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Deon Meyer–COBRA

Note: Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari was WINNER of the Afrikaans Language and Culture Association (AKTV) Best Suspense Fiction Prize of 2008, and his Thirteen Hours was WINNER of the same prize in 2009.

“Sir, you can suspend me or you can fire me, I don’t care…My father used to tell me stories of how he did not dare use his phone, because the security police were always listening.  He was part of the Struggle, Colonel.  Back…when everybody was spying on each other…Today it is happening again…Just like in apartheid times.” – Captain Mbali Kaleni.

Those who not have been lucky enough to have discovered South African author Deon Meyer’s mystery/thrillers, to date, are in for a real treat.  Always among the very best writers of this genre, he keeps getting better and better, but unlike many others who have suddenly become popular, he has not rested on any laurels.  Instead, he has become even more committed to constructing tight, beautifully organized and highly plausible plots in which well-developed characters share their lives in South Africa with all its challenges and triumphs.  Apartheid has been over for twenty years, and the scandal-plagued former police system has been replaced by a new South African Police Service (SAPS) in which blacks, whites, and coloreds – both men and women – work together as they face the growing pains associated with keeping their new democracy healthy and law-abiding.

In Cobra, Meyer’s new (ninth) novel, set primarily in Capetown, Capt. Benny Griessel appears in his fourth novel, and this time he and his Hawks, who work for Priority Crimes Investigations, must investigate three murders and the disappearance of a college professor who specializes in economics and computer systems which enable countries to monitor trends. The British professor has been staying at a wine farm and guest house in the Franschhoek Valley, and the three murdered men were professional bodyguards hired to protect him from some unknown threat.  Alternating with the story of these murders and questions about the professor’s work is the story of Tyrone Kleinbooi, a young “colored” pickpocket who works to pay for his sister’s college education so that she can become a doctor.  She thinks he is working as a commercial painter and has no idea of what he really is doing for her.  As cameras become ubiquitous throughout the high traffic areas which are usually a pickpocket’s best sources for the phones, wallets, and credit card, Tyrone finds himself struggling more and more to meet the tuition costs for his sister, and he is currently in arrears, looking for a big score.

The house and guest house for a winery, where Morris was staying in the Franchhoek Valley, may have resembled this.

Before long, however, the story lines increase in complexity, with the many different departments within the South African police system, all with their own agendas, being controlled by the state’s security apparatus, at the same time that the identity of “Morris” is being investigated and his involvement in world-wide (and lucrative) economic issues is being discovered.  All levels of government in South Africa, the US, the UK, and the European Union are at risk if the nature of his work is revealed publicly, and some of these countries are working overtime to protect their own interests and reputations.  Griessel and the Hawks are soon told to stop investigating this case on orders of the highest levels of South African government, and they powerfully resent this.

The Mozambican spitting cobra serves as the icon on the bullets used by Cobra.

The second plot line adds to these complications when the cold-blooded shooting of five police officers by unknown professional killers takes place when they arrest and try to book Tyrone, the pickpocket.   His escape in the chaos eventually ties the two plot lines together, since he has inadvertently acquired something that could mean life or death for himself and his sister.  Connecting everything is the engraving on each of the bullets used in the killings and kidnapping of “Morris” and on the bullets used later when Tyrone is arrested.  These killings and others in the Northern Hemisphere have been done by someone nicknamed Cobra because the image of a spitting cobra has been engraved on each bullet he has used.

Oom Samie se Winkel, an "old-fashioned store" popular with tourists, which Tyrone hopes will save him when he appears there as a pickpocket, proves to have better security than expected.

Despite the complexity of the story lines, which eventually overlap, Meyer is able to develop wonderful characters while keeping the reader totally engaged in the action.  Griessel, an alcoholic who has found love, which he is unable to express as strongly as he desires, is revealed as a sensitive man determined to avenge the deaths of his men and assuage the despair of their families because “we are all they have.”  In addition to the obvious hatred Griessel has for the killer or killers, “Something inside him revolted against the concept of a hit man with a trademark.  It was sociopathic, arrogant, it represented everything that was wrong with this world.  Everyone was obsessed with money, status, and fame,” and Griessel is determined to make things right.  His men and the ambitious female Captain Mbali Kaleni also reveal their inner lives, and Tyrone Kleinbooi, the pickpocket, will steal your heart as he works on behalf of his sister.

University at Stellenbosch, where Tyrone's sister Nadia is studying to become a doctor.

The action is fast, and the prose is so beautifully edited that there are no slow spots, not a single moment when the reader wishes that the novel were fifty or a hundred pages shorter.  The climax comes so fast and furiously that I challenge anyone to stop reading the last fifty pages before the end.

Meyer deserves a much wider audience.  He focuses on what he knows – the political, economic, and social tensions of a country undergoing major changes and the people committed to doing their part to keep the country moving in the “right” direction, despite all those who are willing to do what is expedient.  His view of a “hero” is realistic, not necessarily a person without flaws, but a person who genuinely believes that it is possible to make a difference and who is committed to making that difference, no matter the costs to him/her personally.  In this ninth novel, Meyer is still “fresh” for the reader, never relying to the trite or the tried and true, never resorting to what worked in an earlier novel, and never willing to take the easy way out by giving the reader what s/he expects. His novels are carefully considered, written, and produced, and they should serve as examples for some who are churning out bestsellers without attending to the details which great novels – even thrillers – require.

ALSO by Deon Meyer:  BLOOD SAFARI (2007), THIRTEEN HOURS (2009), TRACKERS (2010)

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://rotterdamweek.com/

The house in the Franchhoek Valley wine country where Morris stayed may have resembled this house: http://www.rhinoafrica.com

The Mozambican spitting cobra is shown on http://tarakb.blogspot.com/

Oom Samie se Winkel, an old-fashioned store popular with tourists, proves to have better security than Tyrone was expecting. http://tracks4africa.co.za/

The University at Stellenbosch, outside of Capetown, is where Nadia, Tyrone’s sister is studying to be a doctor. http://edabroad.uncc.edu/

Note: This novel was SHORTLISTED for 2013 Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year.  Ryan’s previously published novel, The Spinning Heart, was WINNER of the 2012 Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year, and WINNER of the 2013 Guardian First Book Award.

“Loneliness covers the earth like a blanket.  It flows in the stream down through the Callows to the lake.  It’s in the muck in the yard and the briars in the haggard and the empty outbuildings are bursting with it…When it hits you, it feels like a rap of a hurl across your knuckles on a frosty winter’s morning…[and] no one says sorry for causing it nor asks are you okay, and no kind teacher wants to look at it and tut-tut-and tell you you’ll be grand, good lad.”

Donal Ryan has had only two of his novels published, yet he has already garnered numerous prestigious awards and encomiums from other admiring writers around the globe.  Still in his thirties, he has become so successful in the past two years that in April of this year he was able to leave his public service job with the (Irish) National Rights Authority to devote himself to full-time work as an author.  His was not an easy start. The Thing About December and The Spinning Heart, taken together, were rejected forty-seven times before they finally found a publisher with Doubleday Ireland,*  and ironically, it was the second of his novels, The Spinning Heart, which was published first, in 2012, with The Thing About December, his first novel, being released the following year.  Both of these consummately Irish novels take place in the rural countryside near Limerick, where the author grew up, and both deal with the economic travails of Ireland.  In  The Spinning Heart, Ryan illustrates the effects on a group of small investors when the “economic bubble” collapses in 2009.  In this novel, The Thing About December, set a decade or so earlier, he writes a character novel about that period when the value of real estate skyrocketed and people scrambled to take advantage of the get-rich-quick possibilities involved with buying valuable, undeveloped property – in this novel, the property belonging to Johnsey Cunliffe.

Johnsey, a shy innocent who has adored his strong, assertive da, is devastated by his father’s death from cancer, and when his mother is so hard hit by the death that she herself becomes withdrawn, Johnsey’s minimal support system, such as it was, ceases completely to exist.  Always insecure, he often thinks about the past, even as he is bullied unmercifully, before and after school, by Eugene Penrose, “a dole boy,” and some of the other thugs in his school.  At one point, he remembers hearing his father say “he was a grand quiet boy to Mother when he thought Johnsey couldn’t hear them talking.  Mother must have been giving out about him being a gom and Daddy was defending him.  He heard the fondness in Daddy’s voice.  But you’d have fondness for an auld eejit of a crossbred pup that should have been drowned at birth,” he thinks.  With the death of his mother, his loneliness is total, and even he realizes that “It wasn’t good for [him], the way this house was now.  Even a gom like him could see that.”  The pastureland on his farm has been leased to Dermot McDermott, and seeing McDermott lording it around on the Cunliffes’ property only adds to Johnsey’s “dead-quiet loneliness” as he copes with the “noisy ignorance” of McDermott and “his fancy farm machinery.”

Irish farmland near Limerick. Photo by Don Klumpp/Getty Images

Scenes appear out of chronological order and gradually convey Johnsey’s past history;  at the same time, each chapter represents the weather and activity of successive months of a calendar year.  Gradually, the reader’s emotions and sympathies become totally engaged by Johnsey’s story.  When he starts working for Packie Collins, who runs a co-op and hates the idea of the minimum wage, Johnsey’s day is stultifying:  up in the morning, in to work, lunch in the nearby bakery run by the generous and caring Unthanks, back to work, “get a dog’s abuse on the way home,” try not to cry, home, up to bed, read a book, fall asleep thinking about dad or girls.”  At times he visits the slatted barn where his cows stay during the winter, and thinks about throwing a rope over the crossbeam and ending it all, but he is afraid of disappointing the Unthanks, the only people who are kind to him.  When they go away for the summer, he is truly alone.

The Callows, beside the River Shannon. "Loneliness covers the earth like a blanket. It flows in the stream down through the Callows to the lake."

The turning point in the novel begins with Dermot McDermott’s April visit to ask Johnsey to sell him his land, a decision Johnsey cannot bring himself to make because of its family history, but clearly his land has been a major subject of discussion in the community, and the scene is set for a traumatic confrontation over which he has no control. In the aftermath, he comes to know Mumbly Dave and nurse Siobhan, known as Lovely Voice, finding them as close to being his friends as he has ever known.  The two chapters in which these three come to know each other provide most of the humor in the novel, however dark it may be.  Eventually, Johnsey begins to receive visits from townspeople who suddenly want to be his friend.  The press exacerbates the speculation about what may happen to the land in the future, and Johnsey trusts no one.

Farmers in rural areas are now using social media to make their lives less lonely. This farmer has posted a "felfie." Double click to see article in The Guardian about this.

Inexorably, the foreboding increases, as the reader observes Johnsey becoming more and more of a victim, though the question of how much he may be responsible for his own victimization also hangs over all the action.  Though the novel is told in the third person, the author conveys Johnsey’s particular point of view and his vernacular to make him become real for the reader, who would have to have a heart of stone not to respond to the problems of this self-described “gom.”   When the climax occurs, the parallels between the novel’s “resolution” and the events in Ireland when the real estate “bubble” burst are undeniable.  Eventually, this character-based novel becomes for the reader an allegorical representation of a particular time and place from which Ireland and its people will recover, though they will never again be quite so innocent.

*Source:  Wikipedia.


Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://ifestboston.com

Irish farmland near Limerick where the author grew up is shown on http://www.theguardian.com/ Photo by Don Klumpp/Getty Images.

The Callows beside the River Shannon: “Loneliness covers the earth like a blanket. It flows in the stream down through the Callows to the lake.”   from http://walks.iwai.ie/callows/

Farmer P.J. Ryan of Newport, takes a “felfie,” which is a selfie of a farmer, for social media.  See http://www.theguardian.com/ The use of social media is reducing the loneliness of farmers in rural areas.  See article.

Note: This novel was WINNER of the Man Booker Prize for 2014. Gould’s Book of Fish was WINNER of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Wanting (2008) was WINNER of the Queensland Premier’s Prize, the Western Australia Premier’s Prize, and the Tasmania Book Prize.

“To the railway, said Colonel Kona raising his teacup.
To Japan, said Nakamura, raising his cup in turn.
To the Emperor, said Colonel Kota.
To Basho! said Nakamura.”

“They recited to each other more of their favorite haiku, and they were deeply moved not so much by the poetry as by their sensitivity to poetry; not so much by the genius of the poem as by their wisdom in understanding the poem; not in knowing the poem but in knowing the poem demonstrated the higher side of themselves and of the Japanese spirit…The Japanese spirit is now itself the railway [from Siam to Burma]…our narrow road to the deep north, helping to take the beauty and wisdom of Basho to the larger world.”

The “sensitivity” of these Japanese officers, their “wisdom in understanding,” and the “higher side of themselves” which they celebrate here were lost on the allied Prisoners of War they abused, and these qualities will be just as lost on readers of this novel as they read about unconscionable examples of gross inhumanity. Set during World War II, when many Australians became POWs after the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese, the novel details the brutality of the conquerors, their starvation of prisoners, their forcing of dying soldiers to work until they collapsed and expired, their murders and tortures, and even their use of conscious prisoners as guinea pigs for Japanese officers who wanted to test their bayonets. The sadism which paralleled the officers’ interest in poetry was cultivated and celebrated among themselves as proof of their dedication to the Emperor, who could do no wrong. Much of the action here takes place during the building of the Siam to Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway, which the Emperor wanted finished immediately so that it could eventually be extended to India. Over two hundred fifty miles long, and built only with hand tools by sixty thousand prisoners in 1943, the railway paralleled the River Kwai, heading northwest, from Bangkok. Twelve thousand prisoners died during this project, most from overwork and starvation, and some from being beaten to death.

Balanced against these horrors, which Flanagan depicts in grim and uncompromising imagery, is a non-traditional love story, which shows aspects of the Australian society from which most of the soldiers have come and hope to return, and particularly the society of Tasmania, which several main characters call home and where author Richard Flanagan himself grew up and has spent most of his life. Dr. Dorrigo Evans, from Cleveland, Tasmania, in the northeast, just south of Launceston, has been raised in a rural area among many people who are still illiterate. As a teenager, he, his brother, and a friend often earn money catching possums on Ben Lomond, sometimes staying overnight in a cave where Dorrigo reads the epic Ulysses to the others by firelight. As the only one in his family to pass the Ability Test for Launceston High School, where he has free schooling, he learns early that he has to fight his way to the top if he is to succeed.

This picture of possum hunting on Ben Lomond, by John Glover (1767 - 1849) recently sold at Christie's for $2,799,193. Click to enlarge.

Through an impressionistic time frame which circles around and sometimes begins and then abandons characters and ideas, only to return to develop them at a later time, the reader often sees Dorrigo and other important characters at various stages of their lives which do not reflect traditional chronology. From Dorrigo’s teen years, the novel jumps to eighteen years later where we learn that Dorrigo is now a surgeon with a lover. A few pages after this, he is an elderly man suffering from angina and reliving his life. The novel “settles in” to a traditional chronology for much of the novel when we learn that Dorrigo is about to ship out for war in 1943. He participates in the Syrian campaign, fights the Vichy French, and ends up in Singapore, where, along with twenty-two-thousand other Australians, he becomes a POW after the fall of Singapore. From the early pages the reader knows that one-third of these POWs will die, a factor which colors our thinking about the characters here as they work on the Death Railway which they are forced to build for their Japanese captors. Deaths, vividly described, occur faster than the bodies can be buried, and many are simply burned, along with the soldiers’ minimal belongings, on funeral pyres in the jungle.

On Feb. 15, 1942, Gen. Arthur Percival, carrying the British flag in the photo, left, surrenders to Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita

Flashbacks refer to various love affairs in which Dorrigo is involved, though he himself, now a surgeon, has always believed that he would eventually marry Ella, the plain daughter of a Melbourne solicitor whom he met in Melbourne during medical school. A visit to a local library changes his life when he meets Amy, an exciting young woman wearing a red camellia in her hair. Thoughts of Ella vanish as he becomes caught up in this relationship, unlike anything else he has ever known. Though he has been committed to Ella – and Amy is married – this love is bigger than anything either has ever known. Without any transitions, the novel then shifts suddenly to conversations among various Japanese officers who are frightened by the decline in food supplies and in medicines for the Railway Command Group. The officers know they must produce the required results for the Emperor, or “they, too, would disappear to their own hell somewhere else on that ever-lengthening railway line of madness.”

POWs working on the Siam to Burma Railway. These POWs still look reasonably healthy, a condition which changes dramatically when the "Speedo" begins, and they have to work double-shifts.

What makes this novel of warfare so different from so many others with impressionistic structures is that Flanagan creates vibrant scenes which reveal the big ideas and big horrors of warfare and develops some of his repeating characters for fifty years, bringing the story up to the present when his characters are old and providing an unusually broad scope and great depth to his subject matter. About halfway through the novel, the war ends suddenly, with little fanfare, “the dream of a global Japanese empire lost to radioactive dust.” The major Japanese officers return to a defeated country and must learn how to live with defeat. The reader is drawn in as many characters whom the reader will “know” are being sought for prosecution for war crimes. Many make deals in exchange for being let go, leaving lesser men to be prosecuted.

Three prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. By courtesy of Tim Bowden.

The subsequent lives of the Japanese officers and how they deal with their guilt, are not much different from the lives of the Australian survivors, all of whom feel some level of guilt for having survived. “Neither the Japanese government nor the Americans want to dig up the past,” they understand. Flanagan, who spent twelve years, writing and destroying five complete drafts of this novel before he was satisfied, has created a novel which compels the reader to keep reading for the plot and characters, but also for the political and sociological implications of warfare itself, including nuclear warfare, as a way of imposing change. The novel is big, broad, and deep, a wonderful, though often grim, picture of Australians dealing with the horrors of a war which they did not choose but in which they had to fight for their own futures.

ALSO by Richard Flanagan:  GOULD’S BOOK OF FISH and WANTING

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.independent.co.uk

“Possum hunting on Ben Lomond,” by John Glover (1767 – 1849), recently sold at Christie’s for $2,799,193.  Dorrigo, his brother, and a friend hunted possum in Tasmania to raise money when they were teenagers.  Dorrigo spent evenings reading Ulysses, the epic, to the others by firelight. http://www.christies.com/

In the surrender of Singapore, Feb. 15, 1942, Gen. Arthur Percival, carrying the British flag in the photo, left, surrenders to Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita.  The Australians in this novel thereby become prisoners of war under the Japanese.  http://www.prisonersofeternity.co.uk/

Australian POWs working the Siam-Burma Railway, look in reasonable shape here, but when the “Speedo” occurred, and the men had to work double shifts, they quickly became emaciated from their lack of food and the energy expended. http://www.dailymail.co.uk (Topham Picturepoint Press Association)

The condition of these three POWs shows the effects of malnutrition.  The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [By courtesy Tim Bowden] http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/

Diogo Mainardi–THE FALL

“When people learn that my son has cerebral palsy, they look at him with a mixture of sympathy and pity.  I look at him as if he were a totem: with devotion, reverence and a feeling of inferiority.  They say that a child with cerebral palsy is better suited for living on the Moon, where there’s no gravity.  My son, therefore, is a man of the future, ready for interplanetary travel…My son is Captain Kirk.”

In this loving, and even exhilarating, memoir of his son Tito’s life, Brazilian author Diogo Mainardi introduces the reader to Tito from the moment of his birth in Venice, a birth bungled beyond belief by the doctor who delivered him.  Mainardi and his wife Anna had been living in Venice, and, under the spell of this magical city and, especially, of the beautiful Scuola Grande di San Marco, designed by Pietro Lombardo in 1489 and converted into a hospital in 1808, Mainardi wanted his son’s birth to be in this special building, which Ezra Pound celebrated in one of his cantos for its perfect beauty.   As Mainardi and Anna make their way on foot through the piazza on their way to Lombardo’s Scuola Grande di San Marco for the birth, they pass Andrea del Verrochio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, thought by many to be the “most glorious equestrian statue in the world.”  Mainardi, overcome at this moment, is “in the grip of the same stupid aestheticism as Ezra Pound…I could only associate the perfect art of Pietro Lombardo [and Andrea del Verrochio] with an equally perfect birth.  Because [such] Good, would be incapable of creating Evil…[or] a bungled birth.”

Mainardi and sons, Tito and Nico. Photo by Ruyn Teixeira

John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice, also confirmed this aesthetic for Mainardi:  “The architecture of a place, according to [Ruskin], has the power to shape the destiny of its inhabitants,” and for Mainardi that meant choosing to have his son born behind the gorgeous façade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which Ruskin believed “exalted the ‘law of the Spirit,’ rejecting Pride of Science, Pride of State, and Pride of System.”  Unfortunately, in this case, medical science failed, the publicly owned Venice Hospital failed, and the system itself, with its rules and procedures failed – repeatedly – during Tito’s birth.  The physician who delivered Tito made egregious mistakes.  Deprived of oxygen for a prolonged period of time, Tito, the innocent victim of blunders, would be forever affected by cerebral palsy, unable to move as most people do – spastic.

Canaletto's picture of Scuola Grande di San Marco. Directly below the equestrian statue on the far right are two people walking, whom Mainardi identifies as Anna and himself on the way to the hospital in middle distance. See notes at end. Double-click to enlarge.

With references to artists, poets, historians, and even Alfred Hitchcock, author Mainardi associates the cerebral palsy of his son, who was destined to take many, many falls while growing up, with other well known events from the past, especially, in one long example, with Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, when James Stewart finally climbs the bell tower and overcomes his fear of heights, saying “I made it.”  Mainardi tells us that Tito, “step by step, is making it too…Tito is James Stewart.  He falls and survives.  To hell with Kim Novak [who falls and dies].”  Drawing parallels also between his own life and the many films with Lou Abbott and Bud Costello –  who, he says, “falls better” than anyone else, ever – Mainardi also traces the history of treatment for palsied children, and, in the case of the Nazis, their extermination.  He concludes that “I am the Simon Weisenthal of cerebral palsy. Josef Mengele is dead.  Tito is alive.”

The sublime equestrian statue which Mainardi and Anna pass on the way to the hospital. See Canaletto painting, on right side. “If Andrea del Verrocchio made the most glorious equestrian statue in the world, then I can say that I made the most glorious club-footed boy in the world,” Mainardi says.

From the first moment when he strokes his unresponsive son in the incubator after his birth and watches as, for the first time, Tito writhes and arches his back, Mainardi is totally dedicated to this little boy.  Mainardi then decides that “I am the Claude Monet of cerebral palsy.  Tito is my water lily.  He has become my sole subject matter.  I devote myself entirely to him, he is my one passion…I always find in him an unexpected color, an unexplored shadow.”  Later he goes on to say, “I never worshipped God.  I never worshipped Man.  However, I began to worship Tito.  I began to worship domestic life.  My gospel is an electricity bill.  My temple is a greengrocer’s shop. Tito is Everything.”

Ipanema Beach, Rio. Mainardi and his family move to Rio for nine years when he discovers that Tito can walk better on sand, since it is easier to fall on.

In other references, he notes that Comedian Francesca Martinez has cerebral palsy, and she refers to herself as a “wobbly” person, always about to fall.  Christy Brown, author of My Left Foot, has parents who ignored all the prognoses, helping to create a writer respected around the world.  A well-known singer has two sons with cerebral palsy, and his time spent with them in therapeutic programs is detailed here.  Irish author Christopher Nolan, who could not speak or move at all, learned to type with a “unicorn stick” attached to his forehead, becoming an inspiration to Bono, who went to school with him and wrote the song “Miracle Drug” for him.  How these people deal with their issues and celebrate their triumphs adds depth to the memoir and broadens its scope beyond the Mainardi family.  And when the Mainardis have a second son, the opposite of Tito, in that Nico can do everything, the photos of the two boys together are both loving and lovely.  Tito learns to walk with a walker and practices walking without aid, his father counting his steps till he falls, not stopping his counts till he reaches 424 steps here.  Nico loves Tito and accepts him totally, and vice versa. The many family snapshots, with Tito grinning broadly in nearly every one, shows the reality of this family and its life behind closed doors, and no one who reads this memoir will doubt for a moment that every word of “worship” which the author expresses for Tito is absolutely true.

Tito at age twelve.

The real miracle of this memoir, to me, is that the author tells his story honestly, without a shred of easy sentimentality or “why-me-ism.”  When he says that he worships Tito, it is easy to see that he really does, with all that that entails.  He accepts reality and works his hardest to see that Tito’s reality becomes less challenging wherever possible, making Tito a real person for the reader and not just a cerebral palsy “victim.”  It is clear that he is not a victim to Mainardi – just a boy, his son.  He makes this memoir a story of himself and Tito, and he does not complicate this with asides in which he analyzes their relationship with Anna and Nico, though it is clear that those relationships are healthy and loving, also.  For those of us whose children are blessedly “normal,” this memoir brings the behavior and the feelings of this parent out into the open as Mainardi lays bare his deepest thoughts about his child and his home and shows us that his family, too, is “normal,” a joy to know.

Photos, in order: The photo of Mainardi, Tito, and Nico, by Ruyn Teixeira, appears here:  http://veja.abril.com.br/

The Canaletto painting of the Scuola Grande di San Marco is from http://www.abcgallery.com Mainardi says that the two faceless people “clinging to each other like Siamese twins” in front of the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, on the far right, represent him and Anna.  “Ever since Tito’s Birth, on 30 September 2000, I have become a miniature man, without face or identity…What marks me out is fatherhood. I am merely a man eternally accompanying his wife to the birth of their son…I exist only because Tito exists.”

The equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, by Andrea del Verrocchio, was finished by Alessandro Leopardi in 1488.  It is considered the greatest equestrian statue in the world. Mainardi says:  “If Andrea del Verrocchio made the most glorious equestrian statue in the world, then I can say that I made the most glorious club-footed boy in the world.”  http://www.abcgallery.com

Enjoying Ipanema Beach in Rio, where the family lived for nine years, Tito learns to walk in the sand, where falls don’t hurt so much.  From http://winkmag.com.br

A more mature Tito, at age twelve, is seen on http://pioneiro.clicrbs.com.br/

Jane Smiley–SOME LUCK

NOTE: Jane Smiley was WINNER of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, and WINNER of the National Book Critics Circle Award for the same novel. She is LONGLISTED for the National Book Award in 2014 for Some Luck.

“The farm was the source of all good things, and what you couldn’t grow or make there, you didn’t need.  People in town had too much time on their hands, so they built themselves stores and picture shows and even parks, just to be doing something.  But really they weren’t doing anything.  Just using up stuff.”—Walter Langdon, in 1926.

Setting her novel in the farmlands of Iowa, as she did with A Thousand Acres, author Jane Smiley once again homes in on a proud farm family as it faces crises connected with its land.  This novel, however, has a broader, less intensely climactic sweep than A Thousand Acres, in which the action parallels that of Shakespeare’s King Lear.   Some Luck is quieter and more contemplative, the first of a trilogy which will eventually trace three generations of the Langdon family from 1920 to 2020, as it becomes a microcosm for one hundred years of United States history.  Smiley’s characters, beautifully realized through her trademark use of perfect small details to illuminate bigger aspects of personality, illustrate the many different talents, and ultimately goals, of a family whose members are firmly rooted in the land, which is their only real asset.  Some members will eventually choose to leave the farm, while others choose to stay. Smiley limits each chapter to one calendar year beginning in 1920 – the births and deaths, the hopes and dreams, the rhythms of nature and the yearly rituals it inspires, the uncertainties of daily life and the accidents of fate, the roles which each character chooses to accept or reject within the family, and the unpredictable, often dramatic effects of national events on people who have no control over them.  The novel ends in 1953 with the focus on new family members who will face another set of topical issues in the next novel.

Born on New Year’s Day in 1920 to twenty-five-year-old Walter Langdon and his twenty-year-old wife Rosanna, precocious baby Frank Langdon surprises his family from his earliest days, talking early, crawling early, and alertly observing life around him.  His cleverly developed, infant point of view, as he attends his first birthday party at his grandparents’ house, reveals his curiosity and his sense of fun as he “pays court” to the women in the family and is roundly celebrated.  His aunt Eloise soon moves in with the family to help care for him as his mother has her next child – Joe – totally different in personality, shy, sickly as an infant, less aggressive, and more sensitive.  Another baby, Mary Elizabeth, arrives in 1924.  Life is busy on the farm, with no electricity and no motorized vehicles, but with a culture in which the farmers help each other bring in their harvests and share information.  Before he is even five, Frank is already contributing to the family, leading the horses in and out of the pasture, and feeding the chickens and horses in the winter before school.

Billy Sunday, 1923, lithograph by George Bellows, now at the Columbus Museum of Art

The domestic aspects of life on the farm with all its uncertainties, the games the family plays for fun, and lively descriptions of tasks like sheep-shearing alternating with family stories, set up the reader for an unexpected and shocking death which leads Rosanna to attend a  religious revival by traveling evangelist Billy Sunday.  For her, “Coming again and again…was like having an account at the bank.”  She changes in personality, fearful of the future now, dressing more plainly and giving up “vanity” in an effort to avoid future disasters but can do nothing to avoid what is coming – the Great Depression, a well going dry, drought, and terrible weather which reduce the amount of oats and corn available to sell. By 1931, one member of the family has become a communist, Walter has changed political parties, and another baby has arrived.  Frank sells pelts of rabbits and an occasional fox for enough money to buy a bike so that he can continue school, and when he leaves the farm for high school, living with a relative, he is known as “the best liar” in a gang of young boys.

REO Flying Cloud, part of a collection of REO pictures by Alden Jewell. Double click to see collection.

History moves forward inexorably, with one family member hanging himself, even as Frank and a friend, by 1939, begin exploring the countryside near their school in the friend’s father’s REO Flying Cloud.  Exactly what he is doing remains a question even after he begins working at the school helping a faculty member to find a new way to make gunpowder in the lead-up to World War II.  The various Langdon children, including two more babies (bringing to six the number of Langdon babies), keep life on the farm active for Rosanna.  Fate intervenes once again with a surprising death from an impacted wisdom tooth, and by 1943, Frank is fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.  Eventually, the action of the novel extends to Washington, DC, as the work of the FBI and the interest in “un-American activities” affects the Langdon family as it has many other families throughout the country.  The novel ends suddenly in 1953, the author obviously leaving many doors open for the next novel in the trilogy.

American tanks enter Rome, as Frank does, on June 5, 1944.

Smiley’s characters are so “ordinary” that they are easy for a reader to identify with, and her focus on the long view of history through this family makes them easy enough to remember and not so complex that the reader is distracted from the themes.  The family is large enough to provide many contrasts and different viewpoints as the characters represent the many aspects of life in the twenties, thirties, and forties.  Some scenes do seem gratuitous – a visit to Frank’s mother by one of Frank’s former girlfriends, Frank’s own visit to a house of ill repute, and several battle scenes – which provide variety and interest but seem to serve little purpose in the narrative.  The many characters, some of them peripheral, make the genealogical chart at the beginning a necessity but complicate the novel unnecessarily.

A continuing symbolic image is that of the osage-orange hedge at the farm. Here someone creates this hedge, covered with thorns, which eventually grows to be almost tree height.

Still, Jane Smiley continues to work her literary magic here, creating the first novel in what seems destined to become an epic saga of American life.  For all its apparent simplicity, the novel takes a close view of major themes in American life – one’s identity both within a family and within a time and place, the uncertainties of nature and of fate, the very nature of capitalism and its effect on the small farmers on whom we all depend, and the issues of our own national identity.  Smiley leaves the reader wondering where she will go from here during the next thirty years of this intriguing trilogy.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.theguardian.com

The Billy Sunday lithograph by George Bellows appears on http://arthopper.org/ It may be found at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Osage orange fruit and leaves.

The REO Flying Cloud sedan, shown here as part of a collection of REO pictures by Alden Jewell, is from https://www.flickr.com/ and is posted in accord with the Creative Commons license.  Double click to see the full collection, including the REO Speedwagon.

American tanks entering Rome on June 5, 1944, may be found on http://liberationtrilogy.com. Frank Langdon was among the Americans.

The osage-orange hedge becomes a prickly symbol in this novel.  Here a woman shows how to create one.  http://projetscollectifs.org/

A close-up of the osage-orange tree with its fruit (poisonous to all animals except squirrels) is on http://www.ontarioprofessionals.com/

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