Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Bringing characters alive: Penelope Lively

I've been on a Penelope Lively kick lately. I first discovered her on my mission to read all the Booker Prize winners in 2018. Her Moon Tiger won for its beautiful depiction of romance and nostalgia set in World War II. Her books that I've been reading lately take place for the most part in more recent times. 

The Photograph is the story of a man who discovers, after his wife's death, a photograph of her holding hands with another man. Whom he knew. During their marriage. So Glyn sets out on the warpath to unearth everything he can about Kath. The unexpected discoveries end up overturning more than his own understanding of his departed wife. It's great writing, with varied and believable characters, and unforeseen consequences, of course. 

If you like The Photograph, you might love, as I did, Consequences, which in a similar way explores the consequences of a chance meeting, this time reverberating throughout generations. What I love about Consequences is how it touches on so many varieties of romantic relationship: marriage for love; marriage for friendship; an employer-employee affair; a gay couple; and so on. The narrative begins in the thirties, brings us to the present day, then loops back to the beginning in a most satisfying way. 

Family Album, on the other hand, focuses on, as the title indicates, family relationships -- and secrets. Alison and Charles live in a lovely home where they have raised six children, with the help of au pair Ingrid. The children, adults now, return home for various occasions, comparing notes and uncovering a hidden truth about one of them. It's a delicate exploration of the complexity of familial roles and relationships. 

Finally, How It All Began follows in the steps of The Photograph and Consequences: how does one chance act, in this case a mugging, have a butterfly effect on many lives? After the attack, Charlotte must recuperate from her broken hip with daughter Rose. This disruption has consequences for Rose, her employer, her employer's niece, and the student Charlotte starts tutoring during her convalescence. It's a beautiful story, wistful at times, about possibilities glimpsed, seized or left behind. 

In all, Lively writes stories that dig into relationships, focusing on how people react to and grow from drama, rather than the drama itself. 

Thursday, February 17, 2022

A Triptych: Women and Art

I recently read three books in a row, not exactly on purpose, about women and art. 

I'll start with the most popular and my least favorite: A Piece of the World, by Christina Kline Baker, author of Orphan Train. This is the fictionalized story of the life of Christina Olson, from the iconic painting "Christina's World," including her relationship with the man who painted her, Andrew Wyeth. The novel provides a slice of life in rural Maine, from Christina's parents' time through World War II and approaching our day. We gain insight into what it meant to be disabled then and there; I learned that Wyeth had his own disability, a limp caused by a hip defect. It is a well-written book, but the reason it was my least favorite of these three is that the jumping around in time is disorienting. By now, every reader of modern popular fiction is used to narration that shuttles back and forth between now and the past. But this book's chapters could plop you down anywhere from 1899 to 1980, and I couldn't sense any rhyme or reason behind the frequent shake-ups. Those who loved Orphan Train, be prepared for something quite different but engrossing in its own way.

Next, I highly recommend The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith. This is a narrative that more skillfully weaves together various stories and time periods; each one is so distinct that I had no trouble keeping up. Sara de Vos is a fictional painter who lived and worked in the Netherlands in the 1600s. The other main characters are a New Yorker who has inherited a de Vos painting, and the young woman who is hired to forge it. The way these two modern characters come together and discover more about the elusive artist echoes the painter's own evolution, through hard times to finding love. I was reminded a bit of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, in the way that characters present different facets of themselves to others. It is as much about artifice as art, fascinating and well written. 

Finally, my favorite of the three was The Age of Light, by Whitney Scharer. This novel is based on the true story of Lee Miller, an American fashion model who moved to Paris to reinvent herself as an artist. She becomes apprentice, and later lover, to the famed Surrealist photographer Man Ray. Together, they influence a modern art movement. Later, Miller documents World War II. It's a compelling book about the difficulty of being a female artist in a man's world, with lots of titillating glimpses into Paris of the 1920s and 30s. 


Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Bookshop of Yesterday's Cliches

The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson (2018)

The more I think about it, the more disgruntled I am that I finished this book instead of setting it aside, as I was tempted to do one-third of the way through. It is a mish-mash of chick lit cliches, well done, but still.

Big cliche 1. A death brings Our Heroine back home from the Big City. Granted, home is LA, an even bigger city than Philadelphia, where she teaches history. But the go-home-for-a-funeral-to-rediscover-yourself bit has been done to death (pun intended).

Big cliche 2. That death sends her on a scavenger hunt to uncover a Big Secret. Uncle Billy left our heroine a book store, so he uses books to send her clues to a Big Secret in her Past. Cute. Too cute. Any normal person would just write a letter.

Big cliche 3. The bookstore is going under! Let's throw a party to save it! I am so very tired of the "let's save our neighborhood business with a party" trope. It's just an excuse to bring all the characters together at the end.

Big cliche 4. Your Past is Not What You Think! I'll stop there, because spoilers, but really? If you read enough chick lit, you won't believe anyone's version of their past.

Anyway, like I said, it is well written. And there are lots of literary references. But if you have a cliche-detector AT ALL, you may be disappointed.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Three More Short Takes on the Short List

 See my reviews of the other 3 Booker Prize short-list nominees here.

The question raised for me this year, and every year, really, is what type of book should win this prize? The nominees tend to highlight important international stories: the end of South African apartheid (The Promise); the Sri Lankan civil war (A Passage North); a miscarriage of British justice against a colonial immigrant (The Fortune Men); climate change (Bewilderment). Great Circle and No One is Talking About This highlight the more personal problems encountered by women in a man’s world -- though that certainly counts as an important international story, as well, just not as circumscribed. The question remains, is the winner the book that tells the best story, or that addresses the most important problem? I would favor the best story, and therefore to me, Great Circle should have won over The Promise, though all six nominees were of course excellent. 

My favorite this year: Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead.

Great Circle is a great story about women and flight. Marian is obsessed with flight from early days. Her father died in shipwreck, a captain who didn’t go down with the ship but saved his babies instead, while mother took advantage of the disaster to disappear. Marian and her twin brother are raised by a professorial uncle in the country, where she learns to drive and repair cars, and becomes a delivery driver for a Prohibition-era smuggler. She yearns to fly, and gets her wish when she catches the eye of the area’s top smuggler. Their relationship keeps her grounded, though, so she eventually frees herself. Then follow years of self-sufficiency in Alaska until World War II, when she is recruited to a women’s auxiliary flying force, delivering planes so pilots can do the more important work of fighting. It is here that she discovers love, and a goal: to complete a great circle, flying around the globe from pole to pole.

Interspersed with Marian’s story is that of Hadley, a young actress with a tumultuous career who will be playing Marian in a film of the pilot’s life. Hadley’s story shows that even in the twenty-first century, women still face the frustrating limitations of living in a man’s world. 

I love this book because it is made up of stories of women who subvert the male agenda for their own personal desire. These two very human women, and the characters around them, live out their interesting lives not always aware of how their fierce independence sets them apart: they are just being themselves. This soaring book provides a panoramic view of several decades of American history, with side jaunts into wilderness tracking, the art world, airplane maintenance, and going incognito by changing gender. As thrilling to read as watching a young woman in an open cockpit turn her biplane in loop-de-loops.

The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed

Mahmood Mattan was a Somali immigrant in Cardiff in the early 50s, convicted and hanged for a murder he did not commit. This novel is based on the true story of the first execution that the British justice system later overturned as wrongful. Mahmood’s story reminds me of Marian’s in some ways: the youngest of several brothers, he found the only way to see the world was to leave home as a merchant marine. He sails away from hot, dry Somaliland to the cold and damp British Isles, where he falls in love with a Welsh woman who bears him three boys. It’s hard for Black men to find work, so Mahmood turns to gambling and shoplifting. But he did not wield the razor that killed the Jewish shopkeeper. 

It’s a sad, sad tale, even sadder knowing it’s true. The author has not tried to make Mahmood into an unrealistic hero. He moves through the various phases of grief in reaction to the charge and conviction, staying a long time in denial, then becoming more religious, then hoping to find the actual murderer. At times I was reminded of the fatalistic futility of Camus’ The Stranger, set in about the same time period. 

Mohamed imagines the lives of our hero, the victim, and their families with compassion. I am glad to have learned of this landmark case, even though it broke my heart.

A Passage North, by Anuk Arudpragasam

This is another book that reminded me of The Stranger. Krishan learns that Rani, a woman who used to take care of his aging grandmother, has died. Rani was traumatized by the death of her two sons during Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war, and found some measure of healing by taking care of an old woman far from the scenes of carnage. Krishan travels north to that former battleground for the funeral, and the novel is mostly his reminiscences during the long voyage: about Rani and his grandmother; about the war, which he avoided by studying in India; and about a brief romance he had with an activist for women’s and workers’ rights. Krishan recounts every moment of the funeral ceremony, including a long walk in dry heat to the cremation grounds. 

The book is full of slow, meditative passages on love and the approach of death. It’s only my second glimpse into this small country’s bloody past; my first was Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. It’s a philosophical reflection on the constant struggle between the urgency to create a better world, and the necessity of just getting by.  

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Short Takes on the Short List, 2021

 I've read three of the six on the Booker short list for 2021, and here's what I think: 

1. Patricia Lockwood, No One is Talking About This. The first half is about the kind of fifteen minutes of fame that the Internet makes possible. The second half is about the eternal (or perhaps soon to be solved?) problem of a problem pregnancy. It's an interesting book, but I think it will have a short shelf life, due to the ephemerality of part one. Does that make it more or less likely to win? Should the prize be awarded to a book that captures the time, or will outlive the time? 4 stars.

2. The Promise by Damon Galgut. Another South African saga (the winners' list is peppered with them) about the transition from white to black power, and the guilt, or lack thereof, that whites take on. A seamless marvel of stream of consciousness. 5 stars.

3. Richard Powers' Bewilderment. Another tour de force from Powers. Like The Echo Maker, this one marries the environmental themes of his masterpiece The Overstory with the curiosity about the human mind at the center of Generosity and Galatea 2.0. It's a beautiful book about a year in the life of a single father trying to help his neuro-atypical son, who is worried about the world. 5 stars.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Reading Kevin Wilson – Something to See Here

Kevin Wilson has written five books, of which I have read three recently.

The Family Fang (2011)
Nothing to See Here (2019)
Perfect Little World (2017)

My first exposure to Kevin Wilson was The Family Fang, which tells of a very strange family, indeed. Mom and dad are performance artists, and their kids are the stars of the show. Their “pieces” usually include putting the kids into really awkward, sometimes dangerous, situations and seeing how unwitting bystanders react. As you can imagine, these kids grow up with a lot of baggage. 

Annie (known in her parents’ work as “Child A”) uses her childhood training to become a successful actress. Buster (“Child B”) turns his weird childhood into writing. When both adult children encounter a low point in their careers, they return home – and soon after, mom and dad go missing.
Are they really dead, as the police believe? Or is this just another one of their stunts? Annie and Buster partner up to find out. I basically read this whole book with wide eyes and dropped jaw, waiting to see what would happen next. I doubt you’ll see the final resolution coming, so just wait for it.

Nothing to See Here is not exactly a sequel but more like a spin-off of The Family Fang. Remember how Annie Fang channeled her childhood suffering into an acting career? Nothing to See Here is the story of one of the films she stars in. 

Lillian is an overachiever turned loser. Despite her impoverished childhood, she earns a scholarship to a fancy boarding school, where she meets Madison, the ultimate rich daddy’s girl. When Madison is caught with cocaine, Madison’s daddy offers Lillian’s mom a lot of money for Lillian to take the fall. Lillian is kicked out, and that’s pretty much the end of her ambitions.

And now Madison’s in trouble again. Her rich senator husband’s ex-wife has died, leaving him in charge of his two children by that first marriage. Who catch fire. Yes, you read that right: the senator’s children catch fire. It doesn’t hurt them, but boy, is it inconvenient. So Madison calls on Lillian to come take care of these two little firebrands – and keep them out of sight – while their senator daddy is being vetted for Secretary of State.

The greatest strength of The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here is the outrageous premise, and the growth that comes out of these horrible situations. However, they also both share some really weak characters. In both novels, the parents (Mr. and Mrs. Fang, Madison and her senator hubby) are two-dimensional bad guys. I just hated them all, because they had no redeeming qualities and showed no growth.

Perfect Little World, however, I found to be a lot more complex. It does have a two-dimensional bad guy, but she plays a much smaller role. Perfect Little World also begins with another outrageous premise to do with parenting: a social scientist and a wealthy businesswoman team up to create a utopian commune for raising children cooperatively. Single mom Izzy joins up. She’s the analog to Lillian in Nothing to See Here: a weird young woman thrust into taking care of weird children in a weird situation, and pulling it off. Perhaps due to the larger cast – the other parents and their children – this novel is more nuanced. We see the inevitable adult drama (and cheating) that would occur in such an experiment. We see kids forming unexpected alliances. Though some of the characters simply never get developed, I see the interactions between them as more realistic and relatable.  

Three Modern Takes on Slavery

The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Underground Airlines, Ben Winters
Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Some really interesting takes on slavery have come out recently.

Of these three novels, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is probably getting the most press, thanks to Oprah’s Book Club. I first heard it described as science-fiction, but as a big sci-fi fan myself, I would classify it as fantasy. Hiram is a slave, whose mother has been sold away by his father and master. Hiram’s “task” is to mind his white half-brother, Hiram’s opposite in every way: slothful, disrespectful, but heir to the estate. One late night, Hiram is driving his brother home, and their carriage goes off a bridge. The heir drowns, but Hiram somehow survives. Hiram’s miraculous survival brings him to the attention of the Underground.

It turns out Hiram has inherited an unusual ability, Conducting, by which the conductor (such as Harriet Tubman) uses memory to build a bridge across distances, and lead slaves away from “the Task.” That is the part that qualifies this book as fantasy, rather than science fiction, which would have a somewhat more rigorous explanation for this magical power.
Genre nitpicking aside, it’s a compelling read. Hiram is a realistic character, a young man who makes mistakes of passion, and learns from those around him, particularly women. The heartbreak of slavery and the shakiness of freedom are portrayed in vivid colors. I have not read any of Coates’ other books, but I understand this is his first foray into fiction. Bravo!

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has also gotten a lot of press. Its format is closer to a picaresque (think Gulliver’s Travels or Candide), a series of vignettes that answer the question “what if?” in different ways. What if former slaves were “allowed” to live and work in relative freedom – provided they agreed to be sterilized? What if all-white communities thrived by using lynchings as theater? et cetera. The surreal element to this book is the existence of a literal underground railroad, tunnels and tracks leading to the different regions Whitehead describes. As long as you can suspend disbelief about this implausible infrastructure, it’s another interesting read, but personally my least favorite of these three.

Finally, Ben Winters is probably the least known to the general public, but my favorite of the three, because of his amazing speculative fiction. His Last Policeman series is a thrilling trilogy about social collapse pending the arrival of a killer asteroid. Golden State is even further out there, a twist on the ideas of Minority Report.

Underground Airlines is impressive on at least two levels. First, Winters constructs a plausible alternate reality in which the Civil War did not happen, and four states continue to allow and encourage slavery in the twenty-first century. Now, of course, the slaves work in giant prison-like factory complexes, rather than on plantations. The most impressive part of this alternate reality, to me, was the careful thought that Winters put into the economic and diplomatic aspects of this cowardly new world: who would ally with the southern states? Who would sell them their cars? And in the north, where would people import their slave-free cotton and cigarettes from? The details are dropped casually but expand one’s view of the consequences of slavery on the global economy.

Second, the novel’s plot stands alone as a strong mystery thriller. An investigator has been hired to track down a runaway slave. The twist is that the investigator himself is a failed runaway, coerced into serving his own trackers. The pursuit is heightened therefore by the pursuer’s inner conflict, and the many twists and turns it takes will keep you reading to the end.