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Book review – Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Book review – Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Some many years ago we had a New York visitor from the literary world (who later won a Pulitzer Prize – long story). I asked her who was hot, who were the upcoming writers. Among a few others she pegged Jonathan Lethem, claiming that he would become the best writer in America. Now, with more than 18 fiction and non-fiction books under his belt, a slew of literary awards and a MacArthur ‘genius’ award, Lethem has lived up to that casual soothsay.

Dissident Gardens is my first Lethem novel. Someone smart said (I forget who, I am seaside-addled) that we should read half as many books, but we should read each one twice. I have only done that a only few times in my Life (Catch-22, My Traitor’s Heart, Ragtime, Portnoy’s Complaint). This novel absolutely demands a second reading.

At the heart of this story is family of mad and maddening Jews (before my co-religionists take offense to the phrase, they are described as such by the narrator with such affection that it borders on dazzled adulation). Communists, activists, hippies, geniuses, combatants. Failures as parents and guardians and friends. Deluded and impassioned and impractical and self-flagellating and guilt-ridden and wildly volatile, three generations of this family beat each other into misery and distress, save only for hope and unshakeable faith in themselves and their causes.

The book takes place mostly in New Jersey, close to New York. The matriarch is one Rose Zimmer, her story beginning in the 1930s, a character of such volume and heart and exasperation that she remained clanging in my head long after I had closed the book. Am American communist of boundless and cacophonous zeal, she chases off all who love her – her daughter Miriam, her husband (who flees for East Germany after the war to escape her harangues), her sisters, her communist co-conspirators. I cannot remember a character this robust in American literature for years, maybe decades – a sizzling delight (in a sort of perverse way – the reader shrieks with laughter at the many painful embers of her combustive personality).

Then there is her daughter Miriam, who eschews Communism for hippy activism -  no less infuriating than her nearly estranged mother, possessed of an explosive personality so magnetic and riveting and warped that I ached for her self-inflicted wounds and endless mistakes and doomed journey.

The cast of  many-dimensional characters in this book continues to grow shambolically and without shame – Rose’s hapless cousin looking for purpose and love finding only despair, the bickering communists of the 50s, a black academic sampling the bacchanalian homosexual candy store of pre-AIDS New York, an Irish folk singer whose career has been exterminated by the juggernaut of Dylan, an orphaned Jewish grandchild saved and nurtured by an isolationist Christian religious group, a senior black cop (a rarity in the 60s), submerged by his ailing wife and failing child and finding redemption in a cross racial and politically inadmissible love affair.

Race, child rearing, hippiedom, AIDS, homosexuality, academia, Quakerdom, Jewish secularism, Irish folk music, Nicaragua, East German revisionism, the entire sweep and tragedy of the American communist movement – this book just bursting with energies and histories whose strands tangle chaotically with each other in a great and kaleidoscopic narrative, and whose expression is found in some of the most startling language I have read in ages – where you are continually pole-axed by utterly unique pairings of adjectives and nouns and adverbs and verbs and phrases and sentences of rare and abiding beauty.

Lest I sound too slavish, there are criticisms. Sometimes that language is so, well, virtuosic, that you say – Oh, for god’s sake stop it, now you’re just showing off. Sometimes the ambition of the huge cast and the many sub-stories threaten to overwhelm the main narrative.

But even so.

Watch for the Pulitzers next year, my money is here.

And read it twice.

Book review – The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

Book Review – The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

I while ago I posted a little missive about having to shed books that had outbred our groaning bookshelves. I spoke about mercilessly wading in and excising entire ouvres. Then I got brutally flamed from some members of this site for having evicted, specifically, Justin Cartwright.

So in a fit of guilt I went onto the web and sought out Cartwright’s book-of-the-year, figuring that if I bought it and read it, I would, by some weird literary code, be redeemed. His choice was The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (yes, I know, what kind of a weird person has a surname like this). I had never heard of the book, never heard of the author, and made the decision to go in blind – reading neither reviews or cover blurbs.

What an astonishing little book. Actually more akin to a play than a book. Only four main characters, with the bulk of the book taking place in constrained locations, with long, probing and emotional interactions and unravellings between various members of this foursome, all of them sharply sculpted and clearly differentiated voices. I do not want to spoil, and will admit that this sort of tight and taught and structure will appeal more to Chekov lovers than the lovers of action-driven books, or even the ‘big books’ of award-winning novelists (it turns out that Bezmozgis is a Latvian emigre to Canada, and has been all over the literary shortlists for 2 years, and whose books have been translated into a dozen languages).

So, with caution – a celebrated Israeli politician named Kotler, a Russian immigrant who had spent decades in the horrors of the Gulag in his attempt to get to Israel, is not playing ball with the sitting government, and standing on principle on the matter of settlements. So Mossad unmasks an affair he is having with younger woman, getting it it splashed on the front pages of national newspapers. Kotler and his mistress Leora leave his long term (and beloved) wife and children and scurry to his childhood Crimea to escape the scandal.

The story unfolds entirely in Yalta, Crimea where Kotler, by co-incidence, comes face to face with the man who denounced him to the KGB all those decades ago. This forms the core of the novel. An interesting sidebar – Kotler is described convincingly as a man of unshakable integrity and near godlike morality, even in the face of his affair and, jarringly, his support for the settlers and their settlements. This last bit of combustive material is never judged, and Israeli/Palestinian politics is not part of this story at all (except in the most peripheral way).

But what is profoundly present in the story is the history of the Jewish ‘refuseniks’ (those Jews who had had the temerity to try and immigrate to Israel from a deeply anti-semitic USSR in the 70s and 80s and were cruelly persecuted for the attempt). Kotler may be based on Natan Sharansky, a current right-wing Israeli politician who was once a global cause-celebre of the human-rights movement, who helped to extract him from KGB jails in Siberia in 1986 (all fictional facts about Kotler and his wife match Sharansky’s biography).

Above all, the book is about the nature of betrayal, its shifting shape in the face of memory and circumstance and the similarly nebulous definition of forgiveness. People without an interest in the late-20th century cruelties of incipient Russian anti-semitism may have little interest in the background narrative, but the foreground issues of divided loyalties, sin, repentance and redemption and their entangled complexities are marvelously drawn, particularly within a story as small as this.

Book review – & Sons by David Gilbert

Book review – & Sons by David Gilbert

The first thing that announces this book is the cover, itself almost worth the price. It is an utterly arresting shot of New York, one of most photographed cities on earth, one who you would think has been well worn through pictures, but the image on the front cover is stunning – clean, crowded, gorgeous and coloured from a disturbingly unreal palette.

A great start to this book, even before the first line. It is a quintessentially New York novel, filled with wit and slashing satire and intellectual commentary and comedy and bursting with barely hidden literary references to great American literature. & Sons is destined to nestle with them.

The story is centred around an ageing, and possibly demented scion of American letters, one AN Dyer, hermited in his large and musty upper East side apartment. Dyer is a Salinger-type figure, with a dash of Roth and Bellow, who had, in his twenties, written a novel called Ampersand, a Catcher in the Rye-esque coming-of-age novel which has sold 45 million copies. He has written others, but it is Ampersand that defines him.

The book begins at the funeral of Dyer’s lifelong best friend, Charles Topping, at whose funeral we find ourselves at the opening of the book and whose life had been deeply marred by his friendship with the novelist. His son Phillip Topping is the novel’s narrator, and he is a deft trick, a wildly unreliable interlocutor, who narrates events at which he was absent, and conspires to understand the motives of those around him which he could not possibly know. He is both despised by almost everyone in the Dyer family, his role in the story is at best, oblique. This is a huge risk for Gilbert to have taken and it plays off handsomely, as the reader continually grapples with the narrator’s perspective and veracity.

The elderly novelist is as towering a figure as I have read in a long while. Irascible, regretful, maudlin, suicidal, manipulative, brilliant, conniving and desperate for redemption, he conspires to summon his two sons from his first marriage to New York, his ex-wife, as well as another son, the provenance of whom becomes a key plot point. Dyer is seeking to apologise and be forgiven for his neglect and deceit before he dies, as well as to reveal the truth about his youngest son. His two older sons have built shaky and damaged lives from the rubble left by their father, and they gather in New York, as does their mother. Things, not unexpectedly, do not work out as planned.

The writing is at times breathtakingly beautiful, and often very funny. There are a number of explosively entertaining set pieces – a gathering of New York’s elite at an art gallery, a cocaine fueled night on the town, a movie pitch in Hollywood, a pretzel hunt in Central Park. Like Tom Wolfe before he, well, lost his touch.

& Sons had the misfortune to be published in the same year as The Goldfinch, or else it may have scooped the Pulitzer, and I think it got a little lost because of the Goldfinch brouhahah. Critics have quibbled with the last third of the book but I found it a great joy from beginning to end, and slipped it happily into my bookcase in the section marked ‘Contemporary American‘ alongside Roth, Updike, Heller, Ford, Franzen and Bellow.

To quote the Guardian critic James Lasdan – ‘this book is funny without being silly, serious without being solemn, and powerfully moving without being either sentimental or coercive’.




Book Review – The Dog by Joseph O’Neill


A few months ago The Guardian presented their ‘big fiction’ books – those that were eagerly anticipated and imminently hitting the stores. One of those was The Dog by Joseph O’Neill.  When I told people I had bought it they waxed all misty and lyrical about Netherland, O’Neill’s award-winner from a few years ago, which I had not read. This included my wife Kate, who wrote a mini-review on the Good Book Appreciation Society  comparing The Dog to Netherland.

So O’Neill was virgin territory for me. Let me start by saying that there is one famous editor on this site (Helen Moffet?) who is very strict about every single line of the books she edits having to drive the narrative/story forward. Not only do the sentences in The Dog not move the story forward, there is no story to talk of. I suspect she would throw this book across the room with extreme prejudice, and then use it for kindling.

And then there are the 4-page unbroken paragraphs. And the embedded ramblings within parentheses, repeatedly nested so that some paragraphs end with )))))) (yes, SIX brackets). And really, really long sentences (I counted one at random – it was 150 words, where the average in novels is  10 – 15).  And the extremely dense tangential thoughts on everything and anything. And all telling and no showing. And no plot (although I suppose there is a narrative of sorts, and an unexpected metamorphosis at the end)

Did I hate this book for all these reasons, and more (its landscape was even further littered with other skewered and bloodied novelistic/linguistic sacred cows)?

No, I fell hopelessly in love with it. Lawyer breaks up with long term partner in the US, takes a soulless job in soulless Dubai via an old college buddy from an impossibly rich family. He is put to work doing life-crushing tax and legal structuring for his friend’s family’s endless global empire . Our hapless protag rarely leaves his cold and rich apartment in one Dubai’s endless skyscrapers, except to go to a similarly soulless office. He hires and befriends Russian prostitutes. He ruminates on his failed relationship. He writes angry mental emails to his boss, which he never sends (a doff of the hat to Bellow’s Herzog). He puzzles and fantasises over the disappearance of a colleague. He endlessly rehashes his failed relationship. He masturbates to online porn. He ruminates some more. And then some more. Then he muses on his ruminations. Then he meta-muses to the point of circularity.

There are times when the narrative and ranting are so convoluted and labyrinthine and recursive that you want so whack O’Neill upside the head and ask – why are you doing this to me? And then you find yourself gasping with surprise, or spluttering with mirth (often) or dazzled by original thinking and insight. (Insight! Insight! Isn’ t that why we read books?). At one point he filibusters about Facebook – it is as breathtakingly funny and perceptive as anything you will ever read about our brave new digital world.

Geoff Dyer, a great writer who had a series of lectures here recently made known that his favorite sort of novel is a series of essays hung on the thinnest of plots. The Dog is exactly that -  the plot so thin as to be invisible, the ‘essays’ are rich and gloriously funny and surprising and profound. This book was a strange journey indeed, but the scenery was startling and alien and satisfying.

On throwing out books

Throwing out books – (not a book review, but something we all have to face, from time to time)

We ran out of bookshelf space. We have been running out for years, maybe decades. Books had ambulated to far corners of the house, in all rooms, climbing higgeldy-piggeldy over each into tottering towers. Something had to be done. These books are us, our personality our history literally writ large. So today the great throw away began – a small lobotomy, a forced amnesia – a diminishment of once great and important artifacts of collective memory.

Things fell apart immediately. I waded in merciless and cruel, excising entire canons – Carl Hiaasen, Jonathan Coe, Julian Barnes, Justin Cartwright, Anne Tyler. Anne Tyler? NO! cried Kate, recently up from her office to join the culling. Within short order we were nearly divorced, Kate grimly holding onto old books I know, I KNOW  she will never ever look at again. We shamedly dumped South African authors (even some people I know and like), one hit wonders, Indian and Chinese multi-generation dramas, once current great non-fictions (Bryson excluded), old masters (even a Faulkner and a lesser known Steinbeck). We agreed on keeping Amis and Ford and Roth and Bellow and Zadie Smith and John Irving and McEwan and Norah Roberts and Zoe Heller, but why? I will never read these again either. Maybe the kids, maybe future grandkids one day.

Not a chance.

And now, with shelves wiped down and smelling like a hospital, shining, partially bare, awaiting the new generation. And the abandoned? Awaiting a hospice pick-up, where they will be read by the dying, absorbing part of my historical pleasures as their last acts on this earth. It makes me want to weep.

Has anyone else faced this horror? How do you do it?

Book Review – The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children ActI have a rocky relationship with McEwan’s work. I liked Atonement. I loved Amsterdam. I rhapsodised to the point of obsession over Saturday. Other than the startlingly original and funny treatise on the single pubic hair peeping out of the heroine’s underwear, I did not like On Chesil Beach. Sweet Tooth invited an unflattering comparison to Le Carre at his best (damn, whatever happened to Le Carre?).

So I approached McEwans’s latest with the attitude of beaten puppy. It is, happily, a partial return to form. Not great, but very good, particularly after the books finds its rhythm after a slow start. Although there is a section of writing from page 131 – 135 which is better than great, a smouldering, sharply chiseled and gorgeously rendered essay on the sadness and horrors of failed families. I reread it three times – it is a reminder if just how good he is.

And failed families are the bedrock of this novel. The protag is Fiona Maye, an English high court judge presiding over family court. These matters are given life by 3 cases presented to M’Lady through the course the book and described in detail – the viewing and judgement over the morally ruptured rubble of families once catalysed by love and now exploded by resentment or hate or betrayal or the monotonous cacophony of human weakness and inflexibility. And always, damaged children standing stunned and mute in their wake. Ultra Orthodox Jewish fathers blocking their daughters’ access to education, an extreme Christian sect refusing to allow a blood transfusion for their dying son, a conjoined set of twins, for whom the medical murder of one will save the other. Moral morass, all grey, the sort of choices for which the law is near hopeless A second connected narrative, revealed early, concerns Fiona’s long term husband and partner to their childless but seemingly successful marriage who has has suddenly decided that he needs to have one great passionate affair with a younger woman before he slides down the hill of his 60s towards dotage. The interplay of her shock and humiliation and rage against him, and her cool and wise judgements in the cases that come before her are cleverly juxtaposed.

The link that binds these two narratives is a beautiful and and complex teenage boy whose life has been saved by one of Fiona’s judgements, who begins to stalk her. This culminates in a meeting between Fiona and the boy in the reception of a private hotel, and is stamped by a small and brief 3 second act of inexplicable and shocking recklessness initiated by the judge, eventually offering her a sort of bridge to forgiving.

As always, McEwan’s book is interspersed with essays and mini-treatises on matters great and small, but all tightly bound to the plot – the families that we destroy through selfishness, the moral quagmires in which we thrash, and the redemption and forgiveness that hover just within reach for those who can see.

Book details