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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

I was a little skeptical of the praise Trick received (it’s on at least one list of best translated books of 2018) because I wondered if the star power of Jhumpa Lahiri as the translator turned reviewers’ heads. I was wrong: this is just a good book, deserving of praise. It’s the story of an artist in his seventies, recovering from poor health, a widower. He is called to his daughter’s house — the house he grew up in — in Naples, to care for his four year old grandson while she and her husband, both mathematicians and professors, go to a conference. He quickly ascertains that they are fighting, and that the boy, Mario, is both ” well behaved and out of control.”

I have to say Starnone does a terrific job of writing Mario — he is precocious in his family’s eyes, as all children are, and yet ordinary, well spoken as children of the well educated often are, and yet fully a four year old. He also writes Daniele Mallarico, the elderly artist, very well. He has recently been commissioned to illustrate a deluxe edition of Henry James’ story, “The Jolly Corner.” Which I plan to read.  He is struggling to send off a few plates to his editor before he goes to Naples when the book opens.

As he cares for the child, he reflects on his own childhood and especially, his adolescence in Naples, and on what he became, and whether he is who he wanted to be. He also reflects on his body of work and as is so often the case with creative people, doubts himself. It’s an incredibly poignant, but also incredibly realistic, examination of identity, creativity, and growing up — and old. Mario represents what childhood is but also what childhood means at the end of life; his actions and his contrary, slightly crazed little self bring out both love and doubt in Daniele, and create both a tension and a source of introspection and examination. Is Daniele a talented, important artist or did he simply believe those who saw talent in him, regardless of what he was actually capable of? It’s a good question and this novel really drills down on what is talent and what is human nature, and it desire for influence and importance?

There’s also an amazing appendix of “notes and sketches” for the illustration project. A good read.

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I took a break from my Europa Editions reading to enjoy Kate Atkinson‘s latest novel, Transcription. Like Life After Life and A God In Ruins, this book’s characters are defined by WWII. This time the heroine, Juliet, is looking back on her war experience. The novel is bookended by two very short chapters set in 1981. In between, it’s either the early 1940’s or 1950. Juliet is just 18 at the start of the war, an orphan, and she becomes a transcriptionist, working in a small covert operation to spy on British fascists who think they are sharing secrets with a Nazi operative, who is in fact working for MI5. Her boss decides she is capable of more, and soon she is playing a young woman of means who sympathizes with the Nazis, and is infiltrating the close circle of an admiral’s wife and member of the Right Club. That was a real organization of upper class British fascists.

Juliet, as Iris the Nazi sympathizer, has some adventures and does well, and doesn’t go unnoticed by the man who run MI5. But her main role as a transcriptionist goes on. The novel tells the story of the small series of dramas that shaped Juliet’s life during the war and what became of her after, when she ends up at the BBC. Transcription is a beautifully written book, and like Atkinson’s other WWII novels, Transcription examines truth and imagination, and the way they are manipulated for better or worse as people try to do their best in a crisis. When Juliet begins to be Iris for her boss Perry’s operation, he tells her, “Don’t let your imagination run away with you, Miss Armstrong. You have an unfortunate tendency to do so.” There are fake identities, lies, subterfuge, and even in one instance, a counterfeit transcript. People who appear to be bad are good and vice versa. Some things are not what they seem but others are exactly.

And many of the people Juliet feels she knows and can trust, or places in her mental picture of the Service and who does what there, turn out to have more than meets the eye to their lives and work. The end of the novel is a kick — I didn’t see what happens coming at all, but then when I finished reading I thought, “Of course that’s what happened.” And the characters, as in Life After Life and A God In Ruins are wonderful, even the minor characters, especially those on the periphery of Juliet’s life. When someone who is only in a few scenes appears perfectly formed in your mind’s eye, and you hear his or her voice, well, that’s good writing. In both the quality of the writing and the subject matter, Transcription reminded me a bit of another excellent book I read recently, Warlight.

One of my Thanksgiving guests has read some of Atkinson’s earlier work and recommended those books as well, so I’ll have to keep reading her!

P.S. In discussing this post with the Computer Scientist I decided Transcription reminds me of John le Carré spy novels in all the best ways.

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After wasting two evenings on a book I could not get into (One Part Woman — unlikeable characters, glacial plot), I turned to another Europa Editions book: The Hazards of Good Fortune by Seth Greenland. It’s a page turner, unlike many of Europa’s titles. In fact, last night I put my iPad down and tried to go to sleep and then tossed and turned for a long time, wondering what was going to happen and why the main character couldn’t see what was happening.

This book has a LOT of moving parts. It’s mainly the story of Jay Gladstone, a very wealthy real estate magnate and NBA owner, and how his life — and all his good fortune — falls apart. But woven into Gladstone’s story are many smaller stories, casting a bright light on a number of unsavory aspects of modern American society.

There’s an ambitious DA who wants to run for governor and makes decisions on two cases of white men killing black men based only on her electoral calculations, and not on justice. There is a ridiculous, expensive liberal arts college where people create their own majors and children play at being revolutionaries — until it isn’t play anymore. There is media that is out only for the sound of its own highly amplified voice, regardless of whether the stories it reports are true in any way. There are callous, spoiled rich wives, conniving family members, a hacker for hire, a radicalized ex-con Imam, overpaid athletes and the entourages they support. There is racism, anti-semitism, and all the other tensions and biases our culture holds around gender, sexual preference, class, power and its lack.

Jay Gladstone is a pleasingly complicated character, but he’s a man who truly tries to be good, and for a fair bit of the book I was waiting for him to be vindicated. Yes, he’s a little pompous, and a little too sure of his own position in life, and he blunders around making things worse, but it seems like his being brought low might have caused a transformation. Readers, however, don’t get to see what happens when he hits bottom, for reasons I can’t explain without giving too much away. Still, watching him fight to hang onto life as he knows it is a challenge (I found myself telling him to wake up and stop being stubborn), given that his rotten, conceited, dishonorable, selfish cousin seems to get away with his most grievous transgression.

A villain worth despising, a hero who isn’t perfect but makes the reader want to root for him, some terrific supporting characters you’ll love to love and hate. The frothy world of the rich and influential, with enough regular people to draw a contrast. It’s a novel Jane Austen could love — full of references to culture and society and brimming with the vagaries of human nature.  I enjoyed it, even though I thought the end was a little rushed, and a bit of a let down. But overall, a smart, sharp-eyed, entertaining, engrossing story.  Just don’t read it right before bed, or you’ll be mulling over which twists and turns Gladstone should have seen and what he could have done differently until late into the night.

 

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I read Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio in 2011, when I was first exploring Europa Editions in earnest. So when I saw Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet in Hoopla earlier in the week, I figured, why not? It’s also from Europa Editions. I had planned to possibly digress and try some other books but ended up sticking with my Europa streak. In between, I did try One Part Woman, which is the much discussed novel by a Tamil author, allegedly “charming” but I found the two main characters equally disagreeable and gave it up.

Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet is set in Turin, and the main character, Enzo Laganà, is a “southerner” – a man whose family comes from southern Italy. He is a reporter, but doesn’t seem to like it very much. He’s thirty-seven and showing no sign of settling down with a wife and having kids, so his mother hounds him, employing one of his neighbors and a housekeeper as spies, chiding him to eat what’s in his fridge (she has an inventory), and lamenting his careless life.

Enzo lives in the San Salvario neighborhood, a multiethnic place where he doesn’t feel as much like an outsider. His neighbor, a Nigerian named Joseph, has a little pig named Gino who wears a Juventus scarf. One day Gino ends up in the mosque, causing outrage. Enzo is also friends with the imam, and is well acquainted with an older man who runs an anti-immigrant neighborhood group. and has an old high school friend who is a committed animal rights activist, so he ends up conducting complex negotiations amongst the many parties who want to decide Gino’s future.

Meanwhile, bored at work and busy in Marseilles with a beautiful Finnish woman instead of on his beat in Turin, Enzo invents a story about Albanian and Romanian gangsters having a feud and files it with his paper, to cover the fact that he’s not there to investigate a string of murders. His editor eats up his “Deep Throat” story and Enzo is soon spinning the story further, attracting all kinds of attention, good and bad. As Enzo invents further, he begins to hear from another source, Very Deep Throat, who claims to have the real story of who is behind the murders.

Will Enzo’s mother leave him alone to fritter away his midlife? Will Gino’s happy ending be assured? Will peace be restored in San Salvario and the murders stop? Has Enxo stumbled on a real story while making one up? And what about the beautiful Italian woman who wants him to work on a TV series with her as a result of his newspaper stories?

An amusing novel with serious undertones. Very Deep Throat suggests Enzo interview a sociologist who explains how gentrification helps the mafia control real estate by “infecting” and “cleansing,” ratcheting up crime so people get scared and sell for low prices, and then moving their operations elsewhere and charging bonus prices when hip people want to move into the newly safe areas. His friends are from many cultures, national origins, and legal statuses. But despite the serious topics, Enzo’s story is absurd and that makes this a fun read.

 

 

 

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I read another Europa Editions book over the weekend, The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot. It was a sweet read, veering near, but not succumbing to, saccharinity. The hero, Vincent, coaches the somewhat promising but mostly uninspired U16 team at a French soccer club. He is a loner, estranged from his mother and sister, Madeleine, because of his dysfunctional upbringing and abusive father. When Madeleine shows up and leaves his nephew, Leo with Vincent while she chases a crazy opportunity to improve her life, Vincent finds the boy strange, but they form a bond. In short order, he discovers that what makes Vincent different is Asperger’s and that it also makes him a brilliant soccer goalie. The different parts of the story aren’t all that challenging and are a little predictable, but the book is still different enough to be appealing and I enjoyed it. Vincent is fumbles with inept relationship skills, is forced to face his past (and inevitably, his sister and mother are as well), struggles to adapt his life to loving people and letting them in. I needed a relatively simple read, and I like soccer. If it sounds like I’m apologizing for liking this book, it’s because I know “heartwarming” has a bad name in literary circles. But I wanted to read about decency and kindness and people who’ve had a hard time finding a little happiness. The book doesn’t have a definitive tied-in-a-bow happy ending, but it ends on a positive note, leaving the reader feeling things will more than likely work out for the characters. I needed that. The Penalty Area is charming, and it’s easy to imagine it being a film. If you need a bookish boost, you can’t go wrong with this story.

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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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My experiment with reading only (or at least mainly) Europa Editions books til the end of the year might continue — after the last book I wasn’t so sure — because The Flight of the Maidens was the kind of terrific read I hoped for. Of course, I cheated because I knew if Jane Gardam wrote it, I’d love it. This is another book Gardam published quite some time ago but reissued. It’s set in 1946 and tells the story of the summer before three young women head to college — all having won scholarships, all set to leave their small Yorkshire town for a world they know little about, mainly because of the war.

Una Vane is the daughter of a widow who opened a hair salon in the house when she had to manage on her own. Una is off to Cambridge to study physics, but she wants to spend her summer trying to understand her relationship with Ray, who grew up in a poorer part of town and is now a railroad man dabbling in socialist politics. Hetty Fallows is off to a guesthouse in the Lakes District to try to read everything she thinks she hasn’t read before she goes off to college in London. Her father, a gentleman before WWI left him shocked, is a gravedigger and her mother is overbearing and flirts with both the vicar and Hetty’s first boyfriend. And Liselotte Klein, who grew up the foster child of Quakers, spends the summer before she starts at Cambridge piecing together her identity. She can’t recall much about Hamburg, and she knows nothing of how her Jewish family fared and whether any of the rest of them got out. She lands with a mysterious elderly couple in London and then with a distant aunt on the California coast, trying to understand her past so she can decide on her future.

The three friends — Una and Hetty since childhood, Liselotte since they all began to apply themselves to getting into college — go through the pangs of leaving school and starting adult life, along with the challenges of adapting to the postwar world.They have very different experiences but are all in flight, as Gardam imagines. As they struggle to reconcile what they know with what’s in the world and with the hopes they have for themselves and others have for them, the three girls teeter on the edge of womanhood with all the people they know rallying around them to one extent or another. The presence of these people, both dear to them and maddening, provides insights into all kinds of detail about England in the 1940s.

Gardam’s ability to bring people so fully to life, in such vivid detail, never fails to delight. Such vivid people and dialogue — more than many of her books, I could imagine this as a film. I hope it becomes one. Anyway, a terrific read about the end of childhood, the beginning of growing up, the challenge of recovering from war for those in it and near it, the carrying on so many people do when their lives aren’t full of great achievements but they hope their children’s will be. I’m sad that I seem to be all caught up on Gardam’s reissues now.

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