Wednesday, May 31, 2017

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber

This is definitely a book of strange new things, but its title is the name that an alien culture gives to the Bible.  By alien culture I mean the native inhabitants of another planet.  Pastor Peter Leigh is a reformed drug addict and alcoholic that has been chosen as a missionary to these people who resemble humans in many ways.  He leaves his beloved wife Bea behind in England but finds that his new post is really quite cushy in that his new congregation is thrilled by his arrival.  Ironically, the world he left behind is in turmoil, and Bea is basically coming apart at the seams, not to mention losing her faith.  To me, this upside-down contrast is the heart of the novel.  Peter is thriving, except that he tends to neglect his own health, while Bea, now pregnant with his child, sends him a frantic deluge of messages about how the infrastructure on Earth is collapsing.  Peter, of course, cannot really comfort her from millions of miles away, with only the written word at his disposal, and he’s much more adept at speaking than writing.  This book completely transported me to this puzzling frontier, where everyone is surviving mainly on a plant dubbed whiteflower that can be made to taste like just about any food.  The natives grow it in abundance, basically feeding themselves and the earthlings living on their planet.  In return, the humans provide the natives with pharmaceuticals:  antibiotics, pain-killers, etc.  It’s a wary and uncomfortable relationship but vital, particularly to the resident earthlings.  We learn gradually, as Peter does, what happened to his predecessor and so much more.  This is not really science fiction, and I wonder if some of its inspiration came from Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.   In any case, this is a voyage you’ll want to take.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE by Michel Faber

This was not a book that beckoned me to reopen it, but each time I did, I was content to linger there for a while.  Faber spins a story that is part Cinderella, part Pretty Woman, about a young woman named Sugar in the 1870s whose mother forced her into prostitution.  Sugar, however, besides being popular for never saying no, has a prodigious intellect and is surprisingly well-read.  Her life changes radically when she meets customer William Rackham, indolent heir to a perfume business.  William has a wife named Agnes who seems to be sickly but is mostly just exceedingly na├»ve about her bodily functions.  The couple have a young daughter Sophie whose presence goes from non-existent to noteworthy as the novel progresses.  At almost 900 pages, one might expect a huge number of characters for the weary reader to keep tabs on, but actually there are only about a dozen, and you’ll get to know them all exceedingly well.  This is not a broad epic, and I liked the intimacy of it.  It takes place just over the course of a year or two and gives us a vivid glimpse of the times, as well as an in-depth look at the Rackham household.  If the graphic sex at the beginning of the novel turns you off, be patient.  The book becomes more and more personal with each page turned, as we get to know Sugar, who is the heart and soul of the novel.  This is her story, and you’ll be cheering for her as she negotiates the tricky path from trollop to respectability.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

THE OUTSIDERS by S.E.Hinton

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of this book.  The main character, 14-year-old Ponyboy, is one of the “greasers,” along with his two brothers, Darry and Sodapop.  Their parents died in a car crash, and Darry and Sodapop are both working to support the three boys and keep them out of foster care.  As greasers, their main form of entertainment is fighting with the Socs (Socials)-- the affluent kids who wear nice clothes and drive fancy cars.  The greasers, as you might imagine, are tough and scrappy, and some of their home lives make Ponyboy’s look like a picnic.  The youngest and smallest of the greasers is Johnny Cade, who recently got roughed up by some Socs, so that now he is nervous and wary.  This book invites some obvious comparisons to Grease and West Side Story, but those stories weren’t written by a 16-year-old girl.  The target audience is definitely young adult, although I don’t know if publishers even had such a category in 1967.  Does it read like it was written by a 16-year-old?  Yes, but that’s what makes it so authentic.  And this is more than just a coming-of-age novel; to me, it’s about loyalty.  The greasers are a tight-knit group and its members will endanger their own welfare in order to help each other out of a jam.  Revenge is another theme—perhaps not as noble but certainly just as realistic and just as powerful a motivator. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES by Stef Penney

In Canada in the 1860s, the Hudson Bay Company rules.  The fur trade is dwindling, but the murder of fur trader Laurent Jammet near the town of Caulfield gets the Company’s attention.  They send in three men:   the surly Mackinley, the greenhorn Donald Moody, and a native-American guide.  An inscrutable teenager, Francis Ross, has gone missing around the time of the murder and becomes a prime suspect.  Then two more men appear on the scene:  Thomas Sturrock and William Parker.  Both men were acquainted with the deceased, and Sturrock knows that he had a relic that could be quite valuable.  Sturrock is well-known in Caulfield, as he was hired to search for two girls who went missing and were never found.  Soon the Company men set out on a cold, snowy trek to find Francis Ross, followed a few days later by Parker and Francis’s mother.  In fact, almost every character becomes part of an expedition at one time or another, to or from Caulfield or a Norwegian settlement or a Company outpost.  More nasty characters turn up, but everyone has a different agenda and personal reasons for getting to the bottom of the Jammet murder.  This book has it all—adventure, suspense, and multi-layered characters, especially Mrs. Ross, the first-person narrator.  She will go to any length to disprove her son’s involvement in the murder, but first she has to find him.  She has a painful history herself, and her husband does not seem to share her certainty about Francis’s innocence.  The writing style somehow reflects the bleakness of the landscape and conveys so perfectly the terror and hardship that each of these journeys entails.  I needed an antidote for the unabsorbing stuff I’ve been reading lately, and this book did the trick.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

CLEOPATRA: A LIFE by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra may have been colorful and engaging, but this book is not.  I appreciate that historical sources are slim to none, but I think that the biography of a woman who reigned over a flourishing Egypt and seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony would be a little more lively.  Instead, I found this book to be crushingly dull.  The accounts of battles and murders just run together after a while, and it doesn’t help that the names are confusing and sometimes similar; I had particular difficulty with Arsinoe (Cleopatra’s sister) and Auletes (her father).  On the plus side, I learned a few things.  For example, Mauritania is now Algeria.  Also, the city of Alexandria in Cleopatra’s day was incredibly beautiful, cultured, and modern compared to Rome.  Cleopatra was very well educated, spoke nine or more languages, and charmed the Romans with her intellect more so than her questionable beauty.  Unless I dozed through that section, however, the author never mentions who the three triumvirs were.  (Actually, there was a first and second triumvirate, but I was mainly interested in the second, made up of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.)  Since so little of Cleopatra’s life is documented, we can’t know if her missteps were inspired by love and loyalty or if she just miscalculated.  Certainly she was not a military strategist.  One particular episode in the book did not ring true to me.  The author claims that at one point Cleopatra wins over Mark Antony’s continued affection by crying and staging a hunger strike.  Really?  Since when have tears and histrionics ever swayed a man to a woman’s favor?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders

I did not like the format of this novel at all.  I read several chapters before I realized that the dialog was taking place between dead people in a Washington, D.C., cemetery—Oak Hill, to be exact.  Interspersed among these conversations are excerpts from real and fake and sometimes radically conflicting historical documents recounting the days surrounding the death of Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie.  Willie, too has joined the wakeful dead, clinging to earth in a sort of a waystation before being spirited away to his appointed afterlife.   Willie’s mightily grieving father makes several visits to Willie’s coffin, known by the cemetery denizens as a sick-box, as they are all somewhat in denial of their own deaths.   Another annoying feature of this book is that the speaker’s identity always follows his monologue, which may be rather long, causing the reader to have to guess which dead person is speaking.  In some cases, I could make a reasonable assumption based on the speaker’s manner of speaking or choice of words, but not usually, and I think I would have preferred to have read this book on paper rather than in electronic form.  All that aside, this novel may revolve around Willie and his tormented father, but the backstories of the other characters are in some ways more human, particularly with regard to what might have been, especially in the case of Mr. Bevins and Mr. Vollman.  The author gives both men a “future story” that is beautiful but sad because it was unfulfilled and at the same time perhaps comforting to the two men as a sort of preview of the afterlife.   If all this sounds a little maudlin, take heart.  The not-necessarily-historical documents can’t agree on the weather, much less render a consistent opinion on whether Lincoln was handsome or exceedingly homely.  Alternative facts, anyone?