Monday, February 25, 2013

*The Book About Blanche and Marie, by Per Olov Enquist

The Overlook Press, 2006
originally published as Boken om Blanche och Marie, 2004
translated by Tiina Nunnally

"I think if we put all of our loves together, I mean my loves and Marie's, then an image of life itself would emerge, in the spaces in between."

The Marie in this book, a blend of historical fact and outright fiction, is Marie Skłodowska Curie, a scientist who, with her husband Pierre, discovered the elements polonium and radium, and  twice won the Nobel Prize.  Blanche refers to Blanche Wittman, who came to be Marie's assistant, after having  spent a number of years in Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris  for her "hysteria," in the care of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot.  Blanche's "cure" was based on the rather odd belief at the time in stimulating/manipulating  women's ovaries and other lady parts.  Blanche was Charcot's favorite "performer," and the cover of this novel is a piece of a famous painting by André Brouillet that shows Blanche during one of her public "treatments." 

As the novel opens, Blanche, described as a "sort of torso, though with a head,"  having undergone several amputations due to her work with radioactivity, is dead, having "died happy."  She noted this fact in one of her three notebooks, colored black, red and yellow, collectively realized as the Book of Questions.  The main question Blanche seeks to understand in her writings is that of the nature of love -- her writings were meant to be a solace to "poor Marie," who, some time after losing her husband Pierre in an accident, started up an affair with Paul Langevin, a scientist-friend of the Curies. He was five years younger and married; eventually the truth came out and a huge scandal ensued that not only ruined her reputation but almost cost her the second Nobel.  Blanche notes that her own experiences will provide Marie with "the courage to face life," and will also save her from "the inner frostbite and scientific rigor that were about to kill her and her sanity."  As the author notes regarding Blanche,
"In the Book of Questions she wants to tell her story, to summarize and compare her experiences, partially from the hysteria experiments at Salpêtrière Hospital, partially from the physical chemistry ones under the guidance of Madame Curie, in order to create in this manner a healing portrait of the nature of love, which she compared to the nature of radium radiation and hysteria."
 Blanche has lost most of two legs and an arm, and her Book of Questions is written with the remaining hand that also helps her move about in the wooden box in which she spends most of her remaining days.  The two women are both damaged and have suffered for science and for their passions.  Inside the Book of Questions is Blanche's reflections on her past, including her time at  Salpêtrière and her examination of her somewhat strange relationship with Charcot;  her contemplation of Marie's problematic romance is also part of  her investigation.  As it turns out, the question cannot be answered, since according to Blanche, "love is not something a person can understand;"  it is ultimately the investigation itself that becomes all encompassing and in a sense, life sustaining for Blanche up until the moment of her death. 

But wait -- there's more. While the title of this book might lead you to believe that what you're about to read is  a novel of historical fiction about two women, one famous, one virtually unknown,  as  you delve more deeply you come across names and events that make you realize that in and around the stories of Blanche and Marie is a cleverly-designed work about the birth of the modern world. The new century makes its entry “with blood, with confusion, with reason, ... in an attempt to step into the dark future of humanity, " only to lose its "self assurance, its optimism about progress, its arrogance..." in 1914 with the advent of World War I.  As the author explores the timeless human forces of  love and death, healing and destroying, reason and irrationality, the little blue light of radium looms in the background as a symbol.  Marie's search for understanding the power behind this element might well be viewed as an allegory of her quest to try to understand the power behind love --  both of which contain the forces of destruction and curing alike -- a sort of double-edged sword, if you will. 

 I know I've way oversimplified things, and I didn't mention several things I've marked in my notes: the continuous imagery of amputation -- of things, of memories, of people;   the relationship of science to art;   the author's story of the two-headed Pasqual Pinon whose other head was named Maria and its relevance to the overall story,  and most especially the question of why people are continually drawn to forces that have the power to maim or kill. Frankly, this book could be an entire semester's worth of study on its own so there's no real way to encapsulate everything I've read here.

 From a casual reader's perspective, The Book About Blanche and Marie is  rather difficult reading at times; but in spite of having to go back slowly through several sections, I actually ended up liking this novel.  It is also my introduction to this author's work, and it  took some time to get used to his style where he tends to step into his work with his own personal interjections about his characters, or with seemingly  strange observations that feel out of place at first, but which come to make sense later.  The repetition that exists in this novel has a purpose but until I got the hang of reading it, I'll admit I was a bit confused. If  you need to have a cut-and-dried sort of historical fiction that goes from point A to point B, you will not find it here. It's what I call a "quirky" sort of read, and I spent a lot more time on it than I had intended.  While a number of people absolutely loved this book, for me it was a beyond-good, not-quite-great novel.

fiction from Sweden

Friday, February 15, 2013

*Going After Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien

Broadway Books, 1999
originally published 1978
336 pp

"What part was fact and what part was the extension of fact?  And how were facts separated from  possibilities?  What had really happened and what merely might have happened?  How did it end?"

Normally a book of 336 pages is nothing daunting  and usually about 2-3 days of reading time.  I spent well over one week on  Going After Cacciato, filled one entire spiral-bound notebook with notes and questions and went through almost an entire package of little sticky tabs for marking things I wanted to come back to later.  Because I felt that this is a book that I genuinely wanted (and still want) to understand,  I got up in the wee hours of the a.m. to read before anyone was up and came downstairs to interrupt me. I bought books about Tim O'Brien & books about approaching Vietnam War literature, I skimmed then downloaded copious amounts of scholarly articles about Cacciato, all to come back to later, and well, you get the drift here.  There is so much going on here that it deserves much more time and intense scrutiny than I've given it, and if that doesn't recommend it, I don't know what will. 

Considering my fascination and admiration for this novel, this book is best experienced by the reader, so what I'm going to say here is going to be relatively brief.  The novel opens with a haunting paragraph, a list of the deaths of people who were in  main character Paul Berlin's squad:
"It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead."
 Then in October, Cacciato, another platoon member, "left the war," ... "Split, departed." He had told Paul Berlin that he would be going off to Paris -- 8,600 miles, walking all the way. Cacciato's route was to take him
"up through Laos, then into Burma, and then some other country...and then India and Iran and Turkey, and then Greece, and the rest is easy."
The decision is made by the lieutenant that the squad will go after Cacciato -- and so it begins. Incredible premise for a novel about the Vietnam War, isn't it? As the squad makes its way on the 8,600-mile trek, at some point you begin to realize that things that happen on the way to Paris link to the squad's real war experiences in Vietnam, the second narrative strand in this book, which eventually tells the stories of how the ten men listed at the beginning died.  In the third thread, Paul Berlin reflects on the war and his place in it over one night on watch in an observation post along the South China Sea, and it is also there that he begins to work out the possibilities of "What happened and what might have happened," to Cacciato and by extension, to himself and the squad chasing after the AWOL soldier. Time moves slowly in the observation post, giving Paul Berlin space to realize that the "critical point" is that "It could truly be done."  Cacciato's flight also gives Paul Berlin time to reflect on the question of fear,  the soldier's constant companion, and courage:
"The issue, of course, was courage. How to behave. Whether to flee or fight or seek an accommodation. The issue was not fearlessness. The issue was how to act wisely in spite of fear. Spiting the deep-running biles: That was true courage. He believed this. And he believed the obvious corollary: The greater a man's fear, the greater his potential courage."

O'Brien has created a story that blurs the lines between reality and imagination, fantasy and fact, leaving it to the reader to try to sort it all out somehow.   Reality and facts are definitely present in this story, as are, believe it or not scenes of restlessness and tedium in the midst of war, but all are related in a disjointed, jarring sort of way that likely reflects the often surreal Vietnam war experiences of those who were there and how they processed internally what they saw and how they remembered things later.  On the flip side, there are several instances in this book that not only verge on but fall smack into the territory of the surreal.

As noted above, this is a novel that needs to be experienced individually -- while a number of readers were  totally turned off by the verge into the fantastical, for me it's probably one of the most powerful, well-written  books I've ever read.  Any book that wants to make me get into the head of the guy who wrote it or that keeps me thinking about it long after the last page is turned is more than worthy.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

departure: the ultimate perfect valentine's day card

This morning my husband handed me a valentine's day card that pleasantly surprised me.  I'm not usually a big card person, but this one was absolutely perfect.  In all of the years we've been together, he's never been so spot on.  Check it out:

Happy valentine's day to my book-loving friends!



Monday, February 4, 2013

*Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris, by Sarah Maza

University of California Press, 2011
336 pp

Normally, I post nonfiction reads on a separate page (and I have with this one as well) but since this one ties into my reading theme this month, I'm posting a link to the discussion of this book here.   With the caveat that it's primarily geared to an academic audience, there is much to  like about this book, and it's an interesting look at sociocultural factors at work in Paris during the interwar period. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

February: naming names

I was shelving some books a while back and noticed that I have quite a few titles with people's names in them, and I thought it might be interesting to highlight some of these this month.  A few possibles  (along with a few others not in this category) are

Daisy Miller, by Henry James
Sutton, by J.R. Moehringer
Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Going After Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien
Professor Andersen's Night, by Dag Solstad
Leela's Book, by Alice Albinia

and whatever else just might strike my fancy at any given moment.  I have a few ARCs that I'll add to the mix as well. 

Taking care of old business:  I never heard back from the anonymous person who claimed all of January's giveaway books, so if anyone wants them, let me know.  Remember -- it's not a contest, first come, first served; if you want any or all of these books, be the first to leave a comment with the title(s) you want. I pay all postage costs -- there's no catch except that you have to live in the US.  You can choose, one, some or all -- but there must be some way to contact you in your comment. 

books on offer:

1. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
2.  The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman
3.  The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman
4.  The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler
5.  The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam
6. Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan