"The Gustav Sonata" by Rose Tremain

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Distinguished British author Rose Tremain serves up further proof of her mastery in The Gustav Sonata. This touching piece reinforces our long-held love and admiration: she  handles the personal journey, the evolving internal consciousness, like no other.

She’s proven over and over the depth and breadth of her abilities. In The Colour she constructs the soaring symbolic conceit of Harriet’s transformation during her visit to the mountaintop. In The Road Home she very effectively portrays a Russian immigrant in London, whose class outshines that of every other character. In Trespass she brings to bear a magisterial justice in rural France, tipping the balance to triumph for a downtrodden protagonist. One can catch echoes from these lovely and memorable earlier works in Gustav, if one wants to. But Gustav excels in a quiet new way, bringing to light the long self-sacrifice of its eponymous character, and its fitting coda. Marvelous. Touching, understated, honest - with its real characters and its scope.

We meet Gustav in kindergarten in a Swiss backwater town, where he shows the ropes to the fearful new kid, Anton. They go side by side through the primary grades at school and Gustav becomes a member of Anton’s family, which is considerably better off than his own. Gustav’s mother has issues with Anton’s family’s Jewishness; we learn more about this as the story proceeds.

One episode during the two boys’ youth brings Thomas Mann squarely into the frame. The chapter’s even called “The Magic Mountain,” in which during a mountain holiday the boys play at curing sanitarium patients, eventually engaging in an experimental kiss, insisted upon by the over-dramatic Anton. “Death in Venice” makes an appearance later in the book, at a time when Gustav pines over his errant Anton, who has moved away to record Beethoven and Schubert concertos for an Austrian impresario. Gustav compares himself to Aschenbach, Mann’s lovestruck tourist in Venice, and he decides he doesn’t want to end up like that character, who (spoiler alert) dies rather unexpectedly.

But a very important echo from Mann gets no direct mention here: Dr. Faustus. Anton breaks down like Adrian Leverkühn, beset with disappointing CD sales and a degrading love life in Geneva. Gustav goes to see him at the psychiatric hospital, and from there Anton insists Gustav must move him out and care for him.
It’s a development that turns both Faustus and Magic Mountain on their heads: it appears that Anton has a chance to recover, and the mountain retreat is the locale for a conclusion rather than a beginning.

Additionally, events occur during Gustav’s parents’ lives, in the late 1930s as Europe gets ready to immolate itself again in another war. This is the subsequent war to the cataclysm that ends Mann’s Magic Mountain. Where World War I ended Europe’s lingering 19th-Century cultural edifices, World War II demonstrated the unconscionable power of propaganda and focused hatred. Against this backdrop, Ms. Tremain’s characters struggle to find the consoling habits, or better yet, the one person who will redeem them and make life livable.

This novel hides intricate and balanced principles beneath its plain telling. Its rich vein of allusion illuminates the author’s weighty themes, and I feel the need for a lot more work to fully explore them. Suffice it to say today, that like all other Rose Tremain novels, simply based on its plot and characters this is a rewarding read. Those willing to plumb its depths will find extra and wondrous layers for delectation. Outstanding work.

"Our Souls at Night" by Kent Haruf

Monday, October 31, 2016

The spare, beautiful, clipped back style Kent Haruf perfected returns to us even more distilled in Our Souls at Night. His characters use a directness and economy of expression that mirrors the narrative, and the whole affects us with the sense of emotional logic freely followed, where pretense is abandoned as counterproductive, a waste of precious time. Our Souls at Night, a fitting valediction from a well-loved author, is marvelous for a number of reasons.

In a straightforward plot (another facet of the book in harmony with the whole) a retired widow, Addie, in a small high plains town contacts a neighbor gentleman (called Louis), and makes what many in the town consider a brazen overture. She asks him directly if he would keep her company in the evenings, and sleep in her bed with her. He assents and thus begins a very sweet and rewarding chapter in their lives. They proceed together quite openly in their new relationship, town busybodies be damned.

But pressures build within their families to halt the happiness. Addie’s son uses her grandson, whom Addie cherishes, in a crass and self-absorbed (not to mention short-sighted and prudish) ploy to try to bring an end to the relationship.  It is not the only source of overreaction.

In this book, Mr. Haruf manages to focus on virtuous people giving of themselves. This is a tricky path for any writer, but Mr. Haruf’s gift plays strongly - his treatment of these two wise and plain-spoken people works superbly, effortlessly. He composes the lovely melody of conversation and action between his two paragons; objections and ultimatums come from others who will probably never know such happiness.
His theme outwardly deals with the age of protagonists who have nothing to lose to pubic opinion, but this lesson applies to any and all. His evocations of place and human failing are perfect and powerful, as always.

As a sober valediction from a distinguished author, Our Souls at Night reminds me of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. Not only are both great achievements of superior writers, but they stand as final reaffirmations of glorious bodies of work. Spend a couple of hours or days or hours with Kent Haruf’s final accomplishment and be enriched.

"Every Day is for the Thief" by Teju Cole

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

I enjoyed Every Day is for the Thief for its honesty and straightforward language. As its tale unfolds, the author accomplishes an intriguing thing: he blurs the lines between fiction and memoir, using fiction as the label for what seems thoroughly memoir-esque.   It is an engaging read, in a way displaying its purpose very clearly, depending on refreshing and fast-paced changes of scene as the vignettes flow by. He hints at truths he may or may not have teased out from his observations; one can feel his frustrations, and begins to want some conclusions along with him.

A young man with roots in Nigeria travels from New York to Lagos for an extended stay. He arrives in a Lagos that hasn’t changed in basic character: government officials of every rank expect bribes as a matter of course; the people have a defeatist attitude in the face of corruption and endemic private sector thievery and violence. These problems cripple any attempts to build an economy or infrastructure. Even with its many millions and the potential such a large population must hold, too many people demonstrate a superstitious refusal to look too deeply into problems, placing their faith in lazy aphorisms, or supporting local clerics who are in it for the money.

Mr. Cole roves smoothly from one scene to another, building his evidence case by case. He leavens his ruthless honesty with a rueful nod to the perversity of people’s approach to problems. This “life goes on” attitude drives him a little crazy and he wishes rather than hopes for something to dislodge this inertia. He finishes this tale in poetic fashion, describing a street scene in Lagos which I will not spoil, except to say that it is a brilliant cap to the narrative.

Episodic in nature, bound into cohesion by his theme of the exasperating population of Lagos, this seeming memoir engages the reader for what it is: a description of a large, vibrant city, weighed down by its tradition of vice and corruption. I found it grew on me as I went through the slim volume, and it finishes in a way that makes the trip worthwhile.

"The Book of Esther" by Emily Barton

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Emily Barton constructs an alternate history for her adventure story The Book of Esther. A nation of Jewish warriors on the West Asian steppes faces an invasion from a formidable foe in 1942, the “Germanii.” The Kaganate of Khazaria, a principality located mainly between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea fights the aggressor with a combination of mechanical horses, pedal-propelled gliders, a thuggish group of oil drillers and dealers, and golems fabricated by an isolated group of Kabbalists.

These features of her fiction allow Ms. Barton to maintain a universe separate enough to take up her main themes of Jewish religious observance, Talmudic scholarship, the place of women in Jewish society, and in particular, the zeal and aspiration of Esther bat Josephus, a 16 year-old Joan of Ark-type figure who leads motley troops into battle against overwhelming odds.

This feels fresh and intriguing at the outset as we learn of this fictional empire with its ancient traditions, its armed forces (which for the era are a little outdated) and its encompassing Jewish culture. Young Esther has always been interested in politics and current events, and the imminent threat of invasion drives her to action. Such action will infuriate her father, a high advisor to the monarch, endanger numerous people who might not otherwise enter into combat, and fly in the face of all accepted norms of behavior for high-born teenage girls. None of this stops her or even slows her down.

Esther takes her adoptive brother, steals
a mechanical horse, and goes in search of the country’s kabbalists, a group of mystic clerics who can animate clay to make golems, the automatons who cannot be killed in combat. The story proceeds with good pace and leads up to the climactic battle in which the country’s ancient capital tries to repel the Wehrmacht. The author captures the desperation in the young girl’s quest, and bestows on her a lion’s fortitude and a believable share of success.

Ms. Barton tells all this quite vividly, and you get caught up in the inexorable forces of history. What this book does, it does very well, sustaining a fictional nation in an alternative 20th Century, steeping us in a unique and devout Jewish culture, and painting a portrait of a courageous and determined girl whose voyage of self-discovery takes her places none have been before.

"Calls Across the Pacific" by Zoë S. Roy

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

In Calls Across the Pacific, Zoë S. Roy recounts the journey of Nina Huang, a Chinese woman who when a teenager was sentenced to a re-education camp during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She risks her life in a daring midnight escape past patrol boats to cross to Hong Kong on her first step to freedom. The book is presented in the form of a fiction, but its substance is that of a political science or history text assembled to present a first hand look at how Mao oppressed and degraded his own citizens.

Ms. Roy intends to exhibit in high relief the differences between open and closed societies; she sets out the jarring juxtapositions in can effective variety of forms. She also wants to provide a glimpse into the lives of those remaining unfortunate political prisoners who weren’t lucky enough to get out. She does an excellent job with the tasks she set for herself.

We experience the harrowing escape of a lucky, resourceful teenager, the bewilderment of her first experiences in the U.S., and her gradual assimilation. Throughout these events, she repeats her mantra of how good it is to be free to make
her own choices, to go to college based on her merits and not some state-wielded yardstick of political fitness. The lessons and observations continue to flow from one situation to the next, and they build to a coherent message: stating political beliefs should not be a crime.

Calls Across the Pacific is a valuable work of political science. For those interested in Mao’s China and his role in history, or in dissidence in totalitarian regimes, this book provides a valuable insider’s glimpse at a dark episode in China’s history.

Q & A with A.E. Nasr, author of "Miro"

Saturday, September 10, 2016

At Basso Profundo, I had the good fortune to read and review the brilliant Miro, by the wonderful debut author A.E. Nasr. She graciously agreed to reply to a few questions I proposed, and the insightful proof of Ms. Nasr's talent and depth follow:


Basso Profundo: It seems obvious you couldn’t identify the occupied country in Miro, for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that it would not have served your story. Was there ever a time when you thought, well, this particular named country is the model for my novel, I’ll just set it there?

AE Nasr: This was an issue I faced from the start, and it’s not a small issue because it’s one of the main components of any story – where is it set? I knew from the outset that I didn’t want the story to take place in a specific country. Some of the geographical and cultural elements in MIRO bear a lot of resemblance to my homeland, Lebanon, and naturally my experiences throughout several conflicts back home informed my storytelling, but it was always my intent to look at the subject of military occupation through a wider lens: the denial of the most basic of freedoms, the normalcy of daily violence and the choices we make under those circumstances. It was important to me that any reader would be able to identify with these characters. That meant eliminating any barriers to immersion, and removing identifiers that would predispose the audience to a certain opinion about the conflict based on current world events. Any reader should be able to pick up this novel and say, ‘This land could be my land. This person could be me.’

However I did go through a phase of believing that the occupied country in MIRO should have a name, even if it is a made-up name, just to strike it from the readers’ minds that they were being asked to guess the setting. They’re not. I’m not trying to sneak in any hidden messages or points of view about specific conflicts, and I don’t have any ulterior motives other than to tell a story about the everyday heroism of regular people surviving war. My made-up name for the country sounded odd in the reading, but a quick rewrite solved that problem.

BP: The terror of occupation and oppression occur in so many places around the world, making the themes of your novel unfortunately all too current. Was it this pervasive nature that led to your book? Or were there a few particular instances of it that inspired you (no need to identify them of course)?

AE Nasr: War and occupation have been part of my life—the background music, shall we say: at times enraging, at times terrifying, perhaps dulling my senses but never dull. But when I began writing MIRO in 2007 it was a simple writing exercise—a writer in front of a blank page on the computer screen. My father and brother had sat me down one evening and staged an intervention of sorts. I had been talking about writing a novel ever since I had learned the English language as a child (ask my boarding school dorm mates in the UK and they’ll tell you) and here I was in my 30s editing other people’s work. I hemmed and hawed. I couldn’t just sit down and start writing if I didn’t have a story to tell.

With great scepticism I booted up my computer that evening and wrote the first words that came to me. I saw five men on the run. But what were they running from? Over the next few days, that image began to grow in my mind and—much more quickly than I had imagined—I knew the story I wanted to tell. At its heart, it was a story of brotherhood—the life events that bind us, and the things we would do for each other that defy animal instinct and the laws of nature. That the story was set in an occupied land was a natural progression. As a writer, they tell you to write what you know but it’s not a necessary lesson because you do it anyway. So when I wrote about being holed up in a makeshift bomb shelter, I did it with confidence because I had been there. And when I wrote the surreal scenarios of ordinary people dealing with everyday tasks under constant threat to their lives, I just had to close my eyes and remember.

But personal experience isn’t the magic ingredient to a good story. And writing a novel is hard, or at least the first one, in my experience. It’s weeks, and months and years, of sitting in a room alone and arguing with yourself. If the world had suddenly and miraculously become a peaceful place, I may never have finished. The conflicts I was writing about continued to be a part of our reality and it definitely fed my desire to finish the story.

My father passed away before I published my novel, and I would have dedicated it to him regardless, but I remember clearly the day in 2010, when I had finished the third or fourth draft of my novel, that I read about the Tunisian street vendor who had set himself on fire and sparked a revolution. I called my brother, and we talked for hours about how closely the real world was mirroring the events in my story. I went back and added a tribute to that street vendor. I may not have set out to memorialise a specific part of history in my novel, but acts of heroism, no matter how old-fashioned a concept, will always deserve a prominent place in our literature.

BP: The character Miro is a brilliant invention throughout the book - I thought it especially sharp that his original capture occurred during an act of bravery. It seems obvious, but can you confirm for me that the character himself was one of the driving reasons for writing - the reason to get it down on the page? And was there a particular inspiration for the character?

AE Nasr: Miro is the innocent. No matter how cynical a person you consider yourself, or how wise, or how strong, when faced with the hard truths of war, you will ask yourself naive questions: Why do these people want to hurt us? What have we done to them? Would I kill someone, even if they were threatening my family and those I love? How can I make it end? Will vengeance make it better? Do I have to get behind a weapon to make a change?

My novel is populated with characters who have lived through military occupation for 11 years. Some hardened and jaded and ready to fight, others just trying to blend into the background and survive. Miro, the titular character, is a young man who has grown up in a prison cell with other prisoners of war, who was taken into captivity at the age of 12—before he could make up his own mind about the conflict. Despite the hardship and brutality of his captivity, he doesn’t begin to really grow up until he has escaped the cage. In a way, his cell has been his shelter. He has had his brother and cellmates protecting him. But out in the world, he discovers that the enemy can come in many guises. The enemy can be the soldier of the occupying army, the compatriot who would hand you in to save his skin, or your own demons telling you that you don’t deserve to live.

My first image of Miro was a young man collapsed in the mud on a stormy night, overwhelmed by the terrible things he’s seen, and being urged by his friends to get up and keep going. My story began with and was built on that image of surrender to the ugliness. Miro represents that innocent part of any of us that can be overwhelmed and at times wants to give in, admit to our limits and turn away. And if not for Miro’s fragility in the first act, it would be hard to comprehend the bravery of his actions, and those of his countrymen and women.

One of my favourite pieces of literature as a student was Lord Byron’s “The Prisoner of Chillon”, and only years after I had completed my initial drafts of MIRO did I realise how strong an influence Byron had been on my story. In his narrative poem, the protagonist had watched impotently as his brothers died one after the other in their prison cell, and had almost been undone by the death of the youngest, the purest of them all. It may be that the story had struck a chord with me as the protective ‘big sister’ in my family, but I’m certain that Miro strikes a chord with any reader who is aware of his or her own imperfections but would gladly stand in the path of bullets for those they love.

BP: You carry off the climactic battle scene very well. Did you model the harrowing descriptions on any certain thing or things that you read?

AE Nasr:The climactic battle scene was a work in progress over several years. In fact, in my initial outline, it was far less climactic and more reflective of a jaded child of war who saw no end in sight. But as the draft evolved, and I tied together all the loose ends of my character’s arcs, I was also learning important lessons about writing a novel-length story. You spend so much time on your story that it sometimes feels as though you need to end it already, not realising that the time you’ve spent on it is completely unrelated to the time span on the page. But that’s why the editing phase is such an essential part of writing a novel.

I’m sure I’ve read many books and watched many movies that influenced my treatment of the climax, but I like to think that my past has helped lend authenticity to the scenes. In my experience, there’s nothing quite as terrifying as the sound of a bomb exploding nearby, or the sight of the night sky turning to day from its flash, or the sound of your mother’s voice screaming to locate you as you scurry, mad with panic yet instinctually, to a place of safety, grasping at those closest to you. Also in my experience, in the worst of times, there’s nothing as uplifting as a nation standing together behind a common cause, fully aware of the lives lost every day but each ready to play their part and rally behind the good of the whole.

Also in the final battle the apparent betrayal adds a strong element of danger. When we reflect on what might have happened to remove the lookouts and give the enemy the village’s position, we have to conclude that Yosef, the leader of the resistance, understood the nature of the sacrifice needed. Was this element of your story with you from the beginning of composition, or did it evolve as your story progressed?

It was definitely there from the start, but the narrative evolved with Alex’s arc. Throughout the whole novel, the Professor has only two chapters narrated from his point of view. In the first, he’s asked to convince his cellmates to take on the gardening job, knowing full well it meant collaborating with the enemy, but accepting that choice nonetheless to help increase Miro’s chances of survival. In the second, he’s asked to convince his friends to take refuge in the mountains, though there are clues that Alex’s intimate knowledge of the cycles of history allow him to correctly predict the outcome of that move. In fact, he is the one who plants the seed in Yosef’s mind. I wanted to be as subtle as possible with these connections, hoping the reader will appreciate not being spoon-fed, but there’s a fine line between subtlety and inscrutability. I worked hard on leaving as many breadcrumbs as possible without taking away from the reader’s discovery.

BP: What can we expect next in the already brilliant career of A.E. Nasr? What are you currently working on?

AE Nasr: I have a couple of ideas vying for my attention, but I think the frontrunner is one in the area of speculative fiction that I’m really looking forward to exploring.

"Miro" by A. E. Nasr

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A gripping thriller of struggle against jack-booted occupation. A suspenseful, action-packed tale of war and insurgency. A battle against all odds of the just against the strong and arrogant. Miro is all these things, and something more. Anita Emile (A.E.) Nasr has produced a riveting story from the oldest of legends: the underdog slogging on in the face of overwhelming odds. This is a strong and remarkable novel, its pace sustained through a wide variety of plot settings, its deeper truths plainly on display.

The eponymous character is captured by an invading force when twelve years old and interned under maximum security with four other men for nine years. At the story’s outset, nine years into his imprisonment, he struggles to retain his sanity in the cell he shares with the other men. He provides a key to escaping when prison guard negligence and corruption combine to destroy an ammunition dump and blow out a prison wall. The fame of the five escapees spreads far and wide and gives hope to an oppressed population.

And: you will simply not want to miss the spectacular climax. It provides a fitting and gratifying conclusion to this fugitive journey, and proves that our intrepid author will command a large audience in the future. It’s that good.

Beneath the plot of torture and escape into fame, the book deals with five different personalities and backgrounds very well. These are not cardboard cutouts by any stretch. Miro, the youngest and most innocent, has been adopted as somewhat of a mascot by the group, one of whom is his older brother.
He (Miro) has the least experience with conflict and yet lays his life on the line time after time to save one character after another. We learn in one memorable scene with a national icon of a poet that his name means “peace.”

Miro also embodies the truth of sacrifice. The escapees are accepted in a mountain stronghold, in a village whose citizens would give their all for these heroes. When a nation needs a focus to catalyze its rage, Miro, the hope of a peaceful future, ends up providing it.

A sweeping, memorable story that will provide readers with a grand escape of their own, along with a deep appreciation of a highly skilled new author. Take up this marvelous book!

"Of This New World" by Allegra Hyde

Monday, August 22, 2016

One new world is the mythical Eden, one is Mars, one a Caribbean basic training camp for eco-activists, another is a Shaker settlement in 19th-Century New England. All of Allegra Hyde’s stories in this sprightly and clever collection feature some version of humankind’s impulse to build a paradise. It’s a very impressive set of stories and I know the University of Iowa wouldn’t give the John Simmons Short Fiction award to just any collection.

Some stories tackle the theme head-on, like the opening piece, “After the Beginning.” It serves almost as an introductory piece, setting the theme. In it, Eve refers to her troublesome, preoccupied “husband,” but the clever author makes it clear that while a wrenching adjustment must be made on their banishment from the Garden of Eden, they can now rely on themselves and each other, and dream of a new paradise. “Shark Fishing” takes a present-day look at a quasi-military camp set up to train the young and the privileged in environmental activism. This story introduces the idea that not all utopias are well-considered or altruistic.

The story that deals most fully with this theme is “The Future Consequences of Present Actions.”  It features an 19th Century idealist man who has moved on from one failed commune in Massachusetts to a settlement of Shakers. While there, he becomes embroiled in a controversy about his commitment to the community, is ostracized and loses his son in the process. For me, this and “Shark Fishing” are the most accomplished of these excellent pieces. They offer fresh views of the human conflicts that doom utopian dreams, and of the practical minutiae that without
exception undermine the communist ideal.

The thread unifying these stories adds a level of meaning, particularly to those pieces that don’t deal directly with new Edens. The best case in point is “Ephemera.” In it we get an oblique view of one young man’s hope for a new world with the beautiful woman who searches for her missing daughter.  This woman realizes the young man is just another lost child, and it makes her realize the hopelessness of her quest. She goes back to her home so he can return to his.

These stories pack wisdom and recognizable human striving and stumbling. Like all good short fiction, these stories offer sharp focus and leave us lasting images and wonder at the continued creativity in today’s narrative. Take this up, do not delay!

"A Slant of Light" by Jeffrey Lent

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Jeffrey Lent’s A Slant of Light features the life and death issues so closely associated with  his work, and in this case an oblique approach to resolving the central conflict. These aspects of Mr. Lent’s latest novel don’t necessarily separate it from previous brilliant efforts like In the Fall and Lost Nation, not at all - but they reinforce and add depth to his already stunning body of work. A Slant of Light uses a device not often found in previous Lent novels: he uses a focused image to suggest the wider and more significant events swirling around the tragic hero. This book is a marvel.

Malcolm Hopeton returns to his Finger Lakes farm from fighting in the Civil War. He spent a full four years in what he felt was personal combat with evil. He comes home to find his farm fallow, stripped of crops and equipment, and his wife gone. At the root of all this damage is the man Hopeton had trusted to take care of things in his absence. The usurper made a clean sweep of everything Hopeton held as his own. In the stunning and brutal first scene of the book, Hopeton kills the villain, and also the wife he had called his own.

The book follows events in the murders’ wake: young Harlan Davis worked Hopeton’s farm and was trustworthy in Hopeton’s absence and remains so, although he thinks no one understands what really happened (he was a witness). Neighboring farmer August Swartout takes Harlan in after the crime, since he already employs Harlan’s older sister. Much of the plot revolves around these three who are caught up in the wretched  business; they each have paths they must follow to see things set right, and particularly Harlan’s row is difficult to hoe.

The real focus here is Malcolm, however. While the state may be persuaded to clemency, he’s simply resigned to a death sentence, in fact thinks it’s the only just thing. Malcolm sits in a cell in the basement of the court house and half-consciously watches the progress of
days in the form of sunlight slanting through a high window opposite. And the light of justice swings around in its inexorable way, its path pushed and bent by the actions of the principals. It’s a lovely, an elegant device, a fine and impressive stroke by a master.

We find the period’s religious preoccupations on display, as well as the daily, grinding challenge of running a farm at the time. We encounter interesting secondary characters, like the two legal professionals who will attempt to influence and decide the case, and a handful of wonderful women, each of whom enjoys Mr. Lent’s full and assured touch.

I’ve believed for years in Jeffrey Lent’s mastery. He’s ambitious and eloquent, and adorns his prose only with the most appropriate descriptive touches that never detract from his art. I think this is his best book yet, and from me, that’s a real compliment.

"A Hero of France" by Alan Furst

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Hero of France will rank as one of the public’s favorite books by Alan Furst, I’m sure of it. It features Paris, everyone’s favorite destination, and a World War II French resistance cell operator, a protagonist of ready appeal for a large number of readers. And as usual, Mr. Furst does an excellent job of rendering the epoch in his details.

Hero recounts a time early in the War, shortly after Germany began its occupation of the northern portion of France, including Paris. The Gestapo and the SS are not yet in charge of the civilian population - this was still the responsibility of the German military police. This arrangement deteriorated when
Hitler decided the French would never join the Axis, which coincided with Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia.

In this narrow time frame, marginally gentler (if you will permit me) than the regime that followed, Mathieu, the nom de guerre of the Resistance team leader, risks his own life and those of his followers, to rescue and evacuate RAF pilots downed over France. A clever police inspector from Hamburg, recruited into the German occupiers’ security apparatus, becomes his nemesis for a time, and forces him into flight.

This is an atmospheric book; it captures the cracks and deep shadows of wartime Paris very well. It illuminates a hard time for Paris and France, that was about to become a lot harder. I didn’t quite get the depth and intrigue I found in The Night Soldiers, but this is a fun read anyway.

"Submergence" by J.M. Ledgard

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A British spy and a scientist-mathematician fall in love over Christmas at a Ritz in the French countryside, and then must go their separate ways. From there they each submerge into depths beyond their previous experience. In this simple framework bloom meditations of a challenging scientific and philosophical nature, such that they pretty well dominate the narrative. This is a contemplative novel, but it sustains a suspense in which life fences with death; and it is a scientific novel in which nevertheless two souls meet and complete each other. It accomplishes all these ends completely and gratifyingly. Deep, thought-provoking, excellent stuff.

We meet James and Danielle independently as they check into the same exclusive hotel on the Atlantic coast of France. We already know however that later on, James, a British intelligence operative, is captured by jihadists in Somalia, and begins many months of a nightmarish existence. Danielle for her part believes the key to life on the planet, and maybe answers to some of the more intractable social and scientific challenges, lie in the deep ocean, where life is chemosynthetic instead of photosynthetic, and where we, as a world and scientific community, have just now begun to scratch the surface of knowledge.

As the story progresses, James wages a constant private battle to keep his life and his  identity as he’s shoved from place to place, beaten, kicked, poisoned, and alternately hectored and ignored. Danielle prepares for immersion into the depths beneath the Greenland Sea, sending letters - written out in felt tip on pages from her notebook - to her lover James. Along the way each story poses its issues and challenges. For James, the immediate imperative of keeping his life leads to thoughts of faith - he’s a British Catholic - and a modern world where young men and boys are radicalized to jihadism by clerical Muslims. These thoughts find expression in some of the worst
conditions in the world - water-starved wadis in East Africa, ruined Italian villas where the water has stagnated, inhospitable jungles where insects rule.

Danielle’s challenges encompass the broader but no less pressing survival issues for the race as a whole. She believes the deep has lessons for surface-dwelling species that could hold the key to accommodating humanity in the narrow band of the surface biosphere. They - the secrets yet to be discovered - could help humankind build and maintain habitable outposts on other worlds, for example, and may hold clues for next steps in evolution that may have to be hurried along with biotechnological advances.

Mr. Ledgard leaves these questions, particularly the planetary-scope questions, open, as of course he must. But herein lies his agenda: the posing of the day’s most topical and pressing quandaries for consideration. However, I fear I may have sold the visual and fictional effects short here because, make no mistake, each step of the way they impress, convince, and compel. This is exceptional: ambitious, deep, heartfelt, magisterial, accomplished. Take it up by all means!

"Harvest" by Jim Crace

Saturday, July 2, 2016

You learn in the first paragraph of Harvest that Jim Crace will be telling his story of an Old English village in a long series of lovely lilting iambs, a sweet rhythm carrying an ancient Anglo Saxon vocabulary of farm and manor and blood and dirt and death. I found myself reading slowly, enjoying the language as though I were reading a long poem written in feudal England. Surely that was the author’s intent, and he’s brought it off with assurance and style. This is a beautiful book.

We’re told in this scop’s tale about an English village so parochial and isolated that no one’s bothered to build a church there - the land has been set aside, but the only thing that’s standing on the site is the cross-shaped pillory. One day as the harvest concludes, strangers arrive, and with them upheaval, never a good thing for country villagers set in their seasonal ways. Once the change starts it rushes to its conclusion, wreaking its paroxysm in the space of only several days. Along the way, we’re treated up close to the ugliness of human nature: greed, jealousy, cruelty, betrayal. A story, no matter where or when its setting, features the fraught interactions of humans, right?

The remoteness of this story in time and place sharpens these interactions and relays their effects through the laconic observations of the Walt the narrator. Mr. Crace does a beautiful job of deploying the Anglo Saxon tongue in his story, but sets one Latinate word out for review, italicizing it when he does so: subterfuge.
It’s a word Walt has recently learned - his literacy matches his lord’s - and he uses it in its fullest sense. For in its roots: subter, meaning beneath, and fugere, to flee, lay its complete meaning: fleeing in secret. People flee in secret and in the open in this story, running before the onslaught of profit and progress, so called.

The charms of Harvest commend it to your attention: the showing-off of Anglo Saxon words to their greatest iambic glory; the glimpses of natures all too human as change sweeps through and destroys a beautiful countryside and a way of life; the homage to English before the Conquest. I don’t mean to harp on the language and diction to the detriment of the story; each of these is reason enough to read Harvest. Recommended in very high terms.

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