{a few notes}

• I wrote a review of Louis de Bernières’s Corelli’s Mandolin for my group book blog, which you can find here.

• I was still thinking about Wally Lamb’s This Much I Know Is True for literally weeks after finishing. I finally had to lend it to a friend to stop staring at the cover on my desk and silently internally weeping. Yikes bikes. 

Here is a pretty good review of the Great Gatsby movie that I think pretty well sums up my reaction to it, if you weren’t tired of it already. 

Happy Monday!

{all of the secrets and all of the lies}

It’s been a while since I posted because it took me a while to get through this book—I’ve spent the past 2-3 weeks listening to the recording of Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper. This was about 90% due to a free Audible download I acquired, and 10% due to my theory that I’d be able to focus more at the gym with a new recorded book than with the same playlists I’ve been listening to for at least the past four years (I will say that theory had a nearly 85% success rate the one time I tried it). This is the third Kate Morton book I’ve read (including The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours), so I felt enough of an expert to recommend her books as Christmas gifts for not one, but both grandmothers this year! So if you, too, share literary taste with your octogenarian relatives, I suggest you read on.

Like all her other books, TSK revolves around two main stories: the first from the past, relying heavily on orphans, lost lovers, and family secrets; and the second of a modern-day relative/somehow-involved person attempting to unravel the decades-old mystery. This particular book opens on a lazy summer afternoon in 1961, when 16-year-old Laurel witnesses her mother, Dorothy, commit a violent crime. Fifty years later and beside her mother’s deathbed, Laurel begins to make sense of what she saw and explore the trajectories of the past that culminated in that one act of desperation.

The majority of the story is told from three different viewpoints: the adult Laurel, the young Dorothy in war-torn London during the Blitz, and Vivian, Dorothy’s sophisticated and mysterious friend. As Laurel gradually uncovers, Dorothy and her fiancé became involved in a “plan” for their future that went terribly awry, a plan that resulted in deaths and irreparably shattered relationships, a plan with repercussions that reached 20 years into Dorothy’s future as a happily married mother.

As I’ve said, Morton’s books are highly formulaic, but this one had two major differences from the others I’ve read. First of all, I truly hated young Dorothy. I normally find the modern storyline to be the dullest: I’m less than interested in a thirty-something sad sack trying to figure out why she’s always felt her life to be missing something and then finding the answers in the past, etc., etc. Laurel, a 66-year-old Oscar-winning actress, was smart, resourceful, and had a refreshing amount of sass and cynicism about her (of course I identify with the grandmothers’ heroine). Young Dorothy, on the other hand, was revolting. Spoiled, whiny, manipulative, and quite frankly delusional, I found very little to recommend her throughout the entire story. I was far more interested with her fiancé, Jimmy (Morton’s excellent job of painting his carefree handsomeness and shock of brown hair falling into his face certainly did not hurt), and Vivian, who was just prickily enough to draw me in right away to whatever she was hiding.

The second thing that caught me off guard was the ending. No spoilers, but Morton’s MO is to divulge an “ending solution” to the mystery that all characters accept as true, then drop the real ending in a huge twist at the very end. I was practiced enough in this habit to recognize the false resolution as soon as it was revealed, but was equally certain that I knew exactly what the real ending would be. However, I was ultimately outsmarted—the true resolution was one that had never even occurred to me (although, looking back, it really should have).

This Christmas Eve, I’m sitting in my parents’ house in front of the fake gas fire, eating peppermint stick ice cream and watching my mother vacuum under the tree. In literary news, I’m giving my dad a copy of Wolf Hall and the movie A Man for All Seasons (the ultimate history nerd’s double feature!!). I also just finished She’s Come Undone, but since I’m behind on blogging and don’t have anything to read for the rest of my vacation, I’ll save it for next time.

In other words—happy holidays!!

{homo homini lupus}

Today, my virtual book group met to discuss Wolf Hall. As the first woman to win two Man Booker Prizes and the first author of a book and its sequel to both win Bookers, Hilary Mantel is causing quite a lot of buzz in the literary world. As a complete history nerd, this Book One in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy was also a great pick for me. I’ve read quite a few books (fiction and non) on the Tudor reign, and what always fascinates me is how many different perspectives there are on the dichotomy of good and evil. So many characters, so many power struggles, so many conflicting perspectives on right and wrong—which is why there were also so many beheadings. Across the board, though, Thomas Cromwell is almost always a villain, which made Mantel’s focus on him especially fascinating.

One of the major themes we discussed today was the power of narrative and its pervasiveness throughout the novel. Again, Henry VIII’s reign was fraught with discord and feuding factions—the narrative is unclear, unorganized, and open to rewriting. Cromwell himself manipulates others’ narratives throughout the course of the story, attempting to shape the amorphous facts of reality into a cohesive and sensical narrative.

As one friend mentioned, Cromwell seems a true 20th-century man, at times out of his element. He’s a common man motivated by upward mobility, whose personal ethics are sometimes at odds with his governmental role. He takes every opportunity to give others a chance to save themselves from a brutal fate—during the climactic pages when he interviews Thomas More and judges him as treasonous for refusing to swear Henry VIII as the head of the church, Cromwell constantly tries to convince him to just give the king the minimum. He explains that just saying the words will be enough, just signing More’s name—there is no follow-up action required, it doesn’t matter what More actually believes, he can have his fingers crossed for all Cromwell or the king care. He’s unable to understand More’s refusal to do so, a stance which convinces Cromwell that More deserves his fate.

“I have never understood where the line is drawn, between sacrifice and self-slaughter.”

“Christ drew it.”

“You don’t see anything wrong with the comparison?”

Obviously, Cromwell’s attitude is mirrored by the religious and political thrusts of the time. Martin Luther and King Henry, though for conflicting reasons and at odds with each other, are each attempting to redefine the Christian church, to rework the gospel narrative. They seek to take away the immense power of the Church, the emphasis on a need for an interpreter for the common people. As Henry’s chief minister, Cromwell is charged with the task of distributing this message to the English, spreading the Act of Supremacy that More so objects to.

It doesn’t, as some say, make the king head of the church. It states that he is head of the church, and always has been. If people don’t like new ideas, let them have old ones. . . I am all for clarity.

Cromwell’s stance for clarity is certainly a precarious one. While I found the middle of WH slow going at times, it certainly picked up toward the end, and I can’t wait to read the second in the trilogy and Mantel’s newest Booker winner, Bring Up the Bodies.

 

{epic in miniature}

Following on the heels of Blueprints of the Afterlife and Swamplandia!, the next book chosen by my college alumni nostalgic English majors book group was Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. While it’s still unclear whether I’ll be able to attend the discussion this weekend, I did read the book (it’s literally 116 pages long, I had no excuse) and am ready to record my thoughts.

Astoundingly, despite its short length and relatively simple prose, TD created such a powerful atmosphere that I found myself frequently rereading sentences, paragraphs, or even whole pages trying to figure out how Johnson did it. The story centers around Robert Grainier, who works building railroads, clearing forests, and other day labor in early 20th-century Idaho and Washington. His is not necessarily a story with a cohesive plot and defined events; rather, Johnson provides a series of random snippets from Grainier’s life. They don’t follow a set chronology or theme, but serve to invoke an overall sense of the everchanging American West so skillfully that—again—I couldn’t even tell how it was being done.

Cut off from anything else that might trouble them, the gang, numbering sometimes more than forty and never fewer than thirty-five men, fought the forest from sunrise until suppertime, felling and bucking the giant spruce into pieces of a barely manageable size, accomplishing labors, Grainier sometimes thought, tantamount to the pyramids, changing the face of the mountainsides, talking little, shouting their communications, living with the sticky feel of pitch in their beards, sweat washing the dust off their long johns and caking it in the creases of their necks and joints, the odor of pitch so thick it abraded their throats and stung their eyes, and even overlaid the stink of beasts and manure.

See? And that is just one sentence (albeit a crazy long one). A lifelong Westerner myself (who pseudo-nostalgically loved the many TD references to Spokane), I felt so strongly that this was my country. Through some crazy genius means, Denis Johnson got me to identify so completely with this Robert Grainier that I felt like I was living vicariously through him.

Seriously. If you have any interest in literary or historical fiction, read this book. Highest recommendations. If it means something to you, I told my friend that it reminded me a lot of Willa Cather. However, it’s been about three years since I read any Cather, so don’t sue me if that’s totally wrong. (Just read it.)

And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.

{no excuse}

That’s right. None.

Without further ado/procrastination/general lack of desire to be productive, here are the books I’ve read lately:

The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson. In 1885, the body of a young pregnant woman is found floating in the reservoir in Richmond, Virginia. Suicide is suspected, but some clues point to foul play—especially once she is identified as Lillie Madison, whose close friendship with both of her male cousins has long been questioned by the family. Tommie Cluverius, one of the brothers, is eventually arrested and tried for her murder.

The real truth of what happened to Lillie Madison isn’t revealed until quite late in the book, even though much of the narration is from the point of view of Tommie himself. And dear God—I have rarely hated a book character as much as I hated Tommie Cluverius. Naively selfish, ignorantly misogynistic—it almost didn’t even matter to me whether he was found guilty or innocent, I so despised him. It’s a good thing I’ve never been called upon for jury duty.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I read this as part of my challenge (for the group book blog I write for) to read my way through 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die—and then of course missed my deadline for posting about it. I am going to write about it for the Book Blob at the beginning of June, however, so I will save my insights until that time.

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller. 1920s London is reeling in the aftermath of World War I. Laurence Bartram, recently returned from fighting, receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of his school friend, the eponymous John. John was found dead from a gunshot wound—thought to be self-inflicted—a few miles from the mental hospital where he had been admitted after his return from the war, and Mary wants to know why. Laurence begins his quest simply looking to find out more about his dignified and reserved friend—whom he hasn’t seen since they were in school—but gradually suspects John’s death to be more sinister in nature, as other veterans of his acquaintance keep showing up dead.

This book was well-written and a great page turner. The characters were sympathetic, multi-faceted, and always interesting. The only time it failed was at the end, which seemed both hastily concluded and not entirely clear. Other than that—I recommend!

{party at the old folks’}

In an unprecendented but fairly predictable turn of events, I have done a ton of reading lately and no blogging. So I will be playing catch-up for the next few posts.

I started On Canaan’s Side back in November, but then with the move to the Bay Area, had to relinquish it unfinished back to the Eugene library. I found it again earlier this month, and finished it.

Lilly Bere immigrated to the United States shortly after the First World War, fleeing an Ireland torn apart by its War of Independence. Moving around between Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and New York, Lilly’s life story is a narrative of the American twentieth century, and all the promise and heartbreak it brought with it.

Two things I loved:

  • The historical background and detail, spanning two countries and several decades. Because I’m a nerd.
  • The variety of characters. Lilly’s relationships throughout her life span rich, poor, black, white, American, immigrant, and each has a story to tell.

Two things I didn’t love:

  • The narrative voice. The character of Lilly is supposed to be a) an immigrant, albeit one fluit in English, but still carries an altered grammar, and b) old. Her stories were sometimes disjointed, scattered, hard to follow. I’m not sure if this was a conscious decision on the part of the author or not, but either way it came across as distracting.
  • The end. No spoilers, but vague much??

{sad face}

Once again, I am a blog fail. But this time I have a legit excuse. (Kinda. Besides the usual distracted-by-life one.)

It’s taken me a while to get over this one.

I first heard about Slammerkin at DPI this summer, when Michael Pietsch from Little, Brown discussed Emma Donoghue’s Room in his baller keynote speech. I read Room a couple months ago, but Slammerkin had caught my attention too (a novel about an 18th-century prostitute?? Please.), so I picked it up at the ‘brar last week.

In a whirlwind few days involving one poor choice, unfeeling parents, and other horribleness, young Mary Saunders finds herself homeless and pregnant on the streets of London. Forced into prostitution, she discovers it to be—freeing. Her ravenous ambition—to be self-sufficient, to be independent, to be wealthy and admired by all—is impossible with any other female profession. Only as a prostitute can she be truly in command of her own destiny.

This was a rough one, folks. I said as much to my coworker, who (fairly) replied, “What on Earth did you expect?”

“OH, I DON’T KNOW,” I responded. “SOMETHING JAUNTY AND DELIGHTFUL. HOW ABOUT MOLL FLANDERS? I PLAYED A POSTMODERN MOLL FLANDERS IN A COLLEGE ENGLISH CLASS MOVIE PROJECT AND GOT TO WINK SAUCILY AT THE CAMERA AND SPANK MY BOXERS-CLAD CLASSMATE, IT WAS QUITE FUN.”

Slammerkin is good. It is powerful. It is interesting (the historical detail is impeccable!). It made me think—about being a woman, about history, about society, about sex. It was a good read, and I’d recommend it to anyone else who shares my rather disturbing interests. But no, it was not fun. Donoghue pulls no punches with this one—Mary Saunders and her story are raw.

In conclusion, if you have a stomach for disturbing topics and a healthy (?) interest in the underbelly of history, check this one out. If not, consider a pass.

{mist in the distance}

About a year ago, I read Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden. I believe it was part of an online book club through the Spokane Public Library that I’d optimistically signed up for, under the naïve impression that I both had time to read and would be able to find books I liked at Spokane’s many but sadly stocked library branches. TFG was a rare winner—and walks the fine line between literary fiction and the historical romances that I’ve already admitted to having a weakness for. So I decided to give Kate Morton another go with The Distant Hours.

Edie, a young British woman in the publishing industry (!!), suddenly finds her suppressed love of the Gothic thrust into the light as she journeys to Milderhurst Castle in pursuit of a family secret. In the castle live the three ancient Blythe sisters: twins Percy and Saffy and the younger Juniper, who hasn’t been quite right since her fiancé disappeared sixty years ago. They’re the three daughters of writer Raymond Blythe, who achieved literary fame with The History of the Mud Man, an eerily fascinating and mysterious children’s book that changed Edie’s life. According to the book jacket, “the truth of what happened in ‘the distant hours’ of the past [at Milderhurst Castle] has been waiting a long time for someone to find it”—and Edie is that someone.

TDH is definitely Kate Morton. She’s got a certain tragic bent to her storytelling: she loves lost suitors, orphans, and family histories obscured by generations of lies and secrets. All in all, though, I found TDH less compelling than TFG. Both are mysteries, histories, and romances—but in TFG, all these components (especially the mystery) were right at the forefront, keeping the pages turning. In TDH, the juicy bits are strung out along lengthy interludes with minor characters I didn’t care too much about, descriptions of scenery, and similar red herrings.

So all in all—a good read, but not a great one. I’d recommend it to anyone who was intrigued by my summary above—but I’d recommend The Forgotten Garden more.

{to keep my name in remembrance}

To everyone’s surprise, Joyce Carol Oates’ My Heart Laid Bare turned out to not be a trashy historical romance. Far from it: As far as I can surmise, it is a retelling of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, one of my absolute favorite books.

In fact, I culminated my years as an English major with a 20-page research paper and conference presentation on A, A!, meaning I can nerd out about it like nobody’s business. But let’s skip straight to the Oates.

Abraham Licht is descended from a lady’s maid who masqueraded around 18th-century Europe posing as nobility, stealing, and swindling, before finally being shot as a horse thief in the swamps near Old Muirkirk, New York. Abraham follows in her footsteps, raising his several children to play “The Game” with the high-rollers of the Progressive Era. The Licht family roams from Washington, D.C., to the mountains of Colorado, weaving elaborate stories and adopting complex costumes in the hopes of establishing themselves among America’s richest members of society.

As the years pass, however, the Licht children fall away from The Game. Some, like Thurston and Darian, take desperate measures to disassociate from their father’s overbearing will. Elisha and Millie, despite being perhaps the most promising Game players, are cast aside for their ultimate ungratefulness and insubordination; Harwood travels too deep into deceit and is sought for justice. Toward the end of his life, Abraham Licht finds himself grasping at any means available to maintain the legacy he has attempted to build through his progeny.

Here is where I started literally dog-earring pages, because the similarities between MHLB and A, A! were numerous.

Was he not Abraham Licht, most remarkable of men?—and might he not be again a lover, a bridegroom, again a father, holding his infant aloft, as if daring the hand of God Himself to strike it from him—?

He requires more children, another son at least, another son very soon, for his children have not entirely pleased him.

For where Abraham Licht loves, he must be loved in return: where he would surrender his soul, he must be granted a soul in return: otherwise The Game is wicked indeed. And he will not be cheated again: not another time! . . . if he wants another son, or even another daughter, to continue his name, it must happen soon.

Seriously. As I nerded out over Sutpen’s “design” two years ago in A, A!, so did I nerd out over Licht’s “Game.” Biblical themes for the win!

Thomas Sutpen, too, has a grand design of becoming a man of wealth and power at any cost. To that end, he attempts to forge a dynasty that will carry his name. Like Abraham Licht, he evaluates women solely on their ability to bear healthy children and otherwise passively support him, and like Licht, he is always “betrayed” by them. His children, too, operate as mechanisms in his grand design, until his indomitable will grinds them to failure and destitution. Absalom, Absalom!, said Faulkner, is “the story of a man who wanted a son through pride, and got too many of them and they destroyed him.”

If you like historical fiction, Biblical stories, broad and sweeping narratives, and characters with complex suffering, I recommend either (or both!) Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! or (and!) Oates’ My Heart Laid Bare. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

{i am running}

I’m not running. Can’t, actually, for two more months.

But running is a central part of Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed, a novel about a young orphan boy in 1939 Warsaw. The title of this review is actually the first sentence of the book. Misha has no family, no home, not even a name until Uri gives him one. In Uri’s vivid (and imaginary) story, Misha is a Gypsy, stolen from his family and his speckled mare, Greta.

Misha and Uri belong to a gang of homeless boys, who survive on the streets of Warsaw by stealing bread and pickles and avoiding the ubiquitous Jackboots. It’s an easy life, a fun life. Misha’s best friend is a small Jewish girl named Janina, whose family’s garden he once ransacked and now attempts to repay by leaving stolen presents at their door.

One day, the Jackboots round up the Jews of Warsaw and take them to the ghetto. Misha doesn’t know what a ghetto is, and he’s not a Jew. But he follows Janina and her family so he can continue to feed them. That’s all he knows how to do—take food, run, and give it to those he loves.

I was born into craziness. When the whole world turned crazy, I was ready for it. That’s how I survived.

I firmly believe that there’s really nothing better in literature than a good child narrator, and Jerry Spinelli is the master of these. Misha’s youth and naïveté is at once endearing (at Janina’s birthday, he runs away with the cake because he thinks they’re going to set it on fire) and heart-rending (he follows everyone to the ghetto because he thinks it’s a parade). He has good powers of observation but comes to confused or inaccurate conclusions about what he sees, making his voice remain childlike as he recounts the horrors around him.

By far my favorite parts of this book were Misha’s relationships with Janina and Uri. Despite the fact that all three characters are children, these relationships are extremely complex.

Uri essentially adopts Misha after they compete for a loaf of bread. He’s the first human contact that Misha can remember. Red-headed and stern, he’s the natural leader of their group of boys, perhaps because he sees himself as exempt from the Jackboots’ cruelty: “Who’s ever heard of a red-headed Jew?” Throughout the book, you can tell that Uri is constantly torn between conflicting instincts of self-preservation and protection of Misha, who constantly draws attention to himself through some misguided act. Of all the characters, adult and child, Uri has the best idea of Warsaw’s fate at the hands of the Jackboots. He is strict, often violent, with Misha, who just can’t seem to keep his head down or stop asking questions. But with the attitude of a much older person, Uri does not let his fear overrule his care for Misha.

Misha, in turn, adopts a similar attitude toward Janina, especially once they are trapped in the ghetto. Shouldering the responsibilities of caretaker and breadwinner, he risks his life every night to feed her family. He keeps Janina’s spirits up by playing games with her and bringing her special treats, and takes very seriously her father’s orders to “keep Janina safe.” Their relationship makes an interesting contrast to his with Uri: both Misha and Uri are protectors, but while Uri assumes the role of an all-knowing adult, explaining to Misha only what he feels is absolutely necessary, Misha’s protective duties toward Janina are limited by his understanding. He can protect Janina from the Jackboots and their clubs, but why must they keep away from the trains carrying the Jews away from the ghetto?

Jerry Spinelli, as usual, delivers a powerful, heart-renching story told by an unexpected voice. Milkweed is an incredible feat of narration, as well as a well-researched account of humanity in crisis. I highly recommend it.