Thursday, April 15, 2021

FFB: THE BOOK THIEF, Markus Zusak

Sorry this one is up a day early.

THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak was chosen by my book group as their April selection. (In 2009)
 

When I learned it was a YA book, I groaned.
When I learned it was about the Second World War in Germany, I groaned again.
Then I found out it was about a ten-year old girl orphaned and sent to live with a foster family. Jeez, I thought. Can't we ever read a happy book?

THE BOOK THIEF was not a happy book. But it was a highly original book-much more so than most adult novels I read. I don't even understand why someone classified it as YA. Is every book with a YA hero classified as YA? But this is a book teachers might choose for teens. I think my grandson read it in seventh grade.

The narrator in THE BOOK THIEF is Death and he tells the story from the standpoint of someone overwhelmed with his mission during the war. Death has his hands full.

But THE BOOK THIEF is even more the story of a young girl who loses her family and is sent to live with a foster family in a small German town. She can't read at first but values books greatly and collects them in whatever way she can. Her foster father reads to her every night from the improbable books she finds or steals. The family is kind, both to her and to a Jewish man fleeing the Nazis who is hiding in their basement.

This book certainly humanizes the German people. We watch them starve, freeze and die. Certainly its portrait of Nazis is acute. But with THE READER and this book, the trend is now to understand the Germans were victims of Hitler and fascism too. Maybe it is time to think about this.

It's really hard to do that though, knowing the smell of gassed bodies was mere miles away. Still, THE BOOK THIEF is a book worth reading.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Jean Thompson's "The Widower" from her collection Who Do You Love?

This was s National Book Award Finalist in 1999. It's not hard to understand why. Thompson writes gorgeous short stories. She has several other collections as well as a few novels.

A young couple is looking for their first house. A contender, at their price  point, is the home of a widower. Unlike most homeowners, he hangs around as they look through the house, both pointing out its good features but calling attention to others. A doctor, he has recently lost his wife. Over the course of the story, he will give husband man three stories of how his wife died. They vary especially in his feelings toward the event. Was it a long happy marriage or was he glad to be rid of her? 

A heart attack drops the price of the house and the couple buy it. The widower still stops by to see what improvements they are making. The wife is tolerant of this but the husband finds it irking--perhaps because it makes him doubt their ability to have a long and happy marriage. Great story. Great writer.

Kevin Tipple

Jerry House 

Richard Robinson 

George Kelley 

Todd Mason 

Matt Paust

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Willie Vlautin's Virtual Book Tour

 

Willie Vlautin's virtual book tour for The Night Always Comes lands at City Lights Bookstore in S.F. tomorrow and Megan will be interviewing him. Here is the link. It is free but you have to register. http://www.citylights.com/info/?fa=event&event_id=3762

You can also catch him at other book stores.  https://www.willyvlautin.com/post/virtual-tour-dates-the-night-always-comes

Once registered you will get information on how to link up. These links usually work well. 

I read the book a few months ago and enjoyed it as I have all of his books. One of the few writers who writes about everyday people. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Still Here



 Reading LUSTER, which has to have some of the best reviews of a debut novel I have ever seen. It is the story of a young Black woman who gets drawn into a white family who've adopted a Black child. The writing is extremely sharp, you feel like every word has been honed--perhaps too much at times. But I certainly am in awe of such a prodigy. On her cover picture, she looks about 25. It is not my kind of book exactly. Do you feel like you have a particular kind of book that is likely to speak to you? Maybe she is just too young but Rebecca was very young and that books speaks to me. Maybe she is too much of this time and place. I am not sure but although I certainly admire Leilani's use of the language and her complex thoughts, it is not a book that draws me in. 

Enjoying Happy Hour, a five-hour Japanese movie on Kanopy. They have broken it into three parts and it concerns four 37 year old women in Japan in 2015.I get Kanopy through my library as well as Hoopla.


Finish Shtisel, which I really enjoyed and they were kind enough to provide some happy endings. Also watched This is a Robbery, a 4-part doc on Netflix about the robbery of the Isabel Gardner Museum in the nineties. Somewhat overly long. Three parts probably would have been better. Also the magnificent Ken Burns doc on Ernest Hemingway.

Also plugging away at the Mike Nichols bio, which is very well done. 

We celebrated Josh's birthday this weekend. Nice to be together without masks since we all have had our shots. Interesting learning how gym was conducted in Kevin's virtual school. Virtual gym turns out to be his Mom filming him doing various things like sit-ups and playing catch. How much this generation is losing with this pandemic going on and on. Half of Michigan has just given up on any sort of social distancing. And you can guess who they voted for. 

How about you?

Friday, April 09, 2021

Classic Faces

Kevin at 3, classic look at what I can do with clay.

Kevin at 14, classic teenage exasperation.


 

FFB: LOSER TAKES ALL, Graham Greene


(From the archives)

Ed Gorman: Loser Takes All, Graham Greene

I mean no disrespect when I say that I imagine Graham Greene conceived of Loser Takes All (one of his self-described "entertainments") as a film before he decided to write it as a short novella. It's big and colorful and hangs on two cunning twists that neatly divide the piece into curtain act one and curtain act two.

The story concerns the honeymoon of Mr. Bertram and his bethrothed, Cary. They are planning to go on a modest short vacation when fate, in the the person of Dreuther, an incalculably rich man for whom Bertram is a lowly assistant accountant, intervenes. Bertram solves an accounting problem that nobody else in the incalculably vast corporation can figure out so Dreuther rewards him with the promise of a honeymoon on his yacht and nights of glamor in the casinos of Monte Carlo... Cary is thrilled.

Well, they go to Monte Carlo but soon learn that Dreuther has forgotten his promise. They are left to make do with their pitiful finances. They can't even pay their bills. Then Bertram, a math whiz, goes to a casino and tries out his own system for winning. And even more than that he begins to see how he can bring down Dreuther...

The rich men of the Fifties are perfect matches for the Wall Streeters of today. Their greed and lust is literally without bounds. Greene creates four distinctive scenes of black comedy when dealing with them. But even more, at the point when Cary sees her new husband change because of his winnings, Greene begins to examine the morality of greed. He also, in the midst of the action, gives us a painful subplot about adultery.

I was re-reading William Goldman's Adventure's In The Screen Trade the other day and found this salute that I'd forgotten: "I think Graham Greene was the greatest novelist in English this century."

If you read Loser Takes All, you'll begin to see what Goldman was talking about.

 

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

First Wednesday Book Review: REMAINS OF THE DAY Kazua Ishiguro



I read this book when it debuted in 1989 and I also saw the wonderful movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson on its release, but I decided to listen to it again on audio. The wonderful Simon Prebble read it and sounded so much like Anthony Hopkins I had to check and recheck. After reading this book in '89 I read NEVER LET ME GO in the early nineties, which is my very favorite of Ishiguro's books and one of my favorite books of all time. His new book KLARA AND THE SUN also sounds wonderful and I may have to buy it right now.

REMAINS OF THE DAY is the story of a butler, one that heads a very large staff for a very prominent English gentleman. He takes his position so seriously that he allows his father to die in an upstairs room alone while he handles an important affair for his employer. Although Stephens seems like a highly intelligent man, he gets most everything wrong in this story. He puts so much faith in his employer that he believes following the lead of Germany in the 20s and 30s is the right step. He fires housemaids because they are Jewish, he allows a possible romance with the housekeeper to go off course. In fact, he often treats her dismissively. And most of all, he doesn't understand that he is not irreplaceable, that he is just a small cog in a wheel that he can never have a hand in turning. The most superficial tasks in running a house become his entire world. And so he misses what he might have had and instead supports a Nazi supporter for the duration. He has constructed his life around performing tasks at the highest level. This gives  him far more pleasure than it should.

This is an unusual book for a young man to have written because it is filled with tips about the life and duties of a butler. You feel sorry for what Stephens has lost but understand that his father, a butler before him, has made the man. But you also despise often his behavior and pomposity. A very complex character.

Highly recommended. 

For more First Wednesday reviews, see Barrie Summy.

Short Story Wednesday: "Snuff" from the 2014 The Best American Mystery Stories ed. by Laura Lippman


 Jodi Angel "Snuff"

 Every once in a while you get a story where the detail is so specific and so well rendered that you feel you are with the characters. In this story a brother calls his sister to give him a ride home. He has been watching a snuff film that he is way too young to have seen. (No one should have seen this one). Begrudgingly she comes to get him, questioning what he is doing way out in the country. On the way home, they hit a deer. They stop the car, not knowing at first what they hit. The deer is already dying but when the sister puts her hand on the animal, she feels something moving around inside. The two try to save the baby but, of course, fail. 

Now this isn't much of a plot, but what makes it really work is how well the writer describes everything they see and do. You not only feel that the author must have experienced this, but you wonder how she was able to take in the details so exactingly. The details of what the night was like, what the road was like, what the car was like, the things they did to try and save the baby. And, of course, that snuff film plays with the brother's emotions as he watches his sister fail.  Excellent. 


Jerry House

Tracy K 

George Kelley


Monday, April 05, 2021

Still Here


 Criterion is running a Dirk Bogarde festival this month and CAST A DARK SHADOW was an eerie start. Ever seen it? Bogarde plays a man who marries and then kills his elderly wife for her money. But none too smart, he misunderstands the terms of her will. A somewhat surprising story line and Bogarde's dark acting made it work. It looks like the other films are just as dark. 

Megan got her first shot and is coming out right after her second. It will have been a year and a half since I saw her. Only for two days, but I will take what I can get gladly. Not too long ago we were figuring it would be July so May looks pretty good.

I saw my first Jerry Lewis film--in maybe ever--this week.It was as goofy as I imagined but it has a kind of charm. Lots of singing. Lots of totally improbably sequences. 

As I am reading the Mike Nichols bio, I watched CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, which held up well. I saw it last in the theater at age 21 and was pretty mystified by it. Still am a bit. The bio is very good btw.



Watching Shtisel on Netflix, which is a good palate cleanser to Carnal Knowledge and the Bogarde movie.

Finally finished the first three seasons of The Handmaid's Tale, which was well done indeed although horrifying most of the time. Elizabeth Moss is such a terrific actress.

So what's new with you?

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Friday, April 02, 2021

FFB

(from the archives)


 

COMPULSION by Meyer Levin

(Review by Deb)

Meyer Levin's COMPULSION is a lightly-fictionalized account of the sensational Leopold and Loeb murder case that gripped the nation in the mid-1920s.  Meyer's fictionalization (published in 1956) is very light indeed, with much of the dialog being taken verbatim from transcripts of police records and court testimony.  Even so, the novel is more than just a retelling of a senseless and horrific crime, it is a perceptive study of what the French call a folie-a-deux, wherein two people who are utterly toxic for each other are none-the-less hopelessly attracted to each other and, in the thrall of that attraction, commit acts that neither would necessarily have done without the dark-mirror image of the other goading them on.

In Levin's book, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb become Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss, neighbors in Chicago's wealthy and close-knit German-Jewish community. (There's a small but telling detail when Judd informs his aunt that he's going out with a girl named Ruth Goldenberg and his aunt sighs, "Oh, Russian-Jewish I suppose.")  Both men were child prodigies who had graduated from university by the time they were 18 years old.  As the book begins, both of them are still in their teens (as is Sid Silver, a newspaperman who narrates part of the book and plays a pivotal role in uncovering some of the evidence).  Adopting the guise of Nietzschean "supermen" who do not need to follow the laws applicable to average beings, Steiner and Strauss plan the "perfect murder."  They eventually kidnap a randomly-selected neighborhood boy on his way home from school.  They kill the boy, pour acid on the corpse, hide the body in a drainage ditch, and then put into motion an elaborate red-herring of a kidnapping-ransom plot.

This perfect murder rapidly unravels, starting with the victim's body being quickly discovered and identified.  Then damning evidence stacks up against the men:  Steiner's glasses--traced to him by their unique hinge mechanism--are found beside the victim, there is blood on the back seat of a car the men have rented, papers typed on Steiner's discarded typewriter match the typing on the bogus ransom notes, and Strauss's attempts to inject himself into the investigation (in order to discover how much the press and police actually know) backfire spectacularly.  Their alibis in shreds, the men confess to the crime, each blaming the other for striking the fatal blow (although, as Sid Silver points out, in that regard, one of them had to be telling the truth).

Considering that the book was written in the 1950s about a crime in the 1920s, one aspect that I found surprising (and rather refreshing) was its refusal to take the "easy" way out and blame the men's actions on the fact that they were closeted lovers, although society at the time certainly did, blaming all manner of depraved behavior on homosexuality.  However, narrator Sid Silver is puzzled by how much stress the authorities place on the men's relationship and asks of it, "In all the history of human behaviour, of the sick and ugly and distorted and careless and sportive and mistaken things that humans did, was this so much more?" 

In fact, Levin does not present the men as sexually "set," but rather most likely bisexual, with Judd being more interested in dominance and submission rather than the gender of his partner, and Artie using his good looks, affable facade, and charisma to attract both men and women.  I was also surprised at the frankness of the book, given the time it was written--Judd's dark fantasies, especially involving rape, are quite explicit.  Levin's book makes us feel if not sympathy then at least some understanding, particularly for the intense and brooding Judd whose infatuation with the manipulative and self-centered Artie is as inexplicable as its dreadful outcome is inevitable.

But I've only covered the first half of the book.  The second half, which centers on the mens' trial, is interesting, although it drags in places due to pages of legal arguments and long-winded explanations of Freudian psychology with which we are now completely familiar.  In order to avoid a jury trial and a sure death penalty, Steiner and Strauss plead guilty in the hopes that arguing before a judge might result in a life, rather than a death, sentence.  Aging lawyer Jonathan Wilk (a fictionalized Clarence Darrow) mounts a brilliant legal defense at their sentencing hearing that saves the men from execution, although they both receive sentences of “Life plus 99 years.”  And, other than a brief coda, there the book abruptly ends, with Steiner and Straus entering prison and fading from public memory. 

But this abruptness works in the book's favor by indicating that there will be other events and other atrocities that will come to overshadow the "crime of the century."  First of all, the rise of "some gangster named Al Capone" (as he is described in an offhand remark by one of Sid's colleagues about a gangland shooting) and the associated violence of Prohibition.  And then the actual "crime of the century"--the Nazi atrocities of World War II and everything the world was to learn about the "Superman" ideal and where it leads.

Meyer Levin wrote this book in part to assist Nathan Leopold in his attempt to be granted parole, which finally happened in 1958. Leopold moved to Puerto Rico, married, worked as an x-ray technician, and died in 1971.  Richard Loeb was not so fortunate: In 1936, he was stabbed multiple times by a fellow inmate who claimed Loeb had made sexual advances toward him.  Although the story was easily discounted, especially since Loeb was covered with defensive wounds and the inmate who killed him was unscathed, no charges were ever filed in his death.