Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Train by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon was a Belgian writer who wrote over 200 books and a number of short pieces. He is most well-known for his Inspector Maigret Novels. I never read Simenon, because I most closely associated him with detective fiction, a genre I do not care about at all. When I picked up a copy of The Train at a recent library convention, I decided to give him a try.

Simenon’s The Train, tells the story of Marcel Feron, his pregnant wife Jeanne, and their daughter, Sophie in the opening days of World War II. The Ferons lived near the Belgian border in the town of Fumay, where Marcel ran a small business repairing and selling radios.

When the Germans approached the French frontier, Marcel decided to bundle up his family and take a train south to no one knew where to escape the advancing Wehrmacht. Marcel and the men were herded into cattle cars, while the women and children were loaded into first class compartments. After numerous delays, the train left the station and all breathed a sigh of relief – but this was a bit premature, since their troubles had only begun. At one stop, a woman snuck onto the train and befriended Marcel. The two spend the rest of the trip together.

Marcel narrates from the perspective of several years later, and he worries about the details of his story. Simenon writes,

“One detail, for instance, has worried me a lot, because I am rather persnickety and tend to think over an idea for hours until I have got it right. When I wrote about the plane machine-gunning our train, about the fireman gesticulating beside his engine, and about the dead driver, I didn’t mention the guard. Yet there ought to have been a guard, whose job it was to make the necessary decisions.

“I didn’t see him. Did he exist or didn’t he? Once again, things didn’t necessarily happen in a logical way.
“…I know that my skin, my eyes, the whole of my body have never drunk in the sunshine as greedily as they did that day, and I can say for sure that I appreciated every nuance of the light, every shade of green of the meadows, the fields, and the trees” (96).

This scene occurs after Marcel and Anna have grown closer sharing this experience. Marcel thinks, “I wonder whether, that particular day, I didn’t get as close as possible to perfect happiness” (94). He suddenly has difficulty recalling the face of his wife and daughter. “I am writing this mainly in the hope of discovering a certain truth” (95).

At only 153 pages, this short novel is packed with suspense and excitement. Several times I thought I had worked out the course of the story, only to find myself at a dead end. I would have read this in a single sitting, had not that pesky habit of eating dinner interfered.
The Train by Georges Simenon offers a whole new side of this well-known writer of detective novels. I intend to search for more of his shorter works. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 3/20/13

Wild Decembers! by Edna O’Brien

Edna O’Brien was described by Jonathan Yardley, a reviewer for The Washington Post, as, “among the leading English-language novelists of the day.” My fondness for Irish Fiction led me to O’Brien, and the novels I have read are thoroughly enjoyable works. The reviewer also wrote, “Wild Decembers proceeds toward a climax that is Irish to the quick, violent, and sad and, in a strange way, beautiful. Just like the novel itself.” That is what I like about O'Brien – “Irish to the quick” with beautiful writing.

Wild Decembers! tells the story of Joseph Brennan and Michael Bugler. Joseph has a prosperous farm and lives with his sister, Breege. He not only farms and runs livestock on his own land, but he also rents out land from adjoining farms for his cattle and to cut peat for heating. Michael Bugler left Ireland for a sheep station in Australia, but has returned home with a small fortune and bought a run-down farm. He immediately begins making improvements, including the purchase of a tractor, which is noisy and bothers the quiet of the villagers, who cling to the old ways of farming. Michael falls in love with Breege and decides he will fix up the estate for her.

As Michael buys up the grazing and peat cutting rights Joseph’s family has informally held for years, tension grows between the men, and suddenly lawyers and lawsuits abound – almost like Dickens’ Bleak House.
I spent some time during Spring Break on a farm, and I could see farming is hard, hard work. O’Brien writes,

“[Michael] had read the books on turf cutting and consulted Thady, an old man who had once been the fastest slanesman in the country. Earnestly he had listened, then watched as Thady brought in a rusted slane from an outhouse and, using the kitchen floor as a bog, enacted the stripping off of the top skin of grass, then marking out the bank, and with the slane having to dig and dig, doing it slantwise so as to cut the sods straight.

“In the kitchen it had been an amusement, but out there in the heat and dryness, insects crawling over him, his back breaking from having to bend and push in an unaccustomed way, he realized he had never worked so hard or so gruelingly and yet so satisfyingly.” (124).

The disputes and law suits escalate and Joseph faces ruin after losing at every turn. Then he discovers Breege and Michael have been secretly meeting.

Edna O'Brien has written over 20 novels, and Wild Decembers! is my third but by no means, my last. 5 stars.
--Chiron, 3/12/13

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle

Generally, I have a pretty happy life. A wonderful family, a great job, lots of friends, so not much really comes to my attention which I abhor. However, there are a few things. Cockroaches are one. I have been known to cross the street rather than share the largest pavement with one of these vermin. Lima beans, Brussel sprouts, and cooked spinach top my most detested food list. But one thing really bothers me, because I cannot understand how it occurs or how it is allowed to continue to recur. That is abuse. I include, of course, abuse of children, the abuse of animals, but one of the most disturbing examples in this category is the abuse of women. I also find it difficult to understand how woman can put up with such behavior after even a single transgression. After reading Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, I now have a smidgen of understanding this terrible, terrible behavior.

Roddy Doyle won the Man Booker Prize in 1993 for the hilarious Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha. Since then, I have collected most of his novels, because of my fondness for Irish fiction. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is anything but hilarious.

It starts out all full of flowers, birds, rainbows, and Leprechauns, and the poverty and hard times afflicting Ireland. Then it takes a sinister turn, when Charlo punches his wife, Paula, and knocks her to the ground.
Gradually, Doyle reveals the true nature of Paula’s relationship with her husband. As the novel progresses, Paula remembers more and more of the 17-year long ordeal he inflicted on her. Numerous times, she thinks, “I love him. He loves me. He can’t help it. He’ll stop if I only behave.” Charlo threw that first punch because he asked for a cup of tea, and she responded, “Make your own feckin’ cuppa tea!” Later she imagines if she had simply made that cup of tea, he would never have hit her and the abuse would never have begun. In short she continually blames herself for the abuse.

I will not even begin to list the examples of the abuse Charlo inflicted on his wife. Frankly, it was a bit difficult to read – it literally turned my stomach. On the other hand, I could not stop reading it mesmerized me that much.

--Chiron, 3/1/13