Book Reviews by Arlene Sanders
MIDNIGHT RUMBA by Eduardo Santiago
If you can think of anything more graceful, more passionate than than that wild, exotic dance called the rumba—tell me, quickly, what it is. That Eduardo Santiago was drawn to that dance is no surprise. His writing is graceful, sensuous and passionate, like the rumba itself. In an interview, when asked how he writes, Santiago replied, “. . .basically I just cut open a vein and I write until I'm out of blood.”
MIDNIGHT RUMBA must have taken a lot of “blood” to create. In my opinion, the writing in this novel is even stronger than it was in his magnificent TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS. Perhaps this is because the artist is more mature, more confident. Or maybe it’s because the subject—the violent upheaval in Cuba when Fidel Castro and his rebels overthrew the Batista regime in the 1950s—simply demanded a certain degree of artistic brutality in order to tell the story.
The tropical island of Cuba—“emerald alligator asleep in a sapphire sea”—is the real protagonist of this novel, with its explosive chapter of history mirroring the lives of a beautiful young woman, Estelita de la Cruz, her father, her friends, and the man she loves.
One of Santiago’s greatest strengths as a writer is his remarkable understanding of women and his ability to create deep, complex and finely nuanced female characters. Many women writers understand women: consider the emotional richness and complexity of Scarlett O’Hara, Jane Eyre, Rachel Sangaletti, Celie Johnson, Shug Avery, Jo March, Catherine Earnshaw, and the second Mrs. de Winter, and on and on—the list is endless. In my opinion, the list of male writers who truly understand women is short. Eduardo Santiago (Estelita de la Cruz, Aspirrina Cerrogordo), Gabriel García Márquez (Fermina Daza), Michael Ondaatje (Katharine Clifton), and D. H. Lawrence (Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen) are surely on that list. (But if you are going to include Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne on a list of literary characters crafted true to the heart and soul of a woman, then you and I have had it.)
Evoking human feelings is Santiago’s great gift, and we see it throughout everything he writes. We know how Estelita felt as she “looked at her face before applying fresh makeup and wondered if there was anything new in the mirror. Did she seem different? She peered closely into her eyes, and she saw it. Yes, way in the back, in a place no one could see, was a woman who’d just made love for the first time.”
We empathize with Delfino as he pleads with his wealthy father to help rescue a friend arrested by Batista’s men:
“‘Son,’ [Delfino’s father] said, standing up, ‘there’s nothing anyone can do. Your friend is dead.’
“Delfino stood up to leave but something was missing. He felt as if everything beneath his neck was gone. He knew he had a face, because he was looking at his father, who was moving quickly about the room. And he knew he had legs, because he was still standing. But where his heart should be, his guts, his lungs, all of that was missing.”
Violence erupts across Cuba, where “Bodies of men hung from trees. Groups of women gathered around them, wailing and shrieking with escalating abandon, as if their very souls had been set afire.”
And in Estelita’s beloved Havana, “Squares of light streamed from vacant windows, embroidering the streets with luminous geometric patterns that followed one another, stretching on and on into infinite darkness. Soft shadows borne of the dim streetlamps extended along the cracked pavement, folding and dipping, molding themselves onto the terrain, wrapping around trees, creeping through gutters and dipping into watery, quivering potholes, elongating into the distance, pointing the way, offering vain direction like enormous, cautioning fingers.”
The description of torture that awaited Cubans captured by Ventura Novo, “the killer from Havana’s Fifth Precinct, as famous for his massacres as for his stylish suits,” was too horrifying for me to read. I had to skip that part.
Eduardo Santiago is a kind and generous man, and I object to seeing him cast in any other light. I do believe the majority of Amazon book reviewers are objective and truthful in relating their opinions of a book, and I applaud Amazon’s policy of full disclosure (including negative reviews along with the good ones) in the interest of better customer service. Short of slander, I would like to suggest that the negatives may help us distinguish between thoughtful review and pure spite. As an example, the jealousy and spitefulness of a reviewer who follows this author like a puppy—nipping at the heels of its master—should be glaringly obvious to the rest of us.
However, I don’t believe in shutting people up. I think the dissonance sharpens our awareness, and when someone writes for no other reason than to express jealousy and spitefulness, most of us can see such a review for what it is and disregard it.
I agree with reviewers who found the need for further line editing a distraction, but for me, it was a relatively minor one in an otherwise fine work of art. Anyway, I read somewhere that later editions had been corrected.
Santiago is a visual artist—to read the book is to see the film. Except that in the film, the rumba, the actual dance, will surely be featured much more prominently than it is in the book. The rumba is visually so compelling that it would simply have to be. However, it’s nearly impossible to capture dance in prose, and except for short passages describing dances by Aspirrina, Santiago, wisely, did not attempt it. (By the way, if you aren’t familiar with the rumba, may I respectfully suggest that you go to Bing or YouTube and catch some videos of professionals or contest competitors performing this remarkable dance.)
In my review of TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS, I said that Eduardo Santiago, in my opinion, eventually will win the Pulitzer prize for distinguished fiction by an American author. After reading MIDNIGHT RUMBA, I’m more convinced of that than ever.
If you enjoy the work of Márquez and Hijuelos, you will surely welcome Santiago’s novels. For those of us who have little understanding of Cuban culture, after reading the work of Eduardo Santiago, we will have so much more.
That is one of Santiago’s great gifts to his readers, and I am deeply grateful for it.
THE TALL TALE OF TOMMY TWICE by Nathan Leslie
I see THE TALL TALE OF TOMMY TWICE as a hilarious, delightfully engaging story about the creation of an artist. In this case, a bizarre, peripatetic upbringing that develops in this child a unique way of seeing and reacting to the world that sets him apart from other children—real children, who grew up with parents, hugs, hot lunches, earmuffs, baseballs, bikes, kites, and a Labrador Retriever.
Real children don’t play chess and drink tequila at the age of five. Real children know how old they are and when their birthday is. Real children’s cousins don’t have names like Hose and Stump. Real children don’t grow up, look back, and say, “I grew up frightened. Ready for the worst to happen. . . . I grew up feeling like one of those parasite-eating birds in a symbiotic relationship with a hippo.”
As in the sad childhoods of many foster children, little Tommy was knocked around from home to home, and in nearly every move to the next place, he was summarily dumped:
“I suddenly felt like someone had scraped my insides out with a spoon. I didn’t know this at the time, but in retrospect I’m sure I was exhausted by the upheaval. I was living with one relative or another when I should have been living with my mother and father—wherever they were. . .whoever they were. I just wanted to be a kid. Instead, I had to function as a little adult. All I wanted to do was eat dinner and sleep. I missed Aunt Tess already. I missed her mountain of red hair, helping with the chickens, picking corn. Even her rotten sons.”
TOMMY TWICE is a tragic tale, uproariously funny in the telling. The treatment of this child was, of course, outrageous—his entire upbringing a hotbed of child abuse. That Tommy survived and actually made it to adulthood seems like a miracle. But couldn’t you, at times in your reading, say the same thing about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn?
Leslie’s bold caricature and sharp satire are, above all, Rabelaisian—humor that is exaggerated, bizarre, and way, way larger than life:
“I saw the woman I knew for sure to be Aunt Tess: the wild nest of red hair. . . . I could see that her hair was a mountain, and that within this mountain things shifted and moved. I could see small wheels and food and animals scurrying in her hair. I could see handles and sacks and string. Pens. A broom handle. Bits of ribbon. A knife. . . .”
From Tommy’s Cousin Mickey, a traveling salesman, we have this:
“There was this one woman I met down south. . . . She was a wild one. She was tall and thin as a sapling. Her neck was the size of my arm, and her head was just as long. At any rate, when I met her the first words out of her mouth were, ‘I’m somebody special.’ That’s what she said. . . .
“She wore this purple dress that hugged her curves. The dress was affixed with some kind of gold trim. It looked like it was made out of real gold. And she wore enough jewelry to break a horse’s neck. . . .
“She had a face that looked like a combination of a turtle and a snake, if that makes any sense. At any rate, we became friends, if you know what I mean. She said maybe I could help her. Well, who knows what her real story was. You can’t trust a woman who wears a purple dress, can you?”
“And I met this man down there, just a few towns away. For a living he spent time in traffic. Isn’t that a way to earn a buck? Anyway, I went with him once. He would sit in traffic and take notes. I wasn’t sure how those notes translated into money, but it did for him. Everyone hates traffic. Traffic wears you down. It breaks your spirit. Well, this guy loved traffic. ‘What I like,’ he said, ‘is watching people suffer. . . .’”
The humor may be Rabelaisian, but the added deadpan and delayed reaction timing in the homespun comedy of Twain, Keaton, and Chaplin also come to mind.
Leslie’s writing is mesmerizing everywhere I’ve seen it. Tommy wanders through the city:
“I walked from the leafy streets to the shops where an old man swept the sidewalks with a push broom and where fat women with maroon moles on their cheeks sold dingy orange flowers in the middle of the street.”
Since others have disclosed the most unusual “ending” for this novel, I’ll go ahead and comment on it. I never saw this this done before, so it was an added delight to an already exciting book. I do want to say that as I neared the end of the novel, I “wrote” its ending in my imagination, as I always do when reading any book, yet when offered five different choices, mine was not among them.
I can’t compare Nathan Leslie to any other writer. He's simply not like anyone else I know of. I think Leslie is as good as Steinbeck (I’m thinking right now of CANNERY ROW), but he doesn’t write like Steinbeck. Leslie’s writing is unique, and even his own books are dissimilar. In my opinion, this is because Nathan Leslie is writing out of one of the deepest and broadest emotional ranges of any contemporary author. That the inner life he has to draw from is deep and rich is everywhere apparent in his work, no matter what the story is, or how he chooses to tell it.
THE TALL TALE OF TOMMY TWICE is a pleasure to read. I loved it!
NIGHT by Elie Wiesel
The risk inherent in writing about the Holocaust is that today's readers have a hard time believing it. Those of us who did not experience the horrors of living in a Nazi death camp cannot begin to understand what it was like. Battered women and severely abused children living today, trapped in circumstances they cannot escape, may come close.
But most of us have no frame of reference. Nothing in our experience even remotely compares.
This "I can't believe it" mentality was also common among non-Jewish civilians who lived in Germany during the Third Reich--when Adolf Hitler was in power (1933-1945).
Even as "night" descended on Wiesel's little town--Sighet, Transylvania (Hungary)--the Jewish people could not believe what was happening. Moishe the Beadle was "deported" by the Hungarian police, crammed into a cattle car and taken to a forest in Poland to be executed with other Jews. Incredibly, Moishe escaped and returned to Sighet with his story:
"The train had stopped. The Jews were ordered to get off and onto waiting trucks. The trucks headed toward a forest. There everybody was ordered to get out. They were forced to dig huge trenches. When they had finished their work, the men from the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion or haste, they shot their prisoners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer their necks. . . ."
Moishe escaped by a miracle. He was wounded in the leg and left for dead. In Sighet, he went from house to house, telling his story, but the people refused to listen. Even the young Elie Wiesel did not believe him.
The denial continued. In Jewish families about to be transported to Auschwitz, "the women were boiling eggs, roasting meat, preparing cakes, sewing backpacks."
Wiesel does not challenge us to comprehend the gas chamber deaths of his mother and little sister Tzipora. Instead, he writes what we can grasp: "Tzipora was holding Mother's hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister's blond hair as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn't know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever."
Wiesel describes with remarkable restraint a vicious beating he receives from a Kapo:
I felt the sweat running down my back.
I stepped forward.
"A crate!" he ordered.
They brought a crate.
"Lie down on it! On your belly!"
I no longer felt anything except the lashes of the whip.
"One!. . . Two!. . ." he was counting.
He took his time between lashes. Only the first really hurt. I heard him count.
"Ten. . .eleven!. . ."
His voice was calm and reached me as through a thick wall.
"Twenty-three. . ."
Two more, I thought, half unconscious.
The Kapo was waiting.
"Twenty-four. . .twenty five!"
It was over. . . .
"Listen to me, you son of a swine!" said Idek coldly. "So much for your curiosity. You shall receive five times more if you dare tell anyone what you saw! Understood?"
I nodded, once, ten times, endlessly. As if my head had decided to say yes for all eternity.
Elie Wiesel's magnificent NIGHT bridges that enormous gulf between "I can't believe it" and the mind-numbing, horrific sinking in of the realization of "Oh, dear God, this really happened." His account is straightforward, almost matter-of-fact, with a minimum of frenzy, inordinate dwelling on flames of infernos, prolonged death throes, or metaphysical discourses about evil.
He does talk about his relationship with God throughout the ordeal. And of course about his father, who was with him in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Why did Wiesel write this book? He tells us:
"There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text. I am not convinced. I don't know how I survived; I was weak, rather shy; I did nothing to save myself. A miracle? Certainly not. If heaven could or would perform a miracle for me, why not for others more deserving than myself? It was nothing more than chance. However, having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival. . . .
"In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer--or my life, period--would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory. . . ."
I am grateful for this book and for Marion Wiesel's excellent and sensitive translation of her husband's memoir. Some great literature has come out of the Holocaust. In my opinion, Elie Wiesel's NIGHT is the best book, and certainly one of the most deeply moving, among these works.
THE DISCONTINUITY OF SMALL THINGS by Kevin Haworth
THE DISCONTINUITY OF SMALL THINGS is a deeply moving and beautifully written novel, one of the best I've read in a long time. A striking difference between Haworth's book and other Holocaust literature is the degree of realism his work brings to readers whose lives were never directly touched by the Holocaust.
When I read some of the other books, I felt so numbed and shocked that I couldn't believe what I "saw." It was horrifying, but didn't seem believable. I couldn't relate to it -- not only because I'm not Jewish, but also because I've never experienced war firsthand.
THE DISCONTINUITY OF SMALL THINGS, which focuses not on the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, but on the hardships of daily life -- a preview of what was to come -- is different. What Haworth wrote seems real. This I can see happening. I can see it happening here in the U.S., too, and if it does, our experience may be much like that of the Danes during the 1940 German invasion and continuing occupation of their country.
Awareness dawns slowly for Bakman. Nazi propaganda pamphlets rain down from the sky. And "Bakman has heard -- where he has heard he can't quite remember...it comes like change of weather -- that there are places in Europe where Jews clean the streets. Dragged from their shops, scrubbing the pavement on their hands and knees. Not in Denmark, of course. These things would never happen in Denmark."
Carl Jensen, a fisherman in the village of Gilleleje, facing financial ruin during the occupation, feels desperate:
The sea smelled rich and hungry. If that plank sprung
a leak now, if the tar holding it melted or if he caught
his sweater in the net and got pulled over the sea would
swallow him and his body would not return to the shore.
He would disappear.... The salt water lapped against the
side of the boat. It called to him. It would be easy.
When Jette, Carl’s wife, can endure hardship no longer, she tells him she will leave on the eleven a.m. train [to] Copenhagen:
[Carl] put down his bread and its stingy trace of butter and
said simply, No.
Jette looked at him and said, No, there is no eleven a.m.
[to Copenhagen] or No I will not be found on that train?
No, he repeated....
She looked around her at their tiny house, at the small
bedoom where she had slept alone six nights a week for more than
twenty years while Carl was fishing in the Sound. She had tried to
explain to Carl that leaving for Copenhagen to visit her sister was not
the same as leaving him, but this was a distinction he had trouble
grasping even before trains began to explode all across Denmark....
I am going, she said. It is time for you either to hit me until I am
unconscious or get out of the way.
They stood looking at each other, each of them searching for a
safe route down from the precipice of that last statement.
The “small things” began to pile up:
[Bakman] had never felt the war so presently as today.
Each moment of the war until this day had been only a
small adjustment: cold water instead of lukewarm in
his shower, ersatz coffee instead of real, and milk
only on occasion. A small stockpiling of incident....
But today--seeing the mound of small weaponry at a
fashionable square--Bakman knows that something vital
The dream of a simpler, purer Denmark, lovely country by the sea,
has passed him by.
Haworth's characters seem as real as your family and friends. They are ordinary people who find within themselves extraordinary courage.
THE DISCONTINUITY OF SMALL THINGS will break your heart, but it will also make you think. About the way the world was back then -- and the way it is now.
LYING ABOUT HITLER by Richard J. Evans
"Holocaust deniers" ("Holocaust revisionists") are people who either deny that the Holocaust ever happened, or try to minimize the extent and horror of it. In my opinion, calling a writer, a historian, a politician, or anyone at all, a "Holocaust denier" is almost certain to damage his reputation.
Mr. Irving agrees. That's why he took legal action. In his opening statement at the trial, David Irving vs. Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah E. Lipstadt, Mr. Irving said, "[`Holocaust denier'] has become one of the most potent phrases in the arsenal of insult, replacing the N-word, the F-word, and a whole alphabet of other slurs. If an American politician. . .is branded, even briefly as a Holocaust denier, his career can well be said to be in ruins. If a writer, no matter how well reviewed and received until then, has that phrase stuck to him, then he, too, can regard his career as rumbling off the edge of a precipice."
Dr. Evans demonstrated to the satisfaction of the High Court in London the "falsification and manipulation of historical records" aspect of some of Mr. Irving's writing about history. At the trial, Mr. Irving described the "damage to the reputation" effect of Ms. Lipstadt's book.
I do not read German and cannot comment on Dr. Evans's contention that Mr. Irving played fast and loose with the truth in his writing based on historical documents in German archives. The statement that no document, signed by Hitler, has been found ordering the execution of Jewish people in death camps (order clearly stated, rather than implied) may be true--I don't know. But some statements don't need backing up with archives. The idea, for example, that Hitler didn't know about the Holocaust is absurd.
In my opinion, Mr. Irving is a talented writer. His books are lively, fascinating, full of verve. His writing reveals a fine sense of humor, too. And he has a right, at least here in the United States, to express biases and opinions that deeply offend me.
Dr. Evans has written an interesting book, and I recommend that you read his Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial--and see what you think.
My impression is that Mr. Irving does not deny that the tragedy took place. In his opening statement at the trial, Mr. Irving said, ". . .no person in full command of his mental faculties, and with even the slightest understanding of what happened in World War Two, can deny that the tragedy actually happened, however much we dissident historians may wish to quibble about the means, the scale, the dates and other minutiae."
Mr. Irving does deny or revise information about the Holocaust (regarding locations, numbers of people who suffered, numbers of people who suffered and died, scale, blame, who knew what, etc.) that most people believe to be true.
Mr. Irving also said, "[The term `Holocaust denier'] is a poison to which there is virtually no antidote, less lethal than a hypodermic with nerve gas jabbed in the neck, but deadly all the same: for the chosen victim, it is like being called a wife beater or a pædophile. It is enough for the label to be attached, for the attachee to find himself designated as a pariah, an outcast from normal society. It is a verbal Yellow Star." He further noted that, "In many countries now where it was considered that the mere verbal labelling was not enough, governments have been prevailed upon to pass the most questionable laws, including some which can only be considered a total infringement of the normal human rights of free speech, free opinion and freedom of assembly."
I agree. Let them speak. Who are we, any of us, to say that other people may not speak?
Holocaust denial is a silly idea. Denying the Holocaust is like saying that World War II never happened, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never bombed, men never landed on the moon, and the Titanic never sank. No one in his right mind, no one who has even a smattering of knowledge about World War II, can deny that the tragedy we call the Holocaust did, in fact, take place. Evidence of the Holocaust is overwhelming--testimonies of death camp survivors and Nazi perpetrators, material evidence, as well as documents created and records kept by the Nazis themselves. Many survivors of the camps bore, and continue to bear, witness to the reality of this dark period of 20th century history that Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel calls Night. Photographs taken in the death camps and published shortly after the end of World War II are, and have been since that time, available for everyone to see. Rational, educated people all over the world know that the Holocaust happened. Precise statistics can never be known--historians love to quibble about these--but it is known that people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who died in the Holocaust number in the millions.
People who publicly deny the Holocaust also know that the Holocaust did, in fact, happen. And they know how extensive and horrible it was. Holocaust deniers may have their own agendas: some are simply anti-Semitic and like to rail against the Jews; others seek to share the "limelight" with Jewish people who suffered in the Holocaust; and some, by erasing the memory of the Holocaust, hope to clear the way for a repeat performance.
But as an American who values freedom of thought and speech, I view with dismay the legislation some countries have enacted to prevent people from making statements which deny the extent, or even the reality, of the Holocaust.
I don't believe in shutting people up.
I share the view of the late historian Dr. Räul Hilberg, who said, "I do not agree with legislation that makes it illegal to utter pronouncements claiming that there was no Holocaust. I do not want to muzzle any of this because it is a sign of weakness, not of strength, when you try to shut somebody up. Yes, there is always a risk. Nothing in life is without risk, but you have to make rational decisions about everything."
"Revisionists" do bring attention to the Holocaust--a tragedy in history which the world must not forget. As George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
THE SKY ISN'T VISIBLE FROM HERE by Felicia C. Sullivan
NEVER. . .have I had a reading experience like this one.
Completely unprepared for this, Sullivan's book took me by surprise. One does not expect a memoir be thrilling, terrifying, cliff-hanging -- I mean the way Tom Clancy's CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER is.
Reading THE SKY ISN'T VISIBLE FROM HERE is like riding on a runaway train. The journey begins:
"In the spring of 1997, a few weeks before my college graduation my mother disappeared. Over the years, I had grown used to her leaving: a four-day cocaine binge; a wedding at City Hall to which I was not invited; the months she locked herself behind her bedroom door and emerged only to buy cigarettes. I'd spent the greater part of my life feeling abandoned by my mother. Yet she'd always return -- blazing into the kitchen to cook up a holiday feast for ten. . .back from her drug dealer on Brooklyn's Ninth Avenue.
"On the morning of my graduation, though, dressed in a black gown, I walked up the promenade to receive my diploma. . . . My mother's face didn't appear among the proud, applauding parents. I knew then that I'd never see her again. . . ."
The train speeds up. And now the sudden horror when you realize the train is out of control, zinging faster down the rails.
In the railroad car you're riding in, there is, figuratively, a camera. Sullivan eases you behind the camera, which records every single thing -- now and in the past. The camera is outfitted with x-ray vision into Sullivan's heart and soul, as the train plunges down the track. . . .
"Turning to Ursula, I hesitated. 'We're taking a bath. . .together?'
Inside the cramped bathroom, steam ribboned, clouding the mirrors and windows. Ursula's mother was dousing the water with blue crystals, humming as she poured.
Ursula removed her socks, unbuckled her belt, and slid her jeans to the floor. . . .
'I don't think my mother would like this,' I said, uneasy."
We are led into delicatessens and diners, where Sullivan's mother, frequently high on cocaine, works as a waitress:
"When we arrived at the deli one Saturday morning, I said, 'We're home.'
My mother threw open the metal gate. 'Not home Lisa,' she said, puzzled. 'This is work. . . .'
I bolted inside. . .and marveled over the pristine linoleum floors, at the revolving display of potato chips, pork rinds, and Cracker Jack suspended from metal clips near the door. Boxes of Nerds, stacks of watermelon gum on the racks in front of the register boxes of pasta and tissues perfectly arranged on the shelves. Cans of Coke, Tab, and Pepsi in gleaming rows behind the clear refrigerator doors at the back of the store.
'We could live here,' I said.
'This isn't our home,' [my mother] said."
Her mother would subject her to severe mental cruelty, and then rush to protect her. Felicia was emotionally abused, but she was not, at least not always, a neglected child. She was loved, to the extent that her mother was capable of loving a child, but the love was doled out in scraps and shards. Thus at Coney Island, age nine:
"'Take me on the rides,' I said.
All the rides in Coney Island have a height requirement, and a flat palm halted us at each ticket booth. But with a quick glare from my mother, we were ushered past the chain ropes and we hopped on the pirate ship shaped like a giant canoe. She buckled me in, yanked on the strap, hard. . .we clutched each other's hands as the boat began to swing faster. I loved this thrill -- the stomach drop, the quick, stolen breaths, the momentary fear that the ride would never stop, we could fall, and the ground would give way. We were wild-eyed; raising our arms, we screamed. . . .
Coming off the ship, my legs wobbled. . . . Massaging my neck, she asked if I was okay, if I wanted to go home.
'I want to be here,' I said."
They were poor and moved constantly. Sullivan and her mother reversed roles, with Sullivan, not yet a teenager, taking charge when her mother passed out. There was a stream of boyfriends (men in her mother's life); blessedly, one of the good ones became almost a real father to her. Sullivan's mother called her a thief and then forced her to help steal money:
"'We have to go,' [her mother] said. 'Put on your clothes.'
'Go where? It's the middle of the night.' I was scared that she had lost it, that she finally had gone crazy. Because she looked crazy. . . .
When I didn't say anything didn't move, my mother stripped the blankets off my bed. 'I need you to keep watch for us. We need this money. Don't you understand how much I owe?'
'Not me,' I said in a small voice.
'Who else if not you?'
I slid to the floor an drew my knees up close, allowing what she'd said to sink in."
Cocaine was Sullivan's nemesis and savior:
"'So what was it [cocaine] like?' Emily asks. . . .
We hear jackhammers and power drills outside, shaking bodies handling great machines, cracking the pavement, spilling hot tar.
'It's like Broadway up my nose,' I say."
Your past informs the present time of your life, and vice versa, with the present shaping all of your memories. So I like the way the book is organized -- a natural segueing back and forth between the now and then of a life recalled.
Read this stunning memoir. Sullivan's writing is lively, all grace and grit, and you will not find many more accomplished wordsmiths writing today.
PERSONAL INJURIES by Scott Turow
I know Robbie Feaver.
Maybe you do, too -- if you're lucky.
In my opinion, Robbie is among the most brilliantly -- and lovingly -- created characters in fiction.
Robbie is a lawyer, a nice Jewish boy, handsome, sexy, funny, and a complex human being.
"You could never count on him for honesty, assuming he even knew what it was. He was unruly and incorrigible. But if she stumbled, he'd come running. She couldn't even say for sure she'd be able to reach out when he extended a hand. But he'd be there. she wasn't going to forgive him, really. But she had to stop pretending with herself. Nine hundred people had just turned out, all there to buoy Robbie Feaver in his grief, nearly every one a friend who'd experienced his openness and the soothing warmth of his care. And she was one, too. You couldn't fight facts."
There have been at least two Robbie Feavers in my life, and as much as I love men, I loved these two most of all. It was an extraordinary delight to find such a beloved character in a novel.
Robbie shows us what love truly is -- unconditional love, the kind of love you would be both blessed and unlikely to find in your lifetime. The man is deeply flawed: dishonest, irresponsible, undependable. Unfaithful, yet faithful: he strays, but always comes back to you.
In PERSONAL INJURIES, Mr. Turow tests Robbie Feaver (pronounce it "favor") beyond all limits of physical and emotional endurance. Robbie's wife has a fatal illness. She is slowly dying throughout the novel. The course of her illness is graphic and heartbreaking. The strength and courage of this woman and her husband are beyond the meaning of courage and strength.
In PERSONAL INJURIES, Mr. Turow explores love in all its forms: Robbie and his wife, Robbie and a lesbian woman, Robbie and his law partner and lifelong friend, Mort Dinnerstein.
"There is deep feeling between these men," one of the lawyers says, though Robbie and Mort are not homosexual.
In PERSONAL INJURIES, love transcends sex.
Scott Turow is a brilliant writer. He unfailingly delivers a great story, a roller coaster ride, and a page-turning cliffhanger. Sometimes the writing bogs down just a little bit. Forget and forgive that. The book is superb.
And don't pigeonhole this author as a "genre writer" of law thrillers. He is far, far better than that and getting better all the time. PRESUMED INNOCENT is a great read, and in the opinion of many reviewers, his best book. But I think his skill with characterization -- making his characters real and complex and exciting for us -- is, in PERSONAL INJURIES, superior to his other works.
STONE HOTEL by Raegan Butcher
STONE HOTEL is a collection of poems by a man who was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The first poem details the crime. Nowhere in the book did I find any attempt to excuse, minimize, or deny the crime. The poems simply tell us what happened, how he was apprehended--by dogs, "their nostrils full of my fear"--and what followed as he served his time:
I am surrounded
by men who live
and blink in the sun
like psychotic moles
disguised as racial pride
the tattooed husbands
of battered wives
love is a clenched fist
Disclaimer: As one who reads and writes fiction almost exclusively, I am not a sophisticated reader of poetry. I am a visual person who reacts to poetry in a way that unsophisticated listeners respond to music. That is, the words in poetry, or the notes in a musical composition, bring to mind a scene or a series of events that I can hear or see.
Certain passages in T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," for example, summon vast, empty stretches of desert sweeping out to the horizon. Poe's "The Bells" tinkle silvery in a little Christmas shop I visited as a child. Wagner's "Tannhauser" is background music for elephants slowly marching in to perform in a circus.
The following are among the images that came to mind as I read the poems in Raegan Butcher's STONE HOTEL:
1. Attack scenes in JAWS
2. The plane crash in Nelson DeMille's MAYDAY
3. The chase in the opening scene of the James Bond film "Casino Royale"
4. WWII documentary film footage of the bombing of Hiroshima
5. "The Scream," a painting by Edvard Munch, National Gallery, Oslo, Norway
In STONE HOTEL, the poetry is understated. The scream lies beneath the words as the author finds himself "strangled by the hands of a clock" in a cage where "privacy is a thing of the past," and "even fear has gone stale with time."
In a poem titled "96 months" there is a rape scene, five lines long. One of the lines is only one word. The rape is described almost casually, a calm report slotted in among mundane images of rapists of another sort:
a lawyer "bored and preoccupied/not even working for his money"
a prosecutor "thundering doom/and calling for the max"
and a judge "pinch-eyed and displeased/working on getting re-elected"
And then the rape--the real one--itself deceptively mundane. (You have to close your eyes to hear the scream. The scream lies below the words.)
Butcher tells us about the snitch, and how he was found:
the light fixture
around his neck
eyes filled with blood
like bright red eggs
STONE HOTEL is not for the faint of heart. Raegan Butcher's writing is brilliant, raw and powerful. And as he writes, Butcher does my favorite thing for an artist to do--he never looks away. He confronts his subject with hard, cold objectivity and conveys it to us in the simplest way imaginable. This isn't poetry to make you smile or warm your soul. It isn't meant to entertain you--but then, neither is a plane crash or Edvard Munch's picture of a scream.
INTO THE WILD by Jon Krakauer
I'm saddened to see so many people writing with little or no compassion for Chris McCandless, and such a limited effort to understand his quest.
Most of us know what he was running from -- problems at home, a society struggling with issues of materialism and morality. But an understanding of what he was searching for -- inner peace, closeness with nature, a quiet and beautiful place in which to think -- eludes many of us, just as it eluded him.
It could be lovely, could it not? Wild strawberries spilling down the riverbank, red poppies flaming the hills, cobalt mountains loping along the sky, like waves in a gently rolling sea. I am blessed to live in such a place, where I can reflect and write in perfect solitude, and I appreciate the beautiful life I have. I live a little like he did, but without his extraordinary deprivation -- the berries, the bag of rice, no way (as he perceived it at that time) to get out.
Jon Krakauer mined this tragedy for the beauty, the goodness, and the hope that could be found in it -- and this bounty was rich! -- and I applaud his book and his wonderful writing, as I applaud the deeply moving film Sean Penn waited so patiently, for ten years, to create.
I agree with some of the points other reviewers have made -- that the particular venture Chris McCandless chose was ill-advised, that he had not adequately prepared for it, and that his family need not have been abandoned and left in the dark.
But we have all screwed up in our lives and hurt people around us, at least once, have we not? Well, I certainly have.
When other people use poor judgment and make mistakes, it's so easy to judge, to criticize, to close our minds. That's the easy way out, isn't it?
Whether we see Chris McCandless as a crazy kid, or as a courageous and intensely spiritual young man, we do know that he died afraid and alone. For that reason, if for no other, I think we need to reach for all the understanding and compassion we can give.
TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS by Eduardo Santiago
Eduardo Santiago, in my opinion, eventually will win the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished fiction by an American author, and he may be the next writer of Cuban descent to do so. TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS is right up there with other Pulitzer Prize winners. Santiago is young, and he has talent and dedication. And so it is, I believe, a matter of time.
Graciela, Caridad, and Imperio—Cuban women in exile—work in a doll factory in New Jersey. Santiago segues back to Cuba throughout the novel, so we can see the life they left during the Cuban Revolution and understand what they’re up against in the United States. Graciela deals with her frustrations just like American women do—by losing herself in TV soap operas.
Graciela's coping skills—in Cuba—were superb. When she decided to marry the scholarly and recently widowed Ernesto de la Cruz, she wasted no time:
"It's sort of like a shotgun wedding," Imperio said, "except in this
case it's the bride who is holding the shotgun."
Then we learn that:
Ernesto didn't make a lot of money, and Graciela wanted things.
But things were scarce and the black market was expensive.
So she set herself up as a manicurist and was very successful
at it, because she rendered the best Cuban half-moons in town.
The Cuban half-moon was a pearly-colored crescent painted with
precision exactly where the nail met the cuticle. Graciela was
masterful at it, an artist. When she did our nails it looked as if
all our fingers were smiling.
But few were smiling inside Castro's Cuba. Imperio tells us:
There were those who were desperate to leave the country,
those who hated the people who were leaving the country, and
the rest of us, who were caught in the middle.
People like me were frozen with fear and indecision. We were
not the sort of people who dreamed of a life in other parts
of the country, let alone the world. We were born in Palmagria
and, in spite of its problems and defects, we expected to die
there, be buried there, and spend the rest of eternity there.
That's the way it had always been. Occasionally someone
ventured out, driven by some strange desire that no one could
understand. But for the most part, we stayed.
It was easier for the wealthy to get out, they had always kept
one foot in Cuba and another abroad. . . .
For the very poor, there was no decision to be made at all.
Very few had the education or even the mentality to consider
going to another country and learning another language. They
could barely get along where they were born. Besides, the new
administration was all about them. There were slogans on walls
now offering them a brighter future. . . .
You couldn't leave the house without running into some sort
of demonstration. Banners and flags appeared everywhere.
Uniformed men and women became so common that after a
while we hardly took notice of them. They walked around
rigidly, their faces set hard with responsibility. They always
saluted us as we walked by. They demanded respect. They
were not friendly people, these rebel soldiers. They didn't smile,
they didn't dance; it was as if, suddenly, they had stopped being
Cubans. As if something hard and harsh had invaded their souls.
Conjure up for me the older American who has never escaped into radio soaps, including the one that asked the question, "Can this girl from the little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?" (OUR GAL SUNDAY in the 1940s.) Find me the younger American who has never lost herself in THE GUIDING LIGHT, ALL MY CHILDREN, or DALLAS.
Like these beloved sagas, Santiago's TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS will capture your interest, make you laugh, challenge your beliefs, and break your heart.
TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS is a great read, and I can almost guarantee you will love it. In this novel you will find not only yourself, but also your parents, your cousins, and the friends you grew up with. One of the things I admire about this writer is his ability to make people from an entirely different culture (from mine) seem just like people I have always known.
And ladies, you are in for a treat, because this is a novel by that rarity in the male-dominated world of great literature: a male writer who truly understands women and appreciates us, in spite of the faults—if any—we may have.
Buy this book and read it soon. You will laugh, cry, and delight in your discovery of Eduardo Santiago, a man who is becoming one of the great writers of our time.
PERPETUAL CARE AND OTHER STORIES by James Nolan
JAMES NOLAN is a comedic genius.
"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard," British actor Sir Donald Wolfit reportedly pronounced on his deathbed.
We all love comedy, but few can do it. I believe comedy is something you are born with and that it cannot be learned. The great performance comedians of the 20th century you can count on your fingers and toes: Allen, Ball, Bruce, Burnett, Carlin, Cosby, DeGeneres, Gleason, Goldberg, Hope, Jessel, Murray, Nichols & May, Pryor, Radner, Williams -- and I'm about running out, with three digits still left.
Among writers, the humorists number more, but there are not many.
James Nolan is one of the best. His humor is dry, dark, acerbic, subtle, but occasionally Rabelaisian: Aleichem, Almond, Allen (again), Baggott, Beckman, Bombeck, Franklin, Montaigne, Thurber, Twain, Vidal, Vonnegut, Wilde, Wisniewski, and Wylie come to mind.
Nolan is a Southerner, but not a "downhome" type. Nolan is sophisticated, well-educated and widely traveled. So he has a context to put his Southern characters in, and a rich, rich one it is! In PERPETUAL CARE, he moves from city to city with ease, hunting down great stories and delivering them with wit, aplomb and savoir faire to leave you breathless.
As with Philip Wylie's "Mom" ("the thin, enfeebled martyr whose very urine. . .will etch glass"), women in general, and "Mom" in particular -- in the hands of Nolan -- get a drubbing:
"In belligerent silence, Jake pushed his mother's wheelchair up the steep ramp to the cemetery office, her right leg sticking straight out like the prow of a frigate."
"Like an ostrich, Mrs. Hokum strained her wrinkled, pointy face to the height of a long, curved neck, trying to see over the top of a paneled counter."
As do teenagers:
"Why couldn't Jay have become a normal gutter-punk. . .with green hair and a shirt-stud in his tongue to click against his front teeth for attention?"
The title story, "Perpetual Care," is the funniest one. The situation -- I'm not giving it up here -- will absolutely blow you away.
Southerners (I am one) can carry prejudice and discrimination against people, places and things not Southern to ridiculous extremes, and Nolan pokes hilarious fun at all of it.
But this is not to say that PERPETUAL CARE is all comedy; far from it. Below the surface, Nolan lets us know that prejudice is a serious matter, that moms and teenagers deserve to be taken seriously as human beings, and that San Francisco is. . .well, let Nolan tell you!
James Nolan's deep love and compassion for the zany characters he portrays is always apparent, heightened by the contrast between his true feelings and the shallowness of widespread attitudes he dramatizes for us in his lively and resonant fiction.
His writing is the greatest, his incredible sentences like multifaceted jewels polished to a high sheen: I challenge you to find English sentences more perfectly and movingly crafted than James Nolan's.
Read these stories. Savor every word. Enjoy!
THE PIANO MAN by Marcia Preston
This one, you pick it up, you won't put it down until you finish. It's that good. At first, the premise didn't seem promising to me: teenaged boy dies in car crash, mother donates boy's heart, mother meets man who gets heart. Farfetched, I grumbled until I got into the book—and Preston can drop you into her stories with the speed of a greased guillotine.
No. The story is not farfetched. Not futuristic. Organ donation is a choice, for you and for me, right here and now.
Marcia Preston writes with a gracefulness you rarely see anymore. Anne Morrow Lindbergh comes to mind. Rachel Carson. Anita Shreve. Margaret Atwood. Preston writes:
“Just when she thought he must be asleep, she heard another sound, something she hadn't memorized. A soft plucking, then a hum. A few thin wails, like the cry of a cat.
She held her breath.
The silvery strain of a violin slid through the dark, the music breathing, full of grace. Her mouth opened, airless. She pictured him laying open the black case. Finding the three packs of cigarettes she had tucked around the curved edges of the violin. Frowning at the symphony brochure she'd slipped beneath the strings. She saw him lifting the violin with two hands, like a baby. Tuning it. The polished wood gleaming gold in the lamplight. She felt its coolness beneath his chin, so familiar and right. The tautness of the strings beneath his fingers.
Listening wide-eyed in the dark, her hair full of tears, she felt the pull of the bow across her hollow bones.”
Preston's prose is lively, too, and I like the way she counterpoints with unexpected verbs:
"Four cars prickled in the sun. . .
She turned away from the windows and her slippers whispered down the carpeted stairs. . .
Chilled air curled around her feet. . .
Traffic sizzled past in four lanes and streetlights erased the darkness.”
I especially admire the way Preston uses shadow and light:
“There was a shimmering, transparent at first. It thickened like ice and took on color, until finally she could see his face.”
“. . .he'd tried to write a song of his own, sitting at the kitchen table with a score sheet improvised from notebook paper. But a gray light had fallen across the lined page and suddenly he'd seen himself as f from a distance—the failed musician, pathetic and sad.”
“Lightning silvered the rooftops and trees tossed in a rising wind. Through the foggy glass, Claire saw a vision of a small lake, with sunshine and willows overhead. A man whose face she couldn't see stood beside the water. . . . She walked toward him as if she were wading through water, and reached out her hand.”
“Outdoors, a pristine sunlight cast crisp shadows across his path and fractured the desert colors into a dozen subtle shades.”
“He often went out to the deck at night when it was abandoned and sat in a wooden chair beneath the stars. From there he could see the mountains in the distance, their snow-dusted tops incandescent with moonlight.
Tonight he lit a cigarette and leaned his forearms on the deck railing, watching the lightning that flashed in the hills.”
But her prose style never gets in the way of the story—a tightrope to walk, as all of us know, and one of Preston's many fine achievements as a writer.
In THE PIANO MAN, Preston faces head-on and, with remarkable strength, deals with what I imagine to be the very worst tragedy that any human being could suffer: the death
of her or his own child. And then. . .sign papers to take him off life support and donate his heart to a waiting recipient?
Could I do this? Could you?
To her great credit, Preston does not present Claire O'Neal, who has lost her 17-year-old son, as a shining example of courage and grace under pressure. (And a pox on women like that anyway.) On the contrary, Claire falls apart and nearly gives up—just like the rest of us would.
On the first page, I was hooked, stayed hooked to the end, and left this wonderful novel eagerly looking forward to Ms. Preston's next one.
REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier's REBECCA is my favorite book of all time -- bar none.
The opening line is famous, but I didn't know that the first time I read it (I was about 14).
I just remember the magic that began with the first line:
"Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderly again. . . ."
The girl is young, clumsy, exquisitely sensitive. Impoverished and alone after her father's death, she was employed by a wealthy and boorish social climber, Mrs. Van Hopper, and made her living as the older woman's companion. Maxim de Winter, handsome, fabulously rich, and the owner of Manderly, one of the finest estates in England, crosses paths with the women in Monte Carlo. As the girl falls crazy in love with de Winter, revealing herself as the most flaming romantic in all of British literature, she sees him like this:
He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century, a city of narrow,
cobbled streets, and thin spires, where the inhabitants wore pointed shoes
and worsted hose. His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some
strange inexplicable way, and I was reminded of a portrait seen in a gallery
I had forgotten where, of a certain Gentleman Unknown.
And like this:
Could one but rob him of his English tweeds, and put him in black,
with lace at this throat and wrists, he would stare down at us
in our new world from a long distant past--a past where men walked
cloaked at night, and stood in the shadow of old doorways, a past of
narrow stairways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark,
of shimmering rapier blades, of silent, exquisite courtesy.
(I thought I was a romantic!)
However, I never saw him the way she did. Even as a teenager, I thought de Winter was a horse's ass if ever there was one, and to this day, I don't understand what women see in him:
"So Mrs. Van Hopper has had enough of Monte Carlo," he said, "and now she wants to go home. So do I. She to New York and I to Manderly. Which would you prefer? You can take your choice."
"Don't make a joke about it, it's unfair," I said, "and I think I had better see about those tickets, and say good-bye now."
"If you think I'm one of the people who try to be funny at breakfast, you're wrong," he said. "I'm invariably ill-tempered in the early morning. I repeat to you, the choice is open to you. Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come home to Manderly with me."
"Do you mean you want a secretary or something?"
"No, I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool."
"So that's settled, isn't it?" he said, going on with his toast and marmalade; "instead of being companion to Mrs. Van Hopper you become mine, and your duties will be almost exactly the same. I also like new library books, and flowers in the drawing-room, and bezique after dinner. And someone to pour out my tea. . .and you must never let me run out of my particular brand of toothpaste."
[Women certainly don't want male chauvinist swine as employers, but we accept them as husbands and lovers, because mostly that's all there is, so we have to make do.]
The spirit of Rebecca herself -- the first Mrs. de Winter -- pervades the novel like a gathering storm, a painful presence for the young woman Maxim marries after Rebecca's death. Although du Maurier gave the second Mrs. de Winter an inner life of extraordinary richness and depth, the author did not give her a name. When I learned that she didn't have
a name, I gave her mine, and she became me. I think she is simply every romantic woman who ever read this remarkable novel.
Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is also my favorite film. Joan Fontaine brilliant as the second Mrs. de Winter; Laurence Olivier absolute perfection as Max. This film was released in 1940, so don't see it in a theatre filled with college students, because they will snicker in the wrong places and spoil the most poignant scenes for you.
Notes on My Book Reviews:
My credentials (professional, academic and other) for being a book reviewer:
I read about 75 books a year for personal enjoyment. If I can't enter the author's world and get "lost" in a book after 30 or 40 pages, I quit. Therefore, I finish reading and occasionally review only books that I love, so you won't find any mean and hateful book reviews written by me.
My only reason for writing reviews is to share my love of books with you.
These are the ones I cherish most of all:
REBECCA, Daphne du Maurier
JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN, Dalton Trumbo
PAPILLON, Henri Charrière
THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, Henry James
GONE WITH THE WIND, Margaret Mitchell
MY COUSIN RACHEL, Daphne du Maurier
JANE EYRE, Charlotte Brontë
WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Emily Brontë
THE ONION FIELD, Joseph Wambaugh
OF MICE AND MEN, John Steinbeck
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, James M. Cain
DOUBLE INDEMNITY, James M. Cain
HOLOCAUST, Gerald Green
THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK
SCHINDLER'S LIST, Thomas Keneally
CHILD OF GOD, Cormac McCarthy
THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Michael Ondaatje
OUT OF AFRICA, Isak Dinesen
WOMEN IN LOVE, D. H. Lawrence
TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS, Eduardo Santiago
MIDNIGHT RUMBA, Eduardo Santiago
THE MAMBO KINGS PLAY SONGS OF LOVE, Oscar Hijuelos
A LOVELY HABANA MELODY, Oscar Hijuelos
THE COLOR PURPLE, Alice Walker
THE TWO, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace
NIGHT, Elie Wiesel
THE ELEPHANT MAN, Ashley Montagu
THE COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES, Arthur Conan Doyle
THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, Ann Rule
THE PHANTOM PRINCE, Elizabeth Kendall
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