Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

The Blazing World / Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World is an ingeniously constructed piece of fiction. It is presented as a posthumous sampler featuring excerpts from the diaries of Harriet (“Harry”) Burden, an artist who created dazzling (and often frightening) multimedia installations from the 1970s to her death in 2004. The sampler also features critical reviews of her work and interviews with her family, friends, and collaborators.

Harriet is an amazing character, a flawed protagonist filled with rage, an intense creative energy, and a neediness to have her artistic endeavors acknowledged and acclaimed. In her fifties, she comes to believe that the reason that her work has been dropped from galleries is because of her sex and age. To prove her hypothesis, she decides to produce a series of installations for which she enlists men to present as their own work.

Over the course of five years, from 1998 to 2003, Harriet then creates three pieces (“The History of Western Art,” “The Suffocation Rooms,” and “Beneath”), each of which she attributes to a different male artist. The first two installations do garner critical approval, but it is the third that proves to be a huge success, both commercially and critically. The piece’s advertised creator is a 24-year-old artist, a hunk who looks great and thrives in the public eye. When Harriet, using an alias (presenting herself as a male reviewer), “outs” herself as the true author of the work, angry reviewers and gallery owners refuse to believe her… and the young male artist dismisses her claim as well.

Harriet Burden is a woman who is often loud, who lectures and can come across as too aggressive. But she also has a big heart, over the years sheltering a number of street people in her own home. At 6-foot-2, she is a towering presence, prone to explosive rage when it comes to the critical indifference to her art. It is only after subordinating her own ambitions as the “perfect” daughter, wife, and mother that Harriet begins to truly turn into “Harry”. She even claims that her works take on a different quality when she creates the piece impersonating a man.

In this novel Harriet Burden wears many masks, and the glimpses into her diaries reveal a complex personality, obviously creative and intellectual, but also often crippled by self-doubt despite her aggressive public persona. The Blazing World is a dazzling read, one that touches upon numerous subjects, including art history, philosophy, and even neurobiology. It is a novel that engages both the mind and the heart. The book’s title is well-chosen, for this story does blaze with the energy that creativity generates.

Did You Ever Have A Family / Bill Clegg

On the morning of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s life disappears in a sudden flash. A gas explosion in her home takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, June’s ex-husband, and Luke, her much younger boyfriend. June survives only because she happens to be outside when the explosion takes place. Unable to face the smoldering ruins of this tragedy, she flees her small Connecticut town to a roadside motel on the Pacific, where she withdraws into the room’s shell, cut off from almost all human contact.

While the gas explosion is never actually described, the events leading up to it and the ripple effect it causes are fully explored. June herself only appears in a handful of the book’s chapters. Instead of making her the story’s focus, Clegg broadens the canvas to show how this tragedy changed the lives of people who knew and loved those killed on that wedding day. This includes the parents of the fiancé, friends and neighbors, and the mother of Luke, June’s boyfriend. For me, Lydia Morey, Luke’s mother, proves to be this novel’s most interesting character. She is also the thread that unites the separate lives presented, and ultimately she becomes the knot of the story’s conclusion.

This is by no means a great novel. Clegg’s writing style is plain and direct. He lets his characters speak in their own vernacular, stripped of all poetic embellishment. Nonetheless, he succeeds in creating a community that rings true on the page by fully providing his characters’ complicated pasts. Detailing a small town’s secrets and whispers, he sympathetically weaves a tale of tragedy into one that concludes with hope and forgiveness rising like a phoenix from the ashes. In doing so, Did You Ever Have A Family proves to be a book difficult to set down.

Crucible Of War : The Seven Years’ War And The Fate Of Empire In British North America, 1754-1766

Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War is an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) account of the British and French battles in North America during the Seven Years’ War, which lasted from 1756 to 1763. This international war is better known here in America as the French and Indian War. Anderson’s purpose in this book is to show that the war played a major part in planting the seed and informing the American Revolution a decade later. Not only did it alter the relationship between the French, the English, and the Native American allies of those two warring parties, but more importantly, it caused a rift between the colonists and their mother country that would quickly widen in the years following England’s expulsion of the French from North America.

Before the Seven Years’ War, the British government had maintained a hands-off approach to the American Colonies, allowing them largely to run themselves. However, with the outbreak of war with France, the British leadership decided to focus on militarily defeating the French in North America. As Anderson ably proves, they succeeded only when, after a rocky start, they began to treat the American colonists as allies rather than subjects. Almost all of the Colonies were able to raise large armies that were crucial in aiding the British military. So too were the various Native Indian tribes who switched their allegiances to fight against the French.

While Britain emerged as an imperial power following the Seven Years’ War, the government was heavily in debt, having also helped to subsidize the armies of Frederick the Great of Prussia to engage the French on the Continent during the long years of war. In need of cash, the king and Parliament thought it only fair that the colonists should help to foot the expense of the war. The Americans thought otherwise. While the taxes were not particularly burdensome, the Colonies rose up in violent protest against their implementation. When it became clear to the British government that they could not enforce the legislation, the measures were quickly repealed. Despite this, their efforts at tougher governance had already caused the rise of new political parties in the Colonies, all intent on maintaining their right to control local affairs.

Also addressed in the book are the Indian Wars that erupted in the Ohio Valley region between the Native Americans and the colonists following the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. Settlers were rapidly beginning to encroach upon land granted to the tribes in treaties. The British government tried to stop the rampant land speculation, but only succeeded in causing the colonists to become more defiant and unruly. The frontier was just too tempting a morsel for those Americans (including George Washington) who saw the area as a get-rich scheme by stealing fertile Indian land to sell to settlers desperate for acreage. The war proved a bloody one, and while atrocities occurred on both sides, the colonists were clearly the invading force. Sadly, our forefathers had no qualms in ignoring treaties and the rights of the Native Indians.

The Seven Years’ War is often overlooked in the annals of American history and certainly unappreciated for the part it played in the American Revolution. Crucible of War masterfully recreates the time period and demonstrates the War’s importance in helping to steer the Colonies toward unity and independence from Great Britain. It is not an easy read, but certainly a rewarding one for anyone seeking a better understanding of this pivotal moment in our country’s history.

As a side note, this book reveals that the current politically conservative opposition against taxation has long roots going all the way back to the Colonial period. At times when reading Crucible of War, seeing how greedy the colonists could be, I could not help but feel some sympathy for the British government’s perspective back in the 1760s, trying to keep such a rowdy, ungrateful lot in line.

Just Kids / Patti Smith

Just Kids is a memoir of musician Patti Smith’s relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. It highlights a period in the late Sixties when they met in the streets of New York City and became each other’s pillar of strength. Young “bohemians” and nearly penniless, they pooled resources to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Mapplethorpe, even at this early point of his life, believed himself a gifted artist, and Smith remained a fervent believer in his talents through the ups and downs of their relationship.

Smith herself lacked a burning desire to pursue fame of any sort. It was Mapplethorpe who encouraged Smith to share her poetry and artwork with the greater world. For a good many years they were inseparable as a couple. In the end, it was his growing sexual involvement with other men that ended their relationship as lovers. However, they would remain soulmates and each other’s muses right up to Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989.

For anyone interested in the cultural underground unfolding in New York City during the late 1960’s into the 1970’s, this memoir will provide a fascinating snapshot. During their time together, Smith and Mapplethorpe had interactions with countless personalities: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sam Shepard, Andy Warhol and other Warhol superstars, as well as the quirky inhabitants of the Chelsea Hotel. Smith does a good job of capturing the energy that resulted from the mixture of the City’s leading intellectuals, drag queens, musicians, and the bohemian street people who swirled in and out her life while in Mapplethorpe’s company.

Strangely, it is Robert Mapplethorpe who proves to be the weakest part in this memoir. Smith is clearly enamored of his personality and gifts, and yet she failed to convinced me to feel the same. She barely touches upon the sadomasochistic imagery of his photographic work for which he is best remembered. Instead, she tries to present him as the kind prince in a fairy tale recreation of their time together. The picture she presents of him seems too pure, ignoring the warts of their complicated relationship.

That is beside the point I suppose. What Smith is trying to capture in his memoir is the innocence of youth, a time when it is easy to believe that fairy tales are indeed real. Personally, I found a later book by Smith, M Train, to be a more captivating story about her life following fame and fortune. But for anyone interested in Smith’s early growth as an artist and development as a songwriter and musician, Just Kids will be a book worth reading. A National Book Award winner, it proves that Robert Mapplethorpe’s belief in her writing ability was justified.

Benediction / Kent Haruf

During his lifetime, Kent Haruf published six novels and all of them present slices of life in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. In his first four novels it is difficult to identify the year, or even the exact decade in which the story takes place. Surprisingly, in Benediction, his fifth novel, there are numerous hints that the time period is shortly after 9/11. Even so, Haruf continues to focus primarily on the tiny (and occasionally major) changes in the lives of his characters in the insular world of Holt.

But even this remote community is not immune from the social changes taking place in America. There is a new minister who is upsetting his conservative congregation with his pacifist beliefs. A dying man is haunted by bittersweet memories of his estranged gay son. There is growing animosity between people on political issues. While these issues do play a small part in the book’s unfolding story, it is the day-to-day personal lives of three different families that Haruf masterfully presents in Benediction.

The novel centers on the family of Dad Lewis, an old man dying of cancer. He is considered an upright member of the community, but his strict beliefs have left him with a number of painful memories that are troubling him in his final days. His elderly wife is unable to care for him alone, and their daughter has returned from Denver to help support and nurse both parents. There are also family friends who rally around; a next-door neighbor and her eight year old granddaughter, and a widow of thirty years and her retired daughter who live on a farm outside of Holt.

Dad Lewis is an interesting character, and yet he is not someone I would call likable. It is the women who stand out in Benediction. I found myself admiring their strength and resiliency, and the bonds of friendship that unite them. There are several scenes in this novel so beautifully rendered that I found tears brimming in my eyes. One involves the women teaching the eight year old how to ride a bicycle. The other takes place on a hot summer day when the women and young girl decide to head out to the farm’s water tank for a swim, au naturel.

In all of his novels, Haruf captures the hopes and dreams that sustain life in a small town. For anyone who has appreciated his earlier novels, Benediction will not disappoint, even if the wider world does seem be intruding on the community. The author shows that, despite the travails and suffering that take place in Holt, it is the compassion and humanity of his characters that make the area worth visiting time after time.

After Rain / William Trevor

Published in 1996, After Rain is a collection of twelve short stories by the Irish author William Trevor. The title story deals with a woman who returns to a hotel in Venice that she visited yearly with her parents as a child. On this trip she was supposed to be accompanied by her boyfriend, but shortly beforehand he breaks off their relationship. It deals with the loneliness she feels revisiting the city alone, memories from past vacations there, and self-examination of what has brought her to this point in her life, a time when she expected to be visiting the city with her own children in tow.

Trevor is an economical writer, delivering in a handful of sentences what other writers struggle to condense into paragraphs. No matter how mundane the life he’s presenting, it is treated with respect and without editorial comment. These twelve stories all vary in theme and place, with a simplicity that belies the difficulty of creating such precise prose.

The story that stood out most to me was “Gilbert’s Mother,” in which a single mother fears that her mentally troubled adult son might be a serial killer. It chills, haunts, and provides no clear answer to whether her trepidation is justified. The longest tale, “Losing Ground,” visits the troubles in Northern Ireland and shows how political beliefs override even love for one’s own family members. “Marrying Damian” depicts a married couple struggling to accept their daughter’s love affair with a much older man, who just happens to be one of their best friends.

Trevor, who died in 2016, won numerous awards for the many novels, short stories, and plays he penned during his lifetime. But it is his short stories for which he will probably be best remembered, and After Rain’s finely crafted examples attest to a master at the peak of his craft.

One More Year : Stories / Sara Krasikov

Sara Krasikov’s first published stories appeared in The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly. One More Year, her debut collection, was published in 2008. Krasikov was born in the Ukraine and grew up in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and in the United States. Her upbringing plays a central role in the eight stories in this book. All illuminate the lives of immigrants to the United States, individuals who have scattered from the collapse of the Soviet empire.

These stories feature flawed characters willing to do whatever it takes to survive and get ahead in their new home, legal niceties be damned. Some are more personal, such as “Maia In Yonkers.” It is a heart breaking story of a widow from Tbilisi who has moved to the United States and left her son behind. When she can finally afford to pay for him to come for a visit, he is only interested in the things she can buy him; he has come to view her as merely the person who sends him gifts from America. Each story highlights the difficulty of adjusting to life in this country, and yet when a protagonist does return to their home country, it ultimately feels like foreign ground to them.

Krasikov captures the hope and despair of immigrants trying make their way in a world where the rules have totally changed. They often resort to “age old” con games, simply to survive. These characters, despite their imperfections and follies, are presented in a sympathetic light. Even if they are tainted with a whiff of foreignness, they come across fully formed and recognizable as people worth caring about.