Wednesday, December 13, 2017

THE SEA by John Banville

Max Morden has returned to a coastal villa that once was the summer residence of childhood playmates Chloe Grace and her mute twin brother Myles.  The Grace family appealed to Max not only because they were more affluent than his own family but also because young Max was initially attracted to Mrs. Grace.  This infatuation eventually dwindled as his attraction to Chloe grew.  The narrative goes back and forth in time, and in the present Max is still reeling from the death of his wife, Anna.  Several important revelations appear late in the novel, including the disclosure of a character’s identity, which I had already figured out.  The big question all along is what happened to Chloe and Myles.  We do find out the answer to that question, sort of.  However, there are lots of other dangling questions, including the subject of an argument between two women at dinner.  This omission seems like a copout to me.  The author also teases us with some snippets of another conversation that are intended to mislead us, as well as the other characters who overhear the conversation.  I found this to be a little cheesy as well.  He could have at least made the snippets a little more ambiguous.  After finishing the novel, I reread this section, and I’m even more baffled than ever, wondering if the snippets of conversation are not indicative of the rest of the conversation or if one of the participants in the conversation is not being truthful.  Myles’s inability to speak is never explained, either.  Perhaps the storyline just demanded his silence.  This novel beat out Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George for the 2005 Booker Prize, but I’m not sure why.  Perhaps the judges were swayed by the author’s prodigious vocabulary.  I finally dug out my ancient paperback dictionary, but many of the unfamiliar words were not there.  The upside is that now I understand the difference between the verbs “blanch” and “blench”—more or less.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles

When Count Alexander Rostov finds himself under house arrest in Moscow as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, he could just give up.  However, he has lived for years in a suite in the Hotel Metropol, and now he is confined to a small attic room in that same hotel.  With the help of an inquisitive child named Nina, he accepts his situation and even manages to spark a sense of adventure within himself, as they explore the less public rooms of the hotel together.  We’re not sure how she acquired it, but Nina also has a passkey, so that no room is off limits for this daring pair.  The novel spans several decades, as the Count makes the acquaintance of all sorts of people, including an American ambassador and a famous actress.  His world, however, is starkly insulated from the outside strife of the Soviet Union, WWII, and bad weather.  The reality of the proletarian society does emerge from time to time, most vividly when the wine labels in the wine cellar have all been removed, so that restaurant patrons’ only choice is between red and white.  The Count, however, maintains his diplomatic demeanor throughout, showing kindness, courtesy, and compassion.  He is certainly a charming character to cherish and remember.  The prose is exquisite, and so is the ending, but I found the pacing of most of the novel to be a little slow.  Still, I certainly admire the Count’s example of living his life to the fullest extent that his circumstances allow.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

SHOTGUN LOVESONGS by Nickolas Butler

Why do men sometimes feel compelled to confess their indiscretions?  This is a buddy book in which one buddy’s ill-advised admission drives a wedge into his relationship with his best friend.  Hank, along with his wife Beth and their two barely-mentioned children, runs a marginally profitable dairy farm in the small town of Little Wing, Wisconsin.  Lee is a wildly successful singer and songwriter who can’t seem to stay away from Little Wing.  Beth, along with former rodeo rider Ronny and obnoxious Kip, are the other first person narrators.  I found this employment of the ever-changing narrator to have both pluses and minuses.  On the plus side, we get a very good sense of who these characters are, or at least how they view themselves.  On the other hand, at times I felt that the author was having to stretch to make the narrator fit the narrative.  There’s one other contrivance in the book, and that’s a prank near the end that is intended as a catalyst to mending Lee and Hank’s broken friendship.  For me, getting your former best friend involved in a minor heist is not conductive to gaining his forgiveness, but what do I know about men’s friendships?  The bottom line is that while Hank and Beth grind out a living, Lee is living the dream but still wants what Hank and Beth have—each other.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE GOLDEN AGE by Joan London

The title refers to a polio rehab facility for children in Perth, Australia, that really did exist in the 1950s.  The story centers around two fictional 13-year-olds, Frank and Elsa, who become close while they are both residents of the facility.  Other than that, honestly, not much happens.  The equally poignant backstory is that Frank’s family emigrated from Hungary during WWII, and neither of his parents has been able to embrace their new homeland.  Frank seems at times to be a bit ashamed of his parents’ reduced station in life, until his mother renews her interest in music and proves that she is still a virtuoso pianist, after having abandoned the piano when Frank contracted polio.  The book certainly brings into focus the many heartbreaks associated with polio.  The physical impact is obviously huge, as Frank and Elsa endure the pain of trying to walk again.  This book also emphasizes that people reacted to the victims in the same way as they have in the past to leprosy or AIDS.  The contagious aspect of the disease causes families to speculate on how their children became exposed to it, but, more importantly, outsiders keep not only the victims at arm’s length, but also their family members as well.  This book is short on plot but long on educating us as to the devastating impact of this disease before the vaccine was introduced.

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.