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Archive for the ‘Language Focus’ Category

hausfrauPoet Jill Alexander Essbaum transits into the fiction genre with the precision of Swiss clocks and indeed Swiss trains — ushering in a new Madame Bovary, an Anna Karenina for the 21st century. Her name is Anna Benz, and she lives in Zürich with the Swiss banker she met in America.
“It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time.”
Anna doesn’t know how to drive her family’s car. She barely knows a soul beyond her mother-in-law, three children, and a few acquaintances; she maintains no contact with American relatives. Anna barely speaks German, endures life with no fire of spirit, and performs her duties as spouse and parent through unvaried routine, weekly circuiting her usual shopping points. Following initial bewilderment nine years ago, she has mastery over the intricacies of Zürich’s rail network. The author shows us Anna’s clumsiness occasionally, making her so real. She dresses impeccably, even fashionably— her clothes seem to me like an attempt at self-preservation–yet usually has no place to go, no plans, no one to see.
Anna was a good wife, mostly.
Anna has slipped into infidelity, incapable of suppressing the least suggestion by each man in a series of extramarital trysts. She fails to sever these liaisons against her better wisdom. Erotic reverie is a drug that distracts and pacifies her. The narration gradually reveals Anna’s mind, what she’s read, heard or wonders, her moods, her perception of others’ moods. Essbaum invites us into Anna’s hollow soul where we are initially uncomfortable yet intrigued, appalled yet sorrowed, anxious yet horrified at her inability to accept, embrace, or even experience a life many might feel grateful to live. Clearly, Anna withholds details from her Jungian analyst Doktor Messerli; yet, the reader glimpses truth in Anna’s actions, in a diary entry:
The utter sameness just drags on….I am beholden to my own peculiar irony: to survive I self-destruct….
Anna’s insightful internal voice show her to be intelligent, discerning, never oblivious yet she finds no will to extricate herself. Then, Anna remarkably makes a genuine female friend. Mary represents for Anna an unexpected opportunity to confide in someone trustworthy, to explore possibilities, but does she avail of it?
The accurate phrasing of painful emotions will have many readers relating easily to Anna’s psyche despite the fact that they’ll wish to shake Anna into shaping up and reviving herself from the mess she’s made. I absolutely loved its style of presentation, and its use of Swiss words intrigued me and enhanced the setting. Once you read the end, you realize how exquisitely tuned the poet author has made it and immediately return to the first page and begin it again, with Anna. I look forward to more good things to come from Jill Alexander Essbaum.
Check the WRL catalog for Hausfrau

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skylightJessica wrote about Jose Saramago‘s works some time ago, citing his dark social satire and language as reasons for his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I didn’t read the two she wrote about, but did read The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, and All the Names. Now, his final work, which is also his first, has been published.

Skylight is the story of six apartments in a single building, each housing people who couldn’t be more different from each other, and nearly all with families divided by their own differences. While disputes among neighbors are a staple of news, drama, and comedy, in the real world, clashes within families are truly more fraught, and so it is with this novel. Skylight is an appropriate name for the way he structured the book, which could be read as a collection of short stories, but which also has a novel’s unity. Like a skylight, it illuminates various parts of the building in turn, revealing the weaknesses and strengths of each resident.

This is not to say that Skylight is perfect, but it is far more mature than a reader can expect a first novel to be. Perhaps that’s because Saramago wrote it in 1953 at the age of 32 after varied experiences as a laborer, office worker, and opponent of the repressive government in a politically-charged Portugal. Perhaps it’s because we have the luxury of knowing where his future writing would go. Saramago’s next novel wouldn’t be published until 1971, and in that time he sharpened both the language and keen eye that won him honors around the world. And those who admire his work should try the writings of JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Raymond Carver or, more recently, Damon Galgut.

Check the WRL catalogue for Skylight

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swanWhatever happened to legendary Worlds’ Fairs and International Expositions? Some left their mark on the landscape. Some became cultural icons long after they ended. Some turned up in unexpected places. Was the idea killed by the Cold War, by television, by this?

For the characters in Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola, the 1898 World’s Fair is the centerpiece of their lives. ‘Ferret’ Skerritt, ventriloquist, literary illusionist, and minor prestidigitator, narrates the tale of that summer, when he fell in love with the mysterious Cecily, discovered the secret she carried in her carpetbag, lost her to millionaire Billy Wakefield, and escaped in a hot air balloon to become the spiritual center of desperate Nebraska farmers.

Like most World’s Fairs, Omaha’s is an illusion, and illusion is at the heart of the story. The gliding alabaster swans are poorly painted and chipped; the marvelous buildings are caked in glass fragments to make them glisten; and daylight reveals the midway’s tawdriness. Everything is false. Except Ferret’s love for Cecily, which he knows is true. Unfortunately, other people are better at manipulating reality or creating illusions far more intricate than Ferret’s basic honesty can conjure.

There’s a sense of doom that pervades the story, but it ends on a redemptive note. Along with the universe of marvelous characters and settings that Schaffert creates, that ultimately makes it an uplifting read.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Swan Gondola

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JacketIt doesn’t seem like you’d find romance, emotional conflict, and a profound cultural shift in a grease-filled garage, but Wayne Harrison has found a way to do it–and for some reason that setting gives the themes a lot of punch. I mean, who would expect that guys who spend their lives elbow-deep in transmissions, radiators, and carburetors would live deeply-felt lives?

Harrison’s story centers on Nick Campbell’s Out of the Hole garage, where legendary mechanic Nick has taken on 17-year old Justin as a Vo-Ag intern. Over the course of a summer, Justin practices diagnosing and repairing the good old cars with names like Barracuda, Chevelle, Challenger, Firebird, GTO. Those cars could be completely disassembled, re-engineered and rebuilt to burn the rubber off the fat racing tires. Think Greased Lightning or just about any Springsteen car.  And Nick is a master, even written up in Road Rage magazine for his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of just what it takes to milk that last bit of torque to create the unconquerable street car.

Nick is married to Mary Ann, a beautiful, intelligent woman who runs the business end of the shop, and with whom Justin inevitably falls in love. Even after his apprenticeship is up, Justin flees his unwelcoming school for the camaraderie of the shop, and eventually takes a job there. Old-timer Ray, Bobby the ex-con, Nick and Mary Ann are the friends and uncomplicated family Justin needs. But Nick and Mary Ann suffered a tragedy while he was gone, and it’s having an effect on the shop–Nick’s work is getting dangerously shoddy and he and Mary Ann are barely talking. Mary Ann turns to Justin for comfort, which turns into a sexual relationship. Now 19, Justin sees a perfect future in which he takes Mary Ann for himself. There’s one problem: Nick.

Justin still regards Nick as a mentor, a combination father figure, brother, and teacher.  And the opportunity to work on Nick’s latest project, restoring and racing a Corvette ZL-1, one of two in existence, is irresistible. The owner also has a big dream to build a chain of shops specializing in customizing those big engines. See, the future is here. The EPA’s new emissions restrictions essentially require computerized controls, and those can’t be diagnosed by guys listening to spark plugs and tasting the gasoline. Plus they make the cars wimpy–no more living and dying on the line for cash or pink slips with the new generation.

Harrison pulls off both sides of the story with seeming ease. The world of cams and quarter-mile racing opens up even to the most auto-phobic, and the interaction between the characters is natural enough to touch the heart of any gearhead. As those worlds head towards collision, neither set of readers will be able to ignore the power of the writing.

Check the WRL catalog for The Spark and the Drive

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JacketIn this corner, weighing in at three pounds, with a chemical punch that rules the body is The Brain! And in this corner, managed by clueless trainers and sycophantic followers, is Everything Else! It’s the eternal match-up of Nature vs. Nurture! Tonight’s referee is Herman Koch, but there are no rules about punching below the belt, no timekeepers, and judges who can’t score the bout until it’s way too late. Ding!

OK, that’s a poor imitation of the ongoing boxing match between those who say criminals are born and those who say they are made. As a story, The Dinner is more like a tag-team wrestling event with a fundamental questions at its heart: Does a parent’s love encompass protecting their children from the consequences of their deeds?

Herman Koch has structured his approach to the question as the progressive courses of a dinner (hence the title) between two brothers and their wives. Paul, the narrator, is a teacher; his brother Serge a politician cruising to the top of Dutch political life. We see everything through Paul’s eyes, beginning with the bitter aperitif of Paul’s loathing for his pretentious brother and ending with a horrific after-dinner drink at a nearby pub. This single viewpoint frequently breaks the action up as individuals and pairs leave the table for private conversations we aren’t privy to, or we follow along as Paul does things the others don’t know about.

Over the course of the evening we learn that Paul’s son Michel and Serge’s son Rick were involved in a terrible crime. Paul recognized the boys from security footage, but the police and public haven’t, and every day brings new and more strident calls that the criminals be brought to justice. Does Paul have the courage to confront his son, to tell his wife, brother, and sister-in-law, to expose the boys and ruin both families? And does Paul’s bitterness have roots in a deeper conflict?

Koch has successfully incorporated the technology that has rendered so much other fiction out-of-date. Swapped cell phones, stolen emails, YouTube videos, and deleted voice mails all play a significant role in bringing the conflict into the open, and in offering a solution to the dilemma. But at its core, this is a story about people, ethics, and that old battle of Nature vs. Nurture. That one’s not going away any time soon.

Check the WRL catalog for The Dinner

(Coming in Summer 2015 as a Gab Bag – I’ll post that as soon as it’s up)

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orfeoWhat does it take for a musical composition to become “classical music”? Some pieces now in the canon caused riots and inspired revolutions when first performed. It seems, though, that when composers set out to declare revolution, they didn’t really connect with audiences. That’s the situation Peter Els found himself in as a young man.

Peter Els is the main character in Richard Powers’ Orfeo, and our tour guide through the worlds of orchestral music and biological terrorism. Seventy years old when the novel begins, his career as a composer over, his only creative outlet lies in the brave new world of manipulating bacteria for his own enlightenment. It’s just too bad that his equipment triggers a full-out alarm at Homeland Security, which reacts in a heavy-handed fashion. With little warning, few resources, and the weight of public opinion quickly turned against him, Peter flees.

On his journey, he recites an apologia of his extinguished career. Els grew up in a time of musical turmoil, where old-fashioned notions of rhythm and structure (“beauty” is the reviled term) were thrown out in favor of dissonance and audience involvement. He had two compatriots in his personal revolution – Richard Bonner, a manic director and producer brimming with wild ideas; and Maddy, a singer who agrees to try one of his experimental pieces and ends up marrying him.

But low-paying jobs that enable his creative flow, and his devoted fatherhood to their child are not enough for Maddy, and they divorce. Peter goes into a hermitic existence, which he breaks only when Richard blasts back into his life with an earthshaking commission. After an extended and agonizing creative process, the piece debuts to rave reviews; however, Peter sees an unfortunate parallel to current events, refuses to give permission for future performances and breaks all ties with Richard. Alone, he takes a position as an adjunct professor in a middling music program where he nonetheless affects his students and brings out their best.

Els admires many of his contemporaries, among them Harry Partsch and John Cage. But he also shows us the ambitions and results of composers ranging back to Mozart, and the future of sounds created by popular musicians who adapted them from the revolutionaries of the late 20th century. Like Mr. Holland, he  teaches by understanding where we are and leading us to a new level.

Still, he’s on the run, and his efforts to recapture and even make amends for his past are fraught with danger. His genetic engineering interest sparks a national debate, driven by hysteria and the need for a villain by the national media but Peter Els has his own voice and uses it to maximum effect to counter the fear that has been created in his name.

Powers’ back-and-forth structure allows him to develop Peter Els against a background of familiar but vague current events, as if his art shelters him from the real world until that art crumbles. He isn’t always a sympathetic man, but freely admits his shortcomings. By the time we reach the unclear conclusion, his story doesn’t need an ending. It’s his life, and the music, that stand on their own.

I don’t know if Richard Powers knew about these guys when he started working on Orfeo; if not, it’s an ideal case of life imitating art. Ironic, since all Peter Els wanted to do was have his art imitate life.

Check the WRL catalog for Orfeo

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trillinThe art of essay writing is one that requires a sharp eye, a command of the language, and a wide-ranging interest in the human condition. Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite contemporary essayists, has all of these in abundance. I first encountered Trillin in the 1980s as a writer about food and eating, with the delightful collections American Fried, Alice, Let’s Eat, and Third Helpings, now conveniently collected as The Tummy Trilogy. Later, I discovered his clever and pointed political commentary (in verse) for The Nation, where he has the enviable post of “verse columnist” (see Deadline Poet for examples). Next came Trillin the novelist, as I found Tepper Isn’t Going Out on the shelves here. So you might say I am a Trillin fan across the board.

Quite Enough of offers readers new to Trillin an assortment of his writing on food, sports, politics (and especially politicians), science, languages (especially Yiddish), and his own life. Originally from Kansas City, Trillin retains an affection for barbecue even as he revels in the food opportunities he encounters in and around the Greenwich Village neighborhood where he has lived for many years.

Like others of my favorite essay writers Trillin excels at writing about people’s lives. He clearly has an affection for the characters about whom he writes (even when he also clearly disagrees with them), and lets their voices come through. His short political poetry often skewers politicians for what they say and do, but Trillin writes with a certain playfulness that if it does not blunt the sword at least makes the blow a bit tempered.

This collection is a great place for readers to start who have never read Trillin before (though readers of The New Yorker, The Nation, and other magazines may have come across some of these pieces in their original publications). With four decades of pieces to choose from, there is really something here for everyone. Good reading for an autumn afternoon.

Check the WRL catalog for Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin.

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