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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

I wasn’t able to see the film version of Red Joan while it was playing at my local indie theater, so when I went to Los Angeles I downloaded the Europa Editions novel by Jennie Rooney. I enjoyed it, although the ending didn’t do much for me. Still, a quick skim of the film reviews indicates the book was better, although Judi Dench gets good reviews for her part as the main character.

Joan is in her 80s, taking ballroom dancing and watercolor classes and enjoying living in England near her son and his family after many years in Australia. In the first few pages of the book, she reads an old friend’s obituary and MI5 agents come to her door to take her away for questioning — not in his death, precisely, but in relation to new evidence they have from a Soviet defector that Joan and her friend were spies.

Joan’s thoughts make it pretty clear — as does the title — that she was. Rooney uses the questioning, which takes place over a few days, as the mechanism for going back to Joan’s youth, her days as a physics student at Cambridge in the late 1930s, and her romance with Leo, a Russian emigre, and friendship with Leo’s cousin, Sonya. The cousins take Joan to communist meetings, which she points out to her interrogators was pretty common in those days; lots of intellectuals in Europe admired, at the very least, theoretical communism, and Stalin’s crimes were not yet fully understood. She never joins the party, even though Leo calls her his “little comrade.” The war comes, Joan decides to do her part, and Leo gets her a job at a metals lab in Cambridge, where she meets Max, the lab director, and an unhappily married man.

As Joan recalls her life, prompted by documents shown to her by the MI5 agents, her son, Nick, who conveniently happens to be a lawyer, finds out she’s a suspect and rushes to help her. As it dawns on him that she really did pass secrets from Britain’s nuclear program he is incensed. This conflict allows Rooney to slowly spin out the story of Joan’s loves and friendships, the way she was manipulated, and the choices she made. I appreciated that she is presented as neither purely a victim nor purely a traitor. For Joan, whose father lost a limb in WWI, and who lived through WWII, nuclear deterrence means peace, while for Nick, it is madness. While much has been made of the fact that Rooney credits a news story about an 87 year old English woman revealed to have been a Soviet spy as inspiration, she says in the author’s note that there is little else her character and the “granny spy” share and that she was also inspired by other historical events and people.

While as I said the ending wasn’t my favorite, overall this was an interesting read. I enjoy historical fiction and I felt like Rooney hit all the right notes. The ideas the characters grapple with are more nuanced than the usual good versus evil that often appears in books set in or after WWII. There is much for a book group to discuss, starting with the fact that Joan acts according to her values, believing that she is “sharing” secrets, not stealing them. I was intrigued enough to want to read late over the weekend to find out what happened.

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Last Friday I checked out a book for the weekend: American Spythe debut novel by Lauren Wilkinson. It’s cerebral in the same way that John le Carré‘s novels are — very much informed by the psychology and strategy of spy-craft and what makes spies tick. It introduced me to a part of Cold War history overlooked by history books that focus predominantly on white males (the kind of textbooks which dominate the American education system, or did when I was growing up). And it’s a page turner.

The spy of the title is a a black woman named Marie Mitchell, raised by New Yorkers of Caribbean descent. In the book’s opening pages she engages in a fight to the death with an intruder at her home in Connecticut. The rest of the book takes place in Martinique, where Marie’s mother lives, and where she flees with her twin sons with the help of a family friend. Once there, Marie begins a series of journals meant to tell the boys her story — their stories, too — in case she doesn’t return from trying to put an end to the threat that stalks her. We learn that she worked for the FBI, doing well until she ended up back in New York where her boss held her back with menial work. She was recruited by the CIA to get close to Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, and that story is what led to the attack on her life.

It’s both the terrific heroine — the merit of any good spy story is in its lead spy — and the incorporation of real events and people that I found compelling. It’s also a book which my grandmother would have loved. She introduced me to le Carré, and she loved books that had, as she put it “not one extra word,” by which she meant writing that was not only excellent, but contained no superfluous flourishes, spare storylines, or other distractions from good storytelling.

My grandmother was also a feminist and this book is full of wise observations about womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood. Marie writes to her boys about a conversation she has with her oldest friend, a man she loves but is not in a relationship with: “He exhaled slowly, clearly frustrated with me. I didn’t care. There have been a lot of men in this world who have tried to shape it by getting it to conform to their own ideology . . . . I want something else. I want to form you into agents of change — that’s the way I want to fight.” A few paragraphs later she calls mothering, helping her sons become good people who can make a difference, “the most revolutionary work I could do.” My grandmother often told me almost exactly that when I was young parent, that the work I was doing raising my kids would make more impact than anything else, and I shouldn’t forget that.

American Spy is a terrific read! I didn’t love the ending, which felt abrupt — I don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but I also don’t like being left hanging. But I’m hoping it indicates that Wilkinson plans a sequel.

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I first meant to read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen when it came out to rave reviews, and then again when The Readers chose it as a book discussion book. What finally got me to move it up to the top of the “to be read” list is that I’m going to hear the author next week. It’s a very powerful read, and a well written book, but it left me with confused feelings. I liked much of it, I learned a great deal about Vietnam and its wars, but the brutality is hard to take (how many times have I said that lately here? I need to read something less appalling, soon!) and very vivid. Chapter 21, in which the main character, The Captain/Sympathizer, is tortured until he recalls in vivid detail a female comrade’s torture, is probably one of the most horrifying depictions of inhumanity I’ve ever read.

That aside, the book is fascinating, and the Captain is an intriguing character. He has two best friends from his school days, one, Man, who is a high ranking communist revolutionary in Vietnam, and the other, Bon, who works with the Captain for a South Vietnamese general and the CIA. So the Captain is the Sympathizer — he sympathizes with communism, to the point of spying for the North, even as he works for the other side. He also admires many things about America and loves and respects both his friends. He’s an orphan, the bastard child of a French priest whose mother was the priest’s maid and had him when she was a young teen, and Man and Bon are family as much as friends to him. The Captain’s outsider status — neither fully American nor Vietnamese, neither fully Occidental or Oriental, neither fully a refugee (legally yes, but he knows California from attending college there) neither fully a soldier nor fully an intellectual, allows him to move within these worlds comfortably as no other character can.

The book begins on the last day before Saigon falls, as the Captain, the General, and their chosen family and associates escape and make their way to America as refugees. It ends with the Captain and Bon in Vietnam as well. In between, we watch the Captain try to adapt to isolation from Man and his comrades, to his refugee status, to his postwar roles serving the General and the CIA and Man, and to his responsibility towards Bon, who has suffered great losses. We also watch his developing realization that post-war Vietnam is not the revolutionary paradise that was promised.

Towards the end of the book, the Captain has wrestled with the meaning of his country’s long struggle against imperialism and is left with questions: “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?” Just as it’s important to face the brutal inhumanity of warfare (open or covert), it’s important to remember this novel isn’t just about war, but about its aftermath. It’s also a book about love, both philia, or “brotherly” love, and agape, or charity, the love that inspires concern for the greater good of mankind. The Sympathizer is unique in this book because he relates to — sympathizes with, and I’d say loves — everyone who has suffered, even, finally, those he made suffer. That he’s haunted by both innocents and his own loss of innocence makes him a sympathetic character.

Still, this book is not for the faint hearted, and was maybe not the best choice after Evicted, which also describes soul-sapping inhumanity.

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This book was my book swap prize when our book club met in December. It’s thick — I’d argue unnecessarily so — so I didn’t get to it right away because I was on a Margaret Drabble tear (I still have a couple of hers in reserve for the next time I get such a craving).

I digress. This book is the story of a wealthy young couple in Czechoslovakia in the 30s who have a famous modernist architect build them a home. This much, according to Simon Mawer’s note prior to the first chapter, is based in reality. The house is a wonder, and has this amazing room with glass walls and an onyx dividing wall that creates an interesting effect at sunset. The book is primarily the story of this couple, Liesel and Viktor, Liesel’s best friend Hana, and Viktor’s lover Kata. There are some other characters introduced (they enter fast and furious in that last 7/8 of the book) as well, because when the Nazi invasion in nigh, Viktor and Liesel flee with their children and Kata and her daughter. You’ll have to read the book to figure out why they leave together. The other characters come into the story because of the house, which goes through several stages of use during and after WWII.

Despite the book’s girth, I couldn’t really tell you what makes Viktor or Liesel tick. Hana, a little more so, but only because we actually see a little more of her at the end of the book. Maybe because I didn’t feel terribly invested in the characters, I didn’t love this book. I thought the first 7/8 moved too slowly, and the last 1/8 tore along too quickly, and some really interesting bits were alluded to but not developed. I get that the reason for this is the centrality of the house to the premise of the novel.

I was especially irritated by a ridiculous coincidence at the end of the book, but that may be because I just finished reviewing a horrible book for Kirkus that was one long string of coincidences. Probably without that context, I wouldn’t have been as annoyed by this one. A coworker saw me reading The Glass Room and pointed out it’s a movie now, opening in March. The synopsis posted on that page, which pretty much gives away the entire plot, doesn’t match the book, if you’re curious.

An ok read, mostly because of the interesting setting. Yes, I know many critics raved and it was shortlisted for the Booker. Sorry, Kathy.

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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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This week I returned to reading Europa Editions (that said, my library got a shipment of new books and it’s possible I won’t stick to E.E. only for the rest of the year). I’ve said before here on bookconscious that one of the pleasures of reading Europa Editions is finding authors who aren’t well known in America, but are in their own countries. Joan London is a good example — she’s an award winning author in Australia, but not as well known here. The Golden Age is her fifth book and third novel, and the first of her works re-published by Europa Editions.

This book holds the memory of some really important 20th century history, for people everywhere, and not just in a particular country. The title is from the name of a rehabilitation home for children in Perth who survived polio but need physical therapy and specialized care before they can return home and go back to school and life. The main characters, Frank and Elsa, are the two oldest children at the Golden Age, on the brink of young adulthood. They form a bond that seems both simple — first love — and extraordinary — who but these two can know what it’s like to live as they do? So in part this novel is a book about the generation that survived polio and lived in its aftermath.

Frank’s parents, Meyer and Ida Gold, are Hungarian Jews, survivors of WWII who had to fight in order to live, and who were resettled in Western Australia. Ida was a classical pianist before the war and still thinks of herself as European. Meyer seems more at ease with himself in the world, aware of his difference, but still able to see the possibilities of their new existence than Ida can. And London shows us, but by bit, how Meyer is stretching away from the past and towards the light and warmth of his new country, imagining a good life, while Ida seems to continue to suffer her new home, accepting her fate but not embracing it. In this way The Golden Age is also about the aftermath of the wars that tore the 20th century apart, the Holocaust, and the postwar migrations that led people to adapt in ways they hadn’t thought possible.

Elsa’s parents are also interesting, although we don’t get to know her father, Jack Briggs, as well as her mother, Margaret. What we learn is that Jack is under the influence of his domineering sister, and that Margaret appears to others as stereotypically feminine (emotional and fragile), but her backbone will carry Elsa into the future she dreams of. Margaret is really representative of womanhood on the cusp of liberation from old roles, old rules. She sees a different future for her daughters, even as she contents herself with keeping house and keeping herself out of the way.

These three themes dominate, but the book is also about other things — Sister Penny, who runs the Golden Age, is another woman on the edge, of old and new ways, of choices previously unknown to women. She is also “truly good” as Meyer thinks of her. But she doesn’t wear this goodness comfortably. She is struggling to be true to herself and still adhere to outside expectations. So that’s another idea in this novel. Also the transformative powers of both nature — which seems to nourish certain characters — and art, which Ida still longs for even if it’s not the same in her new life, and which leads Frank into his own future, when he meets a young man just a little older than he is who introduces him to poetry.

And the writing is a delight. Here’s a passage, late in the book, where Meyer has pulled his drinks truck over near the beach, where Sister Penny has been spending a day off:

“‘Now I know why the ocean was ir-res-istible today,’ he called, walking towards her along the kerb, his hands turned up as if a message had come down from the heavens, almost hating his European charm. The winter sun suddenly emerged from behind a bank of cloud, a white brilliance that engulfed them, so blinding it was almost comical. Using their hands as visors they loomed, dreamlike, squinting at each other. Hard to know if their mouths were stretched into a smile or a grimace.”

I loved this book and I look forward to other Joan London books coming out here. The Golden Age is a good read, a book that immersed me in a different place, different lives, and yet reminded me of familiar feelings. There are so many different aspects of the story to discuss, it would be a terrific book club selection.

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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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