The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

I loved this book.

So much so that I expect to be reading more books by Russell Banks.  I think he has a new one out.

I don’t know how nor why Russell Banks has avoided me up till now. I think there may have been some negative association with best seller status that kept me away.  For awhile, this was the book everyone was reading, so I avoided it.  Alright, I’ll admit it, that’s just plain snobbery on my part.  But somehow I stumbled across a used copy on my recent trip to Chicago, one at a very low price I imagine, and finally gave him a go.

I’m pleased to say The Sweet Hereafter is terrific.

The story concerns the members of a small town in upstate New York–very upstate–nearly in Canada–who are all dealing with the aftermath of a terrible accident.  One winter day, the local school bus crashed off the road into an old quarry pond leaving 14 of the young passengers drowned.  The families and the survivors are the subject of the story rather than the accident itself.  While we do get conflicting views of the how the crash happened and who is to blame, that’s really a McGuffin, a device to lead the reader into the main subject of the story which is how a community can begin to deal with catastrophic loss and the ways loss can force things into the light that have been kept hidden for years.

This sounds like a tremendously heavy book, but The Sweet Hereafter was not the colossal downer you might be expecting. Nor was there some sort of trite piece of wisdom gained nor a triumph of the spirit.  Well, maybe a little triumph of the spirit towards the very end.

One thing that makes the book work so well is that each of the five sections is told by one of four narrators: the bus driver who opens and closes the book; a lawyer who arrives soon after the accident intending to file a class action lawsuit; a young teenage girl who survived the accident but ended up paralyzed from it; and the widowed father of two girls who did not survive the crash.

The story becomes a kind of Roshamon, where no one is really free of outside motivations, no one is truly pure.  Everyone has reasons why they do what they do which are not quite trying to do the right thing.

That may not be fair either.  The lawyer really is a good lawyer.  He wants to sue but not simply to make money for himself, though he surely will and he certainly must.  Everyone has to make a living. But this lawyer really wants to make sure whoever caused the accident, be they a negligent school district or an under-funded highway system, cannot do further harm.  I think he’s good, overall.

The bus driver really does want to do what is best for the community, though I’m not sure what she does is really the best thing.  Her motivations are pure at least.  The grieving father fights against the lawsuit which I think was a mistake but his motivations are basically good.  The teenage girl, though, I’m not so sure about her.

What she does is what shocked me.

There’s no traditional suspense in The Sweet Hereafter. To get that I think Mr. Banks would have had to give us more courtroom drama or maybe a play-by-play of the accident as it happened instead of the weeks later account we get.  But the book is suspenseful.  I wanted to know how things would turn out on a plot level and on a character lever.  I cared about these four narrators and I wanted to find out what would happen story wise.

The twist, when it came, made sense, felt natural, was clearly what those involved would have done, but it struck me viserally, like a bolt from the blue.  As much as any much more violent or shocking events would have.

And, I really admired the writing. Mr. Banks creates memorable characters, different from each other but each fully formed people.  Any one of the four would have been strong enough to carry the entire book on their own.  Here’s Delores Driscoll, the bus driver, at the end of the book.  Don’t worry this passage doesn’t spoil the plot at all.

Over to my left, the East Branch of the Ausable ran through the darkness, and a dark spruce woods hove up on my right.  At the edge of the road, low and close to the ground, first on one side, and then on the other, I began to see the eyes of animals suddenly flash and glitter as I passed along the way, reflecting my headlights back at me and then as quickly flaring out.  For a brief second, though, their eyes were pure white and flat, like dry, coldly glowing disks, and it was as if the animals had all come to the edge of the forest, and there by the side of the road they had waited and watched for me, until I had passed them by and the safe familiar darkness had returned.

That works so well for Delores, a bus drive who may have swerved to avoid a dog.  It’s also a solid metaphor for the entire book.  This short volume provides a brief flash of light on its characters, enough to force them to stare back wide-eyed and still, maybe a little afraid of what the light may reveal or bring.  Once the light passes they are left in a darkness they have long found safe and familiar.  If we don’t like what the light reveals, the darkness is preferable.

That’s what The Sweet Hereafter is really about, I suppose. The way a tragedy can force people to face things they have long kept hidden about themselves and about each other.

I’m keeping this one.  It’s worth a reread.

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Sunday Salon: There’s Sherlock Holmes in Them Thar’ Hills!

imageBefore school started this week, I finished my little tower of book boxes.  I found this idea down in L.A. at Skylight Books where there is a wall of boxes carved to look like a tree with all sorts of book related words and images around it. Skylight has a big skylight in the center of the store with a real tree growing underneath it.

The adults who have seen it all love it, but none of the students have mentioned it yet. Oh, well.

Before school started, C.J. and I took an overnight trip up to Sonora which is a small town in California’s gold country foothills.  It’s a very cute town, on the large side for a Gold Rush town these days. We had been considering it as a retirement destination, but at this point Grass Valley, another gold country town, has won the competition.

Still, we had a very good time up in Sonora, visited Columbia State Park which is a largely preserved Gold Rush era town donated to the State of California by the woman who owned it all last.  That’s happened quite a few times in the American West–the last resident/owner, usually a woman, donates the whole place, lock stock and barrel, to the state on the condition that it be made into a park.  If you’re ever touring the gold country, Columbia is a must see.

imageWe were in Sonora for their art walk, which was fun.  We bought two small paintings from the same artist, Sherie Drake, who was not really expecting to sell these two.  We sort of found them while nosing around her studio space and asked if they were for sale.

We liked the artwork we saw in Sonora, but it’s not exactly edgy.  It all tends towards the plein air school of pretty pictures, which is fine, we both like plein air paintings.  But I thought this little piece, a portrait largely painted out, was the strongest thing we saw. It was certainly the edgiest painting in Sonora as of last Saturday night.

imageWe also bought a little picture of a cat that C.J. liked.

The main attraction this time around, and the one thing all bookish people must see when they visit California’s gold country is the Sherlock Holmes wonderland at Hein & Co. Books in Jackson.

While the bookstore is largely gone, confined to just the main floor now, the upstairs has been converted into a Sherlock Holmes theme park called Baker Street West that is a wonder.  There’s a large dining room which you can rent out for meetings and parties surrounded by mock-ups of little shops each one mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes story.  You can buy beeswax candles and bee-keeping supplies; get your fix of exotic teas; visit the pub; stop in and see the latest late Victorian era inventions.

But be sure to get the guided tour of 221B Baker Street, a wonderful recreation of Sherlock Holmes apartment.  C.J. is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes from his childhood when his father read the stories to the family.  Our tour guide was thrilled to have someone who knew all the references.  The room has lots of things even non-fans like me will recognize, in addition to all sorts of clues and bits of evidence gathered from Holmes many cases.

Some pictures:


The library portion of the apartment.


The library has a secret door, of course.  There are plans to add Holmes’ bedroom behind the bookcase door.


Holmes’ desk.  There is a large pile of Strand magazines on the floor to the right.  The Sherlock Holmes stories first appeared in The Strand Magazine. The conceit was that Dr. Watson was sending factual accounts of Sherlock Holmes’ cases to The Strand.  Note the organization of the papers on the desk.  Looks like my own system.


On the desk is a small try with five seeds in it. Apparently, these are a major clue in one of the stories.  C.J. knew the reference right away. He was very excited to see them. I guess they are a big deal if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan.


Even I knew what this was.  But I didn’t know that Holmes smoked a small clay pipe in the stories.  The big pipe you see here was added when the stories were adapted for the stage.  The director felt a small pipe wouldn’t be visible throughout the theatre so something larger was called for.


On the mantle above the fireplace you’ll find a Persian slipper filled with pipe tobacco, a key element of Holmes’ apartment and one of his more well-known eccentricities.

Our guide told us that they have a Sherlock Holmes society with over 90 members from throughout Northern California who travel up to Jackson to see productions of period plays along with original work all performed in the shops around the dining room in a sort of reverse theatre-in-the-round where the audience is in the middle and the actors go around them.

They are currently planning a Christmas fair, Christmas at 221 Baker Street I guess, which I have a feeling we’ll be going to later this year.



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Sunday Salon: I dreamed I had lunch with Jacqueline Woodson. Does that count as an anxiety dream?

Last night, I dreamed I met poet Jacqueline Woodson author of Brown Girl Dreaming which I hope to be teaching to my 7th graders later this year.  I was very nervous about meeting her, but I told her how much I love her book and how excited I am to be teaching it.

She said, “Let’s grab some lunch.”

So she and I had lunch together while we discussed how to teach her book, how to teach poetry and poetry in general.

Afterwards, I asked her if she would pose with me for a selfie.

She agreed.

School starts on Thursday.

Does that count as a teacher-anxiety dream?

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Top Ten Tuesday: Rewind Topic–Top Ten Best/Worst Movie Adaptations or Ten Times the Movie Was Better Than the Book

a340a-toptentuesdayYes, I’m really going to go there.

The Broke and the Bookish asked us to pick from all the Top-Ten Tuesday topics we’ve missed out on over the years. Since I just started doing this last week, I had a lot of topics to choose from. The one that caught me eye was The Top Ten Best/Words Movie Adaptations.  Since I think going after the worst ones is basically shooting fish in a barrel, I decided to come up with ten times the movie was better.

I know we all say, and many of us believe that the book is always better.  For good reason, too, since it usually is.  But there are times when if pushed to wall many of us would have to admit that as much as we may love the book, the movie really is better.

A word about criteria.  I do not expect a movie to be like the book, at all.  A book is a book and a movie is a movie; they do not work in the same way.  The first tries to summon visual images in the reader’s mind while the second uses visual images to summon emotions in the viewer.  One does it’s work with words alone, the other uses primarily images along with words and music.

So to choose which is better I consider how good the book is as a book versus how good the movie is as a movie.  It’s like picking best in show when one dog is a Scotty and the other is a Great Dane.  Both may be black and have four legs and a tail, but how can you measure which is the best dog?

With that said, here are some movies that were better than the book,  in no particular order.

The Godfather.  Mario Puzo’s book was a bestseller for good reason.  Strong characters, a shocking plot, quality writing.  But how many people are reading it today, let alone using it as a text in academic settings?  The movie, on the other hand, is still considered a landmark achievement in American film, still watched by many, still taught in film schools.  Are we quoting the movie or the book when we say “Leave the gun; take the cannoli”?  I’m quoting the movie.

The Children of Men.  P.D. James’s science fiction classic is a strong contender against Alfonso Cauron’s film adaptation.  It’s a very good novel, but I’m voting for the movie here for two reasons.  First the fact that the entire movie is made up of 12 or so continuous takes amazes me every time I watch it.  The final sequence is astounding.  I’m also impressed that I didn’t even notice this the first time I saw the movie I was so involved in the story.  Second, the concluding images, the ones with the new baby, moved me so much more than anything in the book did.  It’s a good book, mind you, but not nearly as good a book as the movie is a movie.

Shane. George Stevens adaptation rides high in my mind.  Jack Schaefer’s novel is excellent, one everyone should read even if you don’t like westerns.  Then watch the movie.  There’s something about it that just works so well.  “Come back, Shane.  Come back.”  The hero rides off over the mountains to face the end alone.  It’s a marvelous movie.

Ordinary People. Robert Redford directed this, his first movie, back in the 1980’s.  I expect few people will know it these days.  I confess that I haven’t seen it since I saw it in the theatre but I still recall Mary Tyler Moore, the mother, unable to return her son’s unexpected hug.  That was a profoundly moving scene, one that disturbed us more than a 100 zombie deaths ever could.  The book was so-so.  I remember thinking the changes Mr. Redford made in the story improved it.

True Grit.  Charles Portis’s novel is wonderful, another one that everyone should just get over their anti-western genre bias and read ’cause it’s fantastic and not what you think at all.  But any movie with John Wayne calling out “Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch” then charging into a gun fight on horseback a rifle in one hand a six-shooter in the other….well…could any movie have a more audience pleasing ending?  I didn’t like the more recent version all that much though it was truer to the novel.  Being true to the novel is not necessarily a good thing in a movie.  Let John Wayne be John Wayne.

The Planet of the Apes.  Pierre Boulle’s novel was a struggle for me, as I recall.  One of those science fiction novels where it’s a little hard to tell what all is going on.  It’s been a while since I’ve read it so forgive me if I have it confused with something else.  But that’s part of the reason why the movie is so much better.  I’m speaking of the 1968 Charlton Heston vehicle, of course.  “Take your hands off me, you damned, dirty ape!”  And the final scene, which came as a surprise to me when I first saw it.  It’s cheesy, it’s corny, it’s a bit silly, but it’s much more fun than the book was.

Double Indemnity.  James M. Cain is no slouch by any means, but take a look at this scene from the movie starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurry.  How could any book complete with that? Sorry I couldn’t get it to embed, but do take a look.  Directed by Billy Wilder.  Screenplay by Raymond Chandler. Edward G. Robinson in a supporting role.  How could it not be great.

WalkaboutWhile I found much to admire in James Vance Marshall’s novel, which I recommend strongly by the way, it did not have the same magic Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 movie did.  The book is a good story, has some interesting things to say, but it doesn’t take the reader out of this world and into another the way the movie did.  Strange as it was, disturbing as some of it’s imagery could be, I think it did a much better job making the audience long for a simpler world than the book did.  It forced me to look at modern civilization critically in ways the book did not.

Okay, that’s only eight, but the people behind the counter are starting to give me the eye.  Fair enough–all the other tables are taken and I have been here a while.   So my time is up for today.  I can honestly say that all eight of these movies are very good, as are all eight of these books.  If you’ve not seen or read any of them, you might give one or both a go to see if you think I’m right.

Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments in written or in visual form.

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The Vagabond by Collete

Colette’s The Vagabond tells a story of backstage life in the music halls of turn of the century Paris.  The narrator/heroine has left a failed marriage and career as a novelist to earn a living performing two shows a night as an actress in French pantomime.

The Vagabond works as a backstage novel and as a source of insight into the its author, Colette.  Because the narrator’s biography shares so much with Colette’s, it’s nearly impossible not to succumb to the temptation of committing the biographical fallacy.  Since their back stories match, it’s easy to conclude that the novel must be the story of Colette.

With this in mind, I found The Vagabond ultimately disappointing.  Collete is known for dealing with issues of love and sexuality, especially female sexuality, with a frankness that Americans see as French.  It’s a cliche in the U.S. to see the French, especially French artists like Colette, as more in-tune with an adult sensibility around sex than we are.  I found Colette’s novel Cheri  to be a good example of this adult sexuality even though the title character is a teenager.  So I was surprised to find much of The Vagabond  adolescent:

Love, if you can; no doubt this will be granted you, so that at the summit of your poor happiness you may again remember that nothing counts, in love, except the first love, and endure at every moment the punishment of remembering, and the horror of comparing.

I was 22 when my first love came to an end. At that time I would have agreed with Colette whole-heartedly.  25 years later, it’s tempting to roll my eyes a little in exasperation.  Colette was 37 when she wrote The Vagabond.  While the passage above is well written, I don’t buy it.  The love that lasts is the love that counts.   Spend a decade or more with the one you love and you’ll look back on that first love, remembering and comparing with no horror or punishment at all.  Except maybe a moment or two spent wondering, “What was I thinking?”

While I had more problems with The Vagabond than the one outlined here, there is enough that’s good in the novel to make it a worthwhile read.  The peek at theatrical life, Colette’s beautiful writing, the hints at autobiography all succeed in entertaining the reader.  Those lucky enough to read it while in the throes of first love or in recovery from it will find a kindred spirit in Colette’s The Vagabond.


I feel like I just read this book, but this is a review from 2011 first published on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  I guess it says sometime positive about Colette that I feel like I just read her book a few months ago.  If you’ve never read her, this is as good a place as any to start. I think she’s terrific.


Posted in Book Review, Classic, European Literature, Fiction, French, French Literature, Novel, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment