The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone – Book

The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone – Book

The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone follows Kate Moore and her husband Dexter from a stay in Luxembourg in his first novel The Expats, where things started out calmly and went pretty badly off the rails. Kate worked for the US government in intelligence but, of course, it’s a secret. Dexter got lured into a scheme to hack a fortune in dirty money and his law-abiding wife finds out. She finds a way to keep Dexter out of prison but at the end of Chris Pavone’s first book, The Expats, the Moore’s marriage is a bit stormy – a very quiet storm because they are barely speaking.

After Luxembourg they travel around Europe for a while with their two children and then they settle in Paris minus the other expat couple they befriended in Luxembourg, a couple Kate hopes is out of their lives forever. Kate’s two children are now school age and she wishes she could enjoy being a full time mom, but life with the agency is just too exciting. What else would she do all day while her children are in school? And now she has been given her own little agency office to run in Paris.

Dexter works at home. He has decided to become a day trader. But it turns out that everyone, except Kate who is busy with her motherhood guilt, has revenge on their minds, and it all leads to one spectacularly messy day in Paris. If this day didn’t involve the deaths of two single fathers, a terrorist attack that immerses Paris in chaos, and threatens to nuke the Louvre it would most resemble one of those French hotel comedy/murder mysteries where everyone is sneaking in and out of everyone else’s room, sometimes with hanky-panky on their minds, and luggage is getting mixed up while people wander around in extravagant outfits and identities get confused. Perhaps to update the genre a bit this is a sort of thriller version of that Barbara Streisand movie “What’s Up Doc?”. Sadly the actual events in Paris seem a bit inappropriate to what is basically a romp, but such are the paradoxes here in the 21 st century and it is after all a thriller/romp.

The author’s chapters focus in turn on the characters, each telling his/her part of the story in small glimpses. You know that the facts will eventually give you the whole picture. You start to see or think you see through this plot – the author has left too many clues, the affair is too easy to unravel, but don’t become overconfident. There are plenty of surprises.

The Paris Diversion is not at all like a true thriller, but it is a true diversion that uses realities that have become far too normal to us. Throughout this whole crazy day the adults are having, the Moore children are safe in a good French school behind a high wall and at the end of the day will suspect nothing. How bad can things get in the space of someone’s slightly elongated school day? You won’t believe it.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Parnassus Musings

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – Book

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Sometimes fiction based on a true story is a difficult beast for an author to tangle with. It can be a struggle to make the elements of fiction (plot, setting, characters) hold the spark that turns a story into literature. The Tattooist of Auschwitz basically retells a true story told to the author Heather Morris by the man who we know as Lale Sokolov. The author, as a beginner tells the story well, but, for me the story lacks the depth and poignancy that might have come from the pen of someone more experienced in ways to use prose to embellish and flesh out the facts. However, perhaps the unadorned story is more useful for historical purposes.

This novel deals with the prisoners in the concentration camps who did jobs that put them in closer touch with German officers, tasks that carried perks like more food, better quarters, access to favors as long as the prisoner groveled properly when required. Although these prisoners often had no choice about taking on these “lighter” duties, they were seen by other prisoners as collaborators and their few rewards understandably were resented.

Lale, our tattooist was a young man on his way up. He worked in a department store until all the Jews were fired. He was and is a great admirer of women, although he doesn’t seem overbearing about it. He seems to possess some personal charm. When told to report to the train for transport he puts on a suit and tie. His mother makes him pack some books, which won’t matter because he will never see any of his personal items ever again. Not long after he arrives in the concentration camp he becomes assistant to the current tattooist and soon takes the lead tattooist’s place. In the camps people often just disappear, never for a good reason. Lale, as the tattooist, gets extra food and a room of his own. He does not have to labor with a shovel from sun up to sun down. He makes sure to pass some of his extra food along to his old bunkmates.

Once he sees Gita in the nearby women’s camp he falls in love and she returns his affection. Gita works in an office keeping records and lives in a barracks with girls who have named the building where they work Canada because that sounds like a safe place. They sort through and categorize the possessions the Germans take from prisoners. Lale eventually finds a way to take some of the jewelry slipped to him by Gita’s friends and exchange it for food, mainly sausages and chocolate, which he shares to supplement the starvation fare in the camp. The love that grows between Lale and Gita fuels their will to survive.

Every day he steadily tattooes numbers on the arms of more prisoners at Auschwitz and Birkenau, a flood of dispossessed people doomed by one man’s madness. Lale describes the building of the furnaces and the human ashes that drift down over all and have to be ignored for reasons of sanity and survival. But emotional content is missing and it just seems a bit superficial given the horrific circumstances and the daily dread – more news report than work of fiction. Maybe the way Lale survives is exactly is how some people survive by convincing themselves that they are able to use those who have imprisoned them. When so many were shot on the spot for the slightest infraction Lale’s good fortunes seem unlikely. The story could be true but it could be what one man told himself to get by.

The Tattoist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris does bring up the often examined issue of whether people like Lale were collaborators or just survivors. If it is true, this represents a rare alternative view inside the concentration camps. I don’t recall reading another book about collaborators within the camps, although there are many books about collaborators in occupied territories and much speculation about what makes someone a collaborator and even about degrees of collaboration. Although I am not enamored of the art of the book it raises interesting issues and takes us back to that question of what we would have been capable of in similar circumstances. So many brave survivors came out of the camps that I’m not sure Lale’s story seems similarly heroic, but perhaps it should.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – American Jewish University

Anathem by Neal Stephenson – Book

Although I have enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s books in the past I had a little trouble finding the best way to read Anathem. First of all, it uses the word “maths” a lot, and math is not my strong suit, although in the end no deep knowledge of math was required. Since Stephenson is building a world, the planet Arbre, the learning curve is a bit steep in the beginning. The characters have names that are almost familiar, but just a bit off. Main characters are Erasmus, Lio, Arsibalt, Jesry, Tulia, Ala, Orolo, (and many, many others).

So first I tried Audible, but I learned that listening to books puts me to sleep, which tends to destroy the continuity. I bought the paperback so I could read along but the print was just too small. Finally I reserved a hardcover copy from the library and that had another disadvantage. Once I started reading the hardcover edition I could not put this book down.

The book’s title, Anathem– a mash-up of anthem and anathema –  is a perfect example of the way Stephenson plays with our reality to make his invented world seem close enough to what we know in our own world that we can catch on to life in the Concent of Saunt Edhar fairly quickly. By the time we get to sample what is going outside the walls of the concent we are easily able to adjust.

Our characters are on the same clock-winding team. Since the Third Sack praxis (technology) is outlawed in the concent so mechanics are handled in old school ways. This giant clock at the center of concent life is connected to the observatory on the roof and must be wound with ceremony every day. Bells and weights all play important roles in the clock ceremony and in the community. The similarity to a combined monastery and convent helps us realize that our minds already have a schema for this world.

We spend a long time getting acquainted with the world of the concent and the maths that are scattered around the planet. We learn that these communities are not about religion though; they are about philosophy, geometry, history, astronomy, and physics. We also learn that the concents are surrounded by secular cultures lead by the Sæculua and that the concents open their gates at intervals and these separate populations visit each other. Erasmus, first among main characters has a cousin, Cord, who lives in town.

Just as we get familiar with these two adjacent cultures we learn through Raz’s “Fraa” (concent brother) – Orolo that something is going on with the Sun, something the members of the maths are not supposed to know about. But Erasmus is young and worried when Orolo is expelled from the Concent and he takes an enormous risk to find out what’s going on.

Worlds within worlds is a theme in Anathem. The concents share a design and ceremonies and titles. They all wear the bolt and chord and carry the sphere. Outside the concents where the people known as slines live differences vary by geography.

Eramus and his clock-winder group, in response to the emergency connected to what is going on with the Sun, get sent out of their concent to another, much larger concent for a Convox (a working conference). This does not go smoothly for Eramus who gets sent on a side mission by a Thousander prior to arriving at the Convox.

Eventually we see that Stephenson is headed to sucking us into a theory that says that there is more than one cosmos – there are cosmi. We also see that he is a unifier rather than a divider. Tag along with our heroes and see where this takes you and learn a whole new vocabulary along the way. (If you know your Latin roots you’ll have few difficulties.)

Neal Stephenson can transport me into one of his elaborate creations anytime and Anathem was no exception. The only problem is that landing back in my own reality required an airlock (metaphorically of course).

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell – Book

Each section of The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell begins with the voice of a mosquito, or a swarm of mosquitoes- a fitting device for a tale of Africa.

“Zt. Zzt. (lots of Z’z) and a zo’ona And so. A dead white man grows bearded and lost in the blinding heart of Africa.”(Livingstone, I presume) “With his rooting and roving, his stops and starts, he becomes our father, unwitting, our inadvertentpater muzungu. This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it begins, of course, with a white man.”

 Colonialism, imperialism are words that inspire different emotions depending on whether you are the colonizer or the colonized. But whenever the European colonizers interfered in the natural development of the many places they felt would benefit from “civilization” (and supply untold riches to their imperial overloads) they diverted what might have been the history of an indigenous people into a new channel that forever combined native history with that of their colonizer. In this case, since we are in Africa, we have the further marker of skin color, which was often the case in colonization, as white Europeans (and later Americans) believed the white race far superior to any nation made up of folks with darker skin.

Namwali Serpell begins her tale of Zambia at a falls, mistakenly thought to be at the source of the Nile. They named the falls Victoria after the long-lived English queen. We hear the story of the first colonizers to arrive near the falls where the Brits who follow Livingstone to Africa set up their earliest town and drifted over Africa, and returned to settle near the Falls. Percy Clark was one of these early settlers. The Gavuzzi family owned and operated the Victoria Falls Hotel for a while. Colonizers eventually decided they would build a dam at the falls, a dam which will flood the lands of the Tonga people. These people have their entire history and culture tied to this land and would like to stay and drown on their land when it floods. The colonizers will not allow this. They disperse the Tonga people and raise a revolutionary spirit in them which never dies out. Each section of The Old Drift is written almost as a short stories. These short stories drift forward in time, but the stories always connect. The book ends back at the falls where it began, but despite a kind of belated divine justice, Zambia lives on.

Serpell’s characters are colorful, plentiful, full of human failings and quite loveable (for the most part). The European Giuseppe Corsale who returns to Europe to party in a gone-to-seed salon meets a child born with hair over her entire body that engulfs her and grows and grows. Sibilla, who captivates both Giuseppe and his brother Federico, learns that she has her own Zambian connection. Her father and grandfather are the same Gavuzzis who ran the Victoria Falls Hotel. Federico kills his brother, takes over his identity, marries Sibilla and takes her to Africa. His position at the dam construction makes his family a wealthy family in Zambia.

Ronald, an African man, goes to England to study, and falls for the blind ex-tennis star, Agnes, daughter of the rich family who gives him a place to stay. He marries Agnes and takes her to Zambia. They also, through Ronald’s position as an engineer, become a wealthy Zambian family, of mixed race – a thing that probably never would have happened if Agnes could see. The children of these two families involve themselves in the life of their new nation (they know no other) with, as the author tells us, many errors made.

A revolutionary spirt buzzes through the entire story as do those mosquitoes, and the urge to freedom drifts through generations of Zambians. Ba Nkoloso gathers in Matha’s mother and Matha is practically pickled in revolutionary chants, speeches, and writings. Matha dresses like a boy to attend school. She takes part in the Afronaut program of her mentor which aspires to beat the Americans to the moon. Then she enters puberty and her fellow Afronaut, Godfrey, now with ambitions to be a rock star, impregnates her and sends her spinning off track for almost an entire generation. Her daughter Sylvia, beautiful and adventurous, takes the family back into their connections to the colonizers. The thrum of freedom is almost louder than the swarms of mosquitoes. So many great characters in this novel.

Freedom becomes less and less likely as Zambia becomes entangled in European and American capitalism and eventually computer technology through the “Digit-All “bead” which turns hands into a computer interface. Addictive and enslaving, especially once government learns how to connect all to the cloud or the “swarm”. Those pesky mosquitoes are both inspirational and deadly.

The AIDS epidemic hits Zambia, the symbolic offspring of Ba Nkoloso, that original Zambian revolutionary and the children of Europeans alike. Are Zambians being used to test new AIDS drugs – are they the new lab rats? It becomes easy to understand the yearning for freedom. These young Zambians of the near future, create microdrones that connect and swarm, that drift wherever you direct them, called Mosketoze. They are used to convene a political rally and they bring about the ending that I cannot tell you about.

Although even to comment on this excellent novel, turns me into something of a colonizer, I will, as my ancestor’s did, drift into this Zambian space and bequeath TheOld Driftby Namwali Serpell to all adventurous readers everywhere.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami – Book

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“Beware the double metaphors”, our artist, our main character, our guy in an early mid-life crisis is told by the Commendatore. Haruki Murakami bends our brains in fiction once again and his readers, and I, enjoy every minute.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami does something several books have done recently. It begins at the end and then fills us in. Of course by the time I immerse myself in this story I forget that it is all a flashback. The end of the story we get in the beginning is hardly definitive. But we do meet the artist, acting like a true artist in that little scene.

In present time (in the novel) he is feeling that his life has robbed him of the excitement and ambitions he once had as an artist. He, in a way, blames his wife. He rationalizes that he has had to be practical since he is a family man. He earns his living painting portraits and as his wife works away from home and he is often working at home, he does most of the housework. He feels he has “sold out” by painting portraits, which he considers a lesser form of art. He is feeling dead inside. Just when he is most dissatisfied with life and his art his wife asks for a divorce, says she is sleeping with another man and will not sleep with two men at once.

Yuzu’s husband (the artist) grabs a few clothes (very few) and begins a long journey in his car along the northern coast of Japan. Until he begins naming roads he could be living anywhere. He could be any modern man in any modern nation. He ends his journey months later when he has a very strange and concerning sexual encounter with a young woman and meets the possibly evil man in the white Subaru Forester.

His old college friend and fellow student Masahiko offers him the small mountain house where his father, the famous artist Tomahiko Amada, who is now in a nursing home with dementia, had his studio. Masahiko cannot care for the home as he works and lives in Tokyo.

Up to now. I must say, our artist (unnamed) seems more like an engineer. He has a very pragmatic approach to his wife’s confessions and his road trip. But Haruki Murakami paints his portrait with words. Our guy cannot have a boring identity crisis or get to know himself without going through an ordeal.

From the time he enters that mountain home his inner journey begins and it is a doozy. Temple bells ring in the dead of night with no temple nearby, a deep and magical pit is uncovered with meticulous and unusual stonework walls. There is a secret painting Tomahiko Amada has hidden in the attic with the pretty little owl, there is a collection of opera and classical music on vinyl, and there is a millionaire neighbor with a purring silver Jaguar (car) and many secrets. Then there is the young girl, Mariye, he meets in his children’s art class (about the same age as his beloved sister, Komi, who died as a young teen) and the older, married woman from his adult art class who we get to observe, along with the Commendatore, having satisfying illicit sexual relations with her teacher. Who is the Commendatore and how does he get killed? That I cannot tell you.

There is no blatant spirituality and our artist seems far too self-absorbed and modern to accommodate a deeply religious life, but, even so, in this novel the symbolism (the temple bell, the little shrine, the pit) and a certain sparseness in the prose give a religious tone to the artist’s inward journey. Whether it strikes you as spiritual or not, you can at least enjoy the novel as one great big entertaining Haruki Murakami double metaphor.

 

 

Milkman by Anna Burns – Book

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Milkman by Anna Burns follows none of the rules for storytelling or literary fiction that we are used to. The novel seems to be written as one long sentence (of course it isn’t really). I enjoy reading authors who try something new, especially if they do it well. Anna Burns does it well enough.

Middle sister comes of age in a divided culture, almost a tabloid culture. It is a paranoid, male-dominated place in a perpetual state of war (although most of the fighting happens elsewhere) with the “over the border”, “across the waters” people. Readers identify this unnamed country as Northern Ireland because Middle sister speaks of the on-going hostilities as ‘the troubles’. Men are either renouncers, soldiers, paramilitaries or police. Terrorist bombs from unidentified groups occasionally plague the residents and acts of personal terror up to and including death happen frequently enough to keep people on edge. Toxic masculinity is the expected male behavior. Of course, not all men conform but those who don’t are not allowed much peace by those who enforce the convoluted code these folks live with.

Middle sister is also maybe-girlfriend to her car loving mechanic, maybe-boyfriend, who seems nice and who says he would like to not be a ‘maybe’ anymore. Middle sister has her own reasons for wanting to remain a ‘maybe’ for now. Middle sister does things that make her stand out in a culture where women especially are not supposed to stand out. She reads books while walking (nothing newer than the 19th century). Now that she is of marriageable age her behavior is considered deliberately provocative. She is not being properly observant of possible dangers. She is too self-absorbed. She attracts the attention of the creepy, middle-aged Milkman (who is not the real Milkman).

Around her in her single state swings the true chaos of this time and this place. Young people go to bars to drink and mingle – not to dance it seems. Some bars cater to only one group for example, the paramilitary, others attract a more mixed group –  a more dangerous situation with violent fights and explosions more likely. Once Milkman shows an interest in Middle sister other men in the bar scene back off and certain women begin to offer her tips about what to wear and how to act.

Her relationship with maybe-boyfriend continues as he is not part of the mainstream toxic male culture. Middle sister is seriously weirded out by Milkman. She no longer walks and reads. She now runs with Third brother-in-law rather than alone. She knows better than to get in Milkman’s cars or his van. Because of Milkman’s attentions Middle sister becomes an object of gossip because rumor has it that she is having an affair with this Milkman. Until her recent difficulties she did not see herself as belonging or identifying with these grown up mothers (including her own) and widows (lots of widows). As her fate gets more precarious she begins to learn of the subtle power these women have.

Maybe-boyfriend, the car guy, wins ownership of a ‘Blown Bentley’ engine from over the water. Gossips claim that he got to keep the bit with the flag (not the right flag), but he didn’t. Eventually Milkman uses this gossip to threaten maybe-boyfriend whenever he runs into Middle sister – not often if she can help it. He talks about “car bombs”. He’s a real subtle guy.

Some may find this book difficult to read, although words, at first, tend to be short and simple. The breakneck pace lacks pauses or temporary stops, and the vague war between basically unidentified enemies, all the jargon of a carefully controlled society, gets repetitive and makes us long for some specificity. But Middle sister makes the perfect protagonist because, although she knows the rules, she doesn’t always follow them. She is bright, and cautiously adventurous. On occasion her internal dialogue breaks away from the monosyllabic argot and reveals some pretty sophisticated language skills. Of course she was a girl who read books while walking.

Creating a world, or even turning a real world place into something more generic, is not always easy if it is to be a believable world that readers want to occupy for a time. For me the world of Middle sister in Milkman by Anna Burns was well done. But see what you think about that ending.

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White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey – Book

White Rose

White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey starts with a real resistance movement inside Germany, the White Rose Society, and builds a novel around it. We can imagine that there were Germans living in Nazi Germany who did not buy into Hitler’s racism, his use of fear and instant retribution, the way he used his paranoia about what people said and did in privacy to justify invading everyone’s privacy, and setting neighbors to spy on neighbors.

In White Rose, Black Forest we meet a young German woman who was imprisoned for a short time because she had a boyfriend in the White Rose Society, the German resistance group which published underground news sheets called “The White Rose”. Franka Gerber, our young lady, a nurse in Munich, actually helped write that flyer and distribute it but was assumed to have been naively led astray by her boyfriend Hans. After serving time in prison she is now considered an outcast.

Now with all her family dead Franka lives alone in the family’s cabin in the Black Forest. She is devastated by the things that have happened to her family and the rumors of the terrible things happening to the Poles and the Jews. She sees no way forward for herself. She is planning to shoot herself out in the Black Forest with her father’s gun. It is the middle of winter and winter snows are deep on the ground, the cabin in a remote location, the roads closed due to the snow.

Her suicide is interrupted when she stumbles on a Luftwaffe officer attached to a parachute and unconscious, with two broken legs, who despite his extensive training speaks to her in English. This is where the story goes a bit off the rails. Some of the author’s explanations for what Franka does require a bit too much suspension of disbelief. Although the snow is a great device to buy her parachutist, John Lynch aka Werner Graf, time to heal.

What I did find relevant and worthy of attention were Franka’s interactions with her neighbors dished out in flashbacks to her years as a young girl when she joined the Hitler Youth movement, and with her earliest friends and her first boyfriend who shared these experiences with her. She eventually turned against Hitler and the Nazis, but her old beau, Daniel Berkel, became an agent of the Gestapo, became a loyal Nazi, and with promotions and power became quite a menacing figure.

Much is revealed about the role of women under Nazi rule which was defined by Hitler. Women were house frau’s and child bearers and kept an eye on their neighbors and reported their behavior when it seemed suspect. Women, unless single, did not work outside the home. However many German women became very good Nazi citizens and supported the regime in every way. Others obeyed because the penalties for not obeying were very steep, often even life-threatening.

White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey is a very readable story, but not a polished literary novel. We do end up on the edge of our seats, and you might want to see if they are able to escape their very precarious situation.

From Wikipedia – “The White Rose (German: die Weiße Rose) was a non-violent, intellectual resistance group in the Third Reich led by a group of students and a professor at the University of Munich. The group conducted an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign that called for active opposition to the Nazi party regime.”

Find me at Goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson