Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night book cover

“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.”

“What? How do you mean?”

“I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.”

He stared at her, watching her, curious now, cautious….

….he stood at the door watching her, this medium-sized seventy-year-old woman with white hair walking away under the trees in the patches of light thrown out by the corner street lamp. What in the hell, he said. Now don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

There is no writer quite like Kent Haruf. He’s been a favorite of mine for a long time. I wrote about his other novels, Plainsong (my favorite), Eventide, and Benediction here.

Haruf passed away a year ago, and his final novel, Our Souls at Night, about the blossoming of an older couple’s relationship, was just published.

Like his other novels, Our Souls at Night takes place in the fictitious eastern Colorado town of Holt. I’m not going to say too much about this book because Haruf’s writing doesn’t lend itself to heavy analysis; I think that might ruin it for readers new to this author.

Instead, I’ll refer you to this review by Ursula Le Guin, who greatly admires Haruf’s writing and does a good job of summarizing Haruf’s themes, characters and style.

If you are new to Kent Haruf, you could start with Plainsong. I think you’ll be entranced by the characters in the lonely little desert town of Holt and you’ll want to read the other books.

Our Souls at Night would make a wonderful holiday gift.

“They stopped in one of the towns for hamburgers and then drove up the highway through the Arkansas River canyon, the beautiful fast water, steep red jagged cliffs on each side, there were Rocky Mountain sheep along the road, all ewes with short sharp horns, and went on and then turned off toward North Fork Campground on County Road 240 and entered the national forest…..They could hear it running and rushing. The clear icy water, with brook trout holed up in the hollows below the rocks. There were tall fir trees and big ponderosas and aspen along the creek and back in the hillside.”

Suite Française and my father

Bridge over Moselle River, Metz, France
The Moselle River in Metz, France. My father was wounded on November 14, 1944 in the weeks-long Battle of Metz. After the city was liberated, the Allies went on to break through to Germany in the Battle of the Bulge.

Storm in June and Dolce, by Irène Némirovsky

I brought Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky with me when we travelled to France just before V-E Day to visit our son, who had a work coop in Paris, and to explore the region near Metz in northern France, where my father was wounded in World War II.

Suite Française consists of two novels set during the early days of the French Occupation, with exquisitely drawn French and German characters that dramatize the complicated relationship between France and Germany at that time.

Suite Française book coverI don’t know how Némirovsky could write during the terrible days of the French Occupation. An acclaimed novelist from a wealthy Russian family and a member of the highest social circles in France, she was also Jewish. Némirovsky knew at any moment she could be deported to a concentration camp, separated from her husband and her two young daughters.

But write she did, and superbly. She was driven and disciplined, and the writing must have given structure to her days and helped her cope. She finished two of the five novels she’d intended for Suite FrançaiseStorm in June and Dolce–before she was, indeed, arrested and deported in July, 1942. Némirovsky died a month later of typhus in a concentration camp. Her husband, Michel, was deported that fall and died in the gas chambers.

The family’s devoted nanny hid the two young daughters, Élisabeth and Denise, who were being hunted by Vichy officials, and they managed to survive the war. Fifty years later, Denise discovered that the papers left behind in one of her mother’s suitcases were two novels–she had thought they were diaries and had been reluctant to read them. Storm in June and Dolce were finally published in 2004 as Suite Française, which became an international literary sensation.

Included in my edition of Suite Française are the journal Némirovsky kept as she wrote the novels, and the desperate correspondence of Irène and Michel with Némirovksy’s publisher and French officials as they tried to avoid deportation.

On fleeing Paris:

“…groups of people appeared outside their houses–women, old people and children, gesticulating to one another, trying, at first calmly and then with increasing agitation and a mad, dizzy excitement, to get the family and all the baggage into a Renault, a saloon, a sports car…Not a single light shone through the windows. The stars were coming out, springtime stars with a silvery glow. Paris had its sweetest smell, the smell of chestnut trees in bloom and of petrol with a few grains of dust that crack under your teeth like pepper.”

On being a young, married French woman with a German soldier billeted in her home:

“She felt a very feminine pleasure, an almost sensual, sweet sensation at seeing this childish look on a face that was, after all, the face of an implacable enemy, a hardened warrior. For we can’t pretend, she thought, that we aren’t all in his hands. We’re defenseless. If we still have our lives and our possessions, it’s only because of his goodwill. She was almost afraid of the feelings growing within her. It was like stroking a wild animal–an exquisitely intense sensation, a mixture of tenderness and terror.”

On the French villagers and the Germans:

“Little by little, darkness spread across the lawns; they could still make out the gold decorations on the uniforms, the Germans’ blond hair, the musicians’ brass instruments on the terrace…All the light of the day, fleeing the earth, seemed for one brief moment to take refuge in the sky: pink clouds spiraled round the full moon that was as green as pistachio sorbet and as clear as glass; it was reflected in the lake. Exquisite perfumes filled the air: grass, fresh hay, wild strawberries. The music kept playing. Suddenly, the torches were lit…There was the lively, happy sound of champagne corks popping.

“Oh, those bastards! And to think it’s our wine they’re drinking, the Frenchmen said, but without real bitterness, because all happiness is contagious and disarms the spirit of hatred.

And of course, the Germans seemed to like the champagne so much (and had paid so much for it!) that the Frenchmen were vaguely flattered by their good taste.”

From Némirovsky’s journal:

“I must create something great and stop wondering if there is any point. Have no illusions: this is not for now. So mustn’t hold back, must strike with a vengeance wherever I want.”

“Never forget that the war will be over and that the entire historical side will fade away. Try to create as much as possible things, debates…that will interest people in 1952 or 2052.”

“What lives on:

1. Our humble day-to-day lives

2. Art

3. God”

Suite Française has just been made into a movie but, as far as I can tell, a US release date is not yet known. I can’t vouch for its quality. A writer I know who lives in France told me many reviews have not been favorable. Usually, I don’t see movies adapted from books that I like unless I know the production is a good one. Nonetheless, below is the UK trailer. I do like Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas.

A personal connection

Cemetery with white crosses
The Lorraine American Cemetery in France, where many soldiers from the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Metz are buried.
White cross, gravesite
This soldier was in my father’s battalion. Perhaps they knew each other.
Cathedral and buildings, Metz
Cathedral of St. Etienne, Metz. My father was wounded before the Allies took Metz, so he never got to see the cathedral or this beautiful city.

I imagine the bells of St. Etienne rang on VE Day:

Moselle River, swans

Literary Blog Hop Book Giveaway

Literary Blog Hop logo


Welcome to The Literary Blog Hop!

My Giveaways: The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

(I will ship to international addresses.)

Books Can Save a Life is participating in the 2015 Literary Blog Hop, hosted by My Book Self.

Between now and midnight on Sunday, April 12, you can hop over to a dozen or so blogs, all offering giveaways of books, book gift cards, or bookish items. Click HERE to see the many fabulous blogs participating in this hop!

My Giveaway

I will be giving away two works of literary fiction by renowned authors. (One book each to two lucky winners.) Just leave a comment about books on my blog (see left sidebar) between now and April 12 and you’re eligible. Winners will be notified via email and will have 48 hours to respond or an alternate winner will be selected.

The Story of a New Name book coverAccording to The New Yorker,Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers.” An international literary sensation, Elena publishes under a pseudonym, so her identity remains unknown. I’m pleased to offer The Story of a New Name, the second in Ferrante’s best-selling Neapolitan trilogy. You’ve just got to experience her remarkable voice! Click HERE to read a previous post about Ferrante.

Ian McEwan has long been one of my favorites. The Children Act is the haunting story of a teen-age boy with a life-threatening disease who refuses medical treatment on religious grounds.The Children Act book cover

Anyone can enter The Literary Blog Hop. You do not need to have a blog or follow my blog, but if you find Books Can Save a Life of interest, please become one of my followers by email or on Facebook or Twitter.

Oh, and please share this post on your favorite social media!

The Literary Blog Hop ENDS:

MIDNIGHT EST April 12, 2015

Thank you for visiting Books Can Save a Life. Remember, leave a comment if you want a chance to win, and then start BLOG HOPPING!

The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks book cover


“It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office–all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing–while denying–that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.”   The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

I debated whether or not to write a post about The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. At least twice, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish reading it, but I’d already invested several hours in the book, so I kept on when the going got tough. In the end, I’m glad I finished The Bone Clocks. I think it’s worth writing about here, even though I don’t pretend to grasp its full meaning.

I’d picked up The Bone Clocks in the first place because it’s been called a genre-bending novel by a writer who’s reinventing fiction, so I wanted to find out what David Mitchell and his work is all about. It’s nearly impossible to summarize the plot of The Bone Clocks, which blends literary fiction with fantasy (not a genre I’m attracted to) and dystopian literature. There are six linked novella-type sections that take place in 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015, 2025, and 2043 (with flashbacks to medieval and other times) in settings as diverse as Ireland, New York, Iraq, England, Switzerland, Australia, and Iceland.

Among the half a dozen or so featured characters, apparently a couple of them have appeared in Mitchell’s past novels, including Cloud Atlas, none of which I’ve read. Holly Sykes is the highly appealing central character, and she is largely what kept me going when I wanted to stop, although I found many of the other characters arresting as well.

The fantasy thread features Horologists, a select group of immortal people battling the evil Anchorites, who suck the souls from people to stay alive. “A Horologist’s Labyrinth” is the section of the novel fully devoted to the final battle between the Horologists and the Anchorites–by far the most irritating part of the book, for me. I don’t like fantasy to begin with, and this section seemed to be poorly written, especially considering the brilliance of the rest of the book, although one critic pointed out we’re not to view it as serious fantasy, but rather a tongue-in-cheek portrayal.

I’m not even sure I understand why the fantasy element is present, though I know Mitchell sees it as central to his theme. The bone clocks are mortal and often foolish humans who inevitably age, decline, and die; they are contrasted with the brilliant, wise and immortal Horologists. I refer you to critics and reviewers in the mainstream publications who do a much better job of “figuring out” The Bone Clocks, especially if you’re interested in finding out more about the fantasy elements. Much of this aspect of the novel is simply over my head.

I’m not familiar with British and Irish slang from the 1980s, and so getting started was difficult–the first section depicts Holly as a runaway teenager from a working class English town. Despite all these difficulties, the The Bone Clocks marathon has a tremendous momentum, and for long sections I was riveted. Here, I want to focus on the dystopian final section of the book.

What an incredible life journey Holly Sykes has, but its end is devastating. Mitchell’s version of dystopia, while not especially original or inventive, is nonetheless disturbing. It is the time of the Endarkenment. Humanity is on its last legs. Holly knows one big storm is all it will take to finish off her rural Irish village. She’s living in poverty, with little food, minimal electricity and no internet, in a world ruled by the Chinese and a society that has all but disintegrated.

I read The Bone Clocks during a long, record-breaking deep freeze. Boston, where life seems to have stopped, is in dire straits: snow removal costs have gone over budget by millions, people can’t get to work, schools are closed, businesses are suffering, and the subway system is all but shut down.

We live in a country where many people do not believe in climate change or evolution or vaccines.

My Ohio hometown is a shadow of its former self, mired in poverty and crime. The governor boasts about balancing the state budget, but at the expense of towns starved for funds.

A member of my family is getting expensive medical treatment that, if not for insurance, would mean bankruptcy. And yet, many of our government leaders are determined to take affordable health insurance away from millions of poor and middle class families.

I went to a grocery store yesterday that had only two clerks at the check-out. At the dozen or so self-check-out stations, customers struggled with an automated system that doesn’t work. The store was crowded with people wanting to stock up during the bad weather but, according to the wonderful check-out clerk who helped me, the management would not call for extra help. God forbid this large grocery chain cut into its profits to gainfully employ a few more people or, at least, make sure the stores are adequately staffed.

Could we someday find ourselves in our own Endarkenment? Are we headed in that direction? In The Bone Clocks, when the Endarkenment came, it came fast.

The Bone Clocks isn’t an easy read. If you’re intrigued, if you like challenges, if you want a taste of cutting edge fiction by one of the world’s most highly acclaimed authors, then go for it.

Have you read The Bone Clocks? What do you think of dystopian fiction? Do you see parallels with our current state of affairs, or do you think that’s taking dystopian fiction too seriously?

By the way, you’ll notice a Henrietta Public Library sticker on the cover of The Bone Clocks in the photo above. I want to give a shout out to Henrietta Public Library, which is wonderful, and its dynamic director, Adrienne Furness, who was on the 2015 Caldecott Medal Selection Committee.