Friday, November 26, 2010

Marriage and Murder

Can you enjoy a book that you're not sure you understand? That's how I felt when I finished Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. The story revolves around three sets of married couples, which sounds simple enough. But David Pepin, the husband in what I'll call couple number one, is a successful computer game designer who is writing a novel about ... David and Alice Pepin. What's more, both Ross's book and David's book begin in exactly the same way: “When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.”

Did David kill his wife, or did she kill herself, or neither? That is what police detectives Sam Sheppard and Ward Hastroll attempt to determine. Does the name Sam Sheppard sound familiar? Yes, it's the infamous Doctor Sam Sheppard who in 1954 was convicted of killing his pregnant wife Marilyn and spent nearly ten years in prison before the conviction was overturned and he was acquitted after a new trial. Although the real Sheppard died in 1970, this fictional one lives on as a detective, and the book flashes back to portray Sam and Marilyn's troubled marriage, his infidelities, and the events leading up to her death.

The third couple, Detective Ward Hastroll and his wife Hannah, have troubles of their own. Hannah comes home from work one day and takes to her bed with no explanation, and remains there for the next five months, as her husband becomes increasingly frustrated in his attempts to understand what has happened, even fantasizing her murder.

The book jumps around among these three couples, and also slips into scenes from David's book, and it's ofter not clear (at least to me) whether I'm reading about Ross's David and Alice or David's David and Alice. For example there's an odd dwarf hit man named Mobius (as in the endless Mobius strip?) who may be a real person or more likely is just a computer game sort of avatar in David's book.

Confusing? Yes, it is but it's also funny and intriguing and oddly entertaining. It doesn't all work, and I'm not sure I got it all, but I enjoyed the trip.
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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Silent Resistance

The novel “Everyman Dies Alone” was written in 1947 in twenty four days by the prolific but doomed German writer, Hans Fallada. Hans Fallada is the pen name for Rudolf Ditzer who died shortly after the novel was published.

“Everyman Dies Alone” is based on a true story that took place in Berlin in 1941. In 1945 Fallada/Ditzer was given the Gestapo file on a working-class Berlin couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who began a surreptitious postcard campaign against the Fuhrer when a relative died in the war.

Hans Fallada took the real life events and wrote a compelling story about a non-descript working class couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who decide to wage a silent war against Hitler when their son is killed at the front. Fallada sums up their unrelenting determination when Anna concludes “No one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back.” This is the strength and beauty of this book. It gives the reader a lost insight into the small but meaningful resistance that some Germans took part in against unbeatable odds.

Fallada’s story involves a huge cast of characters that is not easy to follow. Fallada houses many of them in the apartment building where the Quangels live, some of the characters are downright ridiculous and others are just strange. Through the huge cast of characters Fallada seems to be illustrating the incredible level of fear and distrust that permeated the citizens of Berlin at that time. No one could be trusted. Yet, Otto and Anna persevered, writing postcards and silently distributing them week after week.

Reading this novel is difficult as we witness the unrelenting, ferocious cruelties of the Gestapo and the paralyzing fear that took over many citizens of Berlin. However, Fallada redeems himself in the ending chapters of the book. The ending is tragic, but heroic. And most important, it shows that in even the worst of circumstances human decency, determination and courage can prevail.

It has taken sixty years for this novel to be translated into English and appear in the US. It is a story that needs to be told even if it is not an easy or pleasant read.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Woman's Destiny

Jane Smiley’s latest novel “Private Life” is story about one woman’s life. The story begins in 1883 and closes in 1942 as this country enters World War II. It begins slowly as Margaret Mayfield, the narrator, describes her life in St. Louis. It is the end of the 19th century and life is uncomplicated but sad because of the untimely and surprising deaths that seem to be part of everyday life.
Margaret and her sisters are being trained to be “married” women. A great excitement for Margaret is getting to ride a bicycle when she is in her twenties.

But Margaret the oldest of three sisters is the one still not married. Her mother takes the matter in hand and creates a match for Margaret with Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, an famed astronomer who is eleven years older than Margaret. And so begins the story of Margaret’s “Private Life”.

The couple move to the Mare Island naval station near Vallejo, California. From the vantage of Mare Island Margaret will watch history unfold. Jane Smiley describes the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire with all its chaos and horror. She follows that with the raging Spanish influenza epidemic, World War I, the stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the incarceration of the Japanese Americans and finally World War II and the overwhelming it effects in had on the people of California and the country.

Throughout this unfolding history Margaret is trying to understand and live with her husband, a strange man who is “sucking the very air from her life.” As she lives day by day, she cooks, she drives, she types, she listens and slowly she begins to think about her life and to understand a truth she never dared to think about.

Jane Smiley’s cast of characters is a lively and memorable one. The story is one that takes over and urges the reader to find out what she is trying telling us about marriage, women and history.

Unlike Charlotte, (See Blog of "Private Life" July 2010) I enjoyed watching Margaret finally figure it out. Granted, it is a slow and painful process, but not one she was trained to do and it did take, finally, some gumption on her part. And the closing line sums up Margaret, "There are so many things that I should have dared before this."