Monday, February 24, 2014

A SPORT AND A PASTIME by James Salter (fic)

James Salter is a lovely writer.  He writes with precision and poetic rhythm.  His most recent book, All That Is, published last year is a reminder of the beauty and rarity of his writing.  A Sport and a Pastime is one of his early books, written in 1967, but has been continuously in print.  It caused a bit of a sensation when it was published for its explicit sexuality.  As it states in the forward, it was less than 10 years since Lady Chatterley's Lover had been allowed to be printed in the United States.  This is a book that had provoked discussion, both when it was published and even today.

The author tells us near the beginning of the novel, and repeats several times throughout, that the story is not real.  It is related by a 34 year old narrator who is staying in a house belonging to friends in Autun, near Dijon, in France.  Our American voyeur relates the story of a restless young American student, Philip Dean, who has dropped out of Yale and arrives in Paris looking for an escape from his family's expectations. His father is a famous critic and his mother committed suicide.  The narrator meets him at a party attended by a certain avant-garde social set which includes American ex-pats reminiscent of the wild young things of the twenties, though these have come off World War II instead. It is the era of "Mad Men" and pseudo-sophistication. 

Philip Dean ends up driving to Autun with the narrator.  There he meets a 19 year old French waitress, and they begin a torrid affair, most likely the first for him.  The story then becomes one of their obsessive sexual relationship (though not tawdry or cheap) as the couple travel through southern France.  It is told with grace and feeling, yet it is dated by the era in which it is written.  Clearly this is not a modern novel. The romanticism that Salter attaches to the young lovers is that of a young man experiencing his first deep sexual experience.  Anne Marie, his French lover, is more open than an American girl of that time would be.

What to make of the mysterious narrator, is he the author relating a story, or is the character just making up a story?  That is never explained but adds to the dream-like quality of the novel.  Even though this book was written over 40 years ago, it still holds up today.  The world was on the cusp of the rebellions and excesses of the sixties which "Mad Men" depicts so realistically.  The author takes his title from a quote of the Koran: "Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime......"

Monday, February 17, 2014

ABOVE ALL THINGS by Tania Rideout (fic)

This is the first novel by Tania Rideout, a Canadian poet.  She has chosen to write a fictionalized account of the ascent of Mt. Everest by George Mallory.  Rideout uses the duel voices of Mallory and his wife Ruth, alternating, as they each in their own way, face the stress of Mallory's last and fateful climb.

George Mallory is certainly an interesting subject. The son of a domineering vicar, he was born in 1886 and died at age 37 in 1924 on the North Face of Everest.  This was his fourth (the third was abandoned because of an avalanche) attempt to conquer the daunting mountain, and it remains a mystery of whether he succeeded to summit or died within 800 feet of achieving his goal.  George Mallory was a golden boy, handsome, tall, athletic, determined, popular and daring.  He was a painter and poet and friendly with the Bloomsbury set, and the author shows us his charm, but also his intensity and focus.

Rideout does a terrific job of allowing the reader to experience the frustrations and setbacks Mallory faced as well as the stress of the unknown that his wife Ruth felt as she cared for their two daughters and a son in Cambridge.  As he reaches the various stages and camps on his accent, we learn of George's background in a series of flashbacks.  We are shown glimpses of his youth, his time at Cambridge and service during World War I, his courtship of Ruth and the deep love they felt for each other.

Mallory's expedition started out in Bombay to Darjeeling then through the Mahabharata Range into Tibet.  Climbing the highest range in the world in the 1920s was vastly different than what we know today.  Though it remains singularly dangerous, modern technology has given today's climber an advantage that Mallory couldn't imagine.  Mallory and his climbing companions wore tweed and layers of heavy wool. If they used oxygen, the tanks were heavy and added impossible weight.  The number of porters and trunks of supplies were bordering on the ridiculous with specialty foods and delicacies and wine that seem hardly believable.  These climbers smoked also.  Imagine climbing to the highest base camps and having a cigarette while taking a break on the way.   Rideout knows her history, and tells her story authentically.  Some of the expressions of her characters are more Canadian than British, but by and large, they are believable and real.

This story ends sadly for Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine who was only 21.  It was not until 1999 that Mallory's frozen corpse was found by a group of climbers on the North Face of Everest.  Irvine remains lost.  The mystery of whether they reached the summit may never be solved; it makes Mallory's story more interesting and dramatic.

Rideout has written an imaginative and interesting novel, presenting the views of both Ruth and George.  Above All Things is recommended reading whether you are interested in mountain climbing or human nature and love a good story.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

LAWRENCE IN ARABIA by Scott Anderson (non-fic)

Even as child, Lawrence lived a double life.  His parents were unmarried and living under an assumed name.  Here we are seven decades after Lawrence's birth, and he is still a figure surrounded by myth and mystery.  Anderson, an expert on the mid-east conflict, has written a big, meaty, thorough biography filled with the history of the modern formation of the Middle East.  What was set in motion, during and in the aftermath of World War I, continues to have intense ramifications into the present day.  There is enough information in this volume to help the reader gain better insight into the present as well as the past.  There is so much to digest that it took me quite a while to read, sending me time and again on side searches to google names and maps.  Anderson is a masterful writer of both fiction and non-fiction as well as two books co-authored with his brother Jon Anderson, a familiar name to readers of The New Yorker and books on current politics, both writers equally brilliant. 

The book opens on the eve of World War I in 1913 and '14 with both British and American agents clandestinely posing as archaeologists, but really looking for petroleum deposits in the oil rich area of Palestine then part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.  William Yale, a young American of patrician background was working for Standard Oil in the same capacity as Lawrence who was working for the British.  Standard Oil wished to gain a monopoly on the petroleum in the area, seeing opportunity to control and to sell to both sides in the conflict that had broken out in Europe.  The British were eager to control the area to feed their growing need for oil to power their navel fleet which was being converted from the old coal burning ships.  Beside scouting for oil, both men along with a German named Curt Prufer, were secretly mapping the outer reaches of the Ottoman Empire with the knowledge fighting would soon spill into the area.   These three men were instrumental for the fortunes of their nations throughout the war and into the peace process that followed.

Lawrence was a wayward genius with an Oxford degree in Medieval warfare.  He was not cut out for military life being stubborn, insubordinate, brilliant, and he did not suffer fools.  He was able to run laps around his less gifted superiors and play both sides against the middle, manipulating men more powerful than he, both friends and enemies.  He was loved, hated and feared in equal measure.  Despite his mission to make Britain supreme in the Middle East, he loved the area and had his own mission to help the Arabs unite under one leader to gain back supremacy once the Ottoman Empire crumbled. He quickly understood what no Western leader did, that conventional warfare would not win in this theater of war.  He was able to utilize his knowledge of medieval warfare to unite the Arabs under Faisal Hussein and use these tactics in deadly skirmishes striking at railways, and cutting off the Turks from food and water supplies, capturing important ports and towns along the way.

This is a long war and a long story.  The romantic movie "Lawrence of Arabia" telescopes events that stretched over years of one step forward, two back.  In reality what this all led up to after the defeat of the Germans and the Turks, was the broken promises the western powers had made to the Arabs; the shameful cutting up of Palestine into countries with no regard to ethnic sensibilities; and the setting up of a Jewish homeland in Palestine with no commitment to the sharing of power that was promised to the Arabs.  Today we bear the consequences of these diplomatic blunderings.  All this was too much for Lawrence to bear. All that he fought for was destroyed in the peace process largely brokered by President Wilson who had no idea of the history of the region and the mare's nest he was helping to form.  Lawrence quit the world stage, and went back to civilian life with no desire to take any part in the post-war governing of his beloved Middle East.

There are so many interesting characters that come into play in this huge fascinating history. Also of importance was Aaron Aaronsohn a Zionist agronomist and Chaim Weizmann who founded the state of Israel.  You must read the book to satisfy your curiosity and broaden your understanding of this complicated and complex area of the world.  It changed my understanding of World War I which had been largely formed on my concentrated readings of the war on the western front. The conflicts and wars in this oil rich region of the world have never diminished. In medieval times, wars here were fought over religion; after the first world war, they were fought over the petroleum needed to fuel the modern world.  This is not an easy read, but an essential one to better understand what is happening today in the Middle East and how its roots are seeded in the last century and long before.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

UNACCUSTOMED EARTH by Jhumpa Lahiri (fic)

I loved this book of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri.  I enjoyed it much more than her newer book The Lowland which I reviewed in December.  Each one of these eight stories is a gem and could be turned into a full length book if the author so chose.  Instead they stand perfectly as they are.  Lahiri is a Bengali, born in London and raised in Rhode Island.  She writes what is familiar to her, and all these stories take place in such realistic settings that you know the author has been there.  As in all her work, sense of place is strong in these stories and plays a role in enriching the characters and the lives they have chosen.  The settings range from Seattle in the first story, to Massachusetts, Rome, Calcutta and Thailand.  As before, her characters are largely immigrants feeling their way in new surroundings, determined to succeed and goal driven. 

Lahiri writes strong realistic dialogue which increases the readers involvement in the lives of the characters.  For the brief time we are immersed in each story, we become eavesdroppers on what appears to be real life occurrences.  Death or a sense of it is a thread that winds through the entire book. 

The author has chosen to preface this book with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne's book, The Custom-House:  Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too     long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil.  My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

Each main character is challenged by his/her unfamiliar surroundings and must make major decisions which affect their lives before moving on to complete their growth.  Sometimes this involves love and relationships, sometimes it involves decisions that will affect families, jobs and careers.  I enjoyed all the stories, but my favorites were the last three tales which told the story of two young people as they become adults.  Hema, a Latin professor at Wellesley and Kaushik, a photojournalist, were thrown together in childhood.  Both threw off their heritage and made careers for themselves, quite independent from family ideals.  The first story is told from Hema's viewpoint as she addresses Kaushik, the second from Kaushik's viewpoint as he addresses Hema.  And, the third, tells us what became of these characters and how their paths recross. 

I highly recommend Unaccustomed Earth to all readers.  If you, like me, rarely read short story collections, I urge to give this book a try.  There is a lot of humanity to be found in its pages and a window with which to view the immigrant experience.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

GREY EMINENCE by Aldous Huxley (non-fic)

This book written in 1941 may be out of print.  Every once in a while, I like to go back to the classics to be reminded, among other things, of how rewarding beautiful and rich writing can be.  Any book by Huxley will do.  This book is difficult to categorize, as it is the story of the Machiavellian French politician, Richelieu and his spiritual guide and trusted political advisor, the Capuchin friar, Father Joseph. It is also an interpretive account of the politics of the early 17th century and the 30 Years War.  Huxley analyses the motives and philosophy of these closely bound men who were responsible for the policies of France that affected all of western Europe during their tenure.

Francois Leclerc du Tremblay, who became Father Joseph was born into a noble family 1577.  His life and history is one of power and abstinence. He was a man of opposing forces who was able to compartmentalize the dichotomy of being an aesthetic and a ruthless politician.  He was both loved and hated and came to be known as the shadowy figure called Grey Eminence.  He was a power-broker who travelled all over Europe stirring up forces that he and Richelieu deemed important to the rise of French supremacy.  Their tenure was one of the more interesting times in the history of Europe with the rise of Protestantism and the waning power of Rome, the weakening of the German state as well as that of Spain.

If you have an interest in this period of time in history and enjoy brilliant writing, I recommend this insightful book.  It is worth searching out. Huxley delves into the philosophy of religious mysticism and how it affected European politics during this era.  He is an astute interpreter of the motives and designs of Fr. Joseph and Richelieu and how they shaped Europe during their lifetimes.