Matterlightblooming and Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

In an ancient cemetery on a hill near Washington D. C. the dead-who-know-not-they-are-dead rise from their sick boxes at night to cavort, cajole, console and wonder, wander, ponder. They have developed their own culture, their own shadowy cadence of “living” in this self-inflicted purgatory, patiently waiting for some sign to know what to do next, while fellow spirits vanish in the matterlightblooming and others join them in fresh sick boxes, an eternally spiraling phantom world of temporary inhabits…ships passing in a melancholic feverishly nightmarish harbor where the waters are haunted by memories of thier life in that other place from before they so long for…

One such spirit is left dispirited by another (who committed suicide)…exclaiming…

“You did not give this place a proper chance, but fled it recklessly, leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world…Forgoing eternally, sir, such things as, for example: two fresh-shorn lambs bleat in a new-mown field; four parallel blind-cast linear shadows creep across a sleeping tabby’s midday flank; down a bleached-slate roof and into a patch of wilting heather bounce nine gust-loosened acorns; up past a shaving fellow wafts the smell of a warming griddle (and early morning pot-clangs and kitchen-girl chatter); in a nearby harbor a mansion-sized schooner tilts to port, sent so by a flag-rippling, chime-inciting breeze that causes, in a port-side schoolyard, a chorus of childish squeals and the mad barking of what sounds like -” (p. 140-141)

Apparently in George Saunders’ purgatorious bardo, every ghost is a poet…and a grammarian champion of the semi-colon. Saunders’ ghosts go through the metaphysical motions, getting bawdy like Shakespeare in their regaling of tales and nihilistic like Beckett’s Godot waiters…waiting, for something…someone…to rock their boats. Continue reading

A Review of Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

Orphans of the Storm

In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy we see life through the eyes of people physically and emotionally abandoned, orphans with names like Lina, Florens, Jacob, Rebekkah and Sorrow.  The storm is the clashing of cultures in pre-Revolutionary War America where the laws are not yet defined, everyone and everything is for sale, and all are threatened with annihilation by God, the environment or each other.  Europeans looking for a promised land of unending wealth or escape, Natives living through an apocalypse, indentured servants and slaves from Europe and Africa bound to barbaric institutions are all brought to a slow, simmering boil in the torrid fog rolling in over Mary-Land and Virginia…colonies ironically named for women but that are unmerciful and cruel to those females who come to their shores. Continue reading

A Review of Ron Rash’s “Serena”

With his ambitious novel, Serena, Ron Rash creates a new American legend.

The Great Depression enshrouds the nation.  In the Western Carolina highlands, George Pemberton and his indomitable new wife, Serena, are forging a powerful timber empire come hell or high water.  If someone or something gets in their way…there will be blood.  This is the milieu of dread where Ron Rash’s new novel, Serena, lingers.  Three things soon stand in Serena’s path:  her husband’s bastard child, Jacob; the child’s young mother, Rachel Harmon; and a groundswell of conservatism looking to incorporate the Pemberton timber tracts into a national park.  Thus two women come at a crossroads, both empowered by their innate wills to survive:  Serena feasting off her insatiable greed while Rachel is driven by the unstoppable love for her child. Continue reading

A Review of Alan Furst’s “The Spies of Warsaw”

A Novel

3.0 out of 5 stars Atmospheric and Meandering
Reviewed by:   David H. Schleicher “Author of The Thief Maker”

See all my reviews

Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a military attache and French spy living in Poland, begins an affair with a lovely Polish lawyer named Anna while trying to obtain inside information on Germany’s planned invasion of France in Alan Furst’s atmospheric and meandering The Spies of Warsaw.

Meticulously researched, Furst overloads the novel with historical details, and the dizzying onslaught of backwoods locales, small town visits, city districts, street names, aristocrats, military personnel and working-class spies makes it sometimes hard to keep track of where all the characters are and what they are doing. Furst spends just as much time on the private lives and social interactions of the spies who populate this novel as he does on their clandestine wheeling and dealing. There are many entertaining and atmospheric scenes that take place at swanky parties or night clubs where characters scope out their next lover while simultaneously seducing their next contact or target.

The Spies of Warsaw is the first novel I have read by Furst. I was drawn to him by the frequent comparisons to John Le Carre and Graham Greene (my favorite writer). Furst certainly scores in the atmosphere and details department. He puts the reader firmly and comfortably in place on the streets and in the bedrooms of Warsaw while capturing the malaise that covered much of Europe during the years leading up to World War II where many people carried on with their lives and affairs while knowing that “something” was about to happen and feeling there wasn’t much that could be done to stop it. However, Furst doesn’t deliver the character development or story arcs that Le Carre so often does. Furst’s writing also lacks the deep psychological and spiritual complexities that made Graham Greene’s spy novels so richly rewarding. Though peppered with intimate and exact details, Furst’s The Spies of Warsaw never gets deep inside the minds or hearts of the people he writes about.

Though an entertaining read thanks in large part to Furst’s sometimes conversational and dryly humorous narrative voice, The Spies of Warsaw exists mostly at the surface level. The larger events surrounding the content of the novel were certainly building towards a world altering period of history, but Furst’s characters continue to meander and seem to go nowhere, while the plot builds to an anticlimactic finish. Fans of popular spy novels and historical fiction should be pleased, but those wanting something a bit more might be disappointed.

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Recommendations for further reading:

Absolute Friends by John Le Carre

Our Man in Havana and The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene

A Review of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise”

Suite Française

  A Mirror of a Nation at its Darkest Hour

Reviewer: David H. Schleicher –  See all my reviews

In her depiction of a society unraveling at a time of war, Irene Nemirovsky, in ways both lyrical and cynical, shows the human condition made up not only of great suffering, but also moments of lucid and concise joy. Her Suite Francaise, showcasing the early days of the German invasion and occupation of France during WWII, is one of the greatest novels I have ever had the pleasure to read.

In the first half, “Storm in June,” her depiction of Parisian refugees forging their way through bombed-out hamlets, abandoned villages, and small towns bulging at the seems with the broken-hearted, wounded, and lost, her vivid descriptions of the French countryside…the sites, the smells, the sounds, the plants and animals…are intoxicating, meditative, and transcendent. There’s planes flying overhead, blood splattered on cobble-stone walkways, children orphaned, women widowed, and death all around…yet there’s moments of striking beauty in small intimate interludes (like the section told from the point-of-view of a refugee cat from a wealthy family sneaking out for the night before a morning air-raid) where Nemirovsky haunts us with her prose and imagery.

The second half, “Dolce,” doesn’t have the immediacy of “Storm”, but still works shockingly well on many levels. Here she depicts the inhabitants of one small rural French village and how they react to their German occupiers. Nemirovsky displays an acute sense to detail and social interaction by giving us a harrowing view of the different class structures at work and how they react differently to each other and to their oppressors and how a fatalistic sentimental sense of national pride often leads to rash decisions and unlikely unifications. She again reaches some transcendence in her soft yet never sappy look at the burgeoning relationship between a lonely young wife of a missing POW and the charming German officer quartering in her mother-in-law’s house.

Knowing the back-story to Nemirovsky’s tragic life certainly adds some emotional heft to the reading but isn’t necessary to recognize the genius or enjoy this beautiful English translation from the original French. Waxing poetically about what could’ve been had she lived to turn this into the epic five-part novel she originally planned boggles the mind. The presentation of notes, outlines, and personal letters servicing that fact make for a heartbreaking bookend. Let there be no doubt, however, the two parts that remain are nothing short of a literary masterpiece, and the legacy they will leave in the canon of classic novels about WWII boldly display Nemirovsky’s triumph over death through the power of her words. Nemirovsky proves to be a master of shifting points-of-view and intertwining stories in episodic fashion while wickedly mixing comedy and tragedy, and the lofty ideals of war and peace with the banality and small joys and pains of everyday life. As two parts of a larger unfinished whole, Suite Francaise will leave you breathless.

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See below for my review of Fire in the Blood:

https://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/10/02/a-review-of-irene-nemirovskys-fire-in-the-blood/

A Review of Thomas Mullen’s “The Last Town on Earth”

A Novel

  Intimate and Fascinating Historical Fiction

Reviewer: David H. Schleicher

See all my reviews

Thomas Mullen’s debut novel, “The Last Town on Earth” tells a tale both intimate and epic in its depiction of a small Northwestern town that attempts to close itself off from the rest of the world during the height of WWI and the Spanish Flu Epidemic.

At times, Mullen’s writing style is long-winded and overly descriptive. He creates an amazingly detailed sense of time, place, and people in his descriptions of the town of Commonwealth and its inhabitants. However, the early sections move a bit too slowly and are plagued with the overuse of commas, adverbs, and adjectives and riddled with long passages where not much happens at all. Mullen is the type of writer who likes to describe something, describe something next to it, and then describe both things together in a slightly different way. He made the characters and situations compelling enough for me to want to read on, but this was one of those books I found easy to put down and could discard for days or a week at time.

Luckily, this all changed around the 200-page mark (slightly more than half way through). Once all hell breaks loose, and outsiders and the flu come crashing down on Commonwealth, the pace of the novel picks up drastically, and I had come to care for the characters so much (especially the Worthy family, Graham, and Elsie) that I could hardly tear myself away from the ensuing pages.

Mullen’s descriptions of the symptoms of the flu are vivid and graphic, without ever being gratuitous or reaching that gross-out level. Likewise, he handles the few scenes of visceral violence with a similar level of class. His often stilted style of writing is best suited when he describes the physical attributes of his settings and creates haunting, post-card perfect images of the town and people. Mullen should also be commended for balancing well the wide-eyed innocence of the teenage characters (Phillip Worthy and Elsie) with the grizzled wisdom of the adults in their life (Charles Worthy, Doc Banes, Graham, and the other mill workers) and the often inhospitable and brutal nature of their surroundings, predicaments, and reactions of their neighbors. He peppers his intimate small-town tale with lots of epic side-stories involving draft-dodging, labor strikes, warring timber mills, first loves, tragic childhoods, passionate romances, and political uprising. It all makes for grand drama.

Despite some flaws, “The Last Town on Earth” is an intriguing and intimate glimpse into a fascinating time and place in our not-so-distant past when some small towns attempted reverse quarantines to hold off the flu epidemic that ultimately killed 100 million people worldwide. This was also a time when many people felt strongly against America’s involvement in The Great War. The paranoia, the fear, and the guilt felt over decisions made mirrors events both past and current. It’s a timeless tale, told in a timely way, which will speak to many in a heartfelt and real fashion.