A Collection of Beauties at the Height of their Popularity, by Whitney Otto. Random House, 2002
I found this an odd book. Not just the format- vignettes loosely bound together, styled after a Japanese courtesan’s ‘pillow book’ from the Edo period , each vignette featuring a different member of a group of friends. Set in 1980s San Francisco, these friends are late 20 somethings, all well educated but none working in the field that they are educated for. They float through life; drinking, smoking pot and sometimes doing coke, attending art openings and going to restaurants but mainly meeting at the Youki Singe Tea Room, a North Beach dive where pot smoking is allowed- but only in a small room.
Elodie is the woman who sets the tales down. She writes only when in the Tea Room, leaving her notebooks there. The characters- the collection of beauties- seem to have no ambition, content to simply live like butterflies, pushed by the winds of life. Connections between them turn to love, break up, and realign. There is no real plot; it’s just events happening in the vignettes.
While reading the book, I didn’t much care for most of the characters. Which makes it odd that I later found myself thinking about them, and going back and rereading sections of the book. The prose is beautiful.The vignettes are like little jewels. The book is physically beautiful, too, illustrated mostly with old Japanese woodblock prints but with a couple of 20th century works. To read this book is enjoyable, even if I didn’t connect with most of the characters.
An English Ghost Story, by Kim Newman. Titan Books, 2014
This novel indeed has the structure of a fairly classic ghost story. A family comes to live in a haunted house- haunted land, actually. The spirit(s) start quietly, but very quickly ramp up to full scale, capital H Haunting. This family, however, is not your typical English ghost story family. This is a modern day, dysfunctional, can barely get along family. This becomes an important factor later in the story.
The Naremore family is looking for a house in the country, hoping relocation will solve their relationship problems. Nothing they are shown seems right, until they visit the Hollow, recently home to the late author Louise Teazle. The house is very old, with additions put on through the centuries, and the land has been in use even longer than the house has stood. They all instantly fall in love with the house and land, and cannot wait to move in. The Hollow comes complete with the belongings of Miss Teazle.
Louise Teazle wrote children’s stories that have been read for ages, and Kirsty Naremore is very familiar with them. Some of them seem to have been set in the Hollow itself under a different name, as Kirsty quickly starts identifying furnishings and locations as one’s mentioned in Teazle’s initial ghost story. How much else of the ghost stories Teazle wrote are true? Kirsty wonders. A lot, as it turns out.
While at first the Hollow brings the family together, small upsets anger the spirits. The spirits want the house and family to be just *so* and when the Naremores fail to allow this, the ghosts start setting the family members against each other, unerringly finding their psychological weak spots- and all four of them have some big ones.
I mostly loved this story. It’s creepy- very creepy. I loved that it wasn’t just one recent spirit, but something going back to prehistoric time and all points in between. I loved the magic chest of drawers and how Kirsty is drawn into playing with it, not at all baffled by the fact that it defies all laws of physics. I loved the house itself. But I didn’t love the characters. I found them tolerable, but I never made the kind of connection one would like to have in a character driven story. I realize they needed to have personality problems to create the story, but I had a hard time really feeling for them.
The Liar’s Wife, by Mary Gordon. Panthen Books, 2014
“The Liar’s Wife” is only one of the four novellas in this book. Veteran writer Gordon has produced stories where the protagonists are all knocked out of their comfort zones and find themselves contemplating life changing moral issues.
In the first, the title story, a 70-some year old woman is surprised by the appearance of her ex-husband. They were only married a short time before she fled, unable to settle into a life in Ireland with a musician husband who, of course, lies continually. Her life has been comfortable; happy children, career she liked, good husband, three houses. His has been the opposite, but he feels he’s lived life to the fullest. Whose life has been better? Has one been a waste?
In “Simone Weil in New York” the protagonist is a young woman who was one of Weil’s students in France. Now married to an American doctor who is stationed in the Pacific Theater during WW 2, with a baby and living with her brother, she encounters Weil in the street. She is not happy to see her; she represents all that has been lost because of the war. As a student she had loved and revered Weil; now she feels a tangle of feelings. Weil feels an obligation to live as the poorest live; does that help anyone? Should Genevieve feel guilty for being safe in America instead of being part of the French Resistance? Can she break free of Weil’s philosophy?
The narrator in “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” is an old man, looking back on his life. The high point of his life was when, in high school, he was selected to present the visiting Thomas Mann to the school. Mann has left Germany because of the Nazi regime and is visiting the school to lecture on what is happening in Germany. Like Weil, Mann cannot enjoy his own freedom and success because of guilt over what is going on in his native country; this opens the high school boy’s eyes to the racism that is so casually accepted in America- so casually that no one ever really sees it.
My favorite story is the last one, “Fine Arts”. A college student who has been given a grant to go overseas to study the work of sculptor Citivali for her doctoral thesis. Theresa has had a hard life; her childhood was taken up with caring for a bed ridden father; her teens taken up with studying. Her one indulgence has been an affair with her married mentor, who is a self absorbed ass. Two of the sculptures that she wishes to study are in a private collection; the owner turns Theresa’s life upside down and completely reverses her situation.
All four protagonists wrestle with moral issues. Is what they are doing worthwhile? Are they wasting their lives? Is it all right to enjoy your life while others suffer? It sounds grim, but the stories are very engaging and thought provoking without being heavy. The prose is so… perfect… that it just leads you on into the stories.
The Year She Left Us, by Kathryn Ma. HarperCollins, 2014
“The Year She Left Us’ is both coming of age novel and family drama. The main character is Ari, who narrates much of the novel. She was a Chinese orphan, left as an infant in a department store, adopted by a single woman, a hard working public defender. She is considered not only lucky because she got adopted by an American, but extra lucky because her mother is Chinese-American. No one need know she’s adopted, unlike the many Chinese girls (the children adopted out to America are most often girls, because of China’s ‘one child’ law; abandoning the girl baby allows them to try again for the coveted son) who are adopted by white people. Unlike other Chinese adoptees in the group of young girls (“Western Adopted Chinese Daughters”, aka the Whackadoodles) her mother takes her to for learning about her Chinese heritage, she doesn’t feel lucky. She focuses on the fact that she was abandoned, that she wasn’t good enough to love. She never feels like she fits in, not even with the other adoptees. While on a trip to China – which includes a tour of the orphanages- with the adoptee group, she is approached by a man who claims he is her father, an event that pushes her over the edge and she cuts her finger off.
Things don’t get any better when Ari returns home. Digging around the house one day, she discovers old pictures, ones from about the time when she was adopted, showing a man, along with herself as a baby held against his chest. On the back are the words “Aaron practicing to be a father”. She decides that she must find this Aaron; perhaps this will tell her who she is. She ends up in Alaska for months on this quest, and that isn’t the end of her wandering as she tries to find herself.
Interspersed with Ari’s narrative are third person chapters about her mother Charlie, her aunt Les, and Gran. Men are absent from the lives of these three women, and the women seem to survive just fine- on the surface. Charlie is driven by sympathy for her poor clients; Les is a judge and driven by ambition; Gran feels the past should be thrown away. None of them understand Ari’s need to belong somewhere. Neither, for that matter, does Ari.
The characters are vivid- especially Ari and Gran. Charlie and Les have less depth; they are politically correct and career driven; they are the stereotype of Asian Americans. Gran is a much more colorful person; Ari does just about everything a bad girl can do. I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for Les and Charlie; they are pretty flat. I loved Gran and wished she had more of a part, and while I didn’t much like Ari I did sympathize with her and her search for answers that can never be found. It’s hard enough to be a teenager without wondering why your parents abandoned you. Why does Ari fixate on this while the other Whackadoodles don’t? We never really find out; people are just different. This book has surprising depth and maturity for a first novel; Ma is definitely a strong new voice in Asian American literature.
The First True Lie, by Marina Mander. Hogarth, 2013
Luca is 9 or 10 and lives with his mother and his cat, Blue. He’s never had a father in his life, nor even a father figure as the men in his mother’s life just pass through quickly. His mother suffers from chronic depression, allergies, and a lack of energy, so he’s not too surprised when she doesn’t wake up in the morning. It’s not the first time, but it is the first time she hasn’t been roused when he shakes her. Still, he has to go to school, so he gets himself ready and off her goes. She’ll be okay by the time Luca comes home. But she’s not. She is still in bed and not breathing.
Luca already refers to himself as a ‘half orphan’ because of his lack of a father. He doesn’t want to become a full orphan though; they’ll take him away and make him live in an orphanage and he won’t be able to take his cat, Blue, with him. So he declares himself not an orphan, but a single human being. He shuts down psychologically, refusing to emotionally deal with his mother’s death- for he is aware that she is dead- instead dealing with the immediate physical needs of his cat and himself. There is little food for him or for Blue, but he scrounges up enough money for a run to the grocery store, all the while determined to act like everything is normal. He continues to go to school, he visits with a friend, with his mother quietly rotting and stinking in the bedroom. He is resourceful in the way of children who don’t have parent’s in their lives are, having half raised himself. But how long can he keep up this charade?
The book is short- really a novella- but it has the force of a punch to the gut. It’s grim subject matter, made grimmer by seeing it through Luca’s 10 year old eyes and yet knowing what’s really going on, that at some point reality would come crashing and knock down his denial, and that, even as horrid as his current situation is, it will only get worse. The ending was a bit of a surprise to me; Luca’s choice of action was not the one I expected, but it seemed like a glimmer of hope.
The Agincourt bride is Catherine de Valois, daughter of Charles VI, the mad king of France. Her mother, Isabeau of Baveria, doesn’t care about her children and neglects them until she needs them for her plotting. So when Catherine is born, a wet nurse is needed immediately. Teen aged Guillaumette (Mette) has just had her first child, which does not survive. She is pressed into service to nurse the newborn Catherine. A bond is formed, like that between mother and child. Mette loves Catherine as much as she would her own child- in fact, sometimes it seems like she loves Catherine more than she does her own two children who are born later. She cares for Katherine- and two of her brothers- while she is a toddler, but they are split up when Catherine is sent to a nunnery to be educated. They do not meet again until Catherine is a teenager and is brought back to court to be used as bait for the English king, Henry V. Catherine has Mette brought back to court as her lady of the robes, giving her a post which allows her to be at court. As battles between Henry’s armies and the French forces rage (including the famous Battle of Agincourt where so many French knights were killed) and diplomacy goes back and forth, Catherine is one minute to be given to Henry and the next minute to have an uncertain future. She has to deal with her monstrous mother, and, worse, the Duke of Burgundy, a nasty piece of work if there ever was one. Catherine has few friends- everyone spies on each other- and Mette is the one person who knows everything about her.
The story is written in first person by Mette, who knows how to read, write and do arithmetic because she was brought up in the family baking business. It’s written with a sense of distance from the subject, both in time and proximity. We get to watch Catherine grow and mature and develop an inner self that is like a slim blade of steel. Her family is incredibly dysfunctional; her mother declares her own son a bastard, her father is psychotic, another son has an eating disorder that kills him, and her mother allows Burgundy to do what he wishes with Catherine. Mette looks on with her middle class sensibility that allows us to see the nobility with no varnish of adoration. Interspersed are letters that Catherine wrote but never sent, showing us her heart.
I enjoyed the book, although at times it seemed slow. I suppose that is necessarily so, as much of Catherine’s life is spent waiting to see what will be arranged for her. The book is dense with details that bring the time and people to life vividly, right down to the meals they ate and the clothes they wore. While this era – the early 1400s- is not as popular as the following Tudor era, the Tudors dynasty would have never existed had it not been for Catherine.
The Illusionists, by Rosie Thomas. The Overlook Press, 2014
“The Illusionists” has a premise that should be great: set in 1885 London, a group of people-stage magicians, a scientist who makes life sized mechanical dolls, an independent woman who leaves her middle class home to become an artist’s model, an artist who makes amazing wax models and props. Add in a highly competitive theater owner and a lot of sexual tension between, well, nearly everyone and it should be a story that one couldn’t put down. Sadly, while the book is okay- I enjoyed it- I can’t call it great.
While the characters are interesting- Devil Wix the fast talking stage magician; his new partner Carol Boldoni, a dwarf who is a world class contortionist and illusionist; Jasper Button the artist and childhood friend of Wix’s; Heinrich Bayer the introverted engineer who adores his mechanical dancer; and Eliza Dunlop, who has a very modern outlook for someone of her class and time and seems a bit of a Mary Sue- none of them has much depth. We get backstory on Devil and Eliza, and a bit on Button, but nothing on Boldoni or Bayer. The setting is wonderful; the decaying theater brought back to life and the hustle of the behind the scenes work- I loved the descriptions of the magical illusions. The pace is odd, though. There are a couple of events of great tension and excitement that would seem to be the climax of the story, but they don’t resolve anything. The first one, around the middle of the book, just happens with no explanation. Why the character does what he did there and what his goal was are never explored. The violence at the end upsets everyone, but it changes no one; they just go on about their lives.
I enjoyed the book but it could have used a good editor to help with the pacing and characters.
Land of Dreams, by Kate Kerrigan. Pan Macmillan, 2013
It’s 1942 and twice-widowed Ellie Hogan’s teenaged son Leo has run away from boarding school. It doesn’t take much sleuthing to find out that he’s taken the train across country from New York to Los Angeles: to Hollywood. He’s determined that he will be a star. Ellie immediately jumps on a train and follows him, to discover him living with another young man, Freddie, who is trying to become the world’s first actor’s agent, and Freddie’s girlfriend, Crystal, who fancies herself a starlet. They are holed up at the Chateau Marmont, with little money and no jobs. Ellie allows herself to be convinced that Leo has a real chance at getting a part in an upcoming film, so she takes a room for herself and Leo and figures it’ll only be a few days before this nonsense is out of the way and they can head home. To her surprise, Leo gets a part and is put into acting classes at the studio. Stuck in California for the time being, Ellie rents a house and sends for her younger son, Tom, and her aging friend and housekeeper, Bridie, and settles in for a few months while the film is being shot. She ends up taking in Freddie and Crystal, mothering them just like she does her sons, even though this means they have taken over the room she’d designated as her artist’s studio. For Ellie, being a mother is the most important thing in her life- she admits that she married her second husband in large part so she could be a mother to his son Leo. She is willing to put her own life- both professional and personal- on hold for her sons, feeling that she doesn’t have enough time or love to go around. Whether this means quashing a relationship that seems to have a lot of potential or giving up her painting, she’s fine with it.
Ellie acts like a very entitled woman. She barges in everywhere and expects everyone to listen to her, whether it be a studio executive or the military head of a relocation camp where a Japanese friend of hers is interned. She comes by this trait not from being born into money; she worked her way up from nothing during the Depression. She just feels she has to do her best to try and help her friends and family- even when she doesn’t have all the information and they desperately do not want her to intervene.
The book jacket makes the story sound exciting: it mentions glamour and glitz and having to protect her family from the threat of the war. In reality, Ellie encounters the glitz only occasionally, and the war is little threat to her family, although her own actions make things difficult for both her Polish born boyfriend and her Japanese friend. The story really doesn’t have much action in it. Told by Ellie in the year 1950, a lot of it is backstory (this book is the third in a trilogy) and her emotions and thoughts. I found I could not get really interested in the book; I couldn’t make a connection with Ellie or any of the other characters. They were flat and not fleshed out. Bridie as the Irish housekeeper was very nearly a stereotype. I found myself impatient with the book, wanting to get it read and have it over with so I could go on to something more interesting There is also a (small) problem with some anachronistic language – ‘networking’ and ‘lifestyle’ weren’t used in 1950 that I know of- but that may have been fixed in the final edit.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie. HarperCollins, 2014
Author Alix Christie is both writer and letterpress printer, so she seems perfect for the task of writing about the invention of the moveable type press. All most of us know about that subject is that Johann Gutenberg invented it; what most of us don’t know is that the press didn’t spring fully formed from Gutenberg’s mind but was the work of several people.
The apprentice of the title is Peter Schoeffer, the adopted son of Johann Fust, who was Gutenberg’s money supplying partner. At the start of the novel, Fust has recalled Schoeffer from Paris, where he has been working as a professional scribe and enjoying the fleshly delights of the city. Fust tells Schoeffer that he is work for Gutenberg, which does not go over well with either Schoeffer or Gutenberg. Schoeffer feels the press is barbaric compared to hand writing, while Gutenberg thinks Schoeffer will be useless. Soon they realize that they are both wrong; Schoeffer begins to see the beauty and utility of type while also proving himself useful as a font designer and a carver of the metal masters from which the type is cast. He also turns out to be a natural foreman, organizing the men who melt the alloys, work the press, handle the paper and vellum sheets so they don’t smudge, and set the type. But it’s not a peaceful job; Fust and Gutenberg clash frequently over money. Gutenberg is a flamboyant narcissist who trusts no one and makes covert deals behind Fust’s back; he’s a total drama queen. The book covers the two years that it takes to get the first run of Bibles printed.
The book was interesting; I won’t say it was can’t-put-it-down but it held my interest. But it lacked a certain depth; it’s about the event and the technology and less about the people. While the characters aren’t flat, they don’t really make you feel for them, either. We get the story from Schoeffer’s point of view, but even he I didn’t care deeply about. In a book of 400 pages one should feel they know the protagonist down to their toes; this just doesn’t happen here. The love interest takes few pages and seems like an after thought, something thrown in to add tension to the story. I liked the book but didn’t love it.
You come into this world expecting nothing.
A small human being full of love, kindness, acceptance, and understanding. You’re first experience is horrible. You’re covered in blood; a blast of icy cold air, loud noises, large things, and everything unknown seem to attack you. You cry.
For the first part of your life all you do is cry. You cry, eat, and… go to the bathroom. Then you start to crawl, and walk, and run. You begin to dress yourself, finding that style that fits you just right. You find that food that makes you salivate every time you think of it. You find that song that makes you just want to bust out screaming in excitement every time it comes on the radio. You find your favorite boy band or supermodel. You find that book that you just can’t seem to put down and end up losing two night’s sleep over it. You find who you are. Then you look for friends, people who you go out with and just have fun with no plans. You
look for that best friend who you call family, who you can tell all of your locked-diary secrets to. You look for that special someone who, at first sight, you know that you can spend the rest of your life with them. You look for that one job that doesn’t even feel like a job because it’s what you love. Then you make money. You make love. You make a family. Then you die.
That’s life. I know you weren’t expecting this, but it’s fact. You do, you find, you look, you make, you die.
Family traditions are forced onto the upcoming children generation after generation. One thing all parents want their children to share with them is religion. Depending upon the area, you will get a different ratio to what other common religions may be. In the Middle East, it’s Islam.
I’m from America, born and raised in the Northwest. My ancestors are from all over Europe with different branches of religion. One thing they all had in common, they were Christian. Now, I don’t mean “pray to God when you break your iPhone 5” Christian. I mean, “make a crazy person shrine to God in the middle of every room and put a cross on every wall” Christian. That means I was baptized as a baby. I won’t say my given name as a child, but I will tell you it means follower of Christ. I ended up not living with my biological parents anymore when I was little, but I was given new parents with my half-sister and her brother by my side, leaving my other half-brother alone with an aunt and her daughter.
This new home was a lot bigger, but luckily the new parents weren’t “crazy person” Christian. Though, they were still heavy advocates for Christianity. So was the rest of the area, and I mean heavy. The house was even next to a retired church. Within a four square mile area, there were sixteen churches. All of which were Catholic, Mormon, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and every other branch of Christianity you can think of. My sister and brother went to Youth Group at the nearest one which was a block away. When I got older I decided to go a couple miles away. I admit, it was for a guy, but I truly was interested in learning more about God. I ended up not going anymore because it just didn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t understand the logic in what they were saying. I couldn’t seem to “connect the dots”.
I was told that Jesus is the son of God, and that he is the lord.
Then they said that God is the lord. Does that make Jesus God? And then they said that God is the father and Jesus is the son; and that the father, son, and Holy Spirit aren’t separate people. They’re one. So I ask, who’s the Holy Spirit? They said that the Holy Spirit isn’t anyone. So what is God’s
name? He doesn’t have a name, he isn’t a person. But Jesus is a person. Yes. And Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are one; right? Yes. So that means Jesus is God and the holy spirit. No. But they are one. Yes. Okay, that was delusional….. Then I ask, how did Jesus heal people and perform miracles? Through God. How did he do that? He didn’t, God did. But God isn’t a person. Exactly. So, I changed my standpoint and asked, how did God create everything? He just did. He just did? Yes.
I was getting so frustrated with the contradictory answers that I finally gave up and asked: Why did God create everything? And I got no answer at all. The previous answers went against each other and were completely confusing. I finally got silence. Eventually they said, I don’t know. That was the moment I walked out of the church and said I will never believe in anything.