Category Archives: “The Book Nook”

Looking for a good read? Check “The Book Nook” for suggestions including what’s new and noteworthy as well as what you might have overlooked, missed, or forgotten!

OCTOBER’S “BOOK NOOK” WITH ABBY PINARD: DEFECTORS

There’s nothing like a good thriller once in a while. But the qualifier matters. Cardboard characters, contrived suspense, and Hollywood cliff-hangers won’t cut it. But an espionage novel that hinges on character rather than non-stop action and that provides glimpses of an unfamiliar or exotic world is a great treat. Joseph Kanon’s latest, Defectors, fits the bill nicely.

In 1970, I traveled to Scandinavia and the Soviet Union with a group sponsored by a left-wing lawyers’ association.  After stops in Stockholm, Helsinki, Leningrad, and Moscow, we flew to Central Asia, where we visited Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara. A lovely, radical sixty-ish couple wasn’t on the plane to Uzbekistan with us and didn’t rejoin the group when we returned to Moscow before flying home.  We were told there was a medical issue although both had seemed hale and hearty in the early going.  Knowing their background, I couldn’t help but wonder if they had defected.  Is that how it would have been done in 1970?  I have no idea.  But I have thought about them occasionally and tried to imagine what it might have been like for them if they had indeed stayed in the Soviet Union.  It’s safe to say that their lives would not have been like those of the defectors in this gripping novel.

Frank Weeks wasn’t an ordinary American Communist when he and his wife fled to Moscow in 1949. He had been a high-ranking intelligence officer about to be exposed as a spy for the Soviet Union after an operation that went disastrously wrong. Twelve years later, still working for the KGB, Frank has written a memoir that “the Service” will allow to be published, and his brother Simon has been approved to come to Moscow to edit the book, only to learn on arrival that Frank has an ulterior motive for this visit. There will be plenty of thriller-worthy action to come – deception, murder, betrayal, CIA and KGB operations and counter-operations – but the real pleasures of the novel are in the lives of Frank and Jo Weeks and their “friends” – the community of former British and American spies who are spared the privation of ordinary Russians but not the grim reality of the workers’ paradise they believed in…the spacious but threadbare apartment, the musty dacha, the faded elegance of the Bolshoi, the privileged access to groceries, the vodka-soaked nights at the bar in the Metropol, the ever-present KGB minder…

Frank and Simon were close as boys and followed similar career paths, Frank into the CIA, Simon into the State Department. But was Frank using his brother, extracting valuable bits of information in casual conversation over their regular dinners? After Frank’s betrayal and twelve years apart, the relationship between the brothers is tense but still intimate as Simon vacillates between trusting and being wary of his charming brother, and he is still drawn to Jo, with whom he had a brief dalliance before she met and married Frank. The fine supporting cast features a woman who once smuggled atomic secrets over a border in her hat, the lonely widow of a brilliant scientist, assorted Brits with assorted motives (including a couple of real-life spies), and Boris – the factotum who is always on hand and always listening.

Defectors is Kanon’s eighth novel. The others are similarly satisfying, particularly his first, Los  Alamos. It’s a murder mystery with a compelling historical overlay as J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists in New Mexico race to develop the atomic bomb in the final days of World War II. There’s no better way to lose sleep and absorb some modern history than a Joseph Kanon novel.

“Book Nook” feature writer Abby Pinard\

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

Your comments are deeply appreciated–leave word for Abby below.

JUNE’S BOOK NOOK WITH ABBY PINARD: TWO SEARING BOOKS

Two flawed but searing books about two very different wars…

BIRDSONG

by Sebastian Faulks, 1997

You might want to think twice about reading Birdsong if you are claustrophobic. Also, reading it just before going to sleep might not be conducive to a restful night. You might consider yourself reasonably well educated about World War I — about the brutality of trench warfare and the unimaginable loss of life.  But you haven’t been there, at least not the way Faulks puts you there — in the trenches and especially in the tunnels that snaked under the battlefields, built by both sides, sometimes within feet of each other.

Billed as “a novel of love and war,” the novel of love is mediocre at best. The first hundred-plus pages introducing the protagonist and building up to a torrid love affair are mostly tedious and unnecessary. And the intermittent present-day framing device, in which an educated but oblivious young woman suddenly decides to unearth her family’s history isn’t any better. But most of the book — and certainly the parts that will burn into your brain — are about the war.  It’s almost too painful to read but impossible to put down…the years of carnage, of fear, of filth, the conflict between wanting to live and wanting to die, the inability to even envision a normal life…Faulks’s prose is unadorned and unsparing, as if only by stripping the language down to stark essentials can he convey the unspeakable.

 

REDEPLOYMENT

by Phil Klay, 2014

This award-winning collection of stories about the Iraq war, each told in the first person by someone who survived, compellingly depicts how we wage war in our time. We do it with technology, bureaucracy, and segmentation so narrow that the artilleryman who loaded the gun that destroyed everything in its target zone — six miles away — has been assured that yes, he can now claim to have killed bad guys but he isn’t sure whether to believe it since he sees no evidence. Each narrator has had a different job; in addition to the artilleryman, there’s a chaplain, a foreign service officer, an adjutant, a corpse-disposal specialist and more, some of whom were far from the front lines and never in danger but have learned, on returning home, that people want and expect to hear stories about heroism and bravery.

Phil Klay, himself a former Marine and veteran of the Iraq war, is a fine reporter but maybe — at least based on this first effort — a better reporter than novelist. He vividly portrays the horrors of war and the  tragic destruction of young lives and spirits but although each story has a different narrator, there’s little distinction in voice and little character development beyond the particulars of each man’s (and all the protagonists are men) experience. About half way through, I couldn’t help but feel that all the stories were really being told by a single narrator, a brilliant observer and promising writer named Phil Klay.

“Book Nook” feature writer, Abby Pinard

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

APRIL/MAY BOOK NOOK FROM ABBY PINARD: Two by Two

THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE

by Andrew Sean Greer, 2008

The Story of a Marriage was the BOLLI Book Group selection for April. We had a spirited discussion that covered a lot of ground, as does this short, absorbing novel.

The Story of a Marriage is an affecting novel that is so good on so many levels that Andrew Sean Greer — author of the wonderful The Confessions of Max Tivoli — can be forgiven some quibbles. What he gets right: 1) the evocation of the fog-bound Sunset District in San Francisco in 1953 as the young families of war veterans are putting down roots in the burgeoning middle-class neighborhood; 2) the way the fear and repression of the times — war, McCarthyism, sex, race —  are reflected in peoples’ lives and especially in their marriages, the suffocating submersion of everything that isn’t “mild and good”; 3) the way “we think we know the ones we love” but one day find ourselves sleeping next to a stranger; 4) the beautiful sentences and turns of phrase.

The quibbles: Neither the plot nor the protagonist’s voice are fully plausible; the “delayed reveal” of important plot points feels manipulative; and there’s some overwriting going on.

This is nothing more or less than the story of a marriage — one marriage, of a young couple who had been teen-age sweethearts in rural Kentucky and stumble upon each other on a beach in San Francisco, having each landed there after the war. It’s a well-worn dictum that there are only two plots in fiction: someone goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. This novel is a quintessential example of the latter as a handsome, blond stranger knocks on Pearlie Cook’s door, upends everything she thought she knew about her husband and their marriage, and sets the story in motion.

There is not much more that can be said without giving away too much. Whether you find them annoying or pleasurable, unexpected twists and secrets are at the heart of this short novel and you can’t help but be borne along on the beautiful language and by wanting to know what happens. An extremely satisfying read.

 

THE NORTH WATER

by Ian McGuire,  2016

I can breathe now. Clean, warm, fresh air wafting in the window. There’s not much breathing to be done while reading The North Water – one of The New York Times ten best books of 2016 – both because of nonstop action and because of the overwhelmingly fetid atmosphere that pervades this brutal and brilliant novel. Seafaring saga, wilderness survival adventure, suspense story, morality tale, and more blood and guts (literally) than you can imagine in under 300 pages.

As a 19th-century whaling ship heads north to Greenland for reasons not limited to whaling, mortal danger — and not just from the elements — is the constant companion of the miscreants and misfits passing for a crew. The brutality in the novel is shocking and relentless but never gratuitous. And unlike in most historical fiction, there’s no scene-setting distraction, no digressions to describe, say, the state of the whaling industry or the ways of the Esquimaux. The only descriptive detail is the minimum needed to advance the story and our understanding of the characters. Thus the lack of a respite in which to breathe as the story careens forward.

This is not a novel for the faint of heart or, trust me, the queasy of stomach. But for pure story-telling power, it doesn’t get much better than this.

BOOK NOOK feature writer, Abby Pinard

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

FEBRUARY BOOK NOOK with Abby Pinard: Two You May Have Missed

This month, Abby reaches back to the relatively recent past for two books you may have missed.  And if you did, both are worth your attention!

 

THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON

by Adam Johnson, 2012

There are many books I’ve loved, many writers I’ve admired, some whose talent has been awe-inspiring. But it’s not often that I read a novel wondering “how the hell did he/she do that?” This is one of those times. How did Adam Johnson imagine his way into the dystopia of Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea and create a world so real to the reader that when Americans show up, they seem oddly alien?

The book is darkly comic and desperately sad, always teetering on the brink of complete absurdity but true in its heartbreaking depiction of people just trying to survive the stories of their lives that the state has determined for them.

“Where we are from . . . stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

In the first part of the book, the protagonist, Pak Jun Do, is plucked from the orphanage run by his father and becomes a fighter in the tunnels under the demilitarized zone, then a kidnapper, a spy at sea intercepting radio transmissions, and, when a mission to Texas goes hilariously wrong, a prisoner in a mining camp. In part two, the picaresque gives way to intrigue and romance among the upper echelons and the Dear Leader himself as Jun Do evolves from a tool of the state to a man determined to fashion his own story.

This is a remarkable accomplishment, at once compellingly readable and scarily disorienting. It is every bit as good as its Pulitzer Prize (2012) would suggest.

 

THE GOOD LORD BIRD

by James McBride, 2013

James McBride walks a fine line in the National Book Award-winning (2013) The Good Lord Bird. Treating tragic and painful historical events with humor is risky business. His subject is John Brown and the failed raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1861. Brown was a zealot whose plan to free the slaves bordered on lunacy but McBride succeeds in humanizing him in a rollicking romp of a story that is both irreverent and historically astute.

The narrator is Henry Shackleford, a twelve-year-old slave mistaken for a girl and swept up by “the Captain” to become his good-luck charm in the war against slavery. Henry/Henrietta is a wonderful character who doesn’t understand John Brown’s religious zeal and doesn’t want any part of war but figures out how to survive both.

“I couldn’t make head nor tails of what he was saying, for I was to learn that Old John Brown could work the Lord into just about any aspect of his comings and goings in life, including using the privy. That’s one reason I weren’t a believer, having been raised by my Pa, who was a believer and a lunatic, and them things seemed to run together. But it weren’t my place to argue with a white man, especially one who was my kidnapper, so I kept my lips closed.”

Henry lives for a time in a whorehouse, falls in love twice, escapes the clutches of Frederick Douglass, meets Harriet Tubman, and plays a role in “hiving” (recruiting) Negroes to the cause. He comes to know Brown as a “good, kind lunatic,” a man as unique as the rare bird of the title – a bird “so pretty that when man sees it, he says  ‘Good Lord.’”  The portrayal of John Brown — both hero and fool – is a great accomplishment, as is this brilliantly entertaining amalgam of history and imagination.

“BOOK NOOK” feature writer Abby Pinard

A lifelong book nut, Abby retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

 

JANUARY “BOOK NOOK”: Two BIG Novels

As the winter cold sets in,  Abby offers ideas for some good long-term reading time.   Here are two items you may have either missed along the way or might simply want to re-read.

THE FORSYTE SAGA

John Galsworthy, 1921

“He had long forgotten the small house in the purlieus of Mayfair, where he had spent the early days of his married life, or rather, he had long forgotten the early days, not the small house, – a Forsyte never forgot a house – he had afterwards sold it at a clear profit of four hundred pounds.”

There you have it. Nine hundred pages of delicious soap opera wrapped around sly commentary on the acquisitiveness and striving of the British upper-middle classes around the turn of the twentieth century. The Forsytes aren’t landed aristocracy like Lord Grantham of “Downton Abbey.” They’re only a couple of generations removed from farmers. But they’ve been successful in trade, in publishing, at the bar, and they live in ongepotchket Victorian splendor, faithfully served by retainers and housemaids, in London and its environs.

Galsworthy was himself the product of a wealthy family and trained as a barrister before traveling abroad, meeting Joseph Conrad and envisioning a different life. He fell in love with the wife of his cousin, an army major, and married her after a ten-year affair and her eventual divorce. He was among the first writers to deal with social class in his work and to challenge the mores and ideals reinforced by the Victorian writers who preceded him. Notably, but not surprisingly given his personal life, he defied the standard view of women as property and defended their right to leave unhappy marriages.

“’I don’t know what makes you think I have any influence,’ said Jolyon; ‘but if I have I’m bound to use it in the direction of what I think is her happiness. I am what they call a “feminist,” I believe…I’m against any woman living with any man whom she definitely dislikes. It appears to me rotten.’”

It is the unhappily married woman referred to here around whom much of The Forsyte Saga revolves. Irene (I-reen-ee), disastrously married to a “man of property,” is the antithesis of a Forsyte. She represents beauty and art and passion and free will. Before reluctantly marrying Soames Forsyte, she extracted a promise that he would let her go if it didn’t work out. His failure to do so drives the story and a multi-generational family estrangement. While Galsworthy thoroughly develops the other primary characters, Irene is a beautiful cipher at the center of the novel. We never get her point of view; we see her through the eyes of others and can only infer her thoughts and feelings.

The Forsyte Saga features a huge cast of characters but the family tree that accompanies most editions is needed only at the beginning. To Galsworthy’s credit, we quickly get to know the main characters and the chorus of peripheral relatives that swirl around them. There are births, deaths, betrayals, couplings, uncouplings, recouplings, and generational upheaval, all conveyed in deft, eminently readable prose, a short 900 pages. This is a sumptuous wallow of a book with redeeming social value.

EARTHLY POWERS

Anthony Burgess, 1980

A monumental novel that stuck in my mind for thirty years as an all-time favorite but needed to be reread to remind me why. An octogenarian British writer, said to be loosely based on W. Somerset Maugham, is tasked to attest to a miracle that will support the canonization of a Pope and writes his memoirs, giving us a personal tour of the 20th-century through his life as a homosexual, lapsed Catholic, successful but mediocre writer, and exile. Examines morality, the nature of evil, the role of religious belief and more. Linguistically playful and full of historical inaccuracies courtesy of its unreliable narrator, the novel features one of the best opening lines in literature* (sure to send you to the dictionary), and is funny, painful, thought-provoking, entertaining, challenging and rewarding. Shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1980, it often appears high on lists of best British fiction of the late 20th century.

*”It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

 

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“Book Nook” feature writer and Book Group co-leader, Abby Pinard

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

 

 

 

 

NOVEMBER’S BOOK NOOK: Short Takes

Every now and then,  Abby opts for a “sextet of shorts” instead of her more in-depth “trios” of reviews.  Here is her first eclectic batch.

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK

Ben Fountain

billy-lynn

A brilliant novel about war that takes place far from the field of battle at the annual Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game, the culmination of a “victory tour” for a squad of young grunts whose heroic actions in Iraq have made them a marketable commodity to drum up support for the war.  Hilariously skewers the culture of instant celebrity, politics, patriotism and power, and poignantly conveys the senselessness of sending young men to war. Five stars.  (Ang Lee’s movie version arrives in theaters this week.)

THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS

Claire Messud

messud

Nora Eldridge is angry.  How angry?  “You don’t want to know,” she tells us in the opening line of this searing psychological study.  Four years ago, she was finally shedding the Nora who was “the good friend, good daughter, good teacher, doormat….Miss Nobody Nothing…” to become more fully alive,  the artist and special person she always knew herself to be.  She was brought to this euphoric but precarious state by falling in love with (pushing her way into? getting ensnared by?) a family: a glamorous, recognized artist, her professor husband, and their beautiful eight-year-old son.   Could it possibly end well?  A novel that grabs you and won’t let go.

 

THE LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE

Louise Erdrich

erdrich

In 1912, Agnes DeWitt adopts the cassock and persona of a Catholic priest who drowns en route to his missionary post in remote North Dakota. For almost a century, Agnes binds her breasts and, as Father Damien, lives a “sincere lie,” ministering to the Ojibwe people she comes to see as her own.  This novel, written in 2001, is the sixth in the series that began with Love Medicine in 1984 and features many of the same members of the Ojibwe clans in the earlier books as well as Louise Erdrich’s elegant, lyrical prose and mix of realism, fable, and humor. The devotion and passion (both earthly and spiritual) of Agnes/Damien hold it all together, despite some sluggish patches in the Ojibwe stories, and make this an emotionally affecting novel.

ONCE UPON A RIVER

Bonnie Jo Campbell

once-upon-a-river

After she is raped by her uncle and her father is killed, teen-aged Margo Crane takes to the (fictional) Stark River in rural Michigan to look for the mother who abandoned her several years earlier and to find out how to live.  Margo is a crack shot,  knows every bend in the river,  lives off the land and is sometimes treated well and sometimes badly by the men she meets.  Beautifully written, especially if you enjoy description of the natural world and wilderness survival tales, which I don’t.  I was more interested in Margo than in how to skin a muskrat, but I was interested enough in Margo to enjoy this book more than I expected to.

OPEN CITY

Teju Cole

open-city

This critically acclaimed debut novel has no plot to propel it forward, just the ruminations of the solitary and possibly unreliable narrator – a young Nigerian-born psychiatrist – on identity, art, literature, music, death and more as he wanders the streets of Manhattan and has occasional interactions with friends and strangers, most of them immigrants like himself.  Beautiful prose, with crystalline descriptions of the city and crisp sketches of people.  Surprisingly compelling.

THE RADETZKY MARCH

Joseph Roth

radetzky

Written in 1932 by Joseph Roth, the under-appreciated Austrian-Jewish writer who died young of alcoholism in Paris a few years later, The Radetzky March depicts the waning of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the years before World War I.  It begins in 1859, at the Battle of Solferino, when a peasant-born lieutenant saves the life of the young Kaiser, Franz Joseph I, and is rewarded with elevation to the nobility.  The novel follows successive generations of the now-aristocratic von Trotta family into the bureaucracy and the military and into eventual disillusionment that parallels the collapse of the Empire.  Roth’s prose evokes a lost world on every page, not as nostalgic reverie but with a portrayal of the deadly effects of the monarchy on its subjects of all classes and with vivid, detailed descriptions of everything from the landscape to village life to an old man’s cuffs.  Brilliant.

 

ABBY P
BOOK NOOK Feature Writer Abby Pinard

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

OCTOBER’S BOOK NOOK: Three Books about WWII

This month, our Book Nook feature writer Abby Pinard provides three selections focusing on World War II.

HHhH

Laurent Binet, 2013

(translated from the French by Sam Taylor)

HHhH

Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich. Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.

Reinhard Heydrich — the butcher of Prague, the blond beast, the man with the iron heart – was one of the cruelest and most feared of the high-ranking Nazis. Chief of security and an architect of the final solution, he was named Reichprotector of Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech states annexed by Germany, and was charged with crushing Czech resistance and all vestiges of Czech culture, “Germanizing” the desirable population and eliminating the undesirables. On May 27, 1942, as he was being driven to work in Prague in an open black (or possibly dark green) Mercedes convertible, he was the subject of an assassination attempt by Jan Kubiš, a Czech, and Jozef Gabčik, a Slovak, who had been trained for their mission in London and parachuted into Czechoslovakia several months earlier. “Operation Anthropoid” didn’t go off exactly as planned but the reprisals were as brutal as might have been expected. (Note: “Anthropoid,” a British-French-Czech film based on these events but unrelated to this novel was released recently to mostly positive reviews.)

The narrator of  HHhH, who may be the author, has spent years studying Operation Anthropoid – it would be fair to say he is obsessed with it – and in telling the story presents a parallel narrative about his struggles with how to tell the story. While the digressions might be expected to be distracting, the opposite is true. The narrator’s “eureka” moments when he unearths a key book, his decisions on what to include and exclude, his commentary on other novels based on historical fact, his musings on what drives people to extraordinary acts of cruelty and heroism serve to bring us closer to the story. And when it counts most, as the Mercedes approaches the bend in Holešovice Street where the assassins are waiting, he lets the story take over and propel us forward as if we don’t know what will happen.

At the end of the book, our narrator tells us that Kubiš and Gabčik are today viewed as heroes, celebrated in their homeland. But he describes himself as worn out by his “muddled efforts” to pay tribute to the many people who helped the assassins at great risk and great cost and who remain largely unknown.

…I tremble with guilt at the thought of all those hundreds, those thousands, whom I have allowed to die anonymously. But I want to believe that people exist even if we don’t speak of them. 

Laurent Binet has spoken of them and has written a novel that is both suspenseful and profound. Highly recommended.


Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932

Francine Prose, 2014

Chameleon Club

In Francine Prose’s popular book about reading and writing, Reading Like a Writer, she advocates “close reading.” Only by slowing down and carefully reading every word can we understand what is said and what is not said – the nuances of meaning that the writer has worked so hard to put into every word and into the spaces between the words. That’s good advice when reading any serious writer and of course when reading Prose. (Is there a writer with a better name?)

Even as Lou’s downward slide was gathering momentum, she prided herself on maintaining certain standards and not losing touch, as many of her neighbors were, with basic human decency and compassion. She was slow to come on board with the measures against the Jews, however much she personally disliked them. She knew that harsh tactics were sometimes required. She’d waited on line at the Palais Berlitz to see an informative exhibition entitled “The Jew and France,” where a display confirmed what she’d long suspected: behind every scandal lurked a Jew. Still, she didn’t enjoy seeing children herded through the streets at gunpoint. Once she was almost hurt by some idiot cops hurling crockery down from an apartment at a terrified Jewish family being loaded into a van.

“Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932” is the title of the emblematic photograph that launches Gabor Tsenyi’s career. It is a picture of two women, a cross-dressing athlete named Lou Villars, who will become France’s first female race car driver and then an infamous Nazi collaborator, and Arlette, her lover, who will leave Lou for a powerful cop/gangster. This assured, atmospheric novel covers a lot of ground – love and betrayal, good and evil, war and its aftermath, the mutability of truth – and ultimately packs a powerful punch. It opens in 1928 and tracks the transformation of Lou Villars from unhappy child to disappointed lover to monster, a life based on a real woman named Violette Morris. It is to Prose’s credit that we sympathize with Lou even as she betrays the country she professes to love. Other characters are also inspired by real-life figures, including the Hungarian photographer Brassai and there’s a dissolute American writer who resembles Henry Miller.

Prose makes the Chameleon Club the locus of the decadence and desperate good times of Paris in the jazz age and she circles back to it through occupation and war. The story is told and retold in alternating chapters by different narrators through excerpts from a biography of Lou Villars, letters, journals and a memoir, each presumed to be self-serving and unreliable. Taken together they paint a picture that captures the conflicted loyalties of a giddy and terrible time, a picture that surely contains the truth but in whose version? History is as changeable as gender roles at the Chameleon Club and this captivating novel is stunning in its contemplation of its meaning.


Love & Treasure

Ayelet Waldman, 2014

Waldman

This is a solid effort by Ayelet Waldman. She has chosen a subject — unearthing the stories of those lost in the Holocaust — that has too often been taken up by mediocre (or worse) writers and riddled with melodrama and cliché. Waldman does better. She centers the novel on the historical “Hungarian Gold Train,” crammed with millions of dollars worth of gold, jewels, furs, and household goods that have been “collected” from the Jews of Hungary. When the train, on its way to Germany in 1945, is intercepted by the victorious Allies near Salzburg, Austria, a promise is made to return the goods to their rightful owners or heirs but the impracticality of the task, not to mention that the brass have quarters to furnish, doom that intention and most of the items simply disappear in the fog of post-war Europe.

The novel’s primary protagonists are Jack Wiseman, who as a young American soldier was put in charge of the contents of the train, and his granddaughter Natalie, who he asks just before his death to find the rightful owner of a pendant he himself impulsively pilfered. The story is told in three parts: Jack’s stewardship of the confiscated goods in 1945; Natalie’s present-day search in Europe and Israel for an heir of the pendant’s owner; and an entertaining narration by a Viennese psychoanalyst of his treatment of a headstrong young Jewish woman in 1913.

Waldman covers a lot of ground and the plot threads are not all equally well executed. In particular, two love stories are clichéd and unconvincing and the grandfather/granddaughter relationship is toothache-inducing. But she eschews the simplistic good/evil paradigm so common in fiction about the Holocaust and takes a more realistic view of a complex moral universe. Bottom line: This is well-written, absorbing historical fiction marred only slightly by a bit of sentimentality.

ABBY P
BOOK NOOK Feature Writer Abby Pinard

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

 

 

 

Comments are most welcome–just jot your thoughts in the box below!

SEPTEMBER BOOK NOOK: Two New Novels of Note

Our “Book Nook” feature writer Abby Pinard brings us a couple of new items to consider…

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Dominic Smith, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos

What a delight!  This is a historical suspense novel with redeeming literary value – character driven, intricately plotted but without contrivance, and elegantly written. With pivotal events taking place in New York in 1958, we are seamlessly brought forward to Sydney, Australia in 2000, and back to 17th-century Amsterdam and the Dutch Golden Age that produced Rembrandt and Vermeer.

The painting at the center of the novel hangs over the bed in the New York penthouse of an attorney whose family has owned it for 300 years. When it is stolen and replaced by a meticulous forgery, the attorney isn’t sure he even wants the original back but determines nevertheless to track down the forger.  The graduate student who had agreed to copy the painting goes on to become a prominent art historian and authority on the artist – one of the very few women among the Dutch masters –  but is haunted by her past.

The evocation of art and painterly technique is fascinating; the portrayal of people driven to actions they will regret for a lifetime is moving without being melodramatic; and the writing is precise and restrained yet compelling, with quotable passages on every page. Here’s just one that I had to read more than once: “…unmarried women make good academics because they’ve been neutered by too much knowledge and bookish pleasure. The world hands them a tiny domain it never cared about to begin with.” Hmm.

Art, deceit, loss…this is a fine novel disguised as a page-turner.

Thanks to Linda Dietrich for insisting that I read this book!

 

The Little Red Chairs

Edna O’Brien, 2016 

The Little Red Chairs

 

 On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street.  One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege.  Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.

 A stranger comes to town…   The town is Cloonoila, a rural Irish backwater, and the stranger, soon known as Dr. Vlad, announces himself as a healer and sex therapist. He is exotic and alluring and is viewed with suspicion by the village priest, but the children and especially the women gradually fall under his spell, most notably Fidelma, the town beauty trapped in a cold marriage and longing for a child.

Edna O’Brien doesn’t string us along with tantalizing clues to the stranger’s identity.  The epigraph quoted above signals the truth:   Dr. Vlad is a notorious Bosnian war criminal responsible for the torture and genocide of Muslims and Croats. He is modeled on Radovan Karadzic, who hid for thirteen years before being arrested in Belgrade.  Dr. Vlad has appeared in western Ireland as if by magic.

It has been fifty years since O’Brien’s fiction debut, The Country Girls, scandalized the country with its searing portrayal of the social and sexual mores of rural Ireland. In The Little Red Chairs, her first novel in ten years, she is casting a wider net, tackling broad questions about evil, complicity, and penance.  Her prose is beautiful and brutal as she shatters the gentle, almost mystical aura of Cloonoila with a scene of horrific violence,  Fidelma’s abasement, and her search for redemption among the lost and broken. Powerful and haunting.

Abby Pinard is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

Comments are most welcome–just jot your thoughts in the box below!

 

JULY BOOK NOOK: Three Books about Immigration

Book Nook reviewer Abby Pinard is back–this time, with three books about immigration.

A REPLACEMENT LIFE

by Boris Fishman, 2014

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Slava Gelman is a junior staffer at a magazine that isn’t but might as well be The New Yorker, where his assignment is to ferret out and crack wise about absurd news items in small-town newspapers. Slava lives on the Upper East Side, which isn’t but might as well be on the other side of the world from “Soviet Brooklyn” where he landed as a child on arrival from Minsk (as did Fishman), where his grandparents still live, and which his parents fled for suburban New Jersey. When Slava’s grandmother dies, he treks via subway to Brooklyn and before long is trekking regularly, roped by his scheming grandfather into crafting (he’s a writer, isn’t he?) a fictitious claim to the German government for a slice of the reparations pie earmarked for Holocaust survivors. So what if Grandfather didn’t suffer precisely as required to be eligible? Didn’t the Germans make sure to kill those who did? So begins Boris Fishman’s darkly comic and very impressive debut novel.

Fishman pulls off a difficult feat in a first novel, even one so closely grounded in his own experience. He has written a book that is both funny and genuinely moving. The Jews of Brighton Beach, who survived the Nazis and the Soviets through cunning, luck and sheer force of will, are a brilliantly drawn tough lot, re-inventing themselves once again in a place where you can “afford to be decent.” Slava wants to free himself from “the swamp broth of Soviet Brooklyn” and earn a byline by writing elegant prose but in borrowing true elements of his dead grandmother’s life to fashion false narratives for his grandfather and his grandfather’s friends, he is drawn more deeply into the past and into the community he has longed to escape.

Poor, confused Slava, torn between past and present, loyalty and honor, skinny uptown Arianna and luscious childhood playmate Vera… Is he being followed? Will his fraud be uncovered? At what cost? Will he do the right thing? I loved this book. Fishman tells a good story, one with moral ambiguity and conflicting loyalties, and his prose crackles with irony and wit. If you were in any danger of thinking that the immigrant experience has been exhaustively mined in fiction, think again. Boris Fishman is a welcome voice and A Replacement Life is a wholly original and worthy contribution.

 

PANIC IN A SUITCASE

by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, 2014

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“The morning was ideal, a crime to waste it cooped up. They were off to the shore. That means you too, Pasha — you need some color, a dunk would do you good, so would a stroll. Aren’t you curious to see Coney Island? Freud had been. Don’t deliberate till it’s too late. Strokes are known to make surprise appearances in the family. Who knows how long…? Now, get up off that couch!

 “Pasha had just flown in last night and didn’t feel well…fourteen hours strapped into an aisle seat near the gurgling lavatory of a dented, gasoline-reeking airplane, two layovers…would have been tough on any constitution and Pasha didn’t have just any constitution but that of a poet…If he’d been smart, he would have been born a half-century earlier into a noble family and spent his adult life hopping between tiny Swiss Alp towns and lakeside sanitoria, soaking in bathhouses and natural springs, rubbing thighs with steamy neurotics, taking aimless strolls with the assistance of a branch, corrupting tubercular maidens…

“Instead Pasha was born in 1956 to a family whose nobility was strictly of spirit.”

Meet the Nasmertovs in 1991, all but Pasha planted in Brighton Beach two years ago but pining for Odessa. Scraping by in circumstances significantly reduced in status and income (both grandparents had been physicians), three generations live under one roof in a neighborhood that replicates home, even in its proximity to the sea. Gently, hilariously and mostly brilliantly, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, herself born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, captures the struggle between striving for assimilation and yearning for home. Despite their urging Pasha to emigrate and join them in Brooklyn (where he won’t have to do anything but sit on the couch so they can look at him), he is their connection to Odessa, keeper of the apartment in a prime location and the beloved dacha. Fifteen years later, Frida, the youngest Nasmertov, now in her twenties and at loose ends, visits Odessa and despite finding life there no rosier feels drawn to a place she barely remembers and that her parents and grandparents fled.

Akhtiorskaya has said that her next book might be fantasy or sci-fi. Thankfully, she wrote this one before forswearing further fiction based on her family. She is a talented writer and it will be interesting to see how she applies her talent in other realms following this fine debut.

 

I PITY THE POOR IMMIGRANT

by Zachary Lazar, 2014

third book

This is a book about identity.  Its characters — some fictional, some historical — are actual or metaphorical immigrants, products of the turbulence of Jewish history. Meyer Lansky flees pogroms in Eastern Europe, becomes a notorious American gangster and, denied citizenship by Israel, returns to the U.S. to face charges. Gila Konig, concentration camp survivor and Lansky’s mistress, never at home in Israel, emigrates to New York but always feels herself a refugee. Hannah Groff, a journalist who travels to Israel to investigate the death of an Israeli writer, unearths her own family’s history as she pursues her story and wrestles with her own feelings of rootlessness.

Underlying the displacement felt by the characters is an examination of the moral underpinnings of the state of Israel and its place in the world today. Was the writer murdered because he depicted King David as the forebear of the Jewish gangster and because he compared the founding of Israel to the vision Lansky and Bugsy Siegel had of building a shimmering city in the desert of Nevada? As a plot device, that’s an easy question to answer. As a moral/political question, it’s a heavy burden for a novel to bear and it’s not always easy for the reader to stay afloat.

Lazar skillfully weaves together multiple narrative threads across oceans and decades. When I finished the book, I was thinking that all those narrative threads were confusing and the angst suffocating. On second thought, I became more comfortable with the author’s ambition. The reflection in modern Israel of the brutality and existential threat suffered by Jews over centuries makes this more than a complex story about characters looking for a home. The novel is difficult but fascinating and ultimately satisfying.

Abby Pinard is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

Comments are most welcome–just jot your thoughts in the box below!

JUNE BOOK NOOK: THREE MORE GEMS

Our “Book Nook” reviewer Abby Pinard returns with three more gems you may have missed or may want to pick up and re-read…

THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH

by Saul Bellow, 1953

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It took me almost forty years to read “Augie March.” I bought the book in the late ’70s (cover price $1.95 and cover art worthy of Harold Robbins).

This was shortly after Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature and after years of listening to my father (also Saul, also a first-generation American Jew, and roughly Bellow’s contemporary) rave about the book.  (It was also years before Bellow became a curmudgeonly conservative, but that’s another story.)

The book sat on many different shelves for many years and was later joined by my father’s copy (cover price $.95 and thankfully without the art):

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But while I became acquainted over the years with virtually all Bellow’s fictional characters – Henderson, Herzog, Sammler, Charlie Citrine, Ravelstein and more – I never got around to Augie.  Until now.

I am an American, Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

And so Bellow, in 1953, announced his presence and his ambition, the first of the post-war Jewish writers to blast his way into mainstream American literature.

Augie March grows up fatherless amidst grinding poverty in “that somber city” but sees only boundless possibilities, a life in which he can be whatever he chooses if only he can figure out what he is meant to be.   All of Chicago — i.e., the whole world — is his, from dingy rooming houses and pool halls to opulent homes and rich, beautiful women.   He tries his hand at multiple enterprises, not all of them legal, many hilarious, while struggling to educate himself (reading, always reading) and pondering the great philosophical questions.

The novel is episodic rather than plot-driven.   Augie’s adventures range from hustling textbooks and babysitting a seasick prizefighter to training an eagle to hunt lizards in Mexico and drifting at sea in a lifeboat with a madman.   He is drawn into the schemes of friends, mentors, and lovers – he refers to himself as a “recruit” – but it’s never long before he is ready to move on, always seeking what he is intended for.

The Adventures of Augie March was the Great American Novel of its time and maybe of ours as well. With his exuberance, optimism, and passion for a life well and thoughtfully lived,  Augie is a hero for all time.

THE GRASS IS SINGING

by Doris Lessing, 1950

5 Grass

Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing died in 2013 at the age of 94.  The Grass Is Singing was her first novel, published in 1950 when she was thirty years old, had moved from Southern Rhodesia to London, and had had three children by two husbands.   Lessing wasn’t born in Africa – she arrived with her British parents as a young child from Persia – but her early novels were based on her years on her family’s struggling farm and her experience as a young wife and mother in colonial Africa with its rigid constraints based on race, class and gender.

While The Grass Is Singing reflects Lessing’s deep feeling of place, it is the least autobiographical of her Africa novels. It is the five-volume Children of Violence series that tracks with Lessing’s life as it follows the remarkable Martha Quest from adolescence through marriage, children, communism, and eventually to London. But The Grass Is Singing is a masterful work that unflinchingly exposes the brutality of the relationship between white masters and black workers and the fear and repression at its core.

The novel begins with the murder of Mary Turner, a farmer’s wife, and the arrest of Moses, her houseboy.   Mary was a thirty-ish independent woman in the city, with a job and a casual social life, when an overheard conversation rattled her equanimity and she determined to marry.   She accepts Dick Turner’s proposal and moves to his farm, which is forever verging on bankruptcy, and to a squalid life for which she is unprepared and unsuited.  Dick is an inept but stubborn farmer and overlord, unable to wrest any value from his land or his workers.   Mary is isolated, brutalized by the sun, and her fear of the natives begets increasing cruelty and confused feelings.   Neither is capable of intimacy or self-awareness, and their attempt to make a life within their constricted environment can only result in ruin.

This is an unrelentingly sad book with tragic characters whose destruction is inevitable.   There isn’t a light moment as Lessing depicts Mary’s desolate life, her psychological deterioration, and the dehumanizing effects of virulent racism.   The land and climate are brilliantly evoked, and the social and political concerns that permeate Lessing’s later work are presaged here. It’s a book that grabs you in the first chapter and doesn’t let go.

 

LOLLY WILLOWES

by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1926

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British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner is best known for the short stories that appeared over decades in The New Yorker.   Even brief biographical blurbs usually reference her leftist political affiliations and sometimes her 40-year relationship with Valentine Ackland, a poet.   Lolly Willowes, the first of her seven novels, was published in 1926 and was a bestseller both in the U.K. and in the U.S., where it was the first selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

“Even in 1902, there were some forward spirits who wondered why that Miss Willowes, who was quite well off, and not likely to marry, did not make a home for herself and take up something artistic or emancipated. Such possibilities did not occur to any of Laura’s relations. Her father being dead, they took it for granted that she should be absorbed into the household of one brother or the other. And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best.”

Laura’s relations dispose of her by depositing her in her brother’s comfortable London household, where she becomes Aunt Lolly, indispensable caretaker for her nieces and domestic companion to her sister-in-law. But after twenty dutiful years, Laura succumbs to the lure of nature and, to the horror and puzzlement of her family, moves to the village of Great Mop in the Chiltern Hills, chosen from a guidebook. On long, solitary walks in the woods and fields around Great Mop, Laura responds to the magical power around her and enters a fantasy world in which she makes a deal that offers her a life of her own.

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others…”

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s witty and lyrical prose is a vehicle for her subversive, satirical commentary on a world in which only by selling her soul to the devil can a woman become independent of the expectations of society and her family.   Delightful.

Abby Pinard is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

Comments are most welcome–just jot your thoughts in the box below!