Submission–Michele Houellebecq


The author is a French novelist, poet, and literary critic, which says much.

Submission is set in 2022 Paris during election season. The narrator, Francois, teaches at the Sorbonne IV, not as prestigious as III, but still the Sorbonne, and still a good place to meet young female students, with whom he has relationships that generally last one academic year.  He has no connection to his parents, lives alone, dabbles in writing articles about the subject of his doctoral dissertation, a 19th-century author, but has given up a serious research agenda.  His sexual drive is waning, as is his appetite for nearly everything in life.

Life in 2022 seems much like life in 2017 until page 21, when Francois first mentions the Muslim Brotherhood. From that point forward, Francois’ struggles with his midlife ennui alternate with academic rivalries and French political troubles.  These political troubles see nativists allying with a new Islamic party led by a charismatic Parisian Muslim and an election in which the socialists and the new Islamic party ally to oust the sitting party.

The novel is satirical, but it is difficult in the age of Trump to read, particularly as a middle-aged female academic. When the Islamic party comes to power, they take over the Sorbonne and release all of the female academics.  They reform education, step one being to eliminate coeducation and move to limit girls’ education to domestic arts and to move them out of the system just before puberty.  Male academics who can be bought with three times the salary and promises of young wives (up to three based on their newly inflated salaries) readily sell out their female colleagues and the cultural ideals they presumably upheld.  Partisan politics disappear as the charismatic new leader moves to unite Europe and move its center back to the south, not in a renewed caliphate, but in a revived and expanded Roman Empire.  Medieval Europe, again frighteningly non-satirical given recent debates in medievalist circles about the field’s implications in white supremacist movements, is upheld as a time of European strength brought down by the rise of secularism and the belief in the value of the individual stemming from Christianity’s insistence on the incarnation.

The novel is bleak, but in today’s political environment, not outlandish. Satire, to be safe enough to garner a laugh or at least a smile, needs to be at least in part unlikely.  In the time between 2015, the novel’s first publication, and 2017, Submission may have lost its ability to be counted as satire.  I found reading it uncomfortable to the point of nearly stopping at several points.  I persisted because I was curious to see if Houellebecq would give western culture a win.  I persist in reading the news each day for the same reasons.

Finished 7/27/17


Italian Shoes–Henning Mankell


When the squirrels inside my head are most busy, I usually turn to murder/thrillers. The plots are familiar, the devices like a three-day old pair of jeans.  Increasingly I worry that my analog brain adjusting to a digital world has become short-wired, unable to sustain attention on anything deeper than a genre thriller. Italian Shoes was the beginning of an antidote.

Henning Mankell is best known for his own murder series featuring Kurt Wallender, and this is how I became acquainted with him. Italian Shoes is not part of this series and seems to be part of his own later-life contemplation.  It is also a wonderful example of spare Swedish prose.

Frederik Welin was in love once, and he fled from it. His relationship with his parents, like most of ours, was complicated and involves his move from their working class to his professional class as a doctor.  When the novel begins, he has been in hiding even from his profession for quite some time.  He lives on an island inherited from this grandparents with an aging dog and cat and an anthill that has taken over part of the living room, which he doesn’t use.  To remind himself he is alive, he breaks a hole in the ice and bathes each morning.  His primary human contact is with his mail carrier, a hypochondriac who uses him as an informal primary physician.  Frederik’s life has stalled, which is symbolized by an old fishing boat he began renovating that is now rotting in his shed.

His life jerks forward and backward when the woman from whom he fled shows up, Harriet, crossing the ice with her walker. She is clearly ill and, as he soon discovers, dying.  The dying have little to lose and often are ready to set matters right.  Harriet’s anger at being abandoned pushes Frederik’s stasis and soon he is peeling back layers of emotion and questioning why he has run from most of what brought him joy.

The title, Italian Shoes, hints at the way Mankell approaches his prose.  Italian shoes are works of art, handcrafted from seasoned leather and requiring patience and a fine eye.  If you have the patience, this novel will offer up much to appreciate.

You Should Have Known–Jean Hanff Korelitz


This is the type of novel whose plot sounds intriguing, but whose cover suggests reconsideration. Dark background, varying typefaces, and a logo for a reading group guide.  Grace is a therapist living in New York in the flat in which she was raised with her talented young son and her generous and good-looking husband, a pediatric oncologist.  She has also just finished a self-help book written in her very few spare hours, with the same title as this novel.  Her talk show circuit is shaping up nicely and she is daring to believe it is true—that all those stolen writing moments might actually help women who choose men whose flaws they see and choose to ignore.  The circuit is put on hold when Grace finds herself embroiled in a scandal that reveals she is one of those women.

Grace is a sympathetic character, but Korelitz drags out her recognition of her own vulnerability to the point that I nearly stopped reading in frustration.

This is the type of novel that is good for a quick read, but at over 400 pages, it does not get the pass I would normally give to this type of novel. It is not a bad read, but I am not sure the time invested is worth the pay off.


Broken Verses–Kamila Shamsie


This novel has a slow start, but the premise is lovely. Aasmani is a young woman struggling with loss.  Her mother was a feminist activist living “in sin” with Pakistan’s greatest poet, who was brutally murdered presumably by government agents.  One day she walked out to the sea and never returned, presumed dead by all by Aasmani, who by turns rages against her mother leaving her over and over as a child and then that final day, and who hopes and believes that she is still alive somewhere, perhaps looking for the Poet, whose body was beaten nearly beyond recognition, and whose identification was confirmed by a distant relative who had not seen him in years.  Aasmani struggles, also, against any expectation that she might follow in either of their footsteps, and she frustrates her family, her very stable father, stepmother, and sister, by underperforming in mediocre jobs at which she never stays long.

She is just started in one of these mediocre jobs for a television station when she is caught up in a mystery that gives her hope that the Poet, at least, may still be alive. Her mother’s friend, Shehnaz, has returned to acting and brings with her letters written in the code.  Aasmani’s mother and the Poet created the code to correspond during those times when one or both needed to leave the country for a time—and only they and Aasmani knew it.  The letters purport to be from the Poet, who has been kept prisoner for years.  Aasmani decodes the letters and begins to trust Shehnaz’s son, Ed, who delivers the letters to her and allows her to share her doubts and hopes about the letters.

Shamsie creates an intriguing portrait of Karachi and characters set in Pakistan who are like all of us in their griefs and hopes, but different in their political/personal realities. The fraught mother/daughter relationship takes center stage rather than the political oppression of women or the political corruption and turmoil in which they live.  Those items, so often given the spotlight, are context.  Broken Verses is a worthwhile read, if not a quick one.

Big Magic–Elizabeth Gilbert


I quite like Elizabeth Gilbert, but this was not always true. I read Eat, Pray, Love because some dear family members raved about it on Facebook.  I found Gilbert spoiled and precious.  I liked her more after seeing the film adaptation, in part because I like Julia Roberts.  I began appreciating Gilbert through her Facebook page, shared by a writer/artist friend.  Big Magic sealed my new assessment.

Gilbert encourages all of us to embrace our artistic impulses. Art becomes a way to survive modern life, and particularly, although she does not frame it this way, the crises of midlife.

“By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it [creativity] can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are.”

Gilbert’s message could echo the Nike slogan, Just Do It. Do not worry about what others think.  Do not worry about perfection.  The process has value.  Focus on the big magic.

Read the book. The chapters are short. Some are better than others.  They are easily skimmed for the best bits.

Under the Harrow–Flynn Berry

under the harrow


Summer screams for murder mysteries, thrillers, and multi-generational sagas that require flowers somewhere on the paperback cover—or a quirky font on a light solid background. Berry’s thriller is a perfect read.  She begins with a C.S. Lewis epigraph from which she draws the title.  I am not sure how Lewis would have felt about the novel itself, however.  Berry writes in clipped sentences that, in the beginning, feel almost like script notes and stage directions.  Each sentence is so spare that it pulls you forward to the next and the next to discover what the narrator really has to tell you.

Berry’s use of a limited first-person narrator builds on the suspense started by her style. The technical writing style builds trust in Nora as a narrator, but events begin to shake that trust.  Nora is a landscaper’s assistant.  She lives in London.  Her sister, Rachel, lives in a small village and works as a nurse in a hospital.  She owns a house and a German shepherd.  They are, for all intents and purpose, orphans.  Their father is homeless and addicted.  They are headed for a vacation in Cornwall.  We learn about their lives as Nora daydreams on the train on her way to Rachel.  We are still in her daydream when she enters the house and sees the dog hanging from its leash from a staircase bannister and ends up cradling Rachel’s dead body.  As the hours and early days go by, Nora forgets Rachel is dead when she is not focused on finding her killer.  Nora puts her life on hold.  She quits her job, sublets her flat and takes up residence in the one inn in the village.

Berry complicates the murder investigation with an unsolved brutal attack Rachel suffered as a teenager. The circumstances of that attack drag modern biases and issues into the heart of the investigation.  How responsible are women for becoming victims when they drink and engage in sexual behavior? Most of us would say of course they are not responsible for being victimized, but as the past comes into the present, Berry pushes the boundary between our rational and our emotional responses.  What were they thinking?  Why weren’t they more careful?  Where is the line at which you judge someone to be a slut?  How do we judge someone who has sought help for mental illness?  Someone who comes from a very broken family?

Under the Harrow is Berry’s first novel. As a thriller, it succeeds in pulling a reader in and dragging her forward.  Berry feints and keeps us guessing.  Like many such novels, especially early novels, the intense pace of the novel cannot be satisfied by the ending.  Berry acknowledges this, ending the novel with a ——.

Well worth the quick read at a spare 219 intense pages. Berry has succeeded in the genre of Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, and anything by Ruth Ware.