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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

I’ve only read one other book by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, but ever since reading that a couple of years ago, I’ve kept my eyes out for his other books. I bought The Remains of the Day at a used bookstore. I’ve never seen the film, nor had I read the book before. It’s pouring buckets today so I thought it might be a good day to read a book set in the English countryside.

The Remains of the Day is about a quintessential English butler, Stevens, who prides himself on having learned from his father before him how to embody the dignity derived from “a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.” When the book opens, Stevens remains at Darlington Hall in the early 1950s, although this great house has been sold to an American who has cut back on the staff and does not live there full time. Stevens is concerned with some recent errors he himself has made while working under these conditions and is considering how best to appeal for more staff when a letter arrives from Darlington Hall’s former housekeeper, Mrs. Benn, formerly Miss Kenton.

When his American boss suggests he take a break and even offers his car, Stevens sees an opportunity to visit Mrs. Benn and see whether he can persuade her to come back to Darlington Hall. The novel is taken up with Stevens’ reminiscing, as he travels, about their work together in the house’s heyday. As he muses, Stevens posits that to be a great butler, as he strove to be, meant “to serve the great gentlemen of our times in whose hands civilization had been entrusted.”

And he recalls the way his former employer’s reputation suffered because he truly believed that the Germans suffered after the treaty of Versailles and that the honorable way to treat a former enemy was not to saddle that enemy with reparations, but to leave the past in the past and “offer generosity and friendship to a defeated foe” as Lord Darlington’s godson Mr. Cardinal puts it. As Stevens recalls the events of the 1930’s and the men who came to consult with Lord Darlington and each other before WWII, it’s clear he is ruminating on Mr. Cardinal’s belief that, “Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts.”

Ishiguro’s beautiful and subtle writing never spells out the final position Stevens takes on whether Lord Darlington was wise or foolish, although he seems to trust that his former boss was sincere. That’s one of the things I love about Ishiguro, is that he respects the reader’s ability to connect their own dots. Among which, in this book, is whether Stevens has any regrets and what his visit to Mrs. Benn revealed to each of them abut their choices in life. Would the world have turned out differently had Lord Darlington and men like him had not had so much influence? Would war have been averted if left to “the professionals” rather than gentlemen? Why did Mrs. Benn leave Darlington Hall? Did Stevens realize it at the time, or does he only come to see it during this visit? This would be a wonderful book club read.

A lovely read on a gloomy afternoon.

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Simon at Stuck in a Book commented here at bookconscious recently and I checked out his blog. When I saw the #1930club post, I looked around at my shelves and realized I had a to-read novel, Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse, which was published in 1930.

I think I first heard about it on The Readers and I bought it with a gift card when I left my previous library job. That was about a year and a half ago, but sometimes I think books recede into the shelves until the time is right. I hadn’t read anything else by Hermann Hesse but noticed in the author bio in my ugly little mass market paperback that he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1946. As the world contemplates the bizarre 2018/2019 announcement, marred first by last year’s prize being delayed by scandal and then by accusations that the 2019 winner is “an apologist for genocide,” I read this strange and beautiful book about two motherless medieval men and their search for meaning.

Narcissus and Goldmund is set in a cloistered monastery in Germany, where Goldmund, a fair haired and sweet natured boy, is left by his father to study and prepare to enter monastic life. His teacher is younger than most, still training to be a priest himself, an intelligent and preternaturally observant man named Narcissus. As Goldmund reaches the end of his formal education, Narcissus tells him plainly that his calling isn’t scholarship or the priesthood. He conjures memories of Goldmund’s loving but faithless mother and brings back the pain of her abandonment.

After this crisis, Goldmund’s leaves the cloister on a years long journey of pleasure, responsible to no one, loving as many women as he can, skirting a possible calling in favor of wandering. I’ll leave the details for you to read but suffice to say he has plenty to confess to years later, when he’s in a real scrape and Narcissus manages to rescue him.

They return to the monastery and have a series of conversations about when people can realize their true selves, the role of ideas versus images, whether thinking and ideas are worth anything on their own or are made worthy when they are applied to life’s challenges, and more. Goldmund tries a more settled life and work, and the book’s final crisis leaves both men more aware of who they are and what they mean to each other.

The story feels less like a novel than an allegory, as many key details point to ideas about love, friendship, caring, faith, sin, bigotry, greed, selfishness. The role of nature and study in developing one’s identity, the purpose of art and ideas, and the benefits of ritual and discipline are also among Hesse’s topics. It’s an old fashioned tale, a little more male-centric than I’m used to reading, with women only playing the roles of temptresses or virgins.

Still it was a good read, and Hesse’s writing is powerful and descriptive. Take this passage where Goldmund has come across a house where all the occupants are dead of plague:

“How sad and ghostlike was this small home, with the remains of the hearthfire still glowing, inhabited by corpses, completely filled with death, penetrated by death. . . . What other people performed in the privacy of their coffins, in the graves, well hidden and invisible, the last and poorest performance, this falling apart and decaying, was performed here at home by five people in their rooms, in broad daylight, behind an unlocked door, thoughtlessly, shamelessly, vulnerably. Goldmund had seen many corpses before but never an example like this of the merciless workings of death. Deeply he studied it.”

Pretty vivid. I’m glad I picked it up and that the #1930club gave me reason to read it.

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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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