Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Barbarian Nurseries

I have to compare The Barbarian Nurseries to The Help. Both novels are about the inequities between the moneyed and their domestic servants and shine a light on the plight of those the majority opts to keep voiceless in society. And. I'll be honest I am not a big fan of the novel The Help.

We all know the story that The Help tells correct? Ok then moving on to The Barbarian Nurseries by HéctorTobar. In this contemporary novel the Torres-Thompson family of Los Angeles and their illegal Mexican housekeeper, Araceli become the center of a media storm. Maureen and Scott Torres-Thompson and their three young children are currently on a downwardly mobile, downsizing spree after comfortable affluence. They have excised the gardener and the nanny and now only have their housekeeper as their badge of success.

When the troubles in their marriage accelerate into an argument that sends Maureen through a glass coffee table she flees with the baby. In the meantime Scott needs his break and he goes off to make himself feel better with another woman. Neither Maureen nor Scott has bothered to tell Araceli that she is now alone and in charge of the two young boys.

Having no instructions from their parents and indeed not knowing where Maureen and Scott are and when they will be back, Araceli decides to bring the boys to their Grandfather’s home in a different part of L.A. This is no simple over the river and through the woods trip to Grandfather’s house. Araceli has only a vague idea of how to get where she feels compelled to bring the boys for their own wellbeing. Their journey is a trip through a reality that verses the economically and socially cloistered lives of the status seeking Torres-Thompsons.

Tobar takes this framework and escalates the plot twists into an all too believable frenzy. The parents and the missing maid with children in tow are the stuff that media circuses feed off of. Tobar spares no character, no social concern, no popular theory his inventive, warts and all scrutiny in this mesmerizing novel.

So? The Help and The Barbarian Nurseries? They both have an important message to impart about the shamefully real circumstances of oppressed people in a free, wealthy nation and are written by talented storytellers. However The Help is ultimately a feel good victory of the morally worthy underdog story whereas The Barbarian Nurseries is a more honest and therefore more scathing novel that doesn’t allow the reader the safety of either distance or deniability. A+.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Leopard

You know, back in the day I would have thought that in the fictional universe Cabot Cove was the murder capitol of the world but I have since realized, as we all have, that title belongs to Scandinavia. Just in case there are any doubts here is the new Harry Hole novel, The Leopard, by Jo Nesbø to reinforce my opinion.

In his previous novel Nesbø had Harry catching a serial killer known as The Snowman and almost losing himself in the process.  In The Leopard Nesbø finds another multiple murderer for Harry to investigate. Apparently there’s a lot of that going around in Norway.  Not to worry however Harry Hole is here to if not make sense of it then to at least put the bad guys behind bars.

Harry is my go to read among the Scandinavian crime spree novels. I never fell under the spell of Steig Larson or Henning Menkell but Jo Nesbø gets the job done for me. Harry has many of the classic detective attributes: problems with authority, a wealth of failed relationships and a liking for all the things that are bad for him but Nesbø is talented enough to make all that fresh.

The plot of The Leopard? Nesbø knows how to make it big, fast moving, stuffed with good characters and keep everything one step ahead of his readers. You will not hear any details or a summary from me. I don’t want to give away a morsel of a mystery if I can help it.  Suffice to say that The Leopard is every bit as good, as intense and as satisfying as Nesbø’s other (Excellent!) Harry Hole novels.

Monday, December 12, 2011

I Got A Kindle Fire So Why Am I Complaining?

I have never desired an e-reader. There are aesthetic reasons, textural reasons, shopping reasons and the biggest reason of all. I simply do not want to turn a book on in order to read it. Being a reader to me is something exciting, enjoyable sometimes beyond measure, private (Yes, I blog reviews but only one other human who knows me knows that I do that and thus it shall ever be.) and completely devoid of technology. I do not want a book with an “On” button.

Last month a dear friend of mine was given an Amazon Kindle Fire as a party favor. Take a moment and imagine that life. Not only is this friend no reader but she has all the tech toys she wants. If as the result of a Christmas miracle she should suddenly want to read she could do so quite easily on I this-es and that-s.

So dear friend sent me this Kindle Fire with a note saying, “I know you don’t want this but try it and pass it on if you hate it.” I have followed her instructions. The outcome is that after playing with the Kindle and reading on the Kindle off and on for 3 weeks I do hate it. Not only is this machine boring and s-l-o-w but it’s ugly. The  layout of the ‘home page’, the carousel thing and the fact that these images cannot be altered and arranged on a background of my choosing instead of the hideous faux wooden bookcase (What is the point of that by the way? Is the unpleasant looking shelving supposed to lull me into thinking that in my hands is a marvelous library?) offends my sensibilities.

I don’t like the name of the thing either, Kindle Fire. Owwww… it will kindle you’re love of reading. Seriously? This was the best thinking that a giant, global company like Amazon could come up with? People got paid for thinking up this name and deciding that it was the right choice? What kind of world do we live in?

The Fire part? Why? It’s so hot, it will burning up the competition, set your mind on fire? Or perhaps it’s Amazon’s not so subtle hope that paper books will now only be good for setting on fire and using as kindling?

I have no problem with others liking e-readers. Go your own way people. My way is the kill a tree and make me a book out of it way. The Kindle Fire formerly known as mine has a new master, my nephew. He’s happy to have it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Catherine the Great verses Charles Dickens

I read a lot of biographies but I almost never (and by that I mean never I think) review them here. Why? I somehow don't feel qualified to do that. I'm no historian or scholar so I cannot comment on accuracy or compare the newest bio of Jack Big Cheese with the book that was considered the definitive bio of Jack when it was released five years ago. However I somehow do feel equal to the task of sharing my opinions on fiction. 

Go figure. We all have issues.

The last two biographies I read were so completely satisfying, entertaining and enlightening that I am forced to write about them. I don’t want anyone who has the slightest interest in these two books to pass on them for any reason. Reviewing these biographies is not a wave of change but rather my continuing, overwhelming desire to force the books that I enjoy onto others. Let the nagging begin.

Must read #1 is Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. You already know the basics of Dickens life going into this book so why read the bio? As readers all that enriches your reading experience is worth investigating and that’s what this book will do. Not only does Tomlinson tell Dickens’ story but she also tells the story of his novels. In a sense reading Charles Dickens is like taking an amazing course on Victorian history, the life of Charles Dickens and the novels of Dickens given by the professor of your dreams.

The biggest surprise for me regarding Charles Dickens: A Life? It was the extent of which money controlled his life. The fear of not having it, the many ways he earned it, money verses art and the amount of money he needed.

Must read #2 is Catherine the Great Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie. Again you know the basics so why read the bio? Well there is the woman herself. A truly unique, ahead of her time, heroine and then there is the mystery of Russia. Massie does justice to them both. Massie explains how a minor German princess became one of the most powerful leaders in history with all the juicy enthusiasm of a novelist and all the big picture insight of a Monday morning quarterback.

The biggest surprise? The control that Catherine was able to take over her own life despite having to kowtow to an Empress that could change Catherine’s life with as much effort as it takes to swat a fly. Catherine the Great might be the ultimate example of reinventing yourself.

Massie and Tomalin are no Johnny-come-lately-s to writing amazing biographies. They each have a rich pile of work under their belt. In Charles Dickens and Catherine the Great they have chosen subjects worthy of their attention and our fascination. They are masters at the creation of great reading out of thorough research. No small feat. You don’t read Charles Dickens: A Life and Catherine the Great Portrait of a Woman so much as you settle in with two spellbinding storytellers who happily acquaint you with the fascinating life and times of the most remarkable people you wish you had met.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Hummingbird's Daughter

The Hummingbird’s Daughter is the kind of ask no questions novel that you surrender yourself to.  Author Luis Alberto Urrea has based his novel on the life of his Aunt Teresita, the “Saint of Cabors”. If even half of the events in the book really happened then Aunt Teresita had an amazing life. Teresita’s life is a series journeys between poverty, revolutions and miracles.
Teresita was born out of wedlock in 1873 to a fourteen year old Yaqui girl and a rich rancher near the Mexico-Arizona border. Despite living in gut wrenching poverty Teresita shows that she has “gifts” and comes to the attention of the local medicine woman who takes Teresita on as an apprentice. This leads to Teresita being taken into her Father’s home and recognized by him as his daughter. When this happy ending is brutally torn apart it paves the way for the miracle that changes Teresita’s forever.
Teresita’s life is a pilgrimage. Among disenfranchised, the believers, the native peoples and the working class Mexicans her healing gifts win her a passionate following. Teresita’s own belief in her powers is not as steadfast. Those abilities also make her a person of interest to the Mexican government and the Catholic Church.       
Urrea’s writing captures the scope that a cradle to grave story requires by coupling Teresita’s story with a larger view of the period and by removing Terrsita’s halo. His portrait of the “Saint of Cabors” does not whitewash the woman that Teresita was or the people who surrounded her.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter is a storyteller’s novel. The writing is lush, the story is equal parts sacred and profane and it moves at an agreeably leisurely pace.

P.S. These are the many covers The Hummingbird’s Daughter has had. The edition I read had this cover on the left, an earlier edition had the cover bellow. These paperback covers are so pedestrian, so expecte. They are generic historical fiction covers #4 and #2. Snooze.

The big winner is the original hardcover. Isn’t this gorgeous? Why wasn’t this cover used on the paperback?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bright and Distant Shores

Set in the late 1800’s, Dominic Smith’s third novel, Bright and Distant Shores follows a Heart of Darkness template. It is the kind of historical fiction that takes men out of their natural elements, puts them in worlds where they should never be and then adds a crisis.

Following a vogue of the time a Chicago insurance kingpin Hale Gray finances an expedition to the South Seas to gather up an array of Melanesian artifacts with which to decorate his new skyscraper. Seems the perfect collection to celebrate the latest World’s Tallest Building, right? Along with the weapons, bowls and other crafts the expedition is also charged with bringing back several natives. Hmmm…

Enter the historical novel’s required orphan, Owen. Owen is the son of a late demolitions expert from the South Side.  A previous trip to Melanesia brought Owen to the attention of Gray and that led to him to hire Owen to lead a new voyage to Melanesia in order to plunder. Owen leaves the girl he loves behind and off he goes. Trouble starts almost immediately. The crew is made up of ex-cons and Jethro the spoiled son of Gray who is brought on as the expedition’s resident naturalist despite his lack of any useful experience in that area.

Owen is not happy about Gray’s insistence that some natives, related by blood, be brought back to Chicago. However despite Owens misgivings Argus Niu, a failed warrior turned Protestant  mission houseboy and his sister Malini are selected to make the return trip along with the handicrafts and wild animals. Once in the city Argus and Malini are forced to perform in racist and degrading parodies of native life.

The history in Bright and Distant Shores is interesting, the characters are strong with good backstories but it is in the blurring of worlds that this novel really excels. We start out knowing where the divide is between civilization and the wild and then Dominic Smith slowly erases that line. Bright and Distant Shores is impressively propelled by writing that entertains and questions.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Tides of War

It’s always considered a great compliment when you can say that a work of nonfiction reads like fiction but when fiction reads like nonfiction? Not so good.

Historian Stella Tillyard has written several acclaimed history books including the bestselling (and excellent) The Aristocrats*. Now she has turned her fascination with the Regency Period into a first novel, Tides of War set during the Peninsula War. This period is well known territory for Georgette Heyer fans. Of course it is also the time of Pride and Prejudice but since Austen didn’t write about the politics of the day these two novels might as well take place on different planets.

Tides of War is the story of newlyweds James and Harriet Raven and their dealings with every other person in Spain and England from 1812 to 1815. True, sort of. The Ravens do interact intimately with: the Duke and Duchess of Wellington, Nathan Rothschild, Fredric Winsor, Goya and then all the  various other historical figures who flit in and out in cameo roles,  a few  mistresses, illegitimate offspring, hundreds of soldiers, politicians, scientists and servants by the score. I estimate that by page 50 you will have been introduced to approximately 40 different characters.

Somewhere in this crush of interesting characters is a terrific historical novel. The problem is that Tillyard was not able to leave out any scrap of research or insightful anecdote she came across in order for the story to come through. It is in there. You get glimpses of it amidst all the facts along with some absolutely gorgeous descriptions of everything from the first days of gaslight to the battlefields in Spain. There is certainly a good novelist in Tillyard and a very good novel buried in Tides of War but unfortunately there wasn’t a good editor bringing them both together.

*Sadly The Aristocrats in out of print in the U.S. at the moment. It is worth trying to find in your library or a used bookstore.  It was made into an outstanding  miniseries that was every bit as good as the book. You might like that as well. I did.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Death Comes to Pemberley

It is a truth universally acknowledged that fan fiction is a sad pastiche of greater writing. Is this still true when P.D. James is the fan? The short answer is a yes, but…

In her new crime novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, James creates a murder mystery for Darcy and Elizabeth to play Nick and Nora with. Darcy and Elizabeth have now been married for 6 years, they have an heir and a spare and are in general thriving. That is until sister Lydia shows up hysterical, a search has to be made for Wickham and when his is found he’s bending over a fresh corpse.

James uses her expert eye for detail, thorough research on life and law in Georgian England and obvious love of Jane Austen to great effect then  has fun with it all. James adds bonus Austen references for the sharp-eyed to spot but she also adds her own non-Jane interests to the novel. Unlike life in Austenland, James’ early 1800’s English gentry feel the effects of the Napoleonic wars and other then current events.
Darcy who in Pride and Prejudice is a straight out of stock romantic hero becomes a fully fledged, three dimensional character in Death Comes to Pemberley.  He gets much more of the story from James than he did from Austen’s pen. Meanwhile at times Elizabeth comes across a tad duller compared to her former sparkling self.

You are not going to read Death Comes to Pemberley to get a mystery the caliber of a James’ Adam Dalgliesh book nor will you read it to discover a new Jane Austen. This novel falls enjoyably enough in between those two high water marks. It gives you the opportunity to spend time with beloved characters, do a little sleuthing and reward yourself for your Austen knowledge

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nanjing Requiem

One of the novels I have been looking forward to the most this fall is Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin. Alas…my expectations, very high after Jin’s previous six novels, were not met.
In 1937 Japanese troops took control of the Chinese capital of Nanjing from the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek. The Japanese then literally wreaked havoc on the civilians of Nanjing. In just the starting weeks of the occupation Japanese soldiers killed over 250,000 men, women and children and 20,000 women and girls were raped. As the weeks went on these numbers escalated.  
Jin has mixed a number of real historical and fictional characters from this horror and built his novel about Nanjing around them. His main pull from real life is Minnie Vautrin. Vautrin was an American missionary who tried to protect the thousands of civilians who came to the college she worked at, Ginling Girls College, seeking asylum.
There are a lot of amazing storytelling bones here and Ha Jin has proven many times before that he can write.  However his concise, documentary style doesn’t serve him well here. After an incredible, atmospheric beginning the novels stalls. Jin’s technique doesn’t fulfill the emotional need this horrendous story creates. The distance between Jin’s writing and the events of the novel is too great.
You might wonder why this shameful episode in history isn’t more widely known but then that would leave you  to wonder about how many other episodes just as horrific as this there are that you have never heard of. What happened in Nanking is something everyone should know more about but don’t bother with Nanjing Requiem. Go directly to Iris Chang's excellent The Rape of Nanking instead.