A list of some of the more fascinating books that have come to us over the last few months that we think deserve your attention.
Paris, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan (Random House). Paris 1919 is a book of historical fact and historical whimsy that treats with the six months of the post-World War One Allied powers' meetings at Versailles. It's filled to the brim with tales of the weird and fearful and hungry and waggish leaders who participated in one of the strangest gatherings of all times --- and it's historical writing at its best, equal to the best of Barbara Tuchman. If we did stars here at RALPH, we'd have to hand this one a ******
out of a possible
One Hundred Demons , Lynda Barry (Sasquatch Books). Those of us who grew up in the 50s fell in love with Pogo (and his creator, Walt Kelly). Fifteen years later it was Fritz the Cat (R. Crumb). More recently, it's been Doonsbury (Gary Trudeau) and the acerbic and wonderfully political Boondocks (Aaron McGruder). Now, it's Lynda Barry (and her creator, Lynda Barry).
She tells us that this is "a work of autobifictionalography." What ever it is, we want more. And we're thoroughly in love with her. Damn the funny red hair and freckles --- anyone who can make car freshners and monsters and nits and the hula and kickball and mothers (and grandmothers) (and herself) so fascinating and so funny wins our hearts, complete.
Fire of the Five Hearts, Holly A. Smith (Brunner-
Routledge).Smith works with the victims of incest, and she loves each and every one of her clients. Too, she is in love with the mountains and the trees and birds and red foxes around Boulder. She hates her job, but can't let it go. She despises what some people, for unfathomable reasons, do to their own children. She knows how to cry.
It's ostensibly a book about protecting the violated child, but soon enough we realize that everyone here suffers some kind of violation --- the children, the mothers, the fathers, the social workers, the society. It is astonishingly well written, and gives a clear-eyed account of the danger of working with those who may well destroy one's sense of self.
At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O'Neill (Scribner). It's a rich Irish stew of words and word games, an extended lyric epic --- awash with literary overtones, sly allusions to the likes of Wilde, Joyce, Flann O'Brien, and Beckett. But a great novel needs more than poetry, allusions, and puns. It needs worthy and recognizable characters, it needs an engaging plot line, and it needs love --- not only love between the characters, but love between author and characters.
They're all here but we're at a loss how to convey the scope of it. There is a lively, often very funny dialogue, there is sheer narrative beauty and --- overall --- there is the potent mix of love and war. We found ourselves reflecting that it's a rare work of art that leaves us reviewers at a loss for words; after all, we fabricate the world from them.
At Swim, Two Boys takes us to the heights but then it brings us to the depths. We found ourselves misting over in grief during the last few pages. We were grieving not only the ending of it all --- we didn't want it to ever stop --- but also the tragedy of it all: losing friends to the madness that was, and is, and presumably always will be the madness they call Ireland.
Sacred Pain, Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, Ariel Glucklich (Oxford). Some of us are nuts about these masters of contrary logic. The best of humor is just that: witness Fielding, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Joyce Cary, Shakespeare in his comic moments. It is logic turned on its head, the celebration of Midsummer Night's Eve --- the peasants take on the crown, the royalty dons the ass's head. We suggest that Sacred Pain falls in this category --- not necessarily of humor (although there is a bit of that), but the delicate twist of logic, a subtle turn of words, the reversal that makes the fantastic seem right and proper.
Glucklich is a willing student of Lucan, and is not only willing to do such backflips, he conjoins them with a summary of the facts of pain which, embody this spirit of contrariness. Thus, what comes across is an artful --- a highly artful --- study of religion and hurt. Our only regret is that the author decided to avoid an emphasis on the profound religious agonies available in many non-western cultures.
Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity, Soke Morinaga Roshi (Wisdom). If Novice to Master were just the story of being a monk at Daitokuji, it would be worth reading. But it is far more. It is the story of a man's devotion to getting it --- whatever it may be. It is a codex on the worth of such a pursuit. Most of all, a picture of a profoundly devoted master.
Morinaga comes across as a humane and humble man of the divine. As he gets closer to his own death --- he died in 1995 --- he is asked by more and more people to explain what it all means, the variation on, "It seems rather stupid that they sent us here only to have us die." The last part of Novice to Master thus becomes an intelligent meditation on death, in which we learn that perhaps the best tribute we can award our final hours is the pleasure of catering to our own joy.
Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education, Sybille Bedford (Counterpoint). She calls it "A Biographical Novel." She and Mumsie (and young husband Alessandro) lived in Sanary, in southern France in the Golden Age --- between WWI and WWII. Her mother was a charmer, funny, smart, and a morphine addict. They knew the Huxleys; they ate at those proverbial small French fishing village restaurants on the wonderful rich Provençal food; there was always good wine; they would go about in their Deux Chevaux (the earlier model was triangular shaped, almost a three-wheeler) on roads which had few if any cars; they and their friends would laugh and drink and talk and make any of us living 70 years later weak with jealousy that they could have had the golden life that they knew back then. Like the cars of those days, this one is a slow start, but once she gets cranked up --- as soon as Sybille has her first affair and mother picks up her habit --- it's hard to stop.
Voices in the Dark, Esoteric, Occult & Secular Voices in Nazi-Occupied Paris, 1940 - 44, William Patrick Patterson (Arete). Voices in the Dark is a fascinating tour de force, not only for what it tells us about Gurdjieff, life in Paris during the Occupation, and an intimate history (as good as we have ever read of WWII), but, too, the modus operandi of the SS and the French Resistance (and the French collaborators), and day-to-day life in a city occupied by an army polite and circumspect during the day, remorseless at night.
We get brilliant sketches of the personalities involved, not only Gurdjieff, but the major political figures (Churchill and DeGaulle and Hitler), the minor ones: Jacques Doriot (the French Hitler), General Dietrich von Cholitz, the Befehlshaber (fortress commander) of Paris, and Marshall Pétain, Pierre Laval, and Robert Brassillach --- three of the most flagrant collaborators.
There are equally adroit portraits of French artists and writers --- some of whom collaborated, some of whom resisted, and some of whom sat on the fence: Sartre, Camus, Malraux, Jean Cocteau, Francois Mauriac, Simone de Beauvoir. Indeed, some of the most fascinating vignettes in Patterson's book are the wars within the war: the factions fighting to control the Resistance (and, thus, control the country after the war) plus --- this is France, after all --- the endless philosophical battles between writers. The situation provided a rich background for The Big Questions of Life: what does it mean for a civilized man to live in a bestial world? What is loyalty, anyway? What is "the human condition?" What is patriotism?
After The Quake, Haruki Murakami, (Knopf). Some who call their works "short stories" are lying. For instance, those of Henry James aren't short stories at all --- they're just artfully truncated novels. The real masters can be counted on one hand: Jack London, Guy de Maupassant, Kafka, Hemingway, Gogol, Sherwood Anderson, Salinger. And, reading After the Quake, we might have to include Murakami as well.
The six tales here all center around the great Kobe earthquake, but in all of them, there is a little mysterious something to set the tone. A big frog, a man minus one ear, an old lady who sees "stones" in the soul, paintings of flat irons, a tiny bra. It's the magic --- and an artistic sleight-of-hand --- that pulls us into these stories.
The Death of Sweet Mister, Daniel Woodrell (Putnam). This is knockabout stuff, and it's expertly played. It's hard to like any of the characters, and yet the story drags us along with it in its gory Tobacco Road/Sanctuary fashion. There are the overtones --- the Black Angel in the graveyard; the hints of lust between thirteen-year-old Shug and the woman he sees as most lovely and protective. Woodrell plays them (and the reader) like a mountain dulcimer and after awhile you stop fighting the down-home awfulness of their miserable lives and get caught up in the drama of mother and son finally getting rid of the others, no more distractions, and as we used to say, "Well, perhaps they're right; perhaps incest is best," there in the graveyard, under the dark wings of the Black Angel, where
I stroked her legs all up and down. She did not move. I couldn't see a thing except a total blur of light. She did not move as my hands stroked higher.