Feed on

“Beyond the window, everything moves [in the storm]: paper trees, toy cars, stick houses, straw dogs. Foam spreads through the streets like a stain…The tide uproots what the wind is unable to demolish. The building withstands the battering. Everyone talks at the same time (twenty scratched records playing at the same time)…an obsession with talking: twelve million scratched records blathering on without stopping. The country is a scratched record (everything repeats itself: every day is a repetition of the day before)….” – the speaker commenting on life in Cuba.

cover 33 revolutionsCanek Sanchez Guevara, author of this novella, died in Mexico 2015 at the age of forty, following heart surgery, and this story was found among his effects. Canek (“Black Serpent,” a Mayan or Incan name) was the oldest grandson of the famed Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an activist physician from Argentina who joined in the planning of the Cuban Revolution after he met Fidel and Raul Castro and other Cuban exiles in Mexico. After a bloody start, their Cuban revolution eventually brought them to power, ousting dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Che himself was eventually assassinated in Bolivia in 1967, but his daughter Hildita and her Mexican husband, Alberto Sanchez, a leftist, remained in Cuba, where Hildita had a job in the Castro propaganda center. Her son Canek, the author of this novella, was born in Havana in 1974, and, with his parents, lived a comfortable life there as Che’s grandson.


Around 1980, his parents traveled to Milan and Barcelona, where Canek Sanchez Guevara attended school in Catalonia until he was 12, then returned to Havana in 1986. From 1986 – 1996, during his teen years, he lived in Cuba, becoming increasingly depressed by what he saw as the failure of the revolution, the persecution of minorities, the interference of the government in virtually every aspect of citizens’ lives, and the constant surveillance – including of his own life as a heavy metal musician, writer, and photographer. In 1996, at age twenty-two, he left Cuba for Mexico, where he lived for the rest of this life, eventually writing about the failure of the revolution and the betrayal by the Castros of the ideals of freedom and socialism with which they had started the revolution. (Sources: Phil Davison’s article here: http://www.independent.co.uk/     and   https://libcom.org/)

6005 Che

Che Guevara, grandfather of Canek Sanchez Guevara

In this story which feels like a memoir, Sanchez Guevara offers a short, often poetic, description of the life of one black man as he faces the interminable boredom, the lack of privacy, the “repetitive cycle of routine,” and “repetition after repetition of the scratched record of time and grime.” His use of the scratched record imagery, over and over again – forty repetitions of this image in the space of ninety-four short pages – actually creates within the reader’s own life the same boredom and stultifying lack of variety which the main character feels, and the reader soon begins to feel controlled by some of the same kinds of forces that the author himself dealt with in the overwhelming tedium of a life over which he had little control in Cuba during 1986 – 1996. Each day is like all the others; his job offers no respite; and when he goes to a bar, he sees four men playing dominoes, as they do every day. “There’s never any variation in the parade of white pieces, black dots, double nines, cries, curses. Next to each player, the eternal glass of rum; in the middle, the ashtray full of cigarette butts. This, he thinks is the scratched record of national culture.”

Many Cubans take their chances in overcrowded boats and head across the Caribbean toward Florida. Photo by Omar FernandezPhoto by Omar Fernandez

Many Cubans take their chances in overcrowded boats and head across the Caribbean toward Florida for a better life in the 1980s. Photo by Omar Fernandez

Later that evening he walks along the avenue and dances alone in the midst of a commotion, “and he wonders what it means to belong, to be united. Is the communion of other people’s bodies merely the alienation of the ordinary?” He thinks about his failed marriage, then sits along the waterfront. “Watching time pass is the people’s favorite pastime. Not wasting it, which would imply that they had it to waste. The years remain…Time always passes.” When he heads for home, he hears the rumble of a bus behind him, and fearing that he will miss it, he runs for the next stop. A patrol car stops him, interrogates him, then, ultimately, lets him go. “Sorry, comrade. You know how it is. A black man running in the dark is always suspicious.” Upset because the police have “snatched away his dream and something he wouldn’t call pride, let alone dignity, but which is doubtless important,” he realizes that “there is not one iota of greatness in any of this, and he makes a gesture that tries to take in the whole city [of Havana].”

old Pentax camera

The gift of a camera offers the speaker some hope for the future, for a while, at least.

The story continues through its thirty-three short “chapters,” or revolutions, matching the scratched “33” record on the cover and in the pervading imagery. The speaker reminisces about his father, his upbringing, his father’s lack of interest in anything to do with the arts, his own technical studies, his record as a model student, always revealing aspects of life which he noted in Cuba at the time. He discovers reading as an escape, and later music, and then the theatre, but every now and then “he wonders what he’s done to deserve this – to have tastes so alien to the tropics and yet live here…” A sexual encounter with a Russian woman leads to his arrest and torture, though he does not know why, and he wonders, yet again, about the point of life. As each scene – each revolution of the 33 record – takes place with few minor changes, the main character looks for something to keep his mind alive. The gift of a Pentax camera with two lenses and a flash gives him some hope for his future, as a few other people around him simultaneously begin to make moves toward their own futures. The conclusion reconciles the thirty-three scenes/revolutions of the record and provides an answer to the speaker’s quest.

Though the scenes are brief and filled with imagery of the scratched record, almost as frustrating to the reader as the times must have been to the speaker who lived through this period, the author nevertheless manages to recreate a portrait of a person stuck in a life not of his own choosing in a country which does not value individuals or respect their potential. Getting by seems to be the goal of everyone, from the most impoverished individual to those in power, though a person of fewer skills and fewer connections than this speaker would have found life much worse, being focused, of necessity, on finding food and a safe place to stay. This speaker, for all his boredom, is nevertheless luckier than most of his compatriots.

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

Che Guevara, grandfather of Canek Sanchez Guevara is shown here:  https://selfmedicant.com

During the 1980s, many Cubans took their chances on a new life by boarding overcrowded boats and setting out to sea for Florida and other places.  Photo by Omar Fernandez. https://twitter.com

The speaker sees some hope when he receives the gift of a Pentax camera and two lenses. http://camerapedia.wikia.com Pentax 1990 – 1997

ARC:  Europa Editions

REVIEW. Cuba, Historical, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Canek Sanchez Guevara
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 10/11/2016
ISBN: 978-1609453480
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Ron Hansen–THE KID

“We have ambitions for Roswell and in fact for all of New Mexico. We foresee a time when most every major town will have a railway depot, a schoolhouse, even a doctor’s office. We want land that is platted and fenced. We want roads instead of cattle trails, We want factories and merchants and all the niceties of civilization…[and] what we got is wildness and anarchy…We got Kid Bonney on the loose taking whatever he pleases, whenever it suits him.” —Captain Joseph Lea and “Uncle” John Chisum, landowner and cattle breeder, 1881, Roswell, New Mexico.

cover kidAlso attending this meeting about the future of Roswell, New Mexico, is Pat Garrett, a bartender without experience as a detective and no reputation as a gunfighter, who responds, “Elect me sheriff and I’ll be a cold and impersonal legal machine. Without sentiment or malice or resentment, I’ll carry out the law to the last letter.” And after his surprise election, he states that he will be able to quell New Mexico’s outlawry, “because outlaws all have one thing in common: sooner or later they find themselves wanting to get caught.” The scene is finally set for a showdown between those, like twenty-one-year-old outlaw Billy the Kid and his gang members, and those in charge of the cattle interests and businesses in Roswell who want the area to be safe so it can grow. Many of these civic leaders themselves have behaved like outlaws and gang members, but they now see an opportunity to bring about peace while maintaining themselves in a relatively comfortable style, and they are determined now to protect their interests, develop them, and ensure that their investments will pay off. Most of them are no more righteous than the outlaw gangs, but they have more fortuitous connections to the legal and political world.

imgresRon Hansen, author of Desperadoes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Atticus has set several of his novels in the Wild West and Mexico, and his familiarity with the territory holds him in good stead as he creates pictures of frontier life, with all its extremes – in weather, behavior, and beliefs – and pits individuals against each other and the times as they try to carve out lives. His settings feel real, and the problems faced by his characters as they try to survive in only semi-civilized communities are understandable and sometimes poignant in their limitations. Billy the Kid is a special case. He is the son of an Irish mother who lived in the New York slums and whose husband, Michael McCarty, joined the New York State Volunteers during the Civil war, transferred to an artillery group from Indiana, and died in battle. She later married William Henry Harrison Antrim, whom she left when she and her two children went to the frontier in Wichita, Kansas. Her husband followed her, but upon her death in 1874, he had no interest in the two boys and disappeared from their lives. Billy was fourteen, at that time, and his brother Joseph, “Josie,” was nineteen. Josie, too, eventually falls out of his brother’s life, and Billy ends up traveling through Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico, following the “work” and the gangs with whom he comes into contact. He is known at various times as William McCarty, Henry Antrim (to avoid confusion with his stepfather William Antrim), and William Henry Bonney, Bonney being his mother’s maiden name.

Colorized version of the only verified photo of Billy the Kid.

Colorized version of the only verified photo of Billy the Kid.

Always small – only five feet seven, at most, and no more than one hundred thirty pounds – Billy was a child living a life with lawless adults, sometimes easily led and sometimes quick on the trigger, both literally and figuratively, the way an undisciplined child can be. Small enough to escape several times when apprehended by the law, he was famous for being able to scoot up chimneys and escape to the roof, and once, famously, doused the flames in a fireplace before escaping up the hot chimney. He could shoot with both hands, and he did not hesitate to do that, if necessary, though the number of deaths he actually caused varies. He is usually thought to have killed four people himself, usually killing out of revenge, and killing four more people in conjunction with others in the gang. Overall, however, he was an easygoing person who set limits – he would willingly steal cattle and horses, but he never robbed a bank or mail coach.

Jesse James, who met Billy in Las Vegas to try to recruit him.

Jesse James, who met Billy in Las Vegas to try to recruit him.

As Billy and his various gangs haunt the New Mexico territory, challenging sheriffs and independent gunslingers, the deaths of his own gang members affect Billy, and at one point, after being on the losing end of a battle, the gang breaks up and Billy begins to gamble in games of faro and monte in Las Vegas. On one occasion, he finds himself sitting in a booth at a bar where he is joined by a finely dressed man in his thirties. The man has been looking for him and wants to recruit him for robbing banks and trains, where his shooting skills will be especially helpful. It is not until Billy asks him where he is based and discovers that it is in Northfield, Minnesota, that he realizes that he is talking with Jesse James. When Billy says no, James “seethed like he was chewing rocks,” but restrains his anger and lets Billy go.

 Old Lincoln County Courthouse and Jail, where Billy the Kid was held. Photo by James Rosenthal, 2005. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Old Lincoln County Courthouse and Jail, where Billy the Kid was held. Photo by James Rosenthal, 2005. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In the last section of the novel, Billy, by now convicted and sentenced to death for his crimes, once again plans an escape, this time from the Lincoln County Courthouse and Jail, bringing the novel and its multitude of characters, both good and bad, to a conclusion. Most readers will gain a wider view of Billy here as he chances his escape.  “I have no roots,” he tells Manuela Herrera, a friend at the Fort Sumner Indian Hospital. “I have no ‘at home’ but here. And I feel doomed. Like I’m riding to Hell on a fast horse. I’m not afraid of dying, but I don’t want to die alone. I don’t want some no one finding me finished off and asking a sheriff, ‘Who’s that?’ ”

Sheriff Pat Garrett

Sheriff Pat Garrett

Author Ron Hansen, who calls The Kid a novel, has written a heavily researched work in which every detail seems to have been checked and rechecked, and though Hansen does not use footnotes, the book feels like serious non-fiction. As each character is introduced – and there are many of them – everything known about the character, his activities, his family, his work, and sometimes his relationships with other families is included, and readers may wonder why so much extra detail is included in a novel focused primarily on Billy the Kid. Clearly, this book will be regarded as a landmark of research, perhaps the definitive work about Billy the Kid and this times, though it does feel as if the need for completeness of information sometimes leads to a sacrificing of character development which many readers will hope for in a book about a boy as famous as Billy the Kid.

Photos, in order:  The author photo appears on http://ccca.biola.edu

The colorized version of the only officially verified photo of Billy the Kid may be found on http://decoy.tvpassport.com/

The Jesse James portrait is from http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Old Lincoln County Courthouse and Jail, where Billy the Kid was held. Photo by James Rosenthal, 2005. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.  https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2015/04/young-gun/

Sheriff Pat Garrett, whose goal it was to eliminate Billy the Kid and his gang so that Roswell, NM could grow and become safe for development.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Garrett

ARC:  Scribner

REVIEW. Biography, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, US Regional, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, New Mexico
Written by: Ron Hansen
Published by: Scribner
Date Published: 10/04/2016
ISBN: 978-1501129759
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


Note:  Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez was WINNER of the most prestigious prize in the literary world in 2014, the IMPAC Dublin Award for The Sound of Things Falling.

“Life is the best caricaturist, turning us into caricatures of ourselves…We all have the obligation to make the best caricature possible, to camouflage what we don’t like and exalt what we like best…I’m not just talking about physical attributes, but of the mysterious moral landscape…that gets drawn on our face as life goes by, as we go along making mistakes or getting things right, as we wound others or strive not to, as we lie or deceive or persist…in the ever difficult task of telling the truth.”—Javier Mallarino, caricaturist.

coverIn his first novel published in English since the IMPAC Dublin Award-winning The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vasquez further develops some of the themes of identity and reality which made that novel so rich, mesmerizing, and dramatically exciting. In this more compressed and even more insightful novel, Vasquez homes in on the many kinds of events which affect our lives and our visions of reality, while also adding a whole new layer of “reality”– that of art and its ability to change the way we see life and even to control our perceptions of it. Key to this approach is his focus on main character Javier Mallarino, a sixty-five-year-old artist who has worked for forty years as a caricaturist for one of Bogota, Colombia’s major newspapers. Modeling his career on that of his idol, Ricardo Rendon, a political cartoonist who died seventy-five years ago, he mourns the fact that Rendon “had [now] been devoured by the insatiable hunger of oblivion.” Few recognize his name now, though he had been, in the 1930s, “a moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half…a man able to cause the repeal of a law, overturn a judge’s decision, or seriously threaten the stability of a ministry.”


Now nearing retirement, Javier Mallarino’s life and work are about to be publicly celebrated at the august Teatro Colon. Though he is flattered by the homage, he also knows that “They’ll forget me, too,” despite his enormous popularity now and the many ways in which he has molded the opinions of his city – criticizing politicians, poking fun of those who take themselves too seriously, and revealing crimes. He wonders what his idol Rendon would have done, then remembers that Rendon “had refused in his own way: On October 28, 1931, he went into La Gran Via, ordered a beer, drew a sketch, and shot himself in the temple.” Reputations, the assessments of a person’s life by those who know him, can be confirmed, enhanced, or, in some cases, utterly destroyed by a cartoonist who is, in actuality, inserting himself into the life of that person through his satirical artwork and permanently manipulating aspects of that life as others see it. Mallarino does not take this responsibility lightly, but as the action and background unfold in this plot, the author soon shows that it is possible even for someone like Mallarino to misread events, though it may not ever be possible to be sure of the truth.

Teatro Colon, where the tribute to Javier Mallarino is scheduled to be held on the main stage.

Teatro Colon, where the tribute to Javier Mallarino is scheduled to be held on the main stage.

Vasquez introduces his main characters and develops their relationships in Part One, using most of Part Two to flash back and recreate an event in his life which may not be not as clear as Mallarino remembers it. Twenty-eight years ago, when he moved to the countryside for privacy, he and his wife had just ended their marriage, and, since he was about to have his seven-year-old daughter Beatriz visit for the first time, he decided to have a party to which she would invite one of her school friends for the weekend. He, in turn, would invite some of his friends from his work and his private life for the party. The girls played upstairs for much of the evening and walked around relatively unsupervised as Mallarino greeted guests, served them drinks, and socialized. Later he discovers that he should have paid more attention. He then uses his position as a caricaturist to cast aspersions on a politician he has always disliked – one who had attended the party on the invitation of Mallarino’s publisher.

King Louis Philippe Daumier

Honore Daumier’s caricature of King Louis Philippe, Past, Present, and Future. Click to enlarge.

Part III, told from the point of view of Samanta Leal, the now-adult woman who was with his daughter Beatriz at the long-ago party, brings the themes to dramatic life here. Pretending she is a reporter interviewing Mallarino on the occasion of his national tribute, she sets up an appointment to talk with him in greater depth at his home in the country, then later confesses who she really is, asking for his help in determining exactly what happened to her at that party so many years ago. She, like Beatriz, has no memory at all of what took place, but upon going to Mallarino’s house twenty-eight years later, she has immediately recognized Daumier’s unsettling cartoon of King Louis Phillipe, which Mallarino has displayed on a wall in his study. This bizarre cartoon of a three-faced king in the shape of a pear (representing past, present, and future) has triggered memories of her troubled past, and she now begs Mallarino to help her fill in those blanks in her life. This, raises many questions regarding whether it is necessary or even advisable to do this, since her life since that event is the reality she knows, and Mallarino finds himself questioning whether tinkering with that past is the right thing to do. The cartoon he drew of the politician who attended the party could have some long-term effects for him, too.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein in 1533.

“The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein in 1533. The slanted element at the bottom is what contains a different picture when viewed from the side. Click to enlarge.

That night after giving Samanta one piece of information which he is sure about, Mallarino lies awake, “genuinely sorry, sorry for the night of total vulnerability that [Samanta] must be enduring…alone with new memories…that have altered her entire life…enough to change the entire perspective.” He recalls the painting “The Ambassadors,” by Hans Holbein, in which there is a skull of death which can only be seen if the painting is viewed from the side, obliquely – it is invisible when viewed face on. Ultimately, this painting provides the best symbolism of all in a novel filled with wonderful images, symbols, observations, and sly commentary on the role of art, creation, and imagination in our lives, even when it affects our views of reality.

Oblique view of "THE AMBASSADORS" by Hans Holbein, which shows a skull, the symbol of death when viewed obliquely on the slanted element at the bottom of the painting. Click to enlarge.

Oblique view of “THE AMBASSADORS” by Hans Holbein, which shows a skull, the symbol of death, when viewed obliquely on the slanted element at the bottom of the painting. Click to enlarge.

The conclusion, appropriately enigmatic, reflects the changes which occur whenever one’s past must be reconsidered in light of new information, and Mallarino shows here how new information will affect his own life. He calls up the image of The White Queen lecturing Alice in Alice in Wonderland, a favorite passage of his daughter, and as he comments on evolution and the inheritance of characteristics one cannot control, he also suggests his own future. As the White Queen says, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Note:  Translator Anne McLean, who shared the prize with Vasquez when he won the IMPAC Dublin Award, captures the liveliness and excitement of both novels while maintaining a clear and relaxed style as she recreates some of the major philosophical questions of life.


Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.ew.com  when he won the IMPAC Dublin Award.

The White Queen gives Alice advice in Through the Looking Glass, advice that Mallarino recalls in the conclusion of the novel. Drawings by John Tenniel.

The White Queen gives Alice advice in Alice in Wonderland, advice that Mallarino recalls in the conclusion of the novel. Drawings by John Tenniel.

The Teatro Colon, where Mallarino is to receive his tribute is found on http://seecolombia.travel    Click to enlarge.

Daumier’s pear-shaped cartoon of King Louis Philippe, bearing pictures of past, present and future are from http://www.metmuseum.org/

Hans Holbein’s painting of “The Ambassadors” in 1533 has a slanted element at the bottom of the page.  Click to enlarge.  https://www.pinterest.com/.  When viewed from the side, the next image, death, dominates the picture.

Side view of Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” https://www.pinterest.com  Click to enlarge.

John Tenniel’s drawing of Alice in Wonderland, talking with the White Queen is found on http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/pictures/alice/

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Colombia/
Written by: Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Published by: Riverhead Books
Date Published: 09/20/2016
ISBN: 978-1594633478
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  This book was WINNER of  the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award in 2014.

“It’s dark and the December air is cool and crisp as a Chinese apple. Nothing big happens on this night, though electricity tingles all around us…The band plays…It’s background noise to the temptation strung all around like paper lanterns or popcorn, hanging there for the taking. We don’t take enough, the arrogance of youth, and now look at us in our corner of the world, shattered in shards. Once there was still mischief to be had and we were safe as crystal dreams.”—from Vignette #I.

cover mai al-nakibThe quotations which begin my reviews are always chosen to represent the author’s style and some of his/her ideas, but few have ever captured the unique qualities of a book as well as this one. Mai Al-Nakib, an author from Kuwait who got her PhD. in English literature from Brown University, knows how to capture an American audience, and her descriptions and her narrative style in this remarkable collection of stories are so attuned to her characters and subjects that readers will actually experience – not just “learn about” – parts of the world which most of us know only second-hand. Set in Kuwait, Lebanon, and Palestine, and, through the travel of some of these characters, in Japan and Greece, her stories are filled with word pictures so vivid that many readers will come close to feeling the reality of day-to-day life in these places. She opens new worlds, and by the time the collection closes, many readers will be viewing life in these parts of the world with clearer vision and greater empathy.

Al-NakibIn the quotation which begins this review, Al-Nakib keeps things simple, describing the night-time atmosphere before a performance taking place at a school attended by young teens. She calls up images using all five senses – the dark night with its paper lanterns, the tingle of electricity and the coolness of the air, the sound of the band, the taste and smell of a Chinese apple – and then she adds a hook which makes this description much more than a picture. She includes the inner responses of her characters, who feel the temptation “strung all around like paper lanterns, hanging there for the taking.” Her final observation is harsh, and becomes a theme throughout the collection – that the young, apparently feeling that they have all the time in the world, do not fully enjoy or appreciate enough of life as youth and take it all for granted. Now, in adulthood, they live in a world shattered by the passage of time, and the changes, sometimes including war, in this “corner of the world,” have left it “shattered in shards.” There is no more “mischief to be had” and they are no longer “safe as crystal dreams.”

Rice people, each grain of rice a separate person. Shown at the point of a pencil for proportion. Chen Forng-Shean, Artist

Rice people, each grain of rice a separate person. Shown at the point of a pencil for proportion. Chen Forng-Shean, Artist

The story which follows, linked to this vignette by its title, “Chinese Apples,” begins as a reminiscence of a six-week trip to Japan taken by a Kuwaiti family of four when the female speaker was ten, before “the war,” at a time when all the family was happy. Typically for Al-Nakib, the speaker tells the story as the mind remembers, not chronologically – jumping around, each little jump revealing more information which the reader associates with other aspects of the story, and providing more insights into the speaker and her life. The speaker collects “story objects,” little mementoes she keeps to remind herself of particular people and places, and she soon branches off into the tale of a middle-aged man who drinks arak from a green bottle (story object) every day, until he decides that it is time to remember, not to forget. This mini-story soon dissolves into another memory of an old man who brought the speaker’s sister an exotic “Chinese apple” wrapped in purple paper, every day they were in Japan. This reminds the speaker of Ali, a man from Iran who runs a fruit shop in Kuwait, a man who has not seen his son in years, and who misses him desperately. This imagery then dissolves into yet another little tale about  the speaker collecting a red box with four “rice people” inside. War intrudes, and more memories and story objects bring both the speaker and her family alive for the reader, as the speaker becomes aware of the universal themes.

Ruins of Alexander on Failaka, an island off the coast of Kuwait

Ruins of Alexander the Great on Failaka, an island off the coast of Kuwait

The passage of time, the fragility of life, the effects of change, and the transcience of memory unite this story and connect it to other stories in this collection. The title of the collection, The Hidden Light of Objects, attests to the importance of the story objects within these stories, and while none of us, perhaps, regard our own “souvenirs” or keepsakes as “story objects” in quite the same way as they are used here, it is impossible not to identify with the characters here as they share their intimate thoughts and feelings with us as readers.  A series of ten short vignettes separates the ten stories, sometimes connecting with each other and sometimes within some of the stories.  In “Vigniette II,” the speaker is thirteen, and her school goes to visit Failaka, an island off the coast of Kuwait, near where the Tigris and Euphrates come together, a place that was instrumental in Alexander the Great’s global plans and where a temple to Icarus was located. Now all that is left is ruins. The students on the ship going to the island are “oblivious of [Icarus’s] fall, of Failaka and its fall, and of ourselves, so many Icaruses, falling out of a dazzling sky.”


Double-click to enlarge map.

Subsequent stories include “Echo Twins,” in which identical twins living with their protective single mother in Kuwait, wait for the revelation of a secret. “The Diary” shares the life of a young girl who writes stories, embroidering on fact until her room is filled with notebooks. Then her mother finds them. “Playing with Bombs” tells of two young boys in Palestine who are bullied by older children who want them to be suicide bombers. “Elephant Stamp” is a multigenerational story which takes place in Beirut in 1965, and “Her Straw Hat,” another story of a family, takes place in Greece. “America’s Box,” takes place in Kuwait in 1991, as changes are taking place to the fabric of Kuwaiti society as many women are compelled to wear the hijab and even the niqab: Saddam Hussein has occupied Kuwait and declared it a province of Iraq. The point of view of every story feels honest and vibrantly real, and the “exotic” settings surrounding these characters become a part of the reader’s own life as s/he experiences the story.

Stories of family and love and understanding share space with stories of political horrors and death. Stories of creativity and imagination, with stories of repression and dominance. Stories of freedom, with stories of war and abduction. Always the reader is aware of the passage of time and the changes it brings, sometimes quickly and sometimes over generations. This extraordinary collection deals with the biggest, most universal themes of literature, told through the eyes of characters with whom readers will identify and, perhaps, gain in understanding.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.islamicstudies.harvard.edu

Rice people, each of which is a separate piece of rice, by Taiwanese artist Chen Forng-Shean, may be found here:  http://www.theinteriordirectory.com/

The Ruins of Alexander the Great on Failaka, an island off the coast of Kuwait, opposite where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers come together.  http://archaicwonder.tumblr.com/

A map of this area of the Middle East may be found here:  http://www.globalresearch.ca     Double-click to enlarge map.

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Short Stories, Social and Political Issues, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine
Written by: Mai Al-Nakib
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Date Published: 01/20/2015
ISBN: 978-9992195413
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


Note: British author Ian McEwan has been NOMINATED for the Man Booker Prize six times, and was WINNER of that prize in 1998 for Amsterdam.

“I count myself an innocent, unburdened by allegiances and obligations, a free spirit, despite my meagre living room. No one to contradict or reprimand me, no name or previous address, no religion, no debts, no enemies. My appointment diary if it existed, notes only my forthcoming birthday. I am, or I was, despite what the geneticists are now saying, a blank slate.”—unnamed, unborn child, the narrator/ main character of this novel.

coverI have to admit that when I read the premise of this novel, I cringed, thinking that it sounded too “cute”- even effete – to be taken seriously;  author Ian McEwan relates this entire novel from the point of view of an unborn baby, nine months in the womb. Describing his “living room” with its cramped quarters within his mother Trudy’s belly, the unborn child points out that he has a surprising amount of control over his life, that he can overhear every conversation involving his mother, that he can participate in every physical act involving her, and that he likes his father, John, a poet, even though his mother has left him for a new lover, his father’s younger brother Claude. When the baby gets bored, he knows he can start kicking so that his mother will turn on the radio to calm him down. He enjoys participating in the excessive drinking of alcohol which his mother and her lover Claude enjoy, and though he knows that alcohol may lower his intellect, he finds himself sometimes “pulling on his cord” for “another round.”

author photo

If, by now, you have a little smirk on your face, you will have seen how wrong I was to have dismissed this novel initially as a clever trick. In fact, McEwan creates a real tour de force here, a novel that is totally unique – certainly bizarre, in many ways, but very funny in its absurdity. The author’s adroit handling of the ironies of its plot and characters keep the reader fully engaged, even as he is revealing the action from the point of view of a particularly precocious unborn baby. The baby’s father, John Cairncross, the poet and head of a failing publishing house, has abandoned his childhood home and leased another house not far away. In debt, he could use the income from the sale of the house he has inherited, but Trudy, his baby’s mother, and her lover Claude, his brother, are currently living in it. Dilapidated and filthy, the house has garbage in the hallway, but no one seems to notice, and John still comes by to visit and to recite poetry to Trudy, hoping she will take him back. Claude, a property developer, dull and vapid, as we learn from the baby-narrator, is noted for his “witless, thrustless dribble,” and he drives the baby crazy with his constant whistling. He “composes nothing, invents nothing,” according to this yet-to-be-born academic snob.

In several places, the baby-narrator sees his other as a "blonde and braided Saxon shield-warrior," about to go into battle.

In several places, the baby-narrator sees his mother as a “blonde and braided Saxon shield-warrior,” about to go into battle.

In the first pages of the novel, the baby tells us that his mother and Claude are planning a dreadful event,” but the reader is not told the details of what that event is until after the author has described their characters and laid the groundwork for the action. The baby hears them say that they must act quickly, observes his mother saying that she “can’t do it,” then hears Claude insist that they can. The baby remarks that he himself is “an organ in her body not separate from her thoughts. I’m party to what she’s about to do…As they kiss again she says into [Claude’s] mouth…baby’s first word. Poison.” What bothers the baby most, however, is that Claude also refers to the aftermath of the “event,”  when they have “placed the baby somewhere.” Furious, the baby cannot stop thinking about “placed” as the “lying cognate of dumped.” And he knows that “only in fairy tales are unwanted babies orphaned upwards. The Duchess of Cambridge will not be taking me on.” He imagines himself living in public housing with a tattooed mother and her boyfriend’s pungent dog, “raised bookless on computer toys,” and he silently implores his father to rescue him from his Vale of Despond.

When the speaker is unable to take the action he wants to take, he thinks of Franz Reichelt, the Flying Tailor, who in 1912, decided to test a parachute he'd developed. After a long wait to draw courage, he jumped to his death from the Eiffel Tower.

Needing courage to take the action he wants to take, the baby-narrator thinks of Franz Reichelt, the Flying Tailor, who in 1912, decided to test a parachute he’d developed. After a long wait to draw courage, he jumped to his death from the Eiffel Tower.

From this scenario within the first forty pages of the book, all the complications evolve for the remainder of the novel. McEwan’s descriptions, often hilarious, keep the reader completely involved with the obvious ironies and absurdities, and as the baby-narrator develops a plan for revenge on his uncle and his mother – not for their plans to poison his father but for their betrayal in wanting the baby “placed” after its birth – the action ratchets up and becomes yet more convoluted. Twists, turns, and surprises galore keep the tension high as the author works his way to the tour de force of an ending. Filled with literary allusions and commentary on the contemporary world, the author creates a delicious new version of some old themes and plot lines.

Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet

Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet

I have deliberately ignored the clear parallels that McEwan draws between the plot of this novel and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to give more attention to this novel on its own.  McEwan is obviously having great fun as he creates a modern mystery story told by a Hamlet in utero.  The result is a light-handed parody of the play and of Gertrude and Claudius (Trudy and Claude) who killed Hamlet’s father, and of Hamlet himself seeking his revenge. This novel stands fully on its own for those who may be unfamiliar with Hamlet, though it will certainly be more fun for those who know the play and recognize some of the hidden references. Trudy and Claude are true villains here, just as Gertrude and Claudius are in Hamlet, and the baby-narrator, the Hamlet of the novel, is not quite sure what he can do to avenge their plans for his father. “To be or not to be…” takes on new and witty meanings when imagined by a confused infant, not yet born. The title of the book, Nutshell, refers to a line from the play in which Hamlet says “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams,” a sentiment not completely shared by the baby-narrator in which he offers advice to newborns: “Don’t cry. Look around, taste the air. I’m in London. The air is good, Sounds are crisp, brilliant with the treble turned up.”

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.platform505.com/

The “blonde and braided  Saxon warrior” which Gertrude represents to the speaker is from http://www.abovetopsecret.com

Needing courage to take the action he wants to take to avenge his father and himself, the baby-narrator thinks of Franz Reichelt, the Flying Tailor, who in 1912, decided to test a parachute he’d developed. After a long wait to draw courage, he finally jumped to his death from the Eiffel Tower. http://twitika.com

Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet, a far cry from the narrator of this novel:  http://libguides.uwlax.edu

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, England, Humor, Satire, Parody Absurdity, Literary
Written by: Ian McEwan
Published by: Nan A. Talese
Date Published: 09/13/2016
ISBN: 978-0385542074
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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