Resurrecting Oz: Finding Dorothy

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Review: Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts
Ballantine, 2019. 351 pp. $28

In October 1938, Maud Baum has a mission to undertake in Hollywood, and since she’s seventy-eight, she presents an odd picture to security guards and receptionists. But those who underestimate Maud do so at their peril, for not only has she learned a thing or two in her long life about effecting change, her mother was a charismatic activist for feminist causes, especially suffrage. More important to the reason Maud lays siege to M-G-M, she’s L. Frank Baum’s widow — he, who penned the book whose film version is in production, The Wizard of Oz.

And as she begins her quest, this is what she sees:

It was a city within a city, a textile mill to weave the gossamer of fantasy on looping looms of celluloid. From the flashing needles of the tailors in the costume shop to the zoo where the animals were trained, from the matzo ball soup in the commissary to the blinding-white offices in the brand-new Thalberg executive building, an army of people — composers and musicians, technicians and tinsmiths, directors and actors — spun thread into gold. Once upon a time, dreams were made by hand, but now they were mass-produced. These forty-four acres were their assembly line.

Maud wants to be sure that this factory won’t destroy the work into which her late husband put his heart and soul — and, as the reader eventually learns, constituted his only professional success in a lifetime filled with disappointments. And what should Maud find when she visits the M-G-M soundstage, but a girl too old to play Dorothy singing a song about a rainbow? This not only does damage to her beloved husband’s opus, it will, Maud believes, betray the millions of children who love the original.

From this ingenious premise comes an intriguing, occasionally uneven but ultimately satisfying novel, written with wisdom and a sure hand. Letts splits her narrative in two, one half for the movie in production, and the other, for Maud’s childhood and subsequent marriage to Frank. Throughout, the author delivers a strong feminist message, which comes to the fore when she crashes the studio. Those scenes focus on Judy Garland, still only fifteen when the filming starts, and oppressed from all sides. She’s got a horrible mother who treats her like a dollar sign; an assistant producer who molests her; a commissary that, on studio orders, won’t let her eat anything but cottage cheese and lettuce, for fear she will grow and then really look too old for the part; and diet pills she must take, which give her insomnia, for which she takes another set of pills.

Publicity photo of Judy Garland for the 1939 film (as a publicity photo, with no recognized photographer and originally intended for wide distribution, such images are widely considered public domain; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But Judy also has Maud, though she doesn’t realize it yet, because that kind old lady knows a victim when she sees one and can’t walk away. Maud’s license to be a gadfly lacks the necessary signatures, and the executives running this horror show periodically try to shut her out. Why, then, does she continue, and how does she manage to?

The key lies in Maud’s past, invariably bound up with the original models for Dorothy, Auntie Em, the Emerald City, the Wizard, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and, yes, Toto too. To Maud, these autobiographical bits mean much more than a past life, representing intense emotional experiences. Though I prefer the studio narrative, with credible portrayals of Yip Harburg, the lyricist, and Louis B. Mayer, the second m in M-G-M, Letts does well to show why Maud looks after Judy and refuses to take no for an answer. Also, though not an Oz aficionado, and as someone who likes the book better than the movie, I still appreciate the revelations about Baum’s sources for his characters, especially because Letts resists the temptation to overplay them. What could have been a wink-wink-nudge-nudge routine feels more natural and earned.

I wish Letts had shown more and told less, and that the prose rose more often to the level quoted above. Also, I don’t quite believe certain plot points, especially how easily Maud penetrates the studio, though I accept Letts’s assertion that she has stuck strictly to the historical record, which is pretty remarkable in itself, since history doesn’t always make good fiction. (One nit about the afterword: I wish she’d mentioned Yip Harburg’s most famous other songs, like “April in Paris,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” or “Paper Moon,” not just his other musical, about Amelia Bloomer.) Even so, I salute Finding Dorothy, which tells an unusual, worthwhile story.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Who Knew Politics Could Be so Much Fun?: Empire

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Review: Empire, by Gore Vidal
Random House/Vintage, 1987. 486 pp. $17

Caroline Sanford, recently arrived from Paris, where she’s spent most of her life, hits Washington in 1898, and that city will never be the same. It’s not just that Caroline has the requisites to advance in society or make a brilliant marriage — youth, looks, charm, and money. In fact, society bores her, unless it provides the means to a different end, and she’s convinced that wedlock would be even duller. Rather, she possesses yet another trait, worth more than the others put together, an iconoclastic way of thinking about men and women, which therefore makes her difficult to shock. Moralists ascribe this “improper” outlook, and the plans that result, to her foreignness. But Caroline’s American enough to understand that where her countrymen fear to tread — or, more particularly, countrywomen — creates an opportunity, which she’s European enough to seize with panache. As she says, life’s not easy for a woman who wants more than anything to be interested. Her scheme to achieve that takes everyone by surprise: to publish a newspaper.

William Randolph Hearst as a New York congressman, 1906, photo by James E. Purdy (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Naturally, she does not intend to print stories about doilies or the right way to entertain, or even politics, of which she has an innate sense. No; she desires to publish a scandal sheet that outdoes William Randolph Hearst, the king of so-called yellow journalism, whose latest coup, if it may be called that, is fomenting the Spanish-American War for no good reason other than to augment his own power.

Family rivalry plays a key role, here. Caroline’s half-brother Blaise, works for Hearst. Said half-sibling is also trying to deny her the rightful share of the fortune their father left them. So for Caroline, buying and running a successful newspaper means not only fulfilling her dream of being someone other than wife or socialite, but socking Blaise where it hurts — and believe me, he deserves it.

Lucky for Caroline, she’s immediately taken up by one of the first families in Washington. John Hay, former private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and soon to be William McKinley’s secretary of state, has a son, Del, who’s sweet on her. Hay the elder also has significant friends and political bedfellows, the likes of Henry Cabot Lodge, William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams and his brother, Brooks (descended from two presidents and noted for their historical and political writings), Henry James, and various others.

So Empire offers the reader a close-up view of politics during the McKinley years and after, which is to say much like today: “… it’s the way that things are made to look that matters now,” not the substance of what anybody says. Vidal takes this huge cast of historical figures, just about everyone except Caroline and Blaise, and renders these movers and shakers in their heads and skins. The result is electric, and often very funny. The humor is biting and caustic, and when these famous wits trade ripostes, the dialogue runs away with you. (Theodore Roosevelt provides the butt of many such sprees, even from his daughter, friends, and supposed allies.) Like a latter-day Dickens, minus the treacle or the moralizing, Vidal re-creates these people in their passions, urges, and appetites, as with this portrait of William McKinley at table:

Lunch was as simple and as enormous as the President’s dove-gray waist coated paunch, which began very high indeed on his frame and curved outward, keeping him from ever sitting close to the table, which accounted, no doubt, for the single shamrock-shaped gravy stain on the black frock-coat that hung in perpendicular folds to left and right of the huge autonomous belly, like theater curtains drawn to reveal the spectacle. Quail was followed by porterhouse steak which preceded broiled chicken, each course accompanied by a variety of hot bread — wheat muffins, corn sticks, toast, and butter.

It helps if you’re familiar with the history, but even if you’re not, Empire is a delight either way, and an education. Vidal takes a very dim view of American politics and the influence of wealth upon it, and if perhaps he overstates his case at times, he’s always entertaining. The way most of the characters manage to overcome their scruples—even Caroline, at moments—lends a cynical tone to the proceedings, which may not please everyone. Is nothing sacred? Are there really no heroes and no principles, where power and money are concerned? But readers will immediately see our present day in all this too, and besides, you’ll laugh out loud. Who knew that politics could be so much fun?

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Finnish Saga: Deep River

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Review: Deep River, by Karl Marlantes
Grove Atlantic, 2019. 717 pp. $30

During the early 1900s, Russia’s hard-fisted rule over Finland prompts violent uprising, met with even harder fists. Aino Koski, a young woman committed to the radical nationalist movement, endures imprisonment before she flees to America, to live with her two brothers in the Pacific Northwest. Aino never forgets her losses, familial or personal — deaths, eviction, destitution, torture — and ascribes them all to capitalism. She’s got an argument, but of course it’s a little neat, as is her solution. Her blind faith in revolution, no matter where or when, and rigid reduction of all situations to the same self-righteous formula, wears on those who love her. To give her credit, as an activist with the infant International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, Aino accomplishes minor miracles organizing the loggers in various camps around the Northwest. But her victories and single-mindedness come at great cost, to herself and others.

Wobbly organizer Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, also called Joseph Hillström, became famous as Joe Hill, thanks in part to the song written after his execution in 1915 (courtesy Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, via Wikimedia Commons)

Deep River lovingly portrays Finnish immigrant society, and you don’t need to read the author’s comment at the end to guess that Marlantes has written about his forebears. You see the men quick to violence if they believe their honor in question, and their stoic, maddening, sometimes hilarious refusal to express anything verbally. The women pick up the pieces, guiding their menfolk through difficult moments like loggers breaking up a jam at a narrow point in the river, offering coffee and cake, subtle redirection, or unexpected steel. They hold their own, but boys will be boys.

Whether these characters’ struggles will catch you completely and take hold depends, I think, on your taste for Marlantes’s narrative style. He does an excellent job weaving labor history into his story, and he shows how management’s hired thugs, captive law enforcement, and recruitment of citizen vigilantes crushes the Wobblies and paints them as the instigators. (Management did such a thorough job at public relations that I had admired the Wobblies for their efforts but deplored their methods, only to read here that they preached nonviolence.) Figures; the victors write the history.

It’s a heartbreaking tale, one well worth learning about, but be warned: There’s plenty of violence, even when the Wobblies don’t appear. Marlantes, ex-Marine captain and author of Matterhorn, a superb Vietnam War novel, excels here, as you’d expect. His action scenes carry an electric charge, and the knowledge that these people can and will do anything just about anytime keeps you riveted. He loves his characters, but he doesn’t protect them.

He also keeps you connected through intense physical detail, especially the mud, danger, and squalor of logging camps; and the landscape, whether before the axes fall or, in the following case afterward:

It looked as if a giant had had a temper tantrum, smashing the gigantic trees into slowly bleaching jackstraw piles of splinters, stumps, and snags, and the occasional lengths of abandoned steel cable, some as thick as a man’s wrist, and broken blocks, heavy, grooved wheels called sheaves encased between two steel cheeks through which the cable was threaded. The stumps took [Aino’s] breath away. Her whole family could stand on top of one of them with room for twenty more people, maybe thirty if some of them sat on the edge and dangled their legs over it.

As a Northwest resident (and a tree hugger and hiker), I find these descriptions moving, portraits of what the region looked like before greed and demand for wood got the upper hand.

But Deep River disappoints in a couple significant respects. Aino comes across fully, though I expected more psychological scarring from the torture she received in prison, particularly regarding physical affection from men. Her two brothers and their friends Aksel and Jouka also earn complete portrayals, but the others seem more like figures known for a trait or two. All the women besides Aino are strong, which I appreciate, and they have their moments. Yet I’m not always sure what makes them tick.

More importantly, Marlantes’s way of telling emotions gets in my way. Often, he creates a marvelously tense confrontation, building the drama, only to let the air out with a sentence like: “They stood, looking at each other, love pouring from their eyes.” Deep River’s length and breadth may beg for economy in places — the narration essentially goes until the early 1930s — but these moments deserve their weight, and Marlantes’s descriptive prowess clearly measures up to the task. I just wish he had exercised it.

So take Deep River for what you will, a wonderful story shortened at crucial points, or an involving saga of blood and heroism in rough country.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Past Lives: Old Baggage

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Review: Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans
Harper, 2018. 310 pp. $16

Matilda Simpkin lives in a glorious, thrilling past as an activist for women’s suffrage, who, before the First World War, rubbed elbows with the Pankhursts and threw elbows at policemen trying to subdue her. But it’s now 1928, and London life has dulled for Mattie. She lectures from time to time on the old days, for she has priceless lantern slides of the movement and can talk about what it was like to be imprisoned at Holloway, the infamous jail where suffragists were tortured, out of the public eye. An elegant, passionate, witty speaker, she’s quick on her feet and quicker to remind her audiences that women under thirty still can’t vote in Britain, nor those of age who lack the property qualifications. So Mattie still has her cause, her sisters in need, and the energy to lend a hand.

Annie Kenney, left, and Christabel Pankhurst, founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Manchester, ca. 1908 (photo courtesy Hastings Press via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But nobody’s paying attention, really, and that’s Mattie’s problem. Not only has her generation lost its fire; she needs to feel listened to, be the center of attention, to mentor others. However, she can be too quick to offer solutions to their problems and too slow to hear their silent plea simply for an understanding ear; and her urge to fix people, whom she sees as acolytes, can make her impossible. She assumes that those who turn away must be complacent or scared of risk, never dreaming that she herself scares them, or that the way she comes across subverts her efforts. In other words, Mattie Simpkin is a good-hearted, committed narcissist, and though such people often make waves, they don’t always pay attention to those who fear drowning in them.

Picture, then, her attempt to teach the younger generation. She forms a girls’ club called the Amazons, which meets weekly near her home on Hampstead Heath, for intellectual and physical exercise, learning and cooperative games. Who’d bother to join a club run by a windbag feminist of yesteryear? Dozens, as it turns out, a victory that Mattie accepts as a matter of course, and she thrives in her role. Despite her pedantry and occasional lack of sensitivity, both of which can be hilarious, she has much to teach, as relevant now as it was then: As a girl, you’re a real person, and you can make a difference. Her students aren’t always sure what this means, but most like the sound of it, and things go fine until a particular girl shows up, one who evokes the past. On such small incidents, worlds turn.

As you find out only at the end, Evans’s previous novel, Crooked Hearts, has a tangential connection to Old Baggage. I liked Crooked Hearts, but I like the current book better. It’s more serious yet funnier at once, which sounds odd until you notice that the tone here lacks all consciousness of satire, and the characters feel deeper. They have no sense that anyone should laugh at them, because they believe what they’re doing is utterly important. But our heroine needs a sidekick, one who’s more tuned in, and Florrie Lee (called The Flea), fills the role perfectly. The women are sparring partners in both heart and in politics, and though there’s social commentary aplenty, I never think it’s over the top or pasted on. It’s part of the action.

But it’s Mattie who drives the book, eccentric, principled, and flawed. As one of her less enthusiastic charges in the Amazons observes:

Miss Simpkin… had a face as readable as a penny newspaper, enthusiasm and exasperation, encouragement and the odd gust of rage chasing across her features. ‘Thar she blows!’ some of the bolder girls would whisper, as Mattie sounded off about Mussolini, or dogs with docked tails, or vegetarians.… Miss Simpkin was peculiar. Normal people stayed indoors when it rained, and thought that nice stockings were important; they didn’t sing in public, they didn’t pick up frogs and tell you about Greek plays.

Besides the sense of humor visible on almost every page, Evans has a knack for capturing historical ages and scraping the sepia off them. She understands politics and social movements from the inside and how they look from the outside. Likewise, the difficulties Mattie faces in her quest to educate the young reveal obstacles inside her and in others, so that her inner narrative connects to the outer, seamlessly accomplished.

Old Baggage is a delightful, moving book, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

The Prophet of Desire: The Dream Peddler

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Review: The Dream Peddler, by Martine Fournier Watson
Penguin, 2019. 370 pp. $16

Sometime in the early 1900s, a stranger comes to an unnamed American rural town. His name is Robert Owens, and the winter day he arrives, a young boy goes missing. Robert, though a newcomer, volunteers to help search, which creates a favorable first impression. He also dresses well, has courtly manners that people aren’t used to, and an engaging, unpretentious acceptance of human foibles, a trait that, as events prove, they’re used to even less.

Naturally, they wonder why he’s come, and whether he has designs on the widow in whose boardinghouse he lives. He doesn’t. He’s a traveling salesman, of sorts, and his product is dreams. Once word gets out, which happens slowly, he’s taken at first for a huckster and a charlatan, but he’s neither. Not once does he push his product (which comes in the form of colored liquids in glass vials), nor does he promise the sun, moon, and stars. When prospective customers approach him, he asks what they’d like to dream, decides whether he can help, and, if the answer is yes, mixes his elixirs for them, offering a money-back guarantee.

Freud’s first version of The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899, in a print run of 600 copies that took eight years to sell out (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Robert’s an itinerant psychologist, in other words, and the town needs his services. Animosities and untapped desires abound, none of which must be thought of, or, heaven forbid, spoken about. Indirectly, Robert encourages his customers, who include the lovelorn, frustrated, bereft, ambitious, and heartbroken, to feel what has long lurked inside them. Not everybody believes him when he explains that dreams come from within and can’t predict the future, only provide a test version of it. They think he’s selling what they don’t have but can somehow acquire.

I love this premise and what Watson does with it. She’s made Robert a prophet of desire, and beneath his tolerant, wise exterior lies a deep shame and, perhaps, moral cowardice. He represents the notion that desire alone never hurts; it’s what you do with it that counts. I agree wholeheartedly, but many people don’t, and Watson’s fictional town is no exception, starting with the preacher, who believes Robert does Satan’s work.

Consequently, despite the liberation that many customers experience from their dreams, you sense that Robert will wear out his welcome, and you may even guess how that unfolds. Nevertheless, the how matters more than the what, for The Dream Peddler fairly glows with feeling, a narrative as irresistible as I’ve read in a long while. With great subtlety, Watson renders the complexities of small-town rural life, while modernity licks around the edges, scaring some and enticing others. I said the novel takes place in the early 1900s, but the only substantial clue is the lone automobile in town, a Ford belonging to the doctor, presumably a Model T. The way in which a few characters itch to see the world while others prefer to keep it at bay depicts a state of mind about to change: the twentieth century and its marvels and tragedies.

It’s hard to believe that The Dream Peddler is a first novel. Even without the sure-handed characterizations and storytelling, the prose would suggest an experienced pen. Consider this passage, about a man out cutting ice alongside his horse, Martha, to store in his ice house for the summer (itself a wonderful detail):

Charles came into that familiar thinning of the trees, and then the vastness of the ice spread out before him. Far away it was uncertain, rippled in places from the water’s unseen movement, but here where he stood closer to shore it was still thick and faithful. Martha walked onto it without fear, nostrils quivering in the cold… Ice cutting was hard work, but Charles enjoyed it. He was always enthralled by the white precision of the blocks as he lifted them from their hold, like marble destined for the walls of some exotic palace in a land he would never see.

Reading the name Robert Owens, I couldn’t help think of Robert Owen, the nineteenth-century Welsh industrialist and social reformer who founded a short-lived utopian socialist community in Indiana. Does Watson’s Robert have a utopian vision of desire? Unfortunately, yes.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Blood, Royal and Otherwise: The Darwin Affair

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Review: The Darwin Affair, by Tim Mason
Algonquin, 2019. 373 pp. $28

The year 1859 witnesses an event that shakes England — and the Western world — to the core: the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Mason’s ingenious, exquisitely plotted, and atmospherically rich thriller supposes that the uproar over Darwin’s theory and an attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria has a nefarious connection. Further, Mason takes Charles Field, a real-life historical figure, as the detective who uncovers the connection, what it means, and who’s behind it, men in high places. Naturally, practically no one believes Field’s conspiracy theory, though one person willing to entertain the notion — however fanciful — is Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort, and, by the by, a Darwin supporter.

Charles Field, as he appeared in Illustrated News of the World, London, 1855

Charles Field was Charles Dickens’s model for Mr. Bucket of the Detective, a character in Bleak House, among the first such fictional figures. It’s a brilliant conceit to build a novel around Field, but Mason goes one better. Field hates his fame as Bucket’s alter ego, and the surest way to inflame this bad-tempered detective is to call him Bucket or taunt him by suggesting that his fictional shadow would have solved the case before now. The Darwin Affair therefore begins with both feet in the shifting sands of mythic allusion versus deadly reality, and whether a person is who he is or what others take him for. From there, things get even more complex.

Field’s nemesis styles himself the Chorister, and an evil piece of work he is. I usually avoid suspense narratives with sociopaths, because the story’s thoroughly gruesome, and I can’t stand it when an outwardly decent citizen is suddenly unmasked as a raving lunatic responsible for multiple murders. But here, you know the Chorister’s a bad one from the get-go, and the plot revolves around stopping him when so many people fail to realize the danger he poses, a classic device in thrillerdom. Once again, however, Mason goes one better. The Chorister has handlers who think themselves righteous, which shows their utter hypocrisy; and they believe they can control him, about which they’re dreadfully wrong. Rest assured, plenty of tension results. In a final stroke, the psychological source of the Chorister’s bloodlust is revealed, and plausibly, which raises him yet another notch above a mere device.

I admire how Mason imbues his narrative with history as inhabited background. I don’t mean the presence of historical figures like the royals, Darwin, Dickens, Thomas Huxley, or Karl Marx, though Mason handles them all beautifully. (Field’s confrontation with Marx is a real hoot.) Rather, I mean going beyond the People magazine fascination with name recognition to grapple with the era’s ethics, passions, and preoccupations, and to render the everyday, even at the palace. Albert’s perpetually cold because the queen hates central heating, and candles and oil lamps are the order of the day because she finds gaslight too modern. The author can’t resist a witticism, and I’m glad of that, because otherwise, we’d have done without this gem from Albert about his better half: “And, to be frank, Victoria would not approve of any assassination attempt in which she was not the target.”

Fittingly, Darwin’s theory takes center stage in this rendering of midcentury Victoriana. As everyone knows, the church objects, but the conflict feels broader than that. Evolution has subversive implications for the social hierarchy, which also seems obvious in retrospect, but has somehow faded from sight. If we share a common ancestry, and random chance happeneth to us all, who’s to say that the peer deserves his peerage, and the laundress her bleached, burning fingers? That question will never go out of style.

Interestingly, Field himself reads The Origin of Species, a struggle because he hasn’t had much education, yet he derives a great deal from it.

If I understand what Mr. Darwin is saying, a creature will do anything at all in order to survive. And every creature that does make it does so because some other creature don’t. Everything and everyone at war all the time, just to keep the show going, and it’s been a very long-running show indeed. Look at it that way, nothing matters, really.… Look at it another way, of course, it makes every second we got desperate precious.

Make no mistake, The Darwin Affair is a gory book. But it’s also the most gripping thriller I’ve read in years, so if you don’t mind the blood and mutilation, you’ll be well rewarded.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Well, What Do You Know?: The Organs of Sense

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Review: The Organs of Sense, by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
FSG, 2019. 227 pp. $26

In 1666, nineteen-year-old Gottfried Leibniz, not yet famous for inventing calculus, visits an unnamed astronomer who, alone in the scientific universe, has predicted a solar eclipse that will darken Europe for four seconds. Since the astronomer is rumored to have the longest telescope in the world, yet also to be blind, Leibniz wants to know whether the eclipse will really happen, and the man is for real. If he’s for real, and he’s blind, how can he observe the heavens, longest telescope or no? Or does he actually see, and is he sane? Or does he see, and is he insane? Does the truth or falsity of the eclipse affect any of these judgments? The possible combinations are many; you get the picture.

Now, when I tell you that Leibniz doesn’t directly narrate the story — an unnamed scholar/philosopher/scientist does, based on Leibniz’s account — you might think this tale is drier than a dust ball, a real snore, even in its slim length. Yet The Organs of Sense is seriously gripping and very funny at the same time. Start this book, and amazingly, like Leibniz, you’ll want to know, have to know, whether the eclipse will happen, how the astronomer lost his sight, and what Leibniz (and his interpreter) make of all that they relate.

A thinner premise could not be imagined, and yet on that Occam’s razor, much gets sliced apart, perhaps never to appear whole again in reputable print. Many philosophical themes reside in these pages, among which: how does a person “know” anything; which deserves to triumph, emotion or reason; what exactly constitutes insanity; what does blood mean variously to a commoner and a prince; and what’s the purpose of art.

But all this philosophy has a screw loose. The language and the reasoning both parody the discipline as well as apply it, and the best word to describe the whole effect is madcap. You could open the novel practically anywhere to see what I mean, but this passage stands out for me:

Have you noticed, Herr Leibniz, how our most celebrated scientists of the sentiments always possess the crudest understanding of laughter? I have seen laughter taxonomies that bundle together the giggle, the chortle, and the titter, or the chortle, the titter, the snicker, and the hoot. Even in Delft, where they have a superb understanding of tears, they do not distinguish between a whoop, the cackle, the guffaw, the hoot, and the hee-haw. Of course, the hee-haw has nothing to do with the hoot, and the whoop is not even a species of laughter at all! A man who confuses whimpering and weeping is rightly excluded from the circle of learned men, we demand very fine distinctions on the tragic side of life, yet someone who considers a hee-haw a hoot may still be regarded as an eminent authority on the nature of the world.

It’s all much ado about nothing, and yet, there’s meat here. There is also a historical context. Many of the scenes the astronomer recounts to Leibniz take place at the Prague castle of Emperor Rudolf, who indeed behaves as if he’s out of his mind, and involve his intelligent but highly stressed children. Rudolph has figured in fiction before, as with The Fifth Servant and, more recently, Wolf on a String, but here, he’s dissected, minutely, with Kafkaesque humor, as are his family and their various conspiracies.

The Organs of Sense thus makes a witty tale that goes around the bend and meets itself coming and going. Sometimes the prose repeats, but seldom, if ever, does it tire the reader; Sachs is making a point about long-winded philosophers who seek precision until it becomes meaningless. But in that search also lies several truths, one of which is that human life is largely absurd.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this commentary appeared in shorter, different form.

Prisoners: Caging Skies

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Review: Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens
Overlook, 2019. 304 pp. $26

Johannes Betzler might be like most Viennese boys of the late 1930s. He joins the Hitler Youth, in which he takes great pride, and swallows the Nazi message whole, much to his parents’ dismay. When the war comes, it’s his turn to be dismayed, for he figures out that they’re hiding a young Jewish woman, Elsa, behind a false wall upstairs. Outraged at first, he barely contains himself until, after being disfigured by a bomb during an enemy air raid, he becomes interested in Elsa and, later, consumed by her. When his parents disappear, and his grandmother, who lives in the house, becomes demented, he must care for Elsa’s needs by himself. And Johannes’s obsession grows so great that as the war’s end nears — he expects a Nazi victory — he wonders how to keep her, or what their relationship will be like.

From this simple, bizarre premise comes a bold novel of great fierceness, insight, and emotional savagery. I admire Leunens’s refusal to spare anyone or anything, even as, while reading, I sometimes had to put the book down and pace around the room. But if you stick with Caging Skies, this is what you’ll get. With a sweep reminiscent of A Gentleman in Moscow (and therefore Tolstoy), but decidedly without the humor, kindness, or generosity — this is the Holocaust — Leunens creates a microcosm of Hitlerian thought inside Johannes’s head. The truism about scratching a bully and finding beneath an ineffectual, strutting egotist secretly scared of his inadequacy emerges front and center.

Where other novelists (or historians) tell you that the Nazi creed attracted certain personalities, Leunens shows you why and how. It’s absolutely remarkable how she exposes Johannes as a pitiful, self-satisfying beast, casting the world in his own image, twisting all he sees to fit his vision of himself as victim. This is pure narcissism, but it’s more than that — it’s the far-right mindset, us-versus-them culture, and ultranationalism; that the portrayal seems so vivid and relevant is frightening in itself.

Throughout, Leunens’s prose drives relentlessly forward, as with this passage about Johannes’s training with the Hitler Youth:

In one exercise we were to kill a pen of ducks by twisting their necks with our bare hands. It was stressful because once we freed the latch they came to us in trust and quacked as if we could understand exactly what it was they wanted. One of the ducks was followed by a dozen ducklings and they had to be killed too. It was as if they were asking us to kill our own childhood, somehow. If a boy cried after the deed was done he was so thoroughly mocked that no one wanted to be in his shoes. He ate fowl like everybody else and would enjoy the duck once it was on his plate after others had worked to prepare it, wouldn’t he? He was then nothing but a whimpering hypocrite, a good for nothing!

If I may be clinical for a moment about this chilling scene, notice how the author uses the entire setup as a metaphor, which Johannes literally expresses as killing his own childhood. I like how Leunens employs this technique, sparingly, but to excellent effect, letting the action create the image and then lightly directing the brushstroke — or not.

A central theme of Caging Skies has to do with truth, lies, and being able to tell the difference. Johannes loses his way in that maze right off, though he thinks he doesn’t, and he’s never sure how much anyone knows about him, his thoughts, or secrets that may or may not belong to him alone. Gradually, he comes to sense that the ground may give way any moment, which is how his feelings about Elsa change from revulsion to desire, and more.

But that’s where the novel falters, I think. Their relationship raises several questions, and if Leunens has answered them the way I infer she has, I have my doubts. Is she trying to say that the Jews’ murderers actually love them? Or is it the lust of possession, in which complete power over someone, enough to allow you to dispose of them, makes you feel in love with yourself? I’d sooner believe the second, but in Johannes’s case, he appears to go further — to the extent that he can love anyone.

In reverse, the relationship makes even less sense. To an extent, I understand identifying with the aggressor, but some of what happens tests credulity. And if Leunens is trying to have Elsa stand in for all Jews, that representation feels grotesque and unearned.

But there’s no denying that Caging Skies is an extraordinary novel, and that its author has ranged widely within a contained physical space to tell a penetrating story.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.

Orgy on the Shore: Cape May

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Review: Cape May, by Chip Cheek
Celadon, 2019. 243 pp. $27

In 1957, Henry and Effie, married straight out of a small-town Georgia high school, honeymoon in Cape May, New Jersey. Borrowing a cousin’s cottage, they arrive at the end of September to find the town deserted — naturally, because it’s a place where the well-to-do summer, and now they’re gone. That’s only the first fact to surprise the innocent, unsophisticated newlyweds, and Effie’s instinct is to go home after a couple days. But Henry, unsure of her, though they’ve known each other for years — he can’t quite believe that the mayor’s daughter chose him — takes her notion to mean that she doesn’t want his company. That insecurity leads to much trouble and the discovery that the Jersey shore is much farther from rural Georgia than the mere distance indicates.

A group of city sophisticates welcomes them next door to a nonstop party, though absorb would be a fitter word. Max, a sometime writer, heir to a shipping fortune, and a lewd drunk, drives the festivities with his lover, Clara, who was in show business at one time. Alma, Max’s sullen, gorgeous half-sister, acts as though she’d rather be anywhere else, but she draws Henry’s eye. At first, he’s more susceptible to this crowd’s invitations than his bride, attracted by the veneer of “civilization,” as he calls it, what these mildly degenerate Yankees represent to him. And in that fever, he loses his common sense and his moral compass, helped by a power outage after a storm (something of a cliché, there).

Cheek’s a terrific observer, especially of social interactions and sexual mores. What could have been a stagey, turgid domestic drama stewing in its own juices feels surprisingly open, fluid, and freewheeling. This requires a subtle touch, the ability to evoke movement even when people are sitting still, and simmering tension below the surface, at all of which Cheek excels. Throughout, there’s a sexual charge, like a humid summer day before a thunderstorm. All of these elements derive from the prose, which does its work simply, never calling attention to itself, yet conveys the mood in vivid, active images:

Through the big windowpanes, now that the inside was brighter than the outside, Henry could see more people gathering in the den, big groups of them, laughing, sipping from martini glasses, smoking cigarettes. He saw the beatnik in the slip take her shoes off and hand them to a man who placed them into a potted plant. He saw a naked toddler run screaming from the archway. He saw an Oriental woman with a complicated bun and a silvery eye shadow. He saw a man with circular sunglasses and a shaved head under a beret.… For the past week he’d felt isolated from the world, and now the world was upon him, or some strange version of it.

For all that, though, Cape May falls short of memorable. I understand Henry, somewhat, but Effie hardly at all, and the sophisticates even less. They seem too brittle to feel anything, rushing from experience to experience to prevent what they most fear, boredom. I would have wanted flashes of depth, glimmers of what they’re trying not to face; though, since the newlyweds provide the only perspectives as naïve observers, that’s difficult to achieve. Cheek seems to be saying that the Georgians’ innocence is also a veneer, that they share their new friends’ desires, and we’re all the same underneath, city mouse or country mouse.

That’s fine, but absent fuller characterizations or any particular connection to time and place — if it weren’t for clothing styles or brief mentions of current events, I would never have known it was the late Fifties — we’re left with what sex means, or what it means to Henry, Effie, and the reader. And as for sex, there’s plenty of it, licit and otherwise. Cheek does well to make the scenes matter-of-fact and realistic — no breathless, inflated bodice-ripper descriptions — though I do wonder how these people manage to get it on after half a dozen gins-and-tonic.

Cheek’s a fine writer whose subject matter and theme remind me of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, also about newlyweds clueless about marriage. But the people in Cape May seem more a collection of attitudes than complex humans, and their plight therefore less than powerful.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.

The Future’s a Riddle: The Almanack

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Review: The Almanack, by Martine Bailey
Severn, 2019. 328 pp. $29

In midsummer 1752, Londoner Tabitha Hart accepts a rendezvous at an inn with a well-to-do gentleman who promises to be an easy mark, only to waken and realize she’s the one fleeced. The loss of her money, jewels, and clothes proves more than a usual setback in the sex-and-petty-theft trade, for Tabitha was planning to bring her mother funds she desperately needs, for herself and the care of Tabitha’s out-of-wedlock daughter, Bess. Worse, when the destitute, half-dressed Tabitha reaches her mother’s cottage in the village of Netherslea, to her shock, her mother’s recent letters pleading for help prove all too prophetic. Mrs. Hart has drowned in the river, a death her daughter refuses to credit, especially given the constable’s explanation, that the old lady’s mind had grown infirm, and she didn’t know where she was going half the time.

Consequently, much as Tabitha longs to return to London, she must restore her mother’s reputation — there are whispers of suicide — and see justice done. Her only clue is her mother’s almanack, in which appear warnings about a certain D, said to be untrustworthy and dangerous. However, Tabitha has few illusions about remaining in her native village, where her reputation is mud, and the sanctimonious, vindictive Parson Dilks would like nothing better than to drive her away. He applies pressure to take the cottage away, because it was granted to her mother as the village “searcher,” the one who laid out dead bodies, inspected them for cause of death, and wrote the results in parish records. Through the intercession of more kindly souls, Tabitha is allowed to inherit her mother’s position, and therefore the cottage, but only temporarily, and Dilks finds other ways to persecute her.

A book of incantations, 1825, from the library of John Harries (d. 1839), a Welsh astrologer and medical practitioner (courtesy National Library of Wales, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Complicating the picture is Nat Starling, a swaggering lush who scratches out a living writing scurrilous stories about true crime and debauchery. Naturally, he falls for Tabitha’s beauty and intelligence right away, whereas he’s just the sort of man who has always been poison to her, which is why she feels drawn to him as well. But she won’t give him what he wants unless and until he helps her solve the mystery about her mother, which he seems to wish to do anyway, having been a friend of hers. But, as with everyone else in Netherslea, Tabitha can’t be sure of Nat, and his dissolute habits raise further doubts.

The Almanack offers a clever mystery, with twists and turns (and “no — and furthermore”) aplenty. Bailey’s a fine storyteller, but she’s done more than build a clockwork plot that keeps striking an odd hour, serving to heighten the tension. Rather, she’s re-created the lore of village life, with its superstitions, back-biting, and feast of gossip. She’s also paid due tribute to feminism, as Tabitha bitterly resents the double standard that calls her a whore but allows men license to do what they wish, further granting them credibility as witnesses that she can never hope to earn.

This intricate homespun tapestry begins with active description, as with Tabitha’s first glimpse of Netherslea on her return:

The riverside path was deserted that morning; from the golden motes in the air, she guessed most folk must be hay-making. Crossing a well-remembered meadow, she drank at an icy brook and breakfasted on bilberries fresh from the earth; the taste of them, tartly sweet, was fresher than any food she had eaten in years. Thereafter her way grew easy and she passed the succeeding miles serenely. She had forgotten the lushness of the Cheshire sward in midsummer; the murmur of insects on the wing, the wildflowers that bedizened her path. Idly she picked meadowsweet, wild rose and ragged robin, twining them into a chain and then winding it in a circlet through her hair.

Bailey takes her carefully delineated ambience one step further. Having researched the eighteenth-century passion for almanacks, which were recycled predictions published yearly and simply plugged into different dates, she makes excellent use of them here. Not only does the infamous D deliver on the ghoulish prognostications in the local almanack, Bailey introduces each of her short chapters with riddles in verse, which contemporary almanacks contained, and which were devoured avidly. The fifty riddles Bailey has chosen — most anonymous, but a few credited to Jonathan Swift, among other notables — predict some aspect of the episode to come. Since the mystery itself is a riddle, and solved through one, everything connects. And that’s part of the delight in The Almanack, which, despite an occasional cliché of character, makes a satisfying tale.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.