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Note:  This novel was WINNER of the Kirkus Prize for 2017, a FINALIST for the National Book Critics Circle Award Leonard Prize, and named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, The Guardian, and Publisher’s Weekly.

“[A] motion-activated device had caught the last fifty feet of the man’s fall, the windmill panic of flailing arms, the spread of his body on the ground. When the formula for flight had been revealed short months before, the ceremony had started unimpressively enough, with a man levitating like a monk for fifteen boring minutes before shooting into the air. The scientific community was agog. What did it mean that the human body could now defy…gravity? It had seemed like the start of a new era.”–from the title story

cover arimah man skyWith this startling, futuristic title story, debut author Lesley Nneka Arimah wakes up her reader and signifies that this is no “ordinary” collection. The stories in this book make so many creative leaps into new worlds that in many ways the author actually defies the limits of her genre. Born in the UK, Arimah grew up in Nigeria, following her father in his work abroad and acquiring such varied experiences of life that she has escaped the cultural limitations which so often root a writer’s work firmly in one place. The multicultural Arimah finds, appreciates, and focuses on the elements which make people from different places and times react differently to seemingly similar sets of circumstances, creating stories which are full of surprises and unexpected twists. Within these stories, however, she also recognizes the seemingly universal problems and habits which can often limit and determine a character’s personal outcomes. As she explores life from many points of view, her own vision, often dark, creates in the reader the urge to re-read, re-explore, and re-imagine both her work and the settings in which her characters live, to come to know them better and, perhaps, understand what makes many of her conclusions so surprising.

Lesley-e1446671374427In this post-apocalyptic title story, Nneoma, her African main character, is one of fifty-seven registered Mathematicians who specialize in calculating grief for the Biafra-Britannia Alliance, where she lives. Threatened with floods which had been swallowing the British Isles, the UK had formed an alliance with Biafra, a break-away section of Nigeria which the British eventually dominated, just as the French did with Senegal and the US did with Mexico. When a Chilean mathematician discovers a formula which appears to explain the entire universe, hopes rise in the slowly dissolving world. Subsequent mathematical equations offer control of human anatomy and emotions, and it soon becomes possible for a knowledgeable Mathematician to remove grief from someone else who needs help. The fall of the man from the sky, however, is an ominous sign that something may be wrong with the formula. In a fashion which becomes typical for her, Arimah takes this broad story about the universe, and the need to control universal human emotions, and distills it, boiling its essence down to the level in which one or two main characters develop the story on a personal level and become responsible for the conclusion.

Traffic congestion in Lagos, Nigeria.

Traffic congestion in Lagos, Nigeria.

While this story deals with broad universal topics, including climate change, the difficulties of governing a country in a problematic world, and universal mathematical goals and principles, many of her other stories stress family conflicts, especially between generations. “Wild” typifies some late teen issues. The speaker, living in the US and about to go off to Emory University, has an argument with her Nigerian mother about the bad influence of one of the girl’s friends. Her mother takes action, packing the girl’s bags, securing her passport, and buying her a ticket to Lagos to visit her aunt and cousin for the summer. The plane will leave in four hours, and she will be allowed a return ticket if she behaves while there. In Lagos, she discovers that her cousin, whom she had regarded as too-good-to-be-real, turns out to be very different from what she’d expected, and her aunt is having similar, but in some ways worse problems with her daughter than her own mother had had with Ada. In the less complex but well developed “Second Chances” a mother returns from the “dead” and creates havoc in the lives of two daughters and her husband.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

“Who Will Greet You at Home” gets inside the mind of a desperate woman who works in a hair salon and longs to have a child. She becomes so desperate that she creates a doll out of human hair and treats it as real, planning to offer it to a sorceress in the hope that her desire to have a child will be fulfilled. In “Light” a father, devoted to his daughter, is her sole parent during the years his wife is in the US studying for her Master’s degree. Telling the story as a flashback from the first paragraph, the author develops the father-daughter relationship, then informs us that the wife has just been offered a job in the US. She now wants their daughter to come live with her, leaving him desolate. The conclusion to this story, which has been told in flashback, returns to the opening paragraph. The saddest and most dramatic story is “Buchi’s Girls” in which a widow with two young children is living with her more fortunate sister and her husband who treat them worse than servants. Developing the story slowly through dialogue and plainly presented details, Arima makes the full horror of Buchi’s situation come to life.

From 1967 - 1970, the Igbo people of Nigeria rebelled under this flag in an effort to establish the independent country of Biafra in the south of Nigeria, from Port Harcourt and to the northeast.

From 1967 – 1970, the Igbo people of Nigeria rebelled under this flag in an effort to establish the independent country of Biafra in the south of Nigeria, from Port Harcourt and to the northeast.

Arimah writes with complete control of her material and makes it seem effortless, even casual in approach, perhaps a function of the domestic themes and the many characters dealing with common family problems, however exotic some of the complications might be. Her choice of details, some real and some fantastic, keeps the reader’s imagination thoroughly engaged, either through description or the strategic absence of it as the author develops suspense. Her ability to convey information though dialogue, and to give and withhold clues regarding the past keeps the reader’s interest high as she uses a variety of subgenres – futuristic, fantastic, realistic, dramatic, and even sentimental – to manipulate and expand her range. This is an author with immense talents which take advantage of her wide knowledge of different cultures and the common themes and issues shared by all. A novel by Lesley Nneka Arimah would allow her even more leeway to expand on her ideas and style. I hope it comes soon.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on : http://brittlepaper.com

The congestion in Lagos is shown here:  https://smartercitieschallenge.files.wordpress.com

The map of Nigeria is found on http://www.enchantedlearning.com/

The flag of Biafra, now considered a flag of the Igbo people, is seen here: https://en.wikipedia.org/

WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Short Stories, Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Nigeria, Social and Political Issues, United States
Written by: Lesley Nneka Arimah
Published by: Riverhead Books
Date Published: 04/04/2017
ISBN: 978-0735211025
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

 

“I’ve had a publisher’s request [to write a newspaper novel], and have had to start it quickly. It will be no easy thing for a slow writer like me to keep turning out four pages or so a day for at least the next three or four months. On the average, it’s all I can do to write four pages a day. And so while this newspaper thing is running, I’ll have to spend every day locked up in my study without a break….[and] we won’t know how the game turns out until we play it.”—author Junichiro Tanizaki, from the “Author’s Words in Place of a Preface.”

cover in black and whiteWhen I saw a reference to this novel by Junichiro Tanizaki as a “new translation,” my attention was pricked, especially when it was described as a book which had been “hidden in plain sight” for over eighty years – a book which even most literary scholars had not heard of until now.   As a fan of Tanizaki, I was thrilled by the chance to read an unknown book from 1928 by an author I have always found intriguing – a book which, in translation, would be making history on a world stage. Tanizaki’s well known ability to communicate fully with a broad spectrum of readers, from mystery fans to literary critics, convinced me that this book would connect with readers, and I was not disappointed. In Black and White, a murder mystery set in the late 1920s, provides plenty of excitement, both real and psychological, while also offering some unusual and creative thematic twists on the connections between fiction, reality, and the writing life and its consequences. Here the main character, Mizuno, a writer like Tanizaki, is hired to write a serialized novel for a Japanese newspaper, a task he must begin immediately, and for which he must continue writing every day without major revisions and without allowing the story to fall apart. His eventual story is one in which Mizuno, the writer, chooses one of his “real-life” acquaintances, Cojima, another writer, to be the model for his victim in the fictional murder mystery. Giving him a similar but false name – Codama – within the story, Mizuno then arranges for the fictional Codama, to be murdered as part of the story.

junichiro-tanizaki

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965)

From this plot line, all the remainder of the novel evolves. This newspaper novel, which he ultimately regards as his “Part I” of the story, was considered by critics and readers to be an example of “diabolism”  – the belief that devils and their wicked conduct are very real and can interfere in one’s life. Believing that if he wrote a Part II the story might continue, and not incidentally, provide him with even more income, Mizuno writes an outline in which he creates a new scenario in which the real model for Codama is attacked and Mizuno is arrested for the crime. No one believes his innocence.  Echoing throughout both versions of the story is a Shadow Man, a devil who may be planning a killing on a moonless Friday, which also happens to be Mizuno’s birthday.

akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927), author of RASHOMON

Published by Columbia University Press, the novel contains a translator’s preface by Phyllis I. Lyons to set the scene.  A Translator’s Afterword following the conclusion of the novel adds much more information and answers specific questions about the time period, the literary and academic atmosphere of the 1920s, and the state of mind of the author as he began this novel, one of three that he started in 1928 alone. One of the issues raised and discussed in the Afterword is Tanizaki’s own tense relationship with (real) Japanese author, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, author of Rashomon, a man with whom Tanizaki had active disagreements about writing. Akutagawa’s suicide in 1927 may have inspired Tanizaki to write this murder mystery featuring an author as a main character writing about the death of yet another author for which he may feel some sense of responsibility.  Akutagawa’s death may also have been responsible for the deeply personal reactions he creates when the main character of this novel, Mizuno, suddenly realizes that “Naojiro Codama,” the false identity he has created for his real model in the novel, slipped briefly from his consciousness as he was finishing a dramatic episode here and he mistakenly referred, on several occasions, to Codama as Cojima, the model’s real name. It is this mistake which causes Mizuno to become frantic with worry that if, by chance, something terrible were to happen to the real Nakajiro Cojima, that the police might see the similarities between that murder and the murder described in his book and think that Mizuno had killed Cojima.

After lying to the clerk about how many pages he has written, receiving payment based on the lie, Mizuno plans a night out, thinking, ironically, of Oishi Kuranosuke, the ideal samurai warrior.

After lying to the clerk about how many pages he has written, receiving payment based on the lie, Mizuno plans a night out, thinking, ironically, of Oishi Kuranosuke, the ideal samurai warrior.

The novel is complex, not only in plot and as it may relate to issues in Tanizaki’s life, but also in overlapping themes, established initially with the title itself. For most readers, the “black and white” references in the title, would refer to issues of morality in which truth competes with lies, and there are plenty of those here, as Mizuno is constantly lying about how much of the novel he has finished, when it will be finished, and about all his creditors. With this novel, the author’s belief in active diabolism, in which a real devil could act on his own, would make the absolutes of truth vs. lies less clear and might explain why Mizuno, who has not committed a murder, somehow feels responsible for committing such a crime or inspiring someone else to do it. His agonizing over the outcome of a simple mistake, which the newspaper publisher does not take seriously, and Tanizaki’s own pre-occupation with the suicide of Akutagawa, seem extreme, under the circumstances.

Having received his money under false pretenses, Mizuni heads for the Ueno-Hirokoji intersection for "entertainment."

Having received his money under false pretenses, Mizuno heads for the Ueno-Hirokoji intersection for “entertainment.”

Just ten years prior to this novel, Tanizaki wrote another novel, Devils in Daylight, in which truth and reality are also in direct conflict as a man sees what he is sure is a murder taking place, and, more importantly, overhears plans for another such murder a few days later. He hopes to persuade a friend to come with him to observe that murder when it happens. That novel, with its psychological intrigue and its sexual overtones, is more casual, satiric, and filled with ironies, making it very funny and great fun to read. In Black and White is far more serious, with many questions remaining at the conclusion about just what Tanizaki was thinking when he wrote this novel, why he chooses to present the ultimate conclusion as he does, and why the novel has remained virtually unknown in translation.

ALSO by Tanizaki, reviewed here:      A CAT, A MAN, AND TWO WOMEN,     DEVILS IN DAYLIGHT,     THE MAIDS,     SOME PREFER NETTLES

Photos:  The portrait of Tanizaki is from http://www.frasesypensamientos.com

The photo of Akutagawa, who committed suicide at the age of thirty-five, appears on https://images.gr-assets.com

Oishi Kuranosuke, regarded as the ideal samurai warrior, comes into Mizuno’s mind as he gets paid under false circumstances and plans a trip to see the ladies.  https://images.gr-assets.com/

The intersection of Ueno and Kurokoji beckons to Mizuno as he looks for entertainment after collecting his ill-gotten payment.  http://www.oldtokyo.com/

IN BLACK AND WHITE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Japan, Literary, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study
Written by: Junichiro Tanizaki
Published by: Columbia University
Date Published: 01/09/2018
Edition: Weatherhead Books
ISBN: 978-0231185196
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“I am often consumed by the heavy lifting Supreme Court judging entails, reluctant to cease work until I am sure I’ve got it right. But when time comes to meet Bryant [my personal trainer], I leave off and join him at the gym for justices. The hour-long routine he has developed suits me to a T. This book, I hope will help others to experience, as I have, renewed energy to carry on with their work and days.”—Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

cover rbgDespite its cartoon caricature of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg working the resistance tubes on the cover of this book, The RBG Workout is no joke – Justice Ginsburg has been working with Bryant Johnson, her personal trainer and author of this book, for almost twenty years, and she credits him for much of her bodily recovery and her dramatically increased strength after two bouts of cancer during that time. She works out with Johnson for an hour, twice a week, has increased her bone density in the process, and, according to Johnson, “she’s graduated from doing push-ups against a wall to push-ups on her knees, to full-on standard push-ups the way I learned them in basic training for the Army. In fact, she’s gotten so strong that we’ve recently added ‘planks’ to her routine.” Johnson’s success has become so widely known and the public has become so interested in his program that Justice Ginsburg not only agreed to his writing this book about his regimen for her but also wrote the Foreword for this book.

rbgBeautifully organized, the book features exercises done exactly the way Johnson does them with Justice Ginsburg, but he is fully aware of the variety of ages and strength levels of the many people who may try this program, and he explains everything fully. He recommends the usual loose, comfortable clothing and adds a charming note that the Justice sports a crew-necked T-shirt which says, “Super Diva.” He gives a list of supplies – dumbbells, resistance bands or resistance tubes, and a door anchor – along with three types of balls, which he describes, at one point mentioning some substitutes like a gallon-size bottle of water, a large can or peas, some dirt in a plastic bag, or even some luggage the size of a carry-on bag for those who are just starting out and do not have all the equipment. He also provides a list of cautions, reminding the reader that “it took Justice Ginsburg years to perfect this routine – even some ThunderCats can’t complete this workout on their first try.”

bryant johnsonUsing caricatures of a very serious Justice Ginsburg to illustrate each exercise, Johnson presents the warm-up and stretching exercises, then shows the strength exercises which form the major part of the program. Those who do their workouts in a gym will have a lot of equipment at their disposal, but for each of these, Johnson suggests some easy, cost-free, at-home alternatives, usually using an ordinary chair and readily available resistance bands or tubes. For exercises involving the chest, back, arms, and shoulders, he provides “easier” alternatives (push-ups done from the knees, not the feet) and “easiest” alternatives, such as pushing away from a wall. Gradually, all parts of the body get similarly exercised and worked, all of them while sitting or standing in place. Reviews in some popular magazines, written by people of middle age or older, have attested to the fact that this is a real workout, not a set of easy exercises designed to make participants feel as if they are too strong, too muscular, too young, or too good to need this program. Two other Supreme Court Justices also work out with Johnson, and some people who have spent a great deal of time doing other programs have indicated that the results of this program make them feel much better and more confident without all the angst of meeting difficult, if not impossible, goals.

pushupsUltimately, author Bryant Johnson has a message for all: “Whatever you do, do something. Whether you’re a Supreme Court justice, a clerk, or a janitor, exercise is the great equalizer. A push-up, a squat, or a plank doesn’t care who you support or don’t support. It doesn’t care about your race, religion, color, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation. You may have a lifetime appointment to the most powerful job in the world, but your body will still have veto power over you. And you’re the only one with jurisdiction over your body, so if you don’t use it, you will lose it.”

This illustration provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company shows the cover of a workout book co-authored by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s long-time trainer Bryant Johnson entitled: “The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong...and You Can Too!” The 112-page book, scheduled for release Oct. 3, will include illustrations of the 84-year-old Justice Ginsburg doing the exercises in her judicial robes, with purple leggings and “her trusty sneakers.” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company via AP

Photos:  The portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appears on https://commons.wikimedia.org

The picture of Bryant Johnson is from https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/B1bEVRIwn7S._UX250_.jpg

Justice Ginsburg doing a push-up comes from the book (p. 64) and appears on http://a.abcnews.go.com

Side Plank (p. 81) :  from http://www.nycitywoman.com

THE RBG WORKOUT: How She Stays Strong and You Can, Too
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestion, Exercise, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, United States
Written by: Bryant Johnson
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date Published: 10/17/2017
ISBN: 978-1-328-91912-0
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  Patrick Modiano was WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014.  This novel, Modiano’s debut, was WINNER of both the Prix Fénéon and the Prix Roger-Nimier in 1968, when the author was twenty-two.

“In June 1942, a German Officer approaches a young man and says, ‘Excuse me, monsieur, where is the Place de l’Etoile?’ The young man gestures to the left side of his chest.”—epigraph to La Place de l’Etoile

occupation trlogyWhen Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, he had been a huge literary success in his native France and throughout Europe for decades. Almost none of his novels were available in English, however. US and UK publishers immediately accepted the challenge to provide translations in English, especially when the sudden popularity of these novels in England and the United States created a completely new literary market. Most of Modiano’s writing is now available, but until recently, Modiano’s debut novel, written when he was just twenty-two years old, was unobtainable in English. With Bloomsbury’s publication of The Occupation Trilogy – one volume containing Modiano’s first three novels: La Place de l’Etoile, his debut novel, written when he was twenty-two; The Night Watch, written when he was twenty-three; and Ring Roads when he was twenty-six – those novels are now available in both hardback and paperback. For readers who have become fans of Modiano, this trilogy will answer many questions about Modiano’s early life and career, expanding what readers have already gleaned from his other semi-autobiographical novels about his unconventional upbringing and his alienation from his parents.

A young Patrick Modiano celebrates one of his earliest literary prizes, while still in his twenties.

A young Patrick Modiano celebrates one of his earliest literary prizes, while still in his twenties.

Lovers of Modiano’s work have probably already read his Suspended Sentences, the most revelatory of his titles in terms of his parental situation and his early schooling. Modiano, at age ten, and his brother Rudy, a couple of years younger, were completely interdependent upon each other at that time. Their mother, an actress who performed all over the world, had been missing from their lives for years, and their father, a Jew who co-operated with the Gestapo during World War II and who was engaged in black-marketeering in the aftermath of the war, often lived abroad. When Patrick and Rudy were still in primary school, their father turned them over to a group of circus acrobats who lived near an abandoned chateau, which Modiano and his brother sometimes explored. Young Patrick’s father occasionally appeared at that abandoned chateau for late night, secret meetings with his gang, thought to have been the Rue Lauriston gang, while the acrobats, responsible for the boys’ welfare, did the best they could to care for them, under the circumstances. The arrest of the acrobats for criminal activity and the eventual disappearance of Rudy from his life leaves Patrick Modiano emotionally destitute. In boarding school as a teen, his exceptional literary skill brings him to the attention of author/educator Raymond Queneau, who then becomes his mentor. Still, lacking a mother and father, Modiano is on his own for nearly all of his education and cultural learning.

The original French edition of La Place de'L'Etoile, published in 1968, when Modiano was twenty-two.

The original French edition of La Place de’L’Etoile, published in 1968, when Modiano was twenty-two.

La Place d’Etoile, Modiano’s debut novel at age twenty-two, explodes with the pent-up creative energy of an immature but sensitive young man, highly educated in literary traditions but perhaps naive about the implications of some of the philosophies he espouses. Within a maelstrom of wild activity, Modiano creates a narrator, Raphael Schlemilovich, a young Jew turned Nazi sympathizer, who quickly reveals himself as unreliable as he expouses his ideas, lives or imagines a life for himself, explores literary movements, travels, and draws conclusions based on his (very) limited personal experience. All these ideas and many of the (real) people the main character mentions here existed in the waning days of World War II in which much of France was cooperating with the Gestapo and punishing their own citizens for believing in freedom. Modiano was born just after this period, and he has always believed that his own problems regarding his father, his father’s association with the Gestapo and black marketeers, and his father’s disinterest in his own life originated somehow during the war years, before he himself was even born.

Younger brother Rudy shared Patrick Modianos's experiences with the acrobats who lived in an abandoned chateau, visited secretly by their blackmarketeer father.

Younger brother Rudy shared Patrick Modianos’s experiences with the acrobats who lived near an abandoned chateau, visited secretly by their blackmarketeer father.

Dedicating this debut novel to his brother Rudy, as he did every novel he wrote for the next fifteen years, Modiano describes his speaker, Rafael Schlemilovich, as definitely “not a son of France with a grandmother who makes jam,” further saying that as a child Schlemilovich had a governess, belonged to the Pony Club, played polo, and possessed a salmon pink Maserati and yachts on the Sea of Galilee. Claiming that society columnists praised his writing, even comparing him to F. Scott Fitzgerald as “the young Gatsby,” Schlemilovich befriends other Jews who are collaborators with the Gestapo, praises those who traffic in gold, “trades butter for sapphires,” and decides that he will be the greatest Jewish French writer since Montaigne, Proust, and Celine.

Eva Braun

Eva Braun

Time in this novel is flexible, to say the least, and the truth about the speaker is even more flexible. He claims to have inherited a large amount of money from an uncle who lives in Venezuela, to have bought a yacht and converted it into a brothel, and to have traveled widely, using false names. He dreams of becoming a teacher and insists that he is six feet, six inches tall. He also says that he has been put in charge of the procurement (and kidnapping) of high class women to work in the sex trade. Asserting also that he has been a longtime lover of Eva Braun, he indicates that he has traveled to Poland, Vienna, Istanbul, Egypt, and Palestine, laundering counterfeit money and trafficking in gold.

Patrick_Modiano_6_dec_2014_-_22

Patrick Modiano, at an interview a few weeks after receiving his Noel Prize for Literature in 2014.

Filled with the kind of imagination which young writers delight in exploring, Modiano here “lets things fly,” creating one of the wildest debut novels I’ve ever read as he obviously imagines himself in the role of Schlemilovich, committing every crime, betraying anyone who crosses him, and acting on every resentment that a talented, but personally neglected, twenty-two-year-old author might harbor against the rest of the world. Modiano does, however, reveal much from his own life through the voice of his narrator – his love of writing and fine literature, his difficulties with an absent father and equally absent actress mother, and his enduring sense of irony and, remarkably, his  humor.  It is through these qualities that a sense of reality does intrude within the obvious fantasy of this picaresque and out-of-this-world novel. Fans of Modiano (and teachers of writing) will especially love this entrée into the mind of a very young man with big ideas who grew up to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

ALSO by Modiano: AFTER THE CIRCUS ,     HONEYMOON,     IN THE CAFE OF LOST YOUTH,     (Patrick Modiano and Louis Malle–LACOMBE LUCIEN, a screenplay,      LITTLE JEWEL,     PARIS NOCTURNE,     PEDIGREE: A Memoir ,       SO YOU DON’T GET LOST IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD,          SUCH FINE BOYS,    SUNDAYS IN AUGUST,     SUSPENDED SENTENCES,   VILLA TRISTE

Photo credits:  The photo of young Patrick Modiano appears on https://www.newstatesman.com/

A dilapidated, abandoned chateau, similar, perhaps, to the one in which Modiano’s father met with blackmarketeer comrades may be found on http://www.messynessychic.com

Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, is shown here:  http://www.evabraun.dk/evabraun1.htm

Patrick Modiano, photographed a few weeks after winning the Nobel Prize or Literature, is from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Modiano

LA PLACE de L'ETOILE (Book #1 of the OCCUPATION TRILOGY)
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Nobel Prize, Experimental, France, Historical, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Bloomsbury
Date Published: 05/18/2017
ISBN: 978-1408867907
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“He’d taken great care with the suite. Statues, prints, and scroll paintings from his collection, precious works, he’d placed them in her room for study, for contemplation…. Without [them] she’d have gone mad. Whenever he left her, she selected a piece and centered her attention on it…fighting down the panic, the hopelessness, the fear. Concentrating some days on color, some on shape…she worked as she had when she was a graduate student, and Terence her lover and wealthy patron.” – from “The Great Wave.”

cover alive shape colorLast year author Lawrence Block published a collection of short stories by seventeen different writers, primarily those known for mystery and horror. Each of these authors had written a story inspired by a painting of American artist Edward Hopper. The result, In Sunlight or in Shadow, was on my Favorites list for 2017, a book I described as the “Most Fun” of all the books I reviewed during that year. In Alive in Shape and Color, just released, sixteen authors, many of whom also contributed to the earlier anthology, are given much more latitude regarding the choice of artwork. Here each author has written a story about whatever piece of artwork most appeals to his/her imagination – free choice. The resulting collection, therefore, varies widely – from a Lascaux cave painting to something by Norman Rockwell, from Hieronymous Bosch to Georgia O’Keeffe, and from Hokusai’s “The Wave” to Michelangelo’s statue of David.   Featuring work by Lee Child, David Morrell, Jeffery Deaver, Jonathan Santlofer, and Michael Connelly, among others, the collection also includes non-mystery writer Joyce Carol Oates, and art historian Gail Levin.

author photo block

Lawrence Block, mystery writer and editor of this collection.

S. J. Rozan’s “Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” also known more commonly as “The Wave,” uses Hokusai’s most famous wave painting to illustrate the story of a woman being held prisoner by her former lover, a story with direct parallels between the woman, who swims for relaxation in her captivity, and the boatmen in Hokusai’s famous woodblock print as they face the big wave. Warren Moore’s story “Ampurdan,” is another story in which the use of an iconic painting, Salvador Dali’s “The Pharmacist of Ampurdan Seeking Absolutely Nothing,” sets the tone and controls the action.  In this story, Alan Bowling, a hiker, sees life as “merely a string of days becoming ellipsis, until one day each inhabitant reached an end of words.”

Gauguin's "Girl with a Fan," 1902

Gauguin’s “Girl with a Fan,” 1902

One of the more complex stories, “Girl with the Fan,”by Nicholas Christopher, uses the Gauguin painting of the same title both as its direct inspiration and as a motif throughout the action. Dividing the story into sections which use alternating points of view, the author depicts an art specialist who is kidnapped by members of the Gestapo in France who need help identifying which famous paintings from the late nineteenth century are real and which are their forgeries. Here Gauguin’s visit to the Marquesas, which produced his painting of “The Girl with the Fan,” merges with the story of Marie Venicasse, who had been the landlady for both Van Gogh and Gauguin, and her young daughter.

Van Gogh's "Cypresses," 1889.

Van Gogh’s “Cypresses,” 1889.

Other stories have little direct connection to the artwork. The story which will probably draw the most attention has only a symbolic relationship with its painting. “Cypresses,” by Vincent Van Gogh, has inspired author David Morrell to write “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity,” a story about a man named Van Dorn, loosely based on Vincent Van Gogh, in his suffering, his insanity, and his self-mutilation. The story’s speaker is a painter whose friend Myers, an art historian, is writing his dissertation on Van Dorn.  Myers has discovered something new about Van Dorn’s ability to haunt those who become obsessed by their study of Van Dorn. The speaker becomes increasingly concerned for Myers, as he sees him losing his grip on reality in La Verge, a place of importance in the life of Van Gogh and Van Dorn.  Well developed, hypnotic, and filled with a sense that art exerts special effects on viewers who connect with it, this story also carries elements of both terror and horror.

Magritte's "Empire of LIght," painted between 1949 and 1955

Magritte’s “Empire of LIght,” painted between 1949 and 1954

However good some of the individual stories may be,  many readers of this collection may find the lack of a strong organizing principle, such as paintings by the same artist or of the same genre or period or style, to be a disadvantage overall. In fact, even within the several artistic genres here – famous paintings, woodblocks, illustrations, and sculpture – the artwork is often used to completely different purposes and effect (or no effect) by the authors. In the Lascaux cave painting of a bull, for example, the specific artwork is not a factor at all and is almost irrelevant to the story, “A Significant Find,” by Jeffery Deaver. It is the cave itself which serves as the setting for a story of love and loss. Likewise, the painting of “The Empire of Light” by Rene Magritte is much less important to the story “Gaslight” by Jonathan Santlofer than one would expect. The painting shows a tall street lamp illuminating the shuttered windows of a house in which a sick woman resides, but the action owes more to Hitchcock’s film “Gaslight” than to Magritte’s painting.

Georgia O'Keeffe's "Red Cannas, 1924

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red Cannas, 1924

The same lack of direct connection between painting and story also holds true in the Georgia O’Keeffe painting of “Red Cannas,” in which neither the author Gail Levin nor her main character have any stated interest in the painting at all. In Levin’s story the main character has, with difficulty, gained an interview with O’Keeffe from whom she hopes to obtain permission to reproduce one of O’Keeffe’s paintings as the cover of her book. As the story evolves, O’Keeffe reveals her argumentative personality, and the painting which is shown at the beginning of the story plays no direct role.

Many of the stories are fun to read, regardless of whether the connection between the short story and its painting is obvious, and readers who are not familiar with Block’s previous collection, In Sunlight or in Shadow, may still find much to enjoy in this one. Those of us who had hoped this book might be more like that delightful offering, however, may suffer pangs of disappointment with this one. In Sunlight or in Shadow was on my list of Favorites for 2017, a book I described as the “Most Fun to Read” of all the books I reviewed in 2017.    Unfortunately, Alive in Shape and Color lacks  the driving energy, the sense of connection between story and artwork, and sense of purpose which made its predecessor so enjoyable for me.

Photos, in order:   The author’s photo may be found on    http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/2011/04/29/1031/

The Gauguin painting of “Girl with a Fan,” 1902 is from  https://www.wikiart.org/en/paul-gauguin/girl-with-a-fan-1902

Van Gogh’s “Cypresses” is found on https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.30/

Magritte’s “Empire of Light,” painted between 1949 and 1954, appears on https://www.pinterest.com/pin/673921531709461099/

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Cannas,” part of a series, is from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/250301691760657641/

ALIVE IN SHAPE AND COLOR
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Anthology of mystery stories based on artworks.
Written by: Lawrence Block, editor
Published by: Pegasus
Date Published: 12/05/2017
ISBN: 978-1681775616
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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