Sunday, September 25, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig

Here’s a book to lose yourself in: Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig. Doig is another historical fiction legend whose books have loomed out there but that I had never tackled. Dancing at the Rascal Fair is the second novel in The Montana Trilogy and in a rather heretical move for me, I started in the middle of the trilogy. The novel is complete in itself so it doesn’t matter that it’s the second of three. Nevertheless, I now have to go back and read English Creek, because this is the kind of sweeping historical saga I love.

The story is narrated beautifully by Angus McCaskill, one of a pair of nineteen-year-old men emigrating from Scotland to find better lives. His partner, the enthusiastic leader of the adventure, is Rob Barclay. Rob has an uncle, Lucas Barclay, who left Scotland years before to settle in Montana. Every Christmas, Lucas sends $100.00 back to his kin, evidence of his success in the bountiful America.

Although terrified of water and reluctant to cross the Atlantic–a reasonable fear given what they go through in steerage–Angus is ready to follow the charismatic Rob to the end of the earth, believing that the free land awaiting them in Montana is worth the risk.

Once across the Atlantic, crossing the US is easy, but finding Lucas is harder than they thought. And when they finally locate him, in a tiny idea of a town called Gros Ventre, he’s not the same man they remember. Still, he takes them under his wing and helps them embrace the challenges of the new world.

In time, they stake their claims to plots of good Montana land and begin lives as sheep farmers. There are good times and bad. The life is hard, but working side-by-side, they scratch out a measure of success. Rob marries and settles in. For Angus, it’s more difficult. He falls in love with the school teacher in the next settlement, Anna Ramsey. Meanwhile, Rob sends to Scotland for his young sister, Adair. Rob is certain Angus and his sister will make a good pair.

Rob is used to getting his way. He wouldn’t have, this time, except that Anna rejects Angus’s proposal. On the rebound and tired of life alone, and because Adair is intelligent, quiet, and a reasonable enough choice, Angus marries her after all.

Life goes on.

The novel carries us from 1889 through the end of WWI, taking us along through major changes in the western US and the world. As historical fiction, it immerses the reader in time and place, but more than the epic history so wonderfully presented, it’s the people who make this such an engrossing read.

The families are buffeted by the hardships of homesteading in Montana and by the difficulties inherent in marriages and in friendships. Angus is as steady as they come, but his hard-headed obsession with a woman who doesn’t want him eventually costs him dearly. Rob, ever convinced that whatever he does is right, cannot come to grips with the fact that his closest friend no longer will follow wherever he leads. This is one of those stories that wraps you up in the lives of the characters and breaks your heart.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

This past week, I took care of a deficiency in my novel reading: I think I may have been the only person who hadn’t yet read Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart.

This fast-moving historical novel is based on a true-life character, Constance Kopp, who became a female deputy sheriff in Paterson, N.J., back in the early 1900s.

Constance and her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, live on a farm outside of town, essentially hiding from the world, having had a fear of strangers instilled in them from birth by their now-deceased mother. Norma prefers animals and farmwork to people so the isolation doesn’t bother her. The significantly younger Fleurette, extremely pretty, pampered, and innocent to the point of gullibility, wants more interaction with others because she loves drama and being admired. And then there’s Constance. Her motivating concerns are revealed through the course of the novel.

Tall and imposing, Constance has a no-nonsense approach to life. She’ll do anything to take care of her sisters. Previously, that has meant housework and farmwork and worrying about finances. This changes when, during a trip into town to shop, they are involved in an accident. A reckless driver plows his car into their horsecart. Although their injuries are relatively minor, the cart is ruined. The driver, Henry Kaufman, owns one of the local silk mills. He’s a belligerent bully who has no intention of taking responsibility for the damage he’s done. When Constance presses for payment, Henry unleashes his squadron of thugs on the Kopp sisters. He’s employed these men as strikebreakers in the past, and they know how to instill terror.

The Kopps endure bricks through their windows, an attempt to burn down their house, death threats, and most horrible of all, threats to kidnap Fleurette. Although Constance has enlisted the help of local law enforcement, discovering an ally in the attentive Sheriff Heath, it is Constance’s bravery and commonsense response to each new threat, as well as her determination not to cave in to the powerful factory owner, that brings the adventure to a satisfying conclusion.

The quirky Kopp family guarantees an enjoyable read. Book two is out now and I’ll make sure it doesn’t take me as long to get to that one.

Friday, September 16, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation

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

In recent years, historical fiction fans have been treated to a number of exciting, emotionally compelling novels about women during WWII. Mostly focusing on aviators, spies, or women involved in the Resistance, they also show how women coped with trying to survive and protect their families while living under occupation. The stories generally are based on real life situations, and it’s fascinating to contemplate the strength and resiliency of these women and what they accomplished.

Having enjoyed a number of these books, I was excited by the upcoming release (October 18) of Anne Sebba’s nonfiction account: Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation.

The book is exhaustively researched with extensive notes. It includes examples of women from many walks of life whose levels of resistance versus adaptation varied widely. It also includes women who were viewed as collaborators, and raises questions about just what "collaboration" meant. One important point raised was how differently Jews in France were treated by both Nazis and the non-Jewish French population as compared with women resisters, during and after the war. Moreover, women’s roles were deliberately downplayed by men in power after the war, who seemed unable to admit just how dependent the fight had been on females. It’s an eye-opening and sometimes difficult book because of the injustices exposed. For all these reasons, it is well worth the read.

That said, it often reads as a string of anecdotes and the thread of what the author is trying to say gets lost. Organized into chronological sections, each section bounces from one woman to another as if simply to squeeze as much of the author’s research in as possible. It’s difficult to keep the players straight, and for that reason, each woman’s individual story loses its appeal. While the anecdotes were interesting, the book as a whole tended to drag. I ended up not so much interested in the narratives of the individual lives, but more in the overall impression created by so much determination and sacrifice, much of which went unacknowledged until recently.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

My book group is meeting soon, and the choice this time is The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.

This is a poignant family drama, covering 2+ generations of Turners, a large family centered in Detroit during the Great Recession and collapse of the housing market. At issue is the family home on Yarrow Street. Although all thirteen of the children had grown up and moved away, the matriarch of the family, Viola Turner, had continued to cling to the devastated property until a final illness necessitated her removal to the suburban home of her eldest son, Francis.

Viola is declining, a fact no one wants to face. However, what brings the siblings (those still living in the Detroit area) back for a family conference is a notice that their mother’s mortgage is underwater. They owe forty thousand dollars and the house is worth, at most, four thousand.

Each of the siblings wants to deal with that news in their own way, but none of the options is good. Francis has his mother’s power-of-attorney, and everyone expects him to take charge as he always has, but they reserve the right to criticize and complain. As for Francis, he has other problems just now– the return of a "haint" that has troubled him since his youth. According to old family lore, the teenage Francis had battled this ghost one night in their home, until told in no uncertain terms by their father that "There ain’t no haints in Detroit."

While each of the siblings puts in an appearance, the novel focuses mainly on Francis, the eldest, and Lelah, the youngest. While Francis has made a stable life for himself, his wife, and their two children, Lelah is living on the edge. Following a failed marriage, she raised her daughter on her own–with help from her family–but is now succumbing to a long gambling addiction. Evicted from her apartment, Lelah has sneaked back to the tumble-down Yarrow Street home, her last possible refuge.

This is an in-depth exploration of family dynamics, the struggles of the middle class and some who have fallen out of it, and of race. It’s a clear-eyed depiction of life in Detroit. Flashbacks into the earlier lives of Francis Senior and a much younger Viola round out the intergenerational saga. Into this is injected a touch of the supernatural. Is the haint real or not?

A wonderful book-club book, I’m looking forward to our meeting and discussion.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I just finished a beautiful book, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. This is even better than Rules of Civility, Towles’ first well-received novel.

The gentleman is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who found himself in Moscow, living in the famed luxury hotel, The Metropol, just after the revolution. As the novel opens, in 1922, Alexander is called before "The Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs." He is tried and found guilty of being an aristocrat, a traitor to the revolutionary ideals. Most of Russia’s aristocrats either died during the revolution, were executed afterward, were banished to Siberia, or are living as unobtrusively as possible so as not to attract the attention of the Party. Alexander, at one time a revered poet, is too well known to fade away. Fortunately for the count, his poetry was seen as inspirational to the budding revolutionary movement. Therefore, his judges don’t sentence him to death or exile. Instead, they sentence him to house arrest.

Alexander lives in a suite of rooms at the Metropol. Although its glory fades somewhat due to the wars, it’s still a pretty posh place. As part of his punishment, he is removed from his suite and sent to the hotel attic to live in a single tiny room–he has to climb a few flights of stairs to reach it. He can only take a few of his possessions. The rest are confiscated by "the people." If he leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight.

Accepting his fate, he commences his new life. The beauty of the book is what he makes of it.

I found this book engrossing. Still, when I tried telling my husband how wonderful it was, I couldn’t convey how it could be so interesting given the limited geography. This is a fascinating time in Russian history, but we learn about it from the perspective of a man in Moscow who must experience it all secondhand. The count spends his days performing rather routine functions. He passes his time wandering about the hotel, eating splendid meals, visiting his barber weekly, meeting various guests, and talking with his friends: the concierge, the head chef, the hotel seamstress. He meets a young girl, a guest at the hotel, whose curiosity and intelligence inspire him to broaden his own horizons by looking around. He even conducts a love affair with an unlikely guest.

Naturally, some of his time is spent reminiscing, either aloud to friends or alone. His past life was glamorous in some ways, but he doesn’t wallow in self pity at being denied the life he expected to live. Alexander makes the best of what he’s given.

Towles’ writing is so superb and the protagonist is so engaging that it all works.

Alexander is a hero to truly admire. He’s kind, friendly, a master of self-control, and able throughout to maintain the well-bred manners of a perfect gentleman. At each setback, he considers the viewpoint of his adversaries, and he adapts. At one point, a well-connected member of the Party who has asked a favor of Alexander compliments him on how well he has reconciled himself to his situation. Alexander responds that being resigned is not the same as being reconciled, giving the reader a deeper insight into his internal struggles. Yet what makes Alexander a truly empathetic hero is that he recognizes how fortunate he actually is. It’s a delight to spend time with a character so steady and so charming. His dry wit lights up the pages, and his ability to see the humor in dark situations clues the reader in to how this imprisoned count is able to enjoy life in spite of its trials.

This book is highly recommended.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

In high school, we were assigned Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. I loved it so much I read more. However, so many years have passed, I don’t remember much about any of his novels. So I decided to re-read Hardy for the back-to-the-classics challenge. Although I intended to re-read The Return of the Native, when it came down to it I picked up Tess of the d’Urbervilles instead.

This is a painfully beautiful story of a woman wronged in every conceivable way. I wish I could remember my response to it when I was a teen, because I imagine I see it differently now. Or maybe not.

Tess is the ideal perfect woman. The daughter of uneducated, poverty-stricken, adverse-to-the-idea-of-work farmers, Tess is intelligent, industrious, and strikingly beautiful. Her father is a drunkard who, unfortunately, is told that he is a descendent of the noble d’Urberville line. In order to achieve the wealth and respect he believes he’s entitled to, he tasks his daughter with presenting herself to a rich woman a few towns away whose name is d’Urberville. He’s sure the woman will set them up in style, just because.

Tess is more sensible than her parents, but unable to disobey them. She goes to the home of the d’Urbervilles where she meets the wastrel son, Alec. He gives her a job taking care of the chickens, then pursues her relentlessly. She rebuffs him time and again. However, eventually she is caught off guard and raped.

Tess flees home and has a baby who does not survive. Although she is now a ruined woman, she nevertheless manages to find a job as a milkmaid in a different town. She is as pure at heart as she ever was and all her coworkers are fond of her. There she catches the eye of Angel Clare, a studious young man, son of a parson, who is learning how to be a farmer. He is captivated by her innocence and beauty.

The two fall in love. Angel proposes marriage. Tess resists as long as she can, feeling unworthy of Angel. However, his persistence wears her down. They are wed. But on their first night together, she confesses her past. Horrified, Angel rejects her.

For the remainder of the story, Tess tries to make her own way without Angel. Her living situation goes from bad to worse. She is essentially the only bread-winner for her family and they are no more sensible than they ever were. Through various twists of fate, Alec d’Urberville finds his way back into her life. By the time Angel recognizes the error of his ways, it’s too late.

The story is old-fashioned, but also challenges the social conventions of the time. Tess is a fallen woman and believes herself to be unworthy of Angel’s love, but the reader can’t help but feel indignant for Tess and infuriated at the men in her life–none of whom deserve her. Although a modern reader can feel impatient with Tess’s tendency to let people treat her as a doormat, in the bigger picture one has to see that she’s trapped by her circumstances. None of this is her fault. And that’s what makes this story so tragic. Tess deserves better, but there were no good options in her life.

I have more of Hardy’s work on my shelf, and will have to make time to re-read more of his books now that I’ve reacquainted myself with what a marvelous a writer Hardy is.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Infinities by John Banville

Occasionally, I’ll look through the books on my local library’s recommended list and generally end up requesting one that looks interesting even if it isn’t my usual fare.

The Infinities by John Banville falls into that category. At the center of the novel is the dying patriarch of a dysfunctional family: Adam Godley. Adam is a famed theoretical mathematician, a man who stood on end the conventional wisdom about mathematics. However, we don’t get much insight into his brilliance; we have to take that as a given. By the time we meet Adam, he has had a stroke and is essentially non-communicative. Readers do get to glimpse inside his head where his life is flashing before his eyes– only to discover a surprisingly mundane life.

Gathered around his bedside, awaiting his demise, are his second wife and his children. His wife, Ursula, is a timid woman who drinks too much and has never earned the love or respect of her stepchildren. Adam’s son is a rather dull man who has managed, somehow, to marry a beautiful actress. His daughter, Petra, is withdrawn and maladapted to the world. She has a suitor, an unpleasant young man who wants to write Adam’s biography and uses Petra to gain entrance to the household. Yet no one is under any illusions about his interest in Petra.

As a deathbed vigil story, there isn’t much to the novel. The relationships are superficial and the characters are more interested in themselves than each other. Despite Adam’s supposed contributions to mathematics, he hasn’t touched the world very deeply.

The saving grace of the novel is the narrator/observer, Hermes. The ancient Greek gods are still around and occasionally still dabble in the human world. Zeus primarily pops down to earth to chase skirts. Pan makes mischief. Hermes actually cares about people and hangs around to clean up the messes. Hermes also philosophizes about why the gods envy humans and what a burden immortality is.

This is an interesting concept for a novel, but the execution is somewhat weak. It’s fairly short and an easy read, but despite its lofty themes, it’s a forgettable story. If you are, for some reason, looking for a gather-around-the-deathbed novel, I’d recommend The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy instead.