Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Ismail Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams

Many of Ismail Kadare’s novels take place in a sort of dreamscape, a land between the real world and the world in which myths are taken to be real, in which dreams and stories have a direct influence on daily life. In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (which I have not reviewed – this is one I need to reread before discussing) Kadare moves so far into this mythical middle world that it’s hard to gain your bearing as a reader in the short novel. The Palace of Dreams, though explicitly dealing with dreams and myth, is better-grounded in an understandable world, making it a more welcoming novel than Spring Flowers.

The palace referred to in the novel’s title stands during the Ottoman empire, for the purpose of evaluating the dreams of the empire. Branches of the palace collect the dreams and send them on to the Palace of Dreams, where they make their way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of sorters and analysts who attempt to find some meaning or hint of the future in the collected dreams. One dream each week is passed on to the sultan; this is the Master Dream, and is taken to be the most important and impactful dream of the past week.

Kadare follows a new employee of the palace as he struggles to make his way through the palace, which is both physically and mentally labyrinthine. Mark-Alem is a member of a well-known noble family that has a storied history with dreams, having frequently been the victim of the cryptic analyses of dreams. In following Mark-Alem, and showing not only how the dreams of the empire touch his family, but how he rises at unprecedented speed through the palace’s ranks, Kadare shows us a sort of everyman. Although Mark-Alem rises to a high position within the bureaucracy, he rarely seems to understand his own interactions with the empire.

As with so many of Kadare’s books, this novel speaks clearly to the time of Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania. Here, though, Kadare never overreaches or overstresses the links between the old world he writes about and Hoxha’s regime (as he did in The Pyramid, where ties between the pyramid-building Egyptians and Enver Hoxha’s scheme to build thousands of concrete bunkers around the Albanian countryside were so nakedly pointed out that it was hard to feel Kadare fully trusted his readers), and the Palace as a mental and physical space suggests rather than demands that we use this story as a means of considering the dehumanizing effects of power.

Where Kadare really shines in The Palace of Dreams is in the bureaucratic stylings of the Palace. He nails everything about this, from the way Mark-Alem gets lost in the building even as he receives promotions, to the way that most employees have little sense of what work others in the building do, to the way Mark-Alem appears set up for failure but somehow stumbles through this incomprehensible system. Just see his first day on the job, when Mark-Alem’s boss offers vague instructions on his task, suggesting not only that he has little real idea of what his employees do, but that each dream makes countless directionless loops around the Palace before finally being deemed important or filed away in the basement.

“This is your first file. It contains a group of dreams that arrived on October nineteenth. Read them very carefully, but whatever you do don’t be hasty. If you think there’s the slightest chance that a dream might have been fabricated, leave it where it is and don’t be in too much of a hurry to remove it. After you there’ll be another sorter, or, to give him his proper title, a second inspector, and he’ll check what you’ve done and correct any errors. Then there’s another inspector to check up on him, and so on. In fact, all the people you see in this room are doing just that. So good luck!”

He stayed there another few seconds looking at Mark-Alem, then turned around and left. Mark-Alem was momentarily rooted to the spot, then slowly, trying not to make any noise, he edged the chair back a little, slid between it and the table, and, still very cautiously, sat down. (31)

In The Palace of Dreams, Kadare’s spare prose is the perfect counterweight to the ineffable subject matter. The novel at times verges on farce, as inspectors and interpreters in the Palace struggle to find some meaning in that which may have no meaning, looking to the lives of the dreamers and to past dreams for help in deciphering the images placed in their file. When it shifts from farce to tragedy – when we, and Mark-Alem, see the impact these dreams, and their interpretations, can have on a life – Kadare keeps the novel so tightly tied to the dream descriptions that reality itself begins to shift into a sort of dreamscape. The Palace of Dreams is a gorgeous imagining of the attempt to impose reality upon dreams, and dreams upon reality.

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Review: Ismail Kadare’s The Siege

Ismail Kadare’s The Siege is not, strictly speaking, a historical novel, but it does give a broad sense of life, and life during war, during the time of the Ottoman Empire. As with Kadare’s other novels, The Siege takes place in his native Albania; and, more specifically, is set at an unnamed citadel belonging to Skanderbeg (an ethnic Albanian member of the Ottoman army, who left Islam in favor of Christianity, and the Turks for the Albanians). Strange though it may sound to say that this novel, which has no narrative thrust other than that of shifting levels of despair, succeeds because of its plotting, The Siege works because there is a tension to the story even as we suspect that it will lead to no real conclusion. Kadare sometimes gives in to an excess of dreaminess in his writing, but here keeps that tendency in check in favor of describing the council meetings and varied attempts to break the citadel’s defenses, and following the lives of those members of the Ottoman army waiting out their lives beyond the walls of the citadel.

The Siege is told largely from the view of the Ottomans, with short – two-page – narratives inserted between chapters, describing the Ottomans’ latest actions from the view of an Albanian inside the citadel. This means much description of the minutia of siege warfare, from deciding which soldiers to send over first, to when to pull back, to how the successes and failures of an attack can change the careers of the men making the decisions. This may sound dull, but Kadare is pitch-perfect in this novel, giving his characters the space to battle over their preferred strategies, and thereby giving the reader a chance to, as it were, join the negotiations. In focusing not only on the details of the siege, but on the decision-making process, Kadare also offers an extensive exploration of the idea of power, and of what influences the men fighting this battle.

There are few characters who maintain their role throughout the novel – who aren’t sentenced to death, or demoted to the lowest ranks of the army, for a loss, an accident, or a wrong decision – but even those who do maintain their position (most notably the pasha – the army’s leader – and Çelebi, the chronicler assigned to turn the siege into myth) are keenly aware of their precarious position and the odds that they will lose their power far more quickly than they gained it. When assigning punishments, decreeing that men should go “down below” to dig a tunnel underneath the citadel, the pasha recognizes not only that he holds these men’s fate in his hands, but that someone else holds his:

He hastily initialled the sentences but added in the margin, “Send below”. As he scrawled those words, which meant “to the tunnel”, he felt the well-known sensation of the powerful of the earth who can cast another man into the abyss. The idea that his own fate was also in the hands of another did not hold him back, but, on the contrary, put fresh energy into his view. He had long known that the world is but a pyramid of power, and the loser would always be the man who gives up the exercise of his own power before the other. (124)

Kadare also explores the minor, and often failed, assertions of power the men make, their attempts to break into the Pasha’s inner circle where they can be heard with the other top men of the army. In Kadare’s vision, even the secretary recording these meetings is seeking opportunities to declare his own strength:

The Pasha had spoken. In the utter silence that ensued all that could be heard was the scratching of the secretary’s quill as he put down on paper everything that had been said. They were all accustomed to this sound which was always identical, whether the words being transcribed were sharp or smooth, scorpion bites or soft summer wind. Those among the council members who were familiar with administrative accounts realised that the secretary was making his quill squeal more than was necessary. To judge by the serious face he made at such times, it wasn’t hard to guess that these silent pauses in which his pen scratching was the overriding sound gave him his sole opportunity in life to assert his own importance. Once someone started talking again, his very presence would be forgotten. (201)

There’s a sense of the forgettable to the events of this novel. As anyone with a rough understanding of the history of the Ottoman empire can guess, this siege won’t be successful; it is nothing more than a footnote in history, months of war that are of note only as a part of the tide that will eventually overwhelm the Albanian defenders. The scribe who spends so much time observing soldiers and battles for the account he will eventually write is confronted not only with the question of whether this will be read and remembered, but by the fact that what he records is not really the truth. Throughout the novel, men make note of the things the scribe won’t write in his chronicle – the aspects of warfare that are so wholly ugly they’ll find no place in the glorious chronicle of this siege.

Kadare perfectly captures the deadening effects of war, how its horrors become commonplace; the political machinations that go into decisions down to the level of what soldiers should be eating; how power is claimed and used and, in time, lost; and the circular nature of war, the way that one army will so easily replace the last. By showing so much of the siege through the chronicler’s eyes, Kadare also questions how memory is shaped, and what aspects of war will be remembered, and which should be remembered. The Siege is a remarkable novel, one worth repeated visits for its unsentimental look at mythmaking and the nature of war.

“In the raging storm of battle the crocodiles charged the ramparts again and again, but fate…” It was a hard sentence to finish off, and he had a headache. He was tempted to write “…did not smile on them”, but “smile” seemed the wrong word here. How could there be any smiles in the midst of such horrible butchery? He put his quill down and stared pensively at the pages he had written in a hand now weakened by age. One day, they would constitute the sole remains of all this blood spilled beneath a burning sky, of those thousands of dreadful wounds, of the roar of the cannon, of the yellow dust of forced marches, of the unending, nightmarish ebb and flow of assailants beneath the castle walls, of men clambering up ladders under showers of hot pitch and arrows, falling to the ground below, then clambering up again alongside comrades who don’t even recognise you because you are already disfigured by your injuries. Those pages were going to be the sole trace of the soldiers’ tanned hides, of these innumerable skins on which sharp metal, sulphur, pitch and oil had drawn monstrous shapes which, when the war was over, would go on living their own lives. To cap it all, these pages would also be the sole remnants of the myriad tents which, when they were dismantled, as they would be in a few weeks’ time, would leave thousands of marks on a wide empty space, looking as if it had been trampled by a huge herd of bizarre animals. Then, next spring, grass would grow on the plain: millions of blades of grass, utterly indifferent to what had gone on there, with no knowledge of all that can happen in this world. (294)

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Review: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is such a detailed and well-crafted novel that it’s hard, at times, not to feel you’re watching a movie. Mitchell follows the titular character, Jacob de Zoet, as he moves to a Japanese factory town as a clerk for a Dutch shipping company. De Zoet has landed this job in an attempt to better himself and his prospects, so that at the end of five years he can return home and marry his sweetheart, Anna. Whether Anna feels Jacob needs to better himself or not, her father does. Jacob’s work has, from the start, an air of the prison sentence to it – at least as far as his dealings with coworkers go.

Mitchell doesn’t just follow Jacob, though, and it’s his ability to move between characters and worlds that makes this novel such a remarkable one. Mitchell follows Jacob’s travails as the hated assistant to a man who vows to clean up the Dutch company’s work on Dejima (a factory town on an island off of Nagasaki) and get rid of employees seeking unfair profits; a Japanese midwife as she is forced to move to a shrine run by the Lord Enomoto, a fearsomely powerful man; and the attempts of a British naval captain, John Penhaligon, to rescue his career by taking over the Japanese trade controlled by the Dutch. Mitchell uses each of these characters, in turn, to look at types of power and how it is wielded. Penhaligon, for instance, hopes to both assert his own power over his crew and to declare himself a worthy captain when he arrives home. The longer Jacob is in Dejima, the more he realizes that his “power” is fleeting and dependent on a fickle superior. And the midwife, Orito Aibagawa, early appears to have an extraordinary amount of power and self-possession, though even this proves of slight value against Enomoto’s wishes and her own desire to do right for those she lives with in the shrine.

As Greg at The New Dork Review of Books pointed out in his review of The Thousand Autumns, Mitchell exhibits some stylistic quirks that can impede the flow of the reading. The interruptions – characters talking over one another, characters’ thoughts cutting into conversation, details of the world inserting themselves midway through a conversation – at times run on until it is hard to keep track of the original conversation. One meeting is broken up by numerous times:

‘But what Yoshida-san proposes,’ objects Dr Maeno, ‘would require…’

A radical new government, thinks Uzaemon, and a radical new Japan.

A chemist unknown to Uzaemon suggests, ‘A trade mission to Batavia?’

Yoshida shakes his head. ‘Batavia is a ditch, and whatever the Dutch tell us, Holland is a pawn. […]’

Mitchell’s style does sometimes prove a distraction, but at other times it affords a tremendous energy to the novel. These characters seem to live and breath, in their inability to censor either their thoughts or words. At other times, the sort of rapid-fire description to which Mitchell is prone provides a gorgeous backdrop for the characters. When de Zoet walks around Dejima, early on, it is almost as though he moves before an (very active) movie set:

In the garden, the cream roses and red lilies are past their best.

Bread is being delivered by provedores at the Land-Gate.

In Flag Square, Peter Fischer sits on the Watchtower’s steps. ‘Lose an hour in the morning, Clerk de Zoet,’ the Prussian calls down, ‘and you search for it all day.’

In van Cleef’s upper window, the Deputy’s latest ‘wife’ combs her hair.

She smiles at Jacob; Melchior van Cleef, his chest hairy as a bear’s, appears.

‘“Thou Shalt Not”,’ he quotes, ‘“Dip thy Nib in Another Man’s Inkwell.”’

The Deputy Chief slides shut the shoji window before Jacob can protest his innocence.

Outside the Interpreters’ Guild, palanquin bearers squat in the shadows. Their eyes follow the red-haired foreigner as he passes.

Through scenes like this Mitchell gives us a view of the workings of the whole island, not just Jacob’s small part of that world. It’s these details, provided rapid fire, that make the story such an engrossing one. Whether or not you are interested in Jacob’s early concerns with the trade mission, these descriptive sentences, sprinkled liberally throughout, offer a view of Dejima that is hard to resist.

As the novel progresses, Jacob becomes less a moving figure in front of the backdrop of Dejima, and more a part of that backdrop itself. He becomes involved, too, in the lives of Dejima’s Japanese residents. Mitchell does this so carefully, so gradually, that you don’t realize how fully Jacob has become a part of the island’s life until long after he is.

Mitchell has so many parts of this story moving at once that some elements are left to the side after a brief moment as seemingly central elements to the plot. Even this seems carefully orchestrated; Mitchell may move away from certain storylines, most notably that of Orito and the shrine, but this has the feel, again, of real life. Some characters on missions we would expect to be vital elements of the plot are lost, killed, forgotten; but their missions and lives have ways of quietly reasserting themselves, later on, through different characters and at unexpected moments.

While it may seem at odds to say that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet reads like a movie, and that it reads very much like life, this is the only way I can think of it. In shifting between the vision of Dejima as a moving backdrop to the dull life of a shipping company clerk, and a vision of that same clerk as an integral part of life on Dejima, Mitchell makes clear the distinction between living somewhere and being a part of life somewhere. Mitchell has written a book that is at the same moment overflowing with intrigue (holy moly, is there a lot of that; and this review can’t pass without a mention of Enomoto, perhaps best described as “dastardly” – one of the most fully and irredeemably evil characters I’ve ever read) and with the attempt to answer questions of how and where and why we choose to make our lives.

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Review: Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang

Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is one of those unfortunate novels that finds its greatest strength and weakness is the same place. Carey’s novel takes the form of a series of diaries written by Ned Kelly, an Australian bushranger who lived from 1855 to 1880, from birth to death. Much of the novel is devoted to Kelly’s upbringing and to his relationship with his mother, and for much of the novel he seems a hapless character, falling into his work as a bushranger mostly through accident and a lack of other options.

Carey does a couple things in this novel that develop Kelly’s character and his motives for writing his diaries. The first is to split the novel into sections, “parcels,” each described for its physical attributes. The first parcel, for example (photo below), is described as such:

National Bank letterhead. Almost certainly taken from the Euroa Branch of the National Bank in December 1878. There are 45 sheets of medium stock (8” x 10” approx.) with stabholes near the top where at one time they were crudely bound. Heavily soiled. (5)

By providing such descriptions Carey suggests the times at which Kelly wrote parts of his history, and the piecemeal fashion in which this recording took place. Imagine the lost opportunity, though, what a book this could have been with an enterprising McSweeney’s-style publisher willing to print the sections on soiled bank letterhead and brown wrapping paper.

The second thing Carey does is to provide Kelly with an idiosyncratic writing style, one not outwardly concerned with form or with the normal manner of storytelling (say, pacing). Kelly’s writing, often missing punctuation and oddly prudish given his line of work, with a lot of “adjectival this” and “adjectival that,” with the bushranger Harry Power (who Kelly’s mother apprentices him to as a child) saying, “Well I’m a b—-r” (83) and other characters being labeled “b—–ds.”

Kelly’s strange voice, the weariness he feels for his life and for his family’s prospects and his ability to earn money or avoid “the traps”, gives to Carey’s writing a freshness. Kelly isn’t a forgettable character, and that is all from Carey’s refusal to work with a more standard form or structure. See this passage, about Kelly’s apprenticeship with Harry Power:

May 23rd fell cold and dark there were no moon. I stood on the front veranda of a shanty in the Oxley shire but it gave no protection from the bitter wind the heavy rain were in my face and splashing off the muddy floor. I did severely miss the sweet dry fug of my home but I were still Power’s unpaid dogsbody ordered to keep the watch for policemen although God only knows how the traps could of reached us in this torrent the King River Bridge were 2 ft. under and groaning in the current. I were v. tired and fed up with my life. (100)

The problem with all of this is that, while Kelly’s voice is developed extraordinarily well, Carey devotes himself so fully to the memoir’s form that the story has no traditional arc, no rise, no build to anything. It’s simply incident after incident, related through the sometimes incomprehensible or hard-to-track voice of Kelly. Only in the novel’s last hundred pages does the form begin to aid the story, as Kelly’s increasing obsession with recording his life for his unborn daughter becomes apparent.

Throughout his journals Kelly addresses his daughter, but only in the end is it clear the importance he places on his journals. He writes, “…I knew I would lose you if I stopped writing you would vanish and be swallowed by the maw” (385-86), and then, “…I wrote to get you born” (386). It’s as if, having devoted himself to his men above his daughter and her mother, Kelly views the journals as a chance at redemption, not so much a chance to explain himself to the Australian public but a chance to tell his daughter, privately, the things he will never have an opportunity to tell her in life.

He obsesses with his other writings too, with giving something for Australia to know him by, so that this becomes for a time his only aim – saying, “I’ll stick up an adjectival printery… I’ll print the adjectival thing myself” (369) of one of his letters. At novel’s end Carey reveals Kelly’s obsession with being heard, with defining his own story, and the last hundred pages are nearly enough to redeem the earlier slog through the minor incidents of Ned Kelly’s life.

Almost, but not quite. True History of the Kelly Gang is a book worth reading by anyone interested in these unusual narrative techniques, or in search of the strong voice Carey gives to Kelly; but it’s ultimately unsatisfying as a novel because its form gives so little back to the reader in terms of story or plot. An interesting read, but at end a disappointing one.

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Review: Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever

Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever started out as the book I was carrying to school as guard against empty periods (see: all my plans to use free periods for planning tend to fall apart because the internet isn’t working, or the director’s office with the printer is locked, or the director’s computer isn’t recognizing my USB), then turned into the book I read before I fell asleep at night, then finally into the book that I was just plain reading. Despite aspects of Barrett’s writing style that trailed and frustrated me from story to story, this is one of the best story collections I can recall reading; with the title novella that closes the collection, Barrett recovers from any and all errors I saw in her writing in the preceding stories.

Barrett’s stories are split about half-and-half in their subject matter, numbers that I’m using broadly to mean that half the stories are set in a fairly contemporary period, and that half are more along the lines of historical fiction. Almost all the stories are concerned with science or with characters who are concerned, even if obliquely, with sciences: they work in medicine or in the sciences, or are close to someone who does.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” is about the wife of a professor, a woman whose immigrant grandfather accidentally killed a man (because of her) when she was still a child. Her courtship with her husband, as she tells it, centers on his love of Gregor Mendel and her grandfather having known Mendel; she gives her then-future-husband a letter Mendel had written. Her stories, the stories that her grandfather told her, have been taken by her husband and incorporated into his college lectures, and one of the more interesting points of this sometimes slow story is when she takes the telling back from her husband.

“The English Pupil,” with Carl Linnaeus as its main character, is another slow one, interesting mostly for its vision of a great mind in collapse. See:

His mind, which has once seemed to hold the whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tiptoed gingerly. (35)

“The Littoral Zone” is, gosh, another slow story, but one that doesn’t offer the rewards of “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds.” About a couple who long ago abandoned their respective families in order to be with one another, Barrett is too plain here about their disappointments with their lives. I believe as much as anyone that, whatever writing teachers say, telling can be as powerful as showing when done by the right person; but Barrett here does nearly nothing but tell. After reading a passage like the one below I wanted to scream: “God, just let us see this!”:

They’re sensible people, and very well-mannered; they remind themselves that they were young then and are middle-aged now, and that their fierce attraction would naturally ebb with time. Neither likes to think about how much of the thrill of their early days together came from the obstacles they had to overcome. Some days, when Ruby pulls into the driveway still thinking about her last class and catches sight of Jonathan out in the garden, she can’t believe the heavyset figure pruning shrubs so meticulously is the man for whom she fought such battles. Jonathan, who often wakes very early, sometimes stares at Ruby’s sleeping face and thinks how much more gracefully his ex-wife is aging. (55)

“Rare Bird” is where things began to turn for me in a serious way. Set in the 1760s, the story centers on a woman, Sarah Anne, who was raised with the same education her brother received but finds herself unable to put it to use. She fits neither in the world of the men her brother spends time with, debating the great scientific issues of the day, nor in the world of women like her brother’s fiancee, who were raised to be charming rather than skilled debaters. I could almost feel Sarah Anne’s joy when she meets Catherine, a woman who is similarly learned; “When Catherine is excited, bits of all she has ever read fly off her like water from a churning lump of butter” (74). This story succeeds where the earlier ones fell flat in large part because Barrett leaves so little known at story’s end. What happens to Sarah Anne or to Catherine is unknown, and gives the reader his or her first chance, of this collection, to wonder at the characters and their motivations and where they will land.

“Soroche,” then, a story about Zaga, a widowed second wife disposing of her husband’s estate, is in some ways a disappointment, but the idea of this story and Zaga’s character are striking. Aspects of it are hackneyed (a photo of a three-months pregnant Zaga, hidden by her husband because she lost the baby, discovered by her after his death), and Barrett sometimes tells things too flatly for my liking, but something in this one stuck with me. This passage captures the things I like about the story (the idea of Zaga shedding her husband’s money as a means of freeing herself from her past) and the things I don’t like (that that idea is stated so plainly):

“How did you lose Joel’s money?” they asked. “What could you have been thinking?”

She could not explain that it had nothing to do with thought. It was the buzz, the rush, the antic joy of flinging her old life to the winds. She was abashed by her final loss, adrift and upset – and yet there was also the fact that she had not felt so content in years. Every trace of the life Joel had given her was gone, and she had nothing left to live on but her wits. (98)

“Birds With No Feet,” again offers a striking figure in its main character, Alec Carrière, a traveler and collector of specimens who is keenly aware of his failure to rise above the everyday of his job. He collects specimens with the expectation that the money he earns from them will “finally set him free to pursue his studies in peace” (102), but his travels are a catalogue of misfortunes: illness, fire, not having the scientific mind of his contemporaries, forever being second in his findings, coming from a country that is falling into civil war and no longer has an interest in his specimens or the live Birds of Paradise he brings home to a wrecked nation. This is a gorgeous story with some striking images, as when Alec and another character are ill and alternate “bouts of fever as if they were playing lawn-tennis” (112).

“The Marburg Sisters” is, gosh, just weird, and I’m still not sure what I think of it. The narrative voice threw me off, for one; parts of the story are written in the first-person plural, by one of the Marburg sisters, but both sisters are referred to in the third-person. As in:

The rest of the night is mostly lost to us now, but we remember a handful of things. Sometime before dawn we either did or didn’t call our father, waking him to beg him not to sell the winery. But why would we have done this, if we did it? Rose would not have wanted to echo the phone call Bianca claimed to have made the night before, and even if she’d forgotten that, the winery was not a place we ever visited. (135)

I can in theory understand the desire to leave it unclear which of the sisters is narrating sections of the story, or even to suggest that the sisters are acting as a kind of dual narrator, their two voices forming one, but the whole feel of it is weird and unpleasant. Along with other things, like how this key section of the story (see: communion with dead mother) is repeatedly stressed as being a huge and potentially shattering secret, but which never seems that shattering or that much of a secret, more just wacky and druggy. But because we’re told, again and again, that this is a big thing, we have to believe it, despite never seeing any real evidence to support this notion of Big Deal-ness the whole event has.

Then, at last, we come to “Ship Fever,” the novella closing the collection, and man is it a good close. About ten pages into “Ship Fever” I’d forgotten about “The Marburg Sisters” and how duped I felt when I got to the end of it (I read the whole story? What for?). “Ship Fever” is about the Irish Potato Famine, about people who are trying to do things that are right because they feel right to them or look right to others, about the ways that against something as huge as the famine and the resulting mass emigration from Ireland human action can be insignificant, but for the stories of changed lives that emerge from the filth. The story centers on Dr. Lauchlin Grant, who finds that his medical studies abroad limit his practice in Canada, where bloodletting is still regarded as the height of medical care, and who is in love with, and in many ways trying to live up to, a childhood friend who is now married to a man reporting on the potato famine, a man so confident “of his place in the world that he signed everything, even his newspaper articles, with those initials [AA]” (161). Lauchlin accepts a job at the Grosse Isle Quarantine Station, which is overwhelmed with shiploads of the sick and dying. Some of the best passages in this collection are those describing the sight of these ships stretching down the river, in which the water is barely visible for all the contaminated bedding that has been thrown overboard. “Ship Fever” is a beautiful story, and it’s worth reading the collection just for this one, in which Lauchlin’s impulsive decision to pull one woman off a ship and into the overcrowded “hospital” on the island frames his character, without Barrett ever needing to tell us that this is what is going on.

Barrett’s main failing in these stories is a tendency to state things flat-out rather than leaving them to the reader, a fault that she only rarely commits in “Ship Fever.” Barrett’s writing improves at length, something that gives me some hope for the day I decide to explore one of her novels. I am not sure whether the stories really became better as I worked through the collection, or if it’s more than I grew into Barrett’s writing style as I went along. Whatever it is, I’m glad that I read through to the extraordinary “Ship Fever.”

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Review: Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife


This is a review that needs some disclaimers. First, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife is a review copy, provided to me by the publisher.

Second, as anyone who has read my review of Geraldine Brooks’s March knows, I’m not a big reader of historical fiction, and was confused and saddened by the way Brooks took famous historical figures and dragged them, kicking and screaming and protesting that the dates just don’t work with the storyline of Little Women, into her novel.

I’m writing this because I want you to know that I started reading The Paris Wife with pretty low expectations. If I didn’t like what Brooks did by inserting words into Thoreau’s mouth, I figured, I really wouldn’t like what McLain was planning to do with Hemingway, a figure who is a sort of godhead in my literary ranking of things.

I was pleasantly surprised by the book. It’s readable and fun and, because McLain is writing about characters who did (documentably) interact with all the famous figures scattered through her novel, not offensive to me in the same way March was.

The Paris Wife centers around Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Richardson was nearing thirty when she married Hemingway, still in his early twenties, in 1921, and for most of their marriage they lived in Paris. The couple divorced in 1926 after Hadley learned of an affair Hemingway was having with Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become his second wife.

McLain’s story works because Hadley is an outsider to so much of what Hemingway’s Paris social circle is about. Surrounded by women who drink, smoke, curse, have careers of their own and treat men as things to be tried on and cast off, Hadley views herself as, first and foremost, Hemingway’s wife and supporter. That’s not to say that she’s ambivalent about her role; McLain frequently shows her questioning to what degree she should put up with Hemingway’s devotion to his work, which nearly always comes at her expense. But Hadley becomes sympathetic because she is located so far from the person Hemingway becomes and the sort of people who help him become that way; as one character notes near novel’s end, it’s Hadley who supported Hemingway through the start of his career, but she can’t take him any farther.

The novel is told largely from Hadley’s point of view, in clean prose that can sometimes be heavy on the “-ly” but never strains too hard for emotion. If you are looking for one reason why I prefer McLain’s book to Brook’s March – and I know that the two deal with entirely different subjects and time periods and only loosely fall under the same umbrella of “historical fiction,” but I’m going with what I got – it’s that McLain’s prose at no point made me feel like I was about to drown in a vat of violet-scented water. (And speaking of which, one line I particularly liked: “Bob McAlmon vomited neatly in the flowerbeds of all the best cafes…” [197].)

Hemingway and Hadley in Chamby, Switzerland, 1922


My only complaint against the book comes in the five sections that aren’t told from Hadley’s point of view, but focus exclusively on Hemingway. Usually these chapters are about something that Hadley doesn’t know, or not exactly; so, usually they’re about a woman Hemingway’s been with. But there’s not a real reason for these chapters, not that I can see. That Hemingway had a relationship with Hadley’s friend Kate, if not stated outright, is clear enough from Hadley and Kate’s strained relationship once Hemingway and Hadley become romantically involved. Likewise, there’s no need to flat-out tell the reader, in a special chapter, that Hemingway and Pfeiffer are having an affair, because Hadley suspects enough that the reader can suss it out without additional aid in the form of a chapter that could be titled “How I accidentally slept with my wife’s friend and then kept doing it.” McLain could have cut these sections from the novel and showed more trust in the reader’s ability to piece together what Hemingway is doing while Hadley’s at home with their child.

These five chapters, unevenly scattered throughout the novel, are infrequent enough that they don’t disrupt the narrative flow. The Paris Wife is a fun read, and reminded me that it’s about time I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – his own account (edited and fussed over by descendants and former spouses) of his years in Paris with Hadley.

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Review: Geraldine Brooks’s March


Owing to my strongly held (if vaguely defined) belief that history should be history and fiction should be fiction, with the exception of books that are openly exploring truthiness, I’ve never been a reader of historical fiction. Why, then, didn’t it occur to me that Geraldine Brooks’s March is not just a riff on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women but a work of historical fiction? Brooks writes from the point of view of Mr. March, who is absent for most of Alcott’s book because he’s at war, and briefly from the viewpoint of his wife, but her story isn’t just their story but also the wrapping in of countless events and people of the Civil War and that period.

Rachel at Books I Done Read wrote a review of Susan Hill’s Mrs. DeWinter (books that are not “riffing” off another book but blatantly stealing plots and characters because the author is too lazy to come up with any of her own: a topic for another day) wrote, “Only riff on excellent books if your riff is going to also be excellent.” Let’s make this the theme for this review.

To get this out of the way early, riffs on older books or stories fall into the camp of “things I think are shumë mirë, or awesome,” but I tend to limit this sort of reading to retellings of fairy tales rather than elaborations on more recent stories. This is an unfair if unintended limitation to place on my reading. When an author can take well-known characters and reshape and reimagine them in ways that add to the depth of the original work, it’s awesome, and there’s no reason a book that reimagines characters from Little Women shouldn’t be as awesome as, say, Kelly Link’s reimagining of a zillion fairy tales/Nancy Drew books. But like Rachel wrote, if you’re going to riff off a much loved book, you better make your riff amazing, and Geraldine Brooks doesn’t manage that.

March‘s prose is a little purple for me at times, which is part of the reason (if a small part; I have an increasingly high tolerance for okay-ish writing) my reading of this book was middling. See this part when March’s wife (so, the mom of all the Much Loved Little Women of Alcott’s book) is willing her husband, injured and in a hospital in Washington, D.C., to get better:

Hope, he said. So I hoped. I hoped so hard that Hope seemed to take corporeal form, my thoughts and wishes reaching out to him and wrapping themselves around him, as avidly as my body had wrapped around him when we both were young. I wanted to transplant my vivid spirit within his depleted one, to root out the memories that troubled his sleep and sow in their place a vision of every good moment we had spent together. So I sat by his bed, all day and into the evening, whispering reminiscences of sunlit days and crisp fall apples, of girlish laughter and great minds brilliant with new ideas. (255)

I know that one person’s purple prose is another’s lush description, but…this is pretty purple. And while it’s not the biggest problem I had with the book (which is more along the lines of, “It’s not history! But it’s also not only fiction!”), something about Brooks’s writing style kept me feeling outside of the text at all times. She writes about things I in theory, and in other books, find interesting – like March’s desire to go back home, not just to his wife and children but “also to the man of moral certainty that I was […]; that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he was meant to do” (184), before he went to the war.

In the context of this book, though, I just didn’t care.

Brooks writes that she based the character of Mr. March on Alcott’s father, just as she based the characters from Little Women around those of her own family. As much as it annoyed me to see now-famous people popping up in the book as friends or acquaintances of March’s (Thoreau! Emerson! Nathaniel Hawthorne! John Brown!), Alcott’s father was acquainted with these people, so I feel I should tamp down on my complaints a little. Sometimes, though, and maybe this is symptomatic of it, Brooks tries to paint with too broad a brush, to encompass too many aspects of the war and life during and before the Civil War. There’s got to be slavery, rape, incest, black literacy, vegetarianism, connecting with nature, raising children, the meaning of war, the meaning of slavery, the complications of trying to end slavery, people being shot in knees, teaching former slaves to read and write, slaves who are fighting for the South, planting cotton, being a preacher, falling in love, falling in love again.

All these things may happen in a man’s life, but to all happen in the span of a 280-page novel was too much, as though Brooks was trying to fit in all the things she had thought about or had researched or that may have come up peripherally in Little Women or in the life of Alcott’s father or in the Civil War. Sometimes this leads to interesting things (like did you know that Thoreau invented improved ways of manufacturing pencils?), or a piece of powerful imagery, as when Mrs. March sees the incomplete Washington, D.C.:

…maybe the city is destined to be no more than this: ruins, merely, sinking back into the swamp; the shards of an optimistic moment when a few dreamers believed you could build a nation upon ideas such as liberty and equality. (215-216)

Even this is colored by a hint of over-the-topness, though. It’s interesting for the idea it raises, that America wasn’t always a sure thing, rather than for the image as it exists in the novel.

Brooks writes, in her afterword, that she uses history as a scaffolding for her stories. This is where I’m truly thrown, because what she does is not so much build off of a scaffolding, but create a rickety contraption of her own, with dates not matching those of Little Women (she shifts the action of her novel forward about a year, so that Mr. March can head to war at the appropriate moment), or of the Civil War (the privately leased cotton plantation March works on wouldn’t have existed until later in the year – certainly not in 1861), and with details taken and adjusted from the life of Alcott’s father to better fit her story. The literalist in me wants Brooks to choose just one scaffolding and stick to it, and truly form her story around it rather than shifting times back and forth in order to fit the story she wants to tell.

At end, the book isn’t a bad one – I’m not sorry I read it, and like I said, now I know that my no. 2 pencils are in part thanks to Thoreau – but it’s also not one that improves or reshapes my memories of Little Women, or that grows because of its ties to Alcott’s novel. It is a sometimes interesting riff off of Little Women, but not a vital or necessary one.