Monday, September 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

 My historical fiction book group met virtually this weekend. The book we read was Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks is a wonderful writer. I loved The Secret Chord. I was a bit hesitant to read another plague book just now. To Calais, In Ordinary Times by James Meek was such an extraordinary read that I thought, “That’s enough plague.”

However, I dove in and was captivated from the start. Anna Frith is a young widow with two very young children living in a small English mining village in 1666. Her husband died in a mining accident. Her father is a violent drunk. She has to fend for herself. She keeps sheep and works as a housemaid for the Rector and his wife, and also helps serve at the manor of the local gentry, the Bradfords. The Rector’s wife, Elinor, is a saint of a woman, who sees Anna’s intelligence and teaches her to read and allows her to dream.

Everything changes when a traveling tailor comes to the village and boards at Anna’s house. He brings light and laughter into the cottage, as well as hope of a new love. But before they can act on their attraction, he receives a shipment of cloth from London and sets to work making clothes. Soon, he falls ill with the plague. Although his dying plea to Anna is that she “burn everything,” it is impossible for her to carry through. People want the bits and pieces of clothing they paid for. Before long, plague is racing through the town.

The rector, Michael Mompellion, preaches to the village about sacrificial love. He says they should quarantine rather than flee, which would carry the plague far beyond the village. His flock agrees, except for the lord and his family who think themselves too important to be sacrificed for the greater good.

Over the next year, half of the town dies of the plague, directly or indirectly. Anna is witness to all the humanity and inhumanity of the people she has known all her life. She draws closer to Elinor as together they try to bring comfort and healing to the dying, while Michael tends to the practical and spiritual needs of his charges. But things keep going from bad to worse.

Anna is an inspiring character: clear-eyed, generous, compassionate, and imperfect. Because of Anna, the book is hopeful rather than depressing. Only the epilogue didn’t quite fit. It did wrap things up neatly for Anna, but seemed far-fetched after the gritty realism of her life in her village. However, despite my dissatisfaction with the epilogue, I would recommend Year of Wonders. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser

 Having been reminded of my spree of middle-aged male mid-life crisis books, I decided to read The Promise of Elsewhere: A novel by Brad Leithauser.

(An aside, why are so many novels stamped with the subtitle: “----:a novel”? )

This middle-aged protagonist, Louie Hake, is in his forties, which seems too young to be middle-aged, but his mid-life crisis is significant. He is divorcing for the second time. His wife was caught (very publicly) having an affair and ran off with her lover. Louie is an art history professor at a small liberal arts college in Ann Arbor, so he spends a good deal of his professional life explaining that he does not teach at the University of Michigan.

He is, at the same time, arrogant about his intellectualism and insecure about being a fraud. He’s also bipolar and has synesthesia. Finally, he has just received a diagnosis of a degenerative eye disease. He’s slowly going blind. So there’s a lot going on in his head.

As a way to escape from his life for awhile, he submits a plan to his department chair for a course on four great architectural masterpieces: the Pantheon in Rome, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto. He embarks on a journey to see them all. However, he gets stalled in Rome, then side-tracked to London, then side-tracked again to Greenland. Along the way, he decides to stop taking his lithium, with predictable results. He meets and spends time with a few strangers, also on journeys of self-discovery, and all their stories come out bit by bit.

Louie’s life is a mess. He’s not a likeable character or an unlikeable one. He’s just a mess, bumbling along, self-absorbed but desperate for connection. The book is sprinkled with little insights into the human condition. And many of Louie’s rants and uncharitable thoughts are funny. But in the end, there isn’t much point to Louie’s grand journey and I don’t see that there has been any real growth.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Anxious People: A novel by Fredrik Backman

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Way back in time, I read a series of books about middle-aged men who suffer a loss of some kind and then meet someone or someones new and have a sort-of rebirth. In the midst of this spate, I read A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and enjoyed it. So I requested Backman’s latest,  Anxious People: A novel, from Netgalley and was fortunate to have the request approved.

This is a feel-good book with quirky characters who are thrown together on the fateful day when a desperate person attempts a bank robbery, fails, and flees the scene only to stumble upon an apartment viewing, inadvertently turning the crime into a hostage crisis.

The crime(s) are handled by two small-town policemen, who happen to be father and son. The hostages include a retired couple who have taken to flipping apartments as projects, a young couple about to become parents, an elderly woman ostensibly looking for a place for her daughter while waiting for her husband to park the car, an obnoxious, hard-nosed banker whose hobby is to go to open houses to see how the other half lives, an amateur actor, and the real estate agent. We get to know these people in part through the interviews with the police and in part by their interactions with one another. They are kind-hearted odd ducks, all carrying baggage of one kind or another.

The plot is an unraveling of the failed robbery/hostage crisis as the police try to determine, after the fact, what happened to the perpetrator, who somehow vanished from the scene. There are surprises galore, snippets of wisdom, and a good dose of humor throughout.

Reading this novel was a delightful way to spend a few hours.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

 What a stunning writer Elena Ferrante is. Her Neopolitan Quartet left me floored. Her newly released novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is likewise extraordinary.

I don’t know how she does it. Plot-wise, this is a contemporary “dysfunctional family” book and I hate those. Point-of-view-wise, we are in the head (deeply, deeply in the head) of an adolescent girl from ages 12-15, who is full of tween-to-young-teenager angst. (Bleh.) And yet, from the opening pages, I was completely drawn in and could not put the book down.

Giovanna is the daughter of a professor (her beloved father) and a romance novel editor (her doting mother) and life is good. That is, childhood was good. But as she reaches that awkward age, and her body starts to change, she has a self-confidence crisis. When her grades start to suffer, her parents become concerned. One night, she overhears her father compare her face to that of his despised, loathed, hated, ugly sister, Vittoria. Terrified and hurt, Giovanna is compelled to visit her aunt and find out if it’s true.

To say the family is estranged is an understatement. But her parents eventually give in and let her meet her aunt. The woman lives in the neighborhood where Giovanna’s father grew up—the wrong side of the tracks. Her father, through academic achievement, has managed to move up in the world. He claims his sister resents the fact that he got out. He fears Vittoria will turn his daughter against him the way she turned the rest of the family.

That may be true. Vittoria is certainly an unpleasant and untrustworthy character. Nevertheless, Giovanna is as intrigued by her as she is afraid of her. Vittoria does try to turn Giovanna against her father. She insists the girl spy on her parents to see them as they really are.

She does. And she does.

Theirs is not the idyllic family Giovanna once thought.

Over the next couple of years, the family secrets come out, the marriage falls apart, and Giovanna reacts, first self-destructively by acting out and, secondly, slowly, by growing up. It’s a painful process, one that is still in progress at the book’s end.

This is not a novel that I would have chosen to read based on a plot synopsis. But Elena Ferrante is able to make a time-worn story timeless. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 4, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Unbounded Night by Mitchell James Kaplan

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I’ve been waiting for another novel by Mitchell James Kaplan since reading the superb By Fire, By Water, so I was very happy to have the opportunity to review Into the Unbounded Night.

Set in the time of early Christianity, the time of Nero and Vespasian, the Great Fire in Rome, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, this novel incorporates a lot of history and a lot of diverse religious thought.

There are numerous characters whose lives we follow. The readily recognizable historical figures (Paul, Stephen, Luke, Vespasian, Poppaea, Nero) have only walk-on roles but they influence the protagonists in ways large and small. And they ground the reader in the time period. The multiple protagonists are not the larger-than-life people of history but the “common” people.

First, we meet Aislin, a young Briton, who survived the massacre of her people by the Romans. Steeped in the belief system of her world, Aislin makes her way to Rome for one purpose, vengeance. Overwhelmed by what she finds there, she struggles to survive and to understand the new world. Inadvertently, she achieves some of the vengeance she sought. 

Another main character is Yohanan, a Pharisee in Jerusalem, dedicated to study of Jewish tradition and to peace. He’s caught up in a time of Roman occupation and civil unrest that upend his life but the violence and personal loss cannot change his fundamental beliefs.

The reader watches these characters and others grow up and grow old. Or die. Many of the characters die, often brutally, which got to be a bit much. Over time, they all interconnect. It was interesting to see how disparate lives can intertwine and influence each other; however, it was also emotionally distancing. As a reader I felt that I was skirting over the surface of their lives rather than being drawn into them.

Kaplan writes beautifully. This is a deeply meditative novel infused with questions about life, religion, death, and sin. It’s a hard novel to read when the world seems to be falling apart yet again, but there is something hopeful in the timelessness of the struggle and the unanswerableness of the questions.

Monday, August 31, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Short Years: The Life and Letters of John Bruce MacCallum M.D. by Archibald Malloch

 I just finished a beautiful old book, published in 1937, called Short Years: The Life and Letters of John Bruce MacCallum, M.D. by Archibald Malloch.

MacCallum was a turn-of-the-twentieth century, Canadian-born, Johns Hopkins-trained physician/scientist who devoted his short life to experimental medicine. He started out as a morphologist, most known for his work on heart muscle, and ended up an experimental physiologist. He was also a poet, an author of short stories, and a prodigious letter writer.

The book is primarily a chronological collection of edited letters. The author (Malloch) annotates them so that the story flows well but he very effectively keeps himself out of it as much as possible to let MacCallum be the one to breathe life into his own story. The writing is achingly beautiful, full of dreams, aspirations, love of research, love of friends, loneliness, and also humor, imagination, and optimism. I found myself reading passages out loud to my husband because they were just so striking. 

What gives this book particular depth and poignancy is that the young physician/scientist contracted tuberculosis while a medical student. Although in earlier letters the dreaded diagnosis is only hinted at, he worked in a place where the symptoms were very readily recognized, tuberculosis was rampant in American society, and his older brother was also a physician. John MacCallum undoubtedly knew his diagnosis and prognosis from the very first. 

He devoted himself to work, accomplishing an extraordinary amount in his short years, despite his physical limitations. He made friends wherever he went, and his death was hard felt by a large community of medical and non-medical people from Canada to Baltimore to Berkeley. 

He also had two romantic friendships with women with whom he corresponded for many years. It’s unclear how the relationships might have progressed had he been healthy, but it does seem that his illness put up a wall against marriage, even if he had been inclined to pursue it. The book has a very early-twentieth-century way of preserving the anonymity of these women, referring to one as “Miriam,” which was not her real name, and the other as “the poetess.” It’s frustrating not to be able to identify who they were and it seems time erased the trails. And yet, their identities don’t really matter.

One of the fascinating things about the book is how MacCallum will write to a friend, to his parents, to his mentor, and to his brother letters covering the same event, written within a couple of days, and put different spins on it for each audience. He might use the same turn of phrase a couple of times, but then elaborate on or play down his thoughts on what he’d done or what took place. It gives a more rounded picture of the man and really humanizes him.

I love epistolary novels, and this book reads like one. It makes me wish people still wrote like this. Instantaneous communication is wonderful, but what a loss for the literary world and for future historians to think that people’s voices won’t be preserved in this way for posterity.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Destroying Angel by S.G. MacLean

 England in the mid 1600s, under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, was a scary and oppressive place to be. I don’t know much about that time period, but S.G. MacLean’s historical thriller series featuring the captain of Cromwell’s Guard, Damien Seeker, is teaching me quite a bit.

Seeker is utterly loyal to Cromwell and works closely with the chief government spy, Thurloe. In the previous two books, starting with The Seeker, the reader is introduced to this strong, complex military man who is feared and hated by many on both sides for good reason. However, we also learn that he can be gentle and kind to those in need. And that he certainly does have a heart.

At the end of book two, Seeker is forced to walk away from the woman he has come to love because he can’t serve Cromwell and look away from her brother’s treasonous leanings. 

In book three, Destroying Angel, Seeker has been sent north to the Yorkshire moors to connect with the Major-General sent there to keep order and to look into the possible return of a banished Loyalist, Thomas Faithly. Faithly had been in exile with the young King, and it is supposed that he has returned to his ancestral estate to drum up support. This sort of thing, rooting out Royalists, is all in a day’s work for Seeker, but there are complications.

Seeker is originally from Yorkshire—not Faithly Moor, where he has been sent—but the area around it. And it was in Yorkshire, as a young man, where personal tragedy changed the course of his life. I don’t want to introduce spoilers for the first two books, but Seeker’s marriage was destroyed and he lost contact with his daughter. With nowhere else to turn, he fled to join Cromwell’s Army and the bitterness and cruelty of that life made him what he is today. He is very, very good at soldiering--cold, demanding, and relentless. (He’s also very good at solving political mysteries.) 

Now that he is back in his old stomping grounds, his past comes back to haunt him.

There is a lot going on in this book. Seeker not only has to search for Faithly, but he also becomes involved in solving a murder of a young girl, the ward of the town constable, a loyal Cromwell supporter. The town is also undergoing an upheaval because of the arrival of a “trier,” a rigid Puritan examiner who has been called in to try the local rector who has been accused of not being Puritan enough. Bitter, long-held grievances between villagers are at play, and Seeker has to sort through what is important and what is not. There is also fear of witchcraft and those who would hunt witches. Although at first it is a lot to take in and keep track of, the reader just needs to keep following the protagonist. Seeker is as clever as ever at untangling the threads until it all comes clear.

These are fascinating novels. Thrilling and disturbing. We keep rooting for Seeker even as the cause he serves becomes more and more corrupt. At some point, there will have to be a reckoning as Cromwell’s England becomes just as evil as the regime it replaced, moving farther from the ideals that drew Seeker to the fight. I’ve got the next book on hand and am anxious to see what comes next.