Wednesday, May 10, 2017

THE COURAGE CONSORT, novellas in spare and lyrical prose


Harvest Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: With his elegant prose, distinctive imagination, and deep empathy, the bestselling author of The Crimson Petal and the White once again dazzles us in three novellas. "The Courage Consort" tells of an a capella vocal ensemble sequestered in a Belgian chateau to rehearse a monstrously complicated new piece. But competing artistic temperaments and sexual needs create as much discordance as the avant garde music. In "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps," a lonely woman joins an archaeological dig at Whitby Abbey and unearths a mystery involving a long-hidden murder. In "The Fahrenheit Twins," strange children, identical in all but gender and left alone at the icy zenith of the world by their anthropologist parents, create their own ritual civilization.

In each of these novellas, Michel Faber creates a unique, self-contained world, where the perennial human drama plays out in all its passion and ambiguity.

My Review: Inspired by my recent remembering of reading Faber's stonking novel THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, which has been adapted into an Amazon Prime episodic series, I fished this collection of novellas from my boxes to give it an overdue review. Actually, I suspect my 2005-2006 review is on the hard drive of my boxed-up PC but I can't be arsed to get it out, hook it up, etc etc. I quite like Faber's unlabored elegance of prose. I'm a little shakier on some of his storytelling choices. I get more wobbly when we get into the nuts and bolts of an individual story's constituent bits, as there seem to me to be, unfailingly, expectations raised that are never satisfied, threads that are left to dangle like the annoying loose tag at the back of your neck rubbing you when you put on your expensive new shirt. Still looks good, yet there's that damned itchy thing....

The Courage Consort brings us the disintegration of people, relationships, and institutions over the course of a heavy, humid summer trip made by the five members of the titular consort to a country château in Belgium. They are there to prepare for the world premiere of an avant-garde composition by an enfant terrible composer. The piece is terrible, they all know it, but they are "serious" musicians and they sing a capella, so it's either whatever the vulture drops in front of them no matter how malodious or endless iterations of melodious but, well, shop-worn stuff like Sumer is icumen in. A person could go bonkers doing that one for a living.

Catherine Courage, our PoV character, is battling her way out of the gray, annihilating purposelessness of a serious depression, one senses not her first. She is married to the founder of the consort, she is one of the women whose experience of life is being controlled by men, and she is pretty well done with everything. We're given to understand that even her attempts at suicide are half-hearted. She's a gorgeous soprano, though, and an a capella group sans soprano is dire listening. As the Courage Consort is an avant-garde a capella group, I suspect I (and thousands like me) would find them dire listening at any time. Catherine is getting to that point herself:
Other people might think it was terribly exciting when two females singing in thirds made the airwaves buzz weirdly, but Catherine was finding that her nerves were no longer up to it. Even the way a sustained A-flat tended to make an auditorium's air-conditioning hum gave her the creeps lately. It was as if her face was being rubbed in the fact that music was all sound-waves and atoms when you stripped the Baroque wrapping paper off it.
But dig we must in this vale of tears, Catherine being an obedient consort hauls herself to Belgium for the rare luxury of two weeks' paid rehearsal time smack in the middle of nowhere much. No distractions. No shops, either. But oodles of nothingness is wonderful when rehearsing complicated music.

The thing about nothingness, as defined by city people, is that it's not nothingness but the absence of city. The country's a noisy place, usually; Catherine herself is unnerved by the silence of the country birds, where in London she's accustomed to birds shouting their fool heads off in the occasional city tree. More trees, fewer birds per tree; fewer roads, fewer pedestrians, fewer cars:
Nature meant the absence of people. It was a system set up to run without human beings, concentrating instead on the insensate and the eternal. Which was very relaxing now and then. But dangerous in the long run: darkness would fall, and there would be no door to close,
no roof over one's head, no blankets to pull up. One wasn't an animal, after all.
One is an animal, in point of fact, one is simply very bad at being a country animal. Like dogs and cats brought to the country are wildly curious and dash about sniffing before coming home for supper from the old familiar dish, Catherine begins to explore the Belgian forest. She's scared witless by a weird cry that she believes could be human; like a city cat, she's not equipped to figure out what it is in all likelihood. She and the city cat are having a lark. They're not gonna make it left to themselves, or at least most won't. Catherine wouldn't be among the survivalists starting civilization from scratch post-apocalyptically any more than Fluffy or Mittens would be in the barn hunting the rats.

But the rats can come indoors when it's human rats we're talking about. The can drive Porsches, wear tacky ostentatious clothes, and write terrible a capella music after stabbing their wife with a stiletto heel in the Milan airport. Their musical patron coming to the château to hear their rendition of his deathless opus leaves the entire consort enveloped in the choking fog of falseness. One of them, responding to the literal stink of the figurative stinker, takes action:
[He] was padding around the house like a bear, going from window to window, opening them all wide. It wasn't until he was opening the biggest, nearest window that his fellow Consort members noticed the whole château stank of the sort of perfume probably derived from scraping the scrotums of extremely rare vermin.
And that's Faber at his most Faberly. That kind of surface wit rumpled by barely concealed metaphor riding on a deeper structure of meaning is easy to read and pass by; but wait: The lumbering bear of a character, trapped inside the château to be forcibly trained to perform against his natural inclination attempts to make the miasma left by a pretentious macaque-faced poseur stop bothering him are obvious enough. Then look again. The big, fat bear-man quiet. He sings bass. His part in the composition being sung is compared often to the throaty chanting of Tibetan monks. He never does anything for himself, not cooking nor cleaning nor walking; yet he is always ready to work, always prepared in his admittedly uncomplicated part of the performance, always the one least riled by foolishness and most focused on the job. The quote above, in two sentences, is his purpose in the story's world wrapped in the Baroque paper referenced above. Faber likes doing that, giving his reader play-pretties that some will dismiss as brummagem, others will judge heavy handed, and some will see as pointers to the action to come and significators of the reason the story came to be in the first place.

The consort's process of atomizing in the wake of the scrotal scent-marking of the château accelerates; Catherine processes her depression more and more by living for her time feeding the bear-man and moving about in the woods that she still doesn't understand or trust but can't resist. She leaves her husband to his accustomed role of fixer, explainer, creator of images and maestro of the consort's musical identity. It's a desperate job of papering over cracks and slapping paint on plasterless brick walls. His contralto, previously Catherine's cicerone in the mysteries of flat paved roads leading through featureless obscure woods, focuses more and more on the primal job of feeding and tending her infant. His tenor, a raging horndog, furtles about the place seeking any distraction from his sexless state:
This morning, although she couldn't hear any identifiable television sounds filtering down into the kitchen, Catherine had a feeling it was probably still chattering away to Julian in his room, because the purity seemed to have been taken out of the silence somehow.
There was an inaudible fuzz, like the sonic equivalent of the haze from burning toast, obscuring Catherine's access to the acoustic immensity of the forest.
Julian's tenor is transmuted into the cosmic microwave background, both inescapable and inaudible, omnipresent and irrelevant to the foreground action...until he makes a discovery among the books there that is a major source of my mild disgruntlement with most of the Faber books I've read: A book of Massenet songs, pages uncut, that he finds and suggests they'd do better to sing from than the terrible piece they've been hired to premiere, is glancingly mentioned as probably containing forgotten works and never heard from again. The macaque-faced composeur (oo, I like that one), confronted at last by a technical flaw in his composition, makes what is apparently a token defense of himself and then the consort is allowed to do "whatever [they] like" for no apparent reason and without significant fireworks despite his brief appearance being a perfect set-up for a hissy-fit-throwing set piece...a few other let-downs, herrings painted reddish then allowed to swim back to the school, and we arrive at the tragedy inevitable from the moment our bear-man bass aired the place out. It's a nice piece of writing, a good story modest in scale and told with economy that would have benefited from just a bit more, or a minor bonsai shaping. Solid and attractive, like all good furniture.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps

The Fahrenheit Twins

Monday, May 8, 2017

WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY, stories from a new Nigerian voice


Riverhead Books
$26 hardcover, available now


The Publisher Says: A dazzlingly accomplished debut collection explores the ties that bind parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends to one another and to the places they call home.

In "Who Will Greet You at Home", a National Magazine Award finalist for The New Yorker, a woman desperate for a child weaves one out of hair, with unsettling results. In "Wild", a disastrous night out shifts a teenager and her Nigerian cousin onto uneasy common ground. In "The Future Looks Good," three generations of women are haunted by the ghosts of war, while in "Light," a father struggles to protect and empower the daughter he loves. And in the title story, in a world ravaged by flood and riven by class, experts have discovered how to "fix the equation of a person" - with rippling, unforeseen repercussions.

Evocative, playful, subversive, and incredibly human, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky heralds the arrival of a prodigious talent with a remarkable career ahead of her.


My Review:

The Future Looks Good

War Stories



Second Chances


Who Will Greet You at Home

Buchi's Girls

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is the first of these stories I read, back when it was a finalist for the 2016 Caine Prize. My review is here.


What is a Volcano?


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Winner winner barfed-up dinner

I believe we have a winner in the migraine mystery solution sweeps: Cleaning products. Housekeeping just came through spraying some toxic horror and the eyegraine has begun. The hurts-to-blink stage approaches fast. This sucks sweaty sweaty socks but if it's showing me how to stop triggering these hellish things, it's going down as a net plus.

SO MUCH FOR THAT WINTER, Danish author Nors's English-language debut

(tr. Misha Hoekstra)
Graywolf Press
$15 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: Dorthe Nors follows up her acclaimed story collection Karate Chop with a pair of novellas that playfully chart the aftermath of two very twenty-first century romances. In “Days,” a woman in her late thirties records her life in a series of lists, giving shape to the tumult of her days—one moment she is eating an apple, the next she is on the floor, howling like a dog. As the details accumulate, we experience with her the full range of emotions: anger, loneliness, regret, pain, and also joy, as the lists become a way to understand, connect to, and rebuild her life.

In “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” a novella told in headlines, an avant-garde musician is dumped via text message. Fleeing the indignity of the breakup, and friends who flaunt their achievements in life, career, and family, Minna unfriends people on Facebook, listens to Bach and reads Ingmar Bergman then decamps to an island near Sweden “well suited to mental catharsis.” A cheeky nod to the listicles and bulletins we scroll through on a daily basis, So Much for That Winter explores how we shape and understand experience, and the disconnection and dislocation that define our twenty-first-century lives, with Nors’s unique wit and humor.


My Review:

Minna Needs Rehearsal Space


Monday, May 1, 2017

THE BABYSITTER AT REST, Jen George's wowee-toledo! debut collection


Dorothy, a publishing project
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Five stories—several as long as novellas—introduce the world to Jen George, a writer whose furiously imaginative new voice calls to mind Donald Barthelme and Leonora Carrington no less than Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus. In “Guidance/The Party,” an ethereal alcoholic “Guide” in robes and flowing hair appears to help a thirty-three-year-old woman prepare a party for her belated adulthood; “Take Care of Me Forever” tragically lambasts the medical profession as a ship of fools afloat in loneliness and narcissism; “Instruction” chronicles a season in an unconventional art school called The Warehouse, where students divide their time between orgies, art critiques, and burying dead racehorses. Combining slapstick, surrealism, erotica, and social criticism, Jen George’s sprawling creative energy belies the secret precision and unexpected tenderness of everything she writes.

My Review:

Guidance/The Party

The Babysitter at Rest

Take Care of Me Forever

Futures in Child Rearing


Sunday, April 30, 2017

NINETY PERCENT OF EVERYTHING, Rose George's tales from the world of shipping

NINETY PERCENT OF EVERYTHING: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate

$17 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: On ship-tracking Web sites, the waters are black with dots. Each dot is a ship; each ship is laden with boxes; each box is laden with goods. In postindustrial economies, we no longer produce but buy, and so we must ship. Without shipping there would be no clothes, food, paper, or fuel. Without all those dots, the world would not work. Yet freight shipping is all but invisible. Away from public scrutiny, it revels in suspect practices, dubious operators, and a shady system of "flags of convenience." And then there are the pirates.

Rose George, acclaimed chronicler of what we would rather ignore, sails from Rotterdam to Suez to Singapore on ships the length of football fields and the height of Niagara Falls; she patrols the Indian Ocean with an anti-piracy task force; she joins seafaring chaplains, and investigates the harm that ships inflict on endangered whales. Sharply informative and entertaining, Ninety Percent of Everything reveals the workings and perils of an unseen world that holds the key to our economy, our environment, and our very civilization.

My Review: Rose George is Mary Roach said with an English accent. I love lines like this:
I like that Maersk is a first name. It's like a massive global corporation named Derek.
Who can resist reading stuff by someone with this gamine grin in her prose?

Trade has always traveled and the world has always traded. Ours, though, is the era of extreme interdependence. Hardly any nation is now self-sufficient. In 2011, the United Kingdom shipped in half of its gas. The United States relies on ships to bring in two-thirds of its oil supplies. Every day, thirty-eight million tons of crude oil sets off by sea somewhere, although you may not notice it. As in Los Angeles, New York, and other port cities, London has moved its working docks out of the city, away from residents. Ships are bigger now and need deeper harbors, so they call at Newark or Tilbury or Felixstowe, not Liverpool or South Street.

In 2009, Lloyd's List reported that Maersk had sent a memo headed "Zero Recruitment in Europe." The columnist was scathing. "Famously, there are already more blue whales than there are British seafarers on British ships. The difference is that people are taking conservation measures to save the whale."

All workforces have waves and changing of guards. There were lascars and now there are Filipinos. But the diminishment of British and American merchant navies is unprecedented. There is regular fretting about recruitment in the pages of the shipping press. Some British seafarers plan to retire early or move into shore jobs. The captain [of her ship]...can be cold about his job—it is moving giant boxes, and that is that—but the force of his anger about his changed industry conveys something other than coldness. Before the oil crisis in 1973, there were British crews, British labor laws. After that they took the companies offshore. They offered us contracts with thirty percent lower wages, take it or leave it."
Same as it ever was in labor-versus-capital relations, isn't it.

THE BOX, demystifying the invisible world-changing role of shipping

THE BOX: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

Princeton University Press
$19.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. "The Box" tells the dramatic story of the container's creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about.

Published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive history of the shipping container. It recounts how the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible.

But the container didn't just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean's success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container's potential.
Drawing on previously neglected sources, economist Marc Levinson shows how the container transformed economic geography, devastating traditional ports such as New York and London and fueling the growth of previously obscure ones, such as Oakland. By making shipping so cheap that industry could locate factories far from its customers, the container paved the way for Asia to become the world's workshop and brought consumers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the globe.

My Review: