Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Bitter Cross

Simon Mawer's historical novel, his second, is a grim portrayal of corruption and betrayal. As with his later The Gospel of Judas, it is about an illicit love affair involving a man of God who betrays his vow of celibacy, giving the lovers a shred of happiness but dooming them to death and separation.

What's evident already in this early work is Mawer's wonderful command of language, a diction that is rich -- perhaps a little over-rich waiting for the discipline of later works -- and a literary quality that gives his prose a texture even as he tells a compelling story.

The story here concerns Gerard Paulet, one of handful of English Knights of Malta to survive Henry VIII's persecution of Catholics, who along with his comrades ends  up in exile at the order's headquarters in Malta. The Knights of St. John themselves are in exile, having been driven out of Rhodes to the small island in the Mediterranean that Mawer describes with the scorn of one who actually lived there.

His details of the knights, their galleys, their ships, the geography of the Mediterranean match a David Mitchell or Patrick Leigh-Fermor in their precision and arcane knowledge. Presumably the history, too, is accurate. It makes for a colorful background for the tortured affair between Paulet and the widowed princess of the island, Vittoria Pignatelli. It is, as with the affairs in Gospel and The Glass Room, an irresistible passion that brooks no denial -- not a choice, but a destiny. There is nothing Platonic about it, the happiness comes from carnal knowledge in defiance not only of Paulet's vows but the rigid social convention, which, as Vittoria's brother patiently explains to Paulet, does not allow a noblewoman like his sister to have an affair with someone below her station, for the knight is only "gentle."

The two lovers remain true to each other but there is distrust, which feeds on the betrayal of those around them as they are caught up in the intrigues of Renaissance Italy, the fight against the Turks for the control of the Mediterranean and Europe, and the dying throes of a crusading military order that has outlived its purpose.

There are intimations of the denoument because the story is told in the first person by an aged and broken Paulet, living out his days peacefully in the knights' priory in Rome. The author skillfully weaves the story backward and forward in time, maintaining the suspense not of what happens, but how and why.

Paulet is convincingly complex, torn as the protagonist in Gospel not only by the broken vows but the loss of faith as the joy of human coupling undermines belief in a religion that demands celibacy for its holy men. He nonetheless tries to preserve a certain semblance of honor, though his ambivalence in the climactic end of the novel leaves the reader uncertain how far he succeeds.

Much of the plot turns on his suspect "adoption" of a Muslim boy captured during a raid. His account of why and how he took the boy as his ward seems incomplete -- there is no sufficient motivation given. Later, given the turn of events, the reader begins to suspect that he is in fact an unreliable narrator, that he has not told the whole story.

The book is a downer. The cynicism is all-pervading, leavened with only the faintest glimmer of hope that the shared passion of Paulet and Vittoria is sufficient for redemption. It is, in the moral morass of Renaissance Europe, a true emotion, however many vows and conventions are broken. It sets the themes that run through Mawer's later novels, different as they are in setting and context.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony Marra doesn't make it easy for the reader in this masterful novel, an amazingly accomplished work for a debut novel by a young author. But the payoff is there -- it is a truly moving, enlightening trip to hell and at least part of the way back.

The fact that his novel was passed over for both the Pulitzer and National Book Award shows the futility -- and perhaps the corruption -- of these literary prizes. Whatever merit one finds in the winners, it's worth keeping in the mind that the best books often get overlooked.

Marra leads the reader unflinchingly into the very depths of the inferno, describing five days at the very low point of the rebellion in Chechnya. The reader sees, feels almost, the deprivation, the misery, the fear, and ultimately the harrowing pain of people caught up in a war they never asked for.

Marra brings it down to a single village and town, to six main characters, and tells their story over the five days, flashing back to the past, and, innovatively, into the future. There is Akhmed, the incompetent doctor and would-be artist; Sonja, the ever-so-competent Russian surgeon; Natasha, her sister, sold into prostitution and addiction; Khassan, the local intellectual who treats Akhmed like his son; Dokka, Akhmed's neighbor and friend; and Ramzan, Khassan's son, who turns informer for the Russians.

The narrative shuttles back and forth through time and the reader has to fit the pieces together as they become available. In our book group, someone mentioned that Marra had been criticized for coincidences. But they were not coincidences, only cause and effect, as would have been clear in a chronological narrative. It is a narrative full of artifice, but so artfully done that the reader scarcely notices, caught up in the characters and their harrowing passage.

What is hardest for the reader is not this literary challenge, however, but simply the horror of the Chechnyan rebellion -- the torture, the maiming, the amputations, the "disappearances," the daily terror, the frightening randomness of life and death. It is the complete breakdown of civilized life, with familial devotion and some sense of honor the only threads that keep one going.

The title refers to a medical dictionary's definition of life as a constellation of vital phenomena and that is Marra's whole point. Life does go on, even in these horrific circumstances. There is a past, and there is a future, and the author gives glimpses of both. This is simply a very bad passage in that sweep of individual history. Half of the main characters survive and live on into quieter times; the other half are victims of fate's arbitrary hand. None of them is in control of their lives; they are only, barely, in control of their response to the hands they are dealt.

One of our book group members said he stopped after reading four-fifths of the book because he simply could not face going back to the Landfill -- the open pits where the Russians kept their Chechnyan prisoners for torture -- a second time.

When Marra has his characters look back to a time when buses arrived at busstops to take people to work, where the local hospital had one of the best oncology departments in the Soviet Union, when the deprivation of war makes one pine for "the relative generosity of totalitarianism," he raises the question of whether freedom is always worth it. It is not a rhetorical question. Were Chechnyans better off in the Soviet Union or even under the yoke of the Russian Federation? Were Iraqis better off under Saddam Hussein? Were Egyptians happier under Mubarak?

In our group, a recent visitor to Cuba said many people there had told him they were quite happy under Castro. The had the basic necessities of life and as much as their neighbors.

Marra doesn't broach any of these questions. He tells a story about people. But in showing every painful detail of their lives, he plants the questions in the mind of the reader. His characters are too busy surviving to philosophize. That is left to us after we've put the book down and taken a deep breath.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Telex From Cuba

Rachel Kushner's novel about American expatriates in the waning days of the Batista regime vividly describes the beauty and appeal of Cuba. She immerses the reader in the life of families attached to the United Fruit Company's sugar operations in eastern Cuba and the nearby nickel mine operated by the U.S. government.

Our book group read this on the recommendation of a member who read it before visiting Cuba. He liked it then and liked it even better re-reading it after his trip. The book made me feel like I'd visited Cuba, too. However, I have several issues with it. There are too many characters and too many points of view. Particularly bad, in my view, is shifting from one first person narrator to several other third-person POVs. The characters were not sharply enough delineated, so names and roles became a muddle for someone reading it over several weeks. There were vivid scenes and the narrative held together over several years because we are familiar with the arc -- Batista's ill-fated and corrupt regime succumbing to Castro's revolution.

What worked well was the depiction of how clueless the expats were, with their feeble complaints about the tropics, their racism and bigotry, their pathetic efforts to preserve a semblance of stateside life. The particular trap of the expat who is earning more money and/or living better than they could at home -- similar to the plight of the British couple in Hilary Mantel's Eight Months on Ghazzah Street -- was very well sketched. Several of the characters grew up in the eight years covered, but it is hardly a coming of age. Rather the author wants to view the corruption of the adults and their ambivalent relations with the Cubans and Haitians that worked for them through their innocent eyes.

The rogue arms salesman and sometime rebel, Christian La Maziere -- apparently an historical figure -- was the cynical counterpoint to this hypocrisy. He is actually more fully developed as a character than any of the others, but he is too sleazy and unsympathetic to really carry the narrative. Castro makes a cameo appearance but remains a blur. A popular courtesan, sillily named Rachel K, wafts through the book without making much of an impact.

Despite its strengths, then, the book ultimately was unsatisfying on a dramatic, aesthetic level. The epilogue was particularly flat -- too true to the disappointments of maturity as we learn the banal destinies of these kids grown up. I'm perplexed that this book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008, just as Kushner's second novel, The Flame Throwers, was also shortlisted. Who does she know?

The book was worthwhile for its depictions of Cuba but I'm in no hurry to read the second book.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

World War Z

This "oral history" by Max Brooks is surprisingly funny. I say surprisingly because it is after all about a post-apocalyptic war against zombies and the movie ostensibly based on the book was an earnest thriller. The book, however, is an at times brilliant satire, parodying everyone from the military to politicians to journalists.

Zombies have become an acceptable metaphor for any kind of catastrophe, whether terrorists or pandemics or natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. The satire here is in the response to the catastrophe. There are the military who recount how ridiculous it was to stage a battle with zombies using the high-tech weaponry stockpiled so expensively. What they really needed was a medieval halberd to slice through the brains of the undead. There was the White House aide who explained why they had to keep the news of a zombie virus outbreak from the public because it would alarm them and distract them from the other political objectives the White House had in mind.

There were a host of other voices recorded in a faux-interview deadpan modeled on Studs Terkel's oral history of World War 2. The threat has been, mostly, overcome, and the interviews trace its rise and fall in more or less chronological order. I may have missed something, but I saw no trace of the movie plot and the supposed antidote discovered by Brad Pitt.

I'm in a bit of a zombie period, having binge-watched "The Walking Dead" ahead of the recent season finale (and, I'll confess, re-watching some episodes now). There is a comforting predictability about the threat from a zombie. They drag their feet, they moan, they have on clear goal in mind, and they are relatively easily dispatched if you have a halberd-like instrument at hand. They do, of course, nonetheless manage to claim a certain number of victims, usually when they come in such numbers that they overwhelm their prey.

My theory about the current enthusiasm for zombies is that they are metaphor for Alzheimer's, the bane of the boomers. Particularly in "The Walking Dead," there are characters who have trouble accepting that these reanimated corpses aren't still somehow the people they once loved. The fact is, of course, that those people are gone. In much the same way, the frightening reality of Alzheimer's is that the personalities we loved and who loved us are also gone, really gone, and aren't coming back.

The other factor is that there is no nuance in the zombie threat. They want to tear you to shreds and eat you, period. There's no room for temporizing or pretending there is any solution to the threat except eliminating it, though part of the satire in Brooks' book is the difficulty people have in accepting that at the beginning.

In any case, there is no horror in World War Z. There is some gore, the occasional poignant moment. But the no-nonsense narrative style succeeds best when seen as a take-off on our own often pretentious and ineffectual response to threats.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Farm Dies Once a Year

Here is my review from Washington Independent Review of Books:

If you’ve ever shopped at a farmer’s market, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’ve never shopped at one, this account of life on a fruit and vegetable farm in Pennsylvania will make you want to try it. And if you regularly shop at the New Morning Farmmarket in Washington, D.C. — as I have for the past several years — Crawford’s intensely personal memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year, is a must-read.

Four decades ago, Crawford’s parents started New Morning Farm, and although the name came from a Bob Dylan album, the farm was not some hippy-ish return to nature. From the beginning, the project entailed the hard work and heartbreak that goes with working the land. Crawford’s father abandoned law school in the 1970s to take up farming, and over the years, his father turned New Morning Farm into a successful business that grosses half a million dollars a year — though after paying for wages, seed, equipment, and maintenance, the net proceeds make for a modest income.

At 31, Crawford, dissatisfied with his work at a museum in Cambridge, Mass., and the lack of direction in his life, returned to his family’s farm during the summer season. He joined the staff of apprentices in taking care of the myriad tasks on the farm: planting, trimming, staking, and harvesting the strawberries, squash, lettuce, cabbage, basil, tomatoes, and other crops. With vivid language, Crawford describes this work as hot, buggy, and dirty, stretching into 13- and 14-hour days at the height of the season. Unlike his previous job at the museum, where he worked on projects that “had a checklist, a clear set of milestones,” farming allowed him to immerse himself “in the summer, a wide, warm ocean with no shore in sight and no landmarks to swim toward.”

But A Farm Dies Once a Year is about more than vegetables or farming. It is about fathers and sons, childhood and trauma, roots and ambitions. It is about self-discovery and self-fulfillment — those elusive goals that may be permanently beyond our reach.

Much of the book deals with Crawford’s father, a man he clearly admires and respects despite being keenly aware of his father’s flaws — notably the emotional distance that his all-consuming passion for making a go of the farm sometimes created. When Crawford returned to the farm, he attempted to construct a primitive shelter for himself and his girlfriend, and his father pointed out that the posts for the platform weren’t “true,” so the whole structure would wobble and collapse. “Finding these kinds of mistakes was my father’s specialty,” Crawford mused in one of his many riffs on his father. His father’s business for 40 years required “tempering his enthusiasms with an obsessive attention to detail”: “He looked over a freshly plowed field and saw where the drainage would be bad, examined a truckload of ripe peaches and picked out the first ones to rot, looked at a new puppy and saw the dead chickens it would eventually drag into the yard.”

Crawford also returned to the farm to find out more about a dramatic incident that had marked his childhood — the murder of his father’s close friend who also had left the city to take up farming. The killing capped a banal argument over barking dogs that annoyed the horses of an alcoholic neighbor, who, Crawford concluded, harbored a deeper resentment of city folks invading the countryside. This violent act left Crawford insecure and worried about his parents’ safety.

Crawford’s fears resurfaced the summer he returned. He and his father had a tense encounter with some locals as his father showed him around the farm his father owned before New Morning. After the murder of his father’s friend, Crawford became aware that even minor tensions have the potential to explode in violence, and his unease about the murder prompted him to visit the murdered man’s farm and even to seek out his daughter in Maine. Dealing with this trauma was one facet of Crawford’s coming to terms with his roots.

A Farm Dies Once a Year reaches a climax (of sorts) when the author describes his trip to Washington, D.C., for the Saturday morning market in a schoolyard in Cleveland Park, the culmination of the week of farming and harvesting. His rendition of his father’s patter as he roamed around the market, touting this kohlrabi, that batch of corn, these green beans at the peak of perfection, is so spot-on that it vouches for the accuracy of all his other observations.

It is in fact the vividness and economy of the author’s narration — his attention to detail in a language that is lean and colorful — that makes this book, along with the subject itself, such compelling reading. Often earnest, A Farm Dies Once a Year is punctuated with a wry humor directed sometimes at Crawford, sometimes at his parents or others, but always good-natured.

Crawford makes it clear from the outset that he never saw farming as his life, and none of his epiphanies over the summer change his mind. Nonetheless, watching the apprentices’ late afternoon activities at the end of the summer, he vividly describes the tug this place has for him: “I suddenly wanted to find my mother and father and tell them that I loved them. I wanted to stay there forever in the hollow, closed off from the world, in the shelter I’d built, with a table and a chair, a bed and full bookshelf. I wanted my grave dug under the black walnut, with Sarah’s there beside it, our children to plant a forsythia there that would bloom in the spring, the first yellow flowers of March. I wanted our bones to molder and the stone to grow dim, the rain to seep into the box and the tree roots to grow down through it, and someday the creek to rise and wash us all away.”

But the antics of the apprentices in the barnyard break the spell of that moment, and Crawford acknowledges that the farm will not last forever. Eventually, Crawford leaves the farm, moves to San Francisco, and gets a job in a natural food store that specializes in produce, which, he notes, is much easier than working in the fields.

Crawford does not belabor the title of his memoir. Even though his return to the farm gave him some insight about himself, it did not resolve his questions about the direction of his life However, he leaves us with the implication that knowing ourselves, like life on the farm, is not a one-time event, but a succession of seasons, each with its own harvest.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt's long and compelling novel is a joy to read. While it appears at times to be a Dickensian romp through quirky characters and picaresque events, in the end it is a philosophical morality tale, articulating as well as anything else I've read what life is all about.

The plot has holes. Big one: After opening in the present day, most of the book is a long flashback to more than a decade before, and yet there are cellphones then, too, and texting, which would mean the "present" is in the future, because texting didn't exist 11 or 12 years ago. Small one: Theo despaired when told by the consulate in Amsterdam it would take 10 days to get a replacement passport, whereas these can be had in an afternoon.

In the meantime, though, there are so many delicious scenes of wonderfully observed detail. The writing, even a critical reviewer in the Washington Independent Review of Books conceded, is superb. As I wrote in a blog post in WIRoB: "For me, that superb writing, which seems to offer a surprise on every page, is what makes the book so compelling. There are flaws in the plot, in the characterization, and there is a whole lot of suspension of disbelief called for — it is, in part, a fantasy, really. But for some of us, it is the glittery prose itself that is the reward. Tartt’s ever-so-precise diction recalls Flaubert’s never-ending search for “le mot juste” — just the right word. It is not only because the book is 700+ pages long, but that every page is like a polished diamond of language that you can understand why it took 10 years to write."

I am not as enamored of Boris as some readers. He is the "bad boy" that women in particular seem sympathetic to. Theo's life could have taken a completely different course if he had never met Boris, so in a sense, this is really Boris's story. But in the author's hands, this is Theo's life and it is the life that he draws his very moving conclusions about in the last pages. Life is random, out of our control. It is an illusion that we have choices, beyond what we make of the life fate hands us.

There are other characters, all of them vivid, but none of them achieving the depth of these two. Hobie, Andy, Mr. and Mrs. Barbour, Pippa, Theo's father. The two characters who die in the explosion, Theo's mother and Welty, are present long beyond their death.

The metaphor of the painting is effective as a symbol of Theo's life -- both the painting itself, cast among the waves of chance to survive, and the subject of the painting, that poor little chained bird. I personally found Theo, and particularly his drug use, often distasteful, yet he retained my sympathy. His hopeless love for Pippa is so much like Pip's love for Estella, and his great expectations are equally illusory. Perhaps not a masterpiece, but a lovely read and a moving story.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Sense of an Ending

I was captivated by Julian Barnes' elegant writing, his mordant wit, his wrestling with questions of memory and identity. I happily put up with his unreliable and ultimately unsympathetic narrator to see what twist or surprise he had in store next.

Our book group discussion somewhat deflated my admiration, however, as members took issue with anomalies in the plot, the narrowness of the narrator's view, the banality of his life. Presumably, however, Barnes crafted all of this intentionally; it's unlikely that anything was left to chance in so short a book.

What sticks with me still is that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives -- but that's all we have. We forget things, we remember things wrong, we come to consider as fact things that may never really have happened. Barnes' narrator, Tony Webster, was self-delusional, obsessive, narcissistic -- an extreme case, in short. Yet what he dramatizes as the tragedy of his life is a reasonably banal story of a relationship that went sour, an unstable friend with poor judgment, and, sadly, a child born with mental deficiencies.

The narrator's remorse -- Barnes makes a point of its linguistic root to bite again or bite back -- at the key misunderstanding and mis-communication in his life is something that may mark any of us, even if to a lesser extent. In all his efforts to smooth out his narrative, this is a central thing he cannot change and it leads, as the end of the book makes clear, to great unrest.

There are apparently websites speculating about hidden meanings in the book, and some of the book group members spent a good deal of time trolling through these. I'm not sure it needs all that and I didn't find the result of their research that helpful.

Did it deserve the Man Booker Prize? Who cares? Barnes hardly needs the distinction to be recognized as a great writer. I'm not sure this spare book will stand in my mind as much as Flaubert's Parrot or Arthur & George -- the two previous books of his that I've read. It does,  however, encourage me to keep reading him, perhaps picking up his History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, which I've had sitting on my shelf for eons.