Friday, October 30, 2009

Childhood Memories

You may know Helene Cooper's name from her byline as a diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times. You may even have seen her on TV news shows like Washington Week. But her memoir The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood tells the story of a childhood far removed from that of a typical American girl.

Cooper was born and raised in Liberia, directly descended on both sides from freed American slaves who immigrated from the United States in the pre-Civil War 1820's to establish a free colony in Africa. As a “Congo”, as the descendants of freed slaves were called, she lived a privileged childhood in a large house outside Monrovia, while the native Liberians, called “Country”, struggled in poverty and worked as servants for the upper class “Congos” like the Coopers.

Her parents adopted a native Liberian named Eunice as a companion for the lonely Helene, and the two lived a childhood that would be familiar to any American girl, with music, clothes, cars, and boys as their primary interests.But in 1989, when Helene was fourteen, native soldiers led by Samuel Doe overthrew the government, killing President Tolbert and executing scores of government members, including Helene's uncle. After a terrifying encounter with the native soldiers who invade their Sugar Beach home, the Coopers fled to America, leaving Eunice behind.

Cooper describes her struggles to fit in as an American student, her determination to become a journalist, including a first job in Rhode Island covering school board and city council meetings for the the Providence Journal , and ultimately a plum assignment to cover the Iraq invasion for the Wall Street Journal. A near-death experience there makes her realize that the war she should be covering was in Liberia, and she returns to her native country, which has been devastated by years of savage warfare.

The book is more than just chronology of Helene's life. It is a warm and tender tribute to the strength of her family, especially her warm and loving father and her indomitable mother. When she returns to Liberian to find her lost adopted sister Eunice, she powerfully reconnects to her childhood and to her native country. This book tells a very personal story, but it is also an amazing window on the Liberia behind the headlines.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Survival in Brooklyn

In 1943 Betty Smith’s first novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, was published. Somehow it touched a nerve for the people of New York and the country. It sold over 300,000 copies in the first six weeks. Betty Smith said she wrote about “the kind of people I know and the kind of people I like”. Betty Smith wrote about what she knew, her life growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Francie Nolan is the heroine of this story. But Brooklyn is the main character. Francie’s Williamsburg neighborhood was a wild place, children were fighting in the street and on the playground. The best place in the world for Francie was the fire escape outside her apartment. It is here that Francie could dream and watch the tree grow outside her window.

The characters that Betty Smith created are ones that will stay with you for a long time. Francis’s mother, Katie Rommely, only wanted to marry the handsome, charming Johnny Nolan and probably, secretly, regretted it for the rest of her life. Johnny Nolan was a fun loving, charming, singing waiter who drank himself to death as his family waited for him to come home at night.

Francie was a better student than her brother, Neely, but it is in Neely that Katie put all her hopes for the future. Katie read to Francie and Neely every night, as her Austrian mother instructed her to do, from the Bible and Shakespeare. It was from these books that Francie learned to dream and to write.

Betty Smith’s writing was incredibly descriptive as she showed us how the people of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, shopped, went to school, worked, ate, drank, went to church, voted and dealt with every human crisis sent their way. Her characters are equally memorable, from the strong and lovable Rommely women to the sweet alcoholic Johnny Nolan but most of all, Francie. Francie was gentle, shy, industrious, bright and resourceful. We lived through her pain, her humiliations, her successes and her sorrow to see her triumph as a strong, determined young woman with a bright future.

It is easy to understand why Betty Smith’s novel touched so many people in 1943 and has continued to intrigue readers sixty years later.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Summer in Ireland

I guess I'm just a sucker for Irish writers. Once again I was seduced by the beautiful prose of a master storyteller. This time it was the prolific and much admired writer William Trevor. In Love and Summer the story begins on a June morning in the Irish town of Rathmoye, as mourners spill out of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer after the funeral of Mrs. Connulty, the matriarch of the town's most important family. She is mourned by the son she doted on and the daughter whose anger over the past still boils. Florian Kilderry, a young amateur photographer, happens on to the scene and snaps some pictures. Ellie Dillahan, the young wife of an older widowed farmer, observes him with interest before he pedals away on his bicycle.

From this beginning Trevor weaves the story of one summer in and around Rathmoye. He explores the inner lives of his characters with spare, honest prose, in contrast to the lyric descriptions of the lush summer landscape. Although initially he seems to be telling separate stories about each of his characters, their lives are seamlessly woven together as the story progresses. Trevor is Irish, so of course there's humor. Mrs. Connulty's daughter (known by all simply as “Miss Connulty”) exults in wearing the expensive jewelry her mother refused to let her touch when she was a child.

But as the summer ends the tone grows more poignant. Trevor gently examines the conflicting yearnings of love, passion, loyalty and the desire to escape. The final scenes are at once heartbreaking and comforting. At the end, I felt much as I did with another Irish book I read recently (see my blog of “Brooklyn”). I didn't want to leave Rathmoye, and wondered if I should read it again to see if it would end differently. The Irish get me every time.

Friday, October 16, 2009


I decided it was time that I tried to tackle Roberto Bolaño. Actually this is my second attempt. I started “The Savage Detectives” but it was too confusing and overwhelming. So this time I started small with his novella By Night in Chile. The entire book is the deathbed rant of Father Sebastien Urrutia, a Chilean priest, poet and literary critic.

This book is hard to put down for two reasons. The first is the practical one – since there are no chapter or paragraph breaks it's hard to pick up where you left off. But the more powerful reason is that it picks you up and sweeps you along as Sebastien revisits his past. At first his reminiscences are about literary evenings with Chilean writers and intellectuals, most notably poet Pablo Neruda. But then he meets the mysterious figures Mr. Etah and Mr. Raef (surely the backwards spelling of their names is no accident), who generously send him on a trip to Europe to study the deterioration of churches. In his travels he discovers that the main cause of the damage is pigeon droppings, and that the elegant solution employed European priests is falcons, which swoop down from steeple tops to bloody and kill their prey. What a surreal image.

Urrutia returns to Chile in time to witness the Allende government (he studies Greek classics and keeps a low profile) and the Pinochet coup (he instructs Pinochet and his generals in the basic tenets of Marxism). He eventually confesses to having attended literary evenings at the home of a glamorous hostess (he claims the visits were “infrequent” although we sense this is not the truth), not knowing, or perhaps ignoring, the brutal interrogations of political dissidents taking place in her basement.

Sometimes Bolaño's prose read like poetry, with a rhythm that carries you along with its urgency. At other times Urrutia's self-justifying confession is a biting satiric condemnation of the silence of the intellectual elite. It's a book that needs to be read in big gulps. I may have to try "The Savage Detectives" again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Different World

Fortunately, most of us will have no reason to go anywhere near the inside of a women’s prison. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have an appreciation of what it is like for those inside. A very vivid picture can be found in Michelle Huneven‘s novel Blame.

Blame is the story of a woman alcoholic Patsy MacLemoore who is sent to prison for two years for causing the death of a mother and daughter through her reckless driving. In fact, she has no memory of the incident. And you may well wonder why 2 deaths merited only a 2 year sentence. Actually, the prison sequence takes up only the first third of the book but that section will probably stay in my mind the longest. I heard the author speak at a local bookstore. In response to a question from the audience, she admitted that in researching the novel she had never personally visited a prison but had spoken with several former inmates. That is all the more credit to Huneven’s writing because it feels so real. It's not a place you want to go.

The rest of the story recounts the next twenty years of Patsy’s life as she tries to reestablish her academic career and find and keep some meaningful relationships. We meet her parole officer, her psychiatrist, her former boyfriend's new boyfriend, the husband/father of the victims in well-drawn portraits. Readers with no experience of Alcoholics Anonymous will be interested in the descriptions of their meetings and its effect on different lives. There is the continuing tension as Patsy meets certain challenges between her resolve and her addiction. It takes several tries before she can settle into a romantic relationship only to have it tested by step-children and age differences.

I'm not sure that I ever came to feel Patsy's sense of guilt and blame of the title but I did learn a lot from Patsy about resolve and determination.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Parables on Happiness

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has been called one of Europe’s most popular writers. “The Most Beautiful Book in the World” is his first book to be translated from French to English. The translation was done by Allison Anderson. "The Most Beautiful Book in the World" is a collection of eight Novellas. The stories are written in a thoroughly engaging, whimsical style and all have a moral or a truth to be told.

The main character of each of these stories is a woman who inadvertently finds happiness or redemption. “Wanda Winnepeg” tells the story of a very rich woman who has attained her wealth by adhering to two principles: marry well and divorce well. Wanda strangely finds redemption by secretly returning a favor to her first benefactor. In “A Fine Rainy Day”, Helene could never remember having ever experienced a perfect moment. Her sour disposition is countered by the ultimate optimist, Antoine, who falls madly in love with Helene. And ultimately and strangely Helene finds she has become Antoine. In “Odette Toulemonde” a struggling widow worships a famous writer. But she is the one who teaches him how to live and find happiness.

The last story has same title as the book itself, “The Most Beautiful Book in the World”. A group of women prisoners in Stalin’s Gulag want to make a book to leave for their daughters. The gift they create is an eloquent book that is made with simplicity and love using something they each have in common to offer to their daughters.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is a wonderful storyteller. Each of his characters is unique and engagingly quirky. He tells a story in a whimsical, humorous way yet all of the stories have a philosophical twist that is brilliant in its simplicity. Reading this book was a treat and I hope this popular French author will choose to translate more of his writing for us to enjoy.

Reminder: L2R Roundtable

Just a reminder in case you haven't started yet: We will be having an online conversation about The Secret River by Kate Grenville during the week of November 2.

Once you have finished the book you may wish to listen to a podcast interview with the author recorded April 3, 2009 at the World Book Club.

We are looking forward to your thoughts and opinions.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The World's a Stage

It's hard to categorize a writer like Valerie Martin. I've read three of her books and they are all very different. “Possession” told the dark and compelling story of the destructive relationship between slave and slave owner in the antebellum South. “Trespass”, which I blogged in last year (Intruders), begins as a domestic story but ultimately expands to the horrors of the Bosnian genocide. Her latest novel, The Confessions of Edward Day, is a story of ambition and jealousy set in the New York theater world of the 1970's. Two young, attractive and ambitious actors, Edward Day and Guy Margate, are rivals both for roles in plays and for the affections of Madeleine, a beautiful young actress. Early in the story Guy saves Edward's life, and this event locks them in a bond of obligation, gratitude and resentment that follows them for decades.

Martin gets inside the psyche of an actor, and made me better understand the process of inhabiting a role. If you've ever seen “Uncle Vanya” or “Sweet Bird of Youth” I think you will enjoy the description of Edward's analysis of his parts in these plays.

As in her other books, Martin does a terrific job of keeping the reader off balance and in creating a mounting sense of tension. The story is told by Edward, but is he a reliable narrator? Many times I would go back and re-read scenes between the two rivals. Did I really know where the truth lay? And what was Madeleine's role in the conflict? To her credit, Martin doesn't try to tidily tie up the answers at the end of the novel. All the actors talk about finding the truth in their characters, but Valerie Martin demonstrates that truth can be elusive.