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“My body craved a past with Emma and Father: I wanted to be small again. I wanted to swim, then fish, have Emma and me dry ourselves under the sun until our skin cooked. ‘Let’s be bears!’ I’d tell her, and we’d grow brown and giant, our bear paws swiping each other’s black noses. Emma would draw blood and I’d dig into her fur-covered ribs, touch her heart with my claws…Father would say, ‘Emma, be kind to Lizzie,’ and we’d embrace each other.” – Lizzie Borden

cover see what i have doneOn the morning of August 4, 1892, Abby Gray Borden and her husband, Andrew Jackson Borden were found dead in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, both brutally butchered with an axe or hatchet. Borden was a highly successful merchant, maker of caskets, and owner and developer of commercial property, a wealthy man who nevertheless lived a frugal life and kept his daughters and his wife totally dependent on him. His body was found reclining on the living room sofa by his younger daughter Lizzie, aged thirty-two, and the body of his wife Abby was found shortly afterward. She, too, was hacked to death and was found lying beside her bed upstairs. The only people in the house at the time were Lizzie and Bridget, the maid, who was up in her room resting after having been assigned the task of washing the outside of the downstairs windows in the August heat, though she was still recuperating from a violent stomach upset. Lizzie’s uncle John Morse, brother of Andrew Borden’s first wife, had slept in the house the preceding night and had met with Lizzie’s father early in the morning before leaving to visit another relative, and Lizzie’s sister Emma was out of town visiting friends. Lizzie claimed that someone must have broken into the house to kill her father.

authorAs Australian author Sarah Schmidt recreates this famous murder and its aftermath, she delves into all the psychological complications surrounding the individual characters, gradually providing other intriguing possibilities regarding the murder. Structuring the book around the commentaries of four speakers – Lizzie, Emma, Bridget, and a mysterious hired killer named Benjamin, who had close contact with John Morse, Lizzie’s uncle – she shows all their interactions both before and after the murders. About half the action takes place in chapters labeled “August 4, 1892,” the day of the murder, and the rest takes place earlier, with the same characters offering their points of view on all manner of issues and providing background information in the chapters labeled “August 3, 1892.” A clumsy police investigation provided many opportunities for the killer to get rid of any evidence, even to the point that Lizzie and Emma, who had returned home upon hearing the news of the murders, were allowed to be alone in the house with one of Emma’s friends the night of the crimes so that they could clean the blood from the murder site and prepare the house for funeral guests. It is therefore forever impossible to know for certain who the real killer was and how, exactly, it really happened.

newspaper headline

The Fall River Post from August 4, 1892.

Despite this limitation, author Schmidt provides insights and information which most readers will find compelling. Lizzie herself is impossible to know, a person who is anti-social to an extreme. Her mother died when she was two, and her father remarried when she was not even five. She and her stepmother were never close, though they shared the same house for thirty years, and at one point, the adult Lizzie even stole her jewelry and refused to admit it. Emma, ten years older than she, was the one assigned to be in charge of Lizzie for most of her life, and readers will find Lizzie’s attitudes and behavior so naïve that they may have as hard a time as I did believing that she was thirty years old, not sixteen, when she took a tour of the great cities of Europe, and thirty two when her father and stepmother died. At the time of the killings, Lizzie gave conflicting information about where she was in the house and what she was doing, and though she appears to have no memory of committing the murders, if in fact she did commit them, her lack of “affect” is so obvious that it is easy to believe one suggestion that she committed the murder while in a “fugue state.”

borden_lizzie07_1889

Lizzie Borden at age twenty-nine.

Emma is the character who evokes the most sympathy. Ten years older than Lizzie, she has friends whom she enjoys visiting, and at one point even had a relationship with someone named Samuel.  Lizzie often gleefully manipulates her for her own amusement and benefit, and Emma, wanting to keep her father from becoming physically abusive during his tantrums, often gives in to avoid being slapped hard in the face. Bridget, who came from County Cork, is desperate to return there, and she has saved her money religiously so that she can afford a ticket back to Ireland to visit family, only to find it missing one day. Faithful and honest, she must testify at the trial which occurs after Lizzie is charged with murder, only to find her testimony demeaned by Lizzie’s lawyer and much of the court. John Morse, a character whose motives and plans are suspect when he suddenly visits the family for an overnight stay, appears to have shady dealings on his mind. His relationship with the mysterious and dangerous Benjamin, included here either as a red herring regarding the murder or to suggest that John Morse, too, might also have murder on his mind, makes the reader wonder why and how John Morse would have found Benjamin and what his plans were for him.

The Borden house in Fall River. Note barn in the background, where Lizzie spent half an hour after discovering her father's death.

The Borden house in Fall River. Note barn in the background, where Lizzie spent half an hour after discovering her father’s death.  The house is now a B&B.

The climax here is the funeral of Abby and Andrew Borden, the interchanges between Lizzie and Emma in the days preceding it , and the memories Lizzie has of her father and a conversation they might have had the morning he died. The reader will come to know Lizzie even better than before and may even draw conclusions about Lizzie’s guilt or innocence. To answer any questions a reader may have about the trial and what really happened in the days leading up to it and immediately following it, the author also includes a helpful “Fall River Timeline,” which provides the names, dates, and special events from the birth of Andrew Jackson Borden in 1822, through his marriages and the births of his children, the ten months in which Lizzie was in jail before the trial, and the follow-up after the trial for Lizzie and Emma. The novel, sometimes exciting and often insightful, is described by the author as fiction, but her research and the care she has taken with the facts, while also relaying what she believes might have been going on inside the hearts of Lizzie and Emma, make this novel feel real. Though Lizzie remains as much of a mystery at the end of the book as at the beginning, the direction of the author’s research is clear.

The NYTimes obituary for Lizzie, who lived for 35 years after her trial.

The NYTimes obituary for Lizzie, who lived for 35 years after her trial. She died on June 1, 1927.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on https://www.goodreads.com/

The front page from the Fall River Post was found on https://www.pinterest.com

Lizzie’s portrait from 1889 is in  http://www.crimearchives.net/

The Borden house, now a B&B, was found on http://www.findadeath.com/

The New York Times carried an obituary for Lizzie Borden after her death in 1927.  She lived for 35 years after her trial for murder.  https://lizziebordenwarpsandwefts.com

SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE
REVIEW. 2017 Reviews, Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Mystery, Noir, Fictionalized Biography Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, US Regional
Written by: Sarah Schmidt
Published by: Atlantic Monthly Press
Date Published: 08/01/2017
ISBN: 978-0802126597
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“It’s never enough. Adam and Eve. So desperate to know what only God knows. Reaching. The writers of Genesis had us pegged more than two thousand years ago, realized exactly what a human being boiled down to, even on her tippy-toes grabbing at that apple, forcing the fruit on Adam. We’re never happy with what we have even if it’s paradise; there’s always something else.” – Margaret Brickshaw

cover confusion of languagesSetting her novel in Jordan, author Siobhan Fallon focuses on Americans who serve abroad in the military, protecting U. S. Embassies, and how cultural differences with their host countries affect their lives. These are subjects that the author knows well, since she and her husband, who is still on active duty with the U. S. Army, have recently moved with their family from Jordan to Abu Dhabi for their current tour of duty. Drawing on her own life in Jordan and her observations and insights about how Americans behave, she creates two  protagonists who act and feel real. Cassie Hugo, who has been in Jordan for two years, and Margaret Brickshaw, who is a new arrival, live near each other, each dealing with her own personal problems unrelated to the setting, but each also hoping that she can find a friend in the other. Cassie is desperate to have a baby but is still childless after nine years, and she is beginning to wonder whether her marriage will survive. Margaret, a naïve young woman with a new baby, has grown up in a home in which her father disappeared and her mother, with a serious, eventually fatal, illness, depended on Margaret for virtually all of life’s necessities from household chores to companionship. Margaret’s unplanned pregnancy and quick, subsequent marriage to Crick Brickshaw, brought her out of the country to Jordan almost simultaneously with her mother’s death, and even now she is not sure how much of her marriage was for love and how much was from necessity.

author photoThe personal trials and traumas, both real and imagined, which the two women experience, and the absence of their husbands sometimes for weeks, on trips to the embassies in other countries, leave the women on their own in a foreign culture. To bring the issues of these women to life, author Fallon has devised an intriguing structure for the novel, one which creates tension and a sense of mystery and foreboding, while also managing the stories of these two women without having the reader become frustrated by their several emotional issues. For the first fifty pages, the point of view is that of Cassie, who on May 13, 2011, at 3:00 p.m., is a passenger in a car driven by Margaret when it gets hit from behind at a traffic light in Amman. A representative of the embassy comes to the scene to translate and to explain to Margaret that she will need to pay a fifteen dollar “guilt fee” by going to the police station and filling out some papers. Margaret, insistent that she is not guilty, persuades Cassie to take Margaret’s young baby back to their apartment, where he will be more comfortable and indicates that she will go to the police station on her own. She does not return, nor does she call Cassie to indicate when she will be back. She disappears.

jordan-map

Click to enlarge.

From here on, the story alternates between two time periods, all clearly labeled as chapter headings. The episodes from May 13, 2011, proceed forward in increments measured in minutes, describing what Cassie is doing from the moment that she first arrives at Margaret’s apartment with Margaret’s baby and slowly begins to realize that Margaret may not be coming back. Alternating with these notes of May 13 are episodes from the point of view of Margaret. These begin on January 15, when Margaret first arrives in Amman to her new home, and introduce the characters with whom Margaret interacts. As the two points of view and the characters’ stories develop, parallel story lines from different time periods evolve, and the reader comes to know the characters’ personalities, along with their past histories. Margaret, a spontaneous person, refuses to live by the “rules” and the cultural etiquette set forth by the embassy – rules prohibiting women from shaking hands and touching Jordanian men, visiting them for any reason in a private home or office, and controlling how much skin a woman may reveal.   Conversations and the giving of gifts are to be avoided. Even standing in lines is considered a “democratic” behavior – the idea that all people are equal and will therefore be served in the order in which they reach the front of the line.

The Temple of Hercules in the Roman Citadel in Amman

The Temple of Hercules in the Roman Citadel in Amman, where Margaret and Cassie take a hike. Click to enlarge.

Gradually, the two time periods grow closer to each other, and the reader sees Cassie, in Margaret’s apartment, becoming frantic at her absence. Eventually, she discovers Margaret’s diary/journal, filled with long descriptions of events and activities in which Margaret has sometimes participated with Cassie. On a trip to the Citadel together, while the men are away in Italy for a few weeks, the women hike to the highest hill in Amman to see the pillars of a Roman temple and come to some realizations on the way back. Discussions of their marriages and whether their husbands are truly “in love” with them alternate with episodes in which the two husbands flirt with other women. Cassie and Margaret do not confront them for fear of what they might discover. Margaret’s journal also reveals other bits of information which makes Cassie fearful of the possible consequences from some of Margaret’s behavior.

Roman ruins in Jerash, which Margaret visits with a Jordanian friend, to Cassie's horror.

Roman ruins in Jerash, which Margaret visits with a Jordanian friend, to Cassie’s horror. Click to enlarge.

Margaret, as the reader (and Cassie) realizes through the diary, often continues to behave as if she were in the United States, violating cultural taboos of Jordan, even, at one point, visiting a Jordanian family in the countryside and accepting a gift. A trip to visit the Arch of Hadrian and the Roman ruins in Jerash with a member of this family, which Cassie argued strongly against, eventually leads to the two chronologies coming together in a dramatic conclusion. The reader, aware of the almost constant misunderstandings between Margaret and Cassie, recognizes that each of these women is desperate to find a friend and develop a close relationship, but the reader also realizes that their level of misunderstanding is as dramatic as the “confusion of languages” and cultures which often exists between Americans and those of other cultures. However much an American may misinterpret the visual “signs” and “signals” sent by Jordanians, a similar confusion often exists within everyday life among Americans. Domestic episodes involving love and honor in relationships eventually become broad underlying themes within a multicultural environment, providing much to think about in this well developed and culturally intriguing novel.

King Abdullah and Queen Rania with their four children, Princess Iman, Princess Salma, Crown Prince Hussein, upon his graduation from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst , and Prince Hashem.

King Abdullah and Queen Rania with their four children, Princess Iman, Princess Salma, Crown Prince Hussein, upon his graduation from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst , Prince Hashem, and Princess Salma. Click to enlarge.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on the book jacket and on https://www.amazon.com

The map of Jordan and its neighbors is from http://geology.com/

The Roman Temple of Hercules in Amman may be found on https://upload.wikimedia.org/

The Roman ruins of Jerash, which Margaret visits with a Jordanian friend are from http://www.goseewrite.com

The picture of King Abdullah and his family is on http://jordanianroyals.tumblr.com/

THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES
REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Jordan, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Siobhan Fallon
Published by: G. P. Putnam's Sons
Date Published: 06/27/2017
ISBN: 978-0399158926
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

 

“In his debut, [N. J.]Campbell has written a page-turner, an onion peel of a story surrounding nothing less than the central questions of human existence. The reader is led down a rabbit hole and back out again, confused, afraid, but nevertheless also ever so slightly amused. This is a weird little book full of momentum, intrigue, and weighty ideas to mull over.” – Publishers Weekly, April 10, 2017

cover found audioThough it deals with nothing less than the meaning of existence, the nature of reality, and ultimately, a search for the legendary “City of Dreams,” which has haunted the lives of writers and philosophers for centuries, Found Audio is also great fun. Debut author N. J. Campbell makes his own rules here as he creates a novel which is entertaining and, at times, exciting, even as it also deals with philosophical questions which have been the subjects of treatises, novels, plays, and poetry since the beginning of time. Who we are, where we are going, what we see as the nature of reality, how importantly we regard our dreams, and the universal need to give meaning to our lives are issues for most of us, and what Campbell has to say is not new. What is new is his enthusiastic, down-to-earth treatment of these ideas within a novel which is experimental and often charming, drawing the reader into participating in a search for truth through mysterious audio tapes which have been found by an unknown narrator who has traveled the world to exotic places.

NJCampbell Two Dollara RadioIn a Foreword, the author talks about having received a manuscript from an unidentified writer in 2006. The writer of the manuscript is asking the author to find a publisher for the work, which begins with an introductory letter from Amrapali Anna Singh, PhD., described as the transcriber of a “rough, unfinished first draft of a non-fiction work in progress.” The transcriber goes on to provide a note on the text. She had been visited in 2006 by a man named Pierre Cavey while she was working in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. He had come “directly” from Buenos Aires by way of Shanghai, Allahabad (in Uttar Pradesh) and Antanarivo, the capital of Madagascar. With him, he brought three audio tapes, and he was prepared to pay her a significant sum in cash for two days of work on the tapes in an effort to determine where they came from, how they were produced, and who might have recorded them. All of the tapes are labeled as coming from the Biblioteca Nacional de Investigacion de Buenos Aires, and the writer announced that he would take them with him at the end of the two-day window. Though the transcriber was not allowed to make copies, she made them anyway, later discovering that Pierre Cavey was wanted by both the library in Buenos Aires and the U.S. Embassy in Argentina for his theft of the tapes.

El Capitan, a trail on the Matterhorn, which Bianca and Julien hiked while under the influence of a drug.

El Capitan, a trail on the Matterhorn, which Bianca and Julien hiked while under the influence of a drug.

As the tapes begin in 1998, the narrator, identified as a male, age 48 – 52, with a Midwestern accent, talks about going “down to the bayou,” in 1991, to try to find an old man named Otha Johnson, who works as a bounty hunter of snakes – the big-game species of snakes not native to Louisiana and which are now considered invasive species. When he finally locates Otha, the two men drive to Otha’s cottage, deep in the bayou. On the ride, the narrator, almost in a trance, obsesses about a former girlfriend who once climbed El Capitan on the Matterhorn on a moonless night while under the influence of “Blue,” and he remembers meeting her to talk about it later. Once at Otha’s house at the bayou, the speaker and Otha wade into the swamp, take a small wooden boat from behind Otha’s cottage, and head out. The narrator cannot think of a single question to ask Otha, and he begins to wonder if he has been drugged, his head feeling like “a certain type of trip I’ve had with shamans in Thailand….The world was climbing inside me and it was desperately intent on taking away from me whatever part of myself I held from it…And this went on for hours until, after being there for a thoughtless infinity, I started to forget about what my life had been before that experience.” On coming to, he finds himself back in the marsh, the entire boat ride a blank. As Otha says, “Dare ain’t always an easy explanation of a life.”

The Darvaza Gas Crater, known in Turkmenistan as the "Gate to Hell" was a natural gas field which collapsed into an underground cavern.

The Darvaza Gas Crater, known in Turkmenistan as the “Door to the Abyss,”  was a natural gas field which collapsed into an underground cavern. Photo by Tormod Sandtorf

Tape II, also recorded in 1998, features the same journalist, who has decided to go after stories in a new way. After concluding that he must have made up the whole story of Otha and the swamp, he takes himself to Turkmenistan, meeting with fellow journalist Julien Belmonte, who often traveled with Bianca, the narrator’s former girlfriend. Julien is on his way to the Darvaza gas crater also known as the “Door to the Abyss,” and he is convinced that the burning crater is “like chasing the City of Dreams – the reader always expects more than is actually there.” The City of Dreams, for him, is an old myth, which he likens to Dr. Livingstone’s “Plateau of Dreams” in Burundi, to Napoleon’s “Caravan of Dreams” before the Battle of Waterloo, and to Cortez’ story, told to the King of Spain, about the “Festival of Dreams.” Even the Egyptians “have hieroglyphs than can be translated as ‘The City of Sleeping Worlds.’ “ All, Julien believes, are “mirages at the margins of conjecture and hearsay.” Soon the narrator is called to Kowloon, where he sees graffiti about the City of Dreams and meets an old man who talks about the City as being “different for everyone, but also the same for everyone.” Later, in Mongolia, the journalist goes on to the Singing Dunes in the Gobi Desert, where he finds a city that smells of saffron, a repeating image, and where he also sees “a being,” sitting at the City of Dreams. Eventually, the comment of an old monk comes back to him, “Are you the dreamer or are you the dream?”

The Singing Dunes in Kongoryn Els in Mongolia, a destination of Julien, are also known as the "Field of Sleep."

The Singing Dunes in Kongoryn Els in Mongolia, a destination of Julien, are also known as the “Field of Sleep.”

Tape III describes the narrator’s lack of dreams for years after that, during which he agrees to cover a chess match in Istanbul and connects with The Turk, who offers comments on his life. Always, he is asking “What is behind the dream?” Though it ends, at this point, the novel brings events up to the present. Ten years have passed, and information arrives regarding the transcriber, Amrapali Singh, and the later lives of Bianca Terrazas and Julien Belmonte. The “author” of the novel insists that it is Amrapali Singh and not himself who is the author of the book, but who knows?   As of March, 2017, he does not know what has happened to any of the people connected with the manuscript, he says, nor does he know whether they are alive or dead. The book ends with his conjectures as to who the narrator might be, where the various other characters have gone, and where they might yet be going.  A novel that is fresh, often charming, and full of insights into the need for a City of Dreams and what these dreams represent for us all.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from https://twodollarradio.com/

Bianca and Julien hiked the El Capitan trail on the Matterhorn while under the influence of a drug.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

The Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan, known locally as the “Gates of Hell” or the “Door to the Abyss,” was a natural gas field which eventually collapsed into an underground cavern beneath it creating a crater.  Photo by Tormod Sandtorf: https://www.flickr.com/people/14585659@N07 , posted to https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The narrator also goes to Mongolia to the Khongoryn Els, where the Singing Dunes are located.  These are also known as the ”  Field of Sleep.”  https://travel.prwave.ro/

FOUND AUDIO
REVIEW. Allegory, Experimental, Exploration, Literary
Written by: N. J. Campbell
Published by: Two Dollar Radio
Date Published: 07/11/2017
ISBN: 978-1937512576
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note: Jens Christian Grondahl’s 2005 novel, An Altered Light, was SHORTLISTED for the IMPAC Dublin Award, the biggest prize in the literary world.

“For me it was never a question of forgiveness, once you were gone. It doesn’t make sense to stand there forgiving or not forgiving a stone, be it limestone or granite. Your life, any life, is reduced to a handful of facts when it ends. It was. This and that happened, and we can make of it what we like….It is absurd of me to address you but if I don’t it will be as if I, too, were just another fact, like a stone, nothing more.”   Ellinor to Anna, long after Anna’s death.

cover often i am happyIn Jens Christian Grondahl’s Often I Am Happy, Ellinor, a Danish woman who is seventy as this novel opens, is the only survivor among four close friends – two couples – from their earlier lives in Copenhagen. Now alone, Ellinor is reliving her life, trying to gain resolution and reconciliation for some of the issues she has faced in her life and marriage. Anna, her best friend, has always been very much a part of Ellinor’s life, even though she died thirty years ago when Anna’s twin boys were only five, and as Ellinor revisits episodes in her own long life, she continually “chats” with Anna, her one-sided “conversations” swirling around in time as she shares her feelings and observations with Anna. Gradually, the reader is able to piece together Ellinor’s past and the complex relationship she has had with Anna, with her own husband Henning, and with Anna and her husband Georg.   The initially confusing details of their lives together quickly become clearer as the nature of their unbreakable bonds come into sharper focus. The novel which results, mesmerizing as much for the skill of author Jens Christian Grondahl in controlling his release of information as it is for the psychological interconnections among his main characters, is masterfully constructed to reveal both surprises and devastating revelations which the two couples face, often together.

author photoThe novel opens at a graveyard, where Ellinor is addressing Anna, for whom she has always brought flowers for her birthday, commenting on the novel’s first page that “our” husband, who died recently in the shower, when he was seventy-eight, is not able to lie beside Anna because in the thirty years since Anna’s death, the gravesite has become more crowded. Ellinor shares her feelings regarding Anna’s death, obviously sudden, and her funeral, telling her that even now she “cannot grasp the idea that people [like her own husband Henning] may just disappear; it is like eternity. Impossible to imagine. But there we were, Georg, the twins, and I [at your gravesite].” She is quick to tell Anna that “of course I didn’t want him at all for the first long stretch of time.” Switching again to the present, she indicates that “the twins,” Anna’s sons, have been “down on her lately,” perhaps because she has been “too abrupt, too determined,” and has sold the house where she eventually lived with their father after Anna’s death, admitting that while she may be “a little callous,” she does find the twins “terribly sentimental.” She does not see why she should “sit like some custodian of their childhood home now that Georg is gone.” She has mourned and is sad that they do not realize that she is in shock, if she is, in fact, in shock.

One of the times in which Ellinor connected with Morten, one of the twins, was in their discussion of Manet's painting, and whether the left leg was correctly presented.

One of the times in which Ellinor connected with Morten, one of the twins, was in their discussion of Manet’s painting, The Absinthe Drinker, and whether the subject’s left leg was correctly drawn.

Within these first ten pages, the author has conveyed all this background information and past history, without telling any sordid details, at the same time that he has raised expectations and suspense regarding the circumstances of Ellinor and her relationships.   As the book develops, Ellinor tells Anna about the twins and how different they are, Stefan being a financial consultant now and Morten being an art historian. The twins’ marriages and their lifestyles, and the contrasts with her own – “a girl from the gutter” – lead her to wonder “When did I become a stranger again? Was I one all along?” Her earlier marriage to Henning, which she herself describes as a wedding between “posh and threadbare,” like his apartment, and the couple’s friendship with Anna and Georg put their many-sided relationship into perspective, and when Anna and Georg’s twins are old enough to be left with their grandparents for a weekend, Ellinor happily agrees to go skiing with Anna, Georg, and Henning, something she has never done before.

Ellinor, as a child, spent time with neighborhood children running between the woods at Fredericksborg Castle and the coal pile of the waterfront.

Ellinor, as a child, spent time with neighborhood children playing in the woods near Fredericksborg Castle and in the coal piles of the waterfront.

The novel eventually expands into the broader love stories of Ellinor’s mother, the war, and its aftermath, also contrasting those themes with the petty carping between Stefan, one of the twins, his wife, and their attitudes toward Ellinor. Ellinor’s personal limitations become obvious through her actions, and her intentions to improve her life become admirable.  Grondahl specializes in the kind of psychological novel that this novel becomes, and he concerns himself with many of the same issues and themes as he does in his earlier novel, An Altered Light. In that novel, a middle-aged lawyer must deal with a divorce after a long marriage, and she must figure out who she is. As in this novel, the main character explores her present life in an effort to live the future as she wants to live it. The hidden secrets in the lives of other people in her life – parents and friends – affect her and are as much a part of her life as they are in Ellinor’s life. The effects of the lives of our parents and others we know in determining who we are and what we become cannot be underestimated, he believes, and the biggest lesson that we can learn is how to live with what we know or discover without being overwhelmed by it.

Ellinor had a B&W picture of the twins parents staring lovingly at each other at a dance contest framed for the twins when she married.

Ellinor had a B&W picture of the twins’ parents staring lovingly at each other at a dance contest framed for the twins when she married.

Ellinor’s feelings of identification with or obligation toward Anna are ultimately illustrated by her admission that “When I moved in with Georg and the boys, I had the picture framed of the two of you dancing a slowfox a few years before we met. I hung it on the wall in their room, so that they could see how much their parents had loved each other. It’s the only thing that counts for a child. We forgive our parents when they forget us, if only they love each other.” A thoughtful novel, well developed with insights into our relationships and obligations both to ourselves and to those we love.

ALSO by Grondahl:  AN ALTERED LIGHT

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

Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker, painted in 1859, was his first major work of art.  The glass of absinthe on the wall beside the man was added in 1867-1872. https://upload.wikimedia.org/

The photo of Fredericksborg Castle, where Ellinor played in the woods sometimes (when she was not playing in the coal heaps on the harbor), is from http://www.dnm.dk/

The 1960s dance, where Anna and Georg competed, is from https://www.mnstate.edu/

OFTEN I AM HAPPY
REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Jens Christian Grondahl
Published by: Twelve, Hachette Book Group
Date Published: 04/11/2017
ISBN: 978-1455570072
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note: Jose Eduardo Agualusa was WINNER of the International Dublin Literary Award (formerly the IMPAC Dublin Award) for this novel in 2017.

“Ludovica Fernandes Mano died in Luanda…in the early hours of 5 October 2010. She was eighty-five years old. Sabalu Estevao Capitango gave me copies of ten notebooks in which Ludo had been writing her diary, dating from the first years of the twenty-eight during which she had shut herself away. I also had access to the diaries that followed her release, as well as to a huge collection of photographs…and the charcoal pictures on the walls of her apartment. They helped me, I believe, to understand her.”—from the author’s Foreword.

cover agualusa general theory oblivionSet in the immediate aftermath of Angolan independence in 1975, after that country’s long-time rule by Portuguese colonists, this novel by Angolan author Jose Eduardo Agualusa reflects the conflicts involved as the country sets up a new government under the Marxists and Leninists who had helped during the revolution, aided by the Soviet Union and Cuba. The war for independence from Portugal is now over, and many who fought in that war are getting ready to fight anew against the one-party Leninist state which has taken its place and now threatens to nationalize all private businesses. Ludovica Fernandes Mano, the fifty-year-old main character and speaker, has been living in Luanda with her sister Odete and brother-in-law Orlando, who works in the diamond trade, and they have begun to fear the future and their roles in Angola. Originally from Portugal, these residents have found that all allegiances and alliances are now in question, and no one knows, for sure, whom they can trust. Threats are being made by unknown players. One morning, without warning, Ludo wakes to find herself suddenly alone in the family’s comfortable apartment. Her sister and brother-in-law have used the cover of night to escape the country, leaving her behind. Ludo, always timid, “never liked having to face the sky. While still only a little girl, she was horrified by open spaces,” and the only really close relationship she seems to have is with her albino German Shepherd dog named Phantom.

author photoWhen someone who claims to be from the Portuguese army comes to the apartment demanding “the stones,” for which, he says, he will release her captive sister, Ludo takes surprisingly forceful action, and she does it alone. Using materials left behind the apartment to build a swimming pool, she bricks up and plasters over the entire entrance to her apartment. Once she has finished, she closes herself in and does not leave for twenty-eight years. Growing vegetables for food, she traps and removes chickens from the balcony of the apartment below her, aiming to catch both a rooster and a hen so that she can have her own flock and their eggs. She catches pigeons, using sparkling diamonds as a lure, and she burns nearly all the furniture for heat. As the years pass, she slowly diminishes the number of books in the library. She spends much time, of course, looking out the window, and she is particularly sad that she is no longer being entertained by a monkey which she has named Che Guevara. When she finally finds him again, she is surprised that he is “watching her with light, wondering eyes. She had never seen such an intensely human look in the eyes of any man,” an irony in keeping with the themes and style of the novel. Eventually, she runs out of notebooks after her years of writing, and she finds herself losing her eyesight. She decides to write on the walls of the apartment in charcoal.

From the balcony of Ludo's apartment, she can see the Ilha Promontory in Luanda

From the balcony of Ludo’s apartment, she can see the beaches of Ilha Promontory in Luanda

Numerous characters make repeated appearances here, and as the long, unfamiliar names, and occasionally nicknames, are often difficult to remember, some readers may want to keep a character list. Part of this need is connected to the ambiguity of time here, which adds to the sense of immediacy and the mood of this novel, though it can be a bit frustrating at times. Dates are rarely included, and narrative episodes are not in chronological order. Che Guevara, the monkey, is mentioned for the first time in an italicized musing by Ludo, but he is not identified as a monkey at that time. Sixteen pages later, he appears again, with no reference to the fact that he has been mentioned before. Jeremias Carrasco is mentioned early, a mercenary “in the pay of American imperialism.” Thirty pages later, he is mentioned again when he is recovering from being shot, with no previous context included. Little Chief, a fairly major character, appears in several places in the book, but, again, the episodes are not in chronological order, and the character’s past history is not mentioned.  Fortunately, Agualusa, provides a big surprise at the end of the novel – all the characters reappear here and their connections to each other suddenly become clear, regardless of all the time lapses.

Today the Kuvale number about 5000 people. Though they were spared most of the warfare, they occupy a vast area, and suffer from "food poverty." They are unable to trade their oxen for corn.

Kuvale herdsmen.  Today the Kuvale number about 5000 people. Though they were spared most of the warfare of the past 30 years, they occupy a vast area, and suffer from “food poverty.” They are unable to trade their oxen for corn.

Agualusa is an often-enchanting author. Though he pretends that this is a true story, and stresses at the end of the Foreword that this is fiction, he writes his novel as if he really is borrowing directly from Ludo’s diary and directly inhabiting the mind of his “fictional” speaker. His voice quickly becomes hers, and as the action begins, and becomes increasingly real, the reader willingly follows along, allowing Ludo’s voice to lead the way, no matter where it goes and no matter how much a reader might legitimately question details and their “realism.” Ludo, all alone in her apartment for over a quarter of a century, has plenty of time to contemplate Big Issues. As she does this, while also living her life, the narrative swirls, twists backward, then throws itself forward, filled with impressions, memories, and ideas. Having chosen to live apart from the real world, Ludo has essentially disappeared from the earth, and it is no surprise that much of her mental energy is concerned with other disappearances and the memories and the forgetting that are associated with them.  Realism and real life become underlying themes of the whole novel, perhaps ironically, since the novel – fiction – deals with real subjects yet much of what we are expected to believe about Ludo is patently unrealistic.

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When Ludo’s time in the sealed apartment finally comes to an end, she muses, “I was happy in this home, on those afternoons when the sun came into the kitchen to pay a visit. I would sit down at the table. Phantom would come over and rest his head in my lap. / If I still had the space, the charcoal, and available walls, I could compose a great work about forgetting: a general theory of oblivion.” Ironically, this quotation comes in the middle of the book, long before she goes free, another huge irony on several levels, suggesting once again that Agualusa is reading her diaries and her written musings and then conveying them to us, his/her readers.  Surprising novel with unusual energy.

One of the disappearances which Ludo considers is that of an American Airlines 727, unoccupied, which vanished from Luanda's airport on May 25, 2003. No trace has been found.

One of the disappearances which Ludo considers is that of an American Airlines 727, unoccupied, which vanished from Luanda’s airport on May 25, 2003. No trace has been found.

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

The beautiful Ilha Promontory and its beaches are visible from Ludo’s balcony.  http://www.embajadadeangola.com

The Kuvale herdsmen have escaped most of the bloodshed of the war against the Portuguese and the war for democratic choice, but they suffer from ‘food poverty,” because they cannot trade their oxen for corn. http://www.gnn.iway.na/

The map of Angola in the south of Africa is from https://www.britannica.com/place/Angola/images-videos

One of the “disappearances” which Ludo considers is that of an American Airlines plane, with no passengers, which vanished on May 25, 2003, thought to have been stolen, and never seen to this day.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

A GENERAL THEORY OF OBLIVION
REVIEW. Angola, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, International Dublin Literary Award
Written by: Jose Edwardo Agualusa
Published by: Vintage (Penguin RandomHouse), and Open Letter Books
Date Published: 05/16/2016
ISBN: 978-1846558474
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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