Monday, June 29, 2020

THE SOCIETY OF RELUCTANT DREAMERS


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The Society of Reluctant Dreamers, Eduardo Jose Agualusa, Archipelago Books, 2020, 264 pp (originally published in 2017, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn)
 
This novel was as amazing as it was treacherous. Once I figured out it was set in the African country, Angola, and once I did some research into that country's horrific history and horrendous struggle for independence from European colonizers (mainly Portuguese but also all the major colonizers of the 19th century) then at least it was located for me. I understood why the Angolan author wrote it in Portuguese.
 
The other challenge was the story of Daniel and his dream lover Moira. When the book opens, Daniel has just been divorced by his wife of many years. He is a journalist; she is descended from a family who collaborated with the Portuguese. His daughter has stayed with her conservative mother, but is just as radical as Daniel.

Daniel dreams. He writes down his dreams as though he were reporting the news.
 
"I woke very early. Through the narrow windows, I saw long black birds fly past. I'd dreamed about them. It was as though they had leaped from my dream up into the sky, a damp piece of dark-blue tissue paper, with bitter mold growing in the corners."
 
The above is the opening paragraph of the book. It is a modern novel set in an extremely foreign place. The fight for Angolan independence took at least half a century and the current ruling party as well as its President, though Angolan, are an unstable oligarchy dealing in repression of freedoms.
 
Eventually Daniel's daughter lands in prison for demonstrating against the government. She is only about 18 years old but leads a hunger strike from within the prison! By this time Daniel has met an old soldier from the wars for independence who is half mad from his experiences.
 
The two men spend hours together and share the dreams they have had the night before. Enter Moira, an artist from Mozambique, who stages her dreams in her artwork. All of the dreamers seem to merge into a collective unconscious, while Daniel works to get his daughter out of prison. In that way they seek to unravel the lives they have lived and the political reality of their country.
 
I just had to let go of any preconceived notions I harbor, knowingly or unknowingly, and enter the dream state that constitutes the basis of Jose Eduardo Agualusa's writing. Truthfully, it was not hard to do so. Life in America has become so surreal. What, after all, are happiness, freedom, love, goals? For what do we fight as human beings?

Like Daniel and his daughter, the old soldier and Moira, we yearn for happiness, freedom, love and achievable goals. Sometimes we get those dreams. Sometimes we get nightmares, awake or asleep.

Friday, June 26, 2020

A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA


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A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende, Ballantine Books, 2020, 314 pp
 
For the third time this year I was once again immersed in the effects of the Spanish Civil War. The first was Serge Pey's The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War. The second was The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. And now Isabel Allende has told another branch of the story. 
 
Through these novels I have finally gotten a better understanding of the causes of that war. I think the first time I read about it was in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. When I read that in 2002, I did not understand why so many Left Wing people from the Americas and Europe became so passionate about the struggle. I am finally getting the picture.

A Long Petal of the Sea is quite simply a wonderful story. I think Allende is always at her best when writing historical fiction. Victor Dalmau was a young medic in the war. He and his brother's pregnant lover Roser, a gifted pianist, along with his mother are finally driven to escape from Spain. How many stories have I read about desperate journeys across the Pyrenees Mountains? Certainly a few. That border between Spain and France has hosted many refugees going in both directions, not to mention advancing and returning armies.

Victor Dalmau's mother does not make it, but Victor, Roser, and her baby do. They end up in Chile, thanks to Pablo Neruda who chartered a ship to bring 2000 refugees to his country. Though these people were not wanted there, Neruda was so beloved in Chile that he pulled it off.

Each chapter of the book begins with some lines from Neruda's poetry. In fact, Victor and Neruda become friends. The lives of Victor and Roser in Chile span decades, with numerous developments and adventures where politics and art are always intertwined, where the opposing forces of freedom and fascist tendencies battle.

Though it is such a long and involved tale I was never lost. Allende's sure hand with history and her deep but somehow lighthearted fascination with the power of love are the anchors. Definitely one of her most wonderful novels.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

THE POWER OF THE DOG


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The Power of the Dog, Don Winslow, Alfred A Knopf, 2005, 542 pp
 
I have been intending to read Don Winslow for many years. Now I finally did and I am hooked.
 
The Power of the Dog is the first of his three books about Mexican drug cartels. If you are curious about this scourge of criminality your curiosity will be entirely rewarded. It is a fairly long book but I read it in a little over three days. Winslow can do propulsive, addictive plot with the best of them.

Art Keller, DEA agent, began with a loyal commitment to the US War of Drugs. His concurrent disillusionment with the agency and obsession with taking out the key family in Mexico's drug empire contribute equally to the demise of his marriage and his success in the mission he sets for himself.

Just as in real life, the development, the evolution from pot to heroin to cocaine to crack is complex, driven by greed for wealth and power. The Power of the Dog could have been just another thriller about organized crime. In addition to his serious writing chops though, Winslow manages to convey the intricate intersections between the criminals, the law, and the citizens who dance around each other.

He shows us the violence that is as big a part of life as the hopes and dreams of mankind. I was impressed and left with much to ponder.

Friday, June 19, 2020

THE NIGHT WATCHMAN


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The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins, 2020, 444 pp
 
This is the best book I have read so far this year. Three of my reading groups chose it so I am having the experience of discussing it with a total of 14 women. In the two discussions I have had so far, everyone loved it and a common statement is, " I didn't want the book to end." This is a testament to how much Louise Erdrich gets the reader involved with her characters.
 
She based her story on her grandfather, a factory night watchman and resident of the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. His fictional name is Thomas, he is a Chippewa, a man of great courage and intelligence but most of all persistence.

Thomas learns of a new "emancipation" bill on its way to Congress, a bill that will terminate the rights of his people to land "given" to them by a United States treaty that stated it was to last "for as long as the grasses grow and the rivers run." It is 1953. Should the bill pass not only will they lose their land but also their identity as Chippewa people.

Thomas spends his hours at night on the job, between regular inspections of the factory, reading the bill until he understands its words and its intentions. He then involves the people of the reservation in a bold plan to go before Congress and fight against the bill's passage.

Despite their poverty and the forces that have driven some to alcohol, have driven a daughter to run away to Minneapolis and become lost, the tribe includes characters who work against terrible odds to better their families and keep them together. One of these is 17 year old Patrice, who goes in search of her lost sister and sets in motion events that will affect the entire tribe, including a ghost!

Louise Erdrich writes with such smooth yet fiery storytelling. She shows how an oppressed people can use skills forced on them by the White man to their advantage in overcoming that oppression without losing the beliefs and understanding of their connection to their land and each other.

She gives new meaning to intelligence, compassion and courage. All the while she injects humor and a certain kind of magic trickster into this incredible tale of survival and triumph.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

THE LABYRINTH OF THE SPIRITS



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The Labyrinth of the Spirits, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, HarperCollins, 2018, 805 pp (translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves)
 
I have now read all four books in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Thanks to blogger friend Marianne in Germany at Let's Read, whose review of this book reminded me that I had never finished the series. This is the longest of the book but I did not mind. I wanted to stay with those characters for as long as I could.
 
In The Labyrinth of the Spirits, Zafon introduces a new character, Alicia. She is as badass as they come and works for Spain's secret police in Madrid. She wants out so her handler says if she does one more assignment, she can walk away. 
 
Of course the assignment is tough beyond any she has ever had and will test every strength she has. It leads her to Daniel Sempre (the central character in The Shadow of the Wind) and to Daniel's best friend Fermin, who we learn for the first time saved her life during the Spanish Civil War when she was nine years old. Her assignment is to find the former director of the Montjuic Castle prison, featured in the third book, The Prisoner of Heaven. In that prison were certain authors and the one who is still alive may hold the key to the mystery of that former director's recent disappearance. 
 
Alicia is a fascinating and complex character who puts most spies I have read about to shame and also loves to read. Spain is still under the autocratic rule of Franco meaning that crime and oppression wait at every turn.
 
By the end, every mystery in the Sempre family has been solved. The bad people get what is coming to them. Best of all Daniel finally finds out what really happened to his mother. As in every book, reading and literature and authors and bookstores and the librarian of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books play pivotal roles.

Should one read these books in order? Carlos Ruiz Zafon claims that is not necessary but I found that each book circles around to the previous ones, always expanding this wonderful tale. Many people read The Shadow of the Wind and then felt let down by The Angel's Game. I admit that was a dark and scary tale with no relief but now that I have read The Labyrinth of the Spirits, it makes complete sense why he had to write it as part of the series.

Here are my reviews of the first three books:

 
Have you read any of these books?



Monday, June 08, 2020

JUNE READING GROUP UPDATE



I really couldn't use one of those cute reading group images this month. This is how all my reading groups begin these days. The good news is that four of my six groups are now meeting on Zoom, which isn't perfect but is way better than not meeting at all. I am so grateful for this user friendly technology and for the member of each group who manages the invitations and all that.

This month two of my groups are discussing the same book: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. It is such a wonderful read about Native American life that I am thrilled to have two chances to discuss it.

Here is the lineup:

The Tiny Book Club and Carol's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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I have read and discussed this one in another group a few months ago, but since it is a book that seems to evoke many and various reactions in readers, I am sure it will be interesting to discuss it again.
 
Bookies Babes: 
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This is a sequel to Attica Locke's earlier book, Bluebird, Bluebird, which I took the time to read first. The setting is East Texas contemporary times and delves into the precarious life of a Black Texas Ranger.  Heaven My Home follows with a later part of his story. Full of the complex tangles of racism, it is a pretty darn appropriate read to accompany the ongoing protests.
 
Have you read and/or discussed any of these books? If you are a member of a real life reading group, how are you coping? Do you meet on Zoom or discuss through email or text? And what books have you been discussing lately?


Thursday, June 04, 2020

THE CITY WE BECAME


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The City We Became, N K Jemisin, Orbit, 2020, 434pp
 
When I learned that N K Jemisin (author of The Broken Earth Trilogy, for which she won the Hugo Award three straight years in a row, a book a year) had a new novel, I was excited. Better yet, I was not disappointed.
 
Reading The Broken Earth trilogy was not unlike being taken somewhere you have never been by adults who drag you along without explaining anything. You are left with only your ability to observe the things and people around you while you try to figure out what is going on. Your hand is not held except to grasp it and pull you forward. The world she built in those books had only the barest resemblance to anywhere or any time period I had ever experienced.
 
The thing was, she also made me care and suffer along with her characters. She made me want to understand so much that I would not give up reading. I don't know that I have ever wanted the good guys to win more badly in any other fiction I have read.
 
The City We Became is different because it takes place in America's biggest and possibly best known city: New York. Then again, this novel is similar to those earlier books in that the stakes are just as high. Also, it is fantasy. Also, it is the first in a new trilogy she calls The Great Cities Trilogy.
 
The author takes her time introducing her characters, all the while creating an intimate picture of each of New York's five boroughs. You have heard of all five: Manhattan, Staten Island, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn. Unless you have actually lived in NYC though, you may not know that each borough has a distinct essence, one that has changed over time for sure but distinct like five siblings from the same family.
 
For each borough is a main character. By the time you have met them all and gotten a feel for their individual stories and wondered where all this is going, you have also realized, as each character did, that they are human avatars for their respective areas and that something very weird is going on. Something about a city being born. If these five avatars don't connect and unite, it will be a still birth and any hope for the good things of life, such as dreams, creativity, justice, safety and security will be overcome by nightmares, destruction, injustice and danger.
 
The climax of the story is exciting and tense and propulsive.
 
I won't say more because I don't like rehashing plots and if this sort of book doesn't appeal to you, it would be a waste of your time. If what I have told you so far does appeal to you, you are best off discovering the wonders of The City We Became on your own.
 
Here are links to my reviews of those earlier books: