Tuesday, June 16, 2015

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Vera Brittain (non-fic)

Noting that a new film based on Vera Brittain's poignant and affecting memoir about the destruction of family life caused by World War I, I decided to reread her book.  I first read "Testament of Youth" shortly after the Vietnam War, and it seemed to resonate with meaning during that era.  The book and Brittain's message has lost none of its powerful significance during our own time of world turmoil.

Vera Brittain writes of the loss of innocence and the war's impact on her generation;she writes of the youth of that time being totally unprepared for the horror they would face and the effect the war had on those who were left behind to face the loss of loved ones and contemporaries.  Britain lost her fiance, Roland Leighton who was only 20 years old when he died, as well as her beloved brother, Edward, and two of her closest friends fighting in France.

Brittain was born into an ordinary conservative Derbyshire family, yet somehow developed into a brilliant individual who questioned the senselessness of sending millions of unprepared young men to their death.  She questioned the British education system which preached platitudes extolling the virtues of of patriotic duty and the noble cause.  Unlike the Bloomsburries who railed against the war, she, also a committed pacifist, volunteered to nurse the wounded in the wretched conditions of a field hospital in the front lines.

Brittain was determined to survive and write an account of the damage of the war and its toll on returning veterans and their families.  It took her 17 years to complete her memoir of friendship and loss.  When published, it became an instant success and was read all over the world. The sad fate of Roland, Edward, Victor and Geoffrey was immortalized, but so was Vera's political awakening and her questioning of correct feminine behavior.  It provided insight into the lost generation and the youth of the 1920s who were forced to face the darkness of reality.

This is indeed a sad book, but one that remains forever relevant as long as our young men and women continue to lose their lives fighting wars that are beyond our understanding and control.  I highly recommend this book to all thoughtful readers and those interested in World War I and its aftermath.  I hear the movie is excellent as well, though sure to be a sad one.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar (fic)

Parmar has set her novel in pre-war WWI London and it spans eight years, 1905-1912, in the life of Vanessa Stephens Bell and her sisiter Virginia Stephens Woolf.  These two beautiful and talented sisters were forerunners of the new freedom young woman were espousing by the end of the war.  Vanessa, two and a half years older than Virgina, was a soon to be renowned painter, and of course, Virginia is lionized even today for her feminist novels and essays.  The girls were quite young when their mother, who was a great beauty in her own right died, and by the time their father died in 1904, they were daring enough to move out of the family home and into bohemian digs in Bloomsbury, which was becoming the center of literary London.  Leaving their Duckworth half sibling brothers (later revealed to have molested the sisters), they settled in Gordon Square with their own brothers, the handsome and adored Thoby and Adrian who was still a student at Oxford.  Once established, their home became a center for writers and artists creating a brilliant circle of friends, names which are still admired today such as: Maynard Keynes, Morgan Forster, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and Litton Strachey.  We follow the varied and tangled relationships among this expanding group of friends with their open marriages and numerous romances.

Parmar tells her story in the form of letters and a diary kept by Vanessa who is the main character in the book.  The story is largely seen through her eyes.  She provides an excellent and realistic dialogue, always a dodgy task when dealing with reputable and brilliant artists and writers.  The story ends before the war and the many liasons within this small circle of friends through the decades of the 20s and into the early 40s.  Vanessa marries Clive Bell early in the novel, and the story ends with Virginia's marriage to Leonard Woolf.

I enjoyed the novel, and the characters rang true with the exception of Virginia.  Her portrayal is curiously one sided.  Virgina had bouts of manic activity and depression, and she surely was difficult and unruly for her patient sister.  She carried on a strangely platonic affair with Clive Bell, Vanessa's husband.  However, she is presented as consistently weak and manipulative and a drain to all around her.  The author never shows her intensely brilliant side or her rising fame as a writer.  A much more rounded picture of the sisters was written by Vanessa's son Quentin Bell in a book called, "Such Good Friends."  Other good biographies are by Michael Holroyd and through the diaries of Dora Carrington, or the most recent by Viviane Forrester.

Friday, June 12, 2015

THE LIKENESS by Tana French (fic)

Tana French is a terrific writer of intelligent psychological mysteries who puts me in mind of the late great Ruth Rendall.  She has also been compared to Donna Tartt. Tana French is not to be confused with Nicci French who also writes excellent thrillers.  Tana French is Irish and most of her books take place in Dublin or nearby.  French has won the Edgar Award for a previous book, "Into the Woods," which involves many of the same characters who appear in this book.

French is more interested in the characters she writes about than the authors of many conventional mystery novels are.  In this book, Cassie Maddox an undercover detective, who has reassigned herself to the domestic violence department after a nasty case, makes a reappearance when she is called in to help with a murder in the small rural village of Glenskehy.  Cassie was tapped by her old boss and team because the victim bears an uncanny resemblance to her, and most confounding of all, was using a fake identity that Cassie herself had fashioned and used in a previous case.  Once the reader get beyond the somewhat contrived idea that Cassie could have a doppelganger who just happened to have been murdered in her stomping grounds, and can suspend the believe in this premise, the story is crackerjack. Two mysteries are intertwined here; who is the dead girl really, and who is her murderer?

Cassie agrees to impersonate the dead girl and finds herself sharing a crumbling manor house with four students of Trinity College, any one of whom could be the murderer.  Or perhaps the murderer is one of the disgruntled villagers who holds a grudge against the occupants of Whitethorn House.  All the characters in the book are fully developed and an underlying theme of the story is the intensity of friendship and its inherent danger.  As Cassie become more involved with her housemates, she is in danger of losing her objectivity and ultimately her life.  Cassie is a strong character and she begins to make missteps as she is drawn into the isolated life orchestrated by Dan the alpha male of the group.

If you are a fan of mystery novels and thrillers, I highly recommend this book for its well developed plot and fine writing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS by Patrick McGuinness (fic)

McGuinness has written a thinly veiled account of the last days of communist rule in Bucharest, Romania, under the rule of strong-man Nicolae Ceausescu.  McGuinness lived and taught in Bucharest during the final years of Ceausescu's reign and knows his subject well; his experience was first hand and the story he tells rings true from the characters to the plot.

The main character, a young Englishman, is never identified by name.  Almost as soon as he arrives in Bucharest in the late 80s, he is enmeshed in the strange underground society of the city called the "Paris of the East," though a decidedly shabby shadow of its namesake.  The young man is quickly taken under the wing of a likable but shady black-market dealer named Leo O'Heix who also has a University position. Leo knows the old city and its haunts as if he was born there.  He introduces the narrator to this City of Lost Walks, so named by Leo because of the number of beautiful old areas of the city that have been razed, along with historical buildings and churches. Like a war zone, it is a city of crumbling buildings with a few remaining dusty and dark museums.
"This is how you measure what you have against what there was," Leo said, "you walk it, what remains of it, you hear the clamour of all that's gone. It's your listening that brings it back."
Through Leo the young man meets and becomes involved with a dissident group which is smuggling people out of Romania.

Along with Leo, our hero is mentored by Sergiu Trofirm a former communist intellectual who is writing a memoir of the city.  The young man helps smuggle this book out of the country and into Paris for publication.  He also manages to become involved with two young women, Cilea, a daughter of a party apparatchik and Ottilia, an idealistic young doctor working in appalling conditions in a poorly staffed and dingy hospital.

All movement within the city was under surveillance and monitored by the Securitate, who somehow seemed in collusion with the corruption and black-marketers.
"For all the grotesqueness and brutality, it was normality that defined our relations: the human capacity to accommodate ourselves to our conditions, not the duplicity and corruption that underpinned them.  This was also our greatest drawback--the routinization of want, sorrow, repression, until they became invisible, until they numbed you even to atrocity."

McGuiness, now a professor of French and comparative literature at Oxford, has written an interesting and engaging book about the end of the repressive communist regime in Romania.  Real characters from that era intermingle with the fictional characters.  I enjoyed reading about a country I knew little about except for the odd mention in the news.  I recommend this read for any who enjoy a dose of reality along with their fiction wrapped up in a well-written novel.