Archive for January, 2017

The Presence

I thought it was there

 

Underneath my bed, far darker

than the dark itself.

Crouched in a closet’s shadows,

silence manifest.

Ascending to an unlocked door,

its footfall on steps.

Secreted in the gaps between

elevator and floor.

The specter hurrying me home

without giving chase.

A Goliath impervious to stones

flung in hasty flight.

Something I could only thwart

in my parents’ arms,

Be safe against in the burrow

beneath blankets.

All those years of looking back

over my shoulder…

Not aware that what I feared,

 

it resided inside me.

Skating Backwards

Lake Como, 1966.
The murky puddles of a late January thaw
have again hardened
into transparency on its bumpy highway.

Father and son,
each is wearing a pair of skates looped
around their necks.
Sharpened blades clank as they advance.

That husband…
so awkward when on the dance floor,
despite nearing fifty,
once laced in, possesses Astaire’s grace.

At twilight, their breath is a downy cloud.

Despite the work
of augers that have left behind potholes,
a clumsy teenager
is taught by example to skate backwards.

Love And Summer / William Trevor

Even though William Trevor may not be a household name in the United States, he was a highly respected Irish novelist, playwright, and short story writer. Over the course of his lengthy career he won numerous prizes, and was nominated five times for the Booker Prize. I learned about him late in 2016 when The Economist featured his obituary upon his death at age 88. That prompted me to visit the public library where I picked up Love and Summer, the last novel (2009) he wrote over the long course of a prolific career.

It is a haunting story about a shy orphan girl, Ellie, who is married to Dillahan, an older farmer living near the the town of Rathmoye in Ireland during the 1950s. Her husband is kindly, hard working; a man of few words. She is often left alone during the day while he tends to the land and his sheep herd. Dillahan is haunted by the tragic deaths of his first wife and only child a number of years before. Ellie came to the farm following that to work as a servant. However, after some time together, when Dillahan asked her to marry him, she accepted. While she does not truly love her husband, she does respect and care for him.

The story takes place over the course of a summer, opening on the day that Ellie meets Florian Kilderry, a young photographer in the process of selling his deceased parents’ house, with plans to leave Ireland entirely. The chance meeting of these two lost souls begins a summer love affair. Or at least that is how Florian views it, while Ellie dreams it might be something more long lasting. This topic has certainly been written about before, but in Trevor’s capable hands it takes on a fresh life, with several unexpected twists and turns.

William Trevor was noted for creating characters that hooked themselves into the reader’s imagination, and this talent is on full display here. He also captures the slow pace of rural Irish life during this time period, and highlights the importance of neighbors and the Catholic Church in the daily activities in and around Rathmoye. He is able to avoid entirely the cliches and stereotypes often associated with small town life.

Love and Summer is a short work, and I can imagine a good many people being so captivated that they read it in a single sitting. Its prose is precise, eloquent, and captures the splendor of a brief Irish summer. I found the book’s conclusion to be spot on and satisfying. For those readers who enjoy “quiet fiction” that speaks to the heart, this book is one to make note of. William Trevor died peacefully in his sleep during the early hours of 21 November 2016, leaving behind a bibliography that I’ll certainly be exploring further.

Dazzle Of Silver

The weak, slanting sunlight
of midday does not carry enough heat
for us to shrug off overcoats
nor to put a blush on this pale season.
Seemingly transparent as
strained broth, tepid as a forgotten cup
of half-drunk morning tea,
after all the miles of desolate space
traversed in eight minutes,
who can hold it responsible if here at
the journey’s final mile
its imparted warmth fails to soften
a north wind’s brusk sting.
Spending its meager fortune upon
a frostbitten landscape
unimpressed by its horde of silver,
the transaction still dazzles
and blinds when distant tin roofs
blaze like a summer day.

Selected Fiction / Henry James

The stories and a short novel included in this collection are drawn from three decades of Henry James’ writing. Its first story was published in 1879 when he was thirty-six; the last is from 1909, when he was sixty-six. Arranged chronologically, the pieces trace the author’s growth as a writer. All of James’ typical themes are included here, including a ghostly tale written late in his career. A good many of them have a European setting, but others take place in Boston or New York City.

This collection opens with two well-know pieces, Daisy Miller (1879) and Washington Square (1881). It is understandable why these two stories helped to launch James’ career as a successful writer. Each is well-written and accessible to the general reader. Moving deeper into the book, the stories start to challenge, complexity-wise. Rather than being action-based, they begin to focus more on the psychological inner motivations of the characters portrayed.

For me, the story that stood out from the rest was The Beast In The Jungle (1903). Its protagonist, John Marcher, has a secret that he has shared with only one other person: he believes his life will be defined by some catastrophic or marvelous event. When the event does take place late in life, he is blind to the fact. When he realizes what the defining event was, it is far too late to seize the opportunity. In the end, the “beast in the jungle” is himself; having spent so much time in anticipation, he’s not truly lived at all.

For a reader who wants to be introduced to James’ writing, Selected Fiction makes a perfect introduction. However, be aware that while the stories included are not book length, they are by no means short. Reading Henry James requires time and persistence.

The Year In Review

Another birthday celebrated—
that candleless
cake a blueberry muffin.

Both of us on all fours—
a garden toad and I
exchange startled stares.

Activating a motion sensor—
an astute spider waits
for what the light attracts.

Glued to her mother’s side—
four fingers blossom
in answer to how old she is.

At sixty-four and a half—
an unexpected treat,
a guilt-free afternoon nap.

For the first time in years—
an eight minute mile,
fueled by jagged lightning.

An October moon’s revival—
a lone cricket’s encore
despite a dusting of snow.

M Train / Patti Smith

Patti Smith first became well-known as a musician in the 1970s, merging poetry and rock into a number of successful albums. While she still turns out the occasional record, Smith is probably best known now as an author. In 2010, she won the National Book Award for Just Kids, a book that chronicled her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the late sixties and seventies. M Train is another work of nonfiction, one in which she describes a year in her life. It also includes reflections on the past, her dreams, as well as the craft of writing and artistic creation. The opening sentence sets the stage and explains what is to follow: “It’s not easy writing about nothing.” Yet in describing the randomness of a year in her life, the puzzle pieces assemble to provide fascinating revelations about Smith’s personality and history.

Bohemian is a good word to describe Patti Smith. Clearly influenced by the Beat Generation, though she came of age after the fact, she is the progeny of that literary tradition. In this book, using self-reflection and the landscape of memory, she sets out to “remember everything and write it all down.” And while the story is centered around her life in Greenwich Village, she easily shifts between dreams and reality, past and present. There are the big moments of her life shared with her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, and the trips they shared before his death. But mostly, it is the mundane activities of her daily life that are highlighted. One section of the book she describes as “an aria to a coat,” another as “a requiem for a café.” Who would have guessed Smith was a member of an Arctic explorer’s society, that she compulsively takes Polaroids of the places she visits, and loves to watch detective shows on TV.

M Train is a book about nothing, and yet it is about everything important in Smith’s life. Reading it is like sitting down with this artist in a café over a cup of coffee and spending hours captivated by her remarks. She is a woman who has always lived and dreamed “outside the lines.” In one of her dreams, she asks the spirit of Osamu Dazai, a renowned Japanese writer: “What is nothing?” He answers: “It is what you can see of your eyes without a mirror.” This book is Smith’s attempt to take the reader to that important place of nothingness.

All My Puny Sorrows / Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is a well-known author in her own country of Canada, and she has a growing reputation here in the States as well. However, I had not heard of her until recently when I read an article in the literary magazine Granta which praised her work, and so I added her name to my “to read” list. When I checked out her body of work, one title leapt out: All My Puny Sorrows. With a title that good (borrowed from a Samuel Coleridge poem), I knew it was the book for me. And the novel lived up to (and exceeded) my expectations.

The story focuses on two sisters, Elf and Yoli, and their strong family network. On the surface, Elfrieda’s life is one that most people would envy. She is a world-renowned classical pianist, has traveled the world, and is happily married. Yolandi, on the other hand, is the one who at midlife still has not gotten her act together. She is divorced, has two children by different men, and the books she has authored have not caught the attention of the greater world. And yet looks are often deceiving. Elf has long suffered from major depression and desires to end her life. Not only that, she has already attempted suicide twice, only to be discovered and rescued by family members. Despite receiving psychological care, Elf does not waiver in her desire to end her life. Throughout, she attempts to draw Yoli into agreeing to help her do so.

Yoli serves as the story’s chronicler, and what a delightful narrator she makes. Her messy life is presented with humor despite a number of unexpected tragedies. It helps that her mother and aunt (fabulous characters who deserve starring roles in another story) are constant presences, there to provide emotional support and set a positive example with their resiliency.

Toews does not attempt to get into the mind of Elf or explain what motivates her to end her life. Instead, the author uses Yoli’s memories of her sister to give shape to her as a person. In the end, Elf’s motivations remained difficult for me to understand or accept. But that is probably not uncommon for those dealing with friends or family members who have major depression.

There is certainly plenty of sorrow on display in this novel. And yet the the tone throughout is humorous, showing the importance of family no matter what the difficulty, and how laughter heals in a time of tears. Some might call this novel dark. I disagree. Its message is not one of loss, but rather a declaration of love’s triumph in the darkest of times.

Script Of A Footprint

Out walking the dog on this January

night, if asked, I would say

wood smoke is the dominating scent;

but in fact, overwhelmed

by the chill, that faint smell ebbed

blocks ago.  If the sterile

air has an odor, numbed olfactory

receptors fail to register.

Yet the dog would surely disagree;

tonight, it seems to be

reeling in the redolence of a May

garden.  With a mind

composed mostly of nose, beneath

the cold’s crust, its muzzle

drills repeatedly.  In the script of

of a footprint, it deciphers

the impression of a poem beyond

human comprehension.

A hard tug advances our progress

only a few feet before

the next fragrant stanza beckons.

Eileen / Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen Dunlop at twenty-four is an unassuming woman, a wallflower easily overlooked by the rest of the world. But still waters run deep; trapped between her role as a caretaker for her alcoholic father and a dead-end job as a secretary at a boys’ prison, she dreams of making her escape to the big city, even if means breaking the law to do so.

Still a virgin, and filled with self-loathing, Eileen drinks to excess, shoplifts, and stalks a prison guard she is far too shy to address. However, compared with her father, suffering from alcoholic hallucinations and violent outbursts, she is a pillar of society. While Eileen has long dreamed of leaving town, she lacks the courage (and funds) to do so. This changes when she is unexpectedly befriended by a new counselor at the prison. The beautiful Rebecca Saint John represents everything Eileen longs to be. Their odd friendship is the catalyst that draws Eileen into a crime that goes far beyond her previous petty misdeeds. And yet, it is the spark she needs to make her escape into the greater world.

The novel’s narrator is a much older Eileen, and the story she tells unfolds one snowy December in the days surrounding Christmas. The chill of the winter weather is ever present, along with a foreshadowing of an imminent menace. Her younger self is presented warts and all, and there is no denying she’s quite the odd duck. Despite this, I found myself intrigued by Eileen and sympathetic with her dilemma. It helps that the wiser Eileen as the narrator is able to acknowledge how immature and uninformed her young self was at the time, presenting her actions and naiveté with the jaded eye of one who has learned much since.

Eileen is the debut novel of Ottessa Moshfegh, and it won numerous positive reviews following its publication. It is a gripping tale of obsession with dark overtones, rooted in the conservative reality of 1964 small town life in America shortly after President Kennedy’s assassination. Moshfegh’s prose is witty, rich in detail, with a heavy dose of deprecating humor. It may often shock, but it never disappoints.

What In The World Is Robert Reading : My Favorite Reads In 2016

 

2017 approaches and January’s chilly wind chills are best combated between the covers.

Below is a list of the books I read in the past year, followed by abridged reviews of some of my favorites.

In the order read…

  • The Death Of The Heart / Elizabeth Bowen
  • A Savage War Of Peace : Algeria 1954-1962 / Alistair Horne
  • The American / Henry James
  • There But For The / Ali Smith
  • Near And Distant Neighbors : A New History Of Soviet Intelligence / Jonathan Haslam
  • Mr. Bridge / Evan S. Connell
  • The Ambassadors / Henry James
  • Mrs. Bridge / Evan S. Connell
  • The Way We Live Now / Anthony Trollope
  • If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler / Italo Calvino
  • Cyberphobia : Identity, Trust, Security And The Internet / Edward Lucas
  • Nagasaki : Life After Nuclear War / Susan Southard
  • American History : A Very Short Introduction / Paul S. Boyer
  • Skyfaring / Mark Vanhoenacker
  • Being Nixon : A Man Divided / Evan Thomas
  • Everything I Never Told You / Celeste Ng
  • Moby Dick, Or, The Whale / Herman Melville
  • The Bridge Of San Luis Rey / Thorton Wilder
  • The Plague / Albert Camus
  • The Lost City Of Z : A Tale Of Deadly Obsession In The Amazon / David Grann
  • So Big / Edna Ferber
  • Plainsong / Kent Haruf
  • The Good Soldier / Ford Maddox Ford
  • Finding George Orwell In Burma / Emma Larkin
  • The Golden Bowl / Henry James
  • Mao’s Great Famine : The History Of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 / Frank Dikötter
  • Fordlandia : The Rise And Fall Of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City / Greg Grandin
  • The Lowlands / Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Bruce Canton’s Civil War / Bruce Canton
  • The Ocean At The End Of The Lane / Neil Gaiman
  • A Shooting Star / Wallace Stegner
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand / Helen Simonson
  • Room / Emma Donoghue
  • Clouds Of Glory / The Life And Legend Of Robert E. Lee / Michael Korda
  • Dear American Airlines / Jonathan Miles
  • When Breath Becomes Air / Paul Kalanithi
  • Of Human Bondage / W. Somerset Maugham
  • Do No Harm : Stories Of Life, Death, And Brain Surgery / Henry Marsh
  • Night Of Stone : Death And Memory In Twentieth-Century Russia / Catherine Merridale
  • The Princess Casamassima / Henry James
  • Squire Haggard’s Journal / Michael Green
  • Want Not / Jonathan Miles
  • Harry, Revised / Mark Sarvas

Bruce Catton’s Civil War / Bruce Catton

Clouds Of Glory : The Life And Legend of Robert E. Lee / Michael Korda

Bruce Catton’s Civil War collects a three volume history into a single book.  Rather than attempting to tell the entire story of the conflict, including its messy political details, he focuses on the Army of the Potomac’s engagements with the Army of Northern Virginia, so ably led by Robert E. Lee. It is a one-sided telling of their bloody battles from 1861 into 1865, as seen through the eyes of the northern soldiers, officers, and commanders.

Mr. Lincoln’s Army tells about the early stages of the war, at a time when the Army of the Potomac was led by the charismatic George B. McClellan, a commander beloved by his soldiers. However, he was far too cautious on the battlefield and this led to lost opportunities for victory and an early end to the conflict. Glory Road chronicles the critical months between the autumn of 1862 through the midsummer of the next year, a period when the Confederates came close to destroying the Army of the Potomac. On the offensive, the Union soldiers suffered defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. This led Lee to attempt a counter invasion of the North, which resulted in his men’s defeat and repulsion at Gettysburg.  The story of the last year of the Civil War is told in A Stillness At Appomattox. When published originally as a separate book in 1954, this account won Catton the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Pulitzer Price for History that year.

For anyone wanting a better understanding of the devastating cost of the Civil War, this book is a must first read. It provides a ringside seat to the the horrors of this all-out war. I for one felt humbled and grateful that the brave soldiers of the Army of the Potomac risked life and and limb to preserve the Union and bring an end to slavery.

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Having read a book featuring the northern perspective of the Civil War, I decided to counter balance it with Clouds of Glory, a biography of Robert E. Lee.  As Korda shows, Lee was indeed a person worthy of the praise he has received during and after the Civil War. He was a devoted family man, a compassionate Christian, a person who so loved his home state of Virginia that he gave up his commission in the United States Army to defend the notion of states’ rights. Without a doubt, he was the preeminent military leader in the War Between the States. Despite having a much smaller and poorly equipped army, thanks to his leadership, the Army of Northern Virginia won numerous battles and stymied the Union forces for four years.

By today’s standards, Lee was no saint. While troubled by the issue of slavery, he did not actively oppose it. Rather, he hoped that with time the institution would fade away and the Black population in the South would be freed and sent back to Africa. To his credit, he did treat the slaves inherited from his father-in-law kindly and freed them in 1862. And while he had a love for the troops under his command, he seemed untroubled sending them into contests where he knew they stood a good chance of being slaughtered.

What was surprising to me was Lee’s accomplishments before the Civil War when serving in the United States Army. A graduate of West Point, he was an officer in the Corps of Engineers. Over the years, he served on major projects in Virginia, St. Louis, and New York City, as well as serving for a period as the Superintendent of West Point. In his various roles, he was in charge of rebuilding a military fortress, changed the course of the Mississippi River to insure St. Louis’s survival as a trading hub, and made important improvements to the harbor in New York City. He also won acclaim in the Mexican War, serving under the command of General Winfield Scott, where he proved his courage and skill on the battlefield.

Clouds of Glory is an engaging read. With such a fascinating main character, how could it not be.

Dear American Airlines / Jonathan Miles

Want Not / Jonathan Miles

Life has not gone quite as Bennie Ford has expected.  At age fifty-three, divorced and caregiving for his mother following her stroke, he finds himself stranded in the purgatory of O’Hare International Airport, with his flight to California cancelled.  This is of especial importance since he is traveling to his estranged daughter’s wedding that will take place the next day.  Stuck with thousands of other fuming travelers, there is little likelihood that he will make it to the ceremony since all flights have been grounded for the night.  A failed poet turned Polish book translator, Bennie does what he does best when confronted by this gridlock; he begins to write an angry letter to American Airlines to vent his frustration and to demand a refund.  What begins as a rant ultimately becomes a lament for a life gone awry, a personal history of missed opportunities.

Fortunately, Bennie is a character most people will be thrilled to spend time with.  A chain smoking recovering alcoholic, he has the ability to strike up interesting conversations with complete strangers.  And blessed with a lacerating wit, he has a writer’s keen eye in observing the world around him.  This novel blends humor, outrage, regret, and the humbleness of a man who is not so much a reformed sinner as a person simply hoping he might have a chance to do the right thing for once in his life.

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Having read Jonathan Miles’ debut novel, Dear American Airlines, which so impressed me, I sought out his next (and most recent) work of fiction, Want Not. What I loved about his first book was how the author excelled at creating a character that rang so true to life, and his ability to humorously present a story while not sacrificing its seriousness. All of these qualities are on full display as well in Want Not, where he expands the focus from one character to many.

While billed as a novel, Want Not is actually three interweaving novellas. One story centers around a young “freegan” couple living off the grid in New York City. The second centers around a self-made debt collecting magnate, his wife who lost her first husband in the 9/11 attack, and her teenage daughter who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome. The third story is my favorite, thanks to its main character, Elwin Cross. Overweight (obese actually), he is a linguist who, at mid-life, finds himself in the dissolution of his marriage while dealing with a father who is losing his battle against Alzheimer’s. Cross is not your usual leading man in books, but he is a true star here and won my heart immediately. The three stories could easily stand on their own, however, they do subtly intersect in the book’s final sections.

The thread that ties all three stories is the issue of human excess and the detritus of past lives that the characters are burdened with. Each is haunted by a hunger that possessions can never sate. If this sounds grim, rest assured these stories are a pleasure to read. Miles is a gifted satirist, able to draw out the comedy of contemporary life and all its ironies. Yet he is a romantic at heart, and he never makes fun of his characters.

Do No Harm : Stories Of Life, Death, And Brain Surgery / Henry Marsh

In Do No Harm, Henry Marsh, an eminent British neurosurgeon, looks back at a number of unique cases he has been involved in over his long career. Each chapter focuses on a specific type of brain tumor and a patient with the disease. By focusing on a real person and their life history, he puts a human face to the types of brain tumors he describes.  Even more importantly, Marsh examines a number of cases in which medical errors were made by him or his medical team in the course of a surgery. In admitting these mistakes, he reveals not only the outcome for the patient, but the psychological impact these events have had on him over the years.

While this all sounds rather grim, the book is anything but. The stories are presented with compassion, and so they prove to be more fascinating than dark. Sprinkled throughout are humorous passages about the bureaucracy he must deal with in the British health care system.

What makes Do No Harm such an enjoyable read is Marsh himself; his colorful personality captivates.  And thanks to the author’s brutal honesty and self-reflection, this book vividly captures his triumphs, disasters, regrets, and the black humor he uses to cope psychologically.

The Death Of The Heart / Elizabeth Bowen

Published in 1938, The Death of the Heart tells the story of an adolescent thrust into a new world following the death of her parents. The sixteen-year-old orphaned Portia Quayne moves into the home of her much older half-brother. What she finds in this new home is a troubled marriage where her brother’s wife remains cold and aloof, regarding the young girl as an intrusion into the household’s complex dynamics.  Still grieving from her mother’s recent death, Portia keenly feels the sense of rejection in her new surroundings. To assuage her loneliness, she bonds with a housekeeper who knew her father. She also falls in love with the first person that expresses a romantic interest, a man seven years older.

What makes this novel a delight to read is that it does not focus only on Portia, but also on the adults in her life. While a coming of age story, it broadens to encompass the other viewpoints as well. Thanks to Portia’s arrival in their lives, these adults are forced to acknowledge their own disappointments and come to terms with the directions their lives have taken.  A quiet book that unfolds without resorting to unneeded dramatics, it speaks directly to the reader’s heart.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler / Italo Calvino.  

Italo Calvino has a long string of books to his credit. This novel was my first introduction to his work. Cuban born and raised in Italy, Calvino died in 1985 at the age of sixty-one. During his lifetime, he gained international fame as a gifted storyteller.  If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is considered my many to be his greatest achievement. And for me, it certainly lived up to the hype.

What makes it unique is the ingenious format. Within the novel, Calvino weaves ten pastiches. The story features two main characters, The Reader and the Other Reader. When The Reader begins a new novel by Calvino (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler), he discovers his copy is corrupted. Returning it, he finds the book is actually by another author and is given a replacement copy. But this book proves to be an entirely different novel. And so his chase is on to solve the mystery of this printing error. In the end, The Reader is lead to ten different novels, each of which is taken from him prematurely, just when the story has begun to captive The Reader (and this reader, too).  Each of The Reader’s novels has a different structure: pulp noir, movie script, spaghetti western, mystery story, spy thriller, and so on. Pieced together, they form a labyrinth that captivated my attention entirely.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand / Helen Simonson.  

Helen Simonson’s delightful novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, takes the reader to Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the rolling English countryside. Picturesque, it is filled with thatched cottages and populated by a cast of characters (slightly exaggerated) so traditional that is seems difficult to believe that the story is actually set in the 21st Century.

The main character is Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired). Even his closest friends address him as Major Pettigrew; one suspects that, for a good many decades, the only person who dared to call him Ernest was his deceased wife. He clearly is an opinionated curmudgeon, with a strong sense of honor and duty, and intent on preserving English traditions. More importantly, he is kind, courtly, and totally endearing; a chivalrous man blessed with a heart of gold.

The heart of the story deals with his unexpected friendship with the widowed Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. This sprouts when she provides him with some needed assistance following the death of his brother. Simonson, populates her first novel with numerous, interesting subplots. Be it wayward sons, the clash of differing religions and races, or the threat of redevelopment of the village, the author never lets the reader’s interest stray. At its heart, the book is an amusing comedy of manners and a love story that never seems clichéd.

Moby Dick, Or, The Whale / Herman Melville.

Ishmael, the book’s narrator, and the only surviving crew member of the Pequod.  Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby Dick, the white whale that had earlier deprived him of a leg.  Starbuck, the chief mate, a Quaker from Nantucket who attempts to talk Ahab out of his mad quest and even considers killing him.  Queequeg, the tattooed son of a chief from a cannibal tribe residing on an island in the South Seas.  These are characters so vividly brought to life by Melville that they still resonate in modern consciousness centuries after being introduced.  Then there is the albino sperm whale, Moby Dick, an old bull whale of prodigious size and strength.  He is known today to even those who have not read the novel.  His presence continues to haunt modern memory long after whaling has come to an end.

While I knew the story line and its intense drama before picking up the novel, I was taken by surprise at the wry humor the book provided, thanks to Ishmael’s narration.  His observations make it a textbook on whales and whaling, as well as a gripping high seas adventure story guaranteed to enthrall.  In lesser hands, this novel might be a rousing tale, but few writers are capable of bring the depth of detail that Melville supplies.  He is a master craftsman when it come to the written word, and one soon realizes a few pages in, that they are in the presence of true genius.  Melville’s use of “you are there” detail has the reader hanging on his every word.  Hook, line, and sinker, it pulls the reader into the story, even if they do not fully understand the book’s minute details.

Mrs. Bridges / Evan S. Connell.

Mr. Bridges / Evan S. Connell.

The novel Mrs. Bridge was published in 1959. Its companion piece, Mr. Bridge, followed in 1969. The books are an examination of a couple’s married life, as seen from their separate perspectives.

The focus of each narration is quite different. Mr. Bridge portrays a successful businessman who believes he is the king of the manor. He expects to be obeyed without question by both his wife and three children. Though a workaholic, he is devoted to his wife and children. But his work responsibilities still take precedence over the demands of his family. He is the classic definition of a distant father. And he is certainly troubled when the children do not quite meet his expectations as they enter adulthood.

In Mrs. Bridge the opposite is true. As a “stay at home” mom, her entire focus is on raising her three children. Once they are in school, it proves difficult to to find ways to to occupy her days. Since the family is rich enough to have a hired servant, she often looks back with fond nostalgia to the time when she had to cook and clean. To fill her empty days, she shops with the other bored housewives in her social circle. She perfectly fits the definition of a country club wife. Her adult children are still loved, but they often seem like strangers moving in a new world changed beyond her ability to comprehend.

With gentle humor and a dose of pathos, Connell has created a snapshot of married life in the 1930s and 1940s. While Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge can be read as separate pieces, I highly recommend they be considered a joint book. For better or worse, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge are a couple joined at the “spine”.

Nagasaki : Life After Nuclear War / Susan Southard.

Hibakusha is a Japanese word used to describe the surviving victims of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The term literally translates as “explosion-affected people.” In this book, Susan Southard highlights the lives of five hibakusha: Dó-oh Mineko, Nagano Etsuko, Taniguchi Sudmitera, Wada Kóichi, and Yoshida Katsuji. Each of them were teenagers in Nagasaki on the the day of the bombing, suffering serious injuries as a result.

The opening chapters make for a chilling read. Southard does a marvelous job of bringing to life what was occurring in Nagasaki shortly before the bombing, and more importantly, the devastation the blast caused. More than 30,000 people were killed immediately, while more than 40,000 died from their injuries by the end of 1945. By focusing on these five individual survivors, the author is able to put a human face to the horror experienced by the citizens of Nagasaki.

The second half of the book is much less gripping, although just as important. It tracks the lingering effects of nuclear fallout on the country’s survivors. Many suffered punishing injuries that lasted a lifetime, including acute and late-life onset radiation-related illnesses, as well as post traumatic stress disorders. The five hibakusha featured here became vocal spokespeople campaigning against the use of nuclear weapons.

Southard’s account does an excellent job of ensuring that the legacy of these bombings is never forgotten. The people she profiles spent their lives working to make sure that Nagasaki remains the last atomic-bombed city in history. Let us pray the injuries and the horrors they experienced are a lesson that humankind takes to heart.

Patricia Highsmith : Selected Novels And Short Stories / Patricia Highsmith.

This collection includes Patricia Highsmith’s first two novels and a number of her most representative short stories. Highsmith’s work is often dark, centering on love, murder, and the macabre. She achieved her reputation as a practitioner of the murder mystery genre with the publication of her first novel, Strangers On A Train in 1950. The story captured the interest of Alfred Hitchcock who turned it into a well-received movie.

The second novel included here, The Price Of Salt (1952) is much different than the first. It centers on a lesbian relationship between a young woman and an older married woman who is going through a divorce. It is a sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality and quite a daring topic for an author at the time to tackle.

This collection serves as an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with her work. These two novels and the accompanying thirteen short stories showcase her range as an author. While much of her output was murder mysteries, this compilation is proof that Highsmith deserves to be recognized as a serious author who transcended that genre, creating serious works of fiction that have stood the test of time.

The Plague / Albert Camus.

The Plague was published in 1947 and tells the story of a mysterious plague that broke out in the French Algerian city of Oran.  In the town, the outbreak begins when thousands of rats are discovered dying in the streets.  Their appearance proves to be the catalyst for the spread of the bubonic plague among the general population.  This leads the city officials to quarantine not only the ill, but the entire city from the rest of the world.  The town’s gates are shut, and almost all communication with the outside world is suspended.

Despite its critical acclaim, for decades I resisted adding this book to my reading list.  I feared it would be too distressing, presenting a voyeuristic view of the horror and panic of those dying from the disease.  To my surprise, Camus takes a completely different tack.  The novel focuses instead on the hopes, fears, and ultimately the resiliency of a population facing the terror of the city’s plight.  It provides an intimate look at the differing strengths they drew upon to keep their sanity during full year Oran is cut off from the rest of the world.

Camus achieves this by focusing on the growing friendship of five individuals who find themselves trapped within the city walls.  This novel tackles numerous themes.  It deals with exile and separation, the resulting solidarity of community, its resiliency, religion’s strengths and weaknesses, and the acceptance of the unexplainable nature of why some remain healthy and others succumb.  In the end, this novel’s message focuses on the importance of hope and kindness.  Masterpiece is a word too often tossed out to describe published novels.  In this case, it is a term richly deserved.

Plainsong / Kent Haruf.

Set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, Haruf presents the interlocking stories of a handful of its inhabitants. Each of them is a wonderful character the reader is eager to get to know. The book’s title come from a type of unadorned music sung in some Christian churches, but it references, in general, Holt’s rural lifestyle and landscape. It is the perfect description of what Haruf achieves in this novel. Having grown up in a small midwestern town, I can attest to his truthful presentation of the rhythms and patterns of life in such an environment.

Shortly after starting Plainsong, I realized I had already read the book a decade before. But by that time Haruf’s engaging prose had already drawn me in and I knew it was worth the time to read it all over again. It is a book that I believe will feel like “home” to a good many readers. Its characters are people one will care about and want to get to know.

Squire Haggard’s Journal / Michael Green.

Amos Haggard is a Gentleman who owns a debt-ridden estate in rural Britain. He is also a drunkard, a gambler who cheats every chance he gets, a person who constantly kicks/expectorates on/or fires his pistols at poachers, dissenters and foreigners. If you haven’t guessed, Squire Haggard’s Journal, covering the years 1777 and 1778, is a parody of a gentleman’s diary. Michael Green, with tongue firmly in cheek, delightfully brings to life this time period, warts and all, with no consideration for political correctness.

Bawdy is the operative word here. Squire Haggard spends a good part of his time carousing with prostitutes or chasing after servant girls. While he is crass, cruel, and a person one would not want to encounter in real life, his escapades and debauched behavior makes for hilarious reading. Riddled with debt and often fleeing from creditors or other Gentlemen that he has insulted, Haggard is quite adept at getting himself in and out of trouble.

Squire Haggard first appeared in a regular column in the Daily Telegraph in the 1960s and was so popular that his exploits were eventually adapted for British TV in 1990. Squire Haggard’s Journal appeared in book form in 1975 and was updated with new content twenty-five years later. For anyone who appreciates silly British humor, this journal will delight and satisfy. Reading this romp is a guilty pleasure from beginning to end.

There But For The / Ali Smith.

This novel was my first introduction to Ali Smith, but after reading it, I intend to get to know her better. The story, while engaging, takes second place to the fireworks Smith produces with her prose. She takes delight in making the English language sparkle and delight. It is a virtuoso piece of writing.

The plot centers around a dinner guest named Miles who locks himself in an upstairs room and refuses to come out. His act ignites a media frenzy as his decision to remain speechless and isolated resonates with many others in the community. He ends up representing humankind’s paradoxical need for both privacy and the need to connect to the greater whole.

Miles’ scenario, while important, is only a tiny slice of the story. The book has four chapters, There, But, For, and The, each featuring a person whose life has been touched by the shut-in.  With clever and whimsical wordplay found on almost every page, There But For The makes for an exhilarating read. But the story is subtly poignant as well.