Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Wayfaring Stranger and James Lee Burke in the Heat of August

Just in time to save August from being my most hated month EVER, a new James Lee Burke novel, Wayfaring Stranger.

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LOL, escaping from the relentless heat and humidity of Pensacola, I enter the heat and humidity of Burke country, ranging from the oil fields in Louisiana to the desolate social scene of Houston in the 1950’s.

I got hooked on James Lee Burke in a very cold winter February in Wiesbaden, Germany, when I came across a book called A Morning for Flamingos. I like mysteries, but this was a mystery by a poet! When I read about the what an approaching thunderstorm looks like when you live in a little cabin in New Iberia on Bayou Teche, I was lost. I-don’t-know-how-many books later, I’ve been to New Iberia, had lunch by the Bayou Teche and explored Burke country.

Louisiana is soulful, all those little roads, and sugar cane factories (think True Detective, here) but, (sigh) no matter how colorful, no matter how beautiful, the Louisiana in James Lee Burke’s books is better. He’s been there longer, he has the eye to see that heron, that shiver of wind over the water, that glint of pure evil in a bad guy’s eye. I know you think I am blathering on, but kinda-sorta the Dave Robicheaux detective series are all pretty similar, what changes is the particular social injustice. So this is what hooks me – Burke’s relentless battle against injustice, by writing powerful books that get read by a lot of people, and the elegant prose and philosophy he inserts to lift it way beyond the run of the mill mystery book.

The Wayfaring Stranger is the best yet. It’s not one of the Robicheaux series, it’s part of a Holland series, lawmen whose Texas lives and challenges we’ve read about in previous books. Wayfaring Stranger is the story of Weldon Holland (Burke tells us in an after word that Hollan – no D – is an old Texas family name in his line) who lives with his grandfather and runs into the real Bonnie and Clyde. Fast forward and he is fighting in the Ardennes, and the only reason you have faith he will survive is that there are so many pages ahead of you . . . he and one of his men trek, hop a train, and end up in a deserted death camp, where they find one survivor – a woman. The three of them are surrounded by fighting armies and find safety in a local farm’s cellar.

Oops. I’ve already given away that Weldon survives the battle. It’s hard to write much more without giving too much away. It’s a powerful story, powerfully written. It’s about good men and women and weak men and women and how sometimes an evil person can surprise you with a goodness.

Warning. Once you pick up Wayfaring Stranger, you’ll need a block of time so you can just go ahead and finish it. You won’t be putting it down.

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August 8, 2014 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Character, Civility, Community, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Financial Issues, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Social Issues, Survival, Technical Issue, Values, Work Related Issues | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian

AdventureMan came into the room where I was reading and handed me this book. “Will you read this?” he asked, and there was a note in his voice that sounded a little aggrieved.

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“What’s up?” I asked. “You sound a little peeved.”

“I read this,” he said. “I thought it was pretty good, but when I read the reviews on Amazon, some people called it ‘trivial’,” and I could see he was embarrassed that something he thought was pretty good others believed was of little importance.

Big mistake, Adventureman.

I might read a little of the reviews when deciding whether to buy a book or not, because I won’t remember it when it comes time to actually read the book or review the book, but I never, NEVER read the reviews as I am reading or before I review a book. And, truthfully, I don’t really care what this reviewer says or that reviewer says. Sometimes I read a New Yorker review of a book and I think “that reviewer has her own filter and can’t see beyond her framework” or “Wow! That reviewer saw some things I’d like to see!” Sometimes I will read a review and then read the book and think that the reviewer really missed the mark, positively or negatively, it could be either way.

Reviews are opinions. We all have them. Some you might agree with, some you might not, but don’t let them touch you, or your experience with the book. We are each unique, and see through a unique lens!

First, it delighted me that I read this just after I read Babayaga, because I ejnoy Paris, and delight in walking Paris, and in Babayaga and in All the Light There Was, people do a lot of walking in Paris. So much so in All the Light There Was that I ran down to my little map collection for the Paris maps and would track the heroine through Paris. It was fun.

Although All the Light There Was is called a novel, I don’t think it is. As I read it, I thought it was highly biographical or autobiographical, based on a diary or diaries. The significant details – how the mama stockpiled food just as war was announced and all the places she stored it, including under the bed, the clothing they wore, the sweaters they knit, the indignities they endured, and the risks they bravely took against the occupying Germans – it doesn’t sound made up to me, it sounds like a story someone has told from that time.

The details are so strong – the bicycle tires that are treasured because if they go flat, that is the end of the last transport they have, the dresses that have become too big because people have eaten too little – these details sound like voices to me.

So I would not call this book trivial. This book captures a moment in time, it’s a snapshot. The characters don’t have a lot of depth, the events don’t have a lot of texture, but I do know what occupied Paris ate during the last years of the occupation (turnips) and the ambivalence with which Paris viewed their Jewish citizens. In this war-time Paris, Kricorian captures well Pastor Martin Niemoeller’s poem about When They Came for Me:

In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

Many in Paris were happy to see the Jews go, happy it wasn’t them. Kricorian tackles this issue indirectly, with a light but inescapable hand.

One of the things that was shocking to both of us what that when Maral’s ancient Auntie Shakeh died, and we see the tombstone – she is 35 years old. We knew she and Maral’s parents had escaped the Turkish efforts to eradicate the Armenians in Turkey, but because we are seeing the story through Maral’s eyes, her parents and aunt seem ancient, whereas in today’s terms, they are very young adults.

Don’t read the reviews, AdventureMan! Read the book, take from the book what you will, enjoy your own experience. Write your own reviews!

January 18, 2014 Posted by | Books, Civility, Community, Cooking, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Fiction, Living Conditions, Paris, Survival, Values | , | 2 Comments