Monday, August 30, 2010

A Summons to Memphis

What a delight to read! This Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Peter Taylor tells a story without any linguistic pyrotechnics or artificial "layering," but with the economy of a writer who made his reputation with short stories.

There are many layers, though, as the narrator, Philip Carver, casts back into the family history that culminates in a crisis when his widower father contemplates marriage to a younger woman and his spinster sisters connive to block it.

It is for the daughters a type of revenge, for their father at a critical point in time intervened to spoil marriages for both of them, as he did for his son. The arc of the novel is how the son, the only one to leave the family's Tennessee home to make a career in New York, comes to terms with his father's decision first to transplant the family from Nashville to Memphis, traumatizing all three children, and second to secretly visit the family of his son's girlfriend in Chattanooga to discourage any marriage.

The answer ultimately is that he does not come to terms with it. He speaks of forgiving and forgetting, but he remains emotionally damaged, living in a comfortable relationship with an equally damaged woman that has the narrowest of parameters and stifles any true happiness.

The daughters, who apparently are even less aware of the permanent damage to their emotional lives, succeed in taking their father captive and preventing his remarriage, safeguarding their inheritance but more importantly securing their revenge. But they have even less satisfaction from it than their brother.

The narrator skillfully portrays the father-worship of his three children, which neither the father's own tragedy of being duped by a close friend nor his selfish interference in the lives of his children can diminish. But the damage is plain to see in that none of his children then ever marry or have children.

So it is a story about fathers and daughters, and about fathers and sons, and the problems resulting from a dominating personality who is also narcissistic. There is something for virtually every reader to relate to. It is not uplifting because the narrator's disillusionment and disappointment end in resignation. By the end of the novel, it is the father -- despite the betrayal by his friend and the successful efforts of his children to block his marriage -- who triumphs. He is indomitable. But he dies and leaves a legacy of pain.

Taylor's lucid prose deftly unfolds the layers of emotion and history in this profoundly dysfunctional family. While the narrator retains the reader's sympathy, it is clear by the end of the book that he is not the best judge of what has happened.

It is a quick read, just over 200 pages. The depictions of Memphis and Nashville are entertaining -- I picked this up from my shelf because of our recent trip through Tennessee -- but they are less important than the universal emotions of the family relationships.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Dark Vineyard

The charm is still there in Martin Walker's second French country cozy with Bruno, chief of police in a small Dordogne town. Walker wisely avoids a second dip into the dark history of French collaboration with the Nazis and constructs a new plot around very contemporary concerns about ecology, genetically modified crops and industrial production wine.

But the first rule of a murder mystery is to have a murder. The initial crime here is arson, so the suspense is hardly sufficient (not even Bruno seems to really care who set the fire) to help the reader along in the slowly developing plot. Walker's sparkling writing and his vivid descriptions of the quality of life in the Dordogne are sufficient for a Francophile, but the appeal of the series might be limited if it remains too low-key.

In the end a couple of deaths (maybe murder, maybe not) and the brutal killing of an aged dog add a little juice to the narrative.

One of the highlights is the meal Bruno prepares for some friends, featuring a game bird shot by Bruno, which Walker stubbornly and oddly refuses to translate (Wikipedia tells me becasse is woodcock). It's hard to imagine that English and American women would follow the example of the French men and actually slurp down the stomach and crunch the bird's skull as part of the meal, no matter how enamored they may be with lovable old Bruno, but it does give a sense of France's gustatory zeal.

The resolution is all a bit anti-climactic, perhaps because there's very little true villainy. The French characters are all just a bit too nice in the end -- Walker, unlike Peter Mayle, seems unwilling to offend his friends back in the Dordogne. But if you liked the first book, this one goes down easy, too.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Spies of the Balkans

Alan Furst is back creating another morally ambivalent, atmospheric thriller featuring a hard-bitten foreign protagonist. This time it is the Greek Costa Zannis, who is remarkably similar in his attitudes and cigarette smoking to the French, Hungarian and Dutch protagonists of Furst's earlier novels.

We listened to this on audiobooks during a road trip and it was entertaining enough, though Furst has clearly fallen into purely formula writing. Watch a few old movies (he even refers to one character as a real cinematic aviator), research a relatively obscure location (Salonika, Greece in this instance), insert above-mentioned hard-bitten protagonist, add a few lady friends, and wrap everything in a smoky nostalgia that makes it as blurry and comforting as the black-and-white movie you started with.

I happen to like a lot of this, particularly the obscure locations. Furst plays this one to the hilt, with Zannis shuttling off to Belgrade and Budapest, with a quick dash to Paris, and dispatching loved ones to Istanbul and Alexandria, while carrying on three love affairs in Salonika. Some of the romantic scenes were amazingly clumsy, bordering on the adolescent. And in an audiobook you don't have the freedom to skim over the embarrassing parts.

The reading by Daniel Gerroll was easy to listen to and follow. His comfortable pace was well-matched to Furst's unhurried narrative style and he was consistent in his characterization of Zannis and other main figures, so there was virtually no confusion in a book populated by people with names that are strange to our ears. No small feat.

Furst belabors the history a bit more in this book than he has in some earlier works, probably because this location and the action he describes (Greece girding for the Nazi assault) is so obscure to American readers. He is at his best describing the fin du monde atmosphere of a country coming under siege and the desperation that accompanies it. The story of an underground railroad smuggling Jews out of Germany to freedom, in Turkey of all places, was moving and rich in historical context.

Less successful was Furst's attempt to show a Gestapo officer at work, which seemed to owe too much to Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone to be called original.

We bought the audiobook at Books a Million in Tennessee because we inadvertently left behind the audiobooks we had bought for the trip in our hotel the first night. Out of the dozens of audiobooks on sale, it was the only one we felt both of us could enjoy and that proved to be the case.