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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

I received two Penguin reprints of Vita Sackville-West‘s novels for my birthday a couple of months ago, and read The Edwardians last week. It’s kind of a literary Downton Abbey but far sharper and funnier. That Sackville-West belonged to the strata of society she was sending up makes it even more admirable, to me. Her characters are delicious, and the story of Sebastian, a young Duke whose mother Lucy is among the “fast” set, favorites of the king, and who loves his estate, Chevron, and runs it well, is tender and also searingly critical. His sister, Viola is considered “cold,” and treated with suspicion by her mother’s friends because she is always quietly observing. It turns out she is in the end brighter and more observant than any of them.

Early in the novel, Sebastian and Viola meet a man their mother is considering as a potential lover, an explorer named Leonard Anquetil. Lucy invites Anquetil to a house party at Chevron to amuse her friends with this man who survived in a “snow hut” on a polar expedition. Anquetil ends up spending time with Sebastian and Viola, talking with them, and having a profound effect on their young minds, allowing them both to see (although I would argue Viola probably already does) the vacuousness of their society and the potential for them each to make their own way in the world.

The joy of this book is that Sackville-West makes it far more complicated than that, even as some circumstances of the book fall together as neatly as they might in a fable or fairy tale. Sebastian goes through a series of affairs, testing the strength of his sense of duty and propriety, and Viola manages to become her own person, against the odds for a woman of her position. I do wish the book allowed readers into Viola’s world — we only hear of her through Sebastian, or other characters.

This was a very enjoyable, intelligent read that combines the escapist pleasure of a “Masterpiece” style story (plenty of balls and Worth gowns and weekends in the country) with the bright insights and cultural commentary of an author who was no stranger to challenging convention while still embracing the lifestyle privilege afforded her. And the ending is pleasantly speculative: will Sebastian become a socialist? Will he accept Aquentil’s offer? What about the woman he’s about to propose to? What is Viola up to? How will Lucy react to her children’s latest outrageously independent choices? What about WWI, which readers know is looming (the novel ends on Coronation Day for King George and Queen Mary, in 1911)? A good read.

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My book group chose The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith for November. I’d never heard of either the book or its author, which is one of the lovely things about being in a book group, hearing about authors and books new to you. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but the gist is that it’s the story of a fictional 17th century Dutch painter, Sara de Vos, and of a 20th century Manhattan patent attorney, Martin de Groot, whose family has owned what is thought to be the only landscape painting de Vos painted, and of Ellie Shipley, a young Australian woman writing her dissertation on 17th century Dutch women painters and making money on the side as an art restorer. The book moves around from de Vos’s time to the 1950’s when Ellie and Marty meet in New York to the late 20th century in Australia, where Ellie has returned when Marty reappears in her life forty years after the events that brought them together.

At the heart of the story is the painting Marty’s family owns, “At the Edge of the Wood,” which depicts a young barefoot girl in a ragged dress watching people skate on a frozen river. It goes missing during a benefit dinner at Marty’s penthouse, replaced by a fake so realistic it takes months for him to notice the switch. The mystery leads him to Ellie. And in between, Smith takes readers to de Vos’s Holland, a place grieving from plague deaths, where the art world is controlled by guilds and the whims of the marketplace (tulip paintings come into and go out of fashion with the great speculation in bulbs, for example).

Each of the periods Smith describes beautifully, with details that take the readers right into the scene. The stink of Ellie’s apartment, caused by, among other things, a perpetually moldy ceiling and the rabbit pelts she boils down for her restoration work, is one example. The tension of an art auction. The way a Citroën engine sounds and the color of Marty’s driving gloves in the sunlight.  The slice of skates on a frozen river in Holland. The bustle of Sydney’s sidewalks at night. A scene where Ellie is reflecting on her life and watching men trying to maneuver a refrigerator onto a small boat to ill effect. And detailed depictions of artists at work.

Even ordinary scenes between characters are richly imagined, like this, when Ellie and Marty are together in Australia towards the end of the book: “He hasn’t been neutered by time exactly– there’s still a tiny high pressure weather system that hovers between them– but his potency moves in and out, at the edges of reception, muffled then surging then gone.” Relations between characters throughout the book are described beautifully, whether between friends, co-workers, or couples.

This is a lovely, intriguing novel and if you like art, an incredibly interesting look at what art means to the people who create and collect it. A great book for escaping from the world with. And one I look forward to discussing with my book group!

 

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I read Moonglow for my book group this month and was excited to do so, because Michael Chabon is one of those authors I always meant to read and hadn’t yet. I enjoyed it — the writing is really rich and muscular and evocative. I like the layers of detail. The story — which some reviewers call genre bending fictional memoir and others say is just a novel with a protagonist named Michael Chabon — was hard to follow. If you don’t like non-linear narratives, time leaps, footnotes, and other prose calisthenics you might not like it. I did, eventually, but because I have less time to read these days I found it challenging to pick up in my patchy reading time.

Those minor quibbles aside I did enjoy the main character, “my grandfather,” and the historical backdrop of his life, growing up in pre-war Philadelphia, putting his low regard for rules and his uncanny ability to jerry-rig or repair anything to use during WWII in a unit devoted to finding V2 rockets after D-Day, uncovering a cache of documents hidden by Wernher von Braun, and going back to America to lead a colorful life on the periphery of America’s space race. I don’t want to give away the details but his marriage to the narrator’s grandmother is the real meat of the story, and the way that his grandfather sees loving her as his purpose: “From the first that was a part of his attraction to her: not her brokenness but her potential for being mended and, even more, the challenge that mending her would pose. He thought that if he took on the job of loving this broken woman, some measure of sense or purpose might be returned to his life.”

This pattern begins in the grandfather’s childhood — he’s always helping someone who is kind of a mess, in one way or another, and I found that very endearing even though he’s not a classically endearing guy at all. I also enjoyed reading about the narrator’s mother and would have liked to hear more of her life. My bookclub mostly didn’t like or finish the book — one person had read it twice but otherwise, no one who came to the meeting tonight had finished. I’m glad I read to the end. There is a gentleness to the latter pages of the book that I enjoyed. Moonglow is a wacky novel, for sure, replete with some strange twists that don’t quite make sense unless you’re willing to just suspend belief and go with the narrative flow, disjointed as it may be. If you feel like something different, give it a try. Maybe take it on a weekend away or a long plane ride, so you don’t have time to get lost.

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The main characters in Our Souls at Night, Addie Moore and Louis Waters, are neighbors. They both live alone because their spouses died. Neither had a great marriage. Addie decides she doesn’t want to sleep alone anymore and invites Louis to sleep at her house. The town gossips about them. Kent Haruf lived in a small town in Colorado much like the one he writes about in Our Souls at Night. When I read that I realized much of my critique of the book has to go out the window — I found it unbelievable that there is anywhere in America where people, even older people, couldn’t have an adult relationship without whipping up gossip.

So I guess if he was writing about a town much like his own, I have to reconsider my disbelief. It’s a beautiful book, what I’d refer to as a quiet novel, just about these two people’s lives and how they get to know each other well after decades of just knowing each other in passing. They share their experiences, their marriages, the ways their lives didn’t turn out as they hoped or planned, and their concerns for their grown kids and Addie’s grandson. Their lives are ordinary but Haruf makes them seem special somehow, in their ordinariness. In their goodness.

It’s a short read, and if you like character driven novels, it’s a lovely little book. It’s a little sad, so be prepared for that, because it reveals human nature in all its brokenness. But it’s also a little hopeful. And a little funny — he even pokes fun at himself, as Addie and Louis read about a play from “that last book about Holt County,” and Louis scoffs that in the books are “made up,” and “improbable.”  I enjoyed it although I wasn’t really in the right mood for the brokenness.

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It’s hard to know how best to describe The Essex Serpent. Sarah Perry‘s writing reminds me a bit of Kate Atkinson’s. This is a historical novel, set in the late 1800s. It’s also an examination of the nineteenth (and sadly, the 20th and 21st) century’s tension between faith and reason, religion and science. It’s a social commentary on the role of women in society, and on the responsibility of the wealthy and powerful to the poor, and on the way social welfare, such as housing programs, is often laced with paternalism and judgement. It’s about love in all its complexity and variety, especially as manifested in parenthood, friendship, romance, desire, and social conscience. It’s about fear, longing, joy, and despair. It’s about mythology and mob thinking. It’s about the beauty and also the strangeness of the natural world and our perception of it. It’s about illness and medicine, in particular nineteenth century surgery and the impact of tuberculosis on a patient’s mind. It’s about how a child likely on the autism spectrum would have been viewed in the nineteenth century (a bit eccentric and not prone to affection) It’s about the pros and cons of city and country life and what we need to make a life. It’s a book that hits on all the Big Ideas of being human without hammering the reader over the head with them.

Cora is a a smart, unconventional woman, a recent widow who is glad to be free of her cruel and abusive husband, and who would rather be tramping around in a man’s coat and boots looking for fossils but moves easily in a world of silk and diamonds and expensive treats from Harrod’s. She ends up in Essex with her companion, Martha, a socialist and fair housing advocate, and her son, Francis (the one who seems to me to be autistic). Their circle of friends includes the Reverend William Ransome, (who reminds me a bit of an older, more settled version of Sidney Chambers, nineteenth century style) and his wife Stella, who Cora and Martha meet through London friends, as well as the doctor, Luke, who attended Cora’s late husband and who makes history performing surgery on a stabbing victim’s heart, and Luke’s best friend George (mostly referred to by his last name, Spencer).

The way Perry intertwines her characters’ lives is brilliant. And the way she weaves through their lives the mystery of the Essex serpent is also well done; even those characters who aren’t directly interested in whether the beast exists are impacted by “the trouble” it causes. I loved that Perry’s inspiration was a real pamphlet (published in the 1600s and and reprinted in the 1800s as well as recently) alleging “Strange News Out of Essex.”  And I loved the language — here’s a passage that caught my eye (and ear) as I read it last night, as Martha is startled to see Francis in Stella’s lap: “What Martha later recalled most vividly of those last few fog-white days was this: William’s wife and Cora’s son, fit together like broken pieces soldered on the seam.” It’s not a straightforward narrative, as Perry sprinkles her text with the letters her characters write to each other. But it’s not a straight up epistolary novel either, as there are long passages without letters.

I loved it, and I loved how it ended — Cora has undergone change without being transformed beyond recognition, there’s no pat conclusion of the chaos she’s wrought or the pain she’s experienced, but there’s hope. A thoroughly entertaining and also thought provoking book — the kind of read that makes you long to talk it over with someone who’s read it too. And yes, it’s another of Simon’s recommendations from an episode (maybe several) of The Readers! Thanks, Simon.

 

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Lest you think all of my reading lately has come from The Readers podcast — see my previous post. But yes, this is another that Simon and Thomas discussed and Simon said he hoped to read by the end of the year. Since the plan is that I start an MSc in Science Communication at University of Edinburgh (don’t get excited, it’s a distance learning course) in September, I figure my reading for pleasure year is almost over. Pachinko is a big thick historical novel, so when I saw it on the “recently returned” shelf a few days after I heard that podcast, I thought, “no time like the present.”

Min Jin Lee is about my age and writes in her author note that this novel has been with her for thirty years — she had the idea in college, when she heard a guest speaker talk about Koreans living in Japan more or less stateless  because of WWII and the Korean War. Pachinko was informed by that story, and is the tale of Sunja, daughter of a poor widow who runs a boarding house in Yeongdo near Busan in what is today South Korea. Sunja is beloved, but uneducated. In her innocence and ignorance she is taken advantage of by a wealthy Korean man who lives primarily in Osaka but visits Yeongdo on business. Isak, a well born Korean man who is on his way to be a Presbyterian minister in Osaka, convalesces from tuberculosis at the boarding house and feels moved to help Sunja.

From there the story traces Sunja’s life and that of her family, in particular her two sons Mozasu and Noa, to 1989. It’s about the Koreans who were caught between warring nations, immigrants even if they were born in Japan like Sunja’s children and grandchildren, required to register as aliens even though they have not known any other country. It’s also about women; “A woman’s lot is to suffer,” Yangjin, Sunja’s mother, tells her and we hear that repeated over the decades. Sunja and her sister-in-law Kyunghee must do what their husbands tell them to, and yet when war devastates the family it is these two who support and sustain the family. And it’s about love, especially first love, which impacts several characters, and maternal love, a sacrificial love so strong that Sunja worries it is idolatrous.

Lee suffuses her novel with sensual details — the way cloth feels, the smell and taste of food, the sounds and smells of various neighborhoods, vivid details about the way characters look. All of this drew me further into the stories of the characters’ lives. My only disappointment was that a subplot about some minor characters, Mozasu’s best friend Haruki and his wife Ayame, sort of trailed off with no resolution. Otherwise this was an enjoyable read, and one that took me to a place and time I hadn’t explored before.

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I picked up Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather because as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been listening to The Readers, and earlier this summer Thomas recommended it. Believe it or not I’ve never read Willa Cather before, and my library had this book, so I thought I’d give it a try. It took me a couple of weeks because of everything else going on in our lives right now, and because it’s a slower read as any classics are. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Shadows on the Rock is set in colonial Quebec city (or town as it was then), for one thing; the events in the book take place between 1697-1713, with some backstory referring to even earlier times in France. I can definitely say this isn’t a time or place I’ve read about before. Some of Cather’s characters are real historical figures, including Bishop Laval and the Count who served as governor of New France, Comte de Frontenac. As far as I could tell the main characters, the count’s apothecary Euclide Auclair and his daughter Cecile, who is twelve when the book opens, are fictional.

Cecile is a devout and compassionate girl who looks out for Jacques, the neglected little boy whose mother is poor and disreputable. Cecile also cares for Blinker, a cross-eyed man who helps with chores at the Auclair’s home and works for the baker next door, providing him food and drink as her late mother did. In fact she has taken on her mother’s role as homemaker, cleaning and cooking for her father, and helping him in his shop. Euclide studies Canadian plants’ medicinal use and considers himself a progressive man of science; his refusal to bleed patients doesn’t sit well with the town barber/surgeon or some of the colonists.

Cather paints a picture of the hardship people faced living in New France, especially outside of Montreal and Quebec in the wilderness, where priests were dispatched to convert the native people. She portrays the natural beauty of the place as well, and the colonists’ dependence on the successful arrival of ships from France to bring staples and luxuries alike. I’m very intrigued and would like to read more about colonial life and also would like to visit Quebec City.

I definitely would recommend this and I do also want to read more Willa Cather!

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