Book Jones Books

Friday, March 27, 2015

Nachman, Is That You? *

The Short Stories of Leonard Michaels 


There has been a slight resurgence of the short stories of Leonard Michaels who passed away back in 2003. What do I consider a slight resurgence? Well, it is quite a subjective statement, based solely on the podcasts I consume. The New Yorker Fiction July 2014 podcast features Rebecca Curtis reading The Penultimate Conjecture, one of a septet of stories dubbed the Nachman Stories written by Leonard Michaels near the end of his life. Another podcast, Selected Shorts from PRI recently presented a program in honor of the late David Rakoff where Mr. Rakoff performs Cryptology, the last story in the Nachman septet, at Symphony Space in New York City.
Leonard Michaels
Leonard Michaels' writing has been compared to that of Isaac Babel, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth. His protagonist, Nachman, is a world-class mathematician originally from Cracow, living in Los Angeles. He hates to travel, doesn't particularly get along with too many people, he ironically seems more suited to New York than to L.A. The Penultimate Conjecture follows Nachman to San Francisco where he is attending the annual meeting of the Pythagoras Society. There, a young Scandinavian Mathematics colleague, Bjorn Lindquist, is expected to layout his solution for the infamously difficult math proof, the Penultimate Conjecture, which British cryptographers formulated during the second world war. At the upstart's presentation, Nachman meet's another math wizard, a Russian by the name of Chertoff (which means something diabolical in the Slavic language) , who urges Nachman to reveal what he knows is true in his heart: that Lindquist's solution is flawed.

In Cryptology, we find Nachman out of his comfort zone again, this time in NYC to attend the annual cryptology conference. He meets an old friend ("I'm Helen Ferris now") on Fifth Avenue, a woman whom he simply cannot place. After handing over her address and apartment keys to Nachman, she invites him to dinner with her and her husband: “If you arrive before us, just wait in the apartment,” she tells him. But when Nachman arrives at the posh Chelsea flat he finds it deserted; until he perceives the faint hiss of a shower and voices carrying from the next room. Cryptology is a story infused with mystery, both outward and inward. By the end Nachman is musing on not just who Helen Ferris could be, but who he, the enigmatic Nachman, really is.

All of the Nachman stories can  be found in: The Collected Stories by Leonard Michaels

* This post was originally published on the Echidna blog in July 2014 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

TBR: Spring Reading

There is an impressive stack of new books premiering this Spring. Everything from a fresh retelling of the sinking of the Lusitania, to a memoir blending bereavement with falconry, to an intense tale of three violent and rebellious individuals hurtling toward disaster. The snow is slowly melting revealing the lamented color green. Soon we will shrug off our parkas, throw open our windows and whiff the redolent cat's paw of spring. It's time for my perennial list of books to be read:

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen: Through the use of a treasure trove of archival material, Larsen breathes new life into the tragic stories leading up to and surrounding the sinking of the luxury liner, Lusitania. Published on the 100th anniversary (nearly to the day) of the harrowing event, the author employs first hand accounts and the actual German U-boat logs to create a atmosphere of suspense amid the historical incident which led to American military engagement in the Great War.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: Under the gauzy guise of a fantasy novel, the author of the modern classics The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go expends the universal themes of love, memory, and loss in this, his first work in a decade. Ishiguro is a writer unafraid to augment the boundaries of his art. His followers have come to expect fresh and inventive material from him with each new release. From all the early scuttle, The Buried Giant delivers on their prospectus.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: Following the death of her beloved father, the bereaved author Macdonald, a naturalist and falconer, decides to train Mabel, a feral goshawk, one of the most difficult and deadly raptors to prowl the skies. Macdonald's prose transcends the typical nature manual as the book becomes a metaphorical treatise on the journey from despair to salvation.

The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt: The "Whites" as Richard Price explains, is a nickname- alluding to Moby Dick, Ahab's elusive white whale- for those unsolved cases which haunt retired police detectives to their grave. The book was intended as straight-forward detective pulp, hence the pseudonym Harry Brandt, but as Price wrote, he realized he couldn't simply dash off a quick read between serious novels, he isn't wired that way. So The Whites became a full fledged Richard Price novel, in other words: a mandatory read.

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: From the prolific pen of one of today's more topical and incisive novelists comes a tale of three disturbed individuals: An aging Vietnam veteran, an unwilling hero of sorts: his psychologically distressed son; and his son's much older overly protective girlfriend, a card-carrying anarchist. Based on true events culminating in the largest manhunt in California's history, the novel delves deep to reveal the genuine nature of anger, violence and rebellion in America.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi: Here is one that I'm currently reading. Bacigalupi, author of The Windup Girl, has written a semi-apocalyptic cautionary tale set in the American Southwest. It seems global warming has devastated the water supply to the arid lands, think Texas, Arizona and California, and now the clear wet stuff is as valuable and volatile as that black viscous stuff once was. The author follows three main character's whose lives are brought to the brink as those with the power struggle to control the flow of life's barest of necessities.

Book Review: The Ogre's Cave

The entrance to the Birkenau death camp

Commentary on In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen's latest and regrettably last book of fiction relates the experience of one Polish-American professor at a so-called "Death Camp" retreat in 1996. Clements Olin travels to Poland ostensibly on a research gathering quest for a book about a survivor who later committed suicide. But his more important purpose is only slowly revealed, to the reader and to himself, by novel's end.

Once in Auschwitz, he joins a varied crew of 'witnesses', each with their own reason for being there. Among them are relatives of the victims, says Ben Lama, the retreat's guide, "...others are stricken descendants of the 'perpetrators.'" Though Olin admires Lama's lack of pretension, he is dubious of the sentimental New Age language being bandied about amid the participants. "Words like 'closure' and 'healing' and 'confronting the Nazi within.'" make him wince. "As for 'bearing witness,' the term strikes his ear as anachronistic and over-earnest." "Witness to what, exactly?", Olin ponders. "The emptiness? The silence?"

Monday, March 9, 2015

Book Review: On The Self

Commentary on All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu


Helen and Isaac, the alternating narrators of Dinaw Mengestu's latest novel, All Our Names, have something in common. They are both searching for a self; a sense of who they really are. As Isaac tells us, at age twenty-five on the bus from his home town to the university in Kampala, Uganda, he has shed all the names his parents had given him. He compares himself at that age to "the capital" itself. "Like me it belonged to no one, and anyone could claim it." Jump ahead a chapter to meet Helen, a white social worker still living with her mother in a quaint Midwestern college town in the U.S. We soon learn of her relationship to Issac: as he is a recent emigré to the states she is assigned to show him around and acquaint him with both the routine and vagaries of rural American life.

Dinaw Mengestu
Mengestu, proclaimed by the New Yorker magazine as one of the so-called "20 under 40" prospective new writers, aims with this novel to further his themes of self renewal during times of great upheaval, which he had advanced in his earlier work, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and  How to Read the Air. Both of those novels dealt with the assimilation of post-war Ethiopian families in America. In this book the author presents an additional perspective, that of the insider looking out. Helen sees Isaac as her way out of a banal, lonely existence.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

And we're back...

You might have noticed a spate of posts here recently after a long respite. Well here is the explanation. About a year ago I decided to start a new a slightly different blog called Echidna in which I thought to expand the subject matter from just books and literature to all creative expression; high and low art alike. I also wanted to try the Wordpress platform to see if it was any better than Blogger. Wordpress is slightly different but really no better than Blogger and after the honeymoon period of new followers I attracted less traffic to the Echidna site. Hence the move back here with the qualifying credo to blog about anything that interests me including  subjects unrelated to creative expression. I will also from time to time, as I had on the Echidna blog, post original work: poetry, flash fiction, short stories, etc... The Echidna blog will still be accessible until such time as I've finished transferring any and all worthwhile material to BJR. I hope you all will enjoy the lion's share of my future posts.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Review: Out of Uganda

Commentary on Thirty Girls by Susan Minot

Thirty Girls: a novel by Susan Minot
The recent kidnappings of young women in Nigeria validates the significance of Susan Minot's latest novel, Thirty Girls. It features similar atrocities that occurred in Uganda in the mid-1990's. Between 1986 and 2009, the Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony was responsible for the abduction of thousands of young girls and boys, mostly to be used as sex slaves and soldiers for the proliferation of Kony's deranged vision. Pseudo-religious credo compelled him to marry as many young women as he could then prolifically procreate so that his so-called family (read cult) could pervade and spread his deluded mission throughout the land, maximizing his purview.

Thirty Girls follows two story lines which will at length converge. The first features Esther: a Ugandan teen, one of the thirty of the title who are abducted from a convent by members of the LRA; profoundly traumatized; struggling to heal. The second studies Jane: an American journalist, just arrived in Africa to write the story of the kidnappings and of their nefarious mastermind; emotionally vulnerable after a string of toxic relationships. Can the two help each other?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Book Review: Family Portrait

Lucky-Us-newCommentary on Lucky Us by Amy Bloom


How do we define family? Is it a term describing merely our blood relations, a menagerie of characters, some of whom we have never met, never mind ever gotten to know? Or is family a group of sympathetic souls, related or not, whose lives have intertwined over the years, either by free will or luck: a group whom we can depend on, live with, and love? These are some of the questions evoked by Amy Bloom's latest novel Lucky Us, which follows a family, some related by blood, through crucially volatile times, both for the world in the twentieth century (the pre- through post-World War II years) as well as for Bloom's main characters.

Eva and Iris are half sisters, borne of the same college professor father, Edgar, through whom they are inexorably linked. They first meet in their teens-- Eva twelve, Iris sixteen-- after Iris's mother dies and Eva's own mom abandons her at their father's home in Ohio. Eva is the bookworm, Iris the drama queen-- literally; she regularly wins prizes for speech recitals. From the start, it's clear that Eva is to be Iris's little helper. She "looked at me the way a cat looks at a dog" and "talked to me the way Claudette Colbert talked to Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life..."  says Eva of her new-found semi-sibling. In time the two manage to gain each other's trust but the dynamic of their relationship changes very little.


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