Review: None to Accompany Me, by Nadine Gordimer

Set in barely post-apartheid South Africa, this is primarily the story of Vera Stark, who has spent her career working for a legal foundation as an advocate for housing rights.  Her longevity makes her an unofficial executive director, and she commands tremendous respect.  While Vera and her work are at the center of this book, it is also a moving portrait of two marriages.  Vera is a strong woman, and fiercely independent.  Her husband Ben needs her more than she needs him.  Vera’s past figures heavily in her present, and in her relationship with Ben.  Vera and Ben have very liberal views about race, and are long-time friends with a black South African couple, Sibongile (Sally) and Didymus Maqoma.  Sally and Didy have only recently returned from exile, and in a surprise turn of events Sally is elected to an important post, and Didy finds himself on the sidelines.

Several threads run concurrently through this book.  One of Vera’s black colleagues, Oupa, shows the reader a different layer of black society from that of Didy and Sally, and presents one of the more moving parts of the novel.  Vera and Ben’s adult children have relationships and challenges of their own, and intersect with the parents’ lives in interesting ways.  Sally and Didy’s daughter Mpho is a teenager, causing her parents angst as she comes of age.  And then there’s Vera and Ben, whose relationship appears unshakable, but is actually threatened by a number of forces.

Nadine Gordimer also has a lot to say about the political structure taking shape in her country at the time of publication (1994), and its effect on everyday people.  I suspect there were nuances in the text that went completely over my head.  Deeper knowledge would have helped me appreciate the political context underpinning this study of characters and relationships.

Review: Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom

Dark Fire is the second in the Matthew Shardlake mystery series.  Shardlake, a lawyer, is capable enough to be occasionally retained by Thomas Cromwell, but his work also takes him to the darker, poorer areas of London.  In this book he’s juggling two such disparate cases.  First, he’s called in to defend Elizabeth Wentworth, a young woman accused of murdering her cousin Ralph by throwing him down a well.  Elizabeth refuses to speak to anyone, behavior which can only lead to a guilty verdict and death.  The court wants to deal with the case quickly — after all, there are hundreds more waiting.  But Cromwell needs Shardlake on another case, and uses his power to buy time for Elizabeth.

Cromwell’s case is by far the more interesting of the two, and concerns a mysterious substance capable of generating intense, destructive fire.  Known as Greek Fire or Dark Fire, the substance could be an important weapon in the King’s quest for power.  Cromwell is under pressure to stage a demonstration for King Henry VIII.  Dark Fire is known to be available in limited quantity, but its properties are not well understood, and the formula has been stolen.  Cromwell offers Jack Barak as an assistant to Shardlake, and the two set off to learn as much as they can about the origins of Dark Fire and the people currently controlling its use in London.  Shardlake finds himself moving in new, influential circles, as a guest at banquets hosted by the aristocratic Lady Honour.  Unlike most people, who see his hunchback as evidence of inferiority, Honour treats him with respect.  The banquets give Shardlake the opportunity to observe others who are influential in the case, including Cromwell’s rival, the Duke of Norfolk.

This being a murder mystery, it’s not too long before bodies start dropping right and left.  The plot is quite tangled, and it’s difficult to tell who’s on the side of good vs. evil.  Meanwhile, Shardlake continues to stay connected to Elizabeth’s case.  There are a few leads to follow up on, and some surprise developments. Thankfully progress is glacial, because he really has his hands full chasing down Dark Fire.  Along the way, C. J. Sansom provides the reader with rich detail that brings 16th-century London to life.  The summer heat exacerbated odors associated with human habitation; women held bouquets of posies close to their faces to mask the smell.  Sanitation techniques were primitive: at one point Lady Honour casually warned an attendant to “watch out for that turd,” and I realized this was probably a fairly common occurrence (ewww…!).  I also enjoyed the book’s historic context (summer of 1540 … Thomas Cromwell … anyone?), and the way everyday murder and mayhem touched the controversies of King Henry VIII’s court.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement, by Anthony Powell

I approached the fourth movement of A Dance to the Music of Time with mixed emotions.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the first three volumes (rating each 4-5 stars), I was ready for more of the same.  But I was also a bit sad to be coming to the end of the series, knowing I would have to leave Nick Jenkins and many, many other interesting characters behind.  And things started off pretty well.  The first novella, Books do Furnish a Room, was set in the post-war period, with Nick entering his forties.  On a return visit to his university, he realizes:

The probability was that even without cosmic upheaval some kind of reshuffle has to take place halfway through life, a proposition borne out by the autobiographies arriving thick and fast — three or four at a time at regular intervals — for my review in one of the weeklies.  … their narrative supporting, on the whole, evidence already noticeably piling up, that friends, if required at all in the manner of the past, must largely be reassembled at about this milestone. The changeover might improve consistency, even quality, but certainly lost in intimacy; anyway that peculiar kind of intimacy that is consoling when you are young, though probably too vulnerable to withstand the ever increasing self-regard of later years.  (p. 3)

Reading these opening pages prompted reflection on the past decade of my life, having just left my forties this year.  I found I could relate to Nick in a different way than before.  Books do Furnish a Room brought new characters into the dance, along with familiar faces like Kenneth Widmerpool, who was introduced in the very first novella and has reappeared in unusual situations, usually when you would least expect it.

Unfortunately, Anthony Powell wrote two more novellas after Books do Furnish a Room.  I found them a slog.  Reading Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies was a lot like watching a favorite television series that has gone past its prime.  The dance metaphor failed to work as well, mostly because so many important characters were lost in the war.  Powell brought in new characters Nick supposedly knew twenty years before, but being unknown to the reader these encounters lacked spark.  In addition, Powell’s writing was strongest in the earlier books, which covered the 1920s through 1940s.  In Hearing Secret Harmonies, published in 1975 and set in the 1960s, Powell comes across as a crotchety old man who couldn’t understand what those crazy hippie kids were up to.  The plot became outlandish, I lost interest, and the last book became a forced march to the finish.

However, when I step back and think about the twelve novellas in their entirety, this is an amazing body of work depicting a specific slice of England in an enormously readable and enjoyable way.

My reviews of the other books in A Dance to the Music of Time:

Review: The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

Americans had become a force of awful geology, changing the face of the earth more than ‘the combined activities of volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, and all the excavations of mankind since the beginning of history.’ (p. 127)

In the 1930s, the American prairie was repeatedly subjected to dust storms: huge clouds of dirt that moved across the land.  The storms made roads impassable, filled homes with dust, suffocated livestock, and infiltrated people’s lungs.  Many died from what was called “dust pneumonia.”  This was initially thought to be a freak of nature, a rare meteorological happening.  But as the storms pummeled the plains day after day, the government commissioned experts to investigate.  They soon learned the storms were the result of human behavior going back to the turn of the century.

The explorer Stephen Long wrote about the Great Plains, “I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”  Nevertheless, after the US government ousted the Native Americans from their lands, a syndicate sought to make a buck by offering cheap land and promises of prosperity.  They distributed attractive brochures across the eastern part of the country, and to immigrants at major entry points.  The people came, and they farmed.  But agricultural success was short-lived.  Extensive farming and over-plowing, coupled with drought, weakened the soil system and sent it blowing up into the air.  As the dust storms became a daily occurrence, along came the Depression, and by 1940 the Great Plains were a very different place indeed.

Timothy Egan tells the story of the dust bowl through the lives of those who survived life on the plains during that time.  These survivors were still living, and his direct access resulted in a vivid, realistic, and very human portrait of this period in American history.  His accounts of dust storms are real page turners — narrative non-fiction at its best.  Egan had access to historical records too, of course.  Don Hartwell’s diary was one of the most moving parts of this book, recounting the decline of his farm, his livelihood, and his community in spare sentences, like these from 1939:

Feb. 5

I have felt lost lately — not knowing where to turn or what to do. In fact, if one hasn’t ‘got’ anything, there is not much he can do.

July 10

The same clear, glaring sky & vicious blaze killing sun. Cane is about dead, corn is being damaged; it will soon be destroyed. Those who coined the phrase ‘There’s no place like Nebraska’ wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don’t have to die to go to hell.

Sept 18

There are no dances here anymore — nothing but silence, emptiness, ‘respectability.’

It’s positively heart-breaking, and with growing concern about climate change today, I couldn’t help but wonder if humankind is heading down a similar path.  Have we learned from past mistakes?  It gives one pause.

Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

At the age of 7, Lily and Snow Flower became laotong, or “old sames,” a Chinese practice which established their lifelong relationship as kindred sisters.  They were matched based on their birth date and other characteristics.  Snow Flower was from a “better” family, and the match was expected to improve Lily’s marriage prospects. Snow Flower visited Lily’s family every few months.  They experienced life’s milestones together: from foot-binding to menstruation, through arranged marriages, childbirth, and child-rearing.  Their friendship was deep, and endured despite many challenges and hardships.  They recorded life events on a fan, given to them at the beginning of their laotong, and sent back and forth between them over the years.

Lily & Snow Flower’s story was rich with details of 19th-century Chinese culture with its very traditional — even oppressive — treatment of women.  Female relationships, like  laotong and the concept of “sworn sisters,” made life bearable.  Women established their own community, their own rituals, and even their own language, and this became the source of their strength.  I really enjoyed learning about this period in history.

In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lily tells their story from the vantage point of old age, with all the significant characters now dead.  As a narrative technique, this worked well: it allowed her to speak freely about relationships with her parents, her in-laws, her husband, and of course, Snow Flower.  But she was also too kind to herself, and early in her life, I often wondered how Lily was viewed by those around her.  Some of this is revealed in later chapters as the central conflict is presented.  As readers we see Lily’s mistakes, we see how she fails to own up to them, and we see the impact on her laotong.  But we also see how truth is revealed to her, and we experience the healing power of forgiveness.  This is a lovely book about essential women’s friendships, and the characters will live on in my thoughts for a long time.

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

These days, human society faces increasingly complex food choices: low-fat, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan, organic, etc.  What does “cage-free” or “free range” mean?  Which alternatives are better for you?  And where does your food come from, anyway?  In this book, Michael Pollan set out to trace three basic food chains: the industrial, the pastoral alternative, and the old-fashioned hunter-gatherer.  Along the way, he made some important discoveries about our food supply, most notably the consequences of oversimplifying nature’s principles in pursuit of industrial efficiency.

Written in an engaging, narrative style, the reader follows Pollan as he traces a steer from birth to plate and discusses the surprisingly pervasive role of corn in our food supply.  He then travels to an innovative farm, managed as a complex ecosystem producing meat for local consumption. Finally, he treks into the forest to hunt game and gather wild mushrooms.  Each of these adventures is described with a balance of personal experience and primary research.  Somehow it makes it all more digestible (pardon the pun) to read the facts and figures even as we learn that Pollan didn’t like waking up early, and often overslept.  But despite this being a very accessible read, it had a tendency to stray into personal memoir.  Towards the end, I began to lose interest.  In part, I just didn’t want to read about hunting with a firearm.  But I also didn’t enjoy Pollan’s navel-gazing about the experience, nor did I really care about Pollan as “foodie,” preparing a special meal for friends.  That’s why this book earned only three stars from me.

And yet. Pollan’s message is incredibly important.  Pollan writes, “Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting.”  (p. 84)  I chose a vegetarian diet four years ago, because I am unwilling to play a personal role in the slaughter of animals for food, I prefer not to contribute to the environmental impact of the fossil fuels used in industrial meat production & transportation, and I could no longer look at supermarket meat without a keen awareness of what it once was, and the path it took to get there.  I respect each person’s right to make their own decision in this regard, and highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma as essential reading to understand where our food comes from, examine your values around food production, and begin to make choices aligned with those values.

On a related note, visit Marie @ The Boston Bibliophile, and read her excellent review of Fast Food Nation.

Review: The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman

The Elizabeth Taylor in this biography was a British novelist (1912-1975).  Although she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont), to the average reader she is a complete unknown.  I discovered her work through Virago Modern Classics, and she quickly became a favorite author.  So this year, to celebrate the centenary of her birth, I thought I’d learn more about the life of this talented, but very private, woman.

This is a classic chronological biography, beginning with Taylor’s childhood and her secondary school education at the best school for girls in Reading, her home town.  Beauman shows how Taylor developed as a writer, even as she also became a wife, a mother, and even a mistress.  She was dedicated to writing even as she juggled these other roles, but it wasn’t until she was 32 that her first novel was published.  From that point on she had a lucrative career with twelve novels and a considerable number of short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker magazine.  Despite her success, she never wanted to play the game expected of authors, making public appearances and so on.  This probably cost her some fame, but allowed her to stay a devoted wife and mother, which she valued highly.  Still, Taylor’s career had a certain arc.  Her first few novels were considered her best, and the 1960s brought a shift in public sentiment where readers gradually began seeking out other authors with more modern points of view.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  All too often, biographies are dry, factual accounts.  Nicola Beauman’s thorough research infused this biography with real people and emotion.  In the course of her research she was able to meet with a man who had been Taylor’s lover in the 1930s.  He never stopped loving her, and Beauman’s meeting with him was quite touching.  Beauman also successfully conveyed Taylor’s emotions during difficult periods, like when her later work attracted negative reviews.

By the end of this year I will have read all of Elizabeth Taylor’s twelve novels.  I plan to use this book as a reading companion, returning to it with each novel to remind myself of what was happening in Taylor’s life at that time, and of how her life experiences influenced each book.