The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra

We Americans tend to see the war in Afghanistan through the lens of our own involvement – how many U.S. troops lost, how many U. S. billions spent, how much progress toward making that nation over in our own image. This brief and poetic novel, the author’s fifth to be published in the English language, sets the history in a different light, showing on the one hand that the disorder in Afghanistan verifiably predates US involvement (original copyright is 2002, and the action is clearly pre 9-11) and on the other that the damage and suffering of the Afghan people goes far deeper and wider than anything we have paid for our involvement (speaking of course of the USA as a whole; not those particular few individuals who have given so much, and sometimes all).

This is a tight narrative, the comings and goings of two married couples in a few narrow streets and run-down buildings of Kabul over the course of a few days, maybe a week. In that time though, lives are ruined and lost, hopes dashed, resurrected and swamped by the reality of a nation that has been at war for decades and is now at the mercy of fanaticism and men’s worst impulses claiming to serve their best. As with much middle-eastern fiction I’ve read, the language can be rather florid and some of the characters’ internal reflections feel over-dramatized, more performances of the author than real human thought. At other times though, Khadra’s characters speak honestly of emotions real people strain to conceal, if they even admit to themselves. (A prime example is one man’s participation in the public execution-by-stoning of a prostitute – which even he cannot explain or defend.) The portrait of how one lives when nearly everything has been taken away or coopted for the oppressors’ purposes is eye-opening. Reading it during the Covid 19 shutdown is yet another reminder that I’ve still got it very, very easy, even in what we think of as a period of distress.

Building slowly, the story reaches its climax in the thoughts and action not of the husbands – as one might expect for a tale set under the patriarchy of Islamic culture and Sharia law – but of their wives. Zunaira, the educated and worldly beauty whose life has devolved into an exile inside her own shabby home, gives way to a moment’s impulse, with tragic consequences. Then, Musarrat, the miserable and terminally-ill wife of a part-time jailer and Taliban collaborator has a contrasting moment of transcendent insight, compassion and love; forces which are so out of place in this environment they strain credulity. Regardless, her vision propels the climactic act of selflessness which is, unfortunately, doomed by circumstance and habituation, as is all hope in the universe of this novel.

That the story itself can be conceived, written and published is the only thread of optimism one brings away from the reading but then, sometimes it only takes a single thread to unravel an entire knitting.

(Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a male former-Algerian army officer, who the liner notes say adopted that name to avoid government scrutiny of his writings.  If is unclear just how much the choice of the feminine reflects his convictions, but this novel sincerely presents women’s lives with much more importance and sympathy than conservative Islamic culture grants them.)

 

A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier

As a ‘surplus’ woman in an England still reeling fourteen years after the 1918 end of The Great War in which two-million young men of her generation were wiped away, Violet Speedwell struggles to find any trace of meaning or purpose in her life. Brother, fiancé and father all dead, mother an intolerably-abusive emotional wreck and her opportunities deeply constrained by gender, custom and the dearth of even marginally-desirable suitors, her only sense of achievement comes from having moved-out to a boarding house room in the next city and managing to live on her own, though that living is marginal at best. Desperate nostalgia for the warmth of child-time church visits (one possible interpretation of the novel’s title) leads her to discover ‘the Broderers,’ a group of women engaged in embroidering new soft goods for Winchester Cathedral. It is that encounter which allows her to forge some tenuous personal connections and so drives this totally-engaging and moving tale.

This is necessarily a narrow tale, as Violet’s life is limited by circumstance and prejudices, yet the author uncovers sensuality in a hungry woman’s reactions to food and drink, entrepreneurialism in others’ efforts to survive when their jobs are lost to bigotry, and even a range of sexuality. The illicit love of two women is treated with empathy and honor, making clear that it is love for its own sake (‘their own sakes’?) not just a make-do for the lack of eligible men, as some of their compatriots rationalize it. Violet’s own romance, a sparse affair with a married man devoted to caring for a wife tormented by the wartime death of their only son, is doomed in most senses, yet still nurtures them both in important respects, even before it produces the slender thread of permanent connection that restores meaning to each of them and to the novel’s title.

Along the way we learn about embroidery bell-ringing and church customs, and are reminded of how material our modern lives have become as we see Violet live with barely more than a suitcase-full of possessions. We also discover real artistic ambition and achievement in women (the actual historical figure of  Miss Louisa Pesel, in particular) whom we might otherwise dismiss as slaves to convention, decoration and rote following of recipe.

More than any of Chevalier’s earlier novels, this one opened my eyes to what she is really doing, correcting the lack of female figures in familiar moments of cultural history by novelizing them through a female point of view. From the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn, to the paintings of Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the writings of Wm. Blake in Burning Bright and the discoveries of Darwin and early fossil hunters in Remarkable Creatures, Chevalier illustrates that women were present and integral to the work for which men have been so lauded. Not only that, but those women’s contributions were made under duress and restrictions far greater than the men ever faced.

Each volume entertains and enlightens at the same time they serve, both singly and as a body, that very worthwhile social purpose. Brava, Ms. Chevalier, brava.

Boudica, Vanessa Collingridge

Subtitled ‘The Life and Times of Britain’s Legendary Warrior Queen,’ this hefty volume turns its narrative outward from the individual to her context, becoming in effect a survey of the entire history of Britain as a nation and a people, lensed around the largely-mythical warrior queen. While at times that feels digressive or indulgent, in the end it provided this Yankee with plenty of useful insight into how a group of disparate warring tribes evolved into a world power and an important culture.

Collingridge writes somewhat as one would expect of a television presenter, lots of grand characterizations mixed with occasional insertions of her first person (‘I was nearing the end of my search for the legend’ sort of stuff) but has clearly done a great deal of research, with frequent source citations and an impressive bibliography. The sense is of an author eager to demonstrate she has qualifications above and beyond her popular success and it mostly works, despite some unfortunate lapses in editing and copy-proofing.

The first 150 pages or so hardly deals with the title character, but gives instead an overview of Rome’s imperial grasping toward, and eventual invasions of, the British Isles. The depth of that background at first seems odd, but then makes sense as it places the eventual tribal rebellion in a proper context. More than that, it makes abundantly clear that there was no ‘Britain’ or ‘England’ until the Romans conceptualized it as a way to refer to the region they claimed to have conquered. Once Boudica (or Boudicca, or Bodicea; the variations due to different hearings, translations and monkish typographical errors) herself comes on the stage, we realize that almost nothing is factually known about her; whatever spelling one uses, she is largely the fabrication of other authors down the ages, starting with the writings of her Roman opponents, Caesar (the single contemporary), Tacitus (writing decades after) and Dio (another hundred years removed). Their meager and un-confirmable portraits, which Collingridge points out are most-certainly biased by their politics, have then been repeated, massaged and embellished over the ages. Several middle chapters then recount the rebellious Queen’s battles and eventual demise, a tale which is surprisingly brief, even fluffed out with plenty of speculative recreation and embellishment. The third and concluding part of the volume is again more substantial, as it depicts the morphing of Boudica’s story and image to serve the changing needs of the British people and politics at various stages of their history through nearly two thousand years to the present (Boudica and Princess Diana making a particularly interesting pairing).

Along the way one learns that Druids are not originally Welsh or even British, but of continental origin, as is the term Celtic and even the La Tene art style which we today refer to as ‘Celtic design.’ Nor are present day Druids in any real way connected to the historic ones – so little is known about what the original Druids actually believed or did, that any modern versions are really just fabrications by poets and others from the Romantic period onward. How New Age-y! On the related subject of archaeology, Collingridge voices appreciation for the findings of ‘metal detectorists’ who scour the countryside in search of finds. In the end though, the reader’s dawning realization that not one of the objects found to date can actually be tied to Boudica herself only emphasizes that all talk about her is speculation, at best, or fiction, at worst.

A rewarding read (with some judicious skimming now and then, when the pedantry gets excessive), Boudica ultimately affords enough detail and insights to be well worth the journey.

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

Gaiman certainly has a knack for taking fantasy in titillating new directions. Mixing legend with pop culture, bridging generations and phases of life, his is an impressive improvisational-seeming voice; loose and loud and reasonably sound in its coherence and payoff.

Richard Mayhew, protagonist this time around, is a decent mensch, a modern everyman who seems just as lost in his own world as he will become lost in the underworld he discovers as a result of one decent – and so, uncharacteristic – act. Such a mensch, in fact, that his survival and eventual semi-triumph are a bit implausible, though satisfying nonetheless. The characters who surround him are pleasingly off –beat and appealing and their adventures offer enough cliff-hanging to keep one deeply involved.

Underneath it all, there glimmer a few bits of insight into human frailty, relationships and the failings of society. Just enough to ground this fantasy in reality and assuage the guilt of reading such fluff.

Yes, a pleasure all the way. Well done, Mr. Gaiman, well done.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson

‘For people in a hurry,’ in the sense that it this is a tiny volume, pocket sized with barely 200 pages and not small type; and also in the sense that a universe of complex ideas are treated briefly and with concision. Perfect for those who want a general sense of what terms like multi-verse, dark energy and Boolean Algebra mean, without the years of schooling and boggled-brains it would take to really ‘know’ this stuff.

For those folks (of which I count myself one), Tyson does a great job, leading us in somewhat random-feeling steps from the relatively-intuitive astronomic understandings that give us a map of the nearby (solar system, asteroids) to the tougher concepts that make up our current best understanding what the entire universe consists of, how it was formed and how it behaves, at levels from the molecular to the quantum. Along the way he delivers plenty of staggering numbers such as:

the portion of all matter/energy which is visible vs that which is totally invisible except through its effects – that being ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ accounting, for if memory serves, some two thirds of all there is!

The number of molecules in a single cup of water – which is greater than the total number of cups of water in all the oceans of earth!

The number of bacteria in one inch of a human colon – which is greater than the number of all the humans who have lived through all time!

And many, many, more

Of particular appeal are passages recounting a few great miss-understandings which even great minds have labored under, and how those very mistakes eventually led them and others to new discoveries, an essential part of the scientific method which is sometimes lost in the shouting matches of reactionary culture wars.

 

Once all that knowledge has been disseminated, a final summation touts the intellectual and moral benefits of these concepts being understood widely, partly to cultivate the skills of thought that will lead to success in other pursuits, but more importantly  to instill the awe, wonder and humility that enable us to better appreciate and manage our environment and culture. Some of that falls flat, as when he suggests the absence of atmosphere in space means we should not engage in ‘flag-waving’ about space exploration – a very tenuous stretch of analogy. For the most part though, Tyson is an inspiring democratizer.

All in all, a worthy volume to read, and perhaps a good tool to raise the level of conversation at cocktail parties and Covid-lock-down video calls. Thanks NdGT!

(which now that I’ve typed it out, looks like an algebraic designation of some great import…if I assign the value of G as 27 to tenth power, and T as the length of time since the big bang, and d as the cosmic constant, can I solve for the value of N?  Hope your not holding your breath!)

Owsley and Me, Rhoney Gissen Stanley with Tom Davis

Propelled by the excitement of the times and place – mid to late 1960’s San Francisco, this memoir of life in the Grateful dead family is a quick and fascinating read. Like more than a few other members of that scene, Rhoney Gissen came from wealth and dysfunction, and found in the hippie movement a refuge from the former, but not necessarily the latter. Her relationship with August Owsley Stanley III, better known as ‘The Bear,’ and later just Owsley Stanley, was very different from that with her parents, but no more healthy. It is a credit to Rhoney’s character that she not only survived, but overcame that treatment, to raise an apparently healthy and productive son (with the charmingly period-appropriate name of Starfinder Stanley.

Besides affording an entertaining travelogue, and a devastating portrait of the rampant misogyny of the movement (including the Dead, contrary to their counter-cultural reputation), this is Owsley’s story; the self-driven and self-centered genius who simultaneously revolutionized the recreational drug industry and the state of sound-system art while rubbing elbows and other body parts with a who’s who of psychedelic rock celebrities. Hendrix, Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, Elvin Bishop, the Stones and the Beatles all make appearances, as do Bill Graham, Melvin Belli and many more. Seeing them from inside the movement puts lots of new spin on peace, love and freedom (which seems a better way to complete the trio than ‘happiness,’ given the bad trips, legal troubles, poverty and heartbreak we see).  The detailed accounts of Stanley’s LSD manufacturing are perhaps the most eye-opening part of the book; to paraphrase our current mad-scientist genius, “who would have guessed it was that complicated?”

Fluidly written by Davis, a comedian best known for being half of Franken and Davis (along with fellow SNL writer – later turned politician – Al Franken), the adventure is mostly cheerful and melodic, even when not harmonious. Owsley’s drug business appears to have thrown off enough cash to keep him and his followers in crash pads and the rest of their practicalities were handled with the frugality of artists, trusting to fortune. Brushes with the law are treated as inconveniences, until Stanley serves several years and abruptly shows how much aging he has accumulated. His last years feel bittersweet, as they must have been after such a brightly blazing youth.

A useful antidote to blissful images of the Summer of Love et al, but not one that justifies totally discounting them, just adds another unique perspective.

A Dead Man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess

The author best known for the dystopian future of A Clockwork Orange here delves into the life and death of sixteenth century British playwright Kit (or Christopher) Marlowe (or Morely, or Marley as the fluidity of the English language in those times would have it) and exposes a tale of spying, lying, more lying – this time in one another’s beds – and poetry. It’s a very impressive evocation of time and place as well as language, but even more striking is the mindset of his main characters, where religion and poetry are intricately bound to politics and money, life is cheap and brutality common, yet the bedrock of human nature is not at all different from what we know and struggle with today.

A challenging read, but one which rewards and also yields a new respect for the men (women figure very little in Burgess’ vision) of Shakespeare’s (or Shakespur’s, or Cheeckpurse’s) time.

Yields great respect also for Burgess the writer, as opposed to the pop culture figure he has become thanks to the notorious film version of his most widely-known novel.

P.S. – A Wikipedia query reveals that Burgess was quite the intellectual, a prolific writer of both fiction and non-, and an even more prolific composer. His earlier novel about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun, focuses on the man’s love life and is now high on my want-to-read list.

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

If Charles Dickens had been alive in 2002 – and if Charles Dickens were a woman who loves women, or at least an author who wished to appeal to such – this is the book that Charles Dickens might have written. Sarah Waters gives us the dark alleys and stinking gutters, the unrepentant thieves struggling to make a living off of others’ innocence, the crumbling leaky mansion inhabited by an anti-social misanthrope (this one happens to be a scholar of the era’s pornography, soft-core though it would be to us today) and a cast that would warm the heart of any theatrical agent nursing a deep roster of character actors.

The plot too, is Dickensian in its intricacy, incorporating old family lore, false identities, willful deception and several rapid transitions between the world of wealth and that of poverty – not to mention servitude, orphaning, incarceration and consignment to a madhouse. For the most part it all flows and compels, though there are places that would have benefitted from less conversation and more activity. Given that Waters has had significant success, I’d guess her fans will be more comfortable with the blend than I.   They may also forgive several infuriating passages where characters prolong the drama by refusing to speak the obvious, leading this reader to feel manipulated and the tale prolonged beyond its natural scale.

At the heart of the story is the relationship of Susan and Maud, intricately-tied despite being separated until their teens and unaware until the novel’s very end of what those ties really are. Their interaction is told in alternating first person sections and it is to Waters’ credit that there is never any question which of the two we are inhabiting. As to which of these women is laudable and which detestable, that is always in question, again to the author’s credit. Neither is a saint, yet both have been placed by others into situations that make their conduct, if not excusable, at least defensible in a novelistic context. Their love story is handled very carefully it seems, as if aiming for just enough clarity to satisfy readers who seek that aspect, but obliquely enough not to deter those who are indifferent to it. For anyone who brings along an attitude antagonistic to the image of two women in love with one another, the lack of a single admirable male character in this tale will perhaps suggest a reason to consider it more generously.

Getting back to the women, Mrs. Sucksby, the mother and mother-figure who is in one sense the instigator of all the angst, is in another sense as much a victim. Her final act of love and protectiveness seems modelled on that of Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps another nod to the man who wrote that novel, as he might have this.

Thoughtful, empathetic; a rewarding and pleasurable read, though it would have been more so with a few tucks and darts in the right places.

(Fingersmith was adapted into a two part BBC movie, 2005)

Fran Kiss Stein – a Love Story, Jeanette Winterson

Winterson, whom I’ve encountered previously as a writer of contemporary fiction and memoir, here delves into history, of both the usual sort – events of the past – and the less usual – events yet to come. Her anchor is the artistic journey and personal tragedy of Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a social-activist author clearly ahead of her time. And of her daughter’s time as well, since the mother died in childbirth. That early loss shapes the younger woman’s mind and thoughts as she wanders in exile with the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (her husband) and his friend Lord Byron, and their entourage. The portions of the book narrated in Mary’s dreamlike musings are compelling and exciting, in some ways the most so of the novel.

That worthy story is interwoven with those of a transman doctor named Ry and Victor Stein, a scientist living in Manchester (where Winterson actually teaches…) as he attempts an advance in electronic intelligence which is every bit as audacious as the one in Shelley’s landmark novel, Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus.   This portion of the novel reads more like a sci-fi thriller, Blade Runner for the TED Talk crowd. Oh, and just for good measure, those ample threads are braided with that of a mysterious refugee who claims to be the doctor of Shelley’s novel – on the run to escape his own creation before being imprisoned as a madman – but seems in the end to be actually a figment of someone’s – or perhaps even everyone’s – imagination. Yes, this plot seems to require a lot of hyphenation, and I haven’t even mentioned the story line involving intelligent sex-bots and a lovely Mormon!

That somewhat confounding recipe, though, cooks up a hearty stock, which Winterson then seasons with flavors of gender and culture, of mysticism, humanism and dogmatism, of art, science, culture and anthropology, urbanism and – well, the list seems endless, as the fictional ingredients are embellished by the wider reputation and known-history of the actual characters she has re-imagined. Even as one reads, there comes the thought that this book will demand a second reading, just as any decent painting merits more than a single viewing. There is more here than first meets the eye, which has always been part of the fun with Winterson.

One of the most affecting passages comes near the end, as Mary considers the plight of Byron’s daughter, the mathematical prodigy, Ada Lovelace:

“And I recalled our locked-in days on Lake Geneva, impounded by rain, and Byron and Polidori explaining to me why the male principle is more active than the female principle.

Neither man seemed to consider that being refused an education, being legally the property of a male relative, whether father, husband or brother, having no rights to vote, and no money of her own once married, and being barred from every profession except governess or nurse, and refused every employment except mother wife or skivvy, and wearing a costume that makes walking or riding impossible, might limit the active principle of a female.”

For this reader, that passage embodies Winterson’s signature; a blend of anger, insight and empathy that shines light where light is needed.

(And yes, one assumes Winterson must appreciate the irony that Byron’s somewhat notorious daughter should share a surname with Linda Lovelace, a twentieth-century porn star of broad notoriety. One wonders in fact, if a young Linda Boreman was aware of Ada’s history of escapades and it was that which led her to adopt the surname for her artistic persona. Oh yes, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if Tracy Chevalier or Emma Donaghue were to write an account of the life of Ada Lovelace, who certainly deserves one? “Doctor Livingstone, I’m thinking this river extends farther to the interior than first it seemed…”).

Always worthwhile, Winterson has once again rewarded her readers quite amply.

The Relic Master, Christopher Buckely

Intended as a comic romp through the Europe of 1517, much of this novel feels rickety and theatrical, the characters and dialogue anachronistic enough to break the spell of the detailed settings and historical context Buckley has marshalled on their account. As much as those sorts of clashes have worked in films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or on paper in Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, here they fall flat. One liner note specifically references The Princess Bride, and it may well be that high bar for which the author has aimed and missed; not by a mile, but not by a hair, either.

What has been hit though, is the religious and monarchical context; corrupt institutions manipulating all beneath them to fill their coffers through taxes, conquest and the sale of indulgences, while nobles and clerics fill their palaces with costly religious relics whose absurdity appears to drive the author’s passion as much as anything else we read.   Protagonist Dismas – the Relic master of the title – is an intriguing construct, and a worthy reminder that the single-minded mercantile instincts which guide some of today’s less-enlightened entrepreneurs have existed far longer than our current business models and market segments. That Martin Luther would rebel against such tyranny and hypocrisy is entirely understandable and justified, though his unlikely protection by one of the oppressors comes across as a lucky accident of personalities – or the hand of Providence, perhaps?

For a novel clearly intended to entertain, there are moments of fun, from the bumbling of oafish mercenaries to the triumph of its rag-tag protagonists. Neither Dismas, though, nor Albrecht Durer (the historically-real artist who ends up helping in his scheme), nor even the lovely Magda, an escaped prostitute with a heart of gold (of course) are filled-out any more than we’d expect in an Ocean’s Eleven prequel. Which, come to think of it, is actually not a bad way to describe this piece, but with Medieval technology in place of the modern.

Erudite and critical enough to give the Roman Catholic Church some heartburn when Buckley makes the case for Luther’s protests and the power of the written word, this may perhaps find purpose as a vehicle to educate teen–aged boys about the roots of the Reformation.

Love to see how that goes over with the Harper Valley PTA!