Recently Reviewed Books…

Sophie's ChoiceSophie’s Choice by William Styron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A tragic love triangle taking place in New York in 1947 with its roots spreading back to the Holocaust. Given the dense prose, the constant diversions into back story, and the detailed descriptions of the Nazi concentration camp system, I wondered whether there were two books here.

Narrator and budding author Stingo, 22, is madly in love with the beautiful Sophie, 30, who in turn is ass-over-tea-kettle over, and enslaved by, the mercurial biologist Nathan. Each is hiding secrets and must lie to survive. Stingo is tormented by his deprived sexuality that borders on homo-eroticism; Sophie by her past in the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz; and Nathan by his violent bi-polarity. And yet the trio are bound by mutual attraction and love for each member. They are from different backgrounds: Stingo is from the American South working on his debut novel, Sophie is Polish and fluent in several languages, while Jewish Nathan is an expert on any subject, abuses drugs, and abuses Sophie when in his “down” state. The author brings into focus the parallel between the persecution of Jews by Nazis and Slavery in America, both which robbed their victims of rights and eliminated the sanctity of life. Sophie seems a proxy for a victim of both systems.

Gradually, Stingo unearths Sophie’s and Nathan’s stories. We learn that she had a son midway during the book. Then, we learn, further along, that she also had a daughter. She is wracked with survivor guilt and finds solace in alcohol and sex. Nathan does not appear to be the scientist he claims to be, one who makes breakthrough discoveries in cures that lead him to incredible highs and disastrous lows. Even Stingo hides the source of his grubstake in New York that enables him to scrape by writing his book without having to work.

With frequent diversions into Sophie’s journey from being the privileged only-child of anti-Semitic, academic parents and the wife of another academic, living the good life in Cracow, to her descent into hell in Auschwitz, and from her slavish attachment to the destructive Nathan upon arriving in America as a refugee, we come to learn the source of her lack of self-esteem and of her desire for numbness through annihilation. In ironic fashion, each of the characters achieve what they desire. Even Stingo is liberated from his “block” by a night of mind-blowing sex worth dying for.

Although the subject matter is gripping, there are huge information drops in places and unwarrantedly complex sentences that role on ad nauseum. Sometimes the new information is back story to get the next section of the narrative moving, and I found this to be clumsily rendered. The author alludes often to Thomas Wolfe and to his voluminous and ponderous style, and I could see that Styron was a Wolfe adherent. The most dramatic scene in the movie version, where Sophie has to make her damning “choice,” is dropped in only about 35 pages from the end of the book when Dr. Von Niemand is introduced. There is even a detour into peanut farming and an elucidation of the differences between the American North and South further towards the end, making one wonder whether the author is throwing in his copious research notes into the novel as well.

That said, the scenes in Auschwitz and Birkenau are well drawn, and the philosophy and psychology behind Germany’s concentration camp system are explained in depth, more than what is required for a novel, I think. Hence why I concluded that there are two books crammed into one here, making the reader switch hats constantly between the fictional love triangle and the factual Holocaust rendition, diluting the impact of both.

A line that stuck with me: “At Auschwitz, where was God? And where was man?” Can one ever understand or explain Auschwitz? That is the unanswered question remaining, after our tragic trio exit the stage.

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We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last WorksWe Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The twofer of Vonnegut’s first unpublished work and his last unfinished one, gives you an executive summary of this enigmatic writer’s evolution and of his body of work that continues to challenge us.

In the first novella, Basic Training, written in the 1940s, we are introduced to a 16-year-old orphan, Haley, who has come to live with his widowed uncle, The General, and his three cousins: Annie the mother hen, Kitty the sexy but naïve middle child in search of love, and Hope, the blonde beauty who steals our hero’s heart yet who expects him to be braver than he is.

The General is a generous and kind man under the surface, but he runs his household and his farm with military precision. He works his children and Haley to the bone and will not tolerate any misbehavior from them or from his hired hand, the crazy Banghart. The central conflict in Haley is his desire to win Hope and conquer his fear, and that opportunity presents itself when a series of unforeseen accidents lead him and Banghart to go AWOL and face-off, with the General standing between them.

This story is idealistic – Haley longs to study in a music academy in Chicago, hoping to improve his present situation of being a prospectless orphan – and melodramatic, for Haley does an about-face from his cowardice while the General goes in the opposite direction during the denouement. But all ends well, like most debut novels (or novellas) do.

The second piece, written circa 2007, If God Were Alive Today, is darker, and shows us the jaded Vonnegut after coming through WWII, and writing for over half a century. Protagonist Gil Berman is a stand-up comic on the state of the world. Coming from a wealthy background, he shuns a prospective career to joke and comment on all that is wrong in America. His comments mirror his cynicism:
“The only proof of the Existence of God I need is a Third World War.”
“The illegal drugs industry is the largest industry in America.”
“The Swastika is another Christian Cross.”
“The War on Drugs is better than no drugs at all.”

Berman dismisses Nobel prize winning authors as a bunch of alcoholics (was Vonnegut suffering some jealousy here?) and notes that Sigmund Freud had been on cocaine. He disses the Bush/Gore election and labels TV as an “eraser,” for it has wiped out real human experience and transplanted an artificial one in its place. He takes up the cause of climate change and fires pot shots at political correctness around race and gender issues. A 60-year-old groupie thinks he is the re-incarnation of Jesus.

Yet Berman suffers from his angst. He has two nervous breakdowns. His father commits suicide at 42, the same age as when we meet Berman giving his final comedy performance that ends with no one laughing. His wife and daughter desert him – a cause for his comedic antics, one psycho therapist surmises.

While the first story is structured with a linear and text-book plotline, the second story is a scattershot, stream-of-consciousness rendition, resembling a stand-up comedy routine, Vonnegut’s final act of absurdity and resignation.

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The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st CenturyThe Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good book on grammar, with the author’s practical take on what the rules are and how far we can bend them in today’s usage.

English seems to be in an eternal state of battle between the Prescribists (those who advocate how grammar should be used) and the Describists (those who describe how grammar is used). Each school that comes into prominence prescribes (or describes) their rules – this is how dictionaries and style guides are written, but no one is in charge of the asylum. And each generation has decried the decline of the language since the eighteenth century. Write for clarity and impact, the author advises, not to abide by a rule concocted by a person or persons who may be long dead.

Pinker takes each rule and shows us the exceptions. Hence, split infinitives, dangling modifiers, stranded prepositions, nouns repurposed as verbs or vice versa, and passive voice are okay if the circumstances dictate. The serial comma is exposed with its pros and cons. Myths surrounding who/whom, there/their, lie/lay, the singular “they”, and that/which (also known as the which hunt) are laid bare. He lays (not lies) side-by-side comparisons of properly written sentences compared with seemingly properly written alternative versions and points out the errors in the latter. In the section on diction, he takes commonly used words and shows us their proper and improper usage.

The sixth chapter was the most useful to me, for it was the primer on grammar, a twenty-first century version of Strunk & White. The section on punctuation would be any writer’s and editor’s sandbox, for he covers the difference between punctuating for prosody vs. syntax in our age where the latter is winning over the former.

Although admitting that he is a card-carrying member of the Prescribists school, he bows to common sense where modern usage has made certain rules irrelevant – his argument over the stupid North American rule that the comma be placed inside the closing quote mark is quite persuasive, especially when reading examples that he cites. In fact, I have used his preferred option somewhere in this review – see if you can find it.

In keeping with his Prescribist’s nature, Pinker leaves us with five prescriptions that are loaded with common sense: look things up; be sure your arguments are sound; don’t confuse an anecdote with the general state of the world; beware of false dichotomies (please check his right use of the word dichotomy); and arguments should be based on reason, not people.

So, if you are wondering whether to place your next period inside or outside the closing quote – this book is for you.

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The Crafty Art of PlaymakingThe Crafty Art of Playmaking by Alan Ayckbourn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a former stage actor and having written a few plays, it was a trip down memory lane to read this very candid, funny, and revealing first-hand account by a famous playwright and director about the interesting art form of theatre that is neither novel nor cinema, but which may have given birth to both.

Ayckbourn gives us 101 lessons, which he calls “obvious” lessons, obvious perhaps to him but revelatory to us. Thirty-nine of them are with his playwright’s cap on and sixty-two are from the director’s chair. Each of the two segments begin at the concept stage of the play and ends where each role ends, or is handed off to the other.

I found some interesting one-liners that revealed a lot:
1. Mix comedy with drama for contrast.
2. Theatre can call an emotional response, rarely objective to global issues.
3. A comedy is a play in which someone wants something and eventually gets it; a tragedy is a play where they don’t.
4. Always get your audience to look at the same thing.
5. Unity of time and setting, a strong narrative, and a few characters are essential ingredients to begin writing a good play.

He then gets into a lengthy section on dialogue that draws scenes from his own collection of plays, which is a delight to read, for the short scenes reveal much about character, relationships, and plot movement – great case studies on writing dialogue and on saying much with an economy of words.

In the director section, we get to realize the power dynamics between the director, the producer, the actors (especially the star of the show), and the diverse crew members who bring a play to life. The power rests with those who have the higher reputation, money, and audience-attraction – hence, directors are often at the mercy of star actors and producers, and are dispensable. There is always a battle for creative control between the director and the actors.

The director is alternatingly project manager, coach, mentor, traffic cop, and shrink. The director helps others create and has great difficulty building their own CV, for how does one isolate the directing from more obvious parts like the plot, the acting, the costumes, the set, and the lighting? It is also better to have no director than to have a bad director. His advice on directing that stuck with me:
1. New plays don’t built reputations. Remakes are better.
2. Most new playwrights have no clue about the theatre.
3. Don’t hire a star. Or your friends and relatives.
4. Casting is the most important job. Be sure to be present at every audition, especially when recruiting understudies.
5. A brilliant actor can take a line of dialogue with a laugh at the end and space it out to produce many short laughs in between as well.
6. Some of the best actors don’t audition well.
7. Beware the manic-depressive costume designer, the power-hungry set designer, the extravagant lighting designer, and the bored sound engineer. But always hire a smart Deputy Stage Manager.
There are many interesting revelations in this short book, all learned the hard way through Ayckbourn’s long and consistent career, and told in a humorous way, as if, having arrived at the pinnacle of his profession, nothing fazes him anymore, be that a play that shuts down after opening night or a star actress who collapses on stage because her girdle is too tight.

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Fire in the BloodFire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A story of secrets unravelling like the peeling of an onion, repeating in a bizarre co-incidence between generations in pastoral Burgundy in the first half of the twentieth century.

Nemirowsky gets out of her customary omniscient narrator role this time to inhabit the head of narrator Silvio, an aging landowner who has never worked his lands, but continues to sell off his inheritance parcel by parcel. He once roamed the world in search of adventure before landing back in a shack on his diminishing property. Is he running away from something or running towards it?

Silvio’s extended family: cousin Helene and Francois and their children live the idyllic loving life, owning their own farm and working it efficiently. But, something lurks in the shadows – passion that cannot be expressed in this community of paysan where “Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money, and doesn’t give a thought to the rest of the world.” Helene’s oldest daughter, Colette, aspires to the same happy life as her parents by marrying Jean, a staid, obliging man like her father. And yet the fire of love, that “fire in the blood,” rages in her, unquenchable by her dull husband. When Jean accidentally falls off a bridge one night and drowns, secrets emerge to wreck the idyll. Silvio is not surprised, for he has gone through this entire cycle during his youth.

In fact, this is a story about the loss of youth, as much as a story of secrets. Silvio reminisces on the “love of his life,” and the “fruit of that love” – embodied in people walking about his village, people he cannot name, talk about, or betray. He tries to assuage Francois that to err is human, and to forgive is divine,” but in a land where justice and honour are still hard coded, this is a tough sell. Helene is confronted with the pain of abandonment by someone from her past. And the next generation of Helene and her vixen friend Brigitte realize that marriage is an economic arrangement, separate from affairs of the heart; that the consummation of the latter leads to a diminishment, decline, and an ending. Just like Silvio discovered a generation earlier.

Silvio wisely counsels Colette on the differences between age and youth: “I won’t think of about anything. I’ll go to bed. I won’t sleep much. I’ll dream with my eyes open. As for you, well, you’ll go home, you’ll feel miserable, you’ll cry, you’ll get out Jean’s photograph and ask his forgiveness, you’ll regret the past, fear the future. I can’t say which of us will have a better night.”

Nemirovsky was entering her forties when she wrote this book; youth had passed her by. I suspect a tone of regret in her authorial voice, and yet she captures this region of Burgundy and its people, a place she spent her last years, with deep insight. How much more would she have regretted had she known that but a few years later she would pay the ultimate price at the hands of the Nazis?

I highly recommend this fast-paced novella – a great finale to Nemirovsky’s trio of works found in a suitcase 64 years after her death.

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Shane actively reads and reviews books by other authors. Below are his most recent reviews.