Trick by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

When Daniele visits the Naples home where he grew up, he confronts who he has become since leaving.  Daniele’s daughter, now living in the house, has asked him to watch her son, Mario, while she and her husband are at a weekend conference.  Both a trick and a treat, Trick by Domenico Starnone, delights the senses as well as inspires existential rumination.

Ailing after a stint in the hospital, well-known illustrator Daniele Mallarico wants to watch his grandson in the house where he grew up even less than he wants to produce plates for a new edition of The Jolly Corner by Henry James.  Like James’ protagonist, Daniele is haunted by ghosts from his past.  He sees them in his grandson, Mario, whose artistic talent already surpasses his own.  While Mario plays at art, and succeeds, Daniele struggles to get any satisfactory work done.  His publisher calls disappointed with what Daniele has submitted so far. The disapproval stings more than usual, stifling his productivity and sending him questioning the basis for his fame thus far.  Mario distracts him, but also forces Daniele to see how his relentless work ethic has left him lonely and resentful.

At the climax of the book, Mario plays a trick on Grandpa, locking him on the balcony in the cold and rain.  At once tragic and comic, Daniele becomes the helpless child, the butt of Mario’s joke, and Mario the capable adult who eventually figures out how to let his grandpa back in.  The scene best conveys the book’s delightful and spitty dialogue between Daniele and Mario, as well as Daniele’s vivid reflections on aging, the artistic life and identity. He sees all the selves he could have become, of which he’s tried to rid himself when he left home, melding together like “muck, alive and insatiable” (105).  

The book ends with an appendix: Daniele’s artist journal, with paintings in the margins, about his work on The Jolly Corner and his time with his daughter and her family.  Not just a supplement, the appendix complements the main text, grounding it in Henry James’ themes and Daniele’s perceptions.  The book stands on its own, but the appendix suggests it would be better understood by reading James.

Playfully toggling between past and present, childish humor and serious soul probing, Trick is Starnone’s latest and most endearing novel.   find the book on goodreads


Under The Skin by Michel Faber

Michel Faber’s Under the Skin explores what makes victims and perpetrators the same “under the skin.”  Centered around an awkward Scottish Highlands driver, Isserley, this 2000 speculative fiction release also features her hitchhikers and the workers at the farm where she deposits the men she picks up.  Isserley is on a roll harvesting hitchers until the conscientious son of the farm owner, Amlis Vess, arrives.  Beautiful, rich and powerful, his entrance marks a twist in the plot.  Without a clear climax, the book meanders as mopily as Isserley drives the A9.  Amlis influences Isserley to change course at the end, but toward unity or away from it?  

Isserley always takes another pass before deciding whom to let into her vehicle.  She’s looking for a healthy male.  Bulky on top, preferably.  Once she’s let a man in, she makes sure he isn’t married or in love or a father.  Luckily, the A9 is littered with the unattached and unemployed, or those sliding toward some such undesirable state.  Isserley’s intentions for these passengers are unclear until several have either been let off down the road or brought back to Ablach farm.  The erotic overtones to these encounters evaporate once the farm’s purpose becomes obvious.  Isserley is simply doing a job no one but she, in her modified state, can do.  There is something odd about Isserley besides her funny driving techniques, the hitchers notice.  Isserley is a “human” whose body has been made to appear as a “vodsel” so she can do her job.  Until Amlis Vess arrives on the scene, she doesn’t question what she’s doing.  In fact, she’s grateful to have the job she does, as risky and difficult as it it.  But Amlis protests the farm’s, and Isserley’s, treatment of the vodsel “animals”.  Told mostly from Isserley’s not-one-nor-the-other state, Faber’s perspective is elusive.  Does he show how these characters are more similar than different?   

The novel’s success – its elusiveness – is also its failure.  Reading to figure out what’s going on is pleasurable.  Instead of building a climactic plot, Faber slowly reveals who Isserley is and what she does.  As the hitchers each try to understand their “captor,” Isserley, readers, too, gain bearings and insight into this mysterious topsy-turvy world.  However, the suspension of disbelief, the enjoyment of this novel, ends when Amlis raises concerns about his father’s business, Isserley’s employer.  His moral question stands out against the otherwise bumbling, often comic encounters between Isserley and her colorful counterparts.  Isserley is distracted by Amlis not only because his ideals counter her work, but also because she’s attracted to him.  Is this a story of thwarted love or a moral tale?  Faber doesn’t make up his mind.

The point of building an alternative or parallel literary universe is to shed light on the dominant one.  Adopting opposite labels for what are normally categorized as human and animal, Faber questions paradigms but fails to create another viable option.  Isserley’s fate, which could be considered Faber’s “answer,” follows the previous trajectory of her life; it makes sense.  But it does not persuade.

Five Days that Shocked the World: Eye Witness Accounts from Around Europe at the End of WWII by Nicholas Best

Longtime history and travel author, Nicholas Best, sheds new light on momentous events at the end of WWII through the lens of eye witness accounts.  He captures the reactions of people we don’t normally associate with the war: actresses and filmmakers, writers and soon-to-be Popes, as well as more familiar political figures like Bob Dole, Jack Kennedy, and Winston Churchill and his wife.  More than a chronological sequence of events, this book reads like a series of snapshots, as vivid and captivating and as the events and people they describe.

He divides the book into five parts, corresponding to the last five days of the war, April 28 – May 2, 1945.  Between Italy, Germany, Russia and the Netherlands, Best chronicles both Mussolini’s and Hitler’s gruesome deaths and the ensuing mayhem they inspire.  Mussolini’s wife and two children just hope to get out alive after Mussolini’s body, and that of his girlfriend, are paraded through the streets.  Hitler’s closest Nazi officials debate escaping their underground bunker, killing themselves like their leader, or surrendering to the Allies rather than the Bolsheviks.  Those in charge of Dachau and other concentration camps have no choice; they’re dealt with by the Americans who liberate the camp.  Russians celebrates May Day by storming the German Chancellery.  Meanwhile, American and British pilots drop food instead of bombs over famished Holland in Operation Manna.    

One of the most compelling storylines is to follow actress Hildegard Knef and her boyfriend Ewalt on Demandowsky over the course of the five days, as they fight their way through enemy lines, staying with willing friends until their presence makes their hosts easy targets for Russian soldiers.  We don’t get such protracted stories of other personages, like Audrey Hepburn, one of the starving Dutch, or Kurt Vonnegut, a soldier, or Ezra Pound, American Nazi, or Gunther Grass, Nazi-turned-resistor, or Allen Dulles, negotiating a surrender in Italy, to name a few.  But almost all the voices Nicholas Best cites, speak in their own words.  At the beginning of the book, he makes no bones about the fact that some accounts contradict.  He concludes the book with follow-ups of what happens to all these people after the war, making the overall project less about the war and more about preserving firsthand memories. find the book on goodreads

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby

When asked to answer, in one sentence, why she wants to come to the South Pole, artist Cooper Gosling quotes Apsley Cherry-Garrard of the Scott Pole expedition: “If you are a brave man, you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery.”  As a confessed coward, this main character in Ashley Shelby’s debut novel (based on her sister’s experience), fits among misfits, loners, and outcasts all running from something in the “real world” to this desolate alternative universe, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.  But could they end up running to each other?  Join the “Polies,” scientists (beakers), maintenance (nailheads), artists/writers/dancers/sociologist grant recipients, cooks, and administrators as they build community and get to the heart of some of the world’s most pressing concerns.

The central conflict in the novel surrounds the arrival of Frank Pavano, a scientist whose work conflicts with all the others’.  Backed by big business and Congress lobbyists, Pavano’s work questions climate change, namely, that humans create it.  While Sal Brennan, a physicist at the Station, leads a revolt against Pavano, making it nearly impossible for him to work, Cooper befriends him.  Pavano reminds Cooper of her twin brother, David, whose memory haunts her.  Side conflicts – lovers’ spats, kitchen feuds, pool tournaments, medical emergencies – provide humor while Pavano’s presence threatens overall progress at the station.  Setting aside differences, the crew rallies around Cooper’s personal mission to put her brother’s memory to rest.  She’s a microcosm of what the South Pole means to everyone who’s there, just as the South Pole Station is a locus of scientific inquiry to the wider world.

Shelby manages to elucidate big ideas at stake – climate change vs. denial, the Big Bang vs. the Big Bounce, and other theories – while not overwhelming readers with science.  Set against these debates, the book is about a cast of brilliant and unforgettable personalities who care about the fate of their world, both large and small.  With journalistic attention to facts and novelistic character development and drama, Shelby makes clear that individual stories matter to the bigger picture. See the book on Goodreads

The Arab’s Ox: Stories of Morocco by Tony Ardizzone


In this reissued release of Tony Ardizzone’s second collection of short stories, he rolls out an exquisite carpet for our arrival into Morocco – and into the depths of our own souls.  With the changes in Morocco since the book’s original publication twenty five years ago – a new king, The Arab Spring, terrorist attacks, protests, land negotiations with Spain, the immigration crisis, among others –  Ardizzone’s questions about what it means to be open to another culture, and one’s own, are relevant now more than ever.   In the first tale, in which their bus from the Casablanca airport hits an ox, we’re introduced to the cast of characters featured in the subsequent stories.  Henry, an American tourist with stomach cancer, Sarah, a native of Chicago travelling alone, and Peter, a history professor setting up an exchange study, each confronts what brings them to Morocco before they can welcome what Morocco has to offer them.  Ardizzone offers us readers not only a glimpse of this beautiful country, but characters at crossroads, intricately and beautifully drawn.

The first story is a prism for understanding all the others.  Confusion, fear, and awe ensue when the bus strikes the ox.  It had come out of nowhere, just like the prospect of Morocco comes out of nowhere for Henry, Sarah, and Peter, the Americans on the bus.  Henry, looking for an adventure before his stomach cancer gets the better of him, lands on Morocco by chance.  Sarah goes because everyone said she shouldn’t since the boyfriend she’d planned on going with is out of the picture.  Peter volunteers to go on behalf of his university because he thinks it will benefit his career, not because it’s Morocco.  While the Americans take pictures of the accident, an amusing first anecdote on their adventure, the Moroccans have to deal with the ox.  The boy who witnesses its fall has spilled the milk he was delivering and will be in trouble.  The bus driver might lose his job.  How will the Americans come to care about the consequences of this journey, this foray into foreign land?  

Morocco stands for something to each of the characters.  In order to decipher this symbol in their lives, they must look inward.  They each arrive at a turning point in which Morocco speaks back to them, helps them discover its meaning to them.  For Henry, Ahmed becomes his guide not only to various Moroccan sites, but to his own mortality.  Rosemary, an American ex-patriate, a grizzled but classy woman, sees her younger self in Sarah and tries to steer her toward a different future.  Peter, whose background resembles the author’s, befriends his counterpart in the study exchange, Mohammed, and his wife Aisha.  Morocco, for Peter, is a chance to right his former wrongs.  

Ardizzone masterfully weaves together these characters’ individual stories with a portrait of the Moroccan people.  He sets vivid descriptions of street scenes alongside his characters’ thoughts.  Peter wonders to himself, “What had he done to have lost her [his wife]?  What hadn’t he done?  He pulled in a sudden breath, gazed across the traffic at a man in a dark blue business suit and red fez walking past the first row of tables outside the Hotel Balima” (155).  Morocco implants itself in his inner life.  In the final story, another Peter tale, he negotiates the sale of a carpet for his new home, but no sooner does he buy it than he’s asked to set it down with all the other rugs to welcome the king back from his travels.  Peter’s purchase becomes baraka, a kind of spiritual communication between The Other and himself.  With it, he begins to embrace a new life.  So, too, Ardizzone’s book is a mediator for readers, leading us into a magical, yet very relate-able world. buy the book on Amazon

The Lords of St. Thomas by Jackson Ellis

This first novel by Jackson Ellis, inspired by the real Hugh Lord in the lost town of St. Thomas, Nevada, imagines what it is like to lose your home and discover it again.  Fictional Henry Lord grew up in St. Thomas, as did both parents, his grandparents and great grandparents, who settled there, following Joseph Smith.  In 1936, during the building of the Hoover Dam, when the government tries to relocate the Lord family, Henry’s father and grandfather disagree how to respond.  Grandpa won’t budge, but dad takes work in the city to save up for a new home in safer territory.  Until then, Henry, his mom and grandpa stay in their family home while the town is all but deserted.  Finally, they’re forced to leave.  Will Henry ever return?

Jackson, a long time writer and editor from Vermont, masterfully couples a historic event with a classic coming of age story.  In Henry’s own voice, Jackson begins with the hasty and tragic departure from home, then fast forwards Henry at age 76, recognizing the dried up remains of his old town in a newspaper picture.  The rest of the short book connects these two dots in time through vivid scenes of father and son playing baseball and grandpa and grandson fishing, school ground fights, and a mother’s love, as well as the tamarisk and creosote studded desert of the Moapa Valley.  History comes alive as characters relate differently to the verdict cast down from on high, that their valley would soon flood with re-routed river water.  Meanwhile, Henry, a child, believes what he wants to be true, that he’d never have to leave (49).  But he does leave, first by necessity and then by choice.  In a poetic twist, an older Henry returns to St. Thomas in extreme dry conditions, where a storm and ensuing flood had sent him packing at age twelve.  The story is heart warming, but not sentimental, and well told (it won the Howard Frank Mosher First Novel Prize in 2017), a glimpse into the past and a glimmer of hope for the future.  buy the book on Amazon

Return to the Dark Valley by Santiago Gamboa

“That Man should labour & sorrow,

& learn & forget, & return

To the dark Valley whence he came,

To begin his labours anew”

William Blake

Santiago Gamboa’s Return to the Dark Valley is a journey into the “dark valley” of hell and back out again.  It begins during the 2004 terrorist attacks on the Irish embassy in Madrid where Consul, a Colombian diplomat-turned-writer and the primary narrator of the novel, is mysteriously summoned from Rome, where he’d been living, by a Juana, an ex-lover.  Upon his departure to Madrid, we switch narrators to Manuela, a young poet from Cali recounting to a psychiatric Doctor her tale of abandonments and betrayals, first by her father, then by her mother and subsequently friends and lovers.  Then, the Argentinian, Tertullian, as he’s called by his followers, narrates to Consul how he became Master of the Universal Republic, a new world order he conceives of, borrowing from Nazi and other principles.  Recovering from a bar fight, in the same room in a Madrid hospital, Consul meets Ferdinand Palacios, a fellow Colombian and freedom fighting priest.  Palacios becomes the catalyst bringing Consul, Juana, Manuela and Tertullian traveling together back to Colombia, to right wrongs done to Manuela.  Rimbaud, the infamous French poet of the late 19th century, known for being explosive, gay and always on the move, whose biography Consul is writing, serves as background to this collective search for revenge and redemption, and inspires the characters’ final adventure.

This is not the magical realist Colombia of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rather, it explores the modern urban grit beneath the country’s enchanting landscape.  There are layers to this underbelly; first is the Madrid terrorist attack, and other bad news, going on in the present.  Next, are the individual tragic stories of Consul and his subject, Rimbaud, with whom he identifies, Manuela and Tertullian.  In the first half of the book, the heavy story lines of Consul, Manuela and Tertullian are as disconnected from each other as the citizens of Madrid seem to be from the news of the attacks.  We have no idea what these characters have to do with each other.  Going from one character to the next is like disparate news stories reported one after the other with no connection, no hierarchy of importance.  We experience them like an endless barrage of news with no commercial break.  Consul’s own chapters get interrupted by headlines: BREAKING NEWS, POLICE ATTACK EMBASSY… BREAKING NEWS, POLICE ATTACK EMBASSY.  Through these intrusions in the text, Gamboa suggests that the real intrusion to the story is not the headlines, not the news, but the evasion of the news, the ability to turn it off or ignore it, like the Madrid citizens seem so quickly to forget the attacks and return to their normal lives.  “Despite the crisis and embassy siege, there were streams of people in the streets, an incredible hustle and bustle” (95).

Gamboa doesn’t let us turn away from his crew.  Instead, he draws us further in.  Just when it all seems too much – Manuel’s drama, Consul’s waiting for Juana and Tertullian’s battle cries – Gamboa brings the story lines together in the second half of the book.  Through Palacios, the characters all get wrapped up in Manuela’s goal to get back at the source of all her pain.  Gamboa’s straightforward prose (the second sentence reads “I wanted to write a book about cheerful, silent, active people”) and informal tone (the characters speak in first person), flies in the face of NEWS, the way it shouts and stimulates.  His story compels us to stay with the characters in their search for some kind of closure.      

Gamboa’s story subtly criticizes the “Republic of Goodness” Colombia becomes after the peace agreement between FARC and the paramilitary, simultaneous with the group’s arrival in Bogota.  As the novel comes to a close, as the characters reach resolution, there’s a discord between the forgiving sentiment abounding in Colombia and the justice our heroes and heroines have served on behalf of Manuela.  Is the peace to be trusted?  Or is there something to be said for, some security to be found in, fighting and war, like the one Manuela and her advocates waged?  The characters have come through hell, but where do they arrive?  Like Blake says, the dark valley is where labours begin anew.  Consul says “it’s good to write in the middle of a storm” (23).  As a diplomat, like Gamboa himself, he seeks the eye of the storm for material, and he finds it in the people he meets during his stay in Madrid.  Manuela tells herself, “write to invent another world for yourself, because this one isn’t any good” (111).  Traveling in Germany, Tertullian finds a politics rooted in spirituality, ideals rooted in practicality, which often involves violence (257).  These characters’ stories incite them, spur them on to action.  Their pasts give them a reason to overcome, to keep searching – to create.  Rimbaud, in their collective past, provides creative fodder.  As a traveller and poet, his yearning for new experiences, whether good or bad, and his constant quest for truth sets an example for the characters and for us, too.  Gamboa leaves us with a lifting off point, not an easy landing.    

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