A book & a film by a Frenchman

I don’t remember where I heard about Brodeck by Philippe Claudel.  It might have been BookBrowse.com, but could have been Powell’s.  I do remember that I was broke and out of books to read, so I hit the library after work (I also remember that it was raining, and I was rushing to get there before they closed, but you probably don’t need to know that, right?). I had the name of the book in my head, and it happened to be on the New Book shelf at the Hillsdale branch, so I brought it home (with several others, I’ve never gotten out of a library with only one item. Ever.).  It got great reviews, and when I went looking around the interwebs, I discovered he writes screenplays and directs films as well.

Brodeck was one of those books I really should have written about when it was still fresh in my mind. I’m sure I read this book in 2009, so it’s been several months. I remember it being really good, and melancholy without being sad, exactly. I remember being impressed with his first-person narrative (a difficult style to do well, in my opinion) and how strongly the emotional character of Brodeck was portrayed. But all of the other terribly learned and intelligent things I’m sure I meant to say about it completely escape me at this point. I know that I voted for it as ‘best book of the year’ on some poll, based on the fact that it was the best of the books on the list they had (that I had read).

The story is set in post-WWII Europe (somewhere around the Poland/Germany border, the story is deliberately vague on this point). A stranger comes to town and is so curious and strange and inquisitive and happy, that this beaten-down little hamlet is completely defensive and immediately suspicious of him. They end up killing him out of fear and guilt.  It is a great story about how guilt can eat you alive, and how painful it can be to face your own conscience. It’s also a great story about ‘the truth’ and how hard it can be to tell it, or recognize it.

The book is supposed to be a ‘report’ the town leaders have asked Brodeck to write to explain what they did to some nebulous government authority in the distance, in case there are any questions.  But of course, writing this is dangerous – look what happened to the last guy! – and so Brodeck ends up writing two versions, one for the town elders and one for himself – and us. The layers of story and viewpoint are impressive and well-executed.

I picked up a film at the video store a few weeks ago (was in the foreign film $1 section, had Kristin Scott Thomas on it) and it was one of his (at this point, having totally forgotten that he did films), so I rented it (I’ve Loved You So Long) and it was great as well. Also sad, about how loss can make you do crazy things, and how love really can heal you, even if it can also destroy you.

So there ya go – a book and a movie recommendation.  Next time you’re looking for pathos and enlightenment, Philippe Claudel is your guy. Tell him you heard it here first.

(only one more book on the ugly list – yay!)

not-so-swept Away

I’ve seen the book Away by Amy Bloom many times on my frequent trips to various book stores (I notice the book because one of my favorite books is also called Away, written by Jane Urquhart) but I finally picked it up at Powell’s for $5 after reading the back (it said the heroine treks from New York to Alaska – gotta go w/the Alaska book).  This is my first book by Bloom.

Away is the story of Lillian Lyeb, a Jewish survivor of the pogroms during the Russian Civil War in the early 1900s. Her entire family is killed in front of her, including (she believes) her young daughter.  She does what she must to get by as an immigrant in New York until a cousin comes to convince her that her daughter is still alive in Russia. Lillian discovers just how bad things can really get when she tries to arrange a trip back to Russia to find her daughter.  Everyone thinks she’s crazy, and the things she has to do to get anywhere are far from pleasant.

This is not a happy book.  The writing is vivid and the plot moves along nicely, but in the end, I wondered what the point was.  Lillian has gone through horrific experiences – which we live along with her – and in the end she gives up on the only goal – beyond survival – she ever had for no apparent reason other than exhaustion and the bird in the hand.   I am a huge fan of the non-linear plot line, the lack of closure, the virtually plotless novel, the unhappy ending, and just about any other post-modern format or device out there.  But a lack of plot closure should not make a pointless novel.  She almost kills herself several times to get to Russia, and then just… stops in Alaska.

Am I supposed to assume that, because she found a man she cares for – I think love is too strong a word – that Lillian doesn’t need to even find out if her daughter is alive and safe anymore?  That cannot be it.  Maybe I’m supposed to believe that – because there is serious doubt that the cousin was even telling the truth about the child, that Lillian just quits when she finally finds a place she can be even a little happy? That one sucks, too. The reader finds out that the daughter is indeed alive and safe with a different family, but Lillian never does.  I’m sorry, but that SUCKS as an ending.  And it’s not even a ‘hey, I’m never going to get there, I’m never going to know, so I must try to live my life but I’ll always wonder’ kind of ending.  It’s more like ‘I worked and walked and did terribly things and walked some more and froze and starved and now… I think I’ll stop here, after I’ve crossed the entire North American continent and am almost to Siberia.’  Not cool.  I feel like I’ve suffered along with her, and for nothing.

Also – and I know this is totally nit-picky, but I can’t stand it when writers get the details wrong – moose do not run in packs.  Ever.  10 moose traveling together?  Not happening.

I will probably give Ms. Bloom another shot, because the writing was indeed enjoyable.  And I don’t need a happy ending, just an ending that doesn’t make me regret finishing the book.