Michael Paulson

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ljaz Cosini, the river guide and narrator of Death of a River Guide, undergoes a vivid, mystical journey through time and space while slowly drowning in a Tasmanian river. What materializes is an inventive portrait of man and land, intertwined through generations of pain, hardship and blood.

Author Richard Flanagan creates a memorable character in Aljaz, a Tasmanian of English, Slovenian and Aboriginal descent. With unflinching and often brutal honesty, Aljaz reflects on his own foibles: his failed relationship with an ethnic Chinese woman; his aimless wanderings around Tasmania after their infant daughter's death; his fears accompanying the onset of early middle age; the questions about his own origins. The river guide emerges as a man possessing that rare ability to analyze his experiences with a detachment that nonetheless rings with feeling.

As he drowns, Aljaz relives not only his own life but that of his ancestors. Flanagan masterfully produces these twin voices as candid, intriguing representations of the same man.

Rich personalities people the novel: Harry, Aljaz's father, meets his wife in post-war Trieste, where she gives birth to her only son with the aid of a crusty, cigar-smoking Italian midwife, Maria Magdalena Svevo; Aljaz's fellow river guide, the Cockroach, crops up as a seemingly insignificant companion yet evolves into a fully developed character, helping Aljaz ferry a group of vacationers down the storm-swollen river even as it menaces their party.

Flanagan, an Australian writer who won acclaim for The Sound of One Hand Clapping, demonstrates impressive command of language and idiom with his precise writing. His style fuses long expository passages with sparse dialogue that not only pushes the narrative forward, but subtly reveals character without intruding on the story. The tale of Aljaz Cosini is a beautiful one that will continue to haunt long after the novel ends, prodding us to think about how our own lives even in these millennial times are still linked with the terrifying glory of nature.

Michael Paulson teaches English at Penn State University.

 

ljaz Cosini, the river guide and narrator of Death of a River Guide, undergoes a vivid, mystical journey through time and space while slowly drowning in a Tasmanian river. What materializes is an inventive portrait of man and land, intertwined through generations of pain, hardship and blood. Author Richard Flanagan creates a memorable character in […]
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In Tom Perrotta's new novel, Joe College, Danny juggles his working class background with the social and academic demands of Yale. The story, set in 1982, alternates between the rarified air of New Haven and the grimy roads of industrial New Jersey, where Danny's father grinds out his days in a lunch truck nicknamed the Roach Coach.

Perrotta is the author of three previous novels, including Election, a biting satire of high school politics that was made into a well-received film of the same name. He returns to familiar territory in this latest chronicle of New Jersey youth, this time setting the scene in college instead of high school. The crux of the novel is Danny's rocky negotiation of various situations, some comic, some romantic, some life-threatening. He constantly dances back and forth between the academic stratosphere and the dish line where he works at a university dining hall. Trading barbs with salty-tongued cooks one minute and flinging deadpan jokes about George Eliot at his fellow student-workers the next, Danny (we never learn his last name) seems comfortable straddling both worlds, but still a subtle undercurrent of otherness troubles him. His struggle for acceptance continues like a nagging thought throughout the book.

Danny's various love interests further complicate matters. Cindy, a Jersey girl he met while driving the Roach Coach on break from college, looms ominously with her incessant phone messages. Her opposite number at Yale, the beautiful and intriguing Polly, intermittently dates one of the English department's rising stars, simultaneously dropping Danny thinly veiled hints of interest. These matters alone would sufficiently occupy the time of a college student, but during Danny's spring break, circumstances force him to operate the Roach Coach just as the neighborhood mob moves in on the lunch truck business. With a bravado deliciously incongruous with his Yale pedigree, he threatens a mob foot soldier, insults the local don, and acquits himself surprisingly well when cornered by a gaggle of beefy Mafiosi.

Perrotta has created a funny, likable protagonist in Danny, and the perfect vehicle in which to crack wise about Yale, New Jersey, and everything in between.

 

Michael Paulson teaches English at Penn State University.

In Tom Perrotta's new novel, Joe College, Danny juggles his working class background with the social and academic demands of Yale. The story, set in 1982, alternates between the rarified air of New Haven and the grimy roads of industrial New Jersey, where Danny's father grinds out his days in a lunch truck nicknamed the […]
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Eleanor of Aquitaine led a remarkable life: queen of England and France, participant in a Crusade, mother of Richard the Lionheart, patron of troubadours, benefactor of convents, and actor in numerous court intrigues that decided the fates of kingdoms and helped shape the political boundaries of medieval Europe. Courageous, opinionated, and ambitious, she inspired great loyalty in vassals yet incurred the wrath of noblemen and prelates in her drive to acquire power for herself and her children.

The author of six previous books about English history, Alison Weir tackles familiar territory with Eleanor of Aquitaine. She ostensibly chronicles the life of Eleanor, though the book also provides a tableau of 12th-century Europe. It is saturated with episodes demonstrating the Byzantine nature of dynastic politics and the intensely complex machinations involved in the often bloody chess game that characterized Europe at this time. This lends a healthy vitality to the events Weir describes: This book doesn't read as history, this book is history.

Moreover, Weir seasons her account with voluminous and vivid detail culled from an impressive collection of sources. We discover that kings wore hairshirts and submitted themselves to monks for flagellation as penance for their myriad sins and that nobles often employed the claim of consanguinity as grounds for divorce, paving the way for new and more politically rewarding marriages that created a mosaic of extremely fluid alliances. Such morsels crop up throughout, adding layers of depth to a period often labeled the Dark Ages.

The title notwithstanding, much of the book revolves around the men in Eleanor's life; after all, she was married at different times to the kings of France and England. Both marriages were arranged in large part because of Eleanor's claim to the vast, wealthy duchy of Aquitaine in France, and Weir carefully shows how the unions deteriorated into acrimony. But the queen's legacy reached all the way to the War of the Roses 300 years later, which marked the end of the line she and Henry founded, and she left her distinctive imprint on the map of Europe.

Eleanor of Aquitaine led a remarkable life: queen of England and France, participant in a Crusade, mother of Richard the Lionheart, patron of troubadours, benefactor of convents, and actor in numerous court intrigues that decided the fates of kingdoms and helped shape the political boundaries of medieval Europe. Courageous, opinionated, and ambitious, she inspired great […]
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Alexander Short works in the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers as a reference specialist, spending his days amid call slips and idiosyncratic librarians. When he receives an elegantly penned query for a book titled Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture, Short becomes embroiled in a search for a priceless watch that gradually consumes his professional and personal life. The Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil's second novel, takes this premise and spins an intelligent mystery spanning two centuries.

Henry James Jesson III, a middle-aged, wealthy, enigmatic collector, enlists Short to help track the Grand Complication, an antique watch that would complete one of his collections. Jesson is a genuine eccentric who lives alone (save for a butler) in a cloistered Manhattan house, speaks in archaic, erudite diction, and remains egregiously ignorant of all things modern. Short rigorously researches the history of the Grand Complication, from its creation by a Swiss inventor to its theft from a Jerusalem museum. Meanwhile, Jesson manipulates him by withholding information, Short's wife throws him out of their apartment for his growing obsession with the watch, and the young librarian navigates the treacherous water of library politics in an effort to keep his job and locate the fantastic timepiece. Kurzweil balances the dialogue deftly, alternating between Jesson's antiquated, high culture pronouncements and the younger Short's more colloquial speech; their contrasting voices nicely demonstrate the divide between the two protagonists, a gulf that becomes increasingly demarcated as the story progresses. The library itself serves as mute third protagonist. Kurzweil sets much of the novel there, and he continually drops wonderfully eclectic nuggets of information into our laps regarding the Dewey Decimal System, book binding practices and conservation techniques. The library's staff, including stuffy mandarins and autodidactic janitors, flesh out the story. Indeed, Kurzweil delights in using these secondary characters as colorful backdrops to the plot.

A charming energy floods the novel, and Kurzweil neatly pulls off the author's trick of entertaining even as he educates.

Michael Paulson teaches English in Baltimore.

 

Alexander Short works in the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers as a reference specialist, spending his days amid call slips and idiosyncratic librarians. When he receives an elegantly penned query for a book titled Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture, Short becomes embroiled in a search for a priceless watch that gradually […]

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