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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.