31 December 2014

The Other Side of Paris with Francine Prose.

I’ve been a fan of Francine Prose for some time. She writes with clarity and intelligence, and always directly to the reader. She bases stories on the downfallen, the marginalized, the supernatural and the unnatural, never with a heavy hand, and she gives them all a face we recognize. Sympathetic without hyper-sentimentality.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club. Paris 1932, my holiday reading and the last of my 2014 book reviews, is no exception. Based on interconnected characters during the days leading into World War II, she realizes their stories through fictionalized letters, a supposedly published memoir, and personal narratives, narratives that contradict now and then to suggest unreliability, and while she drops many hints at what will come, one is compelled to read on to find out how this strange story plays out.

The core character, Lou Villars, is based on an infamous femme fatale named Violette Morris, a lesbian car racer and cross-dresser who was tapped by the Nazi’s to interrogate resistance members, some of whom were her cohorts at the Chameleon Club, one of those outrageous night haunts where there were no inhibitions and anything went. Lou found herself a community there, but was subsequently disillusioned by the French government’s refusal of her professional driver’s license, because she wore men’s clothes. She had been a javelin thrower and runner, and, ostensibly, Hitler admired her prowess so much he invited her to the 1936 Olympics and she was thus easily seduced to the dark side. Did she turn her back on those who had taken her in when she was desperate to release her inner self?

Francine Prose

Among the scintillating cast is a hyper-sexualized, self-impressed writer named Lionel, modeled, according to previous reviews, on Henry Miller, and an idealistic Hungarian photographer based on Brassai. And an aristocratic woman, her gay husband and fascist brother, who come to Lou's aid, and serve as patron to the photographer. Add an assortment of strivers and believers, in all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations, who make their way in a Paris struggling with "unemployment, inflation, mass bankruptcy, immigration, a crushing national debt, an increasing tax roll, and a diminishing tax base, political scandal, poverty, a shrinking middle class..." Sound familiar?

There is unrequited love, manipulative love, true love and promiscuity, all of which represent Paris before the German invasion, and because Prose alters voices and style from chapter to chapter, the narrative is consistently interesting. Every character in some way struggles with commitment - to purpose, family, lovers, sexual identity and country - the novel is thoroughly engaging and strikes truth. 

I believe it was a sleeper this year, much overlooked for more sensationalized works. If you enjoy the bizarre and the contemplative, and never tire of reading about Paris, this is a novel worth your time. A good, curl up with novel. And talk about it with friends. The best kind. 

Available in hardcover, but coming soon in paperback, and of course for all e-readers.
Happy new year. Happy reading.

12 December 2014

Murakami Light: Existential/Enigmatic

The many faces of one novel and one writer.

The London Observer called Japanese writer Haruki Murakami the best novelist on the planet, so it is no wonder that this latest novel sold one million copies in Japan the first week of publication. Murakami fans might consider it Murakami “light” – the novel explores major themes, but in a style more traditional and less abstract than usual, especially the well-known IQ84, Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which, I confess, I found terribly difficult to interpret.

Murakami is a surrealist who once told an audience that his dream would be to find himself at the bottom of a well where he might freely contemplate the universe. Think Alice.

What all his novels and stories share is a fascination with the human psyche and the delicate nature of human connection. They also share similar protagonists – outsiders, dreamers, often lost between reality and an alternate reality. Sounds simple, but in Murakami’s fiction, nothing is as it seems and absolutely nothing is simple.

This novel’s namesake is no exception. Tsukuru has been wandering for sixteen years as if disconnected from the earth, and from himself, since his four best childhood friends dismissed him from their circle without explanation. These were each knicknamed for primary colors – blue, red, white and black – however Tsukuru was never designated a color and this sets the tone for their friendship, and for their abandonment. He never asks why they rejected him so abruptly and permanently, assuming it was because he is colorless and thus meaningless.

Tsukuru barely survived depression and still suffers physical and emotional trauma. He cannot connect intimately with anyone, especially women, and although he pursued his passion to build train stations, he takes little pride in his work. He perceives himself a drifter through destiny, rather than master of his fate.

Enter Sara, a no-nonsense travel agent who captures his fancy and insists that he must clear out the baggage of his past in order to construct a future. She serves as both facilitator and motivator, and Tsukuru seeks his friends to unlock their secrets.

Makes for good fiction. Yes, Murakami’s writing is sometimes so plain it is surprising how mesmerizing the novel is. A page-turner, yet there is little desire to rush to the outcome, which is surprisingly benign, and while the book touches on the profound, it is more a personal journey, for the fictional Tsukuru and for the reader. So many of us have lost touch with people once so important they anchor our image of ourselves, the people who serve as witness to our existence, and how many of us never fulfilled the dream of belonging?

Murakami often uses music and pop culture to ground the reader and this book has plenty of it, including a cell phone with Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas as ring tone. Classical music, which can be both unstructured and meandering, is prominent, particularly for one of the four friends who plays a pivotal role, a young woman named Shiro, meaning white:

“The Yamaha grand piano in the living room of her house. Reflecting Shiro’s conscientiousness, it was always perfectly tuned. The lustrous exterior without a single smudge or fingerprint to mar its luster. The afternoon light filtering in through the window. Shadows cast in the garden by the cypress trees. The lace curtain wavering in the breeze. Teacups on the table. Her black hair, neatly tied back, her expression intent as she gazed at the score. Her ten long, lovely fingers on the keyboard.”

And music is pivotal to the book’s title:

“Most people see Liszt’s piano music as more superficial, and technical. Of course, he has some tricky pieces, but if you listen very carefully to his music you discover a depth to it that you don’t notice at first. Most of the time it’s hidden behind all the embellishments. This is particularly true of the Years of Pilgrimage suite. There aren’t many living pianists who can play this piece accurately and with such beauty.”

Colorless Tsukuru is available in a beautifully designed [Chip Kidd] hardcover and for e-readers. I would recommend for avant-garde book groups. Discover Murakami before he wins the Nobel prize, for which he is a persistent frontrunner, although I would prefer Philip Roth to win first. Happy reading.

21 October 2014

A Different Take on the Irish Woman: Nora Webster

Colm Toibin

I rarely read reviews of new books before I pen my own, but I had to check out what the great Jennifer Egan had to say last weekend in the New York Times on the great Colm Toibin’s NORA WEBSTER. She got it right. 
The only thing she understated is that Colm Toibin deploys the same literary technique most every time in that he tenderly weaves a spell about his characters to slowly, gently draw the reader in. 
Not so much happens, so it seems, until you realize that a whole lot has happened in such a nuanced fashion that the sum is exponentially greater than the sum of the parts.
Such is the case with NORA WEBSTER, even more so than any other of his fictions, my personal favorite being THE MASTER, a fictional telling of the early life of Henry James.
Nora is a young Irish woman whose husband has suddenly passed away, leaving her with four children, few assets and no sense of direction. Not a new tale, not even revelationary, rather a mesmerizing introspective journey about a woman who learns that aloneness is also freedom. Of a sorts. After all, we are in the early 1970’s, just as the modern feminist movement is brewing in the industrialized countries, and we are in Ireland, a patriarchal culture. Toibin draws the connection between the personal and political through Nora’s two daughters, who have left home to study and to work while she tends to her two young sons, who have difficulty fathoming much less articulating their grief.
It is also clear that Maurice, her late husband, was the life of the party, and Nora happily settled in his shadow, and only as she forges ahead does she discover latent talents that bring out her personality and her independent streak. We see this almost from the start when the first decision she makes is to rid herself of a summer home to shore up finances, and to distance herself from her past, with no concern for the affect on her children. She would prefer a form of  anonymity in order to begin again.
“Nora found herself wondering if there was somewhere she could go, if there was a town, or a part of Dublin with a house like this one, a modest semi-detached house on a road lined with trees, where no one could visit them and they could be alone there, all three of them. And then she found her mind moving towards the next thought - that the possibility of such a place, such a house, would include the idea that what had happened could be erased, that the burden that was on her now could be lifted, that the past could be restored and could make its way effortlessly into a painless present.”
Toibin’s affection for his title character is clear from the onset, and his insights into her inner life profound. Her thoughts are revealed only to the reader, as Nora keeps much to herself, and her actions often belie her true feelings. In effect, she is searching for her center, if such words had been part of her lexicon; instead, she meanders through grief in fits and starts, discovering herself gingerly, as we do.
If you like smart slow character studies, with crystal clear and elegant prose, you will want to curl up with NORA WEBSTER. Available in hardcover and for all e-readers.

27 August 2014

The Great Carlos Fuentes: Diana

Carlos Fuentes
Carlos Fuentes is perhaps Mexico's most celebrated writer. Across more than twenty novels, he writes of the passions and politics of a nation perpetually in turmoil. He also served as Ambassador to Paris, a time he eludes to fondly, before returning to Mexico City.
The Death of Artemio Cruz" [1962] is the best known of the translated fictions, a portrayal of a powerful, and largely corrupt, man on his deathbed as he imagines the past and rails against death. In this novel, Fuentes wrote the first of many graphic depictions of sex, including an odd characterization of Christ in sensualized circumstance, and in one of his later novels "Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone" [1995] he once again uses the bedroom as a place where personal and political clashes are won and lost.
The plot line is skimpy, the novel largely philosophical rambling on political upheavals and cultural struggles, and these reflections are the best part of the book. As the sixties come to a close, a successful adulterous writer is drawn into an unusually intense affair with an American actress. As they come to each other and resist each other with equal force, he contemplates the pretense of Hollywood versus lost souls in his own country, including his own, and the inability of humans to connect in a meaningful way through time. Like the goddess Diana, the actress is equal parts pretense, desire and weakness.
"The young people of Paris, in May 1968, had rebelled against what they vaguely called the tyranny of consumption, a society that exchanged being for seeming and took acquisition as a proof of existence. A Mexican, no matter how much he travels the world, is always anchored in a society of need; we return to the need that surrounds us on all sides in Mexico, and if we have even the slightest spark of conscience, it's hard for us to imagine a world where you can get everything you might want immediately, even pink toothpaste. I've always told myself that the vigor of Latin American art derives from the enormous risk of throwing yourself into the abyss of need, hoping to land on your feet on the other side, the side of satisfaction. It's very hard for us - if not for us personally, then in the name of all those around us."
Diana responds at another point that "There are forces that present themselves once and never again. Forces, she repeated, sleepily nodding several times, staring at the polished nails of her bare feet, her chin perched on her knees. Forces, not opportunities. Forces for love, politics, artistic creation, sports, who knows what else. They come by only once. It's useless to try to recover them. They're gone, mad at us because we paid them no mind. We didn't want passion. Then passion didn't want us either."
Fuentes often seizes an opportunity to decry the "gringo" effect on his country and  suggests that migration northward has been stimulated as much by the needs of the American people, even as they scorn immigrants, as a failure of his own government to improve quality of life in his homeland.
I hung on every line and enjoyed playing voyeur as these two souls marched towards their own demise. Few surprises in this novel full of elegant thoughts. The book is hard to find, mostly used copies, and worth the search. Fuentes passed away in 2012 but his passions live on.
I'll leave you with this great passage: "New Year's Eve. This passage from 1969 to 1970 was worthy of celebration because it marked the end of one decade and the beginning of a new one. But no one agrees about what that final zero means at the end of a year. Were the sixties coming to an end and the seventies beginning, or were the 1960's demanding one more year, a final agony of partying and crime, revolt and death, for that decade replete with major events, tangible and intangible, guts and dreams, cobblestones and memories, blood and desire: the decade of Vietnam and Martin Luther King, the Kennedy assassinations and May 1968 in Paris, the Democratic convention in Chicago and the massacre in Tlatelolco Plaza, the death of Marilyn? A decade that seemed to be programmed for television, to fill the sterile scheduling wastelands of blank screens but leave them breathless, making miracles banal, transforming the little electronic postage stamp into our daily bread, the expected into the unexpected, the facsimile of reality that culminated, even before the 1970's had begun, in mankind's first step on the moon. Our immediate suspicion: was the flight to the moon filmed in a TV studio? Our instantaneous disenchantment: can the moon go on being our romantic Diana after a gringo leaves his shit up there?"

If you want to learn more about Latin American writers, join educator Nancy Rayl and I on September 28th at 3:00 PM at Laguna Beach Books for the first of a quarterly salon on international literature.

24 July 2014

Anthony Doerr

I remember the first time I read a story by Anthony Doerr, in the wonderful collection "The Shell Collector." I was immediately taken with his prose, a unique combination of lyricism, prose-poetry, and clarity. He is known best for his stories and now, in a sweeping 500+ page novel, he weaves together multiple stories of French, German and Russian perpetrators, all in some way victims of World War II.

Although Amazon selected the novel as best book of the month when published in May, their review also begged the question: do we need another novel about WWII? Apparently, all the stories have yet to be told, and, more importantly, few told as beautifully as "All the Light we Cannot See."

The tales unfold in chapters alternating between key characters: Werner, an orphan with a penchant for gadgets, and a prodigious ability with electrical circuits and radio technology, which the Nazi's discover most useful to their land war; and Marie-Laure, a blind adolescent whose father, locksmith for the Paris natural history museum, has taken her to the walled coastal city Saint-Malo, only to face the French occupation, and a town that will become the last German stronghold as the war nears end.

In truth, as fascinating as Werner's character and prowess, and his thoughtful attachment to his sister, I sped through his chapters to Marie-Laure's because she was such a fascinating persona, and this was easy to do because all the chapters are brief, further accelerating the narrative.

"To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away."

The story revolves in large part on a gem stolen by Marie-Laure's father from the museum for protection, a stone rumored to ruin the lives of those in its possession, which he buries in a model of the city he builds for Marie-Laure so that she might learn her way around. Marie's lifelong independence stems from her father's determination to teach his daughter to survive her blindness, and these skills ultimately allow her to survive far more.

From 1940 to 2014, we follow Marie-Laure, her father, her traumatized uncle, another fascinating characters, and eclectic French and German friends, and Werner, his sister, Jutta, as well as Werner's assorted friends and mentors. The chapters dealing with Nazi schools meant to train their youth are especially chilling, and psychologically enlightening.

In the end, of course, Werner and Marie-Laure find each other through the wireless, and through the books and music lovingly handed down to Marie-Laure, and they bring these connections to all their friends and loved ones many years after the devastation of the war.

This is the sort of book you bury yourself into at the beach or in the yard, or by the fire in fall.

05 July 2014

Discover Juan Gabriel Vasquez

"The Sound of Things Falling"

"I was surprised by how little effort it took me to summon up the words I had spoken or heard, things I'd seen, pain I'd suffered and now overcome; I was also surprised by the alacrity and dedication we devote to the damaging exercise of remembering, which, after all, brings nothing good and serves only to hinder our normal functioning, like those bags of sand athletes tie around their calves for training."
So the narrator of this fascinating novel tells us early on, even as he spends much of the story searching for meaning through memory, through the memory of others.
            Vasquez who recently won the Impac Dublin award for international fiction, seems to wish to sever the connection between Colombian literature, cemented by the great Garcia Marquez, and magical realism, replacing it with more literal realism, which he paints with brunt force and thick brushstrokes. “I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics."
            A young law professor in Bogota plays billiards after class with a man named Laverde, who is rumored to have recently returned from a long prison sentence, but soon after, Laverde is fatally shot at a bar, with Antonio, the victim of collateral damage. Antonio has only recently settled into married life because of an unexpected pregnancy, another of the surprises he contends with as he tries to make sense of his city's history and future.
            We witness Antonio's desperate determination to discover who Laverde was and why he was shot, which will take the reader to flashbacks of Laverde's young life and his love affair and subsequent marriage to an American Peace Corps worker, who was killed the very same day as the shooting when her flight goes down en route to Colombia after an eighteen year absence, having returned to the US when Colombia in the eighties was unsafe for their daughter, Maya. It is Maya who ultimately holds the key, making it possible for Antonio to deconstruct his country's violent history and the nature of the drug culture, which, suggested in this novel, may have been precipitated by Americans from the Peace Corps as well as CIA.
            Vasquez also deftly weaves historical facts of interest, including a striking depiction of a zoo established in the 1970's by the dictator Pablo Escobar, which went to ruin when he passed in the early nineties, and may represent for Vasquez the trap of the Columbian people.
            The novel is riveting. Elegiac, heart wrenching, but not sentimental, severe without a heavy hand. These younger Latin American writers are bringing a new literary sensibility to their canon, and while they honor the legacy of masters like Garcia Marquez, Cervantes, Bolano and Saramago, they offer a fresh perspective and fresh voices. "A life unlived, a life that runs through one's fingers, a life one suffers through while knowing it belongs to someone else: to those who don't have to suffer." 
Read this fabulous novel and be among the first to discover a spectacular writer.

15 June 2014

Talking to Ourselves: Andres Neuman

Three members of a family. Three voices. A woman, her husband, a son. Each narrates alternating chapters as Mario grows more ill, deceiving his son of his impending death in order to enjoy one more camping trip together. A memory in the making and, perhaps, an allegory of lifetime journey. Latin writers do love allegory.
Argentinian Andres Newman lives in Spain.

Their son, Lito, age 10, is an innocent here. His texts to his mother are priceless and suggest a future beyond their traditional past. As father and son engage in simple pleasures on the road, Elena perpetrates an infidelity meant to help her let go. Each speaks to the reader; however, in truth, they talk to themselves. Perfect title. A stream of consciousness narrative that intimately depicts their struggle with profound loss. Knowing one will die shortly is no consolation, for patient or loved ones.

Elena is the most compelling voice. She buries her despair in great literature, frequently quoting European and American writers on everything from writing to feminism, motherhood to passion. I was especially taken with her translation of the words in various languages that describe an orgasm [who knew there were so many variations on that theme?} She tirades, she berates herself and others, as she clings to a torrid, nearly abusive sexual affair with her husband's physician. The more she means to anesthetize herself, the more aggressive the sexuality, as if she must be made to suffer as an homage, or commiseration, to the suffering of her husband. Or merely to feel the pain she feels within. Much a matter of interpretation here.

"It is true, pleasure brings hope. Maybe that is why so many men leave us dissatisfied: their desire holds no promise. They are wary when they get into bed. As thought they were already leaving before they have arrived. We women, even if only for a moment, even if we aspired to nothing more, tend to give ourselves completely, out of instinct or habit."

I don't usually quote other reviews, but The Guardian summed the novel up well:
"Who needs a more complex plot than this death and the ways three people meet it? This is writing of a quality rarely encountered, which actually feels as though it touches on reality, translating something experienced into words, without loss of detail or clarity."

The book concludes as expected with the aftermath of Mario's death. Elena writes the obituary. "...announcing the death of a loved on in the third person. Imagining someone is reading it as you are drafting it. pretending you don't know your husband has died, and that you are finding out from this announcement. he, in the third person, your beloved, in the second person, who will never exist in the first person again. Grammar doesn't believe in reincarnation. Literature does."

I am immersed currently in Latin American writers and plan to read next Neuman's acclaimed "Traveler of the Century." Of the twenty books he's penned, few have been translated, but I've no doubt more will come given the extraordinary reputation he has earned in recent years. Stay tuned.

26 May 2014

Read it forward: My Wish List

The great pleasure of a local bookstore is the hidden treasure that an enthusiastic bookseller presses into your hand. This particular book, "My Wish List" is on bestseller lists in Europe, however I might not have found it elsewhere and I promise you, this is a true gem.

A slim novella with unpretentious prose and powerful subtext, the stream of consciousness narrator, one Jocelyne, married to a man named Jocelyn, lives in a small town in France where she owns a sewing shop and blogs about cloth and textures and threads. "TenGoldFingers" [perhaps a nod to Midas] has growing list of devoted followers who evolve into Jo's cheering squad and support network, and one might say the true fabric of her life.

Harboring the sadness of a lost child, her husband's subsequent despair and betrayals, and the painful memory of her mother's sudden death when Jo was just a girl, she nevertheless cherishes her life, more than most, so much so that when she wins the lottery, she tells no one and never cashes the huge check because she fears the compromises riches will make.

"I think of myself, of all that will now be possible for me, and I don't want any of it."

We follow Jo as she struggles with what she might have done with the money if she took it - from buying her husband the Porsche he has always wanted to giving away a million dollars to a worthy individual or treating herself to all the James Bond movies on DVD - and as her husband heals and becomes more appreciative and her children and friends thrive and she more and more delights in her uncomplicated life.

She tells only her father about the lottery, a man with dementia who remembers for only six minutes at a time, so he is safe with secrets, and his inability to share his daughter's dilemma is an especially poignant aspect of the novella, beautiful interactions.

Of course, literature requires conflict, and nothing in a good story stays the same. However, even expecting the drama to unfold, we are startled, and moved, when the narrative arc shifts and our lovely protagonist is thrust onto an unexpected path. What can you do when your life is torn apart and all the wealth on earth will not repair the damage?

Gregoire Delacourt
This is the first novel translated from the French by this author and I'm told a film will soon arrive, from France, thankfully, as they do better translating from the page to the screen.

A profound and exquisitely written fiction on the power of love and the perils of greed, I urge you to read it forward - buy the book and pass it on. And, if possible, read it in one or two sittings, as this is a tale to fall into and remain until it plays out. Perfect for a day at the beach or an evening on the couch. Happy reading.