Me, You by Erri De Luca (translated from the Italian by Beth Archer Brombert)

Sea of Memory by Erri De Luca was originally published in 1999 (in English) by the independent publisher Ecco Press.  It was re-released this month by Other Press as Me, You.  (Note: it seems to be the same translation – from the Italian by Beth Archer Brombert).

Me, You begins as a 1950’s coming of age/summer love story.  It is narrated by a 16-year old boy staying with his uncle in Naples. WWII is still a fresh memory. The narrator, whose real name we’re never told, is on the cusp of adulthood and curious about the war. His curiosity draws him to Nicola, a former soldier turned fisherman, who patiently answers his questions.

From the start it is apparent that this boy is uninterested in young people his own age. Instead he spends his time as part of the circle of young adults who congregate around his older cousin, Danielle. Through them he meets Caia – an orphan girl, beautiful, mature and mysterious.  Unsurprisingly, he falls in love. Not a teen’s hormonal-fueled passion, but a chivalric and romantic love. As he learns more of Caia’s history, her Jewish heritage and the fate of her family, the recent past becomes intertwined with our narrator’s present.

There’s nothing typical about De Luca’s unnamed narrator (I have this overwhelming urge just to call him Bob to make this easier). His actions and thoughts are out of sync with a typical 16-year old boy.  He seems too serious, too old for his years.  And as this small novel – a novella really – progresses his behavior becomes increasingly strange and erratic.  His interactions with Caia become awkward (apparent to the reader, if not to the characters). 

This is because Me, You contains a plot twist.  Someone from Caia’s past wanders into the narrative in an unexpected way.  And as that person reveals himself the dialogue (in my opinion) becomes a tad overwrought.  The couples’ exchanges take on an unnatural intensity.  They’re too formal.  And while the prose is beautiful – particularly in the descriptive passages – it is also densely lyrical bordering on claustrophobic.

I thought about that evening on land with Daniele and Caia not wishing to turn around and look at the island.  On the sea I did not feel distance.  A third of a moon rose, losing its red rind on the pavement of still water.  A powerful smell of bait filled the air now that we were stopped.  With my fist I splashed the baskets with water.  The wood of the oars fit snugly into the palm of the hand, legs placed one in front, one behind, to support the body’s push on the oars: and so there I was conforming to custom, to the métier, to the hour of the night; there was a place for me in that vastness of the sea, a place to put feet and hands and do what was needed.  Caia was solid ground, eternal woman in a century that held me by the throat out of love and rage, but not out there, not on the sea.  There, I was in the commingled nights of the earth’s numberless summers, I was a coeval of the planet, one of its wakeful species.

Me, You progresses from a coming of age/summer love story into a ghost story.  In many ways the author’s style suits this transition, but left me with mixed feelings.  On one hand the book grows heavy as the narrative progresses until, in its final pages, it becomes almost unwieldy.  Is that a bad thing?  The last scene is a trap, our narrator left without an escape or options.  Does the lyrical density I’ve already mentioned, the feeling of claustrophobia, highlight this?  De Luca’s prose really is beautiful… but that dialogue!!  I could go back and forth, pros vs. cons, all day long.

As you can see, I’m caught on the fence about this one.

Publisher:  New York, Other Press (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 479 5

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Books can develop personalities separate from the characters and author.  This is not true for every book – I’m not endorsing some new form of literary theory based on the psychoanalysis of literature.  But sometimes it does happen.

For example – Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy is definitely a sociopath.  Mundane day-to-day existence and violence are so enmeshed that they easily transition in and out of each other without missing a beat.  It has no morality.  The sentences contain no boundaries separating the characters’ speech from the action.  It begins and moves in a single, linear path to its end.  It is written in swarms of words and sentences which decimate whatever lay in their paths like locusts.  It sees and relates to the world only in terms of itself.

You see, books with personalities are so themselves that we don’t need to wait for some reviewer or critic to tell us what they are about, what we should think about them, or worst of all – what they mean.  It’s all as plain as day.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is another.  If you’ve read it, you’ve probably reread it.  And possibly re-reread it again.  It’s that girl who everyone wants to talk to at parties, or the favorite aunt we look forward to seeing at the family reunions.  The one who knows all the family gossip.  Yet, it’s so happy, so witty, and so much fun to be around.  It has the entertaining ability to tell a good story, to point out everyone’s character flaws.  And all done in such a good-natured way that no one is offended.

This leads me to the point:  Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a magician, an illusionist, a master of misdirection.  It’s the rarest of all books – with a plot that midway through changes trajectories and becomes a different book from the one you thought you were reading a few pages ago.  You zig, the story has zagged.  But Marisha Pessl does it in so clever, so subtle a way that there’s no discordant note jarring you out of the story.  You don’t sit there trying to figure out what the hell just happened or locate the jump in continuity.  Instead you thumb back through the pages wondering how you could have been so dense as to have missed the connections.  It all seems so obvious when you reach the last chapter… like the scene when the detective looks around the office at the end of “The Usual Suspects”.  You’ve been so confident in the preconceptions you established all the way back when you read the back cover in the bookshop, that you never saw the twist coming.  And THAT is brilliant storytelling.  Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

So how do I give you a plot summary, without giving away the plot?  Obviously, it is a mystery (the book, not the question).  It is also a coming of age story.  It’s a first novel, and like many first novels it’s written in the first person.  It’s a damn good read.

This is the story of Blue van Meer, told by Blue van Meer, one half of what must be the most engaging father/ daughter team since Atticus & Scout.

Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.

“Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond – James Bond – you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began – with a wheeze.”

Dad is an award-winning, famous in his field, poli-sci professor.  He and Blue have been traveling in a Volvo station wagon between backwater colleges for the last 10 years, since Blue’s mother died in a car accident.  The total number of schools Blue had attended in that time I think was 24 (don’t quote me).  She was the perpetual new girl, except that “that glittery title was always stolen from me within minutes of my arrival by someone fuller lipped and louder than I”.  At the beginning of this story her father surprises her with the announcement that her entire senior year of high school (prior to attending Harvard) will be spent in one place:  St. Gallway Academy.

During her first week at St. Gallway Blue is begrudgingly befriended by the Bluebloods.  The name pretty much speaks for itself:  they are rich, beautiful and privileged.  The Bluebloods – Jade, Charlie, Milton, Leulah and Nigel, – are in the thrall of Hannah Schneider.  She is their film teacher, their friend, and their muse.  It is to please her that they allow Blue into their inner circle.    In the normal course of events, if they noticed her at all, Blue would be their prey.

Early on, (i.e. – when you pick up the book, turn it over, and read the blurb) you learn that the climax of this story is the death of Hannah Schneider.  The plot hinges on questions:  Who is Hannah Schneider? Why her connection to the Bluebloods?  What is her interest in Blue?  Intertwined with these questions are the stories of the Bluebloods, Blue’s parents, the June bugs and a strangely normal boy named Zach.  But mostly this is Blue’s story.  A story she has unknowingly been at the center of her entire life.

______

Quick Note on the format of the book, which I loved.

Pessl has written the book like a curriculum – divided up into 3 parts, and then into Chapters.  Each chapter title is the title of a book which is on the Required Reading list.  Citations sprout throughout.  In one chapter we even get footnotes.  Special Topics in Calamity Physics could be Blue’s entrance application essay for Harvard.

Publisher:  Penguin, New York (2007)
ISBN:  978 0 143 11212 9

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Revolution: The Year [Deb Olin Unferth] Fell In Love & Went To Join the War

It seems the North American teenager is a truly resilient creature.  Even when taken out of their natural environment and dropped into an exotic locale they maintain their normal behavior patterns – angry moping.  The quick summary of Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War goes like this –  Girl meets Boy.  Girl falls for Boy.  Girl and Boy go looking for a Revolution.  Girl and Boy hang out, bored.

Or, as Unferth much more eloquently puts it…

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area – there were several – but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen.  That’s the whole story.

Lucky for us, it’s not.  Much more than another coming of age story, Revolution is a Dummy’s Guide to Central American politics in the 80’s.  The world is upside down, and while Unferth travels to El Salvador with the best intentions of helping out the revolution (o.k., not exactly), in truth she’s really nothing more than a tourist.   One among many.  People come from all over the world to support revolutions (who knew?).  It’s common enough that the Nicaraguan locals had a name for them.  Internationalistas:  Westerners who come and go in waves, following revolutions like the Grateful Dead, with no real personal stake in their outcomes. Around them uprisings become inappropriately festive.

A group of jugglers had come from Canada.  They’d gone to the northern mountains of Nicaragua, to the war zone.  “We walk from town to town,” one told me, “juggling.”

Imagine.  We were walking across their war, juggling.  We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats.  I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd.  The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor.  We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet.  We weren’t a revolution.  We were an armed circus.

Revolution:  The Year I Fell in Love & Went to Join the War is told with a large font in a slim book.  The chapters are anecdotal, clustered around a common theme and organized in loose chronological order.  You are reading a series of impressions written down years after the actual events took place.  Unferth readily admits that her memory for details is shaky and her insights recent.  She second guesses herself frequently.  But while dates and times may be estimates, there is no arguing with the raw emotional honesty or the self-deprecating humor.  No one could be harder on Unferth then she is on herself, though I couldn’t help but feel that some things were being deliberately glossed over – particularly her history with her family.

This isn’t a comfortable book.  But being a teenager isn’t comfortable.  Frequently I found myself squirming self-consciously for a clueless girl I completely identified with.  I think most readers will.  All of us have been young, delusional and in love at one time or another…  usually with a much less interesting story when it’s all over.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9323 0

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La Revolución remolque libro continúa!

The book trailer REVOLUTION continues!

I’m still trying to get into this book trailer thing.  On the whole – not going so well.  But this landed in my Gmail the other day and I found myself intrigued

The book is Revolution:  The Year I Fell In Love & Went To Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth.  It’s not every day a girl finds God, a husband and her inner Sandinista.  Probably for the best.  And yet, it could make for good reading.

What do you think?  Is your interest piqued?

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