Pawns of the colonel

Riddle me this: how do you find a dozen eggs during a siege that has left people to shoot horses for their meat and boil the glue in book bindings for its protein?

City of Thieves

City of Thieves · David Benioff
Penguin, 2009 · 258 pages, paperback

Lev, the looter, and Kolya, the deserter who isn’t really a deserter (he left his unit because his “balls were ringing like a couple of church bells”), are two young men caught up in the summary justice of Leningrad under siege. Looting and desertion demand execution. But a powerful colonel has a daughter who’s to be married. The colonel’s decree? Let there be cake – and cake demands eggs.

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Fools rush in: E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread

The legno trundles through the turns in a wood that leads, ascending, to the small, picaresque, dirty Italian town of Monteriano and, within its walls, to Lilia and to Gino, devil’s temptation.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

– Dante Alighieri, Inferno, canto I, 1-3

These first lines of Dante’s Inferno needle their way into Philip Herriton’s head as he leaves behind the straight-laced ways of his Sawston home and comes out on the side of a village whose character is one that throbs with impulsivity and slumbers in its laziness.

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A cupola full of guns, it runneth over

The bullet drives smoothly into the swelling womb of a pregnant housewife eight blocks over, and Rudy Waltz, in this Mother’s Day double murder, finds himself Deadeye Dick for eternity.

Deadeye Dick 2Deadeye Dick · Kurt Vonnegut · 1982
Dial Press, 2010 · 271 pages, paperback

He didn’t mean to hit anyone; if he aimed at nothing, nothing is what he’d hit. What a sharpshooter! Twelve years old and Rudy Waltz has a lifetime of guilt ahead of him.
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You’re forgetting your Italy, Dear

A Room with a View

A Room with a View · E.M. Forster · 1908
Everyman’s Library, 2011 · 217 pages, hardcover

Oh, Italy! The tourists in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View are stumbling over each other in their haste to appreciate Giotto’s frescoes, but they can’t appreciate them until they’ve learned which are his (and so which among all of the frescoes are allowed to be appreciated). They affect intelligence. There’s nothing new in a view so stifled.

And there’s nothing emphatic in erudition, not when it’s had for making a point. Continue reading

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White hinges on identity; on forgery; on rank suspicion, on suspicion that gets the better of us and makes us rash instead of rational.

The Woman in White

The Woman in White · Wilkie Collins · 1860
Penguin, 2009 · 672 pages, hardcover

The Woman in White is both a sensationalist thriller and a social commentary. Collins takes his shots at the marriage laws and rules of inheritance of 1850s England, but he provides a creeping horror alongside it, the same kind of horror where you realize how very trapped you are and how powerless you are to get out. A close marriage, the words invalid and invalidate; the creeping horror doesn’t confine itself to money, nor even to love, but asserts itself as an erasure of recognition.

And this erasure necessitates a different kind of forgery – that of reclamation and the forging of a new life.

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Violence begets violence: Tóibín’s House of Names

Food merely whets our appetite, sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction.

House of Names

House of Names · Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 2017 · 275 pages, hardcover

The curse placed upon the House of Atreus…Colm Tóibín’s most recent novel, House of Names, is a retelling of an ancient story, of Clytemnestra’s story. It tells of her husband’s, King Agamemnon’s, sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia. It tells of their son Orestes’ escape and their daughter Electra’s imprisonment. It tells of Clytemnestra’s affair with the prisoner-come-king Aegisthus and the manipulation they wrought in the name of love and power.

Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes – Tóibín tells the story through their eyes. His finesse lies in his control of language and perspective, which shift with each narrative. His words are of the simplest nature, but he pulls the strings of linguistics to make the words bleed from his pages. Continue reading

Political theater, poetic farce

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow begins as a novel that had a good shot at feeding the intellect but instead contorted itself into a soap opera complete with convenient fixes for its weaknesses.Snow - Kar

Snow · Orhan Pamuk · 2002
Maureen Freely translation · Vintage, 2005 · 463 pages, paperback

A political coup that manipulates the theater to confuse and gain power? A string of suicides inspired by Turkey’s uncertain position on the East-West divide? An exiled poet who just might find enlightenment in the forsaken streets of his home town? Pamuk’s writing in Snow (originally published in Turkey as Kar) is too placid for the story he wanted to tell. We read the few moments of heightened drama in this novel in a detached way, as if we’re too tired to keep our eyes open and our brains can’t hold onto the words we’re reading: we just don’t care.  Continue reading

The Fellowship of the Ring

Doom-boom. Doom-boom. Doom, doom, doom. Doom-boom. It’s a quieter kind of evil, but it’s an evil that reaches throughout all Middle-earth. Tolkien proves in the first part to his Lord of the Rings trilogy (actually six books in three parts) that subtlety makes for powerful magic.

Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring · J.R.R. Tolkien · 1954
Mariner, 2012 · 398 pages, paperback

Frodo inherits more than a hobbit hole and an adventuring spirit from Bilbo Baggins when he moves into Bag End. The Ring he’s left holding is cursed with dark magic, and he’s set on the quest to destroy it – far South and East into Mordor, into the heart of Sauron’s territory.

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Patricide and prejudice in Twelve Angry Men

“We don’t owe him a thing. He got a fair trial, didn’t he? What d’you think the trial cost? He’s lucky he got it. Know what I mean?”

Twelve Angry Men

Twelve Angry Men · Reginald Rose · 1954
Penguin, 2006 · 73 pages, paperback

Reginald Rose’s teleplay Twelve Angry Men opens onto an empty jury room, drab and bare of what isn’t necessary. “One man is dead. The life of another is at stake. I urge you to deliberate honestly and thoughtfully” – the judge, reminding the jury (and the audience) that New York required the death penalty for any convicted murderer.

Which is why the behavior of the men who then file into the jury room is so revolting.

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Nikolai Leskov and the brotherly charm of skaz

Dozens of travelers in various states of tiredness, en route to destinations far-flung and close by, take refuge at an inn while the whirling snow buffets the window panes and threatens to become a blizzard. Sleepy chatter among the travelers lazily rises against the warmth of a large Russian stove until one man’s comment stops them all.

The Enchanted Wanderer
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories · 
Nikolai Leskov · 1865-‘87
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Knopf, 2013 · 575 pages, hardcover

The story Leskov’s narrator tells, that of “The Sealed Angel,” taking place on the cold banks of a river and requiring the theft of religion (in more ways than one), is so far removed from the inn of these travelers that it’s a secret pleasure when someone interrupts the narrator, bringing us once more into the warmth of the inn.

The stories in this new collection of Nikolai Leskov’s work, selected and translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, vary in scope, tone and depth, but each of them comes wrapped up in this same brotherly feeling.

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