This is a book you don’t want to read too much about beforehand, lest you spoil the ride. I’ll be vague, but if you enjoy period pieces or literary su...moreThis is a book you don’t want to read too much about beforehand, lest you spoil the ride. I’ll be vague, but if you enjoy period pieces or literary suspense, you might be better off skipping the reviews and just reading it.
The setting is London in 1922, where economic necessity forces Frances Wray and her mother to rent out rooms in their home to a young couple, the eponymous “paying guests” – a term they prefer to “lodgers” to save face in their genteel neighborhood. The arrival of Leonard and Lilian Barber shakes up their lives in unexpected ways, especially for Frances, a 26-year-old former activist who is now caught devoting most of her time to the upkeep of the old house.
Do note that this is a very slow starter: the first half is setup and momentum builds gradually; it took me around 100 pages to get invested. The wait does pay off, however, as the second half is a gripping psychological thriller that kept me up nearly all night. I wouldn't call it fast-paced, any more than the other Waters novels I've read (Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet), because Waters develops her scenes in full lifelike detail, not stinting on any of the subtleties of human interaction. But at the same time, she builds up tension and suspense so expertly that, once the plot gets going, it never feels slow.
Meanwhile, the character development is excellent, and their feelings and relationships ring true throughout. In that sense I actually preferred The Paying Guests to Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet; the latter two are great fun and get off to quicker starts, but each has plot and character moments that I found over-the-top and unconvincing. The Paying Guests is a little quieter, its drama a little more restrained, and its protagonists a little more mature; without sacrificing excitement, it feels entirely realistic. Frances’s reactions consistently had me thinking, “yes, yes, that’s exactly how that would feel,” whether the situation is mundane or extreme, and Frances herself is an intriguing character with more depth than is immediately evident. The secondary characters are also colorful and convincing. I particularly liked the honest, sympathetic - and imaginative - way Waters portrays the effects of the leads' actions on other people, both those close to them and people they'd never heard of. The ripple effect is in full force here.
And it works as a period piece too, with lots of detail and atmosphere. I especially enjoyed the aspect of the book dealing with the criminal justice system; the people involved in it and the sequence of events are realistically drawn (not always the case in novels). And the writing, too, is very good. I am a reader easily annoyed by figurative language – many authors seem to include it more to show off than because it contributes to the story – but even I could not fail to appreciate such fresh and apt turns of phrase. For instance, in a tense moment: “They embraced, two hearts thudding like fists on the opposite sides of a bolted door.”
This book didn’t change my life, and the end seemed a bit of a cop-out, but it is excellent, high-quality entertainment, an intense and savvy psychological thriller that I would not hesitate to recommend (unless you are offended by lesbian sex, in which case this is not the book for you!).
Disclosure: I received a free copy for review through the Amazon Vine Program.(less)
This is one of those literary books that I appreciate, but that never really grabbed my attention. It's so similar to my reaction to Now in November,...moreThis is one of those literary books that I appreciate, but that never really grabbed my attention. It's so similar to my reaction to Now in November, also a book I was hoping to really like, that comparing the two is the only way I can explain it. Both are short but well-written literary books with a strong sense of place, grounded in the natural world--the Irish setting here is particularly vivid and beautifully described, both visually and culturally, and I enjoyed all the little household details. Both feature a cast of complex secondary characters, including the difficult, passionate sister or best friend for whom our narrator is a foil.
Both also feature dull, unprepossessing (though very observant) first-person narrators, so that the more interesting characters are seen only sideways, through the narrator's story. And neither has a strong plot--that's especially true here. There are things that happen, but there's no plot in the sense of having a throughline, a method. It's notable that what the blurb says this book is about--two country girls making their way in Dublin--doesn't happen till about 2/3 of the way through the book. For awhile it's a story about a 14-year-old girl living on a decaying Irish farm with a collapsing family; then it's a story about two frenemies at a miserable convent school; then it's the Dublin story. The narrator, Caithleen, has a creepy flirtation with an older man that seems to be building up to something, and then.... doesn't. Caithleen is a doormat with no healthy relationships--her friendship with the vicious Baba often seems like Stockholm syndrome--and she doesn't grow or change by the end.
Speaking of the end, it's awfully abrupt; perhaps the entire trilogy is meant to be read as one book (I actually had the omnibus from the library, and that seems to be how it's generally packaged these days), but I can't say I have much desire to read on. At the same time, I don't disagree with the praise others have given it. So, 3.5 stars. And if you loved this, I recommend checking out Now in November.(less)
The contemporary mid-life crisis book is not something that normally interests me: in part because my reading focuses more on exotic settings, whether...moreThe contemporary mid-life crisis book is not something that normally interests me: in part because my reading focuses more on exotic settings, whether in the distant past, foreign countries and made-up worlds, in part probably because as a 20-something it’s not a storyline I can relate to. But I was intrigued enough to read this one because it had inspired so many conversations about character “likeability” and whether this is desirable or relevant.
That’s a debate that ties well into this book’s themes, actually, because at 37, Nora Eldridge feels trapped by--among other things--society’s demands that she be “likeable”: in other words, a dutiful daughter, friend and third-grade teacher, without demands or dissatisfactions of her own. Nora intended to be an artist, but her dreams have mostly fallen by the wayside by the time she meets the Shahids, a family with whom she becomes involved to the point of obsession. The son, Reza, is in her class and seems the perfect kid that she always wanted to have, while his mother, Sirena, is a successful artist who inspires Nora to begin working again. There’s also the husband, Skander, to whom Nora is soon attracted. From the blurb you might get the impression that this is all a good thing, that the Shahids help Nora out of her funk and lead her to a conventional happy ending, but from the first pages of the book it’s clear that this story is headed in the opposite direction.
So this is one of those raw, brutally honest, character-driven books that is clearly not for everyone. The events of the plot, tracing Nora’s fateful involvement with the Shahids, are fairly mundane, but not boring: we see what’s at stake for Nora, and between Messud’s excellent writing and her sharp insight, the book didn’t require fireworks to keep my attention. Nora is such a believable, three-dimensional character and so honestly depicted that it’s hard to believe she’s not real. This is, however, a style of characterization that doesn’t appeal to everyone: it’s an uncensored, warts-and-all look into Nora’s head. Which brings me to the “likeability” thing.
No, I don’t dislike Nora. First of all, I’m not sure what about her has inspired so much dislike to begin with: she’s angry, yes, but justifiably so; she makes some mistakes in judgment, but so do we all, and she hurts herself more than anyone else. A lot of readers seem to judge female protagonists quite harshly--ironically, here, in a book that deals directly with what society expects from women, especially unmarried middle-aged women--though I rarely see the same attitude toward male protagonists, who can get away with terrible behavior. But second, except for those cases where the narrative doesn’t recognize a character’s flaws, focusing on whether I like a character is just not how I read. I want to read about characters who are interesting, realistic, complex. It doesn’t matter whether I’d want to be friends with Nora because after all, she’s fictional: the pleasure is in getting inside her head, not sitting down for coffee.
But come to that, even if Nora was real, I don’t think I’d dislike her. Because I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not perfect, and I don’t look for that in my friends; I’m uncomfortable with people who seem incapable of voicing a criticism or complaint. Everybody has their flaws, and it seems to me that part of maturity is recognizing that and being able to like them anyway, and that part of “likeability” itself is choosing to empathize rather than to judge. So when I see reviewers dismissing a harmless character like Nora as “unlikeable,” I come away disappointed in the reviewers, and unconvinced that those having this reaction are such great people themselves. (Not that I empathize with every protagonist ever, of course. I’m not a saint. But my point is that virtue is in being unafraid to relate to other people’s failings, whether real or fictional, not in holding oneself above them. Let he who is without sin throw the first stone, and all that.)
Anyway, back to the book. It is very well-written, but not one you can breeze through; although short, it took me some time to read. It’s an uncomfortable, sometimes depressing story, of the sort that might make you reconsider your own life and choices. The characterization is solid, particularly when it comes to Nora, though her relationships with the son and especially the father are a little underdeveloped: her interactions with Skandar are told rather than shown, and I never felt Nora’s attraction to him the way I did her obsession with Sirena. The story is believable, and I was especially impressed with the ending, which manages to be both surprising and inevitable. While I wasn’t entirely sure Sirena could have gotten away with what she did (view spoiler)[(here we call that felony distribution of pornography) (hide spoiler)], Messud made it something real rather than a predictable drama that would not have suited the characters.
So, do I recommend it? Yes: if you’re looking for a literary, thought-provoking book, not something easy or lighthearted. Clearly it won’t work for every reader, but it was worth my while.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is a forgotten Pulitzer Prize winner from the 1930s, probably too obscure to call a classic. It depicts a family struggling to get by on their fa...moreThis is a forgotten Pulitzer Prize winner from the 1930s, probably too obscure to call a classic. It depicts a family struggling to get by on their farm in the early years of the Great Depression, through the eyes of the middle of three daughters.
And it's a pretty good book: well written, and with some strong characterization, particularly of the two sisters and the neighbor who comes to live with the family as hired help. Still, although it's quite short, it took me awhile to finish: the author does a little too much telling us about the characters and their lives rather than showing us, and the themes are a bit heavy-handed. I can see how some people might connect powerfully with this book, but it never quite inspired that reaction in me. Still, worth a try if you come across a copy.(less)
I wasn’t going to read this book, because I already had one for Zimbabwe and thought it was just another coming-of-age story. Then I read this critica...moreI wasn’t going to read this book, because I already had one for Zimbabwe and thought it was just another coming-of-age story. Then I read this critical essay, which made me sit up and pay attention. And so I wound up reading the book, which is good, but oh, so depressing.
I should say that the books I find depressing are somewhat idiosyncratic. A lot of people have trouble reading about war and related atrocities, but those books rarely affect me much; they’re just too far beyond my realm of experience to evoke strong reactions. But give me bureaucratic stupidity or, as here, oppressive societal structures ruining people’s lives, and yikes! That’s awful! How can people enjoy reading that!
So, this book. It's about colonialism and patriarchy, but more specifically it's about the ways families enforce patriarchy, about struggles within families for dominance on the one hand and independence on the other, and about the ways these systems hurt and distort and destroy people--particularly girls. It's heavy stuff. And I'm not so sure it is a coming-of-age novel, as it's often described: Tambudzai, the narrator, is a teenager, and she gains knowledge and experience, but along the way she loses her confidence, perhaps even her sense of identity.
There isn't a lot of plot here in the traditional sense, but at the same time there's a lot going on: there's Tambu's struggle to get an education; there's her relationship with her more worldly cousin, Nyasha; there's Nyasha's rebellion against her father's authority; there are the various other relationships within the family. Tambu's impoverished mother and her well-educated aunt are both unhappy with their roles in life, but resigned to them; there's really nowhere else for them to go because--this is crucial--their family is shaped by the larger society and doesn't seem to be any better or worse than anyone else's. There's a tendency in books about oppression of women to lay all the blame at the feet of some particularly awful man--which makes for a more optimistic story, because then all the heroine has to do is escape that man, find a nice one and ta da! Happy ending! But the patriarch here, Babamukuru, is far from a monster: he's a successful man who's generous with his extended family, and in return he expects gratitude and obedience. After all, he knows what's right, and everyone else is his responsibility.
So, the characters are well-drawn and believable, and their relationships have the depth and authenticity you'd expect from a literary novel. The writing is also good and the themes are handled well. The book does perhaps over-explain its characters' psychologies, in the way old-fashioned novels do, but it was only written in 1988 and might have benefited from telling less and trusting readers more. It's written from Tambu's perspective as an adult woman, with a much better understanding of the events and personalities than she had at the time, but we never see how she reached that understanding; the ending is abrupt, and feels more like a beginning than an end. But maybe all that explaining is necessary; maybe the dynamics portrayed here are so subtle and so unexceptional that if not pointed out they would be lost entirely.
At any rate, this book was a bit of a struggle for me--although short, it's not a quick or light read. But it is well-written and thoughtful enough that it's worth the effort.(less)
I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best classic novel you’ve never heard of. Correct me if I’m wrong.
This book is set in the early 1930...moreI’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best classic novel you’ve never heard of. Correct me if I’m wrong.
This book is set in the early 1930s in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire. It’s an ensemble piece, structured around the activities of local government and the ways they intersect with the characters’ lives. Most versions of the cover feature Sarah Burton, the fiery, progressive new headmistress at the local girls’ school, and she’s one of the most important characters, but there are others: the elderly alderwoman, Mrs. Beddows; the gentleman farmer, Robert Carne, and his troubled daughter, Midge; the bright but impoverished teenager, Lydia Holly; the hedonistic but devout preacher, Councillor Huggins. South Riding follows these characters (and more*--it’s a story about an entire community) over two years, with chapters alternating among various characters.
There’s a lot going on in this book, and Holtby has a clean style that keeps the story moving and focused on the most interesting moments in the characters’ lives. I’ve seen this book criticized for the space devoted to mundane aspects of adult life--the book focuses as much on the characters’ working lives as their personal ones--but that’s one of the reasons I loved it. It avoids well-trodden novelistic paths: most of the characters are middle-aged or older, and first love doesn’t appear even as a subplot. In large part it’s a novel about work and why it matters; anyone who hopes to make a difference with their career will empathize with Sarah Burton’s struggle to make a difference in her school and her occasional doubts about whether her work is important enough in the scheme of things.
But there are many poignant and relatable stories that come out of the characters’ relationships with their work, from the sad case of Agnes Sigglesthwaite, who meant to be a researcher but wound up a miserable science teacher, to the fervent socialist Joe Astell, who takes a cushy job on the county council due to illness and sometimes has trouble relating to the very people he’s trying to help. On the whole it’s a positive and hopeful book, but there is a lot of illness and dying here; the author was terminally ill when she wrote it, and it’s hard not to imagine something of Holtby in Astell, who is desperate to accomplish his work before illness keeps him from it. On the other hand, one of the saddest subplots deals with Lily Sawdon: she is one of the few characters with no real occupation, and perhaps as a consequence, decides her duty as a wife is to hide her sickness from her husband, even at the expense of getting treatment.
South Riding is a character-driven book, and works brilliantly, because the characterization is brilliant. Holtby has the gift of creating fully-formed, memorable characters within just a few pages, characters with all the complexities and foibles of real human beings, and at the same time, people who are easy to sympathize with and like. Sarah Burton is especially memorable: she’s a spinster in her late 30s, but she’s not a damaged or pitiable figure; she’s energetic and optimistic, sociable and engaged with other people. Also a standout is Mrs. Beddows: as the South Riding’s first female alderman, she’s expected to be colorful and allows people to believe outlandish stories about her, but in reality she’s more conventional than that, a worldly-wise grandmother who finds happiness through community involvement--and through the attention of Robert Carne, whom she views as a combination of attractive male friend and spiritual son-in-law. I could go on to describe most of the cast, because they are all excellently-realized characters drawn with exceptional psychological insight, but nothing I say will do Holtby’s writing justice.
Another amazing thing about this book is just how modern it feels, despite being published in 1936. By virtue of its focus on interesting, varied female characters--as well as interactions among them--it’s one of the most feminist novels I’ve read, and indeed Sarah’s feminism would need little updating for the 21st century. An author writing this story today would no doubt be condemned as anachronistic, but since it really is an old book, I’m happy to praise it for being just as relevant now as when it was written. The same goes for the politics. This isn’t a book about politicking, but it is a story involving local government during a time of economic depression, and Holtby’s progressive beliefs do shine through in the way the characters think about their world and the effects of their decisions. For me that’s a plus; literature should deal with big ideas, and the structure of society and purpose of government are certainly that. The fact that these topics are controversial means authors should engage with them, not ignore them.
I do have one issue with the book that bears mentioning. The plot doesn’t fit together quite as well as most ensemble pieces; Holtby perhaps got a little carried away with her ability to write great characters, and spent disproportionate time on some secondary players. Alfred Huggins is the chief offender here (I’ve called him a protagonist above, because of the number of chapters starring him, but he has little interaction with or impact on any of the others), followed by the Sawdons. Also, I doubt many people will read South Riding for its language alone: Holtby has the good journalist’s ability to get to the heart of the matter without excess verbiage, but her use of words is rarely memorable.
In sum, an excellent book, and one that spoke to me much more than classics usually do. I’ll be keeping a copy on my shelf, and I hope some of you will give it a try too!
*Please don’t be intimidated by the character list at the beginning of the BBC edition. It includes everybody who’s ever mentioned in the book, but you won’t have to remember all of them.(less)
This is really 3.5 stars: the book gets points for a polished, literary writing style, but it is just so short, and most of it summarized. Its eight c...moreThis is really 3.5 stars: the book gets points for a polished, literary writing style, but it is just so short, and most of it summarized. Its eight chapters could almost work as short stories, and Kincaid’s style often involves paragraphs that go on for a page or more, with few dramatized scenes.
This book is a coming-of-age story of a girl in Antigua, beginning when she’s 10 and ending when she’s 17. More than anything else the book focuses on Annie’s relationship with her mother; they are extremely close during Annie's childhood, but as she becomes a teenager they begin to fight constantly.
In all honesty, my biggest problem with the book is that on an emotional level it consistently left me rather baffled. For instance, here is the prepubescent Annie with one of her friends:
“Then, still without saying a word, the Red Girl began to pinch me. She pinched hard, picking up pieces of my almost nonexistent flesh and twisting it around. At first, I vowed not to cry, but it went on for so long that tears I could not control streamed down my face. I cried so much that my chest began to heave, and then, as if my heaving chest caused her to have some pity on me, she stopped pinching and began to kiss me on the same spots where shortly before I had felt the pain of her pinch. Oh, the sensation was delicious--the combination of pinches and kisses. And so wonderful we found it that, almost every time we met, pinching by her, followed by tears from me, followed by kisses from her were the order of the day. I stopped wondering why all the girls whom I had mistreated and abandoned followed me around with looks of love and adoration on their faces.”
Um, all right then? I have to say I’ve never had a relationship remotely like that. Especially not at age 12 or 13. Of course, reading wouldn’t be the pleasure it is if everything I read was already within my realm of experience, but the narrative method Kincaid uses here--lots of broad strokes and descriptions of relationships and feelings, not a lot of dialogue or scenes (the book weighs in at under 150 pages, after all)--is one that works best when readers can already relate to the situations described. If, like me, you don’t, you may be left a bit cold, seeing nothing but yet another coming-of-age story, and a weird one.(less)
This is an excellently-written and insightful short novel, told in the form of a letter from a Zimbabwean mother to her daughter while the daughter is...moreThis is an excellently-written and insightful short novel, told in the form of a letter from a Zimbabwean mother to her daughter while the daughter is studying abroad at Harvard. It was a delight to read and certainly deserves a wider audience.
Zenzele is a story about a lot of things, from love and family to political activism and racism. Shiri, the mother, tells stories from her own life and lives of those around her: about growing up in the countryside, about her adulthood in Harare, about the war against white minority rule. The stories of Shiri’s sister and female cousin, who become guerillas in the revolution, particularly struck me: these sorts of stories, featuring good people involving themselves in politics and fighting and actually achieving success, are not the sort that are usually told about Africa. Encountering an African novel full of political activism and national pride and admirable, successful women (but without ignoring the harshness of life for many people on the continent) was a breath of fresh air, and it made me think about the kinds of stories that are told about Africa and why that might be.
The characters are quite vivid, and while Shiri is perhaps the least colorful of the bunch, the author does a great job of characterizing her through her writing, which is gentle but profound and expertly crafted: it’s the sort of prose that would do well to be read aloud. The imagery is vivid, and the look into life in Zimbabwe is fascinating, giving a sense of the history while keeping the focus on the characters’ experiences. In some places the book is didactic (Shiri is not subtle in criticizing the brain drain), but it works, because it’s structured as a letter from parent to child and because it comes across as heartfelt and insightful. As you might expect, the book doesn’t have a traditional plot, and each chapter has its own focus, but it all fits together excellently.
Overall, a gem of a book that should be more widely read. I certainly recommend it.(less)
I did not know what to expect from this one. As it turns out, it’s quite a good literary book, although its tone is poorly represented by its cover; p...moreI did not know what to expect from this one. As it turns out, it’s quite a good literary book, although its tone is poorly represented by its cover; picture instead a dark road strewn with litter, under a cloudy sky, lined by buildings in various stages of collapse, and you’ll have a better idea of what to expect.
This book is set in Ghana in the 1960s, and is about corruption. It follows the unnamed third-person narrator, a railroad clerk, who is one of the few who refuses to take bribes--which only angers everyone, from the people who see bribing officials as a normal part of doing business, to his family, who are upset that he isn’t taking every opportunity to provide them with a better life. From that description you might think the book features some kind of crusader, but “the man” (as he’s referred to throughout) doesn’t quite seem to know why he does what he does. No lectures about ideals from him.
At any rate, the book mostly follows the man through his daily life, and is heavy on the description; the writing is quite visual, but often repulsive. (I’ve never seen a book spend so much time in latrines or talking about excrement. A piece of advice: don't read it while you're eating.) Physical decay serves as a metaphor for moral corruption throughout, to a point that might seem heavy-handed to some readers, but effectively creates a dark and oppressive atmosphere. Meanwhile, this is the sort of book that develops characters through minute details of their daily lives, so while we learn relatively little about them, they feel entirely real.
I have not talked about plot, because this book is far to the literary end of the spectrum, with a heavy focus on themes and ideas. Fortunately, the writing is good enough to pull it off. I’m not surprised that many reviewers have encountered this one in university classes; what does surprise me is that it isn’t taught more often.(less)
I enjoyed The Lover's Dictionary much more than I expected. It's formatted as a dictionary, where each word leads to a vignette about the lovers' rela...moreI enjoyed The Lover's Dictionary much more than I expected. It's formatted as a dictionary, where each word leads to a vignette about the lovers' relationship--which works surprisingly well, coalescing into a non-linear narrative that encompasses the joys and frustrations of love. The character development is nontraditional: neither of the main characters gets a name, but they are still surprisingly vivid. At the same time, the entries feel so honest and universal that almost any modern reader will be able to relate, even if your specific experiences are nothing like the characters'. And the writing is also excellent, almost poetic but without being showy.
But that subtitle ("A Novel") is a blatant lie. This is not a novel, and probably not long enough even to qualify as a novella, once all the blank pages and pages that contain only a sentence or two are taken into account. It can be read in an hour or two, tops. I checked it out from the library precisely because it's short (it seemed like a good break in the middle of reading Stephen King's massive novel 11/22/63), but I would not have wanted to pay full price for it.
Given the length, I might have breezed through this book, but instead I found myself slowing down to take it in more fully; I've even gone back and re-read bits. Modern-relationships books rarely appeal to me, but I'm glad to have read this one. (less)
I enjoy literary fiction now and then, although it’s not my usual fare, for the three-dimensional characters and polished prose. I am, however, fairly...moreI enjoy literary fiction now and then, although it’s not my usual fare, for the three-dimensional characters and polished prose. I am, however, fairly indifferent to symbolism and other literary devices (maybe I’ll develop more appreciation for them eventually, once my school days are far enough behind me). And I have the feeling that if I were a lover of literary devices and critical essays, I’d give this book 5 stars. As it is.... a solid 4.
The basic plot: the young, unnamed narrator receives a surprise proposal from an older man, Maxim, and moves with him to Manderley, his enormous estate. But no one can stop thinking about his recently-dead first wife, Rebecca, and there’s something increasingly ominous about all of this....
The plot is compelling and suspenseful without falling too far into horror, and I quite enjoyed reading it. The narrator in particular is incredibly well-realized; her shyness and self-consciousness have turned off some readers, but I found her so completely believable and relatable that this didn’t bother me a bit. The secondary characters are also vivid and realistic. Maxim and Rebecca, however, gave me a bit of trouble. Maxim is rather distant for much of the book, and I was never quite sure who he was. As for Rebecca....
(view spoiler)[I am still trying to work out my reaction to Rebecca. Part of this is my unique experience with the book--I let a friend spoil me years ago, thinking I’d probably never read it, and she interpreted the book very differently; her view was that Rebecca is slowly revealed to be a villain, such that the reader understands and accepts Maxim’s murdering her. To me, it seemed we get very few hints of Rebecca’s imperfections before being simply told that she was a sociopath (although that word isn’t actually used), and so I never had any visceral response to her nor thought Maxim’s actions excusable. In part this may be because times have changed; a large part of what’s supposed to make Rebecca so awful is her rampant adultery, which just isn’t as horrifying today as it may have been in the 1930s.
All that aside, I’m not entirely comfortable with the juxtaposition of the good-hearted, timid narrator whose life revolves around her husband with the sociopathic Rebecca, who’s dynamic and has a life and doesn’t need men (but seduces and manipulates them for fun). It’s not uncommon for early-20th-century novels to portray “good” women who are shy and let love dominate their lives, while the “bad” ones want more and do more (and not caring for men, in these cases, always means engaging in romantic relationships with them anyway, but in selfish and destructive ways); a rather unfortunate worldview that we’ve hopefully gotten past today. At least there is the more confident and also good-hearted Beatrice to balance things out a bit. (hide spoiler)]
At any rate, the author does a great job with the setting--which reminds me of an old movie--and with atmosphere and suspense. Everything from the weather to the plants on the estate is imbued with potentially sinister, anthropomorphic qualities. (Occasionally I had my doubts as to whether weather actually works as described, but it makes for good storytelling.) And the writing is, indeed, very good throughout. I’ll leave you with a passage I particularly liked:
“I wondered why it was that places are so much lovelier when one is alone. How commonplace and stupid it would be if I had a friend now, sitting beside me, someone I had known at school, who would say: ‘By-the-way, I saw old Hilda the other day. You remember her, the one who was so good at tennis. She’s married, with two children.’ And the blue-bells beside us unnoticed, and the pigeons overhead unheard. I did not want anyone with me.”
It takes a very good book for me to start marking passages I like, and I’d recommend this one. But it’s probably best if you don’t spoil yourself first!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I initially wrote this off as a critics’ darling that regular readers wouldn’t like (being an amateur critic, or maybe just being naturally contrary,...moreI initially wrote this off as a critics’ darling that regular readers wouldn’t like (being an amateur critic, or maybe just being naturally contrary, I find the professional ones pretentious and irrelevant), but am glad I finally decided to give it a try, although it won’t be for everyone.
The Tiger’s Wife is set in the Balkans, apparently Serbia and apparently recently, and weaves together several threads: the narrator, a young doctor, finds out while on a mission across a newly-formed border to inoculate orphans that her grandfather has just died; then there's her wartime childhood; her grandfather’s stories about a man who couldn’t die; and the grandfather’s childhood experience in a tiny village beset by an escaped tiger. There’s some magical realism, and a lot about the various ways people create mythology, or depend on it, to deal with the realities of death and war.
My description of the book began with its setting by design: the setting often takes center stage; this is a slow-paced book a strong sense of place and tons of description. Brilliant description--I could visualize everything--but you need to be able to enjoy that if you’re going to like this book. Really the best thing about this book is that the author writes fantastic sentences, and paragraphs, and so on. I spent much of it just in awe of her way with words and eye for detail. The stories are compelling, and I was never bored, but it is a literary sort of book, and that’s not for everyone.
As others have pointed out, though, there is something missing with the characters. They’re lifelike, but distant. Particularly the most important ones, who remain rather inscrutable even while we get (fascinating, but not terribly relevant) life stories of several minor players. There is a certain lack of emotion, or intimacy. I believe in these people, I can picture them, but I haven’t truly gotten to know them. (And this is ignoring the question--because the book ignores it--of how the narrator can tell us the intimate details of the lives of people she never met, or who never told their stories. Suspension of disbelief is required.)
And yet, I was fascinated anyway. My advice: before you write this one off, read a few pages of the sample. If you’re like me, the writing will just suck you in and it will be absolutely worth the ride.(less)
This is one of those books that's perfectly well-written, but didn't really speak to me. Some of my more literary-minded (and Christian) friends love...moreThis is one of those books that's perfectly well-written, but didn't really speak to me. Some of my more literary-minded (and Christian) friends love it, to the point of using it as an example (possibly the only example?) of a contemporary work that stands up to the classics. As with many classics though, I could see at least some of the merit in it, but don't feel like I got much out of it. Hate it when that happens.(less)
This book is fantastically written. At the same time, it took me a month to read, during which time I read several other books.
Birds Without Wings is...moreThis book is fantastically written. At the same time, it took me a month to read, during which time I read several other books.
Birds Without Wings is a big, ambitious book, focusing mostly on the lives of people living in a small Ottoman village in the first decades of the 20th century. Rather than following a single protagonist, the book has an ensemble cast, with about a dozen characters playing equally important roles. De Bernières also devotes about 80 pages, out of 550, to an attempt to summarize all of Ottoman history over approximately a 20-year period and provide a biography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as well as sharing his own opinions on various events.
The majority of the book, focusing on the fictional characters and their village, is great. The characters ring true, with psychological complexity that’s entirely believable (except in the case of a couple of female characters who are "characterized" almost entirely by their physical appearances). The author does a great job of creating characters who act within their particular social roles and positions in the community. The setting comes vividly to life; the portrayal of the way people lived in that particular place and time and of the social currents within the small community is fantastic. And the writing is excellent. The book fits solidly within the realm of literary historical fiction.
But then there are the historical segments, which are especially concentrated in the third quarter of the book, dealing with WWI. I’m an avid historical fiction reader and love to learn from fiction, but I’d actually advise readers to skip these chapters entirely; the local events are comprehensible without them and the characters themselves have little understanding of the wider world. In any case, the "Mustafa Kemal" sections are as dry as a textbook but far less intelligible; they are packed with so much detail that the big picture is lost, and left me entirely nonplussed.
Overall, my feelings about the book are mixed. It has the makings of great literature, and I would recommend it to fans of literary historical fiction. But while the potential is there, it falls short of being a book I’d recommend to everyone.(less)
I'm not usually into books about modern suburban Americans, but am glad I read this one--it's a strong character-driven book featuring complex persona...moreI'm not usually into books about modern suburban Americans, but am glad I read this one--it's a strong character-driven book featuring complex personalities and relationships, and hey, it made me laugh and cry! Which is a total cliche in a review, but true.
It's 1987 and 14-year-old June Elbus's beloved uncle, Finn, has just died of AIDS, which was terribly misunderstood and frightening at the time. June is a weird kid who doesn't quite fit in with others her age, and considered Finn her best friend. Then at his funeral, she first glimpses Toby: Finn's partner, whom she never knew existed. June and Toby's growing friendship is at the center of this book, but we also spend a lot of time with June's family, particularly her talented older sister, Greta.
The characters really make this book, and I found them three-dimensional and believable. June feels authentic as a weird kid, obsessed with all things medieval; we can see how unusual she must look to others, while in her own head, she makes perfect sense. And the author does a great job showing the disconnect between what June, as the narrator, sees, and what's actually there. For all that June spends half the book telling us that Greta is mean and hates her, the reader can see far more interesting depths beyond that bit of teenage nastiness.
Most of the other characters are also excellent. Finn seems a bit idealized, but this makes sense from June's perspective. Toby, too, treads that line--even given the circumstances, his investment in being a good friend to this girl seems rather extraordinary--but redeems himself, for me, with his obliviousness about what's actually a good idea in a friendship with a teenager (this book is full of relationships that are emotionally good for people, but physically bad for them; Finn and Toby get AIDS, Toby teaches June to smoke, etc.). June's mother is also quite well-written, and Brunt really captures the dynamic between teenagers and their parents in a non-simplistic way (although the father, even when he appears, is nearly invisible). And even some of the minor characters, like June's D&D-playing potential love interest, stand out.
I've been discussing the characters rather than the plot, because the plot mostly consists of character interaction. I found it compelling, and Brunt's use of very short chapters helps keep its momentum. But the book does seem a bit overlong, with several scenes in the middle all serving the same purpose. A tighter 300 pages may have served this plot better than the 355 it has.
On the plus side, the dialogue feels realistic, and the writing is generally good. I was certainly never bored; the tension between characters kept me turning pages, but without becoming silly or melodramatic. I'd recommend this book even to those who don't normally read this sort of thing--and although it's getting classified as young adult in some quarters, it's as complex and realistic as I expect an adult book to be, and I hope it doesn't get sold short for that reason.(less)
I've never been a huge fan of Jane Austen, even though it seems like I should be. This book was well-written and, for the most part, engaging, but I d...moreI've never been a huge fan of Jane Austen, even though it seems like I should be. This book was well-written and, for the most part, engaging, but I don't feel like I have enough of an opinion about it even to rate it (and, uh, that's not usually a problem for me).
A lot of the ratings seem to turn on what people thought of Fanny. For people who dislike the book, the reason is generally her conspicuous lack of awesomeness--she's timid, shy, and self-effacing, she's not witty, a walk in the garden exhausts her, and she doesn't ever do much of anything. ("I cannot act," she says, in response to her cousins' request that she take a part in a play--but this pretty much sums up her role in the book, too.) At the same time, it's clear that Austen thinks a good deal of her--the girl's practically a Mary Sue. She grows up overlooked and emotionally neglected, but she's still sweet as can be and loves everybody, even those who don't deserve it. Plus, she's always right and everybody else has to admit it in the end. She reminds me a bit of Esther in Bleak House, except Esther I'm not entirely sure we're supposed to take at face value, and Fanny I think we are.
Fanny's redeeming quality is that she sticks to her guns (incongruous a metaphor as that is). Even when it's not cool, and despite her dependent status, she won't go against her principles. Unfortunately, she doesn't distinguish between morality and the stultifying sense of propriety at the time, so one of her two big stands is against her cousins and their friends putting on a play. (The other one, dealing with her love life, is more interesting and I liked the way that turned out.) I've read some reviews that made me think she spoke out against the corruption in her society, the fact that her family's money depends on slave labor in the Caribbean--and that would've been cool, but actually nobody ever mentions this. (I hear the movie is totally different so maybe that's where this meme came from?)
Anyway, I also noticed here just how little physicality there is in Austen's books. There's not much description, nor physical action in the scenes. They're all dialogue and exposition. This contributes to how limited and stultifying her world feels, to me--although it's not her fault we're used to more cinematic writing these days.
This all makes it sound like I didn't like the book. In fact, I read through it in a few days and am sure it's a good literary effort. And it sounds like I disliked Fanny--but I don't really have strong feelings about her one way or the other. Guess I just didn't "get it."(less)
The Remains of the Day is a short book, one that I read in a few hours, but with a lot of substance. It follows the narrator, Mr. Stevens--no first na...moreThe Remains of the Day is a short book, one that I read in a few hours, but with a lot of substance. It follows the narrator, Mr. Stevens--no first name, as he's not on a first-name basis with anyone--as he takes a trip through the English countryside and ruminates on his career as a butler. The more he talks, the clearer it becomes that he's not as satisfied with his life as he tries to convince himself he is, and that his rationalizations don't quite hold water.
For me this is pretty far toward the "literary" end of the spectrum, and I'm not generally a fan "mid-life crisis"-type books (well, this is more of a "late-in-life crisis" since Stevens is past middle age). So why did I like this one? Several reasons. It's well-written, in a completely convincing voice, and without pretension. Stevens alternates between anecdotes from the past, ruminations on his life and the simple tale of his current trip, all while sounding the way I imagine an actual English butler raised in the early 20th century would talk, without getting bogged down in heavily literary language. And there's no padding here: the book is the length it needs to be, long enough to tell the story but short enough that individual incidents are still meaningful. It's very understated, and makes the reader think, but you don't need an English degree to understand it either.
In terms of emotional involvement, I prefer Ishiguro's more recent novel, Never Let Me Go; this is a high-quality book but didn't grab me with the same ferocity. (On the other hand, I didn't have the issues with the premise here that I did with Never Let Me Go.) This novel deals with many of the same themes--most notably, with people unquestioningly handing control of their lives over to others, and losing everything that's meaningful in the process--and it does an excellent job, but often more extreme scenarios are simply more hard-hitting. Nevertheless, this book is likely to have more real-life relevance for readers, particularly if you've ever defined yourself by your work or let yourself focus on little things to the exclusion of what's really important (and come on, who hasn't done that?).
So I would recommend The Remains of the Day to anyone looking for an intelligent but accessible literary novel. It will take up very little of your time and will almost certainly be worth it.(less)
I enjoyed Little Women as a child, but picked up this book not for that reason but because I loved Caleb’s Crossing and wanted to read something else...moreI enjoyed Little Women as a child, but picked up this book not for that reason but because I loved Caleb’s Crossing and wanted to read something else by Brooks. Focusing on the wartime experiences of Mr. March, the father from Little Women, this is a decent novel about the American Civil War, but many, many books have been written about that time period and to me this one did not really stand out.
The plot is reasonably interesting, and alternates between the war and flashbacks to March’s prior life. It has a rather uneasy relationship with the source material. At times, Brooks is faithful to the story in Little Women and includes little “Easter eggs” for the readers: a brief sentence from the source material (like Aunt March’s offer to adopt one of the girls when the family loses its fortune) becomes a full-fledged scene here, while brief references are made here to events that are important in Little Women (like Jo’s selling her hair). But Brooks bases Mr. March in large part on Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, and this extends to revising the original cast to look more like the Alcotts. In some ways the Alcotts were more colorful than the Marches and so I can see the appeal: in Brooks’s version, the family runs a station on the Underground Railroad; they’re vegetarians/vegans; they socialize with the Emersons and Thoreaus. And Brooks makes a point of making Mrs. March less idealized, but does so by giving her an explosive temper, inconsistent with the original character. So while I don’t quite agree with those who believe the Little Women connection is merely a publicity hook for Brooks’s Civil War novel, I do see where they’re coming from.
What dragged this book down for me, though, was its generic Civil War setting. If you’ve read other Civil War books, you’ll recognize the overcrowded field hospitals and unsanitary amputations; the Union soldiers smashing up fancy Southern homes; the learned, aristocratic plantation owners who mistreat their slaves; the supposedly shocking scenes where Union soldiers turn out to be just as racist as their Confederate counterparts; and so on. It’s all been done. Brooks does find one original subject--the Northerners who took over and ran plantations during the war--and this segment was one of the most interesting parts of the book.
The characterization is good enough. March is mostly believable as a liberal chaplain. I liked the way Brooks shows that he and Marmee are perhaps not quite as openminded as they try to be and reveals the misunderstandings in their marriage. Grace, the educated slave, is perhaps not as interesting as intended; I found the rather unsavory but non-evil Ethan Canning the most interesting of the supporting cast. The first-person voices are mostly convincing and of course Brooks writes well.
Overall, this is a decent book. I didn’t enjoy it as much as perhaps I might have if I hadn't grown up reading Civil War books, or if I had loved Little Women. And I don’t understand how it won a Pulitzer. But it is a perfectly adequate piece of writing and if you haven’t read much about the Civil War, you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did.(less)
On the one hand, this is a well-written book with good character development and a solid sense of place. On the other, it has some structural issues t...moreOn the one hand, this is a well-written book with good character development and a solid sense of place. On the other, it has some structural issues that make me hesitate to recommend it.
The Memory of Love is set in present-day Sierra Leone, and follows three men: a dying academic, Elias, relates his life story (or a version of it) to a British psychologist, Adrian, who meanwhile befriends a local surgeon, Kai. It is a character-driven book, gradually moving deeper into the characters’ lives as it goes; Adrian learns more about the country while Elias and Kai must deal with their own baggage from the country’s recent civil war.
On the one hand, this book deserves better than three stars; Forna is a clearly talented writer. The book has believable characters and is full of acute observations, and the writing style is solid. It also has an unmistakable thematic depth, and while it can't offer an easy solution for a place like Sierra Leone, it makes sharp observations about what the country needs and what it doesn't. Dealing with the aftermath of the war rather than the war itself is an unusual but mature choice: the book never wallows in easy drama, but instead focuses on how violence changes people and the society they live in. The point is not to show us atrocities, but to show us people, and it does that well. I can understand how it’s won some prizes.
But.... the plot, the structure, the point-of-view. First, if you do read this, be aware that the first 150 pages or so are a tough slog: not only because they focus heavily on the odious Elias (who fortunately recedes as the novel goes on) and his stalking of a happily married woman, but because the story is told through a slow and sometimes monotonous accretion of detail, building very gradually through mundane events and description. Second, the structure seems oddly lopsided in places: Elias dominates the early part of the book despite having little importance later; a key character, Mamakay, doesn’t appear until about halfway through; the subplot revolving around Agnes, one of Adrian’s patients, is abruptly dropped at the 2/3 mark.
As for point-of-view, while Forna writes the male characters very believably (well, if you want to take my word for it), the book suffers from not including any of the women’s POVs. The most important female characters, while they seem to be interesting people, are seen entirely through the eyes of men who are attracted to them and with whom they are fairly reticent, which leaves them less than completely three-dimensional. The ending initially seemed too equivocal to me as well, but I've since learned through another reader's sleuthing that the resolution is there.... but blink and you'll miss it.
So in the end, I’m not sure whether I’d recommend this or not.... give it a go if it sounds like your thing, but read the sample before you buy.(less)
One of the great things this book has to offer is the experience of slowly discovering what's really going on in the characters' world. Even though th...moreOne of the great things this book has to offer is the experience of slowly discovering what's really going on in the characters' world. Even though there's no big revelation; when the facts come out, you'll realize you knew all along--like the characters, the reader is "told and not told." But the book is near-impossible to review without making explicit those elements that are best discovered while reading it. So, be warned: there be spoilers ahead! (Here and in virtually every other review.)
Most of this book consists of the narrator, Kathy, ruminating on her life. She grew up at Hailsham, an institution similar to a boarding school--except that the children never leave the grounds, never have visitors, and have meaningful connections only with one another. She recounts the details of her life and her relationships with her friends, with the smallest incidents taking on profound significance in her mind. It's both reminiscient of the enormous importance most of us put on relationships with peers as children and teenagers, and rather obsessive, since the students have no one else in their lives. After some thought, though, I think Ishiguro does a fantastic job with this portrayal of childhood: the group's cliques and its mythology and private vocabulary and in-jokes and its intense pressure to conform. But there's also something eerie and unusual about these kids' instinctive self-censorship, which is probably intentional.
At any rate, I found it to be a compelling and disquieting book. The contrast between Kathy's chatty, matter-of-fact narration about the mundane events of her life and the ugly truths in the background drives much of that eerieness. It's a very well-written, believable story that just sucked me in (or should I say, it would not let me go). And it's likely to leave you a bit depressed and thoughtful for awhile afterwards.
I do have some issues with it, though. It's true that every dystopian book is, to some extent, unrealistic and manipulative--that's practically the point--and I do like dystopian fiction. So my biggest problem isn't with the little issues around how the premise is developed, although there are some of those. Like, how does Kathy manage to spend 13 years of her adult life out in the world driving all over and yet fail to learn basic facts that are common knowledge? And there's that frequently asked question, why no one tries to rebel or run away. (I can see both sides of that one. Because most people do submit to authority, tyrannical as it may be--but then, not everyone, and certainly not when there are no control mechanisms in place like the threat of punishment to enforce conformity.)
No, my real issue is with the premise itself: just what is the author trying to say? Because organ transplants have been around for awhile now, without governments running amok and breeding kids just to murder them for their organs. Perhaps it could happen, but on my worry list it's ranked somewhere down there with Canada invading the U.S., a terrorist flying a plane into my house, and the government forcing kids to fight to the death on national TV--which is to say, while theoretically possible, this book isn't playing on what I'd consider credible fears. (Contrast, for instance, Hillary Jordan's When She Woke, a dystopia premised on the religious right wing taking over American politics--something I find both scary and plausible.) Is it meant to be a polemic against stem cell research (which makes sense only if you view human adults as a sensible metaphor for human embryos)? Or perhaps against cloning? But there's no reason people would treat people as less than human because they'd been cloned, any more than you'd treat someone badly because they're an identical twin or because they were conceived through artificial insemination. (Or at least, as that's my view, I just can't get worked up about cloning. Your mileage may vary. It's starting to sound like I may just not be conservative enough to identify with this premise.)
So in the end, the way I understand this book is by viewing the premise more broadly--as a polemic against exploitation of others for our own gain--and there it works well. We as a society don't much care about the lives of third-world workers who produce our cheap stuff, for instance, and we're more than willing to have animals bred to be slaughtered for food and raised in terrible conditions. And the book raises the question of whether our half-measures--trying to improve the lives of disadvantaged people in various ways, without addressing the underlying problems--are meaningful, or just ways of making us feel better about ourselves. So I do think it raises worthwhile and interesting issues--but more so when it's taken as an extended metaphor than when it's taken at its word.(less)
This is exactly the sort of book I was hoping to find when I started my world fiction challenge: a truly excellent and accessible novel that deserves...moreThis is exactly the sort of book I was hoping to find when I started my world fiction challenge: a truly excellent and accessible novel that deserves to be much more widely read. Fiction in translation covers a wide spectrum, sometimes feeling very foreign and bizarre, but there’s something wonderful and life-affirming about finding a book like this, that’s perfectly relatable and understandable despite (for most English-speaking readers) an enormous cultural gap.
The book is about an old man named Yedigei, who works at a tiny railway junction out in the empty steppe of Kazakhstan. His oldest friend, Kazangap, dies at the beginning of the book, and Yedigei leads the other men of the junction out to an ancient cemetery for the burial. On their trip to the cemetery, he reminisces about his life, particularly about an ill-fated family he grew close to in the 1950s. There are also a couple of folk tales included, as well as a science fiction subplot about a first contact with an alien civilization. Which may sound like a lot, but it all comes together very well--even the sci-fi bit, which seemed clumsy until its thematic reason for being in the story became clear.
Overall, this is simply an excellent book. It’s a compelling story, featuring interesting, three-dimensional characters. The evocative writing brings to life a remote corner of the world, and the translation, including the dialogue, is very readable without being dumbed-down. The author incorporates a lot of 20th century Soviet history while still keeping the focus on the characters. It’s also definitely a “big ideas” kind of book, with a lot to say about cultural memory, international relations, and the Soviet system (among other things), but again, Aitmatov manages this in a subtle, nondidactic way, keeping the primary focus on the characters and their story.
I regret that my Russian isn’t nearly up to reading novels, because had I read this in the original, it likely would have gotten 5 stars. As is, the language is quite good, and so it’s a very solid 4.5. It would have been nice had the foreword been more about providing the reader with helpful background information (like where in Kazakhstan this actually takes place!) and less about its writer showing off, but as for the novel itself, I have no complaints. Definitely recommended--if you can get your hands on a copy.(less)
I’m giving fewer and fewer 5 star reviews these days, so when I say this book was absolutely fantastic, I really mean it.
Half of a Yellow Sun is set i...moreI’m giving fewer and fewer 5 star reviews these days, so when I say this book was absolutely fantastic, I really mean it.
Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria in the 1960’s, covering both the early years of independence and the Nigerian-Biafran war. The story is told in third person through the eyes of three main characters: Ugwu, a teenage boy from a poor village who becomes “houseboy” to a professor, Odenigbo; Olanna, a rich, foreign-educated Nigerian woman who settles down with Odenigbo and becomes a sociology lecturer; and Richard, a Englishman who comes to Nigeria to study art but falls in love with Olanna’s sister Kainene, who runs a contracting business. (I think this is a better description of the characters than the blurb’s, which describes Olanna as Odenigbo’s “beautiful mistress,” as if she were nothing but a sexpot. Actually, they’re just like many a modern couple: living together in a committed relationship but unmarried.)
The characters are the best thing about this book. The plot moves a bit slowly, but the characters are so utterly three-dimensional and fascinating that there isn’t a dull moment. They feel like real people, with complicated motivations and reactions and relationships, in a way that precious few fictional characters do. To the point that I’m actually looking at other books differently (the one or two that I reviewed while reading this one really got the short end of the stick).
This is also a fantastic piece of historical fiction. One reason I read this genre is to learn about the world, and this book has a great sense of place and relates the brief existence of Biafra in a way that’s engaging, understandable and memorable. The structure--with the book divided into four parts going back and forth between the early and late 60s--helps with this; it allows readers to step back and see how the countries and the characters got to where they are in the late 60s, and also keeps the book from being overwhelmed with war and tragedy. One common problem with books focused on some great tragedy or atrocity is too little build-up, but this one gives readers ample time to get to know and care about the characters and the place before the shooting starts. And the early-60s sections don’t just introduce the characters but have enough depth that they could have been a novel on their own.
I should note that the war sections are very focused on the characters’ individual experiences--I was surprised when someone referred to the “millions” of people in Biafra, because it felt much smaller than that. But this is one of the book’s many strengths, that it’s able to focus on a few people’s lives rather than turn into some kind of political treatise. We find out early on that a character writes a book about Biafra called “The World Was Silent When We Died”--but this is not that book. It’s far more subtle than that.
Finally, the writing itself is excellent. Neither overly ornate nor simplistic, it’s the kind of old-fashioned good writing that’s technically good but without calling attention to itself. And there are thematic questions that I’m still trying to work out (what Richard’s role in the book says about white people in Africa, for instance). The closest thing I have to a criticism of this book is of the Author’s Note, in which the author states that she took “many liberties” with the facts but not what they are. (The basic facts of the war, as far as I can tell from basic internet research, seem to have been presented accurately, but like most readers I’m unlikely to do extensive research to ascertain what was fact and what was fiction.)
I would recommend Half of a Yellow Sun to a wide range of people: whether you like historical fiction, world fiction or literary fiction, whether you read for story or characters, whether you know anything about Biafra or not, I think you’ll find much to appreciate in this fantastic book.(less)
The Colour is a well-written, engaging work of historical fiction, set in 1860's New Zealand. It reminded me of Allende's Daughter of Fortune and Smil...moreThe Colour is a well-written, engaging work of historical fiction, set in 1860's New Zealand. It reminded me of Allende's Daughter of Fortune and Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, which are set around the same time period (although in different parts of the world) and have some similar characters and situations, but without being so similar as to feel derivative. Like those books, it also has some plotting issues, but is good enough to be worth a read anyway.
Newlyweds Joseph and Harriet Blackstone arrive in New Zealand intending to start over; each married the other hoping for a new life, although they're barely acquainted. With Joseph's mother Lilian, they buy some land, build a house out of cob, and intend to start farming, but events don't go as planned. Then a gold rush comes along and changes everything.
The Colour is on the more literary end of historical fiction: while it tells an engaging story, the pacing is not especially quick and much time is spent on character development, which is well-done. Joseph is fairly useless, but Tremain does a good job of writing him in such a way that readers can sympathize somewhat (where, if we didn't have his viewpoint, he would likely come across as an antagonist). Harriet is more traditionally likeable, but complex. Lilian might at first seem like a stock obnoxious mother-in-law character, but soon becomes much more well-rounded.
The historical detail is worked into the story well, and there's a good sense of place with some evocative descriptions (although one key setting--the Hurunui gorge--is left almost entirely to the reader's imagination, as if it were intended to be more metaphorical than real). And the writing is good. There's something opaque about it, though: scenes that seem intended to have some great symbolic or metaphorical meaning that was not evident to me. Maybe the point was that life doesn't always make sense or turn out well--it's a melancholy book--but there's something rather distancing about Tremain's vision or her writing style that I didn't feel I entirely understood.
My other issue with the book is plot-related. Toward the end, a romance comes out of nowhere, as if the author suddenly realized the book had no love story and threw one in, but without bothering to integrate it into the rest of the story. And there are a couple of secondary characters who have their own minor plotlines, but don't contribute much, seemingly there more to add ethnic color than anything else.
Overall though, I did enjoy this book and would recommend it as a good work of historical fiction--if more melancholy and less willing to give up its secrets than the typical fare.(less)
A book about a Japanese woman and her husband's mistresses/concubines, and how everybody in this complicated household gets along, and why patriarchy...moreA book about a Japanese woman and her husband's mistresses/concubines, and how everybody in this complicated household gets along, and why patriarchy sucks.
I am not rating this book, or really reviewing it, because I was not able to fully appreciate it, but also don't think that was the author's fault. What I think got in the way:
- I know almost nothing about Japanese culture or history. Apparently this book "consciously echoes the Tale of Genji" and that's part of what makes it good. Well, I wouldn't know. Of course, the author wrote this book in Japanese for Japanese people, who presumably would have the requisite cultural background to understand it. There are things translators and publishers can do to make books more accessible to foreign audiences, though, and that were not done here. For instance, including an Introduction or Historical Note (there's nothing in this volume but the story). Or slipping some explanatory passages into the translation.
- The translation. The book seemed perhaps over-translated--into workmanlike, idiomatic English that doesn't give much sense of what the original prose was like.
- And this last one is entirely my fault--I knew this story would be understated but read through it fairly quickly, and maybe to fully appreciate it you need to read slowly and stop and think often about what's going on.
As is, only the ending really hit home for me. Too much of the rest was lost in translation.(less)
I tend to avoid books set in the U.S. post-WWII. The ones that aspire to genuine literary merit tend toward pretention, high-handedness, and tedium. B...moreI tend to avoid books set in the U.S. post-WWII. The ones that aspire to genuine literary merit tend toward pretention, high-handedness, and tedium. But The Last of Her Kind is different: it’s a well-written, thoughtful, thematically rich and, above all, an interesting book.
In 1968, Georgette George and Ann Drayton are assigned to room together at Barnard College. Georgette grew up in poverty in upstate New York; Ann comes from a rich family in Connecticut, but in an effort to disavow her privileged roots, requested a roommate as different from herself as possible. At first Georgette finds Ann unbearable, but soon they become friends, and the book follows their lives and their complicated relationship over more than 30 years.
I didn’t live through the 60s or 70s. I’d learned about that period, but I’d never seen it like this. Georgette, Ann and Georgette’s sister Solange are all (in different ways) a part of the radical hippie culture at the time, and this book does an excellent job of bringing that period to life in all its bizarre, fascinating weirdness. So the first half in particular works well as historical fiction. And Nunez's decision to write the book as if it were a memoir allows Georgette, as the narrator, to contrast America as it was then with America in the early 21st century, in non-obvious ways.
The book also shines in its examination of its characters and themes. Ann is one of those rare characters that the author really lets us come to our own conclusions about. Did she make a meaningful difference in the world? Or did she hurt the people around her more than her good works could make up for? Is she admirable in her sincerity and her willingness to practice what she preaches, or just obnoxious in her fanaticism? Can someone from a life of privilege really advocate for the underprivileged without being a hypocrite? How do you make that work? For instance: when Ann gets into legal trouble, she insists on being represented by a public defender, because she wants to get the same justice as everyone else. But then, her insistence on equality means she’s taking the public defender’s time away from actual poor people. So what should she have done? The book doesn’t try to answer these questions. But they’re absolutely questions worth asking.
The writing style is excellent, and full of insights into humanity without becoming sentimental or overwrought. The characters are complicated and interesting and feel genuine, although the narrator, Georgette, is somewhat less interesting than the others. Part of the reason I give 4 stars is that less than a month after finishing this book, I was having a hard time remembering her name. She's written as the more conventional one as a foil to Ann, but isn't especially memorable in her own right. The other part is that for the first 50 pages or so, before the book hits its stride, Georgette seems to tell us too much about what Ann is like rather than showing us through scenes, and that the random rape scene, much as it does fit into the novel’s themes, still felt gratuitous.
Overall, an excellent book, even if Literature-with-a-capital-L is something you generally avoid. I don’t reread often, but this is a book that deserves rereading--or just stopping to think as you read, rather than rushing through it in a day as I did. But I read it so quickly because it’s a compelling, well-written book, and that’s a recommendation in itself.(less)
This was a well-written book. But I just couldn't really buy the idea of this perfect American family completely falling apart when the daughter was r...moreThis was a well-written book. But I just couldn't really buy the idea of this perfect American family completely falling apart when the daughter was raped. Rape is sadly not uncommon, and women and their families manage to deal with it every day--so what was so fundamentally wrong with this family that all of them went batshit insane? I don't know. It was weird. Oates does write well though.(less)