59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2011
Review of the book. I read the 13 longlisted books for the 1011 Man Booker, and this was my favorite; Barnes, the winner, was my second favorite.
A story told in parts alternating between 1992 and 1939/1940, the main characters are three black men who met in Weimar Germany playing together in a jazz group. Weimar life has been described (over described?), and certainly black US jazz musicians are an often glimpsed part of the background. But this book brings that world, or at least the portion inhabited by these three musicians, to the fore. Two of the men (Skip and our narrator, Sid) grew up together in Baltimore and the third (Heiro) was born in Germany. The parts located in 1939/1940 have an incessant and accelerating tension of claustraphobia and boredom mixed with hightened anxiety as the three, joined by other characters, hide out in Berlin and then in Paris as they attempt to evade the nazis (called the Boot). This is obviously not an unusual plot. But what adds a new twist is that the only two characters in any real danger are the blond, jewish, pianist and Hiero, the black trumpeter born in Germany. The US passports held by Skip & Sid served as at least some protection against what was going on, particularly in Paris. As the narrator said, their problem was that "we was officially degenerate".
Because they have a place to stay in both Berlin and Paris, and at least some protection, the tension of the war itself is often a background narrative, not the main story line. And that other story line is the friendships, betrayals and loses that accumulate as they play their jazz, trying to record the perfect take of a riff on a popular nazi song. As time goes on in Paris more and more is sacrificed for the sake of this album, which is never properly completed, though an outtake survives and later leads to a documentary film that is a focus of the 1992 parts.
This is not a jazz book, I certainly wouldn't call jazz a central theme of the book. But it contains some of the most lyrical descriptions of jazz playing that I have read. Describing the first time the three played with Louis Armstrong (who is vibrantly described in a short section of the book) the author describes how each of the three enters into and intertwines on the song 'Old Town Wrangler'.
"And then, real late, Armstrong come in.
I was shocked. Ain't no bold brass at all. He just trilled in a breezy, casual way, like he giving some dame a second glance in the street without breaking stride. It was just so calm, so effortlessly itself."
But the element of this book that made it work for me was the narrator. He is the quintessential every man. He discovers that he isn't a great jazz player, and he was willing to do anything, even betrayal, to be great, in the game. After leaving Europe he comes back to Baltimore and lives the non-glamourous life, working for decades as a medical transcriptionist. The book opens as he is invited to the Berlin opening of a documentary film about Heiro, and Chip convinces Skip to attend. The continual self-doubt and frailty of Skip is in contrast to Chip's bombast. But Skip's shortfalls are those of a person who has lived a full life and is aware that he has much to regret. The straight-forward narrative reads like someone being honest with us and himself. But throughout the book he, and the reader, learn that things aren't as they appear, and that our emotions color both our actions and our perceptions. The narrative, and the narrator, feel alive and believable. Even the ever annoying Chip we learn to appreciate, as you appreciate an old family member you never really liked, but have learned to accept.
The book isn't perfect. Calling women "janes" hundreds of times throughout the book wears thin, and someone who spent decades doing transcriptions, even medical transcriptions, is unlikely to write "we et in silence". And the only female character, Delilah, was not very believable or well sketched. But these are minor complaints.
53 of 63 people found the following review helpful
Interesting book, but awkward and unsatisfying for me at its end. In part the story of two black American jazz musicians and their German colleagues whose music and performing are suppressed by the Nazis in 1939 Berlin. Forced to flee to Paris, the two are joined by a Canadian woman working for Louis Armstrong and an African-German prodigy, Hiero Falk. From that point forward, the story is focused on the brilliant trumpeter Falk, who disappears into a Nazi concentration camp within a few months of the German invasion of France and is presumed to have perished as a consequence. Falk's short performing and recording career has nevertheless become legendary, and by 1992 he has become sufficiently interesting historically to merit a documentary film which draws on recollections by his former American bandmates, now in their 80s. .
Much of the novel consists of switchbacks between the 1930s and 1990s which center on relationships between main characters in their flight from the Nazis and the two American musicians returning to Germany for the viewing of the bio-documentary of their friend. These vignettes are mostly in dialogue form, and when they focus on music, they are quite interesting. When they focus on their personal issues and relationships, they lose clarity and meaning (for me at least). The dialogues are the only clue to who the characters really are. There is little or no internal perspective offered by the author.
When it turns out that Hiero Falk actually survived the Nazi death camps and is living in newly democratic, rural Poland, there is the inference that the story of his survival and life since 1945 will be explained and that his complicated relationships with the two American colleagues will come to some resolution. Very surprisingly, this never happens. The final chapter of this story just kind of sags into non-closure and the reader really has no clue as to what really happened to the musical wunderkind in the intervening 50 years.
So to sum up, the reader is easily drawn into the interesting scenario set up at the beginning of novel with the promise of knowledgable insight into the music and lives of the musicians under political stress.. There is the expectation that the highly original characters introduced at the beginning will grow into more open and relatable people as the story progresses. This latter development doesn't take place and the book's purpose and ending suffer because of that lack.
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2011
The following is a review of the book, nominated for the 2011 UK Man Booker Prize. I had to order the book from Amazon's UK site as it was not yet available in the US.
Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues is an authentic and moving depiction of a group of jazz musicians left in limbo in pre-WW2 Berlin and Paris. The author has obviously invested a great deal of time in researching the realities of being struggling jazz musicians at that time, as well as the argot unique to the musicians. Her dialog always seems spot on, never forced, never contrived. Unlike some novels set in the milieu of jazz, Ms. Edugyan never strives to appear cool, but instead creates characters with individuated, unique voices. I would also imagine that she has a healthy respect for the arduous process of creating meaningful music.
The novel is basically about a group of struggling musicians, German and American. None of them have achieved commercial success, but are well regarded within their world. One of them, Hieronymus - Hiero - is clearly a superior musician. They record some sides of various tunes they're working on, but none meet the satisfaction of Hiero, who insists that all the acetates be destroyed. Unbeknownst to him, the bass player, recognizing the quality of the recording, secretly withholds one of the records. It's not till many decades later that the recording is widely circulated, giving the remaining musicians a modicum of fame and respect from jazz cognocenti.
The novel is given resonance through its setting - the horrors of the Nazi years are just over the horizon. The novel gains gravitas through depicting the daily privations of the musicians through the prism of the encroaching Nazi dominance, both in Berlin and Paris. It also concerns itself with the unique status of Hiero, German born, and of African descent, as well as that of the pianist, Paul, a German Jew.
Superbly written, gripping, with the alluring, at times chilling, backdrop of the pre-war years, as well as a believable plot twist, Half-Blood Blues,like the best novels, seems too real to be imagined. Highly recommended.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
This is a novel that deftly explores a lesser-known aspect of the Holocaust: the persecution of Blacks and German "Mischlings" in Germany during World War II. It's set against the backdrop of the jazz age, which has been effectively shut down in Berlin because the music is seen as "degenerate." The tale is narrated by Sid, and moves back and forth in time to unfold the story of a talented band and its young trumpet player, Hieronymus Falk. The musicians must struggle against the growing danger of Nazism, and each experiences varying degrees of safety in Europe based on their background and citizenship. One of the most endangered is Hiero, a German of mixed race, who is taken by the Nazis one night and never returns. Sid witnesses this, and a major focus of the novel is Sid's guilt as he grapples with what he did, and did not do, on that night.
The novel gracefully swerves from Paris, to Berlin, to present-day United States, as Sid tells the story both from an immediate perspective, and from the future, looking back. It's written in a rhythmic, lyrical jazz slang that reads almost like poetry. The prose is at times sharp and laugh-out-loud witty, and at other times raw and chilling. After about 30 pages, I was so hooked on the story I found it difficult to put the book down.
Esi Edugyan has that special something that allows the reader to live in the historical context she's created, right along with her wonderfully human, flawed characters. She shines a light on what it would be like to live in a world turned upside-down by hate, and explores what the average person would do when caught in an impossible situation in which death could be around every corner. Through it all the musicians continue to cling to their music, the one thing that still makes sense when nothing else does.
This is not a novel where everything is wrapped up tidy and neat. It leaves you wondering, thinking, and somewhat haunted by the characters and their story. Edugyan is an extraordinarily gifted writer with a very unique style and voice. Very highly recommended.
24 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2012
As a writer, I'm admittedly a bit snobbish when it comes to critiquing novels. If I purchase an award-winning book, I expect to be impressed. I want to see elegant prose, interesting characters with whom I can empathize, and a compelling plot. I want an exciting reading experience in which I can't wait to turn the next page. Sadly, Half-Blood Blues did not do that for me.
Although the premise (the experiences of a group of musicians trying to get by in Europe during WWII) is interesting, the pace plodded in many areas. I found myself skipping pages and looking forward to the end of some chapters.
The characters were not quite developed enough to make me care about them. They didn't draw me in so that I wondered what would happen to them next. As an aside, are they jazz musicians, blues musicians, or both? I wasn't clear on that.
My biggest beef is the inconsistent dialogue of Sidney, the narrator. When he speaks to others, he uses the vernacular of an old-time, African-American blues/jazz musician. ("All these years, you been living here. And I ain't had no idea of it.")Yet, when he narrates, his descriptions of his surroundings and events are eloquent and flowery. ("Her voice was pale and splintered, raw, and then it was just a single, stunning wholeness, and closing my eyes I felt like so much was still possible.") This incongruency bugged me so much that I actually rolled my eyes as I was reading. It really ruined the book for me.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2012
By the time I finally picked up a copy of Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan's novel already had quite a reputation going for it, the result of having won Canada's Giller prize and having been a short-listed candidate for Britain's Booker Prize. I am happy to report that this story of three black jazz musicians, who find themselves trapped in Paris when Hitler's Nazis overrun the city, largely lives up to that reputation - except for a quibble or two I will mention later.
Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones have known each other forever. The two grew up together in Baltimore where they honed their musical talents to so a high level - Sid on base and Chip on drums - that they would become popular in Berlin as the core of a jazz band they called the Hot-Time Swingers. But they really hit the big time when they add trumpeter Hieronymous Falk to the mix. Hiero, a mixed-race German, is so special a talent that he catches the attention of one Louis Armstrong - who invites the band to join him in Paris to cut a record.
The tough decision to shut things down in Berlin is made easy for the band when Hitler labels jazz as "degenerate music" and bans public performances of it. When the Hot Swingers, including its German members, realize that more than their mere livelihood is at stake, the scramble is on to find papers good enough to get them across the border and on their way to Paris. Little do they know, that Hitler's army is not all that far behind them.
Sid Griffiths, the book's narrator, tells this intriguing story from the perspective of just over fifty years in the future. Sid and Chip are old men living in 1992 Baltimore with plans to attend the imminent Berlin debut of a documentary film honoring the now legendary jazz trumpeter Hiero Falk. Hiero, caught in a Nazi roundup of "undesirables," has not been heard from since the day of his arrest and is presumed to have died in a Nazi death camp. The mystery surrounding his end, details of which only Sid knows, have turned Hiero into the kind of musical legend that only dying young can do for a musician.
But Sid knows the whole story, and even though the truth is still eating at his soul, he does not really expect, or want, to go public with it. Surprise, surprise, Sid.
Esi Edugyan has Sid speak in the vernacular of jazz musicians of the thirties. While this initially slows the reader down, once the speech pattern becomes familiar, this technique gives Half-Blood Blues a feeling of authenticity it otherwise would not have had. This does, however, bring me to my first "quibble." When Sid is thinking out loud for the reader, he sounds nothing like he does in conversation with his friends - even in 1992 - and that is sometimes a little jarring to the reader's ear.
But more importantly, the book's ending does not quite measure up to the hugely dramatic build-up leading to it. Perhaps unrealistically, I was hoping for more. I did very much enjoy this one, and I suspect that I will be thinking about it for a good while, so if you like WWII history from a civilian point-of-view, you will likely love Half-Blood Blues. Esi Edugyan is most certainly a talent to watch.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The downside of being an avid reader is that you can go through a great deal of books without really connecting to one. It's not that you're jaded, just that at a certain point it takes more to really impress you. There are, after all, only so many stories a person can tell, so plots become cliched, characters become familiar. But every once in a while a voice comes along that makes you sit up and pay attention. A voice that takes familiar notions and makes them feel fresh--alive. It sends a shiver down your spine when it happens. That is exactly what happened to me when I picked up Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues--right from the first page, when she wrote "we lay exhausted in the flat, sheets nailed over the windows. The sunrise so fierce it seeped through the gaps, dropped like cloth on our skin. Couple hours before, we was playing in some back-alley studio, trying to cut a record. A grim little room, more like a closet of ghosts than any joint for music, the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor."
If I had to describe Half-Blood Blues very quickly I'd say that it's like Cabaret crossed with Amadeus with a dash of Atonement: A Novel, but that wouldn't exactly do it justice. The plot follows the Hot-Time Swingers: jazz musicians who were on the brink of greatness until World War II broke out and shattered their lives forever. First we have Sid Griffiths, our narrator, whose passion for music fills every pore on his body (on his first experience hearing jazz in a speakeasy: "I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather--this, THIS was life to me."). His passion leads him and his childhood friend Chip away from Baltimore and all the way to Germany, where there's a great deal of excitement about the burgeoning jazz scene. They have to go a little underground once the Nazis come to power, but leaving would be impossible to Sid. Especially after they hook up with Hieronymous "Hiero" Falk, a young prodigy who both inspires and infuriates Sid with his natural talent. Sid advocates for the kid but can't help but undermine him in increasingly less subtle ways, acting as something of a Salieri to Hiero's Amadeus. "I admit it," Sid notes. "He got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me, It ain't fair. It ain't fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain't FAIR. Gifts is divided so damn unevenly." They eventually escape to Paris with the help of the haunting jazz singer Delilah, and while this should have been their saving grace, it ends up being their downfall.
But this is only half of the story. The other half takes place in 1992, when Sid and Chip are invited back to Berlin to attend the premier of a documentary honoring the memory of Hiero, who was arrested by the Gestapo after the Nazis occupied France, and never seen again (this is no spoiler, by the way. It happens in the first chapter, and the narrative goes back and forth between WWII and 1992 to flesh out the details). The journey to Berlin stirs intense feelings of pain and guilt in Sid, but the truth is that these emotions have never been unfamiliar to him in the decades since Hiero vanished. Sid may be the narrator, but it is Hiero who drives the plot, whose spectral presence haunts every page.
It's a story of passion, jealousy, and betrayal, and while these elements feel familiar (and at times predictable), it is impossible not to fall under Edugyan's spell. Her writing is beautiful, and the way she weaves all of the plot elements together belies the incredible craftsmanship it must have taken to make it all feel so organic. Sid is an incredibly contradictory character; he says " I guess folk just ain't built to be faithful to nothing, not even to pain. Not even when it their own," but the way he has lived his life shows that he has never been able to forget the hurts inflicted on him by Hiero and Delilah, let alone the pain he caused them. Sid has lived with this ache but he is incapable of confronting it directly. I don't think it is unfair to say that when he travels back to Berlin he is hoping to finally find some form of release from his memories. So despite these contradictions Sid never feels false; on the contrary, the fact that he is at odds with himself is the very thing that brings him to vibrant life. Edugyan even pulls off one of my most common gripes when she briefly introduces Louis Armstrong as a character. Now, I generally roll my eyes when an author inserts a real person into a historical novel, but that's because most writers do it in the most clumsy, contrived manner possible. Not so with Edugyan. Armstrong's place in the story feels natural, organic. She doesn't just put him there for kicks--she makes him an integral force in the plot.
I hadn't so thoroughly enjoyed a novel this much since I read The Dubious Salvation of Jack V.: A Novel last summer. Falling under a book's spell is a thrilling experience, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy Half-Blood Blues as much as I did.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2014
Some of my biggest passions are Berlin, Germany during the war, jazz, and musicians in general. So you'd think this would be a fascinating read, right?
Wrong. This is possibly the most boring novel I have ever read. Not the worst-written (though it's nothing great), not the most pretentious, but simply the most boring. I've spent afternoons watching paint dry and had more fun. Edugyan uses the fascinating backdrops of Berlin post-Wall and Berlin 1939 in the dullest ways. What the novel amounted to up to page 100 was two old guys sniping at each other--I kind of felt like I was reading Sideways with two old black men in Berlin instead of two white guys touring California vineyards.
What happened past page 100 I can't tell you, because that's when I threw the book aside and made a strong coffee to wake up. This book has no color (no pun intended, I mean it)...and talkin' black patois ain't my idea of color. This is flat, bland writing, with one-dimensional characters and unimaginative narrative structure. That this book got all these awards and nominations boggles my mind. Seriously, I'm not kidding, what the heck is happening to fiction these days??? Amateur crap is taking away big prizes. I feel like I do when I occasionally flip through television channels--is this really the best there is?
As some others have pointed out in the one- and two-star reviews here, there are numerous inaccuracies and I won't repeat them. But I will point out that I just have a layman's knowledge of the music and I spotted them. In the 1960s, jazz columnist Nat Hentoff took a crack at writing what we'd today call a YA novel called Jazz Country. It wasn't great, and Hentoff never pretended he was turing out Serious Literature. It was just a story designed to get young people interested in jazz music and culture.
Yet compared to this book, it was a masterpiece of richness and imagination. He followed it up with a novel that wasn't directly about jazz but which had jazz themes, Blues for Charlie Darwin. That also had fairly rich characterizations and a good deal of vividness. Both books are dated of course, but they hold up reasonably well, and neither was cited for a shopping cart load of prestigious awards. They were just novels. The author didn't have a masters from a prestigious school and all sorts of fellowships.
How far we've fallen since then. Pick up a used copy of Jazz Country and see what I mean. Today I think we have too many prizes chasing too few writers.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2012
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan won the Giller Prize this year so this marks a rare occasion where I write a review for a current award-winning novel. Half-Blood Blues is the story of a black jazz ensemble in Berlin at the outbreak of the Second World War, how they escape to Paris and then reunite fifty years later. Reviews of the book on the novel's back cover informed me that the story would be told in a narrative that "moves us with its intrinsic power, grace and soulful jazz cadences.". Another review stated "the real allure of the novel is the mongrel and enduring beauty of its language. Like a gifted jazz performer, Esi Edugyan knows how to make new phrasings and cadences hit big upon the heart.". When I read this about the novel's language I was hesitant to even start the book. I remembered not enjoying Toni Morrison's Jazz, which plays with a musicality in its narrative. Although like with Morrison I had heard and read great reviews about Edugyan, I did not want to risk a sluggish plod through Half-Blood Blues, because once I start a book I must finish it, no matter how much I dislike it.
I did not dislike Half-Blood Blues. Far from it. The novel begins in Paris in 1940 and jumps around in chapters to pre-WWII Berlin and then to the band's reunion which takes place in 1992 Berlin and in Poland. The language of the band during the time of the war is musical, full of jazzy slang and insider lingo which often doesn't identify its meanings until several pages later. I normally don't like to be hanging like this in fiction. All too often if I don't know what a writer is talking about, I think that I have missed something and tend to flip back and reread passages in vain. Edugyan always explained her slangy and insider terms through context soon after introducing them.
I liked Edugyan's sense of description. She had me smiling on numerous occasions when I read her metaphors and similes. When band member Chip reminisces with bandmate Sid about their sneaky ruses to get candy when they were children from Chip's aunt, who was afflicted with dementia, before she realized what he was up to, Edugyan writes:
"Tante Cecile reached into her cedar box and pulled out four more candies. Chip snatched these up faster than pulling money out of a fire."
While in Berlin just before the outbreak of WWII, Sid is transfixed by the seductive Delilah, into whose apartment the band finds refuge after a fight with the Nazi SS (known as "boots" in their lingo):
"I stopped. The oak flooring creaked under my heels. I felt a hot radiance in my nerves, my whole body filling with a confused, battered feeling, like a moth caught in a lantern."
The image of a moth battering itself to death against a burning lightbulb was a perfect image to describe Sid's growing passion for Delilah. Edugyan captures passion with the brush of a master painter when she tells how Sid's life is altered forever when, at age thirteen, he steps inside a jazz club in Baltimore for the first time:
"I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather--this, this was life to me. Forget Sunday school and girls in white frocks. Forget stealing from corner stores. This was it, these dames swaying their hips in shimmering dresses, these chaps drinking gutbucket hooch. The gorgeous speakeasy slang. I'd found what my life was meant for."
Sid and Chip form a jazz band and during the outbreak of WWII they find an old studio where they attempt to record a composition entitled "Half-Blood Blues". Take after take yet the recording never meets the approval of their child prodigee trumpet player Hiero. I do not want to spoil the wartime story for future readers, however I will say that the band flees from Berlin to Paris and then as the Nazis invade France the band dissolves. The novel alternates its lengthy chapters between the war story and the band's reunion fifty years later. During the reunion part of the novel which takes place in the 1990's, the language alternates as well, for no longer does Edugyan imbue her jazz band with the musical flow of syncopated rhythm. The octogenarians Sid and Chip speak in a more standard form of English.
For fear that the band will be broken up forever as the Nazis march into Paris, Sid commits an act that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would have traumatic repercussions for Hiero. Sid later learns the consequences of his actions and he carries the guilt for half a century, never knowing if Hiero is dead or alive. When he discovers that Hiero is alive and living in Poland, he and Chip make a trip across the Atlantic to visit him. After agonizing whether or not he should confess to Hiero the truth and to apologize for his actions from fifty years ago, Sid comes to the following realization that left me speechless, looking at the page in sullen sadness:
"He shut the door behind him. And then I known, sitting on the edge of the bed in that dark room, sure as anything in my life, that I had to tell him about the visas. That that was why I come. Not to find a friend, but to finally, and forever, lose one."
This was the point in the novel where I had to stop reading. Up to that point I had become part of the intimate circle of Sid and Hiero's friends and the thought that the friendship might be broken was traumatic. I stopped to reflect upon the history between Sid and Hiero, not knowing what would happen after Sid made his confession. Edugyan put me in Sid's place, and at that moment I could feel his anguish as well as his enormous shame and sadness. Half-Blood Blues put me in the place of the jazz musicians in Nazi-era Berlin, and it carried me with the band as they drifted across the ocean to reunite fifty years later.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 24, 2012
I really wanted to like this book as it centers around significant interests in my life such as jazz and Europe on the cusp of WWII. While I found it to be somewhat well-written and containing interesting dialect and vernacular, the story itself went nowhere for me; it never really takes off into something you care about. I lost count of the number of times that Ms. Edugyan prefaces Sidney Griffith's mood and presence with the fore-ordainment of something not feeling right/something is off/something is wrong. In doing so, she fails to let the story work on its own terms and allow the reader to gain his own insight into the characters' psyche. Moreover, the chemistry between the characters, both in Germany and Paris, never really seems honest; there is far too much continuing tension between the two main characters, Sid and Chip, to make you believe they would remain friends over a span of 70 years. Ultimately, it becomes hard to accept the ultimate denouement of the plot.
As one last aside, there is one very significant historical inaccuracy which cannot be excused in a novel that centers around jazz and its history. At an early point in the story, a somewhat negative reference is made to a Columbia Records executive named in the book as "John Hammond, Jr." As anyone with any knowledge of music history knows, the Columbia Records executive in question could only have been John Hammond, Sr. John Hammond, Jr. is the son of John Hammond, Sr. and has had a lengthy and distinguished career as a blues musician.