Posts Tagged book review

Book review: Verse in Arabic by Birgitte Rasine

When I was a child, we had a collection of Edgar Allan Poe‘s works, which had belonged to my father when he was young. I read those stories over and over, fascinated, by their language and structure, and the horrors described or implied. When I heard that Birgitte Rasine‘s style has been compared to his, I was eager to read this novella. I was not disappointed.

Verse in Arabic, which Rasine says is based upon a true incident, takes us back into Spain in the 1960s. It is a story within a story, since the narrator, an American journalist working for a Spanish paper, is assigned to interview a famous doctor, who was imprisoned for the murder 21 years previously of the daughter of an important family. The setting is Franco’s Spain, with all of its darkness and intrigue. The story begins as the journalist is driven through the city to a mysterious house, where he meets the doctor, and hears his version of events.

Her language, and the style of having a story told by one of the participants, reminds me of that old volume. I loved the way Rasine sets up the mystery, from the unmarked house where the narrator meets the doctor, to the dark corridor he walks down to meet the doctor, and even the out-of place mint tea brought by the housekeeper. Rasine’s language is lush and perfect for the time period. Just read a quote like this

Spain had forged her reputation with the blood of her own sons and daughters, and dragged her honor through the mud of political convenience and moral hypocrisy. And as any persona carrying an excess of her own importance, she was bloated with a blind and incompetent bureaucracy— its clerks and administrators made Don Quixote look like a professor of nuclear physics.

Rasine does a beautiful job of using the doctor’s formal manner of speech to bring us into a time when educated people spoke formally.

The story drew me in as it built, layering one strange fact after another. I read this novella twice. The first time, I felt disappointed by the ending, but now I am not so sure that I need to know everything. Just as Poe left so much to one’s imagination, so Rasine leaves me wanting to read it yet again, to search for the little clues dropped here and there about who the murdered girl was, and what happened to her.

Only two tiny details bothered me a little. At the beginning, she used a narrative device: the journalist says he was too absorbed in his thoughts to notice the scenery as the driver takes him to his destination. But, if he’s so absorbed, how can he describe this scene? And later, the journalists comments that he’s very observant. The other tiny detail is that way too many characters have ‘olive skin.’

I could easily read this over and over, it’s so beautiful and interesting. This story should appeal to anyone over the age of six or seven. I can’ t wait to read more of Birgitte Rasine’s fiction.

I received a free copy of this novella from Storycartel in exchange for my honest opinion and review.

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Book review: Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

Incendiary (novel)

Incendiary (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I picked up Incendiary at Powell’s Books in Portland because I loved Chris Cleave‘s other novel, Little Bee. Our local library didn’t have a copy of Incendiary, so I was really excited to find a used copy.

In Incendiary, like Little Bee, Cleave goes into the mind of a woman. He writes in first person. Both women’s minds are a bit unusual and perhaps not quite sane, and both women experience extreme trauma, which explains much of their insanity.

Incendiary, which won many literary prizes, and which was made into a movie, is written as a lengthy letter from a young mother to Osama Bin Laden. She appears to write the letter as events unfold. Her style is that of a poorly educated woman, who develops into a fairly deep thinker as the story progresses. She starts out as a fairly happily married woman who begins an affair right before her husband and son are blown up at a soccer game. She is home, shagging her new lover while watching the game, when the explosion rocks the field. Insisting upon leaving immediately to find her son, the lover, Jasper, drives her close to the field, where she runs against the crowd into the stadium, and ends up injured, in the hospital. Her guilt and anger, along with her terrible loss, propel the rest of the story, as she alternately tries to put her life back together, and deals with Jasper and others.

One of the stranger things about this novel is that we never know this woman’s name, which makes her any woman. This made up tragedy, so nearly possible, could happen to any of us. How would we deal? Like in Little Bee, Cleave gets deep into the narrator’s head and manages to use the same tone of voice throughout. He’s an amazing writer. On the other hand, I disliked the story. I kept thinking that I would put it down, but then I would read a little more, and I eventually finished it. It’s uncomfortable. He’s exploring crowd dynamics, police betrayal, a mother’s inability to come to terms with her loss, and many other very difficult topics. I never felt connected with the protagonist, though there were fleeting moments when I could relate to her and understand her behavior. For example, I didn’t care for the way she appeared very one-dimensional at the beginning, almost the caricature of a working-class housewife, and I’m not sure anyone is ever this simplistic.

Despite all of its awards, I can’t bring myself to recommend Incendiary, unless you enjoy the exploration of hopelessness and growing madness. I freely admit to preferring more interesting and likeable protagonists.

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Book Review: Learning to Fly by Audrey Chin

In this close and complex novel, Audrey Chin puts the reader inside the mind of her main character, Swee Lian. The theme of the novel is given away by its title. It is a woman’s journey to find herself and learn to be strong. She does this in part through her affair and subsequent marriage to a man who teaches her about the jungle, life and love. He also helps her find and succeed in her career.

This story starts with a prologue set when Swee Lian is middle-aged, but the main part is written in past tense, starting when Swee Lian is a teenager from a working class family in Singapore. She does well academically, and her mother stands up to her abusive husband and makes it possible for Swee Lian to attend University. We see that Swee Lian is herself socially very inept. Her affair with a professor who runs the outdoor club begins during her second year at University. She becomes so caught up that she flunks out of college. He is married. When the narrator becomes pregnant, aborts the child, and attempts to kill herself, his wife leaves him. He feels responsible for his young charge and ends up marrying her. Their marriage brings Swee Lian into the magical world of the forest people who inhabit the forests he studies, and she matures into a strong woman with her own career.

Although Swee Lian talks often about the love with her husband, this is not the slow budding of a romance one typically encounters in a romance novel. Instead,  it is more about her growth through the marriage.

I enjoyed many aspects of this complex story. Overall, it is well-written. I loved sentences like this one:

I emerged from seclusion cautiously, coming out soft and without form.

The interactions with the forest (her first explorations are a priceless set of errors I know that I would make) and its people are fabulous. Swee Lian’s brash friend acts as a wonderful mentor. I liked that the story sat within academia, yet wore that mantle lightly. And, to me, the last hundred pages were extremely compelling. I loved watching the weak character change into someone who flies.

This is not the kind of novel that ties everything up into clean packages, and it shouldn’t be. It is a deep and interesting exploration of who we are as human beings. It uses the classic weak protagonist who must change to do this (and, I admit, at times I hated her and wished she didn’t reflect any aspect of myself. I almost didn’t continue yet I was so glad I did).

However, I think this novel has weak points which detract from its essence. Although this is a minor complaint, the quality of the writing is so good that I hated to find so many little typos. It needs a good edit, simply for grammatical and typographical issues (though it’s much better than a lot of books I’ve run across recently. What is the problem with writers these days?). For example, some of the early sections switch back and forth between first and third person in a single sentence, as if the novel was originally written in third and the editing didn’t catch all of the third persons.

However, there are a couple of deeper flaws which bothered me a great deal. The first one is the foreshadowing that the previous lovers of John, the husband, affect the marriage bed. This is implied, yet it never happens. Yes, Swee Lian occasionally worries about the ex-wife, but no incident ever occurs that would indicate John is thinking of others when they make love. In fact, he seems unrealistically in love with Swee Lian. I kept expecting some previous lover to show up, or him to call out someone else’s name, or for him to have an affair, or some reason for this to seem so important. For example, here:

The body remembered images of himself with Sarah. Images of himself with Iban women whose names he’d forgotten, but whose firm flesh and welcoming arms he still dreamt about. The body, his body, reclaimed memory and desire and layered it upon my white skin, my responsive nineteen-year-old flesh, my bird-thin bones.

Chin, Audrey (2013-03-05). Learning to fly (Kindle Locations 992-995). . Kindle Edition.

There are times when other issues don’t quite seem seamed together. For example, the Boy doesn’t want to hear her stories at the beginning of the novel, yet he hangs on the stories at the end (and they cover the same time period). I’d like to see more incidents showing her as she encounters herself and is forced to change (the library incident is perfect), instead of so much talking about her transformation.

Still, all in all this is an excellent first novel and well-worth reading.

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Golden Threads – Chapter 3: Hiding

If you are following along with this new novel, The next installment of Golden Threads is now available here: Chapter 3: Hiding.

I am having a ton of fun writing this tale about a young girl on the verge of becoming a witch, and the other witches who’ve decided to save her and her brother’s life. This magical adventure/romance across time is very different from the other novel that I’m close to finishing, which is more along the lines of Jody Picoult’s or Barbara Delinsky‘s novels.

Usually I prefer to read fairly serious stuff. You can see that from the books I have reviewed on this site. Right now I am reading Incendiary, by Chris Cleave, which promises to turn out just as emotionally rich and tough as his other novel, Little Bee. However, this winter I got hooked on two romantic and magical series with time travel.

The first, A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness, was recommended by a friend, who loaned it to me. I could hardly put it down. I loved all of the fantasy, the fact that it was placed in Oxford, the tidbits about scholars lives, and so on. The forbidden romance reminded me of stories about the first black-white marriages in the United States. I read the second in the series, Shadow of Night, and loved all of the time travel, plus the wonderful details that elaborate the history and really put one right there, struggling to don a dress and deal with servants.

The second series was something I started on because I had an auto accident and my energy levels and mental clarity were low for awhile. I wanted something light. probably reading Deborah Harkness inspired me to read Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon,  and all was lost. I zoomed through her seven novels (and they are almost all over a thousand pages). My mind just couldn’t let go of all the possibilities of all the things that could go wrong when one goes back and forth in time. I also enjoyed the details about the past that fill these novels. The prose isn’t quite as lovely as in A Discovery of Witches, but the story (or, really, stories, as each adventure could be thought of as a short story, but with the same characters returning over and over) is at least as captivating.

I have always loved the idea of time-travel, and often have fantasized about what it would be like to suddenly find myself in another time. What would happen? How would I figure out how to fit in? What if I were part of a scientific expedition to go into the future or the past? Would we be able to survive? Could we communicate? And then, what about adding some magic? Somehow, thinking about all this, and wanting to write something easy, out popped the first chapter, the second chapter, and now the concept of an entire novel. I hope that you’ll enjoy it as it appears on these pages.

 

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Can a philosophical novel be fun to read?

Cover of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is told in first person by two characters. The main one, the widowed Madame Renee Michel, is an uneducated concierge for an upscale building in a french city who, despite her lack of formal education, loves to learn, and has therefore educated herself over the years through reading and exploring art and music. The other first person narrator is Paloma Josse, a precocious 12 year old who lives in the building with her parents, a sister, and a cat, and who resolves to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday (a number of months away) and burn down the building unless she finds something worth living for by then.

Madame Michel describes the manner in which she has hidden her intelligence from the occupants of the building for the 27 years she has worked for them. Paloma also hides her real self from her parents and her awful sister. Both of them explore aspects of society and philosophy through their thoughts. It quickly becomes obvious that they must eventually meet and that their meeting will change Paloma’s decision, because Madame Michel is secretly carrying on the rich life that Paloma doesn’t believe is possible. A new person who moves into the building becomes the agent of change for both narrators.

Using the first person device allows the author to talk about such wide ranging topics as grammar; vocabulary; what dress to wear on a date; our expectations about the roles we are born into and how that influences our behavior; kindness; the role of music, movies and art; and whether or not we have to become disillusioned when we become adults. This might seem rather heavy and impossible for a 325 page book (in the English translation), yet the book never lingers on any one topic and the slight bit of plot drew me along and kept me engaged. I really enjoyed the characters and the thoughts and distinct voices of the two narrators (who both speak beautifully).

My only gripe with the novel was the ending, which I won’t divulge. The author surely could have come up with something more novel, given the uniqueness of the rest of the story.

A friend highly recommended The Elegance of the Hedgehog to me, and I’m so glad she did. I’m passing her recommendation along to all of my readers. This translation, by the way, is amazing. Ms. Anderson appears to have conveyed the language and sense of the original with grace and beauty.

I love receiving comments. Please let me know what you think. Do you read books that move along gently with little conflict but get you to think, or do you prefer ones with more action and tension?

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Giving up everything else for passion

Cover of "Loving Frank: A Novel"

Cover of Loving Frank: A Novel

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I saw Loving Frank by Nancy Horan at a used book store recently and it jumped out at me because I had been drawn to the same book at the library. When I flipped through it, I discovered it is about Mamah Borthwick Cheney‘s love affair with Frank Llyod Wright. I really knew nothing before reading this novel about the famous architect’s life, and certainly not that he left his wife for another woman. Intrigued, I purchased the novel and took it home.

This novel, published in 2007, is written from Mamah’s point of view. It carefully follows what little is known about the love affair, without changing the order of all but one event. Nancy Horan apparently did very careful research into these events, even locating letters written by Mamah Borthwick Cheney to Ellen Key, a Swedish feminist philosopher very influential in Europe at the time, and drawing upon a master’s thesis by Anne Nissan on Frank Llyod Wright and Mamah.

Mamah first met Frank Llyod Wright in 1903, when she and her husband, Edwin Cheney, commissioned him to build a house for them in a suburb of Chicago. Four years later, she reconnected with him, and they began an affair.  The novel explores what may have happened between then and the tragic murder of Mamah and her two children in the summer of 1914. After about a year of meeting clandestinely, Mamah followed Frank to Germany and then Italy. They spent roughly a year in together Europe, during which time Mamah met Ellen Key and became her translator for American audiences. Mamah stayed in Europe, learning Swedish in order to translate directly from the original Swedish, while Frank Llyod Wright began building a home in the Wisconsin valley where he grew up. Mamah then moved in with him, after securing a divorce.

English: Frank Lloyd Wright home in Oak Park, ...

English: Frank Lloyd Wright home in Oak Park, Illinois. Entrance to studio, looking southeast. Italiano: La casa di Frank Lloyd Wright a Oak Park, nell’Illinois. L’entrata dello studio, guardando verso sud-est. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mamah was an early feminist, who as a young woman fought for the right to vote and to have a fulfilling job, and then insisted upon the right to love Frank, whose wife refused a divorce. Abandoning her children to follow Frank was one of the most difficult decisions Mamah ever made. She struggles with this issue throughout the novel. She also deals with the disapproval of most of the world, and very public shaming through newspaper articles about her affair with the famous architect, and struggles with him over his bad handling of finances. Her ex-husband eventually allowed her children to visit during summers and holidays, which helped ease some of her guilt.

Many people believe Mamah was the great love of Frank Llyod Wright’s life, and one of his biggest influences, despite the sparse evidence that still exists. Her tragic death, axed and then burned along with her children and several others by a crazed employee she had just fired, inspired a long letter from him to the editor, which is reproduced in the novel, and shows his strong feelings.

Despite the incredible drama inherent in this story of a very public love affair considered incredibly scandalous and its horrible ending, this novel is understated. It often drags, especially in the last third, as their lives in Wisconsin settle down into a pattern. Mamah pretty much stayed on the farm, supervising the household and avoiding the public eye. No great conflict inhabits its pages. Even the conflict with Julian Carlton, the fired servant who commits the awful murders, occupies only a few pages, as it probably did in real life. As a probable reconstruction of the life of a very brave woman who was willing to give up her social standing and her children to follow her Frank, it is very interesting, but, as a novel, not always. I found myself wondering towards the end if the author couldn’t have wandered a little more from the known or else left out some of the boring parts in order to improve the story.

Still, all in all, I enjoyed this novel. I grew up taking flute lessons next door to Grady Gammage auditorium (we called it the toilet bowl, being irreverent kids, for its shape), which was designed by Frank Llyod Wright near the end of his life, and built after his death, and have always had an unexplored curiosity about this famous man.

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Summer Reading

Tomorrow is the first day of fall, though it doesn’t feel like it yet, here in Central Oregon. It’s more like smoke and fire season. The lack of frost means our garden is still hanging in there, and we may even get some corn, which would be a near miracle. It’s probably the first time since I’ve lived here that September has stayed warm enough that we have only had to cover the squash twice, and haven’t had to close up the greenhouse at all. I would be thrilled with the nice days, if it weren’t for the weeks and weeks of smoke we’ve already endured, and the promise of more to come. To console myself, I’ve been doing what I most love: reading.

Lately, I have gone for some light reading, letting my inner bookworm eat junk food. I went for Skipping a Beat, by Sarah Pekkanen, and I still Dream About You, by Fannie Flagg. I also picked up Small Wars, by Sadie Jones, although it proved a little meatier than the other two.

I literally turned I Still Dream About You into a beach read, finishing it in one day while sitting around a campfire trying to keep warm at the Oregon Coast (and avoid the smoke). For those who haven’t been to the Oregon Coast, it is not a place where one lays out in the sun or goes swimming, at least not usually. The water is icy and the air – well, let me just say that I had on several layers of clothing all weekend. But I was talking about Fannie Flagg’s novel, in which Maggie Fortenberry, a real estate agent, is determined to commit suicide

Cover of "I Still Dream About You: A Nove...

Cover of I Still Dream About You: A Novel

because she has been depressed for quite some time and feels she has nothing left to live for. Only, as a former Miss Alabama, she feels she cannot disgrace the State of Alabama, so she comes up with a complex plan for doing herself in. Life, however, conspires to ensure that she does not succeed. Each time she sets the date, something happens, and this is where the humor enters, and also the sweetness and sadness, as we learn about her life and her reasons for wanting to end it. The cast of characters is priceless, if almost melodramatic: the former boss, with her love of life, who was a midget; the office manager with purple hair; the evil real estate agent who has taken over real estate in Birmingham through lies; etc. And yet, Fannie Flagg makes them all believable while painting a picture of Birmingham and the conflict between the old and the new in this city. While the novel is meant as humor, it addresses deeper questions about how we view ourselves, what we ask of our lives, and what it means to care about other people.

Skipping a Beat would have made a great beach read, but I couldn’t wait that long. It’s also slightly funny and over-the-top. Michael, a business mogul has a heart attack and is dead for a few minutes. When he is revived, he is changed. He no longer cares about making lots of money – in fact, he is resolved to give away everything he owns. He also wants to change the nature of his relationship with his wife and recoup the love they used to have. She wants no part of this at first. She doesn’t understand who he has become. We slowly learn why: their relationship has pretty well died over the years because of his workaholic attitude. She substituted having a fabulous home and any material thing she could possibly want for that love. The idea of giving it up is too much at first. This novel, while definitely chick lit, has a nice depth to it. There is only a little bit of shopping in it. It is written in first person, which was a great choice, as we get to see how Julia pieced her view of the world together, and how she dealt with the hurt of missed birthdays and anniversaries, and believing Michael had an affair. Julia’s rich friend turns out to have real depth. We follow along with Julia as she re – lives the past and learns for herself that money isn’t what she really wants: it’s love. I enjoyed this easy read and thought it was smoothly written, unlike a lot of chick lit.

Small Wars was a different matter. It is not an easy read. I almost put it down and gave up on it, as it starts very, very slowly. The novel takes place mainly in Cyprus during the beginning of the rebellion against the British, when Hal, a British major, is moved there from Germany, and brings his wife to live on the base with their twin daughters. An explosion, in which one soldier is badly wounded and another dies, frightens her, yet she is embarrassed to tell her husband how afraid she really is. At the same time, he begins to experience situations where the British do things he finds immoral, and yet he has to keep quiet. This eats at him. He doesn’t talk to his wife or anyone about them, and he slowly begins to crack and change.

I finished Small Wars with mixed feelings. I thought that it eventually addressed some interesting points about the impact of war on moral human beings, and also about what happens when we don’t talk to those we love about the things that are bothering us deeply.  However, the glacial pace of the novel for the first third while the wife becomes established in Cyprus seemed like a waste. While it may be true that people don’t talk to each other about the important stuff, and that there is a lot of quiet time in real life, I, as a reader, don’t particularly want to spend my time reading about people not talking or doing mundane things. It seemed to me that a lot more could have been done with this first section to help me care about these two characters and their marriage, and that there could have been more showing and less telling, as writing teachers often urge their students to do.

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