The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

One of the many reasons for reading literature in translation is the window it can provide onto experiences other than our own, sometimes experiences we never knew existed.  The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez provides a window on life among German nationals living in Columbia during the second world war.  Because of diplomatic pressure from the United States, the government of Columbia published a list of German nationals deemed security risks.  Many of these men were arrested and confined for the duration of the war.  After their release, they were not allowed to work in certain areas for several years.  Many lost their livelihoods, their homes, the families; some lost their lives.

In the chaos of the early days of the war, many German nationals were added to the list whether or not they were fascists, supporters of fascists, even Jewish.  In the hotel that served as a prison, it was not uncommon to find Jewish men and Nazi party members sitting poolside waiting for a friend or family member to arrange their freedom.

This event provides the background for Mr. Gabriel Vasquez’s look at the nature of informing and its consequences.  Mr. Gabriel Vasquez is not really interested in the ins and outs of these arrests but in those who informed and what happened to them.  The novel’s narrator, Gabriel Santoro, is a Columbian author of German descent.  His own father was not imprisoned during the second world war but many of his peers were.  After Gabriel Santoro published a book based on interviews with a family friend about her family’s experience as German Jews living in Columbia during the war, his father refuses to speak with him for many years.  His father sees this act as a betrayal, a revelation of family secrets best kept quiet.  Why bring up the past?  No one is interested anymore.

In a sense the younger Santoro has informed against his father, though he does not know it yet.  Years later,  the two reconcile after the father suffers a near fatal heart attack only to die six months later in an automobile accident.  After his father’s death, Gabriel finds out that he once informed against an innocent family friend.  While Gabriel’s father survived the war unarrested, the family friend was unable to find a way off of the government’s list and consequently lost everything.  In the end, he killed himself.

While there are several thriller like elements in The Informers, what makes it an interesting novel is this look at the nature of informing and its consequences.   Gabriel’s father informs on a friend to escape prison.  Gabriel informs on a friend to publish a book.  Later, a television crew will inform on them both for a sensational story.  All three acts have complicated consequences, some generational.  In the end, the reader must ask himself just how much should have been kept quiet.  Are we really better off knowing?

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011.  Before re-reading this review today, I had no memory of this book.  That’s one powerful thing I’ve come to understand while moving all my old reviews over to this newer site, just how fragile our memory of what we read is.  Somethings vanish from our minds moments after closing the book; some very good books go this way.  But the benefit of having a blog, and rereading it, is that most of those books come back to you once your re-read a well written review.  This review is pretty well written, I think.  Not the best, but decent.  It certainly does the job in-so-far that I kind of want to read this book now.  

Posted in Book Review, Espionage, Fiction, Noir, South American Literature, Thriller, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday Salon: Catching up with This Week’s Reading and Lionel Shriver Wears a Funny Hat.

screenshot-2016-09-24-at-6-53-02-amThis post is more of a ramble than a rant, so don’t worry.

It’s been a busy week, getting ready for the 20th anniversary party C.J. and I threw yesterday, so there have not been many posts here lately.  I’m hoping to have a good amount of down time today, enough to relax and get a bunch of robo-posts ready for the week.

Some I’m going to do one of those multi-book posts today right off the bat.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading with my students this year which I’d fallen away from for some reason.  Between this week and last I finished three books.

img_1356The first was Crystal Allen’s touching comic novel about a young bowler’s rivalry with his basketball star older brother How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy.   This is the current favorite of one sixth grade teacher at my school.  I’ve a connection to it in that the author’s agent was once my student teacher.  She was a great teacher, too.  Sorry we lost her to publishing, but it’s certainly a been a boon for children’s books.

Next, Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt who wrote one of my favorite YA books in recent years The Wednesday Wars.  Orbiting Jupiter is a good book, I’ve no qualms about it’s quality, it’s characterization or anything really, except the ending.  I liked that the story presents a positive tale of foster parents.  I’ve several friends who are foster parents. The things they have done with the children they have known, the sacrifices they have made for their foster children make them heroes of the highest order in my mind.  I’m sick to death of “bad foster parents” being used as shorthand to explain why a img_1357character is sad and lost in life.  Rant aside, Orbiting Jupiter has a tragic ending that I found gratuitous.  A happy ending would have worked just as well.  So, I won’t be passing this one along to the boy in my class who just got a terrific new foster dad after all.

Lastly, I read Chew on This, Eric Schlosser’s kid version of his best-selling Fast Food Nation.  Though I suspect his co-author Charles Wilson did most of the work for this version.  Chew on This was selected to be our first school-wide book, probably in January if the school board approves.  At our department meeting Wednesday, one of the teachers expressed some reservations about the book, so I went home and read the whole thing.  I think it’s fine, but we’ll see what happens.  I did read Fast Food Nation back when it first came out; even stayed away from fast food for several months afterwards.  Last month by blood test came back pre-diabetic so no more fast food for me, probably forever.  Except for an occasional trip to In-and-Out.  What’s the point of living in California if you never ever go to In-and-Out.  img_1358

Chew on This will probably have a lot of appeal to our middle schoolers.  It’s non-fiction which the Common Core loves.  Each chapter focuses on one topic that will interest the kids–french fries, sodas, meat production, obesity, the history of MacDonald’s.  We’re hoping the math and the science departments will take a chapter or two. There’s plenty in it that applies to P.E. as well. The teachers new to our school who have used it before say it was a big hit.  There are some graphic sections about meat processing and a few other issues, but I did not see any red-flags.  We’ll see what happens.

I did read another round of short stories this week.  Patrick Ryan’s new collection The Dream Life of Astronauts has been struggling through my little tournament.  I’m a big fan of Mr. Ryan’s work, since I stumbled upon his first collection Send Me several years ago.  He also writes wonderful YA novels under the name P.E. Ryan.  Mr. Ryan did an interview, one of my favorites, with me back in the day when we all did author interviews as a regular thing.  But I had not fallen in love with his current anthology until this round.  In his story “Miss America”  the narrator gives us this paragraph about her step-father who is about to leave her mother after many years together:

The thing is, I guess I do love Roger.  My real dad died when I was a baby (he had a rare cancer, my mother told me, but she doesn’t like to talk about it) My first concrete memory of my mother is of her pitching a fit–I mean, screaming her head off–in the checkout line of a grocery store because the cashier wouldn’t take her coupons. She was always pitching fits when I was little. Then Roger came along when I was seven, and they got married, and she calmed down some. We moved into a new house, I got a bigger room, and we started buying real trees at Christmas. So I love him for that. But I don’t miss him, not really.  Maybe that makes me a cold person, or emotionally wounded, whatever a psychiatrist would call it. I don’t feel wounded, or like I need to choose sides. Roger was never mean to me, never once yelled at me, never even scolded me that I can remember; he was always just there: calm and reserved and focused on some inner thought, like the most patient man in the world waiting for an elevator that would take him to some other floor–and then the elevator arrived, and he got on.

This is Mr. Ryan at his best.  He gets at the heart of three characters giving us a clear picture of how they relate to each other and just how complicated what looks at first like a simple relationship really is.  I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

But this means the very good stories in The Pinch will go back on the TBR shelf for now.  I’ve enjoyed this literary journal from the students at The University of Memphis.  They’ve won me over to college literary journals in general.  I’ll be looking for more.

Finally, hasn’t Lionel Shriver been fun this week? As RuPaul would say, “Girlfriend, Please!” I posted links to her speech on the perils of “cultural appropriation” and to the response to it last week, scroll down to find them, but I had no idea she was wearing a sombrero while she spoke.  After fifteen seasons of Project Runway and eight seasons of Drag Race, I like to think I would have walked out on her to protest her bad taste in fashion.

While I do love a literary kerfuffle, at this point I think she should exit the stage as gracefully as she can.  Go write another book, that’s what you do best.  We Need to Talk about Kevin  proved this. You can read her latest comments in the New York Times which struck me as mostly wrong.  There’s also another response in the Washington Post from the book critic who started all this by not liking Ms. Shriver’s new book dystopian novel The Mandibles which sounds awful.   I try not to comment on books I have not read, but I also try not to read “literary authors” who dabble in science fiction and I’m on a break from dystopias for the next couple of weeks.  I think Jia Tolentino writing in the New Yorker does a very good job with this topic and with Ms. Shirver.

A common lesson in every fight about cultural appropriation is that no one appears to be changing anyone else’s mind. Shriver wanted her detractors to be less touchy, and instead she reinforced their position. The Brisbane Writers Festival’s response to Shriver will, in turn, underline her conviction that free expression is being stifled. On this topic, as on most, audiences self-sort after every flare-up; opposition convinces us, over and over, that we are right.

Opposition convinces us, over and over, that we are right.  Unfortunately, the longer I live the more this seems to be true.  Still, from a reader’s perspective, a good literary battle is a good thing to have once in a while.  I still miss Gore Vidal and Truman Capote who two champions.

But I do hope we can all agree to stop it with the funny hats.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fiction, Non-fiction, Novel, Ramble, Rants, Science Fiction, Short Story, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Mr. Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo

Was it okay for Bernadine Evaristo to write this book?

I ask this question in light of the ongoing controversy over cultural appropriation, specifically who has the right to write about whom.

If you haven’t been following this issue lately you might want to check out Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s essay explaining why she walked out on Ms. Shriver’s speech.  Both do a good job explaining their position–reading them will give you a pretty good idea where folks on both sides of the issue are coming from.

I can see validity in both points of view, but I tend to come down on the side of more art.  Make more art.  If you don’t like the art other people are making, make your own.  I do agree that folks who are writing about characters outside their own experience should do their research, should read what they can, talk to people, visit places, experience what they can experience.  But I also suspect that writers who shy away from characters or stories because they are outside their immediate experience are probably mediocre writers.  If a writer has a story to tell, they should tell it. Tell it as well as they can. Even if it includes a culture not your own.

Which brings me to Berandine Evaristo’s wonderful novel Mr. Loverman.  Mr. Loverman is the story of Barrington Jedidiah Walker, a 74-year-old man from Antigua who has lived in London most of his adult life.  Barry became a very successful man–he currently owns many London properties which he bought back in the day at rock-bottom prices.  He has two adult daughters, one whom he spoils and one who hates him nearly as much as his wife does.   Barry spends as much time as he can with his childhood friend Morris.  Barry’s wife suspects that he has been seeing a series of women all through their marriage, that he cheats on her almost daily with these women and that he has no love at all for her.  The truth is that he has loved only Morris since they two were boys back in Antigua.

Barry and Morris have had to hide their love all their lives because to be a gay man in Antigua is so terrible an offense it is life-threatening.  Should their families find out, chances are they would all turn their backs on them as would their communities.  This is why they have had to live a double life for nearly 60 years.

Barry is the narrator of Mr. Loverman. He’s a great narrator. I would love to join him for a pint or two sometime.  He’s charming, he’s funny, he’s got a great wit and a great way of looking at the world.  An autodidact he loves showing off his knowledge and his vocabulary but always manages to do it in a way that charms.  He won me over in a matter of pages.  True, he is more than a bit mean to his wife, whom he really should never have married in the first place.  And he may not be the best of fathers.

But here’s the thing.  Ms. Evaristo is not a 74-year-old closeted gay man.  She may or may not be from Antigua, I don’t know.  The biography on the back flap says she lives in London and writes about the African Diaspora.  She may or may not be a lesbian: I don’t know.  From her picture on the back flap, if we can trust that is really her, I know that she is far from 74-years-old.  Old age, like death, is another country.  But how much of this story has to be “hers” before she can tell it?

Opinions will vary.

She’s done a great job, as far as I’m concerned, but I share only two forms of identity with Ms. Evaristo’s narrator, so I’m not the person most capable of judging.  I haven’t even spent enough time in London to know if she gets the setting right, butI found all the characters in Mr. Loverman to be realistically portrayed.  I believed them all.  I liked most of them, too.  Did Ms. Evaristo research this book? did she run it by various readers to check her portrayals for accuracy? for sensitivity?  I do not know.

What I do know is that Mr. Loverman is a terrific novel.  I’m glad Ms. Evaristo wrote it; and I’m glad I read it.

More please.

Posted in Book Review, English Literature, Fiction, LGBT, Marriage Plot, Novel, Rants | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Twitter says today is Talk Like a Pirate Day.  I thought this tweet was the best one so far.

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Tournament of Short Stories: Kelly Link vs. Raymond Carver

I hope Kelly Link won’t be mad at me.

Kelly Link has had several stories featured on my favorite short story podcast, Podcastle.  If you’re a fan of fantasy/science fiction or just a fan of good, entertaining stories, you should be subscribing to Podcastle.  I loved her featured zombie stories “The Hortlak” and “Some Zombie Contingencies Plans” neither of which is really about zombies.

So when I saw her new collection down at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, I picked it up.  So, far…..I’ve like some more than others.

Maybe having a narrator did the trick with the Podcastle stories.  Though they were also about people in their late teens/early twenties having issues with life people that age have, neither one bothered me.  That’s not really right.  I wasn’t bothered by the overall early life malaise suffered by the characters in either “Origin Story” or “Valley of the Girls” I just never quite cared about it like I did with the Podcastle stories.

I don’t mean to dismiss late teen angst as an issue, I suffered from plenty of it back in the day and I have the journals to prove it.  I just don’t really have to suffer it anymore.  And I didn’t find it all that entertaining this time around.  The fantastic elements in both stories were original, kind of fun, but not enough to make the stories work for me.  Strange to note that the two stories with zombies were much more grounded in reality; they didn’t even have that many zombies in them.

So the victory this time around is going to go to Mr. Carver.  Both “Vitamins”  and “Careful” which I read for this round, were terrific.  So far Mr. Carver can do no wrong.  “Vitamins” may be problematic for some readers due to racial and sexual issues portrayed accurately for the setting but in ways that are not accepted today.  Still, Mr. Carver has a way of getting under his characters skin, and under this readers skin, that is seldom matched.

Both stories featured bad husbands this time.  In “Vitamins” a man cheats on his wife, the only time he will do so, with one of her employees.  Both are kind of horrified at what they are doing, but they do it anyway.  Mr. Carver makes this behavior not just believable but understandable.  We don’t approve of what they are doing, but we can see how we might be at least tempted to do the same in their shoes.  

In “Careful” a man tries to convince his wife that he has given up drinking enough for her to come back to him. He has it under control he says; just champagne.

I’ve been reading a lot about alcoholism lately: Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, The Lost Weekend. All more or less contemporary, all dealing with drinking and its effect on drinkers and those around them.  While Mr. Carver’s stories have been the most understated, not grand three-day drunks or operatic drinking stories here, they strike me as probably the most common stories, the ones most likely to happen to more people.

Part of how his characters get under your skin, I guess.

So Raymond Carver is my current short story hero, the one I’m putting money on to go the distance and win the tournament.

 

 

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, California, Classic, Fantasy, Fiction, Short Story | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments