Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Paris Architect - Charles Belfoure (2013)

I recently changed jobs.  My former boss's wife worked in the office with us and served as our personnel manager (on top of another franchise store she managed).  Near the end of my two-week notice period, she came to speak to me on random matters, likely in an attempt to ascertain why I felt leaving their firm for this new one was a good idea.  Of course, everything was extremely polite and friendly, and near the end, she mentioned that she was reading this book.  She made a number of comments on it, and expressed that it was based on a true story.  I felt that, given her enthusiasm, I should check it out and review it as an homage to them.  So first, let me say, my time spent at my previous firm was quite painful and uncomfortable, but in retrospect was not all that terrible.  I had to sink or swim on my own with little oversight.  Sometimes, oversight opens up criticisms.  I didn't need to contend with criticisms from my boss.  Criticisms were primarily made by opposing counsel, judges and clients, and few were leveled at my own performance.  Given the dozens of cases I handled in a little over 18 months, I only had regrets about the way I handled one or two.  This is not the place to write about my legal career, but as I consider this an homage, I felt a word was in order.

The Paris Architect is a work of historical fiction.  It is about an architect, Lucien Bernard, who is commissioned by a rich businessman, Auguste Manet, to design hidden rooms in which to hide Jewish people in the Vichy-era of 1940's Paris.  It is not based on a true story, but Belfoure admits that its basis in fact is transposed from an earlier historical era, when architects designed hidden rooms for priests that refused to join the Church of England [note I am completely wrong about this and it was in fact the reign of Elizabeth I and not Henry VIII and I am confusing Thomas More with more contemporary counterparts].  Overall, my feeling on the novel is that it tells a pretty good story, but is so far from a perfect novel that I can only half-heartedly recommend it.  There are a few scenes in it that are excellent, but a few great scenes do not make a perfect novel.

For example, Belfoure is at his best when he is describing the "dark embrace before death":

"Geiber slid under the stairway, letting it fall back into place with a heavy thud.  Sliding next to Miriam, he fastened two bolts that locked the stairs in place.  He was breathing so heavily he thought he would pass out.  His back was against Miriam's chest, and he could feel her heart pounding.  He moved the bag up by his chest, laid it on its side, and unlatched it.  Miriam placed her arm over her husband's body and tightly grasped his hand.  She hid her face against the back of his head.  For just a fraction of a second, it made him forget about the approaching danger.
Such a warm, comforting feeling, thought Geiber, like they were back in their big bed at home snuggling under the goose down duvet.  It was mostly airless and pitch black in the cramped space under the stairs, but the mattress they were lying on was quite comfortable, and because the stairs were almost two meters wide, the Geibers could fully stretch out their legs.  The underside of the steps was just centimeters from Geiber's face, so he could smell the wood.  They could do nothing now but wait, seconds passing like hours." (108)

He is at his worst with some of the dialogue and character development.  While I think Lucien's "arc" is one of the best things about the novel, almost every single other character is somewhat one-dimensional (however,  I did believe Herzog was interesting, as I was kept guessing whether or not he was really a "stereotypical good Nazi" character).  Lucien's wife, Celeste, shows signs of being one of the more interesting characters.  However, (I am not giving anything away by spoiling this) Lucien cheats on her, shamelessly, and then the reader discovers that she is also having an affair, and then she leaves him, and that's pretty much that.  Lucien does meet someone new, and the story has one of the happiest endings I have ever read.  It's a nice ending and perhaps my suspicious attitude towards that says something about the books I read.

Recently I heard my youngest sister mention that she had been reading The Zookeeper's Wife and then I randomly saw a preview on TV for the movie, and it appeared to have very similar subject matter to this book.  Seizing on this coincidence, I have asked my sister to review that book, and have given her about a month for a deadline, and we will see if it comes off or not.  But then there is even a zookeeper subplot in this book, briefly:

"He was a zookeeper and told his cousin that Professor Trenet could hide for a while in one of the unused cages in the section of animal houses that were completely shut up.  Despite the food shortages, the zoo was kept up during the Occupation, mainly for the benefit of the German soldiers.  The animals ate better than most Parisians.  Now Juliette was living in a concrete den behind the empty lions' cage at the zoo.  It was the enclosed space where the lions slept and ate when they weren't walking around in the cage in front of the public.  Even lions wants their privacy occasionally, thought Juliette.  Out of her savings, Juliette gave Dauphin five thousand francs, even though the man hadn't asked for payment.  If Juliette was found, the zookeeper would be arrested too, so she had insisted." (183)

Now at a brief glance that book does appear to be more based on a true story than this one, and that one came out in 2008.  Perhaps Belfoure merely intended the scene as a brief, knowing reference, or perhaps it is entirely coincidental, but I had to note it.

In any case, I do not know what else to say about this book.  One of the excellent scenes to which I referred earlier involves a hiding place behind a fireplace.  Anybody who has read this novel will immediately know what I am talking about and remember it as quite horrifying.  This sequence is expertly crafted, and to speak more generally about this story (and this has been a very general review and certainly not one of my finest, but the book is due back in about an hour and these past few weeks have been strange, and difficult to find time to write), it's not a bad story.  There are just a lot of cliches within it.  The pacing is pretty fast, and sometimes certain characters or situations get short shrift, but generally, it's a story about getting into bed with the enemy, while outsmarting them and trying to achieve a greater good.  I can't remember all of the books I have read about the Holocaust (obviously Night comes to mind, and a book called Briar Rose that I had to read in high school) but they are always difficult reads.  Night is obviously a classic, and I seem to remember finding more to appreciate about Briar Rose.  Nevertheless, Belfoure creates a few moments of real menace, and the reader should ultimately be satisfied after being first turned off by Lucien, then rooting for him later.  Even though I am glad there is a happy ending, I do not think it is very realistic.  This also reminded me of Inglorious Basterds--in particular, the opening scene. and some of the scenes in Paris.  I would recommend this book to architects that design secret rooms, and people that sometimes feel guilty about their benefactors.  I did not feel it was a complete waste of my time, but it begs the question whether writers should attempt to write about the Holocaust from a speculative position.  There are few survivors left, and those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and all that with the President we have elected and the alt-right (thankfully the sieg-heiling seems to have died down), but this is not the book to cite as a document relevant to our current socio-political atmosphere.  It's a good old fashioned suspense story, and if you don't expect too much out of it, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Interiew: Erica Wright

Not too long ago, I read Erica Wright's novel The Granite Moth.  Afterwards, I asked Erica if she would be willing to participate in an interview as a feature.  She agreed and I cut down the number of questions from 21 to 10.  Her answers are very thoughtful and provide much food for thought.  I am impressed with everything she has done up to this point, and excited to see what she might be able to do in the future.

(1) When did you begin writing The Granite Moth and when was it published?  How was the experience different from writing The Red Chameleon? 

I started The Granite Moth with a three-page, single-spaced outline about underground gambling rings in New York City. When I sat down to write the first chapter, in the summer of 2013, I realized that a float was going to explode and the book would be about a possible hate crime. My outline—of which I was inordinately proud—went out the window. The book was published in November 2015. The main difference between writing this one versus The Red Chameleon was how well I knew the characters. Even though they still surprised me from time to time, I knew how they would react to certain situations.  

(2) How did you go about getting the book published?  Did you send query letters to agents or the publishing houses directly?

For The Red Chameleon, I queried agents and was lucky enough to find Penn Whaling who helped me sale that book and then The Granite Moth to the lovely folks at Pegasus. 

(3) Who are your top five authors of all time?

Wow, tough question. My answer would probably be different next week, but I’ll go with my gut . I’m also sticking with prose instead of making my favorite poets compete: Charlotte Brontë, Salman Rushdie, Jane Austen, Joan Didion, Gabriel García Márquez. Marisha Pessl would probably be on the shortlist, as well, even though she’s only published two novels. 

Note that I asked some follow-up questions in an e-mail and Erica suggested The Moor's Last Sigh by Rushdie and Night Film by Pessl.

(4) Did you write exclusively for a living at the time you wrote The Granite Moth or did you need to work a separate job too?  Is this situation still the same?

No, I balance writing with teaching. I can’t imagine not teaching at all. I would miss my students!

(5) You mentioned that you are currently working on the third novel in this series.  How far along are you in the process?  What is your writing process for completing a manuscript?  More basically, what is your daily writing process?  Do you have a title, or is there anything else you can tell us about the new one?

Thanks for asking about the third book. For now, it’s called The Blue Kingfisher, and I recently finished a pretty major rewrite, cutting a few unnecessary characters and punching up the ending. I’m not a morning person, but I write early in the day, first thing if possible. That way, I prioritize the project. I currently lead a novel writing group through OneRoom, and that’s one of tricks I emphasize—finding and sticking with a routine.

(6) Prior to The Granite Moth, I had only known you to write poetry.  For some reason, this material seems like a far cry from your poems.  What drew you to write about Kat Stone and the world of private investigators?

I was teaching English at a criminology school, and my students were all pursuing what seemed like wild careers to me. They wanted to work for the CIA or FBI. They wanted to be detectives. So I started researching these worlds, so that I could better relate to them during our conferences. I found myself fascinated with crime fighting, undercover work in particular. I wondered what would happen to someone who took on a whole other identify for years. Kat came from that question. 

(7) Has anyone approached you about obtaining film rights to the Kat Stone anthology?

No, but I’ve been watching Jane the Virgin lately and marveling at the talent of Gina Rodriguez. She’d be an amazing Kat. 

(8) Now I knew you in New York, but you live in Houston now.  Have you lived anywhere else in between, and how do they all compare?  I only ask because I'm constantly comparing Chicago to New York, and have come to the conclusion that relatively lower rent is the main thing that keeps me from thinking I will go back.

I never imagined leaving New York City, but I’ve been enjoying my new location adventures. Since 2012, I’ve lived in Atlanta, Gainesville, Nashville, and now Houston. If anybody needs moving tips, I’m available. They all have their unique advantages. The Spanish moss in Gainesville is gorgeous. And Houston is this sprawling behemoth of infinite possibilities.  

(9) I feel like I should ask something specific about The Granite Moth, a question about the story itself.  How did you come up with the idea of building the narrative around an explosion of a parade float?  The narrative seems to go a lot of pretty crazy places, but why did you feel compelled to write about things like the Pink Parrot and the Zeus Society?  And what is gayboy bunny?

I knew that I wanted to start the book at the Halloween Parade, an ideal setting for mischief since it’s a nighttime event and masks are expected. As I mentioned before, the book was original going to be about underground gambling dens in New York City, but when I started writing about the float, I knew it was going to explode. In general, our true interests—what Frank Bidart might call our radical givens—rise to the surface if we let them, and I wanted to explore the possibility of a hate crime. That’s how the Zeus Society entered into the narrative. A “gayboy bunny” is a woman who has several gay friends. It has a more positive connotation than some of the other less endearing terms.

(10) Is Magrelli a character in The Red Chameleon?  Do you think a person's appreciation for The Granite Moth would be enhanced by reading The Red Chameleon?  Do you regard the books as your children, and do you say you are equally proud, and do you have a secret favorite?

With a healthy amount of help from my editor, I tried to make sure that The Granite Moth works as its own book. Kat will be shaking the trauma of her time undercover for awhile, and Magrelli symbolizes that past. He’s a character in The Red Chameleon the same way—he haunts her. I don’t think of the books as children, though I am proud of them. I want each novel I write to be a little bit better than the previous one.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Happy 9th Birthday

As we come to the close of another year, let us attempt to reflect upon our accomplishments.  This time on our annual round-up, we bemoan that, for the third year in a row, our output is weak.  21 posts the last couple years, and it looks like 20 this year.  Honestly though, I don't care anymore.

I'm no longer interested in trying to grow this blog, but I have been reinvigorated with a desire to write.  This is due to my terrible livelihood.  A couple days ago, a pure wave of depression hit me as I considered my fate.  I struggle against this fate, yet cannot seem to overcome it, or see any way out of it.  In short, things will ever be as they have always been.  I am never going anywhere.

Now I could spend the time that I would be writing on other endeavors to try to boost my income, but even more sad is that I rarely write, and while I just stated that I have been "reinvigorated," I rarely find myself willing to sit down for 30 or 45 minutes and just type on a blank screen.  There are too many other distractions in this world now.  And the real writers should consider this an advantage--technology has provided so many distractions that less writers will actually do the work and be in competition for xxxxx number of books that get published each year.  (Perhaps this has nothing to do with reality, but the thought has crossed my mind a few times over the past couple of years, since I have had a smart phone.)

No more jibberish.  Let's get to the lists.

First of all, the top 5 most popular posts:

(2) Bossypants - Tina Fey
(1) Identical - Scott Turow 

First of all, it is shocking how popular the Identical review was--perhaps because I advertised it as a negative one, and perhaps because it may have gotten a tiny bit of traction on Twitter.  Second, the 6 other posts in the top 5 were all extremely close--between 58 and 63 views--which is even lower than last year, but like I said, I don't really care anymore.  

More important than quantity is quality, and here are the 5 posts of which I am most proud:

(1) The Goldfinch 

This is a classic FH review, in the style of many older posts.  It's quite long, and it's probably my favorite book reviewed in the past year.  The further I get away from it, the more fondly I recall it.

(2) Chicago Cubs Report Card

Of course, 2016 was a perfectly terrible year, one of the worst years in recent memory.  However, the Cubs won, so all was not lost.  

(3) Then We Came to the End

One of the more special books read in the past year, along with The Goldfinch.  One of the more entertaining reads in recent years, and I'm not sure my review itself was that entertaining, but still recommend this book to most. It casts a wide net and should appeal to a large number of readers

This is not a perfect post by any stretch, but it's a big book, and I think it was a fairly novel idea to keep track of the One Book, One Chicago project.  So I will try to keep doing that.  I think I hit on most of the major ideas from this book.  I don't think I'd read it again, but I definitely want to check out some of the other works that it references.

Not one of the best reads of the past year, but I felt this was a fairly well-written review.  I, along with everyone else, love the Smiths, and have a soft spot for Morrissey, even with how he has become increasingly strident.  There are incredibly beautiful moments in the book, and I am glad I captured them (that ending is so special to me, as I live very close to the Congress--indeed I moved even closer a couple months after the review was posted).  If you haven't read Autobiography but only have a vague interest in doing so, the review should appropriately inform you whether it's worth it to devote the 10-20 hours it should take to read.  That is the platonic ideal of a review for me and I will continue to aim to do that here.

Finally, THANK YOU ALL for reading again.  Few things in life give me greater pleasure than interacting with others that want to build and maintain a solid library of their own favorite books.  If you're reading this, you're the best!