Land of Mine.

The Danish-German drama Land of Mine (Under Sandet) was one of five nominees for the Best Foreign Language film at the most recent Academy Awards ceremony and swept the Robert Awards, the Danish equivalent of the Oscars, last year. The story is fictional but is based on the real-life effort after World War II where 2000 German POWs, many of them teenagers or elderly men, were forced to come to Denmark to clear the up to two million landmines the Nazis had planted along the country’s western coast. Half the Germans either died or were maimed in the work, and the question of whether this constituted a war crime still hangs over Danish history. Land of Mine is sparse and taut, rarely sentimental until the very end, and doesn’t let the Danes off the hook one bit for the choice to force children to pay for the sins of their fathers. (It’s available to rent/buy on amazon and iTunes.)

The kids forced to clear the mines arrive at a Danish beach under the command of Captain Ebbe and Sgt. Carl Rasmussen, both of whom appear to be completely unconcerned with their charges’ welfare – they are human fodder for clearing the mines, and if they die in the effort, that’s the Germans’ fault for placing the mines there in the first place. One boy doesn’t even make it out of the initial training. The group includes Helmut Morbach, who is either the most realistic kid of the group or just an asshole, depending on your view; Sebastian Schumm, who is the de facto leader of the troop; Wilhelm Hahn, a naive kid oblivious to what’s ahead of him either in Denmark or after a return home; and the twins Werner and Ernst Lessner, who plan to go home and become bricklayers to help rebuild Germany now that the war is over. There’s no question over their volition here: the boys are barricaded in their little hut at the end of each work day and aren’t even fed for the first few days at the beach.

The kids don’t stand out much as individual characters, but are vehicles for telling the greater story, including how Sgt. Carl (Herr Feldwebel to the kids) ends up caring about their welfare in spite of his own misgivings and the commands from above to treat them like slaves. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to mention that some of the 14 kids in the original group aren’t going to live to the end of the movie – they’re crawling on a beach looking for and defusing land mines, so of course there will be casualties. The movie’s impact comes more from how they’re injured or killed than how many, such as the effects of failing to feed the kids adequately, and in some of the cases we don’t really know the characters well enough to feel their losses as individuals.

Sgt. Carl, played by a relative novice actor in Roland Møller, is the moral center of the film, and his evolution over the course of the film becomes the movie’s conscience – he doesn’t want to think of the boys as people, comes to see them that way once the suffering and death begin, then is reminded of how they all ended up in this situation in the first place before he has to make one final decision to do the ‘right’ thing. Møller’s performance is dominant because most of it is so understated, and because his character gets the emotional complexity Ebbe’s and even the boys’ characters lack. That makes the ending of the film a little harder for me to accept – it’s the one true moment of sentiment, and the only part of the script that didn’t ring true. When he develops a little camaraderie with the boys, it seems only natural; he’s with them all day and starts to see them as real people, and struggles to transfer his hatred of the Nazis or the Germans over to them once he knows them. Whether the end works may depend on how much you buy into his personal transformation from the initial scene of abject hatred to the last day of work on the beach.

The characters of the POWs aren’t that well defined, but the young actors playing them at least give them depth in their emotional responses to the series of catastrophes that follow their assignment to the beach. They’re afraid every day, and every time the script seems like it’s giving them a few moments of calm, another mine explodes, setting off a new chain of emotional reactions in the survivors. Joel Basman delivers a strong performance as Helmut, the least likable of all of the boy soldiers, while the twins, Emil and Oskar Belton, playing Ernst and Werner get a small subplot of their own that gives Emil in particular a powerful scene in the back half of the film. The script also adds little details, like Sebastian answering a question about whether his father’s still alive with a long pause followed by a remote “I don’t know,” to flesh out the emotional states of these children even without giving us much in the way of biographical details.

Land of Mine is almost old-fashioned in its anti-nationalism; the easy thing to do in any historical drama about World War II is make any German characters the villains and move outward from there, but the protagonists of this movie are all Germans and don’t show the slightest hint of Nazi sympathies or even of German nationalism. They’re just kids, and all they want to do is survive and go home. The Danes are the nationalists, carrying forward their rage at the Nazi atrocities on to prisoners of war who had nothing to do with the mistreatment of Denmark. Sgt. Carl has to face the reality that the kids who’ve been conscripted to clear these mines are victims of the Nazi regime too, and the difficult decisions that the script gives him could apply to any conflict and any attempts at postwar reconciliation too.

Blackout and All Clear.

Connie Willis’ time-travel novels are a marvel; she’s created an alternate universe where time travel isn’t just possible, but plausible, because it’s intrinsic to her plots but not to the characters or the setting. The first full-length novel, The Doomsday Book, sent a character back to the period of the Black Death at the same time that a pandemic hit Oxford in 2060, where the time-traveling historians reside. The second, To Say Nothing of the Dog, was a comedy of manners that parodied a Brit Lit classic. Her 2010 diptych Blackout/All Clear is a magnum opus in scope and length, a single novel published in two parts because the combination runs over 1100 pages, sending three historians back into World War II only to have everything go awry for them. The duo swept the major sci-fi novel awards (Hugo, Nebula, and Locus) despite some reviews that criticized the books’ length. I adore Willis’ writing and character development, so while the books are long – it took me just over two weeks to finish the pair – my only regret at their length was that I was dying to get to the resolution.

Willis’ time-travel universe keeps that physical impossibility to something of a minimum. Historians travel backwards in time for research purposes, and of course are charged with staying out of the way of history lest they find they alter it. Spacetime itself has a defense mechanism, however; it won’t allow time travelers to land at a point in history where their mere presence may change its course – so, no, you can’t go back and kill baby Hitler, even in fiction. Those who try end up displaced in time or location from their target, and the gap is called “slippage.” Meanwhile, returning through a portal, called a drop, to 2060 is also complicated – the drops must not be seen by “contemps” from that time period, and if the location isn’t secure, the drop won’t open and the historian can’t return home until the next rendezvous. It’s an elegant, concise way to introduce time travel and all of its attendant problems into serious literature that would otherwise collapse under the weight of the details.

Unlike Willis’ previous two novels in this setting, nearly all of Blackout/All Clear takes place in the past. Once the historians start to step through the portal into World War II at the start of the first book, we don’t get back to Oxford until well into All Clear; this is a novel of three historians stuck in World War II, simultaneously trying to find a way back to their present and to avoid doing anything that might alter history … which could in turn mean that time travel is never invented, creating a paradox with unforeseeable consequences (none of them good, though). Michael Davies wants to research heroes, but ends up in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Polly Churchill wants to research the conditions and behavior of people who sheltered in Tube (subway) stations during the Blitz, but ends up in a shelter below a church and falls into an amateur theatrical troupe. Merope Ward wants to research the lives of evacuated children in the English countryside, only to find herself saving one of her ward’s lives and bringing some of the children back to London to an uncertain fate during the bombings. The three all realize soon enough that something’s amiss, between the slippage and the failure of their drops to reopen, and start to look for each other in London to seek a way out before the paradoxes of time travel overtake them.

Willis’ prose captures the cadence and flow of great British authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, even though she’s an American author writing today, with the clarity and wit of a Wodehouse and a bit of the descriptiveness of Dickens (but not too much). She also creates wonderful characters, a few of whom, like department head Mr. Dunworthy or young Colin Templer, we’ve seen before. Merope, who goes by Eileen in the past, and Polly are a little bit too similar to each other, although some slight personality distinctions emerge in the second book, but the characters around the core trio are wonderfully diverse and well filled-out, from the actor Sir Godfrey to the aging fisherman Commander Harold to the imps Alf and Binnie who plague Merope’s existence. Willis has given her world depth and texture by populating it with believable, three-dimensional characters, even unlikable ones, so that reading her novels, especially this two-part tome, becomes an immersive experience. I was very much reminded of watching the Foyle’s War TV series, which is set almost entirely in World War II and even has one episode that occurs in part in a bomb shelter; Willis recreated that setting in words to the point where I could lose myself in the story.

Blackout itself isn’t much of a standalone novel because it ends mid-story; there is absolutely zero resolution at its end, not even so much as an answer to the question of why these historians have gotten stuck when their colleagues had gone to other points in history and returned without major incident. If you’re going to read one, you’re committing to read both, and that does mean that you’ll be in the past with the trio of trapped heroes for a long time. I’m completely comfortable with that – I will happily spend all day in Connie Willis’ words if my schedule permits.

Next up: I’ve read a few books since this pairing, but just started another Hugo winner, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which definitely sounds like something other than a critically acclaimed sci-fi novel.


My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the 3D building game Saloon Tycoon, and I wrote a piece for Insiders yesterday on some top 100 prospects who had down years. I also held a Klawchat here on Thursday.

Laurent Binet’s historical novel HHhH won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, an award given to the best debut novel in French literature, in 2010, and has since become a bestseller in multiple languages and even spawned a film version due out in 2017. But it’s far from a typical historical novel; while the novel’s core is the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “Blond Beast” of Hitler’s regime and a primary architect of the Holocaust, Binet has wrapped that story up in his own metafictional account of the author’s difficulty in writing a novel about the past where the participants are dead.

The Heydrich storyline is fairly simple, and Binet – or, I suppose, the narrator-author within the book – tells it with sufficient detail to inform the reader and keep the plot moving. Heydrich was born into privilege but was dogged by rumors as a youth that he was part Jewish; as a teenager, he joined a volunteer paramilitary unit and an anti-Semitic organization that was a major forerunner of the Nazi Party. He joined the Germany Navy in 1922 and was rapidly promoted through the ranks; he later married a woman who was already an ardent Nazi, but the affair cost him his officer status and he was briefly unemployed. A bit of good fortune put him in front of Heinrich Himmler, who named him head of the newly created intelligence service within the SS, a post that led to another surge up the ranks for Heydrich, culminating in his roles as director of the Gestapo and as Acting Protector of the occupied area now known as Czechia. It was there that Heydrich became the lone high-ranking Nazi official to be assassinated by resistance forces, the result of a courageous and clumsy operation called Anthropoid that resulted in Heydrich’s death, a showdown where the assassins were trapped in a Prague church after a lengthy manhunt, and the Nazi destruction of the towns of Lidice and Ležáky, with over 1300 civilians murdered.

Binet’s approach in HHhH – the title stands for “Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich,” which means “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” – is to tell the story of the assassination while also telling the story of telling the story. He presents himself through this narrator surrogate as a writer somewhat obsessed with the historical facts, dwelling over the difficulty of recreating events through secondhand materials of questionable veracity, and often presenting a scene complete with dialogue only to tell us in the next section that he made it up.

On the one hand, Binet examines some real questions seldom asked of historical fiction and even non-fiction, not the least of which is how the author could possibly know what was said in the dialogue s/he presents. Eyewitness testimony is unreliable, as are our memories in general, so even asking participants who said what won’t produce accurate answers. On the other hand, it’s distracting as hell to get rolled up in the assassination storyline, only to have Binet’s narrator burst through the door with a “hold up, that’s not really what happened!” tangent that breaks the spell of the narrative. To be fair, that’s more prevalent in the first half of the book; once the story gets cooking, such as the scene when the assassins bumble the actual attempt (which, sorry for the spoiler, killed Heydrich anyway), the interruptions are fewer, and Binet saves some of his final thoughts on the author’s dilemma for the last few pages – a peroration that is as effective as any other passage in conveying his state of mind as an author who became invested in his story and frustrated by his inability to ever get it truly “right.” HHhH thus is more like two nested stories, the outer one of which is about the inner story, with differing styles and levels of interest in both of them, working well together but carrying some of the frustrating hallmarks of all postmodern literature.

Next up: I’m halfway through Clifford Simak’s Hugo winner Way Station.

Doomsday Book.

Connie Willis is one of the most decorated science fiction writers ever, with eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards, as well as induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her 1998 novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, a Hugo winner, is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, a tight mash-up of a comedy of manners and a time travel story along with a send-up of a classic Brit Lit novel. That book was set in the same universe as her 1992 novel Doomsday Book, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for best sci-fi novel, and explores much darker subject matter: how we respond to unthinkable disaster and human suffering.

Willis has crafted rules around her fictional time travel that manage to give it sufficient plausibility so that suspending your disbelief isn’t really an issue. Her time travelers are historians heading into the past for research purposes (usually), and do so under tightly controlled conditions. Heading into the past to alter history isn’t permitted by spacetime itself; anyone heading through to create such a paradox simply won’t be allowed to enter the “net” of time travel. And there’s “slippage” in time, the difference between when you arrive and when you were trying to arrive, which the researchers attribute to spacetime’s attempts to avoid even minor incidents like having you appear out of nowhere in the middle of a crowd of people who’d think you were an alien or a witch.

In Doomsday Book, a young woman in Oxford’s history department named Kivrin is heading back to 1320 England to examine village life of the time and as a prelude to a future research trip back to the Black Death, which began in England in 1348. Unfortunately, as soon as she steps through the net into the past, the main technician who organized the drop, Badri, falls horribly ill with a new strain of influenza, touching off an epidemic in modern-day Oxford … with Kivrin unfortunately falling sick as she arrives in the past. Something has gone wrong with the drop, but Badri is near death and unable to tell anyone why or to explain how they will retrieve Kivrin at the scheduled rendezvous time and place. Kivrin, meanwhile, ends up involved in a separate epidemic, as the plague arrives in the village where she’s staying, and since she’s been vaccinated she is the only person there with immunity to the disease. Her response, as the only person in her time and place who understands the nature of the plague, and the responses of those in the modern time are the real focus of the book, from those thinking first and foremost about the victims to those stuck in the mindset of adhering to policy or those unable to give up their own goals even when it puts others at grave risk.

Willis is an outstanding writer in every aspect of the term, from plot to pacing to character development, but two things particularly stand out in Doomsday Book. One is her ability to still weave humor into a story that is incredibly dark and full of tragedy, with many deaths of named characters in both timelines. William Gaddson, an undergraduate who is rather successful with the young ladies but whose overbearing mother thinks he’s a fragile, innocent boy who studies too hard, provides regular comic relief and even plays a real role in the plot. The American bell choir stuck inside the quarantine zone is almost absurd in its zeal to put on a show regardless of conditions. The assistant Finch’s obsession with “lavatory paper” is similar in its “oh my God is he still on about that” nature.

One of the first symptoms of this influenza strain is mental confusion, and Willis manages to impart that to the reader without actually confusing the reader about what’s happening. That is, when the character at the center of the action gets sick and begins to suffer the confusion, Willis gets that across in ways that don’t cause the reader to lose understanding of what’s happening. I found I realized some things weren’t making sense, so the character’s confusion was tangible, but I also could follow what was happening as an observer (since it’s written entirely in the third person) rather than just getting lost myself. That balance is a neat trick and takes a skilled writer to pull off.

Doomsday Book touches on some significant themes, notably some of the characters’ difficulty in reconciling their belief in God with the horrors of the epidemics before them and the deaths of friends and family members. Some fall to disbelief, others to superstition or belief that it’s God’s vengeance. Those who remain after the epidemics have ended, however, seem to all have come to some appreciation of the kindness and mercy of others, even those facing their own deaths, in the face of unimaginable fear and difficulty. Kivrin’s final encounter with a dying plague victim provides the most moving, insightful scene of the book, even though both characters see the situation from almost perfectly opposed perspectives.

As with To Say Nothing of the Dog and Willis’ shorter novel Bellwether, which I read in June and loved but never had time to review, I couldn’t put Doomsday Book down, reading its nearly 600 pages in just over a week. I’ll have to get to her most recent novel in the Oxford universe, the 2010 two-part novel Blackout/All Clear, which also swept the major awards and runs over 1,000 pages in total.

Next up: I read Philip José Farmer’s Hugo winner To Your Scattered Bodies Go this week and hated just about everything about it. I’m about to start Laurent Binet’s World War II novel HHhH today, which has to be better.

The Way West.

My latest post for Insiders covers the Jordan Zimmermann and J.A. Happ signings.

A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was the second in what would become a series of six novels covering the settlement of what is now the northwestern United States from Montana over to the Pacific, with this novel specifically detailing one wagon train heading out on the Oregon Trail. Although Guthrie’s work all seems to deal with that same topic, The Way West comes across much more as a “buddy movie” sort of book, covering the nascent friendship between the two most significant characters as they assume the leadership of the wagon train and deal with various hazards between Missouri and Oregon.

It’s a real page-turner.

Lije (I assume it’s short for Elijah) Evans is the most central of the various characters in the book, the man who eventually becomes the captain of the caravan by virtue of the respect the other men in the group have for his character and his calmness. Yet it’s Dick Summers, who appeared in the preceding book The Big Sky, who makes the journey possible; he’s an experienced hunter and traveler with nearly supernatural capabilities, able to speak with many different Native American tribes, to hunt all manner of game and fish, and even to forecast the weather, a man without whom the group would likely have faltered somewhere east of Wyoming. The mutual admiration society that develops between these two stoic men is the emotional heart of the book, the one constant through the vicissitudes of the group’s months-long trek across dangerous and hostile terrain.

Guthrie infuses The Way West with plenty of subplots, although they lack the intensity or narrative greed of the two connected strands of the bromance between Evans and Summers and the overarching plot of the trip itself. Evans’ teenaged son Brownie becomes infatuated with the one teenaged girl in the caravan, Mercy McBee, the sexually precocious daughter of two rather worthless parents, who herself has gotten into trouble with the married Curtis Mack. (Mercy and Mack’s wife Amanda both show signs of past sexual abuse or trauma, although it’s never mentioned explicitly in the text.) Guthrie gives the Native Americans a little more humanity and intelligence than I’d expect of a writer of his era, especially as they’re seen through Summers’ eyes; while they’re still a bit of the ‘noble savage’ and are frequently depicted as thieves, Guthrie couldn’t be clearer about his disdain for white settlers who viewed them as less than human or took their lives without cause.

It’s definitely a male-centric novel, as the female characters are mostly props, even Lije’s wife Rebecca, who has some strength to her character but gets relatively little screen time, which adds to the book’s dated feel – we’re already going back over 150 years here, and while it’s historically accurate to have the white guys making all of the decisions and doing the hunting and shooting and fighting, the women on such caravans still had to do a tremendous amount of work. Giving a couple of the women more prominent roles than getting pregnant and cooking dinner would have made the novel a much more enduring read.

I also found it a bit light on action – there are hard times, including conflicts with natives and difficult terrain crossings, but they happen quickly, as if Guthrie very clearly did not want to confuse the people-centric narrative with the tension of a shootout with the Sioux or of a wagon collapsing as the group attempts to ford a rough river. Such scenes give way to longer passages of dialogue or describing the as-yet unspoiled country between the western edge of white civilization and the Pacific coast, which I imagine was part of the Pulitzer committee’s logic in choosing The Way West to win the award. The resulting book, however, is one that’s well-written but dry, lacking so many of the dimensions that make more recent winners (like The Orphan Master’s Son) more colorful, gripping experiences.

Next up: I knocked off Dawn Powell’s Come Back to Sorrento over the weekend and have since begun yet another Pulitzer winner, Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House.

The Teleportation Accident.

I had never heard of Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident before a conversation with a restaurant hostess in August, where she noticed I had a book with me (The Magic Mountain, which, let me tell you, is just a great book to get the ladies interested) and we started chatting about novels, mostly classics. She raved about Beauman’s book so much that I bought it, and just crushed it over about 72 hours this past weekend because it is totally insane, clever, and hilarious, even though I’m not really sure it’s “about” anything at all.

Winner of the peculiar Encore Award (given to the best second novel of the year) and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize (so top twelve), The Teleportation Accident follows the transparently-named Egon Loeser, a set designer in Berlin in the early 1930s who is obsessed with the 17th-century set designer Adriano Lavicini, whose prop “teleportation device” failed in spectacular fashion, killing over two dozen spectators and the designer himself. Loeser is also obsessed with sex, of which he’s not getting any since his breakup with his most recent girlfriend, only to become infatuated with the unfortunately-named Adele Hitler (no relation), whom he eventually chases to Paris and then Los Angeles, where he gets entangled in a giant conspiracy involving an attempt to make an actual teleportation device at CalTech. Through all of these escapades, mostly occurring between 1931 and the end of World War II, Loeser remains blissfully ignorant of the charged political atmosphere around him, even when it puts him or his friends in immediate danger.

That last bit is part of how Beauman subverts almost everything about the modern historical novel – where any other author would insert his protagonist Zelig-like into the major historical events of the era, Beauman keeps Loeser in the dark, makes only oblique references to the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust, and even mocks the standard practice by using a secondary character, the bizarrely-named Scramsfield, who claims to know all the famous people in Paris (referring to James Joyce as “Jimmy”) but actually knows none of them. You expect Loeser to be pushed or dragged along by the force of history, yet every plot twist comes about due to accident or coincidence. This is Zadie Smith’s hysterical realism grafted on to Isherwood’s Berlin, Pynchon’s grandiose plotting with Vonnegut’s cynicism and Fforde’s wit. It’s madcap absurdity without devolving into the impossible (except for one last masterstroke in the final few pages).

Beauman’s decision to make Loeser’s obsession sexual is really a Macguffin, as his long dry spell is more of a plot convenience to keep him chasing after Adele and to push him into these bizarre conspiracies and a sort of meaningless competition with the fatuous English writer Rackenham. In fact, I’m not sure the book is about anything at all, which is probably why the blurb on the back does such a poor job of describing the story. It’s not about sex, and it’s only slightly about Lavicini or teleportation. It is, however, wildly funny, often in ridiculous ways, such as the wealthy car-polish magnate whose agnosia makes him unable to distinguish a picture from reality, so a glass of ginger ale spilled on a map leads him to shout “Ambulance! Thousands drowned!” – and that’s before it deteriorates further into “ontological agnosia,” which might be the most apt description of the book’s central theme (assuming there is one at all).

Also tucked into this bizarre picaresque are a grotesque murder mystery, a quack doctor who claims to promise eternal youth by sewing monkey glands onto your testicles, a conflict over public transportation in Los Angeles, a scientist whose mind (at least) jumps back and forth in twenty-year intervals, and eventually another attempt to tell Lavicini’s story and build another stage version of a teleportation machine. Beauman masterfully ties up all his loose ends in that concluding passage and the three epilogues, each more bonkers than the previous one, yet never veering so far from the central plot’s threads that he can’t narrow it all down to a singularity in the final few words. It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year, and I can’t wait for his next novel, Glow, to come out here in the U.S. in January.

Loving Frank.

Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank falls in one of my least favorite categories of fiction – historical fiction written about real, well-known personalities, where the author is putting words in the mouths of people who likely never said or did anything of the kind. Frank of the title here is Frank Lloyd Wright, and the novel tells the story of his affair with Mamah Borthwick, a married woman who was friends with Wright’s first wife and eventually ran off with Wright, living with him until her murder at the hands of one of the family’s servants. Little is known of their affair’s details beyond scurrilous reports in contemporary newspapers, which pounced on the controversy, stalling Wright’s career in the States for years; Borthwick left few letters behind, leaving little direct evidence of her character and personality. The result is that Horan has fabricated two impossibly good characters in Borthwick and Wright, building a romance between them that feels antiseptic for its simplicity while glossing over the very real matter of both parties abandoning their young children for several years while they pursued their relationship and careers in Europe.

Borthwick and her husband, Edwin, hired Wright to build them a house, and during the process she and Wright developed a relationship around their shared interests; in Horan’s retelling, both were married unhappily to spouses who could not satisfy them intellectually, so the affair is primarily one of thoughts and emotions rather than physical attraction. Horan depicts Wright as demanding and somewhat temperamental, but also incredibly sensitive, a hard-driving boss who is tender and loving when he leaves the office – surely an idealized version of the actual Frank Lloyd Wright, who couldn’t have just left his haughty nature at work when it suited him. Borthwick was, in reality, a translator for the early European difference feminist Ellen Key, a secondary relationship Horan also explores in the book, similarly endowing Key with so many positive traits (and a way with words that just sounds artificial on the page) that she is hard to accept as a real-life character. Borthwick’s feminism contrasts with her desire to follow Wright, and eventually she must make small albeit significant choices between her affair and her wish to have an independent identity and career, but Horan can hand-wave these away because the pair did end up residing together at the origianl Taliesin in Wisconsin, a home Wright built specifically for the two of them.

The false tone of the text poisons it from the beginning of the book, unfortunately, and Horan seems to have too much affection for these superficial characters to recognize that, by lionizing them, she ends up demeaning them instead. Borthwick leaves her children far too easily – leaving her husband, an amiable provider who only wants a homemaker rather than an independent thinker, is much easier to understand – with too little remorse or guilt or even plans to maintain relationships with the children while she’s traveling with Wright and eventually studying on her own in Europe. An emotionally evolved woman like this fictional Borthwick would realize the deleterious effects of abandoning her two young children at their ages, and, more to the point, she’d miss them so powerfully that leaving with Wright and staying with him for months would have been excruciating choices. Horan needs to get Borthwick on that boat with Wright and almost dismisses Borthwick’s maternal instincts because they’re inconvenient. I found it difficult to avoid judging both characters harshly for leaving their children like that; I cannot imagine a situation where I’d leave my daughter for a year or more with barely any contact beyond an occasional letter. When you’re a parent, your child comes first. Even if the marriage is unhappy, you don’t have to flee the continent and forget your children to pursue a separate romance.

Borthwick’s murder by a Barbadian servant who never explained his “motives” (although, given the nature of the crime, he must have had some sort of psychotic break) provides Horan with a comfortable out for her story as well – it almost feels like the visitation of a divine judgment on Mamah for her abandonment of her family, and if it hadn’t actually happened, I’d be criticizing this as a needless and small-minded morality play. Instead, it’s just one false note after another, characters built around real people who were probably nothing like what Horan wanted them to be. It’s bad enough that Mamah and her children died such a horrible death; don’t spit on their graves by using them to project your own personal fantasies as well.

Next up: I’ve finished Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry and have just begun Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef.


Yesterday’s Klawchat transcript is up. Next post from me will be a projection of the first round of this year’s Rule 4 Draft, going up Tuesday.

Walter Scott’s Waverley has earned praise from a diverse group of writers from Jane Austen to the Marxist philosopher György Lukács and was 84th on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100, all based on its status as one of the first historical novels as well as a major social document about the second-class status of Scottish people within the United Kingdom during the 1700s. Perhaps it’s my modern sensibilities or merely my age showing, but I found Waverley‘s dated prose an incredibly slow read, for the language itself, for the bland story, and for Scott’s circuitous route to every point, no matter how minor.

The novel revolves around the title character, a sort of latter-day Tom Jones whose adventures are less bawdy and more political, as he becomes wrapped up in the Jacobite rebellion and ends up fighting for Charles the Pretender in his failed attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne. Edward Waverley is more or less cast aside by his ambitious biological father and reared instead by a Jacobite-leaning uncle who gives his ward a cursory education and encourages him to join the army to find a vocation befitting his birth. On leave from the army, he finds himself introduced first to a band of Highland bandits and then to the chieftain Fergus Mac-Ivor, who leads one of the units in the ragtag revolutionary army seeking to install the young Charles as king. It’s all a hell of a lot less interesting than this sounds, though, as the title character has very little personality of his own and is as much witness as participant in the major historical events within the book.

Waverley, fundamentally a work of historical fiction (the subtitle is “’Tis Sixty Years Since”), incorporates elements of the picaresque through side characters, from Miss Nosebag, all up in everybody’s business, to the fatuous Baron Bradwardine, who peppers his speech with bons mots from sundry foreign tongues. That makes the book a little lighter, but it’s never actually funny, and the funny-name characters (according to Roger Ebert, funny names themselves are never funny) delivery some pretty obvious jokes. The book needed some levity amidst all the grandstanding about English oppression in ol’ Caledonia and a rather uninteresting love triangle, but one-joke side characters don’t cut it.

Scott strongly emphasizes Scottish history, culture, and even dialects, sprinkling the book with Scottish-English vernacular and rendering many characters’ speech phonetically, which served as yet another obstacle to working through his sentences. He originally published the novel anonymously despite his established reputation as a poet, likely because he didn’t want to be associated with the work of verbal quicksand he’d produced. (He failed, as writers and critics apparently recognized his voice immediately.) I understand that the subject matter and his even-handed treatment of both peasants and gentry would have seemed novel at the time, but 200 years later it’s unremarkable and didn’t do anything to sustain my interest.

Perhaps I’m the last person to criticize an author for long sentences, but I imagine Scott served as an inspiration for Proust, or perhaps an excuse (“Well, if Wally Scott could go 60 words between periods, why can’t I go 80?”). The length of the sentences, the heavy use of dialect and phonetic spellings, and the fact that long stretches of the book go by with nothing happening made it a tough slog – in fact, I started reading it in the fall of 2010, put it back on the shelf, and started over last week. If it wasn’t on the Novel 100 I probably would have given up a second time, this one for good.

Next up: I just finished Graham Greene’s tragicomic spy novel The Honorary Consul this morning.


One of you tweeps sent along this Financial Times article on board games, which gives a nice overview of the current state of the industry for those of you wondering why I make such a fuss over these games.

I’ll be on ESPN Radio tonight at 5:40 pm EDT and again on the Herd at some point on Thursday, followed by a Klawchat around 1 pm EDT.

Geraldine Brooks won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with March, a work of derivative historical fiction that tells the story of the father (Mr. March) from Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women, although he’s absent for the first half of that book and more of a background character in the second half. Brooks chose to follow March during his tour as a chaplain for the Union Army in the south, with flashbacks to his life in Concord before the period covered by Alcott’s work.

I am generally not a fan of parallel novels or continuations because of the difficulties in maintaining consistency with a character of someone else’s creation and the change in prose styles, although the latter wasn’t likely to bother me in this case since my only experience with Little Women was in one of those abridged Moby Books versions, which I read close to thirty years ago (along with most of the titles in that series). But the lack of continuity in March’s character was apparent because of the way Brooks infused him with some distinctly modern ideas and sensibilities, and I found Brooks’ depictions of other characters to be thin, such as the southern plantation owner whose racist views and animalistic treatment of his slaves, while probably well rooted in history, came straight out of central casting, and made March’s reactions to him trite as well.

Perhaps more infuriating is Brooks’ fabrication of a weird, pseudo-love triangle subplot where March has romantic feelings for a slave he met – in an extremely unlikely coincidence – twice across a period of nearly two decades on two separate journeys to the American south. The improbable nature of the romance is bad enough, making it seem as artificial as it is. But when March ends up in a Union hospital in Washington and his wife travels from Concord to see him – all of which occurs in Little Women – Brooks uses a miscommunication device better suited to a Wodehouse novel, and not for comedy, but to create a lasting crack in the foundation of the Marches’ marriage – one that doesn’t (to the best of my recollection, or my wife’s, since she read the unabridged original work) exist in Alcott’s novel.

So … why did it win the Pulitzer? I’ve read about 40% of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, including the ten winners prior to the most recent one (Tinkers, on my shelf now), and there seems to be a recent trend favoring books that dwell heavily on race or ethnic identity. You might argue that that subject is central to the American experience, so an award given to an American novel each year should rate those books highly. My personal view is that a book on race or racism can indeed be a compelling read, but not if the author crams the Big Obvious Idea (“Slavery … is bad!”) down the readers’ throats or wraps it up in stock characters who sit firmly on one side or the other of the question. Brooks’ characters lacked complexity in their moral worldviews, making the book seem inconsequential as a whole; the most believable character, in a strange way, was John Brown, one of a few historical figures to appear in the book (Thoreau and Emerson also have cameos), as Brown’s monomaniacal view on slavery and liberation was built on a nuanced rationalization of killing to save others from being killed. Brown only appears briefly – Brooks postulates that the Marches’ financial run came from supporting Brown’s endeavor – but his was, for me, the most interesting passage of the book.

Next up: Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars. And yes, I’m several books – not to mention a game and a few songs – behind in my blogging.

The True History of the Kelly Gang.

I’ve now filed 75 full draft capsules plus a few shorter ones, many of which are accessible through my most recent ranking of the top 100 draft prospects. I chatted yesterday – transcript here – and next week’s will probably be on Friday the 28th.

On Monday, I updated my ranking of the top 25 prospects in the minors, deleting anyone who reached the majors this spring. I also answered a number of questions on other prospects in that article’s Conversation.

I taped a radio hit with Colin Cowherd this morning that will air at 12:10 pm EDT on ESPN Radio. Recent radio hits now online include Mike & Mike, AllNight with Mike Hill (lot of Hanley talk in both hits), and Doug Gottlieb.

It is history Mr Kelly it should always be a little rough that way we know it is the truth

Peter Carey’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang is an impressive feat of historical fiction because he chose a character and a story that is actually pretty well-documented – the story of the inadvertent criminal enterprise headed by Ned Kelly that was fueled by the outrage of the lower classes in Australia in the mid-1800s. Ned Kelly became a folk hero for decades, and his own memoirs of a sort were published many years after his death. As far as I can tell from reading synopses of those memoirs, Carey was reasonably true to the historical record, yet still managed to craft a compelling story and character despite the lack of flexibility in creating the novel.

The story begins in Ned’s childhood, focusing on the hard life of settlers on the Australian plains and the corruption of the local authorities in handing out land rights and meting out justice. His father abandoned the family and his mother had what we might call unfortunate taste in men, including a bushranger who trains Ned in that particular line of “work,” giving him survival skills but also fueling Ned’s rage against the oppressive forces that govern his life and those of the other settlers in the outback. Carey presents Ned’s outlaw career as the inevitable consequence of his training as a bushranger and the injustice of local authorities against his family, including the eventual jailing of his mother when the authorities can’t catch Ned, causing local newspapers to mock the police for incompetence.

I imagine that someone familiar with Australian colonial history would take more from this novel as a social document, but I enjoyed it as just a tragic adventure around an interesting central character who had to survive by his wits and worked out his own personal philosophy and ethics without benefit of education. But my ignorance of Australian history probably did rob me of another level of understanding that I’d get from a similar novel about American history.

One note on the text for those who might tackle the book: Carey’s wrote the book as a long letter from Kelly to his then-infant daughter, and his prose attempts to mimic the style of Kelly’s own writings, light on punctuation with many grammatical errors, euphemisms, or blotted-out words, something that took me a good 30-40 pages to get past to the point where I could read the text smoothly; it added authenticity to the narrative voice but I imagine it’ll be a turn-off for the same readers who can’t stand Faulkner’s meandering sentences.

Next up: Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant.