Saturday, June 29, 2019

How Not to Die Alone

Please don't let the morbid title put you off. This new book from British novelist Richard Roper is funny, poignant, and life affirming. In fact, in Great Britain the title of this book is "Something to Live For," though I'll admit the U.S. moniker,
"How Not to Die Alone," better succeeds at grabbing the reader's attention.

Remember the old saying, "Oh what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive?" This is an apt thematic thread as we meet Andrew while he's interviewing for another dead-end job with British public services. Assuming another rejection, Andrew finds himself in the position of fabulist, making up a life out of whole cloth so that he can be accepted by and find common ground with the man he hopes will be his new boss.

His job? Andrew visits the homes of men and women who have died alone, often having gone days or weeks undiscovered until a nosy neighbor alerts the authorities a foul odor emanating from the apartment next door. Andrew searches through the deceased meagre belongings hoping to find enough money under a mattress to cover the burial expenses. Barring that, he may find an old Christmas card or a letter squirreled away from a long lost relative or friend. One thing is for certain. Andrew will attend the funeral, insuring that at least one person besides the minister, pays homage to the life once lived. 

Andrew's quirky co-workers assume that he goes home every evening to the comfort of the wife and two children that he waxes nostalgic about throughout the day. We readers learn that Andrew's shabby apartment harbors a magnificent train set and a computer through which Andrew lives a second,  anonymous life.

Peggy is the breath of fresh air who enters from stage left and acts as the catalyst for the sea change in Andrew's life. She is the new employee, Andrew's mentee, who in fits and starts, with humor and kindness, opens Andrew to the possibility of actually being seen, of living in the real world.
This lovely novel gently delves into aspects of loneliness and the longing for connection that dwells inside all of us. In lesser hands it might have come off as schmaltzy but I'm happy to say that I didn't find a false note throughout. This book was a welcome respite from the dark side that I tend to tred. If you're ready for a smile and a satisfied sigh then give Richard Roper a go.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Flight Portfolio Soars

Author Julie Orringer has delivered the best novel I've read this year, a book that I hope will connect with readers on so many levels. Another in that extremely popular genre that I refer to as "fictional biography," a genre that I've criticized in the past for taking far too much leeway, "The Flight
Portfolio," shines with authenticity. Orringer appears to have done due diligence and extensive research to get the facts just right while bringing both the fictional and actual characters to full, glorious life.

The novel is set in and around Marseille, France, in 1940 -41, as the Nazis have invaded and installed the pro-fascist Vichy government. Journalist Varian Fry ( had been a foreign correspondent stationed in Berlin in the late 30's and had become more and more alarmed by the increasing aggression toward Jews as Hitler built his movement. Writing for newspapers in New York City where his wife worked as an editor for "The Atlantic," Fry caught the eye of the Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization touted by Eleanor Roosevelt, funded by the American Red Cross, and covertly protected by some cooperative members of the State Department.

With three thousand dollars in his pocket, Fry lands in Marseille with a mandate to build a network that will identify Jewish artists, scholars, thinkers, and writers (think Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst) who might be deemed a threat to the Reich, and through bribery and subterfuge, arrange false documents that might enable them to escape France, on foot, by train, or smuggled in boats, for the neutrality of Portugal or North Africa and eventually to repatriate in the United States.

Orringer's depiction of the port city vividly captures the climate of fear that stalks the locals, the private back rooms in restaurants owned by those with protected status where meetings are held, black market meats and liquors are still served, and distrust runs deep. Who is a collaborator? Who works for the Resistance? Who will leak a word or phrase that might result in Fry or one his small but determined aids being hauled off to prison or worse, sent north?

So realistically does Orringer build the tension and suspense that my stomach was in knots throughout the reading of this incredible novel. I've always been drawn to this time in history, to the ferocious bravery and selflessness of those who worked to subvert the Nazi machine, marveling at their resilience and wondering how I might have responded in the face of such evil.

The terrifying historical aspect of the book is tempered by a secondary, beautifully rendered story of a forbidden but life-long love affair between the married Fry and his former Harvard roommate, fictionally named Elliot Grant. How their paths cross in France after years with no communication between them dovetails perfectly with the controversial aspect of the ERC. How are lives valued? Why is one person worthy of rescue and another not? With increasingly limited funding, a state department in crisis mode now distancing itself from the rescue group, Fry and his associates must weigh human lives in the balance and abandon those whose worth comes up short.

Rife with moral dilemmas for which there may be no answers, this novel cries out for discussion. It is on the scholar Elaine Newton's shortlist for evaluation next season and I do hope she chooses it. Even better would be if she could bring in Ms. Orringer who brought me to tears throughout this lovely book. So often writers create characters who seem to have not an ounce of redeeming grace. Ms. Orringer's characters, both real and imagined, are frustratingly human, eminently loveable, and shockingly heroic. I hated leaving their company!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Finding My Way After a Surgical Hiatus

Five weeks ago today, after a night and morning of increasingly terrifying abdominal pain, I reluctantly called a friend to take me to the emergency room. I had been there only six months prior for a similar problem and, at the time, nothing was found to be wrong with me. In my usual obsequious fashion,  (a flaw I am working on), I apologized in advance for taking up the time and space once again. The wonderfully compassionate doctor admonished me for ever thinking this way, and then grimly advised that there was a valid reason for my discomfort. Not only a recurrence of diverticulitis but a small bowel obstruction in need of immediate attention.

I spent two long, yet already mostly forgotten weeks, in the hospital tethered to tubes and needles, and fighting fear, anxiety, and the topsy- turvy sense that day is night and night is day, sleeping fitfully and unable to concentrate for any length of time. Still, a reader must read, long hours must be suffered through, news seemed irrelevant. But wait, hadn't I been in the middle of a devastating new novel when I was stricken? Could I take my worried mind back to Berlin and re-engage with the plight of the Somali, Kenyan, Ghanaian, and Libyan migrants brought brilliantly to life in Jenny Erpenbeck's "Go, Went, Gone?"

If you ever thought to place yourself in another's shoes, if you ever wondered how it could possibly feel to be stateless, homeless, worthless, and lost, then this novel will open a space in your heart even as it leaves you feeling helpless and hopeless. Erpenbeck points out the horrible, ironic flaws in the European system of repatriation for refugees seeking asylum but she doesn't, no, she can't provide answers to the deluge of questions facing countries that were, before public opinion turned on them, trying their best to handle the onslaught of Africans daily arriving on the shores of Sicily and Greece seeking points north and east.

Richard, a retired professor examining what his future will look like without his wife by his side and his students and colleagues for intellectual stimulation, wanders through the Oranienplatz in central Berlin where the authorities are tearing down a tent city erected by disaffected refugees in search of food, housing, and work papers. On a whim, Richard strikes up a conversation, first with one, then with others. Where will you go? How will you manage? What are your prospects? What was your home like? Why did you leave?

Initially shy and hesitant to pry, Richard finds himself obsessed with the lives of these lost souls. He finds that he wants to question them, find out about their lives before they landed on the streets. He thinks of them when he's back in the guilty comfort of his overlarge home, remembering their tight quarters in makeshift shelters where four or five may share mattresses on the floor. He haunts agencies trying to free up funding, he offers to teach German, and eventually he offers tea and sympathy, and the use of his grand piano to a budding musician. Even his most liberal friends question his naivite, his newly discovered activism, questioning his motives and worrying behind his back.

This novel is probably not one that I would recommend for readers recovering from a major surgical procedure. It requires too much from us. As I mentioned, questions arise but are never answered. Can a single person change the world, one contact at a time? Cynics would say no. Others, like my sister who is currently in Washington participating in Rev. Barber's Poor Peoples' Campaign, aspire to be living proof that one person can.  Richard discovers that it takes persistence, an ability to suffer rejection, and to be taken advantage of without exhibiting anger or desiring retaliation.

And yet, this novel must be read and absorbed if we are ever to remotely comprehend the conditions that would propel men, women, and children to leave their ancestral homelands in search of a better life for themselves and their progeny. Why, we ask, will thousands board rafts every day, with the hope that they will float up onto welcoming shores? Why are our southern neighbors risking the walk from Guatemala through Mexico to the U.S. boarder, knowing full well that they will be rejected, separated from their families, incarcerated without access to lawyers or the basic rights of asylum seekers everywhere?
Erpenbeck does a masterful job of helping readers walk a mile in those seekers shoes.