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Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

I loved the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters, so I was excited to see that with Golden State he returns to the dystopian mystery genre (I would be remiss if I did not point out that Winters wrote another highly praised book, Underground Airlines, which I have not yet read). Golden State is even more dystopian than The Last Policeman. Golden State is a place sort of like California in a post-disaster world, a society where telling the truth is upheld by law, and lying can land you in jail or even exile. Our hero, Laszlo Ratesic, has been with the Speculative Service, which is tasked with protecting society from lies, for nineteen years. His old friend and mentor, Arlo Vasouvian, asks him to take on a partner, Aysa Paige, a young woman new to the force. They go out on what seems like a routine call, verifying the facts of a death, and from there, Laszlo’s life gets a great deal more complicated.

Laszlo and Aysa end up pursuing an anomaly, and as this fast-paced book unfolds, Laszlo’s certainty that the Golden State is a safe place where laws are upheld and truth is honored begins to unravel. From finding an irresistible “artifact,” a book “from what was” before the Golden State, to asking his ex-wife, who works in the Record (where everything that has happened to everyone who exists is recorded) for help, to uncovering several characters’ closely held secrets, Laszlo and Aysa chase their truth to the very highest levels of the Golden State.

Or do they? This is no formulaic mystery. What happens in the final hundred or so pages of The Golden State will give your book club plenty to discuss. What happens, in the end, with the information Laszlo uncovers? The implications of his discovery for the Golden State is open to interpretation. I’m fascinated by the madwoman/guide character and by Laszlo’s ex-wife, and would love to talk about their roles with someone else who has read the book. I appreciate that Winters leaves room for the reader to think about what happened to Laszlo and decide how it might turn out. Laszlo himself is on a new quest by the end of the book, and I’m hoping this means there may be room for a sequel.

The themes of the book are so timely — what are the consequences of making lies indistinguishable from truth, as we seem to have done? Can society go too far in seeking and upholding the truth? What is the relationship between evidence and truth? How should society deal with people whose truths are outside the mainstream? How does our society do this, even if it’s not as obviously extreme as the Golden State? What makes a person good, or bad, at what they do and how they live? Can a person have serious faults and be a hero? Can a person be a friend and a traitor? Some of these are age old questions, but I can promise you haven’t considered them in quite the same way as The Golden State.

Finally, and those of you who have followed this blog for any time know this is key for me — the writing is beautiful. In the scene where Laszlo tells Arlo about the novel he’s found disguised as a dictionary, and Arlo tells him it’s an artifact, Laszlo muses: “We are silent, then, silent on the steps of the Record, silent at the center of the State. There is a world that used to be and is gone. We live on it and in it, but we don’t know what it was. Its absence surrounds us.”

Truth, beauty, dystopia and the thrill of a page-turner that makes you keep the booklight on under the covers. Perfect. And what a work to pair with The Misinformation Age!

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I liked The Essex Serpent so when I saw that Sarah Perry had a new book out, Melmoth, I was excited to get it for my library. It’s different than Perry’s earlier book, but like that one, hard to characterize. It’s the story of Helen Franklin, originally from Essex but a longtime resident of Prague and a translator. When the book opens, Karel Prazan, “who constitutes precisely half her compliment of friends” stops her as she crosses the Charles Bridge over the Vlatva River and tells her he has something to tell her, a file to show her.

They go to a cafe and he begins to tell her about another researcher who like Karel and Helen, frequents the National Library. This man, Josef Hoffman, has recently died and left Karel his file on Melmoth, the Watcher. Melmoth or Melmat is a mythical woman who is witness to people’s worst moments. Hoffman’s file contains myriad accounts of her presence in various parts of the world and various times, including rural 16th century England  where heretics are bring burned at the stake to Turkey at the time of the Armenian genocide to Nazi occupied Prague. Karel is quite overcome by her story, and Helen soon becomes wrapped up in it too.

As the book unfolds, we learn that Helen not only has almost no contact with other people, but also she sleeps on a bare mattress, dresses only in plain, drab clothing, and denies herself all but the minimum of sustenance. Towards the end of the book we learn why, and there is what seems to me an unlikely closure to her story. I was telling a friend today I did not enjoy the ending very much — it felt like Perry was trying to draw in a few last threads and I felt the final Melmoth story could have come before Helen’s final part of the story and things would have flowed better.

Still, the friend I chatted about it with helped me make more sense of it than I’d had when I read it. A character from Helen’s earlier life appears in Prague and that seemed unlikely to me, but my friend noted that if the book is about your worst moments stalking you it makes sense that this character had to show up. Melmoth bears witness, but she also serves as a reminder of each transgressor’s guilt. Without her, these painful moments would not necessarily fade from memory, but they might be pushed away, as Helen has managed to push away what haunts her and live carefully within a routine. Melmoth forces her to actively remember. Just when it seems she’s pursued Helen to the breaking point, there is a tiny gleam of hope. And then at the very end of the book, it seems as if, with no one else to torment, Melmoth turns to us, the readers . . . .

A strange little book, a good read, full of interesting places and people, not without a bit of discordance.

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I came across two references to Giovanni’s Room recently, one in an article about reading fiction to deal with current reality, and the other, a re-post of the New York Times review from 1956 when the book came out, at Literary Hub. At some point in college I’d read some of James Baldwin‘s essays I think, but not his fiction. It seemed like time.

My library has a good bit of older fiction, so we had it on the shelf in an original $0.60 Dell paperback. I could have read it in a couple of sittings, given the time, but I’ve had a lot of reading and writing for grad school, so it took several evenings. If you’ve never read it, I recommend reading it through rather than splitting it into several shorter readings — the impact, I think would be greater.

The book is the story of David, a man old enough that his father thinks he should have settled down already, an American abroad in Paris. The whole book takes place on the evening before his former lover, Giovanni, an Italian who was tending bar when David met him, is going to be executed for murder. David is spending a sleepless night drinking and recalling his time with Giovanni, his early recognition that he was attracted to men, and his attempts to live as a heterosexual man, including only recently leaving Giovanni for Hella,  a woman he planned to marry.

David and Giovanni have a brief affair but one that profoundly impacts David. At first he is amazed by the way Giovanni so freely and openly loves him. But eventually he reverts to his old emotional pattern of shame and dread. Having grown up in America where being gay is not only scorned, but illegal, he has never felt anything else about his own sexuality.  Ultimately though, David’s shame isn’t simple self-loathing, it’s also tied up with confusion he feels in not really being able to reconcile who he is with who he feels he should be.  When he tries to live into this perception he holds, he ends up being more like what he dreads — heartless, thoughtless.

His recollections show how shame can infect every aspect of someone’s life, their aspirations, their relationships with family and friends as well as lovers. And Baldwin is an incredible writer, whose descriptive passages amaze even as they repel, as in this section describing a woman David has just taken to bed to forget his conflicted feelings about Giovanni and Hella: “She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated, but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety — as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.” Is that not the most gorgeous writing about something terrible?

Some of the conversations about what men and women are like are hard to read, perceptions of gender in society haven’t really progressed much, I fear. And the story is obviously emotionally difficult. But although it can be wrenching it isn’t bleak, even at the end when David is alone. He will go one, it seems, even if he isn’t any surer how than he was before: “The morning weighs on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope . . . .”  It’s dreadful for now, but there’s a sense David will survive.

I think I’ll be mulling this book over for some time.

 

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This was my last week off before grad school starts back up again, and coming off a stack of thick novels I decided to read some nonfiction. I picked up Seeds at the Five Colleges Booksale last spring. I love trees, and this book is about Richard Horan‘s travels to various writers’ (and a few other important cultural figures’) homes to gather seeds from trees that would have been around at the time the person lived there (witness trees). His longer term plan was to plant them and grow new trees.

It was a pleasant read for a stressful week — those of you who work in higher ed know that the weeks between semesters are crammed — and I enjoyed it, although by the end I was ready to move on. Horan is passionate about his project and meets interesting people along the way. He strikes a good balance between talking about his travels and seed gathering and sharing interesting information about both the trees and the people whose homes he visits. His project is interesting, although the website he set up to tell the continuing adventures of the trees doesn’t seem to be around anymore, so I’m not sure how things turned out.

In the “extras” section in the back of the book there are some anecdotes he heard about Betty Smith (yes, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) from people who knew her, and that was a real gem that I wish wasn’t hidden past the end of the book. Horan’s writing is at its best when he is enthusing about something that had a lasting impact on him, whether a book he read when he was young or a person he met on the trips for this book. I also enjoyed his willingness to engage in unvarnished and deserved critique here and there, whether about the white-washing of historical sites (example: there are no slave cabins at Mount Vernon and white people hoe the garden when Horan visits; I think shortly after, a slave quarters did open), the devastating tree cutting at Gettysburg National Military Park (which took out witness trees along with those the park service wanted to be rid of), or our one size fits all education system. That said, he’s a little hard on docents. They’re just volunteers, man, they are probably doing the best they can.

Seeds is more than what my Dad calls a “palate cleanser,” but is still easy to dip into if you don’t have the bandwidth for something heavier. It made me want to read Eudora Welty immediately. I admit to cringing here and there at some lines that clanked for me, but then I’d come across something like this description of Welty’s eyes, “scattering thoughts and sucking air out of every head and chest they made contact with.” Or his Bill Bryson-like description of yelling back and forth to be heard over construction machinery with the Yaddo publicist about the famous literary retreat’s noise mitigation efforts.

Recommended for anyone who likes trees, books, and/or travel narratives.

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I started The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble in Maine last Saturday, and then came back to the last minute cleaning, cooking, etc. and the Christmas Eve and Christmas festivities, and went back to work on Boxing Day, so it took me several days to finish. This is actually part of a trilogy about the same group of characters, centered around three women who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s. When the book opens, one of them, Liz Headleand, a London psychiatrist, is preparing to host a huge New Year’s bash on the last day of 1979. It ends in June 1985, on her friend Esther Breuer’s fiftieth birthday. Which they spend together, along with their third university friend, Alix Bowen.

In the nearly 400 pages between, Drabble spins the story of these women’s adult lives, occasionally dipping into their childhoods, describing the society they live in (mainly well educated but not posh London, and the north of England, where Alix and Liz are from), the disciplines they devote themselves to (psychiatric medicine for Liz, art history and especially the Italian Renaissance painter Crivelli for Esther, literature and teaching it to under-served people, like women prisoners, for Alix), the men they love, and the children they bear.

As I’ve written here before, I love the way Drabble writes about people as they relate to each other — friends, relatives, lovers — and the way those relationships knit together create society. She works into the story politics and culture, literature and art, anthropology and history and myth, but always returns to the relationships. And these not only populate society but also Drabble’s fictional world. Kate Armstrong, the main character of The Middle Ground appears on the edges of The Radiant Way, for example. As in other Drabble books the women here are serious, thinking people no matter how they spend their days, and she captures the way they manage their own needs, goals, ambitions, work with the care of others in a way that really resonates with me.

I’ve read some criticism of Drabble — she gets too caught up in description and explanation, she injects too much (read too liberal) political commentary into her fiction, she writes about privileged people, her novels are uninteresting for all of the above reasons. But I love her lens, I love vicariously living in her England for a few days, and I love her writing, and I’ve started the second book in the trilogy, A Natural Curiosity.

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Norah Lofts was not an author I knew of when I picked up How Far to Bethlehem at the Five Colleges Book Sale last spring. Last week, after finishing a book for Kirkus and turning in my final paper before the winter break, I decided it would make a good Advent read. And it did.

I have since learned that Lofts was known for the detail in her historical novels and that was one thing I enjoyed about How Far to Bethlehem. It’s the story of all the people converging on the nativity — Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, one of the shepherds, even the innkeeper. Lofts imagines a backstory for the lesser known characters and fills out the lives of those you may be more familiar with. She imagines the wise men as an astronomer from Korea (Melchior), a Mongolian military leader (Gaspar) and a learned eunuch slave from Africa (Balthazar). The innkeeper she imagines to be a former sailor. The shepherd, a grieving father whose son fell in with Jewish rebels and ended up crucified.

The way Mary and Joseph each receive the news of their holy son’s impending birth is beautifully written, as is the miracle of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and Mary’s visit to her cousin. Anne, Mary’s mother, also comes alive for Lofts, worried about Mary and convinced her son in law is a fool for taking her on a donkey to Bethlehem. But the really interesting parts for me were the stories of Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar and the way their lives come together on the quest to follow the star and find the child.

When my kids were kids, I used to read Jostein Gaarder’s  The Christmas Mystery to them every advent, one part a day until Christmas. How Far to Bethlehem reminded me a little of that book. It’s a good little advent read.

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Around ten years ago I read Anne Fadiman‘s wonderful books of essays, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small. Those are both so delightful that I still recommend them to people — they make wonderful gifts for people who love reading and books, and they are smart, interesting, and won’t keep you up at night like so many contemporary nonfiction books might. I’ve also always meant to read her book about a Hmong family dealing with the American medical system The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. But I was in a bookstore in Vermont on Columbus Day and saw her 2017 memoir, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, on a staff pick display and serendipitously, discovered it is in Overdrive (library eBooks).

This memoir is as much a book about Fadiman’s father, Clifton Fadiman, as it is about her and the rest of her family. She talks about what it was like to have a well-known father, to both be writers, and to try to share his love of wine. In fact, much of the book is about the fact that Fadiman doesn’t really like wine, something she feels badly about and suspects her father knows even though she politely fakes it. Towards the end of the book, Fadiman looks into the physiological reason some people don’t like certain tastes, and that section is reminiscent of her earlier work.

I enjoyed both the personal reflections and the more straightforward nonfiction sections. It’s interesting to read about Clifton Fadiman, and his desire to make himself over from a Jewish child of immigrants into a man of letters. My own great-uncle, a chemist, changed his name to sound less Jewish, so the phenomena of distancing oneself from family history is familiar to me. And there is a good bit of information about wine in this book, especially French wines of certain areas and vintages that I didn’t know much about before reading it.  Mainly Fadiman’s writing is a pleasure, smart and clear and evocative.

This was a good read, but I admit I am a little tired of eBooks. There are a few more I’d like to read that are available on Hoopla and Overdrive but I may take a print break before reading those.

 

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