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[831] The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante

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“What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive in him.” (Ch.31, 140)

The Days of Abandonment (Il Divorcio) is the raw, ferocious depiction of one woman, Olga, and her descent into disarray after her husband of fifteen years suddenly announces that he is leaving her because he is confused and unhappy. He manipulates Olga to call the shot of their separation. After he leaves, Olga has to care for the two children in addition to housework. She would sit in her increasingly disorderly home, writing letters to Mario and trying to identify the moment when her marriage ceased to be the mature partnership that she’d always thought it to be.

… and I don’t know what physiognomy he had attributed to me, what montage of me had made him fall in love, what, on the other hand, had turned out to be repugnant to him, making him fall out of love. (Ch.26, 124)

What makes the book so powerful is the voice, first-person, caught in space between telling a story and explaining, justifying to herself what had happened to her marriage. Reader gets inside Olga’s head, witnesses her erratic thoughts, her dangerous motives, her hallucinations, her rage, her pain and her desperation. This is when the book sometimes get too difficult and muddy. She plunges into this vertigo where she cannot help lash at society and turn cynical and sarcastic, and withdraw her trust in people. She’s in a purgatory of rage and bereavement.

Without herself knowing, she has taken absence of her sense and lapsed into a momentary loss of sanity. But it’s almost as if this trip to hell and back is necessary and conducive to the healing. She’s making decisions that have sure consequences. She’s in self-scrutiny but also self-denial. Between reason, insanity and survival, she continues to live. It reads like a monologue of someone thrives to fight, who might have taken absence of sense but never an absence of morality.

187 pp. Europa Editions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[830] The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain

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“How many things do we feel obliged to do for the sake of it, or for appearances, or because we are trained to do them, but which weigh us down and don’t in fact achieve anything?”

Set in modern-day Paris, The Red Notebook is the story of a bookseller who finds a handbag in the street one day, takes it home with him, empties out its plethora of contents and decides to look for the woman who owns it. Unbeknownst to him, the handbag belongs to this woman had been mugged the night before.

The book is a gem of a novella. It uses a found object as the pivot on which to turn a tale of happenstance. Laurent Letellier is a banker-turned-bookseller in his mid-forties. Given the handbag provides no information on owner’s contact and identity, he combs through the personal effects and reads through the journal for clues. Ensued is a whimsical experience of nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened or will happen–he gets to know her and her preferences and intimate details through her words but not knowing her in person.

Who is she? What does she do for a living? Why so many keepsakes in a small handbag? The aggregation between owner and finder is lightly spun, but eventually joined by the inventory of objects that bodes well for their kinship. This novella observes the totemic power of belongings. That Laure fought her mugger and grieved the loss of her bag speaks for the value of it—a piece of life that is irreplaceable. Laurain really captures the potent combination of sentiment and association attached to the most unlikely things.

A tale of serrendipity.

159 pp. Gallic Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[828] The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George

1carered

“Memories are like wolves. You can’t lock them away and hope they leave you leave.” (Ch.1, 5)

The Little Paris Bookshop has a very promising start: a bookshop on a barge called the Literary Apothecary on the bank of Seine in Paris, a bookseller who not only loves books but has a nearly mystical ability to assess the deepest feelings and wounds of his customers, and cats that nudge behind bookshelves and keep his company.

For twenty years Jean Perdu is still heartbroken over his lost love, and the room Manon used to live in has been barred by a giant bookcase. But when Perdu reads the letter from her, sealed and stowed away for twenty-one years, everything changes for him. He decides to set sail for the town in southern France where Manon was from, along with a best-selling author who is stuck in a writer’s block. Together they embark on a trip to small quaint towns where they use books as currency to exchange for food and services.

The journey is an emotional one poised on self-reflection. Perdu experiences a self-awakening that frees himself from the compulsion to only make the right moves. There’s a lot of soul searching and conversation in the head, as he wrestles the thoughts that all these years he has endured loneliness because he did not want to trust love again.

All of us preserve time. We preserve the old versions of the people who have left us. And under our skin, under the layers of wrinkles and experience and laughter, we, too, are old versions of ourselves. (Ch.19, 137)

But ironically, as much as he prescribes books to his wounded customers, he is the one who is sorely in need of nourishment and healing; and he is not cured by books, but by friendship, time, and love. Hurt feelings have their time distance and they have to run the course.

I appreciate the concept behind this novel, which really should be a short story. Before halfway it has become flat and has exhausted the point it’s making. The book barge Nd the book trade peter out early, and I do not expect the book to be a romance in the most literal sense.

408 pp. Broadway Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[827] The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

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“Never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.”

The Luminaries is an entangled, convoluted story, at least told in a convoluted manner, that is set in the 19th century, during the last days of the New Zealand gold rush. It’s an action-adventure, sprawling detective story, well-plotted but owing to the stylistic choice Catton so scrupulously pursues, too long due to the reiteration of events. The style is that each successive part is half the length of its predecessor, such that before long the chapter introductions are longer than the text they preface. And Catton’s commitment to delineating a full year’s astrological changes requires looping back to events of 1865-1866 repetitiously for the last quarter of the book.

A string of coincidences is not a coincidence.

The novel attempts to unravel the mystery of a day when a chain of events unfold in the town of Hokitika. A very wealthy man—owner of a gold mine, disappeared. A prostitute tried to end her life. An enormous fortune was found in the home of a hapless drunk, who was overdosed on laudanum. His identity and mining tight had been stolen. These seemingly unrelated events turn out to be part of a bigger plan of an ex-con man. The arrival of a man who is running for councilman kicks off this string of strange coincidences. This ex-con man who has cheated Alastair Lauderback out of his ship then lost the shipping crate by which he had forced the politician’s hand. Inside this crate was a trunk containing gold, a fortune that had been sewn into the lining of five dresses. The seamstress was a crafty woman named Lydia Wells, a brothel owner who was, at that time, posing as the ex-con’s wife, and helping him to steal her ex-husband’s fortune. When the prostitute learned, some weeks after her arrival in Hokitika, that a trunk containing women’s dresses had been salvaged from a wreck, she purchased all five without noticing the added weight since she is an opium user and it as sober.

So a multiple storylines cram the 800 pages, winding up a skein of a mystery that’s rich with sibling secrets, sex, opium and drugs, a doomed love affair, murder, extortion, impersonation, fraud, forgery, and double dealing. It opens like a play, with Walter Moody stumbling upon a clandestine meeting of twelve prominent men in a hotel meeting hall. It’s highly wrought, artificial piece of tale-telling accorded to the astrological framing device. The opacity of this angle results in reiteration of events over and over again. In this respect, the novel appears too clever for its own good. That said, Catton’s use of contemporary slang, circumlocutions, and lexicons befitting the different characters are all spot-on.

830 pp. Little Brown Books. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[820] Belchamber – Howard Sturgis

1carered

“He had an almost painful intuition of her sacrifices, her hopes, her frustrate ambitions for him, and of the disappointments he must inevitably be to her; he probably read into her not very complex emotions fine shades of sensibility from his own consciousness . . . It was this habit of deference to her lightest wish they sent him off against his wish . . . ” (V, 55)

Set in 1890s England, Belchamber is a novel of aristocratic life told in the perspective of a misfit. Its originality lies in how the protagonist, a high-minded, high-born weakling, slightly effeminate heir to a marquisate, is at odds with what the high society expects of a gentleman. Born Charles Edwin William Augustus Chambers, the Marquis and Earl of Belchamber, he is commonly known as Sainty. He has no taste for games, girls, or money; he dislikes sports and hunting but adores gardening and interior decoration. Another eccentricity that shows his unfitness for his social status is his exaggerated propensity for work. He has a genuine aptitude for scholarship and loves erudition for its own sake. In short, he is a loner content in his own world.

And he launched out a tirade, . . . on the barbarism of the English upper classes, their want of education and refinement, their inability to appreciate intellectual pleasures, their low standard of morality, and, above all, their entire self-satisfaction and conviction of their own perfect rightness. (VII, 87)

The great moment of Sainty comes early on, when he becomes friends with his tutor Gerald Newsby in Cambridge. Then his life is shaped, or shattered to pieces, by two powerful women if very strong will. His mother, Lady Charmington, with her severe morals and puritanical obduracy, exercises a tight reign over him. Lady Eccleston, a tireless schemer who constructs the marriage plot to ensnare him. Cissy herself, though also in a way a victim of her mother’s deceit, is a fortune-hunting girl who makes the most of her situation. She despises Sainty but spends his money with insolent abandon. She’s a heartless monster, an adulteress, who epitomizes the very vices of high society that Saint renounces. All the sympathy one might feel for her would quickly desiccate as the novel nears the end.

The book portrays a series of betrayals against Sainty and his spinelessness to fight back, for the sake of preserving appearance and avoiding scandal. He is crushed by the race for luxury, since he himself is rich enough to absorb his losses and quite indifferent to his possessions. There’s a ponderous, contemplative quality to the writing, often supplying psychological stings after a plot narrative. Despite being a misfit, Sainty remains an aristocrat; he is bored and repulsed by his class yet never ceases to belong to it. It’s a story about individualism thwarted and innocence deceived, and, after all, virtue is not its own reward.

334 pp. New York Review Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[819] Lost Horizon – James Hilton

1carered

“Now he perceived that the unreasonableness, however fantastic, was to be swallowed. That flight from Baskul had not been the meaningless exploit of a madman. It had been something planned, prepared . . . For what possible reason could four chance passengers with the British Government aeroplane he whisked away to these trans-Himalayan solitudes?” (Ch.5, 103)

A British group of four, one of whom consular officer Hugh Conway, leaves India in the 1930s by plane only to be skyjacked and whisked away to the distant Tibetan mountains. In the fabled mountainous rampart of Shangri-La, in the valley of warmth and beauty, where a group of lamasery pavilions cling to the mountainside, they find a people leading lives of simplicity, moderation, and peace. Despite the hospitality offered, a part of Conway still insists that there’s something queer about the place that he cannot blame the truculence of his fellow Mallinson, who insists on leaving right away.

We want to return to civilization as soon as possible. (Mallinson) And are you so very certain that you are away from it. (Chang)

As the group becomes settled, a deep anesthetizing tranquility begins to sweep over Conway, who prefers the peace and quiet of Shangri-La over the racket of the world. He undergoes some curious transformation of the mind and becomes comfortable with the surrounding. A meeting with the reclusive High Lama affords him the secret behind the confounding mystery of the place.

This is a strangely absorbing and fascinating story that has sustaining interest in me. The atmosphere of the setting is soothing but the mystery behind is stimulating. There’s a spiritual force and an underlying philosophy that carries the reader’s imagination beyond the scope of the book. The power of this novel is in the sense of potential peace that is evoked. This sense of peace, calm and profundity is available to everyone but is not for everyone. Metaphorically, it’s the personal journey in search of that inner peace that is Shangri-La. That reaching true enlightenment for those who seek it, will find the Shangri-La.

231 pp. Pocket Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[817] The Alienist – Caleb Carr

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“From that moment on, he said, we must make every possible effort to rid themselves of preconceptions about human behavior. We must try not to see the world through our own eyes, nor to judge it by our own values, but through and by those of our killer.” (Ch.13, 129)

The Alienist is an engrossing historical fiction taking place in New York City just before the turn of the century. It revolves around the activities of one of the first forensic investigations in world history. In 1896 a serial killer is brutally slaughtering young transverstite boy prostitutes and mutilating their bodies. With neither the public nor the police interested in lives or deaths of these abominations to society, and that the poor and the new-immigrated warrant little attention, there is very little incentive to investigate. Not only is the police not interested, along with church officials who are only concerned with their own monetary interests, they contrive to obfuscate and suppress facts of the crimes.

If we accepted the supposition of his sanity, then we were left with the nagging question of what possible satisfaction or benefit he could be deriving from the butchery. (Ch.15, 157)

The task of tracking the killer has been assigned to Theodore Roosevelt’s (Police Commissioner at the time) old friend from his Harvard days, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who is an alienist, or an expert on mental pathologies (minds that are alienated from themselves). Kreizler recruits John Schuyler Moore, a police reporter for the New York Times to investigate, along with Sara Howard, a woman detective who is looked down upon by her male colleagues. A firm believer in psychological causation, Kreizler thinks the context of life leads to a psychopath, The dredging up of this argument takes reader to the philosophical heart of the book, which explores the causes of sanity and criminality, and ultimately the nature of evil.

So unfolded is a challenging and tedious investigation on various facets. Between setbacks, interference, slow advances, with the help of modern forensic techniques, a profile containing the killer’s facts and personal histories is assembled. The team comes to terms with the mandate that they have to abandon their own preconceptions and start seeing the world in the killer’s shoes. When confrontation with the killer becomes inevitably imminent, on the killer’s schedule, the team comes to empathize with a man who is equal parts predator and prey.

The Alienist isn’t only an ingenious thriller, it gives authenticity of old New York. This I attribute to the fact that Caleb Carr is a historian and biographer. Beneath its rich historical trappings is a breathless and sometimes grisly detective story that reveals the social turmoil of the time. It shows, sadly, that a crisis like the serial killer is inevitable because he is himself an offspring of a society and its sick conscience. The killer dodges the law but craves the society, craves the opportunity to show people what their society had done to him. And the odd thing, as Carr has really nailed, is that society revels men like the killer who are easy repositories of all that is dark and wrong in our own social world. Society tolerates what makes the killer.

498 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]