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Heartwood posts are written by a librarian interested in spotlighting older books, international authors, and small press offerings that are in various ways distinctive. For more information click on Contributors in the masthead.

Heartwood 7:3 – The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

About a year ago, New Directions rereleased Helen DeWitt’s long out-of-print novel, The Last Samurai, which was accompanied by quite a bit of publicity, including this post on LitHub featuring glowing testimonials from various booksellers. But the buzz seemed to die down quickly in the months following, at least in the online spaces I haunt, so here’s my small effort to call attention once again to this remarkable book.

The cover of the reissue features an extreme-wide-angle, upside-down-and-tilted photo of subway cars in The Tube. It almost shouts challenging text ahead, which both increased my anticipation and made me a bit nervous, but I breathed a little easier as I flipped the pages of DeWitt’s Prologue which is immediately immersive, intelligent, and a bit snarky – it ends with a bang, promising great things ahead. I challenge anyone to read the Prologue and not be tempted to dive into the rest of the book.

At its most stripped-down, the story is about a single woman (Sibylla) who is raising and educating a genius child (Ludo) in London. She supports them by doing low-wage data entry work at home – work that is frequently interrupted to field the many questions from her precocious son. I don’t think there are many novels out there that could be considered page-turners which also, in the course of the narrative, explore the rudiments of Greek and Japanese, the educational ideas of John Stuart Mill, the artistry and deeper meanings beneath Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, or touch on such subjects as solid state physics, the principles of aerodynamics, or Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony.

But a page-turner it is. This is one of those books I could hardly wait to get back to every time I had to leave off reading. That’s not to say, however, that it won’t rub any number of readers the wrong way. I was put off at times by Ludo’s extreme braininess, and by Sibylla’s occasional pedantry and condescension. Others, I imagine, will be skimming the lessons in Greek, Kanji, and the “distributive principle of multiplication.” Stylistically, you should be prepared for paragraphs that simply trail off, a variable use of quotation marks to indicate dialogue, and the use of all caps when Sibylla gets worked up (especially against barbarism and the aesthetic excesses of certain writers and painters). And if you respond as I did, you may well come away from this regretting the quality of your own education and feeling that you wasted your youth (though also inspired, somehow, that maybe it’s not too late to catch up).

As Ludo grows up he becomes more obsessed with discovering who his father is, and though Sibylla will not help him with this, he corners her into dropping clues and making slips which he then pursues. With the film Seven Samurai always playing in the background, it may not surprise you to learn that Ludo has narrowed the field down to seven possible candidates. Much of the impetus for Ludo’s wide-ranging study comes from the specialized interests of these seven men, as he prepares himself to potentially encounter his father as a worthy opponent in the spirit of a samurai. The last half of the book includes Ludo hunting down these individuals, and these diverse tales should certainly please readers who enjoy following a character through various adventures and storylines.

I’m not sure how actively I’ll be attempting to teach myself Greek, but you can add my voice to those who found this an ambitious, inspired, unique, and totally successful piece of writing.

Heartwood 7:2 – Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia

target-in-the-nightTarget in the Night by feted, recently deceased, Argentinian author Ricardo Piglia is a beautifully constructed novel featuring a number of interrelated stories, distinctly individualized characters, and stylish storytelling.

On its surface we have the murder of Tony Durán who came from the U.S. to a provincial town outside of Buenos Aires with lots of cash and a connection to the twin Belladona sisters. Attempting to solve Durán’s murder is Croce, the quixotic, Holmesian detective who has a long history of butting heads with local prosecutor Cueto.

The murder involved a knifing and the apparent use of a defunct dumbwaiter to lower down cash from the victim’s hotel room. The latter may also have provided the means of escape for a small person. Indeed the chief suspect is a Japanese jockey by the name of Yoshio, and his alleged act is being called a crime of passion. Other suspects include various members of the Belladona family, and a different jockey, who may have been paid to make the hit as he was in need of cash to buy a beloved, injured horse.

Woven into the story are scenes at the racetrack, the Belladona brothers and their fortress-like factory for cutting-edge automotive prototypes on the outskirts of town, a reporter (Renzi) from the city who has come to report on the murder, and a slowly unfolding history of the town and life on the Argentinian pampas that brings to mind García Márquez’s mythical town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Belladona family are prominent citizens in the community but are described as being currently at war with each other. We learn of their family history in ways that are fascinating and add layers of intrigue. For example, Renzi has a long talk with the twin, Sophia (eventually leading to intimacy), which unfolds episodically throughout the novel. And Renzi discovers more details about the Belladonna family with the help of the town’s efficient archivist, Rosa, revealing a family schism and the attempt to appropriate the Belladona factory and surrounding lands through a corporate takeover.

In addition to all this, Piglia’s various characters have peculiar interests that include a fascination with language and syntax, dreams and the work of Carl Jung, literature and philosophy, quasi-mysticism, rationalism, madness, perception and the idée fixe. Target in the Night is a wonderful amalgam of detective story and classical tragedy told in voices that vary from Chandler to Pynchon to Bolaño. Readers in need of cleanly wrapped up narratives should probably look elsewhere, but for those who are open to ambiguity and enjoy finely realized characters, myriad subject matter, and punchy yet graceful writing — definitely give this book a look.

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Blanco nocturno (Target in the Night) was awarded the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize in 2011. For more about the author see the Piglia Dossier in the first issue of the new journal, Latin American Literature Today.

Heartwood 7:1 – Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard

greene-on-capriThis blog post is prompted by the news that Shirley Hazzard died this past December at age 85.

It’s kind of funny to me that I read this book without ever having read Graham Greene (though he’s long been on my radar, and I’m a fan of the film The Third Man). Funnier still since I’d also not read anything by Shirley Hazzard (her Transit of Venus won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980, and The Great Fire won the National Book Award in 2003). But a few years ago, one of my book-talking buddies handed me this book and said I should read it. I must say I was quite taken by the cover, and seeing the book’s slim length, I decided to give it a try.

In the opening scene, Hazzard has run into Greene at a café on Capri where he is dining at a separate table with friends and reciting part of a Browning poem to them. Before leaving, Hazzard supplies him with the line he’s struggling to recall. This literary showiness rankled me enough that I put the book aside. But some weeks later, I picked it up again and found myself very much enjoying Hazzard’s stately prose, the descriptions of Greene’s home and the island of Capri (accent on the a, she tells us), and the friendship that develops between Greene, Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller.

Hazzard devotes much of the book to Greene, mostly during their shared time there in the 1960s and ’70s, but she also includes some interesting details about the history of the island. Her account of Tiberio, the island-top ruins, features some fine descriptive language, and we learn that a number of Russian writers visited the island in their day, such as Gorky, Turgenev, and Ivan Bunin.

For the most part, Hazzard writes admiringly of Greene, but not without particular criticisms, such as in the passage here:

Repeatedly singled out as a writer of his “era,” Graham, even so, long eluded literary chronology. His best work, with its disarming blend of wit, event, and lone fatality, has not staled; and he himself, always ready, with eager skepticism, for life’s next episode, did not seem to “date.”  However, in one respect – his attitudes to women – he remained rooted, as man and writer, in his early decades.

From the 1920s into the 1940s, Greene and several of his talented male contemporaries were working, in English fiction, related veins of anxiety and intelligence, anger and danger, sex and sensibility, and contrasting an ironic private humanity with the petty vanities and great harm of established power.  Their narrative frequently centered on the difficulty of being a moody, clever, thin-skinned – and occasionally alcoholic – literate man who commands the devotion of a comely, plucky, self-denying younger woman.

The book doesn’t have chapters as such, but in one section, on the importance of reading to Greene, she tells how Greene insisted his biographer, Norman Sherry, travel to every place Greene had been, as background to writing his biography. Remarkably, Sherry did this – but Hazzard notes:

Had Graham enjoined his biographer to read, rather, the countless thousands of books, celebrated or obscure, that fuelled his life, thought, and work, consoled and informed his passions, and caused him, as he said, “to want to write,” that request would have been absurd, unfeasible, and entirely apposite.

Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a lifeline to the rational as well as the fantastic. The tormented love affairs of adult years – and, supremely, the long passion for Lady Walston – brought him to the verge of insanity and suicide. It was in reading and writing that he enjoyed, from early childhood, a beneficent excitement and ground for development of his imagination and his gift… Our own best times with Graham usually arose from spontaneous shared pleasures of works and words – those of poets and novelists above all – that were central to his being and ours.

In its closing pages, Hazzard returns to the literary exchange that opens the book: in 1992 she received a letter from Michael Richey, one of those present when Hazzard supplied Greene with the words of the Browning poem at the restaurant all those decades before, and this letter, coming the year after Greene’s death, is what triggered her decision to write this book.

After finishing Greene on Capri, I looked for Capri on a map and discovered it is off the west coast of Italy, near the mainland city of Sorrento. And it strikes me that this would be the perfect book to take along to a “silent reading night” at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle. Or maybe one of Greene’s novels.

Heartwood 6:6 – Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

carmillaI don’t normally read to scare myself, boost my heart rate, or get a jolt of adrenaline, but this time of year I often find myself looking for something a little spooky, dark, or supernatural. This year, the 140-year-old novella Carmilla, one of the earliest vampire tales (predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula), delivered just the dose of gothic elegance I was after.

When a carriage crashes on the road near their Styrian castle, Laura, a young woman, and her father offer their assistance and find themselves taking temporary custody of the weakened Carmilla, a woman in appearance about Laura’s age, as her mother has urgent business she must attend to farther down the road. Laura is thrilled to have found a female companion, and they form a remarkably quick and somewhat seductive intimacy. But early intimations that all is not quite right with the languid guest, who only emerges from her room late in the afternoon, grow more serious when Laura too begins to experience a similar loss in vigor and vitality.

The story moves along quite quickly and is told in an appealingly antiquated style with calm deliberateness and economy (though it does include a bit of unneeded repetition while also leaving a number of things unexplained). What I liked best about the book was Carmilla’s mysterious way of talking about being together forever with Laura, the significance of dreams, and the dreamlike ways in which the vampire would strike. Additionally, avid readers will be happy to see that book learning plays a large role in eventually putting the vampire (and story) to rest.

Heartwood 6:5 – Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

PondHeartwood mostly focuses on older books, but once in a while I’m so taken with a new release that I simply must tell people about it. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is such a book, one of the most dazzling debuts I’ve read. It could be labeled an experimental novel or linked short stories or even autofictional memoir without really mattering much to me (a pond is a pond is a mudhole). What does matter is how Bennett puts you inside her narrator’s head. I don’t know that it’s voice necessarily (but what a voice!), or even the quirky richness of the main character’s personality, but rather a kind of intensity, a shared personable intimacy, as if the reader is discovering and experiencing the author’s thoughts at the same time that she is writing them down.

The book focuses on an unnamed young woman who has moved to an old stone cottage in the rural countryside on the west coast of Ireland. The chapters often feature small details of daily living which serve as unlikely launching pads for wide-ranging meditations on recent or distant events in her life, relationships past and present, or things going on right inside or outside her cottage. For example, the broken control knobs on her mini-oven, or the act of taking a bath during a storm, or simply cleaning the fireplace grate will trigger a flood of unexpected reflections on such things as the intensity of feelings upon encountering a forgotten love letter, memories of reading a book about the last woman alive, feeling alienated from a particular place and its history. She moves from topic to topic in a perfectly natural but discursive way, telling us everything in a voice that is exactly right, conveying her wit, intelligence, gentle misanthropy and sense of wonder.

Here are some of the themes that stood out for me: a keen attention to the earth – to the everyday dirt, mud, stones, ponds, gardens, storm-blown leaves and other detritus; a concern with language, both to uncover one’s understanding of things but also in that it can misdirect, and its inability to fully capture and communicate experience; the value of solitude; a background fear of the unknown or imagined, and a compulsive interest in embracing it; love in all its complexity – as all-consuming, obliterating, brutal, inexplicable, happy; the unaccountable workings of the mind and imagination; the pressures of history; and the challenge to attune yourself to the “earth’s embedded logos,” to experience a “deep and direct accordance with things.”

I can’t begin, in this short review, to do justice to this phenomenal book; there’s so much going on and, from one perspective anyway, it seems to demand immersion and living-through rather than description and analysis. But let me, as further examples, at least chart some of the unexpected jumps in the first long chapter, “Morning, Noon, and Night.” The chapter opens, comically enough, with a detailed consideration of what makes the best breakfast food but then takes up such things as: living without purpose but just to take things in; abandoning academia; the purchase of a couple of pieces of textile art and changes in what she sees in them; how to talk of what most moves us would spoil it; fulsome sex and the pleasure of writing lustful, salacious emails; finding a secret garden and becoming an accidental gardener; a quiet early evening of intently listening in the garden. This chapter so impressed me that I found myself reading it again immediately.

Librarians have a tendency to compare and connect books, even though the most unique and striking books can only be crudely compared to anything else. So, yes, I encourage you to read Pond, it is beautifully idiosyncratic, and I will add that anyone who admires what Bennett has done with her female lead might also want to look at Robert Thomas’s Bridge (one of my favorite books of 2014), Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo.

Now I’m going to shut up and return to rereading the rest of this book.

Heartwood 6:4 – The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre

JacketPierre is a 56-year-old bartender in a Parisian restaurant called Le Cercle. The restaurant is owned by a husband-and-wife team (Henri and Isabelle) in their early 40s. In addition to Pierre, they also employ a Senegalese cook by the name of Amédée, a waitress named Sabrina (with whom, it is assumed, Henri is having an affair), and a new girl, Madeleine, who’s been hired to fill in for Sabrina, who is out with the flu. The title is a bit misleading, as the new waitress is a very minor character and this tale is really about Pierre, the wonderfully – and a bit woefully – composed barman who the reader comes to understand through his gentlemanly behavior and conversations with the others, but especially through his thoughts and observations.

The action takes place over just a few days. On the day the new waitress starts, the boss slips out the backdoor and disappears. The boss’s wife typically shows up mid-day and she is glum when she finds her husband has skipped out. There is a pattern to this behavior, and Pierre and Isabelle assume he has gone off for a tryst with Sabrina. This is the dramatic set-up which makes the workday that much harder for the other employees, being a small operation where every hand is needed to get things done. The day ends with Pierre wondering if the new girl will even return the next day. As the senior employee, Pierre provides some emotional support for the boss’s wife, and we also learn about the dissolution of his own marriage (which he thinks was for the best), his mid-life crisis of two years earlier, and even a bit of his mother’s parenting style. The story develops from here in ways that are significant for the few Le Cercle staff, but without any great action, mostly we get Pierre and details of his daily life: Pierre in his apartment doing domestic chores, worrying about reaching the point where he can claim his pension, attempting to shake off the image of dead leaves from a dream, taking his medications, and trying to muster his energy for the next day.

One might grumble about the rather abrupt ending, but this is in keeping with the slice-of-life narrative and the uncertainty that circumstances have thrust Pierre into – I only wished for a little more time in his company. The Waitress Was New is an everyman kind of story told by a character with an easy and, at times, melancholy grace. We’re there as Pierre habitually wipes down the bar, sizes up and interacts with customers (some of whom need to pay off their tabs), banters with Amédée across the pass-through, and reflects on the path his life has taken. Readers drawn to books for character will definitely be glad to have taken a seat at the bar where, in a switch of typical roles, they get to listen to this personable barman’s story, insights, and observations.

Heartwood 6:3 – The Invention of Morel

MorelThe Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, is a remarkable and strange tale of the experiences of a marooned fugitive on a now deserted island. The tale unfolds as a kind of Dr. Moreau1-on-the-holodeck2 – an eternal return3 groundhog’s-week4 of mechanical reproduction5, all watched over by machines of loving grace6.

The slight water damage to the library’s copy of this book will merely assist in transporting you to the island’s tidal marshlands where the narrator jots down his notes (the book you’re reading). He’s been driven there when the appearance of newcomers causes him to flee the abandoned museum with its aquarium floor, statuary idols, and alabaster urns.

To say much more than the cryptic sentences above would give away too much, so I’ll just add that if you like adventure stories with speculative elements, a forthright narrator (of questionable veracity), and the heartfelt pull of unattainable ideals – especially love – then this short book will be one you’ll remember long after finishing it. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian master of fantastic stories, has said about the book: “to classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.”

Incredible and fantastic. Don’t miss it.
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  1. The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
  2. Star Trek technology
  3. Nietzsche
  4. Harold Ramis / Bill Murray
  5. Walter Benjamin
  6. Richard Brautigan