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“If I don’t write, I have nowhere to put my memories, and that’s dangerous.  I have a problem.  I don’t forget anything.  My forgetting mechanism is completely screwed up.  All the partings, the deaths, the unexploited opportunities.  They are all trapped in my body, and writing is the only way to release them….If I don’t occasionally unburden myself …I won’t be able to breathe.”

cover I’m not sure I have ever come across a book which so completely demolished my expectations – in a good way – while creating a unique vision of a writer’s life.  Initially, The Last Interview feels like an attempt by a frustrated writer to produce a book which is primarily a series of off-the-cuff answers to common interview questions, an easy way of free-writing to fill pages while explaining to the reader what being a writer feels like.  Author Eshkol Nevo is a highly skilled and very popular Israeli author, however, someone who has no need to resort to literary trickery, and as this book emerges from the familiar questions and answers (“What motivates you to write?” “What is your earliest memory?” “Do you have a recurring dream?”), his true purpose and his underlying themes, especially regarding a writer’s connections with friends, family, and his own memories soon emerge.  Answering the interview questions unexpectedly raises more questions for the author himself, however. Determined to be completely honest, while also creating “fiction,” Nevo obviously feels the inherent conflict between those two approaches to describing life, and as he slowly edges into some serious self-examination, his skills as a writer get a real workout. Ultimately, his scenes from a writer’s life, including, almost certainly, episodes from his own life, challenge him to maintain the true honesty he has promised himself and the reader, while also recognizing the hurt that such honesty can sometimes bring to those he loves and admires.

The Witches" Market in La Paz, Bolivia

The Witches” Market in La Paz, Bolivia

The novel opens after the speaker, now in his forties, has just returned from a book tour in South America.  While there, he had a brief but passionate affair, something he confesses to his wife Dikla when he returns to Israel in the middle of the night. Though they have been having a few problems recently with their almost twenty-year marriage, she understandably regards this admission as the “last straw” and banishes him.  He bikes to his studio, where a messenger soon delivers divorce papers.  He then visits his closest friend, Ari, who is in hospital with a terminal illness.  There he chats with Ari’s mother about Ari’s family history, fleeing as immigrants to Israel from Argentina to escape the junta.  He reminisces to himself about his various loves, about his time in the army and his travel, including time in Bolivia when Ari took him to the Witches’ Market in La Paz to have a curse removed.   He comments about issues regarding the Palestinians while he was serving in the Israeli army, about behavior he has been ashamed of, about the harassment of women and gays, and eventually about his young daughter’s alienation from him.

The Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv, which the speaker sees from a rooftop.

The Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv, which the speaker sees from a rooftop.

The novel does not adhere to any particular chronological or thematic pattern, and readers learn to accept the memories belonging to the speaker and store them away for the future, as the speaker has done.  A visit to Jerusalem with “Mustafa-Mordecai” highlights another section of the novel, in which one of his books is used in a class.  A student tells him that her “favorite parts of the book are the white parts,” a comment he does not understand until he sees the student’s copy of book – white spaces wherever he had included the voice of a Palestinian.  Other episodes involving sensitive Arab-Israeli relationships appear throughout, though the author includes them within other episodes to show that these conflicts are an integral part of everyday life. Later in the novel, the speaker agrees to speak on the “other side of the Green Line,” the border between Palestine and Israel, an area still dangerous enough to suggest using a bulletproof car for transportation. While there, he visits with Iris, his hostess, who takes him to the roof to see from a distance the Tel Aviv Azrieli Tower and talk about her enduring love for her dead husband and the Arab community in which she now lives.  The speaker’s highly secret trip to Syria to talk with a reading group in Damascus provides additional insights.

Eretz Israel Museum Complex

Eretz Israel Museum Complex

The last third of the book is more intimate and more focused on the speaker’s personal life with his family – a son and two daughters – from whom he is now separated. It is here that he finally learns why Shira, his sixteen-year-old daughter, has been alienated.  He had “disguised” something from his daughter’s private life and included it in one of his books. “When the book came out,” she says, “no one really noticed that he stole from his daughter’s soul. Except for his daughter, who read a passage from the book on the Internet.”  In another thread here, Dikla, a huge fan of David Bowie, is devastated by his death, and she and the speaker attend the lecture on him at the Eretz Israel Museum, after Bowie’s death.  They walk out together, arms around each other, “feeling as if we were inside a bubble.”  More relaxed and far more insightful than the earlier parts of the novel, this section of the book makes the writer-speaker, his wife, and family feel much more “knowable” and understandable.  Some sections of the book, are almost certainly personal, though the only specific identification of the speaker is that his grandfather was Levi Eshkol, former Prime Minister of Israel, for whom the author was named.

Zorba the Greek, from the film starring Anthony Quinn

Zorba the Greek, from the film starring Anthony Quinn

With many references to entertainers throughout the novel, it is no surprise that Zorba the Greek becomes almost an icon later in the novel. After finding the book in his grandfather’s collection, the speaker read it with delight long ago, especially for Zorba’s philosophy: “To be alive is to look for trouble!” Zorba says.  “There is a devil inside me and he’s shouting.  And I do what he says,” a way of life that the speaker is not yet ready for when he first reads it.  Later, he comes to new conclusions – epitomized in this book – deciding not to edit, rewrite, rethink, or embellish anything in it.  Filled with insights into life in Israel, life within his family, and life within himself, the author has created a unique look at the writing life and what it means to at least one author, what he has given up for it, and what he hopes to regain from taking it back.  Truly unique.

ALSO by Nevo, reviewed here:  THREE FLOORS UP

Author Eshkol Nevo

Author Eshkol Nevo

Photos. The Witches’s Market in La Paz, Bolivia, appears on https://www.pinterest.ch

The Azrieli Tower, the tallest building in Tel Aviv, was a sight observed by the speaker from a rooftop “behind the Green Line.”  https://www.dezeen.com

The speaker and his wife Dikla attend a lecture about an idol, David Bowie, at the Eretz Israel Museum Complex. https://www.touristisrael.com

Zorba the Greek, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, became a model for the speaker’s wished-for behavior, with several references throughout the latter part of the novel.  https://kochiread.blogspot.com

The author’s photo is from https://mesbelleslectures.com

THE LAST INTERVIEW
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Historical, Israel, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Eshkol Nevo
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 10/13/2020
ISBN: 978-1635429879
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  German author Siegfried Lenz (1926 – 2014) has been WINNER of the Goethe Prize and WINNER of the German Booksellers’ Peace Prize.

“Anyone who makes war his profession is a criminal.  The top brass ruling over us from on high, for example.  While we’re sitting here in the marsh.  We should knock them off, ‘cause then we’d have some peace.  Then we could all go home.  But the Gang that rules us – they’re very hard to get to.  They’re dug in, entrenched. Behind their sentries.”

cover turncoatSet during the last summer of World War II in Europe, The Turncoat, Siegfried Lenz’s second novel, humanizes war and its soldiers in new ways.  Concentrating on a group of young German soldiers who obey orders, even at the cost of their own lives and sanity, Lenz shows their vulnerability as they begin to reject the myths and propaganda they have been fed for years and do the best they can simply to survive.  Focusing primarily on Walter Proska, a young man in his late twenties who has been at the front for three years, the author allows the reader to know him and his fellow soldiers as people, young men who once had dreams and who now have mostly memories – many of them horrific.  They go where they are marched or transported, and do what they are told to do, often with a secret eye to escape.  Lenz succeeds in showing these soldiers as they really are, without demeaning them, sentimentalizing their emotional conflicts, or excusing their crimes.  He makes no judgments, depicting the war as it was for this group of young German soldiers and illustrating a point of view very different from what Americans may expect.

german+trains+railway+snow+winter+nazi+reichsbahnThe novel begins six years after most of the novel’s action has taken place, and main character Walter Proska, now thirty-five, is at his home in the former East Prussia where he grew up.  He has just written a fifteen-page letter to his sister Maria, whom he has not seen in the six years since the war ended.  Maria and her husband had been working as farmers, essential to the community, instead of fighting the war, and Walter now, belatedly, wants to reconnect. When he realizes that he does not have the necessary stamp to mail the letter to his sister, he goes to the door of an elderly local druggist who lives across the street to ask for one. He is stunned, however, when he looks through the window of the druggist’s house and observes the secret behavior of the druggist, a profoundly deaf, elderly man who survived World War I.  When the druggist invites him inside, he accepts, and as the two men try to converse across the generations, they highlight how their personal war memories still play in their lives, years afterward – including the disturbing scene Walter saw through the druggist’s window. The novel’s main action begins when Walter’s memory of a train whistle is triggered while talking with the druggist, instantly bringing his own memories of the war back with a roar.

Lyck, East Prussia, 1942

Lyck, East Prussia, 1942, home of Walter Proska and, in real life, childhood home of the author

This seemingly mundane introduction, which I have deliberately underplayed to prevent spoilers, is so powerful in its imagery and attention to the details of human psychology and behavior, that I suspect most lovers of literary fiction will react as I did, immediately rushing forward into the story of Walter’s years fighting for Germany.  In his first memories, he tells of heading to Kiev by train after leaving his home in Lyck, in East Prussia, six years ago.  A young woman, Wanda, needs a ride on the train in order to carry a jug with her brother’s ashes back home to her brother’s wife in Prowursk, and he helps her get on.  He flirts and they chat, with Wanda bringing him up to date on the number of explosions that have taken place on the railway recently, primarily from mines.  When the military police arrive to check the passengers, Wanda jumps off the train to avoid them, in such a hurry she leaves her brother’s ashes behind.  When she does not return before the train takes off again, Walter discovers he has been duped.  Later he discovers exactly how seriously he has been duped.  Fortunately, a friendly group of local soldiers, tasked with guarding the railroad, responds to his needs, and he ends up joining them.

german soldiers 2This group of soldiers forms strong friendships, aided, in part, by the fact that the corporal in charge of them is almost inhuman in his behavior toward others and toward them.  The soldiers find themselves pressed between the need to obey and the belief that much of what they see and are required to do is wrong.  “I sometimes think they keep us alive just to torment us,”  one comments, then expands on that idea:  “It’s this so-called duty…They’ve shot us up with the stuff, like dope.  They use it to make us crazy and dependent.  They give us a refined injection of duty serum to get us good and loaded.  When someone around us plays a few notes on the fatherland flute, a hundred listeners get red, thirsty throats, all at the same time, and they cry out for some national consciousness schnapps!”  Eventually, after many personal losses and no change in the behavior of the company’s brutish corporal, one of Walter’s best friends defects, alone, and soon afterward, Walter does, too, joining the Soviets (though they are barely identified) for the rest of the war.  The novel is so personal, rather than political, that who is fighting whom for the rest of the novel does not really matter much to the narrative – until the novel’s highly satisfying conclusion, which resolves all thematic and personal issues for both Walter and the reader.

Schriftsteller Siegrfried Lenz Und Schauspieler Jan Fedder Bei Der Verleihung Der "Goldenen Feder" In Den Hamburger Deichtorhallen Am 100507 . (Photo by Franziska Krug/Getty Images)

Siegfried Lenz: Photo by Franziska Krug/Getty Images

Author Siegfried Lenz’s use of  a “turncoat” who abandons his country to fight for an “enemy,” may be unique among German novels.  It was problematic enough at the time it was written that though Lenz’s debut novel had been a huge success in 1951, his publisher decided that they could not publish The Turncoat as his second novel, even with revisions.  The book was stored away by the author, and it was not until Lenz’s death in 2014 that it was rediscovered.  Published in Germany and Europe soon afterward, and now here in English for the first time, it offers insights and observations from the long-distant past which still have much relevance for today’s complex, media-driven world.  High on my Favorites list for the year.

Photos.  The World War II locomotive appears on https://www.hgwdavie.com

A postcard from Lyck, East Prussia, may be found on http://www.castlesofpoland.com

The photo of German soldiers is from https://www.ebay.com

Siegfried Lenz  (1926 – 2014) was born in Lyck, East Prussia (now Ełk, Poland), the son of a customs officer. Photo by https://www.gettyimages.ie/

THE TURNCOAT
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Germany, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Russia/Soviet Union, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Siegfried Lenz
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 10/06/2020
ISBN: 978-1590510537
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“Under the warp of advertising banners interlaced with each other above the path – which the surreptitious hands of the homeless dismantled at night because they made such good blankets – Managua showed off its own precarious decoration.  Walls covered with layers of slogans, shacks thrown together in disorderly clusters, alleys twisting and turning here and there, loose rubble everywhere….”

cover sky weeps for meIn his second novel published in English by McPherson & Company, Sergio Ramirez, former Vice President of Nicaragua (1985 – 1990) under Daniel Ortega, creates a complex slice of life in that equally complex country.  His earlier novel in English, Divine Punishment, focused on the turmoil in the mid-thirties, leading to the eventual dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Garcia in 1936.  This novel, The Sky Weeps for Me, a true noir, originally published in 2008, is set in the mid-1990s, an equally difficult time.  Political parties have come and changed and gone; a new generation with new ideas and policies has grown up and become active; and former military officers are often working now in municipal or police roles.  Friends from the revolution are sometimes working toward different goals, and a strong central government backed by a large number of citizens from all social groups has not yet emerged.  As a result, the economy is in tatters, the poor are on their own, and violence is a common theme.

Celebration for Our Lady of Fatima

Celebration for Our Lady of Fatima

The opening chapter, packed with descriptive information, immediately establishes the three main characters and the settings of their lives.  Inspector Dolores Morales of the Drug Investigation Administration has his office on the third floor of the National Police Building, an office where he leaves the window open because the air conditioner expired long ago:  “He didn’t bother to close it when it rained, so its heavy cretonne curtain, gathered tightly at one end, had become a damp, matted, dusty lump.”  Below his window the statue of Our Lady of Fatima is on its pilgrimage around the whole of Nicaragua and a festive march is being played.  In the hallway Morales meets Doña Sofia, who works for the police as an orderly, primarily as a cleaning person.  She is, however, extremely intelligent, and often does her own investigating, not hesitating to make suggestions to her higher-ups.  Bert Dixon, nicknamed “Lord” for his fine manners, is in charge of Drug Investigations for Bluefields, on the Caribbean coast, and he has called Morales early that morning to tell him about the Regina Maris, an abandoned yacht found in Laguna de Perlas, in the forested lowlands north of Bluefields.

One of the casinos in Managua, a larger one than the one where Dona Sofia works.

Pharaoh’s, one of the popular casinos in Managua.

Dixon is reserved, and Morales thrives on drink and women, but the two men have been close friends since the revolution.  Dixon immediately tells Morales that he has sent photos and samples of some presumed bloodstains from the abandoned yacht to him for study.  He also has a witness whom he is holding for further information.  The “witness” is refusing to talk unless the police release his brother from jail for bringing in contraband from Honduras, demanding also that he be allowed to keep the contraband they seized.  A book containing a calling card with the name of a casino is found on the yacht, and the woman thought to have been reading that book is believed to be missing, inspiring Doña Sofia to apply for a job at the advertised casino in hopes of finding out more information. Prospective suspects are discussed by the primary characters, and questions arise as to whether some of these suspects might also be associated with the Cali drug cartel.  The deaths of two additional people take place as the key investigators are still dealing with the mysteries of the abandoned yacht and the nagging question of why someone would abandon a fifty-foot yacht.  A new character, nicknamed “Chuck Norris,” a DEA liaison, provides information about the yacht’s travels in Colombia while also expanding on the character of the missing woman, and the child she left behind.

Author Sergio Ramirez

Author Sergio Ramirez

During all these discussions and the action moving forward, approximately twenty additional officials – their names, nicknames, and positions – are introduced and become part of the investigation.  Fortunately for the reader, these are listed in the Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the novel, since these minor characters are difficult to keep track of without help.  Throughout, many of the narrative’s mysteries are revealed in conversations between characters, keeping the reader at a distance, instead of unfolding before the reader’s eyes.  The author, obviously aware of some of the difficulties that readers may have in keeping track of activities they have been “told about,” instead of  having “lived,” helpfully includes numerous summaries throughout the novel to keep the story lines clear and up to date.  Many characters have odd habits which also make them more memorable:  Morales has two female lovers who discover the existence of each other and become friends, and Doña Sofia proves to be just about the smartest investigator of the whole group.  Her teasing of her bosses is classic humor. “The Nun,” the second-in-command of the National Police, uncompromising and brilliant, stays out of the fray, and runs a tight ship, and these three women serve as shining lights among the dark males surrounding them.

Morales's "Celestial Blue" Lada, featured throughout.

Morales’s “Celestial Blue” Lada, featured throughout.

The final chapters are the most dramatic, descriptive, and ultimately most effective chapters in the book, and few readers will forget the events which take place during a major rainstorm in which “the sky weeps.”  Morales and Dixon take Morales’s famous “celestial blue Lada” car into the countryside where another body has been discovered and identified, and some additional violence takes place. The complex future for the country and the fates of some main characters are left undeveloped, suggesting a possible sequel being planned for the future.  Originally written in 2008 and published in Spanish, this edition, well translated by Leland H. Chambers and publisher Bruce R. McPherson, offers much to think about in the aftermath of a country’s civil war and the participants’ need, somehow, to “hold onto the last shreds of its ideals.”

ALSO reviewed here:  DIVINE PUNISHMENT

The real Chuck Norris, mdel for one of the characters here.

The real Chuck Norris, model for one of the characters here.

Photos.  The poster for the Our Lady of Fatima Celebration appears on https://twitter.com

Pharoah’s Casino in Managua is shown here:  https://www.casinosavenue.com

The author’s photo may be found here:  https://www.nuso.org

The blue Lada car from the 1980s is from https://www.alamy.com

The Chuck Norris photo appears on https://www.wikicelebs.com

THE SKY WEEPS FOR ME
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Nicaragua
Written by: Sergio Ramirez
Published by: McPherson and Company
Date Published: 10/02/2020
Edition: 1st Edition
ISBN: 978-1620540206
Available in: Paperback

Graham Swift–HERE WE ARE

Note:  Author Graham Swift has been WINNER of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and WINNER of the Booker Prize for his novel Last Orders.

“Down here at the back of the auditorium, [Jack] was part of the audience and he wasn’t.  He was Jack Robinson and he wasn’t…In the darkness, neither in nor out of the audience, he would sometimes feel the thinness, the fakery of the plush rapt edifice around him.  Plush?  Turn up the lights and you’d soon see, he knew, how tatty, how shabby, how sham it all was.”

cover, here we areIn entitling his latest thought-provoking book Here We Are, Graham Swift announces to the reader in advance that all the clues to understanding the people whose lives are the subject of this story are here, already present within this narrative.  In the opening quotation, for example, Jack Robbins, known on stage as Jack Robinson, the “compere” of a variety show on the Brighton Pier, enjoys spending time sitting in the audience at the back of the theatre during some of the acts each night.  He is especially intrigued by the magic act – seeing and appreciating all the illusions and the role-playing that are going on but understanding that those magical illusions are artificially created – all part of a giant  “sham” controlled by the magician.  Jack even goes so far as to remind himself that the theatre itself, the “plush edifice” around him, is also a tatty, shabby, sham. Jack and his co-workers, Ronnie and Evie, the magician and his assistant, who are the other main characters here, lead lives which have obviously made them who they are, though all lack the kind of insight which allows them to connect and resolve their present lives with their past.  As a result, all the characters simply exist in the moment, instead of truly living. “Here we are,” they seem to say to the reader – working from day to day without much depth of thought.

Brighton Palace Pier

The theatre where Jack, Ronnie, and Evie performed was at the end of Brighton Pier.

In August, 1959, Jack, the twenty-eight-year-old host of the variety show in the Brighton Palace Pier Theatre,  already has twelve years of experience at the job, yet he is still feeling panic and vertigo before he goes on stage to assume his role.  “It posed the paralyzing question of who he was in the first place, and the answer was simple.  He was nobody…And where was he? He was nowhere…on a flimsy structure built over swirling water.”  Jack thinks of his mother, giving him the necessary “brutal shove” he needed to get out on stage, and his absent father, a man who simply disappeared.  As he gets ready to go on stage, Jack thinks of Ronnie Dean, now the show’s magician, who had been in the army with him, and Evie White, Ronnie’s fiancée and assistant with his act, and then flashes forward and thinks of the end of summer when all the shows are over, only existing in the memories of those who saw them.  Ronnie and Evie, having had an extremely successful summer and a whole career ahead of them, we learn, “never appeared on stage again,”  while Ronnie himself, “never appeared again at all.”

Bethnal_Green_stn_southwest_entrance

The tube station at Bethnal Green, to which people rushed to escape bombings during the war, was the site of a major loss of life, memorialized in THE REPORT, by Jessica Francis Kane. See photo credits at end of review for more information.

Ronnie’s story, with and without his live presence, becomes the focus of most of the book. Growing up in “the humblest of houses” in Bethnal Green, Ronnie, the son of a charwoman and a merchant seaman, saw very little of his father.  On one of his brief stops at home, however, his father brought Ronnie a green parrot named Pablo, a present which excited Ronnie, in part because it could say its own name.  As soon as the father leaves town, however, the bird vanishes, and Ronnie misses it, “as one might miss something that might not have been there in the first place.”  Soon after, Ronnie, at age eight, is taken to the railroad station and put on a train for Oxfordshire, to a house called “Evergrene,” where he will live with Eric and Penny Lawrence during five years of World War II. Ronnie and the Lawrences become especially close, as the Lawrences have no children, and when Ronnie learns that Eric Lawrence has a private career as a magician – and that he is willing to teach Ronnie some of the secrets of the trade – he is an enthusiastic learner, an experience that Jack Robbins later refers to as his “sorcerer’s apprenticeship.”  When he is fourteen, Ronnie is returned to his mother, though he secretly visits the Lawrences on weekends, enjoying their company and continuously improving his magic.

green parrot

Ronnie’s dad gave him a green parrot named Pablo, a gift he memorialized in his stage name.

Evie White, the third character, straddles two worlds.  Her first role is as Ronnie’s assistant and later in the summer, she is his fiancée.  At the end of the summer, when Ronnie suddenly disappears, however, Evie has to make a new life. The fates of all three characters are further developed in a flash forward which takes place in 2009, fifty years after Evie’s marriage to Jack.  With all the temporary changes that dramatically affect Jack, Ronnie, and Evie in their childhoods and early adulthood, the crux of the novel and its resolutions are saved for the conclusion.  Secrets, magic, and illusions combine in the lives of all three characters, and as the characters deal with how fantasy and illusion affect their behavior going forward in time, the reader’s understanding of the author’s themes of how one’s reality, responsibility, and ultimately identity are affected by the imagination expands in surprising ways.

graham-swift-59e97a40-be45-49cc-a14c-4e6d57bfaef-resize-750

Author Graham Swift

Evie achieves some resolution some years after Ronnie’s disappearance when she visits Evergrene, the house where Ronnie spent the war, but she has no one to share her discoveries with.  Ronnie, before his disappearance, had seen himself  “moving from magic to wizardry…and Ronnie recognized in himself the ability to cross [the line].”  His disappearance makes it impossible for the reader to know if he succeeded in crossing the line to new understandings about life, or if the disappearance itself is the answer.  White doves, rainbows, and a parrot in Ronnie’s grand finale at the theater in 1959, contrast with secret discoveries about Ronnie and his upbringing that Evie pursues late in life and help set the stage for Evie’s own sense of resolution at the conclusion.  “Life is unfair, you do or you don’t have your moment,” she says.  “And if the show must come to an end, then there’s always the sound theatrical argument:  Save the best till last.”   In what may be his most compressed, thematically dense, and intriguing novel in recent years, Graham Swift, too, may have saved the best till last.

Also reviewed here:      MOTHERING SUNDAY    and   WISH YOU WERE HERE

Photos.  The theatre where Jack, Ronnie, and Evie performed was at the end of Brighton Pierhttps://www.123rf.com

The tube station at Bethnal Green (see https://commons.wikimedia.org) to which people rushed to escape bombings during World War II, was the site of a major loss of life, memorialized in THE REPORT, a beautifully written piece of non-fiction by Jessica Francis Kane:  http://marywhipplereviews.com/jessica-francis-kane-the-report-england/

Ronnie’s dad gave him a green parrot named Pablo, a gift he memorialized in his stage name. https://www.123rf.com

Author Graham Swift has been WINNER of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and WINNER of the Booker Prize for his 1996 novel Last Orders.  Author photo:  https://alchetron.com

 

HERE WE ARE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, England, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Graham Swift
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 09/22/2020
ISBN: 978-0525658054
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“This land is ours because of what is buried in the ground, not what words appear on a paper.  But all know this: what is buried in the ground isn’t always what you think.  It’s just the beginning…the beginning of all of us who call ourselves Homo sapiens.  Fitting, I guess, that what I found buried [a bone], just as I was trying to figure out how to become a man and still be human, was the very thing that threatened to take it all away.” – Cowney Sequoyah, 1942.

cover clapsaddleDebut author Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle adds a whole new element to the Native American novels published in recent years.  Her main character, Cowney Sequoyah, in his late teens, has recognized an opportunity to improve his life beyond what he experiences on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, by working for the summer at the Grove Park Inn, an elegant hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, several hours’ ride from Cherokee.  Cowney dreams of completing his college education, but he is in desperate need of funds if he is to do that.  He also has additional problems:  He never knew his father, who died in World War I when Cowney was only four months old, and he was brought up by his grandmother, who now has “empty kitchen cabinets” and no way to feed him.  An often drunk and vindictive uncle who served in the war with his father has been employing Cowney in recent years to work long hours on his own farm, and Cowney sees no future there.  His only “salary” consists of small amounts of milk, eggs, and meat which he quietly sets aside for his own daily sustenance.

ClapsaddleAuthor Clapsaddle moves back and forth in time and place creating vivid pictures of daily life on the reservation and the contrasts to Asheville, establishing some of the pleasant, even important, memories Cowney has brought with him.  At the inn, he learns that some German and Japanese diplomats are being held there as “guest” prisoners until they can eventually be deported.  His job is working on the grounds, helping to maintain the barbed wire around the property to prevent escapes, while Essie, a young Cherokee girl, whom he has transported with him from the reservation to the inn to work, has a job inside the inn.  Almost immediately, while digging holes for fence posts, Cowney finds a curved bone, which “reminded me of home and what I loved about home – the simplicity of knowing what each day held.” The bone itself was “smooth and porous, a slight c-curve angled in motion…like a subhuman scythe, though innately human.  Maybe even the core of humanity,” an inflated conclusion that he now regards as “an embarrassing indulgence of make-believe for a nineteen-year-old.”  The bone, however, becomes symbolic for Cowney and for the reader, reappearing throughout the novel and linking Cowney’s culture and his feelings for the bones of the earth and bones of humanity.

gpirst-omni-grove-park-inn-holiday-entrance

(Omni) Grove Park Inn, Asheville, NC

Foreshadowing plays a large part in much of the action here, as does the use of flashbacks to connect sections from Asheville (and Essie) with other sections, often involving the greatness of nature which Cowney notes when he returns to Cherokee, occasionally, on weekends.  Essie’s discovery of a secret room on the fourth floor of the inn allows the two to get together, innocently, to compare notes about life at the inn and their own goals.  Essie, though Cherokee, comes from a significantly different background, with a father often away for his job, and a mother who wants Essie to marry someone relatively well off to keep her “entertained” when when her husband is gone.  Still, they continue their friendship – until two events occur almost simultaneously:  Cowney discovers that Essie has become very friendly with another man, and a little girl, the daughter of one of the foreign “guests,” goes missing.  Somehow, Cowney is suspected of being involved in the disappearance, and the bone he has discovered and treasured is now regarded as grounds for suspicion.

Cherokee, N.C.,Having established two radically different settings – Cherokee, N.C. and Asheville – and people who differ greatly in culture and values – the author moves in for a closer look at both cultures.  The dominant white culture, which assumes almost automatically that a brown person is responsible for the missing child – and therefore should be investigated thoroughly – and the innocence of someone like Cowney, who never suspects evil motives from those with whom he has become friends at the inn.  When he has to return home to oversee the final days of his grandmother’s life, and later those of his Uncle Bud, he learns more about his parents, but he also learns that he has the inner resources to deal with many unexpected twists and turns in his life on his own. He has also become confident enough to trust some people who want to help him and to forgive others who have deliberately hurt him in order to help themselves.

Charlie Chaplin in his first "talkie," THE GREAT DICTATOR

Charlie Chaplin in his first “talkie,” THE GREAT DICTATOR

One of the great joys of this novel is that author Clapsaddle’s point of view is totally honest, an honesty reflected in the character of Cowney. Since the author herself is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, she obviously knows what she is talking about here, and she clearly loves the connections to nature which the book celebrates.  In a great irony, Cowney, at the end, goes to see Charlie Chaplin’s first “talkie” film, and is stunned by Chaplin’s final speech in which he says, “The Kingdom of God is within man, not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men….I thought of about how utterly different everyone [in the audience] seemed.  How each of us was motivated by so many different things, and yet here we were, all sitting together being reminded of our commonality by a comedian.”  Years later, as Cowney, an old man, contemplates his own life, he knows in his heart that “this land is ours because of what is buried in the ground…and the only thing separating us is the stories we choose to tell about them.”  This novel’s stories and its people will echo throughout the memories of many of its readers for a long time.

Human rib bones, like the one Cowney found shortly after his arrival at the inn.

Human rib bones, like the bone Cowney found shortly after his arrival at the inn.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.asaunookeclapsaddle.com

The Grove Park Inn, now an Omni hotel, is found on https://www.omnihotels.com

The welcoming sign to Cherokee, NC, is from https://www.pinterest.com

Charlie Chaplin, appearing in his first “talkie,” The Great Dictator, 1940, gives a concluding speech which Cowney thought was the best speech he’d ever heard.  https://medium.com

Human rib bones, like the bone Cowney found while working at the inn, led him to see the world differently.  https://www.skullsunlimited.com

 

EVEN AS WE BREATHE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Literary, Native American, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, United States
Written by: Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
Published by: Fireside Industries, University of Kentucky Press
Date Published: 09/08/2020
ISBN: 978-1950564064
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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