Archive for August, 2010

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

August 31, 2010

It’s difficult to separate Suite Francaise from the destiny of its author. Essentially written as the war, and later occupation, were happening, being able to capture the moment so thoroughly and thoughtfully is remarkable. Perhaps more remarkable is that she had also planned out three future sections which she never had the opportunity to write.

I’m not sure “novel” is a fair term, though. Really, they are two novellas with slight connections in character. They work well together and share the obvious connection of the war but could likely work just as well apart. Maybe they would have drawn together into a more uniform whole had Nemirovsky had the opportunity to complete the work, and I have strong feelings that she would have, but she didn’t. The first novella, A Storm in June, focuses on France realizing that they have lost, that there is nothing standing between them and the German military, and their panicked, desperate flight for freedom and safety. Nemirovsky picks out a few individuals and families to follow in this exodus, from the wealthy Pericand family to the substantially less wealthy Michaud’s who are left to fend for themselves on the road when their ride with the bank manager is given to the bank manager’s mistress. We also ride along to witness the travails of the Pericand’s two boys, Hubert and Philippe, the writer Gabriel Corte and the wealthy Charles Langelet.

Needless to say, a lot of people end up unhappy and/or dead. Langelet, who is self-centered and, eventually, devious, ends up being struck dead by the bank manager’s then former mistress, after he has returned to Paris and is crossing the street to meet up with a woman he had talked to earlier. Philippee is beaten and killed by a group of orphans he is charged with watching over and which he quietly believes are soulless monsters. We learn the bank manager has his car, and bank records, destroyed in a bombing. Corte survives at a glamorous hotel in the south, shacking up along with numerous other artists, where we are left believing they pick up life roughly where it left off, perhaps saying something about the mentality of artists.

The only family that turns out well are the Michaud’s. They are poor but they survive and their son returns to them alive. The Pericand family continues on, afloat of their money, but their son, Hubert, seems to have changed. It seems his experience wandering around the countryside of France, where his vision of war and honor are given a splash of reality, shifts his emotional and intellectual framework away from those of his family. But this isn’t something we are given much to wander with as it happens towards the end of the novella and they don’t make a reappearance in the second half.

I want to draw some sort of moral corrolation between the characters and their fates. Given how both the Pericands and the Michauds survive, I’m not sure there is a definite social aspect going on, though the Pericands certainly seem to “cope” with the situation much more easily.  However, characters who act with questionable morality clearly get dinged here. Langelet, with his self-centeredness, is killed by a car. Philippe, despite being a priest, is killed after having many less than kind thoughts of the orphans he is in charge of.  The bank manager has his records destoryed, has his wife pissed at him after she discovers a nude photo of his mistress in his belongings and is later left by his mistress. Corte is just as self-centered and pompous as Langelet, but he survives and appears to live in relative ease in his hotel. Perhaps Nemirovsky has a bit of a soft spot for the self-centeredness of the artist? Meanwhile, as I mentioned earlier, the Michauds merely continue on.

The second half of the work, Dolce, is entirely contained within a small village forced to board a German military force. The bulk of the story enters around Lucy Angellier and the young German housed in her home, Bruno von Falk.  Lucy’s mother-in-law also lives in the home, and her husband is in a POW camp. Lucy’s mother-in-law’s husband was killed in the first WWI and she has a clear preference for her son over Lucy now, to the point of overlooking any and all shortcomings her son has including his having a mistress (to which her strongest feelings of reproach for this is that he has bought the mistress things – she cares more for the money her son has spent on a mistress rather than the fact that he has a mistress at all).  Meanwhile, Lucy is torn between feelings of nationalism, loyalty to her husband and the burgeoning pangs of love for Bruno – a man she clearly has much in common with, who cares for her, but is unfortunately from the wrong country at the wrong time. The turning point comes when a neighbor kills a German officer and seeks refuge in the Angellier home. Knowing her romance with von Falk is impossible, Lucy grants him safekeeping, winning the approval of her mother-in-law while secretly crossing a line the mutual love between her and von Falk can not cross. However, this never becomes a problem as the novella ends shortly thereafter with the news that Germany has invaded Russia and these troops are being transported to the eastern front.

There are times where Dolce touches on nationalism, where it touches on a bit of class conflicts, and on nationalism versus the personal and private needs of people, regardless of the circumstances – largely, the need to love and be loved. But it’s really more of a tale of characters, of circumstances and of doomed love. While it is a good read, it doesn’t feel as critically weighty as A Storm in June. Instead, it feels like a bridge between the first act and what Nemirovsky was planning for the rest of her work.With Angellier using Von Falk’s affection for her to gain a travel pass and gas, the novella ends with the implication that she will take Benoit Saberie, the man who earlier killed a German officer, to Paris where it can only be assumed the novel would have picked up at.

As a whole, it is a good read. It well written, it is balanced, it is thoughtfully and artfully constructed. But it’s also half-done. And what might be the most impressive aspect of the work is the time in which it was written. Not only was it forged during war, but it depicted the events of the war itself. And did so with a skill and grace that is remarkable.

Dogrun by Arthur Nersesian – Review

August 26, 2010

Another in a recent run of books I’ve enjoyed reading but can’t find much of anything to say about it. Our hero is Mary Bellanova and her quest of identity (Mary! I am your father! NOOOOOOOOOOOO) begins when she comes home, cooks dinner and gets into the sort of pointless, pedestrian fight everyone gets into when they have lived too long with the same person and have come to the realization that they care for them too little to put up with all of it for much longer. Then she discovers that her lover, Primo, has become a former lover and is now a corpse.

Over the course of the novel, Mary comes to realize her best friend has done some less than best friend things, another friend from her childhood has some questions he needs to answer and a friend of Primo before corpsehood becomes the nicest guy she knows. She rediscovers an artistic streak, has some escapades with various mortal remains and has to figure out what to do with a dog she inherits from Primo.

Over the course of the novel there seems to be a general theme about control over one’s life and finding what’s important. Mary’s a temp, a habitually unstable job, and she just sort of fell into a relationship with a guy she came to realize she didn’t really care for but was too overcome with malaise to change. After Primo’s death, her weird obsession with making sure anyone who cared about Primo finds out about his death (which really boils down to a litany of ex-girlfriends/ex-wives) leads her to losing her temp job and beginning the job of finding some semblance of self.

On the opposite end of this is Primo. He stands for who Mary could become. Living a similarly unstable economic life, bouncing from girlfriend to girlfriend, we see how little of himself is left. And how Mary has to venture into Primo’s past to find anything really tangible from his existence. As he got older, he gave up his painting, his music, his everything. He became the life Mary was living.

It’s a short novel, with the hustle and bustle of low-mid income people in New York trying to eke out a living that is simultaneously sustainable and fulfilling. It’s a good read, with Nersesian’s prose being smooth and rolling, beautifully painting his characters and his neighborhood. But I’m not sure it’s much beyond that.  The fertile place for Nersesian seems to be his characters, with more juxtapositions could be drawn(such as Primo and ex-gf Sue Wott, or Mary and Sue Wott, Howard and Zoe, etc.). However, I think Dogrun‘s biggest positive is its readability. It’s just an enjoyable book to fall into with an unconventional female lead. In other hands, his characters could become charicatures, with their self-made oddities, but they don’t. Nersesian excels at giving them an authenticity that speaks highly of his skill.

Cruising Paradise by Sam Shepard – Review

August 26, 2010

It’s hard to know what to make of this collection of tales by Sam Shepard. It can almost be divided into two halves, the first a collection of western tales and the second a collection centering around an actor and his dealings with the movie business. The first half shines noticeably brighter than the second half. When Shepard transitions to the stories that center largely around movies, he seems to lose a bit of his clarity, the characters become sort of muddled, the point of the stories seem to drift.

In these stories we have Shepard revisiting themes he has dealt with over the course of his career.  From growing up to growing old, from love to isolation, it’s material you can’t help but get the impression that he’s covered before, and better, in his plays and in other, similar collections such as his Motel Chronicles. It’s an enjoyable read but much of the collection flits by so quickly, it simply doesn’t leave much of an impression with the reader. But when you manage to cram 40 stories into 239 pages, this should probably be expected.

If you’re new to Shepard, this isn’t something I’d suggest. But if you’ve read Shepard before, if you’ve enjoyed him, you’re going to enjoy this. There is nothing about it that will come out of the blue, but also nothing that will be particularly exciting. It’s just Sam Shepard writing Sam Shepard.

Blaze by The Writer Formerly Known as Richard Bachman (pssst, it’s Stephen King!)

August 17, 2010

King up and admits in his forward that this is a trunk novel but it’s not something he has to apologize for in this case. The horror aspect of the novel is never clearly developed regarding the actuality of the “ghost” that haunts the protagonist, Clay Blaisdell, jr., throughout the novel but it doesn’t really matter with the pace and energy devoted simply to pushing the story along. It moves along at the wonderfully quick pace of other shorts works by King like The Gunslinger, The Shining and ‘Salem’s Lot. While it is not as polished or as fundamentally solid as any of those novels, the foundation for such a work can be easily found and it is this foundation that the reader walks (or runs) along to the unexpectedly gentle ending.

Which might be the only real down point of the work. While not entirely surprising, it feels sort of like the ending that was clearly tacked onto AI after Haley Joel Osment took a plunge into the cold waters. Which isn’t something I can blame King for. Ending on a grim note isn’t something he has made a living at and it’s not something I’ve  exactly complained about in the past after enjoying The Tommyknockers, The Stand or pretty much any damn Stephen King book I lay my hands on.

There’s an obvious connection that can be drawn to Of Mice and Men. The smart one, in both novels, is named George though the George in Blaze decidedly uses his big dumb friend for quite different means though for not altogether different ends.Instead of wandering from farm to farm, breaking their backs to try to work up enough money to buy their own place, George and Clay wander from con job to con job, trying to score enough to get out of the business and just settle down.

It also made me think of the old Cagney flick, Angels with Dirty Faces. In Angels, Cagney plays a criminal who grew up with Pat O’Brien who became a priest. They were friends and shared many of the same adventures as youths, including petty theft and what not – except Cagney got caught while O’Brien got away. And this went on to form the rest of their lives. Blaisdell is the one who got caught, not by the cops but by life in general and an abusive, drunk father in particular. Blaze talks not just about the desperation of the dumb and criminal but the inherent roles of chance and fate in our lives and how our existence is shaped and altered by events that lie largely out of our control. When Blaisdell is given the massive dent that comes to define the rest of his life, and loses any hope for the life he was on the path for, it is at a moment where he was effectively powerless to alter events or to prevent them from happening. His existence was at mercy to the gods.

Given the ending of the novel, it could be argued that King makes a further case for the essential goodness of people. Blaisdell was a good kid who fell to horrible circumstances but, in the end, he returns to a basic goodness where his means might be horribly flawed but where his intentions are essentially positive. This could open up a rather messy look into human nature and whether we are born good/bad or whether we are made that way, and it is something that King largely flits across without truly delving into such as when he talks of the farmer who brings in a bunch of youths who, today, would be called disadvantaged and then would have simply been called Trouble.

This could also be seen as a precursor to later works by Stephen King, notably The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. The lovable (or at least agreeable) con at the hands of the unfair system has become a bit of a standby for King and they often result in some of his best work. It’s not hard to look at someone like Blaisdell and see a bit of John Coffey, from Green Mile, there or to look at Law, the headmaster at the school Blaisdell attends, and see the cruel warden and guards of Shawshank.

In the end, Blaze is a solid read from an entertaining writer. It has its rough spots but it’s a good novel for just ploughing through the day with.

The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit by Michael Zadoorian – Review

August 16, 2010

Bought on a whim at Half Price Books off the clearance shelves because the title was interesting and it was part of a Michigan Book Series, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit was a wonderful surprise of a short story collection. It’s divided into three sections: West Side, East Side and Downtown and I get the impression that if I knew more about each geographical area of Detroit, the stories would take on an additional layer of meaning.

It is a work that explores ruins. Ruins of people, ruins of a city, ruins of hope and the treasures that are uncovered in each exploration. From a young man, lost in life, who forms a bond over a love of hot sauce with an elderly woman who embraces her illness to create paintings to a couple wandering into the Mystery Spot (something any Michigander who has ventured towards the Makinac Bridge will be familiar with) to a group of friends who literally climb and creep about the derelict buildings of Detroit to take photographs of the decay, the collection moves freely and comfortably.

While thinking of the collection, I was reminded of the film Waking Life by Richard Linklater. In this film, we are propelled along through various scenes, loosely connected by one character who is either dreaming the whole thing or who has died and is having the most untradiational after death experience put on film, with people talking about life, existence and largely whether or not there is meaning and whose job it is to give that meaning. While no one in Zadoorian’s work comes off with the same authority as the various characters in Linklater’s film, the connection feels right. Rather than having authority about their philosophizing on life, Zadoorian’s characters are philosophy in action, such as the beginning story where it begins with the character talking about playing the lotto and meanders into the idea of a mass consciousness that could draw comparisons to a similar conversation between Jesse and Celine, characters Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have played in at least three of Linklater’s movies (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Waking Life).

This is going to be another short review of a book that I read ages ago but it’s another book that I loved but just couldn’t find the time and energy to do a whole write up on. But it deserves whatever praise and publicity it can get and it’s well worth the time put into reading it. If you want to find out a bit more about the book, or even want to just throw your money down on it now, here’s the book at Amazon.

Michael Zadoorian also has a website of his own. As a book lover, and a lover of compilations, his website design is a favorite of mine.

Later, At the Bar by Rebecca Barry – Review

August 4, 2010

I really enjoyed “Later, at the Bar” by Rebecca Barry. Thoroughly enjoyed it. If I had to compare it to something, the first thing that comes to mind is the equally enjoyable “Trailerpark” by Russell Banks. Like Banks’s collection, “Later,” is populated with a litany of failed relationships and people searching for connections while, in the end, finding themselves largely alone.

I think it is this loneness that fuels the novel. Everyone is either attempting to pull their great love from a stool at the bar, in the process of scattering the beginning embers of a fire of relationship, or recovering from the cold they find themselves left in when everything goes to hell. This could be a recipe for disaster. Moving from love affair to love affair, having the losers lament their lack of love, it would be easy to slip into a world of hyperbole or melodrama.

Barry avoids this trap, though. Instead, she stands back, lets the characters go where they will, and the entire work finds a kind of balance because of it. You sympathize with the characters without them ever doing anything that would seem out of character or especially larger than life. These characters are not heroes nor are they villains. They are just people trying to get along the best they can.

Edit: Alright, I’ve had this review kicking around my saved bin since May and I just need to clean the cupboards a bit and get this posted. This isn’t the best review, I’m not going to twitter it, but I really enjoyed this book. I think most people will, too. It’s very well done, just give it a chance.