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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

First I should say that I’ve done an unintentional experiment in reading Ondaatje‘s two novels, The Cat’s Table and then Warlight. I had  just finished The English Patient and was planning to check out Warlight in print from my library when I read Alex Preston’s review in the Guardian suggesting that the two narrators, Michael/Mynah in The Cat’s Table and Nathaniel in Warlight have a similar “voice and quality of perception.” I decided to read The Cat’s Table first, and found it was available to borrow as an eBook from my public library. It took me eleven days to finish the eBook and only two to read Warlight in print, even though Warlight is 304 pages to The Cat’s Table‘s 288. So the next time someone asks me why I prefer print I can say honestly, it’s much easier to read!

Anyway, these are beautiful books. The Cat’s Table is about an eleven year old boy traveling by ship from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England to meet his mother in the early 1950s. Flavia Prins, a friend of his family, travels first class and acts as a sort of guardian to him, and his cousin, Emily, is also on board. But Mynah, as he is known, spends his time at the “cat’s table,” far from the important passengers, and below decks, in the mysterious places where one passenger tends an exotic garden, others tend dogs and pigeons bound for England, and a mysterious prisoner is kept in chains. Mynah befriends two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin.

Together these friends learn from the adults around them over the three week journey. There is a rich man dying of rabies on board, an incognito police detective sent to watch over the prisoner, a deaf girl who becomes Emily’s friend, and the people at the cat’s table, all providing the three boys fodder for speculation and intrigue as they roam the ship, hiding in life boats, eavesdropping, and watching the adults, unseen. At the heart of the story is a mystery, but The Cat’s Table doesn’t unfold in a traditional way towards a solution.

Instead it is the remembrances of a man reflecting on a boyhood journey, with all the uncertainty and unreliability of memory. A few things are sure: Michael/Mynah is changed by the journey, he learns that “Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves,” while others, seemingly of lesser status or on the fringes, make everything happen. And he learns that as his cousin Emily tells him decades later, “I don’t think you can love me into safety.” We must all make our way, Ondaatje seems to say, and love or friendship is not enough to protect anyone from the vagaries of life.

From this meditative, mysterious book I dove into Warlight, which I liked even better (but was it because I could read it more easily in print?). While the characters in The Cat’s Table ranged from exotic and intriguing to ridiculous, Warlight is a hero’s tale, seen again through the lens of remembered childhood. It’s the story of Nathaniel, who tells us in the novel’s opening line, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” From that surprising start, Nathaniel tells the story of postwar London and the shadowy world he and his sister Rachel find themselves in after their parents allegedly leave for his father’s job in Singapore. And of the long reach of wartime secrecy deep into the decades that follow.

The Moth and the Darter, the two men who watch over them inept, non-parental choices, who have what Nathaniel sees as “grudging, uninterested concern,” for them, but also all kinds of strange talents and knowledge. The Darter, for example, realizes Rachel is epileptic and inducts Nathaniel into his business, smuggling greyhounds. He is also unperturbed when Nathaniel presents him as his father to a girl Nathaniel has been seeing.

The Moth on the other hand has an even more opaque life. He tells the children about Mahler’s notation “schwer” in his scores — “Meaning ‘difficult.’ ‘Heavy.’ We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

Understandably, this is a difficult thing for young teens to process, especially given their parents’ absence. Their unease is compounded by the people who come to see the Moth and the Darter, a strange and haphazard crew including a beekeeper, an ethnographer, and an angry Russian woman. Nathaniel explains, “And our house, so orderly and spare when inhabited by my parents, now pulsed like a hive with these busy, argumentative souls, who, having at one time legally crossed some boundary during the war, were now suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace.” Rachel withdraws from this chaos, drawn into the theater. Nathaniel is immersed, and as the book unfolds we learn that like his mother before him, it becomes his life.

The story of the adult Nathaniel piecing together the story of his mother’s war work, her friends and colleagues, and the way they are linked to both is past and his present is, like Mynah’s story, a bit rambling and indistinct, as memories often are. But beautiful, and steeped in the detailed and lyrical language that are Ondaatje’s hallmark. His description of squeaky floorboards in Nathaniel’s grandparents’ Suffolk home, where he and his mother went to live, as “the nightingale alarm” because of the resemblance to the birds’ cries, for example. And a beautiful and heartbreaking scene where the adult Nathaniel returns to the village near that home to buy his own house, and talks to the owner, Mrs. Malakite, who cannot remember him. “Still it was clear watching and listening to her that the details about the care of her garden and the three beehives and the heating of the angular greenhouse would be the last things forgotten.”

I’ve enjoyed my foray into Ondaatje’s books and plan to read more of his work. In print, preferably!

 

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My book club decided to read The English Patient after the recent announcement that it had won the “golden” Booker, chosen by readers from a shortlist (selected by judges) of 5 books representing the five decades of the prize. I’d never read it before, but I had recently ordered Warlight, Ondaatje‘s recent novel, for my library and was curious to read the book he’s possibly most known for.

The copy I read has the movie cover — a marketing trend I dislike — with a blown up image of a kiss between two of the characters. This image misleadingly indicates that this love affair, between the man known throughout most of the novel only as the English Patient (because is burned beyond recognition) and the wife of a fellow desert explorer is the central story. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

The story is actually four fragmented stories which come together, as the people they belong to do, at the end of WWII in an abandoned monastery, Villa San Girolamo. Hana is the first to be there, when it was still an active war hospital. Only twenty years old, she has served as a nurse throughout Italy, where she has suffered her own losses as well as caring for dozens of wounded and dying soldiers. When the allied hospital staff move on she turns in her uniform and stays, in a place where she “felt safe  . . . half adult and half child,” with the English patient, who is too injured to move. For some time it just the two of them in the ruined building, which really isn’t actually safe. Then Caravaggio, a man described as a thief who was Hana’s father’s friend in Toronto, shows up after hearing about the strange young nurse and her patient. Finally Kip, a Punjabi Sikh man from a British sapper unit, comes to stay at the Villa, clearing it of explosives, sleeping in a tent in the garden.

Ondaatje provides only glimpses of each of his main characters, just as one might get from meeting strangers in a war torn place in strange circumstances. Of the four, it is Kip we come to know best, and whose future Ondaatje most clearly portrays. And it is the love between these four, the comradely love that develops when people are thrown together in loss and danger, that is really the centerpiece, not the English Patient’s and his Cairo lover’s. I still think it is accurate to call it a love story set in wartime. But it isn’t just about passion.

It’s also the story of the end of the colonial world, and the rise of a world where wars will now have “mutually assured destruction” hanging over them in the shape of no longer theoretical mushroom clouds. The most moving parts of the book, for me, are towards the end, when Kip hears over his crystal radio set about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and is horrified, realizing that as he has been risking his life throughout the war to disarm bombs, the allies have been planning to unleash this new weapon. He sees, suddenly, that these people he has come to love and admire are the enemy of “the brown races” just as his militant brother in India has warned him.

This isn’t a book with a lot of action, although again, Kip’s story has the most. It’s a book with a lot of scenes in the dark, where the English Patient’s identity stays for much of the time. It’s incredibly interesting — salted with history, geography, literature and art, and a few real historical figures who appear as characters. And it’s a drama about the human capacity to wound and to heal.

 

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An acquaintance who reads widely recommended The Muse a few months ago and I remembered that Jessie Burton‘s first novel, The Miniaturist, had been an intriguing read, although I didn’t really connect with the characters. The Muse was even more intriguing and either wanted to be ash main character, Odelle Bastien, or be her friend.

Odelle is from Trinidad, and lives in London. When we meet her she has applied for a typist job at an art gallery. At her childhood friend Cynth’s wedding party, she meets Lawrie, a young Englishman with an incredible painting in the boot of his car. A romance and a mystery ensue.

At the art gallery, Odelle’s new boss is Marjorie Quick, who recognizes in Odelle a woman with creative ambitions. Although she’s clearly a well off, independent woman, Quick takes an interest in Odelle and her writing, and also warns her to be careful of Lawrie. Odelle — and we readers, in turn — isn’t sure what to make of Quick nor her interest. 

The book alternates between 1967 when these things are happening, and 1936, when the painting in Lawrie’s car came to be. In those sections, set in Spain, we meet the Schloss family: Harold, a Viennese art dealer, Sarah, his wealthy English wife, and Olive, his nineteen year old daughter. As soon as the Schloss’s arrive in Spain, brother and sister Teresa and Isaac Robles come to introduce themselves. Teresa becomes the Schloss’s housekeeper, and because she is about the same age, Olive’s friend. Isaac — well, who is is, what he does, and how he becomes involved with the Schloss family is part of the book’s mystery.

I don’t always love alternating storylines but I loved the way Burton built the tension in 1936 and 1967, respectively, leading the reader deeper into the story. The art, fashion, culture, and locations made me fervently hope someone at the BBC has already purchased rights to produce this — I would love to see it on Masterpiece. From the sunny pleasures of Spain before the Schloss’s and Robles’ fully grasp how imminently fascism menaces them, to the everyday racism of 60’s London, Burton brings man’s inhumanity to man to life, slowly, without overwhelming readers.

Also, and I add this because I listed to an interesting episode of The Readers about “impolite” reading, there are a little sex, politics, and violence, but they serve the purposes of the novel, rather than being extra to it. Burton gives readers clues about where things are heading, but they are thoughtful and neatly woven, not embroidered on top of the story. In fact, I’d call the whole book subtle — Burton reels us in with fascinating characters and a story that kept me on the couch a few evenings/afternoons. 

I just had a conversation Saturday with some work colleagues about literary novels that aren’t a bummer. I’m fine with reading about tough subjects if the underlying story offers some hope — a character who grows, a wrong that fate rights, redemption overtaking fear, hatred, or whatever other evil is present. One of the people at my table said that’s not how it works, books that aren’t a bummer are genre fiction (really longtime booksconscious readers know I don’t care much about these categories). I offered Exit West as an example of uplifting literary fiction, and I’d add The Muse as well.

In one of my first bookconscious posts back in August, 2007, I mentioned The Healing Power of Stories by Daniel Taylor, who suggests good stories shape kids’ growing sense of the world, and can impact emotional well being. I find myself avoiding the titillating and the toxic in my reading because there’s enough of that everywhere else. But it can be hard to tell before you start a book where it’s going to lead you, so The Muse was a pleasant surprise, a seriously good read about serious truths, challenging ideas, and painful history that still leaves readers hopeful that good people manage and good things happen in this world. And yes, I seem to be on a books about art kick. Leave me a comment if you know another good one. 

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The former “Teen the Younger”* gave me Queen of the Underworld for Christmas. I’d heard of but not read Gail Godwin. I seem to say that a good deal lately, don’t I? When this novel opens, Emma Gant is freshly graduated from University of North Carolina and is off on a train to her first job, as a reporter for the Miami Star. Her mother’s college friend, who Emma calls “Aunt Tess,” lives there, and helps Emma get settled into a hotel near the Star‘s offices, run by and full of Cuban exiles who have escaped Castro’s revolution. Her only other friend in Miami is actually her lover, the much older Paul Nightingale, who hired her as a waitress at his North Carolina inn the previous summer.

That backdrop sets the scene for Emma’s flowering life. Godwin infuses her heroine with the verve and hunger of an ambitious young writer hoping to make her mark, and fills her life with incredibly colorful characters — Paul and Tess both have interesting and complicated lives, and so do the many Cubans and fellow journalists Emma meets in her first ten days in Florida. And she meets the infamous titular character, a country girl from Georgia who was duped and set up as a madam by a young mobster.

Now known as Mrs. Brown, this former madam becomes Emma’s creative outlet, the story she can’t write for the paper but dreams of writing anyway. The setting of the novel is brief — covering under two months of Emma’s life — but gives us a view into her hopes for a novel, her visions of a future for herself, and the world in south Florida in 1959. It was a good read, interesting, educational (for me — I didn’t know much about the time and place, or the beginning of Castro’s rule), with a compelling heroine and no pat ending. In the afterword Godwin describes it as an “apprentice novel” and talks about other such works, and that essay alone is worth reading. The novel was a good escape into another uncertain and challenging time from our own. What a delight to receive a present like this!

*Longtime bookconscious readers know that for several years, I used to write about what my offspring, who I eventually called Teen the Elder and Teen the Younger in this space, and my spouse, The Computer Scientist, read as well as my own reading.

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Emil Ferris‘s debut graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters, was a huge hit in 2017 with critics and readers alike. I described it to my book club as a “graphic mystery historical novel coming of age story about a werewolf girl.” What I didn’t know and should have added is “lesbian werewolf-wanna-be Hispanic girl.”

But I’m not certain if Karen Reyes, the ten year old heroine of My Favorite Thing is Monsters, is or isn’t a werewolf — she’s drawn that way for the most part, but readers learn that it’s her greatest hope in life to be bitten by a monster so she can be undead, and bite her brother and mother and keep them undead as well. Karen lives in north (Uptown) Chicago in the late 60’s, in a basement apartment. Her neighbor Anka, who survived the Holocaust, dies in mysterious circumstances early in the book and Karen tries to solve what she believes is a murder. Her brother Deeze is older and is quite a ladies man (his activities really put the graphic in this graphic novel) — including the lady married to the family’s landlord, a shady guy who is off to prison and who asks Karen to spy on his wife for him.

There is also a ventriloquist in the other basement apartment who disappears not long after the murder, a jazz drummer (Anka’s widower), an activist philosopher, some hippies who share their brownies with Karen, an aging film star, and many other interesting characters. Ferris works in a lot of social commentary and history — there are native American characters, and a reference to their being sent to the city from reservations for jobs that never materialized. Karen befriends a girl at school whose parents died after they protested mine conditions in Kentucky, and Ferris mentions that many poor Kentuckians came to Chicago. And there is a moving few pages that take place on the day MLK was killed. And the sections where Deez and Karen are with their mom, who is dying of cancer, are also very moving.

Karen listens to part of a taped interview Anka gave as testimony to her experiences growing up in a brothel in pre-war Berlin and that is a chilling set of pages as well. There are beautiful sections where Karen remembers visiting the Art Institute with Deez and then she takes two friends there after one of them rescues her from some boys who intend to harm her. In both of those sections, Ferris draws famous works from the museum. The format of the book is meant to look like Karen’s notebook diary, and the art is amazing — very detailed and evocative. There are many pages that are drawn to look like vintage horror and movie magazine covers.

Unfortunately, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a two part book, and part two isn’t coming out until next summer. So if you read it you’ll have to wait to find out what happens to Karen, and whether she finds out what happened to Anka.  It was a good Boxing Day read on the couch. It’s a little outside my usual reading taste, but I enjoyed it very much.

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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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