Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Wilson Deception

David Stewart continues the adventures of country doctor Jamie Fraser and his comrade in arms, Speed Cook, that he ably chronicled in The Lincoln Deception. It is a generation later, and the inevitable disillusionment of age has set in for both protagonists. But the spark of idealism still burns as the two maneuver in Paris during the Peace Conference of 1919 to keep Woodrow Wilson on track and to clear the name of Speed's son, Joshua, falsely accused of desertion after bravely fighting in World War I with America's little-known black troops.

For being an historical novel, The Wilson Deception is surprisingly timely. It is the Middle East boundaries drawn at this peace conference that are at the heart of our current problems in Syria and Iraq. And it is the intrigues of Clemenceau to punish the Germans that led to World War II, the second defeat of Germany, and the formation of the European Union as a way to ensure permanent peace -- a project that is now facing challenges of its own. And, not least, it is a well-rounded portrait of a president whose reputation is under new attack because of the racist views he had as a white southerner in that period.

As stimulating as all this is, however, it is the novel itself that carries the reader along as Jamie and Speed pursue their goals against this historic backdrop. Stewart's well-paced narrative, with colorful and often surprising descriptions and deft characterizations, has just the right mix of drama and humor, along with that touch of melancholy that accompanies getting older. The real-life historical characters -- Clemenceau, Lawrence of Arabia, and, above all, Allen Dulles, the future director of the CIA -- are presented with a panache that brings them to life. The plot is credible enough, though it is on thin ice when the heroes try to get Lawrence involved in their scheme to dupe Wilson by balancing the future of the Middle East with the fate of Speed's son.

But the reader is along for the ride, from the riots on the Place de la Concorde to the climactic scenes at Le Bourget airport, cheering on Jamie and Speed as they test their bond of friendship in a new adventure.

Friday, November 20, 2015

La Place de L'Etoile

Satire hardly does justice to the savage commentary of Patrick Modiano's debut novel as he tears apart France's collaboration during the war through the eyes of a Nazi Jew, Raphael Schlemilovitch. A self-hating Jew reflects France's profound anti-semitism as the narrator flits through time and hallucinatory reincarnations ranging from wartime to present day (present day being the 1960s, when the novel appeared).

The narration leaves the reader dizzy and just holding on for the ride as Modiano/Schlemilovitch slashes through every moral and ethical taboo to shock and provoke. While it has the guise of an intellectual novel, sprinkled with literary references that even few French readers could follow, it is in reality a deeply emotional novel, as Modiano probes into our subconscious fears.

It is a compelling read, a roller-coaster of impressions that leaves you unsettled and disoriented. It is powerful literature and a Nobel Prize well-earned. Despite the lost continuums of time and space, the novel works because there is enough precise detail of buildings, rooms, landscapes, cities and people that it remains very visual. In fact, in his introduction, William Boyd gives Modiano credit for influencing the various waves of French filmmakers, such as Alan Resnais.

Modiano is Kafka with French elan, and a laser focus on the anti-semitism that continues to roil French society. This is the first of the Occupation Trilogy, three short novels published in a single volume, but I will read and review them separately.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Dinosaur Feather

S.J. Gazan's moody procedural sets a murder mystery amid academic intrigue in a biology institute in Copenhagen. She manages to keep the plot moving even as she fills in the back story on half a dozen characters, adding depth and an unexpected human dimension to the Nordic noir.

One theme that clearly emerges is that you should never lie to children because denying them the truth invariably leads to neuroses that affect their adult behavior. Since that is a given, however, the challenge is not to let these neuroses thwart a happy, fulfilled life.

Both of the protagonists, doctoral candidate Anna Bella Nor and "the World's Most Irritating Detective," Soren Marhauge, have submerged childhood secrets tumbling around in their psyches. But it does not stop Anna from successfully preparing to defend her dissertation nor Soren from collecting the clues to solve his mystery.

The academic intrigue revolves around the debate, largely settled, as to whether birds are present-day dinosaurs -- that is these feathered, flying creatures evolved from the gigantic reptiles of prehistory. While the evidence from morphology is overwhelming, the key to proving the connection is finding that elusive feather in the evolutionary process. As this evidence mounts with new discoveries, the thesis defended by an isolated biology professor in British Columbia, Clive Freeman, that birds did not in fact evolve from dinosaurs but that both evolved from an original species.

Gazan takes the time to delve into the past not only of the two protagonists but virtually all the principals after the gruesome death of a controversial Danish biologist from being infected with parasites. As Soren tries to sort through the rivalries and secrets a second murder complicates his task.

All the characters are flawed but most are sympathetic to some degree. Gazan's command of the academic discipline is impressive. At the same time, she has so much understanding for the Goth scene as well as more libertine S&M practices that it seems almost first hand.

In any case, the urbane tolerance we associate with Scandinavians is much in evidence as the characters interact with a certain amount of diffidence. The glimpses of everyday life in Denmark are satisfying and anyone missing all that Nordic nomenclature from the Stieg Larsson novels will find comfort in the Danish place names. I picked this up on a whim at the secondhand bookstore in Lewes and found it very readable.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The New and Improved Romie Futch

Julia Elliott's prose seems to thrash around like a demon mutant boar but it is in reality a tightly controlled work of art. Her versatility in ranging from Low Country drug talk to discussions of European literature and jazz is breathtaking. But what carries the novel is the narrative of a lovelorn loser who fills the void in his life by following his survival instincts.

Left by his wife, the love of his life, Romie Futch flounders in a haze induced by substance abuse and enabled by his loser high school buddies. He takes part in a fantastical neurological experiment as a lifeline and does indeed benefit from downloads of learning and culture directly into his brain. The "improvement" gives him new motivation to revive his taxidermy business and indulge his long-suppressed creative instincts. His dioramas of mutant animals sets him on the search for Hogzilla, a mutant feral hog spotted in the vicinity of a drug company specialized in genetic modification.

The plot has been called Southern Gothic and fantasy. But Elliott's descriptions of ordinary life glow with the luminescence of a hyperreal painting. Her portrayal of Futch's father and stepmother and their retirement village home, her detailing of the rundown dump Futch calls home, her unflinching view of the malls and restaurants that make up our suburban sprawl -- all of these are spot on.

But the deft character sketches of Futch's buddies, the researchers conducting the experiment, Futch's ex-wife and her new husband also crackle with energy. She can mock the retirement village but make fun of a hip art exhibit opening in converted ammunition depot with equal acuity.

Through it all, Romie Futch pines for Helen, torments himself with bittersweet memories, hangs on to his high school mates and develops a new dependency on his fellow guinea pigs in the experiment. He must cope with migraines, blackouts, and the uneasy feeling that somehow they are still inside his head. Ultimately, he must find a way to resolved the legacy of this experiment and clues he follows through an Internet connection with the shadowy PigSlayer avatar offers him hope of doing so. No spoilers, but Elliott brings it all to a satisfying resolution that still leaves much open.

I will probably want to go back and read Elliott's short story collection, The Wilds, though I'm not a fan of the genre. But I will definitely snap up her next novel as soon as it comes out.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Betrayers

David Bezmozgis's novel about a 24-hour visit of a disgraced Israeli politician to Crimea has it all -- it is a novel of ideas, a love story, a political thriller, and a literary adventure into an exotic corner of the world. It deals with Jewish identity, Marxist ideology, fundamental notions of honor and integrity, and religious ideals of forgiveness and redemption -- and all this in 230 pages.

Baruch Kotler, a Soviet refusenik who became a cabinet minister in Israel, flees to Crimea with his mistress after their affair is exposed, nostalgically returning to the site of happy childhood vacation. Their hotel reservation is lost, so the couple takes a room in a private home from one of the many hustlers greeting tourists at the Yalta bus station. In a fateful coincidence that Bezmozgis somehow makes credible, the homeowner -- away when his wife successfully landed the couple -- was the former friend and Jewish dissident who had denounced Kotler in Moscow, leading to his spending 10 years in the Gulag.

The two couples spend the next 24 hours together in the small cottage, a drama that ranges from Chekhov to Tolstoy in its economy and sweep. Kotler, the victim of denunciation and long imprisonment, has prospered as a leading light in his new homeland, while Vladimir Tankilevich lives in penury, dependent on a stipend from the local Jewish charity that is dependent on his weekly attendance at the synagogue in Simferopol, a three-hour trolley ride each way.

Kotler left Israel at a critical moment when Jewish settlers were being forcibly removed, a controversial decision he reluctantly went along with and which provoked his own soldier son into open mutiny. He feels he must return to Israel immediately. It is a fateful turning point in his life -- his affair is almost certainly over but his return to his wife is not certain, any more than his rehabilitation in Israeli politics. Crucially, Kotler must decide how to resolve the chance reunion with his nemesis.

The novel's title has betrayers in plural. Tankilevich betrayed Kotler in Moscow, but Kotler betrayed his wife and family with his affair. The novel turns on whether Tankilevich and Kotler once again betray their principles in their encounter with each other. It is a poignant and moving drama, with Svetlana, Tankilevich's Russian wife, and Leora, Kotler's young mistress, acting as mirrors to reflect the tension between the two men. Kotler's wife in Israel, Miriam, also plays a role through a long email letter that blames him and forgives him.

Bezmozgis's deft evocation of a down on its heels tourist site that nonetheless has a geopolitical role to play makes it the perfect setting for his morality play. It permits him to compress ideas and events into an intimate drama and leave a reader not only satisfied but moved.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick pushes the boundaries of the metaphysical and epistemological in his works, which go well beyond the rocket ships and space travel we usually associate with science fiction. Just a list of the films inspired by his stories -- Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Adjustment Bureau -- shows how willing he is to question what is real, where does identity reside.

The Man in the High Castle is about historicity and authenticity. The book -- which is the starting point for a Netflix series coming out next month -- begins with a dealer in American memorabilia in a Japanese puppet state that arose on the West Coast after America's defeat in World War II. The backstory has it that we lost the war because Roosevelt was assassinated in his first term. The East Coast is part of a Greater German Reich, though no scenes in the book actually take place there.

The problem with Robert Childan's memorabilia is that they are not genuine, but manufactured for sale to the gullible Japanese. The manufacturer claims that the only difference between the real thing and his fakes is historicity -- an intangible and essentially meaningless quality.

This is the crux of Dick's alternate history. For what drives the plot is an alternate history within the alternate history -- The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This novel -- in the TV series it is actually a film -- posits that Roosevelt survived the assassination attempt but forgoes a third and fourth term. The Allies win the war but it is Churchill who becomes the dominant leader in the postwar world. The author of this alternate history, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the man in the high castle because he supposedly lives in a well-fortified ranch in the neutral zone between the Japanese and German puppet states.

Dick plays with this quicksand. A Japanese trade diplomat in San Francisco arranges a meeting between a highly place general from Tokyo and a German turncoat from Berlin who warns Japan that Germany plans to bomb Japan as part of its succession struggles. A woman estranged from her secretly Jewish husband falls in with a suspicious truck driver who appears intent on assassinating the man in the high castle. And the husband, secretly a Jew, embarks on a venture to fabricate a new type of jewelry that does not imitate past works but finds little acceptance because it is too novel.

It is a multifaceted plot and it hardly matters if the climax is somewhat anticlimactic and many questions are left open in the end. Dick wants to stretch your mind, not deliver a plot on a silver platter. The question of which alternate history is the real one -- or are both real -- is for the reader to answer. The fact that the TV series makes Grasshopper a film -- with footage of an older Roosevelt -- indicates how the producers interpret it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The American Mission

One of the things that makes thrillers tick for me is a sense of place, and that is one of the strongest aspects of Matthew Palmer's novel set in the Congo. Who would not feel a frisson when one of the characters says the location of a village in eastern Congo is exactly where Conrad's Heart of Darkness takes place.

Though hardly plumbing the same psychological depths as Conrad's masterpiece, The American Mission is a darkly cynical view of African corruption, corporate criminality, and American neo-imperialism by a writer identified as a former Foreign Service Officer.

There are predictable twists and turns as FSO Alex Baines teams up with a paragon of African beauty and skills who improbably becomes the chief of her tribe as she tries to save their jungle home from the predations of an international mining company. There is the "terrorist" leader who turns out to be a freedom fighter, the diplomat mentor who turns out to be part of a right-wing conspiracy within the State Department, and the CIA station chief who appears to be a model of integrity.

But the action and descriptions carry the reader along as the village and its tribe ring true in a language that is effective if not exactly eloquent. The book might have been somewhat shorter as the action lags in places, but all in all it's a quick romp. Already have his next book, Secrets of State, loaded onto my Kindle.