Category Archives: American authors

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng #bookreview

little-firesLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng explores the nature of motherhood and the secrets that lie bubbling beneath the veneer of an ultra perfect American community.

Shaker Heights in Ohio is a place where everything is planned, organised and controlled. Nothing is left to chance; not the the colour of the doors into each house or where household rubbish must be left for collection.

Across the country, other communities might clash and squabble but Shaker Heights prides itself on being a community that is “unified and beautiful”: where householders regularly weed their gardens and parents engage in wholesome activities like making cookies.

It’s a picture perfect settlement operating on an underlying philosophy that when everything is planned, “the unseemly, the unpleasant and the disastrous” can be avoided.

Elena and Bill Richardson are typical of the inhabitants of Shaker Heights: successful, wealthy and white. She’s a journalist with the local newspaper. He’s a lawyer. They like to do their bit for the less fortunate members of society, regularly attending local fund raising events and donating to UNICEF. They plan that their four children will become equally respectable and successful.

Their complacency is disrupted when Mrs Richardson rents an apartment to Mia Warren, a single mother and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl. They’re a nomadic pair, having travelled from state to state with all their possessions stuffed into a VW Rabbit. The lives of the Warrens and the Richardsons begin to coalesce. Friendships are born,  confidences shared and affiliations formed.

Interesting enough but it’s not until Ng introduces a moral dilemma  that the book really take off. The spark is a custody battle over a Chinese baby. Friends of Mrs Richardson want to adopt her but the girl’s birth mother wants her back. Who has the greater right to consider herself the true mother.

It came, over and over, down to this. What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?

As the community takes sides on this question, two other moral quandaries regarding a baby come to light. In one, a surrogate mother is so attached to the unborn child she feels unable to go through with the agreement. The other shows a teenager afraid her university education and her whole future will be jeopardised if she doesn’t have an abortion. In all three cases the desires of biological mothers are counterpoised with the claims of potential parents whose wealth could provide the child with greater opportunities in life. The question is posed: should the child’s or the mother’s interest prevail?

The  story occasionally labours under the weight of this question but the characterisation more than compensates for this weakness. The two matriarchs in particular are vividly drawn. Mia is an interesting character whose  highly imaginative photographs are collectors items but she works as a cleaner to make ends meet.

The real hit of this novel for me however was Mrs Richardson (she is hardly ever referred to by her given name  “Elena”). She comes across as a control freak,  a woman so convinced her friend should win the custody battle that she is willing to act unethically and put another friendship in jeopardy. And yet Ng shows beneath her cold exterior is a woman who suppressed her dreams and aspirations believing a life of controlled domesticity was the way to happiness.

… she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. … Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or perhaps to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never — could never —set anything ablaze.

Little Fires Everywhere was both an engrossing and a frustrating read. It begins with a fire that engulfs the Richardson house. The youngest daughter,  Doc Marten-wearing, troubled teen Izzy, is the main suspect, but it soon becomes clear that the inferno has been deliberately caused with, as the firefighters put it, “multiple points of origin”. The novel then tracks back in time to look at the flash points that led up to the conflagration.

At the same time, the pace and structure of the story keep us turning the pages, eager to find out why the fires were set, who will get custody of the baby, what secrets are buried in Mia’s past and whether their uncovering will lead to catastrophe.

I enjoyed watching how Ng wove together the different plot lines, keeping us in suspense about the identity of the arsonist, how the custody battle will pan out and the secret of Mia’s past. But my enjoyment was tempered by a feeling of frustration that Ng didn’t push further with her exploration of motherhood. Instead I felt the ending was rather too neat and complete.

 

 

 

 

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner [book review]

The Mars RoomShould I be so unfortunate to find myself  detained in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, I will at least, thanks to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, have several survival strategies at my fingertips.

I will know for example that it’s possible to smuggle pills by using peanut butter to attach them to the roof of your mouth.

I’ll know how to send and receive contraband through the air vents and toilet system (making sure of course to wrap everything tightly in plastic).

And, to make up for the absence of real alcohol, I will be able to brew hooch from ketchup sachets, fruit juice cartons and a sock stuffed with bread (necessary to create the yeast) even if the result does look and smell like vomit. The secret is that  “… you got to double decant it ….. It’s got to breathe.”

Kushner displays an impressive knowledge of life inside a women’s correctional facility in California; the strip-searches, shacklings and lock downs and the rules that govern every moment and every aspect of the women’s lives.

There are lists of rules scattered through the book

No orange clothing

No clothing in any shade of blue

No white clothing

No yellow clothing

No beige or khaki clothing

No green clothing

No red clothing

No purple clothing

Wouldn’t it just have been simpler to tell these inmates what they could wear??

There are even rules about rules.

The failure to report a rule violation … is also a rule violation. The failure to report a rule violation of a failure to report a rule violation is another rule violation.

The Mars Room is a powerful indictment of the penal system as seen through a 29-year-old single mother who has been convicted of murder. We first encounter Romy Hall as she is taken by bus to the Stanville correctional facility where she will serve two consecutive life sentences with an additional six years for endangering her young son.

She’s already learned not to cry. Two years earlier on her first night in jail after her arrest she had cried uncontrollably, believing her life was over though hoping desperately that it was all a dream. But now she knows there is no point in looking ahead.

 I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.

From this point, the novel moves backwards and forwards in time,  tracing her childhood and early years in the “fog-banked, treeless and bleak” streets of San Francisco. The city she inhabited is one tourists don’t get to see, a city of brothels, dive bars, casinos and strip joints, the seediest of all being The Mars Room where she worked as a lap dancer.  The man she killed was one of the regulars at the club. When he began turning up at her local supermarket and shadowing her home, she did a disappearing act only for him to track her down. The night she killed him her young son was asleep in her arms.

The Mars Room is predominantly Rachel’s story though there are narratives from two men associated with the penal system. One is a corrupt police officer now behind bars who takes pride in the crimes he committed and the other is a bit of an idealist brought in to teach literature in the prison. Neither of these interludes was anywhere as engrossing as Rachel’s own story and her interactions with fellow inmates.

What a fascinating bunch they are: the resident ultra bully Teardrop; Conan, a trans woman who uses woodwork classes to make dildos; the baby-killer Laura Lipp and, on death row, the former model Betty LaFrance,  chief brewer of the ketchup moonshine. When they’re on stage, the book comes alive.

Unfortunately, while there is much to admire in The Mars Room, it’s attraction began to fade for me in the final section. Up until this point we’d been exposed to the injustice at the heart of Romy’s situation. The court never heard how she was terrified by the man she killed because the lawyer appointed to take her case was incompetent. Once convicted she has no recourse for an appeal and no-one willing to help her when her son is taken into care.

Kushner’s narrative gives full exposure to the way the justice system has broken down. There is a wealth of information to explain how her fellow inmates are also victims; nudged into crime as a result of poverty, drugs and abuse. After a while it feels like we’re being beaten over the head until we understand the point. I found myself skipping paragraphs (never a good sign). And then it ends with a moment of epiphany that simply didn’t ring true. What started as a book that impressed me with its directness just seemed to dissolve without reaching any resolution.

I can see why the Booker Prize judges put it on the shortlist but for me it was a book that was good in parts but ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise.

 

 

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles #bookreview

gentleman_in_moscowIn Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, the Russian Revolution is a few years old but the country is still in a state of upheaval. The ruling bodies are on a mission to root out individuals whom they consider to be a destabilising force. Their attention turns to Count Alexander Rostov, a suave and handsome member of the aristocracy who has gained a reputation as a poet but whose work is considered counter-revolutionary by the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.

Only his connections with some high-ranking officials save him from being stood in front of a wall and shot. Instead, after declaring him to be a “Former Person” , the Committee sentence the count to imprisonment in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. It’s the city’s foremost hotel, an Art Deco edifice place frequented by the rich and famous, bureaucrats and foreign visitors. As befitting his status and love of the finer aspects of life, the count has been a regular guest at the Metropol, occupying the elegantly furnished suite 317 from which he can look upon the Bolshoi Theatre.

His new abode will be considerably more modest; a miniscule attic room whose ceiling slopes so acutely it’s difficult for the new occupant to stand to his full height. Into this disused servant’s quarter, the count crams some of his favourite pieces of fine furniture: two high back chairs, an oriental coffee table, a Louis XVI desk, two table lamps fashioned from elephants and his grandmother’s favourite set of porcelain plates.

It’s in this cell that he will live for the next forty years.

The insularity of this setting seemed one that would pose considerable challenges for both writer and reader. A Gentleman in Moscow is a long novel with more than 400 pages of small text and not much white space. I started reading with some trepidation. Could this book sustain my interest when the central character never goes anywhere?

The answer is unquestionably yes.

Unable to send his count out into the world, Towles makes the world come to the count. Effectively he makes a whole new world out of the hotel, one peopled by a multitude of colourful characters. Actresses preen in the lobby, overseas journalists get drunk in the bar; members of the ruling elite plot and scheme and architects dream of one day being allowed to design more than just residential tower blocks. Other more permanent characters are the people who make this haven a special place: the barber who does not permit political talk within his salon; the moody chef who has to work magic with cauliflower and cabbage when other food becomes scarce and the bar staff who keep the candlelight glowing and glasses twinkling. And then there is Nina, a child of nine who has discovered more about the hidden corners and spaces of the hotel than the count ever dreamed existed. With the aid of a skeleton key she unlocks for him the secrets of the Metropol.

No character is as engaging or enticing as the count however. He’s a man who adopts a philosophical stance to the limitations of his new residence. Convinced that “by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.”  he determines on a path that will enable him to live a full and rich life. He adopts a few rituals; a weekly visit to the barber, a daily perusal of the newspapers in the lobby;  dinner in the Metropole’s prestigious Boyarsky restaurant and squat exercises every morning (the number of repetitions he achieves diminishes every few years). He lives according to the principle that, “If one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them.” And so he hits on a means to double the size of his room; kicking through into a closet to create a study.

As the years progress he proves to be the epitomy of the perfect gentleman; intelligent and charming; uncomplaining about his confinement and generous with his time and advice about the correct pairing of wine and food. He builds a camaraderie with the chef and maitre d’ that sees them plot how to beg and scrounge the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse. He is on first name terms with Marina the hotel seamstress whose help he needs when his trousers split. He even stands in loco parentis to the daughter of young girl.

Meanwhile the revolution lumbers along. It disrupts the smooth running of the hotel to the dismay of the staff who pride themselves on their professionalism. The quality of service which has been the hallmark of the Metropol is threatened. First,  the government decrees, in accordance with the spirit of egalitarianism, that labels must be removed from all the wine bottles in the hotel cellar. Then the overbearing manager nicknamed The Bishop (a Soviet stooge) introduces a new procedure  for taking, placing and billing of orders in the restaurant.  This procedure involves a lot of paperwork:

Henceforth … when a waiter took an order, he would write it on a pad designed for this purpose. Leaving the table, he would bring the order to the bookkeeper, who, having made an entry in his ledger, would issue a cooking slip for the kitchen. In the kitchen, a corresponding entry would be made for the cooking log, at which point the cooking could commence. When the food was ready for consumption, a confirmation slip would be issued by the kitchen to the bookkeeper, who in turn would provide  a stamped receipt to the waiter authorising the retrieval of the food. Thus a few minutes later the waiter would be able to make the appropriate notation on his notepad confirming that the dish which had been ordered, logged, cooked and retrieved and was finally on the table.

Towles can’t resist the opportunity to highlight the idiocies of the Soviet system but that doesn’t mean he completely ignores its darker side.  His unnamed narrator acknowledges that the 1930s was a difficult time for Russia with famine, housing shortages, constraints on artists and regular purges of undesirable individuals. Closer to home, the count’s friend Mishka feels the weight of censorship of the arts and literature and Nina, an enthusiastic supporter of  collectivisation, sees at first hand the savagery of Stalin’s plans for agriculture.  When her husband is arrested and sentenced to hard labour she feels compelled to follow him to Siberia, leaving her small daughter Sofia in the Count’s care and protection.

With the exception of  twist in the final section of the novel, there are no big dramatic turns of events. The delight is in the development of the characters.  I loved the many touches of humour but also the more reflective passages where the count recalls his childhood spent on a large family estate outside of the city and his relationship with his  friend Mishka, a poet. A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautifully paced novel, packed with detail and atmosphere that is a joy to read.

Footnotes

About the author Amor Towles was born and raised in Boston, USA. He worked as an investment professional for many years before devoting himself to writing. A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is his second novel.

Why I read this book: Quite simply because I saw several very positive reviews of this during 2017. If you want a second opinion on just how good this book is, take a look at these reviews:

Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings 

Lisa at ANZLitLovers

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan [book reviews]

026995ab-29d3-4513-8fad-cd1fd1541951.jpeg
In The Kitchen God’s Wife Amy Tan returns to a theme that had proved enormously successful with her debut novel The Joy Luck Club; the gap in understanding between mothers and their daughters. Once again she plunders her own family’s history to bring a tale about the experiences of women in nineteenth century China and their struggle to find happiness in a culture that denied them choice and autonomy.

It’s a tale told by Winnie Louie, a Chinese immigrant living in San Francisco, to her daughter Pearl. Both women have secrets. Pearl has kept quiet for seven years the fact she has multiple sclerosis, knowing her mother would react the way she always did when something bad happened; asking endless questions about why it had happened and how it could have been prevented. Much easier to say nothing than to hear yet another theory from her mother that she should have been smart enough to see this disaster in time to stop it. She doesn’t know that Winnie has long kept her own secrets – about her past and the confusing circumstances of Pearl’s birth.

It takes an intervention by Helen Kwong, Winnie’s so-called sister-in-law, to get the two women to open up. Helen believes she is dying from a brain tumour and cannot fly off to heaven with Winnie’s lies and Pearl’s secret on her conscience. She threatens Pearl and Winnie that unless they tell the truth she will do it for them. And thus, after persuading Pearl to visit one afternoon, Winnie begins to peel back the veil on her past.

For the next three hundred pages or so we hear Winnie tell of her life when she was Weiwei and lived on a small island near Shanghai in the 1920s. She was sent there at the age of six to live with her uncle and his two wives when her beautiful, free-spirited mother disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Winnie is always conscious of this stain on her character yet when the time comes for her to marry, her father does give her a generous dowry. Her chosen husband seems quite a catch though just before the wedding Winnie expresses her doubts.

If you asked me how I felt when they told me I would marry Wen Fu, I can say only this: It was like being told I had won a big prize. And it was also like being told my head was going to be chopped off. Something between those two feelings.

Unfortunately Wen Fu turns out to be not the dashing young pilot everyone thought he was, but an incompetent, boastful, manipulative spendthrift who enjoys beating, raping and humiliating his wife. Throughout her marriage Winnie endures physical hardship and mental abuse, sustained only by the friendship of Helen. More than once she tries to leave Wen Fu but fate intervenes each time leading Winnie to compare herself to the wife of Zao Jun who still became the Kitchen God despite his ill treatment of his wife. A chance of happiness beckons when she meets Jimmy Louie at an American military dance and falls in love. He provides the means to escape her abusive marriage by joining him in America but this could be at the risk of losing her son.

Isn’t that how it is when you must decide with your heart? You are not just choosing one thing over another. You are choosing what you want. And you are also choosing what somebody else does not want, and all the consequences that follow. You can tell yourself, That’s not my problem, but those words do not wash the trouble away. Maybe it is no longer a problem in your life. But it is always a problem in your heart.

The Kitchen God‘s Wife feels awkward at times because it requires us to believe that everything Pearl hears about her mother’s life that afternoon sat at the kitchen table she is hearing for the first time. There are many details which I could accept would have been revelations but can we really accept that a daughter doesn’t even know how her parents met or how her mother ended up living in America in 1949? Tan just about gets away with it because Winnie/Weiwei is such a good storyteller. She doesn’t flinch from the details whether she is listing the various dishes she cooks to impress her husband’s colleagues, the ordeals of overland journeys to remote towns where her husband is sent by the Air Force, the beatings she suffers or the terror of being out on the street during a Japanese bomb attack. Through her we learn too pf the rituals of life for a Chinese woman in the period between 1920 and 1949 and the near impossibility divorce.

The character of Winnie and her relationship with Pearl and Helen were the strongest, most enjoyable elements of the book. Tan makes her a cranky woman initially, a rather domineering figure who as Pearl says begins every conversation “as if we were already in the middle of an argument.” Many of her disagreements are with Helen, her partner in a florists business, about food: whether this dish is too salty or too sour, whether the fish at the market is fresh and who is the best cook. Ultimately we learn that their rivalry is at face value for this is a book that in essence celebrates the resilience of a friendship shaped by horror and suffering.

 

From drugs to racism in six steps

It’s time for another  Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best where we start with one book and link to six other books to form a chain. My rule is to link only to books that I’ve read, even if it was decades ago.

This month, once again, we are starting with a book that I’ve never read and, I will admit, not even heard of until now: Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis.  The blurb description says:

Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, this coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age, in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money– a place devoid of feeling or hope.

Apparently Less than Zero was published as his debut novel in 1985 when he was just 21 years old, and rapidly gained attention for its portrayal of a hedonistic lifestyle. It became a cult novel.

 

The drug culture also figures large in another novel that came out in 1966 and was also set partially in Los Angeles. My first link is to Valley of the Dolls by the American writer Jacqueline Susann. Its more low brow than Ellis’ novel; Time magazine called it  the “Dirty Book of the Month” ; but it became the biggest selling novel of its year. It relates the troubled lives of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood and  grow increasingly dependent on “dolls” (amphetamines and barbiturates).  They help take the edge off their anxieties for a time but the women become increasingly dependent.  Over the course of 20 years,  each woman strives to achieve her dreams only to find herself back in the valley of the dolls. I’m embarrassed now to think that I ever read this book but it was ‘required’ reading for teenagers who craved excitement even if it was only vicariously.

Dolls of a different kind provide the theme for my second link. In A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, the playwright uses the idea of a doll to symbolise the predicament of married women in Denmark in the late nineteenth century. The doll in this play is Nora Helmer, a mother of three who seemingly lives an ideal existence as the wife of a bank manager. But she feels trapped and frustrated b y the lack of opportunities  for self-fulfillment in a male dominated world. The ending of the play Nora Helmer – wife of Torvald, mother of three, is living out the ideal of the 19th-century wife aroused a great sensation and outrage when the play was first performed.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin similarly provoked a strong reaction when it was first published in 1899 because it featured a woman who sets herself at odds with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South.  Set in New Orleans and on the Louisiana Gulf coast it shows Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother, who, just like Nora in Ibsen’s play,  develops unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South.  Critics found the behaviour of Edna Pontelier so‘ sickening’ and ‘selfish’ that one reviewer said it ‘should be labelled poison’ but over the century, Chopin’s novella has come to be viewed as a landmark work of early feminism and thus a feature of many university literature modules.

Oppression and freedom from patriarchal control provide my fourth link in the form of The Colour Purple  by Alice Walker. This is an epistolary novel, set mainly in rural Georgia, that reflects on lives of African-American women in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. The protagonist is Celie is a poor, uneducated, 14-year-old girl who writes letters to God because her father, Alphonso, beats her harshly and rapes her continuously. The novel won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction yet has been the frequent target of censors. It appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000–2009 because of it sometimes explicit content.

Four my fifth link I’m staying in the US with another book that has been frequently challenged and banned in some school districts because of its unflinching depiction of childhood rape and racism.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by  Maya Angelou is the first part of a seven-volume series that shows how she rose from a poor and troubled childhood to become a world renowned author and poet, overcoming racism and hostility through strength of character and a love of literature. 

Racism and strength of character  take me to another coming of age novel for my sixth and final link. Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry  by Mildred Taylor is set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression. Its narrator  is nine-year-old Cassie Logan, a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. Once again this is a novel whose content has generated concerns – it was one of the most frequently challenged books of 2002 on the basis that it contained offensive language and portrayed racism.

And with that we are at the end of the chain having stayed mainly in USA but with a little side trip to Norway. One of the things I enjoy about the Six Degrees meme is that it takes you into unexpected places. If you’re wondering about connections other bloggers made, check out the links at Kate’s blog.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson [bookreviews]

We Have Always Lived in the CastleIt’s taken me long enough to get around to reading the novel considered to be Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it was well worth the wait.

How could it be otherwise when the novel begins with one of the strangest introductions to a narrator I’ve come across in a long while.

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

Amidst the humdrum detail about hygiene and dogs there are some clues in that mention of deadly fungus that this is a dark and strange novel. And it gets darker and stranger once we learn that the reason “everyone else in our family is dead” is because they were the victims of poisoning six years previously.  Someone put arsenic into the sugar bowl and then the family sprinkled it on their fruit dessert.

Mary Katherine (known as Merricat) survived because she’d been sent to bed as punishment for some misdemeanour or other so never partook of the family dinner that claimed the lives of her parents, an aunt and her brother. Her elderly uncle Julian did eat the poisoned sugar but fortunately only in a small quantity so he survived while Constance who didn’t ingest any sugar was arrested for, though eventually acquitted of, the crime. Now the remaining three members live in isolation in a large rambling house out of the sight of villagers. Constance hasn’t left their home since her acquittal while Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, obsessively writes and re-writes notes for his memoirs about his relatives’ deaths. It’s left to Merricat to brave the hostility of suspicious villagers when she does the weekly grocery shopping and visits the library, their taunting song ringing in her ears as she passes:

“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”

It’s a peaceful if restricted existence disrupted by the arrival of cousin Charles, a man against whom Merricat takes an instant dislike because she suspects he is visiting only to get his hands on the family’s money. When she thinks Constance is failling for his charms, she plots the several ways in which she could get rid of him.

I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.

The revenge she eventually enacts is rather more dangerous than turning him into an insect. It brings the wrath of the whole village against the sisters, culminating in violence and pushing them even further into reclusiveness.

Jackson tells this story in a style that’s sparing yet evocative using a narrator who is an arch deceiver. She’s childlike in her belief that she can protect her family with lucky days and magic rituals which include burying relics and nailing items to trees. She spends her days parading the boundaries of their home marking it out with fetishes and totems made from scraps and trinkets. Yet she is a perceptive commentator on the people and places that surround her. On her trip into the village she observes:

In this village men stayed young and did the gossiping and he women aged wih grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home.

All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it. The houses and the stores seemed to have been set up in contemptuous haste to provide shelter for the drab and the unpleasant.

 

Together Merricat and Shirley Jackson lead readers a merry dance with a trail of clues about the events of that night six years previously. Who did put the arsenic into the sugar bowl? Why did Constance wash out the sugar bowl before the police arrived, on the pretext there was a spider in it? It’s not until the book is almost over that the truth is revealed.

In true Gothic traditionWe Have Always Lived in the Castle features a rambling ruin of a house and a tyrranical figure in the form of cousin Charles. It does have a haunting quality but there are no chain-rattling ghosts or spectral figures. Jackson is too fine a writer to resort to such devices.  Yet We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a disturbing, unsettling novel, maybe even more so because of  the very absence of those devices. It’s as if the largely domestic focus makes the events more disquieting, particularly when you force yourself to stop being seduced by Merricat’s tomboy persona and begin to wonder about her true nature.

To say more however would spoil the pleasure of reading this book for others.

Footnotes

About this book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s final work and was published three years before her death in 1965.  It was named by Time magazine as one of the “Ten Best Novels” of 1962. The first film version is due for release later in 2017.

About the author: Shirley Hardie Jackson was born in San Fransisco in 1916. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall was publised in 1948.  Also published in 1948 was the story The Lottery which established her reputation as a master of the horror tale. Although popular and well regarded during her lifetime, the 1980s saw more scholarly interest in Jackson’s work and her influence on other writers become more appreciate (she has been cited as an influence on a diverse set of authors, including Neil Gaiman and Stephen King) . According to the post-feminist critic Elaine Showalter, Jackson’s work is the single most important mid-twentieth-century body of literary output yet to have its value reevaluated by critics in the present day. She died in 1965.

Why I read this book: Quite simply it’s one that regularly appeared on blog sites as a highly recommended novel.  It was one of my #20booksofsummer books and is on my Classics Club list. I’m now encouraged to read her other landmark text – The Haunting of Hill House published in 1959.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett #bookreview

Bel CantoAnn Patchett’s Bel Canto makes a grand claim for the power of music not only to sustain the spirit in the bleakest of times but even to transform a life.

In an unnamed South American country,  the world-renowned soprano Roxane Coss sings at a birthday party in honour of a visiting Japanese industrial magnate. She’s the bait in a plan by the hosts to persuade Mr Katsumi Hosokawa, one of her biggest fans, to rescue their failing economy by building an electronics factory in their country. Unfortunately the plans go awry because on the night of the party in the vice presidential mansion, a band of guerrillas swarm in through the air ducts. Their quarry is the president but he’s nowhere to be found having decided he much preferred to stay home watching his favourite  TV soap opera rather than entertain a room of distinguished and powerful diplomats and leaders from around the world.

Taking advantage of a bad situation the invaders decide to take all the party goers hostage and use them as bargaining tools to secure the release of their comrades held in prison. They’re pretty ineffective negotiators and not much better at controlling the hostages. It soon becomes clear that it’s the soprano who is calling the shots. During the month-long standoff with neither government nor guerrillas giving ground, her singing keeps the atmosphere calm. Soon the guerrillas are running around to satisfy her whims just to keep her singing — one minute they are finding dental floss and herbal throat lozenges for her, the next it’s musical scores she needs.

Unexpected talents and depths of character emerge during the stand-off. The vice president for example assumes the dual roles of housekeeper and gracious host:

He seemed to think that the comfort of his guests was still his responsibility. He was always serving sandwiches and picking up cups. He washed the dishes and swept and twice a day he mopped up the floors in the lavatories. With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge … Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country.

Near the end of the stand-off he has a moment of epiphany in the garden, appreciating for the first time the sensation of grass beneath his feet and the scent of flowers. And he resolves there and then to be a better man, a better father and a better husband.

Change comes to the rebels too. Enchanted by the grandeur of their surroundings they begin wandering through the house sniffing hand lotion and snaffling pistachio nuts. They become so hooked on a TV drama (the same one that delights the president) much to the disgust of their commander,  they begin missing drills or fitting them in around the program schedules.

Amid the tension, love is kindled. For Mr Hosokawa, proximity to his idol is a dream come true. He has already seen her 18 times in performances around the world, often inventing business trips that will place him in the audience. Hearing her in the close, intimate setting of the besieged mansion, admiration burgeons into love. Captivity also brings romantic fulfilment for his loyal translator Gen Watanabe, in the form of a guerrilla fighter appropriately named Carmen for whom her time in the house is the happiest point in her life.

Roxane and Mr Hosokawa, Gen and Carmen are the novel’s principals but they are surrounded by a strong cast including a Frenchman, Simon Thibault, who weeps into the stole his beloved wife leaves behind when all the women except Roxane are allowed to leave. There’s a Red Cross representative who interrupts his holiday to act as a hostage negotiator though in his suit and tie he looks more like “an earnest representative of an American religion” and a chain-smoking Russian, who makes an unexpectedly delicate declaration of love, regaling Roxane with mournful and meandering childhood stories.

What unites the 50 or so people thrust together in the mansion, is music.

Mr Hosokawa’s eleventh birthday was a life-changing experience. It was the first time he heard opera,  a moment imprinted on his eyelids that marked the beginning of his love affair with music, a love that surpassed all other interests and responsibilities.

The records he cherished, the rare opportunities to see a live performance, those were the marks by which he gauged his ability to love. Not his wife, his daughters or his work. He never thought that he had somehow transferred what should have filled his daily life into opera. Instead he knew that without opera, this part of himself would have vanished forever.

In the vice presidential music a young priest undergoes a similar experience when he hears opera sung live for the first time.

It was different in ways he could never have imagined, as if the voice were something that could be seen. Certainly it could be felt … It trembled inside the folds of his cassock, brushed against the skin of his cheeks. Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven. It was a miracle and he wept for the gift of bearing witness.

For her part Roxane comes to appreciate the true power of the music that has been her life’s work, causing her to sing ”as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.” Patchett’s idea of the power of music does strain too far however when Roxane takes an interest in one of the rebels she discovers is a musical prodigy, able to repeat perfectly the notes and lines that she sings. As if her readers don’t really understand that this talent could be his escape route from poverty, Patchett makes the General her mouthpiece:

It makes you wonder, All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected  we knew how.

Such a cod piece of philosophy strikes a really duff note in an otherwise absorbing and finely tuned novel about the the various ways in which human connections can be forged, even in the most unlikely of circumstances and situations.

Footnotes

About the book: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett was first published in UK by Fourth Estate in 2001. My paperback copy dates from 2002. Bel Canto won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002. The novel is loosely inspired by an event in December 1996 when members of a guerrilla group entered the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, seized nearly 600 hostages and demanded the release of a number of political prisoners. The resulting siege lasted four months.

About the author: Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles in 1963. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Bel Canto is her fourth novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thought-provoking novels not just for kids

cross-over readingOne of the biggest trends in publishing in recent years has been the emergence of ‘cross-over fiction” – novels written for teen readers which can also be enjoyed by adults. J.K Rowling set the trend with her Harry Potter series and it’s continued with the Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series, Hunger Games, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The Book Thief etc etc  Here are three ‘cross-over” novels I’ve read in the last year which all can be enjoyed  by young readers but which contain plenty of material to get adults thinking…

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

First of all a confession. I hated this book the first time I read it. If it hadn’t been required reading for my children’s literature course I would never have even considered reading this. It’s in the fantasy genre which is never my cup of tea. We not only get  anthropomorphic animals – in the shape of armoured bears with human-level intelligence – but Pullman introduces some weird fictional beings called “dæmons” that are the companions of humans and accompany them everywhere. Both these elements were guaranteed to get me squirming with discomfort.  I struggled through the book and was relieved to get to the end.

But such is the nature of reading for academic purposes that reading a set text once is not enough. So I gritted my teeth and entered once more the parallel universe in which Northern Lights is set. And you know what; after a while I actually began to appreciate that what Pullman has created a book that can be enjoyed in two vastly different ways.

One one level this is a pure adventure story of good versus evil. Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl, sets off on a quest in search of her friend Roger who’s gone missing. There are plenty of narrow escapes and thrilling moments to keep younger readers entertained – this is a world that crawls with danger in the form of gobblers who snatch children and academics who use poison.  Lyra makes her way through this world with the aid of a golden compass which acts like a lie detector and one of those armoured polar bears.

For readers who want more thought-provoking content, Pullman introduces a mysterious celestial phenomena called ‘Dust.”  This, Lyra discovers, has spawned parallel universes,  is connected to death and misery, and is believed to be the physical basis of  original sin. Dust accumulates only around adults, not around children who are more ‘innocent’ and unconscious beings.  Her adopted uncle Lord Asriel believes ‘Dust” is a force for evil and wants Lyra’s help to destroy it.  This is a novel that explores big themes: the conflict between the powers of science and religion; innocence versus knowledge; the soul versus the human body. Apparently Pullman’s intention was for  Northern Lights to be  “A rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost,” for young adults, hence the ideas of Dust and daemons are meant to be read allegorically. I have a feeling this is a book that could easily be re-read several times for that reason. I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

This is another powerful novel which asks big questions, this time about racism and poverty. It’s set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression and  has a wonderful narrator in the form of nine-year-old Cassie Logan. She’s  a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper, whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. It’s through her that we experience attitudes towards the black population of the state and see the catastrophic effects when some local people take the law into their own hands.  For young readers the content around school and friendship would likely be of interest but for older readers there is a lot of darker material with lynch mobs and arson.  I thought the first few chapters were bogged down by too much exposition and the narrative voice didn’t always feel like that of a young girl. But the remainder of the novel was a compelling story about dignity in the face of injustice.

Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve

I had no idea when I started reading this book that it fell into the category of ‘steampunk’. Frankly I had no idea what that term even meant. Good old Wikipedia came to my rescue by explaining that steampunk is a  “subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. ”  Glad we got that cleared up. It does describe Mortal Engines pretty well since this is an alternative history kind of novel which imagines a post-apocalyptic world of Traction Cities –  giant mobile machines that roam a land torn apart by earthquakes and volcanoes. London, the primary traction city, has to hunt down and dismantle other cities and towns to ‘feed’ itself. This is a fast-paced action novel with two teenagers as the heroes who uncover a sinister plot by the city’s Lord Mayor and get into plenty of scrapes and near misses as they try to block his plans.  My problem with science fiction/fantasy novels is usually that the imaginary world doesn’t feel realistic enough or that the narrative is stuffed full of technical info that I don’t find interesting let alone understandable. But Reeve’s imaginary world is so superbly conceived I had a whale of a time reading this book. Like Northern Lights, it can be read as an adventure story but it also has some powerful ideas about nuclear warfare, the value of learning from history.  In our current volatile world, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage these traction cities like countries always on the prowl for other nations to swallow.

 

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

goodearth-collageMy path to The Good Earth by the Nobel prize winner Pearl S Buck was one I almost did not take. I had asked two colleagues in Korea to suggest local authors. Their first choice sounded appealing –  it was a best seller called Please Look After Mom (click on the title to see my review).  I was less enthused by their second recommendation – The Good Earth – because it was set in China not Korea and was written by an American author.  My preference is to read native authors wherever possible but I was heartened subsequently to learn that Pearl S Buck was in fact very familiar with China’s rural life and traditions having spent much of her early life there as the daughter of missionaries.

My reservations about The Good Earth didn’t last for long. Right from chapter one I was hooked by this novel about the rising/falling fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress.

The book opens on Wang Lung’s wedding day and then charts their progress through successive years during which time their family grows, they enjoy plentiful harvests and manage to become landowners only to see it all disappear -and then astonishingly they get it back many times over.  Meanwhile the rich Hwangs, for whom O-lan once worked as a house servant, go through a reverse experience because of the Old Lord’s penchant for multiple concubines and his wife’s addiction to opium. Their fortunes dwindle to the point they can no longer remain in their large house with its lavish furnishings. Wang Lung seizes the opportunity to make his mark on local society and becomes the new owner.
It’s a story that has so many twists and turns it feels like a soap opera at times. What sustained my interest was Pearl Buck’s portrait of Wang Lung and his deeply rooted believe in the beneficial power of the earth.

He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver.

He enjoys the wealth his toil brings not simply because it brings peace of mind because he can now feed and sustain his family but as time goes on it brings him a new status in his community. “… everyone knew now that Wang Lung owned this land and in his village there was talk of making him the head.”

china-peasantBut of course such pride makes his fall even more acutely felt. When the harvests fail, when every grain of rice and wheat has been eaten and the ox killed for food and when he has used every coin he possesses, there is no other path open than to go south. Either he has to see his family die or he has to give up the land and find work and food in a more wealthy province.  to the city to try and find a new life.  There they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut while Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw, earning barely enough to buy rice for the next day. He gets a break and obtains enough money to take his family back to their native land where he begins to rebuild his life, so successfully he becomes one of the wealthiest men in the locality.

At times Wang Lung seems to feel the earth has mystical powers – early on in his married life in fact he erects two crude figures on his plot of land to which he regularly pays homage. Throughout the novel, the land is the “good earth”; providing Wang Lung, with physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment. He is at his happiest when he works in the fields, knowing he is following in the footsteps of many generations of his family. Whenever he is troubled, physical labor on the land restores him. Whenever he is away from it, he feels out of his element. Even when he is wealthy old man who is too weak to get behind the plough, the pull of the earth sustains him:

… of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except of the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.

I’m glad I laid my initial reservations about this book to one side because The Good Earth proved a fascinating insight into the culture of China in the years spanning the end of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War 1.

Footnotes

The Book: The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck was published in 1931. Its commercial and critical success was considered an influential factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy.

The Author:  Pearl S Buck was taken to China when she was five months old and lived there for much of her life as the daughter and then the wife of a missionary. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. After returning to the United States in 1935, she continued to write and became a prominent advocate of the rights of women and minority groups, and wrote widely on Asian cultures,

My edition: e-book

Why I read this: As part of my project to read more books by authors outside of the traditional western canon.

 

Review backlog – part 2

Continuing the idea from a recent post, here are some short reviews of novels I read a few years ago but failed to finish the reviews. Luckily I had started them and had kept a few notes to help but don’t expect any deep insight on each of these…..

mycousinrachelMy Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier: I had high expectations for this one having seen multiple reviews about how good it was. I picked it up as a companion to a long international flight, thinking it would distract me but I found it decidedly dull. It’s set largely at a large estate in Cornwall owned and run by Ambrose Ashley together with his young cousin Philip . All goes swimmingly until Ambrose’s health deteriorates and he has to leave England for warmer climates, choosing to sojourn instead in Italy. There he meets cousin Rachel, marries her and sends letters back home about how happy he is. Gradually the tone changes and he begins complaining of repeated headaches. A few weeks later Rachel, now a widow, turns up at the estate. Philip is attracted to her despite his doubts that she might have had a hand in Ambrose’s death. The rest of the novel is an unraveling of the mystery about Rachel and Ambrose’s demise and whether Philip wakes up to the reality of the situation in time to avoid a personal catastrophy. I thought the mystery ponderous and the writing lacking in energy. Just about managed to finish it.

sarahs-keySarah’s Key by Isabelle de Rothsay

This was recommended to me by a colleague in North America who is even more of an avid reader than I am. We discovered this connection via a team building exercise where you have to come up with three things that you think no-one else knows about you, then the other people have to guess who that fact relates to. It was a good recommendation for a book I doubt I would have picked up otherwise.

It has a dual time frame.In one we meet ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski, a Jewish girl born in Paris, who is arrested with her parents during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Before they go, she locks her four-year-old brother in a cupboard, thinking the family should be back in a few hours. The second plot follows Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, who is asked to write an article in honour of the 60th anniversary of the roundup. Gradually the two stories coalesce.

This is a narrative that is full of emotional appeal, particularly those set in France. The scenes that take place in the  Vélodrome d’Hiver, where more than 7,000 Jews were enclosed without water or food for days before being moved to concentration camps, were deeply moving, the kind of episode which it is hard to read without feeling bitter and tearful. The modern day story of Julia and her cheating husband had less impact and the ending was far too neatly wrapped up in a big chocolate box bow to work for me. But on the whole I’m glad I read it – the film version wasn’t bad either.

resistanceResistance by Owen Sheers

Owen’s debut novel, Resistance is set in 1944 and imagines what would have happened if the Normandy landings had failed and German troops manage to arrive on British soil. Within a month half of the country is occupied.

In an isolated farm in the Welsh borders Sarah Lewis, finds her farmer husband Tom as disappeared. All the other husbands in the valley have similarly gone. The women are left alone to cope as best they can with the crops and livestock. Later in the novel it transpires they have all become members of the secret British resistance. In the meantime a German patrol arrives on a mystery mission, forming a fragile support for the women when a severe winter hits the valley. Sarah begins a taut relationship with the patrol’s commanding officer. But this puts further pressure on the fragile harmony of the valley and reveals deep undercurrents of feeling.

On the plus side I enjoyed reading about an area of my birth country with which I am familiar but seeing it through fresh eyes. It’s one that is not stack exactly but spare and often overlooked in favour of more lush scenery nearby. Sheers writes in a lyrical mode that really brings alive the landscape and the battle that endures to make a living from this land. Ultimately though this proved nothing more than just an ok novel though – neither good nor bad but not one that would make me recommend it. I think I struggled to engage with the characters and feel them ‘real’. My mum on the other hand loved it and so did her book club so maybe I am in a minority. Its now been turned into a film for which Owen Sheers was the co-screenwriter.

Sheers lives in Wales so I’m keen to support him and will likely read his most recent novel  I Saw A Man  which is set in  London and New York and though also about relationships, has the pace of a thriller.

%d bloggers like this: