Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW





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A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles, Viking, 2016, 464 pp


A most enjoyable read despite it length due to wonderful characters and a unique look at life in Moscow during the years immediately following the Russian revolution. 

Count Alexander Rostov, wealthy and unrepentant aristocrat, is brought before a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 and sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, the grand hotel where he already lives in a luxurious suite. He must give up that suite and most of his possessions to live in two small attic rooms. He is not permitted to leave the building under any circumstances and it becomes his entire world for many years.

If this sounds like the girl in A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it does have its similarities, including a happy ending. But the Count is a middle-aged man, he manages to have a little money secreted away plus is well educated and wise in the ways of the world.

After adjusting to his much reduced circumstances, he is shown all the secrets of the Metropol by a precocious young girl who reminded me of Eloise, another delightful hotel dweller in the New York Plaza Hotel. 

As the story moves along the Count becomes a waiter in the hotel restaurant, acquires a daughter of his own when the young girl is left behind by her revolutionary mother, and falls in love with a movie star. All along, he learns the ways of life in a totalitarian society, he develops compassion for all kinds of people and proves that with wiles and luck, a person can figure out how to survive in any circumstances.

As entertaining and even intelligent as the story is, I did have doubts as to its likelihood. Having recently read The Green Tent and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, both of which show a much darker view of life in the Soviet Union, I could not help thinking that the Count got off too easily.

At the end of the story, it turns into more of a thriller which is full of danger and excitement, but despite some close calls no one get hurt. I decided to enjoy the excellent writing and the entertainment value along with some pithy satire. The author managed to stay just enough away from heartwarming but my heart was warmed anyway. He made me love Count Rostov. 


(A Gentleman in Moscow is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)




 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

THE BULL FROM THE SEA





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The Bull From the Sea, Mary Renault, Pantheon Books, 343 pp


In her sequel to The King Must Die, Mary Renault completes her fictional retelling of the legend of Theseus, Greek hero, bull leaper, mythical son of Poseidon, ruler of Athens. In the way of larger-than-life heroes he comes to downfall and death. It is almost enough to make one give up hope in our dreams to either be heroes/heroines or be saved by them.

Then again, he had adventure, danger, pleasure, even love. In this latter part of his life he returns from Crete, puts his glorious bull leaper days behind him, and tries to settle down and be a good King. He does well, he makes his kingdom more just, and he prospers.

Theseus is a high energy restless dude though and likes to go off with his pirate friends. During one of those adventures he meets his female counterpoint, Hippolyta. Although she is sworn to the Amazon goddess, she gives it all up to go with him and be the love of his life.

Meanwhile, for political reasons, Theseus must wed Cretan princess Phaedra to whom he was earlier betrothed. He has a son by each woman. It does not turn out well.

One of the central themes of both novels is the conflict between those who worshipped the Earth Mother, a matriarchal belief system, and those who saw their Kings as intermediaries between humans and the Sky Gods. Theseus is the King who thwarts the Earth Mother traditions of old and brings about full patriarchy in Greece.

As any good feminist scholar knows, this is the age old battle of the sexes, lost by women long long ago. Whether or not the result has been or ever will be good for the people of Earth, it makes for great tales. The Legend of Theseus is one of them and Mary Renault tells it extremely well. 


(The Bull From the Sea is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

BEAUTY IS A WOUND





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Beauty Is A Wound, Eka Kurniawan, New Directions, 2015, 470 pp (published in Indonesia in 2002, translated by Annie Tucker)


Summary from Goodreads: The epic novel Beauty Is a Wound combines history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humor, and romance in a sweeping polyphony. The beautiful Indo prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters are beset by incest, murder, bestiality, rape, insanity, monstrosity, and the often vengeful undead. Kurniawan's gleefully grotesque hyperbole functions as a scathing critique of his young nation's troubled past: the rapacious offhand greed of colonialism; the chaotic struggle for independence; the 1965 mass murders of perhaps a million "Communists," followed by three decades of Suharto's despotic rule.


My Review:
I first learned of this novel from the BTBA (Best Translated Book Award) Fiction long list for 2016. I bought it because it is a fictional account of Indonesian history and because I liked the title. It was the last book I read in 2016. Filled with wild and crazy characters, featuring colonial oppression and the rape of natural resources and as well as a mixed race descendant of a Dutch East India Company trader, it covers war, communism, slaughter, rape, unstable politics, indigenous customs, and ghosts. The result is a rich tapestry.

Not that we don't have rape issues in the United States and not that rape is ever OK but boy, it was as common as dirt in the tumultuous archipelago now known as Indonesia. The central character is a woman, Dewi Ayu, the mixed race descendant mentioned above.  She is possessed of great beauty, four daughters who are each from different fathers, and demonic powers. She is the most renowned prostitute in Jakarta.

When she rises from her grave, where she had been buried 21 years ago, all the tales and many of the ghosts come alive as well. The author then takes us back to where it all began for Dewi and brings us forward through 400 years of history.

I was drawn in from the beginning and except for a few lulls in the narrative, remained intrigued to the end. In college, I studied Margaret Mead's books about her anthropological studies on Bali, one of Indonesia's islands, and became fascinated with the area. I have since read Euphoria by Lily King (a novel loosely based on Ms Mead) and Mead's autobiography Blackberry Winter. But these are books written by Americans. Beauty Is A Wound is the first novel or book of any kind that I have read written by an Indonesian author. There is just no comparison.

As a reader you need to hang tough though. You will enter a world so foreign to any Western country with customs and beliefs strange to us. And yet, because of Western colonization there are elements of Western civilization intermixed. If you have read books by African or Asian authors, you will be prepared.

There is no denying that Dewi Ayu, her four daughters, and the men in their lives are the brilliant and vibrant center that holds the story together. As far as the human story of how we have developed from tiny bands of individuals to globalized interconnected trade and war, it is apparently one I never tire of reading.


(Beauty Is A Wound is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

 

Monday, January 16, 2017

CRITICAL MASS





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Critical Mass, Sara Paretsky, G P Putnam's Sons, 2013, 462 pp


Summary from Goodreads: V.I. Warshawski’s closest friend in Chicago is the Viennese-born doctor Lotty Herschel, who lost most of her family in the Holocaust.  Lotty escaped to London in 1939 on the Kindertransport with a childhood playmate, Kitty Saginor Binder.  When Kitty’s daughter finds her life is in danger, she calls Lotty, who, in turn, summons V.I. to help.  The daughter’s troubles turn out to be just the tip of an iceberg of lies, secrets, and silence, whose origins go back to the mad competition among America, Germany, Japan and England to develop the first atomic bomb.  The secrets are old, but the people who continue to guard them today will not let go of them without a fight.  


My Review:
This crime thriller was on my stack of reading for the last week in 2016, consisting of books I had meant to read during the year but hadn't gotten to. It is Ms Paretsky's 18th novel and I have now read them all. One more to go and I will be caught up before her next one comes out later in 2017. She is one of my top favorite mystery/crime novelists. Every book so far has been amazing for its genre.

V I Warshawski, fearless and crusading private investigator, once again finds "the crimes behind the crimes" as Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times puts it. In her hometown of Chicago she ferrets out corruption and destructive inequalities, taking down criminality and standing up for the forgotten people. If we had a few like her in every major American city, our country would be more like what our Founding Fathers hoped they were founding.

Critical Mass uncovers secrets and lies going back to the WWII arms race with its competition between Germany and the United States to develop the first atomic bomb.

Reading coincidence: Michael Chabon's Moonglow, read earlier in December, covers similar territory. In both books the traumas of Nazi concentration camps and the use of Jewish scientists to further that research are key plot elements.

The fast pace, multiple characters, extreme danger to V I's life, and her biting yet comedic take on all events are as present here as in all her books. I always make a list of characters as they appear, tedious near the beginning but eliminating the need to turn back the pages and remember who's who so I can enjoy the ever accelerating pace that invariably makes up the last 100 pages.

In Critical Mass (a physics term meaning the minimum amount of material, such as plutonium, necessary to maintain a nuclear chain reaction), Paretsky honors Jewish Austrian physicist Marietta Blau. She was a researcher whose scientific work deserved a Nobel Prize she never got because she was Jewish. Paretsky's fictional character Martina Saginor is based on Ms Blau.

Even more impressive, the story makes clear the destruction of so many lives due to secrets that were kept both by members of the researcher's family and by some sorry practices of government and corporations, hidden behind actions justified by national security.

No matter what your politics or your patriotic views, Critical Mass will challenge you to pay more attention and look more deeply into our current times. Also it is more fun than watching Twitter fights!


(Critical Mass is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

THE CRY OF THE OWL





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The Cry of the Owl, Patricia Highsmith, Harper & Row, 1962, 271 pp


I have now read five of Highsmith's novels. A few days ago I wrote in another review about the importance (for me, at least) of reading books written by women. Now I have to add that there are all kinds of women writing stories and this author is on the far side of some spectrum.

For one thing, she seems to lack sympathy for human beings or at least she rarely creates characters who are admirable and many, including women, who are despicable. I know this is true in life. None of us, men or women, are always admirable and some are despicable. Thus I must contradict myself and say that she does have a certain sympathy for the despicable and looks deeply into why and how that is. We have writers like that now, but Patricia Highsmith was doing this in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Cry of the Owl includes two spurned men. Robert, who is depressed and adrift after his divorce from a despicable woman and another man who turns hateful after his fiancee takes up with Robert. Just to unstabilize things a bit more, Robert has been lurking outside the window of this other woman's house, being a peeping Tom.

It gets messy right away as the murky motivations of both the men and the women never become quite clear. If I had to live as any one of these people, I would be fearful for my sanity. Robert at least has a couple good friends which I suppose is a sign that he is not despicable but he is unbalanced and weird in an Aspergers kind of way.

I have always been afraid of people who appear insane to me. I try to steer clear of neurotic individuals. I feel these are healthy attitudes but a better understanding of what makes such people the way they are does help alleviate the fear. Besides self preservation, it is also a fear of the unknown.

That is why I read Patricia Highsmith.


(The Cry of the Owl is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

MISTER MONKEY





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Mister Monkey, Francine Prose, Harper, 2016, 285 pp


I read Mister Monkey for an on-line discussion group. I have always meant to read Francine Prose but somehow never have. Now she has entranced me and I will read more.

I was one of the few participants in the discussion who liked the book. I think because for me it was about people with unfulfilled dreams, one of my obsessions as I get older and look back at the dreams I had.

Mister Monkey is a children's musical adapted from a novel written by a Vietnam vet with PTSD. Said novel was converted by an editor into what became a bestselling picture book for kids, along the lines of Curious George. Now the author is rich but he hates the musical because it makes a travesty of his original story.

Mister Monkey, the novel by Francine Prose (quite erroneously described as "madcap" by whoever wrote the dust jacket copy) uses the musical as a framework to take readers into the lives and souls of various people connected to an off-off-off-off-Broadway production of a tired old show. Included are several of the actors, the director, the costume designer, a grandfather, and Ray, the original author of the children's book. Each chapter features one of them but in circling around begins to connect them all in interesting and surprising ways.

I am not much of a theater goer but one of my sons spent a year of college being a set builder and one of his daughters acts in every play she can at high school. In fact, I have always liked novels set in the theater, so here I was again enmeshed in all the tacky backstage interpersonal trauma of actors, directors, playwrights, and support crew. Ms Prose must have some theater experience because she crafts those scenes so perfectly.

Ultimately though, this is a story about people of all ages and different walks of life who are mildly unhappy but looking for joy wherever they can find it. I could not put it down. 

Today the shortlist for the 2017 Tournament of Books came out and Mister Monkey made the list! I have read 6 of the 16 books that will compete in the tournament. Watch for more reviews of the rest of the books since I always attempt to read as many of them as I can. 

(Mister Monkey is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD





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The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, 2015 (translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) 473pp


This is the fourth and final novel in the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante. All through the days of reading it, I was dying to know what became of Lila, who had disappeared at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, the first novel. When I did find out, right at the very end, it was simultaneously underwhelming and wondrous. Why?

Because Ferrante planted that mystery in my mind two years ago when I read My Brilliant Friend, then in over 1000 pages in four novels told an engrossing story about the relationship between Elena and Lila, all the while keeping me in suspense. By the time I got to the end, it made total sense yet I could almost have predicted what happened. Truly a feat, the way she kept me hooked, let me participate in the story, and satisfied me with what was less than a full surprise.

No spoiler, but there is a lost child in this volume who adds another deep layer of sadness to the story.

The only other thing I can add is pretty personal. Since the timescape of these books covers approximately the same years I have lived, they have helped me make sense of much that has happened in my life, even though they are set in Italy and I am American.  I am always newly amazed how much good fiction does this for me.

It is an important activity for women all over the world to tell their stories and to read the stories of other women. I know that sounds obvious and pedantic. Sometimes the truth is obvious once one sees it. In 2016, 58% of the books I read were written by women. Since I need all the help I can get being female in this world, I think I will go for 75% in 2017!!


(The Story of the Lost Child is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)