I've read that Michael Herr's Dispatches is one of the best, if not the best, book that has been written about the Vietnam War. I've certainly not reaI've read that Michael Herr's Dispatches is one of the best, if not the best, book that has been written about the Vietnam War. I've certainly not read widely enough to know whether that's true or not (and a personal favorite of mine remains Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried), but Herr manages to convey to the reader what it was like to be in Vietnam with a very authentic voice. He gives a flavor to the time, place and people that will remain in my mind for quite a while. I thought Dispatches would be an easy read, straightforward journalism. Dispatches, a report, what you would find in a literary magazine like Esquire (right?), for whom Herr was connected when he went to cover the war.
It turned out to be a very disorienting experience for me and a challenging read, not least because the writing style is so vivid and raw and with little structure. When I first was thinking about the book, his writing felt impressionistic, but I've since come across a better descriptive term. The six sections that make up the book, and within each section there are many stories, create a sort of collage. Bits and pieces of different experiences make up a much larger picture. Since there is no or little narrative arc it's hard to describe what I read, though I am left with a great many images. This was also challenging as I have read very little about Vietnam and am unfamiliar with the military and social jargon of the era. It's a cliché to say this, but the more I read, the less I feel that I really know about history and the world in general.
Herr chose to go to Vietnam as a reporter/writer (he wasn't there as as soldier) and could have returned home at any time, a fact that mostly astonished the troops, most of whom would happily have left sooner than later given the chance. He traveled with the marines and endured the same battles and discomfort they did. Drug use wasn't unheard of, and Herr and other reporters engaged in the activity. Caroline touched upon this in her post, but I wonder if the war helped shaped the Sixties, or if the Sixties shaped the war. Herr's Dispatches very much reflects that unique period--both with the language he uses and the style of the writing, which makes it easy for me to see why it's considered a modern classic. It just needed a musical soundtrack to be complete, but even then there are many cultural references peppered throughout the text.
Like all good nonfiction it's hard to tell you exactly what I read, since there was so much. So many stories, so many experiences and images and battles. I can tell you bits and pieces. I can tell you how my own perception has been shaped by a later generation and a different cultural viewpoint. I was still a baby when Herr was following the marines and watching the Battle of Khe Sanh unfold, about which he writes extensively. I've always understood this was the Vietnam War, though in Vietnam it's called the American War. I remember studying the Tet Offensive in school, but did I ever learn that Tet is actually the Vietnamese Lunar New Year?
Maybe it's best to leave you with a few excerpts so you can read for yourself and get a feeling for the writing. I dog eared many pages, so here are a few random passages.
"One morning before dawn, Ed Fouhy, a former Saigon Bureau Chief for CBS, went out to 8th Aerial Port at Tan Son Nhut to catch the early military flight to Danang. They boarded as the sun came up, and Fouhy strapped in next to a kid in rumpled fatigues, one of those soldiers you see whose weariness has gone far beyond physical exhaustion, into that state where no amount of sleep will ever give him the kind of rest he needs. Every torpid movement they make tells you that they are tired, that they'll stay tired until their tours are up and the big bird flies them back to the World."
"Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony: I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you've never heard it. I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn't know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn't always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes. Time and information, rock and roll, life itself, the information isn't frozen, you are."
"Almost as much as the grunts and the Vietnamese, Tet was pushing correspondents closer to the wall than they'd ever wanted to go. I realized later that, however childish I might remain, actual youth had been pressed out of me in just the three days that it took me to cross the sixty miles between Can Tho and Saigon."
"I know a guy who had been a combat medic in the Central Highlands, and two years later he was still sleeping with all the lights on. We were walking across 57th Street one afternoon and passed a blind man carrying a sign that read MY DAYS ARE DARKER THAN YOUR NIGHTS. 'Don't bet on it, man' the ex-medic said."
I'm happy to have read Dispatches, though it's a book I can say I think I appreciate more than I love. I wish I had known more going into the book, but with every book or magazine article I learn just a little bit more for the next time. With the next book I'll have a little more familiarity and the language or style may feel a little less foreign. And maybe someday I'll pick up Dispatches to read again and the experience will be completely different. Until then I'm glad I read outside my comfort zone, something I am always eager to do more of, and I'll be looking for more books on the Vietnam War (suggestions as always are welcome). ...more
If Margaret Forster's biography of Daphne du Maurier is anything to go by, du Maurier was an extremely complex individual. A second go round of RebeccIf Margaret Forster's biography of Daphne du Maurier is anything to go by, du Maurier was an extremely complex individual. A second go round of Rebecca makes it easy to see how her personality and experiences come through in her writing. Reading the novel was better the second time around, and I think I can appreciate what she was doing more now than I could the first time I read the book.
Sally Beauman writes an excellent afterword to the novel throwing light on her motivations and meanings, which certainly made it a richer read this time through. Interestingly Beauman writes that Rebecca can be read on two levels, as a conventional romance (probably, Beauman notes, how the reading public approached it when it was first published and became an instant bestseller), which is no doubt how I read it when I was younger. The other approach is to see the "imaginative links" to earlier novelists such as Charlotte Bronte. Du Maurier herself described the novel to her publisher as "a sinister tale about a woman who marries a a widower...psychological rather than macabre." I saw it less as a romance this time around and felt the darker, brooding overtones much more.
Rebecca was written in 1938 while she was living with her military husband in Alexandria, Egypt, which she came to loathe. She was extremely unhappy at this time, her beloved father having passed away only a few years earlier. She was also pregnant with her second child and no doubt the sweltering heat of the desert did nothing to lighten her mood. She chucked the first version (wouldn't it be interesting to get your hands on that?) and later finished it when she returned to England. This was her fifth novel, and it would become her most famous, remaining in print since it's first publication.
The story begins in Monte Carlo and is narrated by a young, unnamed woman who is acting as a companion to an unpleasant and annoying American woman. Mrs. Van Hopper is one of those types of women always hoping to curry favor with the elite crowd, and she does everything she can to insinuate herself into the company of handsome widower, Maxim de Winter, who also happens to be staying at the same hotel. When she falls ill, Maxim and the young woman take to spending time together. It's all a bit whirlwind, but they quickly decide to marry and return to England. To Manderley.
The novel is bookended by two dreams the new Mrs. de Winter has. Both are vivid and nightmarish in quality. I shared the opening scenes of the novel here. Beauman writes that the novel is about a man, two women, and a house. Manderley certainly does take on almost human qualities becoming a towering character in itself. The new Mrs. de Winter is not only young, but unstylish and inexperienced as well. She soon finds she's incapable of managing a household that the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, succeeded at so flawlessly. Physically and socially she compares unfavorably with her as well. Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, does everything she can to undermine the new Mrs. de Winter and make her feel what a failure she is in every way to Rebecca.
For a character who is dead and buried long before the action of the story begins, it's hard to get away from her. Manderley exudes Rebecca's presence, and everyone on the estate compares the new Mrs. de Winter to the former, or at least that's what the new Mrs. de Winter thinks. Perhaps as a coping method, she creates a rich fantasy life, but it simply immures her to a feeling of failure. Since the reader is inside the new Mrs. de Winter's head we not only sense her pain, but feel her fears (real and imagined) as she loses control over her life (though did she ever have it?). She believes Maxim looks at her but sees and wants only Rebecca.
I think the story is brilliant at what it sets out to do and how well it's achieved. Daphne du Maurier always wanted to be taken more seriously as a writer than she was during her lifetime. I think critics often wrote her off as someone (a woman) writing popular (and therefore not serious) fiction, which is a pity. I don't think her work can just be read, consumed and forgotten. At least it's stayed with me. Happily Virago Press continues to publish the bulk of her work. I'm very slowly making my way through her oeuvre, and reread this as a run up to reading Justine Picardie's Daphne. I still plan on reading more of the Brontes as well, whose lives and works seem so integral to so much of what I've read this year. And I think now I need to pull out The "Rebecca" Notebook. I will, of course, be reading more of her work (not sure what to follow Rebecca up with). If you've not yet read this, I highly recommend it! ...more
I have a soft spot for novels that are narrated in the first person but tell a story that isn't so much about the narrator but someoneExcellent read!
I have a soft spot for novels that are narrated in the first person but tell a story that isn't so much about the narrator but someone they know well. Thomas Cook's Places in the Dark, published in 2000, is just such a book. I loved Cook's award-winning The Chatham School Affair and can't quite figure out why I waited so long to read another of his novels. He's a masterful storyteller and not only does he write well but his plotting is assured and suspenseful. He manages to breathe life into a story that sounds somewhat clichéd--a mysterious woman arrives in a small town, a year later she flees leaving one man dead and another on the verge of madness. It sounds simple and the reader makes certain assumptions they believe will be true, but Cook is never quite so predictable.
"More than anyone I ever knew, my brother Billy felt the rapid wings of summer, how it darted like a bird through the trees of Maine, skittered along streams and ponds, then soared away, bright and gleaming, leaving us behind, shivering in coats and scarves."
Billy is a romantic and lives and loves passionately. Younger than his brother Cal by five years they couldn't be more different but that doesn't lessen the closeness they feel for each other growing up in Maine in the 1930s. Cal is practical and rational and looks after Billy who has no second thoughts before jumping into a fast moving river to save a small girl. Billy's life is defined by the passion he feels. He's guided by his heart, despite the skepticism both Cal and their father feel. Cal looks after his younger brother but can never quite match the inner brightness that Billy carries with him. And he never feels the unconditional love and respect his mother, in particular, reserves for her younger son. Both are inveterate romantics.
Billy follows in his father's footsteps and takes over the running of the family newspaper, which is deemed unsuitable work for Cal. Instead Cal is to study the law as it is cut and dried and requires no sentiment. So each brother leads his own life in the small coastal town of Port Alma, separate yet working in close proximity of the other and their parents. Then one cold November day Dora March steps off the Port Alma bus and throws both men's lives into an upheaval. Dora is a beautiful but scarred woman who remains shy and somewhat skittish. She obviously has something dark in her past, but it remains deeply hidden. She takes a job first as a maid/companion to an elderly resident of the town, but after his death she begins working at The Sentinel for Billy.
"For all his life Billy loved the idea that people had secrets they held within themselves like gemstones in a velvet pouch, precious, dazzling, rare. Perhaps that was what initially drew him to Dora. Not her beauty, but how grotesquely it had been marred. Not what she let him see, but what she hid."
It's, of course, unsurprising when Billy begins showing affection for Dora and perhaps more than that, as he hints that he's planning on asking her to marry him. Cal isn't so easily convinced of Dora's intentions or motives. In a way he is Dora's foil--both are afraid of love but for vastly different reasons. She cautions him not to want love too much for it can have regrettable consequences. And on the same bus Dora arrived on, she leaves Port Alma, and it's more than just a broken heart that is left in her wake.
Cook's suspense is more of a 'slow burn' sort of suspense. He takes his time telling his story, there's nothing rushed about it. He begins with a crime and then goes back and fills in the story. Each thread is woven so naturally into the storyline that the flashbacks aren't even noticeable as it all flows together so nicely. It's a simple story really, but Cook still manages to make it surprising. I really enjoyed Places in the Dark and won't let so much time pass before I start another of his books. As a matter of fact I've dug out the other books I own by him (including The Chatham School Affair for a reread), and have already started reading his forthcoming book The Quest for Anna Klein, which I am fortunate enough to have a galley copy of on my Nook. If you enjoy a good, literate, suspenseful story, usually with a historical setting that involves a mystery or crime of some sort, you might give Thomas Cook a try. ...more
Kate Simon's Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood is a wonderfully evocative memoir of growing up in New York City i3.5/5 enjoyed this very much.
Kate Simon's Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood is a wonderfully evocative memoir of growing up in New York City in the 1920s. She tells her story not only from the perspective of a girl and young woman but also of an immigrant. It was published in 1982 and was one of the New York Times Book Review's twelve best books of the year as well as one of Time magazine's five best. She continues her story in A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence and Etchings in an Hourglass, both of which I will be reading at some point and am hopeful they will be equally as engrossing as this has been. Bronx Primitive is made up of fourteen chapters that read more like a series of interconnected essays touching on various aspects of growing up--her family and friends, school and life in general on 178th Street and Lafontaine Avenue, and the reader gets a snapshot view of Simon's life up to the age of fourteen.
In some ways her childhood experiences are somewhat harrowing as she was at the mercy of relatives and family friends who thought nothing of taking advantage of a young girl, but this is in no way a misery memoir. Although never explicit you get the feeling her family was poor--her father made shoes and each nice thing the family bought was the result of many hours of hard work. She writes about her youth in a completely unsentimental manner and quite matter of factly, even if some of her stories are cringe-worthy. In Poland Kate was Kaila, named after her grandmother, but her name was changed to Caroline upon her arrival to America when she was only six, and eventually she became Kate. She emigrated with her mother and younger brother, but her father had traveled ahead to find a job and a place to live. You get the sense he was happy to live the life of a bachelor, if only temporarily. I'm not sure Kate was particularly close to either parent, and certainly her mother and father had their own difficulties with each other, but she frequently butted heads with her father who was very rigid and unyielding in his ways and expectations.
Although Kate's family was Jewish, they seemed to practice more out of tradition rather than a stringent belief. Her mother rarely went to the synagogue, and while there were things they did or didn't do according to their faith, Kate often didn't understand the reasons why. She spent at least as much time, maybe more, with the Italian families on her block and in her tenement building getting an entirely different sort of education than that which she received in P.S. 58, 57 and 59. She was a good student, but just missed getting into a "rapid advance" school where junior high could be accomplished in two years rather than three, which caused a huge rift with her father who was sure her failure was on purpose and to embarrass him. When she was ready to go to high school he would have been happy for her to leave school altogether and attempt to become a concert pianist, but she had other dreams.
It was with a certain nostalgia (even though this is a period I am only familiar with through books and movies) that I approached this book, but in the telling of her childhood memories, I'm not so sure nostalgia is the right word to use. Going to Coney Island with a nickel and buying hotdogs and Baby Ruths does convey a certain vanished world that makes me wonder about life in another era--better than my own? And I found the stories where children kept mum about behavior not meant to be shared with grown-ups fascinating. Maybe all children have that unwritten code they must adhere to--things they know but can't and won't tell. Spending the afternoon with gypsies on those same Coney Island afternoons and not admitting the fact to parents is understandable. But not being able to turn to a parent, or worse a parent's collusion with other adults, when inappropriate behavior is occurring in such a small place as the family apartment is very disturbing. Childhood seemed a different world in the tenements of 1920s New York.
I found this a fascinating read despite some very uncomfortable moments. Kate Simon writes about her childhood with honesty and eloquence and even a certain humor. It may not always have been a happy place, but you still get a sense of her excitement to meet the world and all it had to offer her. ...more
So I've just finished reading Wild Life by Molly Gloss and am feeling a little ambivalent about it. On the one hand it is a well written and thought-pSo I've just finished reading Wild Life by Molly Gloss and am feeling a little ambivalent about it. On the one hand it is a well written and thought-provoking story with a wonderfully independent heroine (I like smart female characters who show a little moxie), but on the other I thought I would never finish the book (and it is quite short--about 250 pages). It is the latest reading choice of the Slaves of Golconda, and I was very excited about the story. One of the reasons I enjoy readalongs (though my track record of late with the Slaves has been a little spotty) is being able to widen my reading horizons and read books that may well be outside my normal comfort zone. Wild Life is a novel that crosses genres as there is a sci-fi/fantasy slant to the story, and in this case it also deals with gender issues as well. There is a certain amount of stretching of the imagination needed in the story, but I don't mind that really. So, what's not to like right?
The story is presented as a series of journal entries by Charlotte Bridger Drummond, a feminist and freethinking woman living with her five sons in the Pacific Northwest in the early years of the 20th century. Charlotte's husband left one day on the ferry never to return. She could avoid the stigma of being an abandoned wife by claiming one of the bodies that frequently washes ashore but prefers to think of her husband alive somewhere and happy rather than drowned and dead. She doesn't manage too badly on her own, however, as she pens dimestore novels of spunky heroines who get caught up in wild adventures. She likes to think she might be the natural successor to her idol Jules Verne, but she realizes her work crosses the line from serious to marketable.
Charlotte spends most of her time, as much as she can anyway, either writing or reading, which is no easy task considering the number of literary and scientific journals that arrive on the ferry every month. Not a fan of cooking or cleaning and with a rather elastic sense of motherly guidance she leaves the more mundane domestic duties up to her housekeeper, Melba.
"My personal belief if that a woman's worth doesn't lie in the cleanliness of her house; and at the commencement of each of Melba's absences I always am determined on principle, to let the housekeeping pile up. It is Melba's belief, though, that a woman who neglects her home is unnatural, an abnormity more horrible than Frankenstein's monster, and on her return there is a particular look she will give me as she surveys the disorder."
When Melba's granddaughter goes missing from one of the logging camps her father very foolishly brought her to, Charlotte is determined to not only travel there to discover the circumstances of her disappearance (by the time word makes its way from wilderness to the town it is stretched completely out of shape and distorted) but also to give a hand in the search as well. Charlotte isn't just determined but she is downright stubborn. She is an unapologetic intellectual who is sure she can succeed where others have failed. But several days into the search, she also gets separated from the group and even her trusty compass can't help her find her way back so completely turned around does she become.
At first she is sure she can catch up with the group of searchers, but as the days pass, her food runs out and she becomes cold and wet, her hope dwindles. Alone and afraid she senses she is being watched and realizes she is not alone in the wilderness. Literally at the end of her tether she latches on to a family of, I'm not sure what to call them--creatures that are much larger than humans but not too far removed from them either. They have their own language, so are unable to communicate, and while they are somewhat wary of each other they eventually allow Charlotte to tag along until she becomes almost one of them.
Interspersed in the narrative/journal entries are snippets from Charlotte's writing, both her stories and feminist musings, as well as sketches of the various characters (both primary and secondary characters of the story) and also included are quotes from authors and Native American folk tales. Taken together it creates a mosaic of sorts throwing light on different aspects of the story. These diversions become meditations on 19th century life, not exclusively of the West but certainly particular to it. She asks the reader (in however roundabout way) to consider many different things--the role of women in society, preservation versus the necessity of the logging industry, how animals are treated and what it means to be humane.
"I wonder if we might more easily become like animals than animals become like humans. As a species, we human beings seem no longer fitted for life in the wilderness--have been weakened by centuries of civilized life--but there may yet be something inherent in our natures, some potentiality which wants only the right circumstance to return us to the raw edge of Wildness."
I feel like I should be in love with this story. Charlotte is a remarkable, if fallible, woman. She dresses like a man when she needs to, rides a bicycle and when asked if she needs a light (she smokes an occasional cigar) replies she never takes a light from a man. She's smart and ever ready with a quick quip, which rolls smoothly off her tongue (there were loads of wonderful lines I could have shared!). Gloss vividly describes the Pacific Northwest, making it sound lush and beautiful and creates an intriguing picture of a vast wilderness--one where you can walk for days and never see anyone else (do places like that still exist here outside of state parks?). For the first two thirds of the story I was totally engaged and knowing that Charlotte would become lost in the wilderness I couldn't wait for that part of the story to arrive, but once it did I think I became frustrated by the many diversions and meanderings. I like that she pushes boundaries and asks hard questions, but for me it also broke up the flow of the story making me feel like I was plodding along....more
I thoroughly enjoyed Magdalen Nabb’s Death of an Englishman, which is a traditional murder mystery set in the beautiful city of Florence.3.5 out of 5
I thoroughly enjoyed Magdalen Nabb’s Death of an Englishman, which is a traditional murder mystery set in the beautiful city of Florence. I suspect the setting had a lot to do with my enjoyment (and wishful thinking that I was there now rather than here). It’s strange to think of Florence as a small town, since I’ve only seen it from an outsider’s perspective as a tourist, yet you get a sense reading the novel that Florence is in actuality a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Nabb lived there from 1975 until her death in 2007 and wrote more than a dozen mysteries featuring Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia. I believe she based her stories on actual crime cases (however loosely) and was friends with the local marshal as she lived close to the Carabinieri station.
I get the feeling that Nabb must have been testing the waters with Death of an Englishman, as Marshal Guarnaccia takes a back seat for most of the action in this first book. It’s only a few days before Christmas and the Marshal is sick in bed, hoping to recover enough to get on a train south and return to his family in Sicily for the holidays. The Pitti station is usually pretty quiet with only the odd case of purse snatching or some other minor crime to be solved, but when a call comes through about a murder young Carabinieri Bacci is unsure whether to wake the Marshal or begin investigating on his own. Bacci is still a cadet at police school, and while his uniform is always impeccable and he knows textbook procedures, he has no actual experience. Well intentioned as he is, he tends to bumble about. While the Marshal is weak with a fever it falls to the station Captain and Carabinieri Bacci to investigate the murder.
Carabinieri Bacci is confronted with the body of an Englishman when he arrives at a small apartment complex on via Maggio. Mr. Langley-Symthe, a seemingly respectable bachelor who worked for the British embassy and remained in Florence after he retired, is found sprawled on the floor amidst mismatched furniture. Little is known about him, despite the British expatriate community being a tight-knit one, as he kept well to himself. Upon closer inspection, however, there are oddities about the man and how he was living. His apartment is uncared for and covered in a layer of grime and Mr. Langley-Smythe isn’t much neater himself. Most interesting however, is the ancient Roman seal that is found near his body and a safe filled with various foreign currencies. Being a British citizen two detectives from New Scotland Yard are sent to aid in the investigation.
It's always interesting to see how different cultures act and react when thrown together in a situation, and Nabb seems a careful observer. Just as Carabinieri Bacci can speak a little English, Inspector Jeffreys, who's not much older than Bacci, can get by with only a little trouble in Italian. They both know just enough to be wary of each other and curious how the other works. So they set about questioning the residents of the the apartment complex, and a motley crew they are, too. There's the Italian family who lives above with the little daughter who has a precocious but very peculiar fascination with toy guns. She recognizes the sound she heard that woke her. And there is the older British lady who came to Florence for a vacation and stayed but never got around to learning the language. Her apartment is always open as she has a poetry museum in her rooms. She has a view over the courtyard and Langley-Smythe's apartment and is filled with all sorts of interesting information about her neighbors. Everyone is eager to dismiss her as being a little on the batty side, but she's more with it than most give her credit for. It takes the four detectives to do the footwork and questioning, but in the end Guarnaccia comes along and with ease pulls the solution out of the hat.
If the first Marshal Guarnaccia mystery is anything to go by, these will be quick entertaining reads with a puzzle at the heart of the story but also with a good dose of Florentine atmosphere and interesting characters. I'm curious to learn more about the Marshal and wish that Carabinieri Bacci would return, though Guarnaccia and the Captain seem relieved that he'll be going back to school complete his training. A note on Italian police, which I am still working out but a few subtle differences I have gleaned from Andrea Camilleri's novel--Italian Carabinieri are a national police separate from local police. Carabiniere are part of the military and often serve outside their native regions, hence Guarnaccia is from Sicily whereas Inspector Montalbano is a local police officer. And according to the notes in Camilleri's book, the Carabinieri tend to be made fun of and thought less on the ball than local police, but I'll give Marshal Guarnaccia the benefit of the doubt!...more
Chandra Prasad's On Borrowed Wings has joined the ranks of favorite books that I like to revisit from time to time. It is most thoroughly a comfort reChandra Prasad's On Borrowed Wings has joined the ranks of favorite books that I like to revisit from time to time. It is most thoroughly a comfort read, if only because I know how things end and find the book a completely satisfying read. Not all the questions are answered and frankly the second time around I am still left wanting more, but this is such a wonderful story questioning gender roles, and crossing class and cultural boundaries that it may be comforting to read, but it is most certainly in no way fluffy. Ultimately it's a story about growing up and finding your place in the world, something surely most of us can identify with.
I already wrote about it a couple of years ago, but it's on my mind now after a second read (originally I borrowed it from the library, but recently decided I needed to own it so bought the paper edition), so I feel like writing about it again. I feel like lavishing more praise upon it and perhaps someone else will pick it up and enjoy it as much as I have.
Adele Pietra is a young woman with few opportunities in 1936. Much more her father's daughter, she is a dreamer, happiest gazing at the sky and losing herself in books. Her mother married down when she wed the handsome son of Italian immigrants ensuring a life of hard work as a laundress in Stony Creek, Connecticut. Where once she was a summer visitor, a wealthy "Cottager", she now struggles as the wife of a quarryman, living a life not at all as she expected it to turn out.
Her pride and joy is her son, Charles, who she coaches each evening in preparation for entrance exams to Yale. It's her dream that he'll pull himself up and out of the life of near poverty they lead. There's a rivalry between Adele and Charles that isn't helped by her mother's favoritism of her brother, or the fact that her father sticks up for what her mother views as Adele's lackadaisical behavior.
When both father and brother are killed in an accident at the quarry suddenly, Adele faces an even more uncertain future. With few options left, Adele's mother threatens to marry her off to an older man, another quarryman, thus assuring the cycle of poverty will be renewed. Adele has other ideas. She cuts off her hair and decides to take on the identity of her brother who had just been accepted to Yale before his death. It's a risky venture, but one Adele seemingly falls into easily. She plays the part of Charlie so well at times you forget underneath who she really is.
Some of my favorite passages are where Adele grapples with her contradictory personas.
"Pulling on my trousers, I tucked the length of my skirt awkwardly into the waistband. Although the extra fabric ballooned around my middle, I hid it well enough with my coat. This I buttoned to my chin so that the collar of my blouse didn't show. I pulled on long wool socks and my boy's shoes. I kept my head low. All in all, I felt quite uncomfortable, though I was finally the person I'd been portraying; an amalgam of both sexes, passing by only the humblest margin as either."
Prasad never deals with issues in a heavy-handed manner, rather they are a natural outgrowth of the story and jive with the period she writes about. She never takes a stance but simply tells her story. Prasad is herself a Yale graduate and she paints such a pleasing portrait of student life you almost wish you could step into the pages of the book despite the turmoil Adele often feels.
The paper edition has extra material in the back of the book including a Q&A with the author and I was interested to hear what her inspiration was for On Borrowed Wings:
"One seed for this novel was planted during my junior year of college. In an American history class focusing on women in the South, my professor talked briefly about females who had co-opted the male identity in order to assume roles that would have been barred to them otherwise. I became interested in the idea of altering one's gender in order to thrive, if not simply to survive. Since I knew that Yale had opened its doors to undergraduate women only in 1969, On Borrowed Wings seemed to take shape inside my head with an ease all its own. Both the women throughout history who have dared to impersonate men and the first undergraduate females at Yale inspired the main character, Adele."
In thinking more about the story and how it ends, I think I prefer not to have all the questions answered tidily. The novel covers only Adele's Freshman year at Yale, but I like to think that Adele pulled off her masquerade and that her life's wishes came true....more
I can never decide whether I'm happy to come across an already well-established author, particularly one writing crime novels, or not.3.5/5 actually.
I can never decide whether I'm happy to come across an already well-established author, particularly one writing crime novels, or not. The thing about getting in on the ground level, so to speak, of an author's work is being able to read the books as they're published (though sadly with books in translation they are often translated out of order). Of course once you've read the book that's it until the author writes another. Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water is the first in a long running detective series set in the fictional Sicilian seaside town of Vigàta. Twelve books have been published with a thirteenth due out this fall in the US. The upside, however, to discovering a good author like Camilleri is having so many more books to look forward to reading and at leisure, and if the first is anything to go by these will be quick entertaining reads yet with a certain flair that is both culturally rich and with an understated humor.
Inspector Salvo Montalbano has quite a following in his native Italy as well as abroad. My first impression was that he reminded me just a touch of Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret (though only a touch) as well as of another recent discovery Domingo Villar's Inspector Leo Caldas. Like Maigret he is cool, calm and collected and like Caldas he has an appreciation for a good meal. Montalbano is smart, even tempered and compassionate. He's also well respected by the citizens of Vigàta. You get a sense that he's one of the 'good guys' even if he doesn't always do things entirely by the book. He's the sort of man who hires a woman to cook and clean for him whose two sons have been jailed thanks to Montalbano even though his girlfriend is wary of the situation.
"The previous July, when she had come to Vigàta to spend two weeks with him, Livia, on hearing this story became terrified."
"Are you insane? One of these days that woman will take revenge and poison your soup!"
"Take revenge for what?"
"For having arrested her son!"
"Is that my fault? Adelina's well aware it's not my fault if her son was stupid enough to get caught. I played fair, didn't use any tricks or traps to arrest him. It was all on the up-and-up."
"I don't give a damn about your contorted way of thinking. You have to give rid of her."
"But if I fire her, who's going to keep house for me, do my laundry, iron my clothes, and make dinner?"
"You'll find somebody else!"
"There you're wrong. I'll never find a woman as good as Adelina."
Livia, perhaps not surprisingly, is not from Sicily. Life is different there. One hot summer morning two trash collectors, rather "ecological agents" find the body of a man in an area of Vigàta known as the "Pasture". The Pasture is a seedy area where couples congregate to participate in amorous adventures. It's also a high traffic area for prostitutes. Silvio Luparello is found rather ignominiously in his parked car with his pants down around his knees, but has a crime been committed? The well known politician's body shows no signs of a violent struggle and autopsy results confirm death due to a heart attack. Along with the body an expensive diamond necklace was found near the car, but picked up and secreted away by one of the trash collectors. Montalbano's superiors pressure him to close the case, which seems only an unfortunate accident, but things don't quite add up so he continues his investigation.
When a once good friend of Luparello's joins up with his political rival winning the election Luparello had set his sights on, Montalbano senses something fishy, but he has no evidence to support his claims. He has only the same politician asking for help finding a missing necklace that his Swedish daughter-in-law lost, which puts her in a comprising situation he'd like hushed up. It appears that Luparello was one to "give in to his vices" and had a small cottage hideaway for his very discreet affairs. One woman seems to be the connection between the various sides of Silvio Luparello, but is everything just a little too pat? Is she being framed, and why?
This is not a typical detective novel, particularly when the dead man doesn't even seem to have been murdered. Of course it all depends on how you look at guilt and what motivates people to do the things they do--crime takes on more than one face.
I enjoyed my first foray into the world of Inspector Montalbano--not just for the puzzle but for being introduced to an interesting cast of characters and even more to an intriguing place both beautiful for its scenery and shocking for the violence. Even the minor characters are interesting. The ecological agents are educated men dreaming of better lives and jobs. The wife of the victim is smart and perceptive with a dry wit. Montalbano's childhood friend, Gegè, is a pimp with street savvy and an understanding of the seamier side of life. Of course the most interesting character of all is Montalbano himself.
The Shape of Water is translated quite smoothly from Italian by Stephen Sartarelli. It's a case of the prose not getting in the way of the story. Sartarelli also includes helpful notes on the text explaining cultural references and nuances, which add to the story. ...more