Sunday, 27 November 2016

Retreating to Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood

This review, that originally appeared in Critics at Large, is reproduced here because as a psychological mystery, it is about a cohort of mid-twenty-year olds who attend a hen party in which a line of darkness is crossed.

Ruth Ware's debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, was published last summer by Simon & Schuster. (Photo: Ollie Grove)

In the week before the recent American election, I was feeling anxious – with good reason, as it turned out. Despite the polls, I felt a need to escape the tumult about the election. The World Series did not particularly interest me so I decided to dip into an absorbing page turner that would distract me. I found that Ruth Ware’s debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood (Simon & Schuster, 2015), satisfied my needs.

The narrator, Leonora Shaw, a reclusive crime writer, receives an email from someone she has not met inviting her to attend a hen weekend (a bachelorette weekend, in North American parlance) to celebrate the upcoming wedding of an old college friend at a house in the Northumberland English countryside. Nora – the various names that she and others affix to her are an important ingredient of the plot – living alone in London and valuing her privacy, has no interest in spending time with people she does not or hardly knows. Nora is uncertain as to why she has been invited since she and the bride-to-be, Clare, once best friends, now estranged, haven’t seen each other since college ten years earlier. Furthermore, she has not been invited to the wedding. She doesn’t even know who Clare is marrying and she does not ask. If Nora had, she would not have attended the party – but then there would have been no novel, or a very different one. (This question is raised at one point in the story.) But maid of honour, Flo, is insistent that Clare wants her there, and maybe it would be pleasurable to reconnect after all these years. Reluctantly, Nora agrees, but as soon as she arrives at this remote, modernist glass house, we know that this is not the kind of getaway that she anticipated. Things go terribly wrong: old tensions arise, tempers fray, painful secrets from the past spill out, an ominous shotgun hangs on the fireplace wall, and an intruder enters followed by a tragedy.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Power of Music and Remembering in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing

This review, originally posted in Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site because of both the horrific transgressions perpetrated by  the Chinese government in the last century and how artists were able to provide moments of humanity through music and storytelling.

Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the Scotiabank Giller Prize on Nov 7. (Photo: Roberto Ricciuti)

 “Music which is so dear to me, and without which, more than likely, I couldn’t live a day.” 
– Dmitri Shostakovich, quoted by Madeline Thien.

Montreal-based writer Madeleine Thien’s new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf Canada, 2016), has garnered a passel of accolades – including winning this year’s Governor General’s award for fiction, the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and being shortlisted for the Man Booker Award. I am pleased to report that the novel’s enthusiastic reception is warranted for several reasons. Thien’s vividly-drawn characters spans three generations against a panoramic backdrop of more than sixty years of tumultuous Chinese history: the civil era of the late 1940s, land reform and the hare-brained scheme of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s that through famine cost the lives of thirty five million,  the fanaticism engendered by the decade-long Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s,  and the hopeful expectations of the 1989 pro-democracy protests followed by the tragic massacres in Tiananmen Square. Thien’s writing of these last two periods is especially gripping. A magisterial novel, Thien’s third and most ambitious in scope, speaks to the enduring influence of music – in this case, Western classical music – when a change in official tastes can render that music and its practitioners dangerously bourgeois. Finally, it is a reminder of storytelling’s power, particularly in a state where the historical narrative has been altered or suppressed to suit the dictates of the regime’s shifting political permutations.

At the novel’s outset, the narrator of the chapters set in the present, Marie or Ma-li, a Canadian-Chinese mathematician, recalls her father’s death by suicide in Hong Kong when she was ten years old following the brutal suppression of the student occupation of Tiananmen Square. Within a short time, Ai-ming, the nineteen-year-old daughter of her father’s teacher before the Cultural Revolution, arrives in Vancouver, forced to flee those same terrible events.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Politics along the Danube: Reflections of a Study Trip River Cruise (Part 2 of 2)

Hungarian Jews waiting in line at the Swiss embassy in Budapest, 1944. (Photo by Agnes Hirschi, Carl Lutz's daughter)

Last August I had the good fortune to be a member of a study trip river cruise along the Danube that sailed from the port town of Vidin (after two days in Sophia, Bulgaria) to Passau in Germany that concluded with a two-day trip to Prague, Czech Republic. It was an exhilarating experience because of the significant ports of call at which we stopped and the stimulating conversations with fellow passengers. But my lasting impressions were more about what was imparted or omitted by the local guest lecturers and tour guides, and their often selective or subjective remarks. This review is also informed by my exchanges with others about those experiences, as well as my supplemental reading. Part 1 of this piece was published two weeks. The second, and concluding, part is below.
– Bob Douglas

Arriving in Budapest and opting for the Jewish sites tour rather than a general city tour turned out to be one of the best experiences of the trip. The guide was excellent, wonderfully integrating historical, personal and the contemporary at both the places we visited and in the talk she gave at the “Glass House.” At one time a glass factory showroom owned by a displaced Jewish manufacturer, it was during the war the location at which the Swiss diplomat, Carl Lutz, sheltered 3,000 Jews by annexing it to the Swiss legation, thereby extending diplomatic immunity to the place. It is now a museum to honour Lutz. 

The guide provided history not merely as interesting or diverting but to explain how the Hungarian kingdom that lived as a relatively peaceful multi-national state for a thousand years was eviscerated by the catastrophic 1920 Treaty of Trianon, a dismemberment that contributed to the tragedy that would befall Hungarian Jews during World War II and continues to reverberate today. Allied to Germany in World War One, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire collapsed after the defeat. Hungary experienced a short-lived but traumatic Communist experiment that was followed by forcing it to accept a treaty that shredded the country, losing two thirds of its territory and one third of its ethnic population. The national shame was accompanied by the perception that its citizens had been stabbed in the back by internal enemies. A scapegoat was found in the Jews, particularly since a number of them had been supporters or part of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The first expression of anti-Semitic legislation occurred in a 1920 law that restricted Jewish university students to six percent of the population. 

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Politics along the Danube: Reflections of a Study Trip River Cruise (Part 1 of 2)

The still-visible damage from the NATO bombing of Belgrade. (Photo: David Orlovic)

Last August I had the good fortune to be a member of a study trip river cruise along the Danube that sailed from the port town of Vidin (after two days in Sophia, Bulgaria) to Passau in Germany that concluded with a two-day trip to Prague, Czech Republic. It was an exhilarating experience because of the significant ports of call at which we stopped and the stimulating conversations with fellow passengers. But my lasting impressions were more about what was imparted or omitted by the local guest lecturers and tour guides, and their often selective or subjective remarks. This review is also informed by my exchanges with others about those experiences, as well as my supplemental reading. Part 1 of this piece appears below. Part 2 will be published here in two weeks.
– Bob Douglas
The first sentence of Alan Furst’s wonderfully crafted novel, Night Soldiers, reads: “In Bulgaria, in 1934 on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death.” Although a powerful sentence, it did not originally leap off the page until I reread large sections of the novel when I returned home from the Danube cruise. Nor did I initially give Furst’s map of the Danube from 1934-1945, that graces the beginning of the book, more than a cursory glance until recently. Only the first thirty-five pages and the last section of Night Soldiers are about his activities along the Danube, but those pages more deeply resonate. They also provide striking insights that I thought were sometimes missing when I listened to the Bulgarian lecturer and guide.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Mind Control in Stephen King’s End of Watch

This review that originally appeared on the online site, Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site because King's novel explores the transgression of boundaries - criminal and genre - that I investigated in both That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great (Encompass Editions, 2012) and The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013)

Author Stephen King. (Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)

When I began reading the first installment of Stephen King’s hard-boiled crime trilogy – the critically acclaimed and Edgar Award-winning Mr. Mercedes (2014) followed the next year with Finders Keepers and concluding with End of Watch (Scribner, 2016) – I wondered how long King would confine himself to the genre’s conventions. He did pretty well for over two and a half volumes then he veered into his comfort zone, the realm of horror that draws upon tropes of the Gothic. As a crime novel, End of Watch generally works because King finds a way to retreat and provide the police with a reasonable explanation for the resolution though we, the readers, know that the conventions of a police procedural cannot explain what has occurred.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

A Financial Dystopia: The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because the novel explores to what extent a family will go to preserve their dignity, self respect and their lives when confronted with catastrophic financial ruin.

Novelist Lionel Shriver. (Photo: Andrew Crowley)

“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all...” 
– Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles
Lionel Shriver has churned out a number of novels that explore the zeitgeist by offering sharp satires. Inspired by the example of her older brother, she wrote about obesity in Big Brother (HarperCollins, 2013) and of the fear of falling sick in America before the Affordable Care Act came into effect in So Much for That (HarperCollins, 2010). She may be most known for her response to the Columbine high school shootings in We Need to Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail, 2003), which explores the psychology of the mother of the perpetrator, an international best seller that was adapted as a film. Her most recent entry, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (HarperCollins, 2016) taps into economic insecurities and to the precariousness of the global markets likely inspired by the 2008 near-financial disaster. In a February piece in the New York Times, Shriver described herself as a libertarian, socially progressive and economically conservative. Her targets are big governments that infringe upon individual liberties through a punitive tax code, the welfare state and government surveillance – and yet she would be on the left end of the Democratic Party on every conceivable social issue. Her conservatism is much more on display in The Mandibles.

In her novel, Shriver imagines a near-dystopian future, some of it not that far removed from current reality. The European Union has dissolved. Putin has been made President for life. Books have become obsolete, newspapers have folded and Internet commerce no longer exists. The American dollar is in free fall, competing with a Russian-backed international currency, the bancor. American citizens are forbidden to take more than $100 out of the U.S. Entitlements have driven the debt to unsustainable levels because the government and the Federal Reserve Bank have been buying prosperity with borrowed and invented money. In a disastrous decision, the United States defaults on its loans, including the T-bills held by American citizens, causing the dollar to crash. The newly-elected Latino President becomes increasingly dictatorial. The government confiscates all the gold in the country, including wedding rings. Foreigners buy up real estate and businesses. There is unsustainable hyperinflation as prices can rise steeply in a single day. Water, fuel and food shortages threaten everyone, and people rob their neighbours to stay alive. Widespread unemployment exists, which is caused, in part, by the ability of robots to do what used to be human work. America is relegated from superpower to pariah state, a condition which Shriver offers a comedic ironical touch: a thriving Mexico builds a border wall to keep out desperate illegal Americans seeking refugee status.

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Obsessions of George W. Bush: Jean Edward Smith’s Bush

This review that originally appeared on September 4th in Critics at Large is reproduced on this website because That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) contains several chapters on the Iraq war that Bush initiated.
( r. Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, President George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld)

“I am the commander. I don’t need to explain. That’s the interesting thing about being president. I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

- George W. Bush

In the first full-fledged biography of the forty-third President, Bush (Simon & Schuster, 2016), the first sentence of the preface, reads: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” The reader may well ask who is the author and is he credible. Jean Edward Smith is not a left-wing critic of Bush but a respected scholar who has written several well-received biographies of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, General Lucius Clay (the military governor of occupied Germany after World War II and hero of the Berlin airlift), and John Marshall, the distinguished Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the early nineteenth century, an oeuvre that inspired the conservative pundit, George F. Will, to describe Smith as “America’s greatest living biographer.”

Given these distinguished credentials, I was intrigued to read Smith’s hefty volume at eight hundred pages. Besides, I had spent months years ago reading and writing about Bush’s responses to 9/11, his invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq and I did wonder whether I got it right. Based on Smith’s exhaustively researched and fluidly written biography, I did feel affirmed. If anything Smith’s judgments on “Asleep at the Switch” – the chapter title for Bush’s lack of attention to security before September 11 – his overreaction to that tragic day by his decisions to invade two countries, the erosion of civil liberties and “The Torture Trail” – another snappy chapter heading for which Smith excels – constitute a more devastating critique of Bush’s years, especially with regard to foreign affairs. Yet there are surprises as Smith credits Bush with a number of achievements. By mining the important secondary sources, the memoirs of the historical actors, numerous periodicals, government records, and speeches, and – apart from Bush himself – several interviews with key participants, Smith has skillfully synthesized them into a three-dimensional portrait of Bush.