Review: May we be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

In the first 15 pages of May we be Forgiven, the Silver family falls completely apart.  George Silver, a television executive, is involved in a car accident with fatalities, which he may have caused.  His older brother Harold, a professor, sleeps with George’s wife and then witnesses a horrific act of violence.  Harry is a mess, and yet is the only one who can pick up the pieces in the wake of such trauma.  He is appointed guardian for George’s children, Nate and Ashley, but it’s a good thing they are at boarding school because Harry has some pretty serious issues to work through.  He engages in a variety of self-destructive behaviors, while trying to keep up appearances as a successful academic.  But as his personal life unravels, the children’s needs take on greater importance, and together the family begins their long healing process.

This book drew me in at the start with its high-action opening, and immediate sympathy for a family struck by tragedy.  And for a while, it was hard to put down.  But about halfway through, the family’s path to recovery became less believable.  Harry became involved with two different women, both under circumstances that would not normally result in healthy relationships.  The children sometimes behaved in ways that seemed more advanced than a typical 11- or 12-year-old.  And then Harry staged an elaborate trip for Nate’s Bar Mitzvah, which was crucial to their healing process, but really over the top. At this point my attention began to wane — I generally prefer more realistic plots.  But on the other hand, I think much of this story is metaphorical, and the fantastic situations are carefully crafted to illustrate a point.

A few days after finishing this book, I’m still thinking about the Silver family and the way Homes told this story.  And I guess that says something.


Review: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

This is one of those books I suspect “everybody” has read by now, as it won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was made into a popular movie in 2002.  Well, I hadn’t read it yet, despite running into it nearly every time I entered a used bookshop.  Now that situation has been remedied, and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed the experience.

The Hours uses Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway as a jumping-off point, and chronicles a single day in the life of three women:  Woolf, during the period in which she wrote the novel, Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife smitten with the novel, and Clarissa Vaughan, nicknamed “Mrs Dalloway,” who is preparing to host a party for a dear friend on a summer day in the late 1990s.

I read Mrs Dalloway several years ago, and recall being underwhelmed.  It was my introduction to Woolf and her writing requires special attention.  I’ve since come to appreciate her work; and found myself nodding in agreement as Laura Brown experiences the novel for the first time:

How, Laura wonders, could someone who was able to write a sentence like that — who was able to feel everything contained in a sentence like that — come to kill herself? What in the world is wrong with people? Summoning resolve, as if she were about to dive into cold water, Laura closes the book and lays it on the nightstand. … At least, she thinks, she does not read mysteries or romances. (p. 41)

The day unfolds through chapters about the three women in turn.  Clarissa goes out to buy flowers for the party (much as Clarissa did in the novel), Laura makes a birthday cake for her husband, Virginia struggles to get a few sentences down on paper while staring down her depression.  Cunningham writes delightful prose, making even the most ordinary activities exquisite and sensual:

Guiding Richie’s hands with her own, she helps him dip the cup into the flour. The cup goes in easily, and through its thin wall he can feel the silkiness and slight grit of the sifted flour. a tiny cloud rises in the cup’s wake. Mother and son bring it up again, heaped with flour. Flour cascades down the silver sides. Laura tells the boy to hold the cup steady, which he nervously manages to do, and with one quick gesture she dismisses the grainy little heap on top and creates a flawless white surface exactly level with the lip of the cup. He continues holding the cup with both hands.  (p. 77)

As the day proceeds, we come to know each woman better.  Laura feels confined by her lifestyle, but guilty because she “should” love being a good wife and mother.  Clarissa is a perfectionist about the party, but also tremendously insecure about her life and relationships.  As for Virginia, Cunningham shows us signs of the mental illness that eventually leads to her suicide.  Knowing what’s in store for her makes her sections of the novel all the more poignant.

The lives of these three women become intertwined in a surprising way, which actually made me gasp.  And now, after reading The Hours I want to re-read Mrs Dalloway.  If you haven’t read either book yet, I recommend reading them concurrently; each would enrich the other.

Review: Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

I knew this book would become one of my favorites almost immediately.  In just a few pages, I was completely immersed in the story, and found myself picking up the book anytime I had a minute to spare.  And it’s unusual for a book to bring real, honest-to-goodness tears to my eyes, but this one most certainly did.

The Song of Achilles provides back story to one aspect of the Trojan War: the relationship between Achilles and his close friend, Patroclus.  As author Madeline Miller wrote in her Reader’s Guide,

I found myself particularly moved by his [Achilles’] desperate grief over the loss of his companion Patroclus. Patroclus is no more than a minor character in the Iliad, yet Achilles mourns him with a shocking intensity, unlike anything else in the entire work.  Why?  Who is this man whose death could undo the mighty Achilles?

Achilles is a mythological figure, son of the goddess Thetis, a sea-nymph, and the mortal Peleus.  At the age of 9, he hand-picks the exiled prince Patroclus as his constant companion.  Patroclus gains status and privilege, and as the boys grow their relationship strengthens into  love.  Thetis is displeased and tries to separate them, but their love is too powerful.  When armies are assembled to do battle with Troy, Patroclus is there at Achilles’ side.  Achilles has known for years that he will become the Greeks’ greatest warrior; the siege of Troy is his chance to shine.  But there are other prophecies that weigh heavily on Achilles and Patroclus, not to mention the reader.

Madeline Miller breathes such life and emotion into her characters.  Thetis is frightening; King Agamemnon is arrogant and cold-hearted; Odysseus is crafty.  Achilles is beautiful, and the love between him and Patroclus is simultaneously intense and sweet. It’s heartbreaking to watch the prophecies be fulfilled, and yet Miller offers an ingenious denouement that is wholly satisfying.

This 2012 Orange Prize winner is my best book of the year so far.

Review: Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through the southern United States, and became the sixth strongest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history.  Salvage the Bones describes the life of one poor, rural family during 12 days before, during, and after the disaster.  The narrator, 15-year-old Esch, lives in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi with her father and brothers Randall (17), Skeetah (16), and Junior (8).  Their mother died after Junior’s difficult birth, and their father has lived in an alcoholic fug ever since.  Randall spends most of his time playing basketball with friends, hoping to go to a special camp the family really can’t afford.  Skeetah cares for his dog, China, and her litter of puppies.  China is a trained fighting dog; Skeetah hopes her puppies command a high price — perhaps enough to pay for Randall’s basketball camp.

Esch watches all the men from a distance, and escapes into her mythology book.  Esch dreams of a better life, but she’s also just discovered she is pregnant.  The father is Randall’s friend Manny, who uses Esch for sex.  Esch has a history of casual sexual encounters, but to her, Manny is different and she hopes that one day he’ll take her seriously.

The first few chapters paint a vivid picture of life in Bois Sauvage, and the great divide between black families like Esch’s and the more affluent whites. This divide is illustrated most dramatically through dog fighting, which provides a way to make money, but wins and losses also establish social status within the community.  The dog fighting scenes are horrific and have put many people off reading this book.  I can’t say I blame them.  And yet, I was struck by Skeetah’s love for China, the sacrifices he made for her well-being, and the courageous acts he performed on her behalf.

Soon there are reports of a big storm in the gulf.  Esch’s father tries to prepare, even as the reports begin to show something really big is on the way.  I grew more apprehensive with each passing day, and I found the scenes describing the storm and its aftermath quite emotional and intense.  Everything changed in the space of a few hours:

there is nothing but mangled wood and steel in a great pile, and suddenly there is a great split between now and then, and I wonder where in the world where that day happened has gone, because we are not in it. (p. 251)

Jesmyn Ward writes from experience.  In a short essay at the end of the book, she describes living through Katrina when it ripped through Delisle, Mississippi.  The emotional impact of surviving a tragedy permeates this well-written and moving novel.

Review: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

Now in his 60s, Tony Webster is retired, divorced, and taking stock of his life.  He begins by recounting his youth and young adulthood, and his social circle, which revolved around Adrian, the aloof ringleader.  These relationships falter on leaving school, and when Adrian begins dating Tony’s former girlfriend Veronica. Years later, Veronica’s mother passes away.  Tony is quite surprised to learn she left him a bequest.  He gets back in touch with Veronica, and makes a nuisance of himself in attempts to understand the bequest. The reader learns a lot about Tony’s true self, even as Tony remains oblivious.  As Veronica says repeatedly, “You just don’t get it.”

Julian Barnes packed so much into this novella, and yet I’m hard pressed to explain just how he did it.  The plot appears straightforward, as everyday events unfold through Tony’s eyes.  But it is actually layered with complexity, requiring the reader to flip back and forth to see what they missed on a first reading.  Little by little, you realize how much memories are influenced by what you want — and don’t want — to remember.  Small but important details can escape notice, leaving two people with completely different impressions of events.  And sometimes these different points of view have tragic consequences.  So it came as a complete shock when Tony finally “got it,” and I understood what was actually going on all those years.  Or at least I think I understand.  I may need to read it yet again.

With a series of haunting images that set the stage, an unreliable narrator, and an overall sense of loss, this book will stay with you long after turning the last page.  As Tony says:

What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.  (p. 1)

Review: The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht

In The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht weaves together fantastic tales filled with folklore and a bit of magical realism.  Natalia and Zora are two young doctors, traveling to a remote village to administer vaccinations to local children.  It’s shortly after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and political/religious tensions are still high.  Just before leaving home, Natalia learns her beloved grandfather passed away while on a journey far from home.  Her grandmother is justifiably distraught.  She was unable to be with her husband at his death, and she doesn’t understand what he was doing in the place where he was found.

Natalia mourns silently; she doesn’t even confide in Zora.  Her grandfather, also a doctor, was clearly a mentor and role model.  As Natalia remembers visits she and her grandfather made to the zoo, she begins retelling stories he passed down to her, mostly about his life and the people of his village. The stories read like folk tales.  The end of one story often led to another, to flesh out a particular character even further.  This put me off at first, because I kept wanting to get back to Natalia, Zora, and the village.  I struggled a bit with the magical realism in stories featuring “the deathless man,” but I persevered and enjoyed them more than I thought I would.

I really wanted to love this book, but in the end I simply liked it.  I spent the first half of the book frustrated, unsure where it was going.  Then I got swept up in one of the stories and thought, “now we’re cooking, I’m really going to like this!”  I found the connections between stories interesting, and became emotionally invested in some of the characters.  Unfortunately, I was unable to hold onto those feelings.  Téa Obreht is clearly a talented writer, and despite my feelings about this book I’m looking forward to watching her career and reading more of her work.

Review: Music & Silence, by Rose Tremain

In Music and Silence, Rose Tremain uses a fictional character to explore the life of King Christian IV of Denmark.  Peter Claire leaves England for Copenhagen in 1629, to play his lute in the king’s orchestra.  The king is in his 50s, and married to his second wife, Kirsten Munk.  She has borne him 12 children, and is now refusing his advances (can you blame her?).  Peter falls in love with Emilia Tilsen, one of Kirsten’s women.  Through these four characters, Tremain paints a vivid picture of Danish life nearly four hundred years ago.

The book started off promising.  The story is presented from alternating points of view:  third-person narratives about Christian, Peter, or Emilia are interspersed with “excerpts” from Kirsten’s personal papers.  Christian is portrayed as a hard-drinking and not very effective leader, struggling to deal with Denmark’s economic woes.  He has grand dreams but fails to execute. Tremain’s prose reminds us how difficult day-to-day existence really was.  Communication channels were slow; sometimes mail was not delivered because it went down in a sinking ship.  Illness was rampant, and ailments we consider trivial today, could kill in those times.

But about halfway through this book my interest began to flag, for two reasons:

  • There were too many subplots.  It felt like Tremain started out to write a story of King Christian & Kirsten, as seen through the eyes of Peter & Emilia, but quickly ran out of material.  So she introduced a huge cast of characters with their own ancillary stories: the musicians in the orchestra, Emilia’s family in Jutland, Christian’s wealthy mother, Kirsten’s conniving mother, Christian’s boyhood friend Bror, Peter’s former mistress, Peter’s sister and her fiancé, a failed mining expedition and its aftermath, and on and on and on …  Some of these subplots contributed significantly to the larger story, others seemed like filler.
  • The female characters were little more than objects.  This began with Kirsten, who as the classic self-centered, conniving, promiscuous bitch transformed this novel from historical fiction to soap opera.  Kirsten repeatedly used her body to get what she wanted.  If she were the only one, I could have accepted it.  But too many of the women were portrayed in this way, from Peter’s former mistress to Emilia’s stepmother.  And then Emilia herself was a milquetoast, caring for animals and smiling demurely as she floated around in some kind of dream world.  I know there is little written history of women during this time period, but I’ve read other works of historical fiction that imagine their lives in much more creative ways.

I’ve enjoyed several other books by Rose Tremain, but Music and Silence was just OK.

Review: South Riding, by Winifred Holtby

Set in 1930s Yorkshire, South Riding is the story of two strong women.  Emma Beddows is the first and only alderwoman in the local government. At 72, she has lived a life of public service, and honed the relationship skills so critical to the political process.  And despite operating in a “man’s world,” Emma has not lost her femininity:

Mrs Beddows sat warming her knees over the drawing room fire.  Her skirt was pulled high, exposing her taut rounded calves and well-turned ankles. She was proud of her legs. For a woman of over seventy they did her credit (p. 37)

Sarah Burton is the newly-appointed head teacher at Kiplington Girls High School.  Idealistic and driven, she brings energy and a bit of impetuosity to her work.  But from the moment she accepts the job she finds herself at odds with Robert Carne, a school governor and prominent landowner.  Carne was the only governor to oppose Sarah’s appointment, and she is determined to prove him wrong.  Sarah is surprised when her antagonistic feelings give way to something more romantic. Emma Beddows is surprised when this arouses jealous feelings; she is, after all, old enough to be Carne’s mother.

In less skilled hands, a novel like South Riding would be a traditional love story, with a woman achieving her rightful purpose through marriage.  But Winifred Holtby does something much different with this book: the romantic storyline shares the pages equally with Carne and his sad personal circumstances, the poor Holly family struggling for survival in the slums, a preacher caught in a blackmail scheme, a publican and his terminally ill wife, and many more everyday folk.  I was fully immersed in the South Riding community; I began to feel as if I knew these people.

The interplay between Emma Beddows and Sarah Burton was also quite interesting.  Their interactions are minimal and businesslike.  Sarah respects Emma, recognizing that her generation has opened up new opportunities for women, but that certain societal expectations continue to hold them both back:

She thought of the women of Mrs Beddows’ generation and of how even when they gave one quarter of their energy to public service they spent the remaining three-quarters on quite unnecessary domestic ritual and propitiation. The little plump woman with the wise lined face might have gone anywhere, done anything; but she would always set limits upon her powers through her desire not to upset her husband’s family. (p. 183)

Sarah and Emma aren’t exactly rivals, but they fail to realize how their joint influence — on both Robert Carne and the community at large — could do greater good than each of them on their own.  Towards the end of the book they begin to grasp this, leaving me imagining the many ways these two women worked for good later (yes, I forgot for a moment that they weren’t real people).

And finally, Holtby uses South Riding to express her strong anti-war sentiment, brought about by service during World War I.  The messages are mostly understated, but as World War II threatens Britain she takes a stronger tone:

Men I used to know as the finest workmen in the world, skilled artisans, riveters, engineers, are rotting on the dole. … And the tragic, sickening fact is that their only chance of re-employment lies in this arms race. They can return to life only by preparing for death.  (p. 482)

Winifred Holtby finished South Riding just one month before dying of kidney disease.  It is an absolute masterpiece.

Review: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

I couldn’t get into this book, no matter how hard I tried.  I’m not even sure what to say in a review!

The book opens with a middle-aged man, Julian Treslove, getting mugged one night after a dinner with his friends Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik.  Sam and Libor are recently widowed; Julian has gone from one woman to the next, leaving the detritus of relationships — including two now-grown children — in his wake.  Sam and Libor are Jews, which fascinates Julian.  As he recovers from the shock of being mugged, his fascination turns into an obsession.  He attempts to “become Jewish,” although in more of a cultural than religious sense.

At first, I thought perhaps I just didn’t understand the Jewish cultural references.  And I really didn’t like the characters.  Then I read a review that gave me hope, saying the second half of the book was better.  I persevered.  And it was better, but not enough to salvage it for me.  It was a very “talky” book, with endless conversation about both big ideas and minutiae.  I found the chapters devoted to Libor the most moving, as he mourned the recent loss of his wife.  But Sam was a stuffy prat, and Julian was a selfish jerk.

I normally enjoy Booker Prize winners.  But not this one.

Review: Adam’s Breed, by Radclyffe Hall

Gian-Luca’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her illegitimate son to be raised by his grandparents.  Fabio and Teresa live in an Italian community in London; Fabio is a naturalized citizen.  Gian-Luca is “English in the eyes of the law.” He’s different from all the boys in school both because of his ethnic background, and because he has no father.  And worse yet, Teresa sees Gian-Luca as the cause of her daughter’s death, and is unable to show him any affection.  He grows up lonely and searching for love.

Fabio’s salumeria is the one source of beauty in Gian-Luca’s early life:

The shop! All his life Gian-Luca remembered those first impressions of the shop; the size of it, the smell of it, the dim, mysterious gloom of it — a gloom from which strange objects would continually jump out and try to hit you in the face– but above all the smell, that wonderful smell that belongs to the Salumeria.  The shop smelt of sawdust and cheeses and pickles and olives and sausages and garlic; the shop smelt of oil and cans and Chianti and a little of split peas and lentils; the shop smelt of coffee and sour brown bread and very faintly of vanilla; the shop smelt of people, of Fabio’s boot blacking, and of all the boots that went in and out unblacked; it also smelt of Old Compton Street, a dusty, adventurous smell.  (p. 27)

When Gian-Luca leaves school, he begins a career as a waiter, and eventually becomes head waiter in The Doric, London’s finest restaurant.  Gian-Luca is talented and driven, but empty, lacking the emotional and spiritual connections so important to  personal well-being.  His life is a quest for identity, and for love.

Radclyffe Hall brings the Italian immigrant community to life, with delicious food and a rich supporting cast.  I enjoyed getting to know the characters and the early 20th-century restaurant business.  But Adam’s Breed is a melancholy book that explores themes of love, God, and human nature.  By the end it had evolved beyond its initial premise to a moving story of one man’s search for self, and meaning.