Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Greene on Capri: A Memoir by Shirley Hazzard

There’s meeting cute, and then there’s meeting writerly cute.

When Shirley Hazzard first crossed paths with Graham Greene on the island of Capri, she makes a decidedly literary impression on the great man. Wisely, she makes a fast exit, one that leaves him wanting more of the young Aussie writer, the wife of his passing acquaintance, Francis Steegmuller. Hazzard later notes that their meeting was characterized by what Graham valued most, the unexpected.

She paints a picture of her new famous friend, describing his presence as, “immediate and interesting, with its emanation of expectancy and experience. His face was charged with feelings unhallowed and unmellowed, and lit by the blue extraordinary eyes… they were part of his magnetism and he knew it.”

There’s much in this memoir of his opinions on other writers, including Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen, and Muriel Spark – whom he privately supported with money through her early lean years as a writer. Greene was quick and eager to tout books he liked, but intolerant of anyone who dared defend a book he found lacking.

Most interesting were Greene’s youthful influences. He lists Henty, Haggard, Hornung, Kipling, Stephenson and Conan Doyle. One book in particular stood out for the budding author: “When – perhaps I was fourteen by that time – I took Miss Marjorie Bowen’s The Viper of Milan from the library shelf, the future for better or worse really stuck. From that moment I began to write… one could not read her without believing that to write was to live and enjoy.”

Much later on his death bed, he’d make a cryptic reference to Flaubert.

Included in this slim memoir are descriptions of Greene’s Capri writing space along with a
chronicling of his writing habits: in the mornings, before doing anything, before going anywhere, he met his daily word quota. On Greene’s early writing career Hazzard relates that his first “literary successes were short-circuited by misfortunes, some of them self-inflicted.” With a family to support he climbed onto the journalist’s treadmill of article writing. He was over forty before he could afford “to write on his own terms.” Hazzard notes that after his death critics rebuked his commercial success, his mass appeal (the implication no doubt being: how great a writer could he have been since he sold millions of books).

Without judgment Hazzard portrays aspects of Greene’s mercurial personality, offering an intimate portrait of the man’s prickly, complex nature. She notes that Graham “often appeared indifferent to harm done, hurt inflicted, trust eroded. Trust itself was an unwanted claim on him, another infringement. Chaos relieved the monotony of outward order.” Michael Shelden, in his review of this book in the Daily Telegraph, describes Greene as “a manic, obsessed character who had escaped from the pages of a Patricia Highsmith t
hriller.” Hazzard describes many such character revealing details, particularly Greene’s lack of remorse, and, in my opinion, these are more indicative of psychopathy than mental illness. It comes as no surprise that forensic psychology textbooks cite Harry Lime, the villain of Greene’s The Third Man, as the greatest example of psychopathy in all literature.

In the latter third of this memoir, Hazzard spends too much time on Capri’s history and people, visitor or native. Still, Greene on Capri offers a nice intimate portrait of these writers as they enjoy the pleasures of this picturesque island.

Friday, July 25, 2008

To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia

A traditional amateur detective drama, To Each His Own starts when the town pharmacist, on the eve of the opening of hunting season, receives a death threat in the mail. "This letter is your death sentence. To avenge what you have done you will die."

But Manno, the man who receives the warning, is convinced he has done no wrong and dismisses the letter as a joke. The next day, he and his hunting companion, Dr. Roscio, are found shot to death. After a cursory investigation by the town marshal, there are no obvious suspects and no obvious motives until Professor Lauranna, a literary minded schoolteacher who still lives with his mother, spots a clue in the letter that the police had dismissed. He decides to investigate the crime himself – more out of need for some intellectual distraction than out of a sense for justice. As he digs deeper, this curious and repressed mamma’s boy discovers that the motive for murder lies in the town’s politics as well as in family loyalty. Since the setting is a small town in Sicily, secrets, lies, collusion and violence penetrate every single aspect of life, especially family and politics, and because of this, the ending is shockingly unexpected for the genre.

Very well done and highly recommended.

A word of caution: The New York Review of Books recently reprinted To Each His Own under its "classics" issues. Beware, the edition published by the New York Review of Books has a wonderful introduction to the novel in the beginning. Save this for after you have read the book. While the introduction is good, it gives too much of the plot away!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Executor: A Comedy of Letters by Michael Kruger

Translation from the German by John Hargraves

With far more moments of exquisite irony than pure comedy, this novel tells the tale of a hapless
unnamed German narrator summoned to Turin upon the suicide of his friend, the literary legend and professor, Rudolf. His assigned task is that of literary executor. His main purpose is to find the much celebrated writer’s final manuscript, his magnum opus, but to do so he must pick through dozens of boxes of documents, and navigate the messy leavings of the famous writer’s life: namely a dying wife, a mistress and a bossy, possessive secretary – all whom operate from a sense of entitlement to the estate. On top of that, the narrator must contend with a miniature zoo which the deceased maintained on his apartment’s terrace. As if the demands of three women and a menagerie of pets weren’t enough to deal with, the university where Rudolf worked believes it has certain rights to the author’s papers. The school’s president too stakes a
claim to the author’s legacy.

Kruger, himself the head of a German publishing house as well as an editor, offers keen insight
into the mind-set of a literary legend, one lacking in empathy, mostly for his own kind. Of Rudolf
he reveals: “Nothing was more repugnant to him than a gathering of authors.”

One wry bit of business was the disclosure that Rudolf attended other writers’ readings in order
to avoid having to actually read their books.

But the most oft quoted line from The Executor is: “The public has no idea that writing is a
disease, and that the writer who publishes is like a beggar who exhibits his sores.”

Rudolf has few illusions about his own talent: he knows he’s hailed as a literary star not because
his talent rates among the very best, but that his writing is the least worse of most other
writers; he’s a success because he’s not quite as bad a writer as the rest.

As the narrator pokes through box after box searching for the final manuscript, he unearths a
shocking secret, one guaranteed to destroy Rudolf’s reputation and legacy. He reels from the knowledge of how truly little he knew of the man he considered to be his closest friend. The ensuing conflict does not stem from any interior debate as to whether or not reveal this secret to the world, but to keep all the competing parties who lay claim to the estate from getting their
hands on the damnable evidence.

As the novel progresses, surprising turn of events happen in rapid succession and the ironic
twist at the end is a tour de force on par with Michael Frayn’s Headlong. With his insider’s view, Mr. Krueger has created a most satisfying story about the vagaries of a writer’s fame, and the responsibilities and limits of friendship in the face of death.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lying Awake by Mark Salzman

To me the best, most memorable books are those about a character forced to make a choice. I don’t mean a simple choice like good vs. evil, or a clear cut black and white dilemma. No, I’m talking about the between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place, the damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t big themed, life or death, high stakes consequences kind of choice.

The setting of Lying Awake is a Carmelite monastery located outside present-day Los Angeles, and it's a mysterious cloistered world. Home to Sister John of the Cross, it’s the peaceful sanctuary from a troubled life, the sacred place where she’s written several best-selling inspirational books, books whose income provide support for the aging monastery.

Of all the nuns, Sister John alone experiences religious visions of such dazzling power and insight that she is viewed as a spiritual master, even by her superiors. But the sister’s visions are accompanied by powerful headaches, and when a doctor reveals that they may be dangerous, she faces a devastating choice. Are her spiritual gifts, her intimate connection to God, and her ability to write luminous books on the subject, symptoms of illness – temporal lobe epilepsy - rather than grace, gifts from God? Will a "cure" – a life-risking surgery - mean the end of her spiritual visions and her talent? Will her soul revert back to one that is “dry and searching?” Will the loss of income from her books threaten the survival of the monastery, crowded in by urban sprawl? Will Sister John’s progressing illness excessively burden the other sisters with her care?

Like all great novels, I easily put myself in the shoes of this character, and my emotional involvement with the book was heightened all the more so because as a writer, I kept asking myself: What would I do? Wondering if the character would chose as I would is what kept me turning the pages. With spare prose, and astonishing metaphors, there’s not a word out of place or a single mis-step by Salzman in this slim novel. And those are the reasons why this book was the best (modern) book I read in 2007.

To read more about Mark Salzman and the Lying Awake writing process check out this Salon interview:

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Origin: A Novel by Diana Abu-Jaber

Versatility is a rare trait in a writer. Diana Abu-Jaber has proven herself an author capable of writing both compelling non-fiction, and genre and mainstream literary fiction. Her first book, Arabian Jazz is a novel about a Jordanian widower and his family as they adjust to life in upstate New York. Her second novel, Crescent, is set in Los Angeles and vividly portrays the lives of immigrants and Iraqi-Americans, in particular, a female chef named Sirine who cooks Arab specialties for Middle Eastern students eager for the taste of home. Ms. Abu-Jaber’s delectable third book is The Language of Baklava, a foodie memoir that mixes flavorful recipes with tales from a multi-cultural family.

The author’s newest release is Origin: A Novel, a literary crime thriller set in the winter chill of Syracuse, NY. Among the many things this novel’s accomplishes is creating a strong sense of place. In such frosty detail is the snow and ice, the dimly lit days, the wind blasted nights portrayed that this sweltering Florida reader felt positively cool.

Like an exotic gourmet cook, Ms. Abu-Jaber combines the seemingly disparate elements from the book Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the Jodie Foster film, Nell, and the news headlines - including paranoia about terrorists, the anthrax scare, and the Love Canal toxic waste cover-up. The result is an interesting and complex story narrated by an equally interesting and complex character. Lena Dawson is a forensics investigator – a finger print technician who rarely ventures from the lab until a rash of SIDS baby deaths rouses suspicions among police. Reluctantly famous for having already solved one child murder case years earlier, Lena is drawn into this new investigation by the distraught mother of one of the suddenly dead infants.

Complicating her involvement in the case is that the investigation forces Lena to come cross paths with her brute-of-a-cop estranged husband, as well as a detective with a troubled past and a strong attraction for her. More than anything, the revelation that the murders are somehow connected to an illegal foster family placement service run by the Catholic Church, a plot eerily similar to the recently released Christine Falls, personally haunts Lena. Just as the main character from Benjamin Black’s thriller wrestles with his own abandonment as child and his subsequent status as a ward of the illegal baby ring, so too does Lena Dawson discover more truths about her own beginnings. As an abandoned baby placed in a damaged and flawed family that could never pass the scrutiny of a legal adoption, Lena grows up believing she was raised in a tropical rain forest by an ape mother. These “memories” of a lush, hot, animal-filled setting are in stark contrast to the icy reality of a Syracuse winter.

As the number of SIDS death increase, reporters hound the shy and reclusive Lena while she searches for clues. What she discovers is that someone had sent anonymous baby gifts to the parents of the stricken children – baby blankets dyed with metal-based poisons, fatal toxins that penetrate skin. The danger for Lena is ratcheted up when Lena is lured into the frozen woods by a schizophrenic-neighbor-turned-suspect, and she needs to be treated for hypothermia. Lena is then transported to the apparent warmth and safety of a hospital wherein the killer laces her bed sheets with poison in an attempt to kill the one person who is closest to figuring out their identity.

In the end, it is Lena’s discovery of the mystery of her own origin, and the resulting transformation of her ability to form bonds with people that distinguishes this complex novel from traditional thrillers.