Archive for May, 2015

What I Lived For / Joyce Carol Oates

In this novel’s prologue, the first line proclaims, “God erupted in thunder and shattering glass.” It is Christmas Eve 1959 and Jerome Corcoran has just witnessed his father being gunned down while hanging an evergreen wreath on the front door of the family home. He is eleven years old and the only witness to his father’s murder. But in the days following, when continually pressed for details of the car he saw leaving the scene, Jerome cannot recall more than a nondescript blur.

The opening chapter fast-forwards to Memorial Day weekend, 1992. Jerome is now forty-two years old and answers to the nickname Corky. He is still living in his hometown, Union City, a fictional place located on the shores of Lake Erie in New York State. A low ranking member of the City Council and a businessman, Corky is feeling pretty good about his life as he drives to meet the married woman he is having an affair with. And why not; he figures his wealth (on paper) makes him a millionaire twice over. Not only that, he has just decided to ask the married woman to seek a divorce and become his wife. But from here on out in the book, Corky’s life begins a rapid downward spiral.

The story is told through Corky’s internal monologue. It soon becomes obvious that his life has plenty of dark corners. Divorced, he is an alcoholic with anger issues. In the course of the long Memorial Day weekend, Oates presents a blow-by-blow description of every thought that goes through this man’s head. To sweeten the pot, she throws him smack dab in the middle of the apparent suicide of a young black woman who was involved in shady dealings with his political mentor, the Mayor of Union City.

It soon becomes apparent that, when presented with two choices, Corky will always choose the wrong one. He is a man who has trouble keeping his pants zipped, recklessly makes outrageous bets against the odds, and is in trouble with the IRS, too. Corky is nobody’s idea of a role model. But his heart is more often than not in the right place, and he keeps promising himself that he will give up booze, women and betting – someday soon.

Oates is to be commended for getting into the head of her lead male character. She effortlessly dives into issues of male sexuality, presented in the guise of a middle-aged man who has yet to grow up and still is carrying the emotional baggage of his father’s death. Corky is not a person comfortable in his own skin. This is a dense novel to plow through and at times I grew tired of Corky and his many moral failings. Yet the writing is so descriptive that I was held spellbound throughout. It was like watching a wreck take place in slow motion; I couldn’t look away.

What elevates the story are the other layers Oates adds into it. The dominant headlines of the early 1990s are addressed, centering about social class, race, politics, and the decay of inner cities due to flight to the suburbs. Be prepared for political incorrectness on Corky’s part and detailed descriptions of the sexual experience. Most writers come off sounding cliché or awkward when describing a couple making love; not Oates. For those willing to commit to Corky’s rambling inner monologue, it will prove to be a Memorial Day weekend worth remembering.

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A Very Long Engagement / Sébastien Japrisot

Published in 1991, this novel will appeal to anyone who appreciates a good mystery story. But it is much more; at its heart, the book is a love story, combined with a tale that describes the horrors and senselessness of war. In January 1917, five French soldiers, bound and convicted of self-mutilation, are brought to the Front and forced into no-man’s land, left to be killed in the cross fire between the opposing armies. This death sentence is the result of the government’s belief they have wounded themselves to escape military service.

While the harsh punishment is hushed up, after the war, a young woman engaged to one of the five men, begins a determined search to uncover what really happened to them once their punishment was carried out. First and foremost, Mathilde Donnay has a strong suspicion that her fiancé, officially listed as “killed in action,” may still be alive. The daughter of a rich businessman and confined to a wheelchair since a childhood accident, she is determined to spend the rest of her days in uncovering the truth. But as in any good mystery story, a tangled web must be first disassembled. Even though the evidence points to an open and shut case, Mathilde’s search takes her down a path which gradually reveals the past histories of all five men sent into no-man’s land and the explanation of what brought about their harsh punishments.

Every good mystery story needs a determined detective, and Mathilde makes an outstanding one. Even so, I found her quest difficult to accept. Would her father actually fund such an outlandish preoccupation on her part? Given the complexity of the situation, could someone in fact unravel the truth of what occurred on such a chaotic battlefield? In the end, the pieces of the mystery assemble too easily to ring true. For those able to overlook these troubling questions, this novel will indeed make for a compelling read. Japrisot does an admirable job of connecting the dots in this clever mystery, while at the same time masterfully portraying the evils and horrors of warfare. As a love story, it certainly speaks to the heart. I just wish the clues sprinkled throughout the book proved as believable. I remained skeptical even after Mathilde’s quest reveals a definitive answer.

What’s Best Remembered

Today, the headlines read:
Another government crumbles into rubble.
Creed becomes enforced doctrine.
On the stump, promises given are believed.
But most of yesterday’s news
is nowhere to be found, even below the fold.

Especially averted tragedies:
A child who looked before crossing the street
and lived. The unattended pot
discovered before the oil became too hot.
That door left unlocked
and discovered next morning on the way out.

Still, no news is good news:
Just ask that Nobel winner, dead in a crash.
The pictured drug-addled phenom.
Those poor souls standing right where they
belonged at the wrong time.
Anyone listed with a dash between two dates.

What’s best remembered:
A longing fulfilled. An absent son walking
unexpectedly through the door.
One hand brushing another and feeling
a spark of electricity in reply.
When the day’s news doesn’t include you.

Every Man Dies Alone / Hans Fallada

Published in 1947 and based on a true story, Every Man Dies Alone dramatizes a working class couple’s decision to oppose the Third Reich after their son is killed at the Front. Their act of resistance was a simple one, and in no way threatened the power of the Nazi government. Over the course of two years, they dropped hundreds of postcards around Berlin, encouraging its citizens to wake up and speak out against the war. Almost all of the cards they scattered were turned into the authorities. Clearly, they failed in their attempt to reach a broad segment of the population. This novel addresses the question of whether or not such an insignificant act had any importance at all. For the Gestapo, who spent a great amount of manpower in capturing and finally executing the couple, their act was seen as a major threat. Fallada uses this uneducated couple to show how, on a larger stage, the Nazi Party forced the majority of German citizens to compromise their moral beliefs for fear they would lose their jobs, be sent to prison, or killed. He shows how the government used intimidation to keep dissidence in check.   Otto and Anna Quangel, the working class couple, are the centerpiece of the book. But just as intriguing are the other characters Fallada portrays. Be it their neighbors, the investigating officers, or others who picked up their postcards, he shows how easily people abandoned their ideals for self-preservation. The author knew this first hand, having censured his own writing to remain in good standing with the Nazi party. Only a handful of the characters did preserve their moral integrity, although most did so at the cost of their own lives. By showing these small acts of resistance, the novel suggests that these dissidents did not die in vain. These individuals are the representations of a better Germany, the foundation upon which the country could build following Hitler’s defeat. The failure of Otto and Anna’s efforts matters not in the least; that they remained true to their moral beliefs is what proves truly inspirational. In this saga, Fallada vividly portrays the monsters in the Gestapo, the petty informers who only cared about their own skins, and the few who dared to resist tyranny. It makes for a compelling read, showing a side of World War II that few books have taken the time to explore.

Evidence Of Things Unseen / Marianne Wiggins

In the Twentieth Century, science began to document things that cannot be seen by the naked human eye but which exist nonetheless, such as in the infrared and ultra-violet spectra, and with the use of x-rays to reveal the structure beneath surfaces. This novel opens when Ray Foster (Fos) returns from the trenches of France following the Great War. Always fascinated by scientific discoveries, during the War he was responsible for lighting the trenches and battlefields. Coming back to Knoxville, Tennessee, he opens a photography studio with Flash, a former Army buddy. Unlike Flash, who is a bit of a rogue, enchanted by great literature and philosophical questions, Fos is focused on the mysteries of electricity and bioluminescence, and enjoys demonstrating the use of x-rays at county fairs all around the state. On a trip to view the Perseid meteor showers, Fos meets the love of his life, Opal, the daughter of a glassblower. The novel is divided into three sections. The first centers on the couple’s interaction with Flash, and the later tragedy that results in Flash being sent to prison. The second section details Fos and Opal’s struggles to stay financially afloat during the Great Depression. While survival is a daily concern, a more troubling problem is the couple’s inability to conceive a child. When drifters abandon a baby on their doorstep, Opal immediately decides this boy, who they nickname Lightfoot, is the answer to her prayers. Because of his scientific background, Fos is hired to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and after the start of World War II, he transitions to a job at the Oak Ridge Laboratory, the center of the government’s race to build an atomic bomb. This part of the book ends with Lightfoot’s parents succumbing to “the invisible” – the destructive exposure of the lifetime of demonstrating x-rays at countless county fairs. The final section of the story tells of Lightfoot’s orphaned years as a child, and in his early adulthood as he seeks an answer to what killed his parents, and, more importantly, to the mystery of the human heart in search of something that cannot be seen but which we all know exists – love itself. Wiggins has a unique writing style; she approaches her subject matter in a sideways manner, with poetic flourishes. Throughout the novel are frequent references to Moby Dick, and clearly Lightfoot is meant to represent Captain Ahab on his quest. She does a marvelous job of capturing the scientific wonders of the time, and how “things unseen” interact with our daily life. While it is a difficult novel at first to fall in step with, it quickly becomes hypnotic as the story unfolds. Fos, Opal, Lightfoot, and Flash, who reappears in the final section, are fascinating characters. It is a story that is often heartbreaking as it describes American life and beliefs in the first half of the last century, but which proves redemptive in its conclusion. Wiggins magnificently portrays both the wonder and danger that is found beneath the surface of this world we inhabit.

Clematis

The wind has
done an about face,
returning cold
Canadian air with
the chance
of morning frost.

I wake in
pre-dawn light
and see
to my surprise
the glimmer
of clinging snow.

But wait,
on second look,
I find my
eyes deceived;
May’s green
carpet persists.

On trellises,
climbing to greet
the sunrise,
a white blanket
of clematis
defies the chill.

Broadcast

Before my eyes open

The crack of dawn is
transmitting

An open window becomes
a receiver

Tuned to no specific
vocalist

Accessing the same
frequency

A jumble of singers
compete

Clamorous and yet
defined

Territory delineated
by melody

Its waft orchestrated
by scents

Thus startled, my nose
awakens first

To May’s broadcast