Wednesday, November 28, 2012

THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

The wife in question is Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife.  Neither Hadley nor Ernest is the least bit loveable in this engrossing piece of historical fiction.  She's spineless and careless, and he's self-centered and insulting--discarding his mentors, one by one.  His relationship with Hadley is another casualty, as he flaunts his affair with her very good friend, Pauline, destined to be ex-wife #2.  All of this strife and torment makes for a pretty good story, even with no one to root for.  I kept hoping that the clingy Hadley would rise up and see the light, and obviously she does eventually step aside so that Hemingway can marry Pauline, although we can see from the outset how doomed that union will be.  Hadley narrates the majority of the chapters, but a few give Hemingway's side of the story, especially regarding a pivotal event that spells the beginning of the end.  I enjoyed all the anecdotes about other famous writers in Paris at the time, particularly Scott Fitzgerald, who is completely enchanted by his weird wife Zelda.  The downfall of Hadley and Ernest's marriage is somewhat precipitated by the flagrant disregard for marriage vows that so many of their other friends exhibit.  The accolades for In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises feed Hemingway's ego, so that he feels entitled to a mistress himself and exhibits an appalling callousness to the pain he inflicts on his tortured wife.  In many ways, though, she's not exactly a shrinking violet, sharing Hemingway's admiration of the violent bullfights and matching him almost drink for drink.  I felt that their marriage might have lasted if she could have shed the chip on her shoulder that she felt for not being an artist herself.  On the other hand, she was probably better off without him in the long run.  Did regret play a role in his suicide, or was he just another tormented genius?  I can't help believing that at some point he realized the error of his ways.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Somehow I expected this to be more campy or cheeky or funny or something, but the book seemed far too serious for its subject matter, and by that I mean the subject of vampires.  I think the author walked a fine line here, trying not to trivialize slavery or the Civil War or Lincoln's assassination, while at the same time introducing a potentially comic supernatural element into Lincoln's life. For me, the blend of the historical setting with vampire slaying just doesn't work, especially since the author attributes just about every death—Lincoln's mother, girlfriend, son, and countless others—to vampires.  Of course, the real baddies, like John Wilkes Booth and a fairly large contingent of slave owners, are, in fact, vampires.  Lincoln's cohort in his quest to stamp out the vampire population in the U.S. is "good" vampire Henry Sturgis (like Edward in the Twilight series?), who tells Lincoln where to find various "bad" vampires for Lincoln to destroy with his trusty axe.  Seward, Lincoln's adversary for the presidential nomination and then later his Secretary of State, has also killed a few vampires.  He and Lincoln then have the daunting task of convincing the rest of the cabinet that vampires will take over the country if slavery continues.  There are some interesting historical nuggets here, such as the fact that Lincoln's bodyguard had abandoned his post on that fateful night at Ford's Theatre.  However, aside from the vampires and the points of history that are common knowledge, I couldn't always separate fact from fiction.  Perhaps it was the author's intention to blur the line just enough to make the journals and correspondence contained in the novel seem legit, in a weird, alternate-universe kind of way.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

MAKEDA by Randall Robinson

I almost stopped reading this book for two reasons.  For one, the writing is not to my liking at all.  The third page has a sentence that begins, "The girls were all but surpassingly proud."  What the heck does that mean?  Secondly, the book drags for at least 100 pages, as we get to know Gray, an African-American growing up in Richmond in the 50s, just as the Civil Rights movement is starting to gain some momentum.  Gray has a giant chip on his shoulder, and too much of the book dwells on the causes of his poor self-esteem.  He is a second-class citizen due to segregation and racial prejudice, but also has been made to feel inferior to his older brother Gordon.  His parents, particularly his father, have pinned their hopes on Gordon, who reeks of intellectual and physical prowess, but Gray's blind grandmother nurtures a spiritual kinship with Gray.  While in graduate school, Gray falls in love with Jeanne, and the two of them make plans to travel to Africa to research and validate his grandmother's dreams, which are really memories of a previous life hundreds of years ago.  I've always enjoyed tales of reincarnation, but this book ultimately offers a lot more than that.  The author succeeds, I believe, in his attempt to correct some misconceptions about history.  He points out that African civilizations during the Middle Ages were perhaps more advanced than those in Europe, especially with regard to science, government, architecture, and human relations.  I found this aspect of the novel very enlightening, and the author contrives a short-term rift between Jeanne and Gray that forces Gray to do some growing up.  He harbors a huge burden of guilt over the fate of his brother, and we readers are left in the dark as well, until the end of the novel.  I was disappointed when I did finally find out what happened to Gordon, not only because the incident was so completely predictable but also because it seemed out of line with the main themes of the novel.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Generally, I think that people control their own fates, but in a country as repressive as North Korea, maybe not.  Jun Do (John Doe?) grows up in an orphanage and then finds himself buffeted from one bad situation to another.  Along the way, however, he manages to spend a year in a school where he learns English and joins a delegation of diplomatic imposters who travel to Texas.  His exposure to American culture serves him well, especially in the second half of the book.  In a nation where a single comment can cause someone to disappear, and women routinely find themselves with replacement husbands chosen by the state, Jun Do takes the place of Commander Ga, who is married to the beautiful actress Sun Moon.  North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, is the scriptwriter for all of Sun Moon's films, and he obviously scripts and directs the lives of all his citizens, who live in constant fear and whose knowledge of the outside world is only as accurate as the propaganda that blares from the loudspeakers in their homes.  One of the main characters in the second half is a prison interrogator who lives with his parents.  His parents must be constantly vigilant, aware that their son could turn them in for the slightest infraction; they behave like robots in his presence, never divulging any personal opinions that might be construed as seditious.  The best that the North Korean people can hope for is survival, but for what?  Physical torture, famine, loss of loved ones?  The regime recognizes that there is a strong sense of comradeship among the people that can be used as a deterrent to defection.  If someone defects, his friends and family will suffer the consequences.  Therefore, a defection has to be camouflaged as death or kidnapping or whatever.  It's hard to conceive of such a society, but the author uses vivid imagery to draw us into the horror.  One section describes some of the things the protagonist eats to keep from starving, and I found that section even harder to stomach than the physical brutality.