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lundi 29 décembre 2008

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

Please note: forthcoming March 2009!

This novel, which I found fascinating and beautifully written, is a three pronged lament for the tragedy caused by human arrogance. The story has three principal actors, three major destructions are evoked in three different parts of the world, more or less playing at the same time in history.  It is a twentieth century tale. The sub context is about love and redemption.  It is also about the power of family and of memory.  Memory is evoked by conversation and intimacy.  

I was going to start by telling you about Avery, Jean and Lucjan, to tell you who they are and from where they came, but I think it is better to begin with the places of destruction and you will be able to use your imagination for the plot without having it all given away by me.  We begin in Egypt with the barrage that was put into action by Nasser’s giant Aswan High Dam built in the 1960’s. This enormous hydro-electric power plant made a gap so deep and long, the land would never recover. “Nubia in its entirety – one hundred and twenty thousand villagers, their homes, land, and meticulously tended ancient groves and many hundreds of archeological sites – vanished.”  Nasser built the monument to himself just as Ramses had his likeness sculpted at Abu Simbel to himself. “Lake Nasser would melt away this holy ground.”  (300 kilometers worth of lake).

Avery, an english engineer and his canadian wife Jean are sent to Egypt so that he can supervise the immense project to save Abu Simbel from the rising waters.

This is the central plot. The love of this couple for one another, their attempt to live a life under grim conditions whilst he is engaged with all his skills to organize the move by hundreds of workers and machines, of that monument, block by block to a higher land. Avery has doubts all along concerning the worth of what will be in fact a fake monument, a reconstituted monument, a false witness of time. Jean becomes pregnant and carries the future within her. “What was lost was more than what was gained, said Jean.”

There is another destruction recounted by the third person, Lucjan, a polish Jew who not only witnessed the destruction of Warsaw but also took part in rebuilding it afterwards.  A fake old town is brought to life. A cheat. Can one bring a city back to life? Does it bring atonement? How is this related to the salvaging of Abu Simbel?

I find it difficult to end my review.  I have not told the story.  I have given you a mise en scène, a theme.  I have not told you about the beautifully crafted and carefully stitched family quilt of the memories of two people who seem to fit together like two pieces of a wooden jig saw puzzle: every joint, every limb, a smooth fit. I have skipped over the Saint Lawrence hydro-electric power plant and the destruction wrought by that project.  I have left out a great deal but I hope this little bit that I have written down will induce you to read a, yes I dare write a perhaps over-used word, a heartbreaking story.

mercredi 17 décembre 2008

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

This novel by an author I seem always to have enjoyed and found interesting is, I believe a most confusing story. Some of the reviews talk of moral complexity.  It seemed to me to be difficult to follow.  Already there is a muslim terrorist who is an anti hero without available language since he speaks only chechen or bad russian, uniquely dressed in a shabby long black garment  He needs a translator and she is german but speaks russian. There is a Brit who is vague but exceedingly wealthy owner of a private bank in Vienna, there are the spy networks of the americans, the germans, the russians, oh dear, hard to keep track more so since they appear under various names at various times.  Some themes are familiar and you begin to feel at home in Le Carré territory: corporate greed, government excesses, a half starved young man is smuggled across the border, the german civil rights lawyer determined to save the world against the excesses of capitalism, the british banker who is attracted to her and who also is lost in the spy networks of international competition and confusion.

I haven’t given you the plot, I have not even been very enthusiastic about this latest Le Carré, but it is a handsome Christmas present for the fans of either the author or the eternal subject of international crime with mysterious good guys and bad guys who do not let you into their secret until the very end.  The hard cover edition is beautiful and comes with a green silk page marker to match the green author’s name on the cover.

mardi 2 décembre 2008

Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

“The following day no one died.”

Thus the opening sentence of this extraordinary and magical book. Death has decided that she needs a holiday.  I should not have capitalized her name but that it opened a new sentence. She herself does not want to begin her name with a capital D.  Death is the central character of the book.  Her decision to take a holiday which she feels is well deserved, creates pandemonium in this country of two million people who are condemned to continue life regardless of the state of their health or their age or of any other possible eventuality.

Suspended life.  No one knows what to do.  The government, as is habitual in times of emergency, creates a commission: in this case of newspaper editors, ministers, clairvoyants and cardinals. I need hardly tell you that the burial societies and the insurance companies operate in a mode of utter panic.  How can they continue to work?  The church consults the president: how are we to maintain a church, a following of believers when we have no eternity to offer?

A large part of the novel is speculative, the examples, the solutions, the hysterics are all generalized until, half way towards the end, Saramago finds a fifty year old cellist who resists death’s warning. (perhaps I should have included in my brief summary that when things get too much out of hand, when the people start to drag the fragile and about to die old, across the border so that they can die quickly on foreign soil, death decides on an intermediary solution wherein she sends letters of warning to people giving them a week in which to make adequate preparations for this event.) The letter death had sent him was returned without any message from the post office to explain the situation. Death goes to see him and I will leave you in suspense.

I read a review in which the writer called this book an allegory/parable/literary philosophy/science fiction/novel/painting/musical composition.  Well, why not?

Saramago is no longer young.  85 or so. Perhaps he too would like to put a human face on death.

I loved the book, but I have one question concerning the translations.  Death in all the romance languages is, indeed, a she.  Not in German. DER TOD. I assume it is the same in the northern countries. What then will happen? I must get myself a German copy.

dimanche 9 novembre 2008

Them by Nathan McCall

Late in 1967, after a year abroad on a sabbatical leave, H. and I bought a five story brick house on a beautiful tree-lined block in Boston’s South End.  We paid $17,000, renovated it for almost one year, moved into it in early summer of ’68.  The place was sold to us by an elderly black woman who had taken care of foundlings until adequate parents for them could be found by the city.  She felt she was too old to continue and wanted the money for her retirement.  We wanted to move downtown, into the city, away from the suburbs.  We were the second white household on the block.  Gentrification was on the way.

The book I have just read is that story forty years later, in Atlanta, Georgia.  It is told from the point of view of the black community around a couple of blocks.  There is also that white couple but the sympathies and the insights come from Barlowe, a printer by trade who is renting a house in Atlanta’s historic Fourth Ward, once home of Martin Luther King.  Barlowe is a tenant, his nephew Tyrone pays for a part of the rent so that they can swing it every month.  One day they see the first white real estate agent and they understand that trouble lies ahead. He can see what is happening, slowly but clearly. Gentrification is around the corner.  They will lose their homes; life will change drastically and not in their favor.

The drama is set: integration poised against old values of community.  Familiar neighborhoods are destroyed; big bargains to be made for the others. The pace is urgent.  The characters are broadly drawn with the exception of Barlowe and perhaps his white neighbor Sandy.  The prose is pedestrian but the story is real and important and told with passion and conviction. Gentrification has no simple answers.  It exists, it has always existed and it rolls in with a huge force.  The little people are caught inevitably.  Money wins.  However, questions are raised and feelings are challenged. People learn.  The book came out last year.  Obama was elected the following year. Something happened.  The novel will provide a view, a picture of a community perhaps you, the white reader, had not considered before. I might add, the black reader if he is from the working class, has surely not thought much about the drama either since it is his life he is struggling to keep. He is not the destructive force. He is not confused by ambivalence.  He is trying to prevent the invader from snatching what is his.  Barlowe is puzzled: he is struggling to get it.

Please don’t complain that I have not told you the plot. I never like reviews that take away my pleasure in the discovery before me. It is a gripping tale, the more so in that it is happening now, in that same country courageous enough to opt for a real change.

mercredi 5 novembre 2008

Indignation by Philip Roth

I finished it a couple of hours ago and then went to look up the reviews of this last novel of Roth’s to discover that all the reviews were listed by name of magazine and the grade that had been bestowed on this book.  They go from A to F and include a couple of A's ; a C plus, the Atlantic gave it a D and the New Yorker and the New York Times remained neutral: no grade.

Enough of this.  The book is brilliant.  Funny and serious the way Roth knows how to do it.  All his talent is there, his bitterness at the world, his incorrigible humor, the detail he provides for you to understand and to see what it is he wants you to get.  The father of young Marcus is a kosher butcher; what he does and what he looks like is reminiscent of the elaborate detail in American Pastoral when Roth describes the manufacturing of gloves.  Every utensil, each knife used to cut the animal into appropriate pieces, the blood on his apron and on the floor, the cleaning out of the garbage cans after the fat man has come to buy the fats kept for him to take away each week, ìmy job was to clean the butcher blocks last thing before we went home, to throw some sawdust on the blocks and then scrape them with the iron brush, and so marshaling the energy left in me, I’d scrape out the blood to keep the place kosher.

Marcus had spent seven months working for his father before setting off for college life.  The time is 1950, the background is the war in Korea. The foreground is college life first in downtown  Newark and later in Winesburg, Ohio a small Lutheran college campus  in a beautiful rural setting. 

The plot is simple, the characters are few, the detail is everything.  Somewhere I read something Roth said:  sheer playfulness and deadly seriousness are my closest friends. The sexual fantasies and realities of an inexperienced adolescent boy bring us back to Portnoy; the fear of the draft and the importance of staying on a student deferment keep us in the world of the dangers everywhere for the young who are killed, for what?

...unfortunate enough to be killed ...eleven months before Marcus, had he been able to stomach chapel and keep his moth shut... would have postponed learning what his uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along: of the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.

Marcus’ insistence on his right to independence, leads him to a tragic end.  His revolt against his father’s definition of who he is to be just as his rage against the Dean’s idea of what is proper behavior for a college student should be, bring him to Korea to a slaughter he had hoped to avoid. 

I give you another quote from a review:

"In his famous essay "Writing American Fiction," written back in 1960, Roth spoke about the difficulty of writing credibly about the time we live in. "It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination." As his new book and his many other novels show, it can be done by a master.

Yes, he is a master and I did not give you the plot, but it would spoil the book a little.  Read it. It is wonderful."

mardi 4 novembre 2008

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

When I was in Boston this last September, an old friend presented me with this book knowing full well that it touches on all my sensibilities.  Thus, even though the Red Wheelbarrow does not as yet stock the book, I will tell you about it and then  when it does arrive at your favorite bookstore on rue St Paul, you will rush to buy it.
The book handles all the subjects of interest to me: The time is the last couple of years of the war, 1943 to 1945, the place is North-West Italy, the Italian regime is in collapse, the Germans are pursuing Jewish refugees who are looking for safety in the villages of Italy. The story plays in a “village snug in a ravine”.  Its characters are multiple: Germans, Jews, Nazis, Catholics, Italian Jews and Italian Catholics, a priest and a rabbi, a German doctor experienced in exterminating undesirables, a soldier from Calabria; the military swarm about everywhere, Germans, Italians, Americans even the Brits are present. Have I forgotten someone?
The title is taken from a Hebrew saying: No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there is always a thread of Grace.
From the general to the a little more specific: 43,000 Jews, both native and foreign, were saved in Italy by ordinary people and the author has created this fictional account in an equally fictional village, to show us how this was done.  We get to know the chief rabbi, Iacopo Soncini and his wife Mirella, Renzo Leoni the former pilot and his mother Lidia, an infantry soldier who falls in love with a Belgian refugee whom we first meet when she and her father flee across the Alps from France under dire circumstances.  There is Werner Schramm, the German physician who says he personally is responsible for the deaths of 91,867 people whom he killed in the camps.
I have given you a brutally cut version of a book slow and long and thoughtful, which presents moral choices and offers no way out. When Schramm, at the beginning of the book, tells the Catholic priest his story to ask for absolution, the priest replies: “ God forgives you.  I can’t.” Whereupon he suggests the man shoot him self. Moral ambiguities have no solutions.
This is not a sentimental book.
The reader is offered a coda at the end.  It is 2007, North Toronto, Canada.
Claudia whom we had met as a teenager fleeing across the Alps, later married to the infantry man, mother of three children, has died, her children sit at the death bed.  Not one has forgiven the mother who would not talk about the past.

jeudi 30 octobre 2008

The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant

The setting is London, 1970's.  The background is a series of dreary flats off the Marylebone Road. Berta and Ervin Kovacs  and their daughter live in possibly the drabbest of the lot. If I were to chose an image by which to hold on to this story, it would be that of doors being slammed shut. Early on in the book,  Vivien who calls herself Miranda in the central part of the novel, observes her father slam the door on a  man unknown to her, a person of glamorous appearance,  accompanied by a  woman of color wearing a leopard coat who is  equally expensively  shod and dressed.  They have come to call on Mr. and Mrs. Kovacs and their daughter.  The man is Vivien's father's brother who has a history of crime and prison behind him, the woman is his companion. Both brothers are hungarian refugees; the respectable and rather dreary parents left in 1938, Sandor left in 1956 after having suffered the nightmare of the war, the anti-semitism, the russian occupation, horrendous tortures.

The slamming of the door gets rid of the brother but it does not get rid of the past even though every effort has been made by Vivian's parents to close all possible doors which the child, the young girl and later the adult daughter, had tried to open. The doors had ben slammed shut.

And yet the book is about that past.  It is also about Vivien's relentless quest to open the doors once and for all and to understand why they had been shut.  Her curiosity not heeded. There is also a moral dimension to the story. Sandor, the  brother whose criminal history is being investigated by the rather righteous young woman, challenges her assumption of good and evil as too easy, too trivial to take in the complexities of a human life which offers, in fact, rather fewer choices than those for which she had made allowances in her still juvenile and innocent judgments.

I find that the title does not reflect the message; yes, clothes define the woman's  as she wishes to be seen; the man also dresses to reflect his sense of self, but surly the book offers much more in the way of subtleties than this would suggest.

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

The headline of the Roth book review in the International Herald Tribune was: "toward the exit, but not there yet."

It's not a bad summary of the latest Philip Roth which tells the story of Zuckermann who, after eleven years as recluse in the Berkshires, after prostate cancer and a resulting permanent state of incontinence and impotence, takes a journey back to Manhattan for minor surgery to try to improve his state only to find that, once more, he is trapped; by once more falling passionately and hopelessly in love with a relatively banal young married woman of great beauty with plenty of money to whom he had already been attracted many, many years go. This second encounter takes place on the eve of the latest Bush election while Jamie suffers her candidate’s defeat, Zuckerman is seduced – in pure phantasy, by a love affair with her and a return to his own youth and virility.

Parallel with is own saga, is the story of Nathan's once-upon-a-time mentor and hero, long dead, the great writer E.I. Lonoff whose ghost haunts Zuckerman and excites a young and ambitious would-be biographer who is hoping to make his own fame by digging up enough witnesses to attest to an incestuous relationship between the author and that man’s half sister.

The first Zuckerman novel, written in 1979, The Ghost Writer, was the portait of the young artist as Jew and as American. Now Zuckerman is trying to save the dead artist's integrity as a man of creative imagination and not as subject for potential money making by an unscrupulous young would-be biographer.

I am making it simpler than it is. There are various plots and various styles. Some sections reads like theatre. There is a he and a she part. Some is a long analysis of Lonoff's personality written by the woman who came to live with him when his wife left him. Much is the agony of Zuckerman's physical state, the misery of his incontinence, the horror of his impotence, the loss of his virility. His slow dying.

The book is not easy. Both Roth and Zuckerman are troubled about literature and its holiness. Does a critic have the right to confuse the hero of the book with the author? Or is the author free to create a new being and the critic must allow that freedom to the writer without interpretation relating the work to the writer? Roth never has easy answers.

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

"At heart he is not a novelist after all, they say, but a pedant who dabbles in fiction. And I have reached a stage in my life when I begin to wonder whether they are not right."

The above is from the book, a reflection made by Coetzee about his hero, a man called JC.

They are not right. This is the voice of an experienced and wise novelist who knows exactly what he is doing and does it brilliantly.

JC is a seventy-two year old man, living in Australia, contributing chapters to a commissioned book of essays called Strong Opinions. Essentially all the opinions expressed deal with power, the meaning of power and of its immoral uses in our world; the meaning of an ethical life. The form of the book is curious and innovative since it allows the author to speak in three voices simultaneously: the upper third of the page is in the voice of the author, the second third speaks with the voice of a young woman whom JC met in the laundry room of his building and whom he persuaded to act as his secretary while trying to finish the book. The third section is given over to a conversation between Anya the woman and her suspicious boyfriend, Alan, a believer in market values as the only criteria worth applying to life's questions. This arrangement allows our author to raise other questions than the ones that are of personal concern to him.

There is so much to say about this book. My first response to Coetzee is that here, again (after reading the last Roth novel) we have the story of an ageing novelist who is aware of his impotence and who insists on confronting not only his own lack of virility but also testing himself through a relationship which appears to threaten the potent lover of that same woman. This was, similarly, the central theme of Roth’s book I reviewed here last week.

Coetzee, the white man from South Africa, homeless, choosing to live in Australia away from his known world; Roth the Jew from New Jersey living in Protestant New England on a mountain top: two old men consumed by anger and regret for the privileges of youth.

There the comparison ends. In Coetzee’s book every page is important. Every page has at least one sentence, one paragraph, one thought, needing your full attention. His observations on power, on the politics of apartheid, “all of this was done in the name of a struggle against terror. I used to think that the people who created these laws that effectively suspended the rule of law were moral barbarians. Now I know that they were just pioneers, ahead of their time.”; on literature, on the meaning of language, on the origins of the state…I can go on; I would like to quote at least twenty passages, but I know that you just want the flavor of the book so as to decide if you want to read it. Well, this is a great book. This will become a classic. This is a book you will want to re-read, to own and to give to other thoughtful readers.

The Worst Thing I've Done by Ursula Hegi

Annie, Mason and Jake live in a complicated web of relationships part erotic, part platonic, always in flux, always filled with excitement, passion, desire, envy and rage.

Annie is a collage artist who expresses, in her art, all the layers of feeling that have invaded the lives of these three human beings. Ursula Hegi has used as her literary device a similar collage to tell her tale: a series of overlays and soliloquies and narratives in the third person to give shape to the story. It is a complicated and twisted tale: the day of Annie’s wedding to Mason is also the day on which her mother and father are killed in a car crash but the baby to have been born is saved. Annie and Mason take on the infant and raise her as their own thus making Annie both mother and sister of Opal. Their friendship with Jake gives rise to a family of three adults and one baby, soon to grow into a girl.

There is a very dark side to this tale of love and morality, of entanglements and acceptance that brings out some of Hegi’s concerns from her own past with guilt: the guilt of a German woman who was raised in the U S at a time when Germans were seen only as the enemy and being German required an explanation. German, but not Jewish. Guilt suffuses this novel; creeps into many corners, suffuses the lives of the three protagonists and affects little Opal in her every day attempt to come to grips with the world of the grown ups.

The book is troubling and interesting; it reads well. The language to describe the beauty and the mystery of nature is wonderful, precise and evocative of the sea where so much of the action is placed. The following quote is more illustrative of what I have been trying to say than I could ever say myself:

"This twine is thinner than in the earlier versions, and she lays it in an open weave on top of marbelized paper from Italy, all blues and whites, torn into thin shreds that overlap, rising and pushing like choppy waves, making the raft unstable. And on the raft, a momentary sculpture of limbs, dark silhouettes against a low afternoon sun. In motion."

That’s what she works toward. In motion. Or just before motion. When the impact of motion still resonates.

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

I had read this novel when it first came out, in german, was wildly enthusiastic about it and found no one with whom I could share my feelings and thoughts concerning this great book. Now it is translated and you can profit. Great literature, beautiful writing, complicated but intensely interesting plot.

Mercier, which is his nom de plume, is a linguist at the Free University in Berlin and forever interested in origins. This book deals with a pedantic scholar of Classics who, suddenly has a slightly mad impulse to go to Lisbon in search of an enigmatic portuguese aristocrat whose book he had discovered in a second hand bookshop. Earlier in the day he had, quite fortuitously run into a woman who was looking for the toilet in the halls of his university. She also came from Portugal. This so otherwise predictable man sets off on a rather mysterious quest to find out about the author and is thus propelled by a deep inner need to find out more, ever more going along a path of mysteries and coincidences which by their nature force the reader to follow him breathlessly.

Mercier is the author of three novels; this is the last and the best. I started with it and then read the other two, but probably that was not a good idea. This book sums up the others. It is the perfect culmination, so far, of his work.

Do read it.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The author of the Kite Runner has written his second novel. I had loved that book: a beautifully written modern, moral tale of vast political and personal scope.

The new novel is equally a political story, but played out over thirty years of Afghanistan history. The first book centers around a boy and his maturing, of his life in California aand in Kabul; the second one has a larger cast of characters, a smaller geographical canvas, but here too time is of the essence. Thirty years of war, misery, occupation, Taliban outrages, as they effect two unconnected families in Afghanistan.

Mariam, illegitimate daughter in search of an acknowledgement from her biological father, witness to the suicide of her mother, abused by her terrible and terrifying husband in a marriage arranged by her father, encounters, in this marriage, the new fourteen year old bride of her husband who had decided to take a second wife since the first one had never succeeded in providing him with a son.

I agree, the sentence is too long, but it does summarize this tale. These two women, a generation apart, married to the same disgusting old man, manage, over time, to move from hatred and jealousy of one another, towards love and respect and a sense of belonging together.

I quote:

"Seasons had come and gone; presidents in Kabul had been inaugurated and murdered; an empire had been defeated; old wars had ended and new ones had broken out. But Mariam hardly noticed, hardly cared...the future did not matter. And the past held only this wisdom: that Love was a damaging mistake and its accomplice, Hope, a treacherous illusion." (p.273)

The book is about understanding and evolving. People can learn to change and to act. Women have power. Even when nothing seems possible, love can grow, faith can be nurtured, hope can find a place.

The descriptions of what happened in those thirty years, are brutal. The cruelty and wanton exercise of rage by men with insane convictions concerning the purpose of life and of Allah's wishes, are close to unbearable and surely not comprehensible. How is it possible for humans to torture one another without end? Ever?

Khaled Hosseini has succeeded in writing a shattering description of modern terror and yet he has given us a story of convincing love between people who have managed to hold on to their capacity to hope.

One Way Tickets by Renée Levine

This review is a bit crazy since I am writing a review of a book I wrote. So, I won't critique it, I will simply tell you that I wrote about my life from the perspective of a woman whose family, three generations of them, left home, never to return. Each was issued a one way ticket.

All this more or less began in upper Silesia in the middle of the 19th century and it ended, with me, in Paris via England and the United States with short stops en route. It is the story of a time when loss of family and the transplanting of lives was commonplace. It may, in fact, be also a thoroughly contemporary story.

The book was designed by Sylvia Winter who is a professional designer and who made it beautiful by including many photos taken at the time.

mercredi 29 octobre 2008


Welcome to Renée Levine's Book Reviews
Here we will post Renées reviews about books which are available at the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, an english bookstore situated in Paris.