Shylock Is My Name

0804141347-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name was the second title published in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that began in October 2015. Crown Publishing invited a group of notable novelists each to retell one of Shakespeare’s classic plays as a Shakespeare-inspired novel in their own style, and Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name is based upon Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shylock Is My Name was preceded by Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale and has been followed by Anne Tyler’s look at The Taming of the Shrew and Margaret Atwood’s at The Tempest. Yet to come are Tracy Chevalier’s retelling of Othello, Gillian Flynn’s of Hamlet, Jo Nesbø’s of Macbeth, and Edward St. Aubyn’s of King Lear, bringing the series to a total of eight books.

According to Jacobson, it is on “one of those better-to-be-dead-than-alive days you get in the north of England in February” when Strulovitch and Shylock have their fateful encounter among the headstones of a cemetery. Strulovitch, an occasional visitor, is there to inspect the new headstone recently placed over his mother’s grave. Shylock, a regular visitor, is there to speak with his dead wife, Leah, whose own headstone is “worn to nothing.” Strulovitch cannot avoid overhearing Shylock’s conversation, and recognizes the man for who he is: the actual Shylock made famous by Shakespeare’s (some would say) anti-Semitic play, The Merchant of Venice. In a decision he would come to question, Strulovitch invites Shylock to his home where he offers the man a bedroom of his own.

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Howard Jacobson

Strulovitch is not a practicing Jew, but he firmly believes in the Jewish tradition, as did his father who declared Strulovitch dead to him after Strulovitch dared marry a non-Jew. Strulovitch has returned the favor to his daughter by demanding that she date only Jewish men – and she is having none of it. The harder Strulovitch pushes her, the more rebellious she becomes, and now she has run off with a decidedly non-Jewish local football player. Oh, and she is only sixteen years old. Now, devastated by his daughter’s rejection of her heritage and family, Strulovitch shares his grief with Shylock, who is equally overwhelmed by his own daughter’s rejection of Jewish tradition.

Those familiar with The Merchant of Venice will enjoy ticking off, as he makes them, all the nods to Shakespeare’s story that Jacobson manages in Shylock Is My Name, even down to the novel’s climax in which Strulovitch demands his “pound of flesh” from the volunteer standing in for his daughter’s Christian lover. A product of its times, The Merchant of Venice often reflects the accepted anti-Semitism Shakespeare’s audience would have expected. Howard Jacobson, instead, has used Shakespeare’s basic plotline as a reflection of the modern Jew’s struggle to define himself in today’s world. Shylock Is My Name reminds me very much, in fact, of Jacobson’s 2010 Man Booker Prize winner The Finkler Question, another book about recreating the Jewish identity in the modern world.

Shylock Is My Name is my third experience with the Hogarth Shakespeare series and I continue to be impressed with the novels.

 

Time Travel Tuesday: A Life on Paper

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Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud (who appears to be going for the Kurt Vonnegut look)

This Time Travel Tuesday story is from French novelist Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, an author who has had nine novels and more than one hundred short stories published. “The Gulf of the Years” first appeared in the 2011 compilation titled A Life on Paper.

Jean-Pierre Manoir is a man on a mission. He wants to intercept a little schoolboy on his way to class, who, as luck would have it, is running just late enough to make him stand out from the crowd of schoolboys hurrying up the sidewalk toward their schoolhouse. Breathing a sigh of relief at spotting the boy before it was too late, Manoir stops the boy and identifies himself as a cousin of the boy’s father, a soldier recently killed in a World War II battle.

445105278-railway-station-zoologischer-garten-rapid-train-station-british-sector-collection-william-wylerThe little boy, who has no siblings, and who misses his father terribly, is thrilled to learn that he has more family than he thought he had just a few minutes earlier. Now, eager to skip school and armed with a small bag of “fake sugar sweets,” the boy is only too happy to bring his new cousin home with him to meet the boy’s mother. Manoir, though, knows something that neither the boy, nor his mother is aware of: their street will be heavily bombed in just over an hour and the woman will be killed in the bombardment – unless, that is, Manoir can find a way to save his mother’s life this time around.

Jean-Pierre Manoir is, of course, an older version of the little schoolboy he has befriended. But is our time-traveler successful in saving his mother’s life, or does something go terribly wrong as he takes shelter with his mother and much younger self?

(Honestly, I couldn’t answer that question with any confidence even if I wanted to. I wish some of you would read this story and tell me what you think the ending means because I’m not sure what to think of it.)

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

0062300547-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The release of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, coming so near the 2016 presidential election as it did, could not have been timed more perfectly. Vance, you see, grew up in Middletown, Ohio, the city in which his grandparents chose to start their married life rather than taking their chances back home in Jackson, Kentucky. The two cities have much in common, but it was much easier for a blue-collar worker to find a decent wage in 1950s Middletown than it was in 1950s Jackson. The migration that brought Vance’s grandparents to Ohio was the result of a natural fit between the two regions: Ohio had more jobs than workers to fill them, and Kentucky had an abundance of unemployed men desperately needing work. Vance, because of his background, is in perfect position to explain the mindset and motivation of one of the socioeconomic groups (white male blue-collar workers) that would help put Donald J. Trump into the White House in 2016.

What J.D. Vance has accomplished in his young life is almost a stereotypical representation of the American Dream. His grandparents came to Ohio as very young newlyweds with almost nothing to their names where they managed to raise a middle-class family that included Vance’s mother. Vance, as it turned out, would spend more of his childhood with his grandmother than with his mother (and barely knew his father), but would go on to become a Marine and would earn degrees from both Ohio State University and Yale Law School. So in just three generations, Vance’s family had gone from dirt poor to having a member of the immediate family graduate from one of the most prestigious law schools in the country. But it was not easy.

People like Vance’s grandparents brought more than their few physical possessions with them to Middletown. They brought such close family-ties that they felt guilty if they did not spend a substantial amount of time in Kentucky with the family they left behind. At the same time, their Kentucky relatives often accused them “being too big for their britches” for leaving Kentucky in the first place – adding to the guilt they already felt. More damaging were the behavioral tendencies of the Kentucky Appalachian region that followed the transplants to Ohio, including: alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that quickly and often led to confrontational violence, and other habits that so often lead to generational poverty.

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J.D. Vance

Arguably, what Vance has to say about his fellow Appalachian hillbillies, is all based on the anecdotal evidence he gathered from his own life. It is one man’s point-of-view. But what he says rings true, especially when he points out that no group today has a dimmer future than the working-class whites of the Appalachian region. He says, “From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery.”

Is it any wonder that when a politician comes along who promises to return jobs to this region that working-class whites will rush to embrace him and his message? According to Vance, working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in all of America. Those in the coalmining states have suffered greatly in the past eight years, and now it remains to be seen whether or not at least some of the promises made to them during this past election cycle can or will be kept.

Bottom Line: Hillbilly Elegy is a frank memoir, one that is sometimes shocking, sometimes funny, and always interesting. Some accuse it of trafficking in hillbilly stereotypes, but it should be remembered that stereotypes usually become stereotypes for good reason. Hillbilly Elegy deserves a look.

Lost Weekend

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Scoreboard at Game’s End: Final Score Klein Collins 56- John Tyler High School 14

This has turned into another of those weekends where very little reading gets done – and considering that because of the Thanksgiving holiday this is a particularly long weekend, my schedule is falling to pieces all around me. It’s not so much that I’m not reading the pages, it’s more that I’m not sitting down to write the reviews that need to be written about the books I’ve finished. If you guys are like me, you know that it’s best not to wait too long before putting thoughts to paper because it seems that more of the detail slips away every day you delay.

So I wrote half a review early this morning of Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name before climbing in the car with my son-in-law and his dad to drive from Houston to Waco, a distance of about 180 miles, to watch the local high school in a third-round playoff football game against Tyler’s John Tyler High School. Most often during the high school playoff season, teams meet at a neutral site to decide which moves on to the next round. In this case, that neutral site was Baylor University’s McClain Stadium in Waco. Having to drive only 130 miles to the stadium made it a little easier on the Tyler fans, but both schools were well represented in the stands

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John Tyler High School in White; Klein Collins in Black

And the best part of the day is that the game was unexpectedly easy for the good guys from Houston who dominated the entire game and won by a final score of 56-14. The teams were expected to be much more evenly matched than the final score indicates because before the game Tyler was ranked 16th in the state and Klein Collins was ranked 18th.  Next week, it’s on to the fourth round where the remaining eight teams work their way to a final four.

Capping off the weekend with yet more football, I’m heading out in the morning to watch the Houston Texans play the San Diego Chargers in a game that promises to be a whole lot closer than the high school game I saw this afternoon. Houston is barely favored in this home game (I think they are one-point favorites) and, frankly, I don’t expect a win from them. But I’ll be there rooting them on just like I’ve done for almost a decade –and-a-half now.

That’s another full day lost, and it means that completion of the Howard Jacobson book review is going to get put off again. But all was not lost because riding alone in the backseat of a car for six hours today meant that I was able to sneak in over 100 pages of reading. Tomorrow is another day.

Short Story Saturday: Edith Wharton’s “A Journey”

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Edith Wharthon

This week’s Saturday Short Story comes from novelist and short story writer Edith Wharton who died in 1937 at age seventy-five. “A Journey” is a story about a newlywed returning to New York from Colorado with her ailing husband where he had been sent to recuperate from an illness.

The woman had been completely unprepared for her husband’s sudden illness, and she is still finding it difficult to cope with him as he is today. Both she and her husband had been so healthy before he was struck by the illness that they were recklessly overconfident that their future together would be a long and comfortable one. Now it is as if the link between them has been permanently severed; they no longer are capable of communicating about anything other than the illness that has come between them – and even that is not easy. She has been reduced to a caretaker, he to a patient.

On the long train ride across the country, the young woman has come to realize that the life she believed would be hers for decades to come has been snatched from her grasp by her husband’s inability to remain the healthy man she believed she had married. She knows full well that he is unlikely to recover; it is entirely more likely, in fact, that the man is dying or his Colorado doctors would not have agreed to release him so early in his recuperative process.

1930locaAnd then it happens. Little more than halfway through the trip home to New York, the woman wakes up to find that her husband has died during the night. Her old life, she knows, is now over.

So what is she to do? She knows that if she announces her husband’s death that the authorities will have her and her husband’s body removed from the train. She has seen with her own eyes that very thing happen to a couple whose young daughter died on a different train trip, and she is still haunted by the shocked look on both their faces as their trained pulled away from the bench they were sitting on, their dead daughter held between them.

But the longer she waits to tell someone about her husband, the more difficult it will be to convince everyone that she was unaware that her husband was gone. Can she hide the truth all the way to New York? And if she does, won’t it be obvious by then that her husband has been dead for almost twenty-four hours?

“A Journey” is an intriguing story, one that I enjoyed reading right up to what for me, at least, turned out to be a disappointing ending. Even so, I always enjoy reading Edith Wharton’s work, and “A Journey” is no exception.

The Shootist

the-shootistI have only read two Glendon Swarthout novels (The Shootist and The Homesman), but, as it turns out, they are two of my favorite books and both were made into favorite movies of mine. Swarthout, who died in 1992 at age 74, had a special talent for writing the kind of western novel that told its story by getting deeply into the heads of its characters. His westerns were not short on gunplay and the like, but Swarthout’s focus was always on what motivated his characters to be the people they were and do the things they did.

The central character of The Shootist is one John Bernard Books, a nineteenth-century gunfighter with a fierce reputation as a sure-shot with a quick hand. But time is beginning to catch up with Books and now, in January 1901, he has come to El Paso to see the doctor who saved his life years earlier when Books took the only bullet that ever came near killing him. Books is in pain and he knows that something is seriously wrong with him. And when the doctor tells him that the pain is being caused by the prostate cancer that is killing him, Books knows that he will die in El Paso – and soon.

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Glendon Swarthout

Word spreads quickly that the famous gunfighter is staying in a local boarding house, and it is only a matter of time before several gunfighters with an exaggerated estimation of their own talents begin to consider the instant fame associated with being the one to kill the famous John Bernard Books. Bond Rogers, the widow for whom the boardinghouse is her only source of income, is losing borders because of the gunfighter’s presence and wants him to leave her home, something Books adamantly refuses to do. Over the course of several weeks, as the cancer progresses and Books becomes more and more helpless, the reader watches the city’s vultures descend on the dying man to lay claim to every personal possession Books is willing to sell, including the very hair on his head. It seems that the death of Books is going to prove quite profitable for several of El Paso’s more-enterprising merchants.

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John Wayne & Lauren Bacall in “The Shootist”

But at the heart of The Shootist is the evolving relationship between Books, his landlady, and the woman’s 17-year-old son, a school dropout who has aspirations to become a gunfighter as famous as Books. Those familiar with the film version of The Shootist will remember young Gillom Bond as somewhat of an innocently naïve boy who can hardly believe his luck that the most famous gunfighter of the day is about to die in his mother’s boardinghouse. This is not at all the Gillom Bond portrayed in the novel, a forum in which Gillom shows a very different temperament and plays a much more significant role in the story’s climax.

Bottom Line: This is an excellent literary western, and that’s the best kind. The Shootist won the Spur Award for Best Western Novel of 1975, and it is very easy to see why.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Enjoy the day, folks.  Reconnect with family and friends and remember that we all, everyone of us, have more things in common than we have differences.  It’s time to work together to make this a better world for everyone.

Have a great day; enjoy the conversation and the food; read a good book.  Although we forget it all to often, the truth is that we are very lucky people to be living in this day and age.

See you tomorrow.

Human Acts

087efae2d74396e597159566d51444341587343Coming in at less than 225 pages as it does, Human Acts may be a relatively short novel, but Han Kang manages to pack as much into it about the emotional impact of the horror of government-sponsored torture and murder as one would expect to find in a book three times its length. And most tellingly, she does it by placing the reader inside the heads of the people who experienced it all first hand: protesting students, friends of those students, print editors, protesting labor union members, and the mothers of the tortured and killed.

Korean dictator Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979, and a few months later Park’s protégé and successor Chun Doo-hwan decided that it was time to end the union and student protests demanding more everyday freedoms for the citizens of South Korea. The government crackdown that followed Chun’s decision was a brutal one that is said to have claimed the lives of up to 2,000 students, union members, and others who dared join the fray on their side. By the time this was happening, author Han Kang (as a child of ten) and her family had moved from Gwangju to Seoul, so no member of the author’s immediate family was tortured or killed – but because the fifteen-year-old son of the family who rented the Gwangju home from her family died in the carnage, she feels a personal connection to the boy’s story.

Han Kang begins Human Acts with a chapter titled “The Boy, 1980” describing the boy’s work in the makeshift morgues that sprang up around the city to identify and prepare for burial the piles of bodies that were dumped onto the streets every morning by Korean army troops. Next comes a chapter called “The Boy’s Friend, 1980” recounting through the friend’s eyes exactly what happened to the boy and those like him who chose to stand their ground rather than return to the relative safety of their homes when given one final chance to do so.

The book’s third chapter, “The Editor, 1985,” is a first look backward at the killing and maiming that happened five years earlier. The chapter introduces a publishing editor whose job is to work with the official government censors who decide exactly what her publisher will be allowed to print. Just how dangerous her job is becomes obvious when police interrogators demand to know the true identity of one of her authors. This is followed by a chapter titled “The Prisoner, 1990” in which Han Kang portrays the horrible tortures being endured ten years later by those unlucky enough to have survived their 1980 decision to remain in place when Park’s army arrived in Gwangju.

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Han Kang

Next comes “The Factory Girl, 2002,” a chapter told from the point-of-view of a young union member who dared protest against her low wages and poor working conditions in 1980. That she survived the unthinkable torture she did does not necessarily mean that she was one of the lucky ones. The sixth chapter of the book, “The Boy’s Mother, 2010,” clearly shows how even thirty years after his death at the hands of Chun’s henchmen, his mother still expects him to come home one day. Until the boy’s body is found and identified, this will be the hope she wakes up to every morning. Han Kang then closes the loop of Human Acts with an epilogue titled “The Writer, 2013” in which she explains her personal attachment to this massacre of innocents that happened in her hometown in 1980.

Human Acts is a reminder of what human beings are capable of inflicting upon their fellow humans, even those with whom they share both a race and a homeland. It is a warning about how easy it is for one person to achieve the level of power that allows this kind of thing to happen over and over again. Most disturbingly, it is a reminder that mankind never seems to learn from its past mistakes; that this kind of thing can, and most definitely will, happen over and over again in the future.

And most sadly, Human Acts is about the kind of survivor-guilt that can, for decade after decade, emotionally cripple those who manage to survive the carnage that claims so many others. As it turns out, it is as impossible for survivors to return to what life was like before such an atrocity as it is for those who lost their lives to it to ever do so.

Time Travel Tuesday: The Final Days

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David Langford

Today’s Time Travel Tuesday story is by David Langford, a British writer and editor who has won more than twenty-five Hugo Awards in his day. “The Final Days” first appeared in 1981 in a science fiction anthology called Spadeful of Spacetime. Langford, who grew up in Wales, studied for a physics degree at Brasenose College in Oxford where his love of science fiction is said to have flourished.

Rather fittingly considering the times, “The Final Days” opens near the conclusion of a presidential debate that is being held just four days prior to the presidential election. The two candidates, Harmon and Ferris, are not identified by party but it is apparent that Mr. Ferris is not at all comfortable in front of the cameras. By contrast, his opponent “sucked confidence from the cameras, glad to expose something of himself to a nation of watchers, and more than a nation.”

definitionofself_peephole-thumb-468x300-5802In this case, “more than a nation” does not refer to the rest of the world; it refers to people from the future that are taking advantage of “peepholes” back to the past. A group of present-day scientists, it seems, has accidentally discovered a tool to recognize the “little knots of curdled space” that indicate that someone is being watched from the future. The accepted theory, to which Mr. Harmon enthusiastically subscribes, is that the more watchers from the future a person has, the more important he will turn out to be in the present.

And tonight the debate is attracting a record number of future-watchers, a development that Mr. Harmon finds especially comforting since he knows that he personally attracts four times the number of watchers from the future that Ferris draws. But as the election date draws nearer and nearer, could there be another reason that so many future-watchers are focusing so closely on Harmon and not on Ferris? Should, maybe Harmon be just a little bit fearful about what makes him so interesting to people from the distant future?

“The Final Days” is only four pages long but its open-ended ending leaves a lot for the reader to think about. Personally, I do not usually like open-ended stories and novels, much preferring those that close the loop, and I wish this one had done that. But I admit that the way the story ended left me trying to come up with plausible endings of my own. There are a lot of them, and it’s fun to wonder which one the author himself may have had in mind when he wrote “The Final Days.”

Indian Summers, Season Two: It’s Over Way too Soon

indian-summersDespite my good intentions, I never did get around to composing a new post yesterday – and I blame that entirely on the second season of the wonderful Channel 4/PBS series Indian Summers. Sadly, although I didn’t know it until this morning, there will be no third season for the series because the U.K.’s Channel 4 has decided against commissioning more episodes of the 1930s period drama.

None of my television viewing is done “live,” as I much prefer to record the programs for later viewing at my leisure, along with the added advantage of being able to fast-forward my way through the commercials that generally take up about 25% of the time it takes to watch anything on commercial television these days.

Those of you not familiar with Indian Summers should know that it is set in 1930s India during the critical years that a move for independence was growing among the general population of that country. Gandhi is mentioned several times in the second series, although I don’t recall him actually being portrayed on screen (I could easily be mistaken about that). The series did a good job of portraying the events of the day through the eyes of the British administrators, pro-British Indians, Indians who worked for the British strictly out of necessity, and Indians who were willing, at the end, to die for their country’s independence. The last episode of the series also ventured into the volatile split between the Muslim and Farsi populations of the country.

Because my home team did not play football yesterday, I had time to catch up on the two episodes I still hadn’t seen – and then when I realized that another episode was being recorded as I was finishing the second catch-up episode, I started watching it – not realizing that it was actually the final episode of this second season. But as it ended, I realized how perfect a spot in the continuing story it would be to use it as a lead-in to a third season and wondered it that was going to be the case. For that reason, the news this morning that the drama has been cancelled is really disappointing.

Let me recommend to those who haven’t seen it, that they fix that oversight as soon as they can. The acting is superb all the way through, from the principle players right down to those actors who have tiny parts. The cinematography is stunning throughout, the costumes are authentic, colorful, and eye-catching, and the locations (actually Malaysia’s Penang Island) are stunningly beautiful.

Season Two Trailer

So, to get back to my original point, the time that I would have used to work up a Book Chase post yesterday was consumed by the three hours I spent in fictional, 1930s India with the British as they saw their world change faster than they ever imagined it might. I do consider it time well spent, though, and I really hate the idea that Indian Summers is done now. A little window on the past has closed to me before I was ready to lose the view – and that makes me sad.

More please, Channel 4?

Short Story Saturday: T.C. Boyle’s “Filthy with Things”

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T.C. Boyle

This week’s story, “Filthy with Things,” comes from T.C. Boyle, a man acknowledged to be one of America’s premier short story writers. Boyle is, in fact, a winner of the PEN/Malamud Lifetime Award for the Short Story. You never know what you are going to get from a T.C. Boyle short story. The man describes his vision of what a short story is this way, “To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination, and most of my work comes out of the spirit of game-playing or puzzle solving.”

Julian Laxner is about to play a game he never bargained for, one that will leave him so stunned by the time it’s over that he won’t be able to tell if he’s the winner or the loser. If he’s the winner, what did he win? And if he’s the loser, just how much did he end up losing? Only Susan Certaine and her accountants might even come close to answering that question.

Julian’s wife, Marsha, you see, is a high-end hoarder, a woman with enough money to go shopping for furniture and antiques every day of the week – so that’s exactly what she does. Marsha doesn’t stop with furniture and antiques, however; she also buys multiples of everything that would normally be found in a household of two adults. She has filled the home with so many plates, cups, glasses, toasters, blenders, potholders, towels, etc. that it’s near impossible for Julian or Marsha to reach any of the loot. They can barely make their way from room to room.

old-furnitureThe game in question begins on the afternoon that a new piece of furniture is delivered while Marsha is out shopping. After Julian and the delivery boy, despite their best efforts, can only manage to wedge two-thirds of the new piece through the doorway, Julian knows that the time has come; something has to change. That’s when Susan Certaine, whose business card says simply “Professional Organizer,” enters the picture. After assuring Julian that she’s “seen worst,” and that she can give him and his wife their lives back, Susan boldly states that she is “the purifying stream…the cleansing torrent, the baptismal font” that will make a “new man of him.”

Before they know it, Julian and Marsha have signed a Certaine contract more than three hundred pages long; Marsha is in a rehab center for hoarders; Julian is hiding in a cheap motel; and a crew of dozens is busy inventorying and slapping barcodes on everything they own. That’s all bad enough, but the biggest surprise of all is yet to come.

About halfway through “Filthy with Things,” the reader begins to sense that all is not what it seems to be, that Julian and Marsha maybe should have paid more attention to the contract they signed. From that point onward, it’ a heart-thumping race to the finish for the reader. This one reminds me again why T.C. Boyle is one of my favorite short story writers of them all.

Imagine Me Gone

9780316261357_custom-a54f117fcf41de5d3273b29542ae135621110135-s400-c85After hearing Adam Haslett read the first two sections of Imagine Me Gone at the 2016 Texas Book Festival, I was intrigued enough to grab a copy of it before heading for home. The novel is told via alternating points-of-view sections narrated by a family of five: John, Margaret, and their three children, Michael, Celia, and Alex.  Those two sections read by Haslett that day, totaling just over four pages, introduce siblings Alex and Michael, who have been holed up together in an isolated cabin for over a month. From the Alex section, it becomes apparent that something serious involving Michael has just happened and Alex needs/wants to tell someone about it, even if it is only the complete stranger living in a nearby cabin. The shorter section from Michael is a satirical doctor’s office voice mail message of the type that, over-the-top and laugh-out-loud funny as it is, still has the power to make most readers cringe a bit in sympathy at the frustration being expressed by Michael.

The rest of Imagine Me Gone, a long flashback history of the family that begins when Margaret and John are courting in England, eventually circles all the way back to the book’s first four pages. (Interestingly, Haslett said at the book festival that he actually wrote the book in chronological order and only then transformed the book’s ending into its beginning by moving the final section to the front of the manuscript.)

Imagine Me Gone is a book about family ties, obligations, and legacy – be that legacy a good one or a bad one. It is about the difficulty of escaping the bonds between siblings, between parents, and between parents and their children even when those bonds have the potential and likelihood of destroying the entire family. And most of all, it is about the kind of mental illness that claims victims within a family generation after generation.

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Adam Haslett

Margaret did not go into the marriage with her eyes closed. While she and John were still in the engagement-stage of their relationship, John – who had suffered periodic bouts of depression most of his life – had a severe enough incident that he was hospitalized for treatment. Margaret had a decision to make: wish John well and move on with the rest of her life, or marry him as planned. She chose to marry John, a decision that would haunt her and their children their entire lives.

John’s mental illness was relatively dormant for long stretches of his life, but it was a constant shadow hanging over his and Margaret’s marriage. This sometime-dormancy explains why their three children did not fully comprehend the seriousness of their father’s illness even as it was shaping them into the adults they would become. But at the same time, their father’s illness was laying claim to Michael, and unlike his father’s illness, Michael’s was never dormant – once it claimed him, Michael got no time off for good behavior. Haslett stated at the book festival that he particularly enjoyed writing the Michael character because of the outlandish ways that this very articulate character perceived the world around him.

Sometimes funny, sometimes terribly sad, Imagine Me Gone is the story of a family doing its best to play the bad cards it’s been dealt. It is a book, as the Texas Book Festival people put it, about “family history and inheritance.”

Texas Book Festival Pictures and Sessions – Part III

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Adam Haslett on left; Mitchell Jackson on right

The second session I attended on Sunday featured authors Adam Haslett and Mitchell Jackson, each of whom spoke about and read from his latest work. In Haslett’s case that is his new novel Imagine Me Gone, and for Jackson it’s a nonfiction piece about an elderly uncle of his who “tutored” Jackson about the world of dealing drugs when the author was still in high school. Jackson also spoke about a novel of his own titled The Residue Years.

9780316261357_custom-a54f117fcf41de5d3273b29542ae135621110135-s400-c85In one sense, the two novels are very different: Haslett’s is about a middle class white family struggling with the mental illnesses of two of its members, and Jackson’s is about a lower class black family with a history of drug dealing and prison sentences. But in another sense, in addition to being autobiographical, the two books share a common theme, and this is why Haslett and Jackson were paired together for a session that can be titled “Inheritance: On family history and inheritance in fiction.”

In addition to Imagine Me Gone, a novel that took five years to complete, Adam Haslett is also the author of one other novel, Union Atlantic (winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a finalist for the Commonwealth Prize), and the Pulitzer Prize winning short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. Mitchell Jackson’s The Residue Years (winner of the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence) is his only novel, but he is also the author of Oversoul, an e-book collection of short stories and essays.

16059455Interestingly, both books begin with the end of their story. Haslett says that he actually did write his book in chronological order before turning Imagine Me Gone into a flashback novel by placing its ending at the beginning of the book – something he did, he says, in order to create a “sense of unease throughout the whole book.” The end of Jackson’s The Residue Years began life as a short story that the author decided to explore a little more deeply by turning it into a novel. It makes a certain kind of sense that he would begin with the story and use flashback to further explore the story’s characters and motivations.

(Those interested in learning more about Imagine Me Gone can do so by coming back to Book Chase on Friday for my review of the novel. I also plan to read and review Jackson’s The Residue Years as soon as my library locates a copy for me.)

The Haunting of Hill House

dd4edc3e-b811-484b-9b1f-994c439c3744img400Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House is still the standard by which haunted-house stories are judged today even though it is based on some of the same plot devices common to more run-of-the-mill haunted-house novels and movies. For instance, Hill House is a large, isolated (in this case it’s up on a hill all by itself) old house with a reputation for being haunted, a place the locals don’t want to be anywhere around after dark – and then along comes a party of outsiders who have decided to spend a few nights inside the house to see if anything spooky might happen while they are there. Throw in the rather creepy caretakers of the place (who always leave before it gets dark), long hallways with lots of closed doors, mysterious staircases that lead to unexpected rooms, plus lots of unexplained noises in the night, and The Haunting of Hill House could easily have ended up being little more than a mediocre story filled with clichés.

But that didn’t happen because Shirley Jackson was simply too good a writer to let it happen. Instead, Jackson concentrated on character development, conflict between characters, mood, and making the reader gradually realize that Hill House is an entity very much aware of the four strangers who have dared to challenge its reputation.

Stephen King, who certainly knows a thing or two about haunted-house stories, is a great admirer of Jackson’s novel, beginning even with the book’s first two sentences in which King says that Jackson: suggests that “Hill House is a live organism; tells us that this live organism does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; that because…it does not dream, it is not sane.” King goes on to say that the opening also establishes the historical context of the house and “concludes by telling us that something walks in the rooms and halls of Hill House.” That is a whole lot to accomplish with just two sentences, even two sentences totaling eighty-three words, as these do.

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Shirley Jackson

The real horror in The Haunting of Hill House comes from watching the house (and whatever drives it) slowly claim the mind of Eleanor, the weakest of its four “guests.” Eleanor, a young woman without a home to call her own, lives with her sister and brother-in-law and has never learned to stand up for herself – even when not allowed by them to drive the car for which she has paid fully half the purchase price. “Stealing” the car for her drive to Hill House as she does is so out of character for Eleanor that she is giddy from the excitement of it all for days after. Hill House is quick to recognize Eleanor’s weaknesses.

When ghost-hunter Dr. Montague and the two others in the party begin to notice changes in Eleanor’s behavior and grow concerned, Hill House is quick to increase pressure on all four and soon has them quarreling and second-guessing each other. The question now is whether Hill House will ultimately relinquish all four of the intruding outsiders or decide to claim one or two of them for itself.

Bottom Line: Fans of modern horror fiction will do well to read this classic tale from 1959 because it will give them something by which to judge the quality of what is being published in the genre today. Shirley Jackson, because she was a genre-writer, does not always get the credit she deserves. Thankfully, The Library of America did its bit to strengthen Jackson’s reputation in 2009 with a compilation volume that includes The Lottery; or, The Adventure of James Harris (a collection of 24 short stories); The Haunting of Hill House; We Have Always Lived in the Castle; and Other Stories and Sketches (a selection of previously uncollected or unpublished short work). The LOA book is a must for Shirley Jackson fans.

Time Travel Tuesday: Red Letter Day

closedpackToday’s Time Travel Tuesday story is “Red Letter Day,” a story by Kristine Kathryn Rusch that was first published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine in 2010. Rusch is a two-time winner of the Hugo Award, once for editing and once for fiction.

As “Red Letter Day” opens, the graduating seniors at Barack Obama High School have gathered in the school gym to pick up the packages that contain the robes and mortarboards they will be wearing to their graduation ceremony. It is a happy and exciting time for everyone, but one school counselor knows that the day is about to turn tragic for a handful of the kids she’s watching – because this is also Red Letter Day, the day on which every high school senior hopes to receive a letter from his or her fifty-year-old self.

The secret to time travel has been discovered, and although time traveling is known to be a very dangerous undertaking, in the spirit of democracy every citizen is allowed to participate in time travel once in their lives, and that is on Red Letter Day. A messenger from the future slips in and out, delivers the students’ letters, and then it is up to the students and their counselors to decide what the letters mean.

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Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Only two kinds of letters from the future are allowed. Their fifty-year-old selves can warn the students about one – and only one – choice, person, or event they need to avoid in order to have a more positive future than the one the letter-writer has experienced. Or if their 50-year-old self is having a wonderful time of it, an inspirational letter can be expected to arrive just before graduation day. But what are those students who don’t receive a letter at all supposed to think?

What could it mean? Is their 50-year-old self afraid to make a mistake in the letter that would make things worse instead of better? Does their older version decide that life is more interesting and meaningful if you are clueless as to what the future ultimately holds for you?

Or did your future-self not make it all the way to birthday number fifty?

As it turns out, the counselor assigned to the three students who did not receive a letter this year, did not receive one on her own Red Letter Day some thirty-two years earlier. But now that she is only two-weeks from reaching age 50, the counselor is looking forward to writing the letter that will put her young self at ease.

Surely nothing can go wrong now, can it?

I Should Be Dead: My Life Surviving Politics, TV, and Addiction

 0316347752-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_A whole generation of Americans today mostly knows Bob Beckel as a TV personality, with relatively few of them much aware of just how powerful a political operative the man was in his day. Beckel won some and he lost some, but there is little doubt that he was once a real player in the game of national politics. One of his wins was helping Jimmy Carter get support for the Salt II Treaty; one of his losses (and it was a record-setting one) was managing the presidential campaign in which Walter Mondale won only his home state – and that by a slim margin.

But if there is one thing that defines Bob Beckel’s life, it is not politics – it is that he has been an alcoholic for most of his adult life, and is a drug addict who admits to having been a frequent user of cocaine even during the years his office was inside the White House. Through it all, however, Beckel was one of the hottest campaign consultants and political advisers in Washington. In I Should Be Dead: My Life Surviving Politics, TV, and Addiction, his 2015 memoir, Beckel explains how he managed to do it.

Considering that both of Beckel’s parents were alcoholics who found it difficult to control their addictions, it was perhaps inevitable that he would grow up to have the same problem. Beckel uses a substantial portion of I Should Be Dead to explore the rocky relationships he had with both parents and reveals that he only reconciled with his father shortly before the man died, something that he never fully achieved with his mother. As so often happens, Beckel was so confident that he would be able to control his own alcohol consumption that he was already an alcoholic years before he could admit it to himself.

Bob Beckel is a survivor, a man who grew up learning to do whatever it took to protect himself from a an abusive father. In an attempt to keep his father off his back, he learned to lie, cheat, fake, and tell his father whatever he wanted to hear at any given moment. Sadly enough, these were the very skills that would serve him so well when as a young man he moved to Washington D.C. to begin his political consulting career (and it is obvious that he is not the only one there who has mastered those particular skills).

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Bob Beckel

I Should Be Dead is the story of Beckel’s life, a life filled with near-misses, barroom brawls, booze, drugs, and women as wild as he was. In one of the more interesting twists in his life, Beckel, who is a lifelong, left-leaning Democrat, reveals that his closest friends are the ones he made while working at Fox News. He, in fact, credits the very conservative columnist Cal Thomas with not only being his best friend in the world, but also being the man who saved his life in more ways than one. Not only was Thomas instrumental in getting Beckel hired by Fox when no other television network in the country would touch him, he was instrumental in ensuring that Beckel get the medical help that has kept him alive.

Agree with his politics or disagree with them, Bob Beckel is always interesting and, perhaps because of his previously mentioned survivor skills, he proves to be a difficult man to dislike even when his rougher side peeks through for a moment or two. That’s why he was for so long one of the most popular commentators on Fox News, a network with very few viewers that share his political beliefs.

Bob Beckel is a survivor.

Short Story Saturday: Ha Jin’s “Children as Enemies”

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Ha Jin

This week’s short story comes from Ha Jin, a Chinese-born author who has chosen to make his home in the U.S. since 1985, and writes his stories in English in order, he says, “to protect the integrity of the work.” He is an award-winning poet, novelist, and short story writer who writes about Chinese subjects even though his work is banned in China.

Ha Jin’s six-page story, “Children as Enemies,” is a stark reminder of the generational conflict that often results in immigrant families whose origins are in countries where family life is highly traditional and patriarchal. The narrator of “Children as Enemies” is a 67-year-old grandfather who along with his 63-year-old wife has moved into the New York home of his only son. The grandfather is not at all happy with how he sees his grandson and granddaughter being raised, and it is obvious early in the story that he finds it tremendously difficult not to explode in anger at what he sees and hears in his son’s home.

Already uneasy with his son’s decision to marry a non-Chinese American, it is easy for him to blame what he considers to be the bad behavior of his grandchildren on their mother. When one day the two children come home from school and demand that they be given American first names in place of the Chinese names that none of their classmates or teachers can pronounce, Grandfather Xi expects his son to kill the idea immediately since, in his opinion, it is not even worthy of serious discussion. But much to the old man’s dismay, his son and daughter-in-law help the children choose new names.

Still, both grandparents manage to restrain themselves (after all, they have no other home to go to) in hope that they can influence their grandchildren’s appreciation of the importance of family and ancestral ties. Restraint, however, proves to be an impossibility on the day that both kids come home demanding that they be given a new, American surname because a substitute teacher has mistakenly pronounced their grandson’s last name (Xi) as “eleven.” Words are spoken at a rather high volume, battle lines are drawn, and the Xi family suddenly has a serious decision to make about its future.

Ha Jin’s story exposes a common difficulty faced by immigrant families that settle in a culture very different from the one they left behind. Often there is little resemblance between the third and first generations of the immigrating family, but seldom (I hope) do grandparents come to think of their grandchildren as “enemies.”

“Children as Enemies” is a reminder that the inherent benefits associated with an immigrant family’s move to Americanize itself are not considered to be benefits by everyone in the family. Instead, to some, Americanization represents the end of the world as they know it.

The Underground Railroad

0385542364-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_From what I understand there is some controversy about Colson Whitehead’s decision to fashion his novel about the Civil War era Underground Railroad into a one that fits firmly into the alternate history genre rather than to write a more traditional piece of historical fiction. Frankly, that The Underground Railroad is an alternate history novel is precisely what drew me to it in the first place. I have found that novels of alternate history, as opposed to more traditional historical fiction, often reveal the more accurate truths about motivations, emotions, and what was really happening behind the scenes. The Underground Railroad is no exception because Colson Whitehead uses the genre here to hammer home the harsh realities of one of the most brutal experiences in human history: slavery. In the process, he spares no one, be they black, or be they white.

The central character of Whitehead’s story is Cora, a young slave girl whose grandmother was kidnapped in Africa as a girl and exchanged between slavers a few times before finally ending up in Charleston where she was sold for two hundred and twenty-six dollars. Over the years, Ajarry would be sold several more times before, as a young woman of “breeding age,” she reached the Randall plantation in Georgia where she would live for the rest of her life. Ajarry ultimately took three “husbands” and had five children by them, including Cora’s mother, Mabel. After her grandmother’s passing, the only family Cora will ever know is her mother. And then when her mother makes a run for freedom and leaves Cora behind, the little girl is on her own. Cora survives and grows into a young woman, but her life is an especially difficult one – not the least because every one of her fellow slaves who ever had a grievance with the child’s grandmother or mother gets revenge by abusing Cora.

The second time that Caesar, a new slave purchased in Georgia, asks Cora to come with him on his attempt to escape via the Underground Railroad, she agrees, and the two of them run for it the next night. The runaways do manage to locate one of the railroad’s stations, but they barely escape the slave hunters who are determined to return them to their owner. When, in the scuffle to escape the hunters, Cora accidentally kills a white boy by striking him in the head, she ensures that she will be hunted for the rest of her life.

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Colson Whitehead

This is the point at which Whitehead turns to alternate history to tell the rest of his story, starting with the concept that the Underground Railroad really is underground. It is an intricate system encompassing miles and miles of underground tunnels hidden beneath a series of train stations disguised as homes, barns, played-out mines, or other dilapidated and abandoned property. The stationmasters are white men willing to put theirs and the lives of their family at risk because they believe so sincerely that slavery is an atrocity.

Whitehead’s alternate version of the period includes a rather surrealistic South Carolina (of all places) in which the white population is committed to living and working with the slaves who cross their border in search of freedom. South Carolina, as it turns out, is their first stop on the railroad and Cora and Caesar are so impressed by what they find there that they decide to go no farther. But everything in South Carolina is not what it first seems – as the fugitives will learn the hard way.

Cora’s journey to freedom is a long one, and each leg of that journey introduces her and the reader to a world very different from the one that precedes it. Along the way, Cora learns something new about herself, her fellow blacks, and the whites that are committed to keeping her safe from the slavers who still want so badly to return her to the Randall plantation.

Bottom Line: Colson Whitehead’s decision to use alternate history as his delivery method in The Underground Railroad works beautifully. The author tells the story he wants to tell and has created several memorable characters in the process of telling that story. Don’t let the Oprah Winfrey endorsement put you off – this is an excellent novel.

Movies for Readers: The Little Prince

I took a relaxing break this evening to watch a movie on Netflix with one of my grandsons, 2015’s The Little Prince.  It was just the thing to remind me how much beauty and innocence there still is in the world despite all the ugly divisiveness that makes up the evening news  and the 24-hour cable news cycle.  The movie is beautifully animated, and I think that I enjoyed it as much as the boy did.

By the way, Jeff Bridges fans will particularly enjoy his voiceover as one of the story’s main characters, the elderly aviator.

The Little Prince Movie Trailer

This just might be the perfect antidote to all the negativity of the times.  Enjoy.

On Yesterday’s Election and This Morning’s Reaction To It

I don’t think I’ve ever posted anything political before (unless it was part of a book review) here on Book Chase, but I feel compelled to say something about yesterday’s election.  I simply want to say that while I feel comfortable with the results of the election, I understand the horror and shock that many of my good friends are feeling this morning and I hope to give them at least a little hope their worlds are not really falling apart around them.

Donald J. Trump is a very flawed man; about that, there is little doubt.  But he is not the bogeyman created in the minds of people by the mainstream media for the last several months.  The media would have you believe that Trump is effectively going to turn the clock back a century and that all the gains made by minorities of all stripes are going to be tossed out the window.  I do not believe for a second that this is going to happen – nor should it ever happen.  Donald Trump is not concerned with the legality of gay marriage or transgender rights, nor is he going to change women’s reproductive rights in any significant way.  He knows that he is going to have to find a solution other than deportation for the millions of undocumented residents of this country.

It is not the end of the world as we have come to know it in the past eight years.  This is merely a swing of the political pendulum back toward the right side of the political continuum.  A lot of us believe that the pendulum had swung too far to the left and that an adjustment was due.  That does not mean that the pendulum is going to swing as far to the right as it has swung to the left; it is simply an adjustment and reassessment.  I think that a swing back toward the center was inevitable, and that this inevitability made it near impossible for Hillary Clinton to win this election.

To my friends who are taking this so hard, I want you to know that I understand what you are feeling and I am sorry that you are going through that.  I sincerely hope that Mr. Trump pleasantly surprises all of us by being the kind of president he tells us he wants to be: president of every resident of this country, regardless of political party, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

That’s all I want to say.  Please take this post in the way it is intended: as a heartfelt, virtual hug to make us all feel a little bit better about what is to come.  If Trump fails, as he certainly could, we will fire him in four years and I will help do that with my vote.

Hang in there, guys.  It’s not the end of the world.