CHRISTINE FALLS by Benjamin Black

Irish novelist John Banville, writing  under the pen name Benjamin Black, has created a crime series that is both detective work and literary fiction, a fine work, interesting and gritty.

It features pathologist Quirke, (who seems to have no other name,so I am assuming it is his last name),  a widower of 20 years who still mourns his wife and dead child.  He works in the morgue of a Catholic hospital in Dublin along with his brother-in-law who is a famous ob-gyn.   The BIL is married to the sister of the dead wife.

Quirke comes upon his BIL in his (Quirke’s) office late one night writing in a file of a young woman brought in, dead of a botched abortion.  But when Quirke goes to view the body, it is gone.  This starts off a casual investigation in which Quirke tries to find out what became of the body.  It becomes more serious, as it appears it was not exactly an abortion, but a botched delivery, in which the baby seems to have disappeared.

The story moves to the Boston area of the USA, and an orphanage and a young childless couple who are given a baby to raise.  It becomes clear that this orphanage and others like it have been established to receive unwanted Irish babies to informally adopt them out, to be later taken back and educated to be priests and nuns.   A source, as it were, to maintain the Catholic clergy.

Quirke’s family is involved, lots of skullduggery and unpleasantness ensue as Quirke more or less stumbles upon clue/fact/incident and is threatened by unknown assailants to stay out of it.

Great story, dark, noir, twisty, and eccentric as only Irish writing can be.

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THE ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD by Kazuo Ishiguro

Because they fall

we love them –

the cherry blossoms.

In this floating world

does anything endure?

—   Ariwara no Narihira (823-880)

Yes, THAT Kazuo Ishiguro of Remains of the Day fame.   I really like his work.  It all has this somewhat prickly undercurrent of negativity, of pointing out the absurd attitudes we carry around with us.

Set in 1947 Tokyo, it is narrated in first person by an aging artist, now retired, who is faced with the problem of getting his youngest daughter married.  He lost his wife in the war to a stray bomb, and his son was killed in the war, but he was left with two daughters, one now married with a young son.

Not a lot actually happens in this book.  It follows the musings of the old man, now thinking about the current life of his neighborhood, now going back into the past.  He was an acclaimed artist, but before the war, he turned from art to nationalist propaganda, and became a prominent leader of the artists calling for Japanese nationalism and imperial expansion.  Now that the war is over, he is retired, and his reputation is tainted, and there are those who are disgusted with him for his political views. It was felt that the turn toward the politicization of art leads toward fascism.

In Japan at this time, marriage negotiations included hiring a detective to investigate all the family members, and the negotiations of the previous year fell through for an unknown reason.  But of course, everyone is quite sure it is because those investigations revealed his distasteful past, and the groom’s family pulled out of the negotiations.    Now there is another interested young man, and the daughters of the artist are very much afraid that this too will end in a failed negotiation, and so ask their father to please go around to his old acquaintances and ensure that these people will say good things about him.

And what is that floating world thing all about?  “Floating World” describes the urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects, of the Edo-period Japan (1600–1867).    About 1750, a courtesan named Kiku renounced the sex trade and became the first geisha or arts person, thereby initiating a new cultural tradition. The poetry of the Floating World, like its art, was gritty and realistic and dealt with life as it is rather than as we would wish it. The poets of the Floating World did not feel the need to explain things, and so we find that our artist in this book does not feel the need to explain things, but only to present them as he remembers them.   Is he an unreliable narrator?  Perhaps, but only in the sense that we each of us write our own narratives,  putting ourselves in the light in which we can tolerate being seen.

THE PAYING GUEST by George Gissing

George Gissing  was an English novelist who published 23 novels between 1880 and 1903.  He was more popular in his later years, and his early work was not considered a resounding success.  However, here it is, 2018, and he is still being read.  His work focuses on the class issue, commercialism, and the themes of love and loyalty.

The Paying Guest is a novella, and concerns a young British couple whom we would consider middle class today, but keep in mind, in spite of being what we would think of as middle class, they had a nanny and a maid/cook.  They live in something of a suburb of London, and the husband works in the city.  The husband, thinking to improve their finances, sees an ad in the newspaper from a young woman looking for a home in which she could live as a paying guest.  He offers the suggestion to his wife that if the young woman is suitable and the two women get along, it might be a way to earn a little more income.

The young woman arrives, and although claiming she has had 200 responses to her ad, chooses them with whom to stay.  She wishes to escape her lower class home, and although her step father is kind and generous, she feels he somewhat prefers his own daughter from a previous marriage.

The plot revolves around the young woman’s attempts to make a suitable marriage by playing off two interested men against each other, one of whom is the soon-to-be-betrothed of her step sister.  All of her machinations bring a lot of silly trouble to both her family and the people she is staying with, and all in all, would probably make a decent sit com episode in today’s world.

The book is filled with who is superior to whom, who can ‘receive’ whom, who is beneath whom, and just what few options a young woman has in the England of the late 1880s,  marriage to someone who can support her being the option of choice.

Sweet novella length book, and good enough to make me want to give his more popular books a shot to see if they hold my interest in a longer version.

EVERYTHING YOU KNOW by Zoe Heller

Willy Muller is a 55-year-old antihero,  a hack journalist, absent father, convicted murderer, and all-around jerk who must come to terms with his past when his teenage daughter Sadie commits suicide. Muller became estranged from Sadie and her older sister, Sophie, when he was imprisoned for murdering his wife and their mother, Oona.

After being released on appeal, out of a job and desperate for cash, Muller wrote To Have and To Hold, a lurid confessional novel about his marriage and his wife’s death. The book’s publication earned him the scorn of friends and family, and Muller fled England for Los Angeles, leaving his two rebellious, emotionally damaged teenage daughters and pursuing a life of feeble ghostwriting and shallow society.

The novel opens with Muller recuperating from a heart attack and reevaluating his life with the help of a box of Sadie’s diaries, sent to him after her death. Reading the words of his ill-fated daughter, he can no longer deceive himself about his sorry behavior.

Sounds like a real downer, right?   Well, yes and no.  You can get annoyed at the whiny, entitled tone of Willy, but all the time you know that he knows that he is a sh*t, and that even if he feels sorry for himself, he also feels he deserves it.

Willy is Everyman, really.  Some good, some bad, some neurotic, some introspective, some self-delusional, some honest with oneself.

The title comes from this passage:

Once, when we were on our honeymoon and all this anguish was ahead of us, we overheard an elderly Jewish couple bickering in one of the corridors of the Algonquin.  This old codger, with this nylon slacks pulled up to his tits, was giving his wife a hard time for leading him the wrong way to the elevator.  “Everything you know!” he kept muttering sarcastically.  “Everything you know!” I told you it was the other way already, but you wouldn’t listen to me.  Oh, no, everything you know!”

Yeah, we think we know everything, don’t we.  We each of us thinks we always know best.  And sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t.

If you need some advice on being lonely
If you need a little help in feeling blue
If you need some advice on how to cry all night
Come to me, I’m the man with the blues.

I’m the man with 100,000 heartaches
And I’ve got most any color of the blues
So if you need a little shove in fouling up in love
Come to me, I’m the man with the blues.

—— Willie Nelson, ‘Everything You know’

 

 

THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan

I wonder how many lifeboat books there are, other than Das Boot?   Maybe not as many as a reader might think.

This lifeboat tale is told in first person by a sweet young newlywed, Grace Winter, whose husband does something ….. we are never sure just exactly what ….. to get her into an already somewhat overcrowded lifeboat as their ship, The Empress of something or another, sank rapidly after a mysterious explosion.

It is 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was just assassinated, so and after having honeymooned in Europe, the young Winters grab a ship home to the USA.  but alas, that explosion puts an end to their lovely cruise.  Was it from a submarine?  The cause was never found, but it was found that the lifeboats were underequipped, and the evacuation process was chaotic, with some boats not full, and other overcrowded.

The boat in which Grace found herself included one seaman from the ship, who took charge.  As they float around, hoping to be rescued,  the 39 passengers began to exhibit their true natures, and our narrator begins to show us that perhaps she is not as reliable a narrator as we might have wished.

We learn of these events as she writes her account of the ordeal while sitting in prison awaiting trial with two other women, for murder of one of the people on the lifeboat.  She writes not only about the lifeboat but about her life leading up to the sailing, and we come to understand that Grace has the soul of a survivor, and nice guys finish last.

Great book, and the twists are sleight and devious, until we come to that point where we are saying to ourselves, “Oh.  Oh. Oh.”,  having been under the spell of the sweet-natured and good-hearted Grace.  We remind ourselves that it is the winners who write the history.

 

THE MADNESS OF GRIEF by Panayotis Cacoyannis

It is 1969, London, and motherless teenager Jane is about to learn even more about the world, and her world, than she may possibly want to.

Cacoyannis’ trademark quirky style is evident once again as it dances around a … oh, what’s that word for not exactly sad? …. oh, yeah, poignant, that’s it …. poignant tale about secrets.  Everybody has them, don’t they.   Even me.  My secret is that I am not really 37.  But back to Jane, and her …  what’s the word for goofball in a good way? … oh, yeah, eccentric, that’s it … eccentric family and friends.  Her father is a magician.  Mr. Magikoo.  He is beloved by his fans, and spends a good deal of time touring the country with his wife and daughter.  Well, hey, it’s 1967, and in 1967 we all still thought the world was a lovely place, we were just coming out of that era of naiveté that spawned Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Benny Hill, Jimmy Durante, Sid Caesar, and the like, so Mr. Magikoo’s popularity is not such a stretch.

Well, the touring goes just fine until Mr. Magikoo kills his wife.  OK, OK, it was an accident, having to do with electricity and lightning, but still.  So he continues touring with his young daughter right up until the time he wanted her to walk between some swinging knives mechanism they dubbed the Sweeney Todd, until his sister put a stop to THAT, you better believe it!

Dad eventually takes up with a classy lady, Mia-Mia, who moves in, mostly, cleans and cooks and takes care of the two of them in their tiny house next to the magic shop, displacing Aunty Ada, who had been doing that for them, and whose nose was now a bit out of joint about it.

Jane has a bff, a young man, Karl, a classical pianist, who has a German mother who is a Reichian therapist, and a father who left them long ago for another woman.

Frau Angela had married a philandering Smith, and then, when it dawned on her what he was up to, divorced him and proudly reverted to Schmidt.  Frau Angela (who was now Dr. Schmidt) had then insisted on a hyphenated surname for their son, and Karl duly became a Schmidt-Smith.

If you have read enough Cacoyannis, you will already suspect that all is not as it seems, and that there are secrets that have other secrets, and that the book is actually an onion.  You know, layers, and layers, and every time you peel off a layer, your eyes tear up.

I am not going to tell you any of the secrets, because that would spoil the whole thing for you.  But remember that it is a book about secrets and identity, and realness and fantasy, grief and recovery, and what masquerades as fantasy often is a disguise for despair.

I admit to a smidge of disappointment with the ending.  I felt it was cliché and ..oh, what’s the word for facile and overdone?…. oh, yeah, trite, that’s it….. trite.  In fact, it could have done just splendidly without the final section altogether.  But what do I know?  I’m just a simple illiterate peasant who likes to read and muse on the human condition.  Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, criticize.  Guess which one I do.

I have to give Mr. Cacoyannis some serious praise for his seemingly innate ability to write a female character.  Not only a female character, but a teenage female character.  Everything about Jane struck just the right note, and I should know, having once myself been a teenage female, about a century ago or so.

So, funny, quirky, sad, surprising, clever and witty.  And the title?

That for everything else I forgave him, because the things that happened after we lost mum didn’t count, they were all part of a madness that couldn’t be helped.  That madness of grief….

 

THE BIG CLOCK by Kenneth Fearing

This 1946 novel is one of those pieces of crime fiction that you can call literature, encompassing as it does something of a meditation on mortality, which the protagonist calls The Big Clock.   It has what I think of as a literary mid-twentieth century feel to it, (think The New Yorker fiction).

In this noir crime novel, we meet George Stroud,  a writer, managing editor for one of the entities of a large New York media conglomerate.  He meets the girlfriend of his boss at a party, and as things happen, they get together.  They go away for a weekend, return to the city in time for dinner and a stop at a bar, and a stroll down a street of antique shops where he buys a small painting from a now obscure painter, one whose work he is collecting.

He drops her off at her apartment building but does not go in.  As he stands there, he sees his boss arrive and go into the building.

The next day, the woman is found murdered, and we know the boss did it, because the perspective of the narration goes from character, and one of them is the boss telling us of his act.

The boss goes from the woman’s apartment to the home of his number one guy, one who is willing to do what needs to be done, and this guy sets up a search for the unknown man who was with her, because he would be the most likely candidate for the killing.  The second in command sets George and his staff, who work for Crimeways, an investigative magazine, to pull out  all the stops and find this unknown man.  George does what he can to slow down this process as he thinks of what he can do to get out of this, because he knows his life isn’t worth diddly as the top brass work to keep the boss’ name clear, to keep the magazines from going under.

Very cleverly plotted, tight and concise.  And I am not telling you anything more.  Read it yourself, because it is short, and you can get it free on Project Gutenberg.

You can get very artsy if you wish about the symbolism in the book, because Fearing was very concerned with the dissolution of American life, with it becoming a mechanized society devoid of belief, faith, and love.  George Stroud represents Everyman, the antihero, the Big Clock represent the inexorable march of time and its tyranny over everything, the media company he worked for represents the soulless money machine, the Pac Man of its day gobbling everything in its wake.  It won’t surprise you to know that Fearing was a very respected poet in his day.

The book has been adapted for the cinema three times. The first and most faithful was the film of the same title,  then came a little-known adaptation  Police Python 357, a 1976 French film starring Yves Montand, Stefania Sandrelli and Simone Signoret , and finally one  loosely adapted into the Kevin Costner spy movie No Way Out.