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“Over the past few decades, Emily Carr’s reputation has soared so high that it now can be argued she is Canada’s best-known artist, historic or contemporary.  Her impassioned paintings of the West Coast of Canada – her depiction of the monumental sculpture of British Columbia’s indigenous peoples and of the towering trees and dense undergrowth of the region’s rain forests, executed during the early decades of the twentieth century – have superseded [every other] claim to Canadian wilderness.  And to national identity.” – Robin Laurence, “The Making of an Artist,” Introduction, 2005.

_carr autobiography 2005In this autobiography famed Canadian painter Emily Carr also shows her superb talent as a writer and observer, concentrating on her feelings and her intense responses to life’s challenges over the seventy-four years she has lived.  Hospitalized with heart problems in 1945, the last year of her life, she used her days in the hospital to review the many journals she kept throughout her life and to select and describe what was most important to her for this book. She does not worry about dates here – they were not as important to her as the events themselves – and, as a result, the reader is drawn into her life and allowed to share it with her in ways that she denied to others during her lifetime.  She had few friends, and those readers unfamiliar with her background will be surprised to see that she dedicates this autobiography to Lawren Harris, one of the founders of the Group of Seven, and one of Canada’s most famous landscape painters, whose work became known for its increasingly abstract style.  He is the man whose actions saved Emily Carr’s life as a painter.

Emily Carr, probably in her early twenties.

Emily Carr, probably in her early twenties.

Emily Carr begins Growing Pains by describing her early childhood as the eighth of nine children of a Presbyterian minister in Victoria, Vancouver Island, Canada.  Born in 1871 and brought up to a relatively comfortable life, Carr was orphaned before she left her teens and faced her future being ruled by her oldest sister,  her guardian.  (Here, as in a few other places, the book’s chronology is unreliable.  Carr indicates that she was a young child when she was orphaned, but the dates in Wikipedia indicate that her mother died when she was fifteen and that her father died two years later.)  At one point before she was twenty, Carr visited an aboriginal settlement on the west coast of Vancouver, a trip which was the turning point in her life.  She spent the weeks of her trip sketching the totems, the village life, and the people, and would do so again, more seriously – after she had acquired the art skills she needed to bring these people fully to life.  To acquire these skills, she persuaded her guardian sister to let her attend the San Francisco Art Institute, where she participated in traditional art programs for two years but made few friends.

"Indian Village, Alert Bay," 1912.

“Indian Village, Alert Bay,” 1912.

Time and Emily Carr’s activities get compressed here, as Carr moves along stressing the events which were most important to her while still ignoring dates.  It was apparently 1899 when Carr, by now in her late twenties, went to London to study at the Westminster School of Art, a time in which she made some progress but found the British her total opposites in terms of sharing feelings and ideas.  While there, she was courted by a young man whom she was unable to discourage, though she knew she would not marry and told him so.  Unsatisfied with her art progress, she began to take night classes elsewhere in London to learn what she felt she needed to learn.  It was during this difficult time that a doctor intervened to tell her she needed total rest, and admitted her to a sanatorium. She spent the entire time in bed, and did not leave the facility for eighteen months, a stay which she does not explain in further detail.

"War Canoes, Alert Bay," 1912.

“War Canoes, Alert Bay,” 1912.

Returning home to Canada after more than five years abroad, Carr found Vancouver a lonely place without any art life, except for the elite Ladies Art Club.  She tried teaching art in a school for a while, then returned to her interests in the aboriginal villages nearby and even on into Alaska, which she visited with a sister.  These resulted in a series of paintings, in which her own “seeing” loosened the tightness she had learned in her English art studies.  Another trip to Europe and further study in Paris led her to become interested in the work of the post-Impressionists, but upon her return to Canada, she found no interest when she introduced her new color palette in her own show.  In the summer of 1912, she returned to the work of the aboriginal people of Haida Gwaii, finally achieving some recognition when she showed them, but still not enough to support her.  Discouraged and depressed, she gave up, stopped painting entirely for fifteen years, and ran an apartment house. When, unexpectedly, a representative of the Canadian National Gallery suddenly wrote to see if he could show fifty of her aboriginal paintings from fifteen years ago, she happily agreed, this unexpected contact leading to her invitation to a major show in Ottawa, national praise for her work, and her fortuitous meeting with Lauren Harris.

"Sea Drift," 1931, showing the influence of the Group of Seven and its semi-abstract and lush plant life.

“Sea Drift,” 1931, showing the influence of the Group of Seven with its semi-abstract and lush plant life.

Based in Toronto, Lawren Harris met Emily Carr when she was already in her late fifties.  She had stopped in Toronto on her way back to Vancouver after the successful Ottawa show, and had sought out Harris and the other Group of Seven painters because they were doing landscapes which she found stunning.  It was this brief contact, and Harris’s continuing interest in her work, conveyed through their correspondence, which kept her motivated and working in the Canadian far west when she became discouraged. Harris’s thoughtful, personal commentary, which Carr acknowledges and praises in this autobiography, helped keep her motivated forever afterward, until her health required her reluctant retirement from painting, about ten years later.  Her cardiac problems, for which she had been hospitalized for a year, finally claimed her life in 1945, at age seventy-four.

"Indian Church," 1929, a painting purchased by Lawren Harrris when he first saw it.

“Indian Church,” 1929, a painting purchased by Lawren Harrris as soon as he saw it.

Readers of  Growing Pains, her intimate journal, will empathize with Emily Carr – ahead of her time and out of sync with her environment, no matter where she was.  Forging ahead on her own, while also trying to support herself, she tried to be true to herself and her art in an effort to pursue her long-term goals, even if that meant giving up her painting. Spurning ordinary social contacts, since there were few, if any, artists then who shared her interests on Vancouver Island, Emily Carr was a loner whose saving grace, ultimately, was her connection to Lawren Harris, whose attention and respect made her an honorary member of the Group of Seven.  A fascinating and intense autobiography by a woman who desperately wanted to achieve success in her work and nearly missed her chance.

"The Clearing," 1942. Emily Carr's last painting. She died in 1945.

“The Clearing,” 1942. Emily Carr’s last painting. She died in 1945.

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

“Indian Village, Alert Bay,” 1912 is found on http://www.museevirtuel.ca/

“War Canoes, Alert Bay”, 1912:  https://arthistoryproject.com

“Sea Drift,” 1931:  https://www.pinterest.com/

“Indian Church”: https://en.wikipedia.org/

“The Clearing”: http://www.museevirtuel.ca

GROWING PAINS: An Autobiogtaphy
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Autobiography/Memoir, Canada, Coming-of-age, Exploration, Historical, Literary, Non-fiction, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Emily Carr
Published by: Douglas & McIntyre
ISBN: 978-1553650836
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Among John Boyne’s many prizes are the Hennessy Literary ‘Hall of Fame’ Award for his total body of work,  three Irish Book Awards, the Orange Prize, and the British Book Award.

“I was only a hundred pages [into my new novel] when I came to realize that it was more of a narcoleptic than a novel and quickly abandoned it.  For a time, I feared that I was finished.  The greatest writer of his generation, stalled for lack of an original thought.  Really, I should have had more self-belief.  If I’d learned nothing else since leaving Yorkshire at the end of the 1980s, it was that, like a proverbial cat, I had a habit of landing on my feet.” – Maurice Swift.

cover ladder to skyIrish author John Boyne creates several plot lines within a novel that is both gripping for its stories within the story and wildly satiric for its depictions of the writing life.  As he reveals the life of author Maurice Swift from his young adulthood until his fifties, Boyne clearly relishes the opportunity to focus on the writing profession from a new point of view, one in which dreams can become nightmares, and no subject is barred.  As he develops some of these nightmares, he mitigates the shock by writing with his tongue held so firmly in cheek that the reader is constantly aware of the satire and dark ironies involved. The result is a novel which, according to the reviews on Amazon and other public sites, appeals widely to the general population, to many critics, and to book prize committees, though it is controversial among a few critics, who have criticized its overly dramatized sentiments and its sometimes wandering plot lines. For me, Boyne shows the remarkable ability to control every aspect of the reader’s attitude toward main character Maurice Swift, an antihero and narcissist, and he does this naturally and efficiently by highlighting those qualities which make the reader want to identify on some level with this struggling writer, even while recognizing that he is a loathsome individual.

King's College, Cambridge, where Erich Ackermann is a professor.

King’s College, Cambridge, where Erich Ackermann is a professor.

Part I, “Before the Wall Came Down,” which takes place in 1988, introduces Erich Ackermann, the speaker of this section, a respected author in his sixties who is a professor at King’s College Cambridge.  Invited to speak at a literary festival in Berlin, the city of his birth, Ackermann is attracted to a “very beautiful” young waiter, aged twenty-two, who also seems attracted to him.  When Ackermann and the youth, Maurice Swift, meet outside the festival for coffee, Ackermann learns that the young man wants to be a writer. He is flattered and invites Maurice to travel with him for six months as his assistant.  Soon “This twenty-two year-old boy made me long to reveal my secrets in the most self-destructive way imaginable. I wanted to confide in him and tell him my story.”  Ackermann’s story of his teen years in Nazi Germany, which he has never confessed to anyone else, is slowly revealed to Maurice over the next six months.  It is a complex story involving his first love as a seventeen-year-old youth coming to terms with the fact that he is gay while the person he loves is not, a story which can have no good outcome in Germany in 1939.  Nor, unfortunately, does this story have anything other than a disastrous outcome for him in 1988, when Maurice Swift, his young protege, writes a novel informing the world about these horrific events, ruining Ackermann’s life.

Author Gore Vidal, who lives in Ravello and is visited by Maurice.

Author Gore Vidal, who lives in Ravello and is visited by Maurice.

“Interlude: The Swallow’s Nest,” takes place a few years later, at La Rondinaia, the home of famed author Gore Vidal on the coast of Ravello, Italy.  Vidal is almost sixty-five and is awaiting a visit from author Dash Hardy, a second-rate writer whom Erich Ackermann also met while on his book tour in 1988.  Vidal regards Dash Hardy as a hack, but when Hardy arrives, he is not alone.  He is accompanied by a young man – Maurice Swift – who has just published a highly successful new book, and Hardy is hoping to secure Gore Vidal’s endorsement for it. When Vidal takes Maurice on a tour of his library, Maurice volunteers the fact that he prefers Vidal’s  book, Myra Breckinridge, to Dash Hardy’s latest book. Vidal is not impressed – of course, his book is better.  He recognizes immediately that Maurice is “playing” both him and Dash Hardy.

La Rondinaia, home of Gore Vidal.

La Rondinaia, home of Gore Vidal.

Part II, ”The Tribesman,” told from the point of view of Edith Camberley, shows Maurice Swift in the autumn of 2000, when he is in his mid-thirties and married to Edith Camberley for five years.  Ten years have passed since his book “Two Germans,” was published, and his two succeeding books have been failures, the most recent one having been rejected for publication because it was “utterly devoid of authenticity.”  Edith, who first met Maurice when she asked him for an autograph, years ago, is a writing professor in Norwich, where she is working on her second novel and teaching short story writing.  Maurice, now working on his fourth book, has hired an agent who has seen some chapters from this new book and declared that he believes it will win The Prize next year, something that makes Maurice decide to move to London, where the action is, so he can be there when his book comes out. Wanting to finish her own book first, Edith balks, infuriating Maurice.  Then disaster strikes, and Maurice gets his way  – as he does once again in the next section, when he feels threatened yet again.

Cross Keys Pub in Covent Gardens, one of the pubs where Maurice spends his time, maundering over the past.

Cross Keys Pub in Covent Garden, one of the pubs where Maurice spends his time, maundering over the past.

Part III takes place in a pub, with a speaker, obviously Maurice Swift, who sees himself as a “used-to-be writer, but now I’m a drunk.”  Though he wants to write again, he cannot come up with a story, which he regards as ironic for “the greatest writer of his generation.”  To avoid hanging out at the same bar all the time, he now goes to a different one each day of the week.  Then he receives a letter from Theo Field a student at the University of London, who plans to make Maurice the subject of his academic dissertation and wants to meet him.  Soon Maurice reverts to form, telling Theo details his about his life, as he claims to be working on a new book.  His relationship with Theo eventually leads to the dramatic conclusion of the book as Maurice finally runs up against someone who can match him step by deliberate step – and, perhaps, win.

Author John Boyne

Author John Boyne

Author John Boyne’s skill at highlighting each of the novel’s many surprises and shocks, while also maintaining control of the different times, places, and connections, make this novel memorable and exciting to read.  The novel’s “lessons” about the writing life, told with dark humor and irony, will leave a smile on the faces of most readers, in part because Maurice is so loathsome.  Always convinced that he is not to blame no matter how ghastly his actions are, he is the consummate anti-hero, though he still has traits with which a reader cannot help but identify.  His creator, author John Boyne, at forty-seven, has already published eleven successful novels for adults and six for younger readers, and obviously has no problems coming up with plenty of ideas for stories, though this novel, with its stories within stories within stories, will be hard to beat.


Photos:  King’s College Cambridge appears on https://www.visitcambridge.org

Gore Vidal’s photo is from https://www.gorevidalpages.com

Rondinaia may be found on https://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org

The Cross Keys Pub appears on https://www.alamy.com

The author’s photo is from https://torontoist.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Humor, Satire, Absurdity, England, Ireland, Literary
Written by: John Boyne
Published by: Hogarth
Date Published: 11/13/2018
ISBN: 978-1984823014
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


“How singular the fate of these poor little girls,
frail creatures offered in sacrifice
to the Parisian Minotaur,
a monster far more terrible
than the Minotaur of antiquity,
and one that devours virgins
by the hundreds each year
with no Theseus to rescue them!”  
– epigraph, Theophile Gautier

cover little dancer

For those who have always seen Edgar Degas’s most iconic ballerina sculpture as a sweet, romantic symbol of dreams and hopes, this study of the model, the artist, and the environment in which the sculpture was created may be a shock.  Author Camille Laurens spent over two years doing research on this sculpture and its model as part of her PhD. thesis, and she became totally consumed with the little dancer’s victimization.  In 1880, the little girl who became the model for the sculpture, Marie van Goethem, was the fourteen-year-old child of Belgian immigrants, unschooled and working in the Paris Opera as a “little rat,” a child in training for the corps de ballet and earning almost no money.  It was a horrific environment for young girls.  Everyone in Paris was aware of the “pedophilia, pimping, and the corruption of minors” to which these “little rats” were subjected on a regular basis, often promoted by their avaricious mothers.  Even Degas himself is quoted as saying that “The prevailing moral code was a total lack of moral code.”

Camille LaurensHarsh reality comes alive as Marie is needed by her family to help support them, and she eventually follows in the footsteps of her older sister, accepting a modeling job with Edgar Degas. Working as an artist’s model earns her three times as much for four or five hours of work as she earns in a day at the Paris Opera, and working both jobs is tiring but financially ideal. Again, reality enters, and Marie is dismissed from the ballet for missing too many rehearsals.  For at least a year, however, while Degas is working on the sculpture for which she is posing, she has better income and her family is better off.  When Degas finally exhibits “Little Dancer” in 1881, it is a shock to viewers and critics.  First, it is in wax, the medium normally used for first experiments and not for “finished” work. Secondly, the dancer’s clothing is real, as are her ballet slippers. And the public is astonished at her appearance: “Does there truly exist an artist’s model this horrid, this repulsive?” one critic asks.  Another wonders, “Can art descend any lower?”  A third refers to Marie as “a flower of the gutter.”   After this showing, Degas never shows this sculpture again, and he never has it cast.  The existing copies we have all seen in museums were not made until after his death in 1917, thirty-six years later.

Little Dancer Age Fourteen

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

Among the most fascinating aspects of the author’s depiction of Degas himself are the sociological and philosophical influences which affected him and his work, and some of this may explain why the critics and viewers were almost universally negative about the depiction of the Little Dancer in 1881.  Those who have read The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which features insights into the Impressionists and “border-line”  Impressionists like Degas, are already familiar with the rampant anti-Semitism of the Parisian art world in the 1880’s, and some may recall that Degas was depicted in that book as the most virulent anti-Semite of them all.  In Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, Degas also reveals himself to be intolerant, even hateful, of other groups who are not part his own inner circle.  Though he is realistic in showing that the Little Dancer leads an exhausting and painful life, he also uses this sculpture to illustrate his own belief in phrenology, which pervaded Parisian social life at that time, and his depiction of his dancer’s face and head may be harsher than they actually looked in real life.  Her sloping forehead, prominent cheekbones, and thick hair give her “a criminal look,” as do her “Aztec features,” according to the tenets of phrenology.

Palais Garnier, Paris Opera

Palais Garnier, Paris Opera

The author points out that in the preparatory drawings for this sculpture, Degas actually “changed her face to give it the hallmarks of a savage, quasi-Neanderthal primitivism, a precocious degeneracy. He literally altered her nature.”  Ultimately, author Laurens admits that “it is hard not to loathe this forty-something conformist who in modeling his wax manipulated a very young girl for reasons that have nothing to do with art or aesthetics.”  Several critics in the 1880s tried to justify Degas’s behavior in this area, claiming that he was trying to surprise viewers and make them think of how beauty can evolve from ugliness, opening the viewer’s mind to new ideas.  Most viewers, however, were offended by the fact that the sculpture, presented inside a glass case, “on satin cloth as though it were an ethnographic curiosity,” was nothing more than “a doll, a common wax doll.”  Ultimately, it becomes clear that no one knew then how to interpret this sculpture as sculpture, and I am not sure, after reading this fascinating book, how many readers in the present will separate Degas’s difficult, often mean-spirited personality from his sculpture, its background, and the controversies it engenders even within this book.  Does it really matter to the aesthetics of the work that the Little Dancer’s physiognomy is not “accurate”?  Or that the sculptor was illustrating an irrelevant phrenological agenda? Or, less likely, that he may have been trying to wake up Parisians to their false assumptions about the poor, the foreign, and uneducated?

Self-portrait, 1895

Degas, Self-Portrait, 1895

As she completes her research and her commentary into the Little Dancer, Camille Laurens finds herself experiencing “a feeling of remorse” regarding Marie van Goethem – “I haven’t brought to [the sculpture] the genius she deserves.  When it comes to her reality, I have said nothing, shown nothing…All can see her, [and] I cannot abandon her without doing more for her memory.”  She believes that returning to original sources is the only way to do this.  There, she finds some information regarding Marie’s family – her older sister sentenced to three months in prison, younger sister staying at the Paris Opera for her whole career. Eventually, “the shade of Marie melts into the deep shadow that Degas himself disappeared into. Her ghost is carried off, buried with his remains. Nothing can separate them any longer,” the ultimate irony. Fascinating story of an intriguing sculpture by an author who has “done her homework.”

ALSO reviewed here, by Camille Laurens: WHO YOU THINK I AM

Sacha Guitry, an actor, playwright, film maker, and friend of many artists of the day, filmed Edgar Degas walking down the street in 1915. Degas was nearly blind and is using a cane as he walks with a woman friend. He is visible at the 14 second mark, and these 14 seconds are the only film ever recorded of Edgar Degas.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.dijonbeaunemag.fr

Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,” a photograph from one of the castings, this one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

The Palais Garnier, where the Paris Opera held its performances:  https://www.archdaily.com/

Degas, Self-Portrait, 1895.  http://www.frederickholmesandcompany.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. France, Historical, Literary, Non-fiction, Social and Political Issues, Impressionism, art, Edgar Degas
Written by: Camille Laurens
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 11/20/2018
ISBN: 978-1590519585
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  This debut novel was WINNER of the Kenzaburo Oe Prize in 2014. 

“Often she cried as she showered…as the suds slid smoothly down the slopes of her shoulders in delicate white stripes….Every soap bubble held a sob, which echoed softly against the bathroom ceiling as it burst.  Sob after sob resounded there, till at last their accumulated sounds came drifting back down with the pounding water to wrap her body like white feathers.  There among the clouds of steam, Salimah’s voice rose to a wail.”

I am especover farewell my orangecially fond of Japanese novels for their quiet power, restraint, and careful structure, and I was looking forward to reading this one, written by a Japanese woman but focusing on characters who have immigrated to Australia, with its totally different culture and completely different language.  Iwaki Kei, the Japanese author, knows all about this, having first gone to Australia herself twenty years ago when she was a recent college graduate.  She has stayed there with her expatriate Japanese husband ever since, an eventuality which I expected would give much added insight into cultural adaptation, perhaps also including an overlay of analysis into how the differences between cultures affect every aspect of the lives of immigrants.  What I found was completely different – surprising, even shocking at first – but which made this, ultimately, one of the most intriguing and original debut novels I have read this year.


The only job Salimah can get when she first seeks work is as a butcher/ meat packer at a supermarket. She finds it nauseating.

The novel opens with a close-up of Salimah, a woman about thirty, who is escaping the civil war in her Nigerian homeland.  She speaks only her Nigerian tribal language, and has no way to communicate with the outside world or to help her two young sons adjust to the differences in their own lives as they start school in Australia.  The descriptive opening scene, however, is surprisingly “purple” in its overwritten style, as can be seen in the romantic imagery of the opening quotation of this review.  Three pages later, Salimah begins work at a supermarket, butchering and packaging slabs of meat that are “far bigger than herself.”  There, as she visits the workplace for the first time and observes the other workers, “Salimah felt a shock like a naked hand clutching her heart….She heard then…a cry that rose from the long row of shadows cast by each of the companions as they worked. These voiceless screams clung to the window sills of the work place, seeking a way out.  They beat against the window panes like little trapped birds, hushed but fierce.”

Author Iwaki Kei

Author Iwaki Kei

Those who know me know that I have little patience with overly romanticized, sentimental writing, and over-the-top imagery, and, to be honest, I began wondering how the kind of writing here at the beginning of the novel could have led Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe to personally choose it as the winner of the literary prize named in his honor.  Because his own writing, in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, resembles the raw style of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I began to suspect (and hope) that as the novel progressed, the reasons for Kei’s writing style here at the beginning would become clearer.  As I eventually discovered, the entire novel is made up of stories within stories within stories, and the ways in which misperceptions and misunderstandings can control outcomes, a novel with a built-in surprise at the ending which answers all the questions and makes everything suddenly make sense.  Ultimately, the author made me (and I suspect other readers) become involved in her story in new ways – leading me to convey my own version of her story – and my own misperceptions regarding it initially – here in this review. 

It is a smart novel, and anyone who starts it and reads it to the end will discover how truly original it really is, and why it is presented exactly as it is.

ESL Class.

ESL Class.

Shortly after the opening paragraphs, the novel introduces an additional character, whom we know as Sayuri, another young woman who is now living in Australia, except that Sayuri is from Japan, a rare expatriate in Australia.  Her husband, an academic, is invited to various places around the world to speak and study, while she has ended her own academic study to follow him to Australia with their baby. She mets Salimah at the ESL course they both are taking, and though Sayuri is much more educated, and much more comfortable in classes, they become friends. Then Sayuri’s life takes an unexpected turn.  One confusing and complicating aspect of their relationship is that they both call themselves and each other by different names (also explained by the conclusion of the novel).  Salimah is called Nakichi by Sayuri.  Sayuri is called Echidna by Salimah.  As the two women are absolutely consistent in using these alternative names for each other, the reader easily accepts this odd complication and does not become confused about the women’s backgrounds and the actions they experience within the novel.  Their friendship becomes closer when Sayuri (Echidna) makes the surprising decision to work with Salimah (Nakichi) as a butcher and meat packer and not continue working on her thesis for her degree.

A repeating symbol for Salima is the of the sun, represemting peace, understanding, and love.

A repeating symbol for Salimah is the of the sun, representing peace, understanding, and love.

The story of Nigerian Salimah continues in chapters written with an omniscient narrator as she labors to improve all aspects of her life and that of her young son.  She is earnest and willing to do whatever is necessary to make her family life more successful, and she wins recognition at both her job and at the ESL classes for which she works so hard.  Japanese Sayuri reveals herself from a different point of view, through the long, detailed letters she writes to her former college teacher in Japan, letters written in a different, darker typeface.  Because the better educated Sayuri has a much broader world view, she may reflect many of the attitudes of the reader, and when she suddenly decides to work as a butcher/meat packer and to learn from Salimah, who has escaped her community in Nigeria for another halfway around the world, it is a poignant moment for Salimah.  As both women begin to reach out to others and to develop close friendships that they never expected to make beyond their immediate circles, they become more human, though still grounded in the friendships from the past.  Salimah, who has always associated peace, understanding, and love with the orange sun, a repeating symbol here, is ultimately able to say “Farewell, sun.  Our meetings at morning and partings at evening will go on.  But this is no dream.  The sun is the fire that gives me life, eternal desire and prayer, endlessly enduring hope.”

Photos. Salimah, and later Sayuri, both work as butcher/ meat packers at a supermarket when they first arrive in Australia.  https://www.shethepeople.tv/

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

An ESL class, where both main characters work on their English reading, writing and speaking, is shown here: https://www.mosalingua.com/

“Sun Dreams,” like those of Salimah, are found on http://dreamstop.com/


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Australia, Japan, Literary, Nigeria, Social and Political Issues, Literary
Written by: Iwaki Kei
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 11/13/2018
ISBN: 978-1609454784
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  This book was a FINALIST for the National Book Award for Fiction, 2018.

“Not long after the incident…my mother left us, and later she divorced my father….My father worshipped my mother, [and] after she left, he became bitter.  One day he complained to me that she wasn’t really gone at all, that she was much too wicked for such a mercy.  She was still there, he said, stuck in him: a froth in the veins, a disease of the blood.  That’s how I began to think of her, as a sickness, a betrayal on the cellular level.”—Ben, in “No More Than a Bubble.”


Jamel Brinkley, author of this extraordinary debut collection of stories, is much more than “a lucky man” in having this collection published by Graywolf, one of the most respected literary publishing houses in the country.  Brinkley’s literary talents and his insights into people – all kinds of people of various backgrounds and ages – kept me spellbound for the entire time I spent reading and rereading these stories.  I am not young, black, male, or a city dweller, as these characters are.  I have not experienced (or do not remember) most of the kinds of events which Brinkley’s characters experience as normal – growing up in a broken home, having few resources for dealing with the turmoil of the teen years, struggling with responsibilities which would be challenging even for an adult, and living a life in which “betrayal on the cellular level” is complicated by surprising naivete regarding love and sex, expectations and reality, and issues of identity and reputation.  Still, as the  young male characters of the nine stories here live their lives as well as they can, given their ages and limitations, they achieve a kind of universality which cannot help but touch the heart of the reader as s/he connects with these characters on a deeply personal level.

author photoThe opening story, “No More Than a Bubble,” from which the opening quotation here has been taken, has a simple enough beginning, as two young college students, Ben and Claudius, attend a house party in New York given by a couple of Harvard grads. “The main difference between a house party in Brooklyn and a college party uptown was that on campus you were just practicing.  You could half-ass it or go extra hard, either play the wall or go balls-out booty hound, and there would be no actual stakes, no real edge to the consequences.”  They soon meet two women from Hunter College, but the women are a bit older than they, and it is obvious from the dialogue that Ben and Claudius are overmatched. Throughout this episode and its consequences, Ben keeps flashing back to emotionally intense memories of his parents and their marriage. Eventually, when the party is over, the women try to leave on their bikes, but are unable to balance, and Ben and Claudius walk them home to Brooklyn.  There Ben discovers that not only are the women different from what he had thought, but so is Claudius, a life-changing moment.

Photo by Stephanie Keith, Getty Images.

Photo of the L’ouvert celebration by Stephanie Keith, Getty Images.

“J’ouvert, 1996” features Ty, an innocent seventeen-year-old whose only desire is to have fifteen dollars so he can go to a barbershop to get a professional haircut at the place where his now-departed father used to go.  He has little control over his life, however, as he must take care of his eleven-year-old brother Omari during the summer when school is out.  His brother, who clearly has some problems, insists on wearing a rubber mask of an owl and “smoking” a candy cigarette whenever he is outside, and when his mother sends the boys out one night so that she and her boyfriend can have some privacy, Ty and Omari take off.  The boys are bullied, Ty loses a gift from his departed father, and Omari escapes into his imagination.  Ty eventually decides to go to J’ouvert, a Caribbean carnival which starts very late that night, a place where both he and Omari learn important things about themselves and the world.

Capoeira angola by August Earle, 1824.

Capoeira angola by August Earle, 1824.

These two stories – one of a college boy and one of a much younger boy and his eleven-year-old brother – show Brinkley’s ability to capture the thinking of these youths as they face real events associated with maturing. In “Everything the Mouth Eats,” he shows his ability to make an adult character equally intriguing.  Main character Eric describes himself as a “lost” adjunct professor at a Manhattan college, and he admits he “hadn’t had a talk – a real talk” with his younger brother Carlos in many years.  The two brothers have both experienced the same kind of abuse, but Carlos, unemployed and sometimes in trouble, has recently managed to get his life under some control through his serious study of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art which includes acrobatics, dance, and music.  Eric, Carlos, Carlos’s girlfriend, and their young daughter are driving to Virginia for a conference and demonstrations of capoeira, and Carlos’s girlfriend has confided to Eric that Carlos really needs him now.  Eventually, the performances of capoeira in which they both participate open new lanes of communication and purpose.

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn.

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn.

Other stories focus on different subjects.  “I Happy Am” tells of a young boy at summer camp who takes a field trip to a wealthy estate to enjoy the day swimming, only to discover that the estate is not that much different from what he has at home, and the hostess is not very different from his mother.  “A Family” concerns a man who has served twelve years in prison and who is now faced with the possibility of becoming a lover to his deceased best friend’s wife.  “Wolf and Rhonda” offers the reader a female character whose hard life and possible relationship with Wolf turn the story on its head.  “Clifton’s Place” is a story of aging and change, and this is the one place where obvious symbolism occurs as two men involved with the same woman, walk through Brooklyn’s Fort Green Park, where the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument serves as a memorial to the American soldiers who died on British prison ships anchored in the East River during the Revolutionary War.

Focusing on the past and its importance in our lives, and masculinity and what it means in the present, Brinkley develops sub-themes of guilt and innocence, assertiveness and shyness, independence and isolation, desire and frustration, and power and subservience, all within nine compressed and dramatic stories which will awe most readers.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on: http://www.startribune.com/ 

The author’s photo perfectly reflects his style throughout.  He is looking directly at the reader, with no pretense, hiding nothing.  http://www.startribune.com/

Photo of the L’ouvert celebrations by Stephanie Keith, Getty Images.  https://observer.com/

A painting of capoeira angola activity by August Early in Brazil in 1824.  https://en.wikipedia.org

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn.  https://www.dnainfo.com    The inscription on the monument reads:  In the name of the spirits of the departed free, sacred to the memory of that portion of American seamen, soldiers & citizens who perished in the cause of liberty & their country on board the prison ships of the British (during the Revolutionary War) at the Wall-about.   This is the corner stone of the vault which contains their relics. Erected by the Tammany Society or Columbian Order of the City of New York. The ground for which was bestowed by John Jackson, Nassau Island, season of blossoms, year of discovery, the 316th, of the institution the 19th, and of American Independence the 32nd, April the 6th, 1808.

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Psychological study, Short Stories, Social and Political Issues, United States, US Regional
Written by: Jamel Brinkley
Published by: Graywolf
Date Published: 05/01/2018
ISBN: 978-1555978051
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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