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“On the homeward stretch [of his run] this morning, he made his usual mistake of imagining for a second that a certain fire hydrant, faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot, was a child or a very short grown-up.  There was something about the rounded top of it….What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road?  Because even though he knew by now that it was only a hydrant, still, for one fleeting instant he had the same delusion all over again…”

cover redhead side roadMicah Mortimer, the main character of Anne Tyler’s latest novel, her twenty-third, could not be more ordinary, at least on the surface, yet Anne Tyler makes his story one that will keep even jaded readers intrigued and involved in his unexciting life.  Already forty-three, he has had his share of girlfriends, and now, “women friends,” since he refuses to refer to women over thirty as “girls.”  None of his relationships have evolved into anything permanent, however, nor has he expected them to.  “He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.”  He does his regular morning run in his Govans neighborhood of Baltimore wearing ordinary sneakers, knee-length denim cutoffs, and tee-shirt – nothing fancy.  When he returns to his apartment, he  showers, cleans up the already tidy apartment, takes out trash, if it is trash day, and checks his phone to see if he has any new clients for his modest computer tech business, “Tech Hermit.” If he has to drive to a client’s house, he obeys every traffic rule, convinced that the Traffic God approves and will credit his good behavior. A phone call from his woman friend of the past three years, Cassia Slade, suggests some new possibilities for Micah, when she tells him that she might be evicted from her apartment and will have no place to live, but her implied suggestion goes over his head.  Instead of making the obvious offer to her, he assures her that she will surely find another place.

Micah lived in the Govans section of Baltimore and tended an apartment building there.

Micah lived in the Govans section of Baltimore and tended an apartment building there.

Author Anne Tyler, well known for her ability to create sympathetic characters, manages to bring even the sometimes frustratingly dull Micah Mortimer to life, despite his lack of ambition, lack of imagination, and complete disinterest in change.  His relationship with Cass, which, understandably, begins to wane as a result of his lack of empathy with her regarding her living arrangements, suggests that he accepts her frustration as just another part of his life.  The only clues the reader gets that this might affect him more deeply in some way is through his dreams.  The night after his phone call with Cass, he dreams he finds a baby in a supermarket aisle, “sitting erect on the floor in front of the breakfast cereals and wearing nothing but a diaper.”  When he wakes, he is still trying to figure out what to do with the baby.  “Take it to Lost and Found, he supposed, but this meant picking it up, and he worried it would start crying,” thereby leading the baby’s parents to leap to incorrect conclusions about Micah himself.  When he is not wearing his glasses, his limited imagination also fills gaps in his reality, leading to the image in the opening quotation of this review, that a fire hydrant is a child, another suggestion that somehow, somewhere, in Micah’s subconscious is a potential parent trying to find a child.

Brink spend much of a day reading about the Baltimore Oriole at the local library.

Brink spent much of a day reading about the Baltimore Orioles at the local library.

The arrival of Brink Bartell Adams, a first semester freshman in college, on his doorstep one morning after Micah finishes his run, comes as a total surprise.  Brink, the son of Lorna Bartell, a girlfriend from his distant past, is a freshman in college.  He has found Micah’s photo in a shoebox in his family’s house, and is totally convinced that Micah must be his father.  “I don’t belong in that family,” Brink says of his mother and stepfather. “I’m a, like, misfit.  There’s so…I’m more like you.”  Brink does not know who his father is, and Micah is certain that he cannot be the father, but Lorna, Brink’s mother, is not giving out any information.  Brink, for his part, provides no information on why he is out of college after just a week or so of being in residence there.  Meanwhile, Micah, having had dreams of parenthood, without any real longings for it, suddenly feels sorry for Brink, but he does not “bite” on the subject of fatherhood, and Brink leaves.  When Brink returns, after spending the next day at the library reading about the Baltimore Orioles, Micah asks if he would like to have supper and spend the night.  He stays to meet Cass and sleep at Micah’s, during which Micah tries to persuade him to call his mother, though he does not insist.

An elementary school playground calls up different images for Micah

Micah remembers an elementary school playground, which he visited near the end of the book, very differently from what we see here.

Micah’s family and his relationships with his several sisters, their husbands, children, and parents add depth to the picture of Micah, as the family meets in celebration of the upcoming marriage of one of his nephews and his future bride, both youngsters in their early twenties with little idea of the future and its responsibilities, but great hopes.  Each family member is trying to connect with Micah on some level, and all are concerned for him.  Meanwhile, the whole question of Brink’s parenthood becomes more complicated as Brink’s relationships with his stepfather and mother, in particular, are further exposed.  A call for computer tech help the next day leads to Micah’s introduction to a new person, someone new to town, and as they joke around and imply a different kind of life, Micah is also trying to deal with the problems with Cass and any future they might have.  As she has said, “I’m just saying that the you that you are might not be the right you for me.”

Author Anne Tyler

Author Anne Tyler

The author inserts herself into the final chapter, saying of Micah that “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man.  Such a narrow and limited man; so closed off.  He has nothing to look forward to, nothing to to daydream about.”  The next morning, when Micah gets up and does his morning run, as usual, however, he dreams once again, giving the lie to what the author has just said about his having nothing to daydream about, and, upon returning home, he chooses to ignore parts of his usual schedule. Out driving (and obeying the Traffic God) later that morning, he sees an elementary school playground, and the out-of-date details he mentions show how little he actually notices about the real world around him.  His past experiences affect his view of the present, and he has a long way to go if he is to see life as it really is. Anne Tyler has created the story of a boring, unimaginative stick-in-the-mud and turned it into a charming and enlightening story of a man who just may have a chance at real life after all.  If it is not too late.

Photos.  The Govans sign is from the Govan’s Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com

One of the books about the Orioles which Brink read for fun might have been this one of Orioles history.  https://www.amazon.com/

Late in the novel, Micah stops to visit an elementary schoolyard, for which he retains very different memories.  https://whyy.org

The author’s photo appears in the Boston Globe:  https://www.bostonglobe.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Psychological study, United States, US Regional
Written by: Anne Tyler
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 04/07/2020
ISBN: 978-0525658412
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“I’m not sure why, it’s just something I feel I have to do.  The story has to end….We can never move forward unless we see ourselves for what we are, until we accept that we still live with the vestiges of our most primitive reptilian ancestors.  There’s a crocodile lurking within all of us, just below the placid surface of our civility, ready to lunge at the first hint of threat, or opportunity.  Perhaps, too, I just need some sort of catharsis.  I won’t be able to move on until I’ve told the whole story.” – Maya Duran, in opening chapter.

cover serenade nadia

This deeply affecting and love-affirming novel by Turkish author Zülfü Livaneli, filled with the trauma and guilt of World War II, is a powerful story based on a true, nearly unknown tragedy, the sinking of the Struma, an old cattle ship carrying almost eight hundred Jewish refugees in December, 1941.  Leaving Romania and headed for Palestine, the Struma was the last “refugee ship” to leave Europe during the war – and it was overcrowded, underpowered, and unsafe.  Barely arriving in Istanbul after a three-day delay and several engine failures, it waited with all passengers onboard for seventy days, everyone desperate to obtain the necessary visas for Palestine.  The British, governing Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations, were unwavering in their refusal to grant the visas, however, forcing the refugees to remain on the breaking-down ship with almost no food, water, or sanitation.  The Turks, too, feared that the almost eight-hundred passengers would become the responsibility of Turkey if they were released. Returning them to Romania was out of the question. Finally, with the Turks and the British at an impasse, the disabled ship and its passengers were towed out of the harbor into the Black Sea and abandoned. The following day, a torpedo, fired by a Russian submarine, obliterated the ship, killing the entire crew and all passengers but one. This sole survivor, a nineteen-year-old man named David Stoliar, eventually received his visa to Palestine, but said almost nothing about the disaster during most of his life, until, after almost sixty years, he was asked in 2001 to participate in a documentary produced by the Associated Press.

zulfu livanelliTen years later, Stoliar’s story also inspired Zülfü Livaneli, one of Turkey’s most popular authors, to write this book, bringing the little known tragedy of the Struma into the lives of his readers and, now, into the lives of English-speakers.  Instead of concentrating on David Stoliar, however, author Livaneli, also a social critic and human rights activist, takes a bigger view, providing two overlapping fictional narratives, one from 1938 – 1942, and the other from 2001.  These provide the background to the very real disaster of the Struma, one that English-speakers, and probably many young Turks, have never heard before.  His characters, though fictional, behave with all the emotion and feeling that any sensitive human would have in response to such a disaster and allow the author to raise questions about these events and note some of the long-term personal effects of the disaster on some families.

Pera Palas, built in 1892, was a favorite memory of Max from his visit to Istanbul 58 years ago.

The Pera Palas Hotel, built in 1892, was a favorite memory of Max from his visit to Istanbul 58 years ago.

Zivaneli’s main contemporary character, thirty-six-year-old Maya Duran, a single mother of a teenager, is intriguing from the opening chapter, in which she indicates that she has three other first names, and that she is Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic.  “In other words, I [am] a human being.”  She is on a flight from Istanbul to Boston, where she intends to meet with Maximilian Wagner, an 87-year-old German professor at Harvard whom she had met and greatly admired three months previously in Istanbul.  It is Maximilian’s past which becomes, through lively flashbacks, the crux of this novel, as his recent trip to Istanbul was his first trip back since 1939 – 1942.  His brief return to Istanbul was very much a reliving of the past. Staying at the Pera Palas Hotel, where he stayed in the early 1940s, he notes the changes which have taken place in the neighborhoods and around the city, though the hotel has not changed. 

Istanbul University, where Maya works. (Alamy)

Istanbul University, where Maya works. (Alamy)

Maya, who works for the rector of Istanbul University and served as guide for Max on his previous trip, immediately notes that from the time she picked up Max at the airport on this trip, they have been followed by three men.  The next day, she and the professor take a car to Sile, on the Turkish coast, where he asks to spend some time alone on the top of a ridge overlooking the water.  There he tosses a wreath into the sea below, takes out his violin, and plays “an exquisite, lyrical melody” that reminds Maya of Schubert’s Serenade.  Each time he reaches a certain point, however, he stops, then starts again, a problem which becomes increasingly alarming to Maya, as the professor suddenly looks “deathlike.”  She sees that he is turning cold and very white, and the car which brought them to the coast will not start.  When Max unexpectedly races toward the water, she stops him with difficulty, becoming so alarmed for his health that she decides they must stay in a nearby motel until they can leave safely.  They have been followed, once again, even to this remote place.

Fr. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, worked to help Jews obtain baptismal certificates to avoid the Nazis.

Fr. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, worked to help Jews obtain baptismal certificates to avoid the Nazis.

When Maya consults her brother, a colonel in the army, about the potential danger, he suggests that “the professor might stir up the past and bring a crime to light,” and he is particularly concerned because the men following her and Max “know about our grandmother…[who] has tainted blood.”  Further developments show that Maya’s grandmother was a “Crimean Turk,” wanted by the Soviets and threatened with death because she helped Germany against the Russians.  As the action evolves, Maya gradually begins to see political parallels between Turkey in the present and some of the early stages of Nazi Germany, and when Max finally begins to tell his own story, he reveals a passionate, but complicated, love story with Nadia, beginning in 1934.  Ultimately, it falls to Maya to write his story, a separate section entitled “Maximillian and Nadia’s Story,” written with Max’s endorsement.  Within this story, she includes many of the familiar aspects of pre-war German/European history, while also developing the story of  Max and Nadia and their Aryan/Jewish marriage. Fr. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, participates in the story briefly, saving many lives by providing secret baptismal certificates to Jews.  Other subplots add to the fast action and excitement.

Memorial to the Struma Victims, created in Ashtod, Israel.

Memorial to the Struma Victims, created in Ashtod, Israel.

Throughout in this complex and enlightening narrative, Zulfo Livaneli emphasizes “story,” keeping the reader involved throughout, even as new aspects of Turkey’s involvement in the war are revealed.  Anti-British sentiment regarding the situation for refugees in Palestine is matched by anti-Russian sentiment regarding the horrific bombing of the Struma, but the novel never dissolves into propaganda or feels as if the author’s purpose is to “even the score.”  This is, ultimately, a love story, one that comes with a vivid historical setting, believable characters, constant action, and a narrative which moves around in time through the worst, previously unimaginable, horrors of war, a narrative in which love still, somehow, survives.

David Stoliar, the only survivor of the Srtuma disaster.

David Stoliar, the only survivor of the Struma disaster. See link in photo credits to hear his 2001 interview (in English).

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

The Pera Palas Hotel is featured on https://www.pinterest.com

Istanbul University, an Alamy photo, was found on https://www.alamy.com

Fr. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, worked to help Jews obtain baptismal certificates to avoid the Nazis.  https://www.catholicireland.net

A Memorial to the victims of the Struma disaster has been created in Ashdod, Israel.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

David Stoliar, the lone survivor of the Struma disaster is photographed here:  https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org

For anyone interested in hearing an interview with David Stoliar, the only survivor of the Struma in 1941, a copy is located here: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org  Scroll past the map to the second entry.

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Palestine, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Turkey
Written by: Zulfu Livanelli
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 03/03/2020
ISBN: 978-1635420166
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  This book was WINNER of the National Book Critics Circle Award,  WINNER of the Story Prize, and WINNER of the Vilcek Prize in Literature.

“From the front room came the scratchy sound of a needle hitting an old vinyl record.  Nina Simone’s sultry yet sorrow-filled voice came blaring out, wailing for us to take her to the water to be baptized.  The sorrow soon turned to joy, and the piano gave way to drums as Nina demanded, pleaded, to be baptized….I felt Nina’s drums throbbing in my ears, as though I was marching at the head of a king’s funeral procession, with an entire village in my wake.” Nadia, from the story “In the Old Days.”

517J19IxFcLIn this magnificent collection of short stories, Edwidge Danticat always goes straight to the point, but she does so with grace and an honesty that leads each reader to come to new recognitions about life and death, hope and despair, and love and marriage.  As individuals and families face their lives both separately and together, Danticat’s stories cast an almost hypnotic power over her readers as the characters share their lives while they make decisions about who they are, how much responsibility they have for their own difficulties, and what kind of future they may be creating for themselves and others.  There is no easy sentimentality here:  Danticat’s tough characters have learned from their experiences that life is hard, and that any sweet memories they have must be treasured for what they are – partly the result of their own behavior and commitments, and partly the result of fate – inescapable, changeable, and often cruel. 

Rulers Francois Duvalier (1957 - 1971) and Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971 - 1986) ruled Haiti with iron hands until 1986.

Rulers Francois Duvalier (1957 – 1971) and Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971 – 1986) governed Haiti with iron fists until 1986.

In this review’s opening quotation from the story “In the Old Days,”  Nadia, a teacher living and working in Brooklyn, receives a phone call telling her that her father is dying in Haiti and would like to see her before he dies. They have never met.  Her parents, both originally from Haiti, were married in Brooklyn, where they lived for several years, but when the long dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son “Baby Doc” in Haiti were over, her father returned to Port-au-Prince to open a Haitian school for poor children.  Her mother remained in New York, where, shortly after her husband’s departure, she learned that she was pregnant with Nadia. They never saw each other again.  Now, years later, daughter Nadia is asked to come to Port-au-Prince to meet her dying father for the first time.  What she learns, while there, about her mother, her father, his large Haitian family, and ultimately, herself, will last her a lifetime.

Little Haiti in Miami

Little Haiti in Miami

In “Dosas,” another early story, Elsie, in Miami, receives a phone call from her ex-husband Blaise, whose new wife Olivia has gone to Haiti to visit her family.  There she has been kidnapped, her safety dependent on Blaise raising an enormous ransom which he does not have. The story of Elsie’s complex relationship with Olivia, the relationship of both women with Blaise, the respective goals of all the characters, and the atmosphere in Haiti set the tone.  Blaise has sought out Elsie as a last resort to ask her for a major part of the ransom money – all part of a scam.  Contrasting with this scenario is a subplot involving Gaspard, the elderly man for whom Elsie is a live-in nurse-caretaker.  Gaspard has kidney failure, but is reluctant to risk his daughter’s health by accepting a kidney from her, even to save his own life. As Elsie deals with the kidnapping, and Gaspard makes a decision regarding a kidney transplant, the contrasting family situations establish a darkly ironic tone and confirm the themes – life, death, hope, despair, love, and marriage – and the various possibilities for outcomes.

Haitian artist Jean Guy portrays the beach in Port-au Prince, Haiti

Haitian artist Jean Guy portrays the beach in Port-au Prince, Haiti. Click to enlarge.

Life for Haitians is often harsh.  “The Port-au- Prince Marriage Special” introduces Melisande, a young woman barely in her twenties, who has AIDS, though she has been working as baby-sitter for the child of the owner of the small hotel.  Melisande’s difficulties in finding an honest and qualified physician to deal with her illness and to prescribe effective medication, will resonate with readers.  Contrasts between the island of Haiti and Miami’s “Little Haiti” appear in “Hot Air Balloons.”  Here Lucy, a student in Miami of Haitian background, is the daughter of poor field workers who want only to help her create a new, better life. Her roommate Neah, by contrast, is the daughter of the chairman of the Caribbean Studies department and a woman who is an economist. When roommate Neah, during first semester of her freshman year, responds to an appeal calling for volunteers to work full-time at a rape recovery center in a poor area of Port-au-Prince, she leaves school and flies to Haiti for a week.  There she discovers that life is not a  romantic vision but a nightmare, thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds who work the streets, young children gang-raped as they trade sex for food. The last story, “Without Inspection,” begins with the line, “It took Arnold six and a half seconds to fall five hundred feet,” as young Arnold, whose life was saved when he came ashore to the US illegally, falls from a construction site.  The second-by-second unraveling of his life introduces another whole set of issues for immigrants, legal and illegal, and emphasizes the transitory nature of happiness.

Carole went to the Opa Locka Flea Market to obtain eucalyptus leaves and sour oranges for Jeanne's first post partum birth.

Carole went to the Opa Locka Hialeah Flea Market to obtain eucalyptus leaves and sour oranges for Jeanne’s first post partum bath.

Though the stories described so far are well developed, insightful, and often very moving, it is the last three stories which are the most intense and personally involving.  My favorite, “Sunrise, Sunset,” told in seven sections, revolves around Carole, a grandmother who suffers from “blank spots,” which she calls her “lost moments,” brief periods of time for which she has no memory.  Her daughter Jeanne, a new mother, is having difficulty with postpartum depression as she tries to plan an elaborate christening in which she has no interest. The rest of the family cares deeply for Carole and Jeanne and wants to help them both, but even Carole is often impatient with Jeanne.  “Sometimes you have to shake the devil off you, whatever that devil is,” she remarks. When Carole, one evening, confuses baby Jude with a doll and creates a life-or-death crisis, all the compromises her husband and family have made on her behalf must come to an end, one which every reader will mourn at the same time that they understand.

Prize-winning author Edwidge Danticat.

Prize-winning author Edwidge Danticat.

Edwidge Danticat’s stories, whether set in New York, Miami, or Port-au-Prince, are packed with deep feelings and a recognition of values rarely developed so fully in a short story collection.  Compressed and filled with unique, well-developed points of view which show Haiti and its people facing many issues which they either celebrate or mourn, the novel recognizes their endurance at the same time that it shows their hardships in detail.  Powerful, unforgettable, beautiful, and ultimately consoling, Everything Inside truly does reveal everything inside Edwidge Danticat’s people and their lives, and it does so with magnificent style and elegant control.

Also by Danticat:  THE DEW BREAKER

Photos.  The pictures of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 – 1986, appear on https://www.pinterest.com

Little Haiti in Miami is from https://www.eventbrite.com

Waterfront by Jean Guy is found on https://www.medalia.net

Opa Locka Hialeah Flea Market appears on https://www.mccooltravel.com

The author’s photo is from https://www.npr.org

Nine Simone singing “Take me to the Water,” a song featured in the story “In the Old Days,” appears on https://www.youtube.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Haiti, Little Haiti, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Edwidge Danticat
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 08/27/2019
ISBN: 978-0525521273
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“A cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor (e.g. Geiger counter) detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison, which kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.”  Wikipedia, entry for “Schrödinger’s Cat.”

cover schrodinger's dogAlthough the complex thought experiment by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, described in the above quotation, may seem like an odd and highly esoteric principle around which to mold this sensitive and emotion-filled novel about a man and his dying son, debut novelist Martin Dumont uses it as the unobtrusive crux of his story and part of its dramatic conclusion.  In doing so, he achieves a kind of originality I myself have never before encountered in literary fiction.  Many other readers like me, who never studied physics and never even thought of the principle described in the introductory quotation to this review, may wonder if this short book itself is one which will “resonate” for them, or at least keep them interested in the story from beginning to end.  While I cannot speak to the experiences of others, I can say that I found Schrödinger’s Dog by French author Martin Dumont to be one of the best and most insightful debut novels I have read in years.  Reading it in two sittings, I was completely engaged both emotionally and intellectually, and I still cannot stop thinking about it, coming to new realizations each time I reflect on its themes of perception, reality, time, and death and their interrelationships.  Except for the novel’s title, in which a dog is substituted for “Schrödinger’s cat,” because the main character prefers dogs to cats, the physics that makes this story so hypnotic and its conclusion so satisfyingly elusive is hidden within, just as Schrödinger’s cat or dog, hidden within its box, is both alive and dead.

French author Martin Dumont

French author Martin

As the novel opens, a man is lying in bed thinking there is someone on the other side of the wall, and as he stays in bed, wondering if it is his son or a burglar, he realizes that he can get up and see, yet he stays in bed.  “At bottom, it’s almost a game: someone’s walking around on the other side of the wall: it’s not Pierre, it’s not a burglar; it’s as if they were superimposed…As long as I don’t make sure, it’s a little bit of both.”  When the man, Yanis, finally gets up, he finds his son sitting outside on the balcony eating cookies and milk.  A taxi driver, Yanis works both day and night, as his son Pierre, a third-year biology student in a local college, studies hard and spends his free time with the college drama club, for which he is writing a new play.  Pierre’s departure for campus leaves Yanis to remember his deceased wife Lucille, a kindhearted woman who was so engaged in all kinds of humanitarian causes that she was often unaware that some people were taking advantage of her.  Though Yanis does not go into detail, it is clear that he lost her some time ago, even after her “stay” at a clinic.

Free-diving on the Island.

Free-diving on the Island.

That weekend Yanis and Pierre drive four hours away to “the Island” to go diving and stay with Lucille’s parents.  Pierre is tired and appears ill, and has some symptoms which alarm Yanis, but they both love free diving and the escape it provides from real life.  A trip to the hospital after their return home determines that Pierre needs surgery for a tumor, an operation which does not result in the expected happy ending.  As Yanis sits in an office awaiting an oncologist, he sees Pierre’s future as consisting of “a crowd of eventualities with their probabilities.  As long as no one opened the door, reality remained free: it could head in any direction at all….One word too many, one expression, or one opening door – and the conditional is dead.  If only the door handle wouldn’t move.  If only the door would remain closed forever.”  After meeting with the oncologist, Yanis realizes the sad and probably inevitable fate awaiting Pierre, and he recalls Lucille’s death in a car crash.  An inquest showed that she had been behaving in very uncharacteristic ways, and the question arose as to whether the “accident” was really an accident.  The police say, “yes,” an accident; Yanis thinks, “no, a rational choice.”  Since no one will really know, for sure, that death will remain “in between the two.”

palliative careHospitalized as he recovers from surgery, Pierre eventually finishes writing his book, and he asks Yanis to try to find an editor and publisher for it, actions to which Yanis devotes every available moment.  He is determined to get Pierre’s book published as the only final, meaningful gift he can give to him. The second half of the novel focuses on some new plans Yanis has regarding Pierre’s book.  At the same time, he begins to resolve some other issues which have disturbed him for years.  Though he has never been friendly with Lucille’s parents, he reluctantly agrees to meet with them when they invite him for dinner after a visit with Pierre.  Breaking down when they talk of Lucille, he asks his father-in-law how he “does it,” but the old man does not understand.  As Yanis explains his long-held doubts about Lucille’s death, the old man explains that “It’s like a box, Yanis…a box you can’t open…The truth died with Lucille.  Forever.  Now there are only some suppositions.  Some maybes, and the weight you decide to give them….You choose….Decide on reality, your reality, the one you’ve chosen.  It won’t be worth less than any other ones, don’t you think?”

Schrodinger's cat

Schrodinger’s cat, both alive and dead (Wikipedia)

As the novel works its way closer to Pierre’s inevitable death, Yanis visits with his friend Francois and wonders whether it is better to lie if it makes another person happy, then reminisces about Pierre and his childhood.  He begins to bring Pierre books from the bookstore every time he visits him in the hospital, each of them clinging to a reality he believes will keep Pierre from “going under.”  It is not until the last ten pages of the novel that Schrödinger is mentioned at all, this time in the context of a nurse talking with Yanis, and she gives him yet another way of thinking about Pierre and the reality of his upcoming death. The final scenes are unforgettable, and very satisfying, though not in ways I would have expected.  Ultimately, the reader is forced to grasp the inherent peace which may be possible if one can appreciate the “dog” that may be simultaneously alive and dead.  Author Martin Dumont has produced a novel so unusual and so effective – at least for this non-scientist – that I know it will be one I will read again and again, each time with total satisfaction and new realizations.

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

The free-dive picture is from https://freediveinternational.com

“Palliative care” is a medical approach in which medical care optimizes the quality of life and mitigates suffering among people with complex, often fatal illnesses.  https://smrhfoundation.com

The drawing symbolizing Schrödinger’s cat, both alive and dead at the same time, appears on http://nautil.us

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, France, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Martin Dumont
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 03/10/2020
ISBN: 978-1635429985
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Anne Enright–ACTRESS

Note:   Anne Enright was WINNER of the Irish Novel of the Year Award and was SHORTLISTED for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for 2016. She is a previous WINNER of the Man Booker Prize.

“My books have become, over the years, more simple and unassuming….[and] people like them, even though they are not true.  They are the lie I need to tell, nothing happened, oh look!  Nothing happened again, there is nothing to see here, ladies and gentlemen, keep moving along.  Each of these sane and lovely falsehoods is dedicated to my muse and my difficulty, Katherine O’Dell.  Hi, Ma.” – Norah FitzMaurice, author and main character.

cover actessAuthor Anne Enright, the real-life Irish author of this novel about fictional actress Katherine O’Dell, recreates the “life” that Katherine led publicly as opposed the “real” life she is said to have kept hidden.  Enright, a superbly controlled author, faced a daunting task in creating the lives of her characters here without resorting to the sensationalism her main character/author Norah scorns. Throughout her career, Enright has specialized in showing the values and attitudes at play within complex but intimate family dynamics, varying her points of view and time frames to allow the reader to draw conclusions about one character because of events which reflect the lives of other characters in other generations and times.  She is often so subtle that readers become lulled into sharing the lives of her characters before they have a chance to evaluate who and what the characters are doing and saying and what this means about life and their attitudes toward it.  In Actress, Anne Enright is especially concerned with the fictions people create for their own reasons, including fame. Three generations, reflecting different times and points of view, make this novel a complex study of how people often recreate their own memories to make them more palatable, while drawing conclusions, often false, about the realities of other people.

The Herne Hill area of London, where actress Katherine O'Dell was born.

The Herne Hill area of London, where actress Katherine O’Dell was born.

As this novel opens, Norah, the writer-daughter of famed Irish actress Katherine O’Dell, admits that her mother, the subject of Norah’s late-in-life biography, is a “difficulty,” – someone Norah still does not fully understand.  Norah has written five well-received novels since her mother died in 1986, at age fifty-eight, and even after thirty years, her own books are still described as having been “written by the daughter of Katherine O’Dell.”  She describes her characters as being “slightly nondescript,” people who “rarely have sex and they certainly do not attack each other.  They just realize things and feel a little sad.”  Now the same age that Katherine was at the time of her death, Norah is trying to put Katherine’s life into perspective, in order to gain better perspective on her own life.  She has long known that Katherine was less than honest about much of her life.  She knows that her mother was not Irish at all, having been born in the Herne Hill area of London.  Her red hair was not naturally red, and her Irish accent was a studied affectation.  Other, far more important, diversions from the truth governed Katherine’s life and death, however, and even Norah has never learned the name of her own father.  As she thinks about writing her book, Norah admits, outright, “I do not know how I can quell, in myself, the rage, the rage, the rage.”


Broadway, where Katherine O’Dell became a star.

The novel opens in a conversational, casual tone, as Norah speaks directly to the reader about her mother, Katherine, as she eats toast, smokes, and talks on the phone about everything being “marvelous,” while Norah herself, aged eight or nine, concludes that her mother is a star.  “Not just on screen or on the stage, but at the breakfast table also.”  A quick shift within the same section moves to Norah’s twenty-first birthday party in Belfast, where everyone present is staring at her mother.  For Norah, it is a “terrible party,” with the people there representing “various types,” the women not as glamorous as they used to be, the men as “theatre types,” and everyone showing off, while Norah herself thinks about a boyfriend who has just left her for good.  Everything at the party has been staged and photographed for publication, and Norah notes that her mother is forty-five, at this point, and “finished,” professionally and sexually. Viewing her writing critically, Norah then comments in the next paragraphs that she is “getting ahead” of herself, so she switches to the present and mentions that her mother had been committed to a mental hospital in 1980 after an assault on a film producer whom she shot, a beginning that certainly sets the stage for some major developments.

Bloody Sunday (1972) memorialized in mural by Payton Walton, 2018, showing hero-priest Fr. Edward Daly in Belfast and men carrying body of young victim.

Bloody Sunday (1972) memorialized in mural by Payton Walton, 2018, showing hero-priest Fr. Edward Daly in Belfast and men carrying body of young victim.

Shortly after this section, Norah is dealing in the present with a researcher doing a thesis on her mother, which she hopes will one day become a book, and she mentions that in the 1970s her mother “liked to hang out with IRA men in New York and Boston,” something that was a scandal in Dublin at the time.  Several references follow, addressed to “you,” a person not identified but probably Norah’s husband, since she follows that with references to her “huge, teenaged son” and his sister.  The next day she leaves Ireland for London and the beginning of her work on her book about her mother, who made her acting debut by playing a crocus at age ten in a chorus of spring flowers at the Royalton Theater, London.  After this, Katherine is never really off-stage, even having showy picnics at a local park, events which Norah considered constant scene-setting. “She did not need to pretend to be my mother, when she was my mother already.  That was like double cream.”  Other early scenes depict her father, who was a member of a traveling theatrical troupe, and who had been in films in the 1950s. 

Anne Enright was WINNER of the Irish Novel of the Year Award and was Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for 2016, and is a previous WINNER of the Man Booker Prize.

Anne Enright was WINNER of the Irish Novel of the Year Award and was SHORTLISTED for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for 2016, and is a previous WINNER of the Man Booker Prize.

Katherine’s shooting of Boyd O’Neill in 1980, the shows and films in which Katherine starred, her twenty-three week run in a Broadway play, Katherine’s marriage, hints about Norah’s father, and her mother’s friendships with theatre people and with her “pet priest,” precede more references to the IRA in the 1970s and the question of whether her mother is clinically mad in the 1980s.  At the same time, Norah herself is developing from within, and the reader comes to know about her own life and background, though this is primarily in relation to her mother, and not for its own sake. Obviously, with the chronology shifting as widely and as dramatically as it does here, Anne Enright has to write with a firm hand at the helm.  Seemingly effortlessly, she keeps up the suspense at the same time that she develops characters, appears to write a free-flowing narrative, and expands her strong themes of reality vs. memory, and hard truth vs. personal fantasy.  She is a genius at structuring this wide-ranging novel.  There are no characters who will inspire a reader’s love here, however, and some readers will miss the sense of identification one usually gets with characters in novels of family and their intersecting lives.

ALSO by Enright, reviewed here:  THE GREEN ROAD

Bray Head, where Norah and family are living at the end of the novel, is a place of great peace for Norah.

Bray Head, where Norah and family are living at the end of the novel, is a place of great peace for Norah.

Photos. The photo of a Herne Hill residential area, where Katherine O’Dell was born, appears on:  https://www.movebubble.com

This vibrant photo of Broadway is from http://gaylesbroadwayrose.com/

Payton Walton’s memorial to the victims of Bloody Sunday in 1972, was created in Belfast in 2018.  It shows men carrying a victim of the rebellion, as Father Edward Daly helps with their escape.  https://en.wikipedia.org

Anne Enright’s photo may be found on https://www.coastmagazine.co.uk

Bray Head, outside of Dublin, where Norah and her family are living at the end of the novel, is a place of great peace for her.  Additional photos here:  https://www.facebook.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Experimental, Historical, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Anne Enright
Published by: W. W. Norton
Date Published: 03/03/2020
ISBN: 978-1324005629
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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