Sunday, November 30, 2008

Toni Morrison/A MERCY


In 1690, a farmer dies of pox. He is survived by the English wife he ordered by mail and by their three servant/slaves: a Native American woman, a white woman, and a black teenage girl. In a brief and characteristically sensual narrative, Toni Morrison creates thumbnail sketches of eight lives brought together in infant America, all products of different desperations. Their interactions are a reimagining of American history at a peculiar formative moment, when slavery and race still had broad definitions, and when social advantages were random and fluid.

I purchased my copy of this book at a reading during which Toni Morrison was asked, "When do your readers disappoint you?" Her answer to this uncomfortable question: "When they expect a quick and happy ending." There should be, she went on, no need for a clean ending. "I like ambiguity and ambivalence in the mind of the reader after the last page." Furthermore, fiction should be "not knowledge but imagination and insight."*

All these things put forth as caveats, I want to treat this review as I would have if I hadn't heard her say those things. This novel is so rich in provocative themes that each section had me itching to know more, more about each character's situation, back story, and character. The chapters are lush and impressionistic, full of Morrison's trademark language, and the characters (from the short glimpses we get of them) are very interesting personalities.

But for the cast of characters and the issues tackled--settlement, slavery, religion, indentured servitude, the elimination of the Native Americans, rape, race, the systematic oppression of females, child loss, to name some--the book was short. Frustratingly, the story lines introduced in the short chapters weren't revisited or explored. As it is, the thumbnail sketches of the characters were a little too thin to to satisfy, and, honestly, a little bit stagnant. In this way, it reminded me of Gentlemen of the Road--a fascinating topic in the hands of a master writer that fails to hit the spot because it is too short and underdeveloped.

I appear to be in the minority on this book, since every review I've read has been nothing short of worshipful. I would still absolutely recommend A Mercy, because it is a tantalizing read. I hope that it will spawn interest in that period of American history and perhaps inspire other period fictions for me to read down the line.

*NYPL, 11/12/2008

David Wroblewski//THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE

Edgar lives with his mother and father on a hundred-acre piece of land in Wisconsin. They earn their living by breeding dogs. Edgar's father is passionate about finding intelligent dogs and crossing them into the line he's developed. Edgar is mute, but he can hear. He communicates with the dogs by signing. The dogs in this story are truly incredible.

Edgar's father dies, and it isn't until months pass that Edgar begins to suspect that his uncle had a role in the death. The uncle has insinuated his way into their lives, which Edgar deeply resents. He begins to see the ghost of his father, and believes he is being given messages from him.

When Edgar tries to prove his uncle's guilt through a scheme with the dogs, it backfires. He flees into the woods with three of the dogs he has raised and trained. They survive by pillaging food from abandoned cabins, until one day a generous and lonely man, Henry, takes them in. After staying with Henry a while, Edgar comes to realize he has to go back and face his mother, and the uncle he suspects of killing his father.

Up until this point in the book, I was enthralled. The prose is simply beautiful. Some may say that the setting descriptions go on too long, but not me. Every sentence is a work of art. I felt as if I was in the story. The author gives the reader a complete sensory experience. It's a character-driven book, the kind I gravitate toward, and the voice is sublime. I think the author took a course from Richard Russso? I have to check this. But if you like Russo's style, you will like Wroblewski's style. Very much.


**spoiler alert**


Edgar does come home, and after a series of unbelievable circumstances, ends up poisoned by his uncle and engulfed in flames in the barn. Ummm..... This is stupid. The dogs follow a mythic-dog creature (a character in the book) into the woods. I mean, give me a break. I don't mind that our 14 year old hero dies (okay, I do, but still), the ending was almost science fiction. The last twenty pages ruined it for me. The motivations of the uncle (Claude) were never really brought out. And there was a thread about ghosts and apparitions that I thought could've been more strongly developed.

I really liked this book, but the ending subtracts from the experience. Is it meant to be like a modern American Hamlet? I don't know. But that ending. Geesh!

Friday, November 28, 2008

"The Given Day" - Dennis Lehane


*Wave*... hello. I'm Kristin, a new reviewer for The Book Book. I believe books and cocktails make a rounded, rewarding life, and luckily MoonRat agrees with me (at least the book part). My reading goals have varied from 150 books in year to a dedication to all of the banned novels. You can read more about my past stories at Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner.

****

Dennis Lehane shows amazing versatility in his new novel, The Given Day. While it is no Mystic River, it is also not Gone Baby Gone. He has elevated his writing to near "liter-ahry" greatness.

Boston, 1918. Danny Coughlin works his police beat with dreams of getting his gold badge through hard work and the help of his infamous father, Thomas Coughlin. He lives with Italians, minds his Irish roots, and busts Bolsheviks.

Tulsa, 1918. Luther Lawrence is trying to make something of his new life with a wife and baby on the way. However, there is only so much that Tulsa offers black Americans besides his job as an elevator operator, but Luther's choices send him all the way to Boston to live a life on the lam.

Lehane weaves the stories of these two men with historical elements like the molasses flood, outbreak of Spanish flu, and Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox. As a teacher and writer, I dissected his chapters to try to find out what made the heart beat. It's simple, really... have an eye for stunning juxtapositions between fact and fiction and have an ear for incredibly realistic dialogue. However, as a reader, I just devoured this book in a day and a half. Gulp. Yum.

4.5 out of 5.0 Boston Golds.

Gish Jen/MONA IN THE PROMISED LAND

In 1968 in New York-area suburbia, Mona Chang decides to become a Jew. This news does not go down well with her parents, Chinese immigrants who run a pancake shop and can't understand Mona's desire to be Jewish anymore than they can understand their older daughter Callie's desire to be more Chinese. But perhaps the worst repercussion of Mona's conversion is that it attracts the attention of a college-dropout psuedo-intellectual named Seth, who is desperately beguiled by what he perceives as Mona's radical desire to thwart the establishment. Over one confusing and character-building summer, Mona, Seth, Mona's friend Barbara, Callie, Callie's roommate Naomi, Barbara's cousin Evie, Mona's parent's restaurant's cook Alfred, and a whole bunch of other people have a whole lot of adventures and misadventures in Suburbia. During a summer when race and race relations are the country's biggest news, Chinese, Black, Wasp, and Jewish must decide whether they like one another, how much, and why.

I liked this book, particularly for the writing. Gish Jen is a relentlessly original writer, and one of the charms about the book is the language of the narration, which mimics something between the second-language English an immigrant might speak and hallmarks of American Jewish Language, which I thought was terribly clever of her. Mona is also the kind of sixteen-year-old you can't help but wish you had been, with enough presence of mind and mouth to talk back smartly to people and a set of over-thought values that lead her into familiar shenanigans.

I did think, however, that an awful lot was tackled in this book, maybe more than the premise could comfortably contain, and there were times when I felt like I was reading more of a fable or a satire than a novel. The race conversations came on strong and many and were a little hard for me to read, and the ending made me a little sad. I'm glad I read it, but I do wish it had been a little less densely packed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stephen Mansfield/THE FAITH OF BARACK OBAMA


A fascinating study of the factors that have influenced the faith of the president elect. Mansfield discusses Obama's Muslim stepfather and humanist mother, his radical pastor at Trinity Church, his conversion to Christianity, and his self-proclaimed doubts about some tenets of his religion.

Mansfield illuminates the reason for Obama's skeptical approach to his Christian faith by explaining how Obama's mother taught him to respect all religions--but not subscribe to any. (Obama, however, became a Christian as an adult). Mansfield further shows how Obama's post-modern approach to faith, his "picking and choosing" of which parts of Christianity to embrace, has not only connected with young voters but has also provided a basis for Obama's approach to the intersection of church and state.

Readers will probably be most interested in the chapter about Obama's pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, a church Obama attended for over twenty years. Jeremiah Wright became a controversial figure in the media for condemning his country, and Obama ultimately left the church and spoke out against his pastor's statements. Mansfield takes an in-depth look at the character and teachings of Wright in order to shed light on why Obama first considered Wright a mentor and later left Wright's church.

Vague wording and convoluted sentence structure make some sections of this book difficult to follow, but its study of the many contradictions (belief and doubt, detachment and community) that forged Obama's faith is well-executed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rajaa Alsanea/GIRLS OF RIYADH

An anonymous female internet user sends highly controversial emails every Friday to a mushrooming group of Saudi readers. In the emails, she recounts the adventures of four of her friends, all upper-crust urban girls in their late teens, who are on the cusp of pursuing marriages and/or university degrees. The anonymous blogger broaches ideas of love, heartbreak, marriage, and faith, claiming to speak out for Saudi women everywhere when she gets backlash from her readership, who criticize her morality and religiosity.

I recommend this book because it was illuminating. I haven't been able to classify it as "good" or "very good" or "very bad" or anything; I'm simply not prepared to make a judgment call. Here's why. The content, in theory, could be construed as trashy--the girls in question are all rolling in money, and yet this fact is never acknowledged (sure, they all have personal drivers who wait for them literally around the clock--it's never questioned in the book that "everyone" and certainly every good Saudi woman has a driver). The girls all declare that they love Sex & the City, and this is without a trace of irony or self-reflection (one girl, Gamrah, insists on watching all the episodes even though she doesn't understand English and has no clue what they're saying). So the book is, on the one hand, an answer to chick lit.

On the other hand, the content is, as I mentioned, illuminating. Although the writing didn't really hold me--the translation is very readable and conversational, but I don't think high art was the aim of the prose--and sometimes the girls' attitudes toward themselves frustrated me, I learned a lot about a culture that I think is difficult to absorb in positive pop culture. This was a book written by a Saudi and for Saudis, unlike so many of the books about the Middle East that play on themes of escape and oppression in order to appeal to American audiences. Although Alsanea is critical of her own society in Girls of Riyadh, her take on modern Islam is a totally different animal than a book like Kite Runner--which, incidentally, I love--can ever offer. It's missing the degree of alientation any book written FOR a foreign culture necessarily imposes.

I don't want to go on and on here, although I have a lot more to say about the book. If anyone else has read it, leave me a comment...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Anya Ulinich/PETROPOLIS

Sasha Goldberg is a complicated antihero: the daughter of a black man who was adopted by a Jewish couple growing up at the very end of the Soviet era in a scrabbling Siberian town that just barely feeds itself by mining asbestos, Sasha has any number of factors working against her. She wants to be an artist, but she's not very talented; she's not quite savvy enough to avoid getting herself into some life-altering jams. In the end, she decides to go to America as a mail order bride.

I enjoyed reading Petropolis. It was billed to me as a modern satire, and so I was highly skeptical about it, but although the characters are often larger (or fatter or louder or more ridiculous) than life, it is really more of a straight-up novel, the story of a girl from Russia whose hapless story offers a sharp critique of Soviet, post-Soviet, and American culture.

What I liked best about the book was the writing. The author's voice is tight and original, which is even more impressive to me because I know that she, like her narrator, came to America as a young adult. There is not so much an umbrella plot that ties up neatly as there is an ambient feel that you, the reader, are simply experiencing a piece of Sasha's saga. While this might frustrate some readers, it makes the reality of the story a little more vivid.

I really, really wish, though, that someone had stopped her from rotating tense--the first part in past tense, the second in present, etc. Why can't you just commit to one? Why? Alas.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Kate Teltscher/THE HIGH ROAD TO CHINA

Kate Teltscher is a British academic, a professor of English literature who specialises in travel writing of the colonial period, particularly in India. Here she has produced a fascinating and highly readable account of the life of George Bogle, a young Scot who went to India in 1770 in the service of the East India Company. His diligence soon recommended him to the Company's powerful governor, Warren Hastings, and a few years later he was selected by Hastings to go on an important mission to Bhutan and Tibet - the first Briton ever to visit those countries.

The hope of the mission was not just to open up these regions to trade with British-ruled Bengal, but - more ambitiously - to establish indirect diplomatic links to Qianlong, the Emperor of China, via the Panchen Lama, then the most active and influential leader in Tibet (although the nominal ruler of the country was the regent of the child Dalai Lama; and, as a client kingdom of China's Qing Empire, the country was closely supervised by a pair of Chinese ambassadors - all three of whom were strongly inimical to the idea of a British interest in the country).

Bogle stayed with the Panchen Lama throughout the winter, and struck up a very cordial relationship with him. Despite the political difficulties it might create for him, the Lama agreed to represent the British requests to the Chinese Emperor (but, alas, his efforts came to naught - and a couple of generations later, the continuing diplomatic impasse on trade issues between the British and Chinese Empires would result in the Opium Wars).

Bogle was a meticulous observer of all that he encountered on his journey, and the story is usually most appealing when Teltscher quotes directly from his notebooks and his letters to his family. Indeed, poor Bogle's observations on his travels were so voluminous that he never managed to fulfill his patron's hope that he would be able to wrangle them into a publishable account (they were not, in fact, edited for publication until a century later).

However, perhaps of more interest than the travelogue is the political background of the period - both the vicious in-fighting within the East India Company which for a while rendered Hastings almost impotent and thwarted the advancement of Bogle's career, and the numerous intrigues, feuds, coups and wars amongst the native potentates of the region.

In Bogle's private correspondence we learn a lot about the warmth of his relationships with family and friends (and how difficult it could be to maintain these links when separated by such great distances). We also realise the enormous pressure he is under to make a success of his career in the colonies in order to redeem his family's fortunes (ruined by a financial scandal, the 'economic meltdown' of its day). And we are reminded of the hardships of life in a strange land at this time: the mortality rate amongst East India Company employees is quite terrifying, with many succumbing to disease within just a few months or years of arriving in Calcutta. Most intriguing of all, though, is what Bogle manages to suppress from his writing: his native mistresses and illegitimate children (a commonplace amongst Company employees) find no mention - and an old family story that he had an affair with a Tibetan woman, perhaps one of the Panchen Lama's sisters, must remain unsubstantiated.

The narrative drags very slightly at times (rather a lot of descriptions of mountain scenery, that I would prefer to have seen in direct quotation from Bogle's writing), but in general it is lively and easy to read. It might perhaps be of limited appeal to the general reader, but for anyone interested in Tibet, British colonial history, or early travel writing, it is to be highly recommended.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Don't Look Back by Karin Fossum


Newer mystery by a Norwegian author. Fifteen year old girl is murdered in a small town where everyone knows each other.

I really enjoyed this book. I wanted a glimpse into the lives of everyday Norwegians & was intrigued that murder could really happen in such a passive country. The characters were fine; the writing was well thought out for a mystery....all the right elements. I would definitely like to read more of Fossum's novels. I do hope that she is less kind in her treatment of the victims. She must be a mother. I am a mother, too, and although I would never write a mystery, when I read one (P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh.....) I find it more credible when the victims have suffered so that in the end, there is more gratification when the perpetrator is brought to justice.

Friday, November 7, 2008

William Paul McKay and Ken Abraham/BILLY


Billy is a biography of famous evangelist Billy Graham told in novelized form. The story of Graham's early years in ministry is told from the point of view of an ailing Charles Templeton, a former partner in Graham's work who recalls how he turned from his faith and criticized Graham for committing intellectual suicide by believing in the infallibility of the Bible.

Although biographies of Billy Graham are not in short supply (and Graham published his own memoir Just As I Am in 1997), this book centers specifically around Templeton's influence on the evangelist, and the crisis of faith it brought on just before Graham's career-boosting evangelism campaign in Los Angeles in 1949.

The prose is rather meticulous and heavy-handed, but the story is absorbing. Graham is presented as saint-like, yet humble and ordinary; Templeton, a powerful and in-demand speaker even before Graham started his ministry, is made out to be an arrogant villain who considers Graham beneath him. Oddly, the climax of the story switches to the point of view of Lucifer, and describes demonic and angelic activity surrounding Graham as he struggles with (and ultimately overcomes) doubts about the authority of the Bible. However, I found the story to be quite interesting and the contrast between Graham and Templeton to be enlightening, even if a bit extreme.