Last Orders, by Graham Swift

I first read this Booker-prize-winning novel several years ago, and it's just as good as I remember it. I don't always agree with the Booker judges or those that select the Pulitzer winners; the Governor General's Award is usually a more reliable indicator of a book I will enjoy. But the Booker judges were on the mark with this story of one day in the life of four men. Ordinary men, working men, they have set this day apart to fulfill the last wish of their friend, Jack Dodds, to have his ashes scattered off the Pier at Margate.

Although each character gets his turn at narrating, most of the story is told by Ray, a part-time insurance clerk, part-time punter on the horses. Jack nicknamed him Lucky, back when they were both serving in Northern Africa in WWII. These days Ray is a lonely man, divorced, his only child living in Australia. He tends to make the same joke over and over when the men meet up in their local, The Coach and Horses.

Lenny also served in the war, as a gunner, but not with Jack and Ray. Hot-headed and nursing his grievances, Lenny brings an element of chaos to the day. Vic runs a funeral home, like his father and grand-father before him. He's a bit more level-headed than the others and the way he thinks about the pros and cons of his job are some of the best bits in the book. The final member of the group is Jack's son, Vince, who fell in love with cars and declined to join Dodds and Son, family butchers since 1903. He started small, restoring luxury cars and reselling them at a profit, and now has a good business going.

The missing person, aside from Jack whose ashes are along for the ride, is Jack's wife, Amy, who has declined to come in order to visit their daughter, June, in the institution where has spent her life. A meaningless gesture, the men agree, since June has never yet noticed Amy on her twice-weekly visits.

There is a bit of controversy around this book, because its concept and structure parallels that of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. However, the idea of using a death to reveal the lives and relationships of those left behind is a common one. Even structuring it around a journey to transport a body or ashes is not unique, unlike another recent controversy over taking the idea of a boy alone in a boat with a great cat from a novel by a relatively unknown writer. And Swift at least is the first to acknowledge Faulkner as one of his inspirations. Of course, structuring the story to take place in a single day harks back to Aristotle's unities and is perhaps most famously employed in modern literature in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

Concept and structure are all well and good, but it's the writing itself that matters. And the writing here is brilliant. Bits of information are feathered in and presented at just the right time to add shading to the emerging picture of the past and the complex relationships between these men. It was only in this second reading that I could truly appreciate the craft behind these choices. If I were teaching creative writing, I would assign this book as an excellent example of how to bring in backstory and pacing.

Equally I would use it to teach about finding the right voice or voices to tell a story. The voices of the four men (and Jack in flashbacks) are truly individual, each one, pegged to their precarious footholds on the ladder of success. The language they use, their expressions, express their particular experience and their resentment or lack of it toward the others, especially those who've ascended higher. For example, Lenny says, when Amy stops by to pick up Lenny's daughter and declines to come inside, “Like it was because we lived in a prefab and they lived in bricks and mortar.” As the picture develops, emotions come to the fore, allowing the men who would normally talk about sports and what-all over a pint at the pub to connect on a deeper level, inevitably changing how they relate to each other. In some ways, it is Jack who emerges as the most interesting character, the intersection of this group, the vanishing point to whom they all refer.

What novel is your favorite Booker Prize winner?

The Way to Paradise, by Mario Vargas Llosa

“I have come to an unalterable decision—to go and live forever in Polynesia. Then I can end my days in peace and freedom, without thoughts of tomorrow and the eternal struggle against idiots.” Paul Gauguin, October 1874

Some years ago I went through a beachcomber phase. I was fascinated by a slew of books and films featuring men who had thrown off the bonds of civilisation and taken refuge on a South Seas island. Generally barefoot, with rolled up khaki trousers and a partially unbuttoned white shirt with its tails hanging out, they eked out a precarious existence trudging the beach looking for something salable surrendered by the sea. Unshaven and often drunk, you wouldn't think they'd seem attractive, much less like role models to me, but being the single mom of two energetic pre-teen boys, working two and sometimes three jobs, I savored the idea of escaping to an island paradise. I read books by Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Somerset Maugham. I plastered my home and office with pictures of beaches and palm trees. I left piles of seashells and driftwood on tables and desks. I went to the huge Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington.

I had always liked his paintings, not just the Tahitian ones with their intense colors and inscrutable figures, but also the early works from Brittany. I walked through room after room of paintings and carvings, dreaming of following in his footsteps. I was further intrigued to discover that when he arrived in Tahiti, finding that the indigenous culture had succumbed to colonial influences, he set about creating his own gods and devils, carving wooden idols, including them in his paintings. I admired his persistence, his refusal to give in.

However, I lost interest in the man when I discovered that he never saw his wife and five children again after he first left for Tahiti and did not provide them with any support. On the island, he took 13 and 14-year-old girls as wives and concubines right up to end of his life, which was even more despicable because he knew the syphilis that would eventually kill him was contagious.

Llosa's novel alternates between Gauguin's life in the South Seas from 1892 to 1903 and that of his grandmother, Flora Tristán, traveling through France in 1844. Hers was a new story for me: illegitimate daughter of a Peruvian aristocrat who died young and a Frenchwoman, she grew up in poverty. Flora's nightmarish difficulties escaping an abusive marriage combined with her concern for the working conditions of the poor to inspire a zeal to reform, not just French society, but the world. She traveled to Spain and London, where she worked “to show the world that, behind the facade of prosperity, luxury, and power, there lurked the most abject exploitation, the worst evils, and a suffering humanity enduring cruelties and abuse in order to make possible the dizzying wealth of a handful of aristocrats and industrialists.”

Both women and workers were society's victims, and she founded the Worker's Union to fight for the rights of both. We get descriptions of the horrible working conditions and the injustices women suffered. In her 1844 tour she went from town to town, giving speeches, meeting with workers, trying to found chapters of the Worker's Union. In doing so she gave up the only love she had known in her life, the only relationship that showed her what love could be, in order to devote herself to the cause.

The alternating stories made me think about the pursuit of paradise. Both Flora and Gauguin hurt themselves and others as they chase their obsessions. Both believe in the value of their work, Flora to protect the rights of women and workers and Paul to bring the vitality of an indigenous culture to a wan and artificial Western society. The line between self-indulgence and devotion to a cause can be blurred.

I found the style a bit odd at first. Llosa occasionally breaks out of the close third-person narrative to address his protagonists directly, often using the nicknames Florita and Koké. “You had to paint, Koké. The flicker deep inside that you hadn't felt for so long was there again, urging you on, galvanizing you, making you incandescent. Yes, yes, of course you must paint.” Eventually I became accustomed to it. I was more interested in Flora's story because it was new to me and less distasteful than Paul's. However, the author apparently felt the opposite; I think Paul's life is portrayed with more rich detail than that of his grandmother. Both are, to me, sad stories, showing the cost of trying to change the world. I admire single-mindedness and wish I had more of it, but in the end I'm glad I didn't abandon my children to go off and become a beachcomber.

Three Weeks in December, by Audrey Schulman

In this novel, Schulman gives us two stories, told in alternating chapters. One takes place in 1899 and follows Jeremy, a young engineer from Maine who has been brought to British East Africa (now Kenya) to help build a railroad for the British. Specifically, his job is to oversee seven hundred men in building a bridge for the railroad over the Tsavo River. Plagued by insects, shivering with malaria, and terrified by the mysterious dangers in this new environment, Jeremy struggles to act like the man he is expected to be. The only one with a gun, he must provide meat for the workers, hunting animals different from anything he saw back in Maine. His only companions are a cold and supercilious British doctor and a native who acts as a guide.

The other story takes place in 2000. Max, an ethnobotanist is sent to Rwanda in search of a vine that promises to prevent heart disease. She joins a small research group in the mountains who are studying the gorillas. Max has Asperger's Syndrome and is apparently close to the non-functioning end of the spectrum. Her parents worked with her, going frame by frame through cartoons to help her recognize and remember the facial expressions that “normals” pick up without noticing. In ethnobotany, she has found work that she loves and can do. She loves plants more than animals and people, in part because they smell better—she relies heavily on her sense of smell since she can hardly bear even quick glances at people's faces—and because “plants are more interesting chemically . . . Her third, and perhaps most important, reason for loving plants was that their movements never scared her.”

They are both outsiders, doubly so. As a white man, Jeremy is forever outside the native culture while his secret, something he is afraid to reveal, isolates him from white culture. Max's Asperger's effectively prevents her from relating to others, including her parents whom she loves but cannot bear to look in the face or be touched by. In addition, the possible threat she poses to the gorillas makes the research group keep their distance. If she finds the vine, the pharmaceutical company will send in legions of people, driving the already endangered gorillas even higher up the mountains, into regions where they cannot survive.

There are other commonalities. Both are threatened by outside forces, Jeremy's group by a pair of man-eating lions, and Max's by rumours of a group of rebels, child-soldiers armed with assault rifles and high on qat. Both are given charms to help them survive.

They also both wrestle with questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human. Max struggles with the implications of revealing the vine, should she find it, to the pharmaceutical company. Jeremy is appalled by the working conditions and mortality rate among the workers. At first he tries to encourage and reward them, but finding that ineffectual is tempted to succumb to beating them and docking their food. He admires Otombe, his native guide, for his skills and self-assuredness. The book explores interesting questions. Do human needs always take priority over the needs of animals? What makes one man more valuable than another: his tools, his education, his skills, his skin color?

The book is beautifully researched. Schulman thoughtfully includes a list of books for further reading in her Afterword. I especially liked the small touches about the wildlife and customs, such as the flannel spine protector 19th century whites were sure they needed to strap on under their many layers of clothing. Some of my favorite parts are Max's interactions with the gorillas. The members of the research group coach her on how to be around them without startling or enraging them, but she finds her own way of being near them.

Another of my other favorite parts is when Max first comes to the research group. Surrounded by unfamiliar plants, she marks off an area of three square yards and, plant by plant, examines each one, identifying it with her botanical encyclopedia and memorizing its characteristics. I love the descriptions. The crushed leaf of the first plant smells of “spicy vanilla with the overtones of a used Band-Aid. The roots of this plant had a different aroma, subtle, close to microwaved water.” By learning what plants are common in this area, she will better recognise the one that is unusual.

Everyone in my book club enjoyed the book. Some of us found it a little slow-going at first, but we agreed that it sped up towards the end. My only quibble with it is the rather abrupt ending which seems to cut off the stories rather than resolve them. I liked learning about the habits of lions and gorillas. I liked Max and Jeremy and cared what happened to them. At the same time, I was—as always—outraged and saddened by the depredations inflicted by Europeans and Americans as they pillage Africa for its plants, minerals and people.

Women's Review of Books, Vol. 30, No. 1, January/February 2013

I was delighted to discover this journal at the AWP Conference a few years ago. Book reviews introduce me to books I otherwise would have missed and the ones longer than a few paragraphs, generally found in journals dedicated to reviews, often provide context and background that increase my appreciation of the book. However, as VIDA has been tracking in The Count, in most journals very few reviewers are women and very few books by women are reviewed. The numbers are startling. This conscious or unconscious bias effectively limits women's participation in our literary culture. Since the first Count in 2010, VIDA's annual count has influenced my decisions about what journals I buy and read. For example, in the three years tallied, the number of women reviewers and women writers reviewed in Harpers has actually gone down from a measly 18%/31% to a pathetic 9.7%/16.9%. I no longer subscribe to that magazine.

Women's Review of Books is entering its 30th year of publication. Amy Hoffman's editorial in this issue notes that “Disgracefully, even after forty years of the contemporary women's movement, feminist scholarship and critical analysis, and women's creative writing receive little more attention in the mainstream media in 2013 than they did in 1983.” She goes on to say that “WRB is just about the only place where you'll find long-form review-essays by expert, excellent writers that thoughtfully consider women's studies scholarship and analysis.” I agree. Every issue engages me and enlarges my understanding.

Among the pieces that stood out for me in this issue is “Women vs. Women”, a review by Kim Phillips-Fein of Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States, by Kirsten Marie Delegard. She had me right from the start: “For those on the left, conservative women have long presented an enigma.” Indeed, I have been baffled by people supporting political parties that actively oppose their interests. Delegard's book traces women's support for the right wing beyond the supposedly backlash against the 1960s, to the 1920s when fear of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution mobilised women to oppose the women pushing for economic reform.

I learned more about the liberal reform groups of the 1920s where “Women activists pressed for public health measures and laws to protect children and working women. They created settlement houses and undertook philanthropic campaigns . . . They also became leaders in the peace movement that followed World War I, promoting such measures as outlawing the use of chemical weapons.” Conservative women associated these reformers with socialist radicals and “circulated stories about the terrors their sisters were experiencing in the new Soviet state.” They portrayed the women reformers as dupes of Bolshevist radical men and distributed blacklists of men, women and organizations “supposedly in league with communism”.

Another article I relished is “Stranger to Nothing”, a review by Robin Becker of Vinculum, by Alice Friman. Becker helpfully provides an etymology for the unfamiliar title: “From the Latin verb vincre, Alice Friman takes the noun, vinculum, meaning a bond or tie, to suggest her collection's central trope: attachment.” The word also is used for “a ligament that limits movement” and a bar used in algebra to show that two or more terms represent a single term. In these poems metaphor and myth are infused with “a sharp humor”, an assessment backed by generous quotations from the book. Becker says, “To my eye and ear, Friman distinguishes herself from other contemporary poets by bringing a confident feminism and humor to her meditations. The sorrowful runs alongside the absurd; the living collide with the dead; the mythological clothes the mundane.”

I also got a kick out of “TV Heroines”, a review by Lori Rotskoff of Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture, by Katherine J. Lehman. Rotskoff describes “Lehman's impressively researched, analytically nuanced study” that provides context for all those single heroines portrayed by Marlo Thomas, Lynda Carter, Lindsay Wagner, the women on Charlie's Angels, etc. I especially appreciated the inclusion of police detective Christy Love, played by Teresa Graves. I look forward to reading the book and seeing Rotskoff's analysis of “both on-screen portrayals and behind-the-scenes creative strategies in relation to the social, economic, and political changes that transformed women's lives during these tumultuous decades.”

Overall, the journal does for me what Kate Clinton claims in “An Ode to Women's Review of Books on the Occasion of Her 30th Anniversary”: “Your reviews keep me up to speed on current scholarship, lead me to books I would have missed, and introduce me to women writers and thinkers whose long-form, patient, thoughtful parsing is a steady balm or annoying burr—but either way a pleasure in a short-format world.” What review journals do you enjoy?