Unearthed: How an Abandoned Garden Taught Me to Accept and Love My Parents, by Alexandra Risen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
Just as the author and her husband buy an acre property just outside downtown Toronto, her father dies. This doesn’t make much of a difference in Risen’s life; in her entire life he has hardly ever spoken to her. He didn’t ignore her; he would work on projects with her- silently. That was pretty much their only interaction. It wasn’t that he couldn’t speak; her parents had long, loud arguments all the time. Her mother, always working in the garden or putting food by, is now alone and getting fragile, and has always preferred Risen’s older sister; she also almost never spoke to her younger daughter. The restoration of their new house and property, a chunk of a former large estate, is narrated concurrently with Risen’s quest to understand her parents.
The reason that the author was so taken by this rundown and overgrown piece of property is that it’s on a ravine and is like a piece of forest in the urban setting. As a child, she would escape into the forested ravine behind her house, spending hours there away from her parents, who apparently didn’t care that she was never home. It’s also a challenge, I suspect; if she can make this garden beautiful and orderly, maybe her gardener mother will finally think her worthy of love and attention. Sadly, over the ten years of so it takes to renovate the acre, her mother has a stroke and then develops dementia. Despite Risen’s insistence that she get on a plane and visit, she will never see this piece of property. But when the author and her sister clean out her mother’s place as she is moved to a home, they find a cache of old papers- papers that may hold some answers to her questions about her immigrant parent’s origins.
I really felt for the author; like her, my now dead parents are a deep mystery. Unlike her, there is no folder of hints or clues, but her search for answers struck a chord with me. The urge to know where one came from is, I think, fairly universal, and to have parents who never speak of the past leaves a hole in one’s heart. I’m also an avid gardener, and would love to have a property with old oaks, a redwood, a spring fed pond, and an old falling down pagoda. I understand the amount of work it would take to bring a place like that back into orderliness, although I have no comprehension of the amount of money it took them with all that they hired to have done- had the concrete pagoda rebuilt, professional arborists, landscape designers, a pool installed- their place is the proverbial money pit.
Risen does remember her mother’s lessons on wildcrafting; each chapter ends with a recipe or craft done with plants from the land. Risen also chronicles her son growing up; he’s not very much into gardening-he’s a computer kid- but he does enjoy the paths and the pond, wildlife, and some of the crafts. The garden provides them with ways to be closer.
The story is bookended by deaths; the author’s father begins it and her mother’s ends it. Risen has not found the answers she wanted, but she has learned some of what made them who they were. And she feels they did, as my mother said she did, ‘the best they could’. I really liked the book, even though I found the author frustrating at times as she had moments of immaturity. I stayed up nights reading it, and thinking about it when I was out gardening.
Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, & Other Literary Essays, by Cynthia Ozick. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
Ozicks, novelist, essayist, and literary critic, doesn’t like ‘lay’ book reviewers, such as write reviews for Amazon, Library Thing, and book blogs, so it’s highly ironic that I, one of the unlettered masses, am reviewing her book. Not that I consider myself a literary critic; I haven’t the education. I do not (usually) read to pick out the symbolism or themes; once in a while those things throw themselves in my face. But citizen reviewers and literary critics are two different things and serve different purposes. Literary criticism is for those who wish to go deep into books and dissect them finely. Reviews are for people looking for something interesting to read. We can coexist, our realms never really touching. At any rate, that is the essay that opens the book, like a blast over the bow.
The rest of the pieces are essays on various authors from the past and present, subjects such as how the terms ‘Kafkaesque’ and ‘Orwellian’ have become degraded, and why we need true critics to preserve literary fiction. It’s really rather brilliantly written and interesting, even for someone without any college classes in literature. One essay is about some Americans who wrote in Hebrew- they weren’t affiliated in any way, they just happened to do it during the same period of time. I’d never heard of them, and will almost certainly never read them even if I could find translations, but it’s fascinating to know about them. Ozick positions Harold Bloom as the pinnacle of literary criticism; I probably agree, even though I feel that he looks down on the common reader.
The writing itself is actually fun to read; I loved her complicated sentences and her broad vocabulary. She is not going to write down in quest of a wider audience. I suspect this book may become a text for some literature classes down the road.
The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman. New American Library, 2016
Irene is just getting back from a mission, and looking forward to a bath and a good rest. But a message pops in that tells her she’s up for another mission- immediately. Irene works for- is a member of- The Library. Not some building full of books, DVDs and computers for the masses, but a super-secret place that lives between dimensions. They collect rare books. For what purpose I’m not entirely sure, but apparently they can change the course of events.
Irene’s mission doesn’t seem unusual- go steal a book from a dimension that’s a steampunk Victorian London. To help her she is paired with an intern, Kai, who is noble, good looking, and possibly more than he seems to be. But their contact turns up dead, the book is stolen before they can get there, and all sorts of mayhem breaks loose. The cast of characters includes a Sherlock Holmes sort, a titled fairy, a titled vampire, werewolves, and an old enemy. Part of the mayhem includes airships, mechanical centipedes, and cyborg alligators. It’s got so much going on that I cannot begin to remember it all- the action never stops!
I liked the characters, especially Irene. She’s strong and pretty much all business- although not above noticing a good looking man. She knows her craft well, and is a good mentor to Kai. There is some trace of Mary Sue-ism, but not to the annoying point. She’s well done.
This is the first of a series set in that world (although being part of the Library means they *could* move to other worlds), and I hope the author can keep stories tight. In a world where pretty much anything can happen, it would be easy to over-do the barrage of big events happening. This one is great, and would make a great movie.
1929: A Novel of the Jazz Age, by Frederick Turner. Counterpoint, 2003
Jazz and the 1920s are subjects I love, so I was happy to come across this book. It had lots of wonderful reviews, too, so I jumped right into it. But it took quite a while for me to feel the story; it’s a fictionalized biography of jazz coronetist Bix Beiderbecke but in the beginning it focuses just as much on the gang activity in Chicago, largely as experienced by Henry Wise (not his original name), former mechanic and driver for Al Capone, and his sister Helen/Hellie/Lulu, who is the girlfriend of Machine Gun Jack McGurn (the Wise siblings are fictional). In fact, the book starts in modern days, at the annual celebration of Beiderbecke, the Bix Fest, with Wise reminiscing at Bix’s grave. As Wise remembers, Bix moves from peripheral character to main, then the narrative viewpoint leaves Wise behind completely and becomes all Bix- but never from Bix’s actual point of view. He always remains viewed from the outside; we never get to see more than he shares with other people. And he shared very, very little. The people around him can never figure him out, can never make a real connection with him. He’s a (mostly) gentle person, and quiet a lot of the time, but he has a totally flat affect. Despite my respect for his work, I had trouble caring about him as a character in this book. But it’s not just him; the other characters don’t fare much better. We get celebrities- Bing Crosby, Clara Bow, Maurice Ravel (I never knew he liked jazz), bandleader Paul Whiteman, Louis Armstrong and others- but only Clara comes to life at all.
Bix was a mainly self-taught player; he couldn’t read music very well but had an incredible ear. Along with horn, he played piano. Sadly, he was an alcoholic and during Prohibition what was sold wasn’t always safe to drink. He was known to drink some stuff (alcohol with a poisonous denaturant) that ended up killing thousands of people, and it was likely that which caused his short life as much as drinking regular booze. He was only 28 when he died, having been sent to ‘dry out’ a few times by his family but always going back to booze when he got out. He was sad example of ‘live fast, die young’ and the world lost a great talent when he died.
The prose is fast paced and jerky; it barely stops for a breath. It’s like the words are doing the Charleston. While I get that this was to make the reader feel like they were in that fast paced decade, it got tiring to read. There is no real plot; it’s a telling of “and then so and so did this; then that”. I can understand why; a person’s life rarely has a plot like fiction does. I have conflicting feelings about this book; I didn’t really enjoy reading it (and thought at times of not finishing it) but I don’t feel it was a waste of time. I’m not sure if it’s the book or if I’m missing something.
The River Midnight, by Lilian Nattel. Scribner, 1999
Set in a shtetl in Russian occupied Poland during the late 1800s, this is a story told multiple times. The action takes place over a year’s time (with both flashbacks and glimpses of the future, too); first it’s told from the viewpoint of the women of the village, then again from the men’s POV, then finally from the view of the main character, Misha, the shtetl midwife and herbalist. While the whole village is part of the story, the backbone of it follows the pregnancy of Misha, ended with her giving birth.
The story focuses on four women. As young girls, they were nicknamed the vilda hayas, the wild creatures, because they ran wild through the forest and the village. They had great plans. But in the end, one emigrated to America and died, leaving two children; one ran her husband’s business brilliantly but never had a child; one had too many children; and the fourth was Misha, who did not have a husband but was pregnant, had one divorce, still wore her hair loose, and knew all the secrets of the shtetl.
Each telling brings the story and the people more into focus, like watching an old interlaced GIF download years ago. While we find out what happened in the first telling, by the end of the third telling we know *why* the things happened. Hard things happen; children are orphaned, a young girl goes to jail, an unspeakable crime takes place. But it’s still a story of joy; their sect of Judaism asks them to look for joy, to help each other, to let no one starve.
Nattel brings the shtetl to life with her writing. From the houses with the chickens roosting in the hallways, to the herbs that Misha gathers and stores, to the way that religion permeates every aspect of the villager’s lives, it’s all described in loving prose. The love and friendship that binds them together is warm and alive; the story is like a tapestry with a million details. While the pace is moderate to slow, I love this book. It has a touch of magical realism and a lot of life.
Beneath the Wheel, by Hermann Hesse. Bantam Books, 1970 originally published 1906
Young Hans Giebenrath is a gifted child. When the state tests show him to have the second highest score in the country, he earns entrance to a monastery school and becomes the pride of his small farm town. It also earns him a short vacation, which he plans to spend fishing and walking in the beautiful forests. But each day finds his time being taken up by different tutors who wish him to study so he’ll be ahead of the other students when classes begin. Soon all the hours of his day are used up and his leisure is gone.
At the highly regimented school, he has trouble fitting in. He is no longer special like he was in his village. He lacks social skills, so when one of the students, a flamboyant poet, befriends him, he finds himself giddily obsessed and his studies suffer. Eventually he has a breakdown and falls so far behind he is sent home. This is a permanent banishment; no student sent home ever comes back. Suddenly, for the first time, he is at loose ends; there are no lessons to learn, books to read, or tests to prepare for. For the first time, he actually has choices. Can Hans learn to live happily without a highly structured life?
While this book was written in 1906, I see the same thing still happening to gifted kids today (and regular kids whose parents want them to be gifted); they are given so many classes and structured activities that they have no time for play, socialization, or imagination. While most survive it okay, I can’t believe it’s the best way to raise a child.
The House of Dreams, by Kate Lord Brown. Thomas Dunne Books, 2016
This historical novel is based on the story of Varian Fry and the American Relief Centre, which operated in France during the Vichy era (Nazi occupied). They procured exit visas for artists so they could escape the Nazis, who were rounding up more and more people every day and sending them to concentration camps. Artists and writers were being targeted because they could influence so many people with an essay, a poster, a play. The port of Marseilles, where Fry is based, is the last exit open at the time of the novel.
Fry’s story is framed by the fictional tale of Gabriel Lambert, a painter. In 2000, young journalist Sophie Cass, is hounding him for an interview. She is related to a woman, Vita, who was companion to Fry during the war, and wants some answers to what happened to Vita right before she died. This sends Lambert into remembering the war years, including how he was connected to Fry. It turns out Lambert has a great, big, secret; one he’s spent sixty years burying.
Part of the story centers on Fry and the house he rented with several other people, Villa Air Bel. All sorts of artists and writers converged there for Sunday parties that shocked the locals. Lambert stays there while waiting for his visa, and meets the love of his life, Annie, a teen living next door to Air Bel. Lambert is middle aged with some gray hair; at this point, he seems pretty pervy.
I much preferred the parts about Fry and the real artists better than Lambert and Sophie Cass. Fry seems very unlikable until near the end- there is quite a twist there! Sophie is simply a device to get the story told; despite trying to give her some back story she’s pretty much a nonentity. Three stars out of five.
The Goodenoughs have horrible lives. They don’t even put the fun in dysfunctional. It’s 1838, and James and Sadie and their five children (they had 10, but the swamp fever took half of them) live in the Black Swamp because that is where their wagon got stuck. They are homesteading because James’s family urged them to leave the family property in Connecticut- we find out why later in the book. The government will give them the land if they plant an orchard of 50 trees to prove they are making a go of it there; so far, they’ve only managed to afford 38; all apples, a mixture of sour ‘spitters’ and Golden Pippens that James has grafted, bringing the scion wood with them from Connecticut. And these trees are what the constant war between Sadie and James revolve around, an odd focus for their discontent. James loves the Pippens because not only are they good tasting, but they are something his family brought over from England. Sadie wants only spitters, because they are used for cider and applejack, and she has a lust for alcohol. The children are sort of bringing themselves up, creatures that Sadie says they created to do the work so she didn’t have to. Their social life consists of an occasional visit from John Chapman- Johnny Appleseed- selling apple seedlings and the yearly revival camp. After a couple of years, something happens that changes everything and the story changes to that of Robert, the son who was quiet and thoughtful and had the most trouble dealing with the nastiness between James and Sadie.
Robert has fled to California in stages; moving from spot to spot and job to job, being in turns a cowboy, an assistant to a snake oil salesman, a prospector, an ostler, a deck hand, a bottle washer, and, finally, a plant collector. He’s a loner, unattached to anyone or anything- he won’t even name his horse-as emotionally aloof as his father. Then the past shows up unexpectedly, and his life changes again.
I have mixed feelings on this book. Despite the awfulness of their situation, I could find no sympathy for the Goodenoughs. Sadie has no redeeming traits; she’s been an outcast for her behavior for years and makes no effort to please anyone but herself. James would be a sympathetic character even though he’s emotionally absent, but he’s too quick to use his fists and his belt to deal with things. Robert and the one sister, Martha, are the only family members I could care about. Even Chapman, an American icon, seems a little shady in this story.
The second half, Robert’s story, starts slow but then gathers momentum like a snowball on a ski hill and ends with a bang. Robert is a good person who had to deal with horrible things and an unwarranted load of guilt. I enjoyed the inclusion of some historical people, especially William Lobb (I have the rose named after him!) and his prickly but kind personality. I’m a plant person, so I also enjoyed the use of trees as a plot device. All in all, the book isn’t the best book Chevalier has written, but in the end I enjoyed it.
Library of Souls, by Ransom Riggs. Quirk Books, 2015
I LOVED the first two books in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy, so after finishing the second one I got Library of Souls from the library as soon as I could, expecting the excitement to carry on.
I was disappointed. Sorely.
I had trouble getting into the story; I actually found it a chore to read it for long stretches. It wasn’t all like that; there were some great incidents. But I felt that the book would have been twice as good if it had been half as long. There just wasn’t enough story and unique happenings to support 450 pages. The villain was a bit of a caricature; he would have fit into a comic book with his manic rule-the-world goal. There are some Deus-ex-Machina moments; some miraculous cures that, done once, were acceptable, but done more than that became just too convenient.
Unlike a fair number of reviewers, I did like the ending; I felt it was well deserved. I loved Addison the glasses-wearing, talking dog. I enjoyed the character of Sharon, the boatman on the horrible river (it wasn’t named Styx, but should have been) just because of some humor- not as laugh out loud as the heads-on-pikes on the bridge, but nice.
If you’ve read the first two books, you kind of have to read this one. I wouldn’t have been able to stand not knowing what happened. I just wish it had been better.
Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler. Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016
In this contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”, Kate Battista is less shrew than just someone who doesn’t quite fit into everyday society. Twenty-nine years old, she keeps house for her father and brings up her fifteen year old airhead sister, Bunny. Thrown out of college for telling a professor his description of photosynthesis was half-assed, she works as a classroom aid at a preschool, where the kids love her but the parents and teachers not so much. She is forthright with her opinions, never mean but just sort of missing the social niceties. Her father is a typical absent minded scientist who is near to a big breakthrough on autoimmune diseases, but he has a problem: his brilliant assistant is about at the end of his work visa and will soon have to leave the country. His idea, of course, is for Kate-who he tells bluntly isn’t going to find a husband on her own anyway- to marry the assistant, Pyotr. Needless to say, this doesn’t go over well. Pyotr does his best to ingratiate himself to Kate, but English is a second language for him and despite being here for three years, American society baffles him. Like Kate, he has no filters and tells people what he thinks. Kate, Pyotr, and Dr. Battista all seem a bit Aspergean in their lack of social skills.
Thankfully, this isn’t a rom/com but an examination of men and women, social conventions, and how people are valued by others. It is light in tone but with a hard edge running under the surface. There were a few surprises, but the best one was Bunny, who turns out to be not the airhead she acts like. This was a light, enjoyable read, and I was surprised to find that Tyler not only moved the story to modern day, but changed the tale to fit modern day women. Not Tyler’s best work by far, but nice.