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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

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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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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I’ve been listening to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead on my commute because it’s this month’s pick for a book group I’m invited to on Monday. Audiobooks are not my first preference but I figured it was a way to squeeze in reading another book, especially since I had a Kirkus assignment to read and review. The narration of The Underground Railroad, by Bahni Turpin, is very well done, if you do happen to be an audiobook fan.

If you haven’t already heard about this book it is a highly acclaimed novel by an author who was already well regarded before The Underground Railroad, which  won the National Book Award and drew reviews comparing it to BelovedLesMiserablesThe Invisible Man and other literary greats.  I think Whitehead’s brilliance in this book is in the way he mixes the actual American past with speculative history but hews always to the core truth of his novel: that racism is not going anywhere without justice, and that justice is impossible unless people choose it. Mabel, Cora’s mother, has her own very brief chapter towards the end of the book, in which readers finally learn what became of her (Cora believes she abandoned her, Ridgeway the slave catcher believes she is the only one of his quarry ever to elude him). As she is deciding what to do herself, Mabel thinks, “The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

Simply put but true. That’s the central theme of this book. Unfortunately in Whitehead’s imagined nineteenth century America, very few people refuse, and those who do suffer unspeakable horrors from which they never fully recover, if they even survive. Nearly every character who helps Cora, black or white, ends up dead or hunted by those who wish them dead. Royal, who rescued Cora from Ridgeway after he’d finally caught her, tells Cora “. . . that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world, then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this; Cora’s story and those of the other black characters in The Underground Railroad are unrelentingly painful and hopeless — even if they reach “safe” territory or are “freed” they are not free of racism and they live in a nation where racial injustice and violence are the norm. The pain of reading this book isn’t in reflecting on America’s history — after all, Whitehead takes creative license with history, speculating enough that this is not merely historical fiction but something more radical, a work of imagined  historical fiction — the pain comes from the fact that the truth of the novel is not in our past. It’s our present, it’s the root of many of America’s problems today.

Reading this book in light of the recent actions to roll back many civil rights actions taken by the last administration, and to “double down” as the New York Times reports, on the war on drugs, despite much evidence that harsh penalties and harsh policing did not work, and has increased racial inequality and caused untold suffering, especially for women of color, is especially painful. The America we live in today, ruled by fear of the “other” based on a highly delusional sense of superiority, is quite recognizable in The Underground Railroad. While Cora’s America is somewhat more lawless, and some of the crimes perpetrated in The Underground Railroad would be prosecuted today even if they were directed at black citizens, there is still today official sanction of racist policies in the name of “justice.”  Perhaps this is even starker to me because I am in another book group reading The New Jim Crow month by month, one chapter at a time and sharing articles and talks with each other on racial inequality and injustice.

So, did I enjoy The Underground Railroad? That would probably not accurately characterize my experience of the book. I think it’s an amazing piece of writing. I certainly sat in my car more than once to hear a few more lines before it was time to go into work. It will stay with me, and I was left wondering about Cora’s fate – the ending was perfect. It entered my consciousness and interacted with other things I’ve read and thought. Parts if it threw me for a loop — it’s not straight narration — but that is in service to the story, not some writerly trick. All of that makes it a great read.

But be warned it’s also wrenching, and at times nauseating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling slightly wrenched by another’s fictional experiences is good for helping someone privileged, as I am, to try to wrap my head around what black Americans experience every day. So read it. Be ready to let it work on you. And then do something; take Mabel’s words and live them: refuse to be a part of the meanness of the world. One thing I’ve come to understand is that it’s not enough to reject racist ideas, what’s required in this world is to openly oppose them, in thought, word and deed. Call or write an elected or appointed official to oppose racist policies. Tell someone you hear victimized by racist talk that you are with them and you are sorry. Tell someone saying racist things that you will not listen to such talk. None of this is easy but it’s what’s required if justice is ever to come. The thing I will take away from The Underground Railroad is what it says about the role of free will in the world. Refusing isn’t just refusing, it’s choosing.

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