Tag Archives: 1941

When the Ship Comes In

Between Shades of Gray: A Novel by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel; $17.99; 344 pages)

In the epilogue to Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, protagonist Lina speaks to us from a time capsule:  “It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar…  prompt you to do something, to tell someone.   Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.”

The story that she has buried in that jar begins in 1941 in Lithuania.   Lina, who is fifteen, her younger brother Jonas, and her mother are at home one evening when the Soviet secret police come to the door.   Through her eyes we watch as the three are deported to Siberia.   Lina’s father, a professor who has aided relatives’ emigration to Germany has been arrested.   His actions were prompted by the hope that the relatives might, in turn, help his own family escape Stalin’s tyranny.

As the truth of their situation gradually unfolds for Lina, she draws images of horror and images of heroism, and tucks the sketches into the lining of her suitcase.   It’s an act of silent rebellion that she knows is both brave and foolish.   But she is an artist who is desperate to record the history of the ordinary people swept up in Stalin’s purges.   Through Lina’s eyes we see a portrait of true grace emerge in Mother, a woman whose calm, kindness, and humanity buoy the spirits of everyone else.   We see how memories have the power to sustain and what happens when hope is lost.

What we do not see is why Stalin shipped this trainload of slave labor all the way across Siberia and north to the Arctic Circle to do work that seems only to sustain the comfort of the soldiers who guard them.   Perhaps Sepetys intended the apparent illogic of the labor camp’s location to be yet another layer of punishment – another obstacle to hopefulness.

Sepety’s characters are fascinating, even those who are the verbal equivalent of pencil sketchesthe bald man, the man who wound his watch, the repeater.   Her spare prose is reminiscent of Pearl Buck’s.   Between Shades of Gray depicts the effects of a moral disaster rather than Buck’s natural ones, but both authors know their story is so intrinsically dramatic that it needs no melodrama.   Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, published the novel, Sepety’s first, in March of 2011.   Highly recommended – and not just for young readers.

Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs; $29.95; 481 pages)

“You have to pay to get out of going through these things twice.”   Bob Dylan

In 1985, rock critic Greil Marcus was asked to review the book A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan by Wilfred Meller, and his review began with these words:  “This is a confused and confusing book about a confused and confusing figure: Bob Dylan, born 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, as Robert Alan Zimmerman.”   Well, back at you, Greil, as those would be the perfect words to describe this $30 collection of essays, previously published and unpublished.   They all deal in some way – and some barely – with the subject of Bob Dylan.   It might be said that Marcus’ essays on the man are dazed and confused.

It’s a bit shocking that Marcus does not come even close to enlightening the reader about Dylan the musician or the man.   That’s shocking because just last year, he released a brilliant tome about Van Morrison (reviewed on this site on August 26, 2010), When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.   There, Marcus seemed to capture both Van’s heart and his soul, and it made the reader want to run to play his or her Morrison CDs.   He was spot on there; here, no way.

Marcus seems confused because there are four Bob Dylans:  the genius songwriter (“Like A Rolling Stone,” “Visions of Johanna”); the oh-so-casual writer of throw-away songs (“Watching the River Flow,” “Rainy Day Women No.s 12 & 35 [Everybody Must Get Stoned]”);  the overly serious, angry and controlling musician (where there are similarities to Morrison); and the Joker, whose every action and comment is a complete put-on.   Because Marcus cannot reconcile these four personalities in one person, he appears continually lost as to what’s going on with Mr. Hughes in his Dylan shoes.   Sometimes he loves Dylan, sometimes he’s disappointed by him, sometimes he blasts him, but mostly he’s watching the parade go by and  wondering about the meaning of it all.

As an example, he prints a section of the interview that Dylan gave to Playboy magazine back in 1966.   The entire interview is a big joke – although it was lost to the magazine’s editors – and none of it is real.   But Marcus has no comment on it.

One problem is that to properly understand and analyze Dylan, one must have a breadth of background as big and wide as Dylan’s.   Such is not the case in this compilation…  At one point Marcus does note that Dylan has relied on religious writings as the inspiration for many of his songs (the same is true of philosophers, not just prophets), but he does not supply any actual references.   It’s a shame and one has to wonder if Marcus cribbed that point from another writer.

The writing is dull and flat and lacks the excitement of, say, a Lester Bangs or a John Mendelsohn.   And yet when Van Morrison appears on the scene, as when Marcus writes of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, the writing is suddenly sparkling – until Morrison leaves the stage, and it returns to being flat.   So it seems that Marcus simply gets Morrison in a way that will never apply to Dylan.

“Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.   I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant.”

As you can see from this quotation, you’re not going to get much from Greil Marcus that’s going to help you understand Bob Dylan’s songs…  Except…  Except that he includes an almost-perfect review of Dylan’s singular 10-song masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.   Which, as the Chuck Berry song says, goes to show you never can tell.

Marcus was quite tough in that ’85 review of Wilfred Meller’s book:  “Meller’s language collapses along with his conceptual apparatus.”   That sounds very harsh and professorial, does it not?   Getting back to Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, I’ll just say that there’s far less here than one would expect from a writer who wrote the liner notes to one of Bob Dylan’s major albums.   Making your way through all of this is like going on an Easter egg hunt where no one finds any of the eggs.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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More Than This

The Postmistress: A Novel by Sarah Blake (Berkley Trade; $15.00; 384 pages)

The time is the years 1940 and 1941 and Americans are attempting to stay out of the conflict in Europe.   President Franklin Roosevelt has pledged to keep American boys from dying in a new world war, but most Americans are well aware that he’s stalling for time.   Hitler’s armies are invading countries throughout Europe and something is happening to hundreds of thousands of Jews.   This is the setting for The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

Blake tells the story of three women – three very different individuals with different personalities and needs.   Iris is the postmistress of the title, a woman who is thorough and organized in everything she does.   Iris takes pride in her discipline and in her preparation for all things.   Although she’s lacking a suitor, she travels to Boston to see a doctor who will certify her virginity; she’s sure that some man will one day find this to be a factor in her favor.

Emma is a transplant to the east coast, a small and frail woman who lost her parents early in life.   She wishes to have a new stable life with her physician-husband.   But Emma’s husband feels the call to go to help the victims of the German bombing of London.

Frankie is the tough and ambitious radio reporter stationed in Europe working with Edward R. Murrow.   She’s frustrated and wants to travel to find the “real story” of what is happening to the Jews.   She wants to be the voice of truth, a human alarm bell.

Something happens to each of these characters in The Postmistress.   Iris eventually wonders if she has placed duty to her job above simple human kindness.   Letters and telegrams bearing bad news travel through her hands.   Will the point come when she should show some mercy by withholding horrible news?   Would it make a difference?   Or would it place her in a position of arrogantly playing God?

Emma feels that she may lose everything, including a child on the way, if her husband places the needs of those in England above hers.   It’s not America’s war, right?   But then she may be powerless in the face of her husband’s desire to serve his fellow human beings.

Frankie becomes tired and devastated over what she observes in war-torn Europe.   Hitler’s armies are on the march and the people in the U.S. who listen to her radio show seem to refuse to accept the truth – the truth that war is inevitable.   Who else but American boys and men will save the world?

Whatever is coming does not just come…  It is helped by people wilfully looking away.   People who develop the habit of swallowing lies rather than the truth.

This novel tells us that stories get told when they need to be told – not before and not after.   There’s not a good time or bad time, simply the time.   Blake does a marvelous job of transporting the reader back to the early 40s in polite, calm and reasoned language.   Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to The Postmistress is to say that when you read it, you will place yourself in that time and place.   You will also ask yourself what you would have done in that time and under those circumstances.

Would you have sought delay as an isolationist (“It’s not our war.”)?   Or would you have been one of those who said, “We’re going to have to go at some point, so why not now?”   A simple question, perhaps, but the fate of the world – of freedom – literally depended on the answer.

Sarah Blake displays an intelligence in the telling of the story that is, sadly, all too rare these days.   In the end, this is an important story about normal people occupying a larger-than-life stage.   Blake tells it impressively and beautifully.   The Postmistress is a story that you will be thinking about weeks and months later.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Postmistress was released in trade paperback form on February 1, 2011.

The Postmistress made me homesick for a time before I was even born.   What’s remarkable, however, is how relevant the story is to our present day times.   A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that I’m tellling everyone I know to read.   Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help.

 

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