Thursday, August 28, 2014

DANCER by Colum McCann (fic)

Colum McCann is one of my favorite writers; he always chooses to write about interesting characters and usually inserts real characters into his work along with the fictional ones.  Having said that, this is not among my favorite books he has written.  Mainly, this is because it is about a fictionalized Rudolf Nureyev who is an elusive and difficult character to portray, because he is so close to our own time.

At the height of his balletic ability, Nureyev was known all over the world and his fame is still legion.  I was lucky enough to be living in London when he was partnered with the lovely and incomparable Margot Fonteyn and doubly lucky to have seen them dance throughout Nureyev's tenure with the Royal Ballet.  There is nothing that can describe the excitement in the theater when he would burst upon the stage.  It was electrifying!

McCann is an exquisite writer, and the book will hold the reader's attention to the end.  What McCann does so well is set the scene from the story's beginning in the Tatar towns in Uzbekistan to the beautiful St. Petersburg, home of the Kirov Ballet where Nureyev began his professional career.  The descriptions are very real of soldiers returning from WWII when Rudolf was a child, along with the food shortages and the bleak times of Stalin's and then Kruschev's Russia.  There is a particularly touching account of a poorly equipped hospital with its dedicated nurses trying to cope with the returning sick from the war front.  This was the setting of Rudolf's youth when he was taking secret ballet lessons from an exiled couple who had once been premier dancers in Petersburg.  Early on they recognized the talent and drive of the young Nureyev.  It was a long time before his father was able to accept that his son would not be destined for a "manly" occupation.

The reader follows Nureyev's growth from an awkward and powerful beginner to his fame by giving voice to several characters that helped form his character.  As the chapters begin with different voices, it sometimes takes a paragraph to recognize whose voice we are hearing.  I found this interrupted the cadence of my reading.  There is a lot about Nureyev's life after he defected in 1961 and the relationships he formed with men and women.  If you have read one of the biographies of Nureyev, you know he had a huge ego and often displayed a lack of sensitivity toward others.  Others have attempted to analyze his psyche and connect it to his energetic style of dancing.  

The book allows us to imagine Nureyev's relationship with his family and his distance from them imposed by the state of Russia where he was a condemned defector.  McCann also follows Nureyev's descent as he ages and is dying of AIDS in the early 90s, yet he continues to dance as he cannot stop doing so; it is his life.

There is much to digest in this book.  If you have read a biography of Rudolf Nureyev, you may want to read what McCann has made of his fictionalized life.  If you love or are interested in the ballet, you  will enjoy going back in time to revisit an icon of dance the likes of which one may never see again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

MISSION TO PARIS by Alan Furst (fic)

I am always happy to pick up a book by Alan Furst who is one of the best espionage and spy writers, right up there with John Le Carré.  Mission to Paris, his 12th spy novel, is one of his better reads.  Furst almost exclusively writes of the period between 1933 and 1941 in Europe.  He writes of the underworld of spies, German, English, French, and Eastern European.  His novels range all over the pre-World War II map.

In this book we follow Fredric Stahl, Austrian born American actor, from Hollywood to France where he is making a film.  Stahl is in his early 40s and at the height of his career.  His is apolitical but wary of the Nazi inroads into France and Paris where he is filming.  The German propaganda arm sees an opportunity to use Stahl to impress America which has not yet entered the war.  Lured into a party by a leading German hostess, he unknowingly comes into contact with several German agents masquerading under the aegis of the Comité France-Allemagne.

Stahl is savvy and sophisticated enough to soon sniff out the real motives of his Nazi hosts, and it takes some veiled threats to convince him to attend the Berlin film festival.  His visit there coincides with Kristallnact.  That does it for him, and he feels lucky to arrive back in Paris with his life. The action then shifts to a castle in Hungary where the film company has relocated and there he and others fall into a Nazi trap which turns into an exciting hunt for those on both sides of the battle.

This is a sketchy outline of the plot, but along the way the reader gets Furst's cracker-jack writing.  His description of Paris on the brink of the German invasion is beautiful.  It is a time when people are still attending parties and smoky nightclubs.  His details are accurate and interesting.  For example he includes movies that are playing at local cinemas and a ride in a long lost automobile, a 1938 Panhard Dynamic which has a steering wheel in the middle of the dashboard.  Passengers can then sit on either side of the driver.  Sometimes a character pops up from another book he has written. And, of course, there is romance included.  It is all like a wonderful film noir from the 40s.

If you like good writing combined with espionage and intrigue and you haven't read a Furst novel, give it a try,  You will be hooked.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

MANSON by Jeff Gunn (non-fic)

The subtitle of this biography is the life and times of Charles Manson.  Some of us remember the summer of love, the Haight, the concerts, the hippies, the riots and Vietnam.  All this was over 4 decades ago. I was living in London at the time, and Helter Skelter was the name of a Beatles song to me, and did not invoke the same fear that gripped Los Angles during the frightening days of the Manson Family's killing spree.

Jeff Gunn has written a very readable book which brings back the upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s.  He was able to unearth new material from the few living witnesses including Manson's sister and cousin.  Many adjectives can be applied to Charles Manson, beginning with worthless.  He is 78 years old now and in some ways still a psychological mystery.  What we do know is that he was a social predator and sociopath who took advantage of the needy, the dependent, the naive, and the drug addled.  He has been in jail most of his life, beginning when he was a young teen in various reform schools, even doing a stint at Boys' Town where he didn't last long.  While imprisoned Manson took an interest in the writings and courses of Dale Carnegie and turned what he learned into a criminal career.

Manson arrived in Haight-Ashbury soon after he was released from one prison stint in 1967.  He looked around, saw and understood the appeal of the street preachers that damaged teens with issues (especially girls) flocked to, and decided he could do it better.  After some initial success and with a small cadre of followers, he debunked to Los Angles, hoping to jump start a singing career.  It is unclear whether Manson was delusional or just gaming people, but he appeared convinced that he would become as famous as the Beatles or Stones by writing and recording his songs.  When that door was finally slammed on him, he found another more dangerous and lethal way to the path of fame.  Soon after arriving in Los Angles, Manson met Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys who enabled him to live the high life while gathering more acolytes.  Wilson introduced him to Terry Melcher, son of Doris Day, who was a record producer.  At that time, Melcher was living with Candice Bergan in the house which later was taken over by Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.

Much took place between the time Manson and his followers arrived in Los Angeles and the killing spree began.  Gunn not only closely follows the movements of the Family, but also includes the unrest that gripped all of America at that time.  He shows how the political and social atmosphere lent itself to the stew of unrest that made it possible for Manson to imagine himself the future savior of the white race in a coming apocalyptic race war.

While Manson is so distasteful a subject, more of interest to me is what made his followers so slavishly obedient to him. What made the girls he attracted and gathered, who looked so much like the girl next door or a future teacher of America, murder so viciously?  Gunn attempts to give us answers, but the mystery remains.  It all seems so long ago.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan (fic)

This is a first book for Charlotte Rogan and she has taken a well-used theme and made a new story out of it.  You might wonder about reading a book where most of the story takes place within the confines of a 37 foot life boat.  Then again, you might enjoy it as I did.  Rogan presents a microcosm of life in a too crowded boat with its alliances and jockeying for leadership and dominance.  She presents a fascinating study of human nature and the desire to survive with moral decisions made by dominant personalities.

Grace Winter and her new husband are returning by steamship to the States on the eve of World War I.  Europe has begun to disintegrate and the Atlantic crossing is a perilous one.  An explosion separates husband and wife, and Grace finds herself thrust into Lifeboat 14 along with 38 others, mostly woman, under the command of John Hardie, a hardened and officious ship's officer.  At first and for several days, morale is kept up by the certainty that they would soon be rescued as they were in a popular shipping lane.  As hope begins to fade, they soon realize that the skiff is too crowded for all to survive.  Food is running out, the seas are running higher and decisions are being made by the dominant characters.  The story becomes one of morality.  Who decides who is saved, who should go?  Should the strongest survive or the weakest?  Grace Winter is a survivor with a strong will to live.  We learn of her background and what has made her the strong personality she is.  The story is told through Grace's eyes and it is unclear that she is telling us the truth as her story unfolds.  We do know she changes alligence between those she perceives to be the strongest, first John Hardie and then Mrs. Grant, an imposing presence.

The story of Lifeboat 14 is sandwiched between that of Grace's background story and what happens after the rescue, when she and two other women are charged with murder and put on trial.  After 21 days at sea and during the subsequent trial, the reader begins to see Grace as manipulative anti-heroine, yet she is so plucky, you will find yourself rooting for her.  Her philosophy seems to be, "God helps those who help themselves."

Though this tale is a dark one, it is a fascinating study of a character who is neither good or bad.  Did circumstances force her to choose survival no matter the cost?  Or, does she twist morality to suit herself?  I recommend this novel to all readers.  There is much to discuss and think about;  it is an excellent choice for book groups.

Friday, August 8, 2014

COUNTRY GIRL by Edna O'Brien. (Non-fic)

Edna O'Brien is one of the great Irish writers of our time. She came of age in the 50s and early 60s and much of her fiction writing reflects the Ireland of these decades.  She is a brilliant writer and this memoir meanders along, much like one's thoughts, looking back on a life which reflects the contradictions of the era.

O'Brien was born in 1930 in Drewsboro, County Clare, a small town which she tells us had three grocers and 27 pubs. Her father was an alcoholic, abusive at times, and early on she rebelled against her provincial Catholic upbringing with its accompanying guilt and shame.  Her great goal was to live and work in Dublin.  After running wild in her girlhood, she arrived in Dublin and obtained a job as a pharmacist's assistant. It wasn't long before she was married at age 23 to Ernest Gebler, a divorced play write, much older than she. The marriage was miserable, yet produced two sons who she loved dearly.

Perhaps, living in an unhappy and abusive marriage herself, writing allowed her an outlet for her strong creative ability.  She soon began selling her work and in 1960 wrote her most well-known novel, Country Girls, which was banned in Ireland, only adding to its notoriety. She became far more successful and famous than her jealous husband who ruled the household with an iron hand, insisting on controlling every penny Edna earned. This stressful situation lasted for 10 years, when she finally decided she had had enough and ran off in London, a courageous move in a time when divorce was frowned on, and difficult to obtain.

The second half of the book invites us to a gossip about her life when she became famous for her stories and masterly writing style.  Many celebrities turn up here.  She had a weakness for married men and carried on with the likes of Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, Sean Connery (who convinced her to try LSD with disastrous results), Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Samuel Beckett, a fellow Irishman. She charmed Paul McCartneyand Jackie Onassis became a friend and confidant.

Like most of her ex-pat countrymen, she longed to return home and in later years, bought a home in rural Donegal.  She stayed there for ten years through various hardships and a few crises.  Much later, this brilliant restless woman contemplated ending it all on a dreary trip to Singapore.  Happily that depression was brief, and she moved on to other adventures and other writing.  At 78, O'Brien has much more to contribute to the world of letters.  I am so glad I read this autobiography, which I heartily recommend. You might want to read it along with one of her novels. Country Girls is a good beginning point.