Before Everything

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Ruth Ozeki synthesized this wonderful book: “old friends embrace … the limits of mortality and the boundlessness of friendship.”

As I was reading Victoria Redel’s “Before Everything” the music and lyrics of the Allman Brothers’ “All My Friends” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” kept running through my mind.

Anna is the hub of two group of women friends: those who have known her from childhood and those who have been her neighbors for two decades. They are two distinct circles, intersecting with her like a Venn Diagram.

Anna is dying and all her friends have come to comfort her and reminisce.

The bonds of women’s friendships are different, if not stronger, than those of men. There are endless stories, peeling away the characters of each friend and their interactions with each other, their children and their significant others. This novel is life affirming, not depressing. At times I thought of the “Big Chill”, without the sex and drugs- but a little bit of rock n’ roll.

Anna’s relationship with Reuben, her husband of many years from whom she has been separated, remains close. He is in a separate orbital from the friends.

“But now, oddly it was Anna and him. It would surprise everyone that after the friends left, after her brothers with their unraveled sorrow staggered out, she’d ask him to stay. She could say anything to him. She could be nasty with him. He didn’t flinch. However extreme. She counted on him for that.

She tried so hard with everyone. But not Reuben. She never tried with Reuben. Never had, that was part of the problem. But it was his gift to her now.”

She tried not to be defined by her illness despite being in hospice. However, end of life is a separate sphere.

“Even with all these friends–more than most people could manage or even want– she had a loneliness. She feels it now. It had always been there. Certainly with Reuben, hadn’t there been loneliness? She tried not to let her children see the hem of her loneliness, though they sensed it, the twins crawling into her lap holding her face with their baby hands. She tickled them and hid inside that delight. To be so loved and still feel the clutch of that ragged, tampered place. This was her shame. She couldn’t be rid of it. Or wouldn’t be rid of it. She clutched to hold it. This nub that often felt the truest part of her. Those secret hours curled small, shrimped into herself under the familiar blanket.”

The novel has one minor flaw. It digresses to cover a brother’s participation in the Boston Marathon on the day of the bombing. In my view, this was a needless distraction, particularly since truncated coverage of Anna’s death immediately follows. It is a small part of the book, but a rewrite without it, would keep the flow of the novel.

This book would be an excellent choice for a book club. Women might enjoy it more than men, but for all genders and ages I highly recommend it.

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A Legacy of Spies

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As a young man I was not an avid reader. John Le Carre was one of my entry points into literature. Like Graham Greene, Mr. Carre’s wrote atypical spy novels. They were quiet character studies that dissected organizations. In “A Legacy of Spies” Mr. Carre provides a retrospective look at some of the principal characters of “The Spy Who Came In From  the Cold” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, two of his most well-known works. It is a timely Cold War novel, as the world is becoming chillier.

Peter Guillam, one of George Smiley’s loyal operatives, is forced out of retirement by the young operatives at the British Secret Service (the “Circus”) who are looking to cast blame for the actions taken during that period. As a closed community, they are a family of misfits, with plenty of blemishes. As in other works by Mr. Carre, his portrayal of the secret service is one of slow deliberation, often with unplanned consequences. The novel is laid out like a lawyer preparing for a prosecution. Mr. Guillam is to fill in the blanks in the records that are revealed throughout the book. He is an unwilling participant.

The novel has a slower pace, as it principally is a character study. It is not the best work he has written, but is a worthwhile read if you are a fan.

The Wolf of Sarajevo

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“Just as there are phantom limbs there are phantom histories, histories that are severed and discarded, but linger on as thwarted possibilities and compelling nostalgia.” (Adam Philiips, On Balance)

Churchill said that the Balkans produce more history than it could consume. The Croats, the Serbs, the Ottomans, all had their periods of glory. Religion accentuates the differences: respectively, Christian, Orthodox and Muslim. The Paris Peace Conference after World War I ignored reality on the ground. World War II refashioned boundaries, and then more recently the Dayton Agreement cobbled a peace deal together. All imperfect. Politics is local, and family massacres are remembered and revenged. Pick your poison: Srebrenica for the Bosnians; Jasenovc for the Serbs; Vukovar for the Croats.

Matthew Palmer’s “The Wolf of Sarajevo” is a political thriller that imagines another slide into the Balkan abyss. Here Serbian nationalists would undo Dayton and persecutes the Bosniaks again.

The author is a U.S. State Department foreign officer who had been posted to Belgrade during the height of the Bosnian war. He knows the venue. Although heroic, as political thrillers may be, the novel is grounded in the history and politics of the region. It is fast paced and entertaining.

Unsurprisingly, a State Department official, operating somewhat rogue, is the hero. The State Department and the U.S. Defense departments its related agencies view each other with some disdain. This is evidenced in the novel, although bureaucracies and politicians are the principal villains. To achieve success, operating outside the lines is requisite. This is a tradition in this genre. There are no James Bond types, but the novel errs on the side of fiction. It is meant to be a fun read and is.

Thanksgiving

I  am not a fan of President Trump’s demeanor. I believe in people maintaining decency, respect for each other and for the law. Three college basketball players on scholarship at UCLA were caught shoplifting sun glasses in China while on a good-will trip for their university. One of the player’s father, LaVar Ball, is outspoken and a self-promoter, as is President Trump. They are having a Tweet War, after the father belittled the effort it took the President (and U.S. government) to get these basketball players released and sent home, without spending many years in jail. These players will likely become millionaires if drafted by the N.B.A.. Mr. Ball’s son is certainly in this category. Other students at U.C.L.A. may struggle just to pay for their education at U.C.L.A. They are not getting a ride nor a trip to China. This is not to say the school is innocent. U.C.L.A. makes money off of its basketball program, but even if these players were considered paid employees, appropriate conduct would be required. U.C.L.A. could not bite the revenue bullet and withdraw the scholarships of these players. It should. It did not want to risk them leaving for another school. It suspended them. LaVar Ball could not bring himself to offer a simple apology (or to say nothing), both for his failure as a father and for not expressing gratitude to the leaders of the U.S. and China, and their governments, for wasting their time and our money. Mr. Ball has seen worse things stolen then sunglasses- no big deal. Well respect and common decency is a big deal and teaching those values to your children is a parent’s responsibility.

No one is perfect, but we should all strive to be better. In Alabama those with claimed religious values are willing to overlook a Senate candidate’s alleged attraction to young girls when he was a law officer and 32. Would they elect Anthony Weiner? Those in Minnesota are willing to cut their liberal senator some slack for what he admittedly did with a woman while he was a comedian. He apologized, but it was no joke. Power, or presumed power, is not a right to disrespect. Hypocrisy makes it worse. The Senator and some Hollywood stars fall into this category. If you want to champion a cause, be transparent about your own personal failures first. There may be less champions, but at least they would be deserving.

We live in a wonderful country. Not everyone in it is wonderful, but there are likely some redeeming values in each and every one of them. At Thanksgiving let us be grateful for what we have been given and earned, and to earn the respect of others at and after dinner. At the very least, recognize that there are others who are then out in the cold, with no place warm to sleep, alone, with nothing to eat. I just have to walk a block to my park to see the reality that there but for the grace of God I have been spared. Share some of your dinner wealth with them.

Happy and healthy Thanksgiving to all of you.

The Water Museum

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It is a cultural and stylistic shock to the short stories of Luis Alberto Urrea after reading Penelope Lively’s short stories. “The Water Museum” as in most short story anthologies republish stories originally published in literary journals and in this case from an earlier anthology of Mr. Urrea “Six Kinds of Sky”. Two are original stories: “The Sous Chefs of Iogua” and  “A Visit to the Water Museum”. The former is an immigration story told from the perspective of an Iowa farmer who has watched his migrant hands move up the economic ladder by opening restaurants in their small town and not succeeding in the Americanization of foreign cuisines. Iogua is their mispronunciation of Iowa.

“A Visit to the Water Museum” is a coming of age story during a sustained drought. A number of stories plow sexual innocence, even in a moderately tough Chicano neighborhood. “Amapola” is the most gripping story. Trying to make the young daughter of a drug kingpin is not a healthy adventure.

These stories are about characters and are mostly told through dialogue. Mostly it is the Chicano experience in the Southwest and Midwest United States on the lower economic level. There are a couple of stories that fit within the magical realism genre.

Only one story came up short, but as it was only about five pages, it was a filler.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist, Mr. Urrea can write. It is a good collection of stories.

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The Purple Swamp Hen

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Dame Penelope Lively has had a storied literary career. Short-listed for the Booker a couple of times and a recipient once, she is the recipient of many other literary awards. She has written two memoirs with a third that focuses on gardens due out this month. Apart from novels and children’s books she has five short story collections of which “The Purple Swamp Hen” is the most recent. Distinctly traditional post-World War II British in tone, each story is narrated with limited dialogue. Well written, but due to narration, most of the stories have the emotional detachment of an observer. Relationships, particularly marital fidelity or lack thereof, are the subject of a number of the stories.

Her constructs are imaginative. The title story is told from the perspective of a purple swamp hen in Pompei. “Biography” is a series of interviews about Lavinia Talbot, a recently deceased professor (and BBC personality) of some renown for her work on children, though childless herself. “Point of View”, captures what each story is about: perspective. The cat has the last point of view.

There are some mild horror stories and mysteries. “The Third Wife” turns the table on a criminally opportunistic husband. “Lorna and Tom” is about a marriage where class difference is a bridge to far. “The Bridge” for me is the best story. The death of a child is the marital chasm that enables physical and emotional separation. The perspectives on the cause is charged.

These stories reflect capable composition directed toward the POV theme. Prose and character development are secondary to this purpose. The stories are stereotypically white, middle class Britain that reflect the author’s time period. The writing is honest, with a hint of polite British criticism, all within the narrow confine of perspective.

Worth reading especially for those who aspire to write short stories.

The Prague Sonata

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This novel would have been a wonderful companion when I toured Prague. It is a beautiful city.

This novel is not a travelogue, as you might expect from Paul Theroux. It is atmospheric if you have visited the locale. The prose weighs more to story than descriptive of venue. It traces the search for a music score of presumed importance through Czechoslovakia, London, New York, the Czech Republic and the Mid-West of the U.S..

Otylie, as a young girl is given the score by her ethnically Czech father before he returns to the World War I battlefield. Her father was a collector of musical scores and he tells her to protect the score at all cost. He never returns. Although she does not music, because her father told her that music and war are associated, she obeys his wishes. With the onset of the Nazis into Prague she separates the score, giving each movement to her husband and a friend to protect it from the Nazis and later from the Russians. Her husband dies and people are displaced, so Otylie only has one of the movements.

Meta a young musicologist in New York City is given one of the movements by an elderly friend of Otylie before she dies. Irena requests Meta to find Otylie, recover the other movements and to return the entire sonata to Otylie if she is alive. The novel traces Meta’s efforts to do this.

The story is imbued with classical music history from the 18th Century. There are flashbacks, providing clues to the mystery and adding depth to the characters. The prose serves the story, with much use of dialogue. There is coverage of some of Meta’s romantic relationships along the way, but these serve the story as a whole.

For some, the 500 page novel is too long, but I thought this novel was a page-turner. It has commercial possibilities as an Indie film. It is not “art”, but is an entertaining good read.

Autopsy of a Father

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What we have in Pascale Kramer’s “Autopsy of a Father” is a failure to communicate on a familiar and societal level. Set currently in and around St. Etienne in south central France near Lyon, it was a region near the center of the Vichy government during World War II. Not a liberal region, the father, Gabriel, was a liberal journalist, whose defense of two local boys who murdered an immigrant from Comoros, is reviled by his former colleagues, and quietly supported by his neighbors. He is found dead, purportedly a suicide, soon after his estranged daughter and deaf grandson visit him. The daughter, an intellectual and social failure in the eyes of her egotistical and narcissistic father, is divorced from a Balkan Muslim, who unexpectedly shows up for the funeral preparations, along with the father’s controlling ex-wife from a locally superior economic and political class, and her brother. There is some financial issue about a Degas that has gone unaccounted for from the estate.

Death can bring out the worst in families, particularly when it is dysfunctional in life. The lack of communication breeds distrust, and communication feeds the flame.

This short novel starts a little slow, but rapidly becomes a page-turner. Ms. Kramer builds and maintains the tension throughout, with the politics of prejudice being an undercurrent. It indirectly raises the question whether prejudice more easily evolves when one bears the brunt of immigration, then those who unaffectedly theorizes about the impact of immigration on local communities. It is unclear, whether the victim was in France illegally or was an African legally living in predominantly white rural France. It is unclear if he was Muslim as most are. The murder was clearly unprovoked and there is no mention about what impact immigration had on the community, other than the resulting prejudice. These questions are left for the reader.

The prose is in service of the story and character development. A third-party narration, the novel is told from the daughter’s perspective. I have read a number of publications of Bellevue Literary Press. They tend to publish good works.

I recommend this novel.

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes

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Tamar Yellin is an excellent short story writer who was Longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. “Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes” references the ten lost tribes of Israel: Reuben; Simeon; Dan; Naphtali; Gad; Asher; Issachar; Zebulun; Ephraim; and Manasseh. Each chapter is entitled one of the lost tribes and is prefaced by quotations about one or more of the tribes, from the Bible or theological studies about the lost tribes. Apart from this Jewish theme, these integrated biographical short stories about the fictional narrator are universal. They embrace the psychologically displaced, culturally foreign and mentally isolated.  The first story, Reuben, begins with the narrator as a boy. He is influenced by his uncle, a globetrotter in stories, but in reality an impoverished, sedentary man, whose life is financed by the narrator’s father. In Simeon, the narrator, still a boy, is on a low-cost voyage on an unscrupulous steam line that has a history of losing ships in the Mediterranean. The globetrotter here is Nikos, the sympathetic steward who tries to look after the passengers. Dan is about the narrator’s father, who squandered his money to buy the perfect book for his collection, and the entrepreneurial bookseller, who is more than willing to accommodate him. In Naphtali, the narrator tries to impress his uncompromising but fragile linguistic professor himself in search of the lost language of his parents. Gad is about the narrator’s black-sheep aunt who never had the nerve to leave. In Asher, the narrator tries to befriend an isolated elderly neighbor who is waiting for the Messiah. In Issachar, the transient narrator, now a professor, has a relationship with his student, whose  unmemorable physical characteristics leaves her beyond recognition. In Zebulun, he is a caretaker of an elderly wealthy man, who is a prisoner in his own surroundings. In Eprhraim, he runs across a former student whose goal of having his perfect book published is realized in a local bookstore of a small town. In Manassas, he has journeyed downstream with his African guide in search of a person never seen, but who is legendary. It is the summation of the earlier stories and raises the question whether the lost tribes were not lost, but depleted in number and in memory.

My feeling after reading this book is that the author may be trapped in the genre where she has found success. The preface to each chapter and the title of the book enables her to keep her audience, but the writing has the broader appeal she could have. You might find it so.

Compass

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Non-Fiction  and fiction are fused in Mathias Enard’s “Compass”, a complex visitation of 19th Century Orientalism told through the relationship of an emotionally sedentary Austrian musicology professor and his intellectually adventurous, but distant, love interest whose esoteric academic interests border on the morbid. This immensely researched novel is today arcane. Its breadth is jaw-dropping: music, history, literature, philosophy, religion, anthropology, archaeology, and biography. A recipient of the Prix Goncourt Prize and Short-Listed for the Man Booker International Prize, this novel is not an easy read, and probably warrants a second-reading.

I looked at other published reviews of this book as I am not sure anyone could capture it and I did not think I could do it justice. One reviewer suggested that you might need a PhD in the subject area and the L.A. Times’ reviewer  (Justin Taylor) summarized my feeling about the book.

Compass‘ is as challenging, brilliant, and – God help me – important novel ans is likely to be published this year, but there was more than one occasion on which I had to stop myself from throwing it across the room.”

You might want to read Joshua Cohen’s New York Times review of the book as it is a fair synopsis: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/books/review/compass-mathias-enard.html.

Mr. Enard is coming to my local bookstore at the end of the month and  I hope to see him. I cannot find his biography and  I would like to know if this novel was a product of life long interests and intellectual study or of having the benefit of researchers. French by birth, fluent in Arabic and having traveled throughout the Middle East he has some background, but his enterprise required more than this.

Orientalism is an anachronistic description of a world where the Levant for Europeans was an exotic escape. The search for “otherness” was not possible then, nor now, except for the few remaining remote tribes yet touched by civilization. There is relativity to culture. It both escapes as you try to approach another society, and infuses itself in both. The novel’s principal characters would argue that the Arab/Persian cultures had a strong influence on the development of Europe’s, despite the colonial perceptions. This was particularly true for the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Germany and France.

I was intrigued and overwhelmed by “Compass”, but have not decided whether it is an excellent work of literature, or a non-fiction mind-dump within a fiction vessel. I am leaning toward the former. You will have to judge for yourself. It is worth the try- but in small doses.