Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A PIECE OF THE WORLD by Christina Baker Kline

Before reading this book, I was not familiar with Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting, “Christina’s World.”  This novel provides a backstory for Christina, the woman on the ground in the forefront of the painting.  Seen from behind, she is looking at a farmhouse, perhaps with longing, but we can’t see her face.  We learn in the novel that Christina is disabled and ultimately loses the ability walk, as the years wear on.  She is a stubborn woman, refusing a medical examination on multiple occasions.  I found this intransigence to be more telling about her personality than just about anything else.  I believe that her affliction gives her a sense of identity and uniqueness that she does not want to lose.  Her only opportunity for escaping her hard life on the farm is the attention of a young man who ultimately goes to Harvard and probably does not want to be married to a woman whose father forced her to quit school at the age of twelve.  When Christina is middle-aged, a friend becomes involved with Andrew Wyeth, who begins making regular visits to Christina’s home, which she shares with a younger brother.  Wyeth paints a number of various seemingly uninteresting objects in the house but brings a breath of fresh air to Christina’s otherwise dreary life.  The fact that someone who has lived her entire life in one place, rarely venturing beyond the boundaries of the Maine farm, should be immortalized in a painting known the world over is ironic but not uncommon.  What is uncommon is that in this case we don’t see the subject’s face.  This novel makes Christina human and reveals a bitter and lonely woman behind that hidden face.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell

Holly Sykes is 15 years old, possibly pregnant, and running away from home to live with her 20-something boyfriend.  Unfortunately, he’s now sleeping with her best friend.  Holly heads to a strawberry farm to get work, but along the way she has some strange encounters, possibly reminiscent of the “radio people” who once inhabited her mind.  Then we leave Holly’s teenage story to hear from a series of other narrators, but Holly is the thread that binds them all together.  The other narrators include a self-important author, an immortal being, a journalist, and—my personal favorite—Hugo Lamb, who falls in love with a grown-up Holly but then falls more in love with the prospect of immortality.  I kept hoping that he would wise up and rejoin the natural world, as opposed to the supernatural world, but, alas, we don’t hear from him again until the climactic battle of atemperals between the Anchorites and the Horologists, which I found to be a little hokey.  It was a bit too much like the battle in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a book which I didn’t particularly care for.  My absolute favorite section of the book is the last section, in which Holly faces unforeseen challenges, unrelated to her adventures alongside immortals with super powers.  This author likes to resurrect his characters in subsequent novels, and I’m hoping to meet Hugo Lamb again, even though he apparently had a bit part in Black Swan Green, which I have not read.  If Marinus can appear in three of David Mitchell’s novels, then I can only hope that Hugo make a third appearance as well.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET by David Mitchell

It’s 1799, and Jacob de Zoet has landed a job at the Dutch trading post Dejima, a manmade island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan.  He has high hopes that this assignment will win him the approval of his girlfriend’s father when he returns to the Netherlands in five years.  His task is to clean up the Dejima’s accounting records and uncover financial irregularities within the company.  He is honest to a fault, but his superiors are not, so that he is a shining example of how no good deed goes unpunished.  Also, Jacob has become infatuated with a young aristocratic Japanese midwife, who after her father’s death, is sent to an unsavory abbey where the monks perform unthinkable acts in the interest of earning immortality.  She has another admirer, a Japanese interpreter, who stages a dicey rescue mission.  Overall, this novel is a bit dense but worth the effort.  The first quarter of the book is as dull as a post.  Then the second half gains steam when the daring attempted rescue of our plucky damsel in distress gets underway.  In the final quarter, a British frigate arrives in port, hoping to seize the Japanese copper before the Dutch can ship it out.  The British captain has gout, and his struggles with pain, with his Dutch informer, and especially with Jacob de Zoet, are borderline semi-humorous.  In any case, this last section is riveting and explosive, as Dejima has no copper and no defense.  Bottom line:  the Japanese are cruel; the Dutch are corrupt; and the Brits are untrustworthy.  The British captain just wants to save face, and I found it ironic that the Japanese during the shogun era were known for just that.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A PALE VIEW OF HILLS by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Japanese woman, Etsuko, whose oldest daughter Keiko has just committed suicide, narrates this novel.  Etsuko now lives in London, and her second daughter has come to visit after the funeral.  However, most of the novel takes place in flashback to Nagasaki, just after WWII.  Etsuko remembers a time when she was pregnant with Keiko and became friends with another woman, Sachiko, and her daughter Mariko.  Mariko is a troubled child, for several reasons, and Sachiko doesn’t seem interested in setting boundaries for Mariko’s behavior.  Etsuko is a bit stunned by Sachiko’s nonchalance, but Sachiko claims that she has her daughter’s best interests at heart always and suggests that Etsuko will understand when she has a child of her own.  Etsuko is skeptical of Sachiko’s parenting style, but we get only a very brief glimpse of her interaction with Keiko near the end of the novel, and the author describes that incident in an unexpected manner.  In fact, if you’re like me, you’ll reread those couple of pages several times to make sense of them and question exactly what it is that you’ve just read.  This section is one of my two favorites in the book.  The other is also late in the novel, when Etsuko’s father-in-law argues with a younger scholar about Japan’s role in the war.  I don’t know if their opposing views are typical, but in this case and on this topic there seems to be a wide generation gap.  The tone of the novel is somber, and it feels like a translation but isn’t.  The dialog is odd, particularly when Etsuko berates her father-in-law and when characters repeat sentences, perhaps for emphasis.  Savor this tender debut novel by a Nobel prize-winner.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

RED RISING by Pierce Brown

The Harry Potter books seems to have inspired Lev Grossman’s series, The Divergent series, and maybe this one, too.  Red Rising is more sci-fi than fantasy, but the story still takes place at a school for students with exceptional physical and intellectual capabilities, where they are sorted into “houses.”  Darrow is an infiltrator from the Reds, the lowest caste on Mars.  The resistance group known as the Sons of Aries recruits him, after the death of his wife, to undergo some surgical alterations so that he can masquerade as a Gold.  This book follows Darrow through his first year of school at the Institute, and that year basically consists of a battle among all the houses for domination.  It’s not hard to guess who wins, but the storyline is more about the journey—forming alliances, learning what it means to be a leader, and ferreting out the traitors—than it is about the outcome.  This is a very violent story of survival of the fittest—natural selection in a microcosm of the best of the best.  I found the battle tactics and even the battles themselves hard to follow at times, but I don’t think I missed much.  Darrow is an angry young man, raging against an unjust society, and his minions are equally one-dimensional.  This was an enjoyable read but not particularly thought-provoking or particularly satisfying, and I’m not particularly gung-ho about continuing with the series, as I expect it’s more of the same.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

MOTHERING SUNDAY by Graham Swift

It’s 1924 in England, when a maid’s long-term affair with a wealthy young man is certain to end badly.  On the contrary, Jane Fairchild recounts an assignation with Paul Sheringham with a certain fondness that gives us hope for a happy ending, particularly with the Cinderella epigraph and the opening of “Once upon a time.”  We do know that Jane escapes the life of a servant to become a successful writer, with or without her prince, but most of the narrative is about that one day in which she and Paul make love in his home, rather than having to hide out.  It’s a servants’ holiday, and Paul’s parents are meeting Jane’s employers for lunch.  Paul himself has a lunch date with his fiancée but lingers with Jane long enough that it will be impossible for him to arrive on time for that appointment.  Perhaps the most suspenseful aspect of this book, besides the question of whether or not Paul and Jane might somehow end up together, is how Paul’s fiancée will react to her intended’s tardiness.  Jane, meanwhile, after he leaves, has time to observe and appreciate his fine home with no one there to interfere.  However, she sees everything from a maid’s perspective, including the laundering of the soiled sheets, and delights in the fact that the maid will have no idea that Jane was the woman in bed with Paul.  I loved this perspective in which Jane enjoys her anonymity rather than wishing that she could announce her relationship with Paul to the world.  Her secret gives her a sense of power in that she knows some things that others never will, including the fact that her social status is not an indicator of her intellect.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

WISH YOU WERE HERE by Graham Swift

One review called this novel “emotionally gripping.”  I would call it emotionally restrained, to say the least.  The novel is largely about a dairy farming family in England, devastated by the mandated killing of all their perfectly healthy cattle, due to an outbreak of mad-cow disease.  The mother in the family dies young, leaving two sons, Jack and Tom, and their father Michael.  The younger son, Tom, is in many ways the favorite son, but there is no animosity between the two brothers.  After Tom joins the army on his 18th birthday and Michael dies, Jack and his long-time girlfriend Ellie sell the farm and take ownership of a caravan park (like an RV campground) on the Isle of Wight.  I’m not sure what the primary theme is here, but I would guess it’s grief, insufficiently expressed.  Tom’s death is sort of the last straw, as far as Jack is concerned.  Also, this is the second novel I’ve read recently where an ailing dog figures largely in the plot.  This novel is about men, specifically emotionally stifled men, but it’s not the kind of thing I think that most men are likely to read.  Consequently, it leaves this woman reader scratching her head, asking, “What’s it all about?”  Jack is an ordinary guy who has endured tragedy and then basically loses it at the end.  Until that point, for which there is substantial foreshadowing involving a gun, Jack’s inner turmoil is understated.  The finale is indeed gripping, but the lead-up doesn’t really build to a boiling point.  Rather, it just chugs along, and then Jack suddenly becomes someone that we don’t recognize.