Posts Tagged ‘Novels’

The response to the tour in North Dakota and the far reaches of Minnesota (Ely for instance) has been strong. That in itself is not surprising though the readers come from the four corners – New England, Florida, San Diego and Washington. More surprising is (more…)

Cover imageI have a special interest in David Landau’s work: he edited Observation Hill, my second novel due for release August 1, 2015. Perhaps I wouldn’t have selected this book out of thousands, millions, of others, but that is the way of books. They come to us in many ways: assigned, gifted, recommended by older brothers, found on airplanes, selected from shelves because of title or cover, touted by their authors.  Death Is Not Always the Winner, once in my hand, burned in my mind and still burns there. Let the review speak for itself.

Death Is Not Always the Winner by David Landau

David gave me two books a sunny day in North Beach; in his off handed, jovial fashion he said, “Don’t hurry to read them.” Then he laughed. I was definitely going to read them, if not immediately, as fast as I could work through my cue. He filled the balance of our lunch time with stories of “mischief” he was stirring in Guatemala, confounding a corrupt far-left and an empowered far-right. Until I read Death Is Not Always the Winner, something he’d penned a few years ago, I had little idea just how “mischief” informed who David Landau is.

The current resurgence of interplay between the civilian US population and Cuba and the immanent un-cooling (does one dare say warming?) of relations and hope for social commerce, this book is one we must read. We must read it lest we be ignorant of subterfuge on both sides, lest we forget the lessons our government (and Cuba’s) should have—but did not—learn in the last half century, or lest we miss the sense of who Cuban truly are and who they have been. Perhaps we may also learn why.

In 9th grade social studies I asked Mr. Trochel, “Is there going to be war?” Krushchev and Kennedy were at loggerheads over missiles in Cuba. That is as much as I ever knew about Cuban relations. Now, I feel better informed, wiser, attentive.

Landau’s hero, Rodrigo, a nom de guerre, proves his dedication to revolution and his mettle as both a man and a counterrevolutionary. His fortunes and misfortunes are concerning, but both he sets below his work: “It was a beautiful play [on the part of the CIA], and it should have worked with any man – but Rodrigo was not any man.” Rodrigo’s life fighting Batista, Castro, the net of spies and informers living off Castro’s revolution, is our narrative thread through history, a history we must keep in mind as we go forward. His story gives the lie to most of what we hear about Castro’s Cuba and, in a straightforward way to much of what we suspect we know about our government’s activities. Far from being just a history lesson, Rodrigo’s story is a hornbook of culture demonstrating what El Nouevo Hearld said about Landau: [he] “knows the Cuban mind and history better than most Cubans do.”

We begin the story with death, Rodrigo’s impending, promised death. Near the end, we visit the wall of the firing squad with the same man—he, of course, politely refuses the blindfold. Tension, thrilling action, and enough sex even for a quintessential Latin, pepper the hard historical tutelage clothed in a fictional garb of intrigue. It is a breathtaking tale. A story for past times and for today.

Peter Geye in The Lighthouse Road has successfully captured, perhaps immigrated, the chill reality of Nordic life found in such stories as Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil and Ib Michael’s Prince bringing them to new life in the New World.

Geye tells tales set against wilderness and sea (Lake Superior), fraught with willful living and near-sinfulness. Twined in a hidden fixating past are Odd Eide’s beginnings—orphaned near birth and raised side by side with his future lover/sister, the much older Rebekah—and his bondage to Hosea Grimm his adoptive, overbearing father (and Rebekah’s as well).

If Odd’s story is about breaking away, it is as much about making a way to live under dire and difficult circumstances. His life is both baneful and desolate. He loses an eye to a hibernating she-bear to prove to himself he is not a coward. Odd dissembles against his employer-father, taking what he will of Hosea’s ungenerous wealth, and insists on the impossible: to provide for his own son a loving mother. His undaunted skill and hardihood match the unforgiving spirit of water and wilderness but are no match for twisted spirit of human want and wantonness.

The story is haunted by the same unworldliness Ib Michael brings us to on the Titanic in Prince and the same earthiness grounding all of Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil. Geye’s hard edged telling is as merciless as a Lake Superior storm, and as powerful too.

“a rose by any other name:” New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani translated from Italian to English by Judith Landry

This book tickled my interest in all things Finnish, in language and its acquisition, and in our conception of identity.

The Finnish part is of less interest to those who have no Finnish heritage, but New Finnish Grammar also tells a little known and compelling part of living between two strong nations, in this case Germany and Russia from 1900 to the end of World War II. And its lessons both inside Finland and from without are apt for Americans in this early 21st Century. Perhaps we can capture a glimpse of the angst and hatred generated in people caught up in movement of great powers, America (its allies) and the Muslim world. The protagonists Dr. Petri Firari and his patient Sampo Karjalainen are men without country and men held fast by a foreign tongue (Firari is a Finnish expat who speaks German; Karjalainen an Italian learning Finnish after losing his memory).

The language part is fascinating. Diego Marani more than being a simple polyglot is a student of language, a professional linguist, who writes in Europanto (his invented language).   His insight into the importance of language to who we are and the processes we must employ to acquire our first and successive languages plays a central role in the plot. The Finnish stamp is upon Dr. Firari and though he can never live there he uses every means possible to stay current with the news and the language. Karjalainen on the other hand is no one; without a language he owns no identity and lives on the side lines listening, noting, studying.

Karjalainen’s identity—his name is early on told, Massimiliano Brodar—reforms behind the language and culture of Finland during the last years of World War II. He recovers his health after a nasty head injury. He slowly acquires Finnish as a “relearned” language. He even more slowly acquires a real Finnish identity: Sampo Karjalainen becomes a Finnish patriot facing the Russian army at Viipuri on the Karelian isthmus. Dr. Firari, telling the story from his own experience and from a manuscript Karjalainen left in the Helsinki hospital, is the unlucky man who must live a life in a dual identity (Finnish and German). Sampo Karjalainen gains a single, heroic identity, although it is the wrong one.

In a single word, the book is FASCINATING / Tämä kirja on KIEHTOVA.


[This text is the original but too long for posting to other book sites.]


One must wonder—tongue in cheek—how KOK finds the time to live a life to write about. His detail is so fine and often so mundane as noticing suddenly that the sun is setting and lighting up the sky over the five story apartment building going up across one arm of Lake Merritt. Yet once launched into the story as he tells it, you’re nearly shedding tears of thanks to him, letting you into his life, his pains, his loves, his hates, his fears, artistic musings, and philosophical flourishes. This book and the five of the same name that follow if are not for the faint-hearted, must-have-page-turner American reader. Since the translations run apace, though, there must be a market here and in Britain and in the English reading world as a whole.

It is a little early for me to prognosticate, but I see a big prize at the end of this tunnel, one with an N on its snout.

Want to get to know someone perhaps better than your best friend? No, perhaps better than a spouse, or maybe better than you know yourself? Well, dig in and be patient. You will get to know Karl Ove Knausgaard well, very well.

Book 1 of My Struggle focuses on KOK’s father: how he feared and hated him in adolescence. How he evaded and avoided dad, usually without much success since KOK carried dad with him everywhere he went and in every enterprise he attempted. That’s not unusual for a son, or for a son with a dominant father and absent or semi-absent mother such as KOK seems—so he indicates—to have had. She was nice, loving, but not around a great deal.

As he grows older, KOK declares more independence and eventually after high school leaves town to return only for his father’s funeral. Often the narrative is intense and interesting: KOK spends 35 pages getting ready to drink to drunkenness on his 14th new years eve; he spills ink over five pages of discussion of the role science has played in our conception and expectations of art, painting mostly, and a full third of the book relates the preparations Ingve, KOK’s brother and sometime hero and nemesis, and he perform in advance of the funeral. And, hey, we never (at least in Book 1) get to the funeral, or near the funeral, or getting ready for the actual funeral, for, first, the brothers must clean the house of their deceased, alcoholic, secretive father and who commandeered his own mother’s house (it isn’t even his) in which to devolve, disintegrate, and die. KOK’s grandmother is in the sorriest state of affairs. That is what must be dealt with.

Oh, what a mess. Oh, what a tragedy. And through it all the author is open, plain spoken, truthful, and compelling without pulling sentimental punches or taking unfair advantage.

Knausgaard earns his reader’s respect, wins it fairly with Norwegian hard work and a keen eye for minutae which tells the story so well. It is as if he continuously tells us—were he Californian or American—where he was, what he was doing, who he was with, and what he was thinking when Oakland burned, when the Bay Bridge collapsed, or when the Trade Towers fell. Knausgaard’s fire, earthquake, and terror attack are personal, but that does not mean that we, all of us, haven’t suffered the same.

And that commonality is what Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle exalts.