Thursday, September 23, 2021

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls book cover

Mrs. Caliban
by Rachel Ingalls is a strange and haunting short novel that was originally published in 1982. The protagonist Dorothy Caliban is a suburban housewife in a loveless marriage with her husband Fred. Years ago, Dorothy and Fred had been happy together, but tragedy struck. Their young son Scotty died of complications during an appendectomy. Shortly thereafter, Dorothy miscarried their second child. Dorothy then bought a dog, which died when it was hit by a car. In their despair, Dorothy and Fred turned away from one another. Later on, Dorothy realized Fred was being unfaithful to her. Still, they were “too unhappy to get a divorce,” as Dorothy explained to her best friend Estelle.

As the story begins, Dorothy is hearing curious messages when she listens to the radio. These odd messages are mixed in with the regular programming but are directed at her. For instance, one message tells Dorothy not to worry and that she’ll have another baby. Another broadcast announces the escape of a giant lizard-like creature from the Institute for Oceanographic Research, named “Aquarius the Monsterman” by the press.

Soon after, while preparing dinner for her husband and his colleague, the 6-foot-7-inch-tall green creature steps into Dorothy’s kitchen. Instead of being frightened by him, Dorothy hands him a stalk of celery. She learns his name is Larry, and Dorothy decides to hide him in her spare room. The next day Dorothy and Larry talk, and Dorothy learns that Larry was abused by his captors at the Institute. She aims to protect him, and the pair begins a romance.

The romance gives Dorothy comfort. During their first of many nightly drives to the beach, Dorothy reflects “all during my teens, when I kept wishing so hard for this—to be out in a car on the beach with a boy—and it never happened. But now, it’s happened.” Beyond giving her comfort, Dorothy’s adventure with Larry gives her a new purpose. She begins planning how to transport Larry from her home in California to his home in the Gulf of Mexico where he was captured.

Everything gets more complicated when Larry kills five young men who attacked him. Dorothy’s gardener, Mr. Mendoza, gives her an ambiguous message, “That friend of yours…It will be sad for a while, but it’s better the way it is, you’ll see.” Both Dorothy and the reader wonder about the meaning. As she watches the news later, Dorothy realizes that Larry killed her friend Estelle’s son Joey.

The tragedies multiply when Dorothy and Larry are out one night and she witnesses her husband Fred having an affair with Estelle’s teenage daughter Sandra. Dorothy realizes that Fred also had an affair with her best friend Estelle because Estelle had obscurely mentioned that Sandra had taken on one of Estelle’s old lovers. Dorothy and Larry race away in her car, but Fred and Sandra end up following close behind. Fred tries to run Dorothy off the road, but another car crashes into his car, killing both him and Sandra. In the chaos, Dorothy tells Larry to hide on the beach and to meet her later.

At the morgue, Dorothy sees Estelle who accuses Dorothy of killing her and destroying everything around her. Dorothy responds, “It wasn’t me.” There’s a great sadness in this short response. Nothing in Dorothy’s life was quite as it seemed. Dorothy’s best friend Estelle was not a friend at all. Fred was not a committed, loving, or loyal husband. At the cemetery, a woman asks Dorothy what her husband’s name was, and Dorothy responds “Fred,” but then changes her mind in confusion and tells the woman she called her husband “Larry.” The reader is left wondering if Larry was real at all, or if he was just a fantasy Dorothy created to escape her reality. The novel ends with Dorothy waiting on the beach for Larry, “but he never came.”

Mrs. Caliban packs a punch. It’s on one level light, fantastical, odd, and humorous. On deeper levels, it’s a reflection on loneliness, loyalty, friendship, grief, loss, love, betrayal, revenge, and solitude. The novel’s title derives from Caliban, a character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who is a creature that is half human and half animal. The title may also echo Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, the story of a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway.

Since its publication, Mrs. Caliban has been forgotten and rediscovered several times. It’s been praised by authors John Updike, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Joyce Carol Oates. In 1986, the British Book Marketing Council named Mrs. Caliban one of the “top 20 American novels of the post-World War II period.” The novel was rediscovered again in 2017 when readers noted its similarities to Guillermo del Toro's film The Shape of Water, which won an Oscar for Best Picture. I’ve never seen the movie, but from what I’ve read, it sounds very similar. Please weigh in if you've read the novel and seen the movie.

Mrs. Caliban is the type of story that lingers with the reader, who’s left wondering what was real and what happens next. How do we cope with loss, grief, purposelessness, and betrayal? Should we all hand a celery stick to the monster at our door?

Purchase and read books by Rachel Ingalls:

Mrs. Caliban: A Novel by Rachel Ingalls Binstead's Safari by Rachel Ingalls Something to Write Home About by Rachel Ingalls The Pearlkillers: Four Novellas by Rachel Ingalls

Last updated: January 18, 2024.

Friday, September 3, 2021


Pen and Ink Drawing of a Tulip by Ingrid Lobo

Friday, July 9, 2021

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano is a book set in Paris in the 1950s. The book’s main subject is a 22-year-old woman named Jacqueline Choureau (nee Delanque) and known as Louki. Modiano is an atmospheric writer. His books have a sense of melancholy and are often about identity and memory.

The novel has four chapters, each narrated by a different character. The first chapter is narrated by a man studying engineering. He wants to be part of a group at Café Condé that includes Louki. The second chapter is narrated by a private detective who was hired by Louki’s husband to track her down after she left him. The third chapter is narrated by Louki herself. Louki suffers anxiety, is addicted to cocaine, and has been trying to escape and run away since her troubled youth. The fourth chapter is narrated by Roland, a writer who dated Louki. We learn that Louki killed herself by throwing herself from a window. She is a lost soul, and the other characters all try to understand her, but ultimately, they don’t know who she really is.

Purchase and read books by Patrick Modiano:

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano Young Once by Patrick Modiano

Friday, June 25, 2021

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman (2016) is a novel by the Japanese author Sayaka Murata. I read the English version of the story, which was translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. It’s the strange tale of Keiko Furukura, a 36-year-old woman who lives in Tokyo. Keiko works at a convenience store called Smile Mart. She started working at the store at age 18 and has worked there for half her life.

Growing up, Keiko has trouble understanding how to fit in, and her abnormal behavior shocks her family. As a child, when her classmates are crying over a dead bird found on their playground, Keiko doesn’t see any reason to mourn its death. She sees the dead bird as food and wants to cook it. When a fight takes place among her classmates, and the children want the fight to stop, Keiko steps in and hits one of the children with a shovel to stop the fight. Keiko has dark ideas that differ from those around her. Later on, as an adult, Keiko thinks of killing a baby to make it stop crying. These moments left me waiting for a dark twist as I read the story.

Keiko finds purpose in life when she is hired at Smile Mart, a 24-hour convenience store. The store has a calming order and routine, and Keiko follows the store’s manual to be a dedicated employee. She has little identity outside of the store. Keiko attempts to fit with people through careful observation and by mimicking others. She notices when she makes mistakes by watching the reactions of those around her, and she corrects her behavior to appear normal. Keiko is content with her life, but after 18 years working at the convenience store, her friends and family question her about her lack of ambition and encourage her to get a boyfriend and to get married and have children.

The novel’s themes reflect on how people must conform to societal pressures and norms. What happens when a person can’t fit in? In this story, Keiko finds her own unique ways to cope with her alienation from society by discovering peace and purpose in her convenience store.

However, Keiko’s careful world order falls apart when she meets a man named Shiraha at the store. He’s the opposite of Keiko. He’s a horrible employee, who is fired for his poor work ethic and for harassing customers. Beyond that, Shiraha is a misogynist and a cruel human being. Strangely, Keiko ends up taking Shiraha in and letting him live with her to meet society’s expectations. She calls him her boyfriend, and he lives off her. Keiko eventually leaves her job at the convenience store, but without the order of Smile Mart, how will Keiko find her way in life?

Purchase and read books by Sayaka Murata:

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Monday, June 14, 2021

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

Black Wings Has My Angel
(1953) is a fantastic and fast-paced noir crime novel. After years being out of print, the story was republished by The New York Review of Books in 2016. I’ve read so many gems published in their New York Review Classics collection that I never would have discovered on my own. It was fun to read a classic of pulp fiction.

The novel follows the life of Kenneth McLure, aka “Tim Sunblade,” after his escape from prison. Initially, Tim is working on an oil rig on the Atchafalaya River. At his hotel, he meets “Virginia,” a call girl with lavender-grey eyes, a perfect figure, and a love of money. After spending a few days together, Tim and Virginia head West. Tim plans to ditch Virginia when he gets sick of her somewhere between Dallas and Denver, but Virginia outwits him and steals his money. Tim manages to track Virginia down, and after fighting viciously, the pair settle into a violent love-hate relationship. Neither one trusts the other, and both are prepared to backstab the other.

Tim was not always a cynic and hardened criminal. During the war, he spent 34 months in a Japanese prison camp on the Island of Luzon before being honorably discharged. After he returned home, he sold office supplies, but “blew his cork” and ended up in prison at Parchman. While locked up, he decided he was through being imprisoned and done with being poor. He and his friends Jeepie and Thompson planned an escape from Parchman, but Jeepie was shot in the head and killed during the escape. Tim is haunted by the memory of Jeepie’s bloody face.

After being locked up for so long, Tim expounds on nature as he reaches the West thinking,

“In the South the sky is humid and low and rich and it’s yours to smell and feel. In the West you’re only an observer. In the West someone sees a flower growing on a mountain and he writes a whole damned pamphlet about it. In the South the roses explode out of the weeds in the yards of the poorest shanties. Blood red ones.”

Chaze’s descriptions of the land are beautiful, striking, and real.

Although Tim is thoughtful and reflective, he is not destined for a quiet, crime-free life. He remembers all the details of his friend Jeepie’s plan to rob an armored truck. Tim wants to carry the plan out, but he needs a partner. He decides to trust Virginia after learning that she’s running from her own past in New York City where she was “reputedly the former mistress of a big-time underworld figure.” After weeks of careful planning, Tim and Virginia pull off their heist with Tim murdering the truck’s custodian. They make their way to Cripple Creek where they hide their crimes by sending the armored truck and dead body down an abandoned mine shaft.

Newly loaded with money, Tim and Virginia head to New Orleans. Despite his money and freedom, Tim finds their life there dissatisfying. Then Tim’s past begins to catch up with him when he runs into old neighbors from his hometown who recognize him as Kenneth. He’s reminded of his mother and how she cried over the change in him after he returned from the war with a shell splinter in his head. Eventually, Tim is drawn back by the ghosts of his past to his hometown. The story takes many unexpected twists and turns as Tim and Virginia try to escape their tragic fates.

Check out some other websites with info on the novel and Elliott Chaze:

Bill Pronzini on ELLIOTT CHAZE at Mystery*File
Review of Black Wings Has My Angel at Pulp Serenade
Review of Black Wings Has My Angel at His Futile Preoccupations

Purchase and read books by Elliott Chaze:

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze Little David by Elliott Chaze Mr. Yesterday by Elliott Chaze

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

The Moon and Sixpence (1919) is a novel by W. Somerset Maugham about a man named Charles Strickland who abandons his wife and children and his career as a stockbroker in London to become an artist. Maugham’s story is based in part on the life of Paul Gauguin.

The story is narrated by a man who is an aspiring writer in London. He meets Mrs. Amy Strickland who hosts literary parties at her home. The narrator then meets her husband Charles. Unexpectedly, Charles Strickland abandons his family and leaves for Paris. Mrs. Strickland asks the narrator to go to Paris and talk to her husband.

In Paris, the narrator locates Charles Strickland and asks him why he left his wife. The narrator suspects that Strickland left to be with another woman. Strickland responds, "What poor minds women have got! Love. It's always love. They think a man leaves only because he wants others. Do you think I should be such a fool as to do what I've done for a woman?" The narrator asks, "Then, what in God's name have you left her for?" Strickland replies, "I want to paint."

Strickland is poor, but he cares little about his living situation. He is focused on his art. A Dutch artist named Dirk Stroeve recognizes Strickland’s genius and helps him. Coincidentally, Stroeve and the narrator are old friends. Friend may be the wrong word because the narrator doesn’t respect Stroeve, and he considers him a buffoon. Dirk Stroeve is a sharp contrast to Strickland. Stroeve’s paintings may not be considered great, but they are popular, and he is a successful and happy man. Many of his fellow artists ridicule Stroeve, but they borrow money from him all the same and take advantage of him. When Strickland falls deathly ill, Stroeve and his wife Blanche help him recover. Sadly, following Strickland’s recovery, Blanche leaves her husband for Strickland. When Blanche realizes that Strickland only wanted her as a model, Blanche kills herself.

Later, the narrator visits Tahiti after Strickland’s death, and he tries to learn about Strickland’s last years by talking with people there. The narrator learns that Strickland married a seventeen-year-old native girl named Ata and had children with her. Strickland became sick with leprosy and painted his best work on the walls of his hut. In the end, Strickland died of leprosy and lost his eyesight, and his wife burned his final work according to his wishes.

The theme of the book was that true artists must choose their art over everything else in life. Strickland was compelled to live this way. The narrator seemed to idolize Strickland for his devotion to his art although he knew that Strickland made cruel choices that adversely affected those around him. It’s a strange idea that a person cannot be devoted to their family and friends and also be an artist.

The most distasteful and disturbing thing about reading this novel was the misogyny running throughout it. Here are several quotes as examples:

When Strickland is speaking to the narrator, he says: "My dear fellow, I only hope you'll be able to make her see it. But women are very unintelligent."

Blanche’s doctor says this about her, “Women are constantly trying to commit suicide for love, but generally they take care not to succeed. It's generally a gesture to arouse pity or terror in their lover."

Strickland talks to the narrator about love, saying: "I don't want love. I haven't time for it. It's weakness. I am a man, and sometimes I want a woman. When I've satisfied my passion I'm ready for other things. I can't overcome my desire, but I hate it; it imprisons my spirit; I look forward to the time when I shall be free from all desire and can give myself without hindrance to my work. Because women can do nothing except love, they've given it a ridiculous importance. They want to persuade us that it's the whole of life. It's an insignificant part. I know lust. That's normal and healthy. Love is a disease. Women are the instruments of my pleasure; I have no patience with their claim to be helpmates, partners, companions."

Here's another quote from Strickland: "Women are strange little beasts," he said to Dr. Coutras. "You can treat them like dogs, you can beat them till your arm aches, and still they love you." He shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, it is one of the most absurd illusions of Christianity that they have souls."

This hatefulness towards woman disturbed me. I found Blanche Stroeve to be a more interesting character than either Strickland or the narrator. Mrs. Strickland was a compelling, strong character as well. In the end, I would have rather read more about them than the male characters.

I was also left wondering how much of the story was truly based on Paul Gauguin’s life and how much was fictionalized. One day, I’ll read a biography of Gauguin to find out.

Purchase and read books by W. Somerset Maugham:

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham