Sheldon Horowitz is 82-years-old with a prostate, he lets us know right away, the size of a watermelon. After his wife’s recent death he is schlepped to Oslo, Norway to be cared for by his granddaughter and her inscrutable Norwegian husband. All Norwegians, he says, are like boy scouts. They all seem so good and upstanding and emotionless. Horowitz may or may not be senile, but he has some repenting to do for not having been old enough to fight the god damn Nazis during World War II. He gets the chance to make amends when an upstairs neighbor in need of shelter from her abusive boyfriend is absorbed, with her son, into Sheldon’s apartment. Only the vicious neighbor busts down the door, murders the girlfriend while Sheldon and the boy hide, and Sheldon relying on skills he may or may not have learned as a soldier in the Korean War takes flight with the woman’s young son. Norwegian by Night combines the suspense of a thriller with some serious pondering about the meaning and value of memory. A very fun read.
Roughly sixty years after the event, Charles Dickens takes his hand to historical fiction, doing his best to recount the French Revolution. Simultaneously ambitious, and at least for Dickens, concise, he covers several decades of history, but accomplishes this by following only a handful of characters. What he does most effectively is describe the madness that overcomes ordinary Frenchmen, here represented by the LaFarges, who, caught up in revolutionary fever, call out anyone currently or formerly aristocratic for a date with La Guillotine. For a Nineteenth Century writer Dickens does a creditable job of creating a few characters with ambiguity. Charles Darnay is a French nobleman seeking to distance himself from the his family’s aristocratic indecency. Dr. Manette, a former Bastille prisoner, dotes on his daughter, Lucie, but he too keeps a secret. Lucie, unfortunately, is a paper-thin personage: pure, pretty, faultless. The contradiction of stiff upper-lip, repressed Brits to their rip-off-their-shirts French peers is a subtext. You have to like writing from this period. Dickens got paid by the word so he’s verbose. For a book whose characters number fewer than you’d find in many plays, there is a lot of excess. A Tale does best when it recounts dialogue and is slowest when Dickens pulls out his broad historical brush.
It took great courage to write this book. Anyone that has ever crossed the Church of Scientology has, pursuant to church ideology, been hounded by goons, lawsuits (enough to bankrupt nearly anyone), private investigators, and vicious media attacks. Lawrence Wright had to know it was coming when he started the book, but then again he did win the Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of Al Qaeda. There are three major components to Going Clear. The first is a thorough biography of its founder L. Ron Hubbard and there is no escaping the conclusion that the man was a lying, delusional, paranoid schizophrenic. Part 2 describes the Church of Scientology’s doctrines as created by Hubbard and embodied by long-time leader David Miscavige. Wright focuses much of his attention on the upper echelons of the Church — the Sea Org — and its alleged human rights abuses of its parishioners: kidnapping, isolation, physical and mental subjugation. The other area of interest for both Wright and the Church is its courtship of celebrities like Kirstie Allie, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise. Part 3 is a summary of abuses particularly as they are laid upon former members trying to escape the Church’s “Billion Year Contract.” The footnotes are as interesting as the text in that every allegation is categorically denied by the Church creating a dichotomy of, “Wright says vs. The Church Says.” Even if one-tenth of the Church’s accuser’s stories are valid the Church would have an awful lot of explaining to do. Wright does not dwell on any benefits the Church provides. Surely there must be many for anyone to even consider joining. Others may react to the book by quickly concluding that Hubbard was a nutter and so are Scientologists. On the other hand I found myself with my jaw dropping wider with every chapter at the absurdity and viciousness of the Church’s behavior. That’s good writing.
After attempting Simon Schama’s philosophical treatise on the French Revolution, I thought it best to turn to Christopher Hibbert to get the play-by-play. What a mistake. Hibbert boils the revolution down to ten chapters. If only each chapter began where the previous left off. Instead, the first half of each launches a few months or years later, continuing as if you knew who was in the streets and parlements. After fifteen or twenty pages of lackluster and wandering prose, he hones in on a single story, which, while captivating, never seems to make much sense without sufficient context. Anyway, here’s what I now know about the French Revolution. It was not a revolt by a unified public against a fascist dictator. Rather, there appear to be about a dozen different interests representing different socio-economic strata. They all fought for their own interests in a dizzying array of alliances. They changed their minds a lot. The revolution takes around a decade. Everyone alive in France at the time wrote down what he observed so modern historians have access to the mindset and name of enough people to spin your head like a dreidel. The political pendulum swung left and right, the guillotine climbed up and down, the monarchy ended, but Napoleon Bonaparte ended the revolution by becoming emperor. My recommendation is to skip this book and watch Les Mis.