A bullying polemic. Sir Ranulph Fiennes would like the reader to think that his experiences as a man-hauling adventurer trumps all other cons...more2.5 Stars
A bullying polemic. Sir Ranulph Fiennes would like the reader to think that his experiences as a man-hauling adventurer trumps all other considerations, including the ability to refrain from cherry-picking through the Scott party diaries to prove his points (among them, that Scott made no technical errors whatsoever, that there were no tensions between Scott and Shackleton, etc) and the capacity to write a sentence without including the word "I". His own familiarity with polar exploration does make for some interesting reading, but the ultimate impression is like having a very large man standing in front of you and poking you in the chest when you dare to disagree. He makes some quite astonishing assertions, including the statement that Scott's achievement was greater than Amundsen's. The book ends with a very nasty character slam against Roland Hunstman--the author of "The Last Place on Earth", the refutation of which the author gives as the reason for writing his own book. One might accuse Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (Bart.) of classicism, if not anti-Semitism.
Ironically, I actually agree with his main arguments; that Scott was a victim mainly of simple bad luck, and that he is a victim of the fashionable tearing down of heroes. Those seeking the ultimate truth on the Scott expedition (and of course there is no ultimate truth, as the author admits in the last sentence of the book)will not find it here.
**spoiler alert** This review contains spoilers. Or maybe it doesn't contain spoilers for other readers; I don't know.
To start off with, a novel addre...more**spoiler alert** This review contains spoilers. Or maybe it doesn't contain spoilers for other readers; I don't know.
To start off with, a novel addressing the plight of Hungarian Jews is a reasonably unusual subject for a young American writer (though I don't think Americans are particularly provincial in the topics they choose) that it is obvious the author must have a personal connection with the source material. Right from the beginning it's pretty clear that the author is writing about her grandparents. Thus, all tension is eliminated; you know that the main characters are going to survive, though peripheral characters may perish and all will suffer horribly. There's another problem. Could you write a novel about people you love and admire, people that you knew had lived through one of the greatest tragedies in world history, and write about them objectively? Could you show them as petty or cowardly? Could you write about their sex lives? I know I wouldn't be able to do it. Alas, Julie Orringer can't do it, either. I don't know if you can fault her for that; she tries gamely in an effort that I believe is doomed to fail--somewhat--from the beginning.
In 1937, young Andras Levi leaves Budapest to attend architecture school in Paris. Through mutal friends in the theater, he meets an older woman, a ballet teacher with an-out-of-wedlock daughter, Klara Morgenstern, and they fall in love. This first part of the novel, full of school exams, ballet and theatrical performances, and Sunday dinners--as well as the anti-Semiticism and the growing German menace--might be a bit slow for some readers. It is beautifully written with many arresting images--the little girls in their white tulle clusered blizzard-like around the coffee cake served backstage--a woman's shoe peeking out slyly under the fabric wall during the segregated dancing of an Orthodox wedding--as Ms Orringer paints a portrait of a world that is about to come crashing down. During this part of the book, Andras and Klara have some individuality; they sometimes argue; they even separate for s short time.
Unfortunately, during the second half of the book, after Andras feels compelled to return to Hungary after his student visa expires, the characters start losing their individuality. They suffer; they become icons. Klara in particular slowly recedes into a pasteboard image of the suffering and noble wife, until the vital woman of Paris is nothing more than a Jewish Madonna with a baby's starfish hand at her breast. They become, in short, more symbols that characters that the reader cares about--or at least I cared about--and the novel suffers.
Look, I'm not blaming Ms Orringer. I don't know if it would have been possible for her to portray her beloved grandparents otherwise. And I yearn for a grand and sweeping novel, filled with sensory details and thought-provoking action, which she certainly provides. I'd be glad to read another one of her novels--especially one in which she doesn't stack the deck against herself from the start.(less)
**spoiler alert** Sometimes a book makes such an error that the reader stops dead in his tracks. I'm not talking about nit-picking a small detail so t...more**spoiler alert** Sometimes a book makes such an error that the reader stops dead in his tracks. I'm not talking about nit-picking a small detail so that the reader can be accused of being pedantic. (In the early years of our marriage my husband would lean over to me in movie theaters and whisper that that guys in war movies were wearing uniforms that were a little out of date but I finally broke him of that habit). No, I'm talking about making a totally dumb factual mistake, like having a regency heroine taking a casual stroll to Windsor Castle when the author really meant Buckingham Palace, or misunderstanding a character's world point of view so fundamentally that the reader literally jerks his head from the pages, and even if he does manage to continue the book he never really trusts the author again. I once had a friend fling "Pet Cemetery" aside; no vet, she said, would be against sterilizing dogs and cats, and since she worked as a veterinary assistant she knew what she was talking about, and had no interest in reading a book whose protagonist was so far-fetched. Alan Brennert makes such an error in Moloka'i, only his misstep is even more egregious than Stephen King's since it is an important, though not central part of the plot.
In the beginning, I liked the book well enough. I lived in Hawai'i for some years. I know how deeply skeptical (to put it mildly) people born in the islands view haole mainlanders coming in and writing about their homeland, but I was willing to give it a try. Besides, what did I know about turn of the century O'ahu since I had never lived there, and one brief visit to Molokai and occasional chats about the island with an acquaintance who had grown up there certainly didn't make me an expert. It was a choice for my book group, too, so I thought I'd better get going.
Young Rachel develops leprosy in turn of the century O'ahu and is eventually sent to the colony at Kalaupapa. The description of the symptoms of the disease, and the long bureaucratic process that banishes her to the other island, make for interesting reading. The novel traces the course of her life, and as sometimes happens in this sort of historical novel which covers a long period of time, the author crams in a lot of laboriously-researched events and details that don't quite fit, and it may also be for that reason that the book had a certain emotional distance. I never felt that close to the main character. OK, a great many historical novelists fall into this trap; it's understandable that you want to share all that hard work.
It was at this point the author makes his big mistake.(view spoiler)[ Rachel and her husband have a baby, and they are forced to send the baby away. The little girl is adopted by a Japanese couple and they move to California. Eventually she and her new family are put into the internment camp at Manzanar.
It.Could.Never.Have.Happened. Not in a million years. Not today, and certainly not almost a hundred years ago. No issei peasant family would have adopted a child---especially a girl(!) that was a hapa (or as the Japanese say, hafu) girl from an unknown, "unclean" bloodline. It would have been out of the question. It simply is not possible. When I told my husband about this plot twist he looked bewildered and said "Was the family really Christian, or something? But even so...."
You see, my husband and I have lived in Japan, and one of the organizations I belonged to has sponsored an orphanage since the end of WWII. The children grow up there; almost none of them leave in "outside" adoptions. It is NOT a Japanese custom (or indeed an Asian custom) to adopt outside the family. Bloodlines are very important. And the idea of a non-Christian man with three boys agreeing to take in a strange girl just because his wife wanted a daughter was just so deeply wrong that I set the book aside and wondered if I should continue. I am sorry not to be PC, but these are the facts and the author should have known something about Japanese culture. It would have taken two minutes of research.
But no, the author was bound and determined to shoe-horn Manzanar into the plot, just so that he could make a heavy-handed parallel of the two internments, so he shoved it in, with no regards as to what actually could have happened. (hide spoiler)] Shaken, I continued (after all it was a book group choice) but my confidence in the author was gone. I kept wondering... what other facts had Brennert twisted and contrived to suit his purposes? What would a kama'aina reader think of this book? Was the Hawaiian viewpoint misrepresented as well and I wasn't close enough to see it? What else had I missed? Should an outsider even attempt to write about a fundamentally foreign culture? It really made me aware of all the manipulative tricks the author had used; I could barely keep my mind on the last part of the novel.
Now, some readers just read for the fun of reading about an exotic land and they might say I am just being fussy, and that it is OK, or not really important that he misrepresented another culture's mindset. But people, we read historical fiction to learn about other times and cultures. What's the point if the author holds up a mirror instead of a window, and pretends otherwise? It's just a cheat. Brennert's mistake bothered me. It really did. Because when an author breaks faith with his reader...well, what else is left?
Post Script Nov 7th:
I've made some strongly worded criticisms calling Brennert to task for a key implausability in his story, which are concealed in the spoiler. For those who are curious, or who need more convincing, please check the comments, where I've linked to half a dozen articles supporting my views. Any discussion on how important the truth is in historical fiction is welcome (with the caveat that comments along the line of oh-it-is-just-fiction-so-anything goes will not be viewed as a seriously debatable position); disputing the claims from sources such as the L.A. Times/Japan Times/Time Magazine/The Department of State/The American Embassy in Japan/ The BBC/ The Seattle Times/Reuters in favor of personal stories not really relevant to the main topic, or opinions based more on wishful Western feelings rather than facts will not be responded to. Thanks!
Not a bad book, but not a particularly engrossing one, either. I appreciated some aspects of this quarto-biography of the four Caton sisters (granddau...moreNot a bad book, but not a particularly engrossing one, either. I appreciated some aspects of this quarto-biography of the four Caton sisters (granddaughter of the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton) that are rarely covered in general histories of this period. The anti-Catholicism--not to mention the occasional "Anti Yankey-ism-" prejudice the three sisters who settled permanently in England faced, is a fascinating undercurrent in the book. And the author, who worked at Solomon Brothers, writes with understandable knowledge about jointures, entailments, the lack of rights of married women, the astonishing amount of debt so many aristocrats carried--all of the financial matters which underpinned Regency and Victorian society.
Unfortunately, her acuity in money matters does not extend to understanding the psychologies of the four sisters, nor to extending a satisfactory explanation of their actions. Indeed, she offers pages (and pages and pages) on South American gold mines, on Spanish stocks during the Carlists wars, on railway speculations, writing with more warmth on bank collapses than about the sisters themselves. What, really, was so special about these women except that they were taken up on a whim by the 1st Duke of Wellington? Did Marianne (a married woman and the eldest and most beautiful of the sisters) have an affair with the duke? Why did her marriage to his elder brother break down so quickly? Did Emily (the only sister to remain in Maryland) really manipulate her dying grandfather to change the will in her favor? And who WERE the men that the sisters did eventually marry--none of them emerge as more than ciphers. I appreciate that the author wanted to talk about more than the superficial gloss of the ton of Regency England, but she didn't succeed in making me care about any of the main characters as people, which is the primary reason for a writing a biography in the first place.(less)