BOOK REVIEW: The Last Chairlift by John Irving

The Last ChairliftThe Last Chairlift by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The latest (and quite possibly last) novel of John Irving is a fine work of literary fiction. It’s not “A Prayer for Owen Meany” good, but it’s alright. Whereas “Owen Meany” was masterfully plotted with continuous points of tension and well-timed reveals, Irving’s new book meanders through the latter half of the twentieth century, presenting fascinating characters and the occasional powerful and poignant event.

In varied outlets, I’ve seen this referred to as a book about skiing and a book about ghosts. It’s neither of those things, though they both figure in the book. I would say it’s mostly about sexual identity and sexual politics in America. The story follows the life of Adam Brewster and his unconventional extended family of a lesbian mother who marries Adam’s father figure (Elliot Barlow, a man at the time who subsequently transitions to female) and has a simultaneous long-term committed relationship with another woman. Other major characters include his lesbian cousin and her committed partner, the partner, Em, being Adam’s lifelong crush.) At some point in reading, it occurred to me that this group was thick as thieves and there was really no ingroup dissent or conflict among them, and I wondered why that worked [instead of being painfully boring,] and I think it’s because they’re faced with so much outgroup [or edge of group, e.g. Adam’s aunts and – later – wife / ex-wife] pressure that it forces them to be closer in all ways.

Earlier I said that the book meanders through the second half of the twentieth century, but it actually continues through almost to the present-day. The biggest criticism I would offer is that the last twenty-ish years are rushed through and the author frequently seems to forget that there are characters that should have interesting life events. Instead, the book engages in long strings of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition on American politics, and when it’s not ranting about politics, the end reads a bit like a family Christmas letter. After what is the novel’s undisputed most moving moment, an event masterfully imagined and articulated, it’s kind of a slog to the end. [Which is, unfortunately, the last twenty percent of the book or so (at least it feels that way.)] Putting it another way, Elliot Barlow (aka. “the snowshoer” / “the pretty English teacher” / “the little wrestling coach”) is arguably the most likeable and compelling character in the book, and very little of interest occurs after she is out of the picture.

I enjoyed reading this book, but – as I say – it can be a slog compared to many of Irving’s earlier works. It’s worth noting that this book features multiple writer characters and an editor character, and still would have benefited from a heavy-handed editor. It does have a couple chapters that read as screenplays, and they are intriguing and make for a nice pace change. If you’re an Irving fan, you need to read this book. If you’re not yet familiar with his work, start elsewhere.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a comedy of family dysfunction. The family consists of Cold War era immigrants to England from Ukraine. One adult daughter (Nadezhda) narrates the story, which about how her estranged relationship with her sister (Vera) is renewed through battle with a common enemy, Valentina, the gold-digging Ukrainian woman (younger than either sister) who’s moving in with the sisters’ eighty-four-year-old father.

There’re a few divides that generate the story’s tension. First, Vera grew up with war during her formative years, while Nadezhda was a child of the post-war peace. This informs how each sees the world and the other. Vera sees her younger sister as a naïve bleeding-heart socialist, while Nadezhda sees Vera as a cold and distrusting Thatcherite scoundrel. Second, there’s the chasm between established immigrant and new arrival, the former feeling that they kept their heads down, did the work, assimilated, and earned their status as citizens, while feeling someone like Valentina is tricking her way in and expecting to be handed all the perks of first-world living without working for them. Finally, there’s the gap between what a new immigrant expects life is like in a wealthy country, and what it’s actually like. Valentina has a television view of England that assumes the characters she sees are typical.

The story is funny, but occasionally poignant – e.g. as when we learn the family’s war-torn backstory or even when Valentina is shown in a more sympathetic light by our “bleeding-heart” narrator, who waivers between her family obligation self (who despises Valentina) and her socialist-feminist self (who empathizes with Valentina to some degree.)

I’d recommend this book for readers of literary fiction. It’s well-crafted and humorous. But it’s literary fiction, so if you need your characters likable and your plot strong, you may find it a bit dull.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Christopher Boone, an autistic teenager, decides he must solve the murder of his next-door neighbor’s dog, Wellington. Boone is extremely bright, but nearly dysfunctional in high-stimulation environments. He displays a number of the characteristics common among those on the Autistic Spectrum, including: constructing an exacting routine and set of rituals for living, the inability to tolerate deviations from said routines and rituals, and challenges in dealing with emotions and physical contact. The book isn’t really the murder mystery or Sherlock-style crime fiction it sounds like (though it does play on those genres and references Sherlock, a character that appeals to Christopher,) but, ultimately, the book is about the humor and drama of family life as both are impacted by the presence of a special needs child.

The book is humorous, and if you’ve seen TV shows like “Young Sheldon” or Netflix’s “Atypical” you’ll be familiar with the kind of humor – i.e. the humor of the disconnect between how neuro-atypical characters experience / perceive the world as opposed to how “neuro-typical” characters do so. Where this book does a better job than those shows is in its comfort of going just a bit further with the math and science jokes and references, presumably recognizing that readers are likely to follow the thinking a bit better than the average tv viewer. In fact, the book uses diagrams and even the rare equation to distinguish how Christopher sees the world.

What I think this book does best is putting the reader into Christopher’s shoes so that when he is doing something that most of us would consider a routine act of living, e.g. taking the subway, we are as on the edge of our seat as we would be in any hero’s journey that featured monsters and mayhem.

I’d highly recommend this book for all fiction readers. It’s highly readable, engrossing, funny, and, at times, heartrending.

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BOOK REVIEW: Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton

Native American Literature: A Very Short IntroductionNative American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This VSI (Very Short Introduction) stimulates curiosity from its very title. One might be interested in, but not necessarily intrigued by, titles such as: “Native American Folklore,” or “Native American Mythology.” However, when one thinks of the world of Native American story and language-centric art, one is likely to first think of oral storytelling, and then, secondarily, about the immensely popular genre / commercial fiction of someone like Stephen Graham Jones. Even if one is aware of some of the Native American literary works that got widespread attention and praise, works such as Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” or the poetry of Joy Harajo, one may wonder whether there’s the basis for such a broad overview style book.

That’s just the notion that this book seeks to challenge. That said, until the final two chapters, it doesn’t always feel like the topic is as advertised. That is to say, with the exception of chapter two — which discusses the oral storytelling of various Native American tribes, much of chapters one through five is historical and cultural background designed to provide context for the creation of a Native American literary canon, but without talking about the canon’s components much. Some of the questions addressed include: how Native tribes came to written language, in general, and then to the English language, specifically; how self-image of tribal peoples shifted over time (and how that impacted the nature of written works;) the nature of various strains of Native literature (e.g. literature of resistance v. literature of assimilation, and so on.)

I learned a lot from this brief guide. I’m not going to lie, it does have some sections that are dry and quite scholarly, but it also raises some interesting ideas while introducing the reader to books that will be wholly unfamiliar to some and largely unfamiliar to most.

If you’re interested in how Native American literature came to be, I’d recommend one check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered WorldThe Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel was originally entitled Kusamakura or “Grass Pillow,” and it’s the Alan Turney translation that bears the title The Three-Cornered World. Turney drew from a concept that Natsume presents in the book – i.e. that an artist lives in the triangle created by the collapse of a corner called common sense. It’s a poetic and philosophical novel that is very much character-centric. In other words, if you must have an intriguing story, this book is not so much for you. However, if you find ideas and clever use of language appealing, you’ll love it.

The premise is that an artist takes retreat in the mountain countryside, and becomes infatuated with a local woman with a storied past. As the book tells us of the artist’s experience, it discusses aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and the place of emotion in artistic experience. This book is often compared to Bashō’s travelogue (i.e. Narrow Road to the Deep North) as it involves a great deal of elegant imagery and the occasional interspersed poem.

While the book is light on story, I was wowed by the author’s thought process and his use of language. While I’ve never read the original in Japanese, Turney’s translation is beautiful writing in its own right and I suspect it captures the sparse beauty for which Natsume’s work is famed. It is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch

Around the World in 80 BooksAround the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 16, 2021

David Damrosch’s comp lit world tour has a simple premise. You’re a traveler and the pandemic strikes, how do you travel by book while trapped at home? For those who think travel and reading are unrelated endeavors, I disagree. As a traveler and avid reader, I’ve always found the two intertwined in building a greater understanding of the world. Reading is an essential part of traveling, and I read literature from every place I visit. Why? Because people the world over are guarded, yearning to make good impressions. Because of this, one gets a partial and distorted view of other cultures. Poets and novelists round out the picture by airing the dirty laundry of their people. It’s not that revealing the dark and ugly edges of a culture is their foremost objective, but those are good sources of tension in a novel and of emotional resonance in a poem. [Seeking out what’s not so pretty about a culture might seem like a tawdry undertaking, but falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person, if you do so without first seeing their bad habits, it’s not really love. It’s just childlike infatuation.]


The book’s organization is straightforward. There are sixteen locales, and five books are discussed for each. I enjoyed Damrosch’s “syllabus.” The eighty books included a pleasant mix of works I’ve read, those I’ve been meaning to read, and [most importantly] those I’d missed altogether. Any source that reveals new reading material to me will definitely find favor.


The book starts in London (apropos of its titular connection to the Jules Verne novel) and moves through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, over through Asia, back around to Latin America, and finally to North America to conclude (as trips generally do) back at home.


The book is weighted heavily toward the literature side of the travel-literature nexus. That’s not a criticism, it’s just worth noting for travelers who aren’t avid readers of literary fiction and poetry, because they may find this book gets a bit deep in the literary weeds. (The sections don’t focus single-mindedly on the listed book, but meander through the author’s oeuvre and influences.) While many of the selections are indisputably excellent choices for traveling by book, others lack a connection that is readily apparent (e.g. the final book, Lord of the Rings.) Again, I didn’t find that to be a negative as there was always something to be learned from the discussions, and – who knows – it may have even expanded my thinking.


If you’re a traveler / reader, you should definitely consider giving this book a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Escaping 1939 Prague, Joe Kavalier moves in with family in Brooklyn, becoming fast friends with his younger cousin, Sam Clay. Combining their talents, Joe as artist and Sam as writer, the young men create a number of popular comic book characters. For those unfamiliar with comic book history, a major stream running through this story involves the trials of “work for hire.” Because of the nature of comic book publishing, creative types tended to work on salary (giving the publisher all rights to whatever was created – e.g. TV shows, toys, etc.) Because of this, the creators of some of the most lucrative characters and stories received little credit or financial reward (relative to the profits.) While these artists / authors didn’t lose their shirt if a title failed, there’s something offensive about Corporations (or actors) shoveling in money from a franchise while the creator lives a dank suburban existence.

If it were just about the unfair lives of comic book creators, the book would be interesting — but not 600+ pages interesting. What makes this a compelling story is that each of the titular characters has a darker challenge with which to deal. For Joe, it is an obsession with bringing as much of his family to safety as he can, and coping with his rage against the Nazis. For Sam, it is the fact that he is a closeted and conflicted gay man in 1940’s and 50’s America. The driving question is whether the two men will be able to avail themselves of the tripartite support network (themselves, plus Rosa – Joe’s girlfriend,) or whether either (or both) will self-destruct because of an inability to do so.

This is a well-crafted novel and I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen [Ill. by Marjolein Bastin]

Pride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein BastinPride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein Bastin by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This edition out: March 2, 2021

 

This is a new addition of an early 19th century classic. The value-added of the edition under review comes from illustrations by Marjolein Bastin, making for an aesthetically pleasing hardcopy edition for gifts or for collectors. The attractive color illustrations are of wildflowers, birds, and butterflies, and are widespread throughout – including the first and last page of each chapter. The artwork is beautifully drawn and vibrantly colored.

It’s a testament to the effectiveness of this book’s story and character development that it has withstood the test of time, becoming a widely-adapted classic. If it were being submitted for publishing today, I suspect it would face intense challenges with respect to its flouting of many popular conventions on writing. It has a pretty high telling-to-showing ratio. Description is sparse, so much so that some might find “floating head syndrome” kicks in [i.e. long tracks of dialogue detached from the setting and any action, such that they are imagined as two floating heads in a white void speaking back and forth.] That said, it may be that Austen was ahead of her time in this regard. A number of prominent later writers concluded that there was a general tendency to over-describe in novels. [Readers are going to build their own mental models of setting and character appearance, such that long tracts of description are wasted effort and ultimately hinder readability.]

The story revolves around a family of five sisters, the Bennet’s. Their father is a gentleman, but of modest means and his estate is “entailed.” [I don’t know what “entailed” means legally, but relative to the story, it means that his wife and daughters can’t inherit his estate – rather, the property must go to Mr. Bennet’s nearest male relative, who turns out to be a pompous, self-righteous, and generally irritating clergyman, Mr. Collins.] The significance of that fact is that it exacerbates concern about what will happen to the family when Mr. Bennet dies — particularly if the daughters don’t marry well and Collins decides to be a jerk and put them out on the “street.” This makes Mrs. Bennet anxious about the future and a little cuckoo about getting her daughters married.

Within the Bennet family, the story revolves mostly around the second oldest daughter, Elizabeth. When Mr. Collins asks her hand in marriage, she summarily rejects him. This, of course, is much to the chagrin of her mother, as marriage to Collins would single-handedly secure the family’s future [one can’t very well evict one’s mother-in-law, or at least one would have to be an even bigger jerk than Collins to do so.] Elizabeth soon meets a man she does find very promising, Mr. Wickham, a personable military man. But Elizabeth is nothing if not cautious, which turns out to be a good thing for her. The relationship with Wickham doesn’t go anywhere, and she ultimately discovers that all is not what it seems with the man. She immediately notices hostility between Wickham and a wealthy young bachelor gentleman named Mr. Darcy. Wickham tells Elizabeth his side of the story, which makes Darcy look like a jerk who ruined Wickham’s life. Elizabeth readily believes this Wickham because Mr. Darcy is so proud, and the fact that Darcy is also quiet and reserved makes him seem all the more aloof. [Those of us who are not highly expressive can readily recognize the point that people will write their own stories to fill in the blanks when faced with a lack of intense feedback.] So, here we have explanation of the title. Mr. Darcy is proud, but Elizabeth develops a prejudice against him not only because of his pride but also because he is not as instantaneously likable as Wickham or – for that matter — Darcy’s best friend, Mr. Bingley. This lack of bonhomie makes it easier to believe the bad than the good about Darcy, despite mounting evidence that he’s kind of a quietly great guy.

Elizabeth rejects a second marriage proposal, this one from Darcy, on the twin grounds that she believes Darcy ruined Wickham and also that she came to the conclusion that Darcy poisoned Bingley’s relationship with Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane. [Elizabeth and Jane are close not only in age but in their relationship to each other.] Reeling with rejection, Darcy hands Elizabeth a letter the next day. In it, Darcy admits that he was party to convincing Bingley to drop Jane, but only because he thought the reserved Jane wasn’t into Bingley. That is, it wasn’t that he had anything against Jane, but he didn’t want his friend to be the “reacher” in a “reacher-settler” relationship. But the big bomb regards Wickham, as Darcy’s side of the story paints the affable red-coat as flighty and irresponsible. Gradually, Elizabeth comes to see that Darcy’s is the more complete and accurate depiction of events, and she can even see how he would think as he did about Jane. After several readings, Elizabeth is mortified at her own behavior in light of this new information, but the English countryside is a small pond for the upper crust, and she will continue to run into the man she spurned wrongly.

The events that set up the grand romantic gesture that will turn things around and set up the climax revolve around Elizabeth’s [immediately] younger sister, the ugly bonnet-buying Lydia. Visiting some family friends at Brighton, Lydia falls in with Mr. Wickham and, being less cautious and discerning than Elizabeth [not to mention overeager to be married,] she sidles off with him. This is not so relatable today, but the entire family become obsessed with finding out what happened with Lydia, and fears that she’s brought disgrace on the entire family and may even keep the other daughters from finding suitable suitors. [Mr. Collins, for one, believes they should treat her as if she were dead.] This sets up Mr. Darcy to come in and secretly save the day [get Wickham to marry Lydia, a marriage which satisfies everybody – except Collins who still believes Lydia should be written off because she may or may not have had premarital sex but she certainly created the appearance that she probably did — for which she will spend an eternity in a lake of hellfire for ever and ever without end.]

There is a lot of obsession with the incomes of the various characters, and a lot of “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality. In one sense, it seems that Austen is critiquing such attitudes – along with a lot of other peculiar attitudes of the day. Certainly, we see the sympathetic protagonist, Elizabeth, is clear in behaving in a way that suggests she is most interested in a happy future. On the other hand, critics have pointed out that the book ends with those with more wealth set to have happier futures. Elizabeth and then Jane are likely to be happy as clams with their rich husbands, but Lydia far less so with the perpetually broke Mr. Wickham. There’s also lot of rigid formality that might be being picked at by the novel as well – or, at least, it appears so problematic to a present-day reader. There is so much reserved refusal to say anything that might violate social norms, even if a person is bursting to do so and everyone would be better off if they did. One might get the feeling Elizabeth is scared as a mouse given her unwillingness to speak openly, but then when Lady de Bourgh (who intimidates almost everyone in the book) tries to get Elizabeth to agree to turn down Darcy’s proposal, Elizabeth refuses her in a very articulate and well-deployed counter-attack – despite being under the impression that there is no engagement to be concerned about in the first place (this after she rejected his proposal.)

I enjoyed reading this story. I expected it would be archaic and generally unrelatable to today’s world. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly engaging story. While I am not one to by a book for ancillary illustrations, if you are into such things, this book has some soothing and beautifully-rendered imagery. It’s definitely worth reading this classic novel.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alien Stories by E.C. Osondu

Alien StoriesAlien Stories by E.C. Osondu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

 

This collection of short stories by Nigerian author, E.C. Osondu, examines the alien life. While many of the pieces use extraterrestrial aliens as a plot device, it’s easy to see that terrestrial alienation is the topic under consideration. Most of the pieces are of the soft science fiction variety, focusing on the psychological and relational elements more than the scientific detail. That said, a few of the pieces read as purely realist fiction. Some of the pieces focus on what it’s like to be an alien (of some variety,) but many of the stories focus upon how others perceive the “alien.” I should point out that the tone of the collection tends to be lighthearted, and so while it might seem that a collection based on the theme of alienation would be a bit melancholy, that is not so much the case.

This volume is part of the American Reader Series (#36) put out by BOA Editions. The collection includes eighteen stories. The first story, “Alien Enactors,” imagines individuals trying to convey information about their native culture in a recreational setting (called “the Ranch”) that is very market driven. The enactors are obsessed with ratings and with pleasing customers and the story is a commentary on what it is like for an émigré to enter the globalized world.

“Memory Store” was one of my favorites of the collection, because it sets up a fascinating thought experiment. The premise is that there is a store where one can go and sell one’s memories, and once one has sold a memory, it is lost to one forever. [Like selling blood or other bodily fluids, it mainly attracts those in relatively desperate states.] As a sci-fi plot mechanism, it makes for an interesting idea, but when one thinks of it as being about the trade-off of loss of past as one integrates into a new cultural environment, it becomes a powerful analogy.

“How to Raise an Alien Baby” is presented as a discussion of rules aliens would need to follow to adopt a baby from Earth. The story provokes one to think about how strange it can be for a child to enter a completely new cultural environment.

In “Visitors,” an alien couple have moved into a small village, and the lead characters are a couple who are having said alien couple over. The arrival of this alien couple invites incessant questioning about why they would pick such a place. For those who’ve lived only one place, it seems to be a common thought to wonder why anyone in their right mind would choose to live there – of all places. We also see a divergence of views toward aliens. The wife is more open-minded while the husband remains suspicious.

“Feast,” which is set on Alien Feast Day, features a child’s eye contemplation of aliens, and the endless questions such a view inspires. As with the husband in “Visitors,” the children try to grasp what aliens are really like, why the are so different, and – in the process – they stumble, misestimating the differences between the aliens and themselves.

In the story, “Mark,” a grandmother imparts wisdom via a story about the “Red Planet.” The journey described in this extraterrestrial tale is an analogy intended to prepare others a different kind of travel.

“Spaceship” is another of my favorites from the collection. In the story, aliens leave a broken-down spaceship at a village, just as someone might leave a car along the highway until it can be fixed. What is brilliant about the story is its description of how the locals begin to impart meaning upon the ship’s presence. All things, good and bad, that happen in the village are linked to the whims of the broken-down spacecraft. It serves as a commentary on superstition and religiosity.

In “Sacrifice,” each year an alien spacecraft visits, requiring one village youth to be surrendered to the aliens. There’s a sort of “Hunger Games” selection processes that isn’t discussed in detail, but which arrives at a presumably random “tribute” each year. However, when an only child is selected, the mother gets up in arms about it.

“Light” is about personal transformation and how it may seem to be a magical and spontaneous occurrence to others. In the story, a light from the sky lands up on the lead character, and, with it, she experiences a profound personality change.

In “Traveler” a local and an alien (“foreigner”) converse in transit.

“Debriefing” is one of the stories that isn’t of the science fiction genre. It imagines the advice that an African would receive upon arriving in the United States. It’s sort of a “do’s and don’ts” of living in America for the alien resident. It’s amusing in some places and disconcerting in others.

“Focus Group” presents a series of comments from individuals as if they were taking part in a focus group where they were asked “What are aliens like?”

The story “Child’s Play” revolves around two children who like to play a game that allows them to disappear into an alternative dimension.

Life changes for a bickering couple when the man finds a mysterious boon in the backyard in “Who Is in the Garden?”

“On the Lost Tribes of the Black World” is a story that is presented as if it were a scholarly description of the “Konga” tribe, a people forged around the singular act of drumming.

In “Love Affair” a lesbian émigré to America from Africa, Finda, tries to navigate the minefield of human relations. On the one hand, she learns from her grandmother that being gay isn’t something Finda would be likely to be able to pull off in their homeland, but still Finda isn’t finding her sexual orientation to be any picnic in America – despite the fact that she can be open about it. This is one of the most engaging stories in the collection.

With “The Home Companion” the collection shifts back into sci-fi territory, imagining a technology that can serve to combat loneliness by providing one with an intelligence with which to converse.

“Our Earthly Possessions” discusses just what a traveler has as he or she moves to a new land. The subject of memory, addressed in the second story, is revisited in this story from a different angle.

I found this to be a fantastic collection of stories. If you have any interest in what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, these stories will offer you insight into that condition. If you are experienced in that regard, the stories will resonate with you. It’s a smart collection of stories and will plant seeds of thought and help them germinate. If you read short fiction, I’d highly recommend this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth

The Prague OrgyThe Prague Orgy by Philip Roth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is sold independently, but is also included with “Zuckerman Bound,” a collected trilogy of books written by Philip Roth that includes: “The Ghost Writer,” “Zuckerman Unbound,” and “The Anatomy Lesson.” These books center on a fictional character, Nathan Zuckerman, who is a novelist bearing some resemblance to Roth, himself. The trilogy is from the early / mid 1980’s and “The Prague Orgy” functions as an epilogue to the series, although there’s no problem reading it as a standalone story.

In this short and simple tale, Zuckerman meets with an exiled Czech novelist, Sisovsky, in New York. While they are conversing, Sisovsky mentions that his father wrote a series of stories in Yiddish. Zuckerman becomes intrigued by these stories, especially as Sisovsky suggests they are better than anything Sisovsky, himself, has written. When Zuckerman asks about the whereabouts of the stories and why Sisovsky hasn’t had them published, the latter tells him that they are with his ex-wife in Prague. Sisovsky suggests that Zuckerman could probably talk this ex-wife, Olga, into giving up the manuscripts.

Zuckerman goes to Prague to speak with Olga. As Sisovsky suggested, Olga is a bit of a nymphomaniac, and immediately proceeds to try to get busy with Zuckerman. She is also interested in a more official relationship so that she can cross the Iron Curtain. The bulk of the story revolves around Zuckerman trying to fend off advances and get his hands on the manuscripts so that he can bring them back to be published before they – like so many stories of Central European Jews – are lost forever.

Being set in Cold War Central Europe, communist paranoia and spying play a major role, and – apropos of its Prague setting – this takes a form reminiscent of that seen in the works of Kafka (there is a sense of looming danger, but one isn’t quite sure how seriously one should take it.) In its most direct interpretation, the title reflects the idea that one has a bohemian artistic crowd who have nothing to do but engage in sexual hedonism in Prague because they can’t express themselves openly under a Communist regime – i.e. sexual promiscuity is the only outlet to be shocking that’s allowed.

This is was an amusing and compelling read, and I’d recommend it for fiction readers — particularly if one has an interest in Cold War fiction.

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