A DANCER IN THE DUST

412BtXahcCL._AA160_“Charity is not love.”

That remark by native Lubandan and the only white native of the country Martine Aubert could define the entire narrative spine of Thomas H. Cook’s Dancer In The Dust. Ray Campbell came to Lubanda as a young man intent on doing good and changing peoples’ lives. He left, defeated in his original purpose by politics and revolution, but in love with this lady who inherited a farm from her family and is intent on leading a simple, uncorrupted life.

A murder in NYC of a man whom he knew all those years back and who worked for his love, Martine, takes him back. The investigation of the murder takes him back to the country to see what he can solve. He finds himself involved with many of the people he knew before. The convoluted circumstances of both the personal and the political intrigues become byzantine in the extreme.

thomas-cook-open-road-photo1
THOMAS H. COOK

As Campbell’s interviews proceed, we find ourselves involved not only in the personal and criminal drama he came to deal with, but with principles of international relations. When is foreign aid helpful, when corrupting and destructive to the very people and countries it was intended to support?

There are answers to these questions in the novel, but no solutions. And in the end, it seems to me we are left with the romantic and ephemeral image of the title. It may not seem like much, but believe me, it’s emotional impact is considerable. Dancer in the Dust doesn’t leave your mind or your heart.

2.0

A STAR FOR THIS TALE OF WWI MOTHERS

9780307958846You’d think a story about a group of mothers traveling to France to visit the graves of their war-killed sons would be a maudlin tear-jerker. At least I thought so, but boy was I wrong. April Smith’s A Star For Mrs. Blake is like one of those asian paintings that creates as much of its effect from the spaces as from the drawing.

Cora Blake lives an isolated life in a small town on a small island in Maine. She mourns the loss of her Samuel, killed in World War I, maintains the town’s small library, raises her sister’s girls, sometimes works in the cannery. She has a suitor/lover, but she’s not in love. Not much of a life, really. Then comes an invitation from President Hoover’s Department of War. She and a group of other women whose sons’ bodies lie beneath French soil are to be shepherded across the Atlantic to visit the warriors’ remains.

UnknownCora becomes the coordinator of a group which includes a rich matron, a poverty-stricken Irish immigrant, a Jewess whose family raises chickens because the isolation of the ranch helps them avoid the more aggressive anti-semites in the community, and (eventually) a woman whose husband has had her committed for hysteria several times to help facilitate his philandering. An army lieutenant and a general as well as a young nurse eventually join the mix.

The group undergoes a few rather cliche experiences–the awe of country folk in NYC, for example. However, most of the rest is original and fraught with tension. The lengths, for example, to which the army goes to keep the group segregated when a case of mistaken identity brings a black woman into the group. Everyone thinks they’ve made friends with her, but when she’s forced to leave, she tells them, “We are not friends. We never could be.” Nitty gritty stuff.

As the journey continues, the relationships develop, alliances form and dissolve. Always, the Meuse-Argonne battlefield is the goal. But the army is determined to provide a tour of Paris and environs along the way. Also along the way, Cora develops a relationship with a journalist that leads to perhaps the pivotal moment in the book.

The race issue raises its head again in a way that leads to a mistrust of the Army’s information and by implication all government institutions and authority. There’s a great deal more, every moment filled with tension and suspense. Smith narrates her way through a great variety of points of view with great skill. Every time a moment threatens to become saccharine, she stops, pulls back, and lets the reader’s imagination fill in what comes next.

By the time Mrs. Blake and her companions return home, each of them has had a life-change, and each of us as readers has gained both an insight and an unforgettable emotional experience. I almost didn’t download this one, but it would have been a grievous mistake. Thanks, April.

1.0

TALKING ABOUT THE LIGHT

9781250047274-1Aside from the fact that Louise Penny’How The Light Gets In took its title from one of my favorite Leonard Cohen lines (“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”) and that it is set  in one of my favorite cities, Montreal, this book didn’t seem to have much going for it, but I bought it anyhow. Good choice? Of course.

I think I encountered Inspector Gamache once before in the distant past, but for some reason hadn’t returned to him till now. The guy is in real trouble. Political enemies have taken over the force, and his entire unit is being dissolved. In addition to having to solve some difficult cases without his usual expert help and organization, he has to figure out how to save his own scalp and the homicide division as well.

1005675_510058282398489_407770908_n
LOUISE PENNY AND DOG

I do have a complaint about Penny, which I recalled during my reading. Even though we spend many many pages inside the head of our protagonist and other major characters, we are often not privy to essential plot information until Penny chooses to disclose it. I call this author manipulation closely akin to deus ex machina, and I don’t like it. However, the characters themselves are so engaging and the situations so intriguing, I cast a veil of forgiveness over the whole thing and just went on and enjoyed all the unique virtues of the novel.

Sante, Gamache, and see you again soon.2.0

 

 

 

THE MISANTHROPES

9781492758976Tom Dulack writes a rather long forward to his The Misanthropes in which he evaluates the audience impact of various literary forms–novels, plays, screenplays. He pretty much concludes that novels and plays have the most lasting impact and that films, though they may hit hard in the moment, have the least. Nothing changes, you see. Unlike the play, whose impact depends on variations in actors, sets, directors, and all the other variables that manifest from one production to the other. Thus, the Henry V you see today might be an entirely different experience from the Henry V  you see the following month. Whereas, I suppose, the Henry V of Olivier remains static, uninspiring, and unmemorable. And that the screenplay itself is so much toilet paper. After all that parsing, he explains that he has decided to write his The Misanthropes  as a screenplay.

I still don’t understand his rationale, but I read the work with some interest and wondered the while why he hadn’t written it as a novel, which it clearly is. There’s some excellent writing, and some of the best of it is in the between-scenes intervals where Dulack describes character and scene–the very stuff of the novel. The tale is of eccentric English professor Tom Bowman who suffers a midlife crisis, gets tossed out the college door, then refuses to come back even when invited. While flailing around in his new dilemma, he falls into translating an off-off-off broadway production of The Misanthrope. It’s an exciting adventure, as is the romantic liaison he enjoys with one of the actresses, one of his college students.

Unknown
TOM DULACK

Somehow, everyone at the college cares about him so much they arrange all sorts of bizarre ways for him to live out his maverick ways and return–a retroactive sabbatical, for example. Not too believable since no one seemed to have cared so much for him before the crisis. But whatever.

The wife is kind of a shadowy figure, but we’re not supposed to worry to much about her because it’s clear she’s better off without him.

There is a lot of humor here, some highly inventive situations, and some clever language, but I still think this would have played better as a novel. As a piece of fiction, a screenplay is, indeed, a moribund form of literature.

There are some post-script films outlining the fates of some of the main characters, which I didn’t find all that intriguing because none of the characters captivated me enough to get me terribly curious about their futures.

4.0

CICERO–ORATOR, POLITICIAN, VICTIM

9780375758959You probably pronounce it “sisero” as I did. However, my granddaughter’s taking Latin, and she took the opportunity to correct her grandfather. According to her, it’s “Kikero,” and it means “chickpea.” Cute. Something a mother might call her infant, but not the image of a great Roman orator. However, once I took a breath and plunged into Antony Everitt’s biography, Cicero became his noble self and quite a lot besides.

Unknown
ANTHONY EVERITT

Little as I know of Roman history, I was only a few pages into this book before I realized I knew even less than I thought. Cicero was in on what most of us probably think of as the main events–the assassination of Julius Caesar, the wars between Pompey and Antony and Octavian and other great generals, the Cleopatra saga, among others. Of course, there was a lot more Roman history before and after this brief sixty or so years of Cicero’s life, but for us ignoramuses, these are likely the central legends that spring to mind. Cicero was not one of Caesar’s assassins, but he was a witness to the stabbing, sitting in his chair in the senate as it occurred, and one of the killers called to him from the forum, probably trying to pull him into the event as one who had fought hard to keep the senate independent, to hold off a dictatorship, and save the republic. Which was their rationale for the killing. As it turned out, Cicero managed to get into the aftermath and stay out of it at the same time.

Cicero was always at a disadvantage in politics because he came from an untitled family. His only leverage was his talent as a lawyer and an orator. He earned his keep and his climb to fame and prominence by winning cases and doing it with flourish and eloquence. He had the advantage of being able to polish his speeches before they were published–no “film at 11” in those days–so what’s written and what he actually said are undoubtedly at variance. However, what he said and how he said it was undoubtedly superior or he wouldn’t have attained prominence.

Prominence, however satisfying and advantageous, however, was also dangerous. One thing I learned here–a political enemy in Rome would hack you down as surely as an ISIS warrior beheads an infidel. Stabbings, beheadings, poisonings were all common measures to take your opponents down. Every legal case had a winner and a loser, So Cicero was in constant danger from losers, and he wasn’t beyond becoming a party to some executions himself, though he managed to keep his hands clean. Mostly. Sounds complicated? It is. read it and see.

In the end, he couldn’t quite outrun the surrounding conspiracies, but he managed to write and speak volumes of unparalleled prose. Unfortunately, Everitt includes very little of that in the book. I guess you’re supposed to either know it or go out and learn it. I would have liked more literature in his text, but I certainly liked the insight into the complex world of Roman politics. Everitt’s prose isn’t spellbinding, but it does the job, and Mr. Kikero is a fascinating subject. A worthy voume, Anthony. Thanks for it.

2.0