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Honestly I picked up The Great Believers because in the same week, a friend from college posted about what an amazing book it is and Rebecca Makkai was bullied and threatened over a tweet. These quite disparate bits of information made their way to me via social media and both reminded me that I’d been meaning to read Makkai’s third novel. Trolls are going to troll, but I could read this book as a tiny act of solidarity with its author.

My friend is right. This is a beautiful book. I’d avoided reading it when it first came out because I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to read about young people dying. But it turns out, that while that is a central piece of the story, I needn’t have feared. The Great Believers is not really about dying, but rather about how we live when the world falls apart.

The story follows Yale, a young man living in the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago, and Fiona, the younger sister of one of Yale’s good friends, Nico. Nico is among the first of Yale’s immediate circle of friends to die of AIDS. The Great Believers alternates between the 1980s and early 90s, when Fiona cared for a series of Nico’s friends as they became infected and died, and 2015, when she travels to Paris to find her daughter Claire, who has been out of touch for a few years and is now a mother herself.

Two threads tie the main characters’ stories together — how we live in a time of catastrophe and what those who live must contend with afterwards, and how art both tells the story of the people it portrays and protects their secrets. It’s also the story of the shame and fear that engulfed the gay community in the 1980s as people got AIDS, and the judgement and bigotry society perpetrated on them. I remember the irrational fears about AIDS, and the open homophobia. Makkai writes about these things as an organic part of her characters’ lives, never over or under dramatizing.

That’s one of the remarkable things about this book. Even though she’s writing about life and death, about tremendously painful things — even plumbing what one character calls “the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love” — every word fits. Makkai does not include a single scene, a single character, a single thought, that doesn’t need to be in this novel. She evokes places, times, feelings, without any fanfare and without drawing attention away from the story. I recently read a book I strongly disliked because it felt like the author’s every move was visible and that the book was a series of artistic stunts meant to display her prowess.

Makkai, by contrast, just tells a damn good story, very well. In a way that makes you want to stay home from work, turn off your phone, and keep reading (didn’t, but I sat at my desk wishing I’d done so). I was thoroughly invested in what was happening and even when it was clear what might happen next, the story flowed so seamlessly and the characters gave me so much to think about that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not going to try to describe the story — it’s complicated and you should just read it.

I’m honestly a little wary of books that win a bunch of awards or show up on “best books” lists, but this one is more than deserving of the accolades it has received. The Great Believers is a very good read, one that tells hard truths and exposes serious flaws in the world while also reminding readers of the best aspects of humanity, and the “miracle” of being alive with the people we love. If you’re looking for a good read, something to get lost in and talk about, something that you’ll be glad to have humming along in your heart after you put it down, read this book.

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The subtitle of John Gilbert Winant’s memoir of his time as US Ambassador to Britain during WWII is “An account of a stewardship.” Several years ago I read Lynne Olson’s terrific history of this time, Citizens of London and I became a fan of the unassuming Winant. His view of ambassadorship as stewardship is one of the reasons why: he was a public servant, who took seriously his call to serve the greater good and not American interests alone.

Winant opens the book, addressed to Geoffrey Story Smith godfather of Winant’s son John, by explaining that he is writing from the flat in the embassy building in London, which he is moving out of, reflecting on the momentous years he’s lived there. “One of the deeper reasons for wanting to write to you is the growing disillusionment of today; which not only dims and obscures the present, but is trying to cloud the past.” He wants to set the record straight: men and women did selfless things, quietly heroic things, to defeat fascism.

What’s especially moving about that line  is that Winant committed suicide around the time Letter from Grosvenor Square was published. The book is so full of kind and admiring observations, even about people who don’t come across as well in other accounts, like Roosevelt. Winant seemed to see the better nature of people, and to principles of fairness and justice, including fair labor practices. After describing how women contributed to the British war effort, he notes, “The part women played is still a binding force in the light and life of human progress.”

Because this is a first person account and not a history, it’s incomplete — Winant tells the things he felt were memorable or notable about his work, and the work of those around him. He explains some details of U.S. farm policy that made it possible to supply England with more food, but he doesn’t talk about his son being shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, except briefly in the opening chapter addressed to Smith. And he tells a number of stories about Churchill and other British leaders but speaks particularly admiringly of ordinary British people who carried on with their lives regardless of the relentless German bombing.

If you want the full story of Winant’s time as ambassador, don’t miss Citizens of London, and if you want a glimpse into the generous spirit of the man who spent his entire adult life in the service of others, read Letter from Grosvenor Square.

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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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Two readers recommended Oyinkan Braithwaite‘s My Sister the Serial Killer to me: a colleague at work and someone in my book club (we decided to read it for this month), both of whom read all the time. My colleague at work said it is still making her think, a month after she read it. I suspect that is what’s going to happen to me.

The premise is exactly as it sounds — it’s about two sisters, Ayoola, beautiful, clueless and petulant, with a string of three dead boyfriends, and Korede, plain, smart and efficient, recently promoted to head nurse at the hospital where she works. They live with their widowed mother in the enormous house their father built, which is steeped in not so happy childhood memories. From a young age, Korede has been told, repeatedly, that it’s her job to protect Ayoola, to keep her safely out of trouble.

And so, each time there is a situation where no one but Korede can help her, Ayoola turns to her older sister, who can never say no. Or can she? Two men in her life inspire Korede to try: a patient who comes out of a coma and begins to remember all the things Korede said to him while he was unconscious for weeks in the hospital, and Tade, a doctor she works with. I don’t want to give away details, but this central dilemma of the book — whether and how Korede should help Ayoola — provides the tension.

It’s a book about these characters in Nigeria, but it’s also a book about patriarchy and the way both men and women perpetuate it, family ties, the pain of being different in a society that prefers norms you don’t fit into, and the long term implications of childhood trauma. I think you could make a film of My Sister the Serial Killer and set it anywhere and it would still work.

As my friend at work said, it made me laugh, it scared me (not in a horror movie way, but in a “oh no, don’t do that!” kind of way), and it made me think. I’m looking forward to talking this one over with my book club!

 

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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 church is offering a 19th century British literature book club. The first choice is Adam Bede and I figured I’d give it a try — summer is a good time to take on a thick classic. I didn’t realize this was George Eliot‘s first novel. I’ve read both Middlemarch and Silas Marner each a couple of times.

Eliot really dives into the time and place of her her novels — when Adam Bede opens, she tells us, “With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.” And then with a great deal of evocative detail, she describes to us exactly what the room looked, smelled, and felt like, who was in it (including our hero, Adam Bede, and his brother, Seth) and what they were doing and saying.  “A scent of pinewood from a tent-like pile of planks outside the open door mingled with the scent of the elder-bushes which were spreading their summer snow close to the window opposite; the slanting sunbeams shone through the transparent shavings that flew before the steady plane, and lit up the fine grain of the oak paneling . . . . ” And so on.

Throughout the novel this level of detail enriches the story and takes modern readers into Hayslope and its environs. Adding to the clear view of Adam Bede’s world are the  asides from the narrator filling in views on the Methodist church, realism in Dutch paintings, the annual harvest dinner at Hall Farm and the society found there, the loss of leisure as best exemplified in “a sunny walk through the fields from ‘afternoon church,” lost in a world where “Even idleness is eager.” Eliot’s dialogue, from the local gentry Arthur’s “. . . dip my cravat in and souse it on my head” to Adam’s mother Lisbeth’s patios, “An what wut do when thy mother’s gone, an’ nobody to take care on thee as thee gett’st a bit of victual comfortable i’ the mornin’?” Gorgeous. Hard to read, though, which is why it took longer than a contemporary book.

The story itself is a dramatic one, based partially on real people in George Eliot’s life and a story her aunt told her. Adam loves Hetty, a silly young woman living with aunt and uncle, the Poysers, at Hall Farm and helping in the dairy. Hetty and Arthur fall in love, even though Arthur can never marry down. Adam demands Arthur quit toying with her, and believes Hetty will recover and might eventually love him. A dramatic twist to the story, a tragedy, and time lead Arthur eventually to care for Dinah, a young Methodist preacher, also related to the Poysers, who is as smart and kind as Hetty is selfish and shallow. But, Seth also loves Dinah, and Dinah only wants to care for the poor and the godless. I won’t give away how it all works out, but it’s a satisfying tale, with a great variety of characters.

While none of the women ends up defying convention quite as much as their author, several of them have their say, which I enjoyed. There’s a scene where Mrs. Poyser tells off Arthur’s grandfather, the Squire, who is her landlord on the estate, and then tells her husband (who Eliot describes as “a little alarmed and uneasy, but not without some triumphant amusement at his wife’s outbreak”) ” . . . I’ve had my say out, and I shall be th’ easier for ‘t all my life. There’s no pleasure i’ living, if you’re to be corked up for ever, and only dribble your mind out by the sly, like a leaky barrel. I shan’t repent saying what I think, if I live to be as old as th’ old Squire. . . . ” Between Hetty’s ignorance of what is happening to her and Mrs. Poyser’s tart truth, Eliot seems to sum up the polar extremes of women’s positions in nineteenth century society.

I also love Mr. Irwine, the local rector, and Eliot’s description of how he’d been the subject of some criticism for being a little too comfortable to be a good clergyman. She allows that he has no “theological enthusiasm” and “felt no serious alarms about the souls of his parishioners” but “He was one one of those men, and they are not the commonest, of whom we can know the best only by following him away from the market-place, the platform, and the pulpit, entering with them into their own homes, hearing the voice with which they speak to the young and aged about their own hearthstone, and witnessing their thoughtful care for the everyday wants of everyday companions, who take all their kindness as a matter of course . . . .” That’s an apt description as we see Mr. Irwine care for both Adam and Arthur, Hetty, and his own elderly mother and ailing sister.

Adam Bede is a wonderful read, and I’m looking forward to discussing it next week.

 

 

 

 

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The Scapegoat is one of the purchases I made with my job leaving gift card. My book club ended up choosing it for our next read, and I am so glad, because I for one really enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Du Maurier except Rebecca, which my grandmother gave me one summer when I was visiting her and I remember loving. I wish she was still with us so I could ask her if she’s read The Scapegoat.

The story is simple, and I realized many other authors have used this situation, including recently, Antoine Laurain in The PortraitUnlike in that novel, where the protagonist finds his exact image in a painting, in The Scapegoat an English professor of French history who is nearing the end of a holiday in France in the 1950s meets a man who could be his exact double in a bar. The first man, John, is having something of an existential crisis, leads a very solitary life, and is on his way to a monastery where he hopes to figure out what to do with his life. His French opposite, Jean, a Count with many responsibilities and a tangled family and personal life, wants to escape all that.

Unlike in The Portrait, where I didn’t really care for the man who went to live another man’s life, this time I felt great empathy for John. First of all, he doesn’t choose — Jean foists the switch on him. Secondly, John very quickly develops true feeling for Jean’s damaged and dysfunctional family and in his own way tries to be kind and helpful, despite the extremity of his own situation. It’s not that he doesn’t cause any harm, but that he is trying not to, that endeared him to me.

The book’s surprising (to me, anyway) ending left me wondering what in the world would happen to Jean’s family, especially his young daughter. And to John. Du Maurier’s writing is just the kind my grandmother loved — every word serves the book, powerfully. The descriptions of John’s discomfort as he fumbles his way through another man’s life, and the observations he makes, are packed with insight. Consider this passage, as he talks with “his” mother, and she takes his hands in hers: “Her hands neither gave confidence nor sapped it: they turned the assurance I had to a different plane. The faith she had in her son was so intense that even if she did not know his secrets, or share more than a small part of his life, it was as though he remained with her, bound and sightless as he had been before birth, and she would never loose him.”

There is so much to discuss in this book: the nature of being a human in relationship with others; the choices the characters make; the way WWII impacted every person, whether they fought or not, in France; the way our concerns with meaning and purpose in life are bound up with the people we are connected with; the fact that some people carry with them a strong desire to do what’s right for others and others, only a strong desire to do what’s right for themselves.

I’m grateful that Simon of The Readers and Savidge Reads is a Du Maurier fan and brought her back into my reading life! I intend to hunt down more of her work.

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