Pedigree, by Patrick Modiano


If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve read my take on memoirs written by various celebrities or their ghostwriters. Memoirs by literary personalities are of another ilk. These tend to be, as you might suspect, literary works themselves. Such a one is Patrick Modiano’s brief work, Pedigree. Modiano is a Nobel laureate (2014), and has been called the “Marcel Proust of our time.” I confess: there are many holes in my own literary reading; among these holes live most modern French writers, including Modiano.
Why the odd title? After some reflection, I think he didn’t want to write this work; it would (and did) bring back many unpleasant memories of his childhood and early adult years. His parents were together for only a brief period, his mother an actress who remained all but destitute, his father a low level con man who did as little for his ex-wife and son as possible. So the author begins with a litany of those who passed through his family’s lives, henchmen of this father’s, old family friends. It reads initially like a modern version of Biblical Old Testament books. However, a story eventually emerges—the story of the strained relations between a maturing Patrick and his parents. The irony here is that he had no real pedigree; he was a youthful troublemaker whose developing interest was reading. Eventually, as with all children of difficult parents, he made his own way, without either.



The book is translated into English from the French by Mark Polizzotti. While this translation may have been difficult, given a French novelist’s creative word usage—there are not a few spelling and grammatical errors to give this reader the impression of a strained and sometimes awkward text. Still, Modiano’s wry wit reveals itself. His father married a younger woman, Mylene Demongeot, as Modiano came to adulthood, and whom Modiano refers to constantly as “the ersatz Mylene Demongeot.”

French literature has always been difficult for me, and this memoir is no exception. But its few pages are certainly worth an evening’s read.


My Rating: 16 of 20 stars


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Standing Up To Power and Violence


Salman Rushdie spoke in my small town last week. So many people expressed interest in hearing  him speak that his talk was moved to a local basketball arena that holds some 3500 people. And from what I’ve heard (I was planning on going, too, but the crowd made it near-impossible), the place was packed.

So why the interest? What was the draw?

Rushdie had tacitly answered that question previously, but to draw from his own words, writing and publishing are the last line of defense against not only terror but violence in general. Violence, you see, frightens. And the first reaction a society has to fear is to relinquish portions of its freedoms in hopes of supplanting them with protection.


Violence is with us everywhere these days. Not only the terrorism that non-state actors produce, but criminal violence. Police violence against the populace. Violence of the bullying sort against minority groups, against gays and transgenders. Violence in the home: children shooting siblings and parents. Men mistreating women. Even violence against animals, pets. And as sports such as soccer and football grow more violent, we share vicariously in the blood lust on one hand, and stand appalled at the human damage on the other.


And so, as Rushdie has said, we need writers. And we need them to challenge the urge to power that begets societal violence, from the most intimate domestic violence to the grossest, horrific displays of terrorism. Be brave, writers. Challenge such power. Bare it to your readers.

This, then, is the draw of such people as Rushdie. In the final analysis, people want brave and true challenges to the various strains of power that beget violence. So whether you write for a high school newsletter or novels of the highest order, we need such pronouncements from you. As Rushdie has put it:

“Literature may be weak because it has no real power in the world, but in a way it is the grandest narrative of all, in that it puts ourselves into question with fiction. We challenge ourselves and refuse to take the world as a given. We challenge all correctives of opinion, all appeasements, all fears. Literature is the unafraid form.”


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The Rome You’ve Never Imagined


The Mirror and the Mage, by D.W. Frauenfelder



One of the most popular genres on the book market these days is one of the magical reality sort. In high level literature, you see books and stories in this genre by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez—fabulistic, charming pieces. In popular fiction you have the likes of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, in which the magical moments are expanded, almost to the point of separate worlds. And in what’s generally taken to be non-fiction, you have the Carlos Castaneda books. Frauenfelder seems to be aware of all three sub-genres in The Mirror and The Mage, and he walks an elliptical line that sometimes touches all three.

Lucius Junius Brutus is a young Roman yuppie-type who is destined for bigger things; while he wants to become trained as a warrior, but is obliged to enter the priesthood. He receives such training from two elders, Glyph and Logophilus, who teach him grammar and how to make it physically act in combatting monsters threatening Rome. He’s taught to use a baculum, or a magical cane (think Moses’ cane, the walking sticks in the Harry Potter series, and other such examples) which, accompanied by the proper use of Latin grammar, can be commanded to do spectacular things. Along with a girl, Demetria, Lucius is able to enter another reality through the device of a mirror. And this involves his ultimate quest, along with Glyph, Demetria, and the baculum.


Frauenfelder’s story is ingeniously paced as the elders slowly push Lucius into grave danger—a danger that threatens his and the elders’ well-being—as well as that of Rome. There’s a preoccupation, as Frauenfelder unfurls his story, with Latin grammar that might well annoy casual readers, but I suspect that the author, who teaches Latin to gifted youth, has an academic agenda here—making Latin and its complex grammar seem less so by unfolding it within his story. And it’s a story as charming as any in this genre.
My rating 18 of 20 stars.

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Lies and Truth

There are all forms of honesty, and there are all forms of lies. It’s a discriminating person indeed that can steer a wise course among them all. We live in a time in which “spin” is a form of lie, but it’s also a form of truth. Beware the person who can sprinkle a lie with just enough truth to make you believe the lie. That’s what I believe E.W. Howe would have meant in considering today’s public discourse.


You needn’t love your enemy, but if you refrain from telling lies about him, you are doing well enough.

~ E. W. Howe ~

The Open Door, Grammatically

I’ve been reading a new novel written by a colleague, and it’s a fine piece of writing. He knows his way around the techniques of writing but, as happens once in a while for me, the reading taught me a lesson. You see, being a writer is as much a curse as it is a blessing; I can’t to save me read for pleasure any more. I’m always trying to learn something from the way a writer uses words, structures a story, uses grammar rules to his/her advantage. Or not.


The lesson this reading taught me has to do with the use of passive voice. (Now, if you’re a reader only and think I’m going to go technical on you, bear with me. What I have to say here just might enhance your future reading.) Consider the two sentences below:

The skyscraper was built, and it’s now the pride of Baltimore.    (passive voice)

(                ) built the skyscraper, and it’s now the pride of Baltimore.    (active voice)

Passive voice is just fine, given its intent. Normal grammar dogma tells you to use passive voice if your intent is to write formally. This is great in business when you don’t want to give details that might provide a certain judgment on the subject at hand. Then notice the active voice option above. It gives you the same information as the previous sentence but, as the parens indicate, something’s missing. So let’s fill in the blank below:

A small-time developer built the skyscraper, and it’s now the pride of Baltimore.

See how active voice begs for specifics? How, when that one blank is filled in, you have the makings of a story? I.e., How did the small-time developer get the job? Was the developer able with his/her resources to build such an edifice? Was the public against it? Did no big-time developer want the job? And if so, why? And so on.

So, writers, know you intent in structuring sentences, and write accordingly. Readers, if you see a bit of writing laden with passive voice, you may be heading into troubled waters, reading-wise. Or it may just bore you to tears.


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I can only urge you to believe the quote below about yourself. We’ve only begun to understand our world and ourselves as human beings. The first great bursts of understanding will always come through individual creativity. This is the way we identify new horizons as they open to humanity, and it’s the way we communicate what we see there to others.


There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.

~ Sophia Loren ~


Here Today, Years Gone Tomorrow


M Train, by Patti Smith


Ms. Smith is something of a Renaissance woman. Musician, writer, photographer, performer, she has the restless mind that makes all these talents work for her. A previous book, Just Kids, won the National Book Award, and this book follows suit in its clarity of subject and writing style.

M Train is on the surface a jumble of reflections on a creative life that shows no sign of slowing down. But this is a deception. The book is about the evanescence of life; the transience of all things natural and human. Ms. Smith depicts the passing of her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, in a manner parallel to and equal to a beach cottage she bought, a cafe she frequented, and a growing host of friends and writers she has always admired, now lost.

But the book is more than a bemoaning of things lost. Whether it’s TV reruns, dreams of her late husband, or the promise of her beach cottage reconstructed, she notes in nature the eventual return of everything. To her, there’s little difference, it seems, between imagination, dreams, and the stark reality of life on earth. It all matters, and it’s up to the creative soul to ferret that significance out in ways that help the rest of us understand.
My rating: 19 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.