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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

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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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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