Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

I've been a fan of Lehane's novels ever since the first one came out, long before the films and the awards. Although their violence is more graphic than I prefer, I love the strength and clarity of his prose, the depth of his characters, and the satisfying intricacy of his plots. I love the way Boston itself is a vibrant character in his stories.

Live by Night is the story of Joe Coughlin, a petty thief who happens to be the son of a chief of police, pulling heists with his two chums, when by mistake they rob a speakeasy owned by the powerful Albert White. Joe, more than his friends, intuits the possibilities in the scene and their ramifications. While they manage to escape with their skins, Joe has left behind his heart, given irrevocably to White's girlfriend, the beautiful Emma Gould, whom he sets out to steal as well.

This story is a sequel of sorts to his immense novel of Boston in the dawn of the 20th century, The Given Day. It's not necessary to have read the earlier novel, in which Joe is a minor character. We start here in 1926, seven years after the end of The Given Day. The Jazz Age is in full swing, and Prohibition is giving rise to criminal mobs while undermining everyone's sense of what it means to be law-abiding.

A tale of gangsters and mobs, filled with the violence and duplicity that comes with that way of life, the story follows Joe's rise in the world of crime, including his eventual move to Florida to build a rum-running empire. It's not a world I would normally choose to read about, but as always Lehane's prose draws me in. I hate the violence, and Joe himself is ambivalent about it.

What I have learned is that violence procreates. And the children your violence produces will return to you as savage, mindless things. You won’t recognize them as yours, but they’ll recognize you. They’ll mark you as deserving of their punishment.

The people in Lehane's novels go beyond stereotypes to probe the complex and conflicting motives and desires that drive us. We make choices, compelled by conscious and unconscious forces, and we learn to live with the consequences.

Joe was reminded, not for the first time, that for such a violent business, it was filled with a surprising number of regular guys—men who loved their wives, who took their children on Saturday afternoon outings, men who worked on their automobiles and told jokes at the neighborhood lunch counter and worried what their mothers thought of them and went to Church to ask god’s forgiveness for all the terrible things they had to render unto Caesar in order to put food on the table.

Joe has always considered himself to be an outlaw, not a gangster. Someone who chooses to go his own way instead of abiding by society's rules, the rules of the daytime whose denizens have “sold out the truth of yourself for the story of yourself”. I remember pulling all-nighters as a student, the sense of power when you look out over the sleeping city and think I alone am awake. I own the night. I own the city.

His father plays a small but critical role here, and the theme of fathers and sons is subtly developed in a number of ways. Delusion and deceit, including self-delusion, thread through both the violence and the tenderness, through the betrayals and the love, the alliances and the friendship.

It takes a lot to keep me interested in a novel about gangsters, especially when it moves from Boston to Florida, but Lehane pulls it off. This book didn't pack the emotional wallop for me that his other books, including The Given Day, deliver but that probably says more about me than about the book. Have you ever been surprised into liking a book that you were sure you'd dislike?

The Immoralist, by Andre Gide

Michel, an austere and studious young man pulls himself away from the history of the Classical world long enough to get married, mostly to please his father who—dying—worried about leaving his son alone in the world. Michel barely knows Marceline, but he respects her and feels some affection for her. It is only when they are embarked on their honeymoon that he discovers she has a life and a mind of her own. A greater surprise is to come when, still traveling in North Africa, Michel, already frail, nearly dies of tuberculosis, only surviving through Marceline's tender and competent care.

He is deeply changed by this experience. Having decided, at his lowest moment, that he wants to live, he devotes himself to life with all the selfish strength of the invalid, demanding certain foods and, as he regains his strength, brushing off Marceline's company to walk out alone.

This is a brief novel, the simplicity of the prose masking the subtle changes Michel undergoes as he struggles to discover what, in his new self-absorption, he actually wants.

To a man whom death's wing has touched, what once seemed important is so no longer; and other things become so which once did not seem important or which he did not even know existed. The layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being hidden there.

He learns to live in the present, indulging himself, following his obsessions. Then, when Marceline becomes pregnant, he begins to imagine a future. It is this investigation into time—its malleability, its deceptiveness, its betrayal—that most interested me. Reading this right after Nabokov’s Speak, Memory seemed a continuation of that conversation. I was reminded too of Rilke's poem, one I always think of at this time of year:

Already the ripening barberries are red,
and the old asters barely breathe in their beds.
The man who is not rich now as summer goes
will wait and wait and never be himself.

The other aspect of the novel which fascinated me was the more obvious theme of selfishness versus generosity, balancing what we owe to others with what we owe to ourselves. Gide brilliantly works that theme through Michel's story, with Marceline and other characters providing alternate possibilities. I highly recommend this short but powerful novel. It will set you thinking.

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Rereading this remarkable memoir has been even more delightful than the first time. And more awe-inspiring. From the poetic beauty of his sentences to the intricate structure of the book, Nabokov's consummate writing skills are on display.

The memoir covers his youth and young adulthood, up to the age of 40 when he and his wife, Vera, emigrated to the U.S. The chapters are arranged thematically rather than strictly chronologically. So, for example, one chapter is the story of the most memorable of his nannies, Mademoiselle, while another is about his first attempts at poetry.

All of the chapters are suffused with nostalgia for the lost world of his youth, a golden time as the favored eldest son in a wealthy, aristocratic family in Tsarist Russia. Nabokov maintains that our understanding of that time has been colored by Soviet propaganda, and that it was in fact a time when Russians enjoyed a great deal of freedom of speech and press.

His parents moved between a large house in St. Petersburg, made of pink granite with frescoes just under the roofline, and Vyra, the enchanted country estate whose loss he most mourns, with vacations in Biarritz. Nabokov evokes these very personal recollections with an emotional intensity that leaves me feeling that I too made a house behind the sofa and watched in mortification and pity as my tutor gave a thoroughly pedantic and boring talk with lantern slides to the sons of neighboring landowners. He accomplishes this through the specificity and relevance of his details and the resonant beauty of his prose.

I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumble bee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.

Though of course they do. Another resonance is historical. Approximately the same age as the 20th century, Nabokov's loss of his golden childhood world with the Russian Revolution in 1919 coincides with the western world's loss of a way of life. The Great War ended England's long Edwardian afternoon; the countries on both sides were never the same after the loss of a generation and the economic destruction of the war.

The intensity also comes from his surprising and piercing images. For example, he ends one chapter recalling how his father used to be summoned from the dinner table to mediate some local disagreement. The gratitude of the peasants tended to take the form of tossing him up in the air three times, like the old woman of song tossed up in a blanket. Nabokov sees him through the window:

There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky.

Note the unexpected, yet perfect word choices: “sprawling”, “imperturbable”.

These incidents remind me of the advice from noted memoirist, William Zinsser, whom I often quote in my workshops: “ Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.” It's up to you to delve into them to discover that truth.

I wanted to talk more about the structure. Each chapter is a perfect circle, ending where it began. Or perhaps a spiral: “In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free.” After all, we arrive at the end with a deeper understanding, a more intense experience. The book as a whole follows the same pattern, with a most satisfying ending that pulls together unexpected pieces.

In this book Nabokov is concerned with the workings of time and memory and loss. He uses certain themes or threads to stitch together his thoughts. Some are obvious like his Lepidoptera adventures, and some more subtle, such as the rainbow theme.

Speak, Memory is on a couple of lists of best nonfiction books, one of the 20th century and one of all time. It is a true masterpiece, stunning on every level.

March: Book 1, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

This graphic novel, a gift from my dear friend, Kate, is a fabulous introduction to the Civil Rights Movement for those too young to tackle Taylor Branch's trilogy. Nate Powell is responsible for the dramatic graphics, while Andrew Aydin is the co-writer with Lewis. It's not a dry history. Instead, it is Lewis's personal story which makes it far more powerful.

Personal stories, truthful ones, are the way we open ourselves and learn each other's truths, the way we find our common ground.

The authors use the device of Obama's inauguration day on 20 January 2009. A woman has come from Atlanta with her two small boys for the inauguration and has brought them to Lewis's office to show it to him. Although he is on his way to the ceremony, Lewis takes the time to show them some of the mementoes in his office, one of which leads him to tell them about his childhood on a farm in Alabama.

This is Book 1. It goes up to the lunch counter sit-ins, ending with Martin Luther King, Jr. coming to Nashville to support Lewis's group. Of course I have vivid memories of the events described here. One thing I'd forgotten was how unsupportive the older generation of African-Americans were of the boycotts and sit-ins. Lewis portrays them as comfortable with the status quo and willing to accept partial solutions.

I'm sure he's right, but I also remember real concerns about giving up the separate-but-equal facilities. Just as single-sex schools allowed girls to learn in an environment where they aren't being pummeled by the social mandate to not outshine the boys, schools were a safe—if deficient—haven for youngsters of color. Similarly, many today still mourn the loss of the thriving Black centers of culture that faded away after integration.

Not that anyone wants to go back. The graphic novel format is especially effective at conveying the overt and hateful racism of the time. Though I occasionally wonder if that wouldn't be better than today's pervasive if covert racism—opposing commonsense laws simply because a Black president signed them—these pictures remind me of how much worse it was.

I look forward to the rest of the books in the series and hope they are widely read.