Monday, October 28, 2013


Linda Grant has woven a story of a young girl from a Jewish/Hungarian immigrant family growing up in post war London.  Grant exposes her characters in rich detail through descriptions of the clothes on their backs.
The girl, Vivian Kovak, grows up lonely and isolated by her timid parents from normal friendships and childhood experiences.  Her parents never speak of their past, live a solitary and frugal life, and never tell Vivian that she is Jewish.  They are so fearful of the past that they have her baptised in the Church of England. 

In 1963 when Vivian was ten years old a flashy stranger bearing gifts arrives at their door with a blowzy woman.  Vivian's father, Ervin, appears to know the man and in a fit of temper chases the twosome away. Vivian is left puzzled with only her imagination to answer her many questions.  The man is Sandor, Ervin's estranged brother, who after horrible wartime experiences, has made his way to London.  Since he is never again mentioned in the Kovak's household, it only some years later, when his face is splashed across the news, that Vivian finds out he is her uncle. 

Sandor forging ties with the London underbelly had become a notorious slum lord.  The newspapers portray him as a predator preying on the poor and downtrodden West Indian immigrants, and he is arrested and jailed.  In an author's note, we learn Sandor was modeled on Peter Rachman, a notorious London character of the 70s.  Sandor is insulted to learn reporters have compared him to the equally repugnant Kray brothers.

In the meantime, Vivian grows up, attends university and marries.  The husband she never stops loving, dies in a freak accident on their honeymoon, and Vivian spirals down in a depression that leads her back to the humdrum and colorless existence in her parents drab apartment.  However, she longs to escape this life, and by change one day her path crosses that of Sandor who has been released from jail. He has lost his fortune and flashy lifestyle but still owns an apartment building.  Vivian and Sandor become aware of their relationship, but it is never brought out into the open or acknowledged by either. Sandor wishes to write his memoirs in order to clear his name, and Vivian agrees to transcribe them.  In this way, she learns her family history which she had been longing to know.  She is fascinated by descriptions of her parents in their youth in Budapest and learning about the war years never mentioned in her home.

Clothes continue to be used to flesh out our images of the characters.  Vivian becomes involved with a tenant of Sandor's and she goes through a punk stage as she tries on different identities. This is the era of skinheads and the National Front in Britain.  Vivian joins an anti-Nazi group and actively campaigns against violence. Sandor has a West Indian girlfriend whose elegant dress is artfully described; she and Vivian eye each other with mutual distrust. Sandor continues to favor east end chic.

In the end the book is mainly about a young woman finding the identity which had been denied her by her parents. She does this as her odd relationship with her wayward uncle grows.  Grant does an excellent job of showing a different side of swinging London, the poor and disenfranchised.  She has written a captivating story which was short-listed for the Man Booker prize. I recommend it as an interesting read of relationships and human connections.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

DANCING TO THE PRECIPICE by Caroline Moorehead (non-fic)

Using direct quotes from letters and a meticulously kept diary, Caroline Moorehead has written a thoroughly enjoyable biography of Lucie De La Tour Du Pin.  I loved this book and admire both its subject and the author who makes Lucie come so alive to the reader.  As her name is such a mouthful, I will refer to her as Lucie.  She was born in 1770 to an aristocratic family with noble ancestors from Ireland and France.  Her fascinating memoirs, published by a grandson, have never been out of print, and it is no wonder as her intellegent observations give a flavor and insight into all that she was eyewitness to during her full life. 

Lucie was born in an imposing house in the Faubourg St. Germain in Paris.  Her father, Arthur Dillon was a brave and honest military officer who fought with Lafayette in the American revolution. He was later guillotined. Her mother who died young, was a friend of Marie Antoinette, and when Lucie was old enough, she too was one of a group of young aristocrats who surrounded the Queen.  At 19 she wrote, "We were laughing and dancing our way to the precipice."

Born in.....the dying days of the ancien regime, into a family of liberal aristocrats with many links to Versailles and the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, she survived the French Revolution, which saw many of her family and friends die or lose all they possessed.  Escaping to America, she and her husband bought a farm and became increasingly concerned about the injustices of slavery.  Later she lived through the eras of Napoleon and the restoration of the French kings, Louis XVIII, Charles X and Louis Philippe.  At the time of her death in 1853 Napoleon III had just ascended the throne.  Almost nothing of the world into which she was born remained, neither the grandeur, nor the idea of absolute monarchy, nor the privileges; but she herself was singularly unchanged.

After her mother's untimely death Lucie was raised by her abusive maternal grandmother, Madame de Rothe, who was carrying on an affair with the Archbishop of Toulouse.  It is a credit to Lucie's character that she refused to marry the unsuitable men her grandmother put forward.  Lucie stood her ground and confided to her diary that though she hadn't met him, she felt drawn to Frederic de Gouvernet a soldier who fought alongside her father.  Her marriage to Frederic was romantic and  thoroughly happy. She had met her soul mate, and they defied the odds surviving the purge that killed the majority of French nobility.  They stayed married for 50 years, until his death.

During the French revolution Lucie and Frederic and their children lived in poverty in a family chateau in Bordeaux.  It wasn't long before this also became too dangerous, and  in 1794 they made a daring escape aboard an American merchant ship.  The account of this is as exciting as anything in a modern thriller. In America they were able to purchase a farm on the Hudson River where they became friends with the Schuylers and Van Rensselaers.  Their settling in New York was greatly aided by Talleyrand, who had himself escaped the guillotine.  Talleyrand was a wiley old fox who managed to survive all the subsequent changes of governments in France, and he remained a loyal friend to Lucie and Frederic. 

While in New York, Lucie became a real farm worman.  Both she and Frederic worked hard in the fields, and Lucie cooked and made all the clothes for the family.  She had ten pregancies, only six children surviving, and only one, her youngest son outlived her. After Robespierre's death, Lucie and her family were able to return to France and claim their properties.  Unfortunately they once again had to flee to England when the political situation heated up.  When Napoleon came into power, they  again returned to France and  Frederic was given several diplomatic postings. 

Lucie gives us not only an accurate accounting of the frantic shifts in the government of France, but she is also an entertaining reconteur of the society and mores of her lifetime.  Her sharp eye missed nothing.  The list of historical characters who passed in and out of her life is mind-boggling and she is a valuable resource for an understanding of the volatile times in which she lived.

I highly recommend this book to all readers who love history and appreciate an entertaining look at an era which saw great changes in France and ushered in the modern age  It is told by one who managed to survive and have as much excitement as a character in a modern adventure story. This would be a terrific book for a reading group, it is full of history, gossip, style and a life time of cheating death.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

LIVE BY NIGHT by Dennis Lehane (fic)

Dennis Lehane has written a number of excellent thrillers, most set in the Irish south end of Boston.  Several popular movies have been made from these novels.  I have enjoyed reading Lehane's books set in Boston.  He has filled them with exciting plots and a good deal of history spanning several eras.

His latest book, Live by Night, begins in Boston, but a lot of the action takes place in Tampa, Florida.  It is 1926, the jazz age is in full swing, and there is big money to be made in bootlegging. The main character, Joe Coughlin, son of a Boston police chief, is a tough street kid, a punk who makes some bad choices and compounds them by sloppy planning.  As the story opens, he gets himself into  trouble by daring to rob a speakeasy belonging to a local crime boss named Alert White.  Not only is this a mistake, but he complicates it by becoming hopelessly infatuated with White's moll, Emma Gould. 

Retribution is not far behind and after a severe beating by White's thugs, Coughlin lands in the notorious Charlestown prison.  As in all prison stories, he needs a protector.  In steps the powerful Mafia don, Maso Pescatore who is also serving a sentence. 

When released from prison, Joe is sent to Tampa by Pescatore to head up a bootlegging operation.  At this time Ybor City, the center of cigar manufacturing, is a dangerous place to set up business.  Coughlin teams up with a local Cuban crime organization and business begins to boom, until he is controlling not only the corrupt city officials, but the illegal liquor business all along the Gulf Coast.  He also falls in love with Graciela, a beautiful Hispanic woman.  His success begins to cut into that conducted by the northern crime bosses and Albert White reappears.  White and Coughlin share a mutual respect, despite their hatred of each other.  Violence erupts with a lot of blood is shed between the rival gangs.

We know crime doesn't pay, so you can fill in the rest with your imagination.  I did not enjoy this book as I had Lehane's Boston thrillers.  It lacks the depth of the characters of previous books.  Joe Coughlin seems shallowly drawn compared to the angst of some of the main characters in earlier books.  There is more violence than plot depth, and the love relationships seem corny.  That is not to say it is poorly written, it just didn't hold my interest.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

RUNAWAY HORSES by Yukio Mishima (fic)

Yukio Mishima is one of the great Japanese writers of fiction.  He ended his own life by committing ritual suicide, seppuku. Runaway Horses, written in 1973, is the second book in the tetrology The Sea of Fertility. The Eastern philosophy of the purity of the Samurai ritual of suicide is at the center of this novel.  While this is the second book of a series, you do not have to have read the first to understand or enjoy this novel.  The story in the first book, Spring Snow, is about a young man of 20, an idealist and romantic who falls in love with a woman who is promised in marriage to a prince.  In the end this fragile young man pines away his life through the loss of his love.  Runaway Horses is about his best friend, Honda who is now 38 years old, a judge in Osaka.  The story takes place in 1932 and 33, an era in which the seeds of the fanaticism, which led to Japan's role in World War II, are planted.

Honda looks back on his youth and friendship with Kendo as an ideal that he cannot recapture.  Early in the book he states, "How oddly situated a man is apt to find himself at age thirty-eight!  His youth belongs to the distant past.  Yet the period of memory beginning with the end of youth and extending to the present has left him not a single vivid impression.  And therefore he persists in feeling that nothing more than a fragile barrier separates him from his youth.  He is forever hearing with the utmost clarity the sounds of this neighboring domain, but there is no way to penetrate the barrier."  This melancholic mood of Honda causes him to become involved in the life of the young hero of this book, Isao, who at first appears to be a reincarnation of his beloved friend. Isao even has three moles on the side of his body exactly as did Kendo. 

The Buddhist idea of rebirth is quite different than the Indian doctrine.  Isao, rather than being Kendo, is carrying the moral burden of the past that has remained unresolved.  Isao is rigid and idealistic and obsessed with the Shinto doctrine of the purity of motive.  During this time in history, Japan was open to Western ideas of capitalism and big business.  The captains of industry and commerce were amassing great fortunes, while the poor farmers and workers were on the brink of starvation.  Japan was slipping further into debt and carrying huge deficits, not so different than the situation many countries today are dealing with.

Isao, enamoured with Emperor worship and the purity of the Japanese race sees in these oligarchs of industry the end of the Japanese traditional way of life.  After reading a treatise, League of the Divine Wind, he gathers a group of 20 young men (students at his father's school) in a secret club to ideally bring awareness to the Japanese citizens and nobility of the dangers of corrupt Western ideas.  His plan is to assassinate the most influential industrial leaders and then to commit ritual suicide.  The plan fails through a double betrayal. Honda's life becomes entwined with Isao's, as he gives up his judgeship, to act as Isao's lawyer.

Mishima is a beautiful writer and it is a credit to his translator, Michael Gallagher, that the beauty of the language is preserved in the translation.  Integral to the book is an understanding of Japan's place in the world at that time in history, and the state of the weakened monarchy, along with the rise in popularity of the Shinto religion as a counterweight to Buddhist philosophy.  There are wonderful descriptions of a way of life soon to be lost, and the importance of ritual in Japanese thinking.  It is interesting that the history of that era mirrors much that is happening in the world today including out-of-control national debts and financial crisis.  While Isao is considered a hero with pure ideals, the West may be inclined to consider him a terrorist akin to today's suicide bombers. Isao appears to be a reflection of the author's philosophy, given his subsequent suicide. 

 Readers may find this book a grim reminder of the dangers of inflexibility, just as Honda warns Isao when they meet for a second time, after Isao had given the League of Divine Wind to Honda to read, hoping he had found a kindred soul in an older mentor.  I was taken with the insight into a period of Japan's history that is not much discussed, and its lead-up to ideas that influenced Japan's entry into World War II.  It is a skillfully written account of a young man's coming of age at a time when the frustrations of idealism were pitted against a reality marching into the modern world.