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Note:  Sacred Cesium Ground is published with a companion novella, Isa’s Deluge, as part of the Weatherhead Books on Asia series by Columbia University Press.  Isa’s Deluge is reviewed following this review of Sacred Cesium Ground.

“I took only my phone and lip cream; my wallet and cosmetic bag stayed in the car; I couldn’t imagine I would need them anytime soon.  One thing was still bothering me: do I take the Geiger counter?…It had been bad enough on the road from the hotel, but it was now ringing with a frequency I hadn’t heard before…ten times over the official level that would require Decontamination Implementation Protocols; forty times higher than the measurements I got when I lived in Nakano, in Tokyo….” – main character Hiromi.

coverOn March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history, registering 9.0 on the Richter scale, hit northeast Japan, killing sixteen thousand people and creating massive devastation.  The powerful tsunami that resulted from this earthquake obliterated towns along the coast, and was so powerful it would go on to affect even the coasts of North and South America.  Most terrifying, the rush of sea water had the immediate effect of creating meltdowns at all three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which then released horrific amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere and precipitated the evacuation of over three hundred thousand people.  With a succession of disasters like these – a powerful earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear disaster – and all the cleanup and social management involving the population of the area, life in the Fukushima area was frantic – people displaced, many deaths, families torn apart, livelihoods gone, and the earth itself contaminated.  In the eight years since then, life has been in “emergency mode,” with so much of immediate importance being faced every day by the people of the area that few former residents, service organizations, or concerned citizens have been able to go there, stand back, and see the results of this emergency in any kind of universal perspective.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant begins its explosions.

Until now.  With Sacred Cesium Ground, author Yusuke Kimura* has created a novella which is truly unique – literally one of a kind – a work so transcendent that it is hard to imagine anyone reading it who will not be moved by the experience and changed by the insights into this nuclear disaster in a rural area in which many farmers have traditionally raised cattle.  When these farmers were suddenly evacuated from their irradiated fields and farms, the cattle and other farm animals remained behind.  For the evacuated residents, the loss was not only financial but also personal, as most of them respected their animals, even though the animals were, ironically, being raised for slaughter.  Sacred Cesium Ground opens with Hiromi, a troubled young woman in an abusive marriage who appears at the “Fortress of Hope,” a rural sanctuary for abandoned farm animals on the contaminated, evacuated land.

Farmer Masami-Yoshizawa feeds his cattle, much like Sendo does in this novella. Getty image by Paula Bronstein.

Farmer Masami Yoshizawa feeds his cattle, much as Sendo does in this novella. Getty image by Paula Bronstein.

Coming from the Tokyo area, Hiromi arrives at the animal refuge/farm as a volunteer worker for the weekend, along with a handful of other citizens and a few full-time workers who live there. The work is difficult, the supplies for feeding the animals are sometimes spoiled, the weather is challenging, and the ever-present danger of personal contamination by radiation is absolute.  The connection between the animals, who are the incidental victims of humans; the obligations, if any, of the humans towards them; the resentment of these workers against what they regard as “inhuman” behavior on the part of their government towards the animals harmed; and the connections between the volunteers and the animals they help lead to a dramatic and sensitive epiphany on the part of at least one volunteer.  The sensitive, often earthy, writing provides deeply felt commentary by the female visitor from the Tokyo area, and sets up contrasts so stark that many readers, like the visitor, will become completely wrapped up in the tragedy here.  Ultimately, most readers, too,  will see the totality of life in new ways in the aftermath of this disaster.  Stunning.

Review of Isa’s Deluge by Yusuke Kimura
(ISBN 978-0231189439)

“A low rumble reverberated from the ground…for as far as he could make out, rise in a wave, hollow into a trough, and then out of the resulting dust, sometimes a hand would emerge, sometimes a head, backs would rise, crowds of people would appear, all the way to the distant horizon.  When they rose, brushed off the dust, and stood with confidence, they appeared to be warriors like you would see in ancient, Heian-Period scrolls.  But, with pelts around their shoulders, there was also something barbarian about them.” – Shoji’s dream.

Giant Squid, which came ashore in Japan, one which is undoubtedly larger than anything Shoji and Hitoshi ever caught.

A Giant Squid, which came ashore in Japan, one  which is undoubtedly larger than anything Shoji and Hitoshi ever saw, much less caught.

Less tightly focused and more specifically psychological than Sacred Cesium Ground, this novella opens with main character Shoji fishing for squid at night with his cousin Hitoshi.   An “infinite number” of other boats hung with squid lures and lights are conjured up as Hitoshi begins telling the story of his Uncle Isa, one of a group of “tough fishermen,” a tale so romantically descriptive here that even Shoji suggests that Hitoshi may be “laying it on a little thick.”   Both men have been drinking heavily, and Shoji is anxious to find out more about his Uncle Isa.  Now forty, Shoji has come to Hachinohe from Tokyo because he is at a loss, personally.  He knows that he has an “inability to adjust,” along with no money, no woman, no friends, no looks, and no people skills,” and that is just the beginning of his limitations.

Heian Dynasty Warrior, 794 - 1185

Heian Dynasty Warrior, 794 – 1185

Two months before the Great East Japan Earthquake, Shoji began having a recurring dream in which his Uncle Isa appeared.  Uncle Isa may have committed “the darkest stain in Kawamura family lineage” by stabbing someone who taunted him, and he is regarded as an example of extreme manhood by Shoji and, to a lesser extent, by Hitoshi.  As Shoji thinks about writing a story about Uncle Isa, his images of his own life, compared to the lives of the warriors and people of the Heian period who appear in his dreams, show him to be an almost laughably smaller and less significant person.  Gradually, his own upbringing, compared to that of Uncle Isa and other members of his family, emerges, as do the current effects of the earthquake, the nuclear explosion, and the tsunami on the family he has in rural Japan.  A school reunion and his own behavior during the evening eventually lead Shoji to some new awareness of just who Uncle Isa really is, both to Shoji and to those other family members who have known him.

Less tightly organized than Sacred Cesium Ground, this novella is also less specifically connected to the three great disasters experienced by the population of rural northeast Japan, and the irony of seeing Shoji’s personal problems in the same context as those horrific disasters may be part of the author’s point.  Taken together, these two novellas offer unique views of the aftereffects of the disasters of 2011.

CLICK to enlarge.

CLICK to enlarge.

*NOTE: Translator Doug Slaymaker explains some of the challenges of this translation in an Afterword, and he does a masterful job of making the lives of the characters here seem real.  My one difficulty is with the fact that the author’s name has not been translated into the customary pattern of Japanese names in English translations.  Usually, including in all Wikipedia entries in English, a Japanese person’s family name appears last as it does in English, with the personal name given first (as in Junichiro Tanizaki, Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe).  In this translation, however, it is the Japanese name order which prevails for the author’s name (Kimura Yusuke), even in English.  To keep this book consistent with all the other entries on this website, I have used the English name order in this review and in all the alphabetical listings.

Photos.  The meltdown of three reactors of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant is found on http://gratisparacelular.blogspot.com/

Farmer Masami Yoshizawa feeds his cattle, much as Sendo does in this novella. Getty image by Paula Bronstein.  https://www.gettyimages.ca/

A Giant Squid, which came ashore in Japan, one  which is undoubtedly larger than anything Shoji and Hitoshi ever saw, much less caught.   https://sociorocketnewsen.files.wordpress.com/

A Heian Dynasty Warrior, 794 – 1185, much like those that appear in some of Shoji’s dreams and offer themselves as role models. https://sites.google.com

Map of the area in which the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear meltdown took place on March 11, 2011.  http://www.bioedonline.org     CLICK TO ENLARGE.

SACRED CESIUM GROUND and ISA'S DELUGE (Two Novellas of Japan's 3/11 disaster) by Yusuke Kimura
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Two Novellas. Historical, Japan, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Yusuke Kimura
Published by: Columbia University Press, Weatherhead Books on Asia Series
Date Published: 01/08/2019
ISBN: 978-0231189439
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Originally published in 1942, and considered one of the best of the eighty Perry Mason mysteries published by Erle Stanley Gardner, this new edition will be released by American Mystery Classics on March 5, 2019.  It may be pre-ordered now.

“That’s the most careless damn kitten I ever saw in my life.  He ain’t got sense enough to be afraid of anything.  He’ll run and butt his head up against a wall if he happens to be chasing something or get on the back of a chair and fall down on his head.  He’s just awful careless.  Either ain’t got good sense, or don’t know enough to be afraid.” – Thomas Lunk, gardener at the Shore estate.

Original cover, 1942.

Original cover, 1942.  The book sold for 35 cents.

Reading a book from 1942 is a trip back in time to a period when radio was the primary home entertainment and TV had not yet appeared.  Many people relied on novels, easily obtained from public libraries and widely shared among friends, for their “outside” entertainment and escape from everyday difficulties.  The Depression still had its residual effects, and the army’s draft of the country’s young men for World War II left families fragmented.  Many women, like the famed Rosie the Riveter, had to move into the workplace to take the place of the men who were overseas and to provide more financial support for their families, and the eventual return of the soldiers in the war’s aftermath saw many of them seriously affected by the horrors they had lived through.  Other families lost loved ones, husbands, and the fathers of their babies. Novels by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, and other fine literary authors were popular among many readers at this time, but many people also craved – and needed – a “quick fix” –  a complete and immediate escape from the present. 

New 2019 edition of this novel, available on-line on March 5, 2019.

New 2019 edition of this novel, available on-line on March 5, 2019.

These readers wanted books with dramatic action, exciting plots, uncomplicated characters, and surprises galore, something to break the monotony of the long economic and postwar recovery and provide some moments of excitement.  Readers Digest Condensed Books rose to the occasion, providing condensations of serious literary fiction in much shorter editions than the originals, offering satisfying, shorter novels for some readers, while many others found their escape in the world of pulp fiction, fiction published in magazines and in inexpensive paperback books which were printed on “pulpy” paper, not the fine, expensive paper on which hard-backed novels were printed. This pulp fiction genre included hard boiled detective stories, adventures, westerns, cozy mysteries, spicy romances, trips to other worlds, and other escapes from reality, and they were hugely popular.

Author Erle Stanley Gardner enjoyed playing the part of the judge in the TV series and films.

Author Erle Stanley Gardner enjoyed playing the part of the judge in the TV series and films.

One author who bridged the gap between literary fiction and pulp fiction, was Erle Stanley Gardner, a man who found his metier early in life.  A lawyer for fifteen years, he has said that while he enjoyed litigation and the development of trial strategy, that he was bored by the day-to-day work in the office.  He soon began writing stories for pulp magazines, setting as his writing goal over a million words per year, and using some of his cases as inspiration.  Beginning in 1933 with his first novel, he eventually developed the Perry Mason series, which, alone, consists of eighty novels. Many other novels were written under seven different pen names, A. A. Fair being the most recognizable one.  Gardner quickly developed a style which fit his legal experience and interests, and modern readers discovering him for the first time, and older readers who have not read him in years, will be intrigued by the obvious formula which governs his work.  In every case, the characters are introduced briefly, and their upcoming roles in the book are quickly established.  Gardner is interested in the facts and has no interest in developing personal psychologies or complex motives in the plot, and he keeps the character list simple and the action moving very quickly.  Ultimately he creates a puzzle, rather than a plot: Something terrible happens, and the reader is supplied with every piece of information s/he needs, along with a few red herrings, leading to a grand climax in which the evil-doer is revealed as a surprise.  The reader’s objective is to figure out the guilty party ahead of the author’s revelation.

The main characters in the TV series, Raymond Burr as Perry, Barbara Hale as Della Street, and William Hopper as Paul Drake

The main characters in the TV series, Raymond Burr (seated) as Perry, Barbara Hale as Della Street, and William Hopper as Paul Drake

In The Case of the Careless Kitten, published in 1942, young Helen Kendal, who lives with her wealthy aunt Matilda, is playing with Amber Eyes, her kitten, and remembering her Uncle Franklin Shore, “The Missing Banker,” who has been regarded for a dozen years as her Aunt Matilda’s “runaway husband…the man who had inexplicably thrown away success and wealth and power and family and lifelong friends, to lose himself, moneyless among strangers.”  Uncle Franklin had once rescued Helen’s gray kitten from the roof, and she has always regarded him as the only father she has ever known.  Helen is convinced that her uncle is dead, though her aunt Matilda is equally convinced that he is still alive.  He has left Helen $20,000 in his will, a princely sum in that day, but her aunt will not have the will probated.  Helen is in love with Jerry Templar, who has just returned from the army on a one-week leave, and she would like to marry him, but Aunt Matilda has made it clear that she will not countenance Helen’s marriage to a poor man like Jerry, when her own choice for Helen, George Alber, would be more appropriate.  Then Helen receives a phone call from someone claiming to be uncle Franklin. He asks her to contact Perry Mason to come with her to a cheap hotel and ask for Henry Leech, who will take them to meet him. Before she can do anything, however, her kitten becomes suddenly ill – poisoned and near death.

Matthew Rhyss, who, on Jan. 14, 2019, was announced as a new Perry Mason for a series to be directed by Robert Downey, Jr. Rhyss will be Executive Producer.

Matthew Rhys, who, on Jan. 14, 2019, was announced as a new Perry Mason for a series to be produced by Robert Downey, Jr.

Life becomes much more complicated when Aunt Matilda is also hospitalized with suspected poisoning, and when Helen goes to the meeting place with Perry Mason, they discover a mysterious body in a car.  Franklin Shore’s brother Gerald gets involved in the story, as he is also promised money in Franklin’s will, and the character list expands.  A body-double enters the picture, and Helen and Jerry Templar are shot at.  Ultimately, Perry Mason decides to “go rogue,” so convinced that he knows what he is doing that he is willing to challenge the police and Hamilton Burger, the district attorney, as they do their investigatory work.  The turning point of the novel, like the TV series, takes place with a trial, in this case the trial of Perry’s secretary Della Street.

Readers familiar with TV series, starring Raymond Burr, which ran from 1957 – 1966, will be surprised at how different the Perry Mason in the TV series is from this Perry Mason in the novel.   Less stuffy and more involved in the action, this Perry Mason offers great appeal to modern readers also looking for escape.  Great fun.

Photos.  The original cover from 1942 appears on https://owlcation.com/

The cover for the new edition by Otto Penzler/American Mystery Classics, published March 5, 2019, appears on all major new book sites.

The photo of Erle Stanley Gardner as judge on one of the TV programs or films or Perry Mason is from https://thepulp.net/

The main characters of the long-running TV show for Perry Mason includes Raymond Burr as Perry Mason (seated), Barbara Hale as Della Street, and William Hopper as Paul Drake.  http://www.perrymasontvseries.com/

Matthew Rhys, announced on Jan. 14, 2019, as the new Perry Mason in a series to be filmed soon, will be working with Robert Downey, Jr. who will be Executive Producer.  https://www.eldiario.es/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, US Regional, Perry Mason.
Written by: Erle Stanley Gardner
Published by: Otto Penzler/American Mystery Classics
Date Published: 03/05/2019
Edition: Reprint
ISBN: 978-1613161166
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  The English translation of this novel was WINNER the IMPAC Dublin Prize, one of the world’s richest prizes, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007.

“We were going out stealing horses.  That was what he said, standing at the door to the cabin where I was spending the summer with my father.  I was fifteen.  It was 1948 and one of the first days of July.  Three years earlier the Germans had left, but I can’t remember that we talked about them any longer.  At least my father did not.  He never said anything about the war.”

Set in rural Noutstealinghorsesorway with a swirling chronology which incorporates both modern times and, briefly, the days of Norway’s occupation by the Germans during World War II, this powerful novel focuses on the life of Trond Sander, a sixty-seven-year-old man, as he relives events which occurred when he was a teen.  After the war, in 1948, when Trond was fifteen, he and his father spent the summer together in a cabin in the countryside of Norway, near the Swedish border, a time which affected his entire life.  As the novel opens, the aged Trond has returned to a cabin in that same village, intending to live there in retirement, wanting to be alone and living independently, though the reasons for his self-imposed solitude are not clear, even to him.  Nature is the important factor in his new life in retirement, and the lyricism with which he views that nature and its power is palpable.  At the same time, he is aware this “simple” life will be difficult, with many responsibilities which only he can fulfill.  He recognizes that in nature the unexpected can happen instantly and that there is nothing he or anyone else can do about it.  Blaming fate is fruitless – fate suggests that there is a real force at work – and for Trond events happen at random, with no sense that any outside power is involved at all. The best he or anyone else can do is deal with the aftermath and soldier on.

author photoFlashing back to 1948, Petterson introduces Jon Haug, a teenage neighbor during the summer of 1948, and the person who has the most effect on Trond, at this point in his life. Jon is an often strange young companion for Trond, stretching the limits, taking chances, and defying conventions, and though his contact with Trond is limited, his effect on Trond, combined with some other events of that summer, are dramatic and unforgettable even at the end of Trond’s life.

The tiny goldcrest bird is the smalled bird in Europe. Jon breaks down when Trond questions its fate.

The tiny goldcrest bird is the smallest bird in Europe. Jon breaks down when Trond questions its fate.

One of the most dramatic scenes of the book takes place when Jon comes to see young Trond one day, and Trond immediately recognizes that there is something “special” about Jon that morning – something has happened to affect Jon but Trond does not know what it is.  They go out “stealing horses,” riding horses belonging to a wealthy man nearby, though they never take the horses outside his fenced-in field.  Later, after riding, Jon wants to show him something, the nest of a goldcrest bird, the smallest bird in Europe, high up in a tree.  Jon shows him the tiny egg in the nest and Trond comments that he finds it “weird that something so little can come alive and just fly away,” a remark which has unexpected effects on Jon, whose “face [became] a chalk-white mask with an open mouth….from which came sounds that made my blood run cold.” Before the day is over, Trond learns why Jon was affected as he was and understands immediately that he will never see Jon again.

The bench by the lake is a place where Trond goes to think and dream about the future.

The bench by the lake is a place where Trond goes to think about his problematic future.

The novel’s action, hidden within the stories within the stories and swirling around in time, focuses heavily on nature, and little of Trond’s life between the age of fifteen and sixty-five is included except in flashback.  What the reader sees is a man who is not much different at the end of his life from what he was during his teen years – a person who has never quite figured out how he became the person he is but who is ultimately anxious to do so.  Fortunately, and ironically, Trond’s final “retirement” cabin is located just behind that of Lars, Jon’s brother, five years younger and the survivor of an accident which happened when Trond was living there as a teenager.  These two men, ages sixty-two and sixty-seven soon discover just how much past history they share.   At one point, however, Trond regrets learning of Lars’s past connection to him, and goes out at night to sit on a bench he has made beside the lake to think about the past and the death of his wife three years ago.  He regrets that Lars has tied him to a past he thought was well behind him, and it has now “pulled aside the fifty years with a lightness that seems almost indecent.”

recurring man in the mirror magritte

Famous painting by Magritte.

One important scene takes place through a combination of memory and dream.  In it Trond’s father has said goodbye to him after the summer in 1948, and Trond is returning to his home in Oslo alone by train while his father remains behind.  He walks repeatedly back to the end of the train and then again forward, before finally falling asleep.  When he awakes in the present, he is dizzy and sick, and he remembers a terrible nightmare from when he was in his thirties and his wife made a flippant remark regarding her unfaithfulness.  He starts to weep: “I realized that what I was most afraid of in this world was to be the man in Magritte’s painting who, looking at himself in the mirror, sees only the back of his own head, again and again.”

As the action swirls around in time, Trond also has other dramatic learning experiences, including one when he was fifteen in which he realizes that Jon’s mother is a demonstrative and warm individual, unlike his own, and, much later, learns for the first time of his father’s activities with Jon’s mother as part of the Norwegian resistance during the German occupation.  Living close to the Swedish border – and freedom from the Germans – a group of Norwegians including Trond’s father and Jon’s mother, smuggled people across the river into Sweden. They identified each other and described their work saying they were “Out stealing horses.”  The commitment of these people, most of them parents, left little time for the obvious responsibilities of child-rearing, and every child in this novel suffers desperately from an absent parent or parents. All the children grow up with problems, many of them, including both Trond and Jon, abandoned by their fathers.  The novel, complex and filled with scenes in which people fail to connect or to understand how and why they behave as they do, is a dramatic, sometimes surprisingly lyrical novel in which nature ultimately “wins,” and people like Trond must face a dark future which they have limited ability to affect or change.  The satisfying conclusion may offer some hope.

ALSO by Petterson, reviewed here:     ASHES IN MY MOUTH, SAND IN MY SHOES,      I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME,      I REFUSE,       IT’S FINE BY ME,       TO SIBERIA

Norwegian Resistance.

Norwegian Resistance.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://rosemariechr.blogspot.com

The goldcrest bird, the smallest in Europe is from https://www.pinterest.com

Trond’s bench by the lake may be found on https://cdn.quotesgram.com

Magritte’s famous painting of heads reflecting in the mirror appear on http://www.freakingnews.com/

The Norwegian Resistance photo is part of a story on https://it.wikipedia.org


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Coming-of-age, Literary, Norway, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Per Petterson
Published by: Picador
ISBN: 978-0312427085
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“There is no thief worse than a bad book.” ~Italian Proverb

I do not review books that I do not enjoy.  Everyone has different tastes – and I know that a book I dislike may be someone else’s favorite book of the year.  When I start a new book (very often before its publication date, when there are no other reviews), I always want to be fair, giving the book a chance to make its case and, with luck, steal my heart.  Publicists and representatives of publishers with whom I have had contact sometimes know me from my reviews and can be very helpful in helping me find books that will be of particular interest to me.  Sometimes, however, these suggestions fall flat, too, and a book I’ve been looking forward to for weeks fails to pique my interest, and I do not like it – and will not review it. 

To be fair, I always give a book at least seventy-five pages to involve me in the action, themes, and style, and much more often than not I end up being intrigued (at least) and often utterly absorbed in what I am reading for this website by the end of that time.  When I do find a book that doesn’t work for me, I stop reading it, but unlike the Italian proverb which begins this essay, I do not necessarily consider it a “bad book,” just one that I did not enjoy and do not want to recommend to the book friends who read these pages. 

books and teacupI do feel regret, however, that I have invested my time on such a book, and I usually blame myself for not recognizing sooner that this was not a good book for me.  I know how hard authors work and how much they care, and I know that by the time a book is in print, an author is hugely invested in its success, emotionally.  And so I spend my time instead helping to publicize those books which do steal my heart and do make me want to tell all my friends about them,  fascinating new books (or old books that I have just discovered) which might intrigue them as they have me.

All this introduction is by way of talking about my latest failure to love a brand new book, not yet reviewed in the major book venues, but receiving good publicity from the publisher and highly recommended by other authors in the (sometimes paid for) book blurbs on the back.  I do not intend to give away this book’s title or author or anything recognizable about it but, rather, to try to understand what led me to make the mistake of buying this new book (yes, I bought it on the strength of its publicity and did not receive an advance review copy), a book that I ended up disliking, though I spent parts of four different days trying to get into it enough that I might end up finding it “interesting,” at least – if not stirring, compelling, and, in the best case, enlightening. 

family 19th c. The publicity hook that made me so anxious to read it is something that I constantly warn myself about but failed to take into enough consideration this time:  It compared the action of this new book to the action, characters,  and story of another, much older book that I have aways loved and occasionally taught to students – a new version of that story in a new setting and time period that was “certain” to give me new insights into an old favorite, while at the same time, giving me new insights into a present day culture. I should have realized that the very things that made me love the original book and its author are characteristics that are part and parcel of the period and culture in which it was written – one that really cannot translate into a modern world, no matter how hard the new author tries.  Life in the present is, by and large, not delightful or charming as it was depicted a century or more ago in the days before radio, TV, the internet, automobiles, and mass communication and transportation, and no attempt to give a fresh perspective to a present day story by using the narrative style, themes, values, and characters of the past is likely to succeed on a grand scale – for me, at least.

cq_ez_nOPart of the problem here was that the author seemed to be concentrating on being “cute” much of the time, repeating the silly bickering between young teenagers, giving negative nicknames, and creating “love stories” from deliberately absurd points of view.  It felt, to me, the way some modern films do when they retell a famous story of the long ago past from a modern perspective and include profanity, imagery related to taboo subjects, and explicit sexual references which, while common now, would never have appeared in the lives of the characters in the original novels, though they appear here in their supposedly “modern” incarnations.  Characters referring casually to bodily functions and sexual products common in the modern world feel out of place with the settings and characters from the original novel, and I found myself actually feeling sorry for the long-dead original author, whose life’s work is being borrowed to illustrate ideas and feelings which would embarrass him/her if s/he were able to read this treatment of his/her novel.

Some people may thoroughly enjoy this book, though several Amazon reviewers commented on the characterizations not being true to the original, even within its modern narrative.  My own feeling is that if someone is going to use the narrative line of a well known period novel in a modern context, then some awareness of what made the original so successful should also be considered so that the original is more than just a convenient literary contact point used to gain publicity for yet another story of family difficulties.

Photos.  The book on an old table is from https://media.gettyimages.com

The books and tea cup may be found on http://2.bp.blogspot.com

The 19th century family picture is here:  https://l7.alamy.com

“New Books” is here:  https://pbs.twimg.com/

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

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