**spoiler alert** Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, this tale focuses on Sethe, a young salve who escaped to Ohio to join her mother-i**spoiler alert** Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, this tale focuses on Sethe, a young salve who escaped to Ohio to join her mother-in-law (although her marriage to Halle was not legally binding) and her three other children, and the young daughter named Denver that Sethe was pregnant with during her escape.
Eighteen years after her arrival in Ohio, she and her youngest daughter, Denver, live together in the house at 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati that is haunted by Sethe’s two-year-old daughter. The unnamed daughter is referred to as ‘Beloved’ after her death because that was the only word from the preacher’s sermon at her daughter’s funeral and the only word the funeral home would carve into the stone in exchange for sex.
The death of Beloved has marked every aspect of Denver’s life isolating her from the community at large, especially after her brothers, Howard and Buglar, escaped from the house and her grandmother, Baby Suggs, passed away. Largely housebound, Denver is unprepared for the arrival of two new people in their lives: Paul D, a former slave who knew her mother from their time together at Sweet Home, and a young woman who calls herself Beloved.
“Beloved. You are my sister. You are my daughter. You are my face; you are me. I have found you again; you have come back to me. You are my Beloved. You are mine.” (pg. 255)
Paul D is able to chase the spirit of Sethe’s eldest daughter from the home allowing Denver to finally leave the house at 124 Bluestone Road, but the supernatural presence returns when Beloved arrives and charms Sethe and Denver with her presence. As Paul D grows closer to Sethe and warier of Beloved’s presence, the black community of Cincinnati informs Paul D of how Sethe’s daughter died, of how Sethe tried to murder all four of her children in order to keep them from being returned to their owner at Sweet Home. Horrified, Paul D leaves the home allowing Sethe to become lost to the idea that the young woman named Beloved to actually her daughter returned to her at the expense of both herself and Denver.
In her preface, Morrison says she was inspired to write this book after reading an old newspaper article about an escape slave who murdered her child to prevent the her child from being returned to their owner under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required people living in “free states” to return all runaways to slavery. She explains both in the preface and in the text how slavery fractured familial relationships, how it left women like Sethe with few options to keep themselves and their families together.
Going into the story with this particular idea in mind did ruin Paul’s revelation of what Sethe did, but it also allowed me to see the forest amongst the trees, so to say. I could have easily become bogged down in Morrison’s prose, in the magical realism (which is rarely to my own taste), and in sudden shift to stream of consciousness more than halfway into the story. But I also knew I should be focusing on the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, on the guilt that accompanies hindsight, and on the everlasting mark of both slavery and murder.
On those three points, I adored this book for what it had to say. Slavery and murder are despicable evils in this world, but given the choice between the two – given the only choice one has – how can Sethe choose life in slavery over murder? She knew what that life would be like – how it would deprive her children of a family or the right to marry, how it cause them immense pain and suffering, how her daughters would be expected to bare children with a man chosen for them knowing they would be unlikely to see those children grow up.
We see the loss of her child haunt her after the fact in part because she and her three remaining children were allowed to remain free, but her actions cost the life of her beloved daughter and, eventually, the right to be in the lives of her sons. Yet she does not feel guilty about what she did even telling Paul D point blank that she cannot be faulted for “trying to put my babies where they would be safe”. She had already lost her husband, who failed to show up when it was time for them to escape from Sweet Home together, and she had already been brutalized by her new master, who had forcibly taken her milk from her that she had been trying to save for the unnamed infant upon their reunification.
And, of course, her decision cost her remaining daughter a happy and productive life as a member of Cincinnati society. Denver is an outcast because of what her mother did. She is forgotten by her brothers in their attempt to escape their mother and the haunted house, and her grandmother spent most of her remaining years keeping Denver close in order to prevent her mother from having the opportunity to kill her like she did Beloved. She never really has the freedom her mother was trying to afford to her, which is a tragedy in its own right.
I still cannot claim to be a fan of Toni Morrison’s writing, but I can say that I am a fan of what this book has to say and the viewpoint it offers to its readers. (Although, I admit that “fan” is a rather awful word to use in connection to the horrific tale told in this novel.) Another book I’m glad I added to my Classics Club list as I would not have picked it up otherwise....more
Nina Revskaya, an eighty-year-old former acclaimed ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet in the Soviet Union, has decided to sell her jewelry collection –Nina Revskaya, an eighty-year-old former acclaimed ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet in the Soviet Union, has decided to sell her jewelry collection – unique for both its contents and its origins in Soviet Russia – in an auction to benefit the Boston Ballet Foundation. Since her retirement from the Boston Ballet, Nina has largely become a recluse in her Back Bay brownstone interacting with only two chosen friends infrequently and with her nurse on a daily basis. Nina is uninterested in sharing the story of her jewelry and refuses to expand upon her largely yes-or-no answers to questions posed to her by Drew Brooks, an associate from the auction house tasked with creating a book on the jewels included in the sale.
The unsolicited arrival of an amber necklace believed to match the amber set owned by Nina offers Drew an alternative source for answers. Yet Grigori Solodin, a professor and translator of poems written by Nina’s deceased husband at a local Boston office, is just as clueless about the source of the amber necklace in his possession and hopes Drew or, better yet, Nina herself can help fill in the holes of his own personal history.
I purchased this book at the library used book sale because of four words on the back cover: Boston, Stalinist Russia, and ballet. The cover evokes a melancholy, dreamy feeling, which is part of why I was drawn to the book in the first place, but I also seem to be reading a slew of books lately featuring faceless women on the cover. The faceless theme works in this case as much of the book is spent exploring who the real Nina Revskaya is – the person defined by the past she has tried to ignore for so long – and how exactly a favored ballerina in Soviet Russia came to defect one night in Paris nearly fifty years ago.
Central to Nina’s past are her husband, the poet Viktor Elsin; her childhood friend and fellow ballerina, Vera; and the Jewish composer, Gersh. Oddly enough, these characters felt far more developed than Nina herself, who seems to largely float along from one conflict in Soviet Russia to another. Clearly, Drew is a prop character used to open the door to Nina’s past without much development on her own. The story could have done without her intrusion in the later chapters.
The mention of Grigori’s mere existence exposes the overarching mystery the novel solves, although I did appreciate the red herrings Kalotay throws into the story to try to keep this mystery fresh. And maybe the ending felt a little abrupt given how slowly drawn out the book is, but I’m not sure there needed to be a longer march given how predictable the ending was.
For all its predictability, though, Kalotay’s descriptions of Soviet Russia, of the Back Bay in Boston, of the pain ballerinas are subjected to in order to dance, and of the fear her characters felt throughout of the novel kept me from putting this one aside in favor of something else. A third of the way through this book, I found myself pondering which brownstone exactly could be Nina’s as I walked through the Back Bay late one afternoon. The descriptions add to the slow pace of the novel, but they really helped me connect with the bleakness of the Russian winter and the bleakness of a past a person might be afraid to address in their own age....more
In sixteenth century Venice, Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians and confines all Jews to a squalled ghetto, whichIn sixteenth century Venice, Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians and confines all Jews to a squalled ghetto, which they are forbidden from leaving after nightfall. Late one evening, a wealthy Count arrives with the ghetto’s rabbi in an attempt to solicit the midwifery services of Hannah Levi, a woman renowned throughout the city of Venice for her skill with complicated deliveries. Hannah wants to refuse the request for her help as she fears the edict and the possibility that the Count might decide her secret “birthing spoons” (very crude forceps) were a gift for the Devil.
Yet the outrageous sum of money the Count offers for her services is more than enough of a temptation for Hannah. Her husband, Isaac, was captured at sea and sold to people claiming to be defenders of the Christian faith, and Venice’s rabbinical council has been unable to negotiate for his release. The Count’s payment would allow Hannah to travel to Malta, where her husband is being held, to ransom Isaac before the slave traders and abusive merchants can work him to death.
The first few chapters of this book hold an immense amount of promise setting the stage for a perilous and ethical decision – should Hannah use her God-given gift for midwifery when it could cause her to permanently lose her husband, could put her community in danger, and could cause her to lose her own life? And does she dare use her “birthing spoons” that even her rabbi had qualms about blessing? Rich also provides detailed descriptions of the scenery of sixteenth century Venice, which help to explain the rampant anti-Semitism in this region and highlight how perilous life is during this time for both Jews and women whether they are Christian or not, pregnant or not.
And then the whole story begins to fall apart. Rich repeatedly asserts that the noble family Hannah has been called to assist would also face prosecution if the Papal authority learned they had solicited the services of a Jewish midwife for a Christian mother and child. Yet the family invites her to dine with them in the weeks after the birth breaking social customs and the law, which conveniently provides Rich with the opportunity to plant Hannah right in the middle of a plot to kidnap the newborn child. Her sister, Jessica, is conveniently introduced after Hannah flees the house to provide Hannah with a place of refuge, and their tenuous relationship is quickly explained and patched up in a few pages.
The narrative abruptly shifts to Malta where a cruel man and a nun from the local abbey are in a bidding war over Isaac, which interrupted the suspense of Hannah’s story, and then continues to jump back and forth from Venice to Malta throughout the book. I imagine this was done to show the peril facing both Isaac and Hannah, to show why Hannah was so determined to rescue her husband.
However, other than Hannah learning how her husband refuses to leave her over her barrenness despite the Rabbi’s pressure, there was nothing about the introduction of Isaac to the story that added dimensions to both his characterization and his and Hannah’s relationship. And I ended up largely skimming sections devoted to the subplot of him helping a slave trader with his love affair.
The timeline rang false for this time period. So much of the action occurs in a span of a few days, including the Count sailing away to another city and news of his death from the plague arriving the next day – rather amazing speed given the time period – that the plot begins to feel even more convenient and farfetched. I just could not get over the idea of a woman in 1575 being named Jessica.
And neither, apparently, could the previous owner of this book because they littered the pages of this novel with a bunch of questions marks and attempted to take notes on the plot on the back cover....more
Nonfiction – print. Hill and Wang, 2012. 160 pgs. Library copy. Fetter-Vorm’s graphic novel provides a short introduction the history of the world’s fiNonfiction – print. Hill and Wang, 2012. 160 pgs. Library copy. Fetter-Vorm’s graphic novel provides a short introduction the history of the world’s first atomic bomb(s), which was developed by the United States during the Second World War and dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. The bomb was developed in total secrecy – the Manhattan Project was later used as a case study for the CIA – in several locations across the United States including an underground squash court at the University of Chicago, an electric plant at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, and a hastily built town at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The groups of scientists at Los Alamos were led by J. Robert Oppenheimer under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Fetter-Vorm focuses much of his book on these two men – how they became involved with the project, how they acted during the project, and how they viewed the project after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.
My knowledge of the development of the atomic bomb is comprised of where (New Mexico in the United States), why (weapon of war), and when (during World War II). The critical piece missing is how, and comics turned out to be the perfect way to illustrate how nuclear fission works and all the reactions required for an atomic explosion to work. Reading a text-only explanation likely would have gone right over my head, but Fetter-Vorm guides his readers through a step-by-step explanation of nuclear fission and the difference between using energy as a source of electric power versus as a weapon of war.
For such a short book, Fetter-Vorm manages to span the entire expanse of the atomic bomb from conception to post-drop reactions. Nearly every American history textbook contains a picture of the bomb’s plume after eruption, which Fetter-Vorm includes in his book, but few include the immediate and delayed impact on the people of both Japan and the United States. The black and white drawing of the half-burnt, little boy looking for water to ease his pain stuck with me long after I finished the book as did the scene he depicts where Oppenheimer meets with U.S. President Harry Truman to inform him that atomic weapons are too evil to ever be used again only from Truman to kick him out of his office and say he never wants to see or hear from Oppenheimer before.
Fetter-Vorm also explains how the Cold War and nuclear proliferation began even before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the British having their own version of the Manhattan Project, the Soviets placing at least one spy at Los Alamos, and Stalin being deeply offended over the way the Americans informed him of their intent to drop the bomb on Japan. But the most surprising facts I learned actually had nothing to do with the atomic bomb. The firebombings of Japanese cities by the Americans produced far more casualties than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined – in fact, the Tokyo firebombing killed more people within six hours than in any equivalent period of time in the entire history of mankind.
So, yes, I’m very glad I stumbled across this graphic nonfiction book at the library. The chemistry primer and history lesson were much needed and much appreciated. ...more
Eighty-five year old Addie Baum recounts her life story to her twenty-two year old granddaughter beginning as a teenager in 1915 and ending with her cEighty-five year old Addie Baum recounts her life story to her twenty-two year old granddaughter beginning as a teenager in 1915 and ending with her current affairs in 1985. The American-born daughter of poor, Jewish immigrants living in Boston’s North End, Addie’s desires to become an independent and educated woman are often spurned by her father and mother. The local Sunday club for young ladies offers Addie the opportunity to take classes in English and spend time with people her own age outside the city at Rockport Lodge, and the eventual marriage of a local shirtwaist factory owner to her older sister (and, later, her oldest sister) affords Addie a job and a means of economic escape.
One thought keep running through my head as I read this book: does any elderly person tell their life story in perfect chronological order without deviations? I once “interviewed” my grandfather for a class about when he learned about the Holocaust and, instead, we ended up a long discussion about how he met my grandmother, his time in Afghanistan, and, finally, his childhood living in the Dust Bowl. Not at all in order. Not at all an answer to my question. I doubt Addie’s perfect recollection and timeline would have bothered me as much as it did had the novel been written in third person, but the first person narrative perfect preservation of suspense as to who she marries and how she escapes her family’s tenement rung false with me.
The novel relies far too much on stereotypes and common archetypes – the aloof father who turns to religion after a painful loss, an immigrant mother who controls her daughters because she is afraid of all the differences between America and her homeland – to really stand out in my mind. Addie appears to chafe against the traditional expectations of her family longing for a more “American” experience, but even those problems are neatly wrapped up with the end of each chapter.
For a novel spanning several decades, I found it odd that major events in American and Boston history, including World War II and the Great Depression, are largely glossed over. Only the flu pandemic of 1918, which admittedly is often forgotten in historical fiction, leaves a lasting mark on this family, but even losses from that event barely linger in the family’s mind as the narrative quickly moves forward.
The reason why I stuck with the novel for so long was not because of a great affection for Addie, but because of my interest in her sister, Celia. The young woman appears to be mentally unstable yet her mother and father still marry her off to a man they don’t entirely approve of with tragic consequences.
Addie tries to link her sister’s suicide to her working as a child laborer in a sweatshop upon arrival in the United States and her eventual husband is a passionate advocate for child labor laws. But this connection is so subjective because Addie never works in a factory (other than as a secretary) so the reader never sees these conditions, never experiences the horrors she suspects her sister went through. There are other novels – the American Girls series for juvenile readers comes to mind – that do a far better job showing how awful child labor in the early twentieth century than this novel does. ...more
In 1975, Bunjevac’s mother, Sally, flees to her birthplace of Yugoslavia with toddler Nina and Nina’s older sister, Sarah, in order to escape her abusIn 1975, Bunjevac’s mother, Sally, flees to her birthplace of Yugoslavia with toddler Nina and Nina’s older sister, Sarah, in order to escape her abusive marriage. Her husband, Peter, assumes that demanding Sally leave their eldest child, Petey, behind with him will force Bunjevac’s mother to return with the girls, but Nina ends up staying in Yugoslavia until her father and two of his friends accidentally blow themselves up. Only then does Nina learn that her mother took her daughters and ran because Nina’s father, a Serbian nationalist who had been forced to leave Yugoslavia in the 1950s, had become involved in a terrorist organization determined to overthrow the Communist Yugoslav government.
I cannot proclaim enough how much I loved, loved, loved the way Bunjevac allows this important revelation to inform the structure of her memoir. The book begins with a visit from her elderly mother long after she and Nina have returned to Canada before delving into the events of Nina’s childhood and the move to Yugoslavia, which are presented as a child would view them: her mother is that crazy lady who shoves a large dresser in front of the window every night as she tucks her children in bed; her father is the gruff man who often yells at his wife and children; and her grandparents are the keepers of knowledge who hush when she enters into a room.
The arrival of a telegram announcing her father’s death shifts the story to the past allowing Nina to learn more about her father’s history in Yugoslavia including his marriage to Nina’s mother and, later, his emigration to Canada where became involved in a terrorist organization dedicated to the Serbian nationalist cause.
Then, the panels with scenes of Nina’s childhood are repeated with the knowledge only an adult who knows the kind of person her father was can have: the dresser her mother moved every night was to prevent someone from throwing a Molotov cocktail into her home in retaliation for her husband’s actions. I’m afraid I’m not explaining this correctly but it was so very clever, even if it did mean the story ended rather abruptly.
The one drawback to this memoir is its presumption of a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the reader. While I have read about and studied the Bosnian Genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the past, even I found myself wishing Bunjevac had done a better job meshing her personal, micro-level story with the larger conflict.
Her explanation that her father joined a Serbian terrorist organization because he hated the Communist Yugoslavic government seemed very simplistic given what I do know of ethnic tensions in the region. Maybe a few more pages dedicated to the history of the region and the lasting influence of the ruler, Tito, would have helped fleshed things out?
Still, well-worth a read in order to experience the clever way Bunjevac reassess her own experiences with new knowledge. And the recent publication date for this graphic memoir leads me to hope there is a chance for a follow-up....more
I’m beginning to notice a pattern in sequels to Austen’s classic novel: Elizabeth experiences a tragedy during pregnancy, one of the Bennet sisters maI’m beginning to notice a pattern in sequels to Austen’s classic novel: Elizabeth experiences a tragedy during pregnancy, one of the Bennet sisters marries, Georgiana falls in love, Lydia arrives unannounced at a family function, Catherine de Bourgh will criticize Elizabeth, and Wickham hatches a plan to extract revenge upon Darcy that usually involves placing Elizabeth in mortal danger.
And Lathan’s book nearly follows this pattern to a T with Elizabeth experiencing postpartum depression following the premature birth of her and Darcy’s second child, Kitty preparing to marry an older man in the army named Artois, Lydia arriving at Netherfield to crash Kitty’s wedding, Lady de Bourgh criticizing the way Elizabeth raises her children, and Wickham hatching a plan to kidnap and, possibly, murder Elizabeth and her eldest son.
This book is the fifth in Lathan’s series so I started at the end rather than the beginning, which explains why so many of the characters felt unfamiliar to me. Darcy suddenly has multiple aunts and uncles previously unintroduced in Austen’s novel and one of the uncles, a doctor by the name of George Darcy, features heavily in the story as he explains postpartum depression to Darcy – a very modern diagnosis and understanding of psychology – and administers to both Elizabeth and young Alexander following their ordeal.
Unfortunately, these new characters were introduced to the detriment of Darcy and Elizabeth’s friendships with Bingley and Jane. The two couples felt more like reluctant relations than close friends, and I felt rather sad at the suggestion that the foursome would lose their friendship after years of marriage.
Seeing how loving and affection Darcy was with his children did lift my spirits, although I felt some aspects of his relationship with Elizabeth in this book did not ring true. I mean, yes, they have sex at nearly every turn (a common plotline in Pride and Prejudice sequels), but their interactions lacked the witty banter I normally associate with these two.
Darcy is overwrought in the presence of his uncle at one point because he assumes his wife no longer loves him, which felt callous given Elizabeth’s concern their premature baby might not live and seemed like an unusual display of emotion for someone like Darcy. This is the fifth book in the series and, inevitably, the characters will change as a result of the events in the previous four books so Lathan deserves some leeway, but this book just reiterated to me that I need to move on from reading sequels to Austen’s books. Especially after it fell into the trap of making Wickham into a unbelievable villain.
One final thing: the timeline of this book was not always clear. The book opens with an introduction to Elizabeth, Darcy, and their two little boys, Alexander and Michael, only to jump back to the months Darcy and Elizabeth spent exploring the Continent during Elizabeth’s second pregnancy. I had to reread these sections twice to nail down the timeline and very likely would have given up had the book not been the only one I had on hand during jury duty....more
A cartoonist for a newspaper geared towards children in Iran, Neyestani drew a cartoon featuring a cockroach speaking an Azeri word – which is used toA cartoonist for a newspaper geared towards children in Iran, Neyestani drew a cartoon featuring a cockroach speaking an Azeri word – which is used to mean “what?” in Iranian Persian – in 2006 and ended up in one of Iran’s notorious secret jails. Such a sentence seems surprisingly harsh, but the Iranian government charged Neyestani with working against the state after the Azerbaijani minority rioted over the image and needed to demonstrate they are doing something to appease the concerns of the minority group.
While Neyestani escapes the horrendous torture associated with Iran’s prison system (which he rather tongue-in-cheek admits would have made for a more interesting story), he is detained indefinitely and temporary placed in solitary confinement. The lawyer hired to represent him by the newspaper is both unwilling to go up against the Iranian judicial system (if you can call it that) and subservient to the newspaper owner’s interest – utterly prepared to use Neyestani as a scapegoat to save their own hides.
Unexpectedly and temporarily released, Neyestani and his wife made plans to flee from Iran hoping they would be granted asylum on freedom of the press grounds by a European embassy or a country in North America. Yet each embassy rejected their application citing a lack of publicity around Neyestani’s case and, fearing a return to Iran would mean certain jail time or death at the hands of the Azerbaijani minority, Neyestani and his wife hired a smuggler to move them through Dubai, Turkey, Malaysia and China to freedom in France throwing them both into the uncertain and treacherous life of illegal migrants.
The story ultimately presented in this graphic memoir was not at all the one I expected when I selected the book off the shelf, but I found the story of illegal migration to be particularly poignant given recent events. If there is anyone you would expect to qualify for asylum, it would be Neyestani and yet doors – both legal and illegal – were repeatedly closed to him and his wife.
Neyestani’s hostility towards himself because of the role his seemingly innocent art played in their displacement was well-captured in how often he tries to squash the cockroach. But he does not devote very many panels to how life in asylum limbo affected his relationship with his wife, Mansoureh, which I thought was a rather odd choice. Whether this was because he wanted to protect her privacy or because he felt the memoir should focus solely on him, I cannot say. But for someone who is presented as taking an active role in their escape, she does appear very much so as a secondary or even tertiary character.
However, I did particularly like how he presented the idiocy of the Iranian prison system, which transferred him and a coworker under false names and stories out of the worst of the prison’s divisions to prevent them from being targeted by Azerbaijanis in jail. Forgetting – by choice or by stupidity – how the courtyard of the minimum security division looks right at the entrance to the other division so everyone already knew who they were. And, overall, the memoir offers a window into a world really only referenced rather than explored by the news media.
The comics, themselves, are black and white drawings in nature without very many hidden stories within each panel other than the cockroach occasionally lurking in the background. It reminded me a bit of Zeina Abirached and Marjane Satrapi’s style so now I’m wondering if this a common style for cartoonists from this region of the world....more
Like many who read solely in English, the announcement that Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature left me a bit confounded. I have never heaLike many who read solely in English, the announcement that Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature left me a bit confounded. I have never heard of the author and never, to my recollection, seen a review for his work on one of the many book blogs I religiously read.
Journalists and bloggers alike blamed the lack of awareness for his work in English-speaking markets on the lack of translators employed by the publishing industry and the apathy on the part of American readers, in particular, towards translated works. (Assertions that could be addressed in a separate post with a lively discussion, I’m sure.)
Only twelve of Modiano’s works have been translated into English, and this collection of three short novellas is one of only three books written by him available at my public library in English. (The foreign language section has nineteen in French and twelve in Italian, surprisingly.) I am hoping more will follow now that he has won the Nobel given that I stayed up into the wee hours of the night reading this collection, which includes “Afterimages”, “Suspended Sentences”, and “Flowers of Ruin”.
In “Afterimages”, the narrator recounts his time in Paris working as a pseudo-archivist for a mysterious photographer who goes by the name of Jensen and has tasked himself with the job of photographing a city in flux. In “Suspended Sentences”, the narrator recalls his life as a young boy raised by a group of women – particularly a young nanny renamed Snow White – while his mother tours as an actress and the stigma attached to such a situation by his teachers and the principal of his private school. Finally, in “Flowers of Ruin”, the narrator returns to the site of a mysterious double suicide trigging memories from his childhood and igniting a desire, primarily on the part of the reader, to solve the crime.
As I read this collection, I kept flipping to spine of this book to view the call number attached by the library in order to assure myself that this collection is, in fact, fiction. Modiano, whose body of work includes both fiction and nonfiction titles, writes in such a manner that I was never entirely sure where this book lies on that particular divide.
Each story features an unnamed, male narrator possessing the same voice as the previous story; each story concerns itself with how uncertain our memories can be. And as I moved from story to story, I felt as though the narrator was shedding his skin or donning a costume and asking me to decide on which version of his life is true. Which is probably why I stayed up so late reading this and why I’m thankful these three previously published novellas were compiled into a single volume. (If I had to rank the novellas, I would say their order of publication matches my ranking in terms of enjoyment.)
The Nazi occupation of France is more of a central theme in “Afterimages”, but the event is mentioned at least in passing in all three novellas and clearly influences Modiano’s understanding of memory and recollection. These stories and the vision of Paris they present are haunted by this looming, dark ghost, and I was very pleased to find the writing style I saw heavily praised by the Nobel committee is sustained in translation....more
Mr. Lockwood is rather peeved when his wife volunteers him to handle the papers of the newly deceased Mr. Hunter, who died unexpectedly leaving behindMr. Lockwood is rather peeved when his wife volunteers him to handle the papers of the newly deceased Mr. Hunter, who died unexpectedly leaving behind three children and wife incapable of balancing a checkbook let alone her husband’s affairs. And he is even further peeved to find that Mr. Hunter recently purchased a paddock abutting Lockwood’s property he had spent years trying to acquire with the three hundred pounds he lent to Mr. Hunter earlier in the year.
Realizing Mr. Hunter never retrieved the note of promise to repay him having died so soon after paying off his debt, Mr. Lockwood informs Mrs. Hunter that he will take ownership of the paddock in exchange for forgiving the loan reducing the value of the Hunters’ home and, therefore, the newly widowed Mrs. Hunter’s circumstances. The solicitor invests her remaining money in a poorly performing investment scheme and, over the years, forces her fatherless children out of school and into jobs they hate in order to support their mother.
After years of feeling degraded by the Lockwoods and watching her siblings suffer in their jobs as governess and bank teller, Thea has built up a great deal of animosity towards her former neighbors. She still considers herself to be above the residents of her new community, especially the new boy next door who becomes enamored with her, Oliver Reade.
She is disappointed that her opportunity to serve as an au pair (used in this novel to mean English teacher) in exchange for French lessons at a provincial, female boarding school in France is tied to the Lockwood girls and their friend attending the same school as paying students. Her one privilege as a teacher – unaccompanied visits into the local village – lands her in trouble with the headmistress of the school and a ticket back to England.
Upon her return, Mrs. Lockwood visits expecting Thea and her mother to apologize for taking advantage of the Lockwoods’ benevolence but Thea refuses to apologize or allow her mother to do so on her behalf. Cast out of the Lockwoods’ good graces and spurned by much of the community, Thea eventually learns the truth about Mr. Lockwood’s deceit and, working with Oliver, becomes hell bent upon revenge.
It’s been over a week since I finished Whipple’s 1949 novel and I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it. On the one hand, I loved how this book ended up being nothing like what I expected it to be. The summary I read only covers a quarter of what I summarized above, and I enjoyed how the book followed Mr. Lockwood’s crime from beginning to end. Obviously, robbing someone of land and, therefore, money would impact their lives in the long run, but I think most people would begin their novel at the end and use a flashback or a reference to past events to explain the present.
Yet Whipple deciding to cover so many years allows Thea’s animosity and determination to enact revenge to build, to shape her as a character before the reader’s eyes. I had more sympathy for her (and, surprisingly, for the seemingly evil Mr. Lockwood) than I probably would have had I been plopped into the middle of the story where she begins her mistreatment of Oliver. Her experience with the Lockwoods would have felt more like an excuse than an explanation.
And as she did in Someone at a Distance, Whipple devotes a portion of her novel to exploring the differences between post-war England and provincial France. In England, members of the community do not bat an eye at young women and men associated alone with one another. Neither Thea’s siblings nor her mother seem phased by Oliver’s attempts to speak to Thea alone and rather aggressively convince her to date him. In France, young ladies are kept wholly separate from young men. (Although I’m not entirely convinced by Whipple and Thea’s assertions that the English would be nonplussed to find a young man alone in the woods lying next to a young woman with her hair down.)
So where do my mixed feelings come from? It is well-written, of course, and maybe my expectations were too high, but I didn’t find this novel nearly as charming as the only other Whipple I have read. The novel turns very dark in the final few pages yet the ending was rather banal and I’m not sure the book will become one of those standout reads I’m always recommending to others as a result. Only (more) time will tell, I guess....more
As the only member of his family born in the United States, Tran grew up largely indifferent to the experience of his immigrant family in Vietnam andAs the only member of his family born in the United States, Tran grew up largely indifferent to the experience of his immigrant family in Vietnam and how they came to the United States following the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Tran decides to return to Vietnam in April 2008 with his parents after much prodding on the part of the his mother and a decisive edict from his stereotypically stern and distant father, and this comic documents the experiences of his parents, grandparents, and uncle during decades of colonial rule and civil war.
While it is not always easy to keep the names of each family member straight (Tran includes a great drawing of this problem), their stories touch on multiple aspects of Vietnamese history and document how war can tear a family apart over multiple generations: Tran’s paternal grandfather joined the Viet Cong in the northern portion of the country because he believed in their communist cause and loathed French colonial rule, his father’s first wife was a white, French national who abandoned her two children and husband when the French pulled out of the country; his maternal uncle was conscripted by the south Vietnam army at the behest of the American forces despite still being a teenager; and his paternal grandmother had an affair with a French solider in order to provide food and shelter for her children.
One of the things this book has going for it is both the reader and the author are in the unknown, both are exploring Tran’s family history and the larger history of Vietnam together for the first time. The intrigue and the wonderment are shared emotions, and there were multiple times where I, too, wanted to yell at Tran’s parents to stop being so evasive with explaining their life stories.
Yet, in some ways, this fact works against the narrative because Tran does not always provide a solid timeline for the events detailed in his book. One story will trigger a memory or a recollection and suddenly the narrative is thrown forward or backwards in time in order to cover that event.
As such, the book is not a great primer into the history of Vietnam – I have a general idea of who the major players on (the French, the Americans, the Viet Cong) but not a good understanding of their ideology or role in the conflict. Perhaps this is too much of a demand to place upon a family history, but I felt like the larger picture was often needed to explain the smaller one the reader is offered.
It took me nearly three weeks to read this book, which is usually long for me when it comes to comics and graphic novels. Part of the delay was due to the type of fonts Tran uses. Each character is assigned a particular font, although sometimes it appears they switch or share them, and the cursive font he uses for himself was incredibly difficult to read. But the delay was also due to the fact that Tran inserts so many hidden images into his drawings that you cannot take a single panel at face value.
In one of the panels, Tran details how trying to “be American” ran smack up against his parents attempt to start over in America while retaining aspects of their own culture and shared history. As a poor immigrant, Tran’s mother purchases clothing for her family at a thrift shop and neither she nor her teenaged stepson are aware that the Minnie Mouse t-shirt she purchased is perceived by his classmates as being for girls only. This is just one smaller story I could have easily missed if I flipped through the book at my usual pace.
The book might have worked better for me had it been more clearly arranged, included more background information or, at the very least, dropped the awful cursive font, but I’m still glad I picked it up off the library shelf. Tran’s comics exposed me to a region of the world and a portion of history I know very little about, and I enjoyed the opportunity to linger over a particular panel and marvel over how perfectly Tran managed to capture such a dramatic moment through his use of color, shadows, and imagery....more
As she stands in front of a shop working on her sketch and wearing her green “whore” boots, seventeen-year-old Victorine Meurent meets a mysterious maAs she stands in front of a shop working on her sketch and wearing her green “whore” boots, seventeen-year-old Victorine Meurent meets a mysterious man who helps her understand how to properly add shadows and, therefore, dimensions to her drawings. The young woman lives and works in the poorer left bank of Paris in 1862, and experience has made her slightly leery of the older man’s intentions.
Yet she introduces him to her roommate and closest friend and is willing to entertain his wish to engage in a threesome with both her and her friend. Eventually, when the jealousy becomes unbearable, Victorine seduces the artist thus ending her friendship and her connection with her family, losing her job at a silver polishing factory, and launching her career as a model for the artist, Édouard Manet, in his infamous portrait “Olympia”.
I have very little familiarity with Manet’s work so I spent much of this fictional tale wondering who Victorine’s mysterious artist might be. (I only skimmed the summary of the novel on the jacket cover). Certainly, the mystery kept me reading to the end, but I think not really knowing who the artist might be allows the focus to remain upon Victorine. This is her story, her transition from a woman who wears whore boots (a fact she repeats over and over) to becoming a woman whose position as muse makes many think she is a whore.
For all her naiveté, Victorine has seen the downside to the arrangement she is considering and possesses a kind of plucky, self-assurance that is hard not to admire. She longs to escape the life of a poorly paid factory worker, and she seemed to have tried as many avenues as open to her. A threesome may not be something the reader might consider, but becoming a mistress was an avenue out of poverty and Victorine refuses to feel shame about taking advantage of such an opportunity. Gibbons’ fictional Victorine certainly made me want to learn about the real Victorine. (Manet, for his part, comes across as a lecher.)
I did see on review that refers to this novel as “historical fiction erotica”, which is a pretty apt description. Much of Victorine and Manet’s interactions are sexual in nature, and the story did not fill in the gaps of what is known about their relationship in the way other novels focused on particular paintings have. I went in expecting the book to do this and was disappointed to find the novel lacked the descriptive prose about the painting featured on the cover I expected and the way the novel ends with the painting’s completion rather than its first public viewing.
On the later point, I don’t think ignoring the vitriol reaction to the painting can be excused as not a part of Victorine’s story – certainly, being called a whore with her image spat upon would affect Victorine. On the former point, I can excuse this because the descriptions of poverty in 1862 Paris more than made up for it. Even if I couldn’t immediately imagine the painting, I could imagine the setting with near perfect clarity in my head....more