Article first published as Book Review: Rock Bottom by Erin Brockovich, with CJ Lyons on Blogcritics.
Most of us know Erin Brockovich from the movie of the same name, starring Julia Roberts. And most of us know her as the feisty advocate for environmental justice, who helped settle cases against, among others, P, G & E for polluting the town of Hinkley, California’s water supply by leaking toxic Chromium 6 into the ground water. Brockovich broke into the world of media with Lifetime series, “Final Justice With Erin Brockovich”, which she hosted for three seasons. Then, in 2001, there followed a non-fiction book, Take It From Me. Life’s A Struggle, But You Can Win. Now, she’s entering the world of fiction with Rock Bottom, written with CJ Lyons.
Touted as the first of a series of suspense novels about an environmental crusader, the story follows AJ Palladino as she journeys back to her West Virginia hometown after a traumatic incident. It’s only the latest difficulty she’s faced holding onto a job. So, whether out of desperation or a desire to start over again, AJ, a single mother, packs herself and David, her 10-year old wheelchair-bound son, into her car and heads for “Scotia, Population 867,” deep in the heart of West Virginia coal country. (p. 4)
Unresolved tensions, the roots of which surface only much later in the story, make her unwelcome at her parents’ house, so she hightails it to Gram Flora’s, where she finds an open door. Soon after she gets acclimated, AJ discovers that Zachary Hardy, the lawyer whom she’s agreed to work for, has just died.
At Hardy’s funeral, AJ meets his daughter, Elizabeth. Present at the memorial service, too, is Cole Masterson, son of the town’s coal company scion, who also happens to be the father of AJ’s son, a child he is still unaware was even born. (Ten years earlier, AJ had had a near-death experience when her car careened off the highway and into the water, nearly drowning herself. Rumors circulated it was an attempted suicide.)
Completing the cast of characters at the center of this gnarled, somewhat contrived, occasionally overwritten and overwrought story are Cole’s wife, Waverly, a group of radical environmental activists known as “The Ladies,” and their media-hungry ring leader, Yancey, along with a several more minor characters.
But what finally sets the action earnestly in motion is the allegation a reporter makes based on an anonymous tip she’s received: Zachary Hardy didn’t die of a heart attack; he was murdered. When Elisabeth herself receives a threatening message AJ decides to convince Elizabeth to take on whatever case her father was tracking and, with AJ’s help, get to the bottom of the emerging mystery.
But what exactly had Hardy uncovered? Turns out the Masterson Mining Company had been buying up land for several years and rolling out a rapid-fire way to extract coal—mountaintop removal—a labor–saving way to get mineral resources out faster, but at extraordinary environmental cost. And to complicate the story, it seems Cole Masterson’s been put in charge of the job. Except that nothing is really as it seems.
Ever the intrepid crusader, AJ is determined to get to the bottom of what is surely a disaster waiting to happen. As AJ tries to uncover the truth, the investigation becomes even more complicated and the story gets mired in dramas both personal and environmental. In fact, the plot has so many twists the accumulation of narrative turns eventually gave this reader whiplash.
Can AJ tell Cole about David, his son? How will Cole react? How will David take to having a father being part of a business apparently destroying the environment? What’s causing the ground water pollution? And who? What’s the truth about Yancey’s ladies? Why are AJ’s parents so cold to her and her son? Was Zachary murdered? And, by the way, what really happened to AJ ten years ago?
It takes a lot of patience to follow the trail of toxaphene poisoning AJ discovers back to its source. She finally solves the mystery of who lies behind the effort to put coal-mining profits before everything else. It’s a plausible solution, but not an entirely satisfying one. And maybe that’s because the motivation of almost every character in this story hasn’t been plumbed deeply enough to make the climax of the story, and some of the byways we are expected to travel to get to it, anything more than a little plausible. But perhaps now that Brockovich has gotten this hodge-podge of a back story out of the way she can concentrate in the coming sequel on developing her craft.
Article first published as Book Review: Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström on Blogcritics.
A Review of Three Seconds, by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, translated from the Swedish by Kari Dickson, Silver Oak, 2010.
Winner of the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers 2009 award for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the year, Three Seconds is a not at all fast-paced, sometimes annoyingly over-written, yet engaging thriller mixing mafia drug trafficking with police corruption into an explosive concoction. The back cover claims that this new book by the unusual duo, Roslund (journalist) and Hellström (Ex-con), is from the “masters of Swedish crime literature who paved the way for Stieg Larsson.” Whether this proclaimed lineage or the American readership’s apparently insatiable appetite for Swedish crime stories can explain it, the near 500-page book nonetheless clocked in this week at number 8 on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.
Piet Hoffman, a former criminal working undercover for the Swedish police under the code name “Paula,” is about to undertake his most dangerous assignment: return to prison to corner the prison amphetamine trade for the Polish mafia, while secretly operating a police-approved ploy to crush the mafia’s operation. His Swedish police handler, Erik Wilson, knows how risky the operation will be, but has every confidence his informant will succeed. “He’d never had anyone like Paula before, someone who was so sharp, alert, cool…Paula was better than all the others put together, too good to be a criminal.” (p. 23) Besides, Wilson has some responsibility for what happened, doesn’t he?
What happened was murder and Hoffman had been at the scene of the crime, unable (and unwilling) to stop it.
The day before, Hoffman called Wilson, asking for cover. An unexpected delivery of drugs is about to arrive. The chance they’d been waiting for. On a field trip to the U.S. to study new methods of covert operations, Wilson is unable to provide backup. “Get out,” he tells Hoffman. Too late, Hoffman says. Not to go along with the deal would risk blowing his cover; he’ll “go it alone.” (p. 10) But the deal goes bust when the buyer turns out to be an undercover informant himself and Hoffman can’t stop his Polish colleagues from killing the man without getting killed himself. At least he calls the police, anonymously. “A dead man. Vastmannagatan 79. Fourth floor.”
Enter Ewert Grens, an old-fashioned detective with his own troubled past, in mourning for his deceased wife, who had spent many years in an assisted living home incapacitated (we later learn) by an accident Grens himself caused. With the tenacity of a pit bull hanging onto its prey, Grens follows the few clues he uncovers at the crime scene until they begin to lead him close to Hoffman. But Wilson has Hoffman’s back. Working at the highest levels of the Swedish police force, and with the complicity of both a government ministry and the prison authorities, he arranges ways to keep Grens off Hoffman’s track. Simultaneously he fabricates an even darker criminal profile that will land Hoffman in Aspsås maximum-security prison to carry out his double-crossing-the-mafia plan.
Maybe Piet/Paula is too good to be a criminal. At least, he wants to think so. He’s a family man with a wife and two sons, who know nothing about what he really does for a living. His company, Hoffman Security AB, is a cover for Polish mafia-led drug-running. But it’s also a cover for his real employers—the Swedish police at the highest level—to infiltrate the mafia with the intent to undermine its power. So what if everyone has to commit a few crimes along the way, including throwing off the investigation of the murder. The ends justify the means. Or so just about everyone in this novel seems to believe.
But the lying seems to be getting to Hoffman. And so does the murder. (Well, not the murder exactly, but the risk of life imprisonment it carries if he’s caught.) It’s as if he’s become like all the other criminals he met in prison ten years earlier: people with “made up morals….There was nothing left of him that he could like.” (p. 96). The “family man” isn’t stopped by his devotion from dropping his feverish young children off at the childcare center, drugged with enough medication so the fever subsides enough for them not to appear sick. Daddy even takes them along with him, leaving them in the back of his car unattended, while he completes preparations and drug deals in the few hours left before he allows himself to be arrested again.
If it isn’t his conscience that motivates Hoffman to take this one last gig, no matter how risky, or illegal, is it his hope that, if he succeeds, maybe he’ll be able to get out of the game and get on with his more “normal,” middle class life? Maybe. Except, as the twisting and turning plot suggests, the Paula side of Piet seems to like the thrill of the game a little too much.
And so do the authors. The story takes a little too detail-laden description-filled journey to arrive at the plot point where things really start happening. Along the way, a few frustrating shifts of narrative point-of-view are more distracting than illuminating about character. And, although no surprise, given the usual tone of this genre, the women in the story are a little too thinly drawn to be memorable. But then, it would take a certain kind of woman to be able to stand up to the likes of Lisbeth Salander.
Seduction, Loss and Forgiveness…A Review of Eunice Lipton’s French Seduction: An American’s Encounter with France, Her Father, and the Holocaust
Ilsa: What about us?
Rick: We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have it, we’d lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
These lines from Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, a powerful and beautiful film about the complexities and contradictions surrounding France’s role in World War II, evoke a nostalgic view of the past. In the midst of all the horror and loss, at least we´ll have Paris. Yet, between these lines other questions lurk —Who will always have Paris? And which Paris will they always have?
Eunice Lipton‘s disturbingly delicious book, French Seduction, brings such questions to the surface through a story about her own equivocal love affair with France. A meditation on seduction, betrayal, and loss, Lipton takes the reader on an aesthetic and emotional odyssey in a book that is part memoir, part travelogue, part art history, and part ethnography. Descending into the caverns of memory, Lipton explores the desires, tactile pleasures and rich sensualities that make her love of places and people and things at once compelling and frightening.
“Darling go to Paris. You’ll be happy there, you’ll see,” her father says, setting young Eunice’s fantasy in motion. Already smitten with her father, an opinionated, arrogant man given to unpredictable rages, whose own fantasies about Paris began, at fifteen, when he left Riga, Latvia for America a decade before other Eastern European Jews disappeared into what Hannah Arendt once called “holes of oblivion”–the concentration camps of the Holocaust’s Final Solution—Lipton takes up his suggestion. “My Dad loved conversation and nice clothes and Paris, and I loved him. So when I am nineteen, I save my money and board a student ship to France.” And so begins a journey of many decades, a ronda of an affair with France that circles and repeats and descends and circles again until, almost from exhaustion, it reaches a moment of bittersweet reconciliation.
She puts Paris in her mouth with the first flaky croissant she consumes “in a room near the Boulevard St. Michel” and devours Paris with her eyes, gazing with forbidden pleasure at the stained glass windows of Notre Dame. With each bite and sly look she begins to possess something longed for, without quite knowing yet what to call it. “My father hates churches. `Anti-Semitin,’ he spits out. But Notre Dame is one of the great sights of Paris. I can’t not go in…France, as something of my very own, begins in the sweet beauty of this church.”
Yet France is also a place laced with memories of betrayal, at first personal—a boyfriend has an affair while Lipton is away in Provence on a research trip one year; the first time her father visits her in Paris, “the first time he’s ever been to Paris,” he is disgusted by the hotel Lipton has chosen for him—and then more political. Lipton discovers, or, more precisely, remembers: anti-Semitism, anti-Arab, anti-African, anti-immigrant, anti-homosexual sentiments are abundant in the past and present of France. “I am haunted by my own Otherness in France.”
Nonetheless, in 1999, Lipton and her husband, the artist Ken Aptekar (some of whose iconoclastic paintings become motifs in Lipton’s narrative) decide to move to Paris. “The reader will certainly laugh, or pity me, when I say that my experience, in Provence and then in Paris afterward, probably cinched my decision to move to France…Seduction and betrayal, I’m afraid is a trajectory I call home.” Why does she decide to live in France? What is she looking for? The four middle chapters of the book explore in compellingly evocative, sensual prose several answers to this question, some more deeply probed than others.
On one level her desire for Paris is fundamentally sensual, animal appetite. Walking the streets she observes being “ravished by the loveliness in the city, entranced by the tracery of balconies, the proud slope of mansard roofs, the winding streets…the balletic leap of bridges across rivers and canals.” In contrast to the color-drenched but tasteless landscape of food in America, in French markets, “indoors and out, peaches, pears, apples, roasting chickens, barbecuing pork, silver, white, red, and blue fish from all the rivers and seas of France heave themselves at you.” As do people. “My social life is lived across my body in a way I could never have imagined.”
An art historian who appreciates rich visual detail, Lipton uses her acuity of sight to mine language for words that can make you hear and smell and want to touch and taste a place, be among its things and people, as well as see them. At the same time, Lipton wonders, and wants the reader to wonder, what all this pleasure is all about. For Lipton, the answer is primordial: “France is that invitation to live. Maybe even, finally, to have my mother.” To have her mother, perhaps. Without becoming her. Or her father.
If there is an implicit voyeurism and watchful attentiveness that all writers engage, this narrator manages, for the most part, to implicate herself in these observations. Punctuating her own pleasure in viewing with acknowledgments that a certain `blindness´ has sometimes gotten her into trouble, or imaginatively putting herself into the scene, Lipton explores the dangers of pleasure. For the most part.
In a chapter entitled “Tease,” Lipton confesses to an unconventional weakness for the eighteenth century Rococo paintings of François Boucher. “I take a long deep dive into these unruffled summer days and linger where Boucher’s girls leap into one another…” Even the excesses in Boucher’s portraits of Madame de Pompadour entice her. “The Marquise is anchored in a sea of turquoise taffeta studded with pink roses and bundles of wide satin ribbons. She pokes her pink shod feet out from under her petticoats. The fingers of one hand push into thick folds of fabric…”
And yet, all is not well; there is a trap door in the middle of the eighteenth century. “But the effort of the display, the fierceness with which Pompadour carves a place for herself at court, feels sad to me…She is not herself…she is a display.” Instead of the “a subversive world of sexual egalitarianism” women’s power in the eighteenth century seems to be what one historian called an “optical illusion.” “There it is,” Lipton observes. “I was tricked. Or I tricked myself.”
And there is a trick also at the heart of this narrative, one that Lipton largely controls, but which sometimes controls her. “How can one live with both feelings, loving a culture and knowing that it doesn’t love you?” she asks and again, for the most part, plumbs deeply for answers.
In two chapters at the book’s literal center, Lipton rereads the canvasses and historical tracts recording the cultural and political history of France’s aesthetic and political identity. As she does, shadows protrude onto the landscape, darkening all that sunshine and dulling all glory and complicating Lipton’s love affair with France: there is a horror almost too awful to imagine underneath and behind all that beauty and national honor.
Beneath the surface happiness of Impressionism’s “glorious, carefree paintings” lurked the “disturbing circumstances that produced them.” Lipton traces a line from them to the virulent anti-Semitism that fanned French collaboration in World War II and continues it into late twentieth century Paris, where the “dangerous classes” exiled outside the city “are now becoming dangerous and for good reason.”
In Renoir’s and Degas’s anti-Semitism she discovers elements of treachery that recur in the interstices of the gloriously “Roaring 20s” indicating “something already in the French that could take them to bed with the Germans.” Ruined by the World War I, in which “every family lost someone,” Lipton claims that their depth of loss led the French into a dangerous nostalgia and shifted the national mood to one “xenophobic and hostile to outside influences.” And so Lipton asks again: “Does France love me? Or will she betray me again, as she did in 1940?”
At this point, the story shifts almost completely to indict France as a country whose image has been tarnished. No longer the cultural capital of art, riddled by a moribund economy and incoherent politics, Lipton thinks the French are confused and frightened by the multicultural society they have become (always were?) and are unable to take responsibility for their history. “The French are sick in their soul, and that is why their culture is dying. Their lying history is strangling them to death.” Some Parisians have yet to have Paris.
Still, Lipton chooses to stay. And just when the reader shouts “Why?” Lipton returns to the question of her father. “I know why I came here,” she says in the last paragraph of the book. “I wanted to forgive my father.” The answer is too glib, unsatisfying. Lipton’s nuanced writing makes us want more.
Beneath the surface beauty of her prose lies an unsettling, subterranean trick. Her clever weaving of history, art criticism, and memoir makes the reader question the question of betrayal that Lipton has said is at the heart of the book: what betrayal motivates her quest? Her father’s betrayal of his brother by failing to give their parents the letters he wrote from Spain while fighting in the Spanish Civil War? Or his betrayal of Lipton herself? “How can one live with both feelings, loving a culture and knowing that it doesn’t love you?” The same question can be asked about one’s parents. In the end, it’s not one with which Lipton has fully grappled.
With the publication of The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland debuted as a best-selling author of historical fiction. Two more novels followed—The Passion of Artemesia and The Forest Lover. And then a collection of short stories appeared—Life Studies. This body of work established Vreeland as an imaginative writer of fictional works about art and artists. In her new book, Luncheon of the Boating Party, Vreeland turns her attention to one of the most famous of Renoir canvasses, using that remarkable work to create an equally remarkable novel that evokes the social atmosphere of late nineteenth century Paris and its surrounds.
The story opens in the summer of 1880. Literally racing toward a painting he has planned for Île de Chatou, a leisure town along the Seine some miles outside Paris, Pierre-Auguste Renoir nonetheless seems to be in a creative slump. He longs for the return of the “thrill of breaking new ground,” like on the day he and Monet “discovered that juxtaposed patches of contrasting color could show the movement of sunlit water….” It might pay the rent but “repeating safe easy methods portrait after portrait, as he’d been doing lately, was suffocating him.” Moments later, he crashes the motorized bicycle he’s been riding. As he recovers he notices the name of the model: “La vie moderne. Modern life. He chortled. That was the subject matter of the new painting movement, as precarious as the steam cycle.”
Renoir wants to paint “la vie moderne…But how? That was the more perplexing question, the underlying issue agitating him lately. Impressionist or traditional?” Impressionism, the movement he helped co-found with fellow artists Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille and Alfred Sisley, appears to be riddled with internal strife—who are its legitimate standard bearers, where and how should they paint and exhibit their works, what are its proper subjects; in short, what is the future of the movement? And to add insult to injury, Renoir learns that the critic Emile Zola, an early supporter of the movement, seems to have changed his opinion: “The man of genius has not yet arisen. We can see what they intend…but we seek in vain the masterpiece that is to lay down the formula…” Where, Zola wondered, was that work that was based on “long and thoughtful preparation.”
Vreeland uses the twin catalysts of Renoir’s internal struggle and Zola’s challenge to motivate the plot—“What Zola wanted was just what he needed to do—the major work he’d imagined here [at Chatou] for years…An encore to Moulin [Bal au Moulin de Galette], but this had to surpass Moulin…This would be the fight of his life.” Through a third-person omniscient narrator whose lush, richly textured descriptions paint both the interior and exterior points of view of key characters in the story behind the story of Renoir’s painting, Vreeland magically evokes the mise-en-scene of Impressionist Paris and its suburban surrounds.
Vreeland’s carefully and thoroughly researched narrative creates a palpable, sometimes too-thickly, almost Rococo-textured impression of some of the major sights, sounds, colors, smells, and tastes of late nineteenth century bohemian Paris. Café life, the art world, Montmartre, the literary and social salons of bourgeois Paris, the seventy-two day siege known as the Paris Commune of 1871 and more help “set the positions and values over the whole canvas” of the novel. Yet, it is the process of painting, and the characters themselves—Renoir and his friends and models—that ultimately carry the novel.
“Let them see…the workings of his hand. If viewers saw only the things depicted and not the act of painting, they were missing half the pleasure,” Renoir muses. Vreeland agrees and brushes her text with thick daubs of passages describing the artist at work. “He squeezed out paint onto the palette, small, lovely dollops shining in the sun…He bent the hogs’ hair of his brand new broad flat to break the sizing and try out the balance of it. Where to make the first stroke?…He slashed a diagonal for the railing with the palest, most watery ultramarine and rose madder diluted with linseed and turpentine…Pure joy to touch down here and there.”
Vreeland is at her best when the vivacity and surety of her dazzling prose captures the artist at work. Color, timbre, and mood blend brilliantly into a compelling depiction of the act of painting and representation of a painter as much possessed by his subjects as he wishes to possess them. “The important thing,” Renoir tells one of his models, “is not what’s going on, but how it conveys what’s going on…Painting, the act of it, that’s what’s important.”
Yet Vreeland takes an incredible risk by making process—“Painting, the act of it”–the subject of her novel. To make her subjects—painting, people, the convulsed social life of Paris itself–come alive to serve the purpose of this story risks turning them into caricatures of themselves, objects to be manipulated to create a desired shimmering effect. That this mimics in verbal representation Renoir’s visual process is both the novel’s strength and its weakness. “If I had wanted to tell a story I would have used a pen,” Renoir declares. But Vreeland is telling a story. The question is: has she found the right form for the kind of story she wants to tell?
At times, one feels Vreeland working, like Renoir, at cross-purposes, trying to force a more traditionally structured approach to the novel—a well-plotted story thick with descriptively rich characterizations and detailed scenes—into service to more modern, “impressionistic” ends. For instance, Vreeland represents Renoir’s arrogant obsession with being known as “a painter of women” by coloring her narrative with sexual innuendoes and even quoting Renoir’s own infamous statements about women: “I can’t see myself getting into bed with a lawyer, if there are such female monsters. I like women best when they don’t know how to read, and when they wipe their babies’ bottoms themselves.” Yet, she resists crafting a more complex portrait of Renoir’s misogyny, choosing instead to distill it to the forbidden, yet sacred, essence fueling his art: “When a painter finds someone like that, and pretty too, he’s so grateful for her, so thrilled by what they do together, that it’s natural to want more, to ride his excitement farther by loving entry into the depths of her, and to bring her into ecstasy…That’s not philandery. It’s sacrament. It’s communion.”
For Vreeland, this is certainly true: art is sacred. It can emit “a blessedness”, creating a kind of healing force of light in the world. Certainly, that’s one way to read “the incandescence” of Renoir’s work. As Vreeland has described in interviews, the beauty she saw in “the placidness of Monet’s garden, the sparkling color of the Impressionists” gave her strength when she faced a serious health challenge. On one level, Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party is a lyrical ode to “that state of grace” she perceives in Renoir’s canvas.
In the final chapter, Vreeland turns the narrative over to Alphonsine Fournais, whose first person declaration—“I saw his life and his life’s work as one great, open-armed cry of love”–is meant to leave the lasting impression. Yet Vreeland’s loaded “[her] darks as well as [her] lights.” Her portrait of art as “love made visible” and of Renoir as “the painter of happiness” seems tantalizingly unfinished, a little like Renoir’s Luncheon without the awning.