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"Henrietta Sees it Through" by Joyce Dennys

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A series of charming, if a bit dotty, letters form “Henrietta Sees it Through,” by Joyce Dennys. Or, no: the letters are not dotty, it’s the Devonshire villagers who are dotty, the letters simply capture their whims and minor adventures and misadventures. This is the 1986 sequel to 1985’s “Henrietta’s War,” also a collection of letters to Henrietta’s “Childhood’s friend.” I’m having the Devil’s own time finding information on Joyce Dennys, except that hers was a military family, she was born in 1896 in India, and her family moved to Britain in the 1920s.

The language is light and so are the circumstances. In a Devonshire village during World War II, Henrietta comically frets about playing the triangle in the orchestra, but in the end gets is right. The villagers make sure Faith and the Conductor get married – they’d be awfully unhappy kept apart. The serious strain of the War affects the village, although they do reflect some odd psychologies: those whose homes have been damaged by the Germans feel superior to those whose haven’t. Each letter is addressed to Robert, a neighbor, and a British soldier somewhere in the Middle East. They deal exclusively with the domestic goings-on around the village.

I enjoyed the heck out of this collection. It has a distinctly British style to the humor and to the daily approach to the War Effort. We feel the ups and downs alongside these village worthies, and are euphoric come VE-Day. This is a lovely distraction: a close look at a close world full of vivid, wonderful characters dealing in their unique British way with the privations and victories of daily life in wartime. Line drawings interspersed.

"Standing at the Crossroads" by Charles Davis

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A surprisingly powerful and deceptively deep novel, “Standing at the Crossroads” packs into a bare 150 pages a thrilling adventure and a timeless morality play. This is a very serious fiction but it has a number of surprisingly tasty treats: a) several laugh-out-loud moments after jokes or insults; b) an ongoing appreciation (first-person, in an internal dialogue) of some of the greatest novelists in history – Melville, Stevenson, Cervantes, Trollope, Austen, Dickens – in a way that bears on the events of the story; c) a well-paced and tender love affair.

This novel also swings back and forth between extremes. The love our narrator finds counterbalances an old hatred that a fanatical soldier has for him; the principals stumble upon a hidden paradise of trees, streams, and colorful birds while running for their lives in the killing Sahara; the subtleties and moral shadings in the world’s best fiction battle the unrelenting zeal and hatred of the roving bands of rapists and murderers, who call themselves the Warriors of God.

It is a wonder that Charles Davis could fit all this into such a compact package. This story has such an unmistakable moral stance that one could call it a parable, but it’s a parable that has fully-developed characters with very true motivations. And layer on top of this confection, a truly suspenseful chase which lasts nearly the entire book, and you have a true marvel. You will not soon forget the hero, called the Story Man, or his erudition, or his carefully-considered philosophy, nor the love he shares with Miss Kate, the crusading but surprisingly naïve Westerner.

I had a very serious wrestling match with this review – I wanted to say everything at once, as in the book, but I wanted to make sure that all I say comes out as praise for this touching, shocking, heartbreaking, endlessly surprising book. Recommended – no, I exhort you to read this book. You will come away richer.

"Solo" by Rana Dasgupta

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Rana Dasgupta has divided “Solo” into halves: the “First Movement: Life” and “Second Movement: Daydreams.” The “Life” part recounts the mundane days of Ulrich, a man who has lived almost the entire 20th Century, and even some years into the 21st. The “Daydreams” section … one could argue that this part of the book, vivid as it is, is all in Ulrich’s mind.

The first section feels lengthy, and I leaned toward despair of finding any point to it. Ulrich, from Sofia, fails while a boy to pursue his passion for the violin. He marries but after a few years his wife takes their young son and moves to America. Ulrich helps run a Bulgarian chemical plant, but his audit of his own plant’s figures leads him to turn his boss in to the authorities. After retiring, he blinds himself in an accident with chemicals. He cranks along, on and on, and he approaches his last days, living across from a transit depot. Through all this, I waited for Mr. Dasgupta’s stance, his theme. I found it, much to my gratified and awed amazement, in the second part of the book.

The “Life” section, dealing with Ulrich’s own narrative, has a random-seeming episode in which Ulrich, at university in Berlin, picks up and returns a sheaf of papers Dr. Einstein inadvertently dropped, and the great physicist jests, “I am nothing without you.”

Let’s rush forward to the second movement, “Daydreams,” the more vividly-told of the two, which is set in the present day, and revolves around the vortex that is Boris. Boris, an eccentric musical genius – a violin player, naturally – attracts other characters which give the author a chance to make moral statements about the state of former Soviet bloc countries. The specific countries are Bulgaria and Georgia, both of which have been plunged into varying depths of economic chaos and lawlessness. But Boris is the focus. Ulrich, the narrative states, makes a trek to New York and approaches Boris to tell him of his theory of the one and the many.

Ever since his chance encounter with Einstein, Ulrich, never a very effective or up-to-date scientist, imagines that it must take many, many lesser scientists to make up one Einstein. And, he tells Boris, it must take many, many run-of-the-mill violin players to make up one genius like Boris. The author, then, crowns and unifies his terrific novel with this conceit. Mr. Dasgupta posits in “Solo” a relationship: it requires a vast number of lesser players to form a pool big enough (or to generate enough ideas and energy, maybe?) for a single shining genius. Ulrich knows he is one of the rank and file, and his second-half adventures, the “Daydreams” are essentially impossible. He cannot see, but yet he gazes at the lights in Times Square, and visits the iconic Woolworth Building. He sees his collegiate sweetheart there, though she’s been dead many years.

In this powerful, vivid, thought-provoking, and challenging novel, the author gives us a set of ineffable tools with which to reach an understanding about art and science, genius and plodding rote. And to add to the genius of this novel, he places it all in the imagination of an ordinary man of no particular ability or distinction. Superbly done! Get yourself through the flightless first half of this book, because your efforts will be rewarded many times over in the second.