Tuesday, May 24, 2016

THE PAST






The Past, Tessa Hadley, Harper, 2016, 310 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Three adult sisters and their brother meet up at their grandparents' country home for their annual family holiday--three long, hot summer weeks. The beloved but crumbling house is full of memories of their childhood--of when their mother took them to stay with her parents when she left their father--but this could be their last summer in the house, now they may have to sell it. And under the idyllic pastoral surface, there are tensions.
 
 
My Review:
One of the ways I like to nerd out as a reader is to read several novels that basically tell the same story in different ways. Then I compare and contrast in my mind about the various books.
 
The Past falls into that group of novels in which a family of adult siblings get together in the home where they grew up for a last reunion before that home must be sold. I think we are drawn to such stories because they examine at least three generations, because all families have their quirks and issues, sorrows and joys, and because we can see how the passing of almost one hundred years affects the way life is for each generation.
 
Literary fiction, by which I mean fiction with skillful writing and deeper thoughts about life than so-called mainstream, commercial, or popular fiction, is my reading preference. I totally get it that it is not for everyone. The Past is highly literary. Set in a small British town, it moves at a slow pace with plenty of description of weather and place as well as a look at the inner lives of the characters. There is however plenty of tension in the story that builds to an unexpected climax.
 
I liked it. It got me to look again at my own family and the ways in which our shared life unites us while our different personalities create friction. I realized that every family has a sort of myth about itself which is just that; a myth, not the truth.
 
This year as I was following The Tournament of Books, I became impressed by one of the many people who comment on each day's winners and losers. When the above mentioned person started a new group on Goodreads, I joined. We read and discuss new literary fiction. Our first group read was The Past and that is how I came to read it.
 
I don't actually enjoy on-line book discussions because they are too disjointed for me. I get worked up about some of the vitriol people express about the book. I much more enjoy book discussions in real life where the dialogue is immediate and we can respond to each other in real time. But I am intrigued by the books this group intends to read.
 
So I lurk and don't comment often. The group's creator and moderator is conscientious, thoughtful, and kind. That helps. I am glad to have read Tessa Hadley and will probably seek out other novels by her.
 
Books I have also enjoyed on this theme:
The Green Road, by Anne Enright
Wish You Were Here, by Stewart O'Nan
 
Can you recommend others I might like?
 
Do you participate in on-line book discussions? If so, what makes them work for you? 
 
 
(The Past is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

THE DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ






The Death of Artemio Cruz, Carlos Fuentes, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1964, 306 pp (translated from the Spanish by Sam Hileman, originally published in Mexico, 1962)
 
 
 
This novel made a huge impression on me. Read as part of my 1962 reading list, it was the original translation by Sam Hileman, Fuentes's translator throughout the 1960s.
 
  Artemio Cruz was a fictional impoverished mulatto. In his teens, he ran away to fight in the Mexican Revolution but later betrayed the ideals of that conflict and through sharp dealing became a wealthy and influential financier.

Artemio is dying all the way through the novel, but looking back from his sickbed and through the dreams and delirium of illness. The author therefore becomes the voice of the man, an artful and successful method of unwritten autobiography put down on the page by another.

While still a soldier, Artemio finds his first, his one and only love. Once she dies of a bullet wound, his ideals become diluted by sorrow. The rise to power involves him in a loveless marriage as well as shady dealing with American investors. Like any good mogul, he also buys a newspaper by which he can spin events to his own benefit and influence politicians.

Despite the despicable nature of Artemio's life, I came to care about this man. Like many modern novels of today, the time sequence is tangled but creates the effect of a person coming to terms with his life; seeing how his earlier actions influenced later ones; grappling with the tough questions of honor vs power. As a result, Fuentes presented a history of the revolution through the lens of one man's life.

Also by means of straight memory, dream states, and the continuous contrast of Artemios's current struggle with his illness, his doctors, and his family, the author draws the reader into all the conflicting ways any person deals with a life. The writing is powerful, somewhat experimental, and I almost did not want the book to end. 

I turned the last page and wondered who I could read that writes like this today.



Friday, May 20, 2016

THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES






The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, 2015, 362 pp


Back in 2000, I read a bunch of Alice Hoffman's novels. I was drawn to the magical element. But I was always a bit put off by the way she writes though I could never quite put my finger on why. Every writer has a voice and I just could not completely enjoy hers. So I gave her up.

When one of my reading groups chose The Marriage of Opposites, despite my doubts, I read it. The writing still bothered me but it is historical fiction set in two exotic locations and the story revolves around Rachel, who was the mother of Camille Pissarro, a famous painter in late 17th century Paris, now recognized as one of the fathers of Impressionism.

The novel opens when Rachel is a defiant young girl, making her own mother crazy as she refuses to follow the rules. The family are pillars of their small community of Jews on the Caribbean island of St Thomas. Descendants of Jews who escaped the Inquisition and were driven from Europe, the community's rules derived from the need to defend themselves and always be ready to flee in the face of oppression.

Rachel would have been happy to flee such a sequestered life. Her dream is to live in Paris and this is the story of how she eventually realized that dream. Of course, a lot of stuff had to happen first and decades passed. The island is rife with secret relationships, racial and religious prejudice, and a woman's life is hard.

Rachel and her best friend Jestine suffer together through marriages, childbirth, losses, and passions. Hoffman's writing in this book is best when she is describing the beauties of the island and later of Paris. Perhaps because she was writing about the childhood and development of an Impressionist painter, she took on the eyes of an artist.

Also, most of the characters are wonderfully developed and make the story come alive. I always admired her storytelling skills. In The Marriage of Opposites her story is so big, far ranging, and full of incident that I stopped being distracted by her awkward sentences and just read to find out what would happen to Rachel, her two husbands, and her numerous children. I also learned about another facet of Jewish life I had not known before.

Overall a fascinating read, though the two men in the reading group called it chick lit. The women laughed them off. If some men think any story about women who take charge of their own lives is chick lit, maybe it's time they got to actually know some "chicks."


(The Marriage of Opposites is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

WINTER'S TALE






Winter's Tale, Mark Helprin, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1983, 688 pp
 
 
At last we come to the book that broke my reading slump. After being forced by circumstances to put it down at only 25% through, I could finally pick it up again and live in its spellbinding universe.
 
What can I say about a book that has 3622 reviews on Goodreads and 1069 on Amazon? I guess I can only say what I loved.
 
1.) It is long, so long, but I never wanted it to end. If heaven or eternal life were this entertaining, this full of diverse characters and big ideas and wonder, I would sign up. I can't say I was ever bored. Even the endless descriptions of weather and locations kept me engaged.
 
2.) The Big Idea: Actually it is a big question or a big quest. (How similar are those two words and both are derived from the Latin word "quaerere" meaning to seek, ask, inquire.) In this novel the question is "Is the Universe just?" 
 
Ever since I can remember being able to think, I have asked myself and others that question. When I have protested against what I've perceived as unfair, I have mostly been told that life is not fair. When I have rankled against injustice, I have been instructed that justice is an ideal but nearly impossible to achieve.

The big idea here is that yes, the Universe is just but one must look at the big picture, take the long view. In a seemingly anarchic fashion, the universe, both animate and inanimate, tends toward balance and justice. At this point in my life I don't really worry anymore if such a concept is true or not. It is what I believe and the one freedom that cannot be taken away is the freedom of one's own beliefs. To have this belief narrated in such a great tale was wondrous for me.

3.) The interactions of characters, generations, historical periods and the intricacies that the author creates. While I love many kinds of stories, it is the long, intricate ones that please me most.

Hopefully the next time I hit a reading slump, and that is bound to happen, I will remember the cure: Go to the Books I Really Want To Read shelf and pick one up and read it.


(Winter's Tale is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, May 16, 2016

THE WOMAN WHO READ TOO MUCH






The Woman Who Read Too Much, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Redwood Press, 2015, 322 pp (originally published in France and Italy, 2007)
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Gossip was rife in the capital about the poetess of Qazvin. Some claimed she had been arrested for masterminding the murder of the grand Mullah, her uncle. Others echoed her words, and passed her poems from hand to hand. Everyone spoke of her beauty, and her dazzling intelligence. But most alarming to the Shah and the court was how the poetess could read. As her warnings and predictions became prophecies fulfilled, about the assassination of the Shah, the hanging of the Mayor, and the murder of the Grand Vazir, many wondered whether she was not only reading history but writing it as well. Was she herself guilty of the crimes she was foretelling?
 
 
My Review:
Because of its title, I was destined to read this novel. I am the woman who reads too much. But for the poetess of Qazvin, her excessive reading brought tragedy and an early death, while for me it is saving my sanity.
 
Let me say right off that this is an extremely challenging read. Its larger than life characters go by several names and titles each. It is set in mid 19th century Persia. It is told from four different points of view. The time sequence is a tangled and overlapping web. If I hadn't turned to the back of the book and read the author's Afterword first, something I rarely do, and then constantly referred to her "Chronology of Corpses" placed after the Afterword, I would have been as confused and frustrated as the rest of my reading group members were.
 
Because I used those two aids as much as I did, I was rewarded beyond my expectations. The poetess of Qazvin was most definitely a saint and though her ending was violent and grim, she did as much for women and mankind as most saints do. She was blessed to be born to a father who believed women should be taught to read and encouraged to write, in a time and culture when Persian women were meant to be kept illiterate.
 
Being a literate woman who studied the Islamic scriptures she was tireless in working to adapt Islamic practices to include rights for women. She was fearless and beautiful but little concerned for her own comfort or happiness or safety. She taught women of all classes to read and to think for themselves.
 
If one is to read and assimilate Bahiyyih Nakhjavani's extraordinary novel, one must set aside most of her reading habits and expectations and desire to see inside both the palaces and hovels of Iranian culture. In any culture, where women or races or religious beliefs or economic conditions enforce inequality and oppression while using violence to quell discontents, the victims of it develop coping strategies. This is true of the lowliest corpse washer, of the inhabitants of the palace harems, of the mother of the Shah.
 
The author has woven a tapestry of words and images to portray the many ways in which all of the above might play out. The reward for me in deciphering her art and intent was a deeper understanding of the drama that is our modern world or even perhaps that of humanity throughout all time.  
 
By the end I felt something like enlightenment. I could see the big picture, the stakes, the opponents and the goals. It made me want to read more, to better understand myself and my fellow humans, and I felt very happy to be who I am. To me, that is what great literature should do.
 
 
(The Woman Who Read Too Much is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS






The Little Red Chairs, Edna O'Brien, Little Brown and Company, 2016, 297 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: A woman discovers that the foreigner she thinks will redeem her life is a notorious war criminal. Vlad, a stranger from Eastern Europe masquerading as a healer, settles in a small Irish village where the locals fall under his spell. One woman, Fidelma McBride, becomes so enamored that she begs him for a child. All that world is shattered when Vlad is arrested, and his identity as a war criminal is revealed.
Fidelma, disgraced, flees to England and seeks work among the other migrants displaced by wars and persecution. But it is not until she confronts him-her nemesis-at the tribunal in The Hague, that her physical and emotional journey reaches its breathtaking climax.
 
 
My Review:
 
Installment #5 of my tale of the April reading slump.
 
This is the book that liberated me from the slump and in fact started me off on a reading streak of great books. This review was originally published at Litbreak.
 
 
What if a war criminal appeared in your town and passed himself off as a poet and holistic healer? What if your town was a small isolated place and the man is handsome in a brooding mysterious way? It could happen that he would be secretly sought after by women with private troubles who would be conned into trusting him to the point of intimacy.

So does the incredible Edna O’Brien imagine how this would play out. Fifty-six years after her first novel, The Country Girls, was published, this is not quite the same Edna O’Brien. She is still mining the plight of the Irish woman but that sequestered innocence has been invaded by ever more wars, economic upheaval, and ethnic struggle. In her current alternate history, The Butcher of Bosnia, in disguise, enters the Irish town of Cloonoila on a winter evening and trailing after him are the evils of one of the worst European conflicts of the 20th century.

The book is prefaced by the following epigraph:
“On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the 800 meters of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.”

Despite having read the above, I went into the novel as innocently as one of those early country girls and almost as ignorantly as an American woman who avoids reading the news and reads novels instead. Perhaps that was the best state in which to be for a first read, because I was instantly under the spell of O’Brien’s prose.

“The town takes its name from the river. The current, swift and dangerous, surges with a manic glee, chunks of wood and logs of ice borne along in its trail. In the small sidings where the water is trapped, stones, blue, black and purple, shine up out of the river bed, perfectly smoothed and rounded and it is as though seeing a clutch of good-sized eggs in a bucket of water. The noise is deafening…
“He stays by the water’s edge, apparently mesmerized by it.
“Bearded and in a long dark coat and white gloves, he stands on the narrow bridge, looks down at the roaring current, then looks around, seemingly a little lost, his presence the single curiosity in the monotony of a winter evening in a freezing backwater that passes for a town and is named Cloonoila.”

Within days the stranger, who calls himself Dr Vladimir Dragan, has met with and overcome suspicion and won over some admirers, including a nun, a bartender, and several ladies. He gives treatments in his clinic and talks at the school. He brings glamour and newness and a bit of the feeling of danger to the dull winter town.

No one comes to actual harm except Fidelma McBride, whose beauty and worldliness is sure to lead to trouble. She is unhappily married to a much older man, childless, and bored, having lost her boutique in the crash. The doctor becomes her obsession and she lures him into an affair. But Dragan is discovered, captured and whisked away. After a scene of stunning violence, Fidelma is left shamed and shunned by the community and her husband.

The final sections of the novel are a classic tale of the ravages of sin, the search for redemption, and the atonement. Fidelma moves to London and lives among refugees and undocumented immigrants, then moves on to The Hague where she attends Dragan’s trial before the United Nations Tribunal. Interwoven with what could be a dark mystery or even a political thriller is this woman’s journey from complicity with evil through guilt to her ultimate understanding of the dangers of innocence. O’Brien calls on the classic legends, tales of innocence lost and evil triumphing, parables of justice and punishment, all from the viewpoint of women ravaged, deprived of home and family, and drowning in grief. Not a moment of melodrama. Just a piercing examination of the travails brought down on women in times of evil getting the upper hand.

When The Little Red Chairs was published in Great Britain last October, the long, drawn out trial of Radovan Karadzic, the actual Butcher of Bosnia, was still ongoing. Just five days before the book’s publication in the United States, the United Nations Tribunal in The Hague convicted him of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. I did not know that piece of news until I began preparing my review. The chilling thought comes to me. Could this masterpiece by a writer of fiction, an Irish female novelist, have made a difference in the judgement of the Tribunal?  



(The Little Red Chairs is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

 
 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

SHELTER






Shelter, Jung Yun, Picador, 2016, 326 pp
 
Installment #4 in the tale of my April reading slump, in which I start digging out with some difficulty.
 
Summary from Goodreads: Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future.

A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness. Kyung can hardly bear to see them now, much less ask for their help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and he’s compelled to take them in. For the first time in years, the Chos find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions quickly mount as Kyung’s proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: how can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child?
 
 
My Review:
I reached the rock bottom of my reading slump with Gutshot. April was going into the third week and I had only finished four short books. Shelter was next on the reading plan but I had some time before I had to start it in order to meet my review deadline at Litbreak. Most of all, I was desperate to read something I wanted to read instead of a book for a reading group, a review, or with an upcoming due date at the library.
 
I walked to my bookshelves and looked at a stack called (in my imagination) Books I Really Want To Read Soon and saw Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, a 688 page paperback with minuscule type that had been in that stack for months. I threw all caution and discipline away and started reading. It was wonderful, amazing, just what I had been longing for! Alas, it turned out to be a book to savor, to read slowly, taking in each delicious sentence.
 
Several days and less than 200 pages later, I had to face reality and pick up Shelter, so more about Winter's Tale when it gets its own review.
 
Fortunately Jung Yun's debut novel reads like one of the vodka and Orangina cocktails I love to drink at Happy Hour. Before you know it, you are done. I finished the book in two days. Unfortunately I am nearly the only person on the planet who didn't love it.
 
All of the elements are there: son of Korean immigrants in Boston, abusive childhood, unbelievably violent event, failing marriages, economic stress, and that terrible disaster-in-the-making when your parents have to move in with your grown-up self.
 
I could see why it was such a 4 or 5 star book for many readers. My trouble was that the story felt too much like a cliche to me. One of those novels like Jodi Picoult writes, full of issues and people who are trying to appear normal and successful but are actually broken and dysfunctional. One of those books full of contemporary family angst that could easily be a hip TV serial on a cool cable channel.
 
I know I am being a snob, but immigrant lit in the 21st century has gotten to be a predictable genre for me. For example, Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You; well-written with emotional heft but somehow just too carefully told.
 
The bar was set for me by Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Novels where life is beyond all control and the characters and plot are larger than life and the authors force you to see how really awful life can be.
 
I didn't review Shelter for Litbreak. I have a thing when I review for someone else's publication, presumably seen by more people than the ones who follow this blog or my Goodreads page. If I write about a novel in that context, I want to feel exuberant about it and tell the world I do.
 
I moved on, picked another book, made my deadline, then finished Winter's Tale. You will read all about that in my next few posts. 
 
  
(Shelter is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)