I am off to Michigan to visit family. I will be reading but not posting. See you next week!
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden, Del Rey, 2017, 312 pp
I have been wanting to read this since it was first published early last year. Sometimes I just get a feeling about a book and when that happens I am usually right. This is a big fairy tale of a novel, set in medieval Russia where winters are long and icy, where summers are short but glorious, where women have only two options: marriage or convent.
The story opens on a dreary and damp March night. Though Pyotr Vladimirovich is considered a wealthy land owner, the food choices are down to black bread and fermented cabbage, all noses are running, and chilblains are aching. But the oven is warm and Dunya, the family nanny, is about to tell the story of Frost, the frost demon, the winter king.
The stage is thus set for a time when Christianity was in competition with the ancient gods and folk tales, when a woman like Marina, wife of Pyotr and mother of four children, decides to risk one more pregnancy. Once a princess in Moscow, she had been married off to Pyotr at the behest of the Church because she had certain powers they feared.
Marina carried her baby to term but died after naming the girl Vasilisa, who grew up to love the forests, to be able to see and communicate with the household spirits, and who would not be quelled, ever. Not by Dunya, who raised here, not by her father's second wife, and not by the priest who arrived at the village determined to "save" the villagers from the blasphemy of beliefs in the old gods.
It is a wonderful tale complete with a magical horse reminiscent of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale and throbbing with Vasilisa's courage and unquenchable demand for freedom. I was also reminded of Marina from Janet Fitch's The Revolution of Marina M, as well as The Night Circus and Naomi Novik's Uprooted. Also The Mists of Avalon because of the conflicts between Christianity and the old beliefs.
I think it takes a special kind of writer to handle magic well in an adult novel. Katherine Arden has proven to me that she is special in that way and I am thrilled to know The Bear and the Nightingale is the first of a trilogy, I want to spend more time with Vasilisa.
The other day the Tiny Book Club sat in the tiny house of one of our members to share a luncheon and discuss the book. We delved into many aspects of life, past and present, recalling the fairy tales and myths we knew, as we watched a hummingbird circle the new feeder our hostess had recently hung in a tree outside her front wall of windows. The bird never landed on the feeder, but continued to approach it from all angles, then fly away. As though it were not used to a vial of sugar water set out by a human instead of the flowers growing in the beautiful and magical yard. It seemed appropriate.
(The Bear and the Nightingale is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
Friday, May 11, 2018
Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult, Ballantine Books, 2016, 458 pp
Every time I read a Jodi Picoult novel, I vow never to read her again. Several of The Bookie Babes, one of my reading groups, like her books and that is how I came to break my vow. I must admit she did not annoy me as much this time, the more surprising because I also have a gripe about white people who write books about African Americans.
Ruth Jefferson, a 20 year veteran of nursing women through labor and delivery at a small Connecticut hospital, gets thrown under the bus by that hospital after an infant death. Ruth is an African American who has, through opportunity and hard work, made a good life for herself and her son. The infant's parents are white supremacists who have requested that no African American personnel touch their baby.
After a series of unfortunate events during a double shift, Ruth loses her job and finds herself on trial for murder. Her lawyer is a female, white public defender. The prosecuting attorney is a female, African American and just right now I cannot remember how the white supremacist parents ended up with a Black lawyer. That was improbable number one in the book for me and a typical Picoult move.
We get the back stories of Ruth the nurse and of the parents of the dead baby. We also learn about the public defender's personal life. Twists and turns, plenty of Picoult style info dumping from her research and a somewhat sketchy finale to the murder trial fill in the other trademarks of this author.
I will allow that Jodi Picoult is a skilled writer of page-turning, issue-filled novels. Easy to read, compelling, just juicy enough, with a good grasp of American life in our times. I also decided, with some help from Roxane Gay's review in the New York Times, that a white author has probably got a better chance of reaching a white readership who might never read James Baldwin or even Toni Morrison and other excellent writers of color. So that is a good thing; another pathway for white people to find out what it is like to be Black in America.
(Small Great Things is currently available in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
Thursday, May 10, 2018
You Only Live Twice, Ian Fleming, New American Library, 1964, 218 pp
This was the last James Bond novel written fully by Ian Fleming. Any Bond novel published after 1964 was either finished by editors or written by other authors. It took the #8 spot on the 1964 bestseller list.
I did not know this when I began to read the book. I saw most of the movies over the years but the only other Bond book I have read is On Her Majesty's Secret Service, back in February. Everything about You Only Live Twice is so different from the other book that I wondered if I was reading the same author.
007 was in a slump after the tragedy that ended On Her Majesty's Secret Service. He had flubbed a few missions and was clearly off his game. M, Bond's boss, decided to shake up his spy and revitalize him by sending the man on an "impossible mission" to Japan. (Is that the origin of the name for the Mission Impossible series?)
Off James went to meet up with the head of the Japanese Secret Service, where he proceeded to languish as he learned Japanese culture. It was literally more than halfway through the book before he saw any action. The mission finally started at about 50 pages from the end. So different, though Bond did finally annihilate his old enemy, Ernst Stavro, in a thrilling and dangerous sequence.
Now that I have combed the internet for background and learned that Fleming died just a few months after the book was released, it makes more sense. The author was giving his summing up, complete with deep philosophical questions about life, love, and happiness. Or was he? The last chapter implies that Bond has a few more adventures. Perhaps he meant to provide a hand off to those franchise authors who would take over? Curious.
(You Only Live Twice is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
Monday, May 07, 2018
Herzog, Saul Bellow, The Viking Press, 1964, 371 pp
In Saul Bellow's sixth novel, I met Moses Herzog, another one of this author's unique male characters. The book hit the #3 spot on the bestseller list for 1964 and won the National Book Award in 1965.
I wasn't sure I was in the mood for a Bellow novel because he demands quite a lot from his readers, but as soon as I was a few pages in, I recognized his familiar voice and we were off.
Moses Herzog is a middle-aged intellectual who has just been divorced by his second wife. He is in a state, hurt, angry, defeated and full of self doubt. He has been cuckolded by a man he considered a friend, he is out of money and the great work of his writing career has become meaningless to him due to his anguish.
Throughout the book he writes unsent letters to all manner of people, including God, trying to explain how he sees things. In actuality he is trying to explain his life and his place in it to himself.
If this sounds like a book in search of a plot, it sometimes is, especially in the somewhat sagging middle section, but it is about a journey through despair. Despair can cause plenty of sagging.
I felt for Herzog in his manic attempts to outrun the madness he has fallen into, especially because his actions are bound to bring more trouble down on his head. That perception of being misunderstood to the point of doubting one's sanity has happened to most people at some point, but most people cannot write about it like Saul Bellow.
I worried for the man that he might take himself beyond some point from which he could not come back. Yet, in those letters he kept writing I could sense that the cold brilliance of his intellect was always aware of the people and society around him, of his options, and of himself. Since I am a person who regularly attempts to think my way out of problems, I could relate.
Perhaps this is not a novel for everyone though I cannot imagine anyone who ventures into it not being brought under its spell. It is not about being wordy, as so many "serious" writers seem to think. It is about the power of his words, the storm of emotion. He can capture on the page the way most of us feel on both our best and worst days.
(Herzog is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
Friday, May 04, 2018
Reading groups are light this month with only three scheduled. The books selected range from a fairy tale inspired book set in medieval Russia, a romance in Havana, and a non-fiction account of drugs and violence in Los Angeles. Here we go!
Tiny Book Club:
One Book At A Time:
What are your reading groups discussing in May? Do you have any titles to recommend?
Wednesday, May 02, 2018
Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones, Algonquin Books, 2011, 340 pp
This novel was a reading group pick suggested by me. We discussed it until the restaurant where we meet closed and they kicked us out. It is so good and will be on my Top 25 Books Read in 2018.
Set in Atlanta, GA, it is a story of two half-sisters whose father is a bigamist. James Witherspoon married Laverne when he accidentally made her pregnant. She was 14, James was 16. The baby died a few hours after a tough delivery. Ten years later James and Laverne had a daughter named Chaurisse who grew up in a house with her parents.
Unbeknownst to his wife and daughter, James had met and impregnated Gwendolyn, who had a daughter named Dana. She maneuvered James into also marrying her, across the state line in Alabama. Gwen did not want her child to be illegitimate.
Now James was a bigamist and while Gwen and Dana knew about his other family, Laverne and Chaurisse had no idea a second household existed. James came once a week for dinner with Gwen and Dana. As the girls grew up, James became a successful owner of a limousine service and could afford financial aide to Gwen, with whom he continued a sexual relationship.
All of these people were Black. Gwen worked as a nurse, in fact she worked as hard as any single mom has to work. For relaxation and recreation, she and Dana would engage in "surveillance," spying on the other family, so Dana grew up aware of her father's other life and of her half-sister. She was forbidden to have any contact with Chaurisse, but that restriction broke down when the two girls were in high school and met one day.
Another twist to this tale is that Laverne and Chaurisse were plain, chunky females while Gwen and Dana were beautiful, slim and blessed with long flowing hair. Hair is a large issue. In the 1980s Black women had exciting options when it came to hair: chemical straightening, extensions, hair pieces, etc. The natural afro of the 60s and 70s was out. Laverne ran a beauty shop in her home and Chaurisse, as her wash and set assistant, learned all the tricks, while Gwen and Dana enjoyed their naturally straight, soft and flowing hair.
The whole story with its many twists, secrets, and longings is just about perfectly told as far as I am concerned. The reading group concurred, every member. There is much humor, thank goodness, and wonderful period detail as well as 1980s history, effortlessly well written sex scenes among both adults and teens, but enough tragedy to break the hardest heart.
It was amazing how the author made James a sympathetic character. All four of those females hungered for his love but in the end, after what amounts to a big catastrophe, one wife and daughter win, while the other two lose.
Just read it!
(Silver Sparrow is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)