Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lily King's Euphoria

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I'd have probably chosen this book anyway, just based on the riot of color that graces the cover and the one word title, "Euphoria," but I'd also been hearing some excellent buzz about Lily King's latest novel that made me curious.

It's no secret in literary circles that, for the past several years, a pseudo-biography about an interesting, perhaps unsung woman, is a sure-fire recipe for a hit novel. It started with "Loving Frank," then "The Paris Wife," and let's not forget "The Aviator's Wife." And why not? Shouldn't the tough woman behind the man finally start getting some credit?

In the case of "Euphoria" though, Ms. King turns this phenomenon on its head. The fascinating subject of her novel, Nell Stone, is a thinly disguised Margaret Mead, the ground-breaking, wonderfully controversial cultural anthropologist whose observations of tribal customs in the Asian Pacific resulted in the classic "Coming of Age in Samoa." (I regret that I've never read this but will now likely give it a look.) I love when reading fiction snowballs into other areas.

Researching through Mead's unpublished letters, King has written a tight, relatively short novel that packs in a great deal of information and character study. Nell is a woman who is so ahead of her time, so open to exploration, so driven to learn and to understand, that I found myself wishing that I could meet her.

By the time she arrives with her husband Fen, also an anthropologist, in the Sepik River area of New Guinea, she has already attained some renown from her first book. That fact is a thorn in the side of the less focused Fen and the seed of professional jealousy sprouts as Nell works successfully with the women and children of the Tam tribe, writing prodigious notes each evening, thriving in their female-dominated culture.

Enter Andrew Bankson, a British anthropologist well-known to the couple by his reputation, and the subtle fissures in Nell's and Fen's marriage open up. Bankson falls in love with Nell's mind first, perhaps why I fell half in love with Bankson, a fictional version of Mead's third husband Gregory Bateson. The two are so temperamentally suited, writing and talking together through many long nights, each one's ambition and love of the work feeds off the other's.

But what really excites me about this novel is the way Ms. King takes readers into the lives of the tribal women. Reminiscent of Ann Patchett's "State of Wonder," we feel the freedom that the women share, admire the way they work together to care for and feed their families, and envy their sensuous ability to exult in their femaleness and their unfettered sexuality. A visceral air of fecundity seeps through the village, instilling a deep longing in Nell for a child of her own. And because we come to care for Nell so much, we wish it for her as well.

One can't write a novel about Brits and Americans "studying" other cultures without the worry that the colonialist mindset will raise its ugly head. Though King touches on the hubris of explorers who have stolen artifacts from the countries that have welcomed them, she dwells more on characterization. What motivates these anthropologists? How do they achieve satisfaction? How do they manage to survive and even thrive so far from their own societies? Perhaps they are afflicted with a strong case of euphoria!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why isn't Everyone Talking about Harry Quebert?


I was going to be alone this past weekend and had planned nothing more ambitious than binge watching the last season of Downton Abbey. But, along came my neighbor with a book that she was returning to the library. She said it was her favorite so far this year. Well, the gauntlet was thrown. I snatched it up, got comfy in the swing, and burned through this six hundred page monster in three days. I didn't lose patience until about fifty pages from the end so I guess that's saying something!

And who is the author Joel Dicker anyway? Here's an into: http://joeldicker.com/ It's interesting to note that this novel was written in French and was a huge hit overseas. The book has taken a lot of negative hits on Amazon but I think the English translation is spot on and the plot is so convoluted that I defy you to tell me it doesn't hold your interest.

Book lovers will fall hard for this mystery which revolves around not one, but two writers - the most unreliable narrators in the world. (Remember that) Harry Quebert is the master, the teacher, who has written the "great American novel," and Marcus Goldman is the student who emulates him. Marcus has had an early success, much like his mentor, but is now plagued with writer's block. He decides that only Harry can help him overcome the stagnation and he happily accepts Harry's offer to come spend some time at Harry's home on the beach in New Hampshire.

Harry is an impossibly gullible and trusting man, supposedly so lonely that he'll open his home to anyone. It's not long before Marcus is snooping around and inadvertently comes upon a box laden with photographs of a young Harry with a much younger (under age) girl. Caught in the act, Marcus asks Harry to explain and then we're off and running. A doomed affair back in the summer of '75 has left Harry in relationship limbo for over thirty years.

Now, here is where you must simply give up all logic and go with the flow. It's well worth it, it's fun, and no sense spoiling the ride with those rude questions that deep readers ask, like, "how could this be?" Let's just say that a gardening project goes awry, a body is found on Harry's property and, lo and behold, the bones belong to the fifteen year old love of Harry's life, Nola. Harry is immediately arrested for Nola's death and Marcus becomes an overnight private eye sensation as he works to clear his friend's name.

Throughout the book, you'll meet a laundry list of absolutely crazy characters who certainly don't resemble anyone from my small New England town but, hey, who knows what goes on behind those closed doors? Oh, wait, now that I think about it....the police officer with the crush on the beauty queen who owns the diner, who had a crush on Harry and was thrown over for a fifteen-year-old. Then there's the kind minister, Nola's father, with the violent temper, and the disfigured chauffeur with a penchant for painting nude women. At some point each one of these folks will be a suspect.

When all is said and done, this is also a laughable send up of the publishing industry, the ridiculous multi-million dollar book deals, the press leaks, the pressure on young writers to live up to their own hype, and the back biting among agents, publishers, and those chomping at the bit for film rights.

Yes, it could have used better editing. Yes, there were points of repetition that got on my nerves, though I'll confess I thought it was done deliberately to make a point. Still, I could NOT put this book down until I had solved the mystery - and no, I never did. For pure camp, you really should give "The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair" a go. Oh, and if you've already read it, drop me a line and let me know if I'm crazy to be touting it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

One Plus One - Just What the Doctor Ordered

One Plus One
 
 
For several weeks I've been in the very dark recesses of the human heart. Between "In Paradise," which I wrote about last week, and "Barracuda," a new novel by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas that I reviewed for "Library Journal," I have been suffering through the worst of human nature and desperately needed a lift.
 
Fortunately I remembered that, through the kindness of the editors at Edelweiss, I had several books still sitting on my nook that had not yet gone out of date - I hate it when that happens! Jojo Moyes seems to be my new go-to gal for lifting the spirits and don't we all need a little rom-com now and then? Come on, admit it, you really liked Pretty Woman when it first came out. Sure, it's a bit sexist, rich man rescues poor but  beautiful girl, etc. Still, if you're not ashamed to admit that you laugh out loud at Hugh Grant's theatrical antics, then race to your library's website and place a hold on "One Plus One" which just came out July 1st.
 
Jojo Moyes is one of the most eminently readable authors I've found in a long time. Yes, she grabs you at "hello." Our feisty heroine is Jess Thomas, a thirty- something young woman whose husband Marty ran home to mom when the going got tough. Jess is raising their daughter Tanzie, a precocious little delight of a girl who wears home made clothes loaded with sequins to offset the look of her coke bottle glasses. She also happens to be a math prodigy.
 
Then there's Nicky, Marty's son from another liaison, a computer geek, eyeliner-wearing, hair-dying goth who regularly gets beaten and abused by the Fisher boys who rule the neighborhood with iron fists. Add to this menagerie a hundred pound mutt named Norman and it's no surprise that Jess hasn't had a date, well, since high school. She works days as a house cleaner and nights in a pub and still can't make ends meet. Still, this family is full of love.
 
When the math teacher tells Jess that Tanzie could qualify for a scholarship to a private school if she would just enter the math Olympiad in Scotland, Jess plots and schemes to get her there,  though normally there's no money for gas, hotels, or food.
 
You see, Jess found a wad of cash. It fell out of the pants pocket of a drunk she was helping home from the pub one night. Ed just happens to also be one of her least favorite employers, a wealthy software guru with an attitude, whose beach house Jess cleans. He'll never know, she thinks, if she borrows the money for a good cause and pays it back eventually.
 
Oh what tangled webs we weave.....through an odd-ball set of circumstances Ed winds up on the road trip from hell to Scotland with Jess and her brood. It's a no-brainer as to what's going to happen but the thing is, it doesn't matter. This is one of those heart-warming, sigh-inducing novels that you just savor for the pure goodness of the characters, and the assurance of a happy ending. As I said, it's just what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

In Paradise?

Peter Matthiessen's final novel, "In Paradise," was released to the public only a few days after his death from leukemia at the age of 86. I remember listening to him read his work, along with several other poets and writers, at an outdoor courtyard, under a full moon, on the fledgling Florida Gulf Coast University campus, many years ago. The experience was powerful and I'd promised myself at the time to read his famous Florida trilogy about the notorious Mr. Watson. Still haven't taken up that daunting task, but I aim to.

Less intimidating in size, yet no less daunting in subject matter, "In Paradise" opened a massive can of worms for me, bringing about these musings on what exactly constitutes a holocaust versus a genocide and why we humans feel we have to compete for the label of most wronged. I'll come back to that.

Clements Olin, a Polish American professor ostensibly researching a particular aspect of the Holocaust, but actually searching for the identity of his mother, joins a hundred other international visitors, who have come to Auschwitz to bear witness to the deaths of six million people.

But what would seem to be a worthy endeavor, and one that I wanted to take myself but was denied by my German hosts at the time, devolves into a bizarre blame game, one pilgrim turning on another in a disgusting show of one-upmanship. Various attendees take to the stage to share their stories, kind of like an AA meeting, but rather than be embraced, they are scorned for not having suffered enough, for not having a "good enough" reason for being at that death camp memorial.

The Catholic church and its representatives come in for especially scathing attention and Matthiessen, through Professor Olin, has plenty to say about education today and what's not being taught. This is not a novel one reads for pleasure but it is certainly thought provoking, bringing to mind the news about the never ending war between Israel and Palestine that greets me every morning when I open the paper. I become incensed when I read of the innocents who are being killed each day by the tit for tat mentality of the two leaders who seem incapable of breaking with the "eye for an eye" form of justice.

Professor Olin, at one point in the book, addresses the pilgrims at Auschwitz, Poles, Germans, Americans, Swedes, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish, by saying, "All nations...and all religions, cultures, and societies throughout history have perpetrated massacres, large and small: man has been a murderer forever."

One needn't look far to prove this out. In our own country, according to David Stannard in his controversial book, "American Holocaust," between 10 and 114 million native peoples were systematically murdered or died from diseases brought over by European settlers. Does their suffering diminish others?

The PBS documentary "Africans in America" teaches us that over 20 million Africans were kidnapped from their land, enslaved, and bound on ships that traversed the middle passage for the Americas. More than half of these human beings died on route. A holocaust? I would say yes. But don't dare say the "r" word, as in reparations. That will stop a conversation dead in its tracks.

Man's inhumanity to man continues apace. How do we stop senseless suffering around the world? How do we atone to groups of people who have suffered and died because of their genetic makeup? I don't believe there will ever be answers to these questions, but writers will continue to ask them and, I hope, we will continue to read and ponder. Awareness is a beginning.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Tale of Two Women

For the past six weeks, in between my reading for Library Journal and my own light fiction choices, I have been struggling with two lengthy books about politics over the past decade and a half. I am listening to Condi Rice read her book, "No Higher Honor" about her four years as National Security Advisor, followed by her four year stint as Secretary of State, for George "W" Bush. Coincidentally I am reading Hillary Clinton's "Hard Choices" on my nook.

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"Whew!" you might say. "What a slog!" Au contraire, my friends. These books are absolutely fascinating accounts of what it's like to actually be the second most powerful women in the world. That's not to say that each book isn't, at times, incredibly frustrating as I tried to read between the lines to decipher what the women were not saying when they were just saying.

I almost gave up on Condi because early in her reading she sounded too much like an automaton, simply spouting the Bush party line. She seemed afraid to let her own personality come through. On the contrary, Hillary, who is renowned for her great sense of humor, wrote in a more folksy, down to earth manner that propelled her book forward at warp speed.

But now I'll confess that I shouldn't have rushed to judgment. When Condi left her position as Bush's NSA and moved into the state department her entire personality opened up. In a very poignant scene she describes a surprise 50th birthday party that the president planned for her just after she accepted the position at state. Always the fashion maven, she arrived in "everyday" clothes to a crowd of five hundred well-heeled guests. She was whisked away to a changing room where a red gown awaited, created just for her by her favorite designer. Descending the stairs, she mulled on how far "the little black girl from Birmingham" had come and said a silent prayer for her long-deceased parents. 

As Condi became more confident and forthright in both her writing and reading, she admitted that she and Don Rumsfeld were pretty much at each other's throats for the entire eight years. Though she never takes responsibility for the infamous mushroom cloud speech that pushed us along the path to war, she does offer many regrets about America's complete lack of preparedness for the war and, particularly, for the dearth of planning for the aftermath.

Another insight that intrigued me was that it was Condi, not Dick Cheney, who had George's ear and Condi who definitely had more influence. In fact, she and Cheney sparred often and vocally about the war in Iraq and particularly about the war in Lebanon, with the rabid hawk, Cheney, actually working behind the scenes with UN Ambassador John Bolton, to scotch a peace agreement that Condi and her people had been negotiating tirelessly for.



Hillary's book, on the other hand, started hot but less than half way through, cooled down to a policy driven screed. As she writes, she becomes more circumspect, though I suppose that's to be expected since, unlike Condi, Hillary may still have political aspirations. In fact, I wasn't really sure that Hillary wanted to run for office again until I read this book. She's always very respectful of President Obama, but you can feel the distance between them, whereas Condi and George were personally very close friends.

What's remarkable about both memoirs is how interchangeable they are. Republican or Democrat, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Between them, they recount twelve years of work on a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. In fact, though Bill Clinton first broached the subject of a two state solution, it was the Bush administration, with a push from Condi, that made it a United States policy goal, one that will likely never come to fruition.

Readers may be forgiven for feeling anger and frustration with the Israelis, who receive billions of dollars in aid from the United States every year, yet continue to thwart our attempts at a settlement with impunity. Benjamin Netanyahu, especially, has very publicly thumbed his nose at the president and his representatives. If you read these women's accounts, you have to wonder how they can keep their sanity and the deep convictions that they can effect change.

And now I'll tell you how naïve I still am. After reading both books, I truly feel, much to my friend Don's chagrin, that these incredibly strong, brilliant, patient, persuasive women, actually want all that's good for our country and for the people of the world. Though there are many bad players in government, many who show their faces in these pages, and so many who would put their own potential fortunes and fame above those of their constituents, the ones who are doing it right face a daunting task.

So, as much and as often as I complain about the way our country acts around the world, I see that the fix is complicated. People like Condi Rice, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell (who was treated very shabbily by the Bush administration), and now John Kerry, are doing the very best that they can under almost impossible conditions. Diplomacy is not for sissies.

Friday, June 20, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See

Oh, such a lilting title for such a mesmerizing novel. I have been held rapt by Anthony Doerr all week. www.anthonydoerr.com
 My heart fairly bursts from the beauty of his language, the worlds he builds for his characters to work within, the empathy he shows for even the most flawed.

It's odd that almost everything I'm reading this summer revolves around the world wars, wars with few survivors left to tell their stories. Yet each writer has focused on the small mercies, the great beauties unearthed from the ugliest of man's devising.


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Doerr renders a stunningly evocative young woman in Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a young Parisian girl with the heart of Ann Frank and the courage of Markus Zusak's Liesel Meminger. By the age of six, Marie-Laure's world may be darkened by blindness but that world is alight with her father's devotion. He will teach her to love books through braille, and assure that she can survive independently by her wits.

Paralleling Marie's childhood is that of a young German named Werner who lives with his sister Jutta in an underfunded orphanage. Werner is precocious enough to realize that by the age of fifteen he will be forced into working the mines that killed his father. The thought suffocates and paralyzes him. Refuge comes in the form of recruiters from the notorious Hitler Youth. Werner may not meet the physical requirements of the "wunderkind," but he has a knack for radio repair and construction, a talent much coveted by the Reichstag.

Doerr exquisitely evokes the insidious rise of the German war machine, not through the overwhelming horrors of death camps but with the seemingly innocuous little everyday evils that give your stomach a jolt, the questioning of one's accent, the second look at a Jewish name, or the teasing of a child who appears too bookish.

As the German forces bear down on Paris, Marie-Laure and her father, with the help of his employers at the Natural History Museum, flee to the walled city of St. Malo carrying a secret. Here Marie's uncle Etienne lives in shell-shocked agoraphobia, a victim of yet another war. But here, inspired by his courageous niece,  Etienne will discover new life and purpose behind a forbidden microphone, transmitting messages of hope that will be intercepted by a German boy, already questioning why he's in the Fuhrer's army. 

This is, without a doubt, the finest book I've read this summer. I want to peek into the heart of a man who can draw such beauty from so much tragic waste. I want to learn from the pen of a writer who can, with a few sentences, help me "see" what it is to be blind. If you read only one big, fat, historical novel this summer, do make it this one.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

JoJo Moyes Does it Again

The Girl You Left Behind

Just as she did last year with "Me Before You," JoJo Moyes has made this jaded reader cry with her unabashedly romantic new novel "The Girl You Left Behind." A mash-up of historical/contemporary, this book is a perfect blend that will appeal to readers in both genre. And lest you think it's just frilly "women's fiction," (a term I hate), let me disabuse you of that notion right now.

Moyes begins the story of Sophie, the actual girl left behind, in 1916, in a small town in northern France occupied by German forces. Because we Americans have never had to deal with occupying forces in our homeland, I think it can be difficult to imagine what goes on during wartime in villages like St. Peronne. The Germans have requisitioned homes, furniture, bedding, food, silverware, dishes, all the belongings of the town's citizens, now a desperate, starving group of people who will, as humans will, turn on their own for a scrap of bread.

It's not surprising then, when the local Kommandant takes over Le Coq Rouge, the local inn owned by Sophie and her sister Helene, that the townspeople begin to look at the Bessette sisters with distrust. They may be working eighteen hour days cooking and feeding the German troops, under protest, but hey, aren't they beginning to gain a little weight? Does it look like their children have a small bloom of health back on their cheeks? And, oh, isn't the Kommandant paying a bit too much attention to Sophie, whose husband, the artist Edouard Lefevre, is away at the front? And why is the Kommandant so enthralled by Edouard's painting of Sophie, the one he's called The Girl He Left Behind?

Fast forward to contemporary London where Liv Halston, still grieving and aimless four years after the sudden death of her husband, the architect, David Halston, lies in bed half the day staring at the painting that David bought for her in Barcelona the day before he died. The red-haired woman in the painting mocks Liv. She is a woman well sated, exuding satisfaction and love from every pore. Liv wonders if she'll ever feel that way again. Like the Kommandant before her, Liv is enthralled by The Girl He Left Behind.

This painting and the tale of its provenance is a slender thread that connects Sophie to Liv and is at the crux of this engaging book. I won't say any more about the plot because I go crazy when the reviewers in the New York Times  seem to go on and on, revealing every little plot twist, often even the ending. What's up with that?

I will say that JoJo Moyes creates quirky, gutsy, sympathetic characters whose fate compels you to read on. She perfects the modern single girl trope, while completely altering her writing style to reflect the early twentieth century. There are themes galore for book groups to ponder but Moyes refrains from hitting readers over the head with them.

There's no doubt that people suffering through wartime deprivations will be faced with horrific moral ambiguities. Remember another Sophie's choice? What would you be willing to do to save a husband, a child, a parent, from torture or starvation? Can we ever really know, until faced with the worst that one human being can visit upon another? And then there's greed. How much is enough? And truth? How far are you willing to dig to bring an injustice to light? JoJo Moyes will pose these questions and more in her deeply satisfying third novel.