Geoffrey Fox

Fiction Readings A-H

Little Library of the Lair

Fiction Readings A-H
Fiction Readings J-Z

Herein a log of some of my efforts to understand how writing works and how to make it work. I call this section “fiction,” but in fact I have begun to doubt that there is any such thing as “nonfiction.” These are works of the free play of fancy, where the author asks “What if.” Then there are other works where the author asserts, “This is,” or at least, “This is the way I think it might be.” For more fiction and poetry, see also a sisterly site, readliterature.com.
– gf, 2001-6-25, revised 2004-12-11

By author, A-H

Abbey, Edward. The Fool’s Progress
Abish, Walter. Alphabetical Africa
Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School
Adams, Douglas. A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Almond, Steve. My Life in Heavy Metal
Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies
Amis, Martin. Time’s Arrow
Auster, Paul. Moon Palace
Babel, Isaac. Red Cavalry
Ballard, J. G. Empire of the Sun
Bates, Ralph The Olive Field
Bellow, Saul. Humboldt’s Gift
Bellow, Saul. Seize the Day
Blacker, Terence. Kill Your Darlings
Bond, Alma H. Camille Claudel
Borroughs, W. S. The Last Words of Dutch Schultz
Bowles, Paul. The Sheltering Sky
Boyle, T. C. Tortilla Curtain
Busch, Frederick. Girls
Butler, Robert Olen. They Whisper
Cao, Lan. Monkey Bridge
Carver, R., & T. Jenks, eds. American Short Story Masterpieces
Carr, Caleb. The Alienist
Cervantes, M. de. Don Quijote de la Mancha
Chevalier, Tracy. Girl With a Pearl Earring
Clark, Walter Van Tilburg. The Ox-Bow Incident
Coelho, Paulo. O Alquimista
Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star
Constantini, H. The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis
Coupland, Douglas. Generation X
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage
Crimmins, G. Garfield The Republic of Dreams
Cummins, Ann. Red Ant House
Davies, Robertson. The Manticore
De Bernières, Louis. Corelli’s Mandolin
DeLillo, Don. Libra
Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers
Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend
Eggers, Dave. You Shall Know Our Velocity
Farrell, J. G. The Siege of Krishnapur
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury
Faulks, Sebastian. Birdsong
Fielding, Henry. The History of Tom Jones
Files, Lolita. Getting to the Good Parts
Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections
Fraser, George MacDonald. Flashman
Friedman, Kinky. A Case of Lone Star
Gaitskill, Mary. Bad Behavior
García Márquez, Gabriel. Cien años de soledad
Gibson, William. Idoru; Neuromancer
Glanville, Jo (ed), Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies
Grafton, Sue. O Is for Outlaw
Grass, Günter. Dog Years
Graves, Robert. I, Claudius
Greene, Graham. The Human Factor
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Hašek, Jaroslav. The Good Soldier Švejk
Hay, Elizabeth. A Student of Weather
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises
Hijuelos, Oscar. Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
Hope, Anthony. The Prisoner of Zenda
Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner

 Abbey, Edward. The Fool’s Progress. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988. 485

The “fool” is a character much like Abbey — a tall, gaunt rural easterner and a veteran of World War II and several marriages — and his story is a chapter of a thinly disguised, semi-bitter, self-mocking autobiography. See my review in The Village Voice Literary Supplement, Jan. 31, 1989:54.


Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School. New York: Grove Press, 1978. 165

The fantastic adventures of Janey, from age 10 to her death at 14, fucking from Mérida to Luxor. Frank plagiarisms, freely altered, from Hawthorne, Genet, Catullus, Erica Jong, some crude drawings, mostly of cocks & cunts, a Persian lesson, & some funny parodies of translations from the Persian. Implausible President Carter is one of her fucking partners, & she hangs out with Jean Genet for most of the penultimate part of the book. The last parts are The World and The Journey, illustrated somewhat in the manner of Egyptian tomb drawings. I can’t say just why, but the book gave me pleasure. Acker is wild & smart. ntbk 2/5/88 (15) (See also McCaffery, Larry, ed. Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation)


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker's Guide, #1)The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the silliest thing I’ve read since 5th grade, which is when I should have read it — but alas, it wasn’t published until several decades later. Even now, in my somewhat less silly maturity, there were moments when I had to laugh out loud at the improbability quotients and satire of the pretentious and powerful. Back then, I’ll bet I would have become an ardent fan, because every kid knows some other kid as nutty and happily unaware as Zaphod Beeblebrox and sometimes feels like Arthur Dent or, on better days like traveling reporter Ford Prefect. My favorite character was Marvin the maniacally depressed robot (I’ve known some people like him, too). No need to say more — this has to be one of the most discussed books on the Internet, which was why I finally had to read it. If I feel myself in a silly mood again and ready for some goofy laughter, I may pick up one of the sequels.  2011.09.22

View all my reviews


Almond, Steve. My Life in Heavy Metal. New York: Grove Press, 2002.

Nobody writes funnier about sex than Steve Almond. In some of his stories — the earlier ones, I suspect — that’s the whole point, frequently featuring a feckless male unable to rein in his phallus and thus following it into ridiculously bad relationships. But that’s not always all: Almond has become such a master of the comedy of sexual desperation that he can use it as a device to tell other, less predictable stories. You’ll want to read this collection, not so much for the title story or even the one after that (about another kind of feckless male, a widower who depended on his wife just to function) — they’re OK, and funny in a kind of sick way, but don’t get put off by them from reading the others. Especially good: “How to Love a Republican” is full of wet, sloppy sex, but it is really about the utterly shameless lust for power and perversion of the political process in our 2000 presidential election (the narrator is a guy working for Bradley, the girl is an ambitious operative for McCain, scornful of Bush, but easily seduced into the Bush camp once it’s clear that that’s where the opportunities will be). And be sure to read “The Pass,” a semiotic essay worthy of Roland Barthes (who was also a good story-teller). All but one of the stories are told from a guy’s point-of-view, usually in first person. The exception is, I think, a successful representation of the same lustful desperation in a woman (maybe some woman who reads it can tell me if it sounds true; it did to me): “Geek Player, Love Slayer.” Almond is really good.


Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1994. 325 pp.

An advance over her technique in How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, but still the same technique: alternating naratives of sisters. Here they are the four Mirabal sisters, three of whom became famous when, as well known and popular figures in the resistance against Generalísimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, they were assassinated in a staged car accident on November 25, 1960. In a postscript, Alvarez tells us that her father had been involved in the same anti-Trujillista movement, and had moved himself and his family to New York just one step ahead of Trujillo’s esbirros, so the Mirabal sisters had to be part of her family’s legend. She uses their story to imagine, in sensuous and sometimes horrifying detail, the lives of four very different but intimately connected women. Patria Mercedes, the eldest, born 1924, is a dutiful and conventional farm mother reluctantly drawn into the struggle by injustices to family and neighbors; Minerva, b. 1926, is the tall firebrand, a rebel and anti-Trujillista from her early years and the first to use the code name Mariposa, “Butterfly”; María Teresa, called “Mate” (two syllables), born 1935, is the kid sister, the pretty one, a mix of vanity and valor, who acts boldly even when terrified. The fourth sister, Dedé, b. about 1925, refuses to get involved, leads an emotionally impoverished life (compared to the acted-out passions of her sisters), and survives to be the custodian of the tale. Alvarez’ telling doesn’t add to the drama of the true story, but has the virtue of making it accessible to a wider, English-speaking audience. 2001/02/11 Cf. MarioVargas Llosa, La Fiesta del Chivo; Michele Wucker, Why the Cocks Fight


Amis, Martin. “Time’s Arrow.” Granta 33, 34, 36 (1990-91).

M.A. provides this note on the 3rd instalment: “The narrator exists inside the body of a man who is living his life backwards in time. He first apears as a senior citizen in the American northeast, where he works in a suburban health centre. …” His identity changes as he moves still further back in time, and in the 3rd part here (which must be only a small portion of the entire novel) he is a German or possibly Polish doctor murdering Jews in Auschwitz. Because time’s arrow is pointing backward, he sees the Jews being unmurdered, that is, for example, their body parts being restored to them, the dead from the gas chambers being brought back to life. It is a bizarre way to tell the story, difficult to follow, but very creepily effective.


Auster, Paul. Moon Palace. New York: Viking, 1989. 307

Very silly comedy of manners, with absurd New York City characters. It’s mostly about reading — or about all the Great Books that Auster has read. Also about writing, with comments on its own defects contained in the narrator’s comments on the poor writing of the other characters. ntbk 8/27/89:39-40


Babel, Isaac, Nathalie Babel, and Peter Constantine. Red Cavalry. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Violent, rapid-paced tales of mayhem by a Jew who rode with the Cossacks during the civil war of 1918 and 1919 in Russia and Ukraine.


Ballard, J. G. Empire of the Sun. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Vivid, humanly detailed story of war as experienced by a very young civilian. Jamie, an 11-year old when the Japanese take over Shanghai (Dec. 8, 1941), is separated from his British parents and interned at P.O.W. camp at nearby airbase of Lunghau for the duration of the war; there he adopts a more adult name, Jim, and learns to be a survivor while many other foreign P.O.W.s die of hunger or maltreatment. Other memorable characters include Basie, the effeminate, opportunistic American sailor who is also a survivor; the upright and conscientious Dr. Ransome, a British P.O.W. & physician who sacrifices himself to save food for Jamie; Mr. Maxted, once a drunken architect for the ex-pat elite and now a stoic endurer of the prison; Sgt. Kimura, the young Japanese guard who lets Jim dress up in his ceremonial armor, but who becomes bitter and cruel as the war goes badly for the Japanese; Lt. Price, an English policeman deranged by Japanese torture who, after escaping as the Japanese force crumbles under US bombing, becomes a violent and commanding bandit chief, and many others. Vividly realistic descriptions, close to Ballard’s own experience as a young P.O.W. Jim’s fantasy identification with the Japanese (he dreams of joining their air force, when they seem to be the most powerful force around), his later fascination with American B-29s, and his vision of a light brighter than the sun — the reflection, over thousands of miles, of the atom bomb blasts — are especially potent. As Chinese and mixed-nation gangs kill each other for loot and massacre the Japanese left behind in the retreat, and Chinese Nationalists seek to exterminate Communists while Communists keep coming, and drunken American and British troops in Shanghai show their contempt for the Chinese by urinating on the steps of the government palace, Jim understands that World War III has already begun before World War II is even over. 20031102


Bates, Ralph. The Olive Field. New York, Washington Square Press, 1966. (First published 1936)

Rural Spain on the eve of the Civil War: Joaquín Caro woos Lucía Robledo, who is seduced & knocked up by Caro’s best friend, Diego Mudarra; Caro & Mudarra (both olive workers & fervent anarchists) duel with knives, but Caro can’t bring himself to kill his old friend. Caro reconciles with Lucía, who comes to terms with her shame, and they marry; Caro & Mudarra are reconciled by their politics, in the 1933 uprising in Asturias & the taking and defense of Oviedo. Subplots have to do with intrigues within the Federación Anarquista Ibérica. Vivid estampas of agricultural labor & conflicts in those days. ntbk 7/12/86 (160)


Bellow, Saul. Humboldt’s Gift. New York: The Viking Press, 1975.

Charlie Citrine, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and playwright, is haunted by the overwhelming spirit of Von Humboldt Fleisher, a once-brilliant poet and Charlie’s one-time mentor who went mad and abusive from his failure to make it big as a literary star or commercial success. Some very vivid character sketches of social types including sexy gold diggers, a would-be Mafioso, pretentious lawyers, and culture moguls after Charlie’s wealth (rapidly diminishing) or his talent (still intact), plus long-suffering wives (Humboldt’s ex and Charlie’s greedy brother’s current spouse); also amusing descriptions of Chicago society in the 1970s, and Greenwich Village in the 1940s. Most interesting to me were Charlie’s notes for a future essay or book on boredom, which “has more to do with modern political revolution than justice has. In 1917, that boring Lenin who wrote so many boring pamphlets and letters on organizational questions was, briefly, all passion, all radiant interest. The Russian revolution promised mankind a permanently interesting life.” (p. 200)

Also worth remembering: Humboldt, according to his widow, “used to say how much he would like to move in brilliant” circles, be a part of the literary world.”

“That’s just it. There never was such a literary world,” I [Charlie] said. “In the nineteenth century there were several solitaries of the highest genius – a Melville or a Poe had no literary life. It was the customhouse and the barroom for them. In Russia, Lenin and Stalin destroyed the literary world. Russia’s situation now [mid 1970s] resembles ours – poets, in spite of everything against them, emerge from nowhere. Where did Whitman come from, and where did he get what he had? It was W. Whitman, an irrepressible individual, that had it and that did it.” (p. 370)

The writing is energetic, witty, intelligent and linked through references to very wide reading, and so gives many moments of pleasure. But as a total fictional experience, I found it disappointing – disjointed and jerky, farcical realism but with an ending that that is more like a shrug than an explosion or any kind of resolution. 20050406


Bellow, Saul. Seize the Day. Crest paperback, 1965 ed. New York: The Viking Press, 1956. 128

A feckless fool has a really bad day. Clumsy, paunchy, 40-something Tommy Wilhelm, a failure as a salesman, soldier (he’s an undistinguished WWII vet), actor (he was an extra in 1 movie long ago, when he was still handsome but no brighter), son (his distinguished father, a retired physician, finds him repulsive) & husband (his estranged wife will not divorce him, nor let him have much time with their sons, but squeezes him for money he doesn’t have), entrusts his last $700 to an extravagant old con man, Dr. Tamkin (who may not be a real doctor), who gambles it on lard futures & disappears when the investment crashes.Tommy then stumbles into a funeral and weeps so at the futility of it all, the others think he must be a relative of the deceased. The end. All this takes place on upper Broadway, between 70th & Columbia U., in Bellow’s version an urban shtetl inhabited entirely by middle-aged & older Jewish men. Dr. Tamkin is amusing, but otherwise there’s nothing here to merit the extravagant blurbs; if it was “one of the central stories of our day” (Herbert Gold, The Nation) back in the ’50s, it’s neither central nor much of a story today (April, 1997).


Blacker, Terence. 2000. Kill Your Darlings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Witty satire of the intense, incestuous little literary world. The narrator (of all but the last few pages) is Gregory Keays, a writer so desperate for recognition he will commit any crime to get it. He sprinkles his text with the useless literary trivia often found in magazines for would-be authors, including the Faulkner quote “Kill your darlings” and “Five Great Authors with Physical Oddities: 1. Ben Jonson weighed nearly 20 stone. … Keays bête noire, and no doubt the main model for this book, is Martin Amis. 20021010


Bond, Alma H. Camille Claudel: A Novel. Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2006.

“In my humble opinion, a woman who hasn’t been made love to by a sculptor hasn’t been made love to at all.” (p. 119)

Camille Claudel (1864-1943) is remembered for her exquisite and emotionally disturbing sculptures, for her passionate 10-year love affair and complex professional relationship with Auguste Rodin, and the utter insanity of her last three decades, when she was persuaded that Rodin was out to destroy her and steal her work and ideas. This treatment of her intense, tortured life is very effectively written from her own, increasingly paranoid point of view. She is supposedly writing this account herself, in the last months of her life, on scraps of paper supplied her by a sympathetic nurse in the Montdevergues Asylum for the insane. The reader must accept the impossible premise that someone who has been so mad for so long could write so coherently, but will probably do so willingly; this is a literary device for understanding a brilliant, paranoid woman’s world as she herself sees it. She is a classically unreliable narrator, but her paranoia did have some basis in fact. She clearly was a victim of stultifying anti-erotic and antifeminist attitudes, including those of her provincial mother and her super-Catholic reactionary brother, the writer Paul Claudel. And Rodin no doubt did steal some of her ideas, though on the whole he seems to have treated her better than most of the men she dealt with. Alma Bond’s experience as a psychoanalyst and her deep familiarity with the Parisian artistic milieu of the period make the fantastic premise a tool for uncovering what feels like psychological truth. And it’s very sexy, as was la petite Claudel.

For examples of her work, see Some Beautiful (If Tortured) Works
of Camille Claudel
and these shots of L’age mûr (The Age of Maturity)

For more biographical details and chronology (with photos) in French, see Biographie de Camille Claudel. There you will find images of Oeuvres graphiques (sketches), Sculptures, Liens (links) and much else. There is also a musical about her.

Readers may also enjoy my story about another artist in Paris, exactly 10 years before the 17-year old Camille got there: Courbet and the Red Virgin.

Above: Camille Claudel’s bust of Rodin.   2006/07/12


Bowles, Paul. The sheltering sky. New York: New Directions, 1949. (El cielo protector, traducción de Aurora Bermúdez. Suma de Letras, S.L., 2000).

Three young Americans with enough money to do whatever they want but with no ambition to do anything in particular bumble into the unforgiving North African desert, where one of them loses his innocence, another his life, and the third her soul and sanity. The harsh beauty of the desert, the hopeless naïveté of the clueless adventurers, and the symbiotic rhythms of the Arab and black African peoples accustomed to this environment are beautifully evoked (even in this Spanish translation). The mostly strongly felt character is the young woman, Kit (Catherine) Moresby, whose sensual yearnings lead her deeply into sexual bondage and a will to become part of desert life. We also saw the 1990 film by Bernardo Bertolucci (John Malkovich and Debra Winger are wonderful as Port and Kit Moresby), which alters the story by bringing in Bowles himself as “narrator” and, regrettably, dropping several of the novel’s most memorable secondary characters, including the two French military officers, the hotel-keeper Abdel Kader, and the humble and generous Jewish shopkeeper Daoud Zozeph. But the Tuareg who takes Kit into his harem is thoroughly convincing, and the camerawork effectively conveys the terror and the beauty of the desert and the cities, saloons, hotels and markets. 20090601


Boyle, T. Coraghessan. Tortilla Curtain. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995. 355 pp.

Slapstick with a sledgehammer. Instead of taking pratfalls, Boyle’s characters get smashed by an automobile and gang-raped (the Mexicans), forced to flee their homes by a holocaust (white exurbanites), until everything is swept away in a huge landslide.

A couple of poor, luckless Mexicans — a veteran border-crosser and his much younger, innocent bride — chase a dream of prosperity in the mountains near Los Angeles, where people like them are the nightmare and the labor force of idle and extravagant, boorish Anglo exurbanites.This sounds like a great comic premise for mordant social satire, and I’m glad he chose to highlight this very real, widespread conflict and the human costs of stupid racism. Unfortunately, Boyle makes everybody into a buffoon or a charlatan, except for the young Mexican bride, who is merely pathetic. This makes it hard to work up much concern for all the mounting disasters that befall them — which is probably why Boyle has to keep intensifying the disasters. How can Boyle expect us to care about his characters when he obviously doesn’t? 00/3/15


Burroughs, William S. The Last Words of Dutch Schultz

Written as movie screenplay, & looks as though Wm Kennedy ripped off chunks of it for his Dutch Schultz in the movie “Cotton Club.” Wonderful character portrayal. (18.ii.85, read about a week earlier)


Busch, Frederick. Girls. New York: Harmony Books, 1997. 279

Tough, tender, mature campus security cop with killing skills solves mystery of disappearance (murder) of 14-year old farm girl, but can’t save his own marriage. Busch is almost as good at describing a woman’s or girl’s fears and desirese as Annie Proulx is at describing a man’s. ntbk 99/03/30


Butler, Robert Olen. They Whisper. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1994.

All the vaginas that Ira Holloway has ever kissed, caressed, entered or desired have always whispered to him, whether in America, Vietnam or Switzerland. But his wife’s falls silent when she becomes a hysterical Roman Catholic to purge her shame about childhood sex with daddy. Of course Ira is really whispering to himself, in a comic and sweet ventriloquism. These vaginas lack the sass and irony of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” where real vaginas speak for themselves through the voices of their owners and not their visitors. However, Butler has done a wonderful job of conveying how a man experiences them, and he also makes vivid the encounters with another culture, in particular Viet Nam, its vaginas included. 2005-1-12


Cao, Lan. Monkey Bridge. New York: Penguin, 1997. 260

Autobiographical novel of young Vietnamese woman refugee in Virginia and her mother, terrified of the new world because of all the horrors experienced in the old one. The “monkey bridge” is a contraption woven of vines that lets the peasants travel above the paddies.


Carr, Caleb. The Alienist. New York: Bantam Books, 1994. 599

In 1896 NYC, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, alienist (criminal psychologist), seeks serial murderer of boy prostitutes with aid of police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt & team made up of NYT crime reporter James Schuyler Moore (the narrator), protofeminist Sara Bewley, the detective sergeant bros. Lucius & Marcus Isaacson, 3 former patients & present Kreizler servants, & a little surreptitious help from gangland entrepreneur & future labor leader Paul Kelley & J.P. Morgan. Silly, silly book. Caricatures rather than characters except for the murderer, whose character is “discovered” bit by bit by the investigators as they try to identify & finally confront him. Except that murders involve sexual mutilations, there’s no sex whatever in the book, & Sara has nothing to do but act like a 1970s feminist. v. Everything Log, 8/22/95


Carver, Raymond, and Tom Jenks, eds. American Short Story Masterpieces. New York: Dell Publishing, 1987.

Lately I’ve been re-reading, or in some cases reading for the first time, the 36 pieces collected by Carver & Jenks. They supposedly limited themselves to stories published between 1953 and 1986, but the powerful opener, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” was first copyrighted 1948. The editors eschewed modernist, po-mo and experimental stuff, going instead for narrative. I love these things, most of them. And even though there are very few murders (Flannery O’Connor provides the only real ones, in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” whereas Leonard Michaels’ “Murderers” isn’t about murder at all), there’s a lot more punch per page than in, say, Sue Grafton‘s whole alphabet series. 2002/6/12


Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Don Quijote de la Mancha. Edited by Juan Alcina Franch. 1981 ed. 2 vols. Vol. 1. Barcelona: Bruguera, 1605. 659 pp.

I hope I live for a very long time, because I’m still more than 400 years behind in my reading. For example, I have just finished volume I of Spain’s most famous metafiction, a discourse on literature which has kept people laughing all these years. It is very funny and (this was a surprise) very easy to read.

The story, as everybody knows, is of a middle-aged country squire of modest means who has persuaded himself that the popular romances of knighthood are all literally true and that he himself must become a knight modeled on those stories. He further persuades an illiterate peasant, Sancho Panza, to be his squire. The joke is not only that the stories and most of their heroes are fictitious, so that the squire who calls himself Don Quijote must imagine giants and monsters where there are none. It is also that whatever space there may have been for real free lances has long since disappeared. Spain now has a national police force, the Santa Hermandad, for righting wrongs and punishing offenders.

There are dull parts. Cervantes, either to bulk up the book or to keep feeding pages to his avid publisher, included several stories unrelated to his main plot, and one in particular –the Curioso impertinente, an entire short novel– is tediously told and obvious. But other parts are hilarious– especially the scene toward the end of Volume I, where characters from earlier strands of the story, plus several new ones, all assemble at an inn, and half of them are in on the joke of Don Quijote’s madness and half are not.

Don Quijote himself is not developed as a character, and Cervantes barely cares what happens to him (in fact, he leaves that open and mysterious at the end of this volume). He is merely a vehicle for Cervantes to poke fun at the ridiculous exaggerations of chivalric romances that were still popular in Spain. We know nothing much about the don, not even his “real” name, or how he happens to be single at his age (which early on is said to be 50 but is never again mentioned), nor what has driven him to his madness. He’s funny, because of the situations he gets into by taking literally the romantic fantasies, and because his rhetoric parodies those romances. The most complex character, one who is torn by conflicting loyalties, is Sancho Panza, a simpleton with moments of shrewdness.

Above all, this comedy is a discourse and critique of literature, not only of novels like the ones Don Quijote has been reading, but also of stage comedies (where Cervantes had had disappointing experience). In a long dialogue, the Cura and the Canónigo (two priests) lament the commercialization of stage plays and the lowering of standards. At one point the Cura even proposes a national censor, to review all plays before they are produced and maintain high standards — could Cervantes have been serious?

If you are comfortable with 20th and 21st century Spanish, you will have little difficulty with Cervantes. There are some unfamiliar words, of course, some of them archaic even in 1605, and some of the long-winded, high-falutin speeches of the deranged “knight” and the companions who want to string him along get very complex, but for that this edition has footnotes. (00/7/24)


Chevalier, Tracy. Girl With a Pearl Earring. New York: Plume (Penguin Group), 1999. 233

This is a wonderfully sensitive reconstruction of the lives behind the marvelous paintings produced by Johannes Vermeer and others in Delft, Netherlands, from 1664 to 1676 ­ which was also the subject of a major recent [2001] show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met show described the broader cultural and economic context that permitted a group of artists and artisans in this small city to achieve artistic effects ­ of realism, surrealism and trompe l’oeil ­ that still dazzle us. The novel gives a glimpse of what life must have been like for some of the people portrayed, both the rich patrons and, especially, the humbler folk who were made to pose. In the novel, Griet, a very modest, dutiful Protestant girl from a newly impoverished family (her father lost his trade as a tile maker when a kiln blew up and blinded him) takes a job as a maid in the large Catholic household of the painter Johannes Vermeer, which can barely afford all its servants and children. Vermeer is an extraordinary painter but a slow and deliberate one. He is also (in the novel) a well-meaning, self-centered and extremely passive man, so intent on avoiding confrontation that he lets minor conflicts grow into major crises. To avoid offending his main patron, the lascivious and self-indulgent Van Ruijvens, he agrees secretly to do a painting of Griet the servant girl. Secretly, because if Vermeer’s wife finds out that he’s giving such attention to a servant, she will be scandalized. Griet is more concerned about her own reputation, but she can hardly say no to the master. Besides, she admires him and wants to please him ­ all the while carefully protecting her modesty.

There is a delightfully charged moment when Vermeer, more out of confusion than aggression, enters the space where Griet has withdrawn to wind the makeshift turban she has agreed to use for the painting. ­ Vermeer didn’t want to paint her with her maid’s cap, and Griet could not bear to put on a lady’s fine hat. He sees her hair for the first time. This so embarrasses Griet that she feels she has no more shame to lose, and at the next opportunity she surprises her persistent suitor, the butcher’s son, by letting him have his way with her (of course, this being 17th century Holland, nobody takes off any clothes).

Besides letting us peer into the lives behind the paintings, the book describes the painter’s technique through the words of Griet, a close observer who also is set to work grinding materials for paints. What you would have learned from the show at the Met, but not from the novel, is how important certain other artists were in creating a cultural climate in Delft in those years. The city’s prosperity as a producer of tapestries had begun to wane (Antwerp and other cities had taken most of the market), but there were still enough rich burghers to be patrons of the arts. Also, many of those burghers’ and artisans’ sons had traveled to Italy, where they became enamored of the sunlight and of the paintings, especially those of Carvaggio. The explosion of painterly talent in Delft began then with attempts to reproduce Italian effects (especially the bright sunlight) with the Dutch subject matter that appealed to local patrons. Rivalry among these artists, and knowledge of new inventions such as the camera obscura, spurred innovation in both themes and techniques. It was a glorious moment, which ended when that particular generation died (Vermeer in 1676) and their successors, competing now for a diminishing clientele, became more cautiously repetitive of what had worked in the past. (01-6-6)

Click here to view the painting Vermeer did of the girl Tracy Chevalier calls “Griet” (and many other works by Johannes Vermeer).


Clark, Walter Van Tilburg. The Ox-Bow Incident. Signet, 1940.

Cowboys in Nevada, 1885, are aroused by rumor of rustling & a murder, form vigilante group, find & finally hang 3 men that they find with supposedly stolen cattle. Almost immediately (that same morning) they discover that the cattle were not stolen & that the supposed murder victim, Kincaid, is alive. That’s all to the story, but the book goes on to present an implausible debate between Davies (representing universal moral concerns) & the intelligent but naïve 1st person narrator. The most interesting character is “the Mex,” one of the 3 hanged men, but he appears only briefly. The moral — that justice is too subtle & complex to be left to democracy — is politically ambiguous; it seems intended as a rejection of fascism from the right, i.e., on grounds of classically conservative respect for the old institutions. This book, published in 1940, was Clark’s way of dealing with “Hitler and the Nazis.” He explained that he was really talking about “a kind of American Nazism” in a letter to Walter Prescott Webb in the Signet edition. (adapted from ntbk 1982 May 2)


Coelho, Paulo. O Alquimista. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Rocco Ltda., 1999. 247 First published 1988.

I bought this book last December in São Paulo, because (1) I wanted to practice reading simple Portuguese, (2) I was curious about the world’s second-best selling author (after John Grisham, according to a NYT article), and (3) I was ready for an uplifting message. It certainly is simple Portuguese. My only disappointment was that Coelho deliberately avoids using Brazil or his hometown, Rio, as a setting, so I didn’t pick up as much local vocabulary as I would like. The story is also extremely simple, a fable about a shepherd boy, o rapaz, who dreams of becoming rich and, after traveling from Spain (why Spain?) across the North African desert, and running into various wise and not-so-wise characters, he does.

The tone is a little like that of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le petit prince, except that the little prince dies in order to return to his planet and his rose, whereas the shepherd boy finds an earthly treasure so he can return and marry the rich merchant’s daughter back in Spain. In both stories, the boy protagonist is parent-free in a world of benign adults.

What makes this and Coelho’s other books so popular is not just that they’re so easy to read, but that they tell us what almost all of us most want to hear: That what we truly desire will be ours, as long as we dare to act on our desires. There is something to this, I think. It is the same message presented in the popular self-help book Wishcraft . No doubt many readers absorb the lesson more easily when it’s presented as a parable. (Sher, Barbara, with Annie Gottlieb. Wishcraft: How to Get What you Really Want. New York: Ballantine Books, 1979. 278.)

Coelho’s term for one’s true, essential desire is lenda pessoal, i.e., “personal legend,” or maybe “personal myth” better conveys the idea. It is not just anything you may think you want, or some momentary appetite, but your most basic desire. Sher gives you exercises to help you discover what that is – because most of us repress that desire. This may be because we feel ourselves unworthy, or just because we suspect it’s an impossible dream and we want to guard ourselves against disappointment. Of course, if we were in Hogwarts Academy, we could just look into the mirror of Erised, as in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Coelho’s rapaz doesn’t look into a magic mirror, but he does consult an alchemist, who helps him discover his true desire. Sher, like Coelho, insists that no dream is impossible, and presents ways to plan on achieving it. Rowling, on the other hand, is happy just dreaming it, in her wonderful Harry Potter series, but that’s just spectator magic – she doesn’t really expect her readers to take up the game of Quidditch. Coelho’s formulation is more like applied magic. He writes (repeatedly, for this is a very repetitious book), “Tudo é uma coisa só,” or “Everything is all one thing,” which means apparently that there is order in the universe, and everything in it supports every other thing. And by following one’s “lenda pessoal,” everything in the universe “conspires” to help one achieve his/her desire. We can all use a shot of such optimism now and then. And as I said, I think there’s something to it. (00/9/1)


Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

On the making of  late 19th century America’s most celebrated tragedy, the annihilation of George Armstrong Custer and his 200+ 7th Cavalrymen at the Little Bighorn. Vivid portrayals of Custer (reckless, flamboyant & very ambitious — he may have timed his attack to influence the Republican convention to nominate him for president),  Maj. Marcus Reno (brave but slow-thinking, he panicked and survived in disgrace), Capt. Frederick Benteen (hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, sagacious  & very bold, he too survived but also managed to save most of his men), and other whites, and of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall (possibly the most frightful of all the Sioux), Rain in the Face and other Sioux & Cheyennes, plus Crow scouts, Buffalo Bill (as flamboyant as Custer, and not much use in actual combat) and others, including a few white and Indian women. Where accounts are wildly contradictory, Connell presents the different versions in their contexts. Exciting story, masterfully told. 021021


Coupland, Douglas. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Rambling, disjointed, but with some brilliant moments, like the lives it narrates: two guys and a gal, with no place to go and no desire to get there. Occasionally one of them makes an arresting comment, like this one:

The carapace of coolness is too much for Claire, also. She breaks the silence by saying that it’s not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. “Either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them.”  p. 8


Crane, Stephen (1895). The Red Badge of Courage. New York, Bantam.

Based on the battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863), Henry Fleming’s story highlights the gory, ugly details of combat, de-glorifying the heroic gilded myth of America’s greatest conflict. Henry panics in his first skirmish and runs for his life, fantasizing various means of desertion. He only accidently finds himself in battle again, and his mad rush toward the enemy is presented as a kind of delirium rather than sober heroism. All the details of mud and blood and confusion at the battle of Chancellorsville came from attentive research, imagined by a writer who had never been to war. However, it’s overloaded with adjectives, the subjects of many of the sentences are inanimate things or abstractions, and it’s got more atmosphere than story. Not the sort of thing I want to emulate. 030120


Crimmins, G. Garfield (artist Jerry Crimmins). The Republic of Dreams: A Reverie . New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998.

A travel guide and oneiric thriller to read with someone you love. In La République de Rêves, old forests float overhead, and everything is up to date as of 1936 — or maybe any other time. Reverians enjoy good wine, lovemaking and undress — in fact, they enjoy all experiences. But now the Reverians are being attacked by the LOC (League of Common Sense). On the cover (gray & white image), “A Zeppelin enthusiast breaks into a dance as an airship of the Reverian fleet passes overhead.”


Cummins, Ann. Red Ant House. Stories. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

12 stories, previously published in Hayden’s Ferry Review (1); McSweeney’s (3); The New Yorker (3); A Room of One’s Own (1); Sonora Review (1). Psychological subtlety and detailed, vivid description of settings, especially western US deserts and mountains. Several stories take p.o.v. of an adolescent girl — either white or Navajo — on or near a Navajo reservation. The McSweeney’s stories are the strangest, “The Hypnotist’s Trailer” being a magical realist allegorical fable about corrupt petty power further corrupting its holder (the hypnotist takes a belly button from a woman, turns it into things large and small, and finally find it has grown and adhered to his hand). Cummins often develops a story to an approaching crisis and ends it — sometimes in mid-air, as in “Billy by the Bay” (desperate Billy jumps off a pier). “Headhunter” (from Hayden’s Ferry Rev) leaves us wondering what the heroine will do now that she has unintentionally caused a man’s death on the highway; she seems weird enough to do almost anything, but we don’t know. My favorite is “Bitterwater” (from the New Yorker), told by the white woman who has married a powerfully attractive, crazy and usually drunk Navajo; will she take him back from the detox center or not? Don’t know. I would read more work by this surprising writer.


Davies, Robertson. The Manticore, 1972.

Terribly thin story, of implausibly simple characters, contrived to illustrate certain concepts of Jungian psychotherapy. The analysand is a rich alcoholic from Toronto, tormented by memories of an overbearing father, a beautiful and weak mother, and a stupid and repressive governess; the analyst is a Swiss woman so brilliant and insightful as to be scarcely human, not a person at all (she is given no past, no complicated relations in the present) but a symbol of rationality. This is the middle novel of a trilogy; I don’t intend to read the others. 020206


De Bernières, Louis. Corelli’s Mandolin. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. 436 pp.

This is a great mess of a novel, a polemic wrapped in a love story, often brilliant, just as often tedious, but ending satisfactorily. It is a mix of pedantry, diatribe, sentiment and chills, told in different voices and from different time perspectives, with a beautiful closing that casts over everything preceding it the illusion of coherence. The polemics are about the origins of the Cold War, the perfidy of politicians, the peculiarities of various nations, the simple joys of peasant life, and the brutality of fascists, Nazis, and Greek Communists. The wrapping is really two love stories centered on the same man, for both the Greek island-girl Pelagia and the hulking Italian officer Carlo Guercio fall in love with the charming Antonio Corelli, a musician who by accident is a captain in the Italian force occupying the Greek island of Cephalonia.

There were times when the polemics so irritated me that I lost all connection to Pelagia et al. and wanted to slam the book shut, permanently, convinced that de Bernières was an insufferable Tory with condescending opinions about everybody not British. But, since it had been warmly recommended by a friend, and because the critics’ blurbs are so glowing, I persisted, and was rewarded. A Tory he may be, but one with a lively imagination that allows for some complexity of his stereotypes. And he is very, very good at describing excruciating pain, whether of the Italian and Greek soldiers freezing in the mountain or of a man taking machine-gun bullets in the chest.

De Bernières has done an awful lot of research, not all of it thoroughly digested, and insists on using it all, alas. Many of the incidents he describes may have happened as he says, but can it really be that there is nothing good at all to be said for the Greek Communists, even as anti-Fascists?* The polemics also distort the style of the novel, introducing unlikely and unengaging voices — a long, unlikely interior monologue by Mussolini, for example, or ironic commentaries — wisecracks, really — written by Pelagia’s father, the impossibly virtuous Dr Iannis.Usually those pages are eaten by Pelagia’s pet goat, but not, unfortunately, before we have been obliged to read them. Still, when he does focus on his characters, de Bernières knows how to bring them to life, and sometimes to death, most convincingly. Corelli himself is rather vague — he makes funny faces and plays mandolin beautifully, but we have little sense of what motivates him — but Carlo Guercio, Pelagia, her adopted mother-figure Drosoula and several others will remain vivid in my memory. 2000-8-6

* See the critique by Maria Margaronis, “Whitewash in the Ionian,” The Nation, August 20/27, 2001, on both the 1994 novel and the 2001 movie (which I haven’t seen, and may not bother to see). Judging from her essay, the novel is far superior as art, while the movie is far less offensive politically (especially to former Communist partisans, some of whom are still alive and remember these events). 2001-8-12


DeLillo, Don. Libra. New York: Viking, 1988. 458

Like La Fiesta del Chivo, Libra is a chillingly realistic novel that re-imagines and reconstructs a famous magnicide. But the more mysterious circumstances of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the particular obsessions of Don DeLillo, make this a very different book from Vargas Llosa’s telling of the killing of Rafael Trujillo.

According to DeLillo (through his stand-in character, Nicholas Branch),”the conspiracy against the President was a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance.” Many people with different motives were out to get Kennedy ­ from right-wing Aryan-nation types to nonideological drifters desperate to leave a mark on history ­ but (in this version) the most systematic pursuers were people who blamed him for the “loss” of Cuba and thought that his elimination would help them get that country back. These included embittered CIA cast-offs, mobsters, investors, and Cuban exile terrorists. You get the impression that even if they’d missed in Dallas, somebody was going to get JFK as long as he insisted on riding in an open car.

DeLillo is fascinated by the narratives we make up to explain ourselves and the world around us. Mostly he is fascinated by those with the weirdest and most complicated narratives, narratives that need frequent adjustment because they keep bumping into contradictory realities. Lee Oswald struggles to persuade himself that he is on to some secret understanding of the world, gained from laborious reading (because he’s dyslexic). Jack Ruby has convinced himself that he must always be a defender of the Jews and works very hard to silence his own suspicions that he may be homosexual. The rogue ex-CIA men, outwardly very calm, have an absolutely loony interpretation of history and their role in it. The most sensible character is Marina, Oswald’s Russian wife, who can’t take seriously any of her husband’s elaborate poses and just wants him to teach her English and help her and their baby daughters survive in what for her is a strange new world.

DeLillo has a very great novelistic strength that Vargas Llosa also exhibits (though more in the Peruvian novels than in Chivo): pitch-perfect dialogue. Ruby’s scenes are the best. He is a club owner, big spending and always on the brink of bankruptcy. His conversations with himself, his strip-teasers, a mobster associate from whom he’s seeking a loan, his feckless male roommate, and the cops he loves (he’s always taking them big, cholesterol-laden sandwiches) are hilarious, fragmented, contradictory, and utterly believable. In fact, my one complaint about the book is that we have to wait too long for Ruby to appear. Here’s a sample, from his meeting with Tony Astorina, chauffeur for the mobster:

“Jack, I come by here for old time.”
“We used to swim on the Capri roof.”
“I’m saying. I didn’t come by for the coffee.”
“Tony. I appreciate.”
“I come by because we go back together.”
“We got laid in adjoining rooms.”
“Havana, madonn’.”
–Etc. It’s wonderful.

We can’t know whether or to what extent DeLillo’s reconstruction of the messy, haphazard but ultimately successful plot to kill President John F. Kennedy is accurate, but it certainly is plausible. And it does create a coherent narrative that DeLillo offers as a “refuge,” “a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years.” (From the “Author’s Note” at end of book)


Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss. New York: Grove Press, 2006.

Group portrait of the futility of both defiance and resignation by weak characters in a powerful turmoil. Modestly pensioned outsiders — Gujaratis and other Indians and an elderly Swiss priest — have been enjoying the privileges affordable only because of their neighbors’ poverty in Nepali country around Darjeeling, and are baffled and overwhelmed by the wild boys in the violent 1986 rising of the Ghorka National Liberation Front.  Retired judge Jamu Patel, furious against himself and thus the world because of his own timidity, is especially odious, fascinating and dismayingly believable, a weak man so deeply colonized psychologically that he hates his own dark skin-color and anything that reminds him of his Indianness, having scorned his parents and abused his wife and now his long-time cook, and not daring to show any generosity toward his orphaned teen-age granddaughter Sai. The most carefully portrayed characters include the judge’s long-suffering (and unnamed) cook, whose greatest devotion is to his son Biju, and Biju himself struggling — futilely — to gather savings as an illegal immigrant kitchen worker in cheap New York restaurants; Gyan, Sai’s young Nepalese tutor and suitor, who betrays her under pressure from his young Nepalese buddies and then tries to persuade himself that his cowardly actions were really heroic, Uncle Potty the well-read alcoholic and his Swiss priest chum, and a couple of sweet, ineffectual Indian ladies who would much rather be British. In the end, all these characters lose property and/or pride, and only the loving relationship of the cook and his son give a glimpse of better possibilities. Winner, Man Booker Prize, 2006. (090220)


Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

Óscar de León, a.k.a. Oscar Wao (an ignorant classmate’s pronunciation of Oscar Wilde) is more than a fat, nerdy Dominican kid from New Jersey who is also (we are given to understand) an extraordinarily gifted science-fantasy writer. He is also the bearer of a terrible hereditary curse, the fukú, which strikes him down right at the moment when he is on the verge of triumph: he has finally got laid, and he has completed or nearly so his magnum opus — which however disappears before his survivors can publish or even read it. For my more extended commentary, see blog, Dominican tragedy (2008-11-18).


Dickens, Charles
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Pickwick PapersA small group of gentlemen with the leisure and resources to do whatever they choose, and without having anything particular to do, accompany Mr. Samuel Pickwick on his adventures to explore the more curious portions of the world — as long as they are not more than a two-day stagecoach drive from London, and there is assurance of a comfortable inn at their destination. There follow 57 chapters of silliness, in which Dickens alternately lampoons and lovingly illustrates personalities and customs — some truly absurd — of laborers, lawyers, medical students, journalists, coachmen, servants, businessmen and the idle and pretentious sub-aristocracy of the 1820s (supposed period of the Pickwick Club) or ’30s (the novel began to appear in 1836).

Young Dickens (then 25) was invited to write text to accompany comic sketches of sportsmen by illustrator Robert Seymour, and at first he seems to have had no clear idea of how to develop it nor anything about the characters beyond the funny names he assigned them and the physical appearance that Seymour had given them. After the first installments, Seymour (who had a history of mental problems) committed suicide, but by that time Dickens’ narrative inventions had already taken priority, so that instead of the text following the sketches, the sketches had to illustrate the new text, as other artists (R. W. Buss, briefly, and then Hablot Knight Browne, “Phiz”) succeeded Seymour. Among the more memorable episodes is Pickwick’s unequal litigation with the shyster lawyers Dodson and Fogg and Pickwick’s subsequent sojourn in debtors’ prison because he refuses to pay the obviously unjust sentence of costs and compensation for a breach of promise he never made (brought by a hysterical widow who mistook the overly-polite Pickwick’s inquiries about lodgings as a proposal to marry). The story eventually becomes clear and the characters more clearly defined, especially Pickwick’s cockney manservant Sam Weller, the quick-witted scoundrel Jingle, and Sam Weller’s marvelously drawn coachman father, full of false wisdom mispronounced, generous and well-disposed to all by ready to fight for honor and justice when he thinks these have been offended.

Especially delightful to any of us in the trade are Dickens’ wry comments on the craft of writing. There are many, including the nearly-illiterate Sam Weller’s efforts to compose a love letter. But I’ll quote only one, near the end (Ch. LVII) of this long serial, which is an observation on the work itself: “It is the fate of all authors or chroniclers to create imaginary friends, and lose them in the course of art. Nor is this the full extent of their misfortunes; for they are required to furnish an account of them besides.” In this, his first long work of fiction, Dickens has succeeded to the delight of many thousands of his contemporaries and to generations ever since.

View all my reviews

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. 1907 ed. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1865.

This is a ridiculously long, complicated serial novel (originally published in 19 monthly installments) with some vivid scenes of London’s nouveaux riches and its toujours pauvres. Characters are simplified like cartoon characters — with the possible exceptions of three minor ones. Much of the dialogue is ridiculously long-winded, though in places very effective. Plotting takes bizarre implausible turns but does eventually tie almost all the threads. The book’s greatest single merit is its descriptions of physical settings –the Thames, Venus’s “articulation” shop, the Veneering table settings, the London streets, etc. Its most irksome features are Dickens’ frequent interjections of preachments, and –far, far worse –his maudlin sentimentalizing of such a ninny as Bella Wilfer, who gets the full Dickens treatment of loving attention to the details of speech, dress and grimace.

The only characters with a little complexity are (1) Sophronia, the wife of Alfred Lammle and his accomplice in con games, but with qualms of conscience; (2) Mr. Venus, the “articulator” (he assembles miscellaneous bones to construct whole skeletons of men and beasts), who also finds he has scruples after having allowed himself to be dragged into a nefarious plot; and (3) Twemlow, a poor relative of an aristocrat, who never understands what is going on and is frightfully timid, but who acts on an independent code of honor in the end.

I was glad when Dickens finally got so enraged at one of his ineffectual characters, Eugene Wrayburn, that he broke him to pieces. It was distressing to learn later that Wrayburn had survived and was likely to recover. But Wrayburn was not the most annoying character. I would have preferred that Dickens commit some mayhem on obtuse, saccharine-sweet Bella Wilfer and shut her up — but that was too much to hope. The author seems actually to have liked that character.

The key to Dickens’ clumsiness is the medium he chose: Monthly installments over 19 months, the author keeping only a little ahead of his readers. Thus, by the time he had sickened of Wrayburn, a professional failure who becomes a stalker of a pure-hearted poor girl (daughter of a river scavenger), it was too late to go back and rewrite his story to make him more interesting or attractive; all of London (the novel-reading part of it, that is) had read those earlier chapters, and Dickens was stuck with him. The author’s only recourses were either to let Wrayburn’s ineffectualness continue to slow down the story, or to do him violence. The violence is stunning, and quite a bit more than would be necessary for the plot. The villain — another stalker, more infuriated by Wrayburn’s behavior than even I was — doesn’t merely knock him out and try to drown him; he cudgels him, breaks his arms and wrists and cracks his skull before hurling his limp, barely pulsating body into the river. Dickens was really pissed off.

But then, to please his sentimental readers (he could hardly have had any other kind), he lets Lizzie Hexam (the stalkee) rescue him and nurse him back to life. She even marries him! And all the nasty bad guys (who all dress badly) are duly punished, and the sweet-natured good gals and guys (they’re the ones who have good grooming) live happily ever after.  Ugh.


Eggers, Dave. You Shall Know Our Velocity. San Francisco/New York: McSweeney’s Publishing, 2002.

Eggers is just too hip for me. So hip he’s unreadable. I mean, I tried, I really tried. He does have skills — the dialogue is stupid, but it’s realistically stupid, since his characters are nearly believable saps, and he has fresh ways of describing scenery, and he knows how to plant narrative hooks like barbs that tear at your flesh. But, despite all the promise of hugely dramatic action, nothing happens! And after I got to page 260, I concluded that probably nothing was going to happen. Nothing I cared about, anyway.

Here’s the story, as near as I could follow (in case you need to make conversation about this book but don’t want to invest the time to read it — good idea): Will Chmielewski, the narrator, is so terribly distraught over the death of his boyhood friend Jack that, when he gets a load of money for no very good reason, he feels compelled to travel to distant countries with his other boyhood friend, Hand, to give it away. Huh? That’s a compelling motive? Will can’t do anything right, and the obtuse Hand is even worse, and neither has taken the trouble to learn a thing about Senegal, Latvia, or any of the other countries where they stay as briefly as possible, so they (and we the readers) never get to know any of the people they run into, and Will’s panic attacks that something terrible is about to happen (like getting dragged around by his penis, or being horribly assaulted some other way) all turn out to be baseless fantasies, because in all this stupid sojourn, nothing happens! Or if it does, it has to be very subtle, because I saw no sign of it even when I skipped to the final pages.

Guess I’m just not hip enough for rarefied pointlessness. I still like stories that go somewhere, where there’s some build-up, and the protagonist’s and other characters’ actions have consequences, instead of just one damned inconsequential thing after another. I know, it’s very Aristotelian of me: beginning, middle, and end. But it’s a formula that’s worked for thousands of years, and there may still be some life in it. 20040207


Farrell, J. G. The Siege of Krishnapur. 1973. 2nd ed. New York: New York Review Books, 2004.

During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58, several hundred British subjects in a fortified compound of the East India company (attended by their anonymous Eurasian servants and Sikh loyalist cavalrymen) fight for their lives, their possessions and their beliefs with increasing desperation until, after all looks lost, a smartly-outfitted rescue party find the few foul-smelling and emaciated survivors. (For more, see blog entry for 2008-07-06, Post-imperial irony.)


Faulkner, William

As I Lay DyingAs I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A poor Mississippi family disintegrates upon the death of Anse Bundren’s wife Addie, mother of the 5 other Bundrens. Through the running thoughts and memories of these family members, and of others who come in contact with and sometimes try to help them, sometimes to cheat them, bit by bit we learn the complex story of marriage, adultery, and conflicts never voiced but tearing the insides of Cash, the eldest son (about 30), his slightly younger brother Darl, and the three who came many years later and at least one of them by a different father, the rebellious Jewel who is the most loved by Addie, his 17-year-old sister Dewey Dell, and their littlest brother Vardaman, convinced that his mother is a fish and is not really dead. The only character whose mind remains closed to us is the passive-aggressive Anse, a devious old coot who likes to see himself as a victim of fate but manages to manipulate everybody else.

Most of story is the tremendously difficult journey by wagon and mules, in the face of storm and flooding, to distant Jefferson where Anse insists is the only proper place to bury the by now rotting corpse of Addie — but Anse’s real motive for this totally unnecessary trip to town is to get himself a set of false teeth, which he has been longing for for years. Flood, injury, mutual betrayal, madness, conflagration, and the exploitation of a poor rural girl in trouble by an unscrupulous city-slicker intensify the drama of their odyssey.

View all my reviews


The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text with Faulkner's Appendix (Modern Library)The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text with Faulkner’s Appendix by William Faulkner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of all the vast output of William Faulkner (September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962), The Sound and the Fury is the most often cited as an influence by contemporary Latin American and Spanish novelists (see article the day after the 50th anniversary of his death, El País 2012/07/10). It is a difficult challenge for the reader (and surely more difficult for its Spanish translators, because of the recourse to different Mississippi dialects), with abrupt unannounced shifts of time (from 1928 back to 1910 or even earlier) and of points of view, and deliberate disregard of conventional punctuation. From the beginning, we are required to decipher the ramblings of the “idiot”, Benjy, a full-grown man (celebrating in 1928 his 33d birthday) with the mentality of an infant, deducing from his incoherent stream of consciousness the where and when of events vaguely described. We also have to accept that this severely brain-disabled person can, in his inner consciousness, repeat verbatim long passages that he has heard but not understood. The next sections are also 1st-person streams of consciousness, also disjointed but more intelligible, of Benjy’s older and his younger brother, and finally a beautifully rendered 3d-person account on the life and concerns of the black servant Dilsey, the only loving creature and the one who has been trying to hold this self-destructive and self-hating family together.

It’s a wonder that Faulkner could get it published at all in 1929. It didn’t sell well until years later, after Faulkner had become famous for other works. Then in 1946 he added the “Appendix,” printed as an introduction, as a kind of reader’s guide, adding the history of the once illustrious, now disintegrated Compson family and some hints about its survivors and providing very helpful clues to the events and personalities we are about to meet.

Reading it can be an exhausting but exhilarating experience. What other authors have taken away from it is the deep intensity of the portraits of place — mostly rural Mississippi, but also Cambridge-Boston — and the liberty to write freely in the disconnected natural way our thoughts flow. In the end, it is, as Macbeth says of life itself (Act V), “a tale /Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” But only to the ill-starred Compsons, unable to make any sense of their own lives. To the attentive reader and especially to other authors, Faulkner’s manner of telling the tale signifies everything.

View all my reviews


Faulks, Sebastian. Birdsong. London: Hutchinson, 1993. 407 pp.

Young British infantry officer, Stephen Wraysford, experiences shelling, tunnel cave-ins, bullet wounds and the deaths — sudden, violent and often horribly disfiguring — of comrades he has come to care for, in the trenches in France 1916 and then the disastrous British offensive at Ancre, and is finally saved from almost certain death in a blown up tunnel by enemy German sappers at war’s end, when they all (Germans and the Englishman) are relieved not to be enemies any more. This story is preceded by a pre-war “Lady Chatterly”-type episode in Amiens in 1910, when 20-year old Stephen seduces the older (29) wife of his host, a sexually impotent manufacturer, and releases her hitherto untapped passion. Isabelle runs away with him but then abandons him to run home to daddy and big sister in Rouen when she finds herself pregnant (without telling Stephen that she’s pregnant or even leaving a note). His ever vaguer memories of her (he does remember the sex, but not the woman) keep him going through the war years, and he eventually hooks up with Isabelle’s much more sensible, if less exciting, older sister Jeanne, with whom he raises his daughter by Isabelle (who has conveniently died of typhus in Germany, where she went after marrying a kindly German officer she met during the German occupation of Amiens). There is another story set in 1978-79, of that daughter’s daughter’s search for happiness and for information about the grandfather who died before her birth. All of these stories are pleasingly, convincingly told, but the heart of the novel is the 1916-1918 war trauma. 2008-12-12


Fielding, Henry. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. Washington Square Press, 1964 ed. London, 1749.

Who were the real parents of the infant that Squire Alworthy finds in his bed and rears as his own son and calls “Tom Jones”? After he ruefully expels the lad from his estate, due to the treachery of the squire’s nephew & Tom’s rival Blifil, will Tom regain the good Squire’s favor? More urgently, how will Tom consummate his love, requited, for the lovely Sophia, despite his own low and bastardly birth and the violent opposition of Sophia’s father, Alworthy’s crude and simple neighbor, Squire Western? Through many rollicking adventures, including bedding & nearly bedding several other women, saving the life of a very peculiar hermit, a night’s entertainment with a band of gypsies, the acquisition of comical superstitious barber-surgeon-pedant as his loyal companion, a tussle with a highwayman, a masked ball, some letters gone astray, mistaken identities, a duel and a charge of murder, and the shock of hearing that he has lain with his own mother, Tom pursues his Sophia to London. Thither she has fled her father to avoid being forced to marry Blifil — and nearly is raped by a young lord, and then caught and reconfined first by her father (who loves her but demands she marry Blifil, because it would be good to join the two estates and thus, he believes, good for her happiness), and then by her father’s old maid sister. All is finally resolved in the last pages: we learn Tom’s true origins, he gets the girl & they live happily ever after, reconciled to Alworthy & Squire Western, and all the many other characters get their various just desserts.
I have never enjoyed a book more. At many moments I laughed out loud at the droll adventures. I chuckled over Fielding’s wicked prologues (where he expounds upon the writer’s craft, the reader’s likely impatience, the obtuseness and perversity of critics, the superiority of noble & energetic spirits over dour repression, and the vagaries of fame). And finally I was amazed at the ingenious turns of plot & its ultimate resolution. 2004.6.26


Files, Lolita. Getting to the Good Parts. New York: Warner Books, 1999. 334

A 32-year old black bourgeoise with no previous acting and no serious dancing experience becomes an off-Broadway star and overcomes her own history of sexual betrayals to marry & live happily ever after with a handsome, rich prince. The “good parts” must mean all Reesy Snowden’s explicit sex, with a handsome dancer in the company (a black musical, “Black Barry’s Pie”), her prince Dandre (so rich & spoiled he’s never had a job, but is handsome, fit and idle), the German theater producer Helmut Wagner (a good fucker but a villain so evil he’s hilarious); the other intense, near-orgasmic scenes are her breakups & reconciliations with her girlfriend Misty Fine, “Miss Divine.” Of course, Reesy never has any real-world problems except relational, since, she can always fall back on her trust fund from financially generous, if emotionally stingy, rich parents. A silly book, with lots of black slang & names of black hang-out spots in Manhattan & Brooklyn.


Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

The sick Lambert family: old man Alfred with Parkinson’s and a life’s worth of repressed anger turned mostly against himself, his ditzy wife Enid, their neurotic and paranoid older son Roger the banker, younger son Chip the horny, failed intellectual bounced out of academia for sex with a co-ed, & their daughter Denise the restaurateuse who may or may not turn out to be sane — I don’t know, because I stopped reading shortly after the scene between Alfred and the talking turd. This book was a finalist for the Pulitzer and half a dozen other prizes. Maybe it was that talking turd that kept it from winning any of them.


Fraser, George MacDonald. Flashman: From the Flashman Papers, 1839-1842. Plume, 1984 ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1969. 256

Harry Flashman, b. 1822, wastrel, scoundrel & coward, becomes a hero of the British débâcle in Afghanistan (1842) through good luck as he is fleeing for his life. Very funny, delightful way to learn some 19th century colonial history.


Friedman, Kinky. A Case of Lone Star. New York: Berkeley Books, 1987.

Preposterous murder mystery is solved by an even more preposterous sleuth. Wisecracking, cigar-addicted country-western singer Kinky beds Uptown Judy and Downtown Judy (striving to keep them mutually ignorant of one another’s existence), swigs his Jameson whiskeys and Lone Star beers while trying to discover which of his Hank Williams-obsessed acquaintances is murdering country-western musicians in a Greenwich Village club. Some funny lines, the best repartee being between Kinky and his very urban, un-country pal Ratso, and I liked revisiting the scenes of grungy nightlife in the ’80s in New York. But the set-up is the joke, a Jewish Texas singer mouthing off while playing Sam Spade, and I don’t think I want to hear it again. 030903


Gaitskill, Mary. Bad Behavior. New York: Poseidon Press, 1988. 203

Stories of college-educated middle-class women & their boyfriends, and their attempts to be naughty. The women generally turn out to be stronger and more resilient than they think they should be. A couple of them become part-time prostitutes, but nobody gets hurt. The funniest premise (though it doesn’t yield an especially funny story) is in “A Romantic Weekend” — a young married guy who thinks he’s a sadist gets a weekend away with a young single woman who thinks she’s a masochist, but their kinks just don’t match, and they end up so frustrated that if they weren’t such well-behaved middle-class people, they might do something mean to each other. But they are too nice, and part as mutually exhausted friends. This playing at transgression made me think this is the child’s version of the truly ferocious book, Last Exit to Brooklyn. Authentic-sounding dialogue, skillful evocation of New York street scenes and interiors, often moving depictions of young woman’s Angst, but I got bored by story after story about people whose most serious problems are entirely their own creations, and couldn’t finish the book. 01-6-25


García Márquez, Gabriel. Cien años de soledad. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1967. (Tr. as “One Hundred Years of Solitude”)

See my Monarch Note for analysis of this wonderful novel.


Gibson, William. Idoru. Berkeley 1997 ed. New York: Putnam, 1996.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

William Gibson is probably the best-known and best-selling author of cyberfiction, the man who did more than anybody else I know about to invent the genre. His work differs from a lot of science fiction in that it is not mainly about gadgets, but about people — believable, somewhat complex characters — and what access to the gadgets does to them. Gibson’s future is only a few steps ahead or our present, pushing the possibilities of the technology only a little further in the directions where they already seem to be heading. I read these novels as simulation experiments (not unlike the experiments that sometimes occur in the novels themselves) to explore how such technology will further complicate our messy popular culture.

In Neuromancer (the novel that introduced the term cyberspace into our language), Gibson had some hilarious things to say about the acquisition of knowledge, which is one of our current, generalized obsessions. With the devices in the world of Neuromancer, our students would never have to worry about passing the CUNY WAT. They would just have the appropriate rod, containing all the necessary information, inserted into their skulls for whatever time necessary for taking the test. Once the rod were removed, they wouldn’t be troubled by any lingering memories of grammar or syntax, but might stick in instead a rod full of baseball statistics or whatever else they were interested in.

The other most memorable (to me) invention in Neuromancer was the virtual presence of a dead man, synthesized from all sorts of information about him in life — his vocabulary, knowledge, style of humor, tone of voice — so that our hero, a nerdy cybernaut, could converse with him and ask his advice on new crises, things that had occurred since the old guy’s death. This seems to be a more plausible possibility in the real world than those knowledge rods; something like that is the goal of artificial intelligence, a machine that can converse with you — all that needs to be done is to give that machine the tone of voice and mannerisms of some known person, alive or dead, and you’ve got Gibson’s living ghost.

Idoru is concerned mostly with celebrity culture, and the manufacture of celebrity here is both literal and virtual. Rez, half of the pop music duo Lo/Rez, is a real person, but known to his fans almost exclusively through computer-controlled imagery, in which he is perpetually in his 20’s and perpetually smiling. (Lo is almost invisible and has no role in this novel; he is really just a syllable in Gibson’s punning name lo-rez, to which Gibson has arbitrarily assigned a couple of traits: he’s a half-Chinese, half-Irish guitarist.) But Rez has fallen in love with and determined to marry a media creation that he knows has no fleshly existence: the idoru (Japanese for idol, as in pop singing idol) Rei Torei. She is composed entirely of information, projected as a hologram, her voice and looks synthesized from, probably, information about real people. Or maybe not. Wherever the information comes from, it has become increasingly more complex, so that Rei has a personality of her own, and desires, one of which is to join Rez in matrimonial union. They will then use the marvels of nanotech, little information robots that will assemble, or “grow,” buildings out of whatever materials they find available, to create their own special world on an island off of one of the main islands of Japan.

To convey this story, Gibson gives us two p.o.v. characters: First, Colin Laney, another of Gibson’s nerdy computer freaks, has the uncanny and probably unique ability to infer patterns, or “nodal points,” in vast streams of information. He is hired first by a media company that lives off of celebrities, used to scan information to find information useful for blackmailing them (I think — specifics are often unclear in Gibson’s fantasies), and later (is hired) by Rez’s bodyguard, who wants him to find out everything he can about the virtual idoru, to learn who’s controlling/creating her and if possible to scotch the marriage.

The other p.o.v. is Chia Pet Mackenzie, a 14 year-old member of the Lo/Rez fan club in Seattle, who is sent to Tokyo by her club to investigate the rumor, already out on the net, that Rez has announced that he wants to marry Rei. Chia travels physically, by ordinary jet plan, to Tokyo, but meets with her counterparts in the Tokyo fan club by “porting” through her Sandbenders computer (a cute device — a computer designed by an Oregon Green to give an attractive natural-seeming, non-discardable case that would not end up in landfill and could be opened and refitted with whatever the latest electronics may be) to a virtual clubhouse created, at some expense (why virtual realities would cost so much is not explained in any detail; presumably, as is already happening, certain web designers are charging high prices for use of their images) by the Japanese girls.

There’s also Keith Blackwell, a huge, deadly Australian (Tazzie, actually) ex-con who is Rez’s loyal bodyguard; his face, hands and neck are a mass of crisscrossed scars, and his favorite weapon is a battle ax that opens out in a series of clicks like a switchblade; Russian toughs from the Kombinat; a couple of young Japanese nerdy hippies, who spend most of their time in the virtual Walled City, which is not exactly a MUD (multi-user domain) but sort of (that’s as clear as the explanation gets), a floozy named Maryalice who is in love with a no-good petty hoodlum named Eddie, and assorted other characters. But the story is really about the idoru, and just what kind of personality someone who is not really a person might develop. (GF, 980612)

P.S. Reality is catching up to Gibson faster than I’d thought. Arthur Paris has called to my attention this article from Wired: “Virtual Humans Stepping Out,” by Susan Kuchinskas, dated 5:03am 18.Jun.98.PDT


Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian WomenQissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women by Jo Glanville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These twelve stories are diverse in every way but one: they are all by women whose lives have been distorted by the loss of a homeland they can call their own, whether their own remembered loss or that of their elders. Some of the authors are exiles too young to have known Palestine and who write in English, for others expulsion is a compulsive, constant memory, while some endure and write from within the occupied territories and in its language. They are all worth reading, to gain an understanding of the costs of exile and occupation, in Palestine and in other parts of the world. Those experiences present people with cruel choices of collaboration, resignation, or resistance, of saving one’s livelihood and family or one’s dignity. It is never clear which is the truer choice or the more honorable.

To my mind, the most affecting story is by Lina Badr, a novelist and short-story writer in Arabic, living in Ramallah (and active in cultural affairs of the Palestinian Authority), “Other cities.” Jordanian-born Umm Hasan (“mother of Hasan”), mother of six, dreams obsessively of spending a few days away from little Hebron, one of the most intensely occupied and harassed towns controlled by the Israelis, to the relative freedom of Palestinian-administered Ramallah; but she is married to a totally unsupportive cousin (Abu Hasan, “father of Hasan”) who has not bothered or not dared to get her the necessary Israeli papers to legalize her status in the occupied territories, and she as the wife is not permitted to apply on her own. Passage from one town to the other, though only a few kilometers apart, requires passing through multiple Israeli checkpoints, which will require credentials, and she cannot imagine leaving her six children behind — for shame and because Abu Hasan certainly wouldn’t take care of them; how she manages to achieve her modest goal, and incidentally embarrass an Israeli captain who has held up the travelers out of boredom or spite, not only describes some of the multiple indignities under the occupation but also hints at the moral damage it inflicts on the occupiers.


Lord Of The FliesLord of the Flies by William Golding

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An unknown number of British boys, none older than 12 and others half that age, are marooned on an otherwise uninhabited Pacific island, with no adults, and after some childish attempts to reproduce civilized order, turn into murderous savages. This is a powerful thought experiment, terrifying because it is so believable — as Stephen King also says, in his graceful and convincing prologue to this edition. If we could turn loose a lot of boys this young, with enough food and water to survive but no adult supervision, something like this would be bound to happen in only a few weeks time, or less. All of us who have been 12-year-old boys can remember those inchoate feelings, those moments of exultation at being free of supervision, and other moments of unbridled rage when we felt capable of any violence, and our feeling that we had to be part of some group, either as leaders or followers.

No need to say more — reviews and detailed discussions of every aspect of this book, and of the films made from it, are readily available on the ‘Net. What is especially frightening is knowing that not only children can turn so cruel, but that we adults are susceptible to similar mass behavior with even more violent consequences (in “The Lord of the Flies” only two children are killed, stupidly and frantically by a crazed mob, and another “littlun” with a birthmark is lost; imagine if these painted young savages had access to landmines, rockets and suicide belts). In fact (a point made by many readers), Ralph, Piggy, Jack Meridew and the other boys on the island are replicating in childish form the behaviors of the real adults on Pitcairn Island. I don’t think anyone who has read this book will be able to forget it, because it reminds us of too many terrors in our real pasts.

View all my reviews


Grafton, Sue. O Is for Outlaw. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

This book is all about Kinsey Millhone’s exercise routine. Her schedule permitting she jogs every day but Sunday and works out with weights at a gym in her L.A. suburb of Santa Teresa. This is how she stays in shape despite her diet of MacDonald quarter-pounders, fries, and coffee with lots of milk and sugar. We get to see her do reps at the gym in almost every chapter. She also solves a murder, discovers another murder that occurred 20 years earlier in Vietnam (novel takes place in 1986), and in the last pages gets to witness yet a third murder, but the people involved are all pretty uninteresting and they all talk exactly alike. So the only reason I can tell for reading O is for Outlaw and the A through N novels that preceded it is to watch how a 36-year old divorcee with no steady job stays in shape. Some people seem to care. 2002/6/12


Grass, Günter. Dog Years. Hundejahre (Berlin, Hermann Luchterhand Verlag GmbH, 1963). Trans.? New York: Fawcett World Library, 1965.

Walter Matern & his childhood friend, the half-Jewish Amsel, have their lives twisted in different directions by the rise of Naziism, the war, the aftermath. A curious detail: Matern, in a bar after the war, among veterans all prospering in the new Germany, declares:

“But let’s get one thing straight, you reinsurance and hail-insurance companies, you coal-tar wizards and steel manufacturers, you widely ramified and well-connected moguls, you Krupps, Flicks, Stumms, and Stinneses: Socialism will triumph! Bottoms up! Let the mealworm provide! Prost, Vicco! Outlook favorable. you’re a good guy even if you were an SS leader. That’s water under the bridge. Weren’t we all? Each in his own way. Call me Walter!” (p. 429)

Grass himself was never “an SS leader,” but as we now know, he was an SS member in the last months of the war. And that fact bothered him, though he stopped talking about it after the 1960s (when he was quite openly embarrassed by the fact) until recently.

I lost my more extensive commentary on this novel when my hard disc failed a couple of months ago; I’ll need to re-read the novel for more detail. What I remember most vividly is the scene at the end where Amsel, transformed into the factory-owner Brauxel, takes Walter Matern, the ex-Communist, ex-Fascist lout-with-a-conscience, on a tour of his mechanized scarecrow factory. A potent metaphor for post-war Germany.

Meanwhile, here is a useful analysis & critique by Sigrid Mayer, Literary Encyclopedia: Hundejahre. 20070520


Graves, Robert (1934). I, Claudius. New York, Vintage Books.

What moved Graves, in his 39th year and during the vigorous rise of fascism, to write about the Roman Empire, from the last years of Augustus, through Tiberius, and up to the murder of Caligula? My question is not simply what gave him the inspiration but more seriously, what sustained him throughout the project. It is a monstrous allegory of his own times. No cruelty or treachery he had witnessed was unknown to the Romans of this period. The world did not yet know of genocide — Hitler had become Reichskanzler only in 1933 — so the absence of genocide from the list of Roman imperial crimes is unremarkable. (Of course, they did wipe out large numbers of Germans, but those were ordinary massacres, more recently and vividly treated in the movie Gladiator). I suppose Graves was hoping to discover something about the way people with power behave. It’s a fascinating history, cleverly told from the p.o.v. of the insider, Claudius, who poses as a moron so as not to attract attention of the principals. (adapted from ntbk 4/23/86 (89))


Greene, Graham. The Human Factor. New York: Avon, 1978. 302pp.

What can we learn from an old thriller about a world that’s disappeared? That Graham Greene had a complex understanding of the world and its moral conflicts. And why am I now (August 2000) just getting around to reading it ? Because someone once compared my fiction to Greene’s, and I wanted to find out what that was about, and I expected to find a master storyteller.

Maurice Castle served as a British intelligence officer in South Africa, where he learned to loath apartheid and fell in love with an African woman, Sarah, who was one of his agents. Separately, they escaped the murderous thugs of South Africa’s BOSS with the help of a South African Communist named Carson. Now married to Sarah and working for MI6 in London, Castle has been passing secret information to the Soviets, out of gratitude to Carson and because the Communists are foes of apartheid. The leak is discovered, Castle’s superiors murder the wrong man (Castle’s only office colleague) to plug it, an encounter with the BOSS officer who tormented him and Sarah (and with whom he is supposed to cooperate) leads him to leak more documents, he realizes he is about to be caught, tells Sarah what he’s been up to, and — just barely — slips past security and defects to Moscow, where at the end of the story he is waiting in terrible loneliness for Sarah, who wants to but may not be permitted to join him. One moral of this story is stated by Sarah, when he describes himself as a “traitor.” Your country was me and Sam” (her child by a one-time African lover, whom Castle is rearing as his own), she tells him, “and you never betrayed us.”

Hargreaves, the head of the whole operation, lived in Africa for many years, fell in love with it, and still regards himself as a moral man; Dr. Percival, who no longer cures people but knows some nifty ways to kill them for the good of the agency, was a Communist sympathizer in his youth; Col. Daintry, the security chief assigned to find the leaker, and who was brave in a real war but is hopeless and helpless in this one. Each of these men has betrayed his values. Castle has merely betrayed his country, but at the end, even his gesture seems futile –the Soviets haven’t been interested in his information in order to combat apartheid, but merely to bolster the bona fides of another of their agents. It’s a complicated world, and every right action enwraps a wrong one. I don’t know whether my work bears comparison to Greene’s (click here to see who made it and where). I do know that it really is a complicated world. And Greene remains a good storyteller.


Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. 1st ed. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.

In a crowded neighborhood of Lahore a bearded young man whom you’ve never before seen spots you as an American and insists on telling you how he came to know your country and then to resent it, making you nervous as night falls and ominous figures approach. Then…

Changez, the extremely polite 25-year old scion of now impoverished Pakistani gentry, graduated brilliantly from Princeton to become a star financial analyst with an elite U.S. firm, until encounters with other “third world” peoples, his love for a psychotic American girl, his unconfessable joy at seeing on TV (while abroad in Manila) the attacks in NYC and Washington of Sept. 11, 2001, and a thought-provoking enounter with a bookseller in Santiago, Chile made him feel like a “janissary”, a slave soldier trained to fight against his own people, and he rebelled. Now — but we don’t know what will happen next, only that it will be dramatic and probably violent.

Changez not only addresses, but also describes “you” and “your” reactions to his remarks, turning you the reader into a character, the object of his love-hate of the United States — which adds to the intensity of his story. He is not really a “fundamentalist” in the sense of a Koranic literalist, and may not even be a practicing Muslim, but is a highly sophisticated man who understands things about Westerners that few of us are willing to acknowledge. His narrative, his doubts and his admitted confusions are a convincing demonstration of how some of the sharpest minds of the East, including those best acquainted with the West, can become ambivalent enemies of the U.S. — especially (but not only) of its business enterprises and military power. Though he is from a different part of the East, Changez seemed to me to have that much in common with Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian-born, German-trained urbanist who led the attacks of Sept. 11.


A Student of WeatherHay, Elizabeth. A Student of Weather. Washington DC: Counterpoint, 2001.

In 1937, when she is 8 years old, dark, homely and unloved little Norma Joyce falls in love with a handsome stranger 15 years her senior. The problem is, so does her beautiful 16-year old sister Lucinda. Maurice Dove has come to the family’s farmhouse in the Saskatchewan prairie to study the weather during the long dry spell. He is charming, weak-willed, and utterly oblivious to the havoc he leaves behind him. Norma Joyce will spend the next decades, in Ottawa and New York City, seeking and partially finding the love she was denied by Maurice — who fathers her son — and her embittered father Ernest, who ends up dying in her care and wishing she were Lucinda. It’s a story of sibling rivalry, prairie hardship, weather, many kinds of trees, and growing wiser. It’s beautifully told.


Hemingway, Ernest. 1926. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

About a woman named Brett, and the men who fall in love with her and with whom she toys. She’s a wonderful creation, an unhappy and insatiable Circe. I fell in love with her myself, that bitch (her word). Jake Barnes, who narrates, is Hemingway’s typical p.o.v. character: a competent, unpretentious man, often hurt but never willfully hurting, so responsible and well-organized that his disorderly friends count on him to pick up after their emotional and other messes. Here Hemingway has given him a mysterious war wound, which leaves him full of testosterone but unable to fuck ­ so he is unable to test Brett’s fantasy that, if only carnal love were possible between them, they would be a contented couple. The dialogue is wonderfully effective at revealing the confusions of Brett and her pretenders, who all blame themselves for being unable to keep her ­ except for one, the proud and self-assured 19-year old bullfighter, who retains his youthful dignity. The other memorable element of this novel is the travel writing, especially trout fishing in the Pyrenees and the running of the bulls in Pamplona, vividly rendered. 02-10-02


Hijuelos, Oscar. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989. 407

César & Néstor Castillo meet Desi Arnaz & never recover ntbk 11/7/1990 (pp. 46ff.)


Hope, Anthony. The Prisoner of Zenda. 1968 ed. New York: Langer Books, 1894.

What is marvelous about this famous novel is its economy: no more geography, character and social analysis than absolutely necessary. Ruritania has just 2 towns (Zenda, conveniently furnished with a castle, and the capital, Streslau, which has downtown slum, mansions beyond, and a palace somewhere), a railroad that connects them to the real world (via Dresden), and a forest. The men are all handsome, the women are all beautiful, the peasants are saucy, the servants are servile. Several characters exist only to be slain in some confrontation, and have no traits at all. Kings and aristocrats rule by unquestioned divine right. The plot hinges on the Lois Lane premise: the fair damsel is so unobservant that she can’t tell who’s kissing her now.

Plot: An aristocratic English idler, visiting Ruritania for amusement, happens to look enough like the king (and to speak flawless Ruritanian German) to substitute for him when the real king is imprisoned (in the castle in Zenda) by his wicked step-brother, the Black Duke. In disguise, the English narrator wins the heart of the king’s betrothed and springs the king (this involves fencing, riding, shooting, swimming and climbing), but is honor-bound to leave Ruritania (and the princess) forever and never to tell a soul. Which makes it odd that he tells all in this book.


The Kite RunnerThe Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A rich boy grows up with a terrible sense of shame for a childhood act of cowardly betrayal, and only decades later redeems himself in a punishing campaign requiring great courage. This is the story thread for a book that is really about the traumas of Afghanistan, in its several stages: from the almost feudal stability under the king (overthrown in 1973), when the narrator’s widowed merchant father and others in the dominant Pashtun ethnic group could live very comfortably at the expense of the despised Hazara servant caste, to the Communist government where the push for rapid reforms and the rise to power of other ethnic groups (including Hazara) roused violent resistance, to the triumph of the Taliban, celebrated as liberators but then quickly become far worse tyrants than any of their predecessors. The descriptions of how such a rapid chain of disasters affected the urban, educated Kabul élite are vivid and memorable. Also closely observed and moving is their struggles to cope with their sudden plunge of status as exiles in California, the narrator’s once-powerful father as a gas station attendant, an ex-general living on his pride and the dole, and both of them trying to sell junk in a weekend market. All this makes the book worth reading — though the story is too melodramatically neat, every punishment exactly fitting the crime. There’s also a movie, which is much weaker and insipid, because it leaves out all that makes the book’s episodes scary in order to focus on the thin story of redemption.

View all my reviews