Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

My Name Is Lucy Barton / Elizabeth Strout

On its surface, this novel seems simplistic and straightforward.  A young mother, Lucy Barton, is hospitalized for a serious (but never disclosed) illness in New York City.  Separated for an extended period of time from her husband and two children, she wakes one day to find her mother has traveled from Illinois to keep her company.  In their ensuing time together, they reminisce about events from Lucy’s childhood, and her mother shares the local gossip about neighbors and past acquaintances.

Strout’s prose is crisp and economical.  And Lucy and her mother’s conversations are often filled with awkward silences.  It soon becomes obvious that these two women have issues they have yet to resolve.  Even so, Lucy, the narrator of the story, is in no hurry to assemble the puzzle of a childhood spent in abject poverty.  It was a time when her father’s anger issues often left him unemployed, and her mother seemed emotionally removed from a family in which love seemed in short supply.  But this is not a story of blame, or even anger.  Her mother’s visit sparks in Lucy a simple desire to understand her parents and to try to see things from their perspective.

Throughout the novel, Lucy keeps proclaiming this is not a tale about her own marriage, although it is a troubled one.  Even so, she keeps circling back to the topic, eventually linking it to her own relationship with her family in childhood and adulthood.  Again, there is no finger pointing on Lucy’s part; she shoulders most of the responsibility for the growing gulf between her and a husband who she portrays as a kind, caring individual.

It took me some time to warm to this novel.  Its frequent meanderings back and forth in time prevented me from getting caught up in a story so disjointedly delivered.  Nonetheless, as Strout carefully assembled the pieces into a whole, I began to appreciate the consecutiveness of its detours around the issue at hand.  What seemed so simple on the surface becomes more complex in the book’s final chapters.  What is left unspoken speaks volumes as Lucy accepts her parents’ faults, and her own.  Looking back, she realizes that the meanings of love and home are not nearly as straightforward as commonly portrayed.  My Name Is Lucy Barton rings true to life from beginning to end, deceptively simple, but layered with honesty’s complexities.

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Life And Fate / Vasily Grossman

While Life and Fate is not a well known book in this country, it continues to receive critical acclaim and has been favorably compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Both novels are war epics that deal with pivotal periods of Russian history.  Grossman was a Soviet Jewish journalist who covered the Battle of Stalingrad and later the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp.  He wrote a number of novels during his lifetime, but this one (his final work) draws directly upon his experiences as a journalist during World War II and his emotional response to the Holocaust.  In heartbreaking fashion, he shows how both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia sought to answer the “Jewish” problem by stirring up antisemitism among their respective citizenry.

The story centers around the Battle of Stalingrad, where a determined city held the Germans at bay and turned the tide of war in the Allies’ favor.  Thousands of its citizens were either killed in the fighting or starved to death during the long siege.

Its central characters are Viktor Shtrum and his wife Lyudmila.  Viktor is a physicist of some renown, involved in Russia’s early attempts to harness the power of the atom to create a nuclear weapon.  His wife’s first husband had been arrested during Stalin’s 1937 purges and died in the gulag.  Viktor’s own mother, in the Nazi-occupied sector of the Ukraine, is arrested as a Jew and later sent to a concentration camp’s gas chamber.  Grossman surrounds this family with a wide array of interlinked characters caught up in the war’s horrors.  He does not shy away from showing how these individuals had not only to fear the German army, but also Stalin’s secret police.  It is a time period where a careless remark could easily lead to imprisonment and decades spent in the gulag.

While fiction, the novel has the ring of truth from beginning to end as Grossman conveys what he witnessed during the siege.  Sprinkled into the story are brief chapters that take the reader into the minds of Stalin, Hitler, and Friedrich Paulus, the German general who commanded the Nazi army surrounding Stalingrad.  But it is the author’s ability to capture the thoughts and actions of the common citizenry that makes this such a riveting read.  Its haunting prose depicts the plight and valor of a people caught in the vise of two totalitarian forms of government, fighting to preserve the soul of Mother Russia.

When Grossman completed this novel in 1960, he was informed that it was a work unfit for publication.  The Communist government seized his manuscripts and destroyed them.  Fortunately, one copy escaped detection, and a number of years after Grossman died of stomach cancer, it was smuggled out of the country and published in the West.  Life and Fate highlights the many acts of kindness that took place during the War and shows how courage helped to alleviate some of its horrors.  It also portrays the human desire to be able to speak and act without having to fear the iron fist of totalitarianism.

This novel is long, nearly 900 pages in length, and with its huge cast of characters (and all those Russian names!) it is a challenging read.  Nonetheless, the story’s depth and emotional resonance is richly rewarding.  It is a book that deserves to be assigned reading in universities across the globe.  Celebrating the power of the individual against the intolerance of the State, its message remains as relevant today as the time it was written.  It is indeed a novel worthy of Tolstoy himself. 

Prague Winter : A Personal Story Of Remembrance And War, 1937-1948 / Madeleine Albright

Prague Winter is both a family memoir and a history of a country.  In its pages, Madeleine Albright writes about her family’s deep roots in Czechoslovakia, entwining their story with an account of that country’s quest for recognition as an independent state during the Twentieth Century.  Particularly, she concentrates on the years from 1937 through 1948.  It was a period in which the country went from an independent democracy to occupation by Nazi Germany and, following World War II, occupation by Russia.

What Albright learned in researching this book is that she is part Jewish, and that during the Nazi occupation many members of her family were executed by the Germans because of their faith.  It is a fascinating tale of a country caught in the crosshairs of both fascism and communism, personalized with the story of what her family endured throughout this turbulent time period.

The author’s early childhood was spent in Czechoslovakia.  Her father, Josef Koreb, was a high ranking politician in the independent government.  He fled the country with his family after Germany occupied it, and spent the war years in Britain as a member of Czechoslovakia’s shadow government in exile.  They returned home following the war’s end, and for a few brief years her father served as the country’s ambassador to Yugoslavia and Albania.  Once the Communists took over control of the government, he defected to the United States with his wife and children.

Albright, who served as America’s sixty-fourth Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, is well placed to tell this intimate history.  Growing up, she was on familiar terms with the key political figures involved in Czechoslovakia’s struggle to remain independent.  It is a gripping tale of a small country attempting to hold the Nazis at bay, and later to stay free of Russian control.  Presenting the broader history of this time period, she paints a picture of the West’s betrayal of the country’s independence, first with the Munich Pact that allowed Germany to occupy Czechoslovakia, and later turning a blind eye to Stalin’s seizure of power.

For most American readers, the history she presents of her birth country will be enlightening.  With her background of government service, she is able to fully describe the nuances of the moral dilemmas that Czechoslovakia’s political leaders faced at the time.  She also drives home the point that the struggle of democratic governance is something no one can take for granted.  In light of today’s antidemocratic movements, it remains a timely message.  Impressed by her intelligence and keen insights into world affairs, I came away feeling it’s shame our country does not currently have leaders of her caliber in the White House.

In Case We Die / Danny Bland

In Case We Die is the debut novel by Danny Bland, a veteran Seattle musician and road manager for a number of West Coast bands (Dave Alvin, The Knitters, and The Gutter Twins).  Active in the grunge rock scene of the early-90s, he puts this knowledge to good use in a book that describes its drug fueled culture.

Bland’s two main characters are a couple, both heroin addicts, Charlie Hyatt and Carrie Finch.  Finch is a classically trained musician who made a name for herself as a child prodigy.  However, now a young adult and schizophrenic, she has abandoned classical music for Seattle’s rock underground.  Charlie is doing his best to help Carrie cope with the suicidal demons in her head.  But Charlie is damaged goods as well, working in a sleazy porn shop to feed an addiction that he cannot afford.

In the book’s opening section, Bland does a marvelous job of capturing what life is like for this couple, portraying them with great empathy.  But he does not try to sugar coat the dark sides of their addictions.  Charlie is the story’s narrator, and his warm personality quickly wins the reader’s sympathy.  After such a strong start, there is an abrupt plot twist that feels totally out of place.  Charlie gets involved with another woman, also an addict, and the two of them pull off several bank robberies.  And just as suddenly, this side story is dropped, leaving me to wonder why it was necessary in the first place.

The story gets back on track when Charlie finally seeks out treatment, and later begins work as an aide in a rehab facility.  Again, Bland succeeds in showing that for the recovering addict, it is always one day at a time.  Alas, in the novel’s concluding chapter there is another plot twist that struck me as gratuitous, detracting from the story as a whole.

Published in 2014, In Case We Die will certainly appeal to anyone interested in the grunge music underground.  The book is often compelling, and Bland does show talent as a writer.  It is a shame he felt the need to throw in scenes that seem to be there merely to add unnecessary drama.  For me, it served to detract from such a true to life story.  If there is a second book in Bland, and if he is able to avoid such pitfalls, it will pay dividends on the positives he frequently exhibits here.

How To Be Both / Ali Smith

Some novels are harder to explain than read.  Such is the case with How To Be Both.  From its opening page, Smith’s dazzling wordplay hits the reader like a tsunami.  The author does not play by the usual rules here; there are no proper paragraphs, periods are used sparingly, and the plot resembles jumbled puzzle pieces, difficult to assemble.  But what at first blush appears to be incomprehensible, proves to be a strength rather than a detriment.  Smith makes the infinite scope of this work feel intimate and fascinating.

This novel is two stories woven into one, with themes seamlessly overlapping.  Both deal with the power of art and how the dead continue to haunt the living, with the main characters in each dealing with sexual and gender ambiguities.  And that only scratches the surface of a novel that effortlessly combines the Renaissance period of the 1400s with modern day life,  blending both into a singular tale.  In doing so, Smith shows that our emotional and creative needs have remained the same over time.

The story opens with a 15th-century artist, Francesco del Corsa, being yanked back into consciousness to observe a grieving 16-year-old girl in contemporary England.  The scene is set in a museum where she is studying one his paintings.  Francesco has no idea why he has returned in a ghost-like state, but he assumes he is in some kind of “purgatorium.”  When the girl leaves the building, he realizes, for reasons unknown, he is bound to follow her.  In the second section of the book, we learn that this young girl is grieving the death of her mother, and that his artistic work represents a shared bond between mother and daughter.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Smith, and in both she presents the business of life as a messy affair.  Her characters grapple with needs, wants, and conflicting emotions.  Smith’s stories are never one dimensional; rather, they brim with the joys, sorrows, and the mysterious glory of human existence.  How To Be Both was justly a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.  As I wrote, some novels are harder to explain than read.  This clever story contains discrete meanings open to interpretation.  Readers are left to form their own conclusions.  But most will come away impressed with this ingenious work of art.

Howard’s End / E. M. Forster

First published in 1910, Howard’s End is the author’s attempt to encapsulate the social codes of conduct and the blending of cultures in turn-of-the-century England.  To do so, Forster revolves his story around three very different families.  The Wilcoxes are rich capitalists who represent a replacement for a fading aristocracy.  Brash, and sure of their wealth through commerce, they represent the new ruling elite.  The Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Helen, and Tibby) have inherited their wealth, and their interests center around the arts and the ability of culture to be an uplifting force in society.  Then there are the Basts, an impoverished young couple from a lower-class background.

While Forster focuses his attention on the Schlegel family, especially Margaret, he cleverly weaves together a plot that shows the intersecting clash of differing layers of society.  To do so, he centers the story around a country home owned by the Wilcoxes, called Howard’s End.  Even though the author favors the beliefs of the Schlegel’s, he presents a sympathetic character study of the individuals in all three families.

Decades ago, I saw the film adaptation of this novel starring Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins, and Samuel West.  And while I was captivated by the movie, little of the plot remained embedded in my memory.  That is why reading the source material is so important.  Since one spends so much more time reading a novel than viewing a film adaptation, the details of the story’s plot are now much more likely to be remembered.

For those who have only seen the movie, I urge them to crack open this novel.  It insightfully provides a portrait of English life during the post-Victorian era in England.  Exploring its social, economic, and philosophical backgrounds, Forster’s marvelous prose brings to life the problems and conditions of social life that still haunt our culture today.

The Power And The Glory / Graham Greene

In the mid-1920s, a number of Mexican states were under the rule of radical secularist governments.  Their policies were anti-Catholic and anti-clerical.  This led to the destruction of many churches and the killing of priests who refused to renounce their faith.  Much of the violence was carried out by a paramilitary organization called the Red Shirts.  Not only strongly anti-religious, they were also opposed to the drinking of alcohol.

While not going into the politics or history of this anti-clerical purge, Graham Greene sets his 1940 novel, The Power and the Glory, in a Mexican state during this time period where all the churches have been shuttered or destroyed.  He focuses on a nameless “whisky priest” who is on the run, trying to escape into another state before being captured by the pursuing government authorities.  

Even though he has refused to surrender and give up the priesthood, this priest is not a saintly figure.  He relies on a steady dose of alcohol to fuel his courage.  And his faith is shaky at best.  In the recent past he has had sex with a woman and fathered a son.  In their pursuit of him, the government forces have taken hostages from the villages he has passed through.  When the inhabitants refuse to betray the priest, many of the hostages are killed in retribution.  

And yet despite the priest’s questionable adherence to his vows, when escape across the border is presented to him, he turns back to provide aid to a criminal seeking forgiveness on his death bed.  He does so knowing this will most certainly result in his being captured and killed.  In doing so, he assumes the cross of his own Calvary, becoming a priest who, despite his sinful nature, “acquires a real holiness.”

Greene does a marvelous job of capturing the brutal heat and poverty of the unnamed Mexican state he describes.  Even more so, he presents the priest’s doubts and fears as he wrestles with conflicting emotions.   Throughout, he questions why he refuses to renounce his priesthood, knowing innocent civilians are being killed because of his refusal to do so.  He is clearly no saint, and yet events dictate that he must become one.

The Power and the Glory ranks as one of Greene’s most respected novels.  And yet it is a book that few people today have read.  This is a shame because the story is captivating due to its brutal honesty.  It shows a man wrestling with questions of faith and a desperate desire to stay alive.  The book is so true to life that readers may feel that they, too, donned this whisky priest’s worn shoes on his convoluted flight to redemption.