Memories of Violence

Book Cover: Townie
Destination: Massachusetts

Book: Townie by Andre Dubus III

Andre Dubus III has written a memoir packed with the incidents of an earlier life that most people would want to forget.  His childhood would provide years of material for psychoanalysis–a mostly absent father, a mother struggling to raise three kids in poverty, a suicidal brother and partying sister.  And that’s just the other people in the family.

Dubus himself is the small kid who is bullied and beat up regularly on the mean streets of the dying industrial town of Haverhill Massachusetts in the Merrimack River valley north of Boston.

Townie relates his determination to build up his body–develop muscles that will allow him to punish the bullies–is a reminder of the ads in old comic books. Remember?  The bully at the beach kicks sand in the face of the scrawny boy who invests in a Charles Atlas body-building program and becomes a hulk.

But as Dubus builds his body, he falls a little too in love with the power it gives him.  He loves the fight.  He relishes learning to, as he puts it, break the invisible membrane between him and his victim when he throws a punch or slams a foot into a kidney.

The amazing thing about this book is that although its subject is violence of a kind I have never experienced and it takes place in a world of poverty that makes me feel alien and overpriveleged, I could sink entirely into the life described.  That’s how vivid and enticing Dubus’ writing is.

Yes, the subject of violence and the stultifying effects of poverty are dark, but the author brings humor and softer emotions into play.  The mother and children are close. He never lost his affection for his father, despite the man’s bumbling attempts at fatherhood and serial, arrogant unfaithfulness to whatever woman he was with at the time.

The fact that his father was a well known author did not create a desire in Andre III to follow in those footsteps.  However, a love of words and story telling eventually squeezed out his youthful rage and led him to walk away from fights.

Nevertheless, you can’t read the endless detailed descriptions of people purposefully injurying each other without wondering whether Dubus is purging himself of violent urges or being a bit nostalgic about the days when he broke the membrane between people with a fist instead of with words.

His acknowledgements mention that the town has vastly changed since he grew up there, and Haverhill sounds like a place you might want to visit now.

I heard Andre Dubus III speak at the Tucson Book Festival, and you can read about the Book Festival here.  If you saw the movie House of Sand and Fog, you know his work. He wrote the book that movie was based on.  And his latest book, a collection of linked novellas, is called Dirty Love.

On this six-minute video, Dubus talks eloquently about violence and what it means to him.

Note: I read this book , which I purchased myself, on my Kindle.  The text above contains some links to book titles which will take you to Amazon. There anything you purchase will contribute a few cents to A Traveler’s Library and I appreciate your support.

Delivering the Sultan’s Babies–Constantinople Intrigue

book cover
Destination: Constantinople/Istanbul

Book: The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich (new 2014)

If you’re a fan of Call the Midwife on TV,  you should love the novel, The Harem Midwife.

Besides, the book is appropriate reading for Passover.  This Jewish couple whom you first met in Venice, was forced out of the ghetto there and have settled in the far more tolerant Istanbul. Still they must walk carefully in their new life and their Venetian past haunts them.

To recap the events of the first book, Roberta Rich introduced us to Hannah, who served as a midwife in the Jewish ghetto of Venice and was frequently called by high-born Christians, even though they were full of superstitions about Jews.  Her husband Isaac  is kidnapped and sold into slavery on the island of Malta.  Meanwhile, back in Venice, Hannah rescues a child of a Venetian nobleman when his father and mother are killed in a fire. She flees to Malta to join Isaac, who has been helped out of slavery by a nun.

In the sequel, they have settled in Constantinople, where Isaac makes and sells silk fabric, which he learned to make during his time in Malta.  Hannah has won the friendship of the court as she frequently is called to the harem in the Topkapi Palace to deliver babies–a busy job since the sultan fathered 132 children.

Danger lurks when an uncle of Hannah and Isaac’s adopted son (the rescued noble child) comes to Istanbul scheming to get the child back and own the family fortune.  A woman he is in league with comes along with him, pretending to be Isaac’s sister-in-law and asking for money Isaac had borrowed from his now dead brother. Not only that, but as part of her duties of verifying the virginity of slave girls, Hannah lies to the Sultan about a young girl from a Jewish hill tribe, and that lie threatens to unravel her relationship with the court.

This novel gives the reader a beautiful picture of life in the court of Constantinople, although there is less variety of social classes than there was in the first novel.  While I was totally caught up in the plot of the first novel, eagerly cheering on Hannah and Isaac through their misadventures, I found credulity strained by some of the happenings in this book.

It is fortunate indeed that Hannah has the ear of the powerful Salide–wife of the Sultan, because that woman becomes the deus ex machina that prevents the loss of Hannah’s child and Isaac’s business. The conclusion seemed to me rather sudden and all too pat.

I would not want to discourage you from reading this book, particularly if you were a fan of the first, The Midwife of Venice, because it has many good points, and particularly for the traveler who reads.  Whether you have been to Istanbul (the former Constantinople) or not, there is no question that it is one of the most intriguing cities on earth.  And Roberta Rich has added to that intrigue by painting a vivid picture of what it took to survive within the palace of the Sultan, or as a Jew in this supposedly tolerant atmosphere.

Here’s Roberta Rich, talking about the sequel to the Midwife of Venice.

Take Your Gambling Addiction to Macau

Book Cover: Macau book
Destination: Macau

Book: The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne

Macau is a different place than it was on that rainy day when Ken and I visited thirteen years ago.  Then it had just been reacquisitioned by the Chinese from the Portuguese who had held it as a remnant of their once far–flung empire for many years.  Thanks to the Portuguese, Macau had a colorful and charming old town and restaurants with wonderfully different food. Those feature are glimpsed in the book The Ballad of a Small Player, which is about the best literary guide you’re going to find to the sometimes seamy island as it looks today.

A ferry ride away from China, Macau always promised the thrill of something slightly illicit with its old casinos and the free-flowing Portugese attitude  in contrast to the buttoned up Englishness of Hong Kong.  When my brother was stationed in Vietnam during that war, servicemen were warned not to go to Macau, so of course he went. By the time we got there, the island had tamed, and drew crowds of fanny-pack wearing middle American tourists as well as Chinese gamblers.

Macau casinos

Macau Casino LIghts. Photo by Brian Brain, from Wikipedia, Creative Commons License.

I have mixed feelings about the new Macau.  Las Vegas casino owners and other developers have moved in and crowded the island with a mass of glitzy gambling houses. The narrator of The Ballad of the Small Player,  calls himself Lord Doyle, although he is merely  a British lawyer on the run from his shady dealings back home. Through him, author Lawrence Osborne introduces us to casino after casino, explains the rules of the high roller games like punto blanco baccarat, and sheds light on what it is like to be a compulsive gambler–in love with losing.

Lord Doyle tells the story of how he started gambling to a prostitute with whom he has a relationship.. “It became a secret hobby, as it often does.” He goes from a French casino to gambling on line, then going to Birmingham every weekend

I became good at everything I played, though that did not mean I won consistently.  What I discovered was a taste for losing.  I understood in some way that playing something well and losing at it had something to do with playing it over the long haul.  But I didn’t care and I dare say no player does.

The author delivers the descriptions of the casinos  with a sharp eye and the disdainful humor they deserve.  He visits the Grand Emperor, “with a gilded replica of the British royal state carriage outside it and Beefeaters in fur hats filling a vestibule of cretinous gilt.”

I stopped and swung myself around and through the doors that were opened for me, and into a cool imitation of some Hans Christian Andersen fairy palace imagined by a small child with a high fever who has seen many a picture of Cindrella. 

Emperor Casino Macau

“cretinous gilt” at Emperor Casino, walking on gold bars. Photo from Wikipedia, Creative Commons License.

With his gift for this kind of incisive establishment of place, it is not terribly surprising to learn that Osborne is also an award-winning travel writer.

Osborne takes up where Graham Greene left off (minus the Catholicism) in exploring the morals of wanderers between societies, and the disdain of one culture for another–particularly the British and the Oriental. This looks like a small book–257 pages–but it is densely packed with ideas that make you slow down and pay attention. Osborne does not just describe what you learn with your senses, but also what you learn through contemplation.

Lord Doyle spends quite a bit of time in the Wynn casino, the Venetian Macau, touted as the largest casino in the world. There he thinks about the difference between the original Chinese establishments and the American transplants.

These Vegas establishments  are the very opposite of their Chinese counterparts , which at least have retained the louche tolerance of ages past.  The Vegas casinos are clean and overblown, with palatial dimensions and vacuumed carpets.  They are as family-clean and bright as their originals in the Nevada desert, and in them the insalubrious aspects of gambling are out to the back of one’s mind.

The novel kept me wondering, and therefore turning pages to find out–would he win or would he lose? And what did those words mean anyhow?  The questions stay in the mind once you have closed the book.