Uprooted by Naomi Novik

uprootedNaomi Novrik’s Uprooted is a fantasy novel that, sadly, feels a bit more like a too-familiar fairy tale.

Agnieszka is the surprise pick of the wizard called “Dragon.” Every ten years, he whisks a village girl away to his tower to teach her to manage her magic skills. She’s bubbly and positive and easily outraged — everything you’d expect of a precocious witch. The Dragon (150-year-old Sarkan) is Oscar the Grouch in wizard form, quick with rebukes and ridicule, short on kind words and depth as a character. His pervasive negativity and sourpuss outlook is unwavering, which makes him thin and tedious.

I felt like Uprooted had great potential, but it was the lack of depth — in the characters, mostly but also in the plot — that put me off this battle-heavy epic. Uprooted’s scenes post-climactic battle left me confused. Agnieszka and Sarkan venture into the evil Wood to stop its omnipresent malevolence from devouring the surrounding small towns, yet these scenes feel muzzy, somehow like the dream the wood people seek to find peace. This part of the plot feels like it comes out of left field. I understand the idea and theme that wanton violence solves nothing and only creates more problems, though there is nothing to alert the reader earlier in the book that taking the path of nonviolence with the Wood is what will eventually bring peace.

Some of the most compelling scenes in the book take place when Agnieszka and Sarkan make magic together and I happily lost myself in the telling of that part of the story, only to find the battle scenes overdone and exceptionally longwinded in telling description. This, along with the puzzling dénouement, and I’d have to say that Uprooted was not for me.

May and June, 2016

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

agodinruins

A God in Ruins is about identity, dutiful love, and above all, self sacrifice. This book, a companion to Life After Life, follows mostly Edward Beresford “Teddy” Todd before and after his Second World War experiences.

At first I was irritated with what seemed like a propensity to live a life of quiet desperation, in an unfulfilling marriage with an exasperating child. I realized that I was looking at Teddy’s life through the lens of the present, where flaky is the norm and commitment is rare.

Teddy’s generation had no choice — his own identity is indelibly scorched in the crucible of the war. Defying death against nearly impossible odds at the controls of a Halifax bomber is the only time he feels truly alive, yet this imbues him with a duty-bound stoicism. His life is a series of sacrifices; first for the war effort, then for his wife, and finally his grandchildren. (Teddy is the only steadying force they have in their lives and they love him for it.)

I enjoyed this book. It’s layered, nuanced, and complex. There’s plenty to explore here — it’s meaty with references to poetry that I have to admit were somewhat lost on me. Duty, honor, and love are compelling themes and it got me thinking about what sort of life is a good life — what it is that etches your life with meaning? Is forsaking your own happiness and well being for country, spouse, children, and grandchildren the key to a life well lived? For Teddy, it seems so — if only for the reason that a whole life can be erased in the instant.

He had believed once that he would be framed by the architecture of the war, but now he realized, he had been erased by it.
–A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

April — May, 2016

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

lifeafterlifePractice makes perfect.

If you could go back in life and get a do-over, would you take that chance and change the course of history? Kate Atkinson’s brilliant novel, Life After Life tackles this intriguing question.

Ursula Beresford Todd, human palimpsest, gets the chance to live life after life, each time altering the future based on the sometimes not so fun events of the past. Life After Life reminded me of how the superposition principle of quantum physics plays out in Ruth Ozeki’s marvelous book, A Tale for the Time Being. Ursula’s life path has a bevy of possibilities — the array that collapses as you, the observer, follow her story.

I don’t want to say much about the plot to avoid spoilers, though Life After Life is everything I feel a great book should be. It’s a period piece, set in 20th century Europe. The characters are exceptionally deep, fully-flawed, and interesting. I loved that you get to see and experience each vivid character from many different viewpoints — their best and worst sides included — which makes for terrific, rich reading.

You’re never quite sure where Atkinson is going to take you via Ursula and you’re on tenterhooks until the very last page wondering how this imaginative book will end.

Should you read this book? In the words of Ursula’s mom Sylvie, needs must (necessity compels).

Special thanks to my friend Michelle for putting this book, and its sequel, A God in Ruins on my reading radar.

–April, 2016

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

theturnerhouseIdentity figures heavily in The Turner House, Angela Flournoy’s novel about a family of fifteen set in Detroit, Michigan. The book follows the eldest Turner son, Charles, (a.k.a., “Cha-Cha”) and the youngest Turner daughter, Lelah, who in their own ways, are struggling to find a place for themselves in the present by conquering what haunts them from their past.

For Cha-Cha, it’s a ghost — a haint that visited him as a child in the big house on Yarrow Street. This spectre is a hereditary apparition who also visited Turner patriarch Francis as a young man until he left the country for life in the city of Detroit. For Lelah, it’s a gambling addiction that causes serial eviction, a tenuous relationship with her only daughter Brianne, and of course, financial collapse.

When you have 13 children in a single family, everyone is attention starved. Each Turner child jockeys for validation. They often talk over one another, interrupt, act out, and change the subject in an ongoing attempt to capture attention. Lelah gambles in search of silence and with 13 siblings, make no wonder.

This search for silence felt all too true to me. My dad grew up in a family of 11 and my mom grew up in a family of nine, but that truth as depicted in The Turner House, carried the weight and fatigue of familiarity. It reminded me too much of how some people (close family) routinely interrupt, talk over others, and change the subject to this day in that constant wearying bid for attention — even in much smaller gatherings, of say, two.

I’d hoped for something different — something deeper to come from the sheer possibilities inherent in the story of 13 siblings and their exponentially interwoven relationships. With 11 siblings orbiting around the stories of Cha-Cha and Lelah, they and their stories seemed flat. I can’t help but wonder if one or two or three of the other Turners examined more closely might have made for more intense reading.

I discovered this book in the final round of The Morning News’ 2016 Tournament of Books. It was voted second overall next to The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

— March – April, 2016

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

fingersmithDo you think me good?

Maud Lilly, a central character, asks this question of herself and others in Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith. It’s a question I continue to ask myself of the book after having finished it.

I wanted to love this book. It’s a historical crime novel, set in England. It’s filled with rogues and criminals and intrigue.  Raised in a den of toughs and “sharpers,” Sue Trinder’s a human secret — a pawn in a long game meant to extract a fortune.

Do you think me good?

Considering every character except the hapless yet pivotal knife boy, every single character is, at one point or another, given to ugly brutality. What bothered me most is the constant abject cruelty on the part of many of the characters.

Old man Lilly abuses his “niece” Maud, making her read pornography aloud to “gentlemen” visitors to Briar — a house aptly named as a container full of orneries adept at perpetrating human suffering. In turn, Maud physically and mentally abuses her ladies’ maid. Later, Maud allows Gentleman to disabuse the maid of her virtue. Lesser character John Vroom thinks nothing of decorating his girlfriend Dainty in blues and purples with regular beatings. He sports a coat of many dog pelts constructed from the skin of stolen pets. Mrs. Sucksby, the grand dame of perps, is the epicentre of the whole seething vortex of evil.

Art imitates life, yes and every single human is capable of ugly brutality, but I couldn’t help but long for someone truly good, who I could get behind and root for, above all others. Sue Trinder’s who you’ve got your money on as a reader and even she abuses the pathetic knife boy near to death.

Do you think me good?

A great portion of the novel is told twice, first from Sue’s point of view and then from Maud’s. The major plot twist aside, the pacing of the repetition is hard to plow through because it was clear to me how the book was to end. I’ll repeat myself. I really wanted to love this book. But if I were to answer Maud’s question, I’d have to say no, this book wasn’t for me.

–March, 2016

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

theheartgoeslastThe Heart Goes Last is a dystopian American horror story taken to a farcical extreme, complete with a bevy of Elvis impersonators and robot sex toys.

As part of a financial crisis, Stan and Charmaine are forced to live in their car, outrunning roving gangs and other hostiles in the streets as society disintegrates. To escape poverty, they willingly sign up for a twin city prison program designed to offer employment and housing for all, where citizens rotate through prison and regular life one month at a time. Much like Hotel California, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

I found the characters flat and wooden — Stan is an unsatisfied lust bucket with a single-track mind and Charmaine — the prison’s Stepford wife angel of death — is vapid and empty as a soap bubble. The plot devolves far past satire into farce. Without any characters to root for, this book wasn’t for me.

— February, 2016

Nocturne by Helen Humphreys

nocturneA “nocturne” is a musical composition inspired by or evocative of the night.

In her memoir of the same name, Helen Humphreys grieves her brother Martin James Humphreys by writing directly to him over 45 chapters — one for every year of his short life.

In July of 2009, after complaining of a backache and some acid reflux, accomplished pianist and composer Martin is diagnosed with stage 4B pancreatic cancer. (There is no 4C.) He dies on December 3rd of the same year.

Pancreatic cancer is an especially aggressive beast. My mother-in-law died of the same disease almost as quickly as Martin (diagnosed in April, 1997, after being unable to beat a persistent cold, she passed in October of the same year). You are well and then you are terminal. She died only four years into our marriage. One of my biggest regrets is the time I didn’t get to spend with her — she was a beautiful human being.

This book is close to home in more ways than one. Martin dies at age 45 — the very age I am now. Helen Humphreys grieves her one and only younger brother intensely. The existence of  such a profound and loving brother / sister relationship, at this point in my life, is completely foreign to me. My younger brother (born the very same day a decade after Martin James Humphreys) has been estranged from my parents for almost a decade. Either one of us could die of pancreatic cancer in between the superficial birthday and Christmas greetings we exchange and the other would never even know, much less grieve. Their friendship and intimacy is like a foreign language being spoken before my eyes: it’s baffling and incomprehensible to me.

Helen Humphreys sees the absence of her brother everywhere she looks. She quotes American composer John Cage, whose words ring true to me as my thoughts return to my own brother, who’s alive, but essentially gone:

“What we hear is determined by our own emptiness, our own receptivity; we receive to the extent that we are empty to do so.”

— John Cage

Nocturne took me on a voyage to a foreign land I didn’t expect to enter; I read it in 24 hours — perhaps my version of language immersion.

Visit Helen Humphreys’ site to learn more about the book and listen to Martin playing Chopin’s Prelude 20 from Opus 28. (.mp3)

— February, 2016

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

thefarawaynearbyIn his poem, “Digging,” Seamus Heaney writes of the work of a writer:

Between my finger and my thumb 
The squat pen rests. 
I’ll dig with it.

Joan Didion famously said, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

This is precisely what Rebecca Solnit does in The Faraway Nearby. From spoiling apricots and symbiotic relationships to fairytales, myths, and stories of  survival, Solnit digs into her relationship with a distant and jealous mother battling the slow mental decay of Alzheimer’s disease.

This book has more layers of resonance than an Icelandic vínarterta. With Solnit as cartographer, no two things are so far removed from one another that she can’t uncover a resonant connection as she charts the emotional territory of our shifting identities and how these shifting selves influence our relationships. Solnit makes for an erudite yet unpretentious traveling companion on this journey of the self — a trip you don’t want to miss.

We feed on sorrows, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imagination beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves.

— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

— February, 2016

Favorite passages from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Strap yourself in — I don’t think anyone has done a better, more complete or beautiful job describing apricots: “upholstered in a fine velvet.” Yes.

They were an impressive sight, a mountain of apricots in every stage from hard and green to soft and browning, though most of them were that range of shades we call apricot: pale orange with blushes of rose and yellow-gold zones, upholstered in a fine velvet, not as fuzzy as peaches, not as smooth as plums.

Strikingly familiar:

For a long time, when I mentioned something eventful in my own life, she would change the subject in the very opening words of her reply.

On travel:

And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t as deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.

Beautiful, symbiotic relationship:

Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.

On parents:

When you say “mother” or “father” you describe three different phenomena. There is the giant who made you and loomed over your early years; there is whatever more human-scale version might have been possible to perceive later and maybe even befriend; and there is the internalized version of the parent with whom you struggle — to appease, to escape, to be yourself, to understand and be understood by — and they make up a chaotic and contradictory trinity.

On books:

Books are solitudes in which we meet.

A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

On decay and rebirth:

Even decay is a form of transformation into other living things, part of the great rampage of becoming that is also unbecoming.

On the interconnectedness of things:

You can speak as though your life is a thread, a narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread, but each of us is an island from which countless threads extend out into the world.

Imaginal cells:

A mature insect, including a moth or butterfly, is called an “imago”; the plural is “imagines,” and the cells that bring about that maturity in moths and butterflies and other flyers are called “imaginal cells.”

Strangers to our own existence:

The contemporary poet Robert Hass once wrote of this most solitary of poets (Rilke), this man who was always putting distance between himself and intimacy, “There are pleasures, forms of nourishment perhaps that most people know and he did not. What he knew about was the place that the need for that nourishment came from. And he knew how immensely difficult it was for us to inhabit that place, to be anything other than strangers to our own existence.”

How stories sustain and expand us:

We feed on sorrows, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imagination beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

houseofthespirits The full force of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits didn’t hit me until the Epilogue, when Alba, the youngest member of the Trueba family, realizes that to go forward, she must reject the generational cycle of violence and revenge and choose love.

The prose is vivid and evocative. The narrative rolls out like kite string in a windstorm. The characters are deep, quirky, and endearingly flawed. Some, like the ethereal and otherworldly Clara, have only a tentative foothold in this world. How cool is that?

Formerly powerful Esteban Trueba, human hurricane, longtime congressman of the deposed establishment right, serial rapist, oppressor general of basically anyone who comes into contact with him, is unable to save the only thing left in the world that he loves — his granddaughter Alba  — after she is disappeared post-coup by the military regime. It’s not until he entreats Tránsito Soto, a whore-turned madam, that Alba is returned. Raped and broken in body but healing, she vows to “break that terrible chain” of violence, oppression, and vengeance.

It would be very difficult for me to avenge all those who should be avenged, because my revenge would be just another part of the same inexorable rite. I have to break that terrible chain.

Pride, vengeance, family, loyalty, and survival all figure heavily in this amazing novel that I’ll probably be unpacking for as long as I live. I want to thank Lori McLeese for putting her beloved Isabel Allende on my radar.

January, 2016