Book Review

Ducks, Virgins, Snakes and Witches

My summer reading included all of those, as well as a student driver, a shop clerk, and a suicide. Since I’m on Amelia Island, a stone’s throw south of Georgia as I write this, perhaps I will begin uncoiling this review with a snake. Lauren Groff’s masterful collection of stories, Florida,[1] contains more than one nest of vipers, with the actual reptiles featured in “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”:

His father was after moccasins, and he gave Jude his waders and trudged through the swamp protected only by jeans and boots. He’d been bitten so often, he said, it had become routine. When he handed his son the stick and gestured at a black slash sunning on a rock, the boy had to imagine the snake as a line in space, only connecting point to point, to be able to grasp it. . . . They worked in silence, only the noise of exuberant natural Florida filling their ears, the unafraid birds, the seethe of insects.

Jude is one of Groff’s preternatural boys (another appears in “For the God of Love, for the Love of God”), and boys, specifically sons, appear in nearly every story. (The author is herself the mother of two young boys, and one imagines a great deal of factual observation infuses her superb fiction.) The obscure Jude grows up in what appears to be Gainesville, Florida, with a herpetologist father and a mother who escapes to the coast as soon as she can. Jude mostly raises himself after his father steals him back from his mother, and we learn the boy has a gift for playing with numbers but not for relating to people. Jude’s lonely life nearly results in suicide before he realizes how badly he needs another person. Once married, he’s happy for years until his wife and daughter leave him alone for a few days. Then, during one harrowing night on a rowboat when he accidentally loses his oars and winds up adrift in the middle of a swampy pond, he hallucinates his dead father long enough to tell him: “I’m not like you Dad. . . . I don’t prefer snakes to people.”

In Groff’s stories, the “hungry dark” ravens at the edges of human life, waiting to drive us mad or devour us unto death. “Florida” is such a pretty name, but this is definitely the dark (part of the) continent, and when you step off any path here, you step close to something that can kill you. I am a native Floridian—born in Ft. Lauderdale, raised in Jacksonville, educated in Gainesville—so I learned early that predators lurk everywhere. Serial killers are the state’s apex predators (Ted Bundy ravaged Florida State in the ’70s, while Danny Rolling killed his coeds at UF in the early ’90s), but plenty of lethal species fill the lower niches too. Groff, from long-settled and tamed Cooperstown, New York, has been teaching at the University of Florida for over a decade, and paved over though it is now, the lethal wildlife still thrives around it. I’d love to tell her what it was like in the late 1970s when I was on the UF sailing team. I regularly drove my VW Bug from Gainesville proper to just south of Payne’s Prairie to sail on Lake Wauburg, where we practiced for our regattas. Windsurfers had only recently been invented, and I decided to add them to my skill set. Alas, Lake Wauburg, being land-bound, rarely had steadily blowing winds. I could start off from the dock with a good puff only to have it die halfway across the lake. When that happened, I had to pray I didn’t drift to the marshy verges where the alligators congregated. Even though the bull alligators only attacked during mating season—not a good time for students to overturn their canoes purposely for the fun of it—just seeing those suspicious “logs” floating in the tea-colored water around my becalmed board and useless sail set my teeth chattering.

So much for alligators. Snakes? I’ve seen more than I can count and nearly been bitten a few times by venomous ones. I prefer rattlers, because they at least give you a warning. Every month in Florida delivers another insect or reptile to contemplate, and as I write this now, my bungalow’s yard plays host to a cloud of massive grasshoppers known as Eastern Lubbers. The Lubbers multitask, munching down the greenery while they simultaneously mate (a slightly smaller Lubber hangs onto the thorax of its lover and whatever other part it needs to make little lubbers). These creatures measure over four inches from stem to stern, and each has five eyes—this makes ten eyes peering at you from whichever frond they happen to be dining (and humping) on. Multiply this by dozens, and you can imagine what my yard here looks like right now.

Groff knows that Florida is not for the faint of heart, and she subtly shows the menace lurking among the flowers. This peninsula heaved itself out of the ocean later than the rest of North America and remains, despite its ever-burgeoning population, primeval. People who come here find themselves shaped by the weather and everything that happens under the sun. The transient mother of “Dogs Go Wolf,” and the falling-through-the-cracks ex-graduate student of “Above and Below” are recognizable denizens of the sunshine state. Every apartment building, every highway underpass in Florida has borne witness to them. Children of transients grow up as they can, learning to rely on them­selves early, or not surviving. One of my favorite stories in this collection, which I initially read in an edition of Best American Short Stories, is “The Midnight Zone.” A woman and her young sons are staying alone in a remote hunting camp in North Central Florida after her husband has to leave for a few days.

The mother thinks she can handle the boys and stay at the camp without her partner, despite their recent sighting of a panther, but she doesn’t factor in her own incapacity: she falls while trying to change a light bulb and strikes her head, hard. Trying to take care of her boys and their dog while concussed and bleeding complicates an already dangerous scenario, especially as she knows she must a) not frighten her children and b) stay awake. One of the great scenes of this story is the out-of-body experience the mother has while her children sleep and she keeps herself awake through the night. Her spirit runs in circles around the cabin, until finally she has an epiphany.

What had been built to seem so solid was fragile in the face of time because time is impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you. It cannot see you; it has always been blind to the human and the things we do to stave it off, the taxonomies, the cleaning, the arranging, the ordering.

Florida is a collection with no weak stories. I like it so much that I’ve backed up my opinion with my credit card and bought several copies for friends. Lauren Groff is quite possibly the best fiction writer in America today, and that’s saying a lot because the competition is fierce.

Deborah Eisenberg, for example, is one of her contenders for best contemporary American short story writer. Eisenberg’s latest, Your Duck Is My Duck,[2] has become my other favorite collection published in 2018. She’s smart, funny, artful. I wrote on the title page of my copy, “Deborah Eisenberg the writer reminds me of Nicole Eisenman the sculptor, and not just because their names are similar and both are MacArthur fellows. Rather, both are full of whimsy and irony, though D.E., being older, sees a darkness in humanity that is not yet present in N.E.’s white, bemused statues.” For example, the artist narrator of the title story has been invited to a villa by some wealthy people who say they want to give her time to paint. The narrator is telling the story after the fact, and her version of Groff’s hungry dark is “the gears and levers and pulleys that dredge the future up from the earth’s core to its surface.” The hungry future waits to incinerate the artist, but first she has to make something to burn, and then she has to reach the future. The narrator gets her opportunity by going to parties and meeting rich people. Only it’s not possible really to meet people at parties because “you couldn’t hear what they were saying. Except for the younger women, who had piercing, high voices and sounded like Donald Duck, from whom they had evidently learned to talk.” Donald isn’t the duck the title refers to, but this line quacked me up.

The narrator winds up in the rich people’s tropical hideaway, where a strange, political puppeteer appears to be the only other guest. Our artist’s surroundings become increasingly surreal, partly because her anxiety won’t let her sleep. My favorite moment in the story occurs when she tells a doctor she can’t sleep but doesn’t want sleeping pills. When he tells her in that case she’d better figure out why she’s not sleeping, this great exchange occurs.

“What’s to figure out?” I said. “I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, my life. Plus, it’s beginning to look like a photo finish—me first, or the world. It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping. What I can’t figure out is why everybody else is sleeping.”

“Everybody else is sleeping because everybody else is taking pills,” he said.

What holds us in the world while the future is ravaging us? The past, of course. “Cross Off and Move On” tells the story of the last living member of a Jewish immigrant family. When the narrator sees the obituary for her cousin, “The tether snapped and I shot upward, wafting around for a moment outside of Earth’s gravitational pull, then dropped heavily back down into my chair next to my supper, cracks branching violently through my equanimity, from which my family, such as it was, came seeping.” This woman has spent her life trying to escape the memory of her bitterly unhappy mother, mitigated by that of her warm and loving—but despised by her mother—aunts. The dead relative is her once revered cousin Morrie, a beatific musician she looked up to as a child. Her mother, jealous, harped on his strange compulsion to memorize useless facts. Still, what the niece knows of her family, she learned from him: Virtually everyone from the generations older than their own died in the Holocaust. This is a story about what remains when much is lost and about Jewish immigrants making their way in America with the memories of Europe, the best and the worst memories, still dancing in their heads. Like many of Eisenberg’s stories, it skates on the edge of the supernatural without ever crossing the border. People’s mental states might make them see uncanny things, but the overarching narrator has perfect vision.

My favorite story in this powerful collection is “Merge,” and here Eisenberg shows readers how a master of narrative crafts her texts. The other tales have led to this central one, and halfway through it I stopped to make a note in the margin: “The theme of this collection is different viewpoints on the same events. The story changes depending on who controls the narrative. Ultimately, though, D.E. is in charge of them all.” This story’s characters include an archeologist and his wife; the young scion of a powerful family, Keith, cut off and cast out by his father; and a young woman, Celeste, influenced by the above-mentioned couple who helped raise her and sympathetic to Keith. Celeste travels to a third-world country to help the indigenous people, and something happens to her, which Keith gets glimpses of when he begins to receive strange post­cards. The archeologist’s name was Ernst, and only his aging widow remains, having hired the penniless Keith as an assistant on Celeste’s recommendation. Humor, history, culture, and the origins of language swirl together until the story itself begins to include drawings in addition to words. “The tool that doesn’t work, Ernst called language.” Only, in Eisenberg’s hands, it really does work. I loved this book.

After reading those two great collections of American-made stories, I felt I needed to see what fiction writers are doing on other continents. The next four books I read were in translation, and originally published in Lebanon, Denmark, Italy, and Japan, respectively. The well-known Hanan al-Shaykh, raised in Beirut but now living in London, has confected her latest novel by putting two previously published long stories together into The Occasional Virgin.[3] Catherine Cobham has ably translated the book from the Arabic, and only the occasional English-ism might distract an American reader. The novel takes place first on the Italian Riviera and then in London. Two young women, Yvonne and Huda, have met through a London organization bringing together Lebanese women who are enjoying successful careers in the West. Yvonne owns a London advertising agency and is Christian; Huda, a successful playwright in Toronto, is Muslim. Both are witty, wonderful characters, and they reveal a great deal about the country they grew up in, and left.

In their 30s now, both women long to marry, but neither has found a partner. Huda wonders if her being Muslim is a problem with Western, Christian men, and Yvonne wonders if her unspoken urge to have a baby somehow conveys itself to all the men she meets and makes them want to run away. Not that she ever meets any good ones—they are either dogs after commitment-free sex or already married. The friends lament this until Huda says, “’Listen, Yvonne, remember what Eve said to Adam when he asked her why she fell in love with him? ‘There was nobody else, you shit!’”

We see how both women suffered from their upbringing in a country that favors males and discourages girls, yet both escaped and became successful in the Western world. Some of the best parts of the novel occur in London when they encounter a hard-line Muslim at Speaker’s Corner and decide to play a trick on him. Huda knows her Koran well—her father was very religious—better even than the Taliban-like speaker they spar with in Hyde Park.

When an Englishwoman asks why Muslim women cover themselves, Huda tells her the eighth-century story of the origin of the niqab. Then she adds,

“How I wish we could stop attaching so much importance to the niqab, when there are life-and-death issues like the marriage of underage girls, some of them as young as eight. Girls like toy dolls, forced to become playthings themselves, and have intercourse with men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers.”

The anger on the youth’s face was terrifying as he said to her in formal Arabic: “Do you know that hens are slaughtered if they cry like roosters?”

Hisham is the devout Muslim’s name, but if readers think he will continue to be the oppressive jerk here depicted, they haven’t yet finished this book. Al-Shaykh works a little miracle with her characters and achieves what Speaker’s Corner never does—allows all sides to speak and everyone to hear each other. With knowledge comes sympathy.

After I finished that warm, amusing novel, I picked up one from a colder clime: the Danish writer Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal.[4] This one came out in London in 2017, where it became a Man Booker International Prize Finalist. Graywolf Press picked it up, and it appeared last summer in America. Misha Hoekstra translated the novel from Danish to English and manages to make some brilliant puns. The heroine of the novel, Sonja, is trying and failing to learn how to drive, even as she is becoming increasingly lonely and cut off from other people in Copenhagen, the big city she moved to in her teens and where she now knows almost no one. Besides failing, she is also falling occasionally due to positional vertigo. One day she laments her inability both to steer and operate a stick shift at the same time, but she’s also lamenting how difficult her life is alone. “No, she thinks, I can’t shift for myself.” Kudos to the translator, as I doubt that idiom is identical in Danish.

Interestingly, Sonja makes her living as a translator. She translates gory Nordic noir penned by a Swede into Danish. Think Stieg Larson, or Jo Nesbo if he were a Swede. Sonja grew up on a farm in Jutland, but “[t]hese days, what she knows most about is how to cast bodies in ditches. Bodies thrown in ditches, the deep woods, lime pits, landfills. Mutilated women and children lying and rotting everywhere on Scandinavian public land.” Sonja is astonished that so many people love the novels she translates—housewives and politicos, everyone seems to read them. It is her livelihood to translate them, but she’s shocked that people want to read these books on their vacations. “A crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots, and they’re bringing it to the cottage. Sunk in their wicker chairs, they’ll read about body parts in black plastic bags. They’ll rub themselves in SPF 50 and wallow in evil like it’s a party.”

Sonja misses her sister Kate, a woman she’s increasingly estranged from, and she misses the wild land, the heath surrounding the farm she grew up on. “It was a landscape full of power, Sonja thinks. Dad would sit there under the pretext of wanting to hunt. I’d sit there because it was the best place to be myself. But we both wanted the same thing. When you overcame the anxiety, and the boredom, you were alive there.” The heath is a sentient landscape, one that seems to move, so that wanderers sometimes get lost in it. But not Sonja, who not only loved the heath but used to sit concealed for hours deep in her father’s fields of rye. In Jutland, she could shift for herself, but in Copenhagen she’s lonely and recognizes that other people find her strange. She’s focused on learning to drive because it will give her the sense of control she once had and will also enable her to drive home.

I found myself utterly beguiled by shy, sharp, funny Sonja. I longed for her to make a real connection and find herself anchored in the process. Finding Dorthe Nors has been good for me as a reader, because I now have her other books to look forward to. If, as we’re told, only 3 percent of the world’s books get translated into English, I’m very glad Nors’s are among them. The gruesome Nordic noir can go forever untranslated as far as I’m concerned, but thoughtful, intelligent novels like this one need to appear in English.

The next book I read, a slender volume titled The Animal Gazer,[5] by Edgardo Franzosini, didn’t do much for me. It fictionalizes the life of Rembrandt Bugatti, the Italian sculptor of animals who took his life during World War I. He had TB, and the carnage he’d seen during the war (he served as an orderly), as well as the slaughter of zoo animals he loved in Antwerp (where he composed many of his sculptures), unhinged him. Franzosini has consulted numerous biographies of the artist, and from these he weaves in actual dialogue from Bugatti’s journals and letters. Although I learned a lot about the artist (he’s the brother of the car manufacturer from Milan) and appreciated the photos of his most famous sculptures, I found this a pedestrian book. Here’s a representative sample.

Although in the opinion of some, the most sincere, most credible self-portrait Bugatti ever did was the one in which he used as his model the Hamadryas baboon of the Antwerp zoo (the same work that many consider his absolute masterpiece), he personally preferred the one in which he depicted himself with the features of a marabou. “I resemble a marabou,” he wrote in a page of his notebook that conserves, in all probability, the rough draft of a letter. Like a marabou, in effect, he had long thin legs, a neck hunched forward, and a guarded style of walking. Wary.

A few nice portraits of Belle Époque Paris enliven the novel, and a credible description of the making of a life-size sculpture—his last—of Christ on the Cross, where the writer is doubtless aided by his translator, Michael F. Moore, who studied sculpture in Italy. Franzosini doesn’t take many risks imagining the thoughts of Bugatti, and that may be why this novel doesn’t succeed for me as fiction. It’s simply not imaginative enough.

I did find Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata,[6] a bestseller in Japan recently translated into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori, incredibly imaginative. The young author’s bio note states that she works part-time in a convenience store, but I imagine it’s probably to do the research necessary to write this book. It’s hard to believe she’s much like the heroine of her novel, Keiko. Keiko is clearly on the spectrum, and the orderliness and rules of the convenience store give her a sense of calm and control.

Keiko has no sense of irony; everything is literal to her. Hence, as a girl in elementary school, when two boys are fighting and a kid shouts that someone needs to stop them, Keiko knows precisely how to do it. “. . . I went to the tool shed, took out a spade, ran over to the unruly boys, and bashed one of them over the head. Everyone started screaming as he fell down clutching his skull. Seeing as he’d stopped moving, my attention turned to the other boy, and I raised the spade again.” Keiko-chan is stopped by the wailing girls and intervening teachers but doesn’t understand why what she did was wrong. She was asked to stop the boys’ fighting, and she did! What Keiko does learn is to remain silent, not to act on her impulses, but to wait and see what others do, then imitate them.

Beginning to work at the convenience store actually provides the the blueprint for behavior that she’s always needed but never received. Trainers show the new employees what to say, how to say it, how to stand, and how to interact with customers. “I was good at mimicking the trainer’s examples and the model video he’d shown us in the back room. It was first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.”

As the years go by, Keiko considers herself a simulacrum of the other employees she works with. She talks like them, dresses like them, pretends to be angry when they are, or happy when they are. In the store, working, she feels like “a cog in society. This is the only way I can be a normal person.” A college graduate, Keiko is pressured by her sister and others to marry, though she has no interest in relationships. In fact, she worries at how exhausted her sister has become since she married and had a child.

The baby started to cry. My sister hurriedly picked him up and tried to soothe him. What a lot of hassle, I thought. I looked at the small knife we’d used to cut the cake still lying there on the table: if it was just a matter of making him quiet, it would be easy enough. My sister cuddled him tightly to her. Watching them, I wiped some cream from the cake off my lip.

However, people won’t stop hassling Keiko either to a) marry or b) get a real, full-time job. The novel peaks when Keiko proposes a marriage of convenience to the worst employee the store has ever known. The best part of the book is seeing how her plan plays out.

The last book I read for this chronicle, Circe by Madeline Miller,[7] thrilled me. This young classicist has brought Greek mythology to life, first with her bestseller, The Song of Achilles, and now with this follow-up about the banished witch who beguiles Odysseus when his ship wrecks upon her island. Circe first meets his men, brutes like so many that have come before them. They’d like to rape their hostess and steal the finery from her house, but her magic is too much for them. She turns them into pigs and sends them to their sty. Odysseus appears and charms her until she agrees to turn them back. Though his men follow him with ultimate trust, Odysseus reveals to Circe how he feels about them.

They think I grieve for their dead comrades, and I do. But sometimes it is all I can do not to kill them myself. They have wrinkles, but no wisdom. I took them to war before they could do any of those things that steady a man.

Circe loves Odysseus, but she also recognizes him as a trickster, a man with hidden motives who always gets his way.

By the time she meets the timeworn survivor of the Trojan War, Circe is herself hundreds of years old, but still youthful. In her many dealings with humans, from Daedalus to Odysseus, she’s spent a great deal of time thinking about the differences between men and gods. She’s drawn to her niece, Ariadne, who feels sympathy for her monstrous brother, the Minotaur.

I watched her dance, arms curving like wings, her strong young legs in love with their own motion. This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.

Some of the great scenes of this novel involve Circe saving sailors from Scylla—a nymph she transformed into a monster (Miller uses Ovid’s version of this myth but takes it further); helping her sister give birth to the hungry Minotaur, then figuring out how to contain him; meeting Penelope and Telemachus (this never happens in Homer, but Miller has done great things with this part of the story, just as she has with Circe and her relationship with Telegonus, her son by Odysseus).

Madeline Miller brings these stories to life for contemporary readers, and her elaboration of mostly inexplicable deeds will make you think about the Greek gods and the humans they dealt with in a completely new way. Indeed, by the time you finish this novel, you will be amazed by what she has done with the characters of Odysseus and Telemachus. Based on the facts as we have them, Miller’s version of events makes emotional and artistic sense.

Circe, like its main character, is magical.
[1] FLORIDA, by Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books. $27.00.
[2] YOUR DUCK IS MY DUCK, by Deborah Eisenberg. Ecco. $26.99.
[3] THE OCCASIONAL VIRGIN, by Hanan al-Shaykh, trans. by Catherine Cobham. Pantheon. $24.95.
[4] MIRROR, SHOULDER, SIGNAL, by Dorthe Nors, trans. by Misha Hoekstra. Graywolf Press. $16.00p.
[5] THE ANIMAL GAZER, by Edgardo Franzosini, trans. by Michael F. Moore. New Vessel Press. $16.95p.
[6] CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN, by Sayaka Murata, trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Grove Press. $20.00.
[7] CIRCE, by Madeline Miller. Little, Brown and Company. $27.00.