Friday, June 24, 2011

Fragments of Music

"Time's a goon, right?" says a character in Jennifer Egan's remarkable book A Visit From The Goon Squad.  Time is one of many elements that Egan plays with, fragments, flips, turns back on itself.  I could describe this as a series of linked short stories, a common form in today's fiction, as in "The Imperfectionists" (Reporting From Rome) or "Great House" (Loss and Memory), but Egan's attempt is more ambitious. 

The book's thirteen chapters, divided into Part A and Part B like sides on an LP (showing my age with that reference), follow characters from the punk rock scene of San Francisco in the 70s, through the New York suburbs of the 90s, to a post-modern Manhattan, with side trips to Africa and Naples.  In each chapter the tone, the voice and the point of view change, as the stories move forward and backward in time in a discontinuous but not confusing flow.  Music, both the creative and business side, is an element in many of the stories, and I can easily imagine that someone could create a CD with a track for each chapter.  Characters appear as their young and older selves, overlapping with each other in unexpected ways.

Occasionally I thought that Egan tried to be a little too clever, but overall I was fascinated by the the complicated, interwoven lives of her characters. 

Note to e-readers:  There is a wonderful chapter created by a teenage girl as a Power Point slide show which you will need a magnifying glass to read.  But it's worth it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Everyman in Hitler's Berlin

"In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin"
by Erik Larson

This is the tale of William E. Dodd, the U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1933-37, a somewhat naive academic appointed by Roosevelt after the post had been declined by four others. Dodd, Chair of the history department at University of Chicago and author of Woodrow Wilson's biography, desired nothing more than an undemanding position which would allow him time to write his master work "Rise and Fall of the Old South".

The Dodd family, including 2 adult children (Martha, age 24, is a key figure here, partly due to the detailed diaries she kept) was determined to live in Berlin modestly, in deference to Americans suffering during the depression. This included shipping their beat-up Chevrolet to use abroad, at a time when Hitler's men flaunted their power in giant black touring cars.

Hitler's appointment as Chancellor in Jan 1933 was followed immediately by a brutal spasm of state-condoned violence, as storm troopers rampaged, beating, arresting and sometimes murdering tens of thousands of communists, socialists and Jews. Dodd and other diplomats watched these events, imagining that they couldn't continue, that Hitler could not possibly maintain power, and seizing on any sign that he was moderating. We see infatuation with the regime, fruitless efforts to work with it, and either gradual or quick realization of the significance of what was happening.

Eventually it was clear to all those posted in Germany that whatever Hitler said or didn't say about wanting peace, Germany was actively re-militarizing in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.

We have the benefit of hindsight, so it's a fascinating challenge to put oneself in the place of these diplomats. They naturally socialized with high Nazi officials such as Goebbels and Goring. Daughter Martha, always a fun girl, had affairs with the head of the Gestapo and the future head of the KGB simultaneously.

This is an excellent book, a slice of time containing maybe a few too many diplomatic communiques, but compelling all the while.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Unbroken but maybe bent a bit

What are the limits of human endurance? And what gives people the strength to persevere? "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption" opens with a riveting glimpse of men adrift for weeks on a bathtub-sized raft in the Pacific, stalked by sharks hurling themselves onto the raft, then strafed by a Japanese plane. I was hooked immediately. Author Laura Hillenbrand (Sea Biscuit) next takes us back to the beginning, tracing the life of Louis Zamporini, troublemaker kid, thief, Olympic miler and WW II airman missing in the Pacific. As his ordeal unfolds, one cannot imagine what will come next. Readers learn about competitive running, the war in the Pacific, human endurance, frailty and redemption. We see yet again what men in war are subjected to, how they rise to the occasion, and the price they pay. Tough, headstrong Louie Zamporini in particular was well equipped to persevere. This biography is a great read.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Jersey Girl

“There is just something about New Jersey that breeds a certain type of life and by extension, a certain type of person.” This is the opening line of Kristen Buckley’s coming of age memoir, “Tramps Like Us”. Kristen Buckley is a musician, a screen writer and a novelist. She has written a very funny, rather quirky memoir about how she got from the suburbs of New Jersey to the streets of Los Angelus, via New York City.

Kristen Buckley begins the story with the tragic-comedy event of her physician father announcing to his six year old daughter, “Now that that you’re six you don’t need a dad anymore.” Kristen promptly went home to her surviving parent and climbed into bed with her mother and her Korean brother and sister who had been adopted two months earlier.

And so began the odyssey of surviving in New Jersey in “70’s Divorce Hell”. From the exploding septic tank on the sprawling front lawn to the long lost Korean sibling who is rescued by Kristen’s mother, but whose knowledge of English is limited to profane four letter words.

For readers growing up in the seventies and eighties this story will have a certain resonance. But for those of us who didn’t grow up in that era or in New Jersey, this story is just plain fun. Buckley has a wry sense of humor, not to mention what a precocious, wise child she was. It is fun to laugh and commiserate with her and this crazy family as that make their way through a difficult time with a great sense of humor and determination.

By the end of this charming, laugh out loud story you are really routing for a girl who really didn’t care what anybody else thought as she tried to make sense of her wacky life. I love the section where she lists (the) 66 famous people who are from New Jersey. With this story, and Kristen Buckley’s accomplishments, there are now 67!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Streets of San Francisco

When a novel is set in a city I know well, it can sometimes be distracting. Instead of focusing on plot and character, I'm trying to figure out where a house is located, or which bus a character is riding, or whether the author screwed up the geography (as in the chase scene in “Bullitt”). Carol Edgarian's Three Stages of Amazement is set mainly in San Francisco, and she makes the city a character in her story. The wealthy VC mogul Cal Rusch and his society A-list wife Ivy live in the Gold Coast section of Broadway, and Cal's niece Lena lives with her doctor husband Charlie Pepper in a disgustingly pink bungalow seven blocks to the north (must be the Marina). When Cal's butler Paco is sent down the hill to deliver a party invitation to the Peppers, Cal watches from his picture window as the butler struggles back up the street. Am I thinking about the repercussions of this invitation? No, I'm thinking “Take the Lyon Street steps!”.

But never mind. Charlie and Lena accept the invitation to an over-the-top engagement party for the Rusch's daughter Paige, and I get to be a fly on the wall as guests sample canap├ęs from Jardiniere and Chez Panisse and listen to Norah Jones. But there's trouble brewing. Charlie, who has abandoned surgery to create a start-up for his invention - a surgical robot - needs money, Cal wants to invest, and Lena can't stand her uncle and doesn't want hubby to accept his filthy lucre. To further thicken the plot, an old boyfriend of Lena's, an impossibly hot Italian named Alessandro, works with Cal. He dumped Lena and she married Charlie on the rebound. Can this marriage be saved?

I'm being a shade too flip with all this. Edgarian creates far more with her story and characters than just a romantic fiction. She has an eye for the details of the lives of the super-rich, but she can also create a complex portrait of a women stretched thin by the stress of financial woes, a sick child, and an absent husband. The story takes some unexpected turns, some of which made it hard for me to return my focus to the main characters, but it was an honest picture of a marriage between two flawed but all too human people.Enhanced by Zemanta

Friday, June 3, 2011

Welcome Back, Jackson

I'm a Kate Atkinson fan from way back. When I read her debut novel “Behind The Scenes At The Museum” in 1997 I thought it was one of the funniest and most original books I'd read in a long time. Her next two novels were a disappointment for me, but then in 2000 she wrote “Case Histories” and launched the career of curmudgeonly private investigator Jackson Brodie. I've followed Brodie through three crime novels and now I've happily finished the fourth – Started Early, Took My Dog.

Brodie has long been haunted by the unsolved murder of his sister when she was a teenager. Perhaps that's what makes him sympathetic to his current case, a woman in New Zealand searching for the biological parents who gave her up for adoption in Leeds in 1975. The narrative switches between 1975 and the present, with each backward look revealing a little more of the crimes and cover ups that occurred. This plot weaves together with yet another case of a a child separated from a mother, an aging soap opera actress, a guilty conscience, tea shops, murdered women and Emily Dickinson. And then there's the story of the dog.

Atkinson is a master at mixing humor and violence, and at making the intersections of diverse characters and plots seem accidental rather than contrived. Brodie, simultaneously tough and introspective, broods about ex-wives (including the one who took him to the cleaners), lost loves and difficult children as he follows trails and avoids dismemberment. I hope Kate Atkinson isn't done with Jackson Brodie, because I certainly am hoping to visit him again.

PS The BBC is airing a six part “Case Histories” series in June – let's hope it makes its way to Masterpiece Whatever.
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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Adventure in Tuscany

If reading The Ambassadors by Henry James is like running a marathon, then reading Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham is like a walk in the park. Instead of James’ paragraph- or page-length sentences with their convoluted structure of clauses within clauses, Maugham’s writing is clean and straightforward. It’s clear who or what is the subject of the sentence. Maugham’s meaning is unambiguous.

Young Mary Panton is recovering from the death of her husband a year earlier. Friends who own a villa outside of Florence, Italy, have offered her the use of the place to recover her spirit and decide the direction her life will take. Maugham’s descriptions of the Tuscan countryside, the air, the gardens, the furnishings of the villa are so vivid. It is easy to imagine why Tuscany continues to draw travelers in and to hold them there.

Mary has a suitor who has proposed marriage. When he is called away from Florence for a few days on business, Mary promises to give him her answer upon his return. During those few days, events take several unexpected turns and other men enter the drama: brash, rich, ne’er-do-well Rowley and Karl, an impoverished refugee of war from Austria. It should come as no surprise: If one carries a gun, one should expect that it will go off.

The final line of the book sums it up nicely: “Darling, that’s what life’s for – to take risks.” You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out who is speaking and why.

The paperback copy that I read was published in 2000 by Vintage International. The cover is a beautiful rendition of a painting by Maxfield Frederick Parrish, The Villa Scassi, Genoa from 1904. By comparison the cover of the current edition is so atrocious that I couldn’t bring myself to add it to our blog. I used a copy of the painting itself instead.