Until I picked up Brooklyn, I had read practically nothing by Colm Tóibín, which is surprising since I am a great lover of Irish literature (see my previous blog entry about Beckett's letters) and his previous book, The Master, was extremely well-reviewed.
Brooklyn is the story of Eilis, a young woman from a small town in Ireland who is more or less sent off to Brooklyn by her mother and her sister; it is the early 1950's and the author deftly captures that time, in which the opportunities for a single woman without much education or any significant resources were of course vastly more limited than they are today.
Although Eilis is in a certain sense an outcast in both her new and her old homes, her resilience and growth as a human being is very moving. By the same token, Toibin neither condescends to her nor turns her into a feminist ahead of her time. At the end she has to choose between the new and the old (the new by now including an American boyfriend of Italian descent, itself quite a daring development in that universe), and the reader can decide whether the choice bodes for happiness or unhappiness in Eilis' future.
This is not writing with the exuberant pyrotechnics of Joyce or the jagged edges of Beckett, nor the chiseled perfection and wit of Toibin's great contemporary, John Banville; it is writing of such tenderness and delicacy, such empathy for the characters, as to be utterly suitable to the time and places of the story and yet doesn't feel old-fashioned at all. I mean no disrespect by saying that when people come to the store and ask for a "women's novel" this is the one I am recommending this summer. A superlative read, by a master writer.
Here's a great book that has received no attention at all, so far as I am aware, but is a real charmer.
It is called Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales by Kurt Schwitters (translated and introduced by Jack Zipes and charmingly illustrated by Irvine Peacock). Schwitters was one of those gifted intellectuals who seemed to proliferate in the Germany of the Weimar Republic; mostly known in those days as a visual artist he dabbled in many other forms, usually under the rubric of what he called "Merz", a made-up word of no fixed meaning, intended to refer to the quirky and iconoclastic side of life.
The universe of "Merz" is exemplified by these "fairy tales", which typically stand conventional fairy tales on their head with comic pratfalls and surprise endings along side fairly pungent social satire. The last few stories were written in English after Schwitters' enforced exile to England (where he died in 1948); the often unidiomatic use of the language only adds to the aura. The spunky adventurous quality of this material is a striking contrast with Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone which I recommended recently, although the authors were contemporaries (Fallada died in 1947).
Right now I'm having the time of my life reading: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Chronicle Books) by Jane Austen and Seth Graeme-Smith. It's prim, it's proper, yes...but now it's packed with the undead. Elizabeth Bennett has so much more on her plate than the persnickety Mr. Darcy. She and her dear sisters are perfectly-trained zombie killers. And there's a plague of ghouls to be dealt with. What's a girl to do? Just the kind of blood-rush Ms. Austen can use...with all her charm and sharp humor...but with cannibalism, ninjas, and body counts (yes, ninjas!).