Harold Parker

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Following on the heels of Helen Dunmore's acclaimed novel, The Siege (2002), one might expect that another book focusing on the Nazi blockade of Leningrad during World War II would have a hard time attracting attention. Happily enough, though, Elise Blackwell's debut novel, Hunger, carves out its own niche. Hunger focuses on efforts by a group of scientists to preserve a collection of seed specimens, even at the price of starvation. It's a remarkable, fact-based story of heroism and self-sacrifice under the harshest of war's privations. It is also a story of the desperate will to survive. Blackwell has employed an unnamed, rather mysterious narrator to tell her story of survival. He's a scientist, and apparently a participant in the work of his colleagues to preserve seeds; his insider's view of the siege is refracted through the prism of distance and old age.

Through this narrator, readers get a feel not only for the countless horrors which occurred, especially during Leningrad's "hunger winter"(ranging from offers of bodies and souls in exchange for food, to self-amputation of limbs, murder and cannibalism); an appraising light is also thrown, for example, on the misguided idealism of the scientists' leader, or petty complaints over an orchestra's performance.

The narrator's perspective is more tender regarding the stoicism of his wife, Alena, also a scientist, who dies protecting the seeds. Unlike his wife, however, the narrator has no interest in martyrdom.

The prose of Hunger is terse, stripped to essentials, but it produces a lilting, nearly poetic quality. The detail is exacting and freshly presented. Blackwell's most notable achievement, however, is a compelling exploration of the moral chasm that war can create.

Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.

 

Elise Blackwell's debut novel, Hunger, carves out its own niche. Hunger focuses on efforts by a group of scientists to preserve a collection of seed specimens, even at the price of starvation. It's a remarkable, fact-based story of heroism and self-sacrifice under the harshest of war's privations. It is also a story of the desperate will to survive.
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A Montana patriarch's death provides the impetus for Thomas McGuane's new novel, The Cadence of Grass. From this starting point, McGuane (Nothing but Blue Skies) explores family ties and cycles of change, producing a plentiful yield of humor and insight.

Sunny Jim Whitelaw's widow, Alice, wishes to collect herself; his daughters share more complicated desires. For Evelyn, it could be a sense of peace, either through ranching or simply being alone. Natalie, however, wants to secure a luxurious lifestyle and figure out how to dump her unexciting but loyal husband.

Naturally, Alice is provided for in Sunny Jim's will. The children get nothing unless Evelyn reconciles with her just out of prison husband Paul (whom the will surprisingly installs as president of the Whitelaw bottling plant). Only then can the business be sold and the proceeds dispersed.

The Cadence of Grass portrays the ensuing tug of war. On one side are the strange bedfellows (literally and figuratively) Paul and Natalie; on the other, Evelyn, still drawn to her roguish mate but yearning to cut the cord. It's a small story in scope, yet chock full of satisfying nuggets of wit and wisdom. McGuane's prose combines a certain poetic elegance with droll understatement.

One particularly engrossing aspect of the book is the attention McGuane devotes to the rigors and toil of modern ranching. It's a business fraught with difficulties, amid the vicissitudes of weather and the marketplace. Still, the appeal especially for Evelyn is made real and immediate. (Paul, typically, views cattle as a nonperforming asset. ) McGuane's novel contains some rather surprising twists, including a suicide and a stunning act of revenge. There is an abiding hopefulness, though, embodied in a character like Bill Champion, the Whitelaws' ranch manager. Evelyn muses that the elderly man's improvements to the property cattle, building and fences were stays in the face of general impermanence, even as they couldn't possibly last.

This is the core, one might say the horse sense, of McGuane's brief but enjoyable tale.

 

Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.

A Montana patriarch's death provides the impetus for Thomas McGuane's new novel, The Cadence of Grass. From this starting point, McGuane (Nothing but Blue Skies) explores family ties and cycles of change, producing a plentiful yield of humor and insight. Sunny Jim Whitelaw's widow, Alice, wishes to collect herself; his daughters share more complicated desires. For […]
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On Green Dolphin Street, an intriguing new novel by best-selling British author Sebastian Faulks, is a love story set in America, 1960. When Frank Renzo meets Mary van der Linden, she appears to be the epitome of the affable helpmate for her husband, Charlie, a British diplomat. If she lacks anything, it might be a long dormant sense of life's transcendancy which Renzo, a New York reporter, somehow stirs within her.

Charlie, disguising simmering troubles of his own, unwittingly encourages their friendship. Thus Frank and Mary are able to begin their liaison in New York, eventually forcing them to confront the central dilemma of the novel: love or duty? In telling this story, Faulks employs his own experience as a journalist. He accumulates a wealth of descriptive detail; his settings including Greenwich Village, London, Moscow and in flashback, Dien Bien Phu, in Vietnam are all keenly rendered. He also makes interesting observations about such far-flung topics as Nixon, diplomatic speech and the FBI.

Faulks' special focus, though, is on the sadness, the endings, that cling stain-like to his characters' lives. Mary, Frank and Charlie live with memories of World War II (in which Charlie and Frank served) and an apprehensiveness toward the Cold War. This lends Frank and Mary's affair an almost moral urgency. This anxiety contributes, too, to a breakdown Charlie suffers in Moscow, an event that further complicates Mary's life.

Faulks' unhurried manner and elaborate prose eventually work their magic: the story and its characters elicit both sympathy and respect. Take Charlie's moment of clarity as he ponders life through the prism of literature: "It might seem to glow with a little of that borrowed luster: it might seem after all to be charged with some transcendant value." On Green Dolphin Street is also the title of a Miles Davis jazz tune that Frank plays for Mary. It becomes for her, symbolic of the pathway to an exciting life one suffused with richness and purpose, if only temporarily.

 

Harold Parker is a writer in Gallatin, Tennessee.

On Green Dolphin Street, an intriguing new novel by best-selling British author Sebastian Faulks, is a love story set in America, 1960. When Frank Renzo meets Mary van der Linden, she appears to be the epitome of the affable helpmate for her husband, Charlie, a British diplomat. If she lacks anything, it might be a […]

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