Monday, May 9, 2016

Julian Fellowes' Past Imperfect

Damian Baxter is a fabulously wealthy late middle aged businessman who has a problem.  Damian is dying of cancer and wants to leave all of his money to his illegitimate child that he fathered as a young adult back in the swinging sixties.  All Damian has to go on is a letter written to him by the mother telling Damian that "he ruined her life."  The other problem is that Damian doesn't know who among the bevy of beauties that he bedded back then is the mother of his child.


After not hearing from each other for decades because of an embarrassing episode at a house party in Portugal, which we are kept in suspense about until the very end of the novel, and which really is not nearly as shocking as the build up leads the reader to believe that it will be,  Damian contacts the un-named narrator, who has had a moderately successful career as a novelist.  The narrator, "Fellowes," hates Damian but cannot resist going to see him.  "Fellowes" also cannot resist carrying out Damien's last request to find the mother of Damian's child and seeing that he or she inherits all of Damien's fabulous wealth.


The book goes back and forth between the present (the book was first published in 2008) and the late 1960s.  The book has all the inside scoop on the British upper classes that you would expect from the creator of Downton Abbey.  The novel chronicles one of the last debutante seasons in the late sixties when the parents of the aristocracy and the rich paraded their daughters from one dance and party to another to find an appropriate husband.

Just like in real life, what we want to become in our youth is rarely what really happens to us.  Past Imperfect is a well written and entertaining soap opera.  And it's educational.  You may learn how to dress for dinner if you're ever invited to an English country house or how to appropriately address the daughter of an Earl.  Five out of five.

Lord Julian Fellowes

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Chesil Beach

A really talented writer can pack an entire world into a very few pages.  This is exactly what the gifted Ian McEwan has done in his short novel On Chesil Beach, published in 2007.

When we first meet Edward and Florence they are a young couple who have just been married hours before and are off on their honeymoon at Chesil Beach.  Their fumbling sexual dysfunction and psychological baggage cause them to have a disastrous wedding night which has a catastrophic effect on the rest of their lives.

After reading this, the reader is totally immersed in the world of a young intellectual English couple in the early 1960s.  In a few short pages(the novel is only 166 pages), we learn all about Edward and Florence's childhood and their courtship and hangups.  Edward's father is a school headmaster who has to take care of his brain damaged wife and his three children.  Florence's mother is an emotionally cold Oxford philosophy professor who would rather read Plato than be with her children.  There are subtle clues that Florence may have been sexually abused by her father.  (I didn't pick up on this until I started reading reviews of the book online.  After being pointed out to me, I now see the clues in the novel.  Was Florence molested by her father?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  The reader will have to decide).


Anyway, I can't say too much about this intriguing little story or it will give away too much.  But On Chesil Beach is definitely a great read.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

I AM LEGION


I wanted to like this novel a lot more than I did.  It was written by A.N. Wilson who is a very good writer and it was about the Christian religion, which is a topic that interests me.  But Wilson's I Am Legion published in 2004 just fell flat, and frankly, wasn't very good.

Some reviewers description on Amazon that influenced me to purchase a copy of the novel said that one of the main characters of the novel, Father Vivyan Chell, was a thinly disguised Thomas Merton. I confess that I don't see it.  About the only thing that Vivyan Chell and Thomas Merton have in common in that they are both priests and they both have trouble maintaining their vow of celibacy.


Father Vivyan Chell is a former British Army Officer who has joined an Anglican religious order and become a priest.  For many years, he has been running a mission in a fictional African country called Zinariya.  As a teenager, Lennox Mark comes to Father Vivyan's mission and is struck by his holiness and his work with the poor.

Lennox comes very near to dedicating his life to Christ and staying with the mission, but after living with the monks for several months, he goes back to his life of wealth and privilege.  When the novel opens, Lennox Mark is an overweight, middle aged millionaire who owns a muck racking tabloid newspaper called The Daily Legion.


One of Father Vivyan's former students in Zinariya, whom he had great hopes for, has become the dictator of Zinariya.  Like every other character in this novel, General Bindiga is little more than a caricature (think Idi Amin).

Turns out that Father Vivyan is not nearly as holy as everybody thinks he is.  For years he has been living in sin with a series of African women.  Finally, out of guilt he comes home to England and is put in charge of a slum parish which he opens up to the poor and destitute.  Once again, his libido gets the best of him and he has affairs with a series of women.

Author A.N. Wilson with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams

One of the women Father Vivyan has sex with is Mercy Topling, who is a 2nd generation immigrant from Jamaica.  Mercy also once worked as Lennox Mark's secretary and also has a short affair with him.   When Mercy becomes pregnant she is not sure who the father is.  Mercy gives birth to Peter.

Peter, it turns out, has split personality disorder which gets worse as he gets older.  Peter's split personalities run the gamut from a highly intellectual English butler all the way to a retarded homicidal maniac.   It turns out that Peter has been sexually molested by his school counselor, which only makes his mental imbalance worse.

A.N. Wilson with his daughter

Lennox Mark is married to Martina, a former East German prostitute.  Martina's mother, who apparently is trotted out at dinner parties to scare the guests, is horribly disfigured having been shot in the face by East German border guards while escaping from the Iron Curtain.  Martina has only married Lennox for his money and influence and has had a long standing lesbian relationship with Mary Much, another former prostitute who is now a columnist for The Daily Legion.  When Peter, looking for his father, who Mercy has told him is Lennox Mark even though she thinks his father is really Father Vivyan, comes to the Mark's house and murders a delivery boy, Martina and Mary hide him out and make him the chief butler.  Martina  and Mary find Peter very attractive and it is strongly hinted that they begin a sexual relationship with him.

If this description sounds like this novel is a muddled mess, that just about describes it.  The convoluted plot also involves an artist supported by Martina and Mary who's new performance art is a glass toilet which is to be installed in the foyer of the The Daily Legion and which the artist himself will sit upon and take a crap, but is blown up by terrorists led by Father Vivyan who are rebelling against the British support for General Bindiga.

A.N. Wilson enjoys a libation

I have the overwhelming feeling that the hours I spent reading this thing could have been better spent doing something else, like watching re-runs of Gilligan's Island.   Wilson tries to make this mess a serious novel by discussing serious issues, like the existence of God and the nature of faith, but it just doesn't work.

Obviously, the title is taken from the demoniac in the Gospel of Mark, where the man possessed by demons tells Jesus "My name is Legion: for we are many." (Mark 5:9).  The demon possession theme is not only the boy with the split personalities but also the Fleet Street rag that prints lies and half-truths to sell newspapers.

Over all, although I generally admire A.N. Wilson's work, this just falls flat.  Two out of Five.

Friday, May 15, 2015

THE NIGHT VISITOR AND OTHER STORIES


I greatly enjoyed this collection of short stories by the mysterious B. Traven.


All of the stories in this collection are set in Mexico at various periods and most of them involve the lives of the native Indians.


The title story The Night Visitor is a ghost story about an ancient Aztec king who visits an expatriate American living in the jungle.  Effective Medicine is about another expatriate American who is asked by an Indian to help him when the Indian's wife runs off with another man.  Assembly Line is about a wealthy American businessman who thinks he has figured out a way to get rich off of the home-made crafts of a poor Mexican peasant artisan.  The Cattle Drive is self-explanatory.  When the Priest Is Not at Home is a comic story about the real story behind a miracle which is reported in a small Mexican village while the parish priest is away from home.  Midnight Call is another story about an expatriate American and the visit he receives from banditos during the middle of the night.  A New God Was Born takes us back to the times of the Conquistador Hernando Cortez and the gift he leaves for an isolated group of Indians who live deep in the jungle of Central America.  Friendship is about the relationship between a man and a stray dog.  Conversion of Some Indians is also set during period of the Spanish conquest of the New World and involves the efforts of a Catholic missionary to convert the Indians.  Macario is a charming folk tale about a man whose dream of a life time is to eat a whole roast Turkey with all the trimmings all by himself.


There is a whole library of literature about who B. Traven really was.  The elusive B. Traven began publishing stories and novels, mostly set in Mexico, in Germany during the 1920s.  Scholarly opinion is pretty much agreed today that B. Traven was the pen name adopted by Ret Marut (also probably a false name) who was a Communist and sometime Anarchist who was a part of the short lived Bavarian Soviet Republic which came to power for a very short time in 1919.  Fleeing from Germany, Marut was briefly imprisoned as an undocumented alien in England and eventually wound up in Mexico where he went by various names.  For many years, Traven lived in Mexico under the assumed name Hal Croves.  Hal Croves died in 1969.  Traven's most famous work is the novel
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which was the basis for a film directed by John Huston which starred Humphrey Bogart.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD



Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece.  The novel is about the life of Janie Crawford and her search for love and meaning in her life.


I can't do any better than the synopsis from the Cliffs Notes:  


"This novel is the story of Janie Crawford's search for love, told . . . in the form of a frame.  In the first few pages, Janie returns to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, after nearly two years absence.  Her neighbors are curious to know where she has been and what has happened to her.  They wonder why she is returning in dirty overalls when she left in bridal satin.


Janie tells her story to her friend Pheoby Watson, and after the story is over, the novelist returns to Janie's back steps.  Thus, the story, which actually spans nearly 40 years of Janie's life, is "framed" by an evening visit between two friends.


The story that Janie tells is about love - how Janie sought love in four relationships.  First, she looked for love from the grandmother who raised her.  Next, she sought love from Logan Killicks, her first husband, a stodgy old potato farmer, who Nanny believed offered Janie security.  Her third relationship involved Joe Starks. Their union lasted nearly 20 years and brought her economic security and an enviable position as the mayor's wife.  Janie endured this marriage in the shadow of charismatic, ambitious Joe, a man who knew how to handle people, money, and power, but who had no perception of Janie's simple wish to be respected and loved.


Janie's final relationship was with migrant worker Tea Cake, who gave Janie the love she had always desired.  With Tea Cake, Janie was able to experience true love and happiness for the first time in her life.  As a widow, Janie would sell Joe's crossroads store, close up her comfortable home, and leave with her new husband to share his life as a bean picker in the muck of the Everglades.  Tea Cake introduced Janie to a new life in the Everglades.  There she met new people, Tea Cake's fun loving friends, and experienced another community.  Her life with Tea Cake was far different than her life with Joe.  This marriage and Janie's happiness lasted about 18 months - until a powerful hurricane devastated the land, and Tea Cake became a victim of it.

A few weeks after Tea Cake's death, Janie returns to Eatonville because she cannot bear to remain in the Everglades, where she is surrounded by memories of her beloved Tea Cake.  She returns to her hometown, with her quest for sincere love having finally been fulfilled by Tea Cake.  After an evening of retelling her past to her friend Pheoby, the story of Janie's life is complete."

Zora Neale Hurston

Just a few observations:

(1)  Janie is looking for spiritual fulfillment through the love of a man and no amount of material wealth can ever satisfy this longing.  When Pheoby comes to Janie in Chapter 12 and tries to talk her out of marrying Tea Cake the following conversation takes place:

"How come you sellin' out de store?"

"Cause Tea Cake ain't no Jody Starks, and if he tried tuh be, it would be uh complete flommuck.  But de minute Ah marries 'im everybody is gointuh be makin' comparisons.  So us is goin' off somewhere and start all over in Tea Cake's way.  Dis ain't no business proposition, and no race after property and titles.  Dis is uh love game.  Ah done lived Grandma's way, and now Ah means to live mine."

"What do you mean by dat, Janie?"

"She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is blak folks, didn't sit down anytime dey felt lak it.  So sittin' on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her.  Dat's whut she wanted for me - don't keer whut it cost.  Git up on uh high chair and sit dere.  She didn't have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin'.  De object wuz tuh git dere.  So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.  Ah felt like de world wuz cryin' extry and Ah ain't rad de common news yet."


Janie has found material wealth and high position in the community to be spiritually empty and meaningless without love.  She is happier with the gambler and drifter Tea Cake than she ever was with the wealthy Jody Starks.  


(2)  Richard Wright and other black intellectuals criticized Hurston for perpetuating black stereotypes and writing her novel in "Negro dialect."  This criticism was patently unfair.  In a review published in 1937 Wright wrote:  

Richard Wright

"Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley.  Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that's as far as it goes.

Miss Hurston vountarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the "white folks" laugh.  Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live; between laughter and tears. . . . The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought.  In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.  She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phrase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race."


Wright's criticism was misguided.  He misses the fact that, like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Hurston's Florida is only a backdrop to explore universal themes.  Their Eyes Were Watching God is also a feminist novel, dealing with a strong, independent woman who will not accept what society says should satisfy her.  


In defense of Hurston's use of dialect, a trained anthropologist, she was trying to capture the actual flavor of the people's speech.  In the few places where white characters appear, they don't talk any better than the black characters.  


I suspect that Wright may also have been offended that, in a few places in the novel, Hurston explores racist attitudes among blacks.  The restaurant owner Mrs. Turner likes looks down on dark skinned blacks but likes Janie because of her light complexion and straight hair and thinks that Tea Cake isn't a fit husband for her because he's "too black."  


(3)  As a lawyer, I was fascinated by how Janie was able to use the racism of the white community to her advantage in her trial for killing Tea Cake.  Bit by a rabid dog, Tea Cake becomes crazed and attacks Janie who is forced to shoot him in self defense.  The black community is outraged over Tea Cake's death and wants Janie convicted of murder.  The whites, who don't really care about a black woman shooting a black man, are very willing to accept Janie's plea of self defense and the jury of twelve white men very quickly return a verdict of "not guilty."


(4) The end of Janie's story may really be the end of her life.  After she shoots him, Janie is bitten by Tea Cake.  The book ends with the reader not knowing whether or not Janie has been infected with rabies.  If she has been infected, left untreated, Janie will suffer the same agonizing illness as Tea Cake and die in pain and madness.  She may well have returned to Eatonville to tell her story and end her life.  We will never know.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is, truly, a masterpiece and a great work of literature.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Children Act


Ian McEwan's new novel, The Children Act, is about three of my favorite subjects: law, sex and religion.

Fiona May is a fifty nine year old British High Court Judge in the Family Law Division.  As the novel opens, she is working on an opinion in a child custody case between an Orthodox Jewish Father and a now Reformed Jewish mother.  Her previous case, about conjoined twins whom the conservative Catholic parents do not want to separate and kill one to save the other, has haunted her.

Because of her preoccupation with cases, Fiona has not had sex with Jack, her husband of over thirty years.  Jack, a college professor going through his "early old age crisis," has picked out a twenty nine year old statistician whom he wants to have an affair with.  Jack tells Fiona that he needs to have a passionate love affair before he's too old for it, and that he wants her permission.  In response, Fiona throws Jack out and changes the locks on the apartment.

Author Ian McEwan

Fiona's new case is an emergency hearing about a teenage Jehovah's Witness, Adam Henry, who is suffering from leukemia and will need a blood transfusion to survive.  The parents refuse permission on religious grounds and the hospital seeks a court order to overrule them.  Adam, who is 17, is only months away from his eighteenth birthday which would give him the authority to decide for himself.

Fiona goes to the hospital and interviews Adam and is smitten with him.  Adam is an intellectual, a gifted poet and a talented musician.  Fiona ultimately rules that the Court has a duty to save Adam from his religion.  Ultimately, this casts Adam adrift and causes him to loose his staunch faith.  He replaces his faith in God with a romantic obsession with the Judge which results in tragic consequences.

I enjoyed The Children Act a great deal.  It was not nearly as good as Sweet Tooth, but it was a very good read from one of the best contemporary British novelists.  Four out of five gavels.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Winnie and Wolf


I enjoyed A.N. Wilson's 2007 novel Winnie and Wolf a great deal.  If you like this book you probably have two characteristics: (1) You're a fan of the music dramas of Richard Wagner and (2) You're interested in the history of Nazi Germany.  If you don't fall into one of those categories this might not be your novel.


"Winnie" is Winifred Wagner, the wife of Richard Wagner's son Siegfried.  "Wolf" is the affectionate nickname given to Adolf Hitler.  Hitler was an ardent fan of Wagner Operas.  During the 1920s he started going to the Wagner home at Bayreuth and became good friends with Siegfried and Winifred. In fact, the Wagner's supplied Hitler with the paper to write Mein Kampf while in prison for leading a failed coup d'etat against the government of the Weimar Republic. 

Winnie & Siegfried early in their marriage.

After Siegfried's death, rumors circulated that Hitler and Frau Wagner were about to marry.  There is no doubt that Winifred Wagner was one of Hitler's closest friends and the "Uncle Wolf" was very close to the Wagner children.  A.N. Wilson has taken these facts and extrapolates what might have happened if Winnie & Wolf's relationship had been sexual and had produced a child.

The real Winnie & Wolf

The novel is narrated by Herr N_____, whose name we never learn.  Herr N._____ served as the personal secretary to Siegfried and then to Winnie.  Although we never learn his name, Herr N_____ is a finely drawn character whom, by the end of the novel, we feel that we know intimately.  

Frau Wagner greets the Fuhrer

There is a lot of real history in this novel.  The fictional narrative is seamlessly interwoven with the real history of Germany.  Wilson also shows a deep knowledge of Richard Wagner and the Bayreuth Festival.  Wagnerians should love this book.  The novel is presented as a long letter to Herr N____'s adopted daughter who is really the love child of Winnie and Wolf.  The novel is well written and hold's the reader's interest well.

   A.N. Wilson

While this material may not be to everyone's taste, I absolutely loved it.  FIVE OUT OF FIVE viking helmets.