Sunday, March 01, 2015

Women of Messina by Elio Vittorni (1949, 1964)

My next ride on Harold Bloom's western canon list is the Italian novel, Women of Messina by Elio Vittorini (1949, 1964, English translation 1973). I'm not going to pretend that I get all the allusions and layers of this allegorical post-war novel, but I definitely enjoyed it and understood at least some of the metaphors woven into the story.

It is just after World War II and Italy is waking up and trying to piece together a normal life. A group of men, women, and children traveling to nowhere in particular decide to leave their broken down truck and settle into a bombed out village that had been abandoned during the war. They set about clearing the mines from the fields, making communal housing in the half-standing church, and setting up a central kitchen for everyone to use. Gradually other wandering people join the first group, including some original inhabitants of the village. The villagers are successful, although their communal lifestyle isn't without its conflicts and quarrels.

At the same time, the elderly Uncle Agrippa is spending his days riding back and forth on the nation's trains, searching for his only daughter. He is a constant presence on the railroad and participates in conversations and discussions with the other people who wander the country, searching. One of his favorite travel companions is Carlos the Bald, who often entertains him with stories of the isolated villages and unusual characters he meets during his work.

The simple agrarian life of the village is disrupted when Carlos the Bald, a representative of the authorities in the city, starts coming around to the village and asking questions. He knows one of the chief villagers from partisan activity during the war and while his motivations and actions are always a little unclear, his presence is taken as a threat by the village. What really tears things apart, however, are a group of soldiers who come into the village looking to take away one of the men. While they are there, they scoff at the village's bar that serves warm beer because they don't have any refrigeration or even a regular delivery of ice. They pine for the jukeboxes and restaurants and electricity and lights and dancing of the nearby city. The villagers, living in isolation and working hard to maintain their community, have been overlooked by the technological and economic development of the bigger cities. Soon villagers start to leave and seek out the conveniences and obligations of city life, although some stay and continue to live and work in the village.

Vittorini wrote this novel in 1949, but wasn't happy with it. He pulled it from publication and spent the next 14 years revising it, until it was re-released in 1964 (and then translated into English and published here in 1973, after the author's death). This has the feeling to me of post-war Italian movies, lit by stark sunlight and framed with half-fallen walls and women pushing wheelbarrows. The author shows an obvious love for his country and his Communist ideals here, as well as some harsh criticism of the fallen Facist government and encroaching capitalism. While the themes and the metaphors are pretty dated and temporal, there is also an affection and interest in humanity and the ways we reach out to and interact with each other that gives this novel a freshness and universality that it might not otherwise have. It's also often very funny! A somewhat challenging read, but absolutely worth it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Rick Steves' Snapshot Bruges & Brussels, Including Antwerp & Ghent by Rick Steves (2011)

I'm continuing my research for our summer trip to Belgium by dipping into some good old dependable Rick Steves with Rick Steves' Snapshot Bruges & Brussels, Including Antwerp & Ghent (2011).

This volume gives a brief overview of the culture and history of Belgium and then dips into a snapshot of each of the four major cities, including a suggested walking tour, a list of sights and neighborhoods, recommended hotels and restaurants, and general travel and transportation recommendations. Included with each city are Steves' patented hand-drawn maps, which I find really appealing. It's easy to make fun of Steves' PBS-approved travel guides, but I find his writing style to be very approachable, and his tips all seem very practical and reassuring (particularly to this first-time European traveler).

We'll be spending most of our time in Ghent, which is great because that's the city that appealed to me the most in this guide. It seems much less touristy than Bruges, more academic than Antwerp, and more cozy than Brussels. Also, it is the home of the Boekentoren (oddly not covered in Steves' guide -- come on man, people love books!).  This wonderful tower of books is currently under renovation, but you can experience its wonder (and get a taste of Ghent) through this series of videos. I imagine I will still get to see some kind of library / book / bookstore action while I'm over there. Oh plus museums and canals and beer and mussels and waffles. Getting nervous/excited/pumped! Five more months!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Holy Bible, King James Version (1611), Various authors

I recently finished reading this really cool book you might have heard of: The Holy Bible, King James Version (1611) by (you know) various authors.

I got the idea of reading the entirety of the KJV in 2011 when the book had it's 400th printing anniversary. It took me a few years to get around to actually getting and starting a copy, but I got it together early last year and started my journey. By chipping away at a few pages every day, I worked my way through both the Old and New Testament (yes, even the boring parts). I'm so glad I did.

My parents aren't religious and I didn't grow up going to church at all (except for that one year we went to the Unitarian church in town), although I did read my way through some children's bibles and attended the occasional Sunday school class or church service with my grandparents or wedding of one of my mom's many cousins. My lack of familiarity with the Bible wasn't generally a problem until I went to college and became an English major. Regardless of how you feel about God and Jesus, the Bible, and particularly the King James Version of the Bible, are exceedingly influential. Writing those papers and figuring out Paradise Lost would have been way easier with a little more background informtion.

Now I'm still not a churchgoer, but I do work for a seminary and have a great affection and appreciation for theological study, pastors, and seminary students, all of which rely heavily on the Bible. If nothing else, having the experience of having read the whole damn thing lets me understand some of their jokes a little better and have at least a fighting chance of guessing if a certain book is in the Old or New Testament.

I'm not going to lie, there is some rough going in here, especially in the Old Testament. The long lists of begats and genealogies and families with unpronounceable names aren't exactly page turners. The very very detailed instructions on how to build the tabernacle and how to sacrifice what animal when get old pretty fast. And the rules. My god, the rules. Some are funny, some are horrifying, and some are just extremely dull. Of course, the OT also has a lot of battles, kings, power plays, and some truly excellent characters (Moses! David! Saul!).

I can also see why the New Testament is so appealing. When you turn that corner into the Gospels you get one of the most naturally described characters in the whole sacred text: Jesus. And hearing his story four times from four different writers just helps hammer the point home. This is a great story, a revolutionary guy, and a huge change from business as usual. I'm the first to admit that Christians have been pretty horrible over the years (I was in a meeting with an Old Testament professor who said, "the history of Christianity is basically a series of good intentions with pretty crappy results"), but the original story is refreshing, moving and absolutely some good news.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Nemo: Heart of Ice by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (2013)

My next dip into John's loaner bookshelf of mystery is Nemo: Heart of Ice by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (2013).

This is a side story from the extremely popular League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series in which Janni Dakkar, the daughter of League character Captain Nemo, goes off on a rather convoluted and extremely Lovecraftian Antarctic pirate adventure that will prove she is just as tough as her legendary father.

Not having read any of the League books or being a particularly huge Lovecraft fan, I found this one a little hard to sink my teeth into. After a second look I got a little more out of it, but still not enough to really dig it. The drawings are expressive, the colors are great, and there's nothing wrong with the dialogue. Just, for me, a disconnect in the genre and a feeling of missing a few important pieces of information. The giant killer penguins were pretty sweet, though.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007)

The Debbie Downers, my "only sad books" book club, selected a real downer for our latest read, Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007).

The book goes back and forth between the present and the past. First we have the story of Sarah, the daughter of Jewish Polish immigrants living in Paris in 1942. The family is taken as part of the Vel' d'Hiv roundup (something I'd never really heard of before), where French police took entire families, locked them in the Vel' d'Hiv for days without food or water, then shipped them to work camps, separated the fathers from their families and then the mothers from their children, and ultimately sent everyone to Auschwitz. It is a particularly grim part of French history since the atrocities were committed not by the Nazi's, but by Frenchmen. When the police knock on Sarah's door, she hides her 4-year-old brother Michel in a secret crawlspace that they often used to play in and the police do not find him. She takes the key with her, assuming that they will be back in a few hours when the police finish with them.

Interspersed with Sarah's story, we have the story of modern-day journalist Julia Jarmond. Julia is an American who married a Parisian and has lived in Paris for almost 20 years with her husband and daughter. She has a passionate but rocky marriage that is pushed to the breaking point when she finds out she is pregnant again (at 45, after multiple miscarriages) and decides to keep the baby even though her husband does not want them to have it. Julia gets sucked into Sarah's story when she discovered that the apartment that her husband has recently inherited from his grandmother had belonged to Sarah's family when they were taken by the police in 1942. She doggedly tracks down information about the roundup and Sarah's family and brings Sarah's story into the present day.

The plot with Julia and her husband was pretty ham-fisted and the husband really couldn't be more of a one-dimensional jerk. Still, as the book moves forward, Julia becomes a more and more sympathetic character, and I found myself getting caught up in her story as much as I was in Sarah's. I've been trying really hard to figure out if this book was originally published in French or English (I'm finding contradictory information on that). de Rosnay is French, but her mother is English and she spent some of her youth in the U.S. She lives in Paris and writes in both French and English. I'm going to use the fact that English is not her primary language to excuse some of the sappy dialogue and occasionally flat phrase. Luckily the horrific plot of Sarah and her family is enough to keep the reader going through some rough spots.

Overall this is a worthwhile book, perhaps more for the historical part of its story than for its writing style or the modern half of the plot. Learning about the Vel' d'Hiv and confronting a less familiar part of the horror of the Holocaust was something that I'm glad I did. And man, it certainly fit the bill for a sad sad sad sad book.

[This was made into a movie by a French director in 2011 starring Kristin Scott-Thomas. If the trailer is anything to go by, it looks like they make the shitty husband / impending baby part of the plot pretty minor.]

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ghost World: Special Edition by Daniel Clowes (2008)

This next read is another fabulous selection from the St. Denis lending library: Ghost World: Special Edition by Daniel Clowes (2008).

Like many people, I had read the original collection of Ghost World comics right around the same time Terry Zwigoff's movie came out, in 2001, and really enjoyed them. This ultra deluxe edition brings together the original comics, the screen play from the movie, annotations and essays by Clowes and Zwigoff, and lots of extra material.

Reading the comics and then immediately reading the screenplay really highlights the differences between the two stories. I don't read many screenplays, so it was fun to throw my brain into that exercise and draw connections between my memories of the movie and the experience of reading the comics all in one go. I find movie Edith a lot more sympathetic, and the ending a little softer, but I'm not sure which way I like better. Both works (the comics and the movie) are pretty great, and this is an example of the rare occurrence of both a movie and book being great, but in different ways.

I'm not sure how Clowes gets the weirdness of being a teenage girl quite right (except that maybe the weirdness of being a teenage boy isn't all that different), but he really really does. Let's all use this review as an excuse to revisit one of my favorite Aimee Mann songs, "Ghost World" (which gets in my head every time I pick up this book), and really just dig into that lonely teenage melancholy:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bring Him Back Dead by Day Keene (1956)

It's no secret that I have a soft spot for pulpy novels, and even though this copy of Bring Him Back Dead by Day Keene (1956) was practically falling apart at the seams when I found it at the used bookstore, I had to bring it home and give it a read.

Andy Latour is from one of the oldest families in the Louisiana town of French Bayou, a sleepy place made frantic by a recent oil boom. Unfortunately, Latour's land is one of the only parcels with a dry well and he is left to support his beautiful new Russian wife (who he met while he was in the service) on his paltry salary as Deputy Sheriff. While other members of the force are raking in the bucks through bribes, Latour plays it clean and that makes him the least popular member of the force, both with his colleagues and with the criminally minded population of the boom town.

After a shitty day where he was shot at three times by an unseen assailant, Latour has some serious sex with his beautiful wife that, afterwards, makes him feel even shittier since he is certain that she resents his lack of oil wealth. That shitty mood is made only shittier when he runs into his wife's drunk and mooching brother in the living room on his way back out to take care of some police business. He is worried about the young and beautiful wife of an old town drunk that he drove back to their isolated trailer after the drunk husband caused a scene in the middle of town. There has been a serial rapist attacking women in the town and he feels the young woman is a target. He also feels like he needs to clear the air with her after they had a mutually desired near-assignation in her trailer with her husband passed out in the corner. He had made some vague plans to meet her later, but now regrets that planned infidelity and wants to tell her so.

When he gets to the trailer he knocks on the door and tells the young woman who he is. Then, suddenly, he is hit over the head and knocked out. When he comes to, he is in the police station, accused of murdering the old drunk and violently raping his wife. Since no one really likes him, no one believes that he didn't do it, and someone who wants him dead is going around town riling up the drunks to rush the jail and hang him as an act of mob justice. No one but Latour himself can get him out of this jam and figure out who the real violent criminal is before he strikes again.

This is a great pulpy novel with a nicely used gulf coast location. The action is convincing, the characters are complicated, and the twists are satisfying. I figured out the main mystery just a page or so before it was revealed which, for this reader, is perfect timing. The author, Day Keene, was a prolific writer of radio shows and pulp stories and novels, and I look forward to seeking him out on the paperback shelves in the future. If you like 1950s crime fiction, then this is for you.