Reviews

Page and Screen: ‘Grand Hotel’ by Vicki Baum

grandhotel9781590179673_91c23Movie enthusiasts might know Vicki Baum's 1929 novel Grand Hotel as the source material for the classic film of the same name. Released in 1932 and directed by Edmund Golding, it features greats like Greta Garbo, the Barrymore brothers, and Wallace Beery while often being remembered as Joan Crawford's breakthrough role. If you loved the movie, or at least had heard about it and were curious enough to look for the book, finding it was somewhat difficult for many years. This summer, however, NYRB published a new edition translated from the original German by Basil Creighton (also known for bringing Hesse's Steppenwolf into English) and with an introduction from Noah Isenberg, whose book on Weimar cinema demonstrates his expert knowledge of Grand Hotel's context. There are many movies based on books; not all are worth a casual reader's time. Grand Hotel is one that not only stands on its own merits and is culturally interesting in its own right but also lends a bit of insight into the film. Like the movie, the book features an ensemble cast of characters with well-defined motivations who begin the novel as strangers but soon feature prominently in one another's lives. The balance between characters and transitions between perspectives are generally flawless; while a few sections run overlong, Baum's sense of timing feels smooth and natural. These characters develop in interesting ways over the course of only a few days and nights, and it is these changes that draw readers into each personal drama. Whether it's watching a bland bureaucrat become truly corrupt or seeing people who had been mere performers in their own lives discover genuine feelings, it's hard to resist being pulled into the separate stories as they become tightly linked. These characters are, of course, living in Germany just before the rise of the Nazi party. Neither they nor the author could've known what would happen to the country (and the world) soon after the events of the novel, and this element of the book--its existence as a sort of cultural time capsule--makes it even more fascinating. Grand Hotel offers a peek at the growing class resentment bubbling beneath the surface of polite German society in the form of a lovable underdog who spends his final days living big, and this awareness of social stratification is explicitly referenced at several other points as well. A character who is a part time typist, part time nude model, part time concubine (partly out of financial necessity and partly out of a desire for new frocks) plays upon social anxieties about the New Woman without becoming a morality play. The perspectives of the hotel workers pepper the narrative, offering a behind the scenes look at the banal day-to-day operations that make it possible for the wealthy playboys to dance to jazz and drink Louisiana Flips and humanizing figures often relegated to the background or treated as human props. Baum also captures the strange liminality of Weimar milieu through fascinating snapshots of transition and artful tonal shifts. People get stuck between coming and going, and the novel stops to notice when the music has stopped and not yet started again. The old high-class entertainments like ballet are being supplanted by lowbrow pursuits like boxing; those who try to cling to the past find the world they knew is slipping away, but people immersed in this new culture are unfulfilled, lonely in a crowd, and caught between a past that's not quite gone and a future that has not yet arrived. At The Grand Hotel, the present is an uncomfortable wait in the lobby as the revolving door send people to unknown destinations and brings in new customers from parts equally unknown. There's always a feeling that "the real thing" is happening somewhere else, or has already happened, or is yet to come. Knowing, as a reader, exactly what is to come for Germany makes this tension even more striking and uncomfortable. The novel isn't all uneasy modernity and meditations on mortality, though. The novel's darkness rests beneath witty banter between hotel guests, charming vignettes, and dashes of light humor. There are passages full of adventure that marvel at the novelties of the age, like airplane flight and the spectacle of flashing neon. While Baum ultimately ends her book with a reminder that even the honeymoon couple faces "an abyss of loneliness," the moments of meaningful connection between characters and wonder at the small joys in life prevent it from being a dreary read. Playful enough to be fun while serious enough to have substance, Grand Hotel is both an excellent example of fiction from its own time and a timeless classic.
Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, translated by Basil Creighton, revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo, introduction by Noah Isenberg (NYRB Classics | 9781590179673 | June 7, 2016)

Page & Screen: ‘We Eat Our Own’ by Kea Wilson

WeEatOurOwn_9781501128318_851cbAt a time when postmodernism and nostalgia saturate the cultural landscape, a novel that proudly references beloved genre works of the past and flaunts its literary influences isn't remarkable. There are probably half a dozen summer titles fitting this description on any bookstore's shelves right now, and perhaps another half dozen will release this fall. Kea Wilson's We Eat Our Own separates itself from the pack with effective second-person storytelling, a fascinating setting, wide-ranging research that will satisfy compulsive fact-checkers, and a writing style that's as varied and unpredictable as the novel's characters. The cast includes an American actor desperate for a break (and a break from life's troubles), his provocative female costar, their slightly deranged Italian director, the members of a South American drug cartel, and a few lackeys from an Amazonian paramilitary organization, among others. A giant anaconda also figures into the plot. This book is about the making of a horror film, but it's also about the mechanics of fear, which makes it infinitely more interesting than if it were merely a paean to giallo and slasher flicks. The trickiness of verisimilitude between life and art and the struggle to locate personal identity, rather than exist as a passive product of culture, form a dark undercurrent in the story, much like the Amazon River flowing past many of the book's locales. Anyone interested in film production, the craft of acting, special effects, or South American politics will find any of those subjects a handy inroad to the complex web of people and events within We Eat Our Own, but you don't have to be a movie buff or political science major to become lost in this tense tale. The courtroom drama sections similarly enrich without requiring legal knowledge. In fact, it's these portions of the book that show best how Wilson is herself much like the unhinged director at the heart of the novel. She withholds information from the reader while seeming to share it, leaving crucial pieces of the puzzle for the end of the book, and her awareness of what brutality and violence can do never hinder her willingness to thrust it onto the page. With a quick point of view change, she deepens a character or bends the plot. Stylistic elements like parallel structure and a penchant for posing questions artfully blend form and function. We Eat Our Own would be easy to sell as a creepy Halloween read, but it's much more than that. Part mystery, part social novel, part love letter to the dark underbelly of film, it works on so many levels that I ran out of fingers trying to count them all. Holding equal appeal to the cultural theorist and schlock-film junkie, Wilson's novel slips the bonds of genre to become something uniquely its own.
We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson (Scribner | 9781501128318 | September 6, 2016)
Review: ‘Into the Sun’ by Deni Ellis Béchard

Review: ‘Into the Sun’ by Deni Ellis Béchard

IntoTheSun_9781571311146_efb2cOn a cold, clear winter night, a party is interrupted by gunfire. From a luxurious safe room, the guests–journalists, security contractors, human rights lawyers, teachers–watch as the home in which they were relaxing moments before is stormed by armed men. It's 2012 in Kabul, ten years into the US occupation, and in the expatriate community that has sprung up in the wake of the invasion, such contradictions are commonplace–frivolity and boredom give way to sudden violence, and idealism and opportunism mix freely. The people at the party have come to Kabul for similarly varied reasons–some out of faith, some out of passion, some out of greed–but all of them are united by a common desire for reinvention. And in just a few days, three of them will be dead. Thus begins Into The Sun, the haunting, ambitious, and utterly compelling second novel from Deni Ellis Béchard, who won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for 2007's Vandal Love. “At parties,” the novel's narrator observes early on, “we laughed about those who'd become unhinged in their quest for purpose while we quietly worried about our own.” Béchard's Afghanistan is not a nation of constant danger–it's a nation of constant redefinition. While the country's residents struggle with an unending cycle of violence, poverty, and corruption, the western civilians who come to write, teach, or work for NGOs lose themselves in personal quests. Justin, Alexandra, and Clay seem like an improbable trio–casual acquaintances united only in their sudden, violent deaths, when the car they are sharing explodes in the center of the Afghan capital. But when Michiko, a journalist who has found herself pulled to Afghanistan by its promise of danger, self-sacrifice, and personal purpose, begins to dig into their pasts, she discovers that the chain of events that brought them together–in this strange and merciless country, in the safe room, and on the day they died–was set in motion long ago. Clay and Justin attended high school together in Louisiana, before a tangled web of circumstances and a singular act of violence drove them apart. A decade later, Justin was a devout Christian teaching at a run-down school, and Clay, discharged from the military, was a private contractor specializing in “K&R”–kidnapping and ransom. Alexandra, a Quebecois lawyer drawn to the latent brutality of the newly-opened war zone, came to Kabul to provide legal help to imprisoned women, and became connected to both men. Clay reinvented himself as a mercenary after a military career that ended in disgrace. Justin, unable to join the army, reinvented himself as something of a missionary, a zealous educator who sought to “save” his students. Alexandra reinvented herself as a response to the violence she faced as a young woman. During their time in Kabul, all three became involved with Frank, the fervent, unyielding founder of the school at which Justin taught, and with Idris, an Afghan boy who worked for Frank as a driver, handyman and general laborer, ostensibly in exchange for an education. When Michiko learns that Idris, who was working in vain for a scholarship to the United States, may have been in the car with her friends, she realizes that it isn't just expatriates trying to reinvent themselves in Kabul–in this new frontier, everyone is chasing what they believe is their manifest destiny. Béchard, who, as a journalist, has reported from the Congo, Iraq, and Columbia in addition to his time in Afghanistan, captures with an exacting eye the strange mixture of hubris, aspiration, and almost childlike conviction that drives people from all over the world into places of conflict. It is with that same journalist's perception that he explores the lives of those who have no choice–the ordinary citizens of Kabul, caught up in ceaseless years of warfare. His characters seek affirmation, fulfillment, a paycheck, or perhaps just to survive, but they all seek something–something that they will redefine themselves, again and again, to attain. As thought-provoking as it is engaging, Into The Sun is a remarkable study of how we all shape our identities, and of how our constant reinventions may ultimately define us–and perhaps destroy us.
Into the Sun by Deni Ellis Béchard (Milkweed Editions |9781571311146 | September 20, 2016)

‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’ by Grady Hendrix

Fans of Hendrix's previous novel, Horrorstör can rest easy. His followup book is enough like his first that you'll enjoy it from cover to cover, but it's dissimilar enough to keep you from feeling like you're reading a bad sequel. For the unfamiliar, Horrorstör resembles an Ikea catalog and is, indeed, also set in an Ikea-like store. It's a gory supernatural horror novel packed with easter eggs, layers of meaning, and jokes. My Best Friend's Exorcism, in contrast, is less overtly postmodern but still creepy and threaded with humorous moments. While the constant pop culture references can, at times, recall the overindulgence of Ernest Cline, mostly they feel about right, considering that the main characters are in high school (and in high school, obsession with pop culture is not indulgent but a natural state). The two main characters are young women, best friends since meeting in the fifth grade. One is rich and the other poor; one is from a strict religious family while the other's parents are wholly secular. When we begin to see the darker aspects of the wealthy girl's home life, it looks easy to predict where the story goes--but it doesn't go there, not really. While the actions of her parents are definitely worrisome and suspicious, it turns out she's actually possessed by a demon. Yes, the title refers to actual demonic possession and exorcism. If readers can suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in an era when backmasking, rock lyrics, and TV plot lines could incite a national furor over the fate of young souls, they won't find it hard to enjoy a plot involving an actual demon from hell interfering in an adorable high school friendship. Hendrix nails the essence of what it's like to be a sixteen year old girl so perfectly that sections of this book could've been lifted from Judy Blume, if Judy Blume also wrote about tapeworms erupting from the mouths of snobby rich girls or topless, lovelorn teens trying to fling themselves from school rooftops. The plot twists are genuinely gripping, the exorcism passages are original without dismissing genre convention, and the ending was beautiful enough to make my eyes water a little. Best of all, the language and imagery of the grossest passages are executed so well that they might pop into your head a week or so later and ruin your dinner. In short, if you're looking for a fun read with enough depth to make it interesting, My Best Friend's Exorcism belongs on your bookshelf. It's not as groundbreaking as Carrie (but how many books are?) or as nuanced as Shirley Jackson's horror writing (though what is?), but it's  a compelling twist on an interesting subgenre and well worth the time spent in reading.
‘Over the Plain Houses’ by Julia Franks

‘Over the Plain Houses’ by Julia Franks

OverThePlainHouses_9781938235214_583feWhen a novel takes its title from one of Anne Sexton's best poems, it sets the bar high before readers can even scan the blurbs on the back cover. Luckily, Over the Plain Houses is up to the challenge. This is the absorbing tale of a preacher's wife who wants more than what her hardscrabble life gives her, the story of a couple divided by loss, the story of a gifted child limited by circumstance, and the story of a man desperate for certainty in a changing world. The plot is absorbing enough on its own, but as Over the Plain Houses progresses, shadows of the past fall across contemporary events. When I started reading it, for example, armed militants had just been removed after occupying a federal wildlife refuge for over a month, and several headlines about efforts to limit women's birth control options appeared in the news. It's easy to feel as if the characters' problems could be our problems. Beyond its layered storytelling, the novel is deeply atmospheric. While this is true of most good historical fiction, Over the Plain Houses hasn't tackled shining Belle Epoque Paris or the sleek sophistication of mid-century New York. It thrusts readers into rural American life during the Great Depression, a setting that helps set this novel apart from the pack. Whether through looming mountains, frigid nights, or dour church services, Franks immerses readers in a world where danger and familiarity thread together through the protagonist's life. The book doesn't stop at broad strokes and moody landscapes, either. The plethora of minute details and careful descriptions of outmoded practices, defunct technologies, and vanished places indicate a great deal of careful research, but this is never at the expense of plot or character. Instead, they're blended into colorful phraseology or poetic passages that effortlessly serve many purposes--for example, one section describes the steps involved in tobacco farming in the 1930's, and it advances the plot while offering insight into the protagonist's thoughts and re-establishing the importance of seasonal rhythms in the characters' lives. Franks makes her sentences multitask, and she makes it look easy. Spooky without verging on horror, dreamy without growing fantastic, and steeped in realism without forgetting to be beautiful, Over the Plain Houses is one of the best examples of historical fiction I've read lately. People who typically avoid the genre because of its over-reliance on romance and tendency for hyperbole will enjoy how this book resists the typical limitations. Sticklers for period detail will be pleased rather than frustrated, and anyone annoyed by the slew of fictionalized biographies will find this novel wonderfully devoid of any famous writers, movie stars, or politicians. Come for the gripping domestic drama--stay for the dynamite.
Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks (Hub City Press | 9781938235214 | May 1, 2016)