It is easy to understand how The Conductor (Vintage, 303 pages) stayed on the best seller list for weeks and weeks in New Zealand. The story is compelling, and Sarah Quigley knows how to tell it. Against the background of the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War Dmitry Shostakovich is writing his Seventh Symphony, struggling to finish it while German bombs are falling all around him. Meanwhile, the main character, Karl Il’ich Eliasberg (1907-1978), the second-rate conductor of a second-rate orchestra, goes about his life of quiet desperation, unaware that circumstances are coming together so as to place him at the center of history. Continue reading
The Betrayers (Little, Brown & Co, 267 pages) begins with a Russian expression on a young woman’s face. A pretty blonde woman working as hotel clerk in Yalta is berated by a young woman from Israel, who insists she be given a room. The clerk “endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression. A particularly Russian sort of expression, Kotler thought. The morose, disdainful expression with which the Russians had greeted their various invaders. An expression that denoted an irrational, mortal refusal to capitulate—the pride and bane of the Russian people.”
Up in that part of state just east of the Cap Rock, south of the Red River and west and north of Wichita Falls is a region of the country the residents continue to call “East Texas,” although, even at 70 mph it is hours from Amarillo, Lubbock or Spur, a half-day from San Angelo and Odessa, and a long, hard, hot day from Ozona or El Paso.
It is a part of the country that rhetorician Jim Cordon once called “terra incognito,” forgotten by most of Texas, ignored by everyone else. It is a hard land, filled with rattlesnakes, mesquite, winters that freeze livestock and people, summers that dry the ground so hard it cracks. Continue reading
As the twenty-fist century accelerates toward a new low point in modern political history, eighty-five people possess about forty percent of the world’s wealth (that’s not a typo),* second- and third-generation war-terrorized children are born to benumbed, dehumanized parents, and most news reports would probably seem horribly unreal to even Bradbury and Orwell.
One may ask, What does twenty-first century art have to say about all this? We’ve heard from activists, a few courageous whistle-blowers; we’ve seen Hollywood thrillers with at least one Cheney-like character snarling with glee as he slaughters the hopes of yet another welfare mom. But where is the nuanced rendering of this story about the death of democracy?
The Most Distant Way (Holland House Books, 200 pages) is the vibrant first novel of Ewan Gault, a young Scottish writer. His story is set in Kenya, home of the world’s best competitive runners, where two young Scots, Mike and Kirsten, are training at the high-altitude running center in the Rift Valley. Their private neuroses, presumably acquired in the West, and the novel’s pervasive concern with their physical bodies reflect the single-minded drive required of runners; the anxious self-involvement of the two Westerners; and the social chaos in the Kenyan locations of Eldoret, Mount Elgon, and Mombasa. Continue reading
Jeffra Hays’ Cocoa Almond Darling (Smashwords 2011, 126 pages) is the story of Millicent Randolph, survivor of a bad marriage and starting over in tough circumstances. These include finding a place to live and a job. She finds work in a sewing shop and enjoys a brief, happy relationship with her employer, in which she becomes pregnant although he is married. Her difficulties are then resumed through a long, turbulent aftermath to this affair. The turmoil continues following the birth of her child and on up to this daughter’s marriage and birth of her own daughters, when Milly becomes a grandmother. Continue reading
Ezra Pound’s observation that “literature is news that STAYS news” certainly applies to Road to Nowhere (Henry Regnery Company, 382 pages). This excellent novel, first published by a Polish exile in 1955, is consistently engaging and, for its aching, visceral power, still feels fresh. Given the unfortunate fact that Józef Mackiewicz is generally unknown in the U.S. and most of his work is untranslated or out of print, he might as well be seen as a new writer, as far as Americans are concerned. Considered in this light, he is quite simply the most intriguing new writer I have encountered in years. Continue reading