The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin, by Stephanie Knipper. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016
I love magical realism, and this book had the bonus of being set on a flower farm, so I jumped at it. Sisters Rose and Lily were very close as girls and teens, but when Rose’s unexpected pregnancy while in college led to the birth of a daughter on the autistic spectrum, Lily couldn’t deal with it. Having OCD with some aspects of autism herself, Antoinette was all her fears in human form: unable to speak, difficulty with movements, repetitive behaviors. It all reminds Lily of her own problems that made her constantly bullied at school, and in her mind threatens the ‘normal’ life that she’s built in the city where no one knows her. Lily and Rose haven’t spoken in years. But that has to change now: Rose has end stage heart failure, a complication of her pregnancy with Antoinette. She needs someone who will take care of Antoinette and her only option is Lily. Complicating their reunion is the ‘boy’ next door, Seth. He and Lily used to be an item, until he broke it off to go to seminary, breaking her heart. He dropped out and bought into the flower farm. Then there is Lily’s next door neighbor in the city who flirts constantly…. Also, Antoinette has this ability to restore wilted flowers and temporarily heal anything from birds to broken human hands.
I enjoyed the story, in large part because of the setting (at the nursery/flower farm) and the growing relationship between Lily and Antoinette. Lily is able to help Antoinette with some of her problems, having faced similar herself. The physical setting is described beautifully- the gardens, the lavender fields, the farmer’s market – although I do wonder how two people keep that many acres weeded and harvested alone. Where are the workers? But the story is like some fairy tale, where no one has any flaws (other than physical health problems). Seriously, everyone in this story is honest, giving, hardworking, pleasant natured, and just plain good people. I find it hard to believe in a town where *everyone* is this great! The ending is rushed; in fact, the whole story is in a way. A lot happens in a very short time. The ending also lacks an explanation; we are left guessing as to how Antoinette works her miracles and why one character makes the choice he does. I’d give the story four stars out of five.
Summerlong, by Peter S. Beagle. Tachyon Publications, 2016
This novel has some of the most beautiful prose. Everything is described with loving detail; I could smell the spring in the PNW and feel the damp air. (of course, I have been in the Pacific Northwest enough to have a head start on that, but still) Early in the book I started caring about the characters.
Joanna Delvecchio is the head steward on a regular Seattle/Chicago run, and counting the days left before she can retire. She’s had a 20-some year relationship with Abe Aronson, retired history professor, which she refuses to admit is a relationship. Her daughter, Lily, can’t seem to find the right woman. It’s a nice life, with great regularity to it. When they meet the new waitress at their favorite little restaurant, she rocks the lives of all of them.
Lioness Lazos, needing a place to stay, moves into Abe’s garage. She has nearly nothing and is fine with that. She is hiding from someone and traveling lightly. But things start changing the minute she arrives. Abe and Del start living out their dreams apart from each other. Lily falls in love with Lioness. The neighbor kids learn how to produce flowers from bare soil… instantly. Spring comes early and lasts all summer and fall.
It’s obvious pretty quickly that this is not your average novel but a fairy tale. I figured out who Lioness really was pretty quickly. While I knew what would have to happen with Lioness, I did not expect what she would do before giving in to it. And I do know *why* she did it. That’s one of my quibbles with the book: Lioness is a cypher. Everyone loves her on sight, but she does little and says little. Of course she’s a magical being, but still. She’s interacting on a human level, so I expected more humanity from her. She had to know that what she did would destroy Abe and Del’s relationship; did she think she was doing them some sort of favor? Or did she just not care, and was indulging herself? The ending left me angry at her and at Abe.
Still, even though I was not happy with the ending, I enjoyed most of the book too much to not like it as a whole. It was a magical read and I rushed through it, not wanting to stop reading. I guess I just expected a happy ending from a fairy tale like this!
Notwithstanding, by Louis de Bernieres. Vintage International, 2009
‘Notwithstanding’ is the name of a mythical English village, the name picked because the village life is notwithstanding. A set of interconnected stories show us the lives of the various village eccentrics as their way of life dies off. Some have the feel of fairy tale or fable; others are vignettes. Several characters show up multiple times; the most common is the boy Robert, who rescues and rehabilitates injured and orphaned birds, including a talking rook named Lizzie, and catches a legendary pike. Among the other villagers are the widow who goes everywhere with her husband’s ghost, the aging general whose mind is slipping and now goes to town with no pants on, a woman who realizes she’d best try and get on with folks, a Sixth Sense style ghost story, a maid who is seduced by her employer’s son, a ghost who summons the Rector, and more. The thread that binds them together is the erosion of village life by new people; people who complain about roosters crowing in the country, about ponds that aren’t fenced off, and the like. It’s nostalgia (de Bernieres grew up in just such a village and is most likely Robert) and it’s sweet in places, sad in many places, and funny in others. I don’t tend to go for ‘sweet’ or ‘cozy’ books but this one hit me just right.
City of Dreams: The 400-year Epic History of Immigrant New York, by Tyler Anbinder. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
History professor Anbinder, himself a native of New York, traces the waves of immigrants that have built NYC into the behemoth it is today. From Peter Minuit and his deal with the Native Americans to today, the author follows wave after wave of immigrants and how they shaped the city. From the Puritans and fur traders to huge waves of German and Irish immigrants to the Italians, eastern Europeans, Asians, former slaves, South and Central American, and West Indies, all the big movements of people are here. It’s a fascinating read; every wave of people came over hoping for more opportunity and a new life. Nearly all faced prejudice of the already ensconced people, horrible living conditions, and endless hard work. They bore this steadfastly, all in the hope that their children would have better lives than they had.
This is not your boring history book. Anbinder frequently uses personal accounts to bring vivid life to the past. While this is a massive book- nearly 600 pages with another 100 of end notes, bibliography, appendices, and index- it was as gripping as a well-written novel. Here’s the Irish fleeing the famine, arriving as stick figures. Here are the people trying to take advantage of new immigrants. There were some parts that were less interesting to me- the section on the Civil War, for instance, because I never find war interesting- even those I read every word of. That is a first for me; I tend to skip the bits about fighting.
Every wave of immigrants seemed to follow the same routine: take the first jobs they could get, always the things natives (and previous immigrants) had risen above. They work 7 days a week (except for the Jews, who mostly didn’t work on the Sabbath). They live in cramped quarters. As soon as they can save the money, they start a business of their own. They also send amazing amounts of money back to their home countries, whether it be to support parents or to bring over other family members. They become citizens as fast as possible most of the time, unless they are hoping to make enough money to have a business in their home country. They almost always dislike the next wave of immigrants, feeling that next wave has a criminal element to it. Humans have remained the same for the 400 year span of NYC; they are filled with prejudice.
Excellent book; should be required reading. It’ll enlighten a lot of folks who want to build a wall.
The Master Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg. 47 North, 2016
This book concludes the trilogy that started with “The Paper Magician”. Ceony is about to take the final exam that will make her a magician instead of apprentice, but her mind is on other things. Saraj, the murderous Excisioner who killed one of Ceony’s friends, has escaped from prison and Ceony fears he will seek revenge for his imprisonment.
Magician Thane, Ceony’s mentor and intense love interest, has made the decision to have another Folder administer Ceony’s examination so that there can be no accusations of favoritism. Ceony makes it her mission to track Saraj as he moves across England to try and safe guard her family and herself; this is actually made easier by her move to another magician’s dwelling. She can use the talent she’s discovered- to use all sorts of magic rather than just Folding- with less fear of discovery. But is this new talent enough to defeat an Excisioner?
The story has a lot of things happening, but it doesn’t all hang together well. The bit with her sister didn’t really fit in. Ceony acts very rashly, more like the girl she was earlier than the almost-Magician she is. She still has her “only I can save this situation” attitude that puts her in danger- and threatens to reveal to Saraj how she performs her new magic abilities. I had a lot of trouble seeing her as a mature person! The action seems all in a rush, too, without good connection. The book has its moments – the magic is very inventive and I still love it. My favorite scene, though, isn’t a battle scene but at the very front of the book where Ceony decorates for a client’s party by bespelling paper to portray a living jungle!
In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi. Metropolitan Books, 2016
After the author’s parent’s split up when she was a teen, she saw little of her father. When she got an email from him when he was 76 years old, he had a surprise for her: he had had Sexual Reassignment Surgery and was now a woman- Steven Faludi was now Stefanie. She wanted her daughter to come visit her. While Susan was ready to find out more about her father’s life, she wasn’t ready to forgive her for how she’d treated her mother and herself, which was what her father was really after.
Stefi was born in Hungary under another name. Her parents were upper middle class Jews, but Germany invaded, different political factions ran the country, and they lost everything. She escaped, and as far as Susan knew, never had contact with her family again. She came to America, married, and played the suburban father of the era, building things in the basement. When the marriage fell apart, she kicked the door down and attacked the man Susan’s mother was seeing. Things didn’t get any better after that.
Susan heads for Hungary, expecting her father to ask for forgiveness for her absence from her life. That’s not what Stefi has in mind, though. First Stefi wants to share her wardrobe with Susan! But a connection is made, and Susan spends the next few years visiting her father in Hungary. At a glacial pace over the years, Stefi reveals her past. Escaping Nazis and anti-Semitic Hungarian governments through Germany, Demark, Brazil, and finally the USA, she reinvented herself with every move. She boasted about knowing how to fake things. A macho outdoorsman, a Christian, a suburban dad, a gifted photographer and artist with photo retouching. A man. Did she fully inhabit any of these roles, or were they all play acting? Did the fact that she was trapped in a male body make it impossible for her to feel completely comfortable in any of her younger roles? Would she have been a better parent and spouse if she had lived in a female body? Given the late date of her SRS, the trans part of Stefi’s story is a very small part, although it’s the part stressed on the book jacket.
While Susan learns a great deal about her father’s past, it’s not until after Stefi is dead that Susan finds out that there was still a great deal to discover. It’s a fascinating story about identity and family secrets.
The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies. Houghton Mifflin, 2016
“The Fortunes” is one novella and three short stories about Chinese-Americans and the problems they have- and still do- face.
“Gold” is set in Gold Rush era California, where young Ling has been sent by Big Uncle- the owner of a floating brothel in China who raised him after his Chinese mother died and his white father paid Uncle to take care of him- to labor in a laundry. From working as an opium boy in the brothel he’s picked up some English and other languages, so he has an advantage in America. He’s hired by Charles Crocker, founder of the Central Pacific Railroad which was the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, as a valet. Dressed in western clothing, his que cut off, and his hat slanted over his eyes he can pass as white in dim light. He’s moving up on the socio-economic ladder, and Crocker sees his gentility and submissiveness as evidence that the Chinese will make the ideal work force for the railroad, working for less money. This causes Ling to reexamine his identity and his loyalties.
“Silver” is about Anna Mae Wong, the first Asian Hollywood star, as she makes her only trip to China. The story is told in an odd format; short, choppy episodes. This should have been my favorite story, given my interest in old Hollywood, but I found the style off-putting. The story tells how she cannot get ahead; she can only get roles as a dragon lady villain or a young butterfly-like maiden. What should have been the role of her lifetime, the lead in “The Good Earth”, was given to a non-Asian actress. Miscegenation laws prevent her from having an onscreen kiss with any white actor. Her options are limited.
“Jade” is about the brutal murder of Vincent Chin; a hate crime perpetrated by auto workers laid off by the influx of Japanese imports thinking the Chinese-American Vincent was Japanese. The narrator is Vincent’s friend, thirty years later, the friend who was present at the killing but ran to safety. There is, of course, survivor guilt for him to deal with. Somehow, despite the horror of the killing, the intensity that you’d think would be there never makes it.
“Pearl” is about a Chinese-American man and his white wife going to China to adopt a baby girl. At home, he has always felt he stood out and didn’t fit in. Now, in China, he blends away into the crowds, but doesn’t feel Chinese enough.
All these stories are anchored by the question of Chinese-American identity, of having a foot in each culture. In these stories, even those born here have that quandary: to whom do I owe allegiance? There is also the continual problem of having to face prejudice.
In the end, my favorite story was “Gold” and I rather wished it had been made into a full novel. The characters are well developed and interesting, unlike those in the shorter tales. As a whole, the book is uneven. Four stars out of five.
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. Grand Central Publishing, 2017
Pachinko is a great big sprawling family saga set in Korea and Japan and spanning 70 years. Sunja is a teenaged girl living with her mother, who runs a boarding house in a fishing village in Korea. All Sunja knows is work, but she does not dislike this. It’s what her mother does, too. Then she meets a fish broker, a suave older man who seduces her, impregnates her, and then informs her he’s married. He says he’ll support her, but she wants nothing more to do with him. Her face is saved when a missionary staying at the boarding house says he will marry her and raise the child as his own. They move to Japan, where Koreans are looked down on. Thence starts a new round of endless working, something all the characters will know for all their lives, whether it’s physical toil or mental.
The tale follows Sunja and her family for four generations. I found the first half, which dealt mainly with Sunja and her sister-in-law who became her best friend, more engrossing than the latter half that was about her descendants. That section was interesting, but the stark contrast between Sunja, her mother, and sister-in-law and their husbands, and the younger generations was jolting. I just found the women more interesting than the men. They are so strong, mentally and physically. But their lives are very circumscribed compared to the men. The men are city people; the women rural in outlook even when living in the city.
As Koreans in Japan, they are considered visitors even when they were born there. There were jobs they could never have; it was illegal to rent to them. When a boy turns fourteen, he has to register, be fingerprinted and interviewed, and he has to ask for permission to remain in Japan, even though he was born there and has never been to Korea. This process will be repeated every three years. And this was in the 1970s, not the 1870s. Getting Japanese citizenship was extremely difficult. But Sunja’s family does get ahead, attaining a comfortable living.
This novel is both an absorbing tale of family dynamics and a fascinating look at another culture and time. It’s a big book, but I read it quickly, unable to put it down. The characters are so well developed that I really cared about them, especially Sunja and her sister-in-law. Sometimes I wanted to strangle one or another of the characters, because they are just totally realized humans. Excellent book.
The Apothecary’s Curse, by Barbara Barnett. Pyr Books, 2016
In current day Chicago, Dr. Simon Bell is an author who writes Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and Gaelan Erceldoune is a dealer in antique books. They’ve known each other a long time- a very long time. They were acquainted during Victorian days, when Bell was a physician and Erceldoune an apothecary. They owe their longevity –immortality- to potions made from an ancient book of formulas that Erceldoune got from his father. Immortality was an accident; the remedies were meant merely to cure diseases. The book has been lost for decades, with them searching for it. Bell wants it so he can die and join his long dead wife; Erceldoune because it’s family property. But Erceldoune himself is being sought by a pharmaceutical company: they are aware of a man who could survive any sort of injury and heal quickly. They want his DNA to make a fortune with. But he’s warned by Anne Shawe, who works for the company- and is connected to Erceloune in a way neither of them expects.
The story has lots of twists and turns. There is a mad scientist (or at least a psychopathic one), a book that may predate even alchemy, a ghost, a couple of love stories, modern industrial evil, and more. It’s enough to keep the reader well engaged, and yet I didn’t get hooked into the story until almost halfway through for some reason. After that point, I was eager to keep reading, but found myself unhappy with the ending. I couldn’t tell if the book was the beginning of a series, or a stand-alone with a quirky ending. Near the end I found myself having to keep going back and re-reading sections to figure out what was happening- you can’t skim through the ending of this book! It was a worthwhile read and engaging read, but slow to start.
Peacock & Vine: on William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, by A.S. Byatt. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
‘Peacock & Vine’ is a long essay in which the author compares and contrasts Morris and Fortuny and their art. Both men were polymaths who were designers and artists who worked in several media. Fortuny is best known today for his ingeniously permanently pleated dresses that were totally different from the fashions of his day; Morris is known as a pre-Raphaelite who set about to bring beauty to the homes of everyone with beautiful rugs, wallpaper, and fabrics. Both also painted and had amazing energy. The never interacted; they lived a generation apart and in different countries, but they shared a work ethic and love for beauty.
This work does not go deep enough to be a duel biography; it’s more about how the work of these men affected Byatt. She admits that their art made her think deeply about making an artistic mark upon the world.
This is a little jewel box of a book; the front of the dust jacket is a Morris tapestry (with peacock) in warm umbers and golds while the back is a painting of Fortuny’s studio. A huge number of photographs illuminate the text. And, as always, Byatt’s writing is lush and beautiful.
There is one odd spot; in the section “Pomegranate” (a motif used by both Morris and Fortuny quite a lot) she states that Morris’s first attempt at painting pomegranates didn’t turn out well; they look more like lemons. The piece in question actually *does* have pomegranates, in the upper right hand corner; below that are, indeed, lemons-you can tell not just by the shape & color but by the thorns on the branch; in the lower left are peaches, and in the upper left are oranges. I find it odd that the author didn’t catch that.