Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Line

There are places all over the world where waiting in line or queuing up is done with good grace. Not so in the U.S. Here we know we will be in line at the DMV and the deli counter and we can pull it together and struggle through but put us in a line at the bank, the checkout or the bathroom and life quickly becomes intolerable.  Juxtapose that with the images of Japanese citizens who lost loved ones, their homes, their treasured mementos and their livelihoods in the earthquake in March and yet waited patiently in day-long lines for everything.

You cannot think about the bad old days of the U.S.S.R. without thinking of  the endless lines for bread, toilet paper and seemingly all of life’s necessities. Apparently lines could form in an instant if a report circulated that an item was about to be scarce. Life taught that no matter what the prize at the end of the line was going to be it was something that you shouldn’t risk not getting when you could. It’s this Soviet experience that is the starting point for the novel The Line by OlgaGrushin.
The line that  Grushin forms in her story  is for concert tickets. It is Leningrad 1962 and rumor has it that the great Selinsky (Think Stravinsky.) will be returning for a concert after years of political and artistic exile. Wife, mother and teacher Anna sees the queue, hears the whispers and joins the line. It doesn’t matter that if the concert is happening that it won’t be until the following year.  Soon the line is 300 people long. There they wait through winter, spring and fall in front of the closed kiosk. Not only is the concert a rumor but so is the on sale site for the tickets. Once in a while the kiosk opens, the lined up sigh happily but the tickets turn out to be for state sanctioned folk dance performances. Still the music lovers stand their ground.

Anna and her family take turns waiting in line. Husband Sergei longs to be part of real music. He makes a living as a tuba player in a band that performs at parades and state sponsored celebrations. Sergei and Anna have a do-nothing, ungrateful son, Alexander . He is supposed to be attending classes at the University but isn’t. He wants a ticket in order to scalp it. Grandma sees the ticket as a reminder of her youth. She was a ballerina back in the Czar days and was for a brief moment Sergei’s mistress.
The Line and the line both move at a slow pace but I was so caught up in the exaggerated interactions, the misadventures and the strategies  of the lined up that it was only an occasional issue for me. Using the conceit of the line as a way to tell the story and recreate the U.S.S.R., Grushin builds a picaresque Waiting for Godot kind of community. The odd suspense of waiting or maybe worry about those waiting, the cross section of society and the culture of being in line all come together with Grushins’ talent and make a very interesting,  pleasing  and a little exotic read.

P.S. The cover on the paperback above? It looks the boarding line for a Carnival cruise. Take a look at the art for the hardcover edition. Much better don't you think? Evocative and attractive.
You know where you are going to be but nothing is given away. Good job.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Good Muslim

The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam is the sequel to her novel, The Golden Age. In that accomplished novel she chronicled the 1971 Bangladesh War for Independence through the fortunes of the Haque family.  Rehana Haque was a widow who was thrust into the war because of the involvement of her two teenage children, Maya and Sohail. Anam’s portrait of a quiet family without political leanings suddenly finding they have to choose sides and take a stand in a civil war they neither wanted nor saw coming is a compelling reading experience.

The Good Muslim picks up the story of the Haques in 1984. The war is long over but the recovery has been slow.  Rehana seems to have spent all her energies saving her children during the war and is now too tired even to referee their constant conflict with one another. Sohail has gone from being a revolution created freedom fighter to devout Muslim, widower and single parent.  Maya abandoned her surgical studies and has been working as a village doctor in rural Bangladesh. The unconditional love and loyalties that once bound the family have been destroyed.

Maya’s antagonism and bitterness is the driving force of this novel.  Immediately following the war she dedicated herself to providing abortions for women raped by enemy soldiers and to delivering babies to make up for the lives she took during the war. Practicing medicine in the countryside has done nothing to bring her hope for the future or assuage her guilt. Constantly butting her head up against the patriarchal traditions of Bangladesh and appalling medical conditions Maya finally gives up and returns home.

Sohail’s grief over his dead wife as well as his actions during the war have left him seeking solace in religion.  He spends his days spreading the message while his young son is allowed to run wild.  Sohail’s spiritual awakening seems like cowardice to Maya. She cannot accept that he may have found a way to move forward. She longs to be Sohail’s confessor. She is convinced that he has not admitted to himself what he did during the war and therefore cannot be healed. Maya takes extreme action when Sohail, ignoring her pleas, sends his son to an Islamic seminary school.

In The Golden Age, Anam showed us an innocent family desperate to understand and survive a civil war. The Good Muslim takes these now damaged people from that point of lost innocence to the fight to survive the peace.  Anam does what too often historical novelists fail to do. She makes the events of the time believably affect her characters. They do not just react to the political and cultural actions happening around them they interact within those actions and as a result they change. 

This sophomore effort by Tahmima Anam fulfills the promise she showed in The Golden Age.  Life in the aftermath of war is handled with authority, compassion and imagination. She clearly understands the experiences and culture she is writing about and is willing to allow her characters to be less than perfect, always likeable people. This is not a novel about traditional heroes but with Anam’s commanding and colorful writing it is a novel about real people whose lives are lived in the kind of extremes that most of us know nothing about but thanks to Anam’s skill we can understand and appreciate this world.

Do you need to read The Golden Age to enjoy The Good Muslim? No. Will reading The Golden Age give you a deeper appreciation of The Good Muslim? Definitely.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Echo Chamber

The Echo Chamber is the fantastical life story of Evie Steppman. She spent her much of her childhood in Nigeria when it was under British rule. When the revolution came she and her civil servant Father moved to Scotland. Now it’s 40 years later and Evie has sequestered herself in the attic of her Scotland home in order to write her memoirs. Evie may be mentally ill and therefore an unreliable narrator. She definately suffers from tinnitus and is challenging herself to write this memoir before the ringing in her ears renders her unable to think of anything else.
Evie’s, formerly, magnificent hearing plays a big part in the mythos of The Echo Chamber. She remembers being in the womb and listening to her Father tell her stories, sing her songs and in general explaining the history of the world to her all the while never coming to the end of anything.  Her mother she has no memory of. Evie tells us that she killed her Mother because she wouldn’t be born. Happily two months late Evie was unwilling to leave her cozy home and join the world.

When Evie does arrive she is off to an auspicious start with her cradle next to her Mother’s coffin but she is more of a witness to all that comes next instead of a participant. All around her swirls characters that fascinate. Her family tree includes a watchmaker Grandfather who attempts to build a replica of his dead wife. Her extended family of servants, friends and a lover experience the end of colonialism, war and genocide.

Author Luke Williams uses Evie as our tour guide through her life and as any good guide will do she makes frequent stops to share history, opinions and the lives of others. These interjections bounce through the novel like they would in a conversation. This leads to that, wait a minute listen to this first, maybe it all happened this way, etc. There is not a linear storyline  in The Echo Chamber. The structure is like the Louis De Bernieres novel Birds Without Wings or magic realism with stories within stories, shifts in time periods and a very broad view taken by Evie as to what constitutes her life story.

All the nontraditional elements that Williams employees in the book and the references in names, personal abilities and tall tales to novels like Midnight’s Children, The Tin Drum and even real people like Adolph and Eva make for fascinating reading but ultimately I think the sum total of the parts is better than the whole. There is a wealth of amazing writing in The Echo Chamber but it is all artifice. The novel always feels contrived. It fails to find an organic center that would allow the reader inside.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Oriental Wife

The Oriental Wife by Evelyn Toynton is a moving character study of loss. The novel begins in Germany during World War One where Jewish childhood friends: Rolf, Otto and Louisa play their games as the country swings from defeat and complete economic collapse to the rise of the Nazis and economic recovery. They see the mentally and physically wounded WW1 veterans everywhere but they are as much a part of the everyday landscape as are the war wounds of their parents.

As the trio grows up, Toynton concentrates her story on Louisa. She is a bright, pretty girl with a neurotic, almost abusive Mother and a kind-hearted, doting, socially conscious Father. To get Louisa out of harm’s way she is sent to a boarding school in Switzerland. Her Father’s advice that she focuses her studies in learning languages suggests that he is as worried about Louisa’s future in Germany as he is about the effect of her Mother’s mental health on her.

While at school Louisa does study diligently. She also begins a pattern of making bad choices regarding men. Her choices take her to England, California and eventually to New York City where she is rescued by Otto and Rolf. They have immigrated to escape the persecution of the Nazis. Rolf has become a successful business man who uses his time away from the office to work doggedly in aiding other refugees. Otto has become….the least realized of any of the characters in the novel. He seems to be around to be an idealized American. Someone buoyant, empathetic, whose past struggles do not shadow his future.

Appropriately enough given their new life in the new world where the past can be jettisoned, Louisa and Rolf begin a 1930’s Hollywood romantic relationship. Louisa is the free spirited heroine who will bring fun and optimism to Rolf’s stiff and plodding good guy. The problem is that neither one of them is what they seem. Louisa’s flighty humor masks a deep fear of expressing any negativity that will result in being rejected and then alone. Below Rolf’s role as protector of the weak and integrity filled humanitarian is a hypocrite whose help to others is a need to make their weaknesses invisible. Their happiness will depend on how well they can protect their self-deceptions from real life.

This is a war story where all the battle scenes are civilian and interior. Toynton uses our knowledge of history to her advantage. She doesn’t pad The Oriental Wife with dates and names. She realizes that by merely mentioning a battle or an event she can call upon our awareness of the time period and that we will then fill in the cultural outline ourselves.

Toynton’s transcendent examination of not only Louisa and Rolf but also of their daughter, Louisa’s parents, the elderly Jewish immigrants Sophia and Gustav and the housekeeper Mrs. Sprague is masterful. Toyton makes the most of the smallest action of her characters. Everything is telling. The writing is incredibly impressive. The Oriental Wife isn’t a novel you read to find out what happens next so much as to find out why it couldn’t happen any other way.

P.S. The cover? Exquisite! What is it about shoes that can make a cover so appealing? I'm no shoe person and still I find them irresistible .

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Golden Age

In 1971 East Pakistan was on the brink of war. The recent elections had done little to allay the fears that poverty, disease, bigotry and natural disasters have created. It is a country besieged by civil unrest but it is also a country of families whose lives were consumed with the day to day of getting by and who could not afford to turn their efforts to politics even in those circumstances.
Author TahmimaAnam uses this moment in history as her starting point for The Golden Age. Unaware of the coming troubles, hope in the household of single mother Rehana Haque is a tangible thing. Years ago after the death of her husband she had to bowed to tradition, family pressure and inequality when she was forced to give up her son, Soheil and daughter, Maya. That sad and mortifying experience instilled a lifelong insecurity and guilt in Rehana that hasn’t dissipated even now that her son and daughter are almost grown.

Rehana’s careful dreams for her children shatter when the Bangladesh War for Independence begins. This is not a war of faraway battles. This is happening on Rehana’s doorstep. In short order Soheil and Maya are caught up in the demonstrations and rebellion and Rehana’s life is no longer about creating a better future for her family it’s about keeping her family alive in the immediate future.

In the quality of the writing, The Golden Age is definitely divided in two. This division isn’t deliberate; it’s the result of the second half of the novel being so much stronger than the first. Granted the drama quotient would naturally be ramped up to the sky in the second half because hey there’s a war. However given how well Anam handles the chaos, complexities and drama of politics and relationships once the war starts it’s surprising that she was unable to build a similar level of interest if not urgency into the Haque family’s back-story and earlier struggles. Not to mention the history that lead to the Bangladesh War of Independence itself.

Although Anam does not stint on fascinating and diverse culture elements that are specific to the Bangladeshi and Pakistanis she is still able to make The Golden Age is a universal story of mother love and war. Do not kid yourself that because the novel takes place in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh that this is about things that only happen in distant lands. Sadly, looked at event by event the plot could be set anywhere in the world and at any time period.

Once Anam gets her characters and plot to a boil, The Golden Age takes off. Suddenly the book gains authority and empathy over the historical and intimate elements of the story and a really good novel miraculously appears.

P.S. If you are a movie fan you will be know that the author completely goofed with a reference to the movie Cleopatra. Don’t let it hold you back. Bad fact checking is annoying but in this case the novel is worth taking a deep breath and moving on.

And. Here is the jacket from the hardcover. How much more interesting and inviting is this than the insipid image and design of the paperback?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Inspector Ghote

I have to say first how much I love, love, love this cover. Isn't it gorgeous?

My purchase of The Perfect Murder by H.R.F. Keating was based solely on the cover of the book. I had never heard of the author or the book or the series. Yet again my superficiality led me to good choices. How I love being shallow. It really pays off for me.

The Perfect Murder is the first in a series of detective novels. The detective is the Indian copper Inspector Ghote of the Bombay (now Mumbai) CID. After falling in love with the cover design to find that the murder victim is the elderly private secretary Mr. Perfect cemented my affection. I knew then that this was no crush. It was love.

Mr. Perfect had been employed by Lala Arun Varde a very rich man with influence at the highest levels. It is soon apparent that Mr Varde's distress at his secretary's death is not because of any deep feeling for a fellow man but because he sees the murder as an attack on him by business rivals. The Inspector is assured that any number of people would want to see Varde out of the way. However Varde is unwilling to name names and Ghote is hesitant to push such an important man. it yourself. It is a murder mystery after all.

Since discovering Inspector Ghote I have read the first four books in the series. They are terrific throwbacks to pre-laboratory procedurals. There is no DNA, traced cell phone calls or magical scientifically found evidence. The Inspector gets his man by old fashioned police work: knocking on doors, interviewing suspects, checking alibis, deductive reasoning, common sense, the dogged pursuit of justice and clues. There are bad guys, good guys, a corruption and political posturing. On the local color side Keating packs each novel with a tour of Indian life and culture for the high brow, the low brow and all the brows in between.

The Inspector is a diffident man with a great deal of integrity and a humanistic view of mankind. He does not have a flashy character traits or an unhappy personal life. He's more of a marriage of Maigret and Precious Ramotswe than the current crop of cranky Swedes or moody American gumshoes. Hooray for that. I'm tired of ever more gruesome murders and disturbed killers. I want my victims to be cheating maids, money hungry industrialists or distraught housewives and I want my murderers to be understandable: greedy, jealous or vengeful. Thanks to H.R.F. Keating I can get to read sixteen more excellent mysteries that will meet all my demands.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Far to Go

Far to Go by Alison Pick is the affecting story of one family’s struggle to escape the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Bauers, Pavel and Anneliese, are a young, educated, affluent couple. They live a happy life with their six year old son, Pepik and his nanny, Marta. The Bauers have a successful business, a lovely home, a thriving social life. They take trips to London and the Adriatic coast every year. The quiet village where they live is centuries old. It is a picture postcard place of peace and tolerance.

All this is lovely until 1938 when the Nazis arrive. The Bauers are Jewish.  For them the loss of freedoms and the increase of indignities and atrocities begin immediately. Pavel cannot believe what is happening. Worse, he cannot believe that the bigotry and terrorism will get worse. He loves his country and is optimistic about peoples’ willingness to do the right thing. Annaliese is more of a pragmatist. She sees the writing on the wall but she can’t see how to escape it. Soon it becomes vital that the family must flee Czechoslovakia to avoid deportation to the camps.

A series of bad choices by the Bauers and Marta puts them all in even more terrifying danger. These events are unprecedented, overwhelming. None of them are sure what to do, what will be safe, what will work.  Through Marta’s efforts they are able to secure a place on Kindertransport for Pepik. This might mean safety for Pepik but the choices for the Bauers and Marta continue to narrow.

Paralleling this story, Pick brings in the tale the narration of a contemporary Holocaust historian whose special area is the Kindertransport. This academic whose identity the reader doesn’t know for most of the novel, takes a special interest in the Bauer’s story. It’s a tough trick for a writer to be able to divide a book between an emotional hurricane like Jews verses Nazis and a modern day study of those same events and have both parts be of equal interest for the reader. In this effort Pick is not successful.  You are invested in the Bauers and Marta in ways that Pick isn’t able to make happen in the academic’s pursuit of what happened.

Far to Go is on the Man Booker Prize longlist this year and despite some unevenness it’s easy to see why.  Pick does a magnificent job in telling what could be an overwrought story simply. In giving the narration to the gentile, Marta, Pick shows us multiple and diverse reactions to the invasion. The documents and letters included in the text add authority. Best of all Pick allows the small details of the happy life before and the perilous life after build the drama in her storytelling and the book is all the more moving because of that.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

There was a time long before you or I was born when to be a celebrity was an achievement. Prior to 1900 celebrity status was something that only a criminal, a war hero, a vaudevillian, a fallen woman or someone with a title could reach. It wasn't as easy as up loading a video to the Internet or saying something stupid to a reporter. It required great effort and not an insignificant amount of luck.

One of the biggest celebrities of the 19th century was the 32 inch tall Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump also known as Mrs Tom Thumb. Vinnie, as she was called, was born in Massachusetts in 1841. She was born into a normal sized family. Her three older siblings were all average height. Only Vinnie and her younger sister Mabel stopped growing as toddlers. They were perfectly proportioned dwarves.

Author Melanie Benjamin has already (Very!) successfully fictionalized the life of woman brought to prominence by someone else, Alice Liddell Hargreaves of Alice In Wonderland in her novel Alice I Have Been. Now with her new novel, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Benjamin imagines the life of another woman whose life was taken over by someone else. In this case it was P.T. Barnum. Could Benjamin be inventing a new genre? I hope so. Her subject choices are fascinating and her writing is wonderful. I could stand another few decades of novels like these.

Vinnie lived one of those lives that beg the "you couldn't make this up" description. At a time when the average woman lived a family-centric, incredibly hard working life Vinnie looked for ways to assert her independence. She didn't see herself as a victim or handicapped. Vinnie allowed the world to define her by her size but on her terms. She chose to be a victor not a victim. She brought herself to the attention to Barnum. He made her a star and then married her off to a superstar. Her wedding pushed the Civil War off the front pages for a week. She was a favorite of kings and presidents.

Although this is Vinnie’s story told from her point of view, it is not the story of Saint Vinnie. This woman was a handful. Benjamin uses the relationships in Vinnie’s life to effectively play off Vinnie’s public charm and stoicism against her private fears and isolation. Benjamin does not let all the important people in Vinnie’s life fall by the wayside either. Her sister Mable, her husband Charles Stratton a.k.a. Tom Thumb and Barnum are all fully drawn.

Benjamin fully explores the home life, the show biz life and the personal life of Vinnie all the while keeping the America of the 1800's squarely in the picture. The events, culture and attitudes of the period are perfectly captured. In that way The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is a vest pocket Ragtime. It has the same tremendously engaging layering of personality and history---only with a much smaller cast of characters.

I was enchanted with The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb from beginning to end. Melanie Benjamin has written a powerfully entertaining portrait of an amazing woman who lived a remarkable life.

Does it have a beautiful cover? Kudos to whoever did the cover for Alice I Have Been as well. Perfect.

Monday, August 1, 2011

O What A Beautiful Day!

I am not a re-reader. I would like to be a re-reader but the lure of what hasn't yet been read is too great and I don't organize my time well enough to juggle the re-read with my need to gratify my new book lust. The few books that I hold onto on purpose are my re-read wish list but I don't harbor any illusions that re-reading will actually happen.
And then...Hear the angels start to sing?...something lovely happened. When my beautiful niece O, who has been sixteen for a scant fourteen days, spent the night she started reading a book from the re-read wish list shelf, Les Miserables. She told me that she "had always heard about it" but had never read it. Could she borrow it? Oh please. It as all I could do to keep from hugging the stuffing out of my girl and then immediately scheduling unlimited read time for O for the next week.
Then the day got sunnier, the birds got chirpier, little pixies mended my socks and O and I had a long discussion (!!!!) weighing the pros and cons of reading the classics in school verses contemporary YA novels like (O's example) Speak. She thinks that Speak is a good book but she wants the classics used in school. I played devil's advocate and spoke up for the YA's even though I was secretly dee-lighted that she has great expectations (Get it? I kill me.)for her school reading assignments.
How lucky am I?