Tag Archives: Europe

The Elephant Keeper – Christopher Nicholson

The Elephant Keeper’s main human character is Tom Page, a stable boy turned elephant expert in 18th century England. Tom’s story starts with the arrival of two half-dead baby elephants on a boat returning from India. Tom grows up with the elephants on a village estate and becomes the only person able or willing to understand the mighty beasties.

As the Fates (in the form of increasingly nasty people) try to manipulate and abuse the elephants for various reasons, from ivory farms to 18th century rapemobiles, Tom ties his own fate ever tighter to the lady elephant, Jenny. Jenny is the true star of the novel and Nicholson writes her with quiet, noble humor. Of all the characters in the book, Jenny is the only one you would wish as a friend. She’s portrayed so lovingly it becomes totally believable that Tom would sacrifice human interaction to stay by her side.

Tom himself is a bit of a washout, Jenny really deserves better. Nicholson’s depiction of Tom is of a man not quite gullible enough to be a lovable naif but too dumb to be an appealing hero. Still, Tom does his best to keep Jenny safe, and considering the sad end most menagerie animals faced during the 1700s, and even today, the story would have been far shorter had the elephant been without a keeper.

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World Without End – Ken Follett

Much like In the Woods, World Without End also starts with some children of the British Isles having an intense experience in a forest. The similarities end there. World Without End is a much more externally based bit of story telling.

Ken Follett is a writer of historical fiction based in the middle ages. He’s most well known for The Pillars of the Earth, which tells of the building of a cathedral, from the  structural details to the social consequences.

World Without End is a sequel to Pillars, taking place two centuries after the building was completed and following the lives of the people in the town as they plot, scheme, build and romance against a backdrop of plague and warfare. The dialogue is awkward and the characters are cartoonish. One can easily see a casting agent perusing weaselly mustached cowards and meat faced bullies  to play the villains in the movie version. The heroine is so good as to be almost irritating and everyone in-between is a bit of a sheep.

There is a love story, (several in fact) and lots of medieval sex, with Follett taking the time to work a bath in to the story each time. Apparently he’s concerned that all his detail of moist clefts and engorged shafts might not be as appealing if they weren’t both freshly washed.

The building and fighting facts are good even if the sex scenes are not. I feel much more prepared should I find myself facing the challenge of rebuilding a stone bridge in a fast moving river so that the fleece fair can take place as planned. I also have a much more coherent plan to fight the French. Now what’s this painful swelling in my armpit?

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In the Woods – Tana French

Oh Lord, that’s a terrible decision! Don’t go up those stairs! Don’t trust her! Don’t go in the woods!

In the Woods isn’t a horror movie, but the main character repeatedly chooses the wrong path. If to the right are roses and unicorns, and to the left a reddish sky and the twisted remains of those who have gone before, Detective Rob Ryan always chooses the left. It gets painful, because you want to like him but he’s an idiot.

Tana French starts out with a gloriously creepy premise. Two decades before Rob ignores the unicorns, he was the sole survivor of SOMETHING MYSTERIOUS which happened in the suburban woods outside Dublin. The story is contemporary, and Ireland is free of snakes, fairies and Druids…or is it?

No, it seems to be a relatively unmagical place, full of sloppy cops, child molesters and corrupt politicians. As Rob and his endearing partner Cassie Maddox try to track down the molesters while avoiding the slop and corruption, tendrils of  Rob’s past come winding in, blurring the line between plot and coincidence, past and present.

If you enjoyed Warner Herzog’s version of The Bad Detective, you’ll enjoy a similar self destruction in In the Woods.

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Guest Review by Amy Suzanne Heneveld – Dans le Cage de la Jeunesse Perdue – Patrick Modiano

You know when you’ve come to accept your solitary life, when things like “days” and “underpants” don’t necessarily change at the same time? When cobwebs form sturdy shelves on which to set things like keys and toothbrushes? When you not only speak to your cat, but set a place at the table for him… ha ha, just kidding, you don’t set a place for the cat, you can’t even remember the last time you ate at a table. You eat slumped in the corner and you glare at the loveseat for reminding you of your loneliness through its two person seating capacity.  Well, shave your mustache pretty lady, we have company. Amy was originally going to do this review in French, but she took pity on me and translated it. Merci!

Patrick Modiano’s Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue reminds me of that painting you often see as a poster, of a neon lit café in which you can glimpse the portraits of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. I just found out that it is called the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, that Green Day has a song named that too, but in typical internet information fashion, I still don’t know who painted it.

The punk song connection is interesting though, since I think the book is a look backwards at the darker side of a youthful and revolutionary period in Parisian life, the late sixties and early seventies, though no date is ever mentioned. The title comes from a Guy Debord quote, and the descriptions of the city in the novel remind me of Situationist work on the city, how we walk in it, where we go, the places we stay, how those places change, how our paths in the city cross other people’s paths, for different reasons, or for no reason at all.

Modiano writes detective stories that aren’t detective stories. I like reading him because the feeling of a mystery is there, but the context isn’t clear. The reader feels suspicious and anxious and curious, but the point of view constantly changes and you are not really sure who is investigating what or why. But this is perhaps why I like it: you get to be the ultimate detective. This sad story of a lost young girl told around the streets which lead people to and from a café called the Condet in Paris’ Odéon neighborhood is told from four points of view, and though you understand the story at the end, having pieced together what you think is the main narrative from the bits Modiano gives you, you don’t fully understand why he’s told it. It’s like parts of a destroyed photograph pasted together, or a puzzle with key pieces missing; it keeps you wondering. While you read, you have to remember, but you forget, and the novel has an ephemeral quality, which aligns itself with dark, smoky bars and foggy Parisian streets.

This book is also about our inability to communicate with each other, be with each other, or help each other. How we often meet, get involved, yet totally miss each other. The characters are unable to experience and express their emotions, so their youth really is lost, lost in a kind of alcoholic or drug induced torpor, lost in who they are trying to be, unable to be themselves. Lost also in the past, in memory. Modiano often represents memory as the same grey matter of his stories, a place in which you wander around looking for something solid but meet only ghosts.

I’m not really youthful anymore, I’m less lost than I was, and maybe that’s why I liked wandering through this book. I am not sure how Modiano’s ambiance comes across in English, but one of his books at least has been translated. It’s been appropriately called Missing Person. Maybe I’ll go missing and translate this one, in the café of a lost generation.

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A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

The thing that I have always liked about Hemmingway’s narrators is that they come off as trustworthy, not as people, for they are all heartbreakers and gamblers and drunks, but in the relationship between reader and story-teller. I don’t feel the need to second guess the facts as they are presented. That, more than anything else has always made me love Hemmingway, despite the various politically incorrect failings so often associated with his work. He may be sexist, but he’s honest, and I can work with that.

A Farewell to Arms is about war, of course, and that it is terrible, as one would expect. The interesting thing about Hemmingway’s war novels as compared to say, the work of e.e. cummings or Wilfred Owen is that Hemmingway lets the reader in on the delights of war as well as the misery. His male characters bond and march and enjoy the landscape while drinking and joking and just generally being manly. Few other authors can write a man-friendship with such insight and authenticity. The conversations between Henry and his friend Rinaldi are just about perfect dialogue, summing up the whole novel in a few pages of discussion. Sex, love, war, religion and death, interspersed with insults, like a conversational Cliff’s Notes.

It might be possible to be so in tune with the male psyche and still understand women, but Hemmingway isn’t the right person to demonstrate such a talent. Catherine, the love interest, is needy and shallow. Her conversations with Henry are pale and pointless when compared to those he has with male characters. The story ends with the typical punishment of a female character, drawn as tragedy but really there as a release from commitment and the boredom of a happy ending.

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Group Review: Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

Elana Scherr:  Reread Wuthering Heights so I’m ready for moody discussion when you are.

Hannah Greely: Not finished yet, but soon.

Elana Scherr: I’ve been practicing my glowering and sneering.

Hannah Greely: I’m working on my slapping and pinching.

Justin Reade Sarno: Oh, Heathcliff.

Editor’s note:

Soooo, there have been some complaints about this review.  Apparently, some people think the brevity of the above discourse does not do justice to Ms. Bronte’s work. To these people I say fine, fine, I will besmirch Wuthering Heights with my opinion. You have only yourself to blame.

Wuthering Heights is monumentally disturbing. Disturbing in a way which towers above you and casts a shadow. I can’t figure out why Heathcliff is so often referred to as a hero. Even the term “anti-hero” doesn’t fully do justice to the cruelty of his character, and it’s not like he’s alone. Everyone in the story including the narrator is at best a coward and at worst…we shall not speak it. When a scene involving a small boy hanging puppies is comic relief, you know you’re in deep waters.

If you find yourself harboring resentment towards friends or collegues, or for that matter, if you favor one child noticeably over another, take warning. Hatred eats and and destroys hater and hatee alike.

I’m still a hater though. Just saying.

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Double Review by me and Anna-Claire Simpson: The Painted Bird – Jerzy Kosiński

Only two books have ever traumatized me to the point where I really wish I could unread them. One is It by Stephen King. The puppy in the freezer scene haunts me about once a month. The other is the The Painted Bird. The world is a fairly hideous place. I recognize that, but Kosinski’s world removes even the slightest atom of decency from the story, leaving the reader gasping for air in a brutal, vile death chamber. Really, this book is abusive.

Here’s what Anna thinks.

Another book I read a lifetime ago, but the images that pop out in my head from this nightmare of a novel cannot be scrubbed away by time or even the strongest mental detergents.
Like Sade’s “Justine,” or Voltaire’s “Candide,” but featuring a poor little gypsy/Jew boy lost and at the mercy of one backwoods Eastern European village after another during WWII. Oh my god, what horrors await this child as he is passed around: orphaned, expelled, sold, exploited. He is witness to some of the most disgusting sex stuff I’ve ever come across, and I’m a 30 year old woman living in the sexually desensitized 21st century!
As Kosiński’s anti-Semitic Europe psychologically rapes this fictional boy, I’m reminded of a line from Hannah and Her Sisters, when Max von Sydow’s character Frederick says about a TV program he saw on Auschwitz: ‘The reason they can never answer the question “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is “Why doesn’t it happen more often?”‘
I think Kosiński makes a valuable comparison between the cruelty of the uneducated, possibly inbred country bumpkins in his novel and the “civilized” and highly structured cruelty of the Holocaust’s masterminds. Not that there is no hope for humanity, but our (the grand “our”) capacity for hope greatly exceeds the frequency with which we acknowledge not only our history of ambivalence, but the how we perpetuate all manner of physical and psychological violence on humans we consider on the fringe of society.
Oy vey. Read this one with a REAL STRONG drink. An Irish Car Bomb???

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