Thursday, August 20, 2015

Another Look Back at WWII

I don't intentionally seek out books set during WWII, and sometimes I catch myself wondering if there's anything new to add to the body of fiction set during that time period. Then I pick up another book, and sure enough, I learn something new.

Kristin Hannah's novel The Nightingale that is getting lots of attention right now gave me insight into an aspect of the war I find particularly interesting. When I read All the Light We Cannot See, also set in France, I recalled my own visit to Paris and especially to Normandy, where the main characters move in that tale. Of all my travels, few compare to meeting American veterans of that war visiting St. Mere Eglise on the anniversary of D-Day in 2005.

Hannah's novel takes a hard look at day-to-day life in France after the French government surrendered and Nazi Germany took over.  The story moves back and forth between the lives of two sisters--Isabel Rosignol, young and impetuous, and her sister Vianne Mauriac, a mother and teacher just trying to get by. Isabel, unwilling to stay in her sister's home and behave in a way that would avoid danger once a Nazi officer is billeted in the house, returns to Paris and begins working with the underground, helping downed Allied pilots to escape.

Meanwhile, Vianne must care for her daughter Sophie in difficult conditions while her husband is away in a German prison camp. Not until she sees the threat toward her Jewish friends does she begin her own resistance, taking in Jewish children whose parents are deported, obtaining false identification papers and bringing them to the local Catholic orphanage.

The story is not without narrative flaws.  Many of the situations--the way the characters behave, the many coincidences in the story--can be distracting to an observant reader. Even the frame story set in modern day, as one of the sisters suddenly decides to travel for a reunion in Paris--scheduled for the next day--is a little much to believe. To enjoy the book, though, I just channeled my "willing suspension of disbelief," and let myself learn a little more about the war--and care a lot about those who resisted, the victims and the survivors.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Book by Its Cover

Neither the cover nor the title fully prepared me for Roger Pinckney's novel The Mullet Manifesto. Shame on me; I usually catch on quicker to wordplay. The cover shows Che Guevara holding aloft a fish--a mullet, naturally. Tucked inside, though, is an entertaining coming-of-age story of Little Rip and his friends Yancey and Grayson, spending time along the South Carolina coast, fishing, hunting, camping, and generally getting in and out of trouble.

Parts of the novel were originally published in Sporting Classics Magazine, for which Pickney serves as senior editor, and in Gray's Sporting Journal.  He manages to weave them seamlessly into the novel, without the appearance of fragments.

The book opens as Rip's family listens to the preaching from outside the First Church of the Sanctified Brethren, unsurprised when the deacons come outside to take up the collection from the white folks listening outside.  Even though the narrator young Rip gradually reveals the side to himself that eventually leads him to study literature and pursue writing, he and his friends seem more out of place in school than among the locals, particularly those who inhabit the fishing camps.

The boys have a comfortable relationship with Cuffey, who works with Rip's Pappy in his shrimping business, and they move easily into Gullah (or Geechee) talk, which doesn't serve them well when they must appear before a local judge after some of their local shenanigans.

Through the story, the specific details of the life outdoors are realistic enough to get a nod from those who know duck hunting and fishing well, without overpowering less knowledgable readers. In fact, I felt as if I had been plopped right down into the country where the boys roam. Pinkney's characterization of the main characters and the others with whom they interact is just as specific--and consistent.

Pinckney keeps his characters distinct and real, moving them just close enough to the edge of incredible without going too far. In the meantime, he gives a glimpse into the boys' future--when Grayson, from a staunch teetotaling Baptist family, will have problems with drinking, and when Rip, against stereotype, will delve deeper into the study of writing and literature. By the time he's ready to write, Rip will certainly have stocked up on enough colorful life experiences to fuel his passion.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The last Kent Haruf novel: Our Souls at Night

In last Sunday's New York Times book review, an author, when asked if he remembered what he read, said that he actually remembered where he read books.  I realize that I have similar memories burned into my brain. Just as surely as I can remember where I was when I heard certain songs for the first time ("I've Never Been to Spain," "Signs," "Ode to Billy Joe"), I can remember where I was when I read certain books, even passages in those books.

 I first discovered Kent Haruf and his town of Holt when I was listening to the audiobook of Eventide, unaware that it was actually a sequel to Plainsong. I was riding the back roads through Alexander County, just past the one spot where I always lose cell phone reception.  I recall thinking this was a particularly subtle little book, when something occurred in the story that took me completely by surprise. I was riding down the road sobbing.  And I'm not a crier.

No, Haruf is no Nicholas Sparks, intentionally eliciting tears from readers; he just creates ordinary characters that readers can't help caring about. I went back and read Plainsong, in which the two brothers from Eventide took in a pregnant high school girl at the request of the girl's English teacher.

Since then, I have gone on to read Benediction, also set in Holt, with a small reference to the events of the other two novels, the way neighbors might recall events in town affecting people they knew, though not well.

When Haruf died recently, I was disappointed to think that his writing career had ended with his life.  What a surprise, then, to discover one more slim book, Our Souls at Night.  This novel opens with a seventy-year-old widow taking a chance and visiting a neighboring widower with an odd proposal: that he come and sleep with her at night--and talk.  Though the two have no plans for a sexual relationship, the people of Holt soon take notice of Louis's early morning walks home from Addie's house.  Their children get wind of their unusual relationship, especially when Addie's son asks his mother to take care of his young son for awhile during the summer after the boy's mother leaves.

At the core of the story are two lonely people who've lived ordinary, if imperfect lives, but who still need the most basic human contact--talk.  The deep friendship that develops, taking in the young boy and the dog they get him, faces challenges primarily from the outside.

As an aside, I'll confess that I've spent much of the summer working my way through James Michener's novel The Source. Weighing in at more than 1600 pages, the book is interesting, informative, but dense.  I tried first to read the mass market paperback on my shelf, but I honestly couldn't read the print, so I downloaded the book. As I read, I'll see at the bottom of the page "79 pages remaining in the chapter."  The chapter!

By contrast, Haruf novel is only 179 pages long, and some chapters are only a couple of pages long. It's an easy day's read. In one whimsical chapter, the characters are discussing the novels someone has written and set in Holt, clear references to Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction. They discuss the improbability of the plots--and the possibility of someone writing a book about them. I'm so glad someone did. I wish he'd had time to write a few more.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Valley Fever by Katherine Taylor

Sometimes I get distracted when I read like a writer. Such was the case with Valley Fever, the second novel of Katherine Taylor.  She opens with Ingrid, the protagonist, arriving at her sister and brother-in-law's house after a breakup, evidently a pattern. Making things even more complicated, Ingrid never returns to the scene of a heartbreak.

After a short stay, though, she ends up in Fresno living with her parents, whose livelihood is a large vineyard in the heard of grape country.  Between drought and manipulative friends and partners, she quickly realizes that her father's operations are in jeopardy.  Even though she has no intention of staying at her childhood home, when her father develops serious health problems, she ends up staying and taking over  the business.

The novel taught me much about grapes, raisins, wine, and California agriculture in general. Along the way, though, the author let too many plot threads drop.  The ex-boyfriend who causes so much heartbreak in chapter one is not even an afterthought as the book continues.  The sudden dissolution of her sister's marriage also comes without clear foreshadowing.

Most off-putting, though, was Taylor's tendency to lapse into extended exposition when development through action and dialogue would be more rewarding to the reader. She has some well-drawn characters, but at times, I had to flip back to be sure who was whom. I had a little trouble with the mother's characterization as well. While there was much to entertain me in this book, I'd have loved to see it after just a little more editing.