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Archive for January, 2010

Lethem’s latest

While on a trip to NYC, I was reading Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.  His sense of place, whether Brooklyn, Manhattan or even, incongruously, during a car chase up through Connecticut, Massachusetts and on into Maine, is flawless. I love how he describes Hartford’s “endearing little rush hour” or the laconic lobsterman he meets on the Maine coast.  It was an additional pleasure to be staying in Midtown east and reading about a stakeout further uptown on Park Ave. For this is a detective novel, but, in the tradition of the best of the genre, it is much more than that – it fairly brims with catchy characters, insights into human behavior, a dash of pathos, rich details and at the center, a hapless fellow named Lionel who happens to be suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome.  In the tradition of the flawed detective hero, Lionel ups the ante:  an orphan taken under the wing of a petty gangster, his syndrome effectively conceals his intelligence giving him the advantage of being always somewhat undercover. When his mentor is killed, Lionel sets out for vengence. While the plot gets a bit clunky at the end, and Julia is never fully believable, Lionel’s humanity and decency carry the day. I give it three cheers!

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Ants, Grasshoppers

I recently picked up Truth and Beauty, by Ann Patchett. The only other work of hers that I have read is Bel Canto, but I might try some of her other novels. This is her only work of nonfiction, a memoir of her friendship with fellow writer and poet Lucy Greely. It is also the story of Patchett’s writing life, beginning as it does when she and Lucy are accepted into the graduate program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  Patchett writes beautifully and shows us Lucy and herself as a foil to Lucy throughout the years of their joint struggles to be writers.  Lucy is the star, always was the star, and Ann the quiet friend, the helper, the plodder who piles up pages methodically while Lucy manically parties, puts off writing, frets about love, doesn’t pay her bills, falls and has to be picked up again and again.  Ann lovingly depicts Lucy with all her flaws, using an analogy that I love, that of the ant and the grasshopper.  Ann, of course, is the ant and Lucy the lovable grasshopper, playing music for all to hear, rushing here and there, and not storing up food for the cold winter months.  As Ann puts it:

We were a pairing out of an Aesop’s Fable, the grasshopper and the ant, the tortoise and the hare.  And sure, maybe the ant was warmer in the winter and the tortoise won the race, but everyone knows that the grasshopper and the hare were infinitely more appealing animals in all their leggy beauty, their music, and their interesting side trips. What the story didn’t tell you is that the ant relented at the eleventh hour and took in the grasshopper when the weather was hard…..Grasshoppers and hares find the ants and tortoises.  They need us to survive, but we need them as well.  They were the ones who brought the truth and beauty to the party, which Lucy could tell you as she recited her Keats over breakfast, was better than food any day.

Sometimes we expect and want perfection in our heroes.  But as Jane Austen said, “Pictures of perfection make me feel sick and wicked.”  I am also reminded of Knightley’s remark about Emma, from Jane Austen’s Emma:

We love her not in spite of her faults, but because of them…

Because Ann portrays Lucy so truthfully, we can love her as she does, as we love Emma.  Ann’s tribute to Lucy is a work of truth and beauty. It is fitting to end with Keats:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

 

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A movie tie-in

Recently wrote about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and then came across a BBC series called Island at War which is about a fictional channel island during the German occupation (the islands actually were taken over by the Germans as a first step to invading England).  This intense drama begins in the wake of Dunkirk and follows certain island families as the British decamp and the Germans take over.  Many of the events in the book are also portrayed here, such as the evacuation of the children and the clever sharing of dead pigs (the Germans kept track of how many pigs each farmer had) so that the island folk can sneak a pork dinner.  There are also those who collaborate with the enemy, spies in hiding, a Jewish girl being pursued by a creepy Nazi and many other subplots.  The German characters are fully realized as well, especially the Commandant who strives for a “model occupation,” but also needs an execution to keep the islanders in check.  It is chilling to see the Nazi flags and goose-stepping soldiers in the village streets, but equally chilling is how “civilized” the enemy is.  These are not aliens, not really that foreign.  Many of them have English relatives, most speak English, they’ve probably all read the same books, including the Bible.  It makes one realize that the enemy is our own natures, the capacity of each of us to do the wrong thing, to choose evil or expediency, or just follow orders. I’ve sited this passage before, from the  5/22/06 New Yorker.  Anthony Lane was profiling an Englishman named Patrick Leigh Fermor (“An Englishman Abroad”) and relayed the following anecdote:

Fermor recounts a time in 1944, when he and his men are in flight from German patrols towing a German general. As they are climbing Mt. Ida (in Crete?) the General watches the dawn break and murmers from Horace, “Vides ut alte stet nive candidum.” Leigh Fermor also knew Horace and continued the quotation, “nec jam sustineant onus, Silvae laborantes, gulque, Flumina constiterint acuto”, and so on to the end. Fermor adds, “for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Anthony Lane adds that “it feels like the end of something: the last, companionable gasp of a civilization– grounded in the knowledge of earlier civilizations, Roman and Greek– that had not just held sway in Europe for over a thousand years but had done more than any political truce or chicanery to bind Europe together. Both Leigh Fermor and the general had been raised to recognize Horace odes 1.9, to get it by heart, and to realize that the poem itself is a crystallization of our common feelings.” (p. 64).

The ending is inconclusive, leaving one wondering if there are more episodes to come, but no. It ends in medias res, with the fates of many of the characters left up in the air. Yes, we know the eventual outcome, we know that Germany loses, but what about Zelda, hiding in the attic, and the fate of those sent to prison camps in France? On the other hand, I don’t know that I could take the suspense if they continued the series through the long years of occupation; things were obviously going to get much worse before getting better.   But the uncertainty of the ending is part of the lesson:  that’s war and war is hell, for both the occupier and the occupied – and the viewer.

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