Archive for June, 2013

Setting Free The Bears / John Irving

Some thirty years ago, I was a big John Irving fan, reading every new novel he turned out.  But at some point I moved on to other authors and he fell off my radar.  Setting Free The Bears was Irving’s first novel, published in 1968, and I had somehow not gotten around to reading it in my earlier exploration of his work.  This novel proves to be a delightful reintroduction to Irving’s storytelling ability.  Unlike the other books I had read by him, all set in the United States, this one has a definite European focus.  In the closing days of World War II, when the Soviets entered Vienna, every animal was gone from the city’s zoo.  Were they set free beforehand or eaten by a hungry populous?  In this historical novel, two Viennese university students set out to emancipate the very same zoo.  The year is 1967, when the book’s two protagonists (Ziggy and Graff), embark on a motorcycle tour of Austria.  Both are rebellious youths, but Ziggy is a true eccentric and the one most invested in orchestrating a liberation of the city’s zoo creatures.  These two merry pranksters’ adventure reflects the atmosphere of rebellion during the 1960s.  The novel has been criticized as being disjointed, and that is understandable, as its middle portion takes a major detour that focuses on Ziggy’s family history from pre-WWII through the Soviet occupation of Austria.  While the story does take some abrupt change of focus, this reinforces the two young men’s determination to let the road take them where it will.  The thread that joins the disparate parts is Ziggy’s dream of “setting free the bears.”  The story’s tone overall is a humorous romp, but there are gruesome moments as well.  This might not be Irving’s best novel, but with two such protagonists, it proves to be an adventure spent in delightful company.  For anyone who  has read and enjoyed Irving’s later work, this is a must-read as well.

A Reliable Wife / Robert Goolrick

The warning flags regarding this novel came early in its opening chapter.  Describing the arrival of a Wisconsin winter, it was obvious  the author had never spent a month above the Dixon-Mason line during the cold weather months.  In the book’s afterword, Goolrick reveals that the genesis of this story was sparked by Michael Ley’s Wisconsin Death Trip.  Obviously, having read Ley’s book,  he concluded that a good portion of the Wisconsin population goes mad during our long winter season.  The story opens in 1907 with Ralph Truitt, a wealthy businessman, advertising for “a reliable wife.”  The woman who answers his ad is Catherine Land, beautiful and a good twenty years younger than Truitt.  She, like Truitt himself, has a troubled past, and creating a lasting relationship is not what Catherine has in mind when she steps off the train from St. Louis .  While Goolrick is a capable author, he keeps tripping himself up by crafting preposterous situations that strain credibility.  I did try to suspend judgment and simply enjoy this novel as a psychological tale with dark undertones.  But time and again, Goolrick introduces another element that rang false to me.  It does not help that the major characters are not at all likeable.  By the time I turned the novel’s last page, I found myself actively disliking this remake of the Wisconsin Death Trip.

Dombey And Sons / Charles Dickens

Dombey and Son is not among the better-known of Dickens’ works.  While it does not rank as a beloved classic, it is still well worth discovering.  It is a novel that in the beginning focuses on a proud, wealthy London merchant and his two motherless children, Paul and Florence Dombey.  The father could care less about his daughter; all that matters to him is the frail boy who will inherit the business and carry on the family name.  Yet, not long into the story, Paul dies, and the story, not for the last time,  shifts focus.  As a contrast to Dombey’s wealth, self-absorption, and lack of warmth, Dickens presents to the reader Walter Gay, a young employee of Dombey and Son, and his uncle, Solomon Gills, an instrument builder who runs a business that attracts nary a customer.  Walter lives with his uncle, and although they are poor, this tightly knit family is infused with warmth and love.  Perhaps one reason for the book’s lesser-known status is the plot’s continual shifts in tone.  It is difficult to know just who is supposed to be the main character of the story.  While Dickens has always populated his works with delightful oddball side characters, here he allows a number of them to step into the spotlight and dominate it.  A prime example of that is Edward Cuttle, a retired hook-handed sea captain.  Then there is James Carker, the second-in-command at Dombey and Son.  He is truly a devious man and I guarantee he will make the reader’s skin crawl.  The chapter in which he tries to escape justice and comes to an untimely end is probably one of the best-written sections of the novel.  It is characters such as these that make this an enjoyable book to read.  As Dickens shows here, even a lesser novel by him proves to be a thoroughly engaging experience.

On Canaan’s Side / Sebastian Barry

Grabbed by chance off a library shelf, what a fortuitous find this novel turned out to be.  From the very first page it captured my full attention.  In a first-person narrative, eighty-nine year old Lilly Bere recounts the haunting tale of her life.  It is a story of love and loss, broken family ties and unexpected friendships.  The daughter of  a Dublin policeman, Lilly revisits her eventful past, starting from the time she was forced to flee Ireland as a young woman shortly after the First World War.  Her destination is the United States, and over the course of the next seven decades she moves from Chicago to Cleveland to Washington D. C., and finally spends her final days in New York.  On Canaan’s Side is Barry’s fifth novel, but he also has written numerous plays and three books of poetry.  I am not surprised to learn he is a poet, as this novel is filled with poetic lines and clever turns of phrase.  Simply put, he is an amazing writer.  The fictional universe he has created in this novel resonates with the quiet truths of a life fully lived.  Lilly Bere is a character no reader will soon forget.  I certainly plan to hunt down Barry’s four other novels, and his poetry too.


The Crying Of Lot 49 / Thomas Pynchon

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Thomas Pynchon won rave reviews for his novels from well-respected critics.  But his fan base was never a large one.  From what I’ve heard from others, one either loves or hates his novels.  The Crying of Lot 49 is Pynchon’s second novel, published in 1966, and it is the first work by him that I have read.  It will also most likely be my last.  Pynchon is obviously an acquired taste, and this novel was not my cup of tea.  Its convoluted plot centers around a worldwide conspiracy involving an underground mail service known as “The Tristero.”  Then again, it might be merely an elaborate hoax that someone from beyond the grave is pulling on Oedipa Mass, the book’s main character.  Throughout, Pynchon refers to obscure historical events to connect the pieces of the story.  He also frequently references the pop culture of the 1960s.  To his fans, this book is a clever satire on American society.  I found it to be much ado about nothing.  Pynchon is a good writer, but this story failed to engage me in the least.


With inclement weather in
tonight’s forecast,
this deserted landing strip
will soon see
incoming southern flights.
The runway is
lined with red-orange flares
that highlight
the travelers’ point of entry.
A cacophony
announces the first arrivals
long before
the splash of touchdown.
By the time
twilight dims the trees and
rain has blurred visibility,
this airstrip
will become busy as O’Hare.
As grounded,
heads tucked under wings,
Canadian geese
await dawn’s clearance,
safely ensconced
on the lake’s choppy surface.


For more than a year after
the breakup,
I continued to see her in
checkout lines
or at the back of some bus,
even though we
lived in separate countries.
Usually seen
in profile or from behind,
the full face
was never a perfect match.
Still, my heart
would jolt at first glance.

A strange occurrence then
but no longer.
From the corner of my eye,
I often glimpse
a beloved one vanishing
into the crowd.
As if a jolt to the heart
could resurrect
the dead I have known.
Those ghosts
walking in full sunlight…
mere shadows.
The synapses of memory
crackle to life
but never do revive them.

Reporting At Wit’s End : Tales From The New Yorker / St. Claire McKelway

From the 1930s into the 1960s, McKelway was a staff writer at The New Yorker.  He excelled at writing portraits of lesser-known New York personalities, such as arsonists, counterfeiters, imposters, and wealthy recluses.  His best work takes delight in portraying people living on the rough edges of society.  The eighteen stories in this collection span the full length of his career at the magazine.  The portraits presented here are lengthy, for the most part affectionate, and always revelatory.  Less successful are the pieces that mine his personal history, as he humorously addresses childhood issues, World War II experiences, and his hard drinking and resulting paranoia.  McKelway’s light conversational writing style is deceptive: each piece is so easy to read that it disguises just how well written it is.  For anyone who enjoys reading The New Yorker, this collection is worth tracking down at the public library.  McKelway is almost forgotten today, but he remains one of the magazine’s quintessential writers.