After the apocalypse: a review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

Cormac McCarthy is well-known in literary circles. He has garnered numerous prestigious prizes and nominations, and several of his novels have been turned into movies, including the one under review. He is best known for the Border Trilogy of books, where his spare, forceful prose highlights the unforgiving landscape of the Mexican-American desert southwest.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

In The Road, McCarthy takes his trademark style to a new landscape. While the setting is still in America, the time is a near-future, post-apocalyptic world. While McCarthy is never specific about what caused the cataclysm, the destruction is near complete. Trees are dead where they stand; there are no animals other than humans; a rain of fine ash falls constantly, interrupted only by strong storms that blow through on a regular basis.

In this nightmare landscape, a man and his son walk along the road, searching for food and ultimately for a place where they can begin rebuilding their lives. They push a shopping cart full of their supplies down the deserted roads and nightly seek refuge and safety by hiding in the surrounding countryside.

They have to leave the road regularly because other travelers are dangerous. Many surviving humans have turned into marauding bands of cannibals, and even a lone individual would steal from them if given a chance. They survive by eating canned foods they find in abandoned, ransacked houses, and they walk on, hoping against hope, to find a better life.

As they walk, the two witness some horrible scenes and try to talk about them and make meaning out of them. Though the conversations are often brief and monosyllabic, they point to ethical and moral dilemmas that the two face in the new, destroyed world.

McCarthy’s prose in The Road is as powerful and lean as ever. He has found in the well-worn fields of science fiction a setting where his style and his vision of hope amid violence can flourish.


Book review: ‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’ by Walter Mosley

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be inside the mind of an elderly person with dementia? In The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, Walter Mosley gives us a glimpse of the horrors of cognitive loss. The opening pages of Mosley’s new novel are sure to go down as one of the best representations of dementia in fiction. Ptolemy Grey is an elderly man in Los Angeles who has to rely on his relatives to help him get food, go to the bank, and avoid being mugged. His apartment is a cacophony of 24-hour news coverage and classical music radio, and most of his apartment is inaccessible due to accumulated garbage, rats and bugs. Ptolemy’s external life mirrors his internal confusion, and one can’t help but look at him with anything other than pity—a fact echoed by his relatives who refer to him as “Pity Papa.”

Life begins to change for Ptolemy when his nephew, Reggie, fails to come for him one day. Instead, another nephew, Hilly, comes for him. Ptolemy is reluctant to follow him, but finally trusts him. Hilly steals from him, which Ptolemy is aware enough to recognize. The next time Hilly comes, Ptolemy accuses him, but he allows him to take him over to his niece’s house. It turns out that Ptolemy has been brought to her house for Reggie’s funeral. Ptolemy’s static life seems to be in disarray, but it is through this confusion Robyn enters his life and begins to clean it up. Robyn is a distant relative and teenager, but she immediately begins to take care of Ptolemy, starting by cleaning up his apartment. Ptolemy immediately begins to rely on her, and they develop a love that Ptolemy notes would have been perfect if he were 50 years younger and Robyn were 20 years older.

Robyn eventually gets Ptolemy to see a doctor. The doctor offers him an experimental and illegal treatment if Ptolemy will donate his body when he dies. Ptolemy sees this as a deal with the devil, but he takes the chance at clarity in order to set his life in order and to take care of Robyn and the children that Reggie’s death left behind. How Ptolemy does this is the mystery of the story, so I won’t give it away here. Suffice it to say that Ptolemy’s long history and memories of a childhood mentor named Coydog bring about a satisfactory ending to the novel.

Mosley’s writing in this novel is crisp and full of dialog, both internal and external. As I noted earlier, his strongest writing is at the beginning of the book, and I can’t help but feel that the book suffers a bit when Ptolemy gets clarity in his mind back. Nevertheless, the portraits Mosley draws of the other characters and the relationships he chart make this a very good novel.

Book Review of “The Storyteller of Marrakesh” by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

In The Storyteller of Marrakesh, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya presents us with a multi-layered novel that juxtaposes the artistry of narration with a collision of cultures in the Jemaa (central square) of Marrakesh. The novel portrays Hassan, the titular storyteller, as he tells a story about a western couple who disappears one night in the Jemaa. In the great tradition of The Arabian Nights, the plot progresses by deferral. To tell his story, Hassan must tell about his childhood, for which he is the only source of information. As he turns to the foreigners, though, he defers to others who encountered the couple so that they can provide their insights into the mystery of what happened to them on that night.

This foreign couple, and especially the woman, Lucia, captivate everyone they encounter. Lucia’s beauty is repeatedly extolled, and it is the one detail on which everyone agrees. Various voices attempt to describe her–a fortune teller, a blind man, an angry cleric and many others–but no one voice claims to capture her completely. If anything, her beauty captures everyone else, and none more completely than Mustafa, the brother of Hassan. Mustafa falls so completely for this woman that he is willing to make a great sacrifice for her. His attachment to the story is what makes the story so important for Hassan.

Given the nature of the narrative, Roy-Bhattacharya is able to show off his lyrical writing and his ability to develop different voices for the different narrators of the tale. He does a wonderful job of showing how the event–the disappearance of the couple–moves to story and eventually to myth. Hassan’s story is not his story at all, nor is it the story of his brother or of the couple. The story belongs to the Jemaa.

Indeed, it is the Jemaa that turns out to be the main character of the novel. The magic feeling of the Jemaa is a constant theme. Roy-Bhattacharya portrays the Jemaa as alternately carnivalesque and sinister. He takes us among the performers and the merchants and we travel with him into the Mosque and the squalid back streets of Marrakesh. The Jemaa, though, is where everything in the novel centers and where it all returns. Hassan and his circle of listeners/co-storytellers is simply a microcosm of the wondrous world made up of the Jemaa.

The Storyteller of Marrakesh is a very good novel that presents a foreign culture in a clear and understandable way. As with many novels that rely on deferral to extend what is otherwise a fairly thin plot, the novel does drag a bit at certain points. Roy-Bhattacharya divides the book into mini-chapter, some of which add little to the novel and others which leave us wishing for more. Ultimately, though, the strengths of this novel far out-weigh its deficiencies.

Not a failure: A Review of Philip Schultz’s “Failure: Poems”

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

In 2008, Philip Schultz was co-winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his collection Failure: Poems. This collection of 29 short poems and 1 long poem displays the spare, precise language for which Schultz is well known. Like most collections of poems, it is of uneven quality. Nevertheless, the best poems in the collection show Schultz’s name needs to be included in discussions of the best contemporary poets in the United States.

The first few poems in the collection are among the weakest. They are formulaic in nature, with a detail that appears early in the poem coming back in a different way to end the poem. This is a device put to good use in Philip Levine’s What Work Is, but here they are more often to fall flat. In “The Magic Kingdom,” a poem that shows no ironic connection to Disney’s use of the term, Schultz writes of his children at the ocean:

To them it’s all a magical kingdom,
their minds tiny oceans of good and evil strategies,
the hard traffic of dreams
enclosed by a flourishing expectation.

Then, in the final stanza, he returns to the image that forms the title of the poem:

their believing happiness will make them happy;
that the ocean is magical, a kingdom
where we go to be human,
and grateful.

Much stronger is the long poem that closes the collection, “The Wandering Wingless.” This ambitious, if odd, poem tracks a professional dog walker in New York city as he tries to understand himself and the city in a post 9-11 world. The poem charts the narrator’s mental illness and the problems he has with his father (a theme that is quite common in this collection). In one particularly moving passage (Part 2, section 14), the narrator describes a night that he had nagged his father to stop working so much that finally his father “ran into my room / and began smashing” things that he had made. The father’s destruction included a portrait the narrator was painting of him for his 60th birthday. Schultz’s matter of fact tone make the scene of art being destroyed particularly affecting.

The middle section of the book is home to the best lyrics in the collection. In poems such as “Shellac,” “The Failure,” and others, Schultz explores the many sides of failure. In particular, he examines his efforts at being a father, his own father’s struggles, and a pervasive sense of nostalgia in his memories and dreams. It is the poems in this section that I expect I will return to, as they show Schultz at his strongest and most confident.

Steven Millhauser displays his magic in “Little Kingdoms”

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Steven Millhauser’s 1993 collection, Little Kingdoms, shows the author working in the modes and themes that are present in his better known novel, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, which one the Pulitzer prize in 1997. The three novellas in this collection all focus in some way in artistic creation. Only the final story is about an artist in the typical sense of the word, though the other stories are equally as focused on the creative act.

In the opening story, “The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne,” the title character is the author of newspaper comic strips who becomes interested in the nascent industry of animated cartoons. Though Payne does not work in the “fine arts,” he takes his art and craft seriously. He is a diligent worker who rises from a small-town cartoonist to one who works for one of New York’s biggest newspapers. His work ethic and creative artistry show up nowhere more clearly, though, then in his painstaking work on his animated films:

A week later [his daughter’s] fever vanished as mysteriously as it had come, and as Franklin worked long into the night, he wondered whether he had somehow drawn Stella’s fever into himself, where it flared up into images. The new animated cartoon or fever-vision was likely to be ten or even twelve minutes long, which meant ten thousand or twelve thousand separate drawings; and Franklin let himself sink into his night world with deep and secret joy (71).

Not unexpectedly, as Payne’s creativity draws him to work late into the night after full days at the office, his third-floor workroom becomes more than a quiet place to work. It becomes a symbol for how he has isolated himself, particularly from his wife. His “little kingdom” allows him to create even as the rest of his world seems–to the reader’s eyes–to fall apart. Yet in the end, it is hard not to see Franklin Payne as a success.

“The Princess, The Dwarf and the Dungeon,” is a fantasy-inspired tale that borrows its tone from medieval romances. The plot focuses on love, jealousy, and the struggle for power, but the main interest of the tale is in its meditation on how stories are made. The unnamed storyteller regularly digresses into other paths the story could take–or does take in other versions–and dicusses how the very choices create the story, perhaps even the history, he relates: “if our tales are known among the inhabitants of the castle, may it not come about that they begin to imitate … so that their lives gradually come to resemble the legendary lives we have imanged? To the extent that this is so, our dreams may be said to be our history” (170-71).

The final story is the most ambitious, even as it takes on the most typical example of artistic creation. “Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)” takes the form of a catalogue that comes with a major art exhibition at a museum. The entries of the paintings tell the story of Moorash’s art and his life, and introduce us to his sister and closest friends. The tale is one of disturbed artistic creations that are almost mystical in nature. Moorash would seem to be a master at hinting at deeper meanings through the vaguest of shapes in his paintings. For someone so subtle, though, he was unable to see as clearly in his personal dealings. The story revealed by his paintings show a man whose brief life was full of creativity but also of sadness and heartache.

While none of the novellas in Little Kingdoms is a masterpiece in itself, all of them show Millhauser working toward a mastery of craft that he was to attain in later novels.

Love in the Age of Torture: A Review of “In the Company of Angels”

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Theodore Adorno famously said that there could be no poetry after the atrocities of Auschwitz. Thomas E. Kennedy’s novel, In the Company of Angels, might be said to ask under what circumstances love is possible in the era after Abu Ghraib. Though Kennedy’s novel does not directly mention the abhorrent events in that prison in Iraq, the feelings of revulsion and sadness are present throughout the work.

The protagonist, Nardo, survived torture—and the disappearance of his wife and child—while teaching in Chile under Pinochet. He lives in Copenhagen, attempting to recover from the physical and mental abuse he underwent for teaching “subversive” poetry. The descriptions of what Nardo suffered at the hands of his torturers make difficult reading. In these passages, one cannot help but think of Abu Ghraib even while they remind us that torture is systematic and widespread throughout the world today.

Nardo is helped through his recovery by a doctor in Copenhagen who specializes in helping people recover from torture, but the chief source of his ability to cope comes from his belief that he was visited by angels while he was imprisoned. Nardo believes that the angels came to him and promised him that he would live through his ordeal and move beyond the terrible things he was subjected to. He ultimately comes to see the promise of the angels not in the doctor, but in a woman he sees in a café. He is afraid to speak with her, though, because one of the most scarring messages he heard repeatedly from his torturers was “You will never be a man again for a woman.”

This woman, Michaela, has suffered in her own ways. She was in an abusive marriage that ended after her daughter committed suicide. When we meet Michaela, she is in a relationship with Voss, a young, successful man. It soon becomes apparent, though, that Voss is not a good partner for Michaela either, particularly when his is drunk. Voss is not an interesting or likeable character, and so it is not hard to cheer for Michaela as she detaches herself from this lousy relationship.

If dealing with the loss of her daughter and the collapse of her relationship were not enough, Michaela is also saddled with parents who live in separate institutional wards. Michaela’s father is dying from cancer and her mother has lost most of herself to dementia. Her mother has formed an attachment to another man in the Alzheimer ward, and this “affair” causes all of her father’s pent up anger to erupt at anyone and everyone around him.

Michaela wonders—as do we readers—if the pattern of angry and abusive men is one she is destined to repeat throughout her life. When Nardo finally has the courage to speak with Michaela, we hope to see healing for both of them, a breaking of patterns that have shaped their lives to allow them to live together in a new reality.

It is to Kennedy’s credit that he can bring all this content together without becoming overly sentimental or jaded. Each character has a distinct voice, and Kennedy is able to switch between focus points with ease. The only exception is the sole character who narrates in the first person, Nardo’s doctor. Though he too suffers in his relationship with his wife, he is not nearly as strong a character as the others in the book, and we hardly notice that he disappears in the last third of the novel. Beyond this, though, Kennedy has crafted a strong novel that ultimately answers that love is possible in the age of torture, but it is a love tempered by suffering and loss, but buoyed by hope.

“Cartoon of hurt:” Michael Ryan’s poetry collection, ‘This Morning’

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

In Michael Ryan’s new collection of poems, This Morning, Ryan combines a wry sense of humor with a clear eye for the difficulties and atrocities of life. In “A Cartoon of Hurt,” for example, Ryan has a vision of his father “forty years dead, rummaging my liquor” that culminates in a vision of pain that is both his father’s and his own:

The Twist-off beer caps shred your hands to Kleenex.
The pulltab of a tallboy pulls half a finger off.
You howl in pain you couldn’t feel but felt,
the same pain of yours I couldn’t feel but felt,

This same comic vision is brings focus on pain often in these poems. The best poem in the book, “The Dog,” begins with the acknowledgement of pain (“The neighbors’ baby died age one month”) which Ryan immediately undercuts (“So they’re off to Big Sur ‘to celebrate her life’ / And I stupidly agreed to feed their dog”). What follows is farcical enough to be a comic movie, and yet the pain holds on throughout.

This collection visits all sorts of pain, whether it is of a dog missing its family, a father watching his daughter grow up, or a man haunted by a final cell phone message his wife left before dying in a car crash. In “Splittsville,” Ryan uses rhyme to put a wryness into a conversation between battling spouses:

If I were gone you’d be all right.
What is that supposed to mean?
I see you’re looking for a fight.
You are such the drama queen.

Ryan moves comfortably in these poems between rhyme, near rhyme and free verse. His lines are usually metrical, and his poems are vivid with detail and feeling. This is a strong collection from a poet who deserves a wider audience.