The Literary Chick Review – Phantoms On The Bookshelves. Jacques Bonnet

The Literary Chick Review – Phantoms On The Bookshelves. Jacques Bonnet

There is no joy akin to two bibliophiles finding each other. First, you see the sudden sharp look in the eye upon the suspicion that they may have found another of their own. Then the coded test, as one – affecting nonchalance – drops the name Pérez-Reverte. A lightning bolt links the eyes of both. Everyone else is cut out of the conversation. The two fairly resurrect in their own world that would-if-it-could-but-it-can’t have room for you.
Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms On The Bookshelves, is a love letter to bibliophiles everywhere and anyone who needs their own library, even if that library has but a single, treasured book. Bonnet divides “bibliomaniacs” into two basic categories: collectors and manic readers. Sometimes they overlap.
For the bibliomaniac, “the book is the precious material expression of a past emotion, or the chance of having one in years to come, and to get rid of it would bring the risk of a serious sense of loss. Whereas a collector frets obsessively about the books he does not yet possess, the fanatical reader worries about no longer owning those books – traces of his past or hopes for the future – which he has read once and may read again someday.”
Books grant an internal freedom. They enable one’s mind to travel, learn, and experience limitlessly. How can one be away from the very object that contains this magic? (Hello, my name is Marilyn and I am a bibliomaniac – Hi, Marilyn!)
Bonnet has a chapter devoted solely to the question that few bibliomaniacs ever feel totally satisfied with – Organizing The Bookshelves. By alphabet? By Color? By Genre? And there are some proximities that simply cannot be! What if your Vargas Llosa found itself next to your Garcia Marquez after the former blackened the eye of the latter for the way he found his good friend ‘consoling’ his wife after a marital spat? You could very well have a book brawl on your hands.

Bonnet understands the feeling of leafing through a book from your younger days and wondering, What the hell was I thinking? He never would have imagined that upon a re-reading of Anna Karenina, he would feel more touched by the plight of Anna’s cuckolded husband than by the passion of her feeling for Vronsky. The angels sang when someone else articulated what I felt when revisiting Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction that was my go-to book in college. And I was appalled at what my snarky younger self had said about Virginia Wolfe that got me thrown out of Perry Meisel’s class in NYU (although in all fairness, Perry Meisel had snark running through his veins and I secretly think he didn’t like when one of us spoiled brats gave it back to him).

Phantoms is quite simply, a gem of a book.  And it is sure to give any true bibliophile the warm fuzzies by finding a kindred soul in Jacques Bonnet.

A word on Pérez-Reverte, the secret code of bibliomaniacs.  Read Dumas’ The Three Musketeers first.  Or if you want to cheat, check out Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate.

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The Literary Chick Review – Blood Brothers

The Literary Chick Review – Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers

The play “Cabaret” heavily informs modern perceptions of Weimar Germany. We recall garter clad Liza Minnelli and elegant Joel Grey slinking their way through a decadent underworld of sex and style. It all seems so glamorous, but the reality for most Germans at the time was colder, duller and much more miserable.

Blood Brothers, a novel written by journalist Ernst Haffner in 1932, delves beneath the glossy veneer of Berlin nightlife to relate the story of a gang of German street boys on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power.

Haffner’s writing is of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity or realism, which rejects romanticism. He writes a collage of the exploits and exploitation of these boys in a non-emotional, journalistic style, relying on facts to indict German society and social inequality rather than the gang members. In this, his prose pairs well with the vitriolic caricatures of anti-Nazi artist Georg Grosz, a contemporary of Haffner’s who left Germany for the US in 1933. Haffner’s tough, troubled, vulnerable boys are not the picturesque blond blue-eyed gods the Nazis sought to portray their youth as. They are social outsiders, the type of people the Nazi’s labeled “Asoziale” and persecuted.

Haffner, in Blood Brothers, deftly shows the absurdity of society demonizing those who steal in order to live their very lives.  He writes, “Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after.  From the moment they took their first uncertain steps, they were on their own.  Father was at the Front or already listed missing.  Mother was turning grenades or coughing her lungs out a few grams at a time in explosives factories.  The kids with their turnip bellies – not even potato bellies – were always out for something to eat in courtyards and streets.  As they grew older, gangs of them went out stealing.  Malignant little beasts.”

Jonny, their leader by virtue of his cold cunning, intellect, and ruthlessness guides them through the cold, hostile streets, organizing their thievery. He is the thread that gives these vulnerable boys a sense of belonging and safety. This kind of life can’t be lived for long without something going wrong, and something does.

In addition to Jonny, we read of Ludwig, who is arrested when he is tricked into attempting to claim a stolen baggage ticket, and of Willi, who runs away from a home for underage youth after he is hit once too often, making his way to Berlin by strapping himself beneath the train for the journey, and of Fredrick, who advocates graduating from petty crime to major theft, resulting in the gang’s downfall.

One cannot survive the streets of Berlin alone.  “Berlin – endless, merciless Berlin – is too much for anyone on their own… If there’s two of you, it feels different.  A night is only half as long and half as cold; even hunger is only half as bad.”

Haffner’s humane depiction of the gang members in his book might have been a grave political error. The Nazis burned and banned Blood Brothers within a year of it being first published. Sometime after, the writers’ union affiliated with the Third Reich, the Reichsschrifttumskammer, summoned him to appear. It is believed that Haffner complied. He was never seen again. If Jamal Khashoggi’s recent disappearance is alarming, it’s because we’ve seen this sort of thing before.

The Literary Chick Review-The Essential Marcus Aurelius

The Literary Chick Review-The Essential Marcus Aurelius

Has your rule been literally plagued by disease? Have you been the object of adoration, but also of hatred? Has the market devastated your 401(k)? Ever lose a loved one? Miss your train to Great Neck? Had to fend off invaders from the east? Whatever the setback, Marcus Aurelius will get you through it.

A cornerstone of Stoicism, his meditations can help retrain your brain to reign in emotions and act – or not – with a clear eye. Stoicism is all about being impervious to life’s vicissitudes. “Be like the jutting rock against which waves are constantly crashing, and all around it the frothing foam of the waters then settles back down.”

For stoics, the difference is between being defeated or enduring. It is the difference between saying, “Oh, I am so unfortunate that this has happened to me,” and “How fortunate I am that, even though this has happened to me, I continue uninjured, neither terrified by the present nor in fear of the future.”

Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from CE 161 to 180, knew what he was talking about. He was pulled into a war with Parthia after a Parthian land-grab. Upon the war’s conclusion, returning soldiers brought back a plague that devastated Rome. His empire was also attacked by fierce Germanic tribes and he later had to fight a rival, Avidius Cassius, to keep his crown. Meanwhile his home life also brought misery. Aurelius’ suffered the loss of a number of his 13 children, such that he wrote that rather than pray: “‘How I may not lose my little child,’ one must pray ‘how I may not be afraid to lose him?’”.

Stoicism was influenced by the teachings of Socrates. Aurelius studied other foundational tracts written by the former slave, Epictetus. The philosophy emphasizes fate, reason, and self-restraint. In his own writings, Aurelius stresses the shortness of life and that one should live according to principals that allow him to have respect for himself, rather than react to what motivates others or how others view him.  He writes “Remember also that each man lives only the present moment: The rest of time is either spent and gone or is quite unknown.”

This translation, by John Piazza and Jacob Needleman, is clear, concise, and user-friendly.  Those wanting to delve deeper can certainly find more detailed editions, but Piazza and Needleman cherry-pick the most universal principals that are as relevant and troubling to people today as they were to one of the grandest Roman Emperors of his time.

It is unclear as to whether Aurelius was writing for posterity or to clear his own thinking, but his tome is the Mother of All Self-Help Books. The next time your home gets destroyed in a Donnie Darko type catastrophe, or your business goes bust, or something you bought yesterday goes on sale today at 50% off, it might be tempting to have a drink, but consider picking up your Marcus Aurelius.

Come to think of it, you could do both.

The Literary Chick Review – Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

The Literary Chick Review – Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Reader, he drove me mad.

Truth can lie between two different realities.

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester’s plans to marry Jane are frustrated by the revelation that the long-suffering man is already married and in fact, his mad wife is locked in the attic. But what is her story?  And if she is ‘mad’, how did she get that way?

The wife is Antoinette Bertha Mason Rochester, nee Cosway; she prefers Antoinette. Rhys is masterful showing the descent of Antionette’s life and mind as well as the gradual rise of Rochester’s contempt and control of her. The evolution of Antoinette’s voice from clarity to ‘madness’ is exquisite and sad.

Like Rhys herself, Antoinette is of Creole descent. We meet her growing up in Dominica with her widowed mother and disabled brother. From the beginning, Antoinette is unsure of who she is. As white Creoles, they are rejected by both the English and the Blacks, who call them “white cockroaches.” As women, they lack status or agency. After the Emancipation Act frees the slaves, Antoinette’s slaveholding family, once wealthy, becomes destitute.

Antoinette’s mother pursues the only option she believes is open to her, and marries a rich white carpetbagger, Mr. Mason. Mason decides to replace the family’s remaining servants with Eastern coolie workers. The staff overhears, however, and they set fire to the home, Coulibri, resulting in the death of Antoinette’s brother and leading to her mother’s emotional devastation.

Mr. Mason abandons his mad wife to abusive caretakers and sends Antoinette to convent school. It is his responsibility to identify a husband for her, howe

ver, and he does. It’s an unnamed English gentleman, though readers of Jane Eyre will recognize him as Mr. Rochester.

As a second son, Rochester needs the money bequeathed to Antoinette by her stepfather. They wed, and at first the match seems successful. Rochester breaks down Antoinette’s reserve through affection and physical passion. Antoinette responds, opening herself to experience a happiness her childhood had trained her to never expect.

Yet Rochester has a nagging distrust of his exotic Creole wife, and antipathy for Dominica.

Geography becomes a proxy for the perceptions and misperceptions of the spouses. Neither view the home of the other as “real.” Antoinette sees England as cold and dark; in her eyes Dominica is lush, beautiful and fragrant. Rochester views the technicolor Dominica as ominous and threatening, as if he were about to be devoured by a giant Venus flytrap.

And then there is the Sargasso Sea, a dead-calm oceanic mire that Dominica borders upon. For Antoinette, it’s a metaphor for her deepest fears. For Rochester, it is a physical barrier between himself and his beloved England.

Rochester receives a letter received from a man who may or may not be Antoinette’s brother by her father and one of his slaves. The letter warns Rochester he was tricked into marrying a degenerate girl with a family history of madness. These allegations prey on Rochester’s insecurities and cause him to abruptly reject Antoinette.  Her fragile sense of identity shaken and desperate to win back her husband’s affection, Antoinette resorts to means which unintentionally goad Rochester into acting on his worst impulses. The rift between them devolves into a chasm leading to her own undoing.

Rochester drags his broken wife to cold and dark England, where he confines her to the attic, under the care of servants paid for their discretion.  

The Wide Sargasso Sea is a stunning work of understanding and empathy for all characters in this book – and the next.

Review: Stefan Kiesbye’s Berlingeles

Review: Stefan Kiesbye’s Berlingeles

Stefan Kiesbye’s Berlingeles

By Brian Santo

The titular joke in Berlingeles is that Americans finally get their wall; it’s just not where they thought it would be. German-born novelist Stefan Kiesbye trains his jaundiced gaze on the current state of affairs in the United States (his adopted country) and takes just a short leap, timewise and conjecturally, to a future in which the Confederacy has revived itself and is in an armed standoff with the Union and its allies, Canada and Mexico.

Los Angeles is the Union’s last loyal enclave in California. The weak Union can barely protect it, but the Confederacy is not strong enough to overrun it. So the Confederacy isolates Los Angeles in precisely the same way the Soviet Union once blocked off East Berlin, hence the portmanteau that residents adopt for their city. As with East Berlin during the Cold War, once you find yourself in Berlingeles, it is difficult if not impossible to get out.

Berlingeles is a move toward cyberpunk, a genre that is new for Kiesbye, who has worked mostly in the horror vein. Characters in Berlingeles who can afford the equipment navigate through an augmented reality called “the Fleece.” They can live up to 140 years if they have the money to occasionally “scrub” the biological systems they have that still function, and replace the ones that don’t with spare parts that are apparently cybernetic. Those upgrades are exceedingly valuable, and in a city that has already begun unraveling toward chaos, they come with the risk of having criminal gangs bloodily claim them for resale.

Berlingeles is reminiscent of The Sprawl, the vast metropolis imagined by cyberpunk godfather William Gibson that stretches continuously from Boston to Baltimore. Both The Sprawl and Berlingeles are urban, decadent, decaying and, in some areas, exceedingly dangerous.

But though Berlingeles has the trappings of cyberpunk, it isn’t really. In straight-up cyberpunk, the technology matters. Cyberpunk authors typically have some interest in the societal implications of technology, how it might change the way people behave and how they relate to each other. Or at the very least, some tech bauble or other is a plot device. Kiesbye doesn’t seem to care about technology either way. In Berlingeles there is no scientifical macguffin, and the technology that people use doesn’t seem to make them any more or less apt to treat each other badly.

And the characters treat each other very, very badly. It’s an effect that being walled-in can have.

They desire nothing more than escape or release – perhaps in love, perhaps in Mexico. But Berlingeles is cordoned off, wretched, brutal and getting worse. The same can be said of its inhabitants. Building emotional walls is as necessary and reflexive as breathing. Every interaction involves some form of menace or degradation or both. The result of engaging with any other person is almost always more misery, isolation and alienation for everyone involved.

Everyone is manipulative or manipulated, and whether they’re one or the other changes from one interaction to the next, dependent entirely on relative power, whether expressed as wealth, sexual attractiveness, or physical menace. Sex is transactional and perfunctory when it’s not repellent – for readers, if not for the characters. At one point, Kiesbye describes relationships as what couples wish to inflict on each other.

Between the physical wall and all the abuse going around, it appears unlikely anyone in Berlingeles will ever find escape, let alone freedom, no matter how hard they look. Those who persist in looking, however, include Gaz, an entry-level hoodlum, Sophie, a prostitute with a heart of stone, and K., a former novelist.

Sixteen-year-old Gaz does precisely what the gang lord Rat instructs him to do – deliver packages, dismember someone for their parts, kill for reasons that will remain obscure if Gaz knows what’s good for him. Gaz is obsessed with the damaged complex of tunnels below Berlingeles. He intuits that there might be a path out of the city down there, for someone enterprising enough to look and desperate enough to try to elude the tunnel inhabitants who appear to have drifted farther from humanity than those on the surface.

Gaz and Sophie are lovers, for lack of a printable term that conveys the disinterest and grubbiness involved. Being a hooker is merely what 14-year-old girls in Berlingeles do. Sophie aspires to make it to Mexico, encouraged by her Mexican grandmother Ida, who might exist only as a Fleece memory, but who can be caustic and bullying all the same. Sophie is trapped in a yet another way, however. She’s too naïve to figure out how to play the angles – perhaps too uninspired to realize that there are angles to be played.

K. is one of Sophie’s clients. He is in his 90s, has one new arm and one new leg, and resists the thought of leaving Berlingeles for fear of missing his beloved B., a would-be lover who, pre-Wall, promised to come find him in Los Angeles. He gave up writing novels years before, when a younger rival published a book strikingly similar to the one K. was only just finishing. Worse, the rival’s version was much better, as K. himself acknowledges. K. appears to have a secret, and it might be that long ago he killed his wife, or so a Berlingeles homicide detective seems to believe.

K., being a writer, might be a stand in for Kiesbye himself. Or perhaps Kiesbye wants the reader to think of Kafka’s K. or Josef K. Perhaps the single-letter moniker is just a fake-out. In a city in which everything seems meaningless, can a name signify anything?

Kiesbye is impressively imaginative in the construction of his Berlingeles, but some elements of his future show how difficult prognostication can be. In the mystery genre, Carl Hiaasen has spent decades trying to exaggerate the weirdness of Floridians, but his fellow Sunshine Staters, as prodigiously inventively whacked out as they are, keep upping the ante on real-life craziness (e.g., “Florida woman dies after nude domestic dispute on jet ski”).  

In Berlingeles, Kiesbye occasionally gets stuck in the futurist’s version of the Hiassen Bind – how to imagine something weirder than what exists now. For example, Berlingelenos are fans of an animated Fleece series about a cartoon bear whose hapless top half is frequently at odds with his severed, flatulent bottom half. The series follows the halves’ misadventures with their friends Tea Kettle, Swiss Cheese, Celery Stick and Eggshell. It’s barely (pun intended) odder than Aqua Teen Hunger Force on Cartoon Networks’ Adult Swim.

But again, these are details, and though the details in Berlingeles add up to verisimilitude for the future that Kiesbye has constructed, in the end they matter as much as the technology. If anything matters in Berlingeles, it is people and their collective fate.

In that way, Kiesbye’s Berlingeles is reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon. In the novels of both, characters discover they have somehow been conscripted to play roles in what are apparently consequential plots or vast conspiracies that they are only partially aware of and not sure they have identified correctly. Characters discover they are connected in unexpected and sometimes inexplicable ways, and they struggle to discover if they’ve been manipulated into forging these relationships or if their meetings are merely chance and coincidence.

Pynchon’s novels traffic in paranoia, sexuality that is occasionally burlesque, and absurdity that bends toward the comedic. Some Pynchon characters feel as though they are contributing to the making of history, but there’s still the possibility they’re merely being swept along in some historical current, involved yet unable to truly affect anything. In Pynchon’s universe, there are no easy answers, and we might be asking the wrong questions anyways. It’s never entirely clear there is a mystery, and if there is, it might be unsolvable.

Berlingeles traffics in nihilism, however. Sex is grotesque, and any humor is accidental. There is no question there are powerful people engaged in plots and machinations. The conspiracies are real, but they’re going on at such a high level, who can afford to care when they’re busy trying to survive all the brutality and depravity? And history? As consequential as technology or animated celery sticks.

Kiesbye describes himself as a pessimist, but perhaps he’s less pessimistic than he thinks. A reader is apt to walk away from a Pynchon novel amused but feeling an existential helplessness that the world is too complex and too weird to fully ken, let alone do anything about it.

Kiesbye’s characters might be stuck behind walls, but Kiesbye’s readers are not. Recoiling from all the degradation and misery they find on the page, they might come away alarmed at how close America is to bungling its way toward a society too reminiscent of Berlingeles, replete with a civil war and walls both metaphorical and – if some get their way – literal. You want walls? Germans know from walls. Be careful what you wish for, and if you miss the message, Kiesbye pounds it home by quoting Ronald Reagan’s exhortation to Mikhail Gorbachev.

In the end, a reader might walk away from Berlingeles considering that wall-lessness might be possible, but we’re going to have to want it badly enough to actively reject walls. It might be hard. It might even be unlikely. But trying to inspire readers to think about our collective fate? Since when is writing a cautionary novel a pessimistic act?

Brian Santo is a journalist and occasional contributor The Literary Chick web site.

The Literary Chick Review – The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

The Literary Chick Review – The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

“Young man, you’re case it is proven clear
We’ll give you seven years penal servitude
To be spent far away . . . 
And the very first thing that you’ll know is
You’ve landed in Van Diemens Land”


In 1787, Great Britain couldn’t keep up with its burgeoning criminal population and began expelling its convicts to jail compounds on a sparsely inhabited continent on the other side of the globe. England exiled over 160,000 men, women, and children to this inhospitable land of poor soil and unwelcoming habitat. In the “The Fatal Shore” we meet some of the most enterprising and notorious of the exiles.


Some of the first folk heroes of the island continent that would later be named Australia came from this criminal class. Food was scarce, and soon everyone was starving. Prison overseers gave guns to certain able-bodied men to hunt down sustenance in any form. The Bushrangers slaughtered kangaroos en masse. Depletion of the nearby roo population drove the men, dogs, and guns further into the bush, where they ended up competing with the Aborigines for meat. Literally unshackled, many of these insurgents stole the guns and the dogs and stayed in the bush.

There wasn’t much for them to go back to. Treatment of the criminal class steadily became harsher, approached the level of sadism under Major Joseph Foreaux. Flogging with a cat o’ none tails was the most frequent punishment inflicted, leaving lasting physical and psychological scars. The only act of defiance left was to try to avoid showing pain. “The scarred back became an emblem of rank. So did silence. Convicts called a man who blubbered and screamed at the triangles . . . a sandstone (Sandstone is a common rock around Sidney; it is soft and crumbles easily.) By contrast, the convict who stood up to it in silence was admired as a pebble or an iron man. He would show his stripes (strip for punishment) with disdain, and after the domino (last lash) he would spit at he feet of the man who gave him his red shirt.”

The hated prison Macquarie Harbor was on the isolated West Coast of Van Dieman’s Land, later renamed Tasmania. The only person to break out and live was Irishman Alexander Pearce, who accomplished the feat twice. The first time he escaped with seven other convicts in a sea craft. Upon landfall, they slogged their way through a land lacking in forage, growing ever hungrier. One of the men, Kennely, joked, “I’m so weak, that I could eat a piece of a man.” But then six of the escapees ganged up on the seventh and made short work and short ribs of him. Eventually only Pearce and Greenhill were left. Then Greenhill made the mistake of falling sleep.


When Pearce was recaptured he told his story, but other convicts assumed he was lying to cover for comrades still at large. Young

Thomas Cox approached him, assured Pearce of his fitness, and begged him to escape again. They had traveled only a few days when they came across King’s River. Cox confessed he could not swim, and more likely out of rage than gluttony Pearce killed him.

Pearce was recaptured, and again gave a truthful account of his escape. This time everyone believed him. He was hanged, autopsied, and his skull sent to The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where it may still be.

A non-fiction book that reads like fiction, this richly detailed history reads with a narrative flow that leaves the reader with a deep understanding of Australia’s Hobbesian birth.

Song lyrics from The Black Velvet Band

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