Friday, December 31, 2010

Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz

Displaced Persons
Ghita Schwarz
William Morrow/HarperCollins
Released: August 2010
Source: library eBook

The last book that I read in 2010 was a good one.  It's not exactly a superstition, call it more of a goal, but I like to end or start each year with a good reading experience.  I don't remember where I heard about Displaced Persons, but it was recommended somewhere and I was thrilled to find I could download the ebook from my public library to read on my Kobo.

Displaced Persons opens in May 1945 just after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of the concentration camps.  It follows a core group of characters as they rebuild their lives over a 65 year period, to October 2000.  Refugees from concentration camps and others who lost their homes and families were renamed displaced persons (DPs), hence the title of the book.  Most leave Europe for Australia, Palestine, England, and America.  They start over in new countries, create communities, and struggle with what and how much to tell their children about their own experience.

While this novel doesn't put the reader directly in the shoes of the characters, which I don't think was the author's intention, you feel like you're standing next to them and seeing what they're going through.  You witness their numbness, fear, hunger, the surreal feeling of being alive after what just happened, the rekindling of hope, the betrayals, the silence, the eventual public dialog about the Holocaust.  I think Schwarz did an amazing job of creating a cohesive narrative that covers 65 years and the lives of multiple characters in just over 300 pages.  It sort of exhausted and invigorated me at the same time. It is what some would call a haunting novel, or at least it was for me.  After finishing Displaced Persons it took me a few days of flipping through other books before I could find one to commit to.  The characters in Displaced Persons wouldn't let me go.

I was surprised to learn about the judgment that some non-European Jews had for those Jews who stayed in Europe. I had no idea that there was such judgment against the European Jews by the Palestinian Jews or Zionists to the point that Yiddish was looked down on as the language of "sheep"--the Jews of Europe, who in the eyes of non-European Jews (or those who left before the Nazi horror), let themselves, or so the judgment goes, be led to slaughter like sheep.

The lack of understanding in this novel is sometimes due to language barriers--many of the DPs eventually speak several languages--but there is also a lack of understanding on many levels due to a fear of speaking out, of speaking one's truth.  But its complicated because to speak the truth during the war years was to risk certain imprisonment and possibly death.

This lack of understanding and the compassion it could breed is shown between Jews from various counties and within families.  As Pavel reflects late in the novel, "It was all just people, the members of a family, streams of wool thread, separate, hooked into the same loom by coincidence, touching and twisting only when the design required.  Maybe no one felt anything for anyone but the missing....Surviving in order to argue and hate."  Pavel bursts out laughing after that thought and its a laughter that seems to say humanity will survive.

And toward the end of the novel, stories are being told and recorded, scholars are writing books and giving lectures, movies are being made about the experience of the Jewish men, women, and children who survived the Nazis.  People are making an effort at understanding by listening to the stories of the survivors.  Some of the stories of survival seemed unbelievable, but they are the stories of people who lived.  Practical, realistic thinking lead to death sentences.  "It was when magical thinking came true that one lived."

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

The Garden of Eden
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, 1986
ISBN: 978-0-684-80452-1
Source: bought it

Instead of burning through all of the works of a writer I admire--particularly the dead ones--I try to hold back and let myself come to them here and there because after I read everything that folks like Hemingway, Hawthorne, or Cather wrote, that's it.  It's all over.  Sure I can re-read some favorite novels or short stories again (and again), but its never the same as coming to a story for the first time and relishing the experience as it unfolds.

Why The Garden of Eden now?  I picked it up because Patricia Cornwell recently recommended it on her Facebook page.  I don't remember exactly why the novel came up, but Cornwell specifically mentioned how it depicts the experience of a writer at work.  I was ready for a little Hemingway since I'd recently posted pictures from a visit to his house in Key West.

The Garden of Eden was published posthumously in 1986.  Hemingway started writing it in 1946 when he was living in Cuba.  He worked on it over the years and at one point it was up to 1,500 pages according to one source.  (Another article I read claimed it was 2,400 pages).  It obviously became a bit of a monster for him and for several editors who tried to shape it into a "publishable novel" after his death.  Tom Jenks, an editor who was not a Hemingway aficionado, finally edited it down to the 247 page novel that is available for purchase.

The biographical interpretation of the novel is that it is based on Hemingway's first marriage and the affair that subsequently broke up that marriage.  The story is about newly weds David and Catherine Bourne who are honeymooning on the coast of France, with some time in Spain. They've been married three weeks at the story's beginning.  He's 28 and she's 21.  He's a writer whose first book is currently getting good reviews and she's a wealthy heiress with nothing to do, it seems, but be a wife.

Trouble is alive from the get-go when, in their first conversation, David states that he's the inventive type and Catherine replies that she's the destructive type.  The style is typical Hemingway, but much of the content is not.  There's fishing, hunting, and drinking, but there's also sexual role playing, a male lead who can be a bit of a doormat, and another woman with whom both Catherine and David take turns having sex, swimming, and just hanging out.  There's also a negative portrayal of hunting presented in the story within the story that David is writing.

You'd think it was the other woman who would be the snake in this Garden of Eden, but at some point David starts calling Catherine "Devil."   This is one of those novels that an undergrad could have a field day deconstructing.

In regard to the sexual role playing, I was reminded of Gioia Diliberto's excellent biography of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife, titled simply Hadley.  In that biography Diliberto consulted letters between Ernest and Hadley and I believe she also interviewed Hadley.  Young Ernest and Hadley used to take turns being the passive and aggressive partner in bed and they also got their hair cut in the same style.  Hemingway supposedly regretted divorcing Hadley later in life.

I was struck by the preface to the edition I read, written by Charles Scribner, Jr.  It seemed like a bit of an apology for publishing the novel.  There's often controversy when a writer's unfinished work is published posthumously, but since Scribner was Hemingway's personal editor for the last part of his life, you'd think he'd have been able to write a different sort of preface, one not quite so argumentative that he ('we') did the right thing in publishing this novel.

My curiosity was piqued, so I looked into it just a little bit and found this interesting article about Tom Jenks's editing of The Garden of EdenClick here for the article.  It will cast a different light on the publisher's note found before the preface of the edition that I read which states: "In preparing the book for publication we have made some cuts in the manuscript and some routine copy edition corrections.  Beyond a very small number of minor interpolations for clarity and consistency, nothing has been added.  In every significant respect the work is all the author's."

I really enjoyed the novel and plan on picking up a copy for my Mom who is also a Hemingway fan but hasn't yet read this one.  I'm keeping my marked up copy because I know I'll read it again to enjoy watching how Hemingway unfolds the conflicts between the various characters.

Below is the cover of the first edition.  The image is Woman with Basket by the Cubist painter Juan Gris. Hemingway's son Patrick was reminded of this painting after reading Jenks's edited version of his father's novel.  I prefer this cover to the one above, which I think glamorizes and cheapens the sexual issues within the novel.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Title: The Sherlockian
Author: Graham Moore
Publisher: Twelve/Hachette Book Group
Published: December 1, 2010
Source: advance reading copy

I'm not a Sherlock Homes fan.  I may have read "The Hound of Baskervilles" way back when, but I wouldn't bet my life on it.  You'd think I would have looked into the stories since my older sister regularly said No shit, Sherlock to me when we were kids, but when I tried the stories always seemed stuffy and condescending to my younger self.  These days I'm more apt to give them another try.  I did recently read my second Agatha Christie novel even though I once harbored similar sentiments toward her books.

Since I'm not a fan of Sherlock Homes what convinced me to take the book home and give it a whirl?  Bram Stoker.  Yes, Bram Stoker, the man who wrote Dracula, the book that turned me from an occasional reader into a daily reader back in middle school, has a co-starring role in this wonderful first novel by Graham Moore.  The Sherlockian is the best historical mystery featuring dead literary icons that I've read since Matthew Pearl burst on the scene in 2003 with The Dante Club (which is a great read for 19th century American Literature enthusiasts).

I enjoyed the novel and it's a no-brainer to say it'll be an even richer read for Sherlock Holmes fans.  There's probably much in this novel that went over my head since I'm unfamiliar with Doyle's life and writings.  Moore's novel will no doubt be of great appeal to fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Hardcore fans have probably been awaiting the release of this novel and the casual fan will delight in stumbling upon it at their favorite bookstore.

Without giving away too much--but there are some small spoilers below--here's a bit about the content and plot:
This novel bounces back and forth between two sets of characters in two different time periods trying to solve different murders.  First there's Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker, primarily between October-December 1900 (there are a couple chapters in 1893 and one in 1901).  Then there's our contemporaries, Harold White, a Sherlockian, and Sarah Lindsay, a journalist, with their action taking place between January 5-17, 2010.   

The novel opens on August 9, 1893 with Arthur Conan Doyle standing high in the Swiss Alps proclaiming that he's going to kill off Sherlock Holmes because he feels that his fictional creation is eclipsing not only his other literary efforts, but his own life as well.  Fans don't want his autograph, they want him to sign Sherlock Holmes's name instead.  On September 3, 1893 Doyle does it, he writes a story killing off Holmes and thinks he's done with it, free of the character that had become his ball and chain.

When we next see Doyle on December 18, 1893, he's accosted on the streets of London for having 'murdered' Sherlock Holmes, the newspapers run headlines about the fictional character's death, and people are even wearing black arm bands to publicly proclaim their mourning.  The insanity of it all drives Doyle into the Lyceum Theatre to see his friend, Bram Stoker.  After that meeting the historical portion of the novel jumps to October 18, 1900 where the action for Doyle's part of the novel takes off.

The contemporary part of the novel starts on January 5, 2010 at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City with the annual meeting of The Baker Street Irregulars, an exclusive group of Sherlockians.  They are, in fact, the preeminent organization for the study of Sherlock Holmes and membership is by invitation only.  Enter our hero, Harold White, who, at 29, is invited not only to their annual celebration, but is also made a member.

The big buzz at this year's meeting of the Irregulars is that Alex Cale, a prominent Sherlockian, had announced months ago that he'd finally discovered a long lost diary of Arthur Conan Doyle's.  Cale's life-long quest had been to find this diary and he is going to present the diary to the group, only he's late for his presentation.  During the wait Harold starts chatting with Sarah Lindsay, a woman who shouldn't be there because she's a journalist.   Alex Cale never shows up for his presentation and his dead body is discovered in his hotel room.  Soon Harold and Sarah find themselves jetting off to England to track down the now stolen diary.

There are twists and turns along the way.  While this wasn't a book that kept me up reading late into the night, it is one that I looked forward to picking up when it was time to read.  The plot is fantastic.  The historical setting is enjoyable and I thought very well done.  I liked the theme of light--electric lights versus gas lights--that runs throughout the book and what the change signifies in terms of loss and gain.

If there is one criticism it would be that the contemporary characters weren't painted all that vividly.  Let me clarify that these characters do not seem wooden or anything of the sort.  The dialog feels realistic and swiftly moves the story along.  I just didn't have much of a picture of these characters in my mind.  Maybe that's my own issue or maybe its because Moore did such a great job with Doyle, Stoker, and other historical characters.

Moore gives the reader an idea of how unsettling it must have been to be a white man of a certain class at the turn of the last century when social attitudes towards women, non-whites, class, and even gays were starting to change, when electric lights were being installed along London's streets.

Doyle is presented as a conservative man, an anti-suffragist, who is in his early forties, I believe, at the start the novel.  He seems to have both feet firmly planted in the nineteenth century, the London of gas lights.  As the novel unfolds and he tries to discover who is killing a group of young women, he also comes face to face with a violent misogyny that seems to shake his own complacent attitude toward women and the way things "should" be.  Along the way women are called 'cunts' several times and 'cunnies' as well as a few other choice slang terms from the period.  Doyle doesn't come around and champion the cause of women by any means, but the reader gets the sense that he might be learning, that he might start to understand that anti-suffragist sympathies like his own are steps away from, and may even help to fuel, violent misogynist tendencies.

There's also a more subtle nod toward the cost of homophobia with the inclusion of Oscar Wilde, not as a character, but first in the thoughts of Doyle and later in discussion between Doyle and Stoker after they learn of their friend Wilde's death.  Stoker is presented as the more liberal of the two friends, the more modern man (he has a wider diversity of acquaintances and experiences, installs electric lights in the theatre and his home), and it is he who points out to Doyle that they abandoned Wilde after his trial and prison term.  Talking of the changing times Arthur says, "what saddens me is not the passing of time but the curious sensation of being aware of it as it happens. . . . I don't know how any man could feel his eyes burn in the electric light and not also feel the sudden palpability of history" (281).

I won't hesitate to recommend The Sherlockian to readers of historical mysteries/thrillers and fans of late 19th/early 20th century British Literature and history. It would also be a good selection for anyone who likes an intellectual but fun romp of a book.

I hope Graham Moore is busy writing his second novel.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Patricia Cornwell Book Signing Recap

Patricia Cornwell drew a crowd of about 350 people tonight at the Borders in Oak Brook, IL.  It may have been closer to 400, but it's hard to tell because it was a standing room only crowd and people where tucked away around corners in various sections.
The first 100 people or so who purchased their copy of Port Mortuary at that store today received a really cool free black ballcap that has the colorful Scarpetta logo or shield on the front of it.  I'm wearing mine as I type this, along with a happy grin.  Gold pins with the logo were also handed out throughout the day.  The crowd seemed festive as they waited patiently for Cornwell's arrival.  People came from as far away as Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida.  

Image from PC Facebook page
Cornwell arrived shortly after 7pm and started her talk with a request for Americans to reach out and help our veterans in need.  There are more than 100,000 homeless veterans in America now, more than after/during any other war.  Cornwell's "America for Vets" campaign is collecting daily toiletry type supplies at all of her book signings during the Port Mortuary tour.  The supplies collected at her book signings will be donated to homeless veterans via the Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD) which serves more than 2,000 veterans a year.  For more information on America for Vets click here.  There's also information available at the two links above if you can't make it to her book signings and would like to make a donation.
Next, Cornwell announced that she had a prize for the fan who traveled the farthest to attend the book signing and that was, of course, the lady from Florida.  I didn't catch her name, but she's now the proud owner of this little chocolate treat that was waiting in Cornwell's room at the Four Seasons when she checked in yesterday.  Cute, isn't it?
After that Cornwell took questions from the audience.  There were some good questions and she expanded upon each answer to include insights into her take on the series, characters, her process, potential Scarpetta movies, etc.  My favorite of her revelations was the result of someone asking if Scarpetta would ever forgive Marino.  A few books ago in the series (Book of the Dead) Marino attacked Scarpetta in a drunken rage.  Marino has been both an annoying  thorn in Scarpetta's side and a reliable crime solving partner since book one (Postmortem), and his behavior over the years had grown more obnoxious: he drank more, ate more, and became  more out of control with each subsequent book.  He was always a bit of a caveman.  At the signing tonight Cornwell said that she knew she had to do someting about Marino.  He was becoming a dinosaur, a stereotypical New York cop who says 'yo' all the time.  She thought she either needed to kill him off or do something drastic to bring him into the twenty-first century.  Hence, the attack, which ended up being a huge wake up call for Marino that started his transition into a more modern type of criminal investigator as well as a more self-aware human being.  Cornwell's discussion of why she had him do what he did really shed a lot of light on the series for me and helped me see it in a different way.

I could have listened to Cornwell take questions and talk for hours, but with that big of a crowd they had to contain the Q&A and get to the book signing so that everyone would get their books autographed.  Everyone seemed to have a great time and were patient while waiting to get their books signed.  The line moved quickly.  I couldn't stick around until the end, but I believe things wrapped up shortly after 9pm.

If you have the opportunity to attend one of Cornwell's book signings for Port Mortuary, don't let it pass.  Her schedule is here.  She's always interesting and entertaining.  And do me a favor and ask her if she has any plans to write another non-fiction book, because I forgot to!
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