Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cultural Evolution/Revolution: Calls Across the Pacific a novel by Zoe S. Roy

Calls Across the Pacific is the second novel by Zoe S. Roy that describes the lives of characters affected by China’s Maoist Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Her first very good novel, The Long March Home published in 2011, was the story of three generations of women, one immersed in the time of Maoist oppression, one who escaped it in part, and a third who was not directly involved but seeks to understand her family’s legacy of life in the vast, ever changing China. 

In her second novel, Ms. Roy develops the character, Nina Huang, who escapes from Number 5 Military Farm, a re-education location for individuals from families tainted by family histories of perceived anti-Maoist revolutionary activity. Nina and her boyfriend attempt to flee to Hong Kong seeking asylum from a democratic government. The two are separated in flight, and 20 year old Nina makes her way to the U. S. with the generous help of Chinese expatriates. Working hard at tedious menial jobs, Nina makes a life for herself with the idea of ultimately learning about the contrasts between her Eastern and Western cultures through formal education.

Nina earns opportunities for basic and advanced education in the U. S. and Canada and forms relationships in her new settings. But, she does not forget her roots in China that she perceives as positive but morally restrictive in the long run but oppressive and purgative in the revolutionary short term. Using her facility with languages, Nina develops her writing skills and sets out to record the history of her family and acquaintances as a journalist. Nina has a peaceful and fulfilling life in Canada but feels drawn back to China to record the stories of people who suffered greatly during the Maoist Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. A persistent theme in Nina’s story is her view of the evolution of Chinese culture. Is this process dependent on abrupt changes through violent revolution followed by a slow recovery of enduring values? Or is China sacrificing its cultural legacy by rapidly forcing changes in the peoples’ unifying philosophy and the country’s economic strategies?

Calls Across the Pacific is written in a simple and direct style that is appropriate for teenage, young adult, and older adult readers. The freelance articles Nina writes about the experiences of a variety of people in China broadens readers’ understanding of its evolutionary/revolutionary history in the 20th Century.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hungry Ghost: Ballad of a Small Player a novel by Lawrence Osborne

The Ballad of a Small Player (2014) is a novel of contemporary western China, in Macau’s gilded gambling casinos. “Lord” Doyle is an expatriate barrister from London. Doyle thinks of himself as a long term loser personality and an obsessive gambler against luck. The ironic title of Lord has been given to Doyle by the Chinese hotel and casinos staff because of his good suits, yellow gambling gloves, and “quai lo” (Caucasian) airs of royalty he maintains while losing more money than he wins. Wealth that Doyle embezzled and absconded with from London gives him immunity from overt scorn by the Chinese gamblers and staff. Doyle’s self-hatred is mitigated by his identification with Taoists’ concept of “preta” described in English as “Hungry Ghosts.” These poor souls are awaiting reincarnation to a better life existing indefinitely in the equivalent of Christian hell. The hungry ghosts are burdened by a tremendous appetite for food, drink, and other sensory pleasures that cannot be satisfied except during the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Doyle sees himself as a denizen of the casinos in his seventh month.

The novel is an interesting character study and maintains a consistently gloomy mood against a background of huge glitzy rooms. The depressive views of Doyle are symptomatic of what we call gambling “addiction” in the West. In the East, however, the Chinese call the predictable addictive behavior “luck,” that Doyle associates with the I Ching. Caught between two cultural views, Doyle plays a type of Baccarat that involves no player skill, only a turning of the cards and counting numbers. He casts his fate to the wind every night expecting to lose with no basis for his anticipation. Seeing himself as a loser, Doyle claims that once a loser always one. As an addict, Doyle is a hungry ghost who has selected specific self-destructive behaviors because of his immutable loser personality. Instead of the Western explanation that an addiction overcomes one, the Eastern description is that all past and present living factors (including guilt) have influenced one to pick his individual unreachable “pleasure.”

This is the second good novel of the Orient by Lawrence Osborne I have read. Hunters in the Dark will be published in January 2016.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Momentary Behaviors/Intentions: Hunters in the Dark a novel by Lawrence Osborne

A heart of darkness beats in all of us, from the social isolate to the psychopath. Most of the time, people play by the rules and mores of their societies, because it is convenient and easy to meet their desires. Their Karmas, momentary behaviors and intentions that make their futures predictable, are in line with the expectations and freedoms of others. When a cultural revolution is engineered by a dominant personality or cult, behavior becomes modified, more focused. Even when that revolution has evolved into a stable government, all the players become in the words of Lawrence Osborne, Hunters in the Dark.

Thirty year old British teacher on summer leave, Robert Grieve, visits Southeast Asia on a cheap holiday and crosses over the border of Thailand into Cambodia, a land with a legacy of a genocidal cultural revolution. Loosely attached to his British lifestyle, naive Robert “goes native” in the land of sweltering heat, daily rain, and citizens who seem dismissive their own free will. Their Karma is fatalistic, fearful, and impulsive as if their span of consciousness has been shortened and there may be no tomorrow.

An American expatriate living in Cambodia causes Robert to make what seem to be reasonable choices that lead him to cut many of his ties with his British heritage. Forced by circumstances to survive in the moment, Robert meets native Cambodians from upper and lower strata of the tropical country. Robert’s experience teaching in Great Britain benefits him to some extent, but his ignorance of Asian life makes him vulnerable to people whose Karma is affected by a legacy of Cambodian “killing fields.”

The fast-paced story is a complex study of contemporary West/East cultural interaction that is reminiscent of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Robert is an Englishman, however, who does not have the benefit of a Raj and must learn to find new ways to adapt to the ways of an alien society. This is a very good novel by the author of two previous novels, The Forgiven and The Ballad of a Small Player.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Shadow of Reality: So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano (Translated from the French by Euan Cameron)

Patrick Modiano has written more than 20 novels and has received multiple awards for his writing. In 2014, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, wonderfully translated from the French by Euan Cameron, Modiano gives the reader a view of life in Paris through the constricted paranoid consciousness of a successful novel writer.

Jean Daragane is a middle age intelligent person who has withdrawn to a life of comfortable isolation in his apartment. He has a history of residence changes in Paris with a common characteristic for each venue of an escape route from the building and an anchor to the reality of Paris life outside his window. In his current home, Jean is able to look at a tree in a park across the street giving him a stable immediate connection with the living world and positive childhood memories of Paris. This action of needing only a view of the outside world for peace of mind is reminiscent of the behavior of Meursault in The Stranger by Albert Camus. Jean is not home bound, however, and likes to take daily walks in Paris enjoying the flora, especially in summer.

Jean has relegated his past history to books he has written, novels that are psychologically autobiographical. Once he has written a fictional piece, he does not re-read it or think about the memories that were the foundation of the novel. His oeuvre, however, is like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray describing the unconscious evolution of the emotion of his past. The emotion spills out of his repressed memories when he is contacted by an advertising agency employee who has a found a notebook that Jean has lost and forgotten in a Cafeteria.

Gilles Ottolini and an assistant Chantal Grippay telephone Jean to arrange a meeting to return the notebook. Jean responds to a vague proposal by the two strangers to write an article based on a name discovered in the notebook.

Receiving a personal call is such a rare event that the reclusive writer agrees to meet with Gilles and Chantal because of fear of blackmail on the one hand and excitement of meeting new people and breaking out of his loneliness and isolation on the other. Jean soon discovers that sharing information from his notebook triggers an emotional revisit to his childhood that leads him away from the peaceful summer memories of walking the tree lined Paris boulevards and sun filled parks in the city. He finds that the results of trauma can be hidden from consciousness, but the childhood emotional reactions to them are as powerful as they were forty years ago.

I really enjoyed reading this novel with its keen psychological insight of the characters and lyrical of descriptions of the atmosphere of Paris. My overall very positive experience of reading the novel was like the one I had reading surrealist Andre Breton’s novel, Nadia. I look forward to reading more of the novels of Patrick Modiano.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

True Heart: The Swans of Fifth Avenue a novel by Malanie Benjamin

The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a novel of imagined experience, focusing on the relationship between author Truman Capote and socialite Babe Paley. The “Swans” consist of Babe and her friends beginning in the 1950s who live lives of wealth so great that appearances dominate every moment of their existence. The money comes from former and present marriages to men who pursue their careers leaving social obligation details to their wives. Time seems to hang heavy on the attractive to beautiful women, and they fill it with obsessive attention to personal grooming, stylish clothing, soirees, traveling from one lavish residence to another, spending time on ocean liner sized private yachts, and frequent elaborate lunches at New York City’s finest and most exclusive restaurants. The paparazzi of the time were welcomed to take photos of the women posing for studies in opulence. No camera could catch the urgently churning webbed feet of the swans struggling to maintain appearances, the photos showing only the serene aimless floating of the lovely creatures.

Truman entered into this “lush life” perceived by people who count as a handsome, witty, and talented writer. He loves the vibrant scene of the City and uses his charisma, talent, and work for Vogue to insinuate himself into the social stratosphere of Fifth Avenue. The wealthy men seem happy to have gay and exuberant Truman around to act as a diversion for their wives. Few people knew the psychological importance/dependence “Tru” fostered in the intelligent, lonely, and aimless socialites. This was especially true of Truman and Babe who recognized at first glance the vulnerability and insecurity in each other just below the surface of the public personas they affected. In a way, the love affair that developed between Truman and Babe was like that of Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; love requited in all aspects but one.

Melanie Benjamin states in an author’s note that she had no inside information about the beautiful people in her novel. She was not a member of their circle, but she did research the public history of them. The fiction is in the writer’s imagination of the dialogues and monologues of the real life characters behind closed social barriers and closed doors of expensive restaurants, hotels, and residences. Since the story is about “a way you’ll never be,” readers are caught up in the mesmerizing interaction of the characters by their external conversations and internal ruminations. Benjamin is so effective at imagining the public and private experiences of Babe, Truman, and the members of the tribe that readers will forget that The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a work of fiction. Readers also may feel they are welcome visitors to the rare atmosphere of the highest social class of people in business, the arts, and public media. Readers will not envy the swans and their connections, but rather will be one of them. As I read the excellent novel, I kept thinking of a song that I have enjoyed for many years, Natalie Cole’s interpretation of Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn.

This is a wonderfully entertaining novel that will bring back active echoes of the past for the older reader, interesting social history for the less seasoned adult readers, and glimpses of bizarre behavior that occurred in ancient history for young adults.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Magic Territory: The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq's fifth novel, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd, is an engrossing book that becomes increasingly integrated and satisfying as the story unfolds. The prologue places the reader in the middle of the artistic life of Jed Martin, a pale, slight, and somewhat bewildered son of a successful Parisian architect. He is similar in his non-assertive personality to Thomas Mann's character, Hans Castorp. Jed is preparing a solo exhibition in the spring of his paintings of people in a wide range of professions that capture the embodiment of the vocations. There is a potential for a top market value for these works of art. He is having difficulty with a painting of two artists whose work has become so popular that they have achieved the ArtPrice ranking of number 1 and 2 of the richest artists in the world.

The novel is divided into three parts, each dealing with the monetary and symbolic value of art. In part one, Jed's artistic development is described as being greatly influenced by his father's focus on straight lines and livable angles in architectural drawings and the beautifully designed photographic equipment of his grandfather. Jed matures from childhood drawings to photographing manufactured objects in relentless realistic detail, gradually eliminating background to focus on close-up shots. From these representations of the perfect blend of monetary value and functionality in an industrial world, Jed becomes interested in the symbols representing real objects in the environment. He photographs road maps of cities and countryside and contrasts them with their associated real world counterparts photographed from the sky. The juxtaposition of map and land, symbols and actuality are stunning in his artwork and gain high market value. Executives of a map making company pay Jed generous sums to use his work in their advertising.

In part 2, Jed becomes interested in the combination of symbol and form and tries to capture the integration of these two factors in the motivation of outstanding working individuals. Photographs do not capture this merging of human characteristics even with computerized manipulations of images. Jed realizes that only in painting can the artist fuse symbolism and realism to show the essence of human beings, to go beyond the structure of the paintings' depictions. He spends years (7 as does Hans in an Alpine sanitorium) in relative isolation attempting to perfectly capture this fusion. The subjects of the work and those who accumulate art are fascinated by the results because they see themselves as more than they thought they were, and more fascinating than they actually are. Jed becomes very rich due to supply and demand for these coveted paintings. He remains indifferent to his riches but does organize a showing of his work. In order to present the work, he needs a catalog writer who can set the stage for the exhibition. Jed approaches the eccentric and controversial writer Michel Houellebecq to write the catalogue and listens to his concepts, theories, and disjointed aphorisms that increase with wine intake. This is reminiscent of Hans Castorp who listens with increasing interest to the wide-ranging debates of Settimbrini and Naphta as he ventures on brief trips down the mountain to the village. In this novel, the two asocial creative characters form a chaotic working relationship that leads inevitably to great financial success.

In part 3, the connection between finances, artistic production, psychological disintegration, and end of life circumstances bring some resolution to the reader. It is a nice acceptance of evitability with a conclusion that at the extremes, both financial success and failure provide the circumstances of insightful art. The vast middle ground between these extremes where most of us live involves distortions of creative views of personal experiences and restricted happiness. Representations of humanity are inextricably tied to money and social competition reducing much of human motivation to basic survival activities. Capitalism maintains this vast middle class rationalization. Jed seeks the integration of ideas he achieved in his art in his own work life history. The reader will judge if he reaches this goal just as I had to judge whether Jed Martin and Hans Castorp found something worth living for.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. Again, it produced a strange relaxation, a welcoming of unruly thoughts and circumstances and a view of an avenue to an acceptable death. From a different dimension, I experienced the same withdrawal from social determinism reading The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq as I did in reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. I had a feeling of a perfect personal fit in the symbolic worlds of the two authors and a genuine reluctance to return to the mundane world of daily activity.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Alien Abduction: Joe4 a Novella by Salem

Joe4 is a novella by Salem that continues the author's story from his novel Black Hole Butterfly (BHB). Both books describe restricted life in a futuristic New York City. In BHB, the Naranja solar empire fought opposing special interest forces to corner the market on physical energy in the City and manipulate psychological energy to control the thoughts and behavior of the citizens. Detective Rook Black attempted to solve crimes in the city and because of his detecting methods, became the eye of the storm of characters competing for control of the City. He was a "psychonaut" able to enter dream states that allowed him to experience parallel realities, escaping the artificial feedback loop of time controlled by Dr. Naranja that kept other citizens in an artificial reality.

Joe4 is an employee of Dr. Naranja. He is an engineer who analyzes the effects of acoustical vibrations on solar satellites that are used in the Naranja empire to generate the artificial energy source "sunjuice." But, like Rook Black, Joe4 is able to enter a dream state in which he escapes the physical and psychological domination of the Naranja solar empire. He receives "alien" messages in the form of visual/acoustic "dark music" that he can transcribe with pen and ink in his journal into classic reality tunes. Presented on radio stations by pop star, DJU, most of Joe4's compositions rise on the music charts to top ten positions. He is offered a contract to produce music full time if he can resign from his position with the paranoiac Naranja empire, not an easy task.

Dr. Naranja has a team of agents who look for spies within the organization. Usually, a person can come to the solar energy manufacturer but not leave. Dr. Naranja decides that Joe4 is an unusual threat to him and allows him to resign with the plan of spying on him and secretly discovering Joe4's alien source of musical inspiration. Rook Black was drawn by an alien impulse to the desert to live for a year and attempt to solve his mystery cases. Joe4 is also drawn for a year to the desert to work on his grand opus. He arrives at the Four Corners area of the United States that is historically the site of extraterrestrial alien activity. With his dog, Aoede (named after the Muse of Song and Voice), Joe4 sets out to find his source of power that makes him the tuning fork of an alien communication code (444) that came to him in a dream state.

Joe4 is a very good stand-alone novella that can be read and enjoyed without exploring the connections with Black Hole Butterfly. But, BHB allows the reader to understand the complicated alien source of power for both Rook Black and Joe4 (father and son?). Both books make it possible for us readers to go beyond our daily limitations of artificial reality. By reading the books, we may be able to tune in to a pirate radio station narrow casting information about space, time, and existence and join Joe4 in his abduction.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Deadly Exercise in Tact: Jade Dragon Mountain a novel by Elsa Hart

Jade Dragon Mountain is the first novel of Elsa Hart, and I hope to read more of her novels in the future. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the story of Li Du, a librarian of the Forbidden City in China exiled for his friendship with traitors.

In the early 18th Century, after almost five years of travel as a destitute scholar, Li Du walks into the city of Dayan in the hinterlands of southwestern China. He must get papers authorizing his travel through a pass over Jade Dragon Mountain in order to leave China and explore lands to the west.

Li Du’s biggest challenge as he enters the city is to have an audience with the Magistrate of Dayan, his cousin who is ashamed of Li Du for the disgrace the exile brought to the family. Li Du finds the city crowded with people from all over the region preparing for a festival in honor of the Emperor of China who will visit Dayan in six more days.

Lisa Hart has described the setting of Li Du’s story with details that immerse the reader in the exciting turmoil of people anticipating the event of their lifetime in a rural district of China. Every scene is like a Chinese painting with lyrical prose similar to the brushstrokes of master artisans of the era. The reader is never distracted by the beautiful descriptions of the settings of scenes because they are essential to the story involving the interactions of the characters.

The main characters are diverse, interesting, and well-developed. Li Du, an intelligent and observant man, is the focus of interaction with Jesuit Priests, East India Trading Company representatives, courtesans, imposters, entertainers, spies, librarians, outsiders, and Dynasty royalty. Mystery, pageantry, and intrigue are themes evenly distributed between divisions of days before the Emperor’s visit. I think the ending was a bit rushed with some add-on pages to give an incomplete closure to the novel. But, I believe the purpose of these pages is to set the stage for future adventures of Li Du (I hope!).

This is an excellent novel, very entertaining and informative. I put it in my category of favorite recent novels of China: Old Town by Lin Zhe; The Long March Home by Zoe S. Roy; and even Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Metamorphorses: To the Top of the Mountain, an Intercrime novel by Arne Dahl

To the Top of the Mountain is volume 3 of an Intercrime mystery series by Swedish writer Arne Dahl. The elite 7 detective A-Unit is reconstructed in Stockholm to investigate violent international crime after being disbanded due to major errors made in prior cases. This novel can be read by itself, and only a skeleton history of prior cases is presented in the story. Often in other crime series, the reader must wade through details of prior installments to understand later episodes. The story was so good that I want to get volumes 1 and 2 published in English as The Blinded Man and Bad Blood.

This 390 page novel is exciting but not fast-paced. It begins in a popular sports bar in Stockholm that caters to soccer fans. An international cast of characters representing ethnic, political, and criminal groups gather in the bar and noisy tension is high. A criminal event occurs that has ramifications for separate investigations involving members of the disbanded A-Unit who are still involved in police work but have been re-assigned to other detective divisions.

The A-Unit comes together when their detective assignments show a common thread. The former leader, Detective Superintendent Jan-Olav Hultin, who was forced into retirement, is visited at his lake-side house by the Head of Division from the National Police Board. Jan-Olav is offered the opportunity to bring his A-Unit back to life and follow the thread that involves cases of murder, international drug dealing, sub rosa internet pornography, violent pedophilia, neo-Nazi gang activity, Bosnian activism, violence in prison, and an individual detective’s criminal cross-over. The characters involved in these cases are fascinating involving implications about the current social situation in Sweden.

The A-Unit detectives are interesting, and Arne Dahl describes their backgrounds and motivations in a way that integrates personal historical information into the mystery story. A separate tale linked to the revived A-Unit activity emerges involving a young man and woman whose life together gains mythical proportions.

To the Top of the Mountain is a very good mystery/crime novel that is challenging to the reader to understand the intricacies of the plot. The excellent translation by Alice Menzes from Swedish to English facilitates the reader's understanding.  It is an example of an author imagining the  experience of characters in a culture that is both appealing in its geography and social history and disturbing in its description of violent interaction of ideological subgroups.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Art of the Possible: Finale A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon

Finale, A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon, is a fact/fiction combination of historical sketches and imagined experience. The story begins in 1976 and ends in 1996 covering events that preceded Ronald Reagan’s election as president until his increasing decline related to dementia. The span of 20 years seems short in the historical scope of American politics, but the detailed description of daily maneuvering and decision making illustrates the stress on the man who would be president and the players and “mice” who inhabit the District of Columbia arena.

The list of people in the novel is so extensive that a cast of characters is presented before the first chapter. People are listed and identified as historical figures and fictional characters. There are only nine fictional men and women listed, but they play a vital role connecting the people and advancing the story. 

It is the connection of the characters that is the force that drives the reader through the detailed interactions, direct and remote, with Ronald Reagan that affect the moods of his consistently dissociative personality and his public thoughts and statements. The constant daily attempts to influence the course of American history by people of various talents and motivations impinge on Reagan’s movements and decisions. This is a confirmation of George W. Bush’s statement during an interview while he was in office that the President has very limited personal power to determine the course of government domestically or on the international stage. Whether Reagan and his acolytes are campaigning to retain control of congress, trying to make advances in the war on drugs, attempting to legislate control of the AIDS epidemic, engaging in the battle of translated words in the Cold War, seeking nuclear arms control offensively (developing “Star Wars”) or defensively (bargaining with Gorbachev in Reykjavik), pushing for international human rights, competing with China for trade, there is not very much that can be accomplished by the titular head of our country within the limits of our Constitution. 

This fascinating novel is a great story of minions and movers attempting to make sense and profit from political events. They try to meet their individual needs and desires, as they influence world history at various levels related to their direct and remote connections with Ronald Reagan and by implication other heads of state. The historical record shows that the rest of us really do not have a good or accurate understanding of the art of the possible, and we form opinions and take actions (vote) based on very limited and always skewed information. The novel reveals the one common denominator of the people who seek to engage in politics at the national level is their full living engagement and passion in the process of politics.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Social Determinism: All That Followed a novel by Gabriel Urza

All That Followed by Gabriel Urza is a historical novel about Basque residents of the small town of Muriga. Like small towns around the world, citizens of the town in Northern Spain know each others' business and foibles even if they do not have close social relationships. Even in the small town, the politics of Spain in the post Franco era determine in a predictable and irreversible way the thoughts and behaviors of individuals in Muriga.

It is interesting that people cannot abide the peaceful life in a quiet town and will seek a way out via behaviors that may disturb the peace and cannot be dealt with locally. The novel focuses on the remnants of Basque traditions and language affecting generations of residents and a few ex-patriots passing time with limited ambitions.

The early short chapters describe life in Muriga, past and present, like a rowboat on a lake with storm clouds on the horizon. Narrators shift from Joni, a 50 year resident ex-pat American teacher, to Mariana, wife of a pro-government Basque Councilman, to Iker a teenager with minor rebellious political attitudes and vague academic ambitions. The metaphor of a rowboat carrying them on a placid lake plays out with the storm steadily approaching. There is some effort of the three to row to shore, but the storm of fate gains and overwhelms them. Joni’s sensitive and mentally disturbed partner, Amaia, states with an inappropriate smile that there is no use rowing when the storm is already here.

Amaia’s severe depression, Iker’s increasing revolutionary actions, Mariana’s emotional disengagement from her socialist Councilman husband, and Joni’s ineffectual intervention with these people, allow the storm of events to overwhelm their peace in Muriga. The personal stories of the individual characters recapitulate the separatist history of the Basque region.

But, the storm will devastate then pass and the Basque culture will endure, significantly more detached from tradition and language with each successive generation.

I enjoyed the history, character development, narration, depiction of the passage of time, and low-key resilience of the players. All That Follows is a very good first novel by Gabriel Urza, a graduate with an MFA from Ohio State University and a Notre Dame trained lawyer.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Looking for Lost Time: Sweet Forgiveness a novel by Lori Nelson Spielman

Sweet Forgiveness is a good second novel by Lori Nelson Spielman. The 355 page novel is the story of Hannah Farr, a TV personality for 10 years in New Orleans, who is getting pressure from a station manager and her producer to buck up her ratings. Hannah has a firm base of viewers, but the unrelenting push for increased media revenue does not allow for complacency. Hannah has a few ideas to grow her audience and continue with her successful interview style to which she is accustomed. She is not too worried in the beginning of the push, but becomes increasingly concerned.

The never-married early 30’s attractive woman is more worried about her public dating relationship with the politically ambitious mayor of New Orleans and her dream of marrying the widower. Hannah reads an article about the book tour of an old nemesis from her private school days, an older girl who bullied her mercilessly in school. The attorney author, Fiona Knowles, has written a self-help book called, The Forgiveness Stones. The book is already popular, focusing on shame, guilt, and anger and an apparently simple method of getting rid of these negative emotions via forgiveness rituals.

Hannah feels pushed to invite Fiona to be a guest on her show and demonstrate by personal example the value of forgiveness. The story develops with many interesting characters becoming involved in dredging up old social/family wounds and using Forgiveness Stones to reach resolution and redemption. The settings vary from New Orleans to Chicago to upper Michigan as Hannah discovers that redemption is almost always a two sided street involving forgiveness and apology.

The writing in this novel is very interesting to me because it helped me to see the importance of editing of an author’s work. In the Acknowledgements section at the end of her book, Lori mentions her “extraordinary” editor, Denise Roy. Although she does not provide details, I appreciated the not seamless but rather perfectly stitched seams that structure the novel. Short and long sections of chapters of Sweet Forgiveness are presented in a professional way that engage the reader without any breaks in interest in the story from start to finish. I had little identification with Hannah and the other characters in Chapter 1, but became emotionally attached to them reading page after page with no boring down time sections.

I highly recommend Sweet Forgiveness as an entertaining and interesting novel that is very well written and edited. I may have to forgive a few people (including myself) as a result of reading the book.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Degrees of Freedom: The Angel Court Affair a novel by Anne Perry

The Angel Court Affair is the 28th novel in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt historical fiction mystery series by Anne Perry. The story takes place in Victorian Great Britain at the turn of the 20th Century, a time of threatening international conflict. Throughout the world, because of booming industrialization, nations are making it possible for traditionally lower class citizens to rise up from their station in life and demand more of the resulting economic gains of their countries. Leaders of these countries are capitalizing on the energy of the citizens to expand markets and aggressively compete with other nations.

Thomas Pitt’s job with the Special Branch is to protect the British government from subversion and attack by other countries. In this case, Spain is in conflict with the United States and British politicians are fearful of becoming involved in a European war. In this era of great tension, Sophia Delacruz, born in Britain but married to a wealthy Spanish man, visits her home country on a religious mission. She is driven to preach a vision of Christianity that is inclusionary, open to all people rich or poor good or evil, with the assumption that God has made a world in which every individual has the free will to evolve toward good work in society.

Sophia’s message seems to be a positive challenge across religious beliefs with the goal of reformation from exclusionary to inclusionary practices. This revolutionary thought is disturbing to believers who cling to their somewhat meaningless but unchanging religious rites adding to the unrest of the fin de siècle of the era. Sophia is in danger and Pitt must prevent harm coming to her that would trigger aggressive action against Britain by Spain. Pitt's wife Charlotte gives him insight into the reaction of women to Sophia's speeches that reflects their moving toward independence and freedom in British society.

Anne Perry describes her method of writing in this mystery series as taking a contemporary idea and moving it back to the Victorian era. Perry has created a scenario that illustrates that a war between countries may be started by a relatively minor incident given the context of exclusionary ideologies and the drive toward individual development and identity. The Angel Court Affair may be another contemporary warning to us all that when religious beliefs have no degrees of freedom, are not free to evolve with changes in economic and political life, personal and societal violence is only one incident away.

This is a very good historical mystery novel and I will read other Charlotte and Pitt novels in the series. This novel can be read as a stand alone volume in the series. Anne Perry’s writing may be considered Victorian, and I was still adjusting to the old-fashioned sentence structure as I finished reading the novel. Part of the enjoyment of reading the book was to feel like a stranger in a strange land having to learn the language of the time.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Time of War and Peace: Between Two Deserts a novel by Germaine Shames

Between Two Deserts is the first of four novels Germaine Shames has written since 2002. A former foreign correspondent, Germaine took a scissors to her press pass when she realized reporting about international news in an imposed limited format made it impossible to describe for readers the complicated interaction of people caught up in daily existence, politics, and war. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jerusalem during the Palestinian Intifada (1987 to 1993) where describing events as news misses the mark in showing the world the importance of religion, land, tradition, money, family, and information to Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. Ms. Shames’ first novel shows the reader that at individual and social levels, there are many strongly-held points of view that involve more questions than answers. As a writer of fiction, Ms. Shames also understands what E. M. Forster indicated in India during the British Raj, that writing novels about foreign locations is always given the most color when love relationships develop in unfamiliar and stressful circumstances.

The cast of characters in Between Two Deserts cluster around the lodestone, Eve Cavell, a young American Jew who travels to Jerusalem after the death of her grandfather. Two generations away from the holocaust, Eve is not a wide-eyed ingénue but rather a person with superficial attachments to Jewish tradition and feelings of the sanctity of the homeland. Showing an apparent weak identity with her heritage, Eve seems free of strong political views and social prejudice. She is vital in her open sexuality and general freedom of spirit, qualities that are suppressed in Jerusalem residents. Characters illustrating constricted views and behaviors on the unsettled stage of Jerusalem during the period of Palestinian uprising include: Mozes Koenig a professor of Middle East Studies from Budapest survivor of the Holocaust and author of a novel popular ten years ago in Jerusalem A Time for War, Salim Mahmoud a restless young Arab man whose family’s wealth was greatly decreased when the Israelis annexed East Jerusalem, engineer Jacob Halevi an orphan placed by the Jewish Agency on Kibbutz Sde Boker after surviving World War II, Jacob’s wife Leah a degreed psychologist in private practice, Sana Mahmoud director of an orphanage for Arab children whose goal was to raise the next generation of Palestinian nationalists.

The story involves Mozes’ controversial new novel, A Time for Peace, inspired by his wife Gizella who was shot dead in route to Dachau for singing a lullaby to a frightened child. Eve reminds him of his wife, his muse, giving him new insight into the Israeli/Palestinian problem making him think that peace is possible. Salim, Jacob, and Sana do not see eye to eye with Mozes or each other.

This is an excellent novel that I enjoyed reading as much as I did Ms. Shames’ other three novels: Hotel Noir and Echo Year (written as Casper Silk) and You, Fascinating You. I so admire her writing style. It captures the essence of the settings and the characters with poetic impact. In Between Two Deserts, Germaine reminds me of Lawrence Durrell and his novel, Justine. Jerusalem and Eve are the focus for Shames, and Alexandria and Justine are the focus for Durrell. As with Durrell, Germaine Shames writes with a great sense of time and timing. I highly recommend all four of Germaine Shames' novels. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Southern Discomfort: The Bone Tree a novel by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree is the second novel in a trilogy by Greg Iles that involves the investigative work of a southern lawyer, Penn Cage. Taking up the story from Iles’s Natchez Burning, Penn and the publisher of the Natchez Examiner, Caitlin Masters, continue their work investigating the homegrown terrorist activities of local millionaire and power broker Brody Royal. Penn has a deeply personal stake because his father Dr. Cage has been the target of attempted murder by assassins instigated by Royal, the supposed head of a secret southern terrorist group.   Caitlin is seeking a second Pulitzer Prize for her work during recent years exposing the local and national political activity of this group that is part of the still active KKK.  

 Penn, with the help of FBI Special Agent John Kaiser investigate the current criminal behavior of The Double Eagles, the selective KKK group including wealthy and politically connected Mississippi men. Caitlin explores the history of the group, gathering information and writing stories about a geographical focal point for their terrorist activity called “the bone tree.” 

Penn discovers that a man named Forrest Knox, Double Eagle member and head of Mississippi’s Criminal Investigation Bureau, may be the real leader of the secret KKK group who uses his office to intimidate and cover up a history of civil rights violations. Caitlin discovers that a link to these violations may be stories spanning decades of evil deeds committed at a great cypress tree in the wilds of the Mississippi Lusahatcha Swamp. Tales of Pre-Columbian Natchez Indians who considered the tree to be connected to the spirit world, atrocities committed by southern troops against fleeing Yankees during the Civil War, the hunting and torture of African Americans by slave hunters, and murders related to civil rights activities in more recent history emerge as Caitlin follows leads in her stories.

The complicated plot involves many details of history and character interaction that fill every page of the lengthy (802 pages) novel. Greg Iles’s writing in The Bone Tree reminds me of the work of EdwardRutherfurd’s novel, Paris (2013), in terms of length, historical detail, scope, and writing style. With both writers, the novels are meant to be read carefully with attention to detail. Greg Iles makes the interesting case that the most evil deeds are atavistic in nature with people going to great lengths to hide their persistent inborn aggression from the eyes of men but not the perception of God. I am looking forward to reading the third volume of the trilogy.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Form and Free Expression: The Counterfeiters a novel by Andre Gide

Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters is a novel about individual development and in a society structured by deceit. The French author started writing the novel after World War I and continued working on it for years until it was finally published in 1925. Set in Paris, the story includes upper middle class adolescent boys and the men who exploit them. The plot progresses in a somewhat disjointed fashion as Gide inserts psychoanalytic insights popular at the time. Some of Gide’s journal entries, included as an appendix to the novel, indicate a dissatisfaction with his ability to produce seamless connections between realistic structure and unconscious processes.

In the first half of the novel, the young characters are introduced, and their intellectual, social, and artistic developments are described in an engaging manner reminiscent of Balzac. The reader is involved in the plot and cares about the behavior of each of the boys. The children are becoming adults without the realization that a single immature act can determine a life path.

In the second half of the book, the pace of the plot slows as Gide inserts an increasing number of psychological interpretations into the story. The device he uses is a journal written by a novelist character, Edouard, who is using his experience with the boys and their families to write his own novel. With this voice, Gide is able to discuss events from the point of view of a witness who is intimately involved in the action and assumes the role of psychoanalyst.

The final chapters of the novel demonstrate Gide’s success in the integration of form and free expression as the plot accelerates to chaos and resolution. The reader understands that all of the boys are counterfeiters in their interactions with family, friends, and others. This is expected from adolescents who are impulsive and largely ignorant of life’s consequences. But we do not expect the adult characters to be counterfeiters, trying to deceive by pretense and dissembling in order to exploit the boys socially, intellectually, and sexually. Though this counterfeit life is habitual in the adults, Gide provides hope that the younger generation is capable of insight and judgment and can avoid dissolute lives.

Complete redemption by the boys is possible if they recognize the immorality of their external counterfeit roles. Also, they must learn to stop the narcissistic internal voice that speaks to them incessantly reflecting the counterfeit influence of parents and friends. Finally, they can enter a kind of external silence that allows genuine communication with other people, without guile or envy, and experience a compassionate and selfless immersion in the lives of others. The Counterfeiters is a good example of an author's imagined experience in the writing of a novel.