Tag Archives: literature

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

17707526Teenage heroine? Check. Desperate love story? Check. Rural scenes combining cruelty and desperation? Check. Urban/suburban neighborhoods hiding corrupt underbellies? Check.

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee hits the markers for many modern tales of dystopia, but this is no Hunger Games. There’s no obvious villain, and little opportunity for salvation or revolution.

The heroine of this tale is Fan, a fish farm tank diver, abruptly leaves the city of B-Mor, formerly Baltimore, when her boyfriend Reg disappears. Fan does the unthinkable and leaves the relative safety of B-Mor, now a labor colony resettled by Chinese, and heads into the counties. Counties are the seemingly lawless and ungoverned areas outside of the labor colonies and Charter villages, where the privileged classes live.

Fan’s journey to find Reg takes her through the counties into the hands of Quig, and then into slavery at the hands of the very disturbed Miss Cathy. Fan gets closer to her goal of finding Reg as she is reunited with her brother, Oliver, and becomes part of his family group in the Charter village of Seneca.

Lee’s writing is beautiful. Phrases and images dance into thoughts, all told by a mysterious narrator who is somehow privy to the private events of Fan’s life.

We watch ourselves routinely brushing our teeth, or coloring the wall, or blowing off the burn from a steaming yarn of soup noodles, and for every moment there is a companion moment that elides onto it, a secret span that deepens the original’s stamp. We feel ever obliged by everyday charges and tasks. They conscript us more and more. We find world enough in a frame. Until at last we take our places at the wheel, or wall, or line, having somewhere forgotten that we can look up.

 

In this short paragraph, Lee evokes the confines of a life, how that life feels, and then ties it to an overarching theme of this novel, self-imprisonment by blind acceptance.

Fan is the only character who does not accept her role and place. Reg’s disappearance is the catalyst for her leaving B-Mor and rejecting her role, but Fan has vever quite fit in in B-Mor. Is is her petite, otherworldly appearance? Perhaps it is her unassuming and unintentional charm, which helps her navigate the scary world of the counties, and then the striated, bureaucratic world of the Charter village, whose threats are just as real as the counties, but better fed and more attractive.

Whatever sets Fan apart is not noisy or revolutionary. Her resistance is through quiet determination and adapting to her current situation before making her mark. The narrator says of her, “Nor was she chosen, at last, to lead anyone but herself.”

Fan’s journey to Reg is her private revolution, which the people of B-Mor then appropriate. After Fan leaves, B-Mor is graffiti tagged with images of Fan and Reg, simple images, then more abstract. of the graffiti, the narrator says:

They are eventually whitewashed or papered over, and if the individual expressions won’t permanently linger in our minds, the ready regeneration of them does, this irrepressible urge.

Lee does not wrap up Fan’s story tidily. There’s no crowning of a winner; governments are not overthrown. The reader cannot even be sure if she found Reg. What we are left with is an uneasy feeling, wondering if Fan’s world could be ours.

I read this novel for a book group – I had never even heard of the author before this novel was chosen. It’s not a flashy adventure dystopian story, but more of a scary future, most comparable to The Handmaid’s Tale. Like other memorable dystopian stories, Lee takes aspects of our own culture and takes them to an extreme, creating a world that is eerily similar to ours, but perverted.

On Such a Full Sea takes our culture’s increasing stratification and institutionalizes it. People of privilege live in the protected Charter villages, workers are confined to urban labor facilities, and outsiders and rejects are relegated to the counties, where lawlessness and cruelty are the norm. The chance to be “chartered” is dangled before the laborers, while the Chartered communities turn out to be just as lawless as the counties. It’s a frightening world picture, made even more so by the very small consolation of Fan’s escape.

This is a terrific novel, but not for the easily depressed.

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The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

12401556I heard an interview with Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles and was immediately intrigued. The premise of her novel sounded fantastic – the earth’s rotation starts to slow, making the days and nights progressively longer. What would happen? How would people react?

Walker tells her story through Julia, an eleven-going-on-twelve middle school girl who finds herself lost and lonely at the start of the “Slowing.” Julia loses her best friend – ultimately caused by the slowing – and struggles to cope with changes at school and at home.

I wanted to be swept away, and I wanted to care about Julia. But I found myself distracted by Walker’s language and word choice. Peculiar metaphors did nothing to elucidate the character’s feelings. There were endless repetitions of “I remember” and “that was the last time I saw or did x.” Then there were the carefully crafted phrases that made me think Walker was hoping to make the next edition of Bartlett’s.

When I wasn’t distracted by the text, I realized that this was a fairly traditional coming of age tale, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We need to hear these stories. The journey of growing up is a journey we all take, and hearing a fictional tale about growing up can help us process our own experience. Through the lens of Walker’s imaginative setting, Julia’s life journey unfolds.

I felt that Walker’s catastrophe “The slowing” was fascinating in its ramifications. The death of all plant life, the erosion of the earth’s magnetic field, the birds dying en masse and people suffering from “gravity sickness” are all part of the slowing. But frankly, any sort of disaster could have been the catastrophe that compels Julia to tell her story.

I was also disappointed in Julia’s development. She’s a lonely girl at the start of the book, and seems to be a lonely woman at the end. While she shares a special friendship with Seth Moreno, at the conclusion of the story, I don’t think Julia was changed by this friendship. In fact, I don’t think Julia changes much at all, which is a shame. The melancholy girl without confidence or hope has become a woman without much hope whose mother says that she dwells too much on the past.

While I was not wowed by this book, I do enjoy a genre bending novel that stretches your genre muscles. Science fiction, dystopia, family drama, and middle school angst – this novel defies classification.

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Homage? or Parody?

The QuincunxMay I introduce you to the book that took me three weeks to read?

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser is a hefty doorstop of a book, weighing in at 787 pages in the 1989 edition. It’s big book, almost 3 pounds of paper.

It’s not just big in a physical sense. It’s an ambitious work that was a first novel for Palliser, a bestseller and winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction (source: Wikipedia). The plot is intricate, the settings are naturalistic, and the characters entertaining. This novel is frequently compared to the works of Charles Dickens, and it’s easy to see why.

The main character, who tells most of the story, is John Huffam, a plucky boy who is the hidden heir to a rich estate in the English countryside. A complicated estate entail, a missing will, and a strange codicil to this will have led John’s mother to hide him away in the countryside, living under an assumed name. One day, their home is burgled, disrupting this quiet anonymous life, and setting into motion a series of events that change their lives forever.

John and his mother escape to London after their small fortune is swindled away by their enemies, and they spiral into a life of poverty and ruin in the London slums. After John’s mother passes away, tragically, John must fend for himself. John is frequently an unwitting pawn of his enemies, but sometimes the instigator of plots and plans himself.

The missing will is a central plot point, and John goes undercover at the home of the current estate holder, the Mompessons, working as a scullery boy in order to discover the will’s hiding place. John solves a puzzle – in the shape of a quincunx –  and recovers the will. Which is then lost again, through deception.

Another key plot piece is the murder of John’s grandfather. Who actually killed the old man? Was there a plot, or was it just madness?

The novel is wonderfully complex, and can be difficult to follow. About halfway through the novel, I realized that my complete understanding of the plot and what John believes about the plot were not necessary to enjoy the novel. After all, every time I (or John) had the family relationships figured out, or realized who it was that wanted John dead, new information was revealed that made my understanding false. After this happened a few times, I set aside my strong “need to know” and just enjoyed the plot turnings.

Palliser divided this novel into five parts (like a quincunx), each named for a different branch of the intertwined families. With each section, there is a genealogical chart. As the novel progresses, the chart becomes more detailed in each section. It’s a wonderful piece of detail that I really enjoyed, and used to help my developing understanding of the relationships. The maps of London, also included at the beginning of each section, were also interesting and a great reference while reading.

Like Dickens’ novels, The Quincunx features a plucky orphan finding his way, shady London villains, and many happy – or unfortunate – coincidences. And like Dickens’ novel Bleak House, The Quincunx features a will destined for Chancery Court. In my opinion, Palliser has out-Dickens old Boz in this novel. The plot is complicated to the point of absurdity. The villain Barney Digweed makes Bill Sykes look tame, and the put upon and ruined Miss Quilliam, is more desperately used than any Nancy.

So while Palliser has taken these elements so familiar to the novels of Dickens – the orphan, the inheritance, the villains – and taken them to the next level, I don’t think he is fully parodying Dickens. Palliser’s tone is always sincere, even in the pompous omnisciently narrated sections of the novel. Palliser has created a gentle parody, that is more of an homage to Dickens than any kind of satire.

Reading a novel like The Quincunx was a commitment. I am the kind of reader that usually has a few books going at the same time, but to fully appreciate this book I had to suspend that practice for a while and just focus on this novel. I would recommend this very highly to fans of Dickens – and recommend it less so if you are not a fan.

 

 

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Hunger and Responsibility: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Quite possibly the most gross-out scenes I’ve ever read happened within the pages of this novel, Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver. Disgusting and horrifying, funny yet excruciating, Shriver doesn’t shy away from showing the reader the consequences of morbid obesity. Shriver wrote this novel as a response to events in her own life. Her older brother, whom Shriver has described as being a “genius,” was morbidly obese, and died of a heart attack at age 55. Big Brother is dedicated to him. But calling Big Brother a novel about obesity doesn’t begin to describe this book.

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Shriver uses obesity as a pathway to explore familial relationships and responsibility. How far would you go to “save” a sibling who has “buried himself in himself?’ Would you sacrifice your marriage, relationships with your children and friends to devote yourself to a sibling’s overwhelming needs? Are we truly our brother’s keeper?

That’s the decision the main character of Pandora confronts. Her brother Edison, whom she idolized, visits Pandora and her family. He’s down on his luck, couch surfing in New York City. He also has gained more than 200 pounds since the last time Pandora saw him. A jazz pianist, Edison punctuates his conversation with annoying, jarring “hep” talk – heavy cats, ya dig, man? He’s overbearing, obnoxious, and eating them out of the house. Plus, Pandora’s husband Fletcher, cycling nut and food Nazi, can’t stand him. It doesn’t help that Edison breaks one of Fletcher’s fanciful furniture creations. The visit is a trial for the whole family – Pandora, Fletcher, and Fletcher’s two teenage kids from a previous marriage.

Pandora faces her responsibilities to her brother when the visit comes to an end. Does she put him on a plane, knowing he has nowhere to live, no gigs lined up, and few friends left? Pandora proposes a private weight loss clinic to Edison. She’ll be his coach, plan his weight loss and stick with him until he’s down to his normal weight. This project will require living apart from her family – Fletcher will not have Edison in the house any longer than his planned visit – and this threatens Pandora and Fletcher’s marriage, and Pandora’s relationship with her stepchildren.

The characters in this novel are not especially likable. Fletcher and Edison are both obnoxious and self-righteous, convinced of their superiority and their claim on Pandora. I found Pandora fascinating. While claiming to avoid the spotlight, she has managed to run two successful businesses, the most recent a novelty toy company featured in national publications. Her musings on her relationships and how much is owed to family members was fascinating. Pandora neglects her younger sister, yet feels a strong duty to her step children. And Edison’s obesity throws her sense of responsibility into overdrive, jeopardizing her marriage.

Shriver seems to be pulling the novel into a tidy happy package, and then upends it all. I won’t reveal the ending here…

Shriver sums up so many themes in this quote from near the end of the novel:

However gnawing a deficiency, satiety is worse… We are meant to be hungry.

Indulging that hunger to the point of obesity is dangerous. Indulging a sense of responsibility to the point of sacrificing other relationships is also dangerous.

Shriver, while using obesity to explore familial relationship, also explores contemporary thoughts and perceptions of obesity. Pandora mulls over society’s stereotypes of the obese and the slim. Are thin people joyless self deniers? Are the obese lacking in character strength? Shriver can be heavy handed, but I’ll forgive her “hunger” to impart her hard earned lessons about family and obesity.

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On Lists. And How Very French.

I confess to a list obsession. I make lists, I read lists, I check things off lists. The list I try very much to NOT get too obsessed with is Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. First published in 2006, the list – and book – was compiled by Peter Boxall, a professor of English at Sussex University. The original list was extremely Anglocentric, and has been revised twice, with adjustments to the list to include more world literature. This list is very easy to find – there’s a listology list,  a goodreads lists via listology where goodreads users can vote for their favorites, and even an app you can purchase from the iTunes store. And of course, there are blog posts to read, spreadsheets to download, and pinterest boards to follow.

I confess to another thing: I purchased the 1001 books app. And according to the app, if I really, truly, want to finish the list before I die (at a projected age of 81), I need to get cracking. In order to finish the list by my anticipated death, I need to read 3 of the 1001 books per month. No pressure.

2967752This month, I can check one book off the list: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. This French novel was first published in 2006, and the first English edition was released in 2008. The novel received a number of awards in France, and was well received internationally. The New York Times reviewed it very favorably in 2008. (read the review here.) I found a copy at my favorite used book sale, and it has been sitting on my shelf of “to read” books for almost a year. When it came my turn to choose a book for my Awesome book group, I seized the opportunity to check this one off the list.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog first struck me as being very, very French. Firstly, the main characters live rich internal lives without a lot of drama. Renee, the concierge of a Parisian apartment building, is a closet intellectual that hides her true self. Renee camouflages herself by blaring television programs and wafting the scent of boiled cabbage into the lobby of the building, while she enjoys tea and Tolstoy behind the door of her loge.

Paloma, the other main character, is a twelve year old genius, also hides her true self from her family and schoolmates. Paloma tells her story through her journal of Profound thoughts, and in the reader’s first encounter with Paloma, she reveals that she intends to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.

The novel is told in alternating voices, Renee and Paloma taking turns with the story. The two characters make observations on class and culture, art and beauty, and skewer most of the world around them for their hypocrisy and stupidity. Their essays continue in this vein to the point where I started to get a bit bored, frankly. There’s only so much free standing philosophy I can read without becoming impatient.

Finally, Renee and Paloma meet. On page 244. Again, how French to have a lengthy narrative on parallel paths, finally connecting the two characters well into the action.  Finally, the reader starts to see the glimmerings of a plot. Connecting Paloma and Renee is the character of Ozu, an older Japanese gentleman who moves into the apartment building.

I loved the mutual admiration of French and Japanese culture in this novel. Renee enjoys Japanese film, Ozu obviously is enmeshed in French culture. Ozu is able to see past Renee’s self imposed peasant facade, and befriends her. He introduces Renee to Japanese cuisine, and more importantly, gives her permission to be herself, which is a lovely message.

I won’t reveal the ending here. I will just say that it was a surprise, and while disappointing in terms of character development, it resolved the plot.

I was very satisfied,  checking this novel off  the list in my 1001 Books app. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to read all 1001 before I die, but I’ll enjoy trying!

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Taking the Oath: Visiting the Bodleian Library

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This summer, I had the good fortune to take a day trip into Oxford and visit a good friend. After cappuccinos, a good stroll through a street market, and lunch, we did what your average bibliophiles would do while in Oxford.

We went to the Bodleian Library. My friend and I wanted to see the latest exhibition, Magical Books. This little exhibit is a fantasy reader’s dream.

Magical Books is an exhibit of original art and manuscripts of some of the most beloved fantasy texts of the past century. Narnia, Middle Earth, and Camelot are all well represented. The featured writers are informally known as the “Oxford School,” and include Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman as well as J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

For me, seeing Tolkien’s original artwork from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was thrilling. I have loved these books since I first read them as a child, and the old Ballantine paperbacks that I owned used Tolkien’s art for the covers. The originals were familiar, yet fresh, and I am so glad I was able to see them.

Alan Gardiner is another featured author in Magical Books. American readers like me are not as familiar with his work, but his  books are well-loved by British children. My husband Nick has lovingly saved a few favorites of Gardiner’s from his childhood. Perhaps they will finally make it onto my reading list this year. One of the most lovingly created artifacts in Magical Books is Gardiner’s handiwork, a calligraphic rendering of the inscription that legend has was put on King Arthur’s tomb:

Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus

Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be

Magical Books is open until October 27, 2013.

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When Books Collide: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho

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Have you ever read a book and have it make a kind of crazy convergence with another book you just read? This just happened to me, and I’m finding the contrasts and the comparisons between the two books have made the reading experience richer, and more thought provoking.

Last week, I read/listened to Manuscript Found in Accra by the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho. I’ll be honest, my hopes were not high for this book. I had read The Alchemist a few years ago and it did not appeal to me at all. Modern allegorical tales like The Alchemist and Jonathan Livingston Seagull leave me cold and unmoved. But I have so many friends whose insight I value that have enjoyed Coelho’s writing , so I was willing to give him another try.

Sadly, Manuscript Found in Accra was not my kind of book. It was a sermonizing bore. The central figure of the book, the Copt, lectures and takes questions from his audience of citizens of Jerusalem, as they await the invasion of a crusader army. The audience is a group of Muslims, Jews, Christians, men and women, who ask vague questions about loneliness, beauty, and love, and the Copt answers in long, tedious philosophizing detail. Not my taste.

Geraldine Brooks’ novel People of the Book  I read closely on the heels of Accra. People of the Book tells the fictional history of a real manuscript – the Sarajevo Haggadah – through the lives of the people that come in contact with the book. Brooks tells the history of the book both backwards and forwards, through the conservator that repairs the book in war torn Sarajevo, and the men and women who created the 16071938book, and protected the book through the countless pogroms and exoduses of modern Europe.

Here’s where the books collide.  Manuscript Found in Accra waxes poetic about medieval Jerusalem, how it was a welcoming place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims were neighbors and lived together peaceably. The audience listening to the Copt is this mixed group of people, listening to the wise man together. I don’t know how accurate this picture of Jerusalem is, but I can tell you that it didn’t feel real when reading it.

People of the Book shows the reader religious conflict in abundance. Muslims, Christians, Jews are constantly on tenterhooks when dealing with each other, dancing around propriety and predjuce in a constantly shifting balance of power. But the book, this precious, beautifully illustrated book, gives the characters a common ground in their desire to preserve and protect it. Jews, Muslims, and Christians all conspire to save the book.

That felt true. People of different faiths – or no faith at all – coming together to preserve an object of beauty.

I think if I hadn’t read Accra just before People of the Book, I would not have appreciated the idealistic viewpoints of either book. Both books present the idealistic view that people of different faiths can live together and prosper through that life. However, People of the Book demonstrates this through the collective acts of compassion that the characters show to each other in order to save the book. Manuscript Found in Accra simply shows the nameless, multi-faithed audience, listening raptly to the Copt.

For me, the cliché – actions speak louder than words – held true.

 

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