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Mike's Likes #2 (Book Reports Jan 2020)

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Occasionally I repost book reports by Michael Barrett. Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting highlights.

These things happen, or Buzzati too is God


CATASTROPHE AND OTHER STORIES by Dino Buzzati

This collection reprints a 1965 translation and adds four “new” gentler less dark stories. They add up to a concept album on terrible events and depend more on queasy undefined anticipation and escalation than the disaster, though disasters do arrive. People are often terrified of some unclear thing or deny this terror. Several tales are basically about time and life. They all tend toward political and existential parables, like the passengers on a train who perceive everyone fleeing from the direction in which the train is heading (this mere idea is brilliant, the story needs nothing else), or the hospital in which people descend the seven floors according to their prospects for recovery (everyone’s headed down to first floor).

The story where an elite group feels compelled to slay a pathetic dragon mirrors a story where a traveling couple descend into public pillory. The one about an epidemic ends with a positive twist on political fashion. The longest story, “The Scala Scare” (one of the added tales), is about the chimera of political fear among the privileged who, put into a state of mind by the art of a clangorous contemporary opera, convince themselves a bloody revolution is occurring.

The other three new stories have different qualities. One employs disaster at the service of class revenge, one is a deal with the devil with a very concrete message (you get money at the expense of others, similar to Matheson’s “Button Button”), and one is about the beatification of saints and what becomes of them. That story ends on mystic beauty and provides a transcendent end to the book, partly by sheer contrast with all that came before. I’ll retell it, spoilers and all.

It begins: “Each of the saints has his own little house beside the shore with a balcony overlooking the sea–and that sea is God. In summer when it is hot they refresh themselves by plunging into the cool water–and that water is God.” The story tells of a neglected saint whom nobody prays to, even when he pulls a few miracles, but he makes a friend in the saint who unwittingly usurps his glory. “They went in, cut a little wood and lit the fire with some difficulty because the wood was still damp, but by blowing and blowing a bright flame sprung up at last. Then Gancillo put a pot of water over the fire for the soup, and while waiting for it to boil they both sat on the bench warming their knees and chatting away happily. Then from the chimney there issued a thin column of smoke, and that smoke too was God.”

Here’s another review of Buzzati’s Catastrophe by Ben Roth.

Book report: Two writers of brilliance and delight


Lucia Berlin‘s EVENING IN PARADISE (audiobook)
Natalia Ginzburg‘s FAMILY LEXICON (ebook)
Checked out of the library!

A couple of years ago, A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN introduced me to one of America’s best short story writers in the 2nd half of the 20th Century, the late Lucia Berlin. Apparently this collection was a “bestseller” (whatever that means) b/c the publisher followed with two more.

The brilliance continues with the stories in EVENING IN PARADISE, this time arranged by internal biographical order as inspired by Berlin’s Texas childhood, teen years in Peru, bohemian marriages with husbands addicted to jazz and/or heroine, single motherhood and alcoholism, and finally graceful retired teacher. The title story, which doesn’t tip an autobiographical hat, concerns one night at a Mexican hotel with the cast and crew of NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, and a character from that story shows up in a later story of violence and horror, calmly recounted. We certainly hope it’s mostly fiction. A later story splits first-person narrators during a vanished-child crisis between the mom and a nosy neighbor. Her best stories, which is most of them, are marked by a sane poise of comedy and pathos, of confession and containment.

The first paragraph of Natalia Ginzburg’s delightful and enthralling FAMILY LEXICON asserts that she disciplined herself only to write what she knows is true about her memories of growing up in Italy as an anti-Fascist Jewish family that survived the war (except her first husband). Each paragraph and page is funny and sharp in its catalogue of eccentric or specific details of family and everyone she knew, including famous people, with particular attention to family jokes and code phrases.

Her loudly argumentative family could be seen as typically Italian or typically Jewish and is really just typically family. They feel alive, credible, exasperating and fun, and the sad and poignant parts, also described simply, have power. So does her observation that when she thinks of Pavese, she thinks mostly of his irony and wants to cry that it’s vanished from the earth because he never put it into his books. This is among the few moments when she agrees to refer to herself, whom she largely treats as another bemusedly observed acquaintance. She describes things that happened and never wallows in emotions, yet these can be sensed. A great accomplishment.

Book report: The effect of gamma rays on social processes and OTHER MEN’S DAUGHTERS, by Richard Stern

Richard Stern’s 1973 novel seems written as a snapshot of transition to divorce culture in Harvard WASP country. Stern writes an often vivid, telegraphic kind of poetry for phrase and metaphor; seemingly random moments are in present tense. An early 40s biology prof, now in a sterile tense marriage after four children, stumbles into an affair with a (wish fulfillment?) forward, beautiful, smart, rich, often insecure woman in her 20s.

Despite occasional dips into the girlfriend’s and wife’s heads, this is the man’s POV (reflected in the title) as he’s broken out of the shell of routine and outdated assumptions, partly echoed in his work on biological processes and evolutionary change, and essentially a story sympathetic to all its participants while recognizing their flaws. They keep reading novels (Balzac’s LIKE DEATH) and seeing movies (THE BLUE ANGEL) all too appropriate as commentary, but without commentary. Only a trip to THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO evokes a conscious twinge.

The moving penultimate chapter involves his telling the two younger children about the divorce and handling their reactions. The author transcribes the events simply and exactly: “George cried. Sarah’s and Merriwether’s hands were on his head and back.”

His older sister puts on a braver front. “She turned away. ‘It isn’t as hard for me at my age, Daddy. It’s harder for George. I’m taken up with things.’
‘I love you so, Esme, dear. I’ll always be here. I’m glad it’s not that hard for you. But you may have hard moments. Mommy and I will do everything we can to help you.’

‘Thank you. I think I’d better be alone.’ The voice led to the edge of years she did not want him to see. Feeling a depth of love absolutely new in his life, Merriwether resisted lifting her into his arms.”

What’s important is to accept their signals of what they need; the expression of deep love is resisting the embrace in this case, while the boy needs it. Or should he not have resisted the impulse? “George cried”–I cried, and I’ve never been in any situation near this.

“A week later, the thought came to Merriwether that the moments holding each other on the bed were the best he and George would probably have together; it was as strong a love as two human beings could have for each other without sexuality (stronger for its absence). ‘You who are made of me, formed from–and against–me, you whom I’ve seen grow from bulge to this, you George Merriwether, whom I named and who will–please God–have me in mind years after my death, you my beloved child…’ Nothing in Merriwether’s life had come close to the love behind this unvoiced invocation.”

Despite this potpourri of raw emotions, the book refuses to indulge in tragic melodrama–in stark contrast, for example, to the marital transgressions in Updike’s first two Rabbits.


Michael Barrett is a writer, librarian and critic based in San Antonio. In addition to writing film criticism for Popmatters, Rotten Tomatoes and other national publications, he has published two works of children’s fiction. You can follow his daily posts on his Facebook page (and read a long interview with him on this blog). For the last 10 years he has written a Christmas letter detailing things read and watched for each year. Periodically, his book reports from Facebook are reposted here as “Mike’s Likes.”

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