Thursday, August 21, 2014

MIDNIGHT IN EUROPE: Book Review

I’ve been a fan of Alan Furst ever since receiving a copy of The Foreign Correspondent as a birthday present from my son.  I wrote a review in The Buddha Dairies and, checking back in the archives, I see that it was in August, 2007.  I’ve read a couple more since then, and have enjoyed them. 

Now I've just finished reading his latest, Midnight in Europe—another birthday gift.  Furst is a master at recreating the scene in pre-World War II Europe.  From bright cafés to sultry brothels and bleak hotel rooms, from rumbling trains to—in this case—rusty tubs fighting roaring seas, he creates a compelling world populated by diplomats and spies, dangerous enchantresses and jaded aristocrats, all on the make in one way or another, all engaged in the battle for survival in a world that is rapidly falling apart.  War is at hand, inevitable.  Every effort to forestall it, futile.

This time it’s the Spanish civil war that rages to the south, while most of the action takes place in Paris and points east.  Can the Republic be saved by its ragtag army of republicans and communists?  Or will Franco prevail, abetted by the superior air power of his Nazi collaborators?  We know the end of this story, of course, but in the meantime there’s plenty of skullduggery to enjoy, as the clouds spread from Spain to cover the entire continent.  The venom of National Socialism seeps everywhere; in Germany it’s out there in the open; in other countries it spreads its poison less overtly, under cover of darkness and in secrecy…

Okay, I had a good time with this book, but I was disappointed by the ending.  In part, because I knew how it would all turn out.  But then, I know the end to all Furst’s novels.  I was, so to speak, there.  I know the history.  The Nazis achieve spectacular and frightening victories… provisionally; only to be creamed in the long run by the good guys.  But I found it frustrating that this particular story ended not with a bang but a whimper—an anticlimax that undermined all the suspense that gripped the reader along the way  Having feared at times for his life, I was saddened by the ultimate, inevitable failure of our Spanish hero to pull back his country from the brink.  He had worked so hard and at such risk to save it. 

And in the end, of course… well, I mustn’t tell it, must I, and spoil other people’s fun?  But at least we all know already who won the Spanish civil war.  Looking now to the Middle East, looking to Ukraine, looking out at the world at large and the ignorance, cruelty and violence of those who vie for power, can we help but wonder: who will win the next one?  


REFUGE

With all the misery in the world around us, it's a relief to find a spot of refuge.  This past weekend we found it in family.  My son Matthew, his wife Diane and their three children, Alice, 15 and the twins Georgia and Joe, 13...

Joe, Alice, Georgia
... arrived from London on Saturday afternoon.  Our house is small, so Ellie and I vacated for three nights and left it to the family--spending those nights ourselves across the street at our snow-birding neighbors', currently back east.  We should have taken more pictures of the house.  With five big suitcases emptied of their contents and spread throughout, it looked like a thrift store following an earthquake...  Then, too, our two-and-a-half year old grandson, Luka, arrived with his Mom and distributed the contents of his toy boxes everywhere...


A fine, joyful chaos, then.  Saturday, we brought them all home from the airport in time for a great spread of soup and cheeses laid on by Ellie; Sunday, an equally fine spread for a lox and bagel brunch, then off to spend the afternoon at the museum--where we all enjoyed Chris Burden's huge reconstruction of a city, replete with busy transportation systems, freeways, trains and trams; Richard Serra's huge corten steel maze...


... and a walk out to Michael Heizer's Big Rock, balanced above its concrete trench...



... a special joy for Luka, who is "into" rocks these days.


Back home, we all "hung out" for a while...

Alice and Luka
Sarah and her nieces, Luka in the background

... and in the evening, Sarah drove all the kids over to her place for a "sleepover", and Matthew and Diane took us out for a wonderful, quiet dinner at the Parkway Grill in Pasadena.


Good food, good booze, good talk...  Monday, the mob returned and we took separate routes--the girls for a Beverly Hills shopping extravanganza (well, window-shopping, and lunch at Nordstrom's)...



Diane says, "We didn't buy much at Van Cleef & Arpels"!
... and the guys, with Luka, up the hill for a nostalgic walk around the Griffith Park Observatory...


... and on to the zoo, where we found a birdless aviary--very strange!--and wandered up through Africa and India in burning heat.  Before all getting back together at home for a take-out Mexican meal in the evening.

Tuesday, a misguided search for the House of Pancakes led us finally to the Astro diner, where we shared an oversized American breakfast...


So sad to see them all crowd into the airport limo at noon.  The English family are now off to Las Vegas and a cross-country trip to Iowa, where they spend a few days with Matthew's Mom and brother.  For us, meantime, it's back to the quiet of our Laguna cottage...


Thursday, August 14, 2014

FREEWAY



We return to Los Angeles today to spend a long weekend with my son and his family, arriving from London for a U.S. holiday...




SPEED



Topping the gas tank
at the service station
and rejoining the freeway
traffic at seventy-five
miles per hour, Coyote
speculates how long
it would take Tortoise
to cover the sixty miles
from here to Los Angeles
on four feet, striding
along at full tortoise
speed and stopping
once in a while to nibble
on a blade or two of grass
to restore his energy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

WORLD WAR III


WW III 

Coyote is sent off
to "fight World War
III" with "nothing
but his dick in his
hand."  He is "scared
shitless" under the
nonstop bombardment
of clichés.  "This
is for real," he says.
He says, "I'm dead
serious." "Forget
this," he says, "this
is only a dream."
 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR: Book Review


It's summer reading time for The Buddha Diaries.  I just finished this (mostly) entertaining mystery novel by Joel Dicker...

Imagine you’re doing a jig-saw puzzle. Do you do jig-saws?  I enjoy the challenge but they eat up so much time that I rarely allow myself the pleasure, except around Christmas.  This jig-saw, if you can imagine, is constructed in such a way that there are seemingly multiple possible solutions, but each time you get close to finishing one you find there are a few key pieces that don’t fit, so it’s the wrong solution, and you have to start again…

A bit frustrating, no?  So you can understand how I felt about this book.  Like the jig-saw I’ve described, it’s cleverly constructed to lead the reader to multiple possible solutions—but each time you get there, you’re told it’s the wrong one.  Okay, a normal strategy for the mystery-thriller writer, but Dicker carries it, more cleverly than most, to the extreme.  So for me this was a terrific read for most of the way through, but when I reached the end, when he showed me a whole new picture by putting all the pieces back together for me, I felt… not cheated, exactly.  But manipulated by his cleverness.

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed the read.  It’s compelling, challenging, sometimes even funny.  The characters are finely drawn and for the most part believable.  The protagonist is a writer suffering from a bad case of writer’s block, whose master teacher, life coach and inspiration is the other major character--the illustrious Harry Quebert; the others are the denizens of the small New Hampshire town (think "Our Town") which is shocked by the disappearance and, we eventually discover, the murder of a fifteen-year-old high school girl: the owner of the diner where she worked, the local pastor and his family, the cops, the wealthy businessman from a nearby town and his facially-mutilated retainer (think Frankenstein!)  The story is a complex (and extremely cleverly!) interwoven mix of texts, interviews and memories that span a more-than thirty year period in time-warp fashion—and it keeps you, as they say of movies, “on the edge of your seat.”

All this was good—though I started to sense some credibility problems early on.  Was the love affair at the center of the story truly believable?  Would the lovers really have behaved like this?  And would a “great writer” be capable of such sloppy sentimentality in his prose?  Also, for this reader, the hyperbole that idolizes what purports to be the greatest literary figure of the past fifty years rings a little false.  But so what?  A little exaggeration is a part of the game.  But it was the accumulation of all these little problems along the way that somehow set me up for the big credibility problem at the end: after all the deception and all the false narratives and dead ends, are we willing to finally accept the way that every forgotten loose end now locks so neatly into place, with the impeccable logic of the completed jig-saw puzzle?  


So… a lot of ambivalence about this one.  I did very much enjoy it, and was hooked throughout by  the story and the characters.  It’s just that, well, looking back at this “international bestseller” when I was done, it seemed to me too clever for its own good.  Is that too picky a complaint?