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NOTE:  Joseph O’Neill was WINNER of the PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction for Netherland in 2009.   The Dog was NAMED a Notable Book by the New York Times in 2014.

Social historians will record that in the early twenty-first century the fashion for a clean-shaven face lost its dominance in Metropolitan North American bourgeois society….It was permissible, and often chic, to sport stubble, even in formal settings.  A full beard was almost de rigueur for younger white males who wanted to signal that they occupied, or deserved to occupy, a prestigious role in the culture economy…. – from “The Mustache in 2010.”

In this colcover good troublelection of eleven short stories, author Joseph O’Neill focuses on imperfect and often uncommitted men as they live their usually unexciting and unrewarded lives.  Their stories are, from a “story” point of view, as unexciting as their lives, yet they are sometimes fun and even funny.  O’Neill, the son of an Irish father and Turkish mother who traveled and lived with their family all over the world, writes without the clever and quirky characteristics one usually associates with stereotyped “Irish writers,” presenting his stories instead with a “straight face” as he recreates his characters’ lives and leaves it up to the reader to form judgments and draw conclusions.  Throughout the collection, O’Neill varies his literary style to fit the subject.  In “The Mustache in 2010,” for example, he employs an overtly academic tone for the subject of mustaches, as he traces the history of facial hair, creating an amusing introduction to “the drama of Alexandre Dubuisson’s mustache.” Dubuisson, a thirty-six-year-old businessman, “played with the soul patch, the cop stache, muttonchops, the Zappa, the pencil, the chin curtain, and the rap industry standard,” wearing these privately for his wife Vivienne before shaving the residue for work. 

Oneill-WritersVoice-CopilotThe “story” of “The Mustache of 2010,” evolves when Alex and Viv go to a fund-raiser for their sons’ elementary school and sit with friends Marie and Josh and Marie’s father.  Marie’s father addresses every word of conversation to the men and pointedly ignores Viv, who gives him a public lesson.  The conclusion, which takes place seven years later, has a new point of view in which Viv and Alex are regarded merely as “creatures in the understory of yesteryear” as the new character provides some new information and makes a silent comment on the event, leaving conclusions to the reader.  This same narrative pattern follows throughout the collection, with O’Neill setting the stage and introducing main characters for the first ten or so pages, then having one character discovering something new.  In this case the person who makes the discovery is not a main character from the early part of the story, creating an unusual shift and sense of surprise for the reader. 

The Sinking of the Houston in the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 is a memory of one character in the stor of that name.

The Sinking of the Houston in the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 is a memory of one character in the story of that name.

In “The Sinking of the Houston,” the main character, a father of three boys, is impatient with them and always short of sleep,  and when the second son begins to worry about the fact that the Duvaliers, rulers of Haiti, used rape to punish their political opponents, the father becomes angry.  The son, retreating, also asks him if he knows about Charles Taylor, the Liberian guerrilla leader who had a children’s army and made the children kill their parents, which may evoke some smirks of recognition among the readership.  Soon afterward, the second son comes home and says he has been mugged – and is too afraid to report it to the police.  The father, however, has an app on his phone which tracks his sons’ phones, and he quickly locates the son’s stolen phone.  Biding his time, he waits for the phone to appear on his “turf.”  When he just misses an appearance of the Orange Circle Guy (OCG), the robber of the phone, his son tells him about Unit 731, a Japanese unit which, during World War II, conducted lethal vivisectional experiments on hundreds of thousands of Chinese men, women, and children.  As the father goes out, one day, in pursuit of OCG, he sees Eduardo, a Cuban neighbor about seventy in age. Eduardo recalls the Bay of Pigs invasion and the sinking of the Houston when he was sixteen, events he experienced with a friend whose fate is unknown to the narrator.  The father, completely side-tracked, at this point, wants to believe the friend’s fate was good.  End of story.

In "The Death of Billy Joel," Tom mistakenly concludes from a news flash that Billy Joel has died. Instead, he, at age 55, has become engaged to a 23-year-old woman.

In “The Death of Billy Joel,” Tom mistakenly concludes from a news flash that Billy Joel has died. Instead, Joel, at age 55, has become engaged to a 23-year-old woman.

In “The Death of Billy Joel,” Tom, a man wanting to celebrate his fortieth birthday with friends, contacts ten friends from the past, asking if they will join him in Florida for a golf weekend.  Only three bother to answer.  Tom makes all the arrangements, and eventually, two appear for golf.  During the weekend, as the men chat and play golf, they become reacquainted with each other.  Tom hears a snippet of TV news about Billy Joel, now aged fifty-five, and believes that Billy has died, noting as he showers at the end of the day, that “there’s something triumphant about the business of lathering shampoo into his scalp:  he is here, applying the anti flake lotion…and Billy is not.”  The men continue on their weekend and eventually arrive back in New York, where Tom learns that Billy Joel, age fifty-five, has not died.  Instead, he has become engaged to a twenty-three-year-old woman.

bob dylan nobelOther stories involve different perspectives on other news events.  “Pardon Edward Snowden,” the opening story is completely different from the previous ones described here.  Poet Mark McCain receives a “poetition, a petition in verse, asking President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden.  The request is poeticized by Merrill Jensen, a twenty-eight-year-old poet.  McCain is enraged that poetry has been used to create a petition simply to attract more attention.  For him, that ranks right up there with Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, an event that he cannot separate from “the recent Trump phenomenon.”  McCain himself has been working on some “prose pensees” and dealing with problems in his marriage, having produced no poetry in the past several months.  As he thinks about the “poetition,” he is discouraged, but as he records his notes, his writer’s block disappears, and he learns a lesson:  “Never give in, never not resist.”

The facial hair of Emperor Frans Josef is singled out for attention in "The Mustache in 2010."

The facial hair of Emperor Frans Josef is singled out for attention in “The Mustache in 2010.”

Ultimately, the collection feels somewhat anti-climactic. There are no real, direct conflicts resulting in final resolutions, whether because the male characters are weak or because they are afraid or too easily distracted from the real issues to make independent moves.  In most cases, they are too self-centered to take direct action and too limited to put even a loved one ahead of their own needs.  The author “sits back” and lets these weak characters speak for themselves, limiting his own opportunities to make statements of themes as he may believe them to be.  The characters are petty, their interests limited, and their actions, if they take them at all, are almost irrelevant.  For me, O’Neill’s precise prose shines, but the collection would shine brighter with more intriguing subjects (and that is part of the point).

ALSO by O’Neill:  THE DOG

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://media.newyorker.com/

The Sinking of the Houston is found on http://imgc.allpostersimages.com/

The engagement photo of Billy Joel and Katie Lee, 1961, is on http://i2.cdn.turner.com

The photo celebrating the Nobel Prize of Bob Dylan is from https://static.highsnobiety.com/

The facial hair of Emperor Franz Josef is a subject of discussion in “The Mustache of 2010.” https://alphahistory.com/


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Literary, Short Stories, Social and Political Issues, US Regional
Written by: Joseph O'Neill
Published by: Pantheon
Date Published: 06/12/2018
ISBN: 978-1524747350
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“Despite the heady smell of the hay, the dust makes him cough, dust from the earth they cannot help but harvest along with the grasses, because here whatever you do, there is always dust – beneath the horses’ hooves, behind the carts, on the cows’ rumps….In daytime in the sun it makes him and the others itch so badly they could scratch their flesh to shreds and clamber into the watering trough to calm the irritation, although they know that the moment their skin dries it will itch all the worse.”

cover nothing but dustSet in Patagonia, in the southernmost part of Argentina and Chile, during an unspecified time period, this novel by French author Sandrine Collette shows life at the edges, as a dysfunctional family tries to stay alive though the herding of cattle and sheep on a remote ranch in the steppe.  It is a difficult life made even more difficult by the poor decisions of the adult parents of four boys, each of whom must perform exhausting physical labor required by the parents to survive.  Shortly after the novel begins, the father disappears, their mother saying that he “took off” without explanation.  After that, the mother assumes the role of boss – and she is one of the most demanding bosses imaginable, performing the kitchen duties and managing the finances while assigning the hard work out on the steppe to her four sons.  The novel’s main character, Rafael, is the youngest, at age twelve, when the main action begins, with brother Steban, referred to as a “halfwit,” four years older, and silent.  The two oldest boys, twins, are eighteen, and they virtually run the show, their mother giving them free rein to manage their younger brothers regarding their duties and behavior.  Mauro, the most muscular twin, is vicious, a true sadist, and, sometimes in combination with his twin Joachim, he bullies the two younger boys, often brutally – beating, punching, and deliberately hurting them with the tacit approval of their mother.  The twins believe that young Rafael is to blame for their father’s disappearance.

collette author photoThe grim novel which follows is a difficult read, with the boys experiencing no joyfulness, no satisfaction with their work, no love, and no let-up in sight throughout the book.  When the mother becomes an alcoholic, as was her husband, and often disappears to gamble at the bar in the remote town nearest their ranch, the boys are left on their own, with unstable Mauro in charge, a situation obviously headed for disaster.  When the mother runs into debt from gambling, their fraught lives become even more horrific.  She has no financial resources to pay back her debts and no money for supplies for the farm.  Before long, she is forced to rely on only three brothers.  And when young Rafael accidentally leaves a gate open and two valuable horses escape, he is sent out on his own horse, without supplies, to find them, or else.  He is gone for several weeks.  Now the mother has only two people left at the farm to do the entire job of shearing hundreds of sheep during the narrow window in which it must be done.

Patagonian steppe, the area where Rafael and his family lives.

The Patagonian steppe, the area where Rafael and his family lives.

The author alternates points of view throughout the novel, and it is especially revealing in the beginning sections, as this offers the opportunity for the reader to become familiar with the thinking of each main character in their separate chapters, and to see the dangers they face from each other.  Here Rafael becomes the main character, with his chapters occurring after each of the others at first, helping to establish his relationships with them.  At the same time, it gives the other characters a chance to provide special information of their own to the reader, but not necessarily to the other characters.  Early on, for example, the reader learns why Steban, the “halfwit,” has stopped talking, though none of the others know.  The Mother, too, has her own chapters, and she earns no sympathy from the reader, confirming what most readers would assume from the outset.  “She hates them all the time, all of them…Sometimes she reckons she should have drowned them at birth, the way you do with kittens you don’t want.”  It is not until Rafael is sent out to look for the missing horses that he has his first chance to explore the remote areas into which the horses’ tracks lead, places he has never gone before.  There, he discovers, for the first time, the woods that lie beyond the steppe where they all live and work – and there, he experiences a strange kind of epiphany, overwhelmed by their beauty.

The Patagonian forest.

The Patagonian forest.

Full of action, the novel will appeal especially to those who enjoy seeing life lived on the edge, with violence always just a step away, though it sometimes intrudes unexpectedly here and complicates the characters’ lives.  In fact, life and death resemble each other so much here that it is difficult, sometimes, not to become weary of the dark mood and the constant disasters.  Human life is, as Thomas Hobbes once said, “nasty, brutish, and short,” especially so in this novel, in which there are few changes of tone and no humor to put life into a broader perspective.  Life is tenuous at best, and even murder is regarded as a fact of life, one which has no consequences in the limited “society” which is shown here.  This macho world provides little to leaven the testosterone-fueled behavior, a limitation which many female readers will understand but find impossible to sympathize with in the present day.

Sheep awaiting shearing, hundreds of sheep to be sheared by only two workers while Rafael is out looking for horses.

When Rafael was out looking for the missing horses, his brothers rounded up hundreds of sheep, which needed to be sheared before it was too late in the season.

The conclusion will keep book clubs busy with discussion of the big issues.  Some will question  whether the actions of Rafael as the book ends are realistic, some will suggest that the author needed to end this novel as she did to accomplish the kind of change that a climax requires, some will find it sentimental, while still others may be inspired by Rafael’s actions.  The final question is whether Rafael’s actions make sense, considering all he has been through and all that he will face in the future.  Will he lead a satisfying life?  If so, how?   What about Steban?  Does he have the knowledge and fortitude necessary for survival?  Author Sandrine Collette leaves questions unanswered for her readers, though the outline of her thoughts are clearly presented.

Dust, gauchos, and horses, the atmosphere which Rafael most enjoys.

Dust, gauchos, and horses, the atmosphere which Rafael most enjoys.

As the book ends, Rafael finally begins to laugh (for the first time in the book): “Laughter swells inside him and spills over, freeing his throat and his belly, so alive and so bountiful that he shakes the earth, and in the fierce cry he sends out into the world everything begins again and everything is forgotten…what’s done is done, he will have to live with it, and he laughs again, lying with his arms spread wide, singing at the top of his voice.  The sun rises on the horizon all at once…and like the sun, he too rises, dusts the dirt from his trousers, gives a stretch and says, “Right.’ ”  I wonder how many readers will agree.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://fr.wikipedia.org/

The Patagonian steppe, where Rafael and his family lived, is a huge, flat area, best for the pasturing of sheep.  http://www.tierraspatagonicas.com/

The Patagonian forest, on the borders of the steppe, give Rafael a new vision of the world.  https://www.tripadvisor.com

When Rafael was out looking for the missing horses, his brothers rounded up hundreds of sheep, which needed to be sheared before it was too late in the season.  https://www.alamy.com

Dust, gauchos, and horses, the atmosphere which Rafael most enjoys.  https://www.zicasso.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Argentina, Literary, Patagonia, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Sandrine Collette
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 11/20/2018
ISBN: 978-1609454333
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note: Gerald Murnane was WINNER of the Australia’s Patrick White Award in 1999, WINNER of the Australia Council Emeritus Award in 2008,  and WINNER of the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction for this novel in 2018.

“I moved to this district near the border so that I could spend most of my time alone and so that I could live according to several rules that I had for long wanted to live by.  I mentioned earlier that I ‘guard my eyes.’ I do this so that I might be more alert to what appears at the edges of my range of vision; so that I might notice at once any sight so much in need of my inspection that one or more of its details seems to quiver or to be agitated until I have the illusion that I am being signaled to or winked at.”  Unnamed speaker of Border Districts

cover border districtsThe speaker of this work of “fiction,” who appears in every way to be the author himself, insists that this book is, in fact, a report – “pages intended only for my files.”  Despite this assertion, the resulting work is so introspective and so intimate, and the many known “facts” of the author’s own life are so clearly identical to events of the speaker’s life that the very borders between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, and observation and interpretation are blurred. The book feels like an internal monologue by a talented writer exploring the very nature of his own being, Its Australian author, Gerald Murnane, often suggested as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, appears to be so invested in the nature of thought and its creative manifestation through writing that he is willing to sacrifice what many of us would regard as everything physical that has had meaning for him in the past to find answers to his inner questions.  The book which has resulted is unlike anything else I have ever read – a book without a plot, without a real conflict, and without a clear sense of direction – yet I found it hypnotizing.

murnane author photoThe decision of the book’s speaker to give up everything familiar in his life and move to a tiny, unnamed town near the border between two rural districts, also unnamed but presumably in western Australia, parallels the decision made not long ago by Gerald Murnane himself, the intensity of his own need for a similar change reflected in a decision which would be anathema to every book collector I have ever known.  The speaker, like Murnane, tells us early in the book that in moving to the plains to be alone, he gave up his entire library.  He failed, he says “as a reader of fiction because I was constantly engaged not with the seeming subject-matter of the text but with the doings of personages who appeared to me while I tried to read and with the scenery that appeared around them.  My image-world was sometimes only slightly connected with the text in front of my eyes.”  Later, he further explains that “I certainly recall some of what took place in my mind while I read; I can recall many images that occurred to me and many moods that overcame me, but the words and sentences that were in front of my eyes when the images occurred or the moods arose – of those countless items I recall hardly any.”  Why keep the books, then, he must have asked himself, as he prepared to change and simplify his whole life.

stained glass

The speaker has seen in his peripheral vision the image of leaves and vines in the stained glass window in a tiny nearby church, but he refuses to look at it directly, “guarding his eyes” against intrusive images until it “calls” to him.

Murnane himself has stated in interviews that this will be his last book, one of many absolute statements he has made in interviews in his effort to put his life into perspective.  Certainly the speaker’s adoption of an almost hermit-like lifestyle suggest that his efforts will also be his last. He states, for example, that going forward, he intends to “guard his eyes,” as he has said in the quotation which begins this review, perhaps a result of his early upbringing and his schooling by religious brothers who encouraged their students to visit the chapel whenever, during the day, they felt stressed.  The speaker, like the author, admits that he used to take advantage of this emotional outlet.  He also mentions that there is a tiny Protestant church near where he lives now, closed and deserted during the day, a place with a small stained glass window at the front entrance. He chooses, however, not to look closely at it, “guarding his eyes” so that the magic of new perceptions may unfold at the periphery if it is worth his attention. He admits that he has never traveled  more than a day’s journey by road or rail from where he lives, and that foreign cities exist as mental images.  When he travels, the speaker is determinedly avoids all signposts, route numbers, and directions for reaching places that are out of view.  He has never used a computer or other electronic device.  He needs to live in the moment, without distraction from “border districts.”

The speaker, like author Murnane himself, is a fan of horse racing, and especially enjoys seeing the racing silks.

The speaker, like author Murnane himself, is a fan of horse racing, and especially enjoys seeing the racing silks.

Soon he begins what appears to be an interior monologue, starting with one image, then reminiscing or imagining and moving on to another, and then another.  In the course of the book he repeats images in new contexts (stained glass and changing light, horse racing and the color of its silks, beautiful glass marbles, a kaleidoscope and its changing images, religious institutions, and the wide plains where he lives), using these to involve the reader in the search for what gives meaning to this author’s life.  Characters repeat, as do episodes from childhood, expanding each time, with one experience at a wedding reception occurring more than once as he imagines people over time, even imagining the life of an elderly woman there who might have been in love once, whose love might also have died at Gallipoli during World War I, and who might have had a child.  The life of the spirit, including, at one point, the Holy Spirit,  and the effects of time on memory are examined, always within the context of some aspect of the speaker’s life, and he experiments successfully with meditation as a way of further expanding his mental images.

The light shining through glass marbles is another images that repeats throughout the novel.

The light shining through glass marbles is another image that repeats throughout the novel.

The novel, or report, as the author prefers it to be called, feels much like poetry, in places, with images crowding in upon each other so closely that they encourage readers to conjure up similar images or experiences of their own, thereby participating in the memories and thoughts of the writer while expanding their own.  Since there is no traditional plot, conflict, or sense of direction, except inside the borders of the speaker’s own mind,  readers who share that journey with similar journeys inside their own minds will be accomplishing the author’s overall goal, expanding their own borders through their participation and their own memories.  It is a daring – perhaps unique – goal, one which I found thrilling as I began to see Murnane’s imagery, especially of stained glass, in new ways and see some parallels to my own life.  It is difficult to know what to call this book, if one cares to categorize it, because it reaches depths of “personhood” – the author’s and the internal “personhoods” of the readers he has touched – something very different from that of regular fiction and non-fiction.  Ultimately, the most appropriate conclusion to this review may be to quote Murnane’s own conclusion, which, itself, is a quotation of the thoughts of Percy Bysshe Shelley:
         “Life like a dome of many-colored glass
          Stains the radiance of Eternity.”

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.theaustralian.com.au/

The speaker has seen, in his peripheral vision, the image of leaves and vines in the stained glass window in a tiny nearby church, but he refuses to look at it directly, “guarding his eyes” against an intrusive images until it “calls” to him.  https://www.topsimages.com/

The speaker, like author Murnane himself, is a fan of horse racing, and especially enjoys seeing the racing silks.  https://www.pinterest.com/

The light shining through glass marbles is another image that repeats throughout the novel.  This collection of vintage glass marbles is seen on https://www.etsy.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Australia, Autobiography/Memoir, Experimental, Literary, Psychological study.
Written by: Gerald Murnane
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 04/03/2018
ISBN: 978-0374115753
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


Note:  Simon Mawer is WINNER, most recently, of the Walter Scott Prize for Tightrope, in 2016.  He has twice been a FINALIST for the Man Booker Prize for The Glass Room and The Fall.

“Here and not here.  The fleeting nature of presence marked only by shadows on photographic paper and names inked onto the wall of a synagogue….No Germans in the border areas, no Jews in Prague, dissidents dead or in prison or relegated to menial work out of the public eye; a country defined by its absences.  Until the last few months, that is, and these moments of strange frenetic freedoms.”

cover prague springReturning to Prague for the location of this novel, after setting The Glass Room  there in 2009, author Simon Mawer uses his familiarity with Prague, and his obvious love for it, to create this stirring novel of political history and intrigue.  Set during the almost magical Prague Spring of 1968, a time in which Russian influence had waned and a broader view of socialism and some new freedoms were being celebrated by students and political writers in Prague, Mawer focuses on “the fleeting nature of presence” as the Prague Spring is cancelled by the sudden arrival of half a million Warsaw Pact troops led by the Soviet Union, which went on to occupy the country for the next twenty-three years.  A writer who focuses primarily on people and their lives, rather than on politics or cultural movements, Mawer brings the Prague Spring to life by focusing on two couples who come together in Prague, live and love, engage in adventure, and find their lives permanently changed by the arrival of the Soviet-led troops.  The couples represent different backgrounds, and they experience the Prague Spring in different ways.  Each has connections with people from Prague who help them during the danger which evolves, providing a broader picture of the events as they affect all the people of Prague, instead of the more limited focus which might have occurred with fewer main characters.

Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer

James Borthwick and Eleanor Pike are students at Oxford University – James, a freshman science major, and Eleanor, a second year English major.  Their backgrounds are different, with Eleanor one of the few women at Oxford at that time, a young woman whose enunciation alone marks her as a member of a higher status than James.  A member of the Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Students, Ellie is also an activist, while James is more reticent, but both of them are interested in theatre, where they meet in a play and soon find common ground when they talk about their upcoming “vac,” the long summer vacation from college.  Ellie had planned with a friend to retrace the Sentimental Journey of Laurence Sterne, an 18th century writer James has not heard of, while James had wanted to travel around Europe with a friend visiting battlefields.  In both cases, the people who had planned to go with them changed their minds and decided not to go.  James and Ellie then decide to travel Europe together, sleeping in tents and living “rough.” 

The Castle, built in the 14th century, is the seat of Czech government. The Charles Bridge, built at the same time served as the only connection between the castle and its adjacent settlements.

The Castle, built in the 14th century, is the seat of Czech government. The Charles Bridge, built at the same time served as the only connection between the castle and its adjacent settlements.

In the next section, Mawer presents a whole new demographic.  Sam Wareham is First Secretary at Her Britannic Majesty’s Embassy to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, living in Prague and working directly under Eric Whittaker, Head of Chancery.  Sam and his girlfriend Stephanie have separated for a while “to gain some perspective on the whole thing” regarding their relationship.  She is about to drive back home to England in Ringo, her Volkswagen, “purchased duty-free when she first came out eighteen months ago [and which is, she says] her real love.”  As Steffi leaves, she warns Sam about Madeleine, Eric Whittaker’s younger French wife,  not guessing that within hours, Sam will instead be inviting Lenka Koneckova, a Russian woman, for a drink.  Sam specialized in Russian in college, and he speaks good Czech, and he and Lenka quickly fill their time with activities.  Sam is fascinated by the differences between the bold Lenka and the much quieter Stephanie.  Despite his attraction to Lenka, however, he still asks security to check her background to be sure that she is not a spy.

The enormous Stalin Statue, built in 1955, was demolished in 1962, when Stalin's reputation plummeted. Sam meets a Russian who wants to escape Prague in the shadow of what was once this statue.

The enormous Stalin Statue, built in 1955, was demolished in 1962, when Stalin’s reputation plummeted. Sam meets a Russian who wants to escape Prague in the shadow of what was once this statue.

Several sections follow, in which, with alternating points of view, the students, James and Ellie, continue their travels and make friends in Europe, hitchhike everywhere, and go camping.  Their connections with a rock band take them eventually to Prague, just as Sam and Lenka, in the meantime, travel to Munich, taking particular interest in the music and arts of the area.  Their concerns with the Russians and what they might be doing in Prague, with their constant trailing of Sam and others, are not taken as seriously as they might have been, and, in retrospect, should have been, as Mawer describes the tumult that is evolving in Prague with James and Ellie, and Sam and Lenka all living their lives and pursuing their interests and obligations there.  When Lenka decides to write an article in which she reveals her father’s full name and fate, a name she has changed for herself for security reasons, the tension begins to peak, and when she confronts Alexander Dubcek, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, she says what many intellectuals have also been thinking in the days leading up to the Soviet takeover of Prague.  Before long, five hundred thousand Warsaw Pact troops are occupying the country.

On the first day of the Russian invasion in 1968, students confront the tanks and the troops in Prague.

On the first day of the Russian invasion in 1968, students confront the tanks and the troops in Prague.

Mawer treads a careful line here as he moves the action through ten different sections, each one about forty pages, devoted to a repeating character or characters who have no connection at all with other groups for much of the novel.  At times, I wondered where Mawer was going with the plot, but as the different threads work their way to a meeting of the characters in Prague as the Soviets arrive with tanks, I was pleased that the author brought all the pieces of his plot and his themes together in such a satisfying way. This is not to say that it all ends with hearts and flowers.  The demands of the themes and the issues of governance and warfare that are the basis of the novel require that the conflicts be effectively resolved, and the best way to do this is to be true to the thematic needs, rather than the hopes of the reader for happy endings.  The author is true to his themes – big themes involving war and peace, cooperation vs personal motivation, principle vs. expediency – as his novel evolves.  Ultimately, history rules, and Mawer’s characters respond in ways consistent with the personalities and values they have revealed – or according to the laws of chance.  This is a carefully developed novel, filled with fascinating history and sidelights involving literature, music, and popular culture, a fine addition to Mawer’s bibliography.

ALSO by Mawer, reviewed here:  THE GLASS ROOM,     TIGHTROPE,     TRAPEZE

The enormous Stalin statue was blow up behind barriers which suggested a construction project, not demolition.

The enormous Stalin statue was blown up behind barriers which suggested a construction project, not demolition.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.amazon.com/

The Castle in Prague, seat of government, and the Charles Bridge were both started in the 14th century and are still in use.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

The ill-fated statue of Josef Stalin, begin in 1955 and demolished in 1962, was the largest statue of Stalin anywhere in the world.  https://www.praguepost.com

The first day of the Prague uprising, 1968, shows young people confronting the Russian and Warsaw Pact troops which arrived en masse.  https://www.theatlantic.com/

The demolition of the Stalin statue was done as secretly as possible, with no publicity.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic, England, Historical, Literary, Russia/Soviet Union, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Simon Mawer
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 11/13/2018
ISBN: 978-1590519660
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

NOTE:  At the end of each year, I enjoy checking to see which reviews are getting the most attention (highest number of hits) on this website, and each year I am always surprised by the number of older books (and reviews) which remain in the Top Ten. For this new list I wanted to see which books would appear on the list if I removed the perennial Old Favorites.

cover-past-the-shallowsGone from the list of old favorites are the following, some of which have been published and/or reviewed here ten or more years ago:  Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer (Norway, 2011), Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel (Nigeria, 2004), Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (New Zealand, 1995), Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography (Pakistan, 2004), Alan Paton’s The Hero of Currie Road (S. Africa, 2009).

The new TOP TEN, published more recently by newer authors, are:
(1)  Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett, set in Tasmania and reviewed here in August, 2014. This is the first year this book has appeared on the Favorites List at all, and to see it suddenly soar to first place came as a huge surprise to me.  Dark, stark and potent in its story and its message, Past the Shallows reduces life to its most basic elements as perceived by two young brothers, who share the story of their uncertain lives at the southernmost tip of the inhabited world.  Their angry father fishes for abalone in the dark waters and offers the boys no refuge, either physically or emotionally from fate and the elements.

cover-ru-197x300(2) Ru by Kim Thuy.  The author is a Vietnamese-born Canadian who appeared on the overall Favorites list last year for the first time, though the review of her book has been on this website since November, 2012. Her novel tells the story of a family of Vietnamese “boat people,” much like herself, who travel from Saigon to a refugee camp and eventually Canada, a book of great poignancy and love, featuring lively characters and real adventures.

(3) The Thirst by Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbo, published in May, 2017.  This new installment, the eleventh in the continuing career of Harry Hole, includes most of the characters who have filled his previous novels with life, conflict, and even romance. Three years have passed since the last novel, Police, took place, during which Harry has been working as a lecturer at the Police College, a job in which he has inspired young officers without having to stare into the gunsights of criminals on a daily basis. He is getting his life back after being almost killed – happy and sober, married to his long-time love, with his stepson Oleg studying to become a member of the police corps. Then murder intervenes.

cover-shifu-mo-yan-200x300(4) Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan, of the People’s Republic.  Originally published and reviewed here in late November, 2012, this is the first time this book has appeared on the Favorites list.  Nobel Prize winner Mo’s strange and sometimes eerie short stories are guaranteed to stick in the minds of readers, not just because they are wonderfully written by a man whose country is not as open to foreigners as this book is, but because its reality is so far removed from what any of us have experienced or even imagined.

(5) The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano from Chile, appearing here for the first time, though originally reviewed here in January, 2011.  Throughout this collection of stories, the reader becomes hypnotized by the succession of Bolano’s images, by the lives he depicts (including his own in the two essays), and by the metaphysical suggestions and possible symbols of his stories, despite the fact that Bolano does not make grand pronouncements or create a formal, organized, and ultimately hopeful view of life as other authors do.  There is no coherence to our lives, he seems to say: chaos rules.  A wonderful introduction to the work of Bolano for those unfamiliar with it.

cover-artificial-silk-girl(6) Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark.  This one came as a total surprise to me.  Originally published in 1979 (!) and reviewed here in January, 2011, it has never appeared here on the Favorites list before.  In this brutally satiric little novella, the “downstairs” servants of the aristocratic Klopstocks, living in Switzerland, have their lives all planned out for the immediate future.  They will not be spending another day with the Klopstocks – at least not a day in which the Klopstocks are alive – and they are breathless with anticipation.  A love triangle involving the Klopstocks and a lover will be meeting to settle their issues that night, and these can be settled only one way—with gunshots. “The eternal triangle has come full circle,” one servant observes.

(7) The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun.  Reviewed here in June, 2015, this novel was originally published in Germany in 1932, when author Irmgard Keun was only twenty-two. A bestselling novel of its day,  the book is said to be for pre-Nazi Germany what Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) is for Jazz Age America. Both novels capture the frantic spirit, the eat-drink-and-be-merry ambiance, and the materialism of young people who haunt the urban clubs looking for a more vibrant lifestyle. The authorities in Germany were not pleased with Keun’s published depiction of Berlin life as Hitler and the Nazis, preparing to take power, envisioned it.  Within a year, Keun’s books were confiscated and all known copies were destroyed.  At least one copy survived.

cover-henrik-groen(8) The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old.  New to the list, this book was first published in English in July, 2017.  Hendrik Groen, a resident of an assisted living facility in the Netherlands, decides on New Year’s Day, 2013, the first day of the diary, that he doesn’t like old people. “Their walker shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and cookies, their bellyaching.” He regards himself, however, as “civil, ingratiating, courteous, polite and helpful. Not because I really am all those things, but because I don’t have the balls to act differently.” In order to keep himself from spiraling into depression, he decides to give the world “an uncensored expose: a year in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam.” A fascinating and important study of old age, the book’s primary purpose is to depict real life in one care home in the Netherlands, under a very different kind of health care system from what is in the US.

(9) So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano.  French Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s novel from 2015 resembles a simple, straightforward mystery story set in France and gradually becomes increasingly eerie, psychological, and autobiographical. As the novel opens, Jean Daragane, a reclusive author, who has not seen or spoken to anybody in three months, has just received a telephone call offering to return his lost address book if he will meet with the finder.  A former journalist who is researching a murder from forty years ago has found and looked through Daragane’s address book and has been excited to see a listing there for  someone whose name Daragane claims means nothing at all to him.  They meet, and gradually Daragane’s memories begin to pierce the “cellophane” which has protected him from traumatic memories of his childhood.

cover-tommy-orange-there-there(10, tie)  Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese, a Canadian Ojibwe author, published and reviewed in October, 2015.  Franklin Starlight, age sixteen, has agreed to accompany his father Eldon, from whom he has been estranged for nearly all of his life, on his father’s final trip “beyond the ridge.”  Eldon, an alcoholic just days away from death, shares his life story, and stories involving other people around him, in a final effort to connect with his son and to reconcile himself with his own guilt about actions from his past.  A wondrous novel about stories, their importance in our lives and memories, their ability to help us reconcile the past with the present, and ultimately their power to teach us the nature of the world and our relationship to it.

(10, tie) There There by Tommy Orange, the only book from 2018 to make this list in its first year.  Orange, a Native American author, describes the contemporary culture of the Urban Indian, one who does not live on a reservation or in the countryside but in the middle of cities, in this case, Oakland, California.  The author is especially interested in showing the need for a unifying Indian culture and emphasizing the fact that urban areas are totally different from any previous centers of Native American culture.  Using twelve characters moving back and forth across three generations, he tells the interconnected stories of these people, the tragedies, the horrors of their lives, their frequent reliance on drugs and alcohol, and their difficulties continuing a culture which may not adapt well to twenty-first century urban life.

It will be interesting to see how these books do in the course of time.  Seven of the ten books on last year’s list are not on this year’s list at all.

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