cruelty towards slaves displayed by their white masters is so bad (and so well depicted) that Big Kit promises to kill herself and Wash, so that they will be reborn in Dahomey from whence she originated. Erasmus’s younger brother, Christopher (Titch), takes a shine to Wash and acquires him as a manservant cum research assistant in a project to create a hot air balloon, thus putting a crimp on Big Kit’s plans. When cousin Phillip descends upon the Wilde brothers, plans go a-kilter and Titch and Wash are soon fugitives, escaping in the half-baked balloon; a trip that leads them to the ends of the earth: from the frozen Arctic to the Moorish desert, to London, Virginia, Amsterdam and Nova Scotia. They separate and re-unite and the underpinnings of their unusual relationship are laid bare, surprising us. In the process we get a rollicking good adventure story covering some of the pivotal events that took place during the 1830s: the abolishing of slavery in the Caribbean, the Underground Railroad, and early iterations of air flight, marine biology and photography.

All this was great, but where I had difficulty was in swallowing the contrivances around Washington Black himself. This scared and scarred 13 year-old emerges as a skilful research assistant, educated marine biologist, project manager, prodigious painter and proper English gentleman in his speech and manners, all by the time he is 18 when the novel ends. As there is no indication that this is a much older Washington Black narrating the story of his teen years, one has to conclude that the narration is happenings when the events are occurring or not long after. Everyone wants to tell Wash their private affairs and stories for the benefit of the reader, including his white masters. I think the use of the first person narrator in Washington was a serious limitation of the book and forced these contrivances upon the author. A third person or omniscient narrative would have created more plausibility.

That said, the first part of the narrative, set in Barbados, is very well drawn with the subtle relationship changes between characters clearly delineated. Washington is cast aside by his own kind when he is snatched up and promoted to live in the Big House. The Wilde brothers are torn apart with the coming of Phillip with whom they have had a troubled past. The constant fear that slaves live under is captured well, and this spectre follows Wash even after he leaves Barbados when a reward placed upon his head by the angry Erasmus attracts bounty hunters like the evil Willard. When we get to Wash’s travels through other parts of the world the narrative speeds up and the plausibility weakens. It was as if the publisher, believing the Barbados episode wasn’t enough, had ordered the author to touch on every significant event of that period and spice it up with a liberal dose of picaresque. And yet the whole idea of flight, exploration and attaining the intellectual heights that a slave like Washington achieves is a testament and metaphor to the indomitability of the human spirit.

I pondered the book’s ending in depth for I wasn’t happy with it. After all the high adventure, why was this book ending like a damp squib? I ran through many possibilities: was the sandstorm a symbol for the blowing away of the fog after the frightful final revelations unleashed by Titch? Was Titch vanishing into the other world in an orange cloud, something he has done before (in a white cloud) in the Arctic? Or was Washington himself taking a walk south through the desert to his promised land of Dahomey? Was this ending mirroring some other classic novel that I couldn’t quite put my finger on? I guess award winning novels have to get us thinking long after we finish reading them, and this novel certainly has that quality if you get invested in Washington Black, which I was not, given how hard I had to come to grips with his contrived character after he left Barbados.

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