Thursday, June 30, 2011

When the Emperor Was Divine

It's been a while since I committed to reading something from the Read It Or Remove It Pile. There are many interesting things lurking in that stack but I have allowed myself to be seduced by the newer titles that have shown up at my house. Could this be yet another facet of my shallowness perhaps? I’m thinking yes. Oh well, back to the pile.

What I selected was When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. I know exactly how this book ended up in the R.I.O.R.P. It's the page count or as they say on the Penguin India site the extent. Don't you love that, the extent? The Emperor's extent is a mere 160 pages. That is short story territory for me. My interest in the subject matter, the Japanese internment during WWII was trying to overcome my skinny book allergy and it finally won.

Otsuka's novel begins with a young Japanese family in Berkley. We never learn their names. They are Father, Mother, Girl and Boy. Already they are dehumanized, they are Them and they are Anyone. Their nightmare begins late one night when Father is taken away by the FBI. Soon after that Mother sees signs posted around the neighborhoods announcing the planned relocation of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government.

The next three years brings degradation and continued separation. Father is imprisoned somewhere in New Mexico being endlessly interrogated. Occasionally the family receives letters from him but always they have been heavily censored. Mother and the children are living in filthy, overcrowded camps with no privacy. When the family is finally reunited and back in Berkley they find that their home has barely survived the war. It's been vandalized and stripped of anything of value almost to the point of disappearing completely just like the family itself

When the Emperor Was Divine is a beautiful example of how effective spare can be. In a non-sentimental and melodrama free way Julie Otsuka drives home the shameful acts perpetrated by the U.S. by exposing one family's loss of happiness, faith and security to bigotry, prejudice and unreasonable fears. Otsuka does more storytelling and expresses more humanity in this very slim novel than books that find the time to use every word in the Thesaurus….twice and I of course know because those are the books I usually read!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Going To The Chapel Of Love!

New York State has passed a same sex marriage bill!!! Yipee!! Finally I can give my brother away!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson is a coming of age novel for the reader as well as the book's twelve year narrator, Blessing. The novel is placed in a world few of us know much about and the characters labor under circumstances that compared to our lives might as well be science fiction. Blessing's journey from a comfortable home in Lagos with her parents and older brother to life with an extended family she doesn't know in a village in the Niger Delta without electricity or running water is an education.
Things change for Blessing when her Mother, Timi, catches her Father with another woman. Within days Father is gone taking his breadwinning with him and Timi's job at a local hotel is not enough to support the family. Blessing, her brother Ezekiel and Timi are on their way to Timi's hometown, the village of Wassi. Here things go from horrible to extra jumbo sized horrible. Wassi is life from another century. The small family compound includes Blessing and her family, her grandparents and their driver and his wives and children. Every convenience Blessing had taken for granted in Lagos is gone. She now uses an outhouse and totes water from a community well. What little food the family has is no longer just a trip to the market away.
There are plenty of other changes as well. Timi now works all day and then again late into the evening which is troubling. Ezekiel is spending less time in the school his Mother is struggling to pay for and more time with the local militants who call themselves The Freedom Fighters. Grandfather has recently converted to Islam and is contemplating taking on a second wife in order to get a son. The one new bright spot for Blessing is her Grandmother. The old woman becomes Blessing's mentor teaching her about their plain life and passing on to Blessing her skills as a midwife.
Watson's setting for Tiny Sunbirds provides a wealth of political and cultural extremes that add depth to this novel. She touches on female circumcision, poverty, kidnapping for profit, race, government and private corporation monopolies on natural resources, pollution, education, the erosion of village life and religion. In most instances the experiences of Blessing and her family with these things is extremely negative but Watson does not pass judgment on any of it. She keeps her tone neutral and always her characters to speak for themselves. The everyday-ness of these weighty problems for Blessing and the other characters is used by Watson to great disquieting effect.
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away  features flawed characters living in a country and environment that seems hell bent on making life as difficult as possible. They have to fight to survive on a daily basis with only each other to rely on but this novel is not a litany of hardships. There is storytelling here. In Watson's skilled hands Blessing is an observant child moving too quickly into the adult world. Her plight and her responses to it are realistic and vivid and well worth a read.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why Check Out The Borrower?

If you would like to read THE book about a librarian you need to read The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken. It is a moving, funny, sarcastic, glorious novel about a 1950's small town New England librarian who falls in love with an eleven year old boy who keeps growing and growing and growing. Theirs is a singular relationship to say the least. I am crazy about this novel. It is a wondrous story skillfully told by a talented writer. A gem.
Now there is a new librarian novel in town called The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai but like all pretenders to the throne it makes promises it cannot keep. Makkai brings on the quirk with a powerful, book loving bond between a children's librarian, Lucy, who dreams of making a difference and a ten year old boy, Ian. The boy's evangelical parents (Remember the rules say evangelical always equals bad.) have enrolled him in an anti-gay program. Lucy takes that as a sign he is from an abusive home and needs saving. The result? Lucy kidnaps Ian.
The one saving grace for me in The Borrower were all the fun literary references. They do reward the well read.
Ultimately though the quirky turns to creepy. Makkai isn't able to whip up the prerequisite amount of charm needed to make the jump from the friendship of two lonely book lovers to a PG rated Thelma and Louise road trip believable enough to work.
I can't help feeling that if Lucy had been a High School aged babysitter instead of an adult librarian The Borrower might have turned out a whole more rewarding. Not to mention convincing.

The Map of Time

The Map of Time is an International Sensation. I know that's true because it says so right on the book. Good thing because I wouldn't have known that from reading the book. I would have thought that The Map of Time by Felix Palma was a heavy handed time travel novel featuring H.G. Wells in three separate, unconnected stories that do not add up to one convincing novel. So, thanks Simon and Schuster for setting me straight.

Now if only I had a time machine I could use to get back the hours I wasted reading The Map of Time.
Oh well.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summer Reading

All the Summer Reads lists that have been flying out of the woodwork recently have me thinking about some of my most satisfying summer reads. As a reader summer as a time to read isn't anything special to me. My hibernation instincts make me value fall and winter more as perfect reading times. Me cozy inside, cold weather on its own outside. What could be more conducive to reading? That weather makes me not want to leave the house, every chair in the world is made more comfortable with a blanket added to it and there are no yard work chores breathing down my neck. Those things make getting comfy with a world in your hands ready to enter a guilt free, energy conserving pleasure.

Oh well. It is tradition, longer days and the end of the school year that makes summer the acknowledged king of reading seasons. There are a few books for me that have the memory of reading them tied into summer. For some of them it is because they were read during some high school summer vacations. The others were read on day trips to local lakes with much loved, happy, loud children or on my back porch surrounded the smells and sounds of hot days and one during a summer spent in an I.C.U. while I watched and waited for my Father to recover from a dreadful illness. For those reasons and because they are excellent books these novels mean summer reading to me
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Never have I ever read a novel where the author loves the characters as much as the reader does. It's apparent on every page. There is the good, the bad, the ugly and every combination of the three throughout this western and McMurtry's affection for these people is right there as well. Lonesome Dove is essentially the story of two aging Texas Rangers taking on a multi-state cattle drive as their last hurrah. If you have never read this novel you are in for the read of your life and I am so very jealous.

Cider House Rules by John Irving

I do like a book about orphans and this book has plenty of them. This is John Irving's masterpiece. It's the novel where this talented writer gets out of his own way and tells a powerful coming of age story that takes place in the 1930's and 40's. The characters from the biggest to the smallest are well drawn, the plotline is strong and there are about a hundred mini heartbreaks throughout the story. Don't be satisfied with just having seen the movie. One of my favorite things about Cider House rules are that the boy orphans all have David Copperfield read to them and the girls get Jane Eyre.
Shogun by James Clavel

This was the first book I ever read that was set in the Far East and it started my lifelong love affair with Asia. It takes place in the 1600's in Japan. Englishman John Blackthorne and his Dutch crew are shipwrecked in a Japan that is closed to all foreigners with the exception of the Portuguese and is on the verge of a civil war. Blackthorne comes under the protection of Toranaga a feudal lord who is angling to become the leader of Japan, the Shogun. This novel is the epitome of the learn a million new to you things page turning historical storytelling. If you think you can write historical fiction and you haven't read this novel you have no idea what historical fiction should be. My fifteen year old niece is going to read this on her summer vacation this year and I cannot wait to be a part of that experience.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Does a girl ever forget her first Dickens? Not this girl. I chose Bleak House because it was chubby. I had heard of Dickens and had seen a couple movies based on his novels so I was good to go. What did I know? I was a silly high schooler. I was completely caught off guard by the numbers of characters, the individuality of each of them, the convolutions of the plot, the social consciousness, the sentiment, the morality and the humor. I was challenged. I had to pay attention or get lost in one of the many London fogs that roll through this novel. The massive populace of the novel spoke to me. I am the tenth of eleven children and here was a book that by page five was more populated than my world. Thrilling.
The House of Orphans by Helen Dunmore

I know. More orphans. What can I say? This moving novel takes place in 1900 Finland just before the Finnish rise up against the Russians. Eevie became an orphan a little later than most. She can clearly remember life with her revolutionary Father. Despite all she has lost she is lucky enough to escape the harsh survivalist orphanage and become a housekeeper for the kindly local doctor. In the doctor's household she blossoms. For the first time in her life Eevie is well fed and safe. It doesn't last. The townsfolk don't approve. Eevie has to move on. The characters are interesting, the story is compelling but what the real payoff is in something written by Helen Dunmore is the atmosphere. She can set a stage, build an environment better than anyone writing today. You feel every location, every shift in mood. Sadly, House of Orphans is currently out of print but it is so worth searching for in a used bookstore---or of course your library!

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee

This novel is the story of two women who never meet but share a lover. In 1942 Englishman Will Truesdale is new to Hong Kong and having a passionate affair with a Holly Golightly-esque Eurasian named Trudy. Their relationship shocks and fascinates both the British and the Chinese communities. When the Japanese invade the city party time is over and survival is the new black. The occupation is brutal. Every choice made by these people will haunt them to the grave. Ten years later, Claire arrives in Hong Kong with her new husband. She takes a job as a piano teacher to the daughter of a wealthy, old Chinese family. She meets Will there and they begin an affair. There is intrigue to spare in this novel and the secrets that get revealed are actual surprises! Lee’s recreation of pre-war, war and post war Hong Kong with its segregated communities and unique culture is fascinating. While not always likeable, Claire and Trudy are strong, captivating women. 

Will I be reading something this summer that forever reminds me of summer? Hmmm....

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Astral

Author Kate Christensen seems to specialize in writing novels about people you would never in a thousand years want to spend any time with if you met them in real life. So what kind of voodoo writer magic has to happen for an author to make you enjoy a book even though you dislike the main character? Beats me but Kate Christensen has it. Read The Epicure's Lament or Jeremy Thrane or The Great Man. Don't however read her newest novel, The Astral and expect the same magic. The Astral is the story of a weak and complaining middle aged man's autopsy of his marriage, when he isn't begging his wife to take him back. It sounds like a phone call you would try to dodge not a novel you would want to read.

Harry Quick is a 57 year old poet living in Brooklyn with his wife of 30 years, Luz. When Luz discovers a new collection of poems in his notebooks she is convinced that Harry is having an affair. Harry did have an affair once but that was twelve years ago and he and Luz worked past it. His poems are always about women, this is writing not an affair. Still, Luz kicks him out and destroys the new poems. Now Harry is a 57 year old homeless poet. As he bicycles around his gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood trying to remember the new poems, sponging off people for places to sleep he ruminates on what went wrong in his marriage and his life.

Harry's story or rather Harry's thoughts are interrupted by drinking, a couple jobs, his interactions with his two adult children, some friends and the characters of his neighborhood. The citizens of Harry World are interesting people. Although they are not crucial to the plot because there isn't one, they do offer respite from Harry's boring me, me, me. Ultimately as engaging as these characters are, they are nothing more than examples of some of the other choices good and bad that people make.

The Astral is a very long short story in which tedious whining rules the day. Too bad.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Super 8? Hardly.

Have seen or have any desire to see JJ Abrams new movie Super 8? If you were thinking about it scratch it off your list immediately.

It stinks.

The first hour is classic Abrams/Spielberg set up the scary monster you can't see and introduce a group of odd ball 12 year olds. It's not bad. It has some endearing kid moments and lots of mystery. But then...but then as he has shown us often enough in Alias, Lost, Cloverfield and Star Trek, Abrams has no idea how to wrap it all up in a convincing storyline, keep it entertaining and take it through hour two. He can create an acceptably creepy and compelling idea and then can't manage to land that baby.

Remember the two hour Lost premiere? Remember how good that was? Remember that no matter how hard you tried to make the next 6 years that good it never happened? That's hour one verses hour two of Super 8. Oh yeah and while we're on Lost remember how in that first episode the hurt pilot was yanked out of the plane by something and thrown into the jungle? Well that same scene shows up a couple times in Super 8. So if you really did love it you can go relive it and relive it again.

The alien in Super 8? It's lucky for them that the designers for the alien in the Alien movies aren't planning on suing them for copyright infringement. Did I miss the memo that said that aliens were no longer going to look like the old light bulb shaped alien we all grew up with and now are always going to look like some sort of buff insect?

Close you eyes my friend and think of the most cheese filled moments of E.T., Lost and The Goonies now add in some cliches and hour two boredom and you have Super 8. Looking back on everything else I've seen from Abrams I cannot  say that Super 8 was a disappointment. I can only say that it was typical.

Hand Me Down World

Raise your hand if you enjoyed Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. Me too!! Well, good news for all of us, Jones has a new novel, Hand Me Down World. This book is out now in the U.K. and due out in the States in September.

Hand Me Down World is the story of Ines search for her kidnapped baby son. Ines works as a maid in a resort in Tunisia. In addition to their domestic duties the staff at this hotel is expected to provide sex for the guests. When Ines becomes pregnant after an affair with a German tourist she is tricked into signing away all rights to their son by her lover and his wife. Ines does not accept this cruelty as fate. She decides that she will venture into the world of which she knows nothing, get herself to Berlin and reclaim her child.

Taking a page from mystery writers like Wilkie Collins and Agatha Christie the first half of the novel is told by various characters by way of their statements to the police. At this point the reader has no idea why the police are investigating Ines and the varying accounts give disparate points of view of  the events. This uncertainty regarding Ines (not her real name) is echoed through the novel. Jones allows the hotel manager, human traffickers, fellow immigrants, a snail collector, a British film researcher, an Italian truck driver and a blind German to all have their say in defining Ines prior to allowing her to speak for herself but does that make Ines a more reliable narrator? Along the way these witnesses inadvertently reveal how they have been contained by their own worlds.

Ines is a complicated character. She is a victim and a victimizer. Having her introduced to us by third party testimony is the genius of this novel. By doing this Jones keeps both Ines the Heroine and Ines one of the millions of iinvisible, poverty stricken citizens of the world intact. He also feeds our need to solve the mystery of contradictions that is Ines.

It's easy to feel sorry for a woman trapped in a low paying job in a country where she has little or no prospects. It is more difficult to empathize with a woman who uses sex to manipulate men. Is it that her sad life experience has schooled her to believe that her sexuality is her only hope of finding her son? Or is  Ines a self serving individual who uses sex to control? Someone who is 'no better than she ought to be' as my Aunt Isabelle would have said. Most of the witnesses, but not all, see Ines as a demure woman and a good worker but we know that Ines carries a knife and has stolen money. There are even hints that she may be involved in a murder.

There are some moments in Hand Me Down World that press credulity and occasionally the statements made by the witnesses come off almost as ~~~shudder~~~ short stories. Heaven Forbid! However the all too realistic plight of Ines and the very large talents of Lloyd Jones carry the day. This is a novel that will stay in your thoughts. The misuse of Ines by people with money smacks of modern colonialism, Ines situation, her background, the mysteries of identity and the clever way Jones has laid out the story make Hand Me Down World a thought provoking page turner.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

We Had It So Good

Linda Grant writes like a dream. Not a bad Anita Shreve all will be punished dream, a wonderful I-can-dream-of –a-time-when-everything-I-read-will-be-this-good kind of dream. Grant is a wonderful guide through the hopes of youth verses the reality of adulthood. She has the most amazing ability to illuminate lives, to find what we all hold in those tiny corners we guard in just a few quick sentences. 

Grant’s most recent novel is We Had It So Good. This time the story is about a young couple who meet at Oxford in 1969, marry, have children and eventually face up to what they thought they would be and what they have become. Stephen is a Rhodes scholar from a working class, Jewish family in California suddenly in a world he is unprepared for culturally and competitively. Andrea is the daughter of absentee parents at Oxford to study psychiatry. When Stephen gets bounced from University they marry. For Andrea it’s a love match for Stephen it’s a way to avoid Vietnam and the draft.

Surprisingly the marriage takes. The squatterville section of London they settle in during the property is evil days of the sixties ends up being worth a couple million, Andrea becomes a successful psychotherapist and they have two independent, cynical and judgmental children, Max and Marianne. Stephen uses the times to play hippie, he uses his science degree to make LSD, uses his connections to become a BBC producer , his charm to bed other women and in general sits back emotionally letting life happen to him. As the couple reaches their fifties luck seems to finally abandon them.
In middle age Stephen and Andrea and most of their friends from college days have reached a comfortable abundance in their lives. The fires they planned to light when they were young have given way to living essentially the same lives, with the same desires, as their parents. Their children are dismissive of their parents’ achievements both past and present, retirement is looming and caring for their own aging parents (The generation that saved the free world and that has to rankle.)is on the doorstep.

These rebels of the sixties have made big changes happen socially and technologically but have they come anywhere near fulfilling the promise of their early days? Taking We Had It So Good in this direction, Grant could have easily made her novel a mocking condemnation of wasted opportunity populated with caricatures of former rebels. Instead she did what she does best. She takes ordinary characters with ordinary lives and brings them, their choices and their cultural experiences into focus with a steady unsentimental eye. We Had It So Good is not Grant's best novel but it is very, very good and I will gladly take close to the best from her verses the best from a thousand other authors.

The Hangman's Daughter

For the past six months or so I have been seeing a lot of positive reviews for the novel The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch and I was intrigued. I have been wanting to try something in Amazon's Crossing publishing program. These are translated titles that Amazon themselves publishes in the U.S. This novel is historical fiction set in Germany in 1659, it's chubby coming in at 431 pages and Amazon priced it right at roughly $6. It's right up my alley. How could I resist?
This historical mystery begins with the unexpected death of a child. The boy is found to have what appears to be a satanic symbol on his shoulder and immediate cries of witchcraft race through the village. Then come more missing/dead children, angry mobs, false arrests, interfering officials, a gang of orphans and hidden agendas. Stepping up to solve the crimes and save the old midwife accused of witchcraft are the local hangman/village healer/closet intellectual and the new physician in town who is in love (the forbidden kind) with the hangman's daughter.

If the contemporary dialog doesn't make you give up on the book entirely then the historical trappings of the novel are enough to hold a degree of interest for you. The lives of executioners is certainly an untapped area in historical fiction and Potzsch brings up many interesting details of their lives but without any insight into their characters the book is like reading a kiddie encyclopedia. Potzsch does not bring anything new to the other historical aspects of the novel or indeed to the plot. It's too bad. The world of the hangman could have supported a much better written and researched novel.

Well, two softball games  later I'm done with The Hangman's Daughter. It was...a snooze. Who knows if it was the writing or the translation or a combination of both but this book was turgid. There is a lot of racing through town, breaking down doors doors, near misses, mysterious deaths and general mayhem combined with a potentially exciting setting and premise so it's a little surprising to me that I was so bored through most of this novel but there you have it. Go figure. The real mystery here is the one where bad writing killed an inviting idea placed in an under used setting.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Tortoise and the Hare

I had never heard of Elizabeth Jenkins although she is the author of 20+ books. That’s not so surprising I guess. She is a British author with only one title currently available in the U.S. However, when I did a little research I found that Jenkins was critically acclaimed and financially successful during her career. She was good friends with Elizabeth Bowen and Rebecca West. She was slighted by Virginia Woolf, won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for her 1934 Harriet and passed away last September at 104 years old. All that should qualify her for a major rediscovery, right? A Masterpiece Theater series or at the very least an appreciative article in a major newspaper or magazine.

My girl Hilary Mantel was the means of my discovery of Elizabeth Jenkins. Ah Hilary. She always does me good. I had gone to my local for a copy of Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety to give to a friend. This is a new friend. The only reason I meet people these days is to have someone else to pass that novel along to. That book is one of my favorite novels of all time. It is a brilliant retelling of the French Revolution through the eyes of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins. Anyway, right there in the middle of Hilary’s shelf space between Wolf Hall (How nice would it be to read that again for the first time!) and Fludd (The scene where the spinster housekeeper is making herself a wedding band out of a sweets wrapper? Genius!) was a copy of The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins.

It was fate. My girl wrote the introduction to Tortoise. Her name was on the cover big as life along with the authors’ and a bookseller’s mistake became my delighted discovery. The understandable mis-shelving created a new author experience for me. So thank you confused bookseller.
The Tortoise and the Hare is a title with immediate meaning for any reader. We all know that story, slow but sure the tortoise wins the race. Elizabeth Jenkins does not rewrite this fable so much as she redefines it as a study of marriage. She also talented and smart enough to never let you feel comfortable in your choice of which character is the tortoise and which is the hare.
Your choices are Imogen and Blanche. Imogen is a young 37. She is an attractive, self-effacing, passive, show piece wife. A good hostess, always stylish and a lover of all the arts. Blanche is a moneyed country woman. She can hunt, solve problems, and build a dam with a piece of cheese and robin’s egg shell. She is short, stout with legs like a bull and is a settled 52 years old. The race to win, their competition, is Evelyn Gresham. Evelyn is a successful 50 year old barrister and Imogen’s husband . Imogen and Evelyn, though not unhappy, have a marriage based on her adoration and his condescending affection. Could Imogen possibly lose her husband to Margaret Rutherford’s twin?
Jenkins rounds out this unusual love triangle with a clear eyed look at neighbors, friends and the upper middle class country life of the period. With the exception of Blanche all of the other adults in the novel juxtapose the Gresham’s relationship in some way. For better and worse they are well drawn examples of the road not taken.
Thinking this might be a little chicklit-y? Think again, my friend. This is an intricate comedy of manners with ever more well defined characters encased in absolutely gorgeous writing. The kind of writing that makes you read sentences over and over again. I adored The Tortoise and the Hare and I cannot wait to read more Elizabeth Jenkins!

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Watery Part Of The World

In The Watery Part of the World, author Michael Parker has built his story around two historical facts. The first is that in 1813 Theodosia Burr Alston the daughter of Aaron Burr and the wife of the governor of South Carolina disappeared when the schooner she boarded in South Carolina failed to arrive in New York. The second fact is that in 1970 two elderly white woman and one African American man were the last townspeople to leave a small barrier island off the coast of South Carolina. These two events bookend a very interesting novel imagining the 150 year history of that small island.

Thanks to a doting  Father, Theo was probably one of the very best educated women in the United States. In 1813 she was headed to New York to fight the treason charges against her father when her ship seemingly vanished. In Parker's story, Theo's ship is attacked by pirates and she eventually winds up on Yaupon Island in the Outer Banks. Her rescue from the pirates and survival comes about as the result of help from a hermit and freed slave, Whaley. Theo's long term survival is aided by her mad belief that despite being trapped on the island she is still a vital part of her Father's defense. She cannot give in to death while she is still needed. All the other trappings of her former life rapidly fall away in the face of a life spent scavenging the beaches for anything edible or useful.

Sisters Maggie and Whaley and Woodrow, a man compelled to help them, came to be the last citizens on the island because of safety concerns. There have been too many floods, hurricanes, storms for people to be willing to live on Yaupon and for the mainland to support services on the island so in old age they become evacuees. Why they have stayed on the island is complicated. It goes beyond this place having been their home all their lives to history. Woodrow feels that he somehow owes it to his late wife to stay. His tie to the sisters is no Driving Miss Daisy. It is deep and dark. He is a direct decedent of the freed slave that saved Theodosia's life more than a century before. Maggie and Whaley are the last survivors of a doomed race, people that time forgot. They are the last descendants of Theo and of the island. Their lives have always been measured by the island. For them moving to the mainland might as well be moving to the moon.

Parker alternates the chapters between Theo's story and her decedents. Woodrow, Maggie, Whaley and the anthropologists who periodically visit to record their lives each have their own points of view represented. So while Theo's story has a straightforward authority coming only from herself, the parts of novel that deal with the more recent past have a more intricate jumble to them.

Despite the presence of pirates, pestilence and perversity The Watery Part of the World is not an action a minute read. Nor given the starting points for the novel is it reliable historical fiction that details a particular moment in time. Michael Parker has made his book a meditation about isolation, how habit can kidnap a life and the strange and powerful relationships that develop when choice is not an option. This is a beautifully written character study that is just shy of being a fantastic novel.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Butterfly's Child

Butterfly's Child is a first for me. It is a novel that continues an opera. The opera is Puccini's  Madama Butterfly and the novel is the What If story of her son. Most of us have absorbed the basic unhappy love story of Madama Butterfly through pop culture osmosis without ever having seen any production. In the early 20th century a beautiful Geisha named enters a marriage contract with an American navel officer, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. The Geisha falls deeply in love with her husband and he seems to love her as well. After he goes back to sea she bares him a child. Three years later Pinkerton returns to his faithful, longing wife with his new, American wife, Kate. Pinkerton is too cowardly to confront his Japanese wife and instead leaves his American bride to do that. Not willing to live a life disgraced by her husband's betrayal, the Geisha sends her son into the garden and kills herself.
Author Angela Davis-Gardner (whose book Plum Wine I recently read and enjoyed very much) begins her novel with three year old Benji leaving his home in Nagasaki to live on the family farm in Illinois with his father Frank and stepmother Kate. The plan is to tell the neighbors that blond haired, Asian featured Benji is a newly adopted orphan in need of conversion to Christianity. You don't need to have a Magic 8 Ball to know that this blended family is in for a world of trouble.
Benji does what is expected of him around the farm and at school but is ever the outsider. His parentage is a taboo subject at home but a favorite gossip topic in the community. He grows up dutiful and eager to please but with a burning desire to know more about his birthplace and real family. Daddy Frank is no farmer but he does get very good at drinking and remorse. Stepmother Kate has trouble loving her husband's love child and reconciling that resentment with her faith. When the truth about Benji's background comes out (Come on! That cannot be a spoiler.) his fragile family cannot take the strain. That and the reaction of the neighbors send him racing back to Japan in search of the truth about his Mother.
Davis-Gardner moves Butterfly's Child confidently between the complex culture of Japan and the seemingly open book life on an American farm with imagination and style. The characters that she has purloined and those she created slowly open up like a fan revealing their hearts and capturing our intense interest. She has replaced the opera's grandeur with an intricate layering of relationships and the lure of deeply held secrets. Davis-Gardner has taken a much treasured story and dared to enlarge it. Bravo.

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You

The Publisher of  My Dear I Wanted To Tell You describes the novel as, "a poignant testament to the power of enduring love". ~~sigh~~ That's the kind of vapid phrase that can make me put down a book immediately. I didn't though. The cover was too pretty and the description also had these tidbits: "Rose joins the nursing corps to work with a pioneering plastic surgeon treating wounded" and "necessarily imperfect rehabilitation".

"Necessarily Imperfect Rehabilitation". Those are not three words that I could ever have the imagination to string together. They sound so sadly Frankenstein-ish, so like an understated military evaluation of a crippling medical evaluation. Perfectly in keeping with a novel set during World War I like My Dear I Wanted To Tell You by Louisa Young.

In Young's novel the war to end all wars gets a masculine and feminine point of view. Three of the main characters are the girls they left behind: Julia, Rose and Nadine. Upper crust Julia spends the War trying to stay the exact same beautiful woman her husband married while spinster cousin Rose and young Nadine join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). VAD was made up of mostly untrained middle class women who became hospital staff, cooks and ambulance drivers during the War. They served in Great Britain and at the front. Along with the independence and training VAD provided her, Rose finds a purpose for her life. Nadine's service gives her the opportunity to grow up exposed to a much wider world than she would ever have known if not for the War.

The characters that make up the masculine side of the novel are Peter and Riley. Peter is Julia's husband. He has turned to alcohol to get through the War and become a sullen caricature of the gentleman he was. Riley joins up in a rash romantic gesture and ends up in Peter's unit. Riley is an innocent from the wrong side of the tracks in love since childhood with the above his station Nadine. There is more than a touch of Atonement in their relationship.

The title, My Dear I Wanted To Tell You, is the greeting from real postcards used during the War. These postcards were handed out to wounded men as a way for them to help prepare their families for the brisk and brutal military notification of their injuries that would follow. One of the differences between WWI and the previous conflicts were the numbers of soldiers who survived. The most interesting part of the novel concerns the advancements in reconstructive and plastic surgery at the time. These pioneering medical treatments meant that more men were returning home with physical scars and loss of limb to test their survival on a whole new front.

Although My Dear I Wanted To Tell You is more romance that clear eyed study of war at home and on the front, Young does a good job conveying the horrors all five characters face. These are people completely unprepared for everything the War will bring them in contact with and Young's treatment of their successes and failures has a truth based in strong research. That is nothing new in the author's use of war to emphasize the social and scientific changes of the period but that does not diminish her compelling storytelling. For all the similarities to Atonement, Birdsong, Regeneration and Brideshead Revisited, My Dear I Wanted To Tell You is still an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Seen That Disney Movie, Bridesmaids?

I saw the movie Bridesmaids last night. It was....underwhelming. There were a few very funny moments but there were many more long, drawn out trying to be funny moments. The first fifteen minutes can be avoided and the entire three hour long look-at-me-I'm-stoned-and-I-didn't-mean-to-be bit on the airplane that felt like no one actually wrote it (and I mean that in a painful way not a hey isn't improv great way) could have been jettisoned. Or maybe just made funny?.

The reason I bring Bridesmaids up at all is the ending. After the predictably boring wedding finally happens the heroine goes off into the sunset with a man to have a happily ever after. I know the movie was about being in a wedding so it's not out of left field to have an ending that leads you to believe that another wedding will happen. Yea. I'm all for love but throughout the film the heroine's life has been a train wreck. This woman is jobless, career-less, broke, would be homeless except that she can move in with her Mother, self pitying, and willing to be unhappy in a bad relationship presumably just to have a relationship but the movie has a happy ending because the heroine is with a man at the end of the movie. So Bridesmaids is just like a Disney Princess cartoon except that the Princesses are a lot more likable and have great hair.

Jill Clayburgh was in Bridesmaids. It was nice to see her again and sad that we won't be seeing her again. Too bad that the woman who starred in one of the few movies about a woman choosing independence over couplehood, An Unmarried Woman, wound up in yet another movie that isn't as funny or honest as you thought it might be and that lets women everywhere know that everything will be fine if they have a man.