Sunday, March 3

Private space

 

In The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor, Olivia Fitzgerald is a published author, but her second novel failed and her agent struggles to sell the third. After her boyfriend dumps her, Olivia is desperate for money and agrees to explore a ghostwriting job with recently widowed billionaire Henry Asherwood who lives in Malibu not far from Los Angeles where Noah, her good friend from college lives. 

Olivia and her agent sign a nondisclosure agreement about the task, and from the start, Olivia is insecure, testy and often deceitful. In a form of self-sabotage, she withholds information from Noah, frequently poking him with questions when she already knows the answer. 

Strange parallels emerge. Olivia’s own failed novel, Becky, was based on Rebecca, the novel by Daphne du Maurier. The billionaire suggests that du Maurier may have stolen the plot of her famous novel from his grandmother. His late wife also had a fascination with du Maurier. Likewise, both the wife and grandmother had cousins who were close friends. Clara, cousin to Asherwood's wife, works as a housekeeper when Olivia arrives and shows keen interest in the billionaire's affairs. Everyone in the Asherwood home lies, and Olivia grows stronger as she becomes more truthful with Noah. 

More than one woman associated with Asherwood dwells on the Rebecca story, and there is more than one fiction writer. The result is a novella inside The Fiction Writer. In that novella a cousin confides that she understands and envies “what it must feel like to have creativity in your soul, words in your blood, a private space all your own.” 

An intriguing idea can be told in more than one way. 

Monday, February 19

Cheating

 











The Peacock and the Sparrow by I.S. Berry is set in Bahrain in 2011-12, with the Shiite-majority population energized by the Arab Spring, restless under a Sunni-minority monarchy. “The government does not publish statistics regarding the breakdown between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations.  Most estimates from NGOs and the Shia community state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 65 percent) of the citizen population,”  reports the US State Department. Bahrain's population is small, 1.4 million, or as many in San Antonio, Texas. The US Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is a non-NATO ally, but stability with the king and regional security take priority over human rights.  

Protagonist Shane Collins works for the Central Intelligence Agency, and like most spies, regularly lies, a habit that seeps into his personal relationships. He manipulates informants, colleagues and lovers for his own purposes, at one point smugly noting: “A spy was a spy, and at fifty-two I could still lure a fish into my net.” 

Collins poses as a diplomat, a role that should raise eyebrows among any of his contacts. His third month into Bahrain, he is unhappy: “The point where any extant novelty or exoticism has worn off. Where you sink deeper into foreign soil but it repulses and rejects you, shuns your alien roots. Where you become trapped in the amber of the transplanted elite.”  A slacker, lacking self-esteem, he fails to rise through the ranks over the years and works for a polished and younger boss with Ivy League credentials. Collins centers his life around alcohol and when he plays music for a lover, it “like I was hearing it myself for the first time, its euphony fresh, a first sip of whiskey before it descends from pleasure into routine into necessity.” 

The writing is strong, the noir tone compelling, and it’s hard to believe the book is the author's first. Still, the book has problems. 

First, Collins engages in excessive stereotyping, about gender and nationality. For example, he describes his love interest, Almaisa who is an artist: “She had none of the triviality or false femineity of American women; neither did she have the humorless affectation of European women.” He goes on: “A feminist some might call her (though one, I learned, who recoiled from the label.)” Such labeling often leads to cliches: “She was the living product of East and West, a combination that often seemed as fraught with conflict as the two hemispheres.” 

Collins prides himself on breaking down Almaisa's Muslim sensibilities, convincing her to ride in a car with him, try some wine, discard the veil and spend nights in a secluded place. She wears colorful hijabs and he gets her to admit: “mother had never worn a hijab, that it was nothing more than custom, the Quran silent on the subject, that she mostly wore the garment to blend in rather out of religious conviction. Despite Almaisa’s disdain for Western mores, her aversion to becoming like my female compatriots (whom she accused of hedonism and exhibitionism – and was she in truth so far off?), she eventually gave way.” 

He assumes that he is in full charge of the relationship: “Not so different, after all, from the delicate give-and-take dance with an informant, an unending alternation between obeisance and control.” 

The book fictionalizes details and damages of the Bahrain uprising. The plot also takes a long, strange turn as Collins travels to Southeast Asia, raising questions for this reader about why any supervisor would send or trust him. Collins meets reader expectations by transporting a packet for an informant, scheming against supervisors and arranging documents that later assure his own survival.  

Collins as spy becomes target. Belatedly reaching this conclusion, the character escapes the destruction unleashed by his actions and that of US policy, but not without betrayal on multiple fronts. In his world, everyone cheats.

Friday, February 9

Invisible

 

Two women, an actress and a film director, make a pact to keep a secret about a brutal sexual assault from years earlier in Hollywood. Val recognized one man, a studio CEO, but not the other. The arrest of the CEO more than 25 years later in Invisible Woman, a page turner by Katia Lief, triggers pain for the victims and panic for the unnamed rapist.

The secret goes undiscussed by the two women and erodes the friendship. “Val wanted to forget what had happened, so they avoided talking about it. It was like trying to dance around an open pit – nearly impossible. Eventually the calls stopped.” 

Joni, an occasional screenwriter who abandoned her directing career, is trapped in an unpleasant marriage masked by an oversized and gawdy home. She drinks to vanquish unhappy memories. Val, more content, teaches school. “They’d started off in the same place, young and hungry, but only Joni had gone on to a degree of real success and … what? Not fame – it was her husband who was famous now. Riches maybe.” Val’s memories are more vivid than Joni's, wonders how Joni could possibly be happy. 

News of the arrest prompts Joni to reflect on her past and recognize her life is a mess, “the gluey sensation of having lost track of Val and time and herself, of having become invisible.” Family photos once signaled a full life, but then Joni noticed that “somewhere along the line, the grin and bear it smile worn by the women of her mother’s generation had found its way onto her face.” She considers reaching out to Val and offering support, but is uncertain: “Of not knowing how far she should go to find her old friend – or if she should leave her alone in what she hoped (but doubted was a comfortable obscurity.”   

Joni finds Val on Facebook and the two women arrange a meeting at a restaurant near Joni’s Brooklyn home. But Val is viciously attacked beforehand, sent to the hospital in a coma. Waiting, Joni drinks herself into an angry, vulnerable stupor and is later retrieved by her controlling husband who pays the housekeeper and dog walker to keep tabs on his unstable wife. 

Continuing to drink, Joni rashly breaks free from a miserable marriage. The price is another secret, another mean memory, the loss of career, family and perhaps her self-delusion. Joni only becomes more invisible.

Wednesday, January 24

Hunt for sinners

 

Titus Crown, elected first black sheriff of the fictional Virginia county of Charon in All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby, has years of experience investigating terrible crimes. Even in the rural community, Crown tends to expect the worst from others, constantly on the hunt for motivation.

Many residents of such rural places argue that racist wrongdoings are part of the past, “washed away by the river of time that flows every forward” and “those things should be forgotten and left to the ages.” Crown knows better. “The South doesn’t change. You can try to hide the past, but it comes back in ways worse than the way it was before.” 

Racism and religion thrive side by side in the South, and Crown generally declines to argue with men of God, noting “I left that abusive relationship a long time ago.” The death of a beloved parent often prompt children to question their faith, and after his own mother died from a debilitating disease, Crown realized “adults didn’t really know more than kids. That everyone was making it up as they went along and religion was just another crutch, like liquor or weed.” 

Despite strong opinions and volatile emotions, Crown presents a stoic front. He cares for his elderly father, even as Crown cannot forget, “that the night his mother died his father had left two little boys alone to fend for themselves with just a vague notion of salvation for their mother.” To himself, Crown admits “there was still a thirteen-year-old inside of him that hated his father just a little bit.” But there is love, too. A simple action of a hand to a shoulder, “gentle words, was why he loved his father more than that little boy hated him.”                                                                                    

Crown’s conflicted past as an FBI agent and his history as an investigator, including the recent discovery of seven children tortured and murdered, reinforce his religious skepticism. For Crown, religion had thousands of years and chances to stem evil, instead falling prey to human interpretation and manipulation. As he explains to one man of God, “the devil is just the name we give to the terrible things we do to each other.” 

Overqualified for the sheriff position, Crown is meticulous, certainly not as eager as town officials to close cases quickly and protect tourism. Every clue must be collected and analyzed. “Might be nothing, might be everything. Titus thought that summed up the startlingly random nature of most police investigations.” 

The writing is strong and personal opinions are delicately inserted, never interfering with the plot. The protagonist is a keen and moral observer of human behavior and emotion: “That was often how crimes were solved.” That does not exclude analyzing and dwelling on his own motivations and connections.  

Thursday, January 18

Collateral damage











Despite or maybe because of his self-centered ways, an Irish poet attracts female fans in The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright. After the wife falls ill, Phil McDaragh leaves home and two daughters who are left wondering what they did wrong. Pain, distance and a tolerance for abuse reverberate through three generations. The poet leaves the country, conceding his writing is nostalgic. He writes only about Ireland because “You can’t leave a place like that,” Phil said. “It’s always with you.” He travels to Italy, where it’s claimed he abused another poet, and to the United States, where he marries a student. 

Phil disappoints any who admire and support him. His daughter, Carmel, and his only granddaughter, Nell – conceived by a mother with no husband as a means to defeat loneliness – narrate most of the story, with Phil’s poetry scattered in between. Midway in the novel, Phil describes a childhood that includes animal cruelty, an abusive brother, rejection of a neighbor girl whom he once adored and a mentor’s disappointment with his decision to become a poet rather than join the priesthood. “I thought, at twelve years old, that I would never forget the look on the old priest’s face, that I would set my course by it. Now, I now the indelible thing was the glance I exchanged with the badger pup, as he waited for the fatal blow to fall. Nothing in my life, before or since, has matched that connection. It was a peak of understanding from which my whole existence, with its loves and false joys and tedious losses, has slowly fallen away.” Only Phil’s feelings matter, nothing else. Beautiful words cannot compensate for brutal ways.

Despite irregular correspondence with his family, the daughter and his only granddaughter ponder the man's legacy and words, often troubled by sweet words and descriptions of nature masking the lies and suffering of a restrictive community. “Phil's hands shaped the air in front of his rotting chest as he talked of the little Irish wren, and there as just a whisper of alcohol there, softening his tongue and wetting those mischievous, fond eyes. It was so easy to hate this man - the facts spoke for themselves - but it was still hard to dislike him. And it was devastatingly easy to love him. To flock around and keen when he died, because all the words died with him.”

The internet exposes bad behaviors that are far less tolerated decades later. Carmel searches online for an interview with her father broadcast in the early 1980s and discovers the hypocrisies of another era. The interviewer fawns, suggesting that Phil has a great understanding of women and Phil agrees. Laughing, Carmel decides that her father is "slightly creepy” and perhaps she was better off with him removed for so long from her life. Such observations contribute to breaking the family's cycle of adoration and self-abuse. 

Letting go of the past, Carmel welcomes her free-spirited daughter while acknowledging that “She had not been a good mother…. All the love in the world would not make her a good mother. It was always such a wrangle. She could not hold her daughter, and she could not let her go.”  The two women move on from past quarrels and contradictions, misunderstandings and painful memories to regard each other’s emotions and work a bit harder at getting along. 

Sunday, January 7

Meaning

 

Many will give up on Dayswork by Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel for its odd quality, a hodgepodge of observations and facts mostly about Herman Melville, arranged in brief, chatty sentences and paragraphs. Dayswork reads like a combination of documentary and poetry, or perhaps a couple playing six degrees of separation with Melville as base.

 A husband-wife team wrote the book; he’s a novelist and she’s a poet. The title page lists his name first, though strangely, most of the text is poetic with a first-person point of view, a woman chatting back and forth with her husband about her research on Melville during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the course of her research, she discovers other writers who revere Melville’s work, whether Nathaniel Philbrick who called Moby-Dick “the one book that deserves to be called our American bible” or a David Gilbert who suggested it was “bible written in scrimshaw.” According to Bachelder and Habel, Gilbert relies on the book “When in doubt, or simply in need of something,” and "opens the book at random and reads aloud, his voice ‘hauling forth the words like a net full of squirmy fish.’”

The book analyzes Melville’s themes – time, whales, friendships and more – in haphazard ways while embracing Melville’s sentiment that “Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational.”

The book examines the dreamy quality of a writer’s dreams and disappointments, explaining that Melville was fascinated by the sea – endless, masterless – even while spending much of his life on land, often quarreling with his family. The authors quote from the Odyssey: “For I say there is no other thing that is worse than the sea is / for breaking a man, even though he may be a very strong one.” The researcher-protagonist ponders how Melville endured a series of hardships – the death of his oldest son at age 18 and another dead at age 35 as well as a daughter who could not bear her father’s name.

One devastating sentence, albeit from another writer, captures uneven and tragic portioning of luck in life. “‘It’s brutal,’ writes poet Robert Haas, ‘the way some lives / Seem to work and some don’t.’” And the reader understands, though wondering whether Melville would agree that literary greatness is enough. 

The characters yearn for meaning in the midst of forced isolation and the style suggests that the authors set out to play a game with words and plot even as the pandemic had a way of making everything people did seem both more notable and mundane.  At one point, a character notes. “Even a quiet person says a lot in a day, almost all of which is forgotten. Not forgotten, I suppose, but unremembered.”  

We can use more care with our words, whether meant for everyday conversation or destined for posterity.