Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Collection of Beauties at the Height of their Popularity, by Whitney Otto. Random House, 2002




I found this an odd book. Not just the format- vignettes loosely bound together, styled after a Japanese courtesan’s ‘pillow book’ from the Edo period , each vignette featuring a different member of a group of friends. Set in 1980s San Francisco, these friends are late 20 somethings, all well educated but none working in the field that they are educated for. They float through life; drinking, smoking pot and sometimes doing coke, attending art openings and going to restaurants but mainly meeting at the Youki Singe Tea Room, a North Beach dive where pot smoking is allowed- but only in a small room.
Elodie is the woman who sets the tales down. She writes only when in the Tea Room, leaving her notebooks there. The characters- the collection of beauties- seem to have no ambition, content to simply live like butterflies, pushed by the winds of life. Connections between them turn to love, break up, and realign. There is no real plot; it’s just events happening in the vignettes.  

While reading the book, I didn’t much care for most of the characters. Which makes it odd that I later found myself thinking about them, and going back and rereading sections of the book. The prose is beautiful.The vignettes are like little jewels. The book is physically beautiful, too, illustrated mostly with old Japanese woodblock prints but with a couple of 20th century works. To read this book is enjoyable, even if I didn’t connect with most of the characters. 


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Sunday, October 12, 2014

An English Ghost Story, by Kim Newman. Titan Books, 2014






This novel indeed has the structure of a fairly classic ghost story. A family comes to live in a haunted house- haunted land, actually. The spirit(s) start quietly, but very quickly ramp up to full scale, capital H Haunting. This family, however, is not your typical English ghost story family. This is a modern day, dysfunctional, can barely get along family. This becomes an important factor later in the story.

The Naremore family is looking for a house in the country, hoping relocation will solve their relationship problems. Nothing they are shown seems right, until they visit the Hollow, recently home to the late author Louise Teazle. The house is very old, with additions put on through the centuries, and the land has been in use even longer than the house has stood. They all instantly fall in love with the house and land, and cannot wait to move in. The Hollow comes complete with the belongings of Miss Teazle.

Louise Teazle wrote children’s stories that have been read for ages, and Kirsty Naremore is very familiar with them. Some of them seem to have been set in the Hollow itself under a different name, as Kirsty quickly starts identifying furnishings and locations as one’s mentioned in Teazle’s initial ghost story. How much else of the ghost stories Teazle wrote are true? Kirsty wonders. A lot, as it turns out.

While at first the Hollow brings the family together, small upsets anger the spirits.  The spirits want the house and family to be just *so* and when the Naremores fail to allow this, the ghosts start setting the family members against each other, unerringly finding their psychological weak spots- and all four of them have some big ones.

I mostly loved this story. It’s creepy- very creepy. I loved that it wasn’t just one recent spirit, but something going back to prehistoric time and all points in between. I loved the magic chest of drawers and how Kirsty is drawn into playing with it, not at all baffled by the fact that it defies all laws of physics. I loved the house itself. But I didn’t love the characters. I found them tolerable, but I never made the kind of connection one would like to have in a character driven story. I realize they needed to have personality problems to create the story, but I had a hard time really feeling for them. 


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Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Liar’s Wife, by Mary Gordon. Panthen Books, 2014







“The Liar’s Wife” is only one of the four novellas in this book. Veteran writer Gordon has produced stories where the protagonists are all knocked out of their comfort zones and find themselves contemplating life changing moral issues.

In the first, the title story, a 70-some year old woman is surprised by the appearance of her ex-husband. They were only married a short time before she fled, unable to settle into a life in Ireland with a musician husband who, of course, lies continually. Her life has been comfortable; happy children, career she liked, good husband, three houses. His has been the opposite, but he feels he’s lived life to the fullest. Whose life has been better? Has one been a waste?

In “Simone Weil in New York” the protagonist is a young woman who was one of Weil’s students in France. Now married to an American doctor who is stationed in the Pacific Theater during WW 2, with a baby and living with her brother, she encounters Weil in the street. She is not happy to see her; she represents all that has been lost because of the war. As a student she had loved and revered Weil; now she feels a tangle of feelings. Weil feels an obligation to live as the poorest live; does that help anyone? Should Genevieve feel guilty for being safe in America instead of being part of the French Resistance? Can she break free of Weil’s philosophy?

The narrator in “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” is an old man, looking back on his life. The high point of his life was when, in high school, he was selected to present the visiting Thomas Mann to the school. Mann has left Germany because of the Nazi regime and is visiting the school to lecture on what is happening in Germany. Like Weil, Mann cannot enjoy his own freedom and success because of guilt over what is going on in his native country; this opens the high school boy’s eyes to the racism that is so casually accepted in America- so casually that no one ever really sees it.

My favorite story is the last one, “Fine Arts”. A college student who has been given a grant to go overseas to study the work of sculptor Citivali for her doctoral thesis. Theresa has had a hard life; her childhood was taken up with caring for a bed ridden father; her teens taken up with studying. Her one indulgence has been an affair with her married mentor, who is a self absorbed ass. Two of the sculptures that she wishes to study are in a private collection; the owner turns Theresa’s life upside down and completely reverses her situation.

All four protagonists wrestle with moral issues. Is what they are doing worthwhile? Are they wasting their lives? Is it all right to enjoy your life while others suffer? It sounds grim, but the stories are very engaging and thought provoking without being heavy. The prose is so… perfect… that it just leads you on into the stories. 


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This book was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my review.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Year She Left Us, by Kathryn Ma. HarperCollins, 2014





 “The Year She Left Us’ is both coming of age novel and family drama. The main character is Ari, who narrates much of the novel. She was a Chinese orphan, left as an infant in a department store, adopted by a single woman, a hard working public defender. She is considered not only lucky because she got adopted by an American, but extra lucky because her mother is Chinese-American. No one need know she’s adopted, unlike the many Chinese girls (the children adopted out to America are most often girls, because of China’s ‘one child’ law; abandoning the girl baby allows them to try again for the coveted son) who are adopted by white people. Unlike other Chinese adoptees in the group of young girls (“Western Adopted Chinese Daughters”, aka the Whackadoodles) her mother takes her to for learning about her Chinese heritage, she doesn’t feel lucky. She focuses on the fact that she was abandoned, that she wasn’t good enough to love. She never feels like she fits in, not even with the other adoptees. While on a trip to China – which includes a tour of the orphanages- with the adoptee group, she is approached by a man who claims he is her father, an event that pushes her over the edge and she cuts her finger off.

Things don’t get any better when Ari returns home. Digging around the house one day, she discovers old pictures, ones from about the time when she was adopted, showing a man, along with herself as a baby held against his chest. On the back are the words “Aaron practicing to be a father”. She decides that she must find this Aaron; perhaps this will tell her who she is. She ends up in Alaska for months on this quest, and that isn’t the end of her wandering as she tries to find herself.

Interspersed with Ari’s narrative are third person chapters about her mother Charlie, her aunt Les, and Gran. Men are absent from the lives of these three women, and the women seem to survive just fine- on the surface. Charlie is driven by sympathy for her poor clients; Les is a judge and driven by ambition; Gran feels the past should be thrown away. None of them understand Ari’s need to belong somewhere. Neither, for that matter, does Ari.

The characters are vivid- especially Ari and Gran. Charlie and Les have less depth; they are politically correct and career driven; they are the stereotype of Asian Americans. Gran is a much more colorful person; Ari does just about everything a bad girl can do. I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for Les and Charlie; they are pretty flat. I loved Gran and wished she had more of a part, and while I didn’t much like Ari I did sympathize with her and her search for answers that can never be found. It’s hard enough to be a teenager without wondering why your parents abandoned you. Why does Ari fixate on this while the other Whackadoodles don’t? We never really find out; people are just different. This book has surprising depth and maturity for a first novel; Ma is definitely a strong new voice in Asian American literature. 



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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The First True Lie, by Marina Mander. Hogarth, 2013





 
Luca is 9 or 10 and lives with his mother and his cat, Blue. He’s never had a father in his life, nor even a father figure as the men in his mother’s life just pass through quickly. His mother suffers from chronic depression, allergies, and a lack of energy, so he’s not too surprised when she doesn’t wake up in the morning. It’s not the first time, but it is the first time she hasn’t been roused when he shakes her. Still, he has to go to school, so he gets himself ready and off her goes. She’ll be okay by the time Luca comes home. But she’s not. She is still in bed and not breathing.

Luca already refers to himself as a ‘half orphan’ because of his lack of a father. He doesn’t want to become a full orphan though; they’ll take him away and make him live in an orphanage and he won’t be able to take his cat, Blue, with him. So he declares himself not an orphan, but a single human being. He shuts down psychologically, refusing to emotionally deal with his mother’s death- for he is aware that she is dead- instead dealing with the immediate physical needs of his cat and himself. There is little food for him or for Blue, but he scrounges up enough money for a run to the grocery store, all the while determined to act like everything is normal. He continues to go to school, he visits with a friend, with his mother quietly rotting and stinking in the bedroom. He is resourceful in the way of children who don’t have parent’s in their lives are, having half raised himself. But how long can he keep up this charade?

The book is short- really a novella- but it has the force of a punch to the gut. It’s grim subject matter, made grimmer by seeing it through Luca’s 10 year old eyes and yet knowing what’s really going on, that at some point reality would come crashing and knock down his denial, and that, even as horrid as his current situation is, it will only get worse. The ending was a bit of a surprise to me; Luca’s choice of action was not the one I expected, but it seemed like a glimmer of hope. 


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The Agincourt Bride, by Joanna Hickson. Harper, 2013




The Agincourt bride is Catherine de Valois, daughter of Charles VI, the mad king of France. Her mother, Isabeau of Baveria, doesn’t care about her children and neglects them until she needs them for her plotting. So when Catherine is born, a wet nurse is needed immediately. Teen aged Guillaumette (Mette) has just had her first child, which does not survive. She is pressed into service to nurse the newborn Catherine. A bond is formed, like that between mother and child. Mette loves Catherine as much as she would her own child- in fact, sometimes it seems like she loves Catherine more than she does her own two children who are born later. She cares for Katherine- and two of her brothers- while she is a toddler, but they are split up when Catherine is sent to a nunnery to be educated. They do not meet again until Catherine is a teenager and is brought back to court to be used as bait for the English king, Henry V. Catherine has Mette brought back to court as her lady of the robes, giving her a post which allows her to be at court. As battles between Henry’s armies and the French forces rage (including the famous Battle of Agincourt where so many French knights were killed) and diplomacy goes back and forth, Catherine is one minute to be given to Henry and the next minute to have an uncertain future. She has to deal with her monstrous mother, and, worse, the Duke of Burgundy, a nasty piece of work if there ever was one. Catherine has few friends- everyone spies on each other- and Mette is the one person who knows everything about her.

The story is written in first person by Mette, who knows how to read, write and do arithmetic because she was brought up in the family baking business. It’s written with a sense of distance from the subject, both in time and proximity. We get to watch Catherine grow and mature and develop an inner self that is like a slim blade of steel. Her family is incredibly dysfunctional; her mother declares her own son a bastard, her father is psychotic, another son has an eating disorder that kills him, and her mother allows Burgundy to do what he wishes with Catherine. Mette looks on with her middle class sensibility that allows us to see the nobility with no varnish of adoration. Interspersed are letters that Catherine wrote but never sent, showing us her heart.

I enjoyed the book, although at times it seemed slow. I suppose that is necessarily so, as much of Catherine’s life is spent waiting to see what will be arranged for her. The book is dense with details that bring the time and people to life vividly, right down to the meals they ate and the clothes they wore. While this era – the early 1400s- is not as popular as the following Tudor era, the Tudors dynasty would have never existed had it not been for Catherine. 



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I received this book free in return for an honest review from the Amazon Vine program. 
Neither of these things affected my review.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Triple Knot, by Emma Campion. Broadway Books, 2014







Until very recently, royal children were nothing more than political pawns, brood mares and stallions to cement relationships and ensure thrones. Joan, known later as the Fair Maid of Kent, was one such child. Her father was executed for treason when she was only two; even though she was the child of a traitor she was still a royal child and as such worth something in the marriage market. Her marriage would be arranged by the King and his people. For her to marry without royal permission was treason.

“Triple Knot” covers Joan’s life from her childhood until the beginning of her third marriage. Joan grew up with the other royal children, including Prince Edward, who would become known as the Black Prince. At twelve, she is sent across the Channel to Antwerp while her future is determined. While there, the father of a prospective husband for her becomes seriously creepy, making blatant overtures to Joan. Sir Thomas Holland, in his late 20s, steps in to protect her. Joan falls in love with Holland and she conceives a scheme to protect her from a marriage she does not want: she and Holland will wed quietly and consummate the marriage. (note: in that time period, any girl who had started menstruating was considered old enough to bed) Holland leaves for war the next morning, but Joan thinks their private marriage will protect her. Wrong; she finds her claims of marriage unheard and she is married to another man. For almost ten years she and Holland strive to get their marriage made official and her second marriage overturned by the Pope. During this time Joan finds herself hidden and imprisoned by her second ‘husband’. Not much of a life for a teenager, but Joan was a very strong woman. She eventually gets her happy ending- for a few years. A young widow, she ties the third knot- with Prince Edward, her suitor from childhood. (none of this is spoilers; it’s pretty much all on the book cover).

I could not put this book down. Even knowing what events would occur I read eagerly on to see what happened. Much of the book is from the POV of Joan, so we get to know her best, but there are some parts with other POVs that fill in a lot of events. The author expertly showed Joan maturing from child to woman. There is a lot of historical detail, both of big events (the Hundred Years War, the plague) and the minutia of daily life in the middle ages. I would love to see the author write about Joan’s later life, but I suspect the romance of Joan’s first marriage is what drew her to the story. After all, Joan, who became Princess and mother of a king, could have been buried next to the Black Prince, but chose instead to be interred next to Holland. That’s a lasting love. I only have one complaint about the book: Would it kill the cover artists on historical novels to get the clothing right for the period?!?!


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